PLASMA MYTHOLOGY –
how the gods destroyed the world
(This article appeared originally in Dutch in Bres; op de bres voor een bezield bestaan,
224, February / March 2004,
November 2003, latest update 29th. February 2004
To the naked eye not much is happening in the nocturnal sky. With the exception of the odd comet or an unusual bright appearance of Mars the firmament can hardly be called a spectacular place. Seeing this it is all the more surprising, to say the least, that the cultures of antiquity took such an extraordinary interest in the heavens. Nor were they just interested, for a deeply rooted dread of the sky pervaded the ancient world. This raises a question: did the night sky five thousand years ago look just like it does today? The question may sound far-fetched, but modern cosmology has found strong indications that as late as Roman times far more was going on in the sky than appears to be happening today. Comets and meteors frequently roamed the firmament and all sorts of atmospheric disturbances took place on a grand scale. Comet impacts repeatedly led to worldwide floods and fires.
Using the latest insights in cosmology we can form a detailed picture of what exactly was going on in the sky during such an atmospheric disturbance. It turns out that the spellbinding spectacle witnessed by Palaeolithic people around the globe is in precise agreement with the dominant themes in world mythology as well as traditional art. The ancients were by no means insane. On the contrary, age-old traditions appear to be reliable guides in our quest for the past. And plasma plays a decisive role in the decipherment.
THE PLASMA UNIVERSE
During physics lessons at school each of us has learned about the three natural states in which matter can occur: solid, liquid, and gas. If you heat a solid substance sufficiently, it will become liquid. If you go on heating it, the liquid will transform into a gas. These are the so-called states of aggregation. The standard example is water: in its coldest form it is ice, at higher temperatures it turns into liquid water, and after continued heating it becomes steam. Few people realise that there is a fourth state as well: plasma. If you continue to increase the temperature, a gas will assume the state of an 'ionised gas' or a 'plasma'. The extremely high temperatures tear the gas particles apart. The atoms lose electrons and as these electrons are now free to roam the gas, usually positively charged, acquires electromagnetical properties.
Plasma has a number of peculiarities. The plasma particles do not move freely through space, but concentrate around the lines of the magnetic field through which they pass. If a strong electrical current runs through the plasma cloud the plasma particles become visible to the human eye – the plasma glows – and the structure of the magnetic field becomes manifest. Magnetic fields are extraordinarily volatile, being able to change shapes in an instant. When two fields collide a brief period of instability takes place, giving way to a new composite field. In a plasma this leads to a spectacular caleidoscopic interplay of dazzling colours and forms of unparalleled complexity. Because of its potential for variegation and this extreme volatility plasma is uncannily similar to living matter. In other words – it is as if plasma is endowed with life, possessing a 'soul' in one way or another. But just where is plasma to be found and why is it so little known?
Plasma is practically ubiquitous. Scientists now agree that no less than 99.9% of the universe consists of plasma: the sun and all other stars, the magnetic fields surrounding the planets, and most of interplanetary and interstellar space are all formed of plasma. On earth plasma is a relatively rare phenomenon indeed and that explains why it is so unfamiliar, being discovered so late by scientists. Most terrestrial phenomena are solid, liquid, or gaseous. Exceptions are flames of fire, the lightning, and the so-called auroras. These are made of plasma.
The northern lights or the auroras are most clearly related to the magnetic field of the earth. The magnetic field of the earth has two poles, known as the magnetic north pole and south pole. Charged particles from space – from the solar wind, to be precise - travel through these poles into the lower regions of the atmosphere. Any meteorologist will tell you that the weather is influenced by disturbances in the magnetic field of the earth, themselves caused by the solar wind. The inflowing particles form an extremely sensitive plasma. The plasma glows on the more extreme occasions and especially during electrical discharges. The bewildering transformations of the magnetic field then become visible to the human eye. The result is the aurora.
In order to see the northern lights one has to travel to the utmost north of Alaska, Canada or Scandinavia these days and even then you need to be lucky to spot one. But the northern lights have not always been such sporadic events. Fresh insights in plasma physics have led to revolutionary discoveries, of which the ramifications can hardly be fathomed as yet. Extensive laboratory research has enabled scholars increasingly to come to grips with the complicated morphology of plasma: how does it behave under which conditions?
