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If you want to know people, learn their myths. No one can ever make sense of a people's history without seeing it through their eyes—and therefore through the occlusions of myth. It is impossible to begin to understand, and impossible, therefore, fully to appreciate, the art of a culture without being able to decode its symbols and unravel its allusions. The way peoples behave is affected far less by the facts of their formation than by the falsehoods they believe. Myth becomes reality because, if people believe it with sufficient passion, they act under its influence and shape the world in deference to it.
As an object of study, myth has lost ground since the heroic scholarship of Victorian times. But its importance is inescapable. We all have myths: stories to situate us in history, morality and nature—the trammels of time, the axis of good and evil, the meshwork of the ecosystems of which we form part. Without myths, we should not know who we are, how to behave, or how to differentiate ourselves from other communities. We should probably be at a loss—even more bewildered than we already are—about how to exploit the earth and which other species to eat, for myths played a part in validating our ancestors' decisions on all these matters—decisions by which we remain conditioned, if not bound.
In this new volume of The Legendary Past the myths reviewed may seem random. Mesoamerica may appear, at first glance, to have little in common with Mesopotamia. The environments of the river valleys of China, the low plateau of Iran, and the abrupt topography of the Andes might have been selected specifically for contrast. Nor is there much consistency in the contributors' treatment of this startlingly assorted material. The specialist authors take fascinatingly different approaches to the study of their subjects. Gary Urton treats Inca myths as historical documents, anatomising the sources which confide to us, in all cases, late and opaque versions. Henrietta McCall, too, is interested in the history of scholarship in the field she covers—Mesopotamian myths—but is able to show more confidence in retelling the most evocative stories, selected with an eye particularly alive to potential comparisons with the myths of other cultures. Karl Taube has the task of covering contrasting areas: the Aztec world, whose myths we know, like those of the Inca, only through colonial-era reports, and that of the Maya, who have left an enormous amount of epigraphic and manuscript material of their own. In tackling Persian and Chinese myths respectively, Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis and Anne Birrell face problems of embarras de richesses. The former deals with them by deft summaries of the texts, the latter by taking an ethnographer's approach and selecting myths that illustrate themes in ancient Chinese intellectual and social history.
The contents of this book, then, are various, and the contributors individual in their approaches—but that is no reason to repine. There is no 'key to all mythologies'. The search for one—satirised in George Eliot's Middlemarch—was a Victorian snark-hunt: a scientistic illusion, based on the expectation that myths would yield, like the lineages of species, to a single, cosmic theory. Myths are different—as dappled as the cultures from which they arise. Comparisons can be made at random. The selection of material may as well be arbitrary, since it can never be comprehensive or fully systematic. The myths reviewed in this volume are all the more interesting because they are unconnected: those of the Andes developed, as far as we know, in isolation from those of Mesoamerica, and those of the New World, until the sixteenth century, arose independently of those of Eurasia. Communications between China and Persia were tenuous during the formative periods of those cultures' respective myths. Only Persia and Mesopotamia were normally in close touch. So there are no limits to the ways in which we can classify the contents of this book. I suggest we look in turn at each of the three contexts which myths serve to make sense of: history, morality and nature.
Myth and history
In relation to history, myths are versions of the past which explain the present: they forge our sense of who we are, how we got here, and how we fit into a world full of communities different from our own. Myths are usually, though not necessarily, false; they are always more than merely true. They depend for their power not on their truth but on how much we need them. Many histories, therefore, are mythical, and all myths are historical. They are evidence for what matters to the communities which create and recall them. Old-fashioned history books used to begin with myths, recounting the stories that communities told about their own origins. Persia's Shahnameh is such a book, seamlessly linking history to an imagined past, beyond memory. So is the Popol Vuh, the precious collection of stories of the Quiché Maya, in which the tales of creation, procreation of the race and the deeds of cultureheroes blend with historical data about the highland dynasties.
