The New Student's Reference Work/Mythology

Mythol′ogy.  This term is used in two ways: properly it signifies the science of myths; but more commonly it is used to denote a collection or system of myths held by a certain people.  Thus we speak of the mythology of the Greeks or of the American Indians.  We shall first consider the latter use of the term.  The most splendid mythologies are those of Greece and, on a somewhat lower level, those of India and Scandinavia.  These are described under the names of individual mythological characters of the countries named, as Ulysses, Indra, Norns etc.  We shall therefore speak especially of the lower forms of mythology.

A myth is a “sham history,” a story held to be true and also important by a body of people, though in fact it is false.  Mythology does not deal with the belief in gods, but with the belief in stories about them.  The lowest myths are those of such savages as the Hottentots, the native Australians and the Indian tribes in the northwest of this continent.  These myths are explanatory; they “explain” some of the wonderful things which happen.  Most wonderful is the beginning of the world.  It was created, say the Australians, by Bun-jel or Pund-jel, apparently a monstrous eagle-hawk, who also taught men the use of the spear.  The foe of the eagle and the source of mischief is the crow, another monstrous bird-god.  The bear and other animals also enter the circle of divinities; and among them appear sorcerers, sometimes human in form.  All the lowest tribes have myths that tell of wonderful beast-gods,—insects, ravens and even the coyote.  It is remarkable that in the mythologies of India and Egypt there are many myths told of gods that were more or less beastlike, and even in the mythology of Greece Pan had goats’ legs and Zeus often took the form of some beast.  There are to be found in most savage mythologies many striking resemblances, not only to each other but to the disgusting features present in the higher mythologies.

A slightly higher form of mythology is found among the Zulus.  Their myths center around ancestors, especially the great Unkulunkulu.  It seems that he not only is ancestor of all true Zulus, but is maker of the world.  The sky, however, he did not make, and the thunder is caused by the thunder-bird, which may often be seen and even shot.  Its fat has magical powers.  The Zulus delight in tales which are very like some of the myths of the Greeks and also like many of our own nursery-tales.  The myths of the Maoris of New Zealand are still higher in character.  At first there were two great gods, man and wife, who had many children, whom they kept in darkness.  Then one child led the others in revolt, and separated their parents, earth and heaven, keeping them apart forever.  Then these children divided the earth and sea between them, each taking some department, one the fishes, another the reptiles and so on.  Man was created by Tiki out of clay.  Among them arose the hero Maui, who made the sun and the moon keep strictly to their course in the sky, by giving them a beating!  He invented many arts for the good of man, as fire and fishing.  At last he died in an attempt to pass down into the body of Great Mother Night, and safely through her and up to light again, even as the sun does every evening and morning.  But a little bird awoke Night as Maui went down, and she closed on him and crushed him.

The Mexican mythologies were as absurd and monstrous as those of less civilized people; but the stories were more numerous and systematic.  Our own barbaric ancestors believed many remarkable and ridiculous stories, besides those that are described in the mythologies of the Norsemen and Teutons.  Some of these stories are still preserved in our nursery-tales.  For example, it seems that Little Red Riding Hood is none other than the sun itself, according to the old German tale, and the wolf is the black night which swallows her.  But in the old story, which is still told in Germany, the wolf is torn open, and put of it steps the little redcloaked girl, as bright as ever, being indeed the morning sun.

Later in history we hear of another class of myths, which we do not always think of as constituting a mythology, perhaps.  These are the wonderful stories told of Arthur, king of Britain and defender of the Christian faith against the heathen Saxons; and the stories told of Charlemagne and of Alexander the Great.  It is not certain that Arthur ever lived at all; if he did he was only a British chieftain, and his success against the Saxons was not great.  But the defeated Britons clung to his memory, and with each passing generation magnified the wonder of his exploits.  Then the minstrels of the dark and the middle ages converted him into a king with all the characteristics of a perfect knight, although of such knighthood he could have known nothing.  They gave him a Round Table of knights, and these knights had names.  They found him a city, and described what it was like in its glory.  They gave him a wife and told how she betrayed him.  Though all this was mere imagination, much of it came to be accepted as truth.  In like manner the exploits of Charlemagne and of Alexander were exaggerated and modified.  Among these myths should be mentioned those of the Nibelungenlied (Siegfried, Gunther, Brunhild), which have been made the theme of many great operas.  They were confused with the Arthurian myths,—Tristram, Parsifal and others appearing in both series.  But, whereas the Arthurian myths sprang from a small kernel of historic fact, it seems that the Nibelungenlied owed its origin to stories that should explain natural events.

