“In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness” – Samuel Beckett
As humans have only been around for a few hundred thousand years, we don’t like to think about the seeming inevitability of the rise and fall of civilizations. Plus we have so much cool stuff these days, it’s hard for us to think on the scale of total destruction. It would make buying the latest iphone seem a little too inconsequential. I’m sad to report that no matter what we do, the odds are not in our favor. After all, something routinely wipes out the bulk of life on the planet Earth. We have plenty of mythologies that assure us the gods periodically whip up a good old global smiting with extreme prejudice, and wipe the slate clean. Sadly, for once, the scientists agree. You have your Ordovician–Silurian extinction event (450 million years ago) that wiped out about 70% of life on the planet. Then there’s the Late Devonian extinction that knocked off another 70% of those who were left or managed to be fruitful and multiply. Then between about 250 million and 200 million years ago, you’ve got your Permian–Triassic and the Triassic–Jurassic extinction events (they tend to separate these events, but because another 70% of life since the Late Devonian died off and it took vertebrates some 30 million years to recover, they sort of blend together). Finally, there was the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event some 66 million years ago that left mammals in charge of things. That amounts to roughly four major cycles of death and destruction for living critters on Earth. I’ve got to say, it’s not looking good for us on a geologic time scale, not that I’m a pessimist. The glass is neither half-full, nor half-empty. It’s just routinely dashed to pieces in a fit of pique.
So, we’ve got a few thousand years of written history and we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves. Well, stop feeling good. You’re a dead species walking. It only took us a handful of millennia to go from running away from tigers on the veldt to American Idol (are these really substantially different activities?), thus our swelled heads insist on telling us that nobody could have accomplished the same feats in comparable amounts of time. I’m not suggesting that sapient dinosaurs were running around building saurian playgrounds, and bemoaning the fact that the next generation didn’t believe in hatching eggs, rather that the timescales are such that believing that there is something special about man is an act of pure hubris, relying on the scant evidence we have of our own superiority to the rest of life in the universe. Sample of one, dude. Now, I’m not saying death is imminent, beyond the obvious fact that death is imminent. That would be depressing, unproductive, and clearly de-motivational. I want you to succeed. Go invent something cool. Or at least propagate the species. Good pick up line, huh? Clearly, I don’t date much. What I find interesting is that if you start poking around cross-culturally, as anthropologists are wont to do, an interesting pattern emerges regarding our unavoidable extinction. Roughly speaking, and accounting for the fact that memory is a fungible thing, life has been wiped out at least four times on this planet, corresponding with curious mythologies that appear in cultures unlikely to ever have had any contact (both geographically and temporally) that four worlds have preceded our own. Each time they got summarily ended, and a new world appears. We’re just the latest fad.
Folklore abounds with descriptions of the worlds that preceded ours (sometimes the precise number varies). Rather than catalog them all, I figured in the best tradition of high school English, I would compare and contrast two in particular. The Navajo Four Worlds Creation myth and the kabbalistic writings of Judaic mysticism. And all before Happy Hour starts. Don’t say I never did anything for you. I might even throw in some Jung, because that’s how I roll. Onward to our assured mutual destruction. If nothing else, when the next mass extinction event occurs, I can say “I told you so”. I’ve found spite to be a better motivator than altruism.
If you want a research tip, use the keywords “four worlds before”. Then cry in your beer, since our ultimate demise seems unavoidable. There is some suggestion that both the Mayans and Aztecs had a conception of four worlds preceding our own (wiped out in mass cataclysm), but the fullest Native American expression has been among the Navajo and ethnologically related tribes. “This is found among all the Pueblo tribes, including those on the Rio Grande and on the Gila, and the Zunis and Moquis and others. It prevails among the so-called wild tribes, the Navajos and the Pimas, and even the Apaches. It will be well to follow up this story as told by these different tribes, and see how much there was in common between them and yet how many things were different. The contrast is due to the ethnic affinities and training of the tribe, and especially to the coloring which was drawn from the scenery, but the resemblance shows that the story was transmitted from tribe to tribe” (Peet, 1898, p277). And what was the story? Let’s go Navajo. Don’t get wiped out by the insurmountable military machine of the white man. Too late for such eminently reasonable advice. They hadn’t invented blogging yet. Rather, read the Navajo creation story.
