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Myth in Metahistory

Some Wide Reflections Leading to the Big "SO WHAT"


In Visions and Memories of Paradise (reviewed in Basic Reading), Richard Heinberg recounts a myth of the Klamath Indians of the Pacific Northwest in which a gigantic bird battles a monumental turtle. So far this sounds like the kind of superstitious fairy-tale supposed to have been invented by primitive people who explained everything by fantasy, because (we believe) they were incapable of rational thought, not to mention scientific explanation. When the turtle lost the battle, Mount Mazama, the site where he had taken his last stand, collapsed. His blood pooled into a lake and his back protruded from the waters, forming an island. This mythological place, the Klamath Indians say, is Crater Lake, a magnificent site in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. The lake, six miles wide and 2000 feet deep, sits at over 6,000 feet above sea level. It is known to have been formed by volcanic action that has left the crest of the erupting mountain as an island in the lake.

The Owl-Headed Urn

Consistent with the tradition of many indigenous peoples, the Klamath Indians preserve in the oral account of this myth an allusion to features of the habitat where they live and where their ancestors, who may presumably have witnessed this battle, originally lived. Richard Heinberg cites this myth to support the notion that some mythological scenarios may actually be memories of geophysical events. "The Klamath Indians must have mythologized a volcanic eruption that actually happened more than 6,500 years ago. Similarly, prehistoric animals of Australia that have been extinct for 10,000 to 15,000 years are remembered in Aboriginal myth, together with contemporaneous changes in climate and landscape." (16)

Heinberg, Thompson and others suggest that battles among monstrous creatures may preserve race-memories of cataclysmic events. For the Klamath Indians, the turtle of Crate Lake represents the upheaval of massive geophysical forces. Inolynesia and elsewhere, the whale is often associated with a universal deluge. ("North American Indian Tableau" depicting serpent, eagle and whale, from The Lost Continent of Mu by James Churchward, 1926.) Heinberg is not the only scholar to assert the possibility that myths can carry memories of pre-historical events. In At the Edge of History (1971), William Irwin Thompson discusses the work of Charles Hapgood, author of Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, who proposed the existence of a worldwide maritime network previous to the last Ice Age, circa 9500 BCE. (Hapgood’s theory has been revived and extensively reworked by Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods, suggested reading under Origins.) Thompson observes that until the middle of the 19th century historians had no idea that the mythological stories of the past, such as Homer’s tale of the Trojan War, were racial-cultural memories of actual events. The personal dream of one man changed this situation for good. Working with the Iliad as a guide, renegade historian and amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann proved that the Homeric Troy really existed.

The Troy of Homeric song probably corresponds to the sixth level of the nine identified strata at Hissarlik, an archeological site in Turkey. After Troy Schliemann went on to other legendary digs. By excavating ruins in the Peloponessus, he proved the archaeological reality of the heroes of Greek tragedy like Ajax and Agamemnon. Schliemann was an outsider, a non-professional whose methods could be eccentric. His work was disputed by many experts in the field, but it captured worldwide interest. The photograph of Frau Schliemann bedecked with the royal jewelry of Hecuba, Queen of Troy and wife of Priam, created an international sensation at the time it was published.

If Hapgood’s prediluvian civilization really existed, Atlantis would be the most obvious mythological tag to attach to it. Toward the end of his life Schliemann became obsessed with proving archeologically the existence of the most elusive of all lost civilizations. "The Atlantis theory appealed as strongly to the great pioneer’s imagination during the last months of his life as did his Troy theory in the early days of his boyhood." (Mackenzie, C 98) He was so intent upon someone continuing this mission after his death that Schliemann left a considerable sum of his personal fortune for that purpose. In a sealed message to be opened after his death, he left mysterious instructions: "Break the owl-headed vase. Pay attention to the contents. It concerns Atlantis." Notes scattered among his unfinished writings indicate that Schliemann believed that a Phoenician inscription he had found at Troy could be translated "From King Chronos of Atlantis." Were it genuine, this artifact would be the sole existing archeological proof that Atlantis really existed.

At the Louvre, Schliemann had examined some artifacts from Tiahuanaco, a site that figures prominently in Hancock’s reworking of Hapgood’s thesis. These included the owl-headed urn, suggestive to him of Atlantean origins. In the Museum of St. Petersburg, he claimed to have found papyrus documents referring to the land of Atlantis as having existed at a date of 13,900 BCE. (Ibid., 100). The intrepid adventurer was never able to follow up these clues. Paul Schliemann, his grandson, claims to have opened the owl-headed vase and found several silver-like medallions that may represent hieratic medals "used as money in Atlantis forty thousand years ago."

