Koenraad Elst - Witzel Myths

by Koenraad Elst - Mar 11, 2013 04:15 PM +05:30 IST
Koenraad Elst - Witzel Myths

Globalization of mythology

German-born Sanskritist Michael Witzel is (Prince of) Wales professor in Harvard. He is not my best friend, though I have regularly defended him as a capable and original scholar against those Hindus who disparage his traditional philological arguments for the East-European homeland theory of the Indo-European language family. But any possible misgivings about his approach sink into oblivion next to our appreciation of his latest book: Origins of the World’s Myths (Oxford University Press 2013). It will be an important reference work in mythological studies for decades to come, being easily the most ambitious work in that field. Witzel makes an attempt, with apparent success, to reconstruct the history of myth, not for one culture in the past several thousand years but for mankind as a whole since its dispersal from Africa more than fifty-thousand years ago. Its scope completely dwarfs questions like the origins of Europe’s and India’s civilization.

The project is unabashedly inspired by an earlier attempt at reconstruction, viz. that of the Indo-European language family. The Marxist school represented by Bruce Lincoln, otherwise a meritorious Indo-Europeanist himself, rejects this kind of search for origins. It sees this as looking for a pure and pristine state where a language is perfect and unchanging. This position is frequently quoted by spokesmen of the “Hindu Right” in their stance of criminalizing Witzel’s part in the search for the homeland of Indo-European, calling him a “Nazi”, no less. But as Witzel himself remarks, this is a Romantic, anachronistic view of what reconstructionists do. Nowadays, reconstructionists assume the existence of dialectal differences in Proto-Indo-European and treat the language as an evolute of still earlier languages like the hypothetical Proto-Nostratic. Moreover, less ideologically tainted language families have received the same treatment, like Afro-Asiatic (including Semitic and Hamitic) and Sino-Tibetan, and with Uralic even preceding Indo-European. Reconstruction “brings up, time and again, earlier and earlier forms of myth that are not pristine either – just like reconstructed languages – and actually never reach unity, harmony and perfection”. (p.27) There is nothing ideologically wrong with reconstructing the past, whether of the Indo-European language family or the world’s mythologies.

Note that this work has only become possible now. We have collected the mythologies of nearly all tribes, very often recording them just as they were dying, either because tribes got converted to Christianity and were forgetting their own traditions, or because communities disintegrated into modern societies. We have captured variations in myths as recounted by neighboring tribes, or by men and women, and these variations often allow us to see elements overlooked or eliminated in the “official” version of the myth. And we have done so globally, glimpsing not just parts of mankind’s mythologies, with occasional similarities here and there (as earlier mythographers like James Fraser perforce had to), but the total picture. For the first time, we can give an account of the whole world’s myths, and therefore we must be glad that finally someone has taken on this task.

Gondwana and Laurasia

In the earth’s geological history, Alfred Wegener’s widely-accepted theory of continental drift posits Pangaea as the Ur-continent, which split into the two primeval continents, Gondwanaland in the South and Laurasia in the North. As the coastlines of the present continents still indicate, Eurasia and North America were once part of Laurasia, while Africa, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica formed Gondwanaland. Witzel takes these names and uses them for two distinct sets of cultures which at one stage largely coincided with these geographical entities.

Gondwana represents mankind as it was during its first expansion more than fifty-thousand years ago. Due to an Ice Age, the sea level was much lower so that primitive man could simply walk across what is now the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the sea lanes between the Southeast-Asian islands and even between New Guinea and Australia. Following the coastline, Homo Sapiens Sapiens spread from his African homeland to the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Australia. Thus, the Black Africans, South- and Southeast-Asian tribals and Australian Aboriginals form the cultural mega-complex called Gondwana. From these areas around the Indian Ocean, man spread inland and northward.

