Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp

Arya and His Seven Sons

Although we do not believe in riding on the backs of fairies, as people long ago did, and we have no magic wand to help us to get to far-away lands and far-away times when old people and young, too, played and acted in many ways much like children, yet our imagination will take us to the land of Long Ago, where we may see our forefathers—the Aryans—as they lived their simple, daily lives; and there for a time we will live and work and play and struggle with them. Perhaps thus we may be able to feel something of what they have done for us in gaining a little control and understanding of nature, which to them seemed so savage, and which, as they thought, often grew angry with them and tried to hurt them; but which we now know never gets angry, but gives us the storm, the wind, the snow and the sunshine, that the world may be all the more beautiful and rich with fruit, and grain, and flower.

Now we are to imagine that we are really living in that far-off misty time. As far as the eye can see on all sides, stretches a beautiful grass-covered plain. Near us flows a broad, shallow river, with gentle murmur, southward. Its banks are concealed by graceful willow trees that grow even to the water's edge, while tall reeds grow far out into the river. We are able to trace the course of the river far into the distance, both north and south, by the shining silver birch trees which rise one by one among the willows. These willows and birches, so close to the river, are the only trees in sight. The sun is low in the west. The hush of solitude is all around, except that afar off we hear the mournful cooing of a solitary dove.

Suddenly from out the west come lowing cattle toward the stream. Now all of them disappear down one of the narrow and deep gullies that cut the plain, but which make no apparent break in the level expanse of grass as one looks over the vast prairie. Up they come again, making straight for the river. We watch them as they push their way through the willows and reeds and take deep draughts from the quiet stream.

So intent have we been on the cattle that we are startled to see near us on the bank a wild-looking man, who has been tending and following the herd. He is tall, straight and strong, with bold, fearless eyes, broad chest and sinewy arms. His skin is fair. His light-brown hair falls in tangled masses to his shoulders; his clothing consists mainly of a cow's hide thrown over the shoulders and gathered in at the waist by a girdle. Shoes, also made of hide, protect his feet. By his side stands a huge bull dog, attentively watching the cattle. The herdsman, trusting his cattle for the moment to his faithful dog, turns slowly to the west.

The great sun god is bestowing his parting blessing on the earth; his beams of light extend like a gentle hand over stream and grassy plain. Peace rests over all. The all-embracing Sky-father bends his protecting arch of blue over all his children. The power, peace and beauty of the scene strangely stir the feelings of this child of nature, and his heart goes up in mute thanksgiving and prayer to these, his gods. While he stands thus, the dove we heard in the distance gives its mournful coo close at hand. He grows pale as he listens, and his superstitious anxiety increases as the bird flies just in front of him; for to them the dove is a bird of ill omen, and he believes that when one flies across his path it is sure to bring him bad luck. At this moment the sun, as if in answer to his prayer and in comforting assurance of his protection, throws across the western sky a glorious band of light.

The sturdy herdsman, seeing in this the smiling face of his great sun god, turns away comforted, feeling that surely the gods of light and strength are stronger than those of evil. He gives a loud call to the cattle, the great knowing dog walks intelligently toward them, and they come slowly and reluctantly from the water. He drives them to a part of the plain where the grass is very long and green and leaves them there in charge of the faithful dog.

He then makes his way homeward. Homeward? Yes. But there is no house that we can see as we follow him,—only a number of rude wagons placed end to end so as to form a large circle, in the center of which are the glowing embers from a great open bonfire. Men, women and children, dressed much like the herdsman, in shaggy skins of animals, come and go in their work, dressing skins, carrying wood for the fire, carrying water, milking, crushing wheat, or sit on the ground idly talking or watching. Supper is being prepared. The air is laden with odor of roast beef. Circling around the fire are great pieces of beef, roasting on the ends of sticks which have been driven slantwise into the ground. Occasionally flames rise from the embers or the burning logs and burn the meat. A gray-headed man, dressed in better clothing than the others and giving orders with an air of authority, is waited on submissively by any who happen to come near, as if he were the ruler or chief. Indeed he is. He is known as the "house master," and his word is absolute law to every one in this great family or household, which numbers over sixty people. Near him, at his right, is a fine, brave-looking man, his oldest son, who will succeed him as housemaster. And by his side is his youngest son, a boy about ten years old, the strongest, brightest and bravest little fellow in the whole camp. This is Arya.

