4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The Past Decoded,
This review is from: When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (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. 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!