One of the theories that cropped up in my grad school classes is 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 I have decided to address it 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 in Rousseau's time 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 "before the mists of time" 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.
- The salting of Carthage
- The pyramids (see Stonehenge)
- The lighthouse at Pharos (which would have burnt a tremendous amount of wood or oil on a daily basis--think smoky, smelly air pollution)
- The mummifying of kittens for sale (commodification!)
- Jericho: the oldest city possibly in the world was a fortress! (Tells you something about human nature)
- Ziggaruts (see Stonehenge)
- The Tale of Gilgamesh which, taken together with the story of Noah, is about how much is stinks to be flooded
- The Hanging Gardens of Babylon: the ultimate cultivation of nature
- The Greek concept of civilization (basically: cities)
- The Roman concept of civilization (basically: really big cities)
- The Roman Games which killed thousands and thousands of animals from Europe
- The Celts: agriculturists, traders and miners
- Moving furthur north: Stonehenge. Stonehenge, along with the pyramids and ziggaruts, is a great 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. (Ziggaruts are a little more blendable.)
- Beowulf: an ancient tale that was brought into Britain by pagan 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, good trade, and strong defenses.
- And then there's the Vikings . . .
CURRENT NOTE: In one of my classes, a student tried to tell me that pagan Europeans would have gotten a long with Native Americans better than Christian Europeans. I didn't laugh in her face because that would have been rude, but I remember thinking, "Yeah, right after they slaughtered them and burnt their villages" (see Vikings above). I can't speak to the beliefs of Native Americans, and I'm not going to try, but I do know from my own studies that European and Classical pagans were some of the least friendly people ever. And they were not big fans of nature. As far as I can tell, the only reason they didn't burn, ravage, destroy, mutilate, pollute, and decimate more of Europe and the ancient Classical world was lack of equipment.
In any case, when you consider that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (79 C.E.) was more powerful than an atom bomb (40 atom bombs according to this website), you realize the ancients were completely and totally and monumentally right to fear nature.