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For as long as cultures have had contact with each other, attentive observers have noticed the similarities between their respective myths. Today, scholars hypothesize that these similarities are either the result of accident, cultural sharing or diffusion, or a shared collective unconscious of symbols. But in his revolutionary book, The Origins of the World's Mythologies, E.J. Michael Witzel argues that there's a better reason for many shared features: common origin. Like linguistics or genetics, he argues that with enough data, you can trace back versions of myths to shared mythologies from the past, all the way back through human history. In the process, he has identified a common, complex storyline shared by mythologies spanning Europe, Asia, the Americas, and stretching out into Northern Africa and Southeast Asia. His work suggests that in the distant past, humanity shared a common set of myths, but prior to the spread of humanity into Eurasia and the Americas, a new storyline developed, which has been retained but modified over the past 40,000 years of history.

Today on MindMatters we discuss the basics of Witzel's theory, the two major types of mythology he has identified, and what it says about human creativity.

Running Time: 01:14:19

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Here's the transcript of the show:

Harrison: Hi everyone. Welcome back to Mind Matters. If you tuned in to our show last week one of the books we mentioned that we've been reading this year is The Origins of the World's Mythologies by E.J. Michael Witzel. So we're going to be talking about this today because we've all been checking it out recently. Like I said in the show last week, it is quite the revolutionary book. If you're into comparative mythology at all, if you've read anything by Mircea Eliade or Joseph Campbell or even if you're just into myths, even in fiction, if you're a Neil Gaiman fan, Gaiman's really into mythology. One of his recent books is actually his own retelling of the Norse mythology. If you like superhero movies, if you like Marvel, if you like Thor and that kind of stuff, this is where all that stuff comes from.

So this book has the ambitious goal of tracing the world's mythologies back through time. Again, like I mentioned last week, his methodology and his argument is to say that it is possible - and he'd argue that he has done this - possible to trace back mythologies in the same way that we can trace back languages as well as even genetics, using those sciences-archeology, paleo anthropology, all these things, we can trace back human movements, for instance, and the spreading of languages and the morphing and growth of languages.

So for instance we can look at the Indo-European languages, trace back the similarities and using these analytic techniques, look at the branching points and saying, "Well these three languages are connected in these ways and these three are connected in these ways and then before that they were the same and then that language family is connected to this language family and they all trace back to a proto-Indo-European for instance". Well he's arguing that the same thing can be done with mythologies. If you look at one mythology and you look at its overall narrative or story line, and then you've got what he calls the individual mythomenes, these little mythic units. It might be the first human being born from a tree or being made out of clay or some bird doing some crazy thing. Whatever it is, there's an identifiable unit in that myth.

You can look at groups of these in one modern location and then compare that to related groups and related mythologies, look at the similarities and then do the same thing with languages, trace it back to a common ancestor. Again, that's where the comparison with genetics comes in. He's tracing back and looking for the common ancestors for these different mythologies. He comes to some interesting conclusions.

He doesn't belabour the point, but one of the things that I found about this was that it says something about the nature of human creativity - we'll get into some of the details in the book but I just want to make this point - something about the nature of creativity and the way that humans tell stories and make art too. He makes reference to music as well. You can theoretically do the same thing with musical styles because if you compare different world music you'll find that some cultures will use primarily a pentatonic scale, like in east Asia and that you have our western 12-note scale. But if you go to places like India you'll get a 24-note scale. They have microtones.

So theoretically you could trace those back and come up with this proto world music that might have shared characteristics. Of course that's going to be way more difficult than it is to do with mythology so it might not even be possible but it's at least theoretically possible. Being a musician myself, one of the things that has always just made me shake my head is all these copyright lawsuits. YouTube is the worst for copyright claims because a creator will make a video - let's say it's a 20-minute video, it might even be a musical analysis video where they're looking at a piece of music and then taking it apart for educational purposes. This is the kind of stuff that my professors would do in college when I was taking courses about music theory. They take a piece of music, analyze it and this video will then get claimed by the copyright owner. It might be five or ten seconds of this song and then all the ad revenue from that video will then go to this copyright claimant, even though their copyrighted material is being used for 5-10 seconds out of this 20-minute video that has all kinds of other content. It should be fair use.

That's one kind of this copyright claim hysteria. The other is actual artists suing other artists for stealing their songs. There are some famous examples like MC Hammer ripping off Queen. I can't even hum it. Oh, Vanilla Ice and Queen. He totally ripped off that baseline and said "Oh it's different because I just added that one note". Sure he ripped it off, but I think copyright claims like that are just totally bogus. I think people should be totally free to rip each other off however much they want because arguable, that has been the history of art and of all kinds of artistic creations, from painting, looking at a theme, looking at a particular style or subject, and then doing it in a new style, obviously influenced by someone else, someone that they've been studying.

I'd argue that the vast majority of music is ripped off in some way. First of all the vast majority of number one hits use the same chord progression, just because the studio executives have realized that that chord progression makes hits even though historically those hits with that chord progression have been in the minority of songs in the '60s, '70s, '80s. There were all kinds of different chord progressions that made number one hits, like the Beatles. Only one of their number one hits uses the particular chord progression that all the songs are using these days.

