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Every kind of excuse, I know quite well, has been used in order to escape from the drudgery of philological study. Its results have been called uncertain and changing, and no grapes have ever been called so sour as those that produce the intoxicating wine of Comparative Philology. The most honest excuse has always been one in which I can fully sympathize, that life is too short to learn the grammars even of the seventy-five languages of North America only. No doubt it is, but it is not too short to teach us a certain amount of circumspection, before we declare, like Mr. Herbert Spencer, that the North American languages are still in such a state that they cannot be spoken in the dark, or before we pronounce an opinion that they cannot possibly possess a name for the Infinite.
I know of course that when I have from time to time availed myself of the traditions of non-civilised races in elucidation of Greek, Roman, and Vedic mythology, I have laid myself open to the same criticism which I have so freely addressed to others. The subject seemed to me so important that I was willing to incur a certain risk while trying to attract the attention of others to the valuable results likely to be obtained from it, and while encouraging younger scholars to study such languages as Hottentot or Mohawk, in the same spirit in which they had studied Greek and Latin. I myself had but little time to bestow on the study of these non-literary languages,
Indians worshipped one “Great Spirit” or single overruling personal god is erroneous. That philosophical conception is beyond the stage of culture reached by them, and was not found in any tribe previous to missionary influence. Their actual philosophy can be expressed far more objectively and therefore pictorially.' But see also Shea, Dict. Français Onontagué, preface.
yet I may say this in self-defence that, whenever I have ventured to write about the religious, mythological, and moral ideas of uncivilised races and the light which they throw on dark chapters of Aryan or Semitic religion, mythology, or ethics, I have always tried to gain beforehand a certain insight into their language or to claim the assistance of competent scholars, in order to keep myself from going entirely wrong, though painfully aware all the time of the thinness of the ice on which I ventured.
Before I wrote on the mythology of North-American Indians, I had availed myself of the opportunity of learning the elements of the Mohawk language from my young friend, M. Oronyhateka, when an undergraduate at Oxford. I wrote down at the time the outlines of a Mohawk grammar, which perhaps may still be published some day
It was my friendship with the late Bishop Patteson of Melanesia which led me to take an interest in Melanesian and Polynesian grammar. He sent me lists of words and grammatical outlines which threw strange rays of light on the thoughts of these primitive islanders. After his death I enjoyed the great benefit of being able to go through the intricacies of Polynesian mythology with Mr. W. W. Gill, who, as a missionary, has acquired a complete mastery of some of the Polynesian dialects. At a still later time I could avail myself of the explanations which the Rev. R. H. Codrington, one of the highest authorities in
I Cf. The Literary Faculty of the Native Races of America, by John Reade, Trans. Roy. Soc. Canada, Sect. II. 1884, p. 17; The HuronIroquois of Canada, by Daniel Wilson, Trans. Roy. Soc. Canada, Sect. II. 1884, p. 87.
this branch of philology, was good enough to give me as to the mental capacities of these interesting races. It was only after receiving such valuable help that in my Preface to ‘Myths and Songs from the South Pacific,' by the Rev. William Wyatt Gill, 18761, I ventured to call attention to the lessons which Comparative Mythologists might learn, even in the small island of Mangaia, and to the curious coincidences between Polynesian and classical myths and customs.
It may, no doubt, seem bold to classical scholars to endeavour to make the myths of Greek poets and the theories of Greek philosophers as to the marriage between Heaven and Earth more intelligible by a reference to the crude traditions of the New Zealanders , still more to trace the sensus numinis and the first apprehensions of the Infinite to the Mana of the Melanesians. Still, under proper safeguards, and more particularly with the advice of the best authorities accessible at present, such boldness may be forgiven, and may possibly encourage others who are better qualified than I am to prosecute researches, which have already yielded some fruit.
As to the African languages, they were brought near to me many years ago through my personal intercourse with the late Dr. Bleek, and afterwards with his gifted successor, Dr. Hahn. But again I should have hesitated to avail myself of the rich materials which the folk-lore of African races supplies to the student of mythology, had I not been able to confer personally with such scholars as Dr. Callaway and Dr. Hahn on every point on which I wished to speak
1 Introduction to the Science of Religion, p. 248. 2 India, what can it teach us? pp. 150–56 ; Hibbert Lectures, p. 55.
as elucidating dark corners in the mythology of India and Greece. It was under such guidance that I felt encouraged to write what I have written on South African mythology, on the metaphorical meaning of Uthlanga ?, on the Mythology among the Hottentots ?, and on the Languages of Africa in general 3.
We have thus examined the three schools of Comparative Mythology, the Etymological, the Analogical, and the purely Psychological, and we have seen what kind of work has been done, and may still be done, by each of them. It may possibly be asked why mythology should deserve so laborious a study. In former times mythology was studied chiefly to enable the classical scholar to understand the frequent allusions to gods and goddesses, to heroes and heroines which occur in Greek and Latin authors. It was also considered a part of general education, so far as it enabled ladies and gentlemen to recognise the character and meaning of ancient statues in our museums, and the right pronunciation of the names of classical gods and heroes, so often introduced into their writings by modern poets. But that mythology should possess an interest of its own, that it should mark an important period in the history of language and thought, and therefore in the history of the human race, was never thought of.
So long as we knew of Greek and Roman mythology only, this was intelligible. The Greeks and Romans were always looked upon as exceptional people, and it was ascribed to their peculiar poetical genius that they should have invented so strange a collection of fancies and horrors as their mythology.
1 Introduction to the Science of Religion, 1882, p. 40. 2 Ibid., p. 273.
3 Ibid., p. 236.
But when it was found that almost every nation, whether civilised or uncivilised, possessed something like mythology, and that these various mythologies presented the most startling coincidences, philosophers could not help admitting that there must be something in human nature that by necessity led to mythology, nay, that there must be some reason in all the unreason that goes by the name of myth.
That something was discovered to be language, in its natural progress from roots to words ; in its being forced to use roots expressive of human activities in naming the most striking phenomena of the objective world, and, in many cases, in its forgetfulness of the original purport of such names. Mythology, which at first seemed like a kind of madness that had come over the human race at a certain period of its development, has now been recognised as an inevitable phase in the growth of language and thought, for the two are always inseparable. It represents what in geology we should call a metamorphic stratum, a convulsion of rational, intelligible, and duly stratified language produced by volcanic eruptions of underlying rocks. It is metamorphic language and thought, and it is the duty of the geologist of language to try to discover in the widely scattered fragments of that mythological stratum the remains of organic life, of rational thought, and of the earliest religious aspirations.