Archive for the ‘The Roots of Civilization’ Category

As I’ve worked with the cycle of visions, I’ve always found the rise and fall of successive visions and the interactions among them fairly easy to identify . The hard part is figuring out the source of this recurring pattern and the mechanisms that keep it going over vast stretches of time and space with an amazing degree of regularity.

I’ve used a variety of analogies to attack this question, but the one that appears most relevant is language.

The central feature of language is that it is rules-based. Toddlers who are just learning to talk string words together loosely, but they don’t produce fully-formed sentences. The complete range of human speech becomes available to them only once they master the detailed grammatical rules that indicate how the elements of a sentence fit together.

Different languages employ different rules but the capacity for creating and learning rules-based systems appears to be innate — and it is not confined to language. It also underlies our love of games. It is the basis of law and government. It plays a role in both art and science.

Rules-based system are naturally coherent because the same rules always apply under similar circumstances. This is why speakers can utter novel sentences and still be understood. It is why judges or gamemasters can hand down decisions and feel confident they will be accepted.

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In writing about the remote past, I’ve had two primary objectives. One is to use the cycle of historical visions that I’ve developed based on events of the last few centuries to shed light on the vast blank spaces of prehistory. And the other is to use the known facts of prehistory to better understand the cycle of visions.

In previous entries, I’ve suggested that the first three visions were formed as much as 200,000 years ago, when the earliest modern humans began to shape their knowledge of the world into coherent theories: the transformative vision to structure their observations of the natural world, the kinship vision to codify their social relationships, and the spirit vision to explain the powerful inner experiences of the early shamans.

I’ve further suggested that the transformative and kinship visions came together in the first dominant partnership around 100,000 years ago, following a complex intellectual process that may initially have been catalyzed by the spirit vision but which ultimately subordinated that vision’s more disruptive, trickster-like aspects to a need for social stability and order.

And I’ve speculated that a vast disillusionment resulting from the return of ice age conditions 75,000 years ago could have prompted the first “romantic break,” when people lost faith in the ability of the transformative-and-kinship partnership to explain an increasingly hostile world and turned instead to the spirit vision for guidance.

If that was so, then the lost of faith would have been most far-reaching in the Middle East, where modern humans were nearly wiped out by the extreme cold and drought. And the people of that area who moved further north after the cold moderated 50,000 years ago would have carried with them a growing dedication to both the spirit vision and the newly-emergent cosmic order vision — a dedication reflected in the great cave art of Europe.

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I’ve been thinking over my previous entry, in which I suggested that the imposition of group identity towards the end of the ice age resulted in a devastating loss of individual potential. That may be true, but it’s still only half the story — because at the same time as the social outlook was contracting, the scientific outlook was expanding wildly, culminating in the domestication of plants and animals.

In terms of the theory of historical visions that I’ve been laying out, this kind of seesaw effect is typical of the final stages of any dominant partnership. By 20,000 years ago, the ancient transformative-and-kinship partnership was nearing the end of its useful lifespan, and the kinship vision in particular was showing the strain. Where it had once been inclusive — a means of extending people’s sense of relatedness beyond the immediate family — it had become exclusive and xenophobic. Where it had previously made possible new forms of thought and behavior, it had been turned into a means of social control.

The kinship vision at that point might be compared to the democracy vision in the 1950’s, when it had lost much of its earlier idealism and had been reduced to serving as an ideological basis for the Cold War and a means of keeping a lid on political discontent. What was freshest and most exciting in those years came out of the science vision, which was enjoying its last burst of creativity as it helped usher into being the brave new world of television, computers, and space travel.

In much the same way, the transformative vision went through a final phase of visionary potential at the end of the ice age. By then, it had grown far beyond its original geeky focus on throwing rocks in the fire to see what would happen and had become capable of imagining a complete transformation of the natural world.

And just as that final flare-up of the science vision was most intensely realized in the United States, the climax of the transformative vision was strongest in Southeast Asia, where agriculture began.

