Tag Archives: mythology

History became legend, legend became myth

7.8-7.5 thousand years ago

This has proven my most popular post! For more on the general topic, here’s Patrick Nunn with an article and a book, The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition, and the Post-Glacial World making the case that “some ancient narratives contain remarkably reliable records of real events.”

Here’s a Klamath Indian story, recorded in 1865 (much abbreviated here).

One time when the Chief of the Below World was on the earth he saw Loha, the daughter of the tribal chief. Loha was a beautiful maiden, tall and straight as the arrowwood. The Chief of the Below World saw her and fell in love with her. He told her of his love and asked her to return with him to his lodge inside the mountain. But Loha refused to go with him. The Chief of the Below World was very angry. He swore he would have revenge on the people of Loha, that he would destroy them with the Curse of Fire. Raging and thundering on the top of his mountain, he saw the face of the Chief of the Above World on the top of Mount Shasta. From their mountaintops the two spirit chiefs began a furious battle. Mountains shook and crumbled. Red-hot rocks as large as the hills hurtled through the skies. Burning ashes fell like rain. The Chief of the Below World spewed fire from his mouth. Like an ocean of flame it devoured the forests on the mountains and the valleys. The Curse of Fire reached the homes of the people. Fleeing in terror before it, they found refuge in Klamath Lake. [Eventually the Chief Below the World] was driven into his home [by the Chief above the World], and the mountain fell upon him. When the morning sun rose, the high mountain was gone. The mountain which the Chief Below the World had called his own no longer towered near Mount Shasta. For many years the rain fell in torrents and filled the great hole that was made when the mountain fell upon the Chief of the Below World. Now you understand why my people do not visit the lake. From father to son has come the warning “Do not look upon this place.”

Almost 7,700 years ago, a volcanic eruption destroyed most of what had been the towering Mount Mazama, leaving behind a 4,000 foot deep crater that became Oregon’s Crater Lake. The Klamath Indian story about the origin of the lake preserves a clear memory of this event, from long before the invention of writing.


The story, and its connection with real geological events, is presented in When They Severed Earth From Sky. The book demonstrates in this and many other cases how myths and legends can preserve detailed information about the past. If you’re interested in how earlier generations remembered history and conceived of the past – a big topic on Logarithmic History – the book is strongly recommended. It’s intellectually worthy, setting forth general principles that govern the formation of legends, myths, and other oral history. And it’s also a fun read, casting new light on familiar figures like Prometheus (related to current Caucasian myths, and tied to volcanic Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus) and the Golden Calf.


15.4 -14.6 thousand years ago

Only in the last half century or so, with the discovery of the Big Bang, has it been possible to do something like Logarithmic History. But human beings have been speculating for far longer than that on the origins of the universe, and we’ll have plenty of occasions here to pay tribute to earlier prescientific cosmologies. (The early chapters of the book of Genesis are probably most familiar to modern readers, but there are lots of others.)

Strikingly, it may be possible to reconstruct a very early interconnected set of myths concerning the world’s origin, which date back to long before the invention of writing (or farming, for that matter). This is the argument of Michael Witzel and some of his associates, set forth at length in Witzel’s ambitious recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Witzel is an expert on the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts)* who has grown interested in wider comparisons. He argues that there are striking parallels in myths told in traditional societies across a wide expanse of the Earth. These parallels are not the product ancient archetypes welling out of the collective unconscious, but are survivals of a coherent narrative of the origins and destiny of the universe, the gods, and humans, which was told tens of thousands of years ago. This mythological narrative includes the following:

In the beginning: primordial waters / darkness / chaos / ‘nonbeing’

A primordial egg / giant

A primordial hill / island / floating earth

Father Sky and Mother Earth and their children, for four generations, defining Four Ages of creation

The Sky is raised up and severed from the Earth

The Sky and his daughter commit incest, and the hidden sun’s light is revealed

The current generation of gods defeat or kill their predecessors.

A dragon is slain by a culture hero

The Sun becomes the father of humans (later on, of chieftains), and establishes their rituals

The first humans, whose evil deeds lead to the origin of death and the great Flood

A generation of heroes and the bringing of fire / food / culture by a culture hero

The spread of humans / emergence of local nobility: local history begins

In the future: final destruction of humans, the world, the gods

A new heaven and a new earth / eternal bliss

Some elements of the myth seem to have an astronomical significance. The revelation of the sun seems to be especially associated with the winter solstice, and the slaying of a dragon, bringing rain, with the summer solstice. The Greek version of the Four Ages (and its Near Eastern antecedents) is clearly related to the movements of stars and planets.

