The Trustworthiness of Early Tradition

OF late years an immense amount of research has been directed to separating the historical from the traditional elements in the ancient story of the world. But hardly any corresponding attention has been given to the question how far tradition itself may have been really historical. It seems to have been taken for granted that written records or contemporary monuments are alone reliable, and that as soon as we attempt to go beyond these we enter a realm of unlimited exaggeration and romance, in which myth and fable, allegory and legend, must necessarily be all mingled together in such indistinguishable proportions as to be practically useless.

This impression of the essential untrustworthiness of tradition has arisen quite naturally. Tradition in our own times is a very loose and trivial thing. Everything which it is important to have accurately kept in mind is carefully committed to writing. All that is left to tradition is the small gossip of the neighborhood, and incidents not worth formally recording. Thus tradition has become a mere plaything. No wonder that those who judge only by its operation in times of written records do not think much of it as a means of enabling us really to penetrate into the past. This has been the general tone of later historians. Niebuhr, indeed, in his great Roman history, endeavored to make a distinct use of tradition; but, practically, he interpreted it by a sort of “ brilliant divination,” which for the time captivated the world, but could not permanently hold its ground. By and by came Sir George Cornewall Lewis, who cross-examined Niebuhr’s theories and deductions like an Old Bailey lawyer, and insisted that nothing must be admitted that could not be verified by some sort of contemporaneous record. From his day this rigid criticism has been generally accepted as the only “ historical method.”

Perhaps the most interesting application of this stricter method, at present, is that to the early Hebrew history. There has been of late a marked revival of interest in the Old Testament in its historical and literary aspects. In Holland, especially, a group of notable scholars, with Professor Kuenen at their head, have been almost reconstructing the story of ancient Israel, upon the basis of this very distinction between written records and oral tradition. They have investigated with singular care, learning, and fairness the question of the dates at which the various Hebrew books came into their present shape. Their verdict is that the very earliest of those books are some written in the prophetic era of the eighth century B. C. The eighth century, then, must be the starting point of Hebrew history. This is, in itself, quite a respectable antiquity, but still it does not bring us within five hundred years of Moses and the Exodus ; while as for Abraham, if there can now be supposed to have ever been such a person, he lies away back in the nebulous distances of a thousand years. All these accounts prior to the eighth century are mere tradition, and Kuenen’s whole treatment of them is distinctly based upon the principle that tradition in the ancient world was simply what it is to-day. Indeed, in order to show how absolutely

he regards this principle as the true one, he gives an illustration of its application to the Exodus: “On the most favorable supposition,” by his showing, “ a period of more than five centuries ” intervenes between the Exodus and the earliest written account of it. “ Yet,” he says, “ a century was a hundred years then, as it is now;” and to make his meaning more unmistakable, he himself presses a modern parallel : “ The oldest accounts of the Mosaic time were as far removed from Israel’s lawgiver as we Dutchmen are from the beginning of the Hoek and Kabeljauw quarrels. Suppose that we only knew of the latter by tradition, which had never been committed to writing up to this time: Should we have the boldness to trust ourselves to the historian who now wrote them for the first time, as a safe guide ? ” Further on he adds,1 “ Even before we have made acquaintance with the contents of the narratives, we take it for granted that they only give us half the truth, if even so much as that.” In reality, as those who have read this work know, he does not use them as “ half ” true, hardly as having more than the feeblest basis of truth. A canon which should ascribe half truth to them would preserve all the great historical and religious features of the ancient Hebrew traditions. But the point at issue is, not the exact proportion of truth with which such traditions may be credited, but the whole principle on which that proportion is to be estimated. I believe it can be shown that ancient tradition, instead of being about the same thing as modern, had hardly anything in common with it; that it was a sacred thing, usually most carefully guarded and transmitted; and, therefore, that it is not to be thrown aside as worthless unless supported by contemporary records, but rather to be regarded as itself a species of record, and classed among the recognized materials of history.

