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From An Introduction to the History of History, by James T. Shotwell; Columbia University Press; New York; 1922; pp. 12-27.




ALTHOUGH the origins of History are as old as humanity, the history of History reaches back to no such dim antiquity. There was story-telling by the camp-fires of the cave-men, before the ice-sheets had receded or the continents had taken their shape, when the Thames emptied into the Rhine and the British Channel was the valley of the Seine. But no trace remains of the tales that were told. Anthropology may surmise something of their content from the study of savages today; but the history we reconstruct from the chipped stones and burial mounds of our prehistoric ancestors is our own, not theirs. It is a closing chapter, not the opening, of the history of History.1

The term “prehistoric history” is, therefore, new. Once, not so very long ago, prehistory meant what it seems to say; it implied in a general way that there were ages or peoples prior to those known to us, which were devoid of history. One did not generally stop to inquire whether they themselves were devoid of it or whether it was ourselves who were devoid of whatever history they may have had. In either case the main point was clear; the term was a general negative. Its application on the other hand was definite; it referred to what lay beyond the Old Testament, Herodotus and a few other texts from the classics. For what lay beyond them was an unreal world of myth and legend, vague in outline, irrecoverable.

In our own day all this has changed. Archæology, pushing the frontiers of knowledge into that seemingly impenetrable past, has enlarged the field of history, both by the recovery of texts written 13 over a thousand years before the oldest texts of the Bible, and by its own, modern story of still more remote antiquities. Since this latter is the more comprehensive, — and the more important, — it, rather than the work of any hieroglyphic or cuneiform writer, is commonly taken as the measure of the field of history, and its farther limits as the boundaries between the historical and the prehistorical. Strictly taken, this would mean that those boundaries would shift with every new discovery of archæology, and as the result would be unending confusion, it is customary now to regard the whole field in which the archæologist can find any recorded texts as lying within the field of history. The test for the distinction between history and prehistory is therefore the existence — or persistence — of inscriptions, since upon them depend the possibilities of history. Even where the inscriptions are not yet deciphered, the fact of their existence makes their field potential history. The implements are at hand by which, some day, the past from which they came shall be known; and if at present we have not learned to used them, the confident movement of modern scholarship includes them in the field of history along with those already mastered.2 The distinction between history and prehistory has in it a certain flavor of anticipation as well as of achievement and does not always meet the facts of the case. Where this anticipation involves too great a strain upon one’s faith, it is at times disregarded; but upon the whole it is as good a distinction as has been found, and the archæologist is justifying it by works.

The prehistoric is, therefore, to be used not so much in the sense of the pre-known past, — since much inside the field of history remains unknown and on the other hand much beyond it is known, — as the pre-inscriptional or pre-literary.3 This, at first sight, may 14 seem a very inadequate test, since inscriptions furnish even the literary archæologist with only a meagre portion of the sources from which he pieces together his story. But in reality it is as nearly decisive as anything can be. It marks the line between the possibilities of narratives about definite persons and the vague movements of peoples, — in short, the line between the particular and the general. But more than this, writing alone, among all the sources of history, preserves events. Monuments furnish only hints and implications of them. The stone circles of Stonehenge indicate that once a numerous tribe concentrated its energy upon a great achievement. But we do not know what tribe it was or what motive, religious or monumental, led to this concentration of energy. All we have is the achievement. Even drawings, unless they have some word or sign attached, do not perpetuate definite events. The bison drawn by the palæolithic cave-men may be symbols from the realm of magic or memories of the hunt, there is no way of knowing which. The hieroglyph, which is half-picture, half-writing, can arrange its succession of symbols so that by the addition of many, side by side, a sort of moving-picture narrative is told. But only writing, that mobile medium, responsive to changing fact, can record motives or deal with action; and these are the proper themes of history.4

The field of prehistory is joined with that of history by archæology, which works with impartial zeal in both, though with different methods. In the prehistoric field, since the documents are lacking, it can only verify its conclusions by the comparison of the remains of the culture of unknown peoples with the output of similar 15 cultures today. This is the comparative method of anthropology which has thus been called into service to enable us to recover the unrecorded past before history began. Tasmanian savages a generation ago or African Bushmen today illustrate the life and society of the men of the old stone age in Europe.5 Where bone implements are added to the primitive equipment and tools of the hunt became more efficient, the Esquimaux may furnish a clue not only as to the mode of life but even as to the mental outlook. So on, through varying grades of culture, the comparative method tests the sources of archæology by data of anthropology.

This is not the place to enter into a critical description of such a method; but it may not be out of place, as we pass along, to repeat the warning which anthropologists have frequently issued, that there is no more treacherous method in the scientific world today than this use of analogies, which at first sight seems so easy. One should be trained in the method of anthropology before using it, just as one should be trained in the use of historical sources before writing history. In the first place, the things compared must be really comparable. This sounds like an absurdly elementary principle, and yet a vast amount of anthropological history has been written in disregard of it. Institutions from different tribes, which bear an external resemblance, have been torn from their setting, massed together and made the basis of sweeping generalizations as to the general scheme of social evolutions; and the data of the prehistoric world have then been interpreted in the light of inferences 16 from these conclusions. Such schemes are not history but speculation; some of them may even yet be verified by fact and turn out to be true. But the historian should not mistake their character. If his training in the historical method has amounted to anything, he should not lose sight of the fact that phenomena are never quite the same outside of their environment, for the environment is part of them. The significance of an institution depends not so much upon its existence or form as upon its use.

However, within broad limits and used with due caution, the comparative method may furnish an anthropological history of the prehistoric world. It can suggest manners and customs and even, — what alone concerns us here, — a glimpse of the mental outlook of peoples who have kept no history of their own. For, in a general way, the reactions of all men in similar circumstances are alike. The tales they tell in Mexico resemble those of ancient Babylon. Heroes perform almost the same feats through the entire semi-savage world, varied only by the local conditions, and the mysteries of Olympian councils are disclosed in recognizable terms.

Now, upon the whole, it is the case that tales are told only when they are worth telling, and the test as to whether they are worth telling or not is whether they are listened to. This furnishes us with a clue as to their general character, for men do not gather willingly to listen about commonplace things of daily routine, — which, so far as possible, have been turned over to the women. Just as the men have taken to themselves the careers of adventure, of war and the chase, they wish to make their tales adventures of the mind. This means that the universal content of all early tales is myth.6 For myth alone can supply enough of the element of surprise, of the strange and mysterious. In the world of luck and 17 miracle, with its constant possibility of dramatic turns, the dramatis personæ are mainly supernatural. The explanation of this lies in the tendency of the savage to “animize” his world. Dawn and clouds, fire, running water, dark caves or groves, animals, queer things or people, whatever strikes his fancy and remains un-understood, is likely to become a “presence,” an uncanny something that lies in that fearsome realm where things are lucky or unlucky in their own right, sacred or accursed, acting irresponsibly or, in any case, beyond the normal line of mere human conduct. The world is so full of these uncanny things that the story of even daily life among primitive peoples is bound to contain enough myth to condemn it utterly in a rationalist society. And yet it may be mainly true — true to the experiences of its authors and perpetuators.

The commonest theme of such myths is that which gives the savage mind its greatest adventure, the myth of the origin of things. All people have their versions of Genesis. The curiosity which prompts one to keep asking how the story ends is not less keen in inquiring how it began. Where different people have lived much alike, the explanations of their similar worlds are strikingly similar. One can match not a few of the elements in the Hebrew Book of Origins by the myths of the savage world. But this is too varied and too unhistorical a problem for us to pursue in detail here.

