Where have all the Yeti gone? The place of myth in the age of the Internet

Tibet - Religions and Philosophies

In 1954, the Daily Mail sponsored an expedition to travel to Everest and Kanchenjunga with the intention to ascertain definitive proof of the existence of the Yeti.  The mission was called the Snowman Expedition and was led by notable mountaineer John Angelo Jackson.

The 1950s were perhaps the heyday for interest in the Yeti.  The Daily Mail expedition followed closely in the ‘footsteps’ of Eric Shipton’s 1951 Everest expedition, which returned with intriguing stories of having discovered unexplained tracks in the snows of the high Himalayas, and it was they who took the classic photograph of an enormous footprint in the snow, pictured next to an ice-axe for scale.

The Yeti was quickly assimilated into popular culture.  Herge’s Tintin in Tibet was published in 1960, and two complete storylines of Doctor Who, produced during Patrick Troughton’s era as the second Doctor––The Abominable Snowmen (1967) and The Web of Fear (1968)––featured the Yeti as the principal baddie.

David Snellgrove

The 1950s expeditions must have also piqued the interest of SOAS academic David Snellgrove.

Snellgrove was no stranger to the Himalayan region: he had been stationed in north Calcutta during the Second World War, and had subsequently travelled to Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim, where he had begun to get interested in Tibet and the Tibetan people and language.

David Snellgrove started teaching courses in Tibetan at SOAS in 1950.  He was Professor of Tibetan Studies from 1978 until his retirement in 1982, and SOAS remains one of the few higher education institutions in the world, which offers an undergraduate degree in Tibetan.

David Snellgrove’s intervention in the Yeti debate surrounded a matter of etymology.  He disputed a supposed Tibetan word, ‘metch’, which in translation had formed the basis of part of the popular phrase ‘Abominable Snowman’ and which had mistakenly got passed on from published sources at the time.

A case of Chinese whispers, or perhaps Tibetan whispers, in operation.

60 Years Later

Over sixty years later, and the Yeti continues to remain a mystery.  Travel writer, comedian and SOAS alumnus, Dom Joly, BA Politics, took part in a latter-day Yeti-hunt whilst researching his book Scary Monsters and Super Creeps: In Search of the World’s Most Hideous Beasts.  Returning home without any actual sightings of the legendary beast, he did however remark that of all the fantastical creatures he set out to encounter, the Yeti “is the most believable”.

However, perhaps the appeal of the Yeti is now waning.

Myths in the Internet Age

Each generation needs its own myths.  The Yeti is a myth, which grew up as part of Himalayan folklore, and became assimilated into a wider mainstream.  However, myths often serve as a mirror of prevailing social circumstances, as well as a driver for their formation, and the times they are a changin’.

The Internet has served a dual death-blow to the Yeti.  On the one hand, it provides an easily-available source of tested scientific information, which is quickly able to dispel some of the more fanciful claims, which have surrounded the existence of the Yeti; on the other hand, it offers up a vast array of new myths, many of which are manufactured either for profit or publicity, and which perhaps more accurately reflect the rapid consumerist society in which we now live.

Popular interest in the Yeti appears at an all-time low.

It is very unlikely today, that a national newspaper would be prepared to sponsor a fresh expedition in the way that the Daily Mail was prepared to do in the 1950s.

The myth of the Yeti looks set for extinction, due more to public neglect than scientific reasoning.


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