An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 22Müller was not the first to apply the methods of comparative philology to myth, but he was by far the most distinguished exponent of the system. Before him G. Herman and others attempted to explain myths by etymology, but they restricted their efforts to the Greek language only. It was not until the researches of Franz Bopp (1791-1867) and others laid the foundations of the science of comparative philology that the way was clear for the study of myth on a linguistic basis. These studies succeeded in establishing the relationship of the 'Indo-Germanic' languages, and, working with these proven facts behind him, Müller boldly applied them to mythic phenomena. For example, he brought forward a comparative formula of the name of Zeus or Jupiter which he stated thus:
Diaush-Pitar = Zeus Pater = Jupiter = Tyr.
Thus, according to him, the name Diaush-Pitar in Sanskrit was equivalent to Zeus Pater in Greek, Jupiter in Latin, and[Pg 49] Tyr in old Teutonic. This etymological result is sufficiently scientific in character for acceptance by even a severe critic of the system. But scarcely had Müller's method acquired vogue—and its recognition was of the widest—than a small army of critics arose whose determined opposition had to be reckoned with. Many of their objections, it is now clear, were due to misunderstandings. Wherever they lit upon a paradox or were enabled to confuse the issue by any ambiguity or slackness in Müller's phraseology, they too often took more than a full advantage of the chance to score. Indeed, so unsparing was the criticism to which his conclusions were subjected, and so great was his irritation thereat, that at length he accused certain of his adversaries of an attempt to traduce his moral character by charging him with mendacity.
But if his critics were unfair, they had legitimate grounds for a certain opposition to his system. Many of his propositions, as well as those of his followers, were doubtful; the method was often pushed to extremes which just escaped being ludicrous; and the somewhat ponderous erudition behind it seemed only to heighten the absurdity of some of its conclusions, although the charm and usual clarity of Müller's literary style were not to be denied. The combat waxed fierce, and both sides brought up all their forces. Linguistic science, it was said, is an uncertain medium for determining the substance and nature of thought. The linguistic and etymological methods had been discarded by philosophy, only to make an unwelcome reappearance in mythology. The original meaning of a word is often totally at variance with its later use. Again, similar mythic conceptions are found with totally different names, and divergent ones with the same names. These were serious objections, but they do not destroy the strictly verifiable conclusions of the philological school. At present the school is in[Pg 50] the deepest discredit; indeed, it may be said to possess scarcely a single follower; but that its methods are applicable to certain classes of mythic phenomena no mythologist of experience would deny.