Monday, 3 September 2012

Just how old are our myths?

Now it's a hard enough job, academically, trying to get people to believe that Medieval Celtic and Norse tales (such as The Mabinogion or the Eddas) contain any real traces of ancient myth and pagan religion, so what I'm about to talk about would be seen as doubly anathema, at least in academic circles - and that is posing the question of whether certain myths might have an origin not in the Iron Age, or even in the preceding Bronze Age (shall I keep going?), but in the, wait for it... Ice Age!

The sort of myths I'm talking about are those that can be shown to possibly contain an astronomical component, and therefore are potentially datable, given that the position of the stars shifts ever so slightly over time due to something called precession.  But what occurred to me today was that some myths which we presume to be about astronomical events in a certain era may themselves be adaptations of even older myths - recycled myths, in other words.

The two 'myths' I'm thinking about are an Egyptian ritual and an Irish legend, both of which we can date fairly precisely to around 2,500 BC. Now the Egyptian myth concerns the New Year rites signalled by the rising of Sirius which coincided with the flooding of the Nile and the subsequent return of fertility to the Nile valley. Sirius was imagined as Sopdet, a white cow with a star over its head, heralding the Nile flood. Now in this era, and this era alone (c. 2500 BC) the Nile flood coincided exactly with the re-appearance of Sirius in the sky at Midsummer, after an absence of 72 days (this is known as the 'heliacal' rising of the star - and explains why the process of mummifiction took 72 days). The rising of the star on the shores of the heavenly river, the Milky Way, seemed to mirror the flood happening on earth below.


Now in Irish myth the flooding of a river, this time the Boyne, is brought about, so the legend says, thanks to the actions of a goddess named Boann.  Boann's husband owns a magical well of knowledge, but Boann is barred from drinking from it - but as is the nature of these tales (and the female mind) curiosity proves too strong and she visits the well, but in drinking from it (after walking about it three times widdershins) the water boils up, tearing an eye from her head, and causing the waters to flood and form a river. Both her and her hound drown in the waters that thereafter bear her name  - Boyne (Boann). 

So how does this fit in with the Egyptian rite? We have a flood, yes, but what else? Okay - for a start Boann/Boyne comes from the Old Irish Bo-Finne, 'White Cow' but also the Milky Way was known as the ‘path of the white cow’ - ‘Bothar Bo Finne’ so we have an earthly and a heavenly river, as we do in the Egyptian myth, and a lady who is also a white cow in both. Coincidence? Hmm. Given that Boann is also drowned with her dog, and that Sirius is known as the Dog Star, it seems more than just plain chance.

Can we date the Irish myth? Not as easily. But we do know that beside the Boyne stands the megalithic passage-grave of Newgrange, said in myth to be the dwelling place of Boann. We can date the grave to 2500 BC, and what's more show that it is aligned to the rising of Sirius at this date, and even consider the possibility that the circular wall of quartz and chalk that surround it are mirroring the Milky way, which in this era lay encircling the horizon at a certain point every night.

(Boann - and her dog)

So far, so good... but given the dating of both myths/rites to 2500 BC why am i harping on about the Ice Age? Well - to start, first try to explain why we have identical myths (to my mind anyway) cropping up thousands of miles apart at the same date.  They're not precisely the same simply because the Boyne floods in the winter, due to rainfall, and the Nile in summer. But there is no evidence, not a jot, for any contact between Ireland and Egypt at this date (okay - let's forget the Irish myth that the Irish are descended from Scota, daughter of a Pharaoh...) - no archaeological contact, I should say.

Now given that both myths are similar we either have to argue for independent invention (which is possible) or that both must be descended from an ancestor.  But how old and where from? It would have to be from an era when the re-appearance of Sirius coincided with a flood (although it wouldn't necessarily have to be a heliacal appearance - after all, in 2500 BC Sirius rose heliacally in the summer, yet the Irish flood, if we are looking at a physical flood, was a late winter phenomenon). But I guess for the myth to be so strong and important that it took root in such differing locales as Egypt and Ireland it would have to have been something major about the re-appearance of the star and a connection to fertility and/or rebirth.

I'm not about to launch into possibilities of Mesopotamian floods or what have you - this is a blog, not an academic journal - so I'm just going to throw this idea out there... It's always seemed to be odd that a society like Egypt should seem to panic so when a star disappears for 72 days, especially when for all of their known history, it had never not risen again afterwards. It's the same with the primitive fear of the sun not  growing strong again after winter. I always wondered if our ancestors might have perhaps worried too much (I am being a bit facetious, btw). But all the same, Sirius really was bound to rise again, so the panic and jubilation always seemed a little extreme. I've researched many myths (especially Celtic) and we see the same joy at the rebirth of the star, of fertility - but again and again, especially in Hindu myth, it is associated with floods and 'the release of the waters.' But aren't floods generally destructive? And where were the waters being kept? And what has this to do with Sirius?

So here I go... imagine that tens of thousands of years BC mankind has populated Europe, and hunter-gatherer that he is he sees in the sky the great Hunter (Orion) and his dog (Sirius) and the bull (Taurus) and bear (er, Great Bear)... but the skies are changing... due to precession Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, begins to creep lower on the horizon until - shock! - it disappears. Now the re-appareance of Sirius I have argued elsewhere is linked to the seasonal myths of the disappearance of the fertility of the land over winter and its re-emergence in the spring. The fertility gods and goddesses of the ancient world, such as Persephone or Attis ape this seasonal pattern - disappear into the earth at winter to arise again, with the crops, in the spring.  But imagine if Sirius set one year - and never rose again? Imagine, too, if the land began to grow colder, game more scarce. Imagine if the Hunter, Orion, began to disappear, too - as the land became covered in sheets of ice?

This happened. Orion once disappeared from the night sky - went into the Underworld - descended into the earth. From northern Europe, up until around 11000 BC Orion could not be seen - and Sirius had long disappeared into the lands below.   

Now imagine the opposite - that around 11,000 -10,000 BC the nadir has been reached and Orion begins to climb out of the earth - around 8,000 BC Sirius would have made its re-appearance in the skies over Egypt - and in the previous 2,000 years the Glaciers that had covered much of Northern Europe began to melt... waters that had been 'imprisoned' were now being released - in great floods, that once more opened up the plains of Northern Europe and beyond to game, to new life - man returned to these climes. the valleys of the post-glacial world were more fertile and teeming with life than before; and as he spread north so did Orion rise more from the earth, and with him the shining star Sirius.

Might one imagine the fear returning each year when Sirius disappeared that she might never rise again, and the winter return, and the waters once more be locked in the ice? Might the celebration of the re-appearance of Sirius and the release of the waters in a flood have less to do with seasonal myths and more to do with a memory of some Ice Age trauma? 

All I'll say for now is that the first evidence for astronomical use of the Giza plateau occurs at precisely the same era that Sirius can once more be seen from this latitude. imagine if from before the end of the Ice Age mankind had remembered myths about the bright star in the south. Now imagine when after hundreds of generations it appears once more in the sky... might it have inspired some great cultural leaps?  Might this explain why it is 'coincidentally' the first sighting of Sirius in the night sky above Orkney around 4,000 BC that coincides with the development of the henge and the stone circle tradition that is carried throughout megalithic Britain from this unlikely spot - almost as if the arrival of the star in the far north of Britain is some pivotal moment (like the arrival of the Olympic torch, but one that had journeyed for millennia).

One only has to think of the Norse creation myth where the primal giant, Ymir, is created from ice, to wonder if such myths do have a very ancient date. It seems plausible, if unprovable, to imagine a time when the flood-waters from the retreating ice were heralded by the re-appearance of Sirius in the sky, a star out of legend, long lost in the underworld - and that this trauma of loss and the joy of rebirth were remembered for generation upon generation, who handed them down, fashioning them to their own ends, where they provided a blue-print for seasonal myths.  Conjecture, I know, but I'd like to imagine that in celebrating the rising of Sirius and the flooding of the Nile, or the ever-so slight and unconnected calendrically to Sirius in any-form-whatsover flooding of the Boyne, we see echoes of a myth from the end of the Ice Age. It would answer why a flood myth, and the later Grail myths that are to do with releasing water, make up stock Celtic legends, when you would imagine the last thing you want to do in this climate is celebrate the coming of more water!  And it means we don't have to look to Mesopotamian or Egyptian cultures to explain why we have such myths at all - such cultures are the heir to a myth, not its progenitors.   

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    Good stuff - but Sirius and the winter solstice sun rise at different azimuths in 2500BC (Sirius ~4.5° to the left of the sun's rising azimuth).

    In 3200BC they do share their rising azimuths though - which I believe is accepted as Newgrange's date.

    This is interesting to me because I'd not previously noticed this coincidence of azimuths, and I've often wondered what was special about the years 3300-3100BC that seems to make this period a fixed point of cultural change across several widely separate ancient societies.

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