The world of myth is one of miracle, where gods and even heroes are transformed before one’s eyes, where, as in a land of dreams, animals talk, invisible presences are heard along the winds, trees imprison and earth engulfs. So unreal do these seem to the civilized man that he thinks of them as the conscious effort of invention, a product of that poetic capacity which he takes for granted in early peoples. But, however strongly the fancy plays in simple minds, the myth is seldom, if ever, the creation of individual, conscious effort, — the result of a single expedition of the questing intelligence. It is rather the booty of the tribe, the heritage from immemorial quests. The shaman or priest may mould mythologies and transform them, as the epic poet may develop original incidents in his legend, but the range of his creative imagination is anything but bold and free in the sense in which Plato thought of its freedom. For instance, when Homer makes Athene take the form of a swallow he is not inventing as Kipling may have done 18 in his Jungle Tales. Athene, or some such goddess, had been transforming herself for untold centuries before Homer embodied the miraculous incident in his narrative.7

In fact, what strikes the student of mythologies most is the poverty, rather than the richness, of the primitive imagination. Imagination must use the materials of experience to build its creations, however fantastically it may combine them, and as the range of experience of early man is much narrower than that of the civilized, the myths, which register these creations, run in relatively narrow grooves. There are common themes which one finds repeated with almost identical details in the most widely scattered tribes, — not only in the myths of origin but of such events as wars in heaven and floods on earth and such universal heroes as slay dragons, fight giants, and rescue the weak by prowess and miracle. Anthropologists formerly sought to trace these back to some common source and viewed them as evidence of a common origin of the varying cultures which preserved them. But now it is seen that no such history need exist. The war of the gods in which the beneficent deities of light and life overthrow the dragon-like forces of evil and chaos was a theme native to many other places besides the Nile and the Euphrates. Myths like those of Marduk and Horus were independent of each other; for the sun-god represented the triumph of order and settled life, when the earliest farmers began to tame the wastes, drain the swamps and plough the fields. In short, the history of the gods was but a reflection of the activities of the society which produced them. In this sense they are a sort of perverted, divine reflection of history, preserving in a distorting but vivid medium some portions of the general story of a people. “Myth is the history of its authors, not of its subjects; it records the lives, not of superhuman heroes but of poetic nations.”8

This social origin and authorship of myth, while it does not preclude 19 the possibility of individual creations and modifications now and then, enables one to understand two things which otherwise puzzle one in dealing with the primitive mind. In the first place that realm of mystery is not entirely mysterious. It is as much a part of nature as the rest. This means that the savage is conscious of crossing no closed barriers as he turns from the real to the imaginary. In the second place, the social belief in the tale brings to its explanations somewhat the force of a suggestion of nature itself, and so they impose themselves upon the mind with the sense of things final and inevitable.

At once, this brings us upon a fact more vital for the history of History than all the content of the myths, — the tendency to believe. It is well to interest oneself in the fate of the gods, but it is impious to inquire too much of them. This religious attitude of acceptance is largely responsible for the absurdities which the myths contain, since it is not fitting to apply the canons of common-sense criticism to them. But its significance extends far beyond the boundaries of myth and prehistory. It is still, in spite of the growth of criticism and of science, the ordinary attitude of the ordinary man. The first impulse upon hearing any tale is to accept it as true,9 unless it itself contradicts what has already been believed, or seems to imply such a contradiction. Credulity is a natural attitude of mind; criticism is one of the most difficult acquisitions of culture. The importance of this fact will furnish some of the main themes in the history which follows.

The credulity of the primitive, however, has more excuse than ours, for he has a different appreciation of fact. We draw distinctions between the real, the probable and the possible, between things that are in their own right and things whose existence depends upon that of others. This borderland of possibility we place outside the realm of fact, not losing sight of the condition upon which it rests. The savage stresses the fact and tends to forget the condition. The unhappy anthropologist who offers 20 to do something for a native “if he can” finds himself regarded as having broken his word if he does not fulfil his promise, even if the conditions remain unfulfilled. When we apply such an attitude of mind to problems of mythology it explains largely the positive character of the creations of what we call the primitive imagination.10

Under such circumstances, the myth develops a life of its own. The conditional elements in it drop away; uncertainties become fact by the mere force of statement. Its origins are lost sight of. Hera may once have been the air and Demeter a sheaf of wheat, but somehow in the course of divine events, by common human consent, they became deities and lived henceforth the life divine. To us moderns it was a purely imaginary existence, but the myth acquires its authority upon the very opposite assumption. And when temples are erected to them, art and literature find in them their inspiration, when states trust to their protection and individuals turn to them for salvation, both imagination and memory are left far behind; the myth becomes a real and potent element in the facts of history and life.

