The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, by Otto Rank, , at sacred-texts.com
THE prominent civilized nations--the Babylonians and Egyptians, the Hebrews and Hindus, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans, as well as the Teutons and others--all began at an early stage to glorify their national heroes--mythical princes and kings, founders of religions, dynasties, empires, or cities--in a number of poetic tales and legends. The history of the birth and of the early life of these personalities came to be especially invested with fantastic features, which in different nations--even though widely separated by space and entirely independent of each other--present a baffling similarity or, in part, a literal correspondence. Many investigators have long been impressed with this fact, and one of the chief problems of mythological research still consists in the elucidation of the reason for the extensive analogies in the fundamental outlines of mythical tales, which are rendered still more puzzling by the unanimity in certain details and their reappearance in most of the mythical groupings.
The mythological theories, aiming at the explanation of these remarkable phenomena, are, in a general way, as follows: 1
1. The "Idea of the People," propounded by Adolf Bastian. 1 This theory assumes the existence of elemental ideas, so that the unanimity of the myths is a necessary sequence of the uniform disposition of the human mind and the manner of its manifestation, which within certain limits is identical at all times and in all places. This interpretation was urgently advocated by Adolf Bauer as accounting for the wide distribution of the hero myths. 2
2. The explanation by original community, first applied by Theodor Benfey to the widely distributed parallel forms of folklore and fairy tales 3. Originating in a favorable locality (India), these tales were first accepted by the primarily related (Indo-Germanic) peoples, then continued to grow while retaining the common primary traits, and ultimately radiated over the entire earth. This mode of explanation was first adapted to the wide distribution of the hero myths by Rudolf Schubert. 4
3. The modern theory of migration, or borrowing, according to which individual myths originate from definite peoples (especially the Babylonians) and are accepted by other peoples through oral tradition (commerce and traffic) or through literary influences. 5
The modern theory of migration and borrowing can be readily shown to be merely a modification of Benfey's theory, necessitated by newly discovered and irreconcilable material. This profound and extensive research of modern investigations has shown that India, rather than Babylonia, may be regarded as the first home of the myths. Moreover, the tales presumably did not radiate from a single point, but traveled over and across the entire inhabited globe. This brings into prominence the idea of the interdependence of mythological structures, an idea which was generalized by Braun as the basic law of the nature of the human
mind: Nothing new is ever discovered as long as it is possible to copy. 1 The theory of elemental ideas, so strenuously advocated by Bauer over a quarter of a century ago, is unconditionally declined by the most recent investigators (Winckler, 2 Stucken), who maintain the migration theory.
There is really no such sharp contrast between the various theories or their advocates, for the concept of elemental ideas does not interfere with the claims of primary common possession or of migration. Furthermore, the ultimate problem is not whence and how the material reached a certain people; the question is: Where did it come from to begin with? All these theories would explain only the variability and distribution of the myths, but not their origin. Even Schubert, the most inveterate opponent of Bauer's view, acknowledges this truth, by stating that all these manifold sagas date back to a single very ancient prototype. But he is unable to tell us anything of the origin of this prototype. Bauer likewise inclines to this mediating view; he points out repeatedly that in spite of the multiple origin of independent tales, it is necessary to concede a most extensive and ramified borrowing, as well as an original community of the concepts in related peoples. 3 The same conciliatory attitude is maintained by Lessmann in a recent publication (1908), in which he rejects the assumption of elemental ideas, but admits that primary relationship and borrowing do not exclude each other. 4 As pointed out by Wundt, however, it must be kept in mind that the appropriation of mythological contents always represents at the same time an independent mythological construction; because only that can be retained permanently which corresponds to the borrower's stage of mythological ideation. The faint recollections of preceding narratives would hardly suffice for the refiguration of the same material, without
the persistent presence of the underlying motifs; but precisely for this reason, such motifs may produce new contents that agree in their fundamental themes, even in the absence of similar associations. 1
Leaving aside for the present the inquiry as to the mode of distribution of these myths, the origin of the hero myth in general is now to be investigated, fully anticipating that migration (or borrowing) will prove to be directly and fairly positively demonstrable in a number of the cases. When this is not feasible, other viewpoints will have to be conceded, at least for the present, rather than bar the way to further progress by the somewhat unscientific attitude of Hugo Winckler, who says: When human beings and products, exactly corresponding to each other, are found at remote parts of the earth, we must conclude that they have wandered thither; whether we have knowledge of the how or when makes no difference in the assumption of the fact itself. 2 Even granting the migration of all myths, the origin of the first myth would still have to be explained. 3
Investigations along these lines will necessarily help to provide a deeper insight into the contents of the tales. Nearly all authors who have hitherto been engaged in the interpretation of the birth myths of heroes find in them a personification of the processes of nature, following the dominant mode of natural mythological interpretation.
