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Cosmogony and the Elements

The Intuition of Cosmos in Science and Myth

John McKim Malville


Our origins are clear: we come from the stars. This planet and the life which its supports resulted from 10-20 billion years of slow cooking in the interiors of stars or explosive fusion in the violence of supernovae. In that expanse of time between the present and our sidereal past lie chemistry and myth, matter and spirit, described variously in images of protons, chemical bonds, bones, blood, and mud.

The overriding insight is the same from astrophysics and the origin myths of cosmogony: because of our heritage we are thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of life on our planet, and ultimately into that ordered and harmonious system which we call cosmos. In same manner as the discovery of common ancestors can establish a feeling of family, the discovery of our common astronomical origins can lead to a recognition of an interconnected and interrelated cosmos.

In the words of Teilhard de Chardin (1959), "It is impossible to cut into this network, to isolate a portion of it without it becoming frayed and unraveled at all of its edges. All around us, as far as the eye can see, the universe holds together, and only one way of considering it is really possible, that is, to take it as a whole, in one piece".

In this paper I begin by sketching our current understanding from astrophysics of the origin of the chemical elements, an extraordinary story which identifies our parents as ancient stars that destroyed themselves as supernovae. As Heraclitus has put it, "The upward path and the downward path is one and the same", and since our origins lie equally in the earth as in the skies, I present a number of earth-diver myths that attest to such an intuition. Finally, turning to ancient architecture I explore those material objects contained in the archaeological record that give some of the earliest ex-pressions of our elemental constituents and of a harmonious, interconnected cosmos.

Nucleogenesis in the Stars

We live in a universe of galaxies, the seamless whole with no center which started expanding some 15 billion years ago. The elemental building blocks of life and the forces which glue them together are found everywhere in today’s universe. But most of those chemical elements that form earth, air, fire, and water were absent when the universe was very young. Carbon, silicon, and oxygen can later. Those processes of nuclear energy generation that give light to the stars have slowly turned primordial matter into the 92 stable chemical elements.

Our universe started with the simplest of elements: hydrogen and a little helium. Even the first stars were formed exclusively of hydrogen and helium. But in order for a star to be self-luminous it also must necessarily be a factory for the manufacture of new elements. All the chemical elements heavier than helium and hydrogen, were synthesized in the hot centers of stars at advanced stages of their evolution and/or during explosive events such as supernovae.

Stars such as our sun in whose outer layers heavy elements are observed are second (or higher) generation objects. They are the progeny of earlier stars that blew apart and scattered their debris in places where new stars were being born. Likewise planets and all forms of life on our planet are the brood of self-sacrificing stars.

Our sun has been converting hydrogen to helium during the 4.5 billions years since its birth. In some 5 billion more years it will have depleted so much of the original hydrogen that in its death throes the sun will expand into a red giant. In that bloated condition, the outer layer of the sun will reach to the orbit of the planet Mars. Caught inside the sun the inner planets including Earth will gradually vaporize. Sometime later the sun will shrink into a white dwarf, a small, cooling, and dying stellar ember.

For all its effort during all its years of struggle from conception to death, our sun is incapable of creating an element more complex than helium. Only stars that are more massive than the sun can carry synthesis of elements beyond that of helium. Once hydrogen has been exhausted in their cores these stars generate energy by synthesizing helium into carbon and oxygen. Only the most massive of stars, more than perhaps 12 times that of the sun, can carry the process of synthesis of elements all the way to completion and can disperse those elements in a supernova explosion.

Were there no explosive release of matter, new elements would remain locked up in the stars, hoarded like the gold of dragons, to be carried with them to their graves. The massive stars generate element after element, building onion-like shells of elements with iron in the core (Fig. 2.1). The iron core is unstable and splits by fission back down into hydrogen and helium. The star collapses violently, falling in upon itself with speeds as high as 1/4 the speed of light. The infall is reversed in a spectacular bounce off of the hot, dense matter in the center, and part of the star is blown off as the supernova remnant.

The blazing supernova is the singular event that signals the scattering of new elements in a galaxy. If no supernovae ever occurred in a galaxy, there would be no elements from which to build planets or life. The iron which reddens the soil of Earth and Mars and which courses through the veins and arteries of reptiles, fish, and mammals originated in an ancient supernova.

