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"When Saturn ruled the skies alone
(That golden age, to gold unknown,)
This earthly globe to thee assign'd
Receiv'd the gifts of all mankind."
-- Johnathan Swift, A Panegyric on the Dean
Of the five visible planets today, none is more enchanting than the ringed gas giant Saturn, now the object of intense investigation by NASA’s Cassini probe. Data returned by the earlier Voyager probes, and now by Cassini, have left NASA scientists in a state of awe, as one surprise after another has re-defined our picture of Saturn and its moons.
Yet when it comes to surprises, nothing discovered about Saturn in the space age can match the bizarre stories ancient priests and astronomers told about the planet. In recent centuries the story was almost forgotten, and all that is left in our own time are the barest fragments of a story once told around the world. But that story can be reliably reconstructed through cross-cultural investigation, with a priority on the most archaic sources.
No one can say why early starworshippers esteemed Saturn as the founder of a lost Golden Age; or why they invoked Saturn as the “sun”; or why this luminary was said to have ruled from the celestial pole so far removed from the paths of the planets today. And what was the “Great Conjunction” of the Golden Age? What did the ancient chroniclers mean by the “fall” of the god from his original station, or the great wars of the gods that are said to have ensued?
Then again, why should the modern world care? What interest could myths and superstitions hold for humankind in recent centuries, after the tools of direct observation began to unveil the secrets of planetary history? Surely no message from antiquity could compare with the growing powers of direct observation since Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei.
Science has displaced myth and superstition. But is it possible that, in our scientific confidence, we’ve missed something of incalculable value? If the mystery were limited to a handful of absurd claims about Saturn, that would be one things. But as it turns out, the Saturn myth is just a window to a vastly larger story. It can now be demonstrated that there are hundreds of mythic archetypes or points of agreement between the early cultures. Together they reveal an eerie coherence that could not be accidental. Random speculations or self-serving inventions from one culture to another could not have produced the underlying unity that has been documented in recent years.
The great themes of world mythology are universal: the story of a former age of gods and wonders, whose first chapter was a “perfect” time of peace and plenty; the story of an exemplary "king of the world," the mythic first in the line of kings; descriptions of the gods as luminaries of immense size and power, wielding weapons of thunder and stone; the universal claim that the ancient world evolved by critical phases or cycles, punctuated by sweeping catastrophe; global traditions of gods and heroes ruling for a time, then departing amidst terrifying spectacles and upheavals. The transfiguration of the departed gods into "stars"; the identification of these ruling gods with planets in the first astronomies.
Even prior to the birth of the great civilizations, humans around the world drew remarkably similar pictures of things never seen in our sky. The “sun’ they carved on stone does not look the Sun in our sky. In the birthplace of astronomy we see a crescent placed on ancient images of the “sun,” and a radiant "star" placed squarely in its center. Neither our moon nor any star can be reconciled with such patterns, many of which are global.
What was the cosmic mountain celebrated around the world, called a pillar of fire and light rising along the world axis? And what was the radiant city or temple of heaven, remembered as the prototype for sacred space on earth?
To such collective memories must be added that of a star-goddess with long-flowing locks, a goddess revered as "the giver of life"; the transformation of this goddess into an ogress raging across the sky with wildly disheveled hair; a fiery serpent or dragon attacking the world; an ancestral warrior or hero, born from the womb of the star-goddess to free the world from chaos monsters.
We’ve paid far too little attention to the motives driving the ancient world. Their desperate yearning to recover the semblance of a lost cosmic order. Their collective efforts to replicate, in architecture, the towering forms claimed to have existed in primeval times. Their festive recreations, through mystery plays and symbolic rites, of cosmic violence and disorder. Their repetition, through ritual sacrifice, of the deaths or ordeals of the gods. Their brutal and ritualistic wars of expansion, repeating on the battlefield the cosmic devastation wrought in the wars of the gods.
Such motives as these constitute the most readily verifiable underpinnings of the ancient cultures. How strange that in their incessant glance backwards, the builders of the first civilizations never remembered anything resembling the natural world in which we live!
What is needed in the face of unusual but widely repeated memories is brutal intellectual honesty. How did human consciousness produce a global convergence on the same improbable ideas? For centuries we've lived under the illusion that our ancestors simply made up explanations of natural phenomena they didn't understand. But that's not the problem. What the myth-makers interpreted or explained through stories and symbols and ritual re-enactments is an unrecognizable world, a world of alien sights and sounds, of celestial forms, of cosmic spectacles, and earth-shaking events that do not occur in our world. That is the problem.
From an evaluation of global patterns, we have hypothesized a world order never imagined by mainstream theory--a world in which certain planets moved on much different courses than today, appearing as immense forms in the heavens. The hypothesis invites astronomers and astrophysicists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and students of ancient myth and religion to reconsider common assumptions about planetary history, including many that have rarely if ever been doubted.
The key tenets of the hypothesis are these:
1. Major changes in the planetary order, some involving Earth-threatening catastrophes, have occurred within human memory.
2. In myths, symbols, and ritual practices our ancestors preserved a global record of these tumultuous events.
3. The first civilizations arose from ritual practices honoring, imitating and memorializing these events and the planetary powers involved.
4. The dominant form at the onset of these events was a large sphere towering over ancient witnesses; the first astronomers identified this sphere as the planet Saturn.
The Polar Configuration
The theory holds that, just prior to the birth of the first civilizations, a gathering of planets close to Earth presented a spectacular visual display in the heavens, the obsessive focus of human attention around the world.
It was in 1972 that I termed this planetary arrangement the “Polar Configuration,” suggesting that it was centered on the north celestial Pole. And I proposed that the history of this configuration is the history of the ancient gods, recorded in the fantastic stories, pictographs, and ritual reenactments of the first sky-worshippers.
The reconstruction, though radical, holds one advantage that prior theories of "world catastrophe" have lacked. Its claims are so specific that they will be easily disproved on their own ground if wrong. Perhaps this will provide some assurance to those dismayed by the use of ancient testimony as evidence: if the hypothesis is fundamentally incorrect, experts on the ancient cultures will have no trouble refuting it.
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The myth of the Golden Age
When the world began, according to the biblical account and other Hebrew myths, Adam, the first man and prototype of man, occupied a garden of abundance, in direct communion with God--a deathless realm, free of sickness and any need for human labor.
Loss of that original paradise was nothing less than a cosmic rupture, and never, since that rupture, has man experienced a comparable terrestrial condition.
The Eden story is filled with interesting and familiar images. Four rivers of paradise, tree of Life and tree of the Knowledge, devious serpent, Adam's rib, temptress Eve, flaming sword at the gate, and more. But what immediately concerns us is a single underlying theme, a theme clearly linked to a memory preserved on every habitable continent. above: "THE GOLDEN AGE"
From the picture by Giorgione, in the National Gallery, London
A global myth declares that the world has not always been as it is experienced now. In a former time, man lived in a kind of paradise, close to the gods. It was the Golden Age. Throughout an eternal spring, the earth produced abundantly, free from the seasonal cycles of decay and rebirth. And under this remarkable cosmic order, man experienced neither war nor sickness, neither hunger nor any requirement of human labor.
This recurring and unexplained myth was carried into modern times by primitive races the world over. In Mexico native legends spoke of an ancestral generation whose every need was met, without cost. There was no sickness or hunger no poverty or sadness, and the gods dwelt among men. But this harmonious age didn't last, eventually succumbing to an overwhelming catastrophe.
According to the Cheyenne of North America the original race roamed naked, innocent and free, enjoying the natural abundance of an eternal spring. What followed, however, was an age of flood, war, and famine.
The Caribs of Surinam have a poignant memory of this fortunate epoch. "In a time long past, so long past that even the grandmothers of our grandmothers were not yet born," they say, "the world was quite other than what it is today: the trees were forever in fruit; the animals lived in perfect harmony, and the little agouti played fearlessly with the beard of the jaguar "
The South American Indians of Gran Chaco and Amazonia recall this as the Happy Place, where work was unknown because the fields produced abundance of their own accord.
