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'the age of myth'

Human traditions from virtually every culture and period recalled an 'age of myth', an 'era of creation', a 'golden age' or a 'time when the gods lived on Earth'. This was an epoch at the dawn of remembered human history characterised by the remarkable activities of supernatural beings and a series of transformative events in the sky and on Earth, including the destruction of former worlds and the formation of the sky and the earth as they appear today. This rich body of 'creation mythology' is surprisingly consistent from culture to culture, despite the anomalous nature of its most salient themes.

The traditions allocate a central place to a stupendous stationary column of dazzling radiance, which joined the respective regions of the cosmos on the vertical as well as on the horizontal planes at a time when the sun, the moon and the other stars were hidden from view. Anthropologists habitually refer to it as the axis mundi, the 'axis of the world' or 'cosmic axis'. The mythology of the axis mundi, comprising numerous specific traits, is remarkably uniform among the respective branches of mankind.

Collecting sources from a wide array of disciplines in the humanities - including archaeology, mythology, anthropology and the history of art, of science, of religion and of literature - and following a rigorous comparative method, I was able to reconstruct a universal template, based on more than 400 themes arranged in a rough chronological order, upon which the creation myths of individual cultures could have been based; the formation, metamorphoses and demise of the axis mundi emerged as its narrative backbone.

What remarkable circumstances in the natural environment inspired the traditional cosmologies? What were 'creation', the 'age of the gods' and the axis mundi in real terms?

If human traditions concerning the 'age of creation' are allowed to speak for themselves rather than being straightjacketed into Jungian, Frazerian or Durkheimian paradigms, an economic explanation is that they trace to eye-witness accounts of an extraordinary episode in the recent history of the planet. What exactly transpired can be reconstructed by means of an interdisciplinary research programme, in which the traditional cosmologies of man are compared to empirical scientific knowledge concerning the condition of the Earth in the past 20,000 years. Data culled from the humanities at best inform about what was seen, felt and heard, but are principally unfit to identify physical or astronomical objects and mechanisms as they filter all experiences through a lens of interpretation. The 'hard' sciences will have the last word on what exactly transpired in physical terms.

An abundance of cutting-edge palaeomagnetic, palaeoclimatological and other geophysical evidence points to worldwide environmental turbulence associated with the end of the last glacial period in the present Ice Age. The entire period from the onset of the Oldest Dryas stadial (c. 20,000 BCE) to the mid-Holocene (c. 5000 BCE) is characterised by (1) a series of natural catastrophes on the surface of the earth, associated with climate changes, including wildfires, meltwater floods, tsunamis and aggravated volcanism and earthquake activity, (2) disturbances of the geomagnetic field, (3) possible flybys of disintegrating comets, (4) cosmic ray events or solar proton events and (5) mass extinctions. Collectively, these events seem to match the circumstances attending the 'age of myth'.

Extreme fluctuations in the solar wind, perhaps correlated with a sun-grazing comet or Venus' giant magnetotail, and repeated episodes of weakening of the earth's magnetic field will have led to enhanced activity of the aurora, producing worldwide displays of high-energy density plasma instabilities rarely seen in the earth's atmosphere. Humans, awestruck and terrified in equal measures, would have perceived the spectacular lively forms assumed by the atmospheric plasma as gods, mythical heroes, ancestors, dragons or other supernatural beings, whose mysterious antics in a low-hanging sky constituted the destruction and creation of worlds. Intense-auroral activity centred on the earth's magnetic poles inspired memories of 'anomalous suns' and axes mundi, stupendous pillars of light reaching from the horizon to the highest region of the sky, among people at all latitudes.

It seems that spectacular events transpiring in that 'alien sky' and only partly recoverable by the methods of modern science afflicted humanity with a profound trauma, while inspiring or modifying core elements of human civilisation, ranging from religion, art and architecture to social organisation, rites of passage and infrastructure. These forms could have been recorded on stone in millions of rock art images all over the world, enacted in myriads of rituals celebrated until the present day and narrated in scores of myths now baffling scholars and laymen alike.

Long after these events, the sky would have remained filled with debris, occasioning meteoric activity and zodiacal light at a higher intensity than has been familiar in the modern era. It would have taken until the 1st millennium BCE for the sky to have cleared up sufficiently for planetary astronomy to emerge and for modern philosophy to embark on 'sanitising' the traditional mindset.

If this analysis is correct, the mythology of 'creation' was not concerned with the actual origins of the universe and of the earth, as creationists and countless others have traditionally thought, but with a relatively recent transformative episode in the history of the earth and its electromagnetic environment. While some traditional societies interpreted these events as the absolute beginning of the cosmos and others - correctly - opined that such episodes are a cyclical occurrence, the entire subject of creation mythology is simply irrelevant to the heated cosmological debate of Big Bang versus 'steady state' theory.

forthcoming: