Primordial Myths?

Julien d’Huy has a Scientific American piece about “how stories change in the retelling down through the generations sheds light on the history of human migration going as far back as the Paleolithic period”:

The Greek version of a familiar myth starts with Artemis, goddess of the hunt and fierce protectress of innocent young women. Artemis demands that Callisto, “the most beautiful,” and her other handmaidens take a vow of chastity. Zeus tricks Callisto into giving up her virginity, and she gives birth to a son, Arcas. Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, turns Callisto into a bear and banishes her to the mountains. Meanwhile Arcas grows up to become a hunter and one day happens on a bear that greets him with outstretched arms. Not recognizing his mother, he takes aim with his spear, but Zeus comes to the rescue. He transforms Callisto into the constellation Ursa Major, or “great bear,” and places Arcas nearby as Ursa Minor, the “little bear.”

As the Iroquois of the northeastern U.S. tell it, three hunters pursue a bear; the blood of the wounded animal colors the leaves of the autumnal forest. The bear then climbs a mountain and leaps into the sky. The hunters and the animal become the constellation Ursa Major. Among the Chukchi, a Siberian people, the constellation Orion is a hunter who pursues a reindeer, Cassiopeia. Among the Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia, the pursued animal is an elk and takes the form of Ursa Major.

Although the animals and the constellations may differ, the basic structure of the story does not. These sagas all belong to a family of myths known as the Cosmic Hunt that spread far and wide in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas among people who lived more than 15,000 years ago. Every version of the Cosmic Hunt shares a core story line—a man or an animal pursues or kills one or more animals, and the creatures are changed into constellations.

Folklorists, anthropologists, ethnologists and linguists have long puzzled over why complex mythical stories that surface in cultures widely separated in space and time are strikingly similar. In recent years a promising scientific approach to comparative mythology has emerged in which researchers apply conceptual tools that biologists use to decipher the evolution of living species. In the hands of those who analyze myths, the method, known as phylogenetic analysis, consists of connecting successive versions of a mythical story and constructing a family tree that traces the evolution of the myth over time.

While I enjoy seeing the similar myths set side by side and speculating about why there might be such similarities, I’m deeply suspicious of this “phylogenetic analysis”; I simply don’t believe you can historically trace the evolution of myths as you can that of languages. On the other hand, I know myself to be a fuddy-duddy and am aware I may limit my own horizons by my recalcitrance. So I’m curious to know any of you have thoughts about the plausibility of this approach.


  1. This study used it on fairy tales within the Indo-European language family, and it seems rigorous, but I’m not an expert.

  2. I’m deeply averse to “monomyth”/”archetype”/”Hero’s Journey”/”White Goddess” stuff and usually only buy into it when there’s also a compelling linguistic component, for example as in Watkins’ “How to Kill a Dragon”.

    Just comparing plot points in myths as a way of “proving” an ancestral connection seems deeply flawed to me. To take the example above – aren’t there dozens and dozens of named constellations? It would be odd if every early human society DIDN’T have at least one that involved a hunt. So what?

  3. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    I am also suspicious. These similarities boil down to Hunter+ Carnivore+magic=major constellations. As much as I love to find connections between cultures, it’s so easy to come up with these elements independently that I think only a very high standard of evidence & analysis would convince me.

    That being said, it would be very very cool if we really could discover a Paleolithic story.

  4. It’s certainly interesting and appealing. I want to believe it.

    Here’s the thing. Humans are really good at pattern recognition. That’s why we have constellations and stories about them. That’s probably also why it’s super easy to see similarities in the stories far-flung cultures tell. As a linguist, I’m sure you know that it’s also super easy to see similarities in completely unrelated languages. Chance resemblances are extremely common, especially when you take human pattern recognition into account.

    Just because it sounds plausible on the surface and helps fill in a pattern, that doesn’t make it real.

  5. I’m suspicious of anything where we’re supposed to believe somebody’s figured out prehistoric, unattested events by throwing stuff into a computer and having it spit out a phylogenetic tree.

