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A modern shaman or brujo.
Courtesy Museo de Sitio Túcume, Peru



Do Chinese Whispers Affect Myths?
Jan 27, 2009

The proposition that creation myths and cosmological traditions worldwide carry information about conditions and events that once prevailed on earth may seem risky at first.

The implication is that an unbroken chain of oral transmission must have connected these historical circumstances, and the earliest reports of those circumstances have been uncovered by scholars today. From the perspective of a modern, literate society, it would seem unwise to rely on notions that have survived in oral form for prolonged periods of time. After all, even when conveyed with the best of intentions, the spoken word is susceptible to subtle gradual distortions of the "Chinese whispers" type.

Perhaps contrary to intuition, mythological data in the most original context actually prove surprisingly reliable. This is because mythological traditions can neither be equated with random storytelling nor be analysed in terms of ordinary verbal communication. Mythological tradition belongs in a different cognitive category that is geared towards a maximal effort of faithful preservation.

This is accomplished in three different ways. First, as often observed by historians of religion, myths in their original setting are treated with a high degree of sanctity. These are not just any stories, but are uniformly considered as sacred information by members of a traditional society. The deep respect and awe people used to have for myths acted as a safeguard against alteration.

Second, within many cultures the task to preserve the sacred traditions intact was delegated to a class of professional tradition keepers. Whereas members of the normal population would often have deficient knowledge and understanding of the mythology, an unbroken succession of priests, shamans, chiefs or other notables would help guarantee the accuracy of transmitted information. Rote learning, sometimes of large chunks of "spoken text," formed no exception in the curriculum of these guardians of cultural continuity.

And third, in practically every known society, myths concerning the origin and the workings of the world were backed up by a set of rituals and visual symbols that effectively served as another "check" on efficiency and truthfulness. All traditional knowledge would be continuously and cyclically rehearsed and implanted in the conscious memory of the participants of ritual initiations and other holy festivals. To a much larger extent than for the general populace, the education of novice keepers of the sacred lore would be especially steeped in rites and symbols impregnated with the same mythical knowledge.

The following examples will illustrate this reverent attitude towards myth. When the American author and traveller, George Catlin (1796-1872), visited the Mandan people, of Dakota, he noted that the indigenous account of creation “is told with great gravity by their chiefs and doctors or mystery-men.”

Sir Arthur Grimble (1888-1956) was a British explorer who spent many years on Kiribati, Micronesia. In one of his books, he told of a local woman who “told me the myth of man’s expulsion from the Happy Land of Matang. Fifteen years later, when she was well over seventy, I took the script back to her for checking. She repeated the story at that second sitting word for word as she had given it before, and I complimented her on the feat.” Yet far from taking pride in this achievement, the woman “replied soberly (I took down her words), ‘Sir, and shall it be otherwise? Each karaki (history) has its own body from the generations of old. These are the words of our grandfathers’ fathers, and thus we pass them on to our children’s children. How should I change the words that my grandfather gave me as the contents of my mouth?” The same earnest and respect are found associated with myths in hundreds of other societies and examples could easily be enumerated.

Of course, despite such efforts of preservation, aspects of myths have changed. Inevitably, obsolete concepts and words would sometimes be replaced by others that made more sense, unintelligible content would occasionally be clarified in terms that may have been more widely off the mark than intended, and story elements may have been conflated and confounded especially at times of social stress, as when the fabric of society was in danger of collapse.

Nevertheless, the comparative method employed in modern mythological research is a powerful tool to identify shared motifs that must trace back to the past. The detailed level of cross-cultural agreement that emerges is a persuasive witness to the overall reliability of the mythical record.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van der Sluijs:

The Mythology of the World Axis

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon



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