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The Meaning of Myth
Why should anyone care about the message of ancient myth? The most obvious reason, perhaps, is that myth served the role of history, science, literature, and entertainment for many centuries prior to the appearance of advanced civilizations and the development of writing. A study of ancient myth, consequently, will tell us a great deal about the intellectual life of early man. If for no other reason, this should ensure that modern scholars pay careful attention to the favorite myths of our forbears.
There are many different approaches to the study of ancient myth—naturist, Freudian, Jungian, structuralist, etc. No doubt each of the various schools of thought has valid points to make. My own approach to myth attempts to make sense of the ancient traditions surrounding the various celestial bodies. It is well-known, in fact, that the earliest religions of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica were characterized by a preoccupation with celestial phenomena. Of the latter culture, David Kelley has observed:
"It has been clear to all serious students of Mesoamerican culture that there was an intimate relationship between astronomical knowledge, the calendar, and religious beliefs and rituals."
Much the same point could be made with respect to all ancient cultures. Wherever one looks, one finds the same fascination with the heavenly bodies. Throughout the ancient world, for example, comets were looked upon as objects of terror and ominous portent, their appearance said to herald the downfall of kingdoms and the death of kings. The opinion of Synesius, an author of the fourth century A. D., may be taken as typical: "And whenever these comets appear, they are an evil portent, which the diviners and soothsayers appease. They assuredly foretell public disasters, enslavements of nations, desolations of cities, deaths of kings."
Eclipses, similarly, were thought to signal the imminent end of the world, anxious skywatchers performing all sorts of bizarre rituals to appease and banish the evil spirits responsible for the all-encompassing darkness.
How is it possible to understand such widespread beliefs? Modern astronomers, accustomed to seeing comets and eclipses come and go without catastrophic consequences—much less the end of the world!—quite naturally approach these ancient beliefs with a measure of incredulity, much as adults view a child’s belief in the bogeyman or Santa Claus. Scholars of ancient myth, likewise, have typically understood such beliefs as the expression of ancient man’s primitive mentality and prescientific understanding of the cosmos. Yet such a view overlooks the fact that similar beliefs were common well into the modern period—in this century, in fact—and were shared by the scientific elite of most ancient civilizations. Thus the possibility must be considered that the problem in understanding is not with the ancients, rather with the preconceptions of modern astronomers.
There have been scant few scholars who took seriously the ancient reports of death-bringing comets and apocalyptic eclipses. Among the few who did—Whiston, Vico, Radlof, Donnelly, Beaumont, and Kugler—it was Immanuel Velikovsky who did the most to popularize (some would say discredit forever) the notion that the ancient reports are worthy of careful attention. In Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky set the stage for a revolution in comparative mythology by suggesting that universally recurring mythical images—such as the war-god, fire-breathing dragon, and witch—reflect ancient man’s attempt to commemorate terrifying cataclysms associated with planetary agents.
Nearly twenty years of research has convinced me that Velikovsky was on the right track and that the modern astronomer’s refusal to acquaint himself with the message of ancient myth will prove to be a most glaring omission.
Velikovsky posed the following question: Why would ancient peoples on both sides of the Atlantic describe the planet Venus in terms otherwise appropriate for a comet—hair-star, serpent-star, bearded star, smoking star, etc.—if its appearance had always remained the same? And why would ancient peoples around the globe associate this planet with destruction and ill omen if it had always behaved in its present peaceful fashion? This anomaly is made all the more difficult to understand given the fact that several of the cultures who preserved such traditions—the Babylonians and the Maya, for example—were justly renowned as careful observers of the celestial bodies in general and obsessed with the movements of Venus in particular. Despite the fact that nearly 50 years have elapsed since the publication of Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky’s question has yet to receive a satisfactory answer.
A key to the proper understanding of ancient archaeoastronomical traditions is the comparative method. As long as one’s focus is confined to this or that culture, it is always tempting to dismiss the bizarre reports surrounding the respective celestial bodies as the product of primitive understanding, creative imagination, projection of religious practices, displacement, etc. Yet should the same bizarre conceptions be discovered in a distant culture—much less in cultures around the world—it stands to reason that the ancient reports begin to take on a certain credibility and bear further investigation.
An analogous situation, perhaps, surrounded the raging controversy in the nineteenth century over whether meteorites could fall to the earth from the sky. Ancient reports from around the world told of such meteoritic falls, yet astronomers of the past century dismissed them together with eyewitness reports of contemporary scientists because their worldview did not allow for the possibility that rocks might fall to the earth from heaven. As modern astronomy was eventually forced to accept the reality that meteorites did fall from heaven, so too, in our opinion, will it be forced to come to grips with Venus’ cometary recent history. For in the final analysis it will be found that the mythology which came to surround comets had its origin in historical events associated with the planet Venus. Venus and comets share the same terminology and mythology for the simple reason that that planet once presented a comet-like appearance while participating in spectacular cataclysms witnessed around the world.
A survey of Venus’ role in ancient myth and archaeoastronomy reveals one anomaly after another. Why was Venus described as the "Great Star"? Why was the star of Venus superimposed upon the disc of the ancient sun-god in ancient iconography? Why was the star of Venus placed within the upturned cusps of a crescent? Why was Venus described as the "Great Eye"? Why was Venus described as shining from the "midst" or "heart" of heaven, a position it could never reach in today’s skies? Why was Venus regarded as the "witch-star"? Why was Venus regarded as the lover of Mars? Why was Venus regarded as the mother of Mars?
Equally baffling questions surround the planet Mars’ role in ancient myth and archaeo-astronomy. Throughout the ancient world, the appearance of Mars was said to portend war, destruction, and pestilence. Why this would be the case if Mars had always moved as it does now, in a perfectly regular, distant orbit, is not easy to understand.
Babylonian astronomical texts report that the red planet was regarded as the "eclipse-agent" par excellence. Other cultures likewise associate Mars with eclipses. Yet Mars’ current orbit never brings it into a position whereby it could be viewed as eclipsing the sun.
The ancient reports surrounding Mars, like those surrounding Venus, can be shown to have historical precedents. Once grasp the truth of this statement, and the ancient reports suddenly take on an entirely new perspective and significance. The dignity of our forebears is restored in the process, as Hertha von Dechend was led to remark after a lifelong investigation of myth as astronomical allegory. As ancient myth informed the earliest efforts at understanding the movements of the respective heavenly bodies, so too will it inform the astronomy of the 21st century which will doubtless be firmly grounded in the reality of recent planetary catastrophism.