Lang, Andrew

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LANG, ANDREW (18441912), was a Scottish anthropologist and folklorist. Born in Selkirk, Scotland, Lang received his education at Saint Andrews, Glasgow, and Oxford universities. For seven years he was a fellow of Merton College, where he was regarded as a brilliant and promising classicist. After his marriage, he left Oxford, embarked upon a career as a literary journalist, and became widely known for his editions of fairy tales, his contributions to folklore and anthropology of religion, and his literary essays and reviews. Although Lang's range of interests and learning was considerable, his scholarly work was devoted to topical intellectual issues, and he made no major contribution to the development of knowledge. He was an astute critic of the theories of others rather than an original thinker. He was among the founders of the British Folklore Society and near the end of his life was president of the Society for Psychical Research.

As a professional man of letters, Lang wrote prodigiously. He was the author of 120 books (including pamphlets) and was involved in more than 150 others either as editor or as contributor, and his periodical articles number in the thousands. At a time when the growing British and American intelligentsia were intensely interested in issues of science and scholarship, Lang's penetrating intellect and skillful writing made him a leading figure, especially in the newly developing fields of anthropology, folklore, and history of religions.

Lang is credited with demolishing the great Max Müller's philological approach to the study of myth and his popular theory that all myth was the result of a "disease of language." In Modern Mythology (1897) Lang used his extensive knowledge of comparative mythology to show that the themes in Indo-European mythology that Müller explained in terms of Indo-European philology, many of them concerning solar phenomena, were also present in myths from other parts of the world and could be accounted for by the more universal tendency to personify nature. Although Lang did not himself offer a new theory of myth, he regarded mythology as the key to the "actual condition of the human intellect" (Myth, Ritual, and Religion, 1887, vol. 1, p. 29), and he thought that myth had to be understood according to its own form of rationality. In this respect, Lang anticipated major developments in the contemporary study of myth in anthropology and history of religions.

In Magic and Religion (1901) Lang wrote a detailed criticism of the illustrious James G. Frazer's theory of magic and religion. He exposed the flaws in Frazer's evolutionary theory that magic preceded religion and that religion arose from the perceived failures of magic. Lang also took Frazer to task for explaining the divinity of Christ in terms of ritual king-killing and myths of dying-rising gods, and he produced a devastating criticism of Frazer's theory of ritual regicide and his comparative method in The Golden Bough, questions on which later scholarly opinion agreed.

Although Lang was a proponent of E. B. Tylor's evolutionary theory of animism, he rejected Tylor's view that the idea of God arose as a late development from the animistic notions of souls, ghosts, and spirits. He pointed out in Myth, Ritual, and Religion that the concept of a creator god who is moral, fatherly, omnipotent, and omniscient is found among the most culturally primitive peoples of the world. Hence, on the evolutionists' own grounds, the idea of God, having been found among the culturally simplest peoples, could not have arisen from ideas of ghosts and souls as a later development. Lang's criticism on this point was among the first of many that eventually led to the downfall of evolutionism in anthropology. Lang's own view was that the idea of the soul-ghost and the idea of God had totally different sources and that the idea of God may have preceded animism, though he recognized that the issue of priority could never be historically settled. Lang thought, however, that the idea of God may have been prior and that it may have been corrupted and degraded by later animistic ideas and pushed out of its originally central position. Although Lang's emphasis upon the presence of "high gods" among culturally primitive peoples was largely ignored in England, it was taken up by other scholars and made the subject of major investigation in anthropology (Wilhelm Schmidt, E. E. Evans-Pritchard) and history of religions (Nathan Söderblom, Raffaele Pettazzoni, Mircea Eliade).

In later life, Lang developed an interest in psychic phenomenaghosts, telepathy, crystal gazing, fire walking, apparitions, spiritualismand he wrote two books on the subject. Although he treated ghost stories as a form of folklore, he thought that the psychological experience that gave rise to them might have some foundation in reality and that it might have been the original source of religious belief. In this matter, however, Lang stood alone and somewhat in disgrace among his folklore colleagues. What Lang seems to have been groping for was a way of documenting and exploring the experience of what Rudolf Otto was later to call "the numinous," which Otto and subsequent phenomenologists of religion held to be both the ancient source and the continuing foundation of religious belief.

See Also

Supreme Beings.


