The Fable and the Myth. Careful discrimination must be made between fable and myth. A fable is a story like the Fox and the Grapes, in which characters and plot, neither pretending to reality nor demanding credence, are fabricated confessedly as the vehicle of moral or didactic instruction.
“It seems to be, in its genuine state, a narrative in which beings irrational, and sometimes inanimate, are, for the purpose of moral instruction, feigned to act and speak with human interests and passions.” Fables are made by individuals; they may be told in any stage of a nation’s history. Fables are vessels made to order into which a lesson may be poured. narrows still further the scope of the fable:
Myths, on the other hand, are stories of anonymous origin of oral traditions, prevalent among primitive peoples, and by them accepted as true, concerning human stories, human suffering, supernatural beings and events, or natural beings and events influenced by supernatural agencies. Myths are born, not made. They are born in the infancy of a people.
They owe their features not to any one historic individual, but to the imaginative efforts of generations of story-tellers. The myth of Pandora, the first woman, endowed by the immortals with heavenly graces, and of Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven for the use of man; the myth of the earth-born giants that in the beginning contested with the gods the sovereignty of the universe; of the moon-goddess who, with her nymphs, pursues the chase across the azure of the heavens, or descending to earth cherishes the youth Endymion.
These myths, germinating in some quaint and childish interpretation of natural events or in some fire-side fancy, have put forth unconsciously under the nurture of the simple folk that conceived and tended them, luxuriant branches and leaves of narrative, and blossoms of poetic comeliness and form.
The myths that we shall relate present wonderful accounts of the creation, histories of numerous divine beings, adventures of heroes in which magical and ghostly agencies play a part, and where animals and inanimate nature don the attributes of women, men and goddesses and gods. Many of these myths treat of divinities once worshiped by the Greeks and the Romans, and by our Norse and German forefathers in the dark ages.
Myths, more or less like these, may be found in the literature of nearly all nations; many are in the memories and mouths of ancient races at this time existent. But the stories here narrated are no longer believed by any one. The so-called divinities of Olympus and of Asgard have not a single worshiper among men. They dwell only in the realm of memory and imagination; they are enthroned in the palace of art.
§ 2. Kinds of Myth. — If we classify these stories according to the reason of their existence, we observe that they are of two kinds: explanatory and aesthetic. Explanatory myths are the outcome of naive guesses at the truth, of mistaken and superstitious attempts to satisfy the curiosity of ancient and unenlightened peoples, to unveil the mysteries of existence, make clear the facts of the universe and the experiences of life, and to teach the meaning and the history of things.
Old literature abound in explanatory myths of so highly imaginative a character that we moderns are tempted to read into them meanings which probably they never possessed. For the diverse and contradictory significations that have in recent years been proposed for one and the same myth could not all, at any one time, have been entertained by the myth-makers. On the other hand, the current explanations of certain myths are sufficiently apparent to be probable.
“To the ancients,” says
“the moon was not a lifeless body of stones and clod; it was the huntress Artemis, coursing through the upper ether, or bathing herself in the clear lake; or it was Aphrodite, protectress, born of the sea-foam in the East, near Cyprus.
The clouds were not bodies of vaporized water; they were cows, with swelling udders, driven to the milking by Hermes, the summer wind; or great sheep with moist fleeces, slain by the unerring arrows of the evil Bellerophon, the sun; or swan-maidens, flitting across the firmament; Valkyries hovering over the battle-field, to receive the souls of falling heroes; or, again, they were mighty mountains, piled one above another, in whose cavernous recesses the divining-wand of the storm-god Thor revealed hidden treasures.
The yellow-haired sun Phœbus drove westerly all day in his flaming chariot; or, perhaps, as Meleager, retired for a while in disgust from the sight of men; wedded at eventide the violet light (Œnone, Iole) which he had forsaken in the morning; sank as Hercules upon a blazing funeral-pyre, or, like Agamemnon, perished in a blood-stained bath; or, as the fish-god, Dagon, swam nightly through the subterranean waters to appear eastward again at daybreak.
