Myth, Ritual, and Religion/Volume 1/Chapter 2
NEW SYSTEM PROPOSED.
The past systems of mythological interpretation have been briefly sketched. It has been shown that the practical need for a reconciliation between religion and morality on one side, and the stories about the gods on the other, produced the hypotheses of Theagenes and Metrodorus, of Socrates and Euemerus, of Aristotle and Plutarch. It has been shown that in each case the reconcilers argued on the basis of their own ideas and of the philosophies of their time. The early physicist thought that myth concealed a physical philosophy; the early etymologist saw in it a confusion of language; the early political speculator supposed that myth was an invention of legislators; the literary Euemerus found the secret of myths in the course of an imaginary voyage to a fabled island. Then came the moment of the Christian attacks, and Pagan philosophers, touched with Oriental pantheism, recognised in myths certain pantheistic symbols and a cryptic revelation of their own Neo-platonism. When the gods were dead and their altars fallen, then antiquaries brought their curiosity to the problem of explaining myth. Christians recognised in it a depraved version of the Jewish sacred writings, and found the ark on every mountain-top of Greece. The critical nineteenth century brought in, with Otfried Müller and Lobeck, a closer analysis; and finally, in the sudden rise of comparative philology, it chanced that philologists annexed the domain of myths. Each of these systems had its own amount of truth, but each certainly failed to unravel the whole web of tradition and of foolish faith.
Meantime a new science has come into existence, the science which studies man in the sum of all his works and thoughts, as evolved through the whole process of his development. This science, Comparative Anthropology, studies the development of law out of custom; the development of weapons from the stick or stone to the latest repeating rifle; the development of society from the horde to the nation. It is a study which does not despise the most backward nor degraded tribe, nor neglect the most civilised, and it frequently finds in Australians or Nootkas the germ of ideas and institutions which Greeks or Romans brought to perfection, or retained, little altered from their early rudeness, in the midst of civilisation.
It is inevitable that this science should also try its hand on mythology. Our purpose is to employ the anthropological method—the study of the evolution of ideas, from the savage to the barbarous, and thence to the civilised stage—in the province of myth, ritual, and religion. It has been shown that the light of this method had dawned on Eusebius in his polemic with the heathen apologists. Spencer, the head of Corpus, Cambridge (1630–93), had really no other scheme in his mind in his erudite work on Hebrew Ritual. Spencer was a student of man's religions generally, and he came to the conclusion that Hebrew ritual was but an expurgated, and, so to speak, divinely "licensed" adaptation of heathen customs at large. We do but follow his guidance on less perilous ground when we seek for the original forms of classical rite and myth in the parallel usages and legends of the most backward races.
Fontenelle, in the last century, stated, with all the clearness of the French intellect, the system which is partially worked out in this essay—the system which explains the irrational element in myth as inherited from savagery. Fontenelle's paper (Sur l'Origine des Fables) is brief, sensible, and witty, and requires little but copious evidence to make it adequate. But he merely threw out the idea, and left it to be neglected.
Among other founders of the anthropological or historical school of mythology, De Brosses should not be forgotten. In his Dieux Fétiches (1760) he follows the path which Eusebius indicated—the path of Spencer and Fontenelle—now the beaten road of Tylor and M'Lennan and Mannhardt.
In anthropology, in the science of Waitz, Tylor, and M'Lennan, in the examination of man's faith in the light of his social, legal, and historical conditions generally, we find, with Mannhardt, some of the keys of myth. This science "makes it manifest that the different stages through which humanity has passed in its intellectual evolution have still their living representatives among various existing races. The study of these lower races is an invaluable instrument for the interpretation of the survivals from earlier stages, which we meet in the full civilisation of cultivated peoples, and whose origins were in the remotest fetichism and savagery."
It is by following this road, and by the aid of anthropology and of human history, that we propose to seek for a demonstrably actual condition of the human intellect, whereof myth would be the natural and inevitable fruit. In all the earlier theories which we have sketched, inquirers took it for granted that the myth-makers were men with philosophic and moral ideas like their own—ideas which, from some reason of religion or state, they expressed in bizarre terms of allegory. We shall attempt, on the other hand, to prove that the human mind has passed through a condition quite unlike that of civilised men—a condition in which things seemed natural and rational that now appear unnatural and devoid of reason, and in which, therefore, if myths were evolved, they would, if they survived into civilisation, be such as civilised men find strange and perplexing.
