Origins of the World’s Mythologies: A Book Review

E. J. Michael Witzel. The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Oxford, 2012

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Michael Witzel is a highly renowned Vedic scholar, currently at Harvard who’s also a scholar of Japanese mythology. He says his book was 40 years in the making, ever since he started noting parallels between Vedic and Old Japanese myths.

 

I’d been hearing about this book for quite sometime, originally through discussion of Gordon White’s work, Starships, and had a highly skeptical attitude; how could one reconstruct myths through time depths like the Paleolithic? Traditional linguists insist language can’t be taken back more than 6000 years or so. But is that really the case? The Origins of the Worlds Mythologies presents a good case that with the help of other disciplines it can be done. As the blurb says for this Oxford University publication, Witzel lobs “an intellectual hand grenade that will doubtless generate considerable excitement—and consternation—in the scholarly community.” Well, it does make sense that with the vast amount of new knowledge emerging from genetics on to the powerful computational analytical tools for comparative analyses of words in various languages that traditional linguists need to open up their methodologies. But it goes very much against the current academic fashions of only the most granular views accepted.

 

Witzel’s primary thesis is that the mythologies of the world can be discerned to be of two tributaries, one that he terms Laurasian, which developed out of the earlier stream which he terms Gondwana (both named after ancient continents). The Gondwana older stratum survived in some parts of Africa, in the Andaman islands, among Papuans, Australian aborigines and Tasmanians, as well as various relict cultures of Southeast and South Asia (like the Aeta of the Philippines and Semang of Malaysia). While Gondwana myths tend to be collections of tales, he calls the Laurasian major innovation as being humanity’s first ‘novel’: myths that fit together into a storyline leading from speculations on the beginning of the world and on up to its destruction (often with a hinted rebirth afterwards as perhaps most well-known in the Norse Ragnarok and its aftermath).

 

His method is comparative on a global scale, and historical. He marshals evidence from genetics that reflect light on early migrations out of Africa and across Eurasia as well as an impressive array of archeological resources, historical texts and the more recent ones of anthropology. The scope of his research is vast. I think Witzel makes a convincing case for Laurasian theory, if not in all areas, certainly over a surprisingly far geographical reach and seemingly great depths of time. He dares to find patterns of meaning at a much greater depth of time that many scholars believe possible and draws on linguistic connections of super families that he admits are theoretical like Nostratic and Austric (which includes Austronesian and Austroasiatic). While still controversial, more and more statistical analysis is shedding light on language relationships that do seem to probe great time depths.

 

He stresses the need for much more research and the expectation that details of the theory will fall but that the overall trajectory is of a development of myth probably somewhere in western Asia that occurred at a time before human migration to the Americas but after the settlement of places like Papua New Guinea and Australia (50,000 to 60,000 years ago). The Laurasian narrative is one of creation often from chaos, from water, or mud, or from a dismembered giant or a bovine or other similar animal or two of them fighting as is found in the Irish Tain; a line of several generation of gods and semi-divine beings; a killing of a dragon or some other sort of monstrous being; and on through to the rise of humans and their several ages; and not always but often to destructive cataclysm.

 

It has long struck me that there were various similarities between Austronesian myths (including Polynesian) and Indo-Europeans ones; and that the great divide claimed between Afroasiatic mythology and Indo-European seemed quite exaggerated (anti-Semitism no doubt playing a part). The Laurasian theory provides a solution in my opinion to these; and the parallels found in Japanese, Siberian, and Na-Dene cultures were fascinating to read about in Witzel’s comparisons. I found the Native American (specifically the Amerind macro-grouping hypothesized by Joseph Greenberg) conceptually harder to grasp, but Witzel provides suggestive comparisons between Meso-American and Pueblo cultures and Eurasian ones.

 

The cultures are far enough apart and range at such different time periods that diffusion, a common explanation, doesn’t really provide a convincing alternative, and the other popular explanation, Jungian archetypes as universals of the human psyche would need to be truly universal, which he demonstrates they are not. Overall, I found this work fascinating, convincing with certain qualifications (like about the Americas) and opening me to considerations I was previously suspicious of. Some detractors have claimed it is racist, but he gives a lot of space in the book arguing otherwise. Unless Native Americans, Chinese, Indonesians, Arabs, Indians, and North and East Africans are white, that doesn’t make sense at all. And it’s not that Gondwana myths are inferior, they just reflect an earlier age, and don’t fit together in a greater plot. They could even be considered to reflect people closer to their ecological context, I think. Trying to uncover what might have been present even earlier (based on shared Laurasian and Gondwana traits), which he terms Pan-Gaian was interesting but feels very speculative, but still an enjoyable thought experiment.

 

Some of the citations were from very old literature though. Frazier? In some cases of (almost) disappeared cultures that is all there is. I’d like to see newer studies for the Polynesian myths referenced, as just one example. He does mention the need for further and more recent research to refine his thesis. I’m sure specialists can find plenty to nit-pick but I think overall it convinces. There’s plenty of interest for those of us interested in Celtic myth; Indo-European studies; really anyone with a strong interest in mythology should read this book, and whether you end up agreeing or not, this is a vital take on world mythology.

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4 thoughts on “Origins of the World’s Mythologies: A Book Review

  1. Thank you for bringing this my attention. I’ve also been struck by how many myths across the world have a beginning in chaos and usually the slaying of a giant, cow, or dragon/serpent and end with some form of apocalypse. I’d certainly like to read E. J. Michael Witzel’s theory about this. One to order from my library!

  2. Edward P. Butler

    Diffusion and Jungian archetypes are not the sole alternatives; mythic narratives can be similar because of properties of the objects, and not solely the history or psychology of the human subjects. Hence even in a case where diffusion is considered highly likely, such as the similarities between the Indian Ashwins and the Greek Dioskouroi, it’s not necessary to invoke it, when we can see that there are objectively good reasons to, for example, symbolize the relationship between different parts of the soul as horse and rider, or chariot and driver, or ship and pilot. I find what Witzel is doing to be extremely reductionistic. There’s a point at which comparativism mostly tells us about the intensity of the author’s desire to appropriate everything they touch, to set themselves up as the sole arbiter of the truth about everybody’s else’s traditions.

    1. I didn’t find any sense of Witzel wanting to be a “sole arbiter”. Have you actually read the book? He thanks and references a vast range of collaborators of many different kinds, and comes across as pretty humble. He also emphasizes the rich creativity of those who have developed the myths over the millennia over the world, and gives plenty of room for difference.

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