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Apollo and the Mouse

Why is Apollo, especially the Apollo of the Troad, he who showered the darts of pestilence among the Greeks, so constantly associated with a mouse? The very name, Smintheus, by which his favourite priest calls on him in the 'Iliad' (i. 39), might be rendered 'Mouse Apollo,' or 'Apollo, Lord of Mice.' As we shall see later, mice lived beneath the altar, and were fed in the holy of holies of the god, and an image of a mouse was placed beside or upon his sacred tripod. The ancients were puzzled by these things, and, as will be shown, accounted for them by 'mouse-stories,' [Greek], so styled by Eustathius, the mediaeval interpreter of Homer. Following our usual method, let us ask whether similar phenomena occur elsewhere, in countries where they are intelligible. Did insignificant animals elsewhere receive worship: were their effigies elsewhere placed in the temples of a purer creed? We find answers in the history of Peruvian religion.

After the Spanish conquest of Peru, one of the European adventurers, Don Garcilasso de la Vega, married an Inca princess. Their son, also named Garcilasso, was born about 1540. His famous book, 'Commentarias Reales,' contains the most authentic account of the old Peruvian beliefs. Garcilasso was learned in all the learning of the Europeans, and, as an Inca on the mother's side, had claims on the loyalty of the defeated race. He set himself diligently to collect both their priestly and popular traditions, and his account of them is the more trustworthy as it coincides with what we know to have been true in lands with which Garcilasso had little acquaintance.


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To Garcilasso's mind, Peruvian religion seems to be divided into two periods--the age before, and the age which followed the accession of the Incas, and their establishment of sun-worship as the creed of the State. In the earlier period, the pre-Inca period, he tells us 'an Indian was not accounted honourable unless he was descended from a fountain, river, or lake, or even from the sea, or from a wild animal, such as a bear, lion, tiger, eagle, or the bird they call cuntur (condor), or some other bird of prey.' {104a} To these worshipful creatures 'men offered what they usually saw them eat' (i. 53). But men were not content to adore large and dangerous animals. 'There was not an animal, how vile and filthy soever, that they did not worship as a god,' including 'lizards, toads, and frogs.' In the midst of these superstitions the Incas appeared. Just as the tribes claimed descent from animals, great or small, so the Incas drew their pedigree from the sun, which they adored like the gens of the Aurelii in Rome. {104b} Thus every Indian had his pacarissa, or, as the North American Indians say, totem, {105a} a natural object from which he claimed descent, and which, in a certain degree, he worshipped. Though sun-worship became the established religion, worship of the animal pacarissas was still tolerated. The sun-temples also contained huacas, or images, of the beasts which the Indians had venerated. {105b} In the great temple of Pachacamac, the most spiritual and abstract god of Peruvian faith, 'they worshipped a she-fox and an emerald. The devil also appeared to them, and spoke in the form of a tiger, very fierce.' {105c} This toleration of an older and cruder, in subordination to a purer, faith is a very common feature in religious evolution. In Catholic countries, to this day, we may watch, in Holy Week, the Adonis feast described by Theocritus, {105d} and the procession and entombment of the old god of spring.

'The Incas had the good policy to collect all the tribal animal gods into their temples in and round Cuzco, in which the two leading gods were the Master of Life, and the Sun.' Did a process of this sort ever occur in Greek religion, and were older animal gods ever collected into the temples of such deities as Apollo?


