The Great Gladstone Myth by Andrew Lang

In the post-Christian myths of the Teutonic race settled in England, no figure appears more frequently and more mysteriously than that of Gladstone or Mista Gladstone.  To unravel the true germinal conception of Gladstone, and to assign to all the later accretions of myth their provenance and epoch, are the problems attempted in this chapter.  It is almost needless (when we consider the perversity of men and the lasting nature of prejudice) to remark that some still see in Gladstone a shadowy historical figure.  Just as our glorious mythical Bismarck has been falsely interpreted as the shadowy traditional Arminius (the Arminius of Tacitus, not of Leo Adolescens), projected on the mists of the Brocken, so Gladstone has been recognized as a human hero of the Fourth Dynasty.  In this capacity he has been identified with Gordon (probably the north wind), with Spurgeon, whom I have elsewhere shown to be a river god, and with Livingstone.  In the last case the identity of the suffix “stone,” and the resemblance of the ideas of “joy” and of “vitality,” lend some air of speciousness to a fundamental error.  Livingstone is ohne zweifel, a mythical form of the midnight sun, now fabled to wander in the “Dark Continent,” as Bishop of Natal, the land of the sun’s birthplace, now alluded to as lost in the cloud-land of comparative mythology.  Of all these cobwebs spun by the spiders of sciolism, the Euhemeristic or Spencerian view—that Gladstone is an historical personage—has attracted most attention.  Unluckily for its advocates, the whole contemporary documents of the Victorian Dynasty have perished.  When an over-educated and over-rated populace, headed by two mythical figures, Wat Tyler and one Jo, rose in fury against the School Boards and the Department, they left nothing but tattered fragments of the literature of the time.  Consequently we are forced to reconstruct the Gladstonian myth by the comparative method—that is, by comparing the relics of old Ritual treatises, hymns, imprecations, and similar religious texts, with works of art, altars, and statues, and with popular traditions and folklore.  The results, again, are examined in the light of the Vedas, the Egyptian monuments, and generally of everything that, to the unscientific eye, seems most turbidly obscure in itself, and most hopelessly remote from the subject in hand.  The aid of Philology will not be rejected because Longus, or Longinus, has meanly argued that her services must be accepted with cautious diffidence.  On the contrary, Philology is the only real key to the labyrinths of post-Christian myth.

The philological analysis of the name of Gladstone is attempted, with very various results, by Roth, Kuhn, Schwartz, and other contemporary descendants of the old scholars.  Roth finds in “Glad” the Scotch word “gled,” a hawk or falcon.  He then adduces the examples of the Hawk-Indra, from the Rig Veda, and of the Hawk-headed Osiris, both of them indubitably personifications of the sun.  On the other hand, Kuhn, with Schwartz, fixes his attention on the suffix “stone,” and quotes, from a fragment attributed to Shakespeare, “the all-dreaded thunder-stone.”  Schwartz and Kuhn conclude, in harmony with their general system, that Gladstone is really and primarily the thunderbolt, and secondarily the spirit of the tempest.  They quote an isolated line from an early lay about the “Pilot who weathered the storm,” which they apply to Gladstone in his human or political aspect, when the storm-spirit had been anthropomorphised, and was regarded as an ancestral politician.  But such scanty folklore as we possess assures us that the storm, on the other hand, weathered Gladstone; and that the poem quoted refers to quite another person, also named William, and probably identical with William Tell—that is, with the sun, which of course brings us back to Roth’s view of the hawk, or solar Gladstone, though this argument in his own favour has been neglected by the learned mythologist.  He might also, if he cared, adduce the solar stone of Delphi, fabled to have been swallowed by Cronus.  Kuhn, indeed, lends an involuntary assent to this conclusion (Ueber Entwick. der Myth.) when he asserts that the stone swallowed by Cronus was the setting sun.  Thus we have only to combine our information to see how correct is the view of Roth, and how much to be preferred to that of Schwartz and Kuhn.  Gladstone, philologically considered, is the “hawkstone,” combining with the attributes of the Hawk-Indra and Hawk-Osiris those of the Delphian sun-stone, which we also find in the Egyptian Ritual for the Dead. The ludicrous theory that Gladstone is a territorial surname, derived from some place (“Gledstane” Falkenstein), can only be broached by men ignorant of even the grammar of science; dabblers who mark with a pencil the pages of travellers and missionaries.  We conclude, then, that Gladstone is, primarily, the hawk-sun, or sun-hawk.

