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A radical idea. (Steve Connor, The Independent)

indispensable (G. J. Reece, CHOICE)

Présentation de l'éditeur

In this comprehensive book Michael Witzel persuasively demonstrates the prehistoric origins of most of the mythologies of Eurasia and the Americas ('Laurasia'). By comparing these myths with others indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, Melanesia, and Australia ('Gondwana Land') Witzel is able to access some of the earliest myths told by humans. The Laurasian mythologies share a common story line that dates the world's creation to a mythic time and recounts the fortunes of generations of deities across four or five ages and human beings' creation and fall, culminating in the end of the universe and, occasionally, hope for a new world. These stories are contrasted with the 'southern' mythologies, which lack most of these features. Witzel's investigations are buttressed by archaeological data, as well as by comparative linguistics, and human population genetics. All suggest the African origins of anatomically modern humans and their subsequent journey along Indian Ocean shores, up to Australia and southern China, around 60,000 BCE. These itinerants' early mythology survives partly in sub-Saharan Africa and points along the path - the Andaman Islands, Melansia, and Australia. Laurasian mythology, Witzel shows, developed along this vast trail, probably in southwest Asia, around 40,000 BCE. Identifying features shared by virtually all mythologies of the globe, Witzel suggests that these features probably informed myths recounted by the communities of the 'African Eve.' As such, they are the earliest substantiation of our ultimate ancestors' spirituality. Moreover the Laurasian myths' key features, Witzel shows, survive today in all major religions and their multiple ideological offshoots.


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  • Broché: 688 pages
  • Editeur : OUP USA (4 janvier 2013)
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ISBN-10: 0199812853
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199812851
  • Dimensions du produit: 23,4 x 5,1 x 15,5 cm
  • Moyenne des commentaires client : 4.8 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (4 commentaires client)
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4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile  Par Sof sur 6 juin 2013
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
... philologique, linguistique et historique au coeur des mythes et des représentations du monde de nos plus lointains ancêtres. L'auteur est un éminent spécialiste d'études indiennes qui s'est plongé dans les mythologies mondiales, les récurrences de certains motifs, de certains thèmes. Il procède comme les linguistes comparatistes ou comme les spécialistes de phylogénétique : par comparaison itérées, il remonte le temps et nous ouvre d'incroyables horizons. Lecture ardue mais gratifiante.
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1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile  Par von strachwitz sur 27 juin 2014
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Livre passionnant et complet, accessible aux non spécialistes...a lire absolument en se réjouissant des réflexions qu'il fait surgir chez le lecteur!
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Excellent texte faisant le point sur l'origine des mythologies, impressionnant d'érudition et pour cette idée simple mais totalement nouvelle que les mythologies sont beaucoup plus anciennes et universelles qu'on le pense habituellement. voilà une idée qui, certes a encore besoin d'être peaufinée par d'autres recherches ponctuelles, mais qui, à mon sens, fera son chemin car elle ouvre de grands horizons, pas uniquement d'ailleurs dans le pur domaine des mythologies mais également en linguistique et en vision plus large des grands mouvements préhistoriques. PASSIONNANT.
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Par msokolo sur 18 août 2014
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Tout "Honnète homme ou femme" qui prétend à une culture générale contemporaine devrait lire ce livre. Et culture au sens de compréhension actuelle du monde où nous vivons et d'où nous venons.
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5 internautes sur 5 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
interesting but problematic 13 août 2014
Par Tezcatli8 - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
Witzel's book is certainly an interesting read, but there are major problems with his understanding of myths outside of India and post-Nara Japan. That is not to say that his methodology should be thrown out because of his moments of ignorance; in fact I very much appreciated his novel approach. My problem is that he over generalizes when it comes to the different mythemes he sees as moments in the "Laurasian" versus "Gondwana" mythologies. Laurasian myths are, according to Witzel, structured stories in a narrative that can be seen across all Laurasian cultures, defined by common elements such as: progenitor gods of the sky and earth, world ages and destructions, the ontology of the nobility, etc. The author believes these are not present in Gondwana (i.e. sub-Saharan Africa and aboriginal Australia) cultures and therefore are more closely analogous to primeval, Paleolithic peoples. The crux between these two macro-groupings of peoples and their myths is that Laurasian myths are implied to be more complex, structured and the first "novel" of humanity, while Gondwana myths represent an archaic, simplistic storytelling practice. Unfortunately for Witzel, the mythemes present within Laurasia are indeed also present within "Gondwana" mythologies. Again, I am not necessarily throwing out the author's overall approach, he just did not carry it out with critical rigor. He traced human migrations via genetics studies that is indeed supported by physical anthropology (but in a generalized way, and not with total consensus of the community!). From there, he looks at the myths of the peoples who have now settled in their respective regions of the world to determine why the world's myths share common elements: because they are the product of human dispersal from a single origin source. This final hypothesis seems entirely plausible, yet, again, Witzel's demarcation between Laurasia and Gondwana just doesn't hold merit ONLY IN TERMS OF HIS COMPAPARISON OF THEIR MYTHOLOGIES. In all honesty, after going back and reading the book a second time, in addition to my understanding of New World mythologies (Mesoamerica specifically) as well as Japanese, it only furthers the possibility that all humans at one time shared a loosely similar configuration of symbolic constructs we know as "myths." If that is what Witzel is essentially trying to say, then, I agree with him; just not his interpretation of the "Gondwana" myths.