[paragraph continues] The newborn hero is the young sun rising from the waters, first confronted by lowering clouds, but finally triumphing over all obstacles. 1 The taking into consideration of all natural (chiefly atmospheric) phenomena--as was done by the first representatives of this method of myth interpretation 2--and the regarding of the legends, in a more restricted sense, as astral myths (Stucken, Winckler, and others) are approaches not so essentially distinct as the followers of each individual direction believe to be the case. Nor does it seem a basic improvement when the purely solar interpretation, as advocated especially by Frobenius, 3 was no longer accepted and the view was advanced that all myths were originally lunar. Hüsing holds this theory in his discussion of the myth of Cyrus the Great; Siecke also claims this view as the only legitimate, obvious interpretation of the birth myths of the heroes; and it is a concept that is beginning to gain popularity. 4
The interpretation of the myths themselves will be taken up in detail later on, and we shall refrain here from all detailed critical comments on the above mode of explanation. Although significant, and undoubtedly in part correct, the astral theory is not altogether satisfactory and fails to afford an insight into the motives of myth formation. The objection may be raised that the tracing to astronomical processes does not fully represent the content of these myths, and that much clearer and simpler relations might be established through another mode of interpretation. The much abused theory of elemental ideas indicates a practically
neglected aspect of mythological research. At the beginning, as well as at the end of his contribution, Bauer points out how much more natural and probable it would be to seek the reason for the general unanimity of these myths in the very general traits of the human psyche, rather than in primary community or migration. This assumption appears to be more justifiable, since such general movements of the human mind are also expressed in still other forms and in other domains, where they can be demonstrated as universal.
Concerning the character of these general movements of the human mind, the psychological study of the essence of these myths might help to reveal the source from which has flowed uniformly, at all times and in all places, an identical mythological content. Such a derivation of an essential constituent, from a common human source, has already been successfully attempted with one of these legendary motifs. Freud, in his Interpretation of Dreams, reveals the connection of the Oedipus fable--where Oedipus is told by the oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother, as he unwittingly does later--with two typical dreams experienced by many now living: the dream of the father's death, and the dream of sexual intercourse with the mother. Of King Oedipus he says:
The manifestation of the intimate relationship between dream and myth--not only in regard to the content but also as to the form and motor forces of this and many other, more particularly pathological, psyche structures--entirely justifies the interpretation of the myth as a dream of the masses of the people, which I have recently shown elsewhere. At the same time, the transference of the method, and in part also of the results, of Freud's technique of dream interpretation to the myths would seem to be justifiable, as was defended by Abraham, and illustrated in an example, in his paper on "Dreams and Myths." In the circle of myths that follow, the intimate relations between dream and myth find further confirmation, with frequent opportunity for reasoning from analogy.
The hostile attitude of the most modern mythological tendency (chiefly represented by the Society for Comparative Mythological Research) against all attempts at establishing a relation between dream and myth is for the most part the outcome of the restriction of the parallelization to the so-called nightmares (Alpträume), as attempted in Laistner's notable book, and also of ignorance of the relevant teachings of Freud. 2 The latter not only help us to understand the dreams themselves but also show their symbolism and close relationship with all psychic phenomena in general, especially with daydreams or fantasies, with artistic creativeness, and with certain disturbances of the normal psychic function. A common share in all
these productions belongs to a single psychic function: the human imagination. It is to this imaginative faculty--of humanity at large rather than of the individual--that the modern myth theory is obliged to concede a high rank, perhaps the first, as the ultimate source of all myths. The interpretation of the myths in the astral sense--or more accurately speaking, as "almanac tales"--gives rise to the query: In view of a creative imagination in humanity, should we seek (with Lessmann) for the first germ of the origin of such tales precisely in the processes of the heavens, or on the contrary, should we conclude that ready-made tales of an entirely different (but presumably psychic) origin were only subsequently transferred to the heavenly bodies? 1 Ehrenreich makes a more positive admission: The mythologic evolution certainly begins on terrestrial soil, in so far as experiences must first be gathered in the immediate surroundings before they can be projected into the heavenly universe. 2 And Wundt tells us that the theory of the evolution of mythology according to which it first originates in the heavens, whence at a later date it descends to earth, is contradictory both to the history of the myth (which is unaware of such a migration) and to the psychology of myth formation (which must repudiate such a translocation as internally impossible). 3 We are also convinced that the myths, 4 originally at least, are structures of the human faculty of imagination, which were at some time projected for certain reasons upon the heavens, and may be secondarily transferred to the heavenly bodies, with their baffling phenomena. The significance
of the unmistakable traces--the fixed figures, and so forth--that have been imprinted upon the myth by this transference must by no means be underrated, although the origin of these figures was possibly psychic in character; they were subsequently made the basis of the almanac and firmament calculations precisely on account of this significance.