So you've got all kinds of lawsuits going on right now. RadioHead and their first hit Creep got sued for ripping off this other song, using the chord progression from that so they had to give part of their royalties to this other guy who wrote a song that sounded like that. Now RadioHead is suing Lana Del Rey or someone for ripping off Creep, a song that they ripped off from someone else. It's just this circle of suing each other for these copyright claims when I think artists should be free to rip off as much as they want, like I said, because that's historically how things have happened.

Even with classical musicians, if you look at some famous classical pieces, a lot of those melodies came from folk songs. They'd hear a good melody and say, "Oh, I can do something with that. I can do something better with that. I can take that and I can actually do better." So if you think that you can write a better song than some famous person and you actually do a good job and people like it, then good on you.

The thing about that is that there's precedent, at least in music, and there's precedent in mythology. This is one of the big points in this book. Pretty much everyone was copying everyone else and the only way we'd be able to do this science, for instance and this comparative mythology and tracking back mythologies is because all the people writing these mythologies - I've been using the phrase 'ripping someone else off' - but it's not really ripping off. That's just the way things work. That's the way any kind of creativity works. It's taking an idea and then just morphing and transforming it and whether you get that idea out of nowhere in your mind or you've heard something, you've forgotten about it and you kind of recreate it in your mind and do something else with it, that's the way it works.

With mythologies, what he's arguing is that he's going against certain traditional ways of looking at mythologies and explaining the commonalities. One hypothesis has been that the similarities between mythologies have been the result of what he calls diffusion. One mythology diffuses into another culture and then it gets adopted by that culture. So that's kind of like a horizontal transfer, from this group living now to this group living now. Now you've got two groups with a similar mythology.

Now that diffused mythology might change a bit in the process. It might acquire certain features that were local to that culture that acquired the new mythology so it'll gain a different flavour. So now when you're comparing those mythologies they'll be slightly different. They'll have similarities but there will be differences that are specific to the local culture that preserves their own traditions and inserts them in some way.

What he's arguing is that that might happen sometimes and it does happen sometimes. For instance the spread of Christian missionaries all over the world has injected a lot of biblical themes into the local culture which have then been adopted and adapted for those specific cultures. But what he's arguing is that overall the main explanation for a lot of these similarities is a common origin.

So it's not that one culture is spreading their mythology to another one; it's that the ancestors to both mythologies had the same mythology and as they developed over the years and the generations they might have acquired local features, just as in languages. That's why languages can be related but different. So the history of human stories has been one of reworking what was in your past. In essence, you're copying your own past and essentially that's what musicians are doing today because most musicians copying each other are in the same culture. They're growing music in the same soil. That is their soil. The songs that we've heard throughout our childhoods and our young adulthoods are our own culture. So to develop them and to do something new with them is totally natural. It's just the total corporatization and commodification of music that has led to the ridiculous things about copyright law, but really it is a grand human tradition.

Luckily, because of that, we can learn something about history. It's just like in genetics. I mentioned one of my favourite books last year, David Reich's Who We Are and How We Got Here on the relatively recent study of ancient DNA. Previously it just wasn't available. We had no means of doing really good extraction and analysis of ancient DNA. We just didn't have the technology. Now it's a million times cheaper than it was when the technology first developed so it can be done all over the place.

I was listening to an interview with Reich and he pointed out that the only reason they're able to do this is because bones get preserved in such a way that bone material will preserve this DNA. All of the flesh and the soft tissue, where you'd think the most DNA would be found, degrades, but when you just have bones, because of a very special feature of bone - I can't remember what the chemical molecular property is - it preserves DNA. Without that we would not be able to study ancient DNA and get an idea of these population migrations and all these things.

So it's a similar thing with mythology. Thanks to the human propensity for a conservative but progressive changing of the past, we are able to look deep into the past and come to some conclusions about what that past was like, whereas just on the surface of things you'd think that's impossible and some people think it's impossible. Writing is only five or six thousand years old and the reason we have myths, if they're not transmitted orally and aren't alive today in that sense, the only way we're able to transmit them is through writing, finding ancient tablets and manuscripts and being able to read what these people wrote down in their time.

But because of these similarities and the ability to compare these things in a tree-like diagram, like a tree of life or like you see in evolutionary studies, because of that, we're then able to get at least a hypothesis of what these ancient myths were like prior to five or six thousand years ago. What Witzel argues is that we're able to do this going as far back as human history can go and as far back as we can even think about the history of humanity, so back to the so-called mitochondrial Eve which is the most common female ancestor for all humanity, the last common ancestor for mitochondrial DNA.

But then through the first migrations of humanity into Eurasia and into Australia, along south Asia, India, southeast Asia into Australia, these first migrations and the migrations up into Asia, Central Asia, Europe, the conclusion that Witzel came to by comparing all these myths - I'll give his overall theory in a nutshell - is that he identified two regions and two overarching similar myth structures, the first being found in sub-Saharan Africa in the Andaman Islands off the coast of southeast Asia between India and Southeast Asia, and then in Papua and Australia and Tasmania, the island off of Southeast Australia. All of these regions, despite their geographic spread, share similar myths.

But then, if you look everywhere else in the world, in Eurasia, North and South America, there are some similarities with those myths, but there is something new that only those northern regions share and that is an overall storyline. He calls it the first novel. So it's a story from the beginning of creation until the final end, the final destruction, the end of creation. He gets into the features of it, but those features are shared by the mythologies of all those peoples and cultures.

So from the collected myths in Japan to the Eddas in Norse mythology and the Iranian mythologies and the near eastern mythologies, from Mesopotamia even up through and including the bible and the Greek, Roman and Indian mythologies of course, and how all of these mythologies share an overall storyline. If you find one detail that's shared between a whole bunch of cultures, if it's just a small detail then you can't come to too firm a conclusion about one small detail. But if you find an entire sequence of very specific details which forms its own story line and then you find it everywhere, that, he argues, is a sign that they all came from an original story line and that this spread historically and that because of its extensive geographic spread, it must have come before the peopling of the Americas, so before the first humans inhabited North and South America, and it must come before the split between the Europeans and the Asians. There must have been a common origin for this mythological story line.

That is the overall argument that he makes. It's a thick book. I guess he probably goes a bit overboard in proving his case but he goes through all of the features of what he calls the Laurasian story line, the Eurasian story line in distinction to the Gondwana storyline which is the southern, south African/southeast Asia, mostly Australian mythology and then gets into all of the supporting evidence for that - linguistics, physical anthropology, genetics, archeology and then goes from there.

So there's a ton of details, a ton of examples from tons of world mythologies. That's why I said if mythology interests you at all, it's very interesting and there's a ton of sources so you can go and read these myths if you're into that kind of thing. But very cool in that sense.

Elan: Well I haven't gotten as far as I would have liked into the book yet but there are several features of it that are really impressive. The first, as you were saying Harrison, is that unlike a lot of other books that discuss mythology, Frazier, Joseph Campbell and Eliade, as you mentioned, what he's attempting to do in his comparative mythological approach is to go back tens of thousands of years.

So he quite often draws on dates from 50,000 BC to 100,000 BC. It just gives you, for a number of reasons, a sense of the scope of his investigation. I'm not steeped in mythological research or background but one of the most fascinating things about it is how he is able to look at the approaches of a Joseph Campbell, whose book The Power of Myth many people have read, and seen his programs and that might be the extent to which they have come to appreciate the value and the tradition of mythology.

What he's able to do is narrow in on the work of Joseph Campbell or Claude Levi-Strauss and is able to say "That's all well and good but look at how limited it is and how limiting it is in approaching how much more we're capable of learning and thinking about mythology". He does this with several different schools of thought that I was unfamiliar with up until I started reading Witzel's book.

Another thing that he brings up in his writing is that we've come to think of the works of Jung as a predecessor of Joseph Campbell and the thinking of the archetypes and the myths contained within archetypes as this kind of universal psychodynamic or psychic mythology that's inherent in every human being and Witzel says, "No. It may exist among a certain portion of the world's population but it's certainly not comprehensive and it certainly doesn't account for many other types of ideas that come up when you look at mythology more closely and that go far beyond the past few thousand years.

So that was also fascinating. What else is there? It's readable certainly, but he's throwing out so many concepts and ideas of what someone who has been studying mythology and who has lived mythology for so many decades, you're entering his world, effectively. It does take a little time and patience to get to understand what he's driving at. Even early on in the book he promises to not only discuss or get to why an examination or why the use of comparative mythology which is as he defines it, a historical, geographical, comprehensive look at mythology incorporating all of these different types of analysis, which he explains gives us a much fuller, broader view of the world's mythology and promises - I haven't gotten to the end of the book yet - to get to the meaning and the purpose of these mythologies.

So I'm looking forward to continuing to read this and appreciate where he's coming from and just how much research and erudition Witzel has. I've never read anything like it before. I'm looking forward to seeing where it all goes.

Harrison: I mentioned the story lines. Just for the sake of our readers I'll give the overall structure for these stories. First just to back up and expand on what he's saying with this common origin thing, he's arguing that if you go back far enough you'll find one mythology, essentially that he calls Pan-Gaean. This would be the first mythology shared by all the groups, I guess, that have contributed something to the history of mythology that survives in some way or has survived in a manner in which we can then know a part of it.

So I guess hypothetically it's possible that there were other myths that just disappeared and nobody has any record of, but the myths that we do have, that can be traced back to a common origin will be this Pan-Gaean mythology. And then from there, there was a split and this split will coincide with the time that the first humans started inhabiting the Eurasian land mass, migrating north up into Europe and up into parts of east Asia and central Asia, then expanding from there all through South Asia, Southeast Asia, North and South America, etc.