There is one great fact underlying the whole subject, which seems to have been almost entirely lost sight of : that tradition, before the times of writing, had a totally different part to play from anything required of it now. Now, as has been said, it is an accident, the mere fragmentary survival of things which have not been forgotten. Then, it was an instrument, a careful instrument for keeping in mind those things which needed to be remembered. Kuenen says, indeed, “ It is certain that the thirst for reality which is proper to our age was unknown to antiquity ” (vol i. p. 23). But is this so “ certain ” ? Some things have to be remembered among savage just as among civilized peoples, and remembered accurately. Among these necessary things are the forms of their religion, their laws, the boundaries and possessions of tribes and families, the names and deeds of their great men. Ancient tradition was not merely the only history; it was the only law, the only records of succession, the only titledeed of property. It may seem to us a rude instrument; but nothing is more remarkable than the way in which, when man has only a rude instrument, he often acquires such skill in its use that it comes to supply his need almost as well as the far finer appliances of civilization. For instance, it would be a great mistake to estimate what bows and arrows might accomplish in days when men had nothing better, by seeing what we can make of archery, now that all serious work is done by gunpowder and rifles, and bows and arrows are used only for playthings. So, again, we must not judge of what manuscript was, as a means of preserving and disseminating literature, by considering how helpless we should find ourselves if we were suddenly deprived of the printing-press, and had to fall back upon copying by hand, and that in the slipshod handwriting of the present day. It is just as complete a mistake to judge of what tradition might be in the old days, when it was men’s only instrument of record, by what it has become now that everything of serious import is perpetuated in deeds or print. Modern tradition is mere formless hearsay; ancient tradition was a shaped and formal communication. Modern tradition is “hearsay,” passed, without responsibility, from any one to any one else; ancient tradition was a formal communication, preserved, recited, handed on through chosen and responsible persons. Surely, then, ancient tradition must be credited with being carried down from age to age unchanged, and therefore reliable, to an extent of which we can form no idea from this casual hearsay of our modern days, which cannot pass through five narrators without being altered or exaggerated out of all recognition.

Proceeding now to consider the elements of tradition in detail, the first is the power of memory. Is memory capable of preserving through successive generations the facts of history, or whatever else peoples are continuously interested in knowing? At first one is apt to say “No,” remembering how seldom two people can agree in their recollection of even the briefest saying or commonest occurrence. But look into the matter. Note how the power of memory differs in different people, and how it may be cultivated, and especially how it strengthens when systematically depended on, while when little is left to it, it weakens. It is a small fact, but not without significance, that among the first things which children are set to fix in their memories, apart from any idea of sacredness, are long series of historical names, dates, and events, — English kings, American colonists and presidents, — far exceeding in difficulty those Israelitish histories which Kuenen thinks cannot be trusted because only preserved by memory. This shows that it is less a question of the power of memory than of how far memory is looked on as sacred, and guarded so as to hand on its contents unimpaired. As for evidence of the power of memory, what better can we desire than the well-known fact of the transmission of the Iliad, with its 15,677 lines, for generations, perhaps for centuries, before it was even written ? Yet even that is a mere trifle compared with the transmission of the Vedas. The Rig-Veda, with its 1017 hymns, is about four times the length of the Iliad. That is only a part of the ancient Vedic literature, and the whole was composed, and fixed, and handed down by memory, — only, as Max Müller says, by “ memory kept under the strictest discipline.” There is still a class of priests in India who have to know by heart the whole of the Rig-Veda. And there is this curious corroboration of the fidelity with which this memorizing has been carried on and handed down: that they have kept on transmitting in the ancient literal form laws prohibiting practices that have nevertheless become established. Suttee is now found to be condemned by the Vedas themselves. This was first pointed out by their European students, but has since been admitted by the native Sanskrit scholars. Nothing could show more clearly the faithfulness of the traditional memory and transmission. It has, too, this further bearing on the date of the so-called Mosaic legislation : it shows that the fact of customs existing in a country for ages unchallenged does not prove that laws condemning such customs must necessarily be of later origin. But there is more that is instructive in the transmission of this Vedic literature. There has been writing in India for twenty-five hundred years now, yet the custodians of the Vedic traditions have never trusted to it. They trust, for the perfect perpetuation and transmission of the sacred books, to disciplined memory. They have manuscripts, they have even a printed text, but, says Max Müller,2 “ they do not learn their sacred lore from them. They learn it, as their ancestors learnt it thousands of years ago, from the lips of a teacher, so that the Vedic succession should never be broken.” For eight years in their youth they are entirely occupied in learning this. “ They learn a few lines every day, repeat them for hours, so that the whole house resounds with the noise ; and they thus strengthen their memory to that degree that, when their apprenticeship is finished, you can open them like a book, and find any passage you like, any word, any accent.” And Max Müller shows, from rules given in the Vedas themselves, that this oral teaching of them was carried on, exactly as now, at least as early as 500 B. C.