In Europe and Asia, this first layer was largely overlaid with a second layer: the Laurasian cultures, probably originating in the Middle East (or, I would add, the Indus valley). The landmass of Eurasia witnessed the emergence of a new mythological megacomplex, characterized by mythical themes that did not exist in the earlier layer. Thus, in Gondwana myths, the cosmos is assumed to be self-existent and eternal, and gods only make changes in a preexisting world: “In Gondwana myth, both heaven and earth as well as the ocean are clearly preexistent.” (p.361) Only Laurasian mythologies introduce the search for the creative principle behind the world’s existence, as well as the notion of successive ages culminating in an end time; we will discuss more examples below. Witzel calls the coherent Laurasian account of the cosmos, with a beginning and an end, mankind’s first novel.

This happened before the migration of the Amerindians across the Behring strait during the last Ice Age, some twenty-thousand years ago, for they took the Laurasian mythology with them. Benefiting of the lowered sea level, mankind could spread to the British Isles, to Japan and to the Americas. South America, then, is geologically a part of Gondwanaland but culturally the farthest extension of the Laurasian migration from Siberia.

The term “Pangaean” is used for elements transcending the opposition between the two and shared by peoples the world over. Pangaean mythemes are elements clearly articulated in Gondwana mythology and persisting through the Laurasian innovation. Thus, the Germanic myth of the origin of mankind through the couple Ask and Embla, named after trees (ash and creeper, source material of arrow c.q. bow, i.e. man and woman) is part of a Laurasian mythology but is a local specification of a Gondwana theme, viz. that the first humans originated from trees.

Methodology and hypotheses

The division Witzel develops falsifies the Marxist-inspired theory that myths express the reigning mode of production. Pure Gondwana cultures include hunter-gatherer societies, cowherds and agriculturers (Bantu Africans, some New Guinea natives). Laurasian societies include all these too, plus city dwellers, yet they have different myths. Whether hunter-gatherers have Laurasian or Gondwana myths simply depends on the historical question whether their ancestors underwent the Laurasian revolution. Not the peoples’ material circumstances but their place on mankind’s genealogical tree determines whether they have Gondwana or Laurasian myths. When Amerindians in the Amazonian forest lived a life similar to that of their distant cousins in the Central-African rain forest, they could not undo the Laurasian innovation which their ancestors had acquired while living in Eurasia.

Similarly, the commonly-heard objection that prefers to explain similarities through diffusion (whether by Hindu opponents of a Non-Indian Homeland Theory in their ill-inspired refusal of a linguistic reconstruction of the Indo-European family or by diffusionist anthropologists in their preference for explaining similar myths in different tribes through synchronic borrowing processes over diachronic transmission from a common ancestry) will not do. There is no way that Gondwana myths could have travelled from Africa to Australia all while bypassing Madagascar with its Austronesian language and Laurasian myths. This geographical distribution of myths can only be explained by the primal expansion of Gondwana mankind from Africa to Australia and by the journey of Austronesians from South China with its Laurasian mythology to Madagascar much later. Of course local processes of borrowing have taken place, making the borderline between Gondwana and Laurasian mythologies a bit fuzzy, but the main structure of the world’s distribution of myths can only be explained genealogically, by a Stammbaum.

Finally, Carl Gustav Jung’s popular explanation of myth through common subconscious themes or “archetypes” for which we are hard-wired, does account for similarities, particularly the really universal ones, but fails to account for the differences. This book’s story-line, with a global division in two layers and then local divisions within these layers (plus occasional influencing across this border to complicate matters) gives a far more detailed explanation of the really existing myths that anthropologists and other reporters have gathered so painstakingly.

Gondwana myth

Typical of Gondwana myths is the belief in a High God, mostly a deus otiosus not interfering in the world. Missionaries (as well as some scholars) have tried to interpret this as an Ur-monotheism, a useful entry point to familiarize the heathen natives with the God of the Bible. But generally the belief in this High God does not preclude the belief in a whole pantheon of lower gods. He is at any rate not a creator-god.

