Falling in Love - With Other Essays on More Exact Branches of Science
by Grant Allen
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Running hastily through the chief marsupial developments, one may say that the wombats are pouched animals who take the place of rabbits or marmots in Europe, and resemble them both in burrowing habits and more or less in shape, which closely approaches the familiar and ungraceful guinea-pig outline. The vulpine phalanger does duty for a fox; the fat and sleepy little dormouse phalanger takes the place of a European dormouse. Both are so ridiculously like the analogous animals of the larger continents that the colonists always call them, in perfect good faith, by the familiar names of the old-country creatures. The koala poses as a small bear; the cuscus answers to the racoons of America. The pouched badgers explain themselves at once by their very name, like the Plyants, the Pinchwifes, the Brainsicks, and the Carelesses of the Restoration comedy. The 'native rabbit' of Swan River is a rabbit-like bandicoot; the pouched ant-eater similarly takes the place of the true ant-eaters of other continents. By way of carnivores, the Tasmanian devil is a fierce and savage marsupial analogue of the American wolverine; a smaller species of the same type usurps the name and place of the marten; and the dog-headed Thylacinus is in form and figure precisely like a wolf or a jackal. The pouched weasels are very weasel-like; the kangaroo rats and kangaroo mice run the true rats and mice a close race in every particular. And it is worth notice, in this connection, that the one marsupial family which could compete with higher American life, the opossums, are really, so to speak, the monkey development of the marsupial race. They have opposable thumbs, which make their feet almost into hands; they have prehensile tails, by which they hang from branches in true monkey fashion; they lead an arboreal omnivorous existence; they feed off fruits, birds' eggs, insects, and roots; and altogether they are just active, cunning, intelligent, tree-haunting marsupial spider-monkeys.

Australia has also one still more ancient denizen than any of these, a living fossil of the very oldest sort, a creature of wholly immemorial and primitive antiquity. The story of its discovery teems with the strangest romance of natural history. To those who could appreciate the facts of the case it was just as curious and just as interesting as though we were now to discover somewhere in an unknown island or an African oasis some surviving mammoth, some belated megatherium, or some gigantic and misshapen liassic saurian. Imagine the extinct animals of the Crystal Palace grounds suddenly appearing to our dazzled eyes in a tropical ramble, and you can faintly conceive the delight and astonishment of naturalists at large when the barramunda first 'swam into their ken' in the rivers of Queensland. To be sure, in size and shape this 'extinct fish,' still living and grunting quietly in our midst, is comparatively insignificant beside the 'dragons of the prime' immortalised in a famous stanza by Tennyson: but, to the true enthusiast, size is nothing; and the barramunda is just as much a marvel and a monster as the Atlantosaurus himself would have been if he had suddenly walked upon the stage of time, dragging fifty feet of lizard-like tail in a train behind him. And this is the plain story of that marvellous discovery of a 'missing link' in our own pedigree.

In the oldest secondary rocks of Britain and elsewhere there occur in abundance the teeth of a genus of ganoid fishes known as the Ceratodi. (I apologise for ganoid, though it is not a swear-word). These teeth reappear from time to time in several subsequent formations, but at last slowly die out altogether; and of course all naturalists naturally concluded that the creature to which they belonged had died out also, and was long since numbered with the dodo and the mastodon. The idea that a Ceratodus could still be living, far less that it formed an important link in the development of all the higher animals, could never for a moment have occurred to anybody. As well expect to find a palaeolithic man quietly chipping flints on a Pacific atoll, or to discover the ancestor of all horses on the isolated and crag-encircled summit of Roraima, as to unearth a real live Ceratodus from a modern estuary. In 1870, however, Mr. Krefft took away the breath of scientific Europe by informing it that he had found the extinct ganoid swimming about as large as life, and six feet long, without the faintest consciousness of its own scientific importance, in a river in Queensland at the present day. The unsophisticated aborigines knew it as barramunda; the almost equally ignorant white settlers called it with irreverent and unfilial contempt the flat-head. On further examination, however, the despised barramunda proved to be a connecting link of primary rank between the oldest surviving group of fishes and the lowest air-breathing animals like the frogs and salamanders. Though a true fish, it leaves its native streams at night, and sets out on a foraging expedition after vegetable food in the neighbouring woodlands. There it browses on myrtle leaves and grasses, and otherwise behaves itself in a manner wholly unbecoming its piscine antecedents and aquatic education. To fit it for this strange amphibious life, the barramunda has both lungs and gills; it can breathe either air or water at will, or, if it chooses, the two together. Though covered with scales, and most fish-like in outline, it presents points of anatomical resemblance both to salamanders and lizards; and, as a connecting bond between the North American mud-fish on the one hand and the wonderful lepidosiren on the other, it forms a true member of the long series by which the higher animals generally trace their descent from a remote race of marine ancestors. It is very interesting, therefore, to find that this living fossil link between fish and reptiles should have survived only in the fossil continent, Australia. Everywhere else it has long since been beaten out of the field by its own more developed amphibian descendants; in Australia alone it still drags on a lonely existence as the last relic of an otherwise long-forgotten and extinct family.


The work of art which lies before me is old, unquestionably old; a good deal older, in fact, than Archbishop Ussher (who invented all out of his own archiepiscopal head the date commonly assigned for the creation of the world) would by any means have been ready to admit. It is a bas-relief by an old master, considerably more antique in origin than the most archaic gem or intaglio in the Museo Borbonico at Naples, the mildly decorous Louvre in Paris, or the eminently respectable British Museum, which is the glory of our own smoky London in the spectacled eyes of German professors, all put together. When Assyrian sculptors carved in fresh white alabaster the flowing curls of Sennacherib's hair, just like a modern coachman's wig, this work of primaeval art was already hoary with the rime of ages. When Memphian artists were busy in the morning twilight of time with the towering coiffure of Ramses or Sesostris, this far more ancient relic of plastic handicraft was lying, already fossil and forgotten, beneath the concreted floor of a cave in the Dordogne. If we were to divide the period for which we possess authentic records of man's abode upon this oblate spheroid into ten epochs—an epoch being a good high-sounding word which doesn't commit one to any definite chronology in particular—then it is probable that all known art, from the Egyptian onward, would fall into the tenth of the epochs thus loosely demarcated, while my old French bas-relief would fall into the first. To put the date quite succinctly, I should say it was most likely about 244,000 years before the creation of Adam according to Ussher.

The work of the old master is lightly incised on reindeer horn, and represents two horses, of a very early and heavy type, following one another, with heads stretched forward, as if sniffing the air suspiciously in search of enemies. The horses would certainly excite unfavourable comment at Newmarket. Their 'points' are undoubtedly coarse and clumsy: their heads are big, thick, stupid, and ungainly; their manes are bushy and ill-defined; their legs are distinctly feeble and spindle-shaped; their tails more closely resemble the tail of the domestic pig than that of the noble animal beloved with a love passing the love of women by the English aristocracy. Nevertheless there is little (if any) reason to doubt that my very old master did, on the whole, accurately represent the ancestral steed of his own exceedingly remote period. There were once horses even as is the horse of the prehistoric Dordonian artist. Such clumsy, big-headed brutes, dun in hue and striped down the back like modern donkeys, did actually once roam over the low plains where Paris now stands, and browse off lush grass and tall water-plants around the quays of Bordeaux and Lyons. Not only do the bones of the contemporary horses, dug up in caves, prove this, but quite recently the Russian traveller Prjevalsky (whose name is so much easier to spell than to pronounce) has discovered a similar living horse, which drags on an obscure existence somewhere in the high table-lands of Central Asia. Prjevalsky's horse (you see, as I have only to write the word, without uttering it, I don't mind how often or how intrepidly I use it) is so singularly like the clumsy brutes that sat, or rather stood, for their portraits to my old master that we can't do better than begin by describing him in propria persona.