    I mean, it *is* weird and interesting that these common constellation myths exist! And coming up with a hypothesis as to how they could conceivably be connected is a super cool idea, at least on the “wouldn’t it be fascinating if this were true?” level. It’s just the “I sprinkled magic computer dust on it and now I know the answer” thing that seems sketchy to me.

  6. Michael Witzel’s recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, attempts something like this on a much more comprehensive scale, though without mathematical phylogenetics. Reviews of his book which I have seen vary from critical to excoriating.

  7. Myths, just like languages, are in essence, pieces of information, which must be transmitted from one person to another over millenia.

    Very complex pieces of narrative, like origin of Ursa Major, which are unlikely to have been invented separately, must have been, therefore, transmitted by someone, somewhere, somewhen.

    So when same motiff is found both in Eurasia and Americas, we can have four separate explanations:

    1. Common origin. Which implies ancestors of American Indians brought the story across the Bering Strait 15 thousand years ago.
    2. Independent invention. Usually preferred explanation, but in some cases it’s really stretching belief.
    3. Late contact across Bering Strait. It is well known, for example, that contacts between Siberian and Alaskan Eskimos continued for the last two thousand years. One can imagine some cultural elements could penetrate by this route.
    4. European impact. This is pretty simple – Indians could have acquired some folklore elements from European settlers after discovery of America. After all, most of American Indian mythology was collected by antropologists in 19th and 20th centuries, hundreds of years after first contact with Europe.

    Take your pick.

  8. Andreas Vennervald says:

    I’m not an expert on the subject in any way, but the fact that most of these myths refer to the same constellation lends the theory a lot of credibility in my opinion. I find it much harder to believe that numerous cultures independently of each other developed roughly similar stories that culminate in the creation of the same constellation.

  9. There are some interesting things in this, but the biggest problem is that I don’t see any evidence of attempts to test any of the reconstructions against reconstructions from other approaches (ideally, against known examples of story evolution). This may, of course, turn out to be extremely difficult, but it’s something that would need to be done in order for other people to take this work seriously.

    The phylogenetically-inspired Indo-European reconstruction done in the early 2000s by Gray & Atkinson, and collaborators was widely (and, I have the impression, correctly) derided by historical linguists because it directly contradicted the Ukrainian steppes origin model for Indo-European languages that archeologists and historical linguists had converged on. But this was, in a sense, a positive aspect of the Gray & Atkinson work: it produced a result which could be tested against something known. I don’t see any signs of this in d’Huy’s account of myth evolution: whatever his models spit out is just taken as the truth.

    The second graphic in the article — showing a tree of relatedness for variations of the Cosmic Hunt myth — might suggest a vague kind of test, in that one would imagine that more closely related version of the story would be told by more closely related cultures. In which case it seems odd that the closest relative to the ancient Greek versions of the Cosmic Hunt myth are the Ojibway versions, or that the closest relatives to Basque versions are Northwest American Indian versions (Snohomish, etc.).

    I’ll admit to admiring the unbridled hubris of “Eventually I hope to go back even further in time and identify mythical stories that may shed light on interactions during the Paleolithic period between early H. sapiens and human species that went extinct.”

  10. There are some interesting things in this, but the biggest problem is that I don’t see any evidence of attempts to test any of the reconstructions against reconstructions from other approaches (ideally, against known examples of story evolution). This may, of course, turn out to be extremely difficult, but it’s something that would need to be done in order for other people to take this work seriously.

    An excellent point.

    I’ll admit to admiring the unbridled hubris of “Eventually I hope to go back even further in time and identify mythical stories that may shed light on interactions during the Paleolithic period between early H. sapiens and human species that went extinct.”

    Yeah, I have to admit I rolled my eyes hard at that, and it made me take his ideas less seriously in general.