In fact, even in Laurasian myths, which focus on the “emergence” (rather than “creation”) of the world, the appearance of a creator god remains exceptional: “it is important to observe that neither the Gondwana High God, nor the Eurasian (Father) Heaven, nor the Amerindian Great Spirit is a creator god: they do not create the universe or the world, and they leave its establishment to later demiurge deities.” (p.360) Prophetic monotheism gradually developed this idea: “the emergence of the biblical single god and creator took shape only during the second part of the first millennium BCE, clearly under Zoroastrian Persian influence”. (p.360) With this innovation and its later elaboration by theologians came the idea of the “creation ex nihilo” by an extra-cosmic God, an idea too heady for most Laurasian let alone Gondwana cultures.

Shamanism, with its initiations in caves and its often secretive transmission of divine knowledge, was the religious form typical of Paleolithic hunter cultures. Shamans dressed in animal skins are believed to be able to communicate with the spirits of animal species, as also with other spirits. They go on vision quests and climb the sacred world tree, experience dismemberment and rebirth, and develop the skill of controlled spirit possession. Known from Siberia and the Siberian-descended Amerindians, this tradition originated in essential features in the Gondwana cultures, but has later acquired additional Laurasian features. Thus: “The earlier, Pan-Gaean and Gondwana versions of shamanism have dancing, but they do not yet have the typical Siberian feature of shamanistic drumming, and they do not have much of a shamanistic dress.” (p.382)

I might remark that the Paraias of South India (yes, those whence the English language has borrowed the word pariah) form a borderline case: they certainly are known for ecstatic drumming and dancing to achieve controlled spirit possession. Their distinctive tradition stands out against Vedic Hinduism as much closer to Shamanism. Till recently, they were kept at a distance by Brahmin priests as “untouchables” not because they were despised (though they may have been that too) but because they were feared, viz. for carrying with them the world of the spirits and the dead.

And what will Hindus think about this? Vedic and yogic culture originates in Shamanism, and its roots are widely visible: “(…) the San [Bushmen], Andamanese and Australians (…) all mention the difficulty in mastering the force inherent in the calling, which often manifests itself as heat that rises up the spine. Obviously this is a very old Pan-Gaean trait: the concept of shamanic heat, and the careful management of this ‘power’, which (snakelike) moves up the spine, is a fact still known to Yogic practitioners.” (p.367) “(…) the idea of internal ‘heat’, rising up from the bottom of one’s spine, where it is coiled up as ‘serpent power’, is retained in medieval Indian Kundalini yoga. There is further a striking similarity with the African (San) concept of how to manage this heat, which can be achieved only with difficulty and after a long period of training by other shamans.” (p.387)

So, the Tapas (“heat”, fierce discipline) of the Yogi and even the Kundalini power are an ancient belief going back at least sixty thousand years to the Gondwana cultures? In the Homeland debate, many Hindus can’t stand it when the established historians say that Sankrit is but a daughter language of Proto-Indo-European, which itself has developed as a daughter language of Nostratic or so. Similarly, this old and probably foreign Shamanic ancestry may displease Hindus, though they also like it when the sheer ancientness of Yoga is recognized and magnified. At any rate, this global perspective dwarfs any considerations of the origins of just one culture.

Laurasian myths

As far as New Zealand, where the Maori population is part of a recent sea-borne expansion of the Austronesians (not to be confused with the far older land-borne expansion of the Australians and Melanesians), Laurasian mankind has myths of an origin of the world. Heaven and Earth first just emerge, while in later versions, they often emerge with the help of a creator-god. Mostly it is not really a creation ex nihilo, but Father Heaven and Mother Earth “are separated”, they emerge as distinct from a primal state of undifferentiated chaos. This is part of a cosmological scheme, with a beginning which isn’t really a beginning, then four world ages ruled by successive generations of gods, and terminating in an end of the world which isn’t really the end. After the twilight of the gods, the whole show starts up again. Once more it is only Biblical thinking which has made the end really final.

