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November 2017

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Bad literature

Review: Barbara G. Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets

The blithe racism of the earliest anthropologists in the nineteenth century led them to make a howler. In the absence of actual evidence, they speculated that at some point in the past, people were so ignorant that they didn't know where babies came from. This led them to imagine that the discovery of the fact of fatherhood, and the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy, would have led to a social revolution, as fathers recognized that pregnancy didn't just happen.

They didn't figure that "primitive" people were just as clever as science-minded Europeans. The thought was outside their frame of reference. In fact, no human culture, no matter how scant their material culture, has ever been discovered that is ignorant of the facts of life. In fact, most mammals are not ignorant of the fact, either. But they made a myth of patriarchy displacing matriarchy upon the social discovery of fatherhood.

More racist mythology: this one's more familiar. It involves blond Aryan supermen. You've probably heard of 'em. According to the legend, these fellows, with their obvious good looks and breeding, and their superior horsemanship and military technologies, managed to conquer Europe and much of South Asia. In doing so, they spread their Indo-European (earlier: "Aryan" or "Indo-Aryan") languages. The archaeological record really doesn't bear out this tale of conquest. It is unlikely it happened this way.

But since its origin, the Aryan superman myth has split into two strains. The only thing that really separates the two is whether you root for the "winners," or the "losers." We know the ideologies that the "winner" side leads to; the "loser" side leads right here. The underlying narrative is the same.

Just as Robert Graves did earlier with The White Goddess, this book continues in the same vein of originally racist mythography. Graves, at least, was a distinguished poet and novelist, and wove his personal, S&M based mythology into a gripping yarn, while always remaining somewhat coy as to whether it was a genuine account of ancient cultures or personal myth-making. His deified sex fantasy was so compellingly pictured that it became a stock trope of fantasy fiction, from Mary Renault (The King Must Die) through Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon); hardly any fantasy novel that mentions witches or goddesses has not been touched by the hand of Graves.

Here, though, we see myth hardening into dogma. To criticize the text for inaccuracies may be missing the point as much as to criticize Jacob de Voragine's etymologies and narratives in The Golden Legend for being inaccurate. Their purpose is not information, but rather moral instruction. The purpose of any one of its narratives is not to inform, but rather to kindle zeal and deeper commitment to a cause. Once you move past the issue of whether it's fact-based or not (it's not), this book can become actually informative. It's not about anything outside the author's head; it's a exercise in mythography, in building a world-view.

Comments

This is also why "ancient astronauts" building things like the Pyramids is a load of dingo's kidneys. Whether or not life elsewhere exists, our ancestors didn't need Space Brothers to build the seven wonders, any more than they had to be around for the Empire State Building or the inventions of radio or TV or the internet.
It takes education to make these kinds of boners. Cicero, a devoted Stoic, thought that astrology couldn't tell the future. But he went so far to claim that the moon had no affect on the tides; to agree that it did would be to concede too much to astrology. Sailors knew otherwise all along.

Only someone who accepted a "blank slate" account of the human psyche could fall for the notion that people once were so ill informed that they could imagine that primitive people had no concept of paternity. Sexual jealousy is instinctual, and observed in other animals besides humans.

I'm pretty sure that television was invented by space aliens bent on rendering humanity incapable of fighting back against them, though.
Well, don't look at me. Must have been those aliens over there. ;)

You might be interested in this review.