April 21, 2011

Only herdsmen have heroes, Disney edition

Later on I'll write up something more substantial on the mythologies of the world that do or do not feature what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth, or the fundamental hero-quest that many popular legends derive from. The short and skinny of it is that it's mostly or only found in cultures where a decent fraction of people, not necessarily everyone, were animal herders rather than hunter-gatherers, farmers, or slash-and-burn gardeners. That future post will explain why.

For now, though, it's enough to take a look at Disney's attempts to make Americans enjoy folk legends from around the world. The first was The Jungle Book, which shows a hunter boy, although because he's raised by and hunts with a pack of wolves, he's more properly put into the category of wild wolfmen from the mythology of Proto-Indo-Europeans, a group of nomadic pastoralists who are among the most successful at having spread their narratives across the globe.

Aladdin is based on a Near or Middle Eastern folktale and set either there or Central Asia, hotbeds of herding for millennia. Farther back in time, the Near East saw the ancient Semites spread their stories throughout the region and then later the world. Sometimes this wave of mythogenesis met with the Proto-Indo-European wave from the north, giving rise to hybrids like Zoroastrian and Ancient Greek legends, one of which was made into Hercules. However, the Semitic herdsmen would have been successful even with their less hybridized systems -- the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Aside from Hamlet, the main influence on The Lion King were the stories of Joseph and Moses, who was not just any old hero of a pastoralist tribe but was a shepherd himself.

Pocohontas has little or nothing to do with the historical Native American figures, but is instead a garden variety fairy tale like you'd find back among the descendants of Proto-Indo-Europeans in Europe. The Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn't have a non-European hero, but there is a Gypsy babe. While Gypsies aren't herders, they are close enough -- they are nomadic, carry personal wealth and have some stratification (unlike hunter-gatherers), have a culture of honor among males and of chastity among females, are naturally gifted at music and singing, and a good fraction of the girls are of the pretty, charming milkmaid type.

What about the uber-farming society of China? Doesn't Mulan go against the claim? The first clue that Mulan is not Chinese is that she's riding a horse, and just to emphasize her non-Han status she's shown with a bow and arrow. The historical figure that she's based on, Hua Mulan, came from a Turkic-speaking, nomadic pastoralist region in the north of China, not from the Mandarin-speaking rice farmers.

Rounding out the Disney Renaissance is Tarzan, perhaps the only exception in that it idealizes a hunter in a not-so-pastoralist region of Africa. Still, his eagerness to go through the adolescent rites of passage to become a warrior -- not the self-effacing, easy-going hunters typical of foraging groups -- makes his character more like a Maasai, Nuer, or Dinka herdsman.

Like Pocohontas, The Emperor's New Groove is just a European fairy tale set in a foreign land, not borrowing Inca mythology as the basis of the story. The same goes for The Princess and the Frog. Brother Bear doesn't look like it has the monomyth in its narrative.

Starting in the 1990s, Disney went all multi-culti and tried to incorporate the stories from all the world's cultures into their movies. Unfortunately, most people's mythologies are boring -- interesting to study if you're an academic, but not the kind whose dramatic tension and compelling storytelling draw the audience in. Only groups where a good deal of the members are herders seem to be good at that, so even Disney's successes drawn from truly non-European sources turn out to be from pastoralist cultures.

If they didn't mind their movies lacking a hero's adventure, then they could have drawn from all sorts of other mythologies, whether from advanced agrarian societies like Ancient Egypt or the Aztecs or China, from small-scale gardening cultures like those of sub-Saharan Africa or the Pacific Islands, or from hunter-gatherer groups like the Bushmen. But if it's heroic excitement you're looking for, you'll have to turn to the wide-roaming, cattle-rustling cowboy bands.


  1. What about Gilgamesh? The Sumerians were a firmly agricultural civilization as far back as the 4th millenium BC; the first written versions date to the late 3rd millenium.

