IF I SEEK US
Ancient Myth Articles
What the Experts Say
[ed note: The following is a sampling of quotations by modern scientists and others about the connection between myth and early disasters in the sky. The full collection of quotations, with references, can be found on van der Sluijs' Mythopedia website at: http://mythopedia.info/experts.htm ]
MARK BAILEY - astronomer at the Armagh Observatory, Northern Ireland:
The conjunction of these ideas, linking astronomy and history, therefore suggests that human societies may have been witness to a somewhat more active celestial environment during past millennia.
In fact, the extreme preoccupation of most early societies with celestial imagery and the making of astronomical observations appears to be part of a world-wide phenomenon during the period leading up to and including the Bronze age ... This would be consistent with the presence of a once powerful extraterrestrial source with the capacity to cause both local and global destruction and to trigger a common social response.
Further arguments for a possibly more active sky in the past include ... the fact that iron was apparently first known through its occurrence in meteorites ... and ... the fact that flood myths and related ceremonies from around the world frequently seem to have a common historical basis ...
... indirect support for such a picture comes from a wide range of historical arguments ... which suggests that there was indeed more astronomical activity in the past than now.
Episodes of bombardment ... may provide an explanation for periods of global cooling as registered in the historical record, even for the strong interest displayed by most early civilizations in celestial phenomena, providing a possible common origin for myths and legends from around the world.
BILL NAPIER - astronomer at the Armagh Observatory, Northern Ireland:
... modern astronomical evidence does not support the common supposition that the night sky has been unchanging for 5,000 years. There are likely to have been epochs when the sky contained one or more visible, periodic comets, associated with annual fireball storms of huge intensity, and perhaps also with devastating impact. Such phenomena, enduring for centuries, surely had a profound effect on the minds of early peoples. At a minimum, traces of this ancient sky should still be detectable in the artefacts and belief systems of the earliest cultures.
VICTOR CLUBE - Astronomer:
This leads us to recognise the relatively sudden flowering and foundering of civilizations during interglacials as the principal signatures of punctuational crises that arise as the corresponding debris of a giant comet in a short-period, Earth-crossing orbit passes through the final stages (splittings) of its evolution and decline.
Astronomers at the dawn of civilisation perceived danger in the sky and society was notably unsettled. Later, astronomers were to perceive order in the cosmos and society was to become notably less unsettled.
MARK BAILEY, VICTOR CLUBE, and BILL NAPIER - astronomers:
Indeed, recent researches in modern cometary astronomy now independently suggest that the civilizations of antiquity may have experienced happenings in the sky which have not since been repeated on the same scale ...
Many of the legends of mythology can thus be interpreted as highly embellished accounts of the evolution of one, or perhaps a few, very large comets during the last 2,000 years of prehistory. This enables us to place the facts of mythology in a new light and it is concluded that many myths have a common core reflecting world-wide observations of a large active short-period comet. The genealogy of the gods is interpreted as a history of fragmentation.
DUNCAN STEEL - astronomer at Spaceguard Australia, Adelaide, Australia:
Indeed this is the whole crux of what I perceive as being the limitation in previous interpretational work in archaeoastronomy: the assumption that the phenomena seen in the sky by the ancients were the same as those which we see now ... To the contrary, in my opinion their execution of exceptional feats of engineering or other endeavour might rather be viewed as an indication that exceptional phenomena were being experienced.
In astro-archaeological investigations I believe that it should be kept firmly in mind that the celestial phenomena which ancient man would have been most concerned with ? objects which moved around the sky relative to the background of stars ? may have been quite different to those observed now.
GERRIT VERSCHUUR - astronomer at University of Memphis, USA:
It is certain that some of those impactors splashed into the oceans to trigger tsunamis and flooding along coast lines and instilling terror in the minds of survivors, a terror so powerful that legends about such floods persist to this day. This possible link between flood legends and impact events is now beginning to fascinate more than just the pseudo-scientist.
The issue is entering the mainstream of thought ...
CHANDRA WICKRAMASINGHE - astronomer:
There can be little doubt that myths and legends would have evolved in response to such experiences, experiences that must surely have been shared by many nomadic tribes scattered widely across our planet.
FRED HALL - Engineer:
The known comets of the past have generally had extremely short and uneventful appearances, and it does not seem likely that any of these would have involved sufficient drama to produce lasting myths. Nevertheless, no one can dispute that comets did arouse utter terror among ancient populations on all continents, and they are still feared today by some cultures. This is not well understood by those savants who do not believe the ancients could have ever seen a comet at closer range than we see them now. If, on the other hand, the fears of comets can be traced to a more spectacular and destructive comet than ever documented in our time, then the enigma is removed.
