History is a jigsaw puzzle. To gain a view of the past, we need to put together pieces gleaned from archaeology and from surviving records. Increasingly, it seems clear that we can also learn from myths, passed down through generations via the oral tradition to the point when they were recorded in writing.
There has been a flurry of articles recently about a paper published by Professor Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues from a number of British Universities: The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales:
In the First Branch of the Mabinogi, Pwyll, king of Dyfed, puts himself into a debt of honour to Arawn, one of the two kings of the Otherworld, by rudely (and against the rules of royal etiquette) driving Arawn’s hounds – the hounds of another king, equal in honour – away from a cornered deer, and setting his own hounds upon it instead.
To erase the insult and gain Arawn’s friendship, Pwyll must take on Arawn’s appearance, and rule his kingdom in Annwn for a year and a day. At the end of this time, he must – in his guise of Arawn – fight and defeat the other king of Annwn: Hafgan.
In 2007, I paid a visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, where I was living at the time. One of the exhibitions fascinated me. It was dedicated to the hill tribes of South-east Asia, whose cultures span Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. One of the display boards gave an overview of the belief systems of the the tribes, and I was struck by the fact that some of the tribes’ origin myths indicate that they once lived in Siberia.
It’s hard to decide which is more astonishing – the slow migration over millennia from the frigid wastes of Siberia, through China, to their eventual home in the forested hills of Thailand, or the fact that despite the long ages of movement, and the huge variation in the environments where the tribes had lived, their myths remained unchanged, preserving the folk memory of their first home.
It’s with the same sense of awe that I read reports in the media of a new archaeological discovery earlier this year (2019).