Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.56
Wim M. J. van Binsbergen, Eric Venbrux (ed.), New Perspectives on Myth. Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for Comparative Mythology, Ravenstein (The Netherlands), 19-21 August, 2008. PIP-TraCS - Papers in intercultural philosophy and transcontinental comparative studies, 5. Haarlem: Shikanda, 2010. Pp. 466. ISBN 9789078382072. €90.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Eleni Boliaki, Democritus University of Thrace, Greece (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is a collection of twenty two papers that were presented at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for Comparative Mythology at Ravenstein, Netherlands, in 2008.
Wim van Binsbergen and Eric Venbrux, the editors of the volume, first introduce the newly founded International Association for Comparative Mythology. According to them, interdisciplinary and intercontinental exchanges, close collaboration with a wide range of auxiliary fields (genetics, linguistics, ethnography, archeology, statistics, classics), along with the impact of globalization, are transforming regional studies, traditional disciplines, and over-specialized scholarship in comparative mythology. The editors claim that the papers of this volume reflect on new theories and methodologies on so far underrepresented themes (such as death), and on less acknowledged roles of cultural histories, such as that of sub-Saharan Africa.
The first serious studies of indigenous cultures of Africa, South Pacific and Australia occurred already in the 19th century, when the comparative approach was also employed by Max Mόller (1823-1900,) whose philologically based theory borrowed from comparative linguistics (etymologies). James Frazer (1854-1941) was another exponent of the comparative method in the study of myth, whereas his method was more anthropological. His comparative method supported the belief that similar myths derive from same sources. It was in the 19th century when advances in archaeology, geology and ethnography contributed to a reconstruction of European prehistory and the formulation of an evolutionary stage theory that supported the equation of the European distant past with contemporary savages and life in Africa, South Seas and Australia (John Lublock; Edward Taylor's "survivals" etc).
Given that death is not notably underrepresented in mythological studies either, one wonders what is new in the New Perspectives on Myth. If the “new” refers to methodology, apparently it concerns some new ways of doing comparative mythology. But the only "new" in this volume would be the renewed insistence on Bernal's arguments.
In 1987 Martin Bernal published Black Athena, challenging the comparative Indo-European and Near Eastern studies, and claiming the "Afro-asiatic roots of European civilization." His book created an international debate in the fields of African studies, comparative linguistics and biology, among others. In 1996, Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers (eds.) published Black Athena Revisited where they refuted Bernal's thesis. Recently, Bernal, in his essays in Black Athena Comes of Age: towards a Constructive Re-assessment (ed. W. M. J. Binsbergen, 2011) responds to his critics, systematizes his linguistic claims, and applies his thesis to sub-Saharan Africa.
The conference and its product, this volume, belong to this international debate and support the non-Eurocentric model of cultural history. They stress not only the massive intercontinental interactions and fusions, but, mainly, the contributions of the African peoples, and reconsider Africa's (mainly sub-Saharan) contribution to the global culture. Africa's history, accordingly, cannot be considered marginal anymore. As Vαclav Blažek’s paper reveals, Bernal has not yet been conclusively refuted.
The contributors explain the parallels of myths not by polygenesis of the same motifs and narratives but by diffusion. They attempt a historical reconstruction of the lines of direct derivation and transmission of myths in reference to the history of human migration from Africa. A historic-geographic method traces their ultimate source in sub-Saharan Africa, from where they have descended.
Contributions that stand out are those of Wim van Binsbergen and Robert A. Segal. Some others—not few—lack a clear argument, have no strong points, are mainly descriptive, and, no less important, with very bad English (sometimes long parts of the papers make no sense).
Eric Venbrux compares ten Australian Aboriginal myths that refer to death and the moon that may belong to the oldest cultural heritage of humankind, as he claims.
Walter E. A. van Beek claims that there has been a neglect of African myths in world mythology. What makes African prose narratives distinct is the fact that they are not etiological or very supernatural but more mundane and related to everyday life. There is no clear-cut mythical world, nor supernatural beings independent of the everyday world, no battles between good and evil, no dilemmas, no reflection on ultimate origins. According to the author, the exclusion of African myths from mythological collections does not have to do with their quality but imply the definitions, preferences, and a deep romanticism in this scholarly field.
Boris Oguibιnine and Nataliya Yanchevskaya compare the Slavic motifs of an ‘anthropology of death’ with their counterparts in Indian, Iranian, and Baltic traditions, in order to reconstruct major features of the Indo-European mythology of death. It is indisputable, they would conclude, that, Vedic, Greek, Old Prussian and Buddhist traditions share common features. This is not by accident, neither simply a manifestation of the universal, but it reveals the inherited features that originated from a common Indo-European background.
Victoria Kryukova focuses on the differences between Indian and Iranian traditions that deal with death. Although there is an affinity between Old Iranian and Old Indian traditions that have to do with mythological and ritual features, there are also differences that can be explained on the basis of different pre-Indo-European traditions.
Joseph Harris places the Rӧk mythology of Old Swedish and Nordic mythology among various Germanic mythologies of death and sees it as a variant of the myth of the demonic figure of Baldr.
Yuri Berezkin discusses the global distribution of mythological motifs. The two major sets of motifs of world mythology are referred to as Continental Eurasian and Indo-Pacific. The mythologies of sub-Saharan Africa stand between the two, a view that supports the Out-of-Africa scenario. The mapping of the motifs reconstructs the distant past by showing the major patterns of migrations in prehistory. The discovery of links between tales recorded in Africa, in non-Aryan India, in Southeast Asia, and in Australia gives the evidence that Indo-Pacific mythology has preserved its African heritage.