And yet it is the divine or supernatural element in the myth which is its own best preservative. Whatever lies within the sphere of religion is protected, the world over, by a vast and unrelenting primitive criminal law, which we call the taboo. Everything connected with worship, from magic to mysticism, is sacred, and whatever is sacred cannot be treated like ordinary things. It contains something of the power, diabolic or divine,11 which moves by super-nature and mystery to afflict or bless those who come in contact with it. Sacrilege needs no legal penalties in societies where religion really rules; it enforces its own punishment through the terrors of the psychic world. So, just as the fetishes and altars used in worship are surcharged with this sacredness which ensures their protection, the myths which embody the story of the gods are preserved by their own religious quality. To know the story of the god, and especially to know his true name, is of the greatest importance to the worshippers, since in the story and the name lies some mysterious suggestion of potency. So the shaman and 21 his priestly successors, as those best fitted to deal with such sacred things, tend to become the keepers of the mystic tale along with other objects of cult. In the early world such specialization is more or less informal and by no means rigid; but the tendency to intrust the myths to theological care is already evident long before the development of hierarchies.

We are not interested here in the later fate of the myths as parts of theological systems, for there they lose all but a faint echo of their historical sources, if such existed, and become at last a rather artificial element of religions which grow away from them, — as the modern world has grown away from the more incongruous stories of the Old Testament and the more miraculous legends of the saints and martyrs of the Middle Ages. Ritual,12 in which the baldest, most compact statements and representations are reduced to epigrammatic and poetic terseness, preserves a last suggestion of the ancient origins, by reason of its direct connection with the altar and the rite, — sometimes even after the religion in which it is set has ceased to understand its meaning, — as in the well-known case of the Arval priests at Rome, reciting in archaic speech what had become little more than a magical charm.13 And yet, in such faint and unintelligible ways, the traces of past ages lasted on, — less history for the worshippers who listened to the mummery than for the modern historian to whom they are no longer sacred utterances, and who therefore is free to trace their human origins.14


But there is a human as well as a divine side to the myth, and as the divine tends to drop away or change except where embodied in ritual and preserved by priests, the human develops mainly by poets, into that antetype of history, — the legend. The gods still come and go; they hold their councils as of old, and they seem to outrange the feeble will of man; but in reality the human beings are the heroes; upon them the interest of the tale and the sympathy of the listener are concentrated, and even the gods dispense with their divinity wherever the interests of the story demand it.

It is not possible definitely to mark off the myth from the legend, for myths enter into all early narratives. And yet it may clarify our survey if we regard as legend those stories which carry the human theme uppermost. The legendary, therefore, lies between the mythical and the historical. As we have just seen, myth penetrates it, and for long furnishes the dramatic element, the sudden turns, the swift surprises, the justice that tracks the feet of crime, the fate that stands behind and mocks — and pulls the strings. Thus often, as in Homer, the legend seems to be largely a repository for myth, in spite of all its worldly interests. Indeed the poet, far from being a bold innovator carrying the social outlook frankly away from the myth, is really a conservator of what is 23 otherwise outworn. The ancient tale acquires in his eyes a kind of sanctity which is the secular parallel of its sacredness in religion.

