An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 109The late explanation of these doings, the origin of which became entirely lost, was that, as whatever was done must redound to the honour of Dionysus, the being represented on the top of the tree-trunk was inimical to him. The women, perhaps, supposed themselves to be enacting the part of bacchantes crazed with wine. As Roscher and Jevons have shown, this late story is the framework of the myth of Pentheus as given in the Bacchæ of Euripides, Pentheus, a monarch, refuses to permit the introduction of the worship of Dionysus, who bereaves him of his senses and, having dressed him in woman's garments, leads him through his own town as a laughing-stock. The women of Thebes, led by Agave, the mother of Pentheus, accept Dionysus and become mænads or bacchantes. To enable Pentheus to see their worship, Dionysus bends down a pine-tree, places him on the top and then lets it go. He is then attacked by Agave and the other bacchantes, who tear him limb from limb and set his head on the front of his own palace.
Whatever the significance of this rite—and it would seem to have its origin in priapic and bacchic worship—we cannot fail to observe how far too explanatory and how little ingenious the foregoing tale appears when adapted to it. As Falstaff says of his own excuse: "It will not fadge," It is lame and awkward. Pentheus could have beheld the rites of the bacchantes without the pine-tree being lowered for his convenience; and had he been bereft of his senses, he would probably have joined in the bacchic rout instead of tamely witnessing it. The circumstances point to the real myth behind the ritual being connected with the secret priapic and seasonal rites of a feminine cult—for women have their secret cults as well as[Pg 244] men, as has been proved of late by the wonderful and valuable discoveries of Mrs D. Aumary Talbot among the Congo peoples—discoveries which seem destined to throw much light upon a most interesting department of comparative religion.
The student must then be upon his guard against secondary interpretations of ritual, which in most cases can only have reference to an early type of myth.
THE WRITTEN SOURCES OF MYTH
Among the most important sources of our knowledge of myth are ancient books, which, purporting only to set down the annals of a people, contain numerous important passages concerning the mythology of the race whose deeds they celebrate, the adventures of divine or semi-divine beings, whose godhead we can discern shining beneath the armour of the mortal hero. Such books are the Iliad of Homer, the Japanese Nihongi, the Popol Vuh of the Kiches of Central America, the Ramayana of the Hindus, and the Wallum-Olum of the Lenapé Indians. Among the pages of these and of similar works where myth shades into history, we will now search for the pure mythic gold, refining it from the dross which surrounds it, and making an attempt to restore it to its pristine condition. In perusing these ancient writings we shall find that although many of the myths which they conserve have undoubtedly changed their original shape, others have as certainly retained it, as well as their ancient simplicity of matter and spirit.
The more we learn of Egyptian myth the more we realize how little we knew concerning it until recently, and how very much more remains to be discovered. We now know a good deal about the various Egyptian deities and their attributes, from the careful study of Greek and Latin writers, by induction, and from the Pyramid and other hieroglyphic texts; but it is strange how comparatively few Egyptian myths have come down to us. Of the many papyri taken from temple and sarcophagus only a small proportion deals with what may be[Pg 246] called literature, and of this only a small part treats of myth. Perhaps the most outstanding contribution to Egyptian myth is that of Plutarch, who in his Osiride et Iside tells us practically all we know of Osiris and Isis. Plutarch's information was second-hand at the best, and his version of the myth contains many grievous errors; but it is our one and only guide for the main body of the story, and we must be thankful for it. One of the great repositories of Egyptian ritual, the