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October 31, 2018

Creatures of myth and dark

Filed under: Mythology — Razib Khan @ 4:04 pm
A depiction of the monster Grendel from Beowulf

In the dark there are monsters. Bogeymen. “There be dragons.” These are common human psychological reflexes. These reflexes turn into legends, and legends become embroidered into myth.

There are two aspects of this question that we need to consider: the reality which is the world around us, the way our minds interpret that reality. Because of the vicissitudes genetics sometimes people are born who look different from the typical human, whether it be something startling and novel such as having different eye colors (e.g., one blue and one brown), or whether it be at an extreme point along the normal distribution of human variation, being very short or very tall.

Sometimes we have a situation where very different peoples encounter each other and see something profoundly alien. When the Romans encountered the Huns, an Asian-looking people who seemed perpetually mounted on their horses, they described them as if they were creatures of legend. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus states about them:

The people called Huns, barely mentioned in ancient records, live beyond the sea of Azof, on the border of the Frozen Ocean, and are a race savage beyond all parallel. At the very moment of birth the cheeks of their infant children are deeply marked by an iron, in order that the hair instead of growing at the proper season on their faces, may be hindered by the scars; accordingly the Huns grow up without beards, and without any beauty. They all have closely knit and strong limbs and plump necks; they are of great size, and low legged, so that you might fancy them two-legged beasts, or the stout figures which are hewn out in a rude manner with an ax on the posts at the end of bridges.

Similarly, when Europeans first arrived in East Asia, their light hair and eyes stood out amongst uniformly black-haired populations. They in fact resembled “witches” in Chinese legend, perhaps an ancient remembrance of peoples from the West who settled in northwest China.

Perhaps the most extreme cases are those where myth turns to fact. When voyagers first saw chimpanzees and gorillas, the sailors who told of their encounters were assumed to be engaging in exaggeration. Only the retrieval of a body convinced European scholars of the truth of the existence of great apes.

David & Goliath

But myth and legend transcend fact. And that transcendence is a feature of human psychology, not the world around us.

Myths and legends have some common themes. They are amazing, but not too amazing. Cognitive anthropologists have noted that many human narratives of myth tend to be minimally counterintuitive.

That means that our stories have to be comprehensible, relatable, but also out of the ordinary in some way. This is perhaps one reason that stories of distant people with strange customs and appearances are so common: they are comprehensible, but different enough to elicit wonderment.

In their telling these tales can become taller. A tribe which is somewhat taller than their neighbors become giants. If a few red-haired individuals are found in a particular nation, then the whole tribe is described as such. The further and further the tale travels, the stranger and stranger it gets.

And amazement can sometimes turn into horror. Though cannibalism is historically attested, anthropologists and ethnographers have long observed that other people are described as such, implying that stories of monstrous behavior is simply a way for people to define themselves as different from other peoples with whom they may not have the most peaceful relations.

The fear of the dark and the monsters which reside therein may be a reflection of the primal origins of our species, as Paleolithic bands huddled around the fire on the open savanna. The outside world was dangerous, and we banded together for safety. As humans settled down in villages, the forests and the lands over the horizons replaced the ancient dark, and our myths were transfigured to fit with the new human folkways.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


Creatures of myth and dark was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

October 3, 2017

The elves of our imagination and reality

Filed under: Culture,Mythology — Razib Khan @ 11:48 pm

In Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? the late Martin Gardner reviewed evidence for cannibalism and ultimately came to the conclusion that it was not a real phenomenon. He agreed with the interpretations of some anthropologists that cannibalism stories emerge in human groups as a way to demonize their enemies. For various genetic and archaeological reasons I think since Gardner wrote that chapter at least two decades ago, it has been shown that cannibalism did exist as a cultural practice.

In the year 2000 The Atlantic published a piece, Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s “Hidden Jews”. The authors suggest, again in line with the theories of some anthropologists, that the crypto-Jewish identity purported to persist in some Hispano families in the American Southwest derived from a mix of internalized racism and Judaizing influence from Protestant missionaries. For a variety of reasons I think it is quite possible that actually, the Hispano populations did preserve some crypto-Jewish traditions through converso ancestors.

The point I’m making here is that contemporary “debunkings” of somewhat fascinating or titillating phenomena are not always correct. Heinrich Schliemann went to Turkey, and he did find the historical Troy.