Our first question will be, Is there a stage of human society and of the human intellect in which facts that appear to us to be monstrous and irrational—facts corresponding to the wilder incidents of myth—are accepted as ordinary occurrences of everyday life? In the region of romantic rather than of mythical invention we know that there is such a state. Mr. Lane, in his preface to the Arabian Nights, says that the Arabs have an advantage over us as story-tellers. They can introduce such incidents as the change of a man into a horse, or of a woman into a dog, or the intervention of an Afreet without any more scruple than our own novelists feel in describing a duel or the concealment of a will. Among the Arabs the agencies of magic and of spirits are regarded as at least as probable and common as duels and concealments of wills seem to be thought by European novelists. It is obvious that we need look no farther for the explanation of the supernatural events in Arab romances. Now let us apply this system to mythology. It is admitted that Greeks, Romans, Aryans of India in the age of the Sanskrit commentators, and Egyptians of the Ptolemaic and earlier ages, were as much puzzled as we are by the mythical adventures of their gods. But is there any known stage of the human intellect in which similar adventures, and the metamorphoses of men into animals, trees, stars, and all else that puzzles us in the civilised mythologies, are regarded as possible incidents of daily human life? Our answer is, that everything in the civilised mythologies which we regard as irrational seems only part of the accepted and natural order of things to contemporary savages, and in the past seemed equally rational and natural to savages concerning whom we have historical information. Our theory is, therefore, that the savage and senseless element in mythology is, for the most part, a legacy from ancestors of the civilised races who were once in an intellectual state not higher, but probably lower, than that of Australians, Bushmen, Red Indians, the lower races of South America, and other worse than barbaric peoples. As the ancestors of the Greeks, Aryans of India, Egyptians, and others advanced in civilisation, their religious thought was shocked and surprised by myths (originally dating from the period of savagery, and natural in that period) which were preserved down to the time of Pausanias by local priesthoods, or which were stereotyped in the ancient poems of Hesiod and Homer, or in the Brahmanas and Vedas of India, or were retained in the popular religion of Egypt. This theory recommended itself to Lobeck. "We may believe that ancient and early tribes framed gods like unto themselves in action and in experience, and that the allegorical softening down of myths is the explanation added later by descendants who had attained to purer ideas of divinity, yet dared not reject the religion of their ancestors." The senseless element in the myths would, by this theory, be for the most part a "survival;" and the age and condition of human thought whence it survived would be one in which our most ordinary ideas about the nature of things and the limits of possibility did not yet exist, when all things were conceived of in quite other fashion; the age, that is, of savagery.
