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Custom and Myth

Page: 71

When Mr. Lane was living at Cairo, and translating the ‘Arabian Nights,’ he found that the people still believed in metamorphosis. Any day, just as in the ‘Arabian Nights,’ a man might find himself turned by an enchanter into a pig or a horse. Similar beliefs, not derived from language, supply the matter of the senseless incidents in Greek myths.

Savage mythology is also full of metamorphoses. Therefore the mythologists whose case we are stating, when they find identical metamorphoses in the classical mythologies, conjecture that these were first invented when the ancestors of the Aryans were in the imaginative condition in which a score of rude races are to-day. This explanation they apply to many other irrational elements in mythology. They do not say, ‘Something like the events narrated in these stories once occurred,’ nor ‘A disease of language caused the belief in such events,’ but ‘These stories were invented when men were capable of believing in their occurrence as a not unusual sort of incident’

Philologists attempt to explain the metamorphoses as the result of some oblivion and confusion of language. Apollo, they say, was called the ‘wolf-god’ (Lukeios) by accident: his name really meant the ‘god of light.’ A similar confusion made the ‘seven shiners’ into the ‘seven bears.’ {201} These explanations are distrusted, partly because the area to be covered by them is so vast. There is scarcely a star, tree, or beast, but it has been a man or woman once, if we believe civilised and savage myth. Two or three possible examples of myths originating in forgetfulness of the meaning of words, even if admitted, do not explain the incalculable crowd of metamorphoses. We account for these by saying that, to the savage mind, which draws no hard and fast line between man and nature, all such things are possible; possible enough, at least, to be used as incidents in story. Again, as has elsewhere been shown, the laxity of philological reasoning is often quite extraordinary; while, lastly, philologists of the highest repute flatly contradict each other about the meaning of the names and roots on which they agree in founding their theory. {202a}

By way of an example of the philological method as applied to savage mythology, we choose a book in many ways admirable, Dr. Hahn’s ‘Tsuni Goam, the Supreme Being of the Khoi Khoi.’ {202b} This book is sometimes appealed to as a crushing argument against the mythologists who adopt the method we have just explained. Let us see if the blow be so very crushing. To put the case in a nutshell, the Hottentots have commonly been described as a race which worshipped a dead chief, or conjurer—


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