Origin of the Gods
In recent weeks there was a feverish debate on whether Jesus’s birth (and his obvious later ‘death and ‘resurrection’) was a historical event, unique in all of history or the opposite (i.e. an ‘event’, rooted in Pagan culture and ‘adopted’ into Christian thought at the dawn of Christianity). While it is a fascinating subject to study, I thought I might approach the subject from a different perspective. Instead of focusing on the actual ‘event’ (and its repeatability in earlier pagan history), I was more interested in looking at the background, the ‘canvass’ onto which these events and characters seem to be ‘painted’ for us. I compiled a summary reference of my ‘canvass’ study which may aid those who would like to do some more research into this fascinating subject. I have studied the power of Myth all my life - how it is Myth that underpins all of the world’s external religions. I find nothing contradictory to Science in studying Myth. In fact, for me Myth is the Science of living life. I have read Joseph P. Campbell’s works, seen it manifesting in popular culture (George Lucas’s STAR WARS for example is a powerful narrative expounding several layers of the mythological drama beautifully) and recognising the powerful elements referred to by Campbell in his works, in popular culture, philosophy and religion (religion is Myth misunderstood).
I begin my discourse with a few questions and then introduce the reader to the idea of Mythological Ages or Strata. I end my discourse with a few references – only for those really interested of course in doing further reading.
Why do so many creation stories and sagas sound the same? Why are there myths of a universal flood found worldwide? Why are there ‘prophecies’ of ‘end-of-the-world’ event or events found even in far-fling localities? How come these myths are essentially the same irrespective of culture or religion (or time)?
There are two basic theories to account for this and each one adopts a different viewpoint in explaining the similarities. The first theory is the archetypal and its basic premise is that these universal/global myths point to a common base or structure within the human mind itself. The psychologist Carl Jung was a strong proponent of this view. The second theory is the so-called diffusionist view and it claims that all these various myths point to a common source of all myths in our distant past.
In a recent work entitled "Origin Of the World’s Mythologies", Michael Witzel, professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, argues in favour of the diffusionist view. The work makes a comparison of nations around the world. What emerges is a picture of the history of myth reaching as far back as 1,000 centuries (100,000 years), making the mythos the oldest aspect of our culture (far older than any religion). The work further points out that certain mythic elements may even go back to the earliest stages of humanity (when the entire species was still Africa-based). This first strain of mythos is dubbed “Pan-Gaean” – using the geological names of the earliest continents to label the different strata of myth through time. Pan-Gaean is followed by “Gondwana”, a strata of myth found mainly in the indigenous cultures of sub-Saharan Africa and Australia. In these strata, the gods, heaven, earth etc have pre-existence. There is no account for their origins. The gods create humans from earth matter such as trees, clay, earth and so on. The humans commit acts of hubris and are subsequently punished by a world-wide flood (an element that is traced back to the Pan-Gaean strata – no it does not ‘belong’ to christianity). After this event, the local tribes emerge.
The myths of Europe, Asia, America and Polynesia fall into the stratum known as “Laurasian”. The elements in this stratum first arose around 40,000 years ago in south-western Asia. The mythological elements in this stratum share an important feature: they all present a continuous and somewhat similar narrative, unlike the earlier strains. When the elements are studies, it actually reads like a “novel”. The “novel” begins with the origin of the cosmos and the capricious gods and then follows with the “birth” of humanity. Humanity’s history is broken up into four of five “ages” or eras. In this narrative, humans again exhibit too much hubris are also “punished” with a universal flood, clearly tying itself to one of the earlier mythological stratums.
The Laurasian mythos then proceeds further to the “end of time”. Heaven and earth are destroyed and new heaven/earth emerge from the ashes of the old. The event itself is of course recast in different legends such as the Nordic Götterdämerung or “twilight of the gods”. Later Christianity would “adopt” this theme as the so-called Last Judgement Day. These creation and destruction narratives found in the Christian bible are but only the latest manifestations of the Laurasian mythos. They would not exist without this mythological stratum.
The obvious question any thinking person would have at this point is why these myths lasted for such a long period of time. One reason is that they are simply very good stories. Another, perhaps deeper reason, could be that they capture the human lifespan on a universal scale – this is especially true in the Laurasian stratum. The Laurasian stratum clearly describes a cosmos being born, growing into maturity, withering and then dying. Just like us. It echoes the claim recently made in neuroscience that in some unknown or unidentified way the human brain is somehow “hardwired” for myth and religion although such a claim leads to the archetypal viewpoint originally propagated by Jung of course.
