Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art
Page: 176With the latter object in view, the sages and writers of old interpreted all that seemed “silly and senseless” in mythology as physical allegories,—a system subsequently carried to extremes by many heathen philosophers in the vain hope of evading Christian satire.
Learned men have also explained these selfsame myths as [Pg 379] historical facts disguised as metaphors, or as moral allegories, which the choice of Hercules (p. 218) undoubtedly is. Euhemerus (316 B.C.) was the pioneer of the former theory, and Bacon an exponent of the latter. Euhemerus’ method was exaggerated by his disciples, who declared Zeus was merely a king of Crete; his war with the giants, an attempt to repress a sedition; Danae’s shower of gold (p. 240), the money with which her guards were bribed; Prometheus, a maker of clay images, “whence it was hyperbolically said he created man out of clay;” and Atlas, an astronomer, who was therefore spoken of as supporting the weight of the heavens. This mode of interpretation was carried to such an extreme that it became ridiculous, and the inevitable reaction took place. In the course of time, however, the germ of truth it contained was again brought to light; and very few persons now refuse to believe that some of the heroic myths have some slight historical basis, the “silly and senseless” element being classed as accretions similar to the fabulous tales attached to the indubitably historical name of Charlemagne. During the seventeenth century, some philosophers, incited by “the resemblance between biblical narrative and ancient myths, came to the conclusion that the Bible contained a pure and the myths a distorted form of an original revelation.” But within the past century new theories have gradually gained ground: for the philologists have attempted to prove that the myths arose from a “disease of language;” while the anthropologists, basing their theory on comparative mythology, declare “it is man, it is human thought and human language combined, which naturally and necessarily produced the strange conglomerate of ancient fable.”
As these two last-named schools have either successfully confuted or incorporated the theories of all their predecessors, a brief outline of their respective beliefs will not be out of place. While philology compares only the “myths of races which speak languages of the same family” (as will shortly be demonstrated), anthropology resorts to all folklore, and seeks for the origin of myths, not in language, which it [Pg 380] considers only as a subordinate cause, but in the “condition of thought through which all races have passed.”
The anthropologists, or comparative mythologists, do not deny that during the moderate allowance of two hundred and fifty thousand years, which they allot to the human race on earth, the myths may have spread from a single center, and either by migration, or by slave or wife stealing, or by other natural or accidental methods, may have “wandered all around the globe;” but they principally base their arguments on the fact that just as flint arrowheads are found in all parts of the world, differing but slightly in form and manufacture, so the myths of all nations “resemble each other, because they were formed to meet the same needs, out of the same materials.”
They argue that this similarity exists, “not because the people came from the same stock” (which is the philologist’s view), “but because they passed through the same savage intellectual condition.” By countless examples taken from the folklore of all parts of the earth, they prove that the savage considers himself akin to beasts (generally to the one whose image is used as a tribal or family badge or totem), and “regards even plants, inanimate objects, and the most abstract phenomena, as persons with human parts and passions.” To the savage, “sun, moon, and stars are persons, but savage persons;” and, as he believes “many of his own tribe fellows to have the power of assuming the form of animals,” he concedes the same privilege and power to sun, moon, and stars, etc. This school further prove that all pre-Christian religions have idols representing beasts, that all mythologies represent the gods as fond of appearing in animal forms, and declare, that, although the Greeks were a thoroughly civilized people, we can still find in their mythology and religion “abundant survivals of savage manners and savage myths.” They claim, that, during the myth-making age, the ancestors of the Greeks were about on an intellectual level with the present Australian Bushmen, and that “everything in civilized mythologies which we regard as irrational, seems only part of the accepted and rational order of things [Pg 381] to the contemporary savages, and in the past seemed equally rational and natural to savages concerning whom we have historical information.” Of course it is difficult, not to say impossible, for civilized man to put himself in the savage’s place, and regard things from his point of view. The nearest approach to primitive intelligence which comes under our immediate observation is the working of the minds of small children, who, before they can talk intelligibly, whip the table or chair against which they have bumped their heads, and later on delight in weaving the most extraordinary tales. A little four-year-old seized a book and began to “read a story;” that is to say, to improvise a very improbable and highly colored tale of a pony. Forced to pause from lack of breath, she resumed the thread of her narrative with the words, “Now, this dog;” and, when it was suggested that the story was about a pony, she emphatically replied, “Well, this pony was a dog,” and continued. Now, either because she perceived that the transformation had attracted attention, or to satisfy the childish inborn taste for the marvelous, in the course of the next few minutes the pony underwent as many transformations as Proteus, all of which apparently seemed perfectly natural to her. The anthropologists explain the tales of the various transformations of Jupiter and his animal progeny “as in many cases survivals of the totemistic belief in descent from beasts,” while the mythologists explain them as “allegories of the fruitful union of heaven and earth, of rain and grain.” The former school also declare that the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which has its parallel in stories found in all parts of the world, was invented to explain curious marriage customs (for in some countries it is unlawful for the husband to see his wife’s face until after she has given birth to her first child, and in others a wife may not speak her husband’s name): the latter school interpret the same myth as a beautiful allegory of the soul and the union of faith and love.