(2) Æsthetic myths have their origin in the universal desire for amusement; in the revulsion of the mind from the humdrum of actuality. They furnish information that may not be practical but is delightful; they elicit emotion — sympathy, tears, and laughter — for characters and events remote from our commonplace experience but close to the heart of things, and near and significant and enchanting to us in the atmosphere of imagination that embraces severed continents, inspires the dead with life, bestows color and breath upon the creatures of a dream, and wraps young and old in the wonder of hearing a new thing.
The æsthetic, myth, first, removes us from the sordid world of immediate and selfish needs, and then unrolls a vision of a world where things exist simply for the purpose of delighting us. And the enduring measure of delight which the æsthetic myth affords is the test of what we call its beauty. A myth, whether explanatory or æsthetic, is of unconscious growth, almost never concocted with a view to instruction.
According to their subjects, aesthetic myths are either historic or romantic, (a) If historic, they utilize events which have a skeleton of fact. They supply flesh and sinew of divine or heroic adventure and character, blood and breath of probability and imagination. In historic myths the dependence of gods, heroes, and events upon the stern necessity of an overruling power, of fate or providence, is especially to be observed. Of this class is the Iliad of .
(b) If romantic, the myths are characterized by bolder selection or creation of fundamental events; indeed, events appear to be chosen with a view to displaying or developing the character of the hero. In such myths, circumstances are not so important as what the hero does with circumstances. The hero is more independent than in the historic myth, his liberty, his choice, — in judgment, in conduct, and in feeling, responsibility, are the center of interest.
§ 3. Divisions of Inquiry. — We are next led to ask how these myths came into existence, and how it is that the same myth meets us under various forms in literature and among peoples widely separate in time and place. These are questions of the Origin and Distribution of myths.
§ 4. Elements of the Myth. — The myths preserved in the literature of many civilized nations, such as the Greek, present to the imaginative and the moral sense aspects fraught with contradiction. In certain myths the gods display themselves as beautiful, wise, and beneficent beings; in others they indulge in cruel, foolish, and ugly practices and adventures. These contradictory elements have been called the reasonable and the senseless.
A myth of Mother Earth (Demeter) mourning the loss of her daughter, the Springtide, is reasonable; a myth of Demeter devouring, in a fit of abstraction, the shoulder of the boy Pelops, and replacing it with ivory, is capricious, apparently senseless.
“It is this silly, senseless, and ancient element,” as
says, “that makes mythology the puzzle which people have so long found it.”
§ 5. Reasonable Myths. — If myths were always reasonable, it would not be difficult to reach an agreement concerning some way by which they may have come into existence.
Imagination. — If we assume that the peoples who created these stories of supernatural beings and events had, with due allowance for the discrepancy in mental development, imaginations like our own, there is nothing in the history of reasonable myths to baffle our understanding.
The sun is nowadays thirsty, the ship is a woman, the clouds threaten, charity suffers long, the waves are angry, time will tell, and death swallows all things. We look unto the hills whence cometh our help; the sun still rises, and, as
“do move.” maintains,
By personification we, every day, bestow the attributes of human beings upon inanimate nature, animals, and abstractions. By our metaphors, we perpetuate and diffuse the poetic illusion; we talk not perhaps of the arrows of Apollo, but of a sun-stroke; our poetry abounds in symbols of the moon, of the swift-winged wind, of the ravening sea.
In our metonymies we use the sign for the thing signified, the crown for the king, the flag for the honor of the country; and the crown and the flag are to-day possessed of attributes and individuality just as efficient as those that endowed the golden handmaids of Vulcan, or the eagle of Jove, Nor is hyperbole any less in use among us than it was among the ancients; we glorify our political heroes with superlatives, they dignified theirs with divinity.
Belief. — But this resemblance in habits of imagination, while it may help us to appreciate the mental condition of primitive peoples, accentuates the distinction between our imagination and theirs. They, at some time or other, believed in these personifications. We do not believe.
But their belief is easier to comprehend when we remember that the myths of ancient clustered about beings whom they worshiped. Among primitive nations the sense of awe in the presence of magnificent objects of nature — mountains, the sky, the sun, the sea — is universal. It springs from the fact that ancients do not deem themselves superior to nature.
