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Myth vs. Truth: Science and Stories

Anthony Aveni

Trained as an astronomer but now spending most of my time writing about skywatchers in indigenous cultures, I’ve come to think that individuals trained in science tend to pay too little attention to stories of creation other than their own “Big Bang.” They generally regard stories from other cultures about the creation of the world as naïve because the latter imagine a universe that follows human or animal precedent. Such stories differ from the Big Bang theory of a universe that exists for its own sake—a universe that can be observed and tested so that cosmologists can revise their interpretation of what’s really going on. Some conclude that because the ancients didn’t understand the true nature of the various natural phenomena they observed, they developed myths that served them by way of explanation. Other scientifically trained scholars suggest that our human ancestors, lacking the benefit of our technology and the accumulated wisdom of the ages, simply misread the environment, populated it with needless spirits, and based their childlike interpretations of it on false premises. To most scientifically trained minds, the idea that all nature is endowed with life, that it consists of properties transferable to people, and that every material object acts according to its own will has little value—no matter how effective such creation stories might be in positively shaping the everyday lives of those who tell them. I think those who attempt to assign myth a rational label err in allowing it to be dismissed as illusory or wrong.

The absence of human involvement is what makes modern science’s Big Bang story of creation so different from creation tales that emanate from non-Western cultures. People participate in these stories: they engage in a dialogue with supernaturals; they sacrifice in reciprocity; they conduct rituals that retell their creation myth to remind themselves of the role people play every day in a great human drama set on a cosmic stage. On the other hand, the modern scientific story, with its central theme of a cataclysmic event that happened billions of years ago and brought everything into existence, includes the microcosmic seeds that would eventually become us. It tells about the aftermath of a colossal event over which we really have no control. We receive no credit line in the cast of characters. We have written ourselves out of the script. We can only document the changing condition of a universe that exists for itself. Our creation narrative comes equipped with no clues that pertain to the search for human meaning.

But why is contemporary science’s story so different from the others? It’s because it is guided and shaped by the particular path of history Western civilization has trod. Rather than singling ourselves out, one of the goals in my writing is to reveal ways in which stories of creation resemble one another. There is a common denominator that unites us all—the desire for order arrived at through a quest for pattern in everything we sense in the world around us.

Stories of creation are commonly termed myths, but the word “myth” carries a double-barreled definition that bothers me. It is, on the one hand, just a story—a traditional story that usually addresses a natural phenomenon, often involving supernatural beings; on the other hand, myth is also defined as a false belief based on fantasy or delusion—an “all made up” form of thinking. In that second sense in the modern world, myth translates as a veiled or fabricated truth, a product of the fanciful imagination waiting to be debunked by science and replaced with the real truth. But for people who tell their myths to relate events they experience to beliefs and practices in their lives, myths are truth. For example, seasonal festivals like the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, the Roman celebration of the winter solstice, have been recognized around the world as a time to rejoice that the sun god has reached his critical turning point low in the winter sky. The story behind the holiday likely descends from the tale of Mithra, the fifteenth-century BCE Indo-Iranian god of light, who ventures annually among the constellations of the zodiac, ever watchful and protective of all who dwell below. But beware when you see him course low in the sky on his daily path, for this is the time of year when people become part of the story—they need to beckon him to renew himself. The myth of the Unconquered Sun endures: scarcely a culture in the world doesn’t recognize and celebrate the advent of the seasonal return of natural light at the very time when they need it most—in the dead of winter. Early Christians adapted the Roman Dies Natalis to tell a story about the birth of their Savior—the one who brings light to the world. The climax comes with his death and resurrection during their Easter holiday.

Modern scientists would tell a very different story about the Dies Natalis. They might construct charts illustrating the variation in the number of hours of daylight through the winter months and calculate the insolation (the quantity of solar energy incident on a unit of landscape at various latitudes at different times of day on different dates). Their story line could correlate these data with the times of germination of various plants, the end period of hibernation of bears and beavers, daily temperature maxima and minima, rainfall records, etc. Out of this collection of quantitatively arrived at truths, there would emerge a deity-free, rational explanation of the seasonal turning of the solar orb. The language of myth, however, is different from the abstract mathematical and geometrical reasoned language of science. Its narrative consists of poetry and imagery; its grammar, analogy and metaphor. My recommendation: let’s lose that second definition of myth.

Anthony Aveni is Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, Anthropology, and Native American Studies Emeritus at Colgate University. He helped to develop the fields of archaeoastronomy and cultural astronomy.

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