Mythical Insights: Vikings and Trolls

I read an article recently which combined two of my favorite topics: early human migration and myths. As usual, I am a bit late to the party because it took a while for the article to come around on my kindle/instapaper que. (By far my favorite use for a Kindle!)

Julien d’Huy’s article in Scientific American included a number of strands which practically begged to be interwoven with other intriguing lines of thought.  I will attempt to make some preliminary connections here.

A theme which runs through all of these ideas is that, in general, we do not give our ancestors sufficient credit. True, they did not invent the steam engine or walk on the moon, but who among us would have, in their position? Innovation has always been incremental, and technology can make enormous advances when certain tipping points are reached, but humans have been resourceful and sophisticated for hundreds of thousands of years.

Myths are important because they shed a light (however dim) on the mind-space of our ancestors. The problem with myths is that, while rich in detail, it can be nearly impossible to separate exaggerated fact from illustrative metaphor.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to have mythic stories corroborated by other lines of evidence. While ancient stories of shaking and floods in the Pacific Northwest did not include calendar years, contemporaneous Japanese records did, and, in fact, had recorded what had come to be called an orphan tsunami, where the inundation was not preceded by a noticeable quake. In 1996 Kenji Satake solved the final piece of the puzzle, arguing that the Pacific Northwest was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami “At approximately nine o’ clock at night on January 26, 1700”. It took nearly 300 years, but finally the richness of oral history was recombined with the precision of written records.

In “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess”, Leonard Shlain lays out an argument that several of the plagues of Egypt could have been caused by the eruption of Thera, 500 miles away:

Chaos and anarchy in the aftermath of the devastation toppled rules from Minos to Mycenae. People trembled under skies that turned dark at noon. As the ash and smoke blocked out the sun, crops withered. Falling sulfuric ash produced pestilence and boils among herds and humans, and cattle fell dead in their pastures. The circadion rhythms and reproductive cycles of frogs and “vermin,” such as cocusts, are set in most cases by solar cycles, and could have been completely upset by the sun’s sudden dimming, resulting in massive swarms. The high iron ore content of the raining cinders would oxidize upon contact with water, turning rivers red and killing all marine life; it could well appear that the waters had turned to blood.

By combining biblical accounts with geological evidence we can suddenly date the plagues of Egypt to 1628 B.C.

However, while immensely satisfying, these examples are the exception, not the rule. To this point, the vast majority of mythic material has been suitable only for pseudo-science or armchair speculation (a favorite pastime of mine!). However, with the application of phylogenetic studies, a whole new frontier of mythological investigation has recently been opened. The significance of this evidence is clearest in the study of cultural migration, and I will address this first, but at the end of the article Julien d’Huy hints at another use for the method down the road. I can already see the glimmer of this possibility in his current work.


The first family of myths analyzed in the article is the Cosmic Hunt.

Although the animals and the constellations may differ, the basic structure of the story does not. These sagas all belong to a family of myths known as the Cosmic Hunt that spread far and wide in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas among people who lived more than 15,000 years ago. Every version of the Cosmic Hunt shares a core story line—a man or an animal pursues or kills one or more animals, and the creatures are changed into constellations.

Carl Jung, the founding father of analytic psychology, believed that myths appear in similar forms in different cultures because they emerge from an area of the mind called the collective unconscious. “Myths are first and foremost psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul,” Jung argued. But the dissemination of Cosmic Hunt stories around the world cannot be ex­­plained by a universal psychic structure. If that were the case, Cosmic Hunt stories would pop up everywhere. Instead they are nearly absent in Indonesia and New Guinea and very rare in Australia but present on both sides of the Bering Strait, which geologic and archaeological evidence indicates was above water between 28,000 and 13,000 B.C. The most credible working hypothesis is that Eurasian ancestors of the first Americans brought the family of myths with them.

In fact, it seems that the Cosmic Hunt story made it to the Americas more than once:

One of the most up-to-date phylogenetic trees of the Cosmic Hunt… suggests that the family of myths arrived in the Americas at several different points. One branch of the tree connects Greek and Algonquin versions of the myth. Another branch indicates passage through the Bering Strait, which then continued into Eskimo country and to the northeastern Americas, possibly in two different waves. Other branches suggest that some versions of the myth spread later than the others from Asia toward Africa and the Americas.

I would have been tempted to attribute the Greek/Algonquin connection to an Atlantic Ice migration, (and I don’t see that d’Huy’s research rules out such a migration) but this pairs much too well with another line of linguistic evidence. A few years ago I came across an article suggesting that some portions of the Algonquin language may have been very heavily influenced by Old Norse. The authors speculated that a population of Old Norse speakers may have fled Greenland and settled permanently in North America.

Humans are resourceful explorers, and archeologists seem to be uncovering evidence of an ever-growing number of impressive journeys and migrations. It should be no surprise that humans discovered the Americas more than twice, and certainly no surprise that the vikings did, when it now seems that they found Australia as well!

The fact that the vikings seemed to make only a small genetic contribution gives credence to the “High Count” argument laid out by Charles C. Mann in “1491” that, by that time, North America was already densely populated. A small party of Europeans who integrated and interbred with the locals might have made only a small genetic contribution which has, perhaps, thus-far been misinterpreted as something much more contemporary.

