Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/November 1879/Mythologic Philosophy II

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620275Popular Science Monthly Volume 16 November 1879 — Mythologic Philosophy II1879John Wesley Powell


By Major J. W. POWELL.


IV.—Outgrowths from Mythologic Philosophy.

THE three stages of mythologic philosophy that are still extant in the world must be more thoroughly characterized, and the course of their evolution indicated. But in order to do this clearly, certain outgrowths from mythologic philosophy must be explained, certain theories and practices that necessarily result from this philosophy, and that are intricately woven into the institutions of mankind.

Ancientism—The first I denominate ancientism. Yesterday was better than to-day. The ancients were wiser than we. This belief in a better day and a better people in the elder time is almost universal among mankind. A belief so widely spread, so profoundly entertained, must have for its origin some important facts in the constitution or history of mankind. Let us see what they are.

In the history of every individual, the sports and joys of childhood are compared and contrasted with the toils and pains of old age. Greatly protracted life, in savagery and barbarism, is not a boon to be craved. In that stage of society where the days and the years go by with little or no provision for a time other than that which is passing, the old must go down to the grave through poverty and suffering. In that stage of culture to-morrow's bread is not certain, and to-day's bread is often scarce. In civilization, plenty and poverty live side by side; the palace and the hovel are on the same landscape; the rich and poor elbow each other on the same street: but, in savagery, plenty and poverty come with recurring days to the same man, and the tribe is rich to-day and poor to-morrow, and the days of want come in every man's history, and when they come the old suffer most, and the burden of old age is oppressive. In youth, activity is joy; in old age, activity is pain. No wonder, then, that old age loves youth, or that to-day loves yesterday, for the instinct is born of the inherited experiences of mankind.

But there is yet another and more potent reason for ancientism. That tale is the most wonderful that has been most repeated, for the breath of speech is the fertilizer of story. Hence, the older the story, the greater its thaumaturgics. Thus, yesterday is greater than to-day by natural processes of human exaggeration. Again, that is held to be most certain, and hence most sacred, which has been most often affirmed. A Brahman was carrying a goat to the altar. Three thieves would steal it. So they placed themselves at intervals along the way by which the pious Brahman would travel. When the venerable man came to the first thief he was accosted: "Brahman, why do you carry a dog?" Now, a dog is an unclean beast which no Brahman must touch. And the Brahman, after looking at his goat, said: "You do err; this is a goat." And when the old man reached the second thief, again he was accosted: "Brahman, why do you carry a dog?" So the Brahman put his goat on the ground, and after narrowly scrutinizing it, he said, "Surely this is a goat," and went on his way. When he came to the third thief he was once more accosted: "Brahman, why do you carry a dog?" Then the Brahman having thrice heard that his goat was a dog, was convinced, and throwing it down, he fled to the temple for ablution, and the thieves had a feast.

The child learns not for himself, but is taught, and accepts as true that which is told, and a propensity to believe the affirmed is implanted in his mind. In every society some are wise and some are foolish, and the wise are revered, and their affirmations are accepted. Thus, the few lead the multitude in knowledge, and the propensity to believe the affirmed started in childhood is increased in manhood in the great average of persons constituting society, and these propensities are inherited from generation to generation, until we have a cumulation of effects.

The propagation of opinions by affirmation, the cultivation of the propensity to believe that which has been affirmed many times, let us call affirmatization. If the world's opinions were governed only by the principles of mythologic philosophy, affirmatization would become so powerful that nothing would be believed but the anciently affirmed. Men would come to know new knowledge. Society would stand still listening to the wisdom of the fathers. But the power of affirmatization is steadily undermined by science.

