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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 40

PROFESSOR ELLIOT SMITH

Professor George Elliot Smith, of University College, London, has brought to the problems of archæology a mental freshness and originality of outlook that have placed him in the front rank of the science in a surprisingly short space of time. He is the chief supporter of the theory that by slow[Pg 96] degrees the civilization of ancient Egypt spread itself over the habitable globe, even to far America. His sledge-hammer logic and array of excellent if rather limited illustrations are capable of daunting the most doughty opponent. In his recent book, The Evolution of the Dragon, he probes as deeply into the basic mysteries of mythology as Dr Rendel Harris, of whose work he says: "Our genial friend has been cultivating his garden on the slopes of Olympus, and has been plucking the rich fruits of his ripe scholarship and nimble wit. At the same time, with rougher implements and cruder methods, I have been burrowing in the depths of the earth, trying to recover information concerning the habits and thoughts of mankind many centuries before Dionysus and Apollo and Artemis and Aphrodite were dreamt of. In the course of these subterranean gropings no one was more surprised than I was to discover that I was getting entangled in the roots of the same plants whose golden fruit Dr Rendel Harris was gathering from his Olympian heights. But the contrast in our respective points of view was perhaps responsible for the different appearance the growths assumed. To drop the metaphor, while he was searching for the origins of the deities a few centuries before the Christian era began, I was finding their more or less larval forms flourishing more than twenty centuries before the commencement of his story. For the gods and goddesses of his narrative were only the thinly disguised representatives of much more ancient deities decked out in the sumptuous habiliments of Greek culture."

The Evolution of the Dragon contains three essays, "Incense and Libations," "Dragons and Rain-gods," and "The Birth of Aphrodite," all of which are of the first importance to students of mythic science, as illustrating the possibility of tracing evolved divine figures to their primitive forms. The first essay begins with Professor Smith's well-known hypothesis that the reasons for the adoption of custom are not "simple and obvious," and are not inspired by reason, but by tradition. Man is not an inventive animal, and two independent inventions of any custom, story, or article of utility are improbable. The part played by the ancient Egyptians in the development of certain[Pg 97] arts and beliefs was a paramount one. The necessity for obtaining wood, spices, and gums for the mummification of the dead forced them to make long voyages; and consequently they became the missionary carriers of the religious customs and ideas they had evolved at home, disseminating these throughout the Mediterranean world. Professor Smith then traces the early idea of godhead to the apotheosized ruler or king, whose posthumous benevolence rendered the land fertile. He believes that animism received its definite form in Egypt, where it was fostered by the art of mummification, and spread thence broadcast. The development of animism was enormously complex. It received its first great impetus from an early Egyptian king who believed that he could restore the breath of life to the dead by means of the magic wand. Then the burning of incense before a body or statue was intended to convey to it the warmth, the sweat, and the colours of life. Mummification, indeed, "laid the foundation of the ideas which subsequently were built up into a theory of the soul: in fact, it was intimately connected with the birth of all those ideals and aspirations which are now included in the conception of religious belief and ritual." The development of animism, too, brought the supernatural idea of the properties and functions of water, an idea which had previously sprung up in connexion with agriculture, into a more definite form. It was a factor in the development of the paraphernalia of the gods and of current popular belief, of the temple and its ritual, and led to a definite formulation of the conception of deities.

The second essay, "Dragons and Rain-gods," is the longest of the three. The dragon legend, says Professor Smith, is the history of the search for the elixir of life. "The original dragon was a beneficent creature, the personification of water, and was identified with kings and gods." "The dragon myth, however, did not really begin to develop until an ageing king refused to be slain, and called upon the Great Mother as the giver of life to rejuvenate him. Her only elixir was human blood; and to obtain it she was compelled to make a human sacrifice. Her murderous act led to her being compared and ultimately identified with a man-slaying lioness or a cobra.[Pg 98] The story of the slaying of the dragon is a much-distorted rumour of this incident; and in the process of elaboration the incidents were subjected to every kind of interpretation, and also confusion with the legendary account of the conflict between Horus and Set." Thus the Great Mother became confused with Horus as the avenger of the god, and legendary complications caused Horus to be regarded as her son. But the infamy of her deeds of destruction seems to have led to her being further confused with the rebellious followers of Set. "Thus an evil dragon emerged from this blend of the attributes of the Great Mother and Set."


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