Page:Primitive Culture Vol 1.djvu/294

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different from their own. Why, they ask, are the gods and giants and monsters no longer seen to lead their prodigious lives on earth — is it perchance that the course of things is changed since the old days? Thus it seemed to Pausanias the historian, that the wide-grown wickedness of the world had brought it to pass that times were no longer as of old, when Lykaon was turned into a wolf, and Niobe into a stone, when men still sat as guests at table with the gods, or were raised like Herakles to become gods themselves. Up to modern times, the hypothesis of a changed world has more or less availed to remove the difficulty of belief in ancient wonder-tales. Yet though always holding firmly a partial ground, its application was soon limited for these obvious reasons, that it justified falsehood and truth alike with even-handed favour, and utterly broke down that barrier of probability which in some measure has always separated fact from fancy. The Greek mind found other outlets to the problem. In the words of Mr. Grote, the ancient legends were cast back into an undefined past, to take rank among the hallowed traditions of divine or heroic antiquity, gratifying to extol by rhetoric, but repulsive to scrutinize in argument. Or they were transformed into shapes more familiar to experience, as when Plutarch, telling the tale of Theseus, begs for indulgent hearers to accept mildly the archaic story, and assures them that he has set himself to purify it by reason, that it may receive the aspect of history.[1] This process of giving fable the aspect of history, this profitless art of transforming untrue impossibilities into untrue possibilities, has been carried on by the ancients, and by the moderns after them, especially according to the two following methods.

Men have for ages been more or less conscious of that great mental district lying between disbelief and belief, where room is found for all mythic interpretation, good or bad. It being admitted that some legend is not the real narrative

  1. Grote, 'History of Greece,' vol. i. chaps, ix. xi.; Pausanias viii. 2; Plutarch. Theseus 1.