Yuri Berezkin: “People don’t invent their stories, they copy them”

You have created a database of myths from around the world, used by many mythologists. How was this approach born?

Yuri Berezkin: It’s a long-term project, which emerged almost unconsciously, I would say 50 years ago, as part of my archaeological work. I was first interested in the parallels that I saw between the myths of Amazonia and those of the Andes. Then I added Central and North American information. It was suggested that I compile these items into a computerized database. It was the time when computers had black wallpapers! Step by step, I collected the Siberian myths, those of Asia, and finally got into Europe. Over the past ten years, I have devoted myself to Western European traditions, which are much more complex than the American ones, and for which the volume of data is much greater.

So you are one of the leading specialists in comparative mythology…

YB I don’t work on mythological stories like others do. I’m not interested in their meaning, because I’m sure it’s impossible to understand them because you can’t ask people directly what they see in them. I content myself with studying the regional distribution of myths and their episodes. These distribution patterns allow us to find fields of cultural interactions that only existed at a given period: in the Paleolithic, in the Neolithic, during the Hellenistic period, the Ottoman Empire…

In any case, the analysis of these diagrams allowed you to go back to the first times of humanity?

YB One cannot understand the distribution of myths without knowing human prehistory. The most massive wave of modern human migration out of Africa, around 50,000 or even 60,000 years ago, followed two main directions: one eastward, via the Indian Ocean rim , to Australia. The other towards the north and Eurasia, rather around 45,000 years ago. The first group continued to live in the same landscape, the same tropical climate that they had known for thousands of years. The second group ended up in a completely different area, subarctic. These two groups, that of the Indo-Pacific migration and that of the continental migration, were separated by deserts, mountains… totally isolated from each other, and this is how the mythological motifs began to dissociate.

How do these divergences manifest themselves, and how do you manage to date them?

YB First of all, you have to understand that peoples don’t invent their stories: they copy them. They take them not only from their parents, from their ancestors, but also from their neighbours: this is an important difference with genetics. Mythologies cannot be invented, just like you cannot invent your language: they are always borrowed, whether they date from 50,000 years ago or much later. When I collect a motif, or a set of motifs linked to a particular theme, they correspond to certain areas of interaction: why are some of them well known in Western Europe and nowhere else? And why are others found not only throughout Europe, but also in the Near East and Central or South-East Asia? Because they come from different lines of communication between peoples, in time and in space.

Take for example a set of motifs common to Central and Eastern Europe, Germany and Siberia, and another common to Western and Southern Europe, the Near East, North Africa and to India: given that a “frontier” from present-day Germany to the Black Sea existed only once in history, after the fall of the Roman Empire (476), but before the adoption of Christianity by the Eastern Slavs (9th-10th century), we can conclude that these sets of motifs spread more or less 1500 years ago.

If, on the other hand, a group of motifs is found in sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, Melanesia, Australia, South and North America, such a distribution could only have existed at a single period: between the release from Africa of Homo sapiens and the moment when he took his first steps on American soil. And what are the patterns of this set? Mainly the explanations on death: it would seem that the origin of death is one of the first themes to have interested humans.

Can we consider that there is a corpus of original myths common to all of humanity that goes back to these prehistoric times?

YB The universality of certain cosmogonic myths is very difficult to establish. Multiple emergences or different developments from an initial source are two equally plausible hypotheses. As for the myth of the deluge, for example, this is not a recurring motif. There are independent variables in different regions, and almost nothing in Africa. It is therefore impossible to say when this concept dates back.

What are the oldest myths that have been traced?

YB We can be pretty sure that some stories originated before Homo sapiens left Africa, that is, before 60,000 years ago. It is impossible to go back further in the reconstruction. The oldest seem to be those concerning the origins of life, death, humans, and probably fire (see page 42). These archaic motifs are those of the immortality of the sun and the moon, the emergence of mankind and animals from under the earth, women who possessed sacred knowledge (see page 24), and among the reduced number of motives linked to the origin of death, we find that according to which those who change their skin are immortal.

You have done a lot of work on the myths of the New World…

YB There are many specific themes common to Central Asia and the Great Plains of North America. When I was studying North American stories, I had an illumination, I said to myself: I have known these stories since my childhood, they are Russian fairy tales! As for South American mythology, it is very similar to that of Melanesia. This update of the double origin of the mythology of the New World (Eurasian continental but also Indo-Pacific), is one of the main results of my work (see page 57). The mixing could have taken place in eastern Siberia, repopulated after the last glacial maximum (around 21,000 years ago) by groups from Southeast Asia. Or on the American continent itself, during different waves of migration.

What about Europe?

YB European folklore has evolved enormously. Statistically, what comes to us from ancient Greece is closer to North American legends than to modern European folklore! The origins of the latter are not at all simple. There is a mixture of very diverse influences, undoubtedly archaic European folklore, but also elements from the Near East and the Bible, from Central Asia, Siberia, Mongolia… Because just as migrations are incessant and multifaceted, myths emerge and disappear.

The stories divide, merge, overlap… It is this whole process that gives the complexity of human cultural history. Factorial analysis reveals tendencies, degrees of relationship between traditions. But on a story, an episode, or a particular image, we can always be wrong: there are so many missing links, lost forever!

Yuri Berezkin: Born in 1946 in Saint Petersburg (named Leningrad at the time), Yuri Berezkin is a Russian archaeologist and anthropologist. He directs the Americas department of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg, as well as the European University of the same city. He compiled a rich worldwide database of over 50,000 mythological texts. This corpus, between cartography and factorial analysis, enabled him to define regional areas of distribution of myths, and to find common motifs between different regions of the world at different times.

The History of the Founding Myths
Since the dawn of time, man has invented stories to explain the origin of the universe and the meaning of his life. Populated by gods, rich in extraordinary events, these stories have been transmitted over the course of migrations, adapting to each civilization. And each era revisits them, according to its needs. From Prometheus to the heroes of pop culture, this issue offers a panorama of the myths of the world and recounts the dreams, fears and hopes that rock humanity from prehistory to today.

Special issue La Vie-Le Monde, 164 pages, €14. On newsstands and on boutique.lavie.fr

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Yuri Berezkin: “People don’t invent their stories, they copy them”

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