(These are summaries of more detailed treatments and are subject to revision)
TURF WARS OVER KNOWLEDGE: This is a summary of attitudes which I have encountered in the course of reading books which touch on the subject of mythology. In making inferences from mythic and legendary sources, it is usual to find some attempt to correlate information of this kind with the findings of science. There is, increasingly, an interesting interdisciplinary element in these writings, whether mainstream or "fringe". A bibliography follows.
The prevailing "consensus" view in science, since the advent of Darwinism, is the "gradualist" position (also known as "uniformitarian"). Adherents of this view hold that there have been no major upheavals in the condition of the planet, and that all environmental and evolutionary changes have been "gradual".
Opposed to that, and marginalised until very recently, is the "catastrophist" view: that the earth has suffered frequent cataclysmic events, some of them within the relatively recent history of the human race, the memory of which survives in accounts of prodigious mythic happenings; but for which evidence can also be found in archaeological and palaeontological data.
Polarisation of these two views seems to have occurred mainly because of rivalry in the nineteenth century between religion and science. Catastrophes such as the Great Flood and other devastating but apparently localised "Acts of God" were seen by scientists as being the province of religion, and not as having any basis in fact. To entertain the possibility that such "myths" might contain germs of truth was to give comfort to religion and to lessen the authority of science.
However, it can now be seen that strict "gradualism" is just as dogmatic as the religious fundamentalism it opposes. Scientists now engage in open debate over the view that the age of the dinosaurs was brought to an end by an external agent, perhaps an asteroid, whose collision with the earth brought about a catastrophic change of environment. The near passage to earth of comets and asteroids regularly make front page news, and there was detailed TV reporting when recently a comet "the size of a mountain" was headed for Jupiter: and debate that if a body of this size collided with earth, the event would bring about a "doomsday scenario".
Ironically, "beliefs" based on scientific "gradualism" are as much based on "religion" as are "beliefs" based on biblical "myth". The originator of uniformitarian thinking was Aristotle who denied the possibility of any change in the position of heavenly bodies by placing the immoveable earth at the centre of a spherical universe inhabited by planets which moved on fixed courses, enclosed within and kept separate by invisible spheres. Later Roman writers, such as Cicero, pointed to the perfect and predictable behaviour of the planets as proof that the planets were divine, and went on dogmatically to deduce that "Therefore the existence of the gods is so manifest that I can scarcely deem anyone who denies it to be of sound mind".
Notwithstanding Aristotle and his gradualist heirs, it seems that there is a great deal of evidence emerging to support the catastrophic view of history. One inference is that humans are no less immune to the possibility of sudden extinction than the dinosaurs were; and that it has already almost happened several times!
There is also polarisation in the attitudes to myth of historians, philosophers and psychoanalysts. The divergence of opposing camps occurred as early as the fifth century BC when the Greek writer Theagenes created the allegorical school of interpretation, whose adherents held that all Homeric gods represent either human faculties or natural elements. In the third century BC another writer, Euhemerus argued that myths are exaggerated accounts of events actually witnessed by early peoples, and that, for example, the Homeric gods were historical kings.
The allegoric view persists in the work of the Jung school of psycho-analysis which holds that myths are an expression of unconscious archetypes. The euhemeristic view is represented by a whole series of writers, largely ostracised by mainstream science, who have adopted interdisciplinary techniques allied to lateral thinking to explore what basis of fact there might be in myth, particularly as regards the nature of human civilisation before 6,000 BC, that is, during the misty period generally referred to as pre-history.
THE TRUTH ? It seems reasonable to suppose that the historical truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes; and one must also allow for another distorting factor: the re-writing of history. We know only too well, from contemporary history, how new rulers, through censorship, book burning and repression, make assiduous attempts to re-write the very recent past. There is no doubt that the myths by which societies lived, in past ages, were subject to the same processes of revision, and for the same reasons. As Robert Graves has stated: "Primitive peoples remodel old myths to conform with changes produced by revolutions, or invasions and, as a rule, politely disguise their violence: thus a treacherous usurper will figure as a lost heir to the throne who killed a destructive dragon or other monster and, after marrying the king's daughter, duly succeeded him. Even myths of origin get altered or discarded. Prometheus' creation of men from clay superseded the hatching of all nature from a world-egg laid by the ancient Mediterranean Dove-Goddess Eurynome - a myth common also in Polynesia, where the Goddess is called Tangaroa".
