New Perspectives on Myth

Wim M.J. van Binsbergen & Eric Venbrux

New Perspectives
on Myth

Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference
of the International Association for
Comparative Mythology,
Ravenstein (the Netherlands),
19-21 August, 2008

PIP-TraCS – Papers in Intercultural Philosophy and
Transcontinental Comparative Studies – No. 5

to Michael Witzel, the driving force behind it all

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Studies ( : ) is a publishing initiative of

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Studies, and Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy / Revue Africaine de
Philosophie, are published by Shikanda, Haarlem, the Netherlands

ISBN: 978-90-78382-072

the individual contributions: © 2010 copyright the respective authors

this collection, including the right of publication in printed and digital form:
© Haarlem / Nijmegen 2010 Wim van Binsbergen & Eric Venbrux


by Wim van Binsbergen & Eric Venbrux

The Second Annual Conference of the International Association for Comparative My-
thology (IACM) was held at the former convent of Soeterbeeck near the small medie-
val town of Ravenstein in the Netherlands on 19-21 August 2008. This volume,
entitled New Perspectives on Myth, contains the proceedings of the conference.
In total the work has 19 chapters. The volume consists of five parts: an intro-
duction offering a report of the conference, a section on The Mythology of Death and
Dying, another on Mythological Continuities between Africa and Other Continents, a
section on Theoretical and Methodological Advances, and a final one on Work-in-
Progress. Indexes of proper names and of authors have been added to assist readers in
consulting the proceedings, to highlight the links between chapters, and to provide
something of an inventory of current comparative mythology as a field of studies.
We would like to thank the following institutions for their financial contribu-
tions, making the conference possible: the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies,
Harvard University, USA; the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
(KNAW); the Faculty of Religious Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Neth-
erlands; the African Studies Centre, Leiden, the Netherlands; the Sormani Fund, Nij-
megen, the Netherlands; the Philosophical Faculty, Erasmus University Rotterdam,
the Netherlands; the International Office, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Nether-
lands; Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy / Revue Africaine de Philosophie; the
Research School NISCO, Faculty of Social Sciences, Radboud University Nijmegen,
the Netherlands; and the International Association for Comparative Mythology
(IACM), Cambridge MA, USA.
We are also indebted to Kirsten Seifikar, who as copy-editor polished up the
English of many contributions and brought the bibliographical material up to a com-
mon standard; and to the editorial team of Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy /
Revue Africaine de Philosophie, for taking care of the book’s layout, production,
cover, and index.
Last but not least, our thanks are due to the International Association for
Comparative Mythology, and to the participants in the Second Annual Conference of
that organisation, for creating the intellectual conditions towards the present book,
and entrusting its realisation to us.
Table of contents

List of figures.........................................................................................................12
List of tables...........................................................................................................14
PART I. INTRODUCTORY................................................................................................15
Chapter 1. Introduction: The Second Annual Conference of the
International Association for Comparative Mythology, Ravenstein, the
Netherlands, August 19-21, 2008
by Wim van Binsbergen & Eric Venbrux..............................................................17
PART II. MYTHOLOGY OF DEATH AND DYING................................................................23
Chapter 2. Death and Regeneration: The Moon in Australian
Aboriginal Myths of the Origin of Death
by Eric Venbrux.....................................................................................................25
Contemporary ancestors...............................................................................27
The Dreaming ..............................................................................................28
How death came into the world ...................................................................30
Comparing the myths...................................................................................33
Blaming the totemic ancestors.....................................................................35
Regeneration ................................................................................................36
Concluding discussion .................................................................................38
Chapter 3. Tales of death and regeneration in West Africa
by Walter E.A. van Beek .......................................................................................41
Introduction: An unromantic Africa ............................................................41
Two cultures: Similarities and differences ..................................................44
The tales.......................................................................................................46
The struggle with death in Kapsiki ..............................................................48
Regeneration: The Dogon sigi myth............................................................49
Death and regeneration: The human way ....................................................51
New Perspectives on Myth
Chapter 4. A Journey to the Netherworld: Reconstructing Features of
Indo-European Mythology of Death and Funereal Rituals from Baltic,
Slavic, and Buddhist Parallels
by Boris Oguibénine & Nataliya Yanchevskaya ...................................................59
1. Slavic and Baltic Parallels .......................................................................60
2. Buddhist Parallels ....................................................................................68
Bibliography ................................................................................................72
Chapter 5. Death as Defilement in Zoroastrianism
by Victoria Kryukova ............................................................................................75
1. Affinity of Old Iranian and Old Indian traditions....................................76
2. Dogs .........................................................................................................80
3. Good and evil ...........................................................................................80
4. Purification rites.......................................................................................82
5. Dug-out holes...........................................................................................85
6. Archaeological excavations: Results .......................................................86
Chapter 6. Varin’s philosophy and the Rök Stone’s mythology of
by Joseph Harris.....................................................................................................91
Varin’s philosophy and the Rök Stone’s mythology of death.....................91
The structure of the inscription....................................................................92
Themes of life and death..............................................................................94
The myth in Section Three...........................................................................95
Varin’s philosophy of death.......................................................................101
Bibliography ..............................................................................................103
Chapter 7. The emergence of the first people from the underworld:
Another cosmogonic myth of a possible African origin
by Yuri Berezkin..................................................................................................109
The dispersal of modern man and the areal patterns of folklore-
mythological motifs .......................................................................110
Negative correlation between the Emergence myth and the
Earth-diver myth............................................................................114
Specific links between the American and the Asian and
Melanesian cases of the Emergence myth .....................................115
The emergence myth in Africa ..................................................................118
Adventure tales of Continental Eurasian origin subsequently
disseminated into Africa, but not into Australia ............................119
Research perspectives ................................................................................121
Table of Contents
Chapter 8. Myths, indigenous culture, and traditions as tools in
reconstructing contested histories: The Ife-Modakeke example
by Bukola Adeyemi Oyeniyi ...............................................................................127
The Ife-Modakeke conflict ........................................................................133
Indigenous culture as a tool of analysis in the Ife-Modakeke
conflict ...........................................................................................136
Conclusion .................................................................................................139
Chapter 9. The continuity of African and Eurasian mythologies:
General theoretical models, and detailed comparative discussion of the
case of Nkoya mythology from Zambia, South Central Africa
by Wim van Binsbergen.......................................................................................143
1. African transcontinental mythological continuities as a
2. Recent interpretative schemas that claim mythological
continuity instead of separation of Eurasia and sub-
Saharan Africa ...............................................................................149
3. From myth to proto-history and back, in tears / Tears ..........................169
4. The problem of contamination...............................................................175
5. Major mythological themes among the Nkoya, with a
discussion of their salient transcontinental
6. Conclusion .............................................................................................201
7. References cited.....................................................................................204
Chapter 10. Pan-Gaean Flood myths: Gondwana myths – and beyond
by Michael Witzel................................................................................................225
1. Overview................................................................................................226
2. Gondwana Flood myths .........................................................................226
3. Laurasian Flood myths...........................................................................232
4. A comparison of Gondwana and Laurasian Flood myths......................237
Bibliography ..............................................................................................240
Chapter 11. Hēphaistos vs. Ptaª
by Václav Blažek.................................................................................................243
1. Greek theonym.......................................................................................243
2. Egyptian origin.......................................................................................244
3. Ptaª and Hephaestus compared .............................................................248
Post scriptum..............................................................................................249
New Perspectives on Myth
Chapter 12. Can Japanese mythology contribute to comparative
Eurasian mythology?
by Kazuo Matsumura...........................................................................................253
1. Introduction............................................................................................253
2. Myth of the Sun and Fire .......................................................................255
3. Common structure in classical mythology and culture..........................261
PART IV. THEORETICAL AND METHODOLOGICAL ADVANCES......................................265
Chapter 13. The cosmological theory of myth
by Emily Buchanan Lyle .....................................................................................267
1. Introduction............................................................................................267
2. Cosmological theory..............................................................................268
3. A cosmological model based on Indo-European sources ......................269
4. Building and testing the model ..............................................................270
5. The kinship code....................................................................................272
6. Conclusion .............................................................................................275
Bibliography ..............................................................................................275
Chapter 14. The neurobiological origins of primitive religion:
Implications for comparative mythology
by Steve Farmer ...................................................................................................279
1. Introduction: Neurobiology, myth, and religion....................................280
2. The universality of anthropomorphism, and its role in early
3. Overview of a testable neurodevelopmental model of the
origins of anthropomorphism.....................................................................296
4. Testing the model...................................................................................302
5. Summary and conclusions .....................................................................309
Chapter 15. Postmodernism and the Comparative Method
by Robert A. Segal ...............................................................................................315
Postmodernism (1) .....................................................................................316
Controlled Comparativism (2) ...................................................................318
New Comparativism (3).............................................................................320
Old Comparativism (4) ..............................................................................321
Hoariness of the positions..........................................................................321
Defending the Comparative Method..........................................................322
Postmodern objections to the Comparative Method..................................322
Frazer’s Old Comparativism......................................................................329
The superiority of Old Comparativism......................................................332
Table of Contents
Chapter 16. Myth: A challenge to philosophy
by Willem Dupré..................................................................................................335
1. Introduction............................................................................................335
2. Ways to study myth ...............................................................................337
3. Observations ..........................................................................................341
4. Basic meanings ......................................................................................345
5. Why should it be of interest to study myth? ..........................................350
Chapter 17. Hephaestus and Agni – Gods and men on the battlefield in
Greek and Sanskrit epics
by Nick Allen.......................................................................................................357
1. Introduction............................................................................................357
2. Rapprochements.....................................................................................360
3. Differences.............................................................................................368
4. Broader issues ........................................................................................370
PART V. WORK IN PROGRESS ......................................................................................373
Chapter 18. Sunda – The Affirmative life: The mythological
worldview of the contemplative site Nagara Padang, West Java,
by Stephanus Djunatan ........................................................................................375
1. Introduction............................................................................................375
2. The culture-historical setting of the contemplative site.........................376
3. The myth of sagacious individuality......................................................387
4. Mythology as pious teaching: The affirmative life................................389
5. Open ending: A comparative study........................................................401
Chapter 19. The function of irony in mythical narratives: Hans
Blumenberg and Homer’s ludicrous gods
by Nadia Sels .......................................................................................................409
1. Introduction............................................................................................409
2. Homer’s ambiguous portrayal of the gods: An age-old
3. Blumenberg and the absolutism of reality. Strategies to keep
the gods at bay ...............................................................................413
4. Irony, human helplessness and the divine viewpoint.............................417
5. The ironic attitude and the Homeric gods. Theomachy, Dios
Apatè and the entrapment of Ares and Aphrodite. ........................420
6. Conclusion .............................................................................................424
LIST OF CONTRIBUTORS ..............................................................................................427
INDEX OF PROPER NAMES AND MOTIFS .......................................................................429
AUTHOR INDEX ..........................................................................................................457

List of figures

Fig. 7.1. The global distribution of the motif Shed skin as condition of im-
Fig. 7.2. The global distribution of the motif Sun’s children killed...........................112
Fig. 7.3. The global distribution of the motif Person is tricked into killing
his kin.............................................................................................................112
Fig. 7.4. The global distribution of the motif People from the Underworld..............114
Fig. 7.5. The global distribution of the motif The Way from One World to
Another Goes through a Narrow Opening.....................................................116
Fig. 7.6. The global distribution of the motif The False Wife ...................................120
Fig. 7.7. The global distribution of the motif Kind and unkind girls.........................121
Fig. 7.8. The global distribution of the motif Magic flight ........................................121
Fig. 7.9. The global distribution of the Atalanta type version of Magic
flight ...............................................................................................................122
Fig. 7.10. The global distribution of the motif Originator of death the first
sufferer ...........................................................................................................123
Fig. 7.11. The global distribuitoion of the motif Waters give way ............................123
Fig. 9.1. Cavalli-Sforza’s well-known array of the populations and lan-
guage groups of the world..............................................................................146
Fig. 9.2. Dendrogram setting out the relative positions of the *Borean-
associated linguistic marco-phyla in relation to Bantu and Khoisan.............153
Fig. 9.3. Provisional situation and time of ‘Contexts of Intensified Trans-
formation and Innovation’ (CITIs), as crucial stages in the global
history of the mythology of Anatomically Modern Humans.........................163
Fig. 9.4. Diagrammatic representation of the Pelasgian Hypothesis ................. 165-166
Fig. 9.5. Major attestations of the annual communal extinction and rekin-
dling fire.........................................................................................................184
Fig. 9.6. Global distribution of the spiked wheel trap (as typical of Pelas-
gian distributions) ..........................................................................................185
Fig. 9.7. Attestation of spider-related myths..............................................................185
Fig. 9.8. Global distribution of male genital mutilation ............................................187
Fig. 9.9. Global distribution of rain gods with junior status in the pantheon ............198
Fig. 9.10. Global distributions of the mytheme of the unilateral mythical
Fig. 12.1. East Asia....................................................................................................254
List of Figures
Fig. 12.2. The Pacific Ring of Fire ............................................................................259
Fig. 12.3. The (geographical) distribution of various elements of the myth
of the hidden sun............................................................................................260
Fig. 13.1. The threefold pantheon and related mythic patterns .................................273
Fig. 13.2. A four-generation capsule with bilateral cross-cousin marriage,
showing the ten people who are taken to correspond to gods........................274
Fig. 14.1. Anthropomorphic lion figure, ivory, Holenstein-Stadel, ca.
32,000 BP.......................................................................................................280
Fig. 14.2. Exposure-objects displayed in various positions and configura-
tions from the moving film. Large triangle, small triangle, disc and
house ..............................................................................................................308
Fig. 18.1. The location of the site and surroundings..................................................384
Fig. 18.2. The topography of the terraces and stages.................................................385
Fig. 18.3. The two-dimensional triangle....................................................................397
Fig. 18.4 The hierarchical structure of the Tritangtu.................................................397
Fig. 18.5. The three-dimensional dynamic cyclic spiral ............................................398

List of tables

Table 2.1. Comparing Australian myths of death and dying.......................................33
Table 9.1. Narrative Complexes identified in sub-Saharan African cos-
mogonies as collected in historical times.......................................................159
Table 9.2. ‘Contexts of Intensified Transformation and Innovation’
(CITIs) in the global history of Anatomically Modern Humans’
mythology ......................................................................................................160
Table 9.3. Selected Aarne-Thomson (AT) traits relevant to the combat
theme (Fontenrose 1980) in Nkoya mythology and cosmology....................167
Table 10.1. A comparison of Gondwana and Laurasian Flood myths.......................237
Table 10.2. Combined table of Laurasian and Gondwana Flood myths....................238
Table 11.1. Comparison of Ptaª and Hephaestus and their spouses..........................248
Table 17.1. Parties in the epic conflict involving Hephaestus and Agni ...................359
Table 18.1. The stages for a pilgrim’s praying and meditating session.....................385

Part I. Introductory


by Wim van Binsbergen & Eric Venbrux

The Second Annual Conference of the International Association for Comparative My-
thology (IACM) was held at the former convent of Soeterbeeck near the small medie-
val town of Ravenstein in the Netherlands on 19-21 August 2008. This volume,
entitled New Perspectives on Myth, contains the proceedings of the conference.
In total the work has 19 chapters. The volume consists of five parts: an intro-
duction offering a report of the conference, a section on The Mythology of Death and
Dying, another on Mythological Continuities between Africa and Other Continents, a
section on Theoretical and Methodological Advances, and a final one on Work-in-
Progress. Indexes of proper names and of authors have been added to assist readers in
consulting the proceedings and to highlight the links between the various chapters.
We would like to thank the following institutions for their financial contribu-
tions, making the conference possible: the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies,
Harvard University, USA; the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
(KNAW); the Faculty of Religious Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Neth-
erlands; the African Studies Centre, Leiden, the Netherlands; the Sormani Fund, Nij-
megen, the Netherlands; the Philosophical Faculty, Erasmus University Rotterdam,
the Netherlands; the International Office, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Nether-
lands; Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy / Revue Africaine de Philosophie; the
Research School NISCO, Faculty of Social Sciences, Radboud University Nijmegen,
the Netherlands; and the International Association for Comparative Mythology
(IACM), Cambridge MA, USA.
We are also indebted to Kirsten Seifikar, who as copy-editor polished up the
English of many contributions and brought the bibliographical material up to a com-
mon standard; and to the editorial team of Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy /
Revue Africaine de Philosophie, for taking care of the book’s layout, production,
cover, and index.
Last but not least, our thanks are due to the International Association for
Comparative Mythology, and to the participants in the Second Annual Conference of
that organisation, for creating the intellectual conditions towards the present book,
and entrusting its realisation to us.

Chapter 1. Introduction – The Second
Annual Conference of the International
Association for Comparative

Ravenstein, the Netherlands, August 19-21, 2008

by Wim van Binsbergen
& Eric Venbrux

In August 2008 the International Association for Comparative Mythology (IACM)
held its Second Annual Conference at the Soeterbeeck Conference Centre (a former
convent) near the small medieval town of Ravenstein. Here twenty-two scholars from
five continents met during three days for intense discussions of current work on com-
parative mythology. The twenty-two papers originally to be presented and discussed
were divided into four clusters: 1) the mythology of death and dying; 2) mythological
continuities between Africa and other continents; 3) theoretical and methodological
advances; and 4) work-in-progress. The papers will be specified below, but let us first
introduce the newly founded International Association for Comparative Mythology
(legally incorporated in the State of Massachusetts, USA, 2008).
The IACM’s origin lies in the Harvard (Cambridge MA, USA) Project on
Comparative Myth, and the ensuing Harvard Round Table for Comparative Myth,
which – under the inspiring initiative and leadership of Michael Witzel, one of the
world’s leading Vedic scholars – from the late 1990s onward organised an unbroken
chain of interdisciplinary annual conferences attended by prominent scholars from all

An earlier version of this chapter was published in: Anthropos: Internationale Zeitschrift für Völker-
und Sprachenkunde / International Review of Anthropology and Linguistics / Revue Internationale
d’Ethnologie et de Linguistique, 104 (2009), 2: 561-564.
African Studies Centre, Leiden / Philosophical Faculty, Erasmus University Rotterdam the Nether-
Faculty of Religious Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
New Perspectives on Myth
continents, belonging to such disciplines as comparative mythology, anthropology,
comparative and historical linguistics, genetics, archaeology, intercultural philosophy,
palaeoanthropology, Asian studies, African studies, crop sciences, ethnic studies,
classics, etc. From the 2004 Round Table on, when Wim van Binsbergen joined the
Harvard Round Tables, these annual exchanges have paid consistent attention to Af-
rica in world mythology. In 2005 the annual Round Table was held at Kyoto, Japan,
in a joint venture with the Kyoto-based Research Institute for Humanity and Nature
(RIHN), and the 7th Conference on Ethnogenesis in South and Central Asia (ESCA);
in this connection the Asian dimension of the Harvard Round Table was expanded
with Australia and Oceania. The next year’s meeting (May 2006) was held in Beijing,
People’s Republic of China, under the title of ‘the Peking and Harvard University In-
ternational Conference on Comparative Mythology’. At this conference the collective
decision was taken to establish an International Association for Comparative Mythol-
ogy (IACM). It was also at this conference that the convenors for the 2008 meeting
received their mandate. The new association held its First Annual Meeting in Edin-
burgh, Scotland, UK, in August 2007, with up to 80 participating scholars, and 30
papers presented. Most Harvard Round Tables have led to internationally published
proceedings. The proceedings of the 2007 First Annual Meeting have been prepared
for publication by the convenor, Emily Lyle, and appeared in the journal Cosmos: The
Journal of the Traditional Cosmology Society. In addition, there has been a substan-
tial spin-off in the way of books and articles published in established peer-reviewed
scholarly journals. To highlight and facilitate the specific focus on comparative my-
thology, at the First Annual Meeting a peer-reviewed journal Comparative Mythology
was initiated, whose preparation is now in full swing.
The 2008 Second Annual Conference is the logical continuation of this inspir-
ing series of interdisciplinary and intercontinental exchanges, which are working in
the frontline of the contemporary transformation of regional studies and traditional
disciplines under the impact of globalisation and of an empowering, multicentred
politics of knowledge production.
The conference was opened by the convenors: Wim van Binsbergen (African
Studies Centre, Leiden, and Philosophical Faculty, Erasmus University Rotterdam)
and Eric Venbrux (Faculty of Religious Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen), both
from the Netherlands. Next, Michael Witzel (Cambridge, MA, USA), the Associa-
tion’s President, gave his Presidential address.
Venbrux, van Binsbergen and Witzel had formed the conference’s organizing
committee, responsible for fund raising, and for the delicate task of making an ade-
quate selection (in terms of quality, thematic fit, and available slots for presentations
and participants) from among the great many paper proposals that had come in via the
conference website.

This website ( ) was specifically established for the 2nd Annual Con-
ference of the International Association for Comparative Mythology; open to the general public until
the publication of the Proceedings, it contained all draft papers as presented at the conference, and all
conference circulars.
van Binsbergen & Venbrux – Chapter 1: Introduction
In all other respects the conference was the responsibility of just the two con-
venors: topical focus, structure and format, organisation and finance, and the subse-
quent publication of papers. The choice of venue (a revamped convent), the in-house
provision of board and lodging, and the programming format, all ensured that confer-
ence participants would be in intensive formal and especially informal contact throug-
hout the duration of the conference, so that informal factual, methodological and
theoretical exchanges would greatly complement the specific formal programme of
paper presentations. Every participant made a formal contribution to the scholarly
exchange, not only by her or his paper, but also by an arrangement according to which
each paper was subjected to one selected participant’s detailed critical examination,
before the meeting proceeded to general discussion.

As mentioned, this conference had four thematic sessions. In the session on
the mythology of death and dying (which reflects the research programme currently
being pursued at Nijmegen by the convenor Eric Venbrux) six papers were presented
on, respectively, moon myths in Australia, myths concerning the avoidance of dying
in West-Africa, Eurasian myths of travels to the netherworld, Zoroastrian death
myths, the pre-Christian mythology of Scandinavia situated in Germanic mythologies
of death and a sociological approach to death myths with special attention to Cal-

This session was followed by a business meeting of the Board of Directors
(i.e. the Executive) of the IACM. A major decision taken in this connection was ac-
ceptance of the motion to extend the membership of this Board to Dr Bukola A.
Oyeniyi from Nigeria, which would give the Association a formal footing in the Afri-
can continent and would stimulate the pursuit of comparative mythology by African
scholars and institutions.
This African appointment complements the representation
of Europe, North America, and Asia on the Board of Directors, and implies the need
for further work towards the formal inclusion of scholars from South America, Aus-
tralia, and Oceania.
The next session likewise comprised six papers. It was devoted to mythologi-

In addition to the conference participants, the convenors were pleased to welcome the specialist in
West Java ethnography, Dr Wessing, formerly of Leiden, as a special discussant of Mr Djunatan’s
paper. Mr Djunatan’s conference participation made it possible for him to visit his PhD supervisor
Wim van Binsbergen in order to complement the usual e-mail based supervision with far more effec-
tive and comprehensive face-to-face exchanges.
Eric Venbrux (Nijmegen): ‘Death and Regeneration. The Moon in Aboriginal Australian Myths of
Death’; Walter van Beek (Tilburg): ‘How to Avoid Dying. The Battle against Death in African My-
thologies’; Boris Oguibénine (Strasbourg) and Nataliya Yanchevskaya (Cambridge, MA): ‘A Journey
to the Netherworld. Reconstructing Features of Indo-European Mythology and Funeral Rituals from
Baltic, Slavic, and Buddhist Parallels’; Victoria Kryukova (St. Petersburg): ‘Death and Defilement in
Zoroastrianism’; Joseph Harris (Cambridge, MA): ‘The Rök Stone’s Mythology of Death’; Hans J.
Mol (Canberra): ‘Calvin in Myth’. The latter paper was not available for inclusion in the present vol-
An interesting detail is that Dr Oyeniyi only managed to have his visa in time and thus to participate
in the conference, thanks to the capable intervention of Mrs Maaike Westra of the Leiden African Stud-
ies Centre’s Secretariat.
New Perspectives on Myth
cal continuities between Africa and other continents – probably an all-time first in the
history of comparative mythology, and a topical choice which reflects the research
programme currently pursued at Leiden and Rotterdam by Wim van Binsbergen. Af-
rican-Eurasian continuities were examined with regard to: myths on the appearance of
the first humans; the nature and functions of political myths in West Africa during the
last few centuries; the examination of specific detailed parallels between African and
Eurasian mythologies as seen from the perspective of the Nkoya people of Zambia;
Witzel’s revision of his Laurasian (i.e. Eurasian and N. American) / Gondwana (in-
cluding African) distinction as applied to flood myths; an etymological discussion of
the case for identity between Ancient Greek Hephaestus and Ancient Egyptian i.e.
Northeast African Ptah ; and the relevance of Japanese mythology for comparative
Eurasian mythology in general.

Five papers were presented in the session on theoretical and methodological
advances. These addressed: the cosmological theory of myth; neurobiology and the
origins of myth and religion; postmodernism and the comparative method with special
application to comparative mythology; the extent to which myth presents a challenge
to philosophy; and parallels between Greek and Sanskrit epics with special attention
to the fire-associated gods Hephaestus and Agni.
A final paper session dealt with
ongoing research in the context of PhD and MA projects, on such diverse topics as the
mythological worldview of a contemplative site in West Java, Indonesia; Blumen-
berg’s recent philosophy of myth as applied to irony in Homer; the Tibetan epic of
Gesar of Ling, and Indo-Slavic mythological parallels.

The conference concluded with a general discussion, prospects for the 2009
annual conference, and a consideration of options for the publication of the confer-
ence papers. The convenors have decided to aim at a two-stage publication process:

Yuri Berezkin, St. Petersburg: ‘The Emergence of the First People from the Underworld: Another
Cosmogonic Myth of Possible African Origin’; Bukola A. Oyeniyi, Lagos: ‘Myths, Indigenous Cul-
ture, and Traditions as Tools in Reconstructing Contested Histories: The Ife-Modakeke Example’;
Wim van Binsbergen, Leiden / Rotterdam: ‘The Continuity of African and Eurasian Mythologies: As
Seen from the Perspective of the Nkoya People of Zambia, South Central Africa’; Michael Witzel,
Cambridge, MA: Pan-Gaean Flood Myths: Gondwana Myths – and Beyond’; Václav Blažek, Brno /
Pilzen: ‘Hēphaistos vs. Ptah’, Kazuo Matsumura, Tokyo: ‘Can Japanese Mythology Contribute to
Comparative Eurasian Mythology?’.
Emily Lyle (Edinburgh): ‘The Cosmological Theory of Myth’; Steve Farmer (independent scholar,
California, USA): ‘Reinventing Comparative Mythology as a Rigorous Science. Neurobiology and the
Origins of Myth and Religion’; Robert A. Segal (Aberdeen): ‘Postmodernism and the Comparative
Method’: Willem Dupré (Nijmegen): ‘Myth. A Challenge to Philosophy’; Nicholas J. Allen (Oxford):
‘Hephaestus and Agni. Gods and Men on the Battlefield in Greek and Sanskrit Epic.’
Stephanus Djunatan (Bandung): (‘Sunda. the Account of Affirmative Life. Mythological Worldview
of the Contempla-tive Site of Nagara Padang, West Java, Indonesia’; Nadia Sels (Ghent): ‘Blumen-
berg, Homer, and the Function of Irony in Mythological Narratives’; Karel Jan van den Heuvel Reind-
ers (Nijmegen): ‘Travels to Heaven and Hell of Gesar of Ling’; and Nataliya Yanchevskaya
(Cambridge, MA): ‘Indo-Slavic Mythological Parallels.’ Regrettably, of van den Heuvel Reinders’ and
Yanchevskaya’s contribution to this session, no written account was available for inclusion in the pre-
sent volume.
van Binsbergen & Venbrux – Chapter 1: Introduction
first, lightly edited Proceedings – the present volume – containing the full set of pa-
pers; to be followed by the publication of one or two carefully selected sets of papers,
revised under extensive editorial feed-back, as special issue of a peer-reviewed jour-
nal, or in an edited volume with an established university press.
This Second Annual Conference of the International Association for Compara-
tive Mythology (IACM) has demonstrated that the field of comparative mythology is
rapidly and convincingly shedding its sometime connotations of over-specialised an-
tiquarian scholarship, to become (in close collaboration with a wide range of auxiliary
fields – from genetics to linguistics, ethnography, archaeology, statistics, and classics)
an exciting, rapidly expanding domain of theoretical and methodological reflection,
and an ever widening window on humankind’s remoter cultural history. Here – in ad-
dition to the unmistakable strength of this field among scholars from Europe (includ-
ing Eastern Europe!) and North America – new growth points can be discerned
around death as a mythical domain, and around the understanding of Africa’s place in
the wider cultural history of humankind as a whole. These developments inspire a
sense of gratification and achievement, even though there is a need for the increased
involvement of scholars from other continents, and even though the theoretical de-
bates during this conference brought out the fact that we are still far removed from the
emergence of a mainstream disciplinary consensus.

Part II. Mythology of death and

Chapter 2. Death and regeneration:

The Moon in Australian Aboriginal myths of the origin
of death

by Eric Venbrux

Abstract: The moon figures prominently in various Australian Aboriginal myths about the origin of
death. In these myths an ancesteral being dies and another being, the moon, offers to revive the first
dead ever. The offer, however, is refused. Hence, death has come to the world.
The myth of the cultural hero Purukupali and his brother Tapara from Bathurst and Melville Is-
lands, northern Australia, is a case in point. Towards the end of the creation period Purukupali intro-
duced death into Tiwi society. Purukupali fought with his younger maternal brother, Tapara, after the
latter had seduced Purukupali’s wife and her son had died as a result of neglect. Tapara offered to bring
the child back to life but Purukupali refused the offer and said that because of his son had died all peo-
ple had to die. In his fight Tapara injured Purukupali’s leg with a forked throwing club. Tapara was
hurt above the eye, and transformed into the moon. Every month the scar left by the injury above the
eye still can be seen on the moon. In one version of the myth Purukupali’s baby, Djinani, dies of star-
vation; in another he dies of thirst due to having been left in the hot sun, while Tapara and Purukupali’s
wife Bima were having sex in the bushes. Bima was grief-stricken: her wailing sounds can still be
heard, because she turned into Waijai, the curlew. Whereas Tapara might be seen as a symbol of regen-
eration; think of the waning and waxing of the moon, and Tapara’s promise to bring Purukupali’s dead
son (Djinani) back to life within three days, Purukupali issued death: as his son had died, he said, all
people would have to die.
In this paper I will compare Aboriginal myths involving death and the moon, as recorded by a
number of ethnographers in the respective hunter-gatherer societies across Australia, that have the re-
fusal of a regeneration to life as their theme. These myths may belong to the oldest intangible cultural
heritage of humankind.

The moon figures prominently in various Australian Aboriginal myths about the ori-

Faculty of Religious Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
I thank discussant Yuri Berezkin and the participants to the conference for their comments on an ear-
lier version of this paper.
New Perspectives on Myth
gin of death. In these myths an ancestral being dies and another being, the moon, of-
fers to revive the first ever dead. The offer, however, is refused. Hence, death has
come to the world.
In this paper, I will compare Aboriginal myths involving death and the moon
having the refusal of a regeneration to life as their theme, that have been recorded by
a number of ethnographers of the respective hunter-gatherer societies across Austra-
lia. These myths may belong to the oldest intangible cultural heritage of humankind,
but this should not be taken for granted.
Evidence of the oral transmission of the tales over thousands of years is lack-
ing (as is the case with most European folktales, see Venbrux & Meder 1999; Meder
& Venbrux 2000). Besides, they have been transmitted through different media, fre-
quently in a fragmentary manner, and – depending on the nature of the tales – with
various levels of secrecy (see also Berndt & Berndt 1989). As Patricia Waterman
notes in her tale-type index, ‘The subtlety and complexity of the Aboriginal oral nar-
ratives may surprise those unfamiliar with the tradition’ (1987: 13). She lists 28 dis-
tinct moon narratives (Waterman 1987: 22-28),
a further seven under the heading
‘origin of death: moon offers life, man chooses death’ (Ibid.: 84-85),
and four more
classified as ‘origin of death: other moon narratives’ (Ibid.: 85-86).
The last two
categories are of interest here, but the more general moon narratives also contain ele-
ments that may be considered in relation to the origin-of-death tales. Waterman’s in-
dex is a very useful tool, but it must be noted that her overview of these types of tales
is incomplete. Drawing on the ethnographic record, I will add three new types to the
ones already identified by Waterman in this paper.
Scholarly interest in the lore and customs of Aborigines, as I will point out in
the next section, emerged from the idea that the indigenous people of Australia could
be seen as Western man’s ‘contemporary ancestors,’ representing the dawn of human
civilization, where one could ‘see man living as much he did 50,000 years ago’
(Mountford 1956: 417). Equally elusive might be the ideology of Aborigines them-
selves that their cosmology is unchanging (Myers 1986), readily adopted in Western
popular wisdom (Chippindale 1994) to the extent that Aborigines have to accommo-
date others’ perceptions of their past and to live by it (Merlan 1998; Venbrux 2002a,
2007). Furthermore, narrations are affected by attempts to reconstruct a past, also in
view of identity and land rights (see Haviland & Hart 1998; Venbrux 2002b). And
finally, many renditions of myths in popular publications ‘belong under the title of
Australian-European literature, rather than Aboriginal’ (Berndt & Berndt 1988: 389).
However, these are too inaccurate to be considered here.
In order to understand the myths it is first necessary to say something about
Aboriginal cosmology in general. I will then discuss the selected myths about how

Nrs. 20, 23, 26, 29, 32, 35, 38, 41, 44, 47, 50, 53, 56, 59, 62, 65, 68, 71, 74, 77, 80, 83, 86, 89, 92, 95,
98, 101,104 (Waterman 1987: 22-28).
Nrs. 2850, 2855, 2860, 2870, 2880, 2885, 2890 (Waterman 1987: 84-85).
Nrs. 2905, 2920, 2930, 2940 (Waterman 1987: 85-86).
Venbrux – Chapter 2: Death and the Moon
death came into the world and offer a comparison. I will look at some of allusions
which are made in the ritual, particularly the blaming of a mythical ancestor for the
occurrence of death. The next section deals with the moon as a symbol of regenera-
tion. I then conclude with a discussion of the myths, returning to the possibility of
antiquity, but not automatically assuming that Aborigines should be considered our
‘contemporary ancestors’.
Contemporary ancestors
The interest in Australian Aboriginal beliefs and traditions increased in the late nine-
teenth and early twentieth century. European scholars tried to understand the origin
and evolution not only of the human species, but also of its religion and culture. Aus-
tralian Aborigines were believed to still be in the early stages of this development,
representing the dawn of humankind, according to the learned models of cultural evo-
lution at the time. It was expected that the so-called ‘wild’ Aborigines in remote Aus-
tralia, almost untouched by European civilisation, would thus enable scholars to gain
a better understanding of how their forbearers must have lived tens of thousands years
ago. Somehow the ‘primitive’ way of life, beliefs and traditions, dating back to the
Stone Age, would have survived in Australia. In other words, the Australian hunter-
gatherers encountered by Europeans were considered the latter’s ‘contemporary an-
The term Aborigines denotes this understanding of a people from the origin
(‘ab origine’), exemplary for the beginnings or early manifestations of social institu-
tions and cultural forms.
The case of the Australian Aborigines was of great importance for social theo-
rizing (Hiatt 1996). For example, Émile Durkheim’s work on the elementary forms of
religion and Sigmund Freud’s idea of the primordial band were based on contempo-
rary knowledge about indigenous Australians. Moreover, the books published by
Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen beginning to appear in 1899 made a tremendous
contribution. As a postmaster at Alice Springs, Gillen had become acquainted with
Aborigines in Central Australia. He and Spencer – a Melbourne professor –managed
to document their traditions and beliefs in great detail. Spencer and Gillen did so on
the basis of first-hand information and even direct observation of a totemic ceremony
that would become crucial evidence for Durkheim concerning his theory on social
cohesin. Bronislaw Malinowski also grappled with Australian materials in his doc-
toral thesis on the Aboriginal family. And Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, who was to be-
come another leading scholar in the field of anthropology, documented and analyzed
the intricacies of Aboriginal social organisation and the variety of systems of kinship
in Australia (see also Hiatt 1996).
The evolutionary interest had waned before a systematic study of myths across
Australia had been made. Ursula McConnel is credited with being ‘the first to publish

See Venbrux and Jones 2002.
New Perspectives on Myth
a systematic series of myths’ (Berndt & Berndt 1988: 389), albeit this concerned a
single society. A great many ethnographers have recorded Aboriginal myths in the
twentieth century (see for further details, Hiatt 1975; Berndt & Berndt 1988, 1989).
However, Patrica Waterman (1987) was the first to provide an index of the available
It must be noted that across Australia an estimated five hundred distinct in-
digenous languages were spoken. With also considerable variation in their habitat,
Aboriginal groups differed in lifestyle and cultural practices enough for the continent
to harbor a hundred or two hundred indigenous cultures. The picture is somewhat com-
plicated, because a great many Aborigines happen or happened to be multilingual. Al-
most all Aborigines, however, share adherence to the general outline of a cosmology.
The Dreaming
The central concept for understanding Aboriginal cosmology is the Dreaming. The
Dreaming signifies the mythological, formative era during which the enduring shape
of the earth was created, patterns of living were established, and laws for human be-
haviour were set down. The forementioned Spencer and Gillen introduced the term ‘the
Dream time’ for Aboriginal cosmology. It was their translation of the word alcher-
inga from the Aranda (now: Arrente) in Central Australia. Although this translation is
somewhat misleading, Aborigines have adopted it when speaking about their world-
view in English (Stanner 1979). Most commonly used by Aborigines today are the
terms The Dreaming and Dreaming. Another expression that has currency is The Law.
Dreamtime, the Dreaming and related terms refer to the creation time. Accord-
ing to Aboriginal creation stories, Ancestral Beings reshaped the world in a long dis-
tant past. It must be noted that in contrast to the creation myths of world religions this
was not a creation out of nothing. The world already existed as an inert, amorphous
mass of clay or, covered by water, in fluid condition (Maddock 1982). The powers of
the Dreaming emerged from this mass, came to the surface, took human-like shapes,
and wandered over the earth. In the process, they had their adventures, recounted in
the creation stories, that were events that moulded the landscape, and created nature
and culture. Ancestral Beings transformed into animals and other creatures, vegeta-
tion, natural features, such as rocks and creeks and waterholes, ‘natural forces’, such
as thunder and rain, and visible elements and formations in the sky (Mountford 1958).
The Ancestral Beings or ‘world-creative powers,’ as Maddock (1982) calls them,
gave Aborigines a blueprint for their way of life. According to the creation stories, the
Ancestral Beings also installed the major religious ceremonies.
Some of the narrated events of the Dreaming are re-enacted in those ceremo-
nies. Although the Dreaming refers to the long distant past during the creation period,
it is far more than that. For Aborigines, the Dreaming is omnipresent in space and
time – past, present and future. Consequently, W.E.H. Stanner (1979: 24) translates
the Dreaming as ‘everywhen’. Generally speaking, Aborigines attribute all acts of
Venbrux – Chapter 2: Death and the Moon
creativity to the Ancestral Beings of the Dreaming. So, in principle, there is no differ-
ence between patterns or designs found in nature and those made by Aborigines in the
context of their ceremonial life. Both kinds of design may be conceived of as traces of
the Dreaming, containing spiritual power. Hence, as Peter Sutton makes clear, Abo-
rigines will not unnecessarily make markings, such as doodling or scratching with a
stick in the sand. Their world is one of meaningful signs (Sutton 1988: 13-14). And
every sign is a statement of their being in the world.
The Dreaming thus continues to have relevance for the present as well as for
the future, since Ancestral Beings were present and active not only at the beginning of
life, but continue to exist and exert their influence. They are incorporated into the so-
cial system of clans and kinship, and their interrelationships resemble the ones be-
tween social groupings. Following Kenneth Maddock (1982), a distinction between
these Ancestral Beings can be made between so-called transcendental and totemic
powers. The difference between both types of power corresponds to differences in the
magnitude of their creative acts. Furthermore, the former transcends the specific so-
cial divisions connected to clans or particular kinship relations. The latter are associ-
ated with certain social groups to the exclusion of others. The myths discussed in this
paper concern totemic powers or ancestors.
Throughout Australia, a great diversity in mythological beliefs can be dis-
cerned. An example may be seen in geographical differences in the perception of tran-
scendental powers. In the southern and eastern parts of Australia, an ‘All-Father’
figure is said to have had decisive influence in shaping the earth, whereas in northern
Australia, such formative power is ascribed to an ‘All-Mother’ figure.
examples are Ngurunderi from the Lower River Murray area and Murtankala from
Bathurst and Melville Islands. The majority of religious myths describe the wander-
ings and activities of various creative beings. However, in view of the great variation
in the natural environment, it is not unsurprising that there exists an equal variety in
explanatory myths. Moreover, even within clans and kinship groups, no single version
is necessarily accepted as the only correct one. Frequently, the ancestral connections
referred to reflect the protagonists’ representations of social relations and subsequent
relations to the land. Ideologically, Aborigines state they belong to the land rather
than that the land belongs to them. Claims to the relevant ancestral connections have
to be rooted in the authority of the Dreamtime, a privilege of the initiated, but still
more of an achievement than a given since new aspects of Dreamtime stories, sup-
posed to have always been there, can be revealed in a dream, a vision, or a newly
made design (cf. Myers 1986). Whether such revelations, embodying the hidden dy-
namics of the Dreamtime, catch on and find acceptance or not often depends on the
political state of affairs. Interestingly, introduced species, Jesus, cars, and planes,
among other things, have become appropriated and incorporated in Aboriginal to-
temic systems.

See also Hiatt’s chapter on the high-god controversy (Hiatt 1996: 100-119).
Anke Tonnaer 2007 has shown how an airplane dance at Borroloola on two different occasions was
New Perspectives on Myth
How death came into the world
According to Ronald and Catherine Berndt, who recorded numerous indigenous
myths across Australia, ‘the inevitability of death is emphasized’ (Berndt & Berndt,
1988: 453). The moon figures prominently in various Australian Aboriginal myths
about the origin of death. In these myths, an ancesteral being dies and another being,
the moon, offers to revive the first ever dead. The offer, however, is refused. Hence,
death has come to the world. The myth of the cultural hero Purukupali and his brother
Tapara from Bathurst and Melville Islands, in northern Australia, is a case in point:
‘Towards the end of the creation period Purukupali introduced death into Tiwi society. Puru-
kupali fought with his younger maternal brother, Tapara, after the latter had seduced Puruku-
pali’s wife and her son had died as a result of neglect. Tapara offered to bring the child back
to life but Purukupali refused the offer and said that because his son had died, all people had
to die. In his fight, Tapara injured Purukupali’s leg with a forked throwing club. Tapara was
hurt above the eye, and transformed into the moon. Every month the scar left by the injury
above the eye still can be seen on the moon. In one version of the myth, Purukupali’s baby,
Djinani, dies of starvation; in another, he dies of thirst due to having been left in the hot sun,
while Tapara and Purukupali’s wife Bima were having sex in the bushes. Bima was grief-
stricken: her wailing sounds can still be heard, because she turned into Waijai, the curlew. [In
spite of Tapara’s] promise to bring Purukupali’s dead son (Djinani) back to life within three
days, Purukupali issued death: as his son had died, he said, all people would have to die’
(Venbrux & Tonnaer 2009).

I will return to this particular discussion of the myths (and its variants), but
first I would like to share a few other tales as Aboriginal myths involving death and
the moon that have the refusal of regeneration to life as their theme which have been
recorded across Australia. These are neither the only Australian Aboriginal myths
explaining how death came into the world nor do they seem to be confined exclu-
sively to the smallest continent.

used by local Aborigines to forge relations with the outside world. This occurred by respectively pre-
paring male and female performers to pull on one occasion white men from the audience and white
women on the other occasion.
The islands’ remaining mythological ancestors gathered and, following Purukapali’s instructions, they
performed a cycle of death rites for the first time. Tiwi people today still follow the script laid down in
the creation period. This includes the ritual roles they enact, the designs and carved and painted posts
erected at the conclusion of the final ceremony, called iloti, meaning ‘for good’ or ‘forever.’
Frazer 1913: 59-86 distinguishes four types of myths of the origin of death:
1) Two Messengers,
2) the Waxing and Waning of the Moon,
3) the Serpent and his Cast Skin, and
4) the Banana.
With regard to the second one, concerning the moon, he offers examples from Australia, Asia and Af-
rica. According to Frazer these myths
‘all imply a belief that death is not a necessary part of the order of nature, but that it originated
in a pure mistake or misdeed of some sort on somebody’s part, and that we should all have
lived happy and immortal if it had not been for that disastrous blunder or crime’ (1913: 84).
Venbrux – Chapter 2: Death and the Moon
Waterman (1987: 84-85) indexes 2850 Moon and the old man; 2855 Moon
and turkey; 2860 Moon, bronze-wing pigeon and the water of life; 2870 Moon, his
dog and water; 2880 Moon and Purakapali’s child; 2885 Moon, native cat and kanga-
roo; and 2890 Moon and parrot fish as the types of oral narratives concerning the ori-
gin of death in which ‘moon offers life, man chooses death.’

Another type of tale might be referred to as the Moon and dingo. The follow-
ing was recorded from a man named Daly by anthropologist Deborah Rose (1992:
104) at Victoria River Downs in the northwest of the Northern Territory:
‘Yeah. Well him [Moon] been talk: ‘‘You want to die, die! Bones to bones. Kujip. Kujip mean
where he got to go back to bones. That what it really means now . . . [He was being] Cruel.
That waluku [dog; dingo] said: ‘‘You try, learn me how to go.’’
Jakilin [Moon] been die, and him come out for four days. And him [dog] been say: ‘‘You
can’t see em me come out four days. I’ll go forever.’’ And this walaku been die, and forget
him altogether. Nother walaku been talk: ‘‘We gotto go like that.’’ And there, we go like that,
all right. And he couldn’t make a change. I don’t know why. That jakilin should have been
say, Moon should have say: ‘‘Ah, that’s bad. No good you stay back, like that. Why don’t you
come back again?’’ That walaku been do wrong. Yeah. Nother dog been there: ‘‘What’s the
good, poor bugger. Come back, come back, make a new life. And you’ll die and come back
with new life.’’ Nothing good. He made mistake now, walaku . . . You think. What’s a good
life? Jakilin, that Moon. That one we had to miss out. We have been follow that dog. We
never make change. We should have followed this Moon.’
In short, since the mythical Dingo ancestor decided to die, it was people’s fate
to be mortal. He could be blamed for it because the Moon had offered him the chance
to become immortal.
In the next tale Moon and Possum have a fight. After being fatally wounded,
the mythical ancestor Possum decrees that from then on all people have to die like
himself. The Moon’s offer of immortality comes too late. This type of tale might be
called Moon and Possum. An example is the following account recorded by the
‘Moon, Gurana, and Spotted Possum, Jindalbu, were once men: but they quarrelled. Possum
picked up a sharp wooden yam stick and knocked Moon down. After a while Moon got up.
Grabbed the same yam stick and hit Possum, mortally wounding him. As he was dying Pos-
sum spoke: ‘‘All the people who come after me, future generations, when they die they’ll die
forever.’’ But Moon said, ‘‘You should have let me say something first, because I won’t die
forever. I’ll die for a few days, but I will come back again in the shape of a new moon.’’ As
for human beings – we die forever because Possum spoke first. This took place at Manggumu
on the mainland, in Maung country, where there are high rocks near Sandy Creek’ (Berndt &
Berndt 1988: 397).
Spencer and Gillen (1968 [1899]: 564) documented a variant of the Moon and Pos-
sum narrative among the Aranda from Central Australia:

Waterman notes, ‘The moon is usually represented as male, and themes concerned with water, bone
or shell, death and rebirth are common in moon narratives. In some accounts, moon exhibits character-
istics typical of the dual trickster / culture hero figure, being on the one hand greedy, lascivious, sly,
and on the other the initiator of marriage, marriage rules and child begetting’ (1987: 22).
Spencer and Gillen 1968 [1899]: 564 state that ‘the moon […] is regarded as of the male sex, and is
New Perspectives on Myth
‘before there was any moon in the heavens, a man of the Anthinna or opossum totem died and
he was buried, and shortly afterwards arose from his grave in the form of a boy. His people
saw him rising and were very afraid and ran away. He followed them shouting, ‘‘Do not be
frightened, do not run away, or you will die altogether; I shall die but shall rise again in the
sky.’’ He subsequently grew into a man and died, reappearing as the moon; and since then he
has continued to periodically die and come to life again; but the people who ran away died al-
together. When no longer visible it is supposed that the moon man is living with his two wives
who dwell far away in the west.’
In this case, the Possum ancestor turned into the moon. People were afraid be-
cause this man, who died, first resurfaced from the grave as a boy. They ran away and
did not listen to his promise of immortality. As a result, from this time on all had to
die except the moon.
Another additional ‘wrong’ occurs in the myth when the Moon breaks a strict
taboo by trying to marry his mother-in-law. This resulted in a fight with the in-laws,
but in this case the Moon declares all people have to die. The tale might be called
Moon and his Mother-in-Law. Phyllis Kaberry (2004 [1939]: 128) wrote down the
following version in the Kimberley in the north of Western Australia:
‘the moon, djuru, had tried to marry his mother-in-law, nambin, and had been attacked by the
infuriated woman and her mates. In revenge he said, ‘‘I shall die now, but I shall come back in
five days. But when you die, you will not come back.’’ This according to the natives, was the
origin of death and wrong marriage. ‘‘We got to follow that one moon,’’ they would say with
a grin, and pervert what should serve as a warning against the infringement of tribal law into a
sanction for their own behaviour.’
The Moon’s behaviour in the mythological story happens to be an inversion of
what people consider proper. His breach of the norm was not allowed, since the an-
cestors’ adherence to the (marriage) rules had severe consequences: the Moon decreed
that they, and by implication their descendants, would die and not return to life.
While the previous three tale-types have not been indexed by Waterman, the
following has, namely as the Moon and Parrot fish (1987: 85, nr. 2890). She also re-
fers to W. Lloyd Warner’s classic work A Black Civilization, giving a summary of the
account of the Murngin (Yolngu) of Arnhem Land:
‘The moon decided that when he died he would waste away leaving only bones but would be
reborn. He urged parrot fish to do the same. Fish refused. Because of that choice, men die
permanently’ (Ibid.).

Warner’s full account (1958 [1937]: 523-524) is worth citing:
‘In the days of Wongar [creation time], Moon said to the Parrot Fish, ‘‘I’m going to die, but I
won’t be finished, for I am going to be alive again and come back.’’
Parrot Fish said, ‘‘You are no good. What do you want to die and live again for?’’
Moon said, ‘‘What about you?’’

spoken of as E rwta Oknurcha, or a big man, its name being Atninja.’
Another version, concerning the same indigenous group, is summarized by Waterman 1987: 85 as
follows: ‘The moon man and the parrot fish man fought, killing each other. Moon man’s spirit decreed
he would live in the sky and be constantly reborn, but parrot fish would live in the sea and never come
to life again.’
Venbrux – Chapter 2: Death and the Moon
Parrot Fish said, ‘‘Me? I’ll die, but I won’t come back, and you can pick up my bones.’’
‘‘Well, it doesn’t matter about you,’ said Moon. ‘When I die I want to come back. Every time
I get sick and get more sick and get thinner and thinner and only my bones are left and then
I’ll die, but I’ll come back again.’’
The Moon then got sick and wasted away until it had died, then came back again. Parrot Fish
said, ‘‘I won’t be that way. When I die, when man dies, we’ll stay dead. You come back, but
that is wrong.’’
The Parrot Fish died and never came back, but the Moon, ever since those Wongar days, has
been well and fat, then become ill and wasted away until it was dead again, but it always
comes back and grows to full size. When the Moon had had its conversation with Parrot Fish
he had wanted Parrot Fish to be like him. He had said, ‘Come on and become alive again like
me. I can fix you so that you will come alive again.’
‘‘No,’’ said Parrot Fish, ‘‘I want to die and stay dead.’’
‘‘This is what makes man stay dead and never come back to life. The Parrot Fish was a silly
fool.’’ ’

Here, the narrator again blames a mythological ancestor, the Parrot Fish, for
having brought death to the world, yet listening to the Moon could have prevented it.
Before I turn to Waterman’s nr. 2880, Moon and Purakapali’s child, I will
briefly discuss the motivations beginning to emerge from the five other types that re-
ject the moon’s offer of eternal life. In Moon and the old man, nr. 2850, an old man
tells the Moon not to bring people to life again.
The turkey denied the dying being
restored to life by the Moon for he wanted to have their women, as related in nr. 2855,
Moon and turkey. The next tale-type, nr. 2860, Moon, bronze-wing pigeon and the
water of life, says the Moon has ‘the water of life’ but the Pigeon does not allow peo-
ple to drink from it, or in a variant that the Pigeon also offers water to drink that turns
people into mortals. In Moon, his dogs and water, nr. 2870, people refused to carry
the Moon’s dogs across a stream on his request. Forewarned by the Moon, and anger-
ing him, they would no longer be reborn. Finally, the Moon, native cat and kangaroo
tale-type, nr. 2885, tells that both the mythical ancestors of the Native Cat and the
Kangaroo wanted to have nothing to do with the Moon, albeit they were advised by
the latter that people need not remain dead (Waterman 1987: 84-85). In the next sec-
tion, I will offer a comparison of these myths.
Comparing the myths
The table below compares the ten, relevant myths:

type tale / myth offer refused by cause
W2850 Moon and the old man old man said so (authority due to seniority)
W2855 Moon and turkey turkey desired to take the surviving women

Van Gennep 1905: 183 cites an example of this myth on the origin of death.
New Perspectives on Myth
after the death of the men
W2860 Moon, bronze-wing
pigeon and the water
of life
pigeon pigeon did not allow old people to
drink the life-restoring water of the
moon or offered his own useless
water to victims of sorcery
W2870 Moon, his dogs and
people disobeyed moon (challenged his
W2880 Moon and Puraka-
pali’s child
Purakapali his baby died out of neglect when
his younger brother had seduced his
W2885 Moon, native cat and
native cat or kangaroo dislike of the moon
W2890 Moon and parrot fish parrot fish priority of decree: parrot fish spoke
before moon
Moon and dingo dingo dingo forgot about the moon’s dem-
onstration of how to be reborn
Moon and possum possum fear of the revenant and rejuvenated
Moon and his mother-
moon punishment moon for desiring his
mother-in-law (illicit marriage)
Table 2.1. Comparing Australian myths of death and dying

Most strikingly, the Moon himself only opts for human mortality in one case – the
Moon and his Mother-in-Law myth, whereas in all other cases the Moon’s offer of
eternal life fails to be accepted as a result of the (in)actions of other protagonists. The
one exception happens to deal with the relationship with in-laws on which one is de-
pendent to obtain women for the sake of human reproduction. The mother-in-law is
the key figure with whom the Moon would have had to adhere to the prescribed
avoidance relationship, out of respect. Furthermore, because she provided him with a
(future) wife, he would have to provide services for her in return. But acting as an
amorous suitor of the mother-in-law, as the Moon did, is one of the most serious
breaches of the norm. Having sex with or ‘marrying’ one’s mother-in-law is strictly
taboo, such a marriage is illicit, and can only be answered with the severe punishment
of the perpetrator (the Moon approached the woman, who strongly objected to this).
This narrative illustrates that the occurrences in myths need not always be demonstra-
tions of proper behaviour.
This myth, however, makes clear that mythical ancestors had to withstand the
temptation and that for men to have a sexual relationship (the most radical inversion
of avoidance) with their mother-in-law would be out of the question. In real life such
cases do sometimes occur, and result in social tensions and conflict. Another in-
grained social tension emerges in the myth of Moon and Purakapali’s child (W2880),
Venbrux – Chapter 2: Death and the Moon
that is, the tension between fraternal strife and fraternal generosity. Brothers have to
support each other (are members of the same exogamous clan) but simultaneously
they have to compete for the same category of women (potential wives of another clan
with which their clan exchanges marriage partners). Moon, the younger brother, is
taken to task not so much for having pinched Purukapali’s wife, but for the neglect
and subsequent death of Purukapali’s child, while Moon had a love tryst with the
child’s mother. The competition for women is also a theme in the tale of the Moon
and turkey (W2855), where the Turkey refuses to prevent his brothers’ death, because
he is after their women.
Further features of Aboriginal social life are also expressed in the myths. First
and foremost, the importance of seniority: the right to speak and to issue decrees is
held by initiated, senior men. The story of Moon and the old man (W2850) illustrates
this, and, in addition, the authority of senior men is stressed in a number of the other
myths (W2855, W2860, W2880, W2890). Moon, his dogs, and the water of life
(W2870) offers an example wherein the Moon holds this authority, but is unduly chal-
lenged by other ancestral people. The Parrot fish, in the Moon and the parrot fish
(W2890), appears to have been of equal status as the Moon, and here it is the priority
of the decree that counts. Native Cat and Kangaroo disliked the Moon. As Moon, na-
tive cat and kangaroo (W2885) relates, they wanted to have nothing to do with him:
the Moon thus failed to have authority over them in spite of his intangible asset, the
promise of eternal life. Failure to remember lessons learned, as the Moon and dingo
demonstrates, may have dire consequences. Unjustified fear rather than blind accep-
tance has the same effect in Moon and possum, although the senior mythical ancestor,
Possum, turned into a boy: understandably, a junior person lacked the authority re-
quired to be listened to.
The Moon is presented similarly in the myths as a senior male person. They
vary in their explanations for why the Moon’s offer of life failed to be granted or ac-
cepted. These mythical occurrences have to be accepted as a fact of life for in peo-
ple’s worldview this happened to be the actions of their mythical ancestors that
brought death into the world. Whether they like it or not, these formative actions can-
not be undone by non-ancestral mortals.
Blaming the totemic ancestors
From the perspective of the narrators, however, the responsible totemic ancestors can
be blamed for the deaths that do occur. If we return to my main example of the myth
of Moon and Purakapali’s child (W2880), this can be further demonstrated. As we
have seen, totemic ancestors – such as Turkey, Possum and Parrot Fish – were blamed
for having brought death into the world in other tales as well. This blaming may occur
indeed in the narration of the myths concerned. It may also occur on the occasion of
an actual death in verbal expressions and wailing as part of mourning behaviour and
in song lyrics and other ritual actions.
New Perspectives on Myth
The Tiwi culture hero Purukapali was unforgiving with regard to the fatal ne-
glect of his son. He made the law of human mortality, stating: ‘Now that my son is
dead we shall all follow him. We shall all have to follow my son. No one will ever
come back. Everyone will die’ (Osborne 1974: 83). In the myth’s final episode Puru-
kapali, carrying the corpse of his baby-boy, walks backwards into the sea. When the
water closes over his head, he calls out: ‘You must all follow me; as I die, so you
must all die’ (Mountford 1958: 30). The twice-decreed mortality, however, did not
apply to his younger brother, Tapara. The latter turned into the moon.
During my fieldwork in the Tiwi Islands, bereaved senior men frequently
blamed Purukapali, thus expressing their anger concerning the death of a loved one.
In these ritualized exclamations and in their lyrics of mourning songs they said that
they wanted to kill Purukapali, to spit and to hit him in the face. The men stressed
how stupid Purukapali had been, he was ‘talking wrong thing’ (Venbrux 1995: 136).
Notwithstanding their abhorrence of Purukapali sentencing humans to death, they also
engaged in (partial) re-enactments of the myth. Stamping their feet in the mortuary
rituals, for instance, might be seen as an allusion to the culture hero, who ‘kept stamp-
ing his foot’ (Osborne 1974: 83-84) when he told everyone they would have to die.
Allusions to the myth’s episode of the fight between the two brothers are
manifold in the mortuary rituals. For example, Purukapali was hurt with a forked
fighting stick by his younger brother Tapara; therefore, two bands have to be painted
on the leg by someone bereaved of an older brother. Repeatedly, the mythical fight is
the theme of a song in the death rites. To cite the lyrics of one such a song as an ex-
ample: ‘Tapara and Purukapali had a fight, and Purukapali was wounded, got shot, at
his leg by Tapara / He put blood running on the ceremonial ring (milimika).’ The
words refer to the myth, but –as was the case in this instance, may also refer to a fight
between brothers that took place in real life. Tapara was hit in turn by Purukapali with
a pointed fighting stick above his eye, the blood running over his face. Tapara’s
wounds can still be seen on the moon, for he turned into the moon, and this lunar
manifestation is represented in ritual by the ceremonial ring.
The ritualized blaming of Purukapali helps to channel emotions, such as anger,
after a death. This function of emotional release, besides the explanatory function of
the myth, is an important one in the context of death-related behaviour, including
mourning. On the symbolic level, however, the myth appears also of central impor-
tance in bringing about ritual transformations, the performance of rites of passage, due
to the symbolism of death and rebirth. Whereas Purukapali stands for death, Tapara or
the Moon is employed to symbolize rebirth and regeneration.
Purukapali said all had to die, but Tapara escaped this fate. People, therefore, identify
with the latter when they want to emphasize regeneration. In other words, that in spite
of Purukupali’s condemning words life returns. Louis Allen (1975: 219) recorded the
Venbrux – Chapter 2: Death and the Moon
following part of the myth that gives an account of T(j)apara’s life-force:
‘Tjapara became the Moon Man. He can be seen in the night sky, his face marked by the
bruises and wounds that Purukapali inflicted. He still feels Purukapali at his heels, for he
never ceases his restless journey. Hungry from his travels, he gorges on crabmeat, growing
rounder and fatter each day until he has feasted so much he falls sick. His wasting body is the
waning moon. Each month he dies, but after three days he comes back to life and begins his
journey once again. His loneliness is over, for he has found many wives, the planets, who ac-
company him on his journey across the sky.’
The waning of the moon was always to be followed by its waxing. In another
version, written down by Mountford (1958: 30), the eternal death and rebirth is
‘When Tjapara saw what had happened, he changed himself into the moon. But he did not en-
tirely escape the decree of Purukupali, for, even though Tjapara is eternally reincarnated, he
has to die for three days. On any clear night, one can see on the face of the moon-man the
wounds which he received in his fight with Purukupali so long ago.’
Most allusions to Tapara (regeneration) are found among increase rituals, in
contrast to the mortuary rites in which Purukapali (death) turns out the most promi-
nent character. To begin with, the seasonal increase ritual, called kulama, has to be
performed at full moon, that is, when Tapara’s strength and presence is optimal. Fur-
thermore, this ritual (that lasts three days and nights) marks the transition of the wet
season to the dry season. It coincides, in addition, with the initiation of youths, and as
a psychotherapeutic ritual, dealing with grief and grievances during the first night,
‘the night of sorrow’, when the participants lie down (enacting symbolic death). It is
structured by the ritual procedures of processing a certain type of round tuber with
hairy roots, called kulama. These yams are poisonous in a raw state, but become edi-
ble when carefully prepared, roasted and soaked during the ritual. The performance of
the ritual takes place when the yams have ripened. The ritual is concerned not only
with the change of season and initiation, but also with interpersonal conflicts, the
dead, growth in the natural environment and expansion of food production, human
reproduction, prosperity, health, and people’s well-being in general. It is not without
significance that the sacred yams are placed in a ring made of long, green grass: this
ring is called tapara or the moon. The poisonous yam is a potent symbol of sickness
and danger; when processed in the ritual, rubbing the body with a mixture of yam
mash and red ochre (Tapara’s blood) is considered an effective prophylactic and heal-
ing act (cf. Venbrux 2008). In line with the powers of Tapara the symbolic actions in
this particular and complex ritual work towards a renewal and regeneration of the
people’s world. The associations of Purukapali and Tapara –two major characters in a
single myth, with respectively death and increase rites demonstrates the mythical
characters’ productiveness in ritual contexts as symbolic vehicles of death and regen-
New Perspectives on Myth
Concluding discussion
A significant way in which belief is transformed into action is through Aboriginal
ritual. Ritual and mythology are closely intertwined. I have pointed out above some
allusions to the myth of the Moon and Purukapali’s child (W2880) in ritual in order
to show that this moon narrative not only provides an explanation of how death came
to the world, but also offers a model for symbolic death and rebirth in major rites of
passage. What is more, the myth appears to have a function in the release of emotions,
especially anger, since after a death, the culture hero Purukapali is blamed for it in a
ritualized manner.
In addition to the seven moon myths under the rubric ‘origin of death: moon
offers life, man chooses death’ outlined and indexed by Waterman (1987), I identified
three further ones: Moon and dingo, Moon and possum, and Moon and his mother-in-
law. The comparison of the ten available myths from across Australia has shown that
the motivations to refuse the moon’s offer of life varied. These motivations could be
better understood in the context of Aboriginal social practices and norms. It also be-
came clear, however, that the behaviour of mythical totemic ancestors did not neces-
sary demonstrate the rules of proper conduct. The case of Moon and his mother-in-
law, for example, might only be regarded as a ‘blueprint’ if the Moon’s behaviour is
considered an inversion of the way in which people ought to behave.
‘The interpretation of Australian myths,’ as Hiatt (1975: 3) points out, ‘has been guided in the
main by four separate though not necessarily incompatible ideas about the nature and purpose
of the subject matter. They are that myth is, or may be at least in part, a kind of (a) history, (b)
charter, (c) dream, or (d) ontology.’
The myth of the Moon and Purukupali’s child (W2880) can be interpreted in
these ways. For A.P. Elkin (1964 [1938]: 215),
‘mythology is not just a matter of words and records, but of action and life.’
The primary aim of myths, in his view, is keeping Aborigines ‘in living touch
with the creative dream-time;’ and, therefore, Elkin claims, ‘the myth is life-giving’
(Ibid.). The expected efficacy of ritual gestures alluding to the Tiwi moon myth seems
to underscore this point. Moreover, the myth deals with both death and regeneration.
Although the antiquity of this particular myth (or of the ten myths for that
matter) cannot be established, long-term isolation of the Tiwi from the mainland may
be taken into account. Since the last Ice Age, that is, for some 8,000 years they would
have been separated from other Aborigines until the beginning of the twentieth cen-
tury; this is supported by linguistic and genetic evidence (see Hart, Pilling & Goodale
1988; Osborne 1974; Kirk 1983). If the myth is indeed authentic, its content may pre-
sent a theme that is very old, even more so because comparable moon myths have
been recorded at various places across Australia. It is not my aim to engage in specu-
lation here, but we simply cannot exclude the possibility.
For one thing, the moon must have been there all the time. As Smith (1970:
71) attests, Aborigines observed and had knowledge of the course of the moon. The
Venbrux – Chapter 2: Death and the Moon
waxing and waning of the moon could not go unnoticed. (I was told Tiwi Aborigines
of olden times were also keen observers of the tides). The moon did become an apt
symbol of regeneration in the local religion.
The anthropomorphism concerning
natural phenomena like the moon is widespread. Theo Meder’s discussion of the Man
in the moon (1997) concerns European folktales. He refers to ‘Das Märchen vom
Mann im Monde,’ published by Ludwig Bechstein in 1857, and numerous other ver-
sions that share a common theme where someone has committed a wrong and, there-
fore, is similarly sent to the moon. He discerns the motifs in all of these tales as
answers to the following questions: ‘who do we see in the moon?; what is his name?;
what did he do wrong?; how did he get to the moon?; what was his punishment?’
(Meder 1997: 223).
These questions are also answered by the Australian myth of
Moon and Purukapali’s child (W2880). What they all have in common is that they are
etiological tales. The moon myths discussed in this paper also explain how death
came into the world and they make clear who should be blamed for it.
Allen, Louis A., 1975, Time Before Morning: Art and Myth of the Australian Aborigines, New York:
Thomas Y. Crowell.
Berndt, R.M. and Berndt, C.H., 1988, The World of the First Australians. Aboriginal Traditional Life:
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Hart, W.C.M., Pilling, A.R. and Goodale, J.C., 1988, The Tiwi of North Australia. Third Edition. New
York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
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lian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, pp. 1-23.
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Meder, T., 1997, ‘Het mannetje in de maan,’ in Van Aladdin tot Zwaan kleef aan. Lexicon van

See also McConnel 1931.
Interestingly, Meder refers to Dante’s Divina Comedia (early fourteenth century) in which the pun-
ishment of the man in the moon has to do with fraternal strife: his name is Cain, and he has been sent
there by God for the bodily harm he inflicted on his brother Abel 1997: 223. Tapara who fought his
brother Purukapali ended up there as well.
New Perspectives on Myth
sprookjes: ontstaan, ontwikkeling, varianten, ed. T. Dekker, J. van der Kooi and T. Meder,
Nijmegen: SUN / Antwerpen: Kritak, pp. 221-225.
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etnologie, eds. T. Dekker, G. Rooijakkers and H. Roodenburg, Nijmegen: SUN, pp. 282-336.
Merlan, F., 1998, Caging the Rainbow: Places, Politics, and Aborigines in a North Australian Town,
Honolulu: Hawaii University Press.
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Mountford, C.P., 1958, The Tiwi, their Art, Myth and Ceremony, London: Phoenix House.
Myers, F.R., 1986, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place, and Politics among Western Desert
Aborigines, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Osborne, C.R., 1974, The Tiwi Language, Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
Rose, D.B., 1992, Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture, Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, W.R., 1970, Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines, New York: Johnson Reprint
[orig. n.d., London: George G. Harrap].
Spencer, B. and Gillen, F.J., 1968, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, New York: Dover Publica-
tions [orig. 1899].
Stanner, W.E.H., 1979, ‘The Dreaming,’ in White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938-1973, ed.
W.E.H. Stanner, Canberra: Australian National University Press, pp. 23-40.
Sutton, P., 1988, ‘Dreamings,’ in Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, ed. P. Sutton, New
York: Viking, pp. 13-32.
Tonnaer, A., 2007, ‘La danse de l’avion. Réarticuler les relations de genre au festival de Borroloola
(Australie),’ in La Défi Indigène, eds. B. Glowczewski and R. Henry, Paris: Aux lieux d’être,
pp. 89-101.
Van Gennep, A., 1905, Mythes et légendes d’Australie. Études d’ethnographie et de sociologie, Paris:
E. Guilmoto.
Venbrux, E., 1995, A Death in the Tiwi Islands: Conflict, Ritual and Social Life in an Australian Abo-
riginal Community, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Venbrux, E., 2002b, Review of Old Man Fog and the Last Aborigines of Barrow Point, by John B.
Haviland and Roger Hart, American Ethnologist 29(1): 219-220.
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sinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.
Chapter 3. Tales of death and regenera-
tion in West Africa

by Walter E.A. van Beek

Abstract: Myths in African traditional religions (plural intended!) often have an ambivalent relation
both to the rituals in those religions and to the conceptions of the ‘other world.’ For one part the princi-
pal rituals seem to bear little relation to the main body of myth, on the other hand some or many of the
main supernatural agents do not feature in the myths at all. This relative cultural autonomy of myths is
reflected in the issues the myths address among which etiology seems to be of a lesser concern. This
dynamic will be viewed in the myths on death and dying in some West African societies. Here, ques-
tions of ultimate origin do not feature, neither of creation nor of death, but the mythical atention is
more of an intermediate nature, more protohistorical than purely mythical. Thus, one of the glaring
absences, in some cases, is any explanation of death’s origin, while the focus is either on avoiding the
discourse on death and dying, or on the battle against death: how to avoid dying, and why man’s ulti-
mate inability to do so. The comparative data stem from the author’s research (Kapsiki, North Camer-
oon, and Dogon, Mali) as the core of a wider West African comparison.
Introduction: An unromantic Africa
Books with large collections of myths, especially those of the universalistic kind such
as Campbell’s,
usually have only a short section on African myths. For some reason
or other, Africa seems to fall beyond the scope of cherished mythical tales. Is this se-
lective neglect or is Africa indeed not home to that many myths? I think two proc-
esses are at play here, romanticism and the relationship of myth with folk stories.
First, mythological studies have long been colored by a romantic vision, with myths
as the ‘hallowed remnants of a far greater knowledge born in a bygone golden age,
and handed down through the years as a dwindling heritage of that past.’
In the last
few decades this view has been severely discredited
– and rightly so – and is defi-
nitely not shared in this article. But the romantic view has had a big impact and one

African Studies Centre, Leiden / Department of Religious Studies, Tilburg University.
Campbell 1959-1968.
Belcher 2005: xvii.
See, for example, Segal 1984, 2004, Belcher 2005: xvii-xx.
New Perspectives on Myth
effect has been in the selection of cultures which would fit into the romantic mould
and for which ‘tribal wisdom’ would seem an appropriate notion. I have the distinct
impression that African local cultures do not evoke the same kind of romantic appeal
that indigenous cultures in other parts of the world generate. The myth of ‘tribal wis-
dom’ seems to be less powerful in Africa than it is in, for instance, Aboriginal Austra-
lia, on the slopes of the Andes or in Tibet.

Somehow the notion of the ‘noble savage’ resonates more with traditional cul-
tures ‘out of Africa’ than with the many on the continent, despite the fact that age-old
wisdom should be found more easily on our continent of origin. The situation is simi-
lar in the present vogue of romantic ‘noble savage tourism’, where young westerners
are looking for the impassioned age-old wisdom of the shamans to be cured or to be-
come shamans themselves. In this vein too, Africa is not deemed to possess ancient
wisdom for general humanity, as few tourists set out for the African ‘wilds’ to be ini-
tiated into the tribal wisdom which is the outcome of millennia of survival on a harsh
One reason for this might be that African cultures are not threatened, and
that on a continent full of African cultures it is difficult to use the term ‘indigenous’,
with its connotations of a threatened minority clinging to their ancient wisdom in the
face of overwhelming odds. Africa is, in this sense, unromantic. At least, human Af-
rica seems to be rather unromantic, as the Africa-of-the-animals is of course highly
Africa is one of these destinations where the ‘West’ goes to find its adventures in the splendor
of the African game parks: the vast herds of wildebeest thundering through the immense
plains of untouched wilderness, the elusive ‘big five’ every traveler must have spotted and

And if Africa is also mentioned in the tourist brochures as the continent of
colorful, strange cultures, of picturesque people in thatched huts that blend in with the
surrounding savannah, these are photo ops, not a source of wonder about ourselves.
For Africanists this is slightly galling, even if such blatant romanticism is not
one they deign to subscribe to. But there might be another reason for the relative ne-
glect of Africa in the ‘world of myths’, one which has everything to do with our own
perception. Habitually, three types of ‘prose narrative’ are discerned: myths, legends
and folk tales.
Myths are stories set in a remote past, in an earlier world, with non-
human characters (preferably gods) who are sacred and generate belief. In legends,
the setting is the recent past, with human characters and the story is considered fac-
tual. Folk tales – ‘just-so stories’ – operate in a familiar world with human or non-
human characters, often animals, and do not have to be believed. Such a division has

Yet some publications try to redress this romantic balance, for example, Ford 1999, Mbitu & Prime
Some examples of mainly South Africans (and an occasional anthropologist) who are initiated as a
sangoma, a native healer, notwithstanding.
Van Beek 2007c: 150.
For a classic definition, see Bascom 1975, reprinted in Dundes 1984: 5-40.
van Beek – Chapter 3: Death Tales in West Africa
been found in many case studies as well,
as in most African cultures people seem to
separate their folk tales from their myths and legends. Thus, this separation between
fictional accounts, folk tales, and the myths and legends that are considered history is
indeed present throughout Africa.

In this contribution I argue two points. First, a distinction is made between
‘myth’ and ‘legend’ which is ‘emic history’ on the one hand, and the amusement of
folk tales on the other hand, but this does not preclude both types from heavily influ-
encing each other, i.e. using the same themes, characters and plots. Prose narratives
are not that divergent.
Second, in many African myths the setting is not that differ-
ent from our present world: African myths have a kind of familiarity, a sense of im-
mediacy that closely links them to the world we know. As I will illustrate, most of the
myths in Africa are not overly etiological or very supernatural as more people than
gods figure in them, the world is present from the start, and only small environmental
details are ever explained.
One reason for this could be that the numbers of folk tales, riddles, dilemma
tales and other forms of oral literature in Africa are overwhelming, swamping the
number of myths and legends in which the function of amusement is less important. It
is questionable whether dividing them into three categories does justice to African
prose narratives and it might be that these categories are part of the relative paucity of
African material in global myth collections.
To highlight some characteristics of the African world of myths and glean
some insight into the specificity of African myths, I will look at two examples that I
consider are functioning myths. The theme is the ‘struggle with life and death’, the
way Africans explain life and mortality. In both cases, these tales are set in hero tales
which is a genre in where Africa is also under-represented,
but then hero tales of a
different and less classic kind. The cases are both West African: one from the widely
known Dogon
of Mali; and the second, the Kapsiki of Cameroon and the Higi of
northeastern Nigeria from the periphery of West Africa.
The two accounts stem
from first-hand research over many years and the cases can be seen as a controlled
comparison with similar surroundings, similar historical trajectories and a generally

Bascom 1984: 15.
Typically, African scholars tend to consider these tales as pathways into local histories (Shokpeka
2005, Mbitu & Prime 1997), while European researchers often inverse the relationship: myths are pre-
sent politics (MacGaffey 2004, Nugent 1997). For the Mandara Mountains, balanced treatments on this
issue are given by Sterner 2003 and Müller-Kosack 2003, and for popular Islam in Africa see van
Binsbergen 1985.
See also Belcher 2005, Lynch 2004.
Ford 1999 uses a very wide definition for his hero tales.
My fieldwork among the Dogon started in 1979-1980 with regular return visits every two years, the
last being in May 2008.
The Kapsiki of Cameroon and the Higi of northeastern Nigeria form one ethnic conglomerate, which
I call Kapsiki in this article. My research among these people started in 1972-1973, with regular return
visits every three to five years, the last being in January 2009.
New Perspectives on Myth
similar socio-cultural organization. However, a comparison is about both similarities
and differences, and the two cultures will be shown to have important variations on
the themes chosen.
Two cultures: Similarities and differences
The Kapsiki in northern Cameroon as well as the Dogon in Mali live in a dry Sahe-
lian-savannah environment where the sedentary cultivation of millet, sorghum and
maize is supplemented with animal husbandry (sheep, goats and cattle). Both habitats
are mountainous, relatively densely populated and quite intensively cultivated. Culti-
vation technology is of the classical African iron-type and working units are small.
Subsistence cultivation relies on a broad spectrum of food crops, with some cash
crops to supplement the family budget. Both groups have lived in these areas for a
long time and their dwellings still echo the continuous threat of enslavement in past
For safety reasons, people built their villages only in defendable spots and
cleared fields in the immediate vicinity. The fields of the Kapsiki / Higi were situated
around the outcroppings or on the slopes themselves, whereas the Dogon cultivated
primarily those fields visible from the plateau rim. In both cases the picture changed
dramatically with the coming of colonization. The pax colonialis of the Germans and
British for the Kapsiki, and the French in the case of the Dogon, opened up the plains
and plateau as areas of cultivation. Pacification resulted in the populations rapid dis-
persal over the formerly dangerous surrounding areas.
The main, if not the only, socio-political unit consists of the village. Although
the appearance of the villages is strikingly different, both the Kapsiki and the Dogon
villages form the dominant context of village social life. Village communities have
always had a high degree of political autonomy with their own clearly defined terri-
tory, structures of authority and local histories, in which migration traditions domi-
nate. Politics are not centralized. Village heads have only a few ritual obligations, as
have the clan and lineage elders, even though they have more influence in daily life.
Conflict resolution, for instance, is highly informal and does not depend on specific
functionaries. A separate group of specialists exists in both cases: the blacksmith
group amongst the Kapsiki and the blacksmiths and leather workers / tanners among
the Dogon.
For both groups, religion is complex and echoes their history and setting. A
system of major cyclical rituals, more or less tied in to the rites de passage joins a
clearly defined set of sacrificial cults which follow the social echelons of the village:
individual, household, ward, lineage, clan, village, neighborhood, and the whole vil-
lage. Sacrifice forms the core ritual in both cases, with divination being the steering
mechanism. The pantheon, however, is quite different, even though in both cases the
role of the ancestors is limited. Their differences become apparent at the level of ide-
ology and what one might call ‘lifestyle’, the specific ways of interaction between
van Beek – Chapter 3: Death Tales in West Africa
members of the same society.
Internal fighting between the villages was much more intense in the case of
the Kapsiki. Skirmishes between Kapsiki villages used to form a continuous threat,
but they were a much-loved male activity. Villages fought each other with some regu-
larity and for a variety of reasons, always following a strict fighting code. While there
were some internal skirmishes among the Dogon, these were far less important. Their
raids were limited to occasional groups of youngsters avenging the affronts by peers
from a neighboring village who had infringed on their territory, i.e. were after ‘their
girls’. No slaves were caught and no cases of manslaughter were ever reported. The
Kapsiki had many more domestic slaves than the Dogon who rarely bought or sold
slaves. The Dogon were only likely to be involved in a slave transaction if they were
paying the ransom for a kinsman caught by a Muslim, though they occasionally did
use other kinsmen in the exchange. Slavery was thus a normal occurrence in Kapsiki
villages, but an exception on the Dogon cliff.
The two value systems vary accordingly. The Kapsiki strive for an individual
autonomy: a person should be free from all restraining ties. S/he may call upon clan
members for help but should be wary of these kinsmen taking too much of an interest
in one’s property, time and/or labor. A definite work ethic pervades the value system,
albeit an individual one: individuals should work hard and be as autarchic as possible,
economically as well as politically. In social interaction this implies an assertive atti-
tude, protecting one’s privacy, and shielding the private sphere from any unwarranted
intrusion by outsiders. Cunning, in the sense of being smarter that the other, is there-
fore a valued faculty.
The Dogon, on the contrary, are strongly oriented towards harmony and con-
tinuous communion with members of their clan and village. Conflicts should be
avoided even if differences of opinion are raised. Not only are the Dogon very much
aware of their mutual interdependency, they cherish and accentuate it wherever they
can. Communal labor, collective action and group responsibility are characteristics of
village life. Hospitality and openness are essential values: each Dogon should be ac-
cessible for anyone at all times. The Dogon language has dozens of ways of welcom-
ing a stranger, whereas the Kapsiki have only one expression for ‘welcome’. For
them, strangers are the enemy without any rights, while the Dogon consider them as
guests from whom ‘new words’ can be learned and information from the outside
world can be gleaned.
A correlated difference is the general view on age. For the Kapsiki, age as
such is not a quality to be respected; their focus is on the hard-working, strong, inde-
pendent adult who needs nobody, works hard and feeds himself and many others. Old
age brings dependency and poverty, in general a loss of status. Old men gradually lose
their wives, while old women become wholly dependent on their sons. Without a liv-
ing son, old age can be hard for the Kapsiki. While age for the Dogon, is crucially
important. Social hierarchy is based on seniority. Everything – the whole village, its
fields, crops, houses, lineages and people – is ‘owned’ by the oldest man in the village
(the ‘Hogon’). Old age is considered an achievement and forms an important power
New Perspectives on Myth
base, even if old men are dependent on their younger kinfolk for any real labor and
daily care. In Dogon society, dependency on others is not viewed as a problem, but as
a meaningful source for crucial relations.
The tales
The Kapsiki distinguish between folk tales and ‘history of the village’ stories that I
will call myths. The corpus of the first, called rhena heca (old words), run into the
but there are few riddles, dilemma tales and proverbs in Kapsiki oral tales.
Mythical tales are often given no specific name or are named after the main protago-
nist. This genre consists of the ‘history of the village’, but it is dominated by the story
of the village hero, Hwempetla. His exploits form the main point of reference for sev-
eral rituals as well as for village identity. The myth I have selected forms a crucial
part of the Hwempetla cycle. The main myths of origin are the tales of migration: how
people came to the area for the first time. For the Kapsiki, they came from just beyond
the confines of the Mandara Mountains, in fact from several points of origin, none
very far away.
The Dogon culture also is a host of folk tales, as well as proverbs, balanced at
the same time with a considerable corpus of tales that function as myths, plus a wealth
of elaborate song texts with varying characteristics, some mythical, some heroic,
some very mundane.
As far as tales of origin are concerned, the same holds for the
Dogon as for the Kapsiki though on a larger scale. The Dogon have many tales about
their arrival at the cliff. Their ancestors come from far away Mandé, thereby linking
the cliff area to the major expanse of Mandé culture, even if they are culturally at the
far eastern end of it. So the major myths of origin are, in fact, village proto-histories,
combined with etiological tales about specific features of the environment: a special
waterhole, a hole in a mountain, as well as a few tales about the provenance of their
‘castes’, the blacksmiths and the leatherworkers.
In neither case does the mythical corpus contain myths of creation as usually
understood: there are no mythical cycles about a creation ab nihilo and no system of
etiological explanations. The latter might be a surprise for those who have read the
elaborate Dogon mythology by Griaule and Dieterlen,
but these accounts have been
shown to be fabrications by research teams. The new wave of Dogon research has
clearly shown these myths to be recent constructs, the result of an uncontrolled inter-
action between ethnographers and full-time, creative (!) informants.
This evidently

I collected 120 folk tales that are in the process of being edited.
See van Beek 2008 for an analysis of one major song text.
See Griaule 1948, Dieterlen 1952, 1982, Griaule and Dieterlen 1965.
See van Beek 1991, 2007 but also the work of Anne Doquet 1997, Jacky Bouju 1984, Eric Jolly
2004 and Polly Richards 2001, 2010. The work of Belcher, cited above, still includes some of the Gri-
aulian myths (Belcher 2005: 342-45) but recognizes that ‘there is some question’ about them (Ibid.:
van Beek – Chapter 3: Death Tales in West Africa
makes a dent in the many myth collections that include Dogon ‘creation myths’, and
in some cases will all but eliminate the category of cosmogonic myths from Africa
because Griaule’s Dogon tales have been a lynch pin in many mythical analyses.
For both cultures, the general setting of the world, the overall patterns of so-
cial life and the facts of ecology are given. They do not speculate over these things, or
at least they have not developed etiological ‘explanations’. If a ‘why’ question is an-
swered by a myth at all, it is of a more restricted kind. For instance, ‘why black-
smiths’ is answered by the Kapsiki with a tale of how someone acted oddly, ate
prohibited meat and thus was relegated to the category of ‘blacksmith’, but that cate-
gory already existed and no tale explains its origins. Moreover, there are no ‘flood
tales’ in either of the cultures, a genre that is receiving increasing attention in African
comparative analysis. However, the main rituals are accompanied by a larger number
of myths. Dogon tales on the origins of masks are standard fare for the orubaru per-
formance, and our example is part of this group of the corpus. The Kapsiki burial is
closely linked to the tale used here, though its relationship with the ritual is more am-
bivalent as will be seen. Finally, some tales illustrate encounters with death, epidem-
ics, periodic drought and rain, as we will see in the hero tales of the Kapsiki and the
Dogon. But here too, the corpus is restricted, as is the scope of the questions posed
and answered by the tales.