"Laurasia," by the way, is basically a geo-cultural catchall term for peoples NOT in sub-Saharan Africa, aboriginal Australia or a few other places. These groupings are LOOSELY CORRABORATED by population genetics, but please be advised that, while Witzel assumes fact, there really is no consensus among specialists. This is my other major critique: throughout the book the author constantly refers to very speculative linguistic and genetic groupings as 100% fact or that there is no reason NOT to believe him. Maybe this comes with being a tenured professor at Harvard, but I was always taught to cite your sources. He will simply dismiss many good critiques of his cited groupings (both the linguistic and genetic ones, but ESPECIALLY the linguistic ones; see Nostratic) and comes off as an incredibly arrogant individual.

While I am not a tenured professor (yet) I am a PhD candidate in Anthropology specializing in Mesoamerican history of thought, and must inform the reader there are inaccuracies in his understanding of certain cultures. This is not my opinion, this is a fact. (see a reviewer's reference to a Penguin Classic book: there are indeed cosmogonic myths in sub-Saharan Africa that are actually quite similar to many Laurasian ones).

Lastly, I did not get any "racist" tendencies from Witzel. The scathing review by Thompson does have good points, yet Thompson's view of "racist" is a bit stretched. Witzel's ignorance of myth should not be read as racism (some may see no difference) though the citations Thompson gives are very telling and could easily be read as racist (see the link in the other review for Thompson's critique). Perhaps Witzel should take more consideration in his word choice in the future.
31 internautes sur 44 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
The Beginning of a New Era in Mythological Studies 24 mars 2013
Par Alexander981 - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
Advances in the field of population genetics have increased rapidly in recent years. Through a process of world-wide genetic testing, it is now possible to form a fairly accurate picture of the migration patterns of the world's many ethnicities including the approximate time-frames involved. For example, it is now widely accepted that the first wave of northeastern Asian immigrants crossed the Bering Straits into North America about 20,000 years ago. All modern humans who are descendents of those early arrivals share key genetic markers, and these allow for a general reconstruction of that population's migratory history.

The evidence is now very strong that the first anatomically modern humans originated in East Africa approximately 200,000 years ago. About 65,000 years ago a relatively small part of that population began to migrate eastward along the southern coast of Arabia and on into India, thence to Southeast Asia, finally arriving in Australia some 45/50,000 years ago. The evidence for this early migration out of Africa is found in the genetic code of the descendent populations, but it is corroborated by the findings of comparative linguistics, which traces the history and family relationships between the world's languages.

In "The Origins of the World's Mythologies" Michael Witzel argues that the many cultures descended from those early migrations share common mythological features. Remnants of these groups can be found primarily in South India, the Andaman Islands, Australia, Malaya and New Guinea. According to Witzel, the mythologies of these peoples were derived from an original African source and then carried with them on their long journey eastward. Indeed, additional isolated remnants of this same mythological complex can still be found in those areas of central Africa that have been relatively undisturbed by outside influences during the subsequent millennia.

Witzel's point of view thus differs greatly from those who claim that myth arises independently in various cultures, and that the many similarities between those myths are due to a shared collective unconscious mind, as proposed by the psychologist, Carl Jung. It also differs from those who would argue that such similarities can best be explained by a later process of diffusion, where myth was spread widely by travelers or traders who carried the myths from major cultural centers into the existing populations of outlying areas. Witzel argues that, on the contrary, myth is part of an original cultural patrimony in the same way that language is.

About 40,000 years ago, another great migration pattern emerges, following the receding glaciers at the end of a major ice age. Spreading out from a center in southwestern Asia, these migrating groups reached North Africa, Europe, Siberia, East Asia, and much later, the Americas. These migrations can be detected in the genetic code shared by their modern descendents, as well as through the related language families that they exhibit. Witzel argues that they can be further traced through shared mythological features that have persisted along with the linguistic and genetic markers. The mythology carried by these later migrations, while sharing some features of the earlier groups, also shows numerous important innovations.

Key features of this more recent mythological tradition include an account of the origin of the world--that is to say, a cosmology. Then there follow a series of world ages or generations of the gods, as seen, for example, in the Greek myths where the original Titan gods are supplanted by their Olympian offspring. Later, as a result of hubris, humans are punished by a great flood, but trickster-deities bring fire and culture to a surviving remnant of humanity. Semi-historical descriptions of early kings and kingdoms usually occur at this stage of the myth-complex, where culture-heroes form the first political dynasties. Eventually the myths describe the end of the world--and often, ultimately, a fresh beginning.

But more than a mere collection of similar individual mythical themes, this new cultural tradition shows a coherent story line, a typical progression linking the various myths into an ordered sequence from the beginning of the world to its final end. Here again, Witzel argues, this new mythical system spread out through vast migrations: it was part and parcel of the cultural inheritance carried by those migrating groups from that original, west Asian center.

Archeological data supplied by Witzel supports his theory. Cave paintings, sculptures, burial customs, skeletal features, etc., offer evidence in support of these migrations and subsequent belief systems. The multidisciplinary approach taken in this investigation--including genetics, linguistics, archaeology, and mythological history--result in conclusions that are highly persuasive.

