An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 17

[1] In order that the beginner in mythic science may be enabled to comprehend its scope with some degree of precision, the writer has framed definitions as closely approaching accuracy as the present state of knowledge and research will permit, and has obtained the advice and assistance of most of the leading authorities. The method adopted was as follows. A table of definitions was placed before each authority, and he was invited to comment upon it. Such comments and criticisms on certain portions of the definitions either displaced the original material or were incorporated with it, first of all being reduced to a brevity suitable to explanatory phraseology. The result was the above list of definitions.

In the Handbook of Folklore, Appendix A, a number of definitions bearing upon mythology are provided, drawn up at a conference representing the editors of the Handbook and others. Several of them bear the sign of over-caution. For example, we read on p. 300; "Myth, a story told to account for something." Although sufficiently wide, the phrase is sadly lacking in definiteness, and might equally apply to an effort of mendacity!

[2] "Definitions and rules are needed. No student can attack so immense a subject without the aid of such necessary machinery, and it is because the attempt has been so often made ill-equipped in this respect that the science of folklore has suffered so much and has remained so long unrecognized." (Gomme, Folklore as an Historical Science, p. 127.) Some high authorities with whom the writer communicated appear to consider the formulation of definitions as a 'waste of time'! This attitude in the case of the leaders of any other science would surely be considered as retrograde.

[3] In truth, 'folklore' is a most unfortunate denomination, as the science it designates has greatly outgrown the name. Neither 'folklore' nor 'mythology' is capable of defining the study of the religion, fiction, usages, laws, and general mental equipment of savages and primitive people. By far the best term is 'tradition,' and the one barrier to its use seems to be its simplicity.

[4] Religion of the Semites pp. 18 sqq.

[5] Gomme, quoting and following Robertson Smith, believes that "mythology was no essential part of ancient religion, for it had no sacred sanction and no binding force on the worshippers." Why then the insistence by most priesthoods on the absorption of myths by their neophytes? Why their 'renovation' of myths? Myths were early efforts at a reconciliation of the tales of gods with the religious sentiment; ritual, as Gomme admits, was merely the outward expression of tradition. On p. 141 of the same work (Folklore as an Historical Science) he speaks of "those who believe in the truth of the myth," of its "sacred character," of "traditions which have become sacred." On p. 149 he speaks of myth as "revered," and told in "the hushed sanctity of a great wonder." Yet he believes that it had "no binding force"! On p. 150 he writes of the preservation of primitive myth "for religious purposes." Robertson Smith's reasoning was, of course, based on pure theory and upon limited as opposed to universal examples of the connexion of myth with religion, of which it is an integral part. The wonder is that this circumstance was not patently visible to the distinguished folklorist who comments upon and accepts his dictum.

[6] The Golden Bough (2nd ed.), vol. i, p. 63.

[7] My own 'minimum' definition of religion is, "The result of man's attitude to the unknown."

[8] Dr Marett, in a letter to the author dated November 30, 1914, states that he "thinks it a mistake to state by way of definition that myths are √¶tiological" (explanatory), on the ground that explanation is not a fundamental of myth and that a theory is thereby involved. Says Gomme: "Every tradition ... myth or story contains two perfectly independent elements—the fact upon which it is founded and the interpretation of the fact which its founders have attempted." (Folklore as an Historical Science, p. 10.)

[9] As regards the relation of myth to history, Gomme has happily said that myth "must not be identified with history. This claim is based upon two facts, the presence of myth in the shape of the folk-tale [which he believes to be a late form of myth] and the preservation of much mythic tradition beyond the stage of thought to which it properly belongs by becoming attached to an historical event or series of events, or to an historical personage, and in this way carrying on its life into historic periods and among historic peoples. The first position has resulted in a wholesale appropriation of the folk-tale to the cause of the mythologists; the second position has hitherto resulted either in a disastrous appropriation of the entire tradition to mythology or in a still more disastrous rejection both of the tradition and the historical event round which it clusters." (Folklore as an Historical Science, p. 128.)

[10] "The myth is not dependent upon the text in which it appears for the first time. That text as we have it was not written down by contemporary or nearly contemporary authority. Before it had become a written document it had lived long as oral tradition." (Gomme, op. cit., p. 125.)

[11] When myth is 'renovated,' cleansed, cast into literary form, or in any way subjected to alteration, it is known as 'secondary' myth—that is, it exists in a secondary state.

[12] "In this class of tradition we are in touch with the struggles of the earliest ancestors of man to learn about the unknown." (Gomme, op. cit., p. 130.)

[13] "All the knowledge they possess is that based upon their own material senses, and therefore when they apply that knowledge to subjects outside their own personality they deal with them in terms of their own personality." (Gomme, op. cit., p. 132.)

[14] Some modern writers believe animism to be a relatively late manifestation in the religious history of mankind. It seems to me to occur spontaneously wherever and whenever the mind of man is discovered in a condition sufficiently primitive to receive it, and as it is the original mental characteristic of all children, whether savage or civilized, I fail to recognize its significance as a later demonstration of human thought.

[15] Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion (4th ed.), vol. i, p. 295.

[16] See remarks on totemism, p. 28.

[17] Gill, Myths and Songs from the South Pacific, p. 60.

[18] "Primitive science was also primitive belief." (Gomme, op. cit., p. 140.) Again (p. 132): "Where savages ask themselves, as they certainly do ask themselves, whence the sky, whence the winds, the sun, moon, stars, sea, rivers, mountains, and other natural objects, they reply in terms of good logic applied to deficient knowledge." Again (p. 130): "Our own research in the realms of the unknown we dignify by the name and glories of science. The research of our remote ancestors was of like kind.... It was primitive science."

[19] Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol. i, p. 369.

[20] Animism has been defined by Dr Tylor as "the doctrine of spiritual beings, including human souls"; but the term is often extended to include animatism, "the doctrine that the great part if not the whole of the inanimate kingdom as well as all animated beings are endowed with reason, intelligence, and volition, identical with that of man."

[21] "We have no opportunity of observing historically man's development from blank unbelief into even the minimum or most rudimentary form of belief. We can only theorise and make more or less plausible conjectures as to the first rudiments of human faith in God and in spiritual beings. We find no race whose mind as to faith is a tabula rasa." (Lang,