The latest insights can be felt in many different areas. Technologically speaking the best known results are the neon tube and the plasma screen. But plasma research has spawned more than just technological discoveries. My exchange with dr. Anthony Peratt, an American plasma physicist currently based at Los Alamos, has led to the breathtaking discovery that 20th century scientists were by no means the first people to witness the complex behaviour of plasma. Although plasma physicists saw completely novel and unintelligible things happening in their test tubes as well as the deepest corners of space plasma once was a familiar occurrence here on earth. Just a few thousand years ago, towards the onset of civilisation, plasma controlled the entire firmament. At that time the auroras were not confined to the polar regions, but were visible all the way down to the equator, being endlessly more powerful and extensive than at present.
As the earth went through an exceptionally unstable period in her existence from an electromagnetic point of view, all of mankind witnessed the development of a plasma column under strong electrical current. The size of this plasma column exceeded that of those used in modern laboratory plasmas by many degrees: a stupendous pillar of light reached from the earthly pole until deep in the sky, so far that the upper extremity of the column could not be discerned. The rise, the existence and the collapse of the pillar were witnessed by eyes across the globe and engraved in the collective memory of mankind. Today the thousands of eyewitness accounts of this column and the crisis during which it appeared are known as the age-old mythology of the world axis.
THE WORLD AXIS
The world axis or the axis mundi is a familiar concept in comparative mythology. The world axis is defined as the imaginary line connecting the terrestrial poles, the earth axis, and the north and south poles of heaven, terminating at a point close to the pole star. This line is important because it forms the centre of the world from an earth-bound perspective. For an observer on earth it is as if the stars turn round and the axis about which they revolve is the polar axis. The vicinity of the pole star is the sole region in space that does not turn round, but all other stars circle around it. It is the ultimate point of stability and rest and a virtual pivot of creation. This 'cosmic centre' was of inestimable value in the ancient world view. One creation myth after the other asserts that the polar centre is the place from where the world was first created, that the creating deity hailed from there, and that this was where the gods were pitted against dragons, engaged in sex and communicated with our ancestors. The polar centre quite literally forms the heart of mythology.
If this was all we could give the theory short shrift as an exaggerated speculation based on the ideology of Aristotle's 'Unmoved Mover'. But there is much more. A chorus of countless traditions coming from all continents unanimously state that the world axis once looked like a stupendous pellucid column, connecting the earth with the sky. Thousands of myths describe the world axis as a prodigious fiery or golden tree, rooted in the deepest underworld underneath the surface of the earth, whose crown touched the zenith or the pole star. Or the world axis was a golden mountain in the centre of the world, the summit of which reached until the highest heavens. Or the world axis was the body of a gargantuan god, the cosmic giant Atlas, whose feet rest on the earth and whose shoulders support the firmament. An endless array of metaphors – tree of life, cosmic mountain, world giant, and many others – refer to one and the same awe-inspiring object: the axis in the centre of the world.
The world axis long remained relatively unnoticed among modern researchers as mythologists specialising in one particular cultural area often fail to see the forest because of the trees. Classicists and Hebraists, for instance, typically overlook the fundamental identity of the mountains Olympus, Parnassus, Sinai and Zion in a symbolical sense: all denote the one cosmic mountain. Despite this, the world axis has at least drawn the attention of a handful of comparative mythologists. The 19th century William Warren, author of Paradise found, and John O'Neill with his two-volume The night of the gods were pioneers. Both were aware that numerous sacred trees, mounts and pillars in the religions of the world were shadows of the cosmic axis. The work was followed up in the early 20th century by Uno Holmberg, Der Baum des Lebens, and Edric Butterworth, The tree at the navel of the earth, who concentrated especially on Asiatic data. It was not until the fascinating work of the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, however, that modern interest in the cosmic axis was generated, along with Hamlet's Mill, written by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend. These and a plethora of subsequent authors realised that the world axis really occupies a central position in the cosmic perceptions of numerous ancient and preliterate societies. And yet, one final piece was missing in these studies. No matter how thorough and insightful some of the works on the axis mundi had been, the most fundamental feature of the cosmic axis had still escaped detection.
THE OTHER WORLD
Towards the end of the 20th century the study of mythology was still a stripling science. Consensus had been reached about virtually nothing, but amid the welter of proposed theories and vantage-points two developments stood out. The first of these two crucial movements emphasised the significance of the cosmic axis, as I have just shown. The second important movement was the mythological version of catastrophism. A growing group of researchers of diverse plumage – ethnologists, linguists, historians of literature and religion, astronomers, you name it – discovered with a shock that the myths are actually talking about things that are no longer happening. Myths typically describe a world different than ours, as the stuff of mythology is the unusual rather than the mundane. What is the point of looking for the origin of mythology in the symbolism of the sun, the moon, fertility, or even the depths of the brain, when the myths speak so systematically of a time when sun and moon did not yet exist, all was darkness, or the cosmos was ravaged by a deluge or a conflagration? The combats of the gods, the miraculous births of heroes, the magical beverages, the ancestors journeying up and down between heaven and earth – these and a host of other universal themes describe a time when our direct environment – sky and earth – looked different than today. The oft-repeated refrain of the Golden Age, paradise and the epoch of the gods refers to a turbulant period in the history of our earth, experienced by Late Stone Age people, during which the world was drastically transformed. The unusual, catastrophic element in these events explains not only why the myths left such an indelible imprint on the ancient cultures, but also why it has been so hard for modern man to unravel what has transpired.
The most famous names in modern mythological catastrophism are Ignatius
Donnelly, Hans Bellamy, Immanuel Velikovsky, Alexander and Edith Tollmann,
Victor Clube, Bill Napier, and
My own research suggests the conclusion that both parties – the earth-axis theory and catastrophism – have collected crucial data, but missed the heart of the matter. The Holy Grail of mythology is the fusion of these ideas. In practical terms this means that the world axis is to be conceived in catastrophist terms: it is a phenomenon that no longer exists, but has once been visible, under catastrophic circumstances. This synthesis solves a considerable number of problems.
For starters, it is a truism that the catastrophists garnered an impressive amount of data that could be accommodated really well in the theory of comet impacts and appearances. However, these data hardly touched the nucleus of mythology. Coherence was lacking and the theory remained restricted to incidental myths. Theoreticians of the world axis, on the other hand, were clearly untangling the secrets of the heart of mythology, the actual core of creation mythology, the provenance of gods and ancestors, and the symbolism of the mystical births, lives and deaths of the deities. But they entirely overlooked the fact that the world axis as described in the myths has almost nothing in common with the world axis of today. The relevance of the world axis today is next to none, as the axis is nothing more than an imaginary construct symbolising the optical centre of the realm of the stars. Hardly any aspect of the mythological axis can be recognised in this imaginary line. The myths describe the world axis in unprecedented detail as an object going through various phases – phases that can be reconstructed one by one with the help of data from many different cultures. Up until today hardly any of these phases has been acknowledged systematically in the literature and my research can suitably be described as the first thorough and comprehensive analysis of the world axis in what you might call an anatomical and morphological study. The following is a sample of the features and phases marking the development of the world axis, as uncovered so far:
• The axis originated as a mere point, rising up towards the zenith.
• The rise of the axis precipitated the separation of heaven and earth, which had formerly been united.
• The axis marked the optical centre of heaven and earth.
• The axis was the first thing that existed in the darkness.
• The mythical god, hero or ancestor travelled up and down along the axis.
• The axis emitted a rutilant, luminous glow.
• The axis was formed of water, wind or fire.
• The axis consisted of seven to nine superimposed segments.
• The axis was spinning.
• The axis assumed the form of a cone.
• The axis' top and bottom extremities were bifurcated.
• One or two spirals coiled round the axis, producing seven to nine windings.
• Seven to nine concentric rings formed round the axis.
• The axis was hollow inside.
• The axis was the source of life, energy, and food, and contained the mythical ancestor.
• The axis was surmounted by a deity or a spherical object.
• A number of filaments, tentacles or streamers, mostly four, seven or nine, jetted out from the axis, radiating into space.
• The axis had the shape of an hourglass.
• The axis snapped in the centre and collapsed, the pieces being speedily dispersed through space.
