Mythology: Understanding Myths and Legends

The article that follows is written by J. W. Powell, with editing removing offensive (to the modern eye) language. It is short summary of an obvious evolution in human thought about the divine.

The use of layers of thought implies a progression from lower to higher, a mode of thinking very much in vogue at that time of this writing. Objectively, however, the layers of divinity and their progression from “lower” to “higher” orders of theism is an artifice. The ways of (the) God(s) remain ever inscrutable.

The work is entered in the category “cultural diffusionism” as an expression of the universal quest for meaning, and its very regular rhythms in all parts of the world.

John Wesley “Wes” Powell was a U.S. soldier, geologist, explorer of the American West, professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and director of major scientific and cultural institutions. The article is extracted from Sketch of the Mythology of the North American Indians.
— Orly

Mythologic philosophy is the subject with which we deal. Its method, as stated in general terms, is this: All phenomena of the outer objective world are interpreted by comparison with those of the inner subjective world.  Whatever happens, some one does it; that some one has a will and works as he wills. The basis of the philosophy is personality. The persons who do the things which we observe in the phenomena of the universe are the gods of mythology — the cosmos is a pantheon. Under this system, whatever may be the phenomenon observed, the philosopher asks, “Who does it?” and “Why?” and the answer comes, “A god with his design.” The winds blow, and the interrogatory is answered, “Æolus frees them from the cave to speed the ship of a friend, or destroy the vessel of a foe.” The actors in mythological philosophy are gods.

In the character of these gods four stages of philosophy may be discovered. In the lowest and earliest stage everything has life; everything is endowed with personality, will, and design; animals are endowed with all the wonderful attributes of mankind; all inanimate objects are believed to be animate; trees think and speak; stones have loves and hates; hills and mountains, springs and rivers, and all the bright stars, have life — everything discovered objectively by the senses is looked upon subjectively by the philosopher and endowed with all the attributes supposed to be inherent in himself. In this stage of philosophy everything is a god. Let us call it hecastotheism.

In the second stage men no longer attribute life indiscriminately to inanimate things; but the same powers and attributes recognized by subjective vision in man are attributed to the animals by which he is surrounded. No line of demarkation is drawn between man and beast; all are great beings endowed with wonderful attributes. Let us call this stage zoötheism, when men worship beasts. All the phenomena of nature are the doings of these animal gods; all the facts of nature, all the phenomena of the known universe, all the institutions of humanity known to the philosophers of this stage, are accounted for in the mythologic history of these zoömorphic gods.

In the third stage a wide gulf is placed between man and the lower animals. The animal gods are dethroned, and the powers and phenomena of nature are personified and deified. Let us call this stage physitheism. The gods are strictly anthropomorphic, having the form as well as the mental, moral, and social attributes of men. Thus we have a god of the sun, a god of the moon, a god of the air, a god of dawn, and a deity of the night.

In the fourth stage, mental, moral, and social characteristics are personified and deified. Thus we have a god of war, a god of love, a god of revelry, a god of plenty, and like personages who preside over the institutions and occupations of mankind. Let us call this psychotheism. With the mental, moral, and social characteristics in these gods are associated the powers of nature; and they differ from nature-gods chiefly in that they have more distinct psychic characteristics.

Psychotheism, by the processes of mental integration, developes in one direction into monotheism, and in the other into pantheism. When the powers of nature are held predominant in the minds of the philosophers through whose cogitations this evolution of theism is carried on, pantheism, as the highest form of psychotheism, is the final result; but when the moral qualities are held in highest regard in the minds of the men in whom this process of evolution is carried on, monotheism, or a god whose essential characteristics are moral qualities, is the final product. The monotheistic god is not nature, but presides over and operates through, nature. Psychotheism has long been recognized. All of the earlier literature of mankind treats largely of these gods, for it is an interesting fact that in the history of any civilized people, the evolution of psychotheism is approximately synchronous with the invention of an alphabet. In the earliest writings of the Egyptians, the Hindus, and the Greeks, this stage is discovered, and Osiris, Indra, and Zeus are characteristic representatives. As psychotheism and written language appear together in the evolution of culture, this stage of theism is consciously or unconsciously a part of the theme of all written history.

The paleontologist, in studying the rocks of the hill and the cliffs of the mountain, discovers, in inanimate stones, the life-forms of the ancient earth. The geologist, in the study of the structure of valleys and mountains, discovers groups of facts that lead him to a knowledge of more ancient mountains and valleys and seas, of geographic features long ago buried, and followed by a new land with new mountains and valleys, and new seas. The philologist, in studying the earliest writings of a people, not only discovers the thoughts purposely recorded in those writings, but is able to go back in the history of the people many generations, and discover with even greater certainty the thoughts of the more ancient people who made the words. Thus the writings of the Greeks, the Hindus, and the Egyptians, that give an account of their psychic gods, also contain a description of an earlier theism unconsciously recorded by the writers themselves. Psychotheism prevailed when the sentences were coined, physitheism when the words were coined. So the philologist discovers physitheism in all ancient literature. But the verity of that stage of philosophy does not rest alone upon the evidence derived from the study of fossil philosophies through the science of philology. In the folk-lore of every civilized people having a psychotheistic philosophy, an earlier philosophy with nature-gods is discovered.