But yes, there are a few problematic areas. Southeast Asia, for example, shows a somewhat confusing mixture of mythical patterns that are not easily explained. It appears that one migration traveled south from Taiwan, bringing the later mythical system into the area, while another, carrying the earlier mythical complex, originated somewhere in Southeast Asia and traveled northward into China. Much additional study will be required to clarify and sometimes modify Witzel's theory; and he acknowledges this. His work provides an initial road map for a productive plan of future inquiry. The details may evolve and change, but the general outlines of Witzel's theory will almost certainly endure the test of time.

After describing the characteristics of the two major mythological systems in the book's early chapters, Witzel shows how the second (and now more widespread of the two systems) arose out of the shamanistic tradition. Myths common to both systems are presumably descendents of a common ancestor: a Pan-Gaean mythical predecessor that must have existed prior to the African exodus.

In the final chapters, Witzel gives his view as to the meaning of the second of these two mythical systems, the one that has manifested itself in the major religions of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, India, and Central America, among many others. He points out the attractive--even seductive--nature of the mythical storyline, and shows how it has been incorporated into the four great modern religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Finally, he issues a warning--lest we, unknowingly, become victims of our own myths.

Michael Witzel, now Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, was originally trained as a comparative linguist. The discipline of comparative linguistics demonstrates how individual modern words have evolved out of ancient forms through various discrete stages. The genius of "The Origins of the World's Mythologies" is that Witzel takes the tried-and-true methodology of comparative linguistics and applies it to the historical development of world myth. This is a significant achievement that will surely put the study of mythology onto a much stronger scientific basis for the future.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Origins and the Retrieval of Metaphysical Adequacy in Religious Studies 31 octobre 2014
Par Krumbbumm - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
Origins

In The Origins of the World's Mythologies, Michael Witzel utilizes a historical-comparative method to analyze mythologies across cultures and history, not only at the level of individual stories and motifs- the method developed by Vladmir Propp and Stith-Thompson- but at the more telling level of entire myth-structures, taking into consideration both content and chronology. Where Propp and Stith-Thompson’s respective concepts of “mythemes” and “tale-types” identify congruencies among the mythic narratives of various divergent groups, cataloguing a number of structural and substantive similarities, Witzel goes beyond this to compare the structure of entire bodies of mythology, while also considering their courses of development over time, in order to reconstruct their earliest form, that of a common pan-human or pan-gaean mythology originating in South Africa by at least 100,000 years ago. Having determined a probable pattern of historical descent, he posits that, initially, at least two distinct migrations out of south Africa occurred around 65,000 kya. The earliest groups travelled southeast toward what would later become Australia, New Zealand, the Andaman Islands, and Melanesia- collectively referred to as Gondwanaland (also inclusive of sub-Saharan Africa)- while successive migrations occurring anywhere between 65,000-40,000 years ago went northeast to Eurasia, Siberia, and eventually down to the Americas. These latter groups constitute what is termed the Laurasian stream, whose characteristic innovations with respect to mythology and culture have allowed it to develop into the overwhelmingly dominant system of thought undergirding ordinary perception for roughly ninety-five percent of humanity, its numerous present manifestations being both overt and subtle, religious and secular, restrictive and liberating. While the history of mythological and religious innovation provides a plethora of archetypal forms whose presence in human thought patterns variously pervades all areas of culture – the creative externalized expression of these patterns – the simplistic drive toward literalism not only regarding one’s own self-referential understanding of their relationship to existence (universally conceived though always only partially apprehended in perception) and the judgments or valuations made toward certain behaviors and activities may prevent adequate conceptual reevaluation in light of perceptual novelty (and its implications for ever-evolving conceptual schema in other areas of culture, such as the sciences and humanities), resulting in irreconcilably dissonant perspectival encounters. The Laurasian story line is foremost a conceptual artifact, albeit one so deeply engrained in human thought and culture that it seems destined to endure as long as the species itself, at least at its most basic structurally resonant level – as an absolutely inclusive, adaptable architecture for intercultural communication- one that provides an affirmation of comprehensiveness at the widest macro-level, and in whose construction and maintenance any and all individuals and groups might participate. However, it is only valuable as far as it establishes and affirms the reality of this common, conceptual space that mentally correlates with and relates to perceptual experience. To that end, the content of the story may appear in any number of forms conditioned by habit and cultural influence, seeming quite at odds if taken simplistically and without individual effort and participation in the process of understanding, that is to say in the act of interpretation of these essentially metaphorical lenses with which to view reality. The understanding of universal comprehensiveness is juxtaposed to that of personal resonance – that one’s activity of interpretative understanding calls upon not only demarcated cultural systems of knowledge, but, additionally, whichever forms that seem to best allow for inclusion of all known data at the most intimate and individualized level. The intimate if not identical relationship between the two requires a correlative synthesis that is the ongoing project of those involved in maintaining and reworking cultural systems in their interdisciplinary and interpersonal encounters such that they are adequately inclusive of one another’s claims to objectivity and accuracy, both in the synchronic sense – the present configuration of cultural knowledge systems across domains– as well as the diachronic – the continuity and progression of such systems over time.

