39. On the significance of human mythology

(continued) Chapter 4.
Fast Evolution

 

 

Evidence galore provides a resounding Yes – and every inch of it is circumstantial, mythical, persisting in the legends of humans from many parts of the ancient world. It moreover is hard to find credible matchups in any of the alleged, hypothetical, dates.

 

And yet… something about those myths, taken all together, makes you wonder…

 

The Biblical great flood

Carried down orally from very ancient pre-literate times – then eventually written into what would later become the Old Testament after knowledge of writing found its way into those earliest, primitive, desert-dwelling Hebrew tribes – is the persistent undying myth of a gigantic flood which “covered the whole world” and drowned all mankind. All, that is, except for Noah and his family – a second genesis because Noah wisely heeded divine advice to build and board an ark big enough to hold them and a male-female pair of every animal species on the planet. As we know from the recitation of species in the last chapter, that ark must have made an aircraft carrier look like a canoe if it was to contain the mammal species alone – much less all the other vertebrates, plus all the invertebrates and insects, the countless micro-fauna…and millions of distinct bacteria. Not to mention the feedstocks needed to keep each species alive and a platoon to man the shovels day and night. This all adds to the credibility problem faced by ancient legends.

 

Caring not two whits for what science calls “credible,” a host of speculators (religious and otherwise) have tried to pin down the date of that famous flood remembered by so very many traditions. The reasoning seems to be that the racial memory of a great flood being so widespread, such an event probably did – sometime, somehow – actually happen. Perhaps it did. Any random inquiry will quickly turn up possibilities, such as:  2304 BCE (4,304 years ago); about 3000 BCE (5,000 years ago); around 5000 BCE (7,000 years ago)…and that’s getting very close to the Black Sea deluge hypothesized at 7600 years ago. Right date or wrong date, the legends converge on a great flood tale.

 

Other old flood stories

Many Biblical scholars are convinced the Noah’s Ark story is a re-make of events cited in The Epic of Gilgamesh, possibly the world’s most ancient surviving storytelling. The approximately 5,000-year-old Sumerian tale tells of a great flood in Mesopotamia – that ancient “land between the rivers” now corresponding to most of modern Iraq and Kuwait plus parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran – all in the same small segment of the world as the Levantine region where Noah lived. As the story goes, Gilgamesh seeks out the sage Utnapishtim (“the faraway”) to learn the secret of eternal life. On arrival he learns Utnapishtim and his wife are the only humans to have survived a mother of all floods (the tale avoids explaining the inconsistent existence of Gilgamesh himself in the circumstances). Forewarned by the gods, Utnapishtim had built a huge boat reinforced with tar and pitch to carry his grains and “all the animals of the field.” After many days of torrential downpour which drowned everything on the earth, Utnapishtim released a bird in search of dry land – exactly as Noah would do a few millennia later.

 

Other parallels

Gilgamesh narratives, passed down orally for millennia before Noah made his Biblical appearance, match the  Genesis narrative so closely as to leave no doubt the latter derives from the former – the Genesis account corresponds to the Gilgamesh tale point by point and in the same order. Moreover, various characters, plot elements and themes in the Gilgamesh epic have easily identifiable counterparts in the Hebrew Bible’s Garden of Eden story and its advice from Ecclesiastes. Rabbinic scholar Robert Wexler in a 2001 commentary on Torah on behalf of the Conservative Movement of Judaism stated: “The most likely assumption we can make is that both Genesis and Gilgamesh drew their material from a common tradition about the flood that existed in Mesopotamia. These stories then diverged in the retelling.”

 

Numerous scholars have pointed to other parallels descended from Gilgamesh in the Hebrew Book of Daniel as well as the epic poems ascribed to Homer in classical Greece. In close parallel to the Adam and Eve myth, the Sumerian goddess of life Ninti was created from a rib of Gilgamesh’s bosom friend Enkidu in order to heal Enkidu after he had eaten forbidden flowers. The legend of Jacob and Esau is said to parallel the much earlier wrestling match between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

 

On the veracity of flood legends

Stepping forward to a modern context, we know gigantic natural catastrophes are believable because billions of us hold directly embedded folk memories of a great tsunami which in the very recent year 2004 obliterated thousands of villages and more than a hundred thousand human lives on the coasts of eleven nations around the Indian Ocean.

 

With this in mind, we notice that the Noah version contains extraordinary emphasis on maritime violence:  “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second monthon that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened [emphases added].” Torrential rain like opened floodgates yes, certainly, that we think we understand;  various archaeologists have, after all, written of various evidence for  a sustained torrential downpour which delivered unprecedentedly massive floods in a vast swath from the Black Sea to the broad Tigris-Euphrates plain – the entire Levant and more.

