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KRONOS Vol X, No. 1
ASTER AND DISASTER: THE GOLDEN AGE-II
ROGER W. WESCOTT
Our English phrase "golden age" or "age of gold", is a translation of Ovid's Latin phrase aetas aurea.(1) The Roman poet Horace called it tempus aureum - "the golden time".(2) The Egyptians too thought of this mythic stage as a period, which they referred to as "the first time" or "the times of Ra".(3) For others, it was "the age of innocence".
But not all peoples have conceived of paradise primarily in temporal terms. If anything, more of them have envisioned it spatially. The ancient Iranians, for example, pictured it as a building - "the house of Yima".(4) The Hebrews regarded it as a divinely cultivated plot - "the garden of Eden".(5) The word paradise itself comes from the Old Persian *paridaizas, "enclosure" (literally, "something roundly shaped").(6) The Sumerians believed paradise to be a city, known as Dilmun.(7) Various peoples have seen it as an island or group of islands, ranging from the Greek Elysium to the Celtic Avalon.(8) In many cases, these insular abodes were given no specific names but known generically as "islands of the blest".
Often the locational nature of paradise was left vague, and it was merely called a land. The East Asians, for example, variously referred to it as "the Great Land", "the Pure Land", or "The Happy Land".(9) Sometimes it was not so much a place as a direction that seemed to be indicated, as in the cases of Akkadian Elish ("above")(10) and Greek Hesperides ("westerly ones"). Among preliterates, emphasis is frequently placed less on where the paradisial is than on where it is not, it being understood that it is not here. The Yakut of Siberia thus speak of "the still center of the world [where] the sun never sets".(11)
Occasionally, paradise seems to lie outside spatio-temporal coordinates altogether. It can then be equated with a community (such as Hesiod's "golden race"),(12) a process (such as the Taoist "way", whereby, without action, all is mysteriously enacted),(13) a state of consciousness (such as the aboriginal Australian "dreaming"),(14) a spiritual condition (beatitude), or a general attitude (blessed foolishness, as in the Roman Feast of Fools(15) or the Medieval realm of Cockaigne(16) ),
Aurealism, derived from the obsolescent English adjective aureal, "golden",(17) denotes any attitude, behavior, or situation that recalls the Golden Age. Of the major philosophies and religions of the past three millennia, the one which is most explicitly and insistently aurealistic is almost certainly Taoism, the oldest of the Chinese thought-systems. In the Tao Teh Ching, the earliest Taoist scripture, Tao, "the Way Back", is described as follows:
To the extent that they exhibit consensus, the world's myths of origin directly or indirectly depict an aureal order that differed sharply from the historic order in various ways:
l. The sky, instead of being dominated alternately by the Sun and the Moon, was constantly dominated by a single huge and luminous body, here called Aster.
2. The color of the sky, rather than alternating between blue and black, was at all times predominantly golden, with supplementary tints of pink and white.
3. The space between Aster and Earth was not visually empty but perceptibly filled by a glowing "world-axis", through which a stream of health-giving energy was felt to flow.
4. At least on its Asterian side (which, because of a rotational lock, never turned away from Aster), Earth did not constitute the "gravity well" that it now does. Instead, particularly atop its Aster-ward bulge, it was characterized by literal levity. In addition, it may be that the energy stream in the world-axis flowed in both directions, with the result that, in certain locations, objects (including human bodies) could "float" upwards.
5. Terrestrial topography lacked the sharp irregularities that now characterize it. There were no high mountains or deep oceans. Bodies of water were many but shallow. Consequently, human beings, elephants, and other higher animals were far more aquatic in their adaptation than they now are.
6. Since Earth had no axial tilt and no rotation independent of Aster, its Asterian face was never dark or cold. Its climate was therefore uniformly moist and warm.
7. Vegetation was lush. There were no seasonally deciduous trees. Nor were there plants adapted, by toughening or stunting, to extremely dry or frigid habitats.
8. Most animals exhibited the kind of closely synchronized and coordinated group behavior that we now know as "flocking" among birds and "schooling" among fish. As a result, each group - human as well as non-human - tended to behave and to be perceived as unitary rather than as internally multifarious.
