Omnia and Pagan Folk Lore

On the topic of traditions and the channels through which they become constructed in each generation, there is also the matter of modern paganism. Like any philosophical or religious community, pagan culture is not reducible to any one group or canonical set of shared dogma. The culture of Ásatrú is not the culture of druids, druidism is not equivalent to Wicca, and even within Wicca you have the divides between Gardnerian and other sects. Yet there is a certain constellation to be seen in these varying belief systems, which are all broadly syncretic modern traditions claiming ancient roots in pre-christian western culture. I do not consider myself a pagan, though I have come to see paganism as something of a fellow traveler, and here would like to make a case for the value of paganism, particularly those elements within it which have formed around the fluid realm of folklore more so than in an ideal image of an absolute, unchanging and ancient dogma. To treat it as a dogma, or perhaps worse, as a dogma of convenience, evinces a lack of reflexivity in some pagan adherents that I find to be deeply troubling.

Wikipedia claims that the origin of the term Pagan comes from the Latin paganus, which meant rustic or “of the country”. While this is not wrong, a classicist friend of mine once informed me that at the time it was used this term also possessed pejorative undertones, more like, “bumpkin”, “hick” or “hillbilly”, and that it began to take on its “heathen” connotations with the growing dominance of Christianity in the Roman empire, which was, in its early history, much more a religion of the city than of the countryside.

In this regard some of my concern comes from the lack of historical awareness of some pagans, whose belief in the ancient origins of their tradition tends to mask the fact that in its first usage, paganism was a reactionary, christian invention, yet one which, in the hands of contemporary pagans, often seems, first and foremost to mean “not christian”. I do not know if it enriches a culture to define itself in terms of what it thinks evil, and some of my pagan colleges come very close to structuring their morality around a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment against the still-dominant christian culture.

There is also the question of perceived cultural trauma. Few things, real or imagined, tend to galvanise a people, as a collective, quite as well as a shared sense of loss. Psychologically, Christians thrived on their martyrs and their lions’ dens, something that they could rally around with the outrage of personal injustice. Jews, even before the holocaust, had the destruction of the temple. Most recently Americans (as a religion no less than as a geopolitical nation-state) experienced their 9-11. Pagans, likewise, often rally around the burning times, and a sense that as one people, the cultural destruction and abuses of Christianity have historically wronged them. Like most things, there is something to be said for this, but, like most things, it is also deceptive in its way, and has more to do with modern politics than with ancient antipathies.

I do not mean to say that the burning times did not happen, but that based on most contemporary historical studies of the events, those who were persecuted, tortured and killed rarely, if ever, experienced these abuses because of some association with what we now think of today as pagan identity. They were, by and large, christian midwives, spinsters, outcasts, very commonly in Spain they were Jewish or Jewish converts to Christianity, the Marranos. In the case of the Druids, there was a systematic attempt to destroy their culture and traditions, but this act was perpetrated by pre-Christian Rome in its wars of conquest, not by Christians.

The Awen, Neo-Druidic symbol of the Order of Ovates, Druids and Bards.

Community building is important and valuable, and I would very much like to see all pagan groups thrive, diversify, and grow into what they desire and seek in a spirit of introspective exploration and self-awareness. I would not like to see it expand upon a foundation of willed ignorance or through an apathetic disinclination to investigate its own claims as a historical tradition, or by a shared contempt for any other system of beliefs.

In this regard I have been most impressed by the the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, who not only seem to recognize how much is fragmentary, retroactive and contingent in the tradition that they themselves have made as much as found, but that they also seek to unearth whatever they can of the old ways with specific plans of historical research. I was first made aware of the order through their exploration of the possible ties between ancient druidic beliefs and practices and those of ancient India. Their article on the subject is linked below.

For More Information:

Zirco Circus and Ultraviolet Detours

Often playfully macabre, theatrical, and possessing an impressive and creative dedication to all the possibilities of black light, I first met James “Zirco” Fisher at the Bazaar of the Bizarre where he was promoting a number of his diverse projects. Aside from being a part of the dark ambient group “Squid Lid”, Zirco Fisher also does an array of illustrations including his “Disfigures of Speech” series, one of which is shown below:

Whether DJing or performing their own work, Squid Lid’s shows are a sight to see, for throughout they constantly change up their fantastical, black light costumes to things ever more outre and strange.

Which brings me to the second topic of this post. Black light, or ultraviolet light was discovered by Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) in 1801 Ritter, an acquaintance of such figures as Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Herder and Schelling, was part of the early naturphilosophie movement in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Like several naturphilosophen, he held that a base principle of nature was that of polarities. The discovery of infrared light had been announced in 1800 by the British astronomer William Herschel, and Ritter reasoned that there must be something on the other side of the spectrum, and went about devising elaborate means of detecting it.

Ritter was also infamous for his tendency to perform often excruciating electrical experiments on almost every tissue of his own body, but that is a story for another day.

For More Information:

Lyell, Analogy and the Distancing of Geology from Cosmology

While for contemporary readers the reason may not be so readily apparent, in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology he needed to insist that geology was something other than cosmogony as the very precondition for his attempts to persuade his readers of the three main premises of his work, namely: Actualism, the view that the same kind of causes have been at work at all times in history, Uniformitarianism, that they have also been operating at the same intensity and the existence of a closed, self-sustaining, system in which these forces act.

Having previously stated that “[g]eology is intimately related to almost all the physical science, as is history to the moral”, he then proceeds to distance it from other modes of knowing for “just as the limits of history, poetry and mythology were ill-defined in the infancy of civilization” so too were the limits of geology in his own time. This is of some note, for where Lyell sets his boundaries will greatly affect his ability to present his point.

Take, for instance, his statement that when we inquire “into the state of the earth and its inhabitance at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition” which demonstrates both his Actualism and his Uniformitarianism. If the concept of cosmogony were permitted to encroach on geology then this statement would have been made much more problematic for him, for any inquiry into the beginning of things generally either posits a definitive beginning (in which there was some fundamental change in the structure of causality) or else accept that the universe was cyclical (which he goes to great length to disprove in the second and third chapter of this work, attributing this position in part to an early misunderstanding by pagan religions of the presence of fossilized animals). True, there are many other potential conditions, and the concept of a purely infinite cosmos which is not cyclical, is not addressed, however these were the two alternatives that he wished to specifically avoid in his geological researches.

It is telling to note how closely his explanation for the primitive belief in a cyclical cosmos reflects his opposition to the Neptunist doctrine of catastrophic floods. He uses both pagan and Christian examples to point out the psychological origins of catastrophic thinking, which resonates with his previous analogy of the relationship between geology and history. He states that “[t]he connexion [sic] between the doctrine of successive catastrophes and repeated deteriorations in the moral character of the human race, is more intimate and natural than might at first be imagined”, making reference to the Chilean earthquake of 1822, and those Catholics who attributed it to God’s displeasure. Through this comparison, he argues the existence of Pagan and Catholic misunderstandings of nature as being the basis for his Neptunist opponents’ position.

Lyell’s dependency on analogies, the same analogies which allow him to distance himself from his detractors, also rests on the separation of cosmogony from the true object of his study, as can be seen in his discussion of the relationship between history and geology. Near the end of the first chapter he promises that he will “attempt in the sequel of this work to demonstrate that geology differs as widely from cosmogony, as speculations concerning the creation of man differ from history”. Both history, in the sense that Lyell means, as the history of civilization, and geology cease being recognizable disciplines when they are drawn back far enough into the past. Thus as prehistory is to the history of civilization, so too is cosmogony to geology; it is a paradigm shift whose transgression eclipses the purpose of its original study. For the purpose of Lyell’s project it does not matter how ancient the earth is, as long as we do not begin at the very beginning we can assume a certain consistency and therefore draw conclusions (which indeed, may not be possible in any other fashion). This is particularly evident in his comments on human history, in which he states that we can:

“trace the long series of events which have gradually led to the actual posture of affairs; and by connecting effects with their causes, we are enabled to classify and retain in the memory a multitude of complicated relations […], which, without historical associations, would be uninteresting or imperfectly understood.”

Without the ability to trace these “historical associations” through a consistent, though finite, chain of cause and effect his argument is made lame by its lack of causal and historical certainty, yet this uncertainty is exactly what cosmogony would throw into Lyell’s geography if he were to accept it as part of his study. How could the ultimate origins of the earth be explained by geology without the possibility of a frightful regression into an endless chain of causality, or else without the need for a transcendent principle acting beyond the commonly understood order of cause and effect?

Thus Lyell’s need to amputate cosmogony from geology demonstrates a persistent paradox in the nature of the historical sciences. This is particularly so in the case of geology which depends on an understanding of secondary causes (or an indirect approach to causality) to demonstrate its validity: In order for the science to explain things with some universality, as Lyell insists is necessary, it must limit itself to a finite subject whose very finitude makes the historical associations mentioned in the preceding quotation possible. Thus there is an interesting and potentially paradoxical concern that if we wish to be able to say anything universal it can not take as its object that which is actually universal, such as the beginning of things.

However, is it so important to “amputate” cosmogony in Lyell’s scheme, considering that the scientific and rhetorical basis of his arguments are so strong? Yet it must necessarily be of the greatest importance. It is striking that the chapters refuting geology’s difference from cosmogony were left out of the Weber anthology on this subject. They constitute Lyell’s efforts to sweep the slate clean of “the most common and serious source of confusion” in early geology. He does this in order to firmly root his hypothesis in what he sees as more empirical soil, but which has its own implications outside of this particular project.

To play the devil’s advocate, could it not be said that Lyell’s need for a closed, self-sustaining system would necessarily benefit from admitting cosmogony into the scheme of geology? If he were only trying to demonstrate the self-sufficiency of the closed system this would have been the case; however, here we again come up against the demands of Actualism and the Uniformitarianism placed by Lyell on his geology.

Ultimately then, in order for Lyell’s project to succeed he needed to separate the definite science of geology from the indefinite results of cosmogony. Whereas the one would leave him no starting point from which to draw his other conclusions, the other allowed him a freedom to demonstrate the consistency of causes on this earth, without having to resort to explanations beyond or behind its origins. It is in its way another example of the trend in the nineteenth century towards increased specialization, in which disciplines were further subdivide in order than anything might be known with certainty about the particulars of nature. The problem after Lyell would then not be a matter of separation, but one of consolidation.

