An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 15

Flood myths, again, are as widely spread as any variety of tale.

Those who uphold the theory of the origin of myth in one centre and its wide dissemination have not so far explained fully how myths became so widespread. Of course the purchase or capture of slaves, intermarriage with alien women, intercourse with alien peoples, trade and commerce, may account for many similarities,[30] but the question yet awaits reply, "Can myths 'drift' across many thousands of miles of sea-water?" The complete isolation of Australia throughout the ages, and the similar situation of America, two continents which possess, as a late distinguished student of myth was wont to say, "the whole bag of tricks" of mythology as found elsewhere, show that the answer is not a simple one. In any case, if there be any genealogical connexion between the myths of the Old World and the New, the myths of Asia and Australia, it must be of extreme antiquity, dating from before the remote geological period when all communication was cut off between America, Australia, and the rest of the globe. That may not have been so very long ago, comparatively speaking, for America, but for Australia it must have been "at a time so remote as to permit of no traditions. No record, no folk-tales, as in the case of the Maoris of New Zealand, are preserved by the Australians ... nothing, as A. W. Howitt points out, that can be twisted into referring even indirectly to their first arrival."[31]

[Pg 37]

Dr Klaatsch of Heidelberg says that the Australians are "a generalized, not a specialized, type of humanity—that is to say, they are a very primitive people, with more of the common undeveloped characteristics of man, and less of the qualities of the specialized races of civilization." It is likely, however, that they are closely related to the Dravidians of the Indian Deccan, and that they are not so low in the scale as Klaatsch believes. Even so, the very distant date at which they arrived in the Australian continent precludes the likelihood of their carrying with them any form of religious belief that was not of an even more archaic character than those we are studying.[32]

Flood myths possess an almost world-wide similarity. We find the story of the man and woman who escape the universal deluge in a cunningly contrived boat or chest in Greece, Assyria, Palestine, Mexico, and other countries. In such stories we have good examples of myths apparently disseminated from one original tale or event; but that resemblances between myths are no criterion of a common origin is proved by widespread examples in which circumstances of time and geography forbid all possibility of borrowing. The belief that once the soul had partaken of the food of the Underworld it might not return to earth is common to ancient Greeks, Finns, and Red Indians, and if any original conception gave rise to the notion in these widely separated countries it must be sought in an altogether archaic and prehistoric era.


Myths generally become altered or 'sophisticated' by contact with a higher civilization than that of the people which originally developed them. The myth of Joskeha and Tawiscara given on p. 191 is a notable instance in this connexion. Some barbarous mythic systems have become coloured by Biblical narrative, but it is not safe to conclude so because of a surface resemblance. The rule holds good, generally speaking, that myths found current among primitive people and[Pg 38] having marked ethical characteristics in which 'good' and 'evil' are sharply contrasted almost certainly show sophistication by the agents of a superior civilization. But if the rule were to be ruthlessly adhered to it would not admit the evolution of religious belief or the heightening of the ethical standard among the lower races, who must pass through such phases of development as those through which our fathers passed, with this exception, of course, that the process is quickened in their case by contact with races possessing a much higher standard of general culture.

By a process of interaction all mythic systems of uncivilized peoples are probably at the present day highly sophisticated, so that to encounter a truly spontaneous myth uncoloured by alien belief or priestly conception is probably impossible. At the same time it is a characteristic of myth and folk-tale that no matter how greatly cultural surroundings alter them they tend to keep the basic elements of which they were originally compounded. We all know that matters of fact as they pass from one individual to another become greatly distorted. Strangely enough, this is not the case with myth and folk-tale. The reason is hard to discover, but the fact is certain. The writer has observed among children a prompt indignation at the 'mis-telling' of a traditional tale. Once the terms of a story become fixed he will be bold who will attempt to alter them when recounting them to children or savages. In short, where the circumstances of a story are well authenticated a barrier exists against the tendency, shown in gossip, to adorn the original plot, to add or subtract from it. This appears to be due to a strong conservative instinct in the childish and savage mind.