Ancient History & Civilisation


The meaning of beauty—Of art—The primitive sense of beauty—The painting of the body—Cosmetics—Tattooing—Scarification—Clothing—Ornaments—Pottery—Painting—Sculpture—Architecture—The dance—Music—Summary of the primitive preparation for civilization

After fifty thousand years of art men still dispute as to its sources in instinct and in history. What is beauty?—why do we admire it?—why do we endeavor to create it? Since this is no place for psychological discourse we shall answer, briefly and precariously, that beauty is any quality by which an object or a form pleases a beholder. Primarily and originally the object does not please the beholder because it is beautiful, but rather he calls it beautiful because it pleases him. Any object that satisfies desire will seem beautiful: food is beautiful—Thaïs is not beautiful—to a starving man. The pleasing object may as like as not be the beholder himself; in our secret hearts no other form is quite so fair as ours, and art begins with the adornment of one’s own exquisite body. Or the pleasing object may be the desired mate; and then the esthetic—beauty-feeling—sense takes on the intensity and creativeness of sex, and spreads the aura of beauty to everything that concerns the beloved one—to all forms that resemble her, all colors that adorn her, please her or speak of her, all ornaments and garments that become her, all shapes and motions that recall her symmetry and grace. Or the pleasing form may be a desired male; and out of the attraction that here draws frailty to worship strength comes that sense of sublimity—satisfaction in the presence of power—which creates the loftiest art of all. Finally nature herself—with our cooperation—may become both sublime and beautiful; not only because it simulates and suggests all the tenderness of women and all the strength of men, but because we project into it our own feelings and fortunes, our love of others and of ourselves—relishing in it the scenes of our youth, enjoying its quiet solitude as an escape from the storm of life, living with it through its almost human seasons of green youth, hot maturity, “mellow fruitfulness” and cold decay, and recognizing it vaguely as the mother that lent us life and will receive us in our death.

Art is the creation of beauty; it is the expression of thought or feeling in a form that seems beautiful or sublime, and therefore arouses in us some reverberation of that primordial delight which woman gives to man, or man to woman. The thought may be any capture of life’s significance, the feeling may be any arousal or release of life’s tensions. The form may satisfy us through rhythm, which falls in pleasantly with the alternations of our breath, the pulsation of our blood, and the majestic oscillations of winter and summer, ebb and flow, night and day; or the form may please us through symmetry, which is a static rhythm, standing for strength and recalling to us the ordered proportions of plants and animals, of women and men; or it may please us through color, which brightens the spirit or intensifies life; or finally the form may please us through veracity—because its lucid and transparent imitation of nature or reality catches some mortal loveliness of plant or animal, or some transient meaning of circumstance, and holds it still for our lingering enjoyment or leisurely understanding. From these many sources come those noble superfluities of life—song and dance, music and drama, pottery and painting, sculpture and architecture, literature and philosophy. For what is philosophy but an art—one more attempt to give “significant form” to the chaos of experience?

If the sense of beauty is not strong in primitive society it may be because the lack of delay between sexual desire and fulfilment gives no time for that imaginative enhancement of the object which makes so much of the object’s beauty. Primitive man seldom thinks of selecting women because of what we should call their beauty; he thinks rather of their usefulness, and never dreams of rejecting a strong-armed bride because of her ugliness. The Indian chief, being asked which of his wives was loveliest, apologized for never having thought of the matter. “Their faces,” he said, with the mature wisdom of a Franklin, “might be more or less handsome, but in other respects women are all the same.” Where a sense of beauty is present in primitive man it sometimes eludes us by being so different from our own. “All Negro races that I know,” says Reichard, “account a woman beautiful who is not constricted at the waist, and when the body from the arm-pits to the hips is the same breadth—‘like a ladder,’ says the Coast Negro.” Elephantine ears and an overhanging stomach are feminine charms to some African males; and throughout Africa it is the fat woman who is accounted loveliest. In Nigeria, says Mungo Park, “corpulence and beauty seem to be terms nearly synonymous. A woman of even moderate pretensions must be one who cannot walk without a slave under each arm to support her; and a perfect beauty is a load for a camel.” “Most savages,” says Briffault, “have a preference for what we should regard as one of the most unsightly features in a woman’s form, namely, long, hanging breasts.”35 “It is well known,” says Darwin, “that with many Hottentot women the posterior part of the body projects in a wonderful manner . . .; and Sir Andrew Smith is certain that this peculiarity is greatly admired by the men. He once saw a woman who was considered a beauty, and she was so immensely developed behind that when seated on level ground she could not rise, and had to push herself along until she came to a slope. . . . According to Burton the Somali men are said to choose their wives by ranging them in a line, and by picking her out who projects furthest a tergo. Nothing can be more hateful to a Negro than the opposite form.”36

Indeed it is highly probable that the natural male thinks of beauty in terms of himself rather than in terms of woman; art begins at home. Primitive men equaled modern men in vanity, incredible as this will seem to women. Among simple peoples, as among animals, it is the male rather than the female that puts on ornament and mutilates his body for beauty’s sake. In Australia, says Bonwick, “adornments are almost entirely monopolized by men”; so too in Melanesia, New Guinea, New Caledonia, New Britain, New Hanover, and among the North American Indians.37 In some tribes more time is given to the adornment of the body than to any other business of the day.38 Apparently the first form of art is the artificial coloring of the body—sometimes to attract women, sometimes to frighten foes. The Australian native, like the latest American belle, always carried with him a provision of white, red, and yellow paint for touching up his beauty now and then; and when the supply threatened to run out he undertook expeditions of some distance and danger to renew it. On ordinary days he contented himself with a few spots of color on his cheeks, his shoulders and his breast; but on festive occasions he felt shamefully nude unless his entire body was painted.39

In some tribes the men reserved to themselves the right to paint the body; in others the married women were forbidden to paint their necks.40 But women were not long in acquiring the oldest of the arts—cosmetics. When Captain Cook dallied in New Zealand he noticed that his sailors, when they returned from their adventures on shore, had artificially red or yellow noses; the paint of the native Helens had stuck to them.41 The Fellatah ladies of Central Africa spent several hours a day over their toilette: they made their fingers and toes purple by keeping them wrapped all night in henna leaves; they stained their teeth alternately with blue, yellow, and purple dyes; they colored their hair with indigo, and penciled their eyelids with sulphuret of antimony.42 Every Bongo lady carried in her dressing-case tweezers for pulling out eyelashes and eyebrows, lancet-shaped hairpins, rings and bells, buttons and clasps.43

The primitive soul, like the Periclean Greek, fretted over the transitoriness of painting, and invented tattooing, scarification and clothing as more permanent adornments. The women as well as the men, in many tribes, submitted to the coloring needle, and bore without flinching even the tattooing of their lips. In Greenland the mothers tattooed their daughters early, the sooner to get them married off.44 Most often, however, tattooing itself was considered insufficiently visible or impressive, and a number of tribes on every continent produced deep scars on their flesh to make themselves lovelier to their fellows, or more discouraging to their enemies. As Théophile Gautier put it, “having no clothes to embroider, they embroidered their skins.”45 Flints or mussel shells cut the flesh, and often a ball of earth was placed within the wound to enlarge the scar. The Torres Straits natives wore huge scars like epaulets; the Abeokuta cut themselves to produce scars imitative of lizards, alligators or tortoises.46 “There is,” says Georg, “no part of the body that has not been perfected, decorated, disfigured, painted, bleached, tattooed, reformed, stretched or squeezed, out of vanity or desire for ornament.”47 The Botocudos derived their name from a plug (botoque) which they inserted into the lower lip and the ears in the eighth year of life, and repeatedly replaced with a larger plug until the opening was as much as four inches in diameter.48 Hottentot women trained the labia minora to assume enoromous lengths, so producing at last the “Hottentot apron” so greatly admired by their men.49 Ear-rings and nose-rings were de rigueur; the natives of Gippsland believed that one who died without a nose-ring would suffer horrible torments in the next life.50 It is all very barbarous, says the modern lady, as she bores her ears for rings, paints her lips and her cheeks, tweezes her eyebrows, reforms her eyelashes, powders her face, her neck and her arms, and compresses her feet. The tattooed sailor speaks with superior sympathy of the “savages” he has known; and the Continental student, horrified by primitive mutilations, sports his honorific scars.

