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KRONOS Vol III, No. 4
Catastrophism And Planetary History
VINE DELORIA, JR.
Arnold Toynbee once remarked that the present configuration of "world history" made about as much sense as acclaiming a map of the Mediterranean region as a map of the world. When this aspect of our knowledge is seen in this example it makes sense but there have been few thinkers willing to follow the implications of Toynbee's analysis. At least part of the difficulty in transforming our present view of history to a planetary understanding of human experiences is the lack of an adequate baseline. Where does a person begin to mark out the history of our species when so many different regions demand consideration? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his opus, The Phenomenon of Man, while mired in an evolutionary framework of interpretation that required him to describe the emergence of our species as a simultaneous event around the globe, identified five river systems as nearly contemporaneous places of origin. Even restricting our view to coincide with Teilhard's we almost always retreat immediately to the traditional view of human endeavors originating in their most significant form in the Tigris-Euphrates valley system thus continuing the outmoded and narrow articulation of our history as predominantly western European.
Some historians attempt to dodge the question by suggesting that "history" does not begin until there are written records and while the Chinese and Mayans claim some credit in this department, again the development of historical knowledge is understood as the struggles and triumphs of western peoples. In surveying the written records little consideration is given to petroglyphs and pictographs of non-western peoples because of the inability of western scholars to decipher them. The added difficulty with non-western, non-literate representations of history is that these people, for the most part, only recorded in pictures those incidents that impressed them and, lacking a chronology, they are virtually useless in attaching them to any recognized time-scale for identification.
Uniformitarian interpretations of history tend to downgrade the intensity of events and concentrate on the routine, evolving factors which compose our daily lives and which, with some degree of certainty, we can suggest controlled the lives of our ancestors. But this type of interpretation assumes that nothing spectacular has ever disrupted the lives of our species and leads inevitably to the conclusion that not even unusual things happened or, if they did occur, had little or no bearing on the way that people understood the world. If there is one aspect of uniformitarian thinking that is misleading it is the tendency to discount the energies and magnitudes which can be generated by both natural forces and human agents. When we begin to insert, insofar as it is possible, the intensity of human experiences into events of the past, with the corollary that it was intensity that produced the vivid memories of events, then the ancient sources of western peoples and the oral traditions of non-western peoples take on a greater significance as historical memories that can guide us to additional insights into the past and partially substitute for written chronological records.
Interpreters of what is euphemistically labeled "myth" forget that intensity of experience is the dimension that marks us apart from other forms of life since it impresses certain incidents upon our memories and helps to structure our conception of things by providing convenient paradigms for future comparisons. Too often the interpreter of "myths" concentrates on the similarity of the symbols and seeks to gather these symbols into a cohesive system which can interpret great and abstract mental truths. In doing so the interpreter, be he Carl Jung, Claude Levi-Strauss, or Joseph Campbell, eliminates precisely that quality of the story that made it worth preserving. Thus the first requirement in handling old or exotic sources is to accept its literal meaning, insofar as it is possible, and to attempt to reconstitute some of the flavor of the emotional intensity and energy which the storyline seems to require.
A suggestion that one interprets "myths" best by restoring emotion is somewhat askew from the normal treatment of myths. Claude Levi-Strauss, for example, while admitting that some "myths" are remnant memories of actual historical events, suggests that so few real elements of history exist in these stories that one must become a "bricoleur" putting together again in their proper structural analytical form the original meaning of the tale. I would suggest that elements of the story do not fall away nearly as often as do the intensities of experience contained in a story and that our first task is to restore energy to the telling of tales rather than to look for mysterious psychological needs and motivations in their origin. An example from our own history illustrates my point. In 1886 the Apache warrior Geronimo escaped from the San Carlos Indian reservation in Arizona and with a small band of people made good his exit to Mexico. Twelve years after this brief escapade when the Indian Depredations Act made it possible for non-Indians to sue the Indians for acts of war in which the non-Indians suffered at the hands of the tribes, a man named Moeller W. Scott sued the United States and the Apaches for losses incurred during Geronimo's flight.
The judge of the Court of Claims heard evidence from a variety of sources. Eye-witnesses were still plentiful, both the Indians and the Army officers who chased them were available, newspapers and government records chronicled every movement, or rumor of movement that Geronimo's little band had made. So there was no chance that the stories generated by this conflict could be unreliable or, if seemingly preposterous, could not be checked out within a reasonable time. The campaign against the Apaches lasted sixteen months. At the end of the conflict the United States was employing 42 companies of cavalry and infantry against the Apaches, and the Republic of Mexico was using 4,000 men, while the Apaches had only a small band of fifty people. In his opinion the judge remarked, in dazzled admiration of Geronimo:
The judge recounted that Geronimo received better surrender terms than did Lee at Appomattox or Burgoyne at Saratoga and that the chase was so fierce that American soldiers opened their own veins to get moisture for their lips and that some went insane from the hardships.
This tradition of Geronimo is exciting history and worthy of note but few people, white or Indian, remember the intensity and trauma that this sixteen month conflict involved. It has already become simply another story and already the emotions have departed and some of the specific incidents of the war have been forgotten. Today this conflict is seen as a minor incident by white historians, is preserved little better by Indians who have been exposed to the larger society and now have difficulty remembering some of the most important aspects of Geronimo's war. In another century historians, pouring over the records of the settlement of the west, and interpreting it in their own staid emotional terms, will deny that anything like this happened. In the Geronimo story we see the Trojan War, the Exodus, and all of the old stories which have lost their emotional impact for generations that have not experienced the same conditions in their lives.
Catastrophism attempts to restore this emotional dimension to our understanding of history. In Velikovsky's treatment of the Exodus, the battles of Joshua, and the traumas of the 7th century B.C. the emotional content of historical events is restored to its proper place in the method of interpreting ancient source materials. In turn the reconstituted events illuminate and synthesize other aspects of human experience that have been artificially separated by generations of thinkers who understood history as a verbal or mental reality that was given a flowery format by superstitious reporters. When the two accounts of the plagues are placed side by side, as Velikovsky does in the initial chapters of Worlds in Collision, the intensity of that incident clearly stands out and the traditional interpretation of Moses as the divine magician playing with Pharaoh subsides and begins to disappear. That the Hebrews attributed the causative energies to their god there can be no doubt. But that they experienced highly traumatic and unusual happenings cannot be doubted either.
When emotion is restored to the interpretation of ancient sources and the same intensity is discovered present in similar descriptions or places, then geographical considerations become a dominant factor in expanding the context of the event described. When Velikovsky and Claude Schaeffer include all the major cities of Asia Minor in the disruption that shook the Near East about 1500 B.C. they are quite properly moving from particulars to specific knowledge of general destructive forces which require an adequate explanation. The extraterrestrial thesis becomes the only possible and acceptable source of change of this radical nature and magnitude.
To Velikovsky's credit he refuses to confine his considerations to western historical traditions but searches out the other human traditions to verify and critique his interpretation. It is this extension of a catastrophic event to include all of its planetary implications that makes the Velikovsky methodology important for the creation of a true history of the planet. Events and catastrophes that affected all human societies can now be used to date the histories of those societies which did not have written records but whose oral traditions contain important information concerning the nature and scope of human experiences on this globe. Dorothy Vitaliano, in her book, Legends of the Earth, mentions the tale of the Makah Indians of Cape Flattery on the Pacific Northwest coast in which the sea dramatically withdraws for a while to be followed by the most god-awful tidal wave in Indian memory. She suggests that this tradition refers to a very powerful tsunami but fails to date the occurrence of this event. With the description of the Exodus given by Velikovsky it would seem that the event coincided with the catastrophe of 1500 B.C. and that we can reasonably and responsibly date Makah occupation at that point of land at least as early as that date.
The Chippewa Indians of western Ontario have a creation story that is unique in the history of religions. According to them God tried to create the world four times but he failed the first three times because there was too much ice. The last time he was successful and people and animals survived. The corresponding flood story of these people concerns the rapid melting of the ice and a disastrous rise in the lakes and rivers culminating in the near extinction of life. If, as Velikovsky has suggested, the Noachian Flood was the product of a near-collision between a watery comet ejected from Saturn exploding as a nova,* then this tradition can well fill in some of the missing facts about such an event. While the water dumped unceremoniously on the planet would have fallen as rain in the Near East, it most probably would have produced snow and ice in the northern latitudes and the sequence of events described in the traditions of these Indians would be accurate memories of what happened.
A considerable controversy seems to be generating today over the classification of dinosaurs. New evidence based on a more precise theoretical description of the requirements which creatures of such large bulk had for survival would indicate that they were more akin to mammals than to reptiles. Adrian Desmond, in his book, The Hot-blooded Dinosaurs, suggests that new research has proven almost conclusively that these creatures were warm-blooded, that they bore their young live, and that they traveled in herds. Velikovsky has also written on the subject, additionally suggesting that some of the creatures of ancient folklore were in fact dinosaurs; specifically, he has attempted to identify behemoth and leviathan**. In this field non-western peoples can contribute a great deal, and North American peoples in particular.
Many stories of the tribes in the northern United States recount the presence of large water monsters in lakes and rivers. The Sioux, Chippewa, Coeur d'Alene, Okanogan, and others describe these creatures with a great deal of specificity. They even recall that some of them were covered with hair, a tradition that was considered humorous at one point but which now corresponds with the best of paleontological thinking. Scattered across southern Canada and in the Great Lakes area there are petroglyphs and pictographs which depict this creature and on close examination he emerges as stegosaurus! We shall eventually have to reduce the geological time scale radically to include these accounts and to admit that the traditions of non-western peoples contain considerable information that can enlighten us on the real sequence of planetary history.
We are now in a critical period when as much information as possible must be brought forward concerning the pre-historic time framework. A great many people want to pursue this question of the construction of a planetary history and incorporate the insights and memories of all peoples in the new synthesis. It has become almost impossible to make constructive contributions to the reconstruction of human memories without a reliable guide and someone should present us with a tentative outline so that we can begin to correlate the many traditions that can possibly relate to this task. Velikovsky's version of the Noachian Flood must be made widely available so that we can enlist the thousands of people who are interested in this problem. At present we are caught between the orthodox thinkers who deny any variance in traditional interpretations, the Biblical fundamentalists who are already working this field dogmatically, and the ancient astronaut buffs who see any pile of stones as evidence of extra-terrestrial activity.
A clear and responsible course can be devised for steering us through this confusing period and much additional work can be done to continue the work already in progress. But communications must be established between very diverse groups and thinkers and a major statement of the events of pre-history must be released before we can transform this prehistory into a valid and comprehendible planetary history.