Re: On oral traditions and muddied waters

Gary Goodman (sap@TANK.RGS.UKY.EDU)
Sat, 18 May 1996 18:26:22 EDT

MS>The point is that King's stufff -- or Charles Dickens', if you prefer--
MS>is widely distributed, not that it is "true." I don't see myths as
MS>distorted history, personally; I see them as early fiction.

I guess I lean a lot heavier toward Cambellian intrepretation of myths.
Fiction is written AS fantasy. We KNOW it is a story. Myths are means
of explaining "world" events.

"Scientific inference need not be regarded as the sole vehicle of
truth. Myths and fables, as well as true stories about other people
and other animals. often are repositories of truths of a very important
sort. "
--Michael A. Simon, "Sociobiology: the Aesop's Fables of Science,"
The Sciences, Feb. 1978, pg. 31

MS>Let me make this argument-- language is as apt to be conserved by oral
MS>tradition as is history (probably more so, in fact). As a rule of thumb,
MS>half of a people's language can be expected to change in some fashion in
MS>a 2500 year period. Assume the great Mediterranean flood was 35,000 eyars
MS>ago. How much of the original language of the observers would survive to
MS>the present day? One part in 2 to the 14th, or 16192. Given typical
MS>use vocabularies of 10,000 words, that's ONE WORD. I don't think it
MS>likely that much language from 35000 years ago has survived to our day--
MS>and history is much less likely.

Interesting rule of thumb. How has it been verified? How does that
explain the theorists work on ice-age (that's the period we are
discussing) languages?

MS>Myths DISTORT. An example: in the 1630's or so, a man named Frobisher
MS>sailed around in the area of Eastern Canada looking for the fabled
MS>Northwest Passage (he didn't find it, but I think a Frobisher's Bay is
MS>still on the maps.). Early in this century, a group of arctic explorers
MS>met some Inuits who had folk recollections of previous explorers--
MS>including some from "long ago" who came in dark ships with "white
MS>wings", and slew walruses with "barking sticks." They were even
MS>able to get descriptions (tall man with red hair, for example) of
MS>some of the officers of the previous expedition. The Inuits remembered
MS>Frobisher, in other words, but they didn't realize that they had
MS>remembered Frobisher-- they didn't understand they had seen European
MS>sailing ships or guns-- and if we hadn't remembered Frobisher
MS>ourselves, we wouldn't be able to make sense of their recollection.

And how excatly do we "remember" Frobisher? Though written records that
are themselves distortions. Read some 100 year old history books
sometime. There has been considerable "mythmaking" done by arctic
explores themselves! Maybe the "distortions" are closer in some ways
than the official record. And it sounds like they got the main details
correct. I mean HOW could they relate to Frobisher being from Eurrope
-- they had no means to "locate" that place? This was to them probably
an unimportant detail anyway!

"....We ought not to consider myth as a stupid piece of 'fabulization'
by the lower mind at grips with Pascal's famous deceitful powers, but
rather as an operative technique with the same epistemlogicial value as
mathematics. Then we might
understand the lessons of history better, for history is bursting with
myths that dare not speak their minds."
--Jean Markale. Les Celts. 1969

"A myth is a large controlling image that gives philosophical meaning
to the facts of ordinary life; that is, which has organizing value for
experience. Without such images, experience is chaotic, fragmentary
and merely phenomenal."
--Mark Schorer, "The Necessity of Myth," in Henry A. Murray (ed.)
Myth and Mythmaking, 1969

MS>I think the odds of having the great Mediterranean flood remembered in
MS>mythical form are MUCH less than one in fifty. Particularly when myth is
MS>the ONLY form in which it is recalled. Where are the cave art paintings
MS>of giant floods? Most religions have gods of the sea-- Posidon, for
MS>example-- but where are the gods of floods?

MS>Another consideration-- there's been much speculation that a volcano on
MS>Santorini/Thera exploded about 1600 BC, producing tidal waves which
MS>flattened Minoan Knossos, and possibly Cretan civilization, in the course
MS>of sweeping over the Eastern Mediterranean. That's too late to be
MS>responsible for the flood tale in Gilgamesh or the Noah's ark story, but
MS>it could have been remembered in other myths-- I'm partial to the idea
MS>that it inspired Plato's Atlantis. How would you separate Thera-flood
MS>myths from Mediterranean-flood myths?

Good point. Or from localized floods. The Atlantis-Thera theory has
problems of course, but I lean toward it myself. But then, why should
the Crete disaster become a "world flood" all around the basin? They
weren't THAT important!

MS>Going back to my orginal point, myths and other oral traditions are
MS>unreliable sources for fairly recent history. I think the chance that
MS>they record really ancient history is so low it might as well be dismissed.
MS>Of course, that is just my view-- why not send this off to the ANE list
MS>or Aegeanet and see what the opinions are there?

Good idea Mike. I'm where I have no ready access to the WWW for the
nonce, and I don't know that my mailbox (or freenet sysop) will take
much more mail coming in. So if someone wants to pass this along I'd be

Like the volcanic eruption explanation for the disappearance of
Atlantis, I find the Med. Basin Flood a just barely possible
explanation. And I have learned NOT to underestimate the abilities of
our ancestors. They may have found means to preserve the essence of
such an event in a fascinating myth and so pass it on.

Gary D. Goodman

Pentad Communications
McDaniels, KY (502) 756-9012