From philology we turn to the examination of literary fragments, which will necessarily establish our already secured position (that Gladstone is the sun), or so much the worse for the fragments.  These have reached us in the shape of burned and torn scraps of paper, covered with printed texts, which resolve themselves into hymns, and imprecations or curses.  It appears to have been the custom of the worshippers of Gladstone to salute his rising, at each dawn, with printed outcries of adoration and delight, resembling in character the Osirian hymns.  These are sometimes couched in rhythmical language, as when we read—

“[Gla] dstone, the pillar of the People’s hopes,”—

to be compared with a very old text, referring obscurely to “the People’s William,” and “a popular Bill,” doubtless one and the same thing, as has often been remarked.  Among the epithets of Gladstone which occur in the hymns, we find “versatile,” “accomplished,” “philanthropic,” “patriotic,” “statesmanlike,” “subtle,” “eloquent,” “illustrious,” “persuasive,” “brilliant,” “clear,” “unambiguous,” “resolute.”  All of those are obviously intelligible only when applied to the sun.  At the same time we note a fragmentary curse of the greatest importance, in which Gladstone is declared to be the beloved object of “the Divine Figure from the North,” or “the Great White Czar.”  This puzzled the learned, till a fragment of a mythological disquisition was recently unearthed.  In this text it was stated, on the authority of Brinton, that “the Great White Hare” worshipped by the Red Indians was really, when correctly understood, the Dawn.  It is needless to observe (when one is addressing students) that “Great White Hare” (in Algonkin, Manibozho) becomes Great White Czar in Victorian English.  Thus the Divine Figure from the North, or White Czar, with whom Gladstone is mythically associated, turns out to be the Great White Hare, or Dawn Hero, of the Algonkins.  The sun (Gladstone) may naturally and reasonably be spoken of in mythical language as the “Friend of the Dawn.”  This proverbial expression came to be misunderstood, and we hear of a Liberal statesman, Gladstone, and of his affection for a Russian despot.  The case is analogous to Apollo’s fabled love for Daphne = Dâhana, the Dawn.  While fragments of laudatory hymns are common enough, it must not be forgotten that dirges or curses (Diræ) are also discovered in the excavations.  These Diræ were put forth both morning and evening, and it is interesting to note that the imprecations vented at sunset (“evening papers,” in the old mythical language) are even more severe and unsparing than those uttered (“morning papers”) at dawn.

How are the imprecations to be explained?  The explanation is not difficult, nothing is difficult—to a comparative mythologist.  Gladstone is the sun, the enemy of Darkness.  But Darkness has her worshippers as well as Light.  Set, no less than Osiris, was adored in the hymns of Egypt, perhaps by kings of an invading Semitic tribe.  Now there can be no doubt that the enemies of Gladstone, the Rishis, or hymn-writers who execrated him, were regarded by his worshippers as a darkened class, foes of enlightenment.  They are spoken of as “the stupid party,” as “obscurantist,” and so forth, with the usual amenity of theological controversy.  It would be painful, and is unnecessary, to quote from the curses, whether matins or vespers, of the children of night.  Their language is terribly severe, and, doubtless, was regarded as blasphemy by the sun-worshippers.  Gladstone is said to have “no conscience,” “no sense of honour,” to be so fugitive and evasive in character, that one might almost think the moon, rather than the sun, was the topic under discussion.  But, as Roth points out, this is easily explained when we remember the vicissitudes of English weather, and the infrequent appearances of the sun in that climate.  By the curses, uttered as they were in the morning, when night has yielded to the star of day, and at evening, when day is, in turn, vanquished by night, our theory of the sun Gladstone is confirmed beyond reach of cavil; indeed, the solar theory is no longer a theory, but a generally recognized fact.

