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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Mythical Origin of History
By Henry Thomas Buckle (1821–1862)
 
From the ‘History of Civilization in England’

AT a very early period in the progress of a people, and long before they are acquainted with the use of letters, they feel the want of some resource which in peace may amuse their leisure, and in war may stimulate their courage. This is supplied to them by the invention of ballads; which form the groundwork of all historical knowledge, and which, in one shape or another, are found among some of the rudest tribes of the earth. They are for the most part sung by a class of men whose particular business it is thus to preserve the stock of traditions. Indeed, so natural is this curiosity as to past events that there are few nations to whom these bards or minstrels are unknown. Thus, to select a few instances, it is they who have preserved the popular traditions, not only of Europe, but also of China, Tibet, and Tartary; likewise of India, of Scinde, of Beloochistan, of Western Asia, of the islands of the Black Sea, of Egypt, of Western Africa, of North America, of South America, and of the islands in the Pacific.  1
  In all these countries, letters were long unknown, and as a people in that state have no means of perpetuating their history except by oral tradition, they select the form best calculated to assist their memory; and it will, I believe, be found that the first rudiments of knowledge consist always of poetry, and often of rhyme. The jingle pleases the ear of the barbarian, and affords a security that he will hand it down to his children in the unimpaired state in which he received it. This guarantee against error increases still further the value of these ballads; and instead of being considered as a mere amusement, they rise to the dignity of judicial authorities. The allusions contained in them are satisfactory proofs to decide the merits of rival families, or even to fix the limits of those rude estates which such a society can possess. We therefore find that the professed reciters and composers of these songs are the recognized judges in all disputed matters; and as they are often priests, and believed to be inspired, it is probably in this way that the notion of the divine origin of poetry first arose. These ballads will of course vary according to the customs and temperaments of the different nations, and according to the climate to which they are accustomed. In the south they assume a passionate and voluptuous form; in the north they are rather remarkable for their tragic and warlike character. But notwithstanding these diversities, all such productions have one feature in common: they are not only founded on truth, but making allowance for the colorings of poetry, they are all strictly true. Men who are constantly repeating songs which they constantly hear, and who appeal to the authorized singers of them as final umpires in disputed questions, are not likely to be mistaken on matters in the accuracy of which they have so lively an interest.  2
  This is the earliest and most simple of the various stages through which history is obliged to pass. But in the course of time, unless unfavorable circumstances intervene, society advances; and among other changes, there is one in particular of the greatest importance. I mean the introduction of the art of writing, which, before many generations are passed, must effect a complete alteration in the character of the national traditions. The manner in which, this occurs has, so far as I am aware, never been pointed out; and it will therefore be interesting to attempt to trace some of its details.  3
  The first and perhaps the most obvious consideration is, that the introduction of the art of writing gives permanence to the national knowledge, and thus lessens the utility of that oral information in which all the acquirements of an unlettered people must be contained. Hence it is that as a country advances the influence of tradition diminishes, and traditions themselves become less trustworthy. Besides this, the preservers of these traditions lose in this stage of society much of their former reputation. Among a perfectly unlettered people, the singers of ballads are, as we have already seen, the sole depositaries of those historical facts on which the fame, and often the property, of their chieftains principally depend. But when this same nation becomes acquainted with the art of writing, it grows unwilling to intrust these matters to the memory of itinerant singers, and avails itself of its new art to preserve them in a fixed and material form. As soon as this is effected, the importance of those who repeat the national traditions is sensibly diminished. They gradually sink into an inferior class, which, having lost its old reputation, no longer consists of those superior men to whose abilities it owed its former fame. Thus we see that although without letters there can be no knowledge of much importance, it is nevertheless true that their introduction is injurious to historical traditions in two distinct ways: first by weakening the traditions, and secondly by weakening the class of men whose occupation it is to preserve them.  4
  But this is not all. Not only does the art of writing lessen the number of traditionary truths, but it directly encourages the propagation of falsehoods. This is effected by what may be termed a principle of accumulation, to which all systems of belief have been deeply indebted. In ancient times, for example, the name of Hercules was given to several of those great public robbers who scourged mankind, and who, if their crimes were successful as well as enormous, were sure after their death to be worshiped as heroes. How this appellation originated is uncertain; but it was probably bestowed at first on a single man, and afterwards on those who resembled him in the character of their achievements. This mode of extending the use of a single name is natural to a barbarous people, and would cause little or no confusion, as long as the tradition of the country remained local and unconnected. But as soon as these traditions became fixed by a written language, the collectors of them, deceived by the similarity of name, assembled the scattered facts, and ascribing to a single man these accumulated exploits, degraded history to the level of a miraculous mythology. In the same way, soon after the use of letters was known in the North of Europe, there was drawn up by Saxo Grammaticus the life of the celebrated Ragnar Lodbrok. Either from accident or design, this great warrior of Scandinavia, who had taught England to tremble, had received the same name as another Ragnar, who was prince of Jutland about a hundred years earlier. This coincidence would have caused no confusion as long as each district preserved a distinct and independent account of its own Ragnar. But by possessing the resource of writing, men became able to consolidate the separate trains of events, and as it were, fuse two truths into one error. And this was what actually happened. The credulous Saxo put together the different exploits of both Ragnars, and ascribing the whole of them to his favorite hero, has involved in obscurity one of the most interesting parts of the early history of Europe.  5
