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When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  213 Ratings  ·  35 Reviews

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 origi
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Hardcover, 290 pages
Published January 17th 2005 by Princeton University Press (first published December 28th 2004)
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Sara
This is an enthralling exploration of mythmaking and how pre-literate human minds made sense of their world. As an avid history nerd, I have had innumerable occasions to lament the way present day lack of understanding consistently maligns past cultures and eras. We are so beguiled by our own cleverness, by the gadgets we've created, by our modern conveniences we now cannot imagine living without, that we consider humans of past times (when we even bother to consider them) as primitive, fairly s ...more
Benedict
Nov 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Matt
Dec 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, reviewed
Fascinating from beginning to end, though I agree with the other reviewer who mentions the astronomy chapter kind of going off the rails. Otherwise, I found all the speculation and connections to be a compelling argument of the authors' premise, that myths should not be equated with fictions but understood as documentations of actual events, often extended as oral "history" across time to us. Among the topics discussed are the Great Flood in the mythologies of cultures the world over, demystifyi ...more
Antony
Aug 05, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating exploration into the neuro-linguistic origins of myth by using linguistic constructs and the way the human brain functions. The authors have been able to theorize that most myths are oral interpretations of geological and astrological events. Over time, the stories move further away from the observed event, pass on to other cultures become embellished to keep the "story" interesting and, as a result, lose context and often meaning.

This book offers some wonderful evidence into the way
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Shannon
Nov 24, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio
Did not finish. I listened to the audio book and while it wasn't entirely uninteresting I felt like the same point was being made over and over. Plus the narrator's voice was odd. The way she read made it sound like she wasn't a real person, like Siri was reading to me. Maybe I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd actually been reading it.
Mohsen
Jan 25, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
DREAM BREAKER ...
Jan Chlapowski Söderlund
* * * * * - five star amazing for an aspiring mythopoetist.

The two Barbers have written a wonderful book about mythology - what myth is, what it was used for and how myths were (and are) influenced by our minds. While I found this book highly interesting, I have to warn you from the start it is bone dry. The few attempts at whit are dryer than the sands of Sahara on a particularly warm day. But that does not detract from the book's genius, or the wisdom of the Barbers on this subject.

According
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Kiseruyoru
Jul 12, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017
Oh my good god this is boring!

It begins with the entirety of the book in simple, and then proceeds to bore the hell out of you to exaggerate the importance of their particular focus on what myths are.

"Myths encode meaningful information" Yes, they kinda do.

"Myths exist to convey important information" Ehh. . .that's not wrong, but's misleading.

Bunch of stories with painfully extracted basic fable lessons to prove these statements.

I don't know if anyone ever doubted the various myths tell som
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Sanjeev
Aug 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book makes you understand that, how less we think of the Mythological stories, only because the story teller, neglected or forgot to tell the background/full story.

This book made a point that, not all mythological stories are made up stories. Some might be the way our ancestors tried to pass on history to next generation. Personally enjoyed the demystification of vampires and dragons.
Gints Aleksandrs
My childhood is in ruins now.
Adam Lewis
Barber and Barber, in this fascinating theoretical analysis of myth, cogently argue that there are kernels of truth at the heart of many of the mythical narratives that are often dismissed without critical reflection.

With great balance, the authors lay out the cognitive principles that have constrained the myth-making process in all human culture while at the same time giving arresting examples from cultures around the world and from antiquity. The examples are most heavily drawn from ancient G
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Steven
Jul 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
This book advances a provocative theory of myth, one that builds on an earlier case study by one of the authors (Paul Barber) of European vampire myths. The general theory, in a nutshell, is that many myths and legends, even those that are supernatural or highly improbable, have their origins in real observable events. But these events have been transformed in systematic ways that reflect the limits of human cognition in non-literate societies, and that help to ensure that the resulting mythic s ...more
Jonathan Cassie
Dec 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The productive intersections between myth and cognition, storytelling and neuroscience, have probably never been more thoughtfully explored than in this great book. Taking many of the core myths of ancient cultures, the authors unpack the ways in which these myths encode critical information in such a way that they can be transmitted generation to generation before writing. If the local mountain is actually a potentially deadly volcano and you'd better remember this, even if volcanos can be dorm ...more
Elizabeth
Jan 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mythology
[4 stars] This book takes a completely different approach to mythology than any I've read before, studying it through cognitive science rather than as literature or archetypal psychology. The Barbers' theory is that many myths describe real events and phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions, the precession of the equinoxes, or the dangers of flammable methane gas trapped in burial mounds. Myths happen when non-literate people pass a description of an event down for generations via an oral traditio ...more
So Hakim
May 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: psychology, mythology
An amazing book about genesis of myths, and how to detect possible kernel of truth within them. I like to call this "Folklore Analysis for Dummies" -- but that may be just me. :P

