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KRONOS Vol X, No. 3



The world is full of origin myths, and all are factually false. The world is full, also, of great traditional books tracing the history of man (but focused narrowly on the local group) from the age of mythical beginnings, through periods of increasing plausibility, to a time almost within memory, when the chronicles begin to carry the record, with a show of rational factuality, to the present. Furthermore, just as all primitive mythologies serve to validate the customs, systems of sentiments, and political aims of their respective local groups, so do these great traditional books. On the surface they may appear to have been composed as conscientious history. In depth they reveal themselves to have been conceived as myths: poetic readings of the mystery of life from a certain interested point of view. But to read a poem as a chronicle of fact is - to say the least - to miss the point. To say a little more, it is to prove oneself a dolt. - Joseph Campbell, THE MASKS OF GOD: OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY (1964), p.95.

A naive observer from some other planet might more justifiably (since he would be dealing with history, not myths) be amazed that in the mass of works devoted to the French Revolution the same incidents are not always quoted or disregarded, and that the same incidents are presented in different lights by different authors. And yet these variants refer to the same country, the same period, and the same events, the reality of which is scattered throughout the various levels of a complex structure. The criterion of validity is, therefore, not to be found among the elements of history. Each one, if separately pursued, would prove elusive. But some of them at least acquire a certain solidity through being integrated into a series, whose terms can be accorded some degree of credibility because of their over-all coherence.

- Claude Levi-Strauss, THE RAW AND THE COOKED:

In his last major book, Sigmund Freud ( 1856-1939) sought a psychoanalytical explanation for the origins of the Jewish religion. In his view, those origins were analogous to the neurotic process: "Early trauma defence - latency - outbreak of neurotic illness partial return of the repressed.''(1) Even earlier, in 1913, Freud had

supposed that the sense of guilt for an action has persisted for many thousands of years and has remained operative in generations which can have had no knowledge of that action.(2)

A younger psychoanalyst, Immanuel Velikovsky ( 1895-1979), while vehemently disagreeing with some of Freud's historical conjectures, essentially used Freud's methods to provide a very different explanation for the origins of modern religions.

In Velikovsky's critique, Freud has

centered his attention on the motif of father-murder (patricide), presenting it as though it had been a regular institution in ancient times. He makes it appear a general practice in the past and a subconscious urge in present-day man.

However, regular institutions and practices in the life of the family would not give rise to myths. . . . Even less than daily tribal life do the daily occurrences in nature give rise to legends.(3)

The year before Freud had written on the phylogenetic inheritance of guilt, the pioneering French anthropologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) had already anticipated Velikovsky's criticism. In his 1912 classic, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he was highly critical of any "naturistic" explanation for religion; such an explanation

addresses itself to the phenomenon of nature, either the great cosmic forces, such as winds, rivers, stars, or the sky, etc., or else objects of various sorts which cover the surface of the earth, such as plants, animals, rocks, etc.(4)

Presumably, Durkheim would have included daily family life as well, since his chief criticism was the mundaneness of the naturistic concept:

that which characterizes the life of nature is a regularity which approaches monotony. Every morning the sun mounts in the horizon, every evening it sets; every month the moon goes through the same cycle; the river flows in an uninterrupted manner in its bed; the same seasons periodically bring back the same sensations. To be sure, here and there an unexpected event sometimes happens: the sun is eclipsed, the moon is hidden behind clouds, the river overflows. But these momentary variations could only give birth to equally momentary impressions, the remembrance of which is gone after a little while; they could not serve as a basis for these stable and permanent systems of ideas and practices which constitute religions. Normally, the course of nature is uniform, and uniformity could never produce strong emotions.(5)

In very similar language, using nearly identical examples, Velikovsky also rejected "unexpected events" of the usual sort as a sufficient explanation for religious beliefs. He went on to remark that the Biblical account of the great flood that "swept over the earth and covered hills and even mountains", for example, has its counterpart in many mythologies the world over:

