“No man beheld his fellow, no more could men know each other. In heaven the gods were afraid ... They drew back, they climbed up into the heaven of Anu. The gods crouched like dogs, they cowered by the walls."
Another episode in the same epic, when Nergal, the god of the dead, brings before Gilgamesh an apparition of his friend, Eabani, recalls the impressive scene, when the witch of Endor summons the spirit of Samuel before Saul.
When legends began to grow up round the names of traditional heroes, fierce encounters with giants and monsters were invented to glorify their strength and prowess. David, with a stone from his sling, slew Goliath. The crafty Ulysses put out the eye of Polyphemus. Grettir, according to the Icelandic saga, overcame Glam, the malevolent, death-dealing vampire who “went riding the roofs.” Beowulf fearlessly descended into the turbid mere to grapple with Grendel’s mother. Folktales and ballads, in which incidents similar to those in myths and heroic legends occur, are often overshadowed by terror. Figures like the Demon Lover, who bears off his mistress in the fatal craft and sinks her in the sea, and the cannibal bridegroom, outwitted at last by the artfulness of one of his brides, appear in the folk-lore of many lands. Through every century there glide uneasy spirits, groaning for vengeance. Andrew Lang mentions the existence of a papyrus fragment, found attached to a wooden statuette, in which an ancient Egyptian scribe addresses a letter to the Khou, or spirit, of his dead wife, beseeching her not to haunt him. One of the ancestors of the savage were-wolf, who figures in Marryat’s Phantom Ship, may perhaps be discovered in Petronius’ Supper of Trimalchio. The descent of Bram Stoker’s infamous vampire Dracula may be traced back through centuries of legend. Hobgoblins, demons, and witches mingle grotesquely with the throng of beautiful princesses, queens in glittering raiment, fairies and elves. Without these ugly figures, folk-tales would soon lose their power to charm. All tale tellers know that fear is a potent spell. The curiosity which drove Bluebeard’s wife to explore the hidden chamber lures us on to know the worst, and as we listen to horrid stories, we snatch a fearful joy. Human nature desires not only to be amused and entertained, but moved to pity and fear. All can sympathise with the youth, who could not shudder and who would fain acquire the gift.
From English literature we gain no more than brief, tantalising glimpses of the vast treasury of folk-tales and ballads that existed before literature became an art and that lived on side by side with it, vitalising and enriching it continually. Yet here and there we catch sudden gleams like the fragment in King Lear:
“Childe Roland to the dark tower
His word was still Fie, Foh and Fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
or Benedick’s quotation from the Robber Bridegroom: