In my recent post about the Lost God of Peace, I discussed the linguistic origins and evidence of the Canaanite god, and briefly mentioned some of the others in the pantheon and their linguistic remnants in the Semitic languages. But there was one small deity in that pantheon that I may have overlooked (or intentionally passed over) whom you may recognize. Did you find him? He’s way down there almost at the bottom. Yup that’s him!
That’s right, Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God worshipped by nearly 55% of the world’s population, once sat alongside Shalim as one of the minor gods of the Canaanites. While this is hardly news to any diligent theologian, it may come as a bit of a shock to casual believers. So how did this marginal, seemingly insignificant deity come to overtake his brother’s temple, marry his father’s wife, and completely redefine religion as the world knew it by becoming the one true god of monotheism? Once again, a linguistic analysis may be able to help us explain this.
Take another look at the gods of the Canaanite pantheon. Notice that almost all of them have a dominion that they ruled or oversaw, whether it be Yaw, the god of the seas and rivers; Ishat, the god of fire; or our guy Shalim, the god of the dawn. In determining the origins of the names of gods in polytheism, you often run into the chicken vs. egg problem. For example, it may never be known whether Shalim took his name from the Canaanite word for ‘dawn’ or vice versa. It can pretty safely be assumed that at one point the language was so primitive that the two probably shared a name, and possibly an identity. Keep in mind that in the same way that monotheism arose from monolatrism which in turn arose from polytheism, polytheism probably arose from an amalgam of animism and ancestor worship. Euhmerus theorized that all of the gods of Greece were named after distant ancestors who became deified over the generations, but he may have overlooked the fact that animism was an equally influential early religion, and many names of gods are derived from the common terms for natural objects. But what about Yahweh? It seems he was unique in this sense, as he does not have a natural phenomenon or an aspect of society that he supervises. A little digging gives us evidence that he may have derived his name from a location or cultural name of his followers. Probably the earliest mention of his name is in the Egyptian accounts of the ‘Shasu of Yhw,’ a nomadic tribe of people living around Egypt during the time of Amenhotep III (coincidentally the father of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to convert Egypt to monotheism… hmmmm….). Since the other shasu mentioned in the accounts are followed by location names, it’s safe to assume that this instance of ‘yhw’ referred to a location as well. Since these people were nomadic, we can hypothesize that they may have traveled south to Canaan and assimilated into the culture there, thus lending the god of their homeland to the Canaanite pantheon. From there, this fringe group of pseudo-Canaanites, who seemed rigorously intent on maintaining their cultural identity through their god, were either pushed north by outside forces, or were led there on the promise of finding a land of their own, as the Bible states.
Enter Moses, the founder of Yahwehism. Now I know what you’re thinking, ‘But Logan, didn’t Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all come before Moses?” Or maybe you weren’t thinking that at all, but anyway. Yes, these patriarchs of Genesis were the leaders of the Israelites before Moses. But notice the name for Israel. It has that pesky little -el suffix we discussed in the last post. Also the Hebrew name used for God throughout Genesis is Elohim, another derivation of El, the Canaanite’s father god. Clearly the author of Genesis meant for us to infer that during this time, the Israelites were still a sect of Canaanites. But when Moses fled Egypt, according to Exodus, he lived with the Midianites, which the Bible tells us were also a sect of Canaanites or ‘Kenites.’ It is also possible that the Midianites were the ‘Shasu of Yhw’ mentioned in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Either way, it would appear that the author of Exodus wanted his readers to make that connection, because it is while Moses is among them that he receives his most important message from YHWH.
When Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he asks God his name, and God replies, “I am that I am.” In Hebrew this is three words: ‘Eyeh Asher Eyeh‘- eyeh being the singular present (and future) tense of the verb ‘to be,’ and asher being a general pronoun which can mean that, which, who, where, or even because. This simple phrase holds a vast amount of meaning, and is still regarded as one of the most important phrases in the Bible. Medieval Jews listed it as one of the names of God that held special significance. The author of Exodus, in an almost Shakespearean play on words, not only makes reference to the ‘yhw’ of the Midianites and the YHWH that his readers currently worshiped, but also states with power and clarity the meaning of Yahweh’s name. The phrase is most commonly translated into English as “I am that I am,” but it could also mean “I will be what I will be” or “I will be because I will be,” which implies his promise to prove to the Israelites that he is their god. But the most interesting possibility to me, is the translation “I am because I am” or “I am that which is,” implying that the author is intentionally separating the name YHWH from its cultural and geographic roots, and giving it new meaning which could be equated simply to ‘being’ or ‘existence.’ This perception of the name of God could have influenced Yahwism’s development from a monolatristic religion into a monotheistic one, since monotheism implies that God is all things and the cause of all things. God is found in every aspect of the universe and ourselves, and thus could easily be defined as existence itself.
While we may never know which of these meanings was actually implied by the author, since the language itself yields all of the meanings, it seems possible, even probable, that the author meant to imply all of them. This simple phrase would lay the foundation for one of the most important religious movements in history, and is still seen today as declaration of the nature of God and existence itself. It nullifies the debate of the existence of God by stating the God and existence are one in the same. No matter your religion, any person can see the divine nature of existence itself and the value of worshiping your existence and the existence of all things. That’s my bit. Shalim, and have a good day!
At a hangout sesh, late in my high school career, someone left the get-together with the common colloquial valediction, “Peace.” A friend of mine, in his sage inebriated insight, took notice of this and made the observation, “Isn’t it cool that we use the word ‘peace’ to say good-bye now?” What followed was another in a long line pointless speculative discussions that took place that night, this one about the origins of this cultural phenomenon. Maybe the only actually interesting point that someone made was that the Hebrew greeting/valediction combo ‘shalom’ is translated as meaning ‘peace.’
For some reason this tidbit of trivia stuck in my mind, and I began to notice variations of this word in other languages. The Arabic word for peace is ‘salaam,’ and is also used in greetings, such as ‘As-salam alaykum’ meaning ‘Peace be upon you,’ a universal greeting for Muslims, which also seems be a variation of the word. The commonality of the word and its synonymy with peace led me to do a bit of research, which turned up the Proto-Semitic triconsonantal root S-L-M. To explain what this means, Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, etc.) are based on consonants. The Arabic and Hebrew alphabets contain only consonants, with vowels denoted by dots or lines surrounding those consonants, except for the letter aleph, which serves as a vowel place holder. So to find the root of any Semitic word, you have to trace it through its main consonants. For example, the place holder aleph paired with the consonant L gives us the root of Allah, Elohim, and the suffix/prefix –el, which all have divine implications. This is also where we get the European pronouns and definite articles (le, la, el, etc.). All of these can be traced back to the Canaanite father-god known simply as El. Most scholars contend that the Canaanite religion was the basis for Yahwism and by extension Judaism, and it is from this same pantheon that we get the root of the S-L-M words.
Shalim was the god of dusk, twin brother of Shahar, the god of dawn, both attributed to the planet Venus, the morning and evening star (seems they hadn’t yet discovered that these were the same celestial body). Since Shalim represented the completion of the day, his name become synonymous with completion, wholeness, rest, and of course peace. This also associated him with death and the netherworld, giving us a glimpse into the attitude the Canaanites had regarding death: a peaceful completion of life. Tragically the entire Canaanite religion was all but lost to history, only partially preserved in the clay tablets found at Ugarit, but its gods are preserved in the Semitic languages still used today. Shalim’s legacy, however, lives on in another still relevant context today.
Jerusalem, the ancient holy city of three of the world’s most followed religions, and the center of global controversy, is widely believed to have been originally established as a city for Shalim. The name of the city, when analyzed from a Semitic standpoint, is literally translated as ‘the settlement of Shalim.’ It is known through Egyptian records, and even in Genesis, that Canaanites inhabited the city before it was conquered by the Israelites, so this is almost undoubtedly the case. Unfortunately for Shalim, his city has not known his peace for quite some time, but followers of the Abrahamic religions might do well to realize that their holy city was established as the foundation of peace for their ancestors.
So if you are a lover of peace, consider saying a prayer to Shalim. Tell him that, though he may be forgotten, his legacy lives on through his name, and ask that he return to his earthly temple, so that it may know his peace once more.