In the naïve creations of the early epics this emphasis upon the gods is taken for granted; but once the poets start upon their proper work of conscious creation in the realm of imagination, their true attitude toward myth becomes apparent. There has been only one great poet of the uncompromising, scientific mind, Lucretius. Even to our own day the mythology of the world has survived in its poetry. Nor is this all to be dismissed as the play of pure fancy. In an age of faith, Dante or Milton can impress their schemes of cosmology upon the world with at least as much success as the theologians. Even in Goethe’s day the philosophy of life lost nothing by being deliberately expressed along the lines of old folk-myths, and the cruder imaginations could find more than symbol in the story of Faust. Poetry, in short, may have furnished a bridge from myth to history, but its connection with the farther shore has never been broken down, and although the inquisitive thought of the civilized world has moved across it to the conquest of reality, it still retains its ancient character.

Legends, therefore, so long as they are preserved by the poets, mark but a single stage of the advance toward history. Poetry, as Thucydides pointed out, is a most imperfect medium for fact. Its ideal is of another kind. Beauty or power, emotional stress and thrill are its aims, and to achieve these it properly forsakes dull, calculable reality, Its mythical elements are the least misleading, for its human heroes are given imaginary rôles; their exploits are set in the world of romance, and from of old the world of romance has been, some way or other, the world of the unreal. Homer warriors, for instance, use the bronze weapons of an age already growing distant in the days when the poems were recited. Then the bard exaggerates or distorts his story to please his listeners; which means that each society in which it is recited impresses changes upon it. So, although much of the early past has been handed down to us in epic, in ballad and in the poetically turned legends of folk-lore, these artistic creations belong rather to the history of literature than that of history proper.

And yet the early poet, like the priest, knew the tribal lore. He was held in high regard, not as a mere entertainer, like the travelling 24 minstrel of a later day, but as a sage who knew the ways of gods to men, and who could draw enough lessons from the past to satisfy any barbarously moralizing Ciceros or Carlyles. He may have lacked history in the true sense of the word, but he at least knew that philosophy which teaches by experience. For the most important part of his tale came to him by tradition, in contrast with the part he himself invented. The first qualification of the bard was rather memory than imagination. Imagination filled in the gaps, but the past supplied the theme.

Legendary history is preserved by this oral tradition. There is, naturally, no other way to preserve it among pre-literate or illiterate peoples. But the extent of it and its relative reliability are a source of unfailing wonder to the student of history. For unlettered societies, when left to themselves, with no modern devices to fall back upon, make up for the absence of reading by an almost incredible extension of the power of memory. It is not the bard alone who can recite his story; tradition becomes to a large degree a social heritage, and nothing is more remarkable than the way in which a tribe or clan will repeat its legends, generation after generation. Hour after hour, almost day after day, the primitive story-teller can recite not merely the deeds of gods and men, but the exact words of the ancient myths. Indeed this is, perhaps, one of the main reasons for the form of poetry in which it is cast, for rhythm and metre swing the memory along, while prose seems to snap the cord. So among early peoples, the whole record of the past tends to be embodied in poetry — more or less — from bald lists of names in genealogies arranged for a sing-song chant, to inspiring epic and stirring ballad. The rôle of memory is now lessening. We trust to books and put our memories with them on the shelf. But we can still testify to the acuteness of the primitive methods. When we try to memorize even a few names in a row, we unconsciously fall back upon the devices of our bardic forerunners and, if we can, commit them to memory in a sing-song.15

When we turn to examine the content of these early, legendary 25 traditions, where they are accessible, we find them, like the myths, perpetuating all kinds of things. It is impossible to delay here over any detailed examinations of them. Their study belongs to the field of folk-lore, a field in which scientific methods have made but little progress yet.16 But history may sometimes find in it at least a general guidance in matters otherwise unrecoverable. The incidental mention of natural objects helps to throw light upon the character of the civilization which produced the legend. For instance, the tales of early Rome point to a farming community. In like manner, the very absence of mention is sometimes just as significant. None of these same early Roman legends points to the sea. The story of Æneas’ wanderings came in after Greek civilization had penetrated Italy. It was obviously manufactured after the Romans knew about Greece and appreciated Homer enough to wish to trace their ancestry to the fields of Troy. We know that this was the case because there are no primitive traditions that correspond with it. It was invented to suit the occasion by men of a later age.17


There are, therefore, two main types of legends: the folk-tale that no one made, that was born in no one brain, but, like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, met a social demand, ready-made; and the false legend invented long after the events with which it deals, a romance produced to glorify a monarch, a nation or a noble house, like the genealogies that reached back to the gods and so flattered their happy recipient with divine ancestry. The difficulty of deciding which kind one is dealing with, whether it is primitive or artificial, makes the task of the scholar an extremely delicate and treacherous one. For even the genuine folk-tales come to us worked over by successive generations until often so obscured that with the combined resources of archæology, anthropology and history one can but guess at their value and true meaning.18

Looking over the field of myth and legend as a whole, we see that we are everywhere outside the boundary of genuine history. History may incorporate portions of their substance, but it differs from them in both means and end. It is not a thing of poetry but of prose; it needs sobriety and commonplaceness of expression, 27 just as it needs rigid outlines, if the fancy which runs wild in legend is to be checked and the narrative made worthy of the credence of inquiring men. Then, that narrative must be intrusted to something more reliable than memory — even social memory at its best. And finally it must be kept definite in outline and positive in dates. So history must pass by way of written records out of the realm of taboo and folk-lore, which priests and poets perpetuate. The vague or rambling tradition must become a straightforward narrative, taking into account the steadily passing years. There are, therefore, outside of myth and epic, two indispensable bases for history: writing and mathematics, — the one to record what time would otherwise indifferently blot out, the other to measure time itself in calendars and chronology.


1   It may not be out of place, however, to refer, for a general study of the field, to such manuals as H. F. Osborn, Men of the Old Stone Age (1915), with good bibliography and illustrative material; to W. J. Sollas, Ancient Hunters (2d ed., 1915); H. Obermaier, Der Mensch der Vorzeit (1912), and, for detailed study, the exhaustive work of J. Déchelette, Manuel d’archéologie prehistorique, celtique et gallo-romaine (2 vols., 1908-1914). The prehistory of Egypt, Babylonia and the Ægean is now treated in the archæological studies devoted to those special fields.

2  In a sense the meaning has not changed so much as might seem; for when the field of history did not reach beyond the Bible and Herodotus, the hieroglyphs were unread and the key to them supposedly lost for all time. So the oldest texts limited the field of history.

3   Hittite or Cretan cultures are not viewed as prehistoric although their inscriptions are still unread. The “prehistoric” element in Crete preceded all the Minoan eras. One may say, however, that the term “prehistory” is used upon the whole with something of the vagueness of the term “history.” Different writers use it differently. Sometimes it seems to mean the history of peoples devoid of civilization, in particular of those in the stone age, preceding the age of metals. So, especially, in Egyptian histories.

4  The mention of the moving-picture suggests that, if the test for the distinction between prehistory and history is the use of writing, we may be at another boundary-mark today. Writing, after all, is but a poor makeshift. When one compares the best of writings with what they attempt to record, one sees that this instrument of ours for the reproduction of reality is almost palæolithic in its crudity. It loses even the color and tone of living speech, as speech, in turn, reproduces but part of the psychic and physical complex with which it deals. We can at best sort out a few facts from the moving mass of events and dress them up in the imperfections of our rhetoric, to survive as fading simulacra in the busy forum of the world. Some day the media in which we work today to preserve the past will be seen in all their inadequacy and crudity when new implements for mirroring thought, expression and movement will have been acquired, Then, we, too, may be numbered among the prehistoric.