It is universally admitted that "survivals" of this kind do account for many anomalies in our institutions, in law, politics, society, even in dress and manners. If isolated fragments of earlier ages abide in these, it is still more probable that other fragments will survive in anything so closely connected as is mythology with the conservative religious sentiment and tradition. Our object, then, is to prove that the "silly, savage, and irrational" element in the myths of civilised peoples is, as a rule, either a survival from the period of savagery, or has been borrowed from savage neighbours by a cultivated people, or, lastly, is an imitation by later poets of old savage data. For example, to explain the constellations as metamorphosed men, animals, or other objects of terrestrial life is the habit of savages,—a natural habit among people who regard all things as on one level of personal life and intelligence. When the stars, among civilised Greeks or Aryans of India, are also popularly regarded as transformed and transfigured men, animals, and the like, this belief may be either a survival from the age when the ancestors of Greeks and Indians were in the intellectual condition of the Australian Murri; or the star-name and star-myth may have been borrowed from savages, or from cultivated peoples once savage or apt to copy savages; or, as in the case of the Coma Berenices, a poet of a late age may have invented a new artificial myth on the old lines of savage fancy. This method of interpreting a certain element in mythology is, we must repeat, no new thing, though, to judge from the protests of several mythologists, it is new to many inquirers. We have seen that Eusebius threw out proposals in this direction; that Spencer, De Brosses, and Fontenelle unconsciously followed him; and we have quoted from Lobeck a statement of a similar opinion. The whole matter has been stated as clearly as possible by Mr. E. B. Tylor:—
"Savages have been for untold ages, and still are, living in the myth—making stage of the human mind. It was through sheer ignorance and neglect of this direct knowledge how and by what manner of men myths are really made that their simple philosophy has come to be buried under masses of commentator's rubbish...." Mr. Tylor goes on thus (and his words contain the gist of our argument): "The general thesis maintained is that myth arose in the savage condition prevalent in remote ages among the whole human race; that it remains comparatively unchanged among the rude modern tribes who have departed least from these primitive conditions, while higher and later civilisations, partly by retaining its actual principles, and partly by carrying on its inherited results in the form of ancestral tradition, continued it not merely in toleration, but in honour." Elsewhere Mr. Tylor points out that by this method of interpretation we may study myths in various stages of evolution, from the rude guess of the savage at an explanation of natural phenomena, through the systems of the higher barbarisms, or lower civilisations (as in ancient Mexico), and the sacerdotage of India, till myth reaches its most human form in Greece. Yet even in Greek myth the beast is not wholly cast out, and Hellas by no means "let the ape and tiger die." That Mr. Tylor does not exclude the Aryan race from his general theory is plain enough. "What is the Aryan conception of the Thunder-god but a poetic elaboration of thoughts inherited from the savage stage through which the primitive Aryans had passed?"
The advantages of our hypothesis (if its legitimacy be admitted) are obvious. In the first place, we have to deal with an actual demonstrable condition of the human intellect. The existence of the savage state in all its various degrees, and of the common intellectual habits and conditions which are shared by the backward peoples, and again the survival of many of these in civilisation, are indubitable facts. Wie are not obliged to fall back upon some fanciful and unsupported theory of what "primitive man" did, and said, and thought. Nay, more; we escape all the fallacies connected with the terms "primitive man." We are not compelled (as will be shown later) to prove that the first men of all were like modern savages, nor that savages represent primitive man. It may be that the lowest extant savages are the nearest of existing peoples to the type of the first human beings. But on this point it is unnecessary for us to dogmatise. If we can show that, whether men began their career as savages or not, they have at least passed through the savage status or have borrowed the ideas of races in the savage status, that is all we need. We escape from all the snares of theories (incapable of historical proof) about the really primeval and original condition of the human family.
Once more, our theory naturally attaches itself the general system of Evolution. We are enabled to examine mythology as a thing of gradual development and of slow and manifold modifications, corresponding in some degree to the various changes in the general progress of society. Thus we shall watch the barbaric conditions of thought which produce barbaric myths, while these in their turn are retained, or perhaps purified, or perhaps explained away, by more advanced civilisations. Further, we shall be able to detect the survival of the savage ideas with least modification, and the persistence of the savage myths with least change, among the classes of a civilised population which have shared least in the general advance. These classes are, first, the rustic peoples, dwelling far from cities and schools, on heaths or by the sea; second, the conservative local priesthoods, who retain the more crude and ancient myths of the local gods and heroes after these have been modified or rejected by the purer sense of philosophers and national poets. Thus much of ancient myth is a woven warp and woof of three threads: the savage donnée, the civilised and poetic modification of the savage donnée, the version of the original fable which survives in popular tales and in the "sacred chapters" of local priesthoods. A critical study of these three stages in myth is in accordance with the recognised practice of science. Indeed, the whole system is only an application to this particular province, mythology, of the method by which the development either of organisms or of human institutions is traced. As the anomalies and apparently useless and accidental features in the human or in other animal organisms may be explained as stunted or rudimentary survivals of organs useful in a previous stage of life, so the anomalous and irrational myths of civilised races may be explained as survivals of stories which, in an earlier state of thought and knowledge, seemed natural enough. The persistence of the myths after their significance had become obsolete is accounted for by the well-known conservatism of the religious sentiment—a conservatism noticed even by Eusebius. "In later days, when they became ashamed of the religious beliefs of their ancestors, they invented private and respectful interpretations, each to suit himself. For no one dared to shake the ancestral beliefs, as they honoured at a very high rate the sacredness and antiquity of old associations, and of the teaching they had received in childhood."
