Publication year: 2004
Format: print
Page count: 290 (including Bibliography and index)
Publisher: Princeton University Press

In this book the authors claim that myths aren’t meant to be literally true but neither are they fiction, in the modern sense. Instead they’re a way of transmitting important information in the next generation in societies which haven’t invented written word yet. Such as volcano eruptions or floods. Also, travelers needed knowledge about stars and constellations to navigate even before anything about them was written down. Modern, western people have taken to literacy so well that we’ve forgotten how to “view” myths from the point-of-view of pre-literate societies so we can’t decode them anymore.

The Barbers compare and contrast myths, such as Loki and Prometheus. They have six “Myth Principles” (and lots more sub principles) which explain the main things that the pre-literate people saw from their point-of-view, how people chose to believe such myths, etc. For example, the Principle of Silence states that the storyteller would not repeat information which the audience already knew, and indeed if he had repeated it, the story would have been less memorable and less likely to be repeated over the years. Unfortunately, this makes myths hard to understand by people who don’t know what’s missing.

Everyone’s memory is limited. That’s why myths have to be memorable and yet carry relevant information to the people telling them. Of course, it also means that people have to select which info to remember.

This is a fascinating book. It’s easy read and has examples from all over the world. Most of the myths come from Greek, Roman, Native American, and Norse cultures, but some others are included as well. I found their arguments persuasive but I doubt that all myths come from natural disasters. Some readers might be disappointed that even dragons have natural origins; although they’re different in different cultures. For example, Smaug-type German dragons who live underground and horde treasure might come from thieves (or heroes) braving into burial mounds and “fighting” with toxic gasses to get the burial goods.

Interestingly enough the writers point out how this mythical thinking can be applied to modern myths as well, such as ufos and other urban legends.