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The Myth of Cronus

In a Maori pah, when a little boy behaves rudely to his parents, he is sometimes warned that he is 'as bad as cruel Tutenganahau.' If he asks who Tutenganahau was, he is told the following story:--

'In the beginning, the Heaven, Rangi, and the Earth, Papa, were the father and mother of all things. "In these days the Heaven lay upon the Earth, and all was darkness. They had never been separated." Heaven and Earth had children, who grew up and lived in this thick night, and they were unhappy because they could not see. Between the bodies of their parents they were imprisoned, and there was no light. The names of the children were Tumatuenga, Tane Mahuta, Tutenganahau, and some others. So they all consulted as to what should be done with their parents, Rangi and Papa. "Shall we slay them, or shall we separate them?" "Go to," said Tumatuenga, "let us slay them." "No," cried Tane Mahuta, "let us rather separate them. Let one go upwards, and become a stranger to us; let the other remain below, and be a parent to us." Only Tawhiri Matea (the wind) had pity on his own father and mother. Then the fruit-gods, and the war-god, and the sea-god (for all the children of Papa and Rangi were gods) tried to rend their parents asunder. Last rose the forest- god, cruel Tutenganahau. He severed the sinews which united Heaven and Earth, Rangi and Papa. Then he pushed hard with his head and feet. Then wailed Heaven and exclaimed Earth, "Wherefore this murder? Why this great sin? Why destroy us? Why separate us?" But Tane pushed and pushed: Rangi was driven far away into the air. "They became visible, who had hitherto been concealed between the hollows of their parents' breasts." Only the storm-god differed from his brethren: he arose and followed his father, Rangi, and abode with him in the open spaces of the sky.'

This is the Maori story of the severing of the wedded Heaven and Earth. The cutting of them asunder was the work of Tutenganahau and his brethren, and the conduct of Tutenganahau is still held up as an example of filial impiety. {46a} The story is preserved in sacred hymns of very great antiquity, and many of the myths are common to the other peoples of the Pacific. {46b}

Now let us turn from New Zealand to Athens, as she was in the days of Pericles. Socrates is sitting in the porch of the King Archon, when Euthyphro comes up and enters into conversation with the philosopher. After some talk, Euthyphro says, 'You will think me mad when I tell you whom I am prosecuting and pursuing!' 'Why, has the fugitive wings?' asks Socrates. 'Nay, he is not very volatile at his time of life!' 'Who is he?' 'My father.' 'Good heavens! you don't mean that. What is he accused of?' 'Murder, Socrates.' Then Euthyphro explains the case, which quaintly illustrates Greek civilisation. Euthyphro's father had an agricultural labourer at Naxos. One day this man, in a drunken passion, killed a slave. Euthyphro's father seized the labourer, bound him, threw him into a ditch, 'and then sent to Athens to ask a diviner what should be done with him.' Before the answer of the diviner arrived, the labourer literally 'died in a ditch' of hunger and cold. For this offence, Euthyphro was prosecuting his own father. Socrates shows that he disapproves, and Euthyphro thus defends the piety of his own conduct: 'The impious, whoever he may be, ought not to go unpunished. For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most righteous of gods? Yet even they admit that Zeus bound his own father Cronus, because he wickedly devoured his sons; and that Cronus, too, had punished his own father, Uranus, for a similar reason, in a nameless manner. And yet when I proceed against my father, people are angry with me. This is their inconsistent way of talking, when the gods are concerned, and when I am concerned.'

Here Socrates breaks in. He 'cannot away with these stories about the gods,' and so he has just been accused of impiety, the charge for which he died. Socrates cannot believe that a god, Cronus, mutilated his father Uranus, but Euthyphro believes the whole affair: 'I can tell you many other things about the gods which would quite amaze you.' {48}

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We have here a typical example of the way in which mythology puzzled the early philosophers of Greece. Socrates was anxious to be pious, and to respect the most ancient traditions of the gods. Yet at the very outset of sacred history he was met by tales of gods who mutilated and bound their own parents. Not only were such tales hateful to him, but they were of positively evil example to people like Euthyphro. The problem remained, how did the fathers of the Athenians ever come to tell such myths?

