When Early Science Began: Ancient Myths and Starry Skies

Ever wonder how ancient people explained lightning or the sun's path? Explore how myths like Zeus hurling thunderbolts reflect early understandings of the universe, laying the groundwork for modern science.

When ancient humans attempted to comprehend the mysteries of the world, they looked to the sky, the sea, and the earth and saw many strange and powerful things. They see the sun move across the sky, the moon change its shape, and stars sparkle at night. They see lightning strike, thunder roar and rain fall. They see rivers flowing, mountains standing tall, and a volcano erupting with fiery lava.

To explain these natural phenomena, ancient people invented stories, or myths. These myths attempt to make sense of the world around them, giving meaning to things they do not fully comprehend. And in so doing, they lay the groundwork for what we now call science.

One of the most common themes in ancient myth is the concept of cosmic order. Many cultures believe that the universe is governed by a set of rules and patterns. This reflects early humans’ desire to find order in nature’s apparent disorder.

There is a concept of “cosmic harmony” in Greco-Roman myth, for example, in which every thing in the universe has its proper place and function. The gods are believed to maintain this harmony by ensuring that the sun rises and sets, seasons change, and the cycle of life continues.

Similarly, in Hindu mythology, the god Brahma is regarded as the creator of the universe, Vishnu as the preserver of cosmic order, and Shiva as the destroyer who makes way for new creation. The concept of cyclical creation, preservation, and destruction reflects an ancient understanding of nature’s cycle.

Another common theme in many myths is the concept of cosmic struggle. Ancient people recognised conflict in nature, such as storm versus calm, fire versus water, and life versus death. As a result, their myths frequently feature battles between opposing forces, such as god versus monster or order versus chaos.

In Mesopotamian mythology, for example, the god Marduk defeats the chaos monster Tiamat and uses her body to create Earth and Sky. In Norse mythology, the god Thor fights an endless battle with the giant Jörmungandr, the serpent that surrounds the earth.

These cosmic struggle myths may reflect early humans’ attempts to explain the conflict they saw in nature, as well as their belief that orderwould eventually triumph over chaos and disorder.

Many ancient myths attempt to explain the origins of the world and its natural phenomena. The Babylonian creation myth, Enûma Elish, describes how the god Marduk shaped the world by dividing water into two seas: above and below.

In Egyptian mythology, the sun god Ra emerges from the primordial water of chaos to travel across the sky in a boat every day. The Maori of New Zealand believe that the sky father Ranginui and the earth mother Papatūānuku once embraced before their children separated them and created the world.

sky father Ranginui and the earth mother Papatūānuku

Such creation myths represent an early attempt to understand the origins of the earth, sky, sun, and other cosmological elements. They depict ancient people using their powers of imagination and reason to propose explanations for the natural world around them.

Myth often also try to explain astral bodies and their movement across the sky. The ancient Greek saw constellation as representation of figures and event from their myth, like Orion the hunter and Scorpio the scorpion.

In Hindu tradition, a charioteer pulls the sun across the sky, whereas in Norse myth, the sun and moon are pursued by wolves who eventually swallow them, bringing the world to an end.

These cosmic myths reflect early humans’ fascination with the nature of the sun, moon, and stars, as well as their regular cyclical motion. They represent the first attempt at developing a cosmological model of the universe.

Throughout ancient myth, we see numerous examples of deified natura phenomena, in which the force of nature is personified as a god or spiritual entity. The ancient Greeks worshipped gods of the sun, moon, sea, river, wind, and other elements. The Romans had a goddess of dawn, Jupiter the sky god, and Neptune the sea god.

This deification of nature demonstrates how ancient people perceived great power and mysticism in the phenomena surrounding them. It represents an attempt to venerate and appease the force that ruled their world.

At its core, mythology stems from humanity’s desire to comprehend and explain the mysteries of the natural world. Though ancient people lacked the empirical method of modern science, their myths reflect genuine observations of nature and an early attempt at rational explanation.

From cosmic creation to astral motion, natural phenomena to the conflict of opposing forces, myth encoded ancient insight and speculation about the order of the universe. They were a form of protoscience, or the first natural philosophy.

So, as we reflect on the enthralling myths of the past, we see not only enchanting stories, but the humble beginning of the human quest to comprehend the universe through reason, imagination, and inquiry – a quest that has culminated in our modern scientific understanding of the cosmos.

Quantum Soul
Quantum Soul

Science evangelist, Art lover

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