Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mythology, Folklore and Religion by Lewis Spence 1917

Mythology, Folklore and Religion by Lewis Spence 1917

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The function of mythology is the investigation and explanation of myths or tales relating to the early religious and scientific experiences of mankind. It throws light upon the material, methods, and progress of primitive religion and science, for many myths are an attempt to explain physical as well as religious phenomena.

Myth is one of the great objects of the science of 'tradition' (Lat. 'that which is handed down'), the others, with which myth is only too frequently confounded, being folklore and legend. It is hoped that the following list of definitions will prove of value to students of the subject, as it is certainly the most precise and embracive yet advanced.


Myth, folk-tale, and legend may be generally defined as traditional forms of narrative. That is, all are embraced within the term 'tradition.'

Myth. A myth is an account of the deeds of a god or supernatural being, usually expressed in terms of primitive thought. It is an attempt to explain the relations of man to the universe, and it has for those who recount it a predominantly religious value; or it may have arisen to 'explain' the existence of some social organization, a custom, or the peculiarities of an environment.

Mythology. Mythology as a term implies (a) the mythic system of any race; (b) the investigation of myth.

Folklore. Folklore means the study of survivals of early custom, belief, narrative, and art.

Folk-tale. A primitive tale (a) of mythical origin; (b) of purely narrative or ├Žsthetic value.

Legend. A story, generally of real places, often (though not necessarily) of real persons, handed down by 'tradition.'


Mythology is the study of a primitive or early form of religion while it was a living faith.

Folklore is the study of primitive religion and customs still practised.

Some authorities regard folklore and mythology as almost interchangeable words; others look upon myth as the groundwork of folklore; but for purposes of study we shall be wise if we regard as fundamental myth any tale in which a god or demigod figures which explains the making of the world, or the origin of some primitive custom among the peoples of antiquity or the backward races to-day, while folklore may denote the study of fragments or survivals of old belief or custom found among uneducated or semi-educated people in civilized countries. Thus it is correct to speak of the folklore of England, Germany, or Italy, applying the word to the surviving superstitions and fragments of older faiths to be found in these modern countries among the uncultured classes; but to speak of the folklore of African, Australian, or American savages when we are dealing with the living religious beliefs of these people is highly incorrect. True, fragments of older belief are frequently discovered among primitive people, but the expression should not be used to designate their living religious beliefs.

It will now be clear that in the present volume our concern is with the science of myth alone—that is, with religious beliefs and conjectures as to the nature of things of primitive, ancient, or barbarous peoples, and not with modern religious science, philosophy, or theology.

The questions touched upon in this introductory chapter will be more fully outlined later on, and are here presented in order to familiarize the reader with the general subject-matter of the science before entering upon more detailed discussion.


The sciences of mythology and comparative religion overlap at many points, but comparative religion is a branch of religious science or philosophy, whereas mythology deals with mere myths, or, under the more antiquated designation of 'comparative mythology,' compares the myths of different races. In myths too, however, we hear of the birth and nature of gods, the creation of the earth, and the primitive 'reason' for certain ritual acts. As these matters are also discussed by comparative religion or religious science, mythology and comparative religion often contemplate the same phenomenon at the same time. Mythology is therefore a part of religious science. This leads us to our next heading:


The attempt to define religion has exercised the philosophic mind through centuries, and never more so than at the present time, although it is now generally recognized that all purely scientific attempts to determine it are doomed to failure, as its origin and nature must be sought conjecturally through psychology. Dr E.B. Tylor proposed as a 'minimum definition' for religion "the belief in spiritual beings"; but this does not embrace ritual, which Robertson Smith thought of first consequence in primitive religion, dogma and myth being secondary. Sir J.G. Frazer considers religion "a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man," a definition not always appropriate. Crawley (in his Tree of Life, p. 209) defines the religious object as "the sacred," a very obscure definition. Herbert Spencer derived all religion from the worship of the dead. Max M├╝ller considered that "Religion consists in the perception of the infinite under such manifestations as are able to influence the moral character of man." The fact is that our present knowledge of the human mind does not permit us to make any final definition of the word 'religion,'

The study of myths, then, is assisted by comparative religion, while myths in their turn often explain gods, men, and the universe, and customs and organizations of society. Many of them, indeed, are early efforts at a reconciliation of the tales of gods and heroes with the religious sentiment, which recognized in these beings objects for worship and respect.

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