#74 On the smith and the devil
I don’t talk too much about the why, what, and how of this newsletter. Seb Chan, who inspired me to choose this format (and platform, although he by now moved on), starts every newsletter with a brief note on his reasons for writing. I read that part religiously. Repetition, after all, is an essential part of storytelling.
The why of this newsletter, as I wrote in the very first one, is to continue the open-ended exchanges with people from all over the world that I miss now that I’ve largely stopped traveling. The what is everything that piques my interest, which I acknowledge is pretty wide-ranging: environmentalism, quantum mechanics, urban planning, soil, art. The how is one update per week. For you, dear reader, the how is to press delete when a topic is not of interest to you and press reply if you disagree.
You, dear readers and subscribers, are essential to this system. You are the who. Thank you!
With that out of the way, three topics I want to touch upon today: time and water, shared values, and some music.
Spotify introduced me to entirely new musical rabbit holes the past week. I don’t remember ever reading about their algorithm, but it must be as influential as YouTube’s. This rabbit hole is nostalgic Spanish dance music, mostly from 2020 when Covid was not yet like the flu in Spain.
Over Christmas, we’ve launched the movement that is part of De Tegentijd (Time to turn). Alas, for now, in Dutch. De Tegentijd is the artistic project I developed with Merlijn Twaalfhoven and many others that promotes long-term thinking. Participants experience the story of the deep time and how much we have a responsibility for future generations. The movement helps people turn this experience into long-term commitments and actions.
This week we zoomed in on one of my favorite books from last year, Andri Snær Magnason’s On Time and Water. Magnason links the history of glaciers, climate change, Norse and Indian mythology, personal history, and lived experience to relate a profoundly compelling narrative about, well, time and water.
One of my favorite concepts from the book is what Magnason calls the handshake of generations. It’s all the time in which people live that you know and love and who know and love you. In his case, this handshake spans from the year 1924 all the way to 2150, almost 230 years. Mine is comparable. Do watch Magnason’s brief TED talk to calculate yours and learn more:
One insight that stood out to me in Magnason’s book was the similarities he presents between water and glaciers in Norse and Indian mythology. Are they linked? Do they share a similar origin story? Magnason presents appealing anecdotes but no definitive answers. This is why I turned to Google to discover the Yamnaya.
The Yamnaya were a central Asian pastoral community that may have (also) invented the wheel and domesticated the horse. While a lot about their culture and lifestyle is still unclear, what is clear is that some 5,000 years ago, they spread across the Eurasian continent rapidly and widely. They may have been the source of the Indo-European languages. If they were, it doesn’t seem unlikely that they also brought mythology with them.
A question that has been on my mind since is if these traces of a shared language and mythology also reference an underlying shared culture. In other words: deep down, do contemporary people living in the broad area that was once part of the realm of the Yamnaya share similar values, ideas, and practices?
With eight billion people on earth, clearly, some of them are studying this question precisely. So if there is one academic paper you read this week, let it be this:
“Recent investigations into the evolution of cultural diversity suggest that relationships among many languages, social behaviours and material culture traditions often reflect deep patterns of common ancestry that can be traced back hundreds or even thousands of years.”
“Our findings regarding the origins of ATU 330 ‘The Smith and the Devil’ are a case in point. The basic plot of this tale—which is stable throughout the Indo-European speaking world, from India to Scandinavia—concerns a blacksmith who strikes a deal with a malevolent supernatural being (e.g. the Devil, Death, a jinn, etc.). The smith exchanges his soul for the power to weld any materials together, which he then uses to stick the villain to an immovable object (e.g. a tree) to renege on his side of the bargain. The likely presence of this tale in the last common ancestor of Indo-European-speaking cultures resonates strongly with wider debates in Indo-European prehistory, since it implies the existence of metallurgy in Proto-Indo-European society.”
“On a more general level, this example highlights how the kinds of stories told in ancient populations often reflect broader features of their cultures. While the content of ATU 330 is most obviously relevant to the technological capabilities of Proto-Indo-European society, anthropologists have long speculated that folktales may preserve other kinds of information about the ancestral contexts in which they originated, such as social organization, subsistence practices and religion.” (source)
This makes me wonder how well the songs Spotify suggested this week will age. Does 2020 Spanish nostalgia say anything, long term, about us?
Thanks for joining me this week. I hope you’re all well and having a good start of the year. Until next week, stay safe!