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Agriculture Was Approached With Religious Awe

About ten thousand years ago, human beings invented agriculture. Hunting was no longer their chief source of food, because they discovered that the earth was an apparently inexhaustible source of nourishment. There have been few developments that have been more important for the human race than the agrarian Neolithic revolution. We can sense the awe, delight and terror of these pioneering farmers in the mythology they developed as they adapted to their new circumstances, fragments of which were preserved in the mythical narratives of later cultures. Agriculture was the product of logos but, unlike the technological revolutions of our own day, it was not regarded as a purely secular enterprise. It led to a great spiritual awakening that gave people an entirely new understanding of themselves and their world.

The new science of agriculture was approached with religious awe. The people of the Palaeolithic period had regarded hunting as a sacred act and now farming also became sacramental. When they tilled the fields or gathered the harvest, the farmers had to be in a state of ritual purity. As they watched the seeds descending into the depths of the earth, and realised that they broke open in the darkness to bring forth a marvellously different form of life, planters recognised a hidden force at work. The crop was an epiphany, a revelation of divine energy, and when farmers cultivated the land and brought forth food for their community, they felt that they had entered a sacred realm and participated in this miraculous abundance. The earth seemed to sustain all creatures - plants, animals and humans - as in a living womb.

Rituals were designed to replenish this power lest it exhaust itself. So the first seeds were `thrown away' as offerings, and the first fruits of the harvest were left unpicked, as a way of recycling these sacred energies. There is even evidence that in Central America, parts of Africa, the Pacific Islands and Dravidian India, human beings were offered in sacrifice. Two principles lay at the heart of these rites. First, you could not expect to get something for nothing; in order to receive, you had to give something back. Second was a holistic vision of reality. The sacred was not felt to be a metaphysical reality, beyond the natural world. It could only be encountered in the earth and its products, which were themselves sacred. Gods, human beings, animals and plants all shared the same nature, and could, therefore, invigorate and replenish one another.

Human sexuality, for example, was regarded as essentially the same as the divine force that fructified the earth. In early Neolithic mythology, the harvest was seen as the fruit of a hierogamy, a sacred marriage: the soil was female; the seeds divine semen; and rain the sexual congress of heaven and earth. It was common for men and women to engage in ritual sex when they planted their crops. Their own intercourse, itself a sacred act, would activate the creative energies of the soil, just as the farmer's spade or plough was a sacred phallus that opened the womb of the earth and made it big with seed. The Bible shows that these ritualised orgies were practised in ancient Israel well into the sixth century BCE, to the fury of such prophets as Hosea and Ezekiel. Even in the Jerusalem temple there were ceremonies in honour of Asherah, the fertility goddess of Canaan, and a house of sacred prostitutes.

In the early stages of the Neolithic revolution, however, the earth was not always regarded as female. In China and Japan the ground of being was neuter and only later, probably as a result of the maternal role of women in family life, did the earth take on a female, nurturing character. In other parts of the world the earth was not personified, but was venerated as sacred in herself. She produced all things from her womb in the same way as a woman gave birth to a child. Some of the earliest creation myths in Europe and North America imagined the first humans emerging from the earth like plants: like seeds, their lives began in the underworld until the new people climbed to the surface, or sprouted like flowers and were collected by their human mothers. Where once people had imagined themselves ascending to the heights in order to encounter the divine, they now made ritual contact with the sacred in the earth. Neolithic labyrinths have been discovered that are similar to the Palaeolithic tunnels at Lascaux but, instead of going to meet the sacred animals in the underground caverns, these worshippers felt that they were entering the womb of Mother Earth, and making a mystical return to the source of all being.

These creation myths taught people that they belong to the earth in the same way as the rocks, rivers and trees do. They must, therefore, respect her natural rhythms. Others expressed a profound identification with a place, a bond that was deeper than that of family or paternity. This kind of myth was especially popular in ancient Greece. Erechthonius, the fifth mythical king of Athens, was born from the sacred soil of the Acropolis, a sacred event commemorated from a very early date in a special shrine.

The Neolithic revolution had made people aware of a creative energy that pervaded the entire cosmos. It was at first an undifferentiated sacred force, which made the earth herself a manifestation of the divine. But the mythical imagination always becomes more concrete and circumstantial; what was originally amorphous gains definition and becomes particular. Just as the veneration of the sky had led to the personification of the Sky God, the maternal, nurturing earth became the Mother Goddess. In Syria, she was identified as Asherah, consort of El, the High God, or as Anat, El's daughter; in Sumer in Mesopotamia, she was called Inanna; in Egypt, Isis; and in Greece she became Hera, Demeter and Aphrodite. The Mother Goddess fused with the Great Mother of the hunting societies, retaining many of her frightening characteristics. Anat, for example, is a ruthless warrior, and often depicted wading through an ocean of blood; Demeter is described as furious and vengeful, and even Aphrodite, goddess of love, exacts fearful revenge.

Again, mythology is not escapist. The new Neolithic myths continued to force people to face up to the reality of death. They were not pastoral idylls, and the Mother Goddess was not a gentle, consoling deity, because agriculture was not experienced as a peaceful, contemplative occupation. It was a constant battle, a desperate struggle, against sterility, drought, famine and the violent forces of nature, which were also manifestations of sacred power. The sexual imagery of planting did not mean that people experienced agriculture as a romantic love affair with nature. Human reproduction was itself highly dangerous for mother and child. In the same way, tilling the fields was accomplished only after hard, backbreaking labour. In the book of Genesis, the loss of the primordial paradisal state is experienced as a falling into agriculture. In Eden, the first human beings had tended God's garden effortlessly. After the Fall, the woman brings forth her children in sorrow, and the man has to wrest a living from the soil by the sweat of his brow.

In the early mythology, farming is pervaded by violence, and food is produced only by a constant warfare against the sacred forces of death and destruction. The seed has to go down into the earth and die in order to bring forth its fruit, and its death is painful and traumatic. Farming implements look like weapons, corn must be ground to powder, and grapes trampled to unrecognisable pulp before they can become wine. We see all this in the myths about the Mother Goddess, whose consorts are nearly all torn apart, dismembered, brutally mutilated, and killed before they can rise again, with the crops, to new life. All these myths speak of a struggle to the death. In the old heroic myths dating from the Palaeolithic age, it was usually a male hero who set forth on a dangerous journey to bring help to his people. After the Neolithic revolution, the males are often helpless and passive. It is the female goddess who wanders through the world on a quest, who struggles with death, and brings nourishment to the human race. The Earth Mother becomes a symbol of female heroism, in myths that speak ultimately of balance and restored harmony.

This is clear in the myth of Anat, the sister and spouse of Baal, the storm god, which symbolises not only the struggle of farming but also the difficulty of attaining wholeness and harmony. Baal, who brings rain to the parched earth, is himself engaged in a constant creative battle with monsters, the forces of chaos and disintegration. One day, however, he is attacked by Mot, the god of death, sterility and drought, who constantly threatens to turn the earth into a desolate wilderness. At Mot's approach, Baal for once is overcome with fear, and surrenders without resistance. Mot chews him up, like a tasty morsel of lamb, and forces him down into the underworld, the land of the dead. Because Baal can no longer bring rain to the earth, vegetation withers and dies, amidst general lamentation. El, Baal's father - a typical High God - is helpless. When he hears of Baal's death, he comes down from his high throne, puts on sackcloth, and gashes his cheeks in the traditional rites of mourning, but cannot save his son. The only effective deity is Anat. Filled with grief and rage, she wanders through the earth, distraught, searching for her alter ego, her other half. The Syrian text which has preserved this myth tells us that she yearns for Baal `as a cow her calf or a ewe her lamb'. The Mother Goddess is as fierce and beyond control as an animal when its young is in danger. When Anat finds Baal's remains, she makes a great funeral banquet in his honour, and, uttering a passionate complaint to El, she continues her search for Mot. When she finds him, she cleaves Mot in two with a ritual sickle, winnows him in a sieve, scorches him, grinds him in a mill, and scatters his flesh over the fields, treating him in exactly the same way as a farmer treats his grain.

