James George Frazer - the known English student of religion and ethnologist (1854-1941). J. Frezer had collected huge quantity of facts on study of folklore and history of religion which allowed him to show a linkage between modern religions and primitive beliefs, and to reveal the earthly sources of religious outlook (world-view)
The legend given below tells that reptiles or snakes were grandparents of living in different geographical zones of the Earth (Africa, the Sundo archipelago, New Guinea, islands of Pacific ocean) people, and that they had formerly possessed gift of immortality or longevity, and the Moon affected on their transient mortal life.
THE STORY OF THE CAST SKIN
(the fragments of the book "Folklore in the Old Testament"
Many savages believe that, in virtue of the power of periodically casting their skins, certain animals and in particular serpents renew their youth and never die. Holding this belief, they tell stories to explain how it came about that these creatures obtained, and men missed, the boon of immortality.
Thus, for example, the Wafipa and Wabende of East Africa say that one day God, whom they name Leza, came down to earth, and addressing all living creatures said, " Who wishes not to die ?" Unfortunately man and the other animals were asleep ; only the serpent was awake and he promptly answered, " I do." That is why men and all other animals die. The serpent alone does not die of himself. He only dies if he is killed. Every year he changes his skin, and so renews his youth and his strength. In like manner the Dusuns of British North Borneo say that when the Creator had finished making all things, he asked, " Who is able to cast off his skin ? If any one can do so, he shall not die." The snake alone heard and answered, " I can." For that reason down to the present day the snake does not die unless he is killed by man.
The Dusuns did not hear the Creator's question, or they also would have thrown off their skins, and there would have been no death.
Similarly the Todjo-Toradjas of Central Celebes relate that once upon a time God summoned men and animals for the purpose of determining their lot. Among the various lots proposed by the deity was this, " We shall put off our old skin." Unfortunately mankind on this momentous occasion was represented by an old woman in her dotage, who did not hear the tempting proposal. But the animals which slough their skins, such as serpents and shrimps, heard it and closed with the offer.
Again, the natives of Vuatom, an island in the Bismarck Archipelago, say that a certain To Konokonomiange bade two lads fetch fire, promising that if they did so they should never die, but that, if they refused, their bodies would perish, though their shades or souls would survive. They would not hearken to him, so he cursed them, saying, " What! you would all have lived ! Now you shall die, though your soul shall live. But the iguana (Goniocephalus) and the lizard (Varanus indicus) and the snake (Enygrus), they shall live, they shall cast their skin and they shall live for evermore." When the lads heard that, they wept, for bitterly they rued their folly in not going to fetch the fire for To Konokono-miange.
The Arawaks of British Guiana relate that once upon a time the Creator came down to earth to see how his creature man was getting on. But men were so wicked that they tried to kill him ; so he deprived them of eternal life and bestowed it on the animals which renew their skin, such as serpents, lizards, and beetles. A somewhat different version of the story is told by the Tamanachiers, an Indian tribe of the Orinoco. They say that after residing among them for some time the Creator took boat to cross to the other side of the great salt water from which he had come. Just as he was shoving off from the shore, he called out to them in a changed voice, " You will change your skins," by which he meant to say, " You will renew your youth like the serpents and the beetles." But unfortunately an old woman, hearing these words, cried out " Oh ! " in a tone of skepticism, if not of sarcasm, which so annoyed the Creator that he changed his tune at once and said testily, " Ye shall die." That is why we are all mortal.
The people of Nias, an island to the west of Sumatra, say that, when the earth was created, a certain being was sent down from above to put the finishing touches to the work. He ought to have fasted, but, unable to withstand he pangs of hunger, he ate some bananas. The choice of food was very unfortunate, for had he only eaten river crabs, men would have cast their skins like crabs, and so, renewing their youth perpetually, would never have died. As it is, death has come upon us all through the eating of those bananas.
Another version of the Niasian story adds that " the serpents on the contrary ate the crabs, which in the opinion of the people of Nias cast their skins but do not die ; therefore serpents also do not die but merely cast their skin."
In this last version the immortality of serpents is ascribed to their having partaken of crabs, which by casting their skins renew their youth and live for ever. The same belief in the immortality of shell-fish occurs in a Samoan story of the origin of death. They say that the gods met in council to determine what should be the end of man. One proposal was that men should cast their skins like shellfish, and so renew their youth. The god Palsy moved, on the contrary, that shellfish should cast their skins, but that men should die. While the motion was still before the meeting a shower of rain unfortunately interrupted the discussion, and as the gods ran to take shelter, the motion of Palsy was carried unanimously. That is why shellfish still cast their skins and men do not.
