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Myth as Foundation
By David Talbott

Part 1

Almost 25 years ago an article by James Fitton appeared in the first and only issue of a journal called CHIRON. In that article, Fitton critiqued Immanuel Velikovsky's use of sources in Worlds in Collision. Much more recently, a well-known critic resurrected the article, wondering why catastrophists had "ignored" Fitton's criticism of Velikovsky. Since we are discussing memory as evidence, perhaps this is an appropriate place to insert a review of Fitton's comments.


"It is surprising that, although Dr. Velikovsky's use of myths is one of the most important foundations of his work, it has received almost no attention from the experts. By contrast, the hostility of many members of the scientific community seems almost a healthy reaction. The purpose of this paper, then, is to make some preliminary criticisms of Velikovsky's methodology, and to indicate some approaches to specific issues, particularly in regards to Worlds in Collision (1950)...."

Ancient myth is, indeed, "one of the most important foundations" of Velikovsky's work. In truth, it is the global memories embedded in myth that made possible a coherent new way of seeing human history and planetary history. Of course, Velikovsky and all who have mined this field of evidence have faced a huge obstacle in the modern idea of myth as sheer fiction. How could anything as elusive or "untrustworthy" as myth count as evidence powerful enough to challenge science?

At issue are two different ways of seeing myth. In one perception, myth is an outpouring of human imagination as humankind looked out at an ancient sky very much like our own. In the other perception, myth is an outpouring of imagination in response to extraordinary celestial events—earthshaking dramas unlike anything occurring in our sky today.

The good news is that one can apply certain principles of reasoning to the patterns of human memory. Though these rules are employed all the time in judicial proceedings, the vast majority of scholars have ignored them, fostering a madhouse of competing interpretations and further discrediting myth as a source of evidence.

"When we come to exact historical material from the myths we find many difficulties. The stories appear in endless variations. Each writer has his own version. sometimes the names are different, sometimes the sequence of events, sometimes the actual events themselves. We are, moreover, at the mercy of the individual authors. One of our earliest sources for Greek myths is Pindar, who considered himself under no obligation to tell the story as he knew it. Like the modern government censor, Pindar defended his right to change any parts of the story he thought objectionable. The earlier, of course, the purer the tradition. Conversely, many later versions of individual myths show considerable embellishment...."

Virtually everything Fitton says here is correct except the overstatement of Pindar's assumed "right to change any part of the story". There is an observable degradation of human memories over time, through localization, fragmentation, elaboration, and embellishment, including various forms of "political correctness" within the different cultures. But Fitton does not really address the implications of these evolutionary tendencies, or say how we might deal with them in a comparative approach.

For example, amending a story or adding a detail will always create a contradiction between one version of a story and another. But there is more to it than this. In addition to observing the accumulation of contradictions, one must also confront the underlying points of agreement between broadly distributed cultures. Most significant are those points of agreement on details so SPECIFIC that the agreement could not be the result of accident or any suspected general tendencies of the human mind. But this principle, absolutely crucial to the comparative approach, is not even addressed by Fitton.

The critic does, however, acknowledge one key which, on it own, can resolve many contradictions. The earlier the traditions, the more pure their content. This principle is of vast import, and it can be easily verified by simply observing the evolution of mythical themes and personalities over time within particular regions. One will note, for example, that countless figures originally worshipped as dominating forms in the sky are, in later times, described as LOCAL kings, queens and warriors. The Egyptian Ra was the creator-king, the central sun. But later myths depict him as an aged and venerable ruler of Heliopolis. The Greek Kronos (Latin Saturn) was also the creator and central luminary of the sky, though later traditions recalled the god as a former king, ruling for a time on earth before being forcibly removed from his throne.

The Akkadian war-god Ninurta emerges in later myths as the terrestrial warrior Nimrod, and countless other celestial warriors show the same evolution. Greek chronicles describe Heracles wandering across a vast landscape, though his exploits are clearly those of the Egyptian Shu, Anhur, Sept, and Horus, with whom Heracles was, in fact, identified. The original celestial character of these Egyptian gods is beyond question, despite the fact that in later times chroniclers could point to the very places ON EARTH where the heroes' greatest exploits occurred.

I mention this particular evolutionary principle because it is the single, most common basis of misunderstanding, first by ancient storytellers, then by modern-day critics. Every localization of a god in later chronicles involves a contradiction at two levels. It is a contradiction, first, because the earlier traditions do not depict a local figure, but a cosmic figure. And it is a contradiction also because each localization stands in opposition to all other localizations of the same figure, each forcing geographically-based variations into a story that originally had no connection whatsoever to geography.

The roots of this evolutionary tendency in COMMEMORATIVE practices need to be appreciated. It is a fact that numerous ritual celebrations or re-enactments had the effect, over time, of placing originally CELESTIAL gods on plots of earth. In commemoration of the gods and their attributes, ancient artists and architects fashioned thousands of terrestrial symbols— temples, cities, and kingdoms patterned after, and NAMED after, the dwelling of the gods. They constructed artificial mounds, pillars, pyramids and towers, reflecting earlier memories of the world mountain or pillar of the sky. So too, they founded innumerable holy sites in the shadow of sacred hills, or above sacred springs, or in proximity to sacred rivers—all made "holy" through symbolic projection, all pointing back to the world mountain, or fountain of the sun, or nether river which had distinguished the age of the gods from all subsequent epochs of human history.

