Custom and Myth eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 287 pages of information about Custom and Myth.

Let us end by showing how this discussion illustrates the method of Folklore.  We have found anomalies among Aryans.  We have seen the gens an odd, decaying institution.  We have seen Greek families claim descent from various animals, said to be Zeus in disguise.  We have found them tracing kinship and deriving names from the mother.  We have found stocks with animal and vegetable names.  We have found half-brothers and sisters marrying.  We have noted prohibition to marry anyone of the same family name.  All these institutions are odd, anomalous, decaying things among Aryans, and the more civilised the Aryans the more they decay.  All of them are living, active things among savages, and, far from being anomalous, are in precise harmony with savage notions of the world.  Surely, then, where they seem decaying and anomalous, as among Aryans, these customs and laws are mouldering relics of ideas and practices natural and inevitable among savages.


‘Avoid Coleridge, he is useless,’ says Mr. Ruskin.  Why should the poetry of Coleridge be useful?  The question may interest the critic, but we are only concerned with Mr. Ruskin here, for one reason.  His disparagement of Coleridge as ‘useless’ is a survival of the belief that art should be ‘useful.’  This is the savage’s view of art.  He imitates nature, in dance, song, or in plastic art, for a definite practical purpose.  His dances are magical dances, his images are made for a magical purpose, his songs are incantations.  Thus the theory that art is a disinterested expression of the imitative faculty is scarcely warranted by the little we know of art’s beginnings.  We shall adopt, provisionally, the hypothesis that the earliest art with which we are acquainted is that of savages contemporary or extinct.  Some philosophers may tell us that all known savages are only degraded descendants of early civilised men who have, unluckily and inexplicably, left no relics of their civilisation.  But we shall argue on the opposite theory, that the art of Australians, for example, is really earlier in kind, more backward, nearer the rude beginnings of things, than the art of people who have attained to some skill in pottery, like the New Caledonians.  These, again, are much more backward, in a state really much earlier, than the old races of Mexico and Peru; while they, in turn, show but a few traces of advance towards the art of Egypt; and the art of Egypt, at least after the times of the Ancient Empire, is scarcely advancing in the direction of the flawless art of Greece.  We shall be able to show how savage art, as of the Australians, develops into barbarous art, as of the New Zealanders; while the arts of strange civilisations, like those of Peru and Mexico, advance one step further; and how, again, in the early art of Greece, in the Greek art of ages prior to Pericles, there are remains of barbaric forms which are gradually softened into beauty.  But there are necessarily breaks and solutions of continuity in the path of progress.

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Custom and Myth from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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