Every country has its Folk-lore, every nation its Myths and Legends — an evidence of that old wisdom religion once universal. The ancient legends and fables are allegories of the soul, and conceal much valuable instruction for the discerning student. Through these "sacred relics" come gentle whispers of a mighty past, and the living breath of happier times. Out of the universal Over-Soul the true wisdom was at all times begotten, and its mystic symbolism has been the same the world over.
Many dreary pages have been written about ancient legends, for it would seem that only as we nourish the "mystic fire" within ourselves do these myths and symbols of the early world grow full of "magnificent suggestion." Our poets have made folk-lore the theme of their loftiest strains; our painters and sculptors have portrayed many ancient legends, and placed wonderful pictures of far-off years before us in a form beautiful and enduring. Viewed from the standpoint of our every-day life and feeling these old legends and fables, whether complete or coming to us in broken and fragmentary form, are filled with wonderful interest. The study of a universal folk-lore enlarges the view of human life, and teaches the Universal Brotherhood of Man. The literature and art of all peoples is interwoven with folk-lore, and an acquaintance with the mythology of a people is necessary to an understanding of its higher expression of thought and feeling.
Before written history Folk-lore existed, and in Mythology we have a lasting memorial of humanity's childhood. The legends of supernatural beings, huge giants, little fairies, prodigious heroes, genii, demigods and gods, and the wonderful lands they inhabited, have afforded much scope for variety of opinion. According to some authorities, the gods were originally men, and the elysian abodes real countries. Others hold that they are corruptions of true religion originally revealed to man; others regard them as symbols of abstract virtues and vices, mental and moral powers.
Folk-lore is more comprehensive than mythology. It comes to the child in its cradle, in its simplest lullaby. It brings to the young a world of happy thought in nursery tales and childish rhymes. Our modern speech is full of direct reference to the old tales, and the experience of the race is synthesized in many pithy sayings. The remorse of Queen Guinevere, the moral self-destruction of Tristram and Iseult, the indomitable quest of Childe Roland, the grand warfare of opposing forces in Ragnarok, the tremendous tragedies of the Nibelung-enlied, the fall of Faust, the spiriting away of the children of Hamelin — all are typical of the folk-lore from which they are taken, and are representative of the peoples with whom they originated.
Each nation has had its own individuality; its own dominant quality clothes its conceptions of life with a form different from others, but in essentials they are ever at one. The same underlying ideas are to be found in the myths and legends of every land. In the light of these old legends and fables the barriers which separate race from race are broken down. The confusion of tongues no longer divides the human family, for their life, their heart, their truest and best desires are eternally the same. It is fitting that we should first turn our attention to the American myth system. And here we are all indebted to Curtin for his invaluable contributions on Folk-lore and Myths. The primitive men of ancient America developed a single system of thought which has no parallel in fullness and wealth of illustration, and the special value of it lies in the fact that it is the thought of ages long anterior to those which we find recorded on the Eastern Hemisphere, "either in sacred books, histories or literature, whether preserved on baked brick, burnt cylinders or papyrus." In the American account of the beginning of things man and every sentient thing is given a common origin. We find that these "primitive" people were under the immediate care and supervision of their gods, and preserved continual converse with them. They received from their gods all that they promised, all that they practiced, all that they knew.
The treasure saved to science by the primitive race of America is unique in value and high significance. The first result from it is to carry us back through untold centuries "to that epoch when man made the earliest collective and consistent explanation of this universe and its origin."
The Myths of primitive America begin with an indefinite number of divinities, existing unchanged through untold periods, living side by side in perfect harmony in the repose "of a primeval chaos." Differences arise in time, conflicts and collisions begin, leading to the evolution of character. The first world in this way gave place to the world now existing.
Creation myths describe in an admirable way the lives of the "first people." The primitive American patterned all his institutions upon those of the "first people;" the sanction of the divinities was obtained to every act. Religious direction was behind every act of life. The revelations of the divinities came through the wise men among the people. The physical universe of these early myth-makers was the outer expression of unseen powers and qualities. The myths answered the eternal riddle to the early mind. Have we improved on the theories put forward by them to account for the world's appearance and the general scheme of life?
Out of the quiescent harmony of a remote past these ancient myth-makers evolved the present world, the play of passion and desire in multitudinous form and endless variety of method. They give evidence of having had keen observation and remarkable constructive power.
Communication with divinity was an important question with the Indians, but they recognized that certain conditions were necessary on their part in order to accomplish this. The gods only revealed themselves to the "fit and elect." A large number might go to the sacred place, but only one be favored with the vision divine. They recognized that greatness has its price, and that "power must be paid for in every place."
The myths of primitive America tell us of a time, "so long ago that none can say how long," when a race of god-like men lived in peace and harmony upon the earth. They were called the "first people." For countless ages they dwelt in bliss and concord free from sin and disease, for but one spirit dwelt in their midst. We are not told exactly what brought about the change which ultimately led to strife and dissension. The rise of conflict was followed by a period of struggle which did not end until the majority of the "first people" were changed into the likeness of that which they most resembled in their inner natures, be it beast, bird, reptile, fish or insect. Some of them, it seems, took the form of mountains and rocks, whilst others passed into the vegetable kingdoms and flourished as plants, trees and flowers. A small number of the "first people" remained free from the conflict and left the earth together, sailing westwards, beyond the sea, beyond the sky into the "central blue," where dwelt Olelbis, the greatest of their gods. The abode of this god is described as being formed of living oak trees which bore acorns all the year round. Surrounding this home of the gods bloomed forever innumerable flowers, with never-dying roots.
From a study of American mythology and folk-lore we are able to get an insight into the great antiquity of ancient American civilization, and support the contention that the advanced human development, whose crumbling monuments are studied at Copan, Mitla and Palenque, antedates everything else in the human period of our globe; that its history goes back through all the misty ages of prehistoric time to an unknown date, previous to the beginning of such civilization in any part of the old world. If we are incarnations of the ancients who formulated the old philosophy, we must surely have much to gain by a study of Legend and Fable and be affected to a considerable extent by their presentation. In the next article it will be our purpose to consider more fully the Myths of primitive America.
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