MTYHS AND THEIR MEANINGS
The articles in this section will examine the question of mythology and how it can be used to reconstruct some aspects of the earth's recent natural history as well as the earliest phases of human civilization.
Velikovsky's use of Mythology
In Worlds in Collision (1950) Velikovsky used myths from around the globe to reconstruct several acts in a cosmic drama which he argued had impacted the earth between the fifteenth and seventh centuries B.C. In the above volume he demonstrated how the gods worshipped by ancient peoples were identical to the cosmic bodies which constitute the solar system. This was not a constroversial position to take with regard to the sun and the moon - two bodies whom everyone agrees were regarded as deities by the ancients. Slightly more constroversial however was his claim that the planets, including Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, were actually one and the same as the gods whose names they share.
More controversial still however was his claim that at least two of these bodies - Venus and Mars - were directly responsible for a series of cataclysmic events on the earth which occurred between the fifteenth and seventh centuries B.C.
Velikovsky was not of course the first to argue that cataclysms on the earth had been caused by aberrant movements of the members of the solar system. Nor was he the first to argue that ancient myths were in large part a record of these events. The earliest explicit mention of such a view is found in Plato's Timaeus, where he has an Egyptian priest explaining the cosmogonic and catastrophic meaning of the Phaethon myth to Solon of Athens, a conversation that is said to have taken place sometime in the sixth century B.C. (In Greek legend Phaethon, the "Shining One", was said to have asked his father Helios for permission to drive the solar chariot across the firmament. Unable however to control the wild steeds which pulled the chariot, the solar disc came careering towards the earth, causing a vast conflagration which almost destroyed the world). In the words of the priest:
"There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story that even you [Greeks] have preserved, that once upon a time, Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father's chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals."
It is evident then that from antiquity there has been an understanding that much of mythology has a cosmogonic and usually catastrophic meaning, and such an interpretation is regularly encountered also in works of the medieval and early modern period. However, by the nineteenth century there appeared a mindset which increasingly challenged this interpretation and by the end of the nineteenth century anyone who attempted to present the traditional view was marginalised. Thus the works of Ignatius Donnelly, for example, who restated the traditional belief in his Ragnarok, the Age of Fire and Gravel and in Atlantis, the Antediluvian World, were viewed by the academic elite of the time as beyond the pale - although both volumes were best-sellers among the public at large.
Although the ancient authors, as well as more recent ones like Donnelly, regarded many myths as referring to past catastrophic events involving the planetary bodies, all of them placed the events in question in the distant past. Thus the priest who spoke to Solon placed the destruction of Atlantis (and presumably the Phaethon catastrophe) nine thousand years before his own time. And Donnelly, as well as other writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, concurred with this date. Velikovsky, by contrast, placed the Phaethon/Ragnarok cataclysm much more recently. Indeed, he was adamant that the last cosmic catastrophes, the ones recorded by mankind, all occurred either within the period of recorded history or directly preceding it by no great stretch of time.
This, I suggest, was Velikovsky's great and unique contribution. He realized that not only did such catastrophes occur within the historical period but that they directly shaped the cultures and societies of antiquity and were in a sense responsible for the rise and development of literate civilization itself.
Venus of the Flood
Mesopotamian tradition insists that immediately before the rise of literate civilization and the building of the first temples, the world was struck by a terrible flood; a devastating event which killed most of mankind and made the earth a wasteland. Religious and literary texts from Mesopotamia are unequivocal that this terrible catastrophe was brought to the world by the goddess Ishtar, the Sumerian Inanna. Take for example the following quote from the epic of Gilgamesh:
"All day long the south wind blew rapidly and the water overwhelmed the people like an attack.
No one could see his fellows. They could not recognize each other in the torrent.
The gods were frightened by the flood, and retreated up to the Anu heaven. They cowered like dogs lying by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth.
The Mistress of the gods wailed that the old days had turned to clay because 'I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods, ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people who fill the sea like fish.'
The other gods were weeping with her and sat sobbing with grief, their lips burning, parched with thirst.
The flood and wind lasted six days and six nights, flattening the land.
On the seventh day, the storm was pounding [intermittently?] like a woman in labor."
In literally thousands of Mesopotamian texts Ishtar is unequivocally identified with the planet Venus. How strange then, thought Velikovsky, that nations and cultures all over the globe should also identify Venus as the harbinger of a great catastrophe. This was the case, for example, throughout the Americas, where Venus, the Morning Star, was said to have caused a terrible flood and to whom propitiary sacrifices - including human sacrifices - were offered. Turning back to the mythology of the Old World Velikovsky noted that not just in Mesopotamia but throughout the ancient Near East as well as in Europe and Asia a goddess who could reasonably be identified with Venus was universally regarded as having wrought a terrible catastrophe upon the earth. In Egypt, for example, the goddess Hathor - like Ishtar, a horned cow-like deity - was said to have been ordered by Ra to exterminate the human race. Seeing the work of destruction almost completed, Ra repented his decision and tricked Hathor into ending the slaughter by covering the earth with a red-colored beer, which Hathor drank.
