The Madman’s Library.

Alison Flood at the Graun provides extracts from The Madman’s Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching; they’re all pretty amazing (The Triangular Book of Count St Germain is “an encoded French occult work which boasts the secret to extending life”; Pátria Amada by Vinicius Leôncio is a 7.5-ton compendium of every Brazilian tax code in one volume), but I particularly commend to your attention these:

Book 17th of Notes – Travels in 1818 by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1818)

In 1818, the French natural historian Rafinesque travelled to Kentucky to visit fellow naturalist John James Audubon. Rafinesque became such an irritating house guest that Audubon started to make up local animals to make fun of him, which the Frenchman faithfully recorded and sketched without question. Here there are four fake fish: the “Flatnose Doublefin”, the “Bigmouth Sturgeon”, the “Buffalo Carp Sucker” and the bulletproof “Devil-Jack Diamond fish”.

Poissons, ecrevisses et crab[e]s by Louis Renard (1719)

In the 18th century, Europeans knew very little of Indonesian wildlife. Renard knew even less, but that didn’t stop this Dutch bookseller from confidently producing this vibrant two-volume collection. Thirty years in the making, the 100 plates carry 460 illustrations of marine biology. In the second volume, however, scientific accuracy swiftly becomes a casualty of artistic licence. Many of the fish have distinctly avian and even human features, as well as decorations of sun, moon, star and even top-hat motifs. Highlights include the spiny lobster, Panulirus ornatus, reported to favour a mountain habitat and possessing a penchant for climbing trees and laying red-spotted eggs “as large as those of a pigeon”. The Crabbe-Criarde, we are told, mews like a cat. Or the four-legged fish, the Loop-visch or Poisson courant (Running Fish) of Ambon, of which the writer notes: “I trapped it on the beach and kept it alive for three days in my house, where it followed me around like a very friendly little dog.”

Needless to say, the illustrations are impressive. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Of madness with books and cut-outs and impressive illustrations and Audobon … (and how the other half lived) here’s how to make booklovers weep.

    At Temple Newsam grand house, one of the Lady Ingrams, thought that the best way to complement the priceless Chinese shot-silk wallpaper in her drawing room

    … would be to snip out the gorgeous illustrations from Audubon’s justifiably famous The Birds of America, and paste them on to the wallpaper.

    So ruining two priceless collectables in one fell swoop. Temple Newsam curators have decided to retain the abomination, to be faithful to history, but their guidebook falls over itself with apologies.

  2. I wondered if the Running Fish of Ambon might have been a mudskipper, but according to the pictures I found they use their front fins as ‘legs’ but do not have anything that might pass for back legs, even in the mind of an enthusiastic collector of oddities.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    They do, but between the front “legs”… that’s part of why they skip instead of walking.

    Rafinesque did get to name an appreciable number of real animals, BTW.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    Wayne Suttles (author of a superb grammar of the Musqueam dialect of Halkomelem) somewhere has an essay (which I unfortunately can’t lay my hand on at the moment) about “mythical” beasts like the Sasquatch; his basic point is that calling them “mythical” is actually an imposition of Western thought categories: informants treat them entirely on a level with other species, identifiable to Western science, though they may freely accept that they have never seen one, or that they may be extinct now. “Saquatch” (which I think is the sole Halkomelem loanword in English) is not by any means the only such animal for the Salish; another, IIRC, is the “silthkey”, which is like a large bird, but with two necks. (There’s an anthropological technical term for this sort of parallel-universe zoology, which I’m trying in vain to remember.)

    Suttles wasn’t at all implying that these creatures were “real” (though in trying to locate the paper, I see that he’s been misappropriated by the nutters who do); he was just pointing out that calling them “mythological” is a category error.

  5. Stu Clayton says:

    Even the Categorical Imperative can be understood as a category error. It’s not an imperative, but an exhortation. The convoluted formulation makes that clear to any casual eye, provided there is such an eye on the premises. It is no different in that respect from the more simply formulated “Make America Great Again”.

    Abandon hope, all ye who enter category theory !

  6. @David: There’s an anthropological technical term for this sort of parallel-universe zoologyCryptozoology?