And, still again, the institutions of society conform to its philosophy. The explanation of things always includes the origin of human institutions. So the welfare of society is based on philosophy, and the venerable sayings which constitute philosophy are thus held as sacred. So ancientism is developed from accumulated life-experiences; by the growth of story in repeated narration; by the steadily increasing power of affirmatization, and by respect for the authority upon which the institutions of society are based; all accumulating as they come down the generations. That we do thus inherit effects we know, for has it not been affirmed in the Book that "the fathers have eaten grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge"? As men come to believe that the "long ago" was better than the "now," and the dead were better than the living, then philosophy must necessarily include a theory of degeneracy, which is a part of ancientism.

Theistic Society.—Again, the actors in mythologic philosophy are personages, and we always find them organized in societies. The social organization of mythology is always found to be essentially identical with the social organization of the people who entertain the philosophy. The gods are husbands and wives, and parents and children, and the gods have an organized government. This gives us theistic society, and we can not properly characterize a theism without taking its mythic society into consideration.

Spiritism.—In the earliest stages of society of which we have practical knowledge by acquaintance with the people themselves, a belief in the existence of spirits prevails—a shade, an immaterial existence, which is the duplicate of the material personage. The genesis of this belief is complex. The workings of the human mind during periods of unconsciousness lead to opinions that are enforced by many physical phenomena.

First, we have the activities of the mind during 'sleep, when the man seems to go out from himself, to converse with his friends, to witness strange scenes, and to have many wonderful experiences. Thus the man seems to have lived an eventful life, when his body was, in fact, quiescent and unconscious. Memories of scenes and activities in former days, and the inherited memories of scenes witnessed and actions performed by ancestors, are blended in strange confusion by broken and inverted sequences. Now and then the dream-scenes are enacted in real life, and the infrequent coincidence or apparent verification makes deep impression on the mind, while unfulfilled dreams are forgotten. Thus the dreams of sleepers are attributed to their immaterial duplicates—their spirits. In many diseases, also, the mind seems to wander, to see sights, and to hear sounds, and to have many wonderful experiences, while the body itself is apparently unconscious. Sometimes on restored health, the person may recall these wonderful experiences, and during their occurrence the subject talks to unseen persons, and seems to have replies and to act, to those who witness, in such a manner that a second self—a spirit independent of the body—is suggested. When disease amounts to long-continued insanity, all of these effects are greatly exaggerated, and make a deep impression upon all who witness the phenomena. Thus the hallucinations of fever racked brains, and mad minds, are attributed to spirits.

The same conditions of apparent severance of mind and body witnessed in dreams and hallucinations are often produced artificially in the practice of ecstacism. In the vicissitudes of savage life, while little or no provision is made for the future, there are times when the savage resorts to almost anything at hand as a means of subsistence, and thus all plants and all parts of plants, seed, fruit, flowers, leaves, bark, roots—anything in times of extreme want—may be used as food. But experience soon teaches the various effects upon the human system which are produced by the several vegetable substances with which he meets, and thus the effect of narcotics is early discovered, and the savage in the practice of his religion oftentimes resorts to these native drugs for the purpose of producing an ecstatic state under which divination may be performed. The practice of ecstacism is universal in the lower stages of culture. In times of great anxiety, every savage and barbarian seeks to know of the future. Through all the earlier generations of mankind, ecstacism has been practiced, and civilized man has thus an inherited appetite for narcotics to which the enormous propensity to drunkenness existing in all nations bears witness. When the great actor in his personation of Rip Van Winkle holds his goblet aloft and says, "Here's to your health and to your family's, and may they live long and prosper," he connects the act of drinking with a prayer, and unconsciously demonstrates the origin of the use of stimulants. It may be that when the jolly companion has become a loathsome sot, and his mind is ablaze with the fire of drink, and he sees uncouth beasts in horrid presence, that inherited memories haunt him with visions of the beast-gods worshiped by his ancestors at the very time when the appetite for stimulants was created. But ecstacism is produced in other ways, and for this purpose the savage and barbarian often resorts to fasting and bodily torture. In many ways he produces the wonderful state, and the visions of ecstasy are interpreted as the evidence of spirits.

