WILLIAM WYATT GILL'S
MYTHS AND SONGS FROM THE SOUTH PACIFIC
Having expressed a strong desire that the collection of Myths
and Songs from the South Pacific, which the Rev. W. Wyatt Gill brought home with
him from Mangaia, should not be allowed to lie forgotten, or, like other
valuable materials collected by hard-working missionaries, perish altogether, I
could not well decline to state, in a few words, what I consider the real
importance of this collection to be.
I confess it seemed strange to me that its importance should be questioned. If new minerals, plants, or animals are discovered, if strange petrifactions are brought to light, if flints or other stone weapons are dredged up, or works of art disinterred, even if a hitherto unknown language is rendered accessible for the first time, no one, I think, who is acquainted with the scientific problems of our age, would ask what their importance consists in, or what they [p.vi] are good for. Whether they are products of nature or works of man, if only there is no doubt as to their genuineness, they claim and most readily receive the attention, not only of the learned, but also of the intelligent public at large.
Now, what are these Myths and Songs which Mr. W. W. Gill has brought home from Mangaia, but antiquities, preserved for hundreds, it may be for thousands of years, showing us, far better than any stone weapons or stone idols, the growth of the human mind during a period which, as yet, is full of the most perplexing problems to the psychologist, the historian, and the theologian?
The only hope of our ever unravelling the perplexities of that mythological period, or that mythopoeic phase of the human intellect, lies in our gaining access to every kind of collateral evidence. We know that mythopoeic period among the Aryan and Semitic races, but we know it from a distance only, and where are we to look now for living myths and legends, except among those who still think and speak mythologically, who are, in fact, at the present moment what the Hindus were before the collection of their sacred hymns, and the Greeks long before the days of Homer? To find ourselves among a people who really believe in gods and heroes and ancestral spirits, who still offer human sacrifices, who in some cases devour their human victims, or, at all events, burn the flesh of animals on their altars, trusting that the scent will be sweet to the nostrils of their gods, is as if the zoologist could spend a few days among the megatheria, [p.vii] or the botanist among the waving ferns of the forests, buried beneath our feet. So much is written just now, and has been written during the last fifty years, on human archaeology, on the growth and progress of the intellect, on the origin of religion, on the first beginnings of social institutions; so many theories have been started, so many generalizations put forward with perfect confidence, that one might almost imagine that all the evidence was before us, and no more new light could be expected from anywhere. But the very contrary is the case. There are many regions still to be explored, there are many facts, now put forward as certain, which require the most careful inspection, and as we read again and again the minute descriptions of the journey which man is supposed to have made from station to station, from his childhood to his manhood, or, it may be, his old age, it is difficult to resist a feeling of amazement, and to suppress at almost every page the exclamation, Wait! wait!
There are the two antagonistic schools, each holding its tenets with a kind of religious fervour—the one believing in a descending, the other in an ascending, development of the human race ; the one asserting that the history of the human mind begins of necessity with a state of purity and simplicity which gradually gives way to corruption, perversity, and savagery; the other maintaining with equal confidence, that the first human beings could not have been more than one step above the animals, and that their whole history is one of progress towards higher perfection. With [p.viii] regard to the beginnings of religion, the one school holds to a primitive suspicion of something that is beyond—call it supernatural, transcendent, or divine. It considers a silent walking across this jhula1 of life, with eyes fixed on high, as a more perfect realisation of primitive religion than singing of Vedic hymns, offer of Jewish sacrifices, or the most elaborate creeds and articles. The other begins with the purely animal and passive nature of man, [p.ix] and tries to show how the repeated impressions of the world in which he lived, drove him to fetichism, whatever that may mean, to ancestor-worship, to a worship of nature, of trees and serpents, of mountains and rivers, of clouds and meteors, of sun and moon and stars, and the vault of heaven, and at last, by what is called a natural mistake, of One who dwells in heaven above.
There is some truth in every one of these views; but they become untrue by being generalized. The time has not come yet, it probably never will come, when we shall be able to assert anything about the real beginnings of religion in general. We know a little here, a little there, but whatever we know of early religion, we always see that it presupposes vast periods of an earlier development.
Some people imagine that fetichism, at all events, presupposes nothing: they would probably not hesitate to ascribe to some of the higher animals the faculty of fetich-worship. But few words are so devoid of scientific precision as fetichism, a term first rendered popular by the writings of De Brosses. Let us suppose that it means a kind of temporary worship of any material object which the fancy may happen to select, as a tree, a stone, a post, an animal:—can that be called a primitive form of religion? First of all, religion is one thing, worship another, and the two are by no means necessarily connected. But, even if they were, what is the meaning of worship paid to a stone, but the outward sign of a [p.x] pre-existent belief that this stone is more than a stone, something supernatural, it may be something divine, so that the ideas of the supernatural and the divine, instead of growing out of fetichism, are generally, if not always, presupposed by it? The same applies to ancestor-worship, which not only presupposes the conceptions of immortality and of the ideal unity of a family, but implies in many cases a belief that the spirits of the departed are worthy to share the honours paid to divine beings.
To maintain that all religion begins with fetichism, all mythology with ancestor-worship, is simply untrue, as far as our present knowledge goes. There is fetichism, there is ancestor-worship, there is nature-worship, whether of trees or serpents, of mountains or rivers, of clouds and meteors, of sun and moon and stars, and the vault of heaven; there is all this, and there is much more than all this, wherever we can watch the early growth of religious ideas: but, what we have to learn is, first of all, to distinguish, to study each religion, each mythology, each form of worship by itself, to watch them during successive periods of their growth and decay, to follow them through different strata of society, and before all, to have each of them, as much as possible, studied in their own language.
If language is the realization of thought and feeling, the importance of a knowledge of the language for a correct appreciation of what it was meant to convey in the expression of religious [p.xi] thought and feeling, requires no proof. I have often insisted on this, and I have tried to show—whether successfully or not, let others judge—that much of what seems at first irrational and inexplicable in mythology, and in religion also, can be explained by the influence which language exercises on thought. I have never said that the whole of mythology can be explained in that way, that all that seems irrational is due to a misunderstanding, or that all mythology is a disease of language. Some parts of mythology I have proved to be soluble by means of linguistic tests, but mythology as a whole I have always represented as a complete period of thought, inevitable, I believe, in the development of human thought, and comprehending all and everything that at a given time can fall within the horizon of the human mind. The Nemesis of disproportion seems to haunt all new discoveries. Parts of mythology are religious, parts of mythology are historical, parts of mythology are metaphysical, parts of mythology are poetical; but mythology as a whole is neither religion, nor history, nor philosophy, nor poetry. It comprehends all these together under that peculiar form of expression which is natural and intelligible at a certain stage, or at certain recurring stages in the development of thought and speech, but which, after becoming traditional, becomes frequently unnatural and unintelligible. In the same manner nature-worship, tree-worship, serpent-worship, ancestor-worship, god-worship, hero-worship, fetichism, all are parts of religion, but none of these by itself can explain the origin or growth of religion, which compre- [p.xii] hends all these and many more elements in the various phases of its growth.
If anything can help to impress upon students of religion and mythology the necessity of caution, the advantage of special research, and, above all, the necessity of a scholarlike treatment, it is a book like that of Mr. Gill,—an account of a religion and mythology which were still living in the island of Mangaia, when Mr. Gill went there as a missionary twenty-two years ago, and which, as they died away before his eyes, he carefully described to us from what he saw himself, from what the last depositaries of the old faith told him, and from what was recorded of it in sacred songs, which he gives us in the original, with literal translations.
It is true that the religion and mythology of the Polynesian race have often been treated before, but one of their greatest charms consists in the very fact that we possess them in so many forms. Each island has, so to say, its own religious and mythological dialect, and though there is much that is common to all, and must therefore be old, there is at the same time much local and individual variety. Again, the great advantage of Mr. Gill's collection is that Mangaia has kept itself freer from foreign influences than almost any other of the Polynesian islands. "The isolation of the Hervey Islanders," he says, "was in favour of the purity of their traditions, and the extreme jealousy with which they were guarded was rather an advantage than otherwise." When we find strange [p.xiii] coincidences between the legends of Mangaia and Jewish, Christian, or classical stories, we need not suspect that former European travellers had dropped the germs of them, or that missionaries had given, unconsciously, their own colouring to them. Mr. Gill has been specially on the guard against this and other sources of error. "Whilst collecting my myths," he says, "I put away from me all classical mythology, being afraid that unconsciously I might mould these Polynesian stories into similarity with those of Greece and Rome."
On my making inquiries whether the Polynesian tradition about Eve (Ivi), which I had discussed in my "Science of Religion" (p. 304), was to be found in Mangaia, Mr. Gill informed me that it was not, and that he strongly suspected its European origin. The elements of the story may have previously existed, and we see some traces of it in the account of the creation current in Mangaia, but Mr. Gill suspects that some of the mutineers of the Bounty may have told the natives the Bible story, and that it became incorporated with their own notions.
The jawbone, too, with which we are told that Maui, the great solar hero of the Polynesians, destroyed his enemies, is absent in Mangaia. When I inquired about it, Mr. Gill informed me that he never heard of it in the Hervey Group in connection with Maui.
