An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 12FROM BIRD-TO MAN-GOD
Lest the reader unaccustomed to the developments of mythic law think such a statement exaggerated, he shall be[Pg 32] shown the valuable 'test of recurrence,' frequently employed by the rational experimentalist in myth, a test which, conversely, is his undoing if his conclusions are ill founded. The myth of the Aztec war-god Uitzilopochtli is similar to that of Blue Jay. It recounts how Uitzilopochtli, guided by a bird, led the Aztecs from the Underworld (?) country of Aztlan to the valley of Mexico by means of a peculiar call. Later he appears in Mexican myth in the full panoply of the national god of war, the most important figure, save one, in the Aztec pantheon. To him human sacrifice was rendered, and the greatest temple in the land was erected. His cult boasted an exclusive high priest, and in all respects he was regarded as the national god of the Aztec race. Yet he never resigned certain of his bird-like characteristics—a circumstance from which he derived his name, signifying 'Humming-bird Wizard,' and denoting that he was a bird before he took human shape. Paste images of him were eaten at certain festivals by way of a communion rite.
The personalized bird is to be met with not only in American myth, but in European and Asiatic story as well. The Romano-Greek winged Mercury was originally almost certainly such a figure as Blue Jay. Like the Chinook god, he was sprightly, vivid, fond of practical joking, and a notorious thief. Picus, the Latin war-god, was a woodpecker, whose picture adorned the banners of his devotees. The god, in human form, wore a woodpecker on his head. Instead of becoming a national deity like Uitzilopochtli, Blue Jay might, in the hands of a people of equal imaginative capacity to the Greeks, have evolved into a mere messenger of the gods, or under the more sober influences of Judaism have become a cherub or an archangel—such are the diversities of racial character and its effect upon religious development.
Myth is hedged round and protected from change by the spirit of sanctity, but it may fall a prey to the religious spirit when more fully evolved, for what is sanctity to one age is[Pg 33] often blasphemy to its successor, and that which appears worthy of retention to religious conservatives and priests at one period may well be regarded as an abomination by their official descendants. Thus we find the philosophers of Greece almost to a man attempting to purge the myths of their race from the grossness of barbaric ideas; we note, too, the strivings of the Egyptian and Babylonian priests to combine rival myths and to bring older religious story into line with more modern theological ideas—in a word, to modify the traditional myths of the race so that the old scientific and religious explanations of the universe—the myths—took quite a new shape.