Tales of Turning (for Katherine)
“Behold, the lord maketh Earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.”
— ISAIAH 24:1
“The sun — it has come to pass it riseth not. The winter is come as summer, the months are reversed, and the hours disordered.”
— PAPYRUS ANASTASI IV
The consistency of the oral tradition and later written records from around the globe, reaching back thousands of years, can no longer be ignored. Over and over, in global mythology, we encounter the symbols of a mill or mortar and pestle, a spoked wheel, a tree with a serpent, a staff, and a cross. Over and over, we meet a lion, a bull, a scorpion, and a slain king. Over and over, catastrophes threaten to extinguish whole cultures.
In Chapter Three, we looked at an ancient story, which echoed within us, as if we had always known it. I’m going to retell a few more of these “campfire stories.” Some will probably be familiar, some less so. I’d like you to listen now, in light of what we’ve learned about ancient cultures, for commonalities, for metaphor, for the hidden message they contain.
A god has created a man named Adam and a woman named Eve from Earth and placed them in a garden. In the garden there is a special tree: the Tree of Knowledge. The god who walks in the garden, who knows all, has forbidden Adam and Eve to eat from the tree. But a serpent is entwined at the foot of the tree. The serpent entices the woman to eat of the fruit of the tree, and she in turn tempts the man. When the god discovers their transgression, their lives are upended, and they are banished from the garden. They must begin anew. (The Book of Genesis, c. 1200 BCE, though based on earlier tales.)
A god creates a man, Enkidu, from Earth. Enkidu fights the king, whose name is Gilgamesh. They become friends and go on an expedition to kill a giant god. On the way, Gilgamesh dreams of earthquakes, stampeding bulls, and celestial tumult. They enter a forest and fight the giant, while the mountains shake and the sky turns black. Gilgamesh slays the giant and also cuts down the tallest tree. A goddess, Inanna, tries to tempt him. Then the gods send a bull from heaven, which Gilgamesh also slays. Enkidu is killed by the gods, and Gilgamesh wanders in the wilderness, wearing a lion skin. Finally, he braves “scorpion men” at a mountain pass and enters into a garden of great beauty. (Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 2200 BCE)
A man named Hercules (or Herakles), the child of the supreme god, Zeus, possesses inordinate strength. He is sent by the king to perform a series of tasks. Here are some of the things he does on his adventures: He kills a lion and returns with its hide, which provides protection to the wearer. He captures a marauding bull, which is destroying crops and creating havoc. The bull is later sacrificed. He steals “golden apples” from a tree guarded by a dragon in the Garden of the Hesperides (sacred nymphs). He captures a dog, Cerberus, who guards the underworld. As he performs this last deed, the Earth shakes. He dies when a jealous woman causes him, unwittingly, to put on a poisoned cloak. (Numerous sources, dating to at least 600 BCE)
A king, Osiris, marries his sister, Isis. They have one son, Horus. Osiris and Isis’s brother, Seth, is jealous and plots to kill the king. He has a beautiful sarcophagus made, precisely tailored to Osiris’s height, and invites Osiris and other dignitaries to a party. At the party, he says that he will give the sarcophagus to whoever fits inside it. Of course, Osiris is the “winner.” Seth nails the coffin shut and confines it in an enormous cedar tree. Later, he chops Osiris into pieces and scatters the pieces up and down the Nile. But grieving Isis gathers the pieces and sews them together. Osiris comes back from the dead and becomes lord of the afterlife. Horus, their son, avenges his father’s death. (Ancient Egyptian texts, dating to at least 3500 BCE. Osiris is considered a ruler of the “First Time,” before the Great Pyramid was built.)
Orpheus, a musician with a golden lyre, goes on Jason’s voyage to steal the golden fleece. On the way, he escapes from the temptations of the Sirens. At their wedding, Orpheus’s wife, Eurydice, is attacked by a satyr and, in fleeing, is bitten by a snake. She descends to the underworld. Orpheus follows her to the underworld and, through his music, is able to convince Hades to allow him to take Eurydice back. The one condition is that he cannot turn back to see if she is following. Of course, he does look back, and she returns to the underworld. (Numerous early Greek texts, dating to 600 BCE.)
A boy, Jack, sells his bull for some magic beans, to his mother’s chagrin. The beans grow into a gigantic stalk that reaches from Earth to the heavens. Jack climbs the stalk and steals first gold, and then music, from the giant who lives in the sky. When the giant pursues him, Jack chops down the stalk, causing tumult on Earth as the giant falls to the ground. (First recorded version 1807, though based on much older folktales. Possibly derived either from the Vikings or from Asian sources.)
A girl with golden hair named Rapunzel is kept at the top of a tower by a powerful woman. A prince climbs up Rapunzel’s long golden hair, which she has let down to comb, reaches the top of the tower, and steals her heart. However, when the witch finds out, she destroys the link, cutting off Rapunzel’s hair. The prince, falling to Earth, is blinded. He wanders in the wilderness till Rapunzel finds him and restores him to the throne. (This is an interesting variation incorporating female characters. It dates to at least the first millennium BCE, and probably originates in Persia.)
A dragon steals a young princess and ties her to a tree. A young knight, George (the name is ultimately derived from the Egyptian “Horus,” still evident in the Spanish pronunciation of Jorge), goes to the king and asks for the right to slay the dragon. He is given permission, slays the dragon, and rescues the princess. He marries her, taking his place as rightful heir to the throne. (This story is widespread throughout the Mediterranean region, and remains central to the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, which has deep links to ancient Egyptian practices and beliefs. Note that, in Egyptian iconography, the dragon is often depicted as a winged serpent.)
In Yggdrasil, the “World Tree,” Odin, the ruler of the gods, fights a wolf and is killed. He hangs from the tree, and becomes immortal.
the ash, as it stands.
The old tree groans,
and the giant slips free.
One of Odin’s sons, Valí, avenges his death by killing the wolf. Another son, Thor, the most powerful man on the Earth, slays the serpent that lurks at the base of the tree. Thor dies in his struggle. The tree is shaken. The sun becomes black in the sky, the land is submerged, fire covers Earth, and the stars disappear. (From the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 1200s CE from much earlier oral sources.)
We’ll now pull out two stories to look at in even more detail: the story of Samson, and that of Amleth, the precursor of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Samson’s tale is found in the Book of Judges, and dates from around 600 BCE. It’s exceedingly strange. Here is a slightly compressed version:
Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done. Then he went down and talked with the woman, and he liked her.
Some time later, when he went back to marry her, he turned aside to look at the lion’s carcass, and in it he saw a swarm of bees and some honey. He scooped out the honey with his hands and ate as he went along.
Now his father went down to see the woman. And there Samson held a feast, as was customary for young men. When the people saw him, they chose thirty men to be his companions.
“Let me tell you a riddle,” Samson said to them:
“Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.”
He went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs.
He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men.
Then Samson said,
“With a donkey’s jawbone
I have made donkeys of them.
With a donkey’s jawbone
I have killed a thousand men.”
When he finished speaking, he threw away the jawbone; and the place was called Jawbone Hill.
Because he was very thirsty, he cried out to the Lord, “You have given your servant this great victory. Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” Then God opened up the hollow place in the jawbone, and water came out of it. When Samson drank, his strength returned and he revived.
Some time later, he fell in love with a woman whose name was Delilah. The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels of silver.” Samson told Delilah several false secrets, which she tried, but failed to subdue his strength.
Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he relented.
He told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”
When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him.
Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding grain in the prison. But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved. When they stood him among the pillars, Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.
The story makes little sense. As has often been noted, bees don’t make their hives in animal carcasses. Why did Samson not use a sword instead of a donkey’s jawbone? Why would Samson give in to Delilah after he knew she had deceived him three times? Temples don’t come crashing down by pushing on two pillars. It’s clear, in other words, that the tale is symbolic. Furthermore, when we compare it to the tales of Hercules and Thor, and even Rapunzel, we can see that it has connections to a broader, more universal tale. In their seminal book Hamlet’s Mill, de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend make this commentary on the story:
“Verse 18 [in which God made water come from the jawbone] is an unshakable reminder that this was not an ordinary bone, or even ‘the place’ of it as suggested recently. For that jaw is in heaven. It was the name given by the Babylonians to the Hyades, which were placed in Taurus as the ‘Jaw of the Bull.’” In other words, the story is clearly linked to the stars. But there’s more: “The story is so universal that it must be seen as spanning the globe. In South America, where bulls were still unknown, the Arawaks, the Tupi, the Quechua of Ecuador spoke of the ‘jaw of the tapir’ … In our sky, the name of the celestial Samson is Orion, the mighty hunter, alias Nimrod” (de Santillana and von Dechend 1992, 166). Orion, the great hunter of Greek mythology, was also blinded, like Samson, and eventually killed.
Let’s now turn to an even more surprising link: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The plot of Hamlet, as you may recall, has to do with a prince whose uncle has killed the prince’s father, the king, and usurped the throne. There’s tremendous upheaval in the court, the prince’s betrothed goes mad, and in the end, there is general slaughter. A foreign ruler takes the throne. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of the play, the film The Lion King is based on the same story (and nicely reiterates the theme of the “Circle of Life”).
As Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend demonstrate in Hamlet’s Mill, the story of Hamlet is derived from earlier northern European tales, reaching back at least to the first millennium CE, and almost certainly much earlier. Santillana and von Dechend note that Amleth (variously called Amlodhi, Amlaghe, and Amlaidhe in earlier tales) traditionally possesses a great mill, called a “quern.” Here is how Snorri describes it in his Skaldskaparmal:
“’Tis said, sang Snaebjorn, that far out, off yonder ness, the Nine Maids of the Island Mill stir amain the host-cruel skerry-quern — they who in ages past ground Hamlet’s meal. The good chieftain furrows the hull’s lair with his ship’s beaked prow. Here the sea is called Amlodhi’s Mill.”
As Snorri relates, in a tale thought to be the most ancient of skaldic literature, Amlodhi’s mill was worked by two giant maidens, Fenja and Menja, who ground out “gold, peace, and happiness.” Eventually a usurping warrior comes and takes over the mill, after which “the massy millstone rent in twain.”
Here is a condensed version of the original tale:
A ruler, Feng, murdered Amleth’s uncle and then married his aunt. Amleth pretends to be dull in order to conceal his knowledge of the murder. Amleth goes on a journey, taking the kingdom’s gold. A wolf crosses his path. He goes down to the sea, where, as the Gesta Danorum has it: “his companions found the rudder of a ship, which had been wrecked, and said they had discovered a huge knife. ‘This,’ said he, ‘was the right thing to carve such a huge ham’; by which he really meant the sea.”
Feng sends a woman to seduce Amleth. He sleeps with her, but convinces her to keep their affair a secret. When his companions ask him about it, he speaks in riddles, saying that he “had rested upon the hoof of a beast of burden, upon a cockscomb, and also upon a ceiling.”
Returning to his homeland, he carries with him his wealth in the form of sticks of gold, but dresses in filthy clothes. The nobles in the great hall are aghast, because they thought he was dead. He plies them with drink, and they soon fall into a drunken stupor. Now “he brought down the hanging his mother had knitted, which covered the inner as well as the outer walls of the hall.” A great conflagration ensues, which spreads to the whole land. Amleth dies, together with the old regime. A new king takes the throne.
This story has both an overt and a subtle relationship to the Samson story above. Note in particular the passage about the “rudder of the ship,” which Amleth says is “the right thing to carve such a huge ham.” By “ham,” the story tells us, he means the sea. Now, a ship’s rudder is very similar in shape to a jawbone. And we’ll remember that Amleth’s “mill” is situated in the sea. Like the Samson story, the Amleth story is, in fact, describing the cycling of the heavens. The “rudder” that will “carve” the “sea” is the jaw of the celestial bull: Taurus. At the end of the story, Amleth tears down the “hanging his mother had knitted, which covered the inner as well as the outer walls of the hall” (a metaphor for the sky). Conflagration ensues. Amleth dies with the king. A new era rises. De Santillana and von Dechend show that this story has its roots over 2,000 years earlier in Homer’s Odyssey, and it is found in many texts in the intervening years.
These stories (and there are hundreds more like them) have many similar plot elements. Here are a few: There’s a “tree” or “pole” or “mill” or “beanstalk” or “tower” that connects Earth to the sky. The “tree” contains riches (a treasure of knowledge, golden apples, golden fleece, golden harp, golden hair). This tree, which often contains or spans worlds, is “shaken” or cut down. A young hero emerges, who is often very powerful (Gilgamesh, Samson, Thor, Hercules). He slays a lion and uses the skin (wearing it, as Gilgamesh does, or receiving nourishment from it, as Samson does). A bull or bull-like creature is dispatched of (killed, as in Gilgamesh and Hercules, or sold, as in Jack and the Beanstalk). A serpent, which sometimes lurks in the tree (Yggdrasil, the Asian fig tree, or the Tree of Knowledge), is a catalyst for turning.
What can we make of the disparate elements found in folk tales and literature, which seem so crucial to our human story? Are they, as some claim, mystical retellings of actual events in the distant past, in which a real king was overthrown? If so, why does this particular story retain its power? Or is this central story, as modern Jungian psychoanalysts claim, a reflection of the inner journey we all must make?
The truth is both more concrete and more startling. Hamlet’s Mill is constructed by symbolic representations of relationships among the celestial bodies. Amleth’s “mill” represents the wheeling night sky, which ground out “gold, peace, and happiness for many years,” until it was “rent in twain.”
Valerie Vaughan, an author who has studied astronomy in mythology for three decades, has suggested (following de Santillana and von Dechend) that the golden apples (which are also the golden fleece, Rapunzel’s golden hair, and the honey from the lion skin) symbolize the planets within the foliage of heaven: “When Herakles went to fetch the apples in a land that lay far to the west, he found the garden guarded by a dragon. He killed the dragon, who was then placed in the sky as a constellation.” She goes on, making the connection with the precession of the equinoxes: “Draco guards a celestial tree, the axis of the ecliptic, from which hang the planets (the apples). The constellation Herakles shows the hero kneeling with a dragon underfoot” (Vaughan 2002).
The tales are codified warnings. This is what they tell us: The heavens may be visualized as a great tree reaching from Earth to the sky. The “tree,” when it is stable, is beneficial to life; it produces sweetness, love, peace … However, there’s a snake lurking within the tree. When this “snake” periodically writhes, the boughs tremble and the apples are shaken. The strong die, are blinded, become confused, are tempted, and wander in the wilderness. The time of sweetness and peace is over. But the upheaval will not last forever: eventually, a new king will sit on the throne. The tales remind us of the once and future catastrophes our planet faces, and of our eventual emergence into a new paradigm … a new world. We looked at the precise mechanism of this phenomenon in Chapter Four — we know it today as the precession of the equinoxes.
Most of the stories above are found in a relatively limited geographical area (though certainly the most influential in terms of human history): from present-day Tanzania in the south up to northern Scandinavia, as far west as Iceland, and as far east as present-day India. If we venture farther afield, however, we discover similar connections between stories and rituals and the stars.
Chinese classical fiction was not long ago believed to be the equivalent of our modern-day historical fiction. The texts were considered fictionalized stories of actual human beings who lived and engaged in local dramas. Increasingly, scholars are beginning to discover that most or all of the major texts of Chinese classical “fiction” are, in fact, cultural astronomy recorded in a way that could be stored in the greatest number of biological hard drives for the longest possible period of time, while hiding the raw truth of periodic destruction from the common masses. In Deluge to Discourse: Myth, History, and the Generation of Chinese Fiction, Deborah L. Porter, Professor of Language and Literature at the University of Utah, analyzed the Mu Tien Tzu Chuan (Narrative of the Son of Heaven, King Mu) to show that it is a wholly symbolic narrative of celestial mechanics, and specifically Earth’s axial precession. Her research and conclusions sent an earthquake through the academic field that studies classical Chinese historical fiction narratives. The King Mu narrative is a story of the death of one approximately 2,160-year zodiac period and the birth of the next, not an account of a mundane journey taken by a flesh-and-blood “King Mu,” as was previously believed.
The Hsin T’angshu (The New Book of Tang) is another Chinese narrative that corresponds to astronomical processes. It presents the history of the Tang Dynasty, edited by official scholars of the Song Dynasty, and contains descriptions of a “royal court” that includes thirty-two high dignitaries and a monarch. It’s now known that much of this “historical prose” is actually a complex record of celestial formations and mechanics during the Tang Dynasty, allegorically woven with social history. Twenty-eight of these officials were named after the twenty-eight asterisms or nakshatra of Indian astronomy, and were given anthropomorphic names and titles, as were the four cardinal directions, which were known as “Ministers” or “Guardians.” Combined, these thirty-two “dignitaries” held royal court around a being known as the “Monarch.” The high dignitaries formed a protective shell around this ruling “Great Monarch” (the sun), who embodied the pivotal axis of the celestial kingdom that he ruled over.
Other examples of celestial mechanics hidden inside myth and ritual include the story of Hamlet, which, as we’ve seen, is a retelling of a story found in very ancient cultures as far-flung as Iceland, Northern Europe, Tibet, India, Greece, and Iran. The story of the “virgin birth” is found in nearly all ancient cultures. Variations of arks, floods, and a baby (or dead king) floating in a river turn up in cultural stories around the globe, dating back thousands of years. The crucifixion story is found in many forms, such as being nailed to or impaled a tree (Scandinavia, Iceland, and Israel). Some others include: tying a man inside the hollowed-out trunk of an large oak tree and then burning the tree (Ireland); fighting a heroic battle against a powerful evil being or snake under a tree, emerging victorious, and returning with far-reaching vision (Asia); tying a young man to a tree as the representation of the sun with a lamb (equatorial ram) at the base and then cutting down the tree (Turkey); interring a king’s body upright in a hollow tree trunk (Sudan); or a chosen young man leaping from the top of a tall wooden pole bound by a long rope so that in descent the jumper spirals around the tree 13 times (we’ll take a look at the significance of the number 13 a bit later) and survives (Americas). In most ancient cultures, the symbols of tree, cross, and pillar or pole were interchangeable, and the serpent was always close by.
English, European, Asian, and Middle Eastern classical literature and records are all full of the same precessional symbolism, encoded information, and recorded events. The Christian mythological character known as Jesus or the Christ, if real and alive today, would be surprised to find that his biography had been written many times around the globe, dating back many thousands of years before the origin of Christianity. Much of the Christian Gospels (and much of the Bible) are now known to be retellings of earlier Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian writings. King Arthur with his round table and 12 rules, King Mu, and other conceptual devices such as Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and King Yima, if real and alive, would be similarly surprised at the vast number of personages from around the world who predated their lives and shared the key elements of their life stories.
Above, left to right: Temple in the form of the World Pillar and Serpent, Wat Samphran, Thailand; medieval depiction of cross and serpent; early Burmese bronze statue of Buddha sitting under a cruciform tree, in the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore.
“One can easily live in a story and not understand it.”
— THOMAS MANN
Myths (including religious), morality tales, legends, and folk stories served as containers for scientific data and accumulated related wisdom about the earth and sky and the cyclical catastrophes people have faced, and will face — both as celestial maps and warnings. Ordinary people’s memories were used for millennia by the learned few as back-up biological hard drives to ensure that the vitally important encoded information preserved from the fallen advanced global civilization survived until civilization once again built up to the point of being able to understand and comprehend what was preserved. We’re only now beginning to realize the level of genius employed in the construction of these cosmological stories. A simple face-value reading of these fascinating stories often reveals highly refined social codes. A deeper reading reveals a far-reaching scientific and technical knowledge, consistent over vast periods of time and across many cultures, written in the dramatic, narrated, anthropomorphic, symbol-rich technical language of the times. This deeper level of information is unified and consistent with the simple face-value social codes, but these deeper levels of encoded information (“inner” or “secret” teachings, as they were referred to in some cultures) served a completely different purpose, now nearly entirely forgotten. The inner layer described the patterns and processes of the cosmosphere, while the outer layer worked with the human being related to social concerns, within the context of the inner layer. Combined in one form, they preserved the knowledge of the marriage between the above and below, and between the internal and external aspects of existence.
These oral (and, later, written) containers preserve encoded advanced scientific knowledge that arose from tens of thousands of years of precise astronomical observations and deductions. They also contain clear descriptions of actual events that took place in ancient history that are related to these astronomical observations; these events knocked an advanced, globally connected high civilization to the ground, breaking it irreparably and sending humans to caves and mountaintops for survival. Because it’s so central to life and survival, the details of the precessional cycle were incorporated deeply and thoroughly into nearly all aspects of humankind’s civilizations, from ritual to mundane. The fact that the knowledge of this phenomenon was preserved so meticulously for so long, and incorporated so deeply into daily life and everyday awareness by so many cultures, further confirms its importance to humanity.
Most premodern cultures have their own variation of the cycles of ages and the periodically catastrophic periods that separate a dying era from an emerging era. Mayan records speak of the “burden of time” that humans must carry. Asian teachings refer to the “endless cycles of cycles” that make life nearly unbearable. The premodern world’s significant cosmologies, oral traditions, social codes, and mythologies all reflect this recurring phenomenon of cosmological crisis and rebirth around which all of life necessarily orders and reorders itself again and again. Many of these carefully preserved records and traditions also served as practical survival guides for thriving in an environment that perpetually presents crisis and renewal on a macrocosmic scale, mirroring a microcosmic pattern of degeneration and regeneration that human society, the human species, and all living beings experience at all levels of their existence. We’ll take a closer look at the essence of these guides and codes in Part II: Being Sane.
As we’ve seen in the previous chapter, many common threads run through these mythic records and stories, the tales of catastrophe we discovered earlier in this part of the book, and the symbolism of objects. First, many cultures speak of “worlds” or “suns.” Again, the numbers are malleable. Some cultures speak of three worlds or suns, some four, some seven or ten. As we’ve seen, these periods of time are based on the observations of ancient star watchers, and refer to the precession of the equinoxes. The number of worlds or suns depends on which effects and points of the precession cycle were used as reference points and how far back memory extended.
Second, each period of time is separated from the next by cataclysms. These cataclysms involve fire; enormous, destructive sea waves; earthquakes; and destructive elements cascading from the sky.
Third, many ancient records note a shift in heavenly bodies: “they used to set in the quarter where they now rise”; “Heaven and Earth changed places.” This suggests that our ancestors were aware of the “jolts” at certain points in the precessional cycle.
In the next chapter, we’ll take a look at remaining traces of memory of these ancient cataclysms and the precessional cycle that are still found in the material culture of our present societies