An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 37THE RELIGIOUS INFLUENCE OF MYTH
Jevons' conception of the nature of myth, however, does not take into consideration that at least one class of myth—that which deals with the gods—has probably more influence upon the popular acceptance and spread of religious ideas of a primitive type than either dogma or ritual. Those myths which furnish accounts of the deeds and adventures of the gods are as much religion as are ritual or dogma. No religion can exist without an explanation of a god or the gods, their nature, their attitude toward men, and their divine environment; and such an explanation was myth. Although savage and primitive, myths furnished a suitable account of the gods to their primitive worshippers, whose habits they almost certainly reflected.
Dr R. R. Marett, in an admirable and suggestive volume, The Threshold of Religion (1909), has, as we already know, distinguished between animism and the forms which preceded it. Regarding mythology proper and its "quality of religiousness," and speaking in connexion with religious observances, he says: "Meanwhile, whatever view be taken of the parts respectively played by animism, mythology, animatism, or what not, in investing these observances with meaning and colour, my main point is that the quality of religiousness attaches to them far[Pg 89] less in virtue of any one of these ideal constructions, than in virtue of that basic feeling of awe which drives a man, ere he can think or theorize upon it, into personal relations with the supernatural."
Regarding 'explanatory' myths, Dr Marett says (p. 149): "What the learned know as 'ætiological myths' and juvenile readers of Mr Kipling as 'Just So Stories' undoubtedly tend to arise in connection with human institutions no less than in connection with the rest of the more perplexing or amazing facts and circumstances of life. It is the 'nature of man' (as it is of the child, the father of the man) to ask 'Why?' and further to accept any answer as more satisfactory than none at all. Again, it is sound method in dealing with myth as associated with ritual at the stage of rudimentary religion to assume that for the most part it is the ritual that generates the myth, and not the myth the ritual."
Professor A.B. Cook of Cambridge has collected a wealth of material to prove the existence throughout the length and breadth of Europe of a sky-god worshipped by both Celt and Teuton; but he elevates this cult into something resembling a state mythology, and we have no record of any such state religion. Early Celtic and Teutonic religions must have been incipient only, and far from possessing any such organization and unity.
Having concluded our review of the ideas and hypotheses of the great mythologists proper, we will glance at what has been[Pg 90] said by the great students of folklore. Jakob Ludwig Karl Grimm (1785-1863) along with his brother Wilhelm Karl (1786-1859) published in 1816-1818 Deutsche Sagen, an analysis and criticism of the old German epic traditions, and in 1812-1815 Kinder- und Hausmärchen. Their first volume of the Eddaic songs of Iceland saw the light in 1815, and the Deutsche Mythologie in 1835. The last-named work traces the myths of Germany from a period as remote as is permitted by the evidence down to the time when they became merged in popular tradition. Folklore is indebted to the Grimms, who originally discerned its importance, but they did not in any way connect the stories themselves with custom or superstition. They were inimical to the allegorical method and decidedly trended toward the later position of Mannhardt and his school.
Few names are more distinguished in folklore than that of the late Sir George Laurence Gomme. His standpoint on myth is to be found in his able and liberal-minded treatise upon Folklore as an Historical Science, on p. 101 of which he says: "They [the mythologists] have entirely denied or ignored all history contained in the folk-tale, and they have proceeded on the assumption, the bald assumption not accompanied by any kind of proof, that the folk-tale contains nothing but the remnants of a once prevalent system of mythology.... It is not, however, upon the mistakes of other inquirers that the mythologists may rest a good claim for their own view. The Historia Britonum of Geoffrey of Monmouth disposes of neither the myths nor the history of the Celts. It shows myth in its secondary position, in the handling of those who would make it all history, just as now there are scholars who would make it all myth. In front of the legends attaching to persons and places is the history of these persons and places. Behind these legends lies the domain of the unattached and primitive folk-tale."
There should not be much doubt concerning which tales are of the nature of myth and those which enshrine historic fact. Does the tale bear a strong resemblance in more than[Pg 91] one of its circumstances to any other tradition or group of traditions? If so, it should be a comparatively simple matter to judge to which group it belongs, although the student requires to be constantly on his guard. The transition from fact or surmise to myth, myth to pseudo-history, or from history to myth, and then perhaps to history again; from legend to history, from history to legend, or from folk-tale to history—these metamorphoses must be searched for diligently. Our 'test of recurrence' is not always sufficient, for occasionally myth will be seen to group with folklore and legend and vice versa.