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Great Myths of the World
By PADRAIC COLUM
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MYTHOLOGY
Not until late centuries did reflective minds see in mythology any of the significance that we have come to see in it. The Italian philosopher of the seventeenth century, Vico, knew that the heroes of myth—Hercules, whose arms could rend the mountains, Lycurgus and Romulus, law-givers, who in a man's lifetime accomplished the long work of centuries—were creations of the collective mind. When man craved for men-like gods he had his way, Vico showed us, by combining in an individual, by incarnating in a single hero, the ideas of a whole cycle of centuries. Then came Goethe who maintained that "the earlier centuries had their ideas in intuitions of the fancy, but ours bring them into notions. Then the great views of life were brought into shapes, into gods; to-day they are brought into notions." In our day, one who loved and studied the mythologies of diverse peoples, wrote:
There are two nouns in the Greek language which have a long and interesting history behind them; these are mythos and logos. Originally they had the same power in ordinary speech; for in Homer's time they were used indifferently, sometimes one being taken, and sometimes the other, with the same meaning that Word has in our language.... Logos grew to mean the inward constitution as well as the outward form of thought, and consequently became the expression of exact thought—which is exact because it corresponds to universal and unchanging principles—and reached its highest exaltation in becoming not only the reason in man, but the reason in the universe—the Divine Logos, the Son of God, God Himself.... Mythos meant, in the widest sense, anything uttered by the mouth of man—a word, an account of something, a story understood by the narrator.... In Attic Greek, Mythos signified a prehistoric story of the Greeks. The application of the word Myth among scholars is plain enough up to a certain point; for from being a myth of Greece only, it is now used to mean a myth of any tribe of people on earth.... The reason is of ancient date why myths have come, in vulgar estimation, to be synonymous with lies; though true myths—and there are many such—are the most comprehensive and splendid statements of truth known to man. A myth, even when it contains a universal principle, expresses it in special form, using with its peculiar personages the language and accessories of a particular people, time, and place; persons to whom this particular people, with the connected accidents of time and place, are familiar and dear, receive the highest enjoyment from the myth, and the truth goes with it as the soul with the body.
From these sayings of Vico's, of Goethe's, of Jeremiah Curtin's, we learn something of the inner significance of mythology. Then we may turn to a specialist who can show us how to distinguish myths from fables and from incidents in romance and epic narrative. "I maintain," writes Bronislaw Malinowski, "that there exists:
"A special class of stories, regarded as sacred, embodied in rituals, morals, and social organization, and which form an integral and active part of primitive culture. These stories live not by idle interest, not as fictitious or even as true narrative, but are to the natives a statement of a primeval, greater, and more relevant reality, by which the present life, fates, and activities of mankind are determined, the knowledge of which supplies man with the motive for ritual and moral actions, as well as indications of how to perform them."
This statement gives us a definition: mythology is made up of stories regarded as sacred that form an integral and active part of a culture. The stories in this collection will be such, or they will have the marks of having been at one time such.... However, the sacred stories of only a few of the tribes of mankind can be of interest to us who read books. An Australian, African, or South American group may have a sacred story about the world being made by a beetle, and it may form an integral and active part of their culture. But we should not know how to tell such a story. "The primitive forms of civilization, so gross and so barbaric, lay forgotten, or but little regarded, or misunderstood, until that new phase of the European spirit, which was known as romanticism or restoration, 'sympathized' with them—that is to say, recognized them as its own proper present interest." So Benedetto Croce writes, and I use his sentence to indicate the limits of our reach with regard to stories from the mythologies of the world; they shall be stories in which there is matter that can be "sympathized" with—recognized as being of proper present interest—by readers of to-day.
It is natural to begin with things Egyptian. But the stories that we have from the mythology of that great civilization are all fragmentary; for the most famous of them we have to go to a Greek work—to Plutarch's treatise on Isis and Osiris. In the story as given here the outline is Plutarch's. But included in it is the story of the Creation which is from Egyptian sources; the names of the deities are not as in Plutarch, but are given in forms sanctioned by Egyptian scholars. The second story is mythological in all that deals with the course of the Sun. The greater part of Egyptian mythology dealt with the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of the Sun, and with descriptions of the World of the Dead. But no piece of mythology extant gives us in narrative form the Egyptian ideas on these subjects. To provide an outline in which this mythology could be given in story form, the tale about the brothers and their dying father has been invented. The hymn given in this story is from Adolf Leman's "La religion Egyptienne."
