Courtesy: Amazon.com and Kalyan97
The Origins of the World's Mythologies
By E.J. Michael Witzel. 2013. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reviewed by Tok Thompson, University of Southern California
[Review length: 1535 words • Review posted on December 5, 2013]
This is an astonishing book, but not for the reasons the author intended.
The Origin of the World's Mythology utilizes completely out of date and highly questionable scholarship to claim a grand scientific discovery which relies on the author's "theory" of ultimate mythological reconstruction, dating back all the way to reconstructed stories (i.e., made up by the author) told some 100,0000 years ago. The "theory" (I would say hypothesis) is implausible (in terms of data, scholarship, logic, internal plausibility, etc.), even more so than quasi-academic concepts, like Nostratic, which it relies on as proven fact.
The book's main claim is explicitly racist. I define "racist" here simply as any argument that seeks to categorize large groups of people utilizing a bio-cultural argument ("race"), and that further describes one such group as essentially better, more developed, less "deficient," than the other(s).
The book claims that there are two races in the world, revealed by both myth and biology: the dark-skinned "Gondwana" are characterized by "lacks" and "deficiencies" (e.g., xi, 5, 15, 20, 88, 100, 105, 131, 279, 280, 289, 290, 313, 321 315, 410, 430, 455) and are labeled "primitive" (28) at a "lower stage of development” (28, 29, 410), while the noble "Laurasian" myths are "our first novel," the only "true" creation stories, and the first "complex story" (e.g., 6, 54, 80, 105, 321, 372, 418, 421, 430), which the Gondwana never achieved.
Such a grand evolutionary pronouncement, published by Oxford University Press and penned by a Harvard Professor (of Sanskrit), demands attention and careful investigation of its claims. If the author is correct, then indeed the field of mythology, and folklore, will be entirely rewritten. Not only this, but the ideas of a separate, deficient "dark-skinned race" will be, for the first time, scientifically validated.
The theoretical justification of this work is derived from a sort of straw man contest between ethnologist Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), representing monogenesis and diffusion, and Freud's errant disciple Carl Jung (1875-1961), with his universal archetypes of the collective unconscious. This straw man argument is not an appropriate one: Jung's theories have long been derided in scholarship on mythology, and the data have been shown not to support his claims of universals (Dundes, 2005). Indeed, the resounding refutation of universals not only invalidates Jung's theories, but also stands in direct contradiction to many of the claims of this book.
His sole factual claim to his grand separation of the races seems to be his assertion that only the light-skinned Laurasians developed a "complete" myth. He makes several claims about what this myth "is," but these are contradictory, vague, and with many exceptions or permutations (variously: 53, 64, 76, 120, 183, 323). At some points he claims that the only actual differences between the two is that the Laurasian has the world end, and the Gondwana do not (e.g., 283). At other times, however, he claims that the Gondwana actually have no cosmogonic myths whatsoever. For example:
• "Gondwana mythologies generally are confined to the description of the emergence of humans and their culture in a preexisting world" (5).
• "The Laurasian stress on cosmogony, however, is entirely absent in Gondwana mythologies" (105).
• "In Gondwana mythologies the world is regarded as eternal" (20).
• Describing Gondwana mythology: "In the beginning: heaven and earth (and sea) already exist" (323, restated 361).
This particular claim is made even more remarkable in light of his own comment on page 474, where he himself discusses the common African myth of the world being created from a god's spittle and/or vomit.
In previous publications the author argued that the Gondwana had no flood myths as well. However, in this book the author relates recently encountering Alan Dundes' The Flood Myth, which disproved the assertion (see the author's discussion, page 284). Taking pains to explain this change, the author now claims the flood myth "is universal" (wrongly: see Dundes 2005) and not, as he previously decreed, "Laurasian." This late encounter with Dundes' scholarship is instructive: Dundes is generally regarded as one of the most important folklore theorists of the last century, yet aside from this one problematic citation of The Flood Myth, no notice is taken of him, not even his classic work on myth, Sacred Narrative. Nor are other seminal recent works in scientific myth scholarship cited, such as Schrempp and Hansen's Myth: A New Symposium, or even the earlier Sebeok's Myth: A Symposium. The sustained overlooking of the scholarship on mythology over the last fifty years or more is one of the larger foundational problems of this work.