Recently I came across a blog post, Neanderthals in Ancient Mythology*, which makes the case that our cousins are the source of the idea of beings such as trolls. For various reasons, I am skeptical of the theories and models in that particular post. But that prompted me to reflect: where do ideas of trolls and other such quasi-human beings come from?

Cognitive anthropologists would have an answer. There is an idea, evoked culture, which refers to universal phenomena which naturally develop at the interface of our minds and conventional stimuli. To give a concrete example of what I’m talking about, the idea of kings. One can think of the idea of kings as an innovation which has to spread from people to people. Or, one can see kings as a natural development of human cultural evolution and our ability to fit into hierarchies and defer to leaders, the latter of which is a function of our cognitive architecture.

One can think of the idea of kings as an innovation which has to spread from people to people. Or, one can see kings as a natural development of human cultural evolution and our ability to fit into hierarchies and defer to leaders, the latter of which is a function of our cognitive architecture.

As it happens we’re pretty sure that the idea of the king has emerged independently at least twice. After the translation of the Maya Codex we know that these people had kings, as we understand them. Not to mention the fact that the Aztecs and Inca both had kings of a quite autocratic variety.

A more obvious case of evoked culture is the idea of gods. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer refers to these as “minimally counterintuitive” concepts, which makes them memorable and memetically contagious. In general, gods are not prosaic and banal. They have supernatural powers, and violate our ontological intuitions about what persons can do. But they don’t smash all intuitions. I once read a science fantasy story where a devout Jewish man dies and goes to heaven, and there he his introduced to G-d. It turns out that Hashem is a very dumb giant chicken.  This is not a minimally counterintuitive concept; it’s just weird. And so not a good candidate for a god concept which would be culturally contagious.**

Ideas of trolls, witches, and ghosts, then bubble naturally out of our cognitive landscape of memes. Has anyone seen a ghost? To my knowledge no. But the belief in ghosts persists, because it appeals to some intuitions. It’s a very attractive idea. One can say the same of trolls.

But just because an idea is evoked does not mean it has no basis in fact. The John Frum cult happens to believe in a religion which is probably wrong on many facts. But “John Frum” and other aspects of the religion are based on factual interactions with the American government and servicemen at a specific place and time.

Similarly, myths about trolls, elves, and witches, may reflect a combination of the fertility of our native imagination, and distortions of contact with different peoples. When Europeans showed up in the highlands of Papua their ghostly pallor made the locals wonder if they were, in fact, dead souls. We know that in places like Central Europe farmers and hunter-gatherers lived in close proximity for thousands of years, but did not mix much sexually. Additionally, it is highly likely that the hunters and farmers were physically distinctive, probably in complexion in Western Europe. Their genetic distance was equivalent to that between modern Northern Europeans and Chinese.

This does’t mean we can necessarily mine folklore to understand ethnography of the past. Rather, it just suggests that folkore is not just from our imagination, but may show influences from events and contacts in the real world.

* I rarely link to blogs anymore!

** The Christian idea that God had to be incarnated as a human being to connect well to us actually nods to this idea of minimally counterintuition.

September 29, 2017

The war between the Aesir and Vanir

Filed under: Aesir,Indo-European,Mythology,Prehistory,Vanir — Razib Khan @ 7:09 pm


In Snorri Sturluson’s preservation of pre-Christian Scandinavian mythos, he outlines two groups of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. Though ultimately presented as a united pantheon in comparison to beings such as the giants, there are references to a war between these two divine factions. But, there is still scholarly debate as to the significance of the division between the Aesir and Vanir.

At one extreme some contend that the division was concocted by Sturluson himself for stylistic or poetic reasons. In contrast, others suggest that the Aesir-Vanir division is substantive, and reflects deep historical origins. The Vanir, in this telling, are the fertility gods of pre-Indo-European peoples. The Aesir, are the gods of the Indo-Europeans. The war between the two factions then is a memory of the conflict between the indigenous farmers, and the incoming Indo-European pastoralists. Sturluson himself suggested that the gods of the Norse mythos were simply deifications of great historical personages of the past, lending credence to the idea that the folklore preserved the memory of history.

Ultimately we may never know the real story behind the Aesir-Vanir war (if it ever occurred). But a new paper in The American Journal of Archaeology sheds some light on the transition to Indo-European language in modern Denmark’s Jutland, Talking Neolithic: Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives on How Indo-European Was Implemented in Southern Scandinavia:

…Farming arrived in Scandinavia with the Funnel Beaker culture by the turn of the fourth millennium B.C.E. It was superseded by the Single Grave culture, which as part of the Corded Ware horizon is a likely vector for the introduction of Indo-European speech. As a result of this introduction, the language spoken by individuals from the Funnel Beaker culture went extinct long before the beginning of the historical record, apparently vanishing without a trace. However, the Indo-European dialect that ultimately developed into Proto-Germanic can be shown to have adopted terminology from a non-Indo-European language, including names for local flora and fauna and important plant domesticates. We argue that the coexistence of the Funnel Beaker culture and the Single Grave culture in the first quarter of the third millennium B.C.E. offers an attractive scenario for the required cultural and linguistic exchange, which we hypothesize took place between incoming speakers of Indo-European and local descendants of Scandinavia’s earliest farmers.

There is a lot of interesting detail in the paper itself. First, the Corded Ware arrived in Jutland in ~2850 BCE, but only occupied the western and central parts of the peninsula. The Funnel Beaker complex, along with influences and interactions with the hunter-gatherer Pitted Ware culture, persisted in robust form until ~2600 BCE in the east of Jutland. Additionally, the authors note that there was a notable cultural geographic division which separated the former Funnel Beaker territory as it was in ~2600 BCE down to ~1500 BCE, when the two zones fused together into a unified Nordic Bronze Age culture.

An explicit analogy is made to the character of prehistoric Aegean society, where a pre-Indo-European matrix was coexistent with Indo-European cultures which arrived from the north for centuries, and even millennia, down to the Classical Greek period (the Pelasgians).

But the similarity is closer than just one of form: the language of the Funnel Beaker people may have existed on a dialect continuum with the farming peoples of the Mediterranean. That is, Neolithic Europe was probably united by an ethno-cultural linguistic complex similar in scale and quality to that of the Bantus in modern Africa.

One of the hypotheses about the origins of the Vanir is that they were agricultural fertility gods. As it happens many of the hypothesized borrowings of non-Indo-European words into Germanic are of agricultural nature. Additionally, the table within the paper illustrates that many of these words span very different Indo-European language families. The implication is strong that Minoan, Basque, and the pre-Indo-European languages of Northern Europe are genetically related to each other.

Genetics does not illuminate everything, but I do think that it gives a certain solidity now to the nature of demographic turnover and variation in prehistoric Europe. With that in mind archaeologists and folklorists can interpret the mythologies and legends which have been passed down to us from the liminal periods on the edge of history and prehistory.

For example, the thesis that pre-Indo-European religion revolved around cthonic deities of the earth (e.g., the Tuatha de Danann) makes a lot more sense if you believe that these people were agriculturalists. In contrast, the Indo-Europeans from the east arrived as pastoralists, and it is not, therefore, a surprise that the one Indo-European god who has an undisputed cognate across all branches of the Indo-European peoples is the sky god, whether he is known as Zeus, Jupiter, or Dyauṣ Pitār.

July 14, 2017

The past was not PG

Filed under: Bible,Culture,Game of Thrones,Mythology — Razib Khan @ 9:34 am

The Week has published a screed against the low moral quality of Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones is bad — and bad for you. Obviously there is something to this insofar as one can see a coarsening of entertainment, or at least a decline in the stylized aspects of the depiction of reality.

But one of my initial reactions is that much of the narrative that we value from the past was not particularly PG. If you read The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible you see that the “Good Book”, in fact the only book many read front to back by many after the Reformation in Protestant Europe, has some quite unsavory tales. The story of Judah and Tamar in particular is hard to digest from a modern Western perspective because many of the elements are understated and workaday. Greek mythology is no better obviously. From Zeus raping Leda, Achilles throwing a fit because his sex-slave was taken away, to the tradition of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia.

In some cases the shocking aspect of ancient stories is because moderns have different values. Slavery and concubinage were taken for granted during the period that the Hebrew Bible and Classical mythology crystallized into the forms which came down to us. In other cases I presume that it was unlikely that small children were going to ever read the original stories themselves, so sexual elements that might confuse were probably omitted in some oral tellings.

This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a modern masterpiece. But some of the disquieting, and frankly perverse, aspects of the narrative are only shocking if your standard is the relatively antiseptic literary fiction which one finds between the Regency and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. That is the aberration in human history, while gritty genre fiction much closer to primal human storytelling.

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