About Mythology

Based mainly on The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (E.J. Michael Witzel, 9780199812851).

Witzel goes into a lot of the mythologies of original peoples. He also brings up a relevant point that should be kept in mind: the rise of different mythological structures & mythemes among people. Mythemes are the more-or-less indivisible unchanging “units” of a myth that remain constant across related myths. They’re the individual archetypes, tropes &/or topics of myths. For example, the Indian uchchaishravas, Norse sleipnir & Arabian buraq are all supernatural horses, so the common mytheme is a horse (not necessarily supernatural).

It’s assumed by most nowadays that all myths deal with the same topics and have remained more or less the same throughout their history. This is patently wrong. Similarities exist, yes, but there are recognisable differences between those of Gondwanan origin & those of Laurasian origin. The former often don’t dwell on the genesis or end of the world but focus much more on the creation of humans and everyday problems we face/have faced/will face. The latter, on the other hand, focuses on and in some cases prioritises the beginning, end & recreation of the world.

Helpfully, Witzel admits that mythologies of Gondwana* & Laurasia* don’t completely match their geographical locations. There is some crossover, especially where the “borders” between the historical supercontinents* meet. This has led to a semi-idiosyncratic definition of Gondwanan & Laurasian, and throughout the book when he refers to the myths he refers to this definition, not the standard geographic definition. See below:

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* Scientists believe that originally all land on Earth was one single mass. Over millions and millions of years that mass has divided and reunited about 6 or 7 times. These movements are what’s called continental drift. The last time it reunited was ~335 million years ago, and that landmass we call Pangaea. Then it split into 2 supercontinents ~200 million years ago. The northern supercontinent, called Laurasia, split further into modern North America, Central America & possibly Caribbean, Greenland and most of Asia (including most of Europe). The southern supercontinent, called Gondwana or Gondwanaland, split further into modern Africa, South America, the Arabian Peninsula (now joined to Asia), India (now joined to Asia), Australia & Oceania, Antarctica and possibly the Balkan Peninsula (now joined to Europe). 

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Therefore while all of Africa & the Arabian peninsula originated from Gondwana, the myths of Arabia, northwest-north-northeast-east Africa & Madagascar share themes in common with general Laurasian myths. While south America also originated from Gondwana, its myths are completely Laurasian. Despite their proximity to Laurasia, India, the Malay archipelago & Pacific islands have retained their Gondwanan myth structures. Except New Zealand, curiously, which is the island furthest away from Laurasia.

See also these pictures of some of the most important pages. They show the main themes/ events in Laurasian & Gondwanan myths, and from them tease out Pangaean (therefore human universal) mythological themes. As I no longer have the book I can’t go into details, ascertain if there were exceptions or know if the crossovers were due to migration or native development.

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Earlier, Witzel had ascertained that Laurasian & Gondwanan myths are not mutually opposed. In fact, Laurasian myths originated from the Gondwanan ones! From the tables it seems fair to say that Laurasian myths are just Gondwanan myths with extra bits & minor disagreements on details. Why should this be? If Gondwanan myths came first, why would Laurasian myths care more about details (e.g. pre-human civilisations, creation & end of world, afterlife, etc.)?

To be answered later…

Meanwhile, they both agree at the bare minimum on:

  • A single “high”/originator god,
  • Spirits/ demigods, some of which are tricksters,
  • Humans (imagine a myth trying to claim humans don’t exist!), who eventually get ungrateful & arrogant,
  • A flood sent as punishment to destroy us – but some survive,
  • Humans repopulate land

Laurasian myths often additionally revere horses and fire. From having watched so many films and cartoons, I can attest that fire reverence is especially common:

 

Many myths, both Gondwanan & Laurasian, also agree on a man-killing reptile of some sort – either a dragon (Laurasian, especially European) or a snake (Melanesian/ Australian). Could this be proof that we lived with dinosaurs after all?

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Once I get the book again I will expand this post. But I hope this has given you a fairly clear basis on understanding the worldviews of humans in the past.

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