Clothing was apparently, in its origins, a form of ornament, a sexual deterrent or charm rather than an article of use against cold or shame.51 The Cimbri were in the habit of tobogganing naked over the snow.52 When Darwin, pitying the nakedness of the Fuegians, gave one of them a red cloth as a protection against the cold, the native tore it into strips, which he and his companions then used as ornaments; as Cook had said of them, timelessly, they were “content to be naked, but ambitious to be fine.”53 In like manner the ladies of the Orinoco cut into shreds the materials given them by the Jesuit Fathers for clothing; they wore the ribbons so made around their necks, but insisted that “they would be ashamed to wear clothing.”54 An old author describes the Brazilian natives as usually naked, and adds: “Now alreadie some doe weare apparell, but esteem it so little that they weare it rather for fashion than for honesties sake, and because they are commanded to weare it; . . . as is well seene by some that sometimes come abroad with certaine garments no further than the navell, without any other thing, or others onely a cap on their heads, and leave the other garments at home.”55 When clothing became something more than an adornment it served partly to indicate the married status of a loyal wife, partly to accentuate the form and beauty of woman. For the most part primitive women asked of clothing precisely what later women have asked—not that it should quite cover their nakedness, but that it should enhance or suggest their charms. Everything changes, except woman and man.

From the beginning both sexes preferred ornaments to clothing. Primitive trade seldom deals in necessities; it is usually confined to articles of adornment or play.56 Jewelry is one of the most ancient elements of civilization; in tombs twenty thousand years old, shells and teeth have been found strung into necklaces.57 From simple beginnings such embellishments soon reached impressive proportions, and played a lofty rôle in life. The Galla women wore rings to the weight of six pounds, and some Dinka women carried half a hundredweight of decoration. One African belle wore copper rings which became hot under the sun, so that she had to employ an attendant to shade or fan her. The Queen of the Wabunias on the Congo wore a brass collar weighing twenty pounds; she had to lie down every now and then to rest. Poor women who were so unfortunate as to have only light jewelry imitated carefully the steps of those who carried great burdens of bedizenment.58

The first source of art, then, is akin to the display of colors and plumage on the male animal in mating time; it lies in the desire to adorn and beautify the body. And just as self-love and mate-love, overflowing, pour out their surplus of affection upon nature, so the impulse to beautify passes from the personal to the external world. The soul seeks to express its feeling in objective ways, through color and form; art really begins when men undertake to beautify things. Perhaps its first external medium was pottery. The potter’s wheel, like writing and the state, belongs to the historic civilizations; but even without it primitive men—or rather women—lifted this ancient industry to an art, and achieved merely with clay, water and deft fingers an astonishing symmetry of form; witness the pottery fashioned by the Baronga of South Africa,59 or by the Pueblo Indians.60

When the potter applied colored designs to the surface of the vessel he had formed, he was creating the art of painting. In primitive hands painting is not yet an independent art; it exists as an adjunct to pottery and statuary. Nature men made colors out of clay, and the Andamanese made oil colors by mixing ochre with oils or fats.61 Such colors were used to ornament weapons, implements, vases, clothing, and buildings. Many hunting tribes of Africa and Oceania painted upon the walls of their caves or upon neighboring rocks vivid representations of the animals that they sought in the chase.62

Sculpture, like painting, probably owed its origin to pottery: the potter found that he could mold not only articles of use, but imitative figures that might serve as magic amulets, and then as things of beauty in themselves. The Eskimos carved caribou antlers and walrus ivory into figurines of animals and men.63 Again, primitive man sought to mark his hut, or a totem-pole, or a grave with some image that would indicate the object worshiped, or the person deceased; at first he carved merely a face upon a post, then a head, then the whole post; and through this filial marking of graves sculpture became an art.64 So the ancient dwellers on Easter Island topped with enormous monolithic statues the vaults of their dead; scores of such statues, many of them twenty feet high, have been found there; some, now prostrate in ruins, were apparently sixty feet tall.