Very much the same was it with those Rabbinical schools amid which the Talmud gradually grew up. All of that vast literature, exceeding many times in bulk Homer and the Vedas and the Bible all together, was, at any rate until its later periods, the growth of oral tradition. It was prose tradition, too, which is the hardest to remember, and yet it was carried down century after century in the memory ; and long after it had been all committed to writing, the old memorizing continued in the schools. Indeed, it has not entirely ceased even now, for my friend Dr. Gottheil, of New York, tells me that he has had in his study a man who thus knows the entire Talmud by heart, and can take it up at any word that is given him, and go on repeating it syllable by syllable, with absolute correctness.

In presence of such facts, surely we must be prepared to revise our ideas of what memory is capable of, derived from the very limited uses for which we usually depend upon it now. Such facts show that memory, consolidated into tradition, is perfectly competent at least to act as an accurate instrument for transmitting along many generations whatever men are very anxious to have remembered. It is simply a question of being anxious, and of taking special care.

Here, then, we come to the second point, — care in transmission. We have to inquire whether, in ages and peoples that have had to depend on tradition for their history, we find any general anxiety and care to hand down their traditions, such as should lead us to ascribe more trustworthiness to them than has heretofore been usual.

At once we are met by one sure token of such care, in the fact that the depositaries of tradition were almost always a distinct and responsible class, carefully trained for that very function and peculiarly honored. The bards and minstrels always ranked high in the ancient world. The British bards were prepared by many years of discipline, and even as late as the ninth century, when the importance of the bardic traditions was lessening, the bard was still eighth in the king’s household. We are apt to think of these bards as mere singers of religious myths or heroic deeds, such as might naturally tend to exaggeration. But they were much more than this. Just as in India the Vedic traditions included not only hymns but the laws of Manu in twelve books, so in Ireland the ancient body of jurisprudence known as the Brehon laws had been handed down through the bards from immemorial generations before it was written down in the old monastic parchments. Indeed, the various methods adopted by peoples to keep up a permanent remembrance of things which they needed to perpetuate would form one of the most interesting side-studies of sociology. Even in the present day there still lingers in some parts of England one of those curious survivals which tell of the care anciently bestowed to keep up exact traditions of matters important to be accurately known, — I mean the custom of “ beating the boundaries.” In the old times when the towns were slowly buying or winning their freedom from baron or abbot, it was a matter of extreme importance to know and to be able to prove the boundaries of their townships or “ liberties.” There was writing, but they distrusted it. Writing was to the uneducated an unsafe thing, open to fraud, liable to be tampered with ; far less safe, they thought, than the honest memory of common men. So year by year the boys of each town were taken round, in solemn procession, exactly along the ancient bounds. Each landmark was scored into them, as it were. At one place they were whipped ; where the line crossed a stream they were ducked; at some other important point cakes and ale were doled out; anything to fix the places indelibly in the young minds, so that even sixty or seventy years afterwards, if need should arise, they might be able to give evidence. Such instances of distrust of writing, and trust in carefully disciplined memory, might be multiplied indefinitely. They may be small matters, but they all tend to enhance our estimate of early tradition ; to show how it was used distinctly as an instrument of record, and to strengthen our trust in it as one of the substantial materials of history.

Still this only amounts to an argument as to what is likely to have been. We must try to get further back, to some sort of real evidence. Here, of course, we are met by the difficulty that, by the very nature of the case, traditions prior to written history are not susceptible of exact verification. There is, however, a sort of approximate verification possible, through the researches of archæology. I may compare these archæological diggings into the remains of ancient times to a sort of deep-sea soundings. We cannot minutely examine the ancient times, any more than we can the ocean beds ; but, like the deep-sea lines of the Challenger expedition, the researches of Layard and Rawlinson in son and Mariette and Schliemann take us down, as it were, here and there, into the depths of antiquity, and yield a general evidence as to whether the things and people and doings of the old world were about like what the traditions tell.

Now I think that no one who has carefully watched the course of archæological investigation during the past thirty years can have failed to note the way in which almost every step among the uncovered relics of the past has afforded unexpected confirmation of its traditions and stories, and tended to prove that they have more truth in them — not less — than used to be supposed.

