When they severed earth from sky

When they severed earth from sky: How the human mind shapes myth. By Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. xvii, 290. $29.95.

Reviewed by Marc Pierce, University of Texas at Austin

This is a book about myth, not primarily about language, and therefore it may well be overlooked by readers of Language. This would be a mistake, however. The blurbs on the dust jacket set the bar very high, as adjectives like ‘fascinating’, ‘novel and convincing’, and ‘idiosyncratic and engaging’ are freely used. Happily, the book lives up to the blurbs. I read it in two sittings (a task considerably aided by the liveliness of the individual chapters), enjoyed it immensely, and have since come back to it several times to browse and reread.

The central thesis of the book is that ‘“myths” were not intended as fiction in our sense, but as carriers of important information about real events and observations’ (244), and the authors distill a number of ‘myth principles’ out of their research (these principles are presented in the individual chapters and then conveniently collected in an appendix at the end of the book), including the ‘memory crunch’, which states that ‘When all accumulated wisdom must be stored in the brain and transmitted orally …, people reserve the formal oral tradition for transmitting the information they consider most important, often for survival’ (5); the ‘silence principle’, which holds that ‘What everyone is expected to know already is not explained in so many words’ (17); and the ‘restructuring principle’, according to which ‘Whenever there is a significant cultural change, at least some patterns will get restructured or reinterpreted’ (139).

Consider a case used to illustrate the memory crunch: a soldier stationed at Fort Klamath in 1865 had asked why the Klamaths never went near Crater Lake. In response, the soldier was told a story about divine retribution upon the Klamaths because one of their maidens had refused to marry the Chief of the Below World. The authors argue convincingly that this story is really about the volcanic events leading up to the formation of Crater Lake, which have been ‘ice-dated to 7,675 years ago’ (8), and also that it remained important to the Klamaths because of the warning it carried. After all, ‘innocent-looking Crater Lake … for all they knew, might explode again next week’ (9). Because of its importance, this warning about volcanic events was transmitted in the form of a myth for almost eight thousand years. Similar cases from areas ranging from Ancient Egypt to Eastern Europe are also discussed, on a wide range of topics, including dragons, vampires, and the theft of fire from the gods. Some of the evidence is not the type one generally expects to see in a scholarly work (reference is made to both the comic strip The Far Side and the famous ‘Who’s on first’ comedy routine of Abbott and Costello, for example), but this only adds to the lively tone of the volume.

The book is full of interesting facts—my favorite is that the phrase hocus pocus is a garbled version of a phrase from the Latin Eucharist, namely ‘hoc est corpus [meum]’, that is, ‘here is [my] body’ (135, n. 1). It is well-written and engaging, and will hopefully find the wide audience is certainly deserves.