The Hopi Indians proclaim that in the earliest time they were a marvelously contented race, at peace with their brothers. They knew nothing of sickness or conflict, and all things were provided by Mother Earth without any requirement of labor.
But these are just the American Indian versions of the story.
The aborigines of Australia insist that their first ancestors enjoyed a Golden Age, a Paradise of abundant game and without conflict of any kind.
Northern Europeans once celebrated this earliest age as the "Peace of Frodi," a mythical Danish king. Throughout this peaceful epoch no man injured another and a magical mill ground out peace and plenty for the entire land.
Memories of a Golden Age pervade the myths of Africa. The distinguished folklorist Herman Baumann reported that "Everything that happened in the primal age was different from today. People understood the language of animals and lived at peace with them; they knew no labor and had food in plenitude."
Sacred texts of ancient India recall this as the Krita Yuga or "Perfect Age," without disease, labor, suffering or war. The Iranians called it the age of the brilliant Yima, an age with "neither cold nor heat," an eternal spring. According to ancient Chinese lore, the purest pleasure and tranquillity once reigned throughout the world. Mythical histories called it "the Age of Perfect Virtue" and declared that "the whole creation enjoyed a state of happiness. . . all things grew without labor; and a universal fertility prevailed." above: “THE GOLDEN AGE,”
Painting by Lucas Cranach, circa 1530
First expressions of the tradition
How old, then, is this ancient memory of a lost paradise? In their myths, rites and hymns the ancient Sumerians contrasted their own time to the earliest remembered age--what they called "the days of old," or "that day," when the gods "gave man abundance, the day when vegetation flourished." This was when the supreme god An "engendered the year of abundance." To this primeval age, every Sumerian priest looked back as the reference for the preferred order of things, which
was lost through later conflict and deluge.
In the city of Eridu at the mouth of the Euphrates, the priests recalled a Golden Age prior to familiar history. The predecessors of their race, it was claimed, had formerly reposed in the paradise of Dilmun, called the "Pure Place" of man's genesis. This lost paradise of Dilmun, about which scholars have debated for decades, is strangely reminiscent of the paradise of Eden.
"That place was pure, that place was clean. In Dilmun...the lion mangled not. The wolf ravaged not the lambs," the Sumerian texts read. The inhabitants of this paradise lived in a state of near perfection, in communion with the gods, drinking the waters of life and enjoying unbounded prosperity.
Ancient Egypt, an acknowledged cradle of civilization, preserved a remarkably similar memory. Not just in their religious and mythical texts, but in every sacred activity, the Egyptians incessantly looked backwards, to events of the Zep Tepi. The phrase means the "First Time," a time of perfection "before rage or clamor or strife or uproar had come about," as the texts themselves put it. This was the paradise of Ra, and the memories of that time echoed through centuries of Egyptian thought. "The land was in abundance," the texts say. "There was no year of hunger. . .Walls did not fall; thorns did not pierce in the time of the Primeval Gods."
Or from another text: "there was no unrighteousness in the land, no crocodile seized, no snake bit in the time of the First Gods."
Cosmic harmony, abundance, paradise on earth. To this paradisal, according to the great nineteenth century scholar Francois Lenormant, the Egyptians "continually looked back with regret and envy." The golden age of Ra was, for the Egyptians, the great "example" setting a standard for all later ages.
A surprising fact emerges. The legend of the Golden Age or ancient paradise is as old as civilization. And the implications are well worth pondering. A coherent set of ideas has survived all of the twists and turns of cultural evolution for at least five thousand years--and on every continent. Now that's an astonishing verification of the durability of myth! Many of us had always thought of myth as the outcome of reckless invention--illiterate savages entertaining themselves by contriving magical stories out of nothing. Imagine such a process going on for thousands of years, and ask yourself if any possibility of a universal memory would remain.
Bear in mind that the myth-makers did not just recount a charming tale; they strove desperately to recover what was lost. In the infancy of civilization collective activity reflects a singular reference to the age of the gods--the honoring of the gods through celebration, representation, reenactment, codification, and massive construction activity. In fact, there are numerous grounds for saying that civilization itself was the outcome of this fundamentally religious activity.
Perhaps the most accomplished analyst of mythology in modern times was the late Mircea Eliade, chairman of the Department of History of Religions at the University of Chicago, and editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion. From his meticulous, lifelong survey of the subject, professor Eliade drew a stunning conclusion: literally every component of early civilizations--from religion to art and architecture--expressed symbolically the desire to recover and to re-live the lost Golden Age. That which symbolically transported the participant back to the First Time, the Golden Age, was sacred. That which did not was transient and mundane, of no interest.
The role of this memory in the ancient cultures carries vast implications for our understanding of the events that provoked human imagination in the myth-making epoch. Early man yearned for a return to paradise. Every coronation of a king, every New Year's festival, monumental construction, every recitation of temple hymns and prayers, every holy war, every sacrifice to the gods was motivated by a desire to recapture some aspect of the Golden Age, to live, if only for a symbolic moment, in that enchanted, opening chapter in the book of gods and wonders.
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It's amazing how frequently the earliest-remembered events occur on a mythscape of uncertain location. Where was the ancient paradise? Where did the gods and goddesses and heroes of the mythical epoch actually live? Beyond the north wind? Atop the world's highest mountain? In the land of the rising sun? On a lost island in the middle of the sea?
If anything has been proven by the flood of ancient texts that have come to light in the past hundred and fifty years, it is that the central personalities of myth did not, in the original concepts, dwell on earth. The theater in which the great mythical events were first played out was in the sky.
Here is an indisputable fact. If you will trace the claimed history of ancient nations backwards, you will invariably reach a point at which humankind lived in the shadow of the gods. This distant epoch--what the Egyptians called the "time of the primeval gods"--cries out for clarification. Originally, the gods rule the world. First in an age of gold, but this age was followed by catastrophe and cosmic upheaval. That is the archetypal memory repeated around the world.
In their first appearance, the gods are celestial through and through. As the stories are told and re-told across the centuries, however, these celestial powers are progressively localized, re-entering the chronicles in increasingly human guise. All of the profound cosmic events expressed in the earliest myths are eventually brought down to earth. Through each culture’s intimate identification with its own gods across the centuries, the cosmic powers eventually emerged as legendary ancestors of the nation telling the story.
Each of the nations recalling the Golden Age, for example, insisted that their own forefathers had descended from the gods. At first glance, this pervasive claim will appear as sheer arrogance, a nationalistic pride carried to absurd extremes. But the origins of the idea have never been adequately appreciated. In truth, the worldwide racial claim, that "we are descended from the gods," or that "our race was originally divine," or that "we were the favored children of the gods" offers a key to the primitive experience. It confirms early man's unqualified sense of connection to the enigmatic celestial powers so vividly portrayed in the myths. And one cannot afford to ignore the equally significant principle, that these celestial powers are no longer present, no longer visible and active in the world.
History's most powerful memory
Our subject, in other words, is far more than an enchanting idea. To explore the mythical age of the gods is to confront the driving force of the first civilizations--the most powerful memory in human history.
Some of the particulars of this myth are remarkable. All of the well-preserved myths of the Golden Age, for example, say that this magical epoch was distinguished by the rule of a Universal Monarch, a celestial king of the world. Before a king ever ruled on earth, a prototype of kings arose in heaven, and it was this "best of kings" who founded the original paradise. above:
Egyptian god Ra
For the Egyptians it was the creator-king Ra, for the Sumerians it was the high god An, from whom kingship descended. Similarly, the Hindu Brahma, the Chinese Huang-ti, Mexican Quetzalcoatl, Mayan Itzam Na and numerous counterparts among other nations, all preside over a paradisal epoch, while establishing the ideals and principles of kingship.
In Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, China, Greece, Italy, northern Europe, pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America--in fact, wherever the institution of kingship arose--the general rule is that royal genealogies lead back to this exemplary ruler, celebrated as the first in a sacred line of kings. The different myths recount in rich detail how the god built a great temple or city in primeval times, invented the alphabet, or taught a new language to a pre-literate race. They say it was he who invented the wheel, introduced the science of agriculture, instituted laws, and taught the true religion--in short, brought to a barbarous race all of the arts of civilization.