For More Information:

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology. London: John Murray, 1830.

(Accessed online at ESP: Electronic Scholarly Publishing:

Weber, A.S. Ed. 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.

Life from the Unliving

“I shall never forget the sight. The vessel of crystallization was three-quarters full of slightly muddy water — that is, dilute water-glass — and from the sandy bottom there strove upwards a grotesque little landscape of variously coloured growths: a confused vegetation of blue, green, and brown shoots which reminded one of algae, mushrooms, attached polyps, also moss, then mussels, fruit pods, little trees or twigs from trees, here and there of limbs. It was the most remarkable sight I ever saw, and remarkable not so much for its appearance, strange and amazing though that was, as on account of its profoundly melancholy nature. For when Father Leverkühn asked us what we thought of it and we timidly answered him that they might be plants: ‘No’, he replied, ‘they are not, they only act that way. But do not think the less of them. Precisely because they do, because they try to as hard as they can, they are worthy of all respect’. It turned out that these growths were entirely unorganic in their origin; they existed by virtue of chemicals from the apothecary’s shop, the ‘Blessed Messengers’. Before pouring the waterglass, Jonathan had sprinkled the sand at the bottom with various crystals; if I mistake not potassium chromate and sulphate of copper. From this sowing, as the result of a physical process called ‘Osmotic pressure’, there sprang the pathetic crop for which their producer at once and urgently claimed our sympathy. He showed us that these pathetic imitations of life were light-seeking, heliotropic, as science calls it. He exposed the aquarium to the sunlight, shading three sides against it, and behold, toward that one pane through which the light fell, thither straightway slanted the whole equivocal kith and kin: mushrooms, phallic polyp-stalks, little trees, algae, half-formed limbs. Indeed, they so yearned after warmth and joy that they clung to the pane and stuck fast there. ‘And even so they are dead’, said Jonathan, and tears came in his eyes, while Adrian, as of course I saw, was shaken with suppressed laughter. For my part, I must leave it to the reader’s judgment whether that sort of thing is matter for laughter or tears.”

This passage, in Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend, by the novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) features the work of the French biologist Stéphane Leduc (1853–1939), who attempted to show, with his artificial life, the chemical basis of development and growth through the processes of osmosis and diffusion. In her book Making Sense of Life the philosopher of science, Evelyn Fox Keller (1936-present) dedicates a considerable portion of her first chapter to a study of Leduc’s synthetic biology in an exploration of what it means to understand organisms, as opposed to other aspects of nature.

Unlike physicists, Keller observes, biologists do not look for a “theory of everything”, strictly speaking, for:

“Just as the diversity of life, rather than its unity, has historically commanded the respect of life scientists, so too, [she proposes], the epistemological diversity of their aspirations demands our respect as historians and philosophers of science.”

This epistemic shift places a much greater emphasis on the role of description in explanation, leading Keller to conclude that:

“A description of a phenomenon counts as an explanation, I argue, if an only if it meets the needs of an individual or community. The challenge, therefore, is to understand the needs that different kinds of explanations meet.”

Since needs vary by time and place, so too do the explanatory terms that are seen to address them. “Theory”, “knowledge”, “understanding” are such fluid, historically contradictory terms, and their fluidity emerges, in part because:

“As evolutionary beings, there is some extent to which it can not make sense in its entirety.”

These observations place a much greater emphasis on analogical, metaphorical thinking, even while undermining traditional claims to the kinds of understanding they can potentially lead us to. In my previous post on the role of analogical reasoning in Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s study of microorganisms, I pointed out some of the ways in which it helped Leeuwenhoek come to terms with, and develop a working knowledge of, his microscopic observations, while at the same time, by contemporary standards, led him to draw erroneous, though understandable conclusions about the life processes of the creatures he was studying. Synthetic life, based, as it is, on an emphasis on the continuity between the organic and inorganic worlds, is another area that lends itself well to these kinds of considerations.

Whether seen in reductionistic or vitalistic terms, crystallization in particular, and the formation of minerals in the earth in general has a very ancient connection with living matter in western thought. Ancient and medieval alchemy was premised, in part, on the thought that metals gestated in the earth, and had a kind life, could be killed, and reborn in the alchemical furnace.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and other early modern alchemists were particularly taken by “the vegetation of metals”, chemical phenomena such as the “Tree of Diana”, Arbor Diana, a dendritic amalgam of crystallized silver, created from mercury in a solution of silver nitrate.

Johann Christian Reil (1759–1813), who coined the term psychiatry in 1808, used crystallization as a powerful metaphor in his attempts to show how knowable forces could be responsible for the existence of life, while later naturphilosophen would use it to demonstrate the vitality of all of existence, the symmetries between the human and the natural worlds, and thereby the efficacy of using analogy, metaphor and introspection in their attempts to understand it.

In 1836, Andrew Cross (1784-1855) a British electrical experimentalist claimed to have produced insects through a process of electrocrystalization and presented his findings in Bristol at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. While not the inspiration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as is commonly believed, (Frankenstein was written in 1818) it did serve as evidence for the self-organization of life in Robert Chambers’ best selling and controversial work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in 1844. The self-organization of nature, whether found in evolutionary or nebular theories, was considered a particularly dangerous concept in England during the 1830s and 40s because of its political connotations for the self-organization of society, instead of a top down model in which a supreme ruler, i.e. God, governed absolutely. Because of the potentially damning political consequences, Chambers chose to remain anonymous for his entire life, but his work is now credited with making evolutionary theories acceptable to the British middle class, creating an environment in which Darwin, having agonized over whether or not to publish his view for almost twenty years, could present them with far less chance of legal action being taken against him.

In an interesting way appeals to analogical or metaphorical reasoning, with all of it’s promises and pitfalls, does seem to consistently undermine established political and epistemic structures, and in some ways is to explanation what the Protestant Reformation was to Christianity, a leveling of authority as each observer is given a new sense of confidence in the validity of their own observations, no matter how seemingly aberrant.

And as for the consequences this has for the creation of living or, semi-living things? Strange, one can only hope.

For More Information:

Keller, Evelyn Fox. 2002. Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors and Machines. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Mann, Thomas. 1948. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. New York: A.A. Knopf.

strand beast:

Three Are All Gods: A Study of Egyptian Theology in the New Kingdom

Cult statue of Amun-Re from the Great Temple of Amun, Karnak.

Amun, the hidden one, Re, the sun, together these two divine forces came to dominate Egyptian theology. Though Amun’s rise to power had its roots in the political preeminence of Thebes during the New Kingdom, his widespread acceptance and his amalgamation with Re does much to illuminate the nature of Egyptian theology. Many early Egyptologists believed that the “union with Rē did Amūn an injury, for as a result not much survives of his original nature […] and on the whole Amunrē is actually nothing more than the old powerful sun-god”.  However, as will be shown, this “union” was not complete. Amun did not eclipse Re, as can be seen in many New Kingdom prayers. Amun, Re, and Amun-re were still invoked as semi-independent entities sharing the same overarching domain of existence. Ultimately, it is best to view the god Amun-re as representative of a number of different facets of the divine life in Egypt, wedded together by Ptah, the force of creativity. For as the New Kingdom’s Poems on Thebes and its God states: “Three are all gods—Amūn, Rē, and Ptah—and there is none like them. Hidden is his name as Amūn, Rē belongeth to him as face (?), and Ptah is his body […] Only he is: Amūn and Rē and Ptah, together three”.

Before an in-depth analysis of the role of Amun or Re can be attempted it is necessary to point out the massive age of Ancient Egyptian culture. It spans more than five millennia from the pre-dynastic period around 5500 BCE to the era of Roman rule in 395 CE. As such, when studying the theology of Egypt it must be remembered that the natures of the Egyptian deities were not immutable. Local deities would rise and fall, become associated with outside equivalencies during times of trade, or take on new meanings as Egyptian religion developed.

Claude Traunecker, in his text The Gods of Egypt, proposes that “[t]o attribute a name to a deity was to isolate, recognize, and define a force”. As such we see a multiplicity of equivalent names for similar gods arise in Egypt, or many names for the many facets of individual gods. In Traunecker’s account a single domain of power could be represented in many gods, according to the location of the specific cult. For example: “according to the cult place, the anonymous destructive goddess became Nekhbet, Isis, Anukis, Meret, and so forth”. Likewise we see a plurality of Names given to Re according to his various manifestations, as one source reads: “Many are (your) names, sacred are (your) kheperu [manifest]-transformations”. Indeed, even before his merging with Amun, “He [was] Kepri in the morning, Re at midday, and Atum in the evening”.

This multiplicity of titles served many purposes. A number of common names known by all were used for mediation with the divine realm. Thus one name of Re was used to counteract the effects of venom because of an associated myth with Re and a serpent. However, there were other names, concentrated in the priesthood, which expressed the overarching might of a deity. These names were considered to be “unpronounceable, for [they were] beyond linguistic reality”. Here it is important to note one of the early key differences between Re and Amun. While Re’s secret name was known, won by the goddess Isis, Amun’s secret name is unknown by any of the gods, as he is unfathomable even to them.

Another result of the multiplicity of titles was the combination of deities depending upon the functions they represented. Re-Atum, Khnum-Re, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris are some examples of these divine amalgamations. It is important to note that these unions did not eradicate the previous identity of the component deities. As David Silverman states in The Ancient Gods Speak: “in these divine links, one god was combined with another, or became an extension of another, and the elements of each would become unified in the composite without the loss of their original identity”. Thus we can see the theological background that made the union between Amun and Re possible. However, before one can look into the seemingly paradoxical union of Amun and Re, it is first necessary to look into the functions and histories of the two gods.

Re was the oldest of the preeminent sun gods of Egypt, and until his amalgamation with Amun he was considered the god of gods. For the ancient Egyptians “[t]he rising sun was the symbol for the creation of the world, and the daily course of the sun the symbol of the world’s cyclical renewal; hence the paramount importance of Re as creator and master of life”. This preeminence was both political and spiritual as the pharaoh and Re were said not only to be of similar natures but rather the pharaoh was seen as the son of Re, and thus represented the overarching will of the divine order.