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Nigella:

    Thanks. That might indeed be the word I was vainly struggling to remember; but if so, it wasn’t the right word for what Suttles was talking about: it seems to describe the nutter position (which he certainly didn’t subscribe to.)

  8. Suttles wasn’t at all implying that these creatures were “real” (though in trying to locate the paper, I see that he’s been misappropriated by the nutters who do); he was just pointing out that calling them “mythological” is a category error.

    Well, of course he’s been misappropriated; that’s one problem with that kind of earnest “let’s not be judgmental” language. Another is that the creatures are in fact mythological; I don’t understand what “category error” means here. If the people you’re studying believe in something, you have to pretend to as well? All gods and demons and things that go bump in the night of all cultures that have ever existed must be treated as if they were on the same level as rocks, and stones, and trees? I’m sorry, but that’s nuts. I recognize imperialist/colonialist anthropology has a lot to answer for, but there’s such a thing as bending over so far backward you bang your head on the ground and your brains spill out.

  9. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Cryptozoology I’ve seen for everything from Bigfoot to cervines in the rainforest that are only known from local popular descriptions. The latter do get found occasionally, in photo traps if nothing else.

  10. @David E
    Wayne Suttles has published more than once on the Sasquatch, including “On the Cultural Track of the Sasquatch,” reprinted from Northwest Anthropological Research Notes 6:65-90 (1972) in Coast Salish Essays (1987) 73-99 and “Some Questions about the Sasquatch” (online).

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    What Suttles meant (I think – it would help if I could find the actual paper) is that creatures of the kind in question don’t appear in Salish myths, but in genres like everyday narrative; so calling them “mythological”, while perfectly reasonable from our standpoint, misses the fact that the speakers, who themselves also draw a line between mythological and non-mythological, don’t put the creatures on the same side of the line as we do. I think what he was particularly objecting to was attempts to interpret Sasquatches (or whatever) as functioning as symbols of something or other in the Salish worldview, when in fact they are regarded just like other animals (mistakenly, but that’s not the point at issue.)

    The danger is that you can end up misinterpreting the actual worldview of the group you’re studying because you’re attributing your own ontological categories to them without realising it.

    It reminds me a bit of Bultmann’s “Demythologising”, except that it’s the opposite process, I suppose: forced mythologising of something the speakers interpret as just plain ordinary.

    Thinking about it, the issue shades into the stuff about “belief” as a cross-cultural phenomenon that we did to death not long ago.

  12. I think what he was particularly objecting to was attempts to interpret Sasquatches (or whatever) as functioning as symbols of something or other in the Salish worldview, when in fact they are regarded just like other animals (mistakenly, but that’s not the point at issue.)

    The danger is that you can end up misinterpreting the actual worldview of the group you’re studying because you’re attributing your own ontological categories to them without realising it.

    All perfectly sensible, of course; one just wants to word one’s caveats so as not to give aid and comfort to reality-deniers, who are a triumphant lot these days.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thanks, SG: your google-fu surpasses mine.

    https://lingpapers.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2018/03/1976_Suttles_2.pdf

    I think I must be remembering something from “Coast Salish Essays”, but I can’t find my copy. The pdf above suggests that at least I haven’t misrepresented Suttles’ position too egregiously.

  14. PlasticPaddy says:

    There are many cases of myths that people or society believes in and treat as real, in fact these are often necessary for social cohesion. But they are still myths. I suppose there is a distinction that the myths people believe are real can have real consequences (people die after being cursed).

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think that the problem is that “myth” doesn’t just mean “mistaken belief” (using the word in that way is either sloppy or deliberately provocative.) It means a story that plays a key rôle in a society. (In principle, it might even be objectively true, and still function as a myth.) Suttles’ point is that in this sense, Salish beliefs about Saskwatches, mistaken or not, are not “myths.”

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    I suppose the way to avoid this problem is to describe Sasquatches as “folkloric” creatures, rather than “mythical.” Like leprechauns. Only bigger.

  17. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Abandon hope, all ye who enter category theory !

    Ha. Category theory isn’t as simple as you make it sound! I had an idea that I had a paper in which category theory was used (by our mathematician colleague, not by me) (J. Theor. Biol. 238, 949 (2006)), but on checking I see that we just said that we would not use it: Although category theory was central to Rosen’s thinking, we do not use it here because it is this that gives much of his writing its abstract character, making it opaque to most biologists.

