Creation myth and ancient astronomy: a search for the origins of meaning

By Peter Stewart

This essay gives an introduction to the book of the same title, which is as yet unpublished. The book documents a very early – perhaps as far back as 17,280 BC – realization of the ‘parting of time from eternity’ shown in the precession of the equinoxes and how this realization has reverberated since in human thought and gave rise to the search for immortality. Peter has a collegiate relationship with William Sullivan, who guided us on our trip to Peru and to Richard Heath, who will be our guide in ‘Enchanted Albion’. We hope that Peter will meet with us on our journey when we reach the Borders of Scotland and share with us some of his ideas. His work is a major contribution to our understanding of the themes first proposed in the seminal masterpiece Hamlet’s Mill by the historians of science Santillana and von Dechend. It is also of considerable importance for our understanding of the ‘web of meaning’, which has become a major theme of the researches of the DuVersity .

The Original Story

In the beginning of things there was a time when the sky was not very high up above the heads of men. It was no higher than the top of the tent in which men lived. Then it was easy for men to communi­cate with the celestial deities through the opening left in the top of the tent. But according to certain legends the gods were angered by the behaviour of men and sent a giant to lift the sky and raise it to its present height. From then on men found it necessary to have sorcerers to intercede between themselves and the celestial deities.

The story of how Heaven and Earth came to be divided, of how people were separated from their gods and set out on their journey through Time must be one of the most fundamental of all stories. This version is from the Samoyed Yuraks of the far north of Europe. In the West, we are perhaps likely to be more familiar with the version from classical Greece in which Chronos cuts apart his parents, Sky and Earth ( Ouranos and Gaia), putting an end to their primordial embrace. But these are only two of the multitude of ways of telling a story which is known in some form or other almost everywhere in the world. Some times it has the air of a folk-tale, as in the version from Africa which tells how the women, pounding grain with their pestles, banged against the bellies of the sky-god, angering him and causing him to raise him­ self above the earth. At other times it is cloaked in all the awesome mystery of the most ancient scriptures, as in the Hindu hymn to Varu na, the creator and guardian of the sacred law, who is said to have 'propped apart the two world-halves even though they are so vast. He has pushed away the dome of the sky to make it high and wide'.

To judge by both its variety and its universality, this is clearly a story that has had profound importance for tellers and listeners alike. The ideas it expresses seem to have played a major role in determining human attitudes for thousands of years. In the region of Central Ameri­ ca occupied by the Maya people, to this day an annual ceremony is re- enacted wherein the two priests and their wives, having set out the four foundation stones of the 'earth-sky', rise with great precision from their seats at the four corners; they are said to be ‘lifting the sky’.

When we realize that the description of the events that took place in Eden, when Adam and Eve were driven from the company of their God in Paradise, is itself a version of this story, then we can see that this is truly the story of the beginning of human thought as we know it now. The variety of forms in which it is told may be vast, but the significance is unvarying. The events it describes form the heart of every attempt to perceive meaning in the human situation. Whatever sense has been made of human experience turns out to be built upon the ground plan this story establishes. To ask how it came to be told is to ask how the human mind came to be the way it is.

The essence of the story is this; there was once, in the beginning, a world of timeless accord, characterised by a unique and harmonious relationship between Heaven and Earth, when Gods and men communed. Adversity of any kind - whether war, sickness or death - was unknown. As the result of some misdemeanour on the part of the people, which involved them in some way overstepping their mark, this harmonious relationship was disrupted and the perfect world came to an end. At this point, Time began, with all its consequences. Not only the people but the world itself was destined for decay, death and disaster.

The basic human response to the situation described in this sto­ry varies a good deal in emphasis, depending on cultural conditions. Generally, however, it has been to look forward to a time when this perfect world can be re-attained, whether that be at the end of an indi­ vidual life, or at the end of the life of the world itself. There have even been those who, with varying motives, have envisaged this perfect world being established right here on earth.

All of these responses can be summed up in what Mircea Eliade called 'the myth of re-integration ’ found, he says, 'almost every­where in the history of religion.... in an infinity of variations':

. . . fundamentally it is an expression of the thirst to abolish dualism, endless returnings and fragmentary existences. It existed at the most primitive stages, which indicates that man, from the time when he first realised his position in the universe, desired passionately, and tried to achieve concretely, a passing beyond his human status.