In my latest post about History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, and the ancient alien theory in general, I posited that the correlation between aliens and gods presented in the show is only proof that the two myths serve the same mythological function in two vastly separate time periods. As a follow up, I wanted to present a few more modernizations of mythological figures that I’ve noticed. Some are specific characters/figures, while some are broader archetypes that have changed throughout history. I’ll start off with some fun easy ones, then get into the deeper stuff, so enjoy!
G-men as Angels/Demons
I briefly mentioned this mythological figure in the previous post, but I thought it warranted some elaboration. The G-Man is interesting because these people actually exist, as we all know they do, yet they are shrouded in mystery. And for the most part, we allow them to be. This may be in part because we know they are working for our own security, or maybe we simply accept that there isn’t much we can do about it. Nonetheless, the figure has taken on a mythic function in fiction and society. The ‘Men In Black,’ (not the movie, as they are the protagonists and thus serve a entirely different function) represent agents of a higher power whose influence is as expansive as its purpose is mysterious. They have no will or identity of their own. Much like the the demons or angels of ancient tales, they are seen as extensions of the agency they represent, be it Heaven or Hell, good or evil, or just order and chaos. They appear on the scene, serve their function, and disappear just as quickly. Now certain angels and demons have, throughout their literary history, taken on other identities, personalities, and other functions of their own. There is certainly a difference between the representation of a demon in possession or exorcism stories and the function of the G-men, though you could correlate ‘hypnotized’ or ‘brainwashed’ victims of these agencies to the possessed, but that correlation is a bit murkier. For our purposes, we are focusing on the initial role of these figures in early myths.
The Spaceship as The Ark
This is a pretty obvious one. If you’ve seen movies like Wall-E or Titan A.E., you’ve probably made the connection yourself, and the producers make no attempt to hide the correlation. It is interesting, however, due to the universality of the deluge myth, both in ancient times and today. Of course, today, you’d have a hard time selling that the entire earth would flood, and that we could survive and continue our race on a giant boat. But change boat to spaceship and flood to meteor or some other global disaster, and voila! another retelling of probably one of the most widely-told stories in history. The most important aspect of the myth, though, is the one that has not changed. The idea that after a global disaster, mankind must have a way to continue itself. Another interesting aspect of this morphing myth is the span of time between the two tellings. The deluge myths from ancient times were mostly said to have happened in ancient times to the audience then, meaning the story would be doubly ancient to us. Antiquity’s antiquity. And these new retellings of the myth take place in a future vastly beyond our own. Much like the ancient alien theory, this is evidence of our strange self-reflexive time in history, where our most ancient stories are morphing into our most futuristic ones.
A.I. as the Golem (or Frankenstein)
The golem is a far lesser known figure than the others mentioned here, but you may recognize his successor, Frankenstein’s monster. I chose the golem over Frankenstein because of his folktale roots, though he is also much more recent than the other figures in this article as well. If you haven’t heard of the golem, he is a creature from Jewish folklore who is created by someone close to God (traditionally a rabbi), and in their pursuit to be like God, attempts to mimic His creation of man with the creation of a golem. Because man does not have the same powers as God, the golem comes out a little less human than we’d prefer. He has no soul, no free will, and no sense of morality. In the most famous story of the golem, from Medieval Prague, the rabbi creates the golem to protect the city, but the golem, basically blazing the trail for Frankenstein’s monster, instead goes on a murderous rampage and has to be destroyed. It’s a simple cautionary tale about the dangers of man’s reach exceeding his grasp, a theme that you could link back to the much older biblical story of the Tower of Babel, though it was God who destroyed the tower, so it doesn’t have that self-destructive element that we all love.
If you haven’t made the connection by now, let me spell it out for you. The most recent incarnation of the golem story, which most people only go so far back as Frankenstein for its roots, is the figure of the A.I. computer or robot. Whether it’s the HAL 9000 computer from Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the machines from the popular Terminator or The Matrix franchises, these self-aware or simply malfunctioning gizmos have become a staple of sci-fi plots. And while they may seem new to the scene, and one might assume that they are unique to our time period because of the advent of computers, the basic idea behind them goes back to the golem: creating an intelligent being that ends up destroying us.