Thus the method which we propose to employ is in harmony both with modern scientific procedure and the views of a clear-sighted Father of the Church. Consequently no system could well be less "heretical" and "unorthodox."
The last advantage of our hypothesis which need here be mentioned is that it helps to explain the diffusion no less than the origin of the wild and crazy element in myth. We seek for the origin of the savage factor of myth in the intellectual condition of savages. The diffusion of stories practically identical in every quarter of the globe may be (provisionally) regarded as the result of the prevalence in every quarter, at one time or another, of similar mental habits and ideas. This explanation must not be pressed too hard nor too far. If we find all over the world a belief that men can change themselves and their neighbours into beasts, that belief will account for the appearance of metamorphosis in myth. If we find a belief that inanimate objects are really much on a level with man, the opinion will account for incidents of myth such as that in which the wooden figure-head of the Argo speaks with a human voice. Again, a widespread belief in the separability of the soul or the life from the body will account for the incident in nursery tales and myths of the "giant who had no heart in his body," but kept his heart and life elsewhere. An ancient identity of mental status and the working of similar mental forces at the attempt to explain the same phenomena will account, without any theory of borrowing, or transmission of myth, or of original unity of race, for the world-wide diffusion of many mythical conceptions.
But this theory of the original similarity of the savage mind everywhere and in all races will scarcely account for the world-wide distribution of long and intricate mythical plots, of consecutive series of adroitly interwoven situations. In presence of these long romances, found among so many widely severed peoples, conjecture is, at present, almost idle. We do not know, in many instances, whether such stories were independently developed, or carried from a common centre, or borrowed by one race from another, and so handed on round the world.
This chapter may conclude with an example of a tale whose diffusion may be explained in divers ways, though its origin seems undoubtedly savage. If we turn to the Algonkins, a stock of Red Indians, we come on a popular tradition which really does give pause to the mythologist. Could this story, he asks himself, have been separately invented in widely different places, or could the Iroquois have borrowed from the Australian blacks or the Andaman Islanders? It is a common thing in most mythologies to find everything of value to man—fire, sun, water—in the keeping of some hostile power. The fire, or the sun, or the water is then stolen, or in other ways rescued from the enemy and restored to humanity. The Huron story (as far as water is concerned) is told by Father Paul Le Jeune, a Jesuit missionary, who lived among the Hurons about 1636. The myth begins with the usual opposition between two brothers, the Cain and Abel of savage legend. One of the brothers, named Ioskeha, slew the other, and became the father of mankind (as known to the Red Indians) and the guardian of the Iroquois. The earth was at first arid and sterile, but Ioskeha destroyed the gigantic frog which had swallowed all the waters, and guided the torrents into smooth streams and lakes.
Now where, outside of North America, do we find this frog who swallowed all the water? We find him in Australia.
"The aborigines of Lake Tyers," remarks Mr. Brough Smyth, "say that at one time there was no water anywhere on the face of the earth. All the waters were contained in the body of a huge frog, and men and women could get none of them. A council was held, and . . . it was agreed that the frog should be made to laugh, when the waters would run out of his mouth, and there would be plenty in all parts."
To make a long story short, all the animals played the jester before the gigantic solemn frog, who sat as grave as Louis XV. "I do not like buffoons who don't make me laugh," said that majestical monarch. At last the eel danced on the tip of his tail, and the gravity of the prodigious Batrachian gave way. He laughed till he literally split his sides, and the imprisoned waters came with a rush. Indeed, many persons were drowned, though this is not the only Australian version of the Deluge.