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Let us now examine the myth of Cronus, and the explanations which have been given by scholars. Near the beginning of things, according to Hesiod (whose cosmogony was accepted in Greece), Earth gave birth to Heaven. Later, Heaven, Uranus, became the husband of Gaea, Earth. Just as Rangi and Papa, in New Zealand, had many children, so had Uranus and Gaea. As in New Zealand, some of these children were gods of the various elements. Among them were Oceanus, the deep, and Hyperion, the sun--as among the children of Earth and Heaven, in New Zealand, were the Wind and the Sea. The youngest child of the Greek Heaven and Earth was 'Cronus of crooked counsel, who ever hated his mighty sire.' Now even as the children of the Maori Heaven and Earth were 'concealed between the hollows of their parents' breasts,' so the Greek Heaven used to 'hide his children from the light in the hollows of Earth.' Both Earth and her children resented this, and, as in New Zealand, the children conspired against Heaven, taking Earth, however, into their counsels. Thereupon Earth produced iron, and bade her children avenge their wrongs. {49a} Now fear fell on all of them, except Cronus, who, like Tutenganahau, was all for action. Cronus determined to end the embraces of Heaven and Earth. But, while the Maori myth conceives of Heaven and Earth as of two beings which have never been separated before, Hesiod makes Heaven amorously approach his wife from a distance. Then Cronus stretched out his hand, armed with a sickle of iron, or steel, and mutilated Uranus. Thus were Heaven and Earth practically divorced. But as in the Maori myth one of the children of Heaven clave to his sire, so, in Greek, Oceanus remained faithful to his father. {49b}

This is the first portion of the Myth of Cronus. Can it be denied that the story is well illustrated and explained by the New Zealand parallel, the myth of the cruelty of Tutenganahau? By means of this comparison, the meaning of the myth is made clear enough. Just as the New Zealanders had conceived of Heaven and Earth as at one time united, to the prejudice of their children, so the ancestors of the Greeks had believed in an ancient union of Heaven and Earth. Both by Greeks and Maoris, Heaven and Earth were thought of as living persons, with human parts and passions. Their union was prejudicial to their children, and so the children violently separated the parents. This conduct is regarded as impious, and as an awful example to be avoided, in Maori pahs. In Naxos, on the other hand, Euthyphro deemed that the conduct of Cronus deserved imitation. If ever the Maoris had reached a high civilisation, they would probably have been revolted, like Socrates, by the myth which survived from their period of savagery. Mr. Tylor well says, {50a} 'Just as the adzes of polished jade, and the cloaks of tied flax-fibre, which these New Zealanders were using but yesterday, are older in their place in history than the bronze battle-axes and linen mummy-cloths of ancient Egypt, so the Maori poet's shaping of nature into nature-myth belongs to a stage of intellectual history which was passing away in Greece five-and- twenty centuries ago. The myth-maker's fancy of Heaven and Earth as father and mother of all things naturally suggested the legend that they in old days abode together, but have since been torn asunder.'

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That this view of Heaven and Earth is natural to early minds, Mr. Tylor proves by the presence of the myth of the union and violent divorce of the pair in China. {50b} Puang-ku is the Chinese Cronus, or Tutenganahau. In India, {50c} Dyaus and Prithivi, Heaven and Earth, were once united, and were severed by Indra, their own child.

This, then, is our interpretation of the exploit of Cronus. It is an old surviving nature-myth of the severance of Heaven and Earth, a myth found in China, India, New Zealand, as well as in Greece. Of course it is not pretended that Chinese and Maoris borrowed from Indians and Greeks, or came originally of the same stock. Similar phenomena, presenting themselves to be explained by human minds in a similar stage of fancy and of ignorance, will account for the parallel myths.

