An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 117


The name Mabinogion is given to a collection of Welsh tales of much mythological interest.[3] The ancient Britons called a man qualified for bardic honours a mabinog, or graduate, and the traditional lore which he had to learn by rote was called mabinogi (plural, mabinogion). Only a few of these tales are mabinogion in the strict sense of the word, and these are the tales of Pwyll, Branwen, Manawyddan, and Math. Certain Arthurian tales are also included in the work, but with these we will not deal here. The veritable Mabinogion undoubtedly contain Welsh-Celtic myth. We find in them that process through which[Pg 263] divine beings degenerate into demigods or hero-gods, thereby bridging the gulf between mythology and romance. The manuscript original dates from the fourteenth century, but the tales are of the period between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This is not to say, however, that they originated then, as elements in many of them may be traced back to dim primeval days. It is only possible to elucidate these fragments of bardic literature by the help of the Welsh Triads and the analogies of early Irish literature. Thus in the Irish Tuatha de Danann we find the counterparts of the Children of Don, also divine. So also with others of the characters in the Mabinogion; Manawyddan mab Llyr is a variant of Manannan mac Lir, lord of the Irish Hades, while Govannon may be equated with the Irish smith Goibniu. Several theories have been advanced to account for the resemblance between the Welsh and Irish tales. One asserts that the mabinogi tales were learned by the Welsh Celts from the earlier Gaelic population of Wales, while another, equally well supported, suggests that the Irish were the borrowers. This last theory is rendered untenable by the fact that the Mabinogion has no affinities with the predominant Ulster cycle of the ninth century (in which the tales are alleged to have been borrowed), but rather with the older cycle of the Tuatha de Danann, regarded even in the tenth century as of old mythological origin. A third and more probable explanation is that both Welsh and Irish tales belong to a period when those branches of the Celtic family were as yet unseparated. Similarities of detail may of course result from later borrowings, but these belong to a different category.

As literature the tales of the Mabinogion far surpass any contemporary productions, whether English, French, or German. Their imaginative glamour leaves them without a rival in the literary annals of any period.


The principal sources of Mexican myth are the writings and observations of the Spanish Conquistadores in the train of the conquering Cortéz and his immediate successors in the country. The most important document for the study of Mexican[Pg 264] mythology is the work of Father Bernardino Sahagun, a monk who flourished in Mexico in the sixteenth century.

His great work, the History of the Affairs of New Spain (as Mexico was then called), is the result of years of close study of the people and their folklore. Not content to take at second-hand mythological or other details reported to him, he submitted them to a committee of old and experienced Mexicans, thoroughly acquainted with the antiquities of their country. After this committee had approved of the inclusion of the item in his manuscript, Sahagun consulted still other native authorities, so that his book remains our chief and most reliable source of information upon Mexican myth. Even so, the account he gives us of the various deities, their characteristics and attributes, is very brief and not a little disappointing in its lack of detail, occupying as it does only about forty pages of print. The second book deals with calendars and festivals, and in this he supplements in some degree the information regarding the divine beings treated of in the first book. The third book is the most valuable to us, for it provides us with a number of myths relating to the Mexican gods. It acquaints us with the circumstances of the birth of Uitzilopochtli, of the manner in which Ouetzalcoatl, god of the Toltecs, was half lured, half driven from the land by Tezcatlipoca, of how the inhabitants of Tollan, the city of the Toltecs, were decimated by the malign necromancy of the same deity working on behalf of less civilized tribes. The remaining books are occupied with the astrology and customs of the Mexicans.

Torquemada, a later priest, wrote a similar work which, however, was based upon the matter contained in Sahagun's treatise, still in manuscript when the former wrote.

A magnificent example of an aboriginal work teeming with mythical allusions is the Popol Vuh, or "Collection of Written Leaves," of the Kiche Indians of Guatemala, already alluded to in the chapter on cosmogony. The history of the discovery of the Popol Vuh has already been related, and it only remains to furnish some account of its contents. It embraces the creation story of that people, the tale of the downfall of the earth-giants, the wanderings of the Kiche race, the adventures[Pg 265] of certain hero-gods in the Underworld, and Kiche history up to a fairly late date. It is divided into four books, the first of which is the story of the creation and what occurred shortly after. The universe was dark and in a chaotic condition when the god Hurakan, the 'Heart of Heaven,' passed over the abyss, and called out "Earth!" At the word the solid land appeared. Hurakan then summoned the other gods to consultation regarding their future course of action, among them Gucumatz and the mother- and father-gods, primeval deities who are also called 'the Serpents covered with Green Feathers.' The council of deities agreed that animals should be created, and this was done. They next resolved to make man, and fashioned certain mannikins out of wood; but these failed to pay them reverence, and in great wrath the gods sent a mighty flood accompanied by a resinous rain upon them. The wretched mannikins, taken unawares, were overwhelmed and nearly all destroyed; only a few succeeded in getting away, and their descendants to-day, we are told, are the little monkeys which infest the forests.

After this unlucky experiment the gods turned their attention to another denizen of the earth, called