Primitive Man And The Creation Of Myths

We come now to a unique period in the history of the development of the

imagination--its golden age. In primitive man, still confined in

savagery or just starting toward civilization, it reaches its full bloom

in the creation of myths; and we are rightly astonished that

psychologists, obstinately attached to esthetics, have neglected such an

important form of activity, one so rich in information concerning the

creative imagination. Where, indeed, find more favorable conditions for

knowing it?

Man, prior to civilization, is a purely imaginative being; that is, the

imagination marks the summit of his intellectual development. He does

not go beyond this stage, but it is no longer an enigma as in animals,

nor a transitory phase as in the civilized child who rapidly advances to

the age of reason; it is a fixed state, permanent and lasting throughout

life. It is there revealed to us in its entire spontaneity: it has

free rein; it can create without imitation or tradition; it is not

imprisoned in any conventional form; it is sovereign. As primitive man

has knowledge neither of nature nor of its laws, he does not hesitate to

embody the most senseless imaginings flitting through his brain. The

world is not, for him, a totality of phenomena subject to laws, and

nothing limits or hinders him.

This working of the pure imagination, left to itself and unadulterated

by the intrusion and tyranny of rational elements, becomes translated

into one form--the creation of myths; an anonymous, unconscious work,

which, as long as its rule lasts, is sufficient in every way,

comprehends everything--religion, poetry, history, science, philosophy,


Myths have the advantage of being the incarnation of pure imagination,

and, moreover, they permit psychologists to study them objectively.

Thanks to the labors of the nineteenth century, they offer an almost

inexhaustible content. While past ages forgot, misunderstood,

disfigured, and often despised myths as aberrations of the human mind,

as unworthy of an hour's attention, it is no longer necessary in our

time to show their interest and importance, even for psychology, which,

however, has not as yet drawn all the benefit possible from them.

But before commencing the psychological study of the genesis and

formation of myths considered as an objective emanation of the creative

imagination, we must briefly summarize the hypotheses at present offered

for their origin. We find two principal ones--the one, etymological,

genealogical, or linguistic; the other, ethno-psychological, or


The first, whose principal though not sole champion is Max Mueller, holds

that myths are the result of a disease of language--words become things,

"nomina numina." This transformation is the effect of two principal

linguistic causes--(a) Polynomy; several words for one thing. Thus the

sun is designated by more than twenty names in the Vedas; Apollo,

Phaethon, Hercules are three personifications of the sun; Varouna

(night) and Yama (death) express at first the same conception, and

have become two distinct deities. In short, every word tends to become

an entity having its attributes and its legends. (b) Homonomy, a single

word for several things. The same adjective, "shining," refers to the

sun, a fountain, spring, etc. This is another source of confusion. Let

us also add metaphors taken literally, plays upon words, wrong

construction, etc.

The opponents of this doctrine maintain that in the formation of myths,

words represent scarcely five per cent. Whatever may be the worth of

this assertion, the purely philological explanation remains without

value for psychology: it is neither true nor false--it does not solve

the question; it merely avoids it. The word is only an occasion, a

vehicle; without the working of the mind exciting it, nothing would

change. Moreover, Max Mueller himself has recently recognized this.

The anthropological theory, much more general than the foregoing,

penetrates further to psychological origins--it leads us to the first

advances of the human mind. It regards the myth not as an accident of

primitive life, but as a natural function, a mode of activity proper to

man during a certain period of his development. Later, the mythic

creations seem absurd, often immoral, because they are survivals of a

distant epoch, cherished and consecrated through tradition, habits, and

respect for antiquity. According to the definition that seems to me best

adapted for psychology, the myth is "the psychological objectification

of man in all the phenomena that he can perceive." It is a

humanization of nature according to processes peculiar to the


Are these two views irreconcilable? It does not seem so to me, provided

we accept the first as only a partial explanation. In any event, both

schools agree on one point important for us--that the material for myths

is furnished by the observation of natural phenomena, including the

great events of human life: birth, sickness, death, etc. This is the

objective factor. The creation of myths has its explanation in the

nature of human imagination--this is the subjective factor. We can not

deny that most works on mythology have a very decided tendency to give

the greater importance to the first factor; in which respect they need a

little psychology. The periodic returns of the dawn, the sun, the moon

and stars, winds and storms, have their effect also, we may suppose, on

monkeys, elephants, and other animals supposedly the most intelligent.