During the past 2000 years eight supernovae have probably been seen in our galaxy. They brighten by a factor of 10 billion and briefly become as luminous as an entire galaxy. The Chinese reported seeing ‘guest stars’ as early as 532 bc and supernovae were reported in ad 185, 386, 393, 1006, 1054, and 1181. Those of ad 1572 and 1603 significantly influenced the lives of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. The most brilliant supernova was that of ad 1006 which was nearly as bright as the quarter moon. The most famous of all first appeared in July ad 1054. Carefully monitored by the Chinese, it produced the Crab Nebula now visible in the sky near the star, Tien Kuan (Gate of Heaven). So bright that it could be seen in the daytime sky for several weeks, the remnant of the supernova remained visible at night until April ad1056.

Slowly but steadily, portions of most galaxies such as ours acquired the ingredients necessary for life. We astronomers believe that in our galaxy planets were formed with the stars, that planets may be as abundant and ubiquitous as stars, and that many of those other planets also contain mud, fire, and perhaps even alien versions of blood.

Elements of Earth

We come from below as well as above, from the earth as well as the stars, and powerful images of earth and water juxtapose with those of the sidereal realms in our creation mythologies.

The cosmogonies of the Americas intertwined blood, bones, and earth, and we find references to these elements throughout the ruins of Mesoamerica. The Aztec sun stone, carved in commemoration of the fourteenth-century Aztec king Axayacatl, displays the roles of fundamental elements in the creation and destruction of the world (Fig. 2.2). At the center is Tonatiuh, the sun. From his mouth hangs, instead of a tongue, the sacrificial flint knife, ready for blood sacrifices. The four panels around Tonatiuh recall the four previous ages or ‘suns’.

The Mesoamerican cosmos is characterized by a rhythm of disasters which destroy one age after another. The ages are identified not by the creative forces that formed them but by the destructive forces and elements that eliminated them. The first age was that of Jaguar, inhabited by giants, dwelling in caves, who did not farm the earth as the gods had expected and hence were destroyed by Jaguars, earth monsters. In the second age, that of wind, another imperfect human race was destroyed by that element; the creatures were transformed into monkeys, that they might better cling to the world. In the third world, that of fire-rain, some creatures survived the rain of fire by being transformed into birds. And finally in the fourth world, just preceding ours, the world was destroyed by water and creatures were transformed into frogs and fish.

In another creation story from Mesoamerica, the responsibility for the formation of our current fifth world is given to Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, a classic image of the conjoining of earth and air, reminiscent of the makaram of India. Quetzalcoatl dives into the earth, to request from the lord of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli, the bones of the ancestors to make a new race of humans. Quetzalcoatl is given the impossible task of blowing on a shell trumpet that is not hollow and has no holes. He calls upon worms to drill out the shell and bees to make it sing. He escapes with the bones. But they are broken as a result of a fall and places them in a jadestone bowl. When they are ground up, Quetzalcoatl adds blood and from this mixture a male child and a female child are born.

Throughout Mesoamerica, blood is the fundamental element of life. Blood feeds the Hummingbird God, Huitzilopochtli, which is the sun in the morning, preparing him for his nightly battle with the forces of darkness. Human blood was needed to sustain the sun, a feat which was accomplished through human sacrifices, many of which occurred on the summit of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan where were located the twin shrines of the gods of sun and water.

Earth Diver

The set of myths known as earth diver, ancient and world-wide in scope, is one of our preeminent cosmogonic allegories. The basic elements of the universe are extracted from the depths of primeval waters.

Earth Diver myths have been identified as the most widely distributed of all North American Indian myths. In the Americas these myths describe the descent into the waters by a creature who returns into the light of the sun with a few grains of mud under its finger nails or paws.

In North America Indian myths of the origin of the world, the culture hero has a succession of animals dive into the primeval waters, or flood of waters, to secure bits of mud or sand from which the earth is to be formed. Various animals, birds, and aquatic creatures are sent down into the waters that cover the earth. One after another animal fails; the last one succeeds, however, and floats to the surface, half-dead, with a little sand or dirt in his claws. Sometimes it is Muskrat, sometimes Beaver, Hell-diver, Crawfish, Mink who succeeds, after various other animals have failed. The tiny bit of mud which is then put on the surface of the water and magically expands to become the world of the present time. (Wheeler-Voegelin 1949)

The predominant symbols of earth diver myths include water as the unformed, pure element out of which the universe develops, descent into the dark waters, which parallels descent into the underworld or return to the womb as an experience of renewal, and return to light with the germs of creation as well as knowledge to change the world.

