Edited by HENRY REED, Ph.D.
November 24,   2010
Cosmological Origins of Mythology

The Cosmological Origins of Myth and Symbol:

From the Dogon and Ancient Egypt to India, Tibet, and China

By

Laird Scranton

An Excerpt:

Concepts of Comparative Cosmology

 

By contemporary definition, cosmology is the study of the creation of the universe, the physical foundations of time and space, and the formation and structure of matter. Since the mid-1600s, the study of cosmology has been the near-exclusive domain of the astrophysicists -- the Sir Isaac Newtons, Albert Einsteins, and Stephen Hawkings of the world -- so it falls under the modern conceptual umbrella of science as opposed to religion. Ancient cosmology, on the other hand, along with other modern scientific disciplines like astronomy and mathematics, was for many thousands of years the traditional domain of the priests, so at the beginning of human civilization, it was effectively indistinguishable from religion. Although this difference may seem like a relatively minor one, in my opinion the modern expectation that there has always been a philosophical opposition between science and religion reflects a significant cultural filter through which we tend to view ancient cosmology and a major obstacle to a correct understanding of it.

If the earliest notions of creation had simply arisen unconstrained within ancient cultures, as is the popular belief, such that each culture came to establish its own somewhat quaint, -ethnocentric view of how creation may have occurred, then today there might well not be any such thing as the study of comparative cosmology as we know it. In such a case, we would likely find no common basis for aligning the life view of, say, a native of the Amazon jungle with the qualitatively different experiences of an Easter Islander, or with those of an aborigine living in the Australian outback. Each culture might well have come to explain creation in its own terms, related to its own local circumstances and environment. However, when we study the actual creation traditions of distant cultures, uniqueness of view is not what we typically find. Rather, what we see instead is an almost predictive commonality of theme, symbol, and storyline, expressed in distinctly similar terms and organized according to a set of familiar stages of creation.

In the view of the comparative cosmologist, any credible approach to interpreting the many worldwide parallels in ancient cosmology must begin with the explicit statements of the ancient cultures themselves. As we have suggested, in culture after culture, these often reflect a vision of ancient cosmology as a kind of instructed system of civilization, one that was typically associated with knowledgeable ancestor/teachers or beneficent ancestor/gods. This explicit view of cosmology, which has most often been effectively set aside and disregarded by traditional researchers, is actually consistent with a large body of additional evidence that has been documented for these same cultures and that may offer us a coherent explanation for the many commonalities of ancient myth and cosmology.

The notion of an instructed civilization might explain the seemingly abrupt appearance of sophisticated cultural developments in the earliest societies, such as the highly refined work in pottery from the early days of ancient Egypt, the examples of ancient skilled master stonework that survive worldwide, and the sophisticated symbolic systems of writing that have been uncovered in Egypt, China, Central America, and elsewhere.

This alternate perspective, from which ancient cosmology is interpreted as an instructed system, does not rely on postulated psychology for its efficacy, but rather suggests that the common threads of so many world cosmologies imply a common parent cosmology. Perhaps the simplest and most cogent explanation for similar widespread systems of symbol and myth would be to argue that, somewhere in deepest antiquity, many of them may have shared a common parent.

The study of comparative cosmology provides us with a methodology for exploring the likely contours of this proposed parent cosmology, one that is perhaps best explained by way of a simple analogy. Imagine for a moment that you are a babysitter who is responsible for the care of twin toddlers each afternoon after picking them up from a morning daycare program. You know that the parents of the toddlers prefer to dress them identically, so they usually send them off in the morning wearing matching outfits. However, on this particular day, by the time you arrive at the daycare center, each child has managed to misplace several important articles of clothing. You realize that even though you never saw the children fully dressed that morning, it is still your job to somehow determine which articles of clothing have been mislaid by each child and retrieve them all before returning the children home again.

Given the likelihood that the outfits were originally identical, you decide that the best approach is to reconstruct the details of one full outfit by carefully comparing the toddlers' remaining attire. If one of the twins is missing his shoes, which he calls "booties," you realize that you can establish the specific type of shoe by simply asking to examine the booties of the other. If one is seen to be wearing a belt and the other is not, then you can assume that the second child's belt is missing. If one child is dressed in an undershirt, then you must verify that the other child is also still wearing one. If neither child has a sweater but one claims to be missing his, then it occurs to you that you can validate that claim by simply checking with the other child. Through these kinds of comparisons and corroborations, you come to see that a careful inventory of all of the items will improve your chances of returning home with most, if not all of the original items of clothing.

Much like the twin children in our analogy, the ancient cosmologies as they have been passed down to us often appear to be substantially incomplete. There are several reasons for this. First, our primary information about these cosmologies comes from written texts that, depending on the material on which they are written, can be fragile and may often have been found in incomplete form. Second, in some cases we may have recovered multiple copies of the same original text that are somewhat different from each other because of transcription errors or deliberate editing. Furthermore, some deities, myths, and symbols are known to have changed or evolved over time, perhaps as different cult centers or political figures came to worship different deities or emphasized different aspects of their own cosmologies.

