Primitive Sources Of Art
( Originally Published 1913 )
THAT all the arts spring from a common historic basis has already been indicated. The law of evolution from the homogeneous to the differentiated and specialized, that Spencer traced throughout the biological world, is evident in the history of art. All the fine arts are present in germ in an act of religious worship in the early Greek world, when a hymn was sung in honor of the god, and accompanied with orchestric dancing. The interpretative dancing was the basis of sculpture, and from sculpture, with scarcely a line of demarcation, sprang painting. The singing was the basis of music; while the hymn it-self represented poetry, from which, by the way, science and philosophy were later developed. Thus each of the typical fine arts practised to-day has been differentiated and specialized in function out of a simple unified historical source.
Note, further, the intimate connection of all early art with religion. Indeed, while the impulse of love and the desire to record action and event cooperated in the birth of art, the main inspiration came from religion; and through much of the history of the arts the association with religion continues intimate. Architecture builds temples, sculpture and painting adorn them, music and poetry are chiefly concerned with worship. Even to-day all these arts find an important function in serving religion; and while that is no longer their main purpose, the road was long the arts were compelled to travel before they could free themselves from being merely the hand-maidens of religion, and attain their independent functions as ideal expressions of the spirit of man. Remember the long centuries of Byzantine painting when art was merely religious symbolism, its pictures, pegs on which to hang the teachings of faith; or consider at how late a period the secular drama freed itself from the conventions of the mediaeval mystery and morality plays.
With the homogeneous simplicity of primitive life, religion was not separated from other aspects of existence, but permeated them all; in a profoundly true sense life itself was religion. Born under this dominant religious inspiration, early art was deeply serious. It was concerned with the universal questions of man's existence, and had a unity and comprehensiveness not present equally in later differentiated forms of art. Indeed, long before conscious art is born, there is accumulated a great storehouse of popular thought, feeling and imagination. It springs directly out of life, dealing with the two universal aspects of existence—Man and Nature. The legends slowly grew, told over by the aged to the young before the hearthstone, sung by wandering minstrels at the halls of chieftains, molded and remolded from age to age, until, when finally written down, they represent the re-fined, condensed result of generations upon generations of early life.
The power of primitive men, with memories unaided and uncrippled by note-books, to pre-serve and hand on such a body of material, is beyond all that we, with our mechanical devices and printed books, can understand. Thus the human mind was the tablet upon which the primitive artist wrote; but just for that reason his creation was less crystallized and more subject to change. While primitive men regarded their inherited legends with religious veneration, still the plastic mind, receiving and transmitting them, improved and refined them as time went on.
Thus the expression of early life has correlative strength and weakness as compared with later artistic masterpieces. In such a lit erary creation as the Divine Comedy or Faust there is the advantage of unified and complete art in the work as a whole. We get the personal reaction on life of one great mind and the statement of one man's philosophy.
Mythology lacks this unity resulting from the world-view of a single great mind, but it has condensed vitality and deals with universal material. It is of two main types determined by its two subjects—Man and Nature. These are of course interwoven, but now one, now the other, is dominant. The contrasting types will be evident if we compare the main body of Aryan legend with that produced by the Semites. As far back as we can trace the Aryans they lived in settled habitations, in village communities. As cultivators of the soil they depended for their existence upon the regular recurrence of the seasons, the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain. De-pending thus upon Nature, with their attention constantly drawn to her activities, their mythology was naturally in the main a poetic interpretation of those activities and their influence on man. The all-enfolding sky, married to the earth-mother through the life-giving rain, the storm gods driving their spotted deer or full-uddered cows across the heaven, the life-giving sun, the dawn housewife of the sky: these were the objects of Aryan worship and the subjects of Aryan mythology.
In the earliest period this mythology is remarkably fluid, the life-giving principle of Nature being worshiped easily under any of its manifold forms; but as various races developed out of the parent stem, more definite mythologies were differentiated under the influence of new conditions of life. One branch of the race, migrating to what became Persia, where the strong contrast is of day and night, light and darkness, developed a nature dual-ism, opposing Ormuzd, the bright god, to Ahriman, the spirit of darkness.
