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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T44


The Growth of Indian Mythologies 11

A study based upon the growth of the mythologies of the
North Pacific coast

In a collection of Indian traditions recently published, 22 I have discussed
the development of the mythologies of the Indians of the North
Pacific coast. In the following I will briefly sum up the results at which
I arrived in my investigation, and try to formulate a number of principles
which, it seems to me, may be derived from it, and which, I
believe, ought to be observed in all work on mythologies and customs of
primitive people.

The region with which I deal, the North Pacific coast of our continent,
is inhabited by people diverse in language but alike in culture.

The arts of the tribes of a large portion of the territory are so uniform
that it is almost impossible to discover the origin of even the most specialized
forms of their productions inside of a wide expanse of territory.
Acculturation of the various tribes has had the effect that the plane and
the character of the culture of most of them is the same; in consequence
of this we find also that myths have travelled from tribe to tribe, and
that a large body of legends belongs to many in common.

As we depart from the area where the peculiar culture of the North
Pacific coast has reached its highest development, a gradual change in
arts and customs takes place, and, together with it, we find a gradual
diminution in the number of myths which the distant tribe has in common
with the people of the North Pacific coast. At the same time, a
gradual change in the incidents and general character of the legends
takes place.

We can in this manner trace what we might call a dwindling down
of an elaborate cycle of myths to mere adventures, or even to incidents
of adventures, and we can follow the process step by step. Wherever
425this distribution can be traced, we have a clear and undoubted example
of the gradual dissemination of a myth over neighboring tribes. The
phenomena of distribution can be explained only by the theory that the
tales have been carried from one tribe to its neighbors, and by the tribe
which has newly acquired them in turn to its own neighbors. It is not
necessary that this dissemination should always follow one direction; it
may have proceeded either way. In this manner a complex tale may
dwindle down by gradual dissemination, but also new elements may be
embodied in it.

It may be well to give an example of this phenomenon. The most
popular tradition of the North Pacific coast is that of the raven. Its most
characteristic form is found among the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida.
As we go southward, the connection between the adventurers becomes
looser and their number less. It appears that the traditions are preserved
quite fully as far south as the north end of Vancouver Island. Farther
south the number of tales which are known to the Indians diminishes
rapidly. At Nahwittee, near the north point of Vancouver Island, thirteen
tales out of a whole of eighteen exist. The Comox have only eight,
the Nootka six, and the Coast Salish only three. Furthermore, the
traditions are found at Nahwittee in the same connection as farther
north, while farther south they are very much modified. The tale of
the origin of daylight, which was liberated by the raven, may serve as
an instance. He had taken the shape of the spike of a cedar, was swallowed
by the daughter of the owner of the daylight, and then born
again; afterwards he broke the box in which the daylight was kept.
Among the Nootka, only the transformation into the spike of a cedar,
which is swallowed by a girl and then born again, remains. Among the
Coast Salish the more important passages survive, telling how the raven
by a ruse compelled the owner of the daylight to let it out of the box
in which he kept it. The same story is found as far south as Grey's
Harbor in Washington. The adventure of the pitch, which the raven
kills by exposing it to the sunshine, intending to use it for calking his
canoe, is found far south, but in an entirely new connection, embodied
in the tradition of the origin of sun and moon.

But there are also certain adventures embodied in the raven myths
of the north which probably had their origin in other parts of America.
Among these I mention the story of the raven who was invited and
reciprocated. The seal puts his hands near the fire, and grease drips out
of them into a dish which he gives to the raven. Then the latter tries to
426imitate him, but burns his hands, etc. This tale is found, in one or the
other form, all over North America, and there is no proof that it originally
belonged to the raven myth of Alaska.

I believe the proposition that dissemination has taken place among
neighboring tribes will not encounter any opposition. Starting from
this point, we will make the following considerations: —

If we have a full collection of the tales and myths of all the tribes of
a certain region, and then tabulate the number of incidents which all
the collections from each tribe have in common with any selected tribe,
the number of common incidents will be the larger the more intimate
the relation of the two tribes and the nearer they live together. This is
what we observe in a tabulation of the material collected on the North
Pacific coast. On the whole, the nearer the people, the greater the number
of common elements; the farther apart, the less the number.