After Schliemann other paradigm-breakers soon followed suit. Sir Arthur Evans proved that a sophisticated maritime civilization existed on the island of Crete previous to 1600 BCE. At Knossos Evans unearthed evidence of the legendary labyrinth of the Cretan artisan, Daedalus. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, there occurred a series of discoveries proving that ancient myth and classical literature referred to real historical events. This development represents a prelude to metahistory, but the prelude continues and the process is far from over. Citing one of the three notorious A-words, Thompson writes:

Now that we believe that "History begins at Sumer" [Title of a famous book by historian Samuel Noah Kramer. JLL], we may be startled once again to find that underneath the Sumerians are the far more ancient Atlanteans -- which is exactly what the Sumerians tell us in their mythology. Bits and pieces of a world view seem to be scattered around us, and as suddenly as the imagination perceives them in a new form, the old world view seems all the more incredible. Still, imagination is not knowledge: we do not know anything yet, but I would be willing to go out on a limb and say that I now believe that myth is the detritus of actual history…" (184)

Cryptic to the Core

If it can be shown that certain myths tell us about actual events in the historical past, or even in the remote past before history was written, it may well be worth asking, How much can myths tell us? To what extent can the past be recovered by delving into mythological materials? Homeric legend concerns a lost chapter of history, for Troy from its earliest strata is just within the boundary of written historical accounts. The events at Crater Lake belong to prehistory, as does the Atlantis scenario dated to around 9500 BCE, the closing phase of the last glaciation. (For an excellent summary timeline of prehistory, see the article by Ian Baldwin in Forum.) May we suppose, then, that the materia mythica contains some accounts of lost chapters of history, as well as full-blown scenarios of prehistory, including cataclysmic geophysical events?

As we contemplate this question, a point of terminology calls for clarification: by materia mythica I mean the entire body of myths and allusions to myths inherited from all cultures of the past. One gets some idea of the vastness of this material by consulting the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, reading the abridged version of The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, perusing the two dense volumes on Greek mythology by Robert Graves, spending a year or two with the four-volume opus of Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, or delving repeatedly into the thirteen, action-packed volumes of The Mythology of All Races. These are some of the standard reference works in comparative mythology.

The materia includes everything from the oldest written myths, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the most recent ethnographic evidence gathered from rare, still-surviving cultures that preserve myth in oral traditions of millennial duration, such as the Kalahari Bushmen of South Africa. To determine how much of this material carries memories of past events would require a massive task of assessment, a labor of many years best undertaken by a team of people. Some myths present an "easy profile" that immediately suggests a probable event. For instance, the Greek myth of Phaeton describes a wild chariot ride through the sky, ending in a fiery crash. This suggests the memory of a comet crashing into the earth. In their densely researched work, When the Earth Nearly Died, D.S. Allan and J. B. Declair argue that the Phaeton myth is a memory of a cometary disaster that occurred around 11,500 BP and marked the end of the last "Ice Age" and the beginning of the present Holocene epoch. (314, and in extenso) They present a vast array of scientific data to show that every detail of the Phaeton myth in all its variants can be construed as descriptive of geophysical, electromagnetic and atmospheric disturbances associated with the disaster.

The great majority of myths in archaic, classic and ethnographic versions do not present easy profiles, however. If they refer to events at all, they do so in ways that can be extremely difficult to fathom. Consider this Greek myth: Aphrodite, the goddess of love and pleasure, was born from the foam that arose when the severed genitals of the sky-god Ouranos were cast into the sea by his son, Chronos. To what event might this allude? Recorded in Hesiod, the castration of Ouranos belongs to a sequence of complex, violent interactions between succeeding "generations" of Gods. If we assume that the "Gods" described here are cosmological forces operative in the early stages of the solar system, the "generations" of Hesiod might allude to different geophysical epochs, stages of planetary evolution. Hesiod’s cosmogony could then be read as a mythological version of earth science. This prospect is intriguing, but the work required to decode the hard science presumed to be contained within the mythology is truly daunting. Scenarios such as Hesiod’s cosmogony present hard profiles. This material is cryptic to the core.

Plotting the Past

Difficult as it may be to decode memory from myth, the challenge is there. It comes with the territory of metahistory, for all scripts encoded with beliefs that drive human behavior can be traced back to mythological plots. The inventory of plot-lines is finite, even though the materia mythica through which the plots are elaborated is boundless and permutes in endless variations. In the two hundred years since comparative mythology has been a recognized genre, only a handful of scholars have attempted an inventory of plot-lines. The most accessible case is probably An Introduction to Mythology, written by Lewis Spence in 1921 Spence offers "comparative tables" where he lists the cultures that have preserved parallel material on certain themes. For instance, for "creation myths" he cites six parallel sources: Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese, Scandanivian, Celtic and Japanese. (193ff.) The inventory is far from complete, but it makes a good start.

In Chapter V, entitled "The Various Classes of Myth," Spence presents twenty distinct categories. One of these is "myths that account for the origin of fire." It is common sense to assume that at some point in prehistory homo sapiens discovered how to make fire. Whether our ancestors used the drilling stick or flint, the experience was a real one, not a mythical invention. The discovery is likely to have happened in more than one place and probably at different moments of time, so we may expect to find wide variations in the description of this momentous development. Consequently, mythological lore on fire-making is vast and varied. Since we know that the myths describe an actual event, an act of discovery that happened in prehistory, myths of fire-making have an easy profile.

It is instructive to contemplate this category of myth with a question in mind: How accurately does the descriptive language of the myth recount the way that skills for fire-making were acquired? The well-known Greek myth of Prometheus provides a good test-case. The myth says that a superhuman being, Prometheus, stole the fire of the sun and carried it to earth in a hollow stalk. Could this be an account of the discovery of fire-making with a crystal lens for magnification of the rays of the sun? This interpretation, with some variations, has been developed by Robert Temple in The Crystal Sun. The "hollow stalk" could have been a primitive telescope with the lens fixed at one end. Temple produces an astonishing array of hard evidence that lenses and telescopes were widely used in ancient times.

Fire-making is a lesson in human trial-and-error. As such, it differs from a natural event such as an earthquake, flood or cometary collision. Here are two distinct categories of possible allusion in mythological lore: geophysical events and acts of discovery. And others could readily be proposed. The result is a list of nine -- count 'em, NINE -- mythological plot-factors somewhat more rigorous and finely delineated than Spence’s loose categories:


1. Geophysical events (flood, earthquake, polar shift, cometary collision)

2. Acts of discovery (fire-making, agriculture, invention and use of tools)

3. Astronomical events (precession of the equinoxes, solar, lunar and planetary cycles. This is the thesis of Hamlet’s Mill. See below in "The Seven Classics of Metahistory.")

4. Cultural events (food-sharing, sacrifice, boundaries and treaties, the founding of a city, the institution of marriage, etc)

5. Origins of a tradition, sacred or secular vocation (clan rituals, shamanism, metallurgy, rites of passage)

6. Biological development (asexual reproduction, sexual reproduction, mutation and extinction of species)

7. Moral-spiritual lessons (introduction of moral codes, spiritual teachings)

8. Mysterious events, recorded in "tales of power" (encounters with the Beyond, after-death experiences, paranormal experiences, mystical rapport and rapture, telepathy)

Finally, there is the ninth factor:

9. Supernatural beings, including Gods and Goddesses, demons, devils, ghosts, phantoms, and others

With the ninth catecory the list is complete, but I cannot present an adequate commentary on the ninth category, which certainly requires one, unless I were to do it in a separate essay as long as the one you are reading right now. That is a little task for the future, perhaps.... Suffice it to say that the many deities and demons of ancient religions and indigenous or native-mind clture have to be sorted through on a case by case basis, in order to make the lore of category nine intelligible. For instance, the celestial god Mixcoatl (MISH - co - AT - ul) of the Aztecs is the generic name for a Pleromic Aeon, a galactic plasma wave, torrent, or current. Coatlicue, "Serpent-Skirt"(pronunciation, anyone's guess) is the name given to the mesh of snake-like filamentary veils protecting the Organic Light, as observed by shamans in a trance induced by psychoactive plants.The Aztec word for what Gnostics called the Pleroma, the galactic core, is Omeyocan ( OH-MAY-oh-kan),

Such are a few examples taken from a single culture that come immediately to mind, useful to illustrate the diversity of reference and representation in world-wide mythological love. Some of the supernatural entities may be Archons or Archon-type entites, but that would be a small sample, in my opinion. A sub-section of myths under category 6, which could be titled "The Descent of the Orion Men," presents special difficulties in the task of distinguishing human and superhuman entities. See The Chthonian Romance. The Orion Men are often confused with or mistaken for Archons who are said to have descended to earth and mated with human women. This intervention occured with the O-Men, the sheared-off part of the human genome, and not the Archons. Interpretations of The Book of Enoch wrongly identify the "Watchers" with Archons and attribute them with bringing evil arts to the earth, teaching women cosmetic magic, etc. This is incorrect but it is extremely difficult to make a clear and adequate case against routinely assumed notions about Archons.

The outstanding category of inclusion would be names referring to Gaia-Sophia and the earth as a goddess, which stand unique from all others. The crucial Sanskrit-Greek conversions in Planetary Tantra and the Gaian Tantric Vow cover some aspects of this rich and enormous topic.

The Two Frames

To these nine categories may be added two inclusive frames: the Hero Cycle and the Goddess Mysteries. These also comprise plot-factors but they are more like fields that organize the material found in the eight categories. The Hero Cycle and the Goddess Mysteries are comprehensive frames, rather like the mechanical set-up of a loom used for weaving rugs. The loom consists of a warp beam, heddles with eyes through which the threads are drawn, a harness for the heddles, a comb-like frame, a shuttle to carry the weft yarn, and a cloth beam upon which the weaving is rolled. This complex instrument constructed of several interworking components determines how any pattern will be woven. In this analogy, the patterns are the plot-factors listed above, comparable to rugs woven on the loom. The Hero Cycle and the Goddess Mysteries are instruments that determine how the plots are woven, but the plots, once woven, appear to be independent scenarios. The pattern we see on a woven rug comes from the warp and woof of the loom, but exists as a pattern in its own right.

Dance in Triple Time

The panorama of the past may not contain the causes of all that happens in the present, but it does show the background of human experience as it unfolds in the here and now.

Metahistory does not automatically assume a cause and effect dynamic operating from past to present, such that we would be able to derive every event that happens later from something that happened earlier. For reasons to be argued ahead, such an assumption is unnecessary and may be extremely misleading. It can certainly be encumbering to open-minded investigation of the past.

The aim of our efforts in metahistory is to realize how past and present are related, without assuming strict causal continuity. The interpretation of historical causality is obviously decisive for the perspectives to be developed along metahistorical lines.

This issue requires a full treatment on its own, but in the present context I will cite Octavio Paz whose long essay on poetics, The Bow and the Lyre, contains some brilliant clues for the metahistorical method. Paz says: "A myth is a past that is a future ready to be realized in the present," and "the past is a future that issues in the present." (51) It is clear from these two brief phrases that the full formula of "historical continuity" must include the future. To Paz it is evident that the future is not a passive modality of experience where we end up because we are driven there, or just drift into it, sliding unawares through the present on the momentum of the past. No, the future is dynamically operative in the interplay of past present. Paz inserts the future into the ever-moving frame of historical continuity. He makes it as powerful a determinant of the present as the past.

Reflecting on the true nature of myth, he argues that:

Myth contains human life in its totality: by means of rhythm it brings immediacy to an archetypal past, that is, a past that is potentially a future ready to be incarnated in a present. Nothing could be further from our quotidian conception of time. In everyday life we persist obstinately in the chronological representation of time… [Our sense of time] is not separated from succession; we can long for the past — which is thought to be better than the present — but we know that the past will not return. Our "good times" die the same death as every passing moment: this is succession.

On the other hand, the mythical date does not die: it is repeated, incarnated. And so, what distinguishes the mythical time from every other representation of time is that it is an archetype. A past always susceptible to being today, the myth is a floating reality, always ready to be incarnated and to arise again. (51) Events in the present unfold against the background of the past with the future somehow mysteriously weaving between the two. The past recurs continually, shaping the future, but the future does not merely emerge in the present as a result of the past…

When myth is incorporated, metahistory becomes an invitation to a dance in triple time. If it is transformation we seek, a changed way to life based on the true memory of how we have lived, the secret to this liberating vision may be in the rhythms by which we dance, as Paz suggests.

The Big So What

Having dedicated most of my life to the investigation of the patterns in comparative mythology, I am convinced that Paz’s directions will lead to new paths of experience. The assessment of myth to discover descriptions of actual happenings in the past cannot be a mere academic exercise, however. It requires the intimate participation of those who are committed to change and outgrow the blind determination of scripts and dance in the direction of new stories, tales of wonder and empowerment.

