by Richard Smoley
New Dawn 142
'The Council of the Gods' (1518),
depicts some of the major Greek gods.
When the veil descended, men revered what it
And as time went on it seemed to hide more and more
and was revered still more.
Then, when it was heavy with age, young men fresh
and arrogant demanded the removal of the veil and
demanded to see what was hidden.
For they said that whatever is hidden from the
people cannot be for the common good.
In the thunder and lightning of indignation, the
veil was torn down.
Nothing lay beyond.
At first the young men were startled, but then they
laughed jubilantly at the absurd fraud they thought
they had uncovered.
And the old men grieved, cursing the young men
because they had destroyed the veil.
The Tree of Life Oracle
Why do so many
creation sagas sound alike?
Why can myths of
a universal flood be found
And why do we
find prophecies of an end of the world in equally
There are two basic
theories that try to account for these similarities.
One is the
archetypal, which argues that these universal myths point to a
common structure within the human mind. The Swiss psychologist
C.G. Jung is the best-known advocate of this approach.
The other is the
diffusionist view, which claims that these resemblances point to
a common source of myth in the past.
In a recent book,
Origins of the World's Mythologies,
E.J. Michael Witzel, a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard
University, argues on behalf of the diffusionist view.
He compares the myths of
nations around the world and paints a picture of the history of myth
that reaches back as far as 100,000 years.
Witzel claims that certain universal mythic elements may actually go
back to the earliest stages of humanity, when the whole species
still lived in Africa.
He calls this strain
the "Pan-Gaean" mythos (he uses the geological names of
prehistoric continents to label these different strata).
The next oldest is that
of "Gondwana," a mythos that can be found today chiefly among the
indigenous peoples of sub-Saharan Africa and Australia.
By this account, the
gods, heaven, earth, and so on, preexist:
there is no story
that tells of their origins.
The gods create humans
from substances such as trees or clay, but the humans commit acts of
hubris and are punished by a worldwide flood (an element that
apparently goes back to the Pan-Gaean mythos).
The myths of the rest of
the world - not only Europe and Asia but the Americas and even
Polynesia - are "Laurasian."
They first arose,
probably in southwestern Asia, between 40,000 and 20,000 BCE, and
share one crucial feature:
unlike the earlier
strains, they all present a continuous and more or less similar
narrative; Witzel even describes it as a "novel."
It has some of the
features of the earlier
Gondwanan story, but it goes much
further and is much more coherent.
It begins with the
origins of the cosmos and the gods and extends to the birth of
humanity, whose history is delineated into four or five "ages."
Humans show hubris in
this narrative as well, and are also punished with a universal
The mythos proceeds to the end of time, in which heaven and
earth are destroyed and a new heaven and new earth emerge. This
event is represented in legends as different as the Nordic
Götterdämerung ("twilight of the gods") and the Last Judgment
Indeed, for Witzel, the
creation narratives and eschatology of the Bible are only the latest
manifestations of the Laurasian mythos.
Why have these myths
lasted so long?
According to Witzel, one
reason is that, quite simply, they are good stories.
Another is that the
Laurasian mythos in particular recapitulates the human lifespan on a
like us, it is
saying, the cosmos is born, grows to maturity, and eventually
withers and dies; it even goes through several distinct stages
He also echoes the claim
made by certain neuroscientists that in some yet undefined way the
human brain is "hardwired" for myth and religion (although this
leads toward the archetypal view that Witzel dismisses).
We can also see that these myths have been recast into new forms
every few thousand years.
Little by little, the old
gods cease to be taken seriously; sometimes they are mocked. This
happened in classical antiquity. The period that is most familiar to
us - from 500 BCE to 300 CE - is a comparatively late one for that
civilization, and we can see the old gods losing their hold.
Around 500 BCE, the
pre-Socratic philosophers arose in
Greece, some of whom disdained the gods, claiming that they were
mere personifications of natural phenomena or outright fictions.
The gods were also
satirized in literature then and in later centuries, as we see in
the comedies of
Aristophanes and the
Dialogues of Lucian.
While paganism remained
alive in the popular mind until christianity won out in the fourth
century CE, the intelligentsia had long ceased taking it seriously -
or interpreted the gods symbolically or allegorically.
(Sometimes when the new
mythos takes over, it keeps some of the gods of the previous one,
but as demigods or demons: early Christianity saw the Greek and
Roman gods this way.)
The Ages of
have gods to
This constant need for creation and recreation of myth leads us to
wonder what may cause these upheavals. It is tempting to look at
this issue in the light of the "ages" that are so universal a mythic
Among the most familiar
are those of the
Works and Days by Hesiod,
a Greek poet of the eighth century BCE:
the ages of Gold,
Silver, Bronze, the Heroes, and Iron.