Noteworthy among Lang's many contributions to the study of religion and mythology are Custom and Myth (1885), 2d rev. ed. (1893; Oosterhout, 1970); Myth, Ritual, and Religion, 2 vols. (1887), rev. ed. (1899; New York, 1968); Modern Mythology (1897; New York, 1968); and Magic and Religion (1901; New York, 1969). His two works on parapsychological phenomena are Cock Lane and Common-Sense (1894; New York, 1970) and The Book of Dreams and Ghosts (1897), rev. ed. (1899; New York, 1970). A useful source for information regarding Lang's life and his enormous literary output is Roger L. Green's Andrew Lang: A Critical Biography with a Short-Title Bibliography of the Works of Andrew Lang (Leicester, 1946).

New Sources

Turner, Bryan S., ed. The Early Sociology of Religion, vol. 4: The Making of Religion by Andrew Lang. London, 1997.

Benjamin C. Ray (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Lang, Andrew

views updated Jun 11 2018

Lang, Andrew



Andrew Lang (1844–1912), British anthropologist and folklorist, was born in Selkirk, in that border country of Scotland whose turbulent past provided the substance for a corpus of evolving legend. It was a proper setting for Lang, whose life-long interest lay in the past of man as it is revealed, often dimly, in myths and tales. He was born just at the time when folklore (the word was coined in 1846) began to be used as a tool for unraveling the past. His own work, both critical and synthetic, represents the first maturing of a scientific interest in the folk narrative as a means of discovering the nature of primeval man and the details of his unrecorded history. “The student of this lore,” he wrote, “can look back and see the long trodden way behind him, the winding tracks through marsh and forest and ever burning sands” (quoted in Green 1946, p. 37).

Lang entered the University of St. Andrews in 1861 and four years later became a scholar at Oxford, where he was regarded as a brilliant and promising classicist. Even then what amounted al-most to a mania for writing had manifested itself, and he left the university in 1874 to devote his full time and energy to popular writing. This suited not only his own particular talents but also the needs and interests of an expanding English intelligentsia, whose appetite for a literate and sophisticated journalism on subjects of science and scholarship was insatiable. Until his death in 1912, Lang made his living by writing—and he wrote incessantly. His bibliography includes 120 separate books (including pamphlets) and over 150 volumes in whose publication he was associated either as editor or as contributor. In addition, there are several hundred uncollected poems and over five thou-sand essays, articles, reviews, and miscellaneous letters scattered in periodicals and newspapers. Much that he wrote—in whichever of the several fields of his interest—was, of course, only topical and made no permanent impression upon the development of knowledge.

He did contribute, however, and with some significance, to the restructuring of notions concerning the nature of human society, its origins, and its evolution—a series of problems sharpened by the discovery of the antiquity of man and the publication of the Darwinian theory of evolution. These problems were central to a recently emerged anthropology that adopted the comparative method as a major analytical tool for their solution. This new approach applied the accumulating body of knowledge about the wide range of human behavior in the present to the reconstruction of man’s past.

Where others used the data of kinship, religion, technology, physical appearance, or language, Lang used the myth and the folk narrative not only as keys to the relationships among prehistoric populations and to their migrations but also as a means for reconstructing the thought systems which provided the underlying rational order to the behavior of their communities. Myth, Lang maintained in something of a charter for the renovated study of folklore, is not simply a linguistic device but much more the reflection of a cultural system whose particular logical base the scientist must seek to reveal. “We propose,” he noted, “to seek for a demonstrably actual condition of the human intellect, whereof myth would be the natural and inevitable fruit” (1887, vol. 1, p.29). His contention that the myth is a “historical” document, useful for the revelation of a cultural or value system, became so generally accepted as an assumption in anthropology that his originality is often forgotten.

To describe that primal, savage state of human thought, Lang abstracted the common elements from myths as they occurred all over the world. In this way he arrived at his particular conception of totemism, which referred to such habits of mind as (1) an unwillingness to distinguish between animalism and rationality: man and animal belong to the same cognitive world; (2) a belief in sorcery and spiritualism; and (3) a lack of curiosity and an easy credulity as part of a general mental indolence. These habits of mind formed the essential elements of a primitive mentality, whose manifestations, preserved within the protective shell of myth and folk tale, have persisted into the present. With this basically new and revolutionary method for the reconstruction of earlier stages in the evolution of human behavior Lang divorced the study of folk literature from its philological origins and affiliations; he provided it with an anthropological perspective and thus expanded its scope far beyond the limits of Europe.

