How did our legends really begin?

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How did our legends really begin?

A new theory suggests that the similarities shared by many myths means that they have a common origin, passed down across thousands of generations. So, how did our stories really begin?

Steve Connor

Quote:When you start looking at these similarities you begin to wonder whether they could have had a common origin, perhaps carried from one part of the world to another as Palaeolithic peoples migrated over many thousands of years to colonise new lands. Could the legends and folklores of the world be connected in the sense that they stem from a common origin, passed down by word of mouth over several thousand generations?

This, fundamentally, is the radical idea of Michael Witzel, a Harvard University linguist and philologist, who has drawn on the scientific disciplines of molecular genetics, physical anthropology, archaeology, and his own field of linguistics to propose that the world's many mythologies have a common origin – similar to the evolution of related species from a long-extinct common ancestor.



Quote:"Laurasian myths share a common storyline that tells of the creation, in mythic time, of the world, of several generations of deities during four or five ages, of the creation and fall of humans, and finally of an end of the universe, sometimes coupled with the hope for a new world," he says. "Laurasian mythology was successful as it put essential questions and answered them in a satisfactory way. It asked the eternal questions 'where do we come from?', 'why are we here?', 'where do we go?' and answered them by stating that we are descendants of the gods, who on their part have evolved from early generations and ultimately from the universe itself, whose ultimate origin is prominently debated."


Of course not everyone found the argument compelling, as per this review by Whitley Kaufman ->


Quote:In truth, the long 90-page chapter on “The Contribution of Other Sciences” adds little evidentiary support for Witzel’s thesis, and given its complex, technical nature, most readers will do well to simply skip it.  The details of the Out of Africa theory remain highly speculative and controversial, and the dating is subject to enormous range of error.  Thus the very best it can do for Witzel’s thesis, even on the most generous reading, is give an enormous range of possibility, “between 65,00 and 20,000 years ago,” for the Laurasian myth.  But even that would be an overstatement, since it provides no independent evidence for his crucial assumption that there is a distinction between the Laurasian and the Gondwana myth, or that even if the world is divided into two such mythologies, that this division can be traced to ancestral patterns of population movement, rather than say to diffusion, or even independent origin.  Witzel is obviously concerned to give legitimacy to his project in order to distinguish himself from the armchair speculation of a Frazer, but this concern leads him to overstate the relevance of “scientific” evidence from areas outside of myth.



Quote:It would thus seem that we can have little assurance that the reconstructed Laurasian and Gondwana myths are anything more than an artifact of Witzel’s method.  For example, Witzel admits that African myths do sometimes include an end of the world.  He does not count it as part of the genuine Gondwana myth because, in his judgment, it is too “rare” to be original (181).  But can we confidently judge that the relative rarity of this mytheme in surviving African myth is clear evidence of its not existing in the original myth some 60,000 years ago? (The matter is further complicated by the fact that, as Witzel recognizes, sacred cosmogonic myths are often closely-guarded secrets, and we have no idea how many of them were lost over the millennia.)  Indeed, even in “Laurasian” myth the idea of an end of the world could be called “rare”; it plays essentially no role in Greek myth, and is only prevalent in the Islamic-Christian tradition because of the influence of Zoroastrian thought.  This is not a minor issue, as the existence of a proper beginning and end seems to be the key fact that makes Witzel see the Laurasian myth as a “novel” and the Gondwana myth as unstructured.  Witzel’s method of focusing on larger mythical structures thus seems hardly likely to ensure objective results, and indeed it may result in artifically imposing that structure from outside.



Quote:Equally if not more problematic is the claim that any such ancient mythical patterns could explain the way people view the world today.  Witzel’s theory, even it proved true, would face a central objection to all historical-diffusionist theories of myth: that it cannot explain how the myth came to be in the first place, nor why it persists.  Such theories inevitably resort to an implausibly historical determinist picture of human nature.   Witzel’s own version of this is his particular hobby-horse, the idea of “path-dependence.”  He defines this idea rather vaguely as “the influence of early, foundational cultural features on successor cultures” (376), and claims that “the Laurasian pattern that was set in late Paleolithic times can be shown to govern much of our current thinking” (377).  Even apart from the lack of clarity of this formulation, the explanation will not do.  For if the notion of “path-dependence” is invoked to explain the persistence of basic ideas over long periods of time, it is unable to explain how these ideas can change – a fact particularly significant for a theory that posits a radical divergence between primitive Gondwana myth and later Laurasian myth.  Hence the idea of “path-dependence” ends up saying only that myths persist, except when they don’t –  not a very helpful notion.  Indeed, even when they do persist, why should we believe it is due to some sort of law of psychological inertia? Great literature persists, for example, not because it has more “path dependence” than inferior works, but because of its intrinsic merits.  Might not the same be true for myths?


Both Witzel and Kaufman seem unable to consider the possibility that some myths survive because they resonate with something spiritual within us, maybe events that happened "Over There" rather than on this side of the Veil. Or perhaps there are Jungian Archetypes in the Cosmic Mind as Bernardo Kastrup has suggested in the past.

Gordon White was quite taken with Witzel's ideas, actually how I first came to hear them and of course there's the Trickster and the Paranormal work of Hansen. And of course there are varied Psi phenomena that work through religions, like the healing events at Lourdes.

edit: Also consider Eric Weiss' Doctrine of Subtle Worlds

Quote:My intention in this chapter is to introduce what I am calling the ‘Doctrine Of The Subtle Worlds.’ Let me begin by stating in a very bald way the essential points of this doctrine.
  • The physical world is part of a larger system of interlocking worlds.
  • These other worlds are not physical, and they operate according to laws different from those that govern the physical world. They are, nonetheless, objectively real.
  • Processes taking place in those other worlds directly impact what takes place in the physical world – whether or not human beings are aware of them.
  • Human beings can consciously experience those other worlds, and can operate in those other worlds in ways that significantly affect the unfolding of events here in the physical world.
The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds is by no means a new idea. In fact, modern Western civilization is probably the only civilization in history to construct a cosmology which excludes the subtle worlds. Anthropological research gives ample testimony to the fact that tribal people’s at the hunting-gathering stage of development are animistic and include in their cosmologies many disembodied, non-human intelligences and the worlds in which those intelligences have their abodes. Elements of this animistic belief remain prominent in all of the classical civilizations.1 Even as late as Dante, Western civilization operated in terms of a cosmological picture which was dominated by angelic and demonic divine and semi-divine agencies, and which was divided into a terrestrial, sub-lunar world subjected to physical laws and diverse sub-terrestrial and celestial spaces governed by entirely other principles.

The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds did not become entirely discredited until after the Renaissance. It is probable that the discrediting of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds came about as part of the large-scale shift in consciousness which accompanied the discovery of perspectival space.2 When people began to imagine space as what we now call a Cartesian grid, that grid spread itself out to cover not only the Earth, but all of the celestial spheres as well. When Newton, somewhat later, calculated the motions of the planets based on the assumption that they were balls of rock rather than celestial divinities, the distinction between the terrestrial, sub-lunar reality and the numinous spaces of the outer spheres entirely dissolved. Heaven collapsed into Earth. In 1678 there was a serious philosophical treatment of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds by the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688) in his True Intellectual System of the Universe.3 After that, however, the topic dropped out of respectable academic discourse for many centuries...
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


(This post was last modified: 2021-02-14, 03:09 AM by Sciborg_S_Patel.)

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