The second part of the myth of Cronus was, like the first, a stumbling- block to the orthodox in Greece. Of the second part we offer no explanation beyond the fact that the incidents in the myth are almost universally found among savages, and that, therefore, in Greece they are probably survivals from savagery. The sequel of the myth appears to account for nothing, as the first part accounts for the severance of Heaven and Earth. In the sequel a world-wide Marchen, or tale, seems to have been attached to Cronus, or attracted into the cycle of which he is centre, without any particular reason, beyond the law which makes detached myths crystallise round any celebrated name. To look further is, perhaps, chercher raison ou il n'y en a pas.

The conclusion of the story of Cronus runs thus:--He wedded his sister, Rhea, and begat children--Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and, lastly, Zeus. 'And mighty Cronus swallowed down each of them, each that came to their mother's knees from her holy womb, with this intent, that none other of the proud children of Uranus should hold kingly sway among the Immortals.' Cronus showed a ruling father's usual jealousy of his heirs. It was a case of Friedrich Wilhelm and Friedrich. But Cronus (acting in a way natural in a story perhaps first invented by cannibals) swallowed his children instead of merely imprisoning them. Heaven and Earth had warned him to beware of his heirs, and he could think of no safer plan than that which he adopted. When Rhea was about to become the mother of Zeus, she fled to Crete. Here Zeus was born, and when Cronus (in pursuit of his usual policy) asked for the baby, he was presented with a stone wrapped up in swaddling bands. After swallowing the stone, Cronus was easy in his mind; but Zeus grew up, administered a dose to his father, and compelled him to disgorge. 'The stone came forth first, as he had swallowed it last.' {52a} The other children also emerged, all alive and well. Zeus fixed the stone at Delphi, where, long after the Christian era, Pausanias saw it. {52b} It was not a large stone, Pausanias tells us, and the Delphians used to anoint it with oil and wrap it up in wool on feast-days. All Greek temples had their fetich-stones, and each stone had its legend. This was the story of the Delphian stone, and of the fetichism which survived the early years of Christianity. A very pretty story it is. Savages more frequently smear their fetich-stones with red paint than daub them with oil, but the latter, as we learn from Theophrastus's account of the 'superstitious man,' was the Greek ritual.

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This anecdote about Cronus was the stumbling-block of the orthodox Greek, the jest of the sceptic, and the butt of the early Christian controversialists. Found among Bushmen or Australians the narrative might seem rather wild, but it astonishes us still more when it occurs in the holy legends of Greece. Our explanation of its presence there is simple enough. Like the erratic blocks in a modern plain, like the flint- heads in a meadow, the story is a relic of a very distant past. The glacial age left the boulders on the plain, the savage tribes of long ago left the arrowheads, the period of savage fancy left the story of Cronus and the rites of the fetich-stone. Similar rites are still notoriously practised in the South Sea Islands, in Siberia, in India and Africa and Melanesia, by savages. And by savages similar tales are still told.