In this spirit, Witzel’s method attempts to overcome the inherent deficiencies in theories relating to human cultural or mythological/religious origins which fail to take into account the full range of available knowledge found across various scientific, scholarly, and aesthetic disciplines. By both contributing the valuable lens of comparative mythology, and by checking the assertions found in these various fields against one another, Witzel aims to present a more integrative and accurate account of early mythology and culture. Among those disciplines he engages, comparative linguistics, archeology, genetics, aesthetics/media-theory, and anthropology are significantly valuable tools in the construction of a cladistic or “family-tree” model for mythology, one which traces the numerous branches back to their shared foundational trunk. (Witzel, 46) All these disciplines are involved in historical descent to some degree, either at the genetic or cultural level, and many have had success using similar cladistic methods. They also offer comparative data at many historical levels of remove, with archeology and genetics providing information regarding the earliest stages of human life, even in the absence of abundant cultural artifacts. Witzel, himself a very prominent Vedic sanskritist, understands comparative linguistics to offer an exemplary case study of what should be the aim of comparative historians of religion and myth, and cites the success achieved in that area of study with regard to reconstructing and charting the progression of linguistic forms in collaboration with the insights of population genetics. The corroborating or revealing insight afforded to linguistics is expanded in the case of mythology by the inclusion of the history of food production, both agricultural pastoral, as well as geological theories regarding continental drift and periods of glaciation.

Witzel consciously breaks away from the fragmentary, often isolated arenas of specialist knowledge systems which regard religion as their circumscribed area of study, whether theological, psychological or stemming from the very recent academic tradition of religious studies scholarship, in favor of correcting the deficiencies and misinterpretations made by such perspectivally limited methods of study when considering a topic that is essentially not disconnected from the larger dynamic processes of cultural development, and as such, requires an integration of disciplinary perspectives at the most advanced and inclusive levels such as their claims are seen not in opposition but in combination - unified in their teleological aim of understanding. Further, by considering religion historically as well as comparatively, and across domains of expertise, Witzel aims to correct inadequate “monolateral” accounts of religion, whose unconscious assumptions blind them to achieving a comprehensive as well as accurately nuanced perspective on the nature of the process as a whole – and indeed in connection with the whole developmental and spiritual history of human culture. He chooses not to involve himself within interdisciplinary debates, such as that of the Chicago school’s History of Religions, though he cites what he considers to be the most egregious missteps in the methods utilized by J.Z. Smith, Wendy Doniger, and Bruce Lincoln, as well as the discipline’s founding scholar, Mircea Eliade, with whom he is in general agreement, though not without qualification and correction on certain issues (namely the development of shamanism). Because the assumption foundational to historical comparative analysis, in linguistics and mythology, is that “isolated and unmotivated similarities found in widely separate areas usually are indicators of an older, lost common system, higher on the structural and cladistic tree,” (Witzel, 44) Witzel’s massive project is itself reflective of this fact – by examining diverse perspectives which exhibit unmotivated similarities and convergent conclusions, such as in scientific, geneological, and comparative religious-mythological study, as these similarities are shown to be presently emerging across specialist boundaries, it follows from this that these disciplines are indeed all merely particularized and limited expressions of an older pan-human tradition of intellectual and spiritual culture, one whose essentially common character, long-neglected, holds the most promising key to a comprehensive understanding applicable and visible within all of its disciplinary progeny, whatever such “disciplines” might look like today.

Within the sphere of comparative mythology and religion, Witzel addresses what he considers to be the most widely accepted models of origination and development, those which understand cross-cultural similarities or correspondences to be the result of either diffusion or innate pan-human archetypes. The former view, as posited by Frobenius and Baumann, asserts the gradual spread of particular myths between cultures, with stylistic differences being the result of subsequent elaborations, originating in a Near East center during the Bronze Age. (Witzel,16) This may occur through trade, expansion, missionary work, or any other means of diffusion, and thus, cultures separated by great distances have certain myths in common because they were exposed to and adopted the same myths. The other prominent explanation has been developed most extensively by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, who see the cross-cultural presence of shared myths as the independent manifestations of pan-human psychological archetypes, or subconscious psychic universals “with contents and modes that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals,” stemming from questions of ultimate origins and explanations of human experience. (Witzel, 12) While archetypes are subconscious (not consciously elaborated), myths are a form of elaboration, if only the most basic and cryptic form, whose symbolic structure gives rise to a “system of thought that ascribes order to the world.” (Witzel, 13) Physical and social environments, as well as individual histories, influence the particular forms of archetypal myths that arise, accounting for common themes and occasionally, strikingly similar mythic narratives. Neither the diffusionist or archetypal models however, take into account the comparison of whole systems of myths, arranged in similar story lines, and thus both fail to fully address the historical and comparative dimensions of mythology as it appears in various cultures over time. By identifying a common narrative structure appearing in most of the world’s mythologies, Witzel can compare the manifestations and elaborations of this structure, in conjunction with data from other disciplines, to chart its historical development among distinct cultural groups.