The genesis-legend of this tribe divides into four episodic tales, the first of which, the Age of Beginnings, narrates the ascent of the progenitors of Earth’s inhabitants from story to story of the Underworld, and their final emergence upon Earth. The second, the Age of Animal Heroes, tells of the setting in order of Earth, its illumination by the heavenly bodies, and the adventures of its early inhabitants. The third, the Age of the Gods, recounts the slaying of the giants and other monsters by the War-Gods and the final departure of the great goddess to the West. The fourth, the Patriarchal Age, chronicles the growth of the Navaho nation in the days of its early wanderings; to this age, too, belong most of the revelations which prophets and visionaries bring back in the form of rites, acquired in their visits to the abodes of the gods. The lowest of the world-stories, where the Navaho myth begins, was red in color, and in its center was a spring from which four streams flowed, one to each of the cardinal points, while oceans bordered the land on all sides. Tieholtsodi, the water monster, the Blue Heron, Frog, and Thunder were chiefs in this world; while the people who “started in life there” were ants, beetles, dragon-flies, locusts, and bats (though some say First Man, First Woman, and Coyote were in existence even here). For the sin of adultery these people were driven out by a flood raised by the Underworld gods, and as they flew upward, seeking a place of escape, a blue head was thrust from the sky and directed them to a hole leading into the next story. This second world was blue, and was inhabited by the Swallow People. Here they lived till, on the twenty-fourth night, one of the strangers made free with the wife of the Swallow chief; and they were commanded to leave. Again they flew upward, and again a voice — that of Niltshi, the Wind — directed them to an opening by which they escaped into the third story. Here they were in a yellow world, inhabited by Grasshoppers; but exactly what happened in the world below was repeated here, and once more directed by the Wind they flew up into the fourth story, which was all-coloured. The fourth world was larger than the others and had a snow-covered mountain at each of the cardinal points. Its inhabitants were Kisani (Pueblo Indians), who possessed cultivated fields and gave the wanderers maize and pumpkins. The four gods of this world were White Body, Blue Body, Yellow Body, and Black Body, and these created Atse fiastin (First Man) and Atse Estsan (First Woman), from ears of white and yellow maize respectively. To this pair came five births of twins, of whom the first were hermaphrodites, who invented pottery and the wicker water-bottle. The other twins intermarried with the Mirage People, who dwelt in this world, and with the Kisani, and soon there was a multitude of people under the chieftainship of First Man. One day they saw the Sky stooping down and the Earth rising to meet it. At the point of contact Coyote and Badger sprang down from the world above; Badger descended into the world below, but Coyote remained with the people. It was at this time that the men and women quarrelled and tried the experiment of living apart; at first the women had plenty of food, but eventually they were starving and rejoined the men. Two girls, however, who were the last to cross the stream that had separated the sexes, were seized by Tieholtsodi, and dragged beneath the waters. Guided by the gods, a man and a woman descended to recover them, but Coyote surreptitiously accompanied them and, unperceived, stole two of the offspring of the Water Monster. Shortly afterward, a flood was sent by the Monster, “high as mountains encircling the whole horizon.” The people fled to a hill and various animals attempted to provide a means of escape by causing trees to outgrow the rising waters, but it was not until two men appeared, bearing earth from the seven sacred mountains of what is now the Navaho’s land, that a soil was made from which grew a huge hollow reed, reaching to the sky. The last of the people were scarcely in this stalk, and the opening closed, before they heard the loud noise of the surging waters outside. But there was still no opening in the sky above. They sent up the Great Hawk, who clawed the heaven till he could see light shining through; the Locust followed, and made a tiny passage to the world above, where he was met by four Grebes from the four quarters, and in a magic contest won half of their world; finally, the Badger enlarged the hole so that people could go through, and all climbed into the fifth world, whose surface is our earth (Alexander, 1916, p159-161).
