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Natural References of Myth
The extent to which world mythology reflects natural occurrences is an issue on which the specialists find little agreement. Despite the many competing interpretations by the different schools, they share a common--usually unspoken--assumption: they assume that no fundamental changes have occurred in the celestial order. Wherever possible they refer the objects of ancient art and myth to objects and events in our familiar world behaving exactly as they do today. The Sun, the Moon, comets, meteors, the pole star, the Great Bear or other constellations, or more terrestrial phenomena such as thunder and lightning, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, or local mountains, rivers, and common animal forms.
If the great mythical dramas do indeed reflect natural events, then we face an inescapable paradox. Despite many years of cross- cultural research, the authors of this book have never found a general mythical theme that could find an explanation in our natural world. There is indeed a "sun" in the ancient sky, but when the imagery is traced to its earliest forms, it neither looks nor behaves like the sun in our sky. There is a crescent "moon", but its character and movement contradict everything about our moon today. While the planet Venus was venerated by all ancient cultures, the earliest memories of Venus simply defy modern observations of the planet. And as for other celebrated forms, one seeks in vain for any meaningful reference at all. Where is the famous fountain of the sun? Where is the ship of heaven? Where is the world mountain, the temple of the sun, or the world tree that spread its branches among the stars?
It is precisely such images which have fostered the modern view equating myth with fiction. The storytellers understood nothing about the world in which they lived, we are told. The possibility that myth might reflect events no longer occurring simply does not enter the minds of modern scholars.
Of course the skeptic will remind us that all sorts of strange and exotic ideas have been proposed on the basis of myth. He will suggest that you could argue for anything under the sun if all you have to do is select a few myths for support. And who could dispute this point? Bookshelves today are filled with adventurous hypotheses, based in large part on mutually contradictory uses of mythical fragments.
But the answer here is to stop the selective use of myth altogether, to apply groundrules, which do not permit the investigator to ignore any commonly held beliefs. In the new approach we shall propose, the inquiry rests from start to finish on globally-recurring themes of myth, deeply-rooted ideas that have survived thousands of years of cultural evolution and tribal mixing. Additionally, this approach will place the highest emphasis on the oldest sources, those originating closest in time to the experiences behind the myths, with the least opportunity for distortion.
EVENT AND INTERPRETATION
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. We are not asking anyone to believe that a shining temple or city of living "gods" once stood in the center of the sky. We will not claim that a great hero of flesh and blood arose to rid the world of chaos-monsters; or that this very same hero once consorted with a "mother goddess". We WILL ask the reader to consider whether these unexplained and global themes may have roots in uncommon natural events. In its skepticism about such global themes the modern world forgot the elementary distinction between event and mythical interpretation, then tossed out the entire body of evidence.
The astonishing fact is that all of the archetypes speak for celestial forms that are not present in our sky, and for events that do not occur in nature today. The resulting situation is untenable. Did early races, for reasons we cannot fathom, simply repudiate all natural experience, in order to celebrate things never seen? Or did the natural world in which the myths arose present a range of sights and sounds unlike anything known in modern times?
THE ANCIENT STORYTELLER
It's impossible to immerse oneself in the mythical world without realizing that the ancient storyteller himself is certain of the reported events' occurrence, despite the obvious tendency to project imaginative interpretations onto events. A "story" entails both an event and an interpretation. No living dragon ever flew about in the sky. But is it possible that something viewed imaginatively as a "dragon" DID appear in the sky? To allow this possibility is to open the door to systematic investigation from a radically new vantage point.
The urge of ancient peoples to record and to repeat their stories in words reflected the same fundamental impulse we see in all other forms of reenactment and alignment in ancient ritual, art, and architecture. Recitation of the story momentarily transported both the storyteller and the listener backwards to the mythical epoch, which was experienced as more compelling, more "true" than anything that came later. That is why, among all early civilizations, as noted by Mircea Eliade and others, the prodigious events to which the myths refer provided the models for all collective activity--
"One fact strikes us immediately: in such societies the myth is thought to express the absolute truth, because it narrates a sacred history; that is, a transhuman experience revelation which took place at the dawn of the Great Time, in the holy time of the beginnings (in illo tempore). Being real and sacred, the myth becomes exemplary, and consequently repeatable, for it serves as a model, and by the same token as a justification, for all human actions. In other words, a myth is a true history of what came to pass at the beginning of Time, and one which provides the pattern for human behavior...Clearly, what we are dealing with here is a complete reversal of values; whilst current language confuses the myth with 'fables', a man of the traditional societies sees it as the only valid revelation of reality."
It needs to be understood as well that the globally-recurring themes appear to be as old as human writing. All of the common signs and symbols we shall review in these volumes appear to precede the full flowering of civilization. This rarely acknowledged fact, which could be easily disproved if incorrect, is of great significance. If our early ancestors were habituated to inventing experience, we should expect an endless stream of new mythical content--new forms and personalities arising as if from nowhere. This absence of invention in historical times forces us to ask how the original "creativity" of myth arose: what unknown ancient experience could have produced the massive story content of myth, including hundreds of underlying themes that have lasted for thousands of years?
UNIVERSAL THEMES OF MYTH
By following the comparative approach, and by concentrating on the universal themes of myth, a researcher is enabled to focus on the substratum. Nothing will boost the researcher's confidence more than discovering that the roots of myth are not only identifiable, but coherent, each identifiable theme revealing an explicit connection to the same taproot, while revealing verifiable links to the other themes as well.
To illustrate this point let us consider just a few human memories whose deep connections to each other are beyond dispute. Though each of the themes listed here will require extensive review and analysis, our immediate interest is in a possibility generally ignored in our time--the possibility of a fully integrated and consistent substructure.
AGE OF GODS AND WONDERS
It is an interesting fact that every culture remembered a lost "age of the gods", a wondrous epoch clearly distinguished from all that came later. The gods were visibly present, and they radiated power and light--"the majestic race of the immortals", in the account of the Greek poet Hesiod, or "the age of the primeval gods" celebrated by the Egyptians. The gods ruled for a time, then faded from view, took flight, or wandered off. And everywhere will be found the compulsion to commemorate the critical junctures in the biographies of the gods, to carry forward the stories in pictures and words, to fashion replicas of the gods in clay and stone, and to reenact these events at all levels of collective activity.
One of the great deceptions in conventional approaches to mythology is the pretense that this is all comprehensible in terms of primitive ignorance and superstition. The issue is far more fundamental than that. What demands explanation is the vividness, the consistency of the images, and the extraordinary passion and devotion with which ancient races sought to re-connect with the gods. Nothing meant more to the ancient world than to recover something distinctly remembered, but lost.
There is structure to the stories. Even a superficial review of the world's mythical traditions will show that the different personalities tend to fall into certain categories. Universal sovereign, mother goddess, ancestral warrior, chaos monster: these personalities (as we will illustrate at length) repeatedly expressed the same relationships to each other. Moreover, the age of the gods not only has a familiar ending (the gods go away) it has a common beginning as well:
GOLDEN AGE Certain general themes occur on every habitable continent. One is the deeply entrenched myth of a lost Golden Age, a period of natural abundance and cosmic harmony, when humanity lived under the beneficent rule of visible powers in the heavens. In fact, the Golden Age was universally invoked as the opening chapter in the age of the gods, and that is just one of numerous indications of unexplained and globally-repeated structure.
The Hindus called it the Krita Yuga or perfect age; the Chinese the Age of Perfect Virtue, the Scandinavians the Peace of Frodhi. For the Egyptians this was the Tep Zepi or "First Time", the beneficent age of Re. The Sumerians knew it as the rule of the sovereign An, "the Days of Abundance"; Greek tradition similarly recalled the prosperous epoch of the god Kronos, when the whole world enjoyed peace and plenty. The Romans celebrated this as the Golden Age of Saturn.