It is precisely the presence of such a common structural framework found widely across a majority of the world’s mythological corpuses (both textual and oral) that forms the basis of Witzel’s primary distinction between Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology and culture. It is only in Laurasian myth that this delimited narrative structure occurs, and this is its distinctive feature, its characteristic initial “elaboration” on earlier mythic stories which were themselves an elaboration or symbolic representation of fundamental perceptual experience. Questions of origins and purpose inform all mythology, but they do so in an innovative way for Laurasian as opposed to Gondwanan myth. While older myths like those found in Gondwana groups emphasize the origins and purpose of humanity in a preexisting, mysterious world- asking “where do we come from and where do we go?”- the Laurasian narrative structure begins and ends with the respective birth and death of the universe itself, forming a delimited span of existence into which all subsequent mythic tales may be placed. (Witzel, 437) The narrative progression involves a sequence of events and archetypal characters, synthesized from parallel and divergent tracks of mythological development: universal creation, father heaven/mother earth, their offspring, the victory of the gods over their predecessors; the release of the hidden sun, the descent of humans from a sun deity; the defeat of the dragon, a primal human misdeed and the subsequent emergence of death, a culture-hero shaman bringing culture to the world (a la Promethius, the raven or other trickster deities in Native North American myth), the hierarchical division of nobility and the concern with history, and, finally, the world’s destruction, final or within an implicit scheme of progressive or degenerative ages (four or five), accompanied by the rebirth of individuals in heaven or the next phase in the 4/5-age world-scheme. This story-line, in addition to identifying a number of archetypal features, provides a narrative framework in which individual and cultural developments might comprehend the entirety of their experience – reflected in the external form of myth. In concerning itself with the world’s origins and end(s), within which correlationally resonant forms of individual life-experience may play out as they recapitulate the process, the Laurasian story line constitutes “a metaphor of the human condition” as it is experienced, including birth, age, death, and the hope for rebirth. (Witzel, 422)

Reflecting the human desire for rebirth, the universe (as well as those who inhabit it) may be cyclically regenerated, typically following four (or five) stages of successive degeneration from (or development towards) a ideal state of harmony. This is not a perpetual everlasting state of perfection, but rather a particular stage or “generation” in the cyclical life of the universe, one which must necessarily change- just as human individuals must also transform in awareness at the moment of (metaphorical) death. The generational stages constituting the life of the universe are thought to mirror those experienced by humanity, where an individual typically encounters three or four generations in the course a lifetime. “The genial stroke of the creator of Laurasian mythology is that is correlates and thus, explains at the same time both the universe and the human condition… a metaphor applied to everything around us, to the world and to the divine powers that govern it.” (Witzel, 422) Where linear conceptions of temporality have developed, the death of the universe may simply result in an apocalyptic end to phenomenal existence in favor of a transcendent divine reality. One well-known example of such a persisting ultimate reality is the Christian concept of heaven, a realm beyond the ordinary world created and sustained by a similarly transcendent God. The idea of a high God who does not depend on the world for his existence is actually a typically Gondwanan mytheme, but it is not originally a creator deity such as appears in later monotheistic religions (Zoroastrianism’s Ahura Mazda representing the first instance of this concept, followed by the God of the Abrahamic traditions). Rather, the Gondwanan “deus otiosus,” the typical otiose high god, is the first ancestor from which humans are descended, who remains uninvolved in the world and is certainly not identified with as being only the all-encompassing reflection of self-perceived individuality or representative of a superseding utopian paradisiacal environment attained only by the faithful. (Witzel, 314) Laurasian monotheisms represent a later developmental stage where the initial universal narrative structure has become increasingly abstract following intense and persistent cross-cultural exchange of particular mythologies containing apparently divergent content.

This organizing narrative of universal birth and death represents humanity’s oldest novel, yet it may also represent the emergence of a particular type of mediating technology in the creation of human experience, one which extends the conceptual power of thought to abstract, analyze, and integrate in ways that have the potential to profoundly alter the structural nature of human perception and experience. The psychological and social effects of media technologies figure prominently in Witzel’s analysis of Laurasian mythology, and the medium, as Marshall McLuhan aphorized, is indeed a significant component of the message. Apart from citing the novel as the characteristic feature of Laurasian myth, Witzel also speculates on the nature of language in early Laurasian cultures as a possible factor in their later developments, notably the emphasis on the power of speech in shamanic practices and the eventual canonization of sacred speech increasingly available only to specialist religious functionaries (more individual-oriented shamans, priests, ritual specialists, etc.) who maintained and transmitted them. (Witzel, 576) He also discusses the sudden “artistic explosion” of rock art and cave painting which occurred around the same time and place as the appearance of the Laurasian novel around 40 kya and which was also accompanied by more obviously practical technological innovations, such as the spear-thrower. (Witzel, 277) This coincides with archeological dating of (anatomically modern) human migrations into Eurasia as well as significant increases in the number of human groups present, and might also coincide with the emergence of fully formed human speech, as opposed to less developed oral-and-gestural symbolism.

The capacity for communicating, preserving, and reengaging cultural creations over time afforded by their externalization, significantly bolstered by collective structural inclusion in narrative form, both extends the processes available to human thought (structural comprehensiveness and coherence), and also allows a greater level of complexity regarding the progressive development and expansion of cultural content as the datum for conscious reflection and comparison. “Any comparison,” Witzel states, “involves the linking, correlation, or identification of two items on roughly the same plane of existence or thought… humans correlate certain items, objects, things, beings, and their characteristics when perceiving, describing, and classifying them. Importantly such mental activities are based on certain neurological factors of our brain, which has a predilection correlating a two items.” (Witzel, 97) At the same time, the utility and pervasive effects of structural novelty on ways of thinking establish a new conceptual baseline, a platform for thinking on which is allowed a plethora of further innovative developments in myth. Having become established in this way, foundational or particularly significant forms such as the Laurasian novel, persist in the collective externalized and private internal consciousness of individuals and groups over time and history, a phenomenon Witzel (citing his work in neurobiology and computational modeling with scholars Steve Farmer, John Henderson, and Richard Sproat) has termed “path dependencies.” “Current and earlier cultural forms” states Witzel, “that precondition, through path dependency, most of humanity’s adherence to the Laurasia story line also guarantee its survival. The Laurasia story line, a prime example of the path dependency of cultural traits, is perhaps the oldest of such dependencies. Others include duty toward gods and ancestors, rebirth or immortality of the individual/soul, suffering and compassion, purity versus impurity, the notion of closeness, and monotheism.” (Witzel, 437)
30 internautes sur 44 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Globalization of Mythology 22 mars 2013
Par Koenraad Elst - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
German-born Sanskritist Michael Witzel is (Prince of) Wales professor in Harvard. He is not my best friend, though I have regularly defended him as a capable and original scholar against those Hindus who disparage his traditional philological arguments for the East-European homeland theory of the Indo-European language family. But any possible misgivings about his approach sink into oblivion next to our appreciation of his latest book: Origins of the World's Myths (Oxford University Press 2013). It will be an important reference work in mythological studies for decades to come, being easily the most ambitious work in that field. Witzel makes an attempt, with apparent success, to reconstruct the history of myth, not for one culture in the past several thousand years but for mankind as a whole since its dispersal from Africa more than fifty-thousand years ago. Its scope completely dwarfs questions like the origins of Europe's and India's civilization.