Herodotus was formerly regarded as a credulous old gossip, who took in every kind of hearsay and tradition, and handed it on without the least regard to truth. Gibbon sneers at him as having written, apparently, sometimes for philosophers and sometimes for children. Yet every day’s progress in the knowledge of the ancient world shows that many of his stories, once passed by as mere hearsay marvels, were really based upon fact; and that sometimes, even in their very details, he was surprisingly near the truth. His description of ancient lake dwellings ; his accounts of some of the tribes whom ancient travelers had met with in Africa, such as the tribe who have no intercourse with traders directly, but only through the exchange of goods left in some neutral place, and the “ people of dwarfish stature,” dwelling by the side of a great river, whom the five Nassamonians found after many days’ journey westward from Libya across the desert, — these are fairly borne out by the discoveries of modern explorers. More curious yet is the corroboration of his mention of the Egyptian garrison at Syene deserting and flying to Ethiopia, and of the Greek auxiliaries of King Psammitichus being sent to bring them back. This used to be treated as one of the improbable stories palmed off on him. But now, far up above Syene, in Nubia, in the temple of Ibsamboul, on the leg of one of the colossal statues, there has been found an inscription, in archaic Greek characters, carved by those mercenaries on their return from the fruitless expedition, and with the names of two of them, Damearchon and Pelephus. Quite recently, the London Academy contained a communication from Mr. George Dennis confirmatory of another discredited statement of Herodotus about the ancient water-works at Samos. The old historian says that through a mountain one hundred and fifty fathoms high the Samians had cut a tunnel seven stadia long and eight feet high by as many wide; and he describes how “by the side of this there is also an artificial canal, which in like manner goes quite through the mountain, and though only three feet in breadth is twenty cubits [thirty feet] deep. This, by means of pipes, conveys to the city the waters of a copious spring.” It seemed so unlikely that there should be two separate parallel channels that it was supposed the whole account was an exaggeration, based upon some sort of an aqueduct; and some caverns with marks of excavation at their opening were supposed to be all the foundation for the tunnel story. A few months ago, however, a Samian priest, in unearthing some stone slabs on the hillside, came upon the entrance of a tunnel, and exploring it found that it is 1270 metres in length, — only thirty yards off the “ seven stadia ” of the historian, — and just eight feet high by as many wide. And, running the whole length, along the middle of the tunnel roadway is just such a deep, narrow channel, barely three feet wide and nearly thirty feet deep, almost exactly as Herodotus had stated. The only difference is that he, evidently writing from hearsay, represented this channel as having been cut by the side of the tunnel, whereas it was really sunk along the centre of it.

We have another very interesting confirmation of ancient tradition — not of its minute historical accuracy, but of its fairly preserving the broad lines of ancient life and doings — in Dr. Schliemann’s researches and discoveries. I know that it cannot be proved that any one of the buried cities, of which he found the ruins in successive strata at Hissarlik, was actually called Troy, and was the scene of the exact events described in the Iliad. So, also, there are grave disagreements among scholars, with a preponderance of leaning, I imagine, to the negative, as to whether those curious tombs at Mycenæ (of which all traces had been utterly lost, though tradition had clearly preserved the fact of their having existed) can be regarded as actually the tombs of Agamemnon and his companions. Yet these discoveries have entirely verified the ancient traditions of such a city having been on that mound at Hissarlik, and of such tombs having been at Mycenæ, even if the still earlier traditions, connecting them with specific names and persons, were only poetic fancies. So, even at the lowest estimate, these discoveries have given a new interest to the Homeric poems, and a new confidence that they were not mere retrospective myth-painting upon an unknown past, but the real, even if idealized, traditions of the actual heroes and struggles of the earlier world.

I know there is something to be said upon the other side of all this, namely, that a great many traditions, some even of a quite probable kind and deeply rooted, — such as that of William Tell, — have been rendered very doubtful, or even disproved, by the progress of historical research. True; but here is the curious thing, actually in the very line of my argument: almost every instance of a tradition thus exploded or discredited has been of some tradition that has grown up within the period of writing, and that refers to comparatively modern events. In fact, historical research has acted about equally in these two opposite directions, — in proving that tradition prior to written history has more in it, and tradition subsequent to written history less than used formerly to be supposed. Both these results alike bring out into stronger relief what a much more sacred and guarded thing tradition was in that earlier world, in which it was all that peoples had to depend upon.

