Religion beyond the Horizon of History

Witzel, E. J. Michael 2012: The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. xx + 665 pages.


The Origins of the World’s Mythologies is an incredibly stimulating and thought-provoking work. E. J. Michael Witzel’s bold undertaking surveys a vast range of materials to produce a remarkable synthesis that is indeed on the scope of the book’s title. This book sets out to construct an image of mythology in the Palaeolithic period and argues that the first biological humans to emigrate from Africa already had mythology and some form of shamanism, traces of which can be found in cultures around the world. The contribution to comparative methodology is extremely significant, even if its implementation is not always unproblematic and the presentation may be more dazzling than convincing to many readers. In addition to offering a new framework for looking at mythologies of different cultures, an important aspect of this work is that it invites questions about what is not present in a particular culture. This book is provocative in drawing attention to aspects of mythology or religion that we might otherwise take for granted where we are accustomed to a narrower focus.

A Heuristic Model

The main argument of the book concerns what Witzel calls Laurasian mythology, reflected as a fundamental framework of mythological plots and conceptions characteristic of mythologies of Eurasia and the Americas. Witzel’s investigation of Laurasian mythology goes back to 1990 and the present volume offers a concentrated presentation of his many publications on the topic within a more holistic frame. The global scale seems to have emerged in the process of exploring whether traces of Laurasian mythology are observable elsewhere in the world, which then developed into a contrast showing how Laurasian mythology differs from other mythologies. Distinctive features and symbols were also found shared across mythologies in the southern hemisphere from Africa to Australia, referred to collectively as Gondwana mythology. The contrast between Laurasian and Gondwana mythologies provides a counter-argument to considering similarities in mythologies of one group or the other as accidental. If the fundamentals of Gondwana mythologies are accepted as historically related, this implies (when considered in relation to population histories) that they are most likely connected with the spread of the first humans from Africa. Laurasian mythologies differ from Gondwana mythologies in the extension of its scheme to account for the creation of the world and world order and its destruction well beyond the existence and experiences of human beings. It is therefore argued to be a development from Gondwana mythologies. The spread of Laurasian mythologies throughout the Americas is considered an outcome of being carried by the human migrations in the Palaeolithic period. From here it is only a short step to consider elements shared globally across the super-families of mythologies (such as the flood myth) and hypothesize elements that would have been carried from Africa by the first humans.

There is no question that this work is speculative. However, the author stresses that it is a pioneering working model, not a final solution. Witzel observes that the pioneering models for reconstructing the Indo-European language and language family were unavoidably imperfect: current understandings only resemble them by some 50–70%. His own historical model of mythologies must be approached in this light, and he clearly recognizes that his proposed scenario for relating genetic data, languages and mythology “remains open to adjustment, correction, or even abandonment, upon the discovery of new data” (p. 232).

Organization and Reading

The book has a nice, logical organization. The introduction is followed by a valuable discussion of “Comparison and Theory”. Chapter 3 outlines and surveys the characteristic elements identified for Laurasian mythology. Chapter 4 looks at this model of Laurasian mythology and its implied spread in relation to evidence from other disciplines, especially genetics and archaeology; it also considers proposed models for super-families of languages. A rather interesting section of this chapter is a review of other traditions from music to children’s rhymes that may offer insights into the history of cultures and their interactions alongside mythologies. Chapter 5 introduces and surveys Gondwana mythologies as a countercheck to the Laurasian model. Chapter 6 briefly considers the implications of preceding chapters for a Pan-Gean mythology. Chapter 7 first outlines an argument for a form of Palaeolithic shamanism linked to both Gondwana and Laurasian mythologies and then outlines a model for the chronology of their development. The volume concludes with a chapter that considers the significance of Laurasian mythology and of mythology generally. Here, Witzel stresses that Christianity, Islam, modern Hinduism and so forth are all outcomes of Laurasian mythology and informed by the longue durée of that inheritance, and that Laurasian mythologies now spread across more than 95% of the world’s populations while Gondawana mythologies are disappearing and require more extensive study. Endnotes account for 131 pages and there is an extensive index.

I greatly enjoyed reading this book, as one might enjoy a protracted novel. Like Mircea Eliade, the author seems to delight in cascades of briefly surveyed examples. However, this book mainly offers outcomes of analyses: Witzel presents his methods, findings and interpretations but the arguments seem often to be published elsewhere. Ideas and possibilities that require future research are also frequently presented, and a reader with a critical stance may be welling with objections before it is clear that Witzel is not arguing for these possibilities per se. The disadvantage of this authorial strategy, characterized by digressions and enumerations of examples, is that a reader will also easily lose sight of the forest for the trees: the cavalcade of minor propositions paraded past a reader can easily distract (especially a critical reader) from the main theory of Laurasian mythology.Enjoying the book requires ‘letting go’ and simply following the discussion, then returning critically to the different topics once the whole has been taken in. The presentation is rather like a combination of a lecture and a conversation on a leisurely stroll, filled with recurrent returns to topics and examples, picking up possibilities, looking at them from different sides and setting them down again.


The comparative method used is based on the models developed especially in Indo-European studies, which progress through stages of reconstruction by degrees of historical relatedness. Stress is placed on developing each stage of reconstruction dialectically in relation to others, refining and balancing them into a coherent model. Much attention is given to changes in social structures, livelihoods and technologies through human history. Methodological emphasis is placed on systems of elements in the mythology and especially on the Laurasian cycle from cosmology through eschatology. Witzel’s aim is not to treat individual myths but rather the framework of the whole mythology. He introduces “pathway dependency” – the interfaces of central motifs and structures in wide-ranging areas of culture that lead these to be historically enduring or exhibit a longue durée. Pathway dependency is used to highlight that throughout history every culture’s mythology is developed through earlier structures whether inherited or spread laterally like Christianity. Valuable discussions of mythological substrates and ‘macro-regional complexes’ (cross-cultural and areal patterns) are offered. Patterns of historical interaction make longer-term comparisons increasingly problematic. Owing to the time-depth that is the target of reconstruction, Witzel is especially concerned with comparisons between mythology of Eurasia and the Americas (and correspondingly between mythologies of Africa and Australia), which were historically isolated for millennia.

The methodology and its discussion seem quite solid, yet the study is not without weaknesses in implementation and presentation. The dazzling array of examples illustrating minor points without critical discussion give the impression of the ‘seek and ye shall find’ syndrome of comparativism (in other words: things that look related usually are) and that the author inclines toward a monogenesis theory of motifs (in other words: similar motifs will not have an independent origin). These impressions may simply result from the lack of critical discussion. Source-critical issues arise from the scope of the study: one author cannot be an expert in every mythology! For example, the source used for Finnish mythology is Kalevala, the epic composed by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century on the basis of folklore. In practice, Witzel’s references are to such broad features that comparison still aligns with the tradition, such as when pointing to juxtaposed motifs in the world-creation (pp. 77, 124–125) and features of bear ceremonialism (p. 399). However, comparison with the being Ilmatar (pp. 83–84) is problematic because she is an invention of Lönnrot (note that this comparison is in a digression on parallel that Witzel simply thought interesting and worthy of future investigation). Kalevala and similar sources are also problematic because they can give an impression of order in a mythology that is not accurately representative of the oral tradition (as in the case of kalevalaic oral epic). This raises questions about the degree of regularity and fixity in the reconstructed cycle of Laurasian mythology. These points problematize certain cases and details in Witzel’s wide-ranging study, but it should also be stressed that they will likely only lead to refining his model rather than breaking down his main theory.

A Foundation for Discussion

The main argument of The Origins of the World’s Mythologies is to demonstrate the theory of Laurasian mythology. Discussions of Godwana and Pan-Gean mythologies have been developed in relation to demonstrating that theory. Even if the historical question is left open, the outcome is a remarkable framework that correlates formal typologies with geographical distributions on a global scale. This framework can now be considered and discussed in relation to individual mythologies. This will not only test Witzel’s main theory: his working model also raises questions such as why certain myths of the Hebrew Bible seem close to Gondwana mythology (p. 339) and why the wolf does not have a position like the bear or bull in mythologies of Eurasia (p. 395). Fuller inquiry is also required, for example, to assess whether Uralic mythologies in fact exhibit a complete Laurasian scheme with four/five ‘ages’ of the world and an eschatology, and if not, why this should be so. Witzel’s work should not be viewed as a conclusion, but as a foundation for exploring further the questions it addresses.


Docent Frog is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Folklore Studies, University of Helsinki.