As in his equation of evolution with progress, Lang followed the prevailing views of his time in his acceptance of the concept of cultural stages as a framework for the evolution of human society. However, his acquaintance with world-wide comparative data—particularly those relating to myth, ritual, and religion—led him to reject the overly simple systems of human evolution or the ethnocentric views concerning primitive mentality which still characterized much of the anthropological theory of the time. He was much more apt to criticize the theories of others than to construct his own. Thus, he demolished the idea of primitive promiscuity as a basic level of social organization by using the same linguistic materials adduced by its proponents, and in one of his earliest, and most significant, articles he used his extensive knowl-edge of comparative mythology to refute Max Müller’s then popular thesis that all myth is the result of “a disease of language,” an irrational gloss on an original Vedic explanatory system of nature. It was Lang’s documented refutation of Miiller’s assumption of a universal rationality that formed the basis for his evolutionary concepts; the documentation was drawn from folklore. His recognition that a system of thought can be understood even if it is “rational” only in terms of its own premises, rather than in terms of those of a later and possibly more highly evolved stage, anticipated the approach of cultural relativism.

Equally trenchant, although less effective, were his criticisms of the conceptions of the evolution of religion that were based on Tylor’s definition of animism as the basic element from which all “higher” and monotheistic religious conceptions had evolved. While accepting the importance of Tylor’s animism for an understanding of the history of religion, Lang rejected the simple unilineal system to which it gave rise. He maintained that in addition to animistic belief there also occurred on the most simple social level the idea of some all-pervading spirit. Such a monotheism (which Wilhelm Schmidt was later to redefine as “the High God concept”) was, in Lang’s view, equally primitive, in an evolutionary sense and may always have existed as a second basic means of religious expression.

Lang was very much the nineteenth-century anthropologist: although the rapid professionalization of the field made him and his writing outmoded, he captured and expressed the first enthusiasm of anthropology. To him and to his contemporaries, anthropology was, in his words, “the science which studies man in the sum of all his works and thoughts, as evolved through the whole process of his development. This science. . . studies the development of law out of custom; the development of weapons from the stick or stone to the latest repeating rifle; the development of society from the horde to the nation. It is the study which does not despise the most backward nor degraded tribe, nor neglect the most civilised, and it frequently finds in Australians or Nootkas the germ of ideas and institutions which Greeks or Romans brought to perfection, or retained, little altered from their early rudeness, in the midst of civilisation” (1887, vol. 1, pp. 27–28). No one in his time said it better.

Jacob W. Gruber

[See alsoFolklore; Myth and symbol.]


(1884) 1893 Custom and Myth. New ed. London: Longmans.

(1887) 1899 Myth, Ritual and Religion. New ed. 2 vols. London: Longmans.

(1897) 1899 The Book of Dreams and Ghosts. New ed. London: Longmans.

1901 Magic and Religion. London: Longmans.

1903 Social Origins. London: Longmans.

1905 The Secret of the Totem. London: Longmans.


GREEN, ROGER L. 1946 Andrew Lang: A Critical Biography With a Short-title Bibliography of the Works of Andrew Lang. Leicester (England): Ward.

Lang, Andrew (1844-1912)

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Lang, Andrew (1844-1912)

Philosopher, poet, scholar, and author of scholarly books on a wide range of topics, including anthropology, folklore, mythology, psychology, ghost lore, history, biography, and fairy tales. He was born at Selkirk, Scotland, on March 31, 1844, and was educated at St. Andrews University. He also studied at Glasgow University and Oxford University (Balliol and Merton colleges). Lang abandoned his fellowship at Merton College to become a journalist and author in London.

He joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1906, but his interest in psychical phenomena was of longer standing. Lang studied them rather from the historic and anthropologic, than from the experimental, viewpoint.

His earliest paper was read before the SPR on the Cock Lane Ghost in 1894. Subsequently he was a frequent contributor to the society's Proceedings and Journal. In the Journal (vol. 7) he wrote on Queen Mary's diamonds; in Proceedings (vol. 11) on the voices of Joan of Arc. The telepathy à trois (involving three individuals) was his conception in a paper on the mediumship of Leonora Piper. His book Custom and Myth, published in 1884, contained a chapter on the divining rod, which he regarded as a mischievous instrument of superstition. However, the investigations of William Barrett convinced him that it was "a fact, and a very serviceable fact." Lang also contributed some valuable personal evidence on crystal gazing.