Have they inspired myths? Just the opposite: "the surprising monotony of

the ideas that the various races have made final causes of phenomena, of

the origin and destiny of man, whence it results that the numberless

myths are reduced to a very small number of types," shows that it is

the human imagination that takes the principal part and that it is on

the whole perhaps not so rich as we are pleased to say--that it is even

very poor, compared to the fecundity of nature.

Let us now study the psychology of this creative activity, reducing it

to these two questions: How are myths formed? What line does their

evolution follow?


The psychology of the origin of the myth, of the work that causes its

rise, may theoretically, and for the sake of facilitating analysis, be

regarded as two principal moments--that of creation proper, and that of

romantic invention.

a. The moment of creation presupposes two inseparable operations which,

however, we have to describe separately. The first consists of

attributing life to all things, the second of assigning qualities to all


Animating everything, that is attributing life and action to everything,

representing everything to one's self as living and acting--even

mountains, rocks, and other objects (seemingly) incapable of movement.

Of this inborn and irresistible tendency there are so many facts in

proof that an enumeration is needless: it is the rule. The evidence

gathered by ethnologists, mythologists, and travelers fills large

volumes. This state of mind does not particularly belong to long-past

ages. It is still in existence, it is contemporary, and if we would see

it with our own eyes it is not at all necessary to plunge into virgin

countries, for there are frequent reversions even in civilized lands. On

the whole, says Tylor, it must be regarded as conceded that to the lower

races of humanity the sun and stars, the trees and rivers, the winds and

clouds, become animated creatures living like men and beasts,

fulfilling their special function in creation--or rather that what the

human eye can reach is only the instrument or the matter of which some

gigantic being, like a man, hidden behind the visible things, makes use.

The grounds on which such ideas are based cannot be regarded as less

than a poetic fancy or an ill-understood metaphor; they depend on a vast

philosophy of nature, certainly rude and primitive, but coherent and


The second operation of the mind, inseparable, as we have said, from the

first, attributes to these imaginary beings various qualities, but all

important to man. They are good or bad, useful or hurtful, weak or

powerful, kind or cruel. One remains stupefied before the swarming of

these numberless genii whom no natural phenomenon, no act of life, no

form of sickness escapes, and these beliefs remain unbroken even among

the tribes that are in contact with old civilizations. Primitive man

lives and moves among the ceaseless phantoms of his own imagination.

Lastly, the psychological mechanism of the creative moment is very

simple. It depends on a single factor previously studied--thinking by

analogy. It is a matter first of all--and this is important--of

conceiving beings analogous to ourselves, cast in our mould, cut after

our pattern; that is, feeling and acting; then qualifying them and

determining them according to the attributes of our own nature. But the

logic of images, very different from that of reason, concludes an

objective resemblance; it regards as alike, what seem alike; it

attributes to an internal linking of images, the validity of an

objective connection between things. Whence arises the discord between

the imagined world and the world of reality. "Analogies that for us are

only fancies were for the man of past ages real" (Tylor).

b. In the genesis of myths, the second moment is that of fanciful

invention. Entities take form; they have a history and adventures: they

become the stuff for a romance. People of poor and dry imagination do

not reach the second period. Thus, the religion of the Romans peopled

the universe with an innumerable quantity of genii. No object, no act,

no detail, but had its own presiding genius. There was one for

germinating grain, for sprouting grain, for grain in flower, for

blighted grain; for the door, its hinges, its lock, etc. There was a

myriad of misty, formless entities. This is animism arrested at its

first stage; abstraction has killed imagination.

Who created those legends and tales of adventure constituting the

subject-matter of mythology? Probably inspired individuals, priests or

prophets. They came perhaps from dreams, hallucinations, insane

attacks--they are derived from several sources. Whatever their origin,

they are the work of imaginative minds par excellence (we shall study

them later) who, confronted with any event whatever, must, because of

their nature, construct a romance.

Besides analogy, this imaginative creation has as its principal source

the associational form already described under the name "constellation."

We know that it is based on the fact that, in certain cases, the

arousing of an image-group is the result of a tendency prevailing at a

given instant over several that are possible. This operation has already

been expounded theoretically with individual examples in support.

But in order to gauge its importance, we must see it act in large

masses. Myths allow us to do this. Ordinarily they have been studied in

their historical development according to their geographical

distribution or ethnic character. If we proceed otherwise, if we

consider only their content--i.e., the very few themes upon which the

human imagination has labored, such as celestial phenomena, terrestrial

disturbances, floods, the origin of the universe, of man, etc.--we are

surprised at the wonderful richness of variety. What diversity in the

solar myths, or those of creation, of fire, of water! These variations

are due to multiple causes, which have orientated the imagination now in

one direction, now in another. Let us mention the principal ones: Racial

characteristics--whether the imagination is clear or mobile, poor or

exuberant; the manner of living--totally savage, or on a level of

civilization; the physical environment--external nature cannot be

reflected in the brain of a Hindoo in the same way as in that of a

Scandinavian; and lastly, that assemblage of considerable and unexpected

causes grouped under the term "chance."

The variable combinations of these different factors, with the

predominance of one or the other, explain the multiplicity of the

imaginative conceptions of the world, in contrast to the unity and

simplicity of scientific conceptions.


The form of imagination now occupying our attention by reason of its

non-individual, anonymous, collective character, attains a long

development that we may follow in its successive phases of ascent,

climax, and decline. To begin with, is it necessarily inherent in the

human mind? Are there races or groups of men totally devoid of myths?

which is a slightly different question from that usually asked, "Are

there tribes totally devoid of religious thoughts?" Although it is very

doubtful that there are such now, it is probable that there were in the

beginning, when man had scarcely left the brute level--at least if we

agree with Vignoli that we already find in the higher animals

embryonic forms of animism.

In any event, mythic creation appears early. We can infer this from the

signs of puerility of certain legends. Savages who could not know

themselves--the Iroquois, the Australian aborigines, the natives of the

Andaman Islands--believed that the earth was at first sterile and dry,

all the water having been swallowed by a gigantic frog or toad which was

compelled, by queer stratagems, to regurgitate it. These are little

children's imaginings. Among the Hindoos the same myth takes the form of

an alluring epic--the dragon watching over the celestial waters, of

which he has taken possession, is wounded by Indra after a heroic

battle, and restores them to the earth.

Cosmogonies, Lang remarks, furnish a good example of the development of

myths; it is possible to mark out stages and rounds according to the

degree of culture and intelligence. The natives of Oceania believe that

the world was created and organized by spiders, grasshoppers, and various

birds. More advanced peoples regard powerful animals as gods in disguise

(such are certain Mexican divinities). Later, all trace of animal worship

disappears, and the character of the myth is purely anthropomorphic.

Kuehn, in a special work, has shown how the successive stages of social

evolution express themselves in the successive stages of mythology--myths

of cannibals, of hunters, of herders, land-tillers, sailors. Speaking of

pure savagery, Max Mueller admits at least two periods--pan-Aryan and

Indo-Iranian--prior to the Vedic period. In the course of this slow

evolution the work of the imagination passes little by little from

infancy, becomes more and more complex, subtle and refined.

In the Aryan race, the Vedic epoch, despite its sacerdotal ritualism, is

considered as the period par excellence of mythic efflorescence. "The

myth," says Taine, "is not here (in the Vedas) a disguise, but an

expression; no language is more true and more supple: it permits a

glimpse of, or rather causes us to discern, the forms of mist, the

movements of the air, change of seasons, all the accidents of sky, fire,

storm: external nature has never found a mode of thought so graceful and

flexible for reflecting itself thereby in all the inexhaustible variety

of her appearances. However changeable nature may be, the imagination is

equally so." It animates everything--not only fire in general,

Agni, but also the seven forms of flame, the wood that lights it, the

ten fingers of the sacrificing priest, the prayer itself, and even the

railing surrounding the altar. This is one example among many others.

The partisans of the linguistic theory have been able to maintain that

at this moment every word is a myth, because every word is a name

designating a quality or an act, transformed by the imagination into

substance. Max Mueller has translated a page of Hesiod, substituting the

analytic, abstract, rational language of our time for the image-making

names. Immediately, all the mythical material vanishes. Thus, "Selene

kisses the sleeping Endymion" becomes the dry formula, "It is night."

The most skilled linguists often declare themselves unable to change the

pliant tongue of the imaginative age into our algebraic idioms.

Thought by imagery cannot remain itself and at the same time take on a

rational dress.

The mental state that marks the zenith of the free development of the

imagination, is at present met with only in mystics and in some poets.

Language has, however, preserved numerous vestiges of it in current

expressions, the mythic signification of which has been lost--the sun

rises, the sea is treacherous, the wind is mad, the earth is thirsty,


To this triumphant period there succeeds among the races that have made

progress in evolution, i.e., that have been able to rise above the age

of (pure) imagination, the period of waning, of regression, of decline.

In order to understand it and perceive the how and why of it, let us

first note that myths are reducible to two great categories:

a. The explicative myths, arising from utility, from the necessity of

knowing. These undergo a radical transformation.

b. The non-explicative myths, resulting from a need of luxury, from a

pure desire to create: these undergo only a partial transformation.