  The annals of the North afford another curious instance of this source of error. A tribe of Finns called Quæns occupied a considerable part of the eastern coast of the Gulf of Bothnia. Their country was known as Quænland; and this name gave rise to a belief that to the north of the Baltic there was a nation of Amazons. This would easily have been corrected by local knowledge: but by the use of writing, the flying rumor was at once fixed; and the existence of such a people is positively affirmed in some of the earliest European histories. Thus too Åbo, the ancient capital of Finland, was called Turku, which in the Swedish language means a market-place. Adam of Bremen, having occasion to treat of the countries adjoining the Baltic, was so misled by the word Turku that this celebrated historian assures his readers that there were Turks in Finland.  6
  To these illustrations many others might be added, showing how mere names deceived the early historians, and gave rise to relations which were entirely false, and might have been rectified on the spot; but which, owing to the art of writing, were carried into distant countries and thus placed beyond the reach of contradiction. Of such cases, one more may be mentioned, as it concerns the history of England. Richard I., the most barbarous of our princes, was known to his contemporaries as the Lion; an appellation conferred upon him on account of his fearlessness and the ferocity of his temper. Hence it was said that he had the heart of a lion; and the title Cœur de Lion not only became indissolubly connected with his name, but actually gave rise to a story, repeated by innumerable writers, according to which he slew a lion in a single combat. The name gave rise to the story; the story confirmed the name: and another fiction was added to that long series of falsehoods of which history mainly consisted during the Middle Ages.  7
  The corruptions of history, thus naturally brought about by the mere introduction of letters, were in Europe aided by an additional cause. With the art of writing, there was in most cases also communicated a knowledge of Christianity; and the new religion not only destroyed many of the Pagan traditions, but falsified the remainder by amalgamating them with monastic legends. The extent to which this was carried would form a curious subject for inquiry; but one or two instances of it will perhaps be sufficient to satisfy the generality of readers.  8
  Of the earliest state of the great Northern nations we have little positive evidence; but several of the lays in which the Scandinavian poets related the feats of their ancestors or of their contemporaries are still preserved; and notwithstanding their subsequent corruption, it is admitted by the most competent judges that they embody real and historical events. But in the ninth and tenth centuries, Christian missionaries found their way across the Baltic, and introduced a knowledge of their religion among the inhabitants of Northern Europe. Scarcely was this effected when the sources of history began to be poisoned. At the end of the eleventh century Sæmund Sigfusson, a Christian priest, gathered the popular and hitherto unwritten histories of the North into what is called the ‘Elder Edda’; and he was satisfied with adding to his compilation the corrective of a Christian hymn. A hundred years later there was made another collection of the native histories; but the principle which I have mentioned, having had a longer time to operate, now displayed its effects still more clearly. In this second collection, which is known by the name of the ‘Younger Edda,’ there is an agreeable mixture of Greek, Jewish, and Christian fables; and for the first time in the Scandinavian annals, we meet with the widely diffused fiction of a Trojan descent.  9
  If by way of further illustration we turn to other parts of the world, we shall find a series of facts confirming this view. We shall find that in those countries where there has been no change of religion, history is more trustworthy and connected than in those countries where such a change has taken place. In India, Brahmanism, which is still supreme, was established at so early a period that its origin is lost in the remotest antiquity. The consequence is that the native annals have never been corrupted by any new superstition, and the Hindus are possessed of historic traditions more ancient than can be found among any other Asiatic people. In the same way, the Chinese have for upwards of two thousand years preserved the religion of Fo, which is a form of Buddhism. In China, therefore, though the civilization has never been equal to that of India, there is a history, not indeed as old as the natives would wish us to believe, but still stretching back to several centuries before the Christian era, from whence it has been brought down to our own times in an uninterrupted succession. On the other hand, the Persians, whose intellectual development was certainly superior to that of the Chinese, are nevertheless without any authentic information respecting the early transactions of their ancient monarchy. For this I can see no possible reason except the fact that Persia, soon after the promulgation of the Koran, was conquered by the Mohammedans, who completely subverted the Parsee religion and thus interrupted the stream of the national traditions. Hence it is that, putting aside the myths of the Zendavesta, we have no native authorities for Persian history of any value, until the appearance in the eleventh century of the Shah Nameh; in which, however, Firdusi has mingled the miraculous relations of those two religions by which his country had been successively subjected. The result is, that if it were not for the various discoveries which have been made, of monuments, inscriptions, and coins, we should be compelled to rely on the scanty and inaccurate details in the Greek writers for our knowledge of the history of one of the most important of the Asiatic monarchies.  10
 
 
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