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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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