Briefly today, a review of what we think we know, and don’t. By all accounts, early humans appear in all parts of the world to have accepted life in a way that was integrated with many unknowns and uncertainties. Gaps in knowledge could either be ignored in an ethos of “it is not given for man to know all mysteries,” or colored by what could be called coordinated imagination – which is to say, the appearance of a worldview in which observed phenomena become explained or rationalized as the result of supernatural narratives. In other words, what we see is the result of what we believe.
One familiar example of such coordinated imagination includes the many fables in Greek mythology that consider the position of stars in the heavens as caused by stories of the gods living out their own dramas in ways that are similar to how humans behave. For example, the constellation Ursa Major, of which the Big Dipper is a part, has its own myths associated with it in ancient Greek stories, primarily in the myth of Callisto and her son Arcas. In order to rekindle the experience of how ancient humans dealt with the unknown, I invite you to reflect on your feelings as we briefly enter the world of this myth as told thousands of years ago.
Callisto, a beautiful nymph (or in some versions, a princess of Arcadia), was one of Artemis’s virgin followers. Having become attracted to her, Zeus (who was married and didn’t want to be identified by what he was about to do) transformed himself into the likeness of Artemis and seduced Callisto, who then bore a son named Arcas. Overcome with rage and jealousy, Zeus’s wife Hera transformed Callisto into a bear. Now separated from her human son, Callisto roamed the forests, avoiding hunters and other animals. Years later, and by now a teenager, Arcas went hunting in the forest and encountered his bear-mother. Not recognizing her, he prepared to shoot her. In a fit of remorse, and seeking to avoid the tragic outcome of Arcas killing his own mother, Zeus intervened by sending a whirlwind that swept both Callisto and Arcas into the sky, where he transformed them into constellations: Callisto became Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Arcas became Ursa Minor (the Little Bear).
Given how we as modern people understand the world today, we have to ask whether any part of this myth is plausible as a cause for the appearance and placement of these constellations. Indeed, what we have observed from imaging the known regions of the universe is that constellations don’t even “form” in the way that astronomical objects like stars or galaxies do. Rather, constellations are clusters of stars that appear as patterns from the position of the earth, and it is these patterns that, to various cultures, have seemed to be figures, animals, or objects from myths, legends, or daily life. Thus, the process by which constellations come into being is more cultural than astronomical. Seen by inhabitants of distant planets outside of our solar system, these constellations would appear quite differently.
In true three dimensional rotation, this is what we would see, which from any other perspective reveals no recognizable object.
Big Dipper in Three Dimensional Rotation (Credit)
We can rightly infer that myth and astronomy exist as utterly incompatible explanation systems; one seems like a human story projected out to lights in the sky, while the other finds these skyborne patterns to be completely random, unrelated to human existence or interests. Now let us suppose a third origin, neither ancient, nor modern, but advanced ancient, such that back in that time, they understood that constellations haven’t any true form, and instead present only a seeming appearance. Aware that this appearance means nothing by itself, our wise ancestors conclude that it makes no difference how their origins are understood, and so, our wise ancestors create stories that they know aren’t causal of constellations but which now are imbued with meaning to ourselves.
Let us imagine that our ancestors knew that the meanings behind these mythical stories were indeed illusory. That is, they did not refer to actual events, yet were reported as real. In this way, making something unreal (i.e., what is behind the myths) become an explanation for something that is also unreal (i.e., what is behind the appearance of the world itself) makes certain sense. Our ancestors likely saw the myths not as real but instead as meaningful, and in return, they saw the world like a dream: meaningful but not real. On the other hand, people today, living without myth but addicted to “facts,” have come to see the world as real, yet not meaningful.
The persistent illusion that we believe is that, because they are present to our senses, these existing forms that appear to our senses seem to have substance and structure in every way. Perhaps the complex absurdity and poetic poignancy of these ancient myths were intended for us to ask what reality so many forms that appear to have pattern and purpose in our lives might ultimately possess. It brings us to reflect upon one final question: what can knowledge, as we imagine and seek it out today, give us if it is based on things that are real only because of the way they seem organized before our immediate vantage point in space and time?
More importantly than apparent knowledge, the fertile imagination that sees what it sees in these illusions is what sustains us, perhaps because we too are illusory forms in space, constellations to ourselves and each other. And we are allowed to continue, with or without awareness of this because a dream need not awake from itself except once it becomes aware of what it is not.
Until next time.