But it is not the geographical location alone which influences the distribution
of tales. In some cases, numerous tales which are common to a
territory stop short at a certain point, and are found beyond it in slight
fragments only. These limits do not by any means coincide with linguistic
divisions. An example of this kind is the raven legend, to which I
referred before. It is found in substantially the same form from Alaska
to northern Vancouver Island; then it suddenly disappears almost entirely,
and is not found among the southern tribes of Kwakiutl lineage,
nor on the west coast of Vancouver Island, although the northern tribes,
who speak the Kwakiutl language, have it. Only fragments of these
legends have strayed farther south, and their number diminishes with
increasing distance. There must be a cause for such a remarkable break.
A statistical inquiry shows that the northern traditions are in close contact
with the tales of the tribes as far south as the central part of Vancouver
Island, where a tribe of Salish lineage is found; but farther they
do not go. The closely allied tribes immediately south do not possess
them. Only one explanation of this fact is possible, viz., lack of acculturation,
which may be due to a difference of character, to long continued
hostilities, or to recent changes in the location of the tribes, which
has not allowed the slow process of acculturation to exert its deep-going
influence. I consider the last the most probable cause. My reason for
holding this opinion is that the Bella Coola, another Salish tribe, which
has become separated from the people speaking related languages and
live in the far north, still show in their mythologies the closest relations
to the southern Salish tribes, with whom they have many more traits in
427common than their neighbors to the north and to the south. If their
removal were a very ancient one, this similarity in mythologies would
probably not have persisted, but they would have been quite amalgamated
by their new neighbors.

We may also extend our comparisons beyond the immediate neighbors
of the tribes under consideration by comparing the mythologies of
the tribes of the plateaus in the interior, and even of those farther to the
east with those of the coast. Unfortunately, the available material from
these regions is very scanty. Fairly good collections exist from the
Athapascan, from the tribes of Columbia River and east of the mountains,
from the Omaha, and from some Algonquin tribes. When comparing
the mythologies and traditions which belong to far-distant regions,
we find that the number of incidents which they have in common
is greater than might have been expected; but some of those incidents
are so general that we may assume that they have no connection, and
may have arisen independently. There is, however, one very characteristic
feature which proves beyond cavil that this is not the sole cause
of the similarity of tales and incidents. We know that in the region
under discussion two important trade routes reached the Pacific coast,
one along the Columbia River, which connected the region inhabited
by Shoshonean tribes with the coast and indirectly led to territories occupied
by Siouan and Algonquin tribes; another one which led from
Athapascan territory to the country of the Bella Coola. A trail of minor
importance led down Fraser River. A study of the traditions shows that
along these routes the points of contact of mythologies are strongest, and
rapidly diminish with increasing distances from these routes. On Columbia
River, the points of contact are with the Algonquin and Sioux;
among the Bella Coola with the Athapascan. I believe this phenomenon
cannot be explained in any other way but that the myths followed the
lines of travel, and that there has been dissemination of tales all over
the continent. My tabulations include the Micmac of Nova Scotia, the
Eskimo of Greenland, the Ponca of the Mississippi Basin, and the
Athapascan of the Mackenzie River, and the results give the clearest
evidence of extensive borrowing.

The identity of a great many tales in geographically contiguous areas
has led me to the point of view of assuming that wherever considerable
similarity between two tales is found in North America, it is more likely
to be due to dissemination than to independent origin.

But without extending these theories beyond the clearly demonstrated
428truths of transmission of tales between neighboring tribes, we may reach
some further conclusions. When we compare, for instance, the tales of
the culture hero of the Chinook and that of the origin of the whole religious
ceremonial of the Kwakiutl Indians, we find a far-reaching resemblance
in certain parts of the legends which make it certain that these
parts are derived from the same source. The grandmother of the
divinity of the Chinook, when a child, was carried away by a monster.
Their child became the mother of the culture hero, and by her help the
monster was slain. In a legend from Vancouver Island, a monster, the
cannibal spirit, carries away a girl, and is finally slain by her help. Their
child becomes later on the new cannibal spirit. There are certain intermediate
stages of these stories which prove their identity beyond doubt.
The important point in this case is that the myths in question are perhaps
the most fundamental ones in the mythologies of these two tribes.
Nevertheless, they are not of native growth, but, partly at least, borrowed.
A great many other important legends prove to be of foreign
origin, being grafted upon more ancient mythologies. This being the
case, I draw the conclusion that the mythologies as we find them now
are not organic growths, but have gradually developed and obtained
their present form by accretion of foreign material. Much of this material
must have been adopted ready-made, and has been adapted and
changed in form according to the genius of the people who borrowed
it. The proofs of this process are so ample that there is no reason to
doubt the fact. We are, therefore, led to the conclusion that from mythologies
in their present form it is impossible to derive the conclusion
that they are mythological explanations of phenomena of nature observed
by the people to whom the myths belong, but that many of them,
at the place where we find them now, never had such a meaning. If
we acknowledge this conclusion as correct, we must give up the attempts
at off-hand explanation of myths as fanciful, and we must also admit
that explanations given by the Indians themselves are often secondary,
and do not reflect the true origin of the myths.

