Our objective is to study historical information regarding the structure, workings and origins of nature, with special emphasis on transient events. As scientists now recogniseplasma as the dominant state of matter in the universe, the subject is conveniently referred to as plasma mythology. This eye-catching term serves to distinguish the present approach from more traditional schools of ‘nature mythology’, that did not acknowledge the significant role of transient events in human traditions.
The plasma universe
Space is not a vacuum punctuated by isolated bodies on perpetually stable courses, as defined by the law of gravity. Since the beginning of the Space Age, it has gradually been discovered that space consists for 99.99% of plasma and is threaded with electric filaments and magnetic fields spanning over many orders of magnitude. This new paradigm is known as plasma cosmology and was pioneered by the Swedish scientist, Hannes Alfvén (1908-1995). Plasma is a partially ionised gas regarded as the ‘fourth state of matter’, that responds with great sensitivity to changes in its magnetic fields and becomes visible to the human eye when it is pervaded by a sufficiently strong electrical current.
The solid rock, the oceans and the lower regions of the earth’s atmosphere belong to the minute segment of the cosmos that is not in the plasma state. Yet the earth itself is bathed in an electromagnetic environment. This consists of the magnetic shell that shields the planet from the enveloping solar wind and other external features impinging on it, such as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and, far less frequently, cometary intruders into the inner solar system. In addition, plasma penetrates and controls a range of terrestrial phenomena, such as the aurorae, lightning, fire, tornadoes and lava flows.
The term ‘historical information’ is a broad denominator including a great diversity of materials. ‘Traditional information‘ refers to any ideas or practices that were passed on collectively within one or more societies, often imbued with a sense of sacrality and veridicality. Myths and legends, rituals, religious and metaphysical notions, artefacts and iconography (such as petroglyphs, geoglyphs, designs on pottery and religious statuary), costume, architecture, ranging from stone circles and pyramids to stūpas and cathedrals, and ‘proto-scientific’ cosmologies and histories are replete with references to the natural world and its past. A second repository of data consists of historical records concerning observations of the sky, the atmosphere or the landscape, or historical events.
As far as the celestial aspect of nature is concerned, such historical sources have been the subject of disciplines variously labelled archaeoastronomy, cultural astronomy, the history of astronomy and the history of ideas or of religion, depending on geographical and chronological scope.
The study of historical information about the natural world is useful in a variety of ways. It is of interest in its own right, facilitating our understanding of past cultures and their outlook on the world. This is especially felt in cases where recent discoveries concerning the plasma universe shed fresh light on historical data that had previously been inscrutable. On a deeper level, a study of historical information about the natural world also helps to clarify the nature and origin of religion as a whole. Conversely, historical sources have much to contribute to modern science, as they can complement the scientific reconstruction of the past, specifically the recent history of planet Earth.
|rayed curtain, aurora borealis
(© Historic NWS Collection, NOAA Photo Library)
|the zodiacal light
(© Dominic Cantin)
(© Jo Seong Hee)
(© Ben-Zin 2002)
|corona, aurora borealis
A new theory of myth
Beginning with some of the classical philosophers, scholars have pondered the nature and origin of mythology for centuries. Yet while respectable disciplines such as geology, astronomy, physics, biology, archaeology and linguistics gradually matured, the subject of mythology continued to lack a consensus core of method and direction. Employing structural, historical and comparative methods of reconstruction akin to those applied in linguistics and evolutionary biology, it is possible to establish a theoretical foundation for ‘plasma mythology’ as a new direction in the discipline of comparative mythology.
Within the history of ideas, ‘plasma mythology’, with its emphasis on transient natural phenomena, can be seen as a modern successor to the ‘introspective’ and structuralistpsychosociological models preferred during most of the 20th century, that were championed by thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Émile Durkheim, Georges Dumézil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. The exploitation of cutting-edge scientific knowledge of geological, atmospheric and astronomical events as potentially the ultimate inspiration for numerous mythical themes can be regarded as a modern continuation of the old ‘nature school’ of mythology, which – beginning in the late 19thcentury and eventually supplanted by the ‘psychosociological’ theories – sought to invoke the behaviour of the sun, the moon, vegetal life, and so forth as the inspirational source of prominent mythical themes. Yet unlike the old school, the modern interdisciplinary approach –
|•||places far less emphasis on elaborate metaphors and the linguistic aspect of the names of mythical characters;|
|•||concentrates on short-lived, dramatic events instead of less ‘awe-inspiring’ spectacles such as the sunrise or the lunar cycle;|
|•||and benefits from the immensely improved state of geophysics, plasma physics, climatology, and related scientific disciplines.|
The impact of cutting-edge science on the humanities is most palpable in the field of astronomy. Before the Space Age, scientists still described the solar system as a relatively uneventful ‘vacuum’, in which only planets, asteroids and the occasional comet moved on fixed courses with Aristotelian or Ptolemaic precision. As a consequence, scholars in the humanities investigating the reflections of astronomical concepts in ancient traditions were very much restricted to this straightjacket. The modern understanding of the solar system as a highly complex web of combined gravitational and electromagnetic forces, in which the solar wind interacts with interplanetary space and planetary magnetospheres, injects a new lease of life into the obsolete pre-1950 understanding of the solar system, allowing theorists to account for a much greater variety of traditional observations at a higher level of intellectual satisfaction.
Earlier theories incorporated
The ‘plasma-physical’ approach to historical information about nature, notably creation mythology, does not simply deny or ignore older mythological theories such as those espoused by Edward Tylor, Sir James Frazer, Émile Durkheim, Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade,Georges Dumézil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Instead, while acknowledging their value, it places them in a different perspective, provided by a comprehensive, overarching framework:
|•||The naturalists’ contention that many mythical and other traditions describefamiliar natural phenomena (symbolic from a modern point of view, often meant literally in traditional societies) is often correct, insofar as the comparison of gods and ancestors to the sun, the moon, the rainbow or a certain plant or animal can be seen as an adaptation of earlier narrative material to the present, ‘tranquil’ condition of the natural world.|
|•||Durkheim’s and Dumézil’s assertion that many myths reflect aspects of human society are on target, although they were not inspired by those aspects, but acted as models for them.|
|•||Jung’s archetypes and Lévi-Strauss’ binary structure of the mind exist and operatein the mind as suggested, but were also the imprint rather than the origin of the myths.|
The synthesis that arises recognises that mythology and religion are parts of a single system; that the ideational input of this system is primarily derived from experiential or observational evidence, which subsequently informs and shapes the psychological, sociological and artistic dimensions of the tradition; and that this raw content is predominantly supplied by external or natural observations on one hand and internal or psychological experiences on the other. Typically, sensory experiences concerning theexternal world of the sky, the atmosphere or the landscape informed the mythology of origins or creation and the wider cosmological setting of a belief system. That framework is then modified, coloured and endowed with an ethical or moral dimension by the internalexperiences of individual human beings, as in visions obtained by holy men, Near-Death Experiences, and so forth.
In an on-going project, we develop a methodology to distinguish between traditions based on external, physical phenomena and on internal, psychological phenomena. Global motifs embedded in the cycle of creation myths tend to originate in collective experiences of the physical world. More isolated motifs, motifs concerning human souls and ancestors instead of deities, and motifs that continue to be experienced by individuals today likely betray a psychological source. The celestial provenance of the original contents of many creation myths may account for the remarkable uniformity of human tradition. Plasma certainly plays a defining role in the physical half of the equation and may well prove to do so, too, in the psychological half.
Unlike many previous theories of myth, the interdisciplinary connection with plasma science adds the invaluable benefit of testability: controlled laboratory experiments are capable of testing the theory by replicating the structures presented in myth and traditional art. Another test might consist in a comparison of the geographic distribution of specific mythical motifs to the way a hypothetical prototype in the sky would have appeared to terrestrial stargazers, allowing for latitude, longitude and altitude, local climates, the orbital motion of the earth and other objects possibly involved. This line of investigation might be referred to as mythogeography.