Mythologies

Cover image of Teutonic Mythology Volume 1 by Jacob GrimmThe brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote (edited, collected, compiled) Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or in English, Grimm’s fairy tales, and have recently been subject to a great deal of caricature on British and American television and cinema. Jacob was of course not a peddler of fairy tales (I can’t think of any Grimm story which actually has fairies in it), but a serious philologist, historian of language, and German patriot. We have reissued his two-volume Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, in which he expounds Grimm’s Law, otherwise known as the First Germanic Sound Shift (‘die erste deutsche Lautverschiebung’), and we have just taken delivery of the four-volume Teutonic Mythology, an English translation (published 1880–8) of the posthumous fourth edition of Grimm’s hugely influential Deutsche Mythologie.

James Stallybrass, the translator, remarks that ‘strange as it seems to us, forty years ago, it was necessary to prove’ that the German hero-legends and myths were closely related to those of Scandinavia and Iceland. ‘Jacob Grimm was perhaps the first man who commanded a wide enough view of the whole field of Teutonic languages and literature to be able to bring into focus the scattered facts which show the prevalence of one system of thought among all the Teutonic nations from Iceland to the Danube.’ He was also extremely keen to claim for the Germans the originals of stories not only from Scandinavia but also from the ‘Celtic’ and ‘Slavic’ areas of Europe, and his research (the first edition was published in 1835) was deeply influential on the development of German nationalism.

Grimm deals with the ‘characters’ of myth, from the gods to the ‘wights and elves’, and (naturally, given his background in philology) spends a lot of time considering names, giving etymologies and comparative data both from other Indo-European languages and from outside the ‘Aryan’ family. (Page 1 of Volume 1 is mostly a footnote on the meaning and derivation of the word ‘heathen’.) The chief gods, their attributes and the myths associated with them are discussed in great detail, then the lesser deities, down to the level of ‘swan-maidens’, mermaids and those wights and elves.  Forms of worship, temples and priesthood are also dealt with, as well as the religious aspects of the calendar, the seasons, day and night, and the diminishing of the old Teutonic religion, in the face of Christianity (which Grimm comes as close as possible to describing as not altogether a Good Thing), into peasant custom, folk-tale and superstition.

Fifty-five years later, Sir James Frazer published the two-volume first edition of The Golden Bough. Possibly even more influential in its day than Grimm’s work, it had an enormous impact on classical studies, since it demonstrated that the Greeks, since the Renaissance the admired exemplars of rationality, the golden mean and the philosophical approach to life, were in fact just as irrational as any of the ‘savages’ whom the newly founded discipline of anthropology was setting out to study. Drawing not only on classical texts but on the reports of European folklorists working in the wake of Grimm, and travellers’ descriptions of native customs worldwide, Frazer’s approach is not so much the ‘who’ of ancient religions, but the ‘how’: what people did, and an attempted rationalisation of why they did it. Examples from Romania, Bulgaria and Aztec culture are cited to show how to keep a wizard out of your house; customs relating to the last sheaf of grain to be harvested come from Lithuania, Germany, Bohemia, France, Scotland, Poland, Mexico and Peru, and are connected ancient mythological characters such as the Roman Virbius and the Egyptian Osiris.

Frazer’s chapter titles are poetic and evocative: ‘The king of the wood’, ‘The perils of the soul’, ‘Killing the god’. He continued to work on his magnum opus; a second edition, in three volumes, came out in 1900, and the third (which we are also reissuing) in twelve volumes, between 1911 and 1915. An extraordinary work of synthesis, it has been criticized for its simplistic comparative approach; but the range of Frazer’s reading (his bibliography takes up 144 pages in the third edition, and the index 392 pages), to say nothing of his fieldwork in Greece, which also inspired his translation of and commentary on Pausanias) is remarkable. Reading The Golden Bough apparently inspired (among others) Malinowski, Wittgenstein and Robert Graves, to say nothing of his Cambridge friend Jane Ellen Harrison, whose Themis clearly owes much to his methods, but is an important work on Greek religion in its own right.

So, two distinguished, distinctive takes on the strange and fascinating borderlands of history, psychology and religious studies, each very much of their own time, but each a genuinely pioneering contribution to ‘the proper study of mankind’.

Caroline

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This entry was posted in Anthropology, Classics, History, Language and Linguistics, Linguistics, Literary Studies, Religious Studies, Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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