Hesiod's sequence of
these periods, like those of many Laurasian myths, is one of decay
and degeneration, from the Golden Age, whose people,
"lived like gods
without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief"
down to the present Age of Iron, when "men never rest from labor
and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night."
Although Hesiod laments
that he had rather,
"died before or been
born afterward," the present age will deteriorate still further,
and will approach an end when people "come to have grey hair on
their temples at their birth."
Hesiod may be preserving
some historical memory here, at least in his choice of names.
The Bronze Age in
Greece lasted till around 1100 BCE, and the Age of Heroes
centers around the sack of Troy, which is generally dated to the
early twelfth century.
The Greek Dark Ages
(1100-750 BCE), when iron was introduced, then began, at the end of
which Hesiod himself lived. The ages of Gold and Silver would then
be part of a more or less imaginary mythic prehistory.
While the idea of the Golden Age still floats about in the
popular mind today, Hesiod's other ages do not.
But we have something
similar in the mythos of Christianity. One common version of
Christian sacred history speaks of several "dispensations" or
different periods of worship.
Based on the biblical
narrative, they are usually divided thus:
between Adam and Noah
between Noah and Abraham
between Abraham and Moses
the one between
Moses and Christ
to the present, which will last until Judgment Day,
and restore a new heaven and a new earth...
The last days, again,
will be characterized by decay and degeneracy, as we see in
Christ's apocalyptic discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke
Thus we see ancient Laurasian myth transposed into both classical
Greek and Christian modes. And this in itself illustrates how a
universal mythos can shift from one era to another.
For some today, the concept of the ages can take an astrological
form, and this idea has been extraordinarily popular since the
1960s, when the coming of the Age of Aquarius was proclaimed.
The idea of the Aquarian
Age itself now seems somewhat dated, but that, I would argue, is
because we are now actually in the Age of Aquarius, and we take some
of its most characteristic features for granted.
The idea of the astrological ages is based on the precession of the
equinoxes, in which, by an extremely long and slow cycle, the point
of the sun's rising at the spring equinox (that is, in the northern
hemisphere) moves from one sign of the zodiac to another over a
period of nearly 26,000 years.
Dividing this by twelve,
we can see that each age lasts somewhat less than 2,170 years.
Since there is no dotted
line in the sky separating one constellation of the zodiac from
another, the time of this transition as given by different
authorities can vary by centuries.
Moreover, there is a
tremendous overlap of influences, so that no sharp delineation can
Our understanding of the earliest of these ages, which were
preliterate, is imperfect, relying on surviving artifacts that may
or may not reflect the totality of the culture.
It is really only with
the Age of Aries, which began in the second or third
millennium BCE, that we can begin to fill in details and learn how
religious observance in particular has changed throughout these
It's common to date the recent astrological ages as follows:
the Age of Aries,
the Age of
Pisces, 7 BCE-2100
the Age of
Aquarius, 2100-4200 CE
These dates are
highly approximate, although 6 or 7 BCE is sometimes given
as the beginning of the Age of Pisces, when a "great conjunction"
(between Jupiter and Saturn, opposing the sun) supposedly marked the
birth of Christ.
But, on the basis of history, I would suggest that the ages took
place much earlier:
roughly 3000 and 800 BCE
800 BCE and 1400
1400 CE to, perhaps, 3600...
There is also an overlap
of several centuries.
My reasoning is as follows:
Pisces is associated
with religion, and the great world religions all arose around
what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age,
the period between 800 and 200 BCE, when figures including the
Hebrew prophets, the Greek philosophers, Lao Tzu, Confucius, the
Buddha, and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism all lived.
Thus, by my account, the
Age of Pisces marked the birth of all the great
world religions, with the possible
exception of Zoroastrianism.
Zoroaster's date is
although his life
was traditionally dated to c.800 BCE, scholarly opinion has
now pushed it back to the late second millennium BCE.
Judaism and Hinduism
certainly existed before the Axial Age, but they changed
profoundly during that era.
One of the most
remarkable changes is that they, like most of the world, gave-up
Sacrifice in Religion Phased Out
In the Hinduism of the Age of Aries, one of the most important rites
was the asvamedha or horse sacrifice.
It could only be
performed by a king and was meant to ensure the prosperity of the
kingdom. The horse was released and allowed to roam for a year; if
it wandered into hostile foreign territory, that territory had to be
conquered. After its return, it was sacrificed.
Upanishad compares the horse to the universe, so that
symbolically the universe is sacrificed in this rite.
After the Axial Age, however, the old Vedic animal sacrifices were
phased out. The more philosophical and ethical Hinduism that we know
today arose, and the sacrifices that were retained (such as the
extremely ancient fire sacrifice) did not involve animals.