Witzel labels the resulting mythic narrative “Laurasian mythology,” because its major elements are found mostly in Eurasia, the Pacific, and the New World. It contrasts with a Gondwanan mythology found Africa, New Guinea and Australia. (These two mythologies happen, by chance, to correspond roughly to the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana.) Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology overlap to some extent. Stories of a great Flood sent to punish unruly or sinful mankind, leaving only scattered mountaintop survivors to repopulate the world, are found in both.**

Witzel proposes that Laurasian mythology dates all the way back to an Out Of Africa expansion 40 thousand years ago. I have chosen fairly arbitrarily to introduce it instead at a later date. But it can’t date any later than the main settlement of the Americas by the ancestors of Amerindians.

* Witzel’s work on the Vedas has led to his being dogged by a lot of Hindu nationalists who are outraged that he thinks Indo-European languages came from outside India: an occupational hazard for the Indo-Europeanist scholar.

** When I did fieldwork several decades ago among the Ache Indians in Paraguay, they were curious about the way the story of Noah seemed to fit with their own flood story.


Blog about dinosaurs and you also end up blogging about the great age of dinosaur discovery that began almost 200 years ago. But dinosaurs hunting didn’t begin with the Victorians. Adrienne Mayor wrote a great book called The First Fossil Hunters, about how many of the monsters of ancient Greek and Roman myth were based on the discovery of the bones of extinct species, from mammoths (likely basis for the legend of Cyclops) to dinosaurs.

The griffin is a fine example. The Greeks from the 7th century BCE picked up stories from the Scythian nomads of the Eurasian steppe about griffins far to the east who guarded treasures of gold. These griffins were supposed to be “four-legged birds” with feathers, wings, eagle-like beaks, and clawed feet. The legendary homeland of the griffins was explored in 1922 by the great fossil-hunting expedition of Ray Chapman Andrews, which discovered abundant remains of the late Cretaceous (about 83 million years ago) Protoceratops, along with dinosaur eggs. The resemblance to the legendary griffins is striking.

griffinceratops copy

Mayor argues that Scythian discoveries of ceratopsian skeletons inspired the story of the griffin. The main difference is the griffin’s wings, which might have been a misreading of ceratopsian collar bones. Remarkably, the ancient idea of the griffin is close to recent reconstructions of feathered agile dinosaurs. The word “dinosaur” literally means “terrible lizard,” but many dinosaurs really were closer to “four-legged birds.”

The last of the magicians


If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

These familiar quotations from Newton are sometimes presented as expressions of his humility (a quality not otherwise much in evidence). In fact, though, it became clear in the course of the twentieth century that they are really an expression of Newton being not just a great scientist – the greatest ever – but also a great kook. Here’s a less familiar quotation from Newton about the intellectual origins of heliocentrism

It was the opinion of not a few, in the earliest ages of philosophy … that under the fixed stars the planets were carried about the sun; that the earth, as one of the planets, described an annual course about the sun, while by a diurnal motion it was in time revolved about its own axis. … This was the philosophy taught of old by Philolaus, Aristarchus of Samos, Plato, … and of that wise king of the Romans, Numa Pompilius, who, as a symbol of the figure of the world, erected a round temple … and ordained perpetual fire to be kept in the middle of it.

The Egyptians were early observers of the heavens; and from them, probably, this philosophy was spread abroad among other nations … It was their way to deliver their mysteries, that is, their philosophy of things above the common way of thinking, under the veil of religious rites and hieroglyphic symbols.

The Renaissance was committed to recovering the ancient past. This led not only to the recovery of ancient art, literature and science, but also to the recovery of a whole body of ancient magic and pseudoscience. For example, many Renaissance thinkers, and Newton, were fascinated by the mystical writings of Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Great Hermes, hence “hermeticism”), an alleged Egyptian sage. By Newton’s time it had already been demonstrated that these writings were “pseudepigraphia,” a nice scholarly term for “fakes”; Hermes Trismegistus never existed. Nevertheless, Newton was convinced that there was an esoteric tradition preserved by the ancient Egyptians, passed on to Moses, Pythagoras, and Plato, and hidden away in the Bible. Read the Bible or stories of Pythagoras closely enough and you could recover the inverse square law of gravitation. Newton spent huge amounts of time throughout his life trying to recover further scientific secrets from the Bible.