The Andaman Islanders dwell at a very considerable distance from Australia and from the Iroquois, and, in the present condition of the blacks of both islands, neither would be likely to visit the other. Still, one can conceive that the story of the frog who swallowed the water might filter from the Australians to the Andaman people, or vice versâ. The frog in the Andaman version is called a toad, and he came to swallow the waters in the following way:—One day a woodpecker was eating honey high up in the boughs of a tree. Far below, the toad was a witness of the feast, and asked for some honey. "Well, come up here, and you shall have some," said the woodpecker. "But how am I to climb?" "Take hold of that creeper, and I will draw you up," said the woodpecker; but all the while he was bent on a practical joke. So the toad got into a bucket he happened to possess, and fastened the bucket to the creeper. "Now, pull!" Then the woodpecker raised the toad slowly to the level of the bough where the honey was, and presently let him down with a run, not only disappointing the poor toad, but shaking him severely. The toad went away in a rage and looked about him for revenge. A happy thought occurred to him, and he drank up all the water of the rivers and lakes. Birds and beasts were perishing, woodpeckers among them, of thirst. The toad, overjoyed at his success, wished to add insult to the injury, and, very thoughtlessly, began to dance in an irritating manner at his foes. But then the stolen waters gushed out of his mouth in full volume, and the drought soon ended. One of the most curious points in this myth is the origin of the quarrel between the woodpecker and the toad. The same beginning—the tale of an insult put on an animal by hauling up and letting him down with a run—occurs in an African Märchen.
Now this strangely diffused story of the slaying of the frog which had swallowed all the water seems to be a savage myth of which the more heroic conflict of Indra with Vrittra (the dragon which had swallowed all the waters) is an epic and sublimer version. "The heavenly water, which Vrittra withholds from the world, is usually the prize of the contest."
The serpent of Vedic myth is, perhaps, rather the robber-guardian than the swallower of the waters, but Indra is still, like the Iroquois Ioskeha, "he whowounds the full one." This example of the wide distribution of a myth shows how the question of diffusion, though connected with, is yet distinct from that of origin. The advantage of our method will prove to be, that it discovers an historical and demonstrable state of mind as the origin of the wild element in myth. Again, the wide prevalence in the earliest times of this mental condition will, to a certain extent, explain the distrobution of myth. But room must be left, of course, for processes of borrowing and transmission. Finally, our hypothesis is not involved in dubious theories of race. To us, myths appear to be affected (in their origins) much less by the race than by the stage of culture attained by the people who cherish them. A fight for the waters between a monstrous dragon like Vrittra and a heroic god like Indra is a nobler affair than a quarrel for the waters between a woodpecker and a toad. But the improvement and transfiguration, so to speak, of a myth at bottom the same is due to the superior culture, not to the peculiar race, of the Vedic poets, except so far as culture itself depends on race. How far the purer culture was attained to by the original superiority of the Aryan over the Andaman breed, it is not necessary for our purpose to inquire. Thus, on the whole, we may claim for our system a certain demonstrable character, which helps to simplify the problems of mythology, and to remove them from the realm of fanciful guesses and conflicting etymological conjectures into that of sober science. That these pretensious are not unacknowledged even by mythologists trained in other schools is proved by the remarks of Dr. Tiele.
Dr. Tiele writes: "If I were obliged to choose between this method" (the system here advocated) "and that of comparative philology, it is the former that I would adopt without the slightest hesitation. This method alone enables us to explain the fact, which has so often provoked amazement, that people so refined as the Greeks, . . . or so rude, but morally pure, as the Germans, . . . managed to attribute to their gods all manner of cowardly, cruel, and disorderly conduct. This method alone explains the why and wherefore of all those strange metamorphoses of gods into beasts and plants, and even stones, which scandalised philosophers, and which the witty Ovid played on for the diversion of his contemporaries. In short, this method teaches us to recognise in all those strange stories the survivals of a barbaric age, long passed away, but enduring to later times in the form of religious traditions, of all traditions the most persistent. . . . Finally, this method alone enables us to explain the origin of myths, because it endeavours to study them in their rudest and most primitive shape, thus allowing their true significance to be much more clearly apparent than it can be in the myths (so often touched, retouched, augmented, and humanised) which are current among races arrived at a certain degree of culture."
