Correlation of myth and history

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Skepchick
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Correlation of myth and history

Post by Skepchick » Tue Mar 15, 2005 4:30 am

"When They Severed Earth From Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth" is a recent book by Dr. Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Dr. Paul Barber.

Dr. Elizabeth Wayland Barber preented a lecture at Caltech on March 6th. It is hard to do justice to a lecture in a short post, however in my understanding she was asserting that many mythological creatures and events arose out of natural catastrophes and were a retelling of those stories and served as a warning. With time, they lost their specific connection to an event, but it is possible to backtrace it.

She talked of Prometheus and Loki, and thought that those somewhat similar legends represented descriptions of eruptions of Elbruce (sp?) a mountain in the area. She spoke of some legends in Pacific Northwest which seem to clearly point to a volcano eruption. She spoke of a verse in Homer which may have represented a unique celestial event. Her book describes these myths and possible connections to actual events in more detail. I have not yet read it, but I already know someone who I will nick (borrow) it from shortly.

Here is a link to the book in Amazon

Without having read the book it is difficult to understand exactly how they come to identify and match certain events with myths. It seems to me a field ripe for data mining and confirmation bias. If we start off with a presumption that, for example, Prometheus myth could have represented an eruption, then it is simply a matter of time and luck to find a mountain- any mountain- in the region which at a certain range in time- over thousands of years- may have erupted.

Furthermore, since myths migrate with the population, one can easily widen both a geographic and a chronological criteria to make a fit.

It is possible that this objection would apply to almost any study of ancient literature and myth. Off the top of my head I know of only one predictive event- location of Troy.

However is it perhaps unreasonable to request that study of history and oral tradition be subjected to same tests as most scientific hypotheses? Perhaps history is inherently unscientific?

I admit my familiarity with history is largely superficial. If anyone attended the same lecture, read that book, or has ideas in general, feel free to correct me. :)

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Post by quash8 » Tue Mar 29, 2005 3:48 pm

However is it perhaps unreasonable to request that study of history and oral tradition be subjected to same tests as most scientific hypotheses? Perhaps history is inherently unscientific?


I only minored in history, but I agree that history is not done like science. One may use technology derived from science but in the end one knows that the data is often lost to time. Where science may put forth two ideas that are mutually exclusive and decide that one or the other is more likely to be the best explanation after rigorous experimentation, history must weigh conflicting ideas without the benefit of experimentation, only analysis.

This is not to say that history is all analysis. Perhaps the Shroud of Turin is a good example of what you posit: confirmation bias, use and mis-use of scientific techniques, and employing new technology to increase the data available. Historical conclusions that rely heavily technological data should "be subjected to same tests as most scientific hypotheses" as Skepchick notes. But not all historical conclusions.

Both fields should be held to rigorous but different standards, or at least a different appreciation of how history, of necessity, is often more about interpretation of limited data, where science is more about acquiring the data needed for better interpretation.

"When They Severed Earth From Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth" sounds fascinating, but adding mythology onto the already difficult job of historical interpretation makes any conclusions necessarily "softer" (I can't think of a better word, darn it) than what would be expected of a scientist. And that should be OK.
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Post by HellboundAlleee » Tue Mar 29, 2005 4:48 pm

I like the idea and would be interested in reading excerpts: however, not all myths can be traced to real events that will resemble real events in meaningful ways--except for subconscious ways I suppose.

The folklore disclipline has been linked to Jungian and Freudian psychology for so long; I'm not sure they would want to give it up. Then there's the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology---can these stories be reduced to predator-prey? (Red Riding-Hood?)

Truly, some myths probably could be linked to entirely made-up stories told to keep someone from harm, or keep them in line. The whole Garden thing for instance. All those talking animals . The bible.

I think that disaster stories do not necessarily have to come from a particular disaster. Once that meme, for instance, about what floods do to people is passed on, what's to stop the next guy from making up a flood story? Maybe a person in a closed culture isn't going to hear about a large number of specific natural disasters, but we have roaming cultures too, who tell and hear stories and pass them on to others.

Perhaps she answers these questions. I can only speculate.
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Post by Derebey » Tue Mar 29, 2005 10:44 pm

That myths are a fuzzy recollection of very history is hardly new--remember, myths were the histories of the people that made them. I know that a one popular explanantion for why Christianity was "above" earlier mythologies during the Byzantine and Renaissance eras was that the old gods were simply kings so great they were deified by later generations. I think that with the interpretation of myth (or even history, for that matter) is largely a subjective matter, and one can only have hypotheses they like best, not anything absolute.

I find the correlation of old myths with natural events interesting--something akin to Diamond's equation of the environment and civilization. I doubt that Loki and Prometheus have much to do with volcanoes, though. The story of how fire came to humanity is probably something that someone made up after being asked the question, because the story of Prometheus (I can't say anything about Loki--I don't know enough about Scandinavian gods) takes place on a very personal level, and somehow "pyroclastic flow" and "subtle trickery" just can't come together in my mind.[/i]

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Post by HellboundAlleee » Wed Mar 30, 2005 12:42 am

I think that if we can make up stuff now, without having it based on reality, then we could have made up stuff then without it having been based on reality.