Evidence, which is bound to be confirmatory, reaches us from an altar and from works of art.  The one altar of Gladstone is by some explained as the pedestal of his statue, while the anthropological sciolists regard it simply as a milestone!  In speaking to archæologists it is hardly necessary even to touch on this preposterous fallacy, sufficiently confuted by the monument itself.

On the road into western England, between the old sites of Bristol and London, excavations recently laid bare the very interesting monument figured here.

Sketch of monument

Though some letters or hieroglyphs are defaced, there can be no doubt that the inscription is correctly read G. O. M.  The explanation which I have proposed (Zeitschrift für Ang. Ant) is universally accepted by scholars.  I read Gladstonio Optimo Maximo, “To Gladstone, Best and Greatest,” a form of adoration, or adulation, which survived in England (like municipal institutions, the game laws, and trial by jury) from the date of the Roman occupation.  It is a plausible conjecture that Gladstone stepped into the shoes of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.  Hence we may regard him (like Osiris) as the sum of the monotheistic conception in England.

This interpretation is so manifest, that, could science sneer, we might laugh at the hazardous conjectures of smatterers.  They, as usual, are greatly divided among themselves.  The Spencerian or Euhemeristic school,—if that can be called a school

      “Where blind and naked Ignorance
Delivers brawling judgments all day long
On all things, unashamed,”—

protests that the monument is a pedestal of a lost image of Gladstone.  The inscription (G. O. M.) is read “Grand Old Man,” and it is actually hinted that this was the petit nom, or endearing title, of a real historical politician.  Weak as we may think such reasonings, we must regard them as, at least, less unscholarly than the hypothesis that the inscription should be read

“90 M.”

meaning “ninety miles from London.”  It is true that the site whence the monument was excavated is at a distance of ninety miles from the ruins of London, but that is a mere coincidence, on which it were childish to insist.  Scholars know at what rate such accidents should be estimated, and value at its proper price one clear interpretation like G. O. M.= Gladstonio Optimo Maximo.

It is, of course, no argument against this view that the authors of the Diræ regard Gladstone as a maleficent being.  How could they do otherwise?  They were the scribes of the opposed religion.  Diodorus tells us about an Ethiopian sect which detested the Sun.  A parallel, as usual, is found in Egypt, where Set, or Typhon, is commonly regarded as a maleficent spirit, the enemy of Osiris, the midnight sun.  None the less it is certain that under some dynasties Set himself was adored—the deity of one creed is the Satan of its opponents.  A curious coincidence seems to show (as Bergaigne thinks) that Indra, the chief Indo-Aryan deity, was occasionally confounded with Vrittra, who is usually his antagonist.  The myths of Egypt, as reported by Plutarch, say that Set, or Typhon, forced his way out of his mother’s side, thereby showing his natural malevolence even in the moment of his birth.  The myths of the extinct Algonkins of the American continent repeat absolutely the same tale about Malsumis, the brother and foe of their divine hero, Glooskap.  Now the Rig Veda (iv. 18, 1-3) attributes this act to Indra, and we may infer that Indra had been the Typhon, or Set, or Glooskap, of some Aryan kindred, before he became the chief and beneficent god of the Kusika stock of Indo-Aryans.  The evil myth clung to the good god.  By a similar process we may readily account for the imprecations, and for the many profane and blasphemous legends, in which Gladstone is represented as oblique, mysterious, and equivocal.  (Compare Apollo Loxias.)  The same class of ideas occurs in the myths about Gladstone “in Opposition” (as the old mythical language runs), that is, about the too ardent sun of summer.  When “in Opposition” he is said to have found himself in a condition “of more freedom and less responsibility,” and to “have made it hot for his enemies,” expressions transparently mythical.  If more evidence were wanted, it would be found in the myth which represents Gladstone as the opponent of Huxley.  As every philologist knows, Huxley, by Grimm’s law, is Huskley, the hero of a “husk myth” (as Ralston styles it), a brilliant being enveloped in a husk, probably the night or the thunder-cloud.  The dispute between Gladstone and Huskley as to what occurred at the Creation is a repetition of the same dispute between Wainamoinen and Joukahainen, in the Kalewala of the Finns.  Released from his husk, the opponent becomes Beaconsfield = the field of light, or radiant sky.