The horse family of the present day is divided, like most other families, into two factions, which may be described for variety's sake as those of the true horses and the donkeys, these latter including also the zebras, quaggas, and various other unfamiliar creatures whose names, in very choice Latin, are only known to the more diligent visitors at the Sunday Zoo. Now everybody must have noticed that the chief broad distinction between these two great groups consists in the feathering of the tail. The domestic donkey, with his near congeners, the zebra and co., have smooth short-haired tails, ending in a single bunch or fly-whisk of long hairs collected together in a tufted bundle at the extreme tip. The horse, on the other hand, besides having horny patches or callosities on both fore and hind legs, while the donkeys have them on the fore legs only, has a hairy tail, in which the long hairs are almost equally distributed from top to bottom, thus giving it its peculiarly bushy and brushy appearance. But Prjevalsky's horse, as one would naturally expect from an early intermediate form, stands half-way in this respect between the two groups, and acts the thankless part of a family mediator; for it has most of its long tail-hairs collected in a final flourish, like the donkey, but several of them spring from the middle distance, as in the genuine Arab, though never from the very top, thus showing an approach to the true horsey habit without actually attaining that final pinnacle of equine glory. So far as one can make out from the somewhat rude handicraft of my prehistoric Phidias the horse of the quaternary epoch had much the same caudal peculiarity; his tail was bushy, but only in the lower half. He was still in the intermediate stage between horse and donkey, a natural mule still struggling up aspiringly toward perfect horsehood. In all other matters the two creatures—the cave man's horse and Prjevalsky's—closely agree. Both display large heads, thick necks, coarse manes, and a general disregard of 'points' which would strike disgust and dismay into the stout breasts of Messrs. Tattersall. In fact over a T.Y.C. it may be confidently asserted, in the pure Saxon of the sporting papers, that Prjevalsky's and the cave man's lot wouldn't be in it. Nevertheless a candid critic would be forced to admit that, in spite of clumsiness, they both mean staying.

So much for the two sitters; now let us turn to the artist who sketched them. Who was he, and when did he live? Well, his name, like that of many other old masters, is quite unknown to us; but what does that matter so long as his work itself lives and survives? Like the Comtists he has managed to obtain objective immortality. The work, after all, is for the most part all we ever have to go upon. 'I have my own theory about the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey,' said Lewis Carroll (of 'Alice in Wonderland') once in Christ Church common room: 'it is that they weren't really written by Homer, but by another person of the same name.' There you have the Iliad in a nutshell as regards the authenticity of great works. All we know about the supposed Homer (if anything) is that he was the reputed author of the two unapproachable Greek epics; and all we know directly about my old master, viewed personally, is that he once carved with a rude flint flake on a fragment of reindeer horn these two clumsy prehistoric horses. Yet by putting two and two together we can make, not four, as might be naturally expected, but a fairly connected history of the old master himself and what Mr. Herbert Spencer would no doubt playfully term 'his environment.'

The work of art was dug up from under the firm concreted floor of a cave in the Dordogne. That cave was once inhabited by the nameless artist himself, his wife, and family. It had been previously tenanted by various other early families, as well as by bears, who seem to have lived there in the intervals between the different human occupiers. Probably the bears ejected the men, and the men in turn ejected the bears, by the summary process of eating one another up. In any case the freehold of the cave was at last settled upon our early French artist. But the date of his occupancy is by no means recent; for since he lived there the long cold spell known as the Great Ice Age, or Glacial Epoch, has swept over the whole of Northern Europe, and swept before it the shivering descendants of my poor prehistoric old master. Now, how long ago was the Great Ice Age? As a rule, if you ask a geologist for a definite date, you will find him very chary of giving you a distinct answer. He knows that the chalk is older than the London clay, and the oolite than the chalk, and the red marl than the oolite; and he knows also that each of them took a very long time indeed to lay down, but exactly how long he has no notion. If you say to him, 'Is it a million years since the chalk was deposited?' he will answer, like the old lady of Prague, whose ideas were excessively vague, 'Perhaps.' If you suggest five millions, he will answer oracularly once more, 'Perhaps'; and if you go on to twenty millions, 'Perhaps,' with a broad smile, is still the only confession of faith that torture will wring out of him. But in the matter of the Glacial Epoch, a comparatively late and almost historical event, geologists have broken through their usual reserve on this chronological question and condescended to give us a numerical determination. And here is how Dr. Croll gets at it.

Every now and again, geological evidence goes to show us, a long cold spell occurs in the northern or southern hemisphere. During these long cold spells the ice cap at the poles increases largely, till it spreads over a great part of what are now the temperate regions of the globe, and makes ice a mere drug in the market as far south as Covent Garden or the Halles at Paris. During the greatest extension of this ice sheet in the last glacial epoch, in fact, all England except a small south-western corner (about Torquay and Bournemouth) was completely covered by one enormous mass of glaciers, as is still the case with almost the whole of Greenland. The ice sheet, grinding slowly over the hills and rocks, smoothed and polished and striated their surfaces in many places till they resembled the roches moutonnees similarly ground down in our own day by the moving ice rivers of Chamouni and Grindelwald. Now, since these great glaciations have occurred at various intervals in the world's past history, they must depend upon some frequently recurring cause. Such a cause, therefore, Dr. Croll began ingeniously to hunt about for.

He found it at last in the eccentricity of the earth's orbit. This world of ours, though usually steady enough in its movements, is at times decidedly eccentric. Not that I mean to impute to our old and exceedingly respectable planet any occasional aberrations of intellect, or still less of morals (such as might be expected from Mars and Venus); the word is here to be accepted strictly in its scientific or Pickwickian sense as implying merely an irregularity of movement, a slight wobbling out of the established path, a deviation from exact circularity. Owing to a combination of astronomical revolutions, the precession of the equinoxes and the motion of the aphelion (I am not going to explain them here; the names alone will be quite sufficient for most people; they will take the rest on trust)—owing to the combination of these profoundly interesting causes, I say, there occur certain periods in the world's life when for a very long time together (10,500 years, to be quite precise) the northern hemisphere is warmer than the southern, or vice versa. Now, Dr. Croll has calculated that about 250,000 years ago this eccentricity of the earth's orbit was at its highest, so that a cycle of recurring cold and warm epochs in either hemisphere alternately then set in; and such cold spells it was that produced the Great Ice Age in Northern Europe. They went on till about 80,000 years ago, when they stopped short for the present, leaving the climate of Britain and the neighbouring continent with its existing inconvenient Laodicean temperature. And, as there are good reasons for believing that my old master and his contemporaries lived just before the greatest cold of the Glacial Epoch, and that his immediate descendants, with the animals on which they feasted, were driven out of Europe, or out of existence, by the slow approach of the enormous ice sheet, we may, I think, fairly conclude that his date was somewhere about B.C. 248,000. In any case we must at least admit, with Mr. Andrew Lang, the laureate of the twenty-five thousandth century, that

He lived in the long long agoes; 'Twas the manner of primitive man.

The old master, then, carved his bas-relief in pre-Glacial Europe, just at the moment before the temporary extinction of his race in France by the coming on of the Great Ice Age. We can infer this fact from the character of the fauna by which he was surrounded, a fauna in which species of cold and warm climates are at times quite capriciously intermingled. We get the reindeer and the mammoth side by side with the hippopotamus and the hyena; we find the chilly cave bear and the Norway lemming, the musk sheep and the Arctic fox in the same deposits with the lion and the lynx, the leopard and the rhinoceros. The fact is, as Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace has pointed out, we live to-day in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the largest, fiercest, and most remarkable animals have lately been weeded out. And it was in all probability the coming on of the Ice Age that did the weeding. Our Zoo can boast no mammoth and no mastodon. The sabre-toothed lion has gone the way of all flesh; the deinotherium and the colossal ruminants of the Pliocene Age no longer browse beside the banks of Seine. But our old master saw the last of some at least among those gigantic quadrupeds; it was his hand or that of one among his fellows that scratched the famous mammoth etching on the ivory of La Madelaine and carved the figure of the extinct cave bear on the reindeer-horn ornaments of Laugerie Basse. Probably, therefore, he lived in the period immediately preceding the Great Ice Age, or else perhaps in one of the warm interglacial spells with which the long secular winter of the northern hemisphere was then from time to time agreeably diversified.

And what did the old master himself look like? Well, painters have always been fond of reproducing their own lineaments. Have we not the familiar young Raffael, painted by himself, and the Rembrandt, and the Titian, and the Rubens, and a hundred other self-drawn portraits, all flattering and all famous? Even so primitive man has drawn himself many times over, not indeed on this particular piece of reindeer horn, but on several other media to be seen elsewhere, in the original or in good copies. One of the best portraits is that discovered in the old cave at Laugerie Basse by M. Elie Massenat, where a very early pre-Glacial man is represented in the act of hunting an aurochs, at which he is casting a flint-tipped javelin. In this, as in all other pictures of the same epoch, I regret to say that the ancient hunter is represented in the costume of Adam before the fall. Our old master's studies, in fact, are all in the nude. Primitive man was evidently unacquainted as yet with the use of clothing, though primitive woman, while still unclad, had already learnt how to heighten her natural charms by the simple addition of a necklace and bracelets. Indeed, though dresses were still wholly unknown, rouge was even then extremely fashionable among French ladies, and lumps of the ruddle with which primitive woman made herself beautiful for ever are now to be discovered in the corner of the cave where she had her little prehistoric boudoir. To return to our hunter, however, who for aught we know to the contrary may be our old master himself in person, he is a rather crouching and semi-erect savage, with an arched back, recalling somewhat that of the gorilla, a round head, long neck, pointed beard, and weak, shambling, ill-developed legs. I fear we must admit that pre-Glacial man cut, on the whole, a very sorry and awkward figure.

