When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes
Myth. Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber. xx + 290 pp.
Princeton University Press, 2004. $29.95.
As the publisher of Skeptic magazine and as the monthly
"Skeptic" columnist for Scientific American, I am
frequently thrust into the job of myth busting, an intellectualized
version of what the irrepressible pair Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman
do each week on the Discovery Channel's popular television series
MythBusters. I've found that it's wise to proceed with
caution, however, because one person's myth may be another's true
belief, and some myths may actually be true.
Just what do we mean by myth, anyway? Popular usage equates
the term with falsehood—common misconceptions are
labeled "myths" ("It's a myth that lightning never
strikes twice in the same place"), and ancient myths such as
the story of the Egyptian god Osiris are recognized not to be
literally true. But myths that are stories may be intended to impart
a message. The biblical story of Job, for example, is a moral homily
on persevering in the face of tragedies and travails. In such a
case, it could be argued that the story is simply a vehicle of
delivery whose truth or falsity is not at issue.
Archaeologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber and historian Paul T. Barber
would challenge this position, however. In their highly engaging,
thoroughly researched analysis of the meaning of myths, When
They Severed Earth from Sky, they build a strong case that
historical facts can be extracted from the mists of our mythic past.
The Barbers' argument runs like this: Preliterate people used myths
as a medium of knowledge transmission as long as 100,000 years ago,
by which time the human vocal tract had evolved the capacity for
speech. Because our memory for storing raw data is severely
restricted compared with written language (invented a mere 5,000
years ago), our ancestors used myths to store data and transmit the
past into the future.
Over the course of two decades of intense study of myths, the
Barbers have come up with a couple of dozen principles of myth
deconstruction and reconstruction, out of which they have developed
four overarching "mytho-linguistic" principles: Silence,
Analogy, Compression and Restructuring.
These principles show how particular types of myths
developed out of actual events: how people crunched down the
information into the limited channel available for transmission,
enhanced its memorability, then shot these little time capsules of
knowledge down the pipeline to the listeners of the future.
The process of mythmaking (as historical transmission through time)
begins with what the Barbers call "memory crunch," the
need in a nonliterate society to winnow out and compress key
information so that it will fit into human memory. Thus only the
most important facts, selected by the mythmakers for their survival
value, are preserved in the myth. Unfortunately, those of us who
come across the myth thousands of years later will not have the
context needed to understand it, because of the silence
principle, which states that "What everyone is expected to
know already is not explained in so many words." What was once
common knowledge has become silent assumption.
But the situation is not hopeless. We may be aided in our
reconstruction of mythic history by the analogy principle,
which states that "if any entities or phenomena bear
some resemblance, in any aspect, they must be
related." More help can be found in the restructuring
principle, which states that
Whenever there is a significant cultural change, at least
some patterns will get restructured or re-interpreted. Successive
changes on a given pattern will render the form of the pattern
un-understandable to its users—it goes from a matter of logic
to one of faith, and finally to a matter of disbelief.
For example, it is common for the past to come to be seen as
"different in an absolute sense from the present," a fact
the Barbers refer to as the "Golden Age phenomenon."
The thesis of this book is straightforward enough, but the problem
is that myths, and the people who tell them, are so varied and so
diverse that it probably really does require the dozens of
principles the Barbers have identified to try to make sense of them.
Scattered throughout the book are many different principles (which
are summarized in the introduction and catalogued in an
appendix)—so many that I found it more useful to apply the
process one myth at a time than to generalize to all myths.
Take fire-breathing dragons, for example. The Barbers say that
speakers of English all know that dragons "look like gigantic
scaly salamanders, . . . have bad breath, belch fire, guard treasure
inside dank caverns, and can fly." One source for these
attributes is the myth Beowulf, the Germanic tale of a man
who encounters a dragon who "guards gold inside a dark mound,
flies, and spews fire and bad breath."
To recover the history behind the myth, the Barbers begin with what
they call the "Stripping Procedure"—they single out
the most important points of the Beowulf narrative:
(1) Someone steals a cup from an old barrow. . . .
Fire erupts from the barrow and spreads.
(3) Near the stone
entrance, our hero stabs blindly at the source of flames while
shielding himself (ineffectively) from them.
(4) It smells
(5) People stab deeper, and eventually the flame goes
(6) Inside the barrow is treasure but no trace of a
Because tombs sometimes contain valuables, tomb robbers do
occasionally encounter malodorous dead bodies, and a rapidly
spreading fire would snuff itself out in a cave or tomb, it is
reasonable to conclude that this myth may be based on a true story.
And because no one ever actually saw the dragon (the myth just says
they saw flames and smelled something bad), the mythmakers invented
"a figment of Explanation," a willful and malevolent
beast. "The storykeepers are so sure that a tangible creature
must have existed," the Barbers deduce, that later in the poem
the poet hedges his bets by explaining the lack of dragon
bones a second and contradictory way. When the frightened retainers
returned, he says, they pillaged the mound, "shoved the dragon,
the Worm [Old English for snake], over the cliff, let the
wave take—the flood enfold—the guardian of the
treasure," then they carried the dead king to his pyre.
Then the Barbers analyze the parallel Icelandic myth Grettissaga:
Archaeology shows that Indo-European tribes, from the late
Stone Age into the Iron Age (and through the Viking period in
Scandinavia), buried their important dead in a chamber over which
they heaped a mound. . . . Many such mounds have been excavated, and
their chambers, if intact, can be so well sealed that perishables
like textiles and carved wood often survive. The flesh—that of
the owner, and of the horses often buried alongside—has
Decomposed flesh creates highly flammable methane gas which, when it
comes into contact with the flame of a grave-robber's torch,
explodes in fire. "We need only add Willfulness and then try to
deduce the form of the creature with that evil will," the
Barbers conclude. What sort of creature? Something that slithers in
and out of rocks and caves, such as snakes, salamanders and lizards
with their long, thin, scaly bodies—a.k.a. dragons.
When They Severed Earth from Sky
is loaded with such mythic de- and reconstructions. I was occasionally
overwhelmed by the plethora of principles, and I fear that confirmation
bias—the tendency to selectively notice and focus on evidence that
supports a theory rather than on facts that might disprove it—may
be at work here. The Barbers' case would be strengthened by the addition
of a system for falsifying a myth's factual basis—that is, for
testing whether the myth's message is metaphorical or historical.
Nevertheless, I think the Barbers are on to something here. Any student
of myths ignores this important work at his or her