They are not conscious of souls whose flight is higher than that of nature. On the contrary, since sun, sea, and winds move, the ancient invests them with free-will and personality like man’s. In proportion, however, as their size is grander or their movement more tremendous, these objects must be possessed of freedom, personality, and power exceeding those of man.
Why, then, should not the ancient believe, of beings worthy of worship and fear and gratitude, all and more than all that is accredited to man? Why not confer upon them human and superhuman passions and powers? If we were living, like the Greek of old, close to the heart of nature, such personification of natural powers would be more easy for us to appreciate.
“If for us also, as for the Greek,” says Mr. “The sunrise means daily restoration to the sense of passionate gladness and of the perfection of our life. If it means the thrill of new strength through every nerve, the shedding over a better peace than the peace of night, which is in the power of the dawn, and purges evil visions and fears by the baptism of the morning dew.
If the sun itself is an influence, to us also, of spiritual good, it becomes thus in reality, not in imagination, also, a spiritual power, that we may then soon over-pass the narrow limits of conception which keeps power impersonal. This allows our light to rejoice as strength to run the course, whose voice, calls to life and to labor, rings round the earth, whose going forth was to the ends of heaven.”
Regarding thus the religious condition of the ancient, we may comprehend the existence of myths, and his acceptance of them.
§ 6. Unreasonable Myths. — But he would maintain this attitude of acceptance only in the matter of good and beneficent gods and of righteous or reasonable myths. For how could a human being believe of the god whom he worshiped and revered, deeds and attributes more silly and more shameful than man can conceive of his fellow-man?
When, therefore, we find senseless and shameless myths existing side by side with stories of the justice and righteousness of the same god, we must conclude that, since the worshiper could not believe both sets of attributes, he preserved his religious attitude before the good god, only by virtue of rejecting the senseless myth.
A man’s religious belief would assist him to entertain only the reasonable myths. How, then, did the senseless and cruel stories come into existence? And were they ever believed? There are many answers to these questions. They may, however, be classified according to the theory of civilization that they assume.
According to the Theory of Improvement, or Progress, man, beginning with crude dreams and fancies about experience, life, the world, and God, has gradually developed truer and higher conceptions of his own nature, of his relation to the world about him, of duty, of art, and of religion.
§ 7. Theory of Deterioration. — Let us consider first the interpretations mythology that assume a backward tendency in early civilization. They are; —
(1) The Historical, or better called after its author, b.c. 316), the Euhemeristic. This explanation assumes that myths of the gods are exaggerated adventures of historic individuals, medicine-people, and that supernatural events are distortions of natural but wonderful occurrences. In fact, it attributes to our forefathers a disease of the memory which prompted them to pervert facts. Jupiter, Odin, and Hercules were accordingly who, after death, had been glorified, then deified, then invested with numerous characteristics and adventures appropriate to their exalted conditions of existence. (
The custom of worshiping ancestors, still existent in China and other countries is adduced in support of this method of investigating myths, and it is undoubtedly true that the method explains the origin and growth of some myths. But it accounts rather for the reasonable than the senseless element of mythical adventure, while it fails to show how ancients come to exaggerate their heroes into beings entirely out of the realm of that actual experience which is the basis of the historical assumption.
(2) The Philological Interpretation assumes also a disease of the memory by reason of which people misunderstand and confuse the meanings of words, and misapply the words themselves. Professor calls this affection a
disease of language. In ancient languages every such word as day, night, earth, sun, spring, dawn, had an ending expressive of gender, which naturally produced the corresponding idea of sex. These objects accordingly became in the process of generations not only persons, but male and female.
As, also, the phrases expressing the existence or the activity of these natural objects lost their ancient signification under new colloquial coloring, primitive and simple statements of natural events acquired the garb and dignity of elaborate and often incongruous narratives, no longer about natural events, but about persons. Ancient language may, for instance, have said sunrise follows the dawn.