The difference in eras is
illustrated by a line from the Hindu
of Manu (5:53), which date from the early centuries
of the Common Era:
"He who sacrifices
every year with a horse-sacrifice, and he who eats not flesh,
the fruit of the virtue of both is equal."
Judaism practiced animal
sacrifice up until the sack of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the
Romans in 70 CE. And the sacrifice was on a grand scale.
Many people have a
sugary, children's-Bible image of the Jerusalem Temple, but the
reality was quite different. A text dating probably from around 100
The Letter of Aristeas gives
one of the few surviving eyewitness descriptions of it.
One detail that
especially impressed the author was the temple's elaborate plumbing
system, which was needed to drain off the blood of all the animals
Animal sacrifice and blood were major themes in the religions of the
Age of Aries.
Blood keeps surfacing in
the biblical narrative:
in Genesis 9:6, for
example, where God forbids Noah to eat meat with the
blood, "which is the life thereof"; a commandment repeated in
the Mosaic law, for example in Leviticus 17:11 and Deuteronomy
Blood, reserved for
God alone, is to be poured out on the ground.
The spilling of blood in sacrifice is an ancient and widespread
It is treated vividly
in the eleventh book of the Odyssey, where Odysseus summons up
the shade of the prophet Teiresias to learn how he can return
Odysseus begins with a huge
I took the sheep
and cut their throats over the pit,
and the dark-clouding blood ran in,
and the souls of
the perished dead gathered to the place…
swarming around my pit from every direction
with inhuman clamor, and green fear took hold of me.
When Odysseus wants to
speak to the spirits of the dead, he allows them to draw near and
drink the blood - or, as we might put it today, the energies given
off by the blood.
One might begin to wonder about the nature of animal sacrifice and
of the gods that demanded it.
Were the gods of the
Age of Aries lower-grade spirits that, like the ghosts from
Homer's Hades, literally fed on the life force released from the
And did the Age of
Pisces, with its more abstract and ethical religions, mark an
actual transition to a worship of a higher form of god?
(For one view of this
transition, see the accompanying article, "Is
Your God a Devil?")
One case of this transition appears in
Pythagoreanism, a mystery
school founded by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras
(c.570-c.495 BCE). Pythagoras enjoined his followers not to eat meat
or fish (indeed, until the term "vegetarianism" was coined in the
nineteenth century, this was called "the Pythagorean diet").
Nonetheless, in the first
century of their existence, the Pythagoreans did not seem to have
any problem with the animal sacrifices that were so central to Greek
religion; only later, in the fourth century BCE, did this become an
This in itself gives a
hint of the shift that was taking place in Western consciousness.
Animal sacrifice is still practiced to some degree.
domestic animals at the festival of
The practice survives
as well in
Voudun (or Voodoo), the
religions of the African diaspora that flourish in the Americas.
Years ago in San
Francisco, I remember seeing a dead bird on a street corner.
It was not the
typical grey city pigeon that had dropped dead; it was pure
white. I suspect it was the offering of some devotee of Santería
who had sacrificed a dove at a crossroads.
Pisces, as we have seen,
was the age of the great world religions, and all the major world
religions arose during that period, the latest being Islam, which
came in the seventh century CE.
The most famous symbol of
the Age of Pisces is the ιχθυΣ (ichthys)
symbol, which is the acronym of the Greek phrase,
"Jesus Christ, son of God, savior"...
It is the Greek word for
The largest and most successful of the Piscean religions (at least
in terms of size) are Christianity and Islam, which together account
for approximately half of the human race.
Both of these posit a
monotheistic, personal God who demands obedience, prayer, and
Aquarius and the Changing 'God' Image
The changing and diverse figures and forms
world religion over the ages.
arch of the zodiac appears in the top left hand corner.
drawing appears in Manly P. Hall's
Secret Teachings of All the Ages
was redrawn from Lanoir's La Franche-Maconnerie).
While the monotheistic God continues to command the belief of
much of humanity, another radical change of thought seems to have
taken place with the approach of the Age of Aquarius around the
beginning of the Renaissance.
At that point, humanism
began to supplant religion.
Humanism has a dual
Both of these began to
come to the fore at this time.
In the Age of Aquarius -
whose symbol is a man - humanity began to focus on a human-centered
rather than a divine-centered world.
As argued in an article "The
Dawn of Aquarius," the final
transition from the Piscean to the Aquarian age came centuries
later, with the great upheavals of the world wars.
From a military point of
view, these began with naval power dominant (as evidenced by the
British Empire) and ended with the triumph of air power (as seen at
Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
Pisces is a water
sign, Aquarius an air sign...
We are thus now in the
Aquarian Age. Those who predicted
that it would be an age of harmony and understanding were
It is an age like any
other, with its progress and tumult...
