Laird Scranton is a software designer from Albany, New York, USA. He is the author of two books on African and Egyptian cosmology and language. His focus is on the study of comparative cosmology, which is the study of the classic myths, symbols, deities, cosmological concepts, rituals and words of various ancient and modern cultures. His emphasis has been on defining fundamental similarities between the cosmologies of the modern-day Dogon tribe of Mali, ancient Egypt, and Buddhism. These studies have culminated in a new symbolic approach to interpreting Egyptian hieroglyphic words that is based on words and definitions drawn from comparative cosmology, rather than the traditional comparative texts of the Rosetta Stone.
His recent studies have extended to the cosmologies and hieroglyphic languages of Tibet and China, with focus on the creation tradition of the priestly Na-Khi tribe. His current book on ancient Chinese cosmology and language is at the publisher, due out by Fall of 2014. His articles include three Dogon-related topics in Temple University’s forthcoming Encyclopedia of African Religion, and a recent article in support of Marcel Griaule’s Dogon cosmology in the University of Chicago’s academic journal Anthropology News. He has been featured in John Anthony West’s Magical Egypt documentary and Carmen Boulter’s The Pyramid Code. Links can be found on the internet to radio interviews on Coast-to Coast AM in the U.S. and Red Ice Radio in Europe.
Laird Scranton writes this article exclusively for Ankh Ancient Archaeology blog, as we give him the most warm welcome.
Efforts to study the esoteric traditions of cultures such as ancient Egypt or India can sometimes be difficult because the surviving evidence may not always lend itself to definitive interpretation. The irony of the situation is that, although much of what has come down to us from these traditions survived largely because it was originally crafted from stone, there are relatively few facts produced by these artifacts that we can actually consider to be “carved in stone.” The situation is even worse in places like ancient China, where events that occurred around 3000 BC are often known to us primarily from texts that may not have been written down until as late as 300 BC, and so leave much room for healthy academic debate. And so one key challenge for a researcher like myself is to find ways to firmly “anchor” the interpretations that our studies require us to make.
One set of solutions to these problems is found in the study of comparative cosmology, a field in which the researcher strives to learn more about the ancient traditions by cross-comparing various aspects of different cultures with similar practices and beliefs. I sometimes
compare this to the kind of work done by English language scholars when they reconciled the many variant versions of Shakespeare’s plays to produce definitive editions. In this approach, each interpretation begins with a clear statement of belief on the part of one culture that is then shown to be upheld by other cultures who shared the same symbol, tradition or practice.
I was fortunate to begin my work with a little-known modern-day African tribe from Mali called the Dogon, because their culture represents a kind of crossroads for several different ancient traditions. The Dogon observe rituals that are similar to Judaism – for example, they wear skull caps, prayer shawls, circumcise their young, and celebrate a jubilee year. They also retain civic practices that are remarkably like those of ancient Egypt – for instance they maintain the same diverse set of solar and lunar calendars, establish their villages and districts in pairs called upper and lower, and refer to their chief using the term Faro. Perhaps most importantly, they preserve an esoteric creation tradition (or cosmology), cast in classic Jungian symbols, that is a very close match for the one associated with a Buddhist stupa (a type of aligned ritual shrine found all across India and Asia.) The concurrence of such seemingly diverse elements within a single culture suggested to me that there must have been more underlying commonality to these ancient traditions than has been traditionally assumed.
Furthermore, there were certain aspects to Dogon culture that I considered to be significant, but that had somehow never actually registered with various anthropological teams who had studied the tribe. For example, for a period of more than sixty years prior to my involvement, no researcher had apparently noticed the many direct correspondences that exist between the Dogon and Buddhist creation traditions. No one had realized that the Dogon words used to carefully define this tradition were also ancient Egyptian words. And no one had picked up on various resemblances that can be seen between certain Dogon cosmological drawings and similarly-shaped glyphs of the Egyptian hieroglyphic language. Looked at from my perspective, I could see that these cross-cultural connections represented opportunities to correlate and possibly reconcile various aspects of these ancient traditions.
The Dogon tribe had first come into the public consciousness in 1975 with the publication of Robert Temple’s controversial book The Sirius Mystery. His book focused on Dogon astronomy and their knowledge of certain facts about the star system of Sirius that should not be knowable without the aid of powerful telescopes. The Dogon are considered to be a modern-day primitive tribe, with no native system of writing and little outward technology to assist their observation of these stars. Still, they were somehow aware of the existence of a dark, dense dwarf star that is the binary twin of the familiar bright star of Sirius and which, until 1918, was hidden from view in the bright glare of its luminous companion. Temple said that the Dogon knew of the existence of this second star, gave the correct orbital period for the two stars, and made the stars the focus of their cosmology. Temple’s thesis was that this knowledge could be taken as evidence of an alien contact in ancient times.
Naturally, Temple’s book evoked a reaction from skeptics of the day, and perhaps the most prominent of these was Carl Sagan, an astronomer from Cornell University who had become popular spokesperson for the scientific community. Sagan’s view was that the Dogon knowledge could be explained if we simply postulate that they received their astronomic knowledge from a modern visitor, sometime after the scientific discovery of the dwarf star in 1918. One of the French anthropologists (Germaine Dieterlen) who had conducted the first definitive studies of the Dogon tribe, contradicted Sagan’s supposition by producing a four-hundred-year-old Dogon artifact that depicted the relationship between the two stars.
Although they were not known at the time, there are several more-cogent arguments to be made against Sagan’s viewpoint. First, Dogon statements about Sirius are given within the context of a cosmology that is expressed using ancient Egyptian words – words that no modern visitor would reasonably have used. Second, the Egyptians themselves had known beliefs about the stars of Sirius that they expressed symbolically. For me, ancient symbolism is a kind of game that we tacitly agree to play when we accept the association of two otherwise unlike things. For example, if we acknowledge that, in Egyptian mythology, the goddess Sothis/Isis represented the bright star of Sirius, then we essentially agree to play the game “When I Say Goddess, You Say Star.” So when we then learn that in Isis had a dark sister name Nephthys, we’re almost obliged to take that statement as a symbolic reference to a second Sirius star.
From my perspective, Temple was working at a disadvantage when he wrote his book, because he did not have access to a full English language translation of the French anthropological study of the Dogon religion, called The Pale Fox. In that study, it becomes clear that certain words Temple uses to define his alien theory, such as the word Nummo/Nommo, are actually understood by the Dogon priests as terms of cosmology. In this specific case, the word has a likely Egyptian correlate pronounced nu maa whose meaning arguably relates to cosmology, but not reasonably to aliens. These words provide an excellent example of how a perceived interpretation can either be upheld or contradicted through the process of comparison.
The French study of the Dogon cosmology had been conducted over the course of three decades by anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen. They described the cosmology as a closely-held secret tradition, one in which the Dogon priests were obligated to provide truthful answers to the orderly questions of an initiate, but were required to remain silent (or even to lie, if necessary) in response to any inquiry made by a non-initiate. In this way, the inner secrets of the tradition remained open to any Dogon tribe member who wished to pursue them, but effectively inaccessible to all but the most devoted and persistent of outsiders.
By the 1980’s, largely because of Temple’s book, the French study of the Dogon had become controversial. A second team of anthropologists, led by a Belgian anthropologist Walter Van Beek conducted a much shorter-term re-study of Griaule and Dieterlen’s work. In the end, Van Beek’s team was unable to replicate Griaule’s findings, and reported finding “no evidence” of Griaule’s Dogon cosmology.
He concluded that the cosmology had been fabricated by well-meaning Dogon priests as a way of satisfying Griaule’s persistent questions. He disallowed Griaule’s descriptions of an aligned Dogon shrine called a “granary” and referred to it as “a chimera known only to Griaule.” In Van Beek’s 2001 book Dogon: Africa’s People of the Cliffs, he wrote:
“An anthropologist some decades ago probed his informants for creation myths so insistently that the Dogon, polite as ever, obligingly produced them. Some of his publications still in print as tourist guides perpetuate the mistake.” (p. 103)
By 2006, I had become aware of a 1990 study by Adrian Snodgrass, a leading authority on Buddhist architecture and symbolism, called The Symbolism of the Stupa. In it, Snodgrass details the plan of a Buddhist shrine that is a very close match for the Dogon shrine described by Griaule, and is associated with a complex cosmology that is a point-for-point match for Griaule’s Dogon cosmology. The Dogon shrine that Van Beek called “a chimera” was actually quite well-known to large populations of Buddhists all across India and Asia, and the cosmology he called a fabrication was actually a match for a well-recognized form of Buddhism. Once I realized this, and as part of an e-mail exchange with Professor Van Beek, I offered to co-report the finding with him in an academic journal that he edited called Current Anthropology, but he never responded to my offer. A few months later in April 2007, an article entitled “Revisiting Griaule’s Dogon Cosmology” and credited just to me, appeared in Anthropology News, a journal published through the University of Chicago. This incident demonstrates again how simple cross-cultural comparisons can help establish or refute the validity of an interpretation.