BRUCE MASSE - environmental archaeologist at the US Department of Air Force and the University of Hawaii:
Mythology to date has been largely under exploited as a resource because of our failure to understand its meaning and logic, and our failure to realize that the data contained in mythologies can be retrieved by systematic scientific methodology. Mythology, rather than being fanciful as is commonly believed in Western science, is actually a large multifaceted window on the major natural environmental events and processes that have shaped human history.
An equally important goal of cosmography is that of the reconstruction of past environmental events and processes not presently known, or at least poorly known to science as determined from patterns elicited from the archaeological, documentary, oral historical, and palaeo- environmental record. Chief among these are cosmic impacts.
Due to my familiarity with the literature on volcanic eruptions, I also realized that many myths did not well reflect volcanic eruptions or other known physical processes on Earth, but rather seemed to reflect disasters of cosmic origin.
... mythologies, at least in part, represent cosmographic records of real environmental events, especially temporary celestial events ... some iconographic images of gods, demigods, supernatural beings, and legendary rulers portray specific celestial phenomena and events ... environmental events such as floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and droughts, are often cognitively linked with unusual celestial events (e. g., comets, meteor storms, supernovae, planetary conjunctions, eclipses, cosmic impacts) that may have occurred within a few years of the earthly environmental event.
... the birth names of chiefs and royalty can encode spectacular temporary celestial events as is also true for names acquired during the reigns of these individuals ... at least some cosmogonic myths, as well as myths about demigods and culture heroes, encode temporary celestial events ... at least some legendary stories about epic battles and voyages encode temporary celestial events, especially the passage of spectacular comets ... art, iconography, architecture, and chiefly or royal symbols of power are sometimes used to encode temporary celestial events.
The secret of humankind's past has long been locked within the fabric of our cultural traditions ... within our mythologies ... within the iconography, art, and architecture of past societies ... within the patterns of social behavior that can be elicited from the archaeological record ... and within the corpus of wisdom so zealously shepherded and preserved by our various religions. It is sobering to realize that until now the most visually and intellectually stimulating part of humankind's overall environment, that of the processes and events in the celestial heavens, has been virtually ignored in nearly all studies of human history and human behavior.
With the realization of just how important temporary celestial events were to past cultures, we now have a key that can unlock many of the biggest mysteries of our past. However, in order for us to most effectively use this key we must break down the artificial barriers that presently exist between the social sciences, the physical sciences, and the humanities, and indeed the barriers between science and religion. Past cultures worldwide often shared in a single cosmic vision, and we must not let our own present fragmented fields of knowledge hinder our attempt to recapture that vision.
LEWIS FARNELL - professor of Greek religion:
What is normal in nature and society rarely excites the myth-making imagination, which is more likely to be kindled by the abnormal, some startling catastrophe, some terrible violation of the social code.
DAVID PANKENIER - Lehigh University, Philadelphia, USA:
... the broad spectrum of cultural responses to cataclysmic events ? from deep-seated fear and dread, to intense efforts to mediate what they saw through ritual reenactment, mythic recounting, and sacrifice, to the ultimate domestication of the frightening implications of chaotic intrusions into their lives through various forms of deep-play all attest to the profoundly unsettling impact chaotic events in the skies may have had on the minds of those ancient Chinese.
ADRIAN BAILEY - comparative mythologist and author:
Could our failure to understand our distant past be due to our method of approach and a strange reluctance to pursue a line of enquiry ? well signposted with clues ? to its conclusion?
Can there be any doubt that, in the absence of written records, myths and symbols, legends and folklore, passed down from generation to generation, and migrating through diverse cultures and societies while retaining their original meaning, provide us with the most reliable clues to the mysteries of the past?
Anonymous editor of the Larousse encyclopedia of mythology:
... are all these legends a confused account of great events on a planetary scale which were beheld in terror simultaneously by the men scattered everywhere over the world?
HANS BELLAMY - comparative mythologist:
Chance and luck allowed a remnant of mankind to get through the cataclysm of the former satellite. These survivors treasured their memories in those reports which we now call 'cosmological myths'. They recorded the terrors from which they had escaped, and they told of the time of calm which followed the great upheaval.
IRVING WOLFE - professor of English literature, University of Montr饌l, Canada:
Nature produces Culture and the natural cataclysms which our ancestors have collectively experienced have influenced and shaped the cultural artifacts created afterwards. To put it simply, cultures are what they have gone through. The past determines the present, and the cosmic past exerts the greatest influence. A culture, if properly interpreted, therefore becomes a mirror of what preceded it.
... catastrophe leads to new civilisation: revolutions in Culture arise from the behaviour of Nature. The catastrophe would nevertheless have to be large enough to cause violent and sensational spectacles in the sky and correspondingly sensational effects on nature and culture.
What is important for our purposes is the agreement among many researchers that the history behind the combat myths is cosmic, for this is what allows us to propose that it may refer to a real historical event.
