Nature-Loving Pagans

One of the theories that has cropped up in my grad school classes is the theory that the pre-Christian world (i.e. pagan Europe and the Ancient Mediterranean civilizations) was populated by nature-friendly people. The image that emerges is a more sophisticated version of Walt Disney's Pocahontas: tree huggers with pro-nature beliefs flitting happily through the dank forests of Europe.

This is such a very stupid idea that I have decided to address it separately here.

The image of a pure/good past is part and parcel of the whole noble savage doctrine promoted by people like Rousseau. It got quite a grip on Western Civilization and is still bandied about today. In the 1970s, alongside the feminist and environmentalist movements, a group of anthropologists/archaeologists promoted the idea of a pre-Christian, pro-woman, pro-nature idyllic society. Their idea was based principally on the discovery of goddess worship in the ancient world. How one leaps from goddess worship to all the rest escapes me; nevertheless, it was a big deal.

That is, until more archaeologists (and sometimes even the same archaeologists) went back and dug up more stuff and discovered, what do you know, that every time you find goddess worship, you find a big, thundering obnoxious patriarchal god right next door and he is, inevitably, calling the shots. You find temple prostitution to boot. So much for the non-exploitation of women.

What about the ancients' attitude towards nature?

The following list is a description of non-nature-friendly aspects of the ancient world, starting on the south side of the Mediterranean, progressing around to the east, back to the west and then north.

  1. The salting of Carthage
  2. The pyramids (see Stonehenge)
  3. The lighthouse at Pharos (which would have burnt a tremendous amount of wood on a daily basis)
  4. The mummifying of kittens for sale (commodification!)
  5. Jericho: the oldest city possibly in the world was a fortress! (Tells you something about human nature)
  6. The Old Testament
  7. Babylon: The Tale of Gilgamesh which, taken together with the story of Noah, is about how much is stinks to be flooded
  8. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon: the ultimate cultivation of nature
  9. The Greek concept of civilization (basically: cities)
  10. The Roman concept of civilization (basically: really big cities)
  11. The Roman Games which killed thousands and thousands of animals from Europe
  12. The Celts: agriculturists, traders and miners
  13. Moving North: Stonehenge. Stonehenge, along with the pyramids, is a wonderful example of ancient people quarrying huge amounts of rock (for fun!), hauling those rocks hundreds of miles to a completely different location and constructing a monument that does not blend into the landscape, even remotely.
  14. Beowulf: an ancient tale that was brought into Britain by Anglo-Saxons and later Christianized. The non-Christian parts of the tale are even less friendly about nature than the Christian parts. Nature is the enemy in the shape of big, angry monsters that eat you. You survive by having a good leader, good warriors and strong defenses.
  15. And then there's the Vikings . . .

It doesn't strike me as a particularly nature-friendly list.

CATEGORY: HISTORY & LEARNING

4 comments:

  1. Don't forget the massive Mayan deforestation of what is now central American circa 800 AD (which led to the collapse of the Mayan empire.) This was considered the largest deforestation, though recent studies point to the Aboriginals causing an even more massive deforestation of Australia several thousand years ago, the effects of which persist to this day. (There is also evidence the plains Indians did the same thing to what is now Kansas and Oklahoma.) Early Spaniard visitors reported that the Los Angeles basin had horrible air quality due largely to cooking fires and the natural inversion layers common to the area (You'd think Los Angelinos would have learned, but no.)

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  2. One other thing; in a single season a single beaver can clear-cut several acres of land, usually surrounding creeks and streams, sometimes with devastating results.

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  3. Then there's slash and burn agriculture.

    The Romans were the first to document the practice of crop rotation, but of course the Romans were an imperial power that drained swamps, mined for ore, quarried mountains, wiped out the tree-loving celts and generally did not behave in a Rousseauean manner.

    Here's a web site that documents all sorts of such things:

    http://home.alltel.net/bsundquist1/se3f.html:

    Deforestation and over-grazing in the Armenian highlands (eastern Turkey) is believed to be the source of the silt load that is believed to be the root cause of the decline of the Mesopotamian civilization and the irrigation system on which it depended...

    China's Great Wall (2500 miles long, built to keep out marauding hoards from the north where agriculture had collapsed) (74H1) was built in 221-206 BC (Ch'in Dynasty)...

    Easter Island sustained a population of 58 people/ km2. But the population stripped the forests bare and killed the native animals. By 1500, all that was left was grassland. "People turned to the largest protein source around--cannibalism. Easter Island society collapsed in an epidemic of warfare. When the first Europeans reached the island in 1722, two-thirds of its population had died...

    Phoenicians (Lebanon) lasted as a progressive civilization from around 2000 BC until 480 BC (61 generations) (74C1, p.74). Deforestation and scavenger goats (over-grazing) bought on most of the erosion that turned Phoenicia (Lebanon) into a well-rained-upon desert (74C1, p.72)...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Then there's slash and burn agriculture.

    The Romans were the first to document the practice of crop rotation, but of course the Romans were an imperial power that drained swamps, mined for ore, quarried mountains, wiped out the tree-loving celts and generally did not behave in a Rousseauean manner.

    Here's a web site that documents all sorts of such things:

    http://home.alltel.net/bsundquist1/se3f.html:

    Deforestation and over-grazing in the Armenian highlands (eastern Turkey) is believed to be the source of the silt load that is believed to be the root cause of the decline of the Mesopotamian civilization and the irrigation system on which it depended...

    China's Great Wall (2500 miles long, built to keep out marauding hoards from the north where agriculture had collapsed) (74H1) was built in 221-206 BC (Ch'in Dynasty)...

    Easter Island sustained a population of 58 people/ km2. But the population stripped the forests bare and killed the native animals. By 1500, all that was left was grassland. "People turned to the largest protein source around--cannibalism. Easter Island society collapsed in an epidemic of warfare. When the first Europeans reached the island in 1722, two-thirds of its population had died...

    Phoenicians (Lebanon) lasted as a progressive civilization from around 2000 BC until 480 BC (61 generations) (74C1, p.74). Deforestation and scavenger goats (over-grazing) bought on most of the erosion that turned Phoenicia (Lebanon) into a well-rained-upon desert (74C1, p.72)...

    ReplyDelete