Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Dawn of World Renewal

My ancestors include tribal people who inhabited the ancient forests of Norway, Wales, and Germany.  Bits and pieces of their myths and folkways have managed to survive the passage of centuries.  These people lived close to wild nature, and venerated oak trees, salmon, wolves, ravens, mistletoe, thunder, rainbows, and so on.

Their cultural heroes were a pantheon of human gods and goddesses who possessed metal weapons, chariots, and domesticated horses.  Clearly, these stories were not from the era of hunter-gatherers.  Their deities were not all knowing and omnipotent; they could be deceived, or make foolish mistakes.  They were mortals who would someday die.

Like many triumphant sagas, these heroes eventually became victims of their own success.  Prophecies had long predicted the twilight of the gods.  Their fatal mistake was fettering the four forces of nature — Surt the giant (volcanoes and earthquakes), the Midgard Serpent (turbulent seas), the Fenris wolf (powerful animal wildness), and Loki the trickster (fire and air).

With nature fettered, the world tumbled out of balance.  Wolves swallowed the sun and moon.  Fimbulwinter brought nonstop snow for three seasons, followed by three seasons of nasty weather.  Earthquakes pulverized mountains, and the world was covered with a thick layer of ice.  Society plunged into helter-skelter.  One day, the four forces of nature broke free, and obliterated the gods at the battle of Ragnarök.

Surt the giant spread fire over the whole world, leaving behind nothing but naked soil.  Flames purified the land.  Then the rivers and seas rose up, and all dry land was submerged by a huge flood.  In Norse Mythology, Peter Andreas Munch described the dawn of world renewal with a beautiful line: “Out of the sea there rises a new earth, green and fair, whose fields bear their increase without the sowing of seed.”

Later, a new deity arrived, when the black robes from civilization forcibly penetrated northern Europe.  They had just one god.  He created the world and all living things.  Humans were his masterpiece, made in his image.  Our original home was a wilderness paradise, the Garden of Eden.  At this point, we had everything we needed — food, water, clean air, a magnificent ecosystem, and a hot date.

Like any other healthy wild animal, Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed.  The lad and lass were permitted to eat the fruit of any tree, except one — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Like many other animals, they really liked apples.  The creator was a peculiar stranger.  Imagine telling a wolf not to eat the bunny of good and evil.  What does “good” and “evil” mean to naked wild animals?

A serpent, another mysterious stranger, highly recommended the forbidden fruit, “…your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  They indulged.  Suddenly, they were extremely embarrassed about their beautiful animal bodies.  The creator gave them some leather clothes, and threw them out of paradise, “to till the ground from whence he was taken.”  The punishment for disobeying the creator’s instructions was to be condemned to the drudgery of farming.

The troublesome humans had many children, grandchildren, etc.  The growing mob really got on the creator’s nerves.  Man was unbelievably wicked, and “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  Humans were a terrible mistake, and the creator regretted creating us.  “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air.”

The creator told Noah to build an ark and load it with wild critters.  Then it rained for forty days and forty nights, and the mountains were covered.  The flood lasted 150 days.  Everything not on the ark died.  The creator was happy again.  Yet the surviving humans were still flawed critters.  He realized this, but took pity on his imperfect boo-boos.  “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.”  He told Noah’s family to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.”  You and I are their flawed descendants.

There are many versions of this story, and Genesis was included in the Bible.  Another version is The First Book of Adam and Eve.  In it, the two humans were motivated to eat the forbidden fruit by a “desire for divinity, greatness, and an exalted state.”  The creator told Adam that before he impulsively ate the apple, “thou hadst a bright nature within thee, and for that reason couldst thou see things afar off.”

The Hebrew flood story is similar to the story of the nearby Sumerians.  The Sumerian version says that the gods were drunk when they created humans.  This is why every human has at least one serious defect.  Eventually, the gods could no longer tolerate humankind, because we made too much noise.  The gods couldn’t sleep.  At this point, Ziusudra (a mortal human) was instructed to build a large barge, gather up specimens of the various animal species, and spare them from the coming floods.

There literally were great floods in the ancient Fertile Crescent.  Archeologists have discovered a heavy layer of silt in the region, which dates to around 2900 B.C.  Because the civilizations converted vast ancient forests into fields, flooding must have been frequent, and sometimes catastrophic.

Anyway, the Teutonic, Hebrew, and Sumerian stories describe, in various ways, the notion that humans are flawed.  Certainly, in these three cultures, humans did not live in harmony with the family of life, and their stories throbbed with weird vibes.  In all three stories, the prime troublemakers (and countless innocent critters) were drowned, setting the stage for world renewal, a beautiful healing.