... if humankind for the first time began to look for and find objective order in the heavens during the pre-Socratic period, it did not happen because there was a sudden increase in Greek brainpower, or because of a sudden and unexplainable desire to perceive the heavens as they were rather than invent things that were not there in the sky. I think it occurred because for the first time the heavens displayed an objective order which could be observed. If there was a catastrophe around 700 BC, the skies might have settled down sufficiently by 600 BC or slightly later to permit recurrent observation of the year-length, the solstices and equinoxes and lunar cycles and even the Venus-Earth interlock, such that it would be apparent that the heavens were orderly.
... most of the creations of our culture (idea systems, religions, cosmologies, sports, works of art) are unconsciously-directed denials of catastrophe, self-delusions designed to make us believe that cosmically- induced natural destructions did not occur and therefore will not.
... the Games served a therapeutic purpose, in that the athletes emulated the actions of the cosmic forces which had been seen on the screen of the sky, with the winners representing the original divine sky champion, able to defeat all enemies at cosmically symbolic feats ... The Games therefore re-enacted in safe and re-assuring imitation the victory of stability over chaos in the sky.
If we accept the hypothesis that Culture follows Nature, then ... we have no choice but to guess that something drastic happened in the skies not too long before the cultural upheaval, which leads us to ask of course when it occurred and what was its cause.
E. TRIPP - classical mythologist:
The mythical battle is generally believed to have been a personification of terrifying natural phenomena of cataclysmic proportions.
BARBARA HAND CLOW - writer:
The marauding cosmic agencies responsible for such dire devastation are now identifiable with reasonable accuracy and are still graphically remembered as the hydras, griffins, dragons, and Medusas, the world encircling serpents and vast 'monsters' of popular mythology ... actually symbolized cosmic phenomena. The sky did fall within recent memory, and then the recovery period from 9000 to 1500 B. C. was filled with periodic upheaval.
R. M. SINCLAIR - National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia:
When we talk of astronomical phenomena, we usually make an assumption of uniformity in the past, that the long-term average of these phenomena has always been much the same. We can say with certainty that this is true for the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars because we can track their motions back for millennia But we do not know with the same certainty that the bombardment of Earth from space has been the same as we now observe it to be. The present rarity of sizable 'hits' may not always have been the case.
Some of the evidence comes from old records and traditions, that suggest strongly that the sky some millennia ago was so different as to lie completely outside our present experience. Early records speak fearfully of the sky being alive with meteors, much as we have occasionally seen during rare showers; were there many more small ones, there could be as many more big ones. At those times bombardment from the sky would have been a real hazard. Tunguska-sized events may have been common enough, to make people fear the skies as something to watch with dread, to worship, and to propitiate.
The idea of repeated passage through 'danger zones' in the Solar System would explain much of the fear and worship of the sky that we still see in place today, albeit diluted. It is otherwise hard to understand this dread of the sky, since there is no historical record of anyone actually being killed by a meteorite or threatened physically by a comet.
Those studying myths and legends, and early art, could profitably work with astronomers (and vice versa) to learn more about this little-understood aspect of the history of mankind and of the Solar System. Historians and anthropologists who do not include astronomical phenomena in their work, and who do not understand how dangerous the Solar System can be, are likely to interpret texts or traditions about things 'seen in the sky' or 'falling to Earth' as references to 'heavens' or 'warfare of the gods' rather than descriptions of actual physical events. When used with understandable caution, human history does offer a way to probe the astronomical record on a time scale of millennia.
C. L. N. RUGGLES & H. A. W. BURL:
We can be sure that the actions of prehistoric people were very strongly dependent upon their perceptions of the world, expressed in systems of belief and ritual, and that celestial phenomena were an integral part of this perception ...
MIKE BAILLIE - Dendrochronologist:
We now have a set of environmental events at 2354-2345 BC, 1628-1623 BC, 1159-1141 BC, 208-204 BC and AD 536-45 ... There are connections between the events in that all now seem to have references to extraterrestrial occurrences. Mythology links several of them quite explicitly, and the mythological connections suggest some cosmic linkages to the same events. It appears that there may have been a catastrophic set of happenings in or around 1628 BC involving a close-pass comet and volcanic activity. We have what may be some reasonably accurate descriptions of what it was like at the time with incredible coloured sky displays, assorted impacts and general mayhem. It is not impossible that versions of this may have happened more than once, especially if the responsible body exhibited even temporary periodic behaviour.
It is necessary to rethink the 'Axial Age', connecting cultures from Greece to China in the 6th and 5th century BCE: The assumption on which this rethinking is based is that these cultures' simultaneous activities in rewriting the mythical accounts of world-destructions bequeathed to them by immediately preceding generations was essentially conditioned by the fact that human consciousness had only recently emerged from such events into a period of relative celestial and terrestrial stability.
Erratic events in the heavens are terrifying; predictable events need not be so. The former belief is the heritage of the traumatizing catastrophes of the past; the latter is the product of a new determination to survey the heavens as an orderly system.
Collected by Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs