[Note: This is the fifty-third sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews. These samples are not freestanding pieces. They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time. If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.
[Continued from sample 52]
Mesopotamian cultures preserved many traditional stories from long, long ago. The tales began as oral traditions, and quite a few were later inscribed on clay tablets, many of which are still readable. These tablets date as far back as 3500 B.C. Much later, around 586 B.C., Hebrew people were living in exile in Babylon. Most scholars agree that the writing of the Torah began in Babylon, a project to create a lasting record of older traditions. The Torah contains the five books of Moses. In the Bible, these five books are called Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
In Genesis, a lad named Abraham appeared. Abdullah Öcalan wrote that Abraham has been celebrated as the founding father of monotheistic religion in three scriptures, first in the Torah, then the Bible, and later the Qur’an. Abraham was the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — which is why these three are known as Abrahamic religions. All three provide a stage for characters including Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, and Moses. All three believe in angels, judgment day, heaven for the good folks, and hell for everyone else. All of their prophets were male.
It’s interesting to note that some of the values, ideas, and themes in ancient Sumerian legends have left their fingerprints on stories in Abrahamic scriptures. These seem to be an indication of the Mesopotamian web influencing the Abrahamic cultures, which then spread the ideas to distant realms. Today, some of these traditions are known to more than a billion people. Let’s take a quick peek at how they compare, and pay a few visits to other points of interest.
A few pages back, I mentioned a Babylonian creation myth, in which Marduk killed the goddess Tiamat, created the world with her body, and then created humans. Over the span of several thousand years, numerous Mesopotamian societies created a wide variety of stories, and Marduk makes guest appearances in many. Some say he was the son of Enki.
Older than the Babylonian story was a Sumerian creation story that starred the god Enki, and the goddess Ninmah. Once upon a time, the gods and goddesses were feeling overworked, so they decided to invent servants. While preparing to create humans, they got into the mood for spiritual work by drinking “overmuch” and becoming roaring drunk. Consequently, because our creators were totally sloshed, every human has at least one serious defect. (Now the world makes perfect sense!)
Over the years, reputable researchers have worked hard to decipher characters that were etched on clay tablets thousands of years ago, in a long extinct dialect. Their translations present us with a sanitized version of this drunken creation story that was safe to share with innocent children. They tell us that the gods created humans from “clay.” Öcalan, writing in the comfort of his luxurious prison cell, enjoyed the freedom to sidestep a scholarly obligation to disguise embarrassing ancient raunchiness. He wrote, “It does not take much interpretative skill to realize that the narrative suggests that these servants were created from the feces of the gods.” Holy shit! Walking turds!
Let us now turn our attention to the Abrahamic version of the creation story. In Genesis, humans were created in the Garden of Eden, a wilderness paradise. Adam was made first, and then Eve was made from his rib. Humans were the creator’s masterpiece, made in his image. The first two humans had everything they needed — food, water, clean air, a perfect ecosystem, and a hot date.
They could remain in paradise as long as they obeyed just one simple rule — don’t eat apples from one forbidden tree, or you will be severely punished. There were many other trees in the garden, and it was perfectly OK to eat as much of their fruit as you wished. Of course, just 14 short verses after the stern warning, they chose to break the one and only rule.
The creator was infuriated. He tossed them some leather clothes, and threw them out of paradise. Their punishment for disobeying divine instructions was to till the ground from which they came — condemned to spend the rest of their lives chained to the backbreaking drudgery of farming (Genesis 3:1-24). Eve was gullible and dim, as was Adam.
The Qur’an also tells a version of creation that includes Adam, Eve, forbidden fruit, and nudity. Humans may be the only animals that are embarrassed by their nakedness. Like the Sumerian story, the first humans were created from clay (soil from the earth).
So, both the Sumerian and Abrahamic creation stories imply that humans are less than brilliant. Both also introduce the existence of a cosmic hierarchy. Deities are all-powerful, immortal, and often short tempered. Gods are our masters, and good humans always obey our masters. Complex societies can work more smoothly when obedience is believed to be virtuous, and the mobs behave in an orderly manner. Wild, free, and happy societies had no masters or hierarchies.
In the Sumerian story of the great flood, the booze-headed gods had become thoroughly sick of humans. There were way too many of them, and they were now making so much noise that the gods couldn’t sleep at night. So, the way to cleanse the land of these noxious primate pests was to unleash a great flood and drown them all.
At this point, the god Enki told the king of Sumer, Ziusudra, to build a large barge, gather up his family, and specimens of the various animal species, and spare them from the coming floods. So he did. Then, it rained, and rained, and rained, generating a great flood that lasted seven days. The world got much quieter, and the gods slept much better. Ziusudra made an offering to Enki, and then his family got to work repopulating the Earth.
Floods were serious bad juju in Sumer, because the normal season for flooding in the Tigris Euphrates watershed corresponded to the time when wheat and barley crops were normally ripe. If the un-harvested grain was suddenly washed away, hunger times followed, and gravediggers would work overtime. Myths provided an explanation for why the gods sometimes punished them (humans are annoying).
In the remarkably similar Abrahamic flood story, the god Yahweh instructed Noah to build an ark. God was thoroughly sick of humans, and regretted creating them. He saw humans as being thoroughly wicked — every thought that crossed their minds was evil. They were hopeless, a mistake (Genesis 6:5-7). God told Noah to build an ark and load it with critters. Then it rained for forty days and forty nights, and the mountains were covered. The flood lasted 150 days. Every nonaquatic critter drowned. The creator was happy again.
Unfortunately, the small group of surviving humans who stepped off of the ark were the same inherently flawed critters who had boarded it, and would now proceed to repopulate the Earth. God sighed, and then took pity on his imperfect evil-loving 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 everything living, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21) In Islam, Noah is also celebrated as a great prophet. The Qur’an presents a similar version of the flood story, a tale of immoral unbelievers who were drowned for their wrongs.
Myths seem to indicate how ideas traveled via ancient webs. In Greece, river floods were almost unknown, but their myths still included flood stories, likely reflecting a Mesopotamian influence. In one tale, Zeus got furiously pissed off at the sins of humankind, and decided it was flood time. Prometheus discovered the plan, and told his son Deucalion to build an ark or chest. Floods arrived, and Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha (Pandora’s daughter) floated for nine days and nights, until they safely landed on Mount Othrys. They recreate humans by throwing stones behind their back, from which people are born.
In the Norse story of Ragnarök, the humanlike gods subdued the four forces of nature. Of course, nature violently broke loose, and gave the arrogant control freak gods their bloody just rewards. The whole world burned, and was then was submerged by floods. Earth was cleansed, healed, and renewed. Greek myths also mention that, from time to time, fires destroyed the world.
When you toss a stone into still water, ripples fan out in expanding circles. The apocalyptic culture of ancient Mesopotamia can seem to be a splash that rippled around the world, disturbing the very long era of kinder and gentler cultures that preceded it.
Herder vs. Farmer
Jared Diamond wrote that Mesopotamia was unusual because it was home to a number of plant and animal species that were suitable for domestication. Early hunter-gatherers were delighted to discover abundant wild foods. They ceased being nomads, eventually gobbled up too much of the abundance, and began fooling around with domestication.
The friction between farmers and herders is very old. Farmers clustered along the floodplains of waterways. Crops were habitual heavy drinkers and, in lucky times, they could produce generous harvests of nutrient-rich grains and pulses (peas, lentils, etc.). Farming was hard work. It chained you to a piece of land, where the food stored in your granary could provide an irresistible temptation to nomadic raiders, violent parasites.
Floodplains were primo real estate for both farmers and herders. Herders managed livestock that had a serious addiction to grass and water. In the eyes of livestock, a lush field of wheat and barley was a paradise of yummy grass. Was it the farmer’s job to protect his fields, or the herder’s job to keep his critters in the hills? Herding was an attractive choice for people disinterested in backbreaking drudgery, folks who preferred the freedom of nomadic living.
Myths preserve the enduring friction between farmers and herders. Sumerians told a story about the lovely goddess Inanna, who was courted by Dumuzid (a herder), and Enkimdu (a farmer). She chose the herder, the more prudent choice.
Much later, this story is echoed in the Abrahamic tradition, by the story Cain (farmer) and Abel (herder). God did not favor Cain’s offering, but gladly accepted Abel’s. This hurt Cain’s feelings, so he murdered his brother, which did not amuse God. Cain was banished, wandered away, and built the city of Enoch.
In both stories, the farmer appears inferior. The Sumerian and Abrahamic traditions were strongly influenced by the culture of nomadic pastoralism. For example: “Neither shall ye build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any: but all your days ye shall dwell in tents; that ye may live many days in the land where ye be strangers.” (Jeremiah 35:7)
Bruce Chatwin wrote, “The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea were nomadic revivalists who howled abuse at the decadence of civilization. By sinking roots in the land, by laying house to house and field to field, by turning the Temple into a sculpture gallery, the people had turned from their God.”