In works of art, Gladstone is represented as armed with an axe.  This, of course, is probably a survival from the effigies of Zeus Labrandeus, den Man auf Münsen mit der streitaxt erblickt (Preller, i. 112).  We hear of axes being offered to Gladstone by his worshippers.  Nor was the old custom of clothing the image of the god (as in the sixth book of the “Iliad”) neglected.  We read that the people of a Scotch manufacturing town, Galashiels, presented the Midlothian Gladstone (a local hero), with “trouserings,” which the hero graciously accepted.  Indeed he was remarkably unlike Death, as described by Æschylus, “Of all gods, Death only recks not of gifts.”  Gladstone, on the other hand, was the centre of a lavish system of sacrifice—loaves of bread, axes, velocipedes, books, in vast and overwhelming numbers, were all dedicated at his shrine.  Hence some have identified him with Irving, also a deity propitiated (as we read in Josephus Hatton) by votive offerings.  In a later chapter I show that Irving is really one of the Asvins of Vedic mythology, “the Great Twin Brethren,” or, in mythic language, “the Corsican Brothers” (compare Myriantheus on the Asvins).  His inseparable companion is Wilson-Barrett.

Among animals the cow is sacred to Gladstone; and, in works of art, gems and vases (or “jam-pots”), he is represented with the cow at his feet, like the mouse of Horus, of Apollo Smintheus, and of the Japanese God of Plenty (see an ivory in the Henley Collection).  How are we to explain the companionship of the cow?  At other times the Sun-hero sits between the horns of the Cow-Goddess Dilemma, worshipped at Westminster.  (Compare Brugsch, “Religion und Mythologie der alten Aegypter,” p. 168, “Die Darstellungen Zeigen uns den Sonnengott zwischen den Hörnern der Kuh sitzend.”)  The idea of Le Page Renouf, and of Pierret and De Rougé, is that the cow is a symbol of some Gladstonian attribute, perhaps “squeezability,” a quality attributed to the hero by certain Irish minstrels.  I regard it as more probable that the cow is (as in the Veda) the rain-cloud, released from prison by Gladstone, as by Indra.  At the same time the cow, in the Veda, stands for Heaven, Earth, Dawn, Night, Cloud, Rivers, Thunder, Sacrifice, Prayer, and Soma.  We thus have a wide field to choose from, nor is our selection of very much importance, as any, or all, of these interpretations will be welcomed by Sanskrit scholars.  The followers of McLennan have long ago been purged out of the land by the edict of Oxford against this sect of mythological heretics.  They would doubtless have maintained that the cow was Gladstone’s totem, or family crest, and that, like other totemists, he was forbidden to eat beef.

It is curious that on some old and worn coins we detect a half-obliterated male figure lurking behind the cow.  The inscription may be read “Jo,” or “Io,” and appears to indicate Io, the cow-maiden of Greek myth (see the “Prometheus” of Æschylus).

Another proof of the mythical character of Gladstone is the number of his birthplaces.  Many cities claimed the honour of being his cradle, exactly as in the cases of Apollo and Irving.  Their claims were allowed by the Deity.  (Compare Callimachus, Hymn to Apollo.)

In addressing scholars it is needless to refute the Euhemeristic hypothesis, worthy of the Abbé Banier, that the cow is a real cow, offered by a real historical Gladstone, or by his companion, Jo, to the ignorant populace of the rural districts.  We have already shown that Jo is a mythological name.  The tendency to identify Gladstone with the cow (as the dawn with the sun) is a natural and edifying tendency, but the position must not be accepted without further inquiry.  The Sun-god, in Egyptian myth, is a Bull, but there is a difference, which we must not overlook, between a bull and a cow.  Caution, prudence, a tranquil balancing of all available evidence, and an absence of preconceived opinions,—these are the guiding stars of comparative mythology.