But how could Venus, which today pursues an entirely predictable and safe orbit round the sun, have been identified by the ancient peoples as the cause of the Flood? The answer seemed to be supplied by other legends which claimed that at one time Venus had a tail, or feathers, or that the planet 'smoked'. Could it be, thought Velikovsky, that Venus had at one time been a comet, or had the characteristics of a comet?
Such an idea initially seemed somewhat preposterous, yet further examination of ancient tradition seemed only to confirm it more and more. Classical legend specifically stated that Venus was the daughter of Jupiter, whilst one tradition from Greece suggested that ancient man had actually witnessed the birth of Venus, which apparently erupted out of Jupiter in a massive explosion. This was the story of the birth of Athena, who was said to have sprang fully armed from the head of her father Zeus (Jupiter) 'with a mighty roar.' That Athena was another name for Venus was cofirmed by many clues - not least by her close association with Neith of North Africa (an admitted Venus-deity) and with Ishtar of Mesopotamia. Like Ishtar/Hathor, Athena was a goddess of battle and destruction, and she had bovine characteristics; Homer describes her as the 'cow-eyed' goddess.
Could it be, Velikovsky thought, that Venus was a new planet - a planet whose birth from Jupiter human beings had actually observed in the middle of the second millennium B.C.? The idea seemed a bit too far-fetched to take seriously, though subsequent enquiries proved it to be well-founded.
Mars, the God of War
One of the most important deities of the ancient peoples was Mars. The latter god/planet was invariably associated with war and destruction. This is normally explained by the fact that the planet displays a slightly reddish (actually, orange) tint as seen from earth. But is this sufficient to explain the universal importance attached to this god by the ancient peoples? Velikovsky thought not. In the Iliad, a goddess addresses Ares thus: "Ares, Ares, thou bane of mortals, thou blood-stained stormer of walls." Why would a small and inconspicuous planet, which the majority of people could not even identify in the night sky, be described as a 'blood-stained stormer of walls'? And this opinion of Mars seems to have been shared by peoples all over the world. The Aztecs, for example, who certainly cannot have been influenced by the Greeks or Romans, described the god - whom they named Huitzilipochtli - in similar terms - and offered hecatombs of human victims to him.
As with Venus, Mars appeared among the ancient peoples in a variety of guises - being worshipped by different names even by the same culture. Thus among the Greeks he was known as Ares, but also appeared under a variety of other names, most important of which was Herakles (Latin Hercules). This was made explicit by the Roman author Varro who, on the authority of Greek writers, wrote: "Tertia est stella Martis, quam alii Hercules dixerunt." ('The third star is Mars, whom others call Hercules').
Heracles was the defining character of the Greek Age of Heroes, with the very word 'hero' being apparently derived from the first part of his name. Legends of Heracles' mighty deeds abounded throughout Greece and the Mediterranean world. He overthrew the walls of cities; he changed the courses of rivers; emptied lakes of their waters and created new ones; pushed Africa and Europe apart at the Straits of Gibraltar (the 'Pillars of Hercules'); slew dragons and other monsters; and at one point held the very skies on his shoulders. The Age of Heracles, which was placed just a few generations before the time of the Trojan War, was, it is clear, an age of major disturbances in the natural order. Even the skies and the constellations seem to have changed, and Heracles' Twelve Labors were clearly an allusion to some form of rearrangement of the months of the year and the zodiac.
Anyone reading Velikovsky or the articles on the homepage of this site will know that the Greek Age of Heroes cannot be placed before the ninth and eighth centuries B.C., and it was just at this time that Velikovsky placed his Age of Mars - a period in ancient history during which the god/planet Mars assumed supremacy amongst the early peoples and was worshipped universally. Almost all the heroic characters of the time shared some of Heracles' characteristics. This was the case, for example, with Perseus, Theseus, Oedipus, Jason, etc. Again and again we find the theme of a mysterious birth; of the child-hero's life being threatened; of his being cast into a river or the sea in a basket; of him discovering his divine origin; of him slaying dragons and other monstrous beasts, and of him ending human sacrifices.
This latter characteristic brings us to a central theme: Greek tradition tells us that in begetting Heracles, Zeus intended to raise up a hero who would save gods and men from destruction. As the archetypal hero, Heracles was above all a dragon-slayer. This is clear from his destruction of the serpent-headed hydra, as well as his alter-ego Perseus' destruction of the serpent-headed Gorgon. The Cosmic Serpent, or dragon-deity, appears in the myths of all ancient peoples, where it is invariably a threat to all of humanity; a threat that had to be appeased with human sacrifices. Several ancient authors were quite explicit in identifying the origin Cosmic Serpent as a comet - a comet that had brought terrible devastation to the world. As such, Velikovsky identified this deity with Venus, or the earlier Venus - Venus with its long tail of debris - the comet Venus.