Arya is watching his mother prepare the meal for his father, and he smacks his lips as she sprinkles some dirty coarse salt over it; for salt is so scarce and they know so little how to make it, that it is the greatest luxury and is eaten only by the few honored ones of the family. The mother tells her boy of the dangers the father underwent when he traded some fine cattle for a small skin of salt, and how it had almost cost him his life because of the treachery of one of the traders. Then the mother takes out from under some hot ashes, another luxury, which only the chief and his sons can afford,—a hard wheaten cake. It is unleavened and unsalted, and made simply by baking the dough made from roughly crushed wheat mixed with water. These early people have not yet learned to cultivate the land, and wild grain is very scarce. When the meal is prepared, the family does not sit down to a table with a snowy cloth and pretty dishes, as we at home do, nor do they begin the meal with quiet manners or thanks to their gods. The men roughly help themselves as soon as they think the meat sufficiently roasted. They bite off great mouthfuls which they swallow with little chewing. The women and children look on while the men gorge themselves. Arya looks so wistful that his father cuts off smaller pieces with a huge knife of stone and gives to him and his three little brothers. The mother and sister get no meat at all. The boys snatch their chunks and gnaw on them savagely much like the men. Though the outside is browned and even burned, the inside is still a bright red and almost raw. But that does not matter. Indeed, when wood and reeds are scarce or water-soaked, all eat their meat raw. The women who have been milking bring milk in large jars and leathern bottles. The men raise these to their mouths and drink deep. They drink and eat great quantities of food, crack the bones after gnawing the flesh from them, suck the marrow out as the choicest morsel of meat and gorge themselves until they can eat no more. The women and children must eat the scraps that are left.

So supper is over at last. There are no beautiful finger-bowls or dainty napkins; no towels for the face or brushes for the teeth; no table to clear or dishes to wash. Not very particular nor very cleanly are these early Aryan children of the plains. If it were not for the exercise in which they engage, and the abundance of free and wholesome air they breathe, the dirt in which they live would breed disease. But they are a healthy, fine race of people of whom the herdsman we first saw, and who has been eating as ravenously as the rest, is a noble type.

The sun sinks now below the horizon, and Night covers all with a mantle of darkness. It is time to go to sleep. Most of the family lie down on the ground with no covering. They watch the stars as they come out one by one, thinking that the Sky, the greatest of all their gods, is opening his eyes to watch over the world through the night. Some, more tender than others, wrap themselves in skins, as the spring nights are still chilly. Others, who need better shelter, among whom are mothers with little babies, creep in under the wagons. The barking of the dogs does not disturb them. Even the howl of the wolves does not awaken them unless it be near. The frogs have begun their nightly lullaby. These children of nature fall asleep, trusting to the protection of the Sky-father until the Sun-god lifts up his rosy fingers once more in the morning to bless them. Rising one by one, they give themselves a long yawn and a hearty stretch and so are ready for breakfast—no combing of hair, or washing of face and hands, or brushing of the teeth, or putting on of fresh clothes. They do not realize that they are dirty and untidy, but they do appreciate something of the glory and beauty of the Dawn, who comes, a beautiful god, ever fresh, clean and bright to welcome them. This lesson thus held continually before them by nature may slowly teach them to be cleaner and purer. Breakfast is much like the meal we have already seen. They are in no great hurry after eating, but, one by one, most of the men go to look after the cattle. Arya is allowed to help drive the great herd to the grassy plain, and very proud and important he feels as he strides along after his father, and watches the great dog keep the stragglers from going astray.

The mother's work, like that of all the women, is harder and more constant. Women in this far-away time are the slaves of the men. They do all the heavy work, such as carrying water and wood, making and keeping up the fire, cooking, milking, skinning and dressing slain animals, cleaning, drying and tawing the hides, making mantles, shoes and bottles from the leather, spinning, weaving, and gathering and crushing the wild grain for bread; in fact, everything which requires constant toil.

Today Arya's mother has planned to make a fine new mantle for her husband; for in the fierce fight that he and the other men had with the wolves only a few nights before to keep them from the cattle, his sheepskin mantle was torn almost to pieces. Though summer is coming, the new garment is to be made of wool, for neither flax nor cotton is yet known to these early wanderers. The mother walks to the wagon, takes out a great armful of wool and looks for the spindle and distaff. They cannot be found; for they had fallen out of the wagon one day unnoticed, when the people were moving southward on the river for better pasture. This will delay her spinning, for new tools must be made. So leaving the babies in charge of Arya's sister, a girl eight years old, she goes to the nearest birch tree, breaks off a smooth limb, cuts it to the proper length, trims off the twigs, splits it down some distance, and spreads it apart by placing a wedge or stick in the split, so that when it is dry, the halves will remain apart, and form a fork to hold the wool. This is the distaff. This done, another piece of the limb is taken and shaped to taper at each end. Near each end a small notch is cut. Then she walks a long distance northward to a clay bed she saw as the family passed that way to these new pasture lands. Fortunately, the clay is moist. She pats some of it around the stick in the middle, so that when given a twirl, it will turn round and round, something like a top, and so twist the thread fastened in the notch. This is the spindle, and when the clay is dry and the halves of the distaff set, the spinning machine is complete.

