Apparently I don’t keep up with all of my pseudo-archaeology. I try, heaven knows. But there’s just so damn much of it. Every time I turn around somebody or another is making wild claims about the human past. Somehow, I missed Andrew Collins’ silly foray into alternative archaeoastronomy called The Cygnus Mystery. Obviously modeled on Robert Temple's The Sirius Mystery and Robert Bauval’s The Orion Mystery, Collins’ 2007 book and DVD and his 2010 article in the Lost Knowledge of the Ancients Graham Hancock reader claim that ancient sites around the world can be linked to the constellation Cygnus, or the Swan.
I’m sure you’ll remember Collins from his Gateway to Atlantis (2000), where he claimed Atlantis was really Cuba and was destroyed by a comet. His work on Cygnus is more difficult to critique because it is based largely on assumptions and interpretations rather than disprovable fact.
Let’s first dispense with the facts of Cygnus, such as they are. Cygnus is a cruciform constellation defined by six primary stars, comprising the center point and the four arms of a fairly (but not perfectly) regular cross on the familiar Christian pattern, with three short arms and one longer one. It was one of Ptolemy’s 48 constellations and therefore has a pedigree stretching at least to ancient Greece. The Greeks envisioned this constellation as a swan and identified it with the swan form Zeus used to seduce Lyda, or the swan Orpheus became after death. The Arabs considered it an eagle. In North America, native peoples viewed the constellation as a goose. In all depictions, the bird is seen in the spread eagle pose, with wings and tail represented by the short arms of the cross and the head and neck of the bird represented by the long arm, either seen as a long neck or a large beak.
Based on this, Collins asserts that at the Lascaux Cave, an image of a seated, short-necked bird with wings folded is therefore a 17,000-year-old depiction of Cygnus, despite the clear and obvious differences between it and the Classic version of the constellation. He also claims a Paleolithic depiction of a woman’s vagina at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave is also the constellation, representing the “dark rift” of the Milky Way emerging from its stars.
From here, it is a short hop to his next series of claims. For him, any depiction of a bird in the ancient world is therefore Cygnus. Better still: Since the stars of Cygnus form a rough cross, he also claims for the constellation a role as the originator of Christ’s cross and every other cruciform religious symbol. The ancients, apparently, had never conceived of anything as complex as a cross until they envisioned one in the sky. But, according to the evidence, the bird constellation only became identified with a cross medieval Europe, when “pagan” constellations were unsuccessfully Christianized. (Based on this, many mystics currently claim the constellation to have magical powers sent from Christ.)
Sadly, Collins knows enough to reference the work of David Lewis-Williams on the role of altered states of consciousness in the development of spirituality but then uses this as mere coloring to claim that the true source of spirituality was Cygnus—and the alleged cosmic rays he thinks fell to earth from that part of the sky, sparking human evolution. There are cosmic rays that have been detected in that part of the sky; but in order to claim the ancients knew of them, he has to propose an advanced ancient civilization, alien intervention, or (his current version) that altered states of consciousness made cosmic rays visible to shamans! His specific claim is that shamans saw “phosphenes” deep inside caves—flashes of light due to cosmic radiation, though he does not explain how they would connect these underground flashes to a specific sector of the aboveground sky. The shamans somehow intuited these flashes came from outer space, were mutating their DNA, and should therefore be enshrined in world religion as a manifestation of the divine creation of humanity.
Whether this is technically possible or not, this claim rests entirely on the assumption that a vagina and a sitting duck are representations of Cygnus—which can’t be proved. Other authors, like Richard Leviton, are even more explicit and consider Cygnus the constellation where “ET activity” meets “mystical initiatory experience” because—wait for it—Cygnus is a swan and swans are compared to vimanas (flying chariots) in Sanskrit literature, and vimanas are really alien spacecraft (because ancient astronaut theorists tell us so); therefore, Cygnus is the sign and the seal of alien intervention!
Collins, like other alternative thinkers, can imagine no internal mental processes and thus has to find an external reason—like cosmic firecrackers—that ancient people would meditate deep in caves. Lewis-Williams was able to explain this perfectly well through appeals to sensory deprivation and altered states of consciousness without any compounding and confounding external stimuli. There is no reason to add them in on the strength of Collins’ ideas about the real purpose of pictures of female anatomy. Nor is there any reason to suspect, on the sole strength of this ambiguous cave art, that Paleolithic people would have had any idea about the “mutagenic” effects of Cygnus’ cosmic rays, much less the ability to turn them into a tenet of world religion.
I hope it also goes without saying that Cygnus would not have been the “original” of the Christian cross or the Orphic cross, as Collins claims, since the Greeks viewed the constellation as a bird, not a cross.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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