There are variants to this myth which place the creatures on the central mountain of the earth or on the world tree, both symbols of the axis mundi:

The whole earth was once covered with water, and there were no living creatures, save an eagle and a crow. There was a stump of a tree that projected above the surface of the watery expanse, and upon this the two birds were wont to stand and hold converse. Finally they became weary of the solitude and between them they managed to create a duck, which swam about the stump. One day the duck dove to the bottom and brought up some earth on his bill. This struck the eagle and crow as worth looking into since they had never seen anything like it. They were very tired of having nothing but the stump to roost on, and as the mud brought up seemed promising, they entered into an agreement to keep the duck constantly diving for it. They could not agree, however as to where the mud should be deposited. So they divided the world into two portions. (Count 1935)

The myth in its various forms always begins with the element water. The creatures are located on four types of places: a central mountain, a tree, raft, or on the surface of the water itself. Even though the animal may die while diving or after surfacing, a handful of earth is taken from its feet or a few grains from its fingernails. The earth is placed on a raft and expands to become the world. Some versions describe that a ball is made from the mud by the creator; after he blows on it (thereby adding air to the elements earth and water) the ball grows; in other stories the mud is kneaded to form an island which floats on the ocean surface to become eventually the earth.

Hindu myth provides a memorable version of the earth diver myth. Measured just in terms of body weight Varaha, the boar avatar of Visnu, must be the greatest earth diver of all time. Mother Earth had been taken prisoner to the dark floor of the cosmic ocean by the demon of darkness and chaos. The proper flow of time was imperilled. The great boar plunged into the dark waters, vanquished chaos, raised the earth from beneath the waters, and placed her in the sunlight on the surface of the ocean. The earth floats because she had been kneaded: flattened and spread out. "The earth stayed like a great ship on the top of the flood of water and did not sink, because her body was so spread out."

Early Intuitions of Cosmos

How far back in time can we discover material evidence of the intuition of a universe which is an ordered and harmonious system, integrating humans, earth, and heavens? The brightest objects in the heavens, sun and moon, are the most natural candidates for identification as elemental forces, together with earth. Emerging as embryos when the dark waters of time were released from the coils of Vrtra, the sun and moon are our first elements. The sun is the sole provider of energy for our world while the moon brings light to the night and rhythm to the year. The moon also played a primary role in the origin of life in the oceans of our planet, keeping the waters alive and well-stirred through the constant action of the tides.

The Sun at Newgrange

One of the earliest manifestations in the archaeological record of a belief in the parallelism of cycles of the sun and life may be found at Newgrange, perhaps dating to about 3200 bc (O’Kelly 1982). Death, winter solstice, and the sun are all represented in the tomb on a ridge above the River Boyne. At winter solstice, light of the rising sun penetrates a darkened passage and, reaching eighty feet to its end, illuminates a triform chamber. With intertwined spirals, evocative symbols of the intertwining of the realms of the cosmos, carved on its walls the space may have once held cremated remains of several individuals (Fig. 2.3). It may have been the intent of its builders that the dead buried there would be magically enfolded into the rhythm of the cosmos, the solstice to solstice cadence of the sun. There may have been hope that somehow the cycle of life and death of a monarch would resonate with the cycle of the sun and the dead would be brought to life. At winter solstice the cold sun, low on the horizon dies, but is soon born again.

Newgrange may evidence the belief in a form of sympathetic magic that couples the rhythm of human life and death with the life and death of the sun. But it may also contain symbolism about those elements that lie at the foundation of our world. Thus, the annual illumination of the ground at the base of the deep passageway could have been symbolic of the conjoining of the elements of earth and sun to create life.

The Moon at Stonehenge

Stonehenge is more complex and vastly more controversial than Newgrange (Hawkins 1965; Newham 1972). Including alignments to the moon as well as the sun, the earliest structures at Stonehenge, built at approximately 3100 bc, display a remarkably complete set of lunar and solar cycles (Fig. 2.4). Besides lines to the sun at winter and summer solstice there are also lines to the major and minor standstills of the moon. While these lines do not have the accuracy to function as observational devices for a calendar (much less a ‘computer’), they may have honored, commemorated, and/or celebrated the repeating cycles of the sun and moon. Since it is likely that human burials were placed within or in the neighborhood of Stonehenge, these standing stones may be mute acknowledgment, similar to Newgrange, that the cycle of human life is intertwined with the complex cycles of moon and sun.

