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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 57

"As distinguished from gods, spirits are restricted in their operations to definite departments of nature. Their names are general, not proper; their attributes are generic rather than individual. In other words, there is an indefinite number of spirits of each class, and the individuals of a class are all much alike, they have no definitely marked individuality, no accepted traditions are current as to their origin, life, adventures, and character. On the other hand, gods, as distinguished from spirits, are not restricted to definite departments of nature. It is true that there is generally some one department over which they preside as their special province, but they are not rigorously confined to it. They can exert their power for good or evil in many other spheres of life. Again, they bear individual or proper names, such as Ceres, Proserpine, Bacchus, and their individual characters and histories are fixed by current myths and the representations of art."

The corn-spirit, so characteristic of early agricultural life, is still to be found in present-day folklore. The researches of Mannhardt and Sir James Frazer have supplied numerous illustrations of the manner in which a sheaf at harvest-time is connected with certain rites, more or less similar in all countries, associated with the corn-spirit or corn-mother. Thus it was thought in primitive days that a spirit resided in or watched over the growing grain. In time this animistic conception gave way to the idea of a departmental god of agriculture.

Strangely enough the agricultural departmental deity does not represent the same generally uniform characteristics as do other departmental gods, for example, gods of the sun or gods[Pg 129] of the sea. A likeness exists between the myths of Demeter in Greece, Osiris in Egypt, and Ishtar in Babylonia, and it is probable that these three myths had a common origin; but there is no likeness between the person or attributes of the three gods alluded to. The establishment of agriculture may be—indeed, often is—part of the earthly accomplishment of a culture-god. Thus Apollo was guardian of the crops and even of the herds, and during the mythical reign of Quetzalcoatl in Mexico the ears of maize were so heavy that one might scarce be carried by a strong man. Agricultural gods too frequently have a connexion with the Underworld, for seed grows to fruition there. Thus among the Greeks, Persephone, the wife of Aides or Hades, was unquestionably symbolic of the corn sleeping in winter and coming to fruition in the warm months.

THE CORN-SPIRIT AND ITS ABODE

The mother of Persephone, or Kore, was Demeteri.e., 'corn-mother,' Persephone was carried off and wed by Hades, king of the dead, was sought for in his dark country by her mother, and was restored, with the proviso that she must spend so many months every year underground with her husband. Many circumstances in the myth of Osiris point to the same corn-spirit origin. The wanderings of Isis in search of her dismembered husband Osiris throughout the length and breadth of Egypt, the passing of the son of the King of Byblos through the magic flame, as well as other incidents, well illustrate the similarity.

Why do Demeter and Isis wander up and down, the one seeking for her daughter, the other for her husband? Persephone and Osiris in one of his many forms—probably his original form—both represent the sown seed of the wheat, lying dormant for so long, but later resurrected and recovered. Who or what then are Demeter and Isis? It is one of the tenets of animism that the animistic spirit must, as spiritualists would say, 'materialize' in some natural object, and the wandering spirit may thus be enticed by the sorcery of the shaman into[Pg 130] the fetish object. When the corn is cut down, whither does the corn-spirit betake itself? It must of necessity become a wanderer on the face of the earth until once more the corn sprouts to give it house-room. If our conclusions are correct, the myths of Demeter and Isis are late and elaborated versions of an early animistic belief that the corn-spirit was driven from its shelter until the green shoots attracted it once more. The myth is most surely an animistic one, and perhaps one of the oldest myths in the world. Demeter and Isis are deified corn-spirits seeking the corn (Persephone and Osiris) for the purpose of rematerializing it. Persephone and Osiris represent the corn-seed as well as the corn-spirit, as is obvious from their sojourn underground.


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