While I may be grouping the distinctive fields of archeology and anthropology together, they are in fact diverse and rich in their own right. This is just my way of finding connections between traditions (refers to history in the previous part as well) in order to hopefully uncover greater facts or truths about any field of endeavor … in this case about mythology, of course. So, let’s continue.
History and anthropology are closely connected in their subject matter, as their mutual interest lies in discovering and illuminating the past as factually and determinately as possible. Anthropology, nevertheless, concerns itself more closely, directly and literally to the study of humanity, while archeology as its subfield for example enhances the subject matter through the discovery of remains and consequent function of when can be physically uncovered. The study of humanity is in the general sense the study of humanity’s past ... or in other words remains (hence the continuously important religious and social value of graves and burials rites). Those remains may be (archeologically) concretely discovered in the form of actual bones or artifacts that can be carbon-dated and placed within a narrower historic time-frame, so we may infer their value. Often, this is (anthropologically) done in connection with the current times, cultures and tradition that kind of act as balancing weight or a fluid constant through which we link our present human state with the past and mark the changes and constants in human (past, present and future) development. Further, by also incorporating linguistics and the biological and cultural anthropology as its subset, the central ideology of anthropology is a sort of holistic approach, while the study of humanity in general (the personal aspect) can only be perceived in a greater setting and contrasted with its larger cultural role (the social aspect).
Thus, through the discovery of remains on the coast of Asia Minor in connection to Homer’s accounts in the Iliad, we have a possible factual connection between myth and history. While the actual remains of a temple or a stronghold can hardly speak of its builders’ and inhabitants’ genuine beliefs and a mythological story based on historical accounts of a war between two forces in the Aegean area (yet embellished with divine participants) may only give an outline of what actually happened or what religious or cultural significance the conflict had, this physical connection to the story nevertheless remains.
Authors of any story are directly influenced by the environment they inhabit; so, while the Biblical account of the flood might be more or less directly linked to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, modern researchers can search for parallels between the story and the actual historic location that may have been subject to floods. Discovery of languages, their development and (crucially for the modern observer) their translations shed further light on the dark past.
In such a way, the creation account from Genesis 1:1-3 describes God as the creative force that names everything into existence. The “word of God”, as it is most commonly translated, actually refers to logos, which can mean word, but is equally connected (if not more) to the influential Greek philosophical thought commonly understood as reason. The difference can be quite profound to say the least (Note also how the young maiden got translated as virgin and presto: we have immaculate conception.) Translational issues can be a major concern in any type of cross-cultural references (let alone sacred texts), as many myths are seen from inside the tradition. Plus, the further back in (pre)history we go, the darker the veil that is placed in front of our far often ignorant gaze. Consequently, a mere story can facilitate geological, transcultural (syncretic), philosophical and historical clues.
If I give some more examples, the Akkadian word zikru from the Epic of Gilgamesh can mean either someone or word, consequently stressing the use of footnotes and endnotes in texts of such magnitude (an academic delight). Equally to logos, while the Buddhist term dukkha is generally translated as suffering, its much more authentic meaning as dissatisfaction or discontent come closer to its actual message. (The issue is even greater as plenty of good Western theoreticians of Buddhism fail to stress this notion that can ultimately hinder genuine comprehension of Buddhism. Because let’s face it, if you tell a Westerner that “life is suffering”, all the goth and emo nihilists with pick up their trusty razorblade and make another cut, because the image that pops into our head is more of Dante’s Inferno than philosophical discontent on both the personal and the social level.)
While the differentiation in the first case may not necessarily govern the subsequent development and reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the latter two examples touch upon vital religious dimensions of the respective Christian and Buddhist traditions, so such miscomprehension can be ideologically and philosophically damaging.
Anthropological and archeological work uncovers further (mis)connections to the “truths” revealed in myths, in a sense bringing the fossilized mythological accounts back to life by adding new layers of mythological understanding and meaning, which was their central function. The phrase can be taken quite literally, since anthropological and archeological work tries to uncover the hidden or forgotten reality of myths, as the cultures of their origin can be under attack by the modern reality of life. While for example the Victorian anthropologists, functionalists and symbolic anthropologists applied their research to better understanding the subject matter, their position nevertheless represented an outside view to the examined traditions and their stories. As such, the observations – whether gained from uncovered remains or being privy to a performance of a story – are mere interpretation of the original tradition. And that’s exactly what we are at the best of times: interpreters. If you say expert, regardless of the years of study and practice, that’s still just your ego boasting. And to that the Buddha says no bueno.
Although the inherent paradox of anthropological and archeological data remains, since the corresponding mythic accounts are generally oral in nature, this kind of research nevertheless uncovers symbolism and concrete material means which try to recreate the cultural environment in which (and through which) mythic narrative was brought to life and consequently continues to shine its relevance and revelation.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …