How did our legends really begin?

Steve Conner looks at a new book by Peter Witzel that argues that the world’s myths have common origins: How did our legends really begin? – Features – Books – The Independent.

The similarity of the narratives could be just coincidence. Each culture might just have devised its own folklore independently of the other, coming to surprisingly similar storylines. But many myths seem to share similar incidents, characters or narrative structures, whether they derive from classical Greece or the ancient mythologies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Japan or India.

When you start looking at these similarities you begin to wonder whether they could have had a common origin, perhaps carried from one part of the world to another as Palaeolithic peoples migrated over many thousands of years to colonise new lands. Could the legends and folklores of the world be connected in the sense that they stem from a common origin, passed down by word of mouth over several thousand generations?

This, fundamentally, is the radical idea of Peter Witzel, a Harvard University linguist and philologist, who has drawn on the scientific disciplines of molecular genetics, physical anthropology, archaeology, and his own field of linguistics to propose that the world’s many mythologies have a common origin – similar to the evolution of related species from a long-extinct common ancestor.

The obvious objection to this is all the evidence that oral myths evolve constantly, and the idea of stories holding even a semblance of their original shape across tens of thousands of years seems pretty implausible.

This would mean that some myths have survived being told over somewhere in the region of 3,000 generations. Surely, this is impossible given our experience of how stories are misconstrued by Chinese whispers when related from one person to the next?

“The setting of telling myths is different from that of Chinese whispers,” Witzel says. “Such myths are told in a formal, ritual, sometimes secret setting. Their telling is also different from that of stories for the amusement of children. Frequently myths are transmitted in a formal way from teacher to student, for example from shaman to apprentice.”

That explanation, which amounts to asserting that since people took these stories more seriously, they were less likely to have evolved.  In my mind, that simply flies in the face of what has been observed in oral cultures.  During colonial times, native peoples who had been contacted by Europeans, but then left alone for a century or so before being recontacted by later Europeans, had only the haziest legends of the first initial contact.  And archaeology shows that most ancient cultures had very inaccurate views of their own societies even a few centuries earlier, and none had preserved any accurate view of the hunter gatherer ages.

Rather than a common origin in the Pleistocene, I think a much more plausible explanation is that ancient cultures influenced each other “horizontally” a lot more than Witzel is giving them credit for.  Most of the myths we now have, such as the Odysseus-Cyclops example the article discusses, arose in the last few millenia, but then were transmitted between cultures, in the process becoming heavily modified in each culture.

Most linguists don’t see us being able to say much about language from more than 10,000 or so years ago.  Languages simply change too much to be able to know what it was like 20,000, 50,000, or 100,000 years ago.  I can’t see any reason why myths would be much different.  Until someone finds a 50,000 year old cave painting depicting one of these myths, I’m going to be skeptical.

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5 Responses to How did our legends really begin?

  1. Kimberly Richardson says:

    I have always wondered about the concept of a single source from whence all myths come from. The horizontal idea makes a lot of sense; I had not even considered such a possibility. Good post!

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  2. As well as vertical and horizontal transmission, there’s probably more coincidence that you might naively expect. Coincidence is acknowledge in the article, but I don’t think it’s treated seriously enough.

    Just as convergent evolution can produce organisms which appear more similar than their genetics would suggest, there may be reason to believe that very similar stories may have independent origins. The human condition is not so different in different cultures, and the same kinds of stories will tend to be told and passed down. If there is a particular story or trope that is resonant in one culture, it will likely be resonant in another. All it takes is for one person to come up with a similar idea for it to take off and be developed into a similar story elsewhere.

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    • Good point. I suspect it’s a combination of both. Any similarities between, say, Australian aboriginal and African San mythologies is probably more along those convergent lines than any horizontal transfer, if for no other reason than any opportunities for that transfer would have been extremely limited (probably non-existent).

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