Was he black? That we don't certainly know, but all analogy would lead one to answer positively, Yes. White men seem, on the whole, to be a very recent and novel improvement on the original evolutionary pattern. At any rate he was distinctly hairy, like the Ainos, or aborigines of Japan, in our own day, of whom Miss Isabella Bird has drawn so startling and sensational a picture. Several of the pre-Glacial sketches show us lank and gawky savages with the body covered with long scratches, answering exactly to the scratches which represent the hanging hair of the mammoth, and suggesting that man then still retained his old original hairy covering. The few skulls and other fragments of skeletons now preserved to us also indicate that our old master and his contemporaries much resembled in shape and build the Australian black fellows, though their foreheads were lower and more receding, while their front teeth still projected in huge fangs, faintly recalling the immense canines of the male gorilla. Quite apart from any theoretical considerations as to our probable descent (or ascent) from Mr. Darwin's hypothetical 'hairy arboreal quadrumanous ancestor,' whose existence may or may not be really true, there can be no doubt that the actual historical remains set before us pre-Glacial man as evidently approaching in several important respects the higher monkeys.

It is interesting to note too that while the Men of the Time still retained (to be frankly evolutionary) many traces of the old monkey-like progenitor, the horses which our old master has so cleverly delineated for us on his scrap of horn similarly retained many traces of the earlier united horse-and-donkey ancestor. Professor Huxley has admirably reconstructed for us the pedigree of the horse, beginning with a little creature from the Eocene beds of New Mexico, with five toes to each hind foot, and ending with the modern horse, whose hoof is now practically reduced to a single and solid-nailed toe. Intermediate stages show us an Upper Eocene animal as big as a fox, with four toes on his front feet and three behind; a Miocene kind as big as a sheep, with only three toes on the front foot, the two outer of which are smaller than the big middle one; and finally a Pliocene form, as big as a donkey, with one stout middle toe, the real hoof, flanked by two smaller ones, too short by far to reach the ground. In our own horse these lateral toes have become reduced to what are known by veterinaries as splint bones, combined with the canon in a single solidly morticed piece. But in the pre-Glacial horses the splint bones still generally remained quite distinct, thus pointing back to the still earlier period when they existed as two separate and independent side toes in the ancestral quadruped. In a few cave specimens, however, the splints are found united with the canons in a single piece, while conversely horses are sometimes, though very rarely, born at the present day with three-toed feet, exactly resembling those of their half-forgotten ancestor, the Pliocene hipparion.

The reason why we know so much about the horses of the cave period is, I am bound to admit, simply and solely because the man of the period ate them. Hippophagy has always been popular in France; it was practised by pre-Glacial man in the caves of Perigord, and revived with immense enthusiasm by the gourmets of the Boulevards after the siege of Paris and the hunger of the Commune. The cave men hunted and killed the wild horse of their own times, and one of the best of their remaining works of art represents a naked hunter attacking two horses, while a huge snake winds itself unperceived behind close to his heel. In this rough prehistoric sketch one seems to catch some faint antique foreshadowing of the rude humour of the 'Petit Journal pour Rire.' Some archaeologists even believe that the horse was domesticated by the cave men as a source of food, and argue that the familiarity with its form shown in the drawings could only have been acquired by people who knew the animal in its domesticated state; they declare that the cave man was obviously horsey. But all the indications seem to me to show that tame animals were quite unknown in the age of the cave men. The mammoth certainly was never domesticated; yet there is a famous sketch of the huge beast upon a piece of his own ivory, discovered in the cave of La Madelaine by Messrs. Lartet and Christy, and engraved a hundred times in works on archaeology, which forms one of the finest existing relics of pre-Glacial art. In another sketch, less well known, but not unworthy of admiration, the early artist has given us with a few rapid but admirable strokes his own reminiscence of the effect produced upon him by the sudden onslaught of the hairy brute, tusks erect and mouth wide open, a perfect glimpse of elephantine fury. It forms a capital example of early impressionism, respectfully recommended to the favourable attention of Mr. J.M. Whistler.

The reindeer, however, formed the favourite food and favourite model of the pre-Glacial artists. Perhaps it was a better sitter than the mammoth; certainly it is much more frequently represented on these early prehistoric bas-reliefs. The high-water mark of palaeolithic art is undoubtedly to be found in the reindeer of the cave of Thayngen, in Switzerland, a capital and spirited representation of a buck grazing, in which the perspective of the two horns is better managed than a Chinese artist would manage it at the present day. Another drawing of two reindeer fighting, scratched on a fragment of schistose rock and unearthed in one of the caves of Perigord, though far inferior to the Swiss specimen in spirit and execution, is yet not without real merit. The perspective, however, displays one marked infantile trait, for the head and legs of one deer are seen distinctly through the body of another. Cave bears, fish, musk sheep, foxes, and many other extinct or existing animals are also found among the archaic sculptures. Probably all these creatures were used as food; and it is even doubtful whether the artistic troglodytes were not also confirmed cannibals. To quote Mr. Andrew Lang once more on primitive man, 'he lived in a cave by the seas; he lived upon oysters and foes.' The oysters are quite undoubted, and the foes may be inferred with considerable certainty.

I have spoken of our old master more than once under this rather question-begging style and title of primitive man. In reality, however, the very facts which I have here been detailing serve themselves to show how extremely far our hero was from being truly primitive. You can't speak of a distinguished artist, who draws the portraits of extinct animals with grace and accuracy, as in any proper sense primordial. Grant that our good troglodytes were indeed light-hearted cannibals; nevertheless they could design far better than the modern Esquimaux or Polynesians, and carve far better than the civilised being who is now calmly discoursing about their personal peculiarities in his own study. Between the cave men of the pre-Glacial age and the hypothetical hairy quadrumanous ancestor aforesaid there must have intervened innumerable generations of gradually improving intermediate forms. The old master, when he first makes his bow to us, naked and not ashamed, in his Swiss or French grotto, flint scalpel in hand and necklet of bear's teeth dropping loosely on his hairy bosom, is nevertheless in all essentials a completely evolved human being, with a whole past of slowly acquired culture lying dimly and mysteriously behind him. Already he had invented the bow with its flint-tipped arrow, the neatly chipped javelin-head, the bone harpoon, the barbed fish-hook, the axe, the lance, the dagger, and the needle. Already he had learnt how to decorate his implements with artistic skill, and to carve the handles of his knives with the figures of animals. I have no doubt that he even knew how to brew and to distil; and he was probably acquainted with the noble art of cookery as applied to the persons of his human fellow creatures. Such a personage cannot reasonably be called primitive; cannibalism, as somebody has rightly remarked, is the first step on the road to civilisation.

No, if we want to get at genuine, unadulterated primitive man we must go much further back in time than the mere trifle of 250,000 years with which Dr. Croll and the cosmic astronomers so generously provide us for pre-Glacial humanity. We must turn away to the immeasurably earlier fire-split flints which the Abbe Bourgeois—undaunted mortal!—ventured to discover among the Miocene strata of the calcaire de Beauce. Those flints, if of human origin at all, were fashioned by some naked and still more hairy creature who might fairly claim to be considered as genuinely primitive. So rude are they that, though evidently artificial, one distinguished archaeologist will not admit they can be in any way human; he will have it that they were really the handiwork of the great European anthropoid ape of that early period. This, however, is nothing more than very delicate hair-splitting; for what does it matter whether you call the animal that fashioned these exceedingly rough and fire-marked implements a man-like ape or an ape-like human being? The fact remains quite unaltered, whichever name you choose to give to it. When you have got to a monkey who can light a fire and proceed to manufacture himself a convenient implement, you may be sure that man, noble man, with all his glorious and admirable faculties—cannibal or otherwise—is lurking somewhere very close just round the corner. The more we examine the work of our old master, in fact, the more does the conviction force itself upon us that he was very far indeed from being primitive—that we must push back the early history of our race not for 250,000 winters alone, but perhaps for two or three million years into the dim past of Tertiary ages.

