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 Depiction of an aurora formed of numerous pencil like rays above a cloud of ‘stars’, as seen on
12. January 1570 in Bohemia. Germanisches National museum, Nürnberg.




What on Earth …?
Feb 15, 2010

A comparative study of the world's creation myths suggests that the created "earth" may have been a plasma formation in the sky, appearing as the "dwelling of the gods."

The earth occupies a prominent place in human traditions about the creation of the world. Myths supply many details about its purported creation, while a familiar refrain in the world’s religions is that the ‘gods’ used to dwell on earth – before their eventual departure into the sky. For example, according to an ancient Egyptian myth, the sun god, Rē‘, originally ruled on earth as a king. The San people, of the Kalahari Desert, had it that “In the earliest days the sun lived among the tribes of the bush” and “was like other men”. Scores of variations on this theme are on record.

Insuperable difficulties arise for the interpretation of such traditions if it is assumed that the ‘earth’ in such traditions literally represents the surface of our planet. Were that the case, the global belief that celestial bodies such as the sun, the moon, the planets or the stars formerly inhabited the earth would become risible. And the numerous specific details supplied in creation mythology regarding the construction and shape of the earth would evade any meaningful explanation – that the earth was a flat disc formed through radial expansion from a single starting point; that a circular snake surrounded its perimeter; that it had a hole at its centre; that four columns rose up from it to support the sky at the cardinal points; and so forth. At the same time, it cannot be denied that, in many of such traditions, the tradition keepers and chroniclers themselves honestly believed the reference was to the actual earth. What is going on here?

An intellectually indolent solution is that such myths concerning the earth are simply imaginative, naïve, artistic or deluded. But before this conclusion is reached, it is worth contemplating the idea that numerous anomalous traditions about the earth are really concerned with past transient phenomena in the atmosphere, too distant to rank as geology, but close enough – from a pre-scientific point of view – to warrant a contrast between this ‘terrestrial’ part of space and the sky populated by stars and planets. The advantage of this hypothesis is that abstruse stories of the origin and the features of this ‘earth’ qualify as potentially reliable eye-witness accounts of real events, that transpired during the early Holocene – and have nothing to do with the beginning of geological time or life.

The strongest support for this subtle reinterpretation of the term ‘earth’ in mythological and early scientific descriptions is the complete typological symmetry between ‘earth’ mythology and the mythology of a ‘land’, a ‘paradise’ or an ‘abode’ of mythical beings – at once described as gods and souls of deceased ancestors – in the sky. A rich tapestry of structural similarities between the mythical ‘sky land’ and the ‘earth’ suggests that one and the same place is being referred to consistently.

A very widespread traditional belief is that the sky is really a solid plane extended over the earth, which itself forms the surface of another ‘land’ – or earth. In many cases, the former presence of a deity on the apex of a sky-reaching tree or mountain is expressed mythically as the being’s residence on the earth. According to the ancient Greek mythographers, the gathering of the Olympian gods on the peak of Mount Olympus amounted to their dwelling in heaven and the very word Olympus itself developed into a synonym for ouranos or ‘sky’. The indigenous people of the Andaman Islands held that the creator, Pū•luga-, used to live on the summit of the local Saddle Peak, yet this same location was described as “the sky”. The Ashanti, of Ghana, stated with respect to the supreme god that “Long, long ago Onyankõpo lived on earth, or at least was very near to us.” The story makes it clear that the god’s dwelling on earth was really his existence in the atmosphere, in close proximity to the earth. And so on.

In some cases, a comparison between different narrations of the same myth bears out that the mythical ‘earth’ was really a celestial region. The Seneca, a branch of the Iroquois from New York state, contended that “the earth was the thought of the Indian Ruler of a great island which floats in space. … This mythical island of the Iroquois is a place of eternal peace. In its abundance there are no burdens to weary; in its fruitfulness all needs are endlessly provided. To its perpetual calm death never comes, and to its tranquillity, no desire, no sorrow nor pain.” This paradise was home to “one stately tree that branched beyond the range of visions” and must be interpreted as a form of the axis mundi. The story goes on to tell how the uprooting of this cosmic tree led to the creation of the oeh-da, the present earth, below the “floating island” in space. Tellingly, whereas Harriet Converse, in her recording of this myth, had described the original land “in space” as the “earth”, John Hewitt, an anthropologist of the Tuscarora nation, had more directly situated this land in the sky:

“The dwelling place of these first great primal beings … was conceived to have been on the upper surface of the visible sky, which was regarded as a solid plane. Here dwelt these first beings in peace and contentment for a very long period of time; no one knows or ever knew the length of this first cosmic period of tranquil existence.”

Other versions of the same Iroquois myth offer: “A long time ago human beings lived high up in what is now called heaven.” And: “Before this earth came into existence there were human beings who dwelt in the center of the sky above. In the middle of the village in the sky stood a tree which was covered with white blossoms.”

How does this work on a physical level? A promising possibility is that near-earth plasmas of a very high intensity, owing visibility due to synchrotron radiation, once assumed semi-stable forms that gave terrestrial skywatchers the impression of a magical and lively landscape with distinct features. If today’s aurorae are capable of inspiring visions of battles and sports enacted by multitudes of ‘spirits’ in the sky, plasma activities on a larger order of magnitude would certainly be so.

In most cases, the issue is not really a case of mistranslating the word for ‘earth’, but of the difficulty to describe a distinct circumscribed area in near-earth space that is no longer visible. Interestingly, Plato faced a similar lexical challenge in his discussion of the ‘ideal’ earth as opposed to what we regard as the earth. In his dialogue Phaedo, he introduced Socrates on his deathbed, explaining that the surface of the earth in optima forma is not at the level of the elements of earth and water, inhabited by us, but higher up, where the element of air gives way to that of fire:

“… we dwell in a hollow of the earth and think we dwell on its upper surface; and the air we call the heaven, and think that is the heaven in which the stars move. But the fact is the same, that by reason of feebleness and sluggishness, we are unable to attain to the upper surface of the air; … that is the real heaven and the real light and the real earth.”

Had Socrates lived today, he would probably have said that the earth’s boundary is defined by its magnetosphere, not by the orb on which we live. And it is precisely in this region that, in prehistoric times, heightened electromagnetic activity may have produced aurora-like formations suggestive of a land of gods and ancestors. This proposition furnishes an elegant explanation of myths concerning ‘gods and stars that formerly lived on earth’ as well as concerning ‘people that formerly lived in the sky’.

As a disclaimer, none of this rules out that some mythical materials relate to the geological history of the earth itself. There are vast classes of traditions – such as the myths about the deluge, fossils, orogenesis and the formation of river beds – that seem equally amenable to geological and atmospheric explanations. Perhaps a direct physical connection must eventually be assumed between certain energetic forces in the atmosphere and some geological events. A careful and uninhibited examination of the sources is the only way forward.

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



"The Cosmic Thunderbolt"

YouTube video, first glimpses of Episode Two in the "Symbols of an Alien Sky" series.


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