Who tells the stories? Any Kapsiki can tell a story, but it is usually a more experi-
enced older man who is a good storyteller. He might well be a blacksmith, since this
is part of their repertoire though it does not exclusively belong to them. The context of
the storytelling is neither fixed nor ritually circumscribed. The story used here is well
known, and quickly told by anyone, even by young boys to any inquiring outsider,
although they acknowledge that others know it better. The story is remarkably stable,
as my research has shown: the versions collected in 1972, 1994 and 2009 bear almost
no differences. The occasion chosen is a gathering of men, in which one elder, possi-
bly a ward chief or the village chief himself, deems it wise to use the story for a par-
ticular didactic purpose. While telling the story needs no specific performative setting,
if the story is told well, then it can be quite a performance. Due to the extraordinary
wealth of idiophones in Kapsiki (a Chadic language), a good raconteur makes the
story come alive for his audience by accompanying any relevant action to its idio-
phone; thus his enraptured audience hears arrows whistle, people running, snakes bit-
ing and enemies dying.
Dogon mythical tales, by contrast, are set in a ritual setting. Only a few people
have the right and duty to tell the stories, and can do this very well. In Mandé culture,
the storytellers are the initiates (orubaru) of the sigi ritual
or their teachers, the

341). He does indeed err on the side of caution, as evidence that these tales were never part of Dogon
culture before the arrival of Griaule is becoming overwhelming. It is better to consider them as fiction
and no longer include them in myth collections.
The sigi ritual is explained in the next paragraph.
New Perspectives on Myth
‘masters of the word’. The audience is part of the ritual audience, usually linked with
death. The complex rites of Dogon burial, the first funeral and the final farewell dur-
ing the mask performance habitually offer a niche for telling the main stories that
make up the mythical corpus. The orubaru as a specialist has to tell the story since it
must be told in another language. This is the so-called mask language, sigi so, a deri-
vate language of the regular Dogon language, with only a 20% overlap in vocabulary.
In the literature it is has been dubbed a ‘secret language’ but all the men speak it and
most of the women can understand it reasonably well, at least in the villages on the
Dogon cliff. The orubaru has to give an impeccable performance for a ritual occasion.
He has to recite the text in fluent sigi so, without faltering, without mistakes, in one
continuous flow of oratory. The ritual language is precisely for such an occasion and
is one-way communication: nobody answers, there is no conversation in sigi so, and it
is not really spoken, as much as shouted. The text is recited loud enough for everyone
to hear, but no one answers. The language is used to shout exhortations at the mask
dancers and to thank them for their performances. The masks do not speak, instead
they just make animal sounds in return.
The struggle with death in Kapsiki
The following rhena ta Hwempetla is the Mogode version of the story where the tale
of village history forms the central part of the story, the one about their village hero
Hwempetla, or NayekwakeÞ¡. I expected every village to have such a cultural hero,
but that is not the case. Hwempetla is the hero of most Kapsiki villages, but is almost
always defined as belonging to the village of Mogode. He is more in the sphere of a
legend than a myth maybe but that issue is discussed later. Only one village, Kortchi,
had as similar tale on Nikukud, a dialect variant of NayekwakeÞ¡.
The first part of the foundation myth, rhena ta NgweÞu, is about the origin of
the village and the first arrivals from Gudur, and recounts Mogode’s dependency on
neighboring Guria. This ends with the genealogy of the Mogode clans through
Hwempetla. Hwempetla was not the first arrival, but the ancestor of all truly autoch-
thonous clans. The second part of this myth is the rhena ta Hwempetla proper and
starts with his miraculous birth followed by his exploits. His famous deeds include
stealing cattle from the neighboring village of Guria and the subsequent war which
Hwempetla won when he was joined by a stranger during the battle. Later on, other
newcomers joined him and would become ancestors of other clans. We start the text
when he was established as chief.
‘Hwempetla became the village chief. He wanted a woman so he tried to steal Rain’s daughter
but every time he came near her, Rain started to groan, and ultimately he got tired of the
game. ‘‘Why do you want to steal my daughter? Maybe you will succeed but then rain will
fall continuously on your little piece of land and drought will reign elsewhere. Your fields will
be washed away by the rain. Is that what you want? You have to go down to the earth, and I
will stay up here to go from village to village till the end of the world.’’
van Beek – Chapter 3: Death Tales in West Africa
‘‘So you won’t give me your child?’’
‘‘No, I won’t give her to you.’’
Then Rain and Hwempetla made a bet. Rain would grant Hwempetla a favor if he could hide
for eight days. Hwempetla left and hid in a beer jar between the sorrel which is kept there, in
Rain’s very house. Then Rain started his search: he came with enormous winds, tore trees
down, and destroyed houses and termites hills. Everywhere he searched, in mouse holes, un-
der stones, everywhere. Exhausted, he returned home after eight days and found Hwempetla
there who told him that he was in the sorrel, inside the beer jar.
‘‘You are right,’’ Rain says. ‘‘I have ransacked the whole earth and did not find you as you
were in my own house. I am for everyone, not for someone special. If you and your small
mountain are thirsty, then you have to tell me so. You tell me; ‘I am thirsty’ and then I’ll come
and pour myself out on your mountain. Do not buy rain from someone else but come and ask
me for it,’’ Rain told him.
Finally, Hwempetla was approaching the end of his days and he told his people: ‘‘I liberated
you from our enemies and I will try to liberate you from Death as well. If I do my utmost, I
should succeed.’’ So when his time came, he thought: ‘‘With my powers I should succeed, I
will be too quick for Death.’’ He took his bull’s skin and flew through the air. Death chased
him, faster and faster and threatened to overtake him. Hwempetla tried to throw off Death by
flying straight through a mountain, but Death still followed him.
Then he tried to hide from
Death but to no avail. He hid in a thorn bush but Death found him. He hid inside the straw on
the roof but Death found him. He hid inside a termite hill but his hairs stuck out and gave him
away. He hid inside a hollow baobab tree but Death saw him. He then dug himself into the
stem of the sorrel, and made himself very small. For four days and nights Death searched eve-
rywhere – in the straw, in the pool, in a well – but there was no sign of Hwempetla. Then at
last Death saw a toe sticking out of the sorrel because the stem was too small. So finally
Hwempetla had to admit defeat. ‘‘If the sorrel had been larger, I could have beaten Death,’’ he
said. ‘‘You people, there is no use trying to hide from death but prepare yourself for a digni-
fied end, and do as I will do shortly. Wrap me inside the skin of my bull and during the dance
the smith has to carry me on his shoulders and my wife should hold its tail. When you hear a
whooshing noise, I will be gone. Then go to a spot in the bush with a lot of fleas, above two
holes in the ground. Make my grave there, and my wife’s.’’ And so it happened. During the
dance, Hwempetla flew off the smith’s shoulders, pulling his wife behind him by the tail.
People started searching the bush and finally found two holes in the ground, covered with
fleas. They made two graves and covered them with leaves.’

Regeneration: The Dogon sigi myth
The Dogon text considered here is part of a larger corpus of texts recited by the vil-
lage speaker in sigi so at various rituals. The other deals with the Dogon’s arrival
from Mandé and the ‘finding’ of the masks in the village of Yougo in the northeast.
This central ritual spot in the Dogon area is the scene of the selected tale, the myth of

This particular mountain has caves, proof of Hwempetla’s flight through the air. One of them is used
for girls’ initiation ceremonies at the time of their first marriage (makwa).
During the annual rain hunt, these graves are repaired and covered with leaves to ask Hwempetla for
rain, a request he will convey to Rain. The discourse on rain, as elsewhere in the Mandara Mountains,
is easy to read as a discourse on power (van Beek 1997).
New Perspectives on Myth
the coming of another ritual, the sigi. Once every sixty years, the ritual of the sigi is
danced in Dogon villages over a five-year period starting in Yougo and then traveling
through Dogon country, being performed in different villages further along the cliff.
The ritual itself consists mainly of a string of fully adorned men lined up according to
descending order of age who dance following a specific route through the village, the
sigi oju, the way of the sigi. The following text is this ritual’s accompanying myth.
‘Sen Senu, a young boy, lived in the village of Yougo with his father Sanga Yèngulu and his
mother Na Yèngulu. One day while herding his father’s cattle, Sen Senu grew tired and thirsty
and climbed a tamarind tree to suck its fruits. The owner of the tree came along: ‘‘What are
you doing in my tree? Shall I throw my stick at you?’’ Sen Senu, showing no respect, an-
swered: ‘‘I want to suck them with my mouth, not my anus.’’ Of course the owner grew angry
and hit him. When he came limping home, Sen Senu’s parents asked why he had been beaten
and how he had lost the herd. ‘‘I have been hit by the owner of the tamarind tree!’’ His father
promised to go with Sen Senu next day and kill the owner. Early in the morning, the birds
awakened Sen Senu and his father, and they walked to the tree. The owner met them. ‘‘Why
have you beaten my son?’’ The owner answered: ‘‘Because he has insulted me’’ and told him
how Sen Senu, in answer to his question about what he was doing in his tree, had answered
that he was sucking fruit with his mouth not his anus. The father asked his son whether this
was true, and his son agreed. ‘‘Please accept my apologies for my son,’’ the father said. The
owner, accepting the apologies, told the father to climb the tamarind tree and take whatever
fruit he wanted, or to suck as many as he wanted to. The father, with his gun at the foot of the
tree, climbed and picked a number of fruits. From beneath, Sen Senu called to him ‘‘Why are
you climbing the tree, father?’’ ‘‘The owner has given me fruit for the porridge.’’ Sen Senu
retorted: ‘‘That is not the way, father. First you come to kill him, now you accept his fruits as
a gift. If you are like that I am no longer your herdsman.’’ ‘‘That is entirely up to you, son.’’
‘‘My way,’’ Sen Senu said ‘‘is the way of the sigi, I will follow the sigi.’’ ‘‘All right, my son,
that is entirely up to you!’’ So Sen Senu set out alone into the bush, and met someone herding
chickens. After exchanging greetings, the stranger asked where Sen Senu was heading. ‘‘I am
following the road of the sigi.’’ ‘‘That is a hard road, the road of the sigi.’’ ‘‘Still I want to try
it,’’ said Sen Senu. Somewhat further in the bush, in encounters with people herding goats,
sheep, horses, donkeys and cattle, the same exchange was held: ‘‘Where are you going?’’ ‘‘I
am following the sigi oju.’’ ‘‘The sigi oju is a hard road.’’ ‘‘I will try it anyway.’’ At last Sen
Senu encountered an elephant [in some versions it is a lion]. ‘‘Where are you going?’’ Sen
Senu: ‘‘I am following the road of the sigi.’’ The elephant trumpeted: ‘‘I have the sigi.’’ Sen
Senu: ‘‘If you have the sigi, then do as you like.’’ The elephant ate Sen Senu, and for three
whole years Sen Senu remained inside the elephant’s belly. At length the elephant grew thirsty
and went to drink from a water-hole just outside the village. The animal then defecated and
out came Sen Senu, carrying with him the dalewa (the forked sigi stool), the oblong calabash
(koju pom) and the horse’s tail (sô duro). Then his sister came along to fetch water. Seeing
Sen Senu, she tried to speak to him but he could not speak. She ran back into the village and
cried out ‘‘Sen Senu is at the pool’’. Her father thought she was crazy as Sen Senu had been
gone for three years, eaten by an elephant, and the period of mourning had long come to an
end. ‘‘Look for yourself,’’ she said, and so he did. At the water-hole, his father asked Sen
Senu to come home. Sen Senu started to speak in the language of sigi (sigi so): ‘‘Go and brew
beer, let everyone adorn himself in his finest; if not, I will not be able to return home. So, go
and receive me.’’
[Sen Senu then gave very detailed instructions on how to brew beer, how to fetch water, how
to make porridge, how to ferment the beer and how to ration it.]
When everything had been done as instructed, the elders came to Sen Senu and asked: ‘‘Who
will be at the front?’’ Sen Senu then sang one of the twelve sigi songs, ‘‘Please forgive, eld-
van Beek – Chapter 3: Death Tales in West Africa
ers, you are the oldest but if you do not know the road of the sigi, I am the first, and I will turn
to the left.’’ The elders responded: ‘‘Yes, you know the way. Three years is not three days;
you have been inside the elephant, you know more than we do.’’ Thus Sen Senu came home
and this is the way that the sigi came to the villages.’
Death and regeneration: The human way
What are these tales? They are both primarily about human beings who do special
deeds which result in rituals. Yet if they are hero tales, these heroes are not the stan-
dard ‘Campbellian’ kind: they do not leave the village and they do no deeds elsewhere
(it is difficult to see the elephant’s belly as an arena)
The only relevance of these
tales are for the villages of Mogode and Yugo. In fact they are quite irresponsible,
more like children than heroes. Hwempetla starts a war with Guria which he would
have lost if not for the unplanned arrival of a stranger; while Sen Senu starts his ‘road
of the sigi’ after severely insulting an old man. In fact he was transgressing all normal
rules of behavior, and by acting so extremely impolite he estranged his father in the
process. Hwempetla’s bet with his father-in-law is just as odd, and his request is cor-
rectly deemed ‘stupid’; his wise in-law transfers it into a sensible proposition: ‘Come
and ask me for rain whenever your people need it’. For Sen Senu, wisdom comes
from the belly and the rear end of an elephant. This makes sense since animals are
considered to be knowledgeable about the bush,
and although elephants are not the
wiliest of animals (foxes are!), they are indeed part of the bush. Hwempetla’s struggle
with death is less than successful; though it does underscore his super-human abilities
– he can fly! – and also highlights his surrender to Death: even Hwempetla will not
escape his fate.
Both myths, though not overly heroic, address ritual to some extent. The Kap-
siki burial ritual has been redefined, and the rain ritual has been abolished, at least this
village is liberated from the ascendancy of rain makers (including the Guria one). This
latter element implies full autonomy for the village as the rain rituals form a special
link with the ancestral village of Gudur, the mythical place of origin of many of the
Mandara groups and whose ritual power still serves many villages. For the Dogon,
Sen Senu gave shape to the sigi: he taught them the proper way to make beer and to
adorn themselves for the ritual. However, the changes are limited in scope. The Kap-
siki funeral already existed and Hwempetla added an element – the simulacrum of the
flight of the corpse on the blacksmith’s shoulders from the dancing ground to the
grave. In the case of Sen Senu, people were already talking about the sigi oju before
he showed them ‘the way’. Rather than inventing the ritual as such, he helped to de-
fine the proper sigi. Neither heroes invent, instead they adjust and adapt existing ritual
structures, loading them with their own personal histories, as well as giving new

Cf. Campbell 1959-68 with the critique of Segal 1984, 1996 & 2004.
Van Beek 1992.
New Perspectives on Myth
shape to old ideas.
There is a huge body of literature on the relationship between myth and ritual
– in fact a whole myth-and-ritual school
– but this is not the place to dive into that
sea. Both the Kapsiki and Dogon corpus of mythical tales show that the relationship
between ritual and myth is complex. Sometimes the relationship is strong, but more
often the relationship is quite weak. The two examples given are related: Hwem-
petla’s main message is set in the context of a burial. Some details of the tale includ-
ing his wife holding on to the cow’s tail and his flying can be found in certain aspects
of the Kapsiki burial ritual. After all during the burial ceremony, the widow does hold
the cow’s tail, and the smith tried to run as fast as he can towards the grave with the
corpse around his neck so the deceased’s gown flaps in the wind. Despite this, the
Kapsiki never explain this aspect of their funeral by referring to the tale of Hwem-
petla. The rain hunt, on the other hand, is explained by the tale, but even then only the
absence of a rain maker, as only one detail of the rain hunt comes from the tale, while
the rain-hunting party takes care of the graves of Hwempetla and his wife. The Dogon
tale has the closest links with ritual of any of the Dogon myths and explains the de-
tails of the ritual, such as the brewing process, the forked stool of the initiates and the
special calabash. But here too, the ritual already existed in the tale, at least the idea of
the ritual, and the hero sets out looking for it, more as an exile, rather than on a quest
for knowledge he has to learn. And that knowledge is in the details, not the ritual as
such. Viewing the two bodies of myth and their links with ritual, it is safe to say that
myth and ritual are not reducible to each other but are parallel worlds, which I have
dubbed ‘virtual worlds’, with a dialectic relationship.
Myth and ritual usually live in
their own worlds, which only incidentally touch, each with its own logic, a narrative
logic in the case of myth, and a performance logic in the case of rituals.
Both tales are about life, the sigi is about regeneration, and for Hwempetla it is
about escaping death. Life is seen in both as precarious, fleeting and not self-evident.
Life is something one has to work for, to exert oneself for, and for the continuity of
which one has to perform the proper rituals. The results come from a transgression of
normal rules, rebellion against a superior enemy in the Kapsiki case, gross insults
against the vaunted respect for age in the Dogon case. Life has rules that are broken,
at least to some extent, and breaking the rules results in new rules: the rules of normal
daily life are converted and exchanged into the rules of ritual behavior.
The myths in question are situated geographically and genealogically. Though
in principle village-based, both transcend the village as their exploits have become
known by and relevant for the villages in the larger region: a host of villages at the
center of the Dogon region celebrate the sigi (though by no means all) and most Kap-
siki villages acknowledge Hwempetla, follow his redefinition of the funeral proceed-
ings, even if his rain exploits are only deemed relevant for Mogode. Sen Senu is of
Yougo stock, but his ritual prowess is appreciated. While Hwempetla is proudly

For an overview and criticism, see Segal 2004 and Doty 2000: 234 ff.
For the notion of ‘virtual world’, see van Beek 2007a.
van Beek – Chapter 3: Death Tales in West Africa
claimed as the direct ancestor of about half of the Mogode clans. The other category
used in the literature is the legend, and both tales come close to these as well: deemed
historic and about humans and believable. However, legends are usually not tied to
rituals and do not serve as a charter. While both the stories discussed here are about
rituals and function within rituals as well as having a genealogical charter.
The struggle with death, as told below, tells us nothing about how death came
into the world, but it does tell us why everyone has to succumb to it. Or in the Dogon
case, how everyone can enhance their own survival on earth through progeny. It is not
the situation of the world which is the explanandum, but the submission of mankind
to the conditions already prevalent in the world, as well as the way of making the
most out of a difficult situation. The focus is on the human condition and lived reality,
and not the virtual reality of history.
In some other cases in the Mandara Mountains, people tell tales about the ori-
gin of death, but they do this humanely, mundanely and blandly. The example below
is from the Mofu, the Kapsiki’s eastern neighbors:
‘Formerly people did not die but just lay resting in their grave for two years and then came
back. An old man married a young woman, had three children, then died and rested. After
eighteen months he came back, wanting to see his wife again. His wife cried out: ‘‘Are you
there already? Have I not suffered enough? Why leave already?’’ The man grew angry and
told the other dead: ‘‘Let’s stay in the grave. We will not leave again.’’ Since that time people
really have died.’

In this case, the burden of guilt is put on the shoulders of the women. A very
common story, told in many groups including the Kapsiki, is the tale of the separation
of heaven and earth.
Heaven used to be very close to the earth, and people had to bend over continuously. Any
food they took straight from heaven, above them. One day a young girl found sorghum grains
on the earth and started to pound them, her pounding stick going straight into the face of
heaven. Heaven withdrew, and she kept going till heaven was far away. Now people have to
cultivate and eat sorghum.

As Müller-Kosack has noted concerning their northern neighbors the Mafa,
that the ‘mythological imagination is more concerned with transformational issues
and matters of maintenance and change than cosmological structures.’
I have also
received a definite impression that cosmology is hugely overrated in mythological
In both cases, folk tales surround these hero myths. They use the same story
lines, the same themes and to some extent the same characters. Many Dogon folk tales
deal with the elephant or the lion and its usual adversary the rabbit. But many of the
exploits of both protagonists reflect the themes in Sen Senu’s tale: entering the anus,

Vincent 1991: 749.
Jauoen 1995: 18, Vincent 2008:140, Sundermeier 1998:161. See also Juillerat 1971: 160, Scheub
Müller-Kosack 2003: 66. Good examples are also found in Sterner 2003: 215-18 and Juillerat 1971:
New Perspectives on Myth
staying inside, eating the other from the inside out, coming out fully decorated and the
like. With Hwempetla, the likeness with folk tales is even stronger. The usual hero of
the folk tales, rhena heca, is the meke (the ground squirrel) who is clever, wily and
full of tricks. His adversary is usually the leopard or the hyena, who are dumb, strong
and easy to trick, but still immortal. This particular story is told and widely distributed
with the ground squirrel (meke) in the role of Hwempetla; the squirrel being the stan-
dard protagonist in traditional Kapsiki stories, rhena heca. In the squirrel version, the
ending is different: the squirrel marries Rain’s daughter and gives an elephant as bride
price. To trick his father-in-law, he eats the elephant from the inside, helped by the
leopard, and then arranges it so that the angry Rain catches the leopard in flagrante
delicto. The squirrel also dallies with Death, giving Death a terrible punishment, cen-
tering – again – on the anus. So the difference between the myth and the folk tale is
not overly clear and the boundaries become vague. Yet for both the Kapsiki and the
Dogon, the genres are distinct. For the Kapsiki, the story of Hwempetla is just that,
the story of Hwempetla, and is deemed completely historical. Folk tales are called
‘tales of old’ (rhena heca), not seemingly too different, but for them a different cate-
gory anyway. For the Dogon, one main difference lies in the language. The Sen Senu
myth is told in sigi so which is a ritual language reserved for ritual occasions. Folk
tales are told in everyday Dogon language and called ¡w¡n¡, a term without a clear
So this corpus of African myths is ill served by the habitual characterization of
oral tales, conflating as they do many of the habitual distinctions within their own
lived reality. There is no clear-cut mythical world, no ‘virtual reality’ of supernatural
beings independent of the world of everyday. The world invoked by African myths is
very much the one we know, our daily reality and our direct environment. The tales
may tell us why there is a specific hole in the mountain, why we brew beer as we do,
why we perform the ritual dances we do, why the blacksmith has to run with the
corpse on his shoulder, or why there is always water at a certain spot on the cliff. But
that is about the scale of it: restricted, immediate and relevant. Speaking about Afri-
can myths, Sundermeyer remarks:
The overwhelming majority of them speak of the origins of the first men and women, not of
an actual act of creation by God. They are about people. They are not interested in the origin
of the world as such. They hardly mention the stars, or the cosmos, or the distant world.

And even the origins of man usually mean the origins of the first man and
woman in the village or group. The world as a whole is not invoked, nor is the cosmos
or the basic facts of life: the existence of death – or of ‘Death’, often conceived as a
person – is self-evident, and social categories such as blacksmiths already existed in
the oldest tales, and the rules of politeness have never changed. The myths indicate
that we cannot escape our fate, our condition humaine, but that we have to live with it.
And to live to the full, we have to exert ourselves, to follow the instructions of those
that know – even if they are from ancient times – and to work on it in our own lives. It

Sundermeier 1998: 106.
van Beek – Chapter 3: Death Tales in West Africa
is not the etiology of death that is important here, nor the cosmology and certainly not
any cosmogony, but instead it is the existential fact of living, either in a direct way as
a failure to escape death, or in an indirect way as a rebirth and fertility. The borders
between the genres become blurred and they seem to conflate from the extremes of
mythical reality and deep history to the everyday world of lived reality.
One can glean from the total corpus of prose narratives, and in particular from
its mythical part, what a culture is interested in. What constitutes the focus of their
discourse? What are the questions they see as relevant? In our two cases it is clearly
not the conditions under which they live or the provenance of their problems, but the
solutions their cultures have found to cope with such realities. Their interest is in spe-
cific cultural elements, those which they consider central to their identity. The Dogon
are fascinated by their own masks and everything that belongs to the mask complex,
including the sigi: they talk about it, the children make drawings of masks, and they
tell tales of performances and failures.
The Kapsiki see Hwempetla’s exploits as a
natural precursor for their own existence, their burial, their rain rituals, and their fas-
cination with cleverness and deceit. Myths speak about our being in this world, the
success story of our survival and our font of cultural self-confidence. These are the
tales that prove that one is rightly and justly here, and is well adapted to the here and
This is rather unromantic as myth analysis goes; the cosmic element is miss-
ing, and the great battles between good and evil are absent, as are the moral dilemmas
and the fundamental tragedy of human life. Intellectually there is no deep reflection
on ultimate origins, no creative way of thinking existence out of non-existence, no
wondrous speculation on the beginning or on the end of times. It is more mundane,
more related to everyday life, and thus less mythic, at least in the way the North At-
lantic has usually defined myth. Gods of any kind play a small part on the mythic
stage as humans have the major roles, with their (simile) characters in animal tales
very close at hand. For African prose narratives, the inclusion in or exclusion from
general book collections of myths, tells us more about our own definitions, our way of
ordering the world, our preferences in discourses and about the deep romanticism
long rampant in this scholarly endeavor, than about the quality of African tales – or of
myths from other parts of the world for that matter.
African mythology is, therefore, eminently human and does not in the end try
to explain why things are as they are, but poses another question: ‘How can we live
with life as it is?’ It does not explain the world; it instead explains life, human life,
our life. It does so by rendering our environment human, recognizable – look, that
hole in that mountain over there – and immediate, bringing the scale of the world
down to human measurements and standards. Thus we live in a world that is not alien.
We belong here, we are not the aliens in this world because our ancestors made their
imprint on it. Life does indeed have its risks, but these are human risks and human
problems, droughts induced by someone, fertility enhanced by someone else. African

See van Beek 2006 for young boys’’ fascination with masks.
New Perspectives on Myth
mythology is not a window on the universe or a window on our global earth. It is a
window on something much more relevant and at least as interesting: a window on
ourselves, on our humanity, our fate, our destiny and on the ways we can make this
restricted life into something worthwhile, not everlasting, but worthwhile as each of
us walks his own small patch of earth for a short, fleeting moment.

I want to close with some wild speculation:

• if it is correct to say that myths in Africa are more human oriented than in other
• if truly myths in Africa are more animal-oriented than in other continents,
• if indeed myths in Africa question the given environment less than in other conti-
• if myths in Africa are less prone to speculation,

one reason might reside in the deep history of man inside Africa. For the human sub-
species Africa is home, and has been so for all of our non-recorded history. In Africa,
man has evolved into a familiar surrounding, in an environment made up of animals
and equals. In other continents ‘we’ are newcomers, adapting to an alien environment
which evoked fear, wonder and reflection, an environment in which ‘we’ could not
fall back upon the familiarities of the living world with kindred beings. If myth is also
an instrument for cultural adaptation, then the radical change in habitat as we ventured
‘out of Africa’ may well have generated speculation, cosmogony, in short the creative
virtual world we usually call myth.
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Chapter 4. A journey to the netherworld

Reconstructing features of Indo-European mythology
of death and funeral rituals from Baltic, Slavic, and
Buddhist parallels

by Boris Oguibénine
& Nataliya Yanchevskaya

Abstract. This paper reconstructs some aspects of the Indo-European mythology related to death, the
journey to the netherworld, and the process of dying and returning from the world of the dead. Particu-
larly, we compare and contrast a series of Old Indian (Vedic), Indo-Iranian, Old Slavic, and Baltic
myths and burial rituals. We isolate the mythological motif of a path to the netherworld (the world of
the dead or ancestors), e.g. crossing the waters, going over fire, ascending a tree, descending into a
well, etc. The motif of a path is compared and contrasted with the motif of a mythological character
that undertakes a journey to the netherworld, completes it, and returns back to the world of the living.
In Indo-Iranian and Old Slavic traditions, there is a number of myths and folktales that have a
character whose name usually means ‘the Third’ (for example, Slavic Tret’yak) who goes to or finds
himself in the netherworld (the third kingdom), overcomes a variety of obstacles (sometimes escaping
three inevitable deaths), miraculously returns to the living, reestablishes the connection between the
three worlds (netherworld, heaven, and earth), and thus recreates the tripartite Universe.
The aforementioned Indo-European motifs find their continuation in Buddhist soteriological
myths. The latter are structured as a sequence of motifs: to exist in the world of the living – to die hav-
ing reached the limit of life in due course – to be reborn by overcoming obstacles.
We also draw upon Old Slavic mythological motifs of ‘right’ (literally, ‘someone’s own, not
forced upon the one who is dying’) and ‘wrong’ (literally, ‘someone else’s, not belonging to the one
who is dying’) deaths. Colloquially, the ‘right’ death (‘someone’s own’) means a death of natural
causes, but in myth it acquires an additional ethical facet of fulfilling someone’s role in this world (e.g.
a heroic death, however violent or ‘unnatural’, is not ‘wrong’). The ‘right’ death is (or should be) fol-
lowed by the right funeral ritual in which the motif of journey to the netherworld along a path with
obstacles plays an important role. The ‘wrong’ death can in certain cases be overcome by a right ritual
helping the dead receive their share (Russian dolya, Sanskrit bhaga, etc.), prevail over obstacles during
the journey, and become proper ancestors, not the living undead. The Slavic motifs of ‘right’ and
‘wrong’ deaths are compared with their counterparts in Indian, Iranian, and Baltic traditions, and the
comparison is used to reconstruct major features of the Indo-European mythology of death.

Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg, France.
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA,. USA.
New Perspectives on Myth
1. Slavic and Baltic parallels
1.1. Crossing the threshold
The sequence life-death-afterlife, or new life, is clearly present on the Indo-European
level (and is perhaps universal). Baltic and Slavic evidence of funereal rituals affords
us new insight into the sequence’s conceptual background and sources.
An old Prussian funereal ritual reported by travelers around 870-890 includes
the following events:

1. before either cremation or burial, the dead person is left at home as
long as the ritual continues (note that the richer the dead is, the longer
the ritual takes);
2. a ritual feast is held by the living, which is functionally tantamount to
destruction of edible and drinkable matter; and
3. an equestrian contest that results in sharing the dead person’s posses-
sions by the participants according to their success in the contest takes

Toporov (2005) draws the following parallels from mythological and ritual
evidence of the liminal state of the dead between life and death. According to
Toporov, how a dead person is ritually ‘helped’ by the living to cross the threshold of
death is similar to how the Universe is ritually ‘helped’ to resume its seasonal cycle in
the ritual on the threshold of winter on the eve of New Year, which bears obvious
macrocosmic connotations: cyclical destruction of the universe is to stimulate creative
forces of the Cosmos, and so are the ritual contest and chariot races described in the
Ṛgveda (cf. the potlatch paradigm suggested by F.B.J. Kuiper). The equestrian contest
can be viewed as an established social practice that embodies the primordial contest
between the cosmic powers of the netherworld and of the upper world that in Vedic
India corresponds to the macrocosmic fight of the god Indra with his adversary
(known as Vṛtra, Vala, etc.) whom he defeats and thus restores the cosmos anew
(Toporov 2005: 539-548). Toporov states that when a ritual is performed adequately
and properly reproduces the primordial proto-ritual it guarantees its inclusion into the
general cosmological pattern, thus achieving the goals of the ritual (Toporov
Both components of the Baltic funereal ritual - the feast and the contest - sup-
port Indo-European evidence: they are necessary to ensure that the sequence life-
death-afterlife is cyclical, and that the whole cycle, when repeated, assures immortal-
1.2. State of mind at the moment of death
That the idea of immortality seems to belong inherently to the core of the funereal
practices is shown by mythological data associated with death. Take, for example,
Oguibénine & Yanchevskaya – Chapter 4: Journey to the Netherworld
Indian religious beliefs regarding the state of mind at the moment of death: the future
fate of a dying person is believed to be determined by it (see Edgerton 1927). Accord-
ing to those beliefs, there is continuity between this life and the life after death, and
the soul’s state at the time of death or near death determines the dying person’s future
The earliest Vedic texts do not contain any traces of the belief that the dying
person concentrates his thoughts on the next world, but the Middle Vedic (Brāhmaṇa)
texts do, e.g. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa speculates about a ‘frame of mind’ (kratu)
at the moment of death: ‘Just as far as his kratu extends as he passes away from this
world, with precisely such a kratu he enters upon the other world after death’ (Edger-
ton 1927:223). An underlying idea of many Indian tales summarized by Edgerton is
that a dying person builds his own future in accordance with his last wish at the mo-
ment of death. In other words he gains a desired identity as it is imagined by his mind.
If a suicide is committed, whoever/whatever a dying person imagines himself to be
just before taking his own life, he will eventually become that.
A couple of telling examples from Buddhist and Jain sources are worth men-
tioning at this point. In Divyāvadāna, ch. XXXIV, p. 478 sqq., the youth Brah-
maprabha commits a suicide by cutting his throat in order to feed a starving tigress,
but before doing so he announces that he is free from any worldly desire, his only
purpose is to become a Buddha. He then indeed becomes a Buddha, although after
many existences.
In Jain sources, there are tales of the nidāna, a wish for some worldly benefit
in a future life, that has to be confessed as sinful in order to prevent it from coming
into effect. For example, the dying ascetic Sambhuya is visited by a king and his
harem; one of the ladies bows down to honor the dying saint, and a strand of her hair
touches his feet; his desires are aroused, and he makes a nidāna that he may become
emperor of the universe and enjoy a large harem; his desire is fulfilled, but the king-
ship leads him to sinful acts; as a result, he is reborn in hell. Had the ascetic confessed
his sinful desire before dying, that would have implied repentance and reformation,
and the nidāna would have had no effect

The aforementioned continuity manifests itself in various effects that the final
moments before death have upon the fate of a dying person. A new identity (fate) ac-
quired by a dead person is determined by either the nature of his accumulated deeds
(merits) or by a sinful or meritorious wish thought of just before death or at the very
moment of death and independent of any past acts and their relative merits. A main
point here is that something that has been accumulated during life (acts, wishes, etc.)
produces a conspicuous effect. In Chinese Buddhist sources, there is a ‘principle of
birth and death’ according to which a man’s soul escapes from his body through an
upper or lower body part at death. A bystander can tell whether the dead man will go
to a good or bad rebirth by noticing which part of the corpse retains its warmth long-
est (Edgerton 1927: 234-235).

See also Buddhist Parallels 1 below.
New Perspectives on Myth
1.3. Distribution of the dead’s possessions
To uncover a common conceptual pattern, the following significant features can be
emphasized in both Buddhist beliefs and the Old Prussian ritual.
In the Old Prussian ritual, a time passes before cremation (i.e. before the body
is disposed of): the dead lies at home as long as an equestrian contest is taking place
(from two months to half a year). The better among the participants (those whose
horses are faster) get the better and the bigger parts of the dead person’s possessions.
The less or worse parts are placed at shorter distances from the dead person’s house,
and they are given to those whose horses are slower. Thus, both time and space de-
termine the way the possessions accumulated by the dead person before death are dis-
tributed among the living.
Another significant feature is that accumulating deeds (good or bad), wishes,
and merits is clearly equivalent in value and significance to the wealth and posses-
sions accumulated by a dying or dead person. Suffice it to mention here that Buddhist
monastic codes (vinaya) imply a set of mutual obligations between the dead and the
living, e.g.
‘to perform the funeral and to transfer to the deceased the reward or ‘merit’, that results from
the ritualized recitation of the Dharma; the deceased, in exchange, is to allow the distribution
of his estate [...]’ (Schopen 2004: 96).

1.4. Depossession and repossession
Mutual obligations of the dead and the living belong to Indo-European antiquity. The
importance of a proper funeral (such as destruction by fire) to all Indo-European peo-
ples has been observed by Afanassiev (2008: 1239), i.e. all ancient Indo-European
peoples known to him at the time believed that unless the deceased person’s body was
dealt with properly, the deceased person’s soul (his immaterial component) would not
find peace: it would roam the world, languish and suffer, take vengeance on relatives
of the deceased and fellow country-men by sending them bad harvest, famine and dis-

Old Prussian customs also reveal a common feature that can be explained as
originated from the common Indo-European background. As Toporov observed, all
the possessions of the deceased are ‘spent’ in three ways: one part, his personal be-
longings (weapons, clothes, i.e. his personal attributes), are burnt at the same time as
his body; another part is ‘spent’ gradually as food and drinks during a ritual feast held
by the living and as expenses covering preparations for the funereal ritual and its exe-
cution; the third part is ‘spent’ in the course of equestrian competitions. The common
feature of these three ways is that wasting or exhaustion of dead man’s riches is dis-
guised as distribution (Toporov 2005: 547). The spending or wasting of the riches is,
as Toporov points out, a paradoxical variant of their distribution during the funeral.

See also Buddhist Parallels 2 below.
See also Buddhist Parallels 3 below.
Oguibénine & Yanchevskaya – Chapter 4: Journey to the Netherworld
Parts are divided according to a degree of success in competition. All that is meant to
benefit the living as well as the deceased in his afterlife in the other world: the dead
will be compensated in the next world for his property lost in this world.

A more general point regarding a deceased person’s property that is to be
shared is worth emphasizing here. Slavic traditional lore amply uses the concept of
dolja (Russian dolja 1. share, part, portion; 2. fate, lot; see Sedakova 1987). This con-
cept is central to the funereal ritual and relevant from a comparative perspective. A
share (dolja) that is allotted to anyone who is dying may be ‘one’s own’ or, on the
contrary, ‘not-one’s own’: thus there is a distinction between ‘one’s own death’ and
‘not-one’s own death’ (svoja smert’ vs. nesvoja smert’). ‘One’s own death’ is a well-
studied Indo-European phraseologic formulaic expression that is reflected in Old Per-
sian, Lithuanian, Russian and Latin (comparable thematic parallels are also found in
Hittite texts: Puhvel 1969, 169-75). Death is viewed as an allotted fate: several Slavic
languages possess words that have a rather transparent morphological structure - a
dead person is descriptively denoted as one with ‘no (good) share’: Ukrainian nebogo,
Bielorussian neboshik, Czech neboztik, Serbo-Croatian uboze (cf. Russian ubogij that
combines semantic features of ‘beggar; destitute’ and ‘deceased’). Correspondingly,
the Slavic funereal ritual sometimes features the figure of a beggar that symbolically
represents the deceased man and gets the deceased man’s share of the property. The
theme of dispossession and poverty of the deceased man is connected with the motif
of Death (and the deceased man himself) being tormented by hunger and can be com-
pared with the rite of ‘feeding the grave’ at funereal feast (Sedakova 1987: 57, 62, fn.
11). The above is strongly reminiscent of passages from Buddhist texts where living
monks are expected to get their share of the deceased man’s property as long as the
funereal ritual is adequately performed. Please note that our purpose is to present
Buddhist parallels as additional evidence of a substantial body of inherited features
that go back to Indo-European antiquity.
Besides Baltic and Slavic evidence, Vedic and Greek antecedents of funeral
rituals have been analyzed by Toporov (2005: 548-566). In Toporov’s view, the time
allotted by the living to the dead body in Old Prussian sources is a transitory period
between death and cremation during which his friends and relatives have to behave
‘correctly’, ‘adequately’, i.e. they have to perform rituals of ‘expenditure’ or ‘spend-
ing’. The purpose of the ritual feast is to ‘spend’ food and drinks. Equestrian competi-
tions imply distribution of the dead person’s possessions. The cremation of the body
is to be accompanied by burning of the deceased person’s clothes and weapons. All
that is to ensure an adequate passage of the deceased from this world into the afterlife.
In Buddhist monastic practices, the adequacy of the ritual is controlled by a
special figure of the belligerent ghost (the dead himself) who appears wielding a club
to threaten the monks, if they have not fulfilled all requirements before distributing
the ‘robe and bowl’.

See also Buddhist Parallels 4 below.
See also Buddhist Parallels 5 below.
New Perspectives on Myth
1.5. Keeping dead bodies
Other features of Baltic, Slavic and Indian folk beliefs support our hypothesis of a
common Indo-European background of the rituals described above.
A peculiar Baltic practice to leave a dead body for a long time before a suit-
able disposal is analogous to Slavic (Russian) custom reported by the English trader
F. Morrison in 1593 (reproduced in Toporov 2005: 567, fn.7):
‘...the Moscovites in Russia bring the dead bodies in winter thus frozen over, and so lay them
on heapes in the Belfries of the Churches, where they lie without rotting, or ill smell, till about
our Lady day in Lent the snow begins to thaw, and the earth to be fit for digging (for till that
time the earth is covered with deepe and hard snow, and if it were not so covered, yet is so
hard by continuall frost, as it cannot be digged. And at that time each family takes the bodies
of their dead, and takes care to burie them’ (Itinerary, IV:4).
The quotation corroborates descriptions of funereal customs of the Old Prussians who
were supposed to master a freezing technique of conserving the dead bodies.
Moreover, Russian folklore sources that report how the dead are transferred to
the burial abundantly inform us that the body was carried either on sledges or on
horses (Sobolev 2000: 115 sqq.).
1.6. The Third and the ship
Among significant characters of Slavic mythology and folklore connected with death
and funerary rituals, there is a character called the Third (in Russian folktales - Ivan
Tretej, Tretjak, the third/youngest son, etc.). He reaches the subterranean kingdom
(death's realm), but is able to overcome death and come back to life, thus ensuring
that the link between the Subterranean, Heaven and Earth is not broken. Tretjak and
similar characters have important parallels in the Old Iranian and Vedic mythology -
they correspond to Vedic Trita and Old Iranian Θrita, both the youngest (the third in
line) among three brothers (for a thorough investigation of these characters and com-
parative evidence supporting their connection to the realm of death and cycle life-
death-afterlife see Toporov 2006; see also Oguibénine, in press and Yanchevskaya, in
press). The significance of the number three can also be seen in a Galician custom
where the third husband is forbidden to enter the house through a door after the wed-
ding, but has to use a window (thus he is identified with the dead and the wedding
ceremony with a funeral). Another Slavic funereal custom is of relevance here: drag-
ging a dead body through an opening in the house not normally used by the living to
enter or exit, i.e. not through an entrance door. In other words, the ways the dead are
dealt with are inversed with regard to the ways of the living. Moreover, it is believed
that if a dead person is carried away through a door used by the living, he might come
back and threaten them. The custom is reflected in a Russian folktale in which a girl is
maltreated by Satan, doomed to death and carried from her house through a hole made
under the threshold, not through a door (Anuchin 1890: 11-12, fn. 25). The girl is
probably a folktale counterpart of the mythological Third, because after the girl is bur-
Oguibénine & Yanchevskaya – Chapter 4: Journey to the Netherworld
ied, a flower grows on her tomb and it turns into the very same girl who thus comes
back to life. Like the Third, the girl overcomes her own death and actualizes the link
between the realms.
The special connection of the youngest (or the third) son with death, as well as
his place between the realms of life and death also have supporting evidence in Baltic
data. Baltic folklore describes a custom when the youngest son of an ill father is
named heir whenever the father’s recovery from a mortal illness is impossible (Caland
1914: 511-512). That should be interpreted as another distant and yet related feature
common to Baltic and Slavic folklore: the dying ‘survives’ through property that is
transferred to the youngest son acting as a mediator between the living and the dying.
Caland also reports a Lettish custom of placing children on the coffin carried to the
burial place. A witness explains that it is done to ensure that the children remember
the spot of the burial. However, according to Caland, another explanation is possible.
He suggests that the continual references to the youngest fits into the framework of
the age pyramid where the position and role of the youngest is pre-determined (Ca-
land 1914: 484; 507-509).
Some Slavic artifacts used in funereal rites are particularly interesting from a
comparative perspective and prove to be extremely ancient. For example, a ship is
known to be used for burial in Russia since about the twenties of the 10th century as
reported by Ibn-Faḍlān, an Arabic Muslim writer and traveler, who wrote an account
of his travels as a member of an embassy of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad (Anuchin
1890: 72 sqq.;
Montgomery 2000). Ibn-Faḍlān gives a detailed description of a fu-
neral by cremation of a rich and important man. This is a ship burial (or boat grave) in
which a ship or boat is used as a vessel for both the dead and the goods intended for
the grave.
Among the goods are: clothes and a sable placed on the dead person’s
head; quilt and cushions; alcohol, fruits, bread, and meat; moreover, a dog cut in two;
all of the dead person’s weaponry; two mounts and two cows cut into pieces whose
flesh is thrown into the ship; a rooster and a hen; and the dead person’s slave-girl who
wishes to die with her master and who is to be burnt along with the master and his
ship. Although many features of Ibn-Faḍlān’s description are not, as Montgomery
argues, originally Russian, it is clear that the dead are provided for a long trip to the
It is evident that the Russian ceremony belongs to a hoary antiquity and inher-
its Indo-European features that have been shown to be prominent in Vedic and Bud-
dhist soteriological views (Oguibenine, in press). The views are thematically linked
with the ideas of overcoming obstacles to reach a long unencumbered existence,
whereas the journey to overcome these obstacles is metaphorically conceptualized as

Anuchin’s account, one of the first on Ibn-Faḍlān’s report, is obsolete on several points. Montgom-
ery’s translation is more accurate and is accompanied by thorough comments without avoiding some
controversial issues.
No less significant is the fact that the Indo-European words for ‘ship’ and ‘death’ are almost identical:
cf. Lettish nave, Lithuanian nove, Old Russian nav’, Gothic naus, Old Icelandic ndr ‘dead body’, and
the common Indo-European *nau ‘ship’ (Ivanov 1987: 9).
New Perspectives on Myth
a trip over dangerous waters, thus implying a figurative representation of a ship or
boat as a vehicle for salvation.
1.7. Overcoming death
Several other features of the ‘anthropology of death’ are presumably of Indo-
European origin. Ivanov (1990: 5-6; cf. also Gamkrelidze and Ivanov 1985) finds the
following main stages in the Indo-European funereal ritual:

• preparing the dead body for the burial, starting with lamentation
and mourning;
• carrying the dead body to the place of a burial;
• putting the dead body (in some variants jointly with sacrificial
animals and other people) on a pyre (basic variant) or into water or
earth; wine is poured into the fire;
• making a ritual effigy (a double) of the dead person out of bones;
• creating a temporary dwelling place for the effigy;
• burying the urn filled with bones.

The idea of overcoming death in order to attain afterlife following one’s death
plays an essential role in the Indo-European conception of death. This conception is
basically founded on the idea that death culminates life and is followed by afterlife (=
new life). Vedic and Buddhist mythologies elaborate soteriological doctrines of āyus
(allotted lifespan) that is not supposed to be interrupted unless a violent death occurs.
A natural death ends one's lifespan, but one's lifespan can and has to be extended by
overcoming death, i.e. death is an obstacle among others to be overcome, ‘crossed’
(Oguibénine, in press). Funereal rituals reenact scenarios of overcoming death, hence
their successive stages are not only part of the ritual, but also are meant to enhance the
ritual and to ensure that death is overcome.
Indo-European terminology that reflects the endeavor of overcoming includes
the verb *terh
- ‘to cross over, pass through, overcome, vanquish’. As Watkins (1995:
355) suggests, a prominent semantic feature of this verb is ‘temporariness, transitori-
ness, non-permanence, which made it pathetically apt in the context of the object
DEATH’. Vedic and Buddhist motifs of overcoming death, often expressed in words
related to the Indo-European verb *terh
- and its derivates, are central in narratives
that present life and death as events cyclically following each other in a context of
continuous struggle against various obstacles (Oguibenine, in press). It is important
that this motif appears in fragments that describe funereal and similar rituals when a
dead person is praised because of his exceptional characteristics. The motif can be
seen when we compare, as proposed by Ivanov (1990: 6-7), Hittite funereal rituals
with Greek praises of a dead hero: the lamented dead king is said to become a god
[šiuniš (= DINGIR
-iš) kišari] according to the text KUB XXX.16 + XXIX I Vs, I
1-17, where the Greek verb ταρχύω ‘to pay one’s last respects to’ is used (Iliad
Oguibénine & Yanchevskaya – Chapter 4: Journey to the Netherworld
16.456-457, 674-675). It can be surmised that the dead hero is identified with the king
or a god when last respects are paid to him by erecting a tomb or a commemorative
stela. The Greek verb is etymologically related to (if not borrowed from) Anatolian
words: Hittite tarḫ-u- ‘to overcome, vanquish’ (< IE. *terh
-), Lycian trq(q)as-,
trqqñt- ‘god’, trqqñtasi (Aikhenvald, Bajun, Ivanov 1987: 155-160).
The Indo-European verb *mer- is known to mean ‘to die’ in numerous Indo-
European languages. However, recent comparative evidence shows that the original
meaning of the verb was ‘to disappear’ (semantic development from ‘to disappear’ to
‘to die’ must have been due to tabooing: Ivanov 1990a: 5 sqq. adducing Hittite data).
This correlates with the aforementioned ideas about the king becoming a god at his
death: not only does the attitude towards death include praising the dead person be-
coming a divine and powerful being, but also it includes the euphemistic use of a verb
that means ‘to die’. Hittite euphemistic use of the expression ‘to become god’ in the
context of death is also reflected in the custom of religious worship of an effigy of the
king after his death.
Worshipping relics of the dead or constructing a funereal monument are fea-
tures of funerals attested among Indo-European peoples. In spite of their universality,
it should be made clear that relics are, as the Buddhist inscription of Senavarma, King
of Oḍi (early first century CE), says,
‘saturated / invigorated / enlivened by morality, saturated / invigorated / enlivened by concen-
tration, wisdom, emancipation, knowledge, and vision’,
in other words, as suggested again by Schopen,
‘what is invigorated with morality and what continues to live after the breakdown
of the body’ (Schopen 1997: 154).
It is striking that the Indo-European funereal ritual includes a step described
above as ‘making a ritual effigy (a double) of the dead person out of bones’. Both
Buddhist practice and Hittite ritual include worship of an image of the deceased king:
bringing water, oil, bread, and cattle to feed the deceased person’s ‘sitting effigy’ as
the Hittite expression ALAM aššan is tentatively translated by Otten (1958: 24-25).
Otten’s summary (Otten 1958: 13) also suggests that the Hittite ritual feast included
an offering of a meal to the bones of the cremated deceased person, and the offering
was shared by all who had come to collect the bones. Moreover, the dead person’s
soul was given drinks three times. That is a remarkable echo of the Slavic name
*trizna ‘funereal feast’ in which Toporov uncovers an underlying hint of the number
‘three’ (Toporov 2005).
1.8. The Old Woman
Slavic folklore has another prominent character, the Old Woman (Baba Yaga) who
represents death and can cause it. A similar character is found in Baltic and Hittite
traditional death lore: Lettish Velu Mate ‘Mother of Spirits / of the Dead’ and Hittite
ŠU.GI ‘Wise Woman’ respectively (Toporov 1985: 540 and Toporov 1987: 20
New Perspectives on Myth
sqq.; Otten 1958, passim). The Old Woman of Slavic folktales invites a hero doomed
to death who then overcomes it through his victory over the Old Woman. Accord-
ingly, the hero’s initiation appears to be a link in a chain of ritualized events reported
in tales that reflect the funereal ritual, while the ritual itself is meant to counterbalance
and overcome the horror of death by promoting the idea of a new life (the afterlife).
2. Buddhist parallels
2.0. Indo-European background
So far we have mostly compared Slavic and Baltic evidence with Old Indo-European
data, but it also has analogies in Buddhist data, thus confirming an inherently tradi-
tional character of Baltic and Slavic realms as most ancient heirs to the Indo-
European religion, and, if not unexpectedly, the genuine position of Buddhism within
the Indo-European.
Indo-European background, if not origin, can be identified in the Buddhist fu-
neral, because death is interpreted as disappearance and compensated by collecting
belongings of the deceased, separating them from the dead body, and finally by dis-
tributing them among the living. Buddhist legal texts (vinaya) explicitly specify a set
of mutual obligations between the dead and the living as a specific instance of an es-
tablished Indian norm (Schopen 2004:96).
2.1. Future fate
Buddhists, particularly later Southern Buddhists, differ from the Jains in that they do
not believe that the effectiveness of a wish expressed on the death-bed depends on
how much merit has been accumulated by the dying person. Some time may elapse
between the making of a wish and the moment of death, but it is essential that the
same frame of mind continues up to the very moment of death. That the fulfillment of
a wish is immediate and sufficiently independent of any previously accumulated merit
is cogently illustrated by a Buddhist tale highlighting a courtesan murdered by four
youths: she wishes to be reborn as an ogress and kill her murderers; her wish is ful-
filled, but it cannot be said that she has accumulated any merit that can expedite the
fulfillment of her wish (HOS 29.129).
However, as Edgerton convincingly shows, the later Southern Buddhists also
held other and fairly different views on what determines the future fate. Their views
were somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, a quite popular belief held that the
totality of a dying person’s past acts influenced his consciousness. On the other hand,
they believed that only the state of mind just before death was crucial. An interesting
conclusion was that if one could forget his sins completely at the moment of death, he
would be saved (Edgerton 1927: 234).
Oguibénine & Yanchevskaya – Chapter 4: Journey to the Netherworld
2.2. Monk’s possessions
To begin with, the Buddhist monastic code (reflecting Buddhist beliefs and prescrib-
ing ritual practices) is explicit in suggesting that a monk’s monastic status or reputa-
tion, i.e. a monk’s identity, strongly depends on his material possessions. An example
is found in Cīravastu 124.11-125.9 where a ‘little known’ monk is the one who had
no medicine, while the Avadānaśataka 1.271-273 mentions the Buddha himself and a
selfish monk as ‘widely known’ and as being recipients of robes, bowls, medicine,
and so on (Schopen 2004:114-115 and 2004:102: ‘Who you were was determined by
what you received and had’).
Special attention should be paid to the following features of Buddhist funerary
practices that can be fruitfully compared to Old Prussian evidence.
At death, a monk’s property had to be divided and distributed. This occurrence
is vividly depicted in several accounts of the Mūlasarvāstivādin monastic funeral
from the Cīvaravastu (Schopen 2004: 106-121).
There we find an account of the distribution of a deceased monk’s belongings
(his bowl and robes) that had to be done by a distributor-of-robes only after several
preliminary steps: removing monk’s body, honoring the body, cremating the body and
reciting the Dharma for the monk’s sake (Schopen 2004: 106-107).
Obviously, the recitation of the Dharma is an inherently Buddhist practice. It
might seem that no comparative issue can be discovered here: the recitation by itself
is something beyond the materiality of the dead body; with recitation, a new aspect is
revealed by the ceremony - that of the immaterial, non-corporeal substance of the de-
ceased. Moreover, the Dharma, i.e. the recited Vinaya rules, belong to the core of the
Buddhist doctrine and practice. And yet, the comparison is convincing because the
same fundamental features appear in Buddhist practices as well as in the evidence
being compared.
2.3. Competition
For example, there is an account of the death and funeral of the murdered monk
Udāyin whose body lies hidden in a heap of trash. Several categories of individuals, in
accordance with the Old Prussian evidence, compete for the privilege to honor his
body (fellow monks, the king and a lay-sister, the Queen Mālikā who finally wins on
her claim to have been a disciple of Udāyin). Not surprisingly, the account mentions
that Udāyin’s robes have to be brought back before performing the honors (Schopen
2004: 97, 108-110).
A highly instructive issue is that competition sometimes turns into an ex-
change of claims and counterclaims regarding a dead monk’s property. More pre-
cisely, an account in the Kṣudrakavastu (preserved in Tibetan, commented and
translated by Schopen 2004: 98-100 and 110-113) that describes origins of the ‘relic
cult’ says that after the death of the monk Śāriputra his remains, his bowl and his mo-
nastic robes (i.e. all his possessions) were taken by the novice Cunda and handed to a
New Perspectives on Myth
monk named Ānanda. But then a controversy emerges regarding Śāriputra's posses-
sions that are to become his relics: another patron of Śāriputra, the householder
Anāthapiṇḍada, who is a lay follower of the Buddhist faith, also claims the relics.
Consequently, a deadlock develops that Schopen rightly describes as an indication of
friction between the lay and monastic communities. It is resolved by the Buddha
summoning Ānanda and asking to turn the relics over to Anāthapiṇḍada. The whole
story is actually not only about access to and control of relics, two highly sought-after
privileges, but, more importantly, about the festival that was to accompany the raising
of the stūpa that would host Śāriputra’s relics. Anāthapiṇḍada takes the relics, but
accidentally locks the door when he goes away from home, thus creating an obstacle
for the laypersons who cannot pay homage to the relics. The Buddha rules then that
laypersons can build stūpas, but only within the monastic complex. The outcome of
this ruling is, interestingly, the increased amount of wealth received by monasteries,
because the stūpa festivals give rise to trade, gifts, and donations. Thus, the deceased
monk’s relics in some sense ‘produce’ wealth that is divided among the other monks.
Another piece of evidence tells us that the estate of the monk Upananda, a
large quantity of gold, had to be distributed among his fellow monks favoring direct
participation in the funeral: only those present will receive a share. Additionally, on
another occasion, the order of preference is based on competition between the most
senior and the most junior monks. That is called the ‘first and last’ principle (Schopen
2004: 115-116, 102-103).
Thus we see that competitions before the final disposal of the body and distri-
bution of possessions are present both in the Old Prussian funereal games and in the
Buddhist accounts (although this combination is unevenly and diversely embedded in
latter texts). The deceased person’s wealth, whatever its form, is at stake and its dis-
tribution is made rather concordantly.
An interesting and telling feature of how a person’s identity is determined and
shown after death is explicit in those parts of Buddhist monastic codes that rule how
survivors should behave if a deceased monk has left debts. It is worth noting here that
his debts are to be repaid by his fellow monks: the debts are not only anthropological
or religious debts (The anthropological and religious debt is so explained in the Tait-
tirīya Saṃhitā ‘A Brahmin, at his very birth, is born with a triple debt - of
studentship to the seers, of sacrifice to the gods, of offspring to the fathers’). Brah-
manical literature and Buddhist Vinaya treatises were equally preoccupied with finan-
cial debt, and often both sorts are intertwined (Schopen 2004:122). Because a monk’s
identity depends on his material possessions, whatever a deceased monk has acquired
before his death, for example, by borrowing from householders, is part of his identity
and status. It is not surprising to find that borrowed money had to be repaid by the
monks of his community after selling the bowl and robes of the deceased. Although
this event appears customary and unremarkable, the rites described above show that
death is understood as passage through life to afterlife (cf. Vedic ideas of obstacles
and impediments on one’s way to salvation: life itself is seen as an obstacle to salva-
tion - Oguibénine, in press). The persuasion that the personality of a deceased man
Oguibénine & Yanchevskaya – Chapter 4: Journey to the Netherworld
crosses the threshold of death is almost palpable in Buddhist texts about monastic or-
der (curiously, in spite of the Buddhist philosophical doctrine of no abiding Self). The
act of overcoming is ritually symbolized by the transfer of the property of the de-
ceased monk to his brethren. It is noteworthy that in Brahmanism, whose numerous
features were absorbed by Buddhism, the material debt of a departed ascetic or agni-
hotrin is tightly connected to religious merit. As the Brahmanic collection of legal
maxims Nāradasmṛti I.7 says,
‘If an ascetic or an agnihotrin dies in debt, all of the merit from his austerities and sacrifices
belongs to his creditors’.

Furthermore, in the funereal ritual as described in Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya a
direct connection is established between the distribution of the deceased monk’s
property and particular stages of the ritual: the ritual is segmented into a few series of
actions that are linked within a series and imbued with particular significance. The
more remote a series is from the moment of death, the less a degree of participation of
the monk who performs this part of the ritual. For example, the first series begins
when the gong for the dead is being beaten, and the monk who comes in at that mo-
ment remains until the end of the ritual; in the next series, when the caitya is being
performed, another monk comes in and remains for the duration of the ceremony, i.e.,
he participates only in later parts of the ritual; finally, a monk who comes ‘only when
a formal motion is being made’ (i.e., some Vinaya texts are being read) misses most
of the ritual except the final part. It is important to note that a degree of participation
in the funeral determines who has the right to receive more of the dead monk’s estate,
i.e., the monk who comes first gets the most of it (see Schopen 1997: 208-209).
2.4. Rites of separation
In the Mūlasarvāstivāda monastic funeral the obligatory actions performed before any
distribution of a deceased monk’s property are threefold: ritualized removal of the
body, honor of the body including various preparations prior to cremation, and a ritu-
alized recitation of select sacred Dharma texts. Most significantly, as Schopen under-
lines, an exchange takes place at this moment. The ‘robe and bowl’, an euphemism
for all personal property of a monk, is separated from his body and distributed among
the living who perform the funeral and thus transfer to the deceased the reward (the
‘merit’) resulted from a ritualized recitation of the Dharma (Schopen 2004:96).
2.5. Final remarks
Whether we consider the rules of the Old Prussian funereal ritual, or the instructions
of Buddhist Vinaya prescriptive texts, parallels between the two practices are striking.
One set of similar features is particularly worth noticing: the monks participating in
the funeral receive the deceased monk’s merit, whereas the ritual they are performing

Schopen 2004: 123; after Lariviere 1989.
New Perspectives on Myth
generates merit that is transferred to the deceased, thus circulating merit between the
dead and the living. Similarly, Wulfstan’s account of Old Prussian funeral customs
clearly shows that a deceased’s person possessions distributed before his cremation
are described, on the one hand, as ‘possessions’, ‘personal belongings’ (cattle, money,
etc.) as feoh (cf. Latin pecus), and, on the other hand as ‘fate, success, achievement’
(the latter is analogous to the merit in Buddhism).
That Vedic, Greek (both meticulously studied by Toporov 2004: 553 sqq.),
Old Prussian and Buddhist traditions share common features seems indisputable. Ex-
planations based on accidental convergences are less plausible. An alternative expla-
nation based on the assumption that common features are not inherited, but are mere
manifestations of the universal, is obviously available always, but is too simplistic.
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Dutt, N., 1947, Cīvaravastu. Gilgit Manuscripts, III, Srinagar.
Edgerton, F., 1927, The Hour of Death. Its Importance for Man's Future Fate in Hindu and Western
Religions, Annals of the Bhandarkar Institute, vol. VIII, pp. 219-249.
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Moscow: Nauka, pp. 5-11.
Kuiper, F.B.J., 1983, Ancient Indian Cosmology, Delhi: Vikas.
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Oguibénine & Yanchevskaya – Chapter 4: Journey to the Netherworld
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Chapter 5. Death as defilement in

by Victoria Kryukova

Abstract: In spite of that the Indian and Iranian traditions are close, as regards to death, even the com-
mon motives and subjects (such as the story of Yama / Yima, the chthonic dogs) appear in a rather
different way in Zoroastrianism. So, Iranian Yima, as we can see starting with the Avestan Videvdat,
unlike Indian Yama, is neither the first mortal, nor the King of the dead. In fact, Yima is not concerned
with death, but on contrary is, like Noah, a savior of righteous people from it.
As to the Zoroastrian dogs, unlike the Indian dogs of Yama, Iranian ones don’t look for people
predetermined to die, but accompany Daena, the personal belief who leads immortal souls to the other
world. Thus, at least in mythology (and not in ritual practice), sacred dogs are removed from the dying
and dead to avoid the contaminating contact with death.
The distance separating these characters from death in Zoroastrianism could be explained from the
idea of death as the greatest defilement, which is ‘infectious’ and can infect with death all good crea-
tions. Therefore it’s undesirable for heroes, deities and holy creations to be in any contact with death.
To some extent, this idea exists in many religions, but it became an ‘idée fixe’ in Zoroastrianism, over-
riding other mythological motives and ritual practices.
The Avestan Videvdat is devoted mainly to the driving away a demoness of death and decay
Druxsh-ya-Nasu (lit. ‘Lie which is Corpse’), which comes in the form of a fly, flying from the North,
the direction of hell. Although several names of demons specializing in different aspects of death are
known in the Avesta, this one is the principal in the Videvdat. She attacks a dead body and penetrates it
through its 9 holes. This pollution infects with death those around and for the purification some rites
are needed, connected with isolation and repeated ablutions.
On the one hand, the isolation of the ‘infected’ with death who has to be purified, as it is depicted
in Videvdat, typologically and in ritual practice is very close to the testing of a candidate during initia-
tion (and the place of isolation is like a grave, a cave, a womb and so on). In the same manner the sin-
ner is isolated, who carried a corpse alone (he becomes a ‘container’ of Druxsh-ya-Nasu). They let him
to reach the old age out of the community and then kill him ritually. The custom of isolation of a dying
person (who is dying always because he is infected with death) has continued among Tajiks till our
days in the foothills of Pamirs. They leave the dying alone in a special building, sometimes for several
days without any care, waiting for his death. At the same time the idea of the infecting ‘blackness’ of
death is widespread among the Iranian peoples.
On the other hand, the Zoroastrian system of ritual ablutions, which are fulfilled in the direction
from N to S during 9 nights and days in 9 holes (probably, the most ancient variant of this ritual was
discovered by Sarianidi in 2007 in Gonur (Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex); this could,
maybe, along with the NE (?) image of the fly-contamination help to understand some differences in
the Iranian and Indian myth and ritual) with the purpose of driving away pollution and death, repeats,
as it was noted by some scholars, the very rhythm of the liturgy. The 9 holes (as well as 9 nights and
days) associate with 9 rivers of the Iranian world picture, 9 holes of the human body and so on. This
shows a correlation of microcosm and macrocosm, which both are purified from death and pollution.

Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, Russia.
New Perspectives on Myth
1. Affinity of Old Iranian and Old Indian traditions
When the similarity and affinity of Old Iranian and Old Indian traditions are de-
scribed, a set of common or closely related notions, mythological themes, images,
names of deities, rites are usually mentioned, which are primarily known from literary
sources, namely from the corpus of Vedic and Avestan texts. A characteristic example
of such comparison is the parallelism between the heroes of the Indian and Iranian
myths of divine twins, Yama, the son of Vívasvat and Yima, the son of Viuuaŋˇhaṇt.
The parallelism is all the more so unambiguous, because even the names, both per-
sonal and patronymic, of these legendary kings and culture heroes are cognate. How-
ever, notwithstanding the undoubted commonness of the primary meaning of these
names with some other images of Indo-European myths, Iranian tradition alienates
‘radiant Yima’ (yimō xšaētō) from the realm of Death, at least in a version survived in
the Avestan ‘Codex of ritual purity’, in the Vīdēvdād (‘the law discarding the
daeuuās’ (Skjærvø 2007: 106, Benveniste 1970), which became one of the founda-
tions of the following Zoroastrian religious literature.
1.1. Heaven’s abode
Thus Ṛg-Veda calls Yama ‘the gatherer of people’ (RV X. 14.1) and the first mortal,
who showed the path of death to others (RV X. 14.2), whose abode is higher heaven
(RV X. 14.8), avarodhanaṃ divaḥ (RV IX. 113.8) – according to R. Dandekar ‘closed
place of sky’ (Dandekar 2002: 86), Bloomfield’s ‘heaven’s firm abode’ (Bloomfield
1972: 144). Yima’s abode, the concentric fortification Vara- built by him, is an en-
tirely closed building, equipped with sole lighting coming through the ‘door-window,
selfilluminating from inside’ (V 2.30).
The Sraoša’s (Avestan deity of obedience)
‘palace of thousand columns’ located on the highest peak of Haraitī was probably a
pattern of such a description. It is said that this palace is ‘selfilluminating from inside,
covered by stars from outside’ (Y 57.21: huuāraoxšnəm aṇtarə.naēmāṯ stəhrpaēsəm
It is notable that there is an allusion of this construction in one of the latest
Avestan texts – V 14.14, which also indirectly connects it to abode of the righteous in
heaven mentioned in the Avestan Yašts. V 14.14 tells about the building (for atone-
ment for the greatest sin – the killing of an otter, a sacred animal which gives fertility)
an unusual ‘house with cattle-shed’ and ‘marvellously made beds’, whose origin goes
back to the description of the heaven’s abode of Aši and Arəduuī Sūra Anāhita
(Kryukova 2007: 350-351). Usage of terms, words and word-combinations from other
Avestan texts is typical for Vīdēvdād, which was partly composed in the Avestan lan-
guage which was already dead.
Thus we can outline the connection between the very earthly Yima’s construc-
tion and heavenly gods’ abode and compare them with the heaven abode of Yama,

On the translation ‘door-window’ see: Steblin-Kamensky 1998: 80 with note 3.
Kryukova – Chapter 5: Death as Defilement
despite the fact that in the Avestan text itself it is written that the construction is not
the place of posthumous blessed to dwell in, but it is a cover keeping them alive from
‘cold wind and the hot one, pain and death’ (V 2.5, Y 9,5). In the latter I see an exag-
gerated urge to deny physical death as suffering and destruction of the body.
1.2. Heavy rain
Middle Persian texts treat the image of Yima in the same sense, not connecting king
Yima to death. Menog i xrad XXVII 27-31 narrates about the construction of a refuge
Yimkard (‘made by Yima’) by Yima, where the chosen good creatures escape from
Markūšan heavy shower (av. mahrkūša-, ‘destroyer’),
which probably appeared in
the Pehlevi text by consonance with Hebrew malkōš ‘heavy rain’ (West 1871: 134). If
we accept West’s proposal, we’ll have a combination of Iranian and NE myth in
which ‘frost and cold’ turn into heavy rain, and the situation becomes more and more
similar to the flood story. At the same time, could we suppose that the Avestan variant
of myth is also a consequence of the invasion of NE tradition, and its Middle Persian
reading just turns us to sources of these images again?
Ancient Indian variants of the flood myth are connected with Manu, brother of
Yama, just as latter is son of Vívasvat (Śatapatha brāhmaṇa I 8,1), with Viṣṇu (Ma-
hābhārata III 186-187, 194) and Kṛišṇá.
1.3. Three steps
Returning to the Avestan story about Yima, we need to note the strongest connection
between Yima and Viṣṇu: famous three steps of Viṣṇu, with which he measures earth,
and which embrace three worlds, corresponding to Yima’s earth enlargement in three
movements with two wonderful tools. É. Pirart found that the Avestan words used in
the description of Yima’s Vara, which also consists of three parts, demonstrate a se-
quence of ‘floors’ (the higher, the middle, the lower) (Pirart 2007: 165). The same is
the case in V 14.14 and we can suppose that this is another connection with the three
steps of Viṣṇu. There is also an essentially Avestan character, the already mentioned
owner of a heavenly palace, a god Sraoša. Frādaṯ.gaēθəm – ‘enlarging earthly world’
serves as his epithet. Perhaps, following Sraoša (Y 57.29), Vīdēvdād’s Yima became
the owner of two tools and also two kingdoms or rules (Sraoša defends people in two
worlds – material and mental, Y 57.25). The fact that Sraoša is named the first of
Ahura Mazdā’s creatures, who respected him and other deities as a priest, with
barəsman in hands, also connects Sraosha’s image with Yima’s Vīdēvdād story – this
is the role of priest proposed to Yima by Ahura Mazdā, which Yima rejected.

It is interesting that Yima and Viṣṇu connection appears or passes on to the
story of the construction of Vara, because we see here a mention of feet, so important

Bartholomae: ‘Zerstörer, Verderber’ (Bartholomae 1904: 1147).
New Perspectives on Myth
in Viṣṇu’s image. (In fact hands are mentioned too, because, evidently, myth’s narra-
tor would feel bewilderment otherwise):

V 2.31 Thus Yima said iwthin himself:
‘How shall I mangage to make that Vara
which Ahura Mazdā has commanded me to make?’
And Ahura Mazdā said to Yima:
‘O beautiful Yima, son of Viuuaŋˇhaṇt!
Trample (vīspara) this earth with they heels,
and knead (vīxaδa) it with thy hands,
as the potter does when kneading (vīšāuuaiieiṇte)
the raw clay.’

It is evident that this plain construction technique was mentioned here solely
because the matter had mythological basis. All verbs used for denoting the operations
with the earth, – vīspara, vīxaδa and vīšāuuaiieiṇte have the prefix vī- which has the
meaning of division; in addition vīšāuuaiiaṯ is used in V 2.11 just for describing the
enlarging of the earth: ‘Thus Yima moved apart (vīšāuuaiiaṯ) this earth so that it be-
came one third more than before’. The process of building the Vara of three floors
(three heavens) is a repetition of the enlarging of the earth in three movements.
So we can suppose that it is Yima who represents the deity in Iranian tradition
(or appears as its pale shadow), which was named Viṣṇu in India. Furthermore, in
Yima’s story told in the second chapter of the Avestan Vīdēvdād, we even can see a
detailed two part story telling of RV passage dedicated to Viṣṇu, for the sake of de-
fence (rescue from the anger of gods / Asurs ?), happiness and prosperity of men,
measuring the world in three steps:

RV VI.49 He who for man’s behoof in his affliction thrice measured out the earthly regions,
When one so great as thou affordeth shelter, may we with wealth and with ourselves be happy.
(Tr. by Ralph T.H. Griffith (The Hymns 1973))
1.4. Son of the sun
There is also another line, showing, on the one hand, a connection, and on the other
hand, – discrepancy between Iranian and Indian images and characters. The role of
the first mortal is occupied in Iranian mythology not by Yima, but by Gaiia Marətān
(av. ‘mortal life’, pehl. Gayōmard), ‘from whom’, according to Yašt 13.87 Ahura
Mazdā produced family of Aryan lands. There are some details in Middle Persian lit-
erature about creation of Gaiia Marətān as the first man by Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazdā)
and about his death, which is determined in advance by Ohrmazd and will happen by
Kryukova – Chapter 5: Death as Defilement
the hands of the antagonist of Ohrmazd, Ahriman. This first death was very basis for
increase and multiplication of life and, according to logic of Zoroastrian theologists,
was quite defensible. This idea of death’s excuse as of an impulse of life’s increase is
not expressed in the Avestan text (Yašt 13.87) at all and the very death is not men-
tioned there.
Epithets of Gayōmard in the Bundahišn are ‘light’ (rōšn) and ‘white’ (spēd),
likewise epithets of Yima in the Avesta are ‘beautiful’ (srīra-) and ‘radiant’ (xšaēta-).
Perhaps this could show a connection of both characters with sun-cults without speak-
ing about the fact that the father of Yima is Viuuaŋˇhaṇt (‘shining’). We can find out
a little about him from the Zoroastrian texts, but he is a sun-god in Indian tradition.
Indian Vívasvat personifying light in heaven and on earth is also a father of people. At
the same time he is the father of Yama; and a parallel to Vívasvat image, Mārtaṇḍa,
(‘from the dead egg’) refers us to the name of the first Iranian man, to Gaiia Marətān,
‘mortal life’. So, Yima is connected with sun because he is its son. But one of the fea-
tures of a sun-god is also Avestan Sraoša, who begins his daily way in the East, where
India is located, and finishes it in the West (Y 57.29). Apparently this is a reason why
Vara of Yima and palace of Sraoša are ‘selfilluminating from inside’, – Sraoša is sun
himself and Yima partly inherits features of Sraoša, due to the genealogical connec-
tion with sun.

1.5. Sun-god
In its turn, returning to what is common in the images of Iranian Sraoša and Yima and
Indian Viṣṇu, it is necessary to mention, that the latter also has bright features of a
sun-god, which has been stressed many times. In addition to this, embracing three
worlds with his three steps, with the last his step, Viṣṇu climbs to the highest sphere
of heaven, where the abode of Agní-sun is (RV I.72.2-4), where the gods live in bliss
(RV III.29.7), where the abode of righteous is (RV I.154.5-6). This, without doubt,
returns us to the heavenly abode of Vedic Yama and to the connection between Vara
of Yima and palaces of Sraoša and gods of Yašts.

