An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 115Despite the lofty moral sentiments of the Vedas, and their spiritual character, we may discern in them traces of barbarism. This is less evident in the Vedic hymns, or Samhitas, than in the prose Brahmanas: many of the myths, complete and fragmentary, in which these latter abound, present a distinctly savage element of irrationality and stupidity.
The Ramayana treats of the traditions of two great races, the Kosalas and the Videhas, who dwelt in Northern India between the twelfth and tenth centuries B.C. It is not in these families that our interest centres, but in the numerous mythological allusions which enrich the work. It is, of course, chiefly a hero-tale, but, unlike the Nibelungenlied, for example, it abounds in direct allusions to the gods and their various attributes; and this it is that makes it so interesting to the mythologist. Here is a short catalogue of gods from the fifth book of the Ramayana to illustrate its usefulness as a mythological guide. The principal attributes of the various deities are described in a phrase:
Brahma and the flaming Agni, Vishnu lord of heavenly light,
Indra and benign Vivasvat ruler of the azure height,
Soma and the radiant Bhaga, and Kuvera lord of gold,
And Vidhatri great Creator worshipped by the saints of old,
Vayu breath of living creature, Yama monarch of the dead,
And Varuna with his fetters which the trembling sinners dread,
Holy spirit of Gayatri, goddess of the morning prayer,
Vasus and the hooded Nagas, golden-winged Garuda fair,
Kartikeya heavenly leader strong to conquer and to bless,
Dharma god of human duty and of human righteousness.
The adventures of the hero Rama in search of his wife Sita and her eventual discovery, form the principal incidents; and[Pg 257] although the work rings with the clash of battle, it yet possesses infinite wisdom, related in the words of holy hermits and sage priests.
The Mahabharata, or 'great poem of the Bharatas,' most wonderful of all Eastern epics, tells of a great war fought some thirteen or fourteen centuries before our era; but the main historical theme has been largely obscured by the medley of mythical, legendary, and religious lore which with the passing of centuries has gradually swelled the epic to more than a hundred thousand couplets. Originating, possibly, some centuries before the Christian era, the poem is believed to have been cast in its present form as early as A.D. 200.
Like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata is rich in mythic matter—in myths, legends, and hero-tales more or less completely fused with the central narrative. Thus it contains one version of the Indian deluge story, and the Greeks are known to have identified certain of its characters with the beings of their own mythology. The chief religious tendency of the poem in its existing shape is toward the cult of Krishna, who plays a leading part in its development. It has been suggested that the Krishna stratum was superimposed on an earlier Buddhist groundwork at a time when the worship of Vishnu (regarded as being incarnate in Krishna) was in ascendancy.
Much obscurity enfolds the origin of those famous Greek epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, whereof the authorship is traditionally assigned to Homer. Beyond the fact of their undoubted antiquity nothing is known of their early history save what may be gleaned from internal evidence; it is not even certain that they are both from the same pen. Much of the matter they contain is extremely ancient, and authorities are generally agreed that they must have been cast in epic form at latest before the ninth century B.C. The literary beauty and power of these noble works need not be dwelt upon here, but both the Iliad and Odyssey are rich in mythological matter, and it is this[Pg 258] which calls for our attention. Gods and men mingle freely in both narratives.
Thus we learn that in Homeric times the gods were definitely personalized and anthropomorphic; yet not to such an extent as to lose theriomorphic traits which indicate their origin. They could, for instance, assume animal shape at will, even Athene herself, who has but few savage elements in her nature, becoming a bird on occasion. Apollo, too, and Dionysus, and other deities possess this faculty of metamorphosis as an inheritance from a more barbarous age.
The Homeric myths, in whatever form they reached the Greek poet (or poets) known to us as Homer, are singularly free from the grosser elements which appear in the Hesiodic tales of the gods. Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Artemis, all the gods whose classic lineaments were fixed for all time by the pen of Homer, are portrayed by him in noble and beautiful aspect, with only here and there a reminiscence of some primitive chronique scandaleuse, or a trace of that barbaric element of irrationality characteristic of myth in its primitive stages.
Zeus was, of course, the supreme deity of the Homeric pantheon, and is represented as a just and pitiful god, a father to his people and an avenger of the wrongs of the weak. To him is paid genuine religious veneration, and submission to his supreme and righteous will is obviously one of the first duties of man. Round him are grouped the other gods and goddesses, likewise anthropomorphic and rational beings. The divine government consists of a simple monarchic state, probably drawn up on the model of the Greek government of the period. Between gods and mortals a general spirit of friendliness and confidence exists, giving to the religion of the Homeric period a pleasant and spontaneous character not always evident in later times.
It is notable that both the Iliad and Odyssey were unhesitatingly ascribed to Homer until the eve of the Christian era, when certain Greek writers advanced the thesis that the epics were the work of different authors. Thus was commenced a controversy which has never been entirely settled. It was[Pg 259] urged, again, that the Iliad was composed of numerous short folk-poems taken from oral tradition and woven by the poet into a connected narrative; but this theory in turn has been examined and found lacking, for the literary unity and coherence of the poem, failing only in a few minor instances, stamps it as an original work. This, of course, does not imply that myth has been excluded from the main structure of the poem, for, as has been shown, it has not. It has likewise been brought forward, as proof of the separate authorship of the epics, that various deities appear in a different aspect in the Odyssey from that which they wear in the Iliad, but this in all probability is due rather to the exigencies of composition than to a different author.
These great epics are of the widest mythological importance, determining, as they do, as much as the Hesiodic poems, the character and status of the Greek divinities. And still more surely than Hesiod does Homer mark the transition from the barbarous or semi-barbarous mythical period to the full splendour of the classic age. For many centuries the works of the ancient poet formed the scriptures of the Greek religion, the very foundation-stone of the mythological "glory that was Greece."