But if pre-Glacial man is thus separated from the origin of the race by a very long interval indeed, it is none the less true that he is separated from our own time by the intervention of a vast blank space, the space occupied by the coming on and passing away of the Glacial Epoch. A great gap cuts him off from what we may consider as the relatively modern age of the mound-builders, whose grassy barrows still cap the summits of our southern chalk downs. When the great ice sheet drove away palaeolithic man—the man of the caves and the unwrought flint axes—from Northern Europe, he was still nothing more than a naked savage in the hunting stage, divinely gifted for art, indeed, but armed only with roughly chipped stone implements, and wholly ignorant of taming animals or of the very rudiments of agriculture. He knew nothing of the use of metals—aurum irrepertum spernere fortior—and he had not even learnt how to grind and polish his rude stone tomahawks to a finished edge. He couldn't make himself a bowl of sun-baked pottery, and, if he had discovered the almost universal art of manufacturing an intoxicating liquor from grain or berries (for, as Byron, with too great anthropological truth, justly remarks, 'man, being reasonable, must get drunk'), he at least drank his aboriginal beer or toddy from the capacious horn of a slaughtered aurochs. That was the kind of human being who alone inhabited France and England during the later pre-Glacial period.

A hundred and seventy thousand years elapse (as the play-bills put it), and then the curtain rises afresh upon neolithic Europe. Man meanwhile, loitering somewhere behind the scenes in Asia or Africa (as yet imperfectly explored from this point of view), had acquired the important arts of sharpening his tomahawks and producing hand-made pottery for his kitchen utensils. When the great ice sheet cleared away he followed the returning summer into Northern Europe, another man, physically, intellectually, and morally, with all the slow accumulations of nearly two thousand centuries (how easily one writes the words! how hard to realise them!) upon his maturer shoulders. Then comes the age of what older antiquaries used to regard as primitive antiquity—the age of the English barrows, of the Danish kitchen middens, of the Swiss lake dwellings. The men who lived in it had domesticated the dog, the cow, the sheep, the goat, and the invaluable pig; they had begun to sow small ancestral wheat and undeveloped barley; they had learnt to weave flax and wear decent clothing: in a word, they had passed from the savage hunting condition to the stage of barbaric herdsmen and agriculturists. That is a comparatively modern period, and yet I suppose we must conclude with Dr. James Geikie that it isn't to be measured by mere calculations of ten or twenty centuries, but of ten or twenty thousand years. The perspective of the past is opening up rapidly before us; what looked quite close yesterday is shown to-day to lie away off somewhere in the dim distance. Like our paleolithic artists, we fail to get the reindeer fairly behind the ox in the foreground, as we ought to do if we saw the whole scene properly foreshortened.

On the table where I write there lie two paper-weights, preserving from the fate of the sibylline leaves the sheets of foolscap to which this essay is now being committed. One of them is a very rude flint hatchet, produced by merely chipping off flakes from its side by dexterous blows, and utterly unpolished or unground in any way. It belongs to the age of the very old master (or possibly even to a slightly earlier epoch), and it was sent me from Ightham, in Kent, by that indefatigable unearther of prehistoric memorials, Mr. Benjamin Harrison. That flint, which now serves me in the office of a paper-weight, is far ruder, simpler, and more ineffective than any weapon or implement at present in use among the lowest savages. Yet with it, I doubt not, some naked black fellow by the banks of the Thames has hunted the mammoth among unbroken forest two hundred thousand years ago and more; with it he has faced the angry cave bear and the original and only genuine British lion (for everybody knows that the existing mongrel heraldic beast is nothing better than a bastard modification of the leopard of the Plantagenets). Nay, I have very little doubt in my own mind that with it some aesthetic ancestor has brained and cut up for his use his next-door neighbour in the nearest cavern, and then carved upon his well-picked bones an interesting sketch of the entire performance. The Du Mauriers of that remote age, in fact, habitually drew their society pictures upon the personal remains of the mammoth or the man whom they wished to caricature in deathless bone-cuts. The other paper-weight is a polished neolithic tomahawk, belonging to the period of the mound-builders, who succeeded the Glacial Epoch, and it measures the distance between the two levels of civilisation with great accuracy. It is the military weapon of a trained barbaric warrior as opposed to the universal implement and utensil of a rude, solitary, savage hunter. Yet how curious it is that even in the midst of this 'so-called nineteenth century,' which perpetually proclaims itself an age of progress, men should still prefer to believe themselves inferior to their original ancestors, instead of being superior to them! The idea that man has risen is considered base, degrading, and positively wicked; the idea that he has fallen is considered to be immensely inspiring, ennobling, and beautiful. For myself, I have somehow always preferred the boast of the Homeric Glaucus that we indeed maintain ourselves to be much better men than ever were our fathers.


Strictly speaking, there is nothing really and truly British; everybody and everything is a naturalised alien. Viewed as Britons, we all of us, human and animal, differ from one another simply in the length of time we and our ancestors have continuously inhabited this favoured and foggy isle of Britain. Look, for example, at the men and women of us. Some of us, no doubt, are more or less remotely of Norman blood, and came over, like that noble family the Slys, with Richard Conqueror. Others of us, perhaps, are in the main Scandinavian, and date back a couple of generations earlier, to the bare-legged followers of Canute and Guthrum. Yet others, once more, are true Saxon Englishmen, descendants of Hengest, if there ever was a Hengest, or of Horsa, if a genuine Horsa ever actually existed. None of these, it is quite clear, have any just right or title to be considered in the last resort as true-born Britons; they are all of them just as much foreigners at bottom as the Spitalfields Huguenots or the Pembrokeshire Flemings, the Italian organ-boy and the Hindoo prince disguised as a crossing-sweeper. But surely the Welshman and the Highland Scot at least are undeniable Britishers, sprung from the soil and to the manner born! Not a bit of it; inexorable modern science, diving back remorselessly into the remoter past, traces the Cymry across the face of Germany, and fixes in shadowy hypothetical numbers the exact date, to a few centuries, of the first prehistoric Gaelic invasion. Even the still earlier brown Euskarians and yellow Mongolians, who held the land before the advent of the ancient Britons, were themselves immigrants; the very Autochthones in person turn out, on close inspection, to be vagabonds and wanderers and foreign colonists. In short, man as a whole is not an indigenous animal at all in the British Isles. Be he who he may, when we push his pedigree back to its prime original, we find him always arriving in the end by the Dover steamer or the Harwich packet. Five years, in fact, are quite sufficient to give him a legal title to letters of naturalisation, unless indeed he be a German grand-duke, in which case he can always become an Englishman off-hand by Act of Parliament.

It is just the same with all the other animals and plants that now inhabit these isles of Britain. If there be anything at all with a claim to be considered really indigenous, it is the Scotch ptarmigan and the Alpine hare, the northern holygrass and the mountain flowers of the Highland summits. All the rest are sojourners and wayfarers, brought across as casuals, like the gipsies and the Oriental plane, at various times to the United Kingdom, some of them recently, some of them long ago, but not one of them (it seems), except the oyster, a true native. The common brown rat, for instance, as everybody knows, came over, not, it is true, with William the Conqueror, but with the Hanoverian dynasty and King George I. of blessed memory. The familiar cockroach, or 'black beetle,' of our lower regions, is an Oriental importation of the last century. The hum of the mosquito is now just beginning to be heard in the land, especially in some big London hotels. The Colorado beetle is hourly expected by Cunard steamer. The Canadian roadside erigeron is well established already in the remoter suburbs; the phylloxera battens on our hothouse vines; the American river-weed stops the navigation on our principal canals. The Ganges and the Mississippi have long since flooded the tawny Thames, as Juvenal's cynical friend declared the Syrian Orontes had flooded the Tiber. And what has thus been going on slowly within the memory of the last few generations has been going on constantly from time immemorial, and peopling Britain in all its parts with its now existing fauna and flora.