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We cannot go much lower than the Bushmen, and among Bushman divine myths is room for the 'swallowing trick' attributed to Cronus by Hesiod. The chief divine character in Bushman myth is the Mantis insect. His adopted daughter is the child of Kwai Hemm, a supernatural character, 'the all- devourer.' The Mantis gets his adopted daughter to call the swallower to his aid; but Kwai Hemm swallows the Mantis, the god-insect. As Zeus made his own wife change herself into an insect, for the convenience of swallowing her, there is not much difference between Bushman and early Greek mythology. Kwai Hemm is killed by a stratagem, and all the animals whom he has got outside of, in a long and voracious career, troop forth from him alive and well, like the swallowed gods from the maw of Cronus. {54a} Now, story for story, the Bushman version is much less offensive than that of Hesiod. But the Bushman story is just the sort of story we expect from Bushmen, whereas the Hesiodic story is not at all the kind of tale we look for from Greeks. The explanation is, that the Greeks had advanced out of a savage state of mind and society, but had retained their old myths, myths evolved in the savage stage, and in harmony with that condition of fancy. Among the Kaffirs {54b} we find the same 'swallow-myth.' The Igongqongqo swallows all and sundry; a woman cuts the swallower with a knife, and 'people came out, and cattle, and dogs.' In Australia, a god is swallowed. As in the myth preserved by Aristophanes in the 'Birds,' the Australians believe that birds were the original gods, and the eagle, especially, is a great creative power. The Moon was a mischievous being, who walked about the world, doing what evil he could. One day he swallowed the eagle-god. The wives of the eagle came up, and the Moon asked them where he might find a well. They pointed out a well, and, as he drank, they hit the Moon with a stone tomahawk, and out flew the eagle. {54c} This is oddly like Grimm's tale of 'The Wolf and the Kids.' The wolf swallowed the kids, their mother cut a hole in the wolf, let out the kids, stuffed the wolf with stones, and sewed him up again. The wolf went to the well to drink, the weight of the stones pulled him in, and he was drowned. Similar stories are common among the Red Indians, and Mr. Im Thurn has found them in Guiana. How savages all over the world got the idea that men and beasts could be swallowed and disgorged alive, and why they fashioned the idea into a divine myth, it is hard to say. Mr. Tylor, in 'Primitive Culture,' {55a} adds many examples of the narrative. The Basutos have it; it occurs some five times in Callaway's 'Zulu Nursery Tales.' In Greenland the Eskimo have a shape of the incident, and we have all heard of the escape of Jonah.

It has been suggested that night, covering up the world, gave the first idea of the swallowing myth. Now in some of the stories the night is obviously conceived of as a big beast which swallows all things. The notion that night is an animal is entirely in harmony with savage metaphysics. In the opinion of the savage speculator, all things are men and animals. 'Ils se persuadent que non seulement les hommes et les autres animaux, mais aussi que toutes les autres choses sont animees,' says one of the old Jesuit missionaries in Canada. {55b} 'The wind was formerly a person; he became a bird,' say the Bushmen.

G' oo ka! Kui (a very respectable Bushman, whose name seems a little hard to pronounce), once saw the wind-person at Haarfontein. Savages, then, are persuaded that night, sky, cloud, fire, and so forth, are only the schein, or sensuous appearance, of things that, in essence, are men or animals. A good example is the bringing of Night to Vanua Lava, by Qat, the 'culture-hero' of Melanesia. At first it was always day, and people tired of it. Qat heard that Night was at the Torres Islands, and he set forth to get some. Qong (Night) received Qat well, blackened his eyebrows, showed him Sleep, and sent him off with fowls to bring Dawn after the arrival of Night should make Dawn a necessary. Next day Qat's brothers saw the sun crawl away west, and presently Night came creeping up from the sea. 'What is this?' cried the brothers. 'It is Night,' said Qat; 'sit down, and when you feel something in your eyes, lie down and keep quiet.' So they went to sleep. 'When Night had lasted long enough, Qat took a piece of red obsidian, and cut the darkness, and the Dawn came out.' {56}

Night is more or less personal in this tale, and solid enough to be cut, so as to let the Dawn out. This savage conception of night, as the swallower and disgorger, might start the notion of other swallowing and disgorging beings. Again the Bushmen, and other savage peoples, account for certain celestial phenomena by saying that 'a big star has swallowed his daughter, and spit her out again.' While natural phenomena, explained on savage principles, might give the data of the swallow-myth, we must not conclude that all beings to whom the story is attached are, therefore, the Night. On this principle Cronus would be the Night, and so would the wolf in Grimm. For our purposes it is enough that the feat of Cronus is a feat congenial to the savage fancy and repugnant to the civilised Greeks who found themselves in possession of the myth. Beyond this, and beyond the inference that the Cronus myth was first evolved by people to whom it seemed quite natural, that is, by savages, we do not pretend to go in our interpretation.

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To end our examination of the Myth of Cronus, we may compare the solutions offered by scholars. As a rule, these solutions are based on the philological analysis of the names in the story. It will be seen that very various and absolutely inconsistent etymologies and meanings of Cronus are suggested by philologists of the highest authority. These contradictions are, unfortunately, rather the rule than the exception in the etymological interpretation of myths.