The project is unabashedly inspired by an earlier attempt at reconstruction, viz. that of the Indo-European language family. The Marxist school represented by Bruce Lincoln, otherwise a meritorious Indo-Europeanist himself, rejects this kind of search for origins. It sees this as looking for a pure and pristine state where a language is perfect and unchanging. This position is frequently quoted by spokesmen of the "Hindu Right" in their stance of criminalizing Witzel's part in the search for the homeland of Indo-European, calling him a "Nazi", no less. But as Witzel himself remarks, this is a Romantic, anachronistic view of what reconstructionists do. Nowadays, reconstructionists assume the existence of dialectal differences in Proto-Indo-European and treat the language as an evolute of still earlier languages like the hypothetical Proto-Nostratic. Moreover, less ideologically tainted language families have received the same treatment, like Afro-Asiatic (including Semitic and Hamitic) and Sino-Tibetan, and with Uralic even preceding Indo-European. Reconstruction "brings up, time and again, earlier and earlier forms of myth that are not pristine either - just like reconstructed languages - and actually never reach unity, harmony and perfection". (p.27) There is nothing ideologically wrong with reconstructing the past, whether of the Indo-European language family or the world's mythologies.

Note that this work has only become possible now. We have collected the mythologies of nearly all tribes, very often recording them just as they were dying, either because tribes got converted to Christianity and were forgetting their own traditions, or because communities disintegrated into modern societies. We have captured variations in myths as recounted by neighbouring tribes, or by men and women, and these variations often allow us to see elements overlooked or eliminated in the "official" version of the myth. And we have done so globally, glimpsing not just parts of mankind's mythologies, with occasional similarities here and there (as earlier mythographers like James Fraser perforce had to), but the total picture. For the first time, we can give an account of the whole world's myths, and therefore we must be glad that finally someone has taken on this task.

Gondwana and Laurasia

In the earth's geological history, Alfred Wegener's widely-accepted theory of continental drift posits Pangaea as the Ur-continent, which split into the two primeval continents, Gondwanaland in the South and Laurasia in the North. As the coastlines of the present continents still indicate, Eurasia and North America were once part of Laurasia, while Africa, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica formed Gondwanaland. Witzel takes these names and uses them for two distinct sets of cultures which at one stage largely coincided with these geographical entities.

Gondwana represents mankind as it was during its first expansion more than fifty-thousand years ago. Due to an Ice Age, the sea level was much lower so that primitive man could simply walk across what is now the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the sea lanes between the Southeast-Asian islands and even between New Guinea and Australia. Following the coastline, Homo Sapiens Sapiens spread from his African homeland to the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Australia. Thus, the Black Africans, South- and Southeast-Asian tribals and Australian Aboriginals form the cultural mega-complex called Gondwana. From these areas around the Indian Ocean, man spread inland and northward.

In Europe and Asia, this first layer was largely overlaid with a second layer: the Laurasian cultures, probably originating in the Middle East (or, I would add, the Indus valley). The landmass of Eurasia witnessed the emergence of a new mythological megacomplex, characterized by mythical themes that did not exist in the earlier layer. Thus, in Gondwana myths, the cosmos is assumed to be self-existent and eternal, and gods only make changes in a preexisting world: "In Gondwana myth, both heaven and earth as well as the ocean are clearly preexistent." (p.361) Only Laurasian mythologies introduce the search for the creative principle behind the world's existence, as well as the notion of successive ages culminating in an end time; we will discuss more examples below. Witzel calls the coherent Laurasian account of the cosmos, with a beginning and an end, mankind's first novel.

This happened before the migration of the Amerindians across the Behring strait during the last Ice Age, some twenty-thousand years ago, for they took the Laurasian mythology with them. Benefiting of the lowered sea level, mankind could spread to the British Isles, to Japan and to the Americas. South America, then, is geologically a part of Gondwanaland but culturally the farthest extension of the Laurasian migration from Siberia.

The term "Pangaean" is used for elements transcending the opposition between the two and shared by peoples the world over. Pangaean mythemes are elements clearly articulated in Gondwana mythology and persisting through the Laurasian innovation. Thus, the Germanic myth of the origin of mankind through the couple Ask and Embla, named after trees (ash and creeper, source material of arrow c.q. bow, i.e. man and woman) is part of a Laurasian mythology but is a local specification of a Gondwana theme, viz. that the first humans originated from trees.