1.6. Death
Summarising what has been said above I like to look closely at some aspects of it.
First, in view of all diffusion of mythological images and subjects, telling about the
first mortal and therefore about the appearance of death, the Iranian tradition in con-
trast to the Indian one, gives to Yima the features of Sraoša and Viṣṇu and diverts
death away from him (and also, unlike the Middle Persian texts, from Gaiia Marətān).
Second, in subjects, connected with these two Avestan characters, Yima and Gaiia
Marətān, there are no excuses for death (again unlike the Middle Persian texts).
New Perspectives on Myth
2. Dogs
Roughly the same thing is applicable to the motif of the death-noose: whereas in the
Vedas the noose figures as an attribute of Váruṇa, as well as of the king of the dead
Yama (both of them being positive images), – the same tool in the Avesta belongs to
one of the demons of death, Astō.vīδotu, depicted, as well as all the other demonic
beings, very unfavourably, as belonging to the realm of Darkness. An interesting
functional shift occurs as regards the couple of the chthonic dogs. According to the
Ṛg-Veda, they belong to Yama and look for those who are destined to die. The dogs
are closely connected with death in the Zoroastrian tradition as well. However, this
relationship is represented here in a different, if not the opposite way. The dogs,
which are referred to in the Avestan Vīdēvdād (they are not mentioned anywhere else
in the Avesta) as the second good creatures after the human beings, accompany the
deity of Faith and the inner faith of a person (understood as one of the constituents of
soul, a sort of inner double) already after one’s death. This means that the encounter
of the mythic dogs with a human does not take place when he or she is desecrated by
dying and death, but when his / her soul has already been separated from the body. In
contrast with the Vedic dogs, the Avestan ones do not attract the death, but, on the
contrary, charm it away from a corps with their sight, a capacity which accounts for
the role the dogs play in the Zoroastrian funeral ceremony. The force of sanctity as-
cribed to the dogs by the Zoroastrians is so great, that they are entitled to substitute
for a second person in the funeral rite, a single-handed fulfilment of which is believed
to be a gravest sin. Obviously, all these details testify to the same connexion of the
dogs with Death, which is well known all over the Indo-European world and even
wider, but the Avestan texts represent this relationship in a very special perspective.
3. Good and evil
It is well known that the specific attitude to the death, dying, ageing, and corporal de-
fect, is very characteristic of Zoroastrianism. It is beyond all doubt, that this attitude,
subjected to the thoroughgoing (at least, in the priests’ mind) division of the whole
creation into the good and evil, could not leave the treatment of the mythic themes
unaffected. According to this scheme, the life of the creatures of Ahura Mazda and the
Holy Spirit belongs to the first side, and their death, accordingly, to the second. Be-
sides, in addition to the natural development of the mythic themes under the influence
of the idea of the main line dividing the Universe, direct revision by the priests cannot
be excluded, which should have reach the full extent of its power during the period of
the codification of the Avesta. It must be taken into account that the main internal ten-
sion of Zoroastrianism, which differentiates the ‘Zoroastrian orthodoxy’, ascribing
primordial superiority to the Good Energies, from the ‘Zervanite heresy’, proceeding
from the ontological equality of right and wrong, could also give rise to different atti-
Kryukova – Chapter 5: Death as Defilement
tudes towards death. Whereas an orthodox saw in death the will of Ahura Mazdā, a
Zervanite should have ascribed it to the realm of pure evil. A testimony to the fact that
this problem was a matter of controversy among the priests, can be found, for in-
stance, in the Avestan Vīdēvdād:

Vd 5.8. O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! Does water kill? Ahura Mazda an-
swered: ‘Water kills no man: Asto.vīδotu binds him, and, thus bound, Vaiiu carries him off;
and the flood takes him up, the flood takes him down, the flood throws him ashore; then birds
feed upon him. When he goes away, it is by the will of Fate he goes.
Vd 5.9. …Fire kills no man: Asto.vīδotu binds him, and, thus bound, Vaiiu carries him off;
and the fire burns up flesh and vital force (uštana-).

It is evident here, how the priests solve the problem of a death caused by
‘pure’ sacred elements, water and fire. It is noteworthy, that in contrast with the sub-
sequent Zoroastrian books written in Middle Persian, the compilers of the Vīdēvdād
do not yet refer to the will of Ahura Mazdā as to the principal cause of human death.
In the Avestan text we have baxta- , ‘fate, destiny’, which, as we have seen, operates
over human’s life and brings him to death, that is, immediately to the demons of death
(the question arises, whether baxta- is to be interpreted in this context as a deity or a
constituent of human being.)
3.1. Assaults on bodies
Avestan vaiiu- means ‘air, wind’ and ‘(Good) deity of air and space’; in the Avesta
the relation of the two Vaiiu to good and evil is not specified. Asto.vīδotu and (‘Bad’)
Vaiiu are only two of the hosts of demons, who act under authority of the Evil Spirit
and represent the forces of the evil, darkness, pollution and death – thought for Zoro-
astrian all these notions are equivalent. In the Avesta their realm is defined as drug-,
‘Lie’, that is, everything opposite to the universal law and ‘Truth’, aša-. The most
prominent role in the Vīdēvdād, being the part of the Avesta focusing on the battle
against the demons, is played by the motif of driving out the she-Demon of Death,
who represents cadaveric pollution, and moreover, the corpse itself and it is called
Druxš-ya-Nasu, ‘the Lie which is the Corpse’. Numerous chapters of the Vīdēvdād
deal with the cases of her assaults on the bodies of the dead and the living, as well as
to the rites driving her out. This fact leaves no room for doubt about her importance
and danger in the eyes of Zoroastrians, probably because she personified the ‘trans-
missibility’ or ‘infectioness’ of death. For a Zoroastrian, to be in ‘infected’ by death
did not mean to go from hence into the other world or into the ‘abode of righteous’,
but to become a receptacle of evil; it is due to this belief that the Zoroastrians had
such a horror of a contact with a dead substance.
New Perspectives on Myth
3.2. Fly attracted by the corpse
Druxš-ya-Nasu, arriving from the north in the shape of a disgusting fly, attacks the
human body, once the soul has left it under the pressure of the other demons.
3.2.1. Sacred and polluted
The Zoroastrian terminology taken in general, as represented by the Avestan
Vīdēvdād, does not constitute a consistent and well-elaborated system. This is clear,
in particular, from the discrepancies in the texts concerning funeral rites. In contrast,
the terms and epithets applied to the Druxš-ya-Nasu are defined quite sharply. Putting
them into practice is determined by complicated gradation of the sacred and impure, a
concept to be briefly set forth as follows: the more sacred a being is, the more pollu-
tion its corpse disseminates the more contagious it is. The cadavers of the nasty, de-
monic beings are therefore, pure, because the noxious creatures defile everything
while being alive (V 5.27-38). For the activity of Druxš-ya-Nasu the following terms
are elaborated:
she ‘pounces upon’, ‘swoops down’ (frāduuasaiti) on a good creature and, depending on the
grade of its holiness, ‘overtakes’ (frāšnaoiti) a group of surrounding creatures, ‘infecting’
(paiti.raēβaeiti) some of them. As regards to the corpses of those beings, whose status of holi-
ness is insufficient to be ‘infected’ by Druxš-ya-Nasu, the verb ‘admixes’ (ham.raēθβaeiti) is
used, – their corps does not ‘admix’ with the good creatures (V 5.27-36).
Moreover, a man carrying a dead body alone, becomes entirely a receptacle of
Druxš-ya-Nasu, who ‘penetrates’, ‘admixes’ (raēθβaṯ) with the sinner through his
natural orifices, among which nose, eyes, mouth, penis and anus are enumerated, af-
fecting him to fingertips (V 3.14). Obviously, ears were not included in this list by
mistake; together with them, we would have the well-known scheme of the 9 natural
orifices, in which the number ‘9’ is itself important.
3.3. Receptacle of the demon
Thus, the infective nature of this defilement is understandable. It is also quite clear
that, elementary logical reasoning in this context does not permit deriving the diver-
sity of the world from the corpse, which became a receptacle of the demon. Therefore,
unlike Yama and Púrus a, the Avestan Yima and Gaiia Marətān, does not have to die
in the course of the narrative of the increase of the world and mankind, as well as for
the sake of justifying death, all the more so that, as the history of Yima was included
in the Vīdēvdād.
4. Purification rites
A considerable part of the Vīdēvdād deals with the procedures of purification from
Kryukova – Chapter 5: Death as Defilement
Druxš-ya-Nasu. All of them have similar structure and contain isolation of the puri-
fied in a room of minimum dimensions alienated from the community; restriction of
food, drinking, clothes and contacts with the outside world; ritual baths and other pu-
rificatory activities. The most severe procedure is appointed to the abovementioned
sinner, who transported a corpse alone, because he is believed to have become a
corpse himself and to be very dangerous and contagious. Nevertheless, one does not
kill him immediately, but allows him to live to get old in a special isolated building
(V 3. 15-20). The description of this place of confinement is repeated in its entirety in
V 5.46-49, in connection with the purification of a woman after miscarriage (her
womb is called ‘tomb’, daxma-), and it is expanded in V 16.2-12, where the name of
this place is mentioned as airime gātūm ‘place of repose’ (or ‘place of impurity’?).
Here a woman in the state of impurity may spend, depending on her condition, up to 9
nights, after which time 3 holes are to be dug: two for a bath in the bovine urine, and
one for a bath with water. Similar place is mentioned again in connexion with the
main Zoroastrian purificatory ceremony ‘nine nights’ (V 9.33-36).
4.1 Rites of separation
Typologically, such a construction for isolation of those who are contaminated or to
fulfil purificatory ceremonies before an initiation or consecration is close to the Zoro-
astrian ‘temporary tombs’ kata-, a sort of mortuary. They were made by threes (for
men, women and children) in wintertime, when it was difficult to observe the Zoroas-
trian funeral rites (V 5.10-11). The small dimensions of the cells, as well as of the
wards, were designed to minimise the dissemination of defilement. Actually, the Zo-
roastrian custom of ritual burying of nails and hair, which brought into existence spe-
cial buildings with no entrance, accords with the same ideas. Zoroastrian wards for
the ritually impure women had no normal entrance as well (it was considerably lower
than the usual one). Obviously this is a trace of the well known ritual and mythologi-
cal understanding of the unusual place of a dead person among the living people: dead
cannot leave the house from usual door, a hole in the wall or another kind of opening
have to be made for this.
In the foothill of the Pamir almost until now the practice of
isolation of the amort has been preserved, who were placed into small buildings,
where they were agonizing alone, away from the village; according to some evidence,
someone used to bring to them food, other witnesses report that it was only checked
from time to time, to see whether a dying person is dead or still alive (Khamidjanova
1980: 289; Rakhimov 2007: 127f). The idea of isolation of the purified in a small
room, associated with a tomb and with mother’s womb alike, is parallel to the Old
Indian religious practice, where it undergoes profound ritual interpretation. The spe-
cific character of the Iranian attitude to the death is caused by the Panic fear before

It is interesting that fire temples were built in Iran using the same constructional scheme in order to
hide them from the Muslims: according М. Boyce, a priest was forced to creep into the small camera
without windows (it was located inside a dwelling house), where the sacred fire was being maintained
(Boyce 1966: 51-52).
New Perspectives on Myth
the defilement brought about by a corpse. The modern Persians and Tadjiks call the
defilement through the death siyāhī, ‘blackness’ It is believed that the ‘blackness’ dur-
ing three days after one’s death is imbuing the dead’s house, and it is infective and
dangerous for the neighbourhood. As for the Zoroastrians, it is well known that they
regarded all symptoms of illness, ageing and corporal defects as results of activity of
the Evil Spirit. Thus, the sacrifices offered up by ill or disabled were not accepted by
gods. And just as the wicked did not ascend Noah’s Ark so there was no room in
Yima’s Vara for the people with defects, that is, with the marks of the Evil Spirit.
4.2. The number nine
Apart from the isolation chambers, which can reasonably be called ‘temporary
tombs’, the most important role in the driving out of Druxš-ya-Nasu is played by the
place in which the ritual baths ‘nine nights’ are fulfilled. The using of number ‘9’ here
is absolutely clear (9=3*3), besides other meanings and significance in this case 9
also means correspondence between 9 holes of human body through which Druxš-ya-
Nasu attacks a human being and 9 mythic Iranian rivers of universe by which this
body has to be cleansed for the harmonious purity both of microcosm and macrocosm.
All varieties of these constructions by the Iranian Zoroastrians and Indian Par-
sees are considered in detail in the treatise by Choksy (Choksy 1989), I would like to
emphasize only some significant points: the number of the holes in the most ancient
Iranian ritual was 9 (3 groups by 3), the three sections of the road of the purified were
paved with plastered soil, stones etc., different agents were used for the purification,
first of all bovine urine, also different mixtures with ashes, the last thing used was
water . The direction of movement during the purification was from north to south;
the Parsees replaced it with the direction from west to east, a substitution caused by
the difference between the localisation of hell and paradise in Iranian and Indian tradi-
tions. A prominent part in the ritual was taken by dogs, which drove Druxš-ya-Nasu
by means of their sight. According to the Vīdēvdād, new holes for the baths were or
could be dug every time there was a need to fulfil a new complex of the rites.
4.3. Directions and flies
The translations of Avestan designations of the cardinal directions were suggested by
Bartholomae (1904: 79-80). To him, the Old Iranian concept of the directions did not
fit the Old Indian one; the Zoroastrian paradise is associated with the south, the hell -
with the north. Bartholomae’s opinion was rejected by Lommel, who argued that the
Old Iranian concept of the directions principally coincided with the Indian (Lommel
1923: 204f). Nevertheless, there is an undoubted textual evidence for Bartholomae’s
view, provided by the Hadoxt Nask, which was acknowledged by Lommel himself,
who regarded it as an ‘innovation’. Besides, Bartholomae’s opinion goes well with
actual ritual practices, preserved in Iran for centuries, placing the Zoroastrian hell to
the north, and the paradise to the south. At any rate, this correspondence really took
Kryukova – Chapter 5: Death as Defilement
place, as testified by Middle Persian vocabulary. Correct interpretation of the designa-
tions of the cardinal directions is of great importance both for the line of march of
Iranian tribes to their historical territory, and to the pattern of their religious rites.
Taking for granted the attested correspondence between the north and hell, especially
if it evolved out of accord with the common Indo-Iranian attribution of hell and para-
dise to certain directions, as Lommel believed, different hypotheses can be suggested
in order to account for this phenomenon. From the northern side, according to the
Vīdēvdād, the she-demon Druxš-ya-Nasu arrives in the shape of fly. Such a represen-
tation of the demon is quite natural against the background of the total division of the
creation with the adversarial position of its parts: all the insects, reptiles, varmints and
other harmful animals, are believed by the Zoroastrians to be noxious creatures, xraf-
stra-, which are prescribed to be killed. The flies are mentioned between the xrafstra-,
but their role is insignificant by comparison with Druxš-ya-Nasu. Again, in some
Middle-East perspectives the flies take a rather prominent place. Apart from the well-
known Hebrew notions of impurity of the flies and the exclusion of their penetration
into the Temple, I mean the exegesis of the Old Testament by St. Jerome, according to
which Bā’al-Zebūb is explained as ‘lord of flies’, a reading which was widely ac-
cepted in the Christian World. It is not excluded that this exegesis also corresponds to
some realities with which St. Jerome got acquainted during his journey to the East. As
for Semitic tradition proper, it may be worth noting that the Ugaritic god B’l zbl
builds his palace on the Northern Mountain (Ṣapanu).
5. Dug-out holes
In fact, all the information we possess of Old Iranian purification rites, is drawn from
the Avestan Vīdēvdād, – it is difficult to expect a lot of material evidences from pits
dug out in earth. One can add to this some results of archaeological research, obtained
in Pendjikent (V-VIII centuries AD), where an external court of a temple was exca-
vated on a bank of a canal with a row of 9 holes disposed in the direction from west to
east. The holes were dug in groups by three, a structure corresponding to the descrip-
tion of the Vīdēvdād. The western group of the holes was filled with tender ground
mixed with coals (Shkoda 1997). I believe that this fact testifies to the direction of
movement from west to east, because the coals and ashes could serve as additional
purifying agents to be used on the first stages of the baths. The direction of the holes
from west to east could be viewed as an argument in favour of Lommel’s theory, but
one should bear in mind that the Zoroastrian Soghd was subject to extremely strong
Indian influence.
5.1. Ritual variation
Some other traces of purificatory rituals in Zoroastrian (or close to them) territories
may not be so bright but nevertheless they are noteworthy. So, during excavations at a
New Perspectives on Myth
Khwarazmian cult centre Kalali-gir 2 (IV-II centuries BC) a rectangular room with a
khum at the entrance and a hearth in its remote part was opened with orientation
probably from east to west (the entrance is at the east side), which was connected by
B.I. Vainberg to purification rites: the surface of the floor had several layers of coat-
ing, and near this room ‘a complex with rather strange pits faced with bricks’ was lo-
cated (Kalali-gir 2 2004: 88, 234). The irregular disposition of these pits was unlike
the ones mentioned in the passages of the Vīdēvdād as well as the Pendjikent’s
straight row of holes, – and this circumstance suggests a possibility of variety in the
6. Archaeological excavations: Results
Very elaborated Zoroastrian rituals dealing with the driving away Druxš-ya-Nasu can
have many different ancient roots.
So, in the course of work of the Margiana Archaeological expedition headed
by V. Sarianidi, two rooms and a square (at two different parts of the site – Area 16
rooms 88 and 92, and also Area 13) with specially prepared holes were excavated in
2007-2008 at Gonur-depe, Turkmenistan (so-called Bactria-Margiana Archaeological
Complex, Bronze Age).
These three sets of holes are not alike and rather demonstrate
different types of ritual construction with one or two common elements:

1. round holes with walls formed of clay / alabaster and
2. bricks.

The detailed description of rooms 88 and 92 was published recently in Russian
by N.A. Dubova (Dubova 2008), and I would like only to stress some aspects which
could be connected with ritual ablutions and impurity.
Floors of both rooms 88 and 92 are covered with a thick clay coating. As to
typological close features of all holes, dimensions of which vary (e.g. from 30 cm to
more than 1 m in diameter, from 5 to 40 cm deep), – almost all of them have walls
from clay or alabaster (or clay / alabaster plaster), some are covered with pieces of
ceramics and/or broken bricks and stones, especially at the square of the area 13. The
purpose of such a placement can be not an attempt to gather water or something else,
but striving to protect earth from pollution of ritual impure matters. This mode is
well-known in different traditions, including Zoroastrian one. At Gonur’s area 16,
there are also some few solitary holes partially covered with pieces of ceramics of the
same type; each of them is linked to a grave. One can suppose that after finishing bur-
ial, participants made a kind of ablution over such hole.
The filling of holes, besides the usual sand, very often contains ashes, some-

I am very grateful to Dr V.I. Sarianidi and Dr N.A. Dubova who allowed me to participate in the
work of the Margiana Archaeological Expedition and use its materials.
Kryukova – Chapter 5: Death as Defilement
times small parts of charcoal – substances which could be used as additional means
for purification or as a kind of sacrifice during purification. At the same time all three
objects are connected to animal sacrifices: some fragments of horns are found in the
room 88, astragals in the room 92, burnt bones and astragals at the area 13. Thus one
can assume that rituals fulfilled here represented an elaborated complex set of acts.
Although the walls of holes sometimes bear traces of water or other liquids – they
have the form of wave, which I believe possibly demonstrate that they were not filled
with water (as a rule the walls are too thin for this), but small amount of water was
poured over holes, as e.g. in Zoroastrian rites of purity. In one of the holes at the room
88 a broken vessel with spout was found which may have been was used for ablutions
and then was abandoned in its proper place. In addition to this in the process of re-
moving the upper layers of soil at the area 16 room 88 in some holes a dry cracked
ground with smooth surface appeared, it looked like earth was made wet and then it
dried out.

In case of the Area 16 near the holes several bricks were stacked, or one can
find even a row of bricks as in the room 88. This is also close to the Zoroastrian sys-
tem of ablutions, when priest or the candidate himself could stay longer and remain
pure from ritual point of view in the places (e.g. stones) of the territory for ablutions.
An important detail is the direction of the assumed rituals. Both rooms 88 and
92 and three holes at the square of area 13 are oriented NS (room 88 shows that they
were more probably situated from N to S, because of place for entrance, e.g.). The
most interesting is room 88, which has not only holes and bricks, but also a little dou-
ble bath(?) for feet(?) only, one part of which has a round opening perhaps for running
water . Near this bath a gathering of small ritual ‘balls’ of clay was placed, in which I
see individual sacrifices, perhaps substitutional, made in the process of a purificatory
rite. Following the plan of the room 88 we can even outline a probable sketch of a
path of the priest or the candidate from the eastern and western corners of the northern
wall to the double bath and then on or along the brick row to the group of the holes
placed in the south-west part of the room, where a central and more carefully made
southern hole is the end of way. It is worthy of notice that not all holes were in use at
the very same period, – the plan of room 88 by Dubova does not reflect a microstrati-
graphy, it shows rather all discovered holes. Some of them were made over others,
and there were also very small remnants of the coating of former destroyed circles
which were not depicted. Therefore one can suppose a relatively long period of use of
this room for the same purpose.
Room 92 which is located not far from room 88 and on the same line, and ad-
mittedly forms along with the room 88 and some adjacent rooms a complex. The
room 92 is perhaps a bathroom provided with an oven and a well for sewage. But it is
not inconceivable that the oven served not only for heating water, but also for temper-
ing ritual tools and vessels. N.A. Dubova in her description of the area 16 stresses that

On the contrary, N.A. Dubova insists on the absence of traces of water at the room 88 in her article
(Dubova 2008).
New Perspectives on Myth
the adjacent to the room 88, a room 87, is equipped with a niche with strongly fired
walls and floor (Dubova 2008), which could also serve for the tempering.
As to the small square of the area 13, it was used, I think, for common and in-
dividual rituals, as evident from its composition and location between buildings or at a
border of a complex of buildings. It is worthy of notice that planning of buildings
which form this square is very similar to the one of the area16 and very typical unlike
many other parts of the site. So I suppose that these two areas could belong to one
period. The same observation demonstrates the similarity in the discussed holes. At
the square several holes with scattered pieces of ceramics and/or broken bricks and
stones were open which were situated at the day surface of the ground. In some of
them broken fired bones of animals were found. In addition to this in the southern part
of the square a row of three dug holes located NS was discovered. It is not clear, how
many holes were originally in the row because this part of the area was destroyed; but
it could be an interesting case of a row of three holes which is well known in ancient
Indian and Iranian practise.
Of course, I cannot affirm that rituals of Gonur are the same as Zoroastrian
ones, – the interpretation of Gonur’s constructions is controversial and the difference
between Zoroastrian places for ablutions and rooms at Gonur is clear. It is possible
only to suppose that in the ancient city civilisation with the high culture of priesthood
we can find a basis for a future religion. It is very likely that the same parallel occurs
in Indus valley civilization, where the Great Bath and places for ablutions were dis-
covered at Mohenjo-Daro and the Vedic rules of ritual purity were derived from pre-
Vedic ones.
At the same time the difference between ancient Iranian and Indian
mythological and ritual features probably can be explaned by different pre-Indo-
European traditions (though they also had close relations) which served as local back-
grounds for important peculiarities in new religious systems.

But besides the possible future development the Gonur’s rituals, they should have their own history
too. We could find perhaps a parallel to the Gonur’s holes at the site of Aji-kui, which is located sev-
eral km from the first one. G. Rossi Osmida calls two rooms with a lot of holes at this site a ‘sanctuary’
(Rossi Osmida: 78). It is not inconceivable that at least one part of this set of holes was used for ritual
ablutions; their large number could be in connection with the tradition of making new row of holes for
new series of rituals. So, at Gonur the new holes were made over the old (room 88). Some parallels
arise when we try to compare the facts of Gonur with Ancient Near Eastern rituals and ritual objects. I
think that the Gonur’s mode of making round holes with walls of coating, accompanied with sacrifice
and together with use of some purifying matters such as ashes could be compared with Sumero-
Assyrian rituals, especially bīt-rimki: in Assyrian texts one can find a mention of making an enclosure
of alabaster for healing a diseased (Emelyanov 2003: 206); they fulfil rituals of bīt-rimki after making
an animal sacrifice; different purifying agents were added in water for ablutions; the bīt-rimki ritual
included seven individual ablutions, when Gonur’s rituals consisted also of several ablutions carried
out over separate holes; also ‘balls’ of clay attract attention.
Kryukova – Chapter 5: Death as Defilement
Bartholomae, C., 1904, Altiranisches Wörterbuch, Straßburg: Trübner.
Benveniste, E., 1970, Que signifie Vidēvdāt?, W.B. Henning Memorial Volume, London, 37-42.
Bloomfield, M., 1908, The Religion of the Veda, New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Boyce, M., 1966, The Fire-temples of Kerman, Acta Orientalia, XXX, 51-72.
Choksy, J. K., 1989, Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil, Austin: University of
Texas Press.
Dandekar, R.N., 2002, Ot ved k induizmu: evolyucioniruyushchaya mifologiya, Moskva: Vostochnaya
Dubova, N.A., 2008, ‘Dom ochishcheniya’ na Gonur Depe, Trudy Margianskoy archeologicheskoy
ekspedicii, T. II. Moskva, 84-93.
Emelyanov, V.V., 2003, Ritual v drevney Mesopotamii, Sankt-Peterburg: Azbuka-klassika, Peterburg-
skoe vostokovedenie.
Kalali-gir 2, 2004, Kul’tovy centr v Drevnem Khorezme, Otvetstvenny redaktor B.I. Vainberg, Moskva:
Vostochnaya literatura.
Khamidjanova, M.A., 1980, Nekotorye arkhaicheskie pogrebal’nye obryady tadjikov, Sbornik statey
po istorii, arkheologii, etnografii i iskusstvu Sredney Azii, Pamyati A.A. Semyenova,
Kryukova, V., 2007, Gates of the Zoroastrian Paradise, The Journal of Indo-European Studies Vol. 35
N 3-4, 345-356.
Lommel, H.,1923, Awestische Einzelstudien, Zeitschrift für Indologie und Iranistik, 2, 204-236.
Pirart, É., 2007, Georges Dumézil face aux démons iraniens, Paris: L’Harmattan.
Rakhimov, R.R., 2007, Koran i rozovoe plamya, Sankt-Peterburg: Nauka.
Rossi Osmida, G., Adji Kui Oasis Vol.I, Venezia: Il Punto.
Shkoda, V.G., 1997, Barašnūm gāh(?) v Penjikente, Pamyatniki stariny, Koncepcii, Otkrytiya, Versii,
Pamyati V.D. Beletskogo, T.II. Sankt-Peterburg-Pskov, 387-389.
Skjærvø, P.O., 2007, The Videvdat: its Ritual-Mythical Significance, The Age of the Parthians. The
Idea of Iran Vol. II, London, New-York: I.B. Tauris, 105-141.
Steblin-Kamensky, I.M., 1998, [Mif o Yime], perevod I.M. Steblin-Kamenskogo, Avesta v russkih
perevodakh, Sankt-Petrburg: Zhurnal Neva, Letniy Sad, 77-81.
The Hymns of the Rgveda, 1973, Translated with a Popular Commentary by Ralph T.H. Griffith, re-
vised ed., New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
West, E.W., 1871, The Book of the Mainyo-i khard, Stuttgart-London: Grüninger.

Chapter 6. Varin’s philosophy and the
Rök Stone’s mythology of death

by Joseph Harris

Abstract. The Rök Stone (Östergötland, Sweden, 801-c. 850) bears the longest of all runic inscriptions
and one of the most fruitful for our understanding of the pre-Christian mythology of Scandinavia.
While it is true that almost everything about the inscription is controversial, I am confident that my
series of recent articles form an adequately secure basis for the interpretation of Rök’s mythology and
beliefs on the subject of death. The talk will situate Rök among various Germanic mythologies of death
more generally, with special attention to the Baldr myth, in particular to the Baldr-figure’s slayer, des-
ignated a i at un in this text. Some effort at wider, extra-Germanic comparisons will be made, centered
principally on this demonic figure.
Varin’s philosophy and the Rök Stone’s mythology of
The Rök Stone is an important document in the history of Old Swedish and, more
generally, of Nordic mythology, as well as of great importance for linguistic purposes.
Its inscription, with about 750 runes in a mixture of prose and verse, is the longest of
any rune stone. If its accepted date of the first half of the ninth century is correct – and
this assessment from the early days of modern runology, has recently been ratified by
a thorough contemporary study (Barnes 2007) – then it occupies a crucial position in
the development of Nordic, especially Swedish, runic monuments; and it has been
studied and fiercely debated for almost a century and a half. Most of the problems of
decipherment have long been solved, but there is still room for a good deal of dis-
agreement over aspects of the content and message of the inscription, especially its
deeply encrypted third section. In this brief presentation, based on earlier writings by
the author as well as on the long tradition of scholarship on the inscription,
I wish to

Harvard University, Cambridge MA, USA.
The classics: Bugge 1910, von Friesen 1920, Höfler 1952, Wessén 1958, Lönnroth 1977, Widmark
1992, 1993, 1997, Grønvik 1983, 2003. Recent work: Harris 2006, 2009, forthcoming a, b.
New Perspectives on Myth
discuss the death philosophy of the raiser of the monument in so far as we can deduce
it from the inscription itself and from a few important parallel texts. I will not have
recourse to a principled philological argument. That has been done in my earlier pa-
pers. What I want to ask here is more general: what did death mean to the ‘author’ of
Rök and how did he understand the myth he cites there? The reader is referred to ear-
lier publications for the philological underpinnings and for step-by-step mythological
The structure of the inscription
I begin with a text and translation of the whole inscription. ‘A-E’ refers to faces of the
stone; the line numbers 1-28 and the Old Swedish normalization follow Wessén

Dedication (lines 1-2, side A):
Aft Vamoð standa runaR þaR. / Æn Varinn faði, faðiR aft faigian sunu.
In memory of Vamoð stand these runes. But Varin wrote them, a father in memory of
his death-doomed son.

Narrative section one (3-11, A-B; Theoderic section):
First question / hint (3-5): Sagum mǫg-minni þat: hværiaR valraubaR vaRin tvaR /
þaR, svað tvalf sinnum vaRin numnaR at valraubu, / baðaR saman a ymissum man-
I pronounce this hint for the lad: Which were the two war-spoils which, both to-
gether, were taken twelve times in booty-taking from different men?
Second question / hint (5-8): Þat sagum anna/rt: hvaR fur niu aldum an urði fiaru /
meðr Hraiðgutum, auk do/miR æn umb sakaR?
This I pronounce as second: Who became without life (died) among the Hreið-Goths
nine ages ago, and yet his affairs are still under discussion?
Answer (A9-B11): Reð ÞjoðrikR hinn þurmoði,
stilliR / flutna, strandu HreiðmaraR.
SitiR nu garuR a [B] guta sinum,
skialdi umb fatlaðR, skati Mæringa.
Þjoðrik the bold, ruler of sea-warriors, (once) ruled the shore of the Gothic Sea. Now
he sits outfitted on his Gothic steed, with his shield buckled on, prince of the
Narrative section two (12-19; side C; the twenty kings):
First question / hint (12-14): Þat sagum tvalfta, hvar hæstR se Gu/nnaR etu vettvangi
a, kunungaR tvaiR tigiR sva/ð a liggia?
This I pronounce as twelfth: Where does the steed of Gunn see food on the battle-
Harris – Chapter 6: Death, Varin, and the Rök Stone
field, which twenty kings are lying on?
Second question / hint (14-17): Þat sagum þrettaunda, hvariR t/vaiR tigiR kunungaR
satin at Siolundi fia/gura vintur at fiagurum nampnum, burn/iR fiagurum brøðrum?
This I pronounce as thirteenth: Which twenty kings sat on Zealand for four winters
under four names, sons of four brothers?
Answer (17-19): ValkaR fim, Raðulfs sy/niR, HraiðulfaR fim, Rugulfs syniR, HaislaR
fim, Haruð/s syniR, KynmundaR fim, BernaR synir.
Five Valki’s, sons of Raðulf; five Hraiðulf’s, sons of Rugulf; five Haisl’s, sons of
Haruð; five Kynmund’s, sons of Bern.
Line 20 (after Grønvik): nukmịṇịmịṛaluṣạkiainhuaR[...]ftiRfra
Narrative section three (according to JH; 21-26, 28, 27; C, D, C top, E):
First question / hint (21-22): Sagum mǫg-minni þat: hvaR Inguld/inga vaRi guldinn at
kvanaR husli?
I pronounce this hint for the lad: Who among the descendants of Ing-Vald was com-
pensated for through the sacrifice of a woman?
Second question / hint (23-24): Sagum mǫg-minni: [h]vaim se burinn nið/R drængi?
I pronounce a (further) hint for the lad: To whom was a son born for a gallant young
Answer (24-26, 28, 27): Vilinn es þat + knua knatt/i i at un. Vilinn es þat + nyti. /
Sagum mǫg-minni: Þor /ol nirøðR / sefi via vari.
Vilinn it is, whom the enemy slew. Vilinn it is: may he enjoy (this monument). I pro-
nounce a (final?) hint for the lad: At ninety, the Kinsman, respecter of shrines, en-
gendered Thor.
The inscription is comprised of a dedication and three more or less narrative
sections, each composed of two questions or hinting questions and an answer. Line 20
at one edge of side C has sustained extensive damage, and its reconstruction is a prob-
lem of its own (Harris forthcoming a). Like several of my predecessors who have
closely studied Rök, I believe it to be a frame (like the dedication) that introduces
Section Three.
As a whole, each section’s questions and their answer evoke a story-complex.
Both the structure and the content are clearest in Section One, which deals with the
famous figure of Theodoric the Great (the Dietrich von Bern of high medieval Ger-
man epic) in an early form of his life in heroic legend. All three sections treat material
that can be interpreted thematically as concerned with life and death, especially with
the persistence of life in the face of death. Theodoric died nine generations ago among
his Goths; yet his deeds are still debated in the present of the inscription, and in the
form of his equestrian statue in Aachen, he still sits armed and ready for battle. The
twenty kings of Section Two seem to have been members of a war-band / trading
company, a classic Männerbund that lives on institutionally after the deaths of indi-
viduals. Section Three features a promising man struck down at an early age and how
his death was compensated for within the family by the birth of a (half) brother.
New Perspectives on Myth
Themes of life and death
Thus death is central to all three sections, but in different ways all three also show
how life goes on in some form. In the Theodoric section, the heroic individual sur-
vives through his reputation, something like the kleos aphithon or dómr that dies
never, though this famous Indo-European and Germanic theme is more interestingly
nuanced in Rök. The twenty kings share names and ‘fathers’ (probably the initiatory-
leader figures attested in Männerbünde around the world); and if my interpretation is
right, the idea of survival here is a corporate one: the individual is subsumed into a
group of ‘brothers,’ which cannot ‘die’ since its form of ‘life’ exists on a different
plain from that of the heroic individual. Section Three combines elements of the indi-
vidual (as in Section One) and of the group (as in the pseudo-family of Section Two).
Here the group is that of blood relations, the family. The head of the clan of the Ing-
Valdings is represented by the pious ninety-year old ‘Kinsman,’ who sires a replace-
ment for his fallen son. The on-going ‘life’ of Section Three is therefore partly indi-
vidual and partly corporate or institutional.
I have further argued that the three stories or narrative complexes together
comprise a sort of argument, a Levi-Straussian form of native philosophy through
stories that are ‘good to think with.’ Certainly the inscription as I interpret it yields to
this Hegelian formal postulate almost too easily, and of course I worry that the form I
see is a product of my reading, my expectations, rather than inherent in the material –
the inscription itself being, of course, the only ultimate key to the mode of thought of
the makers and audiences of the stone. But the obliqueness of the problem statement
on the stone (detailed below), its divergence from a simplified Lévi-Straussian para-
digm, is a factor that speaks in favor of this interpretation. For, although life and death
are featured as the red threads of the narrative material in all three sections, the simple
binary opposition we might expect – say, raw vs. cooked – does not emerge as the
‘problem.’ Nor does the mediation generate reduced restatements of the binary (in
principle going on until the impulse is exhausted) as in a truly Levi-Straussian myth
complex. Instead mediation on Rök produces a single final myth satisfying within
itself, I believe, the problem posed by the juxtaposition of the two preceding stories.
The limitation of the Rök inscription to three story-complexes and a single opposi-
tion-through-mediation movement may make it unsuitable as evidence that the story
in Section Three somehow embodies a whole society’s ultimate solution to the phi-
losophical ‘problem.’ But we seem at least justified in treating the inscription as one
man’s, Varin’s, thought process and solution – that is, in treating him as its ‘author.’
I submit that the author and audience accept both life and death in their coexis-
tence. They would regard the following two statements as equally true and inter-
changeable: ‘Death comes and goes even as life persists’ and ‘life comes and goes
while death persists.’ I suggest that to us the former seems to be optimistic, redolent
of fertility and affirmation, while the latter focuses on negation and annihilation. In
any case, the ‘problem’ set by the three sections is not life against death but the con-
texts of life and of death: the individual in its strongest form (the hero, the singular
Harris – Chapter 6: Death, Varin, and the Rök Stone
master of plural masses) is opposed to the group in a very strong form (the all-male
‘family’ of warriors / traders, where the plural engulfs and contains traces of the sin-
gular), and the mediation product of this binary is a form of life-and-death (that is, of
human existence) in which both the singular individual and the plural matrix of like-
blooded persons receive equal value. In other words – and anticipating in modern
terms our conclusion – the DNA-community is the form of group immortality in
which the individual finds its optimal realization. But we will be in a better position to
justify this mode of mediated individual immortality after discussing the myth in Sec-
tion Three.
The first two narrative sections deal with heroic material like that of Germanic
heroic and eulogistic poetry found in West Germanic sources and elsewhere in North
Germanic. While every aspect of Rök has been furiously debated, one can safely say
that Sections One and Two are less contentious than Section Three and that they con-
trast with Three in being drawn from the heroic, that is secular human, world. They
also contrast with Section Three in having item numbers attached to them, as if they
represented selections from the same itemized repertoire of heroic lore, while Section
Three comprises unnumbered mythic material and is drawn from a different store.
Other Norse sources, notably the Poetic and Prose Eddas, but also the Gotland picture
stones and several mythic-heroic sagas, evince a similar juxtapositioning of heroic
and mythic narrative even while maintaining the distinction between human actions
and sacred story. Thematically, however, all three sections make literary sense both
individually and in juxtaposition, and it will come as no surprise that death-and-life
might be an appealing unifying subject in Rök’s attempt at a discursive funeral or
memorial inscription as a whole. The author Varin finds heroic stories no less apt for
‘thinking with’ than myth, but the sacred story is saved to the last and deployed, it
seems, to clinch a kind of argument.
The dedicatory lines tell us unambiguously that the stone was raised and the
runes cut by Varin, a father in memory of his ‘death-doomed’ (ON feigr) son Vamoð.
The body of the inscription in its three narrative sections is a small anthology of he-
roic-mythic stories or minni produced for Varin’s mǫgr ‘descendant,’ an emotion-
laden word found in early poetry and at least once in an earlier funeral inscription.
The stories, however, could not be related in detail on stone. Instead, they are evoked
by hinting questions and brief answers in a version of a skaldic routine or game
known as greppa-minni; cf. mǫg-minni. Vamoð may have been very young (mǫgr
also means ‘boy’); and the playful routine may be evoking some favorite tales as a
kind of gift of story for the dead. But the thematic connections and sense of the whole
seem serious and religious in a sense deeper than cult. I will return to the meaning of
the whole after discussion of the more difficult mythic material of the cipher section.
The myth in Section Three
Like the other sections, Section Three cannot really ‘narrate’ its myth according to our
New Perspectives on Myth
understanding of narration, confined as it is within the parameters of the available
stone surfaces and by the medium of runes and ciphers. In Sweden of the early ninth
century, real narration would have been a feature only of the oral medium, the voice,
and one of the mysteries associated with the Rök stone is precisely Varin’s precocious
attempt at literature in a preliterate environment (cf. Harris 2009 and forthcoming b).
Despite the ‘refraction’ of the narrative, however, the hints supplied by the section’s
questions and answer do give the modern myth-reconstructor enough to go on. From
the first question (ll. 21-22) we learn that the tragedy-with-redemption that we are
about to hear of (in our mind’s ear) takes place within a certain clan, the Inguldings,
reconstructed as descendants of a founder figure or patriarch, Ing-Vald. To ask who
was compensated for implies a death, the only important moment for compensation in
such stories. Compensation can be wergild or revenge, but the subsequent events do
not deal directly with either; instead the birth of a new son seems to be itself the com-
pensation for the death of his brother. And that form of compensation is commensu-
rate with the involvement of a woman in the story (ll. 21-22); it also agrees with an
ancient form of compensation alluded to in a famous Icelandic poem of 961, Egill
Skallagrímsson’s Sonatorrek (st. 17), and also in an analogue of the Sonatorrek pas-
sage in the Old English epic Beowulf.

The second question (ll. 23-24) is predicated upon the death alluded to in the
first, but asks to whom, to what father, an heir was born in the place of a gallant
young man (drængi). These shards come together into a fairly coherent mosaic: a
young man (drængr) of the Ingulding clan was killed; the compensation for him came
in the form of the birth of a new son to the father of the drængr, a descendant (niðr)
who will take the place of the dead. The answer section contributes some of the
names, in direct answer to the question form of the hints: the dead youth is Vilin; the
father is not named but called by a title, ‘shrine-respecting Kinsman,’ and character-
ized as ninety years of age at the time of the birth; the newborn son is named Thor.
The name of the god Thor of course puts the story into the realm of myth if we had
doubted it before; but the structure and content of the story, as defined by the basic
actions and actors – grieving father, dead youth, newborn heir, and a mother and a
slayer yet to be discussed – are obviously sufficient to raise the possibility that we are
dealing with a version of the myth of the death of Baldr so well known from later
West Scandinavian texts. There Odin is the grieving father, Baldr the early-dead son,
and Váli or Bous the newborn brother.
The hypothesis that Vilin’s death and the compensatory birth of Thor repre-
sents an East Scandinavian variant, attested several centuries before the familiar west-
ern variants, provides a precise explanation for the role of the woman in Question
One, where the compensation for the dead youth of the Inguldings is said to take place
at kvanaR husli ‘through the sacrifice of a woman.’ In the Baldr story, both in the Ice-
landic forms and in the Danish form reported in Saxo Grammaticus, it was foretold or
fated that revenge for Baldr could only be brought about by a child sired upon the

Beowulf and Sonatorrek cited from ‘Primary works’ in Bibliography; Harris 1994, 1999.
Harris – Chapter 6: Death, Varin, and the Rök Stone
maiden Rinda / Rindr.
Odin carried out this deed through magic or trickery (depend-
ing on the sources). So the ‘sacrifice’ of a woman refers to the fate-sanctioned rape of
Rinda / Rindr or else an East Scandinavian stand-in for her. Probably the name of the
‘woman’ in the Swedish version on Rök was *Vrind-, the etymologically correct east-
ern form, because in East Gautland, not too far from Rök, there was a farm name
which place-name scholars had taken back to the form *Vrindar-vé ‘Rind’s sanctu-
ary,’ adding good and independent evidence to the worship of this chthonic figure,
probably a close analogue of Jǫrð, the earth goddess / giantess on whom Odin fa-
thered Thor in the western genealogical myths.
Other evidence supporting the identification of Rök’s myth as an early East
Scandinavian variant of Baldr’s death may be briefly mentioned. Odin is presented in
western sources as very old, and his unnamed analogue on Rök is ‘ninety’ when he
begets the replacement son Thor. This part of the sacred mystery is embedded in a
complex rhetorical, runic, and graphic schema (ll. 26, 28, 27), but even in the abbrevi-
ated form of this essay we can appreciate the way the most sacred title and subject of
the concluding sentence of the inscription are saved for the top face of the stone, some
two-and-a-half meters above the earth and normally visible to the gods only. The ac-
tual name of Odin is avoided here, as frequently (he had a large number of aliases), by
the use of a term that emphasizes the family context (sefi ‘Kinsman’) and in that con-
text his piety toward the shrines (vari via). Rök’s myth bestows the name Thor on the
newborn brother. The variance from the ‘standard’ version of the Baldr myth is not as
great as it might appear: Thor is everywhere called Odin’s son; his mother is an earth
goddess / giantess who is frequently mentioned together with Rind; Thor’s son
Magni, also born of a giantess, is, like Váli, a precocious baby. In the modern recep-
tion the Baldr myth is strongly characterized, not by narrative structure or dramatis
personae – the tools I have used to reconstruct the myth – but by the name of Baldr
(which may be a title rather than a name); so it is perhaps psychologically difficult to
accept as a version of the well-known myth a narrative in which the otherwise un-
known Vilin occupies Baldr’s slot. But it is not difficult to relate the name Vilinn to
the sphere of Odin or to construct arguments for its plausible application to the Baldr
figure. I believe it is more important to emphasize, however, that Vilin’s story was in
runes as much as four centuries before the Baldr figure emerges in writing and that a
great deal of variation must have taken place in cults and in myths, for which there
was never a standard until the thirteenth-century Christian writers of Iceland and
Denmark canonized the narrative forms known to them.
Still, the myth in Section Three may be only distantly related to the Baldr
myth, so that scholarship should retain the possibility of treating it separately. The
contrasting figure of the last of the dramatis personae, the slayer, may lead in that
direction. The Rök inscription attributes Vilin’s death to iat un. This word is certainly
an early form, the earliest in writing, of the later ON jǫtunn and cognate with OE eo-
ten, and in the later Old Norse texts a jǫtunn was a ‘giant.’ I believe, however, that we

Saxo cited from ‘Primary works’ in Bibliography.
New Perspectives on Myth
would do well to remember how early this Rök i atun is and to try to separate it in our
minds from the modern image – also from nineteenth-century folklore and from the
fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sagas, where the majority of jǫtnar appear – of the
big goofy and largely comical figures we call giants. In Anglo-Saxon, eoten covers
‘giant, monster, enemy’ (Clark Hall and Meritt: 1962, s.v.), and the chief eoten of
English texts, Grendel, is surely more monster than folklore giant. For Varin’s phi-
losophy of death and the early mythology it is based on, we need a more profound
view of the iatun. But first we must examine, even if briefly and inconclusively, the
implications of iatun in the Vilin / Baldr narrative.
The western versions of Baldr’s death offer three different patterns: those of
verse, of Saxo, and of Snorri. Verse passages (which are generally regarded as older
than the thirteenth-century prose authors) alluding to the killing of Baldr name the
lone slayer ‘Hǫðr’ and say he is Baldr’s brother. Saxo also has a Høtherus who acts
alone but is not related to Balderus. Snorri alone has the famously complicated plot
whereby Loki, who is a jǫtunn, is the ‘intellectual author’ of Baldr’s slaying, which is
carried out by a blind Hǫðr (presumably Baldr’s brother).
A Swedish (Gautish) hero-
icized version of the story is found in Beowulf according to which Here-beald (the
Baldr figure) is ‘accidentally’ slain by his brother Hæð-cyn (Hǫðr). Probably the sin-
gle slayer and brother motifs are more original than Snorri’s wonderfully complex
story and Saxo’s confused one; one scholar, for example, puts Loki’s entry into the
Baldr myth as late as the eleventh century. Now, the Rök narrative has in the slayer
slot a single figure, not explicitly blind or explicitly related to the victim or explicitly
acting by accident, and characterized only by the word iatun. This could be simply a
name, a nickname, or a prejudicial epithet; or it could be a species label. The later
involvement of the jǫtunn Loki in the west argues for the last of these possibilities;
but even if we wished to favor one of the first three possibilities in order more
smoothly to integrate the Rök myth into the Baldr complex, we would have to face the
implications of iatun for any attempt to understand Varin’s thought. In other words,
whether in the Rök story a human or divine brother of Vilin is branded an iatun or
whether the unrelated slayer actually belongs to that non-human, non-god race, i atun
might be crucial to Varin’s death philosophy.
In the earliest layer of Norse mythological sources, jǫtnar sometimes seem,
Titan-like, to be an older race of gods; sometimes ‘monster’ fits better than ‘giant’ to
describe them. Loki’s three monstrous children are jǫtnar: Fenrir, the wolf who will
defeat and swallow Odin at the cosmic battle of Ragnarök; the Midgarðsormr, the sea-
serpent who encircles the lands of the earth and will kill Thor when Ragnarök comes;
and Hel, the ghastly half-black, half-white mistress of the lands of the dead. Another
animal-monster of the final battle is the hellhound Garmr, nemesis, according to
Snorri, of the god Týr. In the mythology the term jǫtnar also covers a wide variety of
more or less humanoid figures, all being united by their structural opposition to the

Gade 2006 argues that Snorri may not have known that Hǫðr was Baldr’s brother. The case is well
argued, but unconvincing considering the verse testimony. Hǫðr’s blindness may be a motif borrowed
by Snorri from Christian sources: O’Donoghue 2003.
Harris – Chapter 6: Death, Varin, and the Rök Stone
gods, but also closely integrated with the community of gods. One could almost de-
fine the jǫtunn of Norse myth not by size or body type, but by its relationship to the
society of the gods – a relationship that includes, but is not limited to, hostility. But
surveys of the use of the term jǫtnar in the ever-later literary forms probably give less
insight into Rök’s iatun than the etymologies of some of the probably early mytho-
logical jǫtnar. Hræsvelgr (‘corpse-gulper’) is an eagle, perhaps mythologized from
the carrion-eating ‘beasts of battle,’ but not the only corpse-eating jǫtunn. The serpent
Níðhǫggr (‘hate-striker’) sucks corpses, and wolves tear men, perhaps near ‘Corpse
Strand’ (Nástrǫnd). In Egill Skallagrímsson’s Hǫfuðlausn (about 936), the poet pic-
tures the ‘goddess’ of the dead, Hel, as a carrion crow standing upon the battlefield-
and Hel is, I believe, of importance in understanding the early conception of
The word hel, all commentators agree, is from a root meaning ‘hide, cover,
enwrap’ (e.g., OE, OS, OHG helan ‘conceal’); the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root
*kel- gives words like conceal and Gk. kalypso. Originally hel was where the dead are
‘hidden, covered, enwrapped,’ the grave, especially the communal burial place of the
stone age. The ‘goddess,’ or rather iat un, Hel is generally thought to be a personifi-
cation based on the place hel. The word family is very large in Germanic alone, and
hel the place is attested in every Germanic language. But the person or demon Hel
may also be old. Hermann Güntert, in his famous 1919 book Kalypso, explores espe-
cially this PIE word family and at one point argues that the ‘goddess’ is ‘pre-Indo-
European’ in the sense that the name and function are shared with Uralic (here =
Finno-Ugric), which had a chthonic death-goddess Koljo (< PIE *koljo-; cf. hel <
PGmc *halja- < PIE *koljo- [Güntert 1919: 52-53]). Despite the fact that the ‘god-
dess’ Hel is not attested in Old English or the other older Germanic languages except
Old Norse, the Finno-Ugric connection convinces Güntert that she was ‘an ancient,
Common Germanic demon – a demon [...] not a personally formed goddess!’
seems, then, etymologically to be a demon who ‘covers, hides, conceals’ the corpses
of the dead, but Güntert frequently refers to her with a different vocabulary: ‘a corpse-
demon that eats men ... [I]n the caves and tombs in which the dead were sunk,
crouches the greedy, corpse-demon who gulps down all human bodies.’
This lan-
guage implicitly identifies the ‘concealing’ she-demon with one that actively
(‘gierig’) lusts to consume its victims; with this language Güntert seems to have in
mind the wolf and hound associated with death, finding especially in Garmr ‘the an-
cient conception of the corpse-eater, the animalistic, greedy, gulping death-demon

In ‘Primary works’: Skjaldedigtning BI: 32: trað nipt Nara / náttverð ara ‘the kinswoman of Nari
(Loki)(>Hel) trod the dinner of eagles (corpses)’ (Hǫfuðlausn, st. 10).
Güntert 1919: 39: ‘eine uralte, gemeingermanische Dämonin – eine Dämonin […] nicht eine
persönlich gestaltete Göttin!’ Modern opinion is divided on this particular Germanic-Finno-Ugric rela-
tionship: Klystra et al. 1991-96, II: 105.
Güntert 1919: 40, 39: ‘[die] menschenverschlingende[ ] Leichendämonin, wie ich sie für gemein-
germanisch und vorgermanisch halte’; ‘in den Höhlen und Grüften, in welche die Toten gesenkt
werden, haust die gierige, alle Menschenleiber verschlingende Leichendämonin….’
New Perspectives on Myth
that lies at the basis of the ‘four-eyed hound’ of the ancient Indic peoples, the two
hellhounds of the Avesta ... and the Kerberos of the Greeks.’
Güntert goes on to
make what he calls ‘eine Proportion’ – a proportional formula – out of the relationship
of the goddess and the hellhound such that:
The figures of gods and demons, which originated on the basis of similar con-
ceptions, appear in the language of myth as blood relatives:

Hel : Fenrisulfr, Garmr = Hekate, Hekabe : Kerberos.

The etymologies of Fenrir and Garmr offer no help in conceptualizing death;
but all these creatures are jǫtnar, and this word has a rich and widely agreed etymol-
ogy that leads back into the sphere of Hel’s corpse-gulping canine kin. The source,
PGmc *etuna- (< PIE *eduno-), is derived from the verb *etan- ‘to eat,’ carrying a
basic meaning ‘eater,’ further glossed by the etymologists to their own taste as ‘glut-
ton’ (with the folklore giant in mind) or ‘corpse-devourer’ (roughly in Güntert’s
If Fin. etona, etana is a borrowing from Germanic, its sense ‘snail, worm;
evil person’ may be a reflection of original devouring death. Later Danish and Swed-
ish forms with -tt- (jætte, jätte) will have derived from forms in the paradigm which
(before the first consonant shift) had the geminating combination -dn-. In addition to
the -n- derivatives (iatun, jätte, etc.), there are -l- derivatives such as NNorw. jøtul
‘giant.’ As for the secular meaning ‘glutton,’ preferred by, for example, Hellquist
(1967: s.v.), it seems unlikely that such an early mythological term would have taken
its name merely from human gluttony or from its projection onto the appetite of ‘gi-
ants’ such as we encounter in the comical forms of folktales; and even if ‘big eater’
were the original meaning of the form, an early religious-mythological context would
in any case have lent a pregnant significance. Finally, very recent linguistic work by
Michael Janda throws further light on the derivation of PGmc *etuna-. In the context
of working out the derivation of Varuṇa, Janda set up a parallel with our word (I will
not attempt to recount the parallel here), which shares a rare derivational suffix and
chain of development (Janda 2000: 110-112). It would appear, then, that the old Ger-
manic word *etuna-, perhaps originally designating a demon who consumes (the
dead), is constructed according to a pattern rare in Germanic and paralleled by one of
the most original Indic gods, a god also associated with the dead and one who hap-

Güntert 1919: 41: ‘Mit diesem Garmr aber haben wir einen Beleg für die uralte Vorstellung vom
Leichenfresser genannt, vom tierisch, gierig schlingenden Todesdämon, wie er gemeinsam dem
‘vieräugigen Hund’ der alten Inder, den beiden Höllenhunden des Awesta ... und dem Kerberos der
Griechen zugrunde liegt.’
Güntert 1919: 41: ‘Gottesgestalten und Dämonen, die auf Grund ähnlicher Vorstellungen entstanden
waren, erscheinen in der Sprache des Mythos als leibliche Verwandte …: Hel : Fenrisulfr, Garmr =
Hekate, Hekabe : Kerberos.’
A somewhat less controversial derivation from pre-Germanic; pro: Karsten 1943: 82-83 and his ear-
lier work; contra: Collinder 1932-34: 188-190 and earlier. A modern balance is drawn by Klystra et al.
1991-96, I: 57.
Harris – Chapter 6: Death, Varin, and the Rök Stone
pens to share a semantic range with the Germanic Hel since Janda finally glosses
Varuṇa as ‘the god with the covering, wrapping.’

Varin’s philosophy of death
I have argued that the constellation of heroic story material and myth on the Rök
stone constitutes a kind of reasoning process about life and death and that the ideas
derivable from the inscription are attributable to Varin, the bereaved father and spon-
sor of the stone. I further believe that Varin’s philosophy of death was based on or at
least included his local variant of the myth we are more familiar with as attached to
Baldr. Scholars of Nordic paganism, notably Jan de Vries, see Baldr’s death as the
First Death and the mythologem as a whole as dealing with the problem of death (de
Vries 1956-57, II: 237-238). The hermeneutical ‘fit’ between Rök’s Section Three
and the western Baldr myth must remain on several levels hypothetical; but if my phi-
lological work and basic myth reconstruction are convincing, interpretations of the
Baldr myth can at least help in the effort to understand Varin.
Varin may then have felt that he had honored his predeceased son with a col-
lection of stories that affirmed, if not life out of death, at least an equal balance of life
with death and that in the Vilin myth he had supplied a deeply sacred story that
clinched a theological argument. The first line of the inscription describes Vamoð as
‘death-doomed,’ which may mean that he died young; and in relation to Varin, of
course he did. If so, neither the immortality of ‘imperishable fame’ exemplified in the
Theodoric of Section One, the heroic hope common to the Indo-Europeans generally,
nor the immortality of the sodality, the Männerbund of Section Two, will have had
the full force of analogy as applied to Vamoð. But Section Three, with the myth of
regeneration within the bloodline provided Varin’s consolation. Varin seems to have
been positively guided by the idea expressed negatively in Sonatorrek, st. 17: ‘This is
also said that no one may get recompense for a son unless he himself begets again the
descendant who will be a man born for the other one, in the place of his brother.’

Though Egill Skallagrímsson and the Old Man of Beowulf, ll. 2444-62, both consid-
ered this bit of ancient wisdom as inapplicable to themselves, Varin, by bringing to
bear the Vilin myth, seems to accept it as his hope. It is unclear in the maxim and in
Rök’s question / hint hvaim se burinn niðr drængi (‘to whom was a son born for a
gallant young man?’) whether the newborn son will simply replace the deceased or
will actually replicate him, whether we are dealing with dedication to a specific role
or position within the family or with rebirth. Rebirth is of course (before cloning) a
purely illogical and therefore eminently religious idea; it has been rather extensively
discussed in relation to early Germanic beliefs.
Dedication is perhaps a rationalizing

Janda 2000: 111: ‘der (Gott) mit der Umhüllung.’
Translation mine; cf. Harris 1994.
See especially Eckhardt 1937, de Vries 1956-57, I: 94-95, 180-183, 217-218, and Harris 1994.
New Perspectives on Myth
development from the religious idea; in any case, dedication is exactly what we meet
in the western variants of the Baldr myth, except that there the dedication is not pre-
cisely (or not only) a matter of replacement, but rather a dedication to revenge. Varin
seems to emphasize the positive regeneration of the family through individual re-
placement rather than the negative compensation of revenge; but we cannot exclude
the possibility that the myth complex that constituted Varin’s tools for philosophizing
also included revenge.
It is impossible to overlook the relationship of homology between Varin’s own
‘story’ and the story he chose for Section Three. Varin parallels the sefi via vari as
bereaved father while Vamoð mirrors Vilin as the early dead promising youth
(drængr). It follows that Varin’s consolation is the hope that the mythic solution will
somehow govern his future too. The parallel relationship between Varin and the myth
he had inscribed on Rök is underlined by the alliterative continuity from the real-life
father and son at least to the dead drængr of the myth, Vilin; and if my complex
speculations linking sefi via vari to Inguldinga (from a founder *Ing(i)-Vald-r/i?) and
both to Odin can be trusted, then the aged father in the myth may also have had v-
alliteration in his avoided name. In any case, the sefi ‘Kinsman’ in Rök’s myth seems
to play the role of Odin in the western analogue. I will take this extremely speculative
line of thought one stage further and wonder whether the alliterative signal of the fam-
ily relationships could have been established before initial w- was lost or became v- or
while it was still remembered that Óðinn had once been pronounced *Wōðenn. The w-
series might thus have included: Varinn < *war-ana-z; Vámóðr < *waiha-mōða-z;
Vilinn < *wil-ana-z; and the unnamed *wōð-ana-z. Loss of intial w- before vowels
like ō is dated c. 650-800 by Noreen (1923: 169). If the alliterative link is to be trusted
(with or without Odin and/or Vald), Varin may have seen his family as somehow part
of the Inguldings, perhaps conceived as his mythic forefathers.
Another link between the human family of Varin and Vamoð and the Inguld-
ings of the Vilin / Baldr myth can probably be extracted from the word faigian ‘death-
doomed,’ chosen by Varin as the only characterization of his son on the entire monu-
ment. All we really know about Vamoð is that he was ‘fated’ and in fact died. Baldr is
similarly fated, and the only real story told of him centers on his death. Of course,
Snorri fleshes out Baldr’s character: he is beloved and beautiful; his parents and his
wife are accounted for; his ‘judgments’ are mentioned; and the circumstances of his
death, the attempt to save him, and his funeral are all recounted. But the actual deeds
of the living Baldr are limited to receiving ominous dreams, standing as a target, and
dying; one might add as actions from the world of the dead that Baldr sends a ring
back to his father and after Ragnarök will return with the younger gods to start a new
aeon, but in effect Baldr is not an ‘action hero’ but a passive member of the dead
around whom fears accumulate. The fate theme in Baldr’s life begins when he discov-
ers through dreams that he is to die;
although the word ON feigr ‘doomed’ is not
used of Baldr in surviving texts, it precisely describes his nature. Through this word,

In ‘Primary works’: Gylfaginning, chap. 49; Poetic Edda (Baldrs draumar).
Harris – Chapter 6: Death, Varin, and the Rök Stone
augmented by the homology of structural situation and perhaps by a special relation-
ship to the family of Vilin, Varin has set up a paradigmatic relationship between the
two honored dead and the two bereaved families. This is precisely the kind of rela-
tionship between homo religiosus and his gods in the famous theory of Mircea Eliade
(1959): divine acts in illo tempore constitute a paradigm for the life of the believer.
Rök furnishes relatively scanty evidence of paradigmatic grief compared to the Sona-
torrek of Egill Skallagrímsson, another bereaved father, who, I have argued, viewed
his situation through the lens of the Baldr tragedy, as Eliade’s theory would have pre-
dicted. And the presence of allusions to Baldr’s death in other Norse funeral poems
(Harris 1999) suggests that Snorri’s characterization of Baldr as gráta guð ‘god of
lamentations’ uses the word grátr in a semi-technical sense as ‘(a poem of) lamenta-

We must close without solving the puzzle of Varin’s final understanding of
death itself. Did iatun still carry in Varin’s day the baggage of its ancient associa-
tions? Was the monster iatun a personification? Or had the hostile ‘giant’ of later
times already established itself, to be realized in the Vilin myth as either an epithet or
an anticipation of Loki? We can be certain that, however terrible its monstrous repre-
sentation, death was balanced in Varin’s imagination by the life of the clan: man did
not face death as an individual, but life-and-death as part of a blood family, clan, or
what we might now call a DNA pool.
Primary works
Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 2008, R.D. Fulk, R.E. Bjork, and J.D. Niles, eds., 4th
ed. rev., Toronto / Buffalo / London: University of Toronto Press.
Poetic Edda: Edda: Die Lieder des Codex regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern, 1962, G. Neckel and
H. Kuhn, eds., 4th ed. rev., Heidelberg: Winter.

Prose Edda:
Gylfaginning, Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning, 1982, A. Faulkes, ed., Oxford: Ox-
ford University Press.
Skáldskaparmál, Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Skáldskaparmál, 1998, A. Faulkes, ed., 2 vols., London: Vi-
king Society.

Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes, 1979, P. Fisher, trans., H.R. Ellis Davidson, ed., 2 vols.,
Cambridge: Brewer / Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield.
Saxonis Gesta Danorum. I: Text, 1931, J. Olrik and H. Ræder, eds., Copenhagen: Levin & Munks-
Skjaldedigtning: Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning, 1912, F. Jónsson, ed., Copenhagen: Gyldendal /

In ‘Primary works’: Skaldskaparmál, p. 17; also Helgason 1944; Harris 2000.
New Perspectives on Myth
Kristiania: Nordisk forlag, [version] B [vol.] I.
Sonatorrek: Skjaldevers, 1962, J. Helgason, ed. (Nordisk filologi A12). Copenhagen: Munksgaard /
Oslo: Dreyer / Stockholm: Norstedt, pp. 29-38.
Secondary works
Barnes, M., 2007, ‘Rök-steinen – noen runologiske og språklige overveielser,’ Maal og minne, 2: 120-
Bugge, S., 1910, Der Runenstein von Rök in Östergötland, Schweden, M. Olsen, ed., with contributions
by A. Olrik and E. Brate, Stockholm: Hæggström.
Clark Hall, J.R. & H.D. Meritt, 1962, A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 4th ed. rev., Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Collinder, B., 1932-1934, Die urgermanischen lehnwörter im finnischen (Skrifter utgivna av Kungl.
Humanistiska Vetenskapssamfundet i Uppsala 28: 1), Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell; Leipzig:
de Vries, J., 1956-1957, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols., (Grundriss der germanischen
Philologie 12/I-II), Berlin: de Gruyter.
Eckhardt, K.A., 1937, Irdische Unsterblichkeit: Germanischer Glaube an die Wiederverkörperung in
der Sippe, Weimar: H. Böhlau.
Eliade, M., 1959, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, trans. W.R. Trask, New York:
Harper & Row. [French orig. 1949.]
Gade, K.E., 2006, ‘Hǫðr ... sonr Óðins – but did Snorri know that?’ in: The Fantastic in Old Norse /
Icelandic Literature: Sagas and the British Isles, Preprint papers of the 13th International
Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th–12th August 2006, J. McKinnell, D. Ashurst, and D.
Kick, eds., Durham: Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies of Durham University. I:
Grønvik, O., 1983, ‘Runeinnskrifte på Rök-steinen,’ Maal og minne, 3-4: 101-150.
Grønvik, O., 2003, Der Rökstein: Über die religiöse Bestimmung und das weltliche Schicksal eines
Helden aus der frühen Wikingerzeit (Osloer Beiträge zur Germanistik 33), Frankfurt am Main:
Güntert, H., 1919, Kalypso: Bedeutungsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen auf dem Gebiet der indogerma-
nischen Sprachen, Halle a. S: Niemeyer.
Harris, J., 1994, ‘A Nativist Approach to Beowulf: The Case of Germanic Elegy’, in: Companion to
Old English Poetry, H. Aertsen and R. H. Bremmer, Jr., eds., Amsterdam: VUUP, pp. 45-62.
Harris, J., 1999, ‘ ‘‘Goðsögn sem hjálp til að lifa af’’ í Sonatorreki’, in: Heiðin minni: Greinar um for-
nar bókmenntir, H. Bessason and B. Hafstað, eds., Reykjavík: Heimskringla, pp. 47-70.
Harris, J., 2000, ‘The Bällsta-Inscriptions and Old Norse Literary History’, in: International Scandina-
vian and Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber, M. Dallapiazza, O. Hansen,
P. Meulengracht Sørensen, and Y. S. Bonnetain, eds., Trieste: Parnaso, pp. 223-239.
Harris, J., 2006, ‘Myth and Meaning in the Rök Inscription’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 2: 45-
Harris, J., 2009, ‘The Rök Stone through Anglo-Saxon Eyes’, in: The Anglo-Saxons and the North:
Essays Reflecting the Theme of the 10th Meeting of the International Society of Anglo-
Saxonists in Helsinki, August 2001, M. Kilpiö, L. Kahlas-Tarkka, J. Roberts, and O. Ti-
mofeeva, eds., Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, pp. 11-45.
Harris, J., forthcoming a, ‘The Rök Inscription, l. 20’, in: a festschrift comprising a special issue of
Mediaeval Scandinavia.
Harris, J., forthcoming b, ‘Philology, Elegy, and Cultural Change’, in: proceedings of a workshop on
‘Nordic civilization in the medieval world’ to appear in Gripla in 2009.
Helgason, J., 1944, ‘Bällsta-inskriftens ‘i grati’’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi, 59: 159-162.
Hellquist, E., 1967, Svensk etymologisk ordbok, 3
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Höfler, O., 1952, Der Runenstein von Rök und die germanische Individualweihe, (Germanisches
Sakralkönigtum I), Tübingen: Niemeyer; Münster: Böhlau.
Harris – Chapter 6: Death, Varin, and the Rök Stone
Janda, M., 2000, Eleusis: Das indogermanische Erbe der Mysterien, (Innsbrucker Beiträge zur
Sprachwissenschaft 96), Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck.
Karsten, T.E., 1943, ‘Finnar och germaner’, Folkmålsstudier, 9-10: I-VIII, 1-260, 261-630.
Klystra, A.D., Hahmo, S.-L., Hofstra, T. and Nikkilä, O., 1991-1996, Lexikon der älteren
germanischen Lehnwörter in den ostseefinnischen Sprachen, 2 vols., Amsterdam / Atlanta:
Lönnroth, L., 1977, ‘The Riddles of the Rök-Stone: A Structural Approach’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi,
92: 1-57.
Noreen, A., 1923, Altisländische und altnorwegische Grammatik, 4th ed. rev., Halle: Niemeyer.
O’Donoghue, H., 2003, ‘What has Baldr to do with Lamech? The Lethal Shot of a Blind Man in Old
Norse Myth and Jewish Exegetical Traditions’, Medium Ævum, 72: 82-107.
Rédei, K., et al., 1986-1991, Uralisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 3 vols., Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
von Friesen, O., 1920, Rökstenen: Runstenen vid Röks kyrka Lysings härad Östergötland, Stockholm:
K. Vitterhets historie och antikvitets akademien.
Wessén, E., 1958, Runstenen vid Röks kyrka, (Kungl. vitterhets historie och antikvitets akademiens
handlingar, filologisk-filosofiska serien 5), Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
Widmark, G., 1992, ‘Varför ristade Varin runor? Tankar kring Rökstenen’, Saga och Sed: Kungl.
Gustav Adolfs Akademiens årsbok 1992 [publ. 1993], pp. 25-43.
Widmark, G., 1993, ‘Vamod eller Vämod’, in: Nordiska orter och ord. Festskrift till Bengt Pamp på
65-årsdagen den 3 november 1993, Lund: Dialekt- och ortnamnsarkivet i Lund, pp. 210-212.
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Elva föreläsningar från ett symposium i Stockholm våre 1995, Steffan Nyström, ed.,
Stockholm: Sällskapet Runica et Mediævalia; Riksantikvarieämbetet; Stockholms
Medeltitidsmuseum, pp. 165-175.

Part III. Mythological continuities
between Africa and other

Chapter 7. The emergence of the first
people from the underworld:

Another cosmogonic myth of a possible African origin

by Yuri Berezkin

Abstract: Among cosmogonic tales, the Emergence of the first people from the underworld (further:
EP) and the Earth-diver are spread across by far the largest areas of the globe. These tales seem to be
initially connected with different cultural traditions. The EP is typical for sub-Saharan Africa, Indo-
Pacific borderlands of Asia, Australia and Melanesia, South and Central America, southern part of
North America. Stories in question tell how people of all sexes and ages come out of the ground, rock,
tree trunk, etc. and spread across the earth. These stories should not be mixed up with tales about emer-
gence of the primeval couple (the latter are also predominantly characteristic for the Indo-Pacific world
but are less specific). The EP is unknown in Northern and Central Eurasia besides few texts (Nganasan,
Selkup) which speak about people growing out of the ground ‘like grass’. In sub-Saharan Africa the EP
is the only widespread anthropogenic myth and it can well form part of the primeval mythology known
to the first people migrated out of Africa. In South and South-East Asia the EP probably acquired addi-
tional details which were later brought to the Americas by the first migrants. 1) People who come out
of their original enclosure are menaced by monster (in Asia: Lushei, Wa, Kond; in America: Seneca,
Arikara, Lipan, Murato, Witoto, Wanka, Yurakare, Yabuti, Kamaiura, Toba, Kaduveo). 2) The way
from one part of the universe into another leads through a narrow opening; certain person or creature
sticks in it broking for ever the communication between the worlds (in Asia: Kond, Moi, Ma, Sre, Ban-
har, Visaya, Paivan; in America: Kiowa, Caddo, Seminole, Yaruro, Warao, Kariña, Shuar, Mai Huna,
Witoto, Surui, Gavião, Zoro, Paresi, Caraja, Angaite, Mataco). 3) When people come from the under-
world, the two-headed creature sticks in the opening or is prevented from coming to earth (in New
Guinea and Asia: Medjprat, Moi, Ma, Sre, Banhar; in America: Mandan, Angaite). The areas of EP and
the Earth-diver myths only slightly overlap along their contact zones in North America and North-East
India. The Earth-diver is typical for Northern and Central Eurasia and for North America (mostly
northern and central areas of the continent), the American and the Asian versions having the same basic
structure. This tale probably emerged in South-Central Asia, elaborated in Southern Siberia and then
brought to the New World in Terminal Pleistocene. The differentiation of its American variants took
part on the place. In Terminal Pleistocene – Early Holocene the bearers of the Agate Basin tradition
were probably familiar with this myth and brought it across American Subarctic.

Museum of Anthropology & Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences, Saint-
Petersburg, Russia.
New Perspectives on Myth
The dispersal of modern man and the areal patterns of
folklore-mythological motifs
This paper uses as its main source the electronic catalogue of the folklore-
mythological motifs which contains information on the world distribution of about
1500 motifs and more than 40,000 Russian abstracts of particular texts.
Our Cata-
logue is not another general index of tale-types or motifs. It has not been created to
register broad narrative units, but with a particular aim to accumulate data relevant to
research on early migrations and prehistoric cultural contacts. Initially the problem of
the peopling of the New World was the focus of our studies. After 2003 when the
folklore and mythological materials from Western Eurasia and Africa were included,
even earlier periods of human history could be addressed. The major results of previ-
ous research (Berezkin 2002a – 2009b only papers in English cited) are as follows.
In the late 1990s the computing of data on the areal distribution of about 1000
mythological motifs that were checked for the American Indians and the Eskimo
demonstrated the existence of two main sets of motifs. One of them was best repre-
sented in Amazonia and Guiana and another across the Plains and around the Great
Lakes. The mythologies of these regions proved to be the most different from each
other. As our database acquired world-wide dimensions, it became clear that these
American mythological complexes corresponded to the similar complexes in the Old
World. Some tendencies are especially apparent if we minimize the ‘entropic’ effect
of the Western Eurasian fairy-tale and compute only cosmological and etiological
motifs that are only relatively rarely adopted into the fairy-tale to be introduced with it
to the new territories. These other tendencies can be better understood when we look
closely at the adventure motifs which have been adapted into the fairy-tale from more
archaic Eurasian folklore.
The folklore-mythological traditions that share the least number of motifs are
located in continental Eurasia, especially in Southern Siberia, and the other in Mela-
nesia, especially across New Guinea. The sets of motifs in Melanesia and Amazonia
are statistically identical. The North American mythologies are more similar to the
Southern Siberian ones than the South American mythologies. The traditions of the
southeast borderlands of Asia are also intermediate between continental Asian and
Melanesian complexes.
The two major sets of motifs of world mythology are referred to as the Conti-
nental Eurasian and the Indo-Pacific. The mythologies of sub-Saharan Africa are

See: . Information from about 5500 publications in Ger-
manic, Slavic, Romance and Baltic-Finnish languages have been extracted and reorganized. For a list
of the motifs with English translations and for maps with the areal distribution of motifs see: The financial support was provided by
the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (projects 04-06-80238 and 07-06-00441-a), special pro-
grams of the Presidium of Russian Academy of Sciences ‘Adaptation of peoples and cultures to envi-
ronmental changes...’ and ‘Historical-cultural heritage and spiritual values of Russia’ and INTAS
project 05-10000008-7922.
Berezkin – Chapter 7: First People from the Underworld
relatively poor in cosmological and etiological motifs. Because of this they stand not
far from the zero position between the two extremes but still nearer to the Indo-Pacific
than to the Continental Eurasian pole.

Fig. 7.1. The global distribution of the motif Shed skin as condition of immortality

Such a picture fits perfectly the Out-of-Africa scenario of the peopling of the
world by modern man suggested by geneticists and increasing supported by archae-
ologists. At about 60,000 BP groups of Homo sapiens, the so called ‘beachcombers’,
began to move along the coast of the Indian Ocean. In the Middle East this stream
split. Some groups continued their movement to the east till Australia and East Asia,
while others migrated in a northerly direction, eventually occupying the same part of
Eurasia where the Neanderthals lived before. There is evidence that Indo-Pacific my-
thology has preserved its African heritage with the discovery of links between tales
recorded in Africa, non-Aryan India, Southeast Asia and Australia. The distribution of
motifs Shed skin as condition of immortality (Fig. 7.1) and Sun’s children killed (Fig.
7.2) provide good illustrations. Texts related to the latter motif can be slightly re-
grouped according to different wording of the same theme: Person is tricked into kill-
ing his kin (Fig. 7.3).

New Perspectives on Myth

Fig. 7.2. The global distribution of the motif Sun’s children killed

Fig. 7.3. The global distribution of the motif Person is tricked into killing his kin
Berezkin – Chapter 7: First People from the Underworld
In Continental Eurasia, the African mythology was largely lost. This might
have occurred soon after the peopling of the sub-glacial zone with its very different
environment when compared with their more tropical homeland and certainly during
the Late Glacial Maximum (LGM) when population density in Northern Eurasia de-
creased and those groups that successfully adapted themselves to the changed climatic
conditions underwent deep cultural transformation. All this contributed to the idio-
syncratic deviations from former tradition. This founder effect created a new mythol-
ogy that was very different from Indo-Pacific mythology. The population survived
during the LGM in the periglacial forest steppes of the southern half of Siberia includ-
ing the Angara and the Aldan basins, while the more northern tundra areas were
empty (Kuzmin & Keates 2005). Since about 18-19,000 BP when the acme of the
LGM was over, the Continental Eurasian set of motifs probably began to disseminate
thanks to the progressive expansion of surviving population. The approximate date of
18-19,000 BP as the beginning of the recovery in population growth from LGM
minimum population is based on the dating of the Dyuktai culture in Eastern and
Northeastern Siberia (Yi & Clark 1985: 10) and on the assessment of time for the re-
peopling of the Northeast Europe by human groups of probable Southern Siberian
origin (Pavlov 2009).
Mythology of Southeast Asia and its adjacent areas preserved its African roots
though it also went through a process of change during the Upper Pleistocene. In
comparison with African mythologies, the mythologies of the Indo-Pacific border-
lands of Asia are much richer and this enrichment had to take place between the initial
peopling of these territories by Homo sapiens and the beginning of the peopling of the
New World. During the Late Pleistocene era, the difference between the Indo-Pacific
and the Continental Eurasian complexes increased. At about 15,000-12,000 BP both
sets of motifs were brought to the New World and mixed there. The Indo-Pacific
complex became predominant in South and Central America while the Continental
Eurasian complex was mainly found in North America, especially to the east of the
Rockies. The mixing of the two complexes might have initially begun in Siberia since
groups from East Asia probably took part in its peopling after the LGM.
The sound part of our hypothesis is the assumption that 60,000 BP, i.e. before
the modern humans migrated to Asia, language had developed enough to retell stories
about mythical beings and primeval ancestors. The global patterns in the distribution
of the motifs provide strong evidence in favor of such a conclusion. The mythology of
the first out-of-Africa migrants was not especially developed: e.g. seven to nine dif-
ferent explanations of the mortal nature of man, some tales about the Sun and the
Moon, possibly some simple ideas about the Milky Way, the Pleiades and the Belt of
Orion, and animal stories. The core of all adventure stories which are now widespread
in Africa were probably brought there later from Asia.
I did not initially consider the cosmogonic tale of the emergence of the first
people from the underworld as having an African origin. It seemed that the plot of this
tale was too simple to exclude its independent formation. However, the mapping of
the tale makes the hypothesis of its multiple origin unlikely (Fig. 7.4).
New Perspectives on Myth

Fig. 7.4. The global distribution of the motif People from the Underworld.
Negative correlation between the Emergence myth
and the Earth-diver myth
In order to demonstrate this, I will begin with another cosmogonic myth, the Earth-
diver, which is definitely considered as a major (if not the major) tale of the Continen-
tal Eurasian complex. The Earth-diver is known in Northern Eurasia, North America
and South Asia. All South Asian traditions are different from the others because they
describe the adventures of the personages in the Lower world while the descent there
is only briefly mentioned. In Eurasian and American traditions the position of the sto-
ryteller is always in the Middle world and no adventures in the Lower world are de-
scribed. What is crucial for the plot in Northern Eurasian, America and selects
variants recorded there are other factors including who, how many times, and on
whose initiative do they dive into the water to bring mud up from the bottom. We can
conclude, therefore, that the American versions are derived from the Siberian ones
and not directly from the South Asian variants.
In Europe to the west of Middle Volga area the Earth-diver is probably of re-
cent origin. It was influenced by the Manichean ideology in Southern Siberia and
brought to the northern Balkans by nomads. The local Manicheans, i.e. the Bogomils,
incorporated the Earth-diver into their thinking and due to this the plot reached as far
as the Alps and the Baltic. In the Volga – Ural area and across most of Siberia the
Berezkin – Chapter 7: First People from the Underworld
original pre-Manichean and the Manichean-influenced traditions coexist (Napolskih
The Earth-diver is absent in Northeast Asia and among the Aleuts and the Es-
kimo, the Eyak and those Athabaskans who live in western and southwestern Alaska.
Therefore, it could hardly have been spread to the New World during the recent mil-
lennia and must have been brought there when the ice-sheets still existed. Across the
American Subarctic it spread from the south with the groups who had been pioneering
this areas after the melting of the ice-sheets, which explains the uniformity of all local
versions, both the Athabascan and the Algonkian ones. The closest parallels to the
Siberian versions are found among the Californian Penuti and the Middle Missouri
Sioux groups. There are only small ‘drops’ of Earth-diver in Latin America, the
southern most being the Siona and Secoya version in Columbian Amazonia (Berezkin
Even though the Earth-diver and the Emergence myth are the most widespread
cosmogonic tales in the world, it is remarkable that they are not shared by most tradi-
tions and never incorporated into the same stories although logically they do not ex-
clude each other. These myths slightly overlap only along the frontier zones of their
areal distribution in South Asia and in eastern North America. I could find but two or
three cases of the Emergence myth in continental Eurasia and even these are vague
and either reduced to a phrase about people who ‘grew from the earth like grass’ or
unclear concerning the very existence of the motif (as in Iranian tradition reflected in
Specific links between the American and the Asian
and Melanesian cases of the Emergence myth
When I speak about the Emergence myth, I am not referring to the simple motif of the
primeval couple who came to earth to generate the first humans, but the more peculiar
stories which tell how people of both sexes and all ages emerged from the ground,
rock, tree trunk, bamboo stem, etc. and spread across the earth. Stories about the
emergence of a human couple who comes out of a primeval enclosure together with
different species of animals can also be included since here the primeval underworld
dwellers are not clearly differentiated between real people and real animals and the
important point is the multitude of the beings who ascend to the earth. The ‘primeval
couple’ motif itself is also predominantly characteristic of the Indo-Pacific world but
is less specific. Stories which describe how people descend from the sky or how game
animals (not in company with the people) ascend from out of the earth should be
treated separately, but some of them share specific details with the real Emergence
from the underworld tales (see below Warao and Angaite stories).
The Emergence myth is especially popular in New Guinea and western Mela-
nesia. A Highland Papuan version serves as an example.
New Perspectives on Myth
Dugum Dani. Ancestors of all the kin groups as well as all animals, birds and invertebrates
came out of the cave Huwainmo. After that most of the living creatures decided to acquire
their zoomorphic appearance but people remained anthropomorphic (Heider 1970: 141).
The hypothesis of the common origin of all circum-Pacific versions both in
Asia and in America is confirmed by the existence of additional peculiar details
linked to the main plot. These details are not known either in Africa, or in Australia.
Consequently they had to appear after the peopling of Australia (45-40,000 BP), but
before the beginning of the peopling of America (ca. 15,000 b.p). The details in ques-
tion (Fig. 7.5) are as follows: 1) people who come out of their original enclosure are
menaced by a monster (in Asia: Lushei, Wa, Kond; in America: Seneca, Arikara,
Lipan, Murato, Witoto, Wanka, Yurakare, Yabuti, Kamaiura, Toba, Kaduveo); 2) the
way from one part of the universe into another leads though a narrow opening; a cer-
tain person or creature blocks forever the communication between the worlds (in
Asia: Kond, Moi, Ma, Sre, Banhar, Visaya, Paivan; in America: Kiowa, Caddo,
Seminole, Yaruro, Warao, Kariña, Shuar, Mai Huna, Witoto, Surui, Gavião, Zoro,
Paresi, Caraja, Angaite, Mataco); 3) when people come from the underworld, the two-
headed creature gets stuck in the opening or is prevented from coming to earth (in
New Guinea and Asia: Medjprat, Moi, Ma, Sre, Banhar; in America: Mandan, An-

Fig. 7.5. The global distribution of the motif The Way from One World to Another
Goes through a Narrow Opening.

