Phaeton and the Desertification of the Sahara

Just a few thousand years ago the Sahara was a well-watered grassland and forest region, supporting all the wildlife typical of the African savannah - gazelles, giraffes, ostriches, elephants, rhinos, wildebeest, lions, etc. There was also a large human population, which lived by hunting many of the aforementioned beasts, using the spear, the javelin, and the bow. The evidence for this is twofold: On the one hand, archaeologists have discovered throughout the Sahara, in regions nowadays comprising parched and sand-covered wasteland, the roots of acacias, tamarisks and sycamores, remnants of ancient forests and woodlands. (See eg. K. W. Butzer, “Physical Conditions in Eastern Europe, Western Asia and Egypt before the Period of Agricultural and Urban Settlement,” in The Cambridge Ancient History Vol. 1 part 1 (3rd ed.), p. 67) On the other hand, archaeological investigation has revealed the tools and weapons of the region’s ancient inhabitants, together with etchings and paintings of the animals hunted by them on the walls of precipices and caves.

One question which has exercised the minds of historians of North Africa is that of chronology: When exactly did this dramatic and apparently rapid climate-change occur? Investigation of the tools and other artefacts left by the Sahara’s ancient inhabitants led investigators to a rather precise date. The Sahara, they found, must have become a desert sometime near the end of Egypt’s Early Dynastic Age. In the words of K. W. Butzer, “Between the First and Fourth Dynasties, the second and major faunal break, characterised by the disappearance of the rhinoceros, elephant, giraffe, and gerenuk gazelle in Egypt, culminated in the modern aridity.” (Ibid., p. 68) Since Egyptologists date the First Dynasty from circa 3200 BC and terminate the Third Dynasty around 2600 BC, they generally place the desertification of the Sahara sometime between 5,200 and 4,600 years ago. However, in my Ages in Alignment chronology the period between the start of the First and the end of the Third Egyptian Dynasty - in which period the climatic change occurred - is placed between roughly 1200 BC and 940 BC, therefore roughly 3,000 years ago.

The desertification of the Sahara was evidently part of a gigantic climatic shift which must have affected the entire planet in one way or another. A question frequently asked is: What could have occasioned such a massive and rapid transformation of the climate? Another question which springs to mind is this: If the transformation of the Sahara occurred at such a recent time, is it not likely that the human beings who witnessed it would have left some kind of tradition relating to it?  A number of ancient legends do in fact speak of dramatic climatic upheavals and one at least, the legend of Phaeton, relates the story of the Sahara’s creation. Phaeton, we are told, was the son of Helios the sun-god. Receiving permission one day from his father to drive the solar chariot across the sky, the youth found he could not control the wild steeds, who pulled the blazing solar disc towards the earth - which then burst into flame. One of the most vivid retellings comes in the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses 1, 750ff.

Then Phaethon saw the world on every side ablaze--heat more that he could bear. He breathed vapours that burned like furnace-blasts, and felt the chariot glow white-hot beneath his feet. Cinders and sparks past bearing shoot and swirl and scorching smoke surrounds him; in the murk, the midnight murk, he knows not where he is or goes; the horses whirl him where they will. The Aethiopes (Ethiopians) then turned black, so men believe, as heat summoned their blood too near the skin. Then was Libya's dusty desert [i.e. the Sahara] formed, all water scorched away. Then the sad Nymphae (Nymphs) bewailed their pools and springs; Boeotia mourned her Dirce lost, Argos Amymone, Ephyre Pirene; nor were Flumina (Rivers) [Potamoi] safe though fortune's favour made them broad and deep and their banks far apart; in middle stream from old Peneus rose the drifting steam, from Erymanthus Phegaicus too and swift Ismenos, and Caicus Teuthranius and the Tanais; Maeander playing on his winding way; tawny Lycormas, Xanthus doomed to burn at Troy a second time; Melas Mygdonius, that sable stream; the pride of Eurotas Taenarius. Eurphrates Babylonius burned, Phasis, Hister [Danube] and Ganges were on fire, Orontes burned and racing Thermodon; Alpheus boiled, fire scorched Spercheus' banks.

The story of Phaeton thus seems to describe a cosmic catastrophe involving a fiery heavenly body resembling the sun, giving the earth a near-miss. This certainly was the Egyptian interpretation of the story, as outlined by an Egyptian priest to Solon of Athens. Could the Phaeton event have been the disaster that turned the Sahara into a desert? And if so, where exactly should it be placed chronologically?

Egypt’s Early Dynastic Age commenced with, or rather was directly preceded by, some form of cosmic catastrophe. A wide variety of evidence proves this, and it is a topic I have covered in some detail in my Genesis of Israel and Egypt, as well as elsewhere. Was this then the catastrophe of Phaeton, the catastrophe which made a desert of the Sahara? This seems highly unlikely, given the fact that the Saharan region was almost certainly not arid during the time of the first three Egyptian dynasties and only became so after their termination. Also, the disaster which preceded the rise of the First Dynasty is more appropriately identified as that of the Celestial Tower - a mythical motif found world-wide and characterised by the activities of the god and planet Mercury/Thoth, whose caduceus, or wand, is clearly identical to the World Tower itself. If however the desertification of the Sahara commenced closer to the end of the Early Dynastic epoch, as the archaeological evidence seems to indicate, then we might consider placing it at the termination of the Third Dynasty, when there appears to have occurred a further major disruption in the natural order. In my Genesis of Israel and Egypt I have looked in detail at the evidence for this disruption, which is of manifold varieties. Strikingly, it would appear that some form of major pole-shift occurred at the time, as all monuments erected before the end of the Third Dynasty are aligned not the the present cardinal points, but to a position for the poles deviating substantially from their present ones. In the same place, I have examined a wide range of material which would suggest that the event known in the Bible as the Exodus occurred at this time; and it should be remarked here that Moses’ Burning Bush, as well as the Pillar of Fire which guided the children of Israel in their flight across the desert, all seem to recall the Phaeton legend. Stories from Mesopotamia and other parts of the world also recall this ancient and final cosmic catastrophe, an event which altered climates across the earth and led to major upheavals and migrations amongst the planet’s human populations.