"I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact."
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Structural Study of Myth

constructions of structures



"There is no art to find the mind's construction in the face." W.Shakespeare, Macbeth I iv 11

brain, or mind

what is mind?
doesn't matter
what is matter?
never mind

An image of the world as paradox has stayed with me since about age fifteen. With no purpose to life except the death of death, then if death die, our occupation's gone. (cf Othello, III iii 359). Truth lies in the fathomless depths of a bottomless well. The fundamental truth is, truth just lies. There's no end to the quest, while wheels turn within wheels, and circles spin inside spirals. Everything (and I said this to Andrew Osmond in 1959) is its own opposite. The model is one of man sited at the exact centre of a path describing the shortest distance between two points. These points are located at infinity, and are both equally far apart. With miles to go before he sleeps the traveller is stuck at the centre. It's never jam today. See Heracleitus, 500 BC. Push on regardless; smite the furrows: monað modes lust mæla gehwylce ferð to feran þæt ic feor heonan elþeodigra eard gesece.

Not much of a pursuit, though; more a fumbling in the darkness, groping for clues.

Late in the day we stumble across Lévi-Strauss, in the form of two small books: Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction, by Octavio Paz, Cape 1971, pp.101, and Lévi-Strauss, by Edmund Leach, Fontana 1970, pp.126. Leach is jocular but flabbergasted; his pages shower exclamation marks. Paz is reverent and poetic. Brief they may be, but both books are stuffed with nutrition. If a poem needs no more than 125 lines, no book needs more than 126 pages. The table below comes from Leach's summary of Lévi-Strauss, p.71, and seems to offer a useful template for dismantling The Seafarer, especially if one is prepared to look upon all religions (and all history) as myth, in successive stages of development. Immediately after its occurrence, any event accelerates into the past, becoming progressively more distorted as memory fades. Oral history converts into myth, something few believers can accept.

Much of the substance of The Seafarer seems to adapt well to this gridiron. Naturally, the only animals in the poem are birds, except for the whale, which the Anglo-Saxons considered a monster. The anfloga does well for a dragon, of the winged species. The domestic animals need replacing by the (conjectural) fruits of the (farmer's) field, conceivably cold corn. But the structural plan of Lévi-Strauss is only slightly manipulated, and shows that the seafarer poet may instinctively be seeing his voyage as a return to nature, conforming to ancient mythological concept. It is helpful that he speaks of godes egsan and of the deity as Lord or Dispenser, terms as applicable to Zeus as to Jehovah. Christ, finally suggested by lufan dryhtnes, is not as strongly present.

anticipates the sounds of ezra pound

Language Trees
constructions of babel

Notwithstanding the eminence and prestige of the authors who instance them, the trees depicted below seem to bear only a faint resemblance to actuality. It must be asked whether they could possibly have been drawn up by anyone with genuine oral fluency in, say, three or four of these languages. Language transmission has to be mainly oral, since man is born with a capacity for speech, but not for reading or writing.

The main defect of the charts is that they promote the illusion that languages relate to each other genealogically. The analogy does not hold, since language kinship, unlike that of human individuals, is fluid. There is constant cross-fertilization from one language to another, especially between those already closely linked, as here.

Many other flaws are apparent by comparing the trees. The net result is a complete muddle.

The collateral branches under *North in table A seem seriously faulty anyway. According to this table, Norwegian and Icelandic appear to derive from Danish, and presumably a line descending from West (Old Norse) has been omitted. Without dates or any more precise explanation, the whole tree is, to put it mildly, misleading. Table B gives dates, of a sort, and has Icelandic and Norwegian jointly descending from Old Norse with Swedish and Danish, but is otherwise, in my view, just as wrong. It also suggests that Swedish and Danish have remained unchanged for the last 1000 years, which anyone who has wrestled with medieval Swedish would find hard to credit. Table C seems to indicate that English is a modern branch of an extinct language, which immediately separated from all other "Germanic" languages, although there is a 100% reliability of this specific branch. I must be very dense, since I have absolutely no idea of what is being conveyed by this statement.

"Numbers near branches indicate the reliability in percent of the specific branch, calculated by the method of the bootstrap."
(p.164. Genes, Peoples.)

This comment mystifies me, deservedly I dare say.

By His Bootstraps is the title of a rather fine sf story by Robert A.Heinlein.

It is rather difficult to accept the separation of the "Germanic" languages into *West, *North and *East. The positioning of English under *West, and the Scandinavian languages under *North in table A (p.68 in the 1987 hardback edition of Renfrew) seems very odd, considering Bede's account of the origins of the English people (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) not to mention Beowulf, or the evidence linking Sutton Hoo with central Sweden.

What is the division between "Anglo-Frisian" and the Scandinavians based on? The enclitic article? Vowel changes and other phonetic variation? The monoglot will assume that "Anglo-Frisian" is linguistically closer to German or Dutch than to Danish or Swedish. This simply cannot be the case.

Didn't the Angles come from Scandinavia? And weren't the Frisians also from Scandinavia? Are Frisians the same as "Old Saxons"? Aren't Jutes the same as Geats? Wasn't Beowulf, the "Old English" hero, a Geat?

How is a language defined?

The relationships between these (and all other) languages has to be of an intricacy which these skeletal trees do not begin to address. A study of the "Germanic" languages might start with The Language of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions; A Linguistic and Historical-Philological Analysis, by .A.Makaev, first published in 1965. This work was translated into English from the original Russian by John Meredig, and published in 1996 by Kungl. Vitterhets Historia och Antikvitets Akademiens Handlingar, Filologisk-filosofiska serien 21. A prefatory note remarks: "Language barriers among linguists are more durable than the Iron Curtain or the Berlin Wall (Anatoly Liberman, 'Scandinavian phonology', 1994)." I admit to not having yet mastered Makaev's intensely learned 123 pages, and maybe never will, but suspect that many works commenting on Germanic linguistics prior to 1996 can be relegated to the back shelf. I adhere to a belief that any practical mind with an interest in probing the sense of Anglo-Saxon texts will find that entry via Scandinavia will recover more meaning than lugging along the ball and chain of modern English. Converting words and phrases into modern Scandinavian cognates (in my case, Swedish) causes Anglo-Saxonist cruces to softly and suddenly vanish away. Try The Viking Legacy, by John Geipel, David & Charles 1971.

Geipel's book is accessible and enlightening, and I have more in common with its author than might be suspected. He employs Schtte's term "Gothonic" for the proto-Germanic tongue presumed to have arisen in the early Iron Age, and suggests, following Feist and certain other authorities, that it began as a kind of mongrel "pidgin-Celtic", a mlange of linguistic elements from east and west, perhaps resembling present-day Swahili in its genesis. (Pp. 8 & 16). But see Oppenheimer.

"Mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution."
Claude Lévi-Strauss

But this is to think there is a source,
a mother-face of meaning. There's none,
only the sense of structure and the sound
of untaken air in empty vaults.

from Teaching the phonemic transcription, in Time Signatures, Carcanet 1993, by Chris McCully



"a symbol or paradigm of the working of the human mind"
from The Glorious and Bloody Game, by Arthur Koestler


t he gewyrce r he on weg scyle
fremum on foldan wi feonda ni
deorum ddum deofle togeanes



My fellow man I do not care for
I often ask me what he's there for
The only answer I can find
Is reproduction of his kind
Ogden Nash

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