The Fables of History by Albany Poyntz

It is surprising how many of the facts of history have been reduced into fictions by the careful investigations of modern enlightenment. For centuries, it was established as an undeniable enormity of the empire, that the Emperor Justinian put out the eyes of Belisarius. Tragedies, operas and romances, were grounded upon this cruel incident; and the arts have lent their aid to the perpetuation of a popular error.

Let us examine the real state of the case. In 563, a conspiracy was discovered against the Emperor Justinian; and the conspirators were arrested on the eve of executing their criminal design. Certain of his favourites, envious of the great name of Belisarius, suborned false witnesses, whose testimony made it appear that he was included in the plot; upon which, Justinian indulged in the bitterest reproaches against his perfidy. Belisarius, strong in his sense of innocence, and the consciousness of the great services he had rendered to the empire, disdained to justify himself; and Justinian, weak, versatile, and mistrustful, influenced by a paltry pusillanimity, caused him to be stripped of his offices, made prisoner in his house, and deprived of all attendants or companions.

This state of things continued for the space of seven months; when the innocence of Belisarius was, by the intervention of others, brought to light; and he was at once restored to his former honours and the confidence of his master. So far from being deprived of sight, and guided about by a youth, as our imaginations have been misled into depicting him by a variety of artists and men of letters, Belisarius died at an advanced age in the full enjoyment of his senses.

The two first authors who thought proper to load the memory of Justinian with the odium of having put out the eyes of Belisarius, were Crinitus and Raphael Mafféi, both belonging to the sixteenth century. No anterior writer makes the smallest allusion to this act of barbarity; which, had it been authentic, could scarcely have been buried in obscurity for a period of ten centuries. The event which probably gave rise to so monstrous a supposition was, the disgrace of Carpocratian; who, after being the chief favourite of Justinian, was driven into exile in Egypt, and compelled to beg his bread on the highways. But even in this instance, the fallen man was not deprived of sight.

One day, a village priest who was preaching in France, on the instability of riches and the misfortunes of the great, perceiving his simple flock to be melted into tears by the pathetic nature of his recital, comforted them by adding, “Nevertheless, my brethren, take comfort, for, after all, these traditions may be greatly exaggerated.” It were as well, perhaps, if historians were equally candid, more especially the one who first treated of the cruel fortunes of Belisarius.

This great man had, in truth, no need of factitious enhancements to secure the sympathies of the sixteenth century; the nobleness of his character having fully equalled the greatness of his exploits. As the conqueror of the Goths, he sustained the fortunes of the empire; sacrificing himself for his master, and refusing a crown when the throne was easily accessible. After he had achieved the conquest of Italy, the jealousy of Justinian recalled him from his command. Yet when the fortunes of his country stood a second time in need of his sword, he did not hesitate to lay down his resentment, and take up arms for its defence.

A far more authentic instance of undeserved misfortune is the case of Œdipus, who, born the heir of the throne, was secretly removed from the palace in consequence of a prediction that he would become the murderer of his father. To avoid the accomplishment of the oracle, the infant was about to be destroyed; the servant, to whom the task was assigned, having literally pierced his feet, and suspended him to the branches of a tree; when unfortunately a shepherd, taking pity on the tortured babe, relieved him and conveyed him to the Court of the Queen of Corinth, by whom, being childless, he was reared as her son. At eighteen years of age, an oracle enjoined him to go in search of his parents; and on his travels, having killed a man by whom he was insulted, the victim proved to be his father.

Œdipus arrives at Thebes. A riddle is proposed to him, the sense of which he is so unfortunate as to guess; and having by this feat rid the country of the Sphinx, he receives the promised reward in the hand of the Queen of Thebes, who, in process of time, proves to be the mother of her young husband. In consequence of this parricide and incest, a frightful pestilence afflicts Thebes; and Œdipus in despair, puts out his own eyes, banishes himself from his native country, and is followed into exile by his daughter Antigone, who officiates as his guide.

Such misfortunes naturally inspired the minds of the heathens with a belief in the doctrine of fatality—a blind interpretation of events which also served to induce a belief in the marvellous, and confirm half the preposterous superstitions perpetuated by the weakness of the human race.

Nothing can be more groundless, by the way, than our vain assertion of being the only created beings who “contemplate Heaven with brow erect.” Not only do we share this distinction with the ourang-outangs, but with a variety of birds, such as the crane and the ostrich; which, on this point, are better qualified than ourselves, seeing that instead of the upper eyelid falling, the lower eyelid rises over the eye; thus leaving them more at liberty to raise their eyes to Heaven.

