The Necessary Slowness of Making Meaning: Phaethon, Tunguska, and Coronavirus

On June 30th, 1908 a meteorite exploded over rural central Russia near the Podkamennaya Tugunska River. This explosion came to be called The Tunguska Event. Though scientists didn’t really start to even explore the impact area until the early 20’s much research has been done about this event since. It is estimated that the meteorite came into the atmosphere at a steep angle, weighed about 110 million tons, traveling around 34,000 miles per hour and exploded into billions of pieces from the heat and pressure at about 25,000 feet. The energy released would have been equal to approximately 185 of the nuclear warheads dropped on Hiroshima. It registered as a 5 on the Richter scale.

The blast flattened and sheared trees in all directions for nearly a thousand miles. The explosion created daylight conditions at night in Europe and Asia for weeks, as the reports from the time say.

A Mr. S. Semanov reported his experience of the event:
“the sky split in two and fire appeared high and wide over the forest. The split in the sky grew larger, and the entire northern side was covered with fire. At that moment I became so hot that I couldn’t bear it as if my shirt was on fire; from the northern side, where the fire was, came strong heat. I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it down, but then the sky shut closed, and a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few metres. I lost my senses for a moment, but then my wife ran out and led me to the house. After that such noise came, as if rocks were falling or cannons were firing, the Earth shook”
Chuchan of the Shanyagir tribe reported his experience of the Tunguska Event:

We had a hut by the river with my brother Chekaren. We were sleeping. Suddenly we both woke up at the same time. Somebody shoved us. We heard whistling and felt strong wind. Chekaren said, ‘Can you hear all those birds flying overhead?’ We were both in the hut, couldn’t see what was going on outside. Suddenly, I got shoved again, this time so hard I fell into the fire. I got scared. Chekaren got scared too. We started crying out for father, mother, brother, but no one answered. There was noise beyond the hut, we could hear trees falling down. Chekaren and I got out of our sleeping bags and wanted to run out, but then the thunder struck. This was the first thunder. The Earth began to move and rock, the wind hit our hut and knocked it over. My body was pushed down by sticks, but my head was in the clear. Then I saw a wonder: trees were falling, the branches were on fire, it became mighty bright, how can I say this, as if there was a second sun, my eyes were hurting, I even closed them. It was like what the Russians call lightning. And immediately there was a loud thunderclap. This was the second thunder. The morning was sunny, there were no clouds, our Sun was shining brightly as usual, and suddenly there came a second one!

Chekaren and I had some difficulty getting out from under the remains of our hut. Then we saw that above, but in a different place, there was another flash, and loud thunder came. This was the third thunder strike. Wind came again, knocked us off our feet, struck the fallen trees.

We looked at the fallen trees, watched the tree tops get snapped off, watched the fires. Suddenly Chekaren yelled “Look up” and pointed with his hand. I looked there and saw another flash, and it made another thunder. But the noise was less than before. This was the fourth strike, like normal thunder.

Now I remember well there was also one more thunder strike, but it was small, and somewhere far away, where the Sun goes to sleep.”

We here in the modern West have never experienced anything like this.

Hold on to that event for moment while we go backwards and finger the edges of something.

If I asked you ‘how old are Greek myths, by and large?’ you might properly say ‘I don’t know? Old?” And you’d be right. They are. While the roots of Greek myths are older the corpus of Greek myths are about 4000 years old. But not all Greek myths are equally old. The myths about Dionysus, are younger and there is one myth in particular – the myth of Phaethon – that is also quite young. Probably about 2200 years old or so.

We get the story from Ovid’s famous book ‘Metamorphoses’ where he retells and groups together older Greek stories. The myth goes like this…Helios, the sun himself, takes a liking to a woman named Clymene and has a son with her. Helios, being the sun, has a job daily driving a chariot of fire-breathing horses that pull him through the arc of the sky. And it is this vital profession that doesn’t allow him to stay around and be a father. The son, named Phaethon, (his name means ‘the shining one’) lives his young life being told that he is the son of Helios but he has never met him  and so there is no real proof. One day some of his friends started to mock him, saying that he was a bastard and that he was lying about his parentage. He was hurt deeply by this and became determined to prove his friends wrong and validate his sense of worth.

So Phaethon ventured to the end of the earth where the sun sets at night and arrived just as Helios was pulling in the chariot. Helios immediately recognized the resemblance of his son and himself and immediately embraces the boy Phaethon. All of Phaethon’s doubts are gone now and he asks his father for a boon. And Helios, struck with love for his son, swears on the River Styx to fulfill his wish. This kind of swearing you just can’t undo. And Phaethon asks ‘Father, I want to drive the chariot of the Sun tomorrow.’ Helios begs his son to change his mind telling him that not even Zeus could drive the chariot of the sun. But Phaethon is not swayed and says that if he is truly the sun of Helios then he should be able to do it and what better way to fall more deeply into the graces of his father.

