Saturday, November 20, 2010

Anthropology Of Religion

Anthropology Of Religion Image
*Creation myths from all corners of the world describe the
involvement of people with the events of creation, as if
human ancestors had actually witnessed the formation of the

One of the long-standing puzzles of mythology concerns the
role of people in ancient traditions. Philosophers within
the literalist Judeo-Christian tradition have long scratched
their heads over the question how the author of the creation
story contained in Genesis 1, reputedly Moses, could have
known about the things that had transpired before the
formation of Adam on the sixth day. But a similar dilemma is
posed by the creation accounts of illiterate societies
around the world.

The drawing shown above was made in 1869 by Paiore, a man
from the Paumotu group of islands in Tuamotu, Polynesia, to
illustrate the ancestors' role in the lifting up of the
layered heavens at the time of creation. The Toba Batak
people, of Sumatra, describe the condition of the world
prior to creation as if people somehow already existed to
witness this state of chaos: "In the very beginning, in
by-gone times, when the middleworld in which we live did not
yet exist, there was only the sea; there was one sea and
there was a thick darkness, (so dense that) people could not
see their hands before their faces."

The Navaho, of Arizona, relate how the first 'people'
declared that "We must have light" to bring an end to this
perpetual night. "The first three worlds were neither good
nor healthful. They moved all the time and made the people

And speaking of the distant time when "The whole world was
" and "There was just light", long before the "separation
between Sky and Earth
", the Makiritare, of Venezuela,
observe that "the people were always happy. They had life.
They couldn't die."

'Ancestors' play a prominent role in creation myths
worldwide, closely interacting with the gods in a distant
epoch Eliade called illud tempus or 'that time'. But does
this really mean that creation myths contain genuine
information about the prehistoric activities of mankind?
Just who are these 'people' who ostensibly lived even before
the 'gods' undertook the work of creation?

The question has traditionally been treated as a
chronological problem, to the effect that human beings
according to myths worldwide have existed as long as the
world itself. To take that seriously would mean either that
humans are really billions of years old or that the world is
really just a few thousand years old - two alternatives that
are equally absurd and unscientific. On a catastrophist
paradigm, the conundrum can be resolved far more easily. Two
complementary and often overlapping solutions present

First, if the mythical set of events collectively known as
'creation stories' is not really about the absolute physical
origins of the universe, the earth and life on earth, but
about the latest in a series of catastrophic episodes in the
recent history of the planet, accompanied by major
instabilities in the geomagnetic field, it becomes only
natural that ancient descriptions of these turbulent events
read like eye-witness accounts. If the acts of creation were
really cosmic occurrences happening during the Holocene, the
prehistoric races of mankind would have observed what
transpired. Interpreting these drastically transformative
events as the creation of a new earth and a new sky -
perhaps in a historical succession of such events - the
paradox of people seeing how the gods made the world,
including mankind itself, would present itself inevitably.

And second, the 'people' that were apparently engaged in
supernatural activities, such as an ascent to the sky by
means of the axis mundi, need not really have been human
beings of flesh and blood. Euhemerism is an early school of
mythology that held that the protagonists of the ancient
myths - the gods and certainly the 'ancestors' - were really
human beings whose deeds had been exaggerated.

Yet in a way, it would be nave to interpret such
'ancestors' literally as members of the species Homo
sapiens, tantamount to explaining the cosmological role of
the feathered serpent or the ouroboros in reptilian terms.
This impression is easily dismantled from the
anthropological perspective of 'totemism'.

Traditional societies almost without exception identified
and worshipped their legendary 'ancestors' not only in the
form of human beings, but of animals, plants and countless
other aspects of nature, based on a fundamental belief that
humans are really animals and vice versa. Thus, a wallaby
clan in indigenous Australia would regard themselves as
wallabies, sprung from a wallaby ancestor, and so on.
Against this background, traditions about 'ancestors' and
'early people' need not necessarily refer to real people
after all.

The 'people' populating the mythical world at the time of
creation are characterised by two key features: They are as
easily situated on the surface of the earth as in the sky,
moving up and down along the axis mundi and in close rapport
with the gods. And they are often interchangeable with the
'stars', being described as the 'stars' at the time they
still lived on earth or, conversely, as 'people' before they
turned into stars.

The universal obsession with myths of catasterism springs
from the archaic idea that the stars are 'sky people'
opposed to us 'earth people', who had to die and 'go to
' to reach that state. Making the shortest shrift of
Von Dniken-like scenarios involving 'aliens' coming down
from space, this analysis offers the promising insight that
the 'people' of creation were actually luminous forms seen
in the sky.

It has been proposed that the axis mundi, along with other
archetypal features of the mythical landscape, was a
semi-permanent formation of glowing plasma seen in the
earth's atmosphere and ionosphere at a time that the
geomagnetic field suffered from severe instabilities. The
'people' observed in and around the world axis - who are
also described as 'seeds', 'ancestors', 'animals', 'stars'
and so on - will have been little sparks of glowing plasma
that were emitted by the central column like meteors issued
in meteor showers.

Both in the laboratory and in space, plasma has been known
to behave in a surprisingly life-like way, as if imbued with
a will of its own. The surprisingly life-like properties of
these little blobs of star-like lights will have contributed
to their incorporation into human memories as the first
'people' doing divine deeds in the era of creation. With the
progression of time, the actual ancestors, who were the
anonymous earth-bound eyewitnesses to the plasma spectacles,
will have been confounded with these more proactive and
rather less 'ordinary' celestial ancestors.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

You also may enjoy these free books:

Robert Ellwood - The Encyclopedia Of World Religions
Reformed Druids - Anthology 00 Introduction
Reformed Druids - Anthology 07 Miscellany

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