Chatwin also mentioned that the name Cain means metal-smith, and that in several languages the words for “violence” and “subjugation” are linked to the discovery of metal, and the malevolent arts of technology. Warfare became much bloodier. The pages of the Old Testament document the violent deaths of up to several million people, and the destruction of many cities. For example:
“And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined: and the children of Israel slew of the Syrians an hundred thousand footmen in one day.” (Kings 1, 20:29) “But the Syrians fled before Israel; and David slew of the Syrians seven thousand men which fought in chariots, and forty thousand footmen, and killed Shophach the captain of the host.” (Chronicles 1, 19:18)
Jared Diamond discussed God’s instructions to Hebrew warriors, regarding the proper treatment of heathens. When an ordinary city you are attacking does not surrender, besiege it, kill every male, enslave the women, children, and cattle, and take what you want. On the other hand, when attacking cities that worship false gods, like the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, “thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-18) Diamond noted that Joshua faithfully slaughtered every person in over 400 cities.
Wild cultures were local and simple, and their notions of the cosmos, if any, were quite different from the religions of civilization. With the emergence of farming and herding, populations grew, ecosystems got pounded, and bloody conflicts became more numerous and destructive. Religions developed a number of new and unusual mutations. Old fashioned traditions of respect and reverence for creation often got hurled overboard. Civilization was focused on growth, wealth, status seeking, dominance, and other quirky kinks.
Multiply and Subdue
By the time that the Abrahamic scriptures had been written down, the notion of human supremacy was well established in the Fertile Crescent. Indeed, the human saga is a long story of our cleverness, our tireless expansion into every land, and the tumultuous “progress” we unleashed.
A classic example of this mindset appears in Genesis. Immediately after creating Adam and Eve, the first instructions that God gave them were: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
Humans were made in God’s image, the world was made for humans, and only humans matter (no mention of limits or foresight). Our holy mission was to multiply, subdue, and dominate. The descendants of Adam and Eve have displayed exceptional skill at achieving these objectives. Unintended consequences now include the climate crisis, surging extinctions, soaring population, pollution, deforestation, and on and on.
Biblical scholars have reported that Earth was created between 4000 B.C. and 3000 B.C., some calculating specifically 3137 B.C., but scientists have some doubts. Scholars who study historic demographic trends estimate that in that era, humankind had a population between 7 to 14 million. Almost all of the planet still looked a lot like an ecological paradise. Water in the Mississippi, Rhine, and Thames was safe to drink. The Irish rainforest was full of stags, wolves, and boars.
Writing is a fantastically powerful technology, for both illuminating and casting spells. If there was a deep cave somewhere in which God was unable to read our every thought, some might be tempted to question whether divine instructions given to a world of 14 million are still wise and appropriate in a world zooming toward 8 billion. In the twenty-first century, maybe contraceptives are not tools of the devil. But that cave does not exist. Never mind! Just kidding!
Control freak societies can get obsessive-compulsive about time, measuring it in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia. I am writing at 4:08 PM PST on Sunday, January 17, A.D. 2021. This moment is unique in the life of the universe, like a fingerprint, or a DNA sequence. Many were just born, many just died, and Big Mama Nature received more kicks.
Wild folks had a softer and gentler perception of time. Time was the daily passage of the sun across the sky, and the monthly phases of the moon. Time was the perpetual cycle of winter, spring, summer, and fall. It was the zig and zag of wet seasons and dry seasons, of cold ones and hot ones, of serenity and frightening storms. For these people, time was circular, a wheel that never stops turning. It keeps spinning and spinning, and it is real and alive and good.
In a number of Neolithic societies, like those in Mesopotamia, something extremely weird happens — the notion of linear time emerges. It is not circular. Linear time is like a drag strip for tire-burning hot rods, a one-way sprint from the starting line (creation) to the finish line (apocalypse), from paradise to wasteland, from womb to worms. It is a cosmic (comic?) soap opera in which the spotlights remain focused on the rise and fall of an odd and amusing species of primates — as if we are the one and only thing in the universe that matters. Nothing came before us, and nothing shall follow us. How weird!
Paul Shepard said that folks living in Neolithic societies couldn’t help but notice that their way of life was wobbly, sloppy, and turbulent. He wrote, “Living amidst collapsing ecosystems, agrarians accept a religion of arbitrary gods, catastrophic punishments by flood, pestilence, famine, and drought in an apocalyptic theology.” Folks could see that the surrounding region was dotted with the ruins of past glory, remnants of the eternal two-step of overshoot, and its faithful companion, collapse.
