Sunday, October 02, 2016

Julien d'Huy on the development of story lines in myths like those of Pygmalion Polyphemus

Historian Julien d'Huy reports on his work on the evolution of myths and their relationship to population movements over millenia in Scientists Trace Society’s Myths to Primordial Origins Scientific American Online 09/29/2016.

Here he defines the quest in terms of a puzzle over the Pygmalion-type myths:

As the Greeks tell it, Pygmalion, a handsome sculptor from Cyprus, spurns the company of local women relegated to a life of loveless prostitution for failing to pay proper homage to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and patron deity of the island. Throwing himself into his work, Pygmalion chisels an ivory statue of a woman, which he names “Galatea” (or “sleeping love”). He dresses the sculpture in fancy clothes and jewels, kisses and caresses it, and talks to it every day. During a festival in honor of Aphrodite, Pygmalion goes to the goddess’s temple, sacrifices a bull and prays for a wife just like his beloved statue. When he returns home and kisses Galatea, he is surprised by the statue’s warmth. Aphrodite has brought Galatea to life.

Roman poet Ovid immortalized the Greek folktale in Metamorphoses and inspired countless writers, dramatists and artists ever since.

My research suggests the evolution of the Pygmalion myth followed a human migration from northeastern to southern Africa that previous genetic studies indicate took place around 2,000 years ago. In folktales told by various tribes along that route, a man carves an image of a woman and falls in love with it; the doll comes to life and marries the master. According to the Venda of South Africa, a man sculpts a woman out of wood. After she is animated, the head of the tribe tries to kidnap her. The sculptor resists and throws the woman to the ground, whereupon she turns back into wood.

A phylogenetic tree I constructed using the Greek version of Pygmalion and a version from the Bara people of Madagascar as starting points yielded intriguing results. The Greek and Bara myths mirror each other structurally, even though they represent the greatest geographic separation of any of the stories included in the computer model. In addition, the Bara settled on an island that did not allow for great population expansion and mythological diversification, and the Greeks remained isolated for much of their history from exposure to African folktales. Nevertheless, both the Bara and Greek versions of the myth bear remarkable similarities to an earlier version of the story from the Berber tribes of the Sahara.

Depiction of Ovid's Narrative [on Pygmalion] by Jean Raoux

D'Huy also writes about his findings on the Polyphemus/cyclops in Polyphemus, a Paleolithic Tale? The Retrospective Methods Network Newsletter (RMN Newsletter) 9:Winter 2014–2015.

In both articles, he emphasizes the importance of folkloric research methods assuming an analogy between biological evolution and the evolution of myths and stories:

A great advance in biology occurred when researchers realized that the lineage of organisms could be represented with a branching diagram or ‘tree’. This structure visualizes the inferred evolutionary relationships among various biological species based upon similarities and differences in their physical or genetic characteristics. Each node from which branches of the tree stem represents a speciation event in which a lineage splits into two or more descendant lineages (i.e. branches). Biological and mythological entities have many traits in common, as summarized in Table 1. The most important of these is the fact that both are formed by discrete heritable units which evolve progressively with time. The more two related species or two myths diverge, geographically and temporally, the more distant their genetic relationship probably is. Observing these parallels, software developed for assessing genetic relationships and relatedness can potentially be applied to assess corresponding relationships between examples of myths and folktales.
He goes on to discuss some of the limitations associated with a methodology closely related to the modeling of biological history.

As the title of the journal implies, the second article has a lot of methodological discussion.

Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
In the Scientific American piece, he gives this account of his reconstruction of the Polyphemus tale:

In the myth of Polyphemus, as its original public most likely heard it, a hunter faces one or many monsters that possess a herd of wild animals. He enters the place where the monster keeps the animals and finds his way out blocked by a large obstacle. The monster tries to kill him. The hero manages to escape by clinging to the underbelly of one of the animals.

This protomyth — revealed by three separate phylogenetic databases, many statistical methods and independent ethnological data — reflects the belief, widely held by ancient cultures, in the existence of a master of animals who keeps them in a cave and the need for an intermediary to free them. It could also be part of a Paleolithic conception of how game emerges from an underworld. At the Cave of the TroisFrères (or “three brothers”) in the French Pyrenees, frequented during the upper Paleolithic, a panel [of a cave painting] shows a small creature with the head of a bison and the body of a human, which seems to be holding a short bow. Lost in the middle of a herd of bison, another animal, similar to a bison, turns its head toward the human hy brid, and the two creatures exchange gazes. On examination, the left rear thigh of the “bison” is not the thigh of a ruminant; its proportions are much smaller, like a human thigh — so much so that archaeologist André LeroiGourhan took it for a human silhouette. Moreover, the artist has meticulously drawn the anus and the vulvar orifice. These two elements can be compared with some Amerindian versions of the Polyphemus story, where the man hides himself in the animal by entering its anus. [my emphasis]

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