Many physical phenomena serve to confirm this opinion. It is very late in philosophy when shadows are referred to the interception of the rays of the sun. In savagery and barbarism shadows are supposed to be emanations from or duplicates of the bodies causing the shadows. And what savage understands the reflection of the rays of the sun by which images are produced? They also are supposed to be emanations or duplications of the object reflected. No savage or barbarian could understand that the waves of the air are turned back and sound is duplicated in an echo. He knows not that there is an atmosphere, and to him the echo is the voice of an unseen personage—a spirit. There is no theory more profoundly implanted in early mankind than that of spiritism.

Thaumaturgics.—The gods of mythologic philosophies are created to account for the wonders of nature. Necessarily they are a wonderworking folk, and having been endowed with these magical powers in all the histories given in mythic tales of their doings on the earth, we find them performing most wonderful feats. They can transform themselves; they can disappear and reappear; all their senses are magical; some are endowed with a multiplicity of eyes, others have a multiplicity of ears; in Norse mythology the watchman on the rainbow bridge could hear the grass grow and the wool on the backs of sheep; arms can stretch out to grasp the distance, tails can coil about mountains, and all powers become magical. But the most wonderful power with which the gods are endowed is the power of will, for we find that they can think their arrows to the hearts of their enemies; mountains are overthrown by thought, and thoughts are projected into other minds. Such are the thaumaturgics of mythologic philosophy.

Mythic Tales.—Early man having created through the development of his philosophy a host of personages, these gods must have a history. A part of that history, and the most important part to us as students of philosophy, is created in the very act of creating the gods themselves. I mean that portion of their history which relates to the operations of nature, for the gods were created to account for those things. But to this is added much else of adventure. The gods love as men love, and go in quest of mates. The gods hate as men hate, and fight in single combat or engage in mythic battles; and the history of these adventures impelled by love and hate, and all other passions and purposes with which men are endowed, all woven into a complex tissue with their doings in carrying out the operations of nature, constitutes the web and woof of mythology.

Religion.—Again, as human welfare is deeply involved in the operations of nature, man's chief interest is in the gods. In this interest religion originates. Man, impelled by his own volition, guided by his own purposes, aspires to a greater happiness, and endeavor follows endeavor, but at every step his progress is impeded: his own powers fail before the greater powers of nature; his powers are pygmies, nature's powers are giants, and to him these giants are gods with wills and purposes of their own, and he sees that man in his weakness can succeed only by allying himself with the gods. Hence, impelled by this philosophy, man must have communion with the gods, and in this communion he must influence them to work for himself. Hence, religion, which has to do with the relations which exist between the gods and man, is the legitimate offspring of mythologic philosophy.

Thus we see that out of mythologic philosophy, as branches of the great tree itself, there grow ancientism, theistic society, spiritism, thaumaturgics, mythic tales, and religion.

V.—The Evolution of Mythologic Philosophy.

I shall now give a summary characterization of zoötheism, then call attention to some of the relics of hecastotheism found therein, and proceed with a brief statement of the higher stages of theism. The apparent and easily accessible is studied first. In botany, the trees and the conspicuous flowering plants of garden, field, and plain were first known, and then all other plants were vaguely grouped as weeds; but, since the most conspicuous phenogamous plants were first studied, what vast numbers of new orders, new genera, and new species have been discovered, in the progress of research, to the lowest cryptogams!

In the study of ethnology, we first recognized the more civilized races. The Aryan, Hamites, Shemites, and Chinese, and the rest were the weeds of humanity—the barbarian and savage, sometimes called Turanians. But, when we come carefully to study these lower people, what numbers of races are discovered! In North America alone we have more than seventy-five—seventy-five stocks of people speaking seventy-five stocks of language, and some single stocks embracing many distinct languages and dialects. The languages of the Algonquin family are as diverse as the Indo-European tongues. So are the languages of the Dakota, the Numa, the Tinné, and others; so that in North America we have more than five hundred languages spoken today. Each linguistic stock is found to have a philosophy of its own, and each stock as many branches of philosophy as it has languages and dialects. North America presents a magnificent field for the study of savage and barbaric philosophies.