For example, aside from a brief early mention (45, 46), the concept of polygenesis is never considered as a potential explanation, yet a mere acknowledgment that different people do sometimes create similar-sounding plots and motifs removes any necessity to view every similar motif or narrative as united in some grand historical scheme (see Thompson 2002). An instructive case in point might be the flood myths of the seismically active coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest, held to be caused by mountain dwarves dancing (a compelling explication of which can be found in McMillan and Hutchinson 2002)—there is absolutely no reason to assume this is derived from the same source as the very different biblical flood myth, simply because they both involve floods in flood-prone areas. Stripped of any emic understanding of the explanatory and rhetorical majesty of sacred stories, myth is reduced to a mere grab-bag of words and motifs.
I consider my own research specialties, and the many Dene and Inuit/Yupiq mythologies I have heard, and watched, and read. In the Dene, and the Inuit, one finds no apocalypse stories, no end of the world. This should, then, disqualify them completely from the Laurasian. Nor is there "Father Heaven/Mother Earth," or the time of "nobles," or a "slaying of the dragon," or a "drinking of soma," all of which are expected to be in his Laurasian story (at least as per page 53). But according to the author, all this is irrelevant, since they are simply Laurasians who haven't told it all, or haven’t been recorded telling it, or have forgotten parts, or there is some other reason. In other words, they are Laurasian because he says they are Laurasian. But when the same question is asked of the South African San, who also do not have all those elements, the answer is that they are Gondwana. The criteria are not applied equally, but rather only as the author sees fit in justifying his hypothesis.
In chapter 4, the author seeks to buttress support for his hypothesis by using reconstructions in linguistics and genetics. Genetically, he states that specific DNA haplogroups "seem to represent the Gondwana type of mythology" (233). His appeal to linguistics is at least marginally more appropriate, as language is a cultural, not biological, phenomenon. But here, too, he utilizes less-than-scientifically-accepted hypotheses, such as a "Dene-Caucausian" language family linking Basque and Navajo, and "Nostratic." The all-too-breezy use of non-academic claims can be seen in the following two quotes, located on the same page (193):
"Nostratic theory has not been accepted by most traditional linguists."
"Once we accept the reconstruction of Nostratic, we can establish the natural habitat, the material culture, and theWeltanschauung and mythology of the Nostratic populations."
To be clear: if linguists don’t think that languages could be reconstructed back more than 6,000 years, why does the author believe they can, and further, that entire stories can be reconstructed for over 100,000 years?
Finally, the startling claim that the book proves the existence of two races, going against all other scholarly data, would have profound implications for global society as a whole, yet these implications are never discussed by the author. Instead, in his conclusion he claims that the reason Abrahamic religions have made inroads into the global south in recent times is simply because Laurasian myth is "better" and "more complete" than any ever formulated by the Gondwana themselves (430), a remarkably naïve view of global political history.
To conclude: this book will no doubt prove exciting for the gullible and the racist, yet it is useless—and frustrating—for any serious scholar. This is a work which should never have reached book publication stage: a whole series of scholarly checks and balances—ranging from Harvard's venerable Folklore and Mythology Department, to the editors and reviewers at Oxford University Press—should have been in place to guide the scholarly inquiry, which would have prevented the socially irresponsible publication of such grandiose, brash, and explicitly racist claims based on ill-informed, highly problematic scholarship.
Dundes, Alan. 2005. “Folkloristics in the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of American Folklore 118:385-408.
-----, ed. 1984. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
McMillan, Alan D., and Ian Hutchinson. 2002. “When the Mountain Dwarfs Danced: Aboriginal Traditions of Paleoseismic Events along the Cascadia Subduction Zone of Western North America.” Ethnohistory 49:41-48.
Schrempp, Gregory, and William Hansen, eds. 2002. Myth: A New Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sebeok, Thomas, ed. 1966. Myth: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Thompson, Tok. 2002. “The Thirteenth Number: Then, There/Here and Now.” Studia Mythologica Slavica 5:145-160.