An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 8

[Pg 21] but they explain, or attempt to explain, primitive scientific notions as well.[18]

The desire to know the 'reason why' early creates a thirst for knowledge, an intellectual appetite. "When the attention of a man in the myth-making stage of intellect is drawn to any phenomenon or custom which has to him no obvious reason, he invents and tells a story to account for it."[19] The character of most primitive myths amply justifies this statement. They are mostly explanations of intellectual difficulties, answers to such questions as, What is the origin of or reason for this or that phenomenon or custom? How came the world and man to be formed as they are? In what manner were the heavenly bodies so placed and directed in their courses? Why is the lily white, the robin's breast splashed with red? How came into force this sacrificial custom, this especial ritualistic attitude, the detail of this rite? The early replies to these questions partake not only of the nature of myth, but of science—primitive science, but science nevertheless—for one of the first functions of science is to enlighten man concerning the nature of the objects and forces by which he finds himself surrounded, and their causes and effects. These replies are none the less scientific because they take the shape of stones. Their very existence proves that the above questions, to clear up which they were invented, were asked. They cannot be accounted for without the previous existence of these questions. Mythology is the savage's science, his manner of explaining the universe in which he lives and moves. Says Lang: "They frame their stories generally in harmony with their general theory of things, by what may be called 'savage metaphysics.'" Of course they did not think on the lines of a well-informed modern scholar. Müller remarks in an illuminating passage:

[Pg 22]

"Early man not only did not think as we think, but did not think as we suppose he ought to have thought."

One of the chief differences between the outlook of the primitive savage and that of civilized man is the great extension in the mind of the former of the theory of personality, an outlook we have already called 'animism,' Everything possesses a 'soul,' or at any rate will-power, in the judgment of the savage. But not only are sun, sky, river, lightning, beast, tree, persons among primitive or backward peoples; they are savage persons.


Research and travel combine to prove that earliest man and the lowest savages cannot be found without myths, which, as we have seen, are both religion and science. The first recognized stage in man's mental experience is animism, so that the earliest myths must have been 'animistic.'[20] Roughly, animism is the belief that everything has a soul or at least a personality, but no race has yet been discovered possessing purely animistic beliefs. Even the lowest races we know have developed these considerably, and so we are only acquainted with animism in its pure form theoretically,[21] as a phase of religious experience through which man must at one time have passed. It is, in fact, a fossil faith. But just as fossil animals and plants have their living representatives to-day, so do ideas and conceptions representing this petrified form of religion and science still flourish in our present-day superstitions and our present-day faiths.

Animistic myths naturally show primitive ideas regarding the soul. Animism will be dealt with more fully hereafter, but[Pg 23] in this introductory sketch we will cite one or two examples of animistic myth to illustrate what was, so far as we know, the earliest type of myth. Stories are found telling of journeys to the spirit land, of talking animals, of men metamorphosed into animals and trees, and these are all animistic or originate in animistic belief.[22] Modern folk-tales containing such stories possess a very great antiquity, or are merely very old myths partly obscured by a veneer of modernity. Spirit stories which have obviously a primitive setting or atmosphere are almost certainly animistic. Thus tales which describe the soul as a bird or a bee, flitting about when the body is asleep, are either direct relics of an animistic age, or have been inspired by earlier animistic stories handed down from that age. The tales of spirit journeys to the Otherworld, the provision of implements, weapons, shoes, and so forth, placed in the grave to assist the soul in its progress to the Land of Shadows, invariably point to an animistic stage of belief—the belief in a separable 'soul,' in an entity entirely different and apart from the 'tenement of clay' that has perished.


There are not wanting authorities of discernment who believe that even this early phase was not the primitive phase in the religious experience of man. Of these the most clear-sighted and perspicuous in argument is Dr Marett, reader in anthropology at Oxford University. In a pregnant chapter-preface in his highly suggestive book, The Threshold of Religion, Dr Marett says: "Psychologically, religion requires more than thought, namely, feeling and will as well; and may manifest itself on its emotional side, even when ideation is vague. The question, then, is, whether apart from ideas of spirit, ghost, soul, and the like, and before such ideas have become dominant factors[Pg 24] in the constituent experience, a rudimentary religion can exist. It will suffice to prove that supernaturalism, the attitude of mind dictated by awe of the mysterious, which provides religion with its raw material, may exist apart from animism, and, further, may provide a basis on which an animistic doctrine is subsequently constructed. Objects towards which awe is felt may be termed powers." He proceeds to say that startling manifestations of nature may be treated as 'powers' without any assumption of spiritual intervention, that certain Australian supreme beings appear to have evolved from the bull-roarer,[23] and that the dead inspire awe. This he calls 'supernaturalism,' and regards it as a phase preceding animism.


Very closely allied to and coexistent with animism, and not to be very clearly distinguished from it, is fetishism. This word is derived from the Portuguese feitiço, a charm, 'something made by art,' and is applied to any object, large or small, natural or artificial, regarded as possessing consciousness, volition, and supernatural qualities, especially magic power.[24]

Briefly and roughly, the fetish is an object which the savage all over the world, in Africa, Asia, America, Australia, and, anciently, in Europe, believes to be inhabited by a spirit or supernatural being. Trees, water, stones, are in the 'animistic' phase considered as the homes of such spirits, which, the savage thinks, are often forced to quit their dwelling-places because they are under the spell or potent enchantment of a more powerful being. The fetish may be a bone, a stone, a bundle of[Pg 25] feathers, a fossil, a necklace of shells, or any object of peculiar shape or appearance. Into this object the medicine-man may lure the wandering or banished spirit, which henceforth becomes his servant; or, again, the spirit may of its own will take up its residence there. It is not clear whether, once in residence or imprisonment, the spirit can quit the fetish, but specific instances would point to the belief that it could do so if permitted by its 'master'[25]

We must discriminate sharply between a fetish-spirit and a god, although the fetish may develop into a godling or god. The basic difference between the fetish and the god is that whereas the god is the patron and is invoked by prayer, the fetish is a spirit subservient to an individual owner or tribe, and if it would gain the state of godhead it must do so by long or marvellous service as a luck-bringer. Offerings may be made to a fetish; it may even be invoked by prayer or spell; but on the other hand it may be severely castigated if it fail to respond to its owner's desires. Instances of the castigation of gods proper are of rare occurrence, and could scarcely happen when a deity was in the full flush of godhead, unless, indeed, the assault were directed by an alien hand.[26]

We have seen that the ancient Greeks had in their temples stones representing 'nameless gods' who seem to have been of fetish origin. Thus a fetish may almost seem an idol, and the line of demarcation between the great fetish and the idol is slender, the great fetish being a link between the smaller fetish and the complete god.