Berezkin – Chapter 7: First People from the Underworld
Here are several short abstracts of such texts.

Mejprat (New Guinea Papuans). Two hunters pursued an opossum and heard some noise from
trunk of a mango. They cut the trunk open and people began to climb out. The last to appear
was the two-headed man but the hunters pushed him back (Elmberg 1968, no. 30: 269, 274-
Lushais (Northeast India). People lived in the underworld. The king’s brother following his
hunting dog entered a cavern and ascended to the earth. He returned to call other people but
when they arrived near the surface a large serpent stopped their progress and they saw a great
stone kept up merely by a bird. The king’s brother killed the serpent and the people emerged
into the light. The king discovered that he forgot magic objects and returned to fetch them.
Before he got back the bird let the stone fall and the king with his wife remained underground.
The king’s wife decided that the king’s brother was responsible for the misfortune and cursed
him and all the people to suffer diseases (Shakespear 1909: 392-393).
Kond (Middle India). From the very place where Nirantali goddess herself and human beings
were born emerged a man-eating bullock. When it charged Nirantali, she hit it on the head
with the wood and the bullock fell back into the pit. The door broke and the bullock stuck in
the opening, so the other half of mankind had to be born elsewhere. Parts of the bullock’s
body Nirantali transformed into luminaries, plants and other objects (Elwin 1954, no. 12:
Moi (border of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) Ancestors of the Moi lived in the underworld
and decided to ascend to the earth through an opening. The prettiest women remained behind.
Monstrous two-headed bullock stuck in the opening and died there blocking the exit. That’s
because there are few pretty women among the Moi (Besnard 1907: 87).
Seneca (New York State). The first people came forth from the crest of a mountain. The base
of the mountain was surrounded by a huge serpent and it consumed all the people except two
children. They made a bow and arrow dipped in poison by which they were able to kill the
serpent who in its agony threw up the skeletal remains of the devoured people. These bones
turned into stones. From the two children the new race descended (Stone 1841: 8-10 in Ar-
chambault 2006: 6).
Mandan (Middle Missouri, North Dakota). Hero’s mother-in-law who had buffalo nature
opened a hole in the ground and the buffalo came out of it. The hero pushed back those of
them who had two heads (Beckwith 1938, no. 4: 76).
Arikara (Middle Missouri, South Dakota; many versions). Buffalo looked like humans with
horns. They struck a hollow cotton wood tree with a pole, multitude of people who lived un-
derground came out. Buffalo killed and ate them. The first to come was Cut-Nose who re-
turned into the hollow and again helped the buffalo to lure the people out of the ground. Once
a youth escaped, met the wife of the buffalo’s chief. She fell in love with him, told him to
make bows and arrows and give them to people when they would come out. The buffalo-
people ran away, turned into real buffaloes. They had with them pieces of human meat that
turned into part of their own flesh. This is the reason why hunting buffalo the Arikara do not
eat the meat under the shoulder (Dorsey 1904, no. 13: 40-44).
Warao (Orinoco Delta; many versions). People lived in the sky. Hunter’s arrow fell to the
ground, made an opening, and through it the earth below was seen. People began to descend
from the sky by a rope. A pregnant woman was stuck in the opening blocking it forever. She
turned into the Morning Star (Wilbert 1970, no. 101, 102, 103, 141, 145, 146: 216-220, 293-
294, 307-311).
Yabuti (Rondonia, Brazil). People lived underground and began to come out through an open-
ing. Cannibal bat killed and ate them. Kabebé discovered the hole, descended into it, found
New Perspectives on Myth
there a stone enclosure with people inside it. He broke the enclosure, people emerged to the
earth and became to speak different languages (Maldi 1991: 256-257).
Surui (Rondonia, Brazil). Palop in guise of a wretched old man visited the hut of Surui ances-
tors, a girl rejected him. He came again as a handsome youth, transformed the house into the
rock, people inside it called for help. Different birds tried to open a hole but broke their axes
(i.e. their beaks). The woodpecker succeeded. People came out but a pregnant woman with an
immense belly was stuck in the hole. She turned into bee, the ancestors who remained behind
her could not come out and died (Mindlin 1995, no. 7: 62-65).
Caduveo (Mato Grosso, Brazil). Somebody was stealing fish from the God’s trap. His dogs
could not find the beast. He sent some birds after it, one of them directed him to the hole in
the ground. The God pulled out the people and animals but the beast devoured them. God
killed the beast and divided its fat between different animal species (Wilbert & Simoneau
1990, no. 2: 21-22).
Angaite (Chaco). People lived in the sky and decided to climb down to earth by a rope. A
two-headed man stuck in the opening and blocked it forever (Cordeu 1973, no. 2: 201).
The Emergence myth in Africa
In Africa, the Emergence myth is the most widespread story which explains how the
earth became peopled by human beings. The motif of the first people living in the sky
is also widely known but the descent from the sky is rarely described in any detail.
Here are some examples of the typical African variants of the Emergence from
the underworld.
Bushmen. The depression of Lŏŏwe goes down to the bottom of the world. All people and
animals lived there and the space was scarce. First people pushed out to earth the animals who
dispersed across the country. Then they began to quarrel and pushed out each other. Living in-
side the hole people were immortal but began to die after coming to earth (Dornan 1925: 171).
Sandawe. Natunda emerged from a crack in the trunk of a big baobab. He widened the open-
ing and out came first a hyena, then a brebis antilope, then a woman with children, then a
man, then animals of all kind, then many different people (Millroth 1965: 43-44).
Owambo. People lived inside trunk of a tree. They called woodpecker for help, it pecked open
a hole, people came out to live on earth (Kuusi 1969, no. 1: 67, 73).
Herrero. The ancestors of the Herrero together with their cattle came out of the trunk of the
Combretacee tree. The bushmen, goats and sheep came out of a hole in the ground (Baumann
1936: 225; Parrinder 1967: 39).
Santrokofi. The ancestors ascended from the Underworld though a hole at Nkonya mountain.
The first to appear was a priest with his drum, then a warrior with his shield and sword, then
different men and women, When the priest saw his wife with another man, he struck him and
threw his drum back into the hole. Those who still were underground could not ascend any-
more (Debrunner 1969: 554-555).
There is also a Berber version from Maghreb. Although North African folklore is largely simi-
lar to Western Eurasian folklore, some etiological myths from this region demonstrate sub-
Saharan connections.
Berber. A man and a woman lived in the Underworld. They met each other, begot four boys
and four girls who also intermarried and multiplied. Boys and girls separately found openings
Berezkin – Chapter 7: First People from the Underworld
that lead to the earth and ascended, met each other and intermarried. One couple was wild, the
woman became teriel (witch) and the man a lion (Frobenius & Fox 1937: 49-57).
For comparison I will also add two Australian stories.
Dieri. Ground split open and the totem ancestors of the matrilineages came to the earth. For
some time they were lying under the sun, then turned into real people and dispersed across the
country (Berndt & Berndt 1964: 205).
Aranda. First women and after them men came out of the crack in a rock. The first man was a
favorite of the women, others killed him. He tried to ascend from the grave but they pierced
him with a spear and trampled the ground. That’s because the dead never revive (Strehlow
1947: 44-45).
Adventure tales of Continental Eurasian origin subse-
quently disseminated into Africa, but not into Austra-
The abundance of Melanesian versions and the existence of Australian versions are
crucial arguments in favor of the African origin of the Emergence myth. As it was
told above, after (probably long after) the migration out-of-Africa there was an exten-
sive infiltration of Eurasian narratives into this continent. However, Australia since its
initial peopling was much more consistently isolated than Africa from Eurasia, espe-
cially after it was cut off from New Guinea by sea transgression in the Early Holocene
period. Should we have in the Old World only African and Asian cases of the Emer-
gence myth, the probability of the Asian origin of this motif would be about the same
as of its African origin. But the distribution of the motif all along the African – Aus-
tralian arch (besides the Arabian – Iranian gap for which data are scarce or completely
absent) makes it more probable that it spread with the first groups of Homo sapiens.
To illustrate the opposite areal pattern of the motifs’ distribution in the Asian
core (Australia being empty), I suggest several maps. They show the distribution of
adventure stories widely known across the world but not in Australia, with Africa and
South America also poorly represented. I guess that these stories emerged as part of
the Continental Eurasian complex and spread across the world after the LGM.
The first one is the False wife (Fig. 7.6). In Eurasia and North America this is
the most popular tale-producing motif represented by numerous regional variants. All
the variants, however, share the basic core. According to it a bad (ugly, of low de-
scent, etc.) woman or female demonic creature disguised as a woman takes the place
of the man’s wife or bride (rare: female relation). In some of the South American ver-
sions the imposter is a male trickster. Several gaps in Eurasian distribution of the mo-
tif are probably due to the shortcomings of my database and will be addressed in the
future but the absence of the False wife across extensive areas of Central and South
America is certain. Moreover, even though some sources on Australian folklore have
still also not been processed, the motif is definitely absent in the Australian tale-type
index (Waterman 1987). In Africa the motif is less popular than in Eurasia and the
New Perspectives on Myth
existing versions have detailed Asian and European parallels.

Fig. 7.6. The global distribution of the motif The False Wife.

Another motif is Kind and unkind girls (Fig. 7.7). The Northern Eurasian and
extremely rare American versions are the most diversified and incorporated into the
actual mythological beliefs. All other versions are more standard and incorporated
into the fairy-tale, while no versions at all are recorded in Australia.
Siberian and North American folklore contains the most elaborated cases of
the Magic flight motif with the standard selection of objects thrown behind by the fu-
gitives and transformed into mighty obstacles before the pursuer (Fig. 7.8). These ob-
jects are whetstone which turns into a mountain or rock and a comb which turns into a
thicket. The farther we go from Siberia, the less standard and logical becomes the
choice of the objects and the rarer the motif itself. The Atalanta type version of Magic
flight (Fig. 7.9) looks like an early and amorphous initial variant, a prototype of the
more elaborated versions which eventually emerged in Northern Eurasia. The Ata-
lanta type is used in the flight from pursuer episodes on different continents but least
of all in Northern Eurasia where it could be pushed out by the more developed motif
of objects transformed into mighty obstacles. The selection of the whetstone and
comb as the preferable objects to be thrown is the last step in this development.

Berezkin – Chapter 7: First People from the Underworld

Fig. 7.7. The global distribution of the motif Kind and unkind girls.

Fig. 7.8. The global distribution of the motif Magic flight.
New Perspectives on Myth

Fig. 7.9. The global distribution of the Atalanta type version of Magic flight.
Research perspectives
All the research realized during the last decade demonstrated that the mapping of the
motifs is a powerful tool for reconstructing the distant past and that the world distribu-
tion of folklore-mythological motifs fits almost perfectly major patterns of migrations
in deep prehistory which have been reconstructed by populational genetics and ar-
chaeology. Are there any cases of motifs’ distribution which still cannot be ex-
There is one case for which no particular historic scenario could still be found.
A half a dozen rather enigmatic links exist between sub-Saharan African and North
American mythologies. One of them is related to the distribution of motifs which ex-
plain the origin of death (most of the non-African cases of the Originator of death the
first sufferer are recorded in North America and only one in South America, Fig.
7.10). Another link is the motif of Waters give way (when person comes to the water
body, waters give way in front of him or her and he or she reaches the other bank
walking along the dry ground; Fig. 7.11). The major area where this motif is found
includes Africa and adjacent part of Asia from Near East to India but a separate zone
of its distribution is in North America. The most interesting parallels, however, are
connected with trickster stories. The two regions where the trickster stories are the
most popular and elaborated are sub-Saharan Africa and North America with an adja
Berezkin – Chapter 7: First People from the Underworld

Fig. 7.10. The global distribution of the motif Originator of death the first sufferer.

Fig. 7.11. The global distribution of the motif Waters give way.

New Perspectives on Myth
cent part in Northeast Asia, and these share some relatively rare (especially in com-
parison with half a Globe wide distribution of Jackal / Fox / Coyote) zoomorphic
forms of the Trickster (Spider and Hare / Rabbit) and some particular plots (e.g. the
Bungling host). The number of such parallels is not so great to exclude independent
invention, but the topic deserves further investigation.
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evidence in favor of the heterogenic origins of American Indians, Archaeology, Ethnology &
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spective (70 years after Yriö Toivonen), Folklore (Tartu) 36: 75-96.
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mythological parallels, Cosmos 23, 1: 3-28.
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Chapter 8. Myths, indigenous culture,
and traditions as tools in reconstruct-
ing contested histories

The Ife-Modakeke example

by Bukola Adeyemi Oyeniyi

Abstract: Customs and traditions continue to be an invaluable source of information for historians of
the African past. A vast amount of information and explanations on complex African issues can be
found in these aspects of African culture. This paper deals with the Ife-Modakeke conflict, especially
the determination of the main contending issue in the conflict i.e. the determination of whether Mo-
dakeke was established as a ward in Ile-Ife or a separate town entire of Ile-Ife. It examines the function
of Yoruba customs and traditions in the reconstruction of the intention of Ooni Abeweila, the Ife king
that established Modakeke, and the various interpretations given his intentions during and after his
reign. The paper analyzes the kind of information and explanations cultural practices like Ogun-Pipin,
(inheritance sharing), Ile-Mimu (division or sharing of lands among family members), Oko-Yiya (divi-
sion or sharing of farmland among family members), Ise-Yiya (division or sharing of occupation
among family members), etc, could offer when the event that led to the establishment of Modakeke
occurred, and in secondary sources, on the Ife-Modakeke conflicts of the later days. Finally, the paper
considers the kinds of questions historians must ask in order to make customs and traditions useful
tools in explaining, reconstructing, and understanding a people’s past.
Using the Ife-Modakeke conflict, this paper examines the use of indigenous culture in
resolving contested histories. Ile-Ife, the famed cradle of the Yoruba people, has been
described as the political, religious and cultural headquarters of Yorubaland (Ade-
Ajayi & Akintoye 1980: 281). However, between the 15th and 16th century, the an-
cient city lost its political power to Old-Oyo and was never able to recover even when

Redeemer’s University, Ibadan, Nigeria.
New Perspectives on Myth
Old-Oyo fell in the 19th century. Modakeke, as a community, owes its existence to
the collapse of the Old-Oyo, especially the internecine wars between other Yoruba
communities in their bids to fill the leadership vacuum created by the fall of Old-Oyo
(Oguntomisin & Falola 1992: 328). As a people, the Modakeke were the displaced
Yoruba-speaking people who fled from the wars and settled in Ile-Ife from 1800. As
Samuel Johnson noted, they were initially well-received. Yet no sooner had they set-
tled down when their initial joyful acceptance transformed into open hostilities. The
situation was so grave that Ooni Abegunle Abeweila, the king of Ile-Ife, physically
separated the two peoples: the displaced people were given a place, called Modakeke,
and invested one Wingbolu, obviously their leading figure, as the Ogunsuwa (Baale)
of Modakeke (Oyeniyi 2003: 710). The issue came to a head when, in 1846, war
broke-out between the Modakeke and their Ife hosts.
The outcome of the 1846 war was grave for the Ife, as they lost the war. Not
only were they enslaved by the Modakeke, Ile-Ife was also set on fire. Consequently,
Ife people fled among other places to Isoya, Ipetumodu, Araromi, Oke-Igbo (Ogun-
tomisin & Falola 1992: 326). From 1846 when the conflict began to 1999 when the
last episode of the conflict played out, inter-group relations between the Ife and Mo-
dakeke were characterized by mutual recriminations, open conflicts, and the wanton
destruction of lives and property.
Competing explanations have been offered by scholars for the Ife-Modakeke
conflict. Samuel Johnson, who pioneered Yoruba study, noted that the causa beli was
the deposition from Ibadan of Maye Okunade, an Ife-born war veteran and the first
Baale of Ibadan, by the Oyo in the camp. Ibadan, another Yoruba town, had existed as
a small market-village before the 19th century wars. It however developed into a big
city when warriors from different parts of Yorubaland converged on it as a war-camp,
especially in their bids to repel the attack of the Fulani Jihadist from Ilorin. Maye
Okunade emerged as the head of Ibadan after he successfully led an assault on another
Yoruba town Owu. Okunade was described as an irritable terror who derived much
pleasure from victimizing and deriding the Oyo as a homeless and disgraceful people.
He was given to sudden bursts of anger and violence, most of which were not pre-
ceded by any rational thought (Samuel Johnson 1920: 90).
On one occasion, Okunade beheaded a Oyo soldier over a minor squabble the
Oyo soldier was having with an Amejiogbe, an Ijebu soldier. Without probing into
what had transpired between them, Okunade, in his characteristic manner, beheaded
the Oyo soldier who was said to be reprimanding the Amejiogbe over a commonly
used ground for refuse disposal. Other Oyo soldiers in the camp, fearing for their
lives, ganged-up, fought and expelled Okunade from Ibadan. Attempts to restore
Okunade with a coalition between the Ile-Ife and Ijebu ended in a fiasco, since they
lost the war and Okunade was killed (Oguntomisin & Falola 1992: 326).
Other accounts of the initial cause of the war were that the Modakeke, owing
to their strategic importance in Ile-Ife, had become unruly. They had started behaving
as hosts rather than guests. Prior to their arrival, Ile-Ife was said to have had no stand-
ing army; hence, the new entrants formed the bulk of its first army (Horton1973: 125).
Oyeniyi – Chapter 8: Reconstructing Contested Histories
In addition, their coming in Ile-Ife put the ancient city on the road to economic pros-
perity, as the displaced were said to be good farmers and hunters and that the Ife
chiefs were fighting among themselves over the displaced people. Realizing their stra-
tegic importance, the displaced people became unruly, thereby, warranting a change
of attitude by the Ife people (Ade-Ajayi & Akintoye1980: 286).
More pivotal to the current contestation of the conflict was the need to deter-
mine the place of Modakeke in Ile-Ife. On the one hand, as the Modakeke were
known to say, it was the intention of the Ooni who gave them Modakeke to make
them become independent of Ile-Ife. The Ife people, on the other hand, insisted, as
they have always done since the death of Ooni Abeweila, that the king’s intention was
for Modakeke to be a ward of Ile-Ife. Inability to decide and agree on this has polar-
ized the two communities and has lead to other unresolved issues such as the Isakole
or rent-payment (between 1920 and 1978) and the local government council head-
quarters (between 1956 and 1999) (Albert 2001:9).
Faced with these protracted contestations and the absolute lack of records of
the king’s intentions; how do we reconstruct and determine the place of Modakeke as
conceived by the Ife king who established it? Without doubt, the wanton destruction
of lives and property that have followed attempts to repel Modakeke’s independence
by the Ife and Modakeke’s refusal to be classified as one of the wards in Ile-Ife would
have been avoided if these issues were resolved.
As argued in this paper, indigenous culture, that includes myths, folklore, leg-
ends, day-to-day cultural practices which a particular people believe to be true about
themselves, the world around them and the general course of events, has an important
place in reconstructing contested histories, such as with the Ife-Modakeke conflicts.
Indigenous culture is borne-out of real events. They encapsulate a people’s historical
realities that possess symbolic meanings, which, through regular use, have become
transformed and embodied in concrete genres. When such events are carried over
from one generation to another, they assume the force of customs, traditions, cultural
practices, etc.
One general characteristic of indigenous culture is that it is not formally
taught. It is nevertheless well known and adopted by an entire population of a particu-
lar area. For instance, among the Yoruba, proverbs, idioms, epigrammatic expressions
and their various interpretations, hidden meanings and expressions are mostly not
taught, but are generally acquired in the process of growing up. As a normal Yoruba
child develops, the child acquires these cultural expressions as integral part of his or
her identity as a Yoruba person.
Indigenous culture is both endogenous and exogenous to humans. It develops
from people’s interactions with themselves as well as with their environment. In so far
as these remain inalienable qualities of indigenous culture, it could be regarded as a
strategic way in which a people’s past is preserved. In other words, myths, traditions,
indigenous practices, in so far as they embody a people’s way of life, can be regarded
as records of their histories. They are therefore a pool of vital resources for historical
reconstruction, especially where written or oral testimonies are lacking or are the sub-
New Perspectives on Myth
ject of controversy.
Sadly, the use of indigenous culture eludes scholars, since the majority of
scholars considers indigenous culture as barbaric, unscientific, and therefore should
not have any place in historical reconstructions. This is not to say that indigenous cul-
tures and myths have not been used in historical reconstructions, it is however to un-
derscore the fact that their use, so far, have been limited. For instance, earlier in the
development of African History, Kenneth Dike, Ade-Ajayi, and others pioneered the
use of oral accounts to establish the existence of history in Africa before the colonial
intrusion. Even at this time, oral accounts rather than cultural practices as a whole
remained the focus. Indigenous culture, like mythology, cultural practices, and oral
renditions were never considered as adjuncts to either written sources or archival re-
cords. The general practice was to regard anything not found in the records as devoid
of any historical value. In the 1960s and the 1970s, after the pioneering efforts of
Kenneth Dike (1965), Ade-Ajayi (1965) and others, the use of oral accounts in his-
torical reconstructions have been neglected. This is more obvious in the general trend
of undergraduate and graduate long essays, theses and dissertations, which tend to
glorify written records in an obtuse manner.
This has had a negative impact on the use of indigenous cultures in developing
historical reconstructions, especially in Africa, as the role of historical scholarship in
nation-building has receded to the background. Owing to this, most of the histories, so
far reconstructed, have become submerged in new controversies. How many of these
histories are abound today and are being passed from generation to generation?
No less criticism accompanies the use of oral tradition, myths, and cultural
practices in historical writings. Like other human activities, cultural practices are dy-
namic. This position holds that culture is dynamic and capable of being adapted and
interpreted to suit particular purposes. Again, the fact that cultural issues are undocu-
mented, but passed from one generation to another make it susceptible to manipula-
tion, embellishment and other human factors. While not discounting any of these and
other arguments on the limitations of the use of culture in historical reconstruction, it
must be noted that indigenous culture is systemic in nature. It has both a nucleus and a
periphery. More often than not, at the nucleus remains the core of the practice. This
core, on the one hand, is unnoticed and hidden to sight. Being thus, the core takes
enormous time to yield to changes. On the other hand, the periphery is open and
yields to change almost unnoticeably. One way of conceptualizing this process is to
view it as a person travelling a long distance with layovers at different points in their
journey. As the traveler progresses from one layover point to the other, what he
thinks, feels and says about the journey takes on progressively greater historical sig-
nificance, thus rendering what occasioned the journey in the first place as less impor-
tant. By the time the wayfarer reaches the end of the journey, the story has taken on a
life of its own and the facts of the original event have become almost irrelevant.
In yet another sense, it is not very different from a football match. The ulti-
mate aim is to score goals. However if a goal comes may be a story for another day.
Yet on game day, no coach would tolerate a player who left the task of scoring goals
Oyeniyi – Chapter 8: Reconstructing Contested Histories
and focused on the task of dribbling others, although one inexorably leads to the
other. Understanding the core of any cultural practice would therefore help the re-
searcher understand the primary purpose of the practice. As the various examples
used in this study shall show, indigenous culture, like other human phenomenon, can
be influenced internally as well as from its environment. For instance, change in any
culture could result from its internal mechanisms as well as being a response to exter-
nal contacts. European contacts in Africa have had long historical roots, but both
slavery and colonialism have impacted on Africa in a myriad of ways. Some of the
changes wrought by both experiences are both endogenous as well as exogenous.
In relation to the Yoruba, the nineteenth-century Yoruba war not only led to
the incorporation of Yoruba nations into the vortex of colonialism, but also affected
valued Yoruba cultures and institutions that gave expressions to these cultures. Politi-
cal control, as a result of the 19th century Yoruba war, changed dramatically. Socie-
ties, for the first time in Yorubaland, arose and developed new political arrangements
that had no historical roots. A notable example is Ibadan, with its unique socio-
political arrangement that saw the emergence of two distinct lines of leadership, one
military and the other civil. Another development worth mentioning here is the fact
that indigenous practices like among other things, human sacrifices and pawnship
gave way as colonial administration instituted rules that considered such practices as
obsolete and not amenable to the colonial system. In all these, changes were wrought
within the system through internal as well as external factors. In essence, although
cultural practices are dynamic, their cores values remain.
Among the Yoruba, as with other groups in Nigeria vis-à-vis Africa, there
were and are important cultural practices that characterized the Yoruba world,
whether in continental Africa or in the diasporas. These are some of the specific ele-
ments that constituted the Yoruba identity and help in sorting out the Yoruba from
other groups. They encapsulate and give meaning to the Yoruba world. They are inte-
gral parts that cannot be separated from the whole. In everyday living as well as in
different other life-forms and expressions, the Yoruba employs indigenous culture as
a concise way of giving expression to their views, preferences and interests. As a re-
sult, multi-layered meanings and interpretations of these cultures are abound within
the Yoruba world. In most cases, these meanings and interpretations are mutually un-
derstandable and/or intelligible only to the Yoruba. Hence, as a language of expres-
sion, Yoruba is not just a language; it is equally a tool, something like a lens, through
which the entire Yoruba world can be viewed.
As the Yoruba are known to say, ‘Owe l’esin Oro, Oro l’esin Owe, B’Oro ba
sonu, Owe la fi n wa’ (Proverbs are like horses, when words are lost, we ride on prov-
erbs to locate them). The meanings and interpretations associated with this saying are
not limited to the occasions in which it was used, but are also associated with a time
loop. In the Yoruba corpus, cultural practices, customs, traditions, words, proverbs,
idioms and issues have more than the meanings and interpretations imposed on them
by the circumstances surrounding them. The Yoruba world imposes both an immedi-
ate and future meanings and interpretations on words, proverbs, idioms and events. In
New Perspectives on Myth
the proverb above, the etymological meaning would read something like: Proverbs are
the horses of words, when a word is lost; proverbs help in finding it. Any Yoruba per-
son that offers this as an interpretation and meaning of the proverb is likely to be re-
garded as ‘Omo Enu,’ i.e. one who understands body languages and expressions, as
opposed to an ‘Omo Oju,’ i.e. those who cannot demonstrate any understanding
unless of the spoken words. A rather preferred interpretation would look like: Prov-
erbs are like horses, they help in resolving difficult matters. This negates the popular
position that words have no meanings outside the occasions surrounding their usage.
To an Omo Oju, as against the Omo Enu, the interpretation and meaning of the prov-
erb would look like this: Wisdom solves knotty problems. Just as ‘Omo’ in the above
identity tags is translated as any individual irrespective of age, as against the child that
the word connotes, so are Yoruba words, idioms, proverbs, issues, and phenomena,
they are capable of different interpretations, meanings and connotations. In most
cases, the most obvious meanings and interpretations are not always the intended
ones. As Johnson has noted, the Yoruba were fond of ambiguous form of speech mak-
ing, which, to the untutored, imposes a great danger as Yoruba becomes unintelligible
and the process of learning it becomes cumbersome. The difficulty, which non-
Yoruba people faced with understanding tangled meanings associated with Yoruba
words, applies to both non-Yoruba and Yoruba people also, as not all of them under-
stand the tangled meanings The richness of the language is underscored by this pecu-
liar characteristic.
In such a tangled web of meanings, interpretations and hidden intentions; how
do historians, especially in an age where Western values dominate and demonize the
richness associated with other languages, make sense of the Yoruba indigenous cul-
ture? Among others, Oyekan Owomoyela (2005) did an interpretative work on
Yoruba proverbs. N.A. Fadipe (1970), Karin Barber (1980), and Samuel Johnson
(1920) made some effort to copiously document some forms of interpretation and
guide, not to the understanding of the Yoruba world, but to understanding some of the
cultural practices, customs, tradition, proverbs and idioms collated in their works.
Aside from these few works and one or two dictionaries of Yoruba words, no other
work is as yet known that could serve as an eye-opener to understanding the Yoruba
world. This development owes, in part, to the nature of historical studies inherited
from the West, with their emphasis on written records. At another level, the blame
could be laid on the threshold of the Yoruba intelligentsia who, in spite of many years
of independence, remain attached to the Western academic orthodoxy and its obtuse
fascination with written records.
This study is divided into four sections. The first section is this introductory
section, which sets out the argument the study pursues. The second section examines
Ife-Modakeke conflicts, focusing specifically on the contested issues in the conflict.
The third section looks at indigenous culture, as a tool for historical reconstruction,
while the fourth section, which concludes the study, applies insights from indigenous
culture into the Ife-Modakeke conflict. The study concludes by suggesting that a
pragmatic use of indigenous culture interfaced with other research methods, could
Oyeniyi – Chapter 8: Reconstructing Contested Histories
serve as a veritable tool for historical reconstruction, especially in contested situa-

The Ife-Modakeke conflict
The Ife-Modakeke conflict remains a vexed issue among Nigerians. Its origins are
buried in the internecine war that bedeviled Yorubaland throughout the 19th century.
The war arose, in part, from personal conflicts between the Alaafin of Oyo and
Afonja, Oyo’s Field Marshall, at Ilorin. To fortify his position, Afonja invited Alimi,
a Fulani cleric from Sokoto, Northern Nigeria to fight Old-Oyo. Before the final
show-down with Oyo-Ile, the capital of Old-Oyo, Afonja and his men had sacked all
the outlying cities and towns, causing its inhabitants to flee in different directions. A
similar fate befell the inhabitants of Oyo-Ile (Ade-Ajayi & Smith 1964: 34).
Eventually, Alimi and his men upstaged and killed Afonja. They finally took
over Ilorin; from where they furthered their exploits against Yorubaland. Other
Yoruba cities and towns became separated, as they became engrossed with filing the
leadership vacuum created by the fall of Old-Oyo. In the ensuing confusion,
Yorubaland was decimated by the jihadists and internal rancor among the Yoruba, as
one turned on the other in a bloody war that lasted an entire century.
Three groups of refugees resulted from these wars: (a) those who fled as
groups, which were made up of whole villages with their kings, chiefs, priests and
priestesses and all other aspects of their socio-economic and political administrations;
(b) those who fled as individuals; and (c) fleeing soldiers (Oguntomisin & Falola
1992). The first group sought refuge in established towns and villages that were far
removed from the war, while the second moved in with their relatives and friends in
different cities and towns where they could find refuge. The last group sought to con-
tinue the war from other theaters. They congregated around notable soldiers, espe-
cially in Ibadan and Ijaye where they established new towns and cities and defended
not only these cities and towns but also the entire Yorubaland from the invading Fu-
lani Jihadists.
Ile-Ife, like many other Yoruba communities far-removed from the main thea-
ters of the war, received refugees from the ruins of the Old-Oyo. Mainly, the largest
number of refugees received by Ile-Ife was those belonging to the first category. But,
unlike in other places such as Ogbomosho, Oshogbo, and Abeokuta where such refu-
gees were given new settlements or allowed to settle separate from their hosts, Ile-Ife
admitted the refugees into their different quarters. No specific order was imposed and
Ife chiefs and notables were said to be quarrelling with one another over the refugees,
as they found them good at farming, hunting and soldiering. As Samuel Johnson had
noted, the Ife threw caution to the wind in order to take advantage of their situation.
The refugees initial acceptance soon degenerated and metamorphosed into
hostilities as they settled down and began to reject their subordination and ‘enslave-
New Perspectives on Myth
ment’ by the Ife. As Johnson (1920: 98) described their situation following this de-
‘…they became hewers of wood and drawers of water and were treated no better than…
It was owing to this development that Chief Obalaaye of Iraye quarters was
saddled with the responsibilities of taking care and controlling the refugees’ affairs.
Coincidentally, it was during this time Maye Okunade was uprooted from Ibadan by
the Oyo soldiers.
These twin developments impacted negatively on the situations of the refugees
at Ile-Ife. On the one hand, the expulsion of Okunade was followed by the massive
movement of Ife soldiers from Ibadan to Ile-Ife, as they were apprehensive that the
Oyo soldiers might avenge Okunade’s brutal treatment on them. Their arrival at Ile-
Ife had a socio-economic and a psychological impact on both the Ife and the refugees
living in their midst. The war had reduced the revenue accruable to Ile-Ife from its
satellite towns, since most of them had been abandoned for fear of the jihadists. The
refugees who had been providing for Ife had become unruly; thereby threatening the
food supply and the economic survival of the ancient town. With increased popula-
tion, especially of soldiers who were uprooted by the Oyo, the Ife refugees’ kinsmen,
the Ife people’s attitude toward the refugees in their midst changed. They began to be
maltreated, sold as slaves, sacrificed to idols, and treated generally no better than
Attempts by various Ife kings to reverse the situation met with stiff opposition
from the Ife people. Three kings were killed by their Ife subjects on account of their
‘favourable’ dispositions to the refugees. At the height of it all, Ooni Abeweila, who
was one of the son’s of Ooni Akinmoyero who had taken the first batch of refugees,
gave the refugees a separate settlement outside of the Ife gates, called Modakeke, and
invested one Wingbolu, obviously the leader of the refugees, as the (Baale) Ogun-
suwa of Modakeke in 1836. While the intention of the king was to quell the internal
trouble through physical separation, his action incensed the Ife against the king. For
the refugees, now called the Modakeke, or the Modakeke people, it was a succor to
their troubles. As long as Abeweila was alive, he ensured peace, no matter how frag-
ile, between the Ife and the Modakeke. He ordered and built city-fences around Ile-Ife
as well as Modakeke. Although Ile-Ife has always had a city-fence, Abeweila never-
theless expanded and widened it beyond what it used to be. For the Modakeke, the
city-fence was said to have been built with mud mixed with palm-oil and not water.
The city-fence was said to have seven gates (Akanji 2007: 234).
However, the separation of the Modakeke adversely affected Ife’s economy,
since the Modakeke had formed the core of its agricultural economy. Hence, the Ife,
realizing that they could no longer force the Modakeke to work on their farms, be-
came even more incensed against Abeweila and sought every means of killing him.
Realizing the precarious state he was in, Abeweila recruited the Modakeke into his
palace guards to provide him with security. He reigned for ten years. Eventually he
was poisoned by the Ife and died because he separated Modakeke from Ile-Ife.
Oyeniyi – Chapter 8: Reconstructing Contested Histories
With the death of Abeweila, the Ife immediately besieged Modakeke in 1846.
However, they lost the war. Three months later, another war was waged by the Ife
against Modakeke. In this second engagement, the Modakeke won again. However,
unlike in the first war where the Modakeke were afraid to enslave their former mas-
ters, in the second engagement, they not only enslaved the Ife, but Ile-Ife was also set
ablaze and its inhabitants were displaced among other communities to Isoya, Araromi,
After about ten years in exile outside Ile-Ife, Bashorun Ogunmola of Ibadan
waded into the conflict, especially because the traditional gods had not been wor-
shiped since the beginning of the conflict in 1846. At the end of Ogunmola’s interven-
tion, Ile-Ife became a vassal of Ibadan, and Ibadan imposed a Resident Officer (Ajele)
on Ile-Ife and Modakeke. To shake-off Ibadan overlordship or colonization, Ile-Ife
allied with the Ekitiparapo, a development that incensed Ibadan and caused Ibadan to
raise an army to support Modakeke and fight Ile-Ife. Ile-Ife lost and their city was
razed to the ground by fire for the second time (Oyeniyi 2003).
In their intervention efforts, which began in 1866, the colonial administration
became involved in the conflict. They restored the Ife back to Ile-Ife, as well as or-
dered the dissolution of Modakeke, as requested by the Ife and their Ekitiparapo al-
lies. From the colonial time, through independence up to 1999, recurring conflicts
have dominated Ife-Modakeke relations. Among the issues in contention include: the
payment of Isakole going back to 1921 when the Modakeke were restored to Ile-Ife,
this time as a ward in Ile-Ife and not as a separate community; the selection of a sepa-
rate Imam (Moslem cleric) for Modakeke; the creation of a local government in Mo-
dakeke; and the location of local government headquarters.
All through these years, the identity of the Modakeke in Ile-Ife has been a sub-
ject of contention. While the Ife were wont to say that Modakeke is a ward like the
other 13 wards in Ile-Ife, the Modakeke have come out boldly and argue that Mo-
dakeke is a separate entire community of Ile-Ife. During the colonial period, colonial
rule treated Modakeke as a ward of Ile-Ife. The post-colonial situation has not signifi-
cantly changed from the colonial period. Immediately after Nigeria’s independence in
1960, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, premier of the Western Region, refused to grant Mo-
dakeke a separate local government council claiming that by so doing, the govern-
ment would be dividing one town – Ife-Ife - into two. It must be noted that Chief
Awolowo was the premier of the region while the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adesoji Aderemi,
was the Governor of the Region.
Between 1979 and 1981, Chief Bola Ige, the Governor of Oyo State, under the
party led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), refused to
grant Modakeke a separate local government council under the guise that: ‘honour-
able members are expected to pay due and loyal adherence to the Party’s standpoints,
and stick to them, regardless of their individual predilections’ (Oyeniyi 2003). On the
December 13th 1983, when Chief Omololu Olunloyo, the new Governor of Oyo State
under the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), sent a Bill to the House calling for the
creation of a separate local council for Modakeke - Oranmiyan West Local Govern-
New Perspectives on Myth
ment Council – the Modakeke were joyful. Unfortunately, the military government of
General Mohammed Buhari took control of the Federal Government; thereby truncat-
ing the dream of an all-inclusive local council for Modakeke.
On May 27th 1989, the Military government of General Ibrahim Badamosi
Babangida announced the creation of 147 local councils, among which was Ife North
local council, incorporating Modakeke (wards 1 to 14), Origbo, and Oyere. The head-
quarters of this new local government council was located at Ipetumodu. To the Mo-
dakeke, this was a dream come true. Chief Oladiran Ajayi, the Otun Asiwaju of
Modakeke summed up the feelings of his people in the following terms:
‘It is sure that we are in the Promised Land. Agitation, Oppression and Unhealthy rivalry be-
tween Modakeke and Ife have been solved after 150 years (1838-1989) of wars and near
apartheid in an independent Nigeria. What an uneasy journey of 150 years towards the Prom-
ised Land’ (Omosini 1992: 175).
From the above statement, there is no questioning the fact that the most con-
tentious issue in the Ife-Modakeke conflict is the determination of the identity of Mo-
dakeke in Ile-Ife. In other words, what was the original intention of Ooni Abeweila in
establishing Modakeke? Was it for the new settlement to be a separate community, as
the Modakeke have claimed or to be a ward in Ile-Ife, as argued by the Ife? Sadly the
task of understanding the intention of the king is made the more difficult by the lack
of written records. It has proved absolutely impossible to reconstruct the intentions of
the king from the various accounts of the two communities, as recurrent wars and
conflicts between the two communities are eloquent testimonies to how unhelpful
these accounts have been.
Indigenous culture, as noted above, offers a window of opportunity to histori-
ans in their bid to decipher whatever contested issues lie before them. In the specific
case of the Ife-Modakeke conflict, especially the determination of the intention of the
Ife king that established Modakeke, indigenous culture among the Ife and Modakeke
offers historians the opportunity to interpret the king’s intention in line with the prac-
tices of the period and the exegesis of the time. As it is generally known, kings, chiefs
and elders are considered the repository of their community’s culture. Hence, in the
next section, the study turns to examining how indigenous culture could help in de-
termining the contested Ife-Modakeke histories.
Indigenous culture as a tool of analysis in the Ife-
Modakeke conflict
Even though no written records exist to substantiate the wishes of the Ooni Abeweila,
there are, however, bodies of laws, customs, culture and practices that could serve as
useful insights into knowing the mindset of the monarch regarding his establishment
of Modakeke. For example, customs and practices such as ‘Ile Mimu’ or ‘Ile Yiya’
(separation or creation of separate household) and ‘Ise Yiya’ or ‘Oko Yiya’ (demarcat-
Oyeniyi – Chapter 8: Reconstructing Contested Histories
ing farms or apportioning farms). Here whenever and wherever land, occupation, or
properties were divided or separated for whatever reason among individuals and
groups, each had unhindered control over their property, land, occupation, etc. and
could do with their portion whatever suits their fancy except outright sale (Fadipe
1970: 169-180).
Among the Yoruba, land could be divided among individuals and groups for
two reasons: death of parents, especially the father, and when situations warrant that
two groups should separate from one another. In the case of the death of the parents,
the man’s property and wealth is shared among his children, especially his male heirs.
The practice is for the most senior male member of the extended family or the family
head to call the immediate family of the bereaved and other extended family members
together. It is at such meetings that the estate of the departed is shared among his
In those cases in which the estate included land and houses, then only the male
children inherited the property since it must be kept within the family. If the children
of the departed were females, then the land and houses were passed on to other male
relatives. On some occasions, females were allowed to inherit houses and land, espe-
cially in cases when the male children of the departed were deemed incapable of
maintaining the inheritances. In cases where the children were still minors, the male
relatives were given the inheritances for safe keeping until the children had grown up
to an age when they were capable of directing their own affairs. By and large, the
practice was to keep the man’s inheritance in the family line. This is called Ogun
Pipin (Fadipe 1970: 149).
When the need arises to separate two or more people, the process differs from
the above. However, on a general scale, it is almost the same as Ogun Pipin. In Iresa,
one of the ancient Yoruba towns, because the kingship title is preserved in the male-
line, a certain king who had a set of twins realized that the choice of who would suc-
ceed him might pose serious problems after his death. He therefore divided his territo-
ries equally between the two brothers, relocated some of his people and invested one
of his twin son’s as Aresa of Iresa Apa (Head of Iresa who is fair in complexion) and
the other as Aresa of Iresa Adu (Head of Iresa who is dark in complexion). Although
each of the towns and their respective heads preserve their corporate independence,
they nevertheless regard both their towns and themselves as one. This is called ‘Ilu-
Yiya’ (Samuel Johnson 1920: 89).
When the relationship between two people or even two communities totters on
the brink of collapse, or when land scarcity or an epidemic threatens the corporate
existence of a people or a group of people, then the community in pre-colonial
Yorubaland, the affected person or persons can resettled on another land or at a dif-
ferent location. This new location is usually called ‘Araromi’ meaning I am comfort-
able here. But in a way, the name actually refers to their plight before coming to the
new place. Modakeke was, in the same vein, resettled and named after the noise made
by ‘a nest of stock, on a large tree near the site’ of the town, meaning, ‘I am quiet
here’ or ‘I am at peace here.’ Some believe that the name came from the pecking on
New Perspectives on Myth
wood by some birds. This shows the practice of resettlement was common among the
Yoruba and it was called ‘Ile-Mimu’ or ‘Ilu-Mimu’ or ‘Ilu-Yiya’ (land apportioning or
town / village apportioning).
Like the apprenticeship of a young man which is considered completed upon
only when the young man is married and independent, a new community is believed
to have been created as soon as it separated from the mother community and a new
leader was invested with an office and title to rule over it. In spite of its socio-political
independence, the new town, just like the young man, still owes allegiance to the
mother community, as a son remains his father’s in spite of his independence. Al-
though some variations may exist from one place to another, this practice is also
common to all villages and towns in Yorubaland.
Samuel Johnson, commenting on community formation among the Yoruba, in-
…perhaps a halting place for refreshments in a long line of march between two towns. In any
case it is one individual that first attracts others to the spot; if the site be on the highway to a
large town, or in a caravan route, so much the better; the wives of the farmers ever ready to of-
fer refreshments to wearied travelers, who render the spot in time as a recognized halting
place, the more distant from a town, the more essential it necessarily must be as a resting
place, if a popular resort, a market soon springs up in the place, into which neighbouring
farmers bring their wares for sale, and weekly fairs held; market sheds are built all over the
place and it became a sort of caravanserai or sleeping place for travelers. As soon as houses
begin to spring up and a village or hamlet formed, the necessity for order and control becomes
apparent. All Yoruba towns, with very few exceptions are built on this uniform plan, and the
origin of most of them is more or less the same, and all have certain identical features (Samuel
Johnson 1920: 90).
He explained further that in special cases, like the outbreak of epidemics, conflict
situations, and over-population, an influential personage with a large following delib-
erately built a town, and was from the beginning recognized as its head. He explained
that in whatever the case, the new village or town is answerable to the mother town
from where it sprang (Samuel Johnson 1920).
In the patrilineal lineage system– Idile -, the male child continually stays in his
father’s employ from the cradle until the day of his marriage. Such a child is consid-
ered to be in an apprenticeship under his father; a state he retains until his father con-
siders him old enough to take care of his own family (Fadipe 1970: 68). As a custom,
a year or more before this period ends, a dog is usually presented to the young man to
take care of. Unknowingly, he is continually watched in his relationship with the dog.
The intention behind this present is to note the young man’s reactions to the mood-
swings of the dog; as if a woman is like a dog that wags his tail at you one moment
and barks at you the next moment. If the young man passes this test, a young girl is
secretly sought for him and the young man is considered to have completed his ap-
prenticeship the day his father calls him to show him the portion of land that belongs
to him from the family farm. He is also given a house or rooms of his own and other
basic household and farming items. A week or two after this, a new bride is brought to
him to begin his own family. This is called ‘Ile-Yiya’ and ‘Ise-Yiya.’
In relation to land and houses, the basic rule among the Yoruba is that, while
Oyeniyi – Chapter 8: Reconstructing Contested Histories
they could be transferred from one hand to the other, they must however not be traded
away. Almost as a general principle, land, once given, is never taken back except in
cases of treason, which renders the grantee an outlaw and the land is confiscated.
Even with this, such land must be left untilled once there is a mark of its previous oc-
cupation. Should the need arise to employ the land in some form, the entire commu-
nity must come together to discuss the possibility of seeking out alternatives, if any
(Fadipe 1970).
Although land, when given as a gift, is given eternally, barring treason, the
grantee is only allowed to plant and harvest food crops and not the tree crops that he
may have found already on the land. Inadvertently, grantees are only allowed to plant
such crops as meet her or his fancies, but some crops such as palm trees and kola nuts.
are regarded as belonging to the landowners unless it was the grantee who planted
them. Hence the adage ‘the grantee is to look down not up’ (Fadipe 1970). Land re-
mained the most vexed issue among the Yoruba. In fact the Yoruba can conciliate on
all matters except land. This is because land was regarded as the only inheritance that
links the living with both the dead and the unborn; hence, efforts must be made to
ensure that the family, as well as the state, preserves its land.
Cultural methods such as Ile-Mimu, Ile-Yiya, Ise-Yiya, Ogun Pipin, and Ogun-Jije are
common among the traditional Yoruba communities as a means of wealth redistribu-
tion, family recreation, solving the congestion problem of over populated communi-
ties, prevention of overt conflict behaviour, and conflict mitigation, among others.
When the Ife-Modakeke conflict is viewed from the standpoint of any of these cul-
tural practices, one notices that many of the views expressed by the various commis-
sions of inquiry, politicians, and scholars took no notice of any of these avowed
practices in their examination of the conflict.
After considering the representative examples of indigenous practices among
the Yoruba above, it is gratifying to note that Modakeke must have been given as a
gift, which was not intended to be taken back unless on condition of treason. What is
not clear is whether the internal scuffle that necessitated the granting of the land to the
displaced people and other development since 1846 in the Ife-Modakeke conflict
qualify as treason. There is nothing in oral history to suggest the possibility of this.
Commonsense also suggests that if it was bad enough to qualify as treason, the king
would not have deemed it fit to grant them such a land in the first place. However, it
may be argued that because the king had blood relations with the displaced people, he
may not have regarded their actions as treasonous, especially since they supported
him. No matter how sound this may be, the fact must still be recognize that if the king
did not consider their actions as treasonable, then it cannot possibly be considered
treason. This is because treason can only be committed against a sitting head of gov-
ernment; hence, we can conclude that the problem was not bad enough to qualify as
New Perspectives on Myth
treason. It can also be safely argued that the judgment of the Imole, the highest ruling
court at Ile-Ife (Oyeniyi 2003), that Abeweila erred in granting out the land qualified
as treason, as it directly challenges the power of the Ooni to distribute and administer
land. Hence, it is against the prevailing Yoruba custom to request the land from the
Modakeke and to wage war against them in order to achieve this. As one wrong can-
not justify another, Modakeke’s reaction cannot amount to treason; rather, it qualifies
as self-defence.
When these insights from indigenous culture are juxtaposed with others pro-
vided, for instance, by archaeology, one gets the impression that Ooni Abeweila never
intended Modakeke to be a ward under Ife-Ife. Rather, he wanted it to be a separate
and an independent town like Ipetumodu and other Ife’s satellite towns. To buttress
this fact, the king fenced Ile-Ife, Modakeke, and invested the new community with a
Baale, the Ogunsuwa of Modakeke.
The fact that no other ward in Ile-Ife has a wall delimiting it from other areas,
renders the argument that Modakeke was meant to be a ward in Ile-Ife is questionable.
All evidence, despite their limitations, point to the fact that Modakeke was meant to
be like Ipetumodu, Apomu, Ikire, and other satellite towns surrounding Ile-Ife and not
a ward dependent on Ile-Ife.
It must be stated that, until this date, government reports, court proceedings,
committee and commission reports have consistently argued that Modakeke was
meant to be a ward in Ile-Ife and that allowing it to have an independent status is like
dividing a town into two. No mention is as yet made as to why other wards in Ile-Ife,
during this period, were not fenced and invested with a Baale just like Modakeke.
Until these substantial differences are accounted for, we may not get near the end of
resolving the Ife-Modakeke conflict.
Culture has been defined as a people’s total way of life. If this is so, it is in-
controvertible that lessons of culture, whatever their inadequacies, are time-tested and
must not be ignored. Undoubtedly, African indigenous cultures are rich in two impor-
tant elements: the tradition of family or neighbourhood negotiation facilitated by eld-
ers and the attitude of togetherness in the spirit of humanity. These are two important
landmarks that could help in resolving intra-ethnic conflict in Africa. As the case of
Ife-Modakeke conflict has shown, conflict resolution efforts must emphasize these
two fundamental factors, which are ably represented in indigenous culture, if it is go-
ing to relate to the people’s world. Indigenous culture evolves from repeated actions
and experiences. Therefore, it cannot possibly extend beyond people’s cultural milieu.
A better understanding of a people’s culture will definitely assist in solving knotty
issues associated with human or inter-group relations.
As the globalisation sociologist Jonathan Friedman has brilliantly noted, the
construction of a history is the construction of a meaningful universe of events and
narratives for an individual or a collectively defined subject. How then does one make
a meaning out of a past long gone and of which nothing is remembered? Can we con-
struct a meaningful universe or hazard a narrative for a collectively defined subject in
a complex web of claims and counter-claims? How can we do any of these where
Oyeniyi – Chapter 8: Reconstructing Contested Histories
written records are lacking? As shown with the example of the Ife-Modakeke conflict,
cultural practices, myths, and traditions offer strategic ways in which a people’s past
are unintendedly preserved and offer a picture of former historical realities. Hence, as
unintended witnesses, they reflect the historical truth as perceived by the people at the
time of the events.
Indigenous cultures are many and multidimensional. How then do historians
determine which of the numerous cultures to use for reconstruction? The answer is
relevance. The most relevant and the most related of the indigenous cultures should be
the guiding post upon which historians should construct their arguments. However, in
determining what is relevant in the Ife-Modakeke conflict another problem arises. It
must first be determined relevance to what? Is it relevant to the specific issue or sub-
ject in question, say the Ife-Modakeke conflict, or the Yoruba wars that serves as the
harbingers of displacement or the numerous problems associated with displacement
generally? The answer is likely to be found in the subject under examination, the con-
text in which the subject is set, as well as the historians’ dexterity in knowing which
positions provide better answers to the questions imposed upon the historian by the
subject under examination. In determining the intention of Abeweila on the position
of Modakeke, the question goes beyond the one imposed by the subject to include
wider controversial issues involved in the Ife-Modakeke conflict. Or how do we
measure the intention of Abeweila when we already knew he was born of the dis-
placed woman earlier given to Ooni Akinmoyero? How do we determine the intention
of the Ife when we already know that some other Oonis were killed or forced to com-
mit suicide for their friendly relations with the displaced population? These are com-
plex questions can only have equally complex answers. It is in complex situations like
this, that indigenous cultures remain the only veritable tool available to historians if
they must get answers to complex historical questions.
Students of politics would agree with historians that clearly defined geo-
graphical boundaries and power, as encapsulated in a distinct head that is not subordi-
nate to any other power for his/her domestic relations, are some of the criteria of an
independent state. In pre-colonial Africa, the idea of the state existed in a somewhat
different context than the modern state today. States existed that were independent,
but which had filial relations with other states. This situation was not to undermine
their existences as corporate entities, but to ascertain reciprocal relationships between
the states. Among the Yoruba, the saying is well known that ‘Alaafin owns all lands.’
But this is not to say that all lands in Yorubaland belongs to the Alaafin of Oyo; rather
to underscore the primacy of Alaafin over all Yoruba kings, especially in the Oyo-
Yoruba speaking areas.
Given the considerations above, there is no questioning the fact that indige-
nous culture, although voiceless, could serve in reconstructing events whose truths
have long been submerged in contested renditions over time. Cultural practices are,
therefore, vital historiographical tools and are chief techniques for remembering the
past in a more reliable way. When used in conjunction with other sources, they could
help in reconstructing contested histories. Mythology, oral renditions, cultural prac-
New Perspectives on Myth
tices and other forms of indigenous cultural expressions may be unscientific; they
nevertheless hold important truths about a community and a people, their worldviews
and their histories.
Ade-Ajayi, J.F., 1965, Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891, London: Longmans.
Ade-Ajayi, J.F. & Smith, R., 1964, Yoruba Warfare in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, London:
Cambridge University Press.
Ade-Ajayi J.F.A.& Akintoye, S. A., 1980, ‘Yorubaland in the Nineteenth Century’ in Obaro Ikime
(ed.), Groundwork of Nigerian History (Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann.
Akanji, Olajide Olayemi, 2007, Migration, Communal Conflicts and Group Rights in Ife-Modakeke,
Nigeria, Ibadan, Nigeria: Unpublished Ph. D thesis submitted to the University of Ibadan,
Akinjogbin, I.A., 1992, The Cradle of A Race: Ife From The Beginning To 1980, Port Harcourt: Sunray
Akinwumi O. & Okpeh O., et al., 2005, Inter-Group Relations in the 19th and 20th Century Nigeria,
Makurdi, Nigeria: Aboki Publishers.
Albert, I. O., 2001, Introduction to Third Party Intervention in Community Conflicts, Ibadan: John
Archers Publisher’s Ltd.
Barber, Karin, 1980, African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, USA: Blackwell Pub-
lishing Ltd.
Dike, Kenneth Onwuka, 1965, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1885: An Introduction to
the Economic and Political History of Nigeria, California, USA: Clarendon Press.
Fadipe, N. A., 1970, The Sociology of the Yoruba, Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press.
Falola, T. & Jennings, C., 2003, Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written and Un-
earthed, Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press.
Horton, Robin & Finnegan, Ruth (eds.), 1973, Modes of Thought: Essays on Thinking in Western and
Non-Western Societies, London: Faber & Faber.
Ikime, O., 1980, Groundwork of Nigerian History, Nigeria: Heinemann Educational Books, Nig. Ltd...
Johnson, S. 1920, The History of the Yorubas from Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Pro-
tectorate, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Oguntomisin ‘Dare & Falola ‘Toyin, 1992, Yoruba Warlords of the Nineteenth Century, New York,
USA: Africa World Press.
Omosini, Olufemi, 1992, ‘Ife: The Years of Recovery (1894-1930)’ in Akinjogbin, I.A. (ed.), The Cra-
dle of A Race: Ife From The Beginning To 1980, Port Harcourt: Sunray Publications.
Owomoyela, Oyekan, 2005, Yoruba Proverbs, Rochester, USA: University of Rochester Press.
Oyeniyi, Bukola Adeyemi, 2006, ‘Problems of Inter-Group Relations in Nigeria: Origin and Causes of
Ife Modakeke Conflict’ in Akinwumi Olayemi and Okpeh A. Okpeh (eds.) Inter-Group Rela-
tions in the 19th and 20th Century Nigeria, Markurdi, Nigeria: Aboki Publishers.
Tamuno, N.T., 1980, Peace and Violence in Nigeria, Lagos, Nigeria: Federal Government Press.

Chapter 9. The continuity of African
and Eurasian mythologies

General theoretical models, and detailed comparative
discussion of the case of Nkoya mythology from
Zambia, South Central Africa

Wim van Binsbergen

Abstract. This paper looks at mythological continuities between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the
Old World – not so much North Africa, but Eurasia. This is a remarkably unusual perspective in the
field of comparative mythology: the othering and exclusion of Africa and Africans have been an invet-
erate though obsolescent feature of North Atlantic scholarship. The approach in this paper is greatly
inspired by Michael Witzel’s recent work in comparative mythology, but takes exception to his Laura-
sian / Gondwana distinction, which is predicated on absolute Eurasian / African discontinuity. Instead,

This is a greatly revised version of the paper I presented at the Second Annual Conference of the In-
ternational Association for Comparative Mythology, Ravenstein, the Netherlands, August 2008. The
present argument tries to bring to fruition earlier attempts to deal with the same subject matter, notably
van Binsbergen 1998-2006, and my abortive 1998 book draft Global bee flight: Sub-Saharan Africa,
Ancient Egypt, and the World - Beyond the Black Athena thesis. My extensive work in comparative
mythology since the late 1990s has finally enabled me to approach this complex and counter-
paradigmatic subject matter with more confidence and, I hope, with greater theoretical and methodo-
logical sophistication. I wish to acknowledge the Nkoya people of Zambia, who from the early 1970s
have welcomed me in their midst; the African Studies Centre, Leiden, the Netherlands for their pa-
tience and trust, enabling me to complete this long and arduous trajectory even if it seemed to lead me
away from Africa; Michael Witzel as a greatly inspiring and facilitating presence in my work since
2003; Eric Venbrux for amicably sharing with me the task of convening the 2008 Ravenstein confer-
ence, editing its scholarly products, and specifically commenting on the present paper; Kirsten Seifikar
for copy-editing under great pressure of time; Steve Farmer for being a critical inspiration to my work
from 2004 on, stressing the importance of mythological drift and contamination; and Emily Lyle, Boris
Oguibénine, and the conference participants in general, for useful comments on the conference version,
and inspiring discussions.
African Studies Centre, Leiden / Philosophical Faculty, Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Nether-
New Perspectives on Myth
the present argument seeks to include sub-Saharan Africa in the standard comparative mythology as
applied to the rest of the world. For this purpose a two-stage argument is deployed. Since the article is
essentially a review of several decades of the author’s research, it risks being unusually auto-
referential, for which apologies are hereby offered. First, twentieth-century interpretative schemas are
discussed that stipulate mythological continuity instead of separation between Eurasia and sub-Saharan
Africa: Frobenius’ South Erythraean model; cultural diffusion from Egypt; combined cultural and
demic diffusion from sub-Saharan Africa shaping Egyptian and subsequently Greek mythology (Afro-
centrism, Bernal’s Black Athena thesis). Then, as background for the latest generation of models, indi-
cations for transcontinental continuities are discussed from the fields of long-range linguistics
(concentrating on Starostin’s *Borean hypothesis, and adducing new material concerning the place of
Niger-Congo > Bantu in the *Borean schema), and molecular genetics: the Out-of-Africa hypothesis,
and the Back-into-Africa hypothesis. This sets the scene for a discussion of the author’s Aggregative
Diachronic Model of World Mythology, suggesting that ‘Pandora’s Box’ (the cultural heritage with
which Anatomically Modern Humans left Africa from 80 ka BP on) contained a few identifiable basic
mythological motifs, which were subsequently developed, transformed and innovated in Asia, after
which the results where fed back into Africa in the Back-into-Africa movement – the entire process
resulting in considerable African-Eurasian continuity. After a discussion, in regard of the last few mil-
lennia, of the author’s Pelasgian Model (proposing cultural including mythological transmission from
Western Asia / the Mediterranean by the ‘cross-model’ mechanism, i.e. in all four directions – Western
Europe; Northern Europe; the Eurasian Steppe to South, East and South Asia; and sub-Saharan Africa
– from the Late Bronze Age onward), the transition to the second stage of the argument is formed by an
examination of the mythology of the Nkoya people of Zambia, South Central Africa, in the light of the
Aarne-Thompson classification; this again yields results suggestive of considerable African-Eurasian
continuity. This means that the author’s 1992 analysis of Nkoya mythology in terms of local protohis-
tory, may no longer be tenable. Contamination by recent Islamic and Christian proselytisation is dis-
cussed and ruled out as a major factor in African-Eurasian mythological continuities. To clinch the
argument in favour of massive African-Eurasian mythological continuities, 26 Nkoya mythemes are
considered in detail against the fully referenced background of their global correspondences. A high
degree of African-Eurasian mythological continuity is the argument’s main, theoretically and empiri-
cally grounded, conclusion. While this highlights overall African-Eurasian cultural connections, it par-
ticularly lends support to the Pelasgian hypothesis, and throws in relief unsuspected but close and
multiplex affinities between a South Central African kingship and the Eurasian Steppe.
1. African transcontinental mythological continuities
as a problem
In this paper I will look at mythological continuities between sub-Saharan Africa and
the rest of the Old World – not so much North Africa, but especially Eurasia.
This is a remarkably unusual perspective in the field of comparative mythol-
ogy. While many comparative mythologists wisely concentrate on one geographic
region, culture area or language phylum they know well, it is not uncommon to study
east-west continuities across Eurasia. Such studies are facilitated by the fact that from
North-western Europe to East and South-East Asia there has been a chain of ancient
literate civilisations whose mythologies are particularly well studied; the Indo-
European languages, the means of expression of many of these civilisations, encom-
pass much of Asia and most of Europe. This is the part of the world, and the cultural
and linguistic tradition, to which most comparative mythologists themselves belong
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
anyway, and with whose mythologies, societies and histories they feel comfortably at
home. By contrast, Africa and its inhabitants have, since early modern times (Kant,
Hegel), been singled out as proverbial others. Although this continent has known
some of the oldest literate civilisations in the world (Egypt, Nubia), writing and en-
during state organisation have been relatively rare in sub-Saharan Africa until Modern
times. While being locked in orality may constitute an ideal breeding ground for
story-telling, relatively few of these stories have been recorded – unless very late
(mainly in the late 19th and early 20th century CE), mainly by cultural and linguistic
strangers, and usually at a rather lower level of scholarship than that informing, for
instance, the study of West and South Asian ancient mythologies. African Studies
have largely developed in splendid isolation from the mainstream humanities. African
linguistics (studying the languages in which most African stories have been told for
millennia) have largely enjoyed the same isolation. For, with the exception of
the historic languages of Africa belong to macrophyla which have been
exclusive to sub-Saharan Africa in historical times: Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo (with
Bantu as a major phylum), and Khoisan. Until quite recently, most linguists would be
prepared to take seriously the view of Cavalli-Sforza (leading geneticist of the previ-
ous generation and of a previous scientific paradigm in genetics), according to whom
African languages represent a particularly peripheral branch of the languages of hu-
mankind, as would befit their speakers as, allegedly, constituting a particularly pe-
ripheral branch of humanity (Fig. 9.1). Increasing marginalisation and humiliation of
sub-Saharan Africa, its cultures and its economies, have been among the major trends
of global history since the late 19th century, and the approach to African mythologies
has reflected that trend. Africa, in the utterly mistaken popular perception of much of
the non-African modern world (and of some African elites), is a devastated continent
of people who, in cultural, political, nutritional, economic, philosophical and moral
respects, are losers, and who would be best served by being liberated from their Afri-
Inevitably, this state of affairs – conducive, as we know, to overt or hidden ra-
cism – has generated major redressive responses. Africanist anthropologists in the
classic period (mid-20th century) often saw it as their task to vindicate the rationality,
effectiveness, complexity and beauty of the African cultures they studied (e.g. Evans-
Pritchard 1937 / 1972; Frobenius 1954 / 1933; Gluckman 1955a). From the 1960s on
(when most African countries regained territorial independence after much less than a
century of effective colonial rule) the general tendency among Africanist and African
scholars has been to insist that things African would have to be analysed and ex-
plained by reference to African conditions (almost as if Africa could only lose from
transcontinental comparison, and would necessarily find itself there on the side of
indebtedness and deficit). Afrocentrists in the North Atlantic region and (since the

Afroasiatic has major branches in sub-Saharan Africa (Cushitic, Omotic and Chadic), but also Berber
and Old Egyptian as branches outside sub-Saharan Africa, whilst Semitic – extensively spoken in
North Africa and the Middle East – transcends the distinction, both through Ethiopian, and through
Arabic as religious, political and mercantile lingua franca.
New Perspectives on Myth
1950s) also in Africa, have adopted an affirmative, counter-hegemonic stance vis-à-
vis Africanness, making Afrocentricity (of the stronger or the more moderate varie-
ties) the mainstay of their intellectual life and their personal identity. Their good in-
tentions – often in combination with poor scholarship – make them ideologically
sympathetic, but scientifically suspect
– for as we all know, consciousness-raising is
only permissible as a major motor of scholarship as long as it remains implicit, and
mainstream, which in the world today often means: implicitly hegemonic.
Fig. 9.1. Cavalli-Sforza’s well-know array of the populations and language groups of
the world (© Cavalli-Sforza 1997: 7722, with thanks)

Cf. Howe 1999; Fauvelle et al. 2000 – however, see my contribution to the same book, and to the
Black Athena debate (van Binsbergen 2000, 1997b); for a recent, and more critical, assessment of
Bernal and his Black Athena thesis (Bernal 1987, 1991, 2001, 2006), cf. van Binsbergen & Woud-
huizen, in press; van Binsbergen 2010a and in press.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
Also my own position in this intellectual and identitary mine-field is, admit-
tedly, very far from neutral.
After finishing my studies as a specialist on the oral his-
tory and anthropology of North African popular Islam, in the first half of my career I
became, as a professor of anthropology, a mainstream student of African religions and
cultures; in the second half, as a protohistorian and a professor of intercultural phi-
losophy, I have been a vocal critic of the implicitly hegemonic epistemological as-
sumptions on which North Atlantic studies of Africa are often based. Between these
two phases I allowed the participant observation that has been my standard fieldwork
method in various African locations, to go so unprofessionally out of hand, that I
ended up as a diviner-priest-healer in the Southern African sangoma tradition (practis-
ing till this very day), and as the adoptive son of a Zambian king, inheriting his royal
bow and arrows and a very large piece of land at his death in 1993 (cf. van Binsbergen
2003a). I speak (rather, have once spoken) five African languages; have a place in
Africa I consider home; count myself as an African; let a life-force-affirming and kin-
ship-centred spirituality from Africa diffusely (and, of course, without the celebration
of violence from which 20th-century Nkoya kings already radically distanced them-
selves) inform my personal life; and I deeply regret, resent, and combat, the othering
and marginalisation to which sub-Saharan Africa, its cultural forms and its knowl-
edges have been subjected.
It is exclusion, and not difference as such I am objecting to. Quite rightly, it
has been a refrain of contemporary philosophy (especially Derrida, e.g. 1967 / 1997
and Deleuze, e.g. 1968) that difference is the very condition for identity, and the rec-
ognition of the other’s difference is the ethical condition for equitable relationships
and for a sane socio-political system. Difference can still be, and usually is, articu-
lated within the context of an overarching, unifying condition, ultimately that of shar-
ing a common humanity, in the light of which all difference may be taken a relative
view of, and may be overcome. Exclusion is when such an overarching unifying con-

On my intellectual stance as a student of mythology, between rupture and fusion, cf. van Binsbergen
2009a. In the opinion of my dear colleague Steve Farmer 2010, this volume), the best thing that could
happen to comparative mythology is that it becomes a ‘rigorous science’ – a variant on the prescription
that Husserl 1911 / 1965) wrote to cure philosophy of its ills, with his plea for ‘Philosophie als strenge
Wissenschaft’. My view is rather different from Farmer’s: I see comparative mythology, of all fields of
scholarship, as privileged in that it can afford to let its method be informed, in part, by the insight that
all scientific endeavour is, among other things, an attempt at creating imaginative myth: a yarn people
tell, sufficiently captivating to produce the impression of being real and true, but meant to be super-
seded by a better yarn as soon as possible. Speaking of comparative mythology: perhaps, today, hu-
mankind’s most dangerous myth is no longer even racism (cf. Montagu 1942 / 1974) or Christian and
Islamic fundamentalism, but the naïvely modernist belief – exploited by governments and corporate
enterprise – that science produces lasting, unshakable, universal, and redeeming truth; cf. Harding
1997; van Binsbergen 2007b). Yet my view is complementary to, rather than diametrically opposed, to
Farmer’s. For what, then, constitutes a ‘better yarn’? In the short run, one that is performatively more
persuasive and seductive, in terms of the ideology and fashion of the day; but in the long run, one that
takes into account all available data, all available alternative explanations, and all criticism – while not
necessarily true in itself, and inviting what I have called mythical fusion on the part of the researcher,
truth still constitutes the ultimate boundary condition of science, also in comparative mythology.
New Perspectives on Myth
dition is denied, or is taken not to apply to certain classes of humans (Blacks, Jews,
women, homosexuals, redheads, Basarwa / ‘Bushmen’, Tutsi, Palestinians, etc. – a
form of violence in thought that often is a stepping-stone to physical violence.
It is
impossible to study culture, religion, myth without allowing for the difference that is
enshrined in, liberated by, and celebrated by, local and regional cultural specificity.
Absolute universalism is not the paroxysm, but the annihilation, of culture; hence a
form of violence in its own right. This also helps to define my project with regard to
transcontinental continuities in African mythology: not the blindly-ideological denial
of difference and the imposition of one unifying formula for mythology all across the
Old World – that would be absurd – but the identification of an overarching interpre-
tative framework in which African mythological difference (and European and Asian
mythological difference, for that matter) can yet be recognised and integrated as part
of a wider system.
Most of my empirical research of the last two decades has been aimed at dem-
onstrating transcontinental continuities involving sub-Saharan Africa. I pursue this
line of research, ultimately in a bid to demonstrate – in the face of the traumatic insis-
tence on difference or rather on exclusion that is inherent in all thinking in terms of
race, ethnicity, nationalism and continentalism – the fundamental underlying unity of
all of us, Anatomically Modern Humans – the sub-species that came into being in Af-
rica c. 200 ka BP, and that spread from Africa all over the world from c. 80 ka BP.
Admittedly, with such a big chip on one’s shoulders
it is not easy to produce objec-
tive and universalising, high-quality scholarship. However, I suspect that the only dif-
ference between me and more common comparative mythologists from the North
Atlantic region is that the latter have largely gotten away with their reluctance to
fathom their own identitary complacency even while engaging in transcontinental en-
counters and transcultural knowledge production.
Since comparative mythology is essentially an empirical science, its exponents
may well consider such meta-argument in the intercultural epistemology and politics
of knowledge production a waste of time, and prefer to get down to the data at hand.
As a concrete challenge of empirical research, then, and in my personal research prac-
tice, broadly two complementary problems converge in the topic of Africa’s transcon-
tinental mythological continuities:
• At the theoretical level, there is the recent availability of interpretative sche-
mas that stipulate mythological continuity instead of separation between Eura-
sia and sub-Saharan Africa.
• At the descriptive, analytical level: my personal experience to the effect that
my earlier, rather standard ethnohistorical reading of the mythology of the
Nkoya people of Zambia, South Central Africa, as oblique but decodable
statements on regional history over the last half millennium, in my own per-

Wyschogrod 1989; Schroeder 1996; McKenna 1992; with particular reference to Levinas – e.g. 1971 /
1961, 1981 / 1974 – , Girard – e.g. 1972 – and Derrida 1997.
Cf. Amselle 2001 for an attack on my and Coquéry-Vidrovitch’s variety of moderate Afrocentrism.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
ception collapsed totally as soon as I realised (by the late 1990s) that what
resonated in these Nkoya mythologies were echoes of a well-known Eurasian
mythological repertoire that could be traced back to the Bronze Age (van
Binsbergen 1998-2006, 2009: 10).

Thus the first point in our empirical challenge to explore African-Eurasian
mythological continuities, springs from the availability of models, both inside com-
parative mythology and in its ancillary sciences, that imply and even dictate such con-
tinuity, while in our second point we exchange this deductive perspective of
theoretical application, for an inductive perspective of empirical exploration. Here
African-Eurasian continuity presents itself, not as a theoretically-underpinned re-
search programme, but as the possible, alternative interpretation for a concrete set of
empirical mythological data.
2. Recent interpretative schemas that claim mytho-
logical continuity instead of separation of Eurasia and
sub-Saharan Africa
Much of the past and current othering of Africa turns out to be based on obsolescent
scholarly paradigms reflecting a colonial, North Atlantic-centred geopolitics of a by-
gone period; new paradigms have emerged that persuade us to reconsider the position
of sub-Saharan Africa in terms of far greater continuity with Eurasia. Let us first re-
view some of the older transcontinental models foreshadowing this state of affairs,
and then turn to the most recent statements of transcontinental mythological continu-

2.1. A selective
review of older transcontinental hypotheses relevant for
comparative mythology
Let us begin our review with a few models that emerged in the course of the twentieth
century and that prepared the way for our present analytical tools.

