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The Paumotu Concept of the Heavens.

Feb 07, 2008
Peopling the Mythical Landscape

Creation myths from all corners of the world describe the involvement of people with the events of creation, as if human ancestors had actually witnessed the formation of the world.

One of the long-standing puzzles of mythology concerns the role of people in ancient traditions. Philosophers within the literalist Judeo-Christian tradition have long scratched their heads over the question how the author of the creation story contained in Genesis 1, reputedly Moses, could have known about the things that had transpired before the formation of Adam on the sixth day. But a similar dilemma is posed by the creation accounts of illiterate societies around the world.

The drawing shown above was made in 1869 by Paiore, a man from the Paumotu group of islands in Tuamotu, Polynesia, to illustrate the ancestors’ role in the lifting up of the layered heavens at the time of creation. The Toba Batak people, of Sumatra, describe the condition of the world prior to creation as if people somehow already existed to witness this state of chaos: “In the very beginning, in by-gone times, when the middleworld in which we live did not yet exist, there was only the sea; there was one sea and there was a thick darkness, (so dense that) people could not see their hands before their faces.”

The Navaho, of Arizona, relate how the first ‘people’ declared that “We must have light” to bring an end to this perpetual night. “The first three worlds were neither good nor healthful. They moved all the time and made the people dizzy.”

And speaking of the distant time when “The whole world was sky” and “There was just light”, long before the “separation between Sky and Earth”, the Makiritare, of Venezuela, observe that “the people were always happy. They had life. They couldn’t die.”

‘Ancestors’ play a prominent role in creation myths worldwide, closely interacting with the gods in a distant epoch Eliade called illud tempus or ‘that time’. But does this really mean that creation myths contain genuine information about the prehistoric activities of mankind? Just who are these ‘people’ who ostensibly lived even before the ‘gods’ undertook the work of creation?

The question has traditionally been treated as a chronological problem, to the effect that human beings according to myths worldwide have existed as long as the world itself. To take that seriously would mean either that humans are really billions of years old or that the world is really just a few thousand years old – two alternatives that are equally absurd and unscientific. On a catastrophist paradigm, the conundrum can be resolved far more easily. Two complementary and often overlapping solutions present themselves.

First, if the mythical set of events collectively known as ‘creation stories’ is not really about the absolute physical origins of the universe, the earth and life on earth, but about the latest in a series of catastrophic episodes in the recent history of the planet, accompanied by major instabilities in the geomagnetic field, it becomes only natural that ancient descriptions of these turbulent events read like eye-witness accounts. If the acts of creation were really cosmic occurrences happening during the Holocene, the prehistoric races of mankind would have observed what transpired. Interpreting these drastically transformative events as the creation of a new earth and a new sky – perhaps in a historical succession of such events – the paradox of people seeing how the gods made the world, including mankind itself, would present itself inevitably.

And second, the ‘people’ that were apparently engaged in supernatural activities, such as an ascent to the sky by means of the axis mundi, need not really have been human beings of flesh and blood. Euhemerism is an early school of mythology that held that the protagonists of the ancient myths – the gods and certainly the ‘ancestors’ – were really human beings whose deeds had been exaggerated.

Yet in a way, it would be naïve to interpret such ‘ancestors’ literally as members of the species Homo sapiens, tantamount to explaining the cosmological role of the feathered serpent or the ouroboros in reptilian terms. This impression is easily dismantled from the anthropological perspective of ‘totemism’.

Traditional societies almost without exception identified and worshipped their legendary ‘ancestors’ not only in the form of human beings, but of animals, plants and countless other aspects of nature, based on a fundamental belief that humans are really animals and vice versa. Thus, a wallaby clan in indigenous Australia would regard themselves as wallabies, sprung from a wallaby ancestor, and so on. Against this background, traditions about ‘ancestors’ and ‘early people’ need not necessarily refer to real people after all.

The ‘people’ populating the mythical world at the time of creation are characterised by two key features: They are as easily situated on the surface of the earth as in the sky, moving up and down along the axis mundi and in close rapport with the gods. And they are often interchangeable with the ‘stars’, being described as the ‘stars’ at the time they still lived on earth or, conversely, as ‘people’ before they turned into stars.

The universal obsession with myths of catasterism springs from the archaic idea that the stars are ‘sky people’ opposed to us ‘earth people’, who had to die and ‘go to heaven’ to reach that state. Making the shortest shrift of Von Däniken-like scenarios involving ‘aliens’ coming down from space, this analysis offers the promising insight that the ‘people’ of creation were actually luminous forms seen in the sky.

It has been proposed that the axis mundi, along with other archetypal features of the mythical landscape, was a semi-permanent formation of glowing plasma seen in the earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere at a time that the geomagnetic field suffered from severe instabilities. The ‘people’ observed in and around the world axis – who are also described as ‘seeds’, ‘ancestors’, ‘animals’, ‘stars’ and so on – will have been little sparks of glowing plasma that were emitted by the central column like meteors issued in meteor showers.

Both in the laboratory and in space, plasma has been known to behave in a surprisingly life-like way, as if imbued with a will of its own. The surprisingly life-like properties of these little blobs of star-like lights will have contributed to their incorporation into human memories as the first ‘people’ doing divine deeds in the era of creation. With the progression of time, the actual ancestors, who were the anonymous earth-bound eyewitnesses to the plasma spectacles, will have been confounded with these more proactive and rather less ‘ordinary’ celestial ancestors.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Further reading:

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

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon


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