An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 63

[Pg 137] clad from head to foot in green birch branches. In England, too, a good example of these leaf-clad mummers is 'Jack-in-the-Green,' who walks enshrouded in a framework of wicker covered with holly and ivy and surmounted by flowers and ribbons. Many other examples could be given.

The Burry Man, like these, is a representation of the spirit of vegetation, the festival of which has survived in South Queensferry from early times, just as it has elsewhere.

[1] Of course 'departmental' gods may possess many attributes, some of these entirely foreign to their character-in-chief, and drafted upon it by the circumstances of myth, politics, or amalgamation with other forms.

[2] Of course these deities may have an animistic origin; indeed, they certainly do have, so that the idea of sacrifice will not seem novel.

[3] As I have shown elsewhere (p. 95), Professor Rendel Harris has brought a good deal of proof in favour of a hypothesis that Apollo was the god of an apple cult; but it was not as such that he was known to the later Greeks, whatever he may have been originally—an instance, if such were needed, that the solar story finds its way into the myths of gods of all types.

[4] The study of these eponymous animal-gods will one day certainly throw a flood of light upon the obscure question of the origin of totemism.

[5] See the illuminating remarks of Professor Rendel Harris upon this goddess in his Ascent of Olympus, pp. 56 sqq.

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Myths can to a large extent be classified, and most important myths may be grouped under one of the following heads:

Creation myths (creation of the earth and man).
Myths of the origin of man.
Flood myths.
Myths of a place of reward.
Myths of a place of punishment.
Sun myths.
Moon myths.
Hero myths.
Beast myths.
Myths to account for customs or rites.
Myths of journeys or adventures through the Underworld
or place of the dead.
Myths regarding the birth of gods.
Fire myths.
Star myths.
Myths of death.
Food of the dead formula.
Myths regarding taboo.
'Dismemberment' myths (in which a god is dismembered).
Dualistic myths (the good god fighting the bad).
Myths of the origin of the arts of life.
Soul myths.

The first five classes are treated in this volume, in separate chapters or otherwise, according to their importance. Sun myths have already been dealt with individually, as have[Pg 139] culture-hero or hero myths,[1] moon myths, beast myths, ritual myths, and birth of gods myths, which leaves for discussion in this chapter fire myths, star myths, myths of death, myths regarding taboo, 'dismemberment' myths, and dualistic myths.


Fire myths are of two descriptions: those which relate to the destruction of the world by fire and those which tell how fire was stolen from heaven by a demigod, hero, or supernatural bird or other animal. Of the first class it is surprising what a large proportion come from the American continent. In the Old World we have the Jewish idea of a universal conflagration of the 'last day' (not unknown to the childhood of the present generation), the Norse belief that fire should end the heavens and the earth, and (according to Seneca) the Roman idea that some such fate would ultimately overtake the world of men and things; but it is to America that we must go for really striking and picturesque myths of the destruction of the earth by fire in whole or part. Thus the Arawaks of Guiana tell of a dreadful scourging by fire sent upon them by the Great Spirit Aimon Kondi, from which the survivors escaped by taking refuge in underground caverns. Monan, the creator of the Brazilian Indians, vexed with mankind, resolved to destroy the world by fire, and would have succeeded had not Irin Magé, a crafty wizard, extinguished the flames by a heavy rain-storm. The Aztecs at the end of each cycle of fifty-two years dwelt in dread lest the period for the destruction of the earth by fire had at last arrived, and the Peruvians believed that following an eclipse the world would be wrapped in devouring flames. In North America the Algonquin Indians believe that at the last day Michabo will stamp his foot upon the earth, and lo! flames will spring up and devour it. A similar belief was held by the Pueblo Indians and the ancient Maya of Central America.

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Another class of fire myth is that in which a supernatural being, usually a bird, steals fire from Heaven and brings it to earth for the benefit of mankind. The best-known example of this type of myth is that which recounts how Prometheus brought fire from Olympus in a hollow cane or tube. As has been shown elsewhere in this volume, the myth is almost universal, and the reader is referred to the comparative table at the end of this chapter.


The numerous star myths, the general character of which is of fairly uniform type throughout the world, deal less with single stars than with groups of stars. Where Heaven is the original theatre of creation and the ancestor-land to which the spirits of the forefathers return, as stars, the constellations are, so to speak, the illustration of the cosmogonic legend, the images of objects, animals, persons, which appear therein. Other constellations are formed by their readily perceived similarity to objects and persons, and a myth is invented in explanation. These things are brought into connexion with one another and woven into a narrative, in which one idea gives rise to others. The conception and meaning of such pictures is naturally very varied among individual races, but on the other hand very similar where the characteristic forms and groupings of the constellations must suggest the same or related ideas to independent observers. The constellations which belong to this class are, for example, Orion, the Cross, the Pleiades, the Great Bear, and the Milky Way. Ideas of the Pleiades as heaps of grain, swarms of small animals, birds, bees, kids, or groups of people playing, are universal. But nowhere is the star myth so original or striking as in South America, and as the constellation legends of that sub-continent are but little known, we shall furnish the reader with some account of them in preference to the more hackneyed star tales of Europe and Asia. The Pleiades are thus wheat among the Bakairi, dwarf-parrots among the Moxos and Karayas, bee-swarms[Pg 141] among the Tupi, and other tribes. Only among the Makusi in the south is a parallel to be found to the widely spread North American myth which supposes the Pleiades to be children carried off to Heaven while playing in a dance. The Southern Cross is very variously treated. The idea of its being the tracks of an emu seems to be limited to South America, but is very widespread there, for example, among the Bororos and Karayas, inhabitants of the steppe districts. As the four outstanding stars of the Cross lie in the Milky Way, one may identify the four-eyed jaguar which in the Yurakare myth escapes the vengeance of the hero Tin, and, calling upon the moon, is raised to Heaven. The Milky Way, as the most prominent appearance in the darkened heavens at night, receives universal attention, but has given rise to the most diverse traditions. Like the Bushmen and other Africans, the Bororos and Karayas believe that the Milky Way is an ash-track. This, as well as the guanaco track of the Patagonians, resembles the 'Path of the Gods' of the Romans, the bird-track of the Esthonians, and the 'Jacob's ladder' of the medieval church, while the Milky Way seems to be considered as a path of souls by some of the Bolivian nations. Its conception as a stream or lake has not been definitely traced in South America. On the other hand, it appears that its peculiar branching formation caused it to be likened to a tree, and this belief finds expression in the Arawak legend of the world-tree of Akawiro, which bore not only all known fruits and plants, but also all organic beings. Among the central Caribs of the Bakairi it is a hollow tree-stem, such as is used among them as a drum, its roots spreading southward and apart from each other. In its neighbourhood the first acts of the mythical twin-heroes Keri and Kame were performed, and among the Caribs even to this day are co be seen living animals which originally issued from its trunk.