An important Laurasian myth is that of twin brothers of whom one sacrifices the other to create the world. The Biblical story of Cain and Abel, closely related to the first couple Adam and Eve, is a local variation of the story, but other variations are found as far as Mexico. Since similar myths are found among the San, the Aborigines and other Gondwana peoples, this theme must be reckoned among the Pan-Gaean myths.

In the Indo-European world, it takes the form of man (*meno, Manu) sacrificing his twin brother (*yemo, “twin”, Yama) and transforming his body into the parts of the world. This happens in the Germanic version to the giant Ymir and in the Rg-Veda to the giant person (purusha), just as it happens outside the Indo-Germanic world to the Chinese giant Pangu. The Romans, who always had a tendency to transmute myths into history, adapt this story to the founding of their city: while building it, Romulus kills his brother Remus (assimilated to Romulus from *Yemus).

This sacrifice transforms the giant’s skull into the heavenly vault, his eyes into the sun and the moon, his flowing blood into the rivers, etc., and the flees on his skin into mankind! (This must be the first version of the modern “deep ecologist” view that man is just vermin of the skin of Mother Earth.) But it also furnishes the paradigm for “social corporatism”, the view that human society was organically created from the giant’s body. This provides the famous passage in the Rig-Vedic Purusha hymn where the four classes (varna) are defined, a foundational component of the so-called caste system: “This example provides another extremely long-lasting case of path dependency: it goes back some 3,000 years to the oldest Indian text and beyond that to the late Paleolithic, to the Laurasian concept of the primordial giant.” (p.406)

A typical Laurasian innovation is the myth of the dragon-slayer: “Most prominent in these fights [among different categories of gods] is the slaying of the primordial dragon by the Great Hero, a descendant of Father Heaven. In India, it is Indra who kills the three-headed reptile, just like his Iranian ‘cousin’ Thraetona kills a three-headed dragon and their distant counterpart in Japan, Susa.no Wo, kills the eight-headed monster (…) in England it is Beowulf, in the Edda it is Sigurd, and in the medieval Nibelungen epic it is Siegfried (…) In Egyptian myth ‘the dragon of the deep’ (Apophis) is slain by the victorious sun when it passes underground”. (p.79) With variations, we also find the motif back among the Greeks, Chinese, Navajo and Maya.

For more examples, the reader is referred to the book itself. This builds its reconstruction with the help of the archaeological and genetic evidence. Specialists of those disciplines will certainly complain that more of it could have been given, but then this book is a pioneering innovation and other scholars are invited to expand on this new paradigm.


This book doesn’t deal with the question that made Witzel such a unique hate name in India: the homeland of the Indo-European language family. Yet, I suspect he had this debate in mind when writing down sentences such as: “Chicken and still later exports from India are absent in common Laurasian ritual.” (p.395) Of course, the Laurasian innovation took place at least twenty-thousand years earlier than the expansion of Indo-European, dated to maybe six-thousand years ago; so the two phenomena are unrelated. However, the quoted sentence is perfectly factual and thus allowed, and on the internet, Witzel must have read many times the gloating remarks of Hindus wrongly taking the new genetic evidence of a movement out of India tens of thousands of years ago as evidence that India is the homeland of Indo-European; so this may be his reaction.

The theme of Indo-European origins is not taken up in this book, yet it has implications even for this question. Firstly, it makes us more aware of the more distant roots of Hindu and Indo-European culture. Thus, the roots of Hindu non-violence are found in Shamanic attitudes attested in far earlier stages of human development: “To compare a typical modern hunter society: in San hunting, the animal is wounded by a poisoned arrow and followed for hours; it is then asked for permission to be killed, just as was done in rituals in ancient Greece and Vedic India and as is still being done in modern Hindu sacrifice.” (p.398) Secondly, this effort at reconstructing a distant past spanning at least fifty-thousand years and the whole world encourages us to complete the far less ambitious endeavour to reconstruct the early history of Indo-European. Some day in the near future, the now-frequent statements despairing of us mortals ever finding its homeland will seem unnecessarily defeatist.

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.
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