No doubt this will come as a shock, but not only is mythology the substance of religion it is also the distant foundation of modern physics!
The most obvious aspect of such a connection lies in the fact that most of the basic concepts of physics, such as space, time, matter, energy, field, particle, etc., were originally intuitive, mythological ideas of the old Greek and other ancient philosophers—ideas that then slowly evolved and became more accurate and that today are mainly expressed in abstract mathematical terms.
The idea of a particle, for instance, was formulated by the fourth-century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Leucippus and his pupil Democritus, who called it the “atom,” that is, the “indivisible unit.” Epicurus (341-270) BCE), for example, concluded that the gods have a real existence, but as images or shades of a peculiar kind of extremely fine atoms. Many of the ancients, as well as our enlightened Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, also thought so. Though the atom has not proved indivisible, we still conceive of the atom as the springboard that led to the new physics of quantum mechanics.
Another example: consider the soul. Primitive conceptions divided the soul into two parts, one called the “bound soul.” This was imagined as the vital principle of various internal organs. The other was called the “Breath Soul.” The evidence for the idea of soul and breath is a familiar one, coming from the Greek “psyche” and the Hebrew “nephesh,” the German “Geist,” and the English “ghost,” and “spirit.”
The fact that all these words originally meant simply “breath” also indicates that the mythological “spirit” was the primary idea of the two.
There are at least two reasons for these ideas because they did not all originate in the idea of breath, but in a still deeper one, namely, in that of intestinal gas. Connections can be made between the idea of intestinal gas and the conception of the Breath-Soul.
Confining ourselves solely to Hindu and Greek philosophy, and first describing the Hindu, we note the following beliefs and statements in the Upanishads alone. Prana (breath) is identified on the one hand with Brahman, the Supreme Being, and on the other with Atman, the primary essence of the Universe. Here’s the description: From Atman came the Other, from this the wind, from this the fire, from this the water, and from water, came earth. Thus the four primary elements are expressed in terms of a gas. It is unnecessary to cite any further examples, but it may be said that by far the greater part of this whole literature is taken up with this theme, the ideas of breath, wind, and so on, being described in the most exalted spiritual/mythological language imaginable.
If we turn to Greece we find that the same group of ideas forms a central starting point for a great part of the views on philosophy, medicine and psychology. Many of the earlier monists, including Anaximenes, posited air as the basic and thus the most important element. Thus the continued existence of the world was explained by a process of cosmic respiration.
Let’s take another example of how mythology has mothered science—that of calendar making. Whereas the computation of lunar periods required only man’s ability to count the nights of the moon on his ten fingers, the needs of agriculture made it necessary to reckon time in much longer periods. Both the development of agriculture and the use of solar time were, therefore, dependent upon, and perhaps coincident with, man’s learning to count the days in a whole year.
Knowledge of the 365-day solar year appears in the very oldest Egyptian records and seems to have been the basis of the calendar used by the Egyptians as early as 4000 or 5000 BCE. To the end of a 360-day zodiacal year they added 5 intercalary days that were celebrated as the birthdays of the gods Osiris, Isis, Horus, Typhon, and Nephthys. In the seventh century BCE, Thales, the first of the Greek philosophers, brought that knowledge of the 365-day year to Greece.
The idea of energy, and its relationship to force and movement, was also formulated by early Greek thinkers, and was developed by Stoic philosophers. They postulated the existence of a sort of life-giving “tension” which supports and moves all things. This is obviously a semi-mythological germ of our modern concept of energy.
Even comparatively modern scientists and thinkers have relied on half-mythological images when building up new concepts. In the 17th-century, for instance, the absolute validity of the law of causality seemed “proved” to Renes Descartes, “by the fact that God is immutable in His decisions and actions.” And the great German astronomer Johannes Kepler asserted that there are not more and not less than three dimensions of space on account of the Trinity. He also asserted that the planets were swept along in their paths by angels with brooms!
The 18th-century German mathematician Karl Eriedrich Gauss gives an example of an experience much like those of the prophets of Israel and the prophet Jesus who called it a revelation from God. He says that he found a certain rule in the theory of numbers “not by painstaking research, but by the Grace of God, so to speak. The riddle solved itself as lightning strikes, and I myself could not tell or show the connection between what I knew before, what I last used to experiment with, and what produced the final success.”
These are just a few examples among many that show how even our more modern and basic scientific concepts remained for a long time linked with the mythology of ancient man.
As it is known today, science is of recent origin. But the traditions and mythology out of which it emerged reach back beyond recorded history. Belief in the ability of gods and demons to transform themselves into birds and animals, to defy the laws of gravity, to change their stature from minute to gigantic proportions, to make themselves invisible, or to perform any other feat that man can conceive, is the oldest and most primitive product of man’s effort to think about the ways of the world in which he lives. This presumed ability of the gods constituted a magic formula which enabled mystic priests to provide a solution for any imaginable problem as easily as a magician takes rabbits out of a hat. Once the belief in this supernatural power found its way into the cultures of the early peoples, their ability to tell the difference between fact and fancy, possibility and impossibility, was impaired and they became susceptible to belief in all kinds of superstitions, myths, magic, and miracles.
Yet, in spite of all the supernatural explanations provided for all earthly or heavenly phenomena and the little incentive that remained for seeking their true scientific explanation, mankind’s mythology managed to provide the seed from which science eventually grew.
It took long centuries of torturous effort, secrecy, great courage and self-sacrifice to achieve the break away from out-and-out mythology. Early Greek/Hellenistic culture began a different approach to science. We moderns have to thank the Ionian natural philosophers especially, for they removed the gods and goddesses from the personal roles they had played in the cosmologies of Babylonia and Egypt and looked to order the world according to natural principles.