We are not left, however, to these traces of what tradition was in the earlier world. We are able to see what it actually is to-day, and how it is regarded and cared for among peoples still in the half-savage, what we may call prehistoric, stage. Every advance into the confidence whether of Indian tribes, or of African races, or of the Polynesian peoples, shows that they have, preserved among their wise men and regarded as a peculiarly sacred trust, historical traditions reaching back to an antiquity which a few years ago would have been considered incredible. In Stanley’s hurried journey “through the Dark Continent,” it was only at two places that he remained long enough to win the confidence of the people. But in those places see what he found ! At Ukerewé, on Lake Nyanza, they gave him the names of the fourteen ancestors of the present king, tracing back the line to a founder who brought his people in canoes from another part of that great inland sea. In the great kingdom of Uganda he stayed a long time, and obtained not only the names of their kings through thirty-five generations (that is, nearly one thousand years !), but also the traditions of their history. How do we know that these are not all imaginary ? By this: imagination, in evolving past heroes, can hardly move otherwise than along the lines of present ideas of heroism. So that it is very striking to find those thirty-five generations, beginning with the mild, humane founder, Kintu, — one who taught his people agriculture, gave them laws of mercy, forbade bloodshed, and finally disappeared, leaving ever after imbedded in the popular heart the belief that he would some day reappear, — an utter contrast to all the ideals and character of Uganda.

But perhaps some of the most surprising illustrations of the care of ancient peoples for their traditions, and of their value as trustworthy memorials of history, are to be found in a quarter which has hitherto been little studied. When Captain Cook, a hundred years ago, discovered the Sandwich Islands, with their population of tattooed cannibals, in the flint stage of evolution, and without writing or records, it seemed little likely that they would be able to contribute much to the philosophy of history. And yet, as I have been studying recently some of the few works which have been published about these islanders, they have seemed to me peculiarly valuable in their relation to this special subject of tradition. For, as Europeans have gradually won their confidence, it is found that, though entirely without writing, they have genealogies and traditions reaching back in orderly succession for many centuries.

The Rev. William Ellis, many years ago, remarked at Tahiti the marvelous care with which the people preserved their genealogies, — mentioning some reaching back a hundred generations, of which he thought thirty might be regarded as accurate and reliable. He had judged this from an independent investigation of them ; but it is rendered more likely by the study of similar genealogies in Hawaii, another group of the same Polynesian Archipelago, by Hr. Abraham Fornander.3 This writer is a gentleman who has lived for thirtyfour years in the Hawaiian Islands, for nineteen years has held various high offices under the government, knows almost every inhabitant of the group, and has for many years been studying their history and traditions, and comparing them with independent researches carried on in other and distant groups scattered over the wide Pacific.