Selective, for I am leaving out here one such transcontinental hypothesis that was very popular in the
early 20th century CE: the ‘Hamitic thesis’, which – typical product of the racialist and colonialist ide-
ology then prevailing in the North Atlantic region – sought to explain the apparent contradiction be-
tween unmistakable sub-Saharan African cultural achievements, and negative sterotypes of Africans
among the North Atlantic dominant groups, by assuming that all such achievements were due to the
influx, into sub-Saharan Africa, of ‘Hamitic’-speaking (i.e. Afroasiatic-speaking) West Asians and
North Africans. On the surface, this may look dangerously close to my Pelasgian hypothesis; on closer
analysis, it is certainly not, but space is lacking for a further discussion here. I refer the reader to the
final chapter of van Binsbergen, in press.
New Perspectives on Myth
2.1.1. Frobenius’ (1931) model of the South Erythraean culture extending from the
Persian Gulf and the Red (‘Erythraean’) Sea to East Africa and South West Asia
This model (although somewhat reminiscent of the pan-Babylonism that haunted
scholarship in the early 20th century) helped to pinpoint some of the main African-
Eurasian parallels that are also brought out by our Nkoya case – in the fields of king-
ship, female puberty rites, divination, music, and metallurgy; moreover, considering
the times, it displayed a refreshing recognition of the value and the power of African
cultures. However Frobenius was at a loss as to the identification of the mechanisms
that could be held accountable for these parallels. Also did he under-estimate the
wider extension of these communalities, beyond the ‘South Erythraean complex’,
both on the African continent and in West Asia, Egypt, Southern Europe and South
Asia. In actual fact, there is rather more continuity between Ancient Egypt and sub-
Saharan Africa, than between the latter and Ancient Mesopotamia. No convincing and
lasting explanation is to be expected from Frobenius’ approach.
2.1.2. Cultural diffusion from Egypt (the Egyptocentric argument)
Confronting the Egyptocentrism that was in fashion in the early 20th century,
Frobenius declined the possibility that major traits in sub-Saharan Africa, such as sa-
cred kingship and regicide, could exclusively be due to Ancient Egyptian influence;
he stressed that regicide (which we will encounter below among Nkoya mythemes,
and which Frobenius considered constitutive of the South Erythraean complex) also
occurs in South Asia.
Yet one can remain critical of the Egyptocentrism displayed
till this very day by Martin Bernal (1987, 1991, 2001, 2006), Cheikh Anta Diop (e.g.
1954, 1989), Obenga (e.g. 1992, 1995) and other Afrocentrists, and yet admit that for
three millennia Ancient Egypt was one of the world’s most powerful states and
economies, exerting an enormous influence all over the Mediterranean and West Asia,
and inevitably also in the Northern half of Africa. After decades of ideological in-
fatuation with Egypt as – allegedly – the Africa par excellence, the more recent re-
search (e.g. that highlighted in the Cahiers Caribéens d’Égyptologie, or the work of
the Cameroonian Egyptologist Oum Ndigi) is now applying sound scholarly methods
to the assessment of Egypt-Africa relations, and making progress. Some of the spe-
cific Nkoya / Egypt parallels may be explained in this light, but others need to be ex-
plained by what is often the more powerful model: an appeal to common origins, in
this case the fact that both Egypt, and (largely passing via Egypt, admittedly) the cul-
tural inroads from West Asia into sub-Saharan Africa (partly – only from the Middle
Bronze Age onward – chariot-facilitated, as I have suggested), drew from West Asian
proto-Neolithic culture, in which much of the Asian innovations and transformations
of the Out-of-Africa heritage had come to fruition. The same, incidentally, applies to
Bernal’s insistence on what he takes to be Ancient Greece’s almost total dependence

Smith 1923 / 1970; Seligman 1934; cf. Meyerowitz 1960.
Frobenius 1931: 325; 1929: 331-349, where the obvious connection with Frazer’s 1911-1915)
Golden Bough – based on the mytheme of cyclical regicide – is further explored.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
upon Egyptian (and, by a later Afrocentrist twist in his argument, African) cultural
including mythical materials: such an overstatement does not take into account the
fact that both Egypt, and the Aegean, draw from the same West Asian-Mediterranean-
Saharan Neolithic or Bronze Age source which I will identify below as Pelasgian.
This common source is, incidentally, partly responsible
for the considerable affini-
ties between the Egyptian Delta on the one hand, and West Asia (including Sumer and
Neolithic Anatolia) on the other hand – an affinity which is also manifest in the reed-
and-bee complex, and which may well have managed, in this form, to reach South
Central Africa and inform Nkoya mythology.
2.1.3. Combined cultural and demic diffusion
from sub-Saharan Africa shaping
Egyptian and subsequently Greek mythology (the Afrocentrist position, and Bernal’s
Afrocentrist afterthought after his Egyptocentrist Black Athena position)
In the course of his Black Athena researches, Martin Bernal found that much of what
he was trying to say had already been said by Afrocentrist writers such as Du Bois
(1947) and Diop,
and he gradually situated the epicentre of the cultural initiative
decisively shaping Greek classical culture (and hence, to a considerable extent, North
Atlantic and global world culture), no longer in Egypt, but in sub-Saharan Africa, of
which Egypt was considered to be the oldest and most brilliant child. Whatever the
deficiencies of Afrocentrist and Bernallian scholarship,
the main thrust of such stud-
ies has been a most timely counter-hegemonic exercise in the politics of knowledge.
This makes them important eye-openers in the global politics of knowledge, yet at the
same time unmistakably ideological.
On the basis of a kindred knowledge-political position, I have often been a vo-
cal supporter and defender of the weaker forms of Afrocentrism. However, in my
quest for scholarly, methodologically and theoretically underpinned valid knowledge I
have repeatedly been compelled to appear disloyal to the counter-hegemonic cause of
Afrocentrism, and I reject the wholesale claim that everything of value in global cul-

Pace Rice 1990, who insists on a one-way process, from Sumer to Sudan.
For the term demic diffusion, cf. Sokal et al. 1982, 1991; Barbujani et al. 1994.
Which, by an analogy with the history of pop music (where also Elvis Presley – 1935-1977 – was
chided for appropriating Black achievements), earned Bernal the undeservedly disrespectful epithet
‘the academic Elvis’; Berlinerblau 1999.
I have suggested (van Binsbergen 2000, 1997b) that these deficiencies have been somewhat exagger-
ated by critics for reasons of North Atlantic hegemony and mainstream paradigmatic power games.
Nonetheless there are major shortcomings, although different ones from ones for which Bernal has
been grilled by Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers and their contributors (1996). Bernal’s fixation on lan-
guage as the prime historical source does not permit him to bring major socio-cultural processes to life,
and leads to repetitious irrelevance especially in Bernal 2006. And his politically-correct fixation on
African origins (while archaeologically underpinned, e.g. Hoffman 1991 / 1979; Williams 1986) pre-
vents him from seeing the major West Asian / Mediterranean contribution to the Egyptian culture, so-
ciety and state – which I have sought to capture by the Pelasgian hypothesis, largely (though
reluctantly, given my own Afrocentrist inclinations) reversing the direction of cultural transmission in
the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, from South-North to North-South.
New Perspectives on Myth
tural history has an African origin, not only in the remotest past of the Out-of-Africa
Exodus 80 – 60 ka ago (that claim is undeniable, but it is not central to the Afrocen-
trist and Bernallian argument), but also in Neolithic and Bronze Age times down to
the present day. Thus my extensive empirical, comparative and theoretical research
(even though partly informed by the post-modern position on local, multiple, manipu-
lable and transient truths in science), has finally forced me to admit (van Binsbergen
2010b) an extra-African origin and subsequent transcontinental spread into Africa, for
mankala board games (‘the nation game of Africa’, as Culin 1896 had it); for geoman-
tic divination including such famous African systems as Ifa, Sikidy and Hakata; for
the belief in an unilateral mythical being (cf. von Sicard 1968-1969); and for many
aspects of mythology (Late or Post-Palaeolithic) centring on the Separation of Heaven
and Earth, shamanism, and the kingship; and – as my research in progress seems to
indicate – even for the Niger-Congo / Bantu linguistic family.
2.2. Linguistic indications for transcontinental continuities
Whereas in the field of linguistics the prominent Niger-Congo specialist Roger
Blench in a recent paper (Blench 2006) can still insist on the fundamental and primor-
dial difference between Southern (e.g. African and Indo-Pacific) languages on the one
hand, and Northern (Eurasian) on the other hand, other voices in long-range linguis-
tics have advocated the inclusion of African languages under an extensive linguistic
category encompassing much of the Old World (Eurasiatic / Nostratic), and even most
of humankind (*Borean). One of today’s primary resources for long-range linguistic
research is the Tower of Babel etymological database, comprising most of the lan-
guage phyla spoken in the world today, and supported by major research institutions
(two Moscow universities, Leiden university, the Hong Kong City University, and the
Santa Fe Institute); while defective on Nilo-Saharan, and truncated on Niger-Congo >
Bantu, Khoisan is amply represented here, and features as another macrophylum un-
der *Borean – the highest level reconstructible parent language, supposed to be spo-
ken in Central Asia c. 25 ka BP. When the designation ‘*Borean’ was chosen,
Georgiy Starostin already objected
that (since it implicitly refers to the Northern,
‘boreal’, hemisphere) it was based on the prejudgment that Eurasiatic / Nostratic,
Afroasiatic, Dene-Caucasian and Austric would be more closely related to one an-
other than to the African macrophyla Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo, and possibly
Although I am not a Bantuist by training, this inspired me to investigate

Anonymous, n.d. (a).
Already two decades ago, leading linguists (Kaiser & Shevoroshin 1988) included Nilo-Saharan and
Niger-Congo as branches of ‘Super-Nostratic’, where Nostratic is more or less synonymous with Eura-
siatic. The *Borean nature of Khoisan was accepted, on formal linguistic grounds (e.g. its affinities
with Northern Caucasian are obvious), but also in the light of Cavalli-Sforza’s hypothesis of modern
Khoisan speakers being the descendants of a hybrid Asian / African population whose Asian ancestors
still lived in the Asian continent 10 ka BP (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994: 176; pace Vigilant 1989, 1991).
However, I reject Cavalli-Sforza’s view (although shared by many others) of African languages as
constituting isolated and archaic branches of the world genealogy of languages.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
whether also Niger-Congo – including Bantu – may be seen as the result of local Af-
rican (to some extent including Palaeo-African) interaction
with incoming transcon-
tinental elements. The results
confirm African-Eurasian linguistic continuity: more
than a quarter of all 1,153 reconstructed *Borean roots can be demonstrated to have
reflexes in proto-Bantu (van Binsbergen 2010d), traces of which are found all over the
Bronze Age Mediterranean (van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen in press), and whose
homeland emerges from an environmental, phyto-geographical and zoo-geographical
analysis of proto-Bantu as a well-watered, rather temperate zone. Strictly speaking,
the compilation of a proto-Bantu corpus has been too controversial to pretend there is
one proto-Bantu lexicon (cf. Dalby 1975, 1976; Meeussen 1980; Vansina 1979-1980;
Flight 1980, 1988; Maho 2003). In the end however Guthrie’s (1967-1971) recon-
struction offers a useful if far from ideal compromise. Since *Borean is here claimed
to account for only a limited part of the proto-Bantu lexicon, and the Pelasgian influx
is claimed to amount to primarily a cultural influence with only slight demographic
impact, we need not enter here into a discussion of the obvious heterogeneity and pos-
sible polygenesis of Bantu and the rejection of the Bantu migration model (Bennett
1983; Vansina 1979-1980, 1995).
Fig. 9.2. Dendrogram setting out the relative positions of the *Borean-associated lin-
guistic macro-phyla in relation to Bantu and Khoisan

Cf. the comments by Oliver and Simiyu Wandibba in Oliver et al. 2001, in response to Ehret 1998,
cf. 2001. Considering the commonly recognised affinities between Austric and Bantu, and the insis-
tence, by linguistic specialists, on the contribution, to Bantu, of non-Bantu elements from inside the
African continent, the linguistic process of Bantu genesis was probably much more complex than I
propose below to have been the case (with my appeal to an unoccupied and defenceless niche of cul-
tural ecology) for the spiked wheel trap and similarly distributed cultural items such as mankala, geo-
mantic divination and the belief in a unilateral being.
van Binsbergen 2010d; van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen, in press.
New Perspectives on Myth
My statistical outcomes
suggest an initial bifurcation of the *Borean-speaking lin-
guistic, cultural and demographic stock, with
1. one, ultimately Peripheral, branch vacating the Central Asian homeland and
moving on (being chased? or differentially equipped with the necessary tech-
nology to explore new continents and on their own initiative?) to South East
Asia, Oceania, the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, and
2. the other, ultimately Central, branch remaining in the Eurasian homeland,
gradually expanding westward to finally occupy most of Eurasia, and the
Northern half of Africa.

Perhaps there is a very simply explanation for the bifurcation between the pe-
ripheral branch (African languages, Amerind and Austric) and the central branch
(Eurasiatic / Nostratic, Afroasiatic, and Sino-Caucasian) that strikingly emerges from
Fig. 9.2. When we confront these statistical results with the reconstruction of the
global history of mtDNA haplo groups (Forster 2004), the peripheral branch appears
to derive from mtDNA haplo type M, the central branch from type N – the bifurcation
appears to mainly reflect an initial segmentation, already in the Arabian peninsula
some 60 ka BP, of the second sally ‘Out of Africa’.
One of the arguments levelled against long-range linguistic reconstructions
such as the Nostratic and the *Borean hypotheses is the point of ‘linguistic drift’: the
rate of spontaneous change inherent in cultural phenomena including language (and
mythologies for that matter; or genetics, with their characteristically huge error distri-
butions) appears to be so high that any effect of genuine long-range transmission
would tend to be obscured, reducing the long-range evidence to wishful thinking.
However, this argument is not so devastating as it seems. The evidence of many doz-

Van Binsbergen 2010d. The logarithmic scale was experimentally determined so as to fit an esti-
mated age for *Borean of 25 ka (proposed date of the split separating the African / Amerind / Austric
macrophyla from the Eurasiatic / Afroasiatic / Sino-Caucasian macrophyla), and, as a benchmark, the
dissociation between Afroasiatic and Eurasiatic at 12.5 ka BP (under the Natufian hypothesis – cf. Mili-
tarev & Shnirelman 1988; Militarev 1996, 2002; Turner 2008; and references cited there – according to
which Afroasiatic emerged in Syro-Palestine in the context of the Mesolithic Natufian culture, c. 14.5 –
11.5 ka BP; and moreover assuming that the middle of the Natufian period marks the dissociation of
Eurasiatic and Afroasiatic). The relative length k of each scale unit of 2.5 ka is given by:
k =
where q is the inversed rank of that scale unit, counting from the origin. Other choices for the parame-
ters (the constants: c, here 0.476; a and d, here 0; b, here 1; and r, here 10) would produce a similar
logarithmic scale but with lesser or greater acceleration of rate of change towards more recent millen-
nia. The present parameter choice (scale A) gives a greatly accelerated rate of change from the Meso-
lithic onward. Stipulating a very high rate of acceleration for the most recent millennia, scale A situates
the node splitting Austric from the African / Amerind macrophyla at c. 24 ka BP; the node splitting the
Eurasiatic / Afroasiatic from the Sino-Caucasian macrophyla at c. 23 ka BP; and the node splitting
African macrophyla from Amerind at c. 20 ka BP. These are excessively high dates, which can be
brought down by assuming the split between Eurasiatic and Afroasiatic to have occurred several ka
later, and adjusting the parameters accordingly – as in scale B, with which I am more comfortable (c =
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
ens of near-universals of the culture of Anatomically Modern Humans right into mod-
ern times (Brown 1991) could be explained in various ways (innate patterns – Chom-
sky; a collective unconscious as a palimpsest of a group’s deep history – Jung; the
constant re-creation of culture as a result of the converging capabilities of human
minds – neurobiology), but as compared to these, the hypothesis of long-term conser-
vation and transmission, across tens of thousands of years of culture has certainly the
highest explanatory power; such a thesis is also massively supported by specialist
studies of lithic industries. The challenge for the sociological imagination is to iden-
tify socio-cultural contexts that are so highly controlled and formalised that relatively
lossless long-range transmission becomes plausible; initiation rites, and their associ-
ated arts and myths constitute a promising case. Moreover, there is the eloquent ar-
of over a thousand *Borean roots that establish continuity across
macrophyla, even across tens of thousands of kilometres and tens of thousands of
years. Let me present one pet example:
The root -ntu, ‘human, person’, although only one of many of hundreds of reconstructed
proto-Bantu roots (cf. Guthrie 1948, 1967-1971: *-nto, Guthrie no. 1789; Meeussen 1980:*-
ntu; found in many or all languages of the large Bantu family (a branch of the Niger-Congo
macrophylum), was so conspicuous in the eyes of Bleek (1851) – the first European linguist to
subject these languages to thorough comparative study, that he named them ‘Bantu languages’
after that root (ba- being a common form of the plural personal nominal prefix). However, -ntu
is not exclusive to the Bantu family. This is already clear from proto-Austronesian *taw, ‘hu-
man, raw’ (Adelaar 1995: 345). Looking for an etymology of the puzzling Greek word án-
thrōpos ‘human’, the Dutch linguist Ode (1927) had the felicitous inspiration to see this word
as a reflex of what he claims to be proto-Indo-European *-nt, ‘under’ (cf. the more consensu-
ally established proto-Indo-European: *ndho ‘under’ cf. Pokorny 1959-1969: I, 323) – thus
proposing an underlying semantics of humans as ‘ground or underworld dwellers’. This, inci-
dentally, also offered Ode an interesting etymology of the long contested Ancient Greek
theonym Athena as an underworld goddess.
Along this line, many more possible (pseudo-?)
cognates from many language phyla come into view, against the background of the *Borean
hypothesis. Thus, (pseudo-?) cognates of Bantu -ntu seem to be proto-Afroasiatic *t Vʔ ‘a
kind of soil’ (cf. Old Egyptian t A, ‘earth’, with cognates in Central and East Chadic and in
Low East Cushitic), from *Borean *TVHV, ‘earth’; a reflex of this root is also found in Sino-
Caucasian notably as 土 tǔ (modern Beijing Chinese), thā (Classic Old Chinese), ‘land, soil’,
Karlgren code: 0062 a-c, suggested to be of Austric origin: notably proto-Austronesian
*buRtaq ‘earth, soil’, proto-Austroasiatic *t ɛj ‘earth’, Proto-Miao-Yao *Ctau (cf. Bengtson &
Ruhlen 1994: 60, tak, however the latter two authors – according to Starostin & Starostin
1998-2008 ‘Long-range etymologies’ s.v. *TVHV, ‘earth’ – seem to confuse the reflexes of
*Borean *TVHV with those of *TVKV). Considering the remarkable similarities between
Southern and Eastern African Khoisan and North Caucasian,
one should not be surprised

Starostin & Starostin 1998-2008; Bengtson & Ruhlen 1994.
For alternative etymologies, of the name Athena, cf. Hrozny 1951: 228; Fauth 1979a; Bernal 1987
(contested by Jasanoff & Nussbaum 1996, Egberts 1997; van Binsbergen 1997b); Blažek 2010 (this
As we have seen, Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994 claim a link between Khoisan speakers and West Asia.
New Perspectives on Myth
that also some Khoisan language families seem to attach to the very old and very widespread
earth / human complex which we have identified here: South Khoisan (Taa): *ta^, *tu^, ‘per-
son’; North Khoisan (proto-Zhu) *žu, ‘person’ – Central Khoisan has *khoe etc. ‘person’,
which might well be a transformation of *žu. (Note that here, too, like in Bantu, it is the word
for ‘human’ that produces the ethnonyms Taa, Zhu and Khoe / Khoi, or Khoekhoe / Khoik-
hoi!) Further possibilities are contained in the reflexes of another *Borean root *TVHV, ‘bot-
tom’, which however is both semantically and phonologically so close to *TVHV ‘earth’
(however, in *Borean reconstructions, the vowels, indicated by *-V-, had to remain unspeci-
fied and therefore could differ) that we may well have to do with one and the same word:
proto-Sino-Tibetan *diǝ̄lH ‘bottom’ (e.g. Chinese 底 *tǝ̄jʔ ‘bottom’ Karlgren code 0590 c; 柢
*tǝ̄jʔ, ‘root, base’, Karlgren code 0590 d) from proto-Sino-Caucasian *dVHV ́ , ‘bottom’; from
the same *Borean root *TVHV, ‘bottom’, also Afroasiatic *duH-, ‘low’ (e.g. Egyptian: dH (21)
‘low’, East Chadic: *dwaHdaH- ‘down’) as well as proto-Austroasiatic *dʔuj (also *t uɔj ‘
tail, vagina’), proto-Miao-Yao *t[ o ]i.B ‘tail’, Proto-Austronesian: *hudi ‘buttocks’ (not in
Proto-Austronesian B) (also *udehi ‘last, behind’ – the latter, Austric forms being predicated
on a semantics of ‘lower part of the rump’, cf. English ‘bottom’) (cf. Peiros 1998: 157, 165;
most of these data © Starostin & Starostin 1998-2008, with thanks).
In the light of these linguistic considerations, mythological continuity between Africa
and Eurasia have become thinkable, even probable, despite the theoretical and meth-
odological difficulties attending such a position.
2.3. Genetic indications for transcontinental continuities, and their elaboration
in the field of comparative mythology
For another ancillary science of comparative mythology, population genetics, a simi-
lar story of previously unsuspected African-Eurasian continuity has emerged in recent
2.3.1. Out of Africa
In the first place, the emergence of the Out-of-Africa hypothesis in the 1980s (Cann et
al. 1987), meanwhile embraced by most specialists, has made it thinkable – by now
even: common-place – that Anatomically Modern Humans (people like you and me)
emerged in Africa c. 200 ka BP, and only spread to other continents from 80 ka BP
on. Archaeology has meanwhile brought to light the sophisticated harpoons, cleverly
incised lime-stone blocks, and rock paintings, which our direct ancestors were capable
of making around about the time of the Out-of-Africa Exodus, and there is no denial:
these were people with mental capabilities essentially identical to our own. The study
of cultural (near-)universals (e.g. Brown 1991, who presents a long list) allows us a
glimpse of what would have been part of the common heritage (which I have termed
‘Pandora’s Box’ – despite the pejorative connotations this term has had since Hesiod),
developed by Anatomically Modern Humans before the Exodus, and subsequently
taken to other continents, to be further transmitted, transformed, and innovated.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
2.3.2. Towards an Aggregative Diachronic Model of World Mythology
A few years ago my dear colleague Michael Witzel, prompted by my transcontinental
analysis of the symbolism of leopard skin and of speckled surface textures in general
(van Binsbergen 2004), asked me to look at African cosmogonic myths for one of the
Harvard Round Table meetings out of which the International Association for Com-
parative Mythology was to develop, under his inspiring presidency. I was deeply im-
pressed by his seminal paper on world mythology as a window, in its own right, on
humankind’s remotest past (Witzel 2001), and I set out to ‘do a Michael Witzel’ on
the African material. Classifying the African cosmogonic myths then at my disposal
into some twenty ‘Narrative Complexes’, I tentatively formulated an Aggregative
(because each complex was an analytical construct of high aggregation) Diachronic
(because I adopted a time perspective encompassing the entire life span of 200 ka at-
tributed to Anatomically Modern Humans) Model of Global Mythology. The model is
based on recent genetic insights (e.g. Forster 2004, highlighting the diversification
and spread of mitochondrial DNA types) in the emergence and spread of Anatomi-
cally Modern Humans, combined with long-range linguistics, archaeology, and com-
parative ethnography. In terms of this model:
1. a handful of identifiable initial mythological traits in Pandora’s Box in sub-
Saharan Africa
2. were taken to Asia – and beyond, even ultimately back into Africa – on the
wings of the demic diffusion known as the ‘Out-of-Africa’ migration,
3. and on their way underwent very substantial (and to a certain extent, recon-
structible) transformations and innovations,
4. proliferating into a few dozen of Narrative Complexes, ‘NarComs’, i.e. coher-
ent complexes of mythemes that we may define analytically so as to impose
some manageable order on the confusion and abundance of the data of com-
parative mythology, and place them in a hypothetical historical sequence.

Initially, I distinguished twenty NarComs on the basis of a corpus of African
cosmogonic myths attested in historical times – which I then projected onto Eurasian
(mainly literate) mythologies and their distribution maps, so as to try and identify pre-
Out-of-Africa NarComs if any, and to suggest how, from that handful of NarComs in
Pandora’s Box, the others may have emerged as transformations and innovations, in
the course of an extended world history of mythology which largely coincided with
the world history of the spread and diversification of Anatomically Modern Hu-

Later, when concentrating on the present analysis of a global sample of flood myths (Isaak 2006; van
Binsbergen with Isaak 2008) I had occasion to define nearly the same number of additional NarComs,
which had not been conspicuous in the earlier, African sample: 21 The white god; 22 Astronomy pole
unilateral being; 23 Trickster Raven Coyote; 24 Raising the corn spirit; 25 Cow of heaven; 26 Earth diver;
27 Music Orpheus flute reed; 28 Games contests combats; 29 The four (elements and / or cardinal direc-
New Perspectives on Myth
5. such proliferation especially took place in the context of less than a dozen
Contexts of Intensified Transformation and Innovation – CITIs, which are in
principle identifiable
in time and space (see Fig. 9.3) although much further
linguistic and archaeological work needs to be done on this point, and which
largely coincide with the contexts in which new modes of production and new
(macro-) linguistic families can be argued to have emerged.

It is the segmented nature of this process that allows us to propose dating for
its phases. Traits that tend to universality in the cultures of Anatomically Modern
Humans may be surmised to have been part of the original ‘Out-of-Africa’ package,
i.e. ‘Pandora’s Box’. Two Sallies out of Africa have been reconstructed, of which the
first (c. 80 ka BP)
reached Australia along the Indian Ocean coast, but was further
abortive; while the second, c. 20 ka later, populated the other continents; hence traits
that are found in Africa, the Andaman Islands, New Guinea and Australia, but no-
where else, could be argued to date from Sally I and possibly from Pandora’s Box.
The latter’s further contents may be argued on the basis of calibration against sub-
Saharan African traits in historical times – which must be a combination of
(a) (evolved) Pandora-Box materials having remained inside Africa, and
(b) Asia-evolved materials brought to Africa in the context of the Back-
into-Africa movement from Asia from c. 15 ka BP on.

This feedback movement’s importance for comparative mythology cannot be
overestimated: bringing back to Africa (and, as a side-effect, to Europe) the complex
mythologies that had meanwhile evolved in Asia, the result was an amazing (but little
appreciated) continuity of mythologies throughout the three continents of the Old
World from the Neolithic onward: emphasis on the separation of Heaven and Earth,
the devices to effect their re-connection (demiurge, king, shaman, sacrifice, any verti-
cal nature or man-made object) etc.
No doubt my schema (van Binsbergen 2006a, 2006b) was too grandiose and
too audacious to convince in detail, and my initial data were of admittedly poor qual-
ity, but I will not budge from the basic point:
most if not all mythologies outside Af-

tions); 30 Blood as poison, menstruation; 31 Tortoise / turtle; 33 Fragmented monster becomes the world
or humankind; 34 Vagina dentata; 36 Fire; 37 Earth-dragon mountain volcano. (NarComs nos. 32 and 35
were defined but subsequently discarded as superfluous).
I have argued (van Binsbergen 2006a, 2006b) that CITIs could be identified and dated by a combina-
tion of methods, including hermeneutical close reading of mythological material collected in historical
times, systematic analysis of the logical relation implied in each NarCom, modes-of-production analy-
sis, and examination of rock art.
Population genetics based on multivariate analysis inevitably works with error margins of tens of ka.
The date of 80 ka BP reflects Forster’s 2004 high dating which I have so far tried to follow, but there is
increasing internal evidence that the lower dating of 60 ka BP gives better results for comparative my-
Cf. Hammer et al. 1998; Cruciani et al. 2002; Coia et al. 2005; Underhill 2004; Forster 2004.
Here formulated by formal analogy with Starostin’s *Borean hypothesis, which could be summarised
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
rica can be taken to descend, in part, from postulated pre-Exodus mythologies devel-
oped in Africa between 200 and 80 ka BP. To support this claim, I drew up a big table
(van Binsbergen 2007a) where the 20 Narrative Complexes as attested in African
cosmogonic myths, are also explored for Eurasian mythologies, with surprising re-
sults suggestive of very considerable continuity. As a basis for thinking about Afri-
can-Eurasian mythological continuity, this could be a meaningful first step towards
formulating the overarching unifying system within which to define Asian, European
and African mythological specificities.

Table 9.1. Narrative Complexes identified in sub-Saharan African cosmogonies as
collected in historical times

1 Separation of Heaven and Earth 11 Primal waters and the flood
2 Reconnection of Heaven and Earth 12 From the tree
3 What is in heaven
13 Cosmic rainbow snake

in the following terms: most if not all macrophyla attested in historical times can be taken to descend,
in part, from a postulated *Borean parent phylum developed in Central Asia c. 25 ka BP.
My 2006a summary ended thus:
‘While predicated on Witzel’s seminal long-range approach to world mythology, his Laur-
asian / Gondwana dichotomy is replaced by a systematically argued combination of continu-
ity, transformation, interaction, and feedback.’ (van Binsbergen 2006a: 319; a diagrammatic
representation of Witzel’s Laurasian / Gondwana distinction, radically separating Eurasian
and African mythologies, appears on my p. 321).
This message has taken a while to register. Although there has been considerable approachment on
individual points, grosso modo Michael Witzel has continued to rely on his Gondwana / Laurasian
dichotomy right up to his contribution in the present volume (Witzel 2010) – in the tradition of African
othering and African-Eurasian discontinuity. Michael Witzel’s conceptual apparatus on this point is
somewhat unfortunate. Gondwana and Laurasian are geological terms to designate phases and sections
of the postulated original land mass from which, ever since Wegener (1912), modern geo-physics has
claimed that present-day continents were formed, on a time scale measured, not in tens of millennia
like the cultural (including mythological) history of Anatomically Modern Humans), but in hundreds of
millions of years! By its play on such utter primordiality, Witzel’s distinction confusingly suggests a
fundamental and perennial separation of African / Australian / New Guinean mythologies on the one
hand, and Eurasian / Oceanian / American mythologies on the other. Such an approach claims that
there are, basically and inevitably, two main branches of mythologising humankind: the primitive
southern section with high levels of skin pigmentation, and the more advanced northern one with lesser
levels. However, my difference with Michael Witzel (while acknowledging the enormous inspiration
which his work and person have been for me in recent years), however, concerns. not in the first place
ideology or the transcontinental politics of knowledge, but empirical facts: given the combined, state-
of-the-art genetic paradigms of the Out-of-Africa migration and the Back-into-Africa migration,
‘Laurasian’ and ‘Gondwana’ mythologies can only be relative and connected ideal-types, inevitably
continuous and interpenetrating – with ‘Laurasian’ mythology developing out of ‘Gondwana’ in Asia
during the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic ever after the Second Out-of-Africa Sally (from ca. 60 ka
BP; for a provisional reconstruction of the specific steps see Table 9.2), while subsequently ‘Laur-
asian’-type mythologies percolated into Africa, overlaying and often – like in the Nkoya case – nearly
obscuring the Palaeo-African ‘Gondwana’ heritage, as a result, in general, of the Back-into-Africa
movement (from ca. 15 ka BP), and more recently, and in particular, the southward expansion, into
sub-Saharan Africa, of the ‘Pelasgian realm’ from the Late Bronze Age onward.
Further analysis suggests this NarCom – an analytical construct, like all other NarComs – to be an
New Perspectives on Myth
4 Lightning bird and World egg 14 Duality Two children Twins
5 Mantis 15 Spider and feminine arts
6 Rescue from ogre 16 Shamanism / bones
7 From the mouth 17 Speckledness / granulated surface texture /
8 The stones 18 Honey bees, (honey-)beer
9 The moon 19 Cosmogonic virgin and her lover-son
10 The earth 20 Contradictory messengers bring death

Table 9.2. ‘Contexts of Intensified Transformation and Innovation’ (CITIs) in the
global history of Anatomically Modern Humans’ mythology

CITI proposed Narrative Complex
(no. and description)
mtDNA type remarks linguistic
in time in space

I. Pre-
lithic 80
ka BP and
‘Pandora’s Box’: the original
mythical package, perhaps
containing: 4. The Lightning
Bird (and the World Egg)
8. The stones (as earth; under
CITI VI revised as the stones
as connection between heaven
and earth)
9. The Moon
10. The Earth as primary (10
was subsequently
revised towards cattle, in the
12. From the Tree (in subse-
quent CITIs diversified into
12a ‘The world and humanity
from the tree’, and 12c ‘the
13. The Cosmic / Rainbow
15. The Spider (subsequent
transformed into ‘the feminine
arts’ in CITI VI)
L (L1, L2, L3) • The emergence of Anatomi-
cally Modern Humans as a bio-
logical mutation?
• Africa’s soil carrying capacity,
even for hunting and collecting,
is the lowest in the world,
mainly due to geological condi-
tions that predate the appearance
of humans by hundreds of mil-
lions of years, so it is possible
that there was a push out of
• The emergence of myth as
constitutive of a new type of
human community: self-
reflective, coherent, communi-
cating, engaging in hunting and
collecting, and creating coher-
ence, through the narrative and
ritual management of symbols,
leading to articulate language
If this last point is plausible,
then the earliest phase in the
overall process is in itself myth-
II. Middle
lithic, c.
80 ka BP
Asia, and
there to
and New
5. The Mantis N and / or M Leaving Africa and venturing
into West Asia is likely to have
produced new challenges and to
have given access to new oppor-
tunities; possibly Neanderthaloid

III. Mid-
dle Pa-
c. 35 ka
6. Escape from the Ogre A and B (out of
Neanderthaloid influence?

unfortunate contamination of nos. 4 (cf. Rain), 13, and 19.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
IV. Upper
lithic, c.
20 ka BP
11. The Primal Waters and the
B (out of N) Installation of the cosmogony of
the Mother / Mistress of the
Primal Waters, and the Land
V. Upper
lithic, c.
15 ka BP
1. The separation of Heaven
and Earth 16. Shamanism,
N (H, A, B) The separation of Heaven and
Earth as central cosmogonic
theme; shamanism associated
with naked-eye astronomy (for
hunters, later agriculturalists).
The shaman’s (belief of) travel-
ling along the celestial axis to
underworld and upper world,
created (the idea of) a politico-
religious social hierarchy on
which more effective forms of
socio-political organisation
could be based.
and Cen-
of *Borean
have sepa-
c. 12 ka
2. The Re-Connection of
Heaven and Earth (after sepa-
19. The Cosmogonic Virgin
and her Son / lover
14. Twins
R and M1 Neolithic food production
through agriculture and animal
husbandry; Neolithic arts and
crafts such as pottery, spinning,
weaving; male ascendance;
complex society, the emergence
of writing, the state, organised
religion, and science; incipient
or Bronze
Age c. 5
ka BP
7. From the Mouth too recent and
too limited in
scope to be
interpreted in
terms of mtDNA
Masculinisation and mythical
‘hysterical displacement’ of
procreative functions, from
groin to mouth and head – tran-
scendentalism as triggered by
writing, the state, organised
priesthood, and science

to Iron
Age c. 3
ka BP
14a. Twins, Two Children,

further reflection needed
2.3.3. Back into Africa
Nor did this exhaust the inspiration of state-of-the-art population genetics towards the
rethinking of African-Eurasian mythological continuities. And that is just as well, be-
cause merely invoking a postulated common origin, at a moment in time at least 80 ka
BP, risks being as ineffective as a claim of continuity, as the mythical close kinship of
Arabs and Jews (propounded or implied by the sacred books of both groups, the
Qur’ān and the Tanach or Bible) turns out to be when it comes to resolving the cur-
rent socio-political tensions in the Middle East… To make the idea of African-
Eurasian mythological continuities a tangible reality, we would like to have some-
thing a bit more recent than the Out-of-Africa Exodus, and state-of-the-art population
genetics has been good enough to oblige: by identifying, as we have seen, from the
indirect and complex evidence of molecular genetic analysis, the ‘Back-into-Africa’
New Perspectives on Myth
movement, from East and West Asia, from 15 ka BP on. Population movements mas-
sive enough to leave detectable traces to be picked up by state-of-the-art molecular
biology, and so relatively recent that they can only have involved Anatomically Mod-
ern Humans in full command of symbolic thought and articulate language, – such
movements must necessarily have involved (as a form of demic diffusion) a measure
of cultural, including mythological, transmission from Eurasia, back into Africa, dur-
ing the same period.
The Back-into-Africa movement makes it understandable, not only that Eura-
sian and African languages are found to be cognate, but also that African mythologies
as recorded in historical times (and with the exception of the iconographic records of
rock art and the performative repertoire of ritual and folklore – both of them posing
extreme methodological problems of interpretation and periodisation) must be over-
laid with, and may even merge with, Eurasian mythologies. And this is precisely what
we observe.
I find it illuminating, and in line with the (admittedly very limited, and diffi-
cult to decode, available iconographic) data, to see, in the Eurasian Upper Palaeo-
lithic, the succession, c. 5-10 ka apart, of two main cosmogonic schemas:
a) first the Cosmogony of the Separation of the Waters and the Land (which gave us
flood myths – evoking the annihilation of the cosmic order, when that order is
based on the separation of the waters), and subsequently
b) the Cosmogony of the Separation of Heaven and Earth (connected with the rise of
naked-eye astronomy, detailed time reckoning, and of shamanism as an unprece-
dented concentration of symbolic power).

Although massive vestiges of (a) survived until historical times (notably in the
form of the aquatic and marine connotations of the Mother Goddess and of her son-
lover, the Hero), (b) has become absolutely dominant, and as a result the central
theme in Eurasian mythologies has now been for three or four millennia at least: how
was the Separation of Heaven and Earth effected, how can humankind overcome its
traumatic effects (basically, by items coming down from heaven – such as rain, fire,
seeds, cattle, humans, angels, God’s son – , or rising up to heaven – such as moun-
tains, poles, spires, towers, altars, sacrifices – , or by re-unifying heaven and earth –
such as a demiurge, king, priest, shaman, twin) and what eschatological implication
does this worldview have. Well, notwithstanding the prevalence of flood myths also
in Africa, this same preoccupation with the effects of the Separation of Heaven and
Earth is found in sub-Saharan African mythologies, in such a way that I have spoken,
in connection with that part of the world, of ‘relatively old genes with relatively mod-
ern mythologies’.

van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity

1: CITI (VII and VIII could not be drawn in location, hence the broken lines connecting object and num-
ber); 2: Pandora’s Box = CITI I, 200-80 ka BP; 3: direct diffusion of (evolved) Pandora-Box / CITI I mo-
tifs into Eurasia and the rest of the world, unaffected by the innovation and transformation in the
subsequent succession of CITIs; 4: Extended Fertile Crescent, proto-Neolithic; 5: Back-into-Africa
movement, 15 ka BP; 6: Spread and diversification of the mtDNA types of Anatomically Modern Humans
(Forster 2004); 7: Extended General Sunda Thesis (Oppenheimer 1998 and van Binsbergen in preparation
(b), van Binsbergen with Isaak 2008).
Fig. 9.3. Provisional situation in space and time of ‘Contexts of Intensified Transfor-
mation and Innovation’ (CITIs), as crucial stages in the global history of the mythol-
ogy of Anatomically Modern Humans
New Perspectives on Myth
However, 15 ka is still a very long time span, and one in which ‘mythological
drift’ is likely to play havoc with any empirical evidence of transcontinental transmis-
sion. Therefore we are fortunate that the ‘Back-in-Africa’ mechanism can be nar-
rowed down, in so far as it refers to Western Eurasia (Underhill 2004 however also
claims a substantial Eastern Eurasian influx into Africa, cf. Oppenheimer 1998),
the much more recent Pelasgian hypothesis, which moreover is open to direct study
by the examination of ethnographic distributions. In addition to genetics and linguis-
tics, archaeology and comparative mythology, comparative ethnography has been
recognised as another venue towards the retrieval of the otherwise undocumented
The distribution of ethnographic traits, used with caution, can provide clues as
to the extent and boundaries of culture areas in pre- and proto-history, and indicate
affinities otherwise overlooked. Although soon my results proved to be supported by
genetic distribution patterns as well,
it was the analysis of a large number of ethno-
graphic trait distributions throughout the Old World, that has recently made me for-
mulate the Pelasgian hypothesis, with, I believe, considerable implications for
comparative mythology.
2.4. The Pelasgian hypothesis
The Pelasgian hypothesis is one of the tools promising to create order among, and to
make sense of, the unmistakable comparative trends emerging from the huge global
mythological corpus.
It is an integrative perspective on long-range ethnic, cultural,
linguistic and genetic affinities encompassing Africa, Europe, and Asia. This hy-
pothesis proposes an original, primary Pelasgian realm in Neolithic West Central
Asia, which due to westbound population movements in the Early and Middle Bronze
Ages (greatly facilitated by Central Asian pastoralists’ achievements, notably the rise

I refrain here from a substantial discussion of Oppenheimer’s (1998) Sunda thesis. It has two aspects:
(a) the General Sunda hypothesis, claiming that with the global rise of the sea level at the beginning of
the Holocene (10 ka BP) the inundation of the ‘Sunda’ subcontinent (now the Indonesian archipelago)
caused a massive population movement into Oceania and to Western Eurasia, triggering the civilisa-
tions of the Indus valley and of Mesopotamia, if not further a field; (b) the Special Sunda thesis, claim-
ing that in this process the core mythologies of the Ancient Near East including those of Genesis (e.g.
the Standard Elaborate Flood myth) were transmitted from a South East Asian origin. A statistically
based analysis of Flood myths worldwide brought me to dismiss (b), but, especially for Africa, (a) still
has a lot to offer (van Binsbergen with Isaak 2008; van Binsbergen, in preparation (a)). It cannot be
ruled out that a Sunda mechanism was behind the introduction, to South Central Africa, of some of the
stories recognised to ‘have travelled’ (Werner 1933); but the Sunda hypothesis does not throw much
light on the data covered in Section 5, and their distributions. A carefully edited, lavishly annotated and
comparatively referenced Indonesian collection like de Vries 1925 shows only a few Ancient Near
Eastern themes (e.g. the motif of the snake-related Herb of Life) and African themes (which de Vries
traces by reference to Frobenius’ story collections); in the Indonesian context, however, these motifs
give the distinct impression of distant echoes, not of original prototypes.
Cf. Vansina 1968, 1981, 1990; van Binsbergen 1981.
For these genetic details, see van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen, in press.
van Binsbergen, 2010b, 2010c; van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen, in press.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
of horse-riding and of chariot technology) led to the establishment of a secondary
Mediterranean-Pelasgian realm by the Late Bronze Age. Although linguistically and
ethnically heterogeneous,
the primary and secondary Pelasgian realms stood out by
a package of traits; individual ‘Pelasgian’ population groups never displayed the en-
tire package, but selectively adopted a number of them, also a basis for ethnico-
political identification with other such groups, e.g. in the context of the Sea Peoples
episode at the very end of the Bronze Age. As many as 80 Pelasgian traits have been

Fig. 9.4. Diagrammatic representation of the Pelasgian Hypothesis

As a result, the term ‘Pelasgian’ can only be employed as an analytical label, without any one-to-one
correspondence with the ethnic distinctions the historical actors themselves were making. The latter
have been taken up by modern students of ancient languages and ethnicities; for an overview of ancient
uses of the terms to which ‘Pelasgian’ refers, see van Binsbergen 2010c.
A full list is presented in van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen, in press: chapter 28. A selection of pro-
posed Pelasgian traits includes (order is arbitrary): gold mining and metallurgy; relatively early adop-
tion and transmission (if not invention) of iron-working technology; veneration of a Mother goddess
associated with bees; male genital mutilation in at least part of the realm; territorial cults centring on
earth shrines, often in the form of herms, with divination function; a central flood myth and a creation
mythology centring on the primal emergence of Land from Water, with the Primal Waters personified
as a virgin Creator Goddess; military prowess and pre-marital sexual license of women; veneration of a
divine pair of opposite gender (e.g. Athena and Poseidon, Athena and Hephaestus, Nü Wa 女媧 and Fu
Xi 伏羲 associated with the installation of culture and world order – there are indications that the
Graeco-Roman claim of Lacus Tritonis / Šot al-Jerīd (modern Southern Tunisia) as birth place of
Athena (and Poseidon?) mirrors an earlier, more eastern, Central Asian birthplace by a major inland
lake, and such mirroring occurs in other ancient place names including (H)Iberia, Libya, and Africa /
Ifriqa (Karst 1931); relatively early adoption and transmission of chariot technology; the hunting tech-
nology of the spiked wheel trap; veneration of a solar god; headhunting and skull cult; common genetic
background in respect of certain genetic markers; boat cult, often associated with the afterlife.
New Perspectives on Myth

The distribution of these traits brings out one of the essential features of the
Pelasgian hypothesis, notably the ‘cross-model’: from the Middle Bronze Age on, and
largely on the wings of horse-riding and chariot technology, Pelasgian traits have
been selectively transmitted in all four directions: west to the Western Mediterranean
and the Celtic World; north to the Uralic and Germanic world; East across the Eura-
sian Steppe to East Asia, with diversions to South and South East Asia; and south
across the Sahara into sub-Saharan Africa – notably the area where Niger-Congo (>
Bantu) is spoken in historical times.

2.5. Good old Aarne-Thompson
But while these are recently formulated models in full process of testing and refine-
ment, there are also time-honoured approaches to comparative mythology, which are
in principle general and universally applicable, and therefore invite specific applica-
tion to Africa. Ever since the early 20th century CE, the standard tool of comparative
mythologists has been the Aarne, subsequently Aarne-Thompson, AT, typological
classification of folktales.
Widely used and highly effective, it was recently updated
by Uther (2004). The system has been the basis for much comparative mythological
research on a local and regional basis.
Only rarely has it been applied to Africa.

One elegant way of demonstrating the continuity of African mythologies and those of

Aarne-Thompson 1973, cf. Thompson 1955-1958.
Cf. British Columbia Folklore Society 2000, which provides an impressive bibliography.
E.g. Clarke 1958 (West Africa), and two collections of Ancient Egyptian material (El-
Shamy 1980; Maspero 2002).
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
Eurasia would therefore be to assess how many of the AT entries apply to one particu-
lar African mythology, e.g. that of the Nkoya of Zambia, South Central Africa, among
whom I have done ethnohistorical and ethnographic research since the early 1970s.
The Aarne-Thompson-Uther list is very extensive and therefore difficult to handle.
Instead, I have used the selection which Fontenrose (1980) has made out of this list,
with specific reference to the combat myth whose analysis is at the heart of Fonten-
rose’s work. Fontenrose’s highly selective list (Fontenrose 1980: 583f, ‘Themes and
motifs part II’) still comprises 399 entries. Of these, as much as one-fifth can be ar-
gued to apply to Nkoya mythology, as set out in Table 9.3.
Table 9.3. Selected Aarne-Thompson (AT) traits relevant to the combat theme
(Fontenrose 1980) in Nkoya mythology and cosmology
AT number description Nkoya application
A128 Mutilated god Mwenda-Njangula is unilateral
A154 Nectar, soma mead (mbote) has comparable mythical connotations
A162.2-3 Sky-god fights dragon of the
waters or evil demon
Likambi Mange and her artificial woman versus Shi-
hoka Nalinanga
A162.8 Rebellion of gods against
their ruler
creation myth as told by the nature prophet and witch-
finder Lubumba (interviews September-October 1973)
A255 Contest with drought demon Likambi Mange and her artificial woman versus Shi-
hoka Nalinanga (‘Snake child / mother of Drought’)
A721.1 Theft of sun Kapesh and subjects attempt theft of moon
A1010 Deluge, inundation of world Flood myths present although not always in very con-
spicuous form
A1111 A monster keeps water from
mankind until a hero defeats
him and releases it
Vr tra-like connotations implied by the name Shihoka
Nalinanga ‘Snake child / mother of Drought’
B11 Dragon Shihoka Nalinanga
B11.4.1 Dragon can fly kings’ ambivalent benevolent / malevolent connota-
tions which (cf. Shihoka) approach those of snake or
dragon, great powers of malele (wizardry) are attrib-
uted, including the powers of bilocation, exceedingly
rapid locomotion, shape-shifting and invisibility
B11.5.1 Dragon has power of trans-
forming himself
as previous
B11.9 Dragon as power of evil as previous
B11.10.3 Fight against dragon Likambi Mange and her artificial woman versus Shi-
hoka Nalinanga
B11.11.7 Woman as dragon-slayer as previous
B11.12.3 Fiery dragon Shihoka Nalinanga ‘Snake child / mother of Drought’
B31 Giant bird the creator god and the latter’s son are both [ giant ]
B56 Garuda-bird as previous
B91, 91.1 Mythical snake, snake-demon Shihoka Nalinanga
B872 Giant bird the creator god and the latter’s son are both [ giant ]
D152.1-3 Transformation to hawk /
eagle / vulture
as previous; two of these species are royal clan names
D161.1, 162 Transformation to swan /
kalyange (stork, heron) as implied evocation of creator
D185.1 Transformation to fly / bee Nkoya apical ancestress considered queen bee, and so
is bride-taking family in wedding song
New Perspectives on Myth
D 191, 194,
Transformation to snake /
crocodile / dragon
Shihoka Nalinanga
D215 Transformation to tree Manenga, Shinkisha: kings named after trees
D391 Transformation of snake to
Shihoka Nalinanga
D399.1 Transformation of dragon to
man or other animal
as previous
D429.2.1 Dragon king as wind Lipepo, ‘Royal Person Wind’
D651 Transformation to defeat
kings’ malele
D671 Transformation flight as previous
D950.0.1 Magic tree guarded by snake tree connotations of Manenga, Shinkisha; cf. Shihoka
D1171.6 Magic cup, Grail Cauldron of Kingship
D1344.5 Magic ointment renders in-
kings’ malele
Wunschding, magic cup,
Cauldron of Kingship
D1710 Possession of magic powers kings’ malele
Evil demon produces storms,
controls winds
Lipepo, ‘Wind’
E422 Living corpse Several people within living memory were known as
Mufuenda (‘Dead Man Walking’) since they returned
to life after having been declared dead
E481.1 Land of dead in lower world Mwaat Yaav, ‘Lord of Death’
E481.2 Land of dead across water as previous, north of the Congo / Zambezi watershed
E481.6.2 Land of dead in west as previous, Nkoya are often called ‘Mbwela’, ‘People
of the West’
E485 Land of skulls Kayambila, ‘Thatching with Skulls’
E781 Eyes removed but replaced obliquely implied in Kapesh’s attempted stealing of
the moon
F93.1 River as entrance to lower
streams and ponds (whose fishing rights are jealously
guarded, usually by king and headman) are considered
to be abodes of the ancestors; a reluctant chosen can-
didate for name inheritance can escape the elders’
ruling if he or she runs away and reaches the valley’s
central stream before being physically caught by the
elders and invested with the vacant name
F141.1 River as barrier to otherworld as previous; but also in the variants presented by
Jacottet (1899-1901)
F302.3.4 Fairy demoness entices men
to harm them
Likambi Mange’s artificial woman
F420.4.1.1 Protean transformations of
kings’ malele; the underlying image often appears to
be that of a water dragon – either terrestrial (of the
deep) or celestial (of the sky)
F432 Spirits of wind, storm, thun-
der, cold
F512.1 One-eyed person, Cyclops Mwenda-Njangula
F526.6 Snake-man compound Shihoka Nalinanga
F771.1.9 House of skulls as murderer’s
G264 La belle dame Likambi Mange and her artificial woman
G303.1.1 Evil demon is god’s son. Prophet Lubumba’s account of creation
G303. Evil demon in form of snake as previous; and Shihoka Nalinanga
G303. Evil demon has one eye in
middle of forehead
G303.8.1 Evil demon driven from
Lubumba’s account
G308 Sea monster mystical powers and kings often have the connotations
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
of (celestial or terrestrial) water snake
G315 Demon cuts off men’s heads
to build with them
M2 King makes inhuman deci-
Kayambila and several other kings recounted in Likota
lya Bankoya
Q482 Noble person must do menial
the Kahare royal ancestors suffering humiliation as
swine herds at the Lunda capital of Mwaat Yaav,
‘Lord of Death’
R185 Hero fights Death to save
Prince Luhamba’s successful war (whose implied
purpose was to save his sister Princess Katete) against
Mwaat Yaav’s (‘Lord of Death’) Humbu punitive
T173 Murderous bride Likambi Mange’s artificial woman

Although it remains possible to argue about the justification of some of the entries in
this Table, the majority of entries are absolutely straight-forward, and they form a
nice initial statement on Nkoya-Eurasian mythological continuities. However, the ap-
plication of this insight in the Nkoya research threatened to be devastating for my ear-
lier research work, as we shall now see.
3. From myth to proto-history and back, in tears /
After extensive work on historical reconstruction (largely on the basis of mythical and
oral historical materials) in the field of North African popular Islam and of Central
African pre-colonial religious forms, and before exploring urban culture and ecstatic
cults in Southern Africa, the Nkoya people of Zambia constituted, for decades from
1972 onward, my main research focus in Africa. Speaking a Central Bantu language,
the Nkoya (numbering ca. 100,000) emerged (under the effect of the ethnic dynamics
of the colonial state as mediated through the indirect rule of Barotseland, with local
Christian intellectuals as major ethnic brokers) as a comprehensive self-affirming eth-
nic identity towards the middle of the 20th century CE. This ethnic label emerged as a
bundling of a great many smaller identities each characterised by their own name,
clan affiliation, areas of residence, royal and chiefly leaders, dialectical variations,
historical traditions etc. (van Binsbergen 1992). The Nkoya primarily inhabit the fer-
tile plateau of the Kafue / Zambezi watershed, although smaller branches of this eth-
nic cluster are found in Western, Central and Southern Zambia, and small minorities
of Nkoya urban migrants inhabits all towns of South Central and Southern Africa. In
an economy combining highly perfected hunting and fishing techniques with surpris-
ingly complex forms of cultivation (Trapnell & Clothier 1937; Schültz 1976), with an
unbroken local pottery tradition going back at least two millennia, and extensive iron
metallurgy, the kingship, name inheritance rites (which merge with the kingship in the
enthronisation rite), and female initiation rites are among the Nkoya’s central institu-
tions. These are largely continuous with those of neighbouring peoples in the wide
vicinity. The Nkoya also knew male initiation rites including male genital mutilation,
New Perspectives on Myth
but these were discontinued as a result of a complex process spanning several centu-
ries (van Binsbergen 1992, 1993), in the course of which Nkoya distinctiveness was
asserted vis-à-vis the kingship and culture of the Lunda under the royal title of Mwati
Yamvo / Mwaat Yaav in Southern Congo (whose overlordship used to be acknowl-
edged across many hundreds of kilometres into what is today Zambia and Angola),
and vis-à-vis the cluster of circumcising peoples in that region: Chokwe, Luvale,
Mbunda and Luchazi. The Lozi (Barotse, Luyi) of the Zambezi flood plain
through a similar process as the Nkoya, initially parallel with and hardly distinguish-
able from the ethnic clusters and ruling groups that were to end up under the Nkoya
label, subsequently however in an increasingly hegemonic, subordinating relation vis-
à-vis the Nkoya groups. The latter development especially took place after the South-
ern African ethnico-military upheaval known as the mfecane (ca. 1820 CE) induced
immigration from Southern Africa in the early 19th century. This made a Sotho dia-
lect the language of communication throughout rapidly expanding Barotseland.
Nkoya court culture especially its royal orchestra has continued to dominate all royal
courts in Western Zambia even to this day (Brown 1984; Kawanga 1978), and the
Nkoya-Luyana language has remained the Luyi court language. Early Christian mis-
sion in what was to be Western Zambia concentrated on these Barotse / Luyi / Lozi of
the Upper Zambezi flood plain, from the 1880s CE on; among the Nkoya, Christian
missions only started in the late 1910s CE. To legitimate its control over Western
Zambia, the early British colonial administration (from 1900 CE on) had an interest in
greatly exaggerating the extent and effectiveness of the Barotse pre-colonial state,
which was granted Protectorate status; in the process, Lozi domination over the
Nkoya was further enhanced, and for decades, the Nkoya kings (called ‘chiefs’ since
incorporation in the Lozi indigenous administration, and in the colonial state) were
forbidden even to have royal drums. Only the Nkoya royal orchestras serving the Lozi
royal establishments throughout the region testify to the Nkoya’s earlier exalted posi-
tion. In recent decades, now that Nkoya musical and ritual culture (despite the re-
instatement of royal drums) has come to be largely virtualised, it is still through the
annual two-day Kazanga festival (a radical transformation of an ancient royal harvest
festival, discontinued in the late 19th century CE)
that the Nkoya through a rich rep-
ertoire of music and dance present their identity to the wider world at the regional and
national level.
Using the Nkoya data first for a theoretical book largely based on the Nkoya
data (van Binsbergen 1981) and a series of ethnographic and ethnohistorical articles, I
edited (van Binsbergen 1988) Likota lya Bankoya, a collection of oral traditions of the
Nkoya people of Zambia compiled and synthesised by the first local Christian minis-
ter of religion. Soon this was followed (van Binsbergen 1992, incorporating 1988; cf.
1987) by my analytical study Tears of Rain: Ethnicity and history in Central Western
Zambia, a reconstruction of half a millennium of state formation in the region, based

Cf. Gluckman 1941, 1943, 1949, 1951, 1955b; Mainga 1966, 1972, 1973; Prins 1980; Muuka 1966.
Van Binsbergen 1993, 1995b, 1999, 2003c.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
on a close reading of these worked-up traditions against the combined background of:
(a) traditions I had collected in the region in the course of two decades, not only at
the royal courts (where central dynastic oral histories are managed, controlled
and transmitted), but also in commoner villages where the traditions were rela-
tively decentralised and unprocessed in the light of dynastic aspirations, and
therefore reveal many flaws, contradictions and manipulations in the inte-
grated courtly accounts
(b) the existing historical and theoretical literature on South Central Africa; and
(c) my own background as a long-standing observer, and increasingly as much-
more-than-scientific participant, in Nkoya village life and regional traditional

The focus of Tears of Rain was proto-historical (not a single written text older
than c. 200 years existed on the area, and no more than a handful older than a cen-
tury). Given the very recent emergence of the Nkoya ethnic identity, it also had to be
trans-ethnic / regional, encompassing the whole of Western Zambia and reaching into
Angola and Southern Congo, but even so covering only a small portion of the African
continent. The transcontinental mythological links which the present argument will
assert for the Nkoya people, cannot claim to apply to the whole of Africa, yet they
make us look with a different eye at the isolated position in which African mytholo-
gies are so often put by contrast to Eurasian ones (cf. Frazer 1918; Witzel 2001,
Extensive exposure to Assyriology, Egyptology and comparative mythology
in the first half of the 1990s, however, made me realise that what I had considered, in
my Nkoya history, to be an distorted traditional account of historical events in Iron
Age South Central Africa up to half a millennium BP, apparently contained many
highly specific parallels with the mythologies attested in the texts of civilisations ex-
tremely remote in space and time from Nkoyaland.
Below I will offer a detailed dis-

From 1990 on, one of my major research projects has been the comparative study of African divina-
tion systems, in an attempt to situate, in space and time, the system I had encountered during fieldwork
in Francistown, Botswana, from 1988 on. From this context I derived my first empirically underpinned
insight in African-Eurasian continuities (apart from noting the – as I much later was to realise, Pelas-
gian – continuities between Ancient Greece and the highlands of North-western Tunisia, site of my
first fieldwork in the late 1960s): the Francistown system turned out to be a form of geomantic divina-
tion, closely cognate to those in the rest of Southern Africa, Madagascar and the Comoro Islands, and
West Africa; these could all be traced to the system of
ilm al-raml (Arabic ‘Sand Science’) or ®att al-
raml (Arabic ‘Sand Calligraphy’) – a divination system that surfaces in
Abās īd Iraq by the end of the
first millennium CE, probably under influence from both North Africa (the principal author on
ilm al-
raml is the Berber sheikh Muh ammad al-Zānātī) and (with the T’ang dynasty having far extended
West, a thriving East Asian trade in the harbour of Bas ra, and demonstrable Chinese influence on intel-
lectual life in Iraq) from Chinese divination well-known as 易經 yì jīng (‘I Ching’; cf. van Binsbergen
1995a, 1996, 2005). In view of the recognised continuity between Islamic ‘secret sciences’, those of
Graeco-Roman Antiquity, and those of Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East (Fah d 1966; Bottéro
1992; Ray 1981; Borghouts 1995; Bouché-Leclercq 1879; Delatte & Delatte 1936; Ullman 1972), this
New Perspectives on Myth
cussion of these possible specific mythological correspondences with Egypt, the An-
cient Near East, Graeco-Roman Antiquity, South Asia, Central Asia, and even North
America. So I had to face the possibility (van Binsbergen 1998-2006) that my histori-
cal reconstruction in Tears of Rain, however acclaimed by the doyen of Central Afri-
can protohistory Jan Vansina (1993), was yet largely fictitious and based on some sort
of proto-historical fallacy of misplaced concreteness (Whitehead 1925). In other
words, I now fear that at the time I had systematically mistaken for

(a) distorted-but-retrievable facts of South Central African Iron Age history in the
second half of the second millennium CE, what in fact were
(b) mere resonances – devoid of all genuine historicity and spuriously localised –
of widespread mythological materials percolating throughout the Old World

and among other places attested in millennia-old texts from the outer fringes
of the African continent, and beyond.

Let me give one example of what this concretely means for proto-historical analysis
in the South Central African context.
THE NKOYA KING AS DEATH DEMON. The legendary Nkoya king Kayambila’s throne name
boasts that he thatched his palace with the skulls of his enemies. This cruel practice has, in the
first place, local resonances. It is part of a violent skull complex that was quite central to
Nkoya culture before modern times, and elements of which have persisted at least in the form
of rumours – e.g. the rumour (as late as 1973 leading to a grim court case; van Binsbergen
1975 and 2003b) that the king routinely sends out his henchmen to kill stray children, because
his life force – and that of the country – depends on consumption of their brains. Is Kayambila
only an a-historical evocation epiphany of an underworld demon? And does the same apply to
his overlord the Lunda king Mwaat Yaav, whose name means literally the ‘Lord of Death’ and
whose very real though distant court at Musumba, far north of the Zambezi / Congo water-
shed, has long been known as the scene of great cruelty (cf. Frazer 1911-1915). Or could Ka-
yambila yet have been historical? The political events in Western Zambia 1820-1950 make us
read as a counter-hegemonic claim, and hence as potentially mythical, the account of Kayam-
bila graciously extending Nkoya regalia to his alleged poor relative the Barotse king Mu-
lambwa. However, some of the other traditions concerning Kayambila have a remarkable real-
life flavour, for instance when he is depicted as naming his new-born grandson in the early
morning light.
This grandson was explicitly claimed to be still alive in the early twentieth
century CE, when Rev. Shimunika – his close kinsman, who described the birth scene – was
in his teens. I was therefore persuaded, in Tears of Rain, to consider Kayambila as a historical
figure, and to situate his rule shortly after 1800 CE. However, the skull motif makes him more
than life-size. He has effectively taken on the features of a king of the underworld. The popu-

project ramified out into Antiquity and the Ancient Near East, in a bid to identify proto-geomancies. In
this connection I was fortunate to join the ‘Research Group on Magic and Religion in the Ancient Near
East’, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS), Wassenaar, 1994-1995, whose stimulating
impact I hereby acknowledge. However, the antecedents that I was looking for were only found much
later, and scarcely in that context (with the exception of the Pre-Socratics), but in a transcontinental
elemental system of transformations ranging – in the recognisable Pelasgian distribution – from the
Mediterranean to East Asia and South Central Africa (van Binsbergen 2009b, 2010e).
Cf. van Binsbergen 1992; Anonymous [ J.M. Shimunika], n.d. The same birth custom existed in
Ancient Egypt, cf. Stricker 1963-1989.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
lar consciousness of common Nkoya villagers has retained this conception of the kingship to a
great extent – in this society where sorcery and counter-sorcery constitute the routine imagina-
tion and discourse – though very rarely the practice – of the ongoing social process (cf. van
Binsbergen 1981, 2001), the king is considered the greatest sorcerer of all. This also casts a
different light on the Nkoya tradition according to which the founders of present-day royal
dynasties came to their present homeland in western central Zambia in an attempt to escape
from the humiliation (pig herding) they were suffering at the court of Mwaat Yaav. Now,
when we consider the myth of Nkoya kings leaving Musumba, are we talking about historical
migrations of small proto-dynastic groups from Southern Congo (formerly Zaire) in the sec-
ond half of the second millennium CE? Or about man’s eternal struggle with death? (Cf.
Fontenrose 1980, who considers this the underlying motif of all combat myths worldwide.)
Must we reckon, here and in the other cases of extensive ancient parallels in modern Nkoya
traditions and institutions, with the possibility that old mythical themes were deliberately re-
vived and enacted – by what were truly eighteenth and nineteenth century CE political actors
in Nkoyaland – in an atavistic bid to create continuity with, and legitimacy in the light of, the
very remote past of several millennia ago? (Much like, in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt,
kings of the late periods claimed legitimacy by reviving the memory of their very distant, leg-
endary predecessors: Sargon II (early 8th century BCE) naming himself after Sargon of Akkad
across 16 centuries; and Sargon II’s contemporary the 25th-dynasty Nubian pharaoh Shabaka
claiming, likewise across one and a half millennium, a 6th-dynasty throne name for himself.)
Or does the Nkoya skull complex have genuine Eurasian parallels, to be explained by Nkoya
and Western Eurasia sharing a common cultural source? Below, Section 5 will make the plau-
sibility of the latter position abundantly clear, to the detriment of my localised, proto-historical
reading of such myths.
Although it had escaped my attention at the time, a similar objection had been
brought by Wrigley against the work of my dear friend and sometime academic su-
pervisor Matthew Schoffeleers, who engaged in similar proto-historical research in
Malawi in the 1960-1980s.
Wrigley’s summary reads (1988):
‘Debates over the ‘‘Zimba’’ period of Zambesian history prompt a new consideration of the
mythical element in oral traditions. The work of M. Schoffeleers on Mbona, presiding spirit of
a famous rainshrine in southern Malawi, is exploited in order to cast doubt on his reconstruc-
tion of 16th and 17th-century political history. It is suggested that Mbona was the serpentine
power immanent in the Zambesi; that reports of his ‘‘martyrdom’’ at the hands of a secular
ruler are versions of an ancient myth of the lightning and the rainbow; that his journey to, and
subsequent flight from, Kaphiri-ntiwa, scene of the Maravi creation myth, is a variant of the
visit made to the sky by Kintu, the ‘‘First Man’’ of Ganda tradition. It is not very likely that
such stories attest the rise of a great military State c. 1600 and the ensuing suppression of reli-
gious institutions.’
Seeking to retrieve the recent proto-historical past of sub-Saharan Africa was
very much en vogue among historians and anthropologists from the late 1960s on-
wards (cf. Ranger & Kimambo 1972). Confident in our use of a systematic method to
extract fragments of historical fact from local myth,
we did not heed Wrigley’s criti-
cism, which meanwhile however I have come to consider as eminently well-taken.
Yet even Wrigley’s position it still displayed the familiar, main-stream limitation of
considering – in a splendid tradition of which Luc de Heusch (1958, 1972, 1982) has

Cf. Schoffeleers 1985, 1988, 1992; Wrigley 1988; van Binsbergen 2008a.
Vansina 1965, 1985; Schoffeleers 1979, 1985; van Binsbergen 1981, 1985.
New Perspectives on Myth
been the principal exponent – the Bantu world as the exclusive realm within which
any mythological interpretation of South Central African oral-historical narrative
would have to be set. From the perspective of mainstream disciplinary ideology, one
of the greatest sins that a modern Africanist can commit is to try and explain things
African by reference to phenomena outside the African continent. However under-
standable in the light of the hegemonic modern history of North Atlantic involvement
with Africa and of African Studies’ need to dissociate from that history, the conde-
scending futility of this position is clear when we try to apply it, mutatis mutandis, to
the study of Christianity as a largely European (but not Europe-originating) expres-
sion, to the explosive question of the autochthony of Indian languages and of the
Vedic scriptures, etc.
African societies and cultures cannot be studied meaningfully
by reifying their Africanity, but must be studied, like any other societies and cultures
in the modern world, as part of the global constellation as a whole.
My progressively confident re-reading of Nkoya oral historical narrative as
possibly parallel to widely circulating and very ancient Eurasian mythology set the
scene for a long book draft provisionally entitled (by reference to the Egyptian royal
title) Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World – Beyond
the Black Athena thesis, on which I have worked since 1998, constantly rewriting
previous drafts in the light of successive and hopefully more valid models of global
mythology since prehistory. This intellectual struggle has been an attempt, among
other motifs,
to critically come to terms with the tendency to localising compart-
mentalisation, which has characterised anthropology (especially African ethnography)
to an excessive extent ever since the rise of classic anthropology, with its emphasis on
participant observation within narrow spatio-temporal horizons. However, the same
tendency has also been endemic, in varying degrees, in all other area studies of an
ethnographic, philologico-linguistic, or archaeological nature. It has likewise been
built into the very structure of modern academia in the differentiation and organisa-
tion of disciplines, journals, libraries, funding structures etc. – producing such appar-
ent factuality that it is difficult not to project it onto the world of our data. Admittedly,
without localising compartmentalisation no ethnography, no coherent linguistic de-
scription, no recording, archiving and comparing mythologies. Yet the compartmen-
talisation has to be transcended, and all cultural, ethnic and linguistic boundaries need
to be considered as potentially porous and dynamic, if cultural process is to be under-

Cf. Witzel 1989, 1997, 2003.
The book draft with the working title Global bee flight (the most obsolete part of it sought to trace
the global ramifications of Ancient Egyptian royal titulature) grew out of a request from Martin Bernal,
1997, to contribute to a collection of papers by scholars sympathetic to his Black Athena thesis. How-
ever, when I found that the Pelasgian West Asian / Mediterranean contribution to the Ancient Egyptian
dynastic state and culture had to be regarded as independent in its own right, and could not be reduced
to an Afrocentric South-North model, the text expanded far beyond article length, frictions arose, and I
did not make Bernal’s deadline. Frustrated, doubting my provisional results but initially lacking the
transdisciplinary resources and inspiration to do better, I allowed the draft to be shelved ever since –
until I returned to the text with a revised version of the original draft (1998-2006), and the conclusive
statement in the present argument.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
stood across the 200 millennia of the history of Anatomically Modern Humans, and
on a global scale. Modern globalisation studies have taught us that, as one of the sali-
ent aspects of the world today; established forms of localising compartmentalisation
are today giving way both to the effacing of time-honoured boundaries, and to the rise
of new ones. Such studies have led to a spate of neo-diffusionist studies (considering
the global transmission, especially in recent decades, of artefacts, identities, innova-
tions, of political, artistic, scientific and religious ideas). This has also brought us to
look slightly more tolerantly (but still scornful of their lack of sophistication) at clas-
sic diffusion studies – the mainstream anthropology of the late 19th and early 20th
century, when culture theory was largely non-existent and therefore artefacts, styles
and institutions were considered to hop around the world, limitlessly, and fragmentar-
ily i.e. non-integrated in wider cultural complexes either at their place of origin or at
the destinations to which they allegedly were diffused.
However, the plausibility of transcontinental continuity between African and
Eurasian mythologies is not only called in question by the bad name that traditional
diffusionism has obtained (partly as a result of its own deficiencies, partly as the pre-
dictable demonisation resulting from its being supplanted by the classic anthropologi-
cal paradigm). There is also the very real problem that no long-range implications can
be attached to such continuities, even if empirically established, if they could be dem-
onstrated to result from recent, deliberate cultural transmission notably in the context
of Christian and Islamic proselytisation, and the diffusion of modern formal education
and publishing. This is the problem of contamination.
4. The problem of contamination
From the very beginning of the modern study on African myths, scholars have been
conscious of the possibility of transcontinental borrowing. Many of these scholars
were Christian missionaries, and they were particularly keen to detect similarities be-
tween African myths and those of the Bible. Such correspondences were also spotted
with regard to South Central Africa.
Werner, in her valuable and influential collec-
tion of myths from the Bantu-speaking peoples, includes an entire chapter on ‘stories
which have travelled’, even though she declares herself not to subscribe, in general, to
‘the Diffusionist hypothesis’ (Werner 1933: 307).
But it is not only direct Christian and Islamic proselytisation that might be
held responsible for the recent intrusion of Eurasian themes in sub-Saharan Africa, i.e.
in historical times and especially from the 19th century CE on. Another, though re-
lated, cause is the availability and often wide circulation of printed texts in which
North Atlantic scholars and missionaries have laid down their researches in the fields
of African ethnography, oral history and oral literature, – texts which in many cases
are subsequently appropriated by African informants and presented as the unadulter-

E.g. Torrend 1905, 1910, cf. 1921; Jacottet 1899-1901.
New Perspectives on Myth
ated truth of their own, local cultural traditions. Historians and anthropologists work-
ing on the Lower Congo region were among the first to note this phenomenon (spe-
cifically for the Lower Congo region) and to label it ‘recycling’ (cf. Janzen 1985). In
Western Zambia, with its large number of missionary vernacular publications dating
from the early 20th century, this effect is inevitable and considerable.
Thus the main Nkoya oral-historical text, Likota lya Bankoya, in format (short chapters
opened with a large, uncial-like chapter number, and numbered verses) and also in contents
(cf. Kings 1 and 2) owes a considerable debt to the Old Testament (whose principal translator
in Nkoya, Rev. Johasaphat Shimunika – note the biblical given name – was also the compiler
of Likota lya Bankoya); Likota also contains elements of recycling, especially of published
compilations of Lozi royal traditions concerning king Mulambwa. My own book Tears of
Rain was published in 1992 in a bound edition, and was issued a few years later in a low-cost
Zambian edition; within a few years I could detect traces of its being recycled into Nkoya oral
historical accounts pretending to be authentic and unadulterated. The same phenomenon was
noted by the oral-historian Robert Papstein among the Luvale of North Western Zambia,
where his own texts, and those of his predecessors such as C.N.M. White, were rapidly and
constantly recycled (R. Papstein, 1979, personal communication).
Under such circumstances, the present argument’s central claim is far from
obvious: that elements of mythology found among the Nkoya in the second half of the
20th century CE, are continuous with Eurasian mythologies, hardly as a result of re-
cent recycling from the Early Modern period on, but mainly because of long-range
connections in space and time going back to the Bronze Age or earlier. This is why a
detailed, fully referenced examination of the transcontinental evidence is necessary,
however great the cost in research time and printing space. These findings, presented
in Section 5, will demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the great majority of the
transcontinental correspondences in Nkoya mythology have nothing to do with the
spread of Christianity and Islam – neither thematically, nor as far as concerns the
mechanisms of their transcontinental transmission.
5. Major mythological themes among the Nkoya, with
a discussion of their salient transcontinental corre-
In this section, 26 mythemes
are considered that circulate in Nkoya mythology (van
Binsbergen 1992). Per mytheme, first the Nkoya data are summarised, then the Com-
parative data given. In a few cases I found it useful to include distribution maps, but I
have not attempted, at this stage, to provide such maps for all mythemes. Throughout

Conceivably, I could have considered these Nkoya motifs in the light of the Narrative Complexes
making up my Aggregative Diachronic Model. That would have nicely closed the circle of the present
argument, and remains a task for further elaboration. Here, however, I have refrained from doing so,
because the point here is merely to demonstrate the Nkoya mythemes’ continuity with Eurasian motifs,
rather than classifying and periodising them within the history of global mythology. The two lines of
argument are complementary, not consecutive.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
this section I will use a smaller type-face and line spacing, to mark this text as docu-
mentary rather than argumentative.
5.1. The reed-and-bee complex
Nkoya: Among the Nkoya the reed-and-bee complex takes a number of different manifestations:

a. The apical ancestress of the Nkoya, Libupe, as a Queen Bee travelling with her Swarm and
landing at the land of Nkoya
b. The groom’s family approaching a bride’s village in order to collect her in marriage, in their
conventionalised songs still apply the imagery of bees (mapuka) to themselves
c. Mbote, ‘mead’, male Nkoya courtiers’ paroxysm of bliss
d. Primordial mythical twins of complementary gender, Katete (‘Reed Person’) and Luhamba
(‘Royal Person Going from Branch to Branch’ / ‘Beehive’) hide from the King of Dead
(Mwaat Yaav) in a Reed Mat and a Bee Hive.
e. A reed mat is the central, eponymical locus of investiture / enthronisation / name inheritance
f. Royal courts, ushwana ritual sites, royal dead bodies and royal graves (cf. Cunnison 1968 for
an Eastern Lunda parallel) are sheltered by reed mats
g. Reed mats are the standard bedding
h. The Eastern Nkoya (Mashasha) consider the reed mat their emblem, probably as a moveable
shrine containing royal ancestral relics

Mead: In the Ancient Near East (especially Anatolia and Ancient Egypt), Ancient Europe in-
cluding classical Greece, Germanic and Celtic Europe, South Asia (cf. soma) and in Madagascar, mead
was a focal element in cosmology and social interaction (cf. Dickson 1978; Fontenrose 1980: 538;
Beaujard 1994; Kerenyi 1976: 35; Ṛgveda V, 43:3-4, VIII, 5:6); theft of mead / soma (Jacobsdóttir
2002; Knipe 1967).
Bee and honey: Hymenoptera (including bees) and Diptera (including flies and midges) have
tended to be associated with the sun, the rainbow, and the Supreme God in Ancient Egypt and through-
out the Ancient Near East (air, shimmering; Draffkorn Kilmer 1987). In Ancient Egypt, this link even
gave rise to the golden fly as an accolade for military prowess (Houlihan 1996: 192). In the Anatolian
Kumarbi epic, a bee saves the world (Güterbock 1948). In Egypt, the bee motif is connected with ‘tears
of the divinity’ motif (see below), since not only humans, but also bees, are reputed to have sprung
from such tears. The bee as a ritual focus and symbol was a constant factor in Greek art from Minoan
times on, with extensions to the isles of Rhodes and Thera; bees fed the infant Zeus on Crete, hence
Melisseus as name of the father of the nymphs who attended – the female priesthood of major god-
desses is called Melissae, ‘bees’; cf. the motif of bees and kingship (Apollodorus / Frazer 1970: I, 7). In
the Celtic world, Ogma Cermait ‘of the honeyed mouth’ is the Irish equivalent of Arthur / Gvrydion
(Cotterell 1989: 62); below we will see several more instances demonstrating the closeness of Nkoya
and Celtic mythologies. In Northern Europe, the 15th Canto of the Kalevala (Tamminen 1928) abounds
with honey and bee motifs.
Reed: had a central symbolic significance in Ancient Egypt from earliest dynastic times (Em-
ery 1961); there is evidence of mat burial here (Goneim 1956: fig. 19, opposite p. 64). The same reed
complex is in evidence in Neolithic Çatal Hüyük and in Ancient Mesopotamia, which is likely to have
influenced earliest temple and royal architecture in Egypt (Rice 1990). Reed mats play a conspicuous
role in the lives of Central Asian peoples such as Mongols and Kyrgyz (Sommer 1996; Waugh 2002).
Prometheus in Ancient Greek myth brought fire from heaven in a narthex i.e. a hollow reed; the return
of the fire is a much more widespread flood motif. Reed is associated with origin of the world, among
the Zulu (Callaway 1870), the Japanese (Kojiki, I, cf. Chamberlain 1919 and Philippi 1968), Egypt
(Chemmis / A®-bıt, and spelling variants; Helck 1979; also see below, the motif of royal
New Perspectives on Myth
sibling complementarity / rivalry), and Yoruba (van der Sluijs, n.d.). Werner (1933) records a myth
from the Bantu-speaking area where the first couple come forth from an exploding reed stalk; cf. Pro-
metheus (fire stolen in reed stalk / narthex), and many North American flood myths and cosmogonies,
where reed plays a central role (e.g. Navajo, cf. Capinera 1993: 226-228, Newcomb 1990; Hopi / Sia,
Alexander 1916: 203; Pima, Frazer 1918: 283-287; Hopi, Waters 1963: 12-20; Caddo, cf. Erdoes &
Ortiz 1984: 120-122). In the Gilgamesh epic, after the gods had decided to destroy humankind, the God
Enki went to warn the prospective flood hero Atra®asis using the very words of the Nkoya myth of
Katete and Luhamba: ‘Do you hear, Reed Person?’ (cf. Lambert & Millard 1969; Cagni 1975; Frymer-
Kensky 1977).
Reed and bee: one of the principal Ancient Egyptian royal titles, nswt-bỉt ‘She [ the ts
doubly mark the expression as feminine ] of the Reed and the Bee’, as attested in writing and iconogra-
phy from earliest dynastic times onward (cf. Thierry 1913; Sethe 1930; Müller 1938; Kaplony 1963;
Schott 1956; Otto 1960, and numerous more recent general accounts including Edwards 1985; Spencer
1993; Kemp 1995; Gundlach 1997; 1998; Dosrev 1993; Wilkinson 1900; no consensus on explanation
of this title (not Upper / Lower Egypt!), Probably: cosmogonic evocation of the Primal Hill (reed
clump) emerging from the Primal Waters, and touched by the First Sun (bee). The latter is an indication
that upon the very ancient, in principle horizontal cosmogony of the Separation of Water and Land
already a rather newer dispensation had been superimposed, namely the vertical cosmogony of the
Separation of Heaven and Earth (dating from c. 15 ka BP). Lower Egypt has featured, from earliest
dynastic times, a Saïs-based cult of a goddess associated with bees and honey. This cult is a variant, no
doubt, not so much of Upper Egyptian and ultimately African continuities, but of more general Eastern
Mediterranean Bronze Age mother goddesses (some of them persisting well into the Iron Age) simi-
larly associated with bees and honey (cf. Gimbutas 1982 for the European Neolithic) notably a priest-
hood designated as bees. The Indian god of love, Kama, seems to have borrowed the reed-and-honey
symbolism: he carries a bow made of sugar-cane stalk strung with a line of humming-bees and he
shoots arrows tipped with flowers.
5.2. The King of Death
Nkoya: The Lunda king / hereditary royal title Mwati Yamvo / Mwaat Yaav (‘Lord of
Death’), overlord of the Nkoya kings.
Comparative: Ancient Greek Hades / Pluto, South Asian Yama, Chinese 閻羅 Yanluo and
Japanese 閻魔大王 Enma Dai-Ō. Like the Lunda and the Nkoya king (cf. Frazer 1911-1915), the Turk-
ish king is strangled at the end of his reign (Los 1969: 260).
5.3. Kings herding pigs
Nkoya: kings when staying with Mwaat Yaav (‘Lord of Death’).
Comparative: a taboo on pork consumption (which, ironically from a Judaeo-Islamic perspec-
tive, could be interpreted as affirmation of belonging to the pig clan) in many parts of Niger-Congo
speaking Africa, and moreover among Israelites / Jews and Muslims; pig sacred to Ancient Egyptian
Seth and Isis, and to Greek Circe. As a strange combination of solar underworld deity out in the Ocean
(retaining, in fragmented and barely recognisable fashion, most crucial aspects of the Mother of the
Waters ‘Below, Aside and Above’), Circe as host of Odysseus and his companions with Circe, turning
them into pigs (Odyssea X, 212 f), has striking structural correspondences with this Nkoya motif –
while the Circe motif has also been recognised in South Asia (Gerland 1869), and its general Pelasgian
nature is further highlighted by the associations between Circe (and Odysseus) with the Tyrrhenian
kingship (Hesiod, Theogonia, 1011 f; van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen, in press).
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
5.4. Stranger hunter seizes the kingship; menstruation considered to be
Nkoya: the standard form of this myth in S.C. Africa (cf. Turner 1955; Hoover 1980) is that of
Chibinda / Hunter, depriving Luwēji / Moon from her kingship on the pretext of her menstruation;
among the Nkoya a version circulates featuring royals from the local tradition. The motif also occurs in
the West African Sundjata epic (Innes 1974; Jansen 1995).
Comparative: Medb (cf. Edel 1986), legendary Irish queen who because of her name (‘She
Who Makes Drunk’, cf. ‘mead’), her aquatic connotations (her nickname is ‘great-bladdered’ – she is a
‘Mother of the Waters’), her affirmation of menstruation even though it disqualifies her from giving
battle (a common motif in the Irish early literature), further confirms our impression of the closeness of
the Nkoya and the Celtic mythological worlds. The disqualifying nature of menstruation is central to
Bantu-speaking societies; it also surfaces in the Dogon cosmogony (the creator Amma removed the
Earth’s clitoris in the form of an anthill, and had intercourse with her, but menses began when the off-
spring of that union committed incest with his mother) but it is also highly elaborated in Judaism, many
forms of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Shintoism – transmitting a trait widely circulating in the
Pelasgian realm.
5.5. Regicide as socio-political renewal
Nkoya: prominent motif in Nkoya mythology; cf. Mwaat Yaav (item 3 above) and Zimbabwe
and N. Nigeria (Smith 1919: 114f). Frobenius (1931) sees this motif as constitutive for the societies of
South Central Africa.
Comparative: widespread motif of comparative mythology, cf. The Golden Bough (Frazer
5.6. Stealing the moon
Nkoya: King Kapesh Kamunungampanda, with several South Central African parallels
Comparative: Uralic world: the primordial smith Ilmarinen plucks the moon from a tree in
heaven (Kalevala, Tamminen 1928: 139). Bringing down the moon is a central motif in Graeco-Roman
magic as well as an activity attributed to witches by Russian peasants (Hastings 1908-1921: VIII, 270,
273f, 282, IV: 815). Egypt: Seth steals the Eye of Horus (usually identified with the moon) (Monet,
n.d.; de Buck 1935-1961). Korea: a dog is ordered to steal the moon (Grayson 2001: 254f). Burma: a
plot to steal the moon (Davison 1994). Highly significant, considering the abundance of Central Asian
reminiscences in Nkoya mythology, is that the motif of stealing the moon also occurs in the Kyrgyz
Epic Manas (Köçümkulkïzï 2005, lines 3180f). Among the Dong minority, China: annual festival of
‘Stealing Moon Dishes’ (Anonynous, Dong minority, n.d.). Stealing the moon (with or without the sun)
is a frequent motif in North American mythology, where Raven engages in this act among the North
West Coast groups (e.g. Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, Dogrib, Tsimshian) and Coyote and Antelope or
Eagle try to outdo each other in this act in the Northern Rockies region and among the Hopi (Jones
1914; Swanton 1909; Clark 1966; Hastings 1908-1921: V: 706). Frazer’s Folk-lore of the Old Testa-
(1918: ch. 2, ‘The Fall of Man’, § 3. The Story of the Cast Skin) plausibly explains this
mytheme by the moon’s (not unlike the cauldron’s, see below) being as a widespread symbol of death
and rebirth. In the background are widespread mythemes of heroic theft (cf. Jakobsdóttir 2002; Knipe
1967): in Nordic mythology, Loki turns into a fly to steal Freya’s golden necklace; cf. the theft of soma
in Indian mythology, by Garuda, Varuṇa, or some other agent. Whatever botanical or symbolic associa-
tions attach to the highly complex concept of Soma, it is essentially the Moon, so at an abstract level
the motif of stealing the moon is structurally equivalent to that of stealing soma. But also cf. Prome-

Responsible, however, for the widespread but utterly wrong notion that flood myths are absent from
sub-Saharan Africa.
New Perspectives on Myth
theus’s theft of fire from heaven (see the reed motif, above), for the benefit of humans, allegedly his
own creatures. However, from the perspective of flood myth – to which both Prometheus and the
Tower / Kapesh motif are intimately related – new fire needs to be brought so as to restore the natural
and human order after the Flood. Human’s theft of what is jealously guarded in heaven is an act of
defiance and hope in the face of death, as essential to the human condition. The heroic theft motif will
also appear below, when we discuss the cauldron of kingship.