So yes, Fitton is correct that there are "endless variations" to every theme. That's what localization does, and it is why it would be futile to try to reconcile isolated "pieces that don't fit". At the level of localized myth, NOTHING WILL FIT. Reconciliation occurs at the level of the substratum, defined by the shared patterns of human memory, not by localized variations and contradictions. You find the substratum by seeing past the effects of localization to the underlying, shared motifs, then tracing these defined motifs to their earliest expressions. All of the major cultures, for example, preserved a memory of the "navel of the world." And in virtually every case this mythical "place", originally fixed in the sky, was represented locally, so that natives could point to a particular stone, or a particular shrine, temple, city, or kingdom, or a particular island, or a particular mound of earth deemed "the navel", recounting stories as to how, in primeval times, a great god or hero had founded this very place.

When treated superficially, such themes will easily be passed off as mere egocentricity of the people telling the stories. And this dismissal will, in turn, deflect attention from the deeper questions raised by a comparative approach. The deeper questions arise from unexplained patterns. Why was the "navel of the world" commonly associated not just with the center, but with the "SUMMIT" as well? Why was it identified with a GODDESS? Why was it represented by the so-called "sun" pictograph (a small circle or sphere inside a much larger circle or sphere, as in the hieroglyphic sign for Ra)? What was the relationship of the navel to the NAVE of the "sun" wheel? And why, around the world, did races remember an ancestral hero born from, or departing from, or leaping from the "navel" before undertaking his adventures? In truth, each of these patterns is connected to pervasive larger patterns, presenting a structure far too coherent to be explained by any prior approach to myth.

These two stories [about the Spartan defense of Thermopylae and the capture and torture of the Roman general Regulus by the Carthaginians], taken from genuine historical events, not mythology, show the influence of ancient rhetoric. Rhetoric was taught at school; it was a part of every educated man's training. The ancient professors had the art of embellishment and elaboration mastered in a way that has no modern parallel. Of this school, which was at its peak during the Roman empire, a typical product was Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the tutor of the Emperor Nero. Seneca's plays abound in every mannerism and conceit imaginable. His version of the legend of Medea concludes with the heroine, having murdered her little children before he husband's eyes, escaping in a chariot drawn by dragons. Should we expect Seneca to preserve an accurate memory of early history? Apparently, for Velikovsky tells us that Seneca had a 'profound knowledge of natural phenomena.'...

Since this statement about Seneca is the weakest point in Fitton's presentation, I will not labor through an extended response. The truth is that Seneca is the most respected naturalist of his day. But he was also a chronicler of myths, and I can assure the reader that Seneca did not invent the idea of a chariot drawn by dragons! The real question is: what was signified by that ancient idea, occurring from Europe to China? (If someone is truly curious, I'll offer the explanation provided by the Saturnian reconstruction.)

"Myths are obviously a very tricky source of historical information. But with proper care and judgment, much of value can be extracted from them. Does Velikovsky show such care and judgment? Unfortunately he often does not. In at least three important ways Velikovsky's use of mythology is unsound. The first of these is his proclivity to treat all myths as having independent value; the second is the tendency to treat only such material as is consistent with his thesis; and the third is his very unsystematic method....

These lines by Fitton are actually a lead-in to some interesting comments on the Iliad and on Velikovsky's identification of the goddess Athena with Venus. But discussion of the Iliad will require more background on the evolution of the warrior-hero myth, which I will reserve for follow-up next issue. For now I will simply register my own opinion with respect to the "three important ways Velikovsky's use of mythology is unsound".

There are instances in which Velikovsky does, indeed, build too much on particular myths—such as the presumed explosion of Venus from Jupiter, based substantially on the myth of Athena's birth from the head of Zeus. If theorists are permitted to build entire theses on such selective use of material, then every interpretation imaginable will be possible. Moreover, there is a much larger field of evidence one can draw from, since stories of this sort are are actually subheadings to the widespread myth of Venus as the departing eye-heart-soul of the sovereign god.

The second objection, though containing much truth, can also be misleading. The fact is that Velikovsky detected certain patterns that cannot be denied and which, taken as a whole, speak emphatically for unusual phenomena—most notably the spectacular cometary history of Venus. There is nothing unreasonable in gathering from around the world the many instances reflecting this highly unusual idea, no matter how many other interesting ideas might be overlooked in the process. The fact is that Velikovsky did not address more than two to five percent of the recurring mythical themes. But by identifying certain themes and offering explanations, he opened the door to a new approach which DOES address the full range of themes in a unified way.

And lastly, I would certainly not call Velikovsky's method "unsystematic". It is the systematic nature of his inquiry which establishes one of the key principles: when DIFFERENT words and symbols refer to the SAME celestial phenomena and imply the SAME sequence of events, they constitute legitimate evidence.

Part 2

We continue with a twofold purpose: first, to examine the logic of the comparative method; and second, to illustrate the ACID TESTS for verifying even the most extraordinary conclusions.

See Heroes of the Iliad

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