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KRONOS Vol X, No. 3
VELIKOVSKY AND HISTORICAL ANTI -NATURISM
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.
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
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
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
Presumably, Durkheim would have included daily family life as well, since his chief criticism was the mundaneness of the naturistic concept:
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:
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:
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
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
Boas went on to discuss the widespread similarities in mythological motifs:
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 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.)
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:
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.