USKIN, who reads myth allegorically, considers it a special form of the Symbolical Grotesque which can veil "a theory of the universe under the grotesque of a fairy tale"(19.297). [Secondary materials discussing Ruskin and mythology] Like other forms of the Symbolical Grotesque, a myth indicates the presence of deeper meanings by an enigmatic literal or narrative level. According to The Queen of the Air (1869), "A myth, in its simplest definition, is a story with a meaning attached to it, other than it seems to have at first; and the fact that it has such a meaning is generally marked by some of its circumstances being extraordinary, or, in the common use of the word, unnatural"(19.296). Ruskin further explains that if he informed his reader "Hercules killed a water-serpent in the lake of Lerna, and all if I mean, and you understand, nothing more than that fact, the story, whether true or false, is not a myth" (19.296). If, however, he intends this story of Hercules's victory to indicate that the hero "purified the stagnation of many streams from deadly miasmata, my story, however simple, is a true myth" (19.296). But since no audience would pause to consider with care such a simple tale, it becomes necessary, says Ruskin, "to surprise your attention by adding some singular circumstance. . . . And in proportion to the fulness of intended meaning I shall probably multiply and refine upon these improbabilities" (19.296). In other words, Ruskin has here applied to myth the points he made about the Symbolical Grotesque some thirteen years earlier; for myth, like Spenserian allegory, communicates "truths which nothing else could convey" (5.133) with a combination of delight and awe "which belongs to the effort of the mind to unweave the riddle, or to the sense it has of there being an infinite power and meaning in the thing seen, beyond all that is apparent therein" (5.133).
Ruskin, who was characteristically eclectic in formulating his theories of mythology, had encountered the notion of myth as enigmatic allegory in several authors he knew well. For example, Francis Bacon argued in The Wisdom of the Ancients, a work Ruskin cites (17.208, 212), that a valuable sign "these fables contain a hidden and involved meaning" is "that some of them are so absurd and stupid on the face of the narrative taken by itself, that they may be said to give notice from afar and cry that there is a parable below. For a fable that is probable may be thought to have been composed merely for pleasure, in imitation of history. But when a story is told which could never have entered any man's head either to conceive or relate on its own account, we must presume that it had some further reach" (Works, eds. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, Boston, 1860, XIII, 78). Bacon, of course, and Ruskin after him, here applies to pagan myth the same argument that St. Augustine and nineteenth-century clergy applied to difficult passages in the Bible, namely, that where the passage states something immoral, incongruous, or in any other way unsuitable, an allegorization becomes necessary.
Bacon further explains that the enigmas of myth had been anciently employed "as a method of teaching, whereby inventions that are new and abstruse and remote from vulgar opinions may find an easier passage to the understanding. On this account it was that in the old times, when the inventions and conclusions of human reason . . . were as yet new and strange, the world was full of all kinds of fables, and enigmas, and parables, and similitudes"(80). Richard Payne Knight, whose Symbolical Language of Ancient Art Ruskin also cites (19.381n), similarly commented that "it seems to have been a very generally received opinion, among the more discreet Heathens, that divine truth was better adapted to the weakness of human intellect, when vailed [sic] under symbols, and wrapped in fable and enigma, than when exhibited in the plain and undisguised simplicity of genuine wisdom or pure philosophy" (NY, 1879, 6). This same emphasis upon the value of enigma to convey ideas effectively occurs in a third likely source of Ruskin's ideas of mythology — the notes to Pope's translation of Homer. In a letter to Norton, of which the editors of the Library Edition include a line or two as a note to The Queen of the Air, Ruskin confided to his friend: "Of course these stories are all first fixed in my mind by my boy's reading of Pope" (19.312n), and it is quite likely that he had early encountered those allegorical interpretations which appear frequently in the notes. One of these notes, for example, explains that Homer learned allegory from the Egyptians:
Our author, like most of the Greeks, is thought to have travelled into Egypt, and brought from the priests there, not only their learning, but their manner of conveying it in fables and hieroglyphics.... For whoever reflects that this was the mode of learning in those times, will make no doubt but there are several mysteries both of natural and moral philosophy involved in the Iliad, which otherwise in the literal meaning appear too trivial or irrational; and it is but just, when these are not plain or immediately intelligible, to imagine that something of this kind may be hid under them. (book>The Whole Works of Homer, trans. Alexander Pope, ed. William Melmoth (London, n.d.), p. 102n)
The Yale Mss. of Ruskin's juvenilia, interestingly enough, show that Ruskin had encountered this explanation of Greek mythology as derived from Egypt in the Sermons of Reverend Andrews. One rather hard-to-decipher passage reads: "If we notice the character of the Gods of Egypt it [could] assist us. Greece was colonized from Egypt, that is colon[ists] from Egypt settled in Greece and we must regard the mythology of Greece to that of Egypt, and the stream being so foul [full?] what must the fountain have been [?]"
