Why should anyone care about the message of ancient myth? The most obvious reason,
perhaps, is that myth served the role of history, science, literature,
and entertainment for many centuries prior to the
appearance of advanced civilizations and the development of writing.
A study of ancient myth, consequently, will tell us a great deal about
the intellectual life of early man. If for no other reason, this should
ensure that modern scholars pay careful attention to the favorite myths
of our forbears.
There are many different approaches to the study of ancient
myth–naturist, Freudian, Jungian, structuralist, etc. No doubt each of
the various schools of thought has valid points to make. My own
approach to myth attempts to make sense of the ancient traditions
surrounding the various celestial bodies. It is well-known, in fact,
that the earliest religions of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica were
characterized by a preoccupation with celestial phenomena. Of the
latter culture, David Kelley has observed:
"It has been clear to all serious students of Mesoamerican culture
that there was an intimate relationship between astronomical knowledge, the
calendar, and religious beliefs and rituals."
Much the same point could be made with respect to all ancient cultures.
Wherever one looks, one finds the same fascination with the heavenly
bodies. Throughout the ancient world, for example, comets were looked
upon as objects of terror and ominous portent, their appearance said to
herald the downfall of kingdoms and the death of kings. The opinion
of Synesius, an author of the fourth century A. D., may be taken as
typical: "And whenever these comets appear, they are an evil portent,
which the diviners and soothsayers appease. They assuredly foretell
public disasters, enslavements of nations, desolations of cities, deaths
Eclipses, similarly, were thought to signal the imminent end of the
world, anxious skywatchers performing all sorts of bizarre rituals to
appease and banish the evil spirits responsible for the all-encompassing
How is it possible to understand such widespread beliefs? Modern
astronomers, accustomed to seeing comets and eclipses come and go
without catastrophic consequences–much less the end of the world!–quite
naturally approach these ancient beliefs with a measure of incredulity,
much as adults view a child’s belief in the bogeyman or Santa Claus.
Scholars of ancient myth, likewise, have typically understood such
beliefs as the expression of ancient man’s primitive mentality and
prescientific understanding of the cosmos. Yet such a view overlooks
the fact that similar beliefs were common well into the modern period–in
this century, in fact–and were shared by the scientific elite of most
ancient civilizations. Thus the possibility must be considered that the
problem in understanding is not with the ancients, rather with the
preconceptions of modern astronomers.
There have been scant few scholars who took seriously the ancient
reports of death-bringing comets and apocalyptic eclipses. Among the
few who did–Whiston, Vico, Radlof, Donnelly, Beaumont, and Kugler–it
was Immanuel Velikovsky who did the most to popularize (some would say
discredit forever) the notion that the ancient reports are worthy of
careful attention. In Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky set the stage
for a revolution in comparative mythology by suggesting that universally
recurring mythical images–such as the war-god, fire-breathing dragon,
and witch–reflect ancient man’s attempt to commemorate terrifying
cataclysms associated with planetary agents.
Nearly twenty years of research has convinced me that Velikovsky was on
the right track and that the modern astronomer’s refusal to acquaint
himself with the message of ancient myth will prove to be a most glaring
Velikovsky posed the following question: Why would ancient peoples on
both sides of the Atlantic describe the planet Venus in terms otherwise
appropriate for a comet–hair-star, serpent-star, bearded star, smoking
star, etc.–if its appearance had always remained the same? And why
would ancient peoples around the globe associate this planet with
destruction and ill omen if it had always behaved in its present
peaceful fashion? This anomaly is made all the more difficult to
understand given the fact that several of the cultures who preserved
such traditions–the Babylonians and the Maya, for example–were justly
renowned as careful observers of the celestial bodies in general and
obsessed with the movements of Venus in particular. Despite the fact
that nearly 50 years have elapsed since the publication of Worlds in
Collision, Velikovsky’s question has yet to receive a satisfactory
A key to the proper understanding of ancient archaeoastronomical
traditions is the comparative method. As long as one’s focus is
confined to this or that culture, it is always tempting to dismiss the
bizarre reports surrounding the respective celestial bodies as the
product of primitive understanding, creative imagination, projection
of religious practices, displacement, etc. Yet should the same bizarre
conceptions be discovered in a distant culture–much less in cultures
around the world–it stands to reason that the ancient reports begin to
take on a certain credibility and bear further investigation.
An analogous situation, perhaps, surrounded the raging controversy in
the nineteenth century over whether meteorites could fall to the earth
from the sky. Ancient reports from around the world told of such
meteoritic falls, yet astronomers of the past century dismissed them
together with eyewitness reports of contemporary scientists because
their worldview did not allow for the possibility that rocks might fall
to the earth from heaven. As modern astronomy was eventually forced to
accept the reality that meteorites did fall from heaven, so too, in our
opinion, will it be forced to come to grips with Venus’ cometary recent
history. For in the final analysis it will be found that the mythology
which came to surround comets had its origin in historical events
associated with the planet Venus. Venus and comets share the same
terminology and mythology for the simple reason that that planet once
presented a comet-like appearance while participating in spectacular
cataclysms witnessed around the world.
A survey of Venus’ role in ancient myth and archaeoastronomy reveals one
anomaly after another. Why was Venus described as the "Great Star"?
Why was the star of Venus superimposed upon the disc of the ancient
sun-god in ancient iconography? Why was the star of Venus placed
within the upturned cusps of a crescent? Why was Venus described as the
"Great Eye"? Why was Venus described as shining from the "midst" or
"heart" of heaven, a position it could never reach in today’s skies?
Why was Venus regarded as the "witch-star"? Why was Venus regarded as
the lover of Mars? Why was Venus regarded as the mother of Mars?
Equally baffling questions surround the planet Mars’ role in ancient
myth and archaeo-astronomy. Throughout the ancient world, the
of Mars was said to portend war, destruction, and pestilence. Why
would be the case if Mars had always moved as it does now, in a
perfectly regular, distant orbit, is not easy to understand.
Babylonian astronomical texts report that the red planet was regarded as
the "eclipse-agent" par excellence. Other cultures likewise associate
Mars with eclipses. Yet Mars’ current orbit never brings it into a
position whereby it could be viewed as eclipsing the sun.
The ancient reports surrounding Mars, like those surrounding Venus,
can be shown to have historical precedents. Once grasp the truth of this
statement, and the ancient reports suddenly take on an entirely new
perspective and significance. The dignity of our forebears is restored
in the process, as Hertha von Dechend was led to remark after a lifelong
investigation of myth as astronomical allegory. As ancient myth
informed the earliest efforts at understanding the movements of the
respective heavenly bodies, so too will it inform the astronomy of the
21st century which will doubtless be firmly grounded in the reality of
recent planetary catastrophism.