13 December 2013

Origins of the World's Mythologies

Michael Witzel is one of the most prolific scholars in Indology of any period. His publications have set the standard in the field of the early history of India and the Indic languages. His 2012 book The Origins of the World's Mythologies, published by Oxford University Press, is extremely ambitious in scope and intriguing in its content. In a lesser scholar I'm sure that such a work would be dismissed, but Witzel has the stature and the background to carry it off. I've previously been strongly influenced by Witzel's work. His theory on the Iranian origins of the Śākya tribe led to my own article on that subject being published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (Vol. 3). 

I'm a long way from assimilating all of the ideas in the book, but want to begin to note what I find interesting about it. I won't be critiquing his methods because frankly I'm not qualified. They are explained in some detail and my layman's eye tells me only that he has at least set out how he proceeded. It seems a plausible enough way to proceed and I see every sign of his dealing well with complexity and exceptions. Witzel repeats several times that the project is heuristic a term he borrows from textual criticism to mean still gathering information, though he thinks his outline of the general features is likely to accommodate any new facts. Inevitably the result is a broad brush-stroke, rather speculative picture. There will be many who find this kind of speculation unwarranted, but I have always been fascinated by such an approach which crosses disciplines and fields. Books like this are pioneering efforts, providing a background against which more detailed investigations can proceed.

Witzel's method is primary comparative mythology, but he approaches this in a novel way. Instead of comparing individual myths or themes, he compares whole mythic systems. In this I believe Witzel has been strongly influenced by the field of comparative linguistics. The comparative method works best across whole languages rather than with isolated words or points of grammar (though these may be important signposts). So while it is neither here nor there that Latin pater becomes fader in Germanic, it is very significant that everywhere that Latin words begin with  /p/ the Germanic cognate will begin with /f/. This systematic shift in consonant sound is an aspect of Grimm's Law (after the elder of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob). As an example I have looked in detail at how the sounds in words for five and finger are related across various Indo-European languages in studying the Sanskrit word prapañca. Similarly here Witzel is looking for, and finds, systematic correspondences in the mythologies of far flung cultures.

What emerges is that mythic systems spanning Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, India, Asia, South East Asia, the Pacific and the Americas share important features. In particular they share a story arc. Individual myths are fitted into this same story arc in these regions. By contrast the myth of Subsaharan Africa, New Guinea and Australia follow an very different story arc. These two areas roughly correspond to the ancient landmasses of Laurasia and Gondwanaland and Witzel has chosen these names to represent them - though he is fully aware of the different chronologies of geology and human evolution.

The striking conclusion from the shared features of Laurasian myth that the mythology "...can be traced back to a single source, probably in Great Southwest Asia, from where it spread across Eurasia, long before the immigration of the Amerindian populations into North America and before the Austroasiatic colonisation of the Indonesian archipelago, Madagascar, and the Pacific." (19)

That is to say that Witzel claims that he can identify elements of an ancient mythology common to a group of people who lived at least ca. 20,000 years ago. This figure emerges because the first migrations from Siberia into America via the Beringa land bridge (which crossed the Bering Strait). Testing this thesis will be a monumental task as it involves a huge amount of evidence from across multiple disciplines (the book is about 660 pages). Along the way Witzel provides many examples of testable hypothesis and gaps in our knowledge. We get no sense that the theory is complete or unequivocal. Witzel is not making unwarranted claims to knowledge, but proposing a conjecture to be further tested.

Chapter One introduces the main ideas and situates his study in the history of such studies. Chapter two explores his comparative method and chapter three explores the Laurasian myth in greater detail, noting all the variations and contrary evidence. Witzel is not afraid to cite contradictions which is always a good sign. However he does try to show how or why such evidence might be understood in his framework. Chapter four explores evidence from other fields such as linguistics, physical anthropology. genetics, and archaeology which serve to bolster the thesis because they are largely in agreement with the results of comparing myths. It should be noted however that much of this evidence is disputed or ambiguous. Interpretations exist which flatly contradict Witzel. Thus here at least we need to be aware of confirmation bias. Chapter five looks at the Gondwana mythology as a study in contrast, giving both the main characteristics of these myths and discussing the similarities and differences. Clearly in some cases the two broad traditions intrude on each other. Chapter six speculates on the first myths that might underlie both Laurasian and Gondwana mythology, which Witzel refers to as Pan-Gaean Mythology. Certain myths, such as the story of a flood that nearly wipes out humanity, are more or less ubiquitous around the world. Chapter seven deals with changes in Laurasian Myth over time.

