An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 28Myths which do not merely explain traditional practices, but "exhibit the beginnings of larger religious speculation," Robertson Smith also regards as secondary in character. They may be primitive philosophy or political attempts to unite religious groups, originally distinct, or perhaps due to the play of epic imagination. In the later stages of ancient religions mythology became increasingly important. "Myth interpreted by the aid of allegory became the favourite means of infusing a new significance into ancient forms. But the theories thus developed are the falsest of false guides as to the original meaning of the old religions. On the other hand, the ancient myths, taken in their natural sense, without allegorical gloss, are plainly of great importance as testimonies to the views of[Pg 63] the nature of the gods that were prevalent when they were formed."
In the third lecture or chapter the author propounds the theory of animism in much the same terms as Tylor, and, speaking generally, the remainder of the work is occupied with considerations regarding the religious life of the Semitic peoples, their holy places, their ritual and sacrifice.
Robertson Smith is undoubtedly correct in his statement that myth takes the place of dogma in primitive religion—that "the sacred lore of priests and people ... assumes the form of stories about the gods." But having thus connected theobiography with religion and the religious spirit, it is difficult to discover why he denies a religious character to myth. "These stories," he says (p. 17), "afford the only explanation that is offered of the precepts of religion and the prescribed rules of ritual." If that be the case, surely the group of myths which detail the deeds of the chief deities is of prime importance to religion. The 'story' of a religion is its most precious asset. It is from the 'story' of their faith that the majority of people receive their ideas concerning it. What would Mohammedanism be without the story of the Prophet? What Buddhism without the tale of Gautama? What Christianity without the life of Christ? And if the argument applies to the higher forms of religion, it may surely be applied, and more so, to primitive faiths. Among savage or barbarous peoples the myth, the body of tales which circles round the gods, is universal tribal property. It takes the place of written scripture, it infuses all poetry and epic, it is represented in sacred drama, it is recited by the neophytes for the priesthood, it underlies the most sacred mysteries. The contention that myth was "no essential part of ancient religion" is based upon a fundamental misconception of the spoken or written story of the gods. In the present writer's view myth is a most[Pg 64] important element of primitive religion; for whereas ritual often impresses an alien people as magical and therefore inimical, and is not so readily borrowed, the wide transmission of myth proves that it not only impresses the imagination of the races among whom it has origin, but that it is able to take hold of neighbouring and even distant peoples as well.