Stories do not tell themselves, however. There must have been a time, remote in human evolution as it might be, before which this story of separation and its consequences for human aspiration did not exist. It is told in so many differing ways, all leading to much the same result, that we can hardly accept it as literal history, even if we could accept as credible a literal occurrence of the events it describes. So we have to ask what kind of experience could have first caused man to 'realize his position in the universe' and to describe it in this way? The stories of Creation and separation have shaped the way we view the world and the sense we make of our experience of it. What kind of event can have been so shattering that its effects would echo through millennia, result­ ing in that universal thirst for reintegration which has been so powerful and enduring in its effect on the shaping of the human spirit?

In their book 'Maya Cosmology', Linda Schiel and David Frei del describe how, for present-day Maya:

. . . the very act of preparing a plot of land for growing food - the clearing and measuring out of rectilinear space - echoes Creation mythology thousands of years old. . .   the farmer repeats the acts of Cre­ation first enacted by First Father when he set up the first three stones of Creation to establish the cosmic centre. He marks the corners and sides of his field, just as First Father lifted up the sky and built a house with four sides and four corners. Maya field and house are ana­logs of these cosmic structures....the basic work of making the world liveable- building houses, planting fields- is the everyday experience of all Maya and it is the same work that the gods undertook at the be­ginning of everything ..... The famous Maya fascination with time is no more than a preoccupation with discerning and codifying the patterns that give time and space meaning.

            The first tellers of these stories clearly read whatever formative events inspired them as messages concerning the meaning of the world around them. In telling these experiences as stories for the first time, the human imagination began to construct a ground plan upon which all its future speculations might stand. They began, in fact, to make sense.

In the normal course of events, we read meaning into a message or experience by identifying 'isomorphisms' which the message shares with all or some part of the rest of the world that we already know. That is to say, we regard it as containing elements which can be seen as encoding, in the form of metaphors, elements of some previously un­ derstood message. 'Understanding a thing is to arrive at a metaphor for that thing by substituting something more familiar to us. And the feeling of familiarity is the feeling of understanding', says Julian Jaynes.

In searching for the 'meaning' of a poem, for instance, we try to decode the metaphor into language we are already familiar with. In the process, however, new connections are established which enrich our vocabulary of meaning. The message that 'the curfew tolls the knell of parting day’, once understood, will become one more element of mean­ ing to reverberate with all the others in the idea of 'evening', even if no bell rings. Without this web of metaphor, evening would be no more than a localised consequence of the earth's rotation. Once we have es­tablished this web, and allow ourselves to be exposed to its contents, then the idea of 'evening' is endlessly enrichable. It carries a meaning whose profundity is a consequence of the density of the web of meta­phor which we bring to it.

In this way poets create for us a world of meaning. By poets, I mean all those whose work involves exploring and elaborating the web of metaphor; the Greek word poesias actually means 'creation'. They do not, of course, create metaphor from thin air, though. They do so by recognizing similarities, by making connections between things which had previously seemed unconnected. From such connections, organiza­ tion emerges. Each new metaphor is thus an extension of the web which unites and orders experience.

When a new message, a new experience, lands on the web of meta­phor, it will cause what we can call 'resonances' within the fabric's structure. These resonances are the material of meaning. The quality of the resonance will determine the value of the meaning. I take the web itself to be what we more usually describe as the Spirit.

Resonance is the result of the degree of accord that exists be­tween an experience (the new message) and the underlying structure of the spirit. This accord we measure in degrees of 'profundity’. The great­er the accord between an experience and the underlying architecture of the web of meaning, the more profoundly it will resonate within the spirit.    

The web of metaphor which underlies our sense of meaning to­day can be shown to be fundamentally the same as that which was first expressed in the patterns of the myths of creation. Although it is infinitely enrichable, this web is woven on a primordial loom, whose warp and weft were laid down at the very beginning of the human quest for meaning. The ancient stories are a description of this process. The events which inspired them were the 'archetypal' signifiers, the first impressions made in the formless matter of understanding. These formative events became the original referents for all future 'similarities'. The stories which described them acted like a prism through which significance could be discerned, a matrix whose architecture has informed all subsequent understanding. They are in fact, maps of the structure of meaning.

Culturally separated histories have coloured this foundation in a multitude of ways across the world, emphasising some aspects, dimin­ ishing others, so that today it is difficult to identify the similarities and easy to exaggerate the differences. In increasingly secularised societies it is even difficult to acknowledge the existence of these underlying patterns, so remote have we become from their mythical embodiments. In­ stead, we choose to see our concepts and institutions as being the creations of our developing 'civilization'. We regard each separate field of endeavour as having its own determining principles, rather than rec­ ognising the original unifying principle of relationships.

