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Importance of Valid Myth Interpretation
A BRIEF ORIENTATION
With the next issue of THOTH, I shall begin a series of articles focused on a single "snapshot" of the planetary configuration which we have claimed dominated human imagination in ancient times. As a prelude to that series, I am submitting the following introductory questions and answers for the benefit of the many new subscribers to this newsletter.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT MYTH?
I think there's a very good reason to care about myth, even though myth as a whole may seem to speak a language too obscure for rational, feet-on-the-ground folk. Myth is, I believe, a window to early human history, a more intense period of history than we've realized. The myths have their roots in a time of celestial catastrophe, and more often than not the appearance of confusion results from viewing myth as something other than what it is.
In the course of cultural evolution and scientific advance, we left behind the fabled "long ago," whose images seemed wholly out of touch with our own world. Yet my personal conviction is that ancient myth, when seen as a symbolic record of earth-shaking events in the sky, will permanently change man's view of his celestial environment.
BUT YOUR CONCLUSIONS ARE NOT THOSE OF OTHERS WHO DEVOTED LIFETIMES TO THE STUDY OF MYTH. HOW DOES YOUR APPROACH TO MYTH PRODUCE SUCH SURPRISING CONCLUSIONS?
For more than 35 years I've been working to solve a puzzle. Why do ancient chronicles of celestial gods and heroes tell such similar stories? Though the names differ, the various biographies of the gods reveal more parallels than I had ever believed possible. And the deeper I looked the more clear it became that ancient races around the world recorded many identical experiences, even when they used different symbols to tell their stories.
Many common themes run through the folklore of diverse cultures. From ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the Americas, from India to China, Scandinavia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands, one finds surprisingly similar accounts: celestial temples and cities, a lost paradise or "Garden of Eden," a cosmic mountain, a flaming serpent or dragon in the sky--and surprisingly similar stories of global calamity ranging from wars of the gods, to a great flood or a devastating rain of fire and gravel.
If we'll look at these collective memories carefully, it will change our understanding of the past. Many of the myths concern planets, but the accounts make no sense to us in terms of the movement of these remote bodies today. Why did the planets, these little pinpricks of light, play such a powerful role in the mythical "age of the gods"?
Along with others working in this field, I've come to interpret the myths and drawings and ritual practices from a new vantage point. Here is the conclusion in a nutshell: A few thousand years ago, the sky did not look anything like it appears today! Planets hung as gigantic, sometimes terrifying bodies above the ancient stargazers. In periods of stability this involved incredible beauty, but there were also periods of mind-altering catastrophe--the most traumatic experiences in human history.
WHAT IS YOUR EVIDENCE FOR THIS?
The primary evidence comes from ancient pictures and chronicles, submitted to extensive cross-referencing. By comparing accounts from around the world, one can begin to reconstruct the way the sky looked in ancient times. Is it possible that the myths and pictographs recorded, in a language unique to the starworshippers, large-scale events we've forgotten? By keeping that possibility firmly in mind, the researcher will begin to identify crucial themes of myth--themes found on every continent, but pointing to an alien sky.
As one begins to see the past differently, recent space age discoveries will take on a new significance. Our probes of other planets, such as the Mariner explorations of Mars, the Voyager missions to Jupiter and Saturn, and more recently the Magellan mapping of Venus, the Galileo probe of Jupiter, and the Mars Surveyor have produced many stunning images of the planets and their moons, together with undeniable evidence of large-scale catastrophe within the planetary system. Taken as a whole, these stark profiles of our neighbors challenge traditional theories claiming slow and uneventful planetary evolution. Moreover, a new possibility arises from a reconsideration of the historical material: the possibility that at least some of the horrendous scars on our planetary neighbors resulted from events witnessed by man not all that long ago.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THE STATEMENT THAT THE PLANETS APPEARED AS "GIGANTIC BODIES IN THE SKY"?
At the core of the argument is the idea that several planets were once joined in a spectacular gathering of planets, together with gases and dust, smaller moons and cosmic debris. For prehistoric man--who witnessed all of this--the effect was a massive celestial display in the northern sky. I've called this celestial assembly "the polar configuration" because in its stable phases it was centered on the north celestial pole. In the beginning, the primary form was the planet Saturn, stationary but immense in the sky. Numerous lines of evidence suggest that Saturn once towered over man and inspired the most dramatic leaps in human imagination the world has ever known.
Our work puts a new emphasis on the unusual celestial events reflected in the myths. When you first dive into world mythology, all of your prior training will tell you to dismiss the myth-makers as fabricators or victims of hallucination. But there's another way to see the myths. Ancient man experienced extraordinary events, then strove to remember and to reenact them in every way possible. The result was not only a global mythology, but entirely new forms of human expression. And the whole range of expressions--sacrifices to the gods, wars of conquest, monumental construction, pictographic representations, and endless celebrations of the lost age of the gods--left us a massive reservoir of evidence. These highly novel expressions are, in fact, the distinguishing characteristics of the first civilizations.