John Maynard Keynes, who got hold of some of Newton’s papers wrote

In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason.

I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.

After Newton, it became clear that modern science had surpassed anything achieved by the ancient world, and natural science and the humanities went their separate ways. Reverence for the secret wisdom of the ancients would survive in the novels of Dan Brown and in the weird Masonic pyramid on the back of the US one dollar bill.dollar-bill-eye

Homo hierarchicus


The Rajatrangini (River of Kings) is a history of Kashmir, dating to about 1150. A striking thing about it is that it is pretty much the only work in Sanskrit that clearly qualifies as history. Other material about the past in traditional Hindu India is heavily mythological, or limited to genealogies and chronicles, and contains virtually no dates. The paucity of historical works in pre-Muslim India is striking, given that the country has an impressive intellectual tradition, with important achievements in mathematics, linguistics, literature, and literary theory. Hindu India is very different in this respect from China, where there is a rich historical record and the study of history, and the lessons of history, has been a major intellectual concern for millennia.

Donald Brown is an anthropologist who has worked in Southeast Asia. He became curious about why some Southeast Asian societies seem to have been more interested than others in developing an accurate understanding of the past. His eventual conclusion, after reviewing evidence from many societies, is that historical consciousness is underdeveloped in societies with closed, hereditary systems of stratification. India of course is famously a caste society. True, there are scholars who argue that Indian caste-consciousness has been exaggerated by Western Orientalists bent on making the place seem exotic. But recent DNA evidence shows that high levels of caste endogamy have been characteristic of India for at least 1500 years. And in economist Gregory Clark’s recent analyses of surnames and social stratification in a number of societies, India is an outlier, with exceptionally enduring associations between surnames and social class, reflecting the caste system. (Kashmir may have been an atypical part of India in this regard.)

In societies with hereditary ruling elites and caste-like social stratification, according to Brown, history is an inconvenience. The preference (at least out in public – people may talk differently in private) is for mythological accounts of caste origins that link caste hierarchy to the order of the cosmos. There are other differences as well associated closed versus open hierarchies. Individual personality receives less attention in societies with closed hierarchies; behavior is explained by role, office, and social category. The art of biography is less developed. Closed societies are less interested in divination (presumably you don’t need a fortune teller to know what your future holds). The differences extend even to visual art: closed societies show less interest in realistic portraiture; artists depict types rather than individuals. In sum, there is a real difference, Brown argues, between historical knowledge and ideology, and caste-like societies generate more of the latter.

In addition to India vs. China, other closed vs. open pairs of societies in Brown’s review include Egypt vs. Mesopotamia+Israel, Sparta vs. Athens, Early vs. Imperial Rome, Medieval West vs. Islam+Byzantium, and Venice vs. Florence.

Donald Brown also wrote Human Universals, a book that argues, against a strong tradition of cultural relativism in anthropology, that there is a wide assortment of cultural universals.

And Donald Brown is also co-author of The Penis Inserts of Southeast Asia, a short book about the penis inserts of Southeast Asia.

The fall of Troy

Homer’s Iliad records 240 battlefield deaths, 188 Trojans and 52 Achaeans.

Those who had dreamed that force, thanks to progress, belonged only to the past, have been able to see in the Iliad a historical document; those who know how to see force, today as yesterday, at the center of all human history, can find there the most beautiful, the purest of mirrors.

Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” 1940-1941

Some things we know (probably) about Late Bronze Age Trojans and Greeks.

  • Troy is represented by the archeological site of Hisarlik, in Turkey near the Dardanelles. It covered over fifty acres and probably had a population in the high thousands. The kingdom of Troy was a client state of the Hittites, known to them as Wilusa (Greek Ilion).
  • Troy was devastated around 1300 BCE, probably by an earthquake, and again, just after 1200 BCE, by fire. There are earlier episodes of destruction as well.
  • The Hittites knew a kingdom to their west called Ahhiyawa. The Ahhiyawans were the people known to Homer as the “Achaians,” i.e. the Greeks. The Egyptians knew a kingdom to their north, beyond Kefta (= Crete = Biblical Kaphthor), called Danaja, whose chief cities match those of Mycenaean Greece. The Danajans probably correspond to the “Danaans,” an alternative Homeric name for the Achaians. Ahhiyawa/Danaja may have been a single state, with vassals under the rule of a “King of Kings,” capitol Mycenae.
  • Homer probably composed the Iliad in the eighth century BCE (762 BCE, give or take 50 years, according to recent research applying evolutionary models to the text). But he relied on sources – presumably earlier oral poems – that went back centuries earlier. The names he gives for the Greeks were not current in his own time. Many lines of his epics only scan if he was drawing on poetic formulas from a Bronze Age dialect of Greek. The cities he lists among those who contributed to the war effort match the Bronze Age better than his own time. And he is familiar with Bronze Age helmets and shields that had long since gone out of use.

So the story of the Trojan war dates back to the Bronze Age, and incorporates real geography and material culture. Just how true the story itself is less certain. It has had an enormous influence of course. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that England’s first king was a descendant of refugees from fallen Troy. Sultan Mehmet II claimed to be avenging the Trojans when he conquered Constantinople in 1453.

In addition to the more standard translations of the Iliad – Richmond Lattimore’s is the most faithful, and still probably the best – there is also a recent adaptation ( not really a translation) by “The War Nerd.” The War Nerd is a persona created by “Gary Brecher,” the pseudonym of sometime poet John Dolan, who has been turning a sharp, misanthropic, Irish eye on wars past and present for years.

There a many books on the Trojan War (apart from the ones by Homer). Here are some good ones.

And a remark on war in the lives of ants and men.




1628 BCE, and later.

There are two great stories in the Western tradition that stand somewhere between legend and history: The Flight from Egypt and the Trojan War. Both have been scholarly battlegrounds, dismissed as pure invention by some, accepted as at least partly historical by others. In the case of the exodus story, a great many archeologists nowadays are strong skeptics. Here I’ll summarize what I think is the best argument for the other side.

Barbara Sivertsen, in her book The Parting of the Sea, argues that the exodus story combines oral traditions arising from two different flights from Egypt. First, she suggests that some of the story reflects events around the time of a huge volcanic explosion, the largest in the last five thousand years, which destroyed most of the island of Thera (= Santorini) in 1628 BCE. Most of the Biblical plagues fit what would have been expected in northern Egypt at the time (and in the right time sequence). A tsunami reaching the Nile delta would have contaminated water, and caused fish to die off. Frogs would have been driven from the water. Caustic ash would have stung human skin (in later recountings, “stinging like gnats” was remembered as “stinging gnats”). Insects affected by ash would have sought shelter in people’s houses. Livestock outdoors would have died from breathing ash, and humans and livestock would have developed blisters. Eventually dust in the atmosphere would have precipitated hailstorms. The arrival of the heaviest part of the dust cloud would have shrouded the land in darkness. (Locusts, however, don’t fit the volcano story, and may be an embellishment or a coincidental plague.) All these developments would have precipitated a panicked flight from Egypt on the part of Israelites, led by Moses. (Lower Egypt at the time was ruled by charioteer Hyksos invaders.) According to the archeological evidence, the Wadi Tumilat, an oasis/caravanserai east of the Nile commonly identified as the Biblical Land of Goshen, is abandoned at this time and left uninhabited for centuries.

Other authors have suggested that the Thera eruption had some role in the exodus, but Sivertsen thinks there was also a later flight. In the mid-1400s, Egypt had a significant population of prisoners of war employed as slaves at Tell el-Da’ba, a naval base on the Mediterranean. In Sivertsen’s account, a wave of deaths of Egyptian children led Pharaoh Tuthmose III, frightened of the Israelite god, to expel a group of Israelite slaves. The pharaoh changed his mind, however, and sent an army in pursuit of the slaves along the northern shore of the Sinai. We know that in the mid-1400s, another volcanic eruption, on the Aegean island of Yalli, sent a tsunami around the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. This tsumani caught up with the Egyptian army, but missed Israelites camped further inland. The event was spectacular enough to be melded with the earlier exodus story.

A major reason for skepticism about the exodus story is that it has been very hard to find evidence for the Israelite conquest of Canaan in the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE, which is when many accounts place the exodus. But if we follow Sivertsen in putting the first exodus much earlier, and allow that the “forty years” in the wilderness was really eighty years, then there is plenty of evidence for massive invasion and destruction of cities in Canaan in the mid 1500s, at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Israelites could have been among the invaders of Canaan. Around 1550 BCE, the city of Jericho suffered an earthquake that knocked down some of the city walls. The city then burned to the ground, and was largely abandoned subsequently.

We saw earlier on Logarithmic History that oral history can preserve detailed memories of natural catastrophes for long periods of time. At the same time information about numbers and absolute dates mostly gets lost. It will be interesting to see how Sivertsen’s work holds up in the face of further discoveries.