The collection of Andean myths known as the Huarochirí Manuscript, compiled in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, is one of our most precious sources for understanding the history of Inca Peru, because it apostrophises the rivalries and discloses the priorities of peoples between Cusco and the coast. In China, between the myth of the Xia dynasty and the welldocumented history of the Zhou, lies a tissue of legend, archaeologically verifiable in patches, and occasionally illuminated by the slanting light of surviving oracular texts: the Shang period occupies a formative millennium of the Chinese past, from which it is hard to unpick memory from imagination. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is a work seemingly of pure imagination, but its hero shares the name of an historically verifiable king, recorded as the fifth king of the city of Uruk in the twenty-seventh century BC. The poem quotes a proverbial saying about him: 'Who has ever ruled with power like his?' Some of the genuine wonders of the city—its walls, its gardens, the pillared hall of the sacred precinct which, as in all cities of lower Mesopotamia, was built at its heart—appear in the verses. Myths track time. In the Books of Chilam Balam of the Yucatec Maya, history and prophecy merge in an endlessly repeated cycle. In the multiple creation myths of the Aztecs, the world is constantly extinguished and renewed.
Themes recur in the myths of widely separated peoples—and, therefore, repeatedly in the course of this book—because some human experiences and some historical problems transcend culture. Paradoxically, the problem of cultural multiplicity is one of these, for every culture is aware of others, puzzlingly different in norms and values, speech and beliefs, taste and technology. One of the great unsolved problems of the human past, indeed, is why it is so variegated: other social animals, such as apes, ants and elephants, have so much culture in common, whereas humans—all of whom had a common ancestor and therefore a common culture only 150,000 years ago—have grown profoundly unalike in how they think and behave. One of the great tasks of the mythmakers, therefore, has always been to explain the differences. Another has been to justify them from the point of view of their respective communities. This usually means asserting the superiority of one culture over others.
So myths of identity dominate the legendary past. Divine or heroic progenitors found uniquely virtuous lineages, sanctified by divine selection: the Jews are God's chosen people; the Japanese are descended from the sun goddess; Ahura Mazda forms the Iranians from Gayomartan, the first mortal. Origin myths often combine assertions of the uniqueness of a particular community with claims to legitimacy of possession of its lands. A divinely ordained sign—an eagle feasting in its bone-strewn eyrie—guided the Aztecs to their homeland. In the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the highland Maya, the sun in person brings the migrations of the Quiché to an end. The Inca—in common with many native American peoples—emerged, according to their own myth, from a cave, as if from the womb of the earth, to occupy the rich valley of Cusco.
Imperilled peoples still reach for myths like these in self-reassertion and sometimes reject the objectivity of archaeology as a hostile intrusion. When Hugh Brody sat on Canada's Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, his workshop got 'stuck in an intellectual quagmire', because a Cree PhD student argued that archaeologists were ignorant and that native origin myths were unarguably consistent. Almost everywhere, she pointed out, the ancestors emerged from pre-human origins in the places their descendants occupied. They did not have to cross Ice Age Beringia to reach America. They just belonged. The fact that a myth occurs often is evidence of its utility, not its truth.
Myths identify communities by identifying enemies. Identity depends on self-differentiation from the other, and myths are always full of malign alterity. When the Turks appeared as would-be conquerors on the frontiers of Iran, people identified them with the Turya, contenders for divine favour in Iranian myth. Zoroastrians are enemies in Persian myths of Islamic origin. In Gilgamesh, the transformations of the hero's relationship with Enkidu—the hairy wild man—recall the transition from enmity to alliance between the agriculturists of lowland Mesopotamia and some of the pastoralist hill peoples who surrounded them. After suitable acculturation—rogering, razoring and robing—Enkidu becomes Gilgamesh's sidekick. In the Huarochirí Manuscript, the warfare between the divine occupants of the shrines of Pariacaca and Huallallo matches the mutual hatreds of highlanders and lowlanders. Much of the work is a symbolic narrative of past wars, in which the Checa, the people to whom the Huarochirí stories belonged, recalled the alliances and grievances which first bound them to the Inca, then separated them in hostility. The ballgame which the Popol Vuh describes vividly, with all the pace and passion of a ringside commentary, is an analogue of warfare. The Books of Chilam Balam, collected among the Maya of Yucatan, represent as prophecy what are really historic resentments between rival Maya lineages.