The next day is begun the spinning for the new mantle. Tying a belt of sheepskin around her waist, she sticks the end of the distaff under it, slips a large handful of wool from the roll at her side in the cleft, and begins to twist a small bit of it around and around in her fingers until she has a thread. This is then tied to the end of the spindle, to which she gives a swift twirl. It pulls down the woolen thread, which is ever growing longer, and helps to twist it. The thread grows swiftly under the skillful hands of the woman, and the spindle soon rests upon the ground. It is quickly picked up, the thread wound around and around above the weight and fastened securely in the notch. Many times the same act is repeated, until the spindle is full on both ends. The yarn is then wound off and the spindle filled again. All day she spins, and day after day, until enough yarn is made, of which to weave a mantle.

But before this is woven into the long straight strip much like a strip of carpet which is to form the principal article of clothing for her husband, her duties call her to another occupation. Almost all the pottery belonging to the household has been broken in fragments by the mad rush of an angry bull that had escaped from a herdsman and had made its way into the midst of the camp. New jars must be made at once; so Arya's mother, the leader among the women, with three others, trudges off again through the dewy grass to the clay bed. They talk little to each other as they walk and later as they work, for in fact these almost slave women have but little to talk about. But their few words are aided by smiles and frowns and movements of the head, arms and body. They are talking of their work for the day. Arya's mother explains that one of the pieces of pottery she will make will be a large one, large enough to hold enough grain to make the housemaster his favorite wheaten cakes, and one which they may take with them in the wagon as they move from place to place. At last they reach the level stretch of barren clay which is still wet from recent rains. Selecting a place where the clay seems particularly fine and free from sticks and stones, they kneel upon the ground and begin at once to dig up the clay with horn and bone knives, and slowly to shape their clay jars. They must be very careful to free the clay from lumps and to have it throughout equally smooth and soft. If they do not, the jars will burst while burning. The younger women are content to shape simple ball-shaped jugs which will be used for carrying and holding water or milk. But Arya's mother, who is very skillful, makes her large jar with an artistic outward flare from the neck. With a small round bone she makes it beautiful with slant parallel lines by pressing the bone lengthwise into the stiff moist clay, and with the round end of a small stick she has brought, adds rows and groups of dots. You see even in this earliest time people began to try to make beautiful things as well as those which were useful. Then she places her jar where later the fire will be made for burning it, and afterward helps the other women to form their pieces more regularly and beautifully. After this is done, she continues with her own work, shaping with firm skillful fingers water jugs and pots.

Many hours do these busy women work until a number of variously shaped vessels are drying in the clear air and warm sun. Then they rise rather stiffly, and look anxiously about the sky for signs of rain. For if rain should come before the pottery is ready for use, the day's work will be lost. The Sky-father is kind to his children this time, and wears a smiling face. When the pottery has dried sufficiently the women carry sticks, bound in great bundles, on their backs to the place of burning. Last of all is brought a jar in which, carefully protected by ashes, are some live coals from the household fire, for this was thousands of years before there were any matches. The fuel is laid around the circle of jars some little distance away and is then lighted. The fire is attended to with great care; for should it die down in places or the heat within in any way become irregular, or should a burning stick fall inward on the jars, the result would be ruin. When the fire is burning steadily, it is left in care of one of the women. Day and night for four days it is watched and fed, and is then allowed to die down gradually. When thoroughly cooled, the jars are anxiously examined by the women. Some of them are cracked throughout, and the sides fall apart when moved. Some have warped so in the burning that they are useless. Others are badly smoked. But there are left others in which the women take much pride. Arya's mother loses not a single piece, and her work is much admired. To them, perhaps the dots and lines on the jar seemed as beautiful as a beautiful plate or a beautiful piece of Royal Worcester does to us.

Day by day do the women of the household work; day by day do the men watch the cattle and protect them from wolves. Day by day do the little children play on the plains, imitating their elders, learning to do their work and learning to worship the Sun, Sky, Storm and other gods of nature. And we day by day will work and play with them as we go on studying about them, and learn with them the lesson of their slow and painful struggle for a little happier and better life than that of wandering herdsmen.