An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 39

Sir George says: "The traditional narrative, the myth, the folk-tale, or the legend, is not dependent upon the text in which it appears for the first time. That text as we have it was not written down by contemporary or nearly contemporary authority. Before it had become a written document it had lived long as oral tradition. In some cases the written document is itself centuries old, the record of some early chronicler or early writer who did not make the record for tradition's sake. In other cases the written document is quite modern, the record of a professed lover of tradition. This unequal method of recording tradition is the main source of the difficulty in the way of those who cannot accept tradition as a record of fact. In all cases the test of its value and the interpretation of its testimony are matters which need special study and examination before the exact value of each tradition is capable of being determined. The date when and the circumstances in which a tradition is first reduced to literary form are important factors in the evidence as to the credibility of the particular form in which the tradition is preserved; but they are not all the factors, nor do they of themselves afford better evidence when they are comparatively ancient than forms of much later date and of circumstances far different. It cannot be too often impressed upon the student of tradition that the tradition itself affords the chief if not the only sure evidence of its age, its origin, and its meaning; for the preservation of tradition is due to such varied influences that the mere fact of preservation or the method or particular date of preservation cannot be relied[Pg 92] upon to give the necessary authority for the authenticity of the tradition. Tradition can never assume the position of written history, because it does not owe its origin, but only its preservation, to writing."

Dealing with the relations of myth to history, Sir George says (p. 128): "Because mythic tradition has been found to include many traditions which of late years have been claimed to belong to a definitely historical race of people, it must not be identified with history. This claim is based upon two facts, the presence of myth in the shape of the folk-tale and the preservation of much mythic tradition beyond the stage of thought to which it properly belongs by becoming attached to an historical event or series of events, or to an historical personage, and in this way carrying on its life into historic periods and among historic peoples. The first position has resulted in an appropriation of the folk-tale to the cause of the mythologists; the second position has hitherto resulted either in a disastrous appropriation of the entire tradition to mythology, or in a still more disastrous rejection both of the tradition and the historical event round which it clusters. Historians doubting the myth doubt too the history; mythologists doubting the history reject the myth from all consideration, and in this way much is lost to history which properly belongs to it, and something is lost to myth."

Sir George subscribes to Robertson Smith's statement that "Mythology was no essential part of ancient religion, for it had no sacred sanction and no binding force on the worshippers." Yet on the next page (p. 148) he says: "Myths constitute a part of the serious life of the people." He also speaks of myth (p. 149) as being told "in the hushed sanctity of a great wonder," of primitive myth being "preserved in a special manner and for religious purposes" (p. 150), and (on the same page) he alludes to its "sacredness." Yet it had "no sacred sanction and no binding force "!


Mr Sidney Hartland in his Science of Fairy Tales (1890) has applied "the principles and methods which guide investigators[Pg 93] into popular traditions to a few of the most remarkable stories embodying the fairy superstitions of the Celtic and Teutonic peoples." The unity of human imagination is pleaded for. "Man's imagination," writes Mr Hartland, "like every other known power, works by fixed laws, the existence and operation of which it is possible to trace; and it works upon the same material—the external universe, the mental and moral constitution of man, and his social relations. Hence diverse as may seem at first sight the results among the cultured Europeans and the debased Hottentots, the philosophical Hindoos and the Red Indians of the Far West, they present, on a close examination, features absolutely identical.... The incidents [of story-plots] ... are not merely alike; they are often indistinguishable." Further, the anthropological standpoint is upheld. In The Legend of Perseus (1894-1896) the author has attempted to show "the dependence of the folk-tale upon custom and superstition, and to determine the place of origin of one world-famous tale."


