This section is from the book "Myths And Folk-Tales Of The Russians, Western Slavs, And Magyars", by Jeremiah Curtin. Also available from Amazon: Myths and Folk-Tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and the Magyars.
A FEW tens of years ago it was all-important to under-stand and explain the brotherhood and blood-bond of Aryan nations, and their relation to the Semitic race; to discover and set forth the meaning of that which in mental work, historic strivings, and spiritual ideals ties the historic nations to one another. At the present time this work is done, if not completely, at least measurably well, and a new work awaits us, to demonstrate that there is a higher and a mightier bond, - the relationship of created things with one another, and their inseverable connection with That which some men reverence as God, but which other men call the Unknowable, the Unseen.
This new work, which is the necessary continuation of the first, and which alone can give it completeness and significance, will be achieved when we have established the science of mythology.
Of course all that may be attempted in a volume like the present is to throw out a few hints, and to mention some of the uses of mythology as a science.
There is a large body of myths and folk-tales already published in Europe, and still a great number as yet uncollected. Many of these tales are of remarkable beauty. They are of deep interest both to young and old, and nowhere do they enjoy more delicate appreciation than among educated people in America and England. The delight in a beautiful and wonderful story is the very highest mental pleasure for a child, and great even for a grown man; but the explanation of it (if explanation there be) and the nature of its heroes (if that can be discovered) are dear to the mind of a mature person of culture. Much has been written touching the heroes of folk-tales, as well as the characters in Aryan mythology, but it appears to have produced small effect; for to most readers it seems un-proven, and founded mainly on the views of each writer. This is the reason why the chief, almost the only, value found in folk-tales, as yet, is the story itself, with its simple beauty, incomparable grotesqueness, and marvellous adventures.
The great majority even of the least modified tales of Europe have mainly substituted heroes, - sons of kings, tsars, merchants, poor men, soldiers, - so that in most cases the birth, occupation, or name of the present hero gives no clew to the original hero of the tale; but incidents do. The incidents are often an indication of what kind of person the original hero must have been.
A few of the tales in this volume have preserved elemental heroes; and this is a fact of great value, for it points to a similarity with the American system of mythology.
We have in the present volume Raven, - not the common bird, but that elemental power which, after having been overcome, turned into the common raven of to-day, and flew off to the mountains; Whirlwind and South Wind are both heroes, - one as a leading, the other as an important secondary, character in two of the Russian stories. We have two brothers Wind, in "The Cuirassier and the Horned Princess," in whom the personal character of Wind is well maintained. The steed, fire-eating and wise, of the Magyars, which appears also in Russian and other Slav tales, always mangy and miserable except in action, is a very significant character, whose real nature one may hope to demonstrate. But we have no tale in which it is clear who all the characters are; the modifying influences were too great and long-continued to permit that. Though myth-tales are, perhaps, more interesting for the majority of modern readers in their present form, they will not have their full interest for science till it is shown who most of the actors are under their disguises.
This is the nearest task of mythology.
There are masterpieces in literature filled with myths, inspired with myth conceptions of many kinds, simply colored by the life of the time and the nations among which these masterpieces were written and moulded to shape by artists, made strong from the spirit of great, simple people, as unknown to us as the nameless heroes who perished before Agamemnon. How much mythology is there in the Iliad and the Odyssey, in the Æneid, in the Divine Comedy of Dante, in the works of the other three great Italian poets? How much in Paradise Lost? How could "King Lear" and "Midsummer Night's Dream," or the "Idylls of the King" have been written without Keltic mythology? Many of these literary masterpieces have not merely myths in their composition as a sentence has words, but the earlier ones are enlarged or modified myth-tales of those periods, while the later ones are largely modelled on and inspired by the earlier.
The early chronicles of nations are as strikingly associated with mythology as are the masterpieces of literature. Omitting others, one case may be noted here, - that of the voluminous Gaelic chronicles and the so-called historical tales of Ireland, which, in the guise of history, give mythology, and preserve for coming investigators a whole buried Pantheon.
The service of the science of mythology will be great in connection with the myth-tales of nations, with literature, and with early history; but its weightiest service will be rendered in the domain of religion, for without mythology there can be no thorough understanding of any religion on earth, either in its inception or its growth.
But how is this science from which men may receive such service to be founded?
In one way alone: by obtaining from races outside of the Aryan and Semitic their myths, their beliefs, their view of the world; this done, the rest will follow as a result of intelligent labor. Cut the great battle is in the first part of the work, for the inherent difficulty of the task has been increased by Europeans, who have exterminated great numbers among the best primitive races, partially civilized or rather degraded others, and rendered the remainder distrustful and not easily approached on the subject of their myths and ethnic beliefs.