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When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth Hardcover – 17 Jan 2005

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (17 Jan. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691099863
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691099866
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 16.3 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,585,720 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"The authors provide not only a compelling and highly readable collection of mythic interpretations but also a framework through which to decode those stories and uncover seismic, geological, astrological, or other natural events that preceded written history. . . . When They Severed Earth from Sky provides an intellectually challenging and parsimonious new framework. It not only sheds light on the planet's natural history but also offers alluring insights about human cognition."--Abigail A. Baird, Science



"In their highly engaging, thoroughly researched analysis of the meaning of myths, When They Severed Earth from Sky, [the authors] build a strong case that historical facts can be extracted from the mists of our mythic past. . . . I think the Barbers are on to something here. Any student of myths ignores this important work at his or her peril."--Michael Shermer, American Scientist



"The Barbers take us back some 100,000 years to the beginning of storytelling. . . . When They Severed Earth from Sky is timely and engaging."--Books in Canada

From the Back Cover


"A fascinating read. This book points the way to how truths can be found even in myths."--Michael S. Gazzaniga, author of The Mind's Past


"A fascinating read. This book points the way to how truths can be found even in myths."--Michael S. Gazzaniga, author of The Mind's Past


"Rarely have I read a book so avidly and with such pleasure. The Barbers have captured the vital signs of the mythmaking process, in a revolutionary study. This is a novel and convincing way to look at mythology."--Adrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times


"I read this idiosyncratic and engaging work in its entirety in just two sittings, finding it nearly impossible to put down. The Barbers give intriguing explanations of how and why we construct and transmit myths and how we may unpack these 'off-the-wal'' stories to reveal essential information about such natural phenomena as volcanic eruptions."--Joshua T. Katz, Princeton University


"This book offers a comprehensive account of why myths are the way they are. Drawing in part on cognitive science and on historical evidence as to real events, it presents a broad and informative selection of the myths themselves, raising questions and suggesting answers that cognitive scientists will find interesting."--Michael C. Corballis, author of From Hand to Mouth



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Evidence shows that people have had brains like ours for at least 100,000 years. Read the first page
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 14 Jun. 2005
Format: Hardcover
Our literate age has skewed our view of ancient legends, according to the Barbers. We have seen stories we venerated proven false and misleading. What credence, then, can we give to "primitive" tales orally transmitted down the generations" It seems there is much substance to be found in these "obsolete" myths. They often reflect real events, which we can understand and verify if we learn how to look properly. The Barbers open with an occurrence on North America's West Coast dated seven millennia ago. Crater Lake is a delightful view today. In 1865 an investigator learned from the Klamath Indians that two deities, clashing over the fate of a woman, filled the sky with ash and smoke accompanied by thunder and lightning. The battle's residue was a mighty caldera, later filled with water, which the Klamath people will not enter. How did a volcanic eruption remain in folk memory so long?
The authors contend that natural events are kept active in human memory for long periods by the process of story telling. The "narrative imperative" is an essential product of human evolution. As primates, we are group dwellers who have learned to enhance social cohesion through communication. Story telling reinforces chosen events and people related to them in memory. While the actual circumstances may not be literally true as related many generations later, the essence of the event will be retained. Our memories are selective, say the Barbers, and stories held important rank higher in priority than even recent, but less significant, occurrences. This is the reason many legends, from many peoples bear an almost uncanny similarity. They reflect similar, often violent events - volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis figure large in their origins.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By William Holmes on 28 Feb. 2005
Format: Hardcover
In this fascinating book, the Barbers argue that myths carry important information about real events, and that sometimes that information can survive intact for thousands of years. As their starting point, the authors describe the Klamath Tribe's myth of a great battle betwen the Chief of the Above World and the Chief of the Below World, a legend that had been handed down for hundreds of generations and that accurately describes the eruption of Mount Mazama (now Crater Lake in the state of Oregon)--a cataclysm that took place nearly 8,000 years ago!
It turns out that many famous "monsters" of history were not really monsters at all--the stories of Medusa and the Gorgons, of Cyclops, of the battle between the gods and the Titans, may have started out as descriptions of devastating volcanic eruptions. The "message in the myth" may have originally been something along the lines of "stay away from Mount Gorgon--her hair of snakes (treacherous lava flows) can turn things to stone!" Over the years, as people migrated away from the volcano that gave rise to the myth, the mountain turned into an anthropomorphic monster with a bad hairdo and the power to turn her hapless victims into statues.
Time and again, the authors remind us that there may be valid messages encoded deeply in the myths--ancient societies observed and understood the precession of the equinoxes (a cycle that takes nearly 26,000 years to complete), and many of the ancient myths about gods casting down monsters and the cycles of history can be explained by reference to this predictable (but hard to observe) change in the heavens.
"When They Severed Earth from Sky" is well-written, lively and thought-provoking.
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful By aiya on 8 Jan. 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I bought the book after reading the two glowing reviews, and I put the book down after skimming it, hoping I can return it to the seller. In her account, the author has missed the transpersonal and psychological nature of myths altogether and offer interpretations of her own that are at times ludicrous. Being a textile historian, she is used to reconstructing a complete piece of weft and warp from fragments in two dimensions. Myths however, operate in 4 dimensions. This provides an interesting analogy as to how far off the mark the information is.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 26 reviews
59 of 60 people found the following review helpful
The Past Encoded 28 Feb. 2005
By William Holmes - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In this fascinating book, the Barbers argue that myths carry important information about real events, and that sometimes that information can survive intact for thousands of years. As their starting point, the authors describe the Klamath Tribe's myth of a great battle betwen the Chief of the Above World and the Chief of the Below World, a legend that had been handed down for hundreds of generations and that accurately describes the eruption of Mount Mazama (now Crater Lake)--a cataclysm that took place nearly 8,000 years ago!

It turns out that many famous "monsters" of history were not really monsters at all--the stories of Medusa and the Gorgons, of Cyclops, of the battle between the gods and the Titans, may have started out as descriptions of devastating volcanic eruptions. The "message in the myth" may have originally been something along the lines of "stay away from Mount Gorgon--her hair of snakes (treacherous lava flows) can turn things to stone!" Over the years, as people migrated away from the volcano that gave rise to the myth, the mountain turned into an anthropomorphic monster with a bad hairdo and the power to turn her hapless victims into statues.

Time and again, the authors remind us that there may be deep messages encoded in the myths--ancient societies observed and understood the precession of the equinoxes (a cycle that takes nearly 26,000 years to complete), and many of the ancient myths about gods casting down monsters and the cycles of history can be explained by reference to this predictable (but hard to observe) change in the heavens.

"When They Severed Earth from Sky" is well-written, lively and thought-provoking. It makes me wonder whether someday anthropologists will be able to use the principles that the Barbers described to tease out and recover the "ur-myths" that underlay the seemingly impenetrable symbolism of prehistoric peoples. Perhaps not--some things are no doubt lost forever in the mists of time. Still, the message sometimes gets through, even after thousands of years--and what an interesting message it is!
38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Tell it or lose it 3 May 2005
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Our literate age has skewed our view of ancient legends, according to the Barbers. We have seen stories we venerated proven false and misleading. What credence, then, can we give to "primitive" tales orally transmitted down the generations" It seems there is much substance to be found in these "obsolete" myths. They often reflect real events, which we can understand and verify if we learn how to look properly. The Barbers open with an occurrence on North America's West Coast dated seven millennia ago. Crater Lake is a delightful view today. In 1865 an investigator learned from the Klamath Indians that two deities, clashing over the fate of a woman, filled the sky with ash and smoke accompanied by thunder and lightning. The battle's residue was a mighty caldera, later filled with water, which the Klamath people will not enter. How did a volcanic eruption remain in folk memory so long?

The authors contend that natural events are kept active in human memory for long periods by the process of story telling. The "narrative imperative" is an essential product of human evolution. As primates, we are group dwellers who have learned to enhance social cohesion through communication. Story telling reinforces chosen events and people related to them in memory. While the actual circumstances may not be literally true as related many generations later, the essence of the event will be retained. Our memories are selective, say the Barbers, and stories held important rank higher in priority than even recent, but less significant, occurrences. This is the reason many legends, from many peoples bear an almost uncanny similarity. They reflect similar, often violent events - volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis figure large in their origins. Natural events, integrated with accounts of people's lives, become the foundation of social history. They relate the tales of heroes [and heroines], gods and rulers. Unravelling the threads woven into the account of the original event isn't an easy task, but the Barbers explain how it has been done. Today's technology is of vast help, since reliable dating is now a mainstay in myth analysis.