BUT WHY SHOULD WE BELIEVE THE SKY HAS CHANGED SO DRASTICALLY?
The best I can ask for is a willingness to consider an argument. I could show you, for example, that certain celestial images preoccupied ancient man to the point of an obsession. A great cosmic wheel in the sky. The pyramid of the sun. The eye of heaven. Also the ship of heaven, a spiraling serpent, the raging goddess, and four luminous "winds" of the sky. The problem for conventional perspectives is that these images are far, far removed from anything we see in the heavens today. But that is only the beginning of the theoretical challenge. As soon as you realize that far-flung cultures, though employing different symbols, tell a unified story, all of the previous "explanations" of myth collapse.
Of course the point will not be proven in a few sentences, and not in a few pages. But the more you learn on this subject, the more compelling the collective memory becomes.
SO YOU ARE CHALLENGING THE IDEA THAT THINGS HAVE NOT REALLY CHANGED THAT MUCH WITHIN THE SOLAR SYSTEM.
Yes, we are challenging an intellectual system as a whole. What is at stake here are the pillars of the modern world view. How could it be that the sky has completely changed in a few thousand years? Our textbooks do not talk about such a thing. When instructing us on the history of the solar system, the evolution of our planet, the birth of man, the origins of civilization, no one speaks of an unstable solar system, of interplanetary upheaval, or of wholesale changes in the celestial order.
When the popular astronomer Carl Sagan presented his impressive exposition on the nature of things, called Cosmos, he didn't ask if we may have misunderstood our past. Rather, Sagan's expressed view--the official view of science for many years--fits comfortably within the textbooks on astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, and ancient history.
When we launched the U.S. Space program in the late 50s, then devoted billions of dollars to exploring neighboring planets, no one thought to ask if the planets might have followed different courses in earlier times, whether recent disturbances of the planetary system might have left their tell-tale marks on these remote bodies. So when our cameras and measuring devices reached the planets Mars and Venus, and the Voyager probes provided spectacular glimpses of Jupiter and Saturn--well, we were left with a hundred enigmas and unanswered questions.
And yes, there's a certain irony to this. The prevailing view of myth proclaims that, through science, man escaped the bonds of superstition and make believe. But now, in the twentieth century--the age of science and reason--it is myth and symbol that will provide the lost key to the past, the key to a new understanding of the solar system and of human origins. At the heart of this claim is a bedrock principle: the myth-making age arose from the human urge to REMEMBER; hence, the patterns of myth are the patterns of human memory. And if it can be rigorously demonstrated from cross cultural comparison that numerous DIFFERENT words and symbols and mythical themes actually point to the SAME HIGHLY UNUSUAL EVENTS, then the patterns of memory will carry more weight than science has ever considered.
HOW DO YOU DISTINGUISH THESE IDEAS ABOUT "PLANETARY" MYTH FROM THE IDEAS OF OTHER RESEARCHERS SUCH AS JOSEPH CAMPBELL, CARL JUNG AND MIRCEA ELIADE?
Each of these impressive scholars came to discern certain unified layers of myth, layers our traditional cynicism about myth never anticipated. Perhaps the greatest contribution of these pioneers is their acknowledgment that the common view--seeing myth as random absurdity--will not suffice to explain the subject.
I think the late Joseph Campbell has done the most to awaken popular interest in myth, and he is one of my own favorites too. Following a comparative approach, Campbell brought to light quite a number of global themes. He noted, for example, the myths of the central sun, the world mountain, the flowering of creation through sacrifice, the birth of the hero, the terrible goddess, and so on.
Any one of these themes, when explored in its full context, could open the door to incredible discovery. But Campbell, like so many others, stopped short of asking the most important question of all: if the celestial references of the myths are absent today, is it possible that they were present in a former time?
WHAT IS THE REAL MESSAGE OF MYTH, IN YOUR VIEW?
The mythmakers are telling us we've forgotten the very thing they regarded as most vital--in fact, the source of all meaning to the first starworshippers. We've forgotten the age of the gods. We've assumed that as long as man has journeyed on our planet the world looked and behaved almost exactly as it does today. And that is the fundamental error of modern perception.
The answer to that error is to re-envision the past. With the help of the ancient chroniclers, its time to bring the forgotten dramas--both the beauty, and the nightmare scenarios--into the light of day.
