An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 99

Dean Macculloch in his valuable Childhood of Fiction (p. 432) says: "The mythological school represented by the writings of De Gubernatis, Cox, Max Müller, and others, have found the origin of folk-tales in the myths of the Aryan race. Folk-tales are the detritus of such Aryan myths, when the meaning of the myths themselves was long forgotten. The whole theory falls to the ground when it is discovered that exactly similar stories are told by non-Aryan races, and that the incidents of such stories are easily explainable by actual customs and ideas of savages and primitive folk everywhere. On the other hand, many folk-tales have originated as myths explanatory of existing customs, or by way of explaining phenomena which seemed to depend on these customs, and when the customs fell into desuetude the myths remained as folk-tales. The incidents of existing folk-tales, again, have frequently been embodied in mythologies—Greek, Celtic,[Pg 223] Japanese. Thus there is throughout an intimate connection between mythology and folk-tales, though not of the kind which De Gubernatis and others imagined." Again: "Folk-tales have a vital connection with myth and saga, though the connection is far from that insisted on by Max Müller and the mythological school. Still another link of connection may be perceived in many European Märchen, where the gods and mythic figures of an earlier faith have been metamorphosed into ogres, witches, and fairies, and where the dimly-remembered customs of that earlier religion have supplied incidents for the story inventor of a later age."

In a note to his Mythology and Folklore (p. 7) Sir George Cox furnishes the philological view of the relation of mythology to folklore: "It is, perhaps, open to doubt whether the terms mythology and folklore are likely to retain permanently their present relative meanings. Neither term is altogether satisfactory; but the distinction between tales susceptible of philological analysis and those which are not must nevertheless be carefully maintained, as indispensable to any scientific treatment of the subject. In his introduction to The Science of Language Mr Sayce admits 'that it is often difficult to draw the line between folklore and mythology, to define exactly where the one ends and the other begins, and there are many instances in which the two terms overlap one another.'"

It is demonstrable that the author of the term folklore, the late Mr W. J. Thorns (1803-1885), deputy librarian of the House of Lords and founder and editor of Notes and Queries, did not intend it to include mythology. He said that he intended it to designate "that department of the study of antiquities and archæology which embraces everything relating to ancient observances and customs, to the notions, beliefs, traditions, superstitions, and prejudices of the common people." It will be remarked that this definition does not include "the study of a primitive or early religion while it was a living faith."

But the study of folklore is, as has been said, greatly capable of assisting the student of myth. A Roman sword or a Saxon cup exhumed after many centuries are no less the blade once[Pg 224] wielded by a Roman, or the vessel from which the Saxon imbibed, solely because centuries have elapsed since they were in use by their original owners, nor do they fail to yield us information concerning the lives and habits of those to whom they belonged. In the same manner a story or custom long embedded in the earth of superstition is no less capable of throwing light upon ancient religion and thus upon ancient myth. Many folk-tales are merely 'broken-down' myths, but by no means all folk-tales are so, as numbers were invented for purposes of amusement and partake of the character of fiction.

As an instance of the manner in which folk-belief can influence true myth we have only to look at the tales of the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur, Merlin, and many of the lesser figures of the galaxy of Camelot are in reality British Celtic deities metamorphosed into medieval knights. A similar instance, perhaps of added interest because of its novelty, has recently come under the notice of the writer.


The story of St Triduana and her healing well, situated at Restalrig, near Edinburgh, is a tale of the kind the student of myth delights to encounter; for what may appear to the uninitiated to be an ordinary saintly legend is, he readily sees, a fragment of true myth.

The story of the sainted lady who, in her latter days, dwelt at Restalrig, or Lestalryk, is in the grand style, and combines the poignant pathos of Euripidean tragedy with the fanaticism of mistaken religious zeal. The glorious virgin Triduana of Colosse, we are told, arrived in Scotland from Achaia, in Greece, with the holy St Regulus, or Rule, the traditional founder of St Andrews, at some date between A.D. 237 and the eighth century. This mission was evidently that entrusted to bring the relics of St Andrew to Scotland and charged with the plantation of the Christian faith in that country. The lady found a retreat at Rescobie, in Forfarshire, where she dwelt in great piety; but her Grecian beauty proved a snare for the susceptibilities of the Pictish king Nectanivan or Nechtan, who became hotly enamoured of her. Flying before his zealous[Pg 225] wooing, she came to Dunfallandy in Athol, where his emissaries speedily discovered her. Perturbed and seemingly incredulous that a monarch should rate her charms so highly, Triduana asked of the King's messengers what so great a prince desired of her, a poor virgin dedicated to God. The reply was couched in terms which betray the Celt, and we are left with the firm conviction that he who vouchsafed it was none other than the King's seanachaidh or bard. "He desireth," said that person, "the most excellent beauty of thine eyes, which if he obtain not he will surely die." Triduana's retort was typical of the Christian martyr, and we are left wondering whether she was possessed with a fanaticism which surpassed her sense of humour, or of a grim penchant for the ridiculous which transcended all fanaticism. "What he seeketh he shall surely have," she exclaimed, and thereupon she plucked out her eyes, skewered them on a thorn, and handed them to the King's messengers with the words: "Take that which your prince desireth." Later she betook herself to Restalrig, where she pursued the life religious until her death.