False pretensions and vulgar errors of this kind abound in the world:—as for instance, the belief that the pelican pierces her bosom to feed her little ones with her blood—that the scent of bean-flowers produces delirium—that the mole is blind—that the dove is a model of gentleness and conjugal fidelity; and how often are the questions still mooted whether Hannibal really worked a passage through the Alps with vinegar—whether the coffin of Mahomet be really suspended at Mecca between two loadstones—whether shooting stars be fragments of shattered planets, or souls progressing from purgatory—whether beasts of prey are afraid of fire; and whether human nature have ever exhibited affinities with the brute creation in the form of fauns, dryads, satyrs, or centaurs.

The fable of the centaurs explains itself naturally enough by the wonder created in the world by the first man hardy enough to reduce the horse to a state of submission, and convert it into a domestic animal. We know that a man on horseback has been regarded as a complex animal by many savage nations; just as the Peruvians, when attacked by the artillery of Pizarro, believed their invaders to be Gods, seeing that thunder was at their disposal.

As to fauns and satyrs, which probably consisted of shepherds whose lower extremities were clad in goat skins, Herodotus declares that a whole nation of them existed among the mountains of Scythia. Plutarch relates that, in the time of Sylla, a faun was caught at Nymphea near Apollonia, which was brought as a present to the Dictator. The creature could utter no articulate sound,—its voice consisting of a noise between the cry of a goat and the neighing of a horse; but exhibited social qualities, and was much addicted to female society. This was probably some deaf and dumb idiot, left by unnatural parents to perish in infancy, and miraculously preserved; as in the case of Peter, the Wild Boy, found during the last century in the forests of Westphalia, and maintained at the cost of the King of England to a good old age. A similar specimen of degraded humanity was exhibited at Paris under the name of the Savage of Aveyron; and the historical fable of Valentine and Orson was probably founded on some similar circumstance.

According to Philostratus, a satyr was taken in Ethiopia of so mild and gentle a disposition, as to have been easily tamed; and that certain of the simeous tribes, such, for instance, as the ourang-outang called the Wild Man of the Woods, should have been considered a satyr by both Greeks and Romans, on a first inspection seems natural enough. St. Jerome, in his life of St. Anthony, asserts that he encountered a satyr in the desart, and that they conversed and breakfasted together.

We should have thought these holy personages more in danger of an encounter with wild beasts; concerning which peril, a passing remark may be made, that the idea of frightening them away by fire is a popular prejudice. Tavernier relates that some soldiers having lighted a great fire to preserve themselves from the damp, in a forest of Africa, were set upon by a lion, and that one of the men was greatly injured by this midnight intruder, which was luckily shot dead by one of his comrades.

As regards the popular opinion concerning the tomb of Mahomet, it is now proved to be at Medina instead of Mecca, where the belief of many centuries assigned it a place; but so far from being suspended in the air by a loadstone, the coffin lies on the ground surrounded by an iron balustrade. A learned Jesuit, by dint of many patient experiments, ascertained the possibility of sustaining a human body in the air by the power of the loadstone. But the quantity employed only served to realize the miracle for the space of two seconds. On the discovery of the singular properties of the loadstone, as affecting the polarization of the needle, the vulgar naturally began to endow it with miraculous powers. In 1765, the Journal Encyclopédique published an Essay attributing to the loadstone the power of curing the tooth-ache; the person afflicted being required to turn his face towards the North Pole, and touch the aching tooth with the southern point of a magnetic needle. The system was pursued for a time by a variety of quack dentists, but soon fell to the ground.

With respect to shooting stars, philosophy remains undecided as to their origin. But vulgar superstition clings to the belief that any wish formed during the transit of one of these luminous bodies will be accomplished. This idea probably purported in the first instance to demonstrate the transitory nature of human wishes, as exemplified in the momentary glimpse of the meteor. Some philosophers attribute shooting stars to the encounter of the electric fluid with inflammable molecules in the atmosphere. Descartes asserts that they are terrestrial particles which, meeting in the air the second element, take fire and fall back to earth; leaving where they fall a viscous matter. The truth is that they have never been known to fall back upon the earth. Monsieur Biot has hazarded a conjecture that they may be fragments of comets, falling with immense rapidity through the realms of space.

If this point of popular prejudice remain unremoved, nothing can be more certain than that the mole possesses organs of vision—though small; and that the fable of the maternal tenderness of the pelican, originated in the flexible pouch in which she deposits the fish she collects for her own food, and that of her young. The proverbial fidelity of the dove to her mate has been equally disproved by naturalists; no person having ever kept a pair of doves without noticing that they are birds of a peculiarly irascible and quarrelsome nature.