Reaching For The Sky

This last week – the anniversary of both the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the subsequent Apollo 15 mission that took science to the Moon – saw an avalanche of criticism about the current space race between billionaires. Similar complaints also cut short the original Apollo Moon missions – possibly the only demonstrably proven example of ‘trickle down effect’ that has actually worked worldwide in our lifetime, removed from pure economic theory and applied instead to the sciences and technology. Armstrong’s one small step really was a giant leap.

Photograph: Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento.

Many years ago, I was a teacher in a small Australian country town. I recall one teenage student named Neil, who explained that he had a good reason for knowing the name of the first man on the Moon: “I was named after him.”

Young Neil and his peers are inhabitants of a new planet – they owe so much of their world to the Apollo pioneers. He would now be over fifty years old, and although neither he nor any of his generation can personally recall the events of July 1969, his parents would be among millions of people who can still bring to mind those exciting times – perhaps, like me, they were sitting cross-legged in a school library watching ghostly lunar images flickering on a black-and-white television set.

And yet the events and the culture of those times seem to be millions of miles away from us today, literally on another world. Australian archaeologist Alice Gorman observes that in 1967, Australia became the fourth spacefaring nation in history, but somehow we abandoned this legacy for some decades and became instead a dumping ground for the US Skylab space station when it fell to Earth – which I would argue is an apt outer space analogy for a nation that turned the lofty ambitions of its Woomera Rocket Range territory into an ethically regressive prison for refugees. Gorman expands upon this idea by exploring the cultural and political nuances of Woomera as a ‘space cultural landscape’ alongside others: Peenemünde in Germany and Tranquility Base on the Moon. Such landscapes clearly evoke physical distancing, isolation, desolation, hostile environments, and people who have been removed from the rest of humanity.

The Manichaean quality of human beings is universal – even in space. Well may we recall Neil Armstrong’s most famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – forever etched into our human culture. What we may forget is that Armstrong botched his famous line, creating the most well-known, self-contradictory tautology in history. His tongue-tied words remind us that fallible humans are still capable of great achievements. But his flubbed line has taken on a new relevance in subsequent years: the Apollo program really was both a small step and a giant leap for the human race.

The small step is what happened immediately afterwards. The tax-paying US public soon lost interest in reaching for the stars. The final Moon-walking astronauts returned to Earth aboard Apollo 17 in December 1972 and no-one has returned to the Moon since then. It was suggested that money from the cancelled Apollo program should be used to tackle such problems as poverty, war or disease, but our worldly problems have sadly continued in the decades since those dusty footprints were left on the lunar soil.

Apollo 11 Saturn V on launch pad 39A, 1 July 1969 (NASA Photo S69-38660)

Modern-day space missions now fly in low Earth orbit, and robotic satellites visit nearby planets to transmit data – but none can recapture the excitement or prestige of Apollo. In fact, a few disaffected inhabitants of my former student’s generation actually theorise that the Apollo program may have been falsified because humans cannot fly to the Moon nowadays. Such cynicism is a sad commentary on the state of our modern aspirations and of our greatly atrophied space program. More than that, it suggests that our world leaders have become preoccupied with navel gazing rather than star gazing, and that the generation that witnessed Apollo has neglected to instill in its youngsters the awe and excitement of looking up. Perhaps the Apollo program would have been better named after Icarus.

“Landed. And walked. On the moon.” – John Noble Wilford.

NASA photo

The space race between the USA and USSR began as a political race for kudos and perceived supremacy, but it evolved into a quest for science and knowledge, most noticeably when Apollo 15 – which launched fifty years ago this week – was expanded into a mission for exploration and geology as the first of a sequence of scientific Apollo missions. Its grandeur is captured in a scene from the TV series From the Earth to the Moon, when scientists and NASA debate where to land the Apollo 15 mission:

‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.’
– Plutarch (as quoted by Apollo 15 commander David Scott).

Crater 308 viewed from orbit (NASA Photo AS11-44-6611)

This is where Neil Armstrong’s truly giant step begins. The philosophical legacy from Apollo can be experienced any night when you go outside, look up at the Moon, and realise that it is a real world within our grasp. Apollo has turned our myuthology into physical reality – the Moon is a frontier waiting to be explored. Just as our ancient Australian outback is widely known for its red ochres and hidden waterholes, the magnificant desolation of the primeval lunar landscape has similar splashes of orange soil and seems likely to contain hidden ice deposits deep in some craters. Both vistas attract the human imagination.

The full impact of our social change is demonstrated by the old cliché (now sadly vanished like the aspirations it reflected): “We can land a man on the Moon but we can’t…” as a universal yardstick that for a few years after Apollo was used by people to measure the lengths humanity has yet to go in achieving various worthwhile ambitions. In a culture where we tend to assume that the word ‘Moonwalker’ will more likely evoke Michael Jackson than the Apollo astronauts, or where the idea of space explosions will bring to mind Star Wars rather than Apollo 13, we can nevertheless glimpse a public transformation taking place: a 1996 announcement over possible Martian microbial fossils was greeted with widespread social acceptance – and not with mocking comments about little green men as might have been the case a few years earlier. Such prevalent cultural acceptance of space is self evident and endemic – after all, it’s not rocket science.

But the real technological miracle is even more ubiquitous and more overlooked. Apollo spearheaded a civilian science program employing a veritable army of scientists, engineers and other workers. Apollo challenged them to attain new heights of knowledge, perfection and technology. Detractors of this program – who protested that the money should have instead been spent on Earth – conveniently overlooked the fact that all the money actually was spent on Earth, funding what was probably the biggest peaceful civilian research-and-development science program in history.

“And they called Apollo “the best return on investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought himself a sketch pad”.” – President George Bush (1989).

The ideologies and technologies which launched the Apollo program have been dissolved – but they have spread around the world. The next time someone goes for a medical scan, receives a cochlear implant or insulin pump or artificial heart, undergoes microsurgery, or receives a vaccine that requires extreme cold storage in difficult circumstances, they can thank Apollo for helping to save their life. We enjoy digital technology due to the advances in electronics which were expedited by the program that enabled Armstrong and Aldrin to leave their footprints in the lunar dust. When we use our GPS or watch an educational documentary on a streaming service – or when we read some preposterous conspiracy theory from luddites who display cognitive dissonance by using modern communication technology to spread science denialism – we can thank the space program for giving us those opportunities.

Apollo 11 lunar footprint (NASA photo)

Our modern footsteps have been guided by the technologies which arose from the space program, and in our skies overhead, satellites provide us with modern agricultural and forestry, weather forecasting, live worldwide television, and global communications, enabling us to live in a global village that previous generations could only imagine. The space program has fuelled environmental awareness, fixed the hole in the Ozone Layer, and empowered our fight against global warming.

“I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul… we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”- Neil Armstrong (1969).

The Challenge to Look Up

Some years ago, a Melbourne radio station asked listeners to ring in with their opinion of whether or not the space program was worth the money – and one woman cynically complained that the space program does not affect her weekly supermarket shopping. Perhaps the radio host should have pointed out that she can thank the Apollo program for modern supermarket food safety standards and for aspects of modern agriculture that directly owe their existence to space technology – or that she can purchase scratch resistant glasses, baby formula, freeze dried foods, air purifiers and gym shoes thanks to spinoff NASA technology. There are over 2,000 documented spinoffs from the space program that are ubiquitous in our lives today.

In Australia, we love our sunburnt country, a land of satellite phones and wireless headsets, of air traffic technology and 3D printers, of space age wind turbines and solar cells. As part of a 2019 announcement of a push to create 20,000 new jobs and pour billions of dollars into the economy via the Australian space industry, Anthony Murfett, deputy head of the Australian Space Agency, stated: “Space impacts on the broader economy. As we increase space activity we’re going to be assisting farmers, miners and others, so there will be spillover effects.” Whether encouraging girls to pursue a career in STEM, or encouraging Australians to build environmentally sustainable housing, space is the place.

Whereas the USA in the 1960s tried to align the space program with its own western traditions through the use of ancient western mythological names such as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo; and whereas China is doing so today by branding its space ventures with traditional Chinese mythological names such as Tiangong, Shenzhou, and Chang’e; Australia has seemed content to align itself with the bogan larrikinism of The Dish and naming boys who were born during the 1980s ‘Luke‘ after a fictional Star Wars character. Maybe the birth of the Australian Space Agency will help to change our culture and we will start to aspire towards more than having a Prime Minister who seeks consolation inside regressive Hillsong mythology and digs up polluting coal instead of finding better ways to treat our solitary biospherical planet in this large and hostile cosmos.