So now we’re getting into the deeper stuff. Not only because of the subject matter of these new ‘mythological figures,’ but because of the broader and more abstract archetypes that they now fill. Keep in mind here that I am referring to how these characters fit into our mythos. I do not intend to make any political or sociological comments on these acts or their perpetrators, so I hope that no one takes them that way.
Serial Killer as Chthonic Beast
If you don’t know the term ‘chthonic,’ or can’t pronounce it, it refers to something tied to the earth, usually in a negative way. The connotation in mythology and psychology refers to the chaotic primal nature of people or creatures. The term ‘chthonic beast’ in mythology refers to any of a multitude of creatures from ancient stories who are usually defeated by a culture hero, signifying man’s conquering of nature to give way to civilization. This concept has seen somewhat of a reversal in recent history, reflected in the transcendental and existential movements, which propose a return to the values of nature to correct the injustices of modern society. What these thinkers overlook is that this peaceful, tranquil return to nature is only possible because of our past conquering of it, but that’s another topic for another time. Some chthonic beasts include the Sphinx conquered by Oedipus, the Minotaur conquered by Theseus, and Leviathan conquered by God, as mentioned in the Old Testament. While these figures still appear as beasts today, as can be seen with movies like Jaws or Jurassic Park (Spielberg was into chthonics apparently) and still serve the same function, I believe a new chthonic beast has appeared on the scene and is unique to our time.
Serial killers have fascinated the populace for a couple centuries now. Not that there weren’t serial killers before, it’s just they were usually called Kings or Emperors. But ever since Jack the Ripper, we’ve been at once terrified and excited by serial killers. It’s impossible for us sane and decent human beings to imagine the mind of a person who could commit these acts, so we label them psychopaths, humans born without the capacity for empathy or moral decency. And it is the chthonic nature of a psychopath to kill. This is what terrifies us about them. The chthonic beast is meant to remind us that our idea of civilization is an illusion that we all buy into. That at any time that illusion can be shattered by the will of one person, and the serial killer is that person. Their depiction in film is a testament to this. The ‘slasher’ film always seems to start with a tranquil neighborhood, or a peaceful weekend getaway, or some other representation of the safety of modern society. Yet as soon as the killer arrives on the scene, the society turns into a chaotic playground where it’s every man or screaming teenage girl for him-or-her-self. In this new world, the chthonic beast is king.
Terrorist as Trickster
The trickster is another mythological archetype that spans all cultures and civilizations. From the Norse god Loki to the Native American raven, the trickster is a character who doesn’t play by the rules. He sets his own moral compass, or simply lacks one, and tends to give the finger to anyone making any laws or setting themselves on a pedestal. The trickster is usually morally ambiguous, not an agent for good, but not wholly evil. If he doesn’t have his own interests in mind, he does what he does simply to piss people off. Yet the trickster is not just good for fucking shit up. In most stories of fire being given to man, a symbol of the advent of technology, it is the trickster who steals it from the gods or just somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be. He didn’t do what he did for the betterment of man, but man benefitted from his act nonetheless. He is an indifferent mover and shaker with his middle finger in the air smoking a cigarette as he blazes through your town in his Camaro with the muffler removed. But he takes another form in our modern society: that of the terrorist.
Terrorism is a serious issue for most of the world right now, so it’s not unusual that terrorists would take a place in our mythos. You might think that the terrorist would hold a similar place as the serial killer, being a force of chaos that disrupts our idea of civilization, but the terrorist is more like the trickster in that he usually has a motive behind his acts, even if it is just to cause a fuss. For the purposes of this post, I am not simply talking about senseless acts of violence, but the broader spectrum of terrorism, especially including cyber-terrorism. The way in which the terrorist reflects the trickster is that mankind can sometimes benefit from terrorism as well. The ‘cyber-terrorist’ group known as ‘anonymous’ has made this connection themselves, choosing the character ‘V’ from V for Vendetta as the face of their anonymity. By doing so, they are associating themselves with terrorism for the benefit of mankind, just as V executed in his graphic novels and film. Cyber-terrorist Julian Assange is another example of this, and even Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, believed he was committing his acts for the betterment of man as well.