Ruler of the Golden Age
There is also a crucial connection here. This "ancestor-king" is so completely identified with the Golden Age that it is impossible to separate the one myth from the other. There is no Golden Age without a founding king, no founding king without a Golden Age.
The fabulous chronology of Egyptian kings or pharaohs offers a telling example. In his sweeping history of ancient Egypt, the Greek historian Herodotus enumerates the early lineage of kings. He tells us that there was a first king of Egypt, and his name was Helios. This first king of Egypt was not a mere mortal! He was a celestial power.
Of course Herodotus was simply translating an Egyptian name into Greek. For the Egyptians, the institution of kingship began with the rule of the primeval sun god Atum or Ra, who, prior to his retirement from the world, founded the Zep Tepi, the First Time, or Golden Age.
In Egypt all of the kingship rites point backwards to the age of Ra, a supreme god celebrated from one end of Egypt to the other as the prototype of kings. Indeed, every historical king's or pharaoh's authority derived from a connection to the ancestral king, for as the best Egyptologists have pointed out, the pharaoh was accredited as such by the claim that the blood of Atum-Ra coursed through his veins.
In rites deeply rooted in Egyptian cosmology, each new king symbolically ascended the throne of Ra, took as spouse Ra's own mistress, the mother goddess, wielded Ra's scepter, built temples and cities modeled after Ra's temple or city in the sky, adorned himself with the beard of the god, wore the crown of Ra as his own, and defeated neighboring enemies in just the way that Ra had defeated the hordes of darkness or chaos in the Zep Tepi. Identification of local king and celestial prototype was absolute.
Unbroken line of kings
Such is the universal tradition. Every king was, in a magical way, the Universal Monarch reborn. And this is why the chroniclers of king took such pains to establish the unbroken line. Only by proclaiming that the local king carried the blood of his predecessor, the Universal Monarch, could they certify his suitability for the prescribed function of kings.
The ancient Sumerians repeatedly proclaimed that kingship had descended directly from the creator-king An, the most ancient and highest god of the pantheon, and the revered founder of the Golden Age.
Consider the myths and images of the Hindu Brahma, Manu or Yama, the Iranian Yima, Danish Frodhi, or Chinese Huang-Ti--all models of the good king, ruling over a primitive paradise. The respective cultures esteemed these mythical figures as prototypes. In later ages the chroniclers have such figures ruling on earth. But in the earliest traditions the kingdom is in the sky, and the ancient rule of the Universal Monarch is one of the most pervasive archetypes of world mythology. above:
Brahma sits on a lotus emerging from Vishnu's navel, while Vishnu rests on the folds of the seven-headed serpent Anant Shesha
Natives of Mexico insisted that the great god Quetzalcoatl, a sun god who ruled before the present sun, was their first king and founder of the kingship rites. He not only introduced all of the arts of civilization, but presided over an ancient paradise.
The ancient Maya proclaimed that their once-spectacular civilization had its origins in the rule of the creator-king and god of the Golden Age, Itzam Na. At the center of Mayan culture, stood the sovereign chief, announcing himself as something like "the King of Kings and ruler of the world, regent on earth of the great Itzam Na."
The leading Mayan expert, J. Eric Thompson, saw this as an "inflated notion of grandeur….a sort of divine right of kings which would have turned James I green with envy." And yet throughout the ancient world, one encounters this divine "grandeur" of kings at every turn.
The burden of royalty
The original concept may appear as self flattery, but it actually has more to do with a burden of kings, the requirement that the king live up to the mythical aura of the revered predecessor. Never was there a king in early times that did not wear the dress of a mythical god--the model of the good ruler. Whatever the celestial, founding king had achieved, it was the duty of the present king, pharaoh, or emperor to duplicate, at least through symbolic repetition. For such was the first test of a good king.
This historical burden of kings will explain why every king was expected to renew the primeval era of peace and plenty.
Why, for example, was the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III so eager to announce that he had restored conditions "as they were in the beginning", in the Zep Tepi or Golden Age of Ra? Or why did the Pharaoh Amenhotep III congratulate himself so for having made the country "flourish as in primeval times..."? The Pharaoh was expected to repeat the achievements of the celestial prototype.
In the same way, when the Sumerian king Dungi ascended the throne, it was declared that a champion had arisen to restore the original Paradise.. Indeed, every Sumerian king was expected to reproduce the wonders of "That Day," or the "Year of Abundance"--the Golden Age of An. When the famous Assyrian king Assurbanipal took the throne, the chroniclers proclaimed that "the harvest was plentiful, the corn was abundant. . .the cattle multiplied exceedingly." For such was the accreditation of a good king.
Among the Hebrews, the expectation was continually expressed that the king would introduce a new Golden Age. The Irish King, according to the respected expert J. A. MacCulloch, ruled under the same expectation: "Prosperity was supposed to characterize every good king's reign in Ireland," MacCulloch writes, and "the result is precisely that which everywhere marked the golden age."
This is, of course, a very familiar idea. In the words of the eminent psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, the ancient king was "the magical source of welfare and prosperity." It's interesting how often scholars have noticed the theme, without explaining it. How did this universal idea arise--that the earth is fruitful under the good king?
According to the myths themselves, the ideals of kingship were a mirror of the life and personality of the great celestial king whose rule brought abundance and cosmic harmony. Hence, the same state of things should accompany that king's successors who share in the blood-line and charisma of the great predecessor, whether that predecessor is called Ra or An, Quetzalcoatl or Itzam Na.
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Perhaps it will seem a bit strange that an ancient god identified as the creator would be so intimately associated with the idea of kingship, or remembered as having ruled on earth during the Golden Age.
There is a fascinating paradox here. In the earliest traditions, as we've already noted, the Universal Monarch is a celestial power through and through. He is, in fact, the central light of heaven. But as we've also noted, in the course of time the creator-king's domain is progressively localized and the god takes on an increasingly human countenance as the "first king" of the particular nation telling the story.
In certain lands such as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, we are able to observe the process over many centuries. In the earliest memories, the Egyptian Ra and Sumerian An rule the sky. But later chroniclers in both lands depict them as terrestrial rulers. This localization of the creator-king is simply one part of a larger evolutionary process. As the myths evolve over many centuries, the gods and heroes are brought down to earth, one nation after another claiming these divine powers as ancestors. And how could it be otherwise? Remember that all sacred activity within the respective cultures arose from the same collective links to the past, the same memories of the primeval age.
"The further we go back in history," observed Carl Jung, "the more evident does the king's divinity become..." And when you trace the royal lineage backwards, you eventually confront the radiant figure at the head of the line. Since the story of this creator-king is as old as the myth of the Golden Age: it is older than the institution of kingship!
Historians have always claimed that the myths of celestial kings were nothing more than images of local kings and kingship rites projected onto the sky. But comparative analysis will demonstrate that the reverse is true. The memory of the creator-king came first, and it was this remarkable memory which provided the mythical aura supporting and legitimizing kings the world over.
Identifying the Universal Monarch
Who, then--or what--was the source of this worldwide theme, this universally-remembered and profoundly charismatic power behind the rule of kings?
In exploring ancient images of the Universal Monarch, we must now enter the realm of classical thought. Our own civilization owes its greatest debt to Greek and Latin poets, philosophers and historians, who received and interpreted countless mythical traditions of nations throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, often drawing on literary sources that were later lost and are now unavailable to us. above:
Kronos, the "first father," and Rhea
According to the Greek poet Hesiod, the present age is but a shadow of a former epoch--called the Golden Age of Kronos.
"First of all," Hesiod writes, "the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Kronos, when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: Miserable age rested not on them. . . The fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint."
Kronos was the father of beginnings; in the words of the Orphic poet--the "Lord of the World, First Father." But this harmonious and peaceful epoch, founded by the god-king, gave way to world-ending disaster and devastating wars of the gods (the Clash of the Titans).
In honor of the Age of Kronos, the Greeks celebrated an annual festival called the Kronia, during which the celebrants symbolically renewed the epoch of peace and plenty. Each year, according to Lucius Accius, the Greeks held large feasts throughout the towns and countryside, reversing the normal social order, exchanging gifts, enjoying merrymaking free from the normal restraints, with each man waiting on his slaves In this way the Kronia festival symbolically transported the celebrants back in time to a mythic period before law and cultural constraints, when Kronos first ruled the world.
Plato writes in his often-studied work, The Statesman, that man formerly lived in a paradise, under the rule of the creator himself. But the mortal realm, Plato declared, was later separated from the creator, and that was the cause of the evils descending upon the world.
So the Greeks, in accord with the universal tradition, remembered the age of Kronos as the *model* for later generation. In The Laws, Plato writes that “we must do all we can to imitate the life which is said to have existed in the days of Kronos...both in private and public life."
Model of the good king
In the third century B.C. the neoplatonist Porphyry, drawing on the work of the Greek philosopher Dicaearchus, offered a simple explanation for the human yearning for paradise. The source of this yearning is the memory of the Age of Kronos, he wrote, when men "lived a life of leisure, without care or toil, and also--if the doctrine of the most eminent medical men is to be accepted--without disease...And there were no wars or feuds between them. Consequently, this manner of life of theirs naturally came to be longed for by men of later times."
Like his many counterparts in the ancient world, Kronos was the acknowledged prototype of kings, his rule in heaven providing the standards for rule on earth.
Every Greek king thus bore the universal burden of royalty, for the Greeks applied exactly the same test of the just or good ruler as did other peoples. Homer, most famous of the Greek poets, announced as the ideal "a blameless king whose fame goes up to the wide heaven, maintaining right, and the black earth bears wheat and barley and the trees are laden with fruit...and the people prosper." It was the duty of the king, as the First Father's successor, to renew the Golden Age.
One additional aspect of the Kronos image draws our attention. It seems that the former ruler of the sky entered later traditions as a renowned terrestrial king. For in later times it was claimed that Kronos had actually dwelt on earth. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, for example, in remembering the Golden Age, was emphatic on the point: "Kronos ruled on this very earth," he insisted. The same idea was proclaimed in Orphic tradition.
The correspondence with the global myth and its evolution over time (as the gods were brought down to earth), is indeed remarkable.
But the Greek myth of Kronos brings us to a critical juncture. For this celestial power is identified, and the identity leads inexorably to a series of far-reaching discoveries.
The rule of Saturn
All Greek astronomical traditions agreed that Kronos was the planet Saturn. What is now the sixth planet from the Sun stands at the center of the Greek paradise myth. Kronos, the planet Saturn, ruled the heavens for a period, presiding over the Golden Age, then departed as the heavens fell into confusion.
How did it happen that a remote planet, now a bare speck in the sky, found its way into such an improbable, yet deeply-rooted memory? Our own names for the planets came from the Romans who gave the outermost visible planet the name Saturn.
Latin poets, philosophers, and historians, including Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca, preserved an archaic legend about Saturn. In unison they insisted that long, long ago the now-distant star had ruled as god-king, founding an ancient kingdom, a paradise on earth. above:
The god Saturn holding the cosmic wheel
The Chronicler Virgil remembered "the life golden Saturn lived on earth, while yet none had heard the clarion blare, none the sword-blades ring."
Saturn, the poet proclaimed, "gathered together the unruly race, scattered over mountain heights, and gave them laws, and chose that the land be called Latium...Under his reign were the golden ages men tell of, in such perfect peace he ruled the nations..."
The Latin naturalist Seneca repeated the idea more than once: "No wars the nations knew, no trumpets threatening blasts...and the glad Earth herself willingly laid bare her fruitful breast, a mother happy and safe amid such duteous nurslings.
But perhaps the most eloquent expressions came from the poet and historian Ovid:
"The first millennium was the age of gold . . .No brass-lipped trumpets called, nor clanging swords...and seasons traveled through the years of peace. The innocent earth learned neither spade nor plough; she gave her riches as fruit hangs from the tree...Springtide the single season of the year."
What the Greeks called the Kronia, celebrating the fortunate era of Kronos, the Romans termed the Saturnalia, a symbolic renewal of the Saturnia regna or reign of the great god Saturn. As in the Greek festival, the rules of social standing and obligation were temporarily suspended, with all things reverting to the primeval state, as master and slave took their place at one table.
In remarkable agreement with the myths of other peoples, the Romans regarded Saturn as the model and source of cherished national customs. Tracing their ancestry and national identity to this very god-king, the chroniclers claimed that, in an earlier time, the Latins deemed themselves "Saturnians". "Be not unaware, Virgil writes, "that the Latins are Saturn's race, righteous not by bond or laws, but self-controlled of their own free will and by the custom of their ancient god."
Nothing symbolized this ancient tie to Saturn more dramatically than the mythical ancestry of kings. It was for a very clear purpose that the chroniclers exerted themselves on the subject, announcing that the early Latin kings were part of an unbroken line leading back through mythical history straight to the god-king Saturn. From the mythical king Latinus the line led upward to Faunus, then to Picus. As Virgil puts it, "Faunus' sire was Picus, and he boasts thee, O Saturn, as his father; thou art first founder of the line. To him by heaven's decree was no son or male descent, cut off..."
Since the line of descent was unbroken, Virgil could insist that Augustus Caesar himself be honored as the son of a god, destined to repeat the accomplishments of the founding king--
"Here is Caesar, and all Iulus' seed, destined to pass beneath the sky's mighty vault. This, this is he whom thou so oft hearest promised to thee, Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who shall again set up the Golden Age amid the fields where Saturn once reigned."
Just as we have observed among other peoples, Roman mythology preserved the myth of Saturn on two levels. On the one hand, there was the tradition of the celestial Saturn ruling in the sky. "When ancient Saturn had his kingdom in the sky," Virgil wrote, "the deep earth held lucre all in its dark embrace."
But the same god was also localized by the Romans as the legendary first king of Latium--a glaring contradiction the chroniclers overcame by asserting that, after the celestial ruler's exile or flight, he had taken up residence in Latium. "I remember how Saturn was received in this land," Ovid wrote. "He had been driven by Jupiter from the celestial realms. From that time the folk long retained the name of Saturnian."
At every level, the Roman memory of Saturn resonates with a global tradition of the Universal Monarch. In the very fashion we have observed in other lands, we see the god entering local history as the primeval founding king, ruling an ancestral kingdom. And with the same result: that the nation telling the story then claimed to have descended from the god-king himself.
The message couldn't be more clear. Long after the mythical age of the gods, every ancient culture continued to honor the great luminary remembered as the king of the world.
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Saturn, the ancient sun god
Many threads of Greek and Roman astronomy appear to lead back to a priestly astronomy arising in Mesopotamia some time in the first millennium B.C.
The Babylonians were apparently the first to develop systematic observations of the planets, and they recorded the celestial motions with considerable skill. But in laying the foundations of later astronomy, they also preserved a crucial link with the past. Again and again they asserted a claim that could only appear preposterous to the modern translator. They declared that distant planets were the great gods of former times.
As we noted earlier, Sumerian myths say that the rites and standards of "kingship" descended from the central luminary An, founder of the Golden Age. In Babylonian myth the Sumerian An appears as Anu, first in the line of gods and kings. And as cuneiform experts began to decipher archaic tablets in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the specialists on Babylonian astronomy began to notice curious associations of the god Anu with the planet Saturn. The connection was stated most bluntly by the renowned expert on Babylonian astronomy, Peter Jensen, in Die Kosmologie der Babylonier: Anu was Saturn.
What makes this identity stand out is the degree to which one nation after another repeated the same connection. It's an interesting fact,not often noticed, that the ancient Hebrews regarded their race as having been "Saturnian" in the beginning, when they lived under the rule of the creator El. That is, the Hebrews honored the same ancestral tie to Saturn as did the Romans.
Indeed, the consistency with which early astronomies identity Saturn as the former creator-king is extraordinary. The Zoroastrians of ancient Persia knew Saturn as the heaven-sustaining Zurvan, "the King and Lord of the Long Dominion." The Iranian god-king Yima, a transcript of the Hindu Yama, founder of the Golden Age, was also linked to Saturn. The Chinese mythical emperor Huang-ti, first in a great dynasty of kings and mythical founder of the Taoist religion, was identified astronomically as the planet Saturn. Even the Tahitians recall of the god Fetu-tea, the planet Saturn, that he "was the King."
Sabbath as Saturn’s day
Many ancient nations commemorated the era before the fall, the harmonious condition of the "first time," by designating one day of the week as a holy day, the Sabbath. But is it significant that originally the Hebrew Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, was the day of Saturn? So was the seventh and most sacred day of the Babylonian and Phoenician weeks. For the Romans this commemorative day was Saturni dies, "Saturn's day." The same day passed into the Anglo-Saxon calendar as the "day of Seater [Saturn]," which, became our own Saturday.
When scholars today look back at this esoteric connection of the Sabbath and Saturn, they see little more than an oddity of minor significance. That is because historians as a whole have missed the ancient link of Saturn to kingship, to the origins of civilization, and to the roots of ancient myth and symbol.
But there is an even more significant aspect of the Saturn mystery.
Here is a remarkable fact: though numerous figures of the Universal Monarch are translated conventionally as the "sun" god, the celestial power invoked by the world's first religions is not the body we call sun today. In fact the star-worshippers specifically distinguished it from our Sun by calling it the best sun, the primeval sun, the central sun.
As if to underscore the mystery, consider the symbolism which the Dogon tribe of Africa attribute to the planet Saturn. They depict the planet with a simple pictograph that is used around the world to describe the primeval “sun” god--a small circle inside a much larger circle. Seen in isolation this little oddity is meaningless. But what do the more general patterns--the archetypes--have to tell us?
Natives of Mexico recall that prior to the present age, an exemplary sun ruled the world, but this was not the sun of today. His name was Quetzalcoatl. The Maya maintained essentially the same idea, calling the primeval sun god Huracan. The Incas of Peru spoke of a former sun superior to the present sun. To the ancient Egyptians, the sun god Atum-Ra, the model ruler, reigned over the fortunate era for a time, then retired from the world. The Sumerian An, ruling with "terrifying splendor," was the dominating luminary of the sky, but not our sun. Later the god departed to a more remote domain.
When it comes to the well-known sun gods of early man, nothing in the mytho-astronomical record seems to have unnerved the experts. Nor should is surprise us that scholars today have no doubt that the Greek Helios, Latin Sol, Assyrian Shamash, or Egyptian Ra, were the Sun pure and simple. In Egypt, countless hymns to the god Ra extol him as the divine power opening the "day." "The lords of all lands. . . praise Ra when he riseth at the beginning of each day." Ra is the "great Light who shinest in the heavens. . . Thou art glorious by reason of thy splendors. . ."
In the same way, Assyrian and Babylonian texts depict the god Shamash as the supreme light of the sky. Such images would seem to leave no question as to the solar character of these gods.
Yet a dilemma arise. During the past century several authorities noticed that Greek and Latin astronomical texts show a mysterious confusion of the "Sun"--Greek Helios, Latin Sol--with the outermost planet, Saturn. Though the designation seems bizarre, the expression "star of Helios" or "star of Sol" was applied to Saturn! Of the Babylonian star-worshippers the chronicler Diodorus writes: "To the one we call Saturn they give a special name, 'Sun-Star.'"
Similarly, the Greek historian Nonnus gives Kronos as the Arab name of the "sun," though Kronos meant only Saturn and no other celestial body. Hyginus, in listing the planets, names first Jupiter, then the planet "of Sol, others say of Saturn." A Greek ostrakon, cited by the eminent classicist Franz Boll, identifies the Egyptian sun god Ra, not with our sun, but with the planet Saturn. This repeated confusion of the Sun and Saturn seems to make no sense at all. Can you imagine any difficulty in separating the two bodies, or distinguishing the one from the other?
One fact beyond dispute is that the word Helios did become the Greek word for our Sun, just as the Latin Sol gave his name to our Sun. The same can be said for the older Shamash and Ra: the names of these gods became the names for the solar orb. But that's where the connection with our Sun ends and the mystery of Saturn, the Universal Monarch, begins.
Rationalizing the paradox
In seeking to explain the curious confusion of the sun and Saturn, late nineteenth century linguists came up with a simple explanation: The confusion, they said, was the result of the similarity of the Greek name Helios to the Greek rendering of the Phoenician god El, a god identified with Kronos, the planet Saturn. So it was all just a misunderstanding of language.
But this explanation could not survive more than a few decades. For as the leading expert Franz Boll soon pointed out, the identification of the "sun" god as Saturn was more widespread and more archaic than previously acknowledged.
In the Epinomis of Plato (who lived in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.), there is an enumeration of the planets, which, as customarily translated, entails this unstartling statement: "There remain, then, three stars (planets), one of which is preeminent among them for slowness, and some call him after Kronos."
Yet according to Boll the original reading is not Kronos but Helios--which is to say that earlier texts gave the name Helios to Saturn. But later copyists, who could not believe that Helios was anything other than the sun, "corrected" the reading to "Kronos."
Moreover, as Boll discovered, this practice of "correcting" the name of Saturn, from Helios to Kronos, was quite common among later copyists. Based on his reading of more archaic Greek manuscripts, Boll drew a startling conclusion: the sun god Helios and the planet-god Saturn were "one and the same god."
Now if this only seems to accentuate the puzzle, there is more. Hindu astronomical lore deemed the planet Saturn as Arka, the star "of the sun." And certain wise men of India often asserted that the "true sun" Brahma, the central light of heaven, was none other than Saturn. This in turn, reminds us of a rarely-noted teaching of the alchemists, preservers of so many ancient mysteries. The planet Saturn, they recalled, was not just a planet; it was "the best sun.” Such language--true sun, best sun--is strangely reminiscent of that language used by native Americans when describing a prior sun, or superior sun, who had presided over the era of peace and plenty.
Babylonian sun god
Among the Assyrians and Babylonians, the "sun"-god par excellence was the well-known figure Shamash, the "light of the gods" In countless texts and symbolic representations Shamash is depicted as the ruling light and god of the day. Most familiar is the image of the god standing in the cleft of a mountain, a curved, notched sword in hand, introducing the dawn. Or, alternatively, he is shown holding or turning a great celestial wheel.
Apart from a few experts on Babylonian astronomy, historians and mythologists as a whole seem to be unaware that in Babylonian astronomical texts, the sun god Shamash and the planet Saturn merge in a most unexpected way. Where one would expect references to the Sun, one finds instead the name of the planet Saturn!
In the nineteenth century, the pioneering archaeologist and historian, Henry Rawlinson, noting that Shamash was repeatedly associated with the planet Saturn, put an exclamation point to the mystery. "How is it possible," Rawlinson asked, "that the dark and distant planet Saturn can answer to the luminary who 'irradiates the nations like the sun, the light of the gods?'"
In 1909, the leading expert Morris Jastrow brought this anomaly to the attention of others in a fascinating article entitled "Sun and Saturn." According to Jastrow, Babylonian astrological texts could not have presented the equation of Saturn and the sun more boldly: "The planet Saturn is Shamash," they say.
As strange as it may seem, converging traditions suggest that the ancient sun god may not be the body we call "Sun" today.
[PLEASE NOTE: It must be emphasized that we are not claiming our Sun was absent. What should become clear in the course of this summary is that the Sun was simply not a subject of ancient mythology relating to the Age of the Gods. The celestial drama takes place at a particular location far removed from the path of the Sun. Nor is it likely that, given the electrically active plasma medium, the Sun was visible as a discrete body.]
But why would sun-like features be attributed to the now-distant planet Saturn? A first and crucial step is to distinguish the original meanings of "day" and "night."
Many hymns to Shamash and Ra--the celebrated suns of Mesopotamia and Egypt--describe these gods coming forth at the beginning of the day, and the terminology will appear to signify our sun rising in the East. One of the chapters of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, is "The Chapter of Coming Forth by Day." The sun gods of both Egypt and Mesopotamia turn darkness into day, inaugurate the day, appear as lord of the day, and so on. The language is *so strong* it may seem to make any interpretation other than the solar interpretation appear preposterous, since in our sky only the Sun could ever answer to such images.
But there is a profound enigma here. It turns out that the "day actually began with what we would call the "night"--at sunset, with the darkening of the sky, and the coming out, or growing bright of other celestial bodies. It is widely acknowledged that the Egyptian day once began at sunset. The same is true of the Babylonian and Western Semitic days. We know the Athenians originally computed the space of a day from sunset to sunset, and the habit appears to have prevailed among northern European peoples as well.
Who, then, is the great god--the god of terrifying radiance--whose coming out or coming forth inaugurates the day?
This god of the archaic day, beginning at sunset, is in fact called Shamash, Helios, and Sol. He is the very god anciently identified as the planet Saturn. Therefore, we must ask whether something more than a rationalization of the enigma may be necessary.
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One requirement in this cross-cultural review is to see how consistently the traditions of the primeval "sun" converge with another ancient theme describing an ancient power stationed at the celestial pole.
As the Earth turns on its axis, observers on Earth see the celestial bodies moving in arcs across the sky. But there is, of course, an exception. There is a central point around which the stars appear to revolve. For ancient sky-worshippers (of the northern hemisphere) that motionless spot, occupied today by the star Polaris, appears to have possessed an extraordinary importance. And as we shall see, the stories told around the world about this place par excellence, offer a stunning resolution to the cosmic mysteries we are exploring here.
In the sixth century B.C. Xenophanes of Colophon offered this definition of the true god: "There is one God, greatest among gods and men, neither in shape nor in thought like unto mortals. He abides ever in the same place motionless, and it befits him not to wander hither and thither."
A remarkable parallel occurs in the Hindu Upanishads:
"There is only one Being who exists
Unmoved yet moving swifter than the mind
Who far outstrips the senses, though as gods
They strive to reach him, who, himself at rest
...Supports all vital action
He moves, yet moves not."
One might think that images of this sort arose as independent philosophical insights. But cross-cultural examination reveals something more ancient than the insights themselves-- a universal myth describing the central sun, a power ruling the heavens from the summit of the world axis. So one step in the resolution we are looking for is simply to note the universal language of the celestial pole. Then, with that language clearly in mind, we can compare it to descriptions of the primeval sun, the great luminary said to have founded the Golden Age.
Consider the image of the pole in Shakespeare--
"...I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament"
The speaker here is Shakespeare's Caesar--whom tradition regarded as the supreme ruler on earth, a replica of the celestial power. Many centuries before Shakespeare, Hipparchus spoke of "a certain star remaining ever at the same place. And this star is the pivot of the Cosmos." That language turns out to be the very language used by the ancient Chinese astronomers and poets in describing the "star of the pivot" at the celestial pole.
To the Polynesians the pole is the station of the "Immovable One." The North American
Pawnee call it "the star that stands still" and regard it as the governor of the sky. This star, they say, "is different from other stars, because it never moves." To the Hindus, the star is Dhruva, meaning "firm," while the region of the pole is esteemed as the "motionless site," the celestial "resting place" of gods and heroes.
What, then, is the connection of this supreme resting place to the station of the primeval “sun”?
The polar Sun in Egypt
In ancient Egyptian cosmology, possibly the oldest known thought-system, one finds a mystifying connection of the sun god Atum with the pole. Many years ago, French scholar Jacques Enel, in his study of Egyptian imagery, for example, concluded that the Egyptians remembered Atum's station as "the single, immovable point around which the movement of the stars occurred." To the Egyptians, states Enel, "Atum was the chief or center of the movement of the universe at the pole."
Much the same language was used by the eminent Egyptologist, T. Rundle Clark, who reported that the pole was the celebrated place par excellence. Atum, according to Clark, is "the arbiter of destiny perched on the top of the world pole." So when the text declare that "the great god lives, fixed in the middle of the sky," the reference is to the polar station, according to Clark.
Clark writes that "the celestial pole is 'that place,' or 'the great city.' The various designation show how deeply it impressed the Egyptian imagination. If god is the governor of the universe and it revolves around an axis, then god must preside over the axis."
That the Egyptians would remember a former sun god at the celestial pole may seem too much to swallow. And Clark is emphatic: "No other people was so deeply affected by the eternal circuit of the stars around a point in the northern sky. Here must be the node of the universe, the center of regulation."
Atum, the first form of the sun god Ra, was thus the 'Unmoved Mover" described in Egyptian texts many centuries before Aristotle offered the phrase as a definition of the supreme power. The Egyptian hieroglyph for Atum is a primitive sledge, signifying "to move." To the god of the cosmic revolutions, the Book of the Dead proclaims "Hail to thee, Tmu [Atum] Lord of Heaven, who givest motion to all things." But while moving the heavens Atum remained em hetep, "at rest" or "in one spot." Throughout all of Egypt this "resting place" of Atum was remembered as the site of the First Occasion, the drama of cosmic beginnings.
Remember that the sun god Atum and the sun god Ra were one and the same, though the Egyptians insisted that the god himself evolved with the unfolding events. The god who was Atum became Ra in the course of his own unfolding, as the originally formless god began to acquire certain distinct attributes (a subject we shall explore at length).
Thus Atum's counterpart Ra, according to the sources themselves, "rests on his high place." He does not roam about the sky. Like Atum, Ra is the pivot, with the lesser lights revolving around him. These are, as the texts say, the "stars who surround Ra." "These gods shall revolve round about him." "The satellites of Ra make their round." Again, the picture is of a stationary god serving as the axis of celestial motions.
[It must be noted here that, as commonly translated, numerous Egyptian texts have Ra "rising in the eastern horizon." But as I will show in discussing the worldwide myth of the cosmic mountain, such translations hide the literal meaning of the Egyptian word [Aakhut] rendered as "horizon." The literal meaning is "the mountain of fire and light." Ra does not "rise" on or above the mountain, he "grows bright" in the mountain in the archaic cycle of day and night. And the language does not literally describe the geographic "east" either. The subject was not geography, but cosmography, the theater of the gods].
The polar sun in Mesopotamia
As I have already noted, the ancient Sumerian counterpart of Atum was the creator-king An, the Akkadian Anu, whose "terrifying glory" was a repeated subject of the hymns and rites. This was "the terror of the splendour of Anu in the midst of heaven," and the starworshippers did not mean by the "midst" of heaven some vague and unfamiliar metaphor for the sky. The "midst" (kirib sami, Kabal sami), meant, very concretely, the cosmic center, making the polar god, according to the early student of Mesopotamian astronomy Robert Brown, Jr., a nocturnal sun. The words translated as the "midst" mean, according to Brown, "that central point where Polaris sat enthroned."
Both Sumerian and Akkadian texts are replete with references to the "firm" and "steadfast" or "motionless" character of the dominant gods. The great god Enki of Eridu is "the motionless lord," and god of "stability." A broken Sumerian hymn, in reference to Ninurash, a form of Ninurta, reads:
"Whom the 'god of the steady star' upon a foundation/
To...cause to repose in years of plenty."
Failing to perceive the concrete meaning of such terms, solar mythologists like to think of the place of "repose" as a hidden "underworld" beneath the earth, a dark region visited by the sun after it has set. But the place of repose is no underworld. It is:
"The lofty residence...
The lofty place...
The place of lofty repose..."
What, then, of the famous Assyrian and Babylonian god Shamash, the sun god? A remarkable fact is that Shamash "comes forth" ·(shines) and "goes in" (dims) at one spot, called the "midst" of heaven (as note above)--the "firm," "stable" or motionless station of supreme "rest". This esteemed place was symbolized by the top of the ziggurats, the famous Babylonian axis-towers constructed as symbolic models of the Cosmos. Hence, the uppermost level was deemed the "light of Shamash," and the "heart of Shamash," denoting (in the words of E.G. King) the pivot "around which the highest heaven or sphere of the fixed stars revolved.:"
Remarkably, the Babylonian tradition of the polar sun has been preserved up to the twentieth century in the tradition of the Mandaeans of Iraq. In their midnight ceremonies these people invoked the celestial pole as Olma l'nhoara, "the world of light." It is therefore not surprising to find that chroniclers of the Mandaean rites call the polar power the "primitive sun of the star-worshippers."
We must ask, therefore, whether other cultures, showing similar reverence for the celestial pole, might have also preserved the connection to the "primitive sun."
A worldwide theme
To the Hindus the sacred celestial spot, the province of the creator-king, was the place of "supreme rest," called also "the motionless site," described as "a Spot blazing with splendor...and which subsistsmotionless." Thus the sun god Surya "stands firmly on this safe resting place." Surya, states the Sanskrit authority V.S. Agrawala, "is himself at rest, being the immovable center of his system." Just as the Egyptian and Mesopotamian sun gods "rise and set" in one place, Surya occupies samanam dhama--"the same place of rising and setting." For the words translated as "rising" and "setting" to possess any intelligible meaning, one must refer (as in the case of Egypt discussed above) to a phase of brightening followed by a phase of dimming in a daily cycle.
Another name for the stationary sun, according to Agrawala, is Prajapati. "The sun in the center is Prajapati: he is the horse that imparts movement to everything."
The motionless Surya and Prajapati compare with the light of Brahma, called the "true sun." This is the ancient sun, the texts say, which "after having risen thence upwards ... rises and sets no more. It remains alone in the center." Here, too, center and summit are synonymous. Brahma, observes Rene Guenon, is "the pivot around which the world accomplishes it revolution, the immutable center which directs and regulates cosmic movement."
Moreover, this stationary and axial character of the greatest gods seems to be common to all of the primary celestial figures in Hindu myth, with its diverse pantheon gathered from so many cultural traditions. The god Varuna, "seated in the midst of heaven," is the "Recumbent," and called the "axis of the universe." "Firm is the seat of Varuna," declares one of the Vedic hymns. In him "all wisdom centres, as the nave is set within the wheel." One of Varuna's forms is Savitar, the "impeller." While the rest of the universe revolves, the impeller stands firm. "Firm shalt thou stand, like Savitar desirable."
Also occupying the stationary center is the popular god Vishnu--who takes a firm stand in that resting place in the sky." The location is the celestial pole, called "the exalted seat of Vishnu, round which the starry spheres forever wander." Vishnu is the polar sun or central fire: "Fiery indeed is the name of this steadfast god," states one Vedic text.
To the Buddhists this is the center of the cosmic wheel, the throne of the Buddha himself. It is acalatthana, the "unmoving site," or the "unconquerable seat of firm séance." Thus, as noted by Coomaraswamy, the Buddha throne crowned the world axis.
Given the great variety of mythical figures pointing to the same underlying concepts, it is crucial that we recognize where Hindu and Buddhist myth located this cosmic center, the celestial resting place. It was, according to the most widely respected Sanskrit authorities such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, the celestial pole, the axis of the turning heavens, a verdict repeated again and again by Rene Guenon, Mircea Eliade, and others.
According to ancient Chinese astronomy the revered Emperor on High, prototype of kings, stood at the celestial pole. Chinese astrologers, according to Gustav Schlegel, regarded the polar god as "the Arch-Premier ... the most venerated of all the celestial divinities. In fact the Pole star, around which the entire firmament appears to turn, should be considered as the Sovereign of the Sky." It was thus proclaimed that the celestial pole was the seat of the supreme ruler Shang-ti, mythically, the first king of a great dynasty in the remote past. His seat was "the Pivot," and all the heavens turned upon his exclusive power.
Raised to a first principle, the polar power became the mystic Tao, the motor of the Cosmos. The essential idea is contained in the Chinese word for Tao, which combines the sign for "to stand still" with the sign for "to go" and "head" The Tao is the Unmoved Mover, the supreme ruler, who "goes," or "moves" while yet remaining in one place--revealing a striking correspondence with the images of the polar power in other lands.
Chinese sources proclaim the Tao to be the "light of heaven" and "the heart of heaven." "Action is reversed into non-action," states Jung. "Everything peripheral is subordinated to the command of the centre." Thus the Tao, in the words of Erwin Pousselle, rules the "golden center, which is the Axis of the World."
In the Persian Zend Avesta the creator-king Ahura Mazda rules from atop the world axis, the fixed station "around which the many stars revolve." Iranian cosmology, as reported by Leopold de Saussure, esteemed the celestial pole as the center and summit of heaven, where resided Kevan, the sovereign power of heaven, called "the Great One in the middle of the sky." Throughout the ancient Near East, according to the comprehensive research of H. P. L'Orange, the "King of the Universe" appears as a central sun, "the Axis and the Pole of the World."
These archaic traditions can help us re-interpret the images of the sun god kept alive by Greek and Roman symbolists. In astrological representations, the primeval "sun" occupies the central, axial position while the other planets or stars revolve around him. The definitive celestial profile of Helios is as Basileus, the Royal Sun, recognized by Franz Cumont as the prototype of terrestrial kings or princes surrounded by their guards. In the time of the Roman emperor Nero, the sun-god was still remembered as the axis, the genius loci, the center of the cosmos, and was presented as such in astrological depictions, with the emperor himself serving as the terrestrial image of the original sun god.
It is significant too that, as noted by John Perry (Lord of the Four Quarters), the Etruscans--predecessors of the Romans--claimed there was one supreme deity, held to be the axial "Pole" Star.
"According to Jewish and Muslim Cosmology," wrote the eminent authority on Semitic religions, A.J. Wensinck, "the divine throne is exactly above the seventh heaven, consequently it is the pole of the Universe." (An echo of the ancient tradition will be found in the words of the prophet Isaiah, who locates the throne of El in the farthest reaches of the north.)
Amongst Finno Ugric peoples, the supreme ruler of the sky is Ukko. As stated in the Finnish Kalevala the seat of Ukko was at the Pole. And this assertion, according to the prominent chronicler Uno Holmberrg, was part of a pervasive tradition of the creator-king seated atop the world pole.
A remarkable counterpart is provided by the Ashanti of Ghana, who remembered the old sun god as "the dynamic center of the Universe, from which lines of force radiate to all quarters of the heaven." Thus, according to the Ashanti, this former sun god is "the center around which everything revolves."
Significantly, the same overlapping images of a polar sun or sovereign luminary at the cosmic center, occur in the Americas. In southern Peru the Inca Yupanqui raised a temple at Cuzco to the creator god who was superior to the sun we know. Unlike the solar orb, he was able to "rest" and "to light the world from one spot." As the pioneering Mesoamerican scholar, Zelia Nuttal, noted many years ago, the only reasonable position in the sky for fulfilling this requirement is the celestial Pole. "It is an extremely important and significant fact," writes Nuttall, "that the principal doorway of this temple opened to the north." (Since the north celestial pole is not visible from Cuzco, 14° below the equator, Nuttall assumed that this tradition of a polar sun was carried southward.)
Cottie Burland tells us that, among the Mexicans, "the nearest approach to the idea of a true universal god was Xiuhtecuhtli, recalled as the Old, Old One who enabled the first ancestors to rise from barbarism. Xiuhtecuhtli appears as the Central Fire and "the heart of the Universe." "Xiuhtecuhtli was a very special deity. He was not only the Lord of Fire which burnt in front of every temple and in the middle of every hut in Mexico, but also Lord of the Pole Star. He was the pivot of the universe and one of the forms of the Supreme Deity." An apparent counterpart of this central fire is the Maya creator god Huracan, the "Heart of Heaven" at the celestial pole.
The Pawnee locate the "star chief of the skies" at the pole. He is the "star that stands still." Of this supreme power they say, "Its light is the radiance of the Sun god shining through."
The language used by the different cultures is remarkably similar. Yet the underlying idea--a great luminary or "sun" god ruling from the celestail pole--poses a blatant contradiction of direct experience today. How did it happen that the same contradiction occurred in every corner of the ancient world?