Our sources are incomplete, so we do not know how Anat managed to bring Baal back to life. But both Baal and Mot are divine, so neither can be wholly extinguished. The battle between the two will continue, and the harvest will only be produced each year in the teeth of death. In one version of the myth, Anat restores Baal so completely that the next time Mot attacks him, he responds much more vigorously. Rain returns to the earth, the valleys run with honey, and the heavens rain down precious oil. The story ends with the sexual reunion of Baal and Anat, an image of wholeness and completion, cultically reenacted during the New Year's festival.

We find much the same pattern in Egypt, though Isis is less powerful than Anat. Osiris, the first king of Egypt, teaches his people the science of agriculture. His brother Seth, who aspires to the throne, assassinates him, and Isis, his sister and spouse, roams the world, searching for his body. When she finds the corpse, she can only revive him long enough to enable him to conceive Horns, a son to continue his line, before he expires again. Then Osiris's body is cut into pieces, and each fragment is buried, like seed, in a different place throughout Egypt. He becomes the ruler of Duat, the world of the dead, and is also responsible each year for the annual harvest, his death and dismemberment ritually enacted alongside the cutting and threshing of the crops. The god of the dead is often also the god of the harvest, showing that life and death are inextricably entwined. You cannot have one without the other. The god who dies and comes to life again epitomises a universal process, like the waxing and waning of the seasons. There may be new life, but the central feature of the myth and the cult of these dying vegetation gods is always the catastrophe and bloodshed, and the victory of the forces of life is never complete.

This becomes especially clear in the myth that recounts the descent of the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna into the underworld. It can be read as another initiation ceremony in the nether regions, an experience of death that leads to new life. Inanna has no benevolent motive for her dangerous journey into the depths of the earth. As far as we can tell from our sources, which are incomplete, her purpose is to usurp her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of Hell, who is also Mistress of Life. Before she can enter Ereshkigal's lapis lazuli palace, Inanna has to pass through the seven gates of her sister's city's seven walls. Each time, the gatekeeper challenges Inanna, and forces her to shed an item of clothing, so that when she finally enters her sister's presence, Inanna is stripped of all her defences. Her attempted coup fails, the Seven judges of the underworld sentence Inanna to death, and her corpse is displayed on a spike.

Inanna is, however, rescued by the other gods, and her return to earth, accompanied by a horde of devils, is triumphant and terrible. When she arrives home, she finds that her husband, the handsome young shepherd Dumuzi, has dared to sit upon her throne. Enraged, Inanna passes the sentence of death upon him, Dumuzi flees, pursued by devils who force him down into the underworld to take Inanna's place, but a deal is made, whereby the year is divided between Dumuzi and his sister Geshtinanna, each passing six months with Ereshkigal in the underworld. But the world is changed forever by Inanna's adventure, since the absence of Dumuzi, now god of vegetation, causes seasonal change. When he returns to Inanna, the earth comes to life with the birth of lambs, and the shooting of the grain, quickly followed by the harvest. When he goes down into the underworld, the earth suffers the long drought of summer. There is no final victory over death. The Sumerian poem that recounts the myth ends with the cry: `O Ereshkigal! Great is your praise!' What remains most poignantly in the mind is the lament of the women, especially of Dumuzi's mother, when she mourns the loss of her son, `desolate in a desolate place; where once he was alive, now he lies like a young bull felled to the ground'.

