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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 50

As has already been pointed out, there is more than one explanation of such gods. Fault has been found with the division of deities into agricultural and non-agricultural, but there is no doubt whatever that the change from nomadic to agricultural life and the consequent altered conditions gave birth to a completely new set of religious ideas. In the nomadic or hunting stage of existence, when man depends for subsistence upon the flesh of animals and such wild fruits as he can procure, he regards with veneration the supernatural beings he thinks help or hinder him in the chase. Thus among certain North American Indian tribes the barbarian hunter has a fetish shaped like a mountain-lion. After making it an offering, he places its carven nostrils to his own, believing that by so doing he inhales its courage. He then breathes out deeply, in order to spread the breath of the animal over a wide area and paralyse all the game in the neighbourhood. On slaying a deer he cuts out the liver and smears the blood thereof on the mouth of the fetish as a reward. Finally he prays[Pg 117] to the Great Deer, the mythical or magnified ancestor of the animal killed, not to seek vengeance against him for having taken the life of one of his children.

This is a picture of the utilitarian side of a savage hunter's religion, and it is a representative one. Thus we see with what simple religious elements the hunter has to do, and yet what an involved ritual these primitive ideas may bring in their train. He recognizes other supernatural beings than his own personal and tribal fetishes, the eponymous heads of the beast clans. For example, he fears and attempts to placate the being whom he deems to cause the thunder and lightning. Later he sees in this god a great hunter, the patron of his own craft of the chase, launching the fiery shaft from heaven.

The wind and the sun may appear to him to possess personality and even deity, as they symbolize the breath and heat of life; but he can scarcely adore them with the same fervour as that of the husbandman, who depends entirely for his sustenance on the good will of sun and wind.

The transition from the nomadic or hunting state to the agricultural may or may not be abrupt. It may depend on slow evolution or on the union of a hunting with an agricultural people, but whatever the cause of the adoption of more settled habits of existence, the gods of the chase do not all at once disappear into the background. Many of them hold their own until a later stage of polytheism is reached, and not a few supernatural forms of a primitive 'departmental' or 'animistic' type have achieved high rank in more than one later pantheon. Thus, as has already been shown, the Mexican Uitzilopochtli and the Latin Picus were evolved from bird totems which had led their respective tribesmen to battle in the days of old.


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