So at that point you have the introduction of what he calls Laurasian mythology and then there's a branching there. The Laurasian is this new story line that gets introduced and then the continuation of the Pan-Gaean myths which are preserved mostly, like I said, in Australia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The different elements of what he calls the Gondwana mythology, many of them can still be found incorporated into the Laurasian mythology. This gets into the whole copying thing that I was mentioning at the beginning, like a remix or mixing it into a new creation. So some of the features of the Gondwana mythology are earth, heaven and the sea are pre-existent so there's no origin mythology for these things. They're just there. They're the pre-existing ground and then all the myths develop on top of that so it's just taken for granted that the earth, heaven and seas exist. So there is a high god in or moving towards heaven who sends down his son and there's totems, tribal and animal spirit type things.

Then the creation focus is on the creation of humans and humans are often created from a tree or from clay. So we can see a carryover from that in the old testament, in the Hebrew bible for instance, of Adam being created from clay. Sorry Adam. And then along this proto storyline, which is never actually in Gondwana myth, all these myths are separated and he's just putting them together and saying, "There's a kind of story line that can be made by putting all these myths together" and this is the storyline that he gives. So these humans who have been created then show hubris and are punished by a flood.

The flood is actually a true human universal in mythology. You can find flood myths everywhere, from sub-Saharan Africa, everywhere else. Then it's often a trickster deity or deities that bring culture to the humans and then local tribes emerge.

So that's the common, shared features that can cohere in a type of proto narrative in the Gondwana mythology. Like I said, some of those carry over into the newly developed Laurasian mythology which adds a whole bunch of stuff. The Laurasian mythology is that there is an initial creation of everything, from nothing or from chaos. So you can see this again in Genesis where god creates everything from an initial chaos.

Then father heaven and mother earth are created. Father heaven then engenders two generations of gods. In the Greek mythology these are the Titans and the Olympians. This is followed by four or five generations or ages, depending on the region, mostly four but some cultures have five generations or ages. Heaven is pushed up and the sun is released. The current gods defeat or kill their predecessors. There's the killing of a dragon and there's a sacred drink. Humans are introduced as the somatic or bodily descendants of the sun god. So humans aren't necessarily created from tree or clay, though they might be if that little mythomeme got carried on, but more commonly humans are the direct descendants of a sun god.

Then they too, like in the old mythology, show hubris or it might be a god that shows hubris and are then also punished by a flood. Also trickster deities bring culture, humans spread. This is often the emergence of nobles, like a kingly line and only then local history begins. These are then followed by the final destruction of the world after which a new heaven and earth emerge. Whereas previously history was viewed as this eternal, infinite series where there was always a heaven and an earth and everything would just go in the future, there was no expectation of a final destruction. But all of a sudden this whole storyline emerges with these generations of gods and epochs of the creation followed by the history of mankind and then all leading up to and culminating in a final destruction and then new creation.

So this is the new element that was involved and which has influenced pretty much all western and eastern culture from then on. Not just that. Nowadays you could even call it probably an almost universal thing because that northern mythology has also gone back into Africa. Along the north and east of Africa, historically there was all kinds of trade and movement so these myths have spread over the last thousands of years all through Africa. The only reason you're able to find these Gondwana cultures that have preserved more of a pure original mythology is that they are isolated. They didn't have a lot of mixing or influence from the more northern-influenced cultures so you're able to find these holdovers of mythologies that were uninfluenced by the northern mythology.

But then even the northern mythologies in spreading east, you have the population, the first settlers of Taiwan and from Taiwan you get the populating of the Pacific Islands. So that overlaid onto the original Papuans who were living there and that spread even to Australia until today when we have this global culture for the most part, except for the Sentinelese on one end of an island who have had zero contact with other humans. They're still a hunter gatherer tribe with no contact. Just a year or two ago some researcher got killed trying to go and meet them.

For the most part, just through contact, trade and movement and now the internet, it's like this global thing where if you were to start today and move a thousand years into the future, everything would be mixed from this point on. But that's not how it has always been.

One of the questions I have that I'm hoping to look into once I finish the book is trying to get an idea of exactly how this happened because one of the things from reading David Reich's book is that it seems like with all the different population migrations, for instance the initial split between western Europeans and east Asians, it seems like there's been relative isolation between those two groups for thousands and thousand of years. I'll have to look through the book again to get the details. This is something I want to get into because it seems like reading his book, you get the impression that despite all the mixing that has occurred - you have this group of people that was living for thousands of years and then this group migrated over here and that mixed the genes here and then that group was isolated for several thousand years and then moved over here and mixed with the people that were living there - but the impression I get from looking at his book is that all of these things can be traced and if that region is western Europe, for instance, all that's happening in almost complete and total isolation from what's happening in east Asia.

So what I really want to get into is to see if it can be traced back to a point where you can say, "Okay, this is the region where the original Laurasian mythology must have been from, from where all the groups moved over". Or if you can say that it was a bit later than that but the reason it got into east Asia, for instance, is from this migration of these people or this influence between these two cultures where you might have diffusion. I don't know if that's possible yet because he wrote this book and finished it just as ancient DNA was starting to be studied, so he wasn't able to use that. The genetics he uses in this is primarily Y chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA. I think you can probably only go so far with that. What I'd be really interested to see is someone who has expertise in those areas, read this book and then use the latest ancient DNA research to see if it can be correlated or compared or tested against that new science.