Methodology and hypotheses

The division Witzel develops falsifies the Marxist-inspired theory that myths express the reigning mode of production. Pure Gondwana cultures include hunter-gatherer societies, cowherds and agriculturers (Bantu Africans, some New Guinea natives). Laurasian societies include all these too, plus city dwellers, yet they have different myths. Whether hunter-gatherers have Laurasian or Gondwana myths simply depends on the historical question whether their ancestors underwent the Laurasian revolution. Not the peoples' material circumstances but their place on mankind's genealogical tree determines whether they have Gondwana or Laurasian myths. When Amerindians in the Amazonian forest lived a life similar to that of their distant cousins in the Central-African rain forest, they could not undo the Laurasian innovation which their ancestors had acquired while living in Eurasia.

Similarly, the commonly-heard objection that prefers to explain similarities through diffusion (whether by Hindu opponents of a Non-Indian Homeland Theory in their ill-inspired refusal of a linguistic reconstruction of the Indo-European family or by diffusionist anthropologists in their preference for explaining similar myths in different tribes through synchronic borrowing processes over diachronic transmission from a common ancestry) will not do. There is no way that Gondwana myths could have travelled from Africa to Australia all while bypassing Madagascar with its Austronesian language and Laurasian myths. This geographical distribution of myths can only be explained by the primal expansion of Gondwana mankind from Africa to Australia and by the journey of Austronesians from South China with its Laurasian mythology to Madagascar much later. Of course local processes of borrowing have taken place, making the borderline between Gondwana and Laurasian mythologies a bit fuzzy, but the main structure of the world's distribution of myths can only be explained genealogically, by a Stammbaum.

Finally, Carl Gustav Jung's popular explanation of myth through common subconscious themes or "archetypes" for which we are hard-wired, does account for similarities, particularly the really universal ones, but fails to account for the differences. This book's story-line, with a global division in two layers and then local divisions within these layers (plus occasional influencing across this border to complicate matters) gives a far more detailed explanation of the really existing myths that anthropologists and other reporters have gathered so painstakingly.

Gondwana myth

Typical of Gondwana myths is the belief in a High God, mostly a deus otiosus not interfering in the world. Missionaries (as well as some scholars) have tried to interpret this as an Ur-monotheism, a useful entry point to familiarize the heathen natives with the God of the Bible. But generally the belief in this High God does not preclude the belief in a whole pantheon of lower gods. He is at any rate not a creator-god.

In fact, even in Laurasian myths, which focus on the "emergence" (rather than "creation") of the world, the appearance of a creator god remains exceptional: "it is important to observe that neither the Gondwana High God, nor the Eurasian (Father) Heaven, nor the Amerindian Great Spirit is a creator god: they do not create the universe or the world, and they leave its establishment to later demiurge deities." (p.360) Prophetic monotheism gradually developed this idea: "the emergence of the biblical single god and creator took shape only during the second part of the first millennium BCE, clearly under Zoroastrian Persian influence". (p.360) With this innovation and its later elaboration by theologians came the idea of the "creation ex nihilo" by an extra-cosmic God, an idea too heady for most Laurasian let alone Gondwana cultures.

Shamanism, with its initiations in caves and its often secretive transmission of divine knowledge, was the religious form typical of Paleolithic hunter cultures. Shamans dressed in animal skins are believed to be able to communicate with the spirits of animal species, as also with other spirits. They go on vision quests and climb the sacred world tree, experience dismemberment and rebirth, and develop the skill of controlled spirit possession. Known from Siberia and the Siberian-descended Amerindians, this tradition originated in essential features in the Gondwana cultures, but has later acquired additional Laurasian features. Thus: "The earlier, Pan-Gaean and Gondwana versions of shamanism have dancing, but they do not yet have the typical Siberian feature of hamanistic drumming, and they do not have much of a shamanistic dress." (p.382)

I might remark that the Paraias of South India (yes, those whence the English language has borrowed the word pariah) form a borderline case: they certainly are known for ecstatic drumming and dancing to achieve controlled spirit possession. Their distinctive tradition stands out against Vedic Hinduism as much closer to Shamanism. Till recently, they were kept at a distance by Brahmin priests as "untouchables" not because they were despised (though they may have been that too) but because they were feared, viz. for carrying with them the world of the spirits and the dead.

And what will Hindus think about this? Vedic and yogic culture originates in Shamanism, and its roots are widely visible: "(...) the San [Bushmen], Andamanese and Australians (...) all mention the difficulty in mastering the force inherent in the calling, which often manifests itself as heat that rises up the spine. Obviously this is a very old Pan-Gaean trait: the concept of shamanic heat, and the careful management of this 'power', which (snakelike) moves up the spine, is a fact still known to Yogic practitioners." (p.367) "(...) the idea of internal `heat', rising up from the bottom of one's spine, where it is coiled up as `serpent power', is retained in medieval Indian Kundalini yoga. There is further a striking similarity with the African (San) concept of how to manage this heat, which can be achieved only with difficulty and after a long period of training by other shamans." (p.387)

So, the Tapas ("heat", fierce discipline) of the Yogi and even the Kundalini power are an ancient belief going back at least sixty thousand years to the Gondwana cultures? In the Homeland debate, many Hindus can't stand it when the established historians say that Sankrit is but a daughter language of Proto-Indo-European, which itself has developed as a daughter language of Nostratic or so. Similarly, this old and probably foreign Shamanic ancestry may displease Hindus, though they also like it when the sheer ancientness of Yoga is recognized and magnified. At any rate, this global perspective dwarfs any considerations of the origins of just one culture.