ON THE USE OF HISTORICAL EVIDENCE
YOU'RE SUGGESTING THAT EARLY MAN WITNESSED SPECTACULAR EVENTS IN THE SKY. BUT SKEPTICS WOULD CLAIM THAT ANCIENT RECORDS ARE A HOPELESSLY ELUSIVE SOURCE FOR "PROVING" SUCH A CLAIM.
Of course they would, and the response should not surprise us. The most common objection to the "Saturn theory" is that it rests on the words of storytellers who understood nothing about the world in which they lived.
But we need to re-think these familiar responses. One reason ancient memories seem so absurd is that they speak for things that clearly do not exist - today. Our thinking is governed by an incredible amount of inertia, and only the rarest of investigators has ever asked, "Do we really know what ancient starworshippers saw in the sky? Can we really be certain that the natural world our ancestors experienced several thousand years ago is a mirror of our world today?"
SKEPTICS MIGHT SAY THAT YOU CAN "PROVE ANYTHING" BY RESORT TO MYTH.
Well, you certainly do hear that statement a lot, and the statement is obviously not intended to be taken literally. The skeptic is saying that all sorts of strange and exotic ideas have been proposed on the basis of myth, and he is saying you could argue for anything under the sun if all you have to do is select a few myths for support.
The answer to this perfectly natural objection is to adopt investigative groundrules which exclude all selective use of historical testimony. In the approach I've proposed, the entire inquiry rests on well-established patterns of memory, patterns that have survived thousands of years of tribal mixing and still shine through despite the inherent tendency toward distortion over time. The value of limiting admissible evidence to RECURRING themes is that this approach will expose the substratum of human memory. And that is when the great surprises come: with astonishing consistency the substratum speaks for an alien sky.
Additionally, this approach will place the highest emphasis on the oldest sources, those situated closest in time to the original experience, where there is the least opportunity for distortion. It is in the oldest sources that you find the most poignant and literal expressions of the universal themes, with minimal dilution of the celestial images involved.
AND YOU BELIEVE YOU CAN "PROVE" YOUR CASE ON THE BASIS OF MYTHICAL AND HISTORICAL EVIDENCE?
The "proof" begins with certain well-established celestial forms repeated in myths and pictographs and ritual reenactments around the world. Not one of these primary forms, when placed under the microscope, will reveal any relationship to things experienced today. There are "sun"-wheels, to be sure, but on examination they have nothing in common with the body we call sun. We find images of "stars" in great abundance, but they do not behave like any stars in our sky. One finds as well a distinctive crescent-form, recorded by all ancient cultures, but why do the particulars NEVER correspond to the crescent moon?
The researcher's first impression will be of confusion - one astronomically absurd image after another. A star in the center of the "sun." A crescent holding in its hollow a central star. A crescent on the great sphere of the "sun". A sun standing motionless at the center of heaven. A "sun" occupying the summit of the world axis. A celestial column rising along the polar axis to support a great crescent "moon". A star with a spiraling tail. A star carrying inside itself an unexplained dark or reddish sphere. The theoretical problem is that, from one ancient nation to another, there is far more consistency to these "astronomical absurdities" than is rationally conceivable if they arose from imagination somehow driven to DENY natural experience.
And that's the dilemma in a nutshell: random, irrational ideas could never produce global, coherent patterns at any level of detail; but there are demonstrable global patterns, and in greater detail than any comparative mythologist has previously recognized; therefore, the images cannot be random in the sense typically assumed.
In truth, the dilemma has no answer until one finds a new vantage point for interpreting the coherent substratum of myth. But finding that vantage point will require us to stop projecting our own sky onto that of prehistoric man. The good news is that nothing else is necessary in order to open the door to discovery. NEVERTHELESS, YOUR DEPENDENCE ON MYTHICAL IMAGES WILL SURELY INSPIRE SKEPTICISM.
Of course! On the face of it, myth is the most incoherent, confused and least credible source of information in the world!
In common perception myth has, for centuries, meant fiction. And myth, in one obvious sense, IS fiction. It is make believe. It should be obvious we're not suggesting that things occurred in the manner implied by mythical language itself. We don't need to be told that fiery serpents and dragons, or heaven-sustaining giants, or ships in the sky, or witches on brooms do not exist in the sense understood by the myth-makers. The questions we're asking are: where did the myths come from? What are the celestial references? In what human experiences did the most powerful themes of myth originate?
Nothing is more obvious than the myth-maker's relentless tendency to interpret events: monstrous creatures in the sky, celestial cities and kingdoms, sky pillars, rivers or fountains of life, celestial kings, heroes, and warriors, mother goddesses and divine princesses, heaven-embracing trees, crescent-horned bulls and crescent-ships, demons of chaos - there is no limit to the role of human imagination, whatever may have inspired these ideas. Ultimately, there is only one question here: is it even conceivable that the general patterns could have arisen without an external reference to prompt the ideas? What we are claiming is that these themes arose from a natural environment more dramatic and terrifying than anything known in modern times.