Thus not a few peoples appear to believe that the happy privilege of immortality, obtainable by the simple process of periodically shedding the skin, was once within reach of our species, but that through an unhappy chance it was transferred to certain of the lower creatures, such as serpents, crabs, lizards, and beetles. According to others, however, men were at one time actually in possession of this priceless boon, but forfeited it through the foolishness of an old woman. Thus the Melanesians of the Banks' Islands and the New Hebrides say that at first men never died, but that when they advanced in life they cast their skins like snakes and crabs, and came out with youth renewed. After a time a woman, growing old, went to a stream to change her skin ; according to some, she was the mother of the mythical or legendary hero Qat, according to others, she was Ul-ta-marama, Change-skin of the world. She threw off her old skin in the water, and observed that as it floated down it caught against a stick. Then she went home, where she had left her child.
But the child refused to recognize her, crying that its mother was an old woman, not like this young stranger. So to pacify the child she went after her cast integument and put it on. From that time mankind ceased to cast their skins and died.
A similar story of the origin of death is told in the Shortlands Islands and by the Kai, a Papuan tribe of north-eastern New Guinea. The Kai say that at first men did not die but renewed their youth. When their old brown skin grew wrinkled and ugly, they stepped into water, and stripping it off got a new, youthful white skin instead. In those days there lived an old grandmother with her grandchild. One day the old woman, weary of her advanced years, bathed in the river, cast off her withered old hide, and returned to the village, spick and span, in a fine new skin. Thus transformed, she climbed up the ladder and entered her house.
But when her grandchild saw her, he wept and squalled, and refused to believe that she was his granny. All her efforts to reassure and pacify him proving vain, she at last went back in a rage to the river, fished her wizened old skin out of the water, put it on, and returned to the house a hideous old hag again. The child was glad to see his granny come back, but she said to him, "The locusts cast their skins, but ye men shall die from this day forward." And sure enough, they have done so ever since.
The same story, with some trivial variations, is told by natives of the Admiralty Islands. They say that once on a time there was an old woman, and she was frail. She had two sons, and they went a-fishing, while she herself went to bathe. She stripped off her wrinkled old skin and came forth as young as she had been long ago. When her sons came from the fishing they were astonished to see her. The one said, " It is our mother"; but the other said, "She may be your mother, but she shall be my wife." Their mother overheard them and said, " What were you two saying ? " The two said, " Nothing ! We only said that you are our mother." " You are liars," she retorted, " I heard you both. If I had had my way, we should have grown to be old men and women, and then we should have cast our skin and been young men and young women. But you have had your way. We shall grow old men and old women, and then we shall die." With that she fetched her old skin, and put it on, and became an old woman again. As for us, her descendants, we grow up and we grow old. But if it had not been for those two young scapegraces, there would have been no end of our days, we should have lived for ever and ever.
Still farther away from the Banks Islands the very same story is repeated by the To Koolawi, a mountain tribe of Central Celebes. As reported by the Dutch missionaries who discovered it, the Celebes version of this widely diffused tale runs thus. In the olden time men had, like serpents and shrimps, the power of casting their skin, whereby they became young again. Now there was an old woman who had a grandchild. Once upon a time she went to the water to bathe, and thereupon laid aside her old skin and hung it up on a tree. With her youth quite restored she returned to the house. But her grandchild did not know her again, and would have nothing to do with his grandmother ; he kept on saying, " You are not my grandmother ; my grandmother was old, and you are young." Then the woman went back to the water and drew on her old skin again. But ever since that day men have lost the power of renewing their youth and must die.
A variant form of the Melanesian story is told in Anei-tyum, one of the New Hebrides. There they say that once an old man took off his skin before he began to work in his garden. He then looked young. But one day his two grandchildren, finding his skin folded away, pierced it through, making many holes therein. When the old man put it on again he shivered with cold, and seeing the holes in his skin he said to his grandchildren, " I thought we should live for ever and cast our skins and become young again ; but as you have done this we shall all die." Thus death came into the world.
Another Melanesian tradition ascribes the introduction of death to purely economic causes. In the days when men changed their skins and lived for ever, the permanence of property in the same hands was found to be a great inconvenience ; it bore very hard on the heirs, who were perpetually tantalized by the prospect of an inheritance to which it was legally and physically impossible that they should ever succeed. All this time Death had resided either in a shadowy underground region called Panoi or by the side of a volcanic vent in Santa Maria, it is not quite certain which ; but now in answer to the popular demand he was induced to come abroad and show himself. He was treated to a handsome funeral of the usual sort; that is to say, he was laid out on a board and covered with a pall, a pig was killed, and the mourners enjoyed a funeral feast and divided the property of the deceased. Afterwards, on the fifth day, the conch shell was blown to drive away the ghost. In short, nothing was left undone to soothe and gratify the feelings of the departed. So Death returned down the road to the underground region from which he had emerged ; and all mankind have since followed him thither.
While some peoples have supposed that in the early ages of the world men were immortal in virtue of periodically casting their skins, others have ascribed the same high privilege to a certain lunar sympathy, in consequence of which mankind passed through alternate states of growth and decay, of life and death, corresponding to the phases of the moon, without ever coming to an end. On this view, though death in a sense actually occurred, it was speedily repaired by resurrection, generally, it would seem, by resurrection after three days, since three days is the period between the disappearance of the old moon and the reappearance of the new.
