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Transcribed from the 1884 Longmans, Green and Co. edition by David Price,
email ccx074@coventry.ac.uk





CUSTOM AND MYTH


To E. B. Tylor, author of 'Primitive Culture,' these studies of the
oldest stories are dedicated.




INTRODUCTION.


Though some of the essays in this volume have appeared in various
serials, the majority of them were written expressly for their present
purpose, and they are now arranged in a designed order.  During some
years of study of Greek, Indian, and savage mythologies, I have become
more and more impressed with a sense of the inadequacy of the prevalent
method of comparative mythology.  That method is based on the belief that
myths are the result of a disease of language, as the pearl is the result
of a disease of the oyster.  It is argued that men at some period, or
periods, spoke in a singular style of coloured and concrete language, and
that their children retained the phrases of this language after losing
hold of the original meaning.  The consequence was the growth of myths
about supposed persons, whose names had originally been mere
'appellations.'  In conformity with this hypothesis the method of
comparative mythology examines the proper names which occur in myths.  The
notion is that these names contain a key to the meaning of the story, and
that, in fact, of the story the names are the germs and the oldest
surviving part.

The objections to this method are so numerous that it is difficult to
state them briefly.  The attempt, however, must be made.  To desert the
path opened by the most eminent scholars is in itself presumptuous; the
least that an innovator can do is to give his reasons for advancing in a
novel direction.  If this were a question of scholarship merely, it would
be simply foolhardy to differ from men like Max Muller, Adalbert Kuhn,
Breal, and many others.  But a revolutionary mythologist is encouraged by
finding that these scholars usually differ from each other.  Examples
will be found chiefly in the essays styled 'The Myth of Cronus,' 'A Far-
travelled Tale,' and 'Cupid and Psyche.'  Why, then, do distinguished
scholars and mythologists reach such different goals?  Clearly because
their method is so precarious.  They all analyse the names in myths; but,
where one scholar decides that the name is originally Sanskrit, another
holds that it is purely Greek, and a third, perhaps, is all for an
Accadian etymology, or a Semitic derivation.  Again, even when scholars
agree as to the original root from which a name springs, they differ as
much as ever as to the meaning of the name in its present place.  The
inference is, that the analysis of names, on which the whole edifice of
philological 'comparative mythology' rests, is a foundation of shifting
sand.  The method is called 'orthodox,' but, among those who practise it,
there is none of the beautiful unanimity of orthodoxy.

These objections are not made by the unscholarly anthropologist alone.
Curtius has especially remarked the difficulties which beset the
'etymological operation' in the case of proper names.  'Peculiarly
dubious and perilous is mythological etymology.  Are we to seek the
sources of the divine names in aspects of nature, or in moral
conceptions; in special Greek geographical conditions, or in natural
circumstances which are everywhere the same: in dawn with her rays, or in
clouds with their floods; are we to seek the origin of the names of
heroes in things historical and human, or in physical phenomena?' {3a}
Professor Tiele, of Leyden, says much the same thing: 'The uncertainties
are great, and there is a constant risk of taking mere jeux d'esprit for
scientific results.' {3b}  Every name has, if we can discover or
conjecture it, a meaning.  That meaning--be it 'large' or 'small,' 'loud'
or 'bright,' 'wise' or 'dark,' 'swift' or 'slow'--is always capable of
being explained as an epithet of the sun, or of the cloud, or of both.
Whatever, then, a name may signify, some scholars will find that it
originally denoted the cloud, if they belong to one school, or the sun or
dawn, if they belong to another faction.  Obviously this process is a
mere jeu d'esprit.  This logic would be admitted in no other science,
and, by similar arguments, any name whatever might be shown to be
appropriate to a solar hero.

The scholarly method has now been applied for many years, and what are
the results?  The ideas attained by the method have been so popularised
that they are actually made to enter into the education of children, and
are published in primers and catechisms of mythology.  But what has a
discreet scholar to say to the whole business?  'The difficult task of
interpreting mythical names has, so far, produced few certain results'--so
writes Otto Schrader. {4} Though Schrader still has hopes of better
things, it is admitted that the present results are highly disputable.  In
England, where one set of these results has become an article of faith,
readers chiefly accept the opinions of a single etymological school, and
thus escape the difficulty of making up their minds when scholars differ.
But differ scholars do, so widely and so often, that scarcely any solid
advantages have been gained in mythology from the philological method.

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