  18. PlasticPaddy says:

    @de
    Even with folkloric, the distinction does not go away. There are folkloric (or mythic) figures or stories that (virtually) no one believes to correspond to facts. And there are others to which people commonly give credence and view as factual. There was a Science Fiction story in which these figures existed in another plane and had power in our plane in accordance with the strength of belief accorded to them.

  19. Lars Mathiesen says:

    But mathematical categories are in a different category from the categories that Kant’s categorical imperative violates (if I understand Stu correctly). They do share the feature that you can often ignore the specific facts that determine membership in a narrower category and treat an object as ‘just’ a member of a wider one — a dog is a mammal is an animal, a ring is a group is a set (and on the mathematical side you have inclusion functors between the categories).

    Mathematical categories might constitute a subcategory of the philosophical categories, or maybe you could claim that the latter are just discrete categories. Now my head hurts.

  20. I dearly want to see the handout with the collection of native words for sasquatch and sasquatch-like creatures that Suttles makes reference to in the typescript of “Some Questions About The Sasquatch”… Are there any commonalities of meaning or derivation? I wonder if there is a collection of these somewhere else on the internet.

  21. @Athel Cornish-Bowden: I read your paper, so I know what it says, but I was wondering whether you personally thought that Rosen’s approach, based on morphism of objects representing various levels of abstraction, was practically useful. My own impression of Rosen is that he may have been (perhaps unknowningly) trying too hard to achieve Husserl’s Strenge—that he reduced things to too extreme a level of abstraction, by stripping biological complexes down to mathematical objects that were (while potentially useful in principle) too denuded of specific information to be of much value in gaining understanding of real anabolic or repair processes.

  22. John Cowan says:

    That might indeed be the word I was vainly struggling to remember; but if so, it wasn’t the right word for what Suttles was talking about: it seems to describe the nutter position (which he certainly didn’t subscribe to.)

    I would say that a cryptozoologist can be either a believer or a skeptic (or a skeptic about some creatures and a believer in others), as long as the work is well done. As you and I agreed some while back, one need not believe in Feenoman to be an excellent Feenomanologist. What is more, some cryptocritters have turned out to belong to consensus reality after all, notably the gorilla and the okapi. The latter turned out, once the rest of the world found them, to be portrayed on the walls of the Royal Palace at Persepolis!

    a story that plays a key rôle in a society

    The signing of the Declaration of Independence is an American myth in this sense, though very well documented (though it happened on my birthday, the 2nd of July, dammit).

    There was a Science Fiction story in which these figures existed in another plane and had power in our plane in accordance with the strength of belief accorded to them.

    A commonplace of modern fantasy at least since Lord Dunsany’s day. I remember a story (almost certainly published in F&SF in the 1950s) of a great (though small) god who could grant miracles, provided the materials needed for them cost no more than $2.98. The god, if still extant, could probably provide $50-60 worth today thanks to inflation. He was, as you’d expect, a mere 75.692 mm tall. The author’s name escapes me entirely, and Dr. Google is helpless with a story entitled simply “$2.98”.

  23. Gods depending on the strength of belief of those who believe in them, and afterlife being for every person what they believe it to be while alive, are also features of Pratchett’s Discworld.

  24. David Eddyshaw says:

    The first part is also true of American Gods (a major plot point, indeed.)

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    An oddity of the word “sasquatch” is that it is borrowed from the written Halkomelem form sasq’ets, with q ignorantly misunderstood (by a journalist) as representing /kw/.

    https://mythology.stackexchange.com/questions/699/what-is-sásqets-from-halkomelem-myths

  26. The device of having Gods Need Prayer Badly (as TVTropes puts it) is very old and quite widespread. Besides being central to the plots of Gaiman’s American Gods, Pratchett’s Hogfather, and (by implication) Lieber’s “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” the idea has been traced all the way back to Mesopotamian myth, according to this StackExchange answer.