We must not suppose that the age of myths and mythmaking has altogether passed.  Besides the beliefs still held by savages and by the less educated classes in such countries as Russia, Japan, India and China, and beside the nursery stories,—the myths of Jack the Giant Killer etc.,—there is a constant tendency for stories to spring up in connection with such men as Washington and Lincoln, which appeal to our love of the great and marvellous.  But the spread of science and the records preserved by our newspapers, with the love of accuracy fostered by our historians, tend to prevent the formation of fresh myths and to break down the belief in old ones.

If, now, we consider the science of myths, we find that it deals with the comparison of myths, in order to note their resemblances and differences; with the classification of myths; and with the study of the causes of myths.  As regards the comparison of myths we have already noted the remarkable resemblance between myths taken from all parts of the world, even in those held by Australians and by Greeks.  This is probably to be explained, not by supposing that these myths were formed when the ancestors of Australians, Negroes, Greeks and other races lived together, for it is doubtful whether they ever did; nor by supposing that the stories have spread from one nation to another, encircling the globe, for there are too many difficulties in the way, and there is no evidence of exchange in other things more likely to be exchanged.  Rather the cause of this fundamental resemblance is simply that men are fundamentally everywhere much alike, and the world that they face is the same.  Hence they came to invent everywhere much the same stories to make the world seem comprehensible to themselves.  This comparison of myths also shows many differences between the myths of different races.  Those of savages are marked by their monstrous and ridiculous character.  The Hindu myths preserve the characteristics of immensity and indefiniteness.  The Egyptian stories seem to be full of hideous and senseless details, whose use apparently was to show the people why they must observe certain rites and ceremonies which the priests required of them and also to inspire them with a fear of the strange and horrible deities.  The Scandinavian myths are stories of strength and savage war, relieved by a peculiar rough humor and by touches of pathos.  The Greek myths are distinguished, not only by the charm of the stories told, but by the definiteness and beauty of the personalities of many of the gods and heroes.  The Romans borrowed practically all their myths from the Greeks, except perhaps the story of Romulus.  The myths of the middle ages were marked by the large place that romantic sentiment played in them and by the frequent insistence on the higher virtues of honor and justice, compassion and courtesy.

With regard to classification, myths may be grouped under the divisions of theriomorphic and anthropomorphic myths.  All myths give the forces of nature a personality: theriomorphic myths make the personality that of a beast, anthropomorphic ones that of a man.  The former are the earlier myths, and are much more common still among savages; but, as pointed out above, remnants of such myths are found in the highest mythologies.

