An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 11Polytheism—a multiplicity of gods—is a condition arrived at by more than one route. Several great and powerful deities may shed a number of attributes and variants which themselves become personalized into gods. Egyptian mythology teems with examples of this, as almost all its principal gods absorbed or gave birth to several others in this manner. For example, from Horus was evolved Horus the Elder, Horus the Younger, Heru-an-Mut (a local god worshipped at Edfu),[Pg 30] Heru-Khenti-Khat (a god with a crocodile's head), the Horus of Khnemu ('Horus of the Two Horizons,' or the Harmachis of the Greeks, a form of Ra, the sun-god), Heru-Behudeti (who prevailed in the southern heavens at midday), and so forth. Gods belonging to certain towns or religious centres were collected and grouped, perhaps by priestly influence, into a pantheon in order of their importance.
Among semi-civilized people, then, the activities of the greater gods are constantly being enriched by new functions. Dialectical misunderstandings led to descriptive terms which brought about a change in divine names. The fortunes of kingdoms or royal races, migration and conquest, the contact of race with race through trade and travel, the adoption of foreign deities, all served to modify and expand the pantheons of the ancient world.
Monotheism—the worship of one god—may emerge from polytheism in more ways than one. A certain god by dint of a miracle, because he is the deity of a conquering race, because of the enterprise of his priests, or by absorbing lesser gods, becomes the most powerful and popular deity in a state or neighbourhood. Or he may be the god of the reigning dynasty, a circumstance sufficient to secure for him at least a fashionable recognition so long as that dynasty survives. We usually find that such gods have vested in them the right to pardon sin, and they are indeed the founts of righteousness in virtue of their all-sufficing nature. But, apart from all the above considerations, the rise of moral feeling and a higher standard of conduct, order, and life were connected with the communal rise of monotheistic worship and the more exalted religious outlook it brings.
Tylor has stated that myth displays a regularity of development which cannot be accounted for by motiveless fancy and must be attributed to laws of growth. These laws, as has been seen, are practically universal in their application. But[Pg 31] besides those forces which bring the myth into being—those demands of primitive man for explanation and intellectual satisfaction—there are other factors which begin to work upon myth at birth, and do not cease to act upon it, in succession, until perhaps it loses its earlier characteristics.
Thus we first find, going to work by analogy with certain contemporary savage examples and by induction, the purely animistic myth. As we have seen, this bestows personality and will-power upon inanimate objects, glorifies animals, and is practically without religious significance. Such a myth is found among the Chinook Indians of the north-west coast of America in the adventures of Blue Jay, a bird with human attributes who travels to the country of the Supernatural People and succeeds in defeating them in climbing, diving, whale-spearing, and archery. As we possess it, the myth has undoubtedly been influenced by successive waves of advancing native thought, but no sophistication by European influence is discernible. The impudence and effrontery of the Blue Jay bird led to its adoption as the central figure in many a tale, and, later, as the hero of the universal story of the 'Harrying of Hell,' in which a supernatural being traverses the country of the dead and brings defeat and disgrace upon its inhabitants in order to show the savage mind that it was possible to conquer death and Hell. Thus we have emanating from an animistic idea (1) the bird as person (in the myth a 'person' is spoken of as splitting wood with his beak); (2) the bird as tale-hero; (3) the bird as vanquisher of death and Hell. Further elaborations of the myth, had social and tribal circumstances permitted of its growth, might well have shown us Blue Jay as the winged god, the principle of 'evil,' or perhaps in an even more exalted mythic capacity. Had the Chinooks remained undiscovered in their own environment and been capable of the evolution of a literature, who shall say to what heights of sanctity the conception of Blue Jay might not have risen?