Page:Primitive Culture Vol 1.djvu/295

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277
CREDIBILITY OF MYTHS.

which it purports to be, they do not thereupon wipe it out from book and memory as simply signifying nothing, but they ask what original sense may be in it, out of what older story it may be a second growth, or what actual event or current notion may have suggested its development into the state in which they find it? Such questions, however, prove almost as easy to answer plausibly as to set; and then, in the endeavour to obtain security that these off-hand answers are the true ones, it becomes evident that the problem admits of an indefinite number of apparent solutions, not only different but incompatible. This radical uncertainty in the speculative interpretation of myths is forcibly stated by Lord Bacon, in the preface to his 'Wisdom of the Ancients.' 'Neither am I ignorant,' he says, 'how fickle and inconsistent a thing fiction is, as being subject to be drawn and wrested any way, and how great the commodity of wit and discourse is, that is able to apply things well, yet so as never meant by the first authors.' The need of such a caution may be judged of from the very treatise to which Bacon prefaced it, for there he is to be seen plunging head-long into the very pitfall of which he had so discreetly warned his disciples. He undertakes, after the manner of not a few philosophers before and after him, to interpret the classic myths of Greece as moral allegories. Thus the story of Memnon depicts the destinies of rash young men of promise; while Perseus symbolizes war, and when of the three Gorgons he attacks only the mortal one, this means that only practicable wars are to be attempted. It would not be easy to bring out into a stronger light the difference between a fanciful application of a myth, and its analysis into its real elements. For here, where the interpreter believed himself to be reversing the process of myth-making, he was in fact only carrying it a stage further in the old direction, and out of the suggestion of one train of thought evolving another connected with it by some more or less remote analogy. Any of us may practise this simple art, each according to his own fancy. If, for instance, political