An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 30

Modern Mythology (1897), and The Making of Religion (1898), contain originality, great dialectic ability, and keen insight. Waxing autobiographical in the second work, Lang wrote concerning his own position: "Like other inquiring under-graduates in the sixties, I read such works on mythology as Mr Max Müller had then given to the world; I read them with interest, but without conviction. The argument, the logic, seemed to evade one; it was purely, with me, a question of logic, for I was of course prepared to accept all of Mr Max Müller's dicta on questions of etymologies. Even now I never venture to impugn them, only, as I observe that other scholars very frequently differ, toto cœlo, from him and from each other in essential questions, I preserve a just balance of doubt; I wait till these gentlemen shall be at one among themselves. After taking my degree in 1868, I had leisure to read a good deal of mythology in the legends of all races, and found my distrust of Mr Max Müller's reasoning increase upon me. The main cause was that whereas Mr Max Müller explained Greek[Pg 67] myths by etymologies of words in the Aryan languages, chiefly Greek, Latin, Slavonic, and Sanskrit, I kept finding myths very closely resembling those of Greece among Red Indians, Kaffirs, Eskimo, Samoyeds, Kamilaroi, Maoris, and Cahrocs. Now if Aryan myths arose from a 'disease' of Aryan languages, it certainly did seem an odd thing that myths so similar to these abounded where non-Aryan languages alone prevailed. Did a kind of linguistic measles affect all tongues alike, from Sanskrit to Choctaw, and everywhere produce the same ugly scars in religion and myth? The ugly scars were the problem! A civilised fancy is not puzzled for a moment by a beautiful beneficent Sun-god, or even by his beholding the daughters of men that they are fair. But a civilised fancy is puzzled when the beautiful Sun-god makes love in the shape of a dog. To me, and indeed to Mr Max Müller, the ugly scars were the problem."

Lang's first work on myth, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, after briefly reviewing the various systems of mythic interpretation prior to and current in his time, lays stress upon the difference between religion and myth, in which he sees two distinct human moods, the one sacred, the other wholly frivolous in origin. This conflict is present in all religions. The two moods, we are told (p. 5), are conspicuous even in Christianity, in prayers, hymns, and "the dim religious light" of cathedrals on the one hand, and on the other in the buffoonery of miracle plays and the uncouth blasphemies of folk-tales. Backward peoples too make a distinction between their religion and their mythology. The 'wild' element of mythic story is then explained as a survival from the savage state, the mental condition of savages is described in its bearing upon primitive fiction, and its outstanding types are outlined, as are some of the world's chief mythic systems—all to illustrate the anthropological standpoint of the author. Incidentally is developed the 'All-Father' theory, which will be dealt with later.


In this work we have, perhaps, the most valuable statement of the anthropological case extant, but in it Lang insists too much[Pg 68] upon a fundamental difference between myth and religion. He says (loc. cit.): "For the present we can only say that the religious conception uprises from the human intellect in one mood, that of earnest contemplation and submission: while the mythical ideas uprise from another mood, that of playful and erratic fancy." Absurd and unholy stories of the gods are common, but all myths are not of this kind, and many were and are employed as ritual by various peoples, who recite them frequently as the histories of the gods they worship. Again, Lang's contention that myth is not 'religious' would seem to be defeated by his own just argument that myth containing 'wild' elements dates from primitive times. He accounts for its 'wildness' by its primitiveness; it was blasphemous because savage. But although blasphemous to the civilized man, it may not be so to the uncultured barbarian, and to him may be even religious. Elsewhere Lang cites Australian myth to prove that one tale is told to "unimportant persons," such as women and boys, another to the initiated.[23] The first is of the nature of myth, the second religious in character. We can discern a measure of truth in what he advocates, but a hard and fast line cannot be drawn between myth and religion, as no one can say where myth ends and religion begins. They overlap; and when we read of the pranks of the Greek Zeus or the Chinook Blue Jay we may say to ourselves: "Thus the gods figure in the imagination of the savage, in whom the religious sense is faint. Once myth emerges from the animistic, totemistic, and barbarous state it rises in character." But—and this is important—there still cling to it the age-long tales of the gods as savages, barbaric, bloodthirsty, absurd, in no way to be cleansed or 'edited' or rendered 'decent,' They are regarded by men as sacred because they are old.

[Pg 69]

The arguments against Lang's conception of myth as the ribald brother of religion are as follows: (1) The majority of ancient myths are not absurd, obscene, or blasphemous in essence, as is proved by the circumstances of their invention. (2) Other myths which appear blasphemous to the civilized mind do not necessarily seem so to the savage mind. The strange sense of humour peculiar to savages is not taken into consideration by Lang, nor that most of the absurdities and obscenities arise from totemic sources and are therefore necessarily animal in their characteristics, (3) The preservation and recital of myths by priests proves their sacred character.[24]

Therefore, although a difference exists between myth and dogma, it is one of degree only, not of kind. In all ages the ribald mind has concocted scandalous stories concerning the gods, but most primitive myth is not to be classed as 'ribald,' as a careful perusal of it will show.


Lang states his general thesis clearly on p. 8. He says: "Before going further, it is desirable to set forth what our aim is, and to what extent we are seeking an interpretation of mythology. It is not our purpose to explain every detail of every ancient legend, either as a distorted historical fact or as the result of this or that confusion of thought caused by forgetfulness of the meanings of language, or in any other way; nay, we must constantly protest against the excursions of too venturesome ingenuity. Myth is so ancient, so complex, so full of elements, that it is vain labour to seek a cause for every phenomenon. We are chiefly occupied with the quest for an historical condition of the human intellect to which the element in myths, regarded by us as irrational, shall seem rational enough. If we can prove that such a state of mind widely exists among men, and has existed, that state of mind may be provisionally considered as the fount and origin of the myths which have always perplexed men in a reasonable modern mental condition."