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Simon Tuck Cultural Cosmology An Essay Investigating the Foundation and Function of Mythology

What is a myth, what are its origins, and what message if any, does it convey to us today? One of superstitious belief in signs and portents, magic and ritual or one of ancient wisdom and knowledge transmitted through oral tradition, is there a bridge between myth and science, myth being the precursor to logical thought brought about after the enlightenment of pre-literate human society, is it a method of cultural or ideological control a tool of statecraft, or does myth have its foundation in the human psyche and therefore is simply a projection of an unconscious archetype? The definition of mythology and the identification of its place in culture have been summarised by the World Encyclopaedia as: Literally, telling of stories, but usually collectively defined as the myths of a particular culture. A myth occurs in a timeless past, contains supernatural elements and seeks to dramatise or explain such issues as the creation of the world and human beings, the institutions of political power, the cycle of the seasons, birth, death and fate.1 But by Myth do we only assume a primitive peoples interpretation of the world around them, the natural phenomena that affected them and the belief systems they put in place to placate themselves, or is myth an evolving function to the present day? Whilst it is beyond doubt that the oral traditions of primitive cultures have played a large role in the formulation of myth and the development of a cultures identity with its environment, should we be dismissing it as superstition or indeed should we be reviewing other interpretations, as Kane identified the problem, the fact that vast tracts of time have elapsed between the origin of the myth and its present day scholarly interpretation, makes the task one of extreme difficulty particularly given the very nature of its transmission down through the centuries or indeed millennia one of oral tradition open to misinterpretation and confusion2. Indeed, whilst Kanes comment would certainly indicate the validity of myth as being primitive in origin, the statement discusses the conveyance of knowledge as opposed to superstition. Myth as an encoding or repository of ancient knowledge, potentially older than the cultures thought to have invented it, was explored by the academics Giorgio De Santillana & Hertha Von Dechend in the 1960s effectively they argued a link between myth and science, suggesting that myth was in fact the transmission of a complex astronomical knowledge from ancient times3. Adversely, from the

mythology World Encyclopaedia. Philips, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Wales Lampeter. 21 November 2009. 2 Sean Kane, The Wisdom of the Mythtellers (Broadview Press, 1998), p. 32. 3 Giorgio De Santillana & Hertha Von Dechend, Hamletts Mill (David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. New Hampshire 1977).

Simon Tuck Cultural Cosmology An Essay Investigating the Foundation and Function of Mythology

psychological perspective however, Jung would place myth as a symbolic manifestation of archetype, or a part of the collective unconsciousness4. This essay will review the various interpretations of myth and whether it can be categorised as nothing more than a primitive superstition prevalent until it was replaced by rational thought as myth moved to logic and what if any consequence it holds today. That myth is based on superstition would suggest that it is, in its simplest form, a belief system in the supernatural. Essentially then it would be fair to assume that primitive cultures would indeed hold such views, applying them to their own interpretations as allegories of the natural environment they inhabited, the natural phenomena (weather, seasonal/climatic change or astronomical phenomena), they experienced and the effects said phenomena appeared to play on their entire habitat. As Kane comment would tend to support, that the definition of myth from the earliest prehistoric times, was a definition of man coevolving with nature as a whole, a philosophy that includes all life, human, animal and plant co-existing and participating in the ecology of the earth5. Similarly, myth as based in terms of the supernatural has been explained by the theory of animism. E. B. Tylor for example propounded that myth in reality was a literal attempt at explaining natural phenomena where knowledge of natural law is unknown. Animism gives all animate and inanimate objects a soul which is capable of governing its existence as well as influencing human affairs as Scarborough states: Souls are projected into nature because of analogies between aspects of nature and human beings. The swaying limbs of a tree are like humans moving their arms, legs or trunks. As at least semiautonomous beings, the souls and spirits can interact with humans and affect their well-being; consequently, it is important to make offerings to or otherwise placate them.6 Scarborough further discusses a totemic dimension, a later addition to Tylors animism introduced by Andrew Lang and Sir James Frazer; they argued that the social group, clan or tribe for example would relate to a totem by blood, said totem being symbolic to the group and seen as mystically bonded with the social group and emblem. The totem would not necessarily be animal in nature it could be a tree or even a natural inanimate object. The totemic premise works on the belief system that the human group itself carries an obligation to protect the totem, but would at specific

rituals eat the totemic animal or plant in order to absorb the particular powers associated with it.
4 5

Robert A. Segal, Jung on Mythology (Routledge, 1998). Kane, The Wisdom of the Mythtellers, p. 33 6 Milton Scarborough, Myth and Modernity: Postcritical Reflections (University of New York Press, 1994), p. 16

Simon Tuck Cultural Cosmology An Essay Investigating the Foundation and Function of Mythology Another aspect of the totemic dimension to myth relates presumably to a form of reincarnation inasmuch as both totems and the humans have the ability at death to turn into the other, this would place totemism in relationship with ancestor worship and shamanistic religions and has been found across the North American Indian tribes as well as Africa and the Polar Regions.7

If animism speaks of superstition in myth, the added dimensions of totemism speaks strongly of magic and ritual in myth. There are however other theories regarding the origins and meaning behind myth, which preclude the idea of myth being based purely on superstition and a fear of the unknown. The problem in identifying the true meaning behind myth lies in the fact of its antiquity and the validity of our own understanding or interpretation of the culture or cultures the myth originated within, similarities in myths are found in diverse and geographically distant cultures all around the globe the deluge myth for example is not purely a Christian biblical allegory from the Book of Genesis, instead we find there is a diverse mythology of a global deluge in equally diverse cultures all around the world, as Frazer argued: For it is certain that legends of a great flood are found dispersed among many diverse peoples in distant regions of the earth, and so far as demonstration in such matters is possible, it can be demonstrated that the similarities which undoubtedly exist between many of these legends are partly due to direct transmission from one peoples to another, and partly to similar, but quite independent, experiences of great floods or of phenomena which suggest the occurrence of great floods in many different parts of the world.8 Frazers comment on the flood myths then would surely suggest not so much myth based in superstition, but rather as the account of an actual global event, or events which took place globally but possibly at different epochs, though similar in their catastrophic consequences. In itself this would support the theory of myth being (potentially) a distorted account of an actual historic event, the distortion occurring from the myths re-telling down the ages. In recent years, it has been acknowledged that many creation myths appear to have a celestial theme, appearing to have been created as methods of recording and handing down cosmological and astronomical information. The stories tend to have a similar theme inasmuch as they speak of gods or winged serpents commencing battle in the

sky. In such stories there appears to be a strong cometary and or terrestrial impact motif present, as discussed by Mark Bailey and Bill Napier9. Whilst such interpretation of
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Scarborough, Myth and Modernity, pp. 16-17. Sir James George Frazer, Ancient Stories of a Great Flood, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 46, (Jul. Dec. 1916) (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1916), p. 233. 9 Astronomy Education, Comets in Myth http:/www.astronomy-education.com/index.php?page=124

Simon Tuck

Cultural Cosmology An Essay Investigating the Foundation and Function of Mythology myth is open to more popularist interpretation and theories of cyclical catastrophism, there is a recurrent astronomical theme in myth. Hesiods Theogony and its battle between the gods, is described as an account of the genealogy of the gods of Greece10 but has also been interpreted as a possible human memory of an impact from a celestial body on the earth or at the least a remarkably impressive celestial phenomena for example the close passage of a comet. An interpretation of some astronomical occurrence is not difficult on read into the narrative: Typhoeus was hurled down, a maimed wreck, so that the huge earth groaned. And flame shot forth from the thunder stricken lord in the dim rugged glens of the mount, when he was smitten. A great part of huge earth was scorched by the terrible vapour and melted as tin melts when heated by mens art in channelled crucibles.11 In a similar vein, the Babylonian creation myth the Enuma Elish detailing the confrontation between Marduk, the chief god of Babylon and Tiamat, the Babylonian she-dragon, has come in for similar interpretation by serious academics as well as the current trend for fringe theorists. In the original telling the myth would appear to chronicle the allegorical struggle between light and darkness, or more to the point the struggle between the natural elements, the seasons, nature itself, in the form of a creation myth as Jacobsen suggests, for the character of Tiamat, there can be little doubt that her identity is in fact a personification of the sea and its power. Marduk then upon slaying Tiamat and creating the world out of her remains claims the elements, the atmosphere, and weather for his own domain. This is a personification of a god of storm, rain, lightening and thunder.12 In a complete juxtaposition to Jacobsens interpretation, another interpretation discusses again the possible occurrence of a celestial phenomenon which originally occurred in great antiquity and was subsequently transmitted in oral tradition down the ages until its emergence as the Enuma Elish. Academics Allan and Delair present their argument regarding the Marduk, Tiamat myth: Most scholars have come to regard the epic as an allegorical story of Natures alternating summer and winter; yet, in view of current astronomical knowledge, it is easy to read between the lines and

reconstruct from the epics text the outlines of what can only have been a monumental war in heaven. Indeed, one cannot help but agree with Farnell who, in 1919, correctly observed:

10

Theogony The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Ed. M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Wales, Lampeter. 11 Hesiod, Theogony 12 Thorkild Jacobsen, The Battle Between Marduk and Tiamat, Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 88, No. 1 (American Oriental Society, Jan. Mar., 1968) pp 105 - 106

Simon Tuck Cultural Cosmology An Essay Investigating the Foundation and Function of Mythology What is quite normal in nature and society rarely excites the myth-making imagination, which is more likely to be kindled by the abnormal, some startling catastrophe, some terrible violation of the social code.13

The theme of myth as encoded knowledge of astronomy, precession of the equinoxes and or experience of global changes could be viewed as a search for a coupling point between myth and science, or that myth in reality was the beginning of intellect a global common language that ignored localised cults and beliefs to find meaning in the movements and geometry of the celestial sphere, indeed on investigation we find many cultures who have a similar belief in a Great Year which approximates to the 26000 year Precession of the Equinoxes, usually conceived of as causing the rise and cataclysmic fall of world ages14. To the Greeks the Great Year was a period of 36000 years after which the planets and stars would return to the positions they occupied when created, initiating the end of the current cosmos and the creation of a new one15. An allusion to this is made in Timaeus by Critias as he tells the tale of Solons dialogue with the Egyptian priest Sonchis of Sais who tells Solon of a story which even the Greeks had preserved, alluding perhaps that the story is known elsewhere? The priest goes on with the account of Paethon or the son of Helios who begged his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun. However because Paethon quickly lost control of the chariot setting the earth on fire he himself being killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus who, was appalled by the destruction. The priest goes on to tell Solon that even though the story has the form of a myth it in reality describes the declination of the celestial bodies moving around the earth which cause a great conflagration which itself recurs after long intervals of time.16 The Timaeus defined Platos cosmology and, in itself therefore should not be taken as an interpretation of myth telling of the cyclical doom of the planet or universe, although such ideas are compelling. Contrary to catastrophe themes, the Great Year has also been described as an attempt at forming an astronomical calendar. Cornford described the Great Year as an ancient notion going back to early attempts at arriving at a period of years coinciding with a number of months, which Plato extended to incorporate the periods of the planets as well. There was never an estimate of its length, nor was there any allusion to suggest a cataclysm at the end of the period

indeed it could not happen as he suggests, the cosmic clock never had a starting point in time there was no starting point to measure the cycle from.17
13

D.S. Allan and J.B. Delair, Cataclysm! Compelling Evidence for a Cosmic Catastrophe in 9500 B.C. (Bear and Company, 1997) p. 219 14 De Santillana & Von Dechend, Hamletts Mill, p. 59 15 Nicholas Campion, The Dawn of Astrology: A Cultural History of Western Astrology, Vol. 1, (London: Continuum, 2008) p. 13 16 Plato, The Timaeus, trans. Benjamin Jowett, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/timaeus.html 17 F.M. Cornford, Platos Cosmology: The Timaeus, (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1937), p. 117

Simon Tuck Cultural Cosmology An Essay Investigating the Foundation and Function of Mythology

Following further the potential that myth arose from the oral transmission of actual events over the millennia, where myth as pre-literate accounts of celestial phenomena would tend to align myth more with the field of archaeo-astronomy, a relatively similar field of study, Geomythology, would ascribe myth to the means that pre-scientific cultures explained geological phenomena. The term itself was first coined by the geologist Dorothy Vitaliano in the early 1970s18 the idea however was not a new one; Euhemerus the Greek philosopher (ca 300 BC) theorised that myths about gods, were in fact distorted accounts of real events and people. Accordingly the story tellers over time repeatedly elaborated the actual event changing the nature of the story usually with the outcome that the people involved became gods. Whilst this has little to do with Geomyths, the approach known as euhemerism was followed by other scholars eventually rationalising myths by stripping away the supernatural and impossible details to reveal a bedrock of underlying fact.19 It is not impossible to see the potential for historians, scientists and anthropologists to have missed or indeed dismissed outright those small seeds of truth embedded in myth due to its folkloric language. A deeper analysis of Geomythology does tend to show some credible examples indeed, legends were often found in parts of the world where toxic natural gasses are frequently released from geologic faults and vents in the earth, said gasses noxious to plant and animal life said legends were generally of lifeless places where nothing lived or grew.20 Indeed, Mayor argues that Plato, in his accounts of Atlantis, described actual prehistoric changes in the land masses and coastlines of the Aegean, even Strabo the Greek geographer, he argues; saw geomyths as cryptic historical records the ancients expressed physical notions and facts enigmatically by adding mythical elements21. Vitaliano however, quoting Spyridon Marinatos, interprets both the myth of Atlantis and the flood of Deukalion as alluding to the volcanic eruption of the island of Santorin circa 1500 B.C; In this section he linked the Greek deluge story to the Santorin explosion, and also made the startling proposal that Atlantis was really the island of Stronghyli as Santorin was known22. The resulting Tsunami caused by the eruption of Santorin, likely affected all of the Mediterranean coastlines resulting in an enduring flood myth.

Whilst there appears to be compelling evidence that myth, or at least some myths, do in fact relate to accounts of natural events or phenomena affecting ancient peoples and cultures, passed down in oft garbled interpretations of the actual event, other functions
18 19

Dorothy B. Vitaliano, Legends of the Earth: their geologic origins, (Indiana U.P., 1974) Adrienne Mayor, Geomythology in Encyclopaedia of Geology, (Forthcoming, Elsevier, 2004), p. 1 20 Mayor, Geomythology 21 Mayor, Geomythology 22 Dorothy B. Vitaliano, Geomythology: The Impact of Geologic Events on History and Legend with Special Reference to Atlantis, Journal of the Folklore Institute, (Indiana U. P. Jun., 1968), p. 10

Simon Tuck

Cultural Cosmology An Essay Investigating the Foundation and Function of Mythology of myth certainly exist, one of the foremost functions of myth would certainly be that to establish behavioural models within societies as the Anthropologist Dow discussed, narratives have played a large part in the formation of a cultures knowledge system, the belief and value systems of a given society become the foundations of essentially a story or cultural myth. In turn the myth becomes the explanation of the societys behaviour. Anthropology would argue that the narrative of the myth actually constructs a type of socially constructed reality, from which all social action is resultant23. Dows statement supports the theory that the character described in myth; gods, supernatural creatures or heroes are held as sacred. It would follow then that such characters would prove worthy role models for human beings, suggesting myth would function to uphold social structures. Similarly myth has functioned as a method of cultural control through the perpetuation of belief systems amongst its population. For example, Saunders comments regarding the apparent manipulation of cosmological myth, the timing of ritual ceremony as one aspect of the maintaining of control by those in spheres of influence. This will undoubtedly play on the superstitious nature of myth where primitive cultures exist or have existed, it can be said however that the use of myth as a control mechanism or as an enhancement to a particular belief system has not been restricted solely to either ancient peoples or currently remote tribal groups in underdeveloped regions of the earth. In the mid 20th century, the rise of fascism in Europe relied heavily on the indoctrination of the populations of Germany and Italy. Particularly, Nazi Germany played heavily on the mythology of Aryan culture and chivalric orders to propel its message and its peoples forward by means of collective mass emotion.24 The Nazi use of mythology as a tool of statecraft as well as of a means of inflaming its population, or at least those susceptible to the message the state conveyed, places myth in line with an ideology which in itself is an intellectual construct in juxtaposition to mythology. As a method of promoting ideology however, myth would appear to be favoured by the totalitarian cultures. Soviet Russia also used mythology to build a benchmark for the creation of a single identity for the many ethnic groups making up the Soviet nation. The Russians played heavily on the hero myth as a means of social control, particular that of the worker and the leader. The Lenin myth for example expounded Lenin as a glorious leader a victor for and on behalf of people. As a mythical figure in Soviet culture, Lenin attained an almost religious status after his death.25

It would be well to note, that forms of myth telling have in fact persisted into modern times. An example of modern myth can be found in emergence of the United States of America, the very nature of Americas youthfulness, and perceived lack of cultural identity other than as a mixing bowl of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds
23

James W. Dow, The Evolution of Knowledge Systems: Narrative Knowledge versus Scientific Knowledge. (2006) http://personalwebs.oakland.edu/dow 24 Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-luc Nancy and Brian Holmes, The Nazi Myth (The University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 294. 25 Carol Barner-Barry and Cynthia Hody, Soviet Marxism-Leninism as Mythology, (International Society of Political Psychology, 1994), p. 611