I do not wish to be misunderstood in what I said. Certainly, the phenomena
of nature are at the bottom of numerous myths, else we should
not find sun, moon, clouds, thunder-storm, the sea and the land playing
so important a part in all mythologies. What I maintain is only that
the specific myth cannot be simply interpreted as the result of observation
of natural phenomena. Its growth is much too complex. In most
cases, the present form has undergone material change by disintegration
429and by accretion of foreign material, so that the original underlying idea
is, at best, much obscured.

Perhaps the objection might be raised to my argument that the
similarities of mythologies are not only due to borrowing, but also to
the fact that, under similar conditions which prevail in a limited area,
the human mind creates similar products. While there is a certain truth
in this argument so far as elementary forms of human thought are concerned,
it seems quite incredible that the same complex tale should originate
twice in a limited territory. The very complexity of the tales and
their gradual dwindling down to which I have referred before, cannot
possibly be explained by any other method than by dissemination.
Wherever geographical continuity of the area of distribution of a complex
ethnographical phenomenon is found, the laws of probability exclude
the theory that in this continuous area the complex phenomenon
has arisen independently in various places, but compel us to assume that
in its present complex form its distribution is due to dissemination, while
its composing elements may have originated here and there.

It may be well to dwell on the difference between that comparative
method which I have pursued in my inquiry and that applied by many
investigators of ethnographical phenomena. I have strictly confined
my comparisons to contiguous areas in which we know intercourse to
have taken place. I have shown that this area extends from the Pacific
coast to considerable distances. It is true that the mythologies of the
far east and the extreme northeast are not as well connected with those
of the Pacific coast by intermediate links as they might be, and I consider
it essential that a fuller amount of material from intermediate
points be collected in order that the investigation which I have begun
may be carried out in detail. But a comparison of the fragmentary notes
which we possess from intermediate points proves that most of those
tales which I have enumerated as common to the east, to the north, and
to the west, will be found covering the whole area continuously. Starting
from this fact, we may be allowed to argue that those complex tales
which are now known only from isolated portions of our continent are
actually continuous but have not been recorded from intermediate
points; or that they have become extinct in intermediate territory; or,
finally, that they were carried over certain areas accidentally, without
touching the intermediate field. This last phenomenon may happen,
although probably not to a very great extent. I observed one example
of this kind on the Pacific coast, where a tale which has its home in
430Alaska is found only in one small group of tribes on northern Vancouver
Island, where, as can be proved, it has been carried either by visitors
or by slaves.

The fundamental condition, that all comparisons must be based on
material collected in contiguous areas, differentiates our methods from
that of investigators like Petitot and many others, who see a proof of
dissemination or even of blood relationship in every similarity that is
found between a certain tribe and any other tribe of the globe. It is
clear that the greater the number of tribes which are brought forward
for the purposes of such comparisons, the greater also the chance of
finding similarities. It is impossible to derive from such comparisons
sound conclusions, however extensive the knowledge of literature that
the investigator may possess, for the very reason that the complex phenomenon
found in one particular region is compared to fragmentary
evidence from all over the world. By means of such comparisons, we
can expect to find resemblances which are founded in the laws of the
development of the human mind, but they can never be proofs of transmission
of customs or ideas.

In the Old World, wherever investigations on mythologies of neighboring
tribes have been made, the philological proof has been considered
the weightiest, i. e., when, together with the stories, the names
of the actors have been borrowed, this has been considered the most
satisfactory proof of borrowing. We cannot expect to find such borrowing
of names to prevail to a great extent in America. Even in Asia,
the borrowed names are often translated from one language into the
other, so that their phonetic resemblance is entirely destroyed. The
same phenomenon is observed in America. In many cases, the heroes
of myths are animals, whose names are introduced in the myth. In
other cases, names are translated, or so much changed according to
the phonetic laws of various languages, that they can hardly be recognized.
Cases of transmission of names are, however, by no means rare.
I will give only a few examples from the North Pacific coast.

