Friday, August 20, 2010

The Science of the Dogon: Decoding the African Mystery Tradition

Book Review: The Science of the Dogon: Decoding the African Mystery Tradition by Laird Scranton (Inner Traditions 2006, originally 2002)

This is a remarkable book, utterly fascinating in some respects. While it can be construed as overly speculative in a lot of ways, one cannot deny the interesting matches. It is a good book for keeping the mind flexible, for doing the occasionally necessary practice of “temporary suspension of disbelief.”

This book is about the creation myths of the Dogon tribe of Mali in West Africa near the Sudan. More specifically it is about the similarities of these creation stories and cutting edge modern science. Also pointed out are quite plausible strong similarities linking this culture to that of the Early-Middle Egyptian dynasties and perhaps to the pre-Egyptian hunter-culture there.

The author shows the data to support the conclusion that ancient myth – particularly these creation myths – but others throughout the world as well – were all part of the same deliberately designed mythical system based on an advanced scientific culture somewhat more advanced than our own. This would certainly be a difficult if not impossible notion to even get most to even to consider. However, the logic used by the author is rather remarkably consistent and the resemblances are many and fit together and loop back in interesting ways – most of them anyway. Many myths say that the skills of civilization were taught (usually by gods) to humans. The author proposes a very good – what if scenario of this being true.

His comparisons of Dogon myth and custom to the traditions of Ancient Egypt and to those of Judaism are quite plausible as the Dogon were known to have migrated from the northeast in the general direction of these areas. The matches are in specific words, deity names and functions, some ritual procedures such as circumcision, in calendars, and in math/science. Some of these similarities have been noted before – as in Temple’s book – The Sirius Mystery.

The bulk of the book, however, examines the ancient creation stories and diagrams of the Dogon and compares them to the diagrams in modern scientific textbooks explaining the principles of quantum mechanics, of string theory, of genetics and biology. What is interesting is that in some of the wording of the creation myths there is the notion that one is learning the nature of matter, genetics, etc as in a textbook. The author refers to it as encyclopedic knowledge and suggests that the creation myths are somehow drawn from this encyclopedic knowledge.

The Dogon creator god Amma and the universe arising from Amma’s Egg has some parallels in other creation myths. Amma compares favorably to the Egyptian creator god Amun. Also similar is the Sumerian Amatuanki (Nammu). The particular story of matter and the universe expanding out of Amma’s Egg does have a lot of similarities to the more detailed descriptions of the Big Bang theory. Black holes, the four fundamental quantum forces, the properties of light, and many other scientific notions are investigated from these diagrams and descriptions.

In the creation story the first entities created are the water twins called Nummo, or Nommo. In Egypt apparently there is a similar pair called Nemmmu/Khnum among many other sets of twin deities. In Sumerian it is Enki and Enlil. From the twins come the 8 primal ancestors in the Dogon system. In Egypt it is the 8 gods called the Ogdoad. In Sumeria it was the 8 Anunaki. The author does make note that these early gods of Egypt and Sumeria have been long noted to have similarities and suggests a possible common system in deep antiquity.

There are investigations in the book of Dogon similarities to the Big Bang, atomic structure, and quantum theory. The Dogon precise mathematical proportions of the cone-shaped granaries are similar to the proportions of Egyptian pyramids and also to modern diagrams of the event horizons depicting the creation of the universe according to the Big Bang Theory. The author relies on two main modern scientific texts for comparison: “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking and “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Green. Brushing up on these scientific ideas was a stimulating side-effect of reading the book.

The similarities of the Dogon diagrams and descriptions to sexual reproduction and genetics, to electron orbitals, to quantum properties, and the properties of light are examined in great detail. The logic is consistent and stimulating suggesting plausibility but even with the many parallels nothing is entirely convincing. Some word associations are likely, some maybe, and some unlikely. A few of the later chapters trying to tie in myths around the globe and the idea of a once singular global serpent religion taught to humans was mostly unconvincing (yet mentally stimulating). But I do repeat that the parallels of the Dogon/Egyptian myths to modern scientific ideas and the standard scientific diagrammatic descriptions were rather remarkable.

My own idea is that such seemingly amazing ideas are not the result of the singular world-wide teaching of these ideas to humans but more the flexible qualities of words and symbols and how they can point to multiple realities – perhaps parallel universes. Scientists and even mystery hunters fall into the idea that reality/truth is fixed, that the
subjective component can somehow be circumvented. Of course, that is certainly the way it seems – and technology proves it right? Well up to a certain degree but as we look deeper into the big and into the small all certainties break down. We see this in quantum mechanics and in relativity and the methods of both of these involve looking at the small of space and the big of space. Scientists spend time looking for a Grand Unified Theory that explains everything but some of us are really more interested in how we can reverse our unhealthy habits, something more practical. The idea that the gods of antiquity were simply an advanced race of humans or even aliens of a technological capability greater than but similar to ours just does not seem likely to me. The author speaks early in the book about a common mythological system. Obviously many mythological systems are similar and comparative mythology is quite a fascinating subject. Certainly many regional and even some distant mythic traditions have a common source. But there are so many that probably do not. The human condition, however, was relatively similar. The author does state as one of the possibilities that, “ (the mythological system) ... could have grown up independently in all regions based on some innate psychological aspect of human beings that leads them to express themselves through similar myths and symbols. ”The idea he suggests, ... “is the notion of myth as a planned societal system, deliberately disseminated by capable, knowledgeable teachers.” He does note that that particular idea is reported in many of the creation myths themselves.

The book is more detailed and perhaps more convincing than I have conveyed in this review so here is a list of scientific ideas he suggests the Dogon myths explain: (note that this list is a nice concise review of some aspects of modern science)

“The correct attributes of the unformed universe
That all matter was created by the opening of the universe
That spiraling galaxies of stars were formed when the universe opened
That this same event was responsible for the creation of light and time
The complex relationship between light and time
That matter can behave like a particle or as a wave
That sound travels in waves
That matter is composed of fundamental components
The correct counts of elements within each component category of matter
That the most basic component of matter is a thread
That this fundamental thread vibrates
That under some conditions threads can form membranes
That threads give rise to the four fundamental quantum forces
The correct attributes of these quantum forces
The correct attributes of the four types of quantum spin particles
The concept of the uncertainty principle
That atoms are formed from smaller particles
That electrons orbit atoms
The component particles other than electrons make up the nucleus of an atom
The correct shape of an electron orbit
That electrons of one atom can be “stolen” by others atoms to form molecular bond
That light is emitted by changes in the energy level of an electron
The correct electron structures of water and of copper
That hydrogen atoms form pairs
That sunlight is the result of the fusion of hydrogen atoms
That water goes through phase transitions
The correct steps in the natural water cycle
That the first single cell emerged spontaneously from water
That cells reproduce by mitosis to form two twin cells
The correct sequence of events during sexual reproduction and growth of an embryo
That female and male contributions are required for sexual reproduction
That children inherit genetic characteristics from each parent
That there are 22 chromosome pairs
That sex is determined by the X and Y chromosomes
That chromosomes move apart and spindles form during mitosis
The correct shapes and attributes of chromosomes and spindles
That sexual reproduction starts with the formation of germ cells
That germ cells reproduce by a process unique to themselves
That eggs live longer than other cells
The correct configuration and attributes of DNA”

How could an African tribal culture know these things? Beats me. Maybe a time traveling scientist. Maybe a particularly skillful Dogon mystic tapped the Akashic Echo. Maybe the words and symbols whirled into the minds of the mythographers and mystery seekers for some unknown reason. But as I said – I am not convinced of anything but certainly my time was not wasted in reading this book as it is good to keep the mind/view/belief open and flexible. In that light I plan to read several more of these mystery books.

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