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When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (2004)

de Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Paul T. Barber

MembresRessenyesPopularitatValoració mitjanaMencions
1905118,281 (4.38)12
Why were Prometheus and Loki envisioned as chained to rocks? What was the Golden Calf? Why are mirrors believed to carry bad luck? How could anyone think that mortals like Perseus, Beowulf, and St. George actually fought dragons, since dragons don't exist? Strange though they sound, however, these "myths" did not begin as fiction. This absorbing book shows that myths originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies. Geologists' interpretations of how a volcanic cataclysm long ago created Oregon's Crater Lake, for example, is echoed point for point in the local myth of its origin. The Klamath tribe saw it happen and passed down the story--for nearly 8,000 years. We, however, have been literate so long that we've forgotten how myths encode reality. Recent studies of how our brains work, applied to a wide range of data from the Pacific Northwest to ancient Egypt to modern stories reported in newspapers, have helped the Barbers deduce the characteristic principles by which such tales both develop and degrade through time. Myth is in fact a quite reasonable way to convey important messages orally over many generations--although reasoning back to the original events is possible only under rather specific conditions. Our oldest written records date to 5,200 years ago, but we have been speaking and mythmaking for perhaps 100,000. This groundbreaking book points the way to restoring some of that lost history and teaching us about human storytelling.… (més)
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This book provides a methodology for interpreting myths in order to determine the natural historical roots of the myth. Doing so, the authors demonstrate how many myths actually provide a record of what happened thousands of years ago long before there were any written records.

The book begins with the analysis of a story told by American Indians tracing the roots of the story back to a major volcanic eruption. The book then goes on to discuss numerous myths from cultures all over the world including discussions of fire-breathing, treasure-hording dragons, vampires, Prometheus, Noah's flood, and dwarves that forge iron. The book is fascinating and wonderfully readable. It also leaves you with a new way of looking at history and literature. ( )
  M_Clark | Apr 12, 2021 |
This book takes a completely different approach to mythology than any I've read before, studying it through cognitive science rather than as literature or archetypal psychology. The Barbers' theory is that many myths describe real events and phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions, the precession of the equinoxes, or the dangers of flammable methane gas trapped in burial mounds. Myths happen when non-literate people pass a description of an event down for generations via an oral tradition, subject to the limitations of human memory, how well the witnesses understood the original event, if the people stayed in the area where the event happened or migrated to somewhere where the myth no longer fit, and so on.

The Barbers came up with about 40 "myth principles" that explain what processes have affected the development of these myths. The sheer number of the principles overwhelmed me, and I lost track of which one was which, but happily they're all summarized in an appendix at the end for further study. Aside from that, I thought the authors' argument was convincing and the book was fascinating. ( )
1 vota Silvernfire | Apr 14, 2014 |
For the most part it is straightforwardly written and argued. The climactic chapter deals very much with change in coordinates of features on the celestial sphere due to precession of Earth's poles, which I have a hard time visualizing; so therefore it kicked my butt. But what I understood of it made sense.

The thing is, there's making sense and there's being right. Much of what they write is certainly plausible, and it's certainly nice to see research into recovering ancient meaning on its own terms. But while there's logical and internal consistency, the conclusions are underdetermined by the evidence they adduce. That is, for much of what they write (especially the more complicated stuff), it's not clear to me that the interpretations they make are adequately warranted. There is room for much different explanation using the same data.

I'm sure some of my skepticism is unconscious, from being edu-ma-cated in a system that looks upon myth and its potential accuracy with skepticism. And some is conscious: volcanos are a particular favorite explanation of theirs, and they do address that, with a plausible argument. But, still, it seems too much. I would like to be more convinced of their particular conclusions; and I am for basic, obvious interpretations. It's when they start constructing composite interpretations from a number of plausible but not-obvious conclusions that the possibility of alternative interpretations of their data seems to be inadequately addressed.

Still, I like what they've attempted, and I'm impressed by what they accomplished, even if not entirely convinced of their particular accuracy: I still like their ideas better than many of the more traditional psycho-social interpretations of myth. (Plus their work is nicely parallel with other, more ethnographically focused work like Friedel and Schele's Mayan Cosmos, thereby strengthening the basic thesis.) I like that they've tried to deduce principles by which oral history becomes myth.

And I like that I learned some trivial things that have altered my perspective on, and appreciation for, the strangeness of what actually can happen in the world: e.g. the suggestion that years-old tombs can yet contain methane-rich 'air,' which sounded wholly implausible to me until they cited more-or-less current reports to that effect from archæological tombs. This book is a keeper. ( )
4 vota drbubbles | Mar 28, 2011 |
This book provides a framework for understanding myths as an explanation of genuine phenomena, expressed by pre-literate societies. Sometimes the context changes, as the people telling tale move on, which further obscures the referents. The authors use the deconstruction of myths to explore the patterns of thought that cause the original stories to change. One example is what they term the "Willfulness Principle" - Since humans cause things to happen, that means that when things happen, it must have been willed to happen, perhaps by deities or giants. For instance, there is nothing in their world view to explain volcanoes exploding of their own accord - Instead, gods or giants must be throwing rocks and boulders out of their dwelling on the mountain. Why would they do that? Because they are angry, or because they are fighting.

For instance, the authors deconstruct the Prometheus myth as a description of a very real volcanic mountain near the Black Sea, Mt. Elbrus. As they put it, depending on where you draw the line, at 18,000 ft high, Mt. Elbrus is either the highest mountain in Europe or a nondescript bump in Asia. The large bird that pecks out the chained giant's liver has wings that cover the sun (or ash clouds the cover the sun), and the trembling and screams of agony from Prometheus himself are felt as earthquakes and heard as booms and rumbles. The red blood of the liver that flows as Prometheus regenerates overnight would be the vision of lava seen at night flowing from far away. Prometheus, god of fire, associated with red flowing heat. Hmm - it does fit.

The book is as much about how people think as how to interpret the myths of the past, so it is enlightening from two perspectives. The book is fascinating but quite dense with information and new ways of looking at the world, so it reads very slowly. ( )
3 vota EowynA | Jun 19, 2008 |
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Nom de l'autorCàrrecTipus d'autorObra?Estat
Elizabeth Wayland Barberautor primaritotes les edicionscalculat
Barber, Paul T.autor principaltotes les edicionsconfirmat
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Si et cal més ajuda, mira la pàgina d'ajuda del coneixement compartit.
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Informació del coneixement compartit en anglès. Modifica-la per localitzar-la a la teva llengua.
Nor can we, in this age of Dictionaries, and other technical aids to memory, judge, what [History's] use and powers were, at a time, when all a man could know, was what he could remember. To which we may add, that, in a rude and unlettered state of society the memory is loaded with nothing that is either useless or unintelligible; whereas modern education employs us chiefly in getting by heart, while we are young, what we forget before we are old. -- Robert Wood, Essay on the Original Genius of Homer, 1767 [Parry, 1971, xiii]
Dedicatòria
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To Cassandra and to Scotty for his encouragement
Primeres paraules
Informació del coneixement compartit en anglès. Modifica-la per localitzar-la a la teva llengua.
Evidence shows that people have had brains like ours for at least 100,000 years.
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(Clica-hi per mostrar-ho. Compte: pot anticipar-te quin és el desenllaç de l'obra.)
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Wikipedia en anglès (2)

Why were Prometheus and Loki envisioned as chained to rocks? What was the Golden Calf? Why are mirrors believed to carry bad luck? How could anyone think that mortals like Perseus, Beowulf, and St. George actually fought dragons, since dragons don't exist? Strange though they sound, however, these "myths" did not begin as fiction. This absorbing book shows that myths originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies. Geologists' interpretations of how a volcanic cataclysm long ago created Oregon's Crater Lake, for example, is echoed point for point in the local myth of its origin. The Klamath tribe saw it happen and passed down the story--for nearly 8,000 years. We, however, have been literate so long that we've forgotten how myths encode reality. Recent studies of how our brains work, applied to a wide range of data from the Pacific Northwest to ancient Egypt to modern stories reported in newspapers, have helped the Barbers deduce the characteristic principles by which such tales both develop and degrade through time. Myth is in fact a quite reasonable way to convey important messages orally over many generations--although reasoning back to the original events is possible only under rather specific conditions. Our oldest written records date to 5,200 years ago, but we have been speaking and mythmaking for perhaps 100,000. This groundbreaking book points the way to restoring some of that lost history and teaching us about human storytelling.

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