Almost all the names of Bella Coola mythology are borrowed from
the Kwakiutl language. A portion of the great religious ceremony of
the Kwakiutl has the name “dloʼgwala.” This name, which is also
closely connected with a certain series of myths, has spread northward
and southward over a considerable distance. Southward we find it as
far as Columbia River, while to the north it ceases with the Tsimshian;
but still farther north another name of a part of the ceremonial of the
431Kwakiutl is substituted, viz., “nontlem.” This name, as designating a
ceremonial, is found far away, in Alaska. But these are exceptions; on
the whole, the custom of translating names and of introducing names of
animals excludes the application of the linguistic method of investigating
the borrowing of myths and customs.

We will consider for a moment the method by which traditions spread
over contiguous areas, and I believe this consideration will show that
the standpoint which I am taking, viz., that similarity of traditions in
a continuous area is always due to dissemination, not to independent
origin, is correctly taken. I will exemplify this also by means of the
traditions of the North Pacific coast, more particularly by those of the
Kwakiutl Indians.

It seems that the Kwakiutl at one time consisted of a number of
village communities. Numbers of these village communities combined
and formed tribes; then each village community formed a division of the
new tribe. Owing probably to the influence of the clan system of the
northern tribes, crests were adopted, and with these came the necessity
of acquiring a crest legend. The social customs of the tribe are based
entirely upon the divisions of the tribe, and the ranking of each individual
is the higher — at least to a certain extent — the more important the
crest legend. This led to a tendency of building up such legends. Investigation
shows that there are two classes of these legends: the first
telling how the ancestor of the division came down from heaven, out
of the earth, or out of the ocean; the second telling how he encountered
certain spirits and by their help became powerful. The latter class particularly
bear the clearest evidence of being of recent origin; they are
based entirely on the custom of the Indians of acquiring a guardian
spirit after long-continued fasting and bathing. The guardian spirit
thus acquired by the ancestor became hereditary, and is to a certain
extent the crest of the division, — and there is no doubt that these
traditions, which rank now with the fundamental myths of the tribe,
are based on the actual fastings and acquisitions of guardian spirits of
ancestors of the present division. If that is so, we must conclude that the
origin of the myth is identical with the origin of the hallucination of the
fasting Indian, and this is due to suggestion, the material for which is
furnished by the tales of other Indians, and traditions referring to the
spiritual world which the fasting Indian has heard. There is, therefore,
in this case a strong psychological reason for involuntary borrowing
from legends which the individual may have heard, no matter from
432what source they may have been derived. The incorporation in the
mythology of the tribe is due to the peculiar social organization which
favors the introduction of any myth of this character if it promises to
enhance the social position of the division concerned.

The same kind of suggestion to which I referred here has evidently
moulded the beliefs in a future life. All myths describing the future life
set forth how a certain individual died, how his soul went to the world
of the ghosts, but returned for one reason or another. The experiences
which the man told after his recovery are the basis of the belief in a
future life. Evidently, the visions of the sick person are caused entirely
by the tales which he had heard of the world of the ghosts, and the general
similarity of the character of this tale along the Pacific coast proves
that one vision was always suggested by another.

Furthermore, the customs of the tribe are such that by means of a
marriage the young husband acquires the crest legends of his wife, and
the warrior who slays an enemy those of the person whom he has slain.
By this means a large number of traditions of the neighboring tribes
have been incorporated in the mythology of the Kwakiutl.

The psychological reason for the borrowing of myths which do not
refer to crest legends, but to the heavenly orbs and to the phenomena
of nature, are not so easily found. There can be no doubt that the
impression made by the grandeur of nature upon the mind of primitive
man is the ultimate cause from which these myths spring, but, nevertheless,
the form in which we find these traditions is largely influenced
by borrowing. It is also due to its effects that in many cases the ideas
regarding the heavenly orbs are entirely inconsistent. Thus the Nahwittee
have the whole northern legend of the raven liberating the sun,
but, at the same time, the sun is considered the father of the mink, and
we find a tradition of the visit of the mink in heaven, where he carries
the sun in his father's place. Other inconsistencies, as great as this one,
are frequent. They are an additional proof that one or the other of
such tales which are also found among neighboring tribes, — and there
sometimes in a more consistent form, — have been borrowed.

These considerations lead me to the following conclusion, upon
which I desire to lay stress. The analysis of one definite mythology of
North America shows that in it are embodied elements from all over
the continent, the greater number belonging to neighboring districts,
while many others belong to distant areas, or, in other words, that dissemination
of tales has taken place all over the continent. In most
433cases, we can discover the channels through which the tale flowed, and
we recognize that in each and every mythology of North America we
must expect to find numerous foreign elements. And this leads us to
the conclusion that similarities of culture on our continent are always
more likely to be due to diffusion than to independent development.
When we turn to the Old World, we know that there also diffusion has
taken place through the whole area from western Europe to the islands
of Japan, and from Indonesia to Siberia, and to northern and eastern
Africa. In the light of the similarities of inventions and of myths, we
must even extend this area along the North Pacific coast of America as
far south as Columbia River. These are facts that cannot be disputed.