 

But “all the springs of the great deep burst forth”…what does that mean? Conveyed is an image of enormous gushing waters…as if a tidal wave had piled up at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Even, simultaneously, a massive tidal wave and torrential rains.

 

The great flood motif keeps coming up in many different cultures at many different times, all in addition to the well known Mesopotamian and Hebrew flood stories we’ve just noted. Greek mythology tells how Deucalion, son of Prometheus, is connected with a deadly flood brought on by Zeus in his great displeasure over the hubris of the human Pelasgians. Some things never change. In Hindu mythology, ancient texts such as the Puranas and Satapatha Brahmana tell how the Vishnu avatar Matsya warns the first man, Manu, of an impending catastrophic flood and tells him to build a giant boat.

 

In Norse mythology, Bergelmir is the son of the frost giant Thrudgelmir and grandson of Aurgelmir. When all other frost giants die in the torrent of blood flowing from Aurgelmir’s death, Bergelmir and his wife survive by climbing onto a hollow tree trunk and become progenitors of a new race (remember this “torrent of blood” theme for it will presently return from an unexpected direction and with unexpected significance). A large number of flood legends from pre-Columbian times have been passed down by native peoples of the Mesoamerican region (e.g., K’iche’ and other Mayans, Aztecs, Tlapanecs, Huaxtecs, Toltecs and Totonacs). In one form or another, angry gods send the deluge to punish misbehaving humans and at least one couple survives to repopulate the earth. Many tribes native to South America, the North American Ojibwa and other tribes from the great lakes eastward, the early Irish, Welsh and Finns…

 

…but this could go on and on. It is accurate and sufficient to point out that peoples over the entire earth retain persistent legendary folk memories of a massive worldwide flood said to have occurred “sometime” in late prehistoric times – in the lifetimes of ancestors some indeterminate number of generations back, and passed down orally – too long ago to remember details but too recent to forget the factual core.

 

These legends, all roughly equivalent, surround the Pacific as well as the Atlantic and Indian oceans. By actual count, flood legends abound most prominently in the vast territories surrounding the Atlantic Ocean, and these speak of a more devastating catastrophe than do those in the eastern hemisphere. Geographically they include in particular:  the eastern coastal regions and hinterlands of both American continents and Central America between them; the entirety of Scandinavia and central Europe, then eastward across central Asia and beyond, clear across northern China; the full length of the Mediterranean Sea and on into the Levantine and southwest Asian lands beyond the Mediterranean including the Black Sea basin; south Asia and lands around the Indian Ocean; and most of the African continent.

 

Over most of the earth, summarily, we encounter a consistent, relatively uniform legend so very widespread in both time and geography, it is difficult not to suspect some factual event must lie behind it – an event long, long ago, before humans began recording their history with written language. But what sort of event could possibly affect so very many territories so very far apart, and leave such an indelibly lasting memory in disparate peoples, who never met each other, from Norway to Cape Horn, from the Amazon to Mesopotamia?

 

Well, a large meteor strike near the center of the Atlantic Ocean would certainly do it.

 

Of meteors and men

We star-gazing humans and our fellow life forms, citizens of earth all, have a funny way of interacting with the larger universe. Which is not to imply that our puny human actions have much impact on the universe beyond the surface and atmosphere of our own planet,  but – most assuredly – the universe leaves no doubt about its impact on us.

 

Twice before in this writing it has been necessary to mention collisions between the earth and other celestial bodies – collisions of such great significance that they massively and permanently changed the course and destiny of earthly events thereafter. In chapter 1 we learned that when our solar system was still forming, a planetoid nearly the size of Mars smashed into the hot young proto-earth and dug out a great wad of core, mantle and magma which then went into orbit, rounded up, and became our moon. As moons go, ours is fairly unique among the dozens we’re now familiar with. You may similarly recall the great meteor strike of 65 million years ago which extinctified the dinosaurs and thereby cleared the way for small furry creatures called mammals to thrive, be fruitful, multiply, and one day seem to have become so dominant over the planet that they could modify its climate and terraform the very ground they walked on…at greater risk to themselves than had been the ancient carnivorous dinosaurs to their ancestors.

 

Chelyabinsk meteor, 2013

Not all such meteor strikes are so old. On Friday, February 15, 2013, a meteor incoming at 40,000 miles an hour became so overheated by atmospheric resistance that it exploded in the air above the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia. Captured on camera instants before it exploded, the blazing meteor’s 500-kiloton shockwave shattered windows and injured more than a thousand people for many miles around the site. Based on blast effects, scientists estimate the big rock was about 55 feet wide and weighed at least 10,000 tons. That very same day, and from a different direction, another fireball lit up the nighttime sky over the San Francisco Bay area. Both events were unrelated to the 150-foot-wide Asteroid 2012-DA14 which coincidentally happened to be flying past Earth at the time, only 17,200 miles out in what they call “an extremely close flyby.”