Having struck an inspirational note, I want to conclude this first of three essays on the metahistorical approach to myth with a couple of caveats. Two obstacles continually arise on the path we’re undertaking here:

One problem is due to the nature of the materia mythica. Metahistorians of the future, be warned: the mythological account of racial memory is jumbled and incoherent. This is a lesson I have learned many times, and learned the hard way. I am convinced that the best possible way to treat myth is to view it as a description of events listed in the above eight categories. This approach affords the most instructive and exciting way to explore the vast repertoire of inherited material. It must be said, however, that the challenge is daunting, not only because of hard profiles and dense material that is often cryptic to the core, but also because the memories preserved in myth are jumbled and incoherent. This means that something more than recovery of the original descriptive content is required. It is as if we are decoding documents in a state of partial decay, like papyrus fragments stained with age. Only part of the full story that myth might tell us is preserved in the material that survives. This being so, we are faced with the question of how to reconstruct the elements that have been lost. And that is a huge question….

The second recurrent obstacle that impedes work with myth in metahistory concerns the attitude taken toward myth by those who would investigate it, yet are uncertain of its value, and even more so, by those who stand on the sidelines commenting on the work but not undertaking it. I call this obstacle the BSW, the Big So What. Because it is routinely assumed that myth concerns the remote past and arises from an archaic imaginative mode of knowing that our species has fortunately outgrown, involvement with myth can be dismissed as a futile venture, irrelevant to the present. So what if the myth of Prometheus describes how fire-making was discovered at some distant moment by our ancestors in some distant place? So what if the myth of Phaeton is an archaic race memory of a cometary collision? So what if the myth of Atlantis refers to an actual pre-diluvian civilization of high sophistication? To establish that myths are story-versions of historical and prehistorical events may be an exciting project, but what results does it produce in the end?

I have learned over many years that one cannot immediately refute the Big So What. It’s an attitude problem, and I reckon that one has to live with it without attempting to convert those who hold that attitude. The Big So What comes, first, from a lack of imagination, and second, from an unwillingness or inability to commit to change. Let’s recall the primary premise of metahistory: the most effective way to change human behavior is to expose the beliefs that drive it. These beliefs are scripted in stories, and myths are stories, but the amazing thing is, the pure content of archaic myth seems to be descriptive, rather than preceptive. By preceptive I mean that which proposes a belief in the form of a command or a prescribed (literally, "pre-written") rule for behavior.

Today we understand the word "precept" in a rather trivial way. It indicates a simple rule of thumb: "Buy low, sell high" is a precept in finance. When the term came into use in the 14th century, early in the development of the English language, it connoted a command of divine origin. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament were precepts believed to originate from God, a superhuman agency. Precept derives from the Latin verb praecipere (also the source of "precipice"!): "to take beforehand, to be instructed or forewarned." The pre- in precept implies that the command imparted, or the belief inculcated, comes before experience rather than arises out of experience. Stories like those found in the Bible are preceptive in the way they propose rules for behavior from outside the realm of experience. Contrary to popular belief, there is little or no teaching in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus enunciates precepts, such as "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God like a small child shall in no way enter it." (Luke 18:17) The statement forewarns the recipient and instills a belief — namely, if I am somehow child-like, I will have a good chance to enter God’s kingdom — but it can hardly be said to instruct or teach.

By contrast, myth in its purest form does instruct and teach. Indeed, it may present teachings at the very highest level of human comprehension. It may convey the primary lessons of human experience, the knowledge we need to survive both morally and physically, the wisdom required for us to become self-directing as a species. The great difference between mythic scenarios and non-mythic ones is that the former are essentially descriptive whereas the latter, although they contain mythic elements, are preceptive. They advise rather than describe. True myth informs and instructs, and so there is all the more reason to work diligently to recover the descriptive content of myths.

Perhaps the best refutation of the Big So What is this: myths describe experiences of the human species, and in these experiences resides the wisdom for guiding the species on its proper path of evolution. By denying or dismissing the relevance of myth, pronouncers of the Big So What reveal that they lack the innate capacity to engage in developing the self-directive wisdom specific to the human species. The BSW protest belies an unwillingness to learn about what it takes to be truly human. It looks to me as if those who exhibit this attitude prefer to obtain sapience* from elsewhere, preceptive and ready-made, formulated in religious and scientific dogmas. But that way lies a precipice.

The challenge of metahistory can best be understood when the need it answers is clearly defined: the need to develop the wisdom innate to our species. This is the task ahead, but to accept the task we must overcome the assumption that moral, spiritual, and survival knowledge can be derived from scripted traditions and preformulated rules. We realize what it takes to be human only in the process of discovering what humanity knows. This discovery does not arise from adopting the preceptive dogmas written into historical and religious texts, but only through exploring the poetic-visionary resources of humanity. The discovery of what humanity knows is possible because each member of the species in endowed with ancestral wisdom that must be orally and creatively revived.

Myth is, always has been, and always will be, the master key to this discovery.

OCT 2002: Revised November 2009


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.