When one studies these different mythological strata, a very interesting observation is made: the myths themselves are recast into new “forms” or manifestations every few thousand years – some of these “forms” are then “picked up” by various religions, Christianity being no exception (religion is, however, also a Laurasian manifestation, containing all the mytholoigal elements one would find in the startum). However, during these “form” manifestations, the older gods from a previous era cease to be taken seriously. This phenomenon happened in classical antiquity. The period best known to us – 500 BCE to 500 CE – is a rather late manifestation for that civilization and we can clearly see the old gods losing their influence (of course in favour for newer ones with newer “features”). Around 500 BCE the pre-Socrates philosophers arose in Greece and they disdained the gods of that era. They claimed the gods as mere personifications of natural phenomena or outright fabrications. The gods were the subjects in satirical plays and literature and in later centuries the comedies of Aristophanes dialogues of Lucian openly mocked them. Paganism remained alive in the popular mind-set until Christianity won out in the 4th century BCE (not before “absorbing” most of their mythological elements including the myth of a birth, death and resurrected god-man – an element that would become a personified “cornerstone” in the Christianity propagated by a ruthless church in the Dark Ages) but most of the intelligentsia had long ceased to take Paganism seriously. Their view was that the gods found in paganism were to be interpreted symbolically or allegorically. Sometimes, in transition from the old mythos to the new, it keeps some of the gods of the previous era as either demigods or demons. They are all wrapped in new “clothing” and even given new names. Early Christianity “absorbed” the Greek and Roman gods in this way, giving them new names and some new features but essentially retaining their core features.
The Age Of Greece
Henry Thoreau once stated that “every people have gods to suit their circumstances”. The constant regeneration of the mythological base leads one to wonder what causes these upheavals. One can look at the different “ages” that seem to be so universal a mythic motif. Hesiod, for example, was a Greek poet of the 8th century BCE producing his work “Works and Days”. In this work, the “ages” of Gold, Silver, Bronze, the Heroes and Iron” ages are described and applied to the lifespan of different civilizations. Hesiod clearly depicts these periods (like many in the Laurasian tradition) as one of decay and degeneration. From a so-called “Golden Age” whose people “lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief” (“heaven” if you like) down to the present Age of Iron, when men “never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night.” Hesiod goes even further in showing that the present age will deteriorate even further and will approach an end when men “come to have grey hair on their temples at birth.”
However, it may be that Hesiod is trying to preserve some historical memory as well. The Bronze Age in Greece lasted until 1100 BCE while the Age of Heroes centres around Troy. The Greek Dark Ages stretched from 1100-750 BCE and we notice iron being introduced in this era – in the time Hesiod lived. The Golden and Silver ages would then have to form part of a mythic pre-history of Greece. The idea of a Golden Age still floats in the popular mind today but Hesiod’s other ages do not. It is, however, interesting to note how these mythological ideas from an earlier era find themselves ‘transposed’ into the Christian tradition. Christianity also has these four ‘stages’ of development or dispensations, no doubt inherited from the Laurasian mythological stratum. Based on the narrative they are divided thus: the period between the mythological “Adam” and Noah, then from Noah to Abraham, then Abraham to the Egyptian Moses, Moses to the Christ (or the manifesting god-man of that era) and from the Christ to the present age. In typical Laurasian tradition, this last era will witness general decay and degeneracy (we hear the well known term “the last days” frequently – this is not unique and has been expressed before).
We thus see ancient Laurasian myth transposed into both classical Greek and Christian thought. It therefore illustrates how a universal mythos, with all its elements, acting as a timeless ‘background’, can shift from one era to another.
We can end perhaps by asking a more fundamental question: what do myths actually represent? Is it some external aspect tied to reality around us or is it a descriptor for the processes happening inside us? Or both? To answer this requires careful study.
Burnell, A, Hopkins, E., The Ordinances of Manu, Munshiram Manoharla, 1884, reprinted 1995.
R. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Vol 2, Oxford at the Clarendon press, 1913
J. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion: A New Abridgement from the Second and Third Editions (Oxford World's Classics), Fellow Trinity College, London, 1894
C. Gilchrist, The Tree Of Life Oracle, Friedman Fairfax, 2002
Homer, The Odyssey, Translated by Richard Lattimore, Harper & Row, 1965
R.E. Hume, ed and trans,. The Thirteen Principle Upanishads, 2nd Edition., Oxford University Press, 1931
M Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, Oxford University Press, 2012
J.P. Campbell, The Hero with a thousand faces, Princeton University Press, 1968