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While a great deal of scattered evidence about many animals consecrated to Greek gods points in this direction, it will be enough, for the present, to examine the case of the Sacred Mice. Among races which are still in the totemistic stage, which still claim descent from animals and from other objects, a peculiar marriage law generally exists, or can be shown to have existed. No man may marry a woman who is descended from the same ancestral animal, and who bears the same totem-name, and carries the same badge or family crest, as himself. A man descended from the Crane, and whose family name is Crane, cannot marry a woman whose family name is Crane. He must marry a woman of the Wolf, or Turtle, or Swan, or other name, and her children keep her family title, not his. Thus, if a Crane man marries a Swan woman, the children are Swans, and none of them may marry a Swan; they must marry Turtles, Wolves, or what not, and their children, again, are Turtles, or Wolves. Thus there is necessarily an eternal come and go of all the animal names known in a district. As civilisation advances these rules grow obsolete. People take their names from the father, as among ourselves. Finally the dwellers in a given district, having become united into a local tribe, are apt to drop the various animal titles and to adopt, as the name of the whole tribe, the name of the chief, or of the predominating family. Let us imagine a district of some twenty miles in which there are Crane, Wolf, Turtle, and Swan families. Long residence together, and common interests, have welded them into a local tribe. The chief is of the Wolf family, and the tribe, sinking family differences and family names, calls itself 'the Wolves.' Such tribes were probably, in the beginning, the inhabitants of the various Egyptian towns which severally worshipped the wolf, or the sheep, or the crocodile, and abstained religiously (except on certain sacrificial occasions) from the flesh of the animal that gave them its name. {107}


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It has taken us long to reach the Sacred Mice of Greek religion, but we are now in a position to approach their august divinity. We have seen that the sun-worship superseded, without abolishing, the tribal pacarissas in Peru, and that the huacas, or images, of the sacred animals were admitted under the roof of the temple of the Sun. Now it is recognised that the temples of the Sminthian Apollo contained images of sacred mice among other animals, and our argument is that here, perhaps, we have another example of the Peruvian religious evolution. Just as, in Peru, the tribes adored 'vile and filthy' animals, just as the solar worship of the Incas subordinated these, just as the huacas of the beasts remained in the temples of the Peruvian Sun; so, we believe, the tribes along the Mediterranean coasts had, at some very remote prehistoric period, their animal pacarissas; these were subordinated to the religion (to some extent solar) of Apollo; and the huacas, or animal idols, survived in Apollo's temples.


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If this theory be correct, we shall probably find the mouse, for example, revered as a sacred animal in many places. This would necessarily follow, if the marriage customs which we have described ever prevailed on Greek soil, and scattered the mouse-name far and wide. {108a} Traces of the Mouse families, and of adoration, if adoration there was of the mouse, would linger on in the following shapes:--(1) Places would be named from mice, and mice would be actually held sacred in themselves. (2) The mouse-name would be given locally to the god who superseded the mouse. (3) The figure of the mouse would be associated with the god, and used as a badge, or a kind of crest, or local mark, in places where the mouse has been a venerated animal. (4) Finally, myths would be told to account for the sacredness of a creature so undignified.

Let us take these considerations in their order:--

(1) If there were local mice tribes, deriving their name from the worshipful mouse, certain towns settled by these tribes would retain a reverence for mice.

In Chrysa, a town of the Troad, according to Heraclides Ponticus, mice were held sacred, the local name for mouse being [Greek]. Many places bore this mouse-name, according to Strabo. {108b} This is precisely what would have occurred had the Mouse totem, and the Mouse stock, been widely distributed. {108c} The Scholiast {109a} mentions Sminthus as a place in the Troad. Strabo speaks of two places deriving their name from Sminthus, or mouse, near the Sminthian temple, and others near Larissa. In Rhodes and Lindus, the mouse place-name recurs, 'and in many other districts' ([Greek]). Strabo (x. 486) names Caressus, and Poeessa, in Ceos, among the other places which had Sminthian temples, and, presumably, were once centres of tribes named after the mouse.

Here, then, are a number of localities in which the Mouse Apollo was adored, and where the old mouse-name lingered. That the mice were actually held sacred in their proper persons we learn from AElian. 'The dwellers in Hamaxitus of the Troad worship mice,' says AElian. 'In the temple of Apollo Smintheus, mice are nourished, and food is offered to them, at the public expense, and white mice dwell beneath the altar.' {109b} In the same way we found that the Peruvians fed their sacred beasts on what they usually saw them eat.

(2) The second point in our argument has already been sufficiently demonstrated. The mouse-name 'Smintheus' was given to Apollo in all the places mentioned by Strabo, 'and many others.'

(3) The figure of the mouse will be associated with the god, and used as a badge, or crest, or local mark, in places where the mouse has been a venerated animal.

