What is a Myth? by Karl J Karlson 1914
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Gennep says that it is a legend localized in time and space outside human reach but within that of divine personages. A legend he defines as being a story in which "the place is indicated with precision and the personages some determined individuals whose acts have a foundation which seems historic and heroic." And "one can understand by myth a legend in relation to the supernatural
world and explain it indeed from the rites." In this respect he differs radically from Brinton who maintains that no myth ever rose from the rite, but that the rite always arose from the myth, whether we are able to explain it or not; the old myth which gave rise to the rite, may be lost. Boas on the other hand believes "that the tale as such is older
than its mythological significance."
John Fiske undoubtedly tries to bring in and apply the generic 'or evolutionary idea into mythology for he defines a myth as:
"in its origin an explanation, by the uncivilized mind, of some natural phenomena, not an allegory, not an esoteric symbol,-for the ingenuity is wasted which strives to detect in myths the remnants of a refined primeval science,-but an explanation."
Tylor maintains that:
"myth is sham history, the fictitious narrative of events that never happened."
"A myth, in its simplest de1lnition, is a story with a meaning attached to it other than that which it seems to have at first, and the last that it has such a meaning is generally marked by some of its circumstances being extraordinary."
Ruskin seems to be radically at variance with John Fiske who maintajned that a myth was an explanation and he that it needs one.
Max Muller holds that
"mythology which was the bane of the ancient world, is, in truth, a disease of language." "The origin of mythological phraseology is always the same; it is language forgetting herself." "It is in fact the dark shadow which language throws on thought and which never disappears till language becomes commensurate with thought which it never will." "Mythology in the highest sense is the power exerted by language upon thought in every possible sphere of mental activity, and I do not hesitate to call the whole history of philosophy, from Thales down to Hegel, an uninterrupted battle against mythology, a constant protest of thought against language."
I have given this rather lengthy quotation from Max Muller to show his trend of thought. He has had perhaps more to do with the "Sacred Books of the East" than any other Westerner and thus has had a good opportunity to form his opinion about their subject-matter. But it is strange how mind can lose itself in the narrow paths of thought unguided by any psychological insight.
Forlong regards myths as:
"history which we have not yet been able to read." "Zeuses and los, Europas and Helenas, Titans and Toths and gods are all history in the process of incubation; we must unravel the skein and see the real actors, their acts, principles and faiths."
Abraham says that:
"myth is a piece of overcome infantile mental life of a people. It contains (in a curtailed form) the infantile wish of a people."
In regard to the origin of the myths Wundt writes that:
"the last source of all myth formation, of all religious feelings and ideas is the individual fantasy-activity; even those structures which have been developed under the condition of communal life possess entirely the character of a creation of fancy. In myth the folk-fantasy connects the event with reality. In religion it creates from the contents of these events its ideas concerning the cause and purpose of the human existence."
Definitions could be multiplied but the above cited may be enough to show what divergence of opinions exists among those who have studied this subject. Interesting to be sure they are, for they show what other persons have thought about the myths and also reflect the special interest by which they were guided. In Max Muller's definition the philologist appears plainly, in John Fiske's the historian and so on.
The Greek word _mythos_, which has been transplanted into almost every language, means simply 'a word" or "a saying," and the definitions that make myths history which we are not yet able to read coincide fairly well with this. Myth is then a word, a saying, an expression by primitive man of his thoughts and ideas about himself and the world in which he lives. As John Fiskesays: "They are the earliest recorded utterances of men concerning the visible phenomena of the world into which they were born." Myth is thus history, obscured to be sure by the many transformations which everything human has to go through from time to time, but history, nevertheless, recording what primitive man thought and felt in the first stages of his existence as man, be it either as a race or as an individual.
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