What Is Mythology?

WHAT is mythology ? Let us look into our dictionaries. It is defined by Worcester as " a system of fables, or a treatise upon fables ; the collective body of traditions of any heathen nation respecting its gods and other fabulous supernatural beings.” And the same lexicographer defines a myth as “ a work of fiction ; a fabulous story ; a fable ; an invention ; a parable ; an allegory,” — though the latter part of the definition is qualified by the much-needed remark that, while “ the allegory is a reflective and artificial process, the myth springs up spontaneously and by a kind of inspiration.” But in spite of this important qualification, the definition seems, on the whole, very defective. It describes well enough the vague popular use of words according to which the existence of a bogus mine or a falsely alleged Kuklux outrage is said to be a “ myth,” but it fails to exhibit the word under

that aspect which, to a mind trained in the study of mythology, seems most important, if not even most prominent, of all. This short-coming is associated with the absence of any specific reference to the original sense of the Greek μũθος, of w'hieh our English word is the abbreviated form; and it is by glancing for a moment at this original sense that we shall best come to a preliminary understanding of what mythology is. The word μũθος does not primarily mean an “ invention,” or a “ work of fiction,” or a “ fabulous story ; ” it primarily means “ anything said,” a “ word ” or “ speech ” in the most general sense. In the Homeric poems it is very frequently used, both in this general way and more specially, to signify a talk or conversation, a debate, a promise, or even a speech delivered before an audience. In Homer’s language it also means a tale dr story, — that is, “ what people say,” — but without any reference to the truth or falsity of what is said, a distinction which appears for the first time in Pindar. By his time μũθος seems to have come to designate a poetical tale as distinguished from a historical tale, which was called λóγος, though as yet it is not implied that the μũθος is necessarily false, or the λóγος necessarily true. The one is simply such a kind of story as you are likely to meet with in poetry; the other such as you may expect to find in historical narration. Herodotos, indeed, makes a double distinction between λóγος, a mere tale, which may be true or not, μũθος, a story which is not to be believed, and ἱστορía, an account which claims and receives credence; but it is certain that no such distinction was definitely established, nor does Herodotos consistently adhere to it himself. By the great Attic writers μũθος is used to denote an old story or tradition relating to times or places indefinitely remote, and from this it quite naturally acquired the implication of the untrustworthy, the incredible, or the strictly fabulous. Without entering into further detail, what it concerns us to remember is that is fundamentally not that which is true or untrue, credible or incredible, but is simply that which " they say.” When you catechise the Italian cicerone concerning the authenticity of the marvelous legend associated by tradition with the ruined temple or fortress you are visiting, he does not usually commit himself by any skeptical utterance on the subject, but with a shrug and a “ So they say,” he illustrates the precise force of the word as applied to the story in question; relegating it to a region where the canons of historical truth and falsehood are left unenforced.

To those, therefore, who are accustomed to weigh words carefully it will not seem correct to describe a myth as an invention or fable. It is impossible to use these words without suggesting intentional fabrication, whereas it is the most characteristic mark of a myth, properly so called, that nobody knows by whom, or at what time, or under what circumstances it was originated. Moreover, while by the time a myth has become recognized as such it does not command belief, yet at the outset it was quite otherwise. Originally myths were not told with a shrug of the shoulders, but they were told to be believed, and they were believed by those who told them. To disbelieve in the myths currently accepted was to be a heretic and blasphemer, and was likely to draw down upon one’s self and one’s kindred the vengeance of the gods, or at least the anathemas of society. Far from being a work of fiction, therefore, a myth is a story of obscure origin which embodies some belief now become antiquated, or which has its root in some habit of contemplating nature that is now outgrown and perhaps hardly intelligible. A collection of such stories, belonging to a particular age or people, is called “ a mythology; ” and the science or branch of study which describes, classifies, and interprets such stories is called “ mythology.”

Like all sweeping definitions, this requires some little qualification. The stories which form the subject matter of mythology are exceedingly multifarious in character. As a family, the gods have had strange vicissitudes of fortune ; and tales of heroes or deities which once were an object of religious faith are often so closely linked with nursery ballads or household lore of goblins and spooks, or even with rhymes of minnesingers and romances of chivalry, that it becomes difficult to treat the myth exhaustively without occasional reference to the domain of conscious fiction. It is not only that almost all the fairy-tales which delight our children are largely made up of mythical incidents which in early times had a serious meaning, but also that even in such works as the Nibelungenlied and the Homeric poems, which are among our principal storehouses of mythologic lore, conscious fiction, immemorial myth, and probably a few vestiges of traditional history are so intimately commingled that it is impossible to separate one element from another, and assign to each its share in the work. Nor can we assert positively of each and every one of the stories which make up the heterogeneous aggregates of Grecian or Indian or Scandinavian mythology that it had a really mythical origin. Now and then fable or apologue, or even allegory, may no doubt have contributed its mite to the grand total. But after making all needful allowance for these complicating circumstances, it remains true on the whole that the mythical story differs from the ordinary fictitious narrative by giving expression to some genuine belief that has been forgotten or superseded.

The study of mythology, therefore, when properly conducted, must throw light on some of the early thoughts of mankind, giving us glimpses of the way in which people reasoned about things before there was any such knowledge of nature as we are accustomed to call scientific. It is only within the present century, however, that the subject has been studied to any purpose, and it is only now that philosophical explanations of the myth-making tendency are beginning to be offered. According to the theory of Euhemeros, still advocated by the Abbé Banier about a hundred years ago, a myth is simply a bit of exaggerated or distorted history, and when the supernatural or extraordinary features of the story are stripped off we have a residuum of genuine history. Zeus and Wodan, for example, were ancient monarchs or heroes, who underwent a post-mortem process of deification like the early Cæsars, only with more lasting effect; and Herakles was a stalwart pioneer, addicted to hunting wild animals, who once broke into a garden and stole some oranges that were guard-

ed by gigantic dogs. This theory originated in an age in which historical criticism was unknown. The process of eliminating history from legendary narrative by simply winnowing out the credible parts from the incredible is entirely inadmissible; for in order that a historical narrative be regarded as authentic, it is not enough that the events it contains should be perfectly credible ; it is also necessary that they should be attested by contemporary records of some kind or other. The explanation is further contradicted by the myths themselves, which do not describe Wodan and Zeus and Herakles as human beings, but as belonging to a higher sphere of existence. The superhuman or marvelous element, which Euhemerism sought to winnow out, is really the essential part of the stories, without which the remainder would be worthless either as history or as legend. As Sir G. W. Cox has well said concerning the Iliad, “ It is of the very essence of the narrative that Paris, who has deserted Oinone, the child of the stream Kebren, and before whom Here, Athene, and Aphrodite had appeared as claimants for the golden apple, steals from Sparta the beautiful sister of the Dioskouroi; that the chiefs are summoned together for no other purpose than to avenge her woes and wrongs ; that Achilleus, the son of the sea-nymph Thetis, the wielder of invincible weapons and the lord of undying horses, goes to fight in a quarrel which is not his own ; that his wrath is roused because he is robbed of the maid Briseis, and that he henceforth takes no part in the strife until his friend Patroklos has been slain ; that then he puts on the new armor which Thetis brings to him from the anvil of Hephaistos, and goes forth to win the victory. The details are throughout of the same nature. Achilleus sees and converses with Athene ; Aphrodite is wounded by Diomedes ; and Sleep and Death bear away the lifeless Sarpedon on their noiseless wings to the far-off land of light.” Take away these marvelous features and there would be no point left to the story. But the Euhemeristic theory is still more completely discredited by its inability to account for a class of phenomena which were unknown at the time when it was suggested,— to wit, the substantial identity of the principal mythical personages of Greece and India with each other and with those of Scandinavia, and the diffusion of certain myths all over the world.

The Euhemeristic theory is perhaps worthy of this explicit mention by reason of the great reputation which it once enjoyed and the length of time during which it held its ground. The rival theory that myths are allegories, in which are enshrined profound scientific or philosophical mysteries apprehended by the “ wisdom of the ancients,” has found its supporters even within the present century ; but it may be here passed over without comment, since this and all other arbitrary theories characteristic of the infancy of modern scholarship have been once for all set aside by the results of the application of the comparative method to the myths of antiquity and the naïve beliefs of contemporary savages.

Comparative mythology aims at interpreting the mythical stories of different peoples by comparing them with one another ; so that, wherever possible, a story carrying its meaning on its face may throw light on some parallel story, the meaning of which could not well be detected but for some such comparison. This modern branch of study is primarily an offshoot from comparative philology, and it came into existence as soon as the philological interpretation of the Vedas had proceeded far enough to enable scholars to compare the myths of Greece with those of ancient India. As the Sanskrit language has in most cases preserved its roots in a more primitive form than the other Aryan languages,

so in the Rig-Veda we find to some extent the same mythic phraseology as in Homer and Hesiod, but in a much more rudimentary and intelligible condition. Zeus, Eros, Hermes, Helena, Ouranos, and Kerberos reappear as Dyaus, Arusha, Sarameias, Sarama, Varuna, and Çarvara, but instead of completely developed personalities they are presented to us as vague powers, with their nature and attributes dimly defined, and their relations to one another are fluctuating and often contradictory. There is no theogony or mythologic system thoroughly worked out, as in Hesiod. The same pair of divinities appear now as father and daughter, now as brother and sister, now as husband and wife ; while every now and then they quite lose their personal shapes, and appear as mere elemental forces or vivified phenomena of nature. Coupled with this is the fact that in the Vedas the early significance of the myths has not faded, but continually recurs to the mind of the poet; while in the Homeric poems this early significance is almost entirely lost sight of, save in so far as it may sometimes appear, unknown to the poet himself, to determine the current of his narrative. Looking thus to the Vedas to see what light they throw upon the true meaning of ancient myths in general, we find that the divinities and heroes of the Vedas usually exhibit themselves plainly as personifications of the great phenomena of nature ; and this character is, at the outset, distinctly implied in their names. The name of Dyaus, for example, is derived from the root dyu, the same root from which comes the verb dyut, meaning “ to shine.” Dyu, as a noun, means “ sky ” and “ day,” — that is, “ the brightness ” or “ the bright time.” There is a passage in the RigVeda where Dyaus is addressed as the Sky, in company with Prithivi the Earth and Agni the Fire; and there are many such passages where the character of Dyaus as the personified sky or brightness of day-time is unmistakably brought out. Here we have a key which opens at once some of the secrets of Greek mythology. So long as there was for the word Zeus no better etymology than Plato’s guess, which assigned it to the root zen, “ to live,” the real elemental character of Zeus remained undetected. But when it was shown, in accordance with the canons of comparative linguistics, that the word Zeus is simply the Greek pronunciation of the same word which the Brahman pronounced as Dyaus, it followed at once that the supreme god of Greek mythology was originally the personified sky ; and thus was revealed the literal meaning of such expressions as Horace’s “ sub Jove frigido,” and the Attic prayer, “ Rain, rain, dear Zeus, on the land of the Athenians and on the fields.” The root dyu is again seen in Jupiter, which is identical with the Sanskrit Dyaus pitar, or Jove the Father. The same root can be followed into Old German, where Zio is also the god of day, and into Old English, where Tiwsdaeg, the day of Tiws or Zeus, is the ancestral form of Tuesday. Again, in Sanskrit the root dyu assumes the form div, whence devas, “ bright ” or “ divine,” and the Lithuanian diewas, Latin deus, and Greek θεóς, all meaning God. Clearly, then, without the help of the Sanskrit root dyu, combined with the character assigned to Dyaus in the Vedas, we should be unable to interpret any of the names belonging to the chief deity of the early Aryans; but with this clue we can not only understand these names, but we also perceive that there was a time when our ancestors could speak of the bright sky as of a superhuman personality fit to be worshiped.

Advancing a step from this mere comparison of mythological names, let us briefly consider a famous mythical story, that we may see how much light is thrown upon it by the comparative

method. In my Myths and Myth-Makers I have called attention to M. Bréal’s admirable treatment of the story of Hercules and Cacus, which, although one of the oldest of the traditions common to the whole Aryan race, appears in Italy as a purely local legend, and is narrated as such by Livy, as well as by Virgil, Propertius, and Ovid. That is to say, it is a λóγος as well as a μũθος, and for aught one could tell from the Latin legend alone it might be a distorted fragment of early history, as Banier would have had it. Hercules, it is said, journeying through Italy after his victory over Geryon, halts by the Tiber. While he is enjoying his siesta, a son of Vulcan, the formidable monster Cacus, comes and steals his cattle, and drags them, tail foremost, to a secret cavern in the rocks. “ But the lowing of the cows arouses Hercules, and he runs toward the cavern, where the robber, already frightened, has taken refuge. Armed with a huge flinty rock, he breaks open the entrance of the cavern, and Confronts the demon within, who vomits forth flames at him, and roars like the thunder in the storm-cloud. After a short combat his hideous body falls at the feet of the invincible hero, who erects on the spot an altar to Jupiter Inventor, in commemoration of the recovery of his cattle. Ancient Rome teemed with reminiscences of this event. . . . The place where Hercules pastured his oxen was known long after as the Forum Boarium ; near it the Porta Trigemina preserved the recollection of the monster’s triple head; and in the time of Diodorus Siculus sight-seers were shown the cavern of Cacus on the slope of the Aventine. Every tenth day the earlier generations of Romans celebrated the victory with solemn sacrifices at the Ara Maxima ; and on days of triumph the fortunate general deposited there a tithe of his booty, to be distributed among the citizens.” No better example than this could be desired to illustrate what I said above in defining a myth. A myth such as this was no “ fable ” or “ work of fiction,” but a narrative or “saga,” which the Roman people had always “ heard told,” and in the truth of which they believed very thoroughly, as is shown by the pains which they took to commemorate it. People do not hold religious services every tenth day in honor of fables or allegories. The Romans celebrated the victory of Hercules, because they believed both in the existence of this semi-divine national hero and in the reality of his exploit; and if any one had been found hardy enough to call in question the one or the other, he would doubtless have been put down as a pernicious heretic who sought to detract from the glory of the state and to discourage belief in its gods. Yet in its primitive Italian form the legend had nothing to do with Hercules, who was a quiet domestic deity, very unlike the mighty Doric Herakles, with whom the accidental resemblance of names caused him to be identified at a time when the conversion of the Romans to the Greek mythology had resulted in the mixing up and partial forgetting of their own early traditions. In the story as originally told, the hero is none other than Jupiter, the god of day himself, called by his Sabine name Sancus, which also means “ the bright sky.” And likewise the name of the demon was not Cacus, “ the evil one,” but Cæcius, " the one who darkens or steals light.” It was because the story so closely resembled the Greek myth of the victory of Herakles over Geryon that the later confusion of names resulted. But the earlier names give us a hint as to the physical significance of the myth, which is confirmed when we turn to the Rig-Veda, and find the counterpart of both the Greek and the Latin stories, told over and over again in such words that it is impossible to mistake its meaning. Here we encounter, not Geryon himself, but his three-headed dog

Orthros (written and pronounced in Sanskrit as Vritra), who is one of the Panis, or “ robbers ” that steal the daylight. Indra, the god of light, one of the chief deities of the Rig-Veda, is a herdsman, who tends a herd of bright golden or violet-colored cattle. Vritra, a snake-like monster with three heads, steals them and hides them in a cavern ; but Indra slays him as Jupiter-Sancus slew Cæcius, and the cows are recovered. The scene of the conflict is not placed upon the earth, but in the firmament overhead, and the entire language of the myth is so transparent that the Hindu commentators of the Veda have anticipated modern scholars in explaining it as an account of the victory of the god of day over the fiend of the thunder-storm. These celestial cattle, with their resplendent coats of purple and gold, are the clouds lit up by the solar rays ; and the demon who hides them in the cavernous rock is the fiend of darkness, who obscures the heavens in the storm and at night-fall, and against whom, in his manifold shapes, Indra and Herakles and the other bright divinities are always waging war. Not only in stormy weather, but every night, the cattle are stolen by Vritra, “ he who shrouds or conceals,” or by Cæcius, “ the darkener; ” and Indra is obliged to spend hours in looking for them, sending Sarama, the inconstant and untrustworthy twilight, to negotiate for their recovery. The Panis, of whom the storm-fiend Vritra is one, are uniformly represented in the Vedic hymns as nightdemons. “ They steal Indra’s golden cattle, and drive them by circuitous paths to a dark hiding-place near the eastern horizon. Indra sends the dawnnymph Sarama to search for them ; but as she comes within sight of the dark stable the Panis try to coax her to stay with them : ‘ Let us make thee our sister ; do not go away again; we will give thee part of the cows, darling ! ’ ” Sometimes she is described as scorning their solicitations, but often the fickle dawn-nymph is characteristically said to coquet with the powers of darkness. “ She does not care for their cows, but will take a drink of milk, if they will be so good as to get it for her. Then she goes back and tells Indra that she cannot find the cows.” He kicks her, and she runs back to the hiding-place of the night-demons, followed by the exasperated deity, who smites them all with his unerring arrows and brings back the stolen light. In connection with this primitive story it is interesting to observe that, according to Max Müller, the word Sarama, “ the creeping dawn,” is the Vedic pronunciation of the word which from Greek lips sounds as Helena, just as Sarameias corresponds to Hermeias and Surya to Helios. This phonetic identity of names is only one out of many grounds for the suggestion that from this simple story of the fickle dawnnymph and the stolen treasures of the day-god has been evolved the Grecian myth of the faithlessness of Helen.

The warfare of Indra with Vritra and the other Panis forms one of the principal themes of the Vedic hymns ; and as we pass from India to Persia we see most strikingly illustrated the way in which such representations of natural phenomena have given rise to what may be properly called a system of theology. In the Veda the Panis do not seem to be regarded with any decided feeling of moral reprobation, but they are feared and hated as makers of mischief. They not only steal the daylight, but they parch the earth and wither the fruits, and they slay vegetation during the winter months. As Cæcius, the “ darkener,” became ultimately changed into Cacus, the “ evil one,” so the name of Vritra, the “ concealer,” the most famous of the Panis, was gradually generalized until it came to mean “ enemy,” like the English word “ fiend,” and began to be applied indiscriminately to any kind of evil spirit. In Persian mythology the process is carried much further. The fiendish Panis are concentrated in the person of Ahriman or Anro-mainyas, the “ spirit of darkness,” who maintains a perpetual warfare against the “ spirit of light,” Ormuzd or Ahura-mazda. The struggle is not for the possession of a herd of perishable cattle, but for the dominion of the universe. Ormuzd made the world beautiful and free from sin and pain, but after him came Ahriman and created evil. Not only does Ahriman keep the earth covered with darkness during half of the day, not only does he withhold rain and parch the standing corn, but he is also the author of all evil thoughts and the instigator of all wicked actions. Like his progenitor Vritra, and like Satan, who in many respects resembles him, he is represented under the form of a serpent; and the destruction which ultimately awaits these demons is in reserve also for him. Eventually there is to be a day of reckoning, when Ahriman will be bound in chains and rendered powerless, or when, according to another account, he will be converted to righteousness, as Burns hoped and Origen believed would be the case with “ auld Nickie Ben.”

In these various versions of the strife between Ormuzd and Ahriman, Indra and the Panis, Herakles and Geryon, Jupiter and Cæcius, we see well exemplified the diversity of forms which the same group of mythical ideas takes on in the course of its development in different parts of the world; and in the help which either version affords toward an understanding of the others we see the great advantage of the comparative method of studying myths. So completely has this method now taken possession of the field that it has become quite useless to attempt to interpret the mythology of any one people, at least within the Aryan domain, without taking into account all the kindred mythologies. Attempts, like that of Mr. Gladstone, to treat the Homeric legends without any reference to the hymns of the Veda, the sagas of Norway, and the popular epics of the old Germans are fruitful in little else but arbitrary speculation and unverifiable conjecture. The same mythical ideas, and often the same mythical personages with identical or equivalent names, run through all these webs of popular fancy ; and without presenting them all in connection with one another we cannot hope to add much to our knowledge of any portion of Aryan mythology.

But with all the help thus afforded by philological and literary comparison, our conception of the true character of a myth is still incomplete. It is a great step in advance when we are able to say that Zeus was not some apotheosized Cretan king, but the personification of daylight, or when we can trace such a legend as that of Hercules and Cacus back to its more primitive version in the victory of Indra over the Panis. But a further step needs to be taken. What is, after all, the meaning of this way of speaking of the sky as a bright hero, and the darkness as a three-headed monster ? Is it a mere poetical personification, or ingenious allegory ; or, if not thus explicable, in what peculiarities of ancient thought or culture are we to look for the explanation ? The suggestion of allegory or poetic license is not in harmony with the fact that the myths were once literally believed. Men do not believe allegories and metaphors. A more plausible explanation was offered by Max Müller in his famous essay on Comparative Mythology, published in 1856. This brilliant essay did much toward awakening general interest in the study of myths, and in many respects deserved the high reputation which it quickly won. But, admirable as many of its special interpretations undoubtedly are, its general philosophy of mythology is by no means satisfactory. According to Max Müller, a myth is a metaphorical saying of which the metaphorical character has been forgotten, so that it has come to be accepted literally. That is, Dyaus was originally a common noun signifying “ sky ; ” and when the old Aryan said, “ Dyaus rains,” he only stated the plain fact that the sky pours down rain. But in later ages, when the Greek had forgotten the meaning of Zeus, the expression “ Zeus rains ” conveyed the notion that there is a person named Zeus who sends down the rain. And after this manner, according to Müller, all mythology grew up. An admirable illustration of this view is to be found in the legend of Daphne, the maiden who fled from the love of Phoibos Apollo, until, when her fluttering robe was almost within his grasp, she saved herself by plunging into the river Peneios; and on the bank from which she had leaped a laurel grew up to bear her name forever. In its Greek form this legend is hardly intelligible ; for although Phoibos is always a personification of the far-darting sun, the name of Daphne, on the other hand, cannot be explained from Greek sources. But the Greek Daphne implies an Old Aryan form Dahana, from the root dah, which in Sanskrit still means to burn, or to be bright like a flame. This root dah seems to be connected with the German tag and the English words day and dawn. In Sanskrit there is a tendency to drop an initial Aryan d, as, for example, in asru, a “ tear,” which corresponds to the Greek δáκρυ; so, though we do not find the old name Dahana in Sanskrit, we do find Ahana occurring in the Rig-Veda as a name of the personified Dawn:—

“ Grihám griham Ahanâ yati átchcha
Divé dive ádhi nâma dádhânâ, —

Ahana [the Dawn] comes near to every house, — she who makes every day to he known.” 1 In view of this it is every way probable that the Greek Daphne is the rosy-fingered Dawn who takes to flight and vanishes at the approach of the sun. Her metamorphosis into a laurel results from a purely Greek association of ideas. The laurel, as a wood in use for kindling, was called δáϕνη, and nothing more than such an identity of name was required to suggest the metamorphosis. Now, according to Müller, the people who first spoke of Daphne as fleeing from before Apollo only meant to say that the dawn fades from sight as the sun comes up; in the days when there was a common Aryan speech this would have been understood; but after the Greek had forgotten what the word δáϕνη meant in this connection, and remembered it only as a name for the laurel, it would have acquired in the story the force of a proper name, and hence both the personification and the metamorphosis. This interpretation of the myth is accepted by so wary a scholar as Curtius, and I think we may safely admit it, though the evidence hardly amounts to demonstration. It is not improbable that mere etymological forgetfulness is sufficient to account for this particular instance of personification; but I do not see that we have got very far toward understanding the personifying tendency in general. To recur to our other example, there is no doubt that such a personification as Zeus or Dyaus is enabled to survive until a much later stage of culture when its physical meaning is forgotten than if it were remembered. A cultivated and skeptical Athenian of Plato’s time, for instance, would not be likely to regard the sky as a person ; but as long as Zeus was to him merely the name of a personal deity, not especially associated with the sky or with any other physical phenomenon, there was nothing to hinder belief in him. If it had been remembered that Zeus was but a name for the sky, Zeus would no doubt have lost his godship when people became too cultivated to personify natural phenomena otherwise than in metaphor. In just this way

Uranus (whose name was the common Greek word for “ sky ”) did actually get undeified ; and similarly in Hindu mythology the too transparent character of Indra and his fights with the powers of darkness led to his being supplanted by the more mysterious deities, Brahma, Siva, and Vishnu. So far there is a germ of truth in Müller’s theory. But it does not account for the personification of Dyaus in the first place. How did the sky ever get so thoroughly anthropomorphized that people had a chance to forget what its name Zeus originally meant ? To this question Müller affords no answer; and our suspicion that he has presented the case wrong end foremost is strengthened by another illustration. He tells us that the familiar Greek expression “Erinys finds the criminal” was originally quite free from mythology ; Erinys, the Sanskrit Saranyu, is admitted to be the Dawn; and thus the expression originally meant no more than that crime would be brought to light some day or other ; but it became mythological when the speakers had forgotten what Erinys meant, and so were led to regard it as a person. To me this seems like getting the cart before the horse, and ignoring the enormous difference between civilized and primitive men in their ways of looking at things. To us the expression “ Erinys finds the criminal ” means no more than that crime will be brought to light, and to the cultivated Greek it probably meant no more than this. But the use of poetical metaphor as such is characteristic of civilized men, not of men in the mythmaking stage of culture. Strictly speaking, uncivilized men do not talk in metaphor, but they believe in the literal truth of their similes and personifications, from which, by what Mr. Tylor calls survival in culture, our poetic metaphors are lineally descended. I regard it as much more consistent with what we know of barbaric thought to suppose that at the outset Erinys the Dawn and Zeus the Sky were actually conceived as persons or beings exercising volition ; and that such personifications now appear metaphorical to us only because we find it difficult to comprehend the naïve ignorance of the primeval men who made them in literal and sober earnest.

It is not strange that Max Müller stops far short of any such result as this. His study of myths has been a purely philological study, and has been carried on, too, mainly within the region of Aryan speech. He understands and admirably illustrates the comparative method, in so far as it explains a story in which the terminology is obscure by revealing its kinship with some other story in which the meaning of the terminology is unmistakable. But in order to understand what mythology is, we must go farther than this. As I have elsewhere said, “ the principles of philological interpretation are an indispensable aid to us in detecting the hidden meaning of many a legend in which the powers of nature are represented in the guise of living and thinking persons ; but before we can get at the secret of the myth-making tendency itself, we must leave philology, and enter upon a psychological study. We must inquire into the characteristics of that primitive style of thinking to which it seemed quite natural that the sun should be an unerring archer, and the thunder-cloud a black demon or gigantic robber, finding his richly merited doom at the hands of the indignant Lord of Light.” For the purposes of such an inquiry as this, one mustgo outside of Aryan mythology, and take into the account the legends and superstitions of barbarous races. In the quaint but not illogical fancies of uncivilized men we may trace the processes of thought which gave rise to the elemental deities of Olympos and Valhalla, and to the heroes which figure in classic epos or humble fairy-tale.

Strange as old superstitions are apt to seem after they have once been entirely

outgrown, there is perhaps no superstition so fantastic that we may not understand how it could once have been believed, if we only take the trouble to realize how differently situated the mind of the savage is from our own. It is quite natural to all men, whether savage or civilized, whether illiterate or cultivated, to draw conclusions from analogy, and to imagine intimate relations between phenomena that are in the habit of occurring simultaneously or in close succession. Newton’s theory of gravitation was at the outset a case of reasoning from analogy; and so is the notion of the Zulu, who chews a bit of wood in order to soften the heart of the man with whom he is about to negotiate a trade. The superior correctness of the scientific conclusion is due to the fact that the civilized man has learned to exclude as preposterous a great many guesses which the barbarian has not learned to exclude. Long ages crowded with experiences have taught us that there are many associations of ideas which do not correspond to any connection of cause and effect among external phenomena; and this same long succession of experiences has permanently established in our minds a great number of associations of ideas with which it is needful that new notions should harmonize before we can accept them. But the savage has had but little of this sort of training in sifting his experiences, and such experiences of the world as he gets are but few, monotonous, and narrow. In his mind that enormous mass of associations answering to what we call “laws of nature ” have not been formed ; and hence, when he tries to reason about what he sees, there is little but the most superficial analogy to guide his thoughts hither or thither, and it is inevitable that he should arrive at many conclusions which to us seem quaint or grotesque. Mr. Tylor cites Lord Chesterfield’s remark, “ that the king had been ill, and that people generally expected the illness to be fatal, because the oldest lion in the Tower, about the king’s age, had just died. ‘ So wild and capricious is the human mind,’ ” observes the elegant letter-writer. But indeed, as Mr. Tylor justly remarks, being taught better by his familiarity with barbaric ideas, “ the thought was neither wild nor capricious; it was simply such an argument from analogy as the educated world has at length painfully learned to be worthless, but which, it is not too much to declare, would to this day carry considerable weight to the minds of four fifths of the human race.” Observing, thus, the great capacity for assent in uncultivated minds which have not learned to distinguish between sound and unsound analogies, we need find nothing extraordinary in the entire and literal faith which the barbarian puts in dreams. To him the visions seen and the voices heard in sleep possess as much objective reality as the gestures and shouts of waking hours. In relating his dream he tells how he saw certain dogs or demons, or fought with certain dead warriors, last night. In his crude language no words have been devised for stating the difference between seeing and dreaming that he saw ; and the implication, both to himself and to his hearers, is “ that his other self has been away, and came back when he awoke.” The immense mass of evidence collected by Mr. Tylor shows that all uncivilized people have framed this notion of another self; and the hypothesis which serves to account for the savage’s wanderings during sleep in strange lands and among strange people serves also to account for the presence in his dreams of parents, comrades, or enemies known to be dead and buried. The other self of the dreamer meets and converses with the other selves of his dead brethren, joins with them in the hunt, or sits down with them to the wild cannibal banquet. Thus arises the belief in an ever-present world of ghosts, — a belief which the entire ex-

perience of uncivilized man goes to strengthen and expand. The weird reflection of his person and gestures in rivers or still woodland pools is interpreted by the savage as an appearance of his other self ; in the echo he hears the mocking voice of this phantom double, and as his fantastic shadow he sees it dogging his footsteps. Usually, if not universally, in barbaric thought the other self is supposed to resemble the material self with which it is customarily associated. For example, the Australian, not content with slaying his enemy in battle, cuts off the right thumb of the corpse, so that the departed soul may be incapacitated from throwing a spear. The Chinese allege as a reason for preferring crucifixion to decapitation that their souls may not wander headless about the spirit-world. Indeed, so grossly materialistic is the prescientific conception of soul that the savage will bore holes in the coffin of his dead friend, so that the soul may again have a chance, if it likes, to revisit the body; and in similar wise, even to-day, ignorant European peasants open the windows in sick-rooms, in order that the soul, if it choose to depart, need not be angered by hindrance. Very different is this from the modern philosophic conception of the soul as immaterial. And the difference is again strikingly illustrated when, taking a step farther, we observe that primitive culture makes no such distinction as that between the immortal man and the soulless brute, but speaks of the other selves of beasts in the same terms which are used of human ghosts. The Kafir who has killed an elephant will cry that he didn’t mean to do it; and, lest the elephant’s soul should still seek vengeance, he will cut off and bury the trunk, so that the crippled other self of the mighty beast may be unable to strike him. So the Assamese believe that the ghosts of slain animals will become in the next world the property of the hunter who kills them. Even plants are accredited with souls, so that the Talein will not cut down a tree without first seeking to propitiate its ghost by laying the blame on some one else. But the matter does not end here. Not only the horse and dog, the bamboo and the oak-tree, but even lifeless objects, such as the hatchet, or bow and arrows, or food and drink of the dead man, possess other selves which pass into the world of ghosts. Fijians and other contemporary savages expressly declare that this is their belief: “ If an axe or chisel is worn out or broken up, away flies its soul for the service of the gods.” In this, as I have elsewhere urged, we see how simple and consistent is the logic which guides the savage, and how inevitable is the genesis of the great mass of beliefs, to our minds so arbitrary and grotesque, which prevail throughout the barbaric world. “ However absurd the belief that pots and kettles have souls may seem to us, it is nevertheless the only belief which can be held consistently by the savage, to whom pots and kettles, no less than human friends or enemies, may appear in his dreams; who sees them followed by shadows as they are moved about; who hears their voices, dull or ringing, when they are struck; and who watches their doubles fantastically dancing in the water as they are carried across the stream.” This is exemplified in the argument of the Algonkins, who insisted to Charlevoix that since hatchets have shadows as well as men, therefore the shadow or soul of the hatchet must accompany the shadow or soul of the warrior to the spirit-land. This primitive belief at once explains the custom, so general among uncivilized races, of sacrificing the wives and servants, the horses and dogs, of a departed chief, as well as of presenting at his tomb offerings of food, weapons, or money. In some countries, after surviving the phase of culture in which they originated, such offerings have no doubt come to be mere memorials of esteem or affection for the dead man ; but evidence gathered from numberless savage tribes shows that originally they were presented that their ghosts might be eaten or otherwise employed by the deceased. The stout club which is buried with the dead Fijian sends its soul along with him, that he may be able to defend himself against the hostile ghosts which will lie in ambush for him on the road to the spirit-land, seeking to kill and eat him. Sometimes the club is afterwards removed from the grave as of no further use, since its ghost is all that the dead man needs.

Now, when this general theory of object souls, universal among uncultured men, is expanded into a still more general theory of indwelling spirits, we have before us a set of phenomena which go very far toward explaining the personification of mythology. To quote again from my work on this subject: “ When once habituated to the conception of souls of knives and tobacco-pipes passing to the land of ghosts, the savage cannot avoid carrying the interpretation still further, so that wind and water, fire and storm, are accredited with indwelling spirits akin by nature to the soul which inhabits the human frame. That the mighty spirit or demon by whose impelling will the trees are rooted up and the storm-clouds driven across the sky should resemble a freed human soul is a natural inference, since uncultured man has not attained to the conception of immaterial force acting in accordance with uniform methods, and hence all events are to his mind the manifestations of capricious volition. If the fire burns down his hut, it is because the fire is a person with a soul, and is angry with him, and needs to be coaxed into a kindlier mood by means of prayer or sacrifice. Thus the savage has no alternative but to regard fire soul as something akin to human soul; and in point of fact we find that savage philosophy makes no distinction between the human ghost and the elemental demon or deity. This is sufficiently proved by the universal prevalence of the worship of ancestors. The essential principle of manes worship is that the tribal chief or patriarch, who has governed the community during life, continues also to govern it after death ; assisting it in its warfare with hostile tribes, rewarding brave warriors, and punishing traitors and cowards. Among such higher savages as the Zulus, the doctrine of divine ancestors has been developed to the extent of recognizing a first ancestor, the Great Father, Unkulunkulu, who made the world. But in the stratum of savage thought in which barbaric or Aryan folk-lore is for the most part based we find no such exalted speculation. The ancestors of the rude Veddas and of the Guinea negroes, the Hindu pitris (patres, ‘fathers'), and the Roman manes have become elemental deities, which send rain or sunshine, health or sickness, plenty or famine, and to which their living offspring appeal for guidance amid the vicissitudes of life.” The various theories of embodiment show how thoroughly the demons or deities, which cause disease are identified with human ghost souls. On the one hand, in Australasia it is a dead man’s ghost which creeps up into the liver of the impious wretch who has dared to pronounce his name ; “ while, conversely, in the wellknown European theory of demoniacal possession it is a fairy from elf-land or an imp from hell which has entered the body of the sufferer. In the close kinship, moreover, between disease possession and oracle possession, where the body of the Pythia or the medicine-man is placed under the direct control of some great deity, we may see how by insensible transitions the conception of the human ghost passes into the conception of the spiritual numen or divinity.”

Thus, by a somewhat circuitous process, we have at last reached something

like a consistent and satisfactory explanation of the true nature of mythology. On the one hand, philology has shown that a myth is an attempt to explain some natural phenomenon by endowing with human feelings and capacities the senseless factors in the phenomenon, as when the ancient Hindoo explained a thunder-storm as the smiting of Vritra by the unerring shafts of Indra. On the other hand, a brief survey of barbaric superstitions has shown how uncultured man, by the best use he could make of his rude common sense, has invariably come to regard all objects as endowed with souls, and all nature as peopled with supra-human entities shaped after the general pattern of humanity. Thus is suggested a natural mode of genesis for the personifications of which mythology is made up. As the Moslem camel-driver regards the deadly simoom as a malignant demon, so we need not wonder that the Greeks in prehistoric times should have personified the wind as Hermes, or the sun as an unerring archer, or an unwearying traveler, or an invincible hero. When we know that some people believe pots and kettles to have souls that live hereafter, there is not much difficulty in understanding how other people may have deified the blue sky as the sire of gods and men. We see, moreover, that these personifying stories are not parables or allegories, but sober explanations of natural phenomena. Where we have recourse to some elaborate scientific theorem, the ancient was content with telling a myth. It is only after ages of philosophizing that it begins to seem plausible to regard the clouds as masses of watery vapor suspended in the atmosphere, or the moon as a great planetary body covered with extinct volcanoes. In primeval times it was much simpler to call the cloud a rock, or a huge bird, or a Centaur, and to burn incense to the moon as the chaste goddess Artemis of the silver bow. Thus the study of mythology, when pursued on the wide scale indicated in the present paper, throws light of no uncertain character on the thoughts and mental habits of primitive men, as well as on countless superstitious beliefs and customs which have survived in relatively high stages of culture. And perhaps there is no better

evidence of the profoundly philosophic character of contemporary scholarship than the pains which it is taking to investigate methodically the legends and sayings which formerly were either thought unworthy of serious study, or were treated as subjects for idle and arbitrary speculation.

John Fiske.

  1. Müller, Chips, II. 91.