BMCR 2005.05.03

World of Myths. The Legendary Past. Volume Two

, , World of myths. The legendary past. London and Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003-2004. volumes 1-2 : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0292702043 $35.00.

Myth, always tempting as a subject of study, remains controversial. Many definitions have been suggested and rejected. The second volume of the World of Myth is indicative of the widespread interest in comparative mythology. Co-published by the British Museum and the University of Texas Press, it consists of five contributions, each about 80 pages in length, from a series entitled “The Legendary Past”. The first volume, edited in 2003 and introduced by Marina Warner, comprised Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian and Celtic Myths. The present volume includes Mesopotamian, Persian, Chinese, Aztec, Maya and Inca Myths.

A relatively brief Introduction by Felipe Fernández-Armesto touches upon some of the problems concerning myth. He emphasizes that myth can indicate the history of a nation and shape its identity (“Myth and history”), while also introducing “The morals” and the “Ecologies of myth”. Fernández-Armesto often uses contrasts and aphorisms, but some of the phrases are tendentious (for instance when he states that “The way people behave is affected far less by the facts of their formation than by the falsehoods they believe”, p. vi). Some of the aphorisms, far from being illuminating, can prove rather perplexing (see for example the author’s observation that “Myths are versions of the past which explain the present… Myths are usually, though not necessarily, false; they are always more than merely true”, p. vii). Aphorisms such as “Our myths make us feel like the heirs of heroes” (p. ix) or “Myths enflesh the environment” (p. x) make one eager for further discussion. A book that addresses a broader audience cannot fail to examine “The present and future of myth” — with the Lord of the Rings serving as an indicative example. Among the suggestions for further reading one would have expected more books on diverse theories concerning the interpretation of myth.1 The volume concludes with a detailed glossary compiled by R. Kerven, as well as an index.

The diverse spectrum of the quoted myths and the parallel motifs among them are only two of the primary factors which impart interest to books like the present one. A systematic study, on the other hand, of every topic taken into consideration would require a broad spectrum of specialists and scholars engaged in extensive comparative analysis. Addressed to a broader audience, the present work presents a collection of myths enriched with necessary information about the history and the culture, the social organization and the religion, as well as maps and black-and-white illustrations. The contributions have some common features: each includes a useful Introduction and suggestions for further reading; each deals with the interpretation of texts and visual representations. But they are also intensely different in internal unity and quality.

The section devoted to Mesopotamian myths is systematically constructed by Henrietta McCall. The land that includes Assyria in the north and Babylonia in the south is known partly from the Bible. After a brief Introduction, the author investigates problems related to “Discovery and decipherment”. The section on “Definitions and literary tradition” is a prerequisite for understanding the main chapter entitled “Gods and mortals, authors and audience”. Information about the priestly hierarchy, the role of diviners and their techniques, the place of religion in everyday life and the attitude towards death (different from that of many other eastern and western cultures because the Mesopotamians did not believe in an afterlife) proves to be precise and indispensable for comprehending Mesopotamian myths. The observations on the sage-like status of the authors, the scarcity of the names that have survived, and the conjecture on the identity of the audience are also remarkable. One of the best known Mesopotamian myths is related to “Gilgamesh and the Flood”. The citation of translated verses elevates the style of the narration; for instance, there is a passage characteristic of the Mesopotamian belief towards death:

Nobody sees Death, / Nobody sees the face of Death, / Nobody hears the voice of Death. / Savage Death just cuts mankind down./ Sometimes we build a house, sometimes we make a nest,/ but then brothers divide it upon inheritance,/ Sometimes there is hostility in the land,/ But then the river rises and brings flood-water. / Dragonflies drift on the river, / Their faces look upon the face of the Sun. / But then suddenly there is nothing. / The sleeping and the dead are just like each other, / Death’s picture cannot be drawn” (p. 46).

There follows “The Epic of Creation” and “Shorter Myths”, namely “The Epic of Erra”, “Etana”, “Adapa”, “The Epic of Anzu”, “Nergal and Ereshkigal”, and “The Descent of Ischtar to the Underworld” (including the distinguished ritualistic and repetitive seven-stage scene, typical of Mesopotamian myth, in which the beautiful and gorgeously attired Ishtar is stripped of her jewelry — a scene that reverses the typical dressing process of Aphrodite and other deities in Greek mythology). In the Chapter “Myth and meaning” recurrent themes as well as universal characteristics of the heroes are enumerated.

