IN a primitive people the mind of one generation precisely repeats the minds of all former generations; the construction of the intellectual nature varies no more, from age to age, than the form of the body or the color of the skin; the generations feel the same emotions, and think the same thoughts, and use the same expressions. And this is to be expected, for the brain is as much a part of the inheritable, material organization as the color of the eyes or the shape of the nose.
The minds of men move automatically: no man thinks because he intends to think; he thinks, as he hungers and thirsts, under a great primal necessity; his thoughts come out from the inner depths of his being as the flower is developed by forces rising through the roots of the plant.
The female bird says to herself, "The time is propitious, and now, of my own free will, and under the operation of my individual judgment, I will lay a nestful of eggs and batch a brood of children." But it is unconscious that it is moved by a physical necessity, which has constrained all its ancestors from the beginning of time,
and which will constrain all its posterity to the end of time; that its will is nothing more than an expression of age, development, sunlight, food, and "the skyey influences." If it were otherwise it would be in the power of a generation to arrest the life of a race.
All great thoughts are inspirations of God. They are part of the mechanism by which he advances the race; they are new varieties created out of old genera.
There come bursts of creative force in history, when great thoughts are born, and then again Brahma, as the Hindoos say, goes to sleep for ages.
But, when the fever of creation comes, the poet, the inventor, or the philosopher can no more arrest the development of his own thoughts than the female bird, by her will-power, can stop the growth of the ova within her, or arrest the fever in the blood which forces her to incubation.
The man who wrote the Shakespeare plays recognized this involuntary operation of even his own transcendent intellect, when he said:
"Our poesy is a gum which oozes
From whence 'tis nourished."
It came as the Arabian tree distilled its "medicinal gum"; it was the mere expression of an internal force, as much beyond his control as the production of the gum was beyond the control of the tree.
But in primitive races mind repeats mind for thousands of years. If a tale is told at a million hearth-fires, the probabilities are small, indeed, that any innovation at one hearth-fire, however ingenious, will work its way into and modify the narration at all the rest. There is no printing-press to make the thoughts of one man the thoughts of thousands. While the innovator is modifying
the tale, to his own satisfaction, to his immediate circle of hearers, the narrative is being repeated in its unchanged form at all the rest. The doctrine of chances is against innovation. The majority rules.
When, however, a marvelous tale is told to the new generation--to the little ones sitting around with open eyes and gaping mouths--they naturally ask, "Where did all this occur?" The narrator must satisfy this curiosity, and so he replies, "On yonder mountain-top," or "In yonder cave."
The story has come down without its geography, and a new geography is given it.
Again, an ancient word or name may have a signification in the language in which the story is told different from that which it possessed in the original dialect, and, in the effort to make the old fact and the new language harmonize, the story-teller is forced, gradually, to modify the narrative; and, as this lingual difficulty occurs at every fireside, at every telling, an ingenious explanation comes at last to be generally accepted, and the ancient myth remains dressed in a new suit of linguistic clothes.
But, as a rule, simple races repeat; they do not invent.
One hundred years ago the highest faith was placed in written history, while the utmost contempt was felt for all legends. Whatever had been written down was regarded as certainly true; whatever had not been written down was necessarily false.
We are reminded of that intellectual old brute, Dr. Samuel Johnson, trampling poor Macpherson under foot, like an enraged elephant, for daring to say that he had collected from the mountaineers of wild Scotland the poems of Ossian, and that they had been transmitted, from mouth to mouth, through ages. But the great epic of the son of Fingal will survive, part of the widening
heritage of humanity, while Johnson is remembered only as a coarse-souled, ill-mannered incident in the development of the great English people.
But as time rolled on it was seen that the greater part of history was simply recorded legends, while all the rest represented the passions of factions, the hates of sects, or the servility and venality of historians. Men perceived that the common belief of antiquity, as expressed in universal tradition, was much more likely to be true than the written opinions of a few prejudiced individuals.
And then grave and able men,--philosophers, scientists,--were seen with note-books and pencils, going out into Hindoo villages, into German cottages, into Highland huts, into Indian tepees, in short, into all lands, taking down with the utmost care, accuracy, and respect, the fairy-stories, myths, and legends of the people;--as repeated by old peasant-women, "the knitters in the sun," or by "gray-haired warriors, famousèd for fights."
And, when they came to put these narratives in due form, and, as it were, in parallel columns, it became apparent that they threw great floods of light upon the history of the world, and especially upon the question of the unity of the race. They proved that all the nations were repeating the same stories, in some cases in almost identical words, just as their ancestors had heard them, in some most ancient land, in "the dark background and abysm of time," when the progenitors of the German, Gaul, Gael, Greek, Roman, Hindoo, Persian, Egyptian, Arabian, and the red-people of America, dwelt together under the same roof-tree and used the same language.