While matching aspects of the traditions of two cultures can often be the key to an interpretation, there are also times when differences between those traditions can be just as revealing. For example, since the Dogon have no native system of writing, they also have no written records that relate their own tribal history. Because of this, we can largely only infer that they moved from a site along the Niger River to their current locale in southeastern Mali around 1500 AD, presumably as a way to avoid forcible conversion to Islam. Beyond that, all we really know about Dogon history rests with their longstanding belief that they migrated to Mali from an ancestral homeland located somewhere along the banks of a large lake far to the east. However, their civic traditions and the words of their cosmology suggest that the Dogon must have spent a significant period of time in close contact with the ancient Egyptians. Since written language was an early development in Egypt, and it is not thought credible that the Dogon could have once had a written language and then somehow lost it, the implication is that this contact must have happened during the very early days of Egyptian culture. Likewise, the Dogon make use of calendars that are a match for ancient Egypt, but they do not observe the five intercalary or leap-year days, which are also thought to have been an early development in Egypt. Differences such as these argue that Dogon interaction with ancient Egypt must have happened near the pre-dynastic/dynastic boundary, or around 3000 BC. As we would expect based on this timing, Dogon culture also exhibits resemblances to the North African tribes who inhabited Egypt just before the First Dynasty.
Since the Dogon have no written language, the survival of their creation tradition rests on the ability of the Dogon priests to transmit it correctly to each new generation. One important feature of the tradition that helps make this possible is the cosmological drawing, a figure that the priests draw in the sand with a stick relating to a particular concept. So important are these drawings to the process that some priests claim not to be capable of discussing a concept without also drawing it. Through these discussions, certain shapes have come to be associated with specific concepts, and so end up taking on the de-facto role of symbols. In some cases, one or another of these shapes is seen reflected in the form of an Egyptian glyph, and is understood by traditional Egyptologists to represent the same concept that is assigned to it by the Dogon priests. So, knowing that concepts or cosmology preceded written language in Egypt, the reasonable question arises as to whether some of these pre-defined cosmological shapes might not have been adopted for use as glyphs at the time the hieroglyphic system of writing was adopted.
The traditional outlook on the Egyptian hieroglyphs was that they were primarily phonetic in nature – that like the letters of the English alphabet, each character was meant to represent a phonetic value. However, this outlook may not seem sensible when we consider that there are only about 40 phonetic values represented by most written languages, and yet there are more than 4000 documented Egyptian glyphs. Furthermore, like other ancient writings systems such as Hebrew, vowels themselves (representing sounds that would seem essential to any phonetic representation of language) were actually omitted from Egyptian hieroglyphic words.
When we consider these Egyptian words from the standpoint of comparative cosmology, it seems likely based on our knowledge of how the Dogon drawings work that the glyph shapes were meant to represent concepts. For example, the Egyptian sun glyph – figure of a circle with a central dot – is understood by Egyptologists to symbolize the sun and the concept of a day, and is often found in words whose meanings relate to periods of time. This same set of meanings come together in relation to the same circular figure in the base plan of the aligned ritual shrines of the Dogon and the Buddhists. They result from the geometric method that is used to align these shrines. More compelling yet is the result we see when we substitute the Dogon concept for its corresponding glyph shape in an Egyptian hieroglyphic word. A very good example is found with an Egyptian word for “week” that is written with just two glyphs – the sun glyph and an upside-down “U” shape that represents the Egyptian number 10. Symbolically, the two glyphs together convey a meaning of “ten days”, which is the practical definition of an ancient Egyptian week.
I realized that if this conceptual method of reading Egyptian words held true for other words, then a proper understanding of the glyphs and the concepts they represent could provide me with symbolic definitions for many different ancient Egyptian terms. A little effort quickly demonstrated that the method did hold true, and that interpretation of the glyph/concepts provided sensible meanings for many Egyptian cosmological words. Moreover, I found that the spelling of certain Egyptian words included an unpronounced trailing glyph that many Egyptologists feel is placed there for emphasis. However my readings suggest that these glyphs were attached because the concepts expressed by these words actually define symbolic meanings that are to be associated with the trailing glyphs. Based on that outlook, I have evolved a long list of Egyptian glyphs and their likely meanings using definitions provided by these kinds of hieroglyphic words.
Although my outlook on the Egyptian hieroglyphs is not one that is endorsed by any traditional scholar of Egyptian language, it does produce readings of Egyptian words that consistently predict and/or reflect the known meanings of comparable words in the other traditions I study. Looked at in this way, an Egyptian hieroglyphic dictionary is effectively transformed into an encyclopedia, a resource that can be used to explain or confirm the meanings of ancient concepts we might not otherwise fully understand.