As mentioned above (in The Prometheus Connection/Suppressed History) another name for Dove-Goddess, in her Sumerian form, was Iahu, meaning "exalted dove". Having read that Iahu is the original version of Jehovah (Yahweh), it then comes as no surprise to learn that the name Uranus is a masculine form of Ur-ana, a female deity representing the Goddess in her orgiastic midsummer aspect. These are only two of the clues suggesting that one of the "revolutions" to which Graves refers was the overthrow, in past ages, of a matriarchal system of social organisation, and its replacement, eventually, by entrenched patriarchy perpetuated through a system of patrilineal inheritance of property and authority. This is exactly the system described by Plato as having been established in the Atlantis of Poseidon and Atlas. Concurrent with this are accounts by other writers of invasions of Atlantis by tribes of women warriors, notably the Gorgons and the Amazons; and the accounts of subversive island kingdoms set up by "sorceresses" such as Circe and Calypso. By some accounts Calypso was a rebellious daughter of Atlas, who was expelled from the mainland for practising witchcraft.
SUMMING UP: An overview of history, which includes myth and "pre-history" places Atlantis, or at any rate ante-diluvian civilisation at mid-point between the change from matrilineal to patrilineal society. Paradise, or the Golden Age of "Cronus" (some say of "Uranus") is the age of Goddess worship, and of a geologically different world. The myth of Eden (and other similar myths in many cultures) describes a paradisial world destroyed by cataclysm (or from which humans are excluded, which - meaning non-existence - is code for destruction). In European mythologies, the matriarchal pre-history pertaining to the Edenic world has been suppressed (or re-written) and in its place we have a Creation myth which supplants earlier history.
Post-Edenic, antediluvian history, as found in myth, which includes the exploits of the rumbustious and very human Greek deities presents the spectacle of a world in turmoil, where the former matriarchal and newer patriarchal systems and religions vie for supremacy over a period of time occupying several thousand years. One must assume that that wars involving killing actually took place between opposing male and female armies; and that the antagonisms generated by such hostilities are tragically embedded in our genetic memory banks. It is during this period that, slowly, as patriarchy became established, the old Goddess-based religious beliefs were demonised so that finally, in modern times (that is, over the last two thousand years) the practises of the old religions were discredited to such an extent that it became possible to justify burning women at the stake for advocating them.
It seems probable that the demonisation of the old religions is part of the process of traumatisation which occurred when the earth was "torn asunder" by that other more recent cataclysm known as the Great Flood with which we associate the sinking of Atlantis as described by Plato and the biblical destruction of Babel.
THE TASK OF THE WRITER seeking to reduce the vast bulk of myth to manageable proportions, to provide material for opera libretti, is (in my view!) as follows:
1) to identify an overall, unifying theme.
I am also interested in the geological background to the ancient world. Some writers have suggested that there are elements of fact not only in myth and legend but also in old folk tales. For example, skeletal remains have been found throughout the world of humans of heights up to 7ft. and over. This concords with the statement in Genesis that "there were giants in those days", and in the Greek myth of the Titans, as well as giving credence to the frequent mention of giants and ogres in folk tales. I am also inclined to believe that life has not evolved and survived in academically neat packages. Life does not conform to text books. It is all much messier! We now know that pygmy mammoths survived until 5,000 BC on Arctic islands. Perhaps the dragons and sea monsters of legend may have been survivors of earlier world ages who co-existed with humans and terrorised them until hunted to extinction or destroyed by violent cataclysm and climate change.
All rights reserved Copyright (C) 1994 Derek Strahan