This vast region of thought has been explored only by a few adventurous travelers in the world of science. No thorough survey of any part has been made. Yet the general outlines of North American philosophy are known, but the exact positions, the details, are all yet to be filled in—as the geography of the general outline of North America is known by exploration, but the exact positions and details of topography are yet to be filled in as the result of careful survey. Myths of the Algonquin stock are found in many a volume of Americana, the best of which were recorded by the early missionaries who came from Europe, though we find some of them, mixed with turbid speculations, in the writings of Schoolcraft. Many of the myths of the Indians of the South, in that region stretching back from the great Gulf, are known—some collected by travelers, others by educated Indians.

Many of the myths of the Iroquois are known. The best of these are in the writings of Morgan, America's greatest anthropologist. Missionaries, travelers, and linguists have given us a great store of the myths of the Dakota stock. Many myths of the Tinné also have been collected. Petitot has recorded a number of those found at the North, and we have in manuscript some of the myths of a Southern branch—the Navajos. Perhaps the myths of the Numas have been collected more thoroughly than those of any other stock. These are yet unpublished. Powers has recorded many of the myths of various stocks in California, and the old Spanish writings give us a fair collection of the Nahuatl myths of Mexico, and Rink has presented us an interesting volume on the mythology of the Innuits; and, finally, fragments of mythology have been collected from nearly all the tribes of North America, and they are scattered through thousands of volumes, so that the literature is vast. The brief description which I shall give of zoötheism is founded on a study of the materials which I have thus indicated.

All these tribes are found in the higher stages of savagery, or the lower stages of barbarism, and their mythologies are found to be zoötheistic among the lowest, physitheistic among the highest, and a great number of tribes are found in a transition state, for zoötheism is found to be a characteristic of savagery, and physitheism of barbarism, using the terms as they have been defined by Morgan. The supreme gods of this stage are animals. The savage is intimately associated with animals. "From them he obtains the larger part of Ms clothing, and much of his food, and he carefully studies their habits and finds many wonderful things. Their knowledge and skill and power appear to him to be superior to his own. He sees the mountain sheep fleet among the crags, the eagle soaring in the heavens, the humming-bird poised over its blossom-cup of nectar, the serpents swift without legs, the salmon scaling the rapids, the spider weaving its gossamer web, the ant building a play-house mountain—in all animal nature he sees things too wonderful for him, and from admiration he grows to adoration, and the animals become his gods."[2]

Ancientism plays an important part in this zoötheism. It is not the animals of to-day whom the Indians worship, but their progenitors—their prototypes. The wolf of to-day is a howling pest, but that wolf's ancestor—the first of the line—was a god. The individuals of every species are supposed to have descended from an ancient being—a progenitor of the race; and so they have a grizzly-bear-god, an eagle god, a rattlesnake-god, a trout-god, a spider-god—a god for every species and variety of animal.

By these animal-gods all things were established. The heavenly bodies were created and their ways appointed, and when the powers and phenomena of nature are personified, the personages are beasts, and all human institutions also were established by the ancient animal gods.

The ancient animals of any philosophy of this stage are found to constitute a clan or gens—a body of relatives, or consanguinii, with grandfathers, fathers, sons, and brothers. In Ute theism, the ancient Togoav, the first rattlesnake, is the grandfather, and all the animal gods are assigned to their relationships. Grandfather Togoav, the wise, was the chief of the council, but Shinauav, the ancient wolf, was the chief of the clan.

There were many other clans and tribes of ancient gods with whom these supreme gods had dealings, of which hereafter; and, finally, each of these ancient gods became the progenitor of a new tribe, so that we have a tribe of bears, a tribe of eagles, a tribe of rattlesnakes, a tribe of spiders, and many other tribes, as we have tribes of Utes, tribes of Sioux, tribes of Navajos: and in that philosophy tribes of animals are considered to be coördinate with tribes of men. All of these gods have invisible duplicates—spirits—and they have often visited the earth. All of the wonderful things seen in nature are done by the animal-gods. That elder life was a magic life; but the descendants of the gods are degenerate. Now and then as a medicine-man by practicing sorcery can perform great feats, so now and then there is a medicine-bear, a medicine-wolf, or a medicine-snake that can work magic.

