Hartland, E. Sidney

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HARTLAND, E. SIDNEY (18481927), was an English folklorist and armchair anthropologist. Hartland is a good example of the polymaths produced by the Victorian era, contributing prolifically to a wide range of topics but practically forgotten today. Although he wrote books on primitive law, primitive society, and the priority of matrilineal kinship, Hartland's favorite subject was religion, and his opinions obtained attention not only in his native Britain but from such leading figures of the day as the French comparativist Marcel Mauss and the Austrian theorist and historian of religion Wilhelm Schmidt.

Among Hartland's contributions to the study of religion may be mentioned his theory of magic and religion. He considered that the early humans' awe and wonder were aroused by their sense of a power behind appearances. Through personification early humankind shaped gods or spirits with humanlike dispositions, making it natural to attempt to placate or control them ritually. Thus, although magic and religion can be distinguishedthe one using coercive ritual procedures, the other propitiatorythey spring from the same psychological root and are interwoven in human practice.

A like reductionism appears in Hartland's study of Celtic and Teutonic fairy tales. Assuming the unity of the human imagination, he held that questions concerning the nature and distribution of these tales lead into the domain of psychology. But it is a psychology that must be reconstructed from the simplest and most archaic phenomena that anthropological research can discover. The pursuit of this method led Hartland from Celts and Teutons to other European peoples and, beyond them, to Pacific islanders and American Indians, among others. The result was that stories familiar to some of Hartland's Western contemporaries were traced to a more primitive state of society and a more archaic plane of thought.

In criticizing such writers as Hartland, Mauss pointed out that they explained the form of religious institutions by appealing to individual mental processes to the neglect of social needs and interrelationships among institutions. This premise fell into disfavor late in Hartland's life with the rise of a socially and culturally oriented anthropology. Similarly the emphasis on intensive local fieldwork made the comparative method applied by Hartland seem antiquated.


The Science of Fairy Tales (London, 1891) offers a most readable entry to Hartland's thinking about traditional oral literature and to his application of the comparative method, while the three volumes of The Legend of Perseus (London, 18941896) show his sustained and detailed attempt to trace the appearances of a single story and to relate them to "custom" and "superstition." Both these early works invite comparison with later ventures toward a science of mythology. Hartland's opinions on a range of religious topics are conveniently collected in Ritual and Belief: Studies in the History of Religion (London, 1914).

Kenneth Maddock (1987)

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