Custom and Myth, by Andrew Lang


Though some of the essays in this volume have appeared in various serials, the majority of them were written expressly for their present purpose, and they are now arranged in a designed order. During some years of study of Greek, Indian, and savage mythologies, I have become more and more impressed with a sense of the inadequacy of the prevalent method of comparative mythology. That method is based on the belief that myths are the result of a disease of language, as the pearl is the result of a disease of the oyster. It is argued that men at some period, or periods, spoke in a singular style of coloured and concrete language, and that their children retained the phrases of this language after losing hold of the original meaning. The consequence was the growth of myths about supposed persons, whose names had originally been mere ‘appellations.’ In conformity with this hypothesis the method of comparative mythology examines the proper names which occur in myths. The notion is that these names contain a key to the meaning of the story, and that, in fact, of the story the names are the germs and the oldest surviving part.

The objections to this method are so numerous that it is difficult to state them briefly. The attempt, however, must be made. To desert the path opened by the most eminent scholars is in itself presumptuous; the least that an innovator can do is to give his reasons for advancing in a novel direction. If this were a question of scholarship merely, it would be simply foolhardy to differ from men like Max Müller, Adalbert Kuhn, Bréal, and many others. But a revolutionary mythologist is encouraged by finding that these scholars frequently differ from each other. Examples will be found chiefly in the essays styled ‘The Myth of Cronus,’ ‘A Far-Travelled Tale,’ and ‘Cupid and Psyche.’ Why, then, do distinguished scholars and mythologists reach such different goals? Clearly because their method is so precarious. They all analyse the names in myths;1 but, where one scholar decides that the name is originally Sanskrit, another holds that it is purely Greek, and a third, perhaps, is all for an Accadian etymology, or a Semitic derivation. Again, even when scholars agree as to the original root from which a name springs, they differ as much as ever as to the meaning of the name in its present place. The inference is that the analysis of names, on which the whole edifice of philological ‘comparative mythology’ rests, is a foundation of shifting sand. The method is called ‘orthodox,’ but, among those who practise it, there is none of the beautiful unanimity of orthodoxy.

These objections are not made by the unscholarly anthropologist alone. Curtius has especially remarked the difficulties which beset the ‘etymological operations’ in the case of proper names. ‘Peculiarly dubious and perilous is mythological etymology. Are we to look for the sources of the divine names in aspects of nature, or in moral conceptions; in special Greek geographical conditions, or in natural circumstances which are everywhere the same: in dawn with her rays, or in clouds with their floods; are we to seek the origin of the names of heroes in things historical and human, or in physical phenomena?’2 Professor Tiele, of Leyden, says much the same thing: ‘The uncertainties are great, and there is a constant risk of taking mere jeux d’esprit for scientific results.’3 Every name has, if we can discover or conjecture it, a meaning. That meaning — be it ‘large’ or ‘small,’ ‘loud’ or ‘bright,’ ‘wise’ or ‘dark,’ ‘swift’ or ‘slow’— is always capable of being explained as an epithet of the sun, or the cloud, or of both. Whatever, then, a name may signify, some scholars will find that it originally denoted the cloud, if they belong to one school, or the sun or dawn, if they belong to another faction. Obviously this process is a mere jeu d’esprit. This logic would be admitted in no other science, and, by similar arguments, any name whatever might be shown to be appropriate to a solar hero.

The scholarly method has now been applied for many years, and what are the results? The ideas attained by the method have been so popularised that they are actually made to enter into the education of children, and are published in primers and catechisms of mythology. But what has a discreet scholar to say to the whole business? ‘The difficult task of interpreting mythical names has, so far, produced few certain results’— so writes Otto Schrader.4 Though Schrader still has hopes of better things, it is admitted that the present results are highly disputable. In England, where one set of these results has become an article of faith, readers chiefly accept the opinions of a single etymological school, and thus escape the difficulty of making up their minds when scholars differ. But differ scholars do, so widely and so often, that scarcely any solid advantages have been gained in mythology from the philological method.

The method of philological mythology is thus discredited by the disputes of its adherents. The system may be called orthodox, but it is an orthodoxy which alters with every new scholar who enters the sacred enclosure. Even were there more harmony, the analysis of names could throw little light on myths. In stories the names may well be, and often demonstrably are, the latest, not the original, feature. Tales, at first told of ‘Somebody,’ get new names attached to them, and obtain a new local habitation, wherever they wander. ‘One of the leading personages to be met in the traditions of the world is really no more than — Somebody. There is nothing this wondrous creature cannot achieve; one only restriction binds him at all — that the name he assumes shall have some sort of congruity with the office he undertakes, and even from this he oftentimes breaks loose.’5 We may be pretty sure that the adventures of Jason, Perseus, Œdipous, were originally told only of ‘Somebody.’ The names are later additions, and vary in various lands. A glance at the essay on ‘Cupid and Psyche’ will show that a history like theirs is known, where neither they nor their counterparts in the Veda, Urvasi and Pururavas were ever heard of; while the incidents of the Jason legend are familiar where no Greek word was ever spoken. Finally, the names in common use among savages are usually derived from natural phenomena, often from clouds, sky, sun, dawn. If, then, a name in a myth can be proved to mean cloud, sky, sun, or what not (and usually one set of scholars find clouds where others see the dawn), we must not instantly infer that the myth is a nature-myth. Though, doubtless, the heroes in it were never real people, the names are as much common names of real people in the savage state, as Smith and Brown are names of civilised men.

