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the stories here narrated are no longer believed by any one. The so-called divinities of Olympus and of Asgard have not a single worshipper 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 æsthetic.
(1) Explanatory myths are the outcome of naïve guesses at the truth, of mistaken and superstitious attempts to satisfy the curiosity of primitive 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. There are certain questions that nearly every child and every savage asks: What is the world, and what is man? Who made them? What else did the maker do? and what the first men? Whence came the commodities of life? What is death, and what becomes of us after death? The answers to such questions crystallized themselves gradually into stories of the creation, of the gods, and of the heroes — forefathers of men, but magnified, because unfamiliar, mysterious, and remote.
Old literatures 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 John Fiske, “the moon was not a lifeless body of stones and clods ; it was the horned huntress Artemis, coursing through the upper ether, or bathing herself in the clear lake; or it was Aphrodite, protectress of lovers, 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 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 rere 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 Phoebus drove westerly all day in his Haming chariot; or, perhaps, as Meleager, retired for awhile in disgust from the sight of men; wedded at eventide the violet light (none, 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. Sometimes Phaëthon, his rash, inexperienced son, would take the reins and drive the solar chariot too near the earth, causing the fruits to perish, and the grass to wither, and the wells to dry up. Sometimes, too, the great all-seeing divinity, in his wrath at the impiety of men, would shoot down his scorching arrows, causing pestilence to spread over the land."
1 Myths and Myth-Makers, p. 18. Proper names have been anglicized.
(2) Esthetic 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 ästhetic myth, first, removes us from the sordid world of immediate and selfish needs, and then unrolls a vision of a world where men and 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 ästhetic, is of unconscious growth, almost never concocted with a view to instruction.
According to their subjects, ästhetic 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 Homer.
(6) 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, — his responsibility, are the centre of interest. In romantic myths like the Odyssey this sense of freedom does not impel the poet to capricious use of his material. But lesser bards than Homer have permitted their heroes to run riot in adventures that weary the imagination and offend the moral judgment,
$ 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 literatures and among peoples widely separate in time and place. These are questions of the Origin and Distribution of myths; and in this chapter we shall discuss the former.
$ 4. Elements of the Myth. — The myths preserved in the literatures 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 unbeautiful 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 savage element,” as Max Müller says, "that makes mythology the puzzle which men 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 invented 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. For, at the present time, not only children and simple-minded men, like sailors or mountaineers, but cultivated men of ordinary poetic sensibility, bestow attributes of life upon inanimate things and abstract ideas. The sun is nowadays thirsty, the ship is a woman, the clouds threaten, charity suffereth 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 Mr. Jasper maintains, “ do move." 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 savages clustered about beings whom they worshipped. 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 savages 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 savage 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 savage 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. Ruskin,“ the sunrise means daily restoration to the sense of passionate gladness and of perfect lise — if it means the thrilling of new strength through every nerve, — the shedding over us of a better peace than the peace of night, in the power of the dawn,—and the purging of evil vision and fear by the baptism of its dew;- if the sun itself is an influence, to us also, of spiritual good, — and becomes thus in reality, not in imagination, to us also, a spiritual power, — we may then soon over-pass the narrow limit of conception which kept that power impersonal, and rise with the Greek to the thought of an angel who rejoiced as a strong man to run his course, whose
1 Ruskin, Queen of the Air.