A fundamental quality of Re was his revealing nature, this is displayed repeatedly in prayers from the New Kingdom:  “He causeth all eyes to open”, “he who illumineth the Two Lands”, “Lord of rays, who createth light”, and so forth. Being a sun deity this is not surprising; however, one is missing a great deal of Re’s importance if he is seen merely as a lord of light. This is revealed in his relationship to Maat, for he is Re who “lives on Maat”. This is a strange characteristic if Re is only seen as a fundamentally physical deity, the sun; rather, it only makes sense if Re’s illumination is seen as more than his physical emanation and rather as a more omnipresent revelation of existence.

As has been mentioned above, Re had a plurality of forms and names that corresponded to the different cycles of the sun. The primacy of this pattern is substantial, for not only did the movement of the sun dictate the passage of time, but it also ensured the entire cyclical order of the universe. This is why “Re’s closest ally is Maat, the embodiment of order and truth; [for] she represents the unimpeachable principle of his rule”.

Amun’s history is harder to characterize. He began his existence as a Theban wind god. However, his hidden nature and the political role of his priests allowed him to supplant the original patron of Thebes, Montu the war god. Traces of his airy origins can still be seen in the New Kingdom prayers. Amun is described as: “a sweet breeze to him that calleth upon him”, “[a] wind that turneth back the adverse blast”, “[t]he wind hath turned about to us in mercy, and Amun hath turned with (?) his wind” and he comes “with the sweet wind before him”.

From his unseen nature as a wind god it is not surprising that Amun later manifested himself as a force of the unknown, particularly to the sight worshiping Egyptians. He would later be characterized by this principle in the Hermopolitan tradition of the Middle Kingdom. During this time period in Thebes there were thought to be negative forces underlying those of creation, and they were represented by four sets of deities of which Amun and his consort where a pair. “These four entities are actually non-presences constituting a sort of negative description of the real. […] Amun, the ‘hidden one’ or the ‘unknown,’ is the converse of that which is visible or knowable—in sum, that which peoples and fills the world. As will be seen, this ineffable quality had its focus both changed and strengthened by his eventually amalgamation with Re.

The amalgamation of the two deities into Amun-Re took place sometime during the New Kingdom when Egypt was rising to the height of its empire. Once again, many historians posit a political motivation for the union, for as Thebes became the most with the god of gods. From this Amun appears to have adopted all the creative potential of Re; however, even before the merger he had been attributed these qualities by the Theban priests.

By studying the prayers of the New Kingdom it is possible to gain a clearer understanding of the transformation that occurred when Amun became associated with Re, and how their combination assumed its own separate properties. It is interesting to note that despite the unifications of the two, they are still mentioned both separately and together, and that all three of these, Amun, Re, and Amun-Re are vested and invoked with particular properties in mind. Re maintains his old status, being represented as a god of the sun, truth, and what is, whereas Amun seems to have taken on the portfolio of the ultimate unknown in relation to Re, that is, as master of the future, potentiality, and fate. In contrast, Amun-Re is often invoked primarily as the divine lord, the god of gods, and is more associated with royalty and political authority.

Throughout the prayers of the New Kingdom, Re maintained his role as both the sun, and the lord and creator of the knowable world. It is Re who is called upon by people convicted of crimes that they did not commit. In this aspect he is “a lord in whom men may make their boast […] that preseideth over the Court of Law, that establish Truth and assail Iniquity”. Furthermore, it is important to note that “unlike other deities, Re never has a sanctuary with a cult statue; his image is the sun itself”. The symbolism of Re is consistent throughout this age. He is an almost omnipresent god that makes things live and his icon is itself the life giving sun.

One prayer to Re, however, does much to shine light on his nature as a god of not merely the knowable, but of all that is in actuality, as opposed to the potentiality of Amun. The prayer states that: “thou [Re] art he that doeth, and there is none save thee that doeth aught. Only thou it is that doeth anything”. There is a comment here by the translator that all others only help in words, yet this is seemingly contradictory to the whole spirit of Egyptian thought, for words were a powerful form of action. Rather, it is fruitful to see this as further evidence of Re’s role in the present as an active principle. Furthermore, it is said that “[Amun] appeared as Re in Nun [the disordered pre-mass of creation], and fashioned that which is and that which is not”. Once more, the connection between the two gods is emphasized, yet Amun seems to have taken on a primary role. It was he who appeared as Re, not Re as Amun, for he is a god not seen in his actual form by any, but only in what emerges from him. This passage both serves to establish Re as the lord of that which is and that which is not, and demonstrate Amun’s potential nature, for before there was anything, there was a possibility, and from that possibility emerges the knowable world. Amun, the unknown, unknowable, yet necessary pre-father of existence came before Ra. For as one New Kingdom prayer states: “the lotus of Re emerged, and light burst forth after the darkness in its name of Amun”.

Re’s role as a lord of what is present, or what is, is in contrast to that of the Amun of the New Kingdom. One text reads of him that:  “Fate and the Harvest goddess are with him for all people”, while Ramses II in an account of his victory over the Khatti, laments: “I have come hither by reason of the counsel of thy mouth, O Amun”. These prayers, directly dedicated to Amun rather than Amun-Re, almost exclusively address the concepts of futurity and fate. As one commentator notes: “Theologians of the Ramesside Period imagined that Amun existed in a sort of transcendent time: ‘You have announced what will happen in the future, in millions of years, for eternity is before you like yesterday which has passed’”.

The same commentator goes on to say of Amun that: “This is a god who is distanced from his creation, exterior to the world and thus transcendent, unknowable, without a cult, and unapproachable”. However, there is a contradiction here in his later analysis. After stating this he goes on to discuss how the Pharaohs and priests of the New Kingdom utilized oracles and even spoke to Amun directly to decide future courses of action. After the Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV heard of an uprising in Nubia he “went immediately to the holy of holies to consult Amun. After this tête-à-tête with the god, he proclaimed the decision that had been made”. Thus there was a connection between the ineffable nature of the god and mortals that appears to have expressed itself through oracles. These oracles were always about things to come, and rarely about things that were, which belonged to the realm of Re.

In the New Kingdom prayers Amun-Re is predominantly invoked by name in his royal guise as ruler of all: “Heaven, Thebes, Heliopolis, and the Nether World, their inhabitants rejoice over their lord[…] Though triumphest, O Amunrē!”. Amun-Re is often identified as the Lord of Thebes, and the first to be king, and is most often invoked in hymns to royalty, such as Ramses II: “Son of Rē, who treadeth down the land of the Khatti, Ramses-Beloved-of-Amūn, given life. Beloved […] by Amūnrē, king of gods”. Overall Amun-Re was a royal deity, whose political origins were in part reflected in his divine domain as a god of kings. However, he also appears to have adopted Re’s position in maintaining Maat, for in the New Kingdom he was attributed with the daily conflict with Apep. This, if anything else, would seem to indicate that he did more to consume Re’s than Amun’s domain.

Finally, there is the relation that Amun and Re have to Ptah. In a particularly unique prayer these three deities are claimed together to be the only god. “Hidden is his name as Amūn, Rē belongeth to him as face (?), and Ptah as his body”.

In the Middle Kingdom Ptah was the Memphite god of artisans and some scholars believe that he continued in this tradition into the New Kingdom as a god of creativity who expresses himself through the heart and tongue. In his role as a god of creativity he seems to have been necessary before creation itself, naturally ranking him with Amun and Re. Yet, as Claud Traunecker observes, recent research has shown that: “‘Ptah’ and ‘heart and tongue’ are not divine personages, but rather philosophical terms designating the intellectual creative process. Ptah is the name of the tool employed by the creator god. Thus […] the ‘principle of Ptah’ was preexistent”.

If this is the case then, it may be possible to look on this divine triumvirate as representing potentiality (Amun, his hidden name) actualizing (through Ptah, his body) into the actual (Re, his face). Together, according to the above prayer, these concepts seem to represent the whole of the Egyptian existence in which unknown potentiality was primary. Just as “[t]he concept of projection by forethought […] and its subsequent realization through intelligible expression were part of the daily life of artisans”, so too was the divine creative process. In this case, even though his creation may in fact have been politically driven, it is possible to see the New Kingdom’s Amun-Re as the complete artist of existence, ruling over the entire process. As he seems to have adopted the role of protecting Maat, perhaps it is wise to see him in this light. Even if Amun-Re was a politically driven deity, his theological effects upon his component parts resulted in a complex philosophical structure of existence that has yet to be fully fathomed by any age since.

Ultimately then, Amun’s merging with Re did not in fact diminish his identity, but rather involved him in a complex and integrated philosophical structure in which existence is understood in terms of the primacy of potentiality actualizing into the actual. Despite the political motivation for Amun’s rise to power, radical theological developments also emerged from his new association as Amun-Re. For his part, Amun-Re appears to have been seen as the overarching unity of the actions of Amun, Ptah and Re. If this is so then Amun-Re would be best interpreted as the primary ordering principle over and above that of the spheres of potential, actualization, and actual. It would then be easy to explain his place of power in the New Kingdom as the god of gods and the protector of Maat. This is one way to make sense of the puzzling prayer of the New Kingdom that: “Three are all gods—Amūn, Rē, and Ptah […] Only he is: Amun and Rē and Ptah, together three”. With this understanding, the world of the Egyptian gods seems to open up to new philosophical realms, particularly in the New Kingdom, realms in which the future is seen as the most unknown and awesome force. Given the nature of Ancient Egypt’s culture of preservation and focus on tradition, this is no surprise. To such a people there would be nothing more uncertain than the future, and Amun represented this uncertainty. In this regard, at least, perhaps the Ancient Egyptians were not so different from us after all.

For More Information:

Erman, Adolf. The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians: Poems, Narratives, and Manuals of Instruction, From the Third and second Millennia B.C.. Trans. Aylward Blackman. London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1927.

Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Spence, Lewis. Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt. London: Ballantyne Press, 1925.

The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. Ed. Donald Redford. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Traunecker, Claude. The Gods of Egypt. Trans. David Lorton. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.

God of Hutton, God of Kelvin: Religion, Eternity and the Age of the Earth

The debate between William Thomson, who would later be ennobled as Lord Kelvin (1824 –1907) and the followers of James Hutton (1726–1797) demonstrates a difficult period in the history of nineteenth century science in which the figures who are traditionally regarded as the fathers of modern geology (Hutton) and biology (Darwin) where pitted against Lord Kelvin, who is still considered one of the founding fathers of thermodynamics, and thus of modern physics. The point which brought these figures into conflict was the argument surrounding the age of the earth. Hutton’s and Kelvin’s methodologies were in some ways very similar, particularly in their views on the uniformity of nature and the demand for evidence of a beneficent being who created the natural world. Furthermore, both were forced to appeal to secondary causes when trying to defend their positions. Where they differed substantially was in their understanding of eternity in the larger framework of how the creator expressed himself in the world and how this related to the human ability to understand it.