The Barbers make clever use of terms in presenting their ideas. The brain, they say, relies on "Redundancy Strategy" which can be countered by the "Silence Principle". In effect, the mind seeks things to remember. Whatever isn't used is cast away. The "Movie Construct" is a method of deriving the origins of stories from what is known now. Filling in the missing details becomes an exercise of using known experiences or simply fabricating. A related concept is the "Adversary Principle". The persistent story of Mount Mazama creating Crater Lake is a good example. People learning the lake was created by two deities in a dispute is both logical and meaningful in oral traditions. Time and distance lead to the "Fogging Effect" in which what occurs and what is remembered and passed on as stories may be drastically different. If the student understands how this works in the mind, the fog may be brushed aside to reveal the original event. Keeping the terms straight is easy, since the authors provide an Appendix, which lists the Index of Myth Principles.

Although the Bibliography fails to list a single work in cognitive science, the authors' proposals merit attention. The details of how the brain holds and processes the information about significant events is less important than recognising that it does so. Once obtained, particularly with group memory acting to buttress retention, the foundation for oral history is firmly in place. The authors' argument to avoid thoughtless dismissal of myths is sound. They demonstrate the way events are mythologised in a way both informative and entertaining. A useful and welcome book. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Tour de force ! 30 Jan. 2005
By G. Joy Robins - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have been a fan of Elizabeth Wayland Barber since The Mummies of Urumchi. This time with her husband Paul, she has again written an eminently readable and enlightening book. Together they cast light on the messages passed down to us in myths. We have so lost touch with the point of view of people in the preliterate past that we have largely discarded their earnest efforts to relay what they deemed important information. The Barbers, through pains-taking research and brilliant insights, have been able to discover the rules that governed the conservation of knowledge in the verbal "pipeline". They find the "camera angle" of the ancients, what they saw and how they would have interpreted it. This has enabled them to start to decode what many myths were meant to convey. It is an exciting beginning. I am sure that we will soon be hearing of many more secrets being deciphered using their tools.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
A wide-ranging exploration of myth development 14 Oct. 2005
By J. Nelson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I remember years ago reading an article about excavations at Mycenae uncovering a multitude of dams trying to keep flooding under control. Apparently after one dam was built, the water came through in two other places. When those were dammed, more flooding started elsewhere, resulting in more dams, etc. The author of the article pointed out that the Greek word for water was Hydra -- the same as the multi-headed monster that sprang two new heads for each one Herakles chopped off in the ancient story.

This book examines the same phenomenon across diverse cultures and time periods. Peeling back layers of time and distance, the authors search for, and reveal, the kernels of truth behind the legends. And what a wonderful journey they share! Full of asides (frustratingly tossed away without comment at times) and journeys that turn back upon themselves, this is a book you will savor and linger over.

Many of the thoughts will cause you to turn back pages to reconnect the dots yourself as they walk you through the processes of their evaulation. This will enjoy a fond place on your bookshelf among the favorites you treasure.

Incidentally, Ms. Barber's other works ("Women's Work" and "The Mummies of Urumchi") both share the same chatty style and interesting asides. Check them out. You'll see what I mean.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Good information, bad presentation 14 Dec. 2011
By Real Name - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Having read Elizabeth Wayland Barber's works before I really looked forward to reading this book. Unfortunately I was very disappointed by it. Although the information is fascinating, the presentation is irritatingly pop-sci. The authors went overboard codifying their 'myth principles' into sound-bite names (Bumping Upstairs or the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent) that have the opposite effect. They created a jargon that is specific only to this book, carries little or no information, and does not serve to remind the reader of the encoded meanings. Exactly the opposite of the myths the book examines.

A good academic work is capable of explaining a concept once and then re-invoking it later without a lot of snappy fanfare. The book would have been just as good written in plain English without the overworked shorthand. Really too bad, because the work the authors have done is illuminating and valuable.
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