*Special Case: The Joker*
In the most recent Batman franchise, the character of the Joker made a glorious comeback into the modern mythos. Heath Ledger’s legendary performance inspired a new vision of the Joker that is possibly more terrifying than the last. In the movie, in true Jonathan Nolan style, the character explains his entire purpose within the context of the story. He states that he is an ‘agent of chaos’ whose only motivation is to upset the established order. With his speech, he teeters on the fine line between the chthonic beast and the trickster character, but seems to weigh heavy on the chthonic side. This revamp of the character inspired many critics to equate him to the shark in Jaws and other monstrous villains, since he lacks a back-story necessary of a human character. However, it seems obvious that the original intention of the Joker was meant to be a modern version of the trickster character. The name ‘The Joker’ even seems to be a play on the term ‘The Trickster.’ The original version of the character had a back-story, and often set innocent victims up to play cruel and maniacal games for their lives or the lives of others. Though it would be tough to argue that anything the character does benefits mankind, it is easily seen that he does have a motive, and therefore is better equated to the trickster.
So there you have it! Granted there are probably many more modernizations of ancient myths and mythological figures, but I don’t have the time or attention span to get into all of them. If you can think of any, please feel free to share them below!
Even if you don’t watch the History Channel, you’ve probably heard of the show Ancient Aliens from this popular internet meme. If you haven’t seen the show, you can probably assume what it’s about. A bunch of crackpot ‘scientists’ pore through historical artifacts and ancient myths looking for evidence of alien encounters with ancient peoples. After only a few viewings of the show, you begin to notice that there is a core group of about three ‘historians’ who assert these theories. Other experts are brought in to talk about the evidence, but it usually takes cutting back to crazy-hair-and-crazier-name up there to come around to the punchline of the show, ‘Aliens’ – although he usually uses the term ‘extra-terrestrials’ with a lisp that’s as embarrassing as his hair. Now despite my chastising of these loons, I actually really enjoy watching the show. It presents a lot of history and ancient cultures that you wouldn’t usually hear about otherwise. And if you have any sense in your head, you can usually figure out a better explanation for these historical mysteries than aliens, but at that point you’re too busy laughing at dude’s hair, which seems to get more out of control with every episode.
The ‘ancient alien’ or ‘ancient astronaut’ theory is not a new one by any means. The alien explanation has been a recurring joke of archaeology since someone looked at the pyramids and said “How the hell did they do that?” It’s the archaeologist’s way of saying, “Beats me.” But ‘ancient alien theorists,’ which the show asserts is a real profession, take the explanation way more seriously. Any piece of archaeological evidence that has even the slightest ambiguity in its origin, becomes evidence not only of aliens, but that aliens have been interacting with humans since we weren’t humans. The theory only gets crazier from there, claiming that aliens had a direct influence on our evolution, and that we may be descendants of aliens fucking monkeys or something crazy like that.
The most common evidence they use for their theories, however, is not physical. The ‘theorists’ claim that ancient myths of ‘gods,’ ‘angels,’ and other heavenly beings coming down from the sky, are misinterpretations of ancient alien encounters. While some of these stories do bear striking resemblances to modern accounts of alien encounters, the theorists are entirely missing what that infers. What these people fail to realize is that aliens are a modern myth. Their claim that ancient myths merely ‘misinterpreted’ alien encounters, asserts that aliens are a proven fact. The truth is we still know as little about these encounters as the ancients did. We think that because we are more advanced technologically, that we have a better idea of what’s going on in these encounters, but we do not. Any theory about aliens necessitates technology that does not exist, and has not been proven to be possible. We are simply doing the same thing the ancients did, and putting these stories into a context that we understand. The entire notion of aliens, abductions, alien testing on humans, is all a modern myth generated by sparse accounts of loosely similar experiences, just as the ancient myths were. Yet these ‘theorists’ are quick to denounce the ancient interpretations as myth, and assert the modern interpretation as true. This leads me to a more general, and much more destructive, misinterpretation: that of myth.