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    Aaargh! Someone has linked to TVTropes! Isolate the area immediately and REMAIN CALM! Help will be arriving to retrieve those who have already clicked through. Gods willing …

  28. David Marjanović says:

    I live to tell the tale. In the “Mythology and Religion” folder of the examples, there is:

    A Greek myth/folktale likely written in Christian times by Plutarch tells of the death of the god Pan when people start thinking of him as only a made-up story. One might wonder about the rise of Greek neo-pagans, who have begun worshiping Pan again. Have they resurrected him, or is their belief going unheard?

    […]

    In The Epic of Gilgamesh, a character recalls the gods “crowding like flies” around a sacrifice after most of mankind is destroyed. To clarify, the gods created the humanity so that they will work and feed the gods, allowing them to live in leisure. Then, the gods couldn’t stand the noise people made, so they tried to exterminate them a few times, culminating with The Great Flood. It was apparently successful, but then they realized they Didn’t Think This Through…

    According to some sources (most likely fabricated by Christians), the Celtic Gods, or the Tuatha [Dé] Danann, shriveled into the “Little People” (faeries) from lack of offerings and affection after they were overthrown by the Milesians.

  29. ktschwarz says:

    $2.98

    I’ve read that, and I was pretty sure it was $1.98. That number and a search on Stack Exchange got me the story ID, complete with archive.org link.

  30. The [okapi] turned out, once the rest of the world found them, to be portrayed on the walls of the Royal Palace at Persepolis!

    An image here.

  31. John Cowan says:

    Harry Turtledove, creator of 11-Volume Novel Cycles, has lately been writing vignettes and stories set in the State of Jefferson, which happened (fictionally) when a few counties in southern Oregon and northern California decided ito secede and form the State of Jefferson in 1919. Since this area happened to contain most of the sasquatches of the U.S., and since not even the most originalist Supreme Court justice could deny that sasquatches were American citizens by the 14th Amendment (or in the alternative by the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924), the second governor of Jefferson was Charles Earl “Bigfoot” Lewis, who built the Governor’s Mansion in Yreka with not only 13-foot ceilings but 10-foot-tall doors. Most of the stories are set in the 70s and 80s, when the second sasquatch governor, Bill Williamson, is in office.

    Perhaps as a result, Jefferson is more tolerant and more libertarian than the rest of the U.S. For example, consider the (perfectly real) Imperial Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita, whose plane took off from a submarine and dropped two incendiary bombs on the northern Pacific coast in September 1942. He returned to Oregon several times and was welcomed by the locals, but only in Turtledove’s timeline does he become the manager of a Datsun dealership and an American citizen in 1969.

    Humans and sasquatches aren’t alone in the world, either. When U.S. diplomat Mark Gordon is taken hostage during the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis, they first mistake him for a yeti, as a number of them came to Iran fleeing the 1960 Chinese invasion of Tibet 9. Gordon points out, however, that although he looks similar, he is a different (sub)species, and furthermore is no Buddhist but a Person of the Book. At about the same time, the exiled Yeti Lama is invited to a state dinner by Governor Williamson, and we find that the honorary Indonesian consul in Yreka is a Catholic named Asianto Supandy, a Hobbit. Williamson also has to mediate a fishing-rights dispute over the Klamath River between merpeople, the Karuk Tribe, and local sasquatches (who refer to the Karuk contemptuously as “land-stealers”).

  32. John Cowan says:

    $1.98

    Thanks! 1954 is too long ago for me to have read it in the magazine; it had to be in one of the Boucher & McComas anthologies.

    Tuatha [Dé] Danann, shriveled into the “Little People” (faeries)

    Well, the Tuatha Dé were certainly alive and unshriveled in 1890 or so when my grandfather saw them under a bridge in County Cork. Family history has not recorded which bridge it was, but if it was Mallow Bridge, the gentry have certainly taken a fearful vengeance for its destruction. He may of course have been drunk at the time, but that’s a thing that could happen to any man.

  33. The state of Jefferson is alive and well, more in California than in Oregon, at best as jokey folklore, at worst as a label for the local equivalent of the same scary conspiracist/violent folks as elsewhere in the country.
    I once stopped at a roadside store/rest stop, maybe around 2010, and was amazed at the number of variety of anti–Hillary Clinton stickers I saw all over the place, some silly, some not. I was thinking to myself that they sure had been nursing that ancient history for a long time. Little did I know…

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    $1.98

    I’m afraid my willing suspension of disbelief broke down at the punchline. Every motorist knows that you have to pay for parts and labour.