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One of the great mysteries of the past is that there seems to be a strange kind of event horizon at the end of the ice age. Every historical stage since then is still represented by one present-day culture or another, but there is no society to which we can point and say with confidence, “This is what the Late Paleolithic looked like.”

In my entries here, I’ve attempted to identify certain cultural elements as probable Paleolithic survivals — but that can only get you so far. The art of the European caves, for example, appears to have employed a consistent symbolic system which has never been deciphered.

But the greatest mystery isn’t what things were like back then so much as how and why they changed. Was there an abrupt phase-shift around 11,000 years ago or merely a gradual accumulation of small adjustments? And either way, should the end result be taken as a leap or a fall?

The version of the story that we were all taught in school presents the so-called “Neolithic Revolution” as a major advance that brought us from a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one involving a far greater degree of knowledge and control.

But there are also indications that the development of agriculture had less to do with “progress” than with a response to crisis which left us working harder just to keep up. And there’s even a persistent “Atlantean” strain in present-day thought which argues that important aspects of knowledge and self-awareness were lost in the transition.

I definitely have a leaning towards this second attitude. I don’t for a moment buy the idea that something resembling modern technology was present back in the Old Stone Age — but I do believe there was both a fall and a great forgetting.

So what might have been the nature of that fall? What was lost then and what has been forgotten?

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A few months back, I suggested here that fairy tales are far more ancient than generally acknowledged, and that rather than being just a few hundred years old they may date from around 3500-2500 BC.

So it’s nice to see that a new anthropological study has come to much the same conclusion. According to a story published today in the Telegraph:

Dr Jamie Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, studied 35 versions of Little Red Riding Hood from around the world. …

Contrary to the view that the tale originated in France shortly before Charles Perrault produced the first written version in the 17th century, Dr Tehrani found that the varients shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years.

He said: “Over time these folk tales have been subtly changed and have evolved just like an biological organism. Because many of them were not written down until much later, they have been misremembered or reinvented through hundreds of generations. …

“The oldest tale we found was an Aesopic fable that dated from about the sixth century BC, so the last common ancestor of all these tales certainly predated this. We are looking at a very ancient tale that evolved over time.” …

The original ancestor is thought to be similar to another tale, The Wolf and the Kids, in which a wolf pretends to be a nanny goat to gain entry to a house full of young goats.

Stories in Africa are closely related to this original tale, whilst stories from Japan, Korea, China and Burma form a sister group. Tales told in Iran and Nigeria were the closest relations of the modern European version.

I would definitely like to see a detailed account of this study, and I hope that the method will be applied to other folktales, as well, since it has the potential for illuminating many obscure channels of cultural transition.

The idea of a close link between Iran and Europe, for example, is particularly interesting, since I’ve seen it suggested elsewhere that the Grail legend may be of Iranian origin and derive from what Omar Khayyam referred to (in Edward FitzGerald’s translation) as “Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup.”

For now, however, it’s simply nice to have confirmation that fairy tales — and the worldview they embody — really do have very deep roots.

Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose,
And Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup where no one knows;
But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows.


A listing of all my posts on the roots of civilization can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

I ran across something very novel and intriguing this week in the course of reading Robert Temple’s The Sphinx Mystery. Temple quotes an invocation from one of the ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, known as the “Book of Two Ways,” which is addressed to Osiris, the god of the dead:

“I am purified by thy efflux …exalted by the efflux which flowed out of thee. … It is the decomposition of Osiris. … I am the Great Soul of Osiris with whom the gods have ordained him to copulate, who lives on high by day, made by Osiris from the efflux of his flesh, by the seed which came from his phallus, in order to come forth by day that he may copulate with it.”

This is strange and highly technical language, but there are two things in it that stand out clearly. One is that the “efflux” of Osiris is a potent magical substance. The other is that this “efflux” is identified not only with the god’s semen — which might be expected — but also with the fluids of decomposition.

