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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Fire & Water

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus here, I admit, but I plan on getting back to this blog. A lots been going on in the last few months including an inspiring trip to the Philippines. Here on the island the eruption of Kilauea has been much in the news and continues to be (in case you were wondering, we’re safe and lucky to have a nearly 14,000 foot mountain between us and the eruption). Here, instead, it’s been very wet for the last couple months. Fire and water (hmm, fire in water is quite the Brigidine theme, right?).

The goddess Pele continues to expel sulfur dioxide gas, lava bombs, and splinters of volcanic glass causing even shutting down a geothermal plant on the other side of the island in a reminder of who’s boss.

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(Halema’uma’u, home of Pele. photo credit: CFHT)

Meanwhile, recent study reveals that chickens and other poultry make up 70% of all birds on the planet at this time and 60% of mammals are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs. 36% are humans. 4% are wild. The ubiquitous distribution of domestic chicken bones across the planet is now considered a mark or the ‘Anthropocene’.

I recoil from this, there is something disgusting here. Yeah, chicken McNuggets come from birds (along with 37 other ingredients), kids, really. There is a certain irony in that the Hawai’ian islands are overrun with feral chickens, even supermarket parking lots.

In fact, since the dawn of civilization, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-of-wild-mammals-study

 

An animist can easily succumb to despair in these times. But then Pele shows herself with greater force. And in very intriguing timing an idol of the Hawai’ian war god Ku, under whom King Kamehameha I united the archipelago, was returned to Hawaii just a week before the start of the most recent eruption. Estimated to be around 200 years old, it came up for auction in Paris and was purchased for over $7 million dollars by the Salesforce CEO who has an estate in Hawai’i. He returned it to Hawai’i, giving it to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu (not often such a commendable act by a tech tycoon). Coincidence? Ku and Pele taking notice?

https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Benioff-pays-7M-to-return-rare-Hawaiian-war-god-12938915.php

 

To see such interactions of holy forces/agencies, including elemental ones can be recharging (even though I have compassion for those who have lost homes to them). Wherever we are, we need to work hard to build stronger relationships with the spirits and gods of the wild, to build on the fury of the boar and the wolf, to call on the dead who would aid us. There is so much that needs to be (re)moved.

Who is your local spirit(s) of the wild?

One of mine is the stream that runs below our hidden place. I made it an offering the other night. From what I hear it has been known to take a human. These are (holy) powers. Part of civilization’s problem is how it has forgotten this most basic knowledge.

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Fires of Various Kinds

 

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So last weekend a friend was visiting from San Francisco and we went up to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The main gateway into the park and the crater was closed off due to the “government shutdown”. We saw a lot of people who said you could hike in on service roads that led to trails. We did that and got out to a view of the Halemaumau crater within the greater Kilauea crater. Then we got harassed by park police for being out there (yes, America is a police state). Halemaumau is the home of the goddess Pele, and in this photo you can see her cooking fire. Pele does not shut down. Ha!

 

Also a couple recent posts on paganbloggers, including an Ursula Le Guin one. May she always be remembered!

 

http://paganbloggers.com/finnchuillstrack/2018/01/25/i-m-ursula-le-guin-always-coming-home/

 

http://paganbloggers.com/finnchuillstrack/2018/01/18/kindling-brigids-purifying-fire/

Meeting New Spirits

It’s been over four months since we moved up here on the north coast of the island (how did the time go by so quickly?). Settling in a very rural place where the soundscape is punctuated with the calls of roosters, frogs (invasive coquis from Puerto Rico) among other things. An intermittent stream runs below our house, often just pools in rocks, but it flowed whitewater and fierce for a couple weeks from Thanksgiving on—we had 10 days of almost non-stop rain. The strongest presence here whose music has delighted my heart. Obviously this Nie-nie has many moods, often reticent, sometimes exuberant, and from what I hear even ferocious at times, having taken a woman a few years back, who carelessly thought she could cross it during full cascade.

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In a time of endless bad news and seemingly ever-increasing chaos in the world, being in such an isolated place has its advantages. We had a great mac nut harvest from the trees behind the house but the sweet potatoes were taken, tuber, stem and leaf by the wild pigs who know the place well!

 

We’re upslope, some 1700 or 1800 feet on the north shore, and the nights have recently grown chilly, a welcomed hint of winter. I know some of you year for more sun in your northern locations, but I year for more darkness. I’ve always found darkness deeply nurturing.

 

It’s challenge to live in such a different environment than I’m used to from the west coast of North America, but slowly making acquaintance with the local spirits is an ongoing and rewarding process.

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Water flowing by ginger plants.

 

Over at paganbloggers I have some mythic thoughts you may want to read: http://paganbloggers.com/finnchuillstrack/2017/11/30/plastic-abyss/

Some Eclipse Thoughts

 

As Whiteness shows its lethal qualities more and more nakedly (I don’t mean that it hasn’t always been lethal, but it’s now parading undisguised once again) Heathen Chinese has some very interesting thoughts on whiteness as an ‘egregore’.

http://wildhunt.org/2017/07/column-whiteness-is-dead.html

 

As a person who is constructed as white in terms of racial privilege and has long attempted deconstructing that I found it very chewy and insightful. I say this as a person of Irish and British descent, two of whose grandparents immigrated to the US and one other one whose lineage stretches back to a Welsh boy abducted into indentured servitude in the colonial era.

I have long navigated Celtic practices/customs as one path out of some of this, within the limits of being a US citizen brought up with English as mother tongue.

To be blunt I don’t see Celtic anything having anything whatsoever to do with being ‘white’. White is something that was born in the US colonies of Britain and was a result of creating divisions among the peoples of said colonies. There were no white people in Europe before early modern times. No concept. It shouldn’t be that hard to see but I know for many people just can’t get it. Pagans in general need to fight this egregore of whiteness.

 

 

Also, I have some thoughts up on Boann, and the visions from the Well at paganbloggers.

http://paganbloggers.com/finnchuillstrack/2017/08/18/thinking-on-boann/