Defining Myth

Defining myth as “the oral imprinting press of pre-literate peoples” has its problems. For scholars, the first thing to be argued is how does this definition differentiate itself from Folklore? Indeed, folklore is often defined as “any information” that is passed down orally from one generation to another. For some folklorists, who often blend myth and folklore together, they would consider my definition inadequate. Meanwhile, for the Campbell crowd, myth is wed to the autonomous productions of the psyche and the unconscious, and therefore is constant and eternal. My definition does not satisfy them either. Finally, my definition uses a literate metaphor for an oral category, and that is also problematic.

I will take my stand. Myth was specifically a product of an oral people. Furthermore, and here is the grand difference between myth and folklore, myth was always wed to the ancient cult systems of oral peoples. We have forgotten how oral peoples transmitted information from one generation to another. Their most prized information was always embedded and interred within the cultic festivals, dances, and esoteric philosophy and cosmology of the culture. Folklore, on the other hand, can be any information passed down orally. Myth was the information that was specifically tied to ritual, cult, and oral cosmology.

Perhaps my definition can be refined. A printing press has four major components: The press, the paper, the ink, and the finished product (a book or newsprint). While admitting the inadequacy of a literate metaphor, but acquiescing that we are all literate people arguing over these ideas and therefore a literate metaphor may be the best place to start, I will refine my definition using these essential components of the press.

The press is the machine which allows for the whole system to work. Our parallel would equate this image with the ancient cult. The oral cults of antiquity were comprised of the priests or priestesses endowed with the special knowledge of the group. They regulated this knowledge through their seasonal festivals, rites, temples, sacrifices, dances, songs, oracles, spells, and other things they were in charge of. The cult involved knowing the right information, but also performing this information in the right place (the temenos) and at the right time (celestially significant days throughout the year).

The paper of the press is the medium upon which all the information is imprinted. The paper “holds” the ink, and allows for its organization in a useful and transmittable manner. Using my metaphor, one might think that the paper would be the cult rituals. In a profoundly literate analogy this would be correct. But I think an oral people hold their information together by their fundamental ideas of the cosmos; how the grand natural cycle of the world around them imprints and reveals itself upon themselves and their culture. In an oral society, the paper is the cosmology of the culture that is the basis for the press and the receptor for the ink. The ink therefore wold be the rituals of the cult.

The finished product, the “book” of the oral press, would be the the final product of the cult, its cosmic understanding, and how it repeats this understanding in its cyclical rites. So where does myth come in? Myth is not so much the finished product created from the oral imprinting press as much as it is the “Introduction” to the book, the metaphor that describes the whole. Myths were narratives the transcribed the whole process of the culture. But without understanding their cultic life, their ritual systems, and their cosmological understanding, ancient myth becomes completely decontextualized and decosmologized. Like a dead language, myth is a scattered cypher of an oral language.

So to repeat:

  1. The press is the cult.
  2. The paper is the cosmology.
  3. The ink is the ritual.
  4. The book is the annual recitation of a culture’s rites and festivals, the fulfillment of its cult.
  5. Myth is the metaphor that describes the whole.

Folklore is different than myth because it is not explicitly tied to this cultic and cosmological system of thought. As for the psychological theory of myth, it is highly useful to describe aspects of the psyche, but is wholly metaphorical when dealing with the realm of ancient myth.

So a more refined definition of myth might be: “Myth is the metaphor encapsulating the most prized information transmitted by the sacred imprinting press of pre-literate peoples.”


Myth and Consciousness

I have a strictly functional definition of myth: “Myth is the oral imprinting press of preliterate peoples.” This definition is problematic, for it uses a literate metaphor for an oral category. Being that I am a literate person, and the people reading this are all literate people, perhaps this is the best we can do. At least this definition will have to do for now.

Myth is the product of the demands of oral cognition. When a literate mind wants to look up an idea, it goes to a book or encyclopedia. An oral mind has no such thing, and therefore uses its immediate environment as its mnemonic lexicon. Further, all important information that must be passed down to the next generation has to be encoded in a memorable format, linked to the environment, and layered in an oral information medium whereby important things can be remembered.

What are the important things that need to be remembered in an oral society? History, technologies (planting, hunting, calendar making, pottery making, etc.) social constructs and socio-biological roles, religious considerations, and ideas of ultimate meaning are the things all societies pass down. If our definition of myth is correct, then myth should contain aspects of each of these things. Below is a chart that shows these relationships:


How Consciousness Produces Myth

While the psychological school insists that myth is the autonomous production of the psyche, generally as fantasy or dream images from the unconscious or collective unconscious, this definition asserts that myth is a natural product of consciousness which seeks to organize its ontological cosmos in rational yet memorable ways. Myth is created in the manner of its heavy characters and episodes mostly for mnemonic purposes.

This definition does not exclude, however, the notion of the numinous or the power of individuation within the construct of myth. Oral lexicons wed to the environment will eventually address the cycles that the environment manifests, and especially the mysteries of birth, life, and death. Myth is filled with high philosophy, if one is willing to see it for what it is, and give credit to ancient minds for considering the most probing questions of human consciousness, which also happen to be the most ubiquitous questions of life.

Heart, Fire, and Sky: Creation and Renewal within the Cosmic Soul

The New Fire Ritual of the Mexica was a re-enactment of their creation myth. According to this myth the previous world age had ended in a cataclysmic flood: “there was water for 52 years and then the sky collapsed” (Hancock 16). In the midst of this desolation the Mexica gods gathered to reignite the fires of life and begin a new age. Two gods, Tecciztecal and Nanahuatzin stood before the sacred fire, Tecciztecal retreated before the scouring heat of the flames, but Nanahuatzin “made an effort and closed his eyes, and rushed forward and cast himself into the fire” (Hancock, qtd. 16-17). Nanahuatzin was consumed but also transformed through self-sacrifice into the Fifth Sun, which restored light and harmony to the world below.