How did architecture begin? We can hardly apply so magnificent a term to the construction of the primitive hut; for architecture is not mere building, but beautiful building. It began when for the first time a man or a woman thought of a dwelling in terms of appearance as well as of use. Probably this effort to give beauty or sublimity to a structure was directed first to graves rather than to homes; while the commemorative pillar developed into statuary, the tomb grew into a temple. For to primitive thought the dead were more important and powerful than the living; and, besides, the dead could remain settled in one place, while the living wandered too often to warrant their raising permanent homes.

Even in early days, and probably long before he thought of carving objects or building tombs, man found pleasure in rhythm, and began to develop the crying and warbling, the prancing and preening, of the animal into song and dance. Perhaps, like the animal, he sang before he learned to talk,65 and danced as early as he sang. Indeed no art so characterized or expressed primitive man as the dance. He developed it from primordial simplicity to a complexity unrivaled in civilization, and varied it into a thousand forms. The great festivals of the tribes were celebrated chiefly with communal and individual dancing; great wars were opened with martial steps and chants; the great ceremonies of religion were a mingling of song, drama and dance. What seems to us now to be forms of play were probably serious matters to early men; they danced not merely to express themselves, but to offer suggestions to nature or the gods; for example, the periodic incitation to abundant reproduction was accomplished chiefly through the hypnotism of the dance. Spencer derived the dance from the ritual of welcoming a victorious chief home from the wars; Freud derived it from the natural expression of sensual desire, and the group technique of erotic stimulation; if one should assert, with similar narrowness, that the dance was born of sacred rites and mummeries, and then merge the three theories into one, there might result as definite a conception of the origin of the dance as can be attained by us today.

From the dance, we may believe, came instrumental music and the drama. The making of such music appears to arise out of a desire to mark and accentuate with sound the rhythm of the dance, and to intensify with shrill or rhythmic notes the excitement necessary to patriotism or procreation. The instruments were limited in range and accomplishment, but almost endless in variety: native ingenuity exhausted itself in fashioning horns, trumpets, gongs, tamtams, clappers, rattles, castanets, flutes and drums from horns, skins, shells, ivory, brass, copper, bamboo and wood; and it ornamented them with elaborate carving and coloring. The taut string of the bow became the origin of a hundred instruments from the primitive lyre to the Stradivarius violin and the modern pianoforte. Professional singers, like professional dancers, arose among the tribes; and vague scales, predominantly minor in tone, were developed.66

With music, song and dance combined, the “savage” created for us the drama and the opera. For the primitive dance was frequently devoted to mimicry; it imitated, most simply, the movements of animals and men, and passed to the mimetic performance of actions and events. So some Australian tribes staged a sexual dance around a pit ornamented with shrubbery to represent the vulva, and, after ecstatic and erotic gestures and prancing, cast their spears symbolically into the pit. The northwestern tribes of the same island played a drama of death and resurrection differing only in simplicity from the medieval mystery and modern Passion plays: the dancers slowly sank to the ground, hid their heads under the boughs they carried, and simulated death; then, at a sign from their leader, they rose abruptly in a wild triumphal chant and dance announcing the resurrection of the soul.67 In like manner a thousand forms of pantomime described events significant to the history of the tribe, or actions important in the individual life. When rhythm disappeared from these performances the dance passed into the drama, and one of the greatest of art-forms was born.

In these ways precivilized men created the forms and bases of civilization. Looking backward upon this brief survey of primitive culture, we find every element of civilization except writing and the state. All the modes of economic life are invented for us here: hunting and fishing, herding and tillage, transport and building, industry and commerce and finance. All the simpler structures of political life are organized: the clan, the family, the village community, and the tribe; freedom and order—those hostile foci around which civilization revolves—find their first adjustment and reconciliation; law and justice begin. The fundamentals of morals are established: the training of children, the regulation of the sexes, the inculcation of honor and decency, of manners and loyalty. The bases of religion are laid, and its hopes and terrors are applied to the encouragement of morals and the strengthening of the group. Speech is developed into complex languages, medicine and surgery appear, and modest beginnings are made in science, literature and art. All in all it is a picture of astonishing creation, of form rising out of chaos, of one road after another being opened from the animal to the sage. Without these “savages,” and their hundred thousand years of experiment and groping, civilization could not have been. We owe almost everything to them—as a fortunate, and possibly degenerate, youth inherits the means to culture, security and ease through the long toil of an unlettered ancestry.

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