An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 97

There is one strange exception to this rule, and that is Greece. This is probably because Greek ethics was nurtured more upon philosophic than religious ideals. We find the exact opposite of the philosophic ethics of Hellas in the drastic religious morality of the Semitic race. The idea of judgment is seen only in early Greek myth.

But the most important question for us, discussing the manufacture and evolution of myth, is: How far have ethical promptings influenced mythic conceptions of a place of future reward or punishment?

They have influenced it very powerfully. Let us regard these[Pg 218] beliefs in the line of their evolution. In primitive (i.e., savage) civilization we find a mere home of the dead, like that of the peoples of the north-west coast of America, the Samoans, or the peoples of Western Africa. The dead there may be kings or medicine-men, warriors or slaves, as in the mortal life, but there is no ruler, no Pluto or Satan. Later, in the barbaric stage, we find monarchs or arch-devils, such as Mictlantecutli of Mexico, Çupay of Peru, or Hel of Scandinavia. These, however, are merely there from a supposed necessity for a headship, or because they chance to be corn-spirits like the Greek Persephone; for agricultural spirits usually reside in the earth. Indeed the myth of Persephone well illustrates the adaptation of a corn-spirit to the lordship (or ladyship) of Hades, and probably represents a fusion of myths in which that of the corn-spirit was grafted on to the already accepted lord of the place of the dead. The daughter of the chief of Xibalba, the Kiche Hell, is also a corn-spirit, as witness her gathering of a basket of maize where no maize had grown before; and even Osiris, great god of the Egyptian dead, was primarily connected with the 'agricultural interest.'

It is only in the higher stages of religion, when ethical significance has become a fait accompli, that we find the god of the Otherworld metamorphosed into a judge who disposes of the souls of men according to their deserts. Thus we find that ethical ideas strongly affect the mythic character of the lords of the Otherworld, and may alter them from mere presiding demons into god-like arbiters of the fate of the soul. Further, the introduction, evolution, or acceptance of ethical ideas may entirely alter the scenery and geography of the Hades myth, and from a nebulous environment of ghostly savagery the place of the dead may on the one hand blossom into a sensuous Paradise or flash into flame as Gehenna.


The manner in which Heaven, the place of bliss, came to be associated with the sky and the region of woe with the Underworld is worthy of brief consideration. We have seen that many various peoples—Celts, Indians, Fijians—believed[Pg 219] their Paradise, their 'land of heart's desire,' to be in the west, where sinks the dying sun. To the mind of primitive man the sun was the source of all good, the nourisher, the giver of light; and no bliss greater than that of accompanying him in his course through the heavens could be imagined. Man beheld him sink and die in the waves of ocean or behind the peaks of the great mountains, and, comparing this with the death of his own kind, concluded that the luminary betook himself to rest in some region beyond the verge of sea or sierra. "If the souls of the dead follow the sun it must be to such a region," he would argue: so would arise the concept of a Tir-nan-og, a sun-Paradise beyond the world's rim.[8]

Not thus did all religious philosophers of old time reason—not thus the mythographers of Babylon, for example, those astrologer-priests who watched from tower and temple the wheelings of the white host of stars which silvered the skies above the city of Bel. These had identified the various gods in their pantheon with the stars and heavenly bodies. Once this had been done it is easy to understand how the gods were conceived as dwelling in the sky. Races who believed in a Paradise beyond the setting sun did not place their great divinities in the sky. The Celtic gods lived in their sunset Elysium; the deities of the Samoan tale dwell in an island Paradise. Roughly, peoples dwelling near the western sea (Celts, West Africans, North-west American Indians, etc.) locate their Paradise beneath the rim of ocean; peoples dwelling at the foot of mountain ranges (Greeks, Javanese, etc.) believe the Otherworld to be situated on their summits; while peoples dwelling in plains or deserts (Plains Indians, Babylonians, certain Egyptian castes, etc.) place their Heaven in the sky among the constellations.


On the other hand, the Otherworld becomes the Underworld, because of the subterranean burial of the dead. Under the earth is the home of the dead, and there rest their shades or spirits. The Greeks believed Hades to be situated only[Pg 220] twelve feet beneath the surface of the soil. Again, the practice of burial in caverns may have assisted this belief. The scenery of the Otherworld, from Homer to Dante, is decidedly cavernous. The lords of Hell are frequently the gods of a conquered or subject race, relegated to the Underworld by the policy or contempt of the conquerors. Thus the Irish Tuatha de Danann, who dwell underground, were once the chief gods of Ireland, and were displaced by an incoming people; and we can trace in the gigantic figure of Osiris the primeval god of an agricultural people placed over the popular world of the Egyptian dead, partly perhaps by the deliberate policy of the priests of Ra, partly by reason of his status as a corn-god, and developing into the great ruler of the realm of the dead.