An Introduction to Mythology

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[Pg 13] civilized countries. Thus it is correct to speak of the folklore of England, Germany, or Italy, applying the word to the surviving superstitions and fragments of older faiths to be found in these modern countries among the uncultured classes; but to speak of the folklore of African, Australian, or American savages when we are dealing with the living religious beliefs of these people is highly incorrect. True, fragments of older belief are frequently discovered among primitive people, but the expression should not be used to designate their living religious beliefs.[3]

It will now be clear that in the present volume our concern is with the science of myth alone—that is, with religious beliefs and conjectures as to the nature of things of primitive, ancient, or barbarous peoples, and not with modern religious science, philosophy, or theology.

The questions touched upon in this introductory chapter will be more fully outlined later on, and are here presented in order to familiarize the reader with the general subject-matter of the science before entering upon more detailed discussion.


The sciences of mythology and comparative religion overlap at many points, but comparative religion is a branch of religious science or philosophy, whereas mythology deals with mere myths, or, under the more antiquated designation of 'comparative mythology,' compares the myths of different races. In myths too, however, we hear of the birth and nature of gods, the creation of the earth, and the primitive 'reason' for certain ritual acts. As these matters are also discussed by comparative religion or religious science, mythology and comparative religion often contemplate the same phenomenon at the same time. Mythology is therefore a part of religious science. This leads us to our next heading:

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The attempt to define religion has exercised the philosophic mind through centuries, and never more so than at the present time, although it is now generally recognized that all purely scientific attempts to determine it are doomed to failure, as its origin and nature must be sought conjecturally through psychology. Dr E.B. Tylor proposed as a 'minimum definition' for religion "the belief in spiritual beings"; but this does not embrace ritual, which Robertson Smith thought[4] of first consequence in primitive religion, dogma and myth being secondary.[5] Sir J.G. Frazer considers religion "a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man,"[6] a definition not always appropriate. Crawley (in his Tree of Life, p. 209) defines the religious object as "the sacred," a very obscure definition. Herbert Spencer derived all religion from the worship of the dead. Max Müller considered that "Religion consists in the perception of the infinite under such manifestations as are able to influence the moral character of man." The fact is that our present knowledge of the human mind does not permit us to make any final definition of the word 'religion,'[7]

The study of myths, then, is assisted by comparative[Pg 15] religion, while myths in their turn often explain gods,[8] men, and the universe, and customs and organizations of society. Many of them, indeed, are early efforts at a reconciliation of the tales of gods and heroes with the religious sentiment, which recognized in these beings objects for worship and respect.[9]


But these tales remained full of irrational and savage notions, a legacy from primitive ancestors. They chimed ill with later religious sentiment, which was shocked and puzzled by them, and priests and poets attempted to explain them away. Thus, among the Greeks, Theagenes of Rhegium (c.520 B.C.) considered the tale of the battle of the gods 'unbecoming,' and represented it as an allegorical account of the war of the elements. The Egyptians, according to Plutarch, puzzled by the circumstance that so many of their gods were pictured in animal form, invented as an explanation the tale that in a moment of danger the gods concealed themselves in the bodies of animals. As peoples grew more civilized they attempted to cleanse their national or tribal myths from the coarse and barbarous tone which savage predecessors had given them, and many of the myths of the higher civilizations of[Pg 16] antiquity, as they have come down to us to-day, have obviously passed through one or more stages of refinement and revision at the hands of some priest, poet, or philosopher anxious to free his race from its supposed coarse and savage pristine history.[10]


A good example of how older myths are accounted for by a modern priesthood[11] is the story of Pacari Tampu, the 'House of the Dawn,' a legend of the Collas, a Peruvian tribe. From the caverns of Pacari Tampu issued four brothers and a sister. The eldest ascended a mountain and cast stones to all the cardinal points of the compass to signify that he had taken possession of the land. The other three were envious of him, and the youngest succeeded in inducing him to enter a cave, whereupon the youngest brother closed the mouth of the cave with a great stone and imprisoned the eldest there for ever. On pretence of seeking his lost brother he then persuaded the second to ascend a high mountain, from which he cast him, and, as he fell, by dint of magic art changed him into a stone. The third brother, scenting treachery, fled. The first brother would appear to symbolize the oldest known Peruvian religion, that of the thunder-god Pachacamac, the second that of an intermediate fetishism or stone-worship, the third the cult of Viracocha, the water-god, while the fourth seems to be the more modern sun-worship, which in the end triumphed officially over all, as is proved by the name of the youngest brother, 'Pirrhua Manca' ('Son of the Sun ').


Max Müller seriously suggested that the "savage and irrational" element in myth arose out of a "period of temporary[Pg 17] madness through which the human mind had to pass." "Was it," he asks, "a madness identically the same in the south of India and the north of Iceland?" The state of mind, the mental attitude, was and is, of course, very much the same among savages or barbarians from Cape Horn to Novaia Zemlia; but no 'madness' is mingled with the mental equipment of primitive man, although he is irrational. What Professor Müller mistook for 'madness' was the child-like propensity of the savage or barbarian, or even the uncultured person, to delusion, ignorance, and distortion of facts and experiences. The imbecility of savage theories and stones is due to a scanty stock of acquired ideas and lack of experience in wielding the higher powers of reason. In short, savage or primitive man, although highly observant, explains such facts as come within his range of view by employing imagination rather than reason.[12] He is in a condition of mental childhood, when imagination is very much more powerful than reason. Thus he imagines that all other physical entities in nature are, like himself, gifted with powers of speech, volition, and thought. This is called 'animism'—i.e. the bestowal of a soul (Lat anima) upon all objects.[13] The winds and the waters speak and obviously travel; the trees are articulate; the lower animals he regards as his equals. He does not bring reason, as we understand it, to bear upon his experience. The 'wonders' in these tales are no marvels to him; the brutalities of savage life recounted in them, the barbarian atmosphere and colour, are his everyday experiences.[14] He hands the tale on; but his descendants fail to comprehend its meaning and[Pg 18] aim; its almost animal savagery repels them, and at length more advanced generations, shocked at what seems to them blasphemous nonsense, discard it altogether, or so cleanse and refine it as not infrequently to render its original meaning entirely undiscoverable.