Essay for the Graham Hancock Website
In this essay, specially written for grahamhancock.com, Laird Scranton, our Author of the Month for December 2003, explores the mythologies of the Dogon tribe and of Ancient Egypt and reveals how underlying their symbolism is an encoded message that reveals they were in possession of highly advanced scientific knowledge. Scranton's new book Hidden Meanings: A Study of the Founding Symbols of Civilization, is available through our bookshop from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Scranton has agreed to join us on The Mysteries Message Board during December for on-line discussions of his work and ideas.
Research for my book Hidden Meanings: A Study of the Founding Symbols of Civilization, started a decade ago as an effort to compare common aspects of ancient myths. The many obvious similarities which exist among various mythologies of the world suggested that they may have all derived from a single original myth. My plan was to compare these similarities and differences, and try to derive from those comparisons the key elements of that original myth. My professional background is as a software consultant, and this kind of comparative approach is one that I have used for years – with great success - to understand differences between similar computer programs. I soon came to realize that Dogon mythology – actually the myths of a group of modern-day tribes from Mali - included a very rich set of symbols, themes, and elements found commonly across many mythologies, and therefore would make an excellent base against which to compare the others.
Like many students of mythology, my introduction to Dogon mythology came through Robert K.G. Temple’s book The Sirius Mystery, a controversial work from the 1970’s which brought the Dogon into the modern consciousness. Since the publication of his book, debate over the stars of Sirius has dominated discussions of the Dogon. Temple presented details of apparent Dogon knowledge relating to this star system - drawn primarily from the studies of French anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen - as evidence of unexpected scientific knowledge, couched in the terms of myth. Counter arguments made by scientist and author Carl Sagan, and by later researchers such as Belgian anthropologist Walter Van Beek, called these findings into question, and left the issue of Dogon science in a knotted tangle. Because of this, I realized that any argument based on Dogon myth would have to take a different approach – one that gave a wide berth to the stars of Sirius.
Other key factors in the choice of Dogon mythology as a starting point for my study were the known similarities between Dogon and Egyptian culture, mythology, language and religion. These resemblances stand on their own merit, without connection to the Sirius debate, and suggest that Dogon mythology could actually represent a kind of modern remnant of a very ancient tradition. To my way of thinking, these similarities were an untapped source of possible information, quite worthy of exploration.
One other key point before we start: There is a fundamental difference between the way a scientist approaches a problem and the way a programmer approaches the same kind of problem. Physical science depends on exacting proofs to make its point, while a programmer often works by approximation, much like a traveler crossing the country. A traveler does not calculate to four decimal positions the most direct path to his destination. Rather, he takes a cab to the airport, flies to a hub airport like Chicago or Atlanta, transfers to another plane that takes him to another airport, then takes ground transportation to his hotel. Each step represents an inexact approximation of the journey, the cumulative effect of which takes him to a very precise point. My book works the same way. In the social sciences, there are few points that can actually be proved in a scientific sense; often, at best, they can be demonstrated. But the act of demonstration can actually be more concise, and just as powerful as a proof. For instance, if I wanted to prove that gravity exists, I might present a lengthy mathematical argument that few but an astrophysicist or a mathematician would understand. But I can easily demonstrate that gravity exists anytime I want, simply by dropping a pen. On one level, the power and - as John Anthony West refers to it - accessibility of Hidden Meanings lies in its ability to demonstrate its points.
Perhaps because of the on-going discussion about the stars of Sirius, few researchers thought to examine the many statements of Dogon mythology relating to the structure of matter. Ida Moffett Harrison – the editor of the English language edition of The Pale Fox (Griaule and Dieterlen’s finished study of the Dogon religion) mentioned to me recently about one book - the work of Dr. Charles S. Finch III called The Star of New Beginnings - which touches on relationships between Dogon myth and astrophysics. In order to find and understand these scientific statements, one first needs to come to an understanding of the structure of the Dogon myths. In Dogon mythology there is what I call a surface storyline and a deep storyline. The surface storyline consists of the fireside stories known to most tribe members. The deep storyline involves much more detail, and is only known to the priests and a privileged few – those who persist in asking questions about the myths. Marcel Griaule was initiated into the mythology after many years with the tribe, precisely because he persisted in asking questions. These storylines are organized as three plotlines-within-a-story. The first plotline – the surface storyline of the myth – deals with the history of how the skills of civilization were acquired by humanity. It establishes many of the key symbols of the Dogon myths – the clay pots and the spiraling coils which are so familiar from world mythology. The second plotline discusses details of the creation of the universe and of matter. The third plotline presents information about the creation of life – asexual and sexual reproduction. These three plotlines encompass the whole of themes appropriate to a deliberately composed myth of creation.
One helpful way to look at these myths is as a kind of encyclopedia article. The Dogon call their creation story aduno so tanie – “astonishing myth of the universe”. The types of information contained within the myth run parallel – both in scope and in sequence – to a modern-day encyclopedia article. The science reflected is not rocket science – it is middle school science. And so a software programmer like myself, with no special training in biology or astrophysics, can easily find and understand it.
What we encounter when we examine the myths presented in The Pale Fox are symbols, drawings, and descriptions which unfold – in the words of Germaine Dieterlen – “like the petals of a flower”. Once we realize that the descriptions are about science, it takes almost no effort at all to show that the drawings match diagrams from the same science. We also understand that the symbols of myth which relate to science superbly embody the concepts they are supposed to represent, and therefore must be have been deliberately chosen. For instance, the Dogon drawing of the sene seed – one of the mythological components of an atom - is the image of an electron orbit; Amma’s egg – the Dogon counterpart to the unformed universe - is almost exactly Stephen Hawking’s diagram of the event-horizon of a black hole.
Whatever knowledgeable authority composed the Dogon myths was exceedingly thoughtful of future researchers. Carefully chosen words were used to define each concept – words with double and sometimes triple meanings. When it came time to trace these concepts to Egyptian mythology (the original intention of the research), the Egyptian hieroglyphic language provided clear counterparts to the Dogon words – pronounced the same way, carrying the same multiple meanings, and written using glyphs which replicated the Dogon symbols – the very definition of an identity between concepts. So now, when we see the same word turn up with the same multiple meanings in another culture – like the concept of the po in the Maori culture (which for the Dogon and Egyptians represents the atom) or the concept of a Mother Goddess associated with spiders – we know from the earliest reference that we have tapped into the same tradition.
Perhaps the most astounding aspect of this research rests with the Egyptian hieroglyphs themselves, whose form remained unchanged for almost 3000 years of Egyptian culture. In many cases what I found when I traced the Dogon symbols and words to Egypt were hieroglyphic references to science which were more specific than the Dogon. For example, the Egyptian hieroglyphic words which describe how matter is created are written using glyphs which could be diagrams taken directly from string theory. Clearly, whoever composed these myths knew precisely what they were talking about.
One more comment about Hidden Meanings. For a study of this kind to succeed, it was necessary to focus on the physical and scientific aspects of Egyptian and Dogon culture. But I must emphasize that this is only part of the picture; other aspects are equally important, and are discussed eloquently by other writers, many of whom – like Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval - are credited as references in my book. As one excellent example, John Anthony West’s Serpent in the Sky explores the spiritual, mystical and philosophical aspects of many of the same symbols as Hidden Meanings, and consistently comes to remarkably similar conclusions about their meanings. If your goal is to acquire a three-dimensional understanding of ancient myths and their meanings, I urge you to continue to read other books on the subject.