An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 23


Examples which illustrate the Müllerian interpretation or misinterpretation of myth are his treatment of the tale of Cephalus, Aurora (Eos), and Procris. Cephalus was the sun, the son of Herse, the dew; therefore he represented the sun rising over dewy fields. Eos, as the word implies, is the dawn. Procris comes from a Sanskrit root park, meaning to sprinkle, and is also the dew; therefore it is the equivalent of Herse, the meaning of which may be found in a Sanskrit root vrish, 'to sprinkle.' The myth is then interpreted: Cephalus loves Procris—that is, the sun kisses the morning dew; Eos loves Cephalus—that is, the dawn loves the sun. Procris is faithless, but her new lover turns out to be the sun in another guise—that is, the dewdrops reflect the sun in manifold colours. Procris is slain by Cephalus—that is, the dew is absorbed by the sun. Thus natural phenomena lurk behind the names of gods and heroes.

The philological school had its internal divisions also. Its arbitrary interpretations made for schism, and there was considerable diversity of opinion regarding myths and mythic personages. Two sub-schools arose, the solar and the meteorological. The first, headed by Müller himself, "saw sun-gods everywhere," in myth, folklore, and legend. Perhaps its most zealous disciple was the Rev. Sir George William Cox (1827-1902), author of The Mythology of the Aryan Nations (1870) and An Introduction to Mythology and Folklore (1881), two works of great erudition and charm, powerfully advocating the universality of the sun myth and based upon a truly scientific investigation of a large number of myths and tales. Cox did not insist upon the philological interpretation of myths so much as on their solar character, and he is "fully aware of the dangers involved in attempts to explain Teutonic, or Greek, or Latin, or Scandinavian myths solely from Aryan sources."[Pg 51] He also admits the existence of nature myths other than solar, but to his mind most of those which are not solar are stellar or nebular.

The founders of the meteorological school saw in all myths the phenomena of the thunder and lightning. Dragons and similar monsters guard treasures and fair maidens in a celestial stronghold till the arrival of the hero-god, who slays the monsters and rescues the maiden. Thus, said they, the dark and threatening thunder-clouds imprison the light of heaven until the coming of the god, who dissipates them. The chief supporters of this theory were Kuhn (1812-1881) and Darmesteter (1849-1894). Laestrin too attempted to interpret myths from nebular phenomena which he had observed on the Alps.[11]

Few perfectly certain results were achieved by the philological school. Of convincing certainty at the first blush, a more searching examination reveals difficulties, and shows that the theories do not fit the myth with any degree of exactitude; but philology has rendered and will render real service to mythology, and this young mythologists would do well to bear in mind.[12]


But the final blow to the pretensions of the philological method as a 'universal solvent' of mythic problems was dealt by the anthropological school of mythologists. This school accounts for the "wild and senseless" element in myth by replying that such "wild and senseless" conceptions can occur only in a savage and primitive state of society, and that therefore when such elements are found in the myths of civilized and cultured peoples they must necessarily be a legacy from a savage past—survivals of savage belief. But ere we proceed further in our investigation of the work of the anthropological[Pg 52] school, let us see by what arguments it finally divested the philologists of all authority in the sphere of mythology.

It held, then, that Max Müller's system was a result of the discovery of the basic unity of the Aryan languages, and was founded on an analysis of these languages, but it showed that precisely similar myths exist among Eskimos, Red Indians, South Sea Islanders, Maoris, Bushmen, and other savage races. "The facts being identical, an identical explanation should be sought; and as the languages in which the myths exist are essentially different, an explanation founded upon the Aryan language is likely to prove too narrow."[13] Again, although we may discover the original meaning of a god's name, it does not assist us to understand the myths connected with him, for a striking figure in myth collects around it many age-old stories and mythic incidents which have originally no connexion whatsoever with it, just as barnacles are collected by a vessel in harbour. "Therefore, though we may ascertain that Zeus means 'sky,' and Agni 'fire,' we cannot assert with Max Müller that all the myths about Agni and Zeus were originally told of fire and sky. When these gods became popular they would inevitably inherit any current exploits of earlier heroes or gods."[14] So that if these were credited to them it would be erroneously. Names derived from natural phenomena too, such as sky, clouds, dawn, and sun, are habitually assigned by savage peoples to living persons. Thus a tale told of a real man or woman bearing one of these names might easily become mingled or confused with myths about the real sky, cloud, sun, dawn, etc. For such reasons the philological analysis of names is bound to be uncertain in its results. Moreover, when primitive or savage people think of natural phenomena and celestial bodies, they have no such ideas in their minds concerning them as have civilized people. They usually think of them as human beings with like passions to themselves—in fact, in an 'animistic' way. Müller held that it was gender-terminations that led later ages to the belief that natural phenomena possessed personalities, whereas the[Pg 53] anthropological school retorted that au contraire "gender-terminations were survivals from an early stage of thought in which personal characteristics, including sex, had been attributed to all phenomena." This stage of thought is to be observed among savages and young children, who habitually regard inanimate objects as alive.