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When They Severed Earth from Sky:
How the Human Mind Shapes Myth
Elizabeth Wayland Barber & Paul T. Barber

Paperback | 2006 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691127743
312 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 18 line illus. 27 halftones.
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Why were Prometheus and Loki envisioned as chained to rocks? What was the Golden Calf? Why are mirrors believed to carry bad luck? How could anyone think that mortals like Perseus, Beowulf, and St. George actually fought dragons, since dragons don't exist? Strange though they sound, however, these "myths" did not begin as fiction.

This absorbing book shows that myths originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies. Geologists' interpretations of how a volcanic cataclysm long ago created Oregon's Crater Lake, for example, is echoed point for point in the local myth of its origin. The Klamath tribe saw it happen and passed down the story--for nearly 8,000 years.

We, however, have been literate so long that we've forgotten how myths encode reality. Recent studies of how our brains work, applied to a wide range of data from the Pacific Northwest to ancient Egypt to modern stories reported in newspapers, have helped the Barbers deduce the characteristic principles by which such tales both develop and degrade through time. Myth is in fact a quite reasonable way to convey important messages orally over many generations--although reasoning back to the original events is possible only under rather specific conditions.

Our oldest written records date to 5,200 years ago, but we have been speaking and mythmaking for perhaps 100,000. This groundbreaking book points the way to restoring some of that lost history and teaching us about human storytelling.


"The authors provide not only a compelling and highly readable collection of mythic interpretations but also a framework through which to decode those stories and uncover seismic, geological, astrological, or other natural events that preceded written history. . . . When They Severed Earth from Sky provides an intellectually challenging and parsimonious new framework. It not only sheds light on the planet's natural history but also offers alluring insights about human cognition."--Abigail A. Baird, Science

"In their highly engaging, thoroughly researched analysis of the meaning of myths, When They Severed Earth from Sky, [the authors] build a strong case that historical facts can be extracted from the mists of our mythic past. . . . I think the Barbers are on to something here. Any student of myths ignores this important work at his or her peril."--Michael Shermer, American Scientist

"The Barbers take us back some 100,000 years to the beginning of storytelling. . . . When They Severed Earth from Sky is timely and engaging."--Books in Canada


"A fascinating read. This book points the way to how truths can be found even in myths."--Michael S. Gazzaniga, author of The Mind's Past

"A fascinating read. This book points the way to how truths can be found even in myths."--Michael S. Gazzaniga, author of The Mind's Past

"Rarely have I read a book so avidly and with such pleasure. The Barbers have captured the vital signs of the mythmaking process, in a revolutionary study. This is a novel and convincing way to look at mythology."--Adrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times

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