Mythological Notes: Henny-Penny discovers Atlantis

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The Independent Culture
IN THE English fairy tale, Henny-Penny was hit on the head by a falling object, and then set off with Cocky-Locky, Ducky-Daddles, and the rest of the tongue-twisting farmyard crew, to warn the king that "the sky's a-going to fall". What was the reason for this paranoid behaviour? Surprisingly, the answer can be found in the famous legend of the lost island of Atlantis.

When the Greek philosopher Plato described Atlantis as an "island" which was struck by an earthquake and sank into the sea, he inspired countless generations of explorers to search the deepest oceans and furthermost corners of the Earth for the remnants of a lost civilisation. However, these expeditions were wild-goose chases, because the Egyptians - the source of Plato's Atlantis legend - firmly believed that the lost island was up in the sky.

It was a central tenet of ancient Egyptian religion that the sky had fallen to Earth on more than one occasion. The oldest of these fallen sky-deities was Geb, who was said to have laid a Great Egg out of which emerged the phoenix with a blinding flash of light. Geb then let out a piercing scream and fell to the Earth's surface, carrying out "construction work" in "millions of places".

Another fallen god was Osiris, who was born in the sky but was then "laid low" by the evil god Seth. Osiris was said to have "split open" the Earth, and come to rest in the deep dark caverns of the underworld.

The Egyptians believed that the gods had descended to the Earth from a place in the sky, known variously as the "Homeland of the Primeval Ones", the "eastern Horizon of Heaven" or the "Mountain-Land of the God". But underlying all of these epithets was the image of an island floating in an infinite abyss of primeval waters, or Space.

How did this island come to be lost? The Egyptians claimed that Osiris had drowned (compare the sinking of Atlantis), but they also said that Osiris had been "dismembered", i.e. chopped into pieces - a close parallel to the "earthquake" which destroyed Atlantis.

The myth of the sky falling to Earth reflected an Egyptian belief in a catastrophic "act of creation", a day when the sky-goddess Nut gave birth to her "children of chaos" and the sky became "choked and stifled". The Earth was said to have become an "Island of Fire" as a result of impacts from heaven.

Was ancient Egyptian religion inspired by a meteorite which fell from the asteroid belt? The Egyptians believed that asteroids and meteorites were parts of the body of their sky-deity, who had been dismembered. Remarkably, this sky-deity was described in the same terms as used for the Earth herself - an island, a mountain, a throne, and a horizon. In other words, the Egyptians believed that their "God" was a planet.

The same idea is found in depictions of the god Atlas, supposedly the first king of Atlantis, who was shown supporting the heavens in the form of a planetary globe. The Greek meaning of his name tells us that Atlas failed to withstand the sky, which came crashing down to the Earth.

Atlantis was thus conceived as a planet which suffered a catastrophe and sank into the waters of space. But might there be a reality behind this myth? The notion that one or more planets have actually exploded in our solar system is not without its supporters in the science of astronomy. If their predictions concerning the explosive origins of asteroids and cornets are proved correct, the ancient Egyptian myths will become due for a re-assessment. And Henny-Penny won't be the only one to wake up with a sore head.

Alan F. Alford is the author of `The Phoenix Solution: secrets of a lost civilisation' (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 18.99)