Witzel hypothesizes a kind of south Asian origin so maybe northern India from where all the original Laurasian mythology then spread east and west and north. I don't know if that's possible yet, which makes me think if it isn't possible to find one origin point like that, it makes me wonder if we might have to go in the more diffusion hypothesis direction where maybe there was in some way, I don't know how, maybe a kind of universal culture, kind of like we have today. Of course there was no internet back then. Apparently from the ancient DNA, genetics from vastly separated regions didn't mix very much so I'm wondering how that might be possible. I think if he's right then it must be possible in some way but I think that's where the research has to go from now on to either confirm or refine his theory about the actual historical spread.

Corey: Another thing that I found very interesting about the book was one particular myth that he talks about, a mytheme I think you'd call it, is the idea of history progressing through different ages - correct me if I'm wrong but I think that was Laurasian - and it was a specifically Laurasian myth that, as with the Greeks, you had the golden age and then platinum, silver, bronze. But the interesting thing was he said that the native Americans had a similar myth, at least some tribes had that same myth and that it obviously dated back 20,000 years ago when it's hypothesized that they populated the Americas, North America.

But they had a very optimistic view of it. It didn't go from gold to bronze, it went in the opposite direction. So it's really interesting to me that at some point in time you can have these stories and that they will remain for 20,000, the same basic structure, but that it can be completely inverted so that at one point, if it is true that they did have a common origin, that it was one story. But then, for whatever reasons, whether it was due to finding the new world and becoming super optimistic because things can only get better from here, versus the Greeks and the others believing life just keeps getting worse and worse and worse. Whatever reason it is, that story still keeps the same foundations but it becomes inverted.

Did he talk about the meaning of that or anything in the later chapters of the book?

Harrison: Not yet.

Corey: No.

Harrison: I've still got a chapter and a half left so I haven't gotten to the one you mentioned. The very last chapter is kind of his take on the grand meaning of it all and what the meaning and purpose of these myths might be but I haven't read that yet. So far he's still making the case.

Corey: So maybe on next week's show we should give the grand meaning. {laughter} We need to get back to the grand meaning of all mythology. {laughter}

Elan: Well that's kind of the point of his book in a sense. He's saying human beings all have these very basic questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? What is the meaning of all of this? That's sort of the promise that he makes in attempting to go through this methodology of his, to look at all of these myths, to look at how they were spread through time geographically, how they were changed, what their origins are. Maybe this is the book or one of several parts of an answer to this point of time in humanity's history. Maybe he's onto something.

That's certainly what I'm looking forward to finding out because if it's true that there are some mythomemes or clusters of mythologies that tell this grand story from beginning to end of humanity, from its birth to its destruction and everything in between, maybe there's a reason why these stories have lasted for as long as they have. Maybe, aside from tradition and ritual and the texts and the by-mouth continuance of these stories, there's something so essential about them, something so truthful that's been lost in modern culture, even though we have Jordan Peterson to go back at least a few thousand years in discussing biblical mythology, maybe these more long-term mythologies say something even more deeply or in addition to, incredibly deep and profound statements of what our reality truly is. Maybe they've been around for so long for a reason.

Harrison: Well I want to read just an example of what he's talking about here. First of all let me see if I can find out where this place actually is. Does anyone know where Togo is?

Corey: It's just down the road. {laughter}

Harrison: I'll just read. So this is a myth from the Bassari people in Togo, outside Laurasia and other African Andaman versions. I'll just read this story from the Bassari. It tells of Unumbotte, high god and creator of beings.

"Unumbotte, god, made a human being. The man was Unele, man. Then Unumbotte next made Opel (antelope). Then Unumbotte made Ukow (snake) named Snake. When these three were made, there were no other trees but one, Bubauw (oil palm). At that time, the earth had not yet been pounded smooth. Unumbotte said to the three: "You must pound the ground where you are sitting." Unumbotte gave them seeds of all kinds, and said: "plant these." Unumbotte went away.

Unumbotte came back. He saw that the people had not yet pounded the ground, but had planted the seeds. One of the seeds had sprouted and grown. It was a tree that had grown tall and was bearing fruit. The fruits were red. Now, every seven days Unumbotte returned and plucked one of the red fruits.

One day Snake said, "We too would like to eat these fruits. Why must we be hungry?" Antelope said: "But we don't know this fruit." Then Man and his wife (who had not been there at first) took some of the fruit and ate it. Then, Unumbotte came down from Heaven. Unumbotte asked: "Who ate the fruit?" Man and Woman answered: "We ate it." Unumbotte asked: :Who told you that you should eat of it?" Man and Woman replied: "Snake told us." Unumbotte asked: "Why did you listen to Snake?" Man and Woman said: "We were hungry."

Unumbotte questioned Antelope: "Are you hungry too?" Antelope said: "Yes, I am hungry too; I'd like to eat grass." Since then Antelope has lived in the bush, eating grass.

Unumbotte then gave Idi (sorghum) to Man, yams and millet. And since then, people have cultivated the land. But Snake was given by Unumbotte a medicine (Njojo) so that it would bite people."

So then Witzel comments on this.

"It is remarkable that, differently from the Bible, this myth does not speak of a primordial guilt, or of an expulsion from paradise, or of a punishment of the snake. It merely assigns roles to the living beings and specifies the foods they will have to live on. The only punishment one can discern in this tale is that humans, who have been victims of snakebite ever since (and presumably die)."

So when I first read that I was thinking, oh wow, that's really Adam and Eve right there, right down to the snake and the eating of the fruit and god saying, "Who told you you could eat this stuff?" And they said, "Oh the snake told us." This is from a culture that I'm guessing, given Witzel's rigorous study, is not influenced at all by the biblical tale. This is an original, ancient story that just happens to be something very common to the biblical story which is all over the place. He points out that this is a very common story of this primordial guilt and there are even some other myths. He says there is a Polynesian one. I couldn't find it in the book. I hadn't highlighted it. It was a Polynesian myth that says the same thing as the Adam and Eve story about the forbidden fruit in paradise.

So this is a common story. But when you actually read it in print, it's like, "Oh wow! There are some really amazing correlations between even a myth as recent as Adam and Eve because relatively, it is a recent myth.

Now just on that subject, I wanted to bring in a more specific example relating to the Bible and this relates back to the whole thing about the thing I said in the intro about the constant remixing and copying of myths and structures and stories because we haven't talked about it on Mind Matters yet, I don't think, but we did a Truth Perspective a few years ago with Russell Gmirkin on his book Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, I believe was the name of it. He makes a really good case for the bible being not thousands of years old, like 5,000 years old for the earliest parts, but being 2,300 years old; that the first edition of the bible was basically written around 280, 300 BC in the Hellenistic era. So this is post-Alexander.

It was written with a goal in mind and written as a history but at that point. It's not like Moses wrote the first few books and a thousand years later bits and pieces got added on. He's arguing that it was written as a single book around this time and all these parts were put together, maybe incorporating some older texts, but putting them, again, into a new form and there we have our bible. He argues that there are several sources for that bible and inspirations for that book, that overarching narrative and that the writers of the bible used the library of Alexandria to create their national myth, their national history, which was essentially a fiction, a history that incorporated details from all kinds of other mythologies and histories that would have been available at the library of Alexandria, distilled down and rewritten into this new form as the founding document for the new people of Israel that would be re-formed and reshaped with this document. to create a new state essentially, a new nation.

That in itself is an example of this process, the wholesale copying and borrowing and re-incorporating of older and foreign stories into a new one that, at the same time, holds on to some more local traditions. That's what Gmirkin argues too, that there are some distinctly near-eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern elements and laws that got incorporated into it but primarily it is a Hellenistic document modelled primarily on Plato's Laws, his second utopian book, after The Republic, that whoever wrote the bible actually used that as a template for composing this grand narrative with histories and songs and prophets and essentially plays too if you consider the book of Job.

So that's just a specific example of this type of copying and borrowing. Inside of that who knows where all the details of Adam and Eve came from. I haven't followed the latest research, if anyone has ideas. It's possible but wherever they got it from, hypothetically you can trace that back to a common ancestor with this myth from Togo, with Unumbotte.

So I just find that really interesting. Once you know that people do this, it makes the whole study of ancient mythology that much more interesting because, like I said, being humans, we should know and we do know that this has happened through all of human history. If you just look at Virgil's Aeneid, he wrote that book as a Roman version of Homer's Odyssey. So this Greek legend, Homer wrote this great epic poem and then along comes Virgil and says, "I can do him one better. I can totally appropriate his story line and make Aeneis the hero that totally outdoes Odysseus and we'll have this Roman version of this Roman founder Aeneis and incorporate all the details from the Odyssey, the overall plot structure and the scenes and use Aeneis as a stand-in for Odysseus and create this new story."

Even today, James Joyce, one of the most famous novels ever written, Ulysses used the Odyssey as a structure for his novel and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? by the Cohen brothers was the same thing. That's what story writers have been doing to and with stories for the entire history of humanity, just shamelessly ripping off other stories, but at the same time making something new and great at the same time because it is different. The old stories can get boring after a while so you've got to reinvigorate them.

But even when you reinvigorate them, like you guys were pointing out, they stay the same. It keeps the same structure, or it can at least. You can change the structure, but there's something about this particular structure that has stayed with humans for tens of thousands of years of history and of adding new elements and writing new stories, while at the same time somehow that plot structure has been preserved to a greater or lesser degree all over the world, which is pretty amazing.

So I think that the next grand development in human mythology should be to take this exact structure and write some new myths based on it which, given modern culture, will turn into a blockbuster movie or something. But even that would be pretty cool because you'd at least be getting something that has withstood the test of time as opposed to a lot of stuff that gets made today.

Elan: What you said just made me think about future shows as we continue on this track even beyond Witzel's book, is that we can look at some texts and see how they were re-appropriating certain myths and stories for political and sociological and cultural control over a given set of people, that the intent behind recreating certain myths and reintroducing them into a culture could have ulterior motives behind it. If so, what were those motives? What could they have been?