But, above all, these legends prove the absolute fidelity of the memory of the races.
We are told that the bridge-piles driven by the Romans, two thousand years ago, in the rivers of Europe,
from which the surrounding waters have excluded the decaying atmosphere, have remained altogether unchanged in their condition. If this has been the case for two thousand years, why would they not remain unchanged for ten thousand, for a hundred thousand years? If the ice in which that Siberian mammoth was incased had preserved it intact for a hundred years, or a thousand years, why might it not have preserved it for ten thousand, for a hundred thousand years?
Place a universal legend in the minds of a race, let them repeat it from generation to generation, and time ceases to be an element in the problem.
Legend has one great foe to its perpetuation--civilization.
Civilization brings with it a contempt for everything which it can not understand; skepticism becomes the synonym for intelligence; men no longer repeat; they doubt; they dissect; they sneer; they reject; they invent. If the myth survives this treatment, the poets take it up and make it their stock in trade: they decorate it in a masquerade of frippery and finery, feathers and furbelows, like a clown dressed for a fancy ball; and the poor barbarian legend survives at last, if it survives at all, like the Conflagration in Ovid or King Arthur in Tennyson--a hippopotamus smothered in flowers, jewels, and laces.
Hence we find the legends of the primitive American Indians adhering quite closely to the events of the past, while the myths that survive at all among the civilized nations of Europe are found in garbled forms, and. only among the peasantry of remote districts.
In the future more and more attention will be given to the myths of primitive races; they will be accounted as more reliable, and as reaching farther back in time than many things which we call history. Thoughtful men will
analyze them, despising nothing; like a chemist who resolves some compound object into its original elements--the very combination constituting a history of the object.
H. H. Bancroft describes myths as--
"A mass of fragmentary truth and fiction, not open to rationalistic criticism; a partition wall of allegories, built of dead facts cemented with wild fancies; it looms ever between the immeasurable and the measurable past."
But he adds:
"Never was there a time in the history of philosophy when the character, customs, and beliefs of aboriginal man, and everything appertaining to him, were held in such high esteem by scholars as at present."
"It is now a recognized principle of philosophy that no religious belief, however crude, nor any historical tradition, however absurd, can be held by the majority of a people for any considerable time as true, without having had in the beginning some foundation in fact."
An universal myth points to two conclusions:
First, that it is based on some fact.
Secondly, that it dates back, in all probability, to the time when the ancestors of the races possessing it had not yet separated.
A myth should be analyzed carefully; the fungi that have attached themselves to it should be brushed off; the core of fact should be separated from the decorations and errors of tradition.
But above all, it must be remembered that we can not depend upon either the geography or the chronology of a myth. As I have shown, there is a universal tendency to give the old story a new habitat, and hence we have Ararats and Olympuses all over the world. In the same
[1. "The Native Races of America," vol. iii, p. 14.]
way the myth is always brought down and attached to more recent events:
"All over Europe-in Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Ireland--the exploits of the oldest mythological heroes, figuring in the Sagas, Eddas, and Nibelungen Lied, have been ascribed, in the folk-lore and ballads of the people, to Barbarossa, Charlemagne, Boabdil, Charles V, William Tell, Arthur, Robin Hood, Wallace, and St. Patrick."
In the next place, we must remember how impossible it is for the mind to invent an entirely new fact.
What dramatist or novelist has ever yet made a plot which did not consist of events that had already transpired somewhere on earth? He might intensify events, concentrate and combine them, or amplify them; but that is all. Men in all ages have suffered from jealousy,--like Othello; have committed murders,--like Macbeth; have yielded to the sway of morbid minds,--like Hamlet; have stolen, lied, and debauched,--like Falstaff;--there are Oliver Twists, Bill Sykeses, and Nancies; Micawbers, Pickwicks, and Pecksniffs in every great city.
There is nothing in the mind of man that has not preexisted in nature. Can we imagine a person, who never saw or heard of an elephant, drawing a picture of such a two-tailed creature? It was thought at one time that man had made the flying-dragon out of his own imagination; but we now know that the image of the pterodactyl had simply descended from generation to generation. Sindbad's great bird, the roc, was considered a flight of the Oriental fancy, until science revealed the bones of the dinornis. All the winged beasts breathing fire are simply a recollection of the comet.
In fact, even with the patterns of nature before it, the
[1. Bancroft, "Native Races," note, vol. iii, p. 17.]
human mind has not greatly exaggerated them: it has never drawn a bird larger than the dinornis or a beast greater than the mammoth.
It is utterly impossible that the races of the whole world, of all the continents and islands, could have preserved traditions from the most remote ages, of a comet having struck the earth, of the great heat, the conflagration, the cave-life, the age of darkness, and the return of the sun, and yet these things have had no basis of fact. It was not possible for the primitive mind to have imagined these things if they had never occurred.