The notes to Homer, which make the usual remarks that one should look further than the literal sense when it appears "too trivial or irrational," stress the notion that myth contains arcane truths, veiling them from the eyes of the vulgar and uninitiated. Ruskin, however, espouses another view, that enigma conveys truths most effectively to the limited understandings of men. Ruskin had met this notion of myth as hieroglyphic both in Knight and Bacon. The author of The Wisdom of the Ancients commented, for example, that "Parables have been used in two ways, and (which is strange) for, contrary purposes. For they serve to disguise and veil the meaning, and they serve also to clear and throw light upon it" (Works, Xlll, 79). In Symbolical Language of Ancient Art, Knight, who cited Demetrius to the effect that "Mysteries are expressed in allegories, for the purpose of inciting confusion of mind and terror," also believed that "many of the gross fictions which exercised the credulity of the vulgar heathens, sprang from abstruse philosophy conveyed in figurative and mysterious expressions" (5, 25). Although Ruskin, as we shall observe, occasionally used the term "hieroglyph" as a synonym for "myth," he does not present this theory that the creators of myth employed it to protect truth from the vulgar. Indeed, his entire emphasis falls rather upon the opposite point, that myth reveals the mysteries of nature and of morals.
Fors, however, once mentions the way enigma and parable conceal as well as illuminate: "All the teaching of God, and of the nature He formed round Man, is not only mysterious, but, if received with any warp of mind, deceptive, and intentionally deceptive. The distinct and repeated assertions of this in the words of Christ are the most wonderful things, it seems to me, and the most terrible, in all the recorded action of the wisdom of Heaven. 'To you' (His disciples) 'it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom, — but to others, in parables, that, hearing, they might not understand'" (28.319-320).
Ruskin further believes that myth, like other forms of the Symbolical Grotesque, arises in an act of the prophetic imagination. In The Queen of the Air Ruskin thus explains that "all the greatest myths have been seen, by the men who tell them, involuntarily and passively — seen by them with as great distinctness (and in some respects, though not in all, under conditions as far beyond the control of their will) as a dream sent to any of us by night when we dream clearest" (19.309). Myth, then, resembles not only the vision of Dante and Spenser but also, as he emphasizes in The Ethics of the Dust, "the visions spoken of in the Bible" (18.351) as well. In other words, Ruskin's studies of mythology, which increasingly occupy his time after he lost his Evangelical faith, provide another example of the manner in which he transferred ideas originally derived from Evangelicalism to art and to the study of cultural history. As he became convinced that the Evangelicals could not possibly possess the only sources of religious and moral truth, he turned increasingly to other repositories of vital truth, among which mythology was one of the most important. The degree to which Ruskin believes ancient mythology similar to biblical parable and prophecy appears in his statement that myth "is founded on constant laws common to all human nature; that it perceives, however darkly, things which are for all ages true . . .; — and that its fulness is developed and manifested more and more by the reverberation of it from minds of the same mirror-temper, in succeeding ages" (19.310). Myth, somewhat like the typological evidences of Christ and His Gospel, gradually becomes meaningful as individual after individual contributes to the final vision of truth.