Another branch, entering the beautiful peninsula of Hellas, with the sea and the mountains everywhere, each valley with its distinguishing individuality and the radiant sky over all, evolved the most beautiful nature polytheism the world has seen. Every river, dell and tree in the forest had its presiding spirit, while all these divine powers were gathered in the pantheon of gods upon Olympus.
Still another portion of the mother race, settling upon the northern shores of Europe and upon the peninsulas that are now Den-mark, Norway and Sweden, found a nature world of forbidding majesty, where life was a perpetual struggle against destructive forces —the forest and its wild beasts, the giants of ice, cold and snow, and the demon of destructive fire. Thus these men developed a dualism in which man's will and intelligence, incarnate in the bright gods-Odin, Thor, Balder, Freya and the rest—were opposed to the Jötuns of the north, the Fenrir wolf and the Midgard Serpent, Loki, the demon of fire.
The Semitic peoples, on the other hand, as far back as we can trace them, were nomads. Living upon flocks and herds, climbing the mountains when the valleys were dry, crossing to fertile plains beyond, adding to their sustenance by marauding raids upon weaker and more settled tribes, their existence depended less upon nature than upon human courage, intelligence and leadership, with close social organization. It was the strong, patriarchal chieftain, the brave warrior, the unified war-fare against common foes that guaranteed their existence. Thus the mythology they developed centered upon human character and action rather than upon nature. They worshiped at first the dead chieftain, lifted to that mysterious other world but supposed still to have some power upon this. As their religion developed, they came to worship the god of the tribe, the race, and finally the king and ruler of the universe. In the whole process it was human power, justice, benevolence and, in the end, love, upon which the mind of the Semites was focused, and not mainly the forces and activities of the nature world. Thus their accumulated body of legend concerned mainly the history of human action, of brave deeds, persecutions endured, tribal and racial victories.
Of course the two tendencies overlap. Among all the Indo-European races a wealth of human legend gets grafted on the older and more characteristic body of nature myths. The origin of the latter is, in the end, quite forgotten, and elements from human tradition get associated with even the oldest nature stories. Similarly, we find the Elohim beside Jehovah in the Old Testament, and the genii of Mohammedan lore. Still the striking differentiation in type, springing from original differences in racial activity and environment, remains.
The importance of the two themes of all primitive art is evident if one remembers that all forces of human progress reduce to two—the action of man and the reaction of nature. Moreover, the two great aspects of the development of world religion have been the progressive discovery of the Divine, if I may so express it, through the two chapters of revelation—Man and Nature, ending in a union of the two in a conception of God as at once in the world, as the immanent life of all life "in whom we live and move and have our being," and above the world, as the loving Father of spirits in whose image we are made. Thus pro-found and universal are the two themes of primitive art.
The vitality of treatment in early art is as impressive as its universality in subject. Take, for instance, the old Brynhild-Sigurd story as it is given in the Elder Edda and the Song of the Volsungs. Here, even more than in Wagner's rendering, is it universally human in elements and vital in treatment. The fragmentary songs of the Elder Edda, wild but majestic in irregular alliterative verse, date perhaps from the eighth to the tenth centuries. The Volsung's Saga, a prose epic of somewhat later date (probably the thirteenth century), follows closely the older material, but gives the story in more complete form. Thus both represent the early working over of the body of legend handed down through generations.