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The opinion of Mr. Max Muller has always a right to the first hearing from English inquirers. Mr. Muller, naturally, examines first the name of the god whose legend he is investigating. He writes: 'There is no such being as Kronos in Sanskrit. Kronos did not exist till long after Zeus in Greece. Zeus was called by the Greeks the son of Time ([Greek]). This is a very simple and very common form of mythological expression. It meant originally, not that time was the origin or source of Zeus, but [Greek] or [Greek] was used in the sense of "connected with time, representing time, existing through all time." Derivatives in -[Greek] and -[Greek] took, in later times, the more exclusive meaning of patronymics. . . . When this (the meaning of [Greek] as equivalent to Ancient of Days) ceased to be understood, . . . people asked themselves the question, Why is Zeus called [Greek]? And the natural and almost inevitable answer was, Because he is the son, the offspring of a more ancient god, Kronos. This may be a very old myth in Greece; but the misunderstanding which gave rise to it could have happened in Greece only. We cannot expect, therefore, a god Kronos in the Veda.' To expect Greek in the Veda would certainly be sanguine. 'When this myth of Kronos had once been started, it would roll on irresistibly. If Zeus had once a father called Kronos, Kronos must have a wife.' It is added, as confirmation, that 'the name of [Greek] belongs originally to Zeus only, and not to his later' (in Hesiod elder) 'brothers, Poseidon and Hades.' {58a}

Mr. Muller says, in his famous essay on 'Comparative Mythology' {58b}: 'How can we imagine that a few generations before that time' (the age of Solon) 'the highest notions of the Godhead among the Greeks were adequately expressed by the story of Uranos maimed by Kronos,--of Kronos eating his children, swallowing a stone, and vomiting out alive his whole progeny. Among the lowest tribes of Africa and America, we hardly find anything more hideous and revolting.' We have found a good deal of the sort in Africa and America, where it seems not out of place.

One objection to Mr. Muller's theory is, that it makes the mystery no clearer. When Greeks were so advanced in Hellenism that their own early language had become obsolete and obscure, they invented the god [Greek], to account for the patronymic (as they deemed it) [Greek], son of [Greek]. But why did they tell such savage and revolting stories about the god they had invented? Mr. Muller only says the myth 'would roll on irresistibly.' But why did the rolling myth gather such very strange moss? That is the problem; and, while Mr. Muller's hypothesis accounts for the existence of a god called [Greek], it does not even attempt to show how full-blown Greeks came to believe such hideous stories about the god.

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This theory, therefore, is of no practical service. The theory of Adalbert Kuhn, one of the most famous of Sanskrit scholars, and author of 'Die Herabkunft des Feuers,' is directly opposed to the ideas of Mr. Muller. In Cronus, Mr. Muller recognises a god who could only have come into being among Greeks, when the Greeks had begun to forget the original meaning of 'derivatives in -[Greek] and -[Greek].' Kuhn, on the other hand, derives [Greek] from the same root as the Sanskrit Krana. {59} Krana means, it appears, der fur sich schaffende, he who creates for himself, and Cronus is compared to the Indian Pragapati, about whom even more abominable stories are told than the myths which circulate to the prejudice of Cronus. According to Kuhn, the 'swallow-myth' means that Cronus, the lord of light and dark powers, swallows the divinities of light. But in place of Zeus (that is, according to Kuhn, of the daylight sky) he swallows a stone, that is, the sun. When he disgorges the stone (the sun), he also disgorges the gods of light whom he had swallowed.

I confess that I cannot understand these distinctions between the father and lord of light and dark (Cronus) and the beings he swallowed. Nor do I find it easy to believe that myth-making man took all those distinctions, or held those views of the Creator. However, the chief thing to note is that Mr. Muller's etymology and Kuhn's etymology of Cronus can hardly both be true, which, as their systems both depend on etymological analysis, is somewhat discomfiting.