On winter nights, the Indians gather about the camp-fire, and then the doings of the gods are recounted in many a mythic tale. I have heard the venerable and impassioned orator on the camp-meeting stand rehearse the story of the crucifixion, and have seen the thousands gathered there weep in contemplation of the story of divine suffering, and heard their shouts roll down the forest aisles as they gave vent to their joy at the contemplation of redemption. But the scene was not a whit more dramatic than another I have witnessed in an evergreen forest of the Rocky Mountain region, where a tribe was gathered under the great pines, and the temple of light from the blazing fire was walled by the darkness of midnight, and in the midst of the temple stood the wise old man telling in simple savage language the story of Tawats, when he conquered the sun and established the seasons and the days. In that pre-Columbian time, before the advent of white men, all the Indian tribes of North America gathered on winter nights by the shores of the seas where the tides beat in solemn rhythm, by the shores of the great lakes, where the waves dashed against frozen beaches, and by the banks of the rivers flowing ever in solemn mystery—each in its own temple of illumined space—and listened to the story of its own supreme gods, the ancients of time.

Religion, in this stage of theism, is sorcery. Incantation, dancing, fasting, bodily torture, and ecstacism are practiced. Every tribe has its potion or vegetable drug, by which the ecstatic state is produced, and their venerable medicine-men see visions and dream dreams. No enterprise is undertaken without consulting the gods, and no evil impends but they seek to propitiate the gods. All daily life, to the minutest particular, is religious. This stage of religion is characterized by fetichism. Every Indian is provided with his charm or fetich, revealed to him in some awful hour of ecstasy produced by fasting, or feasting, or drunkenness, and that fetich he carries with him to bring good luck, in love or in combat, in the hunt or on the journey. He carries a fetich suspended to his neck, he ties a fetich to his bow, he buries a fetich under his tent, he places a fetich under his pillow of wild-cat skins, he prays to his fetich, he praises it, or chides it; if successful, his fetich receives the glory; if he fail, his fetich is disgraced. These fetiches may be fragments of bone or shell, the tips of the tails of animals, the claws of birds or beasts, perhaps dried hearts of little warblers, shards of beetles, leaves powdered and held in bags, or crystals from the rocks—anything curious may become a fetich. Fetichism, then, is a religious means, not a philosophic or mythologic state. Such are the supreme gods of the savage, and such the institutions which belong to their theism. But they have many other inferior gods. Mountains, hills, valleys, and great rocks have their own special deities—invisible spirits—and lakes, rivers, and springs are the homes of spirits. But all these have animal forms when in proper personæ. Yet some of the medicine-spirits can transform themselves, and work magic as do medicine-men. The heavenly bodies are either created personages or ancient men or animals translated to the sky. And, last, we find that ancestors are worshiped as gods.

Among all the tribes of North America, with which we are acquainted, tutelarism prevails. Every tribe and every clan has its own protecting god, and every individual has his "my god." It is a curious fact that every Indian seeks to conceal the knowledge of his "my god" from all other persons, for he fears that, if his enemy should know of his tutelar deity, he might by extraordinary magic succeed in estranging him, and be able to compass his destruction through his own god.

In this summary characterization of zoötheism, I have necessarily systematized my statements. This, of course, could not be done by the savage himself. He could give you its particulars, but could not group those particulars in any logical way. He does not recognize any system, but talks indiscriminately, now of one, now of another god, and with him the whole theory as a system is vague and shadowy, but its particulars are vividly before bis mind, and the certainty with which he entertains his opinions leaves no room to doubt his sincerity.