The moon is more than simply a convenient time keeping device. In its waxing to maturity as a full moon and waning to invisibility as a new moon, it is a body whose life appears to be subject to the same universal law of birth and death as that of human life. For three nights every month the sky is without a moon. But the death of the moon is never final, and the waning slender crescent preceding death is always follo-wed by the rebirth of a waxing slender crescent in the west just after the setting sun.

This perpetual return to its beginnings every 29.5 days makes the moon the unique heavenly body associated with time and the rhythms of life. No other heavenly body provides so tangible a set of cycles, so accessible a cosmic rhythm, or so visible a statement that death is not final. The cycles of the moon give explicit demonstration of the "intimate parallelism" (Wheatley 1971) of heaven and earth. These are the cycles that encouraged imitation of celestial archetypes by ancient peoples (Eliade 1959) and became religious symbols expressive of the order of nature (Geertz 1973).

Hunting cultures often ascribe success of the hunt to the moon and give the moon greater status and power than the sun. The reverse is generally true for agricultural societies for whom the powerful role of the sun in evoking life from the earth is undeni-able. For example, in the mythologies of the Bushmen of southern Africa and the Austra-lian aborigines the moon is more important than the sun. Hunters pray to the moon for success partly because hunting is a nighttime activity when the moon provides illumi-nation, especially during the bright half of the lunar month preceding full moon.

Besides the lunar month of 29.5 days there is the human biological (menstrual) month also of approximately 29.5 days. In his provocative proposal for a lunar origin of culture, Knight (1989) argues that the monthly organization of hunting expeditions would have influenced the menstrual periods of the women who were periodically abandoned. The return of the hunters with raw meat near the time of full moon would have intertwined moon, fertility, blood, fire, and food.

Yin and Yang at Beijing

Established as his capital by the emperor Yong le in the third Ming dynasty, Beijing was the "place where sky and earth met" (Wheatley 1971), and astronomy was the official business of the city (Krupp 1989). The emperor was the pivot of the world, and ruling from the Forbidden City with the mandate of heaven, he harmonized the world and maintained order by maintaining the calendar.

Dominating the planning of the city was the ancient yin-yang world-view of Chinese philosophy. The beginning of the world was understood to be the ‘limitless’, wuji, an ultimate reality which transcends all words and concepts (Meyer 1991). When considered positively it is known as the "supreme ultimate", taiji, also as Dao. Initially passive and undifferentiated, the Dao appears in our world when its divides into the two cosmic principles Yin and Yang, which in turn generate the dualities of the world: light/dark, male/female, east/west, birth/death, etc. Through the interaction of the Yin and Yang change takes place as season follows season, day and night, heat and cold, follow each other in an orderly sequence. The interactions of yin and yang give birth to the five ‘phases’ of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth, the wuxing. These have most frequently been translated as the five ‘elements’, but Meyer (1991) argues that ‘phases’ better conveys the dynamic, transformative nature of the concept.

The Wuji gives birth to the Taiji

[The Taiji] moves and gives birth to Yang

Rests, and gives birth to Yin

Yang shifts, Yin, unites,

Then is born water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.

The Five Breaths make things flourish in their proper order;

The four seasons progress according to them.

(Meyer 1991)

The Axial Way of Beijing provides a dominating north-south axis with balanced structures placed symmetrically on each side. Starting in the south at the Eternal Foundation Gate, the path terminates in the north with the Drum Tower. With nearly perfect symmetry, on opposite sides of the axis, are the Altar of the Moon, Yuetan (west) and the Altar of the Sun, Ritan, (east).

The symmetry about the axis is clearly evident in maps of the Forbidden City (Fig. 2.5). The circumpolar regions of the sky lie north of Beijing, and the emperor of heaven, Shangdi, ruled the cosmos from the immovable pole, facing south to Beijing. The north-south axis from the emperor of heaven to emperor of earth was thus a line of dominion as well as an axis of yin-yang symmetry.

The city was built to imitate the heavens and achieve a mirror image of the celestial capital of Shangdi. The palace was designed to be the earthly counterpart of the circumpolar zone of the heavens, that region of stars revolving so closely to the immobile center of the heavens that they never set. The polar region in the sky was identified by the Chinese as a walled compound, "the purple protected enclosure". The world turned around the emperor, paralleling the turning of the heavens around the pole.


Plate 2.1 Polar Stars

Plate 2.2 Kitt-Peak Observatory, Arizona

Plate 2.3 Super Nova, 1987

Plate 2.4 Milky way Galaxy


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