Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Witzel at SOAS

On 15 May 2014, the famous School of Oriental and African Studies, behind the British Museum in London, both together the very embodiment of “Orientalism”, hosted a guest lecture by Prof. Michael Witzel from Harvard. He came to speak of his theory about the global genealogical tree of mankind’s myths, and about an existing countercurrent. Among philologists, including host Prof. Peter Flügel, we discussed many more interesting points, but for now I will confine myself to reporting his relevant findings.

The American folklorist Alan Dundes, deceased in 2005, represents an influential school of mythological studies, in that he rejected comparisons between national mythologies. Universals, i.e. variations on common themes in different mythologies, are of course the backbone of the mega-comparison pioneered by Witzel. So, some anthropologists reject all comparisons.

On closer consideration, this is also the bone of contention with the Rajaram-Kalyanaraman school in India. They represent a rather large tendency among Hindus to see Hindu thought and Indian history as incommensurably different and unique. That is why they reject the Out-of-India Theory (pioneered by Shrikant Talageri) as much as the Aryan Invasion Theory, since both accept and presuppose that most North-Indian language have a central vocabulary and a linguistic structure in common with most European languages. Whether this “Indo-European” language family originated outside India, as the AIT implies, or originated inside India thence to expand westwards, as the OIT posits, both scenarios presuppose that God-given Sanskrit has relatives and an all-too-human history. Similarly, Witzel’s finding that the Puranic doctrine of the four successive world ages (yuga-s) is but the Indian version of a more widespread motif (not just among the Indo-European Greeks and Scandinavians, but even among different Native American nations) freaks many Hindus out.

This rejection of comparisons between different ethnic actualizations of pan-human or at least widespread motifs also plays a role in Witzel’s present predicament viz. being accused of racism. As is known by now, he describes a mythographical event more than 50.000 years ago, during mankind’s migration northwards, away from the coastal areas around the Indian Ocean, where Homo Sapiens had expanded from Africa through Arabia and India to New Guinea and Australia. In Witzel’s scheme of things, this first area of expansion constitutes the Gondwana culture. The myth of a flood, for instance, is part of the basic mythology of all mankind, and well-represented in the Gondwana myths. The notion of a deus otiosus, a Great God, is prominent in Gondwana mythologies.  While moving to Central Asia whence mankind went on to populate the Eurasian continent and then America, a new layer was added, which Witzel calls Laurasian. It represents what is distinctively common among the peoples originating in the Middle East, Europe, East Asia, the Americas and much of South Asia, such as the notion of four generations of gods and four world ages, a genesis of the world and an end time, and the myth of the dragon-slaying hero. The Great God of Gondwana mythologies is generally eclipsed by a more complex pantheon in Laurasian mythologies.

Predictably, somebody would project his own race-centred mind onto this distinction and read racial categories into it: “Gondwana = black, Laurasia = non-black”. The Laurasian Tamils or Maoris are as black as Nelson Mandela, and would be surprised to learn that they are on the non-black side of the racial divide. Witzel doesn’t mention race anywhere in his book, nor any “superiority” of the Laurasian novelties. This is purely projection by our anti-racist. So are the “quotes” imputed to Witzel, which are nowhere in his book. But undaunted by this trifle, Srinivasan Kalyanaraman and Navaratna Rajaram reproduce this allegation without even having read the book, adding their usual tone of holy indignation.

What is more, even the scholarly trump evidence offered against Witzel’s thesis is not so sure. Regardless of the racism allegation, though intended to strengthen it, the doubt about myths being classified as Gondwana nor Laurasian is questionable. An anthropologist specialized in the Na-Dene peoples of North America (Apache, Navajo,) denies that these peoples have typically Laurasian myths such as the those about the four world ages and the dragon-slayer. It turns out that this is not a debate with only Witzel: a number of textbooks do report such myths among these peoples. In this case Witzel, who acknowledges his dependence on other researchers for such niche topics, has merely followed the findings among specialists of the Na-Dene cultures who do report myths that satisfy Witzel’s criteria for being “Laurasian”. Or at least, that is what I can report from this lecture. It seems anthropologists have legitimate differences of opinion on this matter. To be continued, no doubt.

Other scholars, uninterested in this “racism!” allegation, could equally doubt the bifurcation of mankind’s myths into Gondwanan and Laurasian. A Flemish friend, equally a philologist, opined that a close search among African or Australian myths, supposedly Gondwanan, would readily reveal the presence of so-called Laurasian motifs. Witzel actually agrees with this, up to a point. Some Gondwanan cultures know of some piecemeal Laurasian motifs. Since a few thousand years, well before the colonial age, some Laurasians made inroads into some parts of Gondwanan territory. Thus, a boatload of South-Indians landed in Northwest Australia more than 4000 years ago and assimilated into the local population. Along the East African coast, a regular trade route developed and some people even came to stay (as evidenced, for instance, by the distinctly Jewish genes among the Lemba in Mozambique), or left some of their stories behind. And correspondingly, among the affected peoples we do indeed find stray elements from Laurasian mythology. But these are stray elements among stray populations, and are best compatible with a process of borrowing; they do not create the kind of chaos that would invalidate the bifurcation between Gondwana and Laurasia.


Shravan Tanjore said...

This article also accuses witzel of racism in this theory of his. http://www.jfr.indiana.edu/review.php?id=1613

Shravan Tanjore said...

Where does witzel think the laurasian branch of mythologists originate?.

Koenraad Elst said...

Shravan, that is precisely the article which got the whole affair going. There are not "also other sources" for this allegation, there is only one source and then some imitators. Though this author gives false "quotations", at least he gives the impression of having read the book. His Hindu imitators cannot say that much.

Shravan Tanjore said...

Hindus must indeed read before they leap, true. Also I would like to know where does Dr Witzel think the Laurasian myths originate?.

Do the Arabs have these myths? like dragon slaying, a giant's sacrifice etc? which of the native american myths have these?.

Shravan Tanjore said...

South Indians travelled to Australia and took their myths with them but what about presence of Laurasian myths in Africa?

Shravan Tanjore said...

The evidence that these myths have spread far and wide is captivating but more so is the wonder about the time when these myths originated, proving common origin is one thing, how can the time and place of that origin be proved? what if out of many myths belonging to many tribes one of the tribes won out over the others? from where then is the myth winner tribe and from when? Very interesting. How many myths have then been lost forever? How many went back to Africa as they came out of Africa?. How many myths might be hiding on plain sight? Memes.

Shravan Tanjore said...

I read your review of the book in amazon, Indus valley? Hmm could be.

Ask and Embla similarity in India? Brahma coming out of a Lotus? How many pathways of exchange and interchange lead to each Myth remains unanswered, how many migrations took place out of Africa? How many out of India and so on.

Also the Nasadiya Sukta speaks of that what which existed before the Gods and all else also the Veda.speak of a swayambhu existing always and bringing forth all of existence, so which one is vedic culture? Gondwanan or Laurasian?.

So Sanaatana Dharma happens to be the only mainstream culture that maintained the ancient Yogic practices, Happy I Am!!
Do any Persian or European or Chinese or American myths talk about this controlling the heat thing?

Manu sacrificed Yama? Indian scriptural Source please.

Purusha Sukta or Manu sacrificing Yama? Both?.

Rajarshi Banerjee said...

I got the book but wont have chance to read for some time. Does Witzel talk about the utility of myths?