The Myths of the New World – Myths as depictions of historical events

Myths of the New World, A Treatise on the Symbolism and Mythology of the Red Race of America. By Daniel G. Brinton (1868. Revised Edition, 1876).

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A work designed more as a study of natural religion than as a contribution to science. It is offered to the general reader rather than to the inquirer into the antiquities of the Red Race of America. It discusses the Red man’s ideas of God; of the origin of man; of the nature of the soul and its destiny; of sacred numbers; and of symbols of the bird and the serpent: also, the Red Indian myths of creation, of the Deluge, of the last day, of water, fire, and the thunder-storm. The Indian usage of priesthood is explained, and the Indian contribution to universal religion pointed out. The book is, as it was designed to be, a thoughtful study of an interesting problem.

Mythology (from the Greek μῦθος (mythos), meaning a narrative, and logos, meaning speech or argument) refers to a body of stories that attempt to explain the origins and fundamental values of a given culture and the nature of the universe and humanity. In modern usage, the term can also mean stories that a particular culture believes to be true and that use the supernatural to interpret natural events. Ancient myths are generally founded by imagination and intuition rather than objective evidence. Myths identify and help explain human propensities and natural phenomena with the actions and attributes of gods in a primordial past.

 

The truths inherent in myths thus are not reducible to their historical veracity; rather, like imaginative literature, myths present abstract, often archetypical insights into human experience. In modern usage, myth is often used pejoratively to dismiss a belief or opinion as false or unsupported by any evidence. Nevertheless, myths may tap into dimensions of human experience, often religious, that science cannot access.

Mythology reflects humankind’s quest for meaning. Most myths are in narrative form, and stories such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, or Enkidu and Shiva reveal deep spiritual insights that endure for millenniums and speak to different ages through the filter of different cultures. Anthropologists also speak of the myths of modern society, enduring beliefs that re-present traditional myth in modern dress.

Some myths are based on historical events. These myths can over time become imbued with symbolic meaning, transformed, shifted in time or place, or even reversed. Over time, such “myths” make the transition from “legendary occurrence” to “mythical status,” as the event takes on progressively greater symbolic resonance while the facts become less important. By the time it reaches the status of myth, the story has taken on a life of its own and the facts of the original event have become almost irrelevant. A classic example of this process is the Trojan War, an historical event that is now a part of Greek mythology.

 

 

This method or technique of interpreting myths as accounts of actual events, euhemerist exegesis, dates from antiquity and can be traced back (from Spencer) to Evhémère’s Histoire sacrée (300 B.C.E.) which describes the inhabitants of the island of Panchaia, Everything-Good, in the Indian Ocean as normal people deified by popular naivety. As Roland Barthes affirms, “Myth is a word chosen by history. It could not come from the nature of things.”

This process occurs in part because the events described become detached from their original context and new context is substituted, often through analogy with current or recent events. Some Greek myths originated in Classical times to provide explanations for inexplicable features of local cult practices, to account for the local epithet of one of the Olympian gods, to interpret depictions of half-remembered figures, events, or to account for the deities’ attributes or entheogens, the origins of which have become arcane with the passing of time.

Mâche argues that euhemerist exegesis “was applied to capture and seize by force of reason qualities of thought, which eluded it on every side.” This process, he argues, often leads to interpretation of myths as “disguised propaganda in the service of powerful individuals,” and that the purpose of myths in this view is to allow the “social order” to establish “its permanence on the illusion of a natural order.” He argues against this interpretation, saying that “what puts an end to this caricature of certain speeches from May 1968 is, among other things, precisely the fact that roles are not distributed once and for all in myths, as would be the case if they were a variant of the idea of an ‘opium of the people.'”

Contra Barthes, Mâche argues that, “myth therefore seems to choose history, rather than be chosen by it”, “beyond words and stories, myth seems more like a psychic content from which words, gestures, and musics radiate. History only chooses for it more or less becoming clothes. And these contents surge forth all the more vigorously from the nature of things when reason tries to repress them. Whatever the roles and commentaries with which such and such a socio-historic movement decks out the mythic image, the latter lives a largely autonomous life which continually fascinates humanity. To denounce archaism only makes sense as a function of a ‘progressive’ ideology, which itself begins to show a certain archaism and an obvious naivety.”

Once the historical event becomes firmly ensconced in mythology, the mythology becomes the basis for understanding and interpreting even contemporary historical events. Descriptions of recent events are re-emphasized to make them seem to be analogous with the commonly known story. This technique is used by some adherents to Judaism and Christianity, who read books of prophecy in the Bible, notably the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, as “historical” accounts of future events. It was also used in Russian Communist-era propaganda to interpret the direction of history and guide decisions about political decisions. Until World War II the fitness of the Emperor of Japan was linked to his mythical descent from the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Daniel Garrison Brinton

“All the earth is a grave, and nought escapes it; nothing is so perfect that it does not fall and disappear. The rivers, brooks, fountains and waters flow on, and never return to their joyous beginnings; they hasten on to the vast realms of Tlaloc, and the wider they spread between their marges the more rapidly do they mould their own sepulchral urns. That which was yesterday is not to-day; and let not that which is to-day trust to live to-morrow.”

 

Daniel Garrison Brinton was born in Thornbury Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania was an American surgeon who served the Union Army during the American Civil War from 1862 to 1865. Apart from that, he was also a prominent archaeologist and historian. Brinton continued his education at Jefferson Medical College for two years after graduating from Yale University in 1858. Then spent the following year exploring Europe.

 He resumed education at Heidelberg and Paris and also served the U.S. Army general hospital at Quincy, Illinois, as surgeon-in-charge from 1864 to 1865. After getting a sunstroke at Missionary Ridge (Third Battle of Chattanooga), Brinton was forced to stop travelling in extremely hot weather conditions. His profession as an ethnologist was severely impacted by this disability.

Brinton gained a lot of experience after the war. He was the editor of the Medical and Surgical Reporter (a weekly magazine), in Philadelphia between 1874 and 1887. He also practiced medicine in West Chester, Pennsylvania for many years and worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia as an archaeology and ethnology professor in 1884. Until he died, he served the University of Pennsylvania as an archaeology American linguistics professor from 1886.

Brinton delivered a speech on “What the Anarchists Want” in April 1896 at the Ethical Fellowship of Philadelphia. Acclaimed anarchist Peter Kropotkin had dinner with Brinton, which was his only speaking engagement at Philadelphia, in October 1897, after having rejected invitations from all other aristocracies in the city. So it can be said that Brinton followed the path of an anarchist during the last few years of his life.

On October 6, 1900, a memorial meeting was held for Brinton where the keynote speaker Albert H. Smyth said that Brinton looked for societies of anarchists in Europe and America and intermingled with some radicals in the world that he might consider their hardships and analyze their approaches for improvements and modifications.

Works

From 1868 to 1899, Brinton wrote many books, and a large number of pamphlets, brochures, addresses and magazine articles. His works include:

  • American Hero-Myths: A Study in the Native Religions of the Western Continent.
  • Library of Aboriginal American Literature. No. VIII
  • Aboriginal American authors and their productions
  • Notes on the Floridian Peninsula (1859)
  • The Myths of the New World (1868), an attempt to analyse and correlate, scientifically, the mythology of the American Indians
  • A Guide-Book of Florida and the South (1869)
  • The Religious Sentiment: its Sources and Aim: A Contribution to the Science and Philosophy of Religion (1876)
  • American Hero Myths (1882)
  • The Annals of the Cakchiquels (1885)

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