The only modern idea that comes close to being mytholgical according to Campbell is the alien abduction idea. (Not that it isn't just like the demon-possession idea. ) It's not based on an event--it seems to be beased on psychological and physical ( biological) phenomena. Anything modern based on an event comes onyl to rumour and legend. It seems like a real myth has to have a psychological-neural component to it. As if it couldn't be reduced.
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Post by Electric Monk » Wed Mar 30, 2005 12:59 am

HellboundAlleee wrote:I think that if we can make up stuff now, without having it based on reality, then we could have made up stuff then without it having been based on reality.

True, but my understanding of Drs. Barber's arguments is that there are certain myths which can be conclusively correlated with historical events, not that all myths have some kernel of historical truth.

At the lecture, Dr. Barber gave a few examples which sound compelling. In the case of the Pacific Northwest myth, there was little chance of cultural contamination, and the myth was recorded before the scientific examination of the geology revealed the actual history. Finally, there must have been at least 10 points on which the myth given corresponded directly to the inferred events, with none striking a sour note, or seeming like a forced fit, or required unevidenced historical events (a la Velikovsky). The myth was presented in the lecture as if it were complete and verbatim from the 19th century records, but that may not be the case.

This was used as their first test case of their principles of analysis because it had such a clean history. The Greek and Roman myths were much more complicated, as they admitted, but they felt that they had found some genuine evidence.

Still, it is hard to judge without hearing what they might be omitting from either the myth or the historical record which might cast doubt on the fit. I am looking forward to reading the book and discovering more about their evidence, just as soon as I get the book back from the person who borrowed it. :roll: :)

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Post by Capthorne » Wed Mar 30, 2005 2:34 am

A minor point, perhaps, but one which can be significant in some instances: Meanings can become inverted. For example, the current popular myth that black cats are lucky is a distortion of a reversal of the earlier belief that they were unlucky in specific circumstances.

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Post by Alastair » Wed Mar 30, 2005 4:10 am

I don't doubt that many legends have real, but long lost events at their source.

But once the story exists, if it's a good story- it will survive, even if the social, moral and political culture in which it is embedded changes.

A good politician may "spin" a legend to support the point he wants to make.
A hero struggling against fate becomes a heretic rebelling against the gods; a conquering culture adopts the heroes of the people they defeated.

Stories may outlive not just their original source, but also their earliest and subsequent moral contexts.

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Re: Correlation of myth and history

Post by Nyarlathotep » Wed Mar 30, 2005 6:19 am

Skepchick wrote:
However is it perhaps unreasonable to request that study of history and oral tradition be subjected to same tests as most scientific hypotheses? Perhaps history is inherently unscientific?


Well, history is unscientific, luckily it serves a different purpose than science. First of all, nearly everything in history comes from anecdote. You cannot run a replicable experiment to find out what happened at the Battle of Hastings, you have to rely on accounts. This has the unforutnate side effect of introducing human bias into everything. A good historian, though, tries to weed through the bias that is going to be inherent in any account of any event.

Another differnece between history and science is that hsitory is much more about interpretation of facts than science is. The basic facts of history are only a beginning, so a historian has to interpret those facts. For example, if a historian is studying Jesse james, finding out where and how and when he comitted his crimes is only the most elementary of beginnings, a historian would investigate why he did what he did, and this is not the sort of thing one can do via experimentation like a scientist would, the historian has to look at the facts, weight them and make his best guess. His job is more akin to that of a detective than a scientist.

This doesn't mean history is useless, though, it just is too nebulous to ever truly be a science.

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Post by Lance Kennedy » Wed Apr 20, 2005 9:51 am

I am from New Zealand - a country invaded by Homer saps so recently that we can perhaps see some of this happening.

Good example: legend of how the North Island of NZ arose from the sea. Superficially, the shape is a bit like a fish, as seen on a map. The indigenous people, the Maori, have a legend that a mythical hero pulled it out of the sea on his fishing line. However, they had no writing and no maps. How could htey have known it was shaped like a fish, to build a legend around??

Answer. Captain Cook drew a map in first first visits, and must have shown it to Maori. A little later, when missionaries called and tried to find out the legends of the people, they got given the story of how the hero caught the North Island as a fish on a line.

Legends and myths are superbly flexible.

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Post by JMurphy » Wed Apr 20, 2005 5:00 pm

I think one of the most difficult things people have when they study ancient history as written down by ancient people is that, to them, myth was history.

Like The Histories by Herodotus. In many places, it mentions the ancient hero Heracles, and how he basically founded western civilization, even going so far as saying that there are geographical features in the Mediteranean that he made himself. These assumptions are rarely challenged.

An even more ridiculous passage in The Histories talks about how, once a year, a massive swarm of birds (or something) attacks the Sinai peninsula, but are all eaten by a bunch of snakes. I don't remember the exact details, but Herodotus is pretty uncritical.

There are parts where he does add a "some people say this, but I don't know" kind of statement, though.
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Post by Jake Wrestler » Mon Apr 03, 2006 7:43 pm

I think there there is some effort to make history subject to a process similar to the scientific method and they call it "historical method".
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