Another point that I just liked about Witzel's attitude towards all of this is that he's saying, "Follow me here. Listen to the approach I'm taking to going back in time and doing this comparative mythology. I haven't come up with a better method than how to derive the significance of certain myths and the history of mythology. I don't think anyone else has. Here are the reasons. If you disagree, whether you're a linguist, an anthropologist, a mathematician, a biblical scholar, a psychologist, whatever your field of endeavour is, tell me what the criticism is and we'll explore it and examine it together. Otherwise these are my criticisms of all of the approaches that have been taken towards looking at mythology in the intellectual and academic sphere for the past few hundred years and this is what I think is really one of the best approaches I can think of to examining all of this."

So I really like his attitude in distinction to this other attitude where people look at a certain approach to mythology or a certain approach to texts, bible thumpers taking the new testament perfectly literally, orthodox Jews taking the old testament or even the Talmud even more so, totally literally and extrapolating all kinds of meanings that are convenient for their current ideology. And that's where it ends! That's the beginning and the end! The trap is I think of people narrowing in on a particular way of looking at mythology or a particular mythology itself and deciding that there is no other answer, there is no other perspective.

I think he's opening a lot of doors here and it's a reason to delve into it.

Corey: As you were saying Harrison about the role that myths have played, when you were talking about the creation of the bible and the creation of a national identity and Virgil ripping off Odysseus for that national identity, when you're tracing it back thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago and if he's correct and there's actually one location, it sounds like you're talking about two distinct political identities between the Laurasian and the Gondwalan that were at the origins of human consciousness, human evolution - if you want to use that word - that there were two distinct political identities that existed thousands and thousands of years ago, whatever that looked like. Just through people moving through climate disasters, people travelling and different tribal identities developing, they've just continued to elaborate on those basic original identities and manipulated them for whatever purposes that suited their needs at the time to explain their surroundings and whatnot. But it has fractured over time but it still retains a lot of the similar foundation that it had forty, fifty, sixty thousand years ago.

Harrison: Any other points that you guys wanted to make on this? How are we doing for time? An hour? Okay. Maybe I'll just briefly go over one other example. The main interesting thing that he has identified here is that overall storyline. It's got 12 points to it. But within each of those 12 points you'll find variations. He pointed out the inversion of the 4 ages and how they went from entropic to a more creative, uplifting and hopeful attitude in certain other mythologies.

So within any of the shared themes you'll find new and revised takes on them of course, new details added but just within the overall structure. It's kind of like taking the Odyssey and completely rewriting it to the point where it's almost unrecognizable like in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Unless you're really paying attention or unless you have a prior familiarity with the Odyssey, you might not even see the connection to it. The other interesting angle is to look at the development of differences. He's primarily interested, I think, in finding the commonalities but at the same time he has to look at all of the differences. But I think it's within the differences that you can go off in totally different directions with a different goal in mind.

Within these structures you then look at how things change and the reasons behind them. Of course like you said Elan, you can look at the political motivations because a lot of the Roman adoption of Greek mythology, for instance, was for explicitly political reasons, to usurp Greece as the greatest place on earth essentially and the most powerful. Then if we telescope down even further into the last years of the Roman republic and the first years of the imperial system you'll see even more appropriations. Ovid and a lot of the Roman poets and writers were writing explicitly for the purpose of promoting Augustus, for instance, as the first emperor and taking all kinds of myths and religious ideas and associating them with Augustus in order to raise him up as the god Augustus.

That was even going on with Pompey and Caesar in a less extreme version, let's say. So Pompey, Caesar and Marc Antony were all associating themselves with gods in such a way that was new for Roman society. They were experimenting with these associations with gods. Caesar of course was capitalizing on his descent from Venus as well as Aeneus to have this kind of royal and godly pedigree, but also associating himself with Romulus, the founder of Rome. Then once the Romulean mythology was developed around the end of the Roman republic, Augustus then totally appropriated that for himself to associate himself with Romulus and it was all for these political purposes.

If you look at a more humorous example, the kind of memes that portray Trump as this divine saviour or god emperor Trump thing where you've got his face on these massive video game bad asses, it was the same kind of thing going on then but it was more serious back then. Today it would be as if the White House press corp or PR department was creating these memes for themselves and being totally serious about them. That's what was going on in the years of the first Roman emperors, for instance.

So there's the political angle. There's the imitation of other cultures and traditions as a means of basking in their glory but at the same time trying to usurp them, to one-up them. This was also what the early Christian writers did. So even though all this stuff was going on with the Roman emperors, usurping all of these other traditions and myths for themselves, the Christians came along and said, "Well we can do better than them." So they appropriated the same myths to elevate Jesus above that. They were essentially looking at all of the imperial propaganda and then applying that to Jesus and the gospels. So it's like Augustus and all of the emperors were presented as these godly beings, the rulers of the earth, the rulers of the cosmos. What the Christian writers did was take all of those names, images, symbols and associations and applied them to Jesus. Now Jesus was bigger, better, more powerful than the Roman emperors.

