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Ques. What is Mythology?
Ans. This word is derived from the Greek, Mythos, a myth or fable, and logos, a discourse. A myth is, properly speaking, an allegory or fable invented to convey some important moral or religious truth, or illustrate some operation of nature. Mythology includes also the historical myths, or the narratives of gods, demigods, and heroes, which were current among the heathen in ancient times.
Ques. Why is it necessary to become acquainted with these fables?
Ans. Because ancient literature and art cannot be fully understood or appreciated without some knowledge of Mythology. It was mingled with every theme of the classic poet, and inspired the highest skill of the painter and sculptor.
These subjects keep their place to some extent in modern art, and mythological allusions are so frequent in our literature that an acquaintance with classic fable is considered a necessary part of a liberal education.
Ques. Did all the heathen nations worship the same deities?
Ans. The mythology of different nations varied as to the names and attributes of their divinities. There are, nevertheless, so many points of resemblance, that it is believed by many that the principal mythical systems had one common origin. To trace these analogies, and the developments which gave rise to so great a diversity, is the province of comparative mythology.
Ques. In what important point do all these systems agree?
Ans. In the rite of sacrifice. We meet everywhere the same offerings: flowers, first fruits, libations of milk, honey, and wine; also sacrifices of animals, which were either partaken of by the votaries or consumed as holocausts upon the altar.
This mode of worship varied but little in ceremonial, and the sacrifices of the different heathen nations resembled, in their exterior form, those offered to the true God by the ancient patriarchs. The idea of propitiating the deity in such a manner seems to have been universal both in the old and the new world, and we are forced to believe that it was drawn from a common fount of primeval tradition.
Ques. How did the belief in the heathen deities originate?
Ans. When the early traditions of the human race became corrupt, the sublime idea of one God, self-existent and eternal, was lost or obscured. We find it, though vaguely perhaps, in the character and attributes of certain divinities, as the Zeus (Jupiter) of the Greek, and the Alfâdur of Scandinavian mythology. There are passages in the early Greek poets which show clearly a belief in the unity of God. In the verses attributed to the mythic poet Orpheus, and generally known as Orphic Remains, we find the following:
Instead of ministering spirits obeying the will of the Supreme Being, and communicating that will to man, there arose a number of inferior deities, each exercising some peculiar and partial sovereignty. The god whom the warrior invoked in battle was powerless to bless the field he cultivated in time of peace; the power of Jupiter was worshipped in the rolling thunder; but when the earth trembled or fiery torrents burst from the mountain top, the wrath of Pluto must be appeased, and sacrifices were offered to the infernal powers. The strife and turbulence of nature were attributed to the gods, who became in some manner identified with the elements they were supposed to govern.
The honors paid to the memory of departed heroes assumed, in the course of time, the character of religious worship. Hence arose a class of demigods, whose real achievements, transmitted by popular tradition and embellished by the poets, became altogether legendary and mythical.
Ques. Were the Greek and Roman mythologies the same?
Ans. They were, to a great extent. The ancient Latins had, undoubtedly, their own gods and their peculiar superstitions, but they do not appear to have had any regular mythology. When the Romans received the arts and sciences from the Greeks, they adopted, also, their divinities and their entire system of religion.
They shared a tradition, which seems to have been universal, of a time of primeval innocence, when man dwelt in a peaceful world, ignorant alike of sorrow and of sin. This was the Golden Age. Avarice and discord were unknown; men had not learned to slay animals for food, nor had the earth been disturbed by the plough. Neither the labors of the husbandman, nor the merchant’s traffic disturbed the joyous leisure of that happy time; no ships ploughed the seas, and the glittering steel rested harmless in the mine. Ovid thus describes the days of innocence:
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915
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