An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 18

The Making of Religion, p. 53.)

[22] Tylor supposes animism to have arisen from "two groups of biological problems present to the mind of early man:

"(1) What is it makes the difference between a living body and a dead one, what causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, and death?

"(2) What are those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions?" (Primitive Culture, vol. i, p. 428.)

[23] See p. 19.

[24] The term 'fetishism' has been objected to upon the ground that "it has been used in so many different and contradictory senses that it is very likely to be misunderstood. ... Even the word fetish should only be used in its historic sense, to describe a limited class of magical objects in West Africa." (Handbook of Folklore, p. 298.) This objection is scarcely a practical one, and to eliminate a word which has rendered excellent service to anthropology and has been adopted by students in all parts of the world to designate a definite class of religious objects and the especial description of the cult which clusters round them savours of pedantic caprice, while no equivalent is tendered for the word it is proposed to abolish.

[25] The jinn inhabiting Aladdin's lamp and ring appear to have been fetishistic spirits of this type.

[26] Well-known instances of assault upon gods are: the overthrow of the discredited Russian god, Peroun, by his disillusioned worshippers; the profanation of Balder's grove by Frithjof (Frithjof Saga); the destruction of the idols of the Mexican gods, Uitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, by the Spanish conquerors. Other instances could be cited, nearly all acts of insanity, rashness, or hostility, rarely of disappointment.

[27] See Gomme, Ethnology in Folklore, for several notable instances of stone-worship of this description.

[28] The author has shown that Uitzilopochtli was originally the agave plant, and that the humming-bird, which nests therein, was regarded as the spirit animating that plant (see Discovery for June 1920).

[29] As will be shown farther on, the author believes that the majority of mythic plots possess an animistic basis.

[30] The school originated by Professor Elliot Smith has much to recommend it; but its hypotheses need further elucidation, a greater amount of evidence to buttress them, and—it is spoken in all friendliness—it lacks a spirit of tolerant and serious consideration for the views of its opponents; all of which it will gain in good time.

[31] Channing Arnold in article "Australia," Ency. Brit,(11th ed.).

[32] It would be very unjust to Professor Elliot Smith and his school, however, if it were not stated that they possess many good arguments against this, for which see the publications issued by the University of Manchester.

[Pg 40]



Many are the hypotheses and systems advanced to account for the origin and existence of myth. It will greatly assist our comprehension of these and our ability to discern those most worthy of consideration if we examine them chronologically as well as critically. If we begin our review with the gropings of the first far-off thinkers who attempted an analysis of myth, and put to themselves the question "What is myth, its origin and its meaning?" and advance through the centuries until we encounter present-day theories, then we should be well equipped to pursue our course without fear of the pitfalls encountered by early writers on tradition, or, let us hope, of falling into the grave errors inevitable when mythological data were less plentiful than at the present time.

It must be clearly understood that this sketch does not deal with the makers or restorers of myth, but with the views and notions of critics who have sought to discover its nature and meaning. Again, we would remind the reader that we are not dealing with religious science, but with such mythological notions as have come down to us from early times to the present.[1]

The first critic of myth was Xenophanes of Colophon (fl. 540-500 B.C.), an Ionian exile in Sicily, afterward living at Elea, in Southern Italy. He supported himself by travelling from[Pg 41] place to place and reciting his own poems. The important part of his writings for us is that in which he attacks the polytheism prevalent in his day. Xenophanes did not accept the mythical idea of man-like deities then current. "There is one God, greatest among gods and men," he writes, "neither in shape nor in thought like unto mortals ... yet men imagine gods to be born and to have raiment and voice and body, like themselves.... Even so oxen, lions, and horses, if they had hands to grave images, would fashion gods after their own shapes and make them bodies like to their own." Again he says: "The rainbow, which men call Iris,[2] is a cloud." Xenophanes appears by his writings to have taken up the position of a theologian protesting not against polytheism, but against the idea that the gods possessed human appearance and attributes. Besides the one great god he seems to have recognized a plurality of minor divinities who govern portions of the universe. He stigmatized anthropomorphic myths as "the fables of men of old."