For the myth-making societies, it was the process of identifying, or rather, creating relationships which lay at the heart of their organiza­tion of the world around and within them. They appear to have gloried in the extension of simple relationships of all kinds, weaving ever more elaborate textures into the web of their understanding. All things and experiences which in some way manifested a particular characteristic were joined together in a relationship of shared imagery and potency. Between a hood and a hut, to take a small but significant instance, an interplay of imagery could occur which derived from their shared 'hol lowness', but they also share a dome-like quality with rounded hills, or the body of a spider. All were equally intimately connected with the mantle of the world, the dome of the sky.

To help understand the processes whereby this kind of myth-guided world evolves, the anthropologist Levi-Strauss coined the term 'wild thought’ (la pensee sauvage). It offers us a wonderful image of creative intelligence free to roam across domains untamed by the rigid concepts of our logic, which insist on the unassailable division between either and or. Wild thought embraces instead the notion of both and and . It then goes seeking out inspiration on this premise. From what it gleans, startlingly different models of the perceived universe can be constructed. Levi-Straus explains how:

. . . mythical thought surpasses itself and contemplates, beyond im­ ages still clinging to concrete experience, a world of concepts defined no longer by reference to an external reality, but according to their own mutual affinities .

In remote areas of the world societies organized around such apparently exotic world-views still exist, or at least existed until quite recently. They are described in some detail in the reports of nineteenth and twentieth century anthropologists. These societies still tell mythi­ cal stories of their origins, stories which they place at the foundation of their lives, and upon which they organize their whole social structure. In these societies not only the mental systems, - ethical, economic, theological, political etc .- but also the social institutions, human relations and even the built environment conform to the models laid down in the myths. Differentiation between the various activities, their disciplines of thought and their intellectual constructs, does not exist, but are all somehow encapsulated in the formulations of myth.

In Africa it seems as if the whole of human life is contained within the mythical framework, as if the difference between the sacred and the profane no longer existed. Mythology provides man with mod­ els on which he must base his conduct, from the gesture of sowing seeds to the act of love, from house building to the touch of the fingers on the musical skin of the drum....for the whole of Black Africa we can affirm the primordial importance of the myth both as...the basis of a theory of symbolic knowledge and as the basis of social, political, even economic structures, which are nothing more nor less than exem­ plifications of mythical patterns.

This concept of myth as a vast and complex determinate structure for both social and spiritual life is one that we may find difficult to compre­ hend.

We are used to visiting the world of myth in the same way we visit a museum; around us are excerpted exhibits, plundered from their own worlds and displayed for our amazement as solemn reminders of the incomprehensible products of the human mind in a state of innocent ignorance. We may wonder at the extravagance and fertility of the in­ vention, marvel at the impressive achievements or smile at the uncouth nature of the more exotic tales, but the overriding impression is that here are the products of the childhood of understanding, things which we have put aside.

Even when we have been introduced to the works of the Jung ians, with their attempts to describe myths as the 'manifestations of the unconscious', or to those various theorists who understand myths as expressions of 'ecological lifestyles', it comes as something of a shock to discover this world of mythical complexity and organization. Clearly this is a product of minds far removed from their infancy. Within this complexity whole societies find their inspiration for intricate and so­phisticated models of social structure, models which have proved suffi­ciently sustainable to survive apparently little changed across thousands of years.

In Equatorial Colombia, for instance, Reichel Dohnatoff de­scribes how the six corners of the tribal territory of the Desana Indians are marked 'by six waterfalls, each a place where the head of one of the six original giant anacondas meets another's tail. Each of these snakes stands for one of the six rivers that frame the traditional homelands'. This hexagon of landmarks is the earthly equivalent of a 'giant hexagon of stars, centred on the belt of Orion'. The terrestrial hexagon is centred on the 'intersection between the Pira-Parana River and the earth's equa­tor. Here where the sky is said to cohabit with the earth, is the place where Sun Father erected his shadowless staff and fertilized the earth'. This spot is the whirlpool entrance to the womb of the earth, and from here the first people emerged at the beginning. Because of its impor­ tance as an organizing principle of thought, the hexagon metaphor re­appears in one aspect of Desana tradition after another. ‘All hexagonal shapes in nature have significance for them... even the shell of a particu­ lar land tortoise.’ Each cell in the shell's pattern of hexagons symbolizes a character in the creation myth or an organizational principle of socie ty - the family, for example, or marriage into another family. Desana rules for marriage exchange are visualised in terms of a hexagon.

Here are sky, earth, nature and myth united into one model of the universe, a model still actively inhabited by a tribe of equatorial In dians, but built of images as ancient as any we know of. We would make a major step forward if we were to describe these earliest ex pressions of understanding as 'prime' thought, rather then 'primitive'. We would then have in one word the notion of 'first', together with that of 'quality' but also with the sense of 'an indivisible quantity’. In Arandan Traditions: Songs of Central Australia , T. Strehlow writes of:

The vision of a mental construction more marvellous and intricate than anything on earth, a construction to make man's material achievements seem like so much dross.

To term this ‘prime thought’ would at least mean we would be better prepared to face the full impact of myth, which beneath the picture-book surface of the populist imagery, is seething with an abundance of concepts so complex and obscure that it threatens to sweep us away on a tide of incomprehensibility

Nor is this a characteristic only of those myths reported from remote and isolated contemporary societies. When we look more closely at the most ancient records, from Egypt, from Mesopotamia, from India and China, the myths of creation stand complete and almost incomprehensibly elaborate. All aspects of life seem to be embraced by their intricacy. Art, government, music, ritual, family relationships, ar­ chitecture, even writing and the alphabet, appear as part of this com­ pleteness. Even a preliminary reconnaissance of the material reveals that, whatever else they are, myths are much more than the product of minds in a benumbed sense of uncom-prehending fear before the forces of nature. They represent the products of highly developed intellects, revealing an immensely complex and profound awareness of that most fundamental of human endeavours, the art of organizing experience.

The ancient Hindu scriptures of the Rig Veda, considered amongst the earliest of sacred writings, reveal this complexity both in their language and in their structure. In her introduction to her transla­ tion, Wendy O'Flaherty discusses the formidable difficulties of making sense of such dense and paradoxical writings. One such difficulty, which she describes as a 'form of deliberate confusion', is the use of:

. . . mutually illuminating metaphors. Certain concerns recur throughout the Rig Veda.. . . the themes of harnessing and unharnessing, which shift in their positive or negative value (sometimes good, some­ times bad) . . . the closely related theme of finding open space and free­ dom in contrast to being hemmed in or trapped.   (T ) hese are linked to other constellations of images; conflict within the family; the precious- ness of animals; the wish for knowledge and immortality. The problem arises when one tries to determine which of these are in the foreground and which in the background of a particular hymn. Are the cows sym­bolic of the sun or is the sun a metaphor for cows? The careless or greedy exegete finds himself in danger of rampant Jungianism: every­thing is a symbol of everything else; each is a metaphor for all the oth­ ers . . . when asked to pinpoint the central point of a verse, he will (answer) 'all of the above'.

In addition to its immense linguistic and semantic complexity, the Rig Veda also reveals structural characteristics which are far from accidental. It is composed of 10800 verses, each of 40 syllables, mak­ ing a total of 432,000 syllables in all. This is no arbitrary number. The fire altar, assiduously dismantled and rebuilt each year for the agnicaya na ritual, contains 10800 bricks, each one representing an individual part of the created universe. There are 108 classical Upanishads, and the same number, together with its factors, reappears throughout Indo- European myth and temple architecture.

The Rig Veda is a concentrated expression of the immense web of relationships which the myth tellers created from their experience, from the messages they read in the world around them. It is this web of mutual affinities, this ever-increasing texture of organization, which generated the meaning upon which their society was constructed.

In weaving this web, the myth tellers were laying down the foundation for all the fundamental ideas about human spirituality and culture, from 'fertility cults' and ancestor worship to Plato's doctrine of essences and the unity of all existence, from original sin and salvation to the concept of law and order, from domestic architecture and family relationships to immortality and the eternal godhead.

Each of these ideas is linked to the others, not in any nebulous way but according to a fundamental set of principles, expressed in the myths of creation and organization. Our task is to reclaim these principles. However 'wild' the kind of thought which constructed them might appear, it was never undisciplined. The relationships it explored and celebrated all referred back to one primal model for their classification, and it was the architecture of this model that was laid out in the myths.