The morals of myth
The passion invested in myths make them seem worth fighting for. Indeed, the truth about any community is usually disappointing: unheroic, flawed, disfigured by violence, exploitation, tyranny and greed. But, as well as situating people in history, myths locate them in a moral universe. Our myths make us feel like the heirs of heroes. They inspire self-betterment by trailing exemplars before our eyes. Over and over again, heroes contend with a demon-haunted universe, in which evil is as dispersed among many agents as the air is filled with flies.
Morality is cultural, but the idea of goodness is universal. Belief in a universal ethos or standard of judgement, by which, as a matter of principle, good can be distinguished from evil, is so common among humankind that it is likely to be of very great antiquity. In most societies' origin myths, it is represented as one of humankind's earliest discoveries or revelations. In the Genesis story, it is man's third step—after acquiring language and society—to distinguish good and evil. And the episode dominates the story disproportionately.
The attempt to wrestle with the reality and mutual exclusivity of good and evil informs common conceptions of a twofold cosmos, satisfyingly symmetrical and therefore orderly, regulated by the balance or flow between two conflicting or complementary principles. Some of the earliest creation myths we know of, including those of the ancient Sumerians, represent the world as the result of an act of procreation between earth and sky. The idea probably started a long time before it was first documented. Indeed, although anthropologists have found many conflicting descriptions of the cosmos, it does seem that many, perhaps most, peoples inhabit a world, envisaged by the remotest ancestors they know of, which they see as in uneasy equipoise or complementarity between dual forces, such as 'male' and 'female' or 'light' and 'darkness' or 'evil' and 'good'. A past generation of scholars interpreted the cave paintings of Ice Age Europe as evidence of a dualist mental world, in which everything the hunters saw was classified in terms of gender: but the phalli and vulvae they detected in the designs seem equally likely to be weapons and hoofprints, or even part of some unknown code of symbols.
The image of a twofold universe obviously shapes the myths and morals of people who believe in it. Over the last three thousand years, it has been rejected in most new systems of thought which have claimed to describe the universe: but the exceptions include Daoism, which has had a formative influence on China and made major contributions to the history of thought in many parts of the world, and Persian Zoroastrianism. Two of the Chinese creation myths Anne Birrell highlights below describe the emergence of Yin and Yang from cosmic chaos. The attempt to confront the problems of ethics shines through Persian ways of imagining the world. Christianity has absorbed a lot of influence from the same tradition, including the notion or, at least, the imagery of a perpetual struggle of angelic powers 'of light' against satanic forces 'of darkness'.
The Popol Vuh, too, seems animated by a dualist notion of good and evil. The realm of Xibalba, where the hero twins travel to play the ballgame, is an apparently underground realm of sinister lords, served by creatures of the night. The twins engineer their own transformation by plunging into a pool—to the deluded glee of the evil lords—from where they emerge in the guise of poor conjurers. They entertain the lords of Xibalba to a mock dismemberment act, not unlike the modern conjurer's standby, sawing-thelady-in-half. In the mounting excitement, brilliantly evoked in the surviving version, the lords volunteer to take part in the act themselves, with predictable results. Bereft of their leaders, the people of Xibalba submit to the twins. Is this a description of a primeval cosmic struggle or merely an episode in a chaotically plural universe? Or a millenarian prophecy? Or an essay in propaganda directed against a real-life enemy?