It is not a dawning
millennium that will save us from all our problems; rather it has
brought a number of problems of its own - environmental damage, an
obsession with computers and technology, and so on.
So we have seen that the previous two ages saw the demise of one set
of gods and the rise of another.
Who are the new gods of
Aquarius is a rather
impersonal sign, as zodiac signs go; it is more comfortable with
ideals than with particulars.
(It reminds me of a
line from Charles Schultz's comic strip "Peanuts": "I love
mankind. It's people I can't stand!")
So it stands to
reason that the Aquarian gods would be impersonal as well.
And we see that
science has pushed aside the creator god
of Christianity in
favor of abstract entities such as natural selection and the
forces of physics.
Unlike the gods
of Aries, they do not require animal sacrifice.
Unlike the gods
of Pisces, they do not require worship and moral behavior.
They are completely and utterly indifferent to, and unaware
of, the human race.
Science is the
dominant mode of thought in the present age.
It is taken as the
final arbiter of reality and the ultimate determinant of
meaning: if science sees no meaning in the universe, then, many
would say, there is none.
struggle between science and religion is a struggle between the
old worldview of Pisces and the new worldview of Aquarius.
From all this, someone
might look back and see a steady elevation in conception from the
blood-drinking gods of Aries to the moral but vindictive God of
Pisces to the bright, shiny new world of science, technology,
There is some truth to
this picture - but only some...
We tend to assume
that whatever is newer is better, but that itself is a fairly
recent development in human thought - and probably Aquarian in
We've already seen
how Hesiod portrays the cycle of the ages as one of decay.
The classical scholar
E.R. Dodds argued that the ancient Greeks had no concept of
progress as we know it today.
In classical Latin,
the word for "new" - novus - had the same pejorative connotation
that "old" has for us.
apocalyptic terms too, the present age deteriorates until it can
only be saved by the return of Christ.
Progress does appear
in some Laurasian myths - such as in the
Mayan Popol Vuh, which says
that the gods created several unsuccessful races until they got
it right with humans - but not in very many.
In any event, we can now
see Witzel's Laurasian mythos in its latest incarnation: that of
There is no creation
by God; rather there is
a Big Bang...
The picturesque ages
named after metals have been replaced by immeasurably long and
grandiose-sounding ones such as the Precambrian and the
And instead of a
Götterdämerung or Last Judgment, physicists posit a
Big Crunch or heat death as the final fate of the
What remains most striking is that, even in this supposedly
objective view of the universe, we have a cosmos that is born, grows
up, and dies - just like us.
No matter how much
intellectual and technical sophistication human beings acquire, they
still tend to view the universe as themselves writ large.
Is this objectively
true - that man is the measure of all things, and our lifespan
recapitulates that of the cosmos?
Or are we simply
foredoomed by our own makeup, with its all-too-finite duration,
to see things this way?
I myself go back and
forth between these two points of view.
In any event,
contemporary science faces a fundamental contradiction in its
that our minds
are necessarily limited and conditioned by the structure of
our nervous system
system, expressing itself in scientific formulae, gives a
complete and accurate version of the universe
theologians papered over their logical contradictions by appeals
to 'divine mystery' and the inscrutable 'will of God'.
I wonder what escape
route the scientists will find.
Finally, the question of meaning remains.
Paganism and the
world religions did give meaning to the universe.
Science, or its
quasi-religious form known as scientism, has not.
In fact it has gone
in the opposite direction.
Scientism says not
only that it can find no meaning in the universe, but that there
Any attempt to find
such a thing is derided as a reversion to the supposedly
obsolete idea of a personal God.
Are the cultists of
Science may have squashed
simplistic notions of meaning and purpose, but this need persists,
and it is not going away. The failure of the new gods of Aquarius
to provide it, have left our civilization with a deep sense of
anomie and isolation.
We can ask how accurate
or complete a picture this impersonal Aquarian religion really
offers. After all, our very appetite for meaning attests to
You would never feel
thirst if there were no such thing as water...
Burnell and Edward R. Hopkins, ed. and trans., The
Ordinances of Manu, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1995 
ed., The Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha of the Old
Testament, volume 2: Pseudepigrapha, Oxford at the Clarendon
and Gila Zur, The Tree of Life Oracle, Friedman Fairfax,
Odyssey, Translated by Richmond Lattimore, Harper & Row,
R.E. Hume, ed.
and trans., The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, 2d ed.,
Oxford University Press, 1931
G.S. Kirk, J.E.
Raven, and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2d
ed., Cambridge University Press, 1983
Rudolf Steiner, "The
Occult Significance of Blood - An Esoteric Study".
Witzel, The Origins of the World's Mythologies, Oxford
University Press, 2012