This Mother Goddess is not a redeemer, but the cause of death and sorrow. Her journey is an initiation, a rite of transformation that is required of us all. Inanna goes down into the world of death, to meet her sister, a buried and unsuspected aspect of her own being. Ereshkigal represents the ultimate reality. In many myths, dating originally from this period, a meeting with the Mother Goddess represents the ultimate adventure of the hero, the supreme illumination. Mistress of life and death, Ereshkigal too is a Mother Goddess, depicted as constantly giving birth. In order to approach her, and gain true insight, Inanna has to lay aside the clothes that protect her vulnerability, dismantle her egotism, die to her old self, assimilate what seems opposed and inimical to her, and accept the intolerable: namely, that there can be no life without death, darkness and deprivation.

The rituals associated with Inanna concentrated on the tragedy of her story and never celebrated her reunion with Dumuzi in the springtime. Because it so powerfully represented what was experienced as a fundamental law of existence, the cult was widespread. Inanna was called Ishtar by the Babylonians, and Astarte (or Asherah) in Syria; in the Near East, Dumuzi was known as Tammuz, and his death was lamented by the women of the region. In Greece, he was called Adonis, because the women in the Semitic world mourned the loss of their `lord' (adon). The story of Adonis changed over the years, but in its original form, it conformed to the basic structure of the Sumerian myth, for it shows the goddess handing her young consort over to death.4i Like the Great Goddess of the hunters, the Neolithic Mother Goddess shows that, though men may seem to be more powerful, it is really the female which is the stronger and in control.

This is also apparent in the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, which almost certainly dates back to the Neolithic period. Demeter is the Grain Mother who protects the crops and the fruitfulness of the earth. When Hades, ruler of the underworld, abducts Persephone, Demeter leaves Mount Olympus and wanders grief-stricken through the world. In her rage, she withholds the harvest, threatening to starve human beings, unless her daughter Kore (`the girl') is returned. In alarm, Zeus sends Hermes, the divine messenger, to rescue Kore, but unfortunately she has eaten some pomegranate seeds during her time in the Nether World, and is therefore obliged to spend four months of the year with Hades, now her husband. When she is reunited with her mother, Demeter lifts the ban, and the earth becomes fruitful once again.

This is not a simple nature allegory. The rites of Demeter did not coincide with either the sowing or the harvest. Persephone may descend into the earth, like a seed, but in the Mediterranean a seed takes only a few weeks to germinate, not four months. Like the myth of Inanna, this is another story of a goddess who disappears and returns. It is a myth about death. In ancient Greece, Demeter, the grain goddess, is also Mistress of the Dead, and presides over the mystery cult at Eleusis, near Athens. These were secret rites, but it seems that they compelled the myrtai (`initiates') to accept the inevitability of death as an essential part of life, and find that it had thereby lost its terror. The powerful rites impressed the meaning of the myth indelibly on the minds and hearts of those who went through this lengthy initiation. There is no possibility of a final victory over death. Kore has to alternate perpetually between the upper and lower worlds. There can be no grain, no food and no life, without the symbolic death of the maiden.

We know very little about the Eleusinian mysteries, but those who took part in these rites would have been puzzled if they had been asked whether they believed that Persephone really had descended into the earth, in the way that the myth described. The myth was true, because wherever you looked you saw that life and death were inseparable, and that the earth died and came to life again. Death was fearful, frightening and inevitable, but it was not the end. If you cut a plant, and threw away the dead branch, it gained a new sprout. Agriculture led to a new, if qualified, optimism. The seed had to die, in order to produce grain; pruning was actually helpful to plants, and encouraged new growth. The initiation at Eleusis showed that the confrontation with death led to spiritual regeneration, and was a form of human pruning. It could not bring immortality - only the gods lived forever - but it could enable you to live more fearlessly and therefore more fully here on earth, looking death calmly in the face. Indeed, every day we are forced to die to the self we have already achieved. In the Neolithic period too, the myths and rituals of passage helped people to accept their mortality, to pass on to the next stage, and to have the courage to change and grow.

Karen Armstrong. A Short History of Myth . Canongate. 2005.


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