Thursday, February 9, 2017


The world is full of origin myths, and all are factually false. The world is full, also, of great traditional books tracing the history of man (but focused narrowly on the local group) from the age of mythical beginnings, through periods of increasing plausibility, to a time almost within memory, when the chronicles begin to carry the record, with a show of rational factuality, to the present. Furthermore, just as all primitive mythologies serve to validate the customs, systems of sentiments, and political aims of their respective local groups, so do these great traditional books. On the surface they may appear to have been composed as conscientious history. In depth they reveal themselves to have been conceived as myths: poetic readings of the mystery of life from a certain interested point of view. But to read a poem as a chronicle of fact is -- to say the least -- to miss the point. To say a little more, it is to prove oneself a dolt.
-- Joseph Campbell

A naive observer from some other planet might more justifiably (since he would be dealing with history, not myths) be amazed that in the mass of works devoted to the French Revolution the same incidents are not always quoted or disregarded, and that the same incidents are presented in different lights by different authors. And yet these variants refer to the same country, the same period, and the same events, the reality of which is scattered throughout the the various levels of a complex structure. The criterion of validity is, therefore, not to be found among the elements of history. Each one, if separately pursued, would prove elusive. But some of them at least acquire a certain solidity through being integrated into a series, whose terms can be accorded some degree of credibility because of their over-all coherence.
-- Claude Levi-Strauss

In his last major book, "Moses and Monotheism," Sigmund Freud sought a psychoanalytical explanation for the origins of Judaism. In his view those origins were analogous to the neurotic process: "Early trauma -- defence -- latency -- outbreak of neurotic illness -- partial return of the repressed." Decades earlier, in 1913, in "Totem and Taboo," he had "supposed that the sense of guilt for an action has persisted for many thousands of years and has remained operative in generations which can have no knowledge of that action."

A younger psychoanalyst, Immanuel Velkovsky, vehemently disagreed with some of Freud's historical conjectures but, in "Worlds in Collision" and other works, essentially used Freud's methods to provide a different explanation for the origins of religion, positing a traumatic racial memory of past events which provoked a series of  group behaviors akin to the neurotic activities of individual humans. According to Velikovsky, Freud "centered his attention on the motif of father-murder (patricide), presenting it as though it had been a regular institution in ancient times. He makes it appear a general practice in the past and a subconscious urge in present-day man. However, regular institutions and practices in the life of the family would not give rise to myths.... Even less than daily tribal life do the daily occurrences in nature give rise to legends."

In the year before Freud had written on the phylogenetic inheritance of guilt Emile Durkheim had already anticipated Velikovsky's criticism. In his 1912 classic, "The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life," he was highly critical of any "naturistic" explanation for religion which  "addresses itself to the phenomenon of nature, either the great cosmic forces, such s winds, rivers, stars, or the sky, etc., or else objects of various sorts which cover the surface of the earth, such as plants, animals, rocks, etc." Presumably he would have included daily family life as well, since his chief criticism was the mundanity of the naturistic concept: "that which characterizes the life of nature is a regularity which approaches monotony. Every morning the sun mounts in the horizon, every evening it sets; every month the moon goes through the same cycle; the river flows in an uninterrupted manner in its bed; the same seasons periodically bring back the same sensations. To be sure, here and there an unexpected event sometimes happens: the sun is eclipsed, the moon is hidden behind clouds, the river overflows. But these momentary variations could only give birth to equally momentary impressions, the remembrance of which is gone after a little while; they could not serve as a basis for these stable and permanent systems of ideas and practices which constitute religions. Normally, the course of nature is uniform, and uniformity could never produce strong emotions."

In very similar language, using nearly identical examples, Velikovsky also rejected "unexpected events" of the usual sort as a sufficient explanation for religious beliefs. However, he remarked that, for example, the Biblical account of the great flood that "swept over the earth and covered hills and even mountains" has its  counterpart in many mythologies the world over: "We have a poor opinion of the mental abilities of our ancestors if we think that merely an extraordinary overflow of the Euphrates so impressed the nomads of the desert that they thought the entire world was flooded, and that the legend so born wandered from people to people.... The peoples of ancient times, who ... lacked modern protection against the elements of nature, and who lived in the insecurity of tropical storms and tornadoes or frost and snowstorms, must have been more accustomed to seasonal disturbances than we are, and would not have been impressed by the overflow of a river to such a degree as to carry their experience to all parts of the world as a story of a cosmic upheaval." 

However, what if "unexpected events" occurred that were of such magnitude that the sun did not mount in the morning or set in the evenng, that the lunar cycle was interrupted in an inexplicable manner, that the seasons were reversed? According to Velikovsky, it was events of that magnitude, all happening globally, which have impressed their nature into human affairs, human mythology, human psychology: "One of the most terrifying events in the past of mankind was the conflagration of the world, accompanied by awful apparitions in the sky, quaking of the earth, vomiting of lava by thousands of volcanoes, melting of the ground, boiling of the sea, submersion of continents, a primeval chaos bombarded by flying hot stones, the roaring of the cleft earth, and the loud hissing of tornadoes of cinders."

In his view, the reason that so many similar motifs recur in the folklore and mythology of so many diverse cultures is that "a great many ideas reflect real historical content." This was in sharp opposition to Durkheim, who was convinced that "religious thought does not come in contact with reality, except to cover it at once with a thick veil which conceals its real forms: this veil is the tissue of fabulous beliefs which mythology brought forth. Thus the believer, like the delirious man, lives in a world peopled with beings and things which have only a verbal existence."

