‘The teaching of South American myths serves to provide general laws for the resolution of problems concerning the nature and development of thought.’

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mythologiques II.

‘Those who (in philosophy) make use of myth are unworthy of serious consideration’.

Aristotle, Metaphysics.

The reflections presented here were intended to help clarify a specific problem; the problem of the relationship between mythical thought, primitive society and history. This problem, met abstractly by every anthropologist in the exercise of his discipline, was posed unavoidably for me in a practical sense when I had to begin to analyse the material I had collected between 1967 and 1969 concerning the myths and magical-religious practices of the Baruya, a tribe from the interior of New Guinea.

To give an idea of this material, here is a version of the Baruya myths about the origins of the world and of human history—a version which contains the essential features of several variants of those myths: Originally the Sun and the Moon were joined to the earth. Everything was grey and all the animal and vegetable species spoke a single language. Men and spirits, animals and plants, all lived together. The men were not like the men of today, their penis was not pierced and the vagina of the women was not open. Dogs too had their sexual organs closed. Then the Sun and the Moon decided to rise and they pushed up the sky as they did so. When they were up, the Sun said to the Moon that they must do something for men, and told it to go back down to watch over them. The Moon stopped halfway down. From that time dates the alternation of day and night, and of the rainy and hot seasons; it was then that the animals separated from men to go into the forest, while the spirits for their part went off into the depths where they remained, hidden and menacing. Later the Sun devised an ingenious stratagem whereby the penis of men and the vagina of women was pierced. Thereafter man and woman were able to copulate and humanity multiplied. But in the course of this separation of species, whereby they were all dispersed throughout the Universe, the original common language disappeared. Men were obliged to go into the forest to hunt the animals who had taken refuge there, were obliged to plant sweet potatoes to keep themselves alive and had to protect themselves from the spirits, who had become maleficent; thus, in a sense, they were forced into hunting, agriculture and ritual. But they are assisted in them by the Sun and the Moon, who guarantee and maintain the new order. If the Sun comes too close to the earth, it burns it and devastates the farmlands; if the Moon comes too close to the earth, it drowns everything in rain and darkness and rots the crops.

This text thus gives us an account of the origin of the world and the men who exist today, an account which starts not from the void but from a primaeval state in which distinct realities—the earth and the sky, the sun and the moon, men and spirits, plants and animals, etc.—had not yet become separated and disconnected from each other. In a first phase, through the action of the sun and moon, this disconnection was accomplished and the world took on its present configuration, whose architecture is based on the balanced interplay of those two opposed persons/principles, the sun and the moon, through whom the hot and the cold, the dry and the wet, the burnt and the rotten, etc., came about.