3. Tale Theory

Since Vitaliano coined the term 'geo-mythology' in 1966 (Vitaliano 1968) geology of this sort has been applied to appraisals of traditional stories as a scientific discipline within its own right. Yet the very terminology upon which its discourse rests is as ontologically problematic as the stories it attempts to cosmologise. Vitaliano self-defined her term to her own purposes; triggering a necessary conversation though presumably not expecting her personal definition to seep into orthodoxy. She stated that it was 'the geological application of euhumerism' (Vitaliano 1968, 5). While it isn't euhumerism per se (for the science is not apotheosistically interpreting narrative content) it does offer a non-deific equivalent in attempting to offer tangible data by which to anchor established, yet inherently intangible, 'folk' narratives into a scientific, potentially tangible, context. However, to say, as Vitaliano continues in the same paragraph, that it seeks to find the 'real geological event underlying a myth or legend' is to leave the door open to onslaught from already established debates on the epistemic universality of what constitutes 'real', along with questioning what is a 'myth' and a 'legend' anyway? The solid ground of this definition thus rapidly submerges into contention even before we follow it to its culmination and address the concept of converting 'mythology back into history' for, if nothing else, a myth is surely a 'traditional story … concerning the early history of a people' (Oxford English Dictionary 1989). Thus a known myth has historicity in its own right, leading it to need no conversion.

This dictionary definition of mythology is a generally accepted standard within a greater complexity, yet it is also another slippery slope into nebulous worlds; 'the study of myth is beset by a tangled web of claims and contradictions' (Piccardi and Masse 2007, 9). The mélange of definitions that have bounced interchangeably between the remits of myth and legend has done nothing to assist in the subject's methodological schemata even within its own sphere (Ellis 1960). Marc Lombardo attempts a rigorous semiotic untangling in his paper Myth Defined and Undefined, eventually concluding that this problem is rather the point of the subject, for:

'given this dilemma of semantic ontology … is it not plausible that when the word “myth” is used … it is largely to signify such an ontological problematic?' (Lombardo 2003, 148)

Given that stories are inherently organic and transient creations this statement on the state of an aspect of their definition seems highly, if ironically, applicable, albeit not particularly useful from an academic perspective. So we are left with a discipline the process of which is understood in practice (Sluijis 2009) but within which the core language utilised is riddled with confusion.

Hence, unlike many previous excursions into story-science discussions, this article is drawing from a wide breadth of narrative sources rather than from myth alone. It will include ballads, rhymes, fabulate, folktale and literary texts beneath its umbrella as required, in agreement with Tina Paphitis' doctoral glossary (Paphitis 2014), which supports her contemporary study in the archaeological side of this area. Our use of such an open library is predominantly due to the dominance of such interdigitating tales along the Celtic seaboard but also because this route offers us a release from the restrictions of more orthodox landmines, for the definitions are being taken in this context to include as follows: 'Sacred narratives' (Dundes 1988) via myth, stories 'told as true' (Halpert 1971) via legend and 'stories handed down by oral traditions from mouth to ear' (Dawkins 1951) via folk tales. Therefore, for our purpose, individually precise definitions need not be more explicit, other than to stress that all of these are distinct from being oral histories even when they are alleged to derive from a possible oral tradition. Telling each apart can be crucial (Figure 7), particularly because an oral history is an historical account that has been created through a dialogic exchange with an interviewer (Bornat 2012), which is not the case in any of our examples (the interviewee would have to be quite exceptionally old).

Figure 7
Figure 7: Myths of Memory. Illustration by Erin Kavanagh

The British archaeologist Richard MacGillvray Dawkins (1871-1955) extrapolated on this summation of the folktale umbrella above as equally also being a story that began in literary form and travelled thereafter by word of mouth, and vice versa, because essentially 'to the storyteller it makes no difference whence his story comes' (Dawkins 1951). Therein lays the rub, for geology disagrees. It is nothing if not etiologically focused. However, just as archaeology can be said to act as a socio-political influence on the present (Tilley 1989), the present being where the past is created, so too do stories. They perform as knowledge representatives by recreating the past at any telling, each telling responding to the teller and the tolds' own socio-political agenda, be that innocently or deliberately wielded. A similar process of cultural emplotment (Ricoeur 1983) can be said of geology as it reconstructs perspectival landscapes, offering explanations for our environment and cognitive appraisals of said environments through figures, data and discourse. The iconography of geological study could therefore be paralleled to the iconography of story-telling, as both can effectively present a proto-world without words. Thus, we also have agreements between our factions.

This is hardly surprising for, as we have seen, they began as the same discipline within antiquarianism (Paphitis 2013), stemming in British text from the medieval period when ecclesiastical interest in natural formations and 'ancient' remains became a mode for propaganda and scholarly investigation (Trigger 2006; Gerrard 2003). This period is also the one from which we glean our richest narratives along the Celtic seaboard.

Before we commence with examining these narratives in a geological context, let us first consider some caveats in an attempt to: 'avoid making biased, outsider's judgements instead of presenting the viewpoint of tellers and audiences' (Dégh 1996, 33).

The philologist Lubomír Doležel suggested that a story-world in a literary context interdigitates with other story-worlds via a triadic relationship of expansion, modification and transposition (Doležel 1999). The same may also be said of oral traditions and folklore in general, but more problematically so. Expansion changes the direction of attention within a plot. For example, story B may focus upon a minor character in Story A, expanding their narrative role. When this occurs in text it can be possible to track down the order of expansion. However, when it occurs in an oral tradition or from deeper into the recesses of time then the chronology becomes obscured even when the expansion may still be identifiable. As these stories pass from mouth-to-ear-to-mouth they are modified by each transition. This modification 'constructs essentially different versions of the proto-world, redesigning its structure and reinventing its story' (Doležel 1999, 206-7). The third relation holds true to the design of this proto-world 'but locates it in a different temporal or spatial setting'.