In the late 1930s, in the initial stages of Vekikovsky's research, he consulted Franz Boas, another influential member of the Freud-Durkheim generation, about the implications of catastrophism. (Boas expressed his skepticism but graciously referred him to a sixteenth-century authority on pre-Columbian literature.) Only two years earlier, in his "General Anthropology," Boas had pointed out that the most important thing to rememnber was that "the one-sided emphasis laid upon the intimate relation between religion and mythology obscured the imaginative play that is involved in the formation of myths." Mythology is primarily a literary form employing the restriction, expansion, or transfer of meaning, which "is constantly at work shaping and reshaping the significance of word symbols.... It does not seem necessary to search in nature for prototypes ... of events that are exaggerations or distortions of what happens in everyday life." 

Boas went on to discuss the widespread similarities in mythological motifs: "While ... early investigators were inclined to see in these correspondences evidence of a psychic unity of mankind, and assumed that each one of the analogous stories had an independent origin wherever told, careful investigation ... has proved that in most cases the occurrence of similar tales is due to dissemination.... It is hardly conceivable that such a group of ... incidents should arise independently in regions far apart."

Armed with matrial gleaned from many sources from around the world, including the one Boas had referred him to, Velikovsky disputed the notion that muths could so easily be disseminated. "The migration of ideas may follow the migration of peoples, but how could unusual motifs of folklore reach isolated islands where the aborigines do not have any means of crossing the sea? Peoples still living in the stone age possess the same, often strange, motifs as the cultured nations. The particular character of some of the contnts of folklore makes it impossible to assume that it was only by mere chance that the same motifs were created in all corners of the world. If a phenomenon had been similarly described by many peoples, we might suspect that a tale, originating with one people, had spread around the world, and consequently there is no proof of the authenticity of the event related. But just because one and the same event is embodied in traditions that are very different indeed, its authenticity becomes highly probable."

The views of the four can be easily diagrammed:

NATURIST ORIGIN              Boas                                        Freud
ANTI-NATURIST ORIGIN   Durkheim                                Velikovsky
                                                LITERARY EXPRESSION    HISTORICAL EXPRESSION

The two anthropologists disagreed on the naturistic origins of religion but agreed that the mythological content of a religion is essentially literary or verbal in nature. The two psychoanalysts agreed that myths are expressions of genuine historical events but disagreed on the naturistic origins. Freud and Boas were content with a naturistic explanation, while Durkheim and Velikovsky doubted that nature, in the ordinary sense, could be capable of producing the profound emotions associated with religious experience.

Although Velikovsky was a specialist within the medical field (an ophthamologist), he was an interdisciplinary generalist in his most enduring works. He went to the united States in the summer of 1939 to research his refutation of Freud's approach to both history and religion. (On the basis of a 1912 article by Freud's close protege Karl Abraham, he had already tentatively identified the pharoah Akhnaton as the prototype of the Oedipus cycle, making it chronologically impossible for him to have been the instructor of Moses.) In search of "something of interest" to use to buttress his case, he found a piece in a 1923 British geographical journal that purported to show that the Dead Sea was not a million years old as supposed but only 4,000 to 50,000 years old (the wide discrepancy was due to whether one measured the amount of sodium or magnesium in the water). The later date would approximately correspond with the traditional date for Moses' exodus from Egypt.

Attempting to find an Egyptian reference to the Exodus, he came across a 1909 translation of a papyrus that recounted plagues that seemed remarkably similar to the Biblical account. The problem, however, was that the Egyptologists uniformly agreed that the papyrus was from a much earlier period in Egyptian history, making it useless for Velikovsky's purposes. The same account, however, concerned the Amu (Hyksos) conquest of Egypt. Velikovsky intuitively associated te "Amu" with the "Amalekites" who had fought against the Israelites on their departure from Egypt. On the basis of that link, Velikovsky began a massive reconstruction of ancient chronology that radically telescoped the course of history by as much as eight centuries in some cases.

Simultaneously, he found his second fundamental insight: that many Near Eastern historical events seemed to have been accompanied by similar catastrophic natural occurrences. Thus forced to broaden his theme globally, he searched for accounts of those same catastrophes in the Far Est and the Americas. It was this phase of his research that led him to Boas and, eventually, to "Worlds in Collision."

In this way, proceeding from psychoanalytical premises to obscure texts on geography and hieroglyphics. to classical and Biblical sources, to anthropological materials from remote places, he spent a decade in the library at Columbia University. He imaginatively evaluated the myths of diverse peoples, a multitude of artistic and architectural styles, archeological artifacts, philosophical discourses, songs, histories, and philologies. His researches led him to challenge the basic assumptions of astronomers, geologists, physicists, biologists, psychologists, historians, and other specialists.

As William Mullen has pointed out, although Velikovsky's work was interdisciplinary in its widest sense, his methodology was essentially historiographical. But, unlike most historiographers, his view was not narrowly focused on any local group, and he frequently read a poem as though it were a chronicle of fact. Although their methods, interests, and conclusions differed greatly, Velikovsky's approach resembled nothing so much as the bricoleur of Claude Levi-Strauss, as summarized by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Jane Monnig Atkinson: "By combining what was once separate, by saying the 'same thing' in a variety of symbolic forms, the bricoleur creates a context in which new meanings are realized, and the experienced world is re-ordered in terms of unique orientation or goal."

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