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Clay tablet from the city of Sippar (circa 700 -- 500 BCE).
Probably the earliest mappa mundi or “world map” in existence. Babylon is marked in
the centre. An inscription describes the ring as marratu or 'bitter river'.

Mar 05, 2008

The Circular Ocean: a Round Up

It is probably fair to say that the cosmological systems described by traditional societies around the world contain more features that do not make sense from a modern perspective than ones that do.

Contemporary members of indigenous societies will dwell on the phenomena of sunrise and the cycle of the moon and point out the Milky Way and a few notable constellations, but these statements are far outweighed by the excessive interest shown in a bevy of anomalous features. Worldwide motifs such as the stony or metallic composition of the sky, four stanchions supporting the sky, a hole at the pole, a navel of the earth, a dragon below the surface of the earth whose contortions cause earthquakes, a tree, mountain or pillar at the centre of the earth, a giant thunderbird at the top of this column, or the superposition of nine heavens like a stack of pancakes pose so many challenges to specialists, from anthropologists to archaeologists and from philologists to art historians.

The sanity of the thousands of such testimonies is not in any doubt, possibly even overshadowing the intelligence displayed in modern western views on the cosmos. As exactly the same puzzling traits populate the most ancient descriptions and depictions of the “world” in abundance, a more plausible solution is that these remarkably consistent reports preserve memories of forms and fixtures that were once really observed in the heavens.

The theme of an ocean following the circular perimeter of the earth is widespread, and in quite a few cases, the enclosing body of water is itself envisioned as a “ring” or river. The Egyptians had such a concept, portraying the god Osiris in his “watery” aspect as the personification of the circular ocean: “… you are hale and great in your name of ‘Sea’; behold, you are great and round in <your name of> ‘Ocean’; behold, you are circular and round as the circle which surrounds the Ḥзw-nbwt …”, says a spell in the Pyramid Texts.

The Greek historian Herodotus bemoaned his compatriots for “foolishly” perpetuating the myth of the circular ocean, in the face of current knowledge: “And I laugh to see how many have ere now drawn maps of the world, not one of them showing the matter reasonably; for they draw the world as round as if fashioned by compasses, encircled by the river of Ocean, and Asia and Europe of a like bigness.” But the concept remained popular for millennia afterwards, in countries far outside the sphere of Greek influence. As an example, the people of Benin contended until recently that “the water surrounds the earth around its entire convex surface”. And the Pueblo people of New Mexico “believe the earth to be circular and surrounded on all sides by the ocean.”

As with many other instances of “erratic” features of traditional cosmography, scholars have tried to explain the theme of the circular ocean as springing from more or less obvious and spontaneous observations of nature. For example, the Dutch orientalist Anton Wensinck clarified: “The primitive eye starts from what it observes: the seashore presents the unlimited sight of the ocean; this means that the ends of the earth are surrounded by the ocean.” And John Pairman Brown, a modern savant, offers: “Since the bottom of the sky-vault is obviously a perfect circle, so must be the plane of earth and water that it encloses.”

Yet, for all the confidence expressed in such sentiments, the circularity of the horizon may on a closer inspection perhaps seem less “obvious” than these writers suggest. Although the impression of roundness may certainly present itself to people familiar with other geographic environments than mountainous ones, they might as well imagine the expanse of land or sea they see to extend indefinitely in all directions, especially in cultural contexts that have not yet embraced a spherical model of the cosmos.

And why would forest-dwellers such as the Warao or the Shipibo-Conibo, who have never toyed with the idea of a spherical earth, envision a round horizon? The apparent rotundity of the horizon may at best have served ancient societies as a confirmation of their cosmological beliefs, while early guesses about the distribution of water will have influenced the notion of a flowing world ocean.

A strong indication that something else is going on is the ingrained tendency of ancient cosmographers to equate the round ocean with the coiled body of a serpent, tail in mouth, that is technically known as an ouroboros. From Latin America to equatorial Africa and from Oceania to the Judaic tradition, the entity surrounding the earth is perceived as a dazzlingly bright “feathered” serpent coil of an aquatic composition.

Preliminary findings suggest that the theme of the circular ocean as well as the ouroboros’ link with the circular ocean are roughly restricted to the equatorial zones of the earth for the time frame between 5,000 and 3,000 BCE. This suggests that, in these areas, the plasma ring responsible for the related body of mythology appeared close enough to the horizon to suggest its physical identity with the known oceans bordering the land.

In addition, other traditions imply or enunciate that the “earth” of the mythical age was a region in the sky rather than the earth known as such today. In the mythology of the Iroquois, of New York State, for example, “the earth was the thought of the Indian Ruler of a great island which floats in space.” The modern earth was only “formed” at a later point in the process of creation. Such considerations help to establish that the prototype of ideas such as the “round ocean” could really be in interplanetary space rather than on earth in the strict sense.

Close cooperation with physicists modeling plasma instabilities in laboratory conditions has led to the conclusion that the ouroboros of world mythology corresponds in virtually all its details to a so-called diocotron instability. Research has revealed that the ouroboros is intimately associated with the “world axis” or axis mundi.

This suggests that the round ocean, along with the full list of anomalies given above, finds its ultimate explanation in a configuration of high-energy density plasma structures formed in and above the earth’s ionosphere at a time of increased auroral activity, most likely in the late Palaeolithic or early Neolithic period. Far from an amusing figment of imagination, the circular ocean appears to belong to a largely forgotten but nonetheless genuine “sky world” revealed when electromagnetic forces dominated the physics of the near-earth environment.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Further Reading:

The Mythology of the World Axis; Exploring the Role of Plasma in World Mythology

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon


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