  35. Highlights include the spiny lobster, Panulirus ornatus, reported to favour a mountain habitat and possessing a penchant for climbing trees and laying red-spotted eggs “as large as those of a pigeon”.

    Leaving aside the amusing idea of terrestrial spiny lobsters—it sounds like the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s “Lobster Quadrille”—the genus name Panulirus itself is interesting. The zoologist Adam White apparently introduced it along with Linuparus as an anagram of Palinurus in his 1847 treatment of spiny lobsters in List of the specimens of Crustacea in the collection of the British Museum, in which he broke up the genus Palinurus into Palinurus, Panulirus, and Linuparus. (Itsuo Kubo later added Nupalirus in 1955.) In his publication, White gives the author of the new genera as Gray—doubtless John Edward Gray, keeper of zoology at the British Museum at the time.

    (Palinurus is the name of Aeneas’ helmsman, but I wonder if the name was selected for the genus as a compound παλίν “back, backwards” and οὐρά “tail”, suggesting a typical stance of spiny lobsters, with their tail tucked under their abdomen. Panulirus almost suggests πάνυ λιρός “really lewd”…)

  36. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Brett D Altschul: I read your paper, so I know what it says, but I was wondering whether you personally thought that Rosen’s approach, based on morphism of objects representing various levels of abstraction, was practically useful. My own impression of Rosen is that he may have been (perhaps unknowningly) trying too hard to achieve Husserl’s Strenge—that he reduced things to too extreme a level of abstraction,

    There is a great deal in what you say (in other words it corresponds to what I think!). What María Luz Cárdenas and I have tried to do over the past 17 years (gosh, as long as that! 2003 seems like yesterday), has been to try to extract as much meaning as possible from Rosen’s writing in the hope of making it intelligible to ordinary mortals. Whether this was worthwhile and whether we have achieved anything useful is not for us to judge. Our collaborators in Chile are more enthusiastic than we are about the underlying philosophy and mathematics.

    Veering off-topic, your name (Old School) reminds me of something that puzzled me in Bavaria four years ago. We were driving from Prien-am-Chiemsee to Burghausen (the “longest castle in the world”) and passed signs to Altötting, which I analysed (wrongly) as Al-tötting. It was only on the way back, when we saw signs to Neuötting, that I realized that it was Alt-ötting.

  37. Ann Leckie’s “The Raven” is another recent Gods Need Belief (and sacrifices) novel – i found some of its world-building very compelling, other parts not so much (i’ll take N.K. Jemisen’s version of deities coming into self-understanding over Leckie’s any day)…

    and i quite liked the term that Suttles seems to be working with – “ethnozoology” – as a more precise alternative to “cryptozoology”. the problem with the latter, to me, is that it’s based on the idea that critters not yet linneanized are somehow “hidden”, which seems quite at odds with the everydayness of a sasquatch, or okapi, or lantukh (“a heymish nit-gutn”, in max weinreich’s phase, with an interesting etymology [i’ll see if i can find a link, though i don’t think it’s available in anything but yiddish]).

  38. PlasticPaddy says:

    @rozele
    I remember a story where someone expelled a lantukh by asking it to “gib mir einen handtukh”

  39. In answer to my previous inquiry, here are some lists of Sasquatch names in indigenous languages of North America:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20141105035858/http://www.ontariosasquatch.com/us-names-pg-1/4522694944

    https://web.archive.org/web/20141030073725/http://www.ontariosasquatch.com/canadian-names-pg-1/4522683510

    Unfortunately, the meanings for given for some of these names don’t seem to be the actual literal meanings of the names, at least for those names for which a morphological breakdown is possible. I wonder if there is a better resource out there.

  40. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I don’t remember if Halkomelem has come up in LanguageHat before, but if it has I’ve probably said what I’m about to say before. If so, sorry. One of the few things I know about Halkomelem is that Maud Menten, one of the great names in the history of biochemistry (she of the Michaelis–Menten equation), could speak it. She went to school in the 1880s or so in Harrison Mills. I don’t suppose she found many people in Pittsburgh to practise her Halkomelem with during most of her professional life.

