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Richard Smoley's Blog

The Origins of the World's Mythologies: A Review

This is a book review of mine that originally appeared in Quest, fall 2013.

Origins of the World’s Mythologies
E.J. Michael Witzel
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 665 + xx pages, paper, $45.

Why do so many creation myths sound so much alike? Why can myths about a flood that nearly destroyed all of humanity be found worldwide? And why do we find motifs of an end of the world in equally far-flung places?

There are two basic theories that try to account for these similarities. One is the archetypal, which argues that these universal myths point to a common structure within the human mind. The other is the diffusionist view, which claims that these resemblances point to a common source of myth in the historical past.

E.J. Michael Witzel, a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, argues on behalf of the diffusionist view in this enormously learned and important volume. Comparing and contrasting the lore of cultures worldwide, he paints a picture of the history of myth that reaches back as far as 100,000 years.

Witzel claims that certain universal mythic elements may actually go back to the earliest stages of humanity, when the whole species still lived in Africa. He calls this strain the “Pan-Gaean” mythos (he uses the geological names of prehistoric continents to characterize these different strata). The next oldest is that of “Gondwana,” a mythos that can be found today chiefly in sub-Saharan Africa and Australia. The myths of the rest of the world—not only Europe and Asia but the Americas and even Polynesia—are “Laurasian.” They share one central feature: unlike the earlier strains, they all present a continuous and more or less similar narrative, beginning with the origins of the cosmos and the gods, extending to the birth of humanity and its different ages and finally to the end of time, whether this is portrayed as the Nordic Gotterdämerung (“twilight of the gods”) or as the Last Judgment of Christianity. Indeed, for Witzel, the creation narratives and eschatology of the Bible are only comparatively recent manifestations of the Laurasian mythos (which, he suggests, arose, probably in southwestern Asia, between 40,000 and 20,000 BC).

Why have these myths lasted for so long? According to Witzel, one reason is that, quite simply, they are good stories. Another is that the Laurasian mythos in particular recapitulates the human lifespan on a universal scale: like us, it is saying, the cosmos is born, grows to maturity, and eventually withers and dies.

Even taken as a whole (and the reasons I have just cited do not give the complete picture), Witzel’s explanations for the persistence of myth are not entirely satisfying. The flood story—weirdly—goes back to the Pan-Gaean mythos, which, he says, is over 65,000 years old. Why should it—along with other myths that are almost as durable—have retained its fascination for so long? Whatever facts it may point to are in the remote and unattainable past. Witzel replies in part that, as others have argued, the human brain may be “hardwired” for myth and religion. This may well be the case, but it cuts against his criticisms of the archetypal view, which, after all, is also saying that myth is hardwired into the brain.

Witzel hits a wall in another way as well. He has no trouble fitting the Judeo-Christian mythos into his Laurasian scheme—but then what about the current scientific worldview, complete with its Big Bang, its gestation of the stars, and its picture of a universe that eventually collapses in upon itself? Isn’t this just the Laurasian mythos recast yet again, this time by the scientific temperament?

Witzel does not go this far, and one suspects that he simply cannot. But if this is true of the scientific mythos, then we have to grant that any picture that we form of the cosmos may be simply a picture of ourselves writ large. The human being, the esoteric traditions say, is the microcosm of the universe. Is this really so, or are we simply foredoomed by the structures of our minds to see it that way?

Nevertheless, this is by far the most stimulating and wide-reaching book on mythology I have read for many years. I will be curious to see how its ideas fare in the intellectual marketplace.




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