Each of these aspects can be demonstrated with the help of a large number of examples coming from the mythology, rituals, and traditional art of cultures spanning the globe. None of these aspects conforms convincingly to the world axis as it appears in its modern, purely imaginative form. The only way out is that the world axis was once visible. If the myths really were eyewitness accounts they describe a time when the world axis was a clearly definable concept: it was a pillar of light stationed at the magnetic pole, which developed a complex morphology in the course of its existence and finally decomposed entirely. This hypothesis connects the notions of catastrophism and world axis, gives structure and backbone to the catastrophist theory of myth, and explains why the mythical world axis has so little in common with the present form of the axis. Other than these the hypothesis has a further advantage: if the world axis really existed as a visible object, surely it must be possible to find out what sort of thing it was in a physical sense. The hypothesis is testable and this is an indispensable gift will it ever be taken seriously. Hence the all-important question: what for heaven's sake is the world axis?
THE COSMIC PLASMA COLUMN
The past has seen repeated attempts to interpret the forms and behaviour of the gods in atmospherical terms. But solar eclipses, meteors, rainbows, haloes, thunder storms and the ordinary aurora all fail to meet the demands required by a reliable, systematical model. The auroral hypothesis offers much perspective, but only if it concerns an extraordinarily magnified aurora taking place on an enhanced scale and in a considerable span of time. The agility and variegated nature of the plasma that constitutes the aurora, even more an augmented aurora, offer compelling possibilities for an interpretation of the nature of the gods and their world, but still a more concrete model is desirable. Due to the ongoing decipherment of the secret code of plasma it has now for the first time become possible to formulate such a model.
Under laboratory conditions plasma is normally formed in a cylinder. An electrical current is created between the top and the bottom of the column, which act as cathode and anode. As the current increases the column loses stability: it starts to twist, warp, and wriggle, develops filaments and vortices at its extremities, and emits jets shooting forth in different directions like tentacles. It all ends in the final collapse of the column. The 'instabilities' of the column conform to a highly complex pattern defined by electromagnetic and hydromagnetodynamic principles, which are ever better understood as new discoveries come to light. The secrets of the plasma cylinder now turn out to be the key to a forgotten chapter in the history of mankind. This is the chapter of the world axis.
What the ancient myths and traditions are concerned with is the appearance of a stupefying plasma column in the atmosphere of the earth. Earthquakes, floods, darkness and world fires have all been proposed as catastrophes that may have taken place during turbulent periods in the history of the earth, not in the least during the lifetime of Homo sapiens on earth. Climatologists, geologists, and archaeologists have discovered that a number of severe disasters occurred around 3000 and 2300 BCE respectively, disasters with important consequences for weather and climate, which terminated entire civilisations. Of crucial importance here is that an unusually large disturbance of the earth's magnetic field occurred during one of these catastrophic episodes, possibly caused by collision of the earth's magnetic field with another magnetic field. The upshot was a strong influx of charged particles in the polar centres of the magnetic field. A powerful electrical discharge took place between the earth and the source of the interfering external field, precipitating the flaring up of the plasma. An extreme prolonged aurora was the result. The funnel through which the charged particles entered the field of the earth lit up in the form of a giant luminous pillar centred round the terrestrial pole. This was the mythical world axis.
The puzzling attributes of this world axis as listed above correspond one by one to known aspects and phases in the development of a plasma column, as is shown in laboratory research. The funnel appeared to rotate due to the spinning of the earth around her axis. It consisted of seven to nine superimposed plasmoids, developed filaments, spirals, and vortices, emitted radial jets, twisted and wriggled, and finally collapsed, dispersing its constituent parts through space. The magnetic field of the earth recovered but slowly and it would take even longer for the climates and the biological populations to recover. Several centuries, or even millennia, had to pass for the smaller and bigger pieces of debris, roaming through the solar system, to evaporate and dissolve, enabling the solar system finally to regain stability. The plasma column and the lumps of plasma that had once dominated the firmament lingered on in memory as mighty gods, ghosts and ancestors who had fashioned the world as it is today, allowed for communication between heaven and earth, continuously shifted shapes, battled with each other and were so utterly unpredictable that they had to be appeased with rituals and sacrifices. The gods were no longer on earth, but continued to live on in the collective memory of mankind and the northern lights we see today on a trip to the arctic are a far cry from the fabulous fireworks our Stone Age ancestors observed.
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