Laurasian myths

As far as New Zealand, where the Maori population is part of a recent sea-borne expansion of the Austronesians (not to be confused with the far older land-borne expansion of the Australians and Melanesians), Laurasian mankind has myths of an origin of the world. Heaven and Earth first just emerge, while in later versions, they often emerge with the help of a creator-god. Mostly it is not really a creation ex nihilo, but Father Heaven and Mother Earth "are separated", they emerge as distinct from a primal state of undifferentiated chaos. This is part of a cosmological scheme, with a beginning which isn't really a beginning, then four world ages ruled by successive generations of gods, and terminating in an end of the world which isn't really the end. After the twilight of the gods, the whole show starts up again. Once more it is only Biblical thinking which has made the end really final.

An important Laurasian myth is that of twin brothers of whom one sacrifices the other to create the world. The Biblical story of Cain and Abel, closely related to the first couple Adam and Eve, is a local variation of the story, but other variations are found as far as Mexico. Since similar myths are found among the San, the Aborigines and other Gondwana peoples, this theme must be reckoned among the Pan-Gaean myths.

In the Indo-European world, it takes the form of man (*meno, Manu) sacrificing his twin brother (*yemo, "twin", Yama) and transforming his body into the parts of the world. This happens in the Germanic version to the giant Ymir and in the Rg-Veda to the giant person (purusha), just as it happens outside the Indo-Germanic world to the Chinese giant Pangu. The Romans, who always had a tendency to transmute myths into history, adapt this story to the founding of their city: while building it, Romulus kills his brother Remus (assimilated to Romulus from *Yemus). This sacrifice transforms the giant's skull into the heavenly vault, his eyes into the sun and the moon, his flowing blood into the rivers, etc., and the flees on his skin into mankind! (This must be the first version of the modern "deep ecologist" view that man is just vermin of the skin of Mother Earth.) But it also furnishes the paradigm for "social corporatism", the view that human society was organically created from the giant's body. This provides the famous passage in the Rg-Vedic Purusha hymn where the four classes (varna) are defined, a foundational component of the so-called caste system: "This example provides another extremely long-lasting case of path dependency: it goes back some 3,000 years to the oldest Indian text and beyond that to the late Paleolithic, to the Laurasian concept of the primordial giant." (p.406)

A typical Laurasian innovation is the myth of the dragon-slayer: "Most prominent in these fights [among different categories of gods] is the slaying of the primordial dragon by the Great Hero, a descendant of Father Heaven. In India, it is Indra who kills the three-headed reptile, just like his Iranian `cousin' Thraetona kills a three-headed dragon and their distant counterpart in Japan, Susa.no Wo, kills the eight-headed monster (...) in England it is Beowulf, in the Edda it is Sigurd, and in the medieval Nibelungen epic it is Siegfried (...) In Egyptian myth `the dragon of the deep' (Apophis) is slain by the victorious sun when it passes underground". (p.79) With variations, we also find the motif back among the Greeks, Chinese, Navajo and Maya.

For more examples, the reader is referred to the book itself. This builds its reconstruction with the help of the archaeological and genetic evidence. Specialists of those disciplines will certainly complain that more of it could have been given, but then this book is a pioneering innovation and other scholars are invited to expand on this new paradigm.

Conclusion

This book doesn't deal with the question that made Witzel such a unique hate name in India: the homeland of the Indo-European language family. Yet, I suspect he had this debate in mind when writing down sentences such as: "Chicken and still later exports from India are absent in common Laurasian ritual." (p.395) Of course, the Laurasian innovation took place at least twenty-thousand years earlier than the expansion of Indo-European, dated to maybe six-thousand years ago; so the two phenomena are unrelated. However, the quoted sentence is perfectly factual and thus allowed, and on the internet, Witzel must have read many times the gloating remarks of Hindus wrongly taking the new genetic evidence of a movement out of India tens of thousands of years ago as evidence that India is the homeland of Indo-European; so this may be his reaction.

The theme of Indo-European origins is not taken up in this book, yet it has implications even for this question. Firstly, it makes us more aware of the more distant roots of Hindu and Indo-European culture. Thus, the roots of Hindu non-violence are found in Shamanic attitudes attested in far earlier stages of human development: "To compare a typical modern hunter society: in San hunting, the animal is wounded by a poisoned arrow and followed for hours; it is then asked for permission to be killed, just as was done in rituals in ancient Greece and Vedic India and as is still being done in modern Hindu sacrifice." (p.398) Secondly, this effort at reconstructing a distant past spanning at least fifty-thousand years and the whole world encourages us to complete the far less ambitious endeavour to reconstruct the early history of Indo-European. Some day in the near future, the now-frequent statements despairing of us mortals ever finding its homeland will seem unnecessarily defeatist.

-- Dr. Koenraad Elst
8 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Completely horrible scholarship 14 mai 2014
Par Zebby - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
Anyone seriously interested in mythology should avoid this book.

The academic review of it at the Journal of Folklore Research pretty much says it all, although there's more that could be said. You can google the Journal of Folklore Reserach review-- it's accessbile online.

As the conclusion states:

"this book will no doubt prove exciting for the gullible and the racist, yet it is useless--and frustrating--for any serious scholar."
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