 

Perhaps we ought to be reminded that this sort of thing happens all the time, but editors decide what gets into our news to make us aware and properly informed.
 

Tunguska meteor, 1908

Over a century earlier, in 1908 a much larger meteor similarly exploded in the air above the Tunguska River in Siberia, the most destructive such event in modern times. The meteor has been calculated at around 180 feet across and generating a blast equivalent to fifty megatons of TNT. Old aerial photos of the area show thousands of trees flat on the ground, radiating outward like match sticks in great overlapping concentric circles from the blast site. In all, some eighty million trees were leveled over 825 square miles. The region is said to have been uninhabited in 1908, and in any case – much like the 1980 Mount St. Helens volcano eruption – survivors did not appear to argue otherwise. It has been calculated that if the object had arrived four hours later, earth rotation would have placed the devastating blast over St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital at the time.

 

The Carolina bays

Never did the experts differ more than in their mindsets regarding the origin of the so-called Carolina bays – some 500,000 mostly elliptical depressions which pock the Atlantic coastal plain from New Jersey to central Florida. Ranging in size from large lakes to small ponds, the craters are just everywhere up and down the plain and into the ocean’s edge. Many have been drained and farmed over, but their outlines remain prominent as seen from above. Especially numerous in the Carolinas, a great cluster around Charleston, South Carolina is prominent as viewed from the air, arrayed in a great ellipse extending from the northwest across and around Charleston and on into the sea. Most of the craters seem (arguably, of course) to range in age from around 10-15,000 years old to as much as 100,000 or more years old – their creation clearly went on over a very long time.

 

Interestingly, these lakes, ponds and remnant depressions are generally symmetrical, but in a peculiar way. If you drop a round rock straight down into mud, it will make a circular impression. But if you want an elliptical impression you have to stand off to one side and throw the rock at an angle, in which case the mud will pile up and make a little ridge at the far end of the ellipse, opposite the direction from which the rock arrived. Most, but not all, of the Carolina bays have that little ridge at one end. Where the bays are clustered in groups – as they mostly are all over the east coast – the ridges all align in the same direction. Moreover, that direction differs from one group to another – a majority (but not all) of the grouped ellipses align either slightly toward the northeast or northwest, as if causal meteors came in at oblique angles, at different times, from those two directions.

 

What is not found beneath these depressions are the telltale meteoritic fragments, quartz grains, shatter cones or other physical evidence of hot impacts normally associated with meteor strikes. Sediments in the depressions do not seem much changed from the predominant sediments of the Atlantic coastal plain. Yet there they are. How did they get there?

 

Despite multiple unknowns, it all looks suspiciously as if the Carolina bays were created by miscellaneously-timed clusters of incoming rocks from space. The mechanism goes like this. Meteors entered the atmosphere and broke up into many smaller fragments. The fragments spread apart from each other, became volatile and exploded in the atmosphere near, but still above, the surface. The bursts and resulting shock waves pounded shallow depressions into the generally loose sandy sediments of the eastern coastal plain. Sounds logical, but still the experts differ so much you’d think somebody claimed God did it.

 

At least sixteen different versions of terrestrial and extraterrestrial causes have been postulated as causes. After all the arguing, two broad theories have emerged to explain how the Carolina bays got there:  1) disintegrating meteors did it, or 2) odd little circumstances within the earth itself did it – springs, underground pressures and suchlike. I won’t bother to describe these underground causes, it would take too long, but let it here just be noted that the terrestrial-cause explanations are all noticeably more complicated than the simple extraterrestrial meteor arguments. I would be reluctant to rule this cause out because, although Occam and nature adore simplicity, complex explanations are occasionally the right explanations. In this case, each side delights in writing publicly about how wrong their opponents are, and the pendulum has swung several times between the mutually insufficient evidence for each option.

 

As of this writing, the meteor advocates seem to have advanced a convincing case that as-yet-unconsidered evidence makes their theory probably more right. “A comet remains a viable alternative worthy of further consideration,” they say. Perhaps they’re right, for assuredly we do know that meteors periodically arrive and smack the earth. The Carolina bays are a neat little mystery – remember, there’s half a million of them! – but we’ll just have to wait and see who turns up the best evidence for what caused them.

 

Folk memory

So don’t hold your breath, but do focus on this one sold fact:  All over the Atlantic Ocean basin there is overwhelming evidence – as proven as proof gets – that meteor strikes large and small are common and have occurred thousands of times before and during human history. This proof is accompanied by indelible folk memories of a massive worldwide flood long ago, well within the most recent 50,000 years of humanity’s prehistory, but not so long ago as to be erased from the folklore of peoples everywhere around the world.

 

Whatever could be the source of such an unusual and persistent worldwide folk memory?

*          ©          *

 

…to be continued in one week…

 

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