Saturday, October 10, 2009

Conf. Paper: The Great Scorching: Possible linkages to ancient and modern global warming

I'm posting my paper for the Alamat Conference, which was held at Manila in 2008, in three parts. The subject of the paper is the widespread myths of the "great scorching" and its relevance to ancient and modern global warming and rising sea levels.

Part one is found below.

Paul Kekai Manansala

The Great Scorching: Possible linkages to ancient and modern global warming

Messages from the they have anything to tells us about our present, or our future?

Have myths preserved memories of rising seas, driven by global warming, submerging lands in ancient times?

We face today what has been called the greatest crisis in the known history of modern humans – the crisis of global warming and climate change. And it is a problem, according to the vast majority of experts, of our own making.

However, in the past, after the last glacial period or “mini-ice age,” the world witnessed extensive sea flooding caused by warming temperatures melting global ice packs.

During this illustrious conference, we have heard many participants speak of global flood myths.

The purpose of my paper is to examine myths here in the Philippines and the surrounding region that tell of a time when people viewed the sky as lower than it is today, or as containing multiple Suns. Because the sky was lower, the Sun was also lower and there was great heat -- a period of great scorching. And about this same time in some of these same mythologies we hear that the great sea flood also occurred.

I want to examine whether these myths of the great scorching and the great flood are actually remembrances of a time at the start of the present inter-glacial period, known as the Holocene, when warming temperatures actually caused seas to rise dramatically.

However, before I proceed, let me first examine one of the questions addressed by this conference. That is, whether or not myth and oral tradition convey historical events and facts.

My experience studying the voluminous material on myth suggests that most researchers believe myth preserves at least some history when the right conditions exist. This is the case whether they see mythology as originating from the unconscious mind as suggested by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, or as derived from ritual and the need to explain nature as espoused by James Frazer[i].

Of course, we should distinguish the ordinary folk tale or story that is told simply for amusement from the memorized, structured traditions of full-time priests and other ritualists. The folk storyteller usually recollects the tales heard to the best of his or her ability.

A full-time chanter, bard or priest learns line by line, and sometimes syllable by syllable in serious instruction that lasts for many years. They often memorize traditions that can fill whole books using cadence, rhythm, meter, rhyme, assonance and other memorization techniques[ii]. Prior to their exposure to the modern world, the material these specialists learned was often considered of grave importance to the community.

Of course, many oral traditions fall somewhere in between the simple folk tale or folk remedy and the serious epic or ritual chant.

The mythologist Lord Raglan once proposed that myths and folklore do not preserve history for periods longer than 150 years. However, Raglan’s beliefs were based on anecdotal experience from his own family where he found that information was lost after three generations of 50 years[iii]. He came from a literate culture that depended on writing and were sophisticated oral preservation methods were not used.

In cultures were writing was absent, or were oral transmission was preferred for various reasons; the situation is quite different from what Raglan found among his own family.

Indeed, one of Lord Raglan’s critics, William Bascom offered an exception to Raglan’s claims in the case of the Gwambe people of Mozambique. They had preserved legends -- ordinary folktales -- that described early migration and the Gwambe’s experience with early Europeans[iv]. These oral traditions were verified using the records of Portuguese explorers from four centuries earlier.

In another example, historians once believed that Biblical accounts of the city of Ur, and Homer’s tales of Troy were purely fictional, possibly derived from folklore, until archaeologists discovered remnants of these ancient cities[v].

One archaeological study released just last year verified indigenous Hawaiian chants of voyages from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. Stone tools, some of them 2,000 years old were found in Tahiti made of basalt traced to the Hawaiian Islands. Previously, many researchers had believed that the Hawaiians had reached these islands accidentally, driven by storms, and lacked the navigational ability to make the return journey to Tahiti[vi].

Another archaeological example comes from the Pacific region of Vanuatu, where well-preserved oral chants and genealogies tell of Chief Roimata who lived according to tradition around the year 1265. Archaeologists were able to locate the chief’s gravesite and used various techniques to confirm many of the legendary details. For example, according to legend, Chief Roimata was accompanied on his voyage to the land of the dead by family and clan members[vii].

At the burial site, it was found that about 50 people including possibly the chief’s youngest wife were buried together with him probably in acts of self-sacrifice. Above the chief, on a dancing ground surface were eleven embracing couples buried together. According to the oral records, the men were drugged with kava extract before internment but not the women, and in fact, the men do appear in the burials as more sedated than the women.

In Pakistan, the Kalash and Burusho peoples have legends that trace the descent of their people or leaders back to Alexander the Great and his invasions. A genetic study released last year showed both the Kalash and Burusho indeed carry a haplotype, unique in the region that originates in Greece and Macedonia[viii].

A number of researchers including DeLaguna, Vansina, Miller and Krech have recorded many examples showing that oral tradition does preserve valid history sometimes with surprising clarity[ix].

One difference between written and oral traditions before modern times is the very limited number of people who could record written history. In most societies, it was only the elite scribes that could write. These scribes were often subject to the political environment of the time and could hardly express themselves freely.

History is replete with kings who claimed vast conquests that on later inspection prove to be exaggerations. Ramses II of Egypt, for example, claimed victories that went beyond the existing evidence. The same Pharaoh was known also to have appropriated the statues of previous kings removing their identifying inscriptions and replacing them with his own signatures[x].

In comparison to scribal societies, oral records can be created by any family or clan. Among the Polynesians, for whom the keeping of family genealogies was a sacred duty, some traditions record dozens of generations, both fathers and mothers. In some areas, a genealogy of more than 100 generations could be found, and these records usually included stories and details linked with noted ancestors[xi].

Having many different versions of the same event or person is often advantageous as compared to only one or a limited number of versions. Journalists and criminal investigators know that even for events that have occurred very recently, witnesses will give accounts that can sometimes vary wildly in details[xii]. The more witnesses available, however, the greater the ability of the investigator to sort through details and arrive at the version closest to the truth.

Turning again specifically to the link between mythology and history, we know that historical events are often mythologized, or that historical events are embellished with mythological or supernatural themes.

For example, a stone inscription found in East Java known as the Calcutta Inscription and dated to 1041 CE, tells of a volcanic eruption that occurred on the island in 1006 CE[xiii]. The inscription describes a time of great dissolution known in Sanskrit as pralaya in which Java is described as resembling a “sea of milk.”

This concept of a “sea of milk” comes from Ancient Indian mythology – the story of the churning of the sea of milk as found rendered in art at the great temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Geologists have discovered that during this very time Mount Merapi in Java had erupted mightily covering much of the island with a layer of light-colored ash or tephra that could explain the period of great dissolution mentioned in the inscription, and the ashy color would account for the “sea of milk” description[xiv].

Javanese scribes had apparently recorded an historical eruption of Mount Merapi with motifs known from Hindu-Buddhist mythology.

In a similar sense, when Mongol fleets attempting to invade Japan were destroyed by typhoons, historical records attribute the victory to the Divine Wind known in Shintoism as Kamikazi.

Even in modern times, we still witness the practice of mythologizing real events. One example comes from the late well-known tele-evangelist Jerry Falwell in the United States. Falwell had stated publicly that the 9-11 attacks in New York City were allowed by God because of America’s sinfulness[xv].

Falwell’s followers may well have seen some truth in these statements, and potentially they could transmit these beliefs as folklore traditions. One could view in the same way the claims made by U.S. President George W. Bush that God had spoken to him and advised him to invade Iraq[xvi].

Regardless of the truthfulness of the mythological or supernatural claims, these elements are fused together with real historical events, the 9-11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq respectively. I suspect that most mythology in a similar fashion transmits both historical and non-historical information.

Oral history and mythology is subject to accretion, interpolation, mutation, errors in transmission and the like. We find the same thing, though, occurring in writing systems. In certain cases, transmission was more difficult with written texts[xvii]. Copying manuscripts, for example, was a painstaking process that led to many errors from simple misspelling to skipping entire stanzas or paragraphs.

For the researcher, whether the tradition is oral or written, the task still lies in identifying archaic language and style, analyzing content, and other methods in reconstructing the text in chronological layers[xviii].

Now, turning to the question at hand our colleague Stephen Oppenheimer, in his book Eden in the East[xix] makes a powerful argument that many of the widespread flood myths can be traced to actual rising sea levels during the Holocene period. He traces these myths especially to the submerging of Sundaland under the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. In this body of myths, rainfall usually plays little or no part; the sea engulfs the land often causing permanent loss of previously inhabited territory.

[i] Otto Rank and Alan Dundes. In Quest of the Hero, Princeton University Press, 1990, vii-xxxi.

[ii] David C. Rubin. Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes, Oxford University Press, 1995.

[iii] FitzRoy Richard Somerset Raglan. The Hero: A study in tradition, myth and drama. Methuen, 1936, 12.

[iv] William Bascom. “The Myth-Ritual Theory,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 70, No. 276 (Apr. - Jun., 1957) 103-114.

[v] S.H. Allen. Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik, University of California Press, 1998.

[vi] KD Collerson and MI Weisler. “Stone adze compositions and the extent of ancient Polynesian voyaging and trade,” Science 2007 Sep 28;317(5846):1907-1.

[vii] José Garanger. Archéologie des Nouvelles-Hébrides: contribution à la connaissance

des îles du centre. Publications de la Société des Océanistes, No. 30. Paris: ORSTOM.

[viii] S. Firasat, Khaliq S, Mohyuddin A, Papaioannou M, Tyler-Smith C, Underhill PA and Ayub Q. “Y-chromosomal evidence for a limited Greek contribution to the Pathan population of Pakistan,” Eur J Hum Genet. 2007 Jan;15(1):121-6.

[ix] Fredrica DeLaguna. “The Story of a Tlingit Community,” Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 172. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1960. Jan Vansina. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, Chicago: Aldine Press, 1965. Joseph C. Miller ed. The African Past Speaks: Essays on Oral Tradition and History. Folkestone: W Dawson, 1980. Shepard Krech III. "The State of Anthropology." Annual Reviews of Anthropology 1991 20:345- 375.

[x] Ian Shaw. The Oxford History of Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2003, 288-9.

[xi] William Ellis. Polynesian Researches, During a residence of nearly eight years..., J & J Harper, 1833, 78. Karl Von den Steinen, Die Marquesaner und Ihre Kunst, II (1928), 64. Von Den Steinen mentions a knot genealogy in the Marquesas that contained 159 generations.

[xii] Anthony Heaton-Armstrong, Eric Shepherd and David Wolchover. Analysing Witness Testimony, Oxford University Press, 1999.

[xiii] George Coedes. Les états hindouisés d'Indochine et d'Indonésie, E. de Broccard, 1948, 245.

[xiv] Supriyati D. Andreastuti and Brent V. Alloway. Stratigraphy, age and correlation of a tephra marker bed in Central East Java, Indonesia, 2005,

[xv] Robert E. Denton. Language, Symbols, and the Media, Transaction Publishers, 2004, 23.

[xvi] John Bice. A 21st Rationalist in Medieval America, Chelydra Bay Press, 2007, 202.

[xvii] Kathleen Davis and Robert Boenig. Manuscript, Narrative, Lexicon, Bucknell University Press, 2000.

[xviii] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. The Powers of Philology, University of Illinois Press, 2003.

[xix] Stephen Oppenheimer. Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia, Phoenix, 1999.

Part II
Part III