We see this triadic transfictionality occur within our tales of inundation, where a character in one story may have been incidental in the cause of a submergence but then they seem to appear in another flood narrative, which follows an almost identical plot, only with our previous minor actor taking centre stage, and vice versa with a protagonist in one taking a back seat in another. The same process can be applied to story names, dates and locations via transposition; the 'medley' we will be examining is an excellent example of this. Geologists and archaeologists favour considering such relations as being transmedial, where a story line can become so culturally significant that it is adapted and adopted by all who identify with its characteristics (Ryan 2013) as that allows for the suggestion that a scientific explanation may be viable.

While isomorphically schematising in this way is tidy and could reinforce a notion of the 'Common Celtic' through interdisciplinary means (and it may, on occasion, be correct) it is dangerous to presume that expansion is always the process in play. From a narratological perspective it is equally valid to argue that every telling of a story is a new story, with a new smorgasbord of inspirations feeding in to the telling and thus the notion of a common source becomes incidental, almost nonsensical. Apparent expansion could thus be no more than nominal theft under the guise of poetic licence. We therefore need to beware that a tale that reflects another tale may be no more than that, a reflection, with no reference to a shared experience (Burkert 1979).

In a similar manner, we must also be wary of the lure of nativism, again despite its tidiness (Carney 1955), remembering to see the stories as steeped in the time in which we find them. So, for example, narratives pinned on to paper by ecclesiastically influenced pens may have had religious/political modifications, distorting the earlier oral source so as to render any original empirical inspiration invisible. This is particularly so when a change of language has occurred, thus leaving one open to the vagaries of translation and cultural confusion (Freeth 1993).

Within oral traditions it is the audience who play the publication role, bouncing a tale back at the teller in an interactive symposium of creation. As folktales are not restricted to text or oration and find expression through theatre, mummery, song and iconography their audience is equally as eclectic. Hence, a tale will vary from ear to ear as much as it will from mouth to mouth. As with geo-archaeology, context is everything.

Part of this problem lies with the process of memory, for the more we tell a story the less it adheres to its original content or context. As Schank and Abelson argue in their thorough exposition on knowledge representation in stories, memory has a troublesome penchant for losing the original and maintaining the replica (Schank and Abelson 1995, 34). They also allege that we don't actually try to remember, we try to understand, and we understand by telling stories, matching them with stories we already know (indexing), then retelling them and so on and so forth, much as we are doing in this article. We learn from the stories of others but only if their stories relate to ones we already know sufficiently to create a bridge of belief but insufficiently enough to cause us to rethink our own story. Then, once we have found a balance that allows for understanding we stop processing the data, leaving behind memory.

'It is in the story making process that the memory gets formed' (Schank and Abelson 1995, 27).

Reiterations of the same story thus result in a decrease of factual inclusions and a correlating increase in fictional content, known psychologically as 'levelling' and 'sharpening' (Allport and Postman 1947). One of the reasons we do this is not because we do not care about the original or that the original is proven to be false but because people struggle to process chance information (perhaps such as a sudden flood) and so we transform them into situations/stories with which we are familiar (Langer 1975). We also add aspects of the new story into what we consider to be the empty slots of an old one (Schank and Abelson 1995). Thus what may appear to be a story about the same event can actually be almost the same story about a totally different event. As a consequence of this we may be able to theoretically propose that a story, or story-skeleton, may perhaps indicate a residual memory of an actual event. However, to make such an assertion with confidence will require a more thorough examination of the role of memory within geomythological analysis. It is thus more considered, at this juncture, to say that it is more likely to be commemoration of a plurality of events, some of which may not even have happened; a palimpsest of comprehension. Otherwise we run the risk of creating our own myths of memory (Figure 7).

The telling and re-telling of stories in this way creates a knowledge structure within which people formulate expectations for future and current events to understand them in normative terms. Therefore the process of story-telling (both personally and performatively) does not seek to explain events, but to understand them, through a process of description.

The assumption that stories containing geological detail exist in order to explain said geology dominates the orthodox field. As if the only purpose a story teller could have in including a geological detail in their tale was in order to explain its origin. As if they had no other means by which to do so, as if an explanation for the physicality was all that mattered, that the natural feature or phenomenon was the unquestionable protagonist. Yet, as we have seen, this is not necessarily the case and while it is logical to suppose that 'they must express some social reality' (Wilson 1960, 6) it does not follow that stories adhere to either empirical observation or that they even seek to do other than describe an occurrence, or a type of occurrence. Arguably, this will necessitate some semblance of interpretation; but it does not infer that an interpretation is a deliberate attempt at explanation. As the classicist Walter Burkert asserted, references to empirical evidence can frequently be no more than secondary at best (or for poetic effect) and that focusing upon them can miss the intended meaning, for ultimately:

'there is no denying that tales were associated with phenomena or events … but it is naïve to assume that any tale would arise directly from facts' (Burkert Lec. 4 in Pavur 2011)


Cite this as: Kavanagh, K.E. and Bates, M.R. 2019 Semantics of the Sea — Stories and Science along the Celtic Seaboard, Internet Archaeology 53.

Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing IA

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.