analyze them, despising nothing; like a chemist who resolves some compound object into its original elements—the very combination constituting a history of the object.
H. H. Bancroft describes myths as—
“A mass of fragmentary truth and fiction, not open to rationalistic criticism; a partition wall of allegories, built of dead facts cemented with wild fancies; it looms ever between the immeasurable and the measurable past.”
But he adds:
“Never was there a time in the history of philosophy when the character, customs, and beliefs of aboriginal man, and everything appertaining to him, were held in such high esteem by scholars as at present.”
“It is now a recognized principle of philosophy that no religious belief, however crude, nor any historical tradition, however absurd, can be held by the majority of a people for any considerable time as true, without having had in the beginning some foundation in fact."
An universal myth points to two conclusions:
First, that it is based on some fact.
Secondly, that it dates back, in all probability, to the time when the ancestors of the races possessing it had not yet separated.
A myth should be analyzed carefully; the fungi that have attached themselves to it should be brushed off; the core of fact should be separated from the decorations and errors of tradition.
But above all, it must be remembered that we can not depend upon either the geography or the chronology of a myth. As I have shown, there is a universal tendency to give the old story a new habitat, and hence we have Ararats and Olympuses all over the world. In the same
[1. “The Native Races of America,” vol. iii, p. 14.]
way the myth is always brought down and attached to more recent events:
“All over Europe-in Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Ireland—the exploits of the oldest mythological heroes, figuring in the Sagas, Eddas, and Nibelungen Lied, have been ascribed, in the folk-lore and ballads of the people, to Barbarossa, Charlemagne, Boabdil, Charles V, William Tell, Arthur, Robin Hood, Wallace, and St. Patrick."
In the next place, we must remember how impossible it is for the mind to invent an entirely new fact.
What dramatist or novelist has ever yet made a plot which did not consist of events that had already transpired somewhere on earth? He might intensify events, concentrate and combine them, or amplify them; but that is all. Men in all ages have suffered from jealousy,—like Othello; have committed murders,—like Macbeth; have yielded to the sway of morbid minds,—like Hamlet; have stolen, lied, and debauched,—like Falstaff;—there are Oliver Twists, Bill Sykeses, and Nancies; Micawbers, Pickwicks, and Pecksniffs in every great city.