He wrote several articles on psychic research for the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1902. His books The Making of Religion (1898), Magic and Religion (1901), Cock Lane and Common Sense (1894), and The Book of Dreams and Ghosts (1897) are regarded as valuable tools for students of psychic research. The Mind of France (1908) was the first attempt to consider Joan of Arc in the light of psychic phenomena. In 1911 Lang became president of the Society for Psychical Research. According to the Rev. M. A. Bayfield in Proceedings (vol. 26), it is fair to infer from Lang's later writings that he found the exclusion of an external agency from some phenomena increasingly difficult.

The range and content of Lang's books and writings demonstrate remarkable originality and scholarship. He was the first scholar to properly correlate the mythology of ancient society with the folklore and psychic phenomena of modern civilization. His rainbow-colored series of fairy tale books for children, beginning with The Blue Fairy Book in 1889, remains popular.

Lang was honored by St. Andrews and Oxford universities and was elected an honorary fellow of Merton College in 1890. The freedom of his native town of Selkirk was conferred on him in 1889. He died July 20, 1912.


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Lang, Andrew. The Book of Dreams and Ghosts. 1897. Reprint, New York: Causeway Books, 1974.

. Cock Lane and Common Sense. London: Longmans, Green, 1894. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1970.

. Magic and Religion. 1901. Reprint, New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.

. The Maid of France, Being the Story of the Life and Death of Jeanne d'Arc. London: Longmans, Green, 1908.

. The Making of Religion. 1898. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1968.

Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.


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folklore. Despite the presence of what might be described as folklorists avant le mot, such as William Camden (1551–1623) and John Aubrey (1626–97), folklore as a discipline really became established early in the 19th cent. Its immediate origins are in German scholarship, with the works of the brothers Grimm being of central importance, the coining of the English term ‘folklore’ being attributed to W. J. Thoms (1803–85) in 1846. By the later 19th cent. folklore was an established, and in many ways scholarly, field of study. Its practitioners included enthusiastic amateurs, many of them country parsons and the daughters of the gentry, and such major figures as Andrew Lang (1844–1912), and Cecil Sharp (1850–1924), whose researches into folk-song and folk-dance were of lasting significance. The coming of age of folklore in England was symbolized by the founding of the Folk-Lore Society in 1878.

At its widest, folklore was an all embracing discipline, attempting to comprehend the totality of ‘traditional’ culture. Defining what traditional culture is in this context can be contentious, but, generally, folklorists have concentrated on forms of culture transmitted orally or by imitation. So the folklorist will study such elements of the oral culture as songs, stories, proverbs, and riddles, the broader social phenomena of games, ceremonies, and rituals, and also the products of material culture, including buildings and all sorts of artefacts. The early work was on peasant culture, and folklore still seems to be a discipline which flourishes best when the rural world is being studied: Sharp's work, indeed, is to some extent distorted by an idealization of the English ‘peasant’. Work on the folklore of industrial workers and their communities, notably of miners, does, however, indicate some of the broader possibilities of folklore studies.

In its search for the origins of human behaviour and its interest in the ‘primitive’, 19th-cent. folklore had much in common with the anthropology of the period, and some of the founding fathers of the latter discipline, notably Sir Edward Tylor (1832–1917) and Sir James Frazer (1854–1941), drew on ‘folkloric’ sources in their attempts to imagine primitive humans. Yet folklore in England did not become institutionalized as a university discipline in the way that anthropology was, and there are still few British (and more particularly English) universities which offer it as a degree subject.

Folklore's relationship with history remains problematic. Many historians, especially those working on mainstream political or economic history, seem to regard folklore as an ill-defined and unrigorous subject whose eclecticism denies its status as a serious discipline. Yet this seems unduly harsh on a field of study which, despite its appeal to the amateur, has at certain points created high standards of scholarship, for example in the analysis and classification of folk-songs and folk-tales. With the broadening of the subject-matter of history, there are now many historians, particularly cultural historians and those social historians interested in the history of mentalité, whose concerns are very similar to those of the folklorist. Both groups study ‘culture’ defined in a broad, anthropological sense, and concern themselves with customs, orally transmitted culture, the significance of folk-tales, and material culture.

Thus although the grand theory and the search for the origins of human culture in the ‘primitive’ of the late Victorian folklorists, and the eclecticism of later practitioners, may not be to the taste of modern historians, a dialogue with folklore, or at least the incorporation of elements of human behaviour studied by folklorists, can enter the historian's agenda.

J. A. Sharpe

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