On panspermia and ancient aliens (at least in science fiction.)
While all of archaeology and paleontology seem to reaffirm the idea that life started on Earth as single-celled organisms, eventually evolving into multicellular forms that eventually became intelligent, and that all civilization came about around the same time, in places like Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and the Huang Ho River Valley, I’ve always been fascinated by the myth that we came from a technologically advanced past, devolving into a long dark age that is has only been recently pierced (and only partially, as the Republican Party in the U.S. demonstrates all too well.)
I suppose it speaks to a Puritanical/Calvinistic interpretation of the Bible, in which we permanently fell from Grace. Supposedly the past was a Edenic utopia, while the future becomes even more and more depraved.
But the myth pops up from time to time, and it’s has been employed mightily from some of the best science-fiction writers.
From Western civilization, the myth of Atlantis looms large. Even the Disney Corporation imagines that ancient Atlanteans possessed highly advanced technology, the likes of which we are only recently matching.
Then there is this book I ran into on one of my trips to Borders that, while smacking of pseudoscience, seeks to explain the almost simultaneous (give or take a few hundred years) collapse of the Sumerian, Egyptian, Mayan, and Anasazi civilizations (to name a few of those cited) and they peg the blame on some hitherto uncharacterized cyclic astronomical phenomenon. (The existence of a yet undiscovered companion star to the Sun is one such hypothesis. Others include contact with extraterrestrials. Less ambitious explanations are the onset of worldwide climate change probably due to a cyclic astronomical event, but more speculatively, may have been a toxic by-product of early civilization.)
Even J.R.R. Tolkien was seemingly obsessed with the idea of a technologically-advanced Atlantis, destroyed by a great wave that matches the description of a tsunami. He co-opted the myth into his own legendarium, and devised the legends of Númenor.
In my mind, the prototypical Intergalactic Empire is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, centered around the world of Trantor. I’ve only read one of the books, way out of order, and what struck me the most was the description of the search for the lost Sol System.
But building upon this prototypical universe, Ursula K. Le Guin imagines the Ekumen(see also The Ekumen: an Ursula K Le Guin reference page), a league of star systems that somewhat resembles the Federation from Star Trek, except that the Ekumen seems to be more of an utopian anarchy than a democratic republic. The agents of the Ekumen are proscribed from interefering with low-tech civilizations. (Compare this to the Prime Directive.)
But part of the Hainish cycle is the conceit that intelligent life started on a planet called Hain (known to Terrans as Davenant) and through terraforming and bioforming, they have shepherded intelligent life throughout the countless milllions of years.
Even Philip K. Dick imagines the existence of a highly-advanced extraterrestrial civilization with whom we once had contact with, and who left the relic known as VALIS in orbit around the Earth to help us re-establish contact.
And likewise, in The Snow Queen, Joan Vinge introduces the notion of an Old Empire which disintegrated, leaving colony worlds stranded for millenia, until one of these worlds recovered well enough to restart a technologic revolution.
The other component that Vinge introduces is the notion of the Sibyl, a human being who (through a nanotechnologic modification of neural tissue) is able to access the latent databanks of the Old Empire.
I’ve always wondered if the words “Sibyl” and “sibilant” were related. It doesn’t seem like it just from the sources that I’ve Googled. And for some reason I’ve always thought of “sibilant” to be similar in connotation to whispering, even though it really more closely means “hissing” (like a ssssnake) But I imagine that’s how the Sibyl would give her prophecies, by whispering, or hissing.
There is also the anecdote that the cave in Delphi that the Sibyl supposedly gave her prophecies from had a volcanic gas vent which emitted complex hydrocarbons that caused hallucinations.
Meanwhile, the supposed etymology of the word “sibyl” is theoboule, meaning “divine wish”