Ecologies of myth
Myths enflesh the environment. In the Popol Vuh the hero twins use their magical sympathy with other creatures to hold the lords of Xibalba at bay. In the torture chambers of the underworld, glow-worms, wasps and jaguars help the twins survive. A rabbit intervenes to help when the evil lords cheat at the ballgame. The wind, which inflicts extremes of climate, was the great enemy of the peoples of the Iranian plateau. So the culture-hero Yima establishes a realm invulnerable to wind 'either cold or hot'. The founder-king Haoshanha procures the help of the water goddess in defeating demons. The myths of the Andean world are only fully intelligible in the context of the dazzling environmental diversity created by abrupt topography, in which temperature, sunshine and rain all vary tremendously across contiguous altitudes, and slopes and valleys carve eco-niches for peculiar life forms: the consequences include teemingly rival communities.
Nowhere, among the worlds of myths traversed in this book, is the physical context more palpable than in China and Mesopotamia. The Chinese and Mesopotamian myths described below by Anne Birrell and Henrietta McCall took shape in similar environments, in soils dried by climate change, yet vulnerable to the unpredictable flooding of great rivers: the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Yellow River in China. At times floods washed away dikes and overflowed ditches. At others, desert sandstorms choked the farmers and buried their crops.
The writers of Mesopotamian literature—the earliest imaginative literature in the world to survive in written form—described an environment dominated or, at least, shadowed by gods of storm and flood. Nature was purposefully malevolent. The sun blinded people and set lands ablaze. In the wind, earth shattered 'like a pot'. 'Will ripe grain grow?' asked a proverb. 'We do not know. Will dried grain grow? We do not know.'
In lower Mesopotamia, the rivers fell through a parched landscape from a distant land of rain, like trickles across a windowpane. Even with irrigation, the summers were too harsh and dry to produce food for the early cities, and they had to rely on winter crops of wheat and barley, onions, linseed, chick-peas, sesame and vetch. Rain fell more often than today, but was largely confined to winter, unleashed by ferocious storms that made the sky flare with sheet lightning. 'Ordered by the storm god in hate', according to a poet, 'it wears away the country'. The supreme god, Ellil, 'called the storm that will annihilate the land, ... the hurricane howling across the skies, ... the tempest which, relentless as a floodwave, devours the city's ships. All these he gathered at the base of heaven and he lit on either flank the searing heat of desert. Like flaming heat of noon, this fire scorched.' The floods which created the life-giving alluvial soils were also life-threateningly capricious. Storm and flood were humans' commonest enemies in Mesopotamian myth.
Meanwhile, earth and water—the benign forces which combined to create the alluvial soil—were celebrated in verse: Earth, a zealous, jealous mother, yielded nourishment, suckled infants, guarded embryos. Water, to awaken the land's fertility, was a male god, Ea or Enki, empowered 'to clear the pure mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates, to make greenery plentiful, to make dense the clouds, to grant water in abundance to all ploughlands, to make corn lift its head in furrows and to make pasture abound in the desert'. But these were subordinate deities, at the beck and call of storm and flood. Chinese myths are full of parallels. The Yellow River collects rain in the mountains of Shaanxi. Where it disgorges, the stream broadens suddenly nd periodically overflows. Here the climate has been getting steadily more arid for millennia. The region today is torrid in summer, icy in winter, stung by chill, gritty winds and rasped by rivers full of ice. The winds blow dust from the Mongolian desert over the land, creating a friable, yellow earth which is almost sterile if unwatered. Rapid thaws bring implacable torrents. Against this background, the natural forces personified in Chinese myths are unsurprising. The warfare of the gods resounds with thunder and kicks up dust. Gong Gong (Common Work) makes the waters crash against the sky. Nu Gua (Woman Gua) dams the floods with ashes. Gun (Hugefish) steals protoplasm from the gods to repair the flooded world. His son—Yu the Great (Reptilian-Pawprint), who crafted China from the floodplain of the Yellow River—mastered the god of the Huai River, stronger than nine elephants, by chaining him and leading him to the distant mountains. In a more prosaic version, he 'mastered the waters and caused them to flow in great channels'. This legendary engineer made China possible by digging the channels where flood control and irrigation coagulate. Yi, the magnificent Archer, downed the suns that parched the earth. Tang the Conqueror gave his own life as a burnt offering for rain. Personifications of rain and drought contend for mastery of the world in the myth cycle of Nu Ba (Woman Droughtghoul), and Zhu, the crimson owl of the south who brings hot weather, spells ill omen for officials in whose district he appears.