The next etymological theory is the daring speculation of Mr. Brown. In 'The Great Dionysiak Myth' {60a} Mr. Brown writes: 'I regard Kronos as the equivalent of Karnos, Karnaios, Karnaivis, the Horned God; Assyrian, KaRNu; Hebrew, KeReN, horn; Hellenic, KRoNos, or KaRNos.' Mr. Brown seems to think that Cronus is 'the ripening power of harvest,' and also 'a wily savage god,' in which opinion one quite agrees with him. Why the name of Cronus should mean 'horned,' when he is never represented with horns, it is hard to say. But among the various foreign gods in whom the Greeks recognised their own Cronus, one Hea, 'regarded by Berosos as Kronos,' seems to have been 'horn-wearing.' {60b} Horns are lacking in Seb and Il, if not in Baal Hamon, though Mr. Brown would like to behorn them.

Let us now turn to Preller. {61a} According to Preller, Kronos is connected with [Greek], to fulfil, to bring to completion. The harvest month, the month of ripening and fulfilment, was called [Greek] in some parts of Greece, and the jolly harvest-feast, with its memory of Saturn's golden days, was named [Greek]. The sickle of Cronus, the sickle of harvest-time, works in well with this explanation, and we have a kind of pun in Homer which points in the direction of Preller's derivation from [Greek]:--


and in Sophocles ('Tr.' 126)--


Preller illustrates the mutilation of Uranus by the Maori tale of Tutenganahau. The child-swallowing he connects with Punic and Phoenician influence, and Semitic sacrifices of men and children. Porphyry {61b} speaks of human sacrifices to Cronus in Rhodes, and the Greeks recognised Cronus in the Carthaginian god to whom children were offered up.

Hartung {61c} takes Cronus, when he mutilates Uranus, to be the fire of the sun, scorching the sky of spring. This, again, is somewhat out of accord with Schwartz's idea, that Cronus is the storm-god, the cloud-swallowing deity, his sickle the rainbow, and the blood of Uranus the lightning. {61d} According to Prof. Sayce, again, {62a} the blood- drops of Uranus are rain-drops. Cronus is the sun-god, piercing the dark cloud, which is just the reverse of Schwartz's idea. Prof. Sayce sees points in common between the legend of Moloch, or of Baal under the name of Moloch, and the myth of Cronus. But Moloch, he thinks, is not a god of Phoenician origin, but a deity borrowed from 'the primitive Accadian population of Babylonia.' Mr. Isaac Taylor, again, explains Cronus as the sky which swallows and reproduces the stars. The story of the sickle may be derived from the crescent moon, the 'silver sickle,' or from a crescent-shaped piece of meteoric iron--for, in this theory, the fetich- stone of Delphi is a piece of that substance.

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It will be observed that any one of these theories, if accepted, is much more 'minute in detail' than our humble suggestion. He who adopts any one of them, knows all about it. He knows that Cronus is a purely Greek god, or that he is connected with the Sanskrit Krana, which Tiele, {62b} unhappily, says is 'a very dubious word.' Or the mythologist may be quite confident that Cronus is neither Greek nor, in any sense, Sanskrit, but Phoenician. A not less adequate interpretation assigns him ultimately to Accadia. While the inquirer who can choose a system and stick to it knows the exact nationality of Cronus, he is also well acquainted with his character as a nature-god. He may be Time, or perhaps he is the Summer Heat, and a horned god; or he is the harvest- god, or the god of storm and darkness, or the midnight sky,--the choice is wide; or he is the lord of dark and light, and his children are the stars, the clouds, the summer months, the light-powers, or what you will. The mythologist has only to make his selection.

The system according to which we tried to interpret the myth is less ondoyant et divers. We do not even pretend to explain everything. We do not guess at the meaning and root of the word Cronus. We only find parallels to the myth among savages, whose mental condition is fertile in such legends. And we only infer that the myth of Cronus was originally evolved by persons also in the savage intellectual condition. The survival we explain as, in a previous essay, we explained the survival of the bull-roarer by the conservatism of the religious instinct.

Andrew Lang