In Rabelais’s second book we read how the giant Pantagruel by a miraculous fart created the race of pygmies, after which “he sent them to live on an island close by, where they have multiplied mightily. But the cranes make a continual war on them, and they put up a courageous defense.” Again, in Rabelais’s third book, a truculent sheep-dealer informs Panuge that the ribs of Lanternland sheep are used by the pygmies “for making little bows to shoot cherry-stones at the cranes.”
If you read The New Psalmanazar at all frequently and the above sounds oddly familiar, you may be thinking, as I was, of the quote I shared some time ago from Matteo Ricci’s Impossible Black Tulip, an oversized map of the world the wily Jesuit made for the Chinese emperor in 1602. An inscription on the map indicating a territory in the far north of Russia describes a ‘Country of the Dwarfs’ where, according to Ricci, a race of little people live precariously under constant threat from cranes. They take refuge in caves, he says, and charge out periodically on goatback to make war on their foes.
I may very well be the last fellow in the room to have grasped what’s going on here, but I asked myself: Did Ricci borrow the idea from Rabelais? Or is there more to it than that? The answer to the second question, it turns out, is: Far more. It didn’t take any great amount of digging to discover that the story of the pygmies and cranes has a more antique pedigree than I had guessed. It occurs, for example, in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and shows up again and again in various other works over a period of over two millennia. It seems to have first emerged from the murk of oral history in a passage from Book III of the Iliad, which I had managed somehow to forget. There, Homer (via Fitzgerald below) describes the Greek battle lines fanning out across the plain of Troy:
…………………wave on wave, like cranes
in clamorous lines before the face of heaven,
beating away from winter’s gloom and storms,
over the streams of Ocean, hoarsely calling,
to bring a slaughter on the Pygmy warriors –
cranes at dawn descending, beaked in cruel attack.
Since unraveling this for myself I’ve also discovered a 2007 post from Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti which suggests, to me, an interesting reading of the myth. Gilleland juxtaposes the passage from Homer with a quote from Charles Eastman’s autobiographical Indian Boyhood, in which Eastman (a Dakota Sioux) recounts adventures with his brother that include the snatching of eggs and nestlings from ducks and geese and other birds. One day, as he tells the story, they trespassed on the nest of a pair of cranes, who rose to the defense of their little ones:
It was really a perilous encounter! Our strong bows finally gained the victory in a hand-to-hand struggle with the angry cranes; but after that we hardly ever hunted a crane’s nest. Almost all birds make some resistance when their eggs or young are taken, but they will seldom attack man fearlessly.
If in Homer we have the childhood of cultural memory, then in Eastman we have the memory of a particular childhood. If in Homer we have little people in the form of pygmy warriors, in Eastman we have child warriors too. One almost suspects Eastman of making a literary joke, but the pre-Homeric version of the myth must have some plausible scenario for its genesis and perhaps Eastman gives us a glimpse of something like it.
Gilleland’s pairing of the quotes is wonderfully suggestive. The psychological interpretation of myth can be a wooly affair, I know, but I’m led to wonder if the little people on the distant shore of Homer’s Okeanos don’t represent the heroic light and glory of childhood, and the cranes, ‘beaked in cruel attack,’ the violence of time and events which conspire day by day and year by year to irrevocably separate us from what we may come to look back upon, helplessly, as a personal primordial paradise.