An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 36

New World called America, or Lang's Myth, Ritual, and Religion, unless it be, perhaps, Robertson Smith's Religion of the Semites.

It is, further, scarcely criticism to label Sir James Frazer's great work 'second-hand.' In works dealing with comparative mythology the facts collated must of necessity be gleaned from the writings of others. This cry is surely unsuitable to mythological debate!

The criticism that Sir James Frazer is unable to pursue to their logical ends the problems he proposes to himself is better founded, as is the charge of discursiveness. It is true, too, that he possesses the faculty of seeing resemblances but not differences when dealing with analogies, and that, consequently, he lumps too many diverse facts together. Lastly he is tacitly charged with perversion of evidence![29]

His definition of magic will be dealt with elsewhere.

[Pg 84]

The Golden Bough has served the passing and the present generations of mythologists and folklorists well as a great compendium of mythic and anthropological fact. From its far-flung influence none can escape. It is a body of learning to which the searcher must return again and yet again.


Edward John Payne, in his History of the New World called America, a work of surprising erudition too little known, applied the anthropological conception of myth to the mythologies of Mexico and Peru, but although his reading on these subjects was wide and his treatment marked by care and insight, he does not appear to have been closely acquainted with the pinturas or manuscript remains of the Mexican peoples, a knowledge of which is essential to all students of the subject. Instead of specializing upon any one department of American aboriginal civilization, he took the whole of it for his province and applied the anthropological method to all the conditions of American life, social, linguistic, agricultural, and religious; and he produced a work truly monumental in spirit, not surpassed by any kindred effort of his generation, in spite of the defect mentioned above.


Salomon Reinach has done good service to the science of comparative religion in France. After a distinguished archæological[Pg 85] career he interested himself in the study of religious science. In 1905 he began his Cultes, mythes, et religions[30] and in 1909 he published a general sketch of the history of religions under the title Orpheus. In his preface to Cultes, mythes, et religions M. Reinach makes some lively and amusing remarks concerning the ignorance in France of later developments of religious science. Speaking of new theories, he says: "As a matter of fact, I do not exactly know who made the discoveries. The names of Tylor, McLennan, Lang, Smith, Frazer, and Jevons suggest themselves; but the one thing certain is that it was not myself. Mine has been a lowlier part—to grasp the ideas of my betters, and to diffuse them as widely as I might, first in my lectures at the École du Louvre, then in the Académie des Inscriptions, and again in many popular and scientific reviews. In France, when I began my excursions into these fields, the whole subject was so absolutely a sealed book that M. Charles Richet had to ask me to explain the word totemism, before I dealt with that group of phenomena in the Revue Scientifique. At the Académie des Inscriptions in 1900 the only members who did not doubt my sanity when I read some lucubrations on the Biblical taboos and the totemism of the Celts were MM. Maspero and Hamy. The German scholars whom I saw about the same time, Mommsen among the rest, had never heard of a totem.[31] The taboos and totems of the Bible, a question underlying those alimentary interdictions which ignorance regards as hygienic precepts, brought the Jewish theologians into the lists. One of them dealt faithfully with me as an anti-Semite, an epithet already hurled at me by my distinguished friend Victor Bérard, because I had ventured to impugn, in the pages of the Mirage Oriental, the antiquity and omnipresence of Phœnician commerce. To-day the voice of ignorance is a little less heard in the land. Thanks to the diffusion of the English works which have inspired me, thanks to the labours of the lamented Marillier and the editors of the Année Sociologique—thanks perhaps, in[Pg 86] some degree, to my own missionary efforts, which, with the ardour of the neophyte, I have carried into the very precincts of the popular universities—those who once kicked most obstinately against the pricks now acknowledge that the system of anthropological exegesis is 'the fashion,' and that 'something may be said for' totems and taboos."


Dr F. B. Jevons in his Introduction to the History of Religion avows himself a disciple of Lang so far as his views upon myth are concerned. He too believes that the religious feeling in myth is conspicuously absent, but that the consideration of myth cannot be excluded from the history of religion. He says (p. 250): "Myths are not like psalms or hymns, lyrical expressions of religious emotion; they are not like creeds or dogmas, statements of things which must be believed: they are narratives. They are not history, they are tales told about gods and heroes, and they all have two characteristics: on the one hand, they are to us obviously or demonstrably untrue and often irrational; on the other hand, they were to their first audience so reasonable as to appear truths which were self-evident." Some myths, he thinks, "explain nothing and point no moral; they are tales told for the sake of telling and repeated for the pleasure of hearing, like fairy-tales." What, then, he asks, is the difference between myths that 'explain' phenomena and those which obviously do not? He considers that totems aroused curiosity and necessitated explanations, and that when the beliefs were dead and forgotten the stories invented to account for them would appear no longer as reasons or explanations, but as statements of facts which occurred 'once upon a time.' These stories were often appropriated to the wrong persons, and we have also yet to learn why they were grouped together, a point Dr Jevons considers as of first-rate importance, because "they would not have survived if they had not been combined together. We cannot suppose that they were first dissevered from the beliefs on which they originally depended for their existence, and then were subsequently combined so as to obtain a renewed existence,[Pg 87] because they would probably have perished in the interval. We must therefore suppose that they were combined into tales ere yet the beliefs or institutions which gave them their first lease of life had perished. This means that the various parts of one institution, for instance, must have had each its separate explanation, and that these explanations were combined into one whole, the unity of which corresponded to the unity of the institution," (P. 254.) These contentions are confirmed, Jevons thinks, by certain ceremonies obviously representing the details of certain myths. "They afford instances of myths which from the beginning were tales and not merely single incidents; a single rite might consist of a series of acts, each of which demanded its own explanation; and the unity of the rite might produce a unity of interest and action in the resulting myth." (P. 254.) Stories designed to explain phenomena would provide a groundwork for a rich embroidery of incidents. The person who could remember these and could tell them effectively would not have to seek an audience, and semi-consciously he might substitute for part of the story an analogous incident.[32] "Tales with a permanent human interest would easily spread beyond the limits of the original audience." Myth is not religion; it is not the source of religion, it is "one of the spheres of human activity in which religion may manifest itself, one of the departments of human reason which religion may penetrate, suffuse, and inspire." The religious consciousness rejected the repugnant elements of myth, and perhaps the whole primitive hypothesis upon which myth was based. "The result would be twofold: the imagination would be more and more excluded from the region of speculation which produced the ordinary myths of early peoples; and more and more restricted to the path of religious meditation." (P. 266.) These are all conclusions which we cannot admit. Myth is not any less religious in character because associated with an early instead of a later form of religion, or because it was discarded in later times! In an important passage Dr Jevons declares with a great deal of truth that: "The extraordinary[Pg 88] notion that mythology is religion is the outcome of the erroneous and misleading practice of reading modern ideas into ancient religions. It is but one form of the fallacy that mythology was to the antique religions what dogma is to the modern—with the superadded fallacy that dogma is the source, instead of the expression, of religious conviction. Mythology is primitive science, primitive philosophy, an important constituent of primitive history, the source of primitive poetry, but it is not primitive religion. It is not necessarily or usually even religious. It is not the proper or even the ordinary vehicle for the expression of the religious spirit." Where the sensitiveness of the religious spirit "was great only those pieces of primitive science survived which were capable of being informed" by it.