In the general tradition, the Golden Age means a timeless epoch before the fall, or before the arrival of discord and war, before the linkage of heaven and earth was broken. Many traditions recall the absence of seasons or of any time-keeping references, claiming that the land produced abundantly without any need for human labor. Skeptics have suggested that these are simply exaggerated local memories of "the good old days". But that claim is answered by comparative study. The theme of the Golden Age cannot be separated from other themes for which such "explanations" are entirely inadequate
KING OF THE WORLD
Why, for example, did all of the early cultures connect the Golden Age with the rule of a figure remembered as the Universal Monarch--a prototype of kings ruling in the sky before any king ruled on earth?
This is hardly a frivolous connection. The Egyptian Atum-Re, the central luminary of the sky, was the founder of the idyllic age, to which every later king or pharaoh traced his lineage. It was the Sumerian An, the Akkadian Anu, who inaugurated the "years of abundance", and from whom the very institution of kingship descended. Similarly, the Hindu Yama, Persian Yima, Norse Frodhi, Chinese Huang-ti, and Mexican Quetzalcoatl are all distinguished as founding kings, the first in a line of kings, and models of the good king. What defined the ideal was the harmonious existence and natural abundance, which marked the god's rule. Hence, human memories of the Golden Age and of the exemplary king are inextricably entwined, implying a substructure we cannot afford to ignore.
The fear of doomsday, of the orderly world going out of control, ranks perhaps as the deepest of human fears.
From the first glimmerings of civilization, every ancient nation kept alive its own tale of universal catastrophe, and if anything deserves to be called a collective memory it is this idea. But how are we to understand it? Various accounts describe the world- ending disaster so differently as to leave mythologists groping for a consensus. In one account a great deluge submerges the race; in another a fiery conflagration, while many myths say a celestial dragon's assault upon the world brought universal darkness.
Such divergent story elements make it all too easy to overlook an overarching principle revealed by comparative analysis. The "mother of all catastrophes"--the event which ancient races feared above all else--was that which brought the Golden Age to its violent conclusion. Whether it is the ancestral rule of Re, or the universal kingship of An, or the Golden Age of Kronos (not to mention the numerous variations), the story culminates in earth- shaking catastrophe.
But only rarely do psychologists or historians ask whether this pervasive fear might have roots in natural experience as well--a time when the world DID slip out of control, the stars DID fall from the sky, and the rain of fire and brimstone DID overwhelm the world. The Doomsday theme is not an isolated memory, but an integral component in a more complete and unified memory. Indeed, comparative analysis reveals numerous additional points of agreement, including the fate of the Universal Monarch himself.
DYING OR DISPLACED GOD
The Buddhists tell of the primeval king, during whose prosperous reign a vast wheel turned in the sky, remaining in one spot. This ancient and benevolent ruler was himself "the wheel turning king". But eventually the wheel fell from its established place, the king died, and this golden age was lost.
The Zoroastrians spoke of the great cosmic wheel called the Spihr, symbol of the god Zurvan, "Lord of the Long Dominion." It too stood in one place, ever turning. And it was the fall or destruction of this cosmic wheel, which terminated the god's prosperous rule.
In whatever terms the local accounts might present the Doomsday story, the consistent result is the death, flight, or displacement of the original sovereign power. The Egyptian Re grows weary and departs the human realm. The Sumerian An flees the scene as chaos overtakes the world. The Greek Kronos is forced from his throne, ending the Golden Age and plunging the world into darkness and discord. For the Romans the fabled Golden age of Saturn ended when, in the words of poet Ovid, "Old Saturn fell to death's dark country." In such fashion did the ancient Paradise give way to cosmic turmoil.
And here, too, one aspect of the story invariably merges with another:
WARS OF THE GODS
As a mythical archetype, the Doomsday catastrophe is not merely a terrestrial disturbance, it is the story of celestial upheaval. The gods themselves battle in the sky so violently as to rearrange the heavens. Their weapons include thunderbolts and stone, flaming "arrows", fire-breathing dragons, and all-consuming wind and flood. The tale is most familiar to us, perhaps, as the famous clash of the Titans, recounted by Hesiod and other Greek poets. This was the catastrophic aftermath of the Golden Age of Kronos, when "wide heaven was shaken and groaned, and high Olympos reeled from its foundation under the charge of the undying gods...So, then, they launched their grievous shafts upon one another, and the cry of both armies as they shouted reached to starry heaven; and they met together with a great battle-cry. Then Zeus...showed forth all his strength. From Heaven and from Olympos, he came forthwith, hurling his lightning; and the bolts flew thick and fast from his strong hand together with thunder and lightning, whirling an awesome flame".
Such images are so common and occur on such a grand scale that historians rarely give them a second look. What do these "exaggerated" tales have to do with real history? In the Norse cataclysm of Ragnarok, the wars of the gods bring an idyllic age to an end, and this is surely one of the keys to understanding the archetype. The wars of the gods occur during, or as, the "break" that separates the Golden Age from the subsequent epoch. Witness, for example, the celestial conflagration of Aztec thought, the catastrophic interlude between world ages. So too in Hindu myth--the universe dissolves in flames, to be regenerated under a new world age. To the same category belong the great conflagrations separating the original rule of the Egyptian Re from the epoch that followed.
Typically, scholars will "explain" the cosmic catastrophe theme through more familiar or ordinary events, an eclipse of the Sun or Moon, a local hurricane, earthquake, or volcano. Such "explanations" can only discourage close examination of the stories, with the result that vital, repeated elements are missed. But it is the full complex of themes that must be explained. A final example:
DRAGON OF DARKNESS
Nothing could be further removed from our familiar experience than a flying serpent or dragon. And yet it was not long ago that every race on earth remembered the fire-breathing dragon moving among the stars, disturbing the motions of the planets, and threatening to destroy the world. Such was the character of the Babylonian dragon Tiamat, whose attack caused even the gods themselves to flee. The Egyptian counterpart was the raging Uraeus serpent; or Apep, the dragon of darkness. For the Greeks, it was the Python serpent whom Apollo defeated in an earth-shaking encounter, or the great dragon Typhon, under whose attack the heavens reeled.
How did it happen that so many diverse cultures recalled--in such vivid and similar terms--a biologically impossible monster? The cosmic serpent or dragon cries out for an explanation, and an explanation must be possible, even if we have missed it.
From one land to another such monsters were celebrated as visible forms in the sky. If there is an inherent, irrational tendency of the primitive mind to conjure dragon-like beasts out of nothing, then one must wonder how this irrationality produced such surprising parallels from one land to another--fiery serpents, longhaired or bearded serpents, feathered serpents. The globally-repeated attributes are both impossible and absurd, and nothing in familiar human experience can even begin to account for them.
The celestial serpent-dragon takes the form of a great storm or whirlwind, breathes fire and smoke, battles against the gods, and ushers in a period of universal darkness. But these are only a few of the pervasive themes. When, for example, did this chaos monster appear in the sky? It appeared specifically during the break between world ages--following the death or departure of the Universal Monarch, when the Golden Age collapsed--and prior to the renewal of the world. Appearance of the Babylonian Tiamat is synonymous with the flight of the original sovereign An. The Uraeus serpent rages in the sky as a symbol of Re's loss of power. The dethroning of Kronos, founder of the Golden Age, immediately precedes the attack of Typhon.
With this brief listing of connected memories, we wish to drive home the principles of substructure and integrity. In considering the serpent-dragon, for example, we do not just find an improbable monster, but a monster figuring in a particular story in a particular way, with clearly defined relationships to other personalities. It is simply not useful to examine a mythical theme as if that theme stands on its own. What needs to be explained is the full complex of ideas embedded within a theme, and that will invariably involve repeated and unexplained connections to a larger story.