But there is yet another phase of theism discovered. Sometimes a particular mountain, or hill, or some great rock, some waterfall, some lake, or some spring receives special worship, and is itself believed to be a deity. This seems to be a relic of hecastotheism. Fetichism, also, seems to have come from that lower grade, and all the minor deities, the spirits of mountains and hills and forests, seem to have been derived from that same stage, but with this development, that the things themselves are not worshiped, but their essential spirits.

From zoötheism, as described, to physitheism the way is long. Gradually, in the progress of philosophy, animal-gods are dethroned and become inferior gods or are forgotten; and gradually the gods of the firmament—the sun, the moon, the stars—are advanced to supremacy: the clouds, the storms, the winds, day and night, dawn and gloaming, the sky, the earth, the sea, and all the various phases of nature perceived by the barbaric mind, are personified and deified and exalted to a supremacy coördinate with the firmament gods; and all the gods of the lower stage that remain—animals, demons, and all men—belong to inferior tribes. The gods of the sky—the shining ones, those that soar on bright wings, those that are clothed in gorgeous colors, those that came from we know not where, those that vanish to the unknown—are the supreme gods. We always find these gods organized in great tribes, with mighty chieftains who fight in great combats or lead their hosts in battle, and return with much booty. Such is the theism of ancient Mexico, such the theism of the Northland, and such the theism discovered among the ancient Aryans.

From this stage to psychotheism the way is long, for evolution is slow. Gradually men come to differentiate more carefully between good and evil, and the ethic character of their gods becomes the subject of consideration, and the good gods grow in virtue, and the bad gods grow in vice. Their identity with physical objects and phenomena is gradually lost. The different phases or conditions of the same object or phenomenon are severed, and each is personified. The bad gods are banished to underground homes, or live in concealment, from which they issue on their expeditions of evil. Still, all powers exist in these gods, and all things were established by them. With the growth of their moral qualities no physical powers are lost, and the spirits of the physical bodies and phenomena become demons, subordinate to the great gods who preside over nature and human institutions.

We find, also, that these superior gods are organized in societies. I have said the Norse mythology was in a transition state from physitheism to psychotheism. The Asas, or gods, lived in Asgard, a mythic communal village, with its Thing or Council, the very counterpart of the communal village of Iceland. Olympus was a Greek city.

Still further in the study of mythologic philosophy we see that more and more supremacy falls into the hands of the few, until monotheism is established on the plan of the empire. Then all of the inferior deities whose characters are pure become ministering angels, and the inferior deities whose characters are evil become devils, and the differentiation of good and evil is perfected in the gulf between heaven and hell. In all this time from zoötheism to monotheism, ancientism becomes more ancient, and the times and dynasties are multiplied. Spiritism is more clearly defined, and spirits become eternal; mythologic tales are codified, and sacred books are written; divination for the result of amorous intrigue has become the prophecy of immortality, and thaumaturgics is formulated as the omnipotent, the omnipresent, and the infinite.

Time has failed me to tell of the evolution of idolatry from fetichism, priestcraft from sorcery, and of their overthrow by the doctrines that were uttered by that voice on the Mount. Religion, that was fetichism and ecstacism and sorcery, is now the yearning for something better, something purer, and the means by which this highest state for humanity may be reached, the ideal worship of the highest monotheism, is "in spirit and in truth." The steps are long from Shinauav, the ancient of wolves, by Zeus, the ancient of skies, to Jehovah, the "ancient of days."

Comparative theology furnishes grand illustrations of the processes of evolution. It presents a multiplicity of events occurring in orderly succession in obedience to the laws of adaptation, heredity, and survival of the fittest, and, in passing from the lower to the higher state, it demonstrates the fundamental law of progress, that evolution is from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous by successive differentiations and integrations.

  1. An Address delivered before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at Saratoga, New York, August 29, 1879, by Major J. W. Powell, Vice-President of Section B.
  2. Vide "Outlines of the Philosophy of the North American Indians," by J. W. Powell. Read before the American Geographical Society at Chickering Hall, December 29, 1876.