5  The frankest use of such a method in this particular field is that of W. J. Sollas in Ancient Hunters.

For examples of the comparative method as applied by the earlier anthropologists, accompanied by a thoroughgoing criticism (by John Dewey), see W. I. Thomas, Source Book for Social Origins (1909), Part II (Mental Life and Education). A long bibliography is appended to the section. The numerous works of Franz Boas, as well as those of his former students, furnish both direction and example in sound methods in anthropology; his Anthropology (1908) has been supplemented by various studies. The student of history need not deal with W. Wundt’s Völkerpsychologie (9 vols., 1911-19) or L. Levy-Bruhl’s Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910), although he will gain much from a criticism of the latter by A. A. Goldenweiser in American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol, XIII (1911), pp. 121-130; but he should at very least read R. R. Marett’s little sketch of the field and method, Anthropology, in the Home University series (1912), while E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture, although first published years ago, is still as valuable as it is delightful (2 vols., 6th ed., 1920).

6  The term myth is used here in the definite sense of the tale involving supernatural elements. It is also used in English loosely to include all legendary material. The instances cited in the Oxford dictionary furnish a commentary upon the unformed state of thinking in this field. The classic chapters on mythology in E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture should be read in this connection. There are good articles in recent encyclopædias and the rich field of anthropology is rapidly supplying whole libraries of material. A popular and worthy enterprise is the collection of thirteen volumes, The Mythology of All Races, edited by L. H. Gray, of which the first three volumes appeared in 1916. The publications of the American Bureau of Ethnology at Washington furnish a wealth of material of great interest in this regard.

7  A more definite contrast might be cited in the descent of Athene from Olympus (Iliad, Bk. IV, ll, 75 sqq. ), and Milton’s description of Satan’s fall. Homer’s picture is based upon the fall of stars. “Even as the son of Kronos the crooked counsellor sendeth a star, a portent for mariners or a wide host of men, bright shining, and therefrom are scattered sparks in multitude, even in such guise sped Pallas Athene to earth, . . .” Such portents furnished the inevitableness of the simile.

8  E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (2 vols., 3d ed., 1891), Vol. I, p. 416.

9  Dr. Paul Radin has furnished me with an unusually interesting instance of this. During his researches among the Winnebagos he asked a half-breed, who affected disdain for most of the Indian beliefs, if he thought there were any truth in a medicine man’s graphic and detailed story of his former incarnations. The puzzled reply was that he didn’t know but thought there might be something in it, “for otherwise why did the shaman say so?”

10  The simple-minded novel-reader in the modern world has much the same attitude. The conditions of the story are forgotten.

11  Sacredness is a general term and has the power to curse as well as to bless.

12  Ritual, whether in word or act, must be performed with absolute accuracy. Any error is sure to bring the wrath of the gods upon all concerned and the vengeance of society upon the blunderer. Anthropology supplies many instances of the infliction of the severity of the punishment for carelessness or mistake. For example, see Franz Boas, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1895 (published 1897).

13  The magical or priestly formula sometimes repeats the potent words of the gods in some ancient myth, of which the formula is the only fragment preserved. A good example is given in A. Erman’s Life in Ancient Egypt (tr. 1894), p. 353. A charm for burns was obviously taken from a call of Isis, the mistress of magic, for the aid of Horus: “My son Horus, it burns on the mountain, no water is there, I am not there, fetch water from the bank of the river to put out the fire.” In this connection it might be recalled that the recital of the names of the gods, with all their attributes, in incantation or prayer, involved a certain amount of mythological lore.

14  The persistence of even a mere divine name may furnish the clue to great events; for instance, if the Egyptian Re, the sun, is traceable to the Semitic root R’a, it indicates an early Semitic invasion. Cf. H. R. Hall, The Ancient History of the Near East (2d ed., 1913), p. 85. Even the images of the gods may preserve archaic customs and so open up lost pages of history. The Sumerians, the earliest inhabitants of lower Babylonia of whom we have record, represented their gods with the long hair and beard of the Semites, which seems to indicate a previous Semitic culture, of which the religion at least persisted. In the same way the early gods of Egypt are dressed like the inhabitants of Punt — Somaliland — which is taken to indicate that the Southern Egyptians came from there. (Ibid., p. 91.) We do not have to go outside the Jewish and Christian rituals to see the persistence of similar suggestions of the past: the whole calendar of sacred festivals is a reminder of sacred history (cf. J. T. Shotwell, The Discovery of Time in The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, Vol. XII (1915), No. 10, p. 253), the very prescriptions as to the methods of sacrifice, even the form of the temple (see recent studies on Orientation, such as H. Nissen’s Das Templum and A. L. Frothingham’s Circular Templum and Mundus in American Journal of Archæology, Second Series, Vol. XVIII (1914), No. 3), and the robes and sacrificial implements of the priests (see references in J. G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, 12 vols., 3d ed., 1911-1920). Religion has proved to be the greatest reservoir of past usages; but its service to history is rather that of a social archive than a social historian.