Ruskin's commitment to mythology, one might say, is the extreme form of his protestant temper; for as an individual worshipper he no longer depends solely on his own experience and his own reading of the Bible, but now finds religious truth, which has appeared in many diverse forms, wherever he can. Ruskin's interest in mythology was by no means purely antiquarian: believing myth a repository of divine and human truth, he turned to it as a partial replacement for his now vanished faith, and, not surprisingly, he found many of the same ideas in the fables of the ancient Greeks as he had in his Bible. His loss of religion accounts therefore both for the seriousness with which he devotes himself to the study of mythology and for the many pleas for tolerance he makes in its behalf. Carlyle had argued in Heroes and Hero-Worship, that "We shall begin to have a chance of understanding Paganism, when we first admit that to its followers it was, at one time, earnestly true" (Works, V, 5), but Ruskin, in many ways his disciple, goes even further, holding that indeed myth remains true. Both Ruskin and Carlyle, of course, are reacting against the venerable Christian tradition, arising in the earliest days of the Church, which held that myth arose in corrupt pagan religions (See Seznec, Survival of the Pagan Gods, 11-20).
He had encountered other oppositions to this view in the work of Knight, who pointed out, for instance, that "complications and a forced literal construction of the mythological fables, were adroitly but most ungenerously seized upon by the adversaries of the popular worship to show the debasing influence of the ancient religions.... The interpretation of Euhemerus which transformed the Gods into men, that of Tertullian which gave them substantial existence as evil demons, and the gross sentiment of Epicurus and Lucretius, which made the myths only frivolous fables invented to amuse, having no specific aim or meaning, were so many forms of calumny and misrepresentation" (Symbolical Language of Ancient Art, xv). Ruskin, who usually did not have a very high regard for Knight, certainly agreed with him here, for he frequently defends ancient mythology against similar charges. In The Art of England (1883), for example, he scorned the "supercilious theory" that "mythology is a temporary form of human folly," going so far as to make the extreme "counter statement, that the thoughts of all the greatest and wisest men hitherto, since the world was made, have been expressed through mythology"(33.294).
Similarly, The Queen of the Air pleads with its audience to grant the Greek myths of Athena a fair hearing: "We cannot justly interpret the religion of any people, unless we are prepared to admit that we ourselves, as well as they, are liable to error in matters of faith; and that the convictions of others, however singular, may in some points have been well founded, while our own, however reasonable, may in some particulars be mistaken" (19.295). This gentle plea for tolerance reminds one how far Ruskin had traveled from his anti-Catholic rants in The Seven Lamps of Architecture. He more explicitly states his belief that God can give truth to all, Christian and pagan alike, in The Ethics of the Dust, which, after mentioning visions of death in the Old and New Testaments, inquires: "Is there anything impious in the thought that the same agency might have been expressed to a Greek king, or a Greek seer, by similar visions?"(18.350) A zealous sectarian, and certainly Ruskin himself in earlier years, might well have replied, "Yes, such a thought is impious, since God reveals himself only in the Bible and then only to the true believer." But once Ruskin lost his initial belief and accepted the idea that God comes differently to each man and each age, he willingly accepts moral and spiritual truths wherever he finds them.
Moreover, when he lost his Evangelical religion, he not only began to regard mythology, like the Bible, as a source of spiritual and ethical truth, but also interpreted it, like the Bible, in terms of multiple meanings. For example, in the last volume of Modern Painters when he is discussing Turner's Garden of the Hesperides Ruskin explains: "The fable of the Hesperides had, it seems to me, in the Greek mind two distinct meanings; the first referring to natural phenomena, and the second to moral"(7.392). Quoting at length from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, he concludes that the
nymphs of the west, or Hesperides, are . . . natural types, the representatives of the soft western winds and sunshine, which were in this district most favourable to vegetation. In this sense they are called daughters of Atlas and Hesperis, the western winds being cooled by the snow of Atlas. The dragon, on the contrary, is the representative of the Sahara wind, or Simoom, which blew over the garden from above the hills on the south, and forbade all advance of cultivation beyond their ridge.... But, both in the Greek mind and in Turner's, this natural meaning of the legend was a completely subordinate one. The moral significance of it lay far deeper" (7.392-393).
Explaining that in this second sense the Hesperides are connected not "with the winds of the west, but with its splendour"(7.393), he draws upon Hesiod to demonstrate that they represent those moral forces and attitudes which produce "household peace and plenty"(7.396).
