Systems of Mythology

By Andrew Lang.

Definitions of religion—Contradictory evidence—“Belief in spiritual beings”—Objection to Mr. Tylor’s definition—Definition as regards this argument—Problem: the contradiction between religion and myth—Two human moods—Examples—Case of Greece—Ancient mythologists—Criticism by Eusebius—Modern mythological systems—Mr. Max Muller—Mannhardt.


The word “Religion” may be, and has been, employed in many different senses, and with a perplexing width of significance.  No attempt to define the word is likely to be quite satisfactory, but almost any definition may serve the purpose of an argument, if the writer who employs it states his meaning frankly and adheres to it steadily.  An example of the confusions which may arise from the use of the term “religion” is familiar to students.  Dr. J. D. Lang wrote concerning the native races of Australia: “They have nothing whatever of the character of religion, or of religious observances, to distinguish them from the beasts that perish”.  Yet in the same book Dr. Lang published evidence assigning to the natives belief in “Turramullun, the chief of demons, who is the author of disease, mischief and wisdom”.  The belief in a superhuman author of “disease, mischief and wisdom” is certainly a religious belief not conspicuously held by “the beasts”; yet all religion was denied to the Australians by the very author who prints (in however erroneous a style) an account of part of their creed.  This writer merely inherited the old missionary habit of speaking about the god of a non-Christian people as a “demon” or an “evil spirit”.

Dr. Lang’s negative opinion was contradicted in testimony published by himself, an appendix by the Rev. Mr. Ridley, containing evidence of the belief in Baiame.  “Those who have learned that ‘God’ is the name by which we speak of the Creator, say that Baiame is God.”

As “a minimum definition of religion,” Mr. Tylor has suggested “the belief in spiritual beings”.  Against this it may be urged that, while we have no definite certainty that any race of men is destitute of belief in spiritual beings, yet certain moral and creative deities of low races do not seem to be envisaged as “spiritual” at all.  They are regarded as EXISTENCES, as BEINGS, unconditioned by Time, Space, or Death, and nobody appears to have put the purely metaphysical question, “Are these beings spiritual or material?”  Now, if a race were discovered which believed in such beings, yet had no faith in spirits, that race could not be called irreligious, as it would have to be called in Mr. Tylor’s “minimum definition”.  Almost certainly, no race in this stage of belief in nothing but unconditioned but not expressly spiritual beings is extant.  Yet such a belief may conceivably have existed before men had developed the theory of spirits at all, and such a belief, in creative and moral unconditioned beings, not alleged to be spiritual, could not be excluded from a definition of religion.

For these reasons we propose (merely for the purpose of the present work) to define religion as the belief in a primal being, a Maker, undying, usually moral, without denying that the belief in spiritual beings, even if immoral, may be styled religious.  Our definition is expressly framed for the purpose of the argument, because that argument endeavours to bring into view the essential conflict between religion and myth.  We intend to show that this conflict between the religious and the mythical conception is present, not only (where it has been universally recognised) in the faiths of the ancient civilised peoples, as in Greece, Rome, India and Egypt, but also in the ideas of the lowest known savages.

It may, of course, be argued that the belief in Creator is itself a myth.  However that may be, the attitude of awe, and of moral obedience, in face of such a supposed being, is religious in the sense of the Christian religion, whereas the fabrication of fanciful, humorous, and wildly irrational fables about that being, or others, is essentially mythical in the ordinary significance of that word, though not absent from popular Christianity.

Now, the whole crux and puzzle of mythology is, “Why, having attained (in whatever way) to a belief in an undying guardian, ‘Master of Life,’ did mankind set to work to evolve a chronique scandaleuse about HIM?  And why is that chronique the elaborately absurd set of legends which we find in all mythologies?”

In answering, or trying to answer, these questions, we cannot go behind the beliefs of the races now most immersed in savage ignorance.  About the psychology of races yet more undeveloped we can have no historical knowledge.  Among the lowest known tribes we usually find, just as in ancient Greece, the belief in a deathless “Father,” “Master,” “Maker,” and also the crowd of humorous, obscene, fanciful myths which are in flagrant contradiction with the religious character of that belief.  That belief is what we call rational, and even elevated.  The myths, on the other hand, are what we call irrational and debasing.  We regard low savages as very irrational and debased characters, consequently the nature of their myths does not surprise us.  Their religious conception, however, of a “Father” or “Master of Life” seems out of keeping with the nature of the savage mind as we understand it.  Still, there the religious conception actually is, and it seems to follow that we do not wholly understand the savage mind, or its unknown antecedents.  In any case, there the facts are, as shall be demonstrated.  However the ancestors of Australians, or Andamanese, or Hurons arrived at their highest religious conception, they decidedly possess it.  The development of their mythical conceptions is accounted for by those qualities of their minds which we do understand, and shall illustrate at length.  For the present, we can only say that the religious conception uprises from the human intellect in one mood, that of earnest contemplation and submission: while the mythical ideas uprise from another mood, that of playful and erratic fancy.  These two moods are conspicuous even in Christianity.  The former, that of earnest and submissive contemplation, declares itself in prayers, hymns, and “the dim religious light” of cathedrals.  The second mood, that of playful and erratic fancy, is conspicuous in the buffoonery of Miracle Plays, in Marchen, these burlesque popular tales about our Lord and the Apostles, and in the hideous and grotesque sculptures on sacred edifices.  The two moods are present, and in conflict, through the whole religious history of the human race.  They stand as near each other, and as far apart, as Love and Lust.

It will later be shown that even some of the most backward savages make a perhaps half-conscious distinction between their mythology and their religion.  As to the former, they are communicative; as to the latter, they jealously guard their secret in sacred mysteries.  It is improbable that reflective “black fellows” have been morally shocked by the flagrant contradictions between their religious conceptions and their mythical stories of the divine beings.  But human thought could not come into explicit clearness of consciousness without producing the sense of shock and surprise at these contradictions between the Religion and the Myth of the same god.  Of this we proceed to give examples.

In Greece, as early as the sixth century B. C., we are all familiar with Xenophanes’ poem complaining that the gods were credited with the worst crimes of mortals—in fact, with abominations only known in the orgies of Nero and Elagabalus.  We hear Pindar refusing to repeat the tale which told him the blessed were cannibals.  In India we read the pious Brahmanic attempts to expound decently the myths which made Indra the slayer of a Brahman; the sinner, that is, of the unpardonable sin.  In Egypt, too, we study the priestly or philosophic systems by which the clergy strove to strip the burden of absurdity and sacrilege from their own deities.  From all these efforts of civilised and pious believers to explain away the stories about their own gods we may infer one fact—the most important to the student of mythology—the fact that myths were not evolved in times of clear civilised thought.  It is when Greece is just beginning to free her thought from the bondage of too concrete language, when she is striving to coin abstract terms, that her philosophers and poets first find the myths of Greece a stumbling-block.

All early attempts at an interpretation of mythology are so many efforts to explain the myths on some principle which shall seem not unreasonable to men living at the time of the explanation.  Therefore the pious remonstrances and the forced constructions of early thinkers like Xenophanes, of poets like Pindar, of all ancient Homeric scholars and Pagan apologists, from Theagenes of Rhegium (525 B. C.), the early Homeric commentator, to Porphyry, almost the last of the heathen philosophers, are so many proofs that to Greece, as soon as she had a reflective literature, the myths of Greece seemed impious and IRRATIONAL. The essays of the native commentators on the Veda, in the same way, are endeavours to put into myths felt to be irrational and impious a meaning which does not offend either piety or reason.  We may therefore conclude that it was not men in an early stage of philosophic thought (as philosophy is now understood)--not men like Empedocles and Heraclitus, nor reasonably devout men like Eumaeus, the pious swineherd of the Odyssey—who evolved the blasphemous myths of Greece, of Egypt and of India.  We must look elsewhere for an explanation.  We must try to discover some actual and demonstrable and widely prevalent condition of the human mind, in which tales that even to remote and rudimentary civilisations appeared irrational and unnatural would seem natural and rational.  To discover this intellectual condition has been the aim of all mythologists who did not believe that myth is a divine tradition depraved by human weakness, or a distorted version of historical events.

Before going further, it is desirable to set forth what our aim is, and to what extent we are seeking an interpretation of mythology.  It is not our purpose to explain every detail of every ancient legend, either as a distorted historical fact or as the result of this or that confusion of thought caused by forgetfulness of the meanings of language, or in any other way; nay, we must constantly protest against the excursions of too venturesome ingenuity.  Myth is so ancient, so complex, so full of elements, that it is vain labour to seek a cause for every phenomenon.  We are chiefly occupied with the quest for an historical condition of the human intellect to which the element in myths, regarded by us as irrational, shall seem rational enough.  If we can prove that such a state of mind widely exists among men, and has existed, that state of mind may be provisionally considered as the fount and ORIGIN of the myths which have always perplexed men in a reasonable modern mental condition.  Again, if it can be shown that this mental stage was one through which all civilised races have passed, the universality of the mythopoeic mental condition will to some extent explain the universal DIFFUSION of the stories.

Now, in all mythologies, whether savage or civilised, and in all religions where myths intrude, there exist two factors—the factor which we now regard as rational, and that which we moderns regard as irrational.  The former element needs little explanation; the latter has demanded explanation ever since human thought became comparatively instructed and abstract.

To take an example; even in the myths of savages there is much that still seems rational and transparent.  If savages tell us that some wise being taught them all the simple arts of life, the use of fire, of the bow and arrow, the barbing of hooks, and so forth, we understand them at once.  Nothing can be more natural than that man should believe in an original inventor of the arts, and should tell tales about the imaginary discoverers if the real heroes be forgotten.  So far all is plain sailing.  But when the savage goes on to say that he who taught the use of fire or who gave the first marriage laws was a rabbit or a crow, or a dog, or a beaver, or a spider, then we are at once face to face with the element in myths which seems to us IRRATIONAL.  Again, among civilised peoples we read of the pure all-seeing Varuna in the Vedas, to whom sin is an offence.  We read of Indra, the Lord of Thunder, borne in his chariot, the giver of victory, the giver of wealth to the pious; here once more all seems natural and plain.  The notion of a deity who guides the whirlwind and directs the storm, a god of battles, a god who blesses righteousness, is familiar to us and intelligible; but when we read how Indra drank himself drunk and committed adulteries with Asura women, and got himself born from the same womb as a bull, and changed himself into a quail or a ram, and suffered from the most abject physical terror, and so forth, then we are among myths no longer readily intelligible; here, we feel, are IRRATIONAL stories, of which the original ideas, in their natural sense, can hardly have been conceived by men in a pure and rational early civilisation.  Again, in the religions of even the lowest races, such myths as these are in contradiction with the ethical elements of the faith.

If we look at Greek religious tradition, we observe the coexistence of the RATIONAL and the apparently IRRATIONAL elements.  The RATIONAL myths are those which represent the gods as beautiful and wise beings.  The Artemis of the Odyssey “taking her pastime in the chase of boars and swift deer, while with her the wild wood-nymphs disport them, and high over them all she rears her brow, and is easily to be known where all are fair,” is a perfectly RATIONAL mythic representation of a divine being.  We feel, even now, that the conception of a “queen and goddess, chaste and fair,” the abbess, as Paul de Saint-Victor calls her, of the woodlands, is a beautiful and natural fancy, which requires no explanation.  On the other hand, the Artemis of Arcadia, who is confused with the nymph Callisto, who, again, is said to have become a she-bear, and later a star; and the Brauronian Artemis, whose maiden ministers danced a bear-dance, are goddesses whose legend seems unnatural, and needs to be made intelligible.  Or, again, there is nothing not explicable and natural in the conception of the Olympian Zeus as represented by the great chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia, or in the Homeric conception of Zeus as a god who “turns everywhere his shining eyes, and beholds all things, and protects the righteous, and deals good or evil fortune to men.  But the Zeus whose grave was shown in Crete, or the Zeus who played Demeter an obscene trick by the aid of a ram, or the Zeus who, in the shape of a swan, became the father of Castor and Pollux, or the Zeus who deceived Hera by means of a feigned marriage with an inanimate object, or the Zeus who was afraid of Attes, or the Zeus who made love to women in the shape of an ant or a cuckoo, is a being whose myth is felt to be unnatural and bewildering.  It is this IRRATIONAL and unnatural element, as Mr. Max Muller says, “the silly, senseless, and savage element,” that makes mythology the puzzle which men have so long found it.  For, observe, Greek myth does not represent merely a humorous play of fancy, dealing with things religiously sacred as if by way of relief from the strained reverential contemplation of the majesty of Zeus.  Many stories of Greek mythology are such as could not cross, for the first time, the mind of a civilised Xenophanes or Theagenes, even in a dream.  THIS was the real puzzle.

We have offered examples—Savage, Indian, and Greek—of that element in mythology which, as all civilised races have felt, demands explanation.

To be still more explicit, we may draw up a brief list of the chief problems in the legendary stories attached to the old religions of the world—the problems which it is our special purpose to notice.  First we have, in the myths of all races, the most grotesque conceptions of the character of gods when mythically envisaged.  Beings who, in religion, leave little to be desired, and are spoken of as holy, immortal, omniscient, and kindly, are, in myth, represented as fashioned in the likeness not only of man, but of the beasts; as subject to death, as ignorant and impious.

Most pre-Christian religions had their “zoomorphic” or partially zoomorphic idols, gods in the shape of the lower animals, or with the heads and necks of the lower animals.  In the same way all mythologies represent the gods as fond of appearing in animal forms.  Under these disguises they conduct many amours, even with the daughters of men, and Greek houses were proud of their descent from Zeus in the shape of an eagle or ant, a serpent or a swan; while Cronus and the Vedic Tvashtri and Poseidon made love as horses, and Apollo as a dog.  Not less wild are the legends about the births of gods from the thigh, or the head, or feet, or armpits of some parent; while tales describing and pictures representing unspeakable divine obscenities were frequent in the mythology and in the temples of Greece.  Once more, the gods were said to possess and exercise the power of turning men and women into birds, beasts, fishes, trees, and stones, so that there was scarcely a familiar natural object in the Greek world which had not once (according to legend) been a man or a woman.  The myths of the origin of the world and man, again, were in the last degree childish and disgusting.  The Bushmen and Australians have, perhaps, no story of the origin of species quite so barbarous in style as the anecdotes about Phanes and Prajapati which are preserved in the Orphic hymns and in the Brahmanas.  The conduct of the earlier dynasties of classical gods towards each other was as notoriously cruel and loathsome as their behaviour towards mortals was tricksy and capricious.  The classical gods, with all their immortal might, are, by a mythical contradiction of the religious conception, regarded as capable of fear and pain, and are led into scrapes as ludicrous as those of Brer Wolf or Brer Terrapin in the tales of the Negroes of the Southern States of America.  The stars, again, in mythology, are mixed up with beasts, planets and men in the same embroglio of fantastic opinion.  The dead and the living, men, beasts and gods, trees and stars, and rivers, and sun, and moon, dance through the region of myths in a burlesque ballet of Priapus, where everything may be anything, where nature has no laws and imagination no limits.

Such are the irrational characteristics of myths, classic or Indian, European or American, African or Asiatic, Australian or Maori.  Such is one element we find all the world over among civilised and savage people, quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus.  It is no wonder that pious and reflective men have, in so many ages and in so many ways, tried to account to themselves for their possession of beliefs closely connected with religion which yet seemed ruinous to religion and morality.

The explanations which men have given of their own sacred stories, the apologies for their own gods which they have been constrained to offer to themselves, were the earliest babblings of a science of mythology.  That science was, in its dim beginnings, intended to satisfy a moral need.  Man found that his gods, when mythically envisaged, were not made in his own moral image at its best, but in the image sometimes of the beasts, sometimes of his own moral nature at its very worst: in the likeness of robbers, wizards, sorcerers, and adulterers.  Now, it is impossible here to examine minutely all systems of mythological interpretation.  Every key has been tried in this difficult lock; every cause of confusion has been taken up and tested, deemed adequate, and finally rejected or assigned a subordinate place.  Probably the first attempts to shake off the burden of religious horror at mythical impiety were made by way of silent omission.  Thus most of the foulest myths of early India are absent, and presumably were left out, in the Rig-Veda.  “The religious sentiment of the hymns, already so elevated, has discarded most of the tales which offended it, but has not succeeded in discarding them all.”  Just as the poets of the Rig-Veda prefer to avoid the more offensive traditions about Indra and Tvashtri, so Homer succeeds in avoiding the more grotesque and puerile tales about his own gods.  The period of actual apology comes later.  Pindar declines, as we have seen, to accuse a god of cannibalism.  The Satapatha Brahmana invents a new story about the slaying of Visvarupa.  Not Indra, but Trita, says the Brahmana apologetically, slew the three-headed son of Tvashtri.  “Indra assuredly was free from that sin, for he is a god,” says the Indian apologist.  Yet sins which to us appear far more monstrous than the peccadillo of killing a three-headed Brahman are attributed freely to Indra.

While poets could but omit a blasphemous tale or sketch an apology in passing, it became the business of philosophers and of antiquarian writers deliberately to “whitewash” the gods of popular religion.  Systematic explanations of the sacred stories, whether as preserved in poetry or as told by priests, had to be provided.  India had her etymological and her legendary school of mythology. Thus, while the hymn SEEMED to tell how the Maruts were gods, “born together with the spotted deer,” the etymological interpreters explained that the word for deer only meant the many-coloured lines of clouds.  In the armoury of apologetics etymology has been the most serviceable weapon.  It is easy to see that by aid of etymology the most repulsive legend may be compelled to yield a pure or harmless sense, and may be explained as an innocent blunder, caused by mere verbal misunderstanding.  Brahmans, Greeks, and Germans have equally found comfort in this hypothesis.  In the Cratylus of Plato, Socrates speaks of the notion of explaining myths by etymological guesses at the meaning of divine names as “a philosophy which came to him all in an instant”.  Thus we find Socrates shocked by the irreverence which styled Zeus the son of Cronus, “who is a proverb for stupidity”.  But on examining philologically the name Kronos, Socrates decides that it must really mean Koros, “not in the sense of a youth, but signifying the pure and garnished mind”.  Therefore, when people first called Zeus the son of Cronus, they meant nothing irreverent, but only that Zeus is the child of the pure mind or pure reason.  Not only is this etymological system most pious and consolatory, but it is, as Socrates adds, of universal application.  “For now I bethink me of a very new and ingenious notion, . . . that we may put in and pull out letters at pleasure, and alter the accents.”

Socrates, of course, speaks more than half in irony, but there is a certain truth in his account of etymological analysis and its dependence on individual tastes and preconceived theory.

The ancient classical schools of mythological interpretation, though unscientific and unsuccessful, are not without interest.  We find philosophers and grammarians looking, just as we ourselves are looking, for some condition of the human intellect out of which the absurd element in myths might conceivably have sprung.  Very naturally the philosophers supposed that the human beings in whose brain and speech myths had their origin must have been philosophers like themselves—intelligent, educated persons.  But such persons, they argued, could never have meant to tell stories about the gods so full of nonsense and blasphemy.

Therefore the nonsense and blasphemy must originally have had some harmless, or even praiseworthy, sense.  What could that sense have been?  This question each ancient mythologist answered in accordance with his own taste and prejudices, and above all, and like all other and later speculators, in harmony with the general tendency of his own studies.  If he lived when physical speculation was coming into fashion, as in the age of Empedocles, he thought that the Homeric poems must contain a veiled account of physical philosophy.  This was the opinion of Theagenes of Rhegium, who wrote at a period when a crude physicism was disengaging itself from the earlier religious and mythical cosmogonic systems of Greece.  Theagenes was shocked by the Homeric description of the battle in which the gods fought as allies of the Achaeans and Trojans.  He therefore explained away the affair as a veiled account of the strife of the elements.  Such “strife” was familiar to readers of the physical speculations of Empedocles and of Heraclitus, who blamed Homer for his prayer against Strife.

It did not occur to Theagenes to ask whether any evidence existed to show that the pre-Homeric Greeks were Empedoclean or Heraclitean philosophers.  He readily proved to himself that Apollo, Helios, and Hephaestus were allegorical representations, like what such philosophers would feign,--of fire, that Hera was air, Poseidon water, Artemis the moon, and the rest he disposed of in the same fashion.

Metrodorus, again, turned not only the gods, but the Homeric heroes into “elemental combinations and physical agencies”; for there is nothing new in the mythological philosophy recently popular, which saw the sun, and the cloud, and the wind in Achilles, Athene, and Hermes.

In the Bacchae (291-297), Euripides puts another of the mythological systems of his own time into the mouth of Cadmus, the Theban king, who advances a philological explanation of the story that Dionysus was sewn up in the thigh of Zeus.  The most famous of the later theories was that of Euhemerus (316 B.C.).  In a kind of philosophical romance, Euhemerus declared that he had sailed to some No-man’s-land, Panchaea, where he found the verity about mythical times engraved on pillars of bronze.  This truth he published in the Sacra Historia, where he rationalised the fables, averring that the gods had been men, and that the myths were exaggerated and distorted records of facts. (See Eusebius, Praep.  E., ii 55.) The Abbe Banier (La Mythologie expliquee par l’Histoire, Paris, 1738, vol. ii. p. 218) attempts the defence of Euhemerus, whom most of the ancients regarded as an atheist.  There was an element of truth in his romantic hypothesis.

Sometimes the old stories were said to conceal a moral, sometimes a physical, sometimes a mystical or Neo-platonic sort of meaning.  As every apologist interpreted the legends in his own fashion, the interpretations usually disagreed and killed each other.  Just as one modern mythologist sees the wind in Aeetes and the dawn in Medea, while another of the same school believes, on equally good evidence, that both Aeetes and Medea are the moon, so writers like Porphyry (270 A. D.) and Plutarch (60 A. D.) made the ancient deities types of their own favourite doctrines, whatever these might happen to be.

When Christianity became powerful, the Christian writers naturally attacked heathen religion where it was most vulnerable, on the side of the myths, and of the mysteries which were dramatic representations of the myths.  “Pretty gods you worship,” said the Fathers, in effect, “homicides, adulterers, bulls, bears, mice, ants, and what not.”  The heathen apologists for the old religion were thus driven in the early ages of Christianity to various methods of explaining away the myths of their discredited religion.

The early Christian writers very easily, and with considerable argumentative power, disposed of the apologies for the myths advanced by Porphyry and Plutarch.  Thus Eusebius in the Praeparatio Evangelica first attacks the Egyptian interpretations of their own bestial or semi-bestial gods.  He shows that the various interpretations destroy each other, and goes on to point out that Greek myth is in essence only a veneered and varnished version of the faith of Egypt.  He ridicules, with a good deal of humour, the old theories which resolved so many mythical heroes into the sun; he shows that while one system is contented to regard Zeus as mere fire and air, another system recognises in him the higher reason, while Heracles, Dionysus, Apollo, and Asclepius, father and child, are all indifferently the sun.

Granting that the myth-makers were only constructing physical allegories, why did they wrap them up, asks Eusebius, in what WE consider abominable fictions?  In what state were the people who could not look at the pure processes of Nature without being reminded of the most hideous and unnatural offences?  Once more:

“The physical interpreters do not even agree in their physical interpretations”.  All these are equally facile, equally plausible, and equally incapable of proof.  Again, Eusebius argues, the interpreters take for granted in the makers of the myths an amount of physical knowledge which they certainly did not possess.  For example, if Leto were only another name for Hera, the character of Zeus would be cleared as far as his amour with Leto is concerned.  Now, the ancient believers in the “physical phenomena theory” of myths made out that Hera, the wife of Zeus, was really the same person under another name as Leto, his mistress.  “For Hera is the earth” (they said at other times that Hera was the air), “and Leto is the night; but night is only the shadow of the earth, and therefore Leto is only the shadow of Hera.”  It was easy, however, to prove that this scientific view of night as the shadow of earth was not likely to be known to myth-makers, who regarded “swift Night” as an actual person.  Plutarch, too, had an abstruse theory to explain the legend about the dummy wife,--a log of oak-wood, which Zeus pretended to marry when at variance with Hera.

This quarrel, he said, was merely the confusion and strife of elements.  Zeus was heat, Hera was cold (she had already been explained as earth and air), the dummy wife of oak-wood was a tree that emerged after a flood, and so forth.  Of course, there was no evidence that mythopoeic men held Plutarchian theories of heat and cold and the conflict of the elements; besides, as Eusebius pointed out, Hera had already been defined once as an allegory of wedded life, and once as the earth, and again as the air, and it was rather too late to assert that she was also the cold and watery element in the world.  As for his own explanation of the myths, Eusebius holds that they descend from a period when men in their lawless barbarism knew no better than to tell such tales.  “Ancient folk, in the exceeding savagery of their lives, made no account of God, the universal Creator [here Eusebius is probably wrong] . . .  but betook them to all manner of abominations.  For the laws of decent existence were not yet established, nor was any settled and peaceful state ordained among men, but only a loose and savage fashion of wandering life, while, as beasts irrational, they cared for no more than to fill their bellies, being in a manner without God in the world.”  Growing a little more civilised, men, according to Eusebius, sought after something divine, which they found in the heavenly bodies.  Later, they fell to worshipping living persons, especially “medicine men” and conjurors, and continued to worship them even after their decease, so that Greek temples are really tombs of the dead.  Finally, the civilised ancients, with a conservative reluctance to abandon their old myths , invented for them moral or physical explanations, like those of Plutarch and others, earlier and later.

As Eusebius, like Clemens of Alexandria, Arnobius, and the other early Christian disputants, had no prejudice in favour of Hellenic mythology, and no sentimental reason for wishing to suppose that the origin of its impurities was pure, he found his way almost to the theory of the irrational element in mythology which we propose to offer.

Even to sketch the history of mythological hypothesis in modern times would require a book to itself.  It must suffice here to indicate the various lines which speculation as to mythology has pursued.

All interpretations of myth have been formed in accordance with the ideas prevalent in the time of the interpreters.  The early Greek physicists thought that mythopoeic men had been physicists.  Aristotle hints that they were (like himself) political philosophers.  Neo-platonists sought in the myths for Neo-platonism; most Christians (unlike Eusebius) either sided with Euhemerus, or found in myth the inventions of devils, or a tarnished and distorted memory of the Biblical revelation. This was the theory, for example, of good old Jacob Bryant, who saw everywhere memories of the Noachian deluge and proofs of the correctness of Old Testament ethnology.Much the same attempt to find the Biblical truth at the bottom of savage and ancient fable has been recently made by the late M.  Lenormant, a Catholic scholar.

In the beginning of the present century Germany turned her attention to mythology.  As usual, men’s ideas were biassed by the general nature of their opinions.  In a pious kind of spirit, Friedrich Creuzer sought to find SYMBOLS of some pure, early, and Oriental theosophy in the myths and mysteries of Greece.  Certainly the Greeks of the philosophical period explained their own myths as symbols of higher things, but the explanation was an after-thought.  The great Lobeck, in his Aglaophamus (1829), brought back common sense, and made it the guide of his vast, his unequalled learning.  In a gentler and more genial spirit, C. Otfried Muller laid the foundation of a truly scientific and historical mythology.  Neither of these writers had, like Alfred Maury, much knowledge of the myths and faiths of the lower races, but they often seem on the point of anticipating the ethnological method.

When philological science in our own century came to maturity, in philology, as of old in physics and later in symbols, was sought the key of myths.  While physical allegory, religious and esoteric symbolism, verbal confusion, historical legend, and an original divine tradition, perverted in ages of darkness, have been the most popular keys in other ages, the scientific nineteenth century has had a philological key of its own.  The methods of Kuhn, Breal, Max Muller, and generally the philological method, cannot be examined here at full length.  Briefly speaking, the modern philological method is intended for a scientific application of the old etymological interpretations.  Cadmus in the Bacchae of Euripides, Socrates in the Cratylus of Plato, dismiss unpalatable myths as the results of verbal confusion.  People had originally said something quite sensible—so the hypothesis runs—but when their descendants forgot the meaning of their remarks, a new and absurd meaning followed from a series of unconscious puns.  This view was supported in ancient times by purely conjectural and impossible etymologies.  Thus the myth that Dionysus was sewn up in the THIGH of Zeus was explained by Euripides as the result of a confusion of words.  People had originally said that Zeus gave a pledge to Hera.  The modern philological school relies for explanations of untoward and other myths on similar confusions.  Thus Daphne is said to have been originally not a girl of romance, but the dawn (Sanskirt, dahana: ahana) pursued by the rising sun.  But as the original Aryan sense of Dahana or Ahana was lost, and as Daphne came to mean the laurel— the wood which burns easily—the fable arose that the tree had been a girl called Daphne.

This system chiefly rests on comparison between the Sanskrit names in the Rig-Veda and the mythic names in Greek, German, Slavonic, and other Aryan legends.  The attempt is made to prove that, in the common speech of the undivided Aryan race, many words for splendid or glowing natural phenomena existed, and that natural processes were described in a figurative style.  As the various Aryan families separated, the sense of the old words and names became dim, the nomina developed into numina, the names into gods, the descriptions of elemental processes into myths.  As this system has already been criticised by us elsewhere with minute attention, a reference to these reviews must suffice in this place.  Briefly, it may be stated that the various masters of the school—Kuhn, Max Muller, Roth, Schwartz, and the rest—rarely agree where agreement is essential, that is, in the philological foundations of their building.  They differ in very many of the etymological analyses of mythical names.  They also differ in the interpretations they put on the names, Kuhn almost invariably seeing fire, storm, cloud, or lightning where Mr. Max Muller sees the chaste Dawn.  Thus Mannhardt, after having been a disciple, is obliged to say that comparative Indo-Germanic mythology has not borne the fruit expected, and that “the CERTAIN gains of the system reduce themselves to the scantiest list of parallels, such as Dyaus = Zeus = Tius, Parjanya = Perkunas, Bhaga = Bog, Varuna = Uranos” (a position much disputed), etc.  Mannhardt adds his belief that a number of other “equations”—such as Sarameya = Hermeias, Saranyus = Demeter Erinnys, Kentauros = Gandharva, and many others—will not stand criticism, and he fears that these ingenious guesses will prove mere jeux d’esprit rather than actual facts. 

Many examples of the precarious and contradictory character of the results of philological mythology, many instances of “dubious etymologies,” false logic, leaps at foregone conclusions, and attempts to make what is peculiarly Indian in thought into matter of universal application, will meet us in the chapters on Indian and Greek divine legends.  “The method in its practical working shows a fundamental lack of the historical sense,” says Mannhardt.  Examples are torn from their contexts, he observes; historical evolution is neglected; passages of the Veda, themselves totally obscure, are dragged forward to account for obscure Greek mythical phenomena.  Such are the accusations brought by the regretted Mannhardt against the school to which he originally belonged, and which was popular and all-powerful even in the maturity of his own more clear-sighted genius.  Proofs of the correctness of his criticism will be offered abundantly in the course of this work.  It will become evident that, great as are the acquisitions of Philology, her least certain discoveries have been too hastily applied in alien “matter,” that is, in the region of myth.  Not that philology is wholly without place or part in the investigation of myth, when there is agreement among philologists as to the meaning of a divine name.  In that case a certain amount of light is thrown on the legend of the bearer of the name, and on its origin and first home, Aryan, Greek, Semitic, or the like.  But how rare is agreement among philologists!

“The philological method,” says Professor Tiele, “is inadequate and misleading, when it is a question of discovering the ORIGIN of a myth, or the physical explanation of the oldest myths, or of accounting for the rude and obscene element in the divine legends of civilised races.  But these are not the only problems of mythology.  There is, for example, the question of the GENEALOGICAL relations of myths, where we have to determine whether the myths of peoples whose speech is of the same family are special modifications of a mythology once common to the race whence these peoples have sprung.  The philological method alone can answer here.”  But this will seem a very limited province when we find that almost all races, however remote and unconnected in speech, have practically much the same myths.





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