An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 27

[Pg 59] work. Man, he thinks, first attained to the idea of spirit by reflection on various experiences such as sleep, dreams, trances, shadows, hallucinations, breath, and death, and by degrees extended the conception of soul or ghost until he peopled all nature with spirits. From among these spirits one is finally supreme, if the process of evolution is continued. This theory discounts the early connexion between religion and ethics, and Tylor believed that primitive man had no notion of religion or ethics.


John Ferguson McLennan (1827-1881), author of Primitive Marriage (1865) and Studies in Ancient History (1876), threw much light upon the origin and rise of the family and, incidentally, of totemism. Although he treats the subject from a sociological point of view, his work is of great value to students of myth because of its illustrations of totemism. His principal writings on totemism first appeared in the Fortnightly Review of 1869-1870.


Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) explained his system of mythology in Principles of Sociology. The mental condition of man when he animates and personifies all phenomena is accounted for by degeneration, as in Spencer's view it is not primary but the result of misconception. Language is only one cause of this misconception: statements which had originally a different significance are, he thinks, misinterpreted, as are names of human beings, so that primitive races are gradually led to a belief in personalized phenomena. The defect in early speech, the "lack of words free from implication of vitality," is one of the causes which favour personalization. But in making this statement he appears to overlook the circumstance that such words as "imply vitality" do so because they reflect the thought of the men who use them before misconception can arise through their prolonged use. In any case, the misconstructions of language which he believes to[Pg 60] have brought about the idea of personality are in his system "different in kind" from those of the philological school, "and the erroneous course of thought is opposite in direction." He believes the names of human beings in early society to be derived from incidents of the moment, the period of the day, or the condition of the weather. In certain tribes we discover persons named Dawn, Dark Cloud, Sun, etc. Spencer thinks that if a story exists concerning people so named, in process of time it will be transferred to the object or event, which will thereby become personalized. It is clear, however, that few such stories could be apposite, and that their occurrence would be rare.

Traditions of persons coming from the neighbourhood of some mountain or river may grow into belief in actual birth from it. For example, should tradition state that a man's parents came "from the rising sun," he will believe himself a descendant of the luminary, which thus becomes personalized. Holding as he does that ancestor-worship is the first form of religion, and that persons with such names as Sun, Wind, or Cloud may be thus worshipped, Spencer believed that nature myths are a kind of worship of ancestors. Implicit belief in the statements of forefathers is a further cause of personalizing. He explains the idea of descent from beast ancestors by the ancestor of the stock or tribe possessing an animal name, such as Wolf, Tiger, and so forth, and being confounded by his descendants with a real wolf or tiger. Spencer never saw that ancestral memory in savages is extremely short and rarely survives more than three generations. Nor is the savage at a loss to understand the custom of bestowing animal or nature names upon persons. He calls his own child Dawn or Wolf, and therefore he is not tempted to believe that his ancestor was really a tiger or the dawn. The animal descent almost invariably comes through the female line, and the mother's totem-kin name is adopted, yet savages do not worship their ancestresses. The theory, as Lang has said, requires "as a necessary condition a singular amount of memory on the one hand and of forgetfulness on the other."

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One of the first and most remarkable upholders of the anthropological school was William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) a professor of Hebrew in the Free Church College, Aberdeen. The heterodox character of an encyclopædia article on the Bible led to his prosecution for heresy, of which charge, however, he was acquitted. But a further article upon "Hebrew Language and Literature" in the Encyclopædia Britannica (1880) led to his removal from the professoriate of the college. In 1881 he assisted Professor Baynes in editing the Encyclopædia Britannica, and in 1887 succeeded him as editor-in-chief. He was appointed Lord Almoner's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge in 1883, and Adams Professor of Arabic in 1889.

Robertson Smith's most remarkable work—that to which every modern student of comparative religion owes so much—is his celebrated Religion of the Semites, originally delivered as a series of lectures at Aberdeen in the three years from October 1888 to October 1891.

It is of course only this author's views on mythology that we have here to take into account.

Robertson Smith points out that in all ancient religious systems mythology takes the place of dogma. The sacred lore of a race assumes the form of stories about the gods, and these tales offer the sole explanation of religious precept and ritual act, but as myth had no sacred sanction and no binding force on the worshippers, it was not an essential part of religion. Myths "connected with individual sanctuaries and ceremonies were merely part of the apparatus of the worship; they served to excite the fancy and sustain the interest of the worshipper; but he was often offered a choice of several accounts of the same thing, and, provided that he fulfilled the ritual with accuracy, no one cared what he believed about its origin. Belief in a certain series of myths was neither obligatory as a part of true religion, nor was it supposed that, by believing, a man acquired religious merit and conciliated the favour of the gods. What was obligatory or meritorious was the exact[Pg 62] performance of certain sacred acts prescribed by religious tradition. This being so, it follows that mythology ought not to take the prominent place that is too often assigned to it in the scientific study of ancient faiths."

Robertson Smith thought that in almost every case the myth was derived from the ritual, not the ritual from the myth. Ritual was fixed, and myth was variable. The one was obligatory, the other at the discretion of the worshipper. "Now by far the largest part of the myths of antique religions is connected with the ritual of particular shrines, or with the religious observances of particular tribes and districts. In all such cases it is probable, in most cases it is certain, that the myth is merely the explanation of a religious usage; and ordinarily it is such an explanation as could not have arisen till the original sense of the usage had more or less fallen into oblivion. As a rule the myth is no explanation of the origin of the ritual to any one who does not believe it to be a narrative of real occurrences, and the boldest mythologist will not believe that. But if it be not true, the myth itself requires to be explained, and every principle of philosophy and common sense demands that the explanation be sought, not in arbitrary allegorical theories, but in the actual facts of ritual or religious custom to which the myth attaches. The conclusion is that in the study of ancient religions we must begin, not with myth, but with ritual and traditional usage."