Mountains of Evidence

Jean-Jaques D'Ortous de Mairan (1678-1771)

Jean-Jaques D’Ortous de Mairan (1678-1771). Engaved portrait by Pierre-Charles Ingouf (1746-1800), based on a work by Louis Tocque (1696-1772). Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Libraries digital collection, Washington DC, USA.

July 26, 2012

‘Plasma mythology’ may be defined as the study of plasmas, specifically near-earth plasmas, in human traditions, such as mythology and proto-scientific records. If this is a discipline, one of its most notable pioneers must be the French savant, Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan (1678-1771).

De Mairan was a prominent biologist, a geophysicist and an astronomer, who conducted vital experiments in the circadian rhythms of living organisms. His interests extended to atmospheric plasma avant la lettre, as he was obsessed with the aurora borealis, but neither the concept nor the term ‘plasma’ had yet entered the minds of scientists. As an auroral expert, de Mairan towered well above his contemporaries. He was apparently the first to use mathematical methods in order to measure the height of the aurorae in 1726. In 1733, he published what has been identified as “the first textbook devoted entirely to the subject” of aurorae; this was his magisterial Traité physique et historique de l’aurore boréale. And although he gave short shrift to an electrical theory of the phenomenon, he hit the nail on the head when he attributed the lights to interaction between the atmospheres around the earth and the sun:

‘… it is always certain that there really is other matter outside the Terrestrial Globe, to wit, the matter of the Atmosphere of the Sun, which is endowed with the property to reflect or to shoot at us a sensible light …; that this matter may reach as far as our Atmosphere, as it actually does, & often passes well from there to the Terrestrial Orbit, so that, consequently, it is suited to mix with the superior parts of our Atmosphere, & that it may be … a sufficient cause of the Phenomenon we are concerned with.’

With other writers on the aurora, de Mairan shared an interest in chronicling historical sightings, yet he rose above his predecessors in his perceptive idea that the polar lights may actually illuminate aspects of mythology. Specifically, he conjectured that the Greek Mount Olympus could have been selected as the abode of the gods because it would have been over its peaks that the Greeks of Athens and other important centres would have observed the aurora borealis, low towards the horizon at those latitudes. In the mysterious lights – which would perhaps manifest only once a decade – spectators could have recognised deities sporting on the pinnacle of Olympus. In de Mairan’s words:

“Olympus, with which we are concerned, since it is more than one in Greece, consists of a chain of high mountains which border Thessaly towards the North and Macedonia towards the center, and which, consequently, in the North tend to the West of Achaia, of Phocia, and of all those which formed that part of Greece known as Hellas, ancient Greece, a country fertile in poetic ideas and fables. The aurora borealis, which is never very elevated at those latitudes, and which most often tends toward the West, would therefore appear immediately above these mountains, and as adhering to their summit. Beyond the limb the luminous and rayed center of the phenomenon would be, for the astonished spectator, as an unequivocal sign of the presence of the Gods; the dark segment which would sometimes be seen below, as a cloud hiding these Immortals from profane eyes. And the jets of fiery colored light, which sprung out, would seem to them to be the bolts of lightning which left the hand of Jupiter? The more the phenomenon was infrequent, the more it would seem to be marvellous, and the more the tradition would be maintained over time without question.”

The suggestion does not seem to have been followed up, except perhaps for the late historian of auroral science, Samuel Silverman, who mounted a similar argument for Ṣaphon, the holy rock in far southeastern Turkey on which people in Ugarit and Canaan situated the divine assembly.

In recent years, evidence for an auroral component in the world’s rich tapestry of myth and tradition has mounted and de Mairan’s proposition is worth revisiting – if only because the aurora is now known to have been much more frequent and intense over the eastern Mediterranean basin during the early 1st millennium BCE (see “Polar Wondering” ).

It is no longer feasible that the notion of a collectivity of mythical beings on a mountaintop owed its absolute origin to sightings of the polar lights above local peaks. This is because the theme of a ‘cosmic mountain’ itself emerges as a recurrent element in traditional cosmologies worldwide. Properties attributed to this mountain – such as its division into tiers, its hollow interior, its location at the ‘navel’ of the earth, its twin peaks or the spiralling dragon or pathway wrapped around its surface – expose the mountain itself as a mythical concept, at least in origin. In numerous parts of the world, people identified local hills and mountains with this cosmic prototype – as if they were the real thing. Yet what may be salvaged from de Mairan’s suggestion is the important possibility that a regular appearance of the aurora borealis above a local elevation may have been one reason why such a rock would come to be identified as the embodiment of the cosmic mountain. The potential application of this idea is worth exploring. Hindū people situated their hallowed Mount Meru or Sumeru in the Himalaya range to the north. Did they do so simply because the mountains there were prominent? Or had intermittent dances of the polar lights above these very peaks played a decisive role?

Whatever the truth may be, de Mairan’s searches for correlations between auroral antics and themes in mythology count as respectable, linear precursors to today’s fledgling field of plasma mythology. Prescient though it may have been to equate the Olympian gods with auroral apparitions, even bolder hypotheses are being entertained at the present time. Did the template for the global myth of a ‘cosmic mountain’ itself reflect a conspicuous atmospheric feature, not seen today? Was the cone of the zodiacal light enriched with so much dust as to sit above the eastern or the western horizon like a luminous sky-scraping rock? Or did the earth’s ionosphere host a plasma tube of such colossal proportions as was never seen again since the dawn of human history? Hopefully a modern-day de Mairan, equipped with better mathematics and technology, will find motivation to continue where Jean-Jacques left off – at the peak of a career.
Rens Van Der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van Der Sluijs:

The Mythology of the World Axis

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon

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