I can only glance at the evidence Mr. Fornander gives of the existence among the Hawaiians of carefully preserved genealogies and accompanying traditions. Thus the line of the present King Kalakaua is carried back through forty-three generations of traceable chiefs ; then come about fifty more, reaching back to the supposed first man, in which earlier series the names of gods occurring give warning of a mythological element having come in. Those forty-three later generations do not stand for mere links in an impersonal chain of successions. Even in the first fifteen of these, which are the nearest to mere names, certain variations from the male to the female line in the succession are noted, and with some of the names a few venerated altars and very primitive stone buildings are associated. But after these first fifteen, say twentyeight generations ago, begins in the traditions a time of great stir and enterprise, — heroes, kings, and priests, warlike adventures, and long voyages to distant lands. It seems to have been a period, for several generations, of remarkable migrations and intercommunications going on between the different Polynesian groups, which are separated, it must be remembered, by thousands of miles, and when discovered had no knowledge of each other. And this is curiously corroborated by the genealogies and traditions of the other groups. Alike in the Tahiti group, in the Raratongas, in the Marquesas, and in the Gambier Islands, none of them nearer to each other than about one thousand miles, and all from two thousand to three thousand miles from Hawaii, — in each of these, the latest twenty-five or thirty generations run quite distinctly from each other up to some founder, in each case, whom they venerate as having first come over the sea; while back of these later twenty-five or thirty generations, the traditions and genealogies become partially mixed names and legends from one group appearing in the others. Thus for thirteen generations back of this migratory epoch the genealogies of Hawaii and the Marquesas give the same names, all but one, and in the same order ; and even in New Zealand, nearly five thousand miles away, the traditions show four generations of chiefs and their wives, in which seven out of the eight names are plainly identical with those of four chiefs and their wives in ancient Hawaii. It is in this period anterior to the great migrations that the chief difficulties occur in the Hawaiian genealogies, and Mr. Fornander believes the explanation to be — and it seems likely — that the great Hawaiian chiefs of that roving period adopted into their genealogies some of the great names which they found especially celebrated among their distant kinsfolk. But even if we simply take the last twenty-eight generations of distinctly historic chiefs, we have a pretty clear history for eight hundred years, and that is quite sufficient to illustrate the argument for the large reliability of tradition when at all carefully handed down. Because, for these eight centuries the names are evidently historic. Elements of mythology and miracle, of witchcraft and sorcery, still come in, indeed, but as a whole it is a recognizable human history. It tells of famous warriors and famous prophetesses. It notes their marriages, their children, and their deaths. It narrates wars for love and wars for the succession ; and all through it links itself naturally in, here and there, with the great works, institutions, changes, which form the usual landmarks of a people’s life. It tells how one great temple was originally built, thirty generations back, by a certain high priest, who was more powerful than his king; and how they passed the stones for it, hand to hand, from the quarry, nine miles away. It tells how the son of a famous king, twenty-seven generations ago, cut — it actually appears to be a natural passage artificially deepened — the channel by which the great estuary of Pearl River is still navigable. It tells how, twentythree generations ago, the son of another king established the great order of Hawaiian nobility, which to this day regulates the titles and precedence of the chiefs with the authority and precision of a herald’s college. It tells when the road over the great mountains was paved, a stupendous work, of which traces still remain. Later on, it tells how, twelve generations ago, arrived a vessel, which was wrecked in the surf, and from which the commander and his sister, white people, swam ashore, prostrating themselves upon the beach, and afterwards living and marrying among the natives. Here is a point at which it is possible to take soundings into contemporary European records ; for twelve generations ago, which would be somewhere about A. D. 1520, the vessels that would be afloat on the Pacific Ocean and liable to be wrecked there could almost be counted on the fingers. Mr. Fornander has found in Burney’s Discoveries in the South Sea that on October 31, 1527, three vessels — names and numbers of the crews all given — left a little port in New Spain for the Moluccas, a course which would take them a few degrees south of Hawaii. Only one of these ships ever turned up, and it brought word that when they had sailed about one thousand leagues a great storm arose and they parted company. “ One thousand leagues ” upon that course would leave those two ships, never afterwards heard of, within a couple of hundred miles of Hawaii, — a curious coincidence, if nothing more, but at any rate good to show that there is no improbability in their tradition.

These traditions in Hawaii, as in the other groups, are preserved in monotonous chants, which remind one most of all of Hiawatha, by the way in which the memory is helped by the frequent duplication of part of one line in the next. Of these chants there are great numbers, some of them many hundreds of lines in length ; many bearing marks, in their rude archaic forms of speech, of great antiquity; and all of them chanted to-day, just as they have been, certainly for generations, possibly for centuries. At first these were guarded with the utmost jealousy; indeed, all over the Polynesian groups they are regarded as peculiarly sacred, are made known only to foreigners who have won their entire confidence, and even to them have been given to be written down only with misgiving and trembling.

One link more is needed. How about the formation of such traditions ? We are able to obtain a glimpse even of this. Mariner, in his account of the natives of the Tonga Islands, tells how, when he had resided among them long enough to understand their language, he found that they had songs about various events in their history. These were chanted by a special class of singers, and he describes how when one of these, who was the most famous, had composed a new chant he taught it carefully, line by line, with constant repetition, to a company of his singer-scholars, until it was finally fixed in their memory in the form in which it would ever afterwards be sung and handed down. He heard such a song chanted describing Captain Cook’s visit, some forty years before, and except for a little exaggeration it was tolerably correct in its account. Here we see such tradition in its actual formation ; for this chant had already passed into that permanent shape in which, like the Iliad, it would probably be perpetuated indefinitely. A different race these from the ancient Brahmins, and a different kind of tradition from the Vedas ; yet how alike the care taken for their transmission — this teaching to selected pupils, line by line, repeated over and over again, until indelibly fastened on the mind — to that which the Vedas prescribed five centuries before the Christian era, and which Max Müller tells us is still practiced to-day !