  41. When I saw Nosferatu, I was struck by the appearance of hyena. The animal appears during the crossing of the “threshold of adventure,” as the main character passes into Orlock’s haunted domain. There are a number of low-tech but well-executed weird effects at that point, including some use of negative printing. The striped hyena runs by, its weird appearance enhanced by the strange lighting.

    I thought it was pretty good, having the hyena stand in for a crocotta.* But then I realized that the crocotta cryptid really is just a confused, exaggerated version of a hyena. What, after all, are the outstanding features of the legendary crocotta? The beast has a striking light-dark contrasting coat, and it is capable of producing human-like sounds. Obviously, the real hyena’s laughter is not as impressive as the ability to imitate human speech, but it is obvious how the real phenomenon was exaggerated into the fictional version.

    * Actually, I tend to think of them as “leucrotta,” since that is the alternate form of the name Gygax used in the Monster Manual. Wolfe used another alternate name, “alzabo,” in The Claw of the Conciliator.

    Interestingly, some historical authors correctly identified the crocotta as a hyena, while others noted its similarity to the (better-documented) hyena but averred the two were separate. And some, obviously, would mention the crocotta while apparently completely unaware of the existence of the hyena.

  42. I don’t remember if Halkomelem has come up in LanguageHat before, but if it has I’ve probably said what I’m about to say before. If so, sorry.

    No need to apologize, it happens to all of us! You mentioned it last year, but it’s good to be reminded of it.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    crocotta

    Oh! That’s why the… spotted hyena is Crocuta in Scientific. The originally intended striped hyena is Hyaena.

  44. a great (though small) god who could grant miracles, provided the materials needed for them cost no more than $[1].98.

    Greek Anthology 9.334 (by Perses; tr. J.W. Mackail):

    Even me the little god of small things if thou call upon in due season thou shalt find; but ask not for great things; since whatsoever a god of the commons can give to a labouring man, of this I, Tycho, have control.

    κἀμὲ τὸν ἐν σμικροῖς ὀλίγον θεὸν ἢν ἐπιβώσῃς
        εὐκαίρως, τεύξῃ· μὴ μεγάλων δὲ γλίχου.
    ὡς ὅτι δημοτέρων δύναται θεὸς ἀνδρὶ πενέστῃ
        δωρεῖσθαι, τούτων κύριός εἰμι Τύχων.

  45. Is there a term in academic folkoristics for “widely believed untruth”? Maybe the concept is irrelevant.

  46. January First-of-May says:

    so calling them “mythological”, while perfectly reasonable from our standpoint, misses the fact that the speakers, who themselves also draw a line between mythological and non-mythological, don’t put the creatures on the same side of the line as we do

    I actually wondered to what extent this is comparable to the kind of animals that show up in medieval European bestiaries; surely a lot of medieval Europeans really did believe that e.g. manticores actually existed somewhere in India or whatever.

    (I’m also reminded of the discussion about how, by the time Englishmen arrived in Canada and named the local variety of red deer “elk” [while the actual local variety of elk was referred to with the native term “moose”], they only had a vague cultural memory of actual elk and weren’t quite sure what the animal known by that name actually looked like.)

  47. Isn’t this just another case of words being used differently in (some areas of) Academia against everyday usage of a word? When people say “it’s a myth that measles vaccination cause autism” or when they talk about “urban myths”, it just means “factually wrong story that some people believe in”. And that usage also covers talking about mythical animals – I don’t see any implication that these animals must be foundational to a people’s culture / worldview, or that the people must put them in a different category from really existing animals. I think Mr. Suttles is overthinking this probably because he is used to different definitions of “myth” and “mythical” (or rather, takes those definitions as the only valid ones).

  48. Good point.

  49. John Cowan says:

    While Dorson did seem to exclude true stories from the definition of urban legend, Brunvald definitely did not. (Dorson also coined fakelore to mean ‘folklore invented by someone in particular, especially for commercial purposes’.) In any case, a story may be true in substance even if some of the details have been changed. The sweetheart-murder ballad “Tom Dooley” (YouTube; music starts at 1:10) really is about the historic Tom Dula, though many details are wrong or at best dubious.

