An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 24


The defection of Mannhardt, who had long been a pillar of the philological school, was a further blow to its failing prestige. In a work published shortly before his death (Antike Wald- und Feldkulte, 1877) he explains the growth of his views, and states that "the assured gains" of the philological school "shrink into very few divine names such as Dyaus = Zeus = Tuis; Parjany = Perkunas; Bhaga = Bug; Varuna = Uranus, etc." Many of the other equations of divine names he regards as mere jeux d'esprit. "To the principle of Max Müller," he says, "I can only assign a very limited value, if any value at all" (op. cit., p. 20). And again: "Taken all in all, I consider the greater part of the results hitherto obtained in the field of Indo-Germanic comparative mythology to be, as yet, a failure, premature or incomplete, my own efforts in German Myths (1858) included." In an essay on Demeter published somewhat later he further insisted upon the weakness of the philological method. Moreover, he disapproved of finding celestial phenomena in myths of terrestrial happenings. To this standpoint he was brought by his own experience of how easy (and fatal) it is to become the victim of a 'mythological habit'—that is, the interpretation of myths by one method and by that alone. Writing to his friend Müllenhoff in 1876, he said that he had become uneasy "at the extent which sun myths threaten to assume in my comparisons." Mannhardt was a wise man and an honest one. He saw clearly that there is no universal solvent for myth, no single philosopher's stone by which it may be made to yield its secrets, no royal road to its elucidation.

At the same time he adhered to the truth that "a portion of the older myths arose from nature poetry which is no longer[Pg 54] directly intelligible to us, but has to be interpreted by means of analogies.... Of these nature myths, some have reference to the life and circumstances of the sun." As Lang has said of him:[15] "Like every sensible person, he knew that there are numerous real, obvious, confessed solar myths not derived from a disease of language. These arise from (1) the impulse to account for the doings of the sun by telling a story about him as if he were a person; (2) from the natural poetry of the human mind. What we think they are not shown to arise from is forgetfulness of meanings of old words, which, ex hypothesi, have become proper names." And again: "It is a popular delusion that the anthropological mythologists deny the existence of solar myths, or of nature myths in general. These are extremely common. What we demur to is the explanation of divine and heroic myths at large as solar or elemental, when the original sense has been lost by the ancient narrators, and when the elemental explanation rests on conjectural and conflicting etymologies and interpretations of old proper names—Athene, Hera, Artemis, and the rest."

Mannhardt's method was more that of the folklorist than the philologist. He closely examined peasant custom and rite in the hope of discovering survivals of paganism. Indeed, his work may be said to be the foundation upon which Sir James George Frazer (whose work will be fully reviewed later) built his imposing edifices of research, The Golden Bough and other works.


The anthropological creed might, broadly, be stated as follows, with, of course, small divergences caused by internal division:

(1) The savage and irrational element in 'civilized' myth is composed of primitive survivals in more civilized times.

(2) The comparison of civilized with savage myth—that is, of later with earlier myth—frequently throws light upon the character of the latter.

(3) The comparison of similar myths among widely divergent[Pg 55] peoples frequently illuminates their primitive character and meaning.

Broadly speaking, too, the anthropological school accepts such views as have been laid down in the introductory chapter concerning animism, fetishism, and totemism; and when we come to deal with authorities who diverge in any way from these views we shall show how they differ.


Sir E. B. Tylor, the virtual founder of the anthropological school, in his Researches into the Early History of Mankind (1865) and Primitive Culture (1871), first laid down the anthropological position with clearness and accuracy.

In a statement which appeared in his epoch-making work, Primitive Culture, Tylor briefly reviews the conceptions of the early commentators regarding myth, and shows how necessary breadth of knowledge and handling is for mythological work. The scientific interpretation of myth is strengthened and assisted by the comparison of examples. There are groups of myths, and the greater the number which can be grouped together, the more evidence is provided for the formation of a true science of mythology. Few and simple are the principles which underlie a solid system of interpretation. "The treatment of similar myths from different regions, by arranging them in large compared groups, makes it possible to trace in mythology the operation of imaginative processes recurring with the evident regularity of mental law; and thus stories of which a single instance would have been a mere isolated curiosity take their place among well-marked and consistent structures of the human mind. Evidence like this will again and again drive us to admit that even as 'truth is stranger than fiction,' so myth may be more uniform than history."[16]

The work is limited to the consideration of well-authenticated mythic ideas of almost universal occurrence. "The general thesis maintained is that myth arose in the savage condition prevalent in remote ages among the whole human race, that it remains comparatively unchanged among the[Pg 56] modern rude tribes who have departed least from these primitive conditions, while even higher and later grades of civilisation, partly by retaining its actual principles, and partly by carrying on its inherited results in the form of ancestral tradition, have continued it not merely in toleration but in honour."[17]


The evolutionary character of myth necessitates that its study should be commenced among races of low culture. "If savage races, as the nearest modern representatives of primeval culture, show in the most distinct and unchanged state the rudimentary mythic conceptions thence to be traced onward in the course of civilisation, then it is reasonable for students to begin, so far as may be, at the beginning. Savage mythology may be taken as a basis, and then the myths of more civilised races may be displayed as compositions sprung from like origin, though more advanced in art. This mode of treatment proves satisfactory through almost all the branches of the enquiry, and eminently so in investigating those most beautiful of poetic fictions to which may be given the title of Nature Myths."[18]