Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted
comparative mythology by John Fiske

Part 5 out of 5

brave warriors, and punishing traitors and cowards. Thus from
the conception of the living king we pass to the notion of
what Mr. Spencer calls "the god-king," and thence to the
rudimentary notion of deity. Among such higher savages as the
Zulus, the doctrine of divine ancestors has been developed to
the extent of recognizing a first ancestor, the Great Father,
Unkulunkulu, who made the world. But in the stratum of savage
thought in which barbaric or Aryan folk-lore is for the most
part based, we find no such exalted speculation. The ancestors
of the rude Veddas and of the Guinea negroes, the Hindu pitris
(patres, "fathers"), and the Roman manes have become elemental
deities which send rain or sunshine, health or sickness,
plenty or famine, arid to which their living offspring appeal
for guidance amid the vicissitudes of life.[179] The theory of
embodiment, already alluded to, shows how thoroughly the
demons which cause disease are identified with human and
object souls. In Australasia it is a dead man's ghost which
creeps up into the liver of the impious wretch who has
ventured to pronounce his name; while conversely in the
well-known European theory of demoniacal possession, it is a
fairy from elf-land, or an imp from hell, which has entered
the body of the sufferer. In the close kinship, moreover,
between disease-possession and oracle-possession, where the
body of tile Pythia, or the medicine-man, is placed under the
direct control of some great deity,[180] we may see how by
insensible transitions the conception of the human ghost
passes into the conception of the spiritual numen, or

[179] The following citation is interesting as an illustration
of the directness of descent from heathen manes-worship to
Christian saint-worship: "It is well known that Romulus,
mindful of his own adventurous infancy, became after death a
Roman deity, propitious to the health and safety of young
children, so that nurses and mothers would carry sickly
infants to present them in his little round temple at the foot
of the Palatine. In after ages the temple was replaced by the
church of St. Theodorus, and there Dr. Conyers Middleton, who
drew public attention to its curious history, used to look in
and see ten or a dozen women, each with a sick child in her
lap, sitting in silent reverence before the altar of the
saint. The ceremony of blessing children, especially after
vaccination, may still be seen there on Thursday mornings."
Op. cit. II. 111.

[180] Want of space prevents me from remarking at length upon
Mr. Tylor's admirable treatment of the phenomena of oracular
inspiration. Attention should be called, however, to the
brilliant explanation of the importance accorded by all
religions to the rite of fasting. Prolonged abstinence from
food tends to bring on a mental state which is favourable to
visions. The savage priest or medicine-man qualifies himself
for the performance of his duties by fasting, and where this
is not sufficient, often uses intoxicating drugs; whence the
sacredness of the hasheesh, as also of the Vedic soma-juice.
The practice of fasting among civilized peoples is an instance
of survival.

To pursue this line of inquiry through the countless nymphs
and dryads and nixies of the higher nature-worship up to the
Olympian divinities of classic polytheism, would be to enter
upon the history of religious belief, and in so doing to lose
sight of our present purpose, which has merely been to show by
what mental process the myth-maker can speak of natural
objects in language which implies that they are animated
persons. Brief as our account of this process has been, I
believe that enough has been said, not only to reveal the
inadequacy of purely philological solutions (like those
contained in Max Muller's famous Essay) to explain the growth
of myths, but also to exhibit the vast importance for this
purpose of the kind of psychological inquiry into the mental
habits of savages which Mr. Tylor has so ably conducted.
Indeed, however lacking we may still be in points of detail, I
think we have already reached a very satisfactory explanation
of the genesis of mythology. Since the essential
characteristic of a myth is that it is an attempt to explain
some natural phenomenon by endowing with human feelings and
capacities the senseless factors in the phenomenon, and since
it has here been shown how uncultured man, by the best use he
can make of his rude common sense, must inevitably come, and
has invariably come, to regard all objects as endowed with
souls, and all nature as peopled with supra-human entities
shaped after the general pattern of the human soul, I am
inclined to suspect that we have got very near to the root of
the whole matter. We can certainly find no difficulty in
seeing why a water-spout should be described in the "Arabian
Nights" as a living demon: "The sea became troubled before
them, and there arose from it a black pillar, ascending
towards the sky, and approaching the meadow,.... and behold it
was a Jinni, of gigantic stature." We can see why the Moslem
camel-driver should find it most natural to regard the
whirling simoom as a malignant Jinni; we may understand how it
is that the Persian sees in bodily shape the scarlet fever as
"a blushing maid with locks of flame and cheeks all rosy red";
and we need not consider it strange that the primeval Aryan
should have regarded the sun as a voyager, a climber, or an
archer, and the clouds as cows driven by the wind-god Hermes
to their milking. The identification of William Tell with the
sun becomes thoroughly intelligible; nor can we be longer
surprised at the conception of the howling night-wind as a
ravenous wolf. When pots and kettles are thought to have souls
that live hereafter, there is no difficulty in understanding
how the blue sky can have been regarded as the sire of gods
and men. And thus, as the elves and bogarts of popular lore
are in many cases descended from ancient divinities of Olympos
and Valhalla, so these in turn must acknowledge their
ancestors in the shadowy denizens of the primeval ghost-world.

August, 1872.


THE following are some of the modern works most likely to be
of use to the reader who is interested in the legend of
William Tell.

HISELY, J. J. Dissertatio historiea inauguralis de Oulielmo
Tellio, etc. Groningae, 1824.

IDELER, J. L. Die Sage von dem Schuss des Tell. Berlin, 1836.

HAUSSER, L. Die Sage von Tell aufs Neue kritisch untersucht.
Heidelberg, 1840.

HISELY, J. J. Recherches critiques sur l'histoire de Guillaume
Tell. Lausanne, 1843.

LIEBENAU, H. Die Tell-Sage zu dem Jahre 1230 historisoh nach
neuesten Quellen. Aarau, 1864.

VISCHER, W. Die Sage von der Befreinng der Waldstatte, etc.
Nebst einer Beilage: das alteste Tellensehauspiel. Leipzig,

BORDIER, H. L. Le Grutli et Guillaume Tell, ou defense de la
tradition vulgaire sur les origines de la confederation
suisse. Geneve et Bale, 1869.

The same. La querelle sur les traditions concernant l'origine
de la confederation suisse. Geneve et Bale, 1869.

RILLIET, A. Les origines de la confederation suisse: histoire
et legende. 2eS ed., revue et corrigee. Geneve et Bale, 1869.

The same. Lettre a M. Henri Bordier a propos de sa defense de
la tradition vulgaire sur les origines de la confederation
suisse. Geneve et Bale, 1869.

HUNGERBUHLER, H. Etude critique sur les traditions relatives
aux origines de la confederation suisse. Geneve et Bale, 1869.

MEYER, KARL. Die Tellsage. [In Bartsch, Germanistische
Studien, I. 159-170. Wien, 1872.

See also the articles by M. Scherer, in Le Temps, 18 Feb.,
1868; by M. Reuss, in the Revue critique d'histoire, 1868; by
M. de Wiss, in the Journal de Geneve, 7 July, 1868; also Revue
critique, 17 July, 1869; Journal de Geneve, 24 Oct., 1868;
Gazette de Lausanne, feuilleton litteraire, 2-5 Nov., 1868,
"Les origines de la confederation suisse," par M. Secretan;
Edinburgh Review, Jan., 1869, "The Legend of Tell and Rutli."


Back to Full Books