The different stages of philosophy which I have attempted to characterize have never been found in purity. We always observe different methods of explanation existing side by side, and the type of a philosophy is determined by the prevailing characteristics of its explanation of phenomena. Fragments of the earlier are always found side by side with, the greater body of the later philosophy. Man has never clothed himself in new garments of wisdom, but has ever been patching the old, and the old and the new are blended in the same pattern, and thus we have atavism in philosophy. So in the study of any philosophy which has reached the psychotheistic age, patches of the earlier philosophy are always seen. Ancient nature-gods are found to be living and associating with the supreme psychic deities. Thus in anthropologic science there are three ways by which, to go back in the history of any civilized people and learn of its barbaric physitheism. But of the verity of this stage we have further evidence. When Christianity was carried north from Central Europe, the champions of the new philosophy, and its consequent religion, discovered, among those who dwelt by the glaciers of the north, a barbaric philosophy which they have preserved to history in the Eddas and Sagas, and Norse literature is full of a philosophy in a transition state, from physitheism to psychotheism; and, mark! the people discovered in this transition state were inventing an alphabet — they were carving Runes. Then a pure physitheism was discovered in the Aztec of Mexico; and elsewhere on the globe many people were found in that stage of culture to which this philosophy properly belongs. Thus the existence of physitheism as a stage of philosophy is abundantly attested. Comparative mythologists are agreed in recognizing these two stages. They might not agree to throw all of the higher and later philosophies into one group, as I have done, but all recognize the plane of demarcation between the higher and the lower groups as I have drawn it. Scholars, too, have come essentially to an agreement that physitheism is earlier and older than psychotheism. Perhaps there may be left a “doubting Thomas” who believes that the highest stage of psychotheism — that is, monotheism — was the original basis for the philosophy of the world, and that all other forms are degeneracies from that earlier and perfect state. If there be such a man left, to him what I have to say about philosophy is blasphemy.

Again, all students of comparative philosophy, or comparative mythology, or comparative religion, as you may please to approach this subject from different points of view, recognize that there is something else; that there are philosophies, or mythologies, or religions, not included in the two great groups. All that something else has been vaguely called fetishism. I have divided it into two parts, hecastotheism and zoötheism. The verity of zoötheism as a stage of philosophy rests on abundant evidence. In psychotheism it appears as devilism in obedience to a well-known law of comparative theology, viz, that the gods of a lower and superseded stage of culture oftentimes become the devils of a higher stage. So in the very highest stages of psychotheism we find beast-devils. In Norse mythology, we have Fenris the wolf, and Jormungandur the serpent. Dragons appear in Greek mythology, the bull is an Egyptian god, a serpent is found in the Zendavesta; and was there not a scaly fellow in the garden of Eden? So common are these beast-demons in the later mythologies that they are used in every literature as rhetorical figures. So we find, as a figure of speech, the great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, with tail that with one brush sweeps away a third of the stars of heaven. And where ever we find nature-worship we find it accompanied with beast-worship. In the study of higher philosophies, having learned that lower philosophies often exist side by side with them, we might legitimately conclude that a philosophy based upon animal gods had existed previous to the development of physitheism; and philologic research, leads to the same conclusion. But we are not left to base this conclusion upon, an induction only, for in the examination of savage philosophies we actually discover zoötheism in all its proportions. Many of the Indians of North America, and many of South America, and many of the tribes of Africa, are found to be zoötheists. Their supreme gods are animals — tigers, bears, wolves, serpents, birds. Having discovered this, with a vast accumulation of evidence, we are enabled to carry philosophy back one stage beyond physitheism, and we can confidently assert that all the philosophies of civilization have come up through these three stages.

And yet, there are fragments of philosophy discovered which are not zoötheistic, physitheistic, nor psychotheistic. What are they? We find running through all three stages of higher philosophy that phenomena are sometimes explained by regarding them as the acts of persons who do not belong to any of the classes of gods found in the higher stages. We find fragments of philosophy everywhere which seem to assume that all inanimate nature is animate; that mountains and hills, and rivers and springs, that trees and grasses, that stones, and all fragments of things are endowed with life and with will, and act for a purpose. These fragments of philosophy lead to the discovery of hecastotheism. Philology also leads us back to that state when the animate and the inanimate were confounded, for the holophrastic roots into which words are finally resolved show us that all inanimate things were represented in language as actors. Such is the evidence on which we predicate the existence of hecastotheism as a veritable stage of philosophy. Unlike the three higher stages, it has no people extant on the face of the globe, known to be in this stage of culture. The philosophies of many of the lowest tribes of mankind are yet unknown, and hecastotheism may be discovered; but at the present time we are not warranted in saying that any tribe entertains this philosophy as its highest wisdom.



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