  11. As far as I can see the only common element of the Greek and Iroquois myths is that Ursa Major is a bear, and the Chukchi and Finno-Ugric versions don’t even share that. Hardly a case of “complex mythical stories” being “strikingly similar”. It would be surprising if hunter-gatherer cultures didn’t see game animals in constellations.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    The wikipedia article on Orion lists an impressive variety of names given to the constellation ranging from the merely boring “Giant” to the much better “Nitwit” (I paraphrase …). Also “Deer”; so he represents the hunter AND the hunted. Whoa, deep, man!

    In Kusaal, Orion is “A Kidig n Buos” “Cross over and Ask.” No, I don’t know why (neither did my informant.) I’d be grateful for suggestions …

  13. On SFReader’s fourth point (diffusion from European into Native American culture): if my experience talking with anthropologists/folklore specialists is any guide, this is grossly underestimated by these researchers. An example I am especially fond of is a collection of Plains Cree tales collected by the linguist Leonard Bloomfield, who, importantly, collected these tales in the early twentieth century from older, monolingual Plains Cree-speaking informants only. Among these tales there was a wonderful story, “Ali Baba and the forty thieves”, which A-the informants thought of as Cree, and which B-linguistic evidence indicates must have been borrowed from French speakers, probably Metis fur traders.

    I once made the mistake (I was young) of pointing out this undeniable fact to a Native activist, whose reaction was, shall we say, not positive. Purity myths are not, alas, a delusion confined to socially dominant groups within society.

    More broadly, it seems to me that the core difference separating comparative linguistics from comparative mythology is that for the former, the principle of the regularity of sound changes means that we can separate inherited from borrowed words in a language whose history has been studied; moreover, we can often determine a relative chronology of borrowed words on the basis of the sound changes which affected them and those which did not. For the latter, however, we have no equivalent tool whereby we could separate borrowed from inherited myths/stories, even less separate components of a myth/story into inherited and borrowed elements.

  14. Exactly! (And a great story about Ali Baba.)

  15. Stories with names in them are a little more tractable: we already know the forty-thieves story is Old World because the name “Ali Baba”. Though it’s possible for an older story to blend with newer ones: Brer Rabbit owes something to existing Eastern Native American stories about a trickster rabbit, mixed with Anansi stories brought in by Africans.

  16. Ali Baba was collected in Germany by the brothers Grimm, too.

  17. @John Cowan: And heavily influence by El-Ahrairah.

  18. At some point in time, the question of borrowing or inheritance doesn’t matter that much. The Greek Moirai are three goddesses of fate, which is symbolized as a thread handled by them; likewise for the Norse Norns, and the Slavic Sudice. Where they copying stories overheard from Greek classics, or did they inherit a common Indo-European proto-myth? Either way, I’m comfortable with thinking of them as fundamentally “the same story” (even if a few are different stories which were made to converge on some dominant model—like making your fate goddesses be three, or spin threads, out of influence).

    I find the identity of Celestial Hunter stories to be a whole lot less convincing, as I do this instance of quote-unquote “phylogenetic” methodology.

  19. @leoboiko: The norn are an interesting case. They may well have had a common origin with the Greek fates, but if so, the stories diverged, then re-converged. As I recall, the number of norns was not fixed at three, and they were not individually associated with past, present, and future, until relatively late. Association with weaving may or may not have been influence by classical mythology as well.

  20. The Greek Fates weren’t necessarily always three either: Hesiod does name the familiar trio, but Homer sometimes speaks of “Moira” as if there’s just one. I don’t think they were specifically associated with past, present and future, at least not early on.

  21. Perhaps back in the time of Hesiod and Homer there wasn’t enough past to justify assigning a whole norn to it.

  22. Ursa major and Orion are the brightest and easiest to recognize constellations in the night sky. And Orion is always ‘chasing’ Ursa major through the sky, due to the Earth turning in that direction. Orion must be the hunter, and Ursa major the animal.

    It would be interesting to show children the pattern and movement that is seen in the night sky across the year, sped up to the speed of a cartoon, and then have them make up stories about “what happened”.

    I would guess that many of their made up stories would be similar to each other on a vague level, just like this.