But if all the plants and animals in our islands are thus ultimately imported, the question naturally arises, What was there in Great Britain and Ireland before any of their present inhabitants came to inherit them? The answer is, succinctly, Nothing. Or if this be a little too extreme, then let us imitate the modesty of Mr. Gilbert's hero and modify the statement into Hardly anything. In England, as in Northern Europe generally, modern history begins, not with the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but with the passing away of the Glacial Epoch. During that great age of universal ice our Britain, from end to end, was covered at various times by sea and by glaciers; it resembled on the whole the cheerful aspect of Spitzbergen or Nova Zembla at the present day. A few reindeer wandered now and then over its frozen shores; a scanty vegetation of the correlative reindeer-moss grew with difficulty under the sheets and drifts of endless snow; a stray walrus or an occasional seal basked in the chilly sunshine on the ice-bound coast. But during the greatest extension of the North-European ice-sheet it is probable that life in London was completely extinct; the metropolitan area did not even vegetate. Snow and snow and snow and snow was then the short sum-total of British scenery. Murray's Guides were rendered quite unnecessary, and penny ices were a drug in the market. England was given up to one unchanging universal winter.

Slowly, however, times altered, as they are much given to doing; and a new era dawned upon Britain. The thermometer rose rapidly, or at least it would have risen, with effusion, if it had yet been invented. The land emerged from the sea, and southern plants and animals began to invade the area that was afterwards to be England, across the broad belt which then connected us with the Continental system. But in those days communications were slow and land transit difficult. You had to foot it. The European fauna and flora moved but gradually and tentatively north-westward, and before any large part of it could settle in England our island was finally cut off from the mainland by the long and gradual wearing away of the cliffs at Dover and Calais. That accounts for the comparative poverty of animal and vegetable life in England, and still more for its extreme paucity and meagreness in Ireland and the Highlands. It has been erroneously asserted, for example, that St. Patrick expelled snakes and lizards, frogs and toads, from the soil of Erin. This detail, as the French newspapers politely phrase it, is inexact. St. Patrick did not expel the reptiles, because there were never any reptiles in Ireland (except dynamiters) for him to expel. The creatures never got so far on their long and toilsome north-westward march before St. George's Channel intervened to prevent their passage across to Dublin. It is really, therefore, to St. George, rather than to St. Patrick, that the absence of toads and snakes from the soil of Ireland is ultimately due. The doubtful Cappadocian prelate is well known to have been always death on dragons and serpents.

As long ago as the sixteenth century, indeed, Verstegan the antiquary clearly saw that the existence of badgers and foxes in England implied the former presence of a belt of land joining the British Islands to the Continent of Europe; for, as he acutely observed, nobody (before fox-hunting, at least) would ever have taken the trouble to bring them over. Still more does the presence in our islands of the red deer, and formerly of the wild white cattle, the wolf, the bear, and the wild boar, to say nothing of the beaver, the otter, the squirrel, and the weasel, prove that England was once conterminous with France or Belgium. At the very best of times, however, before Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel had killed positively the last 'last wolf' in Britain (several other 'last wolves' having previously been despatched by various earlier intrepid exterminators), our English fauna was far from a rich one, especially as regards the larger quadrupeds. In bats, birds, and insects we have always done better, because to such creatures a belt of sea is not by any means an insuperable barrier; whereas in reptiles and amphibians, on the contrary, we have always been weak, seeing that most reptiles are bad swimmers, and very few can rival the late lamented Captain Webb in his feat of crossing the Channel, as Leander and Lord Byron did the Hellespont.

Only one good-sized animal, so far as known, is now peculiar to the British Isles, and that is our familiar friend the red grouse of the Scotch moors. I doubt, however, whether even he is really indigenous in the strictest sense of the word: that is to say, whether he was evolved in and for these islands exclusively, as the moa and the apteryx were evolved for New Zealand, and the extinct dodo for Mauritius alone. It is far more probable that the red grouse is the original variety of the willow grouse of Scandinavia, which has retained throughout the year its old plumage, while its more northern cousins among the fiords and fjelds have taken, under stress of weather, to donning a complete white dress in winter, and a grey or speckled tourist suit for the summer season.

Even since the insulation of Britain a great many new plants and animals have been added to our population, both by human design and in several other casual fashions. The fallow deer is said to have been introduced by the Romans, and domesticated ever since in the successive parks of Celt and Saxon, Dane and Norman. The edible snail, still scattered thinly over our southern downs, and abundant at Box Hill and a few other spots in Surrey or Sussex, was brought over, they tell us, by the same luxurious Italian epicures, and is even now confined, imaginative naturalists declare, to the immediate neighbourhood of Roman stations. The mediaeval monks, in like manner, introduced the carp for their Friday dinners. One of our commonest river mussels at the present day did not exist in England at all a century ago, but was ferried hither from the Volga, clinging to the bottoms of vessels from the Black Sea, and has now spread itself through all our brooks and streams to the very heart and centre of England. Thus, from day to day, as in society at large, new introductions constantly take place, and old friends die out for ever. The brown rat replaces the old English black rat; strange weeds kill off the weeds of ancient days; fresh flies and grubs and beetles crop up, and disturb the primitive entomological balance. The bustard is gone from Salisbury Plain; the fenland butterflies have disappeared with the drainage of the fens. In their place the red-legged partridge invades Norfolk; the American black bass is making himself quite at home, with Yankee assurance, in our sluggish rivers; and the spoonbill is nesting of its own accord among the warmer corners of the Sussex downs.

In the plant world, substitution often takes place far more rapidly. I doubt whether the stinging nettle, which renders picnicking a nuisance in England, is truly indigenous; certainly the two worst kinds, the smaller nettle and the Roman nettle, are quite recent denizens, never straying, even at the present day, far from the precincts of farmyards and villages. The shepherd's-purse and many other common garden weeds of cultivation are of Eastern origin, and came to us at first with the seed-corn and the peas from the Mediterranean region. Corn-cockles and corn-flowers are equally foreign and equally artificial; even the scarlet poppy, seldom found except in wheat-fields or around waste places in villages, has probably followed the course of tillage from some remote and ancient Eastern origin. There is a pretty blue veronica which was unknown in England some thirty years since, but which then began to spread in gardens, and is now one of the commonest and most troublesome weeds throughout the whole country. Other familiar wild plants have first been brought over as garden flowers. There is the wall-flower, for instance, now escaped from cultivation in every part of Britain, and mantling with its yellow bunches both old churches and houses and also the crannies of the limestone cliffs around half the shores of England. The common stock has similarly overrun the sea-front of the Isle of Wight; the monkey-plant, originally a Chilian flower, has run wild in many boggy spots in England and Wales; and a North American balsam, seldom cultivated even in cottage gardens, has managed to establish itself in profuse abundance along the banks of the Wey about Guildford and Godalming. One little garden linaria, at first employed as an ornament for hanging-baskets, has become so common on old walls and banks as to be now considered a mere weed, and exterminated accordingly by fashionable gardeners. Such are the unaccountable reverses of fortune, that one age will pay fifty guineas a bulb for a plant which the next age grubs up unanimously as a vulgar intruder. White of Selborne noticed with delight in his own kitchen that rare insect, the Oriental cockroach, lately imported; and Mr. Brewer observed with joy in his garden at Reigate the blue Buxbaum speedwell, which is now the acknowledged and hated pest of the Surrey agriculturist.

The history of some of these waifs and strays which go to make up the wider population of Britain is indeed sufficiently remarkable. Like all islands, England has a fragmentary fauna and flora, whose members have often drifted towards it in the most wonderful and varied manner. Sometimes they bear witness to ancient land connections, as in the case of the spotted Portuguese slug which Professor Allman found calmly disporting itself on the basking cliffs in the Killarney district. In former days, when Spain and Ireland joined hands in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, the ancestors of this placid Lusitanian mollusk must have ranged (good word to apply to slugs) from the groves of Cintra to the Cove of Cork. But, as time rolled on, the cruel crawling sea rolled on also, and cut away all the western world from the foot of the Asturias to Macgillicuddy's Reeks. So the spotted slug continued to survive in two distinct and divided bodies, a large one in South-western Europe, and a small isolated colony, all alone by itself, around the Kerry mountains and the Lakes of Killarney. At other times pure accident accounts for the presence of a particular species in the mainlands of Britain. For example, the Bermuda grass-lily, a common American plant, is known in a wild state nowhere in Europe save at a place called Woodford, in county Galway. Nobody ever planted it there; it has simply sprung up from some single seed, carried over, perhaps, on the feet of a bird, or cast ashore by the Gulf Stream on the hospitable coast of Western Ireland. Yet there it has flourished and thriven ever since, a naturalised British subject of undoubted origin, without ever spreading to north or south above a few miles from its adopted habitat.

There are several of these unconscious American importations in various parts of Britain, some of them, no doubt, brought over with seed-corn or among the straw of packing-cases, but others unconnected in any way with human agency, and owing their presence here to natural causes. That pretty little Yankee weed, the claytonia, now common in parts of Lancashire and Oxfordshire, first made its appearance amongst us, I believe, by its seeds being accidentally included with the sawdust in which Wenham Lake ice is packed for transport. The Canadian river-weed is known first to have escaped from the botanical gardens at Cambridge, whence it spread rapidly through the congenial dykes and sluices of the fen country, and so into the entire navigable network of the Midland counties. But there are other aliens of older settlement amongst us, aliens of American origin which nevertheless arrived in Britain, in all probability, long before Columbus ever set foot on the low basking sandbank of Cat Island. Such is the jointed pond-sedge of the Hebrides, a water-weed found abundantly in the lakes and tarns of the Isle of Skye, Mull and Coll, and the west coast of Ireland, but occurring nowhere else throughout the whole expanse of Europe or Asia. How did it get there? Clearly its seeds were either washed by the waves or carried by birds, and thus deposited on the nearest European shores to America. But if Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace had been alive in pre-Columban days (which, as Euclid remarks, is absurd), he would readily have inferred, from the frequent occurrence of such unknown plants along the western verge of Britain, that a great continent lay unexplored to the westward, and would promptly have proceeded to discover and annex it. As Mr. Wallace was not yet born, however, Columbus took a mean advantage over him, and discovered it first by mere right of primogeniture.

In other cases, the circumstances under which a particular plant appears in England are often very suspicious. Take the instance of the belladonna, or deadly nightshade, an extremely rare British species, found only in the immediate neighbourhood of old castles and monastic buildings. Belladonna, of course, is a deadly poison, and was much used in the half-magical, half-criminal sorceries of the Middle Ages. Did you wish to remove a troublesome rival or an elder brother, you treated him to a dose of deadly nightshade. Yet why should it, in company with many other poisonous exotics, be found so frequently around the ruins of monasteries? Did the holy fathers—but no, the thought is too irreverent. Let us keep our illusions, and forget the friar and the apothecary in 'Romeo and Juliet.'

Belladonna has never fairly taken root in English soil. It remains, like the Roman snail and the Portuguese slug, a mere casual straggler about its ancient haunts. But there are other plants which have fairly established their claim to be considered as native-born Britons, though they came to us at first as aliens and colonists from foreign parts. Such, to take a single case, is the history of the common alexanders, now a familiar weed around villages and farmyards, but only introduced into England as a pot-herb about the eighth or ninth century. It was long grown in cottage gardens for table purposes, but has for ages been superseded in that way by celery. Nevertheless, it continues to grow all about our lanes and hedges, side by side with another quaintly-named plant, bishop-weed or gout-weed, whose very titles in themselves bear curious witness to its original uses in this isle of Britain. I don't know why, but it is an historical fact that the early prelates of the English Church, saintly or otherwise, were peculiarly liable to that very episcopal disease, the gout. Whether their frequent fasting produced this effect; whether, as they themselves piously alleged, it was due to constant kneeling on the cold stones of churches; or whether, as their enemies rather insinuated, it was due in greater measure to the excellent wines presented to them by their Italian confreres, is a minute question to be decided by Mr. Freeman, not by the present humble inquirer. But the fact remains that bishops and gout got indelibly associated in the public mind; that the episcopal toes were looked upon as especially subject to that insidious disease up to the very end of the last century; and that they do say the bishops even now—but I refrain from the commission of scandalum magnatum. Anyhow, this particular weed was held to be a specific for the bishop's evil; and, being introduced and cultivated for the purpose, it came to be known indifferently to herbalists as bishop-weed and gout-weed. It has now long since ceased to be a recognised member of the British Pharmacopoeia, but, having overrun our lanes and thickets in its flush period, it remains to this day a visible botanical and etymological memento of the past twinges of episcopal remorse.

Taken as a whole, one may fairly say that the total population of the British Isles consists mainly of three great elements. The first and oldest—the only one with any real claim to be considered as truly native—is the cold Northern, Alpine and Arctic element, comprising such animals as the white hare of Scotland, the ptarmigan, the pine marten, and the capercailzie—the last once extinct, and now reintroduced into the Highlands as a game bird. This very ancient fauna and flora, left behind soon after the Glacial Epoch, and perhaps in part a relic of the type which still struggled on in favoured spots during that terrible period of universal ice and snow, now survives for the most part only in the extreme north and on the highest and chilliest mountain-tops, where it has gradually been driven, like tourists in August, by the increasing warmth and sultriness of the southern lowlands. The summits of the principal Scotch hills are occupied by many Arctic plants, now slowly dying out, but lingering yet as last relics of that old native British flora. The Alpine milk vetch thus loiters among the rocks of Braemar and Clova; the Arctic brook-saxifrage flowers but sparingly near the summit of Ben Lawers, Ben Nevis, and Lochnagar; its still more northern ally, the drooping saxifrage, is now extinct in all Britain, save on a single snowy Scotch height, where it now rarely blossoms, and will soon become altogether obsolete. There are other northern plants of this first and oldest British type, like the Ural oxytrope, the cloudberry, and the white dryas, which remain as yet even in the moors of Yorkshire, or over considerable tracts in the Scotch Highlands; there are others restricted to a single spot among the Welsh hills, an isolated skerry among the outer Hebrides, or a solitary summit in the Lake District. But wherever they linger, these true-born Britons of the old rock are now but strangers and outcasts in the land; the intrusive foreigner has driven them to die on the cold mountain-tops, as the Celt drove the Mongolian to the hills, and the Saxon, in turn, has driven the Celt to the Highlands and the islands. Yet as late as the twelfth century itself, even the true reindeer, the Arctic monarch of the Glacial Epoch, was still hunted by Norwegian jarls of Orkney on the mainland of Caithness and Sutherlandshire.

Second in age is the warm western and south-western type, the type represented by the Portuguese slug, the arbutus trees and Mediterranean heaths of the Killarney district, the flora of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, and the peculiar wild flowers of South Wales, Devonshire, and the west country generally. This class belongs by origin to the submerged land of Lyonesse, the warm champaign country that once spread westward over the Bay of Biscay, and derived from the Gulf Stream the genial climate still preserved by its last remnants at Tresco and St. Mary's. The animals belonging to this secondary stratum of our British population are few and rare, but of its plants there are not a few, some of them extending over the whole western shores of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, wherever they are washed by the Gulf Stream, and others now confined to particular spots, often with the oddest apparent capriciousness. Thus, two or three southern types of clover are peculiar to the Lizard Point, in Cornwall; a little Spanish and Italian restharrow has got stranded in the Channel Islands and on the Mull of Galloway; the spotted rock-rose of the Mediterranean grows only in Kerry, Galway, and Anglesea; while other plants of the same warm habit are confined to such spots as Torquay, Babbicombe, Dawlish, Cork, Swansea, Axminster, and the Scilly Isles. Of course, all peninsulas and islands are warmer in temperature than inland places, and so these relics of the lost Lyonesse have survived here and there in Cornwall, Carnarvonshire, Kerry, and other very projecting headlands long after they have died out altogether from the main central mass of Britain. South-western Ireland in particular is almost Portuguese in the general aspect of its fauna and flora.

Third and latest of all in time, though almost contemporary with the southern type, is the central European or Germanic element in our population. Sad as it is to confess it, the truth must nevertheless be told, that our beasts and birds, our plants and flowers, are for the most part of purely Teutonic origin. Even as the rude and hard-headed Anglo-Saxon has driven the gentle, poetical, and imaginative Celt ever westward before him into the hills and the sea, so the rude and vigorous Germanic beasts and weeds have driven the gentler and softer southern types into Wales and Cornwall, Galloway and Connemara. It is to the central European population that we owe or owed the red deer, the wild boar, the bear, the wolf, the beaver, the fox, the badger, the otter, and the squirrel. It is to the central European flora that we owe the larger part of the most familiar plants in all eastern and southeastern England. They crossed in bands over the old land belt before Britain was finally insulated, and they have gone on steadily ever since, with true Teutonic persistence, overrunning the land and pushing slowly westward, like all other German bands before or since, to the detriment and discomfort of the previous inhabitants. Let us humbly remember that we are all of us at bottom foreigners alike, but that it is the Teutonic English, the people from the old Low Dutch fatherland by the Elbe, who have finally given to this isle its name of England, and to every one of us, Celt or Teuton, their own Teutonic name of Englishmen. We are at best, as an irate Teuton once remarked, 'nozzing but segond-hand Chermans.' In the words of a distinguished modern philologist of our own blood, 'English is Dutch, spoken with a Welsh accent.'


