Origin Myths of Spacefaring Civilization

Living Mythologically in Modern Times

Joseph Campbell once urged his listeners to “live mythologically.” I was old enough to have watched the Bill Moyers’ interviews with Joseph Campbell during their original airing on PBS (1988), and I remember how this advice was sometimes appreciated but more often misunderstood (seemingly intentionally) by the press at the time. Though Moyers was clearly out of his depth in these interviews, he at least appreciated what Campbell was saying, even if he didn’t understand all of it.

One might plausibly claim that it is not easy to live mythologically in modern times, that our times, modern times, are decisively removed from the mythological times — the Axial Age, as Karl Jaspers styled it — in which our great traditions were laid down. The origins of human civilization are long past, according to this way of understanding history, and they will not return. We have the civilizations we have because of the origin myths that made us what we are today, but the times in which the origin myths came about (no less than those myths themselves, I might add) are long gone.

This is not my interpretation of history. I regard the past ten thousand years as the infancy of human civilization, and we ourselves as constituting an infancy that is only now on the cusp of coming into the earliest stages of maturity. If we could be said to be located anywhere in history, I would say that we are near the end of the beginning. I have presented this interpretation in Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? or, What it means for us to be living near the beginning of history.

Near the end of the beginning of history, there is still plenty of time to make and to participate in the origin myths of the future civilization that is to come. But what the origin myth from our times will be will depend upon the mature form of our civilization, looking back over history to find inchoate and embryonic forms of itself in the past. If the mature form of human civilization takes nothing from our era, we will be not so much forgotten as effaced from history. For in order to construct a narrative of the convergence of human civilization on a particular mature state, it will be necessary to parse the past and to preserve only those moments that contribute to the narrative.

In our own time, there are several different historical threads that might someday become the basis of the origin myth (also known as a foundation myth or etiological myth) of spacefaring civilization, if that is the mature form that our civilization eventually takes, but we cannot yet speak of the foundation myth of spacefaring civilization because nothing yet is settled. Not only is there not a single origin myth for spacefaring civilization, but if mature civilization turns inward rather than outward, those stages in the progress of spacefaring will count as dead ends in the branching bush of civilization.

However, since I am especially interested in spacefaring civilization as the destiny of humanity, I will focus on this particular mature state of civilization. One could just as easily consider the origin myth possibilities for other forms of mature civilization. The only limitation here is that, if our present stage of civilization is close enough to the beginning of time that we are today participating in the origin myth of civilization, that civilization must be exceptionally long-lived by contemporary standards. The civilization for which we can provide an origin myth would be million-year-old supercivilization.

At the fine-grained extreme of origins myths for spacefaring civilization, we have the ongoing efforts in our time to create a space industry — the origins of rocketry, the Space Race, the contemporary privatization of space industry and technology. This sequence of events may be continued into the future with further triumphs and tragedies until the fulfillment of a spacefaring destiny allows civilization new worlds and new opportunities for human achievement. This is an inspiring mythology of human effort in the face of an indifferent universe, punctuated by great successes and devastating failures, all of which contribute to the poetic possibilities of mythology.

In the middle ground of history and human activity, an origins myth might focus on the development of the political, social, and economic institutions and wherewithal that make a spacefaring industry possible. This would be a more troubling mythology than the straight-forward inspiring vision of relentless human toil as in the fine-grained account. In the middle ground account, there would be villains, and an encounter with malevolence, perhaps a great struggle and a great moment of decision when the turning point in the struggle is realized. Probably we have not yet even approached that moment and the turning point, which has yet to develop out of the tensions of the present.

In the most expansive vision of a spacefaring future for humanity, we look back to the origins of civilization, the origins of humanity, and indeed the origins of the universe, and we see these successive origins of great new possibilities as ontological novelties are revealed in and through history. David Christian regularly presents big history as an origins myth of contemporary civilization, and we could well see this tradition and method extrapolated into the future, in which our present civilization on the cusp of true spacefaring civilization was a threshold of this emergent complexity that we are struggling to bring into being, perhaps to be followed by no less consequential thresholds as yet unknown. The cosmogonic myth of a spacefaring civilization could reach into cosmology itself as its affirmation of itself as an extension of the processes of the cosmos.

In the very long view of history — perhaps the view of history that a million-year-old supercivilization might possess — in which our ten thousand years of civilization to date is merely the preparation for the true beginning of history, when humanity is a spacefaring and multi-planetary civilization, it may be one of these three scenarios that furnishes the origins myth, or all three of them woven together, or something else yet that I have not considered.

Joseph Campbell not only said to live mythologically, he also said that a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. This implies the theme with which we began: that the mythological age is over, and our only hope to participate in the mythological age is through the ritualized reliving of a myth. But if we are today creating the myth of tomorrow, we can participate in mythology in a much more robust form than a vicarious ritualized rehearsal of a long past mythology. By living mythologically we can create a myth upon which the future will look back for the source of their being. They will seek to replicate our experiences, and in the ritualized celebration of our present as a past myth, they will participate in our world in order to participate in a myth.

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