Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 37.djvu/691

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THE MIGRATION OF SYMBOLS.

After this there are no reasons why we should not reach as positive results in the study of symbols as in the study of myths. The comparative examination of myths long ago assumed a scientific phase, both with Mr. Max Müller and the linguistic school that is correlating the traditions of nations speaking allied languages, and with Mr. Andrew Lang and his fellow ethnographers who are comparing the mythologies of all known peoples. Now, the myth, which we may define as a dramatization of natural phenomena or of abstract events, offers more than one common trait with the symbol. Both rest on reasoning by analogy, which in the one case creates a figurative story, and in the other a material image. There is, however, the difference that in the symbol we are aware of a distinction between the image and the being or object represented by it, while an essential character of the myth is that the story shall be supposed to be conformable to the reality. But it is easy to see that both are frequently formed by the aid of the same processes and are transmitted by the same ways.

At all events, there are religions that we can not explain unless we endeavor to supplement the insufficiency of the texts by the study of the figured monuments; and there is an increasing disposition among students of particular religions to make use of the texts to prove the symbols, and of the symbols to prove the texts—as in M. Senart's recent works on the history of Buddhism; MM. Gaidoz's and Al. Bertrand's on the symbols of ancient Gaul; those of M. J. Menant on the engraved stones of upper Asia; and those of M. Ch. Lenormant, Clermont-Ganneau, Ledrain, and Ph. Berger on the figured representations of the Semitic religions. These labors are the best demonstration of the services which the interpretation of symbols can render to the history of religions, provided we observe all the rigor of scientific methods.

It is not necessary to insist here upon the interest which the study of symbolism offers, aside from the services which it may be called upon to render to archæological science. Representation by symbolism is, in literature, religion, and art, a necessity of the human mind, which has never been able to content itself with pure abstractions, or to restrict itself to the external shape of things. Under the material and often incoherent forms by which past generations have expressed their aspirations and their faith, we can discern the beating of a heart, the appeal of a soul to other souls, a mind that seeks to embrace the infinite in the finite, to objectize, under features furnished by Nature or the imagination, its conceptions most approaching a reality indiscernible in its plenitude. The symbols which have attracted in the highest degree the veneration of multitudes have often been indeed absurd and gross representations of gods; but what have the gods themselves ever been, except symbols more or less imper-