5.7. A flood and tower complex; 1. the Tower into heaven
Nkoya: The Nkoya, Mbwela, Ila, and Kaonde, of Western Zambia, have the myth that a royal
Kamunungampanda (‘The Kapesh – understood to be a vertical structure – Joining Forked
Branches’, or ‘Joining with a Sibling ’ let the people build a tower to bring the moon down from
heaven, so that it could serve as a royal pendant for the royal child; the tower collapsed and the nations
were dispersed.
Almost the same story was recorded for Barotseland, Mbunda, Bena-Lulua, Kiokwe,
Kanioka and Rozwe of Zimbabwe (cf. Rotse of Zambia?) by Frobenius (1931: 166f – in the Zimbabwe
case the emphasis is on immortality through the royal pendant, cf. Frazer 1918 as mentioned above;
Jensen 1932: 76). This myth is also told for the Bemba of Zambia (Roberts 1973) and for Mozambique
(Feldman 1963); Willis (1994: 273) perceives a belt of tower myths in Africa from Angola via Zim-
babwe to Mozambique (e.g. the Tonga or Tsonga, Frobenius 1954: Märchentext 1). Among the
Nkoya’s northern neighbours the Luba, the tower was allegedly built by the Rainbow Serpent, waging
war on the sky king (Reefe 1981). This is almost identical to the Pare version from Tanzania (van der
Sluijs n.d.). It also comes close to the story told among the Nkoya’s close Western neighbours (Luyi /
Lozi, Subiya; Jacottet 1899-1901; Jalla 1903), where Nyambi and his wife Nasilele flee from their
original dwelling on earth along a spider’s web, pursued by humans whom they fear; the humans build
a tower to continue their pursuit, trying to kill Nyambi, but in vain because the tower collapsed, fol-
lowed by the confusion of nations and tongues. Among the Boni or Sania, near Lamu, Kenya, Indian
Ocean coast, such confusion is attributed, not to the flood, but to a famine (van der Sluijs n.d.). Among
the Chokwe (originally a few hundred kms North-West of the Nkoya, now also in their near vicinity)
mention is made of a Kaposhi clan, with owl and nightjar as their totem (both highly speckled birds;
see the footnote below on Heracles and Hera), and reputed to have been one of the oldest clans, and
one that enslaved others for their ritual building projects (Matthe 2003).
Comparative: Like the stairs and the bridge, the tower is also among the common symbols of

Cf. Table 9.3, AT mytheme ‘stealing the sun’, with Nkoya application. It is interesting that the moon,
itself only in indirect possession of its light (but that is far from obvious, and in the Western tradition
took an exceptional mind like Anaximander’s – 5th century BCE – to realise), should inspire so many
motifs of stealth and stealing. Cf. Shakespeare, Timon of Athens:
‘ The moon’s an errant thief
and its pale fire it snatches from the sun.’
This is the central motif of Nabokov’s (1962) intertextuality-centred novel Pale Fire, where the critic’s
/ editor’s treacherous appropriation of text is set off against the poet’s original light.
Kapesh has no convincing etymology in Nkoya or other Bantu languages. Considering that the best
known flood stories are from the Ancient Near East and especially the Tanach, it is relevant that שףק
qpš occurs in Biblical Hebrew as the capering movement of a fleeing deer – semantically unconvincing
although a swaggering gait has been associated with kingship (Graves 1988). Semantically and pho-
nologically a perfect fit offers the Indo-Aryan form *-gabhasti-, ‘forked carriage pole, hand’ (Starostin
& Starostin 1998-2008, ‘Indo-European etymology’; de Vries 1958 s.v. ‘gaffel’), which also reminds
us of chariot technology as the main mechanism of spread of the Pelasgian package from the Middle to
Late Bronze Age on.
Gender is not expressed by syntactic means; by projection of today’s conditions Kapesh’s gender is
assumed to have been male, perhaps doing violence to the original story (cf. van Binsbergen 1992).
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
shamanism, with its imagery of the shaman travelling between upper world, ordinary life world and
underworld (Eliade 1968). In order to perceive the relation between the Tower myth and the Flood
myth (see next mytheme), it is useful to define the widespread model of the Standard Elaborate Flood
Myth (cf. Smith 1873 (first decipherment of Babylonian flood text); Frazer 1916, 1918; Dundes 1988;
Isaak 2006 (hundred of flood stories summarised, with bibliography); Dang Nghiem Van 1993; Lewis
2006; Walker 1976; Marler & Dexter 2003; van Dijk 1983; Witzel 2010; van Binsbergen with Isaak
1. The cosmic order is provisionally established, including humans, but Heaven and Earth still
merge, or are at least still connected through a tower, ladder, pole, thongs, ropes, etc.
2. humans commit a transgression (sorcery, murder, eating from forbidding fruit, discovery of
sexuality in general, more specifically incest, etc.)
3. the connection between Heaven and Earth is severed, and humankind is destroyed by a flood
4. usually by the intercession of a (or the) divine being, there are one or more flood survivors,
whose main task is to repopulate the earth; a typical mytheme here is that of the twin siblings
who survive the flood and repopulate the world incestuously (cf. Katete and Luhamba; cf.
Egyptian Shu and Tefnut, Greek Apollo and Artemis, and Dogon Nommo among the West
African Dogon) – note the parallel with the discovery of sexuality, murder and incest (2)
5. renewed humankind attempts to reconnect to Heaven with the various natural, personal and
ritual devices listed above – especially a tower
6. in the process the confusion of nations occurs – a multitude of ethnic and language groups
However, among the twentieth-century Nkoya, the Flood motif appears to be absent and the
very central tower mytheme is completely divorced from the Flood motif. In the Nkoya version the
defiance of the sky king is strictly speaking absent (although it is also a form of hubris to try and bring
the moon down), but such defiance is central to the Luba version. The latter is very close to the Nimrod
myth (Genesis 12). Greek mythology knew the Aloadae, Giant twin brothers who tried to overthrow
Zeus, seeking access to heaven by stacking major mountains on top of one another (Ilias V, 385, Od-
yssea XI 305; Pindarus, Pythian Ode IV, 89; Apollodorus Bibliotheca I, 7. § 4; Atsma 2000-2010). In
Phoenicia, Astarte / Astaroth, was known as ‘Lady Tower’, town goddess of Sidon, Tyre, and Byblos –
she wears a tower as a crown (cf. Greek / Phrygian / Arabian / Egyptian Rhea, Tyche, Cybele, Allat,
Hathor); she is a Mother of the Waters (Athirat). In South China the Flood-associated tower takes the
form of a ladder (Willis 1994: 93f); the ladder is also conspicuous in Egyptian (Seth) and Hebrew
(Jacob) myth, but without clear Flood connotations. The making of a rope of arrows for going from
earth to heaven is called a characteristic [ Native ] American motif by Fontenrose (1980: 513 n. 40).
5.8. A flood and tower complex 2. the Flood
Nkoya: Again, among the twentieth-century Nkoya, the Flood motif appears to be totally ab-
sent and the Tower motif is no longer understood as connected with the Flood. We do not need to ac-
cept this lacuna as definitive. Namafe (2006) and Kamuwango (2007), hailing from Western Zambia
themselves, claim that there is a Lozi flood myth – which stands to reason, because the annual trans-
humance of the royal household in response to the annual Zambezi flooding is a central theme in Lozi
society – whose musical and ceremonial life is largely in the hands of Nkoya specialists. Having de-
monstrably merged with Lozi mythology on other motifs (e.g. Mulambwa; the unilateral being),
against the background of a shared court language and court culture, one can hardly assume Nkoya
mythology to have been impervious to Lozi flood myths, if the Nkoya did not yet have them in the first
place. But it is thinkable that the Flood motif was deliberately rejected by the Nkoya in the course of
New Perspectives on Myth
the last hundred years because it was recognised to be associated, no longer with the remotest past, but
with the hated Lozi as dwellers of the Zambezi flood plain. Geographically, culturally and linguisti-
cally close to the Nkoya, are also the Luvale and Chokwe; and Mwene (Ruler) Manenga features ex-
tensively in Nkoya traditions as in those of Luvale and Chokwe. Among the latter the following
localised Flood myth was recorded: ‘A Queen named Mwene Manenga sought food and shelter in a
village. She was refused, and when she reproached the villagers for their selfishness, they said, in ef-
fect, ‘‘What can you do about it’’? So she began a slow incantation, and on the last long note, the
whole village sank into the ground, and water flowed into the depression, forming what is now Lake
Dilolo.’ When the village’s headman returned from the hunt and saw what had happened to his family,
he drowned himself in the lake (Vitaliano 1973: 164-165; Kelsen 1988: 136; Isaak 2006 no. 47).
Meanwhile, in Jalla’s versions collected in Western Zambia at the end of the 19th century (Jalla 1903:
Appendix, pp. 319f; 1909; 1921; cf. Bouchet 1922; Rooke 1980) selected elements of the Standard
Elaborate Flood Myth are included, still in such a way that at first glance one is not aware that a flood
myth is involved:
Nyambi and his first human creatures (especially the male Kamunu) live in each
others’ proximity, Kamunu engages in a series of transgressions for which relatively mild punishment
is meted out by Nyambi, until the latter finally, after crossing a great river, withdraws to Heaven along
a spider’s thread, after which humankind each morning humbly greets the rising sun in an attempt at a
ritual re-connection of Heaven and Earth.
Deeply implied in the Lozi story seems to be a reference to
the discovery of sexuality as a central transgression – in line with the Standard Elaborate Flood Myth,
whose other elements we also detect: initial merging, later separation and partial re-connection of
Heaven and Earth, the flood (here reduced to a great river, and no longer explicitly destructive, but
what could be worse than God’s withdrawal from Earth?). Significant other elements however are left
out: destruction by flood, and the confusion of nations – which however surfaces in other local ac-
Comparative: For the global connections of the Flood motif, see under Tower motif, else-
where in this Section.
5.9. The bird-like nature of gods
Nkoya: the Nkoya (Likota 4:1) equate Nyambi with a bird, and Nyambi’s child, the demiurge
Mvula / Rain (both of indeterminate gender) is also a bird; the birds are unspecified, but the human
clans Hawks and Buzzards are declared to be the relatives of Mvula, so Mvula may be thought of as a
large bird of prey. The Nkoya consider their kingship to derive from (the tears of, see below) the demi-
urge Mvula / Rain, and their kingship has an intimate connection with birds. The two clans contesting
the kingship are both named after bird species (Hawks and Buzzards). The major headmanship of

In Feldman 1963 this myth is erroneously attributed to Mozambique.
Nyambi is attended not only by a spider but also by a wagtail bird (Motacilla capensis), which opens
up an interesting comparative angle. In the main Japanese creation myth virtually the same bird (Mo-
tacilla grandis) showed the first creatures Izanami and Izanagi how to engage in sexual intercourse by
the suggestive, incessant up and down movements of its tail, after which it is named in several linguis-
tic contexts, e.g. in English and Dutch (Kojiki, cf. Philippi 1977; van Binsbergen 2009b). It is as if the
wagtail in the Western Zambian story signals that, implicitly, we are in the presence of a Flood caused
by the invention of sexuality. We hit here upon a controversial but logical and crucial implication of
the idea of transcontinental continuities: if the latter can be taken for a fact, then in principle well-
attested, studied and understood symbolic relationships in one location may be used to illuminate less
explicit similar relationships in another location belonging to the same complex, even though in an-
other continent – not just on the basis of a formal typological similarity and an appeal to inherent con-
vergent properties of the mind of Anatomically Modern Humans, but on the basis of real historical
cognateship between cultural forms with a common origin. This methodological claim is basic to my
work in the field of comparative mythology, geomantic divination, transformative cycles of elements,
astronomical nomenclature etc.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
Shipungu is also named after a bird species, the fish eagle. There is moreover the cosmogonic symbol-
ism of the kalyangu bird, the white heron. Finally, the king’s alter-ego, his court jester, has the official
title of Kayoni ka Mwene (‘the king’s bird’), and appears in public (notably during the annual Kazanga
royal festival) as a large-billed giant bird. These aspects of Nkoya royal symbolism are reminiscent of
the giant bird sculptures adorning the famous sanctuary of Great Zimbabwe.
Comparative: The conception of major gods as birds occurs in West Asia (e.g. Egyptian Ho-
rus, Mut), Central and East Asia (e.g. Garuda), and may have shamanic connotations. Cf. the white,
often aquatic, bird-like connotations of creation gods in the Mediterranean and throughout the Pelas-
gian realm (van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen, in press), but also the Raven and Eagle characters in North
American mythology.
5.10. The annual extinction and rekindling of fire
Nkoya: In the Nkoya foundation myth of kingship, a blissful celestial downpour (of Mvula /
Rain, Nyambi’s Child) follows the successful removal from the fire of the cauldron of kingship by the
qualifying clan, follows by the adage ‘Our kingship is from the Drops / Tears of Mvula / Rain’. I pro-
pose this implies an aetiological myth of the annual extinction and rekindling from a unique royal
source, of all humanly used fire. Among the twentieth-century Nkoya this custom is no longer found.
However, it has been recorded for the Bantu-speaking groups of Central Zambia (Sala, Soli, Nsenga;
cf. Apthorpe 1959, 1960; Argyle 1959; Brelsford 1935, 1965); these groups are closely connected with
the Nkoya by language, custom, historical traditions, migrations and diplomatic relations (van Binsber-
gen 1992). In Swaziland (Kuper 1968), once a year ‘the dirt of the past year’ is burnt on a sacrificial
fire, and rain, again, is supposed to extinguish the fire at the cattle byre. Throughout sub-Saharan Af-
rica fires are extinguished at the king’s death and rekindled at the enthronisation of the successor; van
der Sluijs (n.d.) attributes this custom to the following peoples: Mundang, Haussa, Gwari, Nupe,
Mossi, Yoruba, Ruanda, Wasegue, Wadoe, Wawemba, Walumbwe, Wahemba, Mambwe, Lunda,
Kanioka, Bangala, Bihe.
Van der Sluijs cites a gruesome African accession rite that brings out how much the fire ex-
tinguishing custom may re-enact creation, or second creation of the Flood: ‘Upon the accession of the
new king, a pubescent boy and virgin appeared naked before the king, rekindled the fire with their fire-
sticks, performed their first act of love, and were buried alive’. Unfortunately, no source accompanies
this account; and although it is reminiscent of the ethnographic vignettes out of which James Frazer’s
work was built up, I have been unable to find it there. The sexual element is reminiscent of the Moatsü
Mong agricultural festival of the Ao people of Nagaland, India, however, the latter does not feature
human sacrifice.
Comparative: Annual communal renewal of the fire was a widespread phenomenon in pre-
modern Europe. This custom has been recorded for the remarkable Aegean island of Lemnos, which
moreover stands out for such (presumably Pelasgian) traits as a fire cult dedicated to the god Hephaes-
tus, and a mythical tradition of (temporary) female rule and female sexual revolt (Burkert 1970; Apol-
lonius Rhodius, Argonautica). The badnjak Christmas log of the Serbs and other Balkan populations
clearly marks a cognate custom (Evans 1876-1877). Annual extinction and rekindling of the fire is also
found in Bulgaria (Conrad 1987) and Anatolian Turkey (And 1980). Annual extinction and rekindling
of fire was part of Jewish ritual of the Karaites during the Middle Ages (Frank 2001). A similar rite has
been part of Christianity especially in connection with Easter (Idinopulos 1982; MacGregor 1992). The
custom was given much attention in the English Christian annual ritual and festive cycle during the
Medieval and Early Modern periods (Hutton 1994); it was closely related with the folklore institution
known as the Needfire ritual (Davidson 1955). The same custom was also reported in the Perlesvaus, a
medieval French version of the Arthurian narratives (Williams 1937). At least partially informed by
Christianity, the same custom is part of carnival celebrations in the Caribbean (Liverpool 1998) and in
the Santeria rituals in the same region (Wirtz 2005). A similar annual rite has been recorded for India
(Jurewicz 2004; Mookerjee 1998) and among the Hindu immigrants that settled in Africa from the 19th
century CE onward (Murray 1956; broken arrows in Fig. 9.5). Similar customs exist among Native
Americans of the Southeast (cf. Johnson & Hook 1995: 5) but explicitly not among the Powhatan Indi-
New Perspectives on Myth
ans of Virginia (cf. Rountree 1992); and in Meso America among the Aztecs (Elson & Smith 2001) and
the Mayas (Long 1923). A limiting case is the Israelites’ temple fire, which could not be lit from an
external source (Leviticus 10: 2). Apparently, this temple fire was of a different, transformed and more
transcendent class than the fires evoked in the narrative of the Cauldron of Kingship and its parallels,
for it is a widely held Rabbinical contention that throughout the history of the Israelite temples, the fire
was never extinguished by rain – it belongs to a godhead who (contrary to the Nkoya one) is not in the
first place a god of rain.
In Fig. 9.6, not only the typical Pelasgian distribution is shown, but also the attestations in
Northern Africa, in continuous lines along the Nile valley and across the Sahara, hint at probable
North-South transmission routes – of which the Sahara one abounds with protohistoric rock art depict-
ing chariots.
Looking at this distribution map, the obvious question is: why not take the region with the
greatest incidence (sub-Saharan Africa) as the origin, and postulate historical transmission to other
continents from there – or multilocal independent invention, for that matter. In fact, my answer to this
question informs much of the analysis in the present paper, and of my second thoughts about Bernal’s
Black Athena thesis. The challenge of this kind of geographic distributions of traits (high African inci-
dence, sporadic Eurasian incidence, yet a probable origin in Eurasia) is one of the reasons why I formu-
lated the Pelasgian hypothesis. I consider the spiked wheel trap, a simple hunting device (Fig. 9.6), as
the ‘index fossil’ for this kind of distributions, cf. the very similar distributions of the mankala board
game, of geomantic divination, and (also see below, Fig. 9.10) that of the belief in a unilateral mythical
being (van Binsbergen 1997c, 2010b, 2010c). In some cases it is possible to argue the greater Eurasian
antiquity on archaeological grounds. My general argument is that, by the Late Bronze Age in the Medi-
terranean / West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa constituted a relatively vacant, defenceless cultural niche,
into which relatively archaic Pelasgian traits (including Niger-Congo > Bantu?) could be diffused and
where they could continue to thrive while in the Pelasgian core land (West Asia, the Mediterranean)
they were already being superseded by local cultural innovations.
Fig. 9.5. Major attestations of the annual communal extinction and rekindling of fire

LEGEND: 1. trait attested; 2. cognate trait attested; 3. limited transmission of trait (accounting for only
two African data points) through Indian indentured labour and other migration, 19th-20th c. CE; full
references in: van Binsbergen, in preparation (b), but most already appear above.

van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
Fig. 9.6. Global distribution of the spiked wheel trap (as typical of Pelasgian distribu-

for sources: see van Binsbergen 2010b and Lindblom 1935
inset (obscuring a part of the world map where there are no attestations): modern spiked wheel from the
Acholi people, Southern Sudan (Sparks 2006).
Fig. 9.7. Attestations of spider-related mythemes

1. Spider Supreme god; 2. oblique references to spider in folklore etc., not mythical; 3. spinning and
weaving goddesses, with spider connotations; full references in: van Binsbergen, in preparation (b).

5.11. Spider-like elements of the creator god
Nkoya: Nyambi as spider: not directly stated in Nkoya context today; but it is a spider that
helps Nyambi escape from humans by climbing to heaven; thus also among neighbouring Zambian
groups, where the creator god is called Leza (Cotterell 1989: 89). It is not sure whether we can consider
Nyambi in the Nkoya conception a High God – he / she appears as immanent, earth-dweller, and in-
timidated by the ever more demanding humans, and the retreat to heaven is a flight. Some of the mis-
sionary accounts of Nyambi collected around 1900 suggest that Nyambi in fact is not God in his / her
own right, but God’s child: Jacottet (1899-1901) has a story where Nyambi has fallen from the sky, like
New Perspectives on Myth
the Greek fire-god Hephaestus (Ilias, I, 568 f, etc.), Egyptian Min (whose belemnite symbol
equates him with lightning), or any demiurge. This makes it conceivable that Nyambi’s shift to tran-
scendent High God status is a result of the introduction of Christianity in the early 20th century. The
missionary Smith (1907: 300f), who had a special comparative interest in African ideas of God (Smith
1950) notes a similar indeterminacy in the conception of god of the Ila, the Nkoya’s eastern

Comparative (on Spider-like elements of the creator god): Nyambi (with variants) carries spi-
der-like connotations in West and Central African cultures (where there is a link with the trickster fig-
ure Anansi, considered a son of Nyambi carrying, probably, another variant of the Nyambi name). The
comparative mythology of the Creator / Creatrix as Spider is very rich and reaches from West Africa
(besides Nyambi / Anansi also the Yoruba war god Ogun – Cotterell 1989: 143), via Egypt (Neith), the
Middle East and Ancient Greece (with the semantically and phonologically closely related cluster of
Neith / Athena / Anahita / Anath / Inanna / Uttu, goddesses of weaving and warfare and perhaps to be
understood as domesticated demoted Creation Goddesses demoted and supplanted under a later mascu-
line cosmology), to surface also throughout Oceania (Cotterell 1989: 151, 133f, 219, 224, 240f; Willis
1994: 294). The spider-like equation of weaving and the sun is manifest also in the Japanese sun god-
dess Amaterasu. Also the Tiwi of Northern Australia have a Spider Woman myth (Venbrux 2003).
Apparently the circum-Pacific line is continued in North America among the Navajo (the benevolent
Spider Woman Naste Etsan facilitating twin culture heroes’ access to the sun god), and in the North
American Prairie the culture hero and trickster Inktomi (Cotterell 1989: 240; Willis 1994: 227). More
isolated, the spider appears as an ancient Australian icon (Stubbs 1978; Cotterell 1989: 58). Almost as
if to encapsulate the vanquished goddess of an earlier dispensation, the spider is one of the Egyptian
shaman’s spirit familiars (Helck 1984; along with the midge and the mantis; the mantis would then be
another old god, cf. Khoisan Heitsi-Eibib, with probably a West Asian prototype in view of that re-
gional original of the Khoisan speakers, cf. Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994).
5.12. The creator god associated with speaking
Nkoya: implied in the Nkoya theonym Nyambi (found, with variations, throughout West and
Central Africa) is perhaps the proto-Bantu root gàmb- ‘to speak’ (Guthrie no. 770), but this may be a
popular etymology which I have not myself heard among the Nkoya (cf. their Ngambela = ‘Speaker’,
Prime Minister). Baumann (1936; also Pettersson 1973: 144) claims that no etymology for the name
Nyambi can be found; this amounts to the claim that the origin of that name lies outside the Bantu-
speaking region – a claim I am inclined to support in the light of the proposed continuity with West
African, Mediterranean and West Asian theonyms *[ n ][ a ][ t ][ n ][ a ][ t ], such as Neith, Athena,
Anat etc., cf. Ghanaian Nyame. The bird-like connotations of Nyambi are found also in Northern An-
gola (Capello & Ivens 1886; Wastiau 1997). Nyambi abounds in Dennett’s (1906: 166f and passim)
intriguing discussion of West African kingship, and his explanation, although with the appearances of
another popular etymology, is worth quoting:
‘The name for God is NZAMBI and its literal meaning is the personal essence (IMBI) of the
fours (ZIA or ZA = four). What then are the fours? They are the groups each of four powers
called BAKICI BACI [ i.e. ‘‘representatives of all the different families owning sacred ground
within his kingdom’’ ]’ (Dennett 1906: 13, 166f).
Comparative: the idea of the Creator / Creatrix who through an utterance brings the world into
being has many Eurasian parallels e.g. Genesis 1: 3; Babylonian Marduk in Enuma Elish, see: King
1999 / 1902). This brings to mind two animals with widespread Eurasian connotations of speaking: (a)
the bee (both in Eurasiatic / Nostratic and in Afroasiatic) because (e.g. Budge 1898; Judges 4: 4f) of its
humming noise and as a divine epiphany (also see the reed and bee complex discussed above) (b) white
aquatic birds, especially the swan, which are symbolic of, or identical with, the Mother of the Primal
Waters and hence an ancient creator goddess, all over Eurasia from the Celtic and Uralic realms all the
way to East Asia (van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen, in press).
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
5.13. Aetiological myths of circumcision
Nkoya: According to Nkoya traditions, their kingships were established when they fled from a
tyrannical king (Mwaat Yaav, see elsewhere in this Section) seeking to impose the circumcision rites
that he controlled. The Nkoya claim that circumcision was instituted when a female royal allowed her
son to play in the grass, where his foreskin was accidentally cut by a sharp blade of grass.
Comparative: male genital mutilation is widespread globally (see Fig. 9.8) and its origins are
lost in the mists of time. The Tanach contains one of the few aetiological myths known to me on this
topic (Genesis 17:10-14, cf. Joshua 5: 4-7). For the Dogon, whose recorded elaborate mythology how-
ever has been called to question, circumcision originates in the desire to remove primordial reproduc-
tive organs of the opposite gender (Bonnefoy 2002 / 1991: 125f). The Tsonga of South East Africa
attribute (Junod 1962: I, 72f) the institution to the Lemba people, conspicuous for their apparent rem-
nants of West Semitic culture (Parfitt 1992; van Warmelo 1966; von Sicard 1952: 140 ff). Among the
Tañala of Madagascar (linguistically, at least, more cognate to South East Asia than to Africa) circum-
cision appears in several myth but more as a taken-for-granted background than as an explicandum
(Beaujard 2004). The Nkoya account is reminiscent of Exodus 4: 24-26: ‘And it came to pass by the
way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone,
and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to
me. 26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.’
Fig. 9.8. Global distribution of male genital mutilation

1. Regions where male genital mutilation has been practiced ‘traditionally’ since pre-modern times; 2.
Diffusion in context of Islam from 7th century CE from 3; 3. Mecca; from: van Binsbergen & Woud-
huizen, in press, where full references are given.

The Central and South African connotations of the Nkoya kingship make it possible to con-
nect the motif of fleeing from a tyrannical king who seeks to impose circumcision, (a) to the advent of
Islam in Northern India c. 1000 CE – groups fleeing such imposition fled to West Asia, Europe and
East Africa as ‘Gypsies’, Tzigane, Roma people; the alternative name for one of the two major Nkoya
royal titles, Kahare, is Kale (Smith & Dale 1920), which in five continents, including Africa, is a
Gypsy name meaning ‘Black’; (b) to the Islamisation of Central Asia around the same time.

For a background on Roma / Gypsies, cf. Turner 1926; Kenrick 1993; Marushiakova & Popov 2001;
Guy 2001; Fonseca 1996; Hancock 1987.
New Perspectives on Myth
5.14. The cauldron of kingship
Nkoya: In the Nkoya myth of the institution of kingship (in their own perception one of their
two central institutions, the other being female puberty rites
) the Cauldon of Kingship,
full of meat,
is cooking on an enormous fire, and the challenge is: which of the clans can lift it off the fire? Only one
princess / clan leader succeeds, and takes the kingship. (The episode concludes (see above) with a
blissful downpour of Rain / Mvula, and the royal adage linking Nkoya kingship with the Tears / Drops
of Mvula / Rain.) An illuminating variant was published by Jacottet 1899-1901 (cf. Jalla 1903): here it
is the superior resourcefulness of humans over animals / clans which decides the outcome – the humans
pour water on the fire; of course, the animals in Jacottet are identical with the clans (named after ani-
mals) in the Nkoya version – the same kind of transformation is standard in North American flood
myths, which are typically set in a primordial time when society still consisted of speaking and acting
animals, i.e. clan totems.
Meanwhile, in historical times the central symbol of royal office has been, not a cauldron, but
a Conus-shell white disc to be worn as a pendant (mpande, with equivalents all over Southern Africa,
where also the term ndoro is used), and the royal drums,
to which human sacrifices were customarily
made comparable to the foundation sacrifices for the royal palace, fence, and tomb. Also in South East
and East Asia, a typological convergence can be noted in recent millennia, from bronze vessels sym-
bolising high status, to bronze drums and bells for royal orchestras (cf. Han Xiaorong 1998). To further
complicate matters, von Sicard (1952), in an intriguing and well documented study that however (like
most of his work) has been radically dismissed by classic anthropologists of South Central Africa, sees
the royal drums of that region as equivalents, even transformations, of the Ark of the Covenant of the
ancient Israelites. Such drums are certainly, as ultimate group symbols, comparable to the aniconic
palladia of West Asia and the Aegean (Gardiner 1893; Pötscher 1979b) – including those associated
with Hermes and with Athena. At the same time they carry implied associations with the vessel in
which the Flood hero made his escape – not without significance, for throughout the Pelasgian realm
(which includes Ancient Egypt) boats are venerated as ritual objects, and part of royal ritual throughout
the Pelasgian realm (including the motif of royal twins, possibly flood survivors) can be understood as
a re-enactment of the Flood and second creation, the retrieval of fire, the repopulation of the earth, etc.
Comparative: This motif confirms once more the closeness between Nkoya and Celtic my-
thology – I submit: because of the Pelasgian / West to Central Asian origin of both. Cauldrons of king-
ship abound in the Celtic world (the cauldron of the Tuatha Dé Danann; the cauldron of the Dagda; the
cauldron of Dymwach the Giant – which was one of the 13 treasures of the Island of Britain (Brom-

Among the twentieth-century Nkoya no aetiological myth of female puberty rites could be collected,
even though these rites featured prominently in my decades of fieldwork, and I was granted access to
secret string figures and songs texts. My student Thera Rasing (2002) had the same experience, work-
ing on female puberty rites of the Zambian Bemba.
Probably there never were any cast-iron cauldrons made on African soil. The Nkoya story of the
Cauldron of Kingship, set in a context of hunting-gathering as still the sole mode of production, would
have to refer to an earthenware pot if historical logic were to be strictly applied; however, I am confi-
dent that latter-day Nkoya implicitly take the Cauldron of Kingship to have been of cast iron. Portu-
guese-made iron cooking-pots have been part of Nkoya court life ever since the penetration of
eastbound long-distance trade beyond the Zambezi, in the 17th century CE. At the height of the slave
trade (which was only effectively suppressed in the 1900s, whilst slavery as an institution lasted till
1930), cooking-pots were only second to guns as major articles of wealth and exchange against slaves.
As late as 1919, Barotse indunas (royal representatives) still exacted a tribute in pots (as, most proba-
bly, slaves) from the Kahare area (Zambia Archives, file ZA 1 / 13). The surprising but multiple Eura-
sian Steppe connotations of the Nkoya kingship lend another dimension to this problem: Hunnic
cauldrons of typical design specific of the invading Steppe pastoralists were found all over Europe for
the middle of the first millennium CE (cf. Maenchen-Helfen & Knight 1973).
These are kettle drums, cf. below, Cauldron of kingship.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
wich 1991; Rhys 1891; Squire 1905, 1906; MacCulloch 1908-1920; Macalister 1941). A magic caul-
dron played a major part in the story of the birth of the great Welsh bard Taliesin, as recounted in the
last of the Mabinogion stories (Quest 1849; Clouston 1887); however, even though the cauldron and
fluid of inspiration have correspondences in the Nordic and Sanskrit Asian world, I am inclined to con-
sider this story part of the legitimation of the bardic profession, and of relatively late and secondary
nature. Arthur acquired his cauldron of kingship through theft. Cú Chulainn, himself a divine hero,
steals his royal kettle from a god. A similarly stolen kettle appears, as Aegir’s, in Nordic mythology.
Also in Baltic mythology there is a very close parallel with the Nkoya narrative of the cauldron of
kingship (Meistere 1997-2002, based on the Early Modern author Fabricius). ‘They pay homage to
Perkons by first pouring him beer, which is then brought around the fire, and at last pour it in this fire,
asking Perkons to give them rain.’ Celtic kings at enthronisation are reported to be symbolically
cooked in a cooking-pot full of horse meat (Graves 1988: 384; a more extensive and scholarly source is
McCormick 2007: 91; O’Meara 1982: 110; Squire 1905: 73f. For a wider Early Indo-European per-
spective on this cf. Puhvel 1970; this includes (Puhvel 1970: 161f) the Indian aśvamedha ritual mating
of queen and stallion.)
Various properties were attributed to these cauldrons (e.g. as symbols of re-
birth and of the Goddess’s womb, as granting of longevity, rejuvenation of slain bodies, Holy Grail,
torture instrument, divination instrument (with a Japanese temple / tea counterpart, Hastings 1908-
1921, Index volume, s.v. ‘cauldron’) and evocation of the leader’s largesse, cornucopia-like; the latter
is certainly compatible with a pre-food production, hunting-gathering mode of production, cf. Sahlins
1965). Many of these elements survive in modern Wicca cults. Such features are not limited to ancient
Ireland but extend all over Iron-Age Europe, from Gaul (where a famous cauldron, that of Gundestrup
was crafted c. 100 BCE) to Denmark (where that cauldron ended up in a peat bog) and Thrace (which
has been claimed to be the home of the narrative themes displayed on that cauldron (Klindt-Jensen
1959; Olmsted 1976; Kaul & Martens 1995; Kaul et al. 1991); another comparable cauldron, from the
Bronze Age, was found at Hassle, Sweden, in 1936. Also the Graeco-Roman war god Ares / Mars is
reputed to rejuvenate himself by bathing in a kettle of boiling water, cf. the above royal enthronisation
rites (Anonymous, ‘Early Roman Religion’, 1955: 28). The mytheme of the cauldron of kingship is
also related to the struggle over sacred tripods, such as mark the mythical encounter between Apollo
and Heracles in the context of the Delphi temple precinct (Fontenrose 1980: 401f). The tripod at Delphi
was not only seized by Heracles but also by Lykos (Lykoros) / Pyrrhos / Deukalion (Fontenrose 1980:
422f). Ino (Leukothea / White Goddess, the mother’s sister of Dionysus) was stricken with madness by
Hera and put her infant Melicartes (< Melqart, ‘Lord of the Town’, major Phoenician god equated with
Heracles) into a seething cauldron (Euripides Medea 1284f; Apollodorus Bibliotheca 1,9,1f. 3,4,3;
Ovid Metamorphoses 4, 506-542; Farnell 1916; Meyer 1884). Cochrane (n.d.: 130) claims worldwide
cognates for this story. This does not exhaust the motif of the cauldron of kingship. Also in the Tanach
is the flesh pot (Exodus 16: 3) a symbol of abundance. The motif also surfaces in the Egyptian Pyramid
texts, when the megalomaniac utterances of King Unas (c. 2400 BCE) in his so-called ‘Cannibal
Hymn’ boasts about the cannibalistic contents of his cauldron (Mercer 1952: utterances 402a ff; Faulk-
ner 1924). The motif also surfaces in Indian mythology in a myth about the cosmic god Vishnu (Keith
1917: 78f ):
‘The sound ghrm, with which Visnu’s head fell, became the gharma, or sacrificial kettle; and

Cf. in Greek mythology the mating of Pasiphae – Cretan Minos’ spouse and as ‘All-Shining’ an evo-
cation of sun or moon; but also, in Nkoya enthronisation ritual, the transgressive incestuous mating of
the prospective king with his – nowadays classificatory – sister; is this another displaced Central Asian
Steppe / South Asian motif, along with the ghabasti-carriage pole? ‘Classificatory kinship’ is a techni-
cal term forged by the early American anthropologist Morgan (1871), to denote a system where mem-
bers of society are subsumed under a small number of very broad categories, whose nature and implied
relationships are nonetheless modelled after primary relations existing between close biological kin.
E.g. among the Nkoya, every person has a considerable number of ‘fathers’, ‘mothers’, ‘brothers’,
‘sisters’, ‘children’ – including distant, putative and fictive kinsmen, and their spouses, in addition to
close biological kin.
New Perspectives on Myth
as his strength dwindled away, the mahdvira, or ‘pot of great strength,’ acquired its name.’
Highly significant, considering the abundance of Central Asian reminiscences in Nkoya my-
thology, is that the cauldron of leadership also occurs in the Kyrgyz Epic Manas (Köçümkulkïzï 2005,
lines 2970f). Bronze vessels were the major regalia in Shang 商朝 China, and foretold the end of that
dynasty; the fact that the Chinese emperor had no monopoly of the vessels but merely was allowed to
have a larger number of them than other nobles, suggests this to be a pre-imperial trait marking leader-
ship. Still further Eurasian parallels can be found (e.g. Zournatzi 2000). Even from North America,
references to a ritual apparently similar to that described in the Nkoya myth can be found in the
Heyoka Society’s ritual of pulling off the boiling kettle (Swann 1994: 437f).
5.15. Female royal prowess
Nkoya: Legendary Queen Shikanda of the Nkoya, whose epithet is Shikanda bakandile
baKaonde ‘Shikanda who destroyed / circumcised the Kaonde [ the Nkoya’s northern neighbours ]’, is
a formidable mythical female warrior – true to a model of female military prowess (combined with
total sexual liberty) ranging from the Queen Nzingha / Jinga c. 1600 CE of the Mbundu people of An-
gola (cf. Fraser 1988), Queen Naumba of the Sala (a Zambian people closely related to the Nkoya; cf.
Brelsford 1935), to West African female warriors in Benin (formerly Dahomey; cf. Law 1993; Alpern
1998 however considers the Benin women regiments as an Early Modern phenomenon).
Comparative: Female prowess is found in the warrior connotations of North African women
in Antiquity (Lhote 1959), and the West Asian Amazons. The latter have been habitually dismissed as
a mere myth of male alterising self-construction (Blok 1995), yet were in the recent decade to a consid-
erable extent confirmed by sound archaeological research (cf. Davis-Kimball 2002; Guliaev 2003). In
perfect accordance with the Pelasgian cross-model, we also find warrior women in Celtic Europe e.g.
Queen Boadicea, ancient Nordic Europe (Saxo Grammaticus 1979), and in the extreme East Japan’s
women samurai. Moreover there is the series of warrior goddesses discussed elsewhere in this Section,
from Neith / Athena / Anahita etc. Shikanda’s name may be indicative of a further South Asian connec-
tion, cf. the war god Skanda who defeats the demon Taraka and thus saves the world (Willis 1994: 84);
pronounced by Nkoya-speaking mouths, Skanda would sound as ‘Shikanda’.
5.16. Royal sibling complementarity / rivalry
Nkoya: In Nkoya mythology, Katete and Luhamba are a royal sibling pair; so are Shihoka
Nalinanga and his (classificatory) sister Likambi Mange / ‘Sorceress’, but the latter are locked in mor-
tal rivalry and envy. Shihoka lived at Lukolwe near the Kabombo / Zambezi confluence, while Likambi
lived on the Zambezi, in the flood plain. Shihoka’s people produced boats and wooden dishes, and
when Likambi sent messengers requesting her rightful share of these products, her envoys were chased.
This made Likambi resort to sorcery, she had a diviner-priest produce a beautiful artificial woman full
of poison; when this object was sent to Lukolwe, she proved irresistible, and – as a murderous bride of
the AT category – the cause of Shihoka’s death. In general it appears (van Binsbergen 1992) as if the
Nkoya male king (and his counterparts among neighbouring groups) only rules in the name of his sister
– and this is a widespread pattern among Niger-Congo-speaking peoples (Claessen 1981, 1984).

Comparative: Many Flood stories following the Standard Elaborate format (see above) have
primordial twins as flood survivors, who incestuously repopulate the world, and who thus at Second
Creation may emulate the First Creation. Cf. Genesis 1 f (Adam and H ava / Eve ). In Ancient Egyptian
mythology the first two creatures, Shu and Tefnut, are raised in the very swamp at A®-bıt (‘The Hori-
zon of the Bee [ Ruler ]’) / Chemmis (they are called ‘the two royal children of Chemmis’ (Helck
1979), where also Horus (formally their grandchild, but clearly belonging to a different tradition) was

Underneath the Shihoka-Likambi rivalry we could also suspect that between Nkoya and Lozi, but
since open expressions of animosity vis-à-vis the Lozi are common-place in 20th-century Nkoyaland, it
seems less likely that such animosity would have to be concealed in myth.
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
to be hidden by Isis. For a possible link with the Nkoya kingship, see above, the ‘reed and bee com-
plex’. In Celtic mythology the royal twins, with the rivalry element, appear as Arthur and his sisters
Morgause and Morgan le Fay / Sorceress (who possibly feature among the Nkoya as ‘the two royal
ladies’ – which incidentally is also an Egyptian throne title,

nbty. As a result of this rivalry, Arthur
dies at the hands of a freak (his son by his sister Morgause, at least in Sir Thomas Malory’s version of
Le Morte d’Arthur – 1978 / 1485) created and sent by one of his sister’s sorcery acts. Also in Uralic
mythology: in the Kalevala, Vaeinaemoeinen and Joukahainen struggle over bows, boats, horses and
gold in a way reminiscent of Shihoka and Likambi (Tamminen 1928: 90).

5.17. Serpent, child [ or mother ] of Drought
Nkoya: In Nkoya mythology, a prominent character is king Shihoka Nalinanga: ‘Snake, Child
[ or Mother ] of Drought’, known as a cattle raider and locked in deadly rivalry with his royal sister.
Here we may perceive a link between Nkoya mythology and that of neighbouring Eastern Angola,
whose cultures and languages are continuous with those of Western Zambia. One of the major Angolan
tales (Chatelain 1894) deals with the descent of the male Sudika-Mbambi into the underworld. Sudika
is in love with the daughter of the underworld king Kalunga-Ngombe [ ‘Grave-Cattle’ ], but she has
been kidnapped by Kinioka kia Tumba [ ‘Snake of Tumba / Skin’? – worldwide, the association of skin
and dryness is a common one ], apparently a cognate character to Shihoka Nalinanga. In the under-
world, Sudika is swallowed by a monster, Kimbiji [ ‘Two-Persons’ ? ] kia Malenda a Ngandu [ With
Crocodile Scales’ ]; however, Sudika’s brother Kabundungulu catches the monster and cuts it open,
after which he magically restores his brother to life from the bones, in shamanic fashion. A great water
serpent is also very conspicuous in the stories which Jacottet collected in Western Zambia at the end of
the 19th century (e.g. Jacottet 1899-1901: III, 71f, 136f narrative XXV and LVII.); under the Luyi
name Lingongole, this mythical character is reminiscent of the Rainbow Snake. It should be distin-
guished from the Great Forest Snake (Jacottet 1899-1901: iii, 138), who in the modern Nkoya con-
sciousness has become indistinguishable from Mwenda-Njangula.
Comparative: The snake / serpent is a feature of mythology everywhere and of all times. I felt
justified to claim the presence of a snake Narrative Complex already in the very oldest mythology, that
is, included in Pandora’s Box. The primordial snake often appears in the form of the Rainbow Serpent
(in Australia and archaic Africa; Buchler & Maddock 1978), but this celestial form often has a com-
plement in a terrestrial or aquatic serpent; the celestial and terrestrial / aquatic forms may also coincide,
which stands to reason since in many archaic cosmologies there is considerable equivalence between
‘the Waters Above’ (the sky), ‘the Waters Below’ (the underworld, Apsu etc.), and the Waters ‘Aside’
of the ordinary life-world, the seas and rivers. The rainbow appears when rain is over (cf. Genesis 9:
13, after Nūah ’s Flood) and therefore is the adversary of rain, the harbinger of drought. Cf. the Austra-
lian notion of drought as the son of Rain, the former seeking to prevent the latter, his father, from fal-
ling (Andrews 2000). However, Rain, as Demiurge, in Nkoya cosmology and myth appears, not in a
paternal but in a filial role, as bird-like child of a bird-like High God which in recent centuries has been
known under the name of Nyambi. I prefer to interpret Shihoka’s mythical character not by reference to
Pandora’s Box, but to much more recent mythical connotations. Shihoka’s symbolism is somewhat
reminiscent of the West Asian snake symbolism informing such biblical passages as Genesis 3 (tempta-
tion by and cursing of the snake, causing humans to be evicted from Paradise into the wilderness which

The transition from paradisiacal sibling complementarity to deadly sibling rivalry is not obvious, and
suggests that two mythemes of widely different background and origin have been combined here: (a)
the motif of the paradisiacal siblings, at first or second creation (in other words, after the Flood), and
(b) a masculinising telescoping of generations and authorities, that transforms (under the impact of the
new cosmogony of the Separation of Heaven and Earth) the Virgin Mother of the Waters with her Only
Son and Lover, into an uneasy dyadic union, in which the male partner, with celestial connotations,
claims equality and usurps the female partner’s seniority, both in generation and in prerogatives of
New Perspectives on Myth
by implication is drought-stricken) and Numbers 21: 8 (the raising of the brazen snake in the desert).
The association of the underworld with cattle is common-place in European mythology (cf. Hercules
with the cattle of Geryon and of Cacus, but also Pluto’s / Hades’ association with cattle as the most
obvious form of wealth in Indo-European contexts; the association also surfaces in several of Grimm’s
Hausmärchen; Grimm & Grimm 1812-1815 / 1996) – and Shihoka is, among other things, a cattle
raider (also see Unilateral being, below). Not only as a conflict between royal siblings of opposite gen-
der, but also in terms of the dry / wet opposition, this conflict is reminiscent of that of Arthur and Mor-
gan. Morgan’s name means ‘sea-born’ (Rhys 1891: 22f, cf. 324f), and she, again, is an epiphany of the
Mother of the Waters – hence the rightful Lady of Avalon (Rhys 1891: 348), whose position is usurped
by male ascendance. According to one version Morgan, too, resorts to the production of an artificial
human being to inflict fatal harm upon Arthur. In Shihoka Nalinanga, a specific parallel with Ancient
Egypt may be pointed out: the fact that there we have the First-Dynasty King Snake (WAd) whose name
may also be translated as Green. Moreover Shu, the ancient Egyptian air-god whose name means Emp-
tiness or Dryness, has a son Geb, the earth god, – the latter is not himself represented as a snake but
displays the chthonic connotations of the snake which are virtually universal; for the Geb motif in sub-
Saharan Africa (cf. Ndigi 1996). Also cf. Zmey Gorynych, the dragon of the Slavic mythology; its
name is translated as ‘Snake son-of-mountain’, cf. earth / drought; and in Indian mythology: Vr tra, the
drought-causing serpent (Mackenzie 1913). In many mythologies, the opposition wet / dry creates a
central dynamism. It is this opposition, in fact, that informs the old Cosmogony of the Separation of
Water and Land. Here the senior position is accorded to the aquatic side, ‘the Mother of the Waters’,
who gives birth to the land as the junior component of reality, and who had to do this from a virginal
state because there was no other being to impregnate her. In the Nkoya narrative the dry / wet opposi-
tion is applied in several ways. ‘Snake Child or Parent of Drought’, although producing boats, lives in
the forest, while his counterpart lives in the flood plain, as the structural exponent of the Mother of the
Waters, who in vain claims her privilege of supremacy, after her position has already been redefined
from intergeneration (Virgin Mother and Only Child, who becomes her lover) to Elder Sister / Younger
Brother – with further humiliation in stock for the Elder Sister. The opposition between Rain and
Drought is, however, not just a binary cosmological opposition, but may be interpreted as part of a
transformational cycle involving not only fire and water, but also earth, air, metal, and possibly other
elements such as aether (cf. van Binsbergen 2009, where the implied presence of this cycle among the
Nkoya is discussed). The suggestion of cyclical transformation around Shihoka Nalinanga has a paral-
lel in Nordic mythology: the rain god Freyr on the day of Ragnarok (the Nordic Apocalypse) will battle
without weapons (for he gave his sword away to Skirnir), and will be the first to be killed by the fire
giant Surt [ a Fire Giant ] – again enacting the same scheme of Water being destroyed by Fire. In the
present volume, Nick Allen (2010) treats the same essentially cyclical and elemental opposition for
Hephaestus (Fire) versus Scamander (Water), and Vr tra (Drought Serpent) versus Indra (Rain). So at
one level the conflict between the siblings is to be explained as the antagonistic interaction between
elements within a transformative cycle: ‘Water destroys Fire’, ‘Fire destroys Wood’, etc.
5.18. Artificial woman wreaks doom
Nkoya: When Shihoka Nalinanga does not meet her demands, Likambi Mange has a diviner-
priest construct an artificial woman, who is sent to Shihoka and causes his death.
Comparative: The motif of artificially constructed human beings is so central in today’s popu-
lar culture (cyborgs etc.), that we are inclined to consider it the expression of highly developed tech-
nologi-cal culture, in which electronic and digital advances have brought about the situation where
man-machine communication is increasingly supplanting the interaction between humans. However,
the same motif is prominent in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (cf. Higley 1997a, 1997b), where
the artificial beings are studied rumoured to have been created by some of the finest male minds in
European cultural history: Virgil, Simon Magus, Pope Sylvester II, Albertus Magnus, Robert Gros-
seteste, Roger Bacon, Paracelsus, Rabbi Loew of Prague, René Descartes, Thomas Edison and on into
the twentieth century – with such parallels as Daedalus, Hephaestus, Talus and Pygmalion in the
imagination of the Ancient World. The related motif of the cyborg has so proliferated in recent years
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
that we cannot begin to indicate the relevant literature. A major early study in this field was: Haraway
(1991). Meanwhile the most famous example in this category is Mary Shelley’s literary creation,
Frankenstein, cf. Shelley 1831; Heideman 2001). Artificial humans are a feature of the imagination
worldwide – combining the appropriation of divine creative power, with the evil connotations that such
hubris predictably has. The artificial creation of humans, especially from earth or mud, is a widespread
motif: Chinese Nü Wa 女媧 (Willis 1994: 91), Oceanian gods, the biblical god (Genesis 1-2; alterna-
tively from Adam’s rib, and anyway the perpetrator of the Fall of Man), and, by Hephaestus from the
earth / Earth / Gaia, Greek Pandora is created as punishment for humans’ acquisition of fire from Pro-
metheus (Ovid, Metamorphoses, X; Willis 1994: 131). Cf. Penglas (1997) on the Near Eastern ante-
cedents of the Pandora myth (as distinct from Egyptian antecedents of Pandora, as in Bernal 2001: 25f
after Walcot 1966). Greek shape-shifting sea god Proteus substituted Helen by a dummy to be sent to
Troy to be the doom of her times, keeping the original at his island Pharos before the Egyptian coast,
where innocently she was later reunited with Menelaus (Cotterell 1989: 232). Bata, Anubis’ brother,
flees after a Potiphar-like incident (cf. Genesis 39: 1 f), to Syria, where the Ennead has a wife for him
made by Chnum. This wife is almost violated by personified Sea. Bata has emasculated himself and
has hidden his heart in a pine tree, etc. Bata becomes a bull, then an avocado tree, then a piece of furni-
ture, whose splinter kills the bad woman. Bata ends up as king (Willis 1994: 53). This does not exhaust
the mythical motif of an artificial woman wreaking doom. Its further manifestations include: continen-
tal European Melusine, an evil shape-shifting mermaid who – with all her snake connotations – appears
to be essentially a domesticated transformation of the prehistoric ‘Mother of the Primal Waters’ (cf.
Couldrette 1866; Higley 1999); the Lilith of Hebrew tradition (cf. Koltuv 1986 and references cited
there); Roman Fama, ‘Rumour’; and Blodeuwedd, the artificial woman created out of flowers so as to
marry a man whose mother (Aranrhod) has cursed him never to marry a mortal (Mabinogion, IV; Jones
& Jones 1949). Melusine and Blodeuwedd spring from the Celtic world and reinforce the Celtic dimen-
sion of such Eurasian continuities as surface repeatedly in the Nkoya case. In a way, Graeco-Roman
Aphrodite / Venus (born not from a womb but from sea foam / from Uranus’ severed genitals (Hesiod,
Theogonia, 176f), and the cause of incessant mischief in the world of gods and men) is quite a home in
this company. Widespread in medieval European literature is the myth of the poison girl (Hertz 1905),
featuring Aristotle of all people, and with reminiscences also of Medea, who however was of normal
though divine birth, granddaughter of the Sun, daughter of Jason’s adversary Aeëtes of Colchis, and
niece of Circe. The motif is also sporadically found in North America: in a Tlingit myth, Raven made a
woman under the earth (Swanton 1909: 32). Usually, then, the evil artificial human is female, but also
male examples may be found, e.g. the 9-mile-long Mokerkialfi (‘Mist Wader’) created out of clay by
the evil Jotun giants for their battle with the Germanic gods (Guerber 1909: 74f); or the golem of me-
dieval and Early-Modern Jewish tradition, again out of clay, usually male, and whose evil deeds are
scarcely compensated by the fact that he was intended to protect the Jews from accusations of ritual
human sacrifice (Cf. Idel 1990; Looby n.d.).
5.19. Building with skulls
Nkoya: The legendary Nkoya king Kayambila’s throne name boasts that he thatched his house
with the skulls of his enemies. This cruel practice has, in the first place, regional resonances. It is part
of a violent skull complex that was quite central to Nkoya culture before modern times. Still in the late
19th century CE, the Nkoya courtiers are reported to drink their mead and sorghum beer from the
skulls (in fact, occiputs) of their slain enemies. It is to the hunter and explorer George Copp Westbeech
(apud Tabler 1963; Sampson 1972) that we owe a description of Nkoya use of the occiput. The
Nkoya’s eastern neighbours, the Ila, kept piles of skulls in memory of the Barotse (cum Nkoya!) attack
upon their cattle in the 1880s, despite Ila defeat (Smith & Dale 1920: I, 44). For parallels to the Nkoya
skull cup among the Nkoya’s northern neighbours the Kaonde, cf. Jaeger 1974; for Zimbabwean paral-
lels, cf. the numerous references to smashed skulls in Selous 1893, 1896. Among the Ila, whose culture
and language overlaps with that of the Nkoya, still in the early 20th century the practice prevailed that a
suitor was only eligible for marriage if he brought his prospective affines the skull of a slain en-emy
(Smith & Dale 1920: I, 44, 77; Muntemba 1973). Moreover, especially at the annual royal Kazanga
New Perspectives on Myth
harvest festival the king would conclude his royal dance pouring a libation (nowadays of village-brewn
beer, originally probably of slave blood; in the latter case the episode would be strikingly similar to
early-dynastic Egyptian rites, cf. Wilkinson 2001) for his royal ancestors at an arboreal shrine, and
drinking part of the liquid – slaves would be immolated for the occasion, and the occiput of a slain
slave buried to the rim into the ground in front of the shrine would serve as a drinking vessel (Mayowe
Comparative: The skull cult is likely to go back, ultimately, to Palaeolithic times. Admittedly,
Binford (1981) has argued that what has been construed as evidence of cultic and cannibalistic prac-
tices of Palaeolithic Man (e.g. the Sinanthropus, 500 ka BP) may very well be attributed to the known
actions of predatory animals. Yet the cult of the cave-bear and the practice of skull offerings continue
to be more or less accepted themes in the study of prehistoric religion (Maringer 1952: 75-82 and pas-
sim, which contains a wealth of information of skull cults, see index of that book, s. v. ‘schedel’ /
‘skull’; Gahs 1928). A general study of the place of the human skull in cultural history was made by
Henschen (1966). Skull cults are a widespread feature of Neolithic cultures in the Near East (Mellaart
1967; Edwards et al.1986: index, s.v. skulls (painted, plastered, on floors, skull-burials and cult, Jeri-
cho), pp. 505-506). Like heads conserved in honey, human skulls were widely used in divination (Betz
1986: 75: PGM IV.2125-39; Montgomery 1911), which may have extended to libation or drinking
from such skulls.
Building with skulls. Before we discuss this gruesome form of architecture, let us consider the
more positive case, when the building-with-skulls mytheme has associations not only with extreme
violence and destruction, but also with cosmogony: in Ancient Nordic mythology, the gods fashioned
the sky out of the skull of the giant Ymir, and used his eyebrows as a protective barrier (Rosenberg
1994). However, as we have seen in Table 9.3, the Kayambila motif reflects two AT motifs that have a
wide global distribution: F771.1.9 – house of skulls as murderer’s abode; and G315 – demon cuts off
men’s heads to build with them. The parallels to the Kayambila motif in Greek mythology are unmis-
takable. Cycnus / Swan (Fontenrose 1980: 29) was reported to be in the habit of ambushing travellers
and piling up their skulls, from which he intended to build a temple for the god whose son he was re-
puted to be: Ares, Apollo, or Phobos (Apollodorus Bibliotheca, 2.114; Stesichorus, Fragment 207);
only Heracles’ victory over Cycnus prevented this architectural feat. Fontenrose argues that Cycnus is
primarily a manifestation of the underworld god Hades; the association with the sun is no longer puz-
zling once we realise that – as highlighted in Egyptian belief – the sun passes through the underworld
during the night; an ulterior explanation would be that the swan is an evocation of the Mother of the
Primary Waters under the Cosmogony of the Separation of Water and Land, and that later this creator
deity was fragmented into sky god, sea god and underworld god, and masculinated. Nor was the pos-
session of a mound of skulls limited to Cycnus: Diomedes son of Ares was reputed to possess a mount
of skulls, apparently a rudimentary shrine in the nature of a herm, an earth shrine found all over the Old
World from Khoisan speaking Namibia (where it is sacred to the trickster god Heitsi-Eibib) to Mongo-
lia, Tibet and even North America, typically located at through-roads and at crossroads and to which
individual travellers are supposed to add a stone. Antaeus son of Poseidon boasted a similar collection
of skulls (Fontenrose 1980: 330). Like Cycnus, Antaeus was reputedly killed by Heracles,
notably in

The question as to why Heracles / ‘Glory of Hera’, should have the task of clearing the world from
monsters is a challenge in its own right for comparative mythology. As long as we stick to the naïve
etymology of Hera as ‘heroine’, we will not make much progress towards answering this question. Nor
should we take Heracles as one, monolithic and integrated character – a great diversity of characters
hide under this designation (Gruppe 1964; Pötscher 1979a; Brundage 1958; Levy 1934; Graves 1988).
Burkert (1979) sees Heracles as originating in Palaeolithic hunter culture and traditions of shamanistic
crossings into the netherworld; that is less revealing than it sounds, since we have reason to presume
(van Binsbergen 2006a, 2006b, and above) that all mythology has that kind of background. As one of
the possible readings of the Heracles character I submit the following. Typical of mythological com-
plexes is their layeredness (cf. Farmer et al. 2002). Often, older dispensations of a worldview and the
attending mythology are not downright supplanted by later, dominant ones, but forced into an uneasy,
twisted, compromised relationship with them. Hera is, from one point of view, a transformation of the
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
Libya, which in classical Antiquity referred to Africa, but not to Africa alone – there also being vast
stretches of Asia designated by that name (Karst 1931). Whereas in the Cycnus myth the skulls serve as
building bricks rather than as roofing-tiles, Antaeus corresponds even more closely with Kayambila in
that it was his specific intention to use the collected skulls for roofing, in his case roofing a temple for
his father Poseidon. Antaeus’s link with the underworld is further accentuated by the fact that his
mother was Gaia / Earth, so that whenever he was exhausted from combat, he would only have to lie
down in order to have his strength replenished. Heracles could only overcome him by preventing this
contact with Earth – lifting him up in Heracles’ capacity of the celestial axis. Nor was this the end of
the sinister skull collection in the Greek myths. According to Fontenrose (1980: 333): ‘...Oinomaos,
Euenos, and Atalanta’s father. Of all these kings it is said that they heaped up or hung up the skulls of
those suitors [ of their daughter ] who lost the race; and the first two are linked with Phorbas, Kyknos,
and Antaeus.’ Oenomaus tragic strategy concerning his daughter Hippodameia formed the motif of the
great temple sculptures at the Parthenon and Olympia. Even the name of Geryon, whom Heracles re-
lieved of his cattle, may be etymologically linked to karanos, ‘cranium, skull’ (Fontenrose 1980: 333,
where also other etymological associations are cited, with ample bibliography). Also Hercules’s enemy
Cacus, another death demon and cattle rustler (cf. the Nkoya tradition on Shihoka Nalinanga as cattle
rustler, above), had hung the entrance to his cave with the skulls of his slain victims. Finally, the state-
house of the mythical Phlegyan nation was a skull-hung oak tree (Fontenrose 1980: 54). If that name
can be considered to derive from Indo-European bh[ e ]leg-, ‘to burn black with smoke’ and hence as a
cognate of our word ‘black’ (Partridge 1979, s.v. ‘black’) then we might suggest that the Phlegyans,
though mythical, were at one stage thought of as Black people, and perhaps were among the pre- or

Mother of the Primal Waters under the Cosmogony of the Separation of Water and Land. But at the
same time she is an exponent of the Cosmogony of the Separation of Heaven and Earth, which seems
to have largely supplanted the earlier cosmogony. Under the new dispensation, Hera appears as a sky
goddess – her association with speckled or striped animals (cuckoo, peacock; cf. van Binsbergen 2004),
her enmity of the solar complex of Colchian Aeëtes and his sisters Circe and Pasiphae, the plausible
Kartvelian etymology of Hera’s name ‘setting sun’ (proto-Kartvelian *cwer- (Starostin & Starostin
1998-2008, ‘Kartvelian etymology’; Klimov 1998: 525), and her complementarity with the sky god
Zeus, all make that at least one aspect of her is that of a goddess of the sky at night, when the revolu-
tion of the heavens around the celestial pole and axis is most conspicuous. The militant Heracles, with
his star-spangled association with the brightly speckled quail, his lion-skin and his club evocative of
the celestial axis, rounding up the mythical cattle regardless of whether it belongs to the heavens (as in
Egypt and the Ancient Near East; Hera is boöpis, ‘cow-eyed’ and europia, ‘broadly seeing’; Heracles is
bouphagos, ‘cow-eating’, ouranios, ‘celestial’) or to the underworld, primarily represents the aggres-
sive subjugation of the older cosmogony (and its human adherents) by the newer cosmogony. Heracles
is in the first place the celestial axis – the great discovery of naked-eye astronomy by the outgoing
Upper Paleolithic (cf. Rappenglück 1999); hence Herodotus, (Historiae, II), is found by commentators
– notably Lloyd 1988: 29 – to have equated Heracles with Egyptian Shu, who holds up the heavens. In
so far as the recognition of the celestial axis is shamanic (it is the shaman’s privilege to move up and
down the axis into heaven and underworld), Burkert is right that Heracles has shamanic aspects. Hera-
cles’ works (typically organised as a dozen, according to the zodiac) summarise the overthrow of the
demonised protagonists of the older cosmogonic dispensation. Hence even Heracles as ipoktonos
‘grub-eater’: if we may appeal to Egyptian-Aegean mythological continuity, in so far as Neith / Bee
Ruler as Mother of the Waters represents the older disposition and was replaced by the solar god Rē
Heracles as championing the new disposition kills the bee’s offspring, the grub; just like Aristaeus (as a
god an evocation of the protypical Pelasgian rustic) in conflict with Orpheus but a son of the Neith-like
goddess Cyrene, saw his bees killed but restored from cattle. This approach also throws some light on
nocturnal Hera’s otherwise unexplained enmity vis-à-vis the solar / diurnal Aeëtes c.s. and on Jason’s
rival Pelias’ emphasis on Aphrodite, and refusal to include Hera, in the annual festival at Iolcus. The
heroes associated with Hera (besides Jason apparently also Menelaus, Antenor, and Orpheus) are don-
ning leopard / panther skins as befits a goddess of the star-spangled night-sky, and it is her hatred that
brings Jason to adventure into Colchis (Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica).
New Perspectives on Myth
proto-Bantu presences in the Eastern Mediterranean and West Asia (cf. van Binsbergen & Woud-
huizen, in press); however, more authoritative is Starostin & Starostin (1998-2008: ‘Indo-European
etymology’) Proto-Indo-European: *bhleig’- ‘shining bright’. Skull-decorated temples are characteris-
tic of Kali in Hinduism, and are also found in other South Asian contexts. The human skull is also a
favourite decorative motif found in the dwellings of leading men in South East Asia, and for some
Meso American temples – e.g. the walls of the Maya centre of Chichen Itza are adorned with numerous
sculptural representations of skulls. Skulls also used to abound in European Christian churches, when
still in regular use as burial sites. In South Asia it is not necessarily an act of cruelty to use a deceased’s
skull as a drinking vessel – it may even be an act of mourning (Eliseev et al. 1994: 459, 180).
Drinking from skulls: In comparative mythology, the locus classicus for drinking from the
skulls of slain enemies is Herodotus’ accounts of the Scythians (Historiae IV, 64). A related example
from Eastern Europe is the drinking vessel which the Pecheneg Khan Kurya made out of Svyatoslav’s
skull (Schreiber n.d.: 304). This Kiev practice combines Steppe with Viking antecedents, and we are
not surprised that there is disagreement as to whether the Vikings of Northwestern Europe did or did
not drink from skull cups. At any rate, centuries later the skull of Blackbeard the Pirate (c. 1680 –
1718), whose original name was Edward Teach, Thatch or Thache, was turned into a cup – so that his
fate appears to be one that Kayambila ‘the Thatcher’ could have predicted. A clear-cut parallel with the
Nkoya case comes from the European Iron Age: In 216 BCE, the Boii Gauls in Gallia Cisalpina (mod-
ern North Italy) killed the consul Lucius Postumius Albino and used his skull as a sacrificial vessel
(Livy, Ab Urbe condita, XXIII 23.4; Dio Cassius, Historia Romana, XV, 3.2). Nor does this exhaust
the evidence for an Eurasian skull complex. The Scythian and Celtic habit of drinking from enemy
skulls as recorded in Antiquity, seems to form the Western end of a skull complex that extends across
the steppe belt of Eurasia all the way to the Pacific coast. Los (1969: 58, 116) sees the use of the skull
cups in the first place as a Turkish-Mongolian custom, later also among the Bulgars, and during the
Migrations of the Nations also occasionally among Germanic kings in Europe (e.g. Alboin had the
skull guilded of the Gepid king Kunimond (Los 1969: 244 n. 209; Thierry 1856: 112f). Laoshang
Chanyu 老上單于 defeated the Yueh-chi 月支 (probably a branch of Tocharians) in 170 BCE and
made their king’s skull into a drinking vessel, after which his people fled westward (Los 1969: 116).
Glimpses of the Inner Eurasian skull cult can be found with Herodotus (on the Issedones, Herodotus,
Historiae, 1, 201; 4: 13, 16, 15f. cf. Baldick 2000: 17; also the Herodotus commentator Corcella elabo-
rates on this point, cf. Corcella 1984; Asheri & Corcella 2007), and by the 10th-century Iranian geogra-
pher Ibn Rusta (Baldick 2000: 29). General ownership of enemy skulls is reported for the Avars
(Baldick 2000: 36). Drinking from enemy skulls has been reported from the Bulghars of the Danube
(Baldick 2000: 31) and the Mongols (the king of the Hsiung-nu / 匈奴 / Huns in 202 BCE – Baldick
2000: 23; such drinking vessels are indispensable for Hsiung-nu when sealing a treaty, Baldick 2000:
36; interestingly, Nkoya in the 19th century had the same war tactics as the Hsiung-nu: luring the en-
emy to distant places. The skull-cup practice was also found in Korea (Hulbert 1905; Serruys 1958;
Yetts 1926 as a practice associated with Chinese in Korea). Head-hunting practices in Taiwan are well
attested (Watson Andaya 2004; Shepherd 1993). In Japan the custom appears to be transformed into
drinking from an animal skull (Blacker 1967; Seki 1966), while the skull is reported as a witchcraft
item there (Casal 1959). Throughout Central and East Asia, the ancestral practice of drinking from a
human skull appears to have been incorporated, transformed and sanctioned in Buddhist ritual (Park &
Song 2005); highly decorated, such skull cups are conspicuous especially in Tibetan Buddhism. The
practice of skull drinking is also reported from Native (North) Americans (Chacon & Dye 2007).
So here a number of greatly different themes need to be distinguished: the skull as a memento
of human mortality on the one hand evokes violence and unrestricted power – the realm of the gods of
war and death – but on the other hand resignation with the finitude of human life, of continued com-
mitment after the death of a loved one, and even of liberation of life’s woes, or eternal salvation. In the
Nkoya case, however, the emphasis is clearly on violence and unrestricted power, in amazing continu-
ity with the Eurasian skull complex, especially with the Turks of the Eurasian Steppe (cf. Los 1969:
Kazanga festival: as already noted, in its original form the Kazanga festival had considerable
parallels with the Egyptian king’s heb sed festival: although this would ideally only be held at 30 years
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
intervals it also involved the erection of royal pavilions and the immolation of captives (cf. Wilkinson
5.20. Creation from tears of the divinity
Nkoya: The Nkoya myth of kingship concludes with the adage ‘Our kingship is from the Tears
/ Drops of Rain’.
Comparative: In Ancient Egypt, the ‘tears of the divinity’ image first emerge with the Coffin
Texts, after the Old Kingdom (Anthes 1961: 30; de Buck 1935-1961: VII, 465 a. ‘Mankind arose from
the tears of the sun’s / Ra
’s eye’. In another version humankind did not directly issue from Rē
’s tears,
but Rē
’s tears fertilised the earth so that it could bring forth mankind: ‘the sun-god wept and from the
tear (remy ) that fell on earth, there sprang man (remet )’ Hart 1993: 181; hiero-
glyphic text added; in van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen, in press, an argument is presented to link Egyp-
tian remet and the Etruscan / Latin place name Roma, to proto-Bantu *-dómÈ (Guthrie no. 697),
‘husband, man’, cf. Roma as a ‘Gypsy’ ethnonym, against the background of other indications of proto-
Bantu in the Bronze Age Mediterranean). By a very close parallel with the Egyptian case, the Nordic
sun-god Balder was called ‘God of Tears’, not only because he was accidentally killed by his blind
twin brother Hod, but particularly because humankind emerged from his tears. In Indian myth, the
motif of a god’s creative tears (Prajápati, notably) comes very close to that of the Egyptian case
(Mackenzie 1913: vi). Japanese mythology also knew the creative tears, notably those that were shed
by the god Izanagi, out of grief over his sister-wife Izanami; these turned into ‘a beauteous babe, the
goddess Nakisawame-no-Mikoto’ (Kojiki), the goddess of wells and clear water.
But not all divine tears coagulate into humans. In Babylonian mythology (Enuma Elish) the
tears of the female chaos and water goddess Tiāmat became the source of the rivers Tigris and Euphra-
tes. Here it is the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s consort, from which their adversary Marduk created the
first humans; cf. Aphrodite apud Hesiod. According to the Ancient Greeks, the inundation of the Nile
was due to the tears of Isis (Hopfner 1940-1941: II, 1041, p. 175), which fell into the water when she
was violated by her son Horus (Papyrus Harris, VII, 10) – another case of a mythical virgin mother
(she was only posthumously impregnated) and her only son being transformed in the direction of mas-
culine dominance, and turning sour. In Graeco-Roman mythology, morning dew is said to spring from
the tears the goddess Eōs spilled over the loss of her lover (Ovid, Metamorphoses, XIII, 842f); like-
wise, in Oceanian mythology (which shows many unexplained parallels with that of Western Eurasia)
dew is interpreted as the tears of the celestial god Rangi over the terrestrial goddess Papa (Best 1922:
14). Back in Greece, also the river Kokytus, identical to or closely related to the better known river
Styx, is made up of tears – but tears of humans, not of gods. The Achelous river in Asia Minor sprung
from Niobe’s tears when, in retaliation for her idle boasting, the two divine children Apollo and Arte-
mis had killed Niobe’s children (Iliad XXIV 602). Other rivers and lakes were supposed to originate
from the tears shed by nymphs; in Germanic mythology, nixies / stream maiden were depicted in the
same manner. Among such nymphs is, in Italy, the otherwise unknown ‘Nestis, who with her tears
feeds the life stream of beings’ and thus represents water among the four elements (Empedocles,
Fragments, 6, Leonard 1908; my translation); this comes close again to tears creating humans. In Juda-
ism, God is claimed to weep over the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, and out of pity with his
creatures, thus bringing about a silent stream (Schwartz 2004: 37f; Fishbane 2003: 167).
Nor are all divine tears benevolent and creative. Relatively close to Egypt, among the Nilotic
Dinka people venerating the demiurge Deng, the adage exists ‘Deng’s Tears are Blood’ (Scheub 2000).
And at the other end of Asia, the tears of the storm god Susanowo also carried violent associations:
‘Susanowo’s tears, which caused the rain, were tears of destruction. Like the tears of the Egyptian Seth
and of angry gods in other lands, they dried up the oceans and withered the forests’ (Andrews 2000:
196). In the New World, the Inca creator god Viracocha, having completed his creative activities, often
takes trips to Earth disguised as a beggar to check up on the state of the world, which usually causes
him to cry (Urton 1999: 64; Salomon & Urioste 1991); note the parallel with Mwene Manenga above.
In Mi’kmaq mythology (South Eastern Canada, with optimal opportunities for trans-Atlantic influences
New Perspectives on Myth
from Africa and Europe) tears shed by the creator sungod brought about a Flood (Whitehead 1991).
Similar instances of crying gods in the New World causing a Flood are given in Andrews 2000: 35. In
a Kathlamet myth from the North Western USA, it is tears shed by a rejected lover that bring about the
Flood (Frazer 1918: 325-326; Kelsen 1988: 148).

5.21. The rain god has junior / filial status in the pantheon
Nkoya: Mvula / Rain, child of Nyambi.
Comparative: Junior pantheon status of the rain god (in terms, not so much of power, but of
formal genealogical position; e.g. Zeus in the Greek pantheon, as son of Kronos and grandson of Ura-
nus, although the king of heaven is yet junior) is widely attested in Western and Eastern Eurasia. This
fits in with the Cosmogony of the Separation of Heaven and Earth, where Rain, as a principal connec-
tion between Heaven and Earth in societies based on rain-fed agriculture, tends to be regarded as the
child of the supreme celestial god.

