An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 32

The arguments put forward in the second part of the book are: (1) "That the conception of a separable surviving soul of a dead man was not only not essential to the savage's idea of his supreme god ... but would have been wholly inconsistent with that conception." (2) That the original idea of god among primitive peoples was not animistic and did not evolve from the idea of the existence of spirit, but came first in order of evolution and was that of a "magnified non-natural man" (anthropomorphic and monotheistic). "He existed before death came into the world and he still exists." Moreover, such cults contained ethical and moral ideas not usually discovered in 'animistic' religions. Lang illustrates this theory by examples taken from Australian, Fuegian, Andamanese, Zulu, and other races of low culture.

As regards the first part of his contention, whatever may have been the case with primitive man (concerning whose religious ideas we can only theorize), it does not hold good of savages of the present day, when animistic ideas are universally in the transition state. The second argument is very much open to criticism, because the religious ideas of the races alluded to by Lang as monotheistic may have been modified by the theology of missionaries, Christian or Mohammedan. This criticism Lang himself held not to be justified by facts, and there are grounds for believing that his theory possesses a certain amount of truth. Before, however, it can be discussed in its entirety, the religious ideas of the peoples to which he alludes and those of other races similarly environed will require to be much more fully and rigorously examined and a much larger body of data collected. If Lang's conclusions could be justified, they would revolutionize the whole[Pg 74] study of comparative religion. It would perhaps mean that such gods as Yahweh in Israel and Tezcatlipoca in Mexico, instead of being gradually evolved from lower spiritual forms, were survivals of very early conceptions of non-spiritual forms of deity. But Lang's data show that the early monotheistic, or the 'All-Father' idea, as he calls it, disappears because of the adoption of animistic ideas. Yahweh and Tezcatlipoca, we know, flourished side by side with and in an atmosphere of animism. It would be strange if the Hebrews, a branch of a race typically polytheistic (and therefore animistic), had not at one time been given to a similar worship, and everything seems to prove that they were originally polytheistic. If Yahweh was, as Lang suggested, an original 'All-Father,' it is strange that Noldeke should have been able to trace his name through the form Shaddai to Shedi ('my demon') a name sufficiently animistic. This would appear to be a test of Lang's theory, but the question, as he stated, "can only be settled by specialists." He was right. He himself failed entirely to realize the weight and abundance of the evidence for early polytheism and animism among the Israelites. Again, when in Mexico we observe the rise of Tezcatlipoca from the obsidian stone, we must repeat that further special study alone can throw light on the question. Lang called his examination of the subject "a 'sketch'—not an exhaustive survey," but the thoughtful student of comparative religion will admit that it is a sketch raising questions of the greatest import to the science he explores.[26]

[Pg 75]


One of the greatest modern names in primitive religious science is that of Sir James George Frazer, the world-famous author of The Golden Bough. Founded to some extent upon the principles of Mannhardt, Sir J.G. Frazer's mythological studies relate chiefly to vegetation and the deities connected therewith. Indeed, it has been said that he has seen gods of vegetation everywhere, just as the Müller school saw sun-gods everywhere.

Perhaps the most acute criticism upon Sir J.G. Frazer's great work is to be found in Lang's Magic and Religion, in the essay "The Ghastly Priest." The first critical paragraph of this makes amusing reading: "Still, the new school of mythology does work the vegetable element in mythology hard; nearly as hard as the solar element used to be worked. Aphrodite, as the female mate of Adonis, gets mixed up with plant life. So does Attis with Cybele, so does Balder, so does Death, so does Dionysus with undoubted propriety; so does Eabani, so does Gilgamesh, so does Haman, so does Hera, so does Iasion with Demeter, so does Isis, so does Jack-in-the-Green, so does Kupalo, so do Linus and Lityerses, so does Mamurius Veturius, so does Merodach or Marduk (if he represents Eabani or Gilgamesh), so does Mars, so does Osiris, so, I think, does Semiramis, so does Tammuz, so does Virbius, so does Zeus, probably; so does a great multitude of cattle, cats, horses, bulls, goats, cocks, with plenty of other beasts. The solar mythologists did not spare heroes like Achilles; they too were the sun. But the vegetable school, the Covent Garden school of mythologists, mixes up real human beings with vegetation."


Frazer's main contention is that the priest of the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, near the modern Nemi, in Italy (a priest[Pg 76] who was invariably a murderer, and who only held office until another murderer dispossessed and slew him, after plucking a bough from the tree under which he sheltered), has numerous parallels in other, ancient and modern, barbarian priesthoods. He says: "If we can show that a barbarous custom, like that of the priesthood of Nemi, has existed elsewhere; if we can detect the motives which led to its institution; if we can prove that these motives have operated widely, perhaps universally, in human society, producing in varied circumstances a variety of institutions specifically different but generally alike; if we can show, lastly, that these very motives, with some of their derivative institutions, were actually at work in classical antiquity; then we may fairly infer that at a remoter age the same motives gave birth to the priesthood of Nemi. Such an inference, in default of direct evidence as to how the priesthood did actually arise, can never amount to demonstration. But it will be more or less probable according to the degree of completeness with which it fulfils the conditions indicated above. The object of this book is, by meeting these conditions, to offer a fairly probable explanation of the priesthood of Nemi."