Dr Rendel Harris of Manchester has in several works propounded mythological views of startling novelty, with a wealth of illustration and argument which do credit alike to his scholarship and his didactical skill. In his latest work, The Ascent of Olympus, which it is incumbent upon all students of myth to study, he explains the cults of Dionysus, Apollo, Artemis, and Aphrodite. In Dr Harris's view the cults of these gods are respectively cults of the ivy, the apple, the mugwort, and the mandrake, of which plants the deities in question were personifications. Early Greek religion is thus evolved from the witch-doctor's garden, and, a fortiori, Olympus itself is a later development of the hortus siccus of the medicine-man. I will not attempt to advance any criticism of Dr Harris's thesis in this place, as I freely confess that his iconoclastic conclusions stun me. He triumphs in argument, and I live in fear and trembling that in his next book he may prove that Hephæstus was evolved from a tenpenny nail, or Poseidon from a lobster, As he is strong, let us beg him to be merciful also, for if he[Pg 94] further depreciates our old mythological stock, those of us who are professional mythologists will be forced to dispose of it and begin life over again as his apprentices.

As proof of his masterly presentment of the astounding conclusions he has advanced, I quote the following summing-up from his Ascent of Olympus (p. 57):

"Let us refresh our memory as to the method we pursued and the results which we obtained in the case of the cults of Dionysos and Apollo. It will be remembered that we started from the sanctity of the oak as the animistic repository of the thunder, and in that sense the dwelling-place of Zeus; it was assumed that the oak was taboo and all that belonged to it; that the woodpecker who nested in it or hammered at its bark was none other than Zeus himself, and it may turn out that Athena, who sprang from the head of the thunder-oak, was the owl that lived in one of its hollows. Even the bees who lived underneath its bark were almost divine animals, and had duties to perform to Zeus himself. The question having been raised as to the sanctity of the creepers upon the oak, it was easy to show that the ivy (with the smilax and the vine) was a sacred plant, and that it was the original cult-symbol of Dionysos, who thus appeared as a lesser Zeus projected from the ivy, just as Zeus himself, in one point of view, was a projection from the oak. Dionysos, whose thunder-birth could be established by the well-known Greek tradition concerning Semele and Zeus, was the ivy on the oak, and after that became an ivy fire-stick in the ritual for the making of fire. From Dionysos to Apollo was the next step: it was suggested in the first instance by the remarkable confraternity of the two gods in question. They were shown to exchange titles, to share sanctuaries, and to have remarkable cult-parallelisms, such as the chewing of the sacred laurel by the Pythian priestess, and the chewing of the sacred ivy by the Mænads: and since it was discovered that the Delphic laurel was a surrogate for a previously existing oak, it was natural to inquire whether in any way Apollo, as well as Dionysos, was linked to the life of Zeus through the life of the oak. The inquiry was very fruitful in results: the undoubted solar elements in the Apolline cult[Pg 95] were shown to be capable of explanation by an identification of Apollo with the mistletoe, and it was found that Apollo was actually worshipped at one centre in Rhodes as the Mistletoe Apollo, just as Dionysos was worshipped as the Ivy Dionysos at Acharnai. Further inquiry led to the conclusion that the sanctity of the oak had been transferred by the mistletoe from the oak to the apple tree, and that the cult betrayed a close connection between the god and the apple-tree, as, for instance, in the bestowal of sacred apples from the god's own garden upon the winners of the Pythian games. In this way it came to be seen that Apollo was really the mistletoe upon the apple-tree for the greater part of the development of the cult, just as Dionysos was the ivy, not detached as some had imagined, but actually upon the oak-tree. It was next discovered that the garden at Delphi was a reproduction of another Apolline garden in the far north, among the Hyperboreans, the garden to which Boreas had carried off Orithyia, and to which (or to another adjacent garden) at a later date the sons of Asklepios were transferred for the purpose of medical training.... Apollo came from the North as a medicine-man, a herbalist, and brought his simples with him. His character of a god of healing was due, in the first instance, to the fact that the mistletoe, which he represented, was the All-heal of antiquity.... An attempt was then made to show that the very name of Apollo was in its early form Apellon, a loan-word from the North, disguising in the thinnest way his connection with the apple-tree. The apple had come into Greece from the North, perhaps from Teutonic peoples, just as it appears to have come into Western Italy from either Teutons or Celts, giving its name in the one case to the great god of healing, and in the other to the city of Abella in Campania, through the Celtic word Aball."