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What I mean by Modern Mythology is a subject so vast and so important, that in this, my last Lecture, all I can do is to indicate its character, and the wide limits within which its working may be discerned. After the definition which on several occasions I have given of Mythology, I need only repeat here that I include under that name every case in which language assumes an independent power,
and reacts on the mind, instead of being, as it was intended to be, the mere realization and outward embodiment of the mind.
In the early days of language the play of mythology was no doubt more lively and more widely extended, and its effects were more deeply felt, than in these days of mature speculation, when words are no longer taken on trust, but are constantly tested by means of logical definition. When language sobers down, when metaphors become less bold and more explicit, there is less danger of speaking of the sun as a horse, because a poet had called him the heavenly racer, or of speaking of Selene as enamored of Endymion, because a proverb had expressed the approach of night by the longing looks of the moon after the setting sun. Yet under a different form Language retains her silent charm; and if it no longer
creates gods and heroes, it creates many a name that receives a similar worship. He who would examine the influence which words, mere words, have exercised on the minds of men, might write a history of the world that would teach us more than any which we yet possess. Words without definite meanings are at the bottom of nearly all our philosophical and religious controversies, and even the so-called exact sciences have frequently been led astray by the same Siren voice.
I do not speak here of that downright abuse of language when writers, without maturing their thoughts and arranging them in proper order, pour out a stream of hard and misapplied terms which are mistaken by themselves, if not by others, for deep learning and height of speculation. This sanctuary of ignorance and vanity has been wellnigh destroyed; and scholars or thinkers who cannot say what they wish to say consecutively and intelligibly have little chance in these days, or at least in this country, of being considered as depositaries of mysterious wisdom. Si non vis intelligi debes negligi. I rather think of words which everybody uses, and wbich seem to be so clear that it looks like impertinence to challenge them. Yet, if we except the language of mathematics, it is extraordinary to observe how variable is the meaning of words, how it changes from century to century, nay, how it varies slightly in the mouth of almost every speaker. Such terms as Nature, Law, Freedom, Necessity, Body, Substance, Malter, Church, State, Revelation, Inspiration, Knowledge, Belief, are tossed about in the wars of words as if everybody knew what they meant, and as if
everybody used them exactly in the same sense; whereas most people, and particularly those who represent public opinion, pick up these complicated terms as children, beginning with the vaguest conceptions, adding to them from time to time, perhaps correcting likewise at haphazard some of their involuntary errors, but never taking stock, never either inquiring into the history of the terms which they handle so freely, or realizing the fulness of their meaning according to the strict rules of logical definition. It has been frequently said that most controversies are about words. This is true; but it implies much more than it seems to imply. Verbal differences are not what they are sometimes supposed to be — merely formal, outward, slight, accidental differences, that might be removed by a simple explanation, or by a reference to “ Johnson's Dictionary." They are differences arising from the more or less perfect, from the more or less full and correct conception attached to words: it is the mind that is at fault, not the tongue merely.
If a child, after being taught to attach the name of gold to anything that is yellow and glitters, were to maintain against all comers that the sun is gold, the child no doubt would be right, because in his mind the name "gold” means something that is yellow and glitters. We do not hesitate to
that a flower is edged with gold, - meaning the color only, not the substance. The child afterwards learns that there are other qualities, besides its color, which
1 " Half the perplexities of men are traceable to obscurity of thought, hiding and breeding under obscurity of language." — Edinb. Review, Oct. 1862, p. 378.
are peculiar to real gold, and which distinguish gold from similar substances. He learns to stow away every one of these qualities into the name gold, so that at last gold with him means no longer any. thing that glitters, but something that is heavy, malleable, fusible, and soluble in aqua regia;1 and he adds to these any other quality which the continued researches of each generation bring out.
Yet in spite of all these precautions, the name gold, so carefully defined by the philosophers, will slip away into the crowd of words, and we may hear a banker discussing the market-value of gold in such a manner that we can hardly believe he is speaking of the same thing which we last saw in the crucible of the chemist. You remember how the expression
golden-banded,” as applied to the sun, led to the formation of a story which explained the sun's losing his hand, and having it replaced by an artificial hand made of gold. That is Ancient Mythology. Now, if we were to say that of late years the supply of gold has been very much increased, and if from this we were to conclude that the increase of taxable property in this country was due to the discovery of gold in California, this would be Modern Mythology. We should use the name gold in two different senses. We should use gold in the one case as synonymous with realized wealth, in the other as the name of the circulating medium. We should commit the same mistake as the people of old, using the same word in two slightly varying senses, and then confounding one meaning with the other. For let it not be supposed that even in its more
1 Cf. Locke, iii. 9, 17.
naked form mythology is restricted to the earliest ages of the world.
Though one source of mythology, that which arises from radical and poetical metaphor, is less prolific in modern than in ancient dialects, there is another agency at work in modern dialects which, though in a different manner, produces nearly the same results, namely, phonetic decay, followed by popular etymology. By means of phonetic decay many words have lost their etymological transparency; nay, words, originally quite distinct in form and meaning, assume occasionally the same form. Now, as there is in the human mind a craving after etymology, a wish to find out, by fair means or foul, why such a thing should be called by such a name, it happens constantly that words are still further changed in order to make them intelligible once more; or, when two originally distinct words have actually run into one, some explanation is required, and readily furnished, in order to remove the difficulty.
“ La Tour sans venin" is a case in point, but it is by no means the only case.
From Anglo-Saxon blól, sacrifice, blotan, to kill for sacrifice, was derived blessian, to consecrate, to bless. In modern English, to bless seems connected with bliss, the Anglo-Saxon blis, joy, with which it had originally nothing in common.
Sorrow is the Anglo-Saxon sorh, the German Sorge; its supposed connection with sorry is merely imaginary, for the Anglo-Saxon for sorry is sárig, from sár, a wound, a sore.
In German, most people imagine that Sündfluth,