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When They Severed Earth from Sky

How the Human Mind Shapes Myth
Narrated by: Beth Richmond
Length: 9 hrs and 25 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (48 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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 originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies. Geologists' interpretations of how a volcanic cataclysm long ago created Oregon's Crater Lake, for example, is echoed point for point in the local myth of its origin. The Klamath tribe saw it happen and passed down the story - for nearly 8,000 years. We, however, have been literate for so long that we've forgotten how myths encode reality. Recent studies of how our brains work, applied to a wide range of data from the Pacific Northwest to ancient Egypt to modern stories reported in newspapers, have helped the Barbers deduce the characteristic principles by which such tales both develop and degrade through time. Myth is in fact a quite reasonable way to convey important messages orally over many generations - although reasoning back to the original events is possible only under rather specific conditions.

Our oldest written records date to 5,200 years ago, but we have been speaking and mythmaking for perhaps 100,000. This groundbreaking book points the way to restoring some of that lost history and teaching us about human storytelling. The book is published by Princeton University Press.

©2004 Princeton University Press (P)2010 Redwood Audiobooks

Critic Reviews

" When They Severed Earth from Sky, provides an intellectually challenging and parsimonious new framework. It not only sheds light on the planet's natural history but also offers alluring insights about human cognition." ( Science)
"In their highly engaging, thoroughly researched analysis of the meaning of myths, When They Severed Earth from Sky, [the authors] build a strong case that historical facts can be extracted from the mists of our mythic past.... I think the Barbers are on to something here. Any student of myths ignores this important work at his or her peril." ( American Scientist)

What members say

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Amber
  • Fort Collins, CO, United States
  • 12-19-10

Interesting, but the narrator's annoying

I really enjoyed the theory side of things, but found that (like most books written by researchers not authors) the writing style was a bit hit and miss. I never did get used to the narrator's voice either. Over all it was worth the listen though.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
  • Stanley
  • Germantown, WI, United States
  • 02-05-11

The Volcano Book

I suppose this book was well researched and written, but I was hugely disappointed by the material. It was extremely redundant regarding volcanoes and folk literature and barely touching on classic Greek and Roman mythology as I had expected. One of my more disappointing listens. Yes the explanations of myth techniques was okay, but I grew weary of the story of long strands of red firey hair being explained as lava streams. I understood the concept the first time explained.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

So much food for thought

This was a very interesting take on the topic of oral vs. written histories, how they are made, how they differ and how the method of transmission affects the way myths are created and evolve over time. There is so much here for discussion-- I recommend it for a non-fiction book club or intellectual study group.

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when they severed earth from sky

this I is a truly excellent book which provides insights into many myths and ancient stories.

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Fascinating account of prehistoric thought

I read this twice as I enjoyed the topic immensely. The delivery was fine. I'm still moved by the excalibur/Arthur myth originating from iron smelting Chalybians....thousands of years before. I have had to update my thoughts about how ideas and stories change slower the further back one goes.