9. All animals, including people, were foragers. Carnivores lived by scavenging rather than by predation. Competition, being unnecessary, was minimal. There were no ranked hierarchies or defended territories. Population levels may have fluctuated slightly but are unlikely to have exhibited the "surges" and "crashes" observed today.
10. Women did not menstruate. Parturition was not laborious, because infants were born at a stage of fetal development which would now be considered "premature".
11. Disease was rare (probably because the relatively stressless life of the time made for high levels of resistance to infection).
12. Sleep was uncommon (probably for the similar reason that it was not needed as a means of recovering from the stresses of vigilance).
13. Longevity was normal (again because lethal and senilizing stresses were rare).
14. Sedentarism was usual, because resource failure rarely if ever necessitated collective migrations.
15. Sexual behavior was promiscuous. There was no need for monopolization of mates or for affectional exclusivity.
16. Social organization was uncoercive. To the extent that it had a focus, that focus, among all higher vertebrates, was probably matricentric. Male supremacism, having no useful functions, probably did not occur.
17. Artifacts (like clothing), institutions (like marriage), and ideologies (like religion) had not yet been introduced and would have served no evident purpose if they had been.
18. Consciousness was collective. Physical solitude was rare and mental solitude unsought. Because secrecy was impossible, human individuals had no privacy or dignity - nor any defensive requirement for either.
19. Relations between individuals were, for the most part, reciprocally hedonic (serving to share pleasure) rather than moral (required to prevent injury).
20. Because basic needs were easily met, most time was spent in "overflow" activities. These ranged from mammalian play and avian song to human dance but included subtler behaviors, such as esthetic contemplation and explorations of consciousness across species boundaries.
The focus of universal attention during the Golden Age, however, was Aster itself. It was the incomparable jewel of the cosmos, unrivaled and unique. Occupying the zenith of the sky, it was inescapably the Most High. It was also the brightest of all visible objects. Hence its Orphic Greek name Phanes, "dazzlingly apparent".(19) In the simpler parlance of Plotinus, it was The One.(20)
Concerning Aster in its time of glory, few if any tales are told. And, if James Joyce was right that "history is a nightmare", this is as it should be. For Aster was both, in Upanishadic terms, the unmade maker and, in Aristotelian terms, the unmoved mover.(21) What came before Aster could not be clearly conceived, while what came after Aster could not be accurately recalled. As mistily remembered, Aster seemed birthless and deathless, standing outside of time. Its later absence, though evident, was only partially acknowledged. Its presence, felt to be perpetual, was regarded as having changed only in outward manifestation, from immemorial visibility to (hopefully temporary) invisibility.
In appearance, Aster was presumptively round and inferentially spheroidal. Predictably, most of the objects to which the world's folklore compares it are circular or ball-like. They include fruits, flowers, eggs, heads, and wheels.
The representative fruits which receive major attention in traditional narratives range from a big apple to a great pumpkin. Apples are frequently described as golden (and may actually denote oranges or apricots). Golden apples frequently play a magical role in myths and legends, coming from a heavenly tree and having the power to heal, reveal the future, or grant fertility or immortality.(22)
Whether verbal or iconographic, however, re-visualizations of Aster rarely portray it as a simple sphere or disc. More often, they depict it as complicated internally by a circular "hub" or cruciform "spokes"(23) or externally by circumambient discs.(24) In poetic language, Aster is seen as a fairy queen, "clustered around by all her starry fays".(25) In children's lore, it becomes Santa Claus, surrounded by elfin assistants. And, in theological terms, it appears as a heavenly city, graced with a multitude of sacred structures.(26)
Because of the richness of the Asterian image, no single analog suffices to represent it. Frequently, therefore, it receives composite representation, both verbal and pictorial. Verbal representations of Aster are likely to consist of nominal compounds which are semantically coordinative rather than subordinative in nature. In terms of the subsequent celestial order, Aster is then described as the sun-moon - a body simultaneously manifesting solar brightness and lunar closeness.(27) In terms of a categorization of beings, it is the god-man - a presence as beatific as a deity yet as natural as a human being. In terms of gender, it is the father-mother - an androgynous parent, at once lofty and nurturant. And, in terms of social function, it is the priest-king - a dignitary that illuminates without preaching and exercises authority without coercion.