Since there's virtually no limit to the field of evidence, there are logical groundrules for determining if the references are alien to our sky. Why not apply these reasonable groundrules and see where they lead?
The first step toward understanding the myth-making epoch is to distinguish between the unusual and the imaginative. The events are unusual, while the interpretations are imaginative. I'm not asking you to agree that a shining temple or city of living "gods" once stood in the center of the sky; or believe that a great hero of flesh and blood once arose to rid the world of the chaos-monsters; or that this very same hero once consorted with a "mother goddess". I WILL ask you, however, to consider whether these unexplained and global themes may have roots in uncommon natural events. In our skepticism about such global themes we forgot the elementary distinction between event and interpretation, then tossed out the entire body of evidence.
A new approach will simply let the dominant patterns of myth speak for themselves, suggesting the concrete forms behind the imaginative interpretations. If it can be seen that the diverse mythical images, in their earliest uses, point to the SAME underlying forms, it becomes rationally impossible to deny the presence of those forms. And in the same way, once the concrete forms have been identified, the concrete sequences of events will provide additional acid tests.
WHAT, THEN, IS THE HEART OF YOUR ARGUMENT?
For several years now I've been asking those with an interest in the subject to see if they can find a global mythical theme explicable by reference to known natural phenomena. I do not believe it will ever happen. Despite appearances at a superficial level (where the translators of various texts ASSUME a reference to the sun or moon, or some other readily accessible phenomenon), there is, in truth, no theme of myth answering, in its earliest expressions, to the world we know.
Now if this assessment is correct, we're left with only two options theoretically. Either we must imagine that the ancients populated their mythical world with forms and events never experienced, denying natural experience at every turn (something no theorist has ever claimed); or we must assume that the world formerly presented to the mythmakers a range of sights and sounds unlike anything known in modern times.
That's why I've urged an analytical approach concentrating on the universal themes of myth. Nothing will boost the researcher's confidence more than discovering, first, that there are authentic but unexplained patterns; then discovering that the patterns are all inseparably connected, as if joined to a single taproot.
Just consider, for example, the collective memory repeated in myths the world over - of a former "age of the gods". It began with a period frequently termed the "Golden Age", but was punctuated by a collapse of the original order, sweeping catastrophe, wars of the gods and eventually a departure of these visible powers. Yes, there are a hundred variations on the theme, and countless contradictions in the localized versions, but at root we have the idea that the great gods were overwhelmed in a deadly catastrophe, wandered off, or flew away to become distant stars.
We've never really reckoned with this collective memory - of a time when man himself lived close to the "gods". The general theme is both universal and remarkably persistent. From the dawn of history onward, that theme never gave way to a contrary idea - UNTIL the contradiction between the memory and the experienced world became so great that men stopped believing in the gods!
By concentrating on the themes that have survived for thousands of years, in all major cultures, the investigative approach itself prevents you from slipping into subjective interpretation, or dwelling on aspects of myth that are clearly evolutionary and localized.
AND HOW DO THE PLANETS FIGURE INTO THIS?
In the most direct way. The great celestial powers first celebrated by man were planets and aspects of planets, all playing concrete roles that can be demonstrated through systematic analysis.
When I started my own investigation in 1972 it was obvious that most mainstream scholars do not admit any meaningful relationship of early gods and later planets. It soon became clear why this is so. The gods are far more dominant, more active, and more violent than could possibly be explained, or illuminated in any way by the present fireflies of light we call planets. We know that the early priest astronomers upheld cosmic traditions dating back to the dawn of civilization. And when the first stargazers of ancient Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica began recording the movements of settled (or nearly settled) planets, they insisted with one voice that these distant bodies once dominated the world as "the gods". The incredible discrepancy between the biographies of these gods and the present little specks in the sky presents a fascinating and unexplained global anomaly.
I'm suggesting, in other words, that we pay serious attention to the profound shift in ancient ideas about gods and planets, a shift occurring some time in the first millennium B.C. Gradually, the "capriciousness" of the gods gave way to fixed and repeated cycles of planets. Whatever you may think of our reconstruction, it cannot be denied that the dramatic change in human perception IS consistent with the claimed transition - a shift from the active and dramatic presence of the gods to the remote, uniform and predictable planetary system we observe today. Until the establishment of stable cycles or patterns, of course, observational, mathematically-based planetary astronomy would be impossible.
Now obviously, the unshakable opinion of astronomers is that the solar system of our ancestors looked very much like it does today. Yet surprisingly, though celestial "sun" and "star" symbols are everywhere, one searches in vain for evidence of PRESENT planetary movements. What we find is thus what we should EXPECT to find if the planetary system changed dramatically within human memory.