That is a powerful yet intensely alien equation.

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It was announced earlier this week that a Paleolithic flute, carved some 35,000 years ago from the hollow bone of a vulture’s forearm, has been discovered in Germany.

The discovery is being heralded as demonstrating the “high-level of musical and technological sophistication” present at that time. It is also being suggested that such flutes might have contributed to their makers’ evolutionary fitness by enhancing social bonding.

All of that may be perfectly true — but it may also fall far short of explaining the real intentions of the flutes’ makers.

Flutes have ancient mystical connotations. It is not the physical body of the flute that produces the musical sound, but the nothingness within it. A flute is of no value as an instrument until it is hollowed out and becomes receptive to the breath and will of the musician.

Because of these qualities, flutes provide a ready analogy for the subtle relationship between body and soul, as well as for the mystical directive to empty oneself of ego in order to be filled from outside.

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Over the last few centuries, entrenched aristocracies have increasingly become a drag — inbred, arrogant, and generally useless. But there was a time when having aristocrats around was a good thing, because they were the major drivers of cultural innovation.

The reasons for this have to do with the interplay among leisure, disposable income, and the desire for novelty. Aristocrats tend to have way more than their share of the first two, which makes them extremely receptive to new games and toys, diversions and amusements, fads and fashions.

Up until the 18th century, most great art and music were produced either at the direction of or to curry favor with wealthy patrons. Even technological advances — like the steam engine or electricity — started out as gadgets to provide bored aristocrats with entertainment.

Ever since the French Revolution demonstrated that it was possible to do without them, aristocrats — and their corporate CEO successors — have become increasingly conservative and set in their ways. They worry that any sort of innovation will make their uselessness all the more apparent and fear that great art and music will stir up the lower orders and put notions in their heads. But once upon a time, things were very different.

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After writing a few days ago about how fairy tales may reflect the actual culture of roughly 4500 to 2500 BC, I got inspired to dig out my files on that period — and particularly on the times and places that don’t normally get into the history books.

When I was in school — and I doubt things have changed much since then — the beginnings of civilization were always pegged at around 3000 BC, with the emergence in Egypt and Sumeria of complex societies characterized by organized religion, monumental architecture, and writing.

The Harappan culture of the Indus Valley was also given an honorable mention in this story, though it was generally thought to have appeared several centuries later and to have been in some vaguely-defined way less innovative and influential than Egypt or Sumeria. But everyplace else was dismissed as crude and backwards — at most reflecting glimmers of influence from the three great river-valley civilizations — until some time after 2000 BC.

This picture of three major civilizations serving as lonely beacons of light in a sea of darkness was utter fantasy, of course. It grew out of late 19th and early 20th century prejudices, which regarded colonialism and monumental architecture as signs of evolutionary superiority, and was perpetuated into the second half of the 20th century by errors in carbon-14 dating.

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It always seem to be assumed that fairy tales are attached to no particular time and place — that they exist in an ideal land of make-believe that was invented for story purposes and never actually existed.

In fact, when I took a folklore course in college, the professor rather severely informed us that most fairy tales were written only a few hundred years ago, so they could not possibly retain any actual ancient elements.

I found that disappointing — but I also eventually found it unconvincing.

A story like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” after all, seems to have very little to do with the late medieval / early modern world of chivalry and tournaments, of grand cathedrals and fanatical witch-hunters, of feudal loyalties and dynastic marriages, of royal bureaucracies and emerging nation-states, of printing presses and merchant bankers.

Instead, they appear to reflect an older and simpler organization of society — and they do so far too consistently to be the result of mere happenstance.

For example, there’s the multitude of independent petty kingdoms with which the fairy tale landscape seems to be littered, along with the extended stretches of savage wilderness which separate them. That’s not at all medieval — but it does seem to be the way things worked back when kingdoms were first invented.

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