We have a poor opinion of the mental abilities of our ancestors if we think that merely an extraordinary overflow of the Euphrates so impressed the nomads of the desert that they thought the entire world was flooded, and that the legend so born wandered from people to people. . . . The peoples of ancient times, who . . . lacked modern protection against the elements of nature, and who lived in the insecurity of tropical storms and tornadoes or frost and snowstorms, must have been more accustomed to seasonal disturbances than we are, and would not have been impressed by the overflow of a river to such a degree as to carry their experience to all parts of the world as a story of a cosmic upheaval.(6)

However, what if "unexpected events" occurred that were of such magnitude that the Sun did not mount in the morning or set in the evening, that the lunar cycle was interrupted in an inexplicable manner, that the seasons were reversed? According to Velikovsky, it was precisely events of that magnitude, all happening globally, which have impressed their nature into human affairs, human mythology, human psychology:

One of the most terrifying events in the past of mankind was the conflagration of the world, accompanied by awful apparitions in the sky, quaking of the earth, vomiting of lava by thousands of volcanoes, melting of the ground, boiling of the sea, submersion of continents, a primeval chaos bombarded by flying hot stones, the roaring of the cleft earth, and the loud hissing of tornadoes of cinders.(7)

In Velikovsky's view, the reason that many similar motifs keep recurring in the folklore and mythology of so many diverse peoples is that "a great many ideas reflect real historical content".(8) This is in sharp opposition to Durkheim, who was convinced that

religious thought does not come in contact with reality, except to cover it at once with a thick veil which conceals its real forms; this veil is the tissue of fabulous beliefs which mythology brought forth. Thus the believer, like the delirious man, lives in a world peopled with beings and things which have only a verbal existence.(9)

Another member of the Freud-Durkheim generation, with pronounced views on the subject, was Franz Boas ( 1858-1942). In the initial stages of Velikovsky's research into these matters, Velikovsky consulted with the older man on the implications of catastrophism. Boas expressed his skepticism but graciously referred Velikovsky to a sixteenth-century authority on pre-Columbian literature.(10) Only two years or so earlier, Boas had pointed out that the most important thing to remember is that "the one-sided emphasis laid upon the intimate relation between religion and mythology obscured the imaginative play that is involved in the formation of myths".(11) Mythology is primarily a literary form employing the restriction, expansion, or transfer of meaning, which

is constantly at work shaping and reshaping the significance of word symbols. . . . It does not seem necessary to search in nature for prototypes . . . of events that are exaggerations or distortions of what happens in everyday life.(12)

Boas went on to discuss the widespread similarities in mythological motifs:

While . . . early investigators were inclined to see in these correspondences evidence of a psychic unity of mankind, and assumed that each one of the analogous stories had an independent origin wherever told, careful investigation . . . has proved that in most cases the occurrence of similar tales is due to dissemination. . . . It is hardly conceivable that such a group of . . . incidents should arise independently in regions far apart.(13)

Armed with material gleaned from many sources from around the world, including especially the one that Boas had referred him to, Velikovsky was able to dispute the notion that myths could so easily be disseminated.

The migration of ideas may follow the migration of peoples, but how could unusual motifs of folklore reach isolated islands where the aborigines do not have any means of crossing the sea? Peoples still living in the stone age possess the same, often strange, motifs as the cultured nations. The particular character of some of the contents of folklore makes it impossible to assume that it was only by mere chance that the same motifs were created in all corners of the world.

If a phenomenon had been similarly described by many peoples, we might suspect that a tale, originating with one people, had spread around the world, and consequently there is no proof of the authenticity of the event related. But just because one and the same event is embodied in traditions that are very different indeed, its authenticity becomes highly probable.(14)

The views of these four men can be easily diagrammed. Although the two anthropologists disagreed on the naturistic origins of religion, they agreed that the mythological content of a religion is essentially verbal or literary in nature. On the other hand, the two psychoanalysts agreed that myths are expressions of genuine historical events but disagreed on the naturistic origins. Freud and Boas were content with a naturistic explanation, while Durkheim and Velikovsky doubted that nature, in the ordinary sense, could be capable of producing the profound emotions associated with religious experiences. (See Figure I.)