As time goes on, I think people will be recognizing an increasing number of journeys to the Americas of varying significance. A genetically “Siberian” group of Solutreans probably came fairly early on, and bringing proto-clovis technology. Their expansion may have been held in check by the formidable short-faced bear. Perhaps the arrival of domesticated dogs with another group was the tipping point which triggered the Clovis explosion. A comet striking or bursting above the Laurentide Ice Sheet was probably enormously disruptive, but humans being the supreme invasive species that they are, the megafauna of the Americas were likely already doomed. The continents may well have been “discovered” numerous times thereafter, certainly by a few waves from the West, perhaps by Pacific ice, perhaps by seafaring canoes. However, once the first few waves really took hold, new arrivals had only limited influence, until the arrival of Eurasian diseases obliterated the population. Who knows how much of this speculation will ever be proven or disproven, but perhaps mythology will be able to shed some indirect light.


The indirect clues which really fascinate me, though, are from an even more distant past. Towards the end of the article, d’Huy hints at the idea of following mythic evidence even further back, to a time when multiple human species still shared the planet. As a researcher, d’Huy broaches the subject with appropriate caution. As a yahoo with an obscure blog, I am prepared to be much more bold.

In 2013 when the genomes of Neanderthals and Denisovans were presented at a meeting at the Royal Society in London, a quote from Mark Thomas was shared widely: “What it begins to suggest is that we’re looking at a Lord of the Rings-type world — that there were many hominid populations”. I don’t know exactly what Thomas meant himself, but I think the idea deserves a lot more scrutiny than it got. Mythology may well have preserved impressions from these ancient eras.

On the island of Flores in Indonesia, where the “hobbit” skeleton was found, tales of “little people” were prevalent. This is a very clear example, but it is only the tip of a proverbial iceberg. The concept of a “Lord of the Rings-type world” may be much truer than it first appears. Of course Tolkien wrote fiction, but he drew heavily from the mythology of Northern Europe. If these myths preserved glimpses of a paleolithic expansion into Europe, then the world of Middle Earth may well be a re-dramatization of ancient encounters.

In Björn Kurtén’s Dance of the Tiger, modern humans refer to neanderthals as “trolls“. I would be shocked if there were not at least a shred of truth here. To me, the question is, of all the dangerous (or at least standoffish) mythological bipeds (trolls, ogres, goblins, dwarves, giants, etc…) how many distinct hominid populations have been represented? Surely there is some glimmer of neanderthals. Could we ever distinguish myths about neanderthals from myths about denisovans?

(Of course, not all myths would be about neanderthals or denisovans. On a less exiting front, what portions of myths come simply from groups of humans who avoided interaction with our direct ancestors? In recent years, there has been evidence that two distinct groups of modern humans may have occupied Europe for an extended period in the neolithic with only limited interaction. While scientists had first postulated that it was the technology of farming that spread from the Middle East into Europe, it has become clear in recent years that in fact it was communities of neolithic farmers who expanded into Europe. Though these neolithic farmers lived in fairly close proximity to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, intermixing was limited and the hunter-gatherers seem not to have adopted farming technology. Though less exciting than human-neanderthal encounters, this could itself be a Lord of the Rings situation. With hunter-gatherers likely taller (due to better nutrition), more adept at bushcraft, and with farmer/hunter-gatherer hybrid offspring fully viable, perhaps hunter-gatherers were like Tolkien’s elves.)

But I am drawn back to Neanderthals.

Whereas we modern humans evolved to pursue herd animals on open terrain, Neanderthals apparently favored ambush hunting in forests. To successfully meet their much larger caloric requirements, Neanderthals must have been masterful at concealing themselves at strategic points along important game trails. Isn’t this precisely the strategy of a troll or an ogre under a bridge?

Hunting large prey with only spears (and clubs?) certainly would have been a feat, but were some Neanderthals even more sophisticated? A vague proto-myth reconstructed by d’Huy hints at a startling possibility.

In the myth of Polyphemus, as its original public most likely heard it, a hunter faces one or many monsters that possess a herd of wild animals. He enters the place where the monster keeps the animals and finds his way out blocked by a large obstacle. The monster tries to kill him. The hero manages to escape by clinging to the underbelly of one of the animals.

Several years ago, I came across an essay at linking neanderthal heritage to
Asperger Syndrome
. Leif Ekblad’s thesis does not want for audacity, and I am sure he has overplayed his hand at points. However, even if much of his theory proves untrue, I do not believe this disqualifies all of his arguments.

One of the ideas Ekblad discusses is that neanderthals may have actually domesticated some of their prey. Part of his evidence comes from “Desolate Landscapes” (which I have not yet read) which apparently suggests that Neanderthals were killing animals at the height of their usability as pastoralists do, rather than picking off the old or the weak which is the usual pattern for predators. This would certainly fit with the proto-myth of a monster in the mountains who “possessed” a flock of animals!

Such a theory does not necessarily imply that neanderthals tamed animals in the modern sense or had any use for them alive. Rough domestication could have perhaps been achieved simply by the neanderthals, as predators, warding off potential rivals, and, as social primates, having enough empathy with their prey to become tolerated by the flock even if a few animals are occasionally culled.

This is certainly a breathtaking idea, but it may yet be proven true. I don’t know what tidbits may be delivered by future research, but I can’t wait to hear more about myths.

Leave a Reply