Ever since we came out of Africa, humans have carried myths to every corner of the globe. Cultural anthropologist Julien d’Huy traces their journey.
One myth, which d’Huy calls the Cosmic Hunt tells of a hunter who pursues an animal, which then turns into a constellation.
“As the Iroquois of the northeastern U.S. tell it, three hunters pursue a bear; the blood of the wounded animal colors the leaves of the autumnal forest. The bear then climbs a mountain and leaps into the sky. The hunters and the animal become the constellation Ursa Major. Among the Chukchi, a Siberian people, the constellation Orion is a hunter who pursues a reindeer, Cassiopeia. Among the Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia, the pursued animal is an elk and takes the form of Ursa Major (Scientific American, December, 2016).”
Early humans from Asia carried the myth of the Cosmic Hunt across the Bering Strait to North America 28,000 and 13,000 years ago.
In turn, Asians got the myth from Europeans. In the cave paintings of Lascaux, France, a bison appears to be rising into the heavens. Black stains on the ground under the bison suggest the bloodstained autumn leaves of the hunted animal.
From Europe, the Cosmic Hunt traces back to Africa. While the story line is the same, the animal changes. In some parts of Africa it is a camel; in other parts a zebra, pig, or ungulate.
In another, the Polyphemus myth, a man gets trapped in a monster’s cave and escapes by hiding among the monster’s herd of animals.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the monster of the Polyphemus myth is one-eyed. Odysseus and his men are trapped in a cave by the monster and escape by clinging to the underbellies of the monster’s sheep which the monster has let out of the cave to graze.
The Polyphemus myth even traces the transition of humans to an agricultural way of life. Hunter-gatherers of Europe told the Polyphemus myth as a one-eyed dwarf monster, the master of beasts on a mountain. After the ice age pushed humans into the Mediterranean 21,000 years ago, the one-eyed monster now lives in a shelter rather than in the wild.
In another French cave, the Polyphemus myth looks like humans are escaping the monster by hiding the anus of a bison rather than clinging to its underbelly. This is a similar version of the myth as told by some North American indigenous people.
I can’t help but wonder what myths survived from my indigenous European ancestors. Perhaps it’s this:
In the Greek telling of yet another cultural myth, Pygmalion makes an ivory statue of a woman and dresses her in fancy clothes and jewellery. After praying at the temple of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, he returns home to find that his ideal mate has been brought to life.
On CBC Radio’s Spark, Matt McMullen explained how his company is making hyper-realistic, anatomically-correct, poseable silicone sex dolls. Sexy robots have been turning up in our pop-culture, from Ex-Machina to Blade Runner, The Stepford Wives, and the HBO series Westworld.
The myth of an ideal mate, crafted to specification by men and made possible by technology, persists.