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'the age of myth'

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 believed to be 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.

'Anomalous suns and moons' - stationary, too low, too hot or dim, too fast or slow, appearing in multiples and so on - make a frequent appearance in mythical reports of this time. The traditions also allocate a central place to one or more stupendous stationary columns, often luminous, 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 such a column as an axis mundi, a 'world axis' or 'cosmic axis'.

global uniformity

The mythology of creation, comprising numerous specific traits, is remarkably uniform among the respective branches of mankind. Following a rigorous comparative method, I was able to reconstruct a universal template, based on more than 400 motifs 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 axes mundi emerged as its narrative backbone. A global substrate of creation mythology had never before been reconstructed in such detail and on the basis of so many primary sources.

The reconstructed template is remarkable not only for the large number of cross-cultural thematic correspondences, but especially for their counterintuitive content and their interlocking in a tight, coherent narrative. Having studied this material on a full-time basis for some 20 years, I make no apologies for arguing that this global core narrative arose in response to a series of remarkable circumstances in the natural environment that affected large parts of the earth at roughly the same time. What were 'creation', the 'age of the gods', the unsuccessful 'suns' and 'moons', and the axes mundi in real terms?

natural turmoil in global prehistory

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 crude interpretation. The 'hard' sciences will, therefore, have the last word on what exactly transpired in physical terms. However, the comparative analysis of the ancient traditions can be used to formulate scientific hypotheses that are testable and in some cases have already been 'tested'.

An abundance of geological and geophysical evidence, some cutting-edge, 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 BC) to the mid-Holocene (c. 5000 BC) is characterised by (1) an excess of natural catastrophes on the surface of the earth, including wildfires, meltwater floods, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and associated climate changes, (2) pronounced changes in the geomagnetic field, with concomitant effects on the polar aurora, (3) enhanced activity of progressively disintegrating comets, involving increased dust loading and possible impact events, (4) unusually strong or frequent cosmic ray events or solar storms and (5) mass extinctions.

Some of this evidence, such as that for the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis or the geomagnetic Gothenburg and Solovki excursions, remains controversial. Even so, all of it is bona fide scientific evidence, debated by specialists in the relevant disciplines in established academic outlets. Scholars in the humanities have shunned it so far, but there ought to be no shame in departing from this pattern. My argument is that these events, to the extent that they really occurred, collectively match the circumstances attending the 'age of myth', dimly perceived through the filter of archaic superstition and story-telling techniques.

cultural impressions

Historically, people all over the world have been known to personify and dramatise solar eclipses, haloes, comets, meteors, aurorae and the like as gods, mythical heroes, ancestors, dragons or other supernatural beings and their interactions. There is no reason why humans living through the tail end of the Pleistocene and the early Holocene, awestruck and terrified in equal measure, would not have perceived similar spectacular lively forms in the conspicuous cometary, atmospheric and even lithospheric plasmas of their time, whose mysterious antics translated into the destruction and creation of worlds. I suggest mechanisms that could account for the worldwide memories of a primordial period of near-total darkness, of luminous objects retrospectively suggestive of failed suns or moons, and of stupendous pillars of light reaching up from the horizon or directly overhead.

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. They could have been depicted in some of the 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 still baffling scholars and laymen alike.

no actual 'creation'

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 it was, but with a relatively recent transformative episode in the history of the earth. While some traditional societies interpreted these events as the absolute beginning of the cosmos and others - more correctly - opined that such episodes are a cyclical occurrence, the entire subject of creation mythology is simply irrelevant to the cosmological debate of Big Bang versus 'steady state' theory and the genesis of galaxies, stars and planets.