The passage already quoted from AElian informs us that there stood 'an effigy of the mouse beside the tripod of Apollo.' In Chrysa, according to Strabo (xiii. 604), the statue of Apollo Smintheus had a mouse beneath his foot. The mouse on the tripod of Apollo is represented on a bas-relief illustrating the plague, and the offerings of the Greeks to Apollo Smintheus, as described in the first book of the 'Iliad.' {110a}


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The mouse is a not uncommon local badge or crest in Greece. The animals whose figures are stamped on coins, like the Athenian owl, are the most ancient marks of cities. It is a plausible conjecture that, just as the Iroquois when they signed treaties with the Europeans used their totems--bear, wolf, and turtle--as seals, {110b} so the animals on archaic Greek city coins represented crests or badges which, at some far more remote period, had been totems.

The Argives, according to Pollux, {110c} stamped the mouse on their coins. {110d} As there was a temple of Apollo Smintheus in Tenedos, we naturally hear of a mouse on the coins of the island. {111a} Golzio has published one of these mouse coins. The people of Metapontum stamped their money with a mouse gnawing an ear of corn. The people of Cumae employed a mouse dormant. Paoli fancied that certain mice on Roman medals might be connected with the family of Mus, but this is rather guesswork. {111b}

We have now shown traces, at least, of various ways in which an early tribal religion of the mouse--the mouse pacarissa, as the Peruvians said--may have been perpetuated. When we consider that the superseding of the mouse by Apollo must have occurred, if it did occur, long before Homer, we may rather wonder that the mouse left his mark on Greek religion so long. We have seen mice revered, a god with a mouse-name, the mouse-name recurring in many places, the huaca, or idol, of the mouse preserved in the temples of the god, and the mouse-badge used in several widely severed localities. It remains (4) to examine the myths about mice. These, in our opinion, were probably told to account for the presence of the huaca of the mouse in temples, and for the occurrence of the animal in religion, and his connection with Apollo.

A singular mouse-myth, narrated by Herodotus, is worth examining for reasons which will appear later, though the events are said to have happened on Egyptian soil. {111c} According to Herodotus, one Sethos, a priest of Hephaestus (Ptah), was king of Egypt. He had disgraced the military class, and he found himself without an army when Sennacherib invaded his country. Sethos fell asleep in the temple, and the god, appearing to him in a vision, told him that divine succour would come to the Egyptians. {112a} In the night before the battle, field-mice gnawed the quivers and shield-handles of the foe, who fled on finding themselves thus disarmed. 'And now,' says Herodotus, 'there standeth a stone image of this king in the temple of Hephaestus, and in the hand of the image a mouse, and there is this inscription, "Let whoso looketh on me be pious."'

Prof. Sayce {112b} holds that there was no such person as Sethos, but that the legend 'is evidently Egyptian, not Greek, and the name of Sennacherib, as well as the fact of the Assyrian attack, is correct.' The legend also, though Egyptian, is 'an echo of the biblical account of the destruction of the Assyrian army,' an account which omits the mice. 'As to the mice, here,' says Prof. Sayce, 'we have to do again with the Greek dragomen (sic). The story of Sethos was attached to the statue of some deity which was supposed to hold a mouse in its hand.' It must have been easy to verify this supposition; but Mr. Sayce adds, 'mice were not sacred in Egypt, nor were they used as symbols, or found on the monuments.' To this remark we may suggest some exceptions. Apparently this one mouse was found on the monuments. Wilkinson (iii. 264) says mice do occur in the sculptures, but they were not sacred. Rats, however, were certainly sacred, and as little distinction is taken, in myth, between rats and mice as between rabbits and hares. The rat was sacred to Ra, the Sun-god, and (like all totems) was not to be eaten. {113a} This association of the rat and the Sun cannot but remind us of Apollo and his mouse. According to Strabo, a certain city of Egypt did worship the shrew-mouse. The Athribitae, or dwellers in Crocodilopolis, are the people to whom he attributes this cult, which he mentions (xvii. 813) among the other local animal-worships of Egypt. {113b} Several porcelain examples of the field-mouse sacred to Horus (commonly called Apollo by the Greeks) may be seen in the British Museum.