It would be too easy to phrase the debate between Kelvin and the geologists as a conflict between empirical evidence and religious prejudices in nineteenth century science. Indeed, Kelvin himself gave ample evidence that he worried about the theological implications of the geological and evolutionary theories of his time. In an 1872 speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Kelvin concluded his discussion with a reaffirmation of these worries in the “zoological speculations” of contemporary biologists, stating that: “Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us […] showing to us through nature the influence of a free will, and teaching us that all living things depend on one everlasting Creator and Ruler”. Presumably, Kelvin felt that the vast time scales proposed by Hutton, Lyell and Darwin would remove the need for a creator in the universe and infringe on the free will of humans.

Yet in this assumption we are all too quick to ignore the unorthodox religious views which led Hutton to formulate his self perpetuating “world machine”. As laid down by one of his more eloquent proponents, John Playfair (1748–1819), this perpetuity is ultimately maintained by God, for the author of nature: “has not given laws to the universe, which, like the institutions of men, carry in themselves the elements of their own destruction. He has not permitted in His works any symptoms of infancy, or of old age, or any sign by which we may estimate either their future or their past duration”. The world had obviously been created for the benefit of the things living upon it and for human beings in particular, and it would not have been fitting for a wise and omnipotent being to create it as anything other than eternal. As is clear from Playfair’s statement, it was this very indefiniteness which was the sign of divinity. While the system itself was indefinite, as a product of God’s wisdom, once started the world machine would perpetuate the specific cycles of uplift and erosion unendingly, maintaining the various balances which were necessary for life.

In the case of Kelvin, the situation is aptly summarized by Burchfield in his work Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth, for “it was the belief in design that justified the formulation of universal scientific laws, that assured the relationship of cause and effect, that, in short, made science possible”. Considering Hutton’s religious views, it seems very unlikely that he would disagree with this statement. The science of both men was deeply integrated with their theological conceptions of how a wise and omnipotent God would construct an orderly world.

Likewise, Kelvin and Hutton’s intellectual defender, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) largely agreed on the actualism of causation, in which the same kind of causes have been at work at all times, and held similar views of uniformitarianism, in which the same causes have been acting with the same intensity over time. As Lyell formulated it, through: “researches into the state of the earth and its inhabitants at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition, and more comprehensive views concerning the laws now governing its animate and inanimate production”. This was also the case for Kelvin, for whom logical consistency “required that since the discovery of the primitive state of matter is beyond man’s power, if one is to find a probable beginning, he must start with the present condition of nature and reason back by analogy and strict dynamics”.

The situation is somewhat less definite in regards to the two men’s approaches to uniformitarianism. As it was generally argued, Kelvin was clearly antagonistic to the idea as he understood it. However, in his work On Geological Dynamics, Kelvin specifies that he is opposed to what he called “ultra-uniformitarianism”, and otherwise speaks approvingly of other similar movements in geology: “The geology which I learned thirty years ago [embodied the fundamental theory of] Evolutionism. This I have always considered to be the substantial and irrefragable part of geological speculation; and I have looked on the ultra-uniformitarianism of the last twenty years as a temporary aberration worthy of being energetically protested against”. When seen in this light, Kelvin’s affinity for certain forms of uniformitarianism becomes more evident and shows the difficulties in strictly drawing a line between the methods employed by  proponents of the young earth and those of the old.

This subtlety is clearly shown when one considers Kelvin’s argument presented by On the Secular Cooling of the Earth, in which he states “that essential principles of Thermo-dynamics have been overlooked by those geologists who uncompromisingly oppose all paroxysmal hypostheses”. Immediately following this Kelvin makes it clear that he is not a catastrophist in the traditional sense of the word. For him: “It is quite certain the solar system cannot have gone on even as at present […], without the irrevocable loss (by dissipation, not by annihilation) of a very considerable proportion of the entire energy initially in store for sun heat”. The distinction between annihilation and dissipation is a crucial one. Not only is it a reaffirmation of the first law of thermodynamics, but it also opens the door to a different kind of unimformitarianism than that typically attributed to Lyell or Hutton. It is one in which there can be a uniformity of causes without a corresponding uniformity of effects. The causes themselves have been acting at the same intensity; however, their effects have varied over time because of the limitation placed on them by the second law of thermodynamics. The laws are the same, the causes are the same, yet as Kelvin says: “the secular rate of dissipation has been in some direct proportion to the total amount of energy in store, at any time after the commencement of the present order of things, and has been therefore very slowly diminishing from age to age”. The rate of the dissipation would vary in proportion to the total amount of energy in store, producing effects of varying intensities despite the uniformity of the causes governing them.

This crucial distinction is what allowed Kelvin to criticize Playfair’s statement that only a direct act of God could bring about a catastrophe like the one implied by Kelvin’s thermodynamic approach to the age of the earth. Playfair concludes the passage by stating: “we may safely conclude that this great catastrophe will not be brought about by any of the laws now existing, and that it is not indicated by anything which we perceive”. Kelvin, however, found a grave error in this view of uniformity. Indeed, he saw it as being: “pervaded by a confusion between ‘present order,’ or ‘present system,’ and ‘laws now existing’—between destruction of the earth as a place habitable to beings such as now live on it, and a decline or failure of law and order in the universe”. Thus it is evident that he did not contest the validity of uniformity itself. Kelvin contested what he saw as a narrow view of uniformity that could not derive universal laws from the present order of things within the finite framework of the solar system, but instead was forced to posit an indefinite standpoint in order to make its system scientifically valid.

Thus, when looking at Lyell’s three main tenants of actualism, uniformitarianism and cyclicality, it is only the underlying principle of cyclicality which differs substantially from Kelvin’s own thought. What, then, can be said about the fundamental differences that divided Kelvin’s thought from that of the geological community of his time? These differences can not appeal to the specious distinction between science and religion in either camp, since their religiosity was almost identical in its demands for an ordered, benevolent deity which made science possible. Rather, the question was what that beneficent order would look like. Likewise, one can not make appeals to the demand both groups placed upon their thinking in regards to the stability of causality which made scientific inquiry into the past possible. Where they did differ was in the objects of study which each group took up to defend its claims, and how these objects could in some ways only be viewed indirectly. It was the indirectness of secondary causes which left both groups open to criticism from the opposing camp and perpetuated the debate for almost forty years in Kelvin’s lifetime alone. At the heart of the matter, however, were the conflicting views of eternity which formed the basis of both Hutton’s, as mediated through Lyell, and Kelvin’s visceral opposition to the other’s work, about the circularity or progressiveness of nature.

It would be helpful here to provide some explanation of what is meant by secondary causes. Secondary causes in this case would be any cause which must be appealed to in order to get to a more primary cause which can not be directly observed. Since it is not possible for people to actually see the effects of time in geology over thousands or millions of years, it is then necessary when explaining its effects to point instead to the effects of things such as the dissipation of heat, uplift, layering, and erosion. Once these explanations are found it is then possible to work backwards from the causes of these effects to the prime cause, whether that be the formation and age of the earth itself or the formation and age of a specific mountain range.

Hutton, in exploring the age of the earth, took as his object of study the layers of the earth itself. As first this consideration seems to go without saying, yet it is important to note that this was not the case with Kelvin, who instead dealt almost exclusively with the nature of heat, and the ability of the earth to support living things. Both of them were looking at secondary causes to demonstrate their positions, one in the effects of unimaginable time on the earth itself and the other at the age of the suns heat. The nature of their particular observations made both arguments vulnerable to their own particular criticisms.

The discovery of unconformity in geological strata demonstrated to Hutton a key mechanism in the circularity of geological processes. Unconformities are the remains of geological strata which have been displaced from their horizontal alignment and instead now occupy a vertical position relative to the above strata (see appendix 1). The conclusions which were drawn from this phenomenon were most artfully stated, once again, by Playfair: “We often said to ourselves, What [sic] clearer evidence could we have had of the different formation of these rocks, and of the long interval which separated their formation, […] Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective”. Unconformities had the effect of breaking down older geological strata, in some ways erasing the records of past time. Their existence was a vital part of Hutton’s argument for a cyclical earth, and represented his most direct evidence that the age of the earth was not something limited by either past or future ages.

This kind of “direct” indirect evidence demonstrates the problem facing any purely geological inquiry into the age of the earth. Hutton and his followers, when considering the single system of the earth, could only consider what incidental evidence was left over for them after years of intervening phenomenon had had a chance to bury and destroy the very evidence they were looking for. This naturally left them with an indeterminate number of cycles continuing without apparent end. True, they were shown an example of the vast time scale on which geology operated, opening up the door to a more complete depiction of the age of the earth; however, they were unable to derive any further evidence for these same cycles except to point, rock hammer in hand, at the immense times required to lay the cycles down in the geological strata. Outside of this they could only appeal to base principles of what was required for life and a beneficent deity. The instability of these secondary causes would continually leave the early Uniformitarians open to accusations that they had not sufficiently grasped the physical and mathematical laws governing their field of study, while their very same field of study seemed to deny any attempt at strict quantification because of the same order that made it observable in the first place.

The problem Kelvin faced was somewhat different, though directly related to the difficulties of secondary causes in quantifying geological time. Taking as his object of study the dissipation of heat, and armed with the mathematical tools of thermodynamics, Kelvin would at first glance appear to have a better standing when it came to quantifying the age of the earth. Yet here too Kelvin was confronted by the same bugbear of secondary causes as were his intellectual opponents. Kelvin hoped to use the second law of thermodynamics to help guide his calculations into the age of the earth. The second law of thermodynamics lays down that energy is always moving from a more ordered to a less ordered state, the most disordered form of energy being heat. For example, a cup of tea in a cold room will never become warmer while the room cools, but will continue to loose heat to its environment in a predictable manner until both the room and the tea reach a state of thermal equilibrium. It was this predictable rate of dissipation which Kelvin hoped to use as his indicator in much the same way as radioactive decay is used today to determine the age of objects.

Kelvin used mathematical principles guided by the second law of thermodynamics in part because he could not look to the earth itself when in need of placing a definitive limit on its age. Here the quantitative factors were still too murky, and in some cases were directly hostile to his position. Rather, in using the definitive measure of heat, and taking as his object the age of the sun, he could hope to be able to fix the age of the earth by binding it with that of the sun which could not be studied qualitatively, but only quantitatively. This appears to have been his intent. In a thirty-one year span Kelvin worked out his calculations drawing the age of the earth ever closer to the common estimate of the age of the sun, so that the age of the earth went from being twenty and four hundred million years, compared to the sun’s twenty million years, to a number set at twenty-four million years.

Fundamentally, however, the precision of his calculations in placing limits on the age of the earth was secondary to his main goal of firmly establishing that such limits actually existed. As Burchfield says “The inexactness of his calculations was […] unimportant so long as they established the necessity for a limit upon geological time and the impossibility of uniformitarianism’s demand for limitless ages”. Still, since Kelvin took as his object the sun, which could only be known quantitatively through astronomical means, he was nevertheless open to chargers of miscalculation, and to criticisms of the roundabout way in which he sought to fix the age of the earth.

Given the difficulty inherent in any definitive resolution to the problem of the age of the earth, then, we must look even further into the primary goals Kelvin and Hutton hoped to achieve in their world systems. In doing so we see that the matter was largely a reflection of the different ways in which the two men viewed the nature and dangers of the concept of eternity for human kind, and for the very possibility of reason in natural philosophy.

Hutton’s cyclical conception of the world took as its model Newton’s cosmos, infinite in space, whose motions where perfectly balanced in the orbits of the planets. Yet where Newton’s cosmos was infinite in space, Hutton’s world would focus on the infinity of time. The balancing of forces which maintained the planetary orbits was analogous to the balancing forces of erosion and uplift which maintained the succession of worlds. Yet the movement from an infinite cosmos to an eternal world is not without its difficulties. Hutton’s world machine made a radical statement about the nature of history, and implied a more enclosed system than the Newtonian cosmos. Still, Hutton often drew the comparison between the cycles of the planets and the cycles of the earth.

This is exactly how he prefaces his famous concluding lines to the Theory of the Earth. After having just recounted the three periods of the earth and reaffirming the indefiniteness of their duration, he then goes on to draw the connection between the cyclical age of the earth and that of the planets, stating:

[W]e have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. […] The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end.

For Hutton, as is evident from this excerpt, it is the eternally cyclic essence of natural phenomenon which makes it possible to logically observe systems in the world, which to a large extent makes them knowable. Without these cycles the most we could observe would be incidental phenomenon, insufficient for the development of universal principles. This demand upon knowledge has a surprising consequence. Natural phenomena are understandable insofar as they are cyclic in nature. This can be seen in the progression of animals, plants, climate and geology. However, human history, insofar as it focuses on particulars is unimportant, and potentially can not really be seen to exist at all.

Kelvin himself, however, was not entirely opposed to some forms of eternity. As is evident from his On the Age of the Sun’s Heat:

The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws. But it is impossible to conceive a limit to the extent of matter in the universe; and therefore science points rather to an endless progress, through an endless space, of action involving the transformation of potential energy into palpable motion and thence into heat, than to a single finite mechanism, running down like a clock, and stopping for ever.

While this passage is almost universally held to mark the introduction of the idea of heat death, it also serves as a refutation of the very same possibility. Rather than asserting that the dissipation of heat will lead to an eventual extinguishing of all life, Kelvin instead posits a universe in which the second law of thermodynamics insures a continued activity of matter, directed and given order by the transformation of potential energy into motion and heat. Thus Kelvin was driven to establish a firm limit on the beginning of the earth in order to make his view of progression make sense in light of the fact that time in the universe had a direction, but no observable ending. While the earth itself may be limited and thus doomed to dissipation, the universe itself faced no such restriction.

This meant that the very thermodynamics which made the universe run was threatened by the Huttonian world machine, for if the earth was composed of eternal cycles, thermodynamics was in error, and, perhaps more unforgivably, the whole notion of progression in time. Furthermore, as has already been seen in Kelvin’s critique of “zoological speculations” in his 1872 speech, he was deeply worried about the effect geological and biological studies would have on the free will of humans. It was the indefiniteness of time which gave Hutton’s position the capacity to deny human history, which would rob individuals of their efficacy in the face of a world in which everything was repetition. Kelvin’s view of endless progression, however, would avoid this misevaluation of the will through its directionality. This directionality insured a firm ground for knowledge, insofar as universal laws could be derived from constant causes, but one whose effects could vary over time, a fact which, for Kelvin, also insured the purposefulness of human experience.

Ultimately, the similarities between Kelvin’s and Hutton’s approaches were striking considering the radically different conclusions which they drew from them. Both used almost identical assumptions about the uniformity of nature, with the exception of Hutton’s demand for circularity and Kelvin’s distinction that a uniform cause can produce a different effect given a different substrate. Likewise, both were led by strong religious convictions about the kind of order a beneficent god would establish in the world. What caused the contention in determining the age of the earth was the presuppositions they made about what that divine order would be like, whether it would be an eternal cycle or an eternal progression and what this would mean for both natural philosophy and the individual. In the age in which the problem was raised the conflict could not be satisfactorily resolved, and it was perpetuated by the ambiguous nature of secondary causes which both theories were forced to rely upon to prove their separate claims.

In the end what can really be learned from this debate is the vital capacity for similar methods and guiding principles to lead to dramatically different results given but a handful of separate core convictions. This tendency is only magnified in any system of knowledge which requires an indirect view of its subject matter. In such cases all positions must then suffer the capricious whims of the secondary causes upon which they, nevertheless, must rely.

For More Information:

Burchfield, Joe D.  Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth. London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1975.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Hutton, James. Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations. Vol 1 and 2. Weinheim: H.R. Engelmann (J. Cramer) and Wheldon & Wesley, LTD., 1960.

Knell, Simon J. and Cherry L.E. Lewis. “Celebrating the Age of the Earth”. In The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

Lyell, Charles. “Principles of Geology” in 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Ed. A.S. Weber. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.

Playfair, John. Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. London: Cadell and Davies, 1802.  In On Geological Time. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

Thomson, W. (Lord Kelvin). “Popular Lectures and Addresses”, vol. 2. As in The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds. C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

–––.  “On Geological Dynamics” in Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, 1869. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––.  “On the Age of the Sun’s Heat” in Popular Lectures and Addresses, vol. 1, 2nd edition. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––. “On the Secular Cooling of the Earth”. in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. XXIII, pp. 167-169, 1864. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––. “On Geological Time”. in Popular Lectures and Addresses, Vol. ii, p. 10. 1868. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

Wild Through the Ages: Kamala, Amala and the Focus of Folklore

A recent article by the freelance journalist Maia Szalavitz recounts the story of Dani, a young girl who was rescued by social workers from the extreme neglect she had been living in since her birth in Plant City, Florida. Szalavitz describes Dani as a feral child, though she is quick to qualify that:

‘Feral’ isn’t a diagnosis, of course. But the term usually refers to a child raised by animals, like Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome who was said to have been reared by a she-wolf. […] More recently, the term has been expanded to include children whose human care and contact was extremely limited.

The article is typical of contemporary accounts of feral children in its association between the legends of wild children with supposedly “real” cases and cases of extreme neglect, though it differs somewhat in its emphasis on the empathic, rather than linguistic dimensions of the experience. Nevertheless, it is a recent and telling example of the cultural and historical forces that underpin the present day understanding of feral children, and hints at the folkloric associations that lay behind it.

The genealogy of feral children from legends to their present use in describing the state of extreme neglected has been noted and commented upon by others. However, it is still fruitful to consider the channels through which this transition took place, for it is evident that as a subject feral children exist at an interdisciplinary crossroads, uniting writers and folklorists with anthropologists, psychologists and linguists to create a communal space for discussion and dissent. This space, however, is not a democratic one, and despite the considerable prestige of science at the beginning of the twentieth century, the role played by folklore is remarkable. The example of Kamala and Amala, the wolf-girls of Midnapore, is particularly revealing in this regard. In looking at the literature surround these children, two important things are made evident. Firstly, it becomes fully apparent how in the study of feral children the arguments from folklore have been omnipresent. They are used to both support and detract from the credibility of the accounts. For those in favour of viewing the stories as credible, the persistent and widespread existence of a body of folklore surrounding feral children provides evidence of some deep underlying truth to the legends. For those critical of the stories, the folklore serves as an obscuring agent, contaminating observations and leading people to wrongly interpret lost children with congenital defects as authentic cases. However, in the discussions surrounding the authenticity of Amala and Kamala, most commentators referenced European myths when arguing for the use of folkloric evidence, while detractors focused on the fallibility of non-European superstitions. This divide leads to the second consideration of this paper. The epistemological value of evidence in these cases is consistently in favour of European accounts, suggesting that they, unlike native accounts, are less subject to the contaminating influences of folklore. There is a definitive undertone of colonialism in the anthropological discussion of feral children, for in many cases their presence was a negative indicator of the degree of civilization in the nations in which they were discovered. While their potential existence was thought to provide a wealth of information to western social science, the deprived conditions that gave rise to them was seen to indicate a need for further developmental work on the part of more civilized nations.

This study will begin with a look at the foundational legend of Romulus and Remus. From here, it will then be informative to consider the stories of Mowgli and Tarzan that appeared shortly before the “discovery” of the wolf-girls Amala and Kamala by the Reverend J.A.L. Singh in 1920. With this background it will then be possible to look at the folkloric, popular, psychological and anthropological literature surrounding accounts of feral children in light of the publication of Wolf-Children and Feral Man by Singh and the anthropologist Dr. Robert M. Zingg from the University of Denver in 1942, with a particular emphasis on the ways in which folklore shaped the content and direction of the discussions.

The value of legends and literature to the study of feral children cannot be overstated. It is a common reference point and beginning for numerous articles on the subject, and can help explain the rapid process of mythologization that takes place when social scientists and other researches are confronted with “authentic” cases. As the folklorists Michael P. Carroll supports in his essay “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”: “The fact that modern observers have so often characterized a newly discovered ‘wolf-boy’ as a ‘real life Romulus’ or a ‘real life Remus’ is by itself evidence that the association of these contemporary accounts with the Classical tradition is well-established”. Though usually mentioned only in passing, as in Szalaitz’s article, these myths and legends are so often connected with their real world counterparts that they serve to set the stage of the discussion before any scientific study can even begin.