In this book authors Elizabeth and Paul Barber explain how mythologies are, in a way, ancient people's way to communicate something in their history. Obviously after many generations fact and fiction become blurred, giving rise to what we call "legend". However even inside legends there is grain of truth... and this poin
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Jessie
Feb 27, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not quite what I expected, but very educational nonetheless. I wish I had learned this angle of myth interpretation back in my college Classical Mythology course - would have made it much more interesting. The authors have developed quite a detailed system for explaining HOW and why myths were originally formed and HOW they have morphed over the years into what we think of today as nonsensical literary stories. Most of their examples involve volcano-based myths and they have one confusingly deta ...more
Kendra
Jun 25, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had picked up this book from a local library book sale and it's an advanced copy, so some of the pictures didn't come out very well, which was rather disappointing.

Overall, however, this was a really fascinating read about what if the myths were descriptions of events happening like volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. The stories were mythologized because people didn't know how to scientifically describe things back then. Also discussed birthlines, heroes, and how it might seem like someon
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Therese
Oct 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
The authors make a strong case for interpreting myths as stories about real events and experiences. Drawing on geology, astronomy, linguistics, archaeology, and literature, they find kernels of truth in various widespread myths (for instance, flood stories and versions of the Prometheus story) and propose a set of principles for understanding how and why a story that begins as factual narrative becomes myth.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber (half of the husband-wife author team) has written three other b
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Antoinette
Jul 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful. Why didn't anyone teach me this? A completely readable and understandable explanation, with documentation, about why so many cultures have similar myths; why characters have similar names; why we get confused about the duplication of responsibilities among gods and goddesses; how and why new mythological characters were imagined; how we derived some English words from mythological characters; and, what happens when someone or some group tries to eliminate a cultural myth. A great expl ...more
Michele
This book starts with a simple fact: A preliterate society only knows what its people can remember, so important information has to be made as memorable as possible. And that, say the Barbers, is what mythology is for. They demonstrate how famous stories from around the world encode information about volcanoes, the precession of the stars, and countless other details. If mythology and related phenomenon are of interest to you, you need to read this book.
Robert Lopresti
Oct 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is a mindblower. It starts with a simple fact: A preliterate society only knows what its people can remember, so important information has to be made as memorable as possible. And that, say the Barbers, is what mythology is for. They demonstrate how famous stories from around the world encode information about volcanoes, the precession of the stars, and countless other details. If mythology and related phenomenon are of interest to you, you need this book.
Kathy
May 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It started out very good and just got better and better. Can't believe they did Hamlet's Mill in one chapter! Last two chapters are provocative and perttuy darn compelling. I'll never look at a volcano, or the night sky, in quite the same way ever again. Quite academic and still totally available to the general public. Bull Nye could learn something about writing from this.
Kathy
Mar 23, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book because of my experience with Ms. Barber's prehistoric textile investigations. Of course, this book has myth (not textiles) as its subject and, while I found the information interesting and clearly presented, I have to say I think she has done more complex and thought provoking work.
William Cooper
Oct 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a multiple-read book for me. It is a solid synthesis of information from multiple disciplines, defending a simple thesis: that myths from around the world contain factual information (frequently the stories of volcanic action) which people, once upon a time, needed to know. It's an interesting process which seems to work.
Sally
Jan 17, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mythology
An interesting book by scholars intersted in the historical origins of myths; however, I found them rather narrow in that they consider their own approach to mythology the only valid one (forget symbolic interpretation, etc.).
Marie
Oct 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
this is a fascinating book - I may have to read it slowly over the year to let each of the chapters sink in and digest the thoughts it inspires - about language, about memory, about culture....

I continue to read this book in "chunks" so it sinks in.... I love what it makes me think about...
Jossalyn
Apr 07, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Betchen Wayland Barber is a Westridge alum, who-turns out- is the world authority on pre-historic textiles (read her bibio!). this one was very interesting, but i think i liked 20,000 years of women's work better... very diff. topics, so hard to say. but westridge does make for interesting women!
J Bussey
Aug 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating stuff. Interpreting ancient myths and legends in the light of human cognition. Will have to re-read at some point to make sure that I've digested it all. I especially loved the part about dragons, and about Crater lake.
Caroline
May 08, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating. Very well conceptualized and useful Myth Principles.
Helaine Becker
Jul 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was one of the most interesting and illuminating books I've read in a long time. Tons of AHA! moments throughout
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Barber received her PhD university from Yale in 1968.
More about Elizabeth Wayland Barber...

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