Thursday, June 30, 2005

When They Severed Earth From Sky

An interesting book on mythology, and why it’s not all just a bunch of crazy stories. The authors show how ancient myths were often really descriptions of important events, passed down through oral transmission amazingly unchanged for sometimes thousands of years, until they were eventually written down.

If you think about it, in the really ancient world there was less ‘news’ to talk about. Technology, Politics and Global Events were mostly non issues. The most newsworthy happenings would all have been natural: Floods, Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Eclipses and Comets. So when an event such as these happened, it was important to describe it in such a way that the story could survive through many generations, without being written down, since writing hadn’t been invented yet, and nobody was sure when it would.

Why was it important to the ancients to preserve these events? It could have been for a few reasons: Either to warn their descendents about it, e.g. Not to live in a volcanic area, or just for the historical record, or maybe they attached some religious significance to the event.

The key to their success was in the encoding of the myth. The message was often repeated in various ways, so that even if one part of the message got messed up, the key point would still be there. Also, memorable details were often added to make it more interesting.

Using some examples of fire breathing giant myths from the Native Americans, they show how these myths are actually accounts of volcanic activity in that area.

The book in general has two explanations for why these events are depicted as fantastical tales of fire breathing giants and the like. Either these additional details were invented to try and explain the volcanic phenomenon, since the human mind naturally tries to find explanations for things. Or alternatively the ancients knew there wasn’t really a fire breathing giant inside the volcano, but they added that detail just to make the story more interesting and therefore more likely to survive through the ages.

They also show how other myths, such as dragons, came to be. Basically, grave diggers used to dig up ancient burial mounds and the methane gas inside would catch fire. Early dragon mythology such as Beowulf was really about fire breathing serpents, which again was either an extra detail added, or an explanation of where the fire came from. The dragon myth isn’t about dinosaurs, and are certainly not proof that dinosaurs and humans once existed together.

They briefly mention Har Sinai as a typical volcano myth. However, it seems to me there is one significant difference. In all the other volcano myths, the fire breathing giant never delivered a message of ethical monotheism.