What, in conclusion, is the practical point to which we are led by these various lines of indication? For this is what they are, — lines of indication and suggestion, not of any absolute proof. Some things, indeed, they prove. They prove that memory disciplined and systematized is perfectly capable of carrying and handing down traditions of any length and any minuteness of successive names and details. They show what has in different ages and countries been done in this way; and so they demonstrate, at least, how utterly absurd it is to lay down any a priori canon of narratives being untrustworthy because merely tradition. What has been adduced surely tends to show that tradition in the ancient world was not in general lightly regarded ; was looked on as a sacred thing; was protected by solemnities and cautions which have no analogy whatever in the looseness of modern hearsay and repetition, and so, in fact, was not the mere accidental residuum of what had not been forgotten, but was worked up into a distinct system of recording and transmitting what needed to be remembered.

Tradition was not, of course, such a sacred and guarded thing among all peoples, nor to the same degree in all ages even of the same people. Traditions often bear on their very face the characteristics of exaggeration and elements of miracle which cannot be received as sober history. But so, likewise, do many historical records and monuments. Rameses and Sheshonk are sculptured in the Egyptian bas-reliefs as giants among pigmies, and sometimes figures of the gods are at hand directing or shielding them; yet no one proposes, on this account, to treat these monuments as historically valueless. The same tendency has doubtless just as naturally magnified and surrounded with elements of legendary marvel the heroes of the bardic songs, the Homeric poems, and the Hawaiian chants. Possibly the perplexing longevity of the patriarchs may have been simply the Hebrew analogue for the gigantic stature of the sculptured Pharaohs. But these exaggerations are usually in each case easily discerned and easily allowed for, and ought not in themselves to discredit the historical value of the traditions any more than of the monuments. Travelers say that the Arab who will lie all day long about the qualities or achievements of his horse would fear a curse if he should falsify its pedigree. Thus, while in some directions ancient traditions may often have been magnifying myths, at the basis of all, the peoples of the older world wanted reality, the facts of their past, just as much as we do.

So, out of all the scattered lights which we can gather on the subject, a few helpful principles of criticism for the practical use of tradition suggest themselves, besides the general conviction that it must be more trustworthy than it has been usually regarded. For one thing, it seems a fair canon of elucidation that tradition is most trustworthy among those peoples whom we can discern to have been specially careful in cherishing and transmitting it. This, again : that it may be credited with having best retained that class of facts of the far past about which a people have throughout their history shown themselves most solicitous. A third rule will, I think, commend itself : that traditions which have been handed down in stereotyped forms of words are of especial value. Moreover, from the general qualities of human nature, I think these supplementary distinctions will approve themselves, that the things which most impress themselves on a people’s memory, and are likely to perpetuate themselves in their traditions, are such as these: the great events which have changed their country, their religion, or their modes of life, and the great personalities and places associated with such events; while, on the other hand, mere numbers will be the weakest point; and as for dates, it is probably with the strata of tradition as with the strata of the earth, that — to apply a principle once given to me by Professor Boyd Dawkins — tradition, like geology, “ knows nothing of dates, but only of successions.”

These are, however, only hints,— suggestions of what may possibly be the available working principles by which to apply in historical investigations the fundamental thought of the trustworthiness of early tradition. But even apart from such more exact applications of it, it is a helpful thought. If there is anything in these facts which I have collected, they mean at least this : that we may take up again the discarded traditions of the old heroic ages and of the world’s morning time with far more confidence than has been usual of late years. Homer will be read with a new interest, and Herodotus, and — best of all — the old-world histories in the Bible. I know they will not give us detailed narratives, by which this or that point can be proved, or names and dates to be learned off as school-boy tasks. But they will give us glimpses of the ancient days; pictures, here and there, of such men and women as loved and fought in those old buried cities of Hissarlik, or meditated by the Ganges, or wandered from Chaldea with Abraham, or followed Moses out of the mighty empire of Egypt into those wild solitudes of Sinai; — pictures of life ; landmarks of great deeds, and thoughts, and worships, and laws ; a dawn to history, not of abstract theories, or dazzling, unreal sun myths, but of real peoples and real men.

Brooke Herford.

  1. The Religion of Israel, by Dr. A. Kuenen, vol. i. pp. 17, 18. The edition of the Theological Translation Fund Library, Williams & Norgate.
  2. Origin and Growth of Religion, Scribner’s edition, page 151.
  3. An Account of the Polynesian Race: Its Origin and Migrations, and the Ancient History of the Hawaiian People to the time of Kalakaua I. By Abraham Fornander, Circuit Judge of the Island of Maui, H. I., Knight, Companion of the Royal Order of Katakaua.