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  transient events
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transient natural events in myth

Beginning with the classical philosophers, people have pondered the nature and origin of myth for centuries. Yet while disciplines such as astronomy, physics, geology, biology, archaeology and linguistics gradually matured, the field of mythology continued to lack a consensus core of definition, direction and method . By 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. This recognises transient natural events as the 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 mythogenous experiences.

Historical information about the cosmos was traditionally invested with sentiments of sanctity, taboo and veracity, all typical of religion. Cosmological traditions - especially myths, rituals and icons - that were treated as 'holy' and truthful often concerned purported natural phenomena that are not or rarely seen today, such as the events of 'creation', the manifestation of deities or other encounters with the numinous. Generally, what is not understood tends to be feared, segregated and deified - the deus ex machina.

Myths typically end with a familiar situation, such as the sun rising in the east every morning, but what leads up to that outcome may well form their raison d'être and be what really needs to be explained.

a listing of transient natural events

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

geological and hydrological:
volcanic eruptions (magma and lava flows) with dusting
volcanic lightning
'Gorgons' (volcanic fireballs)
earthquake lights
triboelectric, pyroelectric and piezoelectric discharges
methane burps
rapid formation of islands (atolls), mountains, rivers or lakes
instant fossilisation
blowhole activity
tsunamis, meltwater floods and other types of inundation
major whirlwinds (cyclones, tornadoes, waterspouts, landspouts)
minor whirlwinds (fire whirls, dust devils) / hurricanes
storm with lightning (exposing 'thunderstones' = fulgurites, prehistoric implements, fossils, tektites, meteorites)
upper-atmospheric lightning (megalightning), including 'sprites', 'ELVES', 'trolls'
St. Elmo's fire and other corona discharges
ball lightning, plasmoids
bolides (fireballs), meteors and meteor showers
aurorae, including STEVE and picket fence aurora
many unidentified flying objects (UFOs) or unidentified atmospheric phenomena (UAPs)
changes in atmospheric opacity or albedo
high-energy-density atmospheric z-pinch discharges (Peratt Columns)
atmospheric-optical (involving diffraction, reflection and refraction of light):
rainbows and fog bows
crepuscular and anticrepuscular rays
parhelia and paraselenae
solar and lunar haloes and aureoles
sun pillars and crosses, moon and Venus pillars
green sun, blue sun
green flash and ray on sun or Venus, scintillations of stars and planets
mirages (inferior, superior, and Fata Morgana)
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
zodiacal light, zodiacal band and Gegenschein (may seem sporadic from middle latitudes and fluctuating)
solar and lunar eclipses, selenelion
planetary conjunctions, transits and occultations
cometary passages and splits (dusting if near)
small impact events (meteorites)
large impact events (asteroids, comets, tektites)
impact events on the moon (transient lunar phenomena) and on planets
novae and supernovae
visibility of planetary magnetospheres

* Phenomena coloured grey are contentious.

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 deadly events such as tsunamis or cosmic impacts, but hardly seems applicable to benign ones such as eclipses or aurorae - unless the Greek word katastrophḗ is understood in its original, literal sense as an 'overturning' of any kind.

The dialectic between catastrophism and uniformitarianism has always involved the sciences as a whole. The humanities still need to catch up on the prevailing view today: that the history of the earth, life and the cosmic environment can be modelled as a punctuated equilibrium with long periods of stability and ephemeral episodes of upheaval and accelerated change. Applied to myth, this could mean that events at the catastrophic end of the spectrum generated the bulk of the stories, which underwent cultural processing during ensuing stable episodes.

towards 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, which were championed by thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Émile Durkheim, Georges Dumézil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. The exploitation of transient natural events as a potential source of numerous mythical motifs can be regarded as a revival of the 'nature school', which arose in the mid-19th century and limited itself to the mundane properties of the sun, the moon, vegetal life and so forth. Unlike this old school, catastrophist mythology –

shuns 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, meteorology, climatology and other scientific disciplines.

This approach does not simply deny or ignore the older theories. Instead, while acknowledging their value, it incorporates them into a comprehensive framework:

The contention of the old naturalists that many myths describe familiar natural phenomena (in terms that may seem symbolic to us but were likely meant literally at first) can be 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 nature. 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.

The assertion of Durkheim and Dumézil that many myths symbolise aspects of human society are on target, but rather than deriving from these aspects they could have inspired them, as they in fact tend to claim.

Jung's archetypes and Lévi-Strauss' binary structure may exist and operate in the mind as suggested, but illuminate only the psychological, interpretive dimension of myths, not their naturalistic contents. If not directly resulting from the myths again, such mental structures may have 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 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 relates reciprocally to prevailing psychological, sociological and artistic conditions with their respective ethical and aesthetic values: it is coloured by them on one hand, but shapes them on the other, not least in the domain of religion.

It may be possible to formally distinguish between traditions based on external, physical phenomena and ones based on internal, psychological phenomena. Global motifs in traditional cosmologies that are alien to the current state of the environment - such as 'two suns' - may originate in unusual collective experiences in the physical world. Motifs involving souls and ones that continue to be experienced by visionaries today likely have a spiritual source. The remarkable uniformity of many traditions could result both from common natural causes, such as global aurorae or elevations of eustatic sea level, and recurrent patterns in spiritual experiences, such as visions obtained by people deemed holy 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. So far, they have concentrated on possible mythologised reports of tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and meteorite falls as well as the idea that ancient discoveries of fossils, notably of dinosaurs and Pleistocene megafauna, contributed to the belief in fabulous creatures such as dragons. Important names in this budding area are 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 terrestrial and a celestial half, the first comprising the land and oceans, the latter the atmosphere and space. In 2009, I proposed the neologism cosmomythology to complement 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, axial precession and planetary periods. Other 'cosmomythologists' drew attention to more striking and short-lived celestial events, some hypothetical , such as eclipses, aurorae, supernovae, meteor showers, the passage and possible impacts of comets, fluctuations in the brightness of the zodiacal light, and solar superstorms. Recent contributors to this more catastrophist line of investigation - as defined above - would be Bruce Masse, Derek Allen & Bernard Delair, Richard Firestone & Allen West, Victor Clube, William Napier & Mark Bailey, Duncan Steel, Peter Bobrowsky & Hans Rickman and Paul Laviolette.


For another useful dichotomy in the study of myth I propose the following terms:

Parontomythology is the mythology of events still occurring now, typically explained in 'protoscientific' fashion. Examples of parontomyths are the widespread belief that lightning is produced by a thunderbird and the common interpretation of the rainbow or the Milky Way as a snake or dragon.

Etiomythology is the mythology about the origin and history of the present world, including episodes of creation and destruction. It covers the same ground as the common term 'etiological myth'. Examples of etiomyths are the Greek story of the succession of divine kingship from Ouranos via Kronos to Zeus and the Aztec tradition of four past eras called 'suns'.

Parontomyths frequently form as offshoots of etiomyths. For example, the monster with whom the sun god did battle in illo tempore still has a go occasionally, when an eclipse occurs. The distinction is nevertheless helpful, as such a derivation is often unprovable.

A Venn diagram might be ideal to illustrate the complex relations between catastrophist and other ephnidiontomyths, myths of sensory and of spiritual origin, geo- and cosmomyths, and paronto- and etiomyths.