Two elements of Fate are in the story from the beginning. The first is the hoard of treasure, guarded by the dragon Fafnir. The other is the doom of Brynhild, the battle may, who, for breaking the will of Odin, is pierced with the sleep-thorn and confined in the castle surrounded by fire. Sigurd, fated and fearless, having slain the dragon, comes to the flame-girt castle :
"By long roads rides Sigurd, till he comes at the last up on to Hindfell, . . . and he sees before him on the fell a great light, as of fire burning, and flaming up even unto the heavens ; and when he came thereto, lo, a shield-hung castle before him, and a banner on the topmost thereof : into the castle went Sigurd, and saw one lying there asleep, and all-armed. Therewith he takes the helm from off the head of him, and sees that it is no man, but a woman ; and she was clad in a byrny as closely set on her as though it had grown to her flesh; so he rent it from the collar downwards ; and then the sleeves thereof, and ever the sword bit on it as if it were cloth. Then said Sigurd that over-long had she lain asleep; but she asked ---- What thing of great might is it that has prevailed to rend my byrny, and draw me from my sleep? . . . Ah, is it so, that here is come Sigurd Sigmundson, bearing Fafnir's helm on his head and Fafnir's bane in his hand ?
Then answered Sigurd .. .
'Of the Volsung's kin is he who has done the deed; but now I have heard that thou art daughter of a mighty king, and folk have told us that thou wert lovely and full of lore, and now will I try the same.'
Then Brynhild sang ---
'Long have I slept
Hail to the day come back!
Then said Sigurd, 'Teach us the lore of mighty matters!'
She said, 'Belike thou cannest more skill in all than I; yet will I teach thee; yea, and with thanks, if there be aught of my cunning that will in anywise pleasure thee, either of runes or of other matters that are the root of things ; but let us now drink together, and may the Gods give to us twain a good day, that thou mayst win good help and fame from my wisdom, and that thou mayst hereafter mind thee of that which we twain speak together.' "
So she gives him the drink of love, and then with childlike simplicity yet with mature love of wisdom, these two sit down together, with the flames all round about, while she sings him the sacred runes—runes of war and of pity, of safety and thought—"wise words, sweet words, speech of great game."
It is significant of this old Norse land that the woman, repository of wisdom, teaches, while the man learns.
"Sigurd spake now, 'Sure no wiser woman than thou art one may be found in the wide world; yea, yea, teach me more yet of thy wisdom!' . . .
She spake withal
'Be kindly to friend and kin, and reward not their trespasses against thee; bear and forbear, and win for thee thereby long enduring praise of men.
Take good heed of evil things : a may's love, and a man's wife; full oft thereof doth ill befall!
Let not thy mind be overmuch crossed by unwise men at thronged meetings of folk; for oft these speak worse than they wot of; lest thou be called a dastard, and art minded to think that thou art even as is said; slay such an one on another day, and so reward his ugly talk.
Let not fair women beguile thee, such as thou mayst meet at the feast, so that the thought thereof stand thee in stead of sleep, and a quiet mind; yea, draw them not to thee with kisses and other sweet things of love.
If thou hearest the fool's word of a drunken man, strive not with him being drunk with drink and witless ; many a grief, yea, and the very death, groweth from out such things.
Fight thy foes in the field, nor be burnt in thine own house.
Look thou with good heed to the wiles of thy friends; but little skill is given to me, that I should foresee the ways of thy life; yet good it were that hate fell not on thee from those of thy wife's house.'
Sigurd sake, 'None among the sons of men can bd found wiser than thou; and thereby swear I, that thee will I have as my own, for near to my heart thou liest.'
She answers, 'Thee would I fainest choose, though I had all men's sons to choose from.'
And thereto they plighted troth both of them."
It is so far away, yet so near—this Sigurd-Brynhild story. What universality of human emotions, what majestic simplicity of expression, what strength and beauty of character, what permanent wisdom it contains. To read it is like a draught from some pure mountain spring in the midst of a primeval forest.
Had Sigurd been able to follow the wise teachings of Brynhild, all would have been well, but Fate willed otherwise. So Sigurd, riding to King Guild's palace, is given the magic drink by Queen Grimhild and married to her daughter, Gudrun. In his bewildered state, he lends himself to the scheme of Gunnar, Gudrun's brother, to deceiving Brynhild into marrying Gunnar as the one who had freed her from the fire. Through the taunting of Brynhild by Gudrun the deceptions are discovered. Sigurd comes to his senses, urges Brynhild to accept him even now; but she:
" 'Such words may nowise be spoken, nor will I have two kings in one hall; I will lay my life down rather than beguile Gunnar the King... . I swore an oath to wed the man who should ride my flaming fire, and that oath will I hold to, or die.' "
So woe is heaped on woe. Sigurd is murdered through Gunnar's scheming, at Brynhild's demand. Brynhild, slaying herself, prophesies the woes to come, and prays as a last boon to be burned on the funeral pyre with Sigurd
" 'And lay there betwixt us a drawn sword, as in the other days when we twain stepped into one bed together; and then may we have the name of man and wife, nor shall the door swing to at the heel of him as I go behind him"
How big it is with the elemental forces of life. Here is no low intrigue, no finesse of modern deception, the very wrong is on the scale of majesty, inextricably interwoven with the fate of life. How wild, loyal, fierce in hate, strong in love, true in instinct, this splendid Brynhild is : a type of glorious and tragic womanhood for all time. How the pessimism of a Schopenhauer, the wail of a modern Leopardi pale beside this elemental tragedy!
Gudrun, overshadowed by Brynhild, lending herself to her mother's deception to win Sigurd, has her own majesty and suffers her own bitterness. I know nothing else in primitive literature more profoundly moving in spirit, more tensely impressive in form than the stanzas of the Elder Edda giving the woe of Gudrun over Sigurd dead:
"Gudrun of old days
Then went earls to her,
Then spake Giaflaug,
Naught gat Gudrun
Then spake Gullrond, Guiki's daughter
She swept the sheet
Once looked Gudrun—
Back then sank Gudrun,
The tragedy seems cosmic in the sweep of its impressiveness; the very weeping of Gudrun is like a storm rending some northern forest. What a depth and reach there is in it all of the simple universal elements that make life in all time! Love, hate, struggle, death, pride, grief—all are here, and with what wondrous vitality. If the passions seem more ruthless and the woe more overwhelming than in life today, that is only because primitive men stood closer to the great realities of life, with no barrier of convention between. Their senses were unjaded, their emotions fresh and violent. They lived closer to the dawn and the sunshine, the rain and the cold. Night and its stars arched over them, and they met the world with untired wonder. This is embodied in their very language which was natural metaphor. What our poetry accomplishes in a phrase or a made figure, they ex-pressed in a word, since every word we use for a spiritual concept was once a natural metaphor, carrying physical association. "Ghost" and "spirit" were alike the "breath"; to be "corrupted" was to be crumbled up in character as rocks or earth crumble with the spring frost.* So in all primitive description metaphor precedes simile, the wild outpourings of Beowulf come at an earlier racial epoch than the smooth comparisons of Homer.
So primitive art is true, with a simple ethical earnestness coming from a sound direct reaction upon life. In form it is artistic, with a natural spontaneity equalled only in the highest achievements of the conscious artist of later times. With what unconscious skill it uses just the word, the image that carries the thought, repeating the vital phrase at the recurring crisis of its dramatic situation. With what fugue-like solemnity the song of Gudrun's lament repeats the dirge of its refrain:
"Naught gat Gudrun
the repetition being given with just change enough to grip the imagination. Thus all great qualities of art are here, with the inevitable naturalness of deep child-like appreciation.
As in this Norse literature, so everywhere, the earliest art is the working over and writing down of the store of primitive legends ac-cumulated through centuries of racial life. The mythology and religion of those ages pre-ceding the dawn of recorded history are thus the great source from which the arts spring. So, too, these form the permanent storehouse of material and of vital inspiration to which the arts must perpetually return. As Antaeus was renewed in strength when he touched again his mother, the earth, so the late-born artist, surrounded by a conventional civilization, with jaded senses and tired heart, is born anew when he bathes in these fountains that flow at the dawn of civilization. Compare the use of Greek mythology in classic sculpture, renaissance painting and Elizabethan poetry. Remember the wealth of Christian and Hebraic story in Italian painting and English poetry. Tennyson's use of Celtic legend and Wagner's of the Norse are but two of the multitude of illustrations of this turning backward to the springs of racial life for material and inspiration.