Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Origins of Mythology: "Comparison and Theory"

This is an old-school weblog series, tracking my progress through The Origins of the World's Mythologies, by Michael Witzel, a thick monograph published by Oxford University Press in 2012.

My initial impressions about this chapter were overly optimistic. I thought I was going to find here a survey of the author's method, with some discussion of the theory of comparison. And that's how it started.

But about halfway through, I realized that instead I was being given a close-up tour of the method as it applies to the results that I will become more fully acquainted with in the next chapter.

Quick Summary

The question that drives this chapter is this: "Why do we find the same myths all over the world, even in cultures that don't have any recent connection to each other?" And the solution Witzel provides forms the heart of his method: Humans took these stories with them through all their migrations around the globe.

Two General Impressions

One, a memory: I was once given a tour of a chapel by an overly enthusiastic organist. About fifteen minutes into it, I realized it was not going to end anytime soon. My guide knew the date and cost of every piece of equipment, from floor to roof tiles; the names of all the key donors; the unique history of every piece of artwork commissioned (at x sum) for placement in the space. For a historian of that particular chapel, it would have been fascinating.

Witzel's second chapter is a bit like that. I like where his method is taking us, I like the overall design, and some of the decorative fine points are pretty appealing. But the exhaustive explication is a tad wearying. Even so, I have mixed feelings about this chapter. What Witzel is proposing is truly mind-boggling. The dispersion of key mythological bits and pieces, filled out with material recovered from this or that corner of the globe, is going to take us back more than 40 thousand years, to a mythological complex that was practically born with human language. Or at least that's what he's hoping to prove.

Understandably, the author may be concerned that his project won't be given a fair hearing, and so he layers on methodological justifications, giving weight and clear explanation to the choices he made. Also, Witzel clearly hopes others will carry forward this research, so he's laying the groundwork for future researchers. Cutting a path.

But the tradeoff (here's my second thought) is that Witzel's account loses all dramatic appeal in the process. He has to give huge chunks of his results away to make sure we understand his method, and that robs the book of any revelatory quality. It's like a strip tease with no tease. That might be an asset in scholarly studies, but it makes the reading quite a bit duller.

Setting Up the Problem

So let me try to restate some key points I've gotten from the chapter so far, in more dramatic fashion than Witzel has done. I'll try not to distort it too much. Here goes.

When you compare the earliest recorded mythologies from remote parts of the world, such as Mesoamerica (Mayans, Inca), Polynesia, India, and Greece, certain stories emerge into a kind of three-dimensional clarity. What explanation could exist for the remarkable similarities between myths told in such far-flung places? There are really only four possibilities:

  1. these stories were spread from major cultural centers to outlying areas by trade routes ("diffusion")
  2. these stories emerge in each culture because human beings are hardwired, neurologically or linguistically or in some more psychically mysterious way, to tell them ("archetype")
  3. these stories emerge in each culture because of environmental factors (say, rainstorms and agriculture), and such things are accidentally explained the same way ("convergence")
  4. these stories have been inherited from a common source and passed down through countless generations as humans migrated to these far-flung places ("common origin")

The first explanation, "diffusion," doesn't work for myths that lie close to the center of a remote culture, because traders and visitors and immigrants don't easily insert their stories into the center of a foreign culture. This is especially true since the myths have religious dimensions and uses. We all know how open traditional religions are to innovations from passing foreigners and trade-partners. Or anybody else. Enough said.

The second explanation, "archetype," works well in theory as an explanation for the similarities, but it has two strikes against it. One, it sort of looks like mumbo-jumbo (my word, not Witzel's). It takes a bit of hand-waving to get universal archetypes embedded into the human soul as an explanation for anything. Possible, but unprovable. (Jung made the effort; some people still accept that; most scholars of this material don't.) Two, it doesn't work well for explaining the differences between the mythologies of these peoples. In other words, if it's embedded into the human psyche, why over here and not over there? (The myths aren't everywhere, they're just incredibly widespread.)

There's another thing, too, that makes the human-hardwiring explanation hard to fit to the evidence. The mythical bits and pieces we're talking about are interconnected. They follow a storyline or plot that transcends and links together the individual mythical units. What archetypal patterning could account for that? (Could a storyline really be embedded into human brain matter?)