The supposed difficulty of comprehending Mesopotamian mythology does not seem valid, at least regarding its relationship with Greek myth: “We in the West may be so steeped in the literary and religious traditions stemming from classical Greece and the Bible that, from our late and inescapably sophisticated viewpoint, we may be tempted to ascribe to them qualities they did not have for the ancient Mesopotamians” (p. 72). Similarities with Greek civilization seem to support rather than “obscure” the reading of Mesopotamian mythology.2

Persian Myths are presented by Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis. The Introduction includes a comprehensive historical account, as well as reference to the sources, and provides the necessary background for the study of myths. “The gods and the creation of the ancient Iranian world” and “Demons, fabulous creatures and heroes” are presented in a sort of catalogue. After “The Book of Kings: Firdowsi’s Shahnameh” and “Fabulous mythological creatures of the Shahnameh”, there follow the “Stories of Zoroaster, Cyrus and Alexander”. Historical figures enter the world of myths through legendary biographies. For instance, the main source for Cyrus’ life is Herodotus, but Curtis fails to note the exact citations. The recurring motifs discussed are especially interesting. “Stories of prophetic dreams like those of Astyages, and of the abandonment of newborn babies” are considered as consistently recurring in Iranian mythology (p. 131) and not untraceable in other mythologies.3 One of Curtis’ main purposes is to show the preservation of Persian myths in the course of time, especially in the chapter entitled “Continuation of an ancient tradition”; Vis and Ramin, Khusrow and Shirin serve as indicative cases. “Fairy tales and passion plays” were also not unknown in Persian folklore. One of the most famous collections of tales, The Thousand and One Nights, whose frame is believed to have been of both Persian and Indian origin, has its place here. The section ends with a brief “Conclusion”.

Myths of Chinese culture are presented by Anne Birrell. The term “sacred narrative” reflects the meaning of the Chinese equivalent, “shen-hua”, “shen” meaning “divine” and “hua” meaning “speech, tale, oral narrative”. The similarities with other mythologies can serve as a starting point for research in the field; the Isles of the Blest, for example, have an interesting parallel in Greek mythology. Three zones are distinguished: the North China belt with its fertile plains, South China with a mild climate, and Deep South China; all regions are similar economically, but vary in culture. Adequate historical information is provided. The Chapter entitled “Origins” includes the creation myths known from six narratives. The sixth proposes an intriguing series of metamorphoses, through which the parts of the dying hero’ s body become analogous components of the universe: “his eyes the sun and moon, … flesh into the soil. His head hair became the stars, his body hair became vegetation. … The insects on his body became human beings” (p. 173). Three stories about the creation of humankind have survived, and numerous myths are devoted to the origins of culture and human society, mainly etiological myths narrating the process through which a deity, usually male, “granted a gift of culture” or “taught humans how to use it” (p. 174). Fu Xi (Prostrate Victim), for instance, is recorded as the inventor of writing, divination and hunting weapons; his myths were performed through the device of mimesis. The myth of the first government and the origin myths of the first historical dynasties are also interesting. In the Chapter “Divine cosmos”, Birrell points out that there is no fixed pantheon in Chinese mythology. Texts are divided into those in which a significant number of divinities are presented and those in which a masculine divine group acquires limited functions. The second category appears more often in Chinese culture. Names, functions and features of the gods are concisely discussed. As is often the case in eastern civilizations, Chinese gods are theroanthropic. The miraculous birth, divine warfare, the death of the gods and divine paradise have been taken into consideration. “Catastrophe myths” in China deal especially with flood (the most widespread theme in catastrophe myths worldwide), drought and fire. A list of mythic motifs given at the end of the Section “Flood myth” is worth the reader’s attention. Among the diverse “Mythic heroes and heroines”, all famous for their moral valour, Hibiscus (Shun), a moral hero and a leader of people, stands out. His father, the Blind Man (Gu Sou), and his half-bother, the Elephant (Xiang), plot to burn him alive, but Hibiscus turns into a bird and flies away. The failed hero, the archetypal saviour figure, the hero as slayer of monsters, the warrior hero are also carefully examined.

The neglect of female divinities in Chinese civilization and their rediscovery through a new approach are discussed in the Chapter “Gender in myth”. Another feature discussed in this chapter is the fact that females are not the only one in Chinese mythology who give birth. “Metamorphoses” happen often in Chinese myths. Mythical figures can be transformed into plants, birds, animals, stars or other inanimate objects. There is often a symbolic relationship between the features of the hero and his transformed state. “Fabled flora and fauna”, known especially through the Classic of Mountain and Seas, involve a kind of allegory. Many gods are represented as hybrid beings; the god of luck, for instance, is imagined as human but is covered in fur and has a tiger’s tail. Mythical creatures often serve as emblems of the deities. “Strange lands and peoples” were also subject to mythological inspiration. In the Chapter “Continuities in the mythic tradition”, Birrell deals with the preservation of the myths and the traits of alteration. After the “Suggestions for further reading”, presented in the form of a brief bibliographical list, and the necessary picture credits, there follow lists of the eras of Chinese history, the periods of ancient China and some useful notes on pronunciation.

