Catastrophism and Mythology

"There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father's chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals ..."
-- Plato, Timaeus, translated by Benjamin Jowett

The Greek story of Phaethon summarized by Plato offers a good example of a myth that sounds like it might reflect an actual impact event in the distant past. Bob Kobres in his essay on Comet Phaeton's Ride suggests a possible reconstruction along these lines.

In the early 1970s I read Hamlet's Mill by Giorgio de Santilliana and Hertha von Dechend. These authors collated myths from all over the world to show the universality of certain themes which most likely had an astronomical basis, primarily in the precession of the equinoxes. Santilliana and von Dechend noted that many of the myths discussed catastrophic occurrences, but they ascribed an allegorical meaning to these, including the myth of Phaethon.

The first part of Terry Alden's essay The Mill of Time provides an overview of Santilliana and von Dechend's astronomical approach to mythology. Alden contrasts this with the psychological approach of Joseph Campbell. Alden suggests that both approaches represent valid understandings of the mind of the ancients, who he suggests believed "As above, so below." In the second part of his essay, Alden offers an explanation of the "Star of Bethlehem" in terms of Santilliana and von Dechend's ideas.

William Sullivan's The Secret of the Incas: Myth, Astronomy, and the War Against Time applies Santilliana and von Dechend's astronomical approach to unravel the technical language of Andean mythology. The Secret of the Incas contains 413 pages, bibliographical references, and an index.

Jane B. Sellers's The Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt: An Essay on Egyptian Religion and the Frame of Time combines Santilliana and von Dechend's approach involving precession with the phenomena associated with total eclipses to explain the prehistoric origins of Egyptian religion and mythology.

My personal feeling is that any historical content that might underlie myths of cosmic catastrophes is difficult to extract and remains subject to multiple interpretations. Interpreting such myths literally is likely to load to untenable hypotheses involving large scale disruptions of the Earth and solar system that cannot be sustained from physical evidence. Myths tell us how the ancients perceived the universe, not necessarily how the universe really worked. Trying to rewrite physics and astronomy based upon mythological interpretation is a fundamentally incorrect procedure.

As we come to a better understanding of the role of cosmic impact processes in Earth history, we may find that some of the ancient traditions encoded in catastrophe myths do reflect genuine natural events of the past. We need to look for physical evidence of such catastrophes in the geological and archaeological record.

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Last modified by pib on May 12, 2009.