Myth as Foundation
By David Talbott
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.
[ALL INDENTED QUOTES ARE FROM Fitton]:
"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
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
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
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.
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