Considering its importance to the subsequent literature, the story of Romulus and Remus is surprisingly mild when compared to the amount of time that other feral children have reportedly spent in the wild. According to the Roman historian Livy, writing in the first century BCE:

In those days the country thereabouts was all wild and uncultivated, and the story goes that when the basket in which the infants had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down from the neighbouring hills to quench her thrust, heard the children crying and made her way where they were. She offered them her teats to suck and treated them with such gentleness that Faustulus, the king’s herdsman, found her licking them with her tongue.

That is all. There is no indication of how long they were left in the care of the she-wolf, and, aside from the occasional mention of their “urge to found a new settlement” where they had been found as infants, the actual role that the she-wolf played in their upbringing is marginal. If an undercurrent of the brother’s origin does exist, it takes the form of their subsequent mastery over nature, for shortly following this passage we find them hunting, shepherding, farming and robbing from thieves to share with their friends. The depiction is much the same in the first and second centuries ACE, as recorded by Plutarch, both in its brevity and in the subsequent power the brother’s gain over their surroundings. The wild upbringing of those destined to found civilizations has been noted by others, and is a consistent motif in a number of legendary accounts. It seems evident that the brothers serve here as representatives of a human community that gains mastery over its surroundings from a state of helplessness in its primeval origins. The situation is much the same in the popular literature that was written near the beginning of the twentieth century.

Some years before the discovery of the wolf-girls of Midnapore was announced, legends surrounding feral children would receive new interest with the advent of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. As the historian Adriana S. Bezaquén observes:

by the end of the nineteenth century the ‘exotic’ animal-raised child entered literature and popular culture with striking and lasting power, first in Britain, in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), and almost two decades later in the United States, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes” (1912). The stories of wolf-child Mowgli and ape-boy Tarzan, though prompted by the spate of ‘real’ cases and incorporating elements form them, reinscribed the ancient myths. Far from the pitiful, brutish examples of inhumanity depicted in the ‘real’ accounts, Mowgli and Tarzan stood out and excelled among both animals and humans and thus became appealing heroes for readers stirred by imperialist dreams and hungry for vicarious adventure.

Unlike their real world counterparts, these modern legends took up the old banners of humanity’s mastery over nature and revitalized their cultural influence in the public imagination. To see this mastery one need only look at Kipling’s story “Mowgli’s Brothers” in which the feral child Mowgli comes to the wolves as a hunted, helpless infant, but who leaves their company in defiance after frightening away the tiger Shere Khan and exclaiming: “What ye will do, and what ye will not do, is not yours to say. That matter is with me; and that we may see the matter more plainly, I, the man, have brought here a little of the Red Flower [fire] which ye, dogs, fear”. In this respect the role of Tarzan is somewhat more complicated, however, for while Burroughs admitted being influenced by the legend of Romulus and Remus, as well as by the stories in Kipling’s Jungle Book, his wild man is more ambivalent towards the allure of civilization. Nevertheless, both stories served to glorify the strength of human nature in a strange environment, and it is this element, as we shall see, that was often drawn upon by subsequent commentators.

According to his own accounts, the Reverend Singh discovered the wolf-girls of Midnapore on October 17th 1920, their existence was accidentally made known to the world on September 7th 1921, Amala died on September 21st of the same year, followed nine years later by Kamala on November 14th 1929. The “diary” of their story, alongside Zingg’s “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”, was only published in 1942. The protracted nature of the announcement helped to insure a continued interest in the subject, while figures such as Zingg tried to authenticate the account and coax a supposedly unwilling Singh to publish. The point in the Reverend’s description of the children that caused the most consternation was the claim that their eyes gave of a peculiar “blue glare” at night. This seemingly superhuman capacity to see in the dark, their sharp teeth, heightened sense of smell and hearing, and physical build which spoke of “strength and agility” all play into the myths that already surrounded the idea of feral children since the end of the nineteenth century. Yet only the question of the glowing eyes was noted by the experts who provided a commentary to the case. The description that Singh provides of their natural strength and agility is never compared with his numerous other accounts of their enfeebled states due to sickness and neglect that they experienced after their reintroduction to human society. These fantastic particulars aside, however, it was the potentially folkloric origin of the girls’ upbringing by wolves that saw the greatest attention by subsequent investigators.

Social scientists of every stripe often commented on the relationship between supposedly real feral children and their fantastical counterparts during the early years of the twentieth century. As Bezaquén observes, this trend has been a common one. The extreme rarity of the events that may produce feral children, the taboo on performing any controlled experiments, and the often remote location of the stories mean that: “In most cases, the human sciences have no choice but to feed on non-scientific accounts, reports, and testimonies, while regularly distrusting the actual value or authenticity of the evidence”. It is to these early commentaries that we now turn our attention.

On the side of folklore, it is clear that the interest in feral children was not one of a purely literary or mythic bent, but that several writers, most notably J.H. Hutton, understood it as their responsibility to help cast judgment on the credibility of the real life evidence. Hutton gave a presidential address entitled “Wolf-Children” in the March 1940 edition of the journal Folklore. He began the discussion with comments on the interest in wolf-children in a recent edition of The Times, and followed this by stating that:

it is clear that apart from any particular interest the subject of wolf-children may have in itself, the point at issue, which is whether such stories are to be treated as credible or to be wholly discredited, is of no little importance to a Society which is primarily concerned with folklore. For the wide prevalence of stories of this kind indicates a rooted belief in their possibility.

For Zingg, Hutton would serve as an important source of census information on life in India and provide folkloric comments in regards to the stories of feral children. While in this text he was “indebted to the kindness of Dr. Robert M. Zingg” for several of his references, he would ultimately decline the opportunity to write a forward in Zingg’s and Singh’s account of the children’s development. He declined because he felt that in the end their work was an “improved version” of what actually occurred. Despite Hutton’s reservations about the complete reliability of their account and his own feelings of inconclusiveness about the evidence at hand, he did not discredit the possibility that Amala and Kamala were reared by wolves in part because of the widespread presence of these very myths. This attempt to account for the legends of feral children by appealing to the possibility of their reality was also characteristic of the popular articles on the subject.

In the articles of the 1940s a monolithic depiction of science is presented as attempting to come to grips with the stories of feral children. Lois Mattox Miller typifies this approach in his article “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon Boy”, which dramatically begins with the following homage to both myth and science alike:

From Romulus and Remus, mythical founders of Rome, through Kiplind’s Mowgli to Tarzan, stories of human babies adopted by wolves, bears, or apes, and reared to super-manhood far from human society have fascinated people of all ages in all climes. Scientists, always skeptical of the unauthenticated, have nevertheless searched for evidence of weird reality behind so persistent a myth pattern. […] [N]ow, for the first time, science has evidence of two cases of humans who may have been reared by wild animals; he tragic Wolf-children of Midnapore; and Lucas, he Baboon Boy of South Africa.

While Miller’s article points out that: “To the casual reader, these are just fascinating wonder-tales; but the scientists look to them to throw light on the relative importance of heredity and environment in shaping behaviour patters”, his discussion concludes on a triumphant note transcending the arena of nature and nurture to the glorification of humanity: we can ape better than the apes and live among wolves, and this likely demonstrates a greater, rather than a lesser intelligence in the cases of these children. We shall see that this sense of triumph, characteristic of the legends, was mirrored in several of the social scientists own accounts.

The role of folklore as potential evidence for the existence of feral children and the idea of human triumph that accompanies this are both present in the introductory sections of Wolf-Children and Feral Man. To begin with, the foreword presented by Dr. Ruggles Gates from the Human Heredity Bureau, even more forcefully reiterates the position of Hutton in his interpretation of the connection between folklore and reality. It also indicates a degree of value judgment, insofar as it assumes that feral children are exclusively the produce of ruder states of civilization, for he comments that:

The evidence is I think, conclusive that in former centuries when civilization was in a much ruder state, wolf-children were occasionally found even in Europe. The story of Romulus and Remus turns out to be mythical, but founded upon earlier myths which presumably had an ultimate substratum of truth. […] It is only reasonable to suppose that such legends were not pure inventions but were founded upon rare occurrences, among peoples in an early stage of culture.

In his contributing foreword Dr. Arnold Gesell, then director of the Clinic of Child Development at Yale University, presents a decidedly triumphant account of the wolf-girls of Midnapore. Despite the death of Amala at an early age, he stresses the fact that Kamala survived: “To an extraordinary degree she survived psychologically and achieved human estate”. Furthermore, despite his assertion that the dichotomy of nature and nurture is “barren”, he concludes his contribution to the text with the comment that: “The career of Kamala, even though cut short, demonstrates anew the stamina of the human spirit and the operation of developmental reserves which always ameliorate the adversities of abnormal fate”. Among the contributing scholars to the Reverend Singh’s diary, Dr. Gesell stands out as being exceptionally representative of the influence of folklore and popular myth. Bezaquén explicitly points out this effect on Gesell’s thought and how it was manifested in his subsequent publications on the matter. As she describes in regards to his Wolf Child and Human Child: Reconciling the Extraordinary and the Normal: “Despite his protestations to the contrary, he resorted to the emotional and evocative power of fiction to lend cohesion to the whole. His recurring references to Kipling’s Mowgli implicitly afforded another narrative framework, a romantic alternative to his scientific exposition of the normal child’s growth, against which the story of Kamala might be read”. If this is any indication of the intellectual atmosphere among the social scientists that supported the Reverend Singh’s claims, then it is clear that folklore was never far from center stage both implicitly and explicitly. It even formed the basis of dissenting views.

Psychologists, tending to be more sceptical, nevertheless acknowledged the importance of folklore in these matters, albeit often for different reasons. Marian W. Smith in her 1954 article on wild children and the principle of reinforcement, points out that: “Before the […] cases can be analyzed it is necessary to accept them as evidence, even if only temporarily”. She stresses that a tacit acceptance of the truth of the matter rests on shaky ground because it is difficult to state with any certainty which came first, claims about the actual existence of feral children, or the folklore in which they played a largely symbolic role. However, rather than removing the place of folklore in the scientific discussion, it instead gives it a central place, because as Smith observes in these cases: “The interplay between reality and belief is far from simple”.

This outlook is particularly evident in the writings of one of the more public detractors of the credibility of the wolf-girls of Midnapore, the psychologist Wayne Dennis. In his 1941 article “The Significance of Feral Man” he uses the existence of a body folklore surrounding feral children in India as warning sign. He cautions his readers, reasoning that:

Since the idea of wolf-children is current in India […] if a mute, who could give no account of his past, were found in India at the present time, it is easy to guess the direction of speculation concerning his origin. … India possesses a large number of unfortunates to whom such a myth could be fitted.

Unlike the vision of human triumph presented by Gesell, Dennis considers most, if not all of the cases of feral children to be the products of folkloric inspired misunderstandings of children with mental defects who were separated from their parents for short periods of time and then discovered by others. In this way folklore becomes the defining point for him and many other detractors of the authenticity of feral children. As he comments later in The Significance of Feral Man: “In searching for the origin of the belief that a specific child was reared by beasts it would be relevant to examine the folk lore [sic] of the region from which came the original story.“ Yet while describing it as a source of scientific contamination in the search for feral children, Dennis nevertheless ascribes to folklore a great deal of importance, particularly in the context of underdeveloped societies. It is to the idea of the obscuring effects of folklore in a colonial context that we now turn our attention.

It has been said that the science of anthropology developed as an instrument of colonialism. This seems particularly evident in the case of feral children, whose presence in a nation inevitably served as a comment on its state of civilization. Western observers were quick to note that the phenomenon: “Has seldom if ever been witnessed by a European, at any rate since the seventeenth century”. As we have already seen in the comments made by Dr. Gates they could only have appeared “even in Europe” among “peoples in an early stage of culture”. Yet, for him, this early stage of culture is part of what makes India “a paradise for the anthropologist”. Western social scientists’ fascination with feral children was complicated by the prejudicial distrust of “uncivilized” folklore, and the understanding that their presence in a nation served as further proof that it was in an early stage of development.

As we have already seen to a large extent, social scientists that wanted to support the possibility of feral children turned to the validity of western folklore to help support their claims. However, those who sought to discount the idea of feral children often disparaged the epistemological value of the accounts made by “uncivilized” native peoples, who were more likely to fall victim to superstition (in other words, their own folklore). The colonial values underpinning these critiques are evident Dennis’ The Significance of Feral Man, in which he reminds the reader to be skeptical because: “The desire to please and likewise the desire to pull the leg of the white man are not unknown among the darker-skinned races”. However, these views reach their most blatant form in the work of an earlier scholar that Dennis makes references to: the nineteenth century British anthropologist E. Burnet Tylor. In Tylor’s “Wild Men and Beast-Children”, he makes similar critiques of the existence of feral children based on the unreliability of uncivilized accounts. He incredulously states that: “we have no other evidence than that of natives, and it is pretty well known what Oriental evidence is worth as to such matters”, and, comparing the account of feral children to a native belief that people are born with crocodile twins concludes that: “if all the Asiatics living were to declare with one accord that a child and a crocodile had been born twins at one birth, we should not believe it”. In the face of this colonial background it is therefore telling that Zingg himself felt compelled to remind his readers to be more accepting in their judgements, for “there should be some presumption that native Indian testimony of even the lowest classes is not always necessarily false”.

There are few questions thornier than those of the first origins of a thing. All the subsequent promises and pains of its entire history have the tendency of becoming inscribed in its beginnings, and a tangled mess ensues, which after all, is what the present is. If any topic of consideration is more beset with difficulties, it is the question of human nature. The image of the feral child or wild man through history and legend has in many ways exemplified both of these quandaries, and done so with all the poignancy of an infant abandoned in the woods. Kamala and Amala did exist, but the question of whether or not they were the wolf-girls of Midnapore is another matter. At the very least, their story serves to highlight the importance and influence of folklore in the social sciences, and show how literature together with myth can shape the nature and direction of scientific debates. Here, it is important to note that Zingg’s and Gesell’s approach to the value of folklore was not in itself unscientific or misguided, any more than Dennis’ assertions to the contrary, what was interesting was the channels through which the two parties operated, and the shape that their discussion took on in light of the folkloric undercurrents of their subject matter. Likewise, the colonial prejudices of Dennis and Tylor can perhaps be expected, but in this matter they serve to bring light to an area in the history of the social sciences that would benefit form further elucidation. If the presence of feral children is both indicative of an “anthropological paradise” as well as a negative indicator of a nations state of civilization, then what does this indicate about the role and responsibility of this kind of science? Furthermore, the marked preference of European folklore on the side of Singh’s supporters and the attention drawn to the folklore of India by his detractors is some indicator of the lack of self-reflexivity present in early anthropology. As the grotesque cases of Dani and other neglected children testify, to this day there is the desire to recast cases of abandonment in the present day to those of human triumph in its legendary past. In this way it is indicative of a basic human need, a need that demands some role for folklore when faced with the damning evidence against the virtue of civilization that is and always has been the feral child.

For More Information:

Dennis, Wayne. “The Significance of Feral Man”. In The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul., 1941). p. 425-32.

Gates, R. Ruggles. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xiii-xvi

Gesell, Arnold. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xvii-xviii.

Hutton, J.H. “Wolf-Children”. In Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1940), 9-31.

—. “Wolf-Children and Feral Man”. In Man, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), 631.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. 2009. Wikisource. 13 April 2009. <>

Livy. The Early History of Rome: Books 1-4 of The History of Rome From its Foundations. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960.

Miller, Lois Mattox. “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon-Boy”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jul. 13, 1940). p. 26-9.

Plutarch, Romulus. Trans. John Dryden. The Internet Classics Archive. 2009. Web Atomics. 13 April 2009 <>

Singh. J.A.L. “The Diary of the Wolf-Children of Midnapore (India)”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 3-126.

Smith, Marian W. “Wild Children and the Principle of Reinforcement”. In Child Development, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Jun., 1954). p. 115-23.

The Society for Science & the Public. “Wolf-Child Stories Are Doubted by Psychologist”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 39, No. 17 (Apr. 26, 1941), p. 261.

Tylor, E. Burnet. “Wild Men and Beast-Children”. In Anthropological Review, Vol 1. No. 1. (May, 1863). p. 21-32.

Zingg, Robert M. “Introduction: Continued”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xxxv-xli.

—. “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 131-365.

Bezaquén, Adriana S. Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Carroll, Michael P. “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”. In Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Apr., 1984), 63-85.

Lewis, Diane. “Anthropology and Colonialism” In Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Dec.,1973), 581-602.

Newton, Michael. Savage Girls and Wild Boys. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Szalaitz, Maia. “A Feral Child’s Journey to Recovery: How One Expert Helps Children Heal After Severe Abuse and Neglect”. 2009. MSN Health & Fitness. 12 April 2009. <>

Atlantis, Ancient Technology and the Dissolusioned Technocratic Impulse

Many of the conspiracy theories involving Atlantis focus on it as a technological utopia, whether that technology had a terrestrial or alien source, it is the archetypical futurists paradise, the only exception being, it is in the past. One of the most interesting things about the people who seem to be most invested in these theories is not necessarily the way in which their sense of pattern recognition is working in overdrive, but how fervently it demonstrates the continuing belief in the power of technology to influence human life for the better.

This image of Atlantis is so influential in part because it takes advantage of the powerful pull of origin myths combined with a technocratic disillusionment with the state of the present world. Rather than giving up its faith in technological progress’ ability to make our lives better, this impulse instead project the future golden age into the past. Some of the engineers and scientists who have fallen under its sway describe Egyptian pyramids as huge, industrial energy projects. After all, they reason, why else would the Egyptians invest so much effort in create them? But this ignores the entire basis of the ancient Egyptian belief structure, in which monumentality, memory and the symbolic meanings associated with them were alone enough of a motivation to create and prepare the final resting place of the Pharaoh.

Disillusioned technocrats are not the only ones with a vested interest in ancient advanced technology and Atlantis, to be sure, but it is always quite telling, the ways in which we project ourselves, our hopes and fears, first onto the future, and if that seems too murky and desolate a place, then we turn to the past, in some ways, just as the Ancients themselves.

The Glassy Essence of Life

Coming to Dresden without much prior research I happened upon the Blaschka House, which, sadly, is not usually open to the public except on special occasions, but does serve as an excellent excuse for a blog post.

The collection of specimens crafted from glass by the father and son team of Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939) was a rich and rare anomaly of biological modeling. While they largely produced elegant glass replicas of plants, they also made a number of sea anemones, squid, octopai, jellyfish and other invertebrates, several of which can be found in the art gallery at Cornell. The bulk of the collection, however, is held in Harvard after the Blaschkas signed an exclusive ten-year contract with the university in 1890.

When Rudolf died in 1939, he had no apprentices and no one to learn the craft skills behind his glass work. Many of the techniques used to create the Blaschka models were thus never revealed, and I believe they remain unknown to this day.

The choice of materials, glass, is interesting for a number of reasons. Glass was not the most immediate, or common material for such models in the nineteenth century, it was difficult to safely transport and difficult to work with when compared to wax. While it did have an advantage over more common, dead specimens, in being able to preserve the colours and structure of the living thing being modeled, it nevertheless took a great deal of time to make and perfect, and tasked the detailed memory and skill to produce a convincing replica.

There is, I suspect, an interesting, largely untold story about the quest for the basic unit connecting the organic and inorganic worlds in the nineteenth century with the Blaschka’s choice of materials. It culminates in what Bob Brain from the University of British Columbia has termed the “Protoplasmania” at the end of the century. Protoplasmania, a strand of nineteenth century culture that connects Thomas Henry Huxley’s undue excitement over Bathybius haeckelii, what he thought was the original source of all life and turned out to be a chemical artifact of specimen preservation, to french parapsychologists’ attempts to use high speed photography to capture images of ghostly ectoplasm, evidence of the ability of space itself to store memory, and Edward Munch’s “Scream”.

Ernst Haeckel (who lent his name to the short lived Bathybius haeckelii) was also invested in the glassy essence of life. His celebrated Kunsformen der Natur featured a wide array of

glassy radiolarians, whose silicate shells and startling symmetry lent them an alien, primordial appearance.

Haeckel was a friend of the Blaschkas, and lent them books from his library when they were called upon to work on a series of marine invertebrates. It is more than likely, then, that the material choice was not just an artistic statement, but was deeply embroiled in the theories about life and nature involved in protoplasmania, which tied together so much of the art and science of Fin-De-Siècle Europe.

