From ancient Chaldean and Hebrew sources (Gen. iv and part of x), we learn of a mythic age of giants and heroes — before the deluge. Today we eschew this prehistory. We do not believe in a lost Golden Age or the deluge that swept it away. We do not believe in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, or in Polybius’ fragment on cosmic catastrophes that periodically annihilate civilization. We do not believe the Chaldean and Hebrew accounts of a great flood.
We moderns prefer to believe that the past was entirely primitive, that progress has been gradual and “evolutionary.” We prefer to believe there was no Golden Age, no giants or heroes, no deluge, no antideluvian world. We believe that time runs in a straight line. The further back you go, the more backward the men. The further forward, the more knowledgeable and advanced. (A self-flattering conceit if there ever was one.)
The ancient Chaldeans, Egyptians, Hebrews and Greeks would be shocked at our disregard of oral and written traditions. They would have disliked our view of history as “one damn thing after another.” Surely, history has meaning. Surely, there is a pattern — the hint of something larger and grander at work.
Ask yourself: Why did prehistory last so long, with so little accomplished? Our Stone Age ancestors had brains as big as ours, and supposedly failed to discover anything — to build anything — for 180,000 years.
More than a hundred years ago, the orientalist William Saint Chad Boscawen referred to the deluge as “a dividing line between the mythic age of gods and the beginnings of history….” Being mythic, however, did not mean it wasn’t real. If we find metaphor, parable and symbol in our myths — all the better.
Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend attempted to elucidate the profundity of ancient myth in their little book, “Hamlet’s Mill.” They denied that myths were a garbled kind of history. Instead, they suggested that mythology contains coded messages for posterity. Here is something to baffle the literal-minded scientist, to confound our latter-day plunderers of the unconscious (i.e., psychologists). Santillana and Dechend suggest that myth represents something higher than history and more profound than science. It is even suggested that myth represents something that makes these latter outcroppings possible; for myth doesn’t tell us what happened in as much as it tells us why. Here is the ground of meaning which has been drained out of our science, out of our history, drop by drop.
Could it be, all along, that the edges of our world have advanced or receded, not by the explorations of Columbus and Magellan, but by the beneficial or deleterious effects of mythological understandings — or the lack thereof? Could it be that dragons and sea serpents are not only depicted on the margins of ancient maps, but are also depicted at the margins of time as well?
The Greek-Chaldean, Berosus, wrote:
A great multitude of men of various tribes inhabited Chaldea, but they lived without any order, like the animals…. Then there appeared to them from the sea, on the shore of Babylonia, a fearful animal of the name of Oan. Its body was that of a fish, but under the fish’s head another head was attached, and on the fins were feet like those of a man, and it had a man’s voice. Its image is still preserved. The animal came at morning and passed the day with men; but it took no nourishment, and at sunset went again into the sea, and remained there for the night. This animal taught men language and science, the harvesting of seeds and fruits, the rules for the boundaries of land, the mode of building cities and temples, arts and writing, and all that relates to the civilization of human life.
The intrinsic absurdity of the text should be no objection. It is a story which is found, in altered form, among the Dogon people of Mali, thousands of miles from Mesopotamia. The Dogon people have retained their oral traditions up to modern times. They tell of the Nummo, an amphibian creature comparable to a lizard or chameleon. This creature was also described as a fish who stood upright — and also as a serpent!
Curiously, it was a serpent that talked to Eve in the Garden of Eden; and so talking, talked the first man and woman out of Eden — into the rigors of civilized toil. A reptile, a snake, a “dragon” — with feet! And this reptile appears again, in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 12.
A great sign appeared in Heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the women who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
Is this woman Eve, the mother of mankind? Is our aversion to reptiles, in this event, reciprocated? And here is the most terrible reptile of all, gathering a third of the stars as a means of bombardment — to kill mankind in its cradle. If the snake lured us out of Eden with the forbidden fruit (containing the knowledge of good and evil), promising that we would be “as gods” — then that snake was an enemy whose strategy was to destroy us with a dangerous conceit.
Could the latter-day re-invigoration of this conceit be a coincidence?
The thing about mythologies — from all over the world — is the subtle ways in which they connect (even if they do not fully agree). There is the palpable absurdity of a walking fish, or a serpent that talks to women, or a chameleon that teaches the arts of civilization, or a dragon bombarding the earth with a third of the stars of heaven to “devour” a newborn. But the witnesses are everywhere in agreement. The fish, the serpent and the dragon are integral to our story. And however metaphoric, or symbolic, or even cryptic, these archaic creatures are, as Santillana and Dechend maintain, “cosmological from first to last.”
It was understood only by a very few, it appealed to many, and it is forever intractable to those who approach it through ‘mathematics for the million’ or by speculation on the unconscious. In other words, this is a selective and difficult approach, employing the means at hand and much thought, limited surely, but resistant to falsification.
This latter point deserves our attention. While we laugh at our ancestors’ ignorance of science, their mythology yet resonates. While we falsify reality with our “facts” — while we are lost in “facts” — we imagine that “scientific” discoveries speak for themselves. This is more absurd than a talking and walking amphibian; for the empty “scientistic” notions of modernity must prove to be inherently falsifying. We talk about facts all the time, and pretend to respect them. But we use facts as a puppeteer uses his puppets. We make them say, in the depths of our corruption, what we wish them to say.
Whereas a myth esoterically relates what is forbidden to captives and hostages, “facts” taken out of context can be used to ensure continued captivity. Likewise, to descend into triviality is the fate of those imprisoned in a false reality, absorbing the light of an ersatz sun, fighting for an ersatz liberty, adhering to an ersatz science.
The question may be: What has captured us? What is the evil thing that yet holds us hostage? — with a serpent’s promise still ringing in our ears?