Thus the Mentras or Mantras, a shy tribe of savages in the jungles of the Malay Peninsula, allege that in the early ages of the world men did not die, but only grew thin at the waning of the moon and then waxed fat again as she waxed to the full. Thus there was no check whatever on the population, which increased to an alarming extent. So a son of the first man brought this state of things to his father's notice, and asked him what was to be done. The first man, a good easy soul, said, " Leave things as they are " ; but his younger brother, who took a more Malthusian view of the matter, said, " No, let men die like the banana, leaving their offspring behind."
The question was submitted to the Lord of the Underworld, and he decided in favour of death. Ever since then men have ceased to renew their youth like the moon and have died like the banana.
In the Caroline Islands it is said that in the olden time death was unknown, or rather it was only a short sleep. Men died on the last day of the waning moon and came to life again on the appearance of the new moon, just as if they had wakened from a refreshing slumber. But an evil spirit somehow contrived that when men slept the sleep of death they should wake no more.
The Wotjobaluk, a tribe of south-eastern Australia, related that when all animals were men and women, some of them died and the moon used to say, " You up again," whereupon they came to life again. But once on a time an old man said, " Let them remain dead " ; and since then nobody has ever come to life again, except the moon, which still continues to do so down to this very day.
The Unmatjera and Kaitish, two tribes of central Australia, say that their dead used to be buried either in trees or underground, and that after three days they regularly rose from the dead. The Kaitish tell how this happy state of things came to an end. It was all the fault of a man of the Curlew totem, who found some men of the Little Wallaby totem in the act of burying a man of that ilk. For some reason the Curlew man flew into a passion and kicked the corpse into the sea.
Of course after that the dead man could not come to life again, and that is why nowadays nobody rises from the dead after three days, as everybody used to do long ago.
Though nothing is said about the moon in this narrative of the origin of death, the analogy of the preceding stories makes it probable that the three days, during which the dead used to lie in the grave, were the three days during which the moon lay " hid in her vacant interlunar cave." The Fijians also associated the possibility, though not the actual enjoyment, of human immortality with the phases of the moon. They say that of old two gods, the Moon and the Rat, discussed the proper end of man. The Moon said, " Let him be like me, who disappear awhile and then live again." But the Rat said, " Let man die as a rat dies." And he prevailed.
The Upotos of the Congo tell how men missed and the Moon obtained the boon of immortality. One day God, whom they call Libanza, sent for the people of the moon and the people of the earth. The people of the moon hastened to the deity, and were rewarded by him for their alacrity. " Because," said he, addressing the moon, " thou earnest to me at once when I called thee, thou shalt never die. Thou shalt be dead for but two days each month, and that only to rest thee ; and thou shalt return with greater splendor." But when the people of the earth at last appeared before Libanza, he was angry and said to them, " Because you came not at once to me when I called you, therefore you will die one day and not revive, except to come to me."
The Bahnars of eastern Cochin China explain the immortality of primitive man neither by the phases of the moon nor by the custom of casting the skin, but apparently by the recuperative virtue of a certain tree. They say that m the beginning, when people died, they used to be buried at the foot of a tree called Long Blo, and that after a time they always rose from the dead, not as infants, but as full-grown men and women. So the earth was peopled very fast, and all the inhabitants formed but one great town under the presidency of our first parents. In time men multiplied to such an extent that a certain lizard could not take his walks abroad without somebody treading on his tail. This vexed him, and the wily creature gave an insidious hint to the gravediggers. " Why bury the dead at the foot of the Long Blo tree ?" said he ; " bury them at the foot of Long Khung, and they will not come to life again. Let them die outright and be done with it." The hint was taken, and from that day men have not come to life again.
In this last story, as in many African tales, the instrument of bringing death among men is a lizard. We may conjecture that the reason for assigning the invidious office to a lizard was that this animal, like the serpent, casts its skin periodically, from which primitive man might infer, as he infers with regard to serpents, that the creature renews its youth and lives for ever. Thus all the myths which relate how a lizard or a serpent became the maleficent agent of human mortality may perhaps be referred to an old idea of a certain jealousy and rivalry between men and creatures which cast their skins, notably serpents and lizards ; we may suppose that in all such cases a story was told of a contest between man and his animal rivals for the possession of immortality, a contest in which, whether by mistake or guile, the victory always remained with the animals, who thus became immortal, while mankind was doomed to mortality.
The section "Myths and legends"
Read my works "Great antediluvian civilizations of Fomorians, Rakshasas, Viyevichs and Nagas. General characteristic and their role in the world history", "Viyevichs, Nagas and other snake (dragon)-people - the most ancient representatives of a "human" race", "Chinese dragons-lungs" and "Origin (parentage) of Nagas: legends, hypotheses and facts. Tribes of Nagas and the feast of snakes in India"