  23. “Orion must be the hunter, and Ursa major the animal.”

    Although the Greek myth doesn’t connect Orion with Ursa Major, and there was supposedly a Sumerian or Babylonian myth that has Orion as Gilgamesh, fighting a bull represented by Taurus.

  24. Perhaps back in the time of Hesiod and Homer there wasn’t enough past to justify assigning a whole norn to it.

    Gave me a good laugh!

  25. Well if the pattern was 100% across cultures, there would be no need for anyone to use a computer for analysis.

    In any case, it is all a bit vague and sounds a lot like a coincidence of making up stories about bright things that move across the sky across seasons.

    In some lifestyles and locations, hunting certain seasonal animals was the most important. In other cases, slaughtering livestock, or whatever.

    Big calendar in the sky and seasonal changes lead to common themes and similar stories.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    How (exactly) to slay a dragon (pdf).

    This study used it on fairy tales within the Indo-European language family, and it seems rigorous, but I’m not an expert.

    It would be rigorous enough if fairytales didn’t diffuse so extremely easily… most of Grimm’s are French, brought in by Huguenots; the Narn sagas of the Caucasus are all over the Caucasus, including Ossetia; King Gesar of the Tibetan epics appears to be Caesar.

  27. The name of the Alibaba Group, a giant Chinese Internet company, is explained by its founder as follows:

    One day I was in San Francisco in a coffee shop, and I was thinking Alibaba is a good name. And then a waitress came, and I said, “Do you know about Alibaba?” And she said yes. I said, “What do you know about?”, and she said, “Open Sesame”. And I said, “Yes, this is the name!” Then I went on to the street and found 30 people and asked them, “Do you know Alibaba?” People from India, people from Germany, people from Tokyo and China … they all knew about Alibaba. Alibaba – open sesame. Alibaba is a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village. So … easy to spell, and globally known. Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies. We also registered the name “Alimama”, in case someone wants to marry us!

    Looking around further, I found references to the theory that “Open sesame!”, first found in French as Sésame, ouvre-toi, refers not to the plant but to Talmudic Aramaic šem-šamayim ‘name of heaven’, being in fact an invocation. The story of Ali Baba, though apparently a genuine Arab folktale, does not appear in any Arabic version of The Thousand and One Nights, and first appears in writing added to a French translation.

    Homer sometimes speaks of “Moira” as if there’s just one

    Indeed, it’s a question whether he sometimes just means moira ‘one’s “portion” or lot in life’ (cf. meros ‘part, portion’), with no actual personification.

  28. I think it’s a folk etymology. šem šamayim is Hebrew, not Aramaic. It appears as a euphemism for ‘the name of God’. As an imprecation it appears as bǝše:m ša:mayim ‘in the name of heaven’. I would expect a magical invocation to be more explicit.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies.

    Fascinating how the sesame changed from addressee to direct object.

    I would expect a magical invocation to be more explicit.

    Why? “By the power of Grayskull, open yourself up” should sound compelling enough to a mountain.

  30. Lars (the original one) says:

    Well, obviously there must be a deeper version of the Ali Baba story with the real Name of Power that’s been bowdlerized as ‘Name of Heaven’ in the versions we know. It’s either in the Pope’s secret library or the Illuminati have it. If the secret Caliph in Medina didn’t get her hands on it yet.

    I don’t know anything about Caliphs in Medina!

  31. Lars (the original one) says:

    ^^ Synopsis for a Dan Brown novel. I should be rich…

  32. David Marjanović says:

    I’d read that book. Just don’t start it with “Renowned”.

  33. Lars (the original one) says:

    I don’t think I could write in Dan Brown’s style for more than a paragraph without serious damage to my health.

    “Renowned Pope Francis the First was humming discordantly to himself as he prepared the tiny, desolate, grey and holy water-soaked rabbit’s foot that he so sorely needed to urgently neutralize the ancient, powerful wards surrounding the crumbling lintel of the door, rumored to be upholstered in the skin of virgin heretics, that would soon allow him entry into the most secret and foreboding vaults of the room called since the founding of the Vatican, his privately run sovereign state, the pit of secrets, or in the prehistoric sacerdotal language of Latin, foramen secretorum.

