Page images
PDF
EPUB

of my age; that extremity, of itself, being a disease, and a mere return into infancy: so that, if perpetuity of life might be given me, I should think what the Greek poet said: “ Such an age is a mortal evil.” And since I must needs be dead, I require it may not be done before mine enemies, that I be not stript before I be cold; but before my friends. The night is even now : but that name is lost; it is not now late, but early. Mine eyes begin to discharge their watch, and compound with this fleshly weakness for a time of perpetual rest; and I shall presently be as happy for a few hours, as I had died the first hour I was born.

THE

WISDOM OF THE ANCIENTS.

A SERIES OF MYTHOLOGICAL FABLES.

PREFACE. The earliest antiquity lies buried in silence and ob livion, excepting the remains we have of it in sacred writ. This silence was succeeded by poetical fables, and these, at length, by the writings we now enjoy; so that the concealed and secret learning of the ancients seems separated from the history and knowledge of the following ages by a veil, or partition-wall of fables, interposing between the things that are lost and those that remain.2

Many may imagine that I am here entering upon a work of fancy, or amusement, and design to use a poetical liberty, in explaining poetical fables. It is true, fables, in general, are composed of ductile matter, that may be drawn into great variety by a witty talent or an

I Most of these fables are contained in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Fasti, and are fully explained in Bohn's Classical Library translation.

2 Varro distributes the ages of the world into three periods; viz: the unknown, the fabulous, and the historical. Of the former, we have no accounts but in Scripture ; for the second, we must consult the ancient poets, such as Hesiod, Homer, or those who wrote still earlier, and then again come back to Ovid, who, in his Metamorphoses, seems, in imitation perhaps of some ancient Greek poet, to have intended a complete collection, or a kind of continued and connected history of the fabulous age, especially with regard to changes, revolutions, or transformainventive genius, and be delivered of plausible meanings which they never contained. But this procedure has already been carried to excess; and great numbers, to procure the sanction of antiquity to their own notions and inventions, have miserably wrested and abused the fables of the ancients.

Nor is this only a late or unfrequent practice, but of ancient date, and common even to this day. Thus Chrysippus, like an interpreter of dreams, attributed the opinions of the Stoics to the poets of old; and the chemists, at present, more childishly apply the poetical transformations to their experiments of the furnace. And though I have well weighed and considered all this, and thor. oughly seen into the levity which the mind indulges for allegories and allusions, yet I cannot but retain a high value for the ancient mythology. And, certainly, it were very injudicious to suffer the fondness and licentiousness of a few to detract from the honor of allegory and parable in general. This would be rash, and almost profane; for, since religion delights in such shadows and disguises, to abolish them were, in a manner, to prohibit all intercourse betwixt things divine and human.

Upon deliberate consideration, my judgment is, that a concealed instruction and allegory was originally intended in many of the ancient fables. This opinion may, in some respect, be owing to the veneration I have for antiquity, but more to observing that some fables discover a great and evident similitude, relation, and connection with the thing they signify, as well in the structure of the fable as in the propriety of the names whereby the persons or actors are characterized ; insomuch, that no one could positively deny a sense and meaning to be from the first intended, and purposely shadowed out in them. For who can hear that Fame, after the giants were destroyed, sprung up as their posthumous sister, and not apply it to the clamor of parties and the seditious rumors which commonly fly about for a time upon the quelling of insurrections? Or who can read how the giant Typhon cut out and carried away Jupiter's sinews — which Mercury afterwards stole, and again restored to Jupiter - and not presently observe that this allegory denotes strong and powerful rebellions, which cut away from kings their sinews, both of money and authority; and that the way to have them restored is by lenity, affability, and prudent edicts, which soon reconcile, and, as it were, steal upon the affections of the subject? Or who, upon hearing that memorable expedition of the gods against the giants, when the braying of Silenus's ass greatly contributed in putting the giants to flight, does not clearly conceive that this directly points at the monstrous enterprises of rebellious subjects, which are frequently frustrated and disappointed by vain fears and empty rumors ?

Again, the conformity and purport of the names is frequently manifest and self-evident. Thus Metis, the wife of Jupiter, plainly signifies counsel; Typhon, swelling; Pan, universality ; Nemesis, revenge, &c. Nor is it a wonder, if sometimes a piece of history or other things are introduced, by way of ornament; or, if the times of the action are confounded; or if part of one fable be tacked to another; or if the allegory be new turned; for all this must necessarily happen, as the fables were the inventions of men who lived in different ages, and had different views; some of them being ancient, others more modern; some having an eye to natural philosophy, and others to morality or civil policy:

It may pass for a further indication of a concealed and secret meaning, that some of these fables are so absurd and idle in their narration, as to show and proclaim an allegory, even afar off. A fable that carries probability with it may be supposed invented for pleasure, or in imitation of history; but those that could never be conceived or related in this way must surely have a different use. For example, what a monstrous fiction is this, that Jupiter should take Metis to wife, and as soon as he found her pregnant eat her up, whereby he also conceived, and out of his head brought forth Pallas armed. Certainly no mortal could, but for the sake of the moral it couches, invent such an absurd dream as this, so much out of the road of thought!

But the argument of most weight with me is this, that many of these fables by no means appear to have been

« PreviousContinue »