The word for sun was masculine; the word for dawn, feminine. In time the sentence came to mean Apollo the god of the sun chases Daphne, the maiden of the glowing dawn. But the word, Daphne, meant also a laurel that burned easily, hence might readily be devoted to the god of the sun.
So Daphne, assuming the form of Daphne, the laurel, escaped the pursuit of her ardent lover, by becoming the tree sacred to his worship. The merit of the philological method is, that, tracing the name of a mythical character through kindred languages, it frequently ascertains for us the family of the myth, brings to light kindred forms of the myth, discovers in what language the name was born, and sometimes, giving us the original meaning of the divine name,
“throws light on the legend of the bearer of the name and on its origin and first home.”
But unfortunately there is very often no agreement among scholars about the original meaning of the names of mythical beings. The same name is frequently explained in half a dozen different ways. The same deity is reduced by different interpreters to half a dozen elements of nature. A certain goddess represents now the upper air, now light, now lightning, and yet again clouds.
Naturally the attempts at construing her adventures must terminate in correspondingly dissimilar and unconvincing results. In fine, the philological explanation assumes as its starting-point masculine and feminine names for objects of nature. It does not attempt to show how an object like the ocean came to be male, and not female, or how it came to be a person at all.
And this latter, in studying the origin of myths, is what should first be ascertained. We must not, however, fall into the error of supposing that the philologists look for the origin and growth of all myths in words and the diseases of words. grants that mythology does not always create its own heroes, but sometimes lays hold of real history. He insists that mythologists should bear in mind that there may be in every mythological riddle elements which resist etymological analysis, for the simple reason that their origin was not etymological, but historical.
(3) The Allegorical Interpretation is akin to the philological in its results. It leads us to explain myths as embodiment in symbolic guise of hidden meaning: of physical, chemical, or astronomical facts; or of moral, religious, philosophical truth. The stories would at first exist as allegories, but in process of time would come to be understood literally. Thus Cronus, who devours his own children, is identified with the power that the Greeks called Chronos (Time), which may truly be said to destroy whatever it has brought into existence.
The story of Io is interpreted in a similar manner. Io is the moon, and Argus the starry sky, which, as it were, keeps sleepless watch over her. The fabulous wanderings of Io represent the continual revolutions of the moon. This method of explanation rests upon the assumption of writers who made the allegories were proficient in physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc. and clever in allegory; but that, for some unknown reason, their descendants becoming stupid, knowledge as well as wit deserted the race.
In some cases the myth was, without doubt, from the first an allegory; but where the myth was consciously fashioned as an allegory, in all probability it was preserved as such. It is not, however, likely that allegories of deep scientific or philosophical import were invented by the ancients. Where the myth has every mark of great antiquity, — is especially silly and senseless, — it is safe to believe that any profound allegorical meaning, read into it, is the work of a later generation who thus attempted to make reasonable the divine and heroic narratives which they could not otherwise justify, and of whose existence they were ashamed.
We find, moreover, in some cases a great variety of symbolic explanations of the same myth, one with as great claim to credence as another, since they spring from the same source, the caprice or fancy of the expounder.
Among the ancients
“elegant and instructive fables,” and by many Germans, especially Professor ., six hundred years before Christ, suggested the allegorical theory and method of interpretation. In modern times he has been supported by , whose “Wisdom of the Ancients” treats myths as
(4) The Theological Interpretation. — This premises that mankind, either in general or through some chosen nationality, received from God an original revelation of pure religious ideas, and that, with the systematic and continued perversion of the moral sense, this knowledge of truth, morality, and spiritual religion fell into corruption. So in Greek mythology the attributes of the various gods would be imperfect irradiation of the attributes of the one God.
A more limited conception is, that all mythological legends are derived from the narratives of Scripture, though the real facts have been disguised and altered. T
he dragon which kept the golden apples was the serpent that beguiled Eve. Nimrod’s tower was the attempt of the giants against heaven.”There are doubtless many curious coincidences like these, but the theory cannot, without extravagance, be pushed so far as to account for any great proportion of the stories.