Ruskin again expounded this notion of myth as polysemous allegory nine years later in The Queen of the Air, explaining that "in nearly every myth of importance . . . you have to discern these three structural parts — the root and the two branches: — the root, in physical existence, sun, or sky, or cloud, or sea; then the personal incarnation of that; . . . and, lastly, the moral significance of the image, which is in all the great myths eternally and beneficently true" (19.300). In addition to these literal, physical, and moral senses of myth, he also believes that many myths have a long lost historical meaning or reference as well; but these last meanings, less important than the moral or physical, he willingly relinquishes to "the masters of history" (19.299). The same theory of mythology, which he also explains in The Ethics of the Dust, appears in the 1877 Fors Clavigera as well. There he reminds his readers, "I have often told you that everything in Greek myths is primarily a physical, — secondly and chiefly a moral — type" (29.128). Since the idea of interpreting myth this way undoubtedly developed both from his reading of mythographers, such as Bacon and Knight, and from his habits of reading scripture, it is particularly interesting to observe that at the point in his life when he considered myth as a form of scripture, he also considered scripture myth; and he read the Bible, therefore, in terms of physical and moral senses. For example, in the 1876 Fors Clavigera he explains that the three sons of Ham, Mizraim the Egyptian, Phut the Ethiopian, and Sidon the Sidonian represent "the three African powers, — A, of the watered plain, B, of the desert, and C, of the sea" (28.561). In their moral sense they signify, respectively, "slavish strength of body and intellect," "slavish affliction of body and intellect," and "slavish pleasure of sensual and idolatrous art" (28.561-562). From this body of interpretations he concludes that "the spiritual meaning of Egyptian slavery is labour without hope" (28.562). In other words, although by this time he had returned to some personal form of Christianity, he interprets the Bible primarily as he had in Unto This Last (1860) — as ostensible source and authoritative confirmation of his theories of social justice. Augustine and the Evangelicals — to name some of those with whom Ruskin was most familiar — always interpret the period of Egyptian bondage as part of their typical readings of scripture, finding that it stands for the soul unredeemed, without grace, and in a state of sin. In contrast, Ruskin, who still centers human life on the idea of occupying, enriching labor, sees slavery within the context of his own gospel.
The notion that scripture may be read in terms of physical and moral allegory appears in Bacon's Advancement of Learning, a work Ruskin knew well. Citing Acts 7:22, Bacon explains that of Moses it is said "he was seen in all the learning of the Egyptians.... Take a view of the ceremonial law of Moses; you shall find, besides the prefiguration of Christ, . . . the most learned Rabbins have travelled profitably and profoundly to observe, some of them a natural, some of them a moral, sense." It is most likely, however, that Ruskin interpreted the meaning of the sons of Ham in a manner resembling Bacon's theories of scriptural exegetics, not because he borrowed them but because he independently arrived at a similar notion from his methods of reading mythology. Although the writers on mythology whom Ruskin knew alternately interpret myth physically and morally, none of them, like Ruskin, believes that myth consistently provides two levels of allegorical meaning. Nonetheless, he may have encountered occasional interpretations of myth which explain several senses of a particular incident. For example, the notes to the Iliad offered such multiple explanation of Jove's punishment of his wife in Book xv:
Homer mysteriously explains in this place the nature of the Air, which is Juno; the two anvils which she had to her feet are the two elements, earth and water; and the chains of gold about her hands are the aether, or fire which fills the superior region; the two grosser elements are called anvils, to shew us, that in these two elements only, arts are exercised. We do not know but that a moral allegory may here be found, as well as a physical one; the poet, by these masses tied to the feet of Juno, and by the chain of gold with which her hands were bound, might signify, not only that domestic affairs should be like fetters to detain the wife at home, but that proper and beautiful works like chains of gold ought to employ her hands.
To this one can only reply that the moral injunction to housewives does not seem well served by the image of Juno tormented by Zeus for her treacherous murder of Hercules. Indeed many of the interpretations Ruskin would have found both in Pope's Homer and in the writings on mythology that he knew tend to be similarly ill-founded, inappropriate, and unconvincing. Ruskin's own readings of mythology, as we shall see, tend, in contrast, to be both more tactful and subtle, in part because unlike many of his sources of information about myth he interprets figures and incidents not in terms of simple equations but in terms of complex relations between moral or physical forces. This habit of reading myth tactfully and with great attention to the context suggests, once more, that Ruskin's methods of interpretation owe much less to writings on myth than to his Evangelical training in scriptural exegesis.