Such things are extremely important for a proper treatment of [p.xiv] mythology. I hold no longer to the rule that when two mythologies agree in what is irrational or foolish, they must have had the same origin, or must have come into contact with each other at some period of their history. If there was a reason for the jawbone to be used as a weapon in one country, the same reason may have existed in another. But, even if there was no reason, a fact that happened or was imagined to have happened in one place may surely have happened or have been imagined to have happened in another. At first, no doubt, we feel startled by such coincidences; and that they often offer a prima facie presumption in favour of a common origin cannot be denied. But as we read on from one mythology to another, our sensitiveness with regard to these coincidences becomes blunted, and we feel hardened against appeals which are founded exclusively on such evidence.
At first sight, what can be more startling than to see the interior of the world, the invisible or nether world, the Hades of the Mangaians, called Avaiki, Ayiki being the name of one of the lower regions, both among Brahmans and Buddhists? But we have only to look around, and we find that in Tahitian the name for Hades is Hawaii, in New Zealand Hawaiki, and more originally, I suppose, Sawaiki; so that the similarity between the Sanskrit and Polynesian words vanishes very quickly.
That the name of the Sun-god in Mangaia is Ha has been pointed out as a strange coincidence with Egypt; but more really [p.xv] important is the story of Ra being made captive, as reminding us of similar solar legends in Greece, Germany, Peru, and elsewhere.2
Who can read the Mangaian story of Ina (the moon) and her mortal lover, who, as he grew old and infirm, had to be sent back to the earth to end his days there, without thinking of Selene and Endymion, of Eos and Tithonos?
Who again, if acquainted with the Vedic myth of the Maruts,3 the strikers, the Storm-gods, and their gradual change into the Roman god of war. Mars, can fail to see the same transition of thought in several of the gods of the storms, of war and destruction among the Polynesians, though here again the similarity in the name of Maru is purely accidental.
In some of the Polynesian islands the Deluge is said to have lasted exactly forty days. This, no doubt, is startling. It may be the result of missionary influence. But, even if it were not, the coincidence between the Polynesian and the Jewish accounts on that one point may be either purely accidental, or may be founded on rude meteorological calculations which we have not yet detected. I do not like to quote coincidences from American traditions, because we know that we are never safe there against [p.xvi] Spanish by-notes; otherwise the account of the Toltec deluge, and the statement that the mountains were covered to the depth of "fifteen cubits," might be quoted as another undesigned coincidence.4 According to the Chimalpopoca MS., the Creator produced His work in successive epochs, man being made on the seventh day from dust and ashes. Wliy, we may ask, on the seventh day? But others, without even insisting on the peculiar character of the seventh number, may simply ask. Why not? There is much similarity between the Hindu account of the Deluge and the Jewish; but no one who has read the numerous accounts of a deluge in other parts of the world, would feel much surprised at this. At all events, if we admitted a common origin of the two, or an actual borrowing, then to explain the differences between them would be extremely difficult. The only startling coincidence is, that in India the flood is said to begin on the seventh day after it had been announced to Manu. Considering, however, that the seventh day is mentioned in the "Bhagavata-Purana" only, I feel inclined to look upon it as merely accidental. It might, no doubt, have been borrowed from Jewish or even Mohammedan sources; but how can we imagine any reason why so unmeaning a fact should have been taken over, while on so many other points, where there was every temptation to borrow, nothing was done to assimilate the two accounts, or to remove features of which, at that time, the Hindus might well be supposed to have been ashamed? I mention all this for the sole purpose of [p.xvii] preaching patience and caution; and I preach it against myself quite as much as against others, as a warning against exclusive theories.
On every page of these Mangaian legends there is evidence that many of them owe their origin to language, whether we adopt the theory that the Mangaians played on the words, or that their words played on them. Mr. Gill himself fully admits this; but to say that the whole of the Mangaian mythology and theology owed its origin to the oxydizing process to which language is exposed in every country, would be to mistake the rust for the iron.
With all these uncertainties before us, with the ground shaking under our feet, who would venture to erect at present complete systematic theories of mythology or religion? Let any one who thinks that all religion begins with fetichism, all worship with ancestor-worship, or that the whole of mythology everywhere can be explained as a disease of language, try his hand on this short account of the beliefs and traditions of Mangaia; and if he finds that he fails to bring even so small a segment of the world's religion and mythology into the narrow circle of his own system, let him pause before he ventures to lay down rules as to how man, on ascending from a lower or descending from a higher state, must have spoken, must have believed, must have worshipped. If Mr. Gill's book were to produce no other effect but this, it would have proved one of the most useful works at the present moment.
But it contains much that in itself will deeply interest all those who have learned to sympathize with the childhood of the world, and have not forgotten that the child is the father of the man; much that will startle those who think that metaphysical conceptions are incompatible with downright savagery; much also that will comfort those who hold that God has not left Himself without a witness, even among the lowest outcasts of the human race.
F. MAX MULLER.
Oxford, January 26, 1876.