Figure I

Although Velikovsky was a specialist within the medical field, he was an interdisciplinary generalist in his most important works. Originally he came to the United States, in the summer of 1939, to conduct research in order to refute Freud's approach to both history and religion. He had already tentatively identified the pharaoh Akhnaton as the prototype of the Oedipus legend, apparently on the basis of a 1912 article in Imago by Freud's own protege, Karl Abraham.(15)

In search of "something of interest"(16) to use for Moses, Freud's other "hero", he found a piece in a 1923 British geographical journal that purported to show that the Dead Sea was not one million years old as supposed, but was as little as 50,000 or even less than 4,000 years old (based on the amount of magnesium or sodium found in the water). The latter date would approximately correspond with the traditional date of Moses' exodus from Egypt.

Attempting to find an Egyptian reference to that event, he came across a 1909 translation of a papyrus which Egyptologists agreed was much earlier than any acceptable date for the Exodus. But the details seemed remarkably similar to the Biblical account. The papyrus also related the story of the conquest of Egypt by the Amu. Velikovsky intuitively associated the Amu with the Amalekites, whom he knew had fought against the departing Israelites. With that clue, Velikovsky was able to begin a massive reconstruction of ancient history.

Along the way he made his second major discovery: that many of these Near Eastern historical events seemed to be accompanied by very similar catastrophic natural occurrences. Forced to broaden his theme he searched for accounts of those same catastrophes in the Americas and in the Far East. It was this second phase of his research that led him to Boas, and eventually to the writing of Worlds in Collision. (17)

In this way, proceeding from psychoanalytical premises to obscure texts on geography and hieroglyphics, to classical and Biblical sources, to anthropological materials from remote places, Velikovsky spent a decade in the library at Columbia University. He evaluated the myths of many diverse peoples, a multitude of artistic and architectural styles, archaeological artifacts, philosophical discourses, songs, histories, and philologies. His researches led him to challenge the basic assumptions of astronomers, geologists, physicists, biologists, psychologists, historians, and other specialists.

As William Mullen has pointed out, although Velikovsky's work was inter-disciplinary in the widest sense, his methodology was essentially historiographical.(18) But, unlike most historiographers, Velikovsky's view was not focused narrowly on any local group, and he frequently read a poem as though it were a chronicle of fact. Although their methods, interests, and conclusions differed greatly, Velikovsky's approach resembled nothing so much as Claude Levi-Strauss' bricoleur:

By combining what was once separate, by saying the "same thing" in a variety of symbolic forms, the bricoleur creates a context in which new meanings are realized, and the experienced world is re-ordered in terms of unique orientation or goal.(19)


1. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, in Vol. XXIII of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London, 1964), p.80.
2. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental - Lives of Savages and Neurotics, in Vol. XIII of The Standard Edition (1955), pp. 157-158.
3. Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (N. Y., 1950), p. 302. Paragraphing altered.
4. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, transl. Joseph Ward Swain (N. Y., 1965), pp. 64-65.
5. Ibid, p. 103.
6. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, p. 304. Paragraphing altered.
7. Ibid., p. 298.
8. Ibid., p. 304.
9. Durkheim, pp. 99-100.
10. Immanuel Velikovsky, Stargazers and Gravediggers: Memoirs to Worlds in Collision (N. Y., 1983), pp. 38-40.
11. Franz Boas, "Mythology and Folklore," in his General Anthropology (Boston, 1938) p. 611.
12. Ibid, p. 612. Paragraphing altered.
13. Ibid, pp. 612-613.
14. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, p. 308.
15. Immanuel Velikovsky, Oedipus and Akhnaton: Myth and History (N. Y., 1960), pp.66-69.
16. Velikovsky, Stargazers and Gavediggers, p. 32. [Also see KRONOS VI:4, pp. 40-44. - LMG]
17. Ibid, pp. 38-40.
18. William Mullen, "The Center Holds," Pensee IVR I (May 1972), p. 34.
19. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Jane Monnig Atkinson, "Man the Hunter and Woman: Metaphors for the Sexes in Ilongot Magical Spells," in William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Voght, eds., Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, Fourth Edition (N. Y., 1979), p. 131. [Also see KRONOS IV:1, pp. 90-95. -LMG]

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