For all these reasons, but chiefly because of the fact that stories are usually anonymous at first, that names are added later, and that stories naturally crystallise round any famous name, heroic, divine, or human, the process of analysis of names is most precarious and untrustworthy. A story is told of Zeus: Zeus means sky, and the story is interpreted by scholars as a sky myth. The modern interpreter forgets, first, that to the myth-maker sky did not at all mean the same thing as it means to him. Sky meant, not an airy, infinite, radiant vault, but a person, and, most likely, a savage person. Secondly, the interpreter forgets that the tale (say the tale of Zeus, Demeter, and the mutilated Ram) may have been originally anonymous, and only later attributed to Zeus, as unclaimed jests are attributed to Sheridan or Talleyrand. Consequently no heavenly phenomena will be the basis and explanation of the story. If one thing in mythology be certain, it is that myths are always changing masters, that the old tales are always being told with new names. Where, for example, is the value of a philological analysis of the name of Jason? As will be seen in the essay ‘A Far-Travelled Tale,’ the analysis of the name of Jason is fanciful, precarious, disputed, while the essence of his myth is current in Samoa, Finland, North America, Madagascar, and other lands, where the name was never heard, and where the characters in the story have other names or are anonymous.

For these reasons, and others too many to be adduced here, I have ventured to differ from the current opinion that myths must be interpreted chiefly by philological analysis of names. The system adopted here is explained in the first essay, called ‘The Method of Folklore.’ The name, Folklore, is not a good one, but ‘comparative mythology’ is usually claimed exclusively by the philological interpreters.

The second essay, ‘The Bull-Roarer,’ is intended to show that certain peculiarities in the Greek mysteries occur also in the mysteries of savages, and that on Greek soil they are survivals of savagery.

The Myth of Cronus’ tries to prove that the first part of the legend is a savage nature-myth, surviving in Greek religion, while the sequel is a set of ideas common to savages.

Cupid and Psyche’ traces another Aryan myth among savage races, and attempts to show that the central incident of the tale may have had its origin in a rule of barbarous etiquette.

A Far-Travelled Tale’ examines a part of the Jason myth. This myth appears neither to be an explanation of natural phenomena (like part of ‘The Myth of Cronus’), nor based on a widespread custom (like ‘Cupid and Psyche’). The question is asked whether the story may have been diffused by slow filtration from race to race all over the globe, as there seems no reason why it should have been invented separately (as a myth explanatory of natural phenomena or of customs might be) in many different places.

Apollo and the Mouse’ suggests hypothetically, as a possible explanation of the tie between the God and the Beast, that Apollo-worship superseded, but did not eradicate, Totemism. The suggestion is little more than a conjecture.

Star Myths’ points out that Greek myths of stars are a survival from the savage stage of fancy in which such stories are natural.

Moly and Mandragora’ is a study of the Greek, the modern, and the Hottentot folklore of magical herbs, with a criticism of a scholarly and philological hypothesis, according to which Moly is the dog-star and Circe the moon.

The Kalevala’ is an account of the Finnish national poem; of all poems that in which the popular, as opposed to the artistic, spirit is strongest. The Kalevala is thus a link between Märchen and Volkslieder on one side, and epic poetry on the other.

The Divining Rod’ is a study of a European and civilised superstition, which is singular in its comparative lack of copious savage analogues.

Hottentot Mythology’ is a criticism of the philological method, applied to savage myth.

Fetichism and the Infinite’ is a review of Mr. Max Müller’s theory that a sense of the Infinite is the germ of religion, and that Fetichism is secondary, and a corruption. This essay also contains a defence of the evidence on which the anthropological method relies.

The remaining essays are studies of the ‘History of the Family,’ and of ‘Savage Art.’

The essay on ‘Savage Art’ is reprinted, by the kind permission of Messrs. Cassell & Co., from two numbers (April and May, 1882) of the Magazine of Art. I have to thank the editors and publishers of the Contemporary Review, the Cornhill Magazine, Fraser’s Magazine, and Mind, for leave to republish ‘The Early History of the Family,’ ‘The Divining Rod,’ and ‘Star Myths,’ ‘The Kalevala,’ and ‘Fetichism.’ A few sentences in ‘The Bull-Roarer,’ and ‘Hottentot Mythology,’ appeared in essays in the Saturday Review, and some lines of ‘The Method of Folklore’ in the Guardian. To the editors of those journals also I owe thanks for their courteous permission to make this use of my old articles.

I must apologise for the controversial matter in the volume. Controversy is always a thing to be avoided, but, in this particular case, when a system opposed to the prevalent method has to be advocated, controversy is unavoidable. My respect for the learning of my distinguished adversaries is none the less great because I am not convinced by their logic, and because my doubts are excited by their differences.

1 Some of the names in Greek myths are Greek, and intelligible. A few others (such as Zeus) can be interpreted by aid of Sanskrit. But even when the meaning of the name is known, we are little advanced in interpretation of the myth.

2 Compare De Cara: Essame Critico.

3 Revue de l’Hist. des Rel., ii. 136.

4 Sprachvergleichung und Urgeschichte, p. 431.

5 Prim. Cult., i. 394.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57