For these reasons, the comparative cosmologist is often not in a position to directly compare symbolic elements on an apples-to-apples basis, and sometimes the differences between two cosmological systems can be substantial. For example, in ancient Egyptian cosmology, the great mother goddess, Neith (also known as Net), is credited with having woven matter on a loom with her shuttle, while in Dogon cosmology, the spider Dada (sometimes called Nana) is defined as having woven matter from threads in the form of web.1 Although we might first see these as irreconcilable differences between the two cosmologies, when we dig deeper, we discover the likely truth of the matter. First, we find that in the Dogon language, the word dada actually means "mother," so it can be seen to agree with the Egyptian concept of a mother goddess. Second, when we look to ancient mother goddesses from other cultures that are traditionally equated with Neith, such as Athena in ancient Greece, we often find evidence of spider symbolism. These references help us to reconcile Neith in Egypt with the Dogon spider references. Then again, this same example demonstrates the importance of ultimate perseverance on the part of the comparative cosmologist, because when we eventually compare the Dogon and Egyptian cosmological systems with Buddhist cosmology, we find a tradition that defines matter as having been woven in a web by a spider as if on a loom with a shuttle.2 In cases such as this, we find that with a broad enough base of evidence, some seemingly very large differences in the classic ancient cosmologies can often be discretely reconciled.

If we make the presumption that many of the world's cosmologies exhibit so many fundamental similarities because they were originally based on the plan of a common parent cosmology, then the study of comparative cosmology becomes a process of discovery that is essentially the same as our hypothetical inventory of the twin children's clothing. It begins with the selection of two or more outwardly similar cosmological systems and proceeds through careful examination of the key elements of each, taken as positive predictions of what should be found to be represented in the other. Just as the various specific articles of clothing become a target for comparison in our toddler analogy, comparative cosmologists are concerned with the similarities and differences in the cosmological themes, concepts, and symbols; the definitions and shapes of words; the names, titles, and traditional roles of important deities; and the defined interrelationships of those deities. Through these, the comparative cosmologist hopes to reconstruct the likely structural elements of the implied parent cosmology.

When discussing comparative cosmology, I find it helpful to think of each culture's system of cosmology as a kind of framework on which we can hang each component element. As part of our examination of any given element, we mentally place it in its appropriate location within the framework of the cosmology. Along with the element, we also hang any incidental references that might relate to it uniquely. For instance, we might place the Dogon creator god Amma at the top and center of the Dogon cosmological framework, along with references to Amma as a "hidden god," alternate definitions of the name Amma as meaning "to hold firmly, to embrace strongly and hold in the same place,"3 the notion that Amma "holds the world between his two hands," and the Dogon concept of Amma as being "dual in nature."4 We might also make note of the fact that, in the languages of some African tribes, the words Amma and Amen (amen also appears as an Egyptian word. The clearest comparison, however, is between the god names) are specifically equated.

Later, when we are ready to compare these Dogon cosmological elements with their likely counterparts from ancient Egypt, we might notice the Egyptian "hidden god" Amen hung in the same relative position on the framework of Egyptian cosmology, alongside the meaning of an Egyptian homonym pronounced "Amen" that means "to make firm, to establish" or "to fortify."5 This framework approach helps us to conceptually organize the evidence and clearly illustrates the multiple points of agreement that may exist between two important cosmological symbols. (As an amusing side note, I once came across an Internet article whose author, apparently unaware that dual meanings are a signature characteristic of ancient cosmological words, stated that the Hebrew word amen could not be related to the Egyptian god Amen because it came from a root that meant "to establish.")

The use of the framework image as a conceptual tool is important in comparative cosmology because it provides another level of correspondence by which to help synchronize the cosmologies. We can illustrate the important role that the parallel frameworks play by citing another simple analogy. Think of these imaginary cosmological frameworks as an extended list of elements, similar to a list of the names of the months of the year. Also imagine that our task is to correlate the names of the months of the year in English with those in Spanish. We begin by simply placing each month name on a framework, in this case, by producing a written list of the names of the months in the order that they appear in a calendar:

Names of the Calendar Months

 

English

 

Spanish

 

January

 

Enero

 

February

 

Febrero

 

March

 

Marzo

 

April

 

Abril

 

May

 

Mayo

 

June

 

Junio

 

July

 

Julio

 

August

 

Agosto

 

September

 

Septiembre

 

October

 

Octubre

 

November

 

Noviembre

 

December

 

Diciembre

 

 

When we review the two lists, we see that in many cases the English and Spanish month names (such as September and Septiembre) are so obviously similar that there can be no reasonable doubt of a correlation, even outside of the context of the matching lists. In other cases (like January and Enero) the words are less distinctly similar, so the correlation of the words might seem less obvious. However, in this particular case, our list does not consist of some random set of words from two languages, rather it represents two organized sets of words with a specific shared context -- the months of the year -- organized in matching sequence. Based on these criteria alone, we can argue that the two words January and Enero must positively correlate to each other because they hold matching positions within the two parallels lists that are known, themselves, to positively correlate. In the same way, the simple placement of a symbolic element within the larger context of its ordered cosmology becomes an important piece of information that we can cite as evidence when attempting to establish the likely correlation of similar cosmological elements.

Although the types of component elements that are examined by a comparative cosmologist may include cosmological words, it is important to emphasize the difference between these kinds of comparisons and formal linguistic analysis. It is not the intent of the comparative cosmologist to trace an etymological lineage for a given word in one culture to its likely counterpart in another. Rather, the intent is to demonstrate that the words hold comparable positions and meanings within the contexts of two parallel systems of cosmology. As evidence, the cosmologist may cite similarity of pronunciation, common multiple levels of meaning, or known relationships to other words, deities, or cosmological shapes or concepts. My contention is that the comparative cosmologist's efforts to correlate words in this way carry the same legitimacy as similar efforts related to other component elements of the cosmology. If the evidence is sufficient to suggest a likely correlation between the Dogon god Amma and the Egyptian god Amen, then the very same quality of evidence suggests the very same type of likely correlation between the words amma and amen. These are component elements of the Dogon and Egyptian cosmologies that, in all likelihood, correspond.

Working with ancient cosmology can also be very much like working with a toddler, often for similar reasons. Just as it is not always clear to a childcare worker what a toddler may be trying to say, it also is often not clear to researchers of cosmology what, if anything, the mythological symbols and storylines may have been meant to convey, so any progress in understanding often rests fundamentally on our ability to interpret correctly. Consequently, a good comparative cosmologist must take great care when proposing an interpretation and must also be prepared to specifically support and defend any interpretation.

In my experience, the most defensible interpretations relating to ancient cosmology are those that begin with an explicit, well--documented statement that has been drawn from the culture itself. Better yet is a well-documented statement that is specifically corroborated by equally direct statements from at least two different cultures in regard to some parallel aspect of similar cosmologies. For example, in the previous books of this series we have argued that ancient cosmology may ultimately serve to define scientifically accurate cosmological science. We adopted this approach based on direct statements of the Dogon priests, who believe that their cosmology describes how a tribal god named Amma created matter. Having begun with an unequivocal statement, the development of the broader interpretation relating the Dogon mythological structure of matter to the scientific structure of matter consisted simply of presenting the well-defined Dogon mythological components of matter side by side with their likely scientific counterparts and allowing the reader to simply observe the match. Later, it became clear that Buddhist stupa symbolism defines a matching structure that is also thought to define cosmological creation, using the same shapes attached to the same symbolic meanings. One key advantage to this approach is that it specifically limits the opportunities for wishful or speculative interpretation on the part of the researcher by placing the initial interpretive statement in the hands of the culture being studied.

From within this same mind-set, it is important for the comparative cosmologist to understand the critical difference between proving a point and demonstrating it. While planning my first book, I realized that in all likelihood there would be no argument I could conceivably present -- no matter how cogent or well formulated -- that could convince most readers that ancient myths could be a likely representation of correct science. On the other hand, it occurred to me that these same readers would likely find it difficult to muster an effective rebuttal to a direct, side-by-side comparison of myth and science couched in simple, parallel statements and drawings.

The notion of ancient cosmology as a designed system of civilizing instruction suggests that we should be able to apply a certain logic to our analysis of that system. For example, in a designed system we would expect the choice of symbols and the assignment of symbolism that relates to those symbols to make ultimate sense. Likewise, in a designed system, it should be possible to eventually understand what I call the mind-set of the designer, and from that understanding get a feel for how the planner of the system typically does things and make certain predictions based on predisposition or habit. Likewise, in a designed system one can presume that apparent patterns that recur within the system have intended meaning. All of this comes to be of great importance to a comparative cosmologist who is open to the idea that the larger system of ancient cosmology will make ultimate sense. Likewise, if we are to see ancient cosmology as a sensible system, then it becomes important for the researcher to take explicit statements at face value since these are the statements that fundamentally define the key elements of the system. Consequently, when the Dogon priests tell us that the po represents a primary component of matter, it would seem to be incumbent on us to consider the po in that context.

I am a convert to Judaism, and one of my long-standing complaints with the Jewish religion has always been the tendency of the great rabbis to treat as literal what I consider to be figurative statements (for example, I take the notion that the creation of the universe happened in seven days as a figurative statement) and literal statements figuratively. In my experience, perhaps the most critical skill for any researcher of ancient cosmologies to develop is a well-honed sense of when to simply take a statement at face value.

My professional training is as a business software developer, and it is largely because of my experience as the designer of sensible systems that I tend to notice what appear to be the designed aspects of ancient cosmology and language. Experience has taught me that a good software designer carefully considers how to make his system understandable to those who follow (perhaps even to himself at some later point in time when he may no longer be "in the mind-set" of the original system). One goal of good software design is to provide the next programmer with built-in clues to the meanings of the concepts and symbols that define a software program. Another is to try to make the system predictable to the next programmer by following consistent methods. Once we accept the proposition of ancient cosmology as a designed system, we begin to actively seek out various kinds of clues that might ultimately help us to understand the system. One purpose of the chapters that follow will be to define and document the specific kinds of clues that we believe are key to the plan of the ancient cosmologies.

 

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