According to the Mexica cosmovision, every 52 years human sacrifices were made in similar fashion to re-ignite the cosmic fire and stave off world cataclysm. The sacrificial victims were often 52 years old (Read 125). The time leading up to the 52 year mark was filled with insecurity and fear (Read 125). In preparation for the New Fire ritual, “all fires were extinguished, all wood and stone statues of gods kept in people’s homes cast into the water, and all cooking utensils and fire implements thrown away. Everything was swept clean and all rubbish disposed of” (Read 125). All things of the previous order were discarded. Darkness descended upon Mexica civilization in cosmic re-enactment of the end of the previous age: “Everywhere people perched on rooftops in the darkened valley; no one was touching the ground. All watched for the fire to be sparked above on an isolated mountaintop called Uixachtlan” (Read 125).

This mountain was known as the Hill of the Star (Jenkins 82). The star in question is actually a star cluster known as the Pleiades. The priests performing the ritual did so only when the Pleiades reached its zenith at midnight. Were the Pleiades to reach the zenith before or after midnight all believed the world would end (Jenkins 83). At the moment of the Pleiades zenith a sacrificial victim was laid upon an altar on the Hill of the Star and his heart was cut out (see figure 1). In his gaping chest a new fire was built that consumed his flesh. The new fire was started by a fire drill which image is the Mexica representation for the ceremony itself. The victim’s heart was fed back into the flames and once his entire body was consumed a faggot from this fire was taken and distributed throughout “all the regions of Mexica dominion” to rekindle the fire of civilization and to birth a new age (Read 126). The ritual ended with feasting and celebrating, and more human sacrifices, as the communal fires were rekindled from the sacrificial heart bathed in the starlight of the Pleiades.

Aztec Sacrifice

Fig. 1 Aztec Heart Sacrifice

The New Fire ritual is complex and subject to diverse interpretations; according to Read, no theory is sufficient to explain adequately the phenomenon (Read 128). Read herself explains the ritual in terms of a cosmic meal: “Death necessarily is accentuated in an eating environment such as the Mexica’s, because for one thing to eat, another must die” (Read 136). As the Mexica must eat from the resources of nature so also nature required sustenance from the Mexica, allowing a “dynamic exchange to occur in what is an ecological balancing act” (Read 136). In this view, the idea of human sacrifice is an ecological exchange: the cosmos feeds the community and therefore the community must feed the cosmos.

Read’s thesis focuses on the biological cycle of eating a meal: harvesting, eating, excrement. Read compares this cycle with the human sacrifice of the Mexica where the victim is harvested, eaten (by the cosmos) and whose remains are consumed leaving the ash of sustenance. It is an intriguing idea, but it clearly de-emphasizes the essential elements of the ritual: the heart, the new fire, and the Pleiades. All three of these features correspond not only to a Mexica cosmovision about creation and renewal, but to an entire, world-wide body of myth and ritual which also share these three key features. While space does not allow for an in-depth examination of these world-wide “coincidences”, a brief synopsis of some of them will show that the heart, the fire, and astral alignment, in this case with the Pleiades, are all synonymous images reinforcing an idea basic to ancient ritual–not an ecological exchange or biological meal–but a grand cosmology dealing with properties that can only be termed “soul.”

The whole complexity of the New Fire ritual can be symbolized by one salient image: the heart. In the ancient view, the heart was the nexus of all physiological processes, and it appears that ancient cultures understood it’s function of circulating and oxygenating the blood (Young 4-6). The heart creates life, not from ex-nihilo, out of nothing, but from a pumping action that causes the blood to flow throughout the four corners of the body. Blood whose nutriment has been used is renewed with the flame of life by cyclically reentering the chambers of the heart. The heart therefore, was the sacred center which both created and renewed the life of man.

The heart as symbol, however, was not a metaphor for tissue and blood. The heart was a referent for the processes and relationships which existed above (macrocosm) and below (microcosm). Furthermore, these vast realms of above and below were not divided, but as shall be seen, intrinsically connected. The New Fire ritual must be understood in these terms.

Heart as Macrocosm
The grand scope of the cosmos was often represented by the image of a heart (see figure 2). This is so because the human heart had a celestial correlation–an astral heart that served the exact same purposes. This astral heart was generally thought to be the sun. Like the human heart, the sun pumped a celestial blood (universally symbolized as fire) throughout the four corners of the world. It pumped this life-giving fluid through its four revitalizing chambers or cardinal points (equinoxes and solstices) or by its circulatory ascent to the apex of the grand arch of the sky (zenith). Thus the astral heart also created and renewed life over cycles of time. Indeed, its heartbeat was time: days, years, and world ages.


Fig. 2 In the Kabbalah, the heart was the connection between the macrocosm and microcosm.

Curiously, the Mexica performed their New Fire rite in conjunction with the Pleiades and not the sun, and this is unique amongst so many ritual cosmologies. Perhaps, however, there is another understanding to be had, and as John Jenkins ingeniously observes, by performing the New Fire ritual in November when the Pleiades reached its zenith at midnight, the Mexica could track the true astral alignment they were supposedly reckoning: the sun-Pleiades conjunction which occurred exactly six months after the New Fire ritual (Jenkins 82-84). This conjunction cannot be seen because the light of the sun obscures the entire stellar background, yet it occurs like clockwork nevertheless, and was central to the Mexica zenith-cosmology (Jenkins 83).

Whatever the solar connection, it is clearly seen that the Pleiades zenith and/or its solar conjunction symbolized the heart of the sky continuously pumping the fecundating solar fire into the world, renewing its spin or energy around its center. The New Fire ceremony, therefore, is a rite completely transfixed upon the image of the zenith heart. We cannot ignore the importance that zenith cosmology has in ancient ritual. On the subject Mircea Eliade writes:

Let us dwell for a moment upon this mythological image of the zenith which is at the same time the Summit of the World and the ‘Center’ par excellence, the infinitesimal point through which passes the Cosmic Axis (Axis Mundi)…. A ‘Center’ represents an ideal point which belongs not to profane geometrical space, but to sacred space; a point in which communication with Heaven or Hell may be realized: in other words, a ‘Center’… where the planes intersect, the point at which the sensuous world can be transcended. (Eliade 75)

Many rituals around the world coincided with the New Fire ritual at least in this fact: they were performed on days of equinox, solstice, or zenith, and represented a ritualized renewal of life utilizing the solar fluids (symbolized by fire) which were produced by a pole or fire drill (symbolizing the Center). James Frazer in his Golden Bough records numerous such rituals throughout Europe where cosmic orientation, the extinguishing of lights and fires in the community, re-lighting those lights with a sacred flame, and starting that flame in many cases by a fire drill, or upon a pole or tree around which a wheel was turned letting friction ignite the flames, were performed to renew earth and sky (Frazer 246-293). These ritual elements can be seen across cultures (see figures 3-5).

Fig. 3 Mayan Fire Drill

Fig. 3 Mayan Fire Drill


Fig. 4 Hindu Cosmic Drill

Fig. 4 Hindu Cosmic Drill


Fig. 5 Egyptian Fire Drill

Fig. 5 Egyptian Fire Drill

By comparison, the Mexica fire drill can be nothing but an image of this axis-mundi, the cosmic pole or tree around which the universe flows and beats. It cannot be coincidence that the Mexica priests placed the fire drill in the place where the human heart had been. What better representation of connecting earth and sky by placing a pole between the hearts of each? The literal fire drill the priests used to rekindle the earthly flame was therefore a representation of the “Center”, above and below, around which the cosmic flames were produced.

Heart as Microcosm
Wherever we see zenith-solar cosmology we could say it is heart-cosmology. As Aristotle observed, the heart is the first organ to form in the embryo. It is the “prime mover of life” from which all things flow (Young 15). The heart is a cosmic center. This notion is to be understood literally. If the heavens have a heart, then the heart of man must contain the heavens.

We are dealing here with a highly metaphysical and mythological paradigm. It begins with the notion that man and the universe are intrinsically bound, especially through the heart of each. Paracelsus, writes:

Man is heaven and earth, and lower spheres, and the four elements, and whatever is within them, wherefore he is properly called by the name of microcosmos, for he is the whole world…know then that there is also within man a starry firmament with a mighty course of planets and stars that have exaltations, conjunctions and oppositions. The heart is the sun; and as the sun acts upon the earth and upon itself, so also acts the heart upon the body and upon itself. (Young 12)

This poetic idea is no idle metaphor, but an essential paradigm of ancient thought. The heart of man was the seat of life which produced a fire that revealed the gods and the cosmos within him. The heart of man was analogous to the sun, that orb which brings light, heat, and fecundation to the earth. Without the sun there is no life; therefore no firmament. Likewise, without the heart there is no life, no vital spark, no soul. Thus it is the human heart that brings the cosmos into view. The one does not feed upon the other, they in fact form a symbiotic relationship comparable to the covalent bond between atoms that share electrons. The cosmos is the hydrogen producing firmament, man is the oxygen breathing heart, together they form the waters of life.

Jacob Needleman remarks upon the same idea using different terms:

In this understanding [of the ancient cosmos], the earth is inextricably enmeshed in a network of purposes, a ladder or hierarchy of intentions. To the ancient mind, this is the very meaning of the concept of organization and order. A cosmos–and, of course, the cosmos–is an organism, not in the sense of an unusually complicated industrial machine, but in the sense of a hierarchy of purposeful energies. (Needleman 18)

This is a strange metaphysics to the modern mind, primarily because we view the cosmos differently than ancient man. The modern view sees the universe as interactions between torrential, impersonal powers through vast, profane space. This cosmovision holds no room for man; in this scheme of things he is viewed as a speck of dust with no purpose nor participation in cosmos at all. He is nothing. But this understanding is a recent invention, not accepted by the cultures of antiquity. Ancient man was a prime participant of the cosmos. He was a fulcrum point of “purposeful energies” placing him in the center of creation. Why? Because the anthropomorphic cosmos pumped its celestial fluids throughout all space until it too filled the heart of man. Man knew his encounter with cosmos when he felt a “burning” in the heart.

This concept is elegantly portrayed in a Sufi text called The Wisdom of the Throne, where cosmic paradise was termed the qalb, a word meaning heart, and whose earthly correlation was the heart of the faithful man. The text reads: “The heart of the man of true faith is the Throne of the Merciful,” and “…the heart of the man of true faith is the House of God” (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee 511). Here, the heart of man and the Throne of the Merciful are synonymous terms. It could be written: “The heart of the man of faith is the Heart of the Cosmos.” Again, this is to be taken literally.

An old Muslim tradition about Abraham also illustrates this idea and curiously shares many of the elements of the New Fire myth and ritual. Because Abraham would not submit to the idols of Namrūd he was tied to a pole (the fire drill) and set ablaze. In this story, however, the fire does not consume Abraham. Sarah, the king’s daughter, was curious and went to see if Abraham had burned. Coming to the great pyre she perceived Abraham was alive, sitting in the flames and in the heart of an orchard, which flames sent blossoms to the world below. Wanting to enter into this fiery realm Sarah asked how it could be done? Abraham responded, “Just repeat after me: ‘Whoever has God’s name in his heart and on his tongue will be unhurt.’” Sarah repeated the phrase and entered (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee 461-462; see figure 6).


Fig. 6 Abraham in the Cosmic Heart

In the Mexica myth, Nanahuatzin is immolated in a cosmic fire, and like Abraham is not slain, but transformed into the macrocosmic heart, the Fifth Sun, sending life (blossoms) to the world below. Nanahuatzin accomplishes this feat because in fact his heart is humble and saintly, unlike Tecciztecal, who is proud and boastful. There is something of Abraham in Nanahuatzin, and vice versa. Just as in the Sufi text, there is something of the faithful man in Abraham and Nanahuatzin. What is their common link? All have access to the heart of the cosmos, and therefore are enabled to bring about renewal of the cosmos, because their own microcosmic hearts are in tune, purified, saintly, burn with the fluids flowing from the heart above.

Anciently, the images of fire and heart through which man is connected with the cosmos keep showing up no matter where we look. Thus, in ancient China the heart’s element was fire, and it controlled the shên, the spirit or “divinely inspired part” that reveals the knowledge of all things (Young 7). In the Upanishad of the Embryo in India the heart is termed an “inner fire” that is the “seat of breath” (Young 9), and the source of life. In Kabbalah tradition, the heart of cosmos is the “vital sparks” which fill all worlds, nations, and creatures (Matt 31, 152). Paracelsus and the old alchemists all represented the heart as the center of the microcosm, source of life and renewal, and portrayed as a burning sun (Hall 151). Additionally, man’s heart was also shown with the universal tree rooted in it, revealing its relation to the great macrocosm above, (see figure 7). In Judeo-Christian literature, the word of god, or the logos, which procured illumination, is revealed as a burning in the heart (Jeremiah 20:9 & Luke 24:32). In Christian tradition, the logos is felt because of the sacrificial act of Christ, who, like Abraham, was tied to a post (again the fire drill), and who, like the Mexica sacrificial victim, had his heart pierced. Christ’s act of atonement thus allowed for his own energies to burn in the hearts of the believers (See figure 8).

Fig. 7 Heart and Microcosmic Tree

Fig. 7 Heart and Microcosmic Tree


Fig. 8 Christian Heart Bathed in the Fire of the Holy Spirit

Fig. 8 Christian Heart Bathed in the Fire of the Holy Spirit

Finally, this imagery and symbolism is also found in ancient Egypt, though in reverse terms. According to the Egyptian paradigm the soul of man, upon mortal death, enters the underworld facing challenges which test its very essence. In fact, no soul could endure the challenges unless, like both the Muslim and Christian traditions, it had been ritually purified in mortality by being initiated, and having God’s word written upon the heart. Without such preparation the soul would be outcast into darkness. This drama is portrayed in the Book of Caverns in a curious likeness to the Mexica New Fire ritual. Here, enemies of the sun whose souls cannot endure the cosmic flame have their hearts torn out and blood spouting from their chests (Schoch 106). The Book of Caverns reads: “O you who have fallen, without soul, into the Place of Terror….O you upside down ones, the bloodstained ones, whose hearts have been torn out, in the Place of Terror” (Lubicz 135). Schwaller de Lubicz interprets this passage as a sacred science wherein “the vital organs of the anthropocosmos” are related to “cosmic influences and human organs” (Lubicz 136). In other words, for the soul of man, represented by the Egyptians as the heart, to enter into Paradise, his heart must already be filled with the cosmic fluids, “be pure of heart”, and thereby enabled, like Abraham, to endure the cosmic flame. If he cannot his heart is torn asunder and cast into the “Place of Terror” where darkness and destruction await. This representation is also shown in the Book of the Dead, where the ib was weighed in the scales of cosmic judgement.

In all these traditions the heart of man is a cosmic entity which is the source of life, a place of burning, a receptor for intelligence, the logos, consciousness, and divinity. In other words, a receptor for what Needleman calls a “hierarchy of energies” in which both man and cosmos participate: each share the same heartbeat in an act of cosmic harmony. Simply put, Christ’s atonement is an exchange of soul, just as is Nanahuatzin, Abraham, or the Mexica sacrificial victim.

Problematically, the English language gives us only one word for heart, though even brief introspection recalls that this word has multiple meanings. One’s heart is an organ, but the word is also used in terms of a state of being or a state of action: “You have no heart!” or the opposite, “You have such a big heart!” In ancient Egypt there were two words for “heart”: haty was a term meaning the physical heart, and ib, was the word for the spiritual, emotional, heart-soul (Young 112). In all the traditions above, the heart of man is seen as his soul, and it is man’s soul that shares in the vital energies pumped out from the cosmic heart; just as it is man’s soul that shares in the cosmic nature itself: immortal, eternal, the flame of life.

The New Fire ritual is a creation of an axis-mundi linking the points of the axis to the heart of man and to the heart of the sky. The heart of man is not just a pumping, fleshy, organ, but a “microcosmos” analogous to the sun radiating microcosmic energies–energies of life. The Pleiades is not just a star cluster, but when bound with the zenith and solar conjunction, is the cosmic heart from which flow macrocosmic energies–these too are energies of the soul. Thus, the Mexica’s sacrificial heart is an ecological exchange of soul enacted on a cosmic stage.

Principally, man’s participation with cosmos was always displayed through a ritual re-enactment of cosmic processes: creation, renewal, and orientation to the sky and ground. In turn, cosmic processes were symbolized by the actions of the beating heart; it sent out life giving energies and returned them so that it might renew its potency through fire. This is exactly what the New Fire ceremony represents: it is a creation of cosmos through the sacrifice of a heart, the renewal of a cosmic age by the re-igniting of flame, and a re-orientation of cosmos under the light of the Pleiades. But ritual is always a two way street. And where the Mexica performed their ritual as an act of cosmic prolongation, they too saw it as an act of microcosmic creation. By re-enacting the acts of the gods, they were preparing themselves to become like the gods and to enter into their realm (Read 147).

So, like Abraham, the Sufi faithful, the Egyptian initiate, the enlightened Christian, or the Chinese shên, the Mexica were circulating soul, incorporating the cosmic flames into their souls and at the same time extending their vital energies (heart and microcosmos) to the realm above. According to this cosmovision, balance was preserved in both realms.

De Lubicz, R. A. Schwaller. Sacred Science: The King of Pharaonic Theocracy. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1988.

Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1991.

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. New York: Gramercy Books, 1981.

Grof, Stanislav. Books of the Dead: Manuals for Living and Dying. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994.

Hall, Manly P. Man: Grand Symbol of the Mysteries, Thoughts in Occult Anatomy. Los Angeles, CA: The Philosophic Research Society, 1972.

Secret Teachings of All Ages: Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic & Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy. Los Angeles, CA: The Philosophic Research Society,

Hancock, Graham and Santha Faiia. Heaven’s Mirror: Quest for the Lost Civilization. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Jenkins, John Major. Maya Cosmogenesis 2012. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company Publishing, 1998.

Matt, Daniel C. The Essential Kabbalah. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1995.

Needleman, Jacob. A Sense of the Cosmos: Scientific Knowledge and Spiritual Truth. New York: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, 2003.

Read, Kay. “The Cosmic Meal,” Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1998.

Schoch, Robert M. Voyages of the Pyramid Builders: The True Origins of the Pyramids from Lost Egypt to Ancient America. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003.

Tvedtnes, John A., Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, editors. Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham. Provo, UT: BYU, Foundations for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001

Young, Louisa. Book of the Heart. Westminster, MD: Doubleday, 2003.

Myth and Migration

There are three theories as to how similar myth constructs are found throughout the world. The first is the theory of Diffusion, or the belief that a myth complex originated in one time and place and spread outwards through human contact. As Joseph Campbell explains, “The archaeology and ethnography of the past half-century have made it clear that the ancient civilizations of the Old World–those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete and Greece, India and China–derived from a single base, and that this community of origin suffices to explain the homologous forms of their mythological and ritual structures” (Primitive Mythology, 202). While this has been established for the Old World, similarities between its myth-ritual complexes and those found in the Americas are not explained through diffusion. Most American scholars reject the idea of cross cultural contact between hemispheres before the melting of the last Ice Age. Campbell continues, “With respect, to the New World there is still raging a violent, and even cantankerous scholarly conflict of opinions” (Primitive Mythology 203).

As a counterpoint to the theory of diffusion, some scholars believe in Convergence, as explained again by Campbell in his Atlas of World Mythology, “anthropologists now commonly hypothesize an alternative explanation covered by the mystical term convergence, denoting an independent, apparently accidental development of similarities between separate cultures “(The Sacrifice 18-9). Scholars arguing for convergence suggest that pure environmental factors may explain the creation of similar myth constructs around the world. They note that plants and animals that migrate into a new region take on different and specific characteristics of other plants or animals in the same environmental region. If this can happen to plants and animals, why not to human thinking? These parallels, however, are not homologous. Overlaying biological functions onto metaphysical productions by analogy is not a sufficient methodology for separating similarities in myth-ritual systems between the hemispheres.

A third theory explaining similarities between myths around the world is called Parallelism or Inventionism. Campbell defines this theory as “a term denoting the independent development of similar elements or traits in several cultures from a common element” (The Sacrifice 28). More than accidental coincidence or sole environmental factors, Parallelism between myths is a product of the autonomous creation of images within the psyche.  “Myth, like a dream, is an expression of the human imagination thus grounded in realities of the psyche and, like a dream, reflecting equally the influences and necessitites of a specific social environment, . . . which, in turn, is linked to a landscape” (The Sacrifice 28).

For Campbell, these three theories were not antonymous to each other, but co-existed. All three processes were in play.  While Joseph Campbell promoted the psychological theory of myth, he turned out to be a  die-hard diffusionist. Campbell makes his diffusionist arguments throughout his published works. Perhaps the best place to read his thoughts on the subject come from his Primitive Mythology (pages 202-15); Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Vol. 2, Part 1, The Sacrifice (pages 14-30); and the entire book The Flight of the Wild Gander.

In his Primitive Mythology, for example, Campbell cites Leo Frobenius, who convincingly argued that the planting villages of equatorial America were extensions from a Polynesian cultural zone. Thus, the hunting culture in early America “which had been carried into the continent from north-eastern Siberia, across [the] Bering Strait, and spread downward vertically from Alaska to Cape Horn–must have been struck horizontally by sea voyagers from Polynesia and cut through, as by a wedge” (204-5). And citing Frobenius, “In out study of Oceania it can be shown that a bridge existed, and not a chasm, between America and Asia. It would be a contradiction to all the laws of local culture of Oceania for us to assume that the Polynesians called a halt and turned back at Easter Island. And from Hawaii, furthermore, an often traveled bridge of wind currents leads to the Northwest Coast” (qtd. in Primitive Mythology 205).

Campbell wrote this fifty years ago. The dynamics of the diffusion debate have not changed in that time. European and South American scholars are more open to diffusion processes, while North American scholars remain entrenched against it. All similarities between the Old World and the New are explained away by this latter group through environmental or mental processes. It does not appear that this academic entrenchment will end anytime soon.

As for me, I agree with Campbell. All three processes—Diffusion, Convergence, and Parallelism—are part of the network of complex myth-ritual systems around the world. While the environment and psyche  contribute to similarities in cultural products, the principle of Occam’s Razor often encourages diffusionist explanations. The entrenchment of academia against diffusionism is really just a high wall standing between us and our lack of knowledge of ancient history.


Myth, Mind, and Theory

The greatest strength in a Jungian interpretation of myth lies in the fact that psychological archetypes can cogently explain the origins of all myth. This strength is also its greatest weakness, for if every ancient myth is a product of the unconscious, then the next logical step is to describe all narrative as a projection of the unconscious. One can no longer differentiate the material; the Epic of Gilgamesh is qualitatively no different than Mary Poppins.

Still, one can believe in a collective unconscious and psychological archetypes without making the definitive move to describe all of myth as mirroring those archetypes in the direct manner in which Jung positions his theory. Jung writes, “The collective unconscious […] appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious” (Segal ed. 79). For Jung, mythemes were components of psychological constructs which “arise autochthonously in every corner of the earth and yet are identical, because they are fashioned out of the same worldwide human unconscious” (Segal ed. 61-62). Thus myth is not a product of a conscious, synthesized system: “The widely held view that mythologems or myth motifs are always connected with a tradition proves untenable, since they may reappear anywhere, at any time, and in any individual regardless of tradition” (Segal ed. 64).

The truth is scholars of all stripes have had great difficulty in explaining the commonalities shared between myths around the globe independent of time and tradition. There are two camps of thought which attempt to explain these common mythemes: the diffusionists, who believe that a myth system began in one place and time and slowly spread around the globe; and the inventionists, who believe that mythemes can spontaneously generate in different places and times because the human psyche is the same everywhere and will produce similar products when faced with similar psychic and experiential inputs. Among these two camps are sub-groups, as in the case of the inventionists where many scholars believe in the autochthonous nature of myth without believing in Jung’s archetypes. Joseph Campbell himself took portions from both theoretical camps, stating that both diffusion and psyche play a part in the spread and formation of myth.

Without going into alternative explanations as to the universal nature of myth motifs around the globe, my chief complaint against the Jungian interpretation of myth, which also happens to be my chief complaint against almost all modern or older theories of myth, takes a different tack. Often, the modern interpretations of both history and myth are projections from modern thinking. With so little material at our disposal, we align the bric-a-brac of archaeological and anthropological debris into dot to dot constructions which supposedly try to make sense out of the amalgam historical conglomerate. Yet what is the mortar by which we build these bricks of the past to form the edifice of our choosing? Some will say that mortar is the theory one employs while compiling the historical or mythological bricks. While true, I say that such an insight is already in mid-stride, for there is already an a priori assumption at work within almost all the modern theories of myth, and it is this a priori assumption which I find untenable.

In order for Jung to propose his theory he relies heavily on an evolutionary model of the human mind, which is in step with the evolutionary model of the biological organism. Yet one can believe in Darwin’s Theory of biological evolution without ever applying such a theory to the mind. Here is where I part company from almost all myth theorists, who like Jung, believe that ancient civilizations were mythopoeic because ancient man had not evolved mentally or consciously to the point of modern man. Repeatedly we are told that the Greeks were the first to introduce Reason and Science, and that before the Greeks there was only Myth and Religion. Jung explains, in part, this view:

In the individual, the archetypes appear as involuntary manifestations of unconscious processes whose existence and meaning can only be inferred, whereas the myth deals with traditional forms of incalculable age. They hark back to a prehistoric world whose spiritual preconceptions and general conditions we can still observe today among existing primitives. Myths on this level are as a rule tribal history handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Primitive mentality differs from the civilized chiefly in that the conscious mind is far less developed in scope and intensity. Functions such as thinking, willing, etc. are not yet differentiated; they are pre-conscious, and in the case of thinking, for instance, this shows itself in the circumstance that the primitive does not think consciously, but that thoughts appear. The primitive cannot assert that he thinks; it is rather that “something thinks in him.” The spontaneity of the act of thinking does not lie, casually, in his conscious mind, but in his unconscious. Moreover, he is incapable of any conscious effort of will; he must put himself beforehand into the “mood of willing,” or let himself be put–hence his rites d’entrée et de sortie. His consciousness is menaced by an almighty unconscious; hence his fear of magical influences which may cross his path at any moment; and for this reason, too, he is surrounded by unknown forces and must adjust himself as best he can. Owing to the chronic twilight state of his consciousness, it is often next to impossible to find out whether he merely dreamed something or whether he really experienced it. The spontaneous manifestation of the unconscious and its archetypes intrudes everywhere into his conscious mind, and the mythical world of his ancestors–for instance, the alchera or bugari of the Australian aborigines–is a reality equal if not superior to the material world. (Segal ed. 83)

It never occurs to Jung or a great many other scholars that the Australian aborigines might not be the correct model upon which to compare prehistoric man. The various primitive tribes in existence around the world today are assumed to be vestiges of the earliest state of the species, but this is due to the fact that with Darwin not only did our sense of the biological organism change but so did our entire cosmos, and with it out sense of Time. Moderns think of time linearly. Ancients thought of time cyclically. Either way, our conceptions of time are nothing but mental projections upon the cosmos whose actual frame of time and space are as yet inscrutable. The aborigine or tribesman, under ancient, cyclical thinking, may not represent a parallel with early humanity, but may only resolve as an offshoot, a disjecta membra of a once more sophisticated era. This seems counter-intuitive only because modern assumptions on this issue are firmly entrenched within linear lines.

Poignantly, however, accurate comparisons between the aborigine and prehistorical man remain insoluble. This has a great many consequences. Which came first: civilization with its temple cults, mythological systems, and priesthoods? Or the individual Shaman with his magic stick, sacred tales, and cosmological maps? Modern thinking favors the latter, though the truth is the Shaman might be a descendant or cultural outcast from some high off time when an entire system of cult and myth was in place for millennium. Regardless of where one comes down on this issue, definitive answers remain unproven and unprovable.

Further, the very idea that the ancient mind did not think consciously, and in this pre-conscious state invented a world of magic and gods; of totems, fetishes, and taboos; of animism and myth, is a speculative notion indeed. One certainly can cite all sorts of modern text books and find totems and fetishes at every turn, but I remind the reader that these constructs are categories of the modern imagination and as such are often modern inventions. I personally consider much of this theoretical conglomerate nothing but highly inventive thinking, informed as it is, by an a priori assumption rooted in an unproven metaphysic.

I therefore ask, what happens if one pulls this mental evolutionary peg out of the theoretical stick pile? What if the human mind and with it the psyche remain the same in all eras, albeit operating under a different context, that is, the nature and structure of orality? Being that this stick is the first one in the pile, its removal has large consequences for a great many theories of myth. It is not just Jung who relies heavily on the mental-evolutionary metaphysic: Freud, Frazer, Tylor, Müller, Lévy-Bruhl, Malinowski, Durkheim, Lang, Cassier, Campbell and a great many other theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all follow suit in varying degrees. Even Mircea Eliade, in his conceptions of sacred time and sacred space as experienced by prehistoric man relies upon an evolutionary universality.

Infinite Tree and Eternal Spring

In December of 1995 NASA chose a dark and uncluttered pin-point of sky in Ursa Major and directed the eye of the Hubble Telescope towards it. Over a period of ten days or approximately 150 orbits NASA photographed this pin-point of sky, layering the images as they went. The goal was to peer into the deepest well of space in hopes of glimpsing farther than science had ever seen before; perhaps to see even the distant rim of the universe? The image that the Hubble Telescope slowly produced astounded even the most prosaic and skeptical of minds. First bright swirls and globs appeared: galaxies! Then, innumerable dots began to fill in the dark spaces, until a grand canopy was painted by a telescopic lense. Each dot was not a star, but a galaxy containing billions and billions of stars. The image is called the Hubble Deep Field. In it NASA did not find the edge of the cosmos, but glimpsed an unexpected and mind-numbing view of an eternal cosmos.

Hubble Deep Field

Hubble Deep Field

Eternity is an uncomfortable idea for modern science. Numerous theories are afoot predicting the size, mass, and shape of our universe. Surely there is an end, a perimeter, something that can be seen and measured? Until recently, the estimated number of stars in the universe was thought to be about the number of grains of sand on one earth-bound beach. But a recent study by Dr. Simon Driver, an Australian astronomer, has pushed this number to at least 70 sextillion (a seven followed by 21 zeros) or more than ten times the number of sand particles in all the beaches and deserts on our world. Even this number, Driver admits, might be a drop in the bucket: “The actual number of stars could be infinite” ( July 23, 2003). To date, the whole grand architecture of the cosmos–its size, mass, and shape, and how it works–is still mired in profound mystery.

As incomprehensible as these images and numbers are, it is perhaps even more astounding  that in the ancient past a few inner-searching minds had already intuited the deep fields of cosmos–above and below. In ancient mythology this grand and apt understanding was represented by the Cosmic Tree, often called the World Tree or Tree of Life. Eliade traces the ancient and mythic image of the Cosmic Tree to every continent on the planet. He writes:

The most widely distributed variant of the symbolism of the Center is the Cosmic Tree, situated in the middle of the Universe, and upholding the three worlds as upon one axis…. It may be said, in general, that the majority of the sacred and ritual trees that we meet within the history of religions are only replicas, imperfect copies of this exemplary archetype, the Cosmic Tree. Thus, all these sacred trees are thought of as situated in the Center of the World. (Eliade, Images 44).

According to Eliade the Center is the mythological space that is the sacred point of orientation for a society–its axis-mundi. The sacred center is the point in which a “break-through from plane to plane [heaven and earth] has become possible and repeatable” (Eliade, Sacred 30). This ancient notion was fundamental to culture and civilization, thus every act of settlement or new founding was a cosmogonic act, a planting of a new World Tree in the garden of cosmos. Eliade describes that the Scandinavian colonists, for example, viewed the cultivation of new land as “only a repetition of a primordial act, the transformation of chaos into cosmos by the divine act of creation” (Eliade, Sacred 31). Furthermore, it appears that the ancient state itself was sacral in nature, and every city, town, and village was built around a sacred Center–a temple, an altar, a grove or tree–in cosmological repetition of the mythological structure of the universe.

The Cosmic Tree was a symbol of the universe–not just the visible universe of which the Hubble Telescope attempts to reveal–but of all the planes and possibilities of existence. The Tree thus represented the underworld by its roots, the material world by its trunk, and the heavenly world of gods and powers by its branches. The Tree also represented the point of creation, the place where all energies meet to transform thought into form. In this light, the Cosmic Tree was also compared to the “Divine Egg, Hidden Seed, or Root of Roots”, the “Pillar or Pole” and the “Cosmic Mountain or primeval mound” (Cook 9).

Numerous pages and volumes could be written about the Tree symbolism in ancient civilization, but what concerns use here is the fact that the Cosmic Tree in ancient myth is often associated with a spring, well, or source of living waters. These two images are oft times synonymous, or are analogous in space and time; thus the Tree is often growing over the top of a well, or is literally planted by a spring or river.

Egyptian TOL

Egyptian Tree of Life

The World Tree of the Norse was named Yggdrasil and had at its base a stream and surrounding it a river. Zeus’s oak tree was planted on Mount Olympus and had the same water features; likewise the tree atop Mount Meru of the Hindus; as well as the tree in the Hebrew Garden of Eden. The Cuna Indian’s Saltwater Tree could be added to the list, as well as the sacred cedars and palms of Egypt growing forth from the Nile; or in the Book of the Dead, the great life-giving lotus rooted in the eternal well underneath the throne of Osiris. Wherever we look in myth the Tree and the Spring are wedded.

Not only in mythology are these cosmic images bound, but in the mythological requirements of mortar, stone, and sacred space of ancient temple architecture. Lundquist writes that ancient temples are “often associated with the waters of life that flow forth from a spring within the building itself… or as having been built upon such a spring” (Parry, ed. 98). This is so because the temple is most often associated with either the primordial hillock or the Cosmic Tree, both of which rise out of the waters at the primal cosmogonic moment. The great Eninnu Temple built by Gudea is called the “foundation of the abyss”, and this is similar to the Jewish temple on Moriah, which too was built over the abysmal waters (Parry, ed. 83-91).

Moses Standing at the Well Before the Temple

Moses Standing at the Well Before the Temple

According to Varner this practice dates as far back as the megalithic age. Varner notes that a well or water source is found many times in stone circles (Varner 14), and Janet and Colin Bord in their landmark study of sacred wells in the British Isles quote Burl: “Wherever an avenue of stones is associated with a stone circle it almost invariably leads from a source of water, indicating the importance of water in the ceremonies that took place in the rings” (Bord and Bord, qtd. 11). Varner also observes that the standing stones of circles or sacred avenues are themselves symbolic representations of trees (Varner 14).

These associations are no coincidence. The Cosmic Tree is the archetypal paradigm for both the structure and potentiality of all cosmic processes. Wherever there is a moment of creation, a point of creation, there is an organization of form (the Tree) predicated upon cosmic laws, rules, and energies which endlessly bubble up from the depths (the Waters). Perhaps, and ironically, these associations also intuit the leading edge of modern physics and Chaos Theory, which posits that wherever there is chaos there is also an underlying geometric pattern. This understanding is revealed through fractals. In other words, chaos is not just disorder and particle bedlam–but rather a non-harmonic field of possibility (the Waters) which, due to the Mandlebrotian nature of chaos, finds nodes or spikes of energy in which harmonic forms can be created (the Tree).

Ancient mythology is not finished with these images, however. The Cosmic Tree and the Living Waters certainly represent an understanding of the material world and of mythological relationships within that world. Perhaps more surprising, is the fact that these images were also used to describe man! Whatever can be represented in the macrocosm is also reflected in the microcosm, for both share the same roots.
The universe was the macrocosm. Man was the microcosm. What existed in one existed in the other, as the ancient mysteries explained, “As above, so below.” Macrocosm and microcosm were linked in what Jacob Needleman calls a “hierarchy of purposeful energies” (Needleman 18) which ordered the cosmos from the cosmic tree branches to the primordial waters. In this hierarchy man was a fulcrum point, both created and creator. This concept of microcosm is no idle metaphor, but an essential paradigm of ancient thought. Paraclesus writes:

Man is heaven and earth, and lower spheres, and the four elements, and whatever is within them, wherefore he is properly called by the name of microcosmos, for he is the whole world…know then that there is also within man a starry firmament with a mighty course of planets and stars that have exaltations, conjunctions and oppositions. (Young, qtd. 12)

If the cosmos has deep fields like the Hubble telescope reveals, and is always associated with the primordial waters of creation and chaos through the fount, spring, or well, then man too has these features (exaltations), shares in this structure (conjunctions), and participates in these energies (oppositions). This notion is not lost upon Carl Gustav Jung, who was an avid reader of Paracelsus. Jung writes, “Not only is the image of the macrocosm imprinted upon him [microcosmic man] as a psychic being, but he also creates this image for himself on an ever-widening scale” (Jung, Undiscovered Self, 43).

Jung understood that man as microcosm meant that there was a cosmic correspondence, metaphorically speaking, between the tree and the spring or well within him. Like Needleman, Jung sees man at the fulcrum point of this cosmic picture. Jung explains, “In my picture of the world there is a vast outer realm and an equally vast inner realm; between these two stand man” (Jung, Modern Man, 122). Jung sees these realms as polarities: man can only view one realm at a time at the sacrifice of the other. Yet as polarities, both rely upon the energies of each other in the form of tension. This tension is beautifully illustrated through the metaphor of cosmic processes. Thus Jung deliberates that the psyche is a “star-strewn night sky, whose planets and fixed constellations represent the archetypes in all their luminosity and numinosity. The starry vault of heaven is in truth the open book of cosmic projection, in which are reflected the mythologems, i.e., the archetypes” (Jung, Psyche, 125).

Here Jung lays out the diagram of inner man. There are both “planets” and “fixed constellations” that move upon the firmament that is man’s psyche. It is helpful, in fact, to know a little astronomy when interpreting such language. The night sky is a place of grandeur, to be sure, but also a place wherein it is easy to get lost. To help define all those blinking dots a band of sky called the zodiac was created by ancient civilizations and divided up into constellations. These constellations are fixed groupings of stars along the plane of the ecliptic. This is important because the plane of the ecliptic is that band in the sky where all the moving luminaries transit, i.e. Jung’s “planets”. In fact, the sun, moon, and inner planets could all be tracked along this plane and their movements measured against the background of fixed constellations or zodiac.

Jung uses this metaphor of both moving and fixed luminaries in the midst of the firmament in microcosmic man to describe what is occurring within him. The fixed constellations are the ever present deep well of space from which the transiting “planets” are measured and moved towards man’s psyche. In other words, the zodiac in man is the collective unconscious–that communal realm from which the moving luminaries emerge.

The Hubble Deep Field is an analogous image which posits every galaxy is a Tree, yet behind every pinpoint of darkness exists a deep well, an “ever widening scale” of possibility, beyond which science has not the ability to measure or even understand. Meanwhile, inner man is also such a place. Every harmonically integrated point in consciousness is a microcosmic Tree, yet behind every pinpoint of darkness within the psyche there also exists a grand stellar firmament from which fixed constellations and planets conjunct and move in an ever flowing current of archetypes and energies. In elegant yet efficient symbolism, the Cosmic Tree and the Spring or Well remind us of the connections within ourselves; connections which share so much with what is above and below.

Moses and Thebes

While Christians are celebrating Easter, traditional Jews are celebrating Passover. In the Jewish calendar, Passover begins on the 15th day of Nisan and lasts for seven days (or eight days in some traditions). The month of Nisan is said to be in the Spring, and thus corresponds to March or April in the Gregorian calendar. According to various Jewish customs, the world was created in this same month; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all born in this month; Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in this month.

The story of Moses is of course foundational to the Jewish faith. The birth of Moses and the liberation of the Jews from Pharaoh is recounted in Exodus, chapters 1 through 14. In my most recent reading of this material I made several notes specifically on the birth narrative. Moses is placed in an ark of bulrushes (Ex. 2.3) and sent down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh and is raised as her own son as an Egyptian prince (Ex. 2.5-10).

The motif of a hero of destiny being drawn from an ark out of the river is widespread. Sargon the Great is also placed in an ark and sent down the river where he was found, raised, and eventually made king. The Hindu hero Karna is likewise placed in an ark at birth, as is the Greek hero Perseus. This motif has ancient mythic roots related to kingship. The original context cannot be known.

Remarkably, Oedipus, the famous king of the Boeotian Thebes, is depicted sailing in a chest or an ark on a Boeotian cup of the first century BCE. This image represents a part of the Oedipus myth that is unknown to us. The founder of the mythic Thebes is Cadmus. In one variant of the myth Cadmus places his daughter and grandson, Semele and Dionysus respectively, in a chest and casts them out to sea. Semele perishes but Dionysus lives, and this most famous of mystery gods is thus also drawn from the waters. Finally, the mythical builder of Thebes is Amphion. Amphion is so talented with his musical lyre that as he plays stones move and form the seven gated walls of Thebes. Amphion, like Oedipus, is exposed as an infant and left for dead; he is found by a shepherd, and eventually becomes king.

The great city of Thebes is thus associated with several kings who share in the motif of the exposed infant and an ark which delivers the infant to his destiny. Of course, one cannot help but to notice that one etymology for the word “Thebes” is têboh or tâbût, referring to an ark. Is this coincidence? Perhaps, but it is also curious that the Greek writer Armenidas informs us that the acropolis or temple of the city was named Μακάρων νήσοι, “The Isles of the Blessed.”  These Fields or Isles were the Kingdom of Heaven. One entered these blessed lands on an ark. It only makes sense that the hero king is related with this cosmic imagery by being delivered from an ark.

The narrative motifs of Moses and the Exodus follow a pattern. Moses goes through a series of Labors (the ten plagues). The last task is to overcome the angel of death itself. Moses flees Egypt with the aid of his guide and god Jehova. He crosses a pillar of fire and a body of water and leads his people to the mountain of the Lord. Moses ascends the mountain and sees god face to face. Moses establishes order and incorporates the revelations on Mount Sinai by erecting a temple. Of these motifs Margaret Barker, in her book The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God, observes, “Scholars have also long suspected that the account of Moses receiving the Law on Sinai had been merged with memories of Solomon’s temple, and that a temple ritual had been the original framework of the story” (38). Barker poses a very interesting question, “Had there been a temple ritual, where the god and king [i.e. Moses] received revelation in heaven among the angels and brought it [back] to earth?” (38).

Our various motifs suggest that the original ark story belonged to a cosmic liturgy dealing with kingship. The narrative fragment that survives in the Moses story is part of a very old and lost oral tradition. Then again, the entire Passover narrative may belong to this same ancient and oral storehouse of thought which once regulated the hieratic city. The king ruled by celestial mandate. He obtained his authority by his ritual journey through the heavens. Part of this ritualized journey was the harrowing birth of the king himself.