An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 29

Akin to the first error is Robertson Smith's further fallacy that ritual is prior in origin to myth in primitive religion. "It may be affirmed with confidence," he says, "that the myth was derived from the ritual, not the ritual from the myth." Therefore the savage sacrifices with much involved ceremonial to something concerning which he knows and has invented nothing!


That myth is sacred may be seen, if our conclusions are correct, in a fact already employed to explain the fixed and unchangeable character of the folk-tale. Children, it is observed, listening to a traditional story do not approve of any alteration in its plot or circumstances. Is this dislike—one might almost say horror—of alteration in folk-tale a legacy of the religious dread of any attempt to tamper with the tales of the gods? If so, such a sentiment would only be likely to arise in an environment where the idea of the sacred had already made considerable headway.

This argument does not claim an ethical character for myth, nor for ritual or the other elements of religion, which did not originally know of or possess any ethical spirit, but had to acquire it painfully. The argument that belief in myth was not "obligatory as a part of true religion" is futile. It was not obligatory because it was natural and general. That one could not acquire religious merit by knowing it is also untrue. Intimate acquaintance with the religious story is in many civilized modern communities (Mohammedans, Hindus, British rural folk) the measure of piety, and among savages and the peoples of antiquity (Egyptians, Greeks, Australians, etc.) the religious story is the nucleus of the most sacred mysteries of the faith.

[Pg 65]


Cornelius Petrus Tiele (1830-1902), a professor of the history of religions at Leyden, although claimed as an ally by Max Müller, was much more inclined toward fellowship with the anthropological school. In his Revue de l'Histoire des Religions (1876, trans. 1878, xii, 250) he says: "I am an ally, much more than an adversary, of the new school, whether styled ethnological or anthropological. It is true that all the ideas advanced by its partisans are not so new as they seem. Some of us—I mean among those who, without being vassals of the old school, were formed by it—had not only remarked already the defects of the reigning method, but had perceived the direction in which researches should be made; they had even begun to say so. This does not prevent the young school from enjoying the great merit of having first formulated with precision, and with the energy of conviction, that which had hitherto been but imperfectly pointed out. If henceforth mythological science marches with a firmer foot, and loses much of its hypothetical character, it will in part owe this to the stimulus of the new school."

Again he says (op. cit., p. 253): "If I were reduced to choose between this method and that of comparative philology, I would prefer the former without the slightest hesitation. This method alone enables us to explain the fact, such a frequent cause of surprise, that the Greeks, like the Germans, ... could attribute to their gods all manner of cruel, cowardly, and dissolute actions. This method alone reveals the cause of all the strange metamorphoses of gods into animals, plants, and even stones.... In fact, this method teaches us to recognize in all these oddities the survivals of an age of barbarism long over-past, but lingering into later times, under the form of religious legends, the most persistent of all traditions. ... This method, then, can alone help us to account for the genesis of myths, because it devotes itself to studying them in their rudest and most primitive shape." At the same time, Tiele thought that the anthropological method "cannot answer all the questions which the science of mythology must solve, or[Pg 66] at least must study." He also states that the anthropological school is "not entirely wrong" in claiming him as an ally, and goes on to say: "But I must protest in the name of mythological science, and of the exactness as necessary to her as to any of the other sciences, against a method which only glides over questions of the first importance and which to most questions can only reply, with a smile, C'est chercher raison où il n'y en a pas."

Tiele also considered the anthropological school "too exclusive," and thought that it might have ignorant camp-followers. In the latter fear he was justified, as writers who saw totems and fetishes everywhere were at that time rife; and there are not wanting popular writers of the present day just as extravagant, who, while highly enthusiastic over the achievements of the school, only dimly appreciate the anthropological standpoint.


Perhaps the greatest binding force, and certainly the greatest popularity, was given to the anthropological school by Andrew Lang (1844-1913), whose works Myth, Ritual, and Religion (1887),