15  This is not advanced as a general theory for the origins of poetry. There is virtue in rhythm besides its aid to memory, as the dance sufficiently indicates. Ritual also plays its rôle. But the rhythmic element in mere prosy lists hints at its utility elsewhere as well.

16  At the close of the eighteenth century Herder pointed out the importance of folk-lore in the crude, natural poetry preserved by historic peoples down to the present. The work of the brothers Grimm and of the whole romanticist movement greatly enriched this popular literature. But the romanticist overburdened it with the trappings of their imagination and made it unreal either as representing primitive or modern ideas. Historical criticism, which had seen the legends of Homer and regal Rome destroyed, was, therefore, unwilling to grant even proper recognition to folk-lore as a serious occupation. Finally at the opening of the twentieth century, the comparative method, rescued in turn from its cruder uses, has enabled the historian to proceed upon cautious and promising principles for the appraisal of the value of traditions.

17  See Jesse B. Carter, The Religion of Numa (1906), and the masterly use of religious data for historical purposes by W. W. Fowler in his Religious Experience of the Roman People (1911); or, for further research, the work of G. Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Röer (2d ed., 1912).

The myths of the historic nations, especially those of Greece and Rome, and to a less extent of the north of Europe, have been published in such a variety of forms and have entered into literature to such an extent as to make any short bibliography of the field wellnigh impossible. From T. Bulfinch’s Age of Fable (rev. and enl. ed., 1919), for children, to such works as R. Reitzenstein’s Hellenistische Wundererzählungen (1906), which is for the most advanced scholar, through Handbücher and dictionaries of classical antiquities, the student may pass a busy life in merely keeping up with the available works dealing with the subject. One thing only need be said here; and that is that since the comparative method was first applied, by Max Müller, to the elucidation of the myths of Greece and Rome, — basing it upon philology on the one hand for the names of the gods and upon natural phenomena, sky, sun, earth, etc., for their origin, — the study has made long progress. The anthropological archæologists forcibly invaded the field in the twentieth century, and although their first attempts at interpreting were somewhat too confident and a bit careless, they have made over almost our whole conception of the religious outlook of the antique world. Sober surveys of this work may be found in L. R. Farnell’s Cults of the Greek States (5 vols., 1896-1909), and in W. W. Fowler’s Religious Experience of the Roman People, while such works as those of Gilbert Murray, especially his Rise of the Greek Epic (1907), connect it with a genuine historical interest. The Egyptian myths, which fill so large a space in the works of Erman, Maspero or Budge, have been reëxamined in a most illuminating survey by J. H. Breasted, in his Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (1912). For Babylonia-Assyria, we have the works of R. W. Rogers, and those of Morris Jastrow, not to mention the output of European scholars, among whom L. W. King’s contribution in supplying texts with English translation should be noted. Vide infra, Chaps. V and VI .

18  A good example is the Horus myth of Egypt, which represents this Nubian sky-god leading his army of metal-workers, with their metal-tipped spears, to the conquest of his rival Set and the land of Egypt. The story as we have it comes from the latest period of Egyptian history, and is interwoven with details from the war of the Horus-born pharaohs against the Hyksos in historical times, although many centuries before the myth was cast in the form in which we have it. Cf. H. R. Hall, The Ancient History of the Near East, pp. 91 sq.; J. H. Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, p. 38.


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