Karl Taube treats Aztec and Maya Myths. In the “Introduction” he defines Mesoamerica as the area encompassing southern and eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, western and southern Honduras, as well as the Pacific side of Central America as far as the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. The fact that the diverse tribes in this region shared some common customs is reflected in their mythologies. After a brief survey of “Ancient Mesoamerican history”, some important hallmarks of “Ancient Mesoamerican religion” are proposed, namely “Calendrics” (three calendrical systems), “Day versus night”, “Twins” (treated like monster births), as well as “Role models and social conduct” promoted through myths. In the next chapter (“Major sources and the history of research”) pre-Hispanic and colonial manuscripts are examined historically. Ancient sculpture and ceramics, once viewed as a threat, prove to be invaluable to the study of mythology. Scholars who have played a prominent role in studying Mesoamerican civilization are included in this overview. The perspective for further study in the field remains open. “Aztec mythology” comprises the basic principle of their religion, namely creation conceived as a result of complementary opposition, and some of their gods. It is subdivided into “The creation of heaven and earth” (which discusses the Aztec belief in the existence of other worlds before our own), “The restoration of the sky and earth”, “The origin of the people”, “The origin of maize”, “The origin of pulque”, “The creation of the fifth sun”, and “Mythology of the Aztec state” concerning “The birth of Huitzilopochtli”.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Maya were not a unified people but had different customs and languages. In the course of the chapter “Maya Mythology” this kind of diversity is emphasized, but Taube also tries to point out the common elements. “The Popol Vuh : primordial origins” presents the first portion of the epic of that name, with multiple creations and destructions of human races; “The hero twins and the vanquishing of Xibalda” treats the theme of the second major portion of the Popol Vuh. There follow “The origin of maize and people”, “The Popol Vuh creation epic in Classic Maya religion”, “Maya mythology of Yucatan”, “Yacatec creation mythology and the flood”, and “Creation mythology and calendrics in Yucatan”. General features are sketched out and some useful conclusions are drawn in the epilogue “Mesoamerican mythology”.

Gary Urton examines the “Inca Myths” in the last section of the book. In an illuminating Introduction with the subtitle “The settings of Inca myths in space and time”, he offers “The land and people of Tahuantinsuyu”, in which he describes the environmental complexity of the Andes mountains, defines the terms “Andean” and “Inca religion” and finally stresses the importance of mummies; “The organization of the Inca empire”, about the hierarchical organization of the Incas’ society; and “Precursors to the Incas”, a sub-section which could also have preceded. In the chapter entitled “Sources for the study of Inca myths”, the information about the quipu is remarkable: “Quipus, from the Quechua word for ‘knot’, were linked bundles of dyed and knotted strings, which were used by the Incas to record statistical information …, as well as information that could be interpreted … by experts called quipucamayoqs (‘knot-makers or keepers’) in narrating stories about the Inca past” (p. 335). Material for the study of Inca mythology is provided in “Principle chronicles of Inca myths”, while in “The local, state and cosmic themes uniting Inca myths” both diversity and unity are taken into consideration. The chapter about “Cosmic origin myths” includes “Cosmic origins”, “An Andean triadism? Or the Christian trinity?”, “Works of the creator in and around Cusco”, and “Pachacuti: cycles of creation and destruction in myths of the ages of the world”, while the chapter about “Origin myths of the Inca state” focuses on the Inca’s worship of the cave of Pacaritampu as the beginning of their lineage, with a similar tradition examined under the title “Was the Inca state founded on a ruse?”, and other “Myths of Inca state consolidation and expansion” narrated. The chapter on “Coastal and provincial mythologies” is subdivided into “The lords of the north coast and the Incas”, “Myths of the Hatunruna (the commoners)”, “The gods and men of Huarochirí”, “Viracocha and Pachacamac”, “Idolatry and the persistence of pre-Columbian beliefs and practices” and “The Idolatries”. The final chapter, in the form of an epilogue, entitled “The Inca past in the Andean present” concerns the theme of “The dying and reviving Inca” and “Living at, and using, the Inca place of origin”.

The volume is of interest mainly to non-specialists and can serve as a starting point for further investigation in the field of comparative mythology. An epilogue attempting to explore and summarize constants and similarities between cultures and time periods would be useful, but of course difficult to construct. Generalizations always remain fragile in this area of research.


1. See p. 72 for more references to various theoretical approaches.

2. For instance, the opinion expressed that “because life was precarious, it was prudent for cities to be guarded by a special god who was responsible for both the city and its people” (p. 23) was not unknown in Greece; the deity left the city in case of a successful attack. The pattern with the acropolis and the peasants on the suburbs which is traced in Mesopotamia recalls of a similar structure in Greece (p. 27). Among the list of the gods named, Ishtar (Sumerian Inanna) is important not only throughout western Asia, as it is observed, but recurs in texts dealing with Greek religion.

3. Oedipus in Greek mythology is an example; also in Iranian mythology, “when the child is born, he is put in the care of shepherds and his true identity is kept secret” (p. 132).