The first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, was a Soviet cosmonaut who reached Earth orbit some twenty years before the US flew lesbian Sally Ride as their first female astronaut. Tereshkova speaks today of the space program as a superior financial human priority: “People shouldn’t waste money on wars, but come together to discuss how to defend the world from threats like asteroids coming from outer space.” Do we dare to glimpse beyond the dirt and mud of our current world, beyond entrenched global poverty and inequality, and aspire to combine our own small steps into giant leaps for humanity? Can we look upwards and onwards, creating a better planetary mote in our vast cosmos?

Mission to Planet Earth

NASA photo.

While it is important to ponder big questions about the space program, it is also helpful to consider how its big answers may be relevant to our individual lives. This is no more evident than a message to me from Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke upon one of his visits to Melbourne. He graciously autographed a photo of himself standing at the Apollo 16 landing site in the lunar highlands near the Descartes crater, and this picture now has pride of place on a wall alongside my work desk. Its inscribed message is both personal and profound: ‘Aim High’. The Apollo program was the epitome of that philosophy.

In this sense, the space race is still underway – one that targets the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Science prospers best when it reaches the lives of grassroots society, not just the elites. Even billionaire Richard Branson, who made it into space on 11 July, acknowledges that science should be a democracy, not an instrument of privilege and inequality:

“Space is… putting satellites up there and monitoring different things around the world, like the degradation of rainforests or monitoring food distribution or… climate change… These things are essential back here on Earth, so we need more spaceships going up to space, we don’t need less.”

So instead of criticising those who are transferring the space program from government to grassroots humanity, we should instead be applauding them and welcoming how space is transforming life and philosophy on planet Earth. Such a long-term understanding is already paying off: archaeologists are debating the need for Heritage listings or other forms of protection for the lunar landing sites of the Apollo missions, and for those of other – unmanned – probes on the Moon and Mars, lest they become ravaged by space tourists and souvenir hunters within the foreseeable future. This is not merely to suggest some esoteric first-world debate that is unrelated to biosphere Earth and its real-life, everyday problems; it suggests the fundamental shift for our species within our perceived and actual place in the cosmos. As Grant Fewer suggests, even Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s footprints in the lunar regolith are important artifacts of our species: “… the prints are significant because they record in a physical medium (rather than a photographic, video-based, or textual one) an historic event that represents a huge shift in the intellectual and technological development of humankind.” (Fewer, 2007, 5). We live in exciting times of transition, if only we had the wisdom to realise this perspective.

Aldrin poses for portrait. (NASA Photo AS11-40-5903)

I hope that Neil, my former student – wherever he is now – would appreciate just how much the space program has helped to create his world and given him a much greater legacy than a simple namesake. His peers – especially any who doubt the reality of the Apollo program – have been given the greatest possible inheritance by the previous generation: a better world, a dream etched into the night-time sky, and an ability to reach for the stars.


Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 15
54-08-11 ∇ 10:29:57

Lunar Standard Time (LST)
on 26 July 2021 13:34:00 UTC.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Kate Doolan (1962 – 2019), co-author of the book, Fallen Astronauts; also one of the co-authors, along with myself and others, of a “Man on the Moon” lift-out for the Herald Sun newspaper on the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 1994.


Greg Fewer, 2007. ‘Conserving space heritage: the case of Tranquillity Base’, ‘Journal of the British Interplanetary Society’, vol. 60(1), 25 June, 3-8.

Alice Gorman, 2005. ‘The cultural landscape of interplanetary space’, Journal of Social Archaeology, 5(1), 85–107.
– – – – – – – – , 2011. ‘The sky is falling: how Skylab became an Australian icon’, Journal of Australian Studies, 35:4, 529-546.

Carl Sagan, 1980. ‘Chapter XIII: Who Speaks for Earth?’ in Cosmos. Macdonald Futura Publishers, London.

Molly Silk, 2021. ‘China is using mythology and sci-fi to sell its space programme to the world’, The Conversation, 25 June.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn


Commemorating the Apollo 11 Anniversary
54-08-05 ∇ 18:48:34

Lunar Standard Time (LST)
on 20 July 2021 20:17:40 UTC.

