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  'the age of myth'
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'the age of myth'

Traditions from virtually every society and period recalled an 'age of myth', 'era of creation', 'golden age' or 'time when the gods lived on earth'. This was believed to be an exemplary epoch at the dawn of remembered human history, characterised by the remarkable activities of supernatural beings and a series of events transforming former worlds into the sky and the earth as they appear today.

'Anomalous suns and moons' make a frequent appearance in mythical reports about this time. They were anomalous by the standard of the sun and moon as we know them, being stationary, too low, too hot or dim, too fast or slow, appearing in multiples and so on.

The traditions also allocate a central place to one or more stupendous columns, often luminous, which joined the respective regions of the cosmos on the vertical and horizontal planes at a time when the sun, moon and stars were not yet seen in the sky. Anthropologists habitually refer to such a column as an axis mundi, meaning a 'world axis' or 'cosmic axis'. This term presupposes an association with the pole, which - as I have often argued - is not justified for the original sky pillars. If a Latin term must be used, columna mundi ('world column') would be preferable.

global uniformity

The mythology of creation is highly diverse, but there is also a striking uniformity to it 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 societies could have been based; the formation, metamorphoses and demise of the cosmic pillars emerged as its narrative backbone. A global substructure to creation myth had never before been reconstructed in such detail and on the basis of so many primary sources.

The template is remarkable not only for the large number of cross-cultural thematic correspondences, but especially for their counterintuitive character and their interlocking in a tight, coherent narrative. Having studied this material on a full-time basis for some 24 years, I make no apologies for arguing that this global core narrative arose in response to a series of dramatic circumstances in the natural environment that affected large parts of the earth in roughly the same period. What were 'creation', the 'age of the gods', the unsuccessful 'suns' and 'moons', and the world pillars in real terms?

natural turmoil in global prehistory

Myth is, of course, replete with bizarre imagery of animals and other aspects of nature talking and acting like humans while leaving major geological and cosmological footprints. Yet if we can move past this trait as the combined anthropomorphisation and zoomorphisation of other natural agents, we discover much more credible traditions about assorted natural events, often drastic. If traditions about the 'age of creation' are allowed to speak for themselves in this way rather than being straightjacketed into Frazerian, Jungian or Durkheimian paradigms, an economic explanation is that they trace to a combination of two things: on one hand, a sort of protoscience through which inferences were drawn from contemporary observations within the limited intellectual framework of the time; and on the other hand orally transmitted eye-witness accounts of an extraordinary episode in the recent history of the planet.

What exactly transpired can be figured out by means of an interdisciplinary research programme, in which the traditional cosmologies are compared to empirical scientific knowledge concerning the condition of the earth in the past 20,000 years. Data culled from the intangible sources of culture and history 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 their lens of crude interpretation. The 'hard' sciences will, therefore, have the last word on what exactly took place in physical terms. However, 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, geophysical and astronomical 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. 18,000 BC) to the end of the Younger Dryas stadial (c. 9,700 BC), and continuing into 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 and earthquakes; (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 remains controversial. Examples are the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis and the geomagnetic Gothenburg and Solovki excursions. Even so, it is all bona fide scientific evidence, debated by specialists in the relevant disciplines in established academic outlets. Scholars in the humanities have mostly 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 lively forms in the formidable natural forces 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, flood and fire, 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 in that 'alien sky', only partly recoverable by the methods of modern science, afflicted humanity with a profound trauma, while inspiring or modifying core elements of 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 strewn around the world, enacted in myriads of enduring rituals and narrated in scores of myths still intriguing 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 have traditionally thought it was, but with a geologically recent transformative episode in the history of the planet. Some traditional societies interpreted these events as the absolute beginning of the cosmos or earth, perhaps because their cultural memory did not reach back further. Others more correctly felt that such episodes are a cyclical occurrence. Either way, 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.