Definitions and Origins

Prehistoric Mythology

How and when did myths originate?

Myths originated in prehistoric times, that is, before writing was invented. Without written records it difficult for us to know specifically when or how myths came about. It is only through archeological clues and prehistoric works of art that tentative assumptions about the nature of these early myths can be made. Scholars use burial grounds, figurines, rock carvings, and cave paintings, for instance, as the basis of such assumptions. There are extensive materials of this sort dating back to the Late Stone Age, known as the Upper Paleolithic. By this time our own species, Homo sapiens, had long since emerged from Africa and settled in other parts of the world, sometimes mingling with or confronting an earlier subspecies known as Neanderthals. American anthropologist and mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested that European Neanderthal sites containing bear skulls in cave niches are possible evidence of an early bear cult and probable accompanying mythology even before the rise of H sapiens in that region.

Most scholars agree that H sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe had developed a religious sensibility and mythology. This agreement is based on apparently ritualized burial sites and especially on stone figurines and cave paintings. A statuette of a man with a lion head dating to 40,000 B.C.E. was discovered in a cave in Germany, suggesting a mythological narrative.

On the basis of the discovery of many small figurines of female figures with exaggerated hips, buttocks, and breasts, the most famous of which is the 20,000-year-old Venus of Laussel, anthropologist Marija Gimbutas and others have developed a theory of an early goddess religion in Europe that would almost certainly have made use of myths. The classic sources for theories about Upper Paleolithic mythology are the paintings in the great “cave temples” such as Les Trois Frères and Lascaux in France and the El Castillo in Cantabria, Spain. The animal and human figures in the cave paintings suggest ritual hunts and magical powers. The assumption is that they represent sacrificial rites with mythological implications.


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