When the image of Aster is combined with that of the world-axis remembered as having linked it with Earth, their joint configuration takes on a different appearance: that of a shining presence perched atop a prominence. Aster empinnacled then becomes the jewel in (or on) the long-stemmed lotus, the old man of the mountain, the one upstairs, or - less majestically - Humpty-Dumpty astride his wall.(28) When the being and his pedestal are left undifferentiated, their fused image appears as that of a mushroom, a candle, or even a lollipop.
Other verbal images of Aster are more diffuse. They range from Heraclitus' "rational fire"(29) through Shakespeare's "eye of heaven"(30) to the cynically colloquial "pie in the sky" of our own day.
The elevation on which Aster sat enthroned was perceived as elongated and essentially rectilinear, with minimal, and presumably bilateral, external curvature. But, because nothing very similar to it has existed since its disappearance, the images used to evoke it rarely give a clear and consistent impression of its overall conformation. Depictions by preliterate peoples tend to represent the axis as an organ or an organism, endowing it with a misleadingly asymmetric shape. On the other hand, depictions by literate peoples tend to represent the axis as an artifact or complex of artifacts, suggesting an illusory degree of solidity and rigidity. Taken together, however, these two types of representation have the virtue of depicting the world-axis as a self-renewing artifact, a living link between Heaven and Earth.
The two commonest organismic representatives of the world-axis are a snake (or dragon) and an attenuated fish (such as a pike or eel), both of which are noted in folklore for their ability to help some sacred being cross a stream or other separating interval.(31)
The axial representations which consist of isolated organs rather than of complete organisms, while equally vertebrate, tend to come from mammals rather than from cold-blooded animals. Reading from head to tail, we encounter any or all of the following body-parts as icons of the axis:
What all of these organs have in common, of course, is their elongated shape and their extensive or connective function. Beyond that, however, it may be noted that mythic horns magically grow and shrink; that the linking arm or leg is often part of a one-armed and one-legged being; that the spine may convey powerful spiritual energy (known in India as kundalini, "the coiled one") from the genitals to the head; that the umbilicus, or "silver cord", is quite literally the life-line between a mother and her unborn child; that the penis can be conceived as a fertilizer or (among peoples who deny physiological paternity) a nourisher; and that, in various traditions, the "sun" is said once to have had a penis or tail projecting from it.
Alternative biotic images of the world-axis depict it as a plant or a part of a plant. Reading the commonest botanic representations of the axis in order of increasing size and distance from the ground, we may list them as follows:
Like the animals listed above, each of these plants has special qualities that distinguish it, over and above the shared and requisite quality of elongation. The mushroom (at least in some of its varieties, such as Amanita muscaria, or fly-agaric) is a powerful psychedelic drug, yielding intense visions of another world; the bean-stalk grows with preternatural speed to reach heaven; the lotus, consumed, grants a golden forgetfulness of our "age of iron"; the vine is a sky-rope, permitting traffic between earth and sky; and the tree (whose best known examplar is the Norse Yggdrasil) supports the sky and dispenses longevity, bounty, and wisdom to all creatures.
Most of the images depicting the world-axis, however, are artifactual. And there are so many of them that it is probably more useful to list them in groups rather than individually, beginning with the most flexible artifacts and ending with the least flexible.
Of these various artifacts, the more flexible ones, such as ropes and chains, seem to emphasize the ties between Aster and Earth, while the more inflexible ones, such as axles and pillars, seem to emphasize the stability of the nexus.
The only common image for the world-axis that is neither biotic nor artifactive in nature is the rainbow, an atmospheric phenomenon. Yet even the rainbow icon overlaps conspicuously with biotic and artifactive imagery. In fact, the very word "bow" suggests a hunting weapon or musical instrument. And it is widely pictured as a bridge, across which gods and other beings travel. When vivified, moreover, it is portrayed as a winged or feathered serpent in charge of a vast store of water.(32)
Nor is the rainbow the only compound axial image. The chain that links Heaven and Earth is sometimes said to be composed of arrows. The rope which presumably preceded that chain in the course of iconic development has the power to transform itself - or be transformed into a pulsating, snake-like organism. The mushroom, one genus of which is actually called phalloides, is an alternative form of the ithyphallus, or erect penis. And the Tree of Life is all-embracing: in, on, or around it is everything needed to create earthly abundance.