In a general way, it would seem as if the investigators who apply an exclusively "natural" scheme of interpretation have been unable, in any sense--in their endeavor to discover the original sense of the myths--to get away entirely from a psychological process such as must be assumed similarly for the creators of the myths. 1 The motive is identical, and led to the same course for myth-creators and for myth-interpreters. It is most naïvely uttered by one of the founders and champions of comparative myth investigation and of the natural mythological mode of interpretation; Max Müller points out in his Essays that this procedure not only invests meaningless legends with a significance and beauty of their own but also helps to remove some of the most revolting features of classical mythology, as well as to elucidate their true meaning. 2 This readily understandable revulsion naturally prevents the mythologist from assuming that such motifs--incest with mother, sister, or daughter; murder of father, grandfather, or brother--could be based on universal fantasies, which according to Freud's teachings have their source in the infantile psyche, with its peculiar interpretation of the external world and its denizens. This revulsion is, therefore, only the reaction of the dimly sensed painful recognition of the actuality of these relations; and this reaction impels the myth interpreters, for their own subconscious rehabilitation, and that of all mankind, to credit these motifs with an entirely different meaning from their original significance. The same internal repudiation prevents the myth-creating people from believing in the possibility of such revolting thoughts, and this defense probably was
the first reason for projecting these relations onto the firmament. The psychological pacifying through such a rehabilitation, by projection upon external and remote objects, can still be realized--to a certain degree, at least--by a glance at one of these interpretations, for instance that of the objectionable Oedipus fable, as given by Goldhizer, a representative of the natural school of myth interpreters: Oedipus (who kills his father, marries his mother, and dies old and blind) is the solar hero who murders his procreator, the darkness; he shares his couch with his mother, the gloaming, from whose lap, the dawn, he has been born; he dies, blinded, as the setting sun. 1
It is understandable that some such interpretation is more soothing to the mind than the revelation of the fact that incest and murder impulses against their nearest relatives are found in the fantasies of most people, as remnants of infantile ideation. But this is not a scientific argument, and revulsion of this kind--although it may not always be equally conscious--is altogether out of place in view of existing facts. One must either become reconciled to these indecencies, provided they are felt to be such, or one must abandon the study of psychological phenomena. It is evident that human beings, even in the earliest times, and with a most naïve imagination, never saw incest and parricide in the firmament on high, 2 but it is far more probable that these ideas are derived from another source, presumably human. In what way they came to reach the sky, and what modifications or additions they received in the process, are questions of a secondary character that cannot
be settled until the psychic origin of the myths in general has been established.
At any rate, besides the astral conception, the claims of the part played by the psychic life must be credited with the same rights for myth formation, and this argument will be amply vindicated by the results of our method of interpretation. With this object in view, we shall first take up in the following pages the legendary material on which such a psychological interpretation is to be attempted on a large scale for the first time.
3:1 A short and fairly complete review of the general theories of mythology, and of the principal advocates of each, is to be found in Wilhelm Wundt: Völkerpsychologie (Leipzig, 1905-9), Vol. II, Part I, p. 527.
4:1 Das Beständige in den Menschenrassen and die Spielweise ihrer Veränderlichkeit (Berlin, 1868).
4:2 "Die Kyros Sage and Verwandtes," Sitzungsberichte der Wiener Akademie, No. 100 (1882), P. 495.
4:3 Pantschatantra (1859).
4:4 Herodots Darstellung der Cyrussage (Breslau, 1890).
4:5 Compare E. Stricken: Astral Mythen (Leipzig, 1896-1907), especially Part V, "Moses"; and H. Lessmann: "Die Kyrossage in Europe," Wissen. beit. z. Jahresbericht d. städt. Realschule zu Charlottenburg (1906).