You know this isn’t going to end well, right? Despite all the tips and tricks and a crash course given to Phaethon in one night…the moment the sun rises the horses sense the strong hands that are normally there just aren’t there and the flaming and snorting steeds lashed to the golden chariot start to pull wildly across heaven and earth and start burning the stars and making deserts on the earth with their wild careening, and soon Zeus throws a lighting bolt at the chariot to save the entire earth. The chariot, the myth says, crashed in a lake and poisonous vapors emitted from the waters and Phaethon fell in the Eridanos River. And the ash from Phaethon covered the earth and Helios wept for one day and didn’t drive his chariot across the sky that day. Helios got new horses and rebuilt his chariot and went on.

There are other details in the story but this is the mainline of the myth, summarized. But what it actually is, is what is called a ‘geomyth.’ A myth that emerges from a culture based on actual geologic events. There are lots of examples from world mythology but we’ll just stay here for now.

We know that a meteorite struck southern Bavaria in about 200BC and either made Lake Chiemsee or landed in Lake Chiemsee. It would have had the force of about 8500 of the bombs from Hiroshima. Just utterly huge. The Eridanos River, where Phaethon landed, is the ancient name for the Danube River, which runs through Bavaria. There are lots of other features of the myth that line up with a meteor event. If you are interested I can tell you more about it.

And having read the accounts of the Tunguska Event, this meteor strike that streaked over Greece and central Europe was 45 times bigger. Can you even imagine multiplying those accounts by that much? I can’t. People would have been terrified. Properly so.

There are many, many ways to respond to massive, world-shaking events. We find ourselves in a viral event presently. Surely you are seeing many takes on what coronavirus means. Means for us now. For some, the virus is the path to a better day…just get to the other side and all our hopes for a better society will just be there waiting for us. For others the coronavirus is a conspiracy or an impingement on freedom and governments are going to employ the surveillance state to track us and force vaccines on us. For others coronavirus is Mother Earth herself speaking a warning. For yet others the virus is punishment from God.

I am certain there is meaning in the virus. Certainly more than one. But I vouch for none of these noted above, but I understand why they are being employed and trafficked in so easily and taken up by believers predispositioned towards each. Making sense of things seems to be in human nature.

Ovid wrote ‘Metamorphoses’ in 8 AD. About 200 years after the meteor strike in Bavaria. He was using older sources of Greek stories to gather together for his book. This means that Greek people took probably about 100 years or so to collectively agree by lodging a story into their culture of a larger mythic understanding of this event.

These were mythically literate people. Did an actual boy named Phaethon drive a chariot across the sky? Of course not. This massive event where the sky seemed to tear open and the sun went off course and crashed into the earth had to be understood mythically. But the beautiful story the Greeks told had them deeply consider human frailty, humility, hubris, and a consequence for asking too much of the gods. This is their way of slowly tending with something that they couldn’t make sense of. By telling a beautiful story that wove in all they were considering to be a consequence of the event. Maybe they hadn’t had a proper relationship with the Sun? Did they? What error had they made? Were humans somehow at fault? They seemed to consider it by putting it in the myth.

Which is not to say that these things need to be, or will be the lessons from coronavirus. Will coronavirus even be deeply remembered culturally in 100 years? I don’t know. We are mythically illiterate people, by and large. We only really are remembering Spanish Flu now because it echoes into our current situation. But I’d venture to guess that the comprehensive need to split mysteries and to definitively know things – that it is redemption or damnation or any other thing – shortchanges our capacity to wonder about these events more deeply. We are just in the beginning of this. Answers are great but great questions truly are a wonder in a time like this. Great questions start to orient ourselves more mythically, more poetically, and with more slow discernment. Once something is locked down and you know what it is…it is hard to shift. The gravity takes over and the moss starts to grow and suddenly it is an enthroned thing that we’ve always known. I beg for trying to figure out exactly what this is to slow down. Wonder about it. Allow for multiple possibilities and complexity.

I’d make the case that our need to know things definitively might have a relationship to how death is seen and understood and interacted with in the West. Death, a great mystery, is something to get over so you can get on with your life. We want to get a handle on death and a handle on grief as opposed to the much more undoing and human making prospect of letting death and grief handle us.

Why am I writing about this in a Primal Derma newsletter? Primal Derma is made from fat from cows that died. That were killed. The story of how humans and cows intertwined their lives and deaths is long and partially mysterious. I could tell you some of the true facts and untold histories of this relationship and I could also keep trying to weave in a beautiful story about how meaning is slowly made with the most mysterious things we must contend with. Death. Endings. Making culture. This newsletter is me attempting to do just that. Trying to be faithful to the times and trying to be faithful to the cows and the land and the people who were all involved with the making of these little jars that you have entrusted your skin, some of the time with.

Thank you so much for wondering with me about big and mysterious things. Thank you for writing back so regularly about your thoughts about these pieces. I’m grateful.

Until soon enough,