An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 20


The Middle Ages produced no criticism of myth worthy of attention. Popular belief in medieval times regarded the gods and goddesses of antiquity as of diabolic origin, or at least as 'pagans' who had been relegated to Hell on the advent of Christianity. This view was, of course, sedulously supported by the priesthood, as may be seen in the medieval legend of Tannhäuser. Prior to the Renaissance period, with its revival of classical studies, the gods of Greece and Rome were frequently confused or identified with other pagan deities and even with religious leaders like Mohammed, as, for instance, in the phrase 'Mahound and Termagent,' which alludes to the pairing of Mohammed and Tyr, or Tyr Magus, a Scandinavian divinity. In The King of Tars, an English romance, probably of the fourteenth century, we read how the Sultan of Damascus destroyed his idols, "with sterne strokes and with grete, on Jovyn[Pg 44] and Plotoun, on Astrot and sire Jovyn." Here Roman and Semitic deities are mingled in "hideous ruin," like the wicked angels of Milton, whose poem, by the way, encouraged a later belief that the Arch-fiend and his associates were no other than the gods of the elder faiths, Beelzebub, Belial, and, among others,

Osiris, Isis, Orus and their train.

An old Scots piece, entitled Sir John Rowll's Cursings dating perhaps from the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and in all probability written by a priest of Corstorphine, near Edinburgh, contains several interesting allusions which show the condition of mythological knowledge at that day. It is directed against certain persons who have rifled the priest's poultry-yard. Sir John is powerful in anathema, and his thunders must have caused trepidation among the more superstitious of his parishioners, but the only lines of his rhymed 'Billingsgate' apposite here are those containing the names of demons, because these show us how the mythic characters of antiquity were regarded in his time. He says that the pilferers of his hen-roosts will be hanged and given to the fiend, and continues:

... and Cerberus thair banis sall knaw
For thair dispyt of the Kirkis law,
Gog and Magog and grym Garog,
The Devill of hell the theif Harog,
Sym Skynar and St Garnega,
Julius appostata,
Prince Pluto and quene Cokatrice,
Devetinus the devill that maid the dyce,
Cokadame and Semiamis,
Fyremouth and Tutivillus,
And Browny als that can play kow[4]
Behind the claith wt mony mow.[5]
All this about the beir salbe[6]
Singand ane dolorous dergie.

Let us try to identify some of these figures. We may pass over Cerberus, and Gog Magog, who has by this date evidently[Pg 45] resolved himself into two separate individuals. In Harog we probably see that 'Old Harry' who is so frequently apostrophized, perhaps a variant of the Norse god Odin. In Sym Skynar we may have Skrymir, the Norse giant in whose glove Thor found shelter from an earthquake, and who sadly fooled him and his companions. Skrymir was, of course, one of the Jötunn, or Norse Titans, and probably one of the powers of winter; and he may have received the popular name of 'Sym' in the same manner as we speak of 'Jack' Frost. Julius the Apostate, Pluto, and the Cokatrice are easily identified. Semiamis is, of course, Semiramis, and it was quite possible that the Babylonian queen bulked in the popular imagination as an Eastern goddess, fit companion for Mahound or Mohammed.


The study of myth can hardly be considered scientific in our modern sense until nearly the end of the eighteenth century. During the seventeenth century and the early portion of the eighteenth works were published from time to time which professed to give an outline of the myths of Greece and Rome, but in these the critical spirit was almost entirely absent. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) leaned to the allegorical interpretation of myth. Thus, Narcissus was self-love, Dionysus passion, and the Sphinx science. Natalis Comes (d. 1582) saw in myth allegories of natural and moral philosophy. The first writer to strike upon the true line of interpretation was De Brosses (1709-1777), who in 1760 published a work,