ONE of the most philosophical statements from Max Müller is to this effect: "Whatever we know of early religion, we always see that it presupposes vast periods of an earlier development." This is exhibited in the history of all peoples that have progressed in civilization, though we may have to travel far back on the track of history to notice transformations of thought or belief. When the late Dr. Birch told us that a pyramid, several hundreds of years older than the Great Pyramid, contained the name of Osiris, we knew that at least the Osirian part of Egyptian mythology was honoured some six or seven thousand years ago What the earlier development of religion there was, or how the conception of a dying and risen Osiris arose, at so remote a period, may well excite our wonder.
Professor Jebb writes--"There was a time when they (early man) began to speak of the natural powers as persons, and yet had not forgotten that they were really natural, powers, and that the persons' names were merely signs? Yet this goes on the assumption that religion--or rather dogmas thereof--sprang from reflections upon natural phenomena. In this way, the French author of Sirius satisfied himself, particularly on philological grounds, that the idea, of God sprang from an association with thunder and the barking of a dog.
We are assured by Max Müller, that religion is a word that has changed from century to century, and that "the word rose to the surface thousands of years ago." Taking religion to imply an inward feeling of reverence toward the unseen, and a desire to act in obedience to the inward law of right, religion has existed as long as humanity itself. What is commonly assumed by the word religion, by writers in general, is dogma or belief.
The importance of this subject was well put forth by the great Sanscrit scholar in the phrase, "The real history of man is the history of religion." This conviction lends interest and weight to any investigations into the ancient religion of Ireland; though Plowden held that" few histories are so charged with fables as the annals of Ireland."
It was Herder who finely said, "Our earth owes the seeds of all higher culture to a religious tradition, whether literary or oral." In proportion as the so-called supernatural gained an ascendancy, so was man really advancing from the materialism and brutishness of savagedom. Lecky notes "the disposition of man in certain stages of society towards the miraculous." But was Buckle quite correct in maintaining that "all nature conspired to increase the authority of the imaginative faculties, and weaken the authority of the reasoning ones"?
It is not to be forgotten in our inquiry that, as faiths rose in the East, science has exerted its force in the West.
Fetishism can hardly be regarded as the origin of religion. As to those writers who see in the former the deification of natural objects, Max Müller remarks, "They might as well speak of primitive men mummifying their dead bodies Before they had wax to embalm them with."
Myth has been styled the basis of religion not less than of history; but how was it begotten?
Butler, in English, Irish, and Scottish Churches, writes--
"To separate the fabulous from the probable, and the probable from the true, will require no ordinary share of penetration and persevering industry." We have certainly to remember, as one has said, that "mythic history, mythic theology, mythic science, are alike records, not of facts, but beliefs." Andrew Lang properly calls our attention to language, as embodying thought,, being so liable to misconception and misinterpretation. Names, connected with myths, have been so variously read and explained by scholars, that outsiders may well be puzzled.
How rapidly a myth grows, and is greedily accepted, because of the wish it may be true, is exemplified in the pretty story, immortalized by music, of Jessie of Lucknow, who, in the siege, heard her deliverers, in the remote distance, playing "The Campbells are coming." There never was, however, a Jessie Brown there at that time; and, as one adds, Jessie has herself "been sent to join William Tell and the other dethroned gods and goddesses."
In the Hibbert Lectures, Professor Rhys observes, "The Greek myth, which distressed the thoughtful and pious minds, like that of Socrates, was a survival, like the other scandalous tales about the gods, from the time when the ancestors of the Greeks were savages." May it not rather have been derived by Homer, through the trading Phnicians, from the older mythologies of India and Egypt, with altered names and scenes to suit the poet's day and clime?
It would scarcely do to say with Thierry, "In legend alone rests real history--for legend is living tradition, and three times out of four it is truer than what we call History." According to Froude, "Legends grew as nursery tales grow now.--There is reason to believe that religious theogonies and heroic tales of every nation that has left a record of itself, are but practical accounts of the first
impressions produced upon mankind by the phenomena of day and night, morning and evening, winter and summer."
Such may be a partial explanation; but it may be also assumed that they were placed on record by the scientific holders of esoteric wisdom, as problems or studies for elucidation by disciples.
The anthropological works of Sir John Lubbock and Dr. Tylor can be consulted with profit upon this subject of primitive religious thought.
Hayes O'Grady brings us back to Ireland, saying, "Who shall thoroughly discern the truth from the fiction with which it is everywhere entwined, and in many places altogether overlaid?--There was at one time a vast amount of zeal, ingenuity, and research expended on the elucidation and confirming of these fables; which, if properly applied, would have done Irish history and archaeology good service, instead of making their very names synonymous among strangers with fancy and delusion."
After this we can proceed with the Irish legends and myths, the introduction to this inquiry being a direction to the current superstitions of the race.