Let us follow them in the accomplishment of their destinies.

a. The myths of the first class, answering the various needs of knowing

in order afterwards to act, are much the more numerous.... Is primitive

man by nature curious? The question has been variously answered; thus,

Tylor says yes; Spencer, no. The affirmative and negative answers

are not, perhaps, irreconcilable, if we take account of the differences

in races. Taking it generally, it is hard to believe that he is not

curious--he holds his life at that price. He is in the presence of the

universe just as we are when confronted with an unknown animal or fruit.

Is it useful or hurtful? He has all the more need for a conception of

the world since he feels himself dependent on everything. While our

subordination as regards nature is limited by the knowledge of her laws,

he is on account of his animism in a position similar to ours before an

assembly of persons whom we have to approach or avoid, conciliate or

yield to. It is necessary that he be practically curious--that is

indispensable for his preservation. There has been alleged the

indifference of primitive man to the complicated engines of civilization

(a steamboat, a watch, etc.). This shows, not lack of curiosity, but

absence of intelligence or interest for what he does not consider

immediately useful for his needs.

His conception of the world is a product of the imagination, because no

other is possible for him. The problem is imperatively set, he solves it

as best he can; the myth is a response to a host of theoretical and

practical needs. For him, the imaginative explanation takes the place of

the rational explanation which is yet unborn, and which for great

reasons can not arise--first, because the poverty of his experience,

limited to a small circle, engenders a multitude of erroneous

associations, which remain unbroken in the absence of other experiences

to contradict and shatter them; secondly, because of the extreme

weakness of his logic and especially of his conception of causality,

which most often reduces itself to a post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Whence we have the thorough subjectivity of his interpretation of the

world. In short, primitive man makes without exception or reserve,

and in terms of images, what science makes provisionally, with reserves,

and by means of concepts--namely, hypotheses.

Thus, the explicative myths are as we see, an epitome of a practical

philosophy, proportioned to the requirements of the man of the earliest,

or slightly-cultured ages. Then comes the period of critical

transformation: a slow, progressive substitution of a rational

conception of the world for the imaginative conception. It results from

a work of depersonification of the myth, which little by little loses

its subjective, anthropomorphic character in order to become all the

more objective, without ever succeeding therein completely.

This transformation occurs thanks to two principal supports: methodical

and prolonged observation of phenomena, which suggests the objective

notion of stability and law, opposed to the caprices of animism

(example: the work of the ancient astronomers of the Orient); the

growing power of reflection and of logical rigor, at least in

well-endowed races.

It does not concern the subject in hand to trace here the fortunes of

the old battle whereby the imagination, assailed by a rival power, loses

little by little its position and preponderance in the interpretation of

the world. A few remarks will suffice.

To begin with, the myth is transformed into philosophic speculation, but

without total disappearance, as is seen in the mystic speculations of

the Pythagoreans, in the cosmology of Empedocles, ruled by two

human-like antitheses, Love and Hate. Even to Thales, an observing,

positive spirit that calculates eclipses, the world is full of

daemons, remains of primitive animism. In Plato, even leaving out

his theory of Ideas, the employment of myth is not merely a playful

mannerism, but a real survival.

This work of elimination, begun by the philosophers, is more firmly

established in the first attempts of pure science (the Alexandrian

mathematicians; naturalists like Aristotle; certain Greek physicians).

Nevertheless, we know how imaginary concepts remained alive in physics,

chemistry, biology, down to the sixteenth century; we know the bitter

struggle that the two following centuries witnessed against occult

qualities and loose methods. Even in our day, Stallo has been able to

propose to write a treatise "On Myth in Science." Without speaking at

this time of the hypotheses admitted as such and on account of their

usefulness, there yet remain in the sciences many latent signs of

primitive anthropomorphism. At the beginning of the nineteenth century

people believed in several "properties of matter" that we now regard as

merely modes of energy. But this latter notion, an expression of

permanence underneath the various manifestations of nature, is for

science only an abstract, symbolical formula: if we attempt to embody

it, to make it concrete and representable, then, whether we will or no,

it resolves itself into the feeling of muscular effort, that is, takes

on a human character. To produce no other examples, we see that so far

as concerns the last term of this slow regression, the imagination is

not yet completely annulled, although it may have had to recede

incessantly before a more solid and better armed rival.

