From before the dawn of recorded history, the peoples of the world relied on myth to explain the earthly phenomena they observed around them. You may recognize some of the more popular texts collecting these myths as they evolved from oral histories: Popol Vuh (Mayan), Kalevala (Finnish), The Odyssey and The Iliad (Greek), The Nibelungenlied (Teutonic), The Old and New Testaments (Judeo-Christian), the Qur’ān (Islamic), Mahabharata (Hindu), The Epic of Gilgamesh (Mesopotamian), among others. Often, as with the case with some of the above-mentioned texts, mythic tales may become confused with or transformed into historical fact. Nevertheless, the essential import of these stories is to instruct initiates and reinforce for the already-initiated, by way of symbolic or allegorical tales, the codes of conduct and moral conventions upon which the foundations of civilized societies are built.
In time, myth may evolve into religion, but the fundamental functions persist through this transformation: to teach, to instruct, to help make sense of the larger world and our places in it. Across the hundred-thousand years of mankind’s existence, there have been countless myths and innumerable deities that have guided peoples along their lives’ journeys. It was/is not uncommon for gods to die away or be co-opted by competing deities of other cultures, or myths to be reinterpreted to serve the needs of new peoples and societies. Myth is fluid. Myth is always changing.
Looking through more recent histories, we find that while most civilizations clung to their own stories, their own gods, peoples in regions such as North America (other than Native Americans, of course) and England possessed little in the way of their own mythologies. The beliefs of the Native Americans did not serve the spiritual needs of the European settlers of America, and England really only had the myriad Arthurian legends upon which to draw (though many of the stories of Arthur, the Holy Grail, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table are more French inventions than English). J.R.R. Tolkien created his expansive histories of Middle Earth in response to England lacking a universal mythology of its own. In doing so, he drew heavily from the Kalevala, the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda of the Icelandic region, and popular Norse and Teutonic mythologies from Northern Europe. Tolkien sought to grasp, and even challenge, the industrialization and mechanization of society, movements he perceived as looming threats to the peace and tranquility of the familiar pastoral life of old.
All of which brings us to the problem of the modern myth. What’s the problem, you might ask? Do we, particularly as Westerners, even have a mythology to call our own? If not, do we need one?
I believe, with regard to those questions, some do need a mythology, a belief to cling to, and that mythology began essentially with the mysterious events that occurred in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Whether fact or fiction, programs like Project Blue Book and MJ-12 tapped into a collective need to answer one simple fact: are we alone in the universe? We have still not answered definitively that question, but seeking an answer has sparked the prevailing conspiracy theory of some massive government cover-up. We have been visited, these theorists declare, and the government is keeping secret from its citizens the fact of first contact. Moreover, if government has effected such a gargantuan undertaking, then programs such as MK-Ultra have to have been unquestionably true and successful; maybe even aided, in part, by recovered alien technologies then and now in the possession of the military.
Our obsession with aliens has only grown since Roswell. In 1961, Betty and Barney Hill became the first individuals widely publicized to claim to have been abducted by aliens. Their story encouraged more and more individuals to come forward to describe their own abduction experiences, with many claims having startling similarities in their details. In his book, Communion, published in 1987, author Whitley Strieber revealed details of his own encounters with entities he believed were not of this earth. The account of his confrontations with strange, non-human “Visitors” popularized and proved in the minds of those American peoples inclined to such beliefs the truth of the alien abduction phenomenon.
In search of some deeper truth, some deeper meaning to and explanation for our existence, some individuals, scientists and laymen alike, explored other theories alleged to be supported by evidence contained within various ancient texts and by the appearances of earthly, geological anomalies. The History Channel program, Ancient Aliens, is a show presented as a serious contemplation on our civilization’s origins being the result of contact with, or creation by, alien astronauts who have visited earth during crucial times in its evolution. The theory was popularized by the 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken. von Däniken’s theories are interesting, based on similarities among ancient texts from around the world and the existence of strange land markings and formations, but are largely unsupported by scientific investigation. His theories are pure speculation. The Nazca lines located in Peru are, perhaps, his most famous evidence, resembling what look like large runways for spacecraft and depicting geoglyphs of various creatures such as a hummingbird, spider, and even a human.
He claims contact with extraterrestrials is evidenced in stories and drawings from the Hindu Mahabharata and among several Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as other recorded histories of early human civilizations. Graham Hancock has approached the subject from his own perspective in Fingerprints of the Gods and other books. In a nutshell, these ancient astronaut theorists claim we have already experienced first contact. Without von Däniken’s theories and those of his like-minded contemporaries, we might have never had The X-Files, films like Stargate, Prometheus, or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; or novels of the likes of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS Trilogy, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (adapted from his short story, “The Sentinel”), and Rendezvous with Rama; or David Brin’s Uplift series.
But we must ask ourselves: is there any harm or benefit for those subscribing to such beliefs? What might we turn to as an alternative, modern mythology?
Part III coming soon.