Four worlds, huh? I’m suspicious. Do we have some sort of archetypal memory of the utter cataclysms that preceded us and likely await us in the future? Personally, I think four worlds is one world too many, but then again I don’t like to multitask. Now we might be inclined to dismiss this as symbolic, if the notion of four worlds before our own didn’t keep popping up across time and culture. Seems like we’re trying to tell ourselves something. I think we can be reasonably certain that there wasn’t a lot of theological discussion between the Navajo and Jewish Kabbalists. Nobody had bothered to invent chat rooms yet. A notable oversight, but probably led to a few thousand extra years of civilized discourse. Good times. So sad it’s over. Curiously, the idea of four worlds preceding our own also rears its ugly head in the creation myth that permeates Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah, for those of you who haven’t been following Madonna’s career). The cliff notes version is that God is a nice guy and decides to contract himself, making room in the universe for something else, proceeding to emanate his divinity out there into existence in the form of four worlds. Oh, and did I mention that those celestial emanations were too powerful to contain, and per the myth, shattered. Evidently, God did not build to code. Wait a second. Jesus was a carpenter. Coincidence? Just saying.
According to a later theorem four worlds proceed by an emanation in different gradations. This is expressed by Ibn Latif thus: As the point extends and thickens into a line, the line into the plane, the plane into the expanded body, thus God’s self-manifestation unfolds itself in the different worlds. In each of these four worlds the ten Sephiroth recur. The first Sephirah gave birth to the Olam azila or “world of emanation,” containing the powers of the divine plan of the world. Its beings have the same nature as that belonging to the world of the Sephiroth or to the Adam Kadmon [prototype for man]. This world which is also called the olam ha-sephiroth, i. e., “the world of the Sephiroth,”is the seat of the Shechinah. From the olam azila proceeded the olam beria or “world of creation,” in which according to Rabbi Isaac Nasir are the souls of the saints, all the blessings, the throne of the Deity, and the palaces of all spiritual and moral perfection. The olam beria gave birth to the olam jezlrah or “world of formation,” in which dwell the holy angels, whose prince is Metatron. But there are also the demons, which on account of their grossly sensual nature are called Keliphoth, “shells,” and inhabit the planets and other heavenly bodies or the realm of the ether. The fourth world is called olam assiya, the “world of action.” Its substances consist of matter limited by space and perceptible to the senses in a multiplicity of forms. It is subject to constant changes, generations, and corruptions, and is the abode of the Evil Spirit. Like the Talmud and the Midrash, the Zohar represents the optimistic view, that the present world is the best. Thus we read (Zohar, III, 292b: (“There were old worlds, which perished as soon as they came into existence; they were formless, and were called sparks. Thus the smith when hammering the iron, lets the sparks fly in all directions. These sparks are the primordial worlds, which could not continue, because the Sacred Aged had not as yet assumed his form (of opposite sexes—the King and Queen), and the Master was not yet at his work.” And again we read (III, 616): “The Holy One, blessed be he, created and destroyed several worlds before the present one was made, and when this last work was nigh completed, all the things of this world, all the creatures of the universe, in whatever age they were to exist, before they entered into this world, were present before God in their true form. Thus are the words of Ecclesiastes to be understood. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done” (Pick, 1913, p75-76).
Well, isn’t that curious. Let’s get Freudian. Zip up your pants, you degenerate, by “Freudian”, I mean Jungian, since he was a little less into cocaine. Jung defined the four basic ego functions of human consciousness (or cognitive types if you prefer) as “thinking”, “feeling”, “sensation” and “intuition”, which combine to essentially make you into you. You may have run into this in the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs psychometric test dichotomies or more likely on your match.com date when he made the unprompted declaration that he was an “IFSP” (Introverted, Sensing, Feeling, and Perceiving) as an explanation for why he couldn’t carry on a normal conversation. Jung was talking about different ways of perceiving and judging the universe around us. Jung’s concept of the self revolves around these functions, essentially making them central ordering principles for human consciousness. Or perhaps he was talking about the evolution of consciousness in general, based on the notion that life itself keeps getting wiped out. Hey, he’s the lad who went on about archetypes. I’m just speculating. Perhaps deep in our monkey brains, our folklore has encoded the idea that we are not the first consciousness on the block, nor shall we be the last. Luckily, we probably have at least a few million years before things go sideways. But sideways they shall go, for as Carl Sagan once said, “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception”. I wonder if the next world will have good music?
Alexander, Hartley Burr, 1873-1939. North American [mythology]. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1916.
Pick, Bernhard, 1842-1917. The Cabala, Its Influence On Judaism And Christianity. Chicago [etc.]: The Open court publishing company, 1913.
Peet, Stephen. 1831-1914. “Religious Life of the Cliff Dwellers”. The American Antiquarian And Oriental Journal. Chicago v20: Jameson & Morse, 1898.