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transient natural events

Beginning with some of the classical philosophers, scholars have pondered the nature and origin of mythology for centuries. Yet while respectable disciplines such as astronomy, physics, geology, biology, archaeology and linguistics gradually matured, the field of mythology continued to lack a consensus core of method and direction. Employing structural, historical and comparative methods of reconstruction akin to those applied in linguistics and evolutionary biology, it is possible to establish a theoretical foundation for a new direction in this discipline. In this, transient natural events are recognised as the source of inspiration for the most salient themes.

The most challenging types of historical information concerning the cosmos are those that were traditionally invested with sentiments of sacrality, reverence, fear or worship, the principal ingredients of religion. Traditions - especially myths, rituals and representations - that were 'holy', 'respected' and thought to be true typically concerned allegedly natural phenomena that are not or rarely seen today, such as the events of the 'creation' of the world, the manifestation of deities or encounters with the numinous. Generally, what is unknown and not understood tends to be feared, tabooed and explained by deification, a process known as deux ex machina, from which even modern scientists have not entirely freed themselves.

Transient natural events thus emerge as a very potent class of 'mythogenetic' experiences. As a guideline, whatever induced our distant ancestors to produce the central themes of myth appears to have been:

(1) external to the human mind in origin,
(2) natural, often celestial, and
(3) attractive in character, both because it was
(3a) rare or unusual in terms of frequency and
(3b) awe-inspiring or frightening in terms of appearance.

a listing of transient natural events

The following is a preliminary catalogue of extraordinary, impressive and often short-lived natural events experienced by human beings which may have left traces in the historical record:

geological:
tribo-electricity, pyro-electricity and piezo-electricity
geomagnetic excursions and jerks
tsunamis, meltwater floods and other types of inundation
methane burps
earthquakes
volcanic eruptions (magma and lava flows)
fire whirls
dust devils
tornadoes, hurricanes, waterspouts
impact events (asteroids, comets)
blowhole activity
landslides
plasma-generated spherules
changes in telluric currents
falls and finds of 'thunderstones' (meteorites, tektites, fulgurites, fossils and prehistoric implements)
instant formation of rivers, lakes or mountains
instant fossilisation
 
orbital-dynamical:
geographical pole shift (wobble and nutation)
astronomical pole shift (precession)
changes in the earth's volume
changes in the earth's distance from the sun
changes in the speed of the earth's axial rotation
 
atmospheric (tropospheric, stratospheric, mesospheric, ionospheric, exospheric):
St. Elmo's fire
ball lightning and 'Gorgons'
volcanic lightning
earthquake lights
ordinary lightning
upper-atmospheric lightning (megalightning), including 'sprites' and 'elves'
bolides (fireballs), meteors and meteor showers
aurorae
ion plumes
rapid shifting of the magnetic poles
cometary and volcanic dusting
flux transfer events (FTEs)
many Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) or Unidentified Atmospheric Phenomena (UAPs)
atmospheric z-pinch discharges with synchrotron radiation (Peratt Columns)
 
atmospheric-optical (involving diffraction, reflection and scattering of light):
zodiacal light and Gegenschein
crepuscular rays
parhelia and paraselenae
solar and lunar haloes
sun pillars
green sun, blue sun
green flash and ray on sun or Venus
moon zodiacal light
rainbows
mirages (inferior, superior, and Fata Morgana)
anthelia
shifts in colour and brightness of stars and planets (may also be celestial)
celestial:
transient lunar events
impact events on the moon and on planets
planetary conjunctions and eclipses
cometary passages
coronal changes, sunspots, solar prominences, flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar proton events (SPEs)
novae and supernovae
fluctuations in the zodiacal light
visibility of solar corona
visibility of planetary magnetospheres


* Phenomena coloured grey are contentious: whereas anecdotal or traditional evidence for them exists, scientific proof and understanding of them are either unavailable or insufficient to convince a majority.

aephnidio- or 'catastrophist' mythology

It is hard to come up with an effective short-hand term to describe the theory that myths arise in response to rare and exciting temporary events in nature. A neologism such as aephnidiomythology, derived from Greek aiphnídios ('sudden'), would be accurate but seems cumbersome. The old notion of catastrophism adequately covers truly catastrophic events, such as tsunamis or cosmic impacts, but hardly seems applicable to non-destructive but still conspicuous transient events such as eclipses or aurorae - unless the Greek word katastrophe is understood in its original, literal sense as an 'overturning' of any kind.

The dialectic between catastrophism and uniformitarianism involved the sciences as a whole and dominated the past three centuries. The prevailing view today, with which humanities scholars still need to catch up, is that the two poles are not mutually exclusive, but that the history of the earth, life and the cosmic environment can be modelled as a punctuated equilibrium with prolonged periods of stability and ephemeral episodes of upheaval and accelerated change. The mythological application of this understanding requires that myths related to events at the catastrophist end of the spectrum as well as arresting but harmless events transpiring during stable episodes.