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

When I look at the stars,
I am filled with wonder,
Awe and joy –
I revel in their beauty,
I pay homage to my birthright
And my destiny.

I am a Child of the Universe,
Made from star dust,
Sculpted and crafted
From billions of years
Of cosmologic, geologic,
biologic evolution.

I am a pinnacle of what has gone before
And a glimpse of what is yet to be.

+ + +

Adapted from material originally published in
Solar Spectrum #1, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2001.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

With Stars In Our Eyes

Commemorating 54-07-30 ∇ 16:54:07
Lunar Standard Time (LST)
on 16 July 2021 0:0:0.

From Anthropomorphism to Apollo
– outgrowing ancient myths, creating new ones.

Launch of Apollo 11, 16 July 1969 (NASA Photo)

“LIFT-OFF! We have a lift-off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift-off on Apollo 11.” – NASA Public Affairs Officer Jack King utters the first words to confirm lift-off.

On the 52nd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 towards the Moon, it seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect upon the philosophical questions posed by that scientific achievement. The story of the Apollo missions is the stuff of modern legend – and is destined to become modern mythology. Perhaps it is no surprise that even as the Apollo missions were preparing to land men on the Moon, the archetypical astronaut was being conflated with pop mythology comprising gods and celestial beings, courtesy of Erich von Daniken.

Another remake of astronauts as mythical heroes took place towards the end of the Apollo program, when Martin Caidin created the Six Million Dollar Man – arguably a cross between astronaut, cybernetic superhero and James Bond. Colonel Steve Austin, astronaut, did not spawn much of a mythical industry beyond his girlfriend – possibly because his formulaic attributes were better represented in comic book superheroes; and if so, perhaps his most enduring legacy may have been the fuelling of the prosthetic industry.

Taking this idea of prosthesis and osmosis one step further, it is possible to understand that the space age has transformed us – and is still doing so, upgrading humanity one mobile phone at a time. Our ever-accelerating hardware and software updates mean that we have become humans with different capabilities and expectations than our parents during the Apollo Moon missions. It is hard to remember the world before the Internet, before ubiquitous mobile phones and streaming and tablets and wifi transformed us into a species that is closer to a lived experience of the ‘global village’ than any other in history. This merging of humanity with heroic high-tech might be the next step in our evolution from organic to something more. Such change is something to be celebrated and not feared:

“Asked if he felt the pervasive spread of technology was beginning to dehumanise us, [Arthur C] Clarke replied, “No, I think it’s superhumanising us.” “ (Benson, 2018, 432)

This evolution may even extend from the human to the posthuman. Francesca Ferrando suggests with some qualification that:

“Etymologically, the term “human” comes from the Latin term “humus” meaning “soil”, which, in our solar system, is only present on Earth. We can thus see migrating to space as the linguistic and semiotic step towards the literal creation of post-humans…”

Thus we may be evolving into the beings that we currently imagine in our dreams and myths: better, stronger, faster. Arthur C Clarke asserts in his Third Law that, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and maybe we get a glimpse of this advancement when we ponder our futuristic posthuman societies scattered across the solar system. Perhaps we are in the process of becoming our mythological heroes.

Hit and Myth

Image by Craig Clark from Pixabay

My introduction to science and myth-making came via two avenues: the first being the flying saucer craze of the 1970s (which really excited a teenager who had been inspired by the space program) until I began to realise – as I came of age – that the science and critical thinking in these conspiracy theories was abysmal. I later came to understand a fundamental truth about the UFO craze as explained by Alexander Geppert (2012, 335):

Seldom can historians observe the making of a ‘modern myth’ in real time, over the course of several decades; the emergence of the UFO phenomenon immediately after the Second World War constitutes such a case.‘.

My faith in UFOs began to decline along with my wishful thinking about Chariots of the Gods and the possible circumstances surrounding the tragic disappearance of Fred Valentich as a local case of alleged alien intervention. Even as a callow youth, I could see that UFOlogy was more wishful thinking than scientific investigation. I was maturing into a youth who esteemed critical thinking and scientific evidence over excitement and superstition. If only the rest of the world could do the same!

My second introduction to science and mythopoeia came via a humble pulp magazine that was on sale in my local newsagents in 1979. I was attracted to the front cover and content of a magazine that proclaimed; “SCI FI – Religion of the 80’s”. Inside, Christian evangelist Mal Garvin proclaimed:

We believe that science fiction is replacing some of the functions of religion. Though it may be doing it for the wrong reason.” (Garvin, 1979, 24.)

In that same issue, the Superman story was conflated with Biblical figures (ibid, 37 – 40). Even then, as a tender young teen, I sensed that this conflation of science and myth was somehow intended to lend scientific credibility to mythical/religious archetypes instead of acknowledging the grandeur to be found in science. If anyone was using the wrong reason to conflate science and religion, it was not the scientists.

Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

Utopia, Dystopia, Mythopoeia

It is perhaps in human nature to construct a whole pantheon of mythologies, spanning from past and present into the future. As children, we seek role models in order to learn by imitation. As adults, although we have outgrown the need for imitation, we retain the instinct and use it to construct mythologies, religions and archetypes in order to personify what ideals we would seek to emulate or take as a warning of our fears. JRR Tolkein spoke of this myth-making in his poem Mythopoeia:

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.”

Star Wars creator George Lucas created a breathtakingly successful franchise by borrowing extensively from other science fiction stories or literary tropes – including Flash Gordon, Dune, Lord of the Rings, Yojimbo, Gone with the Wind, and ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensmen – and creating modern mythology which will undoubtedly echo our culture in the annals of history as much as the legend of Troy documents the culture of ancient Greece.

Damien Walter suggests that mythopoeia (myth making) is potentially interwoven with science:

“Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.”

Such a conflation can be awe inspiring as we discover the glories of science. But David Ludden Ph.D. warns us that this conflation of science and mythology has its potential dangers, including the rise of conspiracy theories that undermine public confidence in science:

“Because conspiracy theories sow the seeds of distrust in our governmental and social institutions, they can have a destabilizing impact on politics and society.”

Whether 5G, COVID (or other) vaccines, HIV/AIDS denialism, climate catastrophe, Moon landing hoaxes, September 11, lizard aliens… and probably a thousand other conspiracies… Ludden suggests that such theories express the desire for understanding and certainty, control and security – particularly among those who do not understand modern science or who might feel threatened by the modern world. I would suggest that such theories also promote the false equivalence of expertise versus ignorance – a favourite among religious fundamentalists – where uneducated and unqualified people believe that their ignorance is equal to the knowledge of world experts. Conspiracy theorists want to bypass years of hard study and academic rigour, and declare themselves as being equal to Stephen Hawking, Anthony Fauci or Katherine Johnson. This is a rather astonishing act of laziness, arrogance and hubris. Do you want to know about the COVID vaccine? Go ask your doctor – YouTube is not a university; and Facebook is not a scholarly source. Do you want to determine if climate change is real? Don’t take my word for it – ask a climate scientist, not your fundamentalist pastor who relies solely on a Bronze Age prescientific book as his sole source of information.

Barry Vacker warns us that the conflation of science with mythopoeia is filled with the danger of these human frailties:

“The Apollo missions, 2001, and the original Star Trek TV series blasted us into a sublime future with the opportunity to build a unified planetary civilization, but we rejected it because we were unwilling to accept that we are a single species inhabiting a watery rock orbiting a flaming ball of hydrogen in an infinite universe. Apollo and Hubble forced us to confront cosmic nihilism, or the fact that there is no obvious meaning to human existence in a godless universe. Via Apollo, we’ve walked on the 4.5 billion-year-old moon, and via the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve peered across 13.7 billion years of space-time — and there is not a Creator in sight. As Nietzsche famously said long before Apollo and Hubble: “God is dead.” But most everyone can’t accept it. Apollo’s photos of Earth from space and the Hubble Deep Field images have obliterated the rationales supporting the dominant narratives (theology, nationalism, and tribalism) we use to explain our origins, meaning, and destiny. Yet our species remains in utter denial.

We humans apparently can’t handle the paradoxical meaning of our greatest scientific achievement and most important philosophical discovery: The universe is vast and majestic, and our species is insignificant and might be utterly meaningless” – (Vacker, 2018, 3).

Dr. Pham Trong Van points out that knowledge comes after a long process of hard study: “You must identify clearly that studying is arduous and “the path of science” is not like others. Through difficulties, we find the glories of science and sympathize with those who sacrifice their whole lives for science.” And Armond Boudreaux reminds us that mythologies serve a more pointed purpose in our modern human endeavours:

“One of the reasons that I think superheroes are important at this particular moment is how good their stories are at helping us think about questions of power. And perhaps more now than in any other time, we need to think about what it means to seek and to wield power.”

Perhaps our myths and deities tell us more about ourselves than we realise: our gods are anthropomorphic versions of our aspirations, dreams, or nightmares.

Future Imperfect

A generation has now passed since men walked on the Moon, and this has allowed sufficient time for eye witnesses to become wizened historians; for formerly fresh and vibrant memories to be recast as ephemera within a larger repository of lifetime memories; and for exciting progressive events to be recontextualised within the mundane modern culture that they have helped to create.

Like the charming angels on the frontage of Bath Cathedral – many climbing Jacob’s ladder and some falling back down – we are a mix of aspiration and frailty, nobility and weakness. Our science and our dreams are limited by our failures and foibles. But still we strive and evolve beyond our mundane limitations, even though – on the scale of an individual human lifetime – such evolution seems to take forever. Our small steps become a giant leap when combined.

Meanwhile, adults and children continue to pause and gaze up at the night sky in awe and wonder – we are glimpsing our past, our current place in the cosmos, and our future destination. As we outgrow our pantheon of deities from Mount Olympus or the Garden of Eden, we might find another source of inspiration when we climb the dizzy heights of Olympus Mons on Mars, or create our own interstellar Garden of Eden on an exoplanet. Leaving behind our ancient mythologies, perhaps we will create new ones that are more authentic, engaging and exciting. Stardust to stardust.

Non-Digital References::

Michael Benson, 2018. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Francesca Ferrando, 2016. ‘Why Space Migration Must Be Posthuman’, in Schwartz, J., Milligan, T. (eds.) Ethics of Space Exploration, Springer, Vol. 8, 137-152.

Mal Garvin (ed.), 1979. ‘SCI-FI – Religion of the 80’s’, Tell Magazine, Fusion Australia, Autumn, 20 – 25.
– – – – – – – – – – – – . ‘Superman, Supermyth’, Tell Magazine, Fusion Australia, Autumn, 37 – 40.

Alexander C.T. Geppert, 2012. ‘Extraterrestrial encounters: UFOs, science and the quest for transcendence, 1947–1972’, History and Technology Vol. 28, No. 3, September, 335–362.

Barry Vacker, 2018. Specter of the Monolith, The Center for Media and Destiny.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

It’s Time to Reclaim the Human Truths in an old Biblical Myth.

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

I imagine that everyone knows at least one portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Babylonian epic based upon an earlier version of the same generic flood myth, and which was in turn plagiarised by ancient Hebrew mythicists and rewritten as the story of Noah’s Ark, two versions of which appear in Genesis in the Bible. (The tale also appears in Hindu tradition as Manu’s Boat, and other cultures also feature equivalent myths.)

The story itself has become ubiquitous in western literature and culture, inspiring movies, children’s songs, books and games; science fiction and fantasy reworkings, and it led a former Moonwalking astronaut to go in search of the Ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey. In more recent times, it has inspired the building of a pseudoscientific creationist ‘museum’.

Although the idea of an ark itself is kinda cool and evocative, it is located within a larger and somewhat unappealing story. Most people would probably know the generic details within the tale: of how the Genesis deity decided that humanity was thoroughly too evil to live, and caused a great flood to descend upon the world, exterminating the entire human race except for Noah and his family, who constructed an ark and conducted what one Christian source enthusiastically claims was ‘the greatest animal rescue of all time’. The story ends with god inventing the rainbow as a reminder of his promise to never again send another flood.

Despite the generally light hearted tone in which the story is recounted for children in popular culture, I believe that any serious reflection regarding its details reveals a deity who is, in the words of Richard Dawkins:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Well, that certainly escalated quickly. Seriously though, the god of the Noah story reminds me of the stereotypical wife beater who proclaims that ‘she made me do it’. Is this really a story and an ethical position that we want to teach to children – or to anybody else?

This is one human truth that we need to reclaim from the Noah myth: that violence is never acceptable, not even in the name of someone’s preferred deity. Historically, everything from violence within the family, the death penalty and public lynchings, through to slavery, the Crusades, wars, witch burnings and the Holocaust have been rationalised by ethics such as those found within this flood story.

Hit and Myth

Today, we can see the immorality of this cultural template emblazoned in our everyday lives. We live in our own insulated arks of relative luxury and affluence while ignoring the floods of poverty that overwhelm those around us. Even our Prime Minister, emboldened by lazy theocratic thinking, proudly boasts how he ‘stopped the boats’ and thereby turned back real-life Noah’s Arks that held the hopes and dreams and lives of others.

Let’s face it: God is a poor role model, and deferring to such archetype is not only intellectually lazy but makes us lose touch with our compassionate, empathic human nature. I do not mean to imply that all religious people promote such negative behaviours; some are touched by what I would call the humanist call for enlightenment.

Future Shock

We can see the damage promoted by the Noah story not only in our past and present, but also in our possible future – as exhibited in attitudes towards the environment. Only God can control the weather, claim some religious folk, including our Penetecostal Prime Minister’s peers. This head-in-the-sand denialism is inherently dangerous for our environment and our world. The climate is changing to disastrous effect, and we must respond rather than continue to carelessly destroy our environment. We do not live aboard Noah’s Ark, so we are not immune from climate change disaster – and even if we were somehow immune, that does not absolve us from the moral responsibility to show a better morality than a man who builds a big boat for himself but blithely allows the rest of humanity (including, it appears, his own grandfather, Methuselah) to drown.

Doing the exact opposite of Noah and taking whatever steps are necessary to save the whole world, saving the environment through ethical and responsible human choices… now that really would be the greatest animal rescue of all time.

Reclaiming the Rainbow

It is surely time to reclaim the colourful and ubiquitous rainbow from the clutches of this story.

We should acknowledge the many cultures that have interpreted the symbolism of rainbows within their own mythologies. From the Epic of Gilgamesh interpreting rainbows as a call to war (possibly the origin source of the nastiness in the Genesis account), through to a more charming Hindu idea of rainbows being the godly archer’s bow used to shoot bolts of lightning, through to indigenous American and Japanese cultures using rainbows as a form of bridge. Even Australian indigenous cultures speak of the Rainbow Serpent with a rather charming connection to rivers and waterways as a source of rainbows and creation.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

I enjoy the old Irish legend about a sneaky leprechaun hiding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – symbolising the idea that every storm in life is followed by a new start that is as invigorating and fresh as the air and soil that crackle and sparkle after a spring shower. This leprechaunic folklore is a much more uplifting a story than a stone age fantasy about a violent, mass-murdering god drowning all the men, women, children and babies in the world.

I have engaged in discussions with an occasional Christian who has bewailed the ‘hijacking’ of the rainbow from the Genesis story. They usually complain about the rainbow flag used by LGBTQIA+ communities, for whom they appear to hold special dislike. They rarely express contempt for gay icon Judy Garland singing, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, nor for indigenous American rainbow stories that present more environmentally connected alternatives to Christian theology than the idea of a disembodied deity that is distinct from cosmology.

The Rainbow Connection

Richard Dawkins writes about Unweaving the Rainbow – unlocking its secrets and determining how a rainbow is created under natural laws and fundamental scientific principles. He points out that this does not detract from the colour, majesty and awe of the rainbow, but rather helps us to fully appreciate the glories of science in our the natural world:

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”
Richard Dawkins.

In this sense, I would much rather deconstruct the malevolent ancient flood myth and its constituent rainbow, leaving behind its nasty and barbaric morality, and instead find glory and wonder within our universe and in laws of nature that reveal a rainbow in a mundane drop of water.

Ultimately, I would imagine that most people would much rather prefer the inclusive LGBT rainbow flag – a legacy to the world from gay activist Gilbert Baker who spoke of rainbows being an ancient symbol of hope. Here we see a symbol not of genocide, but of life and love and celebration. Baker’s aspirations for the rainbow flag are quoted on his Foundation website:

“What I liked about the rainbow is that it fits all of us.
It’s all the colors.
It represents all the genders.
It represents all the races.
It’s the rainbow of humanity.”

Photo by Agustin Gunawan on Unsplash

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn