Feb 20, 2013
It has the body of a snake and the head of a lion. It has legs that end in clawed feet. It often has wings: it flies, or at least it comes from the sky. It breathes fire.
It’s an absurd creature, and the stories can be dismissed as the fantasies of idle primitive minds. Except…
The stories come from Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica, from England to Australia. They emerge from the time before recorded history. They are part of a voluminous literature of stories that are called myths and legends. All are absurd. Together with rock art, they constitute the oldest heritage of our species: they come from where we came from, and they give context to who we are and why we are who we are.
They have a regularity, like sunrise and sunset, but a regularity that is chillingly alien. How could all these apparently unconnected societies tell essentially the same story and draw essentially the same figures with many of the same specific details? Curious minds want to know why—not the why of the dragon, of the individual stories and images, but the why of global absurdities. The intelligibility to be understood is the consilience of myths and petroglyphs everywhere.
That they are stories and images of nature satisfies the “global” part; the “absurdities” part cannot be dismissed by saying that ignorant primitives, who lived in and were more dependent on nature’s regularities and vicissitudes than the knowledgeable experts today, didn’t know what was really happening.
The ancients were smart enough to trace the path of Venus and to predict her appearances. Why, then, did they identify her with a dragon? By the time of written histories, among cultures that are recognized to have had astronomies, the planets were identified with the mythical gods and the legendary heroes. Was this an arbitrary identification? If so, why were the same identifications made around the globe? Were the identifications instead differentiations from prior undifferentiated unities?
For the ancients, the stories were not fabulous: they were real. Reynolds Price remarks in the introduction to A Palpable God, “If we call them untrue, we must call them insane. They are plainly not deceitful….” They are “eyewitness reports of external events.” They were told to provide consolation: narratives of origins and causes.
We modern people also tell stories of origins and causes: a big bang from which the universe gradually expanded, evolution by selection of random mutations, plate tectonics that slowly grind continents together. Our stories are different, not because we’re smarter but because our lives—and their origins and causes—are different. Our nature is different. We are born from and into a nature of continuity, uniformity, gradual change—a universe without dragons. Except…
In plasma labs, plasma dragons again breathe fire and roar deafeningly. Plasma instabilities contort discharges into the same forms pecked into ancient rocks. Space telescopes take pictures of axial columns and ouroboroses in other stars and galaxies. Space probes measure the electric currents that make up similar features around the Earth.
If the power in the Earth’s currents were to increase sufficiently, these currents would begin to glow. We might then see a nature similar to what the myth-makers saw.
The mythical stories are provincial in that they tell about only one state of nature—a cataclysmic one. In the same way, modern stories—the big bang, evolution, plate tectonics—are provincial, telling about only one state of nature—a stable one. However, we see in plasma labs, in space, and in the ancient past that nature has several states.
We need new stories—new theories—that can tell us about the origins and causes of this multi-state nature. We need new stories that can console us as we struggle to live lives that seem to bridge these dual and dueling states.
By Mel Acheson