The subject of thunderbolts is a very fascinating one, and all the more so because there are no such things in existence at all as thunderbolts of any sort. Like the snakes of Iceland, their whole history might, from the positive point of view at least, be summed up in the simple statement of their utter nonentity. But does that do away in the least, I should like to know, with their intrinsic interest and importance? Not a bit of it. It only adds to the mystery and charm of the whole subject. Does anyone feel as keenly interested in any real living cobra or anaconda as in the non-existent great sea-serpent? Are ghosts and vampires less attractive objects of popular study than cats and donkeys? Can the present King of Abyssinia, interviewed by our own correspondent, equal the romantic charm of Prester John, or the butcher in the next street rival the personality of Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, Baronet? No, the real fact is this: if there were thunderbolts, the question of their nature and action would be a wholly dull, scientific, and priggish one; it is their unreality alone that invests them with all the mysterious weirdness of pure fiction. Lightning, now, is a common thing that one reads about wearily in the books on electricity, a mere ordinary matter of positive and negative, density and potential, to be measured in ohms (whatever they may be), and partially imitated with Leyden jars and red sealing-wax apparatus. Why, did not Benjamin Franklin, a fat old gentleman in ill-fitting small clothes, bring it down from the clouds with a simple door-key, somewhere near Philadelphia? and does not Mr. Robert Scott (of the Meteorological Office) calmly predict its probable occurrence within the next twenty-four hours in his daily report, as published regularly in the morning papers? This is lightning, mere vulgar lightning, a simple result of electrical conditions in the upper atmosphere, inconveniently connected with algebraical formulas in x, y, z, with horrid symbols interspersed in Greek letters. But the real thunderbolts of Jove, the weapons that the angry Zeus, or Thor, or Indra hurls down upon the head of the trembling malefactor—how infinitely grander, more fearsome, and more mysterious!

And yet even nowadays, I believe, there are a large number of well-informed people, who have passed the sixth standard, taken prizes at the Oxford Local, and attended the dullest lectures of the Society for University Extension, but who nevertheless in some vague and dim corner of their consciousness retain somehow a lingering faith in the existence of thunderbolts. They have not yet grasped in its entirety the simple truth that lightning is the reality of which thunderbolts are the mythical, or fanciful, or verbal representation. We all of us know now that lightning is a mere flash of electric light and heat; that it has no solid existence or core of any sort; in short, that it is dynamical rather than material, a state or movement rather than a body or thing. To be sure, local newspapers still talk with much show of learning about 'the electric fluid' which did such remarkable damage last week upon the slated steeple of Peddlington Torpida Church; but the well-crammed schoolboy of the present day has long since learned that the electric fluid is an exploded fallacy, and that the lightning which pulled the ten slates off the steeple in question was nothing more in its real nature than a very big immaterial spark. However, the word thunderbolt has survived to us from the days when people still believed that the thing which did the damage during a thunderstorm was really and truly a gigantic white-hot bolt or arrow; and, as there is a natural tendency in human nature to fit an existence to every word, people even now continue to imagine that there must be actually something or other somewhere called a thunderbolt. They don't figure this thing to themselves as being identical with the lightning; on the contrary, they seem to regard it as something infinitely rarer, more terrible, and more mystic; but they firmly hold that thunderbolts do exist in real life, and even sometimes assert that they themselves have positively seen them.

But, if seeing is believing, it is equally true, as all who have looked into the phenomena of spiritualism and 'psychical research' (modern English for ghost-hunting) know too well, that believing is seeing also. The origin of the faith in thunderbolts must be looked for (like the origin of the faith in ghosts and 'psychical phenomena') far back in the history of our race. The noble savage, at that early period when wild in woods he ran, naturally noticed the existence of thunder and lightning, because thunder and lightning are things that forcibly obtrude themselves upon the attention of the observer, however little he may by nature be scientifically inclined. Indeed, the noble savage, sleeping naked on the bare ground, in tropical countries where thunder occurs almost every night on an average, was sure to be pretty often awaked from his peaceful slumbers by the torrents of rain that habitually accompany thunderstorms in the happy realms of everlasting dog-days. Primitive man was thereupon compelled to do a little philosophising on his own account as to the cause and origin of the rumbling and flashing which he saw so constantly around him. Naturally enough, he concluded that the sound must be the voice of somebody; and that the fiery shaft, whose effects he sometimes noted upon trees, animals, and his fellow-man, must be the somebody's arrow. It is immaterial from this point of view whether, as the scientific anthropologists hold, he was led to his conception of these supernatural personages from his prior belief in ghosts and spirits, or whether, as Professor Max Mueller will have it, he felt a deep yearning in his primitive savage breast toward the Infinite and the Unknowable (which he would doubtless have spelt, like the Professor, with a capital initial, had he been acquainted with the intricacies of the yet uninvented alphabet); but this much at least is pretty certain, that he looked upon the thunder and the lightning as in some sense the voice and the arrows of an aerial god.

Now, this idea about the arrows is itself very significant of the mental attitude of primitive man, and of the way that mental attitude has coloured all subsequent thinking and superstition upon this very subject. Curiously enough, to the present day the conception of the thunderbolt is essentially one of a bolt—that is to say, an arrow, or at least an arrowhead. All existing thunderbolts (and there are plenty of them lying about casually in country houses and local museums) are more or less arrow-like in shape and appearance; some of them, indeed, as we shall see by-and-by, are the actual stone arrowheads of primitive man himself in person. Of course the noble savage was himself in the constant habit of shooting at animals and enemies with a bow and arrow. When, then, he tried to figure to himself the angry god, seated in the storm-clouds, who spoke with such a loud rumbling voice, and killed those who displeased him with his fiery darts, he naturally thought of him as using in his cloudy home the familiar bow and arrow of this nether planet. To us nowadays, if we were to begin forming the idea for ourselves all over again de novo, it would be far more natural to think of the thunder as the noise of a big gun, of the lightning as the flash of the powder, and of the supposed 'bolt' as a shell or bullet. There is really a ridiculous resemblance between a thunderstorm and a discharge of artillery. But the old conception derived from so many generations of primitive men has held its own against such mere modern devices as gunpowder and rifle balls; and none of the objects commonly shown as thunderbolts are ever round: they are distinguished, whatever their origin, by the common peculiarity that they more or less closely resemble a dart or arrowhead.

Let us begin, then, by clearly disembarrassing our minds of any lingering belief in the existence of thunderbolts. There are absolutely no such things known to science. The two real phenomena that underlie the fable are simply thunder and lightning. A thunderstorm is merely a series of electrical discharges between one cloud and another, or between clouds and the earth; and these discharges manifest themselves to our senses under two forms—to the eye as lightning, to the ear as thunder. All that passes in each case is a huge spark—a commotion, not a material object. It is in principle just like the spark from an electrical machine; but while the most powerful machine of human construction will only send a spark for three feet, the enormous electrical apparatus provided for us by nature will send one for four, five, or even ten miles. Though lightning when it touches the earth always seems to us to come from the clouds to the ground, it is by no means certain that the real course may not at least occasionally be in the opposite direction. All we know is that sometimes there is an instantaneous discharge between one cloud and another, and sometimes an instantaneous discharge between a cloud and the earth.

But this idea of a mere passage of highly concentrated energy from one point to another was far too abstract, of course, for primitive man, and is far too abstract even now for nine out of ten of our fellow-creatures. Those who don't still believe in the bodily thunderbolt, a fearsome aerial weapon which buries itself deep in the bosom of the earth, look upon lightning as at least an embodiment of the electric fluid, a long spout or line of molten fire, which is usually conceived of as striking the ground and then proceeding to hide itself under the roots of a tree or beneath the foundations of a tottering house. Primitive man naturally took to the grosser and more material conception. He figured to himself the thunderbolt as a barbed arrowhead; and the forked zigzag character of the visible flash, as it darts rapidly from point to point, seemed almost inevitably to suggest to him the barbs, as one sees them represented on all the Greek and Roman gems, in the red right hand of the angry Jupiter.

The thunderbolt being thus an accepted fact, it followed naturally that whenever any dart-like object of unknown origin was dug up out of the ground, it was at once set down as being a thunderbolt; and, on the other hand, the frequent occurrence of such dart-like objects, precisely where one might expect to find them in accordance with the theory, necessarily strengthened the belief itself. So commonly are thunderbolts picked up to the present day that to disbelieve in them seems to many country people a piece of ridiculous and stubborn scepticism. Why, they've ploughed up dozens of them themselves in their time, and just about the very place where the thunderbolt struck the old elm-tree two years ago, too.

The most favourite form of thunderbolt is the polished stone hatchet or 'celt' of the newer stone age men. I have never heard the very rude chipped and unpolished axes of the older drift men or cave men described as thunderbolts: they are too rough and shapeless ever to attract attention from any except professed archaeologists. Indeed, the wicked have been known to scoff at them freely as mere accidental lumps of broken flint, and to deride the notion of their being due in any way to deliberate human handicraft. These are the sort of people who would regard a grand piano as a fortuitous concourse of atoms. But the shapely stone hatchet of the later neolithic farmer and herdsman is usually a beautifully polished wedge-shaped piece of solid greenstone; and its edge has been ground to such a delicate smoothness that it seems rather like a bit of nature's exquisite workmanship than a simple relic of prehistoric man. There is something very fascinating about the naif belief that the neolithic axe is a genuine unadulterated thunderbolt. You dig it up in the ground exactly where you would expect a thunderbolt (if there were such things) to be. It is heavy, smooth, well shaped, and neatly pointed at one end. If it could really descend in a red-hot state from the depths of the sky, launched forth like a cannon-ball by some fierce discharge of heavenly artillery, it would certainly prove a very formidable weapon indeed; and one could easily imagine it scoring the bark of some aged oak, or tearing off the tiles from a projecting turret, exactly as the lightning is so well known to do in this prosaic workaday world of ours. In short, there is really nothing on earth against the theory of the stone axe being a true thunderbolt, except the fact that it unfortunately happens to be a neolithic hatchet.

But the course of reasoning by which we discover the true nature of the stone axe is not one that would in any case appeal strongly to the fancy or the intelligence of the British farmer. It is no use telling him that whenever one opens a barrow of the stone age one is pretty sure to find a neolithic axe and a few broken pieces of pottery beside the mouldering skeleton of the old nameless chief who lies there buried. The British farmer will doubtless stolidly retort that thunderbolts often strike the tops of hills, which are just the places where barrows and tumuli (tumps, he calls them) most do congregate; and that as to the skeleton, isn't it just as likely that the man was killed by the thunderbolt as that the thunderbolt was made by a man? Ay, and a sight likelier, too.

All the world over, this simple and easy belief, that the buried stone axe is a thunderbolt, exists among Europeans and savages alike. In the West of England, the labourers will tell you that the thunder-axes they dig up fell from the sky. In Brittany, says Mr. Tylor, the old man who mends umbrellas at Carnac, beside the mysterious stone avenues of that great French Stonehenge, inquires on his rounds for pierres de tonnerre, which of course are found with suspicious frequency in the immediate neighbourhood of prehistoric remains. In the Chinese Encyclopaedia we are told that the 'lightning stones' have sometimes the shape of a hatchet, sometimes that of a knife, and sometimes that of a mallet. And then, by a curious misapprehension, the sapient author of that work goes on to observe that these lightning stones are used by the wandering Mongols instead of copper and steel. It never seems to have struck his celestial intelligence that the Mongols made the lightning stones instead of digging them up out of the earth. So deeply had the idea of the thunderbolt buried itself in the recesses of his soul, that though a neighbouring people were still actually manufacturing stone axes almost under his very eyes, he reversed mentally the entire process, and supposed they dug up the thunderbolts which he saw them using, and employed them as common hatchets. This is one of the finest instances on record of the popular figure which grammarians call the hysteron proteron, and ordinary folk describe as putting the cart before the horse. Just so, while in some parts of Brazil the Indians are still laboriously polishing their stone hatchets, in other parts the planters are digging up the precisely similar stone hatchets of earlier generations, and religiously preserving them in their houses as undoubted thunderbolts. I have myself had pressed upon my attention as genuine lightning stones, in the West Indies, the exquisitely polished greenstone tomahawks of the old Carib marauders. But then, in this matter, I am pretty much in the position of that philosophic sceptic who, when he was asked by a lady whether he believed in ghosts, answered wisely, 'No, madam, I have seen by far too many of them.'

One of the finest accounts ever given of the nature of thunderbolts is that mentioned by Adrianus Tollius in his edition of 'Boethius on Gems.' He gives illustrations of some neolithic axes and hammers, and then proceeds to state that in the opinion of philosophers they are generated in the sky by a fulgureous exhalation (whatever that may look like) conglobed in a cloud by a circumfixed humour, and baked hard, as it were, by intense heat. The weapon, it seems, then becomes pointed by the damp mixed with it flying from the dry part, and leaving the other end denser; while the exhalations press it so hard that it breaks out through the cloud, and makes thunder and lightning. A very lucid explanation certainly, but rendered a little difficult of apprehension by the effort necessary for realising in a mental picture the conglobation of a fulgureous exhalation by a circumfixed humour.

One would like to see a drawing of the process, though the sketch would probably much resemble the picture of a muchness, so admirably described by the mock turtle. The excellent Tollius himself, however, while demurring on the whole to this hypothesis of the philosophers, bases his objection mainly on the ground that, if this were so, then it is odd the thunderbolts are not round, but wedge-shaped, and that they have holes in them, and those holes not equal throughout, but widest at the ends. As a matter of fact, Tollius has here hit the right nail on the head quite accidentally; for the holes are really there, of course, to receive the haft of the axe or hammer. But if they were truly thunderbolts, and if the bolts were shafted, then the holes would have been lengthwise, as in an arrowhead, not crosswise, as in an axe or hammer. Which is a complete reductio ad absurdum of the philosophic opinion.

Some of the cerauniae, says Pliny, are like hatchets. He would have been nearer the mark if he had said 'are hatchets' outright. But this apercu, which was to Pliny merely a stray suggestion, became to the northern peoples a firm article of belief, and caused them to represent to themselves their god Thor or Thunor as armed, not with a bolt, but with an axe or hammer. Etymologically Thor, Thunor, and thunder are the self-same word; but while the southern races looked upon Zeus or Indra as wielding his forked darts in his red right hand, the northern races looked upon the Thunder-god as hurling down an angry hammer from his seat in the clouds. There can be but little doubt that the very notion of Thor's hammer itself was derived from the shape of the supposed thunderbolt, which the Scandinavians and Teutons rightly saw at once to be an axe or mallet, not an arrowhead. The 'fiery axe' of Thunor is a common metaphor in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Thus, Thor's hammer is itself merely the picture which our northern ancestors formed to themselves, by compounding the idea of thunder and lightning with the idea of the polished stone hatchets they dug up among the fields and meadows.

Flint arrowheads of the stone age are less often taken for thunderbolts, no doubt because they are so much smaller that they look quite too insignificant for the weapons of an angry god. They are more frequently described as fairy-darts or fairy-bolts. Still, I have known even arrowheads regarded as thunderbolts, and preserved superstitiously under that belief. In Finland, stone arrows are universally so viewed; and the rainbow is looked upon as the bow of Tiermes, the thunder-god, who shoots with it the guilty sorcerers.

But why should thunderbolts, whether stone axes or flint arrowheads, be preserved, not merely as curiosities, but from motives of superstition? The reason is a simple one. Everybody knows that in all magical ceremonies it is necessary to have something belonging to the person you wish to conjure against, in order to make your spells effectual. A bone, be it but a joint of the little finger, is sufficient to raise the ghost to which it once belonged; cuttings of hair or clippings of nails are enough to put their owner magically in your power; and that is the reason why, if you are a prudent person, you will always burn all such off-castings of your body, lest haply an enemy should get hold of them, and cast the evil eye upon you with their potent aid. In the same way, if you can lay hands upon anything that once belonged to an elf, such as a fairy-bolt or flint arrowhead, you can get its former possessor to do anything you wish by simply rubbing it and calling upon him to appear. This is the secret of half the charms and amulets in existence, most of which are either real old arrowheads, or carnelians cut in the same shape, which has now mostly degenerated from the barb to the conventional heart, and been mistakenly associated with the idea of love. This is the secret, too, of all the rings, lamps, gems, and boxes, possession of which gives a man power over fairies, spirits, gnomes, and genii. All magic proceeds upon the prime belief that you must possess something belonging to the person you wish to control, constrain, or injure. And, failing anything else, you must at least have a wax image of him, which you call by his name, and use as his substitute in your incantations.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse