The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 6/Notices and News (March)
NOTICES AND NEWS.
At last we have a book which deals with some of the most important phases of mythology and folk-lore, and in no single instance confuses the provinces and terminology of these sciences. How considerable an advantage this is to the student only those who have long felt the difficulties of a loose system of terminology can readily understand. And there is no mistaking the comprehensive grasp which this book takes of the subject, and which it imparts to its readers.
Whether we differ or not from Mr. Lang's conclusions, and his method of workmanship, it is only right to note that these features of his book render it one of the most important contributions to the history of prehistoric man which has recently been published.
But on the whole we neither differ from Mr. Lang in his general conclusions, nor in his method of workmanship.
Here and there it is probable that Mr. Lang may not have pushed his evidence to its legitimate end: here and there we should have wished for some more detail which was available for his use, but a very careful examination of the whole book compels us to admit that the position he takes up is impregnable. He disclaims the intention of attempting, or of having obtained, a "key to all mythologies"; but there is little doubt that a very great deal has been done towards this end. There are facts of human history which would account for the remarkable parallel between the most widely distributed races in matters of mythology and religion; and by the critical examination of ritual and its survival in folk-lore Mr. Lang has gone a long way towards discovering what these facts might be. If he declines, doubtless for good reasons enough, to go further than the immediate conclusions to be drawn from his evidence, it is no reason why other scholars should not take up the work where Mr. Lang leaves off. Herein, indeed, lies the true strength of Mr. Lang's system. He will not go beyond the line he has set himself for a boundary, and consequently within this line he is absolutely sure of all his steps. The student will at once see what a gain this is to the science, and we cannot express our opinion in better terms than to recommend this book as a model to the coming generation of folk-lore and anthropological workers. If every one would take up a definite piece of work, perfect that, and then let us register his results, we should rapidly progress in knowledge. System in mapping out the true course of study and research is as essential as it is in arranging the details.
It is unnecessary in these pages to explain what Mr, Lang's method is. Most of our readers will remember his statement of it in Custom and Myth, and the book before us is practically the carrying out of it on an extended plan. He notes that in the myth, ritual, and religion of advanced societies there are observances and beliefs which are grotesque, cruel, and oftentimes hideous and revolting; and asking whence come these characteristics and why do they lurk along-side of a more pure and highly cultured tone of thought, he appeals to the lower races and ascertains that in the customs and beliefs of savages there exist exact counterparts, but unaccompanied by any high tone of thought. Then, applying his method to phenomena thus ascertained, Mr. Lang suggests that the people possessed of a high culture and retaining savage practices were once in a stage of development similar to the races now extant who have never advanced to a high culture, it is difficult to conceive how this argument is to be met. Those who refer the savage practices preserved in some Greek ritual or myth to a borrowing from Babylonian or Egyptian sources do not really answer the question, for if it is got rid of so far as regards the Greek, which we do not admit, we have still to ask it as regards the Babylonian or Egyptian. And, of course, it becomes a legitimate inquiry to consider why the Greek, highly cultured, with magnificent art instincts and possessed of the most highly developed philosophical mind, should borrow from Babylonian or any other people practices and beliefs at complete variance with their own ideas. Having inherited them from their ancestors it would take whole generations of civilized thought to eradicate them; but, not possessing them, to unthinkingly or designedly borrow them is a theory which will require much more conclusive arguments than have hitherto been advanced before it can be accepted, and which by the side of Mr. Lang's book seem absolutely inadequate to meet the position.
Mr. Lang is always good in suggesting new branches of research and throwing unexpected light upon old facts by a new reading of them. His remarks upon the songs of incantation among savages (i. 101 ), and their connection with the rhyming formulæ so often met with in märchen, is a case in point; and we venture to think that they are but the preface to a very considerable and interesting inquiry. Another instance is afforded by his explanation of that curious custom, the couvade (ii. 223). On some matters we do not think Mr. Lang quite so correct, as, for instance, the very incidental way in which he connects property and rank with some of the customs he is describing. We fancy that lie does not appreciate the labours of the late Mr. Lewis Morgan, and on points that Mr. Morgan has certainly much to tell us Mr. Lang is, in our opinion, deficient. But it is in the marvellously adroit use to which he puts his discoveries in local observances that Mr. Lang is really at his best. No one before him has seen that while at Athens or Sparta the worship of the gods would be attended by ceremonies which were more in keeping with the most advanced Greek life the lesser towns would use their own ceremonial, which, like the examples of Ombi and Tentyra, afford evidence of the old savage stage of culture. Mr. Lang does not often refer to Roman history, but if he had done so in this respect he would have found that local ritual and practices among the Romans reveal a similar state of things.
Where everything is so well done, and where we agree so completely as we do with Mr. Lang, it may seem almost trivial to note small blemishes, but we must confess to a frequent feeling of irritation that in so distinctively a scientific book expressions belonging to the humorous side of Mr. Lang's many-sided nature constantly crop up. This may be, perhaps, a fault of our's rather than of Mr. Lang's, but we are content to record our protest on the simple ground that in the hands of some imitator who would not be the literary artist that his master is, the practice would be simply unbearable.
Totemism is perhaps one of the most well-known features of savage society as it has been made popular by the histories and fictions dealing with the American Indians. The late Mr. McLennan discovered that so far from being confined to one people or comitry there was almost certain evidence that it existed universally at certain stages of human culture. Few inquirers have followed up the hints conveyed by Mr. McLennan in his articles which appeared in the Fortnightly Review, but first Mr. Lang, and now Mr. Frazer, recognise the importance of the subject. In all inquiries into phenomena which take a prominent place iu human history, it is pre-eminently necessary to obtain a complete summary of the features which distinguish them in various parts of the world, and we cannot conceive of any more important work by anthropologists than the collection of such evidence. Mr. Frazer has produced a model for other inquirers. He finds that Totemisra has a religious side and a social side—of course not distinguished bj those who practise the various totemistic rites—and he groups his evidence under these two heads. To the well-known features of totemism, descent from the totem, respect and worship for it, &c., are now added several other particulars which help us to realize that some of the least-explainable of savage rites and customs may be referred to totemism. This is very important. Mr. Frazer neither enlarges upon his theme nor develops any theories, but contents himself with giving facts and ample references to authorities—a piece of work which is as important to all anthropological students as it is evidence of the ungrudging generosity of a true scholar who loves his subject too well not to give it up to the world. Few better specimens of conscientious work have come within our notice, and although, following out the plan of his book, Mr. Frazer does not grapple with the puzzle as to what is the origin of totemism, we shall be much surprised if he has not actually hit upon the solution, and is preparing the result of his examination for publication. Nobody dealing with the various subjects which the history of man in pre-civilized stages presents to the inquirer can do without this book, and the folk-lorist will do well to study it before committing himself to the theories of the mythological school.
It is proposed to form a society in America for the study of Folk-Lore, of which the principal object shall be to establish a Journal of a scientific character, designed:—(1) For the collection of the fast-vanishing remains of Folk-Lore in America, namely,—(a) Relics of old English Folk-Lore (ballads, tales, superstitions, dialect, &c.;) (b) Lore of Negroes in the Southern States of the Union; (c) Lore of the Indian Tribes of North America (myths, tales, &c.); (d) Lore of French Canada, Mexico, &c. (2) For the study of the general subject, and publication of the results of special students in this department. Subscribers will please send their names to the Temporary Secretary, William Wells Newell, 175, Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass. The name taken will probably be The American Folk-Lore Society.