    Unlike most of Mesopotamian mythology, which is just as abstruse as Egyptian, the Gilgamesh story contains a lot of compelling drama and strong personalities.

  2. An interesting thing to me is that zero to hero narratives which are a kind of "hero quest"*, seem pretty common within the East Asian Hong Kong wuxia/kung fu series (a Westernised version of which is in the Karate Kid?) and Japanese shonen dramas in animes and role playing games, which are all obsessed with young boys (or girls) who are losers until they discover their secret destinies and hidden worlds and train until they "get strongah" and their "power level is over one million".

    So if we're just talking about these kind of hero narratives, these East Asian societies (or at least Hong Kong and Japan - arguably somewhat hybrid East-West cultures) at present definitely love them are pretty capable of producing these, by the bucketload.

    But when it comes to mythology, although the Chinese love them some Sun Wukong, it seems, at my level of awareness, correct that there aren't many heroic myths in China. Which suggests maybe the hero quests in the recent media might be a recent phenomenon stimulated by Western contact.

    *Although I'm not sure about the actual monomyth structure, with the move from the world of the mundane to the world of the wonderous and the return, that's hard to analyse. It seems quite particular though, and I'm not sure what in particular would cause it to spring from a pastoralist background - perhaps that's what the future post will do.

  3. Hunter-gatherer cultures have heroes as well. Check out the Apache legend of Killer-Of-Enemies. A summarized version can be found in Campbell's; The Hero With A thousand Faces.

  4. "What about Gilgamesh?"

    That was right about the time that Semitic pastoralists began moving closer into the heart of settled Sumeria, having grazed their flocks on the outskirts for awhile. At the time of the earliest fragments of Gilgamesh, there were already a good chunk of Semitic names in Sumerian archives. They soon replaced Sumerian with the Semitic Akkadian language.

    Google "+sumerican +pastoralists" and click the first result for a summary (Sumer and the Sumerians, p.10).

    Enkidu is a wild man who's watched over and then watches over a camp of shepherds. Then there's the Bull of Heaven that wreaks havoc on the farmers' lands -- could reflect the farmers' anxiety about herders closing in on them, their livestock chewing through and trampling over their land.

    Sumeria was heavily agricultural, but so has been Europe. I don't know what fraction it has to be, but it's just some fraction of the population that has to be pastoralists.

  5. "An interesting thing to me is that zero to hero narratives"

    Those are narratives about rites of passage, which every culture has (although what they're being transformed into may vary). In this topic, I'm narrowing it more to the rite of passage that the hero in the "monomyth" sense goes through.

    Japanese culture does come closer to that of nomads than does the Han Chinese, though, that's for sure. The Japanese only settled down to farm a couple thousand years ago or less, unlike the Han who have been sedentarized since... well, forever.

    Even then it's interesting that most of the successful hero quests coming out of Japan are taken from (Proto-Indo-)European or Ancient Semitic (i.e. Biblical) sources. Such as Link from Legend of Zelda.

  6. "Check out the Apache legend of Killer-Of-Enemies."

    Well by that time of that legend the Apache / Navajo had become nomadic horse-riding pastoralists, treating former game animals like their herd. Plus their herd of horses that they were always trying to add to, unlike H-G's who have no accumulated wealth in any form.

    Compared to other agriculturalist (like in the eastern US) or hunter-gatherer Native Americans (like the Eskimo), the Plains / Southwest groups must have been acting like pastoralists even when they were hunting bison.

    The reason is that once the Spanish introduced horses to ride and sheep and goats to tend, those Southwestern groups just took right to it, like their genes and culture were already suited to it. Compare that to Bushmen or other African H-G's who can't hack it as herders -- they aren't good as the stewardship or husbanding part, and kill off their livestock before it can reproduce itself.

    The relationship between wild game and human hunters was very different in the Americas, since they had no time to co-evolve in an arms race like they did in Africa. Most game animals were pretty trusting in the Americas, leading to their almost total die-off when humans got there. So even "wild game" may have behaved in a more docile way like domesticated herd animals in the Old World.

    The Pacific Northwest Indians have some decent storytelling power, but they were also more like pastoralists. Their main source of livelihood was not hunting after swift-footed prey, nor raising crops, nor slash-and-burn gardening, but large stores of salmon etc.

    With rivers that rich with a multiplying animal resource (not like land or crops), it's more or less like they've got a herd of food animals in their backyard. And the same dynamics of raiding salmon-rich waters and guarding violently against raiding unfold, just like in pastoralist societies.

  7. "Gypsies [...] have a culture of honor among males and of chastity among females"
    A rather perverse sense of "honor" perhaps, but their females are renowned for NON-chastity. As Yuri Slezkine notes, gypsies stand out for the forwardness of their women (and lack of a military tradition in their men) and the services they provide to outsider communities (whereas Appollonians produce food for themselves live off its taxation). Rather than charming milkmaid, the archetypical gypsy woman is a dangerous temptress.

  8. Virginity is required for a Gypsy girl to get married. So, as in other cultures of honor, if she sleeps around before marriage, she ruins the value that her male kin would receive through bridewealth. Thus her kin watch over her very closely and punish any behavior that would lower her value. (Honor killings are an extreme form of this.)

    Being flirtatious, tempting, forward, etc., doesn't go against chastity as long as they're only being teases. It's only when they move into urban centers and can more easily escape the eye of their kin that they actually carry their forwardness through.

    (Although again if they're caught, her lover is all but forced into marrying her and paying for it, which makes it less unchaste than outright elopement.)

    But high rates of prostitution of rural girls who pour into the city are typical, not just with Gypsies.

  9. Citing Slezkine again, the gypsies are Mercurians who depend on interacting with a large population of outsiders who can make use of their specialization. A low density population can live mostly by itself in the countryside because they raise their own food. And gypsies aren't known for just wayward girls alone in the big city becoming prostitutes, but for families relying on it as a source of income.

  10. All nomadic pastoralists "depend on interacting with a large population of outsiders who can make use of their specialization." It's usually a settled agrarian society: the farmers trade grain, textiles, tools / weapons, and jewelry for the herders' animal products. Gyspies are no different in that respect.

    And sure, there are records of entire towns in the Balkans under Ottoman rule being Gypsy prostitute towns. But what does that matter? That's among the rarest form of Gypsy town. Overall the insistence is on chastity.

    Google "gypsies chastity" and look through the history / ethnography specifically about them, not some comparison that a historian of Jews drew somewhere.

  11. Thanks for the link on the Sumerians relationship to Semitic pastoralists. I knew about this dynamic in later Mesopotamian history, but had no idea it reached back so far.

    But did it reach all the way back to the Uruk period, which the earliest for which written records exist? Gilgamesh seems to be based off of an actual king of Uruk from that period. Of course, even if the earliest, oral versions of the story were not pastoralist-influenced, the Semitic elements probably accreted on later.

    It's a shame that the mythology of the Indus Valley Civilization can't be known. They probably also had long been agriculturalists, and presumably had interactions with Aryan pastoralists as they moved into the Punjab. Some figurines have been found that might be derived from the Vedic pantheon. Perhaps there's a general dynamic of diffusion by which pastoralist gods come to displace agriculturalist gods when they interact with each other.

    Chinese mythology may have been immune from this process due to their extremely inward looking worldview and sheer size relative to the northern herders. While Egypt was also immune for much of its history because the surrounding Sahara was too inhospitable for herders, so there weren't any for them to come into contact with.

  12. Dude, the Jungle Book and Tarzan are most certainly not folk tales from around the world! They are fictional creations of Western novelists (Kipling, Burroughs) working from their own fertile imaginations (not local legends). Shame on you, Agnostic, I thought you read books :) (Maybe you stay away from escapist trash, although Kiplings book is a very moving and profound work, imho)

  13. I know where those stories came from. The point is whose lives are they trying to idealize.


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