That Ruskin, despite his loss of religion, still emphasizes the truths and methods of his former belief appears most clearly in the way he derives Christian interpretations from classical myth. Returning to the Garden of the Hesperides, we come upon his reminder that "the reader may have heard, perhaps, in other books of Genesis than Hesiod's, of a dragon being busy about a tree which bore apples, and of crushing the head of that dragon" (7.398). His closing words refer, of course, to the prophecy in Genesis which Christian poets and preachers, including Milton and Melvill, always interpreted typologically as Christ's future victory over Satan. After utilizing the evidence of Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, Vergil, Dante, Spenser, Milton, Bacon, and the Bible, Ruskin concludes that the Hesperian dragon "is, in fine, the 'Pluto il gran nemico' of Dante; the demon of all evil passions connected with covetousness; that is to say, essentially of fraud, rage, and gloom. Regarded as the demon of Fraud, he is said to be descended from the viper Echidna, full of deadly cunning, in whirl on whirl; as the demon of consuming Rage from Phorcys; as the demon of Gloom, from Ceto; — in his watching and melancholy, he is sleepless (compare the Micyllus dialogue of Lucian); breathing whirlwind and fire, he is the destroyer, descended from Typhon as well as Phorcys; having, moreover, with all these, the irresistible strength of his ancestral sea" (7.400-401).
His interpretation demands several remarks: first of all, Ruskin, unlike the eighteenth-century commentators of Homer, does not conceive allegory as mere equation of one vice or virtue with the stated figure. Instead, he sees the poetic or painterly symbol just as Evangelicals saw the narrative in the Bible — as cause to meditate upon man and his nature, upon sin and salvation. His conception of allegorical myth, in other words, demands a love of interpretation and a delight in unraveling the fine points of spiritual truth that had largely disappeared from the critical scene several hundred years before. Secondly, we should observe that his interpretations are self-consciously Christian; for here the Hesperian dragon embodies, quite clearly, the spirit of cupidity, covetousness, and Mammon to which Ruskin devotes so much attention in his later writings. One must realize that when Ruskin chose such an interpretation of the Turnerian employment of Greek myth, he did so not in naive ignorance of other interpretations of myth, but from the declared belief that the same truths he had learned in Beresford Chapel appear in Greek mythology. He knew Knight's discussion of the employment of serpent myths and symbols in phallic ritual, his discussion of Neoplatonic interpretations of mythology, and his citation of evidence from Hindu, Orphic, Egyptian, ancient Scandinavian, Japanese, Tartar, and American Indian sources. Ruskin, whose notion of a bivalent natural-moral meaning in myths corresponds to that of recent anthropologists, was well aware of the ambivalent nature of mythic symbolism. In The Queen of the Air, for example, he first points out that "as the worm of corruption, it [the serpent] is the mightiest of all adversaries of the gods — the special adversary of their light and creative power — Python against Apollo" (19.363). At the same time, the serpent, which embodies the earthly, also represents fertility — "the power of the earth upon the seed" (19.363). Furthermore, "there is a power in the earth to take away corruption, and to purify . . .; and in this sense, the serpent is a healing spirit, — the representative of Aesculapius, and of Hygieia" (19.364). Despite the presence of these other complicating meanings, Ruskin holds that the serpent signifies, essentially and inevitably, the corrupt, the evil, the forces of death.
Ruskin urges this interpretation upon his readers because he believes that God created the serpent as "a divine hieroglyph of the demoniac power of the earth, — of the entire earthly nature" (19.363). The serpent, in other words, serves as a word in what Ruskin seventeen years earlier had called the "language of types." In The Queen of the Air, where his term for the language of types has become "natural myth," he remarks that when studying mythology one should not forget that God as well as man endows myths with significance. Complaining that most students of mythology have "forgotten that there are any such things as natural myths," Ruskin emphasizes that we must look with care into these "dark sayings of nature" (19.361), both because they convey important truths and because they found all human myths; in fact, "all guidance to the right sense of the human and variable myths will probably depend on our first getting at the sense of the natural and invariable ones. The dead hieroglyph may have meant this or that — the living hieroglyph means always the same; but remember, it is just as much a hieroglyph as the other; nay, more, — a 'sacred or reserved sculpture,' a thing with an inner language" (19.361). These remarks on natural myth reveal that Ruskin still accepts what we have earlier observed to be an essentially medieval conception of the universe.
Eleven years after he had walked out of the chapel service in Turin, he still finds himself within a world which bears the impress of God's moral law. He continued to believe, like his medieval forebearers, that God intended man to search nature, "reading" the lamb and the crocodile as the linguistic elements of a verbal universe.
What is most strange about Ruskin's continued allegorizations of the natural world is that he did not turn his back on the developments of contemporary science thus to become a Victorian Physiologus. Indeed, a note to The Queen of the Air assures his reader that the "facts" upon which he is about to dwell "are in nowise antagonistic to the theories which Mr. Darwin's unwearied and unerring investigations are every day rendering more probable" (19.358n). The accompanying text explains that evolutionary theory, which shows how species develop, remains irrelevant to the meanings which God may have impressed upon the species once formed:
Whatever the origin of species may be . . . the groups into which birth or accident reduce them have distinct relation to the spirit of man. It is perfectly possible, and ultimately conceivable, that the crocodile and the lamb may have descended from the same ancestral atom of protoplasm; . . . but the practically important fact for us is the existence of a power which creates . . . crocodiles and lambs, . . . the one repellent to the spirit of man, the other attractive to it, in a quite inevitable way, representing to him states of moral evil and good, and becoming myths to him of destruction or redemption, and, in the most literal sense, "Words" of God. (19.358-359)
Ruskin's conception of natural myth resembles his theories of beauty at important points and may, in fact, have been patterned after them. In the first place, he believes that men receive pleasure from beauty "instinctively and necessarily" (3.109), and, similarly, men experience pleasure or displeasure from natural myth "in a quite inevitable way." Men react more or less uniformly to beauty as they react to natural myth, because God created man in harmony with the moral laws of the universe and the nature of His own being. Moreover, both beauty and natural myth first evoke an instinctive emotional response and, when studied with care, reveal a deeper moral meaning. In addition, the emotions produced both by beauty and natural myth are essentially disinterested; for just as beauty is not derived from utility or practical effect upon man, the practical relation of man to the lamb or crocodile, the snake or bird, has less importance than the fact God created these living hieroglyphs with an inner meaning. For example, men do not fear and abhor snakes chiefly because they threaten human life. In fact, "there is more poison in an ill-kept drain, — in a pool of dish washings at a cottage door, — than in the deadliest asp of Nile." Our "horror" of the snake "is of the myth, not of the creature" (19.362). Lastly, natural myth serves the same polemical purpose as do Ruskin's theories of beauty, for both contribute to a kind of "objectivity" in art and aesthetics. Both insure that human reactions, which are emotional and subjective, occur uniformly. Although Ruskin thus dwells briefly on the divinely ordained core of certain myths, throughout his writings he concerns himself far more with mythology as creation of man and his society. Unlike all other forms of the Symbolical Grotesque and unlike most of the artistic phenomena he discusses, myth and the mythic element in art are in some sense group enterprises. Mythologies develop slowly, gradually gathering meaning, and they require the contributions of many men over long periods of time. When discussing the symbolic decorative patterns of Greek vases, Ruskin commented in Fors Clavigera that "A symbol is scarcely ever invented just when it is needed. Some already recognized and accepted form or thing becomes symbolic at a particular time" (27.405). One might apply this conception of the gradual development of a symbol from something at first without further meanings to Ruskin's conception of mythology, for he believes that myths similarly grow forth from a story often without important meaning. Consequently, since myths thus grow and change, becoming richer and more meaningful, "the question is not at all what a mythological figure meant in its origin; but what it became in each subsequent mental development of the nation inheriting the thought" (18.348). Moreover, "the real meaning of any myth is that which it has at the noblest age of the nation among whom it is current" (19.301). Myths which arise within a nation receive much of their importance because they embody the ideals and aspirations of its members, and therefore, according to Ruskin, it signifies little whether or not the legend which men accept has a basis in fact, for a legend which has no factual basis may be more valuable to a society and tell us more about its beliefs than one easily proved:
Whenever you begin to seek the real authority for legends, you will generally find that the ugly ones have good foundation, and the beautiful ones none. Be prepared for this; and remember that a lovely legend is all the more precious when it has no foundation. Cincinnatus might actually have been found ploughing beside the Tiber fifty times over; and it might have signified little to any one; — least of all to you or me. But if Cincinnatus never was so found, nor ever existed at all in flesh and blood; but the great Roman nation, in its strength of conviction that manual labour in tilling the ground was good and honourable, invented a quite bodiless Cincinnatus; and set him, according to its fancy, in furrows of the field, and put its own words into his mouth, and gave the honour of its ancient deeds into his ghostly hand; this fable, which has no foundation; — this precious coinage of the brain and conscience of a mighty people, you and I — believe me — had better read, and know, and take to heart, diligently. (27.357-358)
Such a myth to which all in a nation pay homage both figures forth and reinforces its central beliefs. A belief in Cincinnatus reveals Roman "conviction that manual labour . . . was good and honourable," a belief in Hercules's conquest of the water serpent reveals Greek conviction of the truth of heroism, and a belief in the battle of Apollo and Marsyas reveals a conviction that in the conflict "between intellectual, and brutal, or meaningless, music" (19.343), the orderly and meaningful must prevail.