Fig. 9.9. Global distribution of rain gods with junior status in the pantheon

From: van Binsbergen, in preparation (b), where full references will be given
5.22. The unilateral mythical being
Nkoya: Among the Nkoya, Mwenda-Njangula (‘Walker of the Height’) is a mythical being
with only one side to his / her body. One meets Mwenda-Njangula in the forest, and if one is the first to
extend a greeting, one will gain great knowledge and riches, but in the alternative case, misfortune,
even death. In the narratives which the missionary Jacottet (1899-1901: III, passim, and II, 122f ) col-
lected in Barotseland by the end of the 19th century, Mwenda-Njangula (and various alternative
names), appears as a cattle herder who, every morning, crosses a boundary consisting of a river, where
his mother makes a fordable passage.
Comparative: Werner (1933: ch. XIII) has recognised the prominence of this motif in the my-
thology of Bantu speaking peoples and devotes nearly an entire chapter to it. The mytheme of the uni-
lateral mythical being, whose standard discussion is in von Sicard (1968-1969), has a global
distribution of typical Pelasgian shape (cf. van Binsbergen, 2010b, 2010c).
Jacottet (1899-1901) suspected direct Judaeo-Christian influence in Mwenda-Njangula’s daily
river crossing (cf. Moses’ Red Sea crossing, Exodus 14: 16) but a more convincing reading of this story
is to consider the boundary the one between the underworld and the upper world – such as is also found
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
in Japanese mythology regarding Izanagi’s return from the underworld (the Land of Yomi) where, with
relief and relish, he leaves his wretched sister-wife Izanami. Throughout the Old World, rivers consti-
tute the abode of the ancestors, in other words, the underworld.
This motif is akin to that of Mwene Manenga testing generosity (elsewhere in this Section),
and of Jacob wrestling with an unspecified being at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32:24); without
satisfactory etymology in Afroasiatic including Semitic, this hydronym has a transparent etymology in
proto-Bantu -jàbok- (Guthrie no. 916), ‘to cross river’, and is one of the indications of a Niger-Congo
presence in the Bronze Age Mediterranean (van Binsbergen & Woudhuizen, in press). We are in the
presence of transformation of the postulated ‘Mother of the Waters’ here, who especially appears in her
capacity of ruler of the underworld – the stream, among other mythical references, marks the boundary
between life and death.
Fig. 9.10. Global distribution of the mytheme of the unilateral mythical being (van
Binsbergen 2010b)

1. von Sicard’s (1968-1969) attestations of the unilateral figure outside Africa; 2. attestation of the
unilateral figure from other sources than von Sicard; 3. generalised extent of von Sicard’s numerous
African attestations of the unilateral figure; from: van Binsbergen 2010b, with full references.
5.23. The king ‘with only one hair’
Nkoya: King Kahare ‘With One Hair’; I have usually interpreted this as a reference to the very
tall conical hairdress of the Ila, with which people especially the Kahare kingship has great affinities.
Comparative: This mytheme is complementary to the skull complex. There is the Nordic case
of princess Syrith, daughter of king Syvaldus; she had been abducted by a giant, who ‘had twisted and
pressed her locks together so that they formed on her head one hard mass which hardly could be
combed out except with the aid of an iron tool’ (Rydberg 1906: III, 774). Greek mythology knows a
King Nisus of Megara with one crucial hair (Parada & Förlag 1997). The unshaven magical hair in the
Tanach (Shimshon, Judges 13: 24f) is reminiscent of Greek mythology rather than of the Biblical mi-
lieu (Apollo ‘never shorn’; King Nisus, and king Pterelaos; Margalith 1986). However, for this
mytheme the Eurasian Steppe connections seem to be most to the point here, and they seem to confirm
the Scythian / Pelasgian continuities in the Nkoya kingship. Several Central Asian peoples (Warangs,
following the Agrippaeans and Turks; Svyatoslav of Kiev adopted the same custom) had as the stan-
dard coiffure of adult men: a clean-shaven head with only one tuft of hair left (Los 1969: 267 n 290).
This is also the standard hairdo of mythical and royal children in the Ancient Egyptian tradition – an-
other indication of the latter’s possible Steppe connotations, along with artefacts such as spoke-
wheeled chariots and the royal diadem, and elements of Uralic in Egyptian theonyms (van Binsbergen
& Woudhuizen, in press). The infant Horus, with the unique tuft of hair, was impersonated by an adult
New Perspectives on Myth
priest on the 16th of the month Kojahk (Stricker 1963-1989 IV: 492f). Herodotus, Historiae, IV, 23)
describes the Agrippaeans (‘Scythian in dress but with their own language’) as a group of pacifist and
mediators, comparable to North African saints (Gellner 1969), the Sudan leopard-skin chiefs (Evans-
Pritchard 1967 / 1940), and the mediators that established themselves in the middle of the second mil-
lennium around the Congo-Zambezi watershed (White 1962; Vansina 1966; van Binsbergen 1981) –
with whom they have, in my opinion, not just a formal but also a historical connection, besides all dis-
playing the tendency of wearing a leopard-skin (van Binsbergen 2004). The mytheme of one hair also
has attestations in the New World: World Buffalo, also a symbol of humankind, loses one hair every
year (Leeming & Page 2000: 37); bridges of only one hair width occur in a Meso American myth of the
hero Nakal who is engaged in a Orpheus-like descent into the underworld in order to retrieve his wife
(Seal 2001). Although North Atlantic Modern popular culture has associated scalping primarily with
Native Americans, Scythians, and probably also Sarmatians, also scalped their enemies and attached
the scalps to their horses’ bridles (Los 1969: 78). In North America, deceased Pawnee who have been
scalped are supposed to name each other after the few patches of hair still left on their heads: ‘One-
Hair, Forehead-Hair, Hair-Back-of-the-Head, all of you come!’’ (Anonymous, The mystery of death,
n.d.). Among the Omaha Native Americans, one strand of hair is dedicated to the thunder (Anonymous,
The gods of the elements, n.d.).
5.24. The frog as a cosmogonic evocation
Nkoya: One of the principal mythical Nkoya kings has the title of Kambotwe (‘Person Frog’).
Comparative: cf. the widespread cosmogonic connotations of reed and swamp as discussed
under reed and bee; in Egypt (Hermopolitan cosmogony) the primal gods are represented as pairs of
frogs. However, an Australian myth (with a strange parallel in Grimm’s Hausmärchen) sees the frog as
the origin both of the Flood, and of the Drought that preceded it (Thomas 1923).
5.25. The goddess as a crone testing generosity and punishing with the Flood
Nkoya: Among the Nkoya’s neighbours, the legendary Queen Manenga (who also features
prominently among the Nkoya) presents herself in the form of an old woman asking favours, and when
these are refused, she brings down a Flood.
Comparative: In Apollonius Rhodius’ Greek Argonauts story, in order to test Jason before en-
trusting her mission to Colchis to him, Hera appears to him as an old woman and asks him to carry her
across a river. Such generosity tests are common worldwide. A similar story to Manenga’s is told about
the Hawai’ian goddess of fire, Pele (Monaghan 2010: 262); and for the Spanish male mythical figure
Nuberu. Elsewhere in this Section we have seen how also the Inca creator god Viracocha goes around
disguised (Urton 1999: 64; Salomon & Urioste 1991). So does Nordic Odinn. Also the Christian Chris-
tophorus motif is related.
5.26. The mytheme of matriarchy
Nkoya: Although since the late 19th century, nearly all Nkoya kings have been male, a careful
decoding the Nkoya oral traditions, written in a language that (like most languages) does not mark
gender morphologically, suggests out that, initially, Nkoya kingship was reserved to women (van Bins-
bergen 1992).
Comparative: It has been a moot point among scholars, ever since the mid-19th century CE
(Bachofen 1861 / 1948, Morgan 1871, 1877 / 1963, Engels 1884 / 1976, etc.), whether there ever was a
historical society that could be called matriarchic in the sense of implementing, in real-life situations of
the family, political and economic institutions, the premise of female supremacy implied in the cos-
mogony of the Water and the Land. However, throughout the huge global corpus of comparative my-
thology we see time and again traces of a claim of female supremacy, and of its challenge and effective
rejection by males (cf. Sierksma 1962).
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
6. Conclusion
Several hard conclusions can be based on the extensive data presented in Section 5.
In the first place, this material proves, beyond reasonable doubt, the existence
of massive comprehensive transcontinental Eurasian-African mythological continui-
ties, in the case of the Nkoya, and of sub-Saharan Africa in general. Just like Newton
(1687 / 1947) established that celestial mechanics should coincide with terrestrial me-
chanics, there can no longer be a separate comparative mythology for Eurasia, and
another one for Africa. This does not mean there are no profound differences between
mythologies in the world. Yet sharing a common origin in Africa (hence always car-
rying a substrate, however submerged, of Palaeo-African mythemes such as the Earth,
the Spider, the Tree, and the Serpent), and being subject to transcontinental movement
and feedback in more recent millennia, have produced a complex pattern of partial
and fragmented continuity that cannot be reduced to a simple North-South dichotomy.
In the second place, on the basis of these extensive data, we can simply rule
out Christian and Islamic contamination as the principal source of such transcontinen-
tal mythological continuities.
In the third place, it is no exaggeration to claim that for most of the mythemes
considered, the Pelasgian hypothesis offers a sufficient explanation for their presence
among the Nkoya. Claiming to take effect over a period of only a handful of millen-
nia, the time span of this hypothesis is sufficiently short to allow for sometimes un-
canny, precise correspondences, whose very identification admittedly borders on the
insane (e.g. ‘Do you hear, Reed Person’ – between the Nkoya and the Gilgamesh
epic). However, the data show that we cannot take recourse to the Pelasgian hypothe-
sis for all mythemes listed. Thus, in relation with the mytheme of ‘stealing the moon’,
while largely Pelasgian in its more recent distribution, the extensive North American
attestations coupled with the paucity of this mytheme outside the Pelasgian realm
might suggest a New World, trans-Beringian origin.
By the same token, Flood

In addition to the fairly consensual view of eastbound trans-Beringian migration into the New World
mainly during the Upper Palaeolithic as the main or only source of human population in the Americas,
recent genetic research has brought to light evidence for the complementary, opposite movement
(Tamm et al. 2007). In my multivariate analysis of flood myths world-wide (van Binsbergen with Isaak
2008), I also pointed out mythemes that might have a New World origin and that subsequently spread
to the Old World. The long-range linguistic closeness of the African, Amerind and Austric macrophyla
casts an interesting light on these suggestions: while typologically ‘New-World’ in view of data col-
lected in historical times, they may yet originate in Asia, at a time when the ‘Peripheral’ macrophyla
had not yet separated. The North-South dichotomy as perceived by Witzel, and the Sunda origin of
major mythemes percolating in West Eurasia (like the Flood) as perceived by Oppenheimer, may yet
turn out to have a genuine, though relative, basis (although very different from what these authors en-
visaged) in the distinctiveness of the Peripheral branch of *Borean since c. 20 ka BP. However, a ca-
veat is in order here. Modern research on transcontinental connections (e.g. Jett 2002) shows that also
in the most recent millennia, from widely divergent ethnic and language groups, a constant trickle of
eastbound trans-Bering migrations has continued to contribute to the population of North America; so
that North American mythological parallels, especially when sporadic, might sometimes be considered
to be, in fact, Asian ones.
New Perspectives on Myth
myths as such are at least Upper Palaeolithic and almost universal, yet in so far as the
Standard Elaborate Flood Myth is involved, the transmission structure is primarily
Pelasgian. The spider mytheme appears to belong to Pandora’s Box, and from there to
have been largely transmitted, also to West Asia and the Mediterranean, via the ‘Pe-
ripheral’ Branch of *Borean, consisting of African languages, Amerind and Austric;
more recently this mytheme was redefined towards female domesticity in Neolithic
and Early Bronze Age West Asia, and despite much older antecedents largely trans-
mitted on the wings of Pelasgian expansion. The fact that so many Nkoya motifs have
North American counterparts, may also be attributed (see previous footnote) to the
communality of Amerind, African languages, and Austric in Upper Palaeolithic times,
and reminds us that the Pelasgian hypothesis, referring to a much more recent period,
can scarcely be invoked to explain African / New World parallels.
Also the snake /
drought motif belongs to Pandora’s box, and cannot be subsumed under the Pelasgian
The myth of matriarchy is highly contested; on this controversial point,
no suggestion as to the transmission mechanism can be made without further study of
the details; matriliny, however, (as distinct from matriarchy) qualifies as a Pelasgian
The systemic divorce between the royal and the commoner modes of Nkoya
society (although greatly overlapping in time, place and personnel) makes for an in-
ternal contradiction, which I have discussed elsewhere (van Binsbergen 2003b) as if
these were two complementary modalities within the same culture (cf. Leach 1954),
regardless of their apparently very different historical antecedents:
• the villagers have been pacifist, productive in many ways, and largely station-
ary (displaying a regional continuity going back at least two millennia, as the
archaeology of Western Zambian pottery suggests),
• whereas the royal capitals have been centres of organised violence directed
both at strangers and at the local population, have been non-productive and
parasitical, and have been nodes through which foreign artefacts, people and
cultural forms have passed for centuries.

As the extensive non-Nkoya African references in Section 5 suggest, there is –
perhaps with the exception of their rare musical talents – little to make the Nkoya ex-
ceptional among their neighbours. In some respects, however, the Nkoya case, and the
South Central African case in general, seem to occupy a special place in sub-Saharan
Africa as a whole.
In the first place, we are reminded of Willis’ (1994: 265) distinction of mytho-

Although little noticed by comparative mythologists (however, cf. Berezkin 2008, 2009), these paral-
lels are extensive, including, in addition to mythology: female puberty rites, divination and gaming,
basketry, hunting and fishing methods.
Meanwhile it is remarkable that the Indo-European roots for ‘earth’ (*dg’hem-) and ‘snake’
(*g’(h)em-, *g’(h)mēy-) are, according to specialist opinion, hardly distinguishable (Starostin & Sta-
rostin 1998-2008 ‘Indo-European etymology; Pokorny 1959-69: I, 662 f, 790; Buck n.d.: 16).
van Binsbergen – Chapter 9: African-Eurasian Mythological Continuity
logical zones in sub-Saharan Africa according to linguistic (macro)phylum, where
especially the mythologically elaborate, non-Bantu Niger-Congo speaking West Afri-
can region (with the Dogon as a typical, though ethnographically highly contexted
case; cf. van Beek 2010) is contrasted with the Bantu-speaking South Central and
Southern region possessing relatively rudimentary and implicit mythologies – of
which the Nkoya are a typical case. As Victor Turner’s famous studies (Turner 1967,
1968) of the Ndembu Lunda (quite close to the Nkoya in culture and language) indi-
cate, the central locus of cultural memory in the societies of South Central Africa is
ritual action, to which mythical and religious texts are a diffuse, oblique, multi-
layered, fragmented, unstable and situational, occasional commentary.
In the second place, kingship-related themes are so dominant in South Central
Africa (due to the excessively violent grasp in which kingships have held this region
during the centuries of long-distance trade especially in slaves) that, in this part of
Africa, the mythological expressions suggestive of Eurasian mythologies (centring on
the kingship and the Separation of Heaven and Earth) have left little room for Palaeo-
African expressions, such as focussing on the Tree as the source of life and of human-
kind, on the emergence of humankind not from heaven but from the Earth, on the
Rainbow Snake, the rain bird,
the origin of death, animal stories featuring tricksters
such as Hare, etc. Only a few fragments of these presumably Palaeo-African my-
thologies (as well-known from other parts of Africa) became visible to me in the
Nkoya case – such Narrative Complexes (NC, cf. Table 9.1.) as the Moon (NC 9),
Spider (NC 15), and Cosmogonic Rainbow Snake (NC 13); for instance, the standard
African myth of the origin of death through ontradictory messengers (NC 20), which
Yuri Berezkin 2009 considers to go back to Pandora’s Box (pace Oppenheimer 1998)
does not feature in my Nkoya mythological corpus, although it does in texts collected
by missionaries in Western Zambia around 1900. This state of affairs suggests that,
while in the Nkoya case the element of Eurasian-African continuity is extensive and
undeniable, this may be less so for some other parts of Africa – and that in the latter
regions, the Palaeo-African mythological element harking back to the pre-Exodus
times, is rather more conspicuous.

E.g. Jacottet 1899-1901: II, 152.
By a different route, Michael Witzel has arrived at a similar conclusion in his contribution to the
present book (p. 232 n. 14). I have no quarrel with his attempt to identify a very old mythological layer
in global cultural history – my concept of ‘Pandora’s Box’ does exactly the same, and was inspired by
his work in the first place. Where we part is when Witzel, with his strict distinction between Laurasian
and Gondwana mythologies, suggests that the former, more developed, type should be exclusive to
Northern regions, the latter, more ‘primitive’, type to the Southern regions, – instead of recognising
that, since all mythologies ultimately derive from pre-Exodus Africa, there is an implied ‘Pandora’s
Box’ / ‘Gondwana’ substrate in every mythology recorded in historical times, whenever and wherever.
New Perspectives on Myth
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Chapter 10. Pan-Gaean Flood myths

Gondwana myths – and beyond

by Michael Witzel

Abstract. Mythological compendia and indexes such as that by Stith Thompson create the impression
that flood myths are rare in Africa and Australia. Erroneously, I too thought so in my short summary of
Laurasian mythology (2001). A closer look at the worldwide distribution of flood myths tells differ-
ently. While they are fairly widespread in the Laurasian Area (Eurasia, Polynesia, the Americas), they
are by no means absent from what I like to call the Gondwana belt (sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea /
Melanesia, Australia). The hundreds of recorded flood myths from both areas can be classified into a
few major types, region per region. A comparison of the Australian and African versions indicates a
strong overlap that goes back to the time of the exodus from Africa, some 60,000 years ago. The Eura-
sian-American versions are more narrowly confined to a few basic types that can be traced back to the
emergence of Laurasian mythology. However, the Laurasian types clearly emerge from the earlier
Gondwana prototype. In sum, the flood myth is an ancient inheritance of human mythology. It is part
of a very old core of myths connected with the emergence of humans and their early, evil ways – sur-
prisingly echoing the Mesopotamian and Biblical accounts in many respects. Whether this myth has
taken shape among the bottleneck population along the shores of E.Africa or even before, in the mind
of the African Eve must remain moot, just as the psychological reason for its invention and formula-
tion, which is a topic to be investigated by the study of the human brain and its productions.
1. Overview
The flood myth is found widespread in Laurasian mythology
as well as in Gondwana
areas. It is based on a relatively small number of well attested mythemes connected
with a flood. This presentation is intended as a specimen of various investigations that

Harvard University, Cambridge M.A., USA.
For the terminology, see Witzel 2001. Gondwana refers to the ‘southern,’ Out of Africa, mythologies
(c. 65,000 years ago) and their subsequent local offshoots. Laurasian refers to Gondwana’s ‘northern’
offshoot, marked by subsequent independent development, characterized by an intricate story line, of
the Out of Africa mythologies. It is prevalent in Eurasia and the Americas as well as in the Austrone-
sian speaking areas of S.E. Asia, Polynesia and Madagascar.
New Perspectives on Myth
should be carried out for all major myths involving both Gondwana and Laurasian

In both areas, the flood myths have regardless of their details a distinct aspect
of retribution or revenge. It does not matter whether the flood emerges from heaven,
from the ocean, or just from a calabash (a mytheme found both inside and outside
In most Gondwana myths, the flood is retribution for or the result of a mis-
take. It frequently originates from rain or from a rain spell. Some divine creature is
involved, either the rainbow snake (only in Australia) or a deity from heaven or from
the mountains.
2. Gondwana Flood myths
2.1. Australia
To begin this investigation, we take a closer look at Australia since this region was
settled early (c. 40-60,000 BCE) and thus offers the possibility of the relatively undis-
turbed preservation of old data. The idea of the rain spell is found in all of Australia.
It is common in all three major cultural areas, the Southeast, the Northeast and the
North. However, scholars suspect the latter two areas witnessed later intrusions of
concepts and motifs from New Guinea during the last Ice Age. It is best
therefore to keep these areas separate, at first. Moreover, while the flood as retribution
or as the result of a mistake is very common, the involvement of the rainbow snake is
found only in the north, while that of a creator deity is present only in the Southeast
This is of importance since the latter type of deity is also found in Africa.
The Southeast
The Southeast exhibits other phenomena of retention, such as some linguistic fea-
and some indications of genetic peculiarities. It also has relative homogeneity
in the etyma of tribal names, favoring those in Gu-. From the point of view of relig-

In this short review, the actual texts cannot be presented. For a large selection see (by Mark Isaak. Copyright © 1996-2002, revision of
September 2, 2002; mirrored from and Thompson 1993:
Motif A1010 sqq: The Flood. – For a review of the restricted materials available to Frazer as well as to
Hastings (1909-1928, and an update until 1951) see Dundes 1988: 113-116. – Inspired by van Bins-
bergen (Beijing presentation 2006: 18, 2007; but his own view is somewhat different) one might be
tempted to consider the spread of the motif in Africa as occasioned by diffusion from Austronesian
Madagascar into E. Africa. This might even have reached W. Africa by maritime means. However, van
Binsbergen’s map of African occurrences overlaps only partially with that of Baumann 1936: 307sqq.;
see further below.
Now confirmed by genetics, see Hudjashov et al. 2007.
On linguistic means to separate SE Australia from the rest, see Wurm 1979: 578 sqq.; Usher 2002.
Witzel – Chapter 10: Pan-Gaean Flood Myths
ion, the Southeast is the only area in Australia that knows of a Deus Otiosus, a distant
creator god that may also be assumed for Tasmania. An earlier occupation of the
Southeast by Tasmanians may be the reason of these facts.
The individual flood mo-
tifs involved are the follow(1) Flood covering all land, all people die, except some
(2) Flood as retribution by creator for evil deeds of humans, emerging from ocean
(3) Flood as retribution for specific evil deeds of (a) man, emerging from frog
(4) Flood as solution for overpopulation (by animal clans), emerging from rain spell (All
these are old features comparable with Laur. mythology),
The Northeast
The Northeast is generally regarded as a separate myth zone, with some influ-
ence from eastern New Guinea; it has an extension to the southern and western parts
of Australia, again a feature with some linguistic backing (area of non-bound pro-
nouns). The major myths involved are the following:

(1) Flood covering all land, few survive on mountain
(2) Flood from rain spell, all die
(3) Flood from water bag, covering land, stopped by tree
(4) Flood from misdeed / mistake of rainmaker, covering all land
(5) Flood from spell, reaches canoe on top of mountain
(6) Flood with boat carrying people
(7) Flood from salt water in footsteps, as retribution
(8) Flood from river kills half of mankind

The North(west)
The northern part of Australia, especially Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys, are re-
garded as the original home of the languages different from the large Pama-Nyungan
language family that covers the rest of Australia. The north has a large number of
densely packed languages, which is a typical characteristic of the original homeland
of a language family. The area is also recognized for its prefixed bound pronouns
which are only found here in this particular way, excluding even those parts of Aus-
tralia that have other bound pronouns (i.e. the Southeast and much of the central and
western areas).
The mythological facts tend to agree with the concept of the North and
Northwest as a separate region, though some secondary western New Guinean influ-
ence during the past Glacial Maximum has been proposed and now verified by popu-
lation genetics.

Cf. Usher 2002.
Hudjashov 2007.
New Perspectives on Myth
As far as the flood myth is concerned, the following mythemes are typical.
The Rainbow Serpent’s involvement in the flood (mythemes 1-8) is a typical intrusive
Papua feature of this area.
(1) Flood from rainbow serpent’s rain spell, as high as tall serpent
(2) Flood from rainbow serpent’s flooding, children drown
(3) Flood from crying, people die, rainbow serpent eats them
(4) Flood from rain rock, Rainbow Snake urinates, people drown

(5) Flood from crying / breaking rainbow snake’s eggs, becomes rock
(6) Flood from killing snake; woman drowns, is eaten by snake
(7) Flood from killing rainbow snake; women drown, eaten by snake
(8) Flood from tree falling into creek, all drown
(9) Flood from felling tree, people drown
(10) Flood from wounds, people drown to dream world
(11) Flood from wounds / rain spell, and crying / tears; people washed away
(12) Flood from honey bag, people turn into birds
In spite of some regional differences, nearly all of Australia is thus character-
ized by having flood myths that involve rain or rain spells, sometimes boats are also
included so that one can flee to the mountains or other areas.
Another universal Australian motif is that of retribution for some sort of mis-
take or evil deed: by a creator deity in the Southeast myths, and by a rainbow snake in
the Northwest. Some of these motifs, such as that the rainbow snake, will also be met
with in other areas of Gondwanaland (and even in Laurasian India and South Amer-
Summing up, in all of Australia, we can discern the following main motifs:
(1) Flood covering all land, few survive on mountain
(2) Flood from water or honey bag, covering land, stopped by tree
(3) Flood from misdeed / mistake of rainmaker, covering all land
(4) Flood from salt water in footsteps, as retribution
(5) Flood from (rainbow snake’s) rain spell, all die
(6) Flood from spell, escape by boat, to top of mountain
(7) Rainbow serpent’s flooding (from rain rock), children / people drown
(8) Flood from crying, rainbow serpent eats people
(9) Flood from killing the rainbow snake; woman is eaten by snake
(10) Flood from tree falling / felled into creek, all drown
(11) Flood from wounds and rain spell / crying tears, people drown, go to dream world.

The same is also said of the S.E. Australian supreme deity Bundjel, see Dundes 1988: 130.
Witzel – Chapter 10: Pan-Gaean Flood Myths
2.2. New Guinea and the other Melanesian islands
The vast island of New Guinea and the other Melanesian islands stretch in a wide arch
all the way from Indonesia to Fiji and New Caledonia, from the equator to the Tropic
of Capricorn. Unlike Australia, a vast area of hunter and gatherer cultures, Melanesia
has preserved, largely until today, early food producing societies of a horticultural
type. They are interesting as societies with mythologies of early food producing peo-
ple that are quasi frozen in time (though one obviously must not forget that the Mela-
nesians are modern humans, just like everybody else on the globe, with some 130,000
years of historical background). The type of flood myths found in Melanesia matches
those in Australia to some extent. A simplified list includes these four major items:

(1) General flood covers all, except a mountain
(2) Creator / other god destroys humans by flood
(3) Flood as retribution for killing of culture hero; some people escape
(4) Flood as retribution for other mistakes; escape on raft or canoe.
In this paper, some of the important variants are given in some detail. E.g. Atá (Aeta,
in the central Philippines), are an isolated hunter gatherer tribe. They tell this myth:
Water covered the whole earth, and all the Atás drowned except two men and a woman who
were carried far to sea. They would have perished, but a great eagle offered to carry them on
its back to their homes. One man refused, but the other two people accepted and returned to

2.3. Andaman Islands
The Andaman Islands have been largely isolated for very long periods in history, ba-
sically until the arrival of the British in mid-19th century. Their people speak isolate
languages (connected by Greenberg to Papuan), and they exhibit a dominant, very old
strain of DNA (NRY D), belonging to the early South Asian descendants of the move
out of Africa.
Interestingly, their mythology has retained some very ancient traits as
Their flood myth, too, fits the pattern of the Papuan and Australian flood
myths. It is also one of retribution for early human misdeeds, and an escape by boat.
Some time after their creation, men grew disobedient. In anger, Puluga, the Creator, sent a
flood which covered the whole land, except perhaps Saddle Peak where Puluga himself re-
sided. Of all creatures, the only survivors were two men and two women who had the fortune
to be in a canoe when the flood came. The waters sank and they landed, but they found them-
selves in a sad plight. Puluga recreated birds and animals for their use, but the world was still
damp and without fire…

Cf. also S. Thompson, 1932-6, Motif A 1010 Melanesian; Kamma 1978. For some additional Melane-
sian myths see Hans Kelsen in Dundes 1988: 130 sq.
Gaster 1952, 1958: 103-104.
Thangaraj 2003; Endicott 2003.
See now the discussion by Sreenathan, forthcoming in Mother Tongue 2010, no. 14.
New Perspectives on Myth
After the people had warmed themselves [at the fire newly created by Puluga] and had leisure
to reflect, they began to murmur against the Creator and even plotted to murder him. How-
ever, the Creator warned them against such rash action, explaining that men had brought the
flood on themselves by their disobedience, and that another such offense would likewise be
met with punishment. That was the last time the Creator spoke with men face to face.

The Biblical echoes of flood and covenant are striking in this isolated popula-
tion. However, we must evaluate this flood myth against the emerging Andaman-
Melanesian-Australian pattern as well as in the framework of the complicated evi-
dence from sub-Saharan Africa.
2.4. Africa
While North Africa and the northern parts of East Africa clearly belong to the realm
of Laurasian mythology, the vast lands south of the Sahara present a complicated pic-
ture. Anthropologists have long expressed the view that, like in Australia, there are
several areas that have been influenced by the north, especially from the Sahel belt
and from the northern part of the East African area.
The data presented below will
therefore be subdivided along these lines: (a) the core area, sub-Saharan Africa; (b)
possible influence of the Sahel belt; and (c) northern East African influences.
In all areas, the flood myth
is basically seen as an act of retribution. The
flood often originates from rain (or a vessel); and it is caused by some heavenly dei-
ties or mountain spirits. We begin with the area that has most likely retained the most
original features, the central core area stretching from West Africa to the Congo and
South Africa.
Core area
The central sub-Saharan area exhibits some seven major mythemes. For practical rea-
sons, the Pygmies are included here, though their mythology may go back much be-
yond any Bantu settlements in the area.
(1) Flood and first humans: flood emerging from tree
(2) Flood as retribution; from god’s granddaughter
(3) Flood from sun / moon fight, and first / later humans

Gaster 1958: 104-105; another version (Beckwith 1987: 319) has a great storm killing many people
and turning them into fishes and birds; the water rose above the trees; Minni Cara and Minni Kota took
the fire in a cooking pot to a cave on top of a hill where it was kept until the flood receded.
Cf. now van Binsbergen 2006, and Beijing presentation (2006, handout p. 18). He explains all Afri-
can occurrences by N-S diffusion (out of the Sahel and E. Africa). However, at least some of the occur-
rences in Frobenius’ / van Binsbergen’s (Handout 2006: 24) Atlantic / SW ‘African core area’ would
point to an older, Gondwana layer in Africa.
The flood myth has been discussed at length by Baumann 1936: 307 sqq.; he criticizes the then (as
today) prevailing opinion that the flood myth is hardly found in Africa (Doniger 1991). Instead, it is
basically spread, in pockets, all over sub-Saharan Africa, with some variants. (For an English summary
of Baumann’s observations, see Hans Kelsen in Dundes 1988: 136-137). See also S. Thompson, Motif
A1010: African; cf. n. 2224, 1189, 2219.
Witzel – Chapter 10: Pan-Gaean Flood Myths
(4) Flood from a vessel; retribution for killing
(5) Flood as retribution: for sores
(6) Flood: sores
(7) Flood as retribution, by spell
West Africa
The areas in West Africa that are closer to the Sahel belt and that are prone to influ-
ences from the northern belt exhibit these major mythemes:
(1) Flood from calabash
(2) Flood from calabash, and stones creating rivers / flood
(3) Flood as retribution by a god
(4) Flood, from rain, as punishment; escape
(5) Flood, of village, broken clay pot as marriage sign
(6) Flood, friend of sun and moon, rise to sky
Eastern belt
As indicated, the eastern belt of Africa, stretching from Kenya to South Africa, has
been subject to influences from the Nilotic and Omotic areas. It exhibits the following
major mythemes of the flood myth:
(1) Flood from pot on top of house
(2) Flood, from rain, retribution for murder, boat; rainbow
(3) Flood from rain, retribution by spirit on mountain
(4) Lake created by mountain spirits
In sum, the sub-Saharan African evidence suggests the following major
mythemes within flood myth traditions:
(1) Flood and first humans: flood emerging from tree; no retribution, (Pygmy)
(2) Flood (from rain) as retribution; by a god, god’s granddaughter or mountain spirits
(3) Flood from sun / moon fight, first and later humans
(4) Flood from vessel or calabash; retribution for killing
(5) Flood as retribution and sores; or by spell
It is remarkable that a specific item such as that of the connection with wounds
appears in Australia (see above,) but not in Laurasian mythology.
Finally, through a general comparison of Gondwana myths, involving the Af-
rican, Andaman, Melanesian and Australian flood myths, we arrive at the flowing
simplified scheme that seems older than any Christian or (Islamic) influence in the
regions concerned.

W. van Binsbergen suggested to me during the Ravenstein conference that this may refer to men-
New Perspectives on Myth

(1) General flood covers all except a mountain (Pygmy, Mel., Aus.)
(2) Flood as retribution by god(s) / spirits, destruction of humans, (escape by
boat) (Mel., Andaman, Afr.)
(2a) Flood as retribution for killing of culture hero / rainbow snake
(Mel., Aus.)
(2b) Flood by mistake or spell of rainmaker / rainbow snake, escape by
boat to mountain; some eaten by snake (Aus. only)

(2c) Flood as retribution for other mistakes (Mel., Aus.)
(3) Flood from vessel, calabash, water / honey bag (Aus., Afr.) Laur.: rain
(4) Flood caused by someone’s wounds or sores (Aus., Afr.)
3. Laurasian Flood myths
The Laurasian versions of the flood myth are much better known; they have been ex-
tensively been collected by Stith Thompson; here follows a brief overview from his
Stith Thompson (1993): Mot i f A1010 The Fl ood. (Presented here in abbreviated form).
A1011.1. Flood partially caused by breaking forth of springs. Irish, India, cf. A941.6. Break-
ing forth of springs partial cause of flood. A1011.2. Flood caused by rising of river. S. A. In-
dian (Chiriguano).
Fl ood f rom f l ui ds of t he body:
A1012.1. Fl ood fr om t ear s. N. A. Indian; Polynesian: Rain from tears. D1567.2. Saint’s
tears produce fountain. A1012.1.1. Flood from Adam’s tears of repentance. A1012.1.2. Flood
from tears of grieving lover. N. Am. Indian (N’tlaka’panaq); S. Am. Indian (Chaco).
A1012.2. Fl ood f r om ur i ne. Koryak, Eskimo, Athapascan Indians.
A1012.3. Fl ood fr om bl ood. American Indian (Mono). A1012.3.1. Flood from slain gi-
ant’s blood. Iceland.
A1013. Fl ood f rom bel l y. It flows from pierced belly of monster. Indonesian, North and
South American Indian (Toba).
A1013.1. Vomiting of a whale causes flood. N. Am. Indian (Déné).
Other causes
A1015. Flood caused by gods or other superior beings. (Cf. A1018.) Babylonian, Marque-
sas, S. Am. Indian (Tupinamba, Yuracare)…
A1015.3. Flood caused by deity stamping on floor of heavens. Maori.
A1016. Pseudo- sci ent i f i c explanations of the flood. A1016.3. Flood caused by melting of
ice after great spell of cold. N. Am. Indian (Déné), S. Am. Indian (Gusinde) A1016.6. Moon
falls into sea and causes flood by overflowing. S. Am. Indian (Fuegians) A1017.2. Flood
caused by prayer. Maori. A1017.3. Flood caused by curse. S. Am. Indian (Chiriguano).

Cf. the appearance of the rainbow in Biblical myth, after the flood.
Witzel – Chapter 10: Pan-Gaean Flood Myths
A1018. Fl ood as puni shment . Old Testament, Spanish. Cole: Australian; (cf. B 91.6. Ser-
pent causes flood). Jewish, Greek, Babylonian, India, Buddhist myth, Society Is., Hawaiian,
Maori, Marquesas; N. Am. Indian (Calif., Pomo, Wishosk, Apache, Hopi, Zuñi; Caribbean
(Cuan); S. Am. Indian (Chaco, Cubeo, Toba, Inca). – See also references to ‘Sintflut’ in
A1010 and A1015, where in nearly all cases the gods produce the flood as punishment. (Cf.
Q200. Deeds punished. Q552.19.6. Flood as punishment for murder). – A1018.1. Flood as
punishment for breaking tabu. Fiji, Tahiti, Maori, Andaman; S. Am. Indian (Toba, Mataco,
Lengua). A1018.2. Flood as punishment for incest. American Indian (Namba); cf. Incest pun-
ished. T410.
A1018.3. Flood brought as r evenge for i nj ur y. Tuamotu; N. Am. Indian (Carrier,
Ts’etsaut, North Pacific Tribes, Haida, Kwakiutl, Mono, Shasta, Pima, Ojibwa, Menomini);
Central and S. Am. Indian (Cahita, Bororo, Tupinamba). A1019. Deluge: miscellaneous.
A1019.3. Flood because earth has become too thickly populated. India [and also in Mesopo-
tamia]. A1019.4. Flood puts out world-fire. (Cf. A1030.) S. Am. Indian (Tupinamba, Tucuna,
Nimuendajú, Cubeo).
A1020. Escape fr om del uge. A1021. Deluge: escape i n boat (ark) Irish, Icelandic,
Spanish, Greek, Hebrew: Genesis, ch. 6, 7, 8; Jewish, Babylonian, Hindu / India / Buddhist
myth, Chinese, Siberian, Pelew Is. (Micronesia), Maori; Eskimo, American Indian (Carrier,
Chipewyan, Coos, Kathlamet, Nootka, Chimariko, Salishan, Crow, Cochiti, White Mountain
Apache, Ojibwa, Choctaw, Shawnee, Natchez, Aztec, Arawak, Carib, Mbaya, Mura, Nimuen-
dajú, Taulipang, Camara (‘selections only’); cf. Z356. Unique survivor… A1021.0.2. Escape
from deluge in wooden cask (drum). Chinese, S.A. Indian (Guaporé). A1021.0.3. Deluge:
escape in gourd. India. 1021.0.4. Deluge: escape on floating tree. Korean. A1021.0.5. Deluge:
escape in hollow tree trunk. American Indian (Seneca, Mexican). A1021.0.6. Deluge: escape
on floating building. American Indian (Tlingit, Cahita).
A1021.1. Pairs of animals in ark. Seed of all beings put into ark to escape destruction.– See
references to ‘Sintflutsage’ in A1010; Irish, Hebrew: Genesis 6:19, Babylonian, Hindu; Aztec.
A1021.2. Bird scouts sent out from ark. Irish, Hebrew, Babylonian…
A1022. Escape fr om del uge on mount ai n. Greek, Hebrew, Hindu / India, Philippines,
Borneo, West Caroline Is.; Polynesian, Cook Group, Hawaii; N. Am. Indian (Bella-Bella,
Tahltan, Luiseño, Shasta, Blackfoot, Chiricahua Apache, Zuñi); S. Am. Indian (Araucanian,
Inca, Yunca, (Peru), Caingang, Amazon (‘only a selection of references for North and South
America.’). Australian.
A1023. Escape fr om del uge on t r ee. India; American Indian (Paiute, Plains Cree, Fox,
Catawba, Ackawoi, Caingang, Guayaki, Maina); cf. R311. Tree refuge. A1024. Escape from
deluge in cave. Andaman Is.; American Indian (Cheyenne, Arawak, Antis, Yuracare). A1025.
Escape from deluge on island. Society Is. A1026. Escape from deluge on foot. Chinese.
A1027. Rescue from deluge by fish. Hindu, cf. B551. Fish carries man across water.
A1028. Br i ngi ng del uge t o end. A1028.1. Trickster sticks spear in ground and leads wa-
ter to sea, ending deluge. S. Am. Indian (Chaco). [This is similar to the widespread Himalayan
myth of a great flood in a valley or from a pond ended by a deity cutting the mountains to let
the flood escape (Kashmir, Kashgar, Kathmandu, Eastern Nepal).
A1028.2. Birds fill sea
with dirt and overcome flood. S. Am. Indian (Caingang).
A1029. Mi scel l aneous… A1029.3. Escape from deluge in pot or jar. S. Am. Indian
(Chiriguano, Guarayu). A1029.4. Flood: refuge in huge gourds with seven rooms in each. In-
dia. A 1029.5. Escape from deluge in box or basket. American Indian (Thompson River,
Apache, Guarayu, Cubeo, Chaco. A1029.6. Survivors of flood establish homes. S. Am. Indian

See Allen 1997.
New Perspectives on Myth
Ot her worl d cat ast rophes: Fire, winter, etc.:
A1030. World-fire. A conflagration destroys the earth. Iceland, Greek, Lithuanian, Jewish,
Babylonian, Siberian, Hindu / Indian, Chinese; Maori; N. Am. Indian, S. Am. Indian.
A1035. Quenching the world-fire. A1035.1. Rain invoked to destroy world-fire. A1040. Con-
tinuous winter destroys the race. A1046. Continuous world-eclipse. India; S. Am. Indian.

The motif of actual descent from heaven or from a high mountain is often
connected with that of a primordial flood that wiped out all early humans.
It is best
known from the Biblical story of Noah’s flood and from the ancient Mesopotamian
Gilgamesh epic (Utanapishtim’s tale, tablet XI),
the oldest attested written version
in world literature.
The early Indian version telling of the flood of Manu
is found
in a later Vedic text, the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa only; however, is of the same time pe-
riod as that of the Hebrew Bible.
All these versions agree in that a great flood covered all lands and only a few
humans survived on a boat. When the flood receded it got stuck on a certain moun-
tain: Ararat in the Caucasus, Mt. Nišir in eastern Mesopotamia, the ‘northern moun-
tains (Himalaya) in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa or later, as Naubandhana mountain ‘tying
up the boat,’ in S. Kashmir. The survivors then stepped down from the mountain to
repopulate the earth. This congruence of tales has led to widespread speculation,
which are usually based on limited comparisons only. However, from the point of
view of Laurasian mythology, these three tales would merely constitute other exam-
ples derived from the secondary Laurasian sub-region of the Greater Near East.
The Biblical version stresses the flood as punishment for an evil deed. Like-
wise, the Mesopotamian gods grew restless because of the constant noise of the bus-
tling humans and decided to kill them.
The element of retribution or revenge
by a
deity (or outstanding human such as a shaman-like figure) is indeed a frequent and
outstanding feature of this myth wherever it is found. It may be best summarized by a

The flood is just one of the several ways that the early earth and (proto-)humans have been wiped out
several times (Meso-America), or will be wiped out in the future: by water, ice, fire, wind, devouring,
etc. See the discussions in Dundes 1988; Day 1984: 400 sqq.; Yamada 2003 (especially on S. China
and S.E. Asia).
Itself adapted from the myth of Atra®asis (or Ziusudra), a Sumerian text translated from the Ak-
kadian, see Kovacs 1985: 97 n. 1.
Heidel 1963, Gardner and Maier 1984, Kovacs 1985, Dalley 1989, etc.– Detailed version by Petti-
nato 1992, with the first complete translation of new materials, discovered in a royal tomb in 1999 by
the Italian archaeological mission at Me-Turan, between Djala and Tigri. It has a new end of the Gil-
gamesh saga, of c. 1700 BCE, much older than the Ninive text. Pettinato has been publishing on the
new texts since 2001.
For recent work on the flood myth, see Gonda 1978; Etter 1989; Magnone 1999: 125-136, 2000:
Atra®asis II SBV [Standard Babylonian Version] iv, Dalley 1989: 23 sqq.
For the Pan-Gaean topic of retribution and revenge, cf. Smith 1996: 35, 151 sqq.
Witzel – Chapter 10: Pan-Gaean Flood Myths
Polynesian version, that of the Maori:

Puta preached the good doctrines to the wicked tribes in the name of Tane. Mataaho or
Matheo was the most obstinate unbeliever of all the skeptical race. Puta prayed to Rangi
(heaven) to upset the earth; then the earth turned upside down
and all the people perished in
the deluge. Hence the flood is called ‘overturning of Mataaho.’
The Marquesas version of the myth is closest to that of the Bible.
there are various versions of the myth with other Polynesians, and even in another
version with the Maori, such as the following contemporary one:
Up to the present time Ranginui, the Sky, has remained separate from his wife, the Earth. But
their love has never diminished…
At length, lest all the land be lost, a party of the other children of Ranginui and Papatuanuku
resolved to turn their mother over, so that she and Ranginui should not be always seeing one
another’s grief and grieving more. This was done and is called Te Hurihanga a Mataaho…
When Papatuanuku was turned over by Mataaho, Ruaumoko was still at her breast, and he
remained there and was carried to the world below. To keep him warm there he was given
fire. He is the guardian of earthquakes, and the rumblings that disturb this land are made by
him as he walks about.

The motif of a great flood is found all over the Laurasian area,
according to
S. Thompson’s Motif Index (A 1010),
from Ireland and Old Egypt to Siberia,
Indonesia, Polynesia and to the Americas. It is found

Tregear 1891: 558, 222. Another Polynesian myth has Tane jumping on heaven until it cracks. For
the Hawai’ian version see Beckwith 1987: 315. In some versions, Christian influence is seen. For other
Oceanic versions pp. 315 sqq.
As it does, according to Vedic myth, every night; see Kuiper 1983, Witzel 1995-97.
Tregear 1891: 560.
The myth continues: ‘This is the narrative about the generations of the ancestors of men from the
beginning of the Po, and therefore we, the people of this land, carefully preserved these traditions of
old times as a thing to be taught to the generations that come after us. So we repeat them in our karakia
[invocation] and whenever we relate the deeds of the ancestors from whom each iwi [‘bone’] and fam-
ily is descended, and on other similar occasions.’
Though in some areas with its ‘reverse’ version, that of a flooding caused by a great lake or pond,
that laid the Kathmandu and Kashmir valley dry but briefly flooded nearby areas (See Allen 1997).
Thompson 1993, Motif: A1010. Deluge. Inundation of whole world or section. Irish, Greek, Egyp-
tian, Persian, Hindu / India, Chinese, Korean, Indo-Chinese, Indonesian, Philippine (Tinguian), Polyne-
sian (Samoan, Hawaii), Siberian, Eskimo, N.A. Indian (Pima, Walapai, Sia, Hopi, Sinkyone, Calif.
Indian, Maya, Mixtec), S. Am. Indian (Carib, Chibcha, Amazon tribes, Jivaro, Yugua, Cubeo, Aymara,
Zaparoans, Pebans, Bacairi, Nambicuara, Guaporé, Caingang, Eastern Brazil).
See Yang and An 2005: 74. Mathieu 1989, myths no. 39-41. – A new creation of humans occurs
through the marriage of a brother and sister after all humans had been wiped out by a disaster (flood,
fire, snow, etc.); this myth is found with the Han and some 40 other ethnic groups. In some versions,
the first child is abnormal due to a mistake in the ‘marriage’ procedure (as in Japan), such as a spheri-
cally shaped child, a gourd or stone, all of which has echoes in Indo-Iranian and Japanese myth; see
Yang and An 2005: 68, 73 sq.
In a different version found with the Mundas, see Ponette 1968: 99: a rain of fire sent as punishment
New Perspectives on Myth
among the Inuit, North, Central and South American tribes, including those of the
Amazon and the now exterminated Neolithic Selk’nam hunter and gatherers of Tierra
del Fuego. The latter have transmitted, along with the now exterminated Yamana
tribe, the myth about a flood
that covered all the land, except for five mountains
(just as in a Navajo tale, which ironically comes from a different language group, the
non-Amerindian Na-Dene). It is an example of ultima Thule tales that are not likely to
have been transmitted by diffusion from the Maya or Inca civilizations.

Once, when spring was approaching, an Ibis was seen flying over someone’s hut and people
shouted ‘the Ibises are flying. Spring is here.’ ... However, the Ibis herself ... took offense at
all that shouting, and, in revenge, let it snow so hard and long that the whole earth was blan-
keted. The sun came out, the snow melted, and the earth was flooded. People hurried to their
canoes, but only the very lucky reached one or another of the five mountain peaks that re-
mained above the waters. When the flood subsided, these came down, rebuilt their huts along
the shore, and ever since that time, women have been ruled by men.’

In short, the following main motifs are found in the Laurasian area:
(1) General flood covers all except a mountain
(2) Flood caused by gods or superior beings: escape in a gourd, boat, pot, ark; on a tree, on a
(2a) Flood as punishment, as revenge for injury
(3) Flood by breaking forth of springs, of vault of heaven, rain, etc.
(4) Flood from fluids of the body (tears, urine, blood).

Based on incomplete evidence, I have previously claimed that the myth was
missing in Africa and Australia.
The handbooks provide almost exclusively Laura-
sian entries: Stith Thompson’s Motif Index (A 1010); Frazer’s large collection of
flood myths seemed to indicate that it is absent in Africa and China,
(and Dundes –
like most mythologists since Frazer – maintains the same,
quoting one flood myth
from the Sahel belt of N. Cameroon and one from Australia). Yet, it can be shown
that the few African flood stories known to me then cannot simply be explained, as I
thought then, as intrusions from the Sahel belt or from northern sections of the ‘East

by the supreme god Siṃboṅga.
See Yamada 2003, where the gourd motif is fairly prominent. The paper contains a careful discus-
sion of various mythemes and subtypes of the flood myth in this area: ‘brother and sister survive the
flood,’ classified as 1. Primordial flood, 2. Cosmic antagonists, 3. Cosmic flood, 4. Flood caused by
‘sin’. The gourd appears in versions 2 and 4.
Gusinde 1931= Campbell I 2: 259.
Cf. also the Inca tale reported at Barber & Barber 2004: 202sq. = Sullivan 1996: 16. It dates back (in
two versions) to the 16th century. See further Bierhorst 1988: for Guyana 79 sq; for the Gran Chaco
142 sq., for Tierra del Fuego 164 sq.
Gusinde 1931, Wilbert 1977: 25-30.
Witzel 2001. Cf. also Yamada 2003: 1.
See Dundes 1988: 115, Yamada 2003.
Dundes 1988: 2.
Witzel – Chapter 10: Pan-Gaean Flood Myths
African Highway’ – that is, the Savanna and Steppe belt stretching from Uganda /
Kenya to S. Africa. Nor are the Australian flood myths to be derived from missionary
tales, such as the Aranda myth in Dundes’ book clearly is, at least in its current form
that has included Noah’s ark.

4. A comparison of Gondwana and Laurasian Flood
Table 10.1. A comparison of Gondwana and Laurasian Flood myths
Gondwana flood myths Laurasian flood myths
(1) General flood covers all except a mountain
Gondwana myths: Pygmy, Melanesia, Australia.
Near East, India, Siberia, Taiwan, S.E. Asia,
Americas, etc.
(2) Flood as retribution by god(s) / spirits & de-
struction of humans: Melanesia, Andaman Isl.,
Near East, Polynesia, Americas, etc.
Escape by boat (worldwide)
(2a) as retribution for killing of culture hero /
rainbow snake: Mel., Aus.

(2b) by mistake or spell of rainmaker / rain-
bow snake, some humans eaten by snake:
Aus. only
cf. rainbow after flood (Hebrew Bible)
(2c) as retribution for other mistakes: Melane-
sia, Australia
human noise, etc.
(3) Flood from vessel, calabash, water / honey
bag: Australia, Africa
by rain (Near East, etc,), overturning of heaven /
earth (Polynesia)
(4) Flood caused by someone’s wounds or sores:
Australia, Africa
from fluids of the body

In sum, both the Laurasian and the Gondwana flood myths share the topic of
retribution by a divine or superior human being. It often is caused by some sort of
mistake of one or more early humans and executed by excessive rain. Some people
escape by float or boat, usually to one or more high mountains. In some cases, a new
race of humans evolves from the saved primordial persons. The motif of revenge for
bodily harm, however, is limited to the Gondwana area, as are the motifs of the spell
of a rainmaker or the killing of the Rainbow Snake.
Finally, it is instructive to compare the positioning of the flood myth in Laura-
sian and Gondwana myths / story line.

Erich Kolig in: Dundes 1988: 241 sqq.
New Perspectives on Myth
Table 10.2. Combined table of Laurasian and Gondwana Flood myths
Gondwana mythology Laurasian mythology
– Creation from nothing, chaos, etc.
earth, heaven, sea preexist Father Heaven / Mother Earth created
Hi gh God in / toward heaven, (Fat her ) Heaven engenders:
sends down his son, totems, etc. two generations (‘Titans / Olympians’):
– Four (five) generations / ages
– heaven pushed up, sun released
– current gods defeat / kill predecessors
– killing the dragon / sacred drink
to cr eat e humans: from tree / clay humans: somat i c descendants of (sun) god
they show hubr i s they (or a god) show hubr i s
are punished by a f l ood are punished by a f l ood
Trickster deities bring culture Trickster deities bring culture
– humans spread, emergence of ‘nobles’
local tribes local history begins
– final destruction of the world
– new heaven and earth emerge

The position of the flood myth seems best located in Gondwana myths as a
punishment of or revenge against early humans for their hubris or transgressions. In
Laurasian myths, this is positioned after the creation of the world and the preparation
of the world for (human) habitation. It functions as an interlude in the continuing
creation of humans and of culture. In Gondwana myths, the original creation is miss-
ing, and humans are created by a High God or his son. Importantly, both myth fami-
lies frequently share the motif of human hubris as the cause of the flood.
In sum, the flood motif is wide-spread and universal.
In view of major simi-
larities, we have to regard the Flood Myth as an early myth that is indeed pan-human
and that belongs to the Pan-Gaean period, before the expansion of Homo Sapiens out
of East Africa. It must have been taken over from the original tales of the ‘African
If so, both the Laurasian and the Gondwana (African, Australian etc.) flood
myths go back to a time well before the last Ice Age. Consequently, naturalistic ex-
planations must be excluded, such as a flood caused by the meltdown of the great ice
shields, or the recently popular story of the fairly quick flooding of the Black Sea out
of the Mediterranean. It also means that we can safely exclude diffusion from Near
Eastern (Mesopotamian) origins, a theory that was popular earlier on.
There have

For a fairly comprehensive listing see
Keller 1955, 1956. – Or the recent N.W. coast Amerindian theories of an Ice age refuge and conse-
quent meltdown, not to speak of more esoteric explanations such as that of an astronomical myth,
found with the Inca (W. Sullivan 1996). A similar kind of mythological explanation would provide for
a big flood in the subterranean (= heavenly) ocean of night (cf. the myth of the sun’s progress through
the underground waters in Egypt, etc.); or a flood in the ‘yearly’ night, at the time of winter solstice, if
the Milky Way would stop turning: it would remain ‘flattened out’ as ocean surrounding and flooding
the world, see illustrations in Witzel 1984.
Witzel – Chapter 10: Pan-Gaean Flood Myths
been innumerable other, often quite fanciful explanations of this myth, ranging from a
diffusion of the Biblical or Mesopotamian motif
to such inventive psychological
explanations such as that of the late A. Dundes connecting men’s wish to give birth
and the salty floods with a nightly vesical dream, an urge to urinate.

Instead, a pre-existing (Pan-Gaean) flood story has been intelligently inserted
into the structure of Laurasian mythology. This took place at a node in the storyline
where it does not disturb its flow. Instead, it dovetails well with the separate myth of a
(3 or 4-fold) re-creation of the world and the re-emergence of humans as told in
Meso- / South American and Eurasian mythology.
Employing this example, we can further extrapolate how Laurasian mythology
developed out of earlier forms of Gondwana mythologies. It appears that Laurasian
mythology is just one offshoot of an earlier form that was close to the various Gond-
wana mythologies. Comparing them and Laurasian mythology, we can try to establish
their common ancestor that was prevalent long before the exodus from Africa, in
other words, at the time of the ‘African Eve.’

It now is obvious that that my original claim (2001) of a purely Laurasian origin of
the flood myth was not correct, based as it was, on limited evidence only,
and that
we have to rethink the problem. Importantly for the Laurasian theory, this apparent
‘setback’ is not as crucial as it may look initially. Like any developing theory, the pre-
sent one, too, will initially contain a few items that are unimportant, insufficient to
sustain the theory, or that are just plainly wrong. As Ragin
has it
... most interesting findings usually result from ... hypothesis formation based on preliminary
data analyses. In other words, most hypotheses and concepts are refined, often reformulated,
after the data have been collected and analyzed.
Initial examinations of data usually expose the inadequacy of initial theoretical
formulations, and a dialogue, of sorts, develops between the investigator’s conceptual
tools for understanding the data and the data analysis itself. The interplay between
concept formulation and data analysis leads to progressively more refined concepts
and hypotheses. Preliminary theoretical ideas may continue to serve as guides, but
they are often refined or altered, sometimes fundamentally, in the course of the analy-
The case of the flood myth belongs to the latter category, that of refinement of
theoretical concepts, of reformulation ‘after the data have been collected and ana-
lyzed.’ Though it is present in many, if not most Laurasian mythologies as part of its
original story line, it apparently did not originate with the ancient Laurasian shamans.
It seems to be much older and it was artfully incorporated, as a ‘popular’ motif that

See Habilitationsschrift by A. Etter 1989, and other Indologists such as Gonda, Magnone 1999,
2000, etc.
Dundes 1988: 151-165.
Stith Thompson: A 1010: Melanesian, Australian, African.
Ragin 1987: 164-5; cf. p. 55.
New Perspectives on Myth
could be used to explain many things that have gone wrong (see the Biblical or Ya-
mana myths).
However, this re-adjustment of the theory also means that the Laurasian theory
itself cannot be contradicted simply by the appearance of these African and Australian
motifs. It merely has to be fine-tuned and amended.
Allen, N.J., 1997, ‘ ‘‘And the lake drained away’’: An essay in Himalayan comparative mythology,’ In:
Mandala and landscape, Macdonald, A.W., ed., New Delhi: D.K. Printworld. pp. 435-451.
Barber, E.W. & Barber, P.T., 2004, When they severed earth from sky: how the human mind shapes
myth, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Baumann, H., 1936, Schöpfung und Urzeit der Menschen im Mythos der afrikanischen Völker, Berlin:
Dietrich Reimer.
Beckwith, M.W., 1987 [1940], Hawaiian Myth. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Bierhorst, J. 1988, The Mythology of South America, New York: William Morrow.
Campbell, J., 1988-1989 [1983], Historical Atlas of World Mythology. Vol. I. The way of the animal
powers. Part 1: Mythologies of the primitive hunter and gatherers. Part 2: Mythologies of the
great hunt,; Vol. II. The way of the seeded earth. Part 1. The sacrifice; Part 2. Mythologies of
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Chapter 11. Hēphaistos vs. Ptah

by Václav Blažek

Abstract. For the Greek theonym Hephaestus, an etymology is proposed to suggest that this god can be
related to the Egyptian god Ptaª. In a postscript, the analogy is considered with Martin Bernal’s well-
known, and contested, proposed etymology for the Greek theonym Athena from Egyptian *@t-Nt,
‘House (Temple) of Neith’.
1. Greek theonym
The Greek theonym `/Hfaistoj was known already to Homer.
In other Greek dia-
lects other variants appear: Doric `/Afaistoj, Aeolic '/Āfaistoj.
The theonym is
attested already in Mycenaean a-pa-i-ti-jo (KN I 588.1),
which reflects *'Afa…stioj
or *'Afaist…wn (Aura Jorro 1985: 73). There is also the variant H¾fastoj, attested
on the Attic vases.

1.1. Burning
There is perhaps the only semantically acceptable internal etymology of the theonym,
viz. its derivation from ¡f» ‘lightning, kindling’.
The relation of the divine smith to
fire is apparent, e.g. in the metonymic use of the name of ‘'Hfaistoj instead of pàr
by Homer:
kaˆ t¦ mcn ¨r sx…zVsin ¢fÚlloisin katškaion, spl£gcna d’ ¥r’ ¢mpe…ratej Øpe…recon

Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic.
Cf. Ilias XVIII, 397; VIII, 195 and Odyssea IV, 617 etc.
Frisk 1973-1991-1979: I, 646.
KN is a standard designation of the tablets in the Linear script B from Knossos.
Furnée 1972: 336; Chantraine 1968-1980: I, 418.
See Herodotus VII, 215 about the lamp-lighting time:
`Ormšato dc perˆ lÝcnwn ¡f¦j ™k toà stratopšdou
‘and they set forth from the camp about the time when the lamps are lit’):
¤ptw pàr ‘I kindle fire’, ¢f£w ‘I handle’ (Preller & Robert 1894: 174; see Liddell & Scott 1901: 657;
Frisk 1973-1991-1979: I, 126.
New Perspectives on Myth
‘These they burned upon the split logs of firewood, but they spitted the inward meats, and
held them in the flames to cook’ (Ilias II, 425-26; translated by S. Butler 1923-26),
cf. also flÕx `Hfa…stoio (Ilias XVII, 88) for ‘fire’, ¢n»faistoj ‘fire that is no real
fire’ (Euripides, Orestes 621). Concerning the hypothetical second component
*aistos, it seems possible to accept the idea forwarded by Carnoy (1957: 69) and to
see here a derivative of the type of *ait
tos from Greek a‡qw ‘I light up, kindle’, cf.
aiqoj ‘burning heat, fire’.
1.2. Shining Aphrodite
The ugly and lame Hephaestus (see Odyssea VIII, 306-311) had the most charming
wife on the Olympus, Aphrodite. Their marriage is already implicitly mentioned in
Odyssea VIII, 267-70, where the perfidy of Aphrodite with Ares in the house of
Hephaestus is described. Her name, 'Afrod…th, Cretan 'Aforditā, Cypriotic 'Aforo-
ditā, Pamphylian Ford…tā, has been etymologized in numerous studies.
I prefer the
idea proposed by K. Witczak (1993: 118-20) who sees here the compound of *ab
ro- ‘very’ & *d÷tā ‘shining’, hence ‘super-shining’, in agreement with one of her
epithets, d‹a ‘bright’. Among numerous epithets of Aphrodite, it is possible to find
the information about her ‘power’, expressed by the word megšqoj ‘greatness, might,
power’, when Hesiodus describes Alcmene and compares her with Aphrodite (Hesiod
1983: Shield of Heracles, verse 5).
2. Egyptian origin
The Egyptian origin of the theonym is at least comparably promising .
2.1. Temple in Memphis
In his Historiae, Herodotus (5th century BC) mentioned several times the Temple of
Hephaestus in the Egyptian city of Memphis, the capital of what has been known
since Manetho (3
century B.C.) as the Old Kingdom:

[II, 3.1] ½kousa d¥ kaˆ ¥lla ™n Mšmfi, ™lqën ™j lÒgouj to‹si ƒreàsi toà `Hfa…stou
‘I also heard other things at Memphis in conversation with the priests of Hephaestus’
[II, 99.4] æj d¥ tù M‹ni toÚtJ tù prètJ genomšnJ basilši cšrson gegonšnai tÕ
¢pergmšnon, toàto m¥n ™n aÙtù pÒlin kt…sai taÚthn ¼tij nàn Mšmfij kalšetai, ... toàto
d¥ toà `Hfa…stou tÕ ƒrÕn ƒdrÚsasqai ™n aÙtÍ, ™Õn mšga te kaˆ ¢xiaphghtÒtaton
‘Then, when this first king Min had made dry land of what he thus cut off, he first founded in
it that city which is now called Memphis, ... and secondly, he built in it the great and most
noteworthy temple of Hephaestus.’

These studies are summarized and briefly commented on by Witczak 1993: 115-16.
Blažek – Chapter 11: Hephaistos versus Ptah
2.1.1. Ptaª
Apparently, Herodotus’ Hephaestus from Egyptian Memphis was the Egyptian god
Ptah, because it is this god which is the main patron of the city and had a big temple
here. It was only Cicero in his De Natura Deorum (III, 22.55f), who unambiguously
identified Vulcan, the Roman counterpart of Hephaestus, with the Egyptian god Ptah:
‘Volcani item complures: primus Caelo natus, ex quo et Minerva Apollinem eum cuius in tu-
tela Athenas antiqui historici esse voluerunt, secundus Nilo natus, Phthas ut Aegyptii appel-
lant, quem custodem esse Aegypti volunt, tertius ex tertio Iove et Iunone, qui Lemni fabricae
traditur praefuisse, quartus Memalio natus, qui tenuit insulas propter Siciliam quae Volcaniae
‘There are also several Vulcans; the first, the son of the Sky, was reputed the father by Mi-
nerva of the Apollo said by the ancient historians to be the tutelary deity of Athens; the sec-
ond, the son of Nile, is named by the Egyptians Phthas, and is deemed the guardian of Egypt;
the third is the son of Jupiter and Juno, and is fabled to have been the master of a smithy at
Lemnos; the fourth is the son of Memalius, and lord of the islands near Sicily which used to
be named the Isles of Vulcan.’
2.1.2. Pataikos
In this regard, it is interesting to note what Herodotus (III, 37.2-3) wrote about the
Phoenician god Pataikos, corresponding with Greek Hephaestus:
ìj d¥ d¾ kaˆ ™j toà `Hfa…stou tÕ ƒrÕn Ãlqe kaˆ poll¦ tù ¢g£lmati kategšlase: œsti
g¦r toà `Hfa…stou têgalma to‹si Foinikh…oisi Pataïkoisi ™mferšstaton, toÝj oƒ
Fo…nikej ™n tÍsi prórVsi tîn trihršwn peri£gousi. Öj dc toÚtouj m¾ Ôpwpe, ™gë dc
shmanšw: pugma…ou ¢ndrÕj m…mhsij ™sti. ™sÁlqe dc kaˆ ™j tîn Kabe…rwn tÕ ƒrÒn, ™j tÕ
oÙ qemitÒn ™sti ™sišnai ¥llon ge À tÕn ƒrša: taàta dc t¦ ¢g£lmata kaˆ ™nšprhse poll¦
‘He [= Cambyses] likewise went into the temple of Hephaestus, and made great sport of the
image. For the image of Hephaestus is very like the Pataeci of the Phoenicians, wherewith
they ornament the prows of their ships of war. Of persons have not seen these, I will explain
in a different way - it is a figure resembling that of a pigmy. He went also into the temple of
the Cabiri, which it is unlawful for any one to enter except the priests, and not only made sport
of the images, but even burnt them.’ (translated by George Rawlinson, cf. Herodotus 1872)
2.2.1. Etymology of Pataikos: ‘making’
The Phoenician theonym Pataikos has no parallels in the Semitic pantheon, although
it could be etymologized on the basis of the verb √p-t-q: Akkadian patāqu ‘to shape,
create, form’, particularly ‘to form brick, wall, building, statue’, ‘to create heaven,
earth, mankind’, also ‘to cast metal’, pitqu ‘casting of metal’, e.g. pitqu erî, kaspi
‘cast copper, silver’;
Post-Biblical Hebrew √p-t-q ‘to cleave, split’, Syriac √p-t-q ‘to
cleave, split, break’, Arabic √f-t-q ‘to tear, rip open, split, yield well’.

Black & Postgate 2000 = CDA 270, 276.
See Klein 1987: 537; Takács 2001: 532.
New Perspectives on Myth
2.2.2. Pataikos: artisans’ patron
Alternatively the theonym Pataikos can represent an adaptation of the name of one of
the most important Egyptian gods, Pt, patron of artisans, who was worshipped espe-
cially in Memphis,
Demotic Pt, Coptic Pta. Significantly, there are the cuneiform
transcriptions of this divine name: Middle Babylonian
Si-ip-ta-¯u = Z3 Pt ‘son of
Ptah’ and
Ài-ku-up-ta-a¯ = Á.t k3 Pt ‘house of the spirit of Ptah’, i.e. the sacred
name of Memphis; from the Boğazköy archive the name of the king Merneptah
ni-ip-ta¯ = Mry ny Pt ‘beloved by Ptaª’; the latest one, from the Assyrian epoch, is
Ip-ti-¯ar-si-e-šu = Pt Õ-Õr dy-sw
‘it is Ptah who gave it’.

It is apparent, the transcriptions from the 2nd mill. BC reflect the vocalization *Pta,
but the Assyrian record from the 1st mill. *Pti is closer to Herodotus’ P£taikoj not
only in form, but also in time. The name of the Greek god could ultimately represent
an adaptation of the idiom of the type Egyptian Á.t Pt ‘house / temple of Ptah’,
which may be vocalized as *Áā(t)-Ptaª-i (*-i is the genitive ending), cf. the name of
the goddess Hathor, Egyptian (from the Pyramid Texts) Á.t Ár, lit. ‘house / temple of
Horus’, in the New Kingdom the fest, continuing in Coptic Sahidic -at
ōr ‘third
month of the Coptic year’, Greek ‘Aqàr, Arabic Hātūr, in contrast to Á.t W
r.t ‘capi-
tal of the Hyksoses’, lit. ‘house by the leg’, i.e. ‘arm of the river’, in Greek trans-
cription AÜarij, without any traces of -t-.
The preservation of the medial -t- has
been explained variously:

(i) depending on accent
(ii) in cluster with the following laryngeal.

The following development is difficult to reconstruct, perhaps *Áā(t)-Pta-i >
. The epenthesis of this type is known in his-
tory of Egyptian, e.g. Coptic Sahidic noyt, Bohairic nōit, Fayyumic nait ‘flour’, De-
motic nyt: Middle Egyptian ndy-w ‘flour’.

2.3. Divine name
The most archaic attestation of the divine name Pt appears in the Pyramid Texts,
namely in the Utterance 573, §1482c:

Erman & Grapow 1971 = Wb. I, 565; 329.
Vycichl 1983: 166, 517; 1990: 80-81, 179-80, 191.
Vycichl 1983: 317, 237.
Vycichl 1990: 251.
Egberts 1996-97: 159.
Erman & Grapow 1971 = Wb. II, 370; Vycichl 1983: 141: *nadyaw > *naydaw.
Blažek – Chapter 11: Hephaistos versus Ptah
‘Commend N. to Wr-šps.f, the beloved Ptah, the son of Ptah’,
where the epithet wr-šps means ‘greatly noble’.

2.4. Director
The theonym could be connected with the verb pt- ‘to form, create’, according to Er-
man & Grapow 1971 = Wb. (I, 565) attested only in the Greek-Romance period, yet
included in the Dictionary of Middle Egyptian by Faulkner;
these attestations con-
tinue in Demotic pt- ‘to carve’ = ‘sculpter, ciseler’ = ‘schnitzen, meisseln’, Coptic
Sahidic pōt-, Bohairic p
ōt- ‘to carve, engrave’.
Outside of Egyptian Hebrew pattā-
‘to engrave’, pittūa- ‘engraving, engraved decoration’, Jewish Aramaic & Phoenician
pt- ‘engraving’ seem to be related.
But Černý (1976: 130) supposed that the late
Egyptian and Coptic verb was borrowed from West Semitic. The examples from other
Semitic languages confirm *¯ in the position of the third radical: Akkadian patā¯u ‘to
puncture, bore through’, Qatabanian ft¯ ‘to inscribe, engrave’, Sabaic ft¯ ‘decorated
stonework’, Mehri (Jahn 1902) fáta¯ ‘Loch, Verwundung’ (Takács 2001: 532). This
fact represents a very strong argument for its borrowing from a Semitic source charac-
terized by the change *¯ > *. This feature is typical for such languages as Hebrew,
Phoenician or Aramaic. Vycichl (1959: 146) tried to connect the Egyptian verb with
Akkadian patāqu ‘to shape, create, form’, particularly ‘to form brick, wall, building,
statue’, ‘to create heaven, earth, mankind’, also ‘to cast metal’ (Black & Postgate
2000 = CDA 270). From the point of view of semantics this motivation looks very
convincing not only for the verb ‘to carve, engrave’, but also for the god who was the
patron of craftsmen. But the difference in the third radical is incompatible with the
idea of common origin. And so from the point of view of historical phonetics the best
etymology comes from connecting the Egyptian verb with Epigraphic South Arabian:
Qatabanian ft- ‘to order, direct’, Sabaic ft- ‘to leave the decision to someone, author-
ize’; further cf. Himyaritic fata-a ‘to give judgment’ (Biella 1982: 412), Geez fat-a ‘to
judge, decide, arbitrate’ (Leslau 1987: 170). Finally, the semantic development from
the meaning ‘to order, direct, judge’ to the name of the god, who was a universal crea-
tor and demiurg, is quite acceptable.
2.5. Title high priest
The title of Ptah’s high priest wr ¯rp(w) -mwt, lit. ‘greatest of the controllers of

Translated by Samuel A. Mercer: The Pyramid Texts, New York: Longmans & Green 1952 – also
see .
Faulkner 1981: 96; cf. also Hannig & Vomberg 1999 = WPS 519; the latter dictionary covers the
Egyptian lexicon for the time interval 2800-950 B.C.
Vycichl 1983: 166.
Koehler & Baumgartner 2001: 985-86; Ricks 1989: 132.
New Perspectives on Myth
craftsmen’ (Erman & Grapow 1971 = Wb. I, 565; 329), provides evidence of a rela-
tion of Pt to craftsmen.
2.6. Big-bellied dwarf
Ptah is associated with the figures of dwarves in workshop scenes from mastaba
tombs in the Old Kingdom. In the Late Period it was probably Ptah who was depicted
as a big-bellied dwarf on magical stelae and as figurines, going back to the association
with the craftsman-dwarves.

2.7. Ptaª’s wife
The Egyptian tradition knew the spouse of Ptah. It was the goddess S¯m.t, first ap-
pearing already in the Pyramid Texts and attested still in Old Coptic in the form
Sa¯mi and in the Greek transcription Petes£cmij of an Egyptian toponym, lit. ‘that
what was given by Sakhmet – (see Vycichl 1983: 203 who proposed the vocalisation
*sā¯imat). In Ancient Greek iconography, she was characterized by a lioness’ head.
Her name was formed from the word s¯m ‘power’, hence ‘powerful’. This word also
served as an epithet of the goddess Hathor (Erman & Grapow 1971 = Wb. IV, 249-
3. Ptaª ªª ª and Hephaestus compared
The common features of Ptah and Hephaestus and their spouses can be compared in
the following table:

Ptah Hephaestus Paragraph
*Áā(t)-Pta-i > *Hāpsta(h)i


Specialization Patron of craftsmen Active craftsman 2.6.
Physical shape Dwarf-like Lame 2.6.; 1.2.
S¯m.t ‘powerful’
megšqei dat. ‘power’ 2.7.; 1.2.

Table 11.1. Comparison of Ptaª and Hephaestus and their spouses

It seems, it is safe to conclude that the theonym Ptah could be adapted in the com-
pound *Áā(t)-Pta-i ‘house of Ptah’ in Greek already in the 2nd mill. BC not only as
a word, but also with basic features characterizing him and his charming and warlike

On this point, cf. [Jonsson, K.M.], 1998-2008, ‘The Egyptian Gods: their main centers of worship
and some festival days’, at:
Blažek – Chapter 11: Hephaistos versus Ptah
Post scriptum in the light of the Black Athena debate

The idea of so called ‘Black Athena’ has been widely discussed. It was originally
proposed by Bernal
who tried to etymologize the Greek goddess 'Aq»nh (e.g. by
Homer with more archaic counterparts in Doric 'Aq£na known from Argos or Phocis
and Mycenaean Atana), on the basis of Egyptian syntagm Á.t (n) N.t ‘temple of [the
goddess] Neit’, used as the sacred name of Saïs, the ancient city from the Western
Delta. Bernal (1997a: 91) reconstructed the vocalization *Áat (Vn) Nāi.t. The first
component should be reconstructed as *Áāt, originally contracted from *-āwi.t

There are really some examples where the final -t in the first component in
compounds is preserved, e.g. Á.t Ár, lit. ‘house / temple of Horus’ (see §2.2.2.
above), furthermore the ancient city from Lower Egypt Á.t-ry-Õb ‘house or temple
situated in the middle’, known from the Assyrian transcriptions
Àa-at-¯i-ri-bi from the time of Assurbanipal, c. 650 B.C., with a Greek adaptation
recorded by Herodotus (II, 166) in the 5th century B.C. as '/Aqribij, 'Aqrib…thj
nomÒj, and finally continuing as Coptic Sahidic Atrēpe, Bohairic At

There are also the opposite examples, e.g. Á.t W
r.t ‘capital of the Hyksos’, lit.
‘house by the leg’, i.e. ‘arm of the river’, in Greek transcription AÜarij, without any
traces of -t- (Vycichl 1983: 237), or Á.t k3 Pt- ‘house of the spirit of Ptah’, serving as
the sacred name of Memphis, known from the cuneiform transcription as
ta-a¯ and even from the transcription in the Linear script B as ai-ku-pi-ti-yo
the 13rd cent. B.C.

The double reflexes of the final -t in compounds does not have any unambigu-
ous solution. Vycichl (1990: 251) explained it without reference to the position of
accent in old compounds, while Egberts (1996-97: 159) mentioned that old -t is pre-
served only in the sandhi cluster with the following laryngeal.
The second component of the compound, the theonym N(y).t, is known from

I am indebted to Wim van Binsbergen for extensive critical comments (including the parallel be-
tween my Hephaistos etymology and Bernal’s Athena etymology) which prompted the present Post
scriptum. However, the responsibility for this part of my text, as for the rest, is exclusively my own.
Cf. Bernal 1996-97a: 1-94 with older literature; cf. van Binsbergen 1996-97 (now in press as van
Binsbergen 2010) and Egberts 1996-97, who rejected Bernal’s proposal.
Vycichl 1990: 178.
Vycichl 1983: 18; 1990: 182.
The Greek toponym Aiyu«:oç is generally considered to derive from this name.
Vycichl 1983: 5 reconstructed the first component as *-āyi.t, easy derivable from *-āwi.t recon-
structed by him in Vycichl 1990: 178.
New Perspectives on Myth
the Middle Kingdom. In the time of the New Kingdom the spelling Nr.t also ap-
The vocalization of the goddess’ name is preserved in several sources: He-
brew ‘Ās
nat (Genesis 41.45) = Coptic Sahidic Asennet
, Asennēt
‘wife of Joseph’,
reflexing probably the Egyptian female name N-sy Ny.t ‘she belongs to [the goddess]
Neith’. Plato (Timaeus 21b) mediated the Greek transcription Nhΐq, preserving the old
diphthong which was already lost in the transcription N…twkrij of the name of the
queen N.t Õqr.t from the 6th century B.C., recorded by Manetho in the 3rd cent. B.C.
(Vycichl 1983: 17; Waddell 1940).
Combining these sources, it is safe and reasonable to conclude that the Egyp-
tian divine name would be vocalized as *Nāyi.t or *Nā3i.t (it is regularly derivable
from still older *Nāri.t, regarding the archaizing New Egyptian spelling). The Ionian-
Attic change *ā > ē would regularly transformed it in the form attested by Plato. Al-
though the final -t in the Greek adaptation Nhΐq of the feminine theonym N(y).t was
preserved, there are many examples of dropping of the final -t in the Greek adapta-

One of Bernal’s weakest arguments is his explanation of origin of the second
vowel in the theonym *At
ānā(i). In the compound Á.t N(y).t there is no space for any
middle vowel, cf. Á.t Ár, Á.t-ry-Õb, discussed above. Bernal solves this puzzle by the
genitive particle n, correctly ny in m. and n.t in f., vocalized as *niy-u and *ni.t-u re-
spectively (Vycichl 1983: 134), from the Middle Kingdom already without final *-u.
But there are no traces of the prothetic vowel, neither in the genitive particle nor in
the divine-name, as Egberts mentions (1996-97, 159). The genitive particle connect-
ing two feminines should also be in agreement with the same gender. So the whole
formation could be reconstructed as *Áā(yi)t-nit-Nā3it around 2000 B.C., in the 1st
millennium B.C. probably *Áā(t)ni(t)Nāyit.
Summing up,

• on the one hand, the goddess Neith really represents a functional counterpart
of Greek *At
ānā(i), which makes Bernal’s hypothesis attractive and possibly
an important support in argumentation about the proposed Egyptian origin of
the Greek theonym `/Hfaistoj,
• yet, on the other hand, in the context of a specifically philological argument
Bernal’s hypothesis cannot be accepted without new arguments being ad-
vanced towards its linguistic vindication.

Erman & Grapow 1971 = Wb. II, 198.
Cf. the adaptations attested in the 5th cent. B.C.: c£mya (Herodotus II, 69) ‘crocodile’ < Egyptian
f. mz.t id. (Erman & Grapow 1971 = Wb. III, 96) or kÒmmi ‘gum’ (Herodotus II, 86, 96) < Egyptian
qmy.t id. (Erman & Grapow 1971 = Wb. V, 39) - see Hemmerdinger 1968: 243; McGready 1968: 249-
50; Fournet 1989: 62, 68.
Still less convincing is the attempt to etymologize the name of the temple of Athena Parqenèn at
the citadel at Athens on the basis of the Egyptian place name Pr-tn, lit. ‘house of glitter’, attested in
Saïs (Bernal 1996-97a: 95-97). It would be rash to claim that the word is without any satifactory ety-
mology. It was Eric Hamp 1972 who separated it from the word parqšnoj ‘virgin’ and proposed an
Blažek – Chapter 11: Hephaistos versus Ptah

Perhaps to be preferred over Bernal’s hypothesis is the Semitic etymology of the
name of the goddess *At
ānā or ˆurrian etymology of the city-name *At
ānāi, both
discussed in Blažek 2007.
Aura Jorro, F., 1985-93, Diccionario micénico, I-II. Madrid: Consejo superior de investigaciones
Bernal, M., 1996-1997a, Responses to Black Athena: general and linguistic issues, Talanta 28-29: 65-
Bernal, M., 1996-1997b, Response to Arno Egberts, Talanta 28-29: 165-171.
Biella, J.C., 1982, Dictionary of Old South Arabic: Sabean Dialect, Chico: Scholar Press.
Black, J., George, A., and Postgate, N. (eds.), 2000, A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian [CDA], Wies-
baden: Harrassowitz.
Blažek, V., 2007, Theonymica Helleno-Semitica II: Pallas At
ānā / At
ānā Potnia ‘Virgin’ or ‘Lady’?,
DO-SO-MO, Fascicula Mycenologica Polona 7: 161-176.
Butler, S., 1923-26, The Iliad of Homer (XIII) & The Odyssey (XV), rendered into English prose. In:
The Schrewsbury edition of works of S. Butler, ed. by H.J. Jones & A.T. Bartholomew. Lon-
don: Cape.
Carnoy, A., 1957, Dictionnaire étymologique de la mythologie gréco-romaine, Louvain: Universitas.
Černý, J., 1976, Coptic Etymological Dictionary, Cambridge: University Press.
Chantraine, P., 1968-80, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, I-IV. Paris: Klincksieck.
Cicero, 1972, De Natura Deorum, H. Rackham, ed. and trans., Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University
/ London: Heinemann.
Egberts, A., 1996-1997, Consonants in collision,: Neith and Athena reconsidered, Talanta 28-29: 149-
Erman, A. and Grapow, H., (eds)., 1971, Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache, [Wb] I-VI, Berlin:
Euripides, The Orestes, ed. by N. Wedd. Cambridge: University Press.
Faulkner, R., 1981, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, Oxford: Griffith Institute.
Fournet, J.L., 1989, Les emprunts du grec à l’égyptien, BSLP 84/1: 55-80.
Frisk, H., 1973-1991-1979, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, I-III, Heidelberg: Winter (2nd
edition for I and III, 3rd edition for II).
Furnée, E.I., 1972, Die wichtigsten konsonantischen Erscheinungen des Vorgriechischen, The Hague -
Paris: Mouton.
Hamp, E.P., 1972, ΠAPΘENOΣ and its cognates, in: Homenaje Antonio Tovar, Madrid: Editorial
Gredos, pp. 177-180.
Hannig, R. and Vomberg, P., (eds.), 1999, Wortschatz der Pharaonen in Sachgruppen, [WPS], Mainz:
von Zabern.
Hemmerdinger, B., 1968, Noms communs grecs d’origine egyptienne, Glotta 46: 238-247.
Herodotus’, 1963, Historiën, B.A. Van Groningen, ed., Leiden: Brill.
Herodotus, 1862, History, edited and translated by G. Rawlinson et al., London: Murray.
Hesiod, 1983, Theogony, Works and days, Shield, translated by A.N. Athanassakis. Baltimore: John
Hopkins University Press.
Homērou epē, 1942, Ilias & Odysseia, Leipzig: Insel Verlag.
Jahn, Alfred, 1902, Die Mehri-Sprache in Südarabien: Texte und Wörterbuch, Vienna: Hölder for
Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften, Südarabische Expedition, Band III.

ingenious etymology from *p
en- < *b

-en- ‘high hill’ → ‘citadel’ (cf. German Berg vs. Burg).
New Perspectives on Myth
Klein, E., 1987, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, New York -
London: Macmillan.
Koehler, L. and Baumgartner, W., 2001, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Lei-
den-Boston-Köln: Brill.
Leslau, W., 1987, Comparative Dictionary of Ge
ez (Classical Ethiopic), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Liddell, H.G. and Scott, R., 1901, A Greek-English Lexicon, 8th edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
McGready, A.G., 1968, Egyptian words in the Greek Vocabulary, Glotta 46: 247-254.
Mercer, S. A., 1952, The Pyramid Texts, New York: Longmanns & Green.
Plato, 1975, Plato in twelve volumes, IX: Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles, with an
English translation by R.G. Bury, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge (Mss.) Harvard
University Press / London: Heinemann.
Preller, L. & Robert, C., 1894, Griechische Mythologie, 4th edition, Berlin: Weidmann.
Ricks, S.D., 1989, Lexicon of Inscriptional Qatabanian, Roma: Pontificio Istituto Biblico.
Schrader, O. and Nehring, A., 1917-1929, Reallexikon der indogermanischen Altertumskunde, I-II.
Berlin - Leipzig: Walter de Gruyter.
Solmsen, F. (ed.), et al., 1990, Hesiodi Theogonia, Opera et dies, Scutum, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Takács, G., 2001, Etymological Dictionary of Egyptian, Vol. II: b-, p-, f-. Leiden-Boston-Köln: Brill.
van Binsbergen, W., 1996-1997, Black Athena ten years after: towards a constructive re-assessment,
Talanta 28-29: 11-64.
van Binsbergen, W., in press (2010), ed., Black Athena comes of age, Berlin etc.: LIT.
Vycichl, W., 1959, Ägyptisch-semitische Anklänge, Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache 84: 145-147.
Vycichl, W., 1983, Dictionnare étymologique de la langue copte, Leuven-Paris: Peeters.
Vycichl, W., 1990, La vocalisation de la langue égyptienne, I: La phonétique,. Caire: Institut français
d’archeologie orientale du Caire (Bibliothéque d’étude, T. 16).
Waddell, W. G. 1940. Manetho, with an English translation. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Har-
vard University Press.
Witczak, Krzysztof T. 1993. Greek Aphrodite and her Indo-European origin. In: Miscellanea Linguisti-
ca Graeco-Latina, ed. by Lambert Isebaert. Namur: Société des Études classiques, 115-123.

