Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 37.djvu/690

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to symbolism in order to enter into a more intimate communication with the being or abstraction which it desires to approach. Hence we everywhere see men either adopting natural or artificial objects that remind them of the great absent one; imitating systematically the acts and gestures they assign to it; or objectizing, by processes as various as significant, all the shades of feeling which it inspires in them, from the deepest humility to the most ardent love. Hence the extreme diversity of symbols, which may be divided into two classes, as they consist in acts or rites, or in objects and emblems. We shall occupy ourselves here with the second category, or rather with the figured representations which it has inspired, and which past generations have transmitted to us as material vestiges of their faiths. Studies in comparative symbology fell, toward the second half of the century, into a discredit which is accounted for by their previous history. Syntheses premature as they were brilliant, built up with insufficient and defective materials by the rationalistic school, were succeeded, about fifty years ago, by the system, more philosophical than historical, which found, in all the religious practices of antiquity, the disguised or transfigured reflection of a profound primitive wisdom. These theories all having given way under the contradictions brought against them by discoveries in archæology, ethnography, linguistics, etc., a reaction ensued as extreme as the former infatuation. A disposition appeared to banish hypothesis entirely from all research into the origin and significance of symbols; as if hypothesis—provided it is not treated as an assured fact—were not an essential factor of all scientific progress.

But the situation has greatly changed within thirty-five years. Data permitting comparison under all desirable conditions of authenticity, of the figured representations of different peoples, have accumulated in such proportions that the principal obstacle will lie hereafter in their multiplicity and dissemination. Excavations of ancient monuments in Asia and Africa, the archæological collections of even the smallest states, the societies devoted to every special branch of the subject, and the studies of the whole, directed from the most varied points of view, have made the tasks relatively easy of students who would follow the traces and elucidate the meaning of the principal symbols. On the other hand, the deciphering of inscriptions, the classification and interpretation of written documents, and the general advance of history, of religious history in particular, by informing us concerning the beliefs of peoples, enable us the better to define the relation of their symbols with their myths and their ceremonies, at the same time that a more exact knowledge of the social and geographical medium in which the symbols originated assists us in tracing the origin of the images which have given body to the ideas.