An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 31

The irrational element in myth, to which we have already[Pg 70] given some consideration, is then discussed by Lang, and as our manner of dealing with it is founded upon his, it is unnecessary to recapitulate his arguments. It must be remarked, however, that he lays down (vol. i, p. 22) the conclusion that "All interpretations of myth have been formed in accordance with the ideas prevalent in the time of the interpreters." He states that his theory naturally attaches itself to the general system of evolution, and through it we are enabled to examine myth as "a thing of gradual development and of slow and manifold modifications." Thus we find that much of ancient myth is a thing of great complexity, composed of the savage 'explanation,' the civilized and poetic modification thereof, and the later popular idea of the original tale. "A critical study of these three stages in myth is in accordance with the recognised practice of science. Indeed, the whole system is only an application to this particular province, mythology, of the method by which the development either of organisms or of human institutions is traced. As the anomalies and apparently useless and accidental features in the human or in other animal organisms may be explained as stunted or rudimentary survivals of organs useful in a previous stage of life, so the anomalous and irrational myths of civilised races may be explained as survivals of stories which, in an earlier state of thought and knowledge, seemed natural enough. The persistence of the myths is accounted for by the well-known conservatism of the religious sentiment—a conservatism noticed even by Eusebius."


The diffusion of identical myths, Lang argues, is due to the universal prevalence of similar mental habits and ideas at one time or another, but he admits that this argument may be pressed too far, and that it will "scarcely account for the world-wide distribution of long and intricate mythical plots." The diffusion of mythic fiction would, in the judgment of the present writer, justify the opinion that in many instances borrowing and transmission take place; but all cases should be examined on their individual merits.

[Pg 71]

Lang proceeds to examine the mental condition of savages, in accordance with the views in our introductory chapter, and with special reference to totemism and magic. The animistic hypothesis is examined. His chapters relating to cosmogony may be passed over as containing no very original criticism. The author's 'All-Father' theory, as outlined in our notice of his book The Making of Religion, is set forth, and the remainder of that work is occupied with a description of the greater mythological systems of the world, regarding some of which he was not sufficiently well informed to speak with authority.[25]


In Modern Mythology(1897) Lang shows why the anthropological school in England was obliged to challenge Professor Max Müller. After pointing out the inconveniences of Müller's method in controversy, the author proves that Tiele leans more in the direction of his school than to that of Müller. He then reviews Mannhardt's position, which he shows to be also anti-Müllerian. He touches upon Müller's misunderstandings regarding totemism and reviews "the value of anthropological evidence." He points out that the past of savages must have been "a very long past," and insists upon the value of Tylor's "test of undesigned coincidence in testimony" (the famous 'test of recurrence') as a criterion of the value of myth. "The philological method in anthropology" is discussed. Says Lang: "Given Dr Hahn's book on Hottentot manners and religion: the anthropologist compares the Hottentot rites, beliefs, social habits, and general ideas with those of other races known to him, savage or civilised. A Hottentot custom, which has a meaning among Hottentots, may exist where its meaning is lost, among Greeks or other 'Aryans.' A story of a Hottentot god, quite a natural sort of tale for a Hottentot to tell, may be told about a god in Greece, where it is contrary to the Greek spirit. We infer that the Greeks perhaps inherited it from savage ancestors, or borrowed[Pg 72] it from savages. This is the method, and if we can also get a scholar to analyse the names of Hottentot gods, we are all the luckier—that is, if his processes and inferences are logical. May we not decide on the logic of scholars? But, just as Mr Max Müller points out to us the dangers attending our evidence, we point out to him the dangers attending his method. In Dr Hahn's book, the doctor analyses the meaning of the names Tsuni-Goam and other names, discovers their original sense, and from that sense explains the myths about Hottentot divine beings. Here we anthropologists first ask Mr Max Müller, before accepting Dr Hahn's etymologies, to listen to other scholars about the perils and difficulties of the philological analysis of divine names even in Aryan languages. I have already quoted his 'defender' Dr Tiele. 'The philological method is inadequate and misleading, when it is a question of (1) discovering the origin of a myth, or (2) the physical explanation of the oldest myths, or (3) of accounting for the rude and obscene element in the divine legends of civilised races.' To the two former purposes Dr Hahn applies the philological method in the case of Tsuni-Goam. Other scholars agree with Dr Tiele. Mannhardt, as we said, held that Mr Max Müller's favourite etymological 'equations' (Sarameya = Hermeias; Saranyu = Demeter Erinnys; Kentauros = Gandharvas, and others) would not stand criticism. 'The method in its practical working shows a lack of the historical sense,' said Mannhardt. Curtius—a scholar, as Mr Max Müller declares—says, 'It is especially difficult to conjecture the meaning of proper names, and above all of local and mythical names,' I do not see that it is easier when these names are not Greek, but Hottentot, or Algonquin!"

Then follows a review of the contending methods of the philological and anthropological schools in the explanation of various myths and ritualistic customs, and the method of the latter school is clearly vindicated.


The thesis of the first portion of Lang's The Making of Religion (London, 1898) is that the abnormal phenomena[Pg 73] believed in by savages and later civilized peoples assisted them to evolve the idea of godhead. Lang holds that "the savage beliefs, however erroneous, however darkened by fraud and fancy, repose on a basis of real observation of actual phenomena." With such a contention, however ingenious, anthropology can scarcely concern itself, as our knowledge of the supernatural is by no means sufficient to permit us to apply it to anthropology.