Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art
Page: 177Philological theory.
The philologists’ interpretation of myths is not only the most accredited at the present time, but also the most poetical. We therefore give a brief synopsis of their theory, together with [Pg 382] an analysis, from their point of view, of the principal myths told at length in the course of this work. According to this school, “myths are the result of a disease of language, as the pearl is the result of a disease of the oyster;” the key to all mythologies lies in language; and the original names of the gods, “ascertained by comparative philology, will be found, as a rule, to denote elemental or physical phenomena,” that is, phenomena of the sunshine, the clouds, rain, winds, fire, etc.
To make their process of reasoning plain, it should be explained, that as French, Spanish, and Italian are derived from the Latin, even so Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit have a common source in a much older language; that, even if Latin were entirely lost, the similarity of the word “bridge,” for instance (pons in Latin), in French (pont), in Spanish (puente), and in Italian (ponte), would justify the conclusion that these terms had their origin in a common language, and that the people who spoke it were familiar with bridges, which they evidently called by some name phonetically the same.
Further to prove their position, they demonstrate the similarity of the most common words in all the languages of the same family, showing (as is the case with the word “father” in the accompanying table) that they undergo but few changes in sixteen different languages.
Greek, pronounced pätair.
The most learned of all these philologists argues that during the first or Rhematic period, there existed a tribe in Central Asia which spoke a monosyllabic language, in which lay the germs of the Turanian, Aryan, and Semitic forms of speech. This [Pg 383] Rhematic period was followed by the Nomadic or Agglutinative age, when, little by little, the languages “received once for all that peculiar impress of their formative system which we still find in all the dialects and national idioms comprised under the name of Aryan or Semitic;” that is to say, in the Hindoo, Persian, Greek, Roman, Celt, Slav, and Teutonic languages, and in some three thousand kindred dialects.
After the Agglutinative period, and previous to the National era and “the appearance of the first traces of literature,” he places “a period represented everywhere by the same characteristic features, called the Mythological or Mythopœic age.”
It was during this period that the main part of the vast fund of mythic lore is supposed to have crystallized; for primitive man, knowing nothing whatever of physical laws, cause and effect, and the “necessary regularity of things,” yet seeking an explanation of the natural phenomena, described them in the only way possible to him, and attributed to all inanimate objects his own sentiments and passions, fancying them influenced by the same things, in the same way. This tendency to personify or animate everything is universal among savages, who are nothing but men in the primitive state; and “in early philosophy throughout the world, the sun, moon, and stars are alive, and, as it were, human in their nature.” “Poetry has so far kept alive in our minds the old animative theory of nature, that it is no great effort in us to fancy the waterspout a huge giant or a sea monster, and to depict, in what we call appropriate metaphor, its march across the field of ocean.”