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Based on reasonable extrapolations from both the historical evidence and surviving hunting and gathering societies, our earliest forbearers generally lived in relatively small usually mobile groups. This mobility was not universal.  Permanent communities could exist where fish, game, and edible plants were particularly abundant, as they did among Northwestern Indians in historical times.  For example, 11,000 year old Neolithic ruins at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey indicates large populations lived there before or just at the rise of agriculture.  The region was apparently rich in wildlife. But in general, the need to move seasonally, or to find animals which themselves migrated, made for mobility and small size.

In general, acquiring many material possessions was impractical because people had to take their possessions with them.  Even in communities made larger and more permanent by abundant local resources, significant limits on material accumulation remained because of difficulties in storing perishable food.  Based on interpretations of burial customs and existing hunting and gathering peoples, these societies tended to be egalitarian.

Status in hunting and gathering societies was apparently usually acquired through gift giving and other forms of public generosity rather than from owning sufficient wealth to create dependency in others. Such at least is the historical and anthropological evidence.  Originating in mobile hunting and gathering cultures, the “gift economy” persisted even into settled ones, where it still flourished when Europeans encountered the Indians of the Pacific Northwest.

Apparently there was also a relative equality in status between men and women who were responsible for different dimensions of a tribe’s life, but with both genders respected.[1]  Think back to my account of the Navajo mythic conversation between Sun and Changing Woman.  Compared to later times sex roles were open, with men and women often able to take on one another’s way of life.  Certainly that was how it is with many historical Native American hunting and gathering societies, and it remains so in many today.[2]

Hierarchy was also absent or not much elaborated within the spiritual world. Traditional spiritual beliefs in modern and historical hunting and gathering