In searching for the origins of meaning, we are seeking this de termining architecture, the founding set of relationships, which acts as the structure of the web of meaning. Certain definitive experiences must underlie this web, forming its originating referents. These have shaped the way we view the world and the sense we make of our experience of it. They form the 'warp and weft ’ of the fabric of meaning, and they must date from the earliest history of the human mind in its present form.

Secret of Being

Around 30 years ago the experts were agreed that the prehistory of human culture had been fairly comprehensively mapped. There might be some controversies about dating to be resolved, but the basic plan had been firmly established. The rungs on the ladder of technological development were firmly in place up which humanity had slowly stepped. From those remote days of the early hominids in Africa, human consciousness had gradually emerged through the well-known levels of the 'Stone-Age’, from the pre-glacial Palaeolithic to the Meso lithic and on towards the flowering of writing and history itself in the early Neolithic. It was only with this latest stage that any kind of thought process evolved that could take consciousness beyond the 'primitive' stage of awe-inspired reaction to the uncontrollable forces of nature. It seemed there was little more but detailed infill to learn.

And then something very remarkable began to happen. A few dissenting voices of scholarship began to point to totally inexplicable evidence. Was it possible, the suggestion went, that perhaps there were things about which we really knew very little? Was what we did know based almost entirely on misunderstanding, and sometimes simply ig­ noring, such evidence? The mainstream of scholarship in prehistory and archaeology was aghast and refused to consider these develop­ments. To accept them might be to up end the whole structure that had been so laboriously constructed.

Put simply, the proposal which caused, and still causes, such controversy and indignation was that, from at least as far back as the end of the last ice age, one factor, hitherto almost totally ignored, had dominated the emergence of human culture. Above all else, we might say, our ancestors were obsessed with the study of the night sky.

Scholars of ancient history had long appreciated the formative role which 'astrology' had played in the flowering of Mesopotamian culture, but what was now being suggested went much further. Far from emerging out of the city states of Assyria and Babylon, this ob­session with astronomical events was shown to be almost universal.

It was the emergence of the new discipline of archaeo-astrono my which first introduced this heresy, surveying and measuring the as­ tronomical alignments identified as being built into megalithic sites. But few were prepared to say what motivated the immense labour that went into this obsessive observation? Why were these 'primitive' people so concerned to record the circlings of the stars?

An answer of a kind was actually beginning to emerge at around the same time in the form of a dramatic reinterpretation of the material of mythology. This material, both from ancient documents and from contemporary anthropology, began to be seen as adding a kind of 'text' to the ancient megalithic structures. These stories can be heard to talk insistently a stellar language. The story of the separation of Heaven and Earth is one such myth.

One of the first works to outline the grammar of this stellar language was a book called Hamlet's Mill, a ground-breaking work of scholarship first published in 1969.     

Breaking the Code

H ieroglyphs old

Which sages and keen eyed astrologers

Then living on earth, with labouring thought

Won from the gaze of many centuries:

Now lost, save what we find on remnants huge

Of stone, or marble swart, their importance gone

Their wisdom long since fled

(Keats; Hyperion Bk. 1, 274-283)

It was a state of bewilderment at the vast amount of unintelligible material facing her that first led the historian of science Hertha von Dechend to uncover its secret ('to call it being struck by lightning would be more correct' she says). She had been studying Polynesian myth in a search for understanding of the ' deus faber', the creator/craftsman god found in almost all cultures, but had come to the realisation that she really understood nothing of the thousands of pages of material she had read. The annihilating recognition of our complete ignorance came down on me like a sledgehammer; there was no single sentence that could be understood'. And yet the Polynesians were capa­ble of navigating their tiny craft across the world's greatest ocean; there seemed little reason not to take their intellect seriously. Von Dechend explains how, while studying the archaeological remains on the many small islands 'a clue was given to me which I duly followed up', (she had discovered that, of the two of these islands most densely covered with a particular kind of cult place or temple, one was located on the Tropic of Capricorn and the other on the Tropic of Cancer).

‘Having come to the history of science through the study of ethnology', she says, ‘there existed “in the beginning” only the firm decision never to become involved in astronomical matters, under any condition’.   There had been attempts in the past to explain how this order might have been derived from the observation of events in the night sky. The suggestion, not uncommon in the nineteenth century was that at least some, if not all, of the myths in some way encoded astronomical understanding. Much evidence was produced purporting to reveal the existence of this understanding and of the importance attached to it, but no really consistent theory was ever proposed to make such an interpretation convincing. Attempts to establish a relationship between myth and astronomy fell into disrepute and total neglect; the interpretation of myth in terms of Jungian psychology took centre field.

