Anyway, yesterday I discussed Economist science writer Matt Kaplan’s claim that a passage in The Odyssey was an accurate description of the effects of a member of the nightshade family. This prompted me to start reading his new book, Science of the Magical (Scribner, 2015), which was published at the end of last month and attempts to relate myths and legends to the science he believes inspired them. I have to say that the version of his approach given in the TED-Ed lesson he made from his book made a me a bit uncomfortable because in the video the author approaches myth and legend with a jaunty confidence that if we assume that the stories have a basis in fact, we can, through the studious application of circular reasoning, find scientific facts that we can then assume are connected to the myth.
Regular readers will recognize this approach for what it is, euhemerism, also called rationalization, which was the approach taken by Euhemerus, the Greek writer who sought to explain away magic and myth as distortions of increasingly improbably natural and historical events. Thus, for him the gods were kings and magicians were chemists, and somehow we find Kaplan repeating these same identifications. The trouble is that the euhemerists aren’t really “proving” what “really” happened as much as they are trying to force storytelling to conform to a literalist view of literature.
Euhemerus (c. 325 BCE), I should note, was not the first euhemerist, only the most famous. Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 500 BCE) was skeptical of mythology, though not to the degree of Euhemerus; and Pherecydes of Athens (c. 450 BCE), while not an all-out rationalizer, was happy to rationalize myths to make them more acceptable to Athenian beliefs.
So far I have read the introduction and first two chapters of Kaplan’s book, which constitute about a quarter of the text. My comments, therefore, must be considered provisional as they are based only on those three parts of the book.
Kaplan’s book started off on a sour note for me by opening with the Exodus, an event for which there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever. “Might such a story contain descriptions of natural events like earthquakes, floods, or storms that our ancestors witnessed but could not understand?” Kaplan answers in the affirmative, but fortunately his view is a little more subtle than simply asserting that events happened literally as recorded and in ways discoverable by science. “Just as we can look at the bones of animals that lived long ago and use the evidence to deduce what the past was like, we can look at the magic of our ancestors to hypothesize about what they may have dreamed of and what they might have seen in the world around them.”
In other words, he’s willing to concede that the stories themselves may be fake, but we can look into these stories to see bits of fact that were used to construct them. This is prima facie true for any literature, but this is simply a truism. For Kaplan’s book to have substance, he has to argue that some of the stories aren’t just making use of factual information to create science fiction (like the way Jules Verne expanded real life submarines into the Nautilus) but actually have some sort of hidden reality. Thus, his argument isn’t just that Homer based Circe’s magic potion on the types of medicinal plants then commonly in use but that there was a specific plant that had the specific ability to induce animal hallucinations and that a witch on an island could have really used it on a Greek sailing crew. The trouble is that Kaplan wants us to think that he’s following the more defensible claim of looking for sources of inspiration, whereas in practice he takes the possible sources of inspiration to be truth claims about the past that can then be used for contemporary applications as a sort of historical justification.
This is fairly clear in the first chapter, where Kaplan examines whether there is current scientific evidence that the act of praying produces biological or mental effects that can contribute to healing. (Note: This is not the same as saying prayer heals supernaturally.) In so doing, he then applies the scientific evidence backward to assert that Jesus healed the sick through tricking them into using this self-healing power of good feelings, on the thin evidence that Jesus told those he healed that their faith has healed them (Mark 5:34, 10:52; Matthew 9:22; Luke 17:19; etc.):
Did our ancestors, while they made their sacrifices and prayed with all their hearts, have any sense that the positive emotions associated with noble, community-directed behaviors played a part in boosting their immune systems? We can’t know that for certain. But the fact that gods, temples, pilgrimages, faith, and laying-on-of-hands rituals have been tightly connected to healing for centuries leads me to suspect that our ancestors were aware of far more than we realize.
The whole book seems to be the same kind of reasoning. The ideal form goes something like this:
- Ancient people did something dangerous or weird.
- They told a myth to explain why.
- Science found that the dangerous or weird thing has an adaptive advantage.
- Ancient people could have understood this advantage, cultivated it, and attributed it to magic.
The first three points are obvious enough to require no comment. The problem is the fourth point, for, in many cases it’s impossible to conclude that the ancients purposely acted a certain way for scientific reasons, rather than the alleged connection occurring simply due to coincidence or evolutionary forces that selected for advantageous behaviors without any conscious decision.
The other big problem with Kaplan’s approach is that he talks to scientists but not scholars of ancient history and mythology. Thus, he’s happy to report that Dr. Dina Tiniakos of Newcastle University in Athens thinks that the Greeks … Oh, hell, I have to give it in her words: “A lot of us in the liver-research community suspect that the Greeks had to have seen rapid liver regrowth in animals and wounded soldiers and used their mythology to try and account for the phenomenon.” This, she says, is the “truth” behind the myth of Prometheus, whose liver Zeus’s eagle ate each day and which grew back each night. Two problems: First, how do you see a liver regrow in an era without X-rays or sterile surgery? Second, the Prometheus myth was unique to Prometheus, a Titan, and had nothing to do with human livers. In the myth, it grew back because as a god, his body couldn’t be destroyed in any part. (Yes, the Greeks weren’t consistent on this; Hephaestus managed to get hurt permanently, while Uranus was castrated and Ares and Hades wounded; however, all of these stories seem to be imports from the Near East.) Kaplan dutifully notes that the liver might have been chosen for symbolic reasons, but he prefers to dwell on the fictitious claim that the Greeks were, I suppose, vivisecting people to watch their livers grow.
The trouble is that I can’t simply dismiss the whole book as a big blob of euhemerism because the author freely mixes historical material alongside the mythic. He discusses the Norse berserkers, for example, who were real, and attributes their war frenzy to an unidentified psychoactive substance (as have dozens of scholars before him) based on his belief that people can’t whip themselves into a frenzy unaided by chemicals. He also discusses research that shows that Egyptians’ lead eye shadow helped guard against Nile bacteria, though again speculating that the Egyptians used the eye shadow purposely for this purpose rather than achieving the aim through coincidence.
But in finishing the book’s second chapter, he discusses Ovid’s myth of Hermaphroditus, from the Metamorphoses (4.274-388), and here betrays his surface understanding of the material he covers. He asks if Ovid modeled the character of the half male and half female godling on a real hermaphrodite he might have seen. Unusual wonders of nature were nothing unusual to the Romans, and this speculation is pointless: Hermaphroditus was mentioned in Theophrastus in Characters 16 (c. 250 BCE) and Diodorus Siculus in Library 4.6.5 (1st century BCE), both predating Ovid, who wrote in 8 CE. Diodorus was thoroughly familiar with real hermaphrodites, and compared Hermaphroditus to them.
Anyway, the story is a late Hellenistic form of a much more ancient cult of Aphroditus, the male Aphrodite, a cult from Cyprus dating back to the fifth century BCE or earlier. That god, first symbolized as a woman’s head on a herm, or phallus, was later depicted as a hermaphrodite and originally symbolized the joint fertility of male and female.
But to reduce the rich symbolism and history of the god to a question of Ovid’s prurient interest in genitalia is essentially to miss the point of the myth, and to that end missing the point is rather the point of the Science of the Magical. Kaplan gleefully abandons the context of myths and legends to pursue narrow questions of plausibility because his purpose isn’t really to investigate myths but to use them as window dressing for his real aim: to summarize a series of recent scientific advances that might have seemed magical before the twentieth century. The myths and the legends are just a hook, a way to frame an attempt to justify Arthur C. Clarke’s law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But in so doing, he is doing the equivalent of declaring Frankenstein an attempt to understand Galvani’s electrified frog leg experiment, one of Mary Shelley’s inspirations. It is, at one level, based on a kernel of truth, but it rather misses the point of the story.