Cultures use myths, scholars misuse them
by Shivaji Singh on 07 Feb 2014 5 Comments

Myths are integral to any culture; they give life and vibrancy to the cultures in which they are created. Philosopher-historian Peter Munz observed, “Myths and their motifs invariably constitute the leaven of the weltanschauung of a culture and permeate its fabric and identity in the way matter and form inform the world of reality. But like matter again myths, in their own world, cannot be related to time and space. Ipso facto ahistorical, they impart meaning to the intractable mass of unaccounted and unaccountable past by selection, by focusing a few bits of the past which thereby acquired relevance and universal significance” – ‘History and Myth’, Philosophical Quarterly, VI: 1-6, 1956


In fact, cultures are sets of images (Bimba-vidhaana). A culture is, therefore, best defined in terms of the metaphors, symbols and images that it uses, and myths play the lead role in the formation of the mental templates that shape these signs and signals.


Myths, motifs, and mythology


But what are ‘myths’? Myths are legends that relate to divine or semi-divine beings, popular stories describing exploits of gods and goddesses and supreme human beings. They are handed down from earlier times and their truth is accepted without any scrutiny.


Two other categories of legends do not pertain to divinities. One is saga (folk tales), the other marchen (a German word, popularised by folklorists, for fairy tales). These also contribute to the formation of a mythology, but it is mostly and primarily out of myths that mythologies are made. That justifies the name ‘mythology’ and also explains why mythology, the discipline dealing with myths, is called Devasaastra in India.


The ideas and themes that go to make a myth are called its motifs. Myths are culture specific, but motifs – the building blocks of myths – very often transcend cultural boundaries. The motifs, ‘Sky father, Earth mother’, ‘Cosmic Egg’, ‘The Great Flood’, etc., are found equally in Indian mythology and the mythologies of Greece, Egypt, Babylonia, and other countries to various extents.


From mythology to comparative mythology


This observed commonality of mythological motifs gave rise to comparative mythology. In the 19th century, comparative mythological studies became greatly fashionable, mainly to buttress support to the so-called Aryan invasion theory. This theory, as we know, is in crisis today and despite being reformulated again and again by substituting ‘migration’, ‘trickle-in’, in place of invasion, its validity remains extremely doubtful. However, comparative mythology still continues as a convenient weapon to fight ideological battles. The latest in this genre is Harvard Professor Michael Witzel’s recently published The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (Oxford University Press, 2012).


This is a lengthy offering (686 pages), well organised, with clear-cut thematic chapters, copious references and a systematic bibliography. The concept of myth is tolerably well analysed. The author’s previous work in the field is summarized and the manner in which his approach differs from that of his poorvasuuris explained. But there is an hidden agenda, perhaps originating from the author’s ideological and psychological aberrations and a few other drawbacks such as a demonstrably uncalled for attempt on the part of the author to venture into a field for which he is ill-equipped.


Michael Witzel is currently in a precarious situation. The fast flowing anti-Hindu and pro-AIT winds on which he has been flying his kites high have slowed down considerably. He can either step back and admit that he has been talking nonsense all these years, as some think is advisable, or he can move on.


He has chosen the latter course, thanks to a new development in western academics. The growing corpus of work of archaeologists, geologists and population geneticists has contributed to growing knowledge about the prehistoric past and transformed the atmosphere in the Humanities and Social Science departments of universities. Scholars are now more interested in pre-3000 BCE than in the post-3000 BCE era. Witzel has seized this opportunity to shift to an earlier chronological horizon, and hence the study of the origins of the world’s mythologies.


The problem is that he lacks the academic abilities and expertise for this complex field. Witzel chose mythology under the impression that myths are ahistorical and their space-time coordinates can therefore be easily manipulated. But though the time-frame of myths are unknown, they cannot be pushed back in time beyond a limit, a fact that he clearly did not realise as he set out on his academic adventure.


For instance, leave aside 50 to 60 thousand BCE horizons when our earliest ancestors, Homo sapiens sapiens, started moving out of Africa; coming down to as late as the beginning of the Neolithic Age around 10 to 12 thousand BCE, we find that the father-mother relation was unknown. The women folk had the impression that they become pregnant because of bathing in a particular pond or sitting under a certain tree. How could a ‘Sky-father, Earth-mother’ motif develop before that time? Thus there is indeed a time limit beyond which the origin of a specific motif cannot be placed.


Mythology was a poor choice for Witzel if he desired to roam in the misty pre-10,000 BCE world. The origins of language might have been a better choice, given his claimed linguistic expertise, to investigate how Palaeolithic man’s speaking skills developed over time in tune with tool manufacture and such things.


In The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, Witzel misses no opportunity to point out that Gondawana peoples were inferior to Laurasians (present western world), a fact he claims is demonstrated by mythology! This is the genesis of his hatred for Indian traditions - Indians are a Gondwana people!


The Harvard Professor may be excused for his wrong assumptions relating to myths and mythology, he may be pardoned for using discarded models in analysing mythological inter-relationships, but should he be spared for sharing racist ideas? If considering dark-skinned Gondwana peoples as a whole to be inferior to white-skinned Laurasians is not racism, what is racism? Oxford University Press needs to explain its decision to publish such a book.


The author is former Professor and Head, Dept. of Ancient History, Archaeology and Culture, University of Gorakhpur

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