For More Information:

Brain, Robert. (2010). “How Edvard Munch and August Strindberg Contracted Protoplasmania: Memory, Synesthesia, and the Vibratory Organism in Fin-De-Siècle Europe”. In Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 35, No. 1.

Charles Lyell, the Sea Serpent and a Lingering Puzzle of Evolution

Most people know the British geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) for the role that his Principles of Geology played in helping to ground Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Along with his intellectual mentor James Hutton (1726–1797), Lyell support a principle known as uniformitarianism, the belief that the past behaved essentially in the same way as the present and that massive changes could be accounted for by smaller changes given sufficient time. The most immediate consequence of this being the development of a notion of “deep time”, the vast, almost incomprehensible age of the Earth that played such an important role in arsenal of evolutionary naturalism in the nineteenth century. Yet this was not all, it also asserted that a close study of the earth based upon uniformitarian principles revealed that it exhibited a steady state pattern of endlessly repeating cycles.

While Lyell did support Darwin’s work and was one of the early defenders of The Origin of Species, he often seemed at best lukewarm in his support for natural selection itself. This was a cause for some consternation amongst his fellows, and Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), and others in their circle were keenly aware of his position. It is a valid observation, and often commented upon, that Lyell’s ambivalence to the theory stemmed in part from his religious convictions, particularly in regards to the origin and development of the human animal. However, there were other, more theoretical reasons that also played a role in his discomfort.

Despite the fact that the evidence emerging from the fossil records hinted towards an ever increasing degree of complexity in the realm of organic development and organization, Lyell’s uniformitarian position and his observations of the actual layers of the earth directed his attention to the steady state pattern previously mentioned. How could it be that there was an apparent directionality in the evolution of species if the environments that produced them appeared to pass through essentially the same cycles? If natural selection accounted for the majority of evolutionary changes, that is, creatures changing in response to their environments, wouldn’t there be a certain, set number of variations possible? Indeed, wouldn’t it be possible for these variations to die out during a cycle that could not support them, but to reappear again when the environment returned to a previous state?

This line of questioning then, leads us to the sea serpent.

Lyell was a skeptical and cautious observer in these matters; however, in some of his published writings, and many more of his personal ones, he displayed a keen interest in every account of sea monsters and serpents that he could find. If something from the fossil records of one age could be found alive today, in effect, a living fossil, perhaps it could act as organic evidence for his more radical geological position.

Here the Atlantic provinces of Canada and the New England states of America play a particularly important role. In his A Second Visit to the United State of North America, Vol I published in the year 1849, he writes of a disappointing hoax he was led to in 1845 during his stay in Boston. It was perpetrated by a Mr. Koch, who claimed of his serpent’s skeleton that this “hydrarchos, or water king, was the leviathan of the Book of Job, chapter xli”. Lyell determined the bones to be of an extinct zeuglodon (what is today called a Basilosaurus), dug up in Alabama and arranged to resemble a serpent.

Albert Koch's "Hydrarchos" fossil skeleton from 1845.

 Yet he was forced to reconsider his position after hearing back from a friend of his in Nova Scotia:

“At the very time when I had every day to give an answer to the question whether I really believed the great fossil skeleton from Alabama to be that of the sea serpent formerly seen on the coast near Boston, I received news of the reappearance of the same serpent, in a letter from my friend Mr. J. W. Dawson, of Pictou, in Nova Scotia. This geologist, with whom I explored Nova Scotia in 1842, said he was collecting evidence for me of the appearance, in the month of August, 1845, at Merigomish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, of a marine monster, about 100 feet long, seen by two intelligent observers, nearly aground in calm water, within 200 feet of the beach, where it remained in sight about half an hour, and then got off with difficulty.”

The creature had also been seen off the coast of Prince Edward Island, terrifying the fishermen, and a year before a similar creature troubled the natives of Arisaig on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia. Lyell provided the following image and commented on its strange, undulating movements:

He went on to describe sightings of creatures from across North America and Norway and observed that not only was it “impossible not to be struck with their numerous points of agreement”, but that a pattern could even be seen in their points of contradiction, namely, in the quality of evidence provided by those on the shore “without their imaginations being disturbed by apprehensions of personal danger”, and the consternation of those fishermen in the water who, more than anyone, should be able to tell a serpent from “an ordinary whale or shark, or a shoal of porpoises, or some other known cetacean or fish.”

However, the sheer number of people shooting the creatures in what they thought to be their heads (an all too common trope in the history of sea monsters), but who did not in fact kill them, was a cause of some puzzlement, and ultimately Lyell concluded that the creature was most likely a large, fast moving species of shark:

“It can hardly be doubted that some good marksmen, both in Norway and New England, who fired at the animal, sent bullets into what they took to be the head, and the fact that the wound seems never to have produced serious injury, although in one case blood flowed freely, accords perfectly with the hypothesis that they were firing at the dorsal prominence, and not at the head of a shark.”

A misunderstanding of the processes of decomposition of marine animals on shore, combined with the optical effects of water was the likely cause of the accounts. Yet even discounting the serpentine nature of the creature, this did not totally undermine his hopes that researches into sea monsters could bring fourth evidence of living fossils.

It is clear that Lyell did at one point believe in sea serpents, but importantly, not fully as given by the narratives he explored. As he said:

“I confess that when I left America in 1846, I was in a still more unfortunate predicament, for I believed in the sea serpent without having seen it. Not that I ever imagined the northern seas to be now inhabited by a gigantic ophidian [snake], for this hypothesis has always seemed to me in the highest degree improbable, seeing that, in the present state of the globe, there is no great development of reptile life in temperate or polar regions, whether in the northern or southern hemisphere.”

He was unsure if the sea serpent was actually a serpent at all, given the climactic conditions then prevalent in the North Atlantic, furthermore little solid proof could be found for their existence that could not be explained in some other way. Yet, like the depths of time, the depths of the oceans provided another chasm of uncertainty and he: “[questioned] whether we are as yet so well acquainted with all the tenants of the great deep as to entitle us to attach much weight to this argument from negative evidence”.

A modern reconstruction of a Basilosaurus.

Context played a crucial role in both his conclusion, and his qualifications, for: “in the first place, we must dismiss from our minds the image of a shark as it appears when out of the water, or as stuffed in a museum.” In addition to this limitation of witnesses, there was also the larger context of the geological record, for even in his dismissal of the sea serpent as a serpent, it did not rule out earlier, larger mammals and sharks.

“[I]n the geological periods, immediately antecedent to that when the present molluscous fauna came into existence, there was a similar absence of large reptiles, although there were then, as now, in colder latitudes, many huge sharks, seals, narwals, and whales. If, however, the creature observed in North America and Norway, should really prove to be some unknown species of any one of these last-mentioned families of vertebrata, I see no impropriety in its retaining the English name of sea serpent, just as one of the seals is now called a sea elephant, and a small fish of the Mediterranean, a sea horse; while other marine animals are named sea mice and urchins, although they have only a fanciful resemblance to hedgehogs or mice.”

The sea serpent could very well be a shark, and still retain its common title, what mattered to him was not so much its nomenclature, as its potential place in multiple geological periods.

Even given this concession, Lyell never found the evidence he was looking for in any of the accounts he collected throughout his life, and today his attempt to demonstrate the circularity of geological periods and the creatures to be found within them seems by many to be one of the misguided inheritances he received from his predecessor, Hutton.

Yet before we judge Lyell too harshly, consider this: Darwin’s own estimate for the age of the earth was 300 million years, based on the rate of erosion of the Weald valley in the sound of England; it was considered a terrible miscalculation by both more geologically inclined supporters of his theories as well as notable detractors such as the physicist Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Outside of using deep time as a resource for his own theories, there is little evidence that Darwin himself struggled with the concept in any significant way, whereas Lyell, drawing from Hutton, was actively engaged in its more troubling aspects as a theory which then, as even now, demonstrates how ill equipped the human mind is to fully appreciate the consequences of eons.

In the nineteenth century the evidence of the best physics of the day consistently contradicted the vision of the earth’s history provided by the evolutionary naturalists, as well as the geologists, and it was in no ways certain whose account was inherently more coherent, for in truth, they all were, but some were looking at the sun as their guide, others at the snails, and others still at the stones themselves. By the same measure we cannot smugly smile and say: but we have found living fossils, and they do nothing to demonstrate the circularity that Lyell had anticipated, but only the stability of certain environmental conditions, for if we were more circumspect the sheer span of that statement would stagger the mind. Even in these cases, 100 million years, the age of one of the oldest unchanged species known to date, the Schizodactylidae, shown below, pails in comparison to 4.54 billion years of the earth itself.

Image from the University of Illinois.

Schizodactylus monstrosus

Everyone who has watched a BBC documentary or taken a class in biology feels that they know that the age of the earth is now fully appreciated, and its consequences largely deduced. He or she has seen the time laps videos comparing its age to the length of a day, heard the stories of how even in terms of the old measurements based on the dimensions of the King’s body, the human age would hardly account for more than a sliver off of his royal fingernail, and we feel quite comfortable with our apparent insignificance, indeed, feel it to be something familiar and emboldening. In truth we have forgotten its strangeness. Far more existential agonies are forgotten than are ever resolved, and so too it is with the notion of deep time, for we have not tamed it, but merely placed it out of sight, on an enormous rodent’s running wheel, to do its work for us – to be sure it is always an excellent weapon against facile notions of creation – but not really trouble us overmuch.

However, when it comes to the heart of the matter, we are no more capable today of explaining the apparent increase in the complexity of organisms by means of evolutionary theory than they were at the time of Lyell’s writing. The alternative, some plateau or self-contained and consistent state of complexity that is attained sometime after the development of organic beings, still begs the same questions that he was trying to come to terms with in regard to evolutionary changes within a finite series of environmental parameters.

And so, being ask to write for this, the first installment of the Cosmic Standard, I could think of no more fitting way to honour it than to help point the reader to the incredible strangeness of the cosmos, especially and above all in those things which we tend to take for granted. Explore as we may, and explore as we will, it still remains questionable how many places on the map of existence we must mark off, or fill in with fanciful illustrations and consign ourselves to the old and fearful caution: “Here be dragons.”

For More Information:

Benson, Keith Rodney and Philip F. Rehbock (eds). 2002. Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond. University of Washington Press: Washington D.C..

Lyons, Sherrie Lynne. 2009. Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. State University of New York Press: Albany.