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When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth

by Elizabeth Wayland Barber & Paul T. Barber
290 pages,
ISBN: 0691099863


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New Principles for Decoding Ancient Myths
by Gwen Nowak

Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber seek the answer to a question that countless people have asked: why are so many ancient myths replete with so many bizarre details? For example, did a man named Herakles [Hercules] hold up the sky, slay a nine-headed water monster, move rivers around and carry three-headed dog up from the land of the dead? Can such a preposterous story have any connection at all with reality? In order to answer such questions the Barbers take us back some 100,000 years to the beginning of storytelling, long before written transmission of these "collections of quaint stories" was possible because writing required an alphabet which evolved only 5000 years ago. They explore the thesis that many myths are stories in which preliterate people encoded real information about real events; that is, they are not just off-the-wall fictions generated by prehistoric storytellers to entertain their communities around the campfire at night. By examining these "time capsules" from the past we can recover much of humanity's lost history.
According to the Barbers, theirs is a revolutionary new way of understanding myth, a way that has nothing in common with "archetypes, the stuff [sic] of C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell." Thus Barber & Barber dismiss the work of these recognized eminences in the field of mythology. (They also avoid the veritable mountain of scholarship generated by the myriad disciples of Jung and Campbell.) The Barbers do, however, leave room for various other theories of mythology rejected by other scholars, stating that such theories "have not been so much wrong as limited in trying to make one size fit all." Nonetheless the Barbers themselves tentatively reach for their own "unified field theory" of mythology. They suggest that "possibly all types of myths can be understood better . . . through a series of simple observable principles," the very principles which they have formulated during over two decades of research.
The Barbers claim to have streamlined their data into four fundamental "mytho- linguistic" principles: "Silence", "Analogy", "Compression" and "Restructuring". But each of these principles generates a subset of "more specific principles," 52 in all. These are further categorized as corollaries, strategies, effects, syndromes, phenomena, clues, constructs, problems. In this exercise the Barbers' scientific/popular jargon achieves a somewhat schizoid, even sleight of phrase, dimension; they give us "UFO Corollary", "Eponymous Hero Syndrome", and the "Fairest of Them All Effect". In fact, this reader regularly experienced a Fogging Effect (found in the subset of Compression Principle) while cross-checking the definitions in The Index of Mythic Principles provided by the authors. Any expectation of scientific or editing precision was eroded when the Barbers' four celebrated principles appeared as four of six major categories of principles in the Index. Here "Memory Crunch" appears as number one even though in the text itself MC is identified not as a principle but as the overarching problem which made myth-making necessary.
The Barbers' theory is that because the human brain has a limited memory capacity, the oral description and explanation of an event had to be both brief and memorable if it was to be successfully transmitted over long periods of time. This was of course before the invention of writing generated the "Stockpile Effect": "The invention of writing (especially efficient writing and efficient mathematical notation) enabled people for the first time to stockpile enough information to deduce cause-and-effect relationships other than the very simplest. The Barbers themselves are a case in point: the amount of data and analysis that they stockpile in their written restructuring of theory related to world mythology should test the limits of standard memory capacity. They begin, naturally, with the simplest example, namely an ancient myth that encodes information about a geologically reconstructible event: the cataclysmic eruption of the volcano, Mount Mazama, nearly 7700 years ago, that formed the enormous bowl that is now Crater Lake in Oregon. In examining the ancient Klamath myth which describes that event, the Barbers demonstrate the most fundamental of their mytho-linguistic principles, namely "Analogy". If preliterate people could not say what caused the terrifying cataclysm they could say what it was like.
The Barbers acknowledge that myths as time capsules of information about past events can become opaque for various reasons which they explore. Recovering historical data from these myths is of course more difficult, but not impossible if one applies one or more of their 52 principles in the effort. It is the "Silence Principle" that presents the most difficult problem of recovery. The Barbers describe it as the primary "devil that will get in our way at every turn, clouding our insight and destroying our data." This principle denotes, "What everyone is expected to know already is not explained in so many words." Owing to the aforementioned Memory Crunch, preliterate storytellers omitted a great deal of data from their stories, data that everyone who witnessed the original event was already expected to know, and of course remember. The Barbers suggest that we can mine Trickster myths for some of this lost data because Trickster myths encode "social assumptions." A reader might wonder how social assumptions actually compare to concrete events as recoverable data. It is one thing for guides into our myth-making past to demonstrate how a volcano or tsunami or the precession of the equinoxes is encoded in myth but preliterate attempts to explain collective psychological elements is surely more, well, 'tricky.' Perhaps Jung's theory of archetypes should also be reconsidered for this particular aspect of data recovery?
But the Barbers bypass the vast underground of the collective unconscious where the archetypes are active and focus on above-ground, presumably more conscious cognitive processes. In order to demonstrate "how the human mind shapes myth" they present a virtual crash course in cognition and linguistics as they lead the reader step by step, principle by emergent principle, through their data and analysis. En route, they acknowledge the importance of distinguishing between event and interpretation, that is, between data and analysis. Much of what they present is clearly relevant, and should be of great interest to anyone wanting to understand the reflexive human impulse to generate explanations of the world as it is. The Barbers are actually a case in point: they are passionate about deducing and describing¨explaining¨the very processes by which our nonliterate forbears so accurately described and explained aspects of their world without the aid of an existing scientific data base.
They unveil their most stellar example in the lengthiest chapter, "Sky and Time". In this second to last chapter the reader finally comes to the revelation she has been waiting for, the relevance of the intriguing main title of the book, "When They Severed Earth From Sky". Our guides invite us to pay full attention "to what the ancients could see all around them in the sky and compare the information with the myths." They enthusiastically provide yet another crash course, this time in astronomy and numerology, to demonstrate that preliterate people did in fact encode the positions and movements of the celestial bodies in their stories. It is an awesome spectacle of "celestial affairs".
While WTSEFS is replete with scholarly references the authors have clearly sought to disseminate their revolutionary theory to readers outside of academe. Their tone is chatty and conversational. Their chapter titles are upbeat and intriguing, such as "Willfulness: The Atom or Thou", "Multiple Aspects: The More the Merrier", "Mnemonics: Behind the Silliness". But enlightenment as entertainment this book is not! As fascinating as much of the material is, WTSEFS is definitely not a page-turner unless a reader has a phenomenal memory capacity. The Barbers have in fact compressed decades of data and analysis into 290 very busy pages. Every chapter has its own frontispiece with an idiosyncratic array of definitions and quotations. Within the chapters the reader will encounter a dense stockpile of data on world mythology, cognitive theory, linguistics, numerology, astronomy, archeology, and geology. As well there are forty-four illustrations, some simple but many very complex.
When They Severed Earth from Sky is timely and engaging. Much of the content is relevant to current controversies about the nature of fiction, myth and history taking place within academe and the culture at large. The Barbers' dismissal of Jung and Campbell will surely be challenged in the parry and thrust of academic debate. Meanwhile lay readers should be aware that in spite of their somewhat dazzling presentation of the data the Barbers' contribution to the study of mythology is not the last word on the subject.
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