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Time Capsules

Michael Shermer

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.

This relief cut into live rock...Click to Enlarge Image

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. . . .
(2) 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 bad.
(5) People stab deeper, and eventually the flame goes out.
(6) Inside the barrow is treasure but no trace of a dragon's body.

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 generally rotted.

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 peril.—Michael Shermer, Skeptic magazine

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