Bukola Adeyemi Oyeniyi examines the value of indigenous cultures for historical reconstruction and for resolving contested histories, since they can be regarded as historical records. Cultural practices, he holds, are historiographical tools and techniques for remembering the past.
Wim van Binsbergen, after commenting on the othering and exclusion of Africa by North Atlantic scholarship, also examines the mythological continuities between sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia. His aim is a historical reconstruction based on mythical and oral historical material. According to him, there are long-range ethnic, cultural, linguistic and genetic affinities encompassing Africa, Europe, and Asia. South Central Africa contains many parallels with the mythologies attested in the texts of civilizations extremely remote in space and time. Some mythological traits in sub-Saharan Africa were taken to Asia at the ‘Out-of-Africa’ migration. On their way they underwent substantial transformations proliferating into a few dozen of Narrative Complexes. Thus, the world history of mythology largely coincides with the world history of the spread and diversification of Anatomically Modern Humans: “Most if not all mythologies outside Africa can be taken to descend, in part, from postulated pre-Exodus mythologies developed in Africa between 200 and 80 ka BP” (158-159). For that reason, African societies and cultures must be studied as part of the global constellation as a whole; there can be no separate comparative mythology for Eurasia and another one for Africa. The argument about massive African-Eurasian mythological continuities and cultural connections is also supported, he continues, by population genetics and genetic distribution patterns that have suspected continuity between Africa and Eurasia, along with linguistics, archeology and comparative ethnography and ethnographic trait distributions.
Michael Witzel argues that flood myths are not found only in Eurasia, Polynesia, and the Americas, but also at Gondwana bel: sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea/Melanesia, and Australia. A comparison of the Australian and African versions demonstrates a strong overlap that goes back to the time of the exodus from Africa, 60,000 years ago. The Eurasian-American versions can be traced back to Laurasian types which, in their turn, emerge from the Gondwana prototype. Naturalistic explanations and the ‘Near Eastern origins’ must be excluded.
Following Martin Bernal (Black Athena) and based on etymological/linguistic arguments, Vaclav Blažek not only suggests that Hephaestus can be related to the Egyptian god Ptah, but that the Greek theonym is of Egyptian origin.
Kazuo Matsumura indicates affinities between themes of classical mythology with the history of Japan. Various mythological motifs that came from outside Japan were organized as the classical Japanese cultural system.
Emily Buchanan Lyle claims to have a new cosmological theory of myth based on the opinion that an oral society is been fused together in a different way than a literate one, and all our written evidence is by definition flawed.
Steve Farmer proposes a model for the evolution of human thought that combines neurobiology, philology, and history, which can explain cross-cultural similarities and the perseverance of primitive mythic tendencies in modern traditions. He mainly describes a “testable” neurobiological model of the origins of primitive religion and myth that could contribute to scientific approaches to comparative mythology. He concludes that, the anthropomorphism that underlies religion and myth is a result of normal neuro-developmental processes.
Robert A. Segal defends the ‘superiority’ of the Old Comparative method of J. G. Frazer against that of postmodernists who claim that seeking similarities is objectionable. Regional comparisons do not preclude universal ones and the quest for differences does not undercut the quest for similarities. Segal claims that this is based on misconceptions about comparison and knowledge itself, and discusses the four comparative methods of Postmodernism, Controlled Comparativism, New Comparativism, and Old Comparativism.
Willem Dupré is interested in the correlation between myth and thinking, and argues that reason needs to partake in myth, the latter been primarily a dimension and a form of consciousness.
Nick Allen first examines the similarities of the modes of involvement of gods in the struggles of mortals in Homer and in Mahabharata that derive from a common origin in a protoepic or protonarrative, yet, what he stresses are their differences.
Stephanus Djunatan proposes to apply the Sunda paradigm of connectivity among Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam and the harmony in unification in life (affirmative and sagacious life) to the present-day interplay of civilizations in a globalizing world. The indigenous account is compared with the Chinese wisdom tradition of the Dao De Ching.
Nadia Sels argues that the ambiguous treatment of the Olympic pantheon by the Greeks has been wrongly perceived as a paradox by a monotheistic and anachronistic model of understanding Greek mythology. Veneration and mockery towards the gods are not incompatible but inherent to the function of Greek mythology that tolerates discrepancies.
Genealogical relationship has been overstressed in comparative studies. As Robert Mondi wonders, do similarities provide the evidence of a loose commonwealth of motifs and ideas that exist not only at a "source" for all variants, from an "original" tale, but result from long and continuous intercultural contacts? 1. Eric Csapo (Theories of Mythology, 2005) also wonders if myths are transmitted as fully embodied narratives or as already somewhat loose clusters of motifs: "we are dealing ... with the creative redeployment of common and revolving clusters of mythical ideas" (78). Differences, he concludes, are so great that cannot be "variants" of the same tale, but we have to do with networks that are constantly changing shape, overlapping circles and intersecting sets.
While some of the individual papers lack theoretical sophistication and their quality is not high, this collection of papers provides a contribution to the study of its subject, that is, the (geo)politics of comparative mythology and the global politics of knowledge.
1. “Greek Mythic Thought in the Light of the Near East,” in Approaches to Greek Myth, Ed. by Lowell Edmunds, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1990.