On oral traditions and muddied waters

mike shupp (ms44278@HUEY.CSUN.EDU)
Sat, 18 May 1996 17:12:39 -0700

This is an ongoing discussion over the value of myth in deciphering
prehistory, with Mr. Goodman arguing that myths _might_ represent
memories of long ago events, and Shupp denying the possibility. The
argument began with the suggestion that flood myths through the ancient
near east might be recollections of the period some 30,000 to 35,000
years ago in which (it is alleged) the Mediterranean basin was flooded.

No conclusion being reached, we ask the opinions of older/wiser/more
firmly seated heads,,,,,

On Sat, 18 May 1996, Gary Goodman wrote:

> 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.

Too much Robert Graves when I was young or something... but ever since
I got bogged down in THE WHITE GODDESS, I've seen myths as the way a
society or group formulates its picture of the world (this is not quite
the same as your notion above, but in the spirit of Schorer, below). We
need our myths, wqhich is why we keep telling them over and over, but
they don't have much meaning if you don't know before hand just what the
myth is telling you.
Science fiction readers have a myth that
knowledge leads to triumph; mystery readers have a myth that an diligent
researcher will always uncover the truth-- and early man had a lot of
myths saying that immortality in the flesh could not be achieved (the
point of Gilgamesh).

> 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?

That's glottochronology and as far as I know, it basically is a rule
of thumb. The point is, the theorists do not work on ice age languages.
Primitive Indo-European was probably spoken "in the late stone age"
according to Bloomfield, after domestication of the dog and the ox, and
after the invention of the wheel, which would put it into the 5000 to
10,000 BC time range. Nostratic, I gather, might go back to say 15,000
BC; that's only half way to your possible 35,000 BC diaster,

> MS>
> 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!

I think you're missing my point. Frobisher's ships did not have
"wings." They had sails. We, knowing that old European ships had
sails, can decipher the Inuit descriptions. We can infer from our
knowledge that "barking sticks that kill" are probably guns, and so forth.
If we heard the Inuit story without our background knowledge, it would
mean very little to us.
Point is, we might have dozens of myths which recount important
events in prehistory and be able to decipher none of them.

> "....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!

I've seen suggestions that the Thera explosion set up waves better
than 300 feet tall. It was a very big blast and the Eastern
Mediterranean is a very small sea. There wasn't an ocean to dissipate
the shock. So if you have a tidal wave with effects witnessed from
Greece to Anatolia to Egypt, you have something that looks locally. an
awful lot like a world event.
> 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?
> 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
Mike Shupp
California State University, Northridge