b. In addition to the explanatory myths, there are those having no claim

to be in this class, although they have perhaps been originally

suggested by some phenomenon of animate or inanimate nature. They are

much less numerous than the others, since they do not answer multiple

necessities of life. Such are the epic or heroic stories, popular tales,

romances (which are found as early as ancient Egypt): it is the first

appearance of that form of esthetic activity destined later to become

literature. Here, the mythic activity suffers only a superficial

metamorphosis--the essence is not changed. Literature is mythology

transformed and adapted to the variable conditions of civilization. If

this statement appear doubtful or disrespectful, we should note the


Historically, from myths wherein there figure at first only divine

personages, there arise the epics of the Hindoos, Greeks, Scandinavians,

etc., in which the gods and heroes are confounded, live in the same

world, on a level. Little by little the divine character is rubbed out;

the myth approaches the ordinary conditions of human life, until it

becomes the romantic novel, and finally the realistic story.

Psychologically, the imaginative work that has at first created the gods

and superior beings before whom man bows because he has unconsciously

produced them, becomes more and more humanized as it becomes conscious;

but it cannot cease being a projection of the feelings, ideas, and

nature of man into the fictitious beings upon whom the belief of their

creator and of his hearers confers an illusory and fleeting existence.

The gods have become puppets whose master man feels himself, and whom he

treats as he likes. Throughout the manifold techniques, esthetics,

documentary collections, reproductions of the social life, the creative

activity of the earliest time remains at bottom unchanged. Literature is

a decadent and rationalized mythology.


Does the mythic activity of ancient times still exist among civilized

peoples, unmodified as in literary creation, but in its pure form, as a

non-individual, collective, anonymous, unconscious, work? Yes; as the

popular imagination, when creating legends. In passing from natural

phenomena to historic events and persons, the constructive imagination

takes a slightly different position which we may characterize thus:

legend is to myth what illusion is to hallucination.

The psychological mechanism is the same in both cases. Illusion and

legend are partial imaginations, hallucination and myth are total

imaginations. Illusion may vary in all shades between exact perception

and hallucination; legend can run all the way from exact history to pure

myth. The difference between illusion and hallucination is sometimes

imperceptible; the same is sometimes true of legend and myth. Sensory

illusion is produced by an addition of images changing perception;

legend is also produced by an addition of images changing the historic

personage or event. The only difference, then, is in the material used;

in one case, a datum of sense, a natural phenomenon; in the other, a

fact of history, a human event.

The psychological genesis of legends being thus established in general,

what, according to the facts, are the unconscious processes that the

imagination employs for creating them? We may distinguish two principal


The first process is a fusion or combination. The myth precedes the

fact; the historical personage or event enters into the mould of a

pre-existing myth. "It is necessary that the mythic form be fashioned

before one may pour into it, in a more or less fluid state, the historic

metal." Imagination had created a solar mythology long before it could

be incarnated by the Greeks in Hercules and his exploits. "There was

historically a Roland, perhaps even an Arthur, but the greater part of

the great deeds that the poetry of the Middle Ages attributes to them

had been accomplished long before by mythological heroes whose very

names had been forgotten." At one time the man is completely hidden

by the myth and becomes absolutely legendary; again, he assumes only an

aureole that transfigures him. This is exactly what occurs in the

simpler phenomenon of sensory illusion: now the real (the perception) is

swamped by the images, is transformed, and the objective element reduced

to almost nothing; at another time, the objective element remains

master, but with numerous deformations.

The second process is idealization, which can act conjointly with the

other. Popular imagination incarnates in a real man its ideal of

heroism, of loyalty, of love, of piety, or of cowardice, cruelty,

wickedness, and other abnormalities. The process is more complex. It

presupposes in addition to mythic creation a labor of abstraction,

through which a dominating characteristic of the historic personage is

chosen and everything else is suppressed, cast into oblivion: the ideal

becomes a center of attraction about which is formed the legend, the

romantic tale. Compare the Alexander, the Charlemagne, the Cid of the

Middle Age traditions to the character of history.

Even much nearer to us, this process of extreme simplification--which

the law of mental inertia or of least effort is sufficient to

explain--always persists: Lucretia Borgia remains the type of

debauchery, Henry IV of good fellowship, etc. The protests of historians

and the documentary evidence that they produce avail nothing: the work

of the imagination resists everything.

To conclude: We have just passed over a period of mental evolution

wherein the creative imagination reigns exclusively, explains

everything, is sufficient for everything. It has been said that the

imagination is "a temporary derangement." It seems so to us, although it

is often an effort toward wisdom, i.e., toward the comprehension of

things. It would be more correct to say, with Tylor, that it represents

a state intermediate between that of a man of our time, prosaic and

well-to-do, and that of a furious madman, or of a man in the delirium of


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