The habit of telling stories is one of the most primitive characteristics of the human race. The most ancient civilizations, the most barbarous savages, of whom we have any knowledge have yielded to investigators clear traces of the possession of this practise. The specimens of their narrative that have been gathered from all the ends of the earth and from the remotest times of which we have written record show traces of purpose, now religious and didactic, now patriotic and political; but behind or beside the purpose one can discern the permanent human delight in the story for its own sake.
The oldest of stories are the myths: not the elaborated and sophisticated tales that one finds in, say, Greek epic and drama, but the myth pure and simple. This is the answer of primitive science, to the question of the barbaric child, the explanation of the thunder or the rain, of the origin of man or of fire, of disease or death. The form of such myths is accounted for by the belief known as "animism" which assumed personality in every object and phenomenon, and conceived no distinction in the kind of existence of a man, a dog, a tree, or a stone. Such myths are still told among, e. g., the American Indians, and the assumption just mentioned accounts for such features as the transformation of the same being from a man into a log or a fish, or the marriage of a coyote and a woman. Derived from this state of belief and showing signs of their origin, are such animal stories as form the basis of the artistically worked-up tales of "Uncle Remus."
Thus in primitive myth, the divinities of natural forces are not personifications, for there was no figure of speech involved; the storm, the ocean, and the plague were to the mythmakers actually persons. The symbolical element in literary myths is a later development, possible only as man gradually arrived at the realization of his separateness in kind from the non-human objects of his senses. With this realization came the attempt to adapt the myths that had come down from more primitive times to his new way of thinking, and the long process of making the myths reasonable and credible set in.