A better classification is according to the purpose they serve.  Myths are explanatory, esthetic or allegorical.  The first class explains the beginnings of nature and its wonders.  As subdivisions we may note myths that explain the beginning of the world, the beginning of man, the discovery, of the arts, as firemaking, corn-planting (compare Hiawatha) and music; those that explain death, which to the savage seems unnatural; and those that explain the sun, moon and stars and other phenomena of the heavens.  Finally there are myths that explain customs.  For instance, the fact that an Indian tribe holds a certain animal or tree sacred is explained by saying that the tribe is descended from that animal or tree (compare Exodus xiii).  The next class, the esthetic myth, deals with the great and beautiful.  Of course many explanatory myths are esthetic also; for example, the myth of Hercules, wherein the hero turns Mount Atlas into stone, and thus “explains” it; and the myth of Theseus, whereby the name of the Ægean Sea, as well as many Athenian customs and practices, was explained.  The finest of the esthetic myths are those of Greece, as the stories of Ulysses, Achilles, Jason, Perseus, Theseus and Hercules and the many stories of the gods and of the lesser divinities.  Hardly less beautiful are the myths of the middle ages.  Some of these were silly and tiresome; but in the myths of King Arthur and his knights we recognise the highest merit.  The third type of myth, the allegorical, is represented by such stories as those of Baucis and Philemon and of Midas which convey a moral lesson.  It is quite possible that these stories had some basis of truth; perhaps an old couple were preserved when some city sank into a lake.  Then the story of the celestial warning slowly grew around the memory of the disaster.  So perhaps Midas was indeed an avaricious king.  Many of the fairy stories are allegorical; for example, the Beauty and the Beast.  Ruskin’s King of the Golden River is allegorical; but it is not a myth, because no one is expected to believe that it really happened.  Many explanatory myths and many esthetic myths have an allegorical character also.  For example, the myth of Hercules not only is explanatory and esthetic, but has always been used as an allegory of the selection of duty in preference to pleasure and ease.  In most myths it is easy to find an allegory, but they are not truly allegorical, because that is not the main purpose of their existence.

Now let us finally consider the cause of myths.  We have already seen that one cause is the astonishment with which the ignorant man of any age views the actions and the forces of nature.  Next to ignorance and to astonishment or wonder we must place the delight that man has always felt in imagination.  He imagined cause after cause of nature’s wonders until he thought of something great or terrible enough to satisfy him.  Then he said that that was and must be the cause.  The fourth cause is man’s tendency to think that other things are like himself.  We often see men attribute such thoughts to horses and dogs as only men can have.  Nowadays we are impatient with men who insist on doing this; but in former times every one did it and to a much greater extent.  We speak of the angry sky, the threatening cloud, the fierce winds, the gentle breeze, the smiling dawn.  But the savage and the man of former days share the belief that the sky really is an angry and threatening person and that the bright morning is indeed the smile of the sun god or goddess.  A fifth cause of myths is the strange and lawless actions of our dreams; these the primitive man regards as information concerning another world, where things do occur in what we call the “crazy” fashion of our dreams.  Thus many myths are just like nightmares, so horrible and impossible are they.  Sixth among the causes we may place the reverence and fear that men have for the great dead, especially for ancestors.  These they often seemed to see in dreams, as if they lived still.  A seventh cause is the delight which men, as well as children have in a “make-believe” world.  The myth-maker dreamed of a better world that perhaps had once been and perhaps again would be; and this dream he called true, because he could not bear to believe that there was no truth in it.  As an eighth cause we may mention the activity of priests and moralists in inventing stories or altering traditions in such a way as to persuade people who believed their inventions to conform to the religious practices or the moral principles which were thought desirable.  Probably this is the explanation of the myth that Apollo once came down from heaven to drive away some would-be robbers of his temple.  Those who believed the story would be slow to incur a visit from the god.  It is highly probable that a mere confusion of words sometimes gave rise to a myth among a wonderloving people.  Thus, when men sang the words of some ancient poet, in which he told how the sun pursued the dawn, they may have believed that he described an actual pursuit of one deity by another; and thus arose the story of Apollo and Daphne.

We have therefore suggested nine causes for myths:  (1) Ignorance, (2) astonishment or wonder, (3) delight in the play of the imagination, (4) personification, (5) dreams, (6) fear or reverence for ancestors or heroes, (7) delight in contemplating the ideal world, the world of make-believe, (8) allegorical teaching and finally (9) the misunderstanding of metaphors.  This list of causes seems to include all that have been suggested by different writers on the science of mythology; but we should recall the theories of Euhemerus (316 B. C.) that myths are a mere perversion of traditions that described what actually had occurred long ago; of the Roman Stoics that all myths are allegorical; of Herbert Spencer that they owe their origin to ancestor worship; of Max Müller that they are based on the misunderstanding of metaphors; and of Grimm that they are the work, not of the learned few who would direct the many ignorant, but of the people at large.