Chapter 12. Can Japanese mythology
contribute to comparative Eurasian

by Kazuo Matsumura

Abstract: Comparison of classical Japanese mythology and mythologies of various other Eurasian
countries have been conducted by many eminent scholars: In Japan, by the late Taryo Obayashi, Atsu-
hiko Yoshida, and Hitoshi Yamada; in Europe, by late Nelly Naumann; and in the United States by
Michael Witzel. After introducing the contributions of these scholars, I indicate a connecting threads to
the following topics of classical mythology and history of Japan usually discussed separately; Jomon
clay figurines; Flood myth and incest; the World Parent Izanagi and Izanami; Sun Goddess Amaterasu
and her brother Susanowo; the Hidden Sun motif; Amaterasu as a Virgin Mother Goddess; Himiko, the
Queen of Yamatai Kingdom; the Hime-hiko ruling system; Onari-kamiin southern islands of Okinawa;
male-female leaders of Japanese new religions. As mentioned, parallel examples of these motifs could
be found not only in China, but in Taiwan, Siberia, Mongolia, Oceania, Southeast Asia, and even in
North America. Tracing the origin of motifs is brilliantly conducted by the scholars mentioned above.
What I am intending here is slightly different. I am more interested in transformation: how various
motifs coming from abroad were organized as the classical Japanese cultural system of which mythol-
ogy is an important element; what was the core of the idea. In my opinion, these topics could be classi-
fied into the following categories:
1. Brother-sister marriage: Izanagi and Izanami; Flood myth and incest; Amaterasu and Susanowo.
2. Brother-sister antagonism: the Hidden Sun motif.
3. Brother-sister rulership: Himiko; Hime-hiko system; Onari-kami in Okinawa; male-female lead-
ers of new religions.
4. Mother-Son deities and / or Virgin Mother Goddess: Amaterasu and Hono-ninigi; Athena and
Erichthonios; Mary and Jesus.
5. Corn mother: Amaterasu and Hono-ninigi. What is most notable is the brother-sister combina-
This combines separation and integration of two spheres: sacred and profane (or secular). The Mother-
son pair is also prominent and shows the same combination. These two categories may indicate a
strong female principle active in Japan through the ages. As the cases of Athena and Mary show, how-
ever, this combination of sacred (female) and profane (male) is not limited to Japan; under certain con-
ditions, it could occur in other Eurasian mythologies as well.
1. Introduction
Classical Japanese mythology is mainly recorded in the Kojiki (dated to 712 CE) and

Wako University, Tokyo, Japan.
New Perspectives on Myth
Nihonshoki (720 CE). The production of these books was inspired by the introduction
of writing and advanced ideas from China regarding technology, agriculture, philoso-
phy, religions (Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism), and politics. Episodes in these
mythological texts show motifs common not only to classical Chinese myths, but also
to various mythologies from other Euro-Asian countries. Since Japan is situated at the
eastern coast of Eurasian continent, it received many cultural influences from
neighboring regions. Bordered on the north by Siberia, on the west by the Korean
peninsula, and on the southwest by southern China and Taiwan, oversea influences
could penetrate in Japan from various directions (Map 1). Yet despite the close prox-
imity of others, the Japanese archipelago has for the most part been inhabited from ca.
10,000 B.C. to the present in relative isolation and safety from more powerful foreign
invaders. Thus, the archaeological remains from the oldest pre-agricultural Stone Age
to the Bronze Age, through the Iron Age, down to the more modern historical periods
are well attested. This means that cultural strata discerned in the classical Japanese
mythology can be compared with actual archaeological discoveries which enables the
examination of the validity of mythological traditions.

Fig. 12. 1. East Asia.
The comparison of classical Japanese mythology and mythologies of various
other Eurasian countries has been conducted by many eminent scholars. In Japan,
mythological studies have been conducted by the late Taryo Obayashi (Psproth &
Yamada 2002), Atsuhiko Yoshida (1977), and Hitoshi Yamada (2006). In Europe, the
Matsumura – Chapter 12: Japan and Comparative Eurasian Mythology
late Nelly Naumann (2000; Matsumura 2006) and in the United States Michael Witzel

(2005) have also closely studied comparative mythology and Japan.
As I mentioned, parallel examples of similar motifs can be found not only in
China, but also in Taiwan, Siberia, Mongolia, Oceania, Southeast Asia, and even in
North America. The scholars mentioned have done brilliant work in tracing the origin
of similar motifs. What I am intending here is slightly different. I am more interested
in transformation:
how various motifs coming from abroad were interpreteted as
classical Japanese mythology and what was the core of the idea. Among the contribu-
tors mentioned above, the most ambitious and audacious is doubtlessly Witzel. His
approach is both philological and ethological (Kulturgeschichtlich). Mine is more of a
structural interpretation. I wish to touch upon two topics. One is the myth of the sun
and fire. The other is about the presumed common structure in classical Japanese my-
thology and culture.
2. Myth of the Sun and Fire
Witzel’s paper (2005) presents excellent cases of parallelism in the mythological
theme concerning sun and fire, all through Europe, India, Southeast Asia, East Asia,
Siberia, North America, Meso-America, and South America. His argument is further
supported by his methodology. Traditionally, in comparative mythology, not enough
attention was paid to rituals. Witzel first compares the Indian pair of myth and ritual
about the emergence of light with the Japanese pair of myth (about the rebirth of the
sun goddess Amaterasu) and ritual (the coronation ritual of the new emperor, Daijo-
sai) about the same genre.
There is no denying that Witzel is on the right track. The myth of the
(re)emergence of light and related ritual must have been part of the large mythological
structure shared by the common Laurasian heritance. After his comparison of India
and Japan, Witzel expands the scope of his inquiry not only to include the Indo-
Europeans, but the East Asians, Siberians, North American natives, Meso-Americans,
and South American natives as well. What Witzel (2005: 50) suggests about the future
directions of research about mythology is absolutely right, namely, that the
‘(Re)creation of sunlight, descent from solar ancestors, emergence of death, and the great
flood, all brought together in one single, long myth.’
Among these various people, the basic frame is identical, while the differences are
Here I will pay more attention to these superficial differences and try to avoid
the central issue. The reason is twofold. One, I am not capable of discussing the In-
dian material. I am much more comfortable with Japanese mythology proper. Thus
my comparison is between the Japanese myth of the Hidden Sun and similar myths

My previous papers touching upon this issue are: Matsumura 1996, 1998, 2003, and 2006.
New Perspectives on Myth
about the sun or fire in the circum-pacific area, while the Indic and Indo-European
materials are excluded. The scale is much smaller than the cases discussed by Witzel.
Nevertheless, interesting insights can also be learned even if my comparison must
stay at the superficial level.
Let me first summarize the main plot of Japanese version of the Hidden Sun
myth. For convenience, the summary is divided into five sections (A~E).
A. The first important gods are the couple of Izanagi and Izanami. They are the parents of the
world. The couple was ordered by elder gods to consolidate and fertilize the land from the
chaotic primordial ocean. By sexually uniting on the newly created island, they produced
other islands and a younger generation of gods of various functions. When Izanami gave birth
to the fire god Kagutuchi, she was burnt to death. Izanagi followed his sister / wife to the land
of the dead. His plan however failed. When he returned from the land of the dead, Izanagi pu-
rified himself in a stream. From his eyes were born the solar goddess, Amaterasu and the lunar
god, Tsukuyomi; from his nose was born the violent god Susanowo.
B. The heavenly world was entrusted to Amaterasu, the night to Tsukuyomi, and the ocean to
Susanowo by their father Izanagi. Since Susanowo was unruly, Izanagi ordered his son to be
expelled to the underworld. Susanowo visited his sister Amaterasu under the pretext of saying
farewell. Amaterasu however suspected her brother’s hidden intention and confronted
Susanowo in full armor. Susanowo proposed to make an oath and bear children. In his opinion
that act would prove his innocence. The two then exchanged personal items (Amaterasu, jew-
els and Susanowo, a sword). Then each chewed the item and spat the pieces into air. Then
from Amaterasu’s jewels, three goddesses appeared, and from Susanowo’s sword, five gods.
C. Thus, Susanowo declared his innocence and stayed at his sister’s Heavenly domain. How-
ever, he engaged in several misdeeds and in anger Amaterasu hid herself in the Rock Cave of
Heaven. This produced universal darkness. Gods and goddesses gathered and discussed how
to restore the world. The solution was to have Ame-no-Uzume, Dancing Goddess of Heaven,
perform an erotic dance in front of the cave. This caused great laughter among the deities, and
Amaterasu, being curious, opened the door a little and peaked out. Then Tajikarao, the God of
Might, took her by the hand and pulled her out of the cave.
D. Susanowo was expelled from the Heaven and descended to the earthly land. On the way, he
murdered the Food Goddess Ukemochi. Among other crops that grew from her corpse were
rice, wheat, and beans and these were eventually given to Amaterasu.
E. One of Amaterasu’s grandchilden was elected as a ruler of the earthly world and with the
accompaniment of five powerful gods and royal regalia given by Amaterasu, this divine child,
Hono-ninigi, descended and became the ancestor of the Imperial line.
Here, we may discern the following elements:

1. the hiding of the sun;
2. an erotic dance;
3. laughter; and
4. a trick.

I shall list the myth of the hidden sun or the myth of fire-theft among the people of the
circum-Pacific regions. The examples of myths from Northeastern Asia are found
among the Ainu, Koryak, and Chukchee. The examples of myths from Northwestern
America are found among the Tlingit, Thimshian, Kwakiutl, Sinkyone, and Pomo.
Matsumura – Chapter 12: Japan and Comparative Eurasian Mythology
Numbers one to four in square brackets indicate the four elements above. Numbers
with parenthesis are ones that are somewhat unclear or doubtful.
Ainu: The Sun Goddess was abducted by the Demon. The earth became en-
tirely dark, and many gods and people died. Aynu-rak-kur, the Hero, was asked by
gods to rescue the Sun Goddess. He together with the Mountain God of Kemushiri
went down into the Underworld, conquering the Demon and saved the Sun Goddess
(Kindiachi 1936: 130-144). [1]
Koryak: Raven-man swallowed the sun and kept it in his mouth. Big-Raven’s
daughter tickled him until he laughed, opened his mouth, and let the sun fly out. Then
daylight appeared again (Jochelson 1904: 423). [1, 3, 4]
Chukchee 1: The Raven wanted to obtain the sun, which was in the possession
of the Demon. The Raven went to a distant country and found the house of the chief.
In that house, sun, moon, and stars were kept sewed up in black walrus-hide, like
large balls. The Raven seduced the daughter of the Demon and successfully obtained
the ball of the stars, the ball of the moon, and finally the ball of the sun.
[1, 4]
Chukchee 2: In another version, the Creator made the Raven, and bit him to
obtain the light. The Raven gathered various birds. They flew off toward the dawn
and tried to pierce the stone wall of the day with their beaks. At last one bird suc-
ceeded in making a small hole, and the dawn passed through.
Tlingit: There was no light. A chief kept the light in three small boxes. The
chief had a daughter. El, the Hero, could assume any form. He became a tiny piece of
grass, and let the chief’s daughter swallow it when she drank water. Being conceived
in this way, she gave birth to a baby which was in fact El. He kept crying demanding
the three boxes that contained the heavenly lights. When he had the first box, he
opened it, and instantly stars appeared in the sky. Then from the second box, the
moon appeared. When El obtained the last box, he changed himself into a crow and
flew away with the box. Then he gave the sun to the people. After this, El went out to
an island in the middle of the sea. It was in this island that fire was kept. At that time,
people did not have fire. El being dressed in magpie skin snatched a burning brand.
Since the island was so far away, he had to drop the brand, and the sparks were blown
on to the rocks and trees. This is why fire is found in rocks and trees.
[1, 4]
Tsimshian: Finding the world always in darkness, the Raven (Giant) went up
to heaven. There he found the daughter of the chief of heaven. When she came close
to a spring, he changed himself into the leaf of a cedar tree and floated on the water.
When the chief’s daughter drank the water, the Raven in the form of a leaf was also
swallowed, thus he succeeded in being born as her child. The child kept crying. He
wanted a box that hung in the chief’s house. Inside the box, the daylight was kept.
The Raven got a hold of the box and then ran away with it. That is how the sun was

Bogoras 1902: 627.
Bogoras 1902: 640.
Golder 1907: 292-293.
New Perspectives on Myth
[1, 4]
Kwakiutl: Counselor of the World wanted to steal the box containing the sun
from Day Receptacle Woman. He transformed himself into a baby and entered the
womb of the woman. After four days, he was born. The baby cried for the box. As
soon as he was given the box, the Counselor of the World ran away. He then opened
the box, took out the sun and the double-headed serpent mask of the sun. This is how
the world obtained the sun. The mask is the daybreak mask used in the winter dance.

[1, 4]
Sinkyone: There was no fire. A child kept crying. People did not know why.
When he grew up, he said he feared the fire although people could not see it. People
searched for it and discovered that the Spider was hiding the fire inside his body.
Coyote gathered many animals. He ordered the animals to do ridiculous things. All
tried hard, but the Spider did not laugh. Finally the Skunk came dancing in with his
tail stuck up. All laughed and the Spider laughed, too. Then fire shot out of his mouth.
Thus the fire was obtained.
[1, 2, 3, 4]
Pomo: In olden days, the sun did not move across the heaven. It only rose
above the eastern horizon and sank again. Coyote, wishing to find out the reason, set
out to the east with singers and dancers. They arrived at the home of the Sun people.
The sun was hanging from one of the rafters of the dance-house. The party of the
Coyote entered that house singing and dancing. The Coyote party and the Sun people
danced together. While dancing, the Coyote liberated four mice, and they gnawed the
sun from the rafters. The Coyote and his party brought the sun back to their village.
The people discussed where to situate it and decided to hang it up in the middle of the
sky. Various birds try the task, but none succeeded. When finally the Crows volun-
teered, everyone laughed as they thought the Crows were too slow and too weak for
the task. But after much effort, they accomplished the task and received lots of pre-
sents from people.
[1, (2), (3), 4]

Most of these examples belong to cosmogony. They explain how in the primordial
condition the sun was brought to this world through the workings of a cunning Trick-
ster. In these cases, the sun is not deified. It is simply an object. So we may conclude
that while the motif of the acquisition of the sun is identical, there are no parallels in
religious significance between the Japanese Sun Goddess Amaterasu and the exam-
ples discussed above. Still the emphasis on dancing and laughing in the myths sug-
gests that some kind of ritual for the appearance of light and the sun was important
across the entire circum-Pacific area. We must turn our attention to another meaning
of this identical motif.
In the case of the Indian myth concerning the emergence of light, it was the

Boas 1916: 60-62.
Boas & Hunt 1905: 395-397.
Kroeber 1919: 347.
Barret 1906: 44-46.
Matsumura – Chapter 12: Japan and Comparative Eurasian Mythology
Dawn goddess who hid in the cave, and what was released from the cave was a horde
of cows. The solar and fiery aspect of the original myth seems to be weakened here.
However, the myths from Japan and the circum-Pacific region are all about the sun
and/or fire. There is no mention of the dawn nor cows. Is this just a coincidence or is
there a reason?
I think the persistence of the sun / fire element with the accompanying ritualis-
tic elements of dancing and laughing are due to a common environmental factor
which is frequent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Fig 12.2. The Pacific Ring of Fire

The Pacific Ring of Fire (or sometimes called circum-Pacific belt or circum-
Pacific seismic belt) is an area encircling the basin of the Pacific Ocean which fre-
quently has earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Stretching 40.000 km in a horseshoe
shape along the Pacific rim, it is associated with a nearly continuous series of volcanic
belts. The Ring of Fire has 452 volcanoes and is home to over 75% of the world’s
active and dormant volcanoes. In the northern section, the Aleutian Islands, the Kam-
chatka Peninsula, and Japan are included; in the southern portion, the Mariana Is-
lands, the Philippines, Bougainville, Tonga, and New Zealand; New Guinea and the
Indonesian islands of Sumatra / Sumatera, Java, Bali, Flores and Timor lie between
the Ring of Fire and the next most active seismic region, the Alpide belt. Crossing the
Bering Sea, the Ring covers all the western coasts of the North and South Americas
(cf. www. of Fire ).

New Perspectives on Myth

Fig. 12.3. The geographical distribution of elements of the myth of the hidden sun

Due to the dark sky and subsequent famine caused by huge volcanic eruptions,
the people from these regions must have remembered these horrible memories in the
form of myths, especially myths of the Hidden Sun
The sun, volcano, light, and fire
are often interchangeable in myth. It is not a coincidence that the Pacific Ring of Fire
where volcanic activity is most prominent (Map 2) and the extensive distribution of
the myth of the Hidden Sun (Map 3) are overlapping.

Barber& Barber 2004, especially chapters 2, 8, 17.
Matsumura – Chapter 12: Japan and Comparative Eurasian Mythology
3. Common structure in classical mythology and cul-
The second topic is about a thread that connects the following various topics of classi-
cal mythology and the history of Japan that are usually discussed separately:
1. Jomon clay figurines: the Jomon were basically a hunting and gathering so-
ciety. The Jomon period began around twelve thousand years ago and lasted
until the fifth century B.C. when the new agricultural age began which is
called the Yayoi period. The Jomon period is characterized by many female
figurines. Some vases also have female faces and are shaped like pregnant
women. In Japanese myth, Izanami gave birth to the fire god Kagutuchi. The
myth says that fire comes from the body of a goddess. This type of myth may
have appeared already in the Jomon period. Along with this female symbol,
there are examples of stone pillars shaped like penises. These seem to be two
symbols visualizing the principle of harmony and cooperation between men
and women.
2. World Parents Izanagi and Izanami: The couple of Izanagi and Izanami cre-
ated the world and gods. They are the parents of the world in Japanese my-
thology. When the couple was ordered to create the land, there was only the
chaotic primordial ocean. The couple were brother and sister. They united and
created other gods, but their first child was a deformed leech-child and they let
it float away. The motif of the story certainly reminds us of the Flood Myth
found among the minority ethnic groups of southern China, including the
Miao and the Lao.

3. Amaterasu and Susanowo: Just like Izanagi and Izanami, Susanowo and
Amaterasu are brother and sister. As the ritual of oath-taking, they exchanged
belongings, and by chewing and spitting out the pieces, they gave birth to
children. This does not involve actual sexual intercourse, but this is certainly
symbolic incest. However, with the Hidden Sun motif, their antagonism is
Amaterasu as a Virgin Mother Goddess: As the summary above shows,
Amaterasu never had a sexual relationship. She is a virgin goddess. Still, as the result
of Susanowo’s oath, she became mother of five gods including, Oshiho-mimi, father
of the ruler of the terrestrial land, Hono-ninigi. Like Athena and Virgin Mary,
Amaterasu is a Virgin Mother Goddess. She is the ideal type of goddess men dream
of. Amaterasu is still worshipped as a titular goddess of the Imperial line since she is
claimed as the ancestress of the Imperial family.
Amaterasu as Mirror: Amaterasu is symbolized as mirror. The largest bronze
mirror discovered in Japan is 46.5 cm in diameter and weighs 7.95 kg. It is certainly
not for cosmetics. The purpose was to reflect the sun beams. The bronze mirror was
first imported from China and was believed to expel evil powers. That is why people
of the Yayoi culture put mirrors in their graves. So far five hundred bronze mirrors
have been discovered in graves.

Dundes 1988.
New Perspectives on Myth
Himiko, the Queen of Yamatai Kingdom: The name of Queen Himiko, the
ruler of Yamatai kingdom, appears in the Wei dynasty history Wei Zhi, which is part of
the history of the Three Kingdom Period (220-280 CE) in China. The text says: ‘The
country formerly had a man as ruler. For some seventy or eighty years after that there
were disturbances and warfare. Thereupon the people agreed upon a woman for their
ruler. Her name was Himiko. She occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitch-
ing the people. Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She had a younger
brother who assisted her in ruling the country. After she became ruler, there were only
a few who saw her. She had a thousand women as attendants, but only one man. He
served her food and drink and acted as a medium of communication.’ Himiko seems
to be a shamaness. Many examples of Japanese shamanism are of the female-
possession type. Both Amaterasu, who hid in the cave, and Ameno-uzume, who be-
came intoxicated through dance, may be included in this category.
Hime-hiko ruling system: The text says that Himiko did not appear in public
and the important role of delivering her messages was done by a single man, her
brother ‘who assisted her in ruling the country.’ The division of female / male is clear:
Himiko, as female, represents the inner, sacred, spiritual and religious vs. her brother,
as male, who represents the outer, secular, physical and political. This kind of division
of authority is well attested in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki. Examples of brother and sister
pairs whose names are produced by adding the male indicator -biko (hiko) or the fe-
male indicator -bime (hime) to the place names they jointly ruled are easily found:
Saho-biko and Saho-bime; Nuka-biko and Nuka-bime; Kitsu-biko and Kitsu-bime,
Usatsu-biko and Usatsu-bime, etc.

Wonari-gami in Okinawa: Okinawa, that belongs to the southern Ryukyu is-
lands, still preserves a strong tradition of female shamans. Moreover, there is a belief
in the protective power of sisters. At the state level, the king was spiritually protected
by the highest priestess, Kikoe-no-Okimi, who was no one other than the king’s sister.
All sisters were regarded by brothers as a protective deity, wonari-gami.
Male-female division of rulership in Japanese new religions: In Japan’s new
religions, often the founder is female. Tenrikyō was founded by Miki Nakayama
(1798-1887); Ōmotokyō by Nao Deguchi (1836-1918); Reiyūkai expanded its size
due to Kimi Kotani (1901-1971); Risshō-Kōseikai’s expansion due to Myōkō Na-
ganuma (1889-1957); Tenshō-Kōtai-Jingūkyō was founded by Sayo Kitamura (1900-
What is interesting is that in almost all these religions there were male organ-
izers along with the female spiritual leaders. Miki Nakayama had as assistant her eld-
est son Shūji Nakayama (1821-1881) or the carpenter IzōIburi (1833-1907); for Nao
Deguchi, Onisaburō Deguchi, her son-in-law (1871-1948); for Kimi Kotani, Kakutarō
Kubo (1892-1944); for Myōkō Naganuma, Nikkei Niwano (1906-1999).
In my opinion, these topics could be classified into following categories:

Matsumura 1999.
Matsumura – Chapter 12: Japan and Comparative Eurasian Mythology
I. Brother-Sister marriage: 2. World Parents Izanagi and Izanami; 3.
Amaterasu and Susanowo.
II. Brother-Sister antagonism: 3. Amaterasu and Susanowo.
III. Brother-Sister rulership: 6. Himiko; 7. Hime-hiko system; 8.
Wonari-gami in Okinawa; 9. Male-female divisions of new religions.
IV. Virgin Mother Goddess or Mother-Son Deities: 4. Amaterasu and
(Oshiho-mimi) and Hono-ninigi; Athena and Erichthonios; Mary and

V. Corn Mother and Corn-Spirit: 4. Amaterasu and Hono-ninigi

What is most notable here is the Brother-Sister combination. This combination
means both the integration and the separation of two spheres. This is naturally one
variant of the basic dichotomy model of the human brain: male and female; sister and
brother; mother and child; ying and yang; the sun and moon; secular and profane, etc.
Along with the Brother-Sister combination, the Mother-Son combination is also
prominent and shows the similar combination of both integration and separation.
These two combinations / divisions show the strong tendency of the active presence
of females in Japanese history throughout the ages. Whether it stems from geographi-
cal or ecological or historical or social reasons is not clear. As the cases of Athena and
Mary show, however, such a tendency is not limited to Japan; it could occur in other
areas under certain circumstances.

Barber, E.W. & Barber, P.T., 2004, When they Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind shapes Myth,
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Barret, S.A., 1906, ‘A Composite Myth of the Pomo Indians’, Journal of American Folklore 19: 37-51.
Boas, F. & Hunt, G., 1905, Kwakitul Texts, Leiden / New York: Knickerbocker Press.
Boas, F., 1916, Tsimshian Mythology, Government Printing Office.
Bogoras, W., 1902, ‘The Folklore of Northeastern Asia as compared with that of Northwestern Amer-
ica’, American Anthropologist, N. S. 4, pp. 577-683.
Dundes, A., 1988, The Flood Myth, University of California Press.
Ei’ichiro, I., 1964, ‘Mother-Son Deities’, History of Religion 4: 30-52.
Golder, F.A., 1907, ‘Tlingit Myths’, Journal of American Folklore 20: 290-295.
Jochelson, W., 1904, ‘The Mythology of the Koryak’, American Anthropologist, N S. 6:, 413-425.
Kindaichi, K., 1936, Yukar, Iwanami, pp. 130-144.
Kojiki ,1982, Chamberlain, Basil Hall trans., Toyko: Charles E. Tuttle.
Kroeber, A.L., 1919, ‘Sinkyone Tales’, Journal of American Folklore 32: 346-351.
Matsumura, K., 1996, ‘Birds as Symbols of the Realm of the Sacred in Japanese Myth’, Tenri Journal of
Religion 24: 97-134.
Matsumura, K., 1998, ‘Alone among Women- A Comparative Mythic Analysis of the Development of
Amaterasu Theology’, Inoue Junko ed., Kami, Kokugakuin University, pp. 42-71.

Ei’ichiro 1964.
New Perspectives on Myth
Matsumura, K., 1999, Megami no Shinwagaku (Mythology of Goddess), Heibonsha.
Matsumura, K., 2003, ‘The Koki Story and the Femininity of the Foundress of Tenrikyo’, Women and
Religion, Tenri Yamato Culture Congress, 359-397.
Matsumura, K., 2006, ‘Nelly Naumann’s Contribution to the Study of Japanese Religion and
Mythology’, Religious Studies Review 32: 163-168.
Matsumura, K., 2006, ‘Ancient Japan and Religion’, in: Swanson, P. & Chilson, C., eds., Nanzan Guide
to Japanese Religions, University of Hawai’i Press, pp. 131-143.
Naumann, N., 2000, Japanese Prehistory- The Material and Spiritual Culture of the Jomon Period, Wiesbaden:
Otto Harrassowitz Verslag.
Nihongi (Nihonshoki) ,1972, Aston, W. G. trans., Toyko: Charles E. Tuttle.
Paproth, H-J. & Yamada, H., 2002, ‘Taryo Obayashi 1929-2001’, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 127: 139-146.
Witzel, M., 2005, ‘Vala and Iwato- The Myth of the Hidden Sun in India, Japan, and Beyond’, Electric
Journal of Vedic Studies 12: 1-69.
Yamada, H., 2006, ‘Mythology of the Taiwan Aborigines: State of the Art’, presented at Harvard and
Peking University International Conference on Comparative Mythology, May, 2006.
Yoshida, Atsuhiko, 1977, ‘Japanese Mythology and the Indo-European Trifunctional System’, Diogenes
98 (1977) 93-116.

Part IV. Theoretical and
methodological advances

Chapter 13. The cosmological theory of

by Emily Buchanan Lyle

Abstract: I think now is the time to stress that I have a new theory of myth which I can call the cosmo-
logical theory. I have been much inclined to credit my predecessors and this may sometimes have re-
sulted in the impression that what I am saying is not new. But it is, and it is important for our
understanding of modern people as well as ancient culture. I have learnt much from predecessors and it
is inconceivable that I could have usefully approached a work of this scale without them, but when I
look at their oevres as a whole, I can see that I have drawn on one aspect of their work, and often quite
a small one. I do not carry over the baggage from their whole theory but merely had my ideas sparked
by one element of what they were saying. So to understand what I am saying it is unnecessary and
irrelevant to grip the whole life work of the often voluminous scholars of the twentieth century. Let us
make a fresh start with the twenty-first century, and a new millennium, and listen directly to the evi-
dence from the past (and even sometimes from the present) and build, build, build, as we need to do if
we want to turn over in our hands the intricate structure from which our mythic heritage stems. I plan
to lay out a set of core particulars during my presentation. If other scholars find that they have ideas
that overlap with mine, let them build them in or use them to modify or refute parts of the structure.
The cosmological theory of myth depends on the concept that an oral society was fused together in a
different way from a literate one, and that all our written evidence by definition is flawed. Although we
naturally need to use written evidence for the vanished past we need also to create models of what kind
of society could have operated the systems that can be postulated on the basis of the surviving evi-
dence. The model is at once conceptual and social; it has static elements relating to place and dynamic
elements relating to time and also to the narratives unfolding in time that are our myths. Comparison is
one of the means to understanding. and the results of one comparison will give rise to formulations that
can be explored and tested through other comparisons. We have the world before us as we set out on
our enquiries.
1. Introduction
The view I am putting forward is – relatively – new. My major statements began with
a contribution to History of Religions in 1982 and continued with a book-length study
(1990) and a series of articles. Throughout I have tried to remain aware of the contri-
butions and lines of thought of other scholars and to relate to them where possible, but

University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.
New Perspectives on Myth
it has become increasingly clear that what is really required to move the subject for-
ward is for the field to include published reactions to the view that I have been articu-
lating as clearly as I can in the virtual absence of scholarly discussion. Debate, as is
well known, leads to the refinement and clarification of theory and methodology, as
well as to the assimilation of unfamiliar approaches and materials. It seems to me that
scholars have continued to work with outworn concepts without taking on board the
alternatives presently on offer, and I suggest that it is high time for a re-assessment.
Although the new view I am referring to has its core in the Indo-European material
that I shall discuss later, I shall first offer some general comments on the broad field
of cosmological theory in which it is embedded.
2. Cosmological theory
I shall take as my starting-point some remarks by Robert Segal in his recent book on
myth (Segal 2004: 2). He argues that ‘what unite the study of myth across the disci-
plines are the questions asked’ and he raises three key questions, which are those of
origin, function and subject matter. I shall offer brief answers to these three questions
with the aim of setting my specific theory in context.
As regards origin, I have found the approach taken by Peter Berger and Tho-
mas Luckman a useful one (Berger and Luckman 1967; Berger 1969: 3-101). Since
human beings are not hard-wired, and have bewilderingly wide choice, they have had
to participate in creating social and conceptual worlds to shore up the identities of the
individual and society. Since these worlds are self-created, humans, sometimes in re-
lation to specific environments, have adopted different schemas. The origin is the
same and lies in the nature of the human being and it is hypothesised that all human
beings have a cosmology and related myths. However, individual societies have cre-
ated their own distinctive cosmologies (either because they were in isolation from
each other or by way of contrast with neighbours) and these cosmologies can vary in
their degree of complexity and integration. For this reason, it is necessary to study
individual cases.
As regards function, although a cosmology is constantly subject to adaptation,
once created it soon acquires the force of tradition and tends to remain in place, serv-
ing to give the individual person, and the society as a whole, ontological security in an
unquestioned universe. The overall scheme may also serve to privilege certain sec-
tions of society which would accordingly have a vested interest in retaining it and
would act to reinforce the status quo.
As regards subject matter, I would see myth as the part of a cosmology that is
expressed as verbal narrative, the primary myths being those that treat the establish-
ment of the universe, in all its facets, including the human one. Although it can be
interesting and fruitful to study myths merely as verbal forms, the information is
much richer, and the conclusions that can be drawn are much more secure, in cases
where a cosmological setting can be established.
Lyle – Chapter 13: The Cosmological Theory of Myth
3. A cosmological model based on Indo-European
The wide range of Indo-European materials and the depth of recorded Indo-European
history make the field an excellent one for the study of cosmology. Since cosmology
is not language-bound, information about an early cosmology derivable from sources
in Indo-European languages will not necessarily be found only within that field and
the question of boundary should initially be left open. The process of enquiry is a dia-
lectical one, with a model being built on the basis of materials present in one or more
of the components available for comparison, and then being subjected to scrutiny in
the light of more detailed study of all the components. In cosmology, as opposed to
purely linguistic enquiries, there are non-verbal relationships to consider.
As regards stories alone, an exploration of the use of the analogical discovery
method to reach back from a range of narratives to a posited myth may be found in
Lyle 2007. As regards the non-verbal, Georges Dumézil posited a code by which gods
in a polytheistic system corresponded to three aspects of society – 1 the sacred, 2
physical force, and 3 prosperity and fertility – that at one time he saw embodied in
priests, warriors and herders / cultivators (for overviews, see Littleton 1982 and Belier
1991). By so doing, he opened the door to cosmological study but he did not step
through. Two scholars have since gone through the door into a world of ‘primitive’
(or cosmological) classification. They are Kim McCone who recognises the triad as
belonging to an age-grade system with: 1 old men, 2 young men and 3 mature men
(McCone 1986; 1987), and N.J. Allen who understands Dumézil’s three as survivals
into the historical period of a prehistoric system including kinship bonds which rested
on four rather than three (Allen 1987; 2000).
There has not been up to the present sufficient recognition of the fundamental
difference that this makes for our study methods. We can now posit an origin point
and work forwards through history to illuminate the diachronic changes that would
have resulted in the situations we find in our sources. Both synchronic studies of the
modelled cosmology and diachronic studies of the stages of revision are urgently
called for. Naturally, this will require some rethinking by interested scholars in spe-
cific areas of specialisation whose contributions will be essential to the success of the
enterprise. When a great deal of effort has gone into creating integrated systems rest-
ing on all the information obtainable within one country or one language group, there
is a natural reluctance to see them broken apart to be re-aligned in another way. How-
ever, from a long-term point of view, we can see that these areal groupings are not
being abandoned but will offer exciting possibilities for the diachronic study of
change and development once a suggested model has been put in place.
Since cosmology operates in space and time, as well as in relation to human
society and the human body, it is a totality with many levels that has to be understood
as macrocosm, mesocosm and microcosm. The nature of this overall analogical sys-
tem enables us to run checks by studying each of a series of parallel registers. As
Burkert noted (1972: 399):
New Perspectives on Myth
Order and pattern … which the human spirit craves, are to be found not only in the form of
conceptual rigor and neatly logical structure, but, at an earlier level, in richness of mutual allu-
siveness and interconnection, where things fit together ‘symbolically.’
I think that we have sufficient information among our widely scattered Indo-
European materials to rebuild this harmonious structure – ‘harmonious’ in this context
meaning ‘fitting together well’, rather than necessarily implying the existence of an
ideal conceptual environment to live in.
4. Building and testing the model
The actual process of building the model has been one of trial and error, and this work
still continues, so we are at an interesting stage when there is enough of a set outline
for scholars to relate their own insights to it, while at the same time there remain ob-
vious points of enquiry where matters are still fluid. What I would regard as my own
key insights have mainly come through the shedding of assumptions. It is because we
all operate in terms of deeply ingrained views that it is so necessary to have debate so
that the positions and the grounds they rest on can be brought out into the open. It
does seem to me, as my scheme has developed, that more recent forms of the model
are solid improvements on earlier forms, although I remain open to further possibili-
I shall take the case of the three axes of polarity that I currently posit as under-
lying the structure. These were already present in my theory when I published Archaic
Cosmos: Polarity, Space and Time in 1990 and were explored more fully in Lyle
1995. The main thing I was doing in these earlier works was insisting that we have to
articulate things in such a way that we have the tools we need to work with. Dualities
are all over the place, as we might say, but can we do nothing else than just note their
existence? I am not inventing these polarities but am simply finding them and positing
their importance in an overall structure and seeing them as applying generally and not
just in one register, i.e., for example, spatial dualities would have equivalents in terms
of time. There is certainly nothing new about positing spatiotemporal correspon-
dences (see, e.g., Gaborieau 1982).
This concept of the three axes of polarity has stood up well and remained use-
ful over the course of the years and, up to now, I have not felt the need to depart from
it. However, responding to a query raised by the Slovenian scholar Mirjam Mencej,
when she visited Edinburgh as a Cosmos Fellow in April 2007, concerning an appar-
ent lack of fit in my model between the fertile summer half of the year and the period
of human maturity (then placed in winter), I undertook a re-examination of the polari-
ties on the three axes and concluded that the plus and minus signs needed to be re-
versed, one effect of this being to locate the male superior half in the winter (which
should apparently be regarded as the sacred half), while the inferior female and
Dumézilian 3rd-function half would be connected with summer. A related change to
the model made at this time was the identification of the female quarter with the first
Lyle – Chapter 13: The Cosmological Theory of Myth
part of the summer half (the summer season) rather than with the second part (the au-
tumn season), as had been previously proposed. For an update on these changes, re-
sulting from my internal testing, see Lyle 2008a and forthcoming, ‘Celtic’). It was
interesting to find that when confronted with challenge it was possible to modify the
structure in this rather radical way without there being any danger of the whole sys-
tem collapsing like a house of cards. A much better overall harmonisation has been
achieved which can now be subjected to scrutiny in its turn.
The wider point I would make about the three-axis system (that appears to be
present in the Indo-European materials) is that, when we are wondering whether an-
other society outside the Indo-European area shares the same cosmology, one ques-
tion to ask is whether a three-axis system can be traced there (cf. Lyle forthcoming,
‘Complex’). Cross-cutting dualities are very commonly found but could potentially be
confined to a two-axis system. We can test for the number of axes initially by explor-
ing the registers of space and time where they are likely to be most evident.
I mentioned one of the Dumézilian functions above, and this gives an entry
into the question of how we can test the validity of Dumézil’s theory and others re-
lated to it. One approach is the simple one of going over all the materials Dumézil
uses and seeing whether his interpretations carry conviction. There is a danger of sub-
jectivity when the often elusive points in a narrative or other source are caught up into
a schema, and, of course, the originator can never be free from this danger. I now see
an interesting opportunity arising of reviewing these materials afresh with alternative
interpretations in mind and assessing the different strengths of the two possibilities
offered. In this way, it should be feasible to arrive at a more objective view.
I concluded long ago that Dumézil’s argument that there was an overarching
schema of three functions of the sacred, physical force and prosperity was a sound
one, and it can be suggested that this academic position has been significantly
strengthened by the realisation that the schema could have very ancient roots in a sys-
tem of life-stages (Lyle 1997; 2001). However, I did not consider his ideas about the
pantheon securely based, and I think scholarship has been going into unnecessary
contortions in an attempt to make things fit – when it has not simply withdrawn from
a field that has been found so unrewarding. I shall briefly consider here the case of the
divine twins (the Aśvins, the Dioskouroi). Dumézil places them both in the third func-
tion, but their separate natures have been studied and have led scholars who concen-
trated attention on them to place one in the second function and one in the third (see,
e.g., Ward 1968: 20-24). Although this in itself is not conclusive, it is certainly an
alternative that should be considered and it throws doubt on the force of the reasons
adduced by Dumézil for placing them both in the 3rd-function slot – mainly, I think,
their being named third in the Mitanni treaty (Dumézil 1945: 34-40; 1994: 81, 232).
We should remain aware that there may be other triads in the system besides the func-
tional one (Lyle 2004). The other problematic thing that Dumézil does in relation to
the Aśvinic pair is to conflate them with the Romulus / Remus, Manu / Yama pair.
This royal pair is so different from the Aśvins that Donald Ward, in his study of Indo-
European twin gods, had no hesitation in distinguishing them (Ward 1968: 6-11), and
New Perspectives on Myth
the opposition between the Romulus / Remus pair, who are sometimes presented sim-
ply as brothers rather than twins, has been fruitfully studied without reference to the
Aśvinic pair (cf., e.g., Puhvel 1987: 284-290; Lyle 1990: 105-118).
In the face of problems like this, which arise when we take Dumézil’s hy-
pothesised composition of the pantheon as our base, I feel that we should discard it
entirely and make a fresh start, while always, of course, checking back to his formula-
tions to see if his wide reading and detailed reflections resulted in insights that should
be retained and built in to the new model or that might serve to complement it. Test-
ing can lead to rejection and I think this step should be taken in relation to the part of
Dumézilian theory that deals with the pantheon.
5. The kinship code
A kinship structure is a relatively recent addition to my theoretical model (Lyle 2006:
103-106), since a long period of preliminary exploration was required before it was
possible to arrive at what currently seems the optimum formulation. It is highly com-
plex and carries a great deal of information, and this makes it all the easier to refute. If
it does not ‘work’ and succeed in throwing light on later forms that are assumed to be
derived from it, it can be considered detail by detail. If some details survive the proc-
ess, it may be that a more satisfying model can then be built. The idea that a kinship
structure would be the base for rich, all-embracing Indo-European cosmological
statements is tied in with the recent view that our historical evidence goes back to
prehistory and a time when ‘primitive’ classification would have been in force. A so-
ciety with such a classification could reasonably have been expected to draw on its
social organisation to create a divine mirror image. Paradoxically, in the course of
time the organisation of society was totally revised, and we have to work in reverse
and posit a type of society that matches the traces of mythology that have remained.
The proposed family set consists of ten members. The pantheon can be pre-
sented as a block, as in Fig. 13.1, or as selected people in a kinship diagram as in Fig.
13.2. Fig. 13.1 shows the sequence of components of space and time which has four
regular parts and also makes special provision for the representation of kingship (Lyle
2008b and forthcoming, ‘Cosmic’). An important distinction made in both figures is
that between the old gods (shown above) and the young gods (shown below). The
system offers the precise number of ten slots which relate to divisions of space and
time as well as to elements of kinship and succession. A major difficulty which has
confronted comparative mythology has been the question of defining the number of
gods (for sometimes we find gods split into several aspects and at other times we find
gods merged together), and I suggest that it may be useful to explore these materials
further when the limits are set in this way.

Lyle – Chapter 13: The Cosmological Theory of Myth

Fig. 13.1. The tenfold pantheon and related mythic patterns.
The numbers are those of Dumézil’s three functions. Females are indicated by circles and kings by

For example, in the case of the female component, studies in the past may
have explored a single ‘great goddess’ or may have looked at three goddesses expres-
sive of maiden, wife and crone. The firm suggestion of the structure offered here is
that there are two goddesses, one of whom is the primal source of everything and so
could be ‘a’ great goddess, but not ‘the’ great goddess since there is another powerful
goddess who is young queen rather than ancestress. Both goddesses relate to the triad
of gods and so have three aspects which could readily have been given separate iden-
tities. In the representation of the pantheon in Fig. 13.1, special attention is drawn to
the roles of the goddesses as central components of two mythic patterns, which I have
explored in recent articles that deal respectively with the old goddess in relation to
three old gods in a treatment of the cosmogony (Lyle 2007), and with the young god-
dess in relation to a set of five young gods, one of whom steals her away so that an
expedition has to be mounted to recover her (Lyle 2008c). Since the young goddess is
the figure previously identified as the sun goddess (cf., e.g. West 2007: 227-237), this
theme can be connected to the story of bringing the sun back from being hidden in
darkness that has been explored by Michael Witzel (2005) and Kazuo Matsumura
(2010, this volume).
The actual kinship-and-succession structure (see Fig. 13.2) shows how power
in a matrilineal system could be spread between two lines of males that supplied one
of its members to take the central role of king in alternate generations (cf. Finkelberg
2005: 65-89). In the generations before that of the current king, the important prede-
cessors are the king’s mother’s brother, who was the previous king, his father’s father,
who was the king before that, his father and his maternal great-grandmother. It is hy-
pothesised that these four correspond to the four old gods.
New Perspectives on Myth

Fig. 13.2. A four-generation capsule with bilateral cross-cousin marriage, showing
the ten people who are taken to correspond to gods
The triangles indicate males and the circles females. Lines above indicate sibling relationships and
lines below indicate marriage. The figure illustrates matrilineal succession, with kings coming alter-
nately from two different patrilines and marrying into a line of queens.

In the current generation there is the king himself and a brother (marked with a
cross) connected with the dead who is also regarded as a king. This, in terms of myth
and legend, is the murdered or sacrificed brother of the Romulus / Remus, Manu /
Yama pair, and it can be suggested that Baldr, who is killed ‘accidentally’ by a
brother (Harris 2010, this volume), may be another instance of this ‘king of the dead’
figure. The queen (the sun goddess) has two brothers, who are presented in myth and
epic as twins (the Aśvins). It can be noted that the line of succession passes through
one of the twins, and that this factor distinguishes him from his brother. I suggest that
he is the 3rd-function twin connected with fertility and that his brother is the 2nd-
function warlike one. The king also has two brothers and, as already noted, one of
these is dead. The other appears to represent the patriline after the king has left it at
his inauguration to become the representative of the whole.
We seem here to have before us the leaders of a hierarchically organised soci-
ety plus the ancestors who were distinguished from the generalised group of the dead
and may have been the recipients of special offerings. Some of the relationships
among the gods become very clear when this posited set of relationships is kept in
mind and I think the structure will prove exceedingly useful in the interpretation of
the myths found in various parts of the Indo-European world that supplied the bits and
pieces of evidence which initially allowed the model to be put together. It should per-
haps be added that not every story about the gods will fit this structure. Story-tellers
Lyle – Chapter 13: The Cosmological Theory of Myth
had fertile imaginations and a story told for its own sake or shaped to the particular
religious or political ends of a specific historical period has a separate identity and
may have only a tangential connection with myth even when it names gods. I believe,
however, that the comparative study of all available story evidence has allowed some
strong patterns of myth to emerge which can be matched to the cosmological structure
offered here.
6. Conclusion
As I mentioned, N.J. Allen was one of the scholars who initiated this new method
which we can use to approach the Indo-European historical materials on myth in light
of a hypothesised structure in order to make more sense of them than previous theo-
retical approaches have succeeded in doing. He has looked at structures of both space
and time in terms that are not so remote from what I am offering (e.g., Allen 1991;
1998; 2001). His system at present is not fully compatible with mine (it gives no overt
place to goddesses), but the more important point is that the two systems resemble
each other and together point to the existence of a spatiotemporal system that we can
begin to grasp.
Cosmological theory seems to be about to come into its own and, of course, I
look forward to the further developments that will rapidly become possible when
more scholars concern themselves centrally with this field. So far the model is a fairly
static one, but I think it may soon reach the point when we can activate it and begin to
see how men and women, in tandem with the gods and goddesses that their ancestors
had projected, went about the business of maintaining the cosmos as the years and
generations (and even millennia) went by.
I would like to express my appreciation of the support received for my attendance at
the IACM conference in Ravenstein, Netherlands, on 19-21 August 2008, and for the
comments offered on my paper during this conference.
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Function’, International Journal of Moral and Social Studies, 2: 23-39.
Allen, N.J., 1991, ‘Some Gods of Pre-Islamic Nuristan’, Revue de l’Histoire des Religions, 208: 141-
Allen, N.J., 1998, ‘Varnas, Colours, and Functions: Expanding Dumézil’s Schema’, Zeitschrift für
Religion, 6: 163-177.
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Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Allen, N.J., 2001, ‘The Articulation of Time: Some Indo-European Comparisons’, Cosmos, 17: 163-
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tie’, Leiden: Brill.
Berger, P.L. & Luckman, T., 1967, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of
Knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Berger, P.L., 1969, The Social Reality of Religion, London: Faber and Faber.
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Dumézil, G., 1945, Naissance d’Archanges, Paris: Gallimard.
Dumézil, G., 1994, Le Roman des Jumeaux et autres essays, Paris: Gallimard.
Finkelberg, M., 2005, Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Perspectives on Aegean Prehistory, Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press.
Gaborieau, M., 1982, ‘Les Fêtes, le temps et l’espace: structure du calendrier hindou dans sa version
indo-népalaise,’ L’Homme, 22, 11-29.
Harris, J. (in this publication). ‘The Rök Stone’s Mythology of Death.’
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Georges Dumézil, 3rd ed. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.
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ions, 22: 25-44.
Lyle, E., 1990, Archaic Cosmos: Polarity, Space and Time, Edinburgh: Polygon.
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Lyle, E., 1997, ‘Age Grades, Age Classes and Alternate Succession: A Restatement of the Basis at the
Societal Level of Indo-European Symbolic Partition’, Emania, 16: 63-71.
Lyle, E., trans. A. Le Borgne, 2001, ‘Grades d’âge, classes d’âge et succession alternée: nouvelles vues
sur l’origine des partitions symboliques indo-européennes au niveau societal’, Ollodagos, 16:
Lyle, E., 2004, ‘Which Triad? A Critique and Development of Dumézil’s Trifunctional Theory’, Revue
de l’Histoire des Religions, 221: 5-21.
Lyle, E., 2006, ‘The Importance of the Prehistory of Indo-European Structures for Indo-European Stud-
ies’, Journal of Indo-European Studies, 34: 99-110.
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33: 59-69.
Lyle, E., 2008a, ‘Time and the Indo-European Gods in the Slavic Context’, Studia Mythologica
Slavica, 11, 115-126.
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sal’, in Concepts of Space and Time in European Folklore, M. Mencej, ed., pp. 11-21. Zbirka
Županičeva knjižnica. Ljubljana: Filozofska fakulteta, Oddelek za etnologijo in kulturno an-
Lyle, E., 2008c, ‘The Marriage and Recovery of the Young Goddess: Story and Structure’, Journal of
Indo-European Studies, 36, 356-370.
Lyle, E., (forthcoming), ‘The Celtic Year and Gender’, The Ritual Year, 4.
Lyle, E., (forthcoming), ‘A Complex Eurasian Cosmology: Not One Duality but Three Interlocking
Dualities’, Proceedings of the Round Table on Comparative Mythology, Beijing, 11-13 May
2006, ed. Duan Qing and Michael Witzel.
Lyle, E., (forthcoming), ‘Cosmic Space and the Human Body: Some General Principles and the Indo-
European Configuration’, Man in India.
Matsumura, K., (in this publication). ‘Can Japanese Mythology Contribute to the Comparative Eura-
sian Mythology.’
McCone, K., 1986, ‘Werewolves, Cyclopes, Dibergs and Fianna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ire-
land,’ Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 12: 1-22.
Lyle – Chapter 13: The Cosmological Theory of Myth
McCone, K. 1987, ‘Hund, Wolf und Krieger bei den Indogermanen’, in Studien zum indogermanischen
Wortschatz, ed. W. Meid, pp. 101-154. Innsbrucker Beiträge zür Sprachwissenschaft 52.
Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck.
Puhvel, J., 1987, Comparative Mythology, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University
Segal, R.A., 2004, Myth: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Angeles: University of California Press.
West, M.L., 2007, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Witzel, M., 2005, ‘Vala and Iwato: The Myth of the Hidden Sun in India, Japan, and Beyond’, Elec-
tronic Journal of Vedic Studies, 12, 1: 1-69.

Chapter 14. The neurobiological origins
of primitive religion

Implications for comparative mythology

by Steve Farmer

Abstract. This paper describes a testable neurobiological model of the origins of primitive religion and
myth. The paper is divided into four parts. Reflecting the aims of this conference, part one discusses
the need for such a model in comparative mythology. Topics covered include the help such a model
can give in distinguishing similarities in myths arising from shared ancestry or cultural transmission
from those due to parallel invention; in establishing the maximum time depth possible in reconstructing
ancient myths; in dating the oldest mythic thinking, which neurobiological data suggest predated ana-
tomically modern man (placing the earliest myths long before ca. 200,000 years BP, and undermining
claims they were ‘inventions’ of some later period); in picturing how myths were transformed in the
last 5,000 years of literate religious, philosophical, and cosmological traditions; and in explaining the
remarkable persistence of myth in modern political and religious thought.
Sections two and three review earlier naturalistic models of religion and myth and introduce the first
testable model of the origins of these phenomena. The model builds on recent neurodevelopmental
findings that picture models of the world as high-dimensional elaborations of lower-level perceptual
maps heavily biased to process social information; in humans, the emergence of these models can be
traced from infancy through adulthood as they unfold in the cortical and subcortical systems of the so-
called social brain. The paper provides evidence that the anthropomorphism underlying primitive relig-
ion and myth was a ‘spandrel’ or non-adaptive side-effect of the development of these systems, which
are critical to human survival.
Section four discusses empirical tests of the model involving neuropathologies that affect the social
brain. Data here are drawn from research on one remarkable form of synesthesia linked to exaggerated
anthropomorphizing tendencies and on autistic disorders in which such tendencies are missing or badly
attenuated. The importance of testing the model is critical: the view that religion is a byproduct of some
sort of the so-called social brain is suggested in a number of recent naturalistic models developed by
Guthrie, Boyer, Atran, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and others, and can presently claim to be the consen-
sual view; but in the absence of rigorous ways to test these models, that view cannot claim scientific
status or provide a solid foundation for future research in comparative mythology or religion.
The ideas presented in this paper are part of a broader model developed elsewhere (Farmer, Henderson,
and Witzel 2002; Farmer 2008; Farmer forthcoming) that combines neurobiological, philological, and
historical evidence with computer simulations to explain important global parallels in the evolution of
traditional religious, philosophical, and cosmological systems. The general aim of the paper is to sug-
gest that by combining work in these fields we can build testable models of the evolution of human
thought of the same general class that have long been indispensable in the physical and biological sci-

Independent scholar, Palo Alto, California, USA.
New Perspectives on Myth

We are in the midst of a historical moment reminiscent of the one in which
biology found itself before the last World War, when vitalist doctrines pre-
dominated, even among scientists. Molecular biology has destroyed them.
We must assume that the same will happen to spiritualistic theses.

If oxen and horses and lions had hands or could draw and create works like
those of men, and if animals were to draw pictures of gods, horses would
draw pictures of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and each would make
their bodies similar in shape to their own.

Fig. 14.1. Anthropomorphic lion figure, ivory, Hohlenstein-Stadel, c. 32,000 BP
1. Introduction: Neurobiology, myth, and religion
This paper describes a neurobiological model of the origins of primitive religion and
myth and anthropomorphism in general. Reflecting the aims of this conference, the
paper pays special attention to the model’s implications for comparative mythology.
The paper draws in part from a book-in-progress (Brains and history) that combines
neurobiological, philological, historical, and computational research to generate a

Changeux 1985.
Ascribed to Xenophanes, early 6th to early 5th

centuries BCE; first cited in Clement of Alexandria,
Stromata, 3rd cent. CE.
Farmer – Chapter 14: Neurobiological Origins and Their Implications
general model of the evolution of major world traditions. Due to limitations of space,
I will largely confine myself in this talk to discussing the links between primitive re-
ligion and myth, having in mind by the latter (following the definition in the Oxford
English Dictionary) a ‘narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or
events, and embodying stories of natural or historical phenomena.’ Other sides of
primitive religion illuminated by brain-culture studies – involving visions, ritualistic
magic, mechanisms of social bonding, communication with gods and ancestors, con-
cepts of life after death, etc. – are dealt with elsewhere in my book and will be noted
here only in passing. Also left aside in this paper is discussion of key transformations
that occurred in myth and religion in literate traditions over the past 5,000 years; dis-
cussion of the stereotypical changes that occurred in this period play a key role in the
book noted above, which describes computer models capable of simulating those
transformations in detail.

The questions this paper addresses are simple but have broad implications.
Why did early humans everywhere tend to model reality – or at least the most emo-
tionally salient parts of reality – as the result of the acts of supernatural beings? Why
did they endow those beings with human mental and social qualities, and often with
human physical traits as well? Can we build testable models of how anthropomorphic
views are generated, creating a foundation for scientific approaches to comparative
religion and mythology? Testing is essential, since while in the last decade numerous
studies have approached religion and myth from naturalistic viewpoints, due to a lack
of tests no model can currently claim scientific status.
Most of my paper focuses on oral rather than literate traditions, but in passing
I will suggest ways in which joint neurobiological and philological studies can illumi-
nate step-like developments in traditional philosophical, religious, and cosmological
systems emerging cross-culturally over the last 5,000 years. I will also suggest why
modern models of the world have lost most of their anthropomorphic qualities, al-
though it is still possible to detect survivals of these in simple psychological tests; one
of the most dramatic of these tests is illustrated near the end of my talk. The general
aim of my paper is to suggest that it is possible to build models of the evolution of
myth and religion that are no less rigorous than models in the biological and physical
sciences – and that can be verified not only in textual data but in useful heuristic com-
puter simulations as well.
1.1 Why is a neurobiological model of myth needed?
Let’s start with the most basic question. Why do we need a neurobiological model of
myth? Below I suggest four answers to that question. I will spend the most time on
the first of these, since it reflects on the most important theoretical work currently
going on in the field, much of it first discussed in this series of annual conferences,

On this, see Farmer 1998, 2008; Farmer, Henderson, & Witzel 2002; and Farmer, Henderson, Witzel,
& Robinson 2002; parts of the underlying simulation engine used in these models are described in a
working paper by Farmer, Zaumen, Sproat, & Witzel 2009.
New Perspectives on Myth
which (unofficially) began in 2004.

1. A neurobiological model is needed to help sort out similarities in myths
due to common descent, transmission, and parallel invention – and to help
estimate the maximum time-depth possible in reconstructing ancestral
Some of the most important recent work in the field involves attempts to re-
construct prehistoric myths using methods loosely based on those used in comparative
linguistics and population genetics (Witzel, in press). The aim is to reconstruct prehis-
toric myths and if possible to infer something about ancient migrations by comparing
myths in the oldest available texts. Given the massive corruption found in what cur-
rently passes for our earliest ancient texts, such reconstructions can only claim ap-
proximate validity, and the time depth of reconstruction is open to debate (Farmer
2007 and below; Witzel, in press). But if used cautiously such reconstructions can be
useful heuristic tools in modeling prehistory, especially when their results heavily
overlap with (similarly approximate) linguistic and genetic reconstructions.
One obvious limitation to this approach arises from differences in the ways
that myths as opposed to genes or languages change over time. Old myths not only
drifted in sense or merged with or were replaced by foreign myths, paralleling similar
behavior in historical linguistics or population genetics, but were also at times aban-
doned or invented anew as ecological or cultural conditions changed. Classic exam-
ples include the rapid appearance of horses in the mythologies of North American
Plains Indians after the first European contact; the equally rapid development of
Melanesian cargo cults due to similar influences; and the wholesale invention by
Mormons of an entire mythology for New World Indians in the 1820s and 30s. Nor
are major ecological or cultural changes necessary to generate new myths. In his clas-
sic study of cosmologies among the Mountain Ok in Inner New Guinea, Fredrik Barth
(1987) not only records major differences in myths in nearby Ok villages, but also the
birth of new myths due simply to the private visions or ambitions or memory failures
of single ritual specialists.

One reason why more attention is currently paid to the transmission rather
than generation of myths lies in the fact that research in comparative mythology nec-
essarily depends on data ‘fixed’ in texts. This gives even ancient myths a misleading
aura of semi-permanence that is often projected into preliterate contexts.
The most

Abandonment of old myths and inventions of new ones of course tend to occur most quickly in cases
in which old gods (or saints or spirits or divinized ancestors) fail in their assigned functions. Hence the
origins of Western medieval rituals known as the ‘humiliation of the saint’ or medieval Chinese demo-
tions of bureaucratic gods who failed during famines or other local disasters. Abandonment of myths
(often accompanied by the demonization of failed deities) is in any event common and has to be taken
into account in any theoretical model of comparative mythology.
Clearly some types of oral transmission are capable of relatively high-fidelity; the classical case lies
in some types of Vedic traditions. But this is an extreme case and may itself have originally emerged as
a kind of ‘counter-literacy’ under pressures from literate technologies imported from the Persian Em-
pire. On this, see Farmer, Henderson, and Witzel 2002, n. 55; and in detail, Farmer, forthcoming.
Farmer – Chapter 14: Neurobiological Origins and Their Implications
extreme case lies in attempts to reconstruct myths antedating the apparent African
diaspora. Even in ideal circumstances the texts in this case are a minimum of 50,000
years younger than the attempted reconstructions; sometimes, quite ludicrously, the
claimed evidence includes missionary reports a few centuries old at best. The impos-
sibility of useful reconstruction in this case is obvious when we consider not only the
instability of myths and the corruption of sources but as well the massive ecological
upheavals that followed the apparent African exodus 50-70,000 years ago. While
traveling to their later homelands, the earliest humans in the Middle East, South or
Central Asia, Europe, the Far East, and Oceania lived through the worst of the last
glacial period – including the ascent to the glacial maximum ca. 18-20,000 years ago
and descent to its minimum ca. 10-12,000 years BP; wild climate changes between or
after those periods, including the sudden ‘Great Freeze’ of the Younger Dryas event,
ca, 13,000 years BP, and the sea rises that accompanied the collapse of the Laurentide
ice sheet ca. 8,400 years ago; habitation at different times of savannas, jungles, de-
serts, river basins, coastal areas, mountains, and high plateaus, each obviously with
different mythic demands; correlated changes including major extinctions of animal
and plant life on which human survival depended, each again surely deeply impacting
myths; population bottlenecks precipitated not only by migrations but by disease and
famines, with similar results; and the first large-scale diversification of human
economies starting after the last glacial minimum, resulting in radically altered hunt-
ing and gathering environments and the first pastoral and farming and urban trading
societies; the fact that the latter changes directly impacted myth formation can be un-
ambiguously validated in our earliest texts. Myths are acutely sensitive to ecological
change, and sorting out the effects of such change again requires a model of myth
generation – and that requires an understanding of the evolutionary and neurobiologi-
cal origins of the anthropomorphic tendencies that lie at the base of primitive religion
and myth.
There is still another way that myth transmission differs from that of lan-
guages and genes that again suggests the need for such a model. Not only can we ex-
pect ecological upheavals to encourage inventions of new myths, but we can also
predict that new myths generated in similar environments often have similar features.
Just as in biology, comparative mythology is full of examples of how similar ecol-
ogies encourage the emergence of similar forms; given sufficient data, we should be
able to develop usable estimates of the frequency of independent invention based on
mass comparison of cognate and non-cognate myth complexes (Farmer 2007). It
would be a strange farming society indeed that lacked cyclical planting and harvesting
myths and at some point dead-and-resurrected gods; anomalous river dwellers who
lacked flood myths; and rare religions of the oppressed that at some point did not in-
vent (or adopt from other cultures) cosmic saviors. Due to limits in our textual
sources, our detailed understanding of similarities in myths is often too imprecise to
confirm whether those similarities derive from common descent, transmission, or par-
allel invention; at times all may play partial roles. Uncertainties are greatest in the
case of similar myths known only in fragmentary form from widely separated eras,
New Perspectives on Myth
which is often the only evidence available; this is a particularly serious problem in
comparative studies of Indo-European myths. What is clear is that a generative model
of myths is required before we can expect to sort out all these issues in a systematic
Possessing such a model will not give us every answer; a neurobiological
model cannot yet give us reliable estimates of the maximum time depth of reconstruc-
tions of ancestral myths, which can be expected to depend on the stability of condi-
tions between the oldest versions of those myths and those used in their
reconstruction; such estimates require a detailed understanding of prehistoric ecologi-
cal changes that currently eludes us. But such a model can help us develop such esti-
mates when conjoined with improved data that should become available in the next
few decades. Bill Zaumen, Richard Sproat, Michael Witzel, and I have developed cul-
tural simulation software that should prove useful in analyzing data of these types;
that software will be released via Internet for customized use by non-programmers in
2010 (cf. Farmer, Zaumen, Sproat, and Witzel 2009).

2. A neurobiological model can help us decide between models that picture
primitive myth and religion as cultural ‘inventions’ and those that view
them as (adaptive or non-adaptive) byproducts of brain processes; it can
also help us estimate the dates of the earliest myths.
There are three approaches to dating the earliest myths. The first is based on
the assumption that myth is an ‘invention’ that appeared at a given point in prehistory.
One common period suggested for the earliest myths is the time of the so-called sym-
bolic explosion, sometime shortly after 40,000 years BP, when iconographical evi-
dence of anthropomorphism first appeared.
Other variants assume that myth
originated before modern man’s African exodus but leave the dates open. If we ac-
cepted either alternative and (quite dubiously) assumed as well that that oral myths
were capable of remaining relatively stable through multiple population bottlenecks
and ecological upheavals, we could make a case that someday we might reconstruct
man’s ‘first’ myths.
The second and third views assume that myth-making is a byproduct (either
selected for or a non-adaptive side-effect or ‘spandrel’
) of neurobiological processes.
On either of these evolution models, the question of when the ‘first’ myth appeared is
meaningless. The anthropomorphic modeling associated with myth in both cases
reaches back minimally to the first modern humans, ca. 200,000 years BP; depending
on which sides of brain processes that we associate with myth generation those dates
can be pushed back much further – an issue that is addressed later in this paper.
The idea that the anthropomorphism underlying primitive religion and myth is

E.g., in the ivory anthropomorphic lion from Hohlenstein-Stadel, ca. 32,000 years BP, seen at and in Fig. 14.1.
A term for a non-adaptive side-effect, introduced into evolutionary biology by Gould and Lewontin
Farmer – Chapter 14: Neurobiological Origins and Their Implications
in fact a side-effect of brain development is supported by a great deal of testable evi-
dence reviewed at length in this paper. That evidence suggests that religion and myth
are non-adaptive (and in evolutionary terms, quite expensive) byproducts of the ways
in which the so-called social brain – distributed brain systems involved in face-
recognition, the reading of emotions and sexual signals, modeling of the cognitive
states of others (in so-called theories of mind), etc. – developed early in evolution (see
Sections 3.1 ff.). On this evidence, crude animistic modeling of some sort can be ex-
pected in all higher social animals, not just in man – amusingly, in a sense vindicating
the words ascribed to Xenophanes, found in the epigraph of this paper. In this case,
the elaboration of such models in myths can be traced back as far as we are comfort-
able placing human language. Much evidence suggests that language too emerged
over a vast period, with the result (as discussed below) that something corresponding
to myth can be claimed to be much older than the first Anatomically Modern Humans.

3. A neural model is needed to explain cross-cultural similarities in the ways
myths were transformed in literate traditions, helping generate the partly
deanthropomorphized deities and cosmic principles of later world tradi-
One perennial problem in mythological research is that preliterate and literate
myths are often naively confused (Farmer 2007). One reason is presumably because
even ethnographic reports of myths eventually reach us via texts, which often mis-
leadingly conflate a plethora of myth variants in single fixed forms. Moreover, once
prehistoric myths found their way into texts, they tended to get ‘worked up’ abstractly
by scribes and commentators operating over long periods in stratified textual tradi-
tions, helping transform myths into the abstract religious, philosophical, and cosmo-
logical forms typical of mature premodern civilizations (Farmer 1998; Farmer,
Henderson, and Witzel 2002; Gonzalez-Reimann 2002; Farmer 2008; Farmer forth-
Cross-cultural data summarized in these studies suggest that the exegetical
methods used to integrate myths in manuscripts were similar cross-culturally, due
again to neurobiological influences.

The implication is that a neurobiological model is
needed not only of myth generation, but of myth transformation in literate traditions
as well.

4. A neurobiological model is needed to explain the unreasonable persever-
ance of primitive mythic tendencies in modern traditions.
Myths in the forms studied in comparative mythology arise from what can be
pictured as ‘default conditions’ in the human brain expressed in some way in all peri-
ods of history (infra and Farmer forthcoming). In later cultures, those default condi-
tions may be partly overwritten by literate traditions in which anthropomorphic

It is the predictability of these processes that allows us to model long-range patterns of growth in
those traditions in computer simulations. See Farmer, Henderson, & Witzel 2002; Farmer, Henderson,
Witzel, & Robinson 2002; Farmer 2008 and forthcoming.
New Perspectives on Myth
tendencies become worked up abstractly in predictable directions (Farmer 1998;
Farmer, Henderson, and Witzel 2002; Farmer 2008; Farmer forthcoming). This not-
withstanding, it can be shown from simple experiments (cf. Section 4.3 below) that
myth-making tendencies can be identified in all normal subjects just below the sur-
face; study of neuropathologies in which those tendencies are amplified or attenuated
provides useful ways to uncover which sides of neural processing are involved in
myth generation. The fact that even modern societies have not succeeded in eliminat-
ing these tendencies entirely helps explain why after at least 250 years of scientific
discussion primitive thought forms including myth continue to be major political, re-
ligious, and cultural influences even in technologically advanced societies like the
United States.
In order to explain the perseverance of myth in modern cultures, we need a
testable model of its origins. The confident prediction made in the early 1980s by
Jean-Pierre Changeux – a leading neurobiological theorist and early advocate of
brain-culture studies – of the coming demise of ‘spiritualistic theses’ may be true in
the scientific world; recent studies show that an insignificant percentage of top scien-
tific researchers identify themselves as being religious in any form (for summaries of
the data, see Dawkins 2006: 97-103). But the deep neurobiological roots of anthro-
pomorphism discussed later suggest that we cannot expect that the same will be true
for global populations – at least until some future time when more of the world’s
population is exposed to serious scientific education.
2. The universality of anthropomorphism, and its role
in early religion
2.1. Overview
But were in fact primitive religion and myth really universal in premodern times? Be-
fore developing a testable model to explain their origins, we need to discuss claims
involving preliterate tribes who were innocent of religion, or at least who supposedly
told no myths about gods or spirits. If such tribes have ever existed, any model that
claims that primitive religion and myth arose from neurobiological ‘default states’
would hardly be credible.
Claims of the existence of such tribes have been made repeatedly since antiq-
uity. The most recent involve the Pirahã of the Amazon, whose reportedly simple cul-
ture and primitive linguistic traits – at least as pictured by the linguist (and former
Christian missionary) Daniel Everett – have made a sensation in the global press. But
a closer look at the evidence suggests a more complex and quite melancholic story:
among the few artifacts noted in Everett’s works are Pirahã necklaces made ‘from
seeds, homespun cotton string, teeth, feathers, beads, beer-can pull-tabs, and/or other
objects,’ whose functions ‘are decorative only secondarily, their primary purpose be-
ing to ward off the evil spirits that they see almost daily’ (Everett 2005). As this pas-
Farmer – Chapter 14: Neurobiological Origins and Their Implications
sage suggests, the claimed reluctance of the Pirahã to tell myths may itself testify to
the fearful hold gods and spirits have over their daily life. The inclusion among Pirahã
spirit-deflectors of ‘beer-can pull-tabs’ also hints that the impoverishment of this rap-
idly dying culture may involve recent disruptions to old ways of life. The result as one
severe Everett critic notes may be a ‘creolized, stripped-down remnant’ of older val-
ues tied to the Pirahã’s earlier links to tribes known to have once possessed a rich my-
thology (Levinson 2005).
Everett’s testimony in asides also suggests that the Pirahã are much more
prone to myth telling than he tells the press. Thus despite his public claims that none
of the Pirahã is bilingual, in his technical papers he speaks repeatedly of tribesmen
freely relating stories in Portuguese as well as their native language (e.g., Everett
2005). Much comparative evidence demonstrates that myth telling is not as common
in some premodern societies as others, but – and here the Pirahã must stand for the
rest – no one has ever turned up evidence of a single early society that failed to pic-
ture major segments of reality in anthropomorphic terms.
The fact that anthropomorphism was pervasive in early cultures does not mean
that religion consists only of stories about gods and spirits. Any comprehensive model
of myth and religion must account as well for the means of communicating with gods,
spirits, and ancestors; for concepts of souls and life after death; for shifts from blood
sacrifices to anthropomorphic gods to ‘spiritual’ sacrifices to transcendent deities; for
the related shift in literate times from tribal to universal ethical ideas; for the magical
union of worshippers with redemptive deities; for the (fairly late) development of
meditative practices aimed at mystical union; and so on down a long list (Farmer
2008; Farmer, Henderson, and Witzel 2002; Farmer forthcoming). Tied to many of
these developments is the fact that cruder anthropomorphism tended to diminish in
literate traditions, eventually giving birth to monotheistic gods and abstract cosmic
principles often not only said to be distant from human form but to transcend human
understanding as well.
Despite these complexities, anthropomorphism remains our best entry point to
studying primitive religion and myth scientifically. There was a popular saying in the
nineteenth century inspired by the work of the French physiologist Jean Pierre Ca-
banis; the most famous version shows up in William James, a staunch ‘spiritualist,’
who cited it critically in Principles of psychology (1890): ‘The brain secretes thought
as the kidneys secrete urine, or the liver secretes bile.’ Darwin (1838) earlier proposed
a version less apt to shock the pious, but still prudently confined to a private note-
book: ‘Why is thought being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a
property of matter?’
Darwin could have added: And why does thought so often express itself in an-
thropomorphic forms? Why do children draw faces on the sun, or turn house doors
into mouths and windows into eyes? Why are children’s stories populated world-wide
by talking animals inhabiting human social settings? Why did early cultures link gods
with stars or constellations linked with social myths? Why do human languages as-
sign gender to inanimate parts of nature? And if overextensions of human traits to the
New Perspectives on Myth
exterior world are rooted in neurobiology, how have human cultures managed to tran-
scend anthropomorphic tendencies? Why do we tend to associate myth more with ear-
lier than with later cultures?
The aim of the model discussed below (starting with Section 3.1) is to demon-
strate that primitive anthropomorphism is a predictable side-effect of neural develop-
ment – originating in social biases in brain programs running continuously in all of us.
While these biases may be partially overwritten in literate traditions, in times of his-
torical stress they tend to return to full strength.
The brain not only naturally secretes thought but gods and myths as well – a
finding that could bode ill for man’s long-term survival, given his growing techno-
logical power. Before sketching out the grounds of the model, it will be useful to look
at earlier attempts to link anthropomorphism to primitive myth and religion and the
brain to religious experiences of other types.
2.2. Earlier naturalistic models of myth and religion
The idea that the gods inhabiting myth originated in overextensions of human quali-
ties to the exterior world can be traced to antiquity. The most famous expression of
that idea came in the words found at the head of this paper traditionally ascribed to
Xenophanes, who lived in the early 6th to early 5th

centuries BCE. Similar ideas show
up in Hebrew scriptures compiled in the same period, an era in which the expanded
use of lightweight writing materials was radically transforming mythic traditions
throughout Eurasia (Farmer 1998; Farmer, Henderson, and Witzel 2002; Farmer
In the middle of the eighteenth century, Hume placed anthropomorphism at
the center of his Natural history of religion (1757) and Dialogues concerning natural
religion (first published 1779), which continue to have a deep impact on naturalistic
models of religion and myth (see below, Section 2.6):
There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to
transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of
which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds;
and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or
good-will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us (Hume 1757).
In the nineteenth century, these ideas turned up in dozens of variants as evolu-
tionary models grew in popularity in all fields from biology to cultural history. In
1841 Feuerbach argued in Das Wesen des Christentums that even late theological
concepts in Christianity consisted in the projection of man’s nature into ideas of god.
Feuerbach did not suggest a clear evolutionary path from primitive anthropomorphism
to the Christian ideas discussed in his work; his model derived from critiques of
Hegel and not what anyone today would view as scientific or historical data. But his
approach had a major impact on naturalistic studies of religion, which began to appear
in large numbers after Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859.
The most influential of these came in E.B. Tylor’s Researches into the Early
Farmer – Chapter 14: Neurobiological Origins and Their Implications
History of Mankind (1865) and Primitive Culture (1871). Tylor argued that the origins
of religion lay in primitive ‘animism,’ which can be roughly viewed as an extension
of concepts of life or soul (anima in Latin) to the non-human world. Similar views
were advanced in the early years of evolutionary theory by others, many of them
closely aligned with Darwin. These included (besides Herbert Spencer) Darwin’s
neighbor John Lubbock, in Pre-historic Times (1865) and Origins of Civilization and
the Primitive Condition of Man (1870); and the ethnologist John Ferguson McLennan.
In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin summed up views of anthropomorph-
ism that were widespread at that time by quoting McLennan’s ‘The worship of plants
and animals’ (1869), which placed the origins of religion in the ‘simplest and earliest
hypothesis’ to occur about the world – ‘that natural phenomena are ascribable to the
presence in animals, plants, and things, and in the forces of nature, of such spirits
prompting to action as men are conscious they themselves possess.’ Transmitted
largely through Tylor’s concept of animism, this view has impacted a long list of
writers – stretching from Piaget in the 1920s to recent writers including Boyer, Atran,
Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins. The most detailed model of the origins of anthropo-
morphism so far is found in the work of the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, to whom
we will return shortly.
At the end of the nineteenth century William James took a radically different
approach to religion in Varieties of religious experience, which was originally written
for his Gifford lectures in Edinburgh in 1901-1902. Unlike these earlier figures, James
had little if any interest in gods, formal theology, religious institutions, or historical
transformations in religion. As his title implies, his interest lay in religious experience
– existential anxiety, ecstasy, possession, hallucination, prophecy, spiritual healing,
conversion, mystical rapture, and so on. James acknowledged that much of this ex-
perience could be viewed as abnormal from a psychological standpoint. But in his
eyes that did not undermine its spiritual validity, which in the light of his ‘pragma-
tism’ could only be measured by its psychological effects. James’ beliefs here were
intensely personal: he claimed his lifelong depressions only lifted once he embraced
his wife’s spiritualism, which expanded in old age when much of his time was taken
up in seances and conversations with the dead. One of James’ last publications, in
1909, notoriously recorded his conversations with his dead friend Roger Hodgson.
(James’ New York Times obituary the next year carried the wonderful subtitle ‘Expo-
nent of pragmatism and dabbled in spooks.’)
The influence of James’ work in studies of the origins of primitive religion has
in many ways been unfortunate due to his shift of emphasis from primitive anthropo-
morphism to subjective religious experience, all of it approached ahistorically. In the
1970s, working in the tradition of James, Norman Geschwind, one of the twentieth
century’s great neurologists, took this trend further in reexamining what has been
claimed since antiquity to be the heightened religious experiences of epileptics. What
followed were a series of still controversial studies that attempt to link a set of behav-
iors including intensified religiosity and hypergraphia to the period between seizures
in temporal lobe epileptics (Waxman & Geschwind 1974, 1975; cf. Trimble & Free-
New Perspectives on Myth
man 2006). In the following decades, a large literature has developed that has either
supported or attacked Geschwind’s attempts to localize extreme forms of religious
experience in specific regions of the brain. Recent claims have even been made that
intimations of ‘God’ can be induced artificially in the temporal lobe (the region most
associated with epileptic seizures) by the application of technologies including Trans-
cranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) (St.-Pierre & Persinger 2006).

Many recent studies in the tradition of James have been sensationalized in the
press and have been credulously hailed by New Age spiritualists, including at times
researchers involved in the studies. The most famous are associated with Andrew
Newberg and his coworkers at the University of Pennsylvania (cf., e.g. Newberg et al.
2001, 2003; Khalsa et al. 2009). Using non-invasive imaging techniques, Newberg’s
group has studied changes in regional blood flow patterns in the brains of meditating
Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns while they used various visualization or chanting
methods. What all this has to do with religion is questionable: from a neurobiological
angle, one could predict similar blood-flow patterns would show up from studies of
atheists changing nonsense words and perhaps pornographic rhyme.
Many similar studies have recently been undertaken elsewhere; perhaps the
most notorious – much ridiculed in the field – is a study by a University of Montreal
group that reports results of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies
of blood-flow patterns in Carmelite nuns recorded ‘while they were subjectively in a
state of union with God.’ The authors claim (without a hint of skepticism) that the
experiences of their subjects may also include:
…the sense of having touched the ultimate ground of reality, the experience of timelessness
and spacelessness, the sense of union with humankind and the universe, as well as feelings of
positive affect, peace, joy, and unconditional love (Beauregard and Paquette 2006).
It is impossible to imagine what light if any fMRI studies of modern meditat-
ing monks and nuns could throw on primitive religion – which highlights one problem
introduced in naturalistic approaches to religion and myth since James altered the di-
rection of research in the early twentieth century. From an historical standpoint, medi-
tation of the types described in the studies described above have little to do with
primitive religion: formal meditation was a relatively late development in religious
thought, appearing at the earliest towards the middle of the first millennium BCE,
when religion underwent major changes under the impact of expanding literacy.
Claims that studies like this may someday identify a ‘God spot’ (to cite a
credulous Scientific American article) or similar things, clash with everything known
about the distributed nature of brain functions, which are discussed later in this paper:
cognitive functions (including those involving religion) are located in circuits linking
many brain areas, and not in single regions. The conclusion is that little help can be
expected in understanding primitive myth and religion by the kinds of ‘neuro-

For an amusing story on this method and its failure when tested on the evolutionary biologist (and
atheist) Richard Dawkins, see in the UK Telegraph from 2003: ‘Holy Visions Elude Scientists,’ More on Persinger’s claimed ‘God helmet’ can be found on the Web.
Farmer – Chapter 14: Neurobiological Origins and Their Implications
theology’ widely discussed in recent years in the mass press.

2.3. Darwin’s dog and chimpanzee rain dances: standard cognitive ap-
proaches to the origins of religion
Starting in the 1990s, a growing number of researchers began to return to naturalistic
views of the origins of anthropomorphism discussed in the tradition extending from
Hume to Lubbock, Tylor, McLennan, Darwin, and other early evolutionary theorists.
The first influential work of this type is by the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, found
in a major book, Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion (1993) and a number of
shorter studies (cf., e.g., Guthrie 2002). Guthrie’s model is not grounded in a detailed
discussion of the brain, but it does take cognitive research and evolutionary studies of
behavior seriously. Guthrie’s model illustrates both the uses and limitations of current
evolutionary approaches to myth and religion – including the problem of deciding
between alternative models in the absence of ways to test those models – and is worth
discussing in detail.

Guthrie expands on a suggestion in Darwin in extending to the animal world
in general what can be broadly viewed as ‘animism,’ which he sees as an ancient
adaptive mechanism tied to evolutionary survival. He takes his inspiration in one re-
cent paper from a wonderful passage from the The Descent of Man (1871), which I
quote here a bit more fully than Guthrie does in his paper:

Two recent papers by Kapogiannis et al., published after this article was in press, that associate acti-
vation of neural networks linked to the so-called social brain with different sides of anthropomorphic
religious belief are more useful, although they persist in misrepresenting single cognitive functions
with localized brain regions.
A number of later studies follow the general path taken by Guthrie. My discussion of his work belo