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The Genocidal Gaze
Prisons and Patriots
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When They Severed Earth from SkyWhen They Severed Earth from Sky

How the Human Mind Shapes Myth

Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber

Narrated by Beth Richmond

Available from Audible

audio sample
This file is 3.1 MB.

Book published by Princeton University Press

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 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.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber is the Professor of Linguistics and Archaeology at Occidental College, the author of The Mummies of Ürümchi (W. W. Norton), Women's Work (W. W. Norton), and Prehistoric Textiles (Princeton). Paul T. Barber, a research associate with the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the author of Vampires, Burial, and Death (Yale). His essay, "Forensic Pathology and the European Vampire," appears in the audiobook, The Vampire: A Case Study, available on this website.

Beth Richmond (narrator) has narrated dozens of audiobooks for major companies.


“The authors provide not only a compelling and highly readable collection of mythic interpretations but also a framework through which to decode those stories and uncover seismic, geological, astrological, or other natural events that preceded written history.... 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.”

—Abigail A. Baird, 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.”

—Michael Shermer, American Scientist

“A fascinating read. This book points the way to how truths can be found even in myths.”

—Michael S. Gazzaniga, author of The Mind's Past

“Rarely have I read a book so avidly and with such pleasure. The Barbers have captured the vital signs of the mythmaking process, in a revolutionary study. This is a novel and convincing way to look at mythology.”

—Adrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times

“I read this idiosyncratic and engaging work in its entirety in just two sittings, finding it nearly impossible to put down. The Barbers give intriguing explanations of how and why we construct and transmit myths and how we may unpack these 'off-the-wall' stories to reveal essential information about such natural phenomena as volcanic eruptions.”

—Joshua T. Katz, Princeton University

“This book offers a comprehensive account of why myths are the way they are. Drawing in part on cognitive science and on historical evidence as to real events, it presents a broad and informative selection of the myths themselves, raising questions and suggesting answers that cognitive scientists will find interesting.”

—Michael C. Corballis, author of From Hand to Mouth


Chapter 1. Time Capsules

Chapter 2. The Memory Crunch: How Long a Pipeline?

Chapter 3. The Silence Principle: Of Lethe and the Golden Calf

Chapter 4. More Silence: Movie Reels from Snapshots

Chapter 5. Analogy: Our Brain’s Best Talent

Chapter 6. Willfulness: The Atom or Thou

Chapter 7. Multiple Aspects: The More the Merrier

Chapter 8. Multiple Viewpoints: Ear, Trunk, or Trail

Chapter 9. Views through Biased Lenses

Chapter 10. Metaphoric Reality: Magic and Dreams

Chapter 11. Compression: Methuselah and the Eponymous Heroes

Chapter 12. Post Hocus Pocus: Space Aliens Mutilate Cows!

Chapter 13. Restructuring: New Patterns for Old

Chapter 14. Mnemonics: Behind the Silliness

Chapter 15. The Spirit World: A Realm Reversed

Chapter 16. Of Sky and Time

Chapter 17. Prometheus

Chapter 18. Fire-Breathing Dragons

All titles are published by:
University Press Audiobooks
an imprint of Redwood Audiobooks

University Press Audiobooks