From this, it became clear that the battle between the hero archetype Mars/Hercules and the Cosmic Serpent, was in fact some form of cataclysmic encounter between Mars and comet Venus which was observed by the ancient peoples. It was this very encounter, said Velikovsky, that robbed Venus of its tail (ie. the dragon was 'decapitated') and transformed a dangerous comet into a planet whose regular and circular solar orbit no longer posed a threat to the earth. Thus Zeus' plan of saving gods and men from destruction was accomplished.
Yet calm was not immediately restored: The encounter with Venus dislodged Mars from its accustomed solar orbit and sent it in the direction of the earth, causing further terrible upheavals. This was, in Velikovsky's scheme, the final act in the cosmic drama which had commenced with the birth of Venus from Jupiter several centuries earlier. Once again, earthquakes shook the planet, mountains rose to great heights overnight, and the ocean transgressed the boundaries of the land.
Mars, God of the Exodus
In Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky postulated that sometime in the fifteenth century B.C. the comet/proto-planet Venus swept through the inner Solar System, causing chaos on the earth and elsewhere. The nations of the earth observed the celestial drama in awe and horror, dreading any return of the 'cosmic serpent' or dragon, which Venus, with its massive tail of debris, appeared to be. Several centuries, he postulated, passed without major incident; though in the eighth century B.C. the dragon-serpent again approached our world. Before any major damage could be done however, the proto-planet encountered Mars, which was itself then dislodged from its accustomed solar orbit and rendered dangerous. In the ensuing decades, Velikovsky said, the newly unstable planet Mars came dangerously close to the earth on several occasions, causing widespread disruption and chaos.
Because Velikovsky accepted biblical chronology as it stands, he did not doubt that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt occurred in the fifteenth century B.C., where the Hebrew Bible places it. Because of this, he argued that the god/planet which caused the catastrophes associated with the Exodus, was Venus. In doing so, he had to ignore Mesopotamian and Egyptian myth and tradition which clearly identified Venus (Ishtar/Hathor) with the great Deluge which had occurred immediately prior to the rise of literate civilization. This is seen graphically in the stratigraphy of Ur (Lower Mesopotamia), where the flood event associated with Ishtar lies immediately below the first literate culture (Jamdat Nasr). Even Velikovsky accepted that the first civilization of Ur long predated the Exodus.
In actual fact, the Book of Exodus clearly identifies Mars as the predominant deity during the Exodus, and this is a remarkable fact completely overlooked by Velikovsky. (He overlooked it, of course, because biblical chronology is wrong: the Exodus did not occur in the fifteenth century B.C., as the Bible states, but in the ninth - in the Age of Mars).
There are clues throughout the Book of Exodus strongly identifying the catastrophic events of the time with the god and planet Mars, and in addition identifying Moses himself with his Graeco-Roman equivalents, Ares and Hercules.
The parallels between Moses and Ares/Hercules are numerous and precise; here are a few: The birth of both Hercules and Moses was mysterious; Hercules strangles two serpents sent to destroy him in his cradle, whilst the staff of Moses turns into a serpent which devours the two serpents conjured up by pharaoh's magicians. Moses 'pushes apart' the waters of the Red Sea, whilst Hercules pushes apart the rock pillars (Abila and Calpe) at the Strait of Gibralter. Moses is the enemy of the cow goddess Hathor (the 'Golden Calf'), whilst Hercules is the inveterate enemy of the mistress of the gods, Hera. Moses destroys the 'fiery serpents' sent to kill the Israelites, while Hercules slays the serpent-headed hydra. At the end of his life, Moses climbs a high mountain (Mount Nebo), where he meets his God. In the same way, at the end of his life, Hercules ascends Mount Oeta, where he meets his father Zeus.
Other characters and events from Moses' time or shortly thereafter are equally linked mythically to the Greek Age of Heroes, the Age of Hercules. So for example, the story of Phinehas, the nephew of Moses, is clearly cognate with that of Phineus, a contemporary of the heroes Jason and Perseus. Again, the Judge Samson displays obvious parallels with Hercules. And during the Exodus from Egypt, the Archangel Michael - the dragon-slaying hero par excellence - plays a pivotal role. It is Michael, for example, who places the protective Pillar of Fire between the pursuing Egyptians and the fleeing Israelites as they approach the Sea of Passage.
The Exodus then belongs mythically to the same epoch as Hercules and the Age of Heroes - the Age of Mars. Velikovsky placed this epoch in the eighth century B.C. and had it terminate in the early seventh century. For various reasons, however, it is clear that the catastrophe associated with the Exodus, as well as Labours of Hercules, occurred in the earlier part of the ninth century B.C., and as such it is there that the Exodus must be located.