So they're all appropriating the same myths from each other. "I'm better than you!" "No, I'm better than you!" In the process we have these amalgamations of all these different traditions, symbols and images that get put into this one character. Even though Jordan Peterson doesn't talk about it, is not a great historian, I think he identified the spirit of the thing when he talked about the character of Jesus Christ as this kind of epitome and amalgam of all of the traits of all of the great heroes. You put them all into one and you get this distillation of the heroic nature of someone and that's the character you've got.

That's the process that happens in the creation of any heroic character historically in any mythology because all of those characters have been the distillation of all these other great ones. "Oh, I like that. They've got something going with their Odysseus so I'm going to take that feature of Odysseus and add it with that feature of Hercules or any other character and make this super, super divine awesome being" until you get the amalgam and distillation of all of those features into one. It's just an interesting process to look at and think about.

Elan: Just as an aside, William Shakespeare said "There's nothing new under the sun" and there have been folks who have said that even Shakespeare's writings weren't really totally original. He was drawing on a lot of stories and folk tales and ideas that were pre-existing. He was just an extraordinary talent and was able to put it together and popularize them for an audience that was ready to hear them in the way that he was ready to present.

Harrison: Shakespeare's inspiration for the play Julius Caesar was Plutarch's biography of Caesar, I believe. Then it's the same thing today with movie scripts and novels. Whenever there's an adaptation of a novel into a movie, it's the same process going on. Anyone who adapts, whether it's a previous version of the same movie or a novel or TV show or video game, in the process, they're trying to make something better of it. Depending on the source material, they might fail horribly, like pretty much every video game adaptation that's been made into a movie. But sometimes it might just be a fault of the medium, I don't know. Rarely but sometimes you get a movie version that's better than the book. It's rare but it happens every once in a while.

It works the other way too with novelizations of films. For some reason I was thinking about it recently, just how weird it is. It seemed weird to me to make a novelization of a film. So then I did a little research to see if they're still doing it. I don't know when it started. I think when I was researching it, it has actually been around for a long time. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s I remember there would be novelizations. Any time a movie would come out there would be a novelization of it, whether it was a superhero movie or a horror or sci-fi movie. If it wasn't originally a book, they'd pay someone to do a novelization of it, like the Star Wars movies for instance. They were movies first but books came out very soon afterwards to the point where they became pretty popular themselves.

I was reading an article about novelizations with one of the big authors. I think it might have been the guy that did one of the Star Wars adaptations, but he was giving his perspective on it and he saw the novelization process as being one that's actually very creative and very good because movie scripts average 90 or 100 pages. I think it's something around there. When you look at a movie script, it's mostly blank pages. You've got dialogue and little bits of scene settings and stuff like that. When you actually novelize that, he was saying, you get the chance to first of all change all the parts you think are bad and add characters in and all kinds of stuff in to make a good story out of it, especially if you're doing a movie that you've been paid to write a novel for that you don't really like. For him, he could actually make it into something that he would enjoy reading.

It works in all directions. Sometimes you might get a novelization that's better than the movie which is also kind of weird. I was going to say they're made to be sold in airports but again, reading this article, apparently there's actually a readership for novelizations. They were describing it as people who like the movie and are fans of the movie, will actually want to re-experience that feeling of watching the movie but without necessarily watching the movie. They want more material so they'll read the novel too.

Elan: Wasn't it 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke and then after the film was made Arthur C. Clarke actually made it into this great sci-fi novel that it became?

Harrison: I don't know if it was based on a short story at first, but it's a common myth that the movie was based on the book. Actually the movie and the book were worked on at the same time, in collaboration with Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. I'm not sure if there was a short story first, but they were working on both of them at the same time. I can't remember if the book got published shortly after the movie or around the same time, but it was actually a collaboration between both of them. So Clarke did his own thing with the book to a certain extent and then Kubrick did his own thing with the movie to another extent. They've got, again, the same structure, the same overall thing going on, but they're very different in other ways because Kubrick was notorious for using the plot line of his script, which often came from another source. I'm pretty sure most of the stuff that he worked on was a novel or a screenplay already written. Dr. Stranglove was a novel beforehand. 2001 was developed concurrently with Arthur C. Clarke's novel.

Elan: The Shining.

Harrison: The Shining was a novel. Eyes Wide Shut was a novella. But he'd take that and essentially use that structure to say something completely different on another symbolic level. He said in interviews that that's actually what he was doing. Kind of like David Lynch, he very rarely would give a hint about what he was actually trying to do with the movie and the story he was actually telling.

So that's another thing. The use of a plot structure is only the skeleton to hold a second layer narrative that you're talking about. That would be an allegorical way of writing. So there are allegorical interpretations of the bible, for instance where you've got your surface words that you're looking at, your surface narrative but there's a hidden meaning behind the words. I wonder how that would all work out with this mythology stuff. I don't know. Maybe something to consider.

But with that said, I think we've been rambling on for too long today. So thanks for tuning in and we'll see you next week. Bye everyone.

Elan: Bye.

Corey: Bye everybody.