How greatly the story of Osiris and Isis influenced the ancient world outside of Egypt can be understood from the speculation which Plutarch commits himself to:
This thing that our priests to-day, with prayer for mercy and in dim revelation, most reverently do hint, even that Osiris is King and Lord among the dead, bewilders the minds of most men who know not how the truth of this thing is. For they fancy that Osiris, in whom most surely is all holiness of God and nature, is thus said to be in the earth and beneath the earth, where are hidden the bodies of those who seem to have had their end. But Osiris's self is far indeed from the earth, untouched, undefiled, immaculate of all substance that admits of corruption and death. And souls of men, here in the embrace of bodies and of passions, have no communion with the God save as in a dream, a dim touch of knowledge through philosophy. But when they are set free, and shift their homes into that Formless and Invisible and Pure, then in truth is God their leader and their king, even this God, so that fastened unto him, and insatiably contemplating and desiring that Beauty ineffable and indescribable of man—whereof the old legend would have it that Isis was in love, and did ever pursue and with it consort—all beings there are fulfilled of all the good and fair things that have share in creation.
Plutarch's interpretation of the Osiris-Isis story is not necessarily an Egyptian one. Nor can we be sure that the prayer that Apuleius's hero, Lucius, makes to Isis is one that an Egyptian at any period might make:
O thou most holy and eternal saviour of the human race, and ever most munificent in thy tender care of mankind, unto the hazard of our sorrow thou givest the sweet affection of a mother. Nor doth any day or any night's repose, nay, not a tiny moment, vanish past empty of benefits, but ever on earth and sea thou art protecting men, driving aside life's tempests, stretching forth thy right hand of salvation. The threads of our life, by us inextricably entangled, thou dost untwine; thou stillest storms of fate, thou holdest the evil goings of the stars. Thee Heaven doth worship; the shades are thy servants; 'tis thou dost spin the world, and lightest up the sun, and governest the universe, and tramplest upon hell. To thee the stars make answer, for thee the seasons return, heaven's powers exult, the elements obey. At thy nod blow the breezes, clouds give fertility; thine is the germing of the seed and the growth of the germ. Before thy majesty the birds do tremble whose goings are in the air, and the beasts that haunt the hills, and the serpents lurking in the dust, and the monsters that swim in the ocean. But I, scant of soul for the offering of thy praise, poor of patrimony for the celebrating thy sacrifices, feeble of voice for the telling out my heart's knowledge of thy Majesty—nay, nor would one thousand mouths, one thousand tongues suffice, nor the long utterance of an eternal lauds,—I, what (in my poverty) my worship, at least, can do, that will I care to effect. Thy divine countenance and most holy godhead, stored within my heart of hearts, will I forever keep, and there will watch and picture it.
The Babylonian religion was on a higher level than the Egyptian, which, according to Maspero, one of the greatest of Egyptologists, was close to the animism and fetichism of the African tribes. Yet the Sumerians and Babylonians, compared with the Egyptians, had a very faint conception of a life beyond the grave. "They imagined the lower world to be a place of darkness, where the departed, retaining their consciousness, were condemned to lie motionless for ages, under the stern rule of a goddess who reigned in that world." Then Professor Rostovtzeff goes on to say:
The hymns and prayers addressed to the gods of Babylon and Assyria are full of religious inspiration and unfeigned religious feeling. The Babylonians in their epic poetry sought to explain the mighty secrets of nature, connected with the life of gods and men.
Their stories of the struggles of the gods against Chaos and the monsters produced by Chaos, of Gilgamish's adventures, of Ishtar's descent into the World of the Dead, are comparable to nothing else but their sculptures—those carvings in which kings and soldiers, horses and lions, chariots and spears, are rendered with such power as seems to us terrifying.
Marvels that showed a mighty will,
Huge power and hundred-handed skill,
That seek prostration and not praise
Too faint such lofty ears to fill!
