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Identifying Commonalities in Mythology


         The flood. An axis mundi. A supreme, but withdrawn god. These are just a few examples of legends that many people on Earth share. Comparative Mythology is a field of study that has at its core a simple goal, according to one of its members, anthropologist C. Littleton, "The systematic comparison of myths and mythic themes drawn from a wide variety of cultures [sic]."

          These comparisons delve into the possibility of a potential "protomythology" from which the world's modern legends arise. The field digs even deeper, however, by looking at human behavior, and psychology. Before delving deeper into this fascinating piece of academia, it should be noted that many modern scholars belong to the opposite school of thought, known as Particularism, which highlights the differences rather than the similarities between cultural legacies.

          Right then. Comparative mythology has four major approaches in order to fulfill its various goals. They are (1) Linguistic, (2) Structural, (3), Historical/Comparative, and (4) Psychological.

          The first two approaches, Linguistic and Structural yield little in leading to a worldwide 'lore', so to speak. The commonalities they illustrate lie for the most part  in large cultural groupings, such as the general, Indo-European god, day-father, known as 'Zeus Pater', 'Jupiter', 'Tiu' and "Dyaus Pitr' in Graeco, Latin, Germanic, and Vedic languages respectively. The day-father may not be a worldwide god, but it is still interesting how well-spread the name is.

          On the historical/comparative front, the professor Michael Witzel has been leading the way, as he is actually the founder of this particular comparative mythology approach. By peeling thousands of years back at a time through archaelogical layers of different cultures, he has shown the relationship between different mythologies. He has traced basically two different origins of our modern legends, and they arise from the great supercontinent, Pangaea.

          Pangaea is a fascinating geographical idea with a great deal of evidence that I'd love to talk about at a different time, but the basic idea is that all the landmasses on planet Earth once formed a continuous mass of land, without bodies of water splitting them apart. Anthropologists have split what was once Pangaea into two more manageable constituent parts: Laurasia, and Gondwana. Laurasian peoples had cultural traditionals spanning from the creation of the world until the demise of human beings, which is a mythological grouping consistent with the people and land it has now (the Americas, and Eurasia). The natives in the Americas and Eurasia have this same mythos (e.g. creation of everything, up to humanity's demise) because of their Laurasian ancestors. The descendants of the Gondwanans (Subsaharan Africa, Australia, New Guinea) have a different set of tales, also consistent with Witzel's theory.

          The final approach, Psychological, is also intriguing. It asks, What is it that all humans have in common? What are the patterns at play here? Many cultures, regardless of Laurasian or Gondwanan descent, have various images and themes, called 'archetypes' are omnipresent in each countries mythos. Similarly, many of these cultures have stories similar to that of the Greek play known as Oedipus.

          Joseph Campbell, writer of "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" popularized this idea of worldwide 'archetypes' in every story. Campbell worked out, "The Hero's Journey", which is a summary of the plot of most any tale that can be thought of. He also determined that all heroes have certain traits, consistent regardless of cultural grouping.

          Previously mentioned was the axis mundi, which is the idea of a place that connects the world, or universes together. Examples of this kind of myth exist from the Mayans, to the Vedics; from the Chinese to the the Norse.

          In addition,  almost everyone has heard of the Flood, of course. Everyone knows the Bible story, but it can also be seen in Aztec, Greek, and Hindu cultural lore. In each case, the account claims that all of humanity is wiped out, with either a group of survivors, or a single remaining human living to tell the tale (ha).

          I'd like to close my discussion of Comparative Mythology with a last look at one of the most interesting common myths I found. I hadn't heard of it before, but that is because it is more present in Gondwanan stories than Laurasian ones. The legend is that of the 'deus otiosus', the god that hardly interferes with humanity. They generally say that the deus otiosus has cut off their contact with humanity, ignoring it. In a world where many think there is no God, or wonder where he has gone or why He does not speak as much, the presence of this folk tale is an interesting one. Examples of this myth have been found in Central Africa, Namibia, and countless other places.

          Well, I hope this discussion has been as insightful and compelling for you as it has been for me. The opportunity to look more deeply into this concept that I've always toyed around with and been curious about was enjoyable, and I encourage deeper investigation into other common myths!
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