So I’ve also been thinking a lot about civilizations. The idea is that we form a society in order to protect ourselves – from enemies and barbarians without, from famine, from disorder and violence as realized in nature. City States, the advent of Western civilization as first realized in Assyria and across the Fertile Crescent, all had one common feature: walls. And let’s face it: Nature, as well as its products, is violent – dog eat dog, as it were (or lion eat zebra, or bee rape flower, if you like). Nature cares not for the individual, only the continuance of life. In our societies, it was not so long ago that parents could expect half or more of their children to die, either immediately or by age five, from the various deadly agents that infect our bodies. (They too want to live and reproduce.) Women giving birth died too, in great numbers. Go back farther, and whole populations would regularly die from starvation during times of famine. Whole populations would be wiped out by diseases borne by unseen critters we knew nothing about. There is evidence that the great plague of Europe in the 14th Century arrived after wiping out practically the entire population of China. This is still conjecture, but it makes sense. Nearly half of Europe was wiped out, after all. In total, perhaps 100 million people were killed. By bugs.
Most of these bugs are still around, thankfully reaping souls on a smaller scale. Back then, we chalked it up to Provenance. God’s will. Today, we know it’s simply the uncanny ability of the world’s smallest creatures to continuously mutate into newer, more slippery forms – at a rate much faster than we can evolve our science to nab them.
Now, we have conquered so many of these nemeses – hunger is rampant, but starvation (in America at least) is pretty much unheard of. America can grow enough to feed the world, and we do when we can (logistics remain a challenge). Science has made great strides in conquering our most pestilent friends, who in past times would visit us with grim regularity, decimating unwitting populations in a repeating pattern defined by opportunity (mainly folks huddled together for warmth in the colder months).
One conspicuous outlier is war, the penchant for men to kill one another over their squabbles for power and territory. A sort of smallish “club” of willing warriors – fighting for honor, man to man – in the past, modern war claims many, many more civilian lives than military ones. World War 1? World War 2? They were not “wars” – they were massacres, killing millions with violence and even more (in the case of WW1) with disease. They are the shame of the 20th century and the shame of modern “civilization.”
Amid all of this “progress,” though, Western society has maintained a curious fascination with the concept of its own fragility and impermanence. Our myths and legends – the most enduring ones – can be collectively characterized as “destructive/regenerative.” As the pioneering social anthropologist Sir James Frazer demonstrated in his landmark work, “The Golden Bough”, we have been fascinated with the connection between the fitness of our leaders and the health of our societies since we began forming societies.
One of the earliest and most widespread of such legends that Frazer discovered involves the Vegetable King. Early societies were, of course, agrarian. They depended on regular rains – but not too much – to drench their fields. They required predictable seasons, temperatures, winds, etc. And for the most part these elements could be counted on to be friendly. But when they weren’t? When the massive floods or the arid drought years came? Whole cities could perish from starvation within weeks. The idea evolved that when such calamities happened, it was because the gods of the earth responsible for bringing regular rains, moderate temperatures, etc., were not pleased. Not at all. (If you are thinking of Noah and his ark right now, you follow me.) And since tribal leaders of these times (and some in modern times) are thought to be a direct link to the deities, it followed that it was some deficiency in the leader – some weakness, or often simply the infirmities and weakness of age – that displeased them. From a more mystical point of view, villagers could see the weakening of the leader as a direct corollary – a cause/effect result – corresponding to the weakening and death of their crops. The deific king and his realm were entwined in a mystical, symbiotic relationship of mutual good health – or mutual death.
What to do? An infirm king might hang on for months, years. But the land needs healing NOW.
The solution would seem pretty straightforward to one who is steeped in this agrarian/deific tradition of the king as intrinsically linked to the fate of the land he rules, and vice versa. We must have a new king, one strong and vital enough to renew the land through his symbiosis with the environment-controlling deities and therefore the environment – the world – itself. But new king can’t just walk up and take the job, of course. Kings like being king. And there can’t be two kings. Thus the tradition became one of renewal through the death – and rebirth – of the king and, gods willing, the land.
It wasn’t necessary to the theology that the king be “murdered” by his successor. It was simply necessary for him to either heal or die so that renewal of the land might accompany renewal of the king. But events – especially catastrophic ones – can move quickly, so it’s not hard to see why the ambitious successor might be encouraged by the populace to “hurry things along.”