Portions of the Jesus saga offer a more wholesome message.  One day, he dropped out and headed for the hills.  After being baptized by a wild holy man, Jesus was filled with spirit power.  He went to the wilderness, and spent 40 days in the perfection of creation.  This experience flooded his heart with profound knowledge.  He realized that the civilization around him was insane, and he decided to illuminate his neighbors.  Give away your wealth and live a life of unconditional love.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The Jesus movement fragmented into many variants as it spread.  In the Roman variant, the patriarchs worked aggressively to eliminate all competitors.  They selected an official collection of sacred texts, which was a small subset of the writings generated by the Jesus movement.  The banished texts included a number of gospels — the Gospel of Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of James, Gospel of Mattheus, Gospel of Truth, and Gospel of Mary.

In 1945, a farmer found an ancient jar near Nag Hammadi in Egypt.  Among the papyrus pages in this jar was the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus.  Here is saying 113:  His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”  Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it.  It will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’  Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”

Look!  Paradise is where your feet are standing.  This sounds remarkably similar to the mindset of the Pygmies, Anishinabe, Inuit, and other wild folks.  Wild cultures don’t tell stories reeking of human supremacy.  The creator might be a frog.  Humans are among the youngest critters in the family of life, mischievous two-year olds playing with plutonium.  We have so much to learn from our older relatives.

It’s interesting to contemplate what a wholesome creation story would sound like.  Imagine a story where we skipped the toxic apple, remained in the garden, and lived in balance with the family of life, like the deer and ravens.  When we inform our offspring that they were flawed before they were born, the result is the world outside your window — a bloody lunatic asylum.

And so, today, we’re zooming down the Ragnarök Expressway, and Big Mama Nature will once again hurl the crazy mob into oblivion, big brains and all.  When the storms pass, fires burn out, and floodwaters recede, the dawn of world renewal will rise once again, “a new earth, green and fair.”


Marlowe Rafelle said...


Marlowe Rafelle said...


Riversong said...

It's doubtful that a hierarchical agricultural culture would create an origin myth that makes themselves into the foolish exiles from paradise.

Daniel Quinn, in his prize-winning novel Ishmael, tells a more believable version in which the "Leavers" (those who lived harmoniously with the earth, the hunter-gatherers) told the Eden story as the origin of the "Takers" (the extractive agriculturalists and militant aggressors) - those who defied divinity and sought to become gods, with the power to decide who lives and who dies.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Riversong! I agree that the Genesis story is perplexing. To me, it sounds like a story that herders would tell. Cowboys and farmers have frequently had conflicts over the eons. Both prefer land close to water, and farmers hate it when wandering herds of livestock feast on their crops.

The story probably emerged in an oral culture, before writing. But writing was probably more of a technology of agricultural societies. So, why did farmers write down Genesis? Why did the Teutonic scribes write the Ragnarök story? Or the Sumerians?

I know that in the twentieth century, following the incredible bloodshed of the world wars, the myth of progress lost a lot of its shine. It was harder to see humans as the intelligent and rational descendants of the Enlightenment. Our terrible barbaric side came totally out of the closet. BLAM! When this is the mood of society, we’re more tolerant of stories about foolishness and depravity.

My interest in Genesis has to do with the fact that it is so at odds with the myth of progress, and the cult of human supremacy — and the cult does not denounce it, but embraces it! We fortunate members of the Judeo-Christian culture are the pinnacle of the human journey, they tell us.

<< It's doubtful that a hierarchical agricultural culture would create an origin myth that makes themselves into the foolish exiles from paradise. >>

But, if the priests of civilized regions want to have a plush life, they need to provide services that are in demand. If generous offerings can help believers find salvation, they must first be flawed, sinful, evil — damaged beings that need to be fixed. Whole, happy, wise people don’t need to be saved.

Ishmael is one of the few books I’ve read three times, along with The Tracker. Both were important in helping me realize how much bullshit my mind was loaded with.

Venkataraman Amarnath said...

In India where civilization thrived for at least four thousand years, there was always contact between the civilized people and the various 'forest' people. I am sure a wise one would have compared the two different ways of living and come up with a Garden of Eden story. For comparison,
The Poetry of Creation ‐ Rig Veda Book 10 Hymn 129
There was neither non‐existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred?
In whose protection?
Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?
There was neither death nor immortality then.
There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
Other than that there was nothing beyond.
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,
with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness,
that One arose through the power of heat.
Desire came upon that One in the beginning,
that was the first seed of mind.
Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom
found the bond of existence and non‐existence.
Their cord was extended across.
Was there below?
Was there above?
There were seed‐placers, there were powers.
There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above. Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen
‐ perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not ‐ the One who looks down on it,
in the highest heaven, only He knows
or perhaps He does not know.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Amarnath! I like it! It’s honest. It’s impossible to know what nobody knows, but it is possible to tell stories. In the Western tales, there is an imaginary eyewitness narrator who describes the entire process of creation. It’s a tale imagined by some gray-haired storyteller, a tale that took root in the cultural soil.