5:1 Naturgeschichte der Sage, 2 vols. (Munich, 1864-5), tracing all religious ideas, legends, and systems back to their common family tree and primary root.
5:2 Some of the important writings by Winckler will be mentioned in the course of this article.
5:3 Zeitschrift für der Oesterr. Gymnasium (1891), pp. 161 ff. Schubert's reply is also found here, pp. 594 ff.
5:4 "Object and Aim of Mythological Research," Mytholog. Bibliot. (Leipzig), Vol. I, No. 4.
6:1 Wundt, op. cit., Part III.
6:2 "Die babylonische Geisteskultur in ihren Beziehungen zur Kulturentwicklung der Menschheit," Wissenschaft and Bildung, Vol. XV (1907), p. 47.
6:3 Of course no time will be wasted here on the futile question as to what the first legend may have been; in all probability this never existed, any more than "the first human couple."
7:1 Brodbeck: Zoroaster (Leipzig, 1893), p. 138.
7:2 As an especially discouraging example of this mode of procedure may be mentioned a contribution by the well-known natural mythologist Schwartz, which touches on this circle of myths, and is entitled: Der Ursprung der Stamm and Gründungssage Roms unter dem Reflex indogermanischer Mythen (Jena, 1898).
7:3 Leo Frobenius: Das Zeitalter des Sonnengotten (Berlin, 1904).
7:4 G. Hüsing: Contributions to the Kyros Myth (Berlin, 1906). Siecke, "Hermes als Mondgott," Mytholog. Bibliot., Vol. II, No. 1 (1908), P. 48. Compare, for example, Paul Koch: Sagen der Bibel and ihre Ubereinstimmung mit der Mythologie der Indogermanen (Berlin, 1907). Compare also the partly lunar, partly solar, but at any rate entirely one-sided conception of the hero myth in Gustav Friedrich: Grundlage, Entstehung and genaue Einzeldeutung der bekanntesten germanischen Märchen, Mythen and Sagen (Leipzig, 1909), p. 118.
9:1 The fable of Shakespeare's Hamlet also permits of a similar interpretation, according to Freud. It will be seen later on how mythological investigators bring the Hamlet legend from entirely different viewpoints into the correlation of the circle of myths.
9:2 Laistner: The Riddle of the Sphinx (1889). Compare Lessmann, "Object and Aim . . . ," loc. cit. Ehrenreich alone (General Psychology, p. 149) admits the extraordinary significance of dream-life for the myth-fiction of all times. Wundt does so likewise, for individual mythological motifs.
10:1 Stucken (op. cit., p. 432) says in this sense: The myth transmitted by the ancestors was transferred to natural processes and interpreted in a naturalistic way, not vice versa. "Interpretation of nature is a motive in itself" (p. 636 n.). In a very similar way, Eduard Meyer (Geschichte des Altertums, 1884-1902, Vol. V. p. 48) has written: "In many cases, the natural symbolism, sought in the myths, is only apparently present or has been secondarily introduced, as often in the Vedas and in the Egyptian myths; it is a primary attempt at interpretation, like the myth-interpretations that arose among the Greeks as early as the fifth century."
10:2 Op. cit., p. 104.
10:3 Op. cit., p. 282.
10:4 For fairy tales, in this as well as in other essential features, Thimme advocates the same point of view as is here claimed for the myths. Compare Adolf Thimme: Das Märchen, Vol. II of Handbücher zur Volkskunde (Leipzig, 1909).
11:1 Of this myth interpretation, Wundt (op. cit., p. 352) has well said that it really should have accompanied the original myth formation.
11:2 Vol. II, p. 143, in the German translation (Leipzig, 1869).
12:1 See Ignaz Goldhizer: Der Mythus bei den Hebräern and seine geschichtliche Entwickelung (Leipzig, 1876), p. 125. According to the writings of Siecke (loc. cit., p. 39), the incest myths lose all unusual features through being referred to the moon and its relation to the sun. His explanation is quite simple: the daughter (the new moon) is the repetition of the mother (the old moon); with her the father (the sun) (also the brother, the son) becomes reunited.
12:2 Is it to be believed? In an article entitled "Urreligion der Indogermanen" (Berlin, 1897), where Siecke points out that the incest myths are descriptive narrations of the seen but inconceivable process of nature, he objects to the assumption by Oldenburg (Religion der Veda, p. 5) of a primeval tendency of myths to the incest motif, with the remark that in the days of yore the theme was thrust upon the narrator, without an inclination of his own, through the forcefulness of the witnessed facts.