  50. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Manticores in India, yes, but did people also believe that even though the Prince always had to cross the wild forest and the frosty mountains to confront the Dragon, the latter might in fact turn up and snack on your best milker some day? (I assume people did believe in the existence of Princes).

    What is actually the difference between a tall tale and a myth in the ethnological sense, for the people telling them? Cinderella vs Genesis, to be specific. Do myths explain the world? Is Gilgamesh a myth?

  51. David Eddyshaw says:

    Wikipedia (for once) has a sensible and extensive discussion:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth

    It seems to me that (as with so much else, as St Ludwig reminds us) it’s impossible to draw a neat boundary round the concept. For example, calling a myth “a religious account” is to invoke yet another potentially problematic category.

    For a concrete example of the difficulty, I was wondering whether you’d call Kusaasi kikiris (rendered “fairies” in local English) “mythological.” AFAIK there are no cultural foundation stories involving kikiris, and indeed I don’t know of any “myths” in the Greek sense at all; the “religion” (if you decide to call it that) just doesn’t work that way. On the other hand, it seems inadequate to call them “folkloric”, as kikiris are thought to be part of actual human nature as understood in the traditional culture (if a witch steals all your own three or four protective kikiris, you will die), so the concept is central to the culture. They’re not like “fairies” at all in that sense. As far as I can tell from the outside, “belief” in them as “real” is completely taken for granted in the culture (though as we were recently reminded, “belief” is yet another concept that is problematic cross-culturally.)

  52. Lars Mathiesen says:

    It seems to me that one salient feature of the myth proper is that it happened back when the world was different and may explain why it became the way it is, whereas a fairy tale usually happens in a culture much like the teller’s. So if you assume that you might see a sasquatch next time you leave the house, sasquatches are just as real as blue star tattoos — and both are popularly called myths, of course.

    (On that dimension legends group with fairy tales, I think — they happen in the familiar world, but the people are claimed to be real. History is just a better documented legend. But there is an overlap with myth, the Prometheus story has a human main character but it happened when only the gods had fire…)

  53. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I’m not convinced that a belief that vaccinations cause autism couldn’t fit with a narrower definition of myth – it affects not only how you interact with the world, but who you see as a member of your ‘tribe’ and not.

    (Not Lars’ once-upon-a-time/det-var-en-gang definition, though…)

  54. Another issue is that the same story or story element can be different things to different people at different times. When European fairy tales were created, people generally believed in fairies, goblins, witches, etc. Even if they’d never seen one, they believed that they could encounter them and ascribed events and phenomena like soured milk or mushroom circles to their actions. Basically, like sasquatches for native Indians. Nowadays these tales are a subset of children‘s literature or folkloristica, and while children up to a certain age may believe in these creatures, most adults who tell them don’t (although there are exceptions). Greek myths were a part of the way ancient Greeks explained the world (although there were sceptics even back then), but nowadays they’re basically treated like fairy tales and often found in the same section in book stores and libraries. So using words like “mythical” expresses an outside view, the view of modern Western rational adults. And I think that’s okay if the intention is to express that these creatures are (1) part of some peoples’ folklore and (2) from a modern Western viewpoint they’re not real.

  55. I’m not convinced that a belief that vaccinations cause autism couldn’t fit with a narrower definition of myth – it affects not only how you interact with the world, but who you see as a member of your ‘tribe’ and not.
    I don’t say that it cannot fit that narrower definition – any belief, whether true or false, can be a foundational part of a world view, and for many anti-vaxxers it certainly does. What I was trying to say that for many people who say “X is a myth”, X being a foundational part of someone’s world view is not a necessary implication.

  56. ktschwarz says:

    I once had an English professor who told us that “the myth of the three little pigs” (his words) expressed a foundational part of the culture’s world view: that civilization makes progress and becomes stronger than nature. I was impressed!

  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    Whig pigs!

  58. On myths, I highly recommend Lynda Barry, on the Aswang. Essential quote: “It is just a story. Of Course. But, it is true.”

    (It’s a Halloween story, in fact.)

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