'catastrophist' mythology as a comprehensive theory of myth

Within the history of ideas, 'catastrophist' mythology, with its emphasis on transient natural phenomena, can be seen as a successor to the 'introspective' and structuralist psychosociological models preferred during most of the 20th century, that were championed by thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Émile Durkheim, Georges Dumézil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. The exploitation of scientific knowledge of geological, atmospheric and astronomical events as potentially the ultimate inspiration for numerous mythical themes can be regarded as a revival of the old 'nature school' of mythology, which – beginning in the late 19th century and eventually supplanted by the 'psychosociological' theories – sought to invoke the behaviour of the sun, the moon, vegetal life, and so forth as the inspirational source of prominent mythical themes. Yet unlike the old school, the modern interdisciplinary approach

places far less emphasis on elaborate metaphors and the linguistic aspect of the names of mythical characters;
concentrates on short-lived, dramatic events instead of less 'awe-inspiring' spectacles such as the sunrise and the lunar cycle;
and benefits from the immensely improved state of geophysics, solar-terrestrial physics, plasma physics, climatology, and related scientific disciplines.

This positive approach to historical information about the world, including the baffling themes of creation mythology, does not simply deny or ignore older mythological theories such as those espoused by Edward Tylor, Sir James Frazer, Émile Durkheim, Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Georges Dumézil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Instead, while acknowledging their value, it places them in a different perspective, provided by a comprehensive, overarching framework:

The contention of the old naturalists that many mythical and other traditions describe familiar natural phenomena (symbolic from a modern point of view, often meant literally in traditional societies) is often correct, insofar as the comparison of gods and ancestors to the sun, the moon, the rainbow or a certain plant or animal can be seen as an adaptation of earlier narrative material to the present, 'tranquil' condition of the natural world.
Durkheim's and Dumézil's assertion that many myths reflect aspects of human society are on target, although they were not inspired by those aspects, but acted as models for them.
Jung's archetypes and Lévi-Strauss' binary structure of the mind exist and operate in the mind as suggested, but illuminate only the psychological, interpretive dimension of myths, not their naturalistic contents.

The resulting synthesis claims that mythology is typically based on experiential or observational evidence, of two kinds: sensory experiences concern the external or natural world of the sky, the atmosphere or the landscape , while spiritual experiences spring from the internal world of individual minds only, notably during altered states of consciousness (ASCs). The raw content of both types stands in a reciprocal relationship to prevailing psychological, sociological and artistic conditions, with their respective ethical and aesthetic values, as it is coloured by them on one hand, but shapes them on the other, not least in the domain of religion.

In an ongoing project, I develop a methodology to distinguish between traditions based on external, physical phenomena and ones based on internal, psychological phenomena. Global motifs embedded in the cycle of creation myths and traditional cosmologies generally which are incompatible with the current state of the environment tend to originate in unusual collective experiences of the physical world. More isolated motifs, motifs concerning human souls and ancestors instead of deities, and motifs that continue to be experienced by individuals today likely betray a spiritual source. The remarkable uniformity of many human traditions owes its origin both to common celestial or geological causes, such as global aurorae or elevations of eustatic sea level, and recurrent patterns in spiritual experiences, such as visions obtained by holy people or during near-death experiences (NDEs).

geomythology and 'cosmomythology'

In recent decades, the potential of transient events as a crucial 'key' towards understanding traditional materials was recognised by a group of scholars representing the nascent subdiscipline of geomythology. This field studies geologically relevant information in mythological and other historical sources, with a stronger emphasis on transient events than on regular ones. Geomythologists concentrate on possible mythologised reports of historical tsunamis or volcanic eruptions and the idea that ancient discoveries of fossils, such as those of dinosaurs or Pleistocenic megafauna, contributed to the belief in fabulous creatures such as dragons. Important names in this fast-growing area include Adrienne Mayor and the pairs of Elizabeth & Paul Barber, Amos Nur & Dawn Burgess, and Luigi Piccardi & Bruce Masse.

From the earth-based perspective which most human beings have usually enjoyed, the natural world can conveniently be divided into a geological and a celestial half, the first of which is concerned with the lower regions of the earth and the oceans, the latter with the upper zones occupied by the atmosphere and the realm of stars and planets. I have proposed the neologism cosmomythology to accommodate a study of historical materials pertaining to the celestial half of the visible cosmos, complementary to geomythology.

A large number of respectable mythologists, including Mircea Eliade, Giorgio de Santillana & Hertha von Dechend, Edwin Krupp and Anthony Aveni, have explored mythical reflexes of regular and ordinary proceedings in the sky, such as the precession of the equinoxes, the shifting relationship of the Milky Way to the ecliptic band, and the planetary cycles. Other specialists in the humanities drew attention to short-lived celestial events, such as the passage and possible impacts of comets, meteor showers, an enhanced zodiacal light, historical reports of eclipses and novae, and auroral observations. Recent contributors to this line of investigation include Bruce Masse, Derek Allen & Bernard Delair, Richard Firestone & Allen West, Victor Clube, William Napier & Mark Bailey, Duncan Steel, Peter Bobrowsky & Hans Rickman, and, to a moderate extent, David Kelley & Eugene Milone. All of these scholars can conveniently be referred to as 'cosmomythologists'.

from ordinary to extreme

Another dichotomy which can be applied to mythological traditions recognises two categories for which I propose the following terms:

Parontomythology is the mythology concerning contemporary and relatively common phenomena in the natural world, typically given in the form of 'proto-scientific' explanations. Examples of parontomyths are the widespread belief that lightning is produced by a so-called 'thunderbird' or 'lightning bird', or the common interpretation of the rainbow or the Milky Way as a snake or dragon.

Aetiomythology is the mythology concerning the origin of the present world, including episodes of creation and destruction. Examples of aetiomyths are the Greek story of the succession of divine kingship from Ouranos to Kronos and from Kronos to Zeus or the Aztec tradition of four past eras or 'suns'. The term incorporates the notion of 'aetiological myths', which are traditions accounting for specific aspects of the present world, such as the existence of a lake or the colour of a bird.

In many cases, parontomyths can be shown to trace to aspects of creation myths, but this is not always so and for methodological purposes the two categories are best distinguished initially.

The drastic changes in the cosmic environment with which aetiomythology is concerned, collectively remembered in traditional societies as 'origin stories', relate to events which must be extremely uncommon on a human timescale - transient events assuming dramatic, devastating and often world-altering proportions, which resonate most strongly with the classic notion of catastrophism.

not an isolated Earth

The impact of cutting-edge science on the humanities is especially palpable in the field of astronomy. The ancient geocentric theory of the universe held that the earth was at the centre of the cosmos and, comprising the 'heavy' elements of earth, water and air, exhibited different physical processes than the spheres of planets and stars, in which fire and 'aether' prevailed. Until the Space Age, scientists continued to describe the solar system as a relatively uneventful 'vacuum', in which only planets, asteroids and the occasional comet moved on fixed courses with Aristotelian or Ptolemaic precision. Scholars in the humanities investigating the reflections of astronomical concepts in ancient traditions were very much restricted to the straightjacket of this limited toolkit.

Although the astronomers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment dislodged the earth from its central position, the belief that it at least operates in isolation from the rest of space survived much longer, as one of the last vestiges of the old paradigm. Newton's theory of gravity required that at least gravity be permitted to influence the earth as an external factor. Then the Space Age unleashed a torrent of discoveries which continue to redefine cosmological theory.

While other bodies first inside and then outside the solar system were found to undergo various atmospheric and 'geological' changes, space is no longer viewed as a vacuum punctuated by isolated bodies on perpetually stable courses, as defined by the law of gravity. It is now known to consist for 99.99% of matter in the plasma state, through which the earth and other objects in the solar system and beyond are interconnected in delicate networks spanning across many orders of magnitude. Plasma is a partially ionised gas regarded as the 'fourth state of matter', that responds with great sensitivity to changes in magnetic fields and becomes visible to the human eye when it is pervaded by a sufficiently strong electrical current.

The solid rock, the oceans and the lower regions of the earth's atmosphere belong to the minute segment of the cosmos that is only very weakly ionised or not at all. Yet through its upper atmosphere, the earth bathes in a rich and active electromagnetic environment, of which the protective geomagnetic field, the aurorae, thunderstorms and tornadoes are important parts. Electromagnetic fields from the sun and possibly other celestial objects are revealed to modulate a growing number of conditions on Earth. The modern understanding of the solar system as a highly complex web of combined gravitational and electromagnetic forces, in which the solar wind interacts with interplanetary space and planetary magnetospheres, injects a new lease of life into the obsolete pre-1950 understanding of the solar system, allowing theorists to account for a much greater variety of traditional observations at a higher level of intellectual satisfaction.

Electromagnetism is a common denominator in many of the listed transient events, such as aurorae, lightning, St. Elmo's fire, telluric currents, solar flares, ball lightning, earthquake lights, electrophonic bolides, the 'thunderstone' label traditionally attached to a variety of objects and the zodiacal light, which may act as a weak dusty plasma. And many of the most significant transient events of the past remembered in human traditions seem to have involved prolonged and extreme perturbations in the complex web of solar-terrestrial electromagnetic forces.