An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 21

Du culte des dieux fétiches, ou parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Égypte avec la religion actuelle de Nigritie. De Brosses showed that animal-worship in ancient Egypt was a survival of practices such as existed among modern savages. Lafitau (in 1724) also pointed out the savage element surviving in Greek myth, for which he found many parallels in his experience as a Jesuit missionary among the Indians of North America. But all writers on myth were not so rational as these. Thus the Abbé Banier in his La mythologie et les fables expliquées par l'histoire (Paris, 1738) traced (as the title of the book indicates) all myths to an historical basis.

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Bryant (1715-1804) in 1774 published A New System, or an Analysis of Ancient Mythology, in which he traced all mythologies to Biblical sources. Thomas Taylor (1758-1835) in his translation of Pausanias regarded all myth as allegory.

Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) was the first to see a connexion between the formation of myth and national development. Without possessing the orderly and logical mind so necessary to the student of tradition, he was able to seize spasmodically upon truths or facts which strongly buttressed his theory. Creuzer in his Symbolik und Mythologie (Leipzig, 1810-1812) laid stress on the religious character of myth. According to his view, myth is of the nature of religious teaching, proceeding from an original revelation, and carefully handed down in symbolic form by priestly schools. This secret wisdom passed from the Orient to Greece and became the kernel of all myths, which therefore contain the wisdom of antiquity in an allegorical form. To unriddle this is the task of the mythologist, who can only succeed in doing so by intuition. The mythologist is, like the poet, born not made, according to Creuzer.

Although the symbolic method is nowadays as dead as the dodo, and in any case could only apply to very late myths which were the work of poets or philosophers, it still holds good that the elucidation of myth is not a matter of pure mental induction, but that it frequently results from intuition; and who can doubt, with the brilliant examples of Lang, Gomme, Marett, Saussaye, Hubert and Mauss, Reinach, Rendel Harris, and Elliot Smith before them, the proud assertion that great students of tradition are "born not made"?

With K.O. Müller's (1797-1840) Prolegomena zu einer wissenschäftlicher Mythologie (1825; Eng. trans, by Leitch, 1844) the truly scientific treatment of myth begins. He saw clearly that the true laws underlying the confusion of mythic science as he found it were not to be approached by one but by many ways. The explanation of a myth, he said, must be the explanation of its origin. A knowledge of the popular life of antiquity he regarded as indispensable, and he drew a distinction between the actual, original myth and the myth as sophisticated[Pg 47] by poets and philosophers. Mythic materials, he argued, must be resolved into their original elements. His dicta are landmarks, almost laws—if the term 'law' may be applied to a science where at present all is rather nebulous.


The comparative study of language did much to reawaken both interest and industry in the study of myth, and the philological method of explaining mythic phenomena arose. This system has been called 'comparative mythology.' The appellation is scarcely correct from a scientific standpoint, as, strictly speaking, the term 'comparative mythology' implies the comparison of the details of one myth with those of another, in an attempt to prove the universality of the nature of myth, or by 'the test of recurrence' to show that widely distributed myths are related, and that fragments found only in one 'fit' the other. This comparative mythology implied the comparison of mythic names in various Indo-European languages with a view to showing that what was dark and seemingly inexplicable in one language might be made clear by comparison with the known mythic appellations in another language.[7]

The leader of this school, the history of which is important for the proper comprehension of the evolution of mythic science, was Professor Max Müller[8] (1823-1900), who, coming from Germany to Oxford at the age of twenty-three to undertake the translation of the ancient religious books of India on behalf of the East India Company, rapidly made a position for himself in English scientific circles by his sound scholarship, indefatigable energy, and wide general culture. The deep study of comparative philology led him to apply its results to myth. He regarded language as a necessary condition of thought, not its arbitrary expression, and considered that words, therefore, contain the key to thoughts. If language is determined by thought, thought is also determined by language. Mythology, according to Müller, is properly a form of thought[Pg 48] so essentially determined by language that it may be described as 'a disease of language.' Its origin must be looked for in a stage of human development in which intuition or instinct almost predominates, while abstract thought is unknown. Thus mythical terms precede mythical thought, and the peculiarities of language which lead to the formation of myth are the gender of words, polyonymy (numerous meanings attached to one word), synonymy (the possession of similar meanings by two or more words), poetical metaphor, and so forth. But the entire Müllerian conception of mythic science must not be taken as being contained only in the expression that myth is a 'disease of language.' Myth, according to Müller, is to be comprehended principally through language, but not through language only. By reference to language many but not all mythic phenomena may be understood. Just as certain rash disciples of Darwin did much to stultify their leader's evolutionary theory by their applications of it, in the same manner some of Müller's followers so distorted and exaggerated his views on myth as to hamper him greatly.