This last wrinkle causes trouble for the third explanation, too ("convergence"). If human cultures are making these stories up spontaneously, thanks to similar environmental conditions, why are they also slotting them into the same plotline?

This question cuts deep for the "convergence" model: Witzel can point to clear examples of convergence. And guess what? Despite outward similarities, convergent myths don't serve the same functions within the two myth systems. Not so the stories we're looking at here.

So that leaves the last option: a common origin. Is that possible? To be clear: the migrations that separated humans who wound up telling tales in the Mayan tongue from the humans who scratched out the Rig Veda and the Theogony of Hesiod go back twenty thousand years or more. That's a long time to pass down a tale.

There are some supporting clues, though. For instance, in both Hawai'i and central Australia, a great flood myth is told. But neither area is subject to flooding--the one, thanks to mountains, the other, arid conditions. (If this was "diffusion," the only possible alternative here, the Australian aborigines would likely have told the outsiders, "What's a flood?" But if they had inherited the tale before they came to Australia, they're much more likely to hold onto it. See remark above about religious conservativism.)

Even with this kind of support, though, common origins is an extraordinary claim, so it requires several checks. How to proceed? How to get past guesswork to something more like proof?

Witzel's "Genetic" Solution

The answer lies in science, actually. Genetics, linguistics, taxonomy. Treat mythical units ("mythemes") like genes. How does an organism come to possess a trait? Through inheritance and mutation. Your possession of a certain trait (say, vertebrae) suggests common descent with many kinds of creatures who share that trait (vertebrae), whereas your five-digit hands and feet suggest a much smaller pool of shared DNA.

Or look at linguistics (Witzel's primary field). Shared vocabulary, overlapping declension patterns, shared but unique grammatical rules, point to kinship--again, common descent from an earlier language that wasn't exactly either descendent language but, over time, gave birth to both.

If a similar comparison between traits, genes, vocabulary, grammar, can be undertaken for mythologies, it should be possible to trace out "path dependencies" for myths--mythological elements or traits that have been passed down to more than one mythological system. Close comparative work could allow the researcher to trace these "genes" back to the parent, and so to reconstruct some of that parent's genetic blueprint. The parent (the mythological sequence or plotline) that gave birth to these far-flung descendants will not be identical to any of them. And some of the parent's traits may be difficult to define with certainty. But something of its shape, its contours, should emerge.

In the process of building up the family tree for these mythologies, layers of divergence and resemblance should appear at higher and lower levels on the genealogical chart--like your backbone and your five-digit hands and feet. So, for instance, traits shared across Eurasia but not found in Mesoamerica would suggest a branching of the mythological "family tree" at the point where humans crossed the land bridge into America. As humans migrated, they took some stories but not others--perhaps because those stories hadn't been told yet. After the migration, the ones who migrated invent new stories again, which will be spread to different parts of America but won't be found among the population that didn't cross to America.

Once such stories get injected into the DNA of a particular region or language family, some few survive and go on to shape the regional, and then local, mythologies. All the way down to your own tribe's interpretation. The result is obvious, and a lot like genetics: over time, you have tremendous variety, built on an underlying substrate of common inheritance.

Two Key Terms

Here are two key terms worth defining, as they're central for Witzel's work:

"path dependency" - defined as "the set of foundational topics in each civilization that have exercised extraordinary influence on all its subsequent stages" (p. 39, emphasis original). Witzel uses this concept to explain why particular myths and "doctrines" persist over countless generations of humans. (The idea of an eternity spent in "heaven" or "hell," for instance, he traces back at least 3,000 years to Zoroaster.)

"cladistic analysis" - the effort to establish a "family tree" of mythological tales, "just as botanists, zoologists, paleontologists, geneticists, linguists, and philologists habitually construct from their data" (p. 3)

Last Thoughts

That's the project as I understand it. I'll let you know next time if I need to correct anything in my explanation.

But meanwhile I hope you can see why this is exciting stuff. Witzel is promising to take us back to a Cro Magnon mythological system, and his method for doing it has at least a decent chance of getting the picture into reasonable focus.

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