The conditions the myths evoke were the real conditions of the first era of Chinese agriculture. When farmers first began to till these lands they were still a sort of savanna, where grasslands were interspersed with woodland. Three or four thousand years ago, water buffalo were still plentiful: their remains have turned up in strata of the era, together with other creatures of marsh and forest, such as the elaphure and water deer, wild boar, silver pheasants, bamboo rats and the occasional rhinoceros. Ancient songs collected in the Classic of History (Shu jing) rhapsodise on the toil of clearing weeds, brush and roots. 'Why in days of old did they do this task? So that we might plant our grain, our millet, so that our millet might be abundant'. The legendary ancestor of the most successful lineage of the time was called Hou Ji (Sovereign Millet). In folk memory, when he planted it,
It was heavy, it was tall,
it sprouted, it eared ...
it nodded, it hung ...
Indeed the lucky grains were sent down to us,
The black millet, the double-kernelled,
millet pink-sprouted and white.
In Shang times, in the second and third millennia before the Christian era, this agriculture sustained what were perhaps already the densest populations in the world and kept armies of tens of thousands in the field. The earliest known cultivators cleared the ground with fire before dibbling and sowing, harvesting each panicle by hand and threshing seeds by rubbing between hands and feet.
The present and future of myth
Memory and imagination are kindred processes. In bardic transmission, they fuse. The older our memories, the more imagination warps them. When catastrophes or traumas interrupt the transmission, myths are fragmented and pieced together in new ways. It happened, for example, in the Spanish conquest of the New World. Afterwards, people in colonial society who were struggling to understand what had happened distorted the old myths: instead of myths of validation, which boosted the confidence of the Aztecs and Inca and fortified their aggression, they invented myths of self-subversion: supposed legends of 'returning gods'—for which there is no pre-conquest evidence—and auguries of doom, which were in fact copied from European books. Among the Maya, Christian missionaries' successful challenge to indigenous religion left its mark on the language and construction of the creation stories in the Popol Vuh. 'Dios' joined the gods of the 'jaguar prophets' who wrote the Books of Chilam Balam. Don Cristobal Choque Casa—probably one of the indigenous compilers of the Huarochiri manuscript—prided himself on his Christianity, but in a nightmare he dreamed of sacrificing to the old gods in a neglected shrine, which had become the abode of bats and a place for illicit assignations.
Today, I think, we are witnessing a similar but global episode of discontinuity in the transmission of mythic traditions. The syncopations of modernity—the accelerated pace of change, the deracination of traditional societies, the evanescence of ancient states, the fast turnover in new technologies, the upheavals and destructiveness of modern revolutions and wars—have expunged some cherished myths and plunged others into the crucible. Re-crafted and re-combined, they re-emerge, transmuted by the alchemy of imagination into a genre called 'fantasy', which now dominates video monitors and cinema screens.
Their power does not end. In post-industrial society we have reverted to mythopoeia of our own making. Myths forgotten by most people are revived by the bards of our age. Tolkien ransacked Celtic and Germanic myth for The Lord of the Rings, and the works which most seem to entertain today's Western children and adolescents are the myth-steeped works of Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling. Capricious reconstructions of ancient monsters, immemorial adventures and cosmic wars now flit and flicker through computer games. Paradoxically, perhaps, the power of technology—which, for most consumers, is as unintelligible as magic—has reinforced the power of myth.