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.