Is it possible to go beyond these superimposed images to get a clearer picture of the appearance and function of the world-axis during the prehistoric period when it visibly linked our planet to Aster? Unfortunately, few publications deal specifically with the axis; and those few tend to treat it as mythic in a pejorative sense. E. A. Butterworth, for example, in The Tree at the Navel of the Earth,(33) observes that "the doom of Tantalus in Greek myth seems to connect the tree of life with a sun which is always above the head".(34) The best the author can do to help us visualize the tree is to describe the Minoan pillar supposedly imitative of it. This pillar was foliate, efflorescent, and luminescent - that is, so decorated as to appear leafy, flowery, and bright.(35)
Within the contemporary solar system, the only phenomenon that seems significantly analogous to the world-axis is the electro-magnetic "flux-tube" between Jupiter and its satellite Io.(36) This tube is, of course, not directly visible. But it is inferred as a plausible source of the eruptive behavior of Io's surface. The differences between the contemporary flux-tube and the traditional world-axis, however, are at least as important as the similarities between them. For the axis must not only have been more perceptible than the tube, but also more benign in its effect on the smaller of the two bodies which it so tenuously but effectively connected.
Most ancient traditions speak of a once palpable but vanished link between Heaven and Earth. And many of them describe it as having been divisible into two parts - a lower extension of heaven, comprising the world-axis just discussed, and an upper extension of Earth, comprising the "world-mountain".(37)
There was only one world-mountain during the Golden Age. But, because its elevation was repeatedly evoked by the many local hills, cliffs, and plateaus of later ages, the characteristics of the Mountain were often retrospectively confused with those of various other, much lesser, mountains. To the extent, however, that the world-mountain was kept distinct in the memories of post-aureal generations, it differed significantly from the harsh and chilly terrain that we think of today as typically mountainous. Not only was it even brighter, warmer, and moister than most of the inhabited land of aureal times, but it was relatively smooth, like the body of a woman.(38) Moreover, the gravity experienced at its highest point was less than that experienced anywhere else on Earth. To live there was to be at once light-hearted and light-footed.(39)
A few peoples, such as the ancient Macedonians, preserved, in the very name of their most exalted peak, a reference to the former vastness and uniqueness of the world-mountain. The chief source of mined gold in Macedon was Mt. Pangaios, meaning "the whole earth".(40) Most other peoples, however, lost some of this universalism by treating their sacred mountains as if these were, at least in part, restricted in accessibility to the inhabitants of a single historic locality.
Among the best known of the various "local" world-mountains are these:
The fact that most of these prominences cannot be readily identified with mountains known today is an indication of the extent to which they hark back to a prehistoric landscape, radically different from ours.
The best non-mythic explanation of this mythic mountain seems to be that Earth was sufficiently close to Aster to have lost its independent rotation and become astrosynchronous in the same way in which our Moon is now geosynchronous. This means that Earth was so gravitationally locked on Aster as always to turn the same face toward it. Furthermore, Aster was so massive that its pull distorted Earth's sphericity, converting the terrestrial globe into an ovoid. Earth was probably shaped like a hen's egg, with its smaller end the world-mountain - perpetually pointed at Aster. Because the Mountain was closer to Aster than was any other part of the Earth, it received more light, warmth, and, in all probability, revitalizing energy than did any other part of the planet. It was also more subject to Asterian gravitation (and/or magnetism) than was the rest of the planet, with the result that people on the Mountain would have felt lighter there than on any other part of the planetary surface.(41)
. . . to be continued.
Note: The following abbreviations stand for works repeatedly cited.
2. Ibid., p. 1851.
3. Richard Heinberg, "The Garden, the Fall, and the Restoration," KRONOS VI:2 (Winter 1981), p. 52.
4. "Paradise," SDFML, p. 844; and Albert J. Carnoy, "Legends of Yima," chapter 4 in vol. 6, MAR.
5. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, George A. Buttrick, editor (New York, 1962), volume 2, pp. 22-23.
6. Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (New York, 1971), p.533. (Although Klein acknowledges that the word "paradise" comes to us - by way of French, Latin, and Greek - from Old Persian, he makes no attempt to reconstruct the unattested original, citing only the attested cognate pairidaeza- from Avestic, an Iranian sister-language. The form cited for Old Persian in which the asterisk indicates lack of attestation, is a reconstruction by the author of this article.)
7. MAR, vol. 5, pp. 158, 184,193-196, 208, and 224.
8. Howard R. Patch, The Other World (Cambridge, 1950), pp. 4 and 16.
9. J. A. MacCulloch, et al., "Abode of the Blest," in ERE, vol. 2, p. 701; and The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (Middlesex, England, 1959), p. 419.
10. "Enuma Elish," SDFML, p. 345.
11. E. A. Butterworth, The Tree at the Navel of the Earth (Berlin, 1970), p. 29.
12. Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford, 1897; reprinted 1961), p. 2009.
13. R. B. Blakney, The Way of Life: A New Translation of Tao the Te Ching (Munroe/ New American Library,1955).
14. "Australian Aboriginal Mythology," SDFML, p. 92.
15. "The Feast of Fools," Ibid., p. 374.16. "Cockaigne," Ibid., p. 239.
17. The Oxford English Dictionary, Compact Edition (Oxford,1971).
18. R. B . Blakney, op. cit. (fn. 13), as interpreted and summarized by R. W. Wescott.
19. "Ages of the World," ERE, vol. 1, p. 198.
20. "Platonism and Neo-Platonism," The Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, 1974); Macropaedia, vol. 14, p.540.
21. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York, 1945), pp. 206 and 455.
22. MIFL, vol. 6, pp. 29-30.
23. David N. Talbott, The Saturn Myth (Garden City, 1980), pp. 126 and 130-132.
24. Roger W. Wescott, "Archaic Images," The Journal of Visual and Verbal Languaging (Summer 1984), pp. 74-75.
25. John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale," in Immortal Poems of the English Language, Oscar Williams, editor (New York,1952), p. 323, stanza 5.
26. Michael Graulich, "Myths of Paradise Lost in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico," Current Anthropology (December 1980), p. 580.
27. The Chinese ideograms for Sun and Moon, when conjoined, mean "brilliant". This was the name given to the imperial dynasty, lasting from 1368 to 1644, which expelled the Mongolian overlords and restored the glory of the native Han and T'ang dynasties. (See John K, Fairbank, et al., East Asia: Trade and Transformation, Boston, 1978, p. 180.)
28. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie, editors (Oxford, 1951; reprinted with corrections in 1973), pp. 213-216. (Pages 215 and 216 deal with humpty-dumpty as a game, a mixed alcoholic beverage, a riddle, and a slang expression for a short, fat person.)
29. Uno Harva Holmberg, Der Baum des Lebens (Helsinki, 1922), p. 222.
30. William Shakespeare, sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"), Histories and Poems of Shakespeare (New York, 1943), p. 967.
31. MIFL, vol. 6, pp. 291-293.
32. Ibid., pp. 721-723.
33. DeGruyter (Berlin,1970).
34. E.A.Butterworth, op. cit. (fn.33), p.29.
35. Ibid., p. 24.
36. Henry T. Simmons, "Visit to a Large Planet: The Pioneer Missions to Jupiter," The 1976 Yearbook of Science and the Future, Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicago, p. 40; and Thomas Gold, "The Electrical Nature of the Outbursts on Io," Science, vol. 206 (November 30, 1979), pp. 1071-1073.
37. Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image (Princeton, 1974), pp. 76-78.
38. MAR, vol. 4, p. 313.
39. Lynn E. Rose, "Variations on a Theme of Philolaos," KRONOS V:1 (Fall 1979), p. 33.
40. Smith's Smaller Classical Dictionary, E. H. Blakeney, editor (London, 1937), pp. 181-366.
41. Lynn E. Rose, "The Golden Age," p. 3; and "The Counter-Earth," p. 1; both photocopied, Philosophy Department, State University of New York, Buffalo; received by R. W. Wescott from their author in 1982.