The story might sound familiar if you’re a scholar of the Arthurian legends. Among the connected quests of Chretian de Troyes’ “Morte d’Arthur” (as also told by Malory) is the quest of Percival (aka Parsifal for you Wagner fans). In some versions Percival travels to the “waste land”, where the infirm Fisher King – keeper of the Holy Grail – lay incapable of movement in his castle as his realm steadily declines into an infertile waste. He can do nothing but “fish” from his castle walls, waiting for someone to come and heal him – and his land. There are many tellings of the tale, but in the earliest Percival “heals” the king of a wound in his “thigh” or “groin” – probably euphemistic for his genitals, symbolizing fertility. The waste land is renewed by Percival’s gesture.
The most famous manifestation of the legend of the Fisher King is, of course, the story of Jesus Christ. The barbarism and inhumanity of the Roman world, so painfully felt among the occupied populations of Palestine/Israel, was due to a rejection of the God of the Talmud. To these conquered Jews, the world itself was a dying place, a barren “wasteland” in terms of obeisance to God’s will, a world run by pagans. These conditions, as the recently discovered scriptures contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us, gave rise to a plethora of “messiahs”, or messengers bringing word of God’s displeasure with this world along with a message of guidance to the next – guidance that must be heeded lest one perish and spend eternity in “hell” – which was then often understood to be to dwell forever in “the absence of God’s presence”.
As an aside, the Christian use of the “fish” symbol can be traced back to centuries before Christ, and could very likely have its origins in these early theologies of fertility. (A fish symbol, or Ichthys, also symbolizes fecundity or plenty. In pagan beliefs, Ichthys was the offspring of the ancient sea goddess Atargatis). Among early, non-dogmatic Christians, the Ichthys could have served as a powerful hearkening to their earlier theologies (much in the way that Easter was originally a pagan goddess of fertility, hence the occasion of Easter in the springtime). Practicing Christians will recall a host of fish symbolism throughout the New Testament.
But of course among all those messiahs, Jesus is the messiah we remember, for reasons I won’t try to divine here. Yet the one aspect of the New Testament Jesus that separates him from the messianic crowd, that hits the legendary Vegetable King nail right on the head (as it were), is his bloody crucifixion and death. His death was “necessary” for the redemption of Man. For the rebirth of grace. For the restoration of men’s souls. His “restoration” – which created a schism in the early church among those who would deify Jesus and those who refused to “require” his resurrection and deification in order to follow his teachings (the latter group lost) – symbolizes the restoration of man through Jesus’ suffering and death.
So what am I getting at?
Full circle, I am getting at the idea – as old as humanity – that when we feel our society, our world, has been corrupted and becomes a land of “waste” – our society offensive in its detachment from the land or the spirit of the land or the ‘original purpose’ of society – we seem to get the idea that we need to destroy it in order to “renew” it. Lately, we see so much apocalyptic cultural touchstones – the zombie craze, the “end of times” Christian books, the Bush “holy wars”, endless movies about the destruction of the earth from space objects or space aliens, etc. – but it’s not new. It happens at regular intervals, and always has. Just as in the year 2000, the year 1000 (such a tidy number) saw hordes of people putting bags over their heads to await the apocalypse. The very idea of the apocalypse was invented well after the death of Jesus, by an obscure cloistered Greek monk who had a “vision” of the Second Coming and wrote the story of “Revelations” (by far the most popular of the Bible’s New Testament stories, or perhaps second after Christmas). Why is Revelations in the New Testament at all? It has nothing to do with Jesus’ life. (It does provide a tidy ending to the whole thing.) Other sects “decide” arbitrarily that the world is “ending” from time to time – such as when a large comet arrives or the planets align a particular way. On a more concrete level, many during World War 2 thought the overwhelming amount of death and destruction happening around them must surely harken the end of everything – especially the Jews in Europe, who were in fact on a path to eradication.
So I guess that’s why all this has come to mind. Journalists, pundits, pollsters – none of them foresaw our Nov. 9 disaster – our American political “Ground Zero,” our unprecedented act of self-destruction via the voting booth. We put the nuclear codes in the hands of a reactionary, thin-skinned narcissist when we could have chosen “business as usual”. Why? The press says now (should we believe them?) that they “missed it”, and that “it” was a subterranean desire for “change” at any cost. Because society is “ruined” by the current regime’s “corruption” and faithlessness.
Change they did want – and possibly, also renewal.