That rats and field-mice were sacred in Egypt, then, we may believe on the evidence of the Ritual, of Strabo, and of many relics of Egyptian art. Herodotus, moreover, is credited when he says that the statue 'had a mouse on its hand.' Elsewhere, it is certain that the story of mice gnawing the bowstrings occurs frequently as an explanation of mouse-worship. One of the Trojan 'mouse-stories' ran--That emigrants had set out in prehistoric times from Crete. The oracle advised them to settle 'wherever they were attacked by the children of the soil.' At Hamaxitus in the Troad, they were assailed in the night by mice, which ate all that was edible of their armour and bowstrings. The colonists made up their mind that these mice were 'the children of the soil,' settled there, and adored the mouse Apollo. {114a} A myth of this sort may either be a story invented to explain the mouse-name; or a Mouse tribe, like the Red Indian Wolves, or Crows, may actually have been settled on the spot, and may even have resisted invasion. {114b} Another myth of the Troad accounted for the worship of the mouse Apollo on the hypothesis that he had once freed the land from mice, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose pipe (still serviceable) is said to have been found in his grave by men who were digging a mine. {114c}

Stories like these, stories attributing some great deliverance to the mouse, or some deliverance from mice to the god, would naturally spring up among people puzzled by their own worship of the mouse-god or of the mouse. We have explained the religious character of mice as the relics of a past age in which the mouse had been a totem and mouse family names had been widely diffused. That there are, and have been, mice totems and mouse family names among Semitic stocks round the Mediterranean is proved by Prof. Robertson Smith: {115a} 'Achbor, the mouse, is an Edomite name, apparently a stock name, as the jerboa and another mouse-name are among the Arabs. The same name occurs in Judah.' Where totemism exists, the members of each stock either do not eat the ancestral animal at all, or only eat him on rare sacrificial occasions. The totem of a hostile stock may be eaten by way of insult. In the case of the mouse, Isaiah seems to refer to one or other of these practices (lxvi.): 'They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine's flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the Lord.' This is like the Egyptian prohibition to eat 'the abominable' (that is, tabooed or forbidden) 'Rat of Ra.' If the unclean animals of Israel were originally the totems of each clan, then the mouse was a totem, {115b} for the chosen people were forbidden to eat 'the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind.' That unclean beasts, beasts not to be eaten, were originally totems, Prof. Robertson Smith infers from Ezekiel (viii. 10, 11), where 'we find seventy of the elders of Israel--that is, the heads of houses--worshipping in a chamber which had on its walls the figures of all manner of unclean' (tabooed) 'creeping things, and quadrupeds, even all the idols of the House of Israel.' Some have too hastily concluded that the mouse was a sacred animal among the neighbouring Philistines. After the Philistines had captured the Ark and set it in the house of Dagon, the people were smitten with disease. They therefore, in accordance with a well-known savage magical practice, made five golden representations of the diseased part, and five golden mice, as 'a trespass offering to the Lord of Israel,' and so restored the Ark. {116} Such votive offerings are common still in Catholic countries, and the mice of gold by no means prove that the Philistines had ever worshipped mice.


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Turning to India from the Mediterranean basin, and the Aryan, Semitic, and Egyptian tribes on its coasts, we find that the mouse was the sacred animal of Rudra. 'The mouse, Rudra, is thy beast,' says the Yajur Veda, as rendered by Grohmann in his 'Apollo Smintheus.' Grohmann recognises in Rudra a deity with most of the characteristics of Apollo. In later Indian mythology, the mouse is an attribute of Ganeca, who, like Apollo Smintheus, is represented in art with his foot upon a mouse.