The method is thus applauded by a most competent authority, and it has been warmly accepted by a distinguished French school of students, represented by M. Gaidoz. But it is obvious that the method rests on a double hypothesis: first, that satisfactory evidence as to the mental conditions of the lower and backward races is obtainable; second, that the civilised races (however they began) either passed through the savage state of thought and practice, or borrowed very freely from people in that condition. These hypotheses have been attacked by opponents; the trustworthiness of our evidence, especially, has been assailed. By way of facilitating the course of the exposition and of lessening the disturbing element of controversy, a reply to the objections and a defence of the evidence has been relegated to an Appendix. Meanwhile we go on to examine the peculiar characteristics of the mental condition of savages and of peoples in the lower and upper barbarisms.
- De Legibus Hebræorum Ritualibus, Tubingæ, 1732.
- See Appendix A., Fontenelle's Origine des Fables.
- Mannhardt, op. cit., ii. xxiii.
We have been asked to define a savage. He cannot be defined in an epigram, but by way of choice of a type:—
I. In material equipment, the perfect savage is he who employs tools of stone and wood, not of metal; who is nomadic rather than settled; who is acquainted (if at all) only with the rudest forms of the arts of potting, weaving, fire-making, &c.; and who derives more of his food from the chase and from wild roots and plants than from any kind of agriculture or from the flesh of domesticated animals.
2. In psychology, the savage is he who (extending unconsciously to the universe his own implicit consciousness of personality) regards all natural objects as animated and intelligent beings, and, drawing no hard and fast line between himself and the things in the world, is readily persuaded that men may be metamorphosed into plants, beasts, and stars; that winds and clouds, sun and dawn, are persons with human passions and parts; and that the lower animals especially may be creatures more powerful than himself, and, in a sense, divine and creative.
3. In religion, the savage is he who (while probably, in certain moods, conscious of a far higher moral faith) believes chiefly in ancestral ghosts or spirits of woods and wells that were never ancestral; prays chiefly by dint of magic; adores inanimate objects, and even appeals to the beasts as supernatural protectors.
4, In society, the savage is he who bases his laws on the well-defined lines of totemism—that is, claims descent from natural objects, and derives from the sacredness of those objects the sanction of his marriage prohibitions and blood-feuds, while he makes skill in magic a claim to distinguished rank.
Such, for our purpose, is the savage, and we propose to explain the more "senseless" parts in mythology as "survivals" of these ideas and customs preserved by religious conservatism and local tradition, or, less probably, borrowed from races which were, or had been, savage.
- Aglaoph., i. 153. Had Lobeck gone a step farther, and examined the mental condition of veteres et priscæ gentes, this book would have been superfluous.
- We may be asked why do savages entertain the irrational ideas which survive in myth? One might as well ask why they eat each other, or use stones instead of metal. Their intellectual powers are not fully developed, and hasty analogy from their own unreasoned consciousness is their chief guide. See Appendix B.
- See Custom and Myth, "Star-Myths."
- Primitive Culture, 2d edit., i. p. 283.
- Op. cit., p. 275.
- Op. cit., ii. 265.
- Pretty much the same view seems to be taken by Mr. Max Müller (Nineteenth Century, January 1882) when he calls Tsui Goab (whom the Hottentots believed to be a defunct conjuror), "a Hottentot Indra or Zeus."
- Appendix B.
- Præp. E., ii. 6, 19.
- Relations de la Nouvelle France, 1636, p. 103 (Paris, Cramoisy, 1637).
- Brough Smyth, Aborigines of Victoria, i. 429, 430; Brinton, American Hery Myths, i. 55. Cf. also Relations de la Nouvelle France, 1636, 1640, 1671; [Sagard, Hist. du Canada, 1636, p. 451;] Journal Anthrop. Inst., 1881.
- Ludwig, Der Rig-Veda, iii. p. 337. See postea, "Divine Myths of India."
- Gubernatis, Zoological Myth, ii. 395, note 2. "When Indra kills the serpent he opens the torrent of the waters" (p. 393). See also Aitareya Brahmana, translated by Haug, ii. 483.
- Rev. de l'Hist. des Rel., "Le Mythe de Cronos," January 1886.
- Appendix B.