Populations sometimes grew faster than Big Mama Nature could limit the swarms. When the flood plains reached full occupancy, settlement expanded into forests, and up hillsides. Hungry herds of hooved locusts chewed away the vegetation, exposing the naked soil, which blew away and washed away. Rainfall and snowmelt rapidly ran off of stripped slopes. Consequently, catastrophic floods were common, as were landslides. Irrigation systems eventually made the fields so salty that nothing can grow in them. A satellite flying over Mesopotamia now sees THIS.
The McNeills commented on the expanding shoreline along the Persian Gulf, into which the Tigris and Euphrates emptied. Sumerian cities that were once located on the coast, or close to it, are today up to 100 miles (161 km) inland from the shore. Former islands are now mainland, far from the coast. Massive erosion was a perfectly normal consequence of upstream deforestation, overgrazing, and agriculture.
George Perkins Marsh, in his 1864 book, described his visits to the ruins of many classic civilizations, and (correctly) worried that America was on the same path. He wrote that where the Roman Empire once reigned, more than half of their lands today (1860s) are either deserted, desolate, or at least greatly reduced in both productiveness and population. Vast forests are gone, much soil has been lost, springs have dried up, famous rivers have shrunk to humble brooklets, smaller rivers have dried up or have become seasonal, entrances to navigable streams are blocked by sandbars, former harbors are now distant from the sea, and large areas of shallow sea and fertile lowland are now foul smelling unhealthy swamps.
The ancient Greeks saw history as a long and tragic saga of human decline. Hesiod writes of the Golden Age: “They lived like gods, free from worry and fatigue; old age did not afflict them; they rejoiced in continual festivity.” This was followed by the Silver Age, a matriarchal era of agriculture, when men obeyed their mothers. This was followed by the Bronze Age, a patriarchal era of war. “Their pitiless hearts were as hard as steel; their might was untamable, their arms invincible.” This was followed by the Iron Age, a time “when men respect neither their vows, nor justice, nor virtue.”
Today, we live in the Overshoot Age, when billions of people spend their lives in the crazy lane, and nothing seems to really matter. Do redwoods matter, or whales, or polar bears, or ravens, or children? Is anything sacred? Hello? Is anybody home?
Wild cultures felt a sense of sacred oneness with their ancestral homeland. It was a relationship of profound reverence and respect. Their creation stories do not include the notion of being forcibly evicted from paradise for naughty behavior. Something like paradise was their birthplace and permanent address, the home of their ancestors, and the generations yet to be born. A Karuk man once took me to a bluff, and pointed down to a bend in the Klamath River where the Karuk people were first brought into existence, long, long ago.
Modern Americans are two-legged tumbleweeds that have blown in from countless distant places. We frequently move every few years. Many tumbleweeds have little or no knowledge of their ancestral homelands. Many never develop a spiritual connection to any place. For them, nature is typically nothing more than a meaningless static backdrop along the highway, stuff they zoom past during their daily travels.
Paul Shepard noted that this was a big shift away from older cultures, in which folks felt a profound spiritual connection to the land where they lived. His wife Florence Shepard said it like this, “At the heart of our identity is a fundamentally wild being, one who finds in the whole of wild nature all that is true and beautiful in this world.” By the time wild children reach puberty, they have developed a healthy connection to place. They have a profound sense of belonging that most modern tumbleweeds cannot begin to imagine, and will never experience.
Vine Deloria was a Yankton Sioux who had immense respect for their traditional culture, because it had deep roots in place, and a healthy sense of coherence. Settlers were ridiculously incoherent. A missionary would tell them they were devil worshippers, convert them to the one true faith, and then a year later the next missionary would inform them that the first one was a demonic fire hose of lies and deceptions. All the black robes read the same book, but none agreed on what it meant.
In 1945, a farmer named Mohammed Ali found an ancient jar near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Among the contents of this jar was a book containing the Gospel of Thomas. This gospel of Jesus’ life had never been edited, corrected, clarified, or blessed by the official Holy Roman Church. In chapter 113 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is talking about the nature of heaven — God’s kingdom. He said that it was not an event that would occur in the future. Here is what he said: “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” In other words, heaven is where your feet are standing. Wherever you stand is sacred ground.
Harvey Whitehouse wrote about how deities changed with the rise of civilizations. Complex societies tend to promote the rise of gods that are all-powerful, all-seeing, and tireless moralizers — deities that reward the virtuous, and spank the naughty. Folks tend to be more motivated by the fear of punishment, rather than the desire for rewards. Strict morals can also be useful for getting ethnically diverse groups to march to the same drum, without getting uppity.
The objective here was to encourage beneficial behavior, because a disempowered, obedient, and orderly mob was a productive and profitable mob. Elites do not enjoy the presence of rebels and rabble-rousers. But in a big community, troublesome folks can often become invisible within the vast anonymous crowds. In theory, all-seeing moralizing gods are personal deities. They always know exactly what you (and everyone else) are doing and thinking.
In simple societies, the local spirits were less likely to become morality police. There was no cultural diversity to generate friction, everyone shared the same worldview. Folks in small groups lived in fishbowls — everyone was well aware of what everyone else was doing. There were no secrets. Folks were inclined to behave mindfully. Misbehavior could lead to friendly nudges, a damaged reputation, an ass whooping, or ostracism.
John Trudell, a Santee Sioux activist, bitterly detested the colonization of the Americas. Traditionally, tribal people were raised in a culture of spiritual reality, which emphasized a profound respect and reverence for the family of life. Their guiding star was responsibility. Settlers, on the other hand, were far less interested in notions of responsibility. Preachers blasted tribal folks with intensely toxic moralizing. A primary objective was to make people feel powerless, to convince them that they’re bad, sinful, evil from birth — to paralyze them with guilt and shame, to strip away their self-respect.
Vine Deloria said that a tribal person “does not live in a tribe, the tribe lives in him.” Their sense of identity was rooted in “we,” not “me.” Self-centeredness was a spiritual abnormality. Everyone had powerful bonds to the land, the clan, and their family. I am an only child, and my good buddy Jim was one of seven children. I envy their powerful lifelong bonds, and their ongoing mutual support. This is the mode in which social primates evolved to live.
Robert Anton Wilson noted that living within a tribe, and benefitting from mutual support, was vital for survival. Being punished by banishment or exile was like being thrown overboard in the high seas — an extremely brutal and terrifying punishment that was only chosen for hopelessly impossible buttheads. Execution would have been more merciful. The benefits of mutual support really encouraged conformity to time-proven tribal norms.
And this, dear reader, is why hierarchical societies, like industrial civilization, are wonderlands of craziness. The air is constantly hissing with the voices of sorcerers. Thou shalt compete (not cooperate). Thou shalt hoard (not share). Thou shalt always strive to become a heroic example of personal success and extravagant excess. Fun fact: “Thou shalt” appears exactly 500 times in the King James Bible.
A few pages back, we learned that the Sumerian gods could be sloppy drunks. They created humans so flawed that the only solution was to exterminate them with a great flood. The Genesis story echoes this. When the flood subsided, Noah’s surviving kinfolk were still just as flawed as the countless humans who were deliberately drowned. A rational person could wonder why all-knowing, all-powerful creators kept flubbing up when creating humans, but that might be heresy. Let’s not go there. Reason and religion usually sleep in separate beds.
It’s not heresy to perceive the obvious. These Neolithic cultures clearly taught that the humans were inherently flawed. In the Christian tradition, every newborn is evil until baptized. Once baptized, living in strict obedience to divine instructions is not mandatory. The world is filled with temptations, and we all have the freedom to be naughty or nice. Nice folks are obedient, and their reward is salvation, the heavenly ticket to eternal paradise. Death is when the good times begin.
With regard to salvation, everyone is equal, from billionaires to ditch diggers, women, and slaves. Everyone has the option of seeking the path to a wonderful afterlife. Nobody is worthless. This is very cool, because if you were born a slave, that was God’s will, not a cruel misfortune. So, with this understanding, you can happily shovel shit for a few decades, and then go to paradise for eternity. Yippee!
Belief in salvation can be so powerful that it overrides survival instincts. Michael Dowd wrote, “In group-to-group conflicts, any culture that offers the promise of an afterlife to those who heroically martyr themselves will likely triumph over an army of atheists who have the rational belief that death marks the absolute end of individual existence.”
Humans are social critters, not stray cats. We are most comfortable when we are among small intimate groups of family and friends, where everyone is equal, and we care for each other. With regard to individual salvation, the opposite is true. When it’s time to meet the divine for your final exam, you are completely on your own. I may achieve salvation, while everyone I love and respect does not (or vice versa).
Beyond flawed humans, the entire planet is flawed. In the Christian sphere, they believe that the world is the realm of Satan, a place of evil. For them, Earth is something like a cheap motel room where we get an opportunity to spend some time demonstrating our worthiness for salvation (or the toasty alternative). It’s just an audition. Of course, this implies that the living ecosystem does not deserve respect and reverence. It’s just a funky roadside flophouse with stained sheets with cigarette burns, a cheap place for a short stay. It’s OK to smash it up (or flood it).
[Continued on sample 54]