    “Ahora, ¿dónde mierda es ese maldito libro?” the dignified Argentinian bishop screeched to himself.’

    This is actually fun in a dreadful way.

  34. I meant a powerful incantation would not use the euphemistic šāmayim ‘heavens’, but a more explicit title for God. Just like you wouldn’t curse someone to go to heck forever.

  35. The source (which seemed rather sketchy) was ambiguous between Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew: I simply made the wrong assumption. But one person’s euphemism is another’s magical incantation: שם המפורש, a name for the 42- or 72-letter name of God, became the word of power Shemhamphorash, used by Western ceremonial magicians.

  36. Interesting. Note that שם המפורש šēm hamǝforāš is inaccurate; it should be השם המפורש haš:ēm hamǝforāš (‘the explicit name’). This is commonly used as a euphemism for the tetragrammaton. I don’t know why Roger Bacon, Reuchlin, et al. omitted the article.

  37. David Marjanović says:

    This is actually fun in a dreadful way.

    Isn’t it. 🙂

    one person’s euphemism is another’s magical incantation:

    Much like the euphemism threadmill.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    David M: (Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies.) – Fascinating how the sesame changed from addressee to direct object.

    The founder of Alibaba is Chinese, so that may account for it, whatever meaning he attributed to “sesame” (‘door’ ?). I know I was very surprised when I learned that sesame was actually something edible.

    Lars: This is actually fun in a dreadful way.

    Have you heard of the “It was a dark and stormy night” contest? If it is still going on, you could enter!

  39. David Marjanović says:

    …Uh, “threadmill” isn’t some clever pun. It’s a typo for “treadmill”. Motion memory can be quite annoying sometimes.

    Have you heard of the “It was a dark and stormy night” contest?

    I haven’t, but I doubt it can be won anymore.

    It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It should have been, but that’s the weather for you. For every mad scientist who’s had a convenient thunderstorm just on the night his Great Work is finished and lying on the slab, there have been dozens who’ve sat around aimlessly under the peaceful stars while Igor clocks up the overtime.

    – Terry Pratchett, Good Omens

  40. The 24th Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (2016) was won by this gibbering horror from the outer depths:

    Even from the hall, the overpowering stench told me the dingy caramel glow in his office would be from a ten-thousand-cigarette layer of nicotine baked on a naked bulb hanging from a frayed wire in the center of a likely cracked and water-stained ceiling, but I was broke, he was cheap, and I had to find her.

    —William “Barry” Brockett, Tallahassee, FL

    The 25th contest is open even as we speak. Lars, please do submit to it: the submission address is srice at

    Alas, my very favorite one, about U.P. separatists blowing up the MIchilimackinac Bridge, seems to have been lost ito the vagaries of time.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks JC!

    Yes, Lars, do enter the contest!

    (JC and I were referring to the same contest, but I did not know the official name).

  42. I know I’ve said this before, but I think Bulwer-Lytton gets a bad rap. He was not a great novelist, but he wasn’t so terrible either.

  43. Lars (the original one) says:

    The official deadline is April 15 (a date that Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories). The actual deadline is June 30.

    So I sent it off, but it will count for 2018 I guess. I assume they are drowning in Dan Brown pastiches though, so no high hopes.

  44. marie-lucie says:

    Lars, since you are so good at it, you might get ideas for other submissions too! There is no limit.

  45. /me blushes.

    Read that one guy sent in 3000 entries in one go.

    EDIT: I am changing jobs and thus laptop, so decided to check if WordPress had forgotten its dislike of my unadorned name. It had.

  46. So Stu is no longer Grumbly and Lars is no longer original.

  47. David Marjanović says:


  48. I am the same as I ever was. Originals don’t need to advertise, except when WP acts up.

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