Simon Tuck

Cultural Cosmology An Essay Investigating the Foundation and Function of Mythology emanating mainly from Europe, has led to the invention of the American myth. Essentially, the American myth would fall into the category of exaggerated tales of American strength and size, or fall almost into the theory of Euhemerism, whereby the tales of real peoples have been exaggerated into heroic legend; this can be found in the accounts of well known American characters for example Daniel Boone, Jesse James or the African American, Stagolee.26 In a similar vein, it can be argued that the emergence of UFO cults from the late 1940s to the present day, have in a sense birthed a modern form of mythology with its own central characters, contactees like George Adamski for example as well as its own legends and beliefs; the supposed crash at Roswell New Mexico would be a case in point. As a form of myth, Ufology could be assigned not so much to superstition, but rather to a culture moving at the time from a global conflict to fear of nuclear holocaust, looking perhaps for salvation from more enlightened beings where perhaps, coupled to recent events i.e. World War 2 and the emerging technology of the time a belief in God had been subdued. Jung theorised in the late 1960s that most UFO sightings were a projection of the collective unconsciousness as a direct result of the anxieties and threat of living with the shadow of the bomb.27 Indeed the perpetuation of modern myth can be found in tales of ships disappearing in the Bermuda triangle, to stories and accounts of sightings of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Interwoven with all of these accounts we find evidence of the conspiracy myth. Essentially there exists hierarchical elite concealing the truth from the public perhaps this would suggest a failure to trust in authority figures and leaders? Prior to arriving at any conclusion, the realisation that myth takes many forms must be accepted. There is a strong argument that early myth is in fact originally borne of primitive superstition, relating to mans place in nature and the cosmos, the supernatural aspect of myth essentially a pre-literate allegorical method to understanding natural phenomena that would otherwise have no explanation. However this poses a problem as cultural myth is still evolving today from new cultural epochs. Whether the source begins with New Age fringe cults, or from the realms of pseudo-sciences like Ufology and the millenialist emergence of the current 2012 end times theorists, the associated mythology of the culture continues to grow. This would presume that myth is still required by modern society as a means to explain the unexplainable. Many respected academics have interpreted myth as a retelling of actual events throughout the memory of mankind, explained as allegories and corrupted down the ages due to their oral nature. Whilst an amount of superstition would obviously be apparent in the formation of such stories, with the reading of portents and ritualistic ceremony aimed at retelling the narrative whilst appeasing whichever deities the human social group believed would protect them or were totemic of the event, the basis of myth in this manner would very much be Euhemeristic. This in turn would imply that myth far from being a primitive superstition is in fact history, told from a superstitious viewpoint. That myth has been corrupted in other ways is also apparent, its use as an
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American Myths The Oxford Companion to World mythology, David Leeming, Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press, University of Wales, Lampeter. 27 Carl Jung, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, (New York: New American Library, 1969).

Simon Tuck

Cultural Cosmology An Essay Investigating the Foundation and Function of Mythology ideological tool has neither a historical or supernatural leaning, but rather one of social manipulation, as has been discussed in both the ancient world where shamanistic power could be enhanced by simple prediction, to the political mythology of both the Nazis and Marxist-Leninists. Similarly modern cultural myth has been evidenced as a means of creating a cultural or national identity where none previously existed (American myth). From analysis of the varied theories concerning myth and its function, it would seem apparent that myth cannot be called a primitive superstition, but neither can it be concluded that any one answer fits the bill. Myth should be seen rather as a human social tool for the conveyance of cultural beliefs and histories, but it also presents us a dichotomy. On the one hand, ancient myth would appear to be largely grounded but (not absolutely), in two separate but linked areas, firstly, in a retelling of actual events both geological and astronomical, indeed recent research would tend to lend considerable credence to De Santillana and Von Dechends argument that essentially mythology has been misunderstood due to a failure to decode an ancient language describing astronomical observation by priests and elders28. Secondly, ancient myth can also be ascribed as a store of practical wisdom which would have been indispensable to early mans choice of habitat and the ecological ramifications of it, weather patterns and quantity of hunting stock, this then moves myth from the supernatural to an epistemological theme of myth transmitted as an allegorical description of nature both geographic and cosmological. The second aspect to the mythological dichotomy would present myth as an ongoing modern cultural tool, suggesting perhaps a yearning by post-modern culture to find again the mystery in life and nature which has been all but eradicated by a largely secular world which has moved from magic to logic, though retaining an echoing anxiety with regards to mans place both on the planet and within the cosmos.

28

De Santillana and Von Dechend, Hamletts Mill.