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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 25

The nature of personalism in myth is debated, as is the share of language in its formation, and here it will be seen that Tylor has not the extreme hostility of certain of his followers to the Müllerian doctrine. He says: "Language, no doubt, has had a great share in the formation of myth. The mere fact of its individualising in words such notions as winter and summer, cold and heat, war and peace, vice and virtue, gives the myth-maker the means of imagining these thoughts as personal beings. Language not only acts in thorough unison with the imagination whose product it expresses, but it goes on producing of itself, and thus, by the side of the mythic conceptions in which language has followed imagination, we have others in which language has led, and imagination has followed in the track. These two actions coincide too closely for their effects to be thoroughly separated, but they should be distinguished as far as possible. For[Pg 57] myself, I am disposed to think (differing here in some measure from Professor Max Müller's view of the subject) that the mythology of the lower races rests especially on a basis of real and sensible analogy, and that the great expansion of verbal metaphor into myth belongs to more advanced periods of civilisation. In a word, I take material myth to be the primary, and verbal myth to be the secondary, formation. But whether this opinion be historically sound or not, the difference in nature between myth founded on fact and myth founded on word is sufficiently manifest. The want of reality in verbal metaphor cannot be effectually hidden by the utmost stretch of imagination. In spite of this essential weakness, however, the habit of realising everything that words can describe is one which has grown and flourished in the world. Descriptive names become personal, the notion of personality stretches to take in even the most abstract notions to which a name may be applied, and realised name, epithet, and metaphor pass into interminable mythic growths by the process which Max Müller has so aptly characterised as 'a disease of language.' It would be difficult indeed to define the exact thought lying at the root of every mythic conception, but in easy cases the course of formation can be quite well followed."[19]

The student of myth must possess the ability to transport himself into the imaginative atmosphere of the untutored mind. The inspection of 'nature mythology' helps to show that much myth is related to natural phenomena. "In interpreting heroic legend as based on nature-myth," says Tylor, "circumstantial analogy must be very cautiously appealed to, and at any rate, there is need of evidence more cogent than vague likenesses between human and cosmic life. Now such evidence is forthcoming at its strongest in a crowd of myths, whose open meaning it would be wanton incredulity to doubt, so little do they disguise, in name or sense, the familiar aspects of nature which they figure as scenes of personal life. Even where the tellers of legend may have altered or forgotten its earlier mythic meaning, there are often sufficient grounds for an attempt to restore it. In spite of change and corruption,[Pg 58] myths are slow to lose all consciousness of their first origin."[20] And "the etymology of names, moreover, is at once the guide and safeguard of the mythologist [p. 321]. There was no disputing the obvious fact that Helios (Sol) was the sun, and Selene the moon." He examines groups of myths "produced from that craving to know causes and reasons which ever besets mankind" (p. 392). Allegory is then treated of. It "cannot maintain the large place often claimed for it [p. 408], yet it cannot be passed over by the mythologist. A number of fanciful myths are of the nature of allegory, as that of Pandora in Hesiod, or Herakles choosing between the paths of pleasure and virtue." In concluding his chapters on myth, Tylor remarks in a passage of profound insight: "The investigation of these intricate and devious operations has brought ever more and more broadly into view two principles of mythologie science. The first is that legend, when classified on a sufficient scale, displays a regularity of development which the notion of motiveless fancy quite fails to account for, and which must be attributed to laws of formation whereby every story, old and new, has arisen from its definite origin and sufficient cause. So uniform indeed is such development that it becomes possible to treat myth as an organic product of mankind at large, in which individual, national, and even racial distinctions stand subordinate to universal qualities of the human mind. The second principle concerns the relation of myth to history. It is true that the search for mutilated and mystified traditions of real events, which formed so main a part of old mythological researches, seems to grow more hopeless the further the study of legend extends.... Yet unconsciously, and as it were in spite of themselves, the shapers and transmitters of poetic legend have preserved for us masses of sound historical evidence."[21]


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