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GENERAL REMARKS ON MYTHOLOGY.
and further into the region of the dim unknown; and the longer the thread of narration, or in other words, the earlier the origin of the people, the more misty and remote this mythic line becomes.
The transition from the darker ages to history written by contemporary witnesses, may be easily recognized from the character of the narrative itself; at the same time, however, the credibility of the several narrators should also be taken into account; and, above all, we must never forget the curious phænomenon in the philosophy of mind, that a nation frequently relapses into a taste for the marvellous when it is falling into decay, for at that period the patriarchal times recur most forcibly to the memory. “The lapse of a long interval of time increases the supposed importance of all past events?.” This is more particularly the case in those countries, where the priesthood, who seldom arrive at the summit of their power until the political greatness of a nation is already on the decline, have developed their authority to its utmost extent. From the moment that the literature of a country is entirely committed to the hands of its priests, we uniformly find, not only that history assumes a priestly dress, and so disposes of her materials that the immediate interference of the Deity or of his chosen agents may be constantly apparent, but that even the popular traditions acquire an altered shape in the hands of the priestly narrators, and are made to contribute to the same pervading purpose. Nay, in order to supply the whole cycle of national legends with a suitable commencement, and to connect the constitution, in every practicable way, with the highest possible origin, the Deity himself, it has been usual among theocratic nations to place a cosmo
1“Omnia post obitum fingit majora vetustas."
gony and mythology at the very beginning of their history. Even the Grecian authors, who have preserved to us the remains of the ancient Egyptian legends, have not scrupled to commence with the theogony of that nation.
In the systems of Zoroaster and Menu, the account of the formation of the world is completely incorporated with the laws; and the Hindoo still adheres so tenaciously to this usage, that every work which lays claim to the name of Purana or ancient, must pursue a fivefold object, and, in conformity with the general distribution of the Israelitish and every other primæval history, must separately treat of the creation, the theogony, the chronology and genealogy of the ancient heroes, and their individual history. This enumeration includes, in fact, all the various subordinate characters which a legendary history can at any time assume; for since its two fundamental elements, poetry and history, or philosophical myth and historical tradition, admit of an endless variety of form, it is left altogether to the narrator to clothe his philosophical views in what may appear to him the most suitable dress, and more especially to employ all the licence of the Epic poet in his treatment of the heroes of antiquity; he may connect their pedigrees with others, and prolong them at his pleasure till they reach to the very gods; he may give to their deeds any tendency he may desire, and adorn them with the utmost splendour; he may adapt to his purpose the historical elements which he may chance to find in the current traditions of the people, or, in the absence of these historical elements, he may supply from his own invention whatever seems best fitted to advance the interests of religion and of his country, or to stimulate the emulation of his contemporaries.
Speculations on metaphysical subjects, as well as theories and reflections on the origin and revolutions of the universe, on the moral and physical constitution of the world, on the commencement and first development of the human race, were clothed, like all the learning of the ancient East, in an historical dress, and the essence of all these several theories, when adorned and expanded according to the individual conceptions of the poet, forms the proper Mythology of a nation.
Then follows the age of heroes and of superhuman sages; the gods descend among the daughters of men, and heavenly nymphs deign to hold intercourse with mortals, to found a race of heroic demigods, or to train the human mind to religion and virtue: thus the heavenly Krishna seizes the opportunity, before the commencement of a battle, to remove the doubts of his favourite hero respecting the immortality of the soul. The gods wander unseen among men, in order to observe their actions; they choose their favourites, visit them in their homes on earth, or receive them as welcome guests (as Indras did Arjunas) in their citadel of heaven. To try the constancy of their followers, the gods expose them to temptation, and seek, not always without some mixture of envy, to place obstacles in the way of that rigid virtue which would raise a mortal to associate with themselves ; they bestow long life and the richest earthly blessings on the man who endures their trials; they favour him with their counsel and assistance against oppression from without (as Allah on every occasion protects the faithful follower of Mohammed against the unbeliever); they invest him with the power to decide, by his blessing or his curse, on the weal or woe of single individuals and of entire nations; and they finally bestow upon
PROPHECIES AND LAWS.
him the precious gift of prophecy, which enables him to foretell the fate of his descendants, and supplies succeeding poets with the groundwork of those predictions, which they carry down without scruple to the times in which they live. The land in which these divine sages have dwelt, is considered as the sacred inheritance of their pious descendants, and all other nations are regarded as the impure offspring of Brahmins who have gone forth from, or been rejected by, the great Brahmavarta. Those localities, moreover, in which the divinities are supposed to have appeared, are held in peculiar reverence, or, in other words, the awe and veneration with which they are viewed, induce poetically the belief in such appearances; hence every Hindoo sanctuary has its local legends or Sthala-puranas, designed to prove the high antiquity of the temple and of its worship, and the priests cite etymological explanations of the names in common use in order to support these sacred fables.
In addition to the elements we have mentioned, a large space in the early history of theocratic nations is uniformly devoted to the legislatorial traditions, or collections of sacerdotal laws, which were revealed, as we are told, by the Deity himself, to some pious and godly sage; these laws, too, are so far entitled to the name of mythic, as they are always referred to the earliest times, in order that the established constitution may derive a higher sanction from the fact, that even the ancient heroes, and the very gods themselves, had conformed to its sacred enactments.
Such laws having been founded on ancient usage and the first rude provisions of civic society,and having only acquired their form and consistency in the course of successive ages, were gradually incorporated with various limitations and additions, and could as little disclaim their periodical de
GENERAL REMARKS ON MYTHOLOGY.
velopment, as the national wants which first called them into being. It is seldom, nevertheless, that they were openly promulgated as the rule of life and the guide of conduct, until the theocratic government could calculate with confidence on a ready compliance with their fundamental dogmas, and could reasonably expect the same easy submission to any new laws which they might wish to introduce to meet the exigencies of the moment. These subsequent additions are generally marked with the clearest traces of the period of their origin.
It is evident from this sketch of the general features which may be dimly traced in the early history of every people, or which are clearly impressed upon its surface, that the principal aim which it has in view, is to pass by insensible degrees from the universal to the particular and national, and gradually to contract its circle, from the creation of the universe to the origin of the nation, and the fixed institutions of society. In the relative prominence given to these larger periods, we discover not only the general complexion of the legendary history, but the leading features in the national character of the people, just as the individual mind is most clearly reflected in its own ideal creations.
Where the influence of the priesthood predominates as the legislative and executive power, we uniformly find, not only that the laws are based on a moral and religious foundation, and that their provisions have in general a milder character, (where the interests of the hierarchy do not require an inflexible severity) but that even the mythic heroes of earlier times are made to assume a priestly character, and to act in accordance with the national tendencies of the time; thus here an Abraham is set up as a pattern of piety and submission to the divine will, and