We owe the preservation of the Babylonian and Sumerian stories, in a large measure, to an Assyrian king of the neo-Babylonian epoch, to Ashur-bani-pal, who reigned in Nineveh B.C. 668. Says a pamphlet published by the British Museum:
Having determined to form a Library in his palace he set to work in a systematic manner to collect literary works. He sent scribes to ancient seats of learning, e.g., Ashur, Babylon, Cutah, Nippur, Akkad, Erech, to make copies of the ancient works that were preserved there, and when the copies came to Nineveh he either made transcripts of them himself, or caused his scribes to do so for the Palace Library. In any case he collated the texts himself and revised them before placing them in his Library. The appearance of the tablets from his Library suggests that he established a factory in which the clay was cleaned and kneaded and made into homogeneous, well-shaped tablets, and a kiln in which they were baked, after they had been inscribed. The uniformity of the script upon them is very remarkable, and texts with mistakes in them are rarely found.... Ashur-bani-pal was greatly interested in the literature of the Sumerians, i.e., the non-Semitic people who occupied Lower Babylonia about B.C. 3500 and later. He and his scribes made bilingual lists of signs and words and objects of all classes and kinds, all of which are of priceless value to the modern student of the Sumerian and Assyrian languages.
The Greeks borrowed one myth from the Babylonians—the myth of Adonis who is Tammuz. "Every year," says Frazer in "The Golden Bough," "Tammuz was believed to die, passing away from the cheerful earth to the gloomy subterranean world, and every year his divine mistress journeyed in quest of him." Tammuz's death was mourned by men and women at midsummer. The story of Ishtar's descent into the World of the Dead was probably made up from the hymns chanted during the mourning ceremonies. Like Osiris, Tammuz personified the vegetable life that dies and rises up again.
At the time when the Assyrian kings of the neo-Babylonian epoch were publishing the Babylonian mythological cycles, and when Egyptian and Greek mythologies were flourishing, the original Persian or Iranian mythology was being stopped in its growth; afterwards nearly all records of it were destroyed. This happened in the reign of Darius (sixth century B.C.), through the rise of the Mazdean or Zoroastrian dualism which, accepted by the king and the governing classes, had the effect of depriving the old mythology of all value and significance.
The Zoroastrian dualism represented a religion that was on a higher level than the religions of Egypt and Babylon. Says Professor Rostovtzeff:
Like the Hebrew prophets, Zoroaster reached the conception of a single spiritual god, Ormuzd or Ahura Mazda, in whom the principle of good is personified, while the evil principle is embodied in Ariman or Angra Mainyu. The two principles strive eternally in life and nature, and in the struggle men take part. Man is responsible for his actions, good and bad; he is the master of his fate; his will determines his line of conduct. If he struggles against evil, confesses God, and cares for the purity of his body and soul, then, after four periods, of three thousand years each, in the world's history, when the time shall arrive for final victory of good over evil and of Ormuzd over Ariman—the general resurrection of the dead and the last judgment will assure him his place among the saved and the righteous.
The Persian religion had strong influence upon both Judaism and early Christianity: a king who was the champion of early Zoroastrianism ended the Babylonian captivity and enabled the Jews to reconstitute themselves as a religious body; the star of the Nativity was hailed by the Magi who were Persians and Zoroastrians. This religion in the form of the worship of one of the angelic powers of Zoroastrian theology, Mithra, spread through the West during the late Roman Empire, and made itself a powerful rival of young Christianity. Mithra, who was identified with the Sun, had a cult that was fostered by the Roman military guild; it is known that as far west as Britain there was a temple built to him. Present-day Christianity, on the side of ceremony and ritual, has elements that have come into it from its one-time closeness to Mithraism. If we read Francis Thompson's "Orient Ode" we shall know something of the fervours of Mithraism; it is significant that the metaphors in the opening verse are from the sacred ritual of the Mass:
Lo, in the sanctuaried East,
Day, a dedicated priest
In all his robes pontifical exprest,
Lifteth slowly, lifteth sweetly,
From out its Orient tabernacle drawn,
Yon orbéd sacrament confest
Which sprinkles benediction through the dawn.
Mithraic feeling is stronger in another verse:
Thou art the incarnated Light
Whose Sire is aboriginal, and beyond
Death and resurgence of our day and night;
From his is thy vicegerent wand
With double potence of the black and white.
Giver of Love, and Beauty, and Desire,
The terror, and the loveliness, and purging,
The deathfulness and lifefulness of fire!
Excerpted from Great Myths of the World by PADRAIC COLUM. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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