If it is true that dissemination of cultural elements has taken place
in these vast areas, we must pause before accepting the sweeping assertion
that sameness of ethnical phenomena is always due to the sameness
of the working of the human mind, and I take issue clearly and expressly
with the view of those modern anthropologists who go so far as to
say that he who looks for acculturation as a cause of similarity of culture
has not grasped the true spirit of anthropology.

In making this statement, I wish to make my position perfectly clear.
I am, of course, well aware that there are many phenomena of social
life seemingly based on the most peculiar and most intricate reasoning,
which we have good cause to believe have developed independently
over and over again. There are others, particularly such as are more
closely connected with the emotional life of man, which are undoubtedly
due to the organization of the human mind. Their domain is large
and of high importance. Furthermore, the similarities in cultures which
may or may not be due to acculturation indicate that the same sort of
distinct ideas will originate independently in different minds, modified
to a greater or less extent by the character of environment. Proof of
this are the ideas and inventions which even in our highly specialized
civilization are “in the air” at certain periods, and are pronounced independently
by more than one individual, until they combine in a flow
which carries on the thought of man in a certain direction. All this I
know and grant.

But I do take the position that this enticing idea is apt to carry us
too far. Formerly, anthropologists saw acculturation or even common
descent wherever two similar phenomena were observed. The discovery
that this conclusion is erroneous, that many similarities are due to
the psychical laws underlying human development, has carried us
434beyond its legitimate aim, and we start now with the presumption that
all similarities are due to these causes, and that their investigation is the
legitimate field of anthropological research. I believe this position is just
as erroneous as the former one. We must not accuse the investigator
who suspects a connection between American and Asiatic cultures as
deficient in his understanding of the true principles of anthropology.
Nobody has proven that the psychologic explanation holds good in all
cases. On the contrary, we know many cases of diffusion of customs
over enormous areas. The reaction against the uncritical use of similarities
for the purpose of proving relationship and historical connections
is overreaching its aim. Instead of demanding a critical examination
of the causes of similarities, we say now a priori, they are due to
psychical causes, and in this we err in method just as much as the old
school did. If we want to make progress on the desired line, we must
insist upon critical methods, based not on generalities but on each individual
case. In many cases, the final decision will be in favor of independent
origin; in others in favor of dissemination. But I insist that
nobody has as yet proven where the limit between these two modes of
origin lies, and not until this is done can a fruitful psychological analysis
be made. We do not even know if the critical examination may not
lead us to assume a persistence of cultural elements which were diffused
at the time when man first spread over the globe.

It will be necessary to define clearly what Bastian terms the elementary
ideas, the existence of which we know to be universal, and the
origin of which is not accessible to ethnological methods. The forms
which these ideas take among primitive people of different parts of the
world, the “Volker-Gedanken,” are due partly to the geographical
environment and partly to the peculiar culture of the people, and to a
large extent to their history. In order to understand the growth of
psychical life, the historical growth of customs must be investigated
most closely, and the only method by which the history can be investigated
is by means of a detailed comparison of the tribe with its neighbors.
This is the method which is necessary in order to make progress
towards a better understanding of the development of mankind. This
investigation will also lead us to inquire into the interesting psychological
problems of acculturation, viz., what conditions govern the selection
of foreign material embodied in the culture of the people, and the
mutual transformation of the old culture and the newly acquired

To sum up, I maintain that the whole question is decided only in
so far as we know that independent development as well as diffusion
has made each culture what it is. It is still sub judice in how far these
two causes contributed to its growth. The aspects from which we may
look at the problem have been admirably set forth by Otis T. Mason
in his address on similarities in culture. 13 In order to investigate the
psychical laws of the human mind which we are seeing now indistinctly
because our material is crude and unsifted, we must treat the culture of
primitive people by strict historical methods. We must understand the
process by which the individual culture grew before we can undertake
to lay down the laws by which the culture of all mankind grew.

The end for which we are working is farther away than the methods
which are now in greatest favor seem to indicate, but it is worth our

11 Paper read at the Seventh Annual Meeting of the American Folk-Lore Society,
Philadelphia, December 27, 1895. Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 9 (1896),
pp. 1-11.

22 Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Küste Amerikas, Berlin, 1895.

31 American Anthropologist, vol. 8 (1895), p. 101.