Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 220
Publication Date: 1892
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IF we erase from the mind absolutely all that science has laboriously spied out of the actual facts of the material universe, and ask ourselves what would have been the thoughts by which man attempted at first to explain and image forth the natural order, we may put ourselves in sympathy with notions that at first seem absurd. We may see that the progress of science is merely the framing and destruction one by one of a series of hypotheses, and that the early cosmogonies are one in kind with the widest generalisations of science—from certain appearances to frame a theory of explanation, from phenomena to generalise law.
In thus putting ourselves back into the early world, not only must we remember the limitations to the knowledge of phenomena, but also the inadequate means of expression. Not only must we ask ourselves what primitive man—to use the phrase for what it is worth, not letting it betray us—can have observed: we must ask at the same time; what images can he have had before him to which he might liken the wonder of the sky and the might of the sea? Or rather, these are two phases of the same question by which we may realise the early systems, for in these things at least concepts were immediately linked with words, words which were descriptive comparisons.
The unknown universe could then only be explained in terms of its known parts; the earth, shut in by the night sky, must have been thought of as a living creature, a tree, a tent, a building; and these each form the world system to peoples now living. 'Given the data,' says Herbert Spencer, as known to him, the inference drawn by the primitive man is the reasonable inference.'
A tree with wide over-arching branches must have formed an apt and satisfactory explanation, for legends of a world tree are so widely distributed; we meet with them at the dawn of record, and they still strike their roots where wild in woods' the savage runs.
The Chaldean inscriptions describe such a tree as growing at the centre of the world; its branches of crystal formed the sky and drooped to the sea. The Phœnicians thought the world like a revolving tree, over which was spread a vast tapestry of blue embroidered with stars. Traces of this scheme linger late into times of culture, and would account for a story in 'Apollonios of Tyana' that the people of Sardis doubted if the trees were not created before the earth; an idea exactly parallel to the controversy in the Talmud, as to the priority in creation of the heavens or the earth; one side maintaining that the object was made first and then the pedestal; the other, that the foundation is laid before the building is erected.
All the East knew of such a tree; in Japan the gods broke their swords against it in vain; in Greece its memory seems long to have survived as the olive of the forest of Colonas.
In the Norse system a vast tree, the world-ash, rises in the centre of the earth, its branches forming the several heavens of the gods, its roots strike deep into hell, and there—
' . . . . . . A serpent evermore
Lies deep asleep at the world's dark core.'
Maori science still represents such a tree as rising to the heavens, 'that dark nocturnal canopy which like a forest spreads its shade,' its mighty growth first forced asunder Heaven and Earth. Such an idea is probably very uniform at a certain early stage of civilisation—'The fundamental conception of these myths,' says Lenormant, which never appear in perfection except under their oldest forms, represents the universe as an enormous tree.' Its trunk transfixes the earth, projecting upwards into heaven and below into the abyss, the heavens revolve on this axis, and may be reached by climbing the stem.
An extract from Dr Tylor's 'Early History of Mankind' will lead us to a later point of view. Man now surrounded by his own works sees in the universe a larger 'tent to dwell in,' a chamber, and ultimately a most elaborate structure, a conception which lasts long even in the direct line of descent of science. This idea it is children find so difficult to shake off—that there must be a brick wall somewhere circumscribing the universe, and we still recognise it in the phrase to 'make the welkin ring.'