An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 49

A great deal has been written concerning the supposed non-ethical and non-moral character of mythological figures. In early times it is probable that the gods were no less savage and immoral than their worshippers; but when we encounter[Pg 115] well-known deities for the first time in the pages of classical authors, we have little difficulty in discovering that although the attributes of savagery still cling to them, they are also informed by a spirit of justice and wisdom, if not of mercy or compassion. Such qualities, indeed, as man desired in the gods, he endowed them with. Again, the existence of collegiate or monastic institutions in such countries as Egypt, India, Mexico, and Babylonia did much to foster contemplation and piety, and greatly assisted the evolution of the ethical spirit. When we first meet with Osiris, Ra, Thoth, Ptah, and other Egyptian gods, they are the repositories of justice and wisdom, if not of love and compassion. The same holds good of many Hindu deities, notably of Brahma. The Greek gods were, perhaps, unfortunate in the circumstance that the age of their first literary presentment preceded that of their ethical evolution. Accounts of the Spanish conquerors of Mexico lead us to believe that at least one Mexican deity, Tezcatlipoca, possessed a sense of justice, and that another, Tlazolteotl, forgave sin; and the traditions of many modern savage peoples are not without god-like figures whose ethical standpoint is superior to that of their worshippers.

With the material now to our hand it is important that we fully employ every possible rational method of interpretation. The folly of adopting one key to open all mythological doors has been illustrated by the fate of such systems as attempted to interpret the nature of the gods by theories of a 'disease of language' or the solar nature of all deities. The 'vegetable' school, as Lang dubbed it, possesses almost as many pitfalls for the unwary. Let no method, linguistic, solar, anthropological, dominate our conclusions, but let none be absent from our counsels.

[1] The general theory of this work, though, as already stated, eclectic, is, so far as its opinions upon the evolution of the idea of spirit or soul is concerned, in sympathy with the animistic hypothesis of Tylor, an hypothesis subjected to a certain amount of criticism from the younger generation of students of comparative religion. But as these students have not yet erected a worthy rival explanation of the evolution of godhead, and as what they have accomplished is of the most fragmentary nature, we will refrain from reviewing their work, and will content ourselves with an examination of the animistic idea, bringing to bear upon it only such criticism as seems really necessary.

[2] Curiosities of Superstition, pp. 155, 156.

[3] A. C. Lyall, Asiatic Studies, p. 19 (London, 1907).

[Pg 116]



There are certain objections against giving 'departmental' names, such as 'god of fire,' 'god of wine,' to deities, but in certain stages of religious evolution these 'departmental deities' are found—gods of fire, water, earth, and air, hunting, thunder-deities connected with various crafts and even with certain qualities. It is, however, only in the higher stages of polytheism that such deities are finally stamped with the 'departmental' character.[1]