Such are the chief appearances of the mouse in ancient religion. If he really was a Semitic totem, it may, perhaps, be argued that his prevalence in connection with Apollo is the result of a Semitic leaven in Hellenism. Hellenic invaders may have found Semitic mouse-tribes at home, and incorporated the alien stock deity with their own Apollo-worship. In that case the mouse, while still originally a totem, would not be an Aryan totem. But probably the myths and rites of the mouse, and their diffusion, are more plausibly explained on our theory than on that of De Gubernatis: 'The Pagan sun-god crushes under his foot the Mouse of Night. When the cat's away, the mice may play; the shadows of night dance when the moon is absent.' {117a} This is one of the quaintest pieces of mythological logic. Obviously, when the cat (the moon) is away, the mice (the shadows) cannot play: there is no light to produce a shadow. As usually chances, the scholars who try to resolve all the features of myth into physical phenomena do not agree among themselves about the mouse. While the mouse is the night, according to M. de Gubernatis, in Grohmann's opinion the mouse is the lightning. He argues that the lightning was originally regarded by the Aryan race as the 'flashing tooth of a beast,' especially of a mouse. Afterwards men came to identify the beast with his teeth, and, behold, the lightning and the mouse are convertible mythical terms! Now it is perfectly true that savages regard many elemental phenomena, from eclipses to the rainbow, as the result of the action of animals. The rainbow is a serpent; {117b} thunder is caused by the thunder-bird, who has actually been shot in Dacotah, and who is familiar to the Zulus; while rain is the milk of a heavenly cow--an idea recurring in the 'Zend Avesta.' But it does not follow because savages believe in these meteorological beasts that all the beasts in myth were originally meteorological. Man raised a serpent to the skies, perhaps, but his interest in the animal began on earth, not in the clouds. It is excessively improbable, and quite unproved, that any race ever regarded lightning as the flashes of a mouse's teeth. The hypothesis is a jeu d'esprit, like the opposite hypothesis about the mouse of Night. In these, and all the other current theories of the Sminthian Apollo, the widely diffused worship of ordinary mice, and such small deer, has been either wholly neglected, or explained by the first theory of symbolism that occurred to the conjecture of a civilised observer. The facts of savage animal-worship, and their relations to totemism, seem still unknown to or unappreciated by scholars, with the exception of Mr. Sayce, who recognises totemism as the origin of the zoomorphic element in Egyptian religion.

Our explanation, whether adequate or not, is not founded on an isolated case. If Apollo superseded and absorbed the worship of the mouse, he did no less for the wolf, the ram, the dolphin, and several other animals whose images were associated with his own. The Greek religion was more refined and anthropomorphic than that of Egypt. In Egypt the animals were still adored, and the images of the gods had bestial heads. In Greece only a few gods, and chiefly in very archaic statues, had bestial heads; but beside the other deities the sculptor set the owl, eagle, wolf, serpent, tortoise, mouse, or whatever creature was the local favourite of the deity. {118a} Probably the deity had, in the majority of cases, superseded the animal and succeeded to his honours. But the conservative religious sentiment retained the beast within the courts and in the suit and service of the anthropomorphic god. {118b}

The process by which the god ousted the beasts may perhaps be observed in Samoa. There (as Dr. Turner tells us in his 'Samoa') each family has its own sacred animal, which it may not eat. If this law be transgressed, the malefactor is supernaturally punished in a variety of ways. But, while each family has thus its totem, four or five different families recognise, in owl, crab, lizard, and so on, incarnations of the same god, say of Tongo. If Tongo had a temple among these families, we can readily believe that images of the various beasts in which he was incarnate would be kept within the consecrated walls. Savage ideas like these, if they were ever entertained in Greece, would account for the holy animals of the different deities. But it is obvious that the phenomena which we have been studying may be otherwise explained. It may be said that the Sminthian Apollo was only revered as the enemy and opponent of mice. St. Gertrude (whose heart was eaten by mice) has the same role in France. {119} The worship of Apollo, and the badge of the mouse, would, on this principle, be diffused by colonies from some centre of the faith. The images of mice in Apollo's temples would be nothing more than votive offerings. Thus, in the church of a Saxon town, the verger shows a silver mouse dedicated to Our Lady. 'This is the greatest of our treasures,' says the verger. 'Our town was overrun with mice till the ladies of the city offered this mouse of silver. Instantly all the mice disappeared.' 'And are you such fools as to believe that the creatures went away because a silver mouse was dedicated?' asked a Prussian officer. 'No,' replied the verger, rather neatly; 'or long ago we should have offered a silver Prussian.'


Andrew Lang