Thunderblog - David Talbott
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Origins of Myth


When Saturn was King

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 thing. 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.

(This introduction continues in the thread " Origins of Myth," on the Thunderbolts Forum.)

David Talbott


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David Talbott
David Talbott is the founder of the Thunderbolts Project, a Comparative Mythologist and Executive Editor of the Thunderblogs.

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