For many myths antedate the scriptural narratives of which they are said to be copies; many more, though resembling the scriptural stories, originated among peoples ignorant of the Hebrew Bible. The theory rests upon two unproved assumptions: one, that all nations have had a’ chance to be influenced by the same set of religious doctrines; the other, that God made his revelation in the beginning once for all, and has done nothing to help man toward righteousness since then. The theological theory has been advocated by and other Germans in the seventeenth century, by in 1774, and in this century most ably by .
Theory of Progress. The theory of development is, then, that
“the ancient and senseless element in mythology is, for the most part, a legacy from ancestors of civilized races who at the time that they invented the senseless stories were in an intellectual state not higher than that of our contemporary Australians, Bushmen, Red Indians, the lower races of South America, and other worse than barbaric people of the nineteenth century.” But what are the characteristics of the mental state of our contemporary ancients?
First and foremost, curiosity that leads them to inquire into the causes of things; and second, credulity that impels them to invent or to accept childish stories that may satisfy their untutored experience. We find, moreover, that people nowadays think of everything around them as having life and the parts and passions of persons like themselves.
“The sky, sun, wind, sea, earth, mountains, trees, regarded as persons, are mixed up with women, celestial animals, stars, and stones on the same level of personality and life.”
The forces of nature, animals, and things have for these Polynesians and Bushmen the same powers and attributes that women and some men have; and in their opinion have the following attributes: —
“1. Relationship to animals and ability to be transformed, and to transform others into animals and other objects.
“2. Magical accomplishments, such as power to call up ghosts, or to visit ghosts and the region of the dead; power over the seasons, the sun, moon, stars, weather, and so forth.”
If these stories should survive in the literature of these nations after the nations have been civilized, they would appear senseless and silly and cruel to the descendants of our contemporary peoples. In like manner,
“as the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Norsemen advanced in civilization, their religious thought and artistic taste were shocked by myths which were preserved by local priesthoods, or in ancient poems, or in popular religious ceremonials…
We may believe that ancient and early tribes framed gods like themselves in action and in experience, and that the allegorical element in myths is the addition of later peoples who had attained to purer ideas of divinity, yet dared not reject the religion of their ancestors.” The senseless element in the myths would, by this theory, be, for the most part, a “survival.”
Instead, then, of deteriorating, the races that invented senseless myths are, with ups and downs of civilization, intellectually and morally improved, to such extent that they desire to repudiate the senseless element in their mythical and religious traditions, or to explain it as reasonable by way of allegory. This method of research depends upon the science of mind — psychology, and the science of man — anthropology. It may be called the Anthropological Method. The theory is that of “survival.”
It is of course probable that occasionally the questionable element of the myth originated in germs other than ancient peoples curiosity and credulity: for instance, in the adventures of some great hero, or in a disease of language by which statements about objects came to be understood as stories about persons, or perhaps in a conscious allegory, or, even, in the perversion of some ancient purer form of moral or religious truth.
But, in general, the root of myth-making is to be found in the mental and social condition of primitive man, the confused personality that he extended to his surroundings, and the belief in magical powers that he conferred upon those of his tribesmen that were shrewdest and most influential. This mental condition of the myth-maker should be premised in all scientific explanations of myth-making.
Then, with the aid of the philological method of interpretation and of the euphemistic, the transition is intelligible from a personification of the elements of nature or an exaggeration of historic facts to the notion of supernatural beings presiding over, and governing, the different objects of nature — air, fire, water, the sun, moon, arid stars, the mountains, forests, and streams — or possessing marvelous qualities of action, passion, virtue, foresight, spirituality, and vice.
The Greeks, whose imagination and creativity was lively, peopled all nature with such invisible inhabitants and powers. In Greece, says :
“In that fair clime the lonely herdsman, stretchedOn the soft grass through half a summer’s day,With music lulled his indolent repose;And, in some fit of weariness, if he,When his own breath was silent, chanced to hearA distant strain far sweeter than the soundsWhich his poor skill could make, his fancy fetchedEven from the blazing chariot of the SunA beardless youth who touched a golden lute,And filled the illumined groves with ravishment.The nightly huntress, lifting up her eyesToward the crescent Moon, with grateful heartCalled on the lovely Wanderer who bestowedThat timely light to share her joyous sport;And hence a beaming goddess with her nymphsAcross the lawn and through the darksome grove(Not unaccompanied with tuneful notesBy echo multiplied from rock or cave)Swept in the storm of chase; as moon and starsGlance rapidly along the clouded heavenWhen winds are blowing strong. The traveller slakedHis thirst from rill or gushing fount, and thankedThe Naiad. Sunbeams upon distant hillsGliding apace with shadows in their train,Might, with small help from fancy, be transformedInto fleet Oreads sporting visibly.The Zephyrs, fanning, as they passed, their wings,Lacked not for love fair objects whom they wooedWith gentle whisper. Withered boughs grotesque,Stripped of their leaves and twigs by hoary age,From depth of shaggy covert peeping forthIn the low vale, or on steep mountain side;And sometimes intermixed with stirring hornsOf the live deer, or goat’s depending beard;These were the lurking Satyrs, a wild broodOf gamesome deities; or Pan himself,The simple shepherd’s awe-inspiring god.”
The phases of significance and beauty through which the physical or natural myth may develop are expressed with poetic grace by
“To the mean person the myth always meant little; to the noble person, much.” Accordingly, as we know, to the ancients the myth was intense; to the devotee it became religious; to the artist, beautiful; to the philosopher, recondite and significant — in the course of centuries., in his “Queen of the Air.” The reader must, however, guard against the supposition that any myth has sprung into existence fully equipped with physical, religious, and moral import. himself says,
“If we seek,” says , “to ascertain the manner in which the story first crystallized into its shape, we shall find ourselves led back generally to one or other of two sources — either to actual historical events, represented by the fancy under figures personifying them, or else to natural phenomena similarly endowed with life by the imaginative power, usually more or less under the influence of terror. The historical myths we must leave the masters of history to follow; they, and the events they record, being yet involved in great, though attractive and penetrable, mystery. But the stars and hills and storms are with us now, as they were with others of old; and it only needs that we look at them with the earnestness of those childish eyes to understand the first words spoken of them by the children of women.
And then, in all the most beautiful and enduring myths, we shall find not only a literal story of a real person — not only a parallel imagery of moral principle — but an underlying worship of natural phenomena, out of which both have sprung, and in which both forever remain rooted. Thus, from the real sun, rising and setting; from the real atmosphere, calm in its dominion of unfading blue and fierce in its descent of tempest — the Greek forms first the idea of two entirely personal and corporeal gods (Apollo and Athena), whose limbs are clothed in divine flesh, and whose brows are crowned with divine beauty; yet so real that the quiver rattles at their shoulder, and the chariot bends beneath their weight.
And, on the other hand, collaterally with these corporeal images, and never for one instant separated from them, he conceives also two omnipresent spiritual influences, of which one illuminates, as the sun, with a constant fire, whatever in humanity is skilful and wise; and the other, like the living air, breathes the calm of heavenly fortitude and strength of righteous anger into every human breast that is pure and brave.
“Now, therefore, in nearly every myth of importance… you have to discern these three structural parts — the root and the two branches. The root, in physical existence, sun, or sky, or cloud, or sea then the personal incarnation of that, becoming a trusted and companionable deity, with whom you may walk hand in hand, as a child with its brother or its sister; and lastly, the moral significance of the image, which is in all the great myths eternally and beneficently true.”
is not to be regarded as mere error and folly, but as an interesting product of the human story. Myth is also actual history of early stages of thought and belief: it is the true narrative of observation seeking truth. The following is the difference between ancient and modern conceptions of nature.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
Are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. I’d rather be a Pagan suckled
in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this
pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me
less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from
the sea; or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Source: Flower Vase by C. Scottorn Ceremics; Orestes at Delphi flanked by Athena and Pylades among the Erinyes and priestesses of the oracle perhaps including Pythia behind the tripod – Paestan; Red figure vase painting of the Purification of Orestes; Gayley (1898) Classic myths in english literature via http://obvil.sorbonne-universite.site/corpus/mythographie/html/gayley_classic-myths_1898.html#body-12