Although the ordinary person accepted these myths as historical narratives, says Ruskin, he rarely thought of their deeper meanings. In fact, "literal belief [in a myth] was, in the mind of the general people, as deeply rooted as ours in the legends of our own sacred book; . . . a basis of unmiraculous event was as little suspected, and an explanatory symbolism as rarely traced, by them, as by us" (19.298). This overt comparison between the Bible and Greek mythology, which demonstrates once again how Ruskin granted all but equal value to the legends of ancient Greece and Christianity, also indicates his conviction that only a nation's spiritual leaders really understand its mythology. "But, for all that, there was a certain undercurrent of consciousness in all minds, that the figures meant more than they at first showed; and according to each man's own faculties of sentiment, he judged and read them" (19.298-299). The great men of a nation, its artists and spiritual leaders, see farthest into these myths. They build upon them, reshape them, add to their meaning.
Because the artists and other spiritual leaders see so much more in legends than do the common people, mythology remains essentially the creation of great individuals. Although the great myth-maker, like the great artist-poet, draws upon the ideals and beliefs of his fellow men, he advances beyond their expectations and can never be fully understood by them. But because the people accept the basic truth of myth, the ancient creator of myth never found himself alienated from his society the way Turner did. Thus, even though Ruskin believes that mythology develops to some extent as a cooperative enterprise, his essentially Carlylean conception of the artist-seer leads him to conclude that the creator of myth belongs to a group composed primarily, not of his contemporaries, but of his great predecessors.
Turner, as a great artist, takes his place with the ancient creators of myth, for he, too, accepts the meanings of the past and then recasts them in new ways. For the great English painter thus to add new meaning to the old myths, he had both to know them and have insight into their significance. In the course of explicating the import of the dragon in the Garden of the Hesperides, Ruskin remarks: "How far he had really found out for himself the collateral bearings of the Hesperid tradition I know not; but that he had got the main clue of it, and knew who the Dragon was, there can be no doubt" (7.40l-402). As Ruskin explains, the painter's conception of the dragon "fits every one of the circumstances of the Greek traditions" (7.402). This convergence of ancient and modern arises partly in the fact that Turner perceived the "natural myth" at the heart of his subject and partly in his knowledge of the Greek tradition. In reading this painting, Ruskin, as we have already observed, draws upon Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, Vergil, Dante, Spenser, Milton, and the Bible, just as in similarly interpreting the vices and virtues on the columns of the Ducal Palace in Venice he refers to Dante, Spenser, Orcagna, Giotto, and Simon Memmi. These artists and poets, with a few others, represent for Ruskin the Western tradition upon which all the great thinkers, including Turner, have drawn. Several times in Fors Clavigera Ruskin paused to set forth lists of essential writings which he believed all should know. For example, when he proposed to set up a library for the St. George's Guild he wrote that "for the standard theological writings which are ultimately to be the foundation of this body of secular literature, I have chosen seven authors . . . the men who have taught the purest theological truth hitherto known to the Jews, Greeks, Latins, Italians, and English, namely, Moses, David, Hesiod, Vergil, Dante, Chaucer, and, for the seventh, summing the whole with a vision of judgment, St. John the Divine" (28.500). Although Ruskin changes and reshuffles his lists to suit his purpose at the moment, it is clear that he considers the authors upon whom he draws as the sources of the best in the Western tradition, as the key to myth, and that he believes Turner to have known their works.
Last modified 6 May 2019