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The Development Of Mythology

As explained by Powell, philosophies and beliefs may be seriated in four
stages: The first stage is hecastotheism; in this stage extranatural or
mysterious potencies are imputed to objects both animate and inanimate.
The second stage is zootheism; within it the powers of animate forms are
exaggerated and amplified into the realm of the supernal, and certain
animals are deified. The third stage is that of physitheism, in which the
agencies of nature are personified and exalted unto omnipotence. The
fourth stage is that of psychotheism, which includes the domain of
spiritual concept. In general the development of belief coincides with the
growth of abstraction; yet it is to be remembered that this growth
represents increase in definiteness of the abstract concepts rather than
augmentation in numbers and kinds of subjective impressions, i.e., the
advance is in quality rather than in quantity; indeed, it would almost
appear that the vague and indefinite abstraction of hecastotheism is more
pervasive and prevalent than the clearer abstraction of higher stages.
Appreciation of the fundamental characteristics of belief is essential to
even the most general understanding of the Indian mythology and
philosophy, and even after careful study it is difficult for thinkers
trained in the higher methods of thought to understand the crude and
confused ideation of the primitive thinker.

In hecastotheism the believer finds mysterious properties and potencies
everywhere. To his mind every object is endued with occult power, moved by
a vague volition, actuated by shadowy motive ranging capriciously from
malevolence to benevolence; in his lax estimation some objects are more
potent or more mysterious than others, the strong, the sharp, the hard,
and the swift-moving rising superior to the feeble, the dull, the soft,
and the slow. Commonly he singles out some special object as his personal,
family, or tribal mystery-symbol or fetich, the object usually
representing that which is most feared or worst hated among his
surroundings. Vaguely realizing from the memory of accidents or unforeseen
events that he is dependent on his surroundings, he invests every feature
of his environment with a capricious humor reflecting his own disposition,
and gives to each and all a subtlety and inscrutability corresponding to
his exalted estimation of his own craft in the chase and war; and,
conceiving himself to live and move only at the mercy of his multitudinous
associates, he becomes a fatalist--kismet is his watchword, and he meets
defeat and death with resignation, just as he goes to victory with
complacence; for so it was ordained.

Zootheism is the offspring of hecastotheism. As the primitive believer
assigns special potency or mystery to the strong and the swift, he
gradually comes to give exceptional rank to self-moving animals; as his
experience of the strength, alertness, swiftness, and courage of his
animate enemy or prey increases, these animals are invested with
successively higher and higher attributes, each reflecting the mental
operations of the mystical huntsman, and in time the animals with which
the primitive believers are most intimately associated come to be regarded
as tutelary daimons of supernatural power and intelligence. At first the
animals, like the undifferentiated things of hecastotheism, are regarded
in fear or awe by reason of their strength and ferocity, and this regard
grows into an incipient worship in the form of sacrifice or other
ceremonial; meanwhile, inanimate things, and in due season rare and
unimportant animals, are neglected, and a half dozen, a dozen, or a score
of the well-known animals are exalted into a hierarchy of petty gods,
headed by the strongest like the bear, the swiftest like the deer, the
most majestic like the eagle, the most cunning like the fox or coyote, or
the most deadly like the rattlesnake. Commonly the arts and the skill of
the mystical huntsman improve from youth to adolescence and from
generation to generation, so that the later animals appear to be easier
snared or slain than the earlier; moreover, the accounts of conflicts
between men and animals grow by repetition and are gilded by imagination
as memory grows dim; and for these and other reasons the notion grows up
that the ancient animals were stronger, swifter, slier, statelier,
deadlier than their modern representatives, and the hierarchy of petty
gods is exalted into an omnipotent thearchy. Eventually, in the most
highly developed zootheistic systems, the leading beast-god is regarded as
the creator of the lesser deities of the earth, sun, and sky, of the
mythic under-world and its real counterpart the ground or mid-world, as
well as the visionary upper-world, of men, and of the ignoble animals;
sometimes the most exalted beast-god is worshiped especially by the great
man or leading class and incidentally by all, while other men and groups
choose the lesser beast-gods, according to their rank, for special
worship. In hecastotheism the potencies revered or worshiped are
polymorphic, while their attributes reflect the mental operations of the
believers; in zootheism the deities worshiped are zoomorphic, and their
attributes continue to reflect the human mind.

Physitheism, in its turn, springs from zootheism. Through contemplation of
the strong the idea of strength arises, and a means is found for bringing
the bear into analogy with thunder, with the sun, or with the
avalanche-bearing mountain; through contemplation of the swift the concept
of swiftness is engendered, and comparison of the deer with the wind or
rushing river is made easy; through contemplation of the deadly stroke of
the rattlesnake the notion of death-dealing power assumes shape, and
comparison of the snake bite and the lightning stroke is made possible;
and in every case it is inevitably perceived that the agency is stronger,
swifter, deadlier than the animal. At first the agency is not abstracted
or dissociated from the parent zootheistic concept, and the sun is the
mightiest animal as among many peoples, the thunder is the voice of the
bear as among different woodland tribes or the flapping of the wings of
the great ancient eagle as among the Dakota and cegiha, while lightning is
the great serpent of the sky as among the Zuni. Subsequently the zoic
concept fades, and the constant association of human intellectual
qualities engenders an anthropic concept, when the sun becomes an
anthropomorphic deity (perhaps bearing a dazzling mask, as among the
Zuni), and thunder is the rumbling of quoits pitched by the shades of
old-time giants, as among different American tribes. Eventually all the
leading agencies of nature are personified in anthropic form, and retain
the human attributes of caprice, love, and hate which are found in the
minds of the believers.

Psychotheism is born of physitheism as the anthropomorphic element in the
concept of natural agency gradually fades; but since none of the
aborigines of the United States had passed into the higher stage, the mode
of transition does not require consideration.

It is to be borne in mind that throughout the course of development of
belief, from the beginning of hecastotheism into the borderland of
psychotheism, the dominant characteristic is the vague notion of mystery.
At first the mystery pervades all things and extends in all directions,
representing an indefinite ideal world, which is the counterpart of the
real world with the addition of human qualities. Gradually the mystery
segregates, deepening with respect to animals and disappearing with
respect to inanimate things; and at length the slowly changing mysteries
shape themselves into semiabstractions having a strong anthropic cast,
while the remainder of the earth and the things thereof gradually become
real, though they remain under the spell and dominion of the mysterious.
Thus at every stage the primitive believer is a mystic--a fatalist in one
stage, a beast worshiper in another, a thaumaturgist in a third, yet ever
and first of all a mystic. It is also to be borne in mind (and the more
firmly because of a widespread misapprehension) that the primitive
believer, up to the highest stage attained by the North American Indian,
is not a psychotheist, much less a monotheist. His Great Spirit is
simply a great mystery, perhaps vaguely anthropomorphic, oftener
zoomorphic, yet not a spirit, which he is unable to conceive save by
reflection of the white man's concept and inquiry; and his departed spirit
is but a shade, much like that of the ancient Greeks, the associate and
often the inferior of animal shades.

While the four stages in development of belief are fundamentally distinct,
they nevertheless overlap in such manner as apparently, and in a measure
really, to coexist and blend. Culture progress is slow. In biotic
development the effect of beneficial modification is felt immediately, and
the modified organs or organisms are stimulated and strengthened
cumulatively, while the unmodified are enfeebled and paralyzed
cumulatively through inactivity and quickly pass toward atrophy and
extinction. Conversely in demotic development, which is characterized by
the persistence of the organisms and by the elimination of the bad and the
preservation of the good among qualities only, there is a constant
tendency toward retardation of progress; for in savagery and barbarism as
in civilization, age commonly produces conservatism, and at the same time
brings responsibility for the conduct of old and young, so that
modification, howsoever beneficial, is measurably held in check, and so
that the progress of each generation buds in the springtime of youth yet
is not permitted to fruit until the winter of old age approaches.
Accordingly the mean of demotic progress tends to lag far behind its
foremost advances, and modes of action and especially of thought change
slowly. This is especially true of beliefs, which, during each generation,
are largely vestigial. So the stages in the evolution of mythologic
philosophy overlap widely; there is probably no tribe now living among
whom zootheism has not yet taken root, though hecastotheism has been found
dominant among different tribes; there is probably no people in the
zootheistic stage who are completely divested of hecastotheistic vestiges;
and one of the curious features of even the most advanced psychotheism is
the occasional outcropping of features inherited from all of the earlier
stages. Yet it is none the less important to discriminate the stages.

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