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Mythic traditions the world over locate the ancient sun god at the celestial pole, a placement that challenges the common suppositions of mythologists and historians. To the modern mind nothing could be more absurd than a polar sun. Yet the unmoving sun is the ancient tradition, as noted by E.A.S. Butterworth in his insightful work, The Tree at the Navel of the Earth. On evaluating the archaic images of Helios and his counterparts, Butterworth concluded that this luminary "is not the natural sun of heaven, for it neither rises nor sets, but is, as it seems, ever at the zenith...There are signs of an ambiguity between the pole star and the sun."
But what Butterworth did not realize is that the "ambiguity" dominated the cosmological thought of ancient star worshippers in every corner of the world. The precedence of the cosmic center among the great ancient cultures has, in fact, been noted by others. More than a hundred years ago, William F. Warren, in his groundbreaking work, Paradise Found, identified the celestial pole as the home of the supreme god of ancient races. "The religions of all ancient nations...associate the abode of the supreme God with the North Pole, the centre of heaven; or with the celestial space immediately surrounding it. [Yet] no writer on comparative theology has ever brought out the facts which establish this assertion."
In the following years a number of scholars, each focusing on different bodies of evidence, reached the same conclusion. The controversial and erratic Gerald Massey, in two large works (The Natural Genesis and Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World), claimed that the religion and mythology of a polar god was first formulated by the priest-astronomers of ancient Egypt and spread from Egypt to the rest of the world.
In a general survey of ancient language, symbolism, and mythology, John O'Neill (Night of the Gods, two volumes) insisted that mankind's oldest religions centered on a god of the celestial pole.
The renowned Mesoamerican authority, Zelia Nuttall, in Fundamental Principles of Old and New World Civilization, undertook an extensive review of New World astronomical themes, concluding that the highest god was polar. From Mexico she shifted to other civilizations, finding the same unexpected role of a polar god.
Reinforcing the surprising conclusions of these researchers was the subsequent work of others, among them the noted Finno-Ugric authority, Uno Holmberg (Der Baum Des Lebens), who documented the preeminence of the polar god in the ritual of Altaic and neighboring peoples, suggesting ancient origins in Hindu and Mesopotamian cosmologies; Léopold de Saussure (Les Origines de l;'Astronomie Chinoise), who showed that primitive Chinese religion and astronomy honor the celestial pole as the home of the supreme "monarch" of the sky; René Guenon (Le Roi du Monde and Le Symbolisme de la Croix), who sought to outline a universal doctrine centering on the polar gods and principles of ancient man.
In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century these revelations were viewed as highly unorthodox and generally given little attention. But more recently the pioneering historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, together with many of his colleagues, documented numerous traditions of the cosmic center--the place where it all began--and noted again and again the relations of the cosmic center to the celestial pole.
There is a paradox here. Most of the writers cited above possessed a common--if unspoken--faith in the ceaseless regularity of the solar system, seeking to explain the polar god in strictly familiar terms: the center of our revolving heavens is the celestial pole; the great god of the center and summit must have been the star closest to this cosmic pivot.
But then, as we have seen, it's simply impossible to separate the tradition of the polar power from that of a central sun, lighting the world from one spot. So it is not just a matter of ancient star worshippers looking up at the pole and noticing that the circumpolar stars slowly wheel around that center. The mystery is the bizarre placement of the ancient “sun”--the supreme luminary of heaven--at this improbable station in the sky. How did an idea contradicting all natural experience today, establish itself around the world?
Saturn, the polar sun
Allow the points of cross-cultural agreement to lead the way and a resolution comes from the early astronomical traditions identifying a planet--Saturn--as the exemplary “sun” god of the lost Golden Age. There is, in fact, a way to test the integrity of the ancient ideas we have chronicled here. Are there any independent astronomical traditions incongruously declaring the outermost visible planet to have formerly occupied the celestial pole? This would be particularly significant because nothing in the appearance of Saturn today could conceivably suggest a seat at the pole. To find such a tradition would thus verify a collective memory, a coherent substructure of myth beyond anything one might have thought possible.
The answer is clear, and it is stunning. Wherever ancient astronomies preserved detailed images of the planet Saturn, it seems that Saturn was declared to have formerly occupied the celestial pole! The priestly astronomers of Zoroastrianism knew the planet Saturn as Kevan, called "the Great One in the middle of the sky," and they located the primeval home of Kevan at the celestial Pole. In neo-Platonist symbolism of the planets, Kronos-Saturn ruled the celestial Pole, or had his station "over the Pole."
It is also known that Latin poets remembered Saturn as god of "the steadfast star," the very phrase used for the pole star in virtually every ancient astronomy. Thus Manilius recounts that Saturn, in his fall, toppled to the "opposite end of the world axis," thus placing his original throne atop the world axis.
A superb example of the polar Saturn comes from Chinese astronomy, which identifies the distant planet as "the genie of the pivot." Saturn had his station at the pole, according to the eminent authority on Chinese astronomy, Gustav Schlegel. In the words of Leopold deSaussure, Saturn was "the planet of the center, corresponding to the emperor on earth, thus to the polar star of heaven."
Interestingly, the theme also appears to have passed into the mystic traditions of numerous secret societies (Rosicrucian, Masonic, Cabalistic, Hermetic, and others rooted in an unknown past). One of the most thorough authorities on such societies was Manly P. Hall, who published numerous volumes on the related belief systems. In the general traditions reviewed by Hall, the god Saturn is "the old man who lives at the north pole." Even today, in our celebration of Christmas, we live under the influence of the polar Saturn, according to Hall: "Saturn, the old man who lives at the north pole, and brings with him to the children of men a sprig of evergreen (the Christmas tree), is familiar to the little folks under the name of Santa Claus."
Santa Claus, descending yearly from his polar home to distribute gifts around the world, is a muffled echo of the Universal Monarch spreading miraculous good fortune. But while the earlier traditions place his prototype, the Universal Monarch, at the celestial pole, popular tradition now locates Santa Claus at the geographical pole--a telling example of the global evolution of myth, as the storytellers progressively brought the celestial gods down to earth.
A planet at the celestial pole? As odd as the tradition may seem, more than one respected scholar detected the anomaly. One of the first was Leopold de Saussure. The principle also figured prominently in the recent work of the historian of science, Giorgio de Santillana and the ethnologist Hertha von Dechend, authors of Hamlet's Mill. According to an ancient astronomical tradition, the authors suggest, Saturn originally ruled from the celestial pole! As for a rationale, the authors could only suggest a "figure of speech" or astral allegory whose meaning remains to be penetrated--
"What has Saturn, the far-out planet to do with the Pole?" they asked. "It is not in the line of modern astronomy to establish any link connecting the planets with Polaris, or with any star, indeed, out of reach of the members of the zodiacal system. Yet such figures of speech were an essential part of the technical idiom of archaic astrology."
A unified memory
It seems that the primordial age, as chronicled in accounts around the world, stands in radical contrast to our own era. One can no more explain Saturn's ancient connection with the pole by reference to the present arrangements of the planets than one could explain, within conventional frameworks, Saturn's image as the Universal Monarch, or founder of the Golden Age, or primeval sun. Yet the fact remains that throughout the ancient world these images of Saturn constituted a pervasive memory which many centuries of cultural evolution could not obliterate.
Separate threads of evidence, each posing its own mystery for the specialists, thus confirm a remarkably unified memory: myth of the Golden Age; myth of the creator-king or celestial prototype of kings; reverence for a former sun god; the archaic day beginning at sunset; placement of the sun god at the cosmic center and summit; identification of the cosmic center with the axis of the turning sky.
To these global traditions, we can now compare the archaic “Saturn myth”: Saturn as founder of the Golden Age; Saturn as creator-king; Saturn as primeval sun or best sun; Saturn as god of the day (the archaic "day" beginning at sunset); Saturn as the resting god or god ruling the "day of rest"; Saturn at the cosmic center and summit; Saturn ruling from the celestial pole.
Together the themes constitute an integral memory. Yet each component blatantly contradicts direct observation today, and the contradiction exists irrespective as to whether the observer is a modern scientist or a primitive living in "scientific ignorance." Under popular assumptions, the global memory is simply impossible.
Popular assumptions must therefore be challenged. We must ask whether the sky we observe today is the same sky experienced by the first stargazers.
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