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.
on 28 February 2005
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. 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!
on 8 January 2011
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.