In modern connotation, the word ‘myth’ has become synonymous with ‘lie.’ It’s a way of dismissing something that isn’t true as irrelevant. We apply the term ‘mythology’ to any religion or other set of stories that we want to do away with. This is one way the modern religions dismissed paganism and other older religions. We think of mythology as archaic and primitive, without realizing that we still participate in mythology. The defining characteristic of a myth is not whether or not it is true, it is what function it serves in our collective psyche and our society. Mythologists often use the example of superheros as the quintessential ‘modern myth.’ These characters transcend the individual stories they are in and become major influences on our culture despite being fictional. A person who may have never read a Batman comic or seen a movie, knows who Batman is. And the same can be said for Superman, V, Luke Skywalker, you name it. But myths aren’t always based on fictional characters. Some, like aliens, are based on actual experiences, and could be true. One modern mythological figure that is completely true, is that of the G-man. ‘G-men’ or ‘Men In Black’ (not the movie) are based on real people in our societies, yet their characters transcend the actuality of their origins. They serve the same function as some demons of ancient myths. They are mysterious and faceless creatures that have vast control over our lives and are typically indifferent or malevolent towards humans and our values.
So the correlation between ancient myths of ‘gods’ and ‘angels’ and the modern myths of aliens is no coincidence. They serve the same mythological function: advanced beings from a realm beyond the earth that interfere or assist in human development. Sometimes they are benevolent, sometimes malicious, but most of the time indifferent. Often they can control events and physical forces that are beyond our control, such as time, weather, etc. They sometimes give prophetic messages, or whisk unsuspecting humans off into the unknown and reveal to them mysteries of the universe. The one interpretation does not validate the other or vice versa. The ancients did not misinterpret aliens as gods. We and the ancients have misinterpreted something that we don’t understand as something that we can understand, as we have done throughout history. The commonalities are what’s important. The fact that we need some type of figure or character to serve that function tells us something about our own psyche. We yearn for the existence of a race of beings that lives beyond the trials and sorrows of human life. The question is not, ‘are gods actually aliens?’; the question is, ‘why do we want to believe that such beings exist?’
The second installment in my new experimental series about fallen angels and the end of the world. Enjoy! 🙂
A new blog for a new experimental series. Expect more to come, and please let me know what you think!!
I’ve always had a strange fascination with ancient mythology. Maybe it’s my interest in story-telling, since ancient myths are the oldest stories we have as a species. But somehow it has always felt like more to me. Mythology was an ancient way of passing on stories, before historical accounts were ever kept. Most people tend to think that myths simply came from the imaginations of ancient people, but I like to think that most myths were a way to pass on the account of an actual important event. Of course stories get distorted, especially when hundreds of different people tell them over thousands of years, but they need to start somewhere, and it seems more likely to me that ancient people would consider actual historic events more important to pass on than made-up stories. The amount of time that human beings have been around before ever writing anything down vastly outweighs the span of time of our recorded history, so it’s fascinating to me to hear these stories and try to decipher if it holds some morsel of truth of an actual event in ancient history. There is an entire field of study dedicated to investigating similarities between myths of different cultures throughout the world, and there are some astounding correlations. It’s easy to understand how some stories may be passed from one culture to another, and due to constant migrations of ancient cultures, some stories may have simply gotten around through word of mouth. However there are a few myths from countless isolated cultures around the world that share so many similarities with each other, it’s hard to dismiss it as simply coincidence.
The most widespread and strikingly similar myth is what’s commonly referred to as the “Flood Myth.” Nearly every ancient culture has some sort of deluge story in their mythology. These stories don’t always involve flooding; in some the earth is consumed by fire, insects, and all other sorts of natural disasters. Yet the basic storyline is always the same. The earth becomes overpopulated, so the culture’s gods or deities decide to destroy it. Yet they choose one family or couple of humans to repopulate the planet once the deluge is over. Of course, there are several variations of what happens next, from building an ark and gathering two of every animal, to escaping in hollow reeds provided by a “Spider Mother.” Yet in the end, the hero survives (and amazingly almost always ends up on a mountain) and repopulates the planet with ‘righteous’ or at least more heavenly-aligned humans. The similarities and seeming universality of the myth has baffled mythologists and anthropologists for centuries. Most dismiss it as coincidence or claim that it got around by the good old means of word-of-mouth. But what if there was some sort of global event that caused all of these different cultures to pass the story on for tens of thousands of years? What sort of event could cause such a widespread cultural phenomenon at a time when there was no sort of global communications network?