Although Von Dechend had felt that Plato might be a better source of insight into the essence of myth than psychology, and had ex­ perienced a 'growing wrath' about the current interpretations, yet she had 'least of all', the intention to explore the astronomical nature of myth. Until, that is, the revelation of the significance of the locations of those Polynesian islands. 'And then there was no salvation any more; astronomy could not be escaped'.

The culmination of Hertha von Dechend's inspired insight was the publication, together with fellow historian of science, Giorgio de Santillana, of their extraordinary work Hamlet's Mill. Santillana de­scribes this vast book as 'only an essay . . . a first reconnaissance of a realm well-nigh unexplored and uncharted'.

When I first read this 'essay' (in fact the book is nearly five hun­ dred pages, each of which is filled with intense scholarship), it was as if a window had been opened up across a vista which had once seemed familiar, and which now could never look the same again. Where once had been what seemed like an endless stretch of badlands there now appeared an immense and wonderfully intricate walled-city. Once there had been stories which seemed to make no acceptable sense except as fanciful parables and yet they seemed to be built into some of the most profound religious thinking. Now, from the vantage point of this newly opened window, it was possible to see a realm where these stories not only made sense but formed the most solid foundation, upon which later thinking had been constructed; and it was this later thinking, the constructs of philosophy and religion, which began to take on the air of parable.

Although the realm of which Hamlet's Mill is a 'reconnaissance' is vast and often impenetrable, the view we are offered across it origi­ nates in one quite simple idea, and one which is not new. Even Freud was aware that:

. . . man's (sic) observations of the great astronomical periodicities not only furnished him with a model, but formed the ground plan of his first attempts to introduce order into his life.

We have grown so used to the vague reddish glow of our urban night skies that it is sometimes difficult to reconstruct the overpower­ ing effect that a clear unpolluted starry heaven can have. At some early stage in the emergence of the idea of ordering experience (the begin­nings of self-consciousness), when the night sky was everywhere un­ polluted, one poet, or perhaps, many poets, saw the starry sky as an inspiration concerning the form of that ordering. These 'exceptional men' as Santillana calls them, unerringly read the vault of heaven as a message in which were encoded the laws of creation. Watching the progress of the heavenly lights night by night, year by year, they must have believed they were observing the pattern according to which their lives and those of all others, animate and inanimate, were governed; that they were watching the broadcast of the most majestic model pos­ sible of the workings of the universe. Here was the reason why our an­ cestors fixed their gaze so fervently on the heavens. ‘The secret of Being lay displayed before their eyes', says Santillana.

This secret turns out to be the ultimate source from which the entire fabric of meaning has been woven.

The idea, that from the very earliest times, the night sky was being read as a message concerning the laws of organization, becomes in Santilla­ na and von Dechend's book the basis for a total reappraisal, not only of the meaning of myth but of the whole idea of pre-literate history. This was possible as a consequence of two realisations. The first was that the 'astronomical periodicities', so often taken as being the obvious ones of day and night, winter and summer, should be expanded to in­ clude all periodicities discernable from the earth, including the most vast and most elusive ones. This was perhaps the most radical aspect of their work. To accept it meant to rewrite all the prehistory of under­ standing, since it implied that this knowledge was of far greater antiqui­ty than had been assumed.

The second realisation was more subtle and its consequences have barely begun to be grasped. It involved the identification of the fundamental clue to interpreting the material of myth. Essential to this was the recognition of the general tendency of myth to use everyday language to describe notions which are far from everyday. Whatever the original purpose of this kind of encodement, what Von Dechend and Santillana offered were the essential 'translations'. These everyday terms became understandable in their cosmological meanings. Thus we have more or less precise cosmological definitions for familiar words such as 'earth' or 'heaven', 'fire' and 'water'. With the help of these in­ sights, meaningless nonsense and fancy are transformed into profound statements about the order of the world.

It would be hard to overestimate the impact of these revelations on the task of understanding myth. Not only did it propose to revolu­tionize notions of pre-literate learning, but it gave us the necessary groundwork upon which to construct a complete reassessment of mythical material of all kinds. In essence, the ancient code by means of which knowledge of the processes of the heavens was metaphorically encrypted within myth has begun to be broken. We can start to trans­ late our familiar tales from myth into the language of ancient astrono­ my.

