In the great mythological narrative of Homer’s Odyssey, the hero lands on the island of Sicily, the home of a race of one-eyed monsters, the Cyclopes. Finding a cave filled with a flock of sheep, the hero and his men feast on one of the animals until they are rudely interrupted by the cave’s furious owner. The Cyclops Polyphemus vents his anger by eating a couple of the intruders before blocking the cave’s entrance with a giant boulder.
When Polyphemus returns to eat more of Odysseus’s men, the Greek hero manages to spear the eye of the Cyclops. Blinded, Polyphemus attempts to keep the men captive in the cave by feeling the backs of his sheep as they emerge each morning to graze. But Odysseus and his men hide beneath the bellies of the animals and so escape the monster’s grasp.
Although Homer wrote the Odyssey in the 8th century BC, this particular part of his epic poem has a surprising resonance with other folklore and oral traditions spoken in the Swiss Valais of Central Europe, in the Basque country of northern Spain, in Russia, among the Saami of northern Scandinavia and the Apaches and other Native American tribes. They all speak of a fearsome master of animals, a hero who loses his way and is held captive but who escapes by hiding under the master’s own animals.
The similarity of the narratives could be just coincidence. Each culture might just have devised its own folklore independently of the other, coming to surprisingly similar storylines. But many myths seem to share similar incidents, characters or narrative structures, whether they derive from classical Greece or the ancient mythologies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Japan or India.
When you start looking at these similarities you begin to wonder whether they could have had a common origin, perhaps carried from one part of the world to another as Palaeolithic peoples migrated over many thousands of years to colonise new lands. Could the legends and folklores of the world be connected in the sense that they stem from a common origin, passed down by word of mouth over several thousand generations?
This, fundamentally, is the radical idea of Michael Witzel, a Harvard University linguist and philologist, who has drawn on the scientific disciplines of molecular genetics, physical anthropology, archaeology, and his own field of linguistics to propose that the world’s many mythologies have a common origin – similar to the evolution of related species from a long-extinct common ancestor.
Witzel argues in his new book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (OUP), that the myths and legends of today’s world cultures can provide important insights into the earliest myths as they were told by the first anatomically modern humans more than 100,000 years ago, the time of “African Eve”, the last common ancestor of all our mitochondrial DNA.
This would mean that some myths have survived being told over somewhere in the region of 3,000 generations. Surely, this is impossible given our experience of how stories are misconstrued by Chinese whispers when related from one person to the next?
“The setting of telling myths is different from that of Chinese whispers,” Witzel says. “Such myths are told in a formal, ritual, sometimes secret setting. Their telling is also different from that of stories for the amusement of children. Frequently myths are transmitted in a formal way from teacher to student, for example from shaman to apprentice.”
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