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. 1 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." 2 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. 3
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." 4
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." 5 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.
vii:1 Michelet's Introduction to La Scienza Nuova.
vii:2 Letter to Reimer.
viii:3 Jeremiah Curtin: Myths and Folklore of Ireland. Boston, Little, Brown & Co.
viii:5 On History.