First of all, let’s look at the history of the myth. The first account of a flood story is included in (coincidentally?) one of the first accounts of anything ever. The Sumerians were an ancient people that settled in modern day Iraq, which gets its name from the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk. The clay tablets found at their settlements are generally agreed to be the earliest written accounts, roughly dating to as far back as 2150 B.C.E. On one of these tablets, of which huge chunks are missing, there is written the Sumerian creation myth, which tells of a great flood and a single man, Ziusudra, who was saved by constructing a boat for himself. Two more Sumerian flood myths change the name to Atrahasis and Utnapishtim, but the story remains generally unchanged. It’s easy to see how a story written down by the first people to write anything down could be so old as to eventually make its way across the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. But how do we find similar stories in North and Central America, when the migration into North America is generally placed between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago? The way I see it, there are three possible explanations for this:
1. The story predates the migration into the Americas, and was preserved through oral tradition.
2. The stories coincidentally arose, independent of each other, across the globe, or…
3. There actually was some sort of global event that occurred, and was passed down by separate cultures over thousands of years.
The most common hypothesis, besides the coincidence one, is that at the end of the last ice age, roughly 10,000 years ago, the Earth went through intense climate change over a relatively short period of time. The polar ice caps and glaciers around the world were melting at a rapid rate, which caused water levels to rise, probably resulting in large floods in certain areas, or at least forcing people out of settlements that may have been too close to the shore. There have been several unaccounted for structures, even cities, found underwater along the continental shelf to support this theory. However, this does not account for the strikingly similar motifs in each story, such as the earth being overpopulated, the flood being caused deliberately by the gods to destroy humans, and one person being chosen to continue the human race. To me, the only plausible explanation is that all of the stories stem from one original account that predates the migration into the Americas. This explanation requires a great deal of justification. The story would have to have been known to a vast majority of humans on earth at the same time, and there must have been some reason to preserve it so carefully throughout the millennia. It seemed for a long time that this hypothesis would remain just a fantasy in my mind, with no way of ever being proven. However, new research into human genetics, along with a recently discovered archeological site and specific geological evidence, may give substance to my idea.
A new genetic study shows that at some point in our history, roughly 195,000 years ago, the number of breeding humans on the earth dwindled from 10,000 to about 600. Even with an estimated addition of non-breeding individuals, that would still make human beings endangered by today’s standards. So what caused this genetic “bottleneck” to occur? Together with geology and anthropology, we can paint a good picture of what was happening at the time. Anthropology tells us that at that time there were at least four different species of hominids on the earth, and geological evidence shows that at that time, the Earth was going through intense climate change. Accordingly, the landscape of certain areas was changing rapidly and drastically. Particularly, the middle of Africa went from being a tropical rainforest to a great plain to a desert and back again several times over a couple thousand year period. At around 200,000 years ago, the entire continent went through megadraughts, forcing our ancestors south to the coastline. The vast continental desert prevented us from moving out of that area until about 50,000 years ago. So for about 150,000 years, 30 times the span of time in our recorded history, we were geographically isolated. We spent that time evolving, concentrating our DNA, learning together, sharing information, perfecting our survival techniques, and sharing stories. And maybe just one of those stories was the story of how our particular species survived a natural disaster (a gradual one, but still) while the other “unrighteous people” (other hominids) were killed off. And maybe, as we spent the next 50,000 years spreading across the earth, beating out the weaker species, dominating our environments, we thought it was important to preserve the story of how we were saved by the “gods” in order to repopulate the planet with out “righteous” species.
It may be a stretch to equate this fantastic myth of destruction and miraculous salvation to a slow and gradual process of fine-tuning our species, but it may serve as validation to those who believe, like me, that our ancient history is preserved in our earliest stories, if we simply read them in the right light.