An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 13

The question then arises, What are the true causes of mythic change? If the conclusions previously presented be correct, these are:

(1) The evolution, growth, and advance of theological ideas. Thus a myth acceptable in 'animistic' times might not prove so under a monotheistic or even polytheistic régime. The myth which would apply to a bird- or animal- or tree-god might not be applicable to a man-like deity.

(2) The growth and development of the idea of the sacred and of ethical ideas. The barbarities and abominations of early totemic and other animistic myth, apart altogether from shocking the religious sensibilities of people in later ages shocked their moral feelings as well, and this resulted in more or less drastic changes, which, however, do not altogether disguise the original story.

(3) Adventitious circumstances, such as racial feeling and idiosyncrasy, the deliberate or accidental fusion of two or more myths by a priesthood or by force of popular belief or acquiescence.

(4) The circumstances in which myth survives the religion or living faith with which it was originally connected. Thus on the official demise of a religion it may continue to be celebrated secretly, and this secret celebration may degenerate into magic and its myths change into folk-tale.

It follows from these premises that practically all myth is[Pg 34] of extreme antiquity,[29] and once a myth becomes established it may, for many reasons, undergo considerable alteration by successive generations. Its character of an early human 'explanation' of the universe is lost in the passage of generations, and it comes to require explanation. Thus it is understood, more or less correctly, in later times to refer to a genuine historical occurrence, or as an allegory upon natural phenomena, as it is unlikely that the upholders of a religion with fixed tenets would deliberately manufacture myths, however they might purify or combine those with which their theological system was connected. The difficulty in popular acceptance of a newly forged religious story, the manifest impiety of the proceeding and its necessary character, are all too apparent. Apparent, too, is the sufficiency of the mere alteration or 'editing' of myths to account for such minor theological differences as arose, even under a polytheistic régime of the least advanced type. With very few exceptions, the polytheistic systems of antiquity contained so many added and alien deities that slight alteration would suffice for the full adoption of the new-comer into the pantheon. This process must not be mistaken for religious laxity, as the alien god was almost invariably identified with one or other of the national deities, and the myth would merely be altered so far as necessary.


Instances occur in which myths of exceedingly ancient origin have received a wholesale 'editing' at the hands of later scribes. One of the most striking instances of such a process is that of the Babylonian creation myth, which recounts the famous combat between the god Bel-Merodach and Tiawath, the terrible dragon of the abyss. In the myth in question the ancient Accadian concept of the fathomless deep and the Babylonian idea of the abyss, respectively entitled Apsu and Tiawath, are represented as husband and wife, an example of mythic amalgamation common enough. But from an attribute of Tiawath is formed a third god, named Mummu, who is[Pg 35] described as the son of the two original deities. In such an innovation we can assuredly trace the hand of the later mythographer, who, with less skill and greater levity than is usual, has ventured to evolve an entire trinity from one concept—that of the primeval abyss. Thus from the Babylonian and Accadian concept of 'the deep,' essentially one, has arisen an entire trinity of evil. A further addition is made to this infernal band in the shape of Kingu, whom Tiawath calls her 'only husband'; but as he enters the mythic field Apsu and Mummu leave it, and are heard of no more in the course of the tale. It may be that at this point the story was taken up by a new scribe, who did not approve of the action of his predecessor in describing the hostile trinity, originally one conception, as three separate deities—but that is merely conjecture. The Babylonian cosmogony as we possess it is presented in purely epical form, and it is practically certain that in this shape it differed greatly from the originally accepted myth upon the same subject. Indeed, the inclusion in it of later gods proves it to be a good example of myth which has undergone transformation more than once.