What emerges is an insight into the process whereby the Secret of Being was spun out into the fabric of meaning.

Transcendental Patterns

In his book 'Consciousness Explained' Daniel C Dennett de­ scribes what he call 'the function of brains'; their purpose, he says, is:

to produce future... to find the laws of the universe, and if there are none, to find approximate laws.

The ancient observers, driven by this primal urge, read the star­ry cycles as the ultimate source of such laws. They diligently watched the patterns of creation evolve before them. In accordance with these patterns, spinning the thread of metaphor, they began to weave the ex traordinary texture of meaning. In so doing they laid down the ground plan of that aspect of awareness which we now refer to as the Spirit.

The manner in which the Spirit discerns meaning might be compared to the way in which hearing discerns musical sound. Indeed, the Spirit could be described as the 'organ' of meaning. Just as hearing 'enjoys' music, so the spirit 'enjoys' meaning. For hearing, this enjoyment is a product of harmony; for the spirit, enjoyment is the product of 'res onance’. As the language in which harmony is composed is mathemat­ ics, from which the human hearing experiences music, so it turns out that the language in which 'resonance' is written is astronomy, and it is this language which is experienced by the human spirit as meaning

More precisely, it is not so much astronomy but the patterns which emerge from astronomical phenomena, just as mathematics is an expression of the patterns discernable amongst numbers. The mathe­ matical architecture which underlies the experience of harmony is that particular set of numerical patterns known as the 'harmonic series'. Cre­ ation Myth is a concise expression of what we might call the 'resonant series', the spiritual equivalent of music's harmonic series.

The degree of profundity of meaning which we attach to any experience is a measure of the accord between our experience and this 'resonant series'; the quality of resonance it produces within the spirit. When written in astronomical rather than mythological language, this resonant series is seen to be generated by that particular astronom­ ical pattern known as the precession of the equinoxes.

The justification for this contention is the subject of the rest of this book. The pattern itself is an obscure one and generally remote from our everyday lives. Few people could give a description of it today, unless they happen to be astronomers of course, in which case it is an undistinguished and minor characteristic of planetary behaviour, and of very little interest in the cosmic scheme of things. I hope to show that there was a time, in the truly distant past, when this was not at all the case.

There was a road suspended in the sky. This pathway . . . was in the nature of a large rope. By way of this rope, food was sent to the ancient rulers. For some reason this rope vanished for ever. This first epoch was separated from the second by a flood (Mayan myth)

There was once a path which stretched from the earth to the heavens, allowing access to the world above. This path was ultimately destroyed by human wrong-doing. (Bantu tribes of the south and east of Africa)

There was once a great oak tree whose branches touched the sky. This tree grew so big that it trapped the sun and moon and stars in its branches. It was chopped down by a mysterious tiny creature and fell across the sky, obscuring a whole portion of it but freeing the stars to continue their circlings. (Finnish myth)

So profound was the effect of the recognition of this phenomenon that it formed the basis of the structure which ancient observers built out of their insights into the operations of the universe. Thanks to the pio­ neering work of Santillana and Von Dechend it is now possible to draw up a working plan of this structure. Within the measures of this plan we can recognise the origins of our own most cherished ideas about mean­ ing.

To appreciate the profundity of such a structure is hardly likely to be simple. Our quest involves the exploration of the grandest cycles in the visible cosmos. It will require the attitude of the explorer, pre­ pared to venture boldly into unknown realms. For the most part we shall be travelling in country ‘well-nigh uncharted', and we shall have to write our own guide book. Even the few recognisable landmarks we shall encounter may turn out to point us in unfamiliar directions. As we travel further however, what seemed at the beginning to be the most obscure territory will become increasingly familiar.

There are in truth very few characters in the story, though they may come in many disguises and speak in uncouth tongues. Their ini­tially bewildering appearance and behaviour and the strangeness of the environments they inhabit will gradually take on the shape of a plot. The denouement of this plot is nothing less than revolutionary for our ideas about meaning.

From the kind of material which we normally take to have little or no relevance, to the world we live in, we shall piece together layer by layer a most extraordinary structure. This structure, which has formed the basic framework for the whole development of human understand­ ing, truly deserves Levi-Strauss' description, ‘The Architecture of the Spirit’.

See Pete’s website for a beautiful summary of the arguments in his book