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  transient events
  'the age of myth'
transient natural events in myth

Beginning with some of the classical philosophers, scholars have pondered the nature and origin of myth 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 akin to those applied in linguistics and evolutionary biology, it is possible to establish a solid theoretical foundation for this discipline. In this, transient natural events are recognised as the source of inspiration for many of the most salient themes. Rare and awe-inspiring events in nature experienced with the senses emerge as a potent class of 'mythogenetic' experiences.

The most challenging types of historical information concerning the cosmos were traditionally invested with sentiments of verity, sanctity or awe, the principal ingredients of religion. Cosmological traditions - especially myths, rituals and icons - that were treated as 'holy' and truthful often 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 other 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.

a listing of transient natural events

The following is a catalogue of remarkable and often short-lived natural events that may have left traces in myths and other cosmological traditions:

triboelectric, pyroelectric and piezoelectric discharges
tsunamis, meltwater floods and other types of inundation
methane burps
volcanic eruptions (magma and lava flows)
fire whirls
dust devils
tornadoes, hurricanes, waterspouts
falls and finds of 'thunderstones' (meteorites, tektites, fulgurites, some fossils and prehistoric implements)
large impact events (asteroids, comets)
blowhole activity
rapid formation of islands (atolls), mountains, rivers or lakes
instant fossilisation
rapid geographical pole shift (wobble and nutation)
rapid astronomical pole shift (precession)
rapid changes in the earth's volume
rapid changes in the earth's orbit around the sun
rapid changes in the earth's axial rotation
atmospheric (tropospheric, stratospheric, mesospheric, ionospheric, exospheric):
ordinary lightning
upper-atmospheric lightning (megalightning), including 'sprites' and 'elves'
St. Elmo's fire and other corona discharges
ball lightning, plasmoids
'Gorgons' (volcanic fireballs)
volcanic lightning
earthquake lights
bolides (fireballs), meteors and meteor showers
aurorae, including intense 'aurorae'
ion plumes
dusting (volcanic or cometary)
many unidentified flying objects (UFOs) or unidentified atmospheric phenomena (UAPs)
changes in the earth's albedo or atmospheric opacity
high-energy-density atmospheric z-pinch discharges (Peratt Columns)
atmospheric-optical (involving diffraction, reflection and refraction of light):
zodiacal light and Gegenschein
crepuscular rays
parhelia and paraselenae
solar and lunar haloes
sun pillars and crosses
green sun, blue sun
green flash and ray on sun or Venus
lunar zodiacal light
fog bows
mirages (inferior, superior, and Fata Morgana)
shifts in colour and brightness of stars and planets (may also be celestial)
transient lunar phenomena
impact events on the moon and on planets
planetary conjunctions, transits and occultations
cometary passages, splits and other events
novae and supernovae
rapid 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.

ephnidionto- 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 events in nature. A neologism such as ephnidiontomythology, derived from Greek aiphnídia ónta ('sudden things'), would be accurate but 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 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 primarily 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' 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 mundane properties of the sun, the moon, vegetal life and so forth as the inspirational source of prominent mythical themes. Yet unlike this old school, catastrophist mythology –

avoids invoking elaborate abstract metaphors;
places far less emphasis on the etymologies of the names of mythical characters;
concentrates on short-lived, dramatic events instead of more trivial 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 other scientific disciplines.

Yet 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. Instead, while acknowledging their value, it places them in a different perspective, incorporating them into 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, a certain plant or animal and so on can be seen as an adaptation of earlier narrative material to the present, 'tranquil' condition of the natural world. For example, some myths about an oddly behaving sun could have been based on past observations of some other sun-like object in the sky that was subsequently associated with the sun.
Durkheim's and Dumézil's assertion that many myths symbolise aspects of human society are on target, although they were not inspired by those aspects, but rather acted as models for them.
Jung's archetypes and Lévi-Strauss' binary structure of thought may exist and operate in the mind as suggested, but illuminate only the psychological, interpretive dimension of myths, not their naturalistic contents. Some of these mental substructures may again have directly resulted from the myths, while others may have pre-existed and assisted in the process of rendering the natural events experienced with the senses into the metaphorical narratives we have.

As a broad synthesis, it could be said that mythology is typically based on experiential or observational evidence of two kinds: sensory experiences concern the external or natural world around us and can be communal, while spiritual experiences spring from the internal world of the mind only, notably as altered states of consciousness (ASCs) entered into by individuals before being orally shared with the community. 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 that 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 visionary 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 natural events as a crucial key towards understanding traditionally held cosmological ideas was recognised by a group of scholars representing the nascent subdiscipline of geomythology. This field studies geologically relevant information in mythological sources, with a stronger emphasis on transient events than on regular ones. Geomythologists concentrate on possible mythologised reports of historical tsunamis, volcanic eruptions or meteorite falls 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 budding area include Dorothy Vitaliano, Adrienne Mayor and the pairs of Elizabeth & Paul Barber, Amos Nur & Dawn Burgess, and Luigi Piccardi & Bruce Masse.

From the earth-based perspective, 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 Robert Stephen Briffault, Mircea Eliade, Giorgio de Santillana & Hertha von Dechend, Edwin Krupp, Anthony Aveni and David Kelley & Eugene Milone, have explored mythical reflexes of regular and ordinary proceedings in the sky, such as the lunar cycle, the precession of the equinoxes and the planetary cycles. Other specialists in the humanities drew attention to the significance of more striking short-lived celestial events, some more hypothetical than others, such as the passage and possible impacts of comets, meteor showers, fluctuations in the zodiacal light, eclipses, supernovae and auroral displays. Recent contributors to this more catastrophist line of investigation include Bruce Masse, Derek Allen & Bernard Delair, Richard Firestone & Allen West, Victor Clube, William Napier & Mark Bailey, Duncan Steel and Peter Bobrowsky & Hans Rickman. All of these scholars can conveniently be referred to as 'cosmomythologists'.

from ordinary to extreme

Another dichotomy that can be applied to mythical 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 'protoscientific' 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.

Etiomythology is the mythology concerning the origin or history of the present world, including episodes of creation and destruction. Examples of etiomyths 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 familiar notion of 'etiological 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 etiomythology is concerned, collectively remembered in traditional societies as 'origin stories', relate to events that must be extremely uncommon on a human timescale - transient events assuming dramatic and sometimes devastating or world-altering proportions, which resonate most strongly with the classic notion of catastrophism.