Witzel's provisional outline of the story arc of Laurasian Myth is as follows:
In the beginning there is nothing, chaos, non-being. Sometimes there are primordial waters. The universe is created from an egg or sometimes from a cosmic man. The earth is retrieved from the waters by a diver or fisherman. (Father) heaven and (mother) earth are in perpetual embrace and their children, the gods, are born in between them. They push their parents apart and often hold them apart with an enormous tree. The light of the sun is revealed for the first time. Several generations of gods are born and there is infighting. The younger generation defeat and kill the elder. One of the gods kills a dragon and this fertilises the earth. Slaying the dragon is often associated with an intoxicating drink. The sun fathers the human race (sometimes only the chieftains of humans). Humans flourish but begin to commit evil deeds. Humans also begin to die. A great flood nearly wipes out humanity which is re-seeded by the survivors. There is a period of heroic humans and particularly the brining of culture in the form of fire, food. The benefactor is a hero or sometimes a shaman. having survived and now equipped with culture, humans spread out. Local histories and local nobility begin to emerge and then dominate. Consistent with their being four ages of the world everything ends in the destruction of the world, humans and gods. In some stories this destruction is the prelude for cyclic renewal.
Cultures as far flung as Indigenous Americans, Polynesians, Japanese, Malaysians, Indians, Greeks and Celts have a system of mythology which draws on these themes (or mythemes as Witzel terms them) and in this order. Which is to say their system of myth is structured around this story or something very like it. Of course there are many variations and exceptions. Having grown up with Greek and Māori mythology and comparing it with the Indian myth I have subsequently studied, I am particularly struck by the parallels between Vedic and Māori myth both of which closely follow the general outline above. These are two populations that simply could not have come into contact for many thousands of years, suggesting that they must have shared these stories for the kinds of time periods Witzel is proposing. 

The origin of the Laurasian universe is mysterious. In the beginning there is darkness or chaos (from Greek khaos meaning "abyss") or non-being. Such images are found in myths from the Pacific, Greece, China, India and the Middle-East. The commonality spans geographical areas and language families (though language superfamilies are now being proposed, which I will discuss in a future essay). Sometimes this phase is characterised as primordial dark waters (water has no form) from which the earth (order) emerges. "The myth of primordial waters is very widely spread, especially in northern Europe, Siberia, and the Americas, the Near East, India, and Southeast Asia/Oceania" (113). One of the ways that the world is brought into being is through speech - a theme in Vedic, Icelandic, Maya, Maori and Biblical texts (111).

In his final chapter he sums up Laurasian myth:
"Viewed from the present vantage point... Laurasian 'ideology' seems to be based on a fairly simple idea, the correlation of the 'life' of humans and the universe. But someone, about 40,000 years ago, had to some up with it. As it is closely related to the concepts of the Paleolithic hunt, the rebirth of animals, and shamanism, it must have been a shaman who did so." (422)
Chapter three provides a detailed look at the sources and variations of what Witzel calls "Our First Novel", including lengthy quotes from published versions of world mythology. Witzel has given special place to old tellings of myth. "The earliest written codifications consist of the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, the (four major) Egyptian cosmogonies, the oral but--due to extremely faithful oral transmission--virtually "tape recorded" Vedic corpus, the Greek Theogony of Hesiod, the Japanese Kojiki, the Quiché Mayan Popol Vuh, the Hawai'ian Kumulipo, and not to forget, the Torah, the Hebrew Bible." (65) The point here being that, just as with older written texts the connections between cultures are clearer than in more recent texts.

One of the interesting contrasts of Laurasian and Gondwana mythology is cosmogony. The Laurasian stress on the creation of the universe is entirely absent in Gondwana mythologies (105). For these people the world has always existed and always will exist. By contrast creation is a particular fascination for the majority of the world's people (given that the Laurasian area takes in China, India and Indonesia, who between them account for half the population of the world, in addition to Europe and the Americas). Gondwana myth is concerned with the origins of people however.

In addition there are some stories which are found to be ubiquitous. Chief amongst these is the flood. According to a widespread, more or global story (178ff and 348ff) at some point a flood nearly wiped all of humanity except for a few survivors. Witzel treats this myth as a survival of a much older Gondwana story since it is found in Africa, New Guinea, Melanesia and Australia as well. And it has been intelligently incorporated into the Laurasian story line. It is one piece of evidence pointing to what Witzel calls Pan-Gaean Mythology that must have existed when the migration out of Africa began ca 65,000 years ago.

All this is interesting from a Buddhist point of view because the Buddhist universe is beginningless and endless and has no creation story. In Buddhist stories there no primordial chaos and no bringing the world into being and no interest such things. Though many people cite the Agañña Sutta as a creation myth in fact it represents a Śākyan parody of a Vedic myth. There are elements of the Vedic cosmogony of a cyclic creation and destruction overlaid on this substrata, but its clear that it is part of a much larger process of assimilating elements of Vedic culture (for example virtually all the names of the members of the Buddha's family, including Siddhartha, have Vedic overtones. See my essay Siddhartha Gautama: What's in a Name?). According to Witzel this absence is characteristic of the mythologies of Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and New Guinea. So this raises a question of how we relate Buddhism to Witzel's characterisation of world mythology. At first glance the basic Buddhist worldview would appear to be more like the Gondwana than the Laurasian. This is a subject that would require more study.

Witzel appears to have done something at once similar to, and yet vastly more far reaching than, Joseph Campbell's characterisation of the Hero's Journey. This overview can hardly do justice to the sweep of a 600+ page book that purports to describe 65,000 years of story telling and myth, though I hope that readers with an interest in myth and/or history will take up the challenge of reading it. It's clearly a book written by and for academics, but Witzel is a good writer who repays careful attention. I don't imagine the book would be beyond anyone who regularly reads this blog.

Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. Pbk: 978-0-19-981285-1
See also the article (2008) 'Slaying the Dragon Across Eurasia.' in In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Essays in the Four Fields of Anthropolog: In honor of Harold Crane Fleming. Ed. John D. Bengtson. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
See also Origins of Myth: The Other Evidence. 24 Jan 2014  

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