I love reading Carl Jung and his coterie on myth: Emma Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, Gerhard Adler–and at one time I thought Joe Campbell’s Masks of Gods was the shit. But I also like to read books which drain all the magic out of myths, books which treat human stories as simply another artifact of evolution and necessary for survival. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Mythfits in this latter category.
The premise of the book is that all ancient myths began as actual events, but over time through a process of forgetting or morphing the stories lost their grounding in place and fact and became confused. So Pacific Islander or Native American tails of mountain goddesses with “streaming red hair” actually refer to volcanic eruptions. The authors spend some time matching myths from around the globe to specific eruptions known from the geological record. They find several matches–tsunamis and earthquakes prove fertile ground too.
Another idea from the book: stories which are not tied to events are often warnings about the slippage of calendars or planting and harvesting routines due to the precession of the equinoxes, and again the authors do a lot of heavy lifting to demonstrate connections between astronomical movements and stories about constellation figures, ranging across Asia, into Europe, and down into South America. I’ve encountered this argument before, in Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge And Its Transmission Through Myth, and it’s very convincing.
Wheels and millstones and pillars and the collapse of things or the destruction of routine are of course a staple of ancient myths. Ancient man had a deep knowledge of the movement of the heavens because after dark there wasn’t much else to do but gaze at the sky and meditate on its machinery–that’s not to belittle their achievement, because I could gaze at the night sky for decades and never come up with the orbit of a single planet, let alone the precession of the equinoxes–and the idea that they used stories about planetary and constellation-related beings to record astronomical data and adjust their calendars now and again is really intriguing. Somewhere in this remote past lies the origin of astrology and the associations of personality types with the movements of the seasons. Did this early story telling infest our genetics? Are these tales so old and so universal that humans first created the archetypes which later helped evolve our consciousness?
Just watched another episode of The Ascent of Man wherein Bronowski points out that societies without the wheel never fully developed an understanding of astronomy. It’s a fascinating idea. He is very harsh on the subject of Easter Island; those people, in his view, arrived on the island by accident and remained trapped there because they were too unsophisticated and unimaginative to use stars for navigation. As a result they built the same statues over and over, dour standing stones staring hopelessly at the horizon. He appreciates the Mayan mathematical models of the heavens, but regards them as inferior because they were merely calendars, with little concern for the mechanism behind celestial movement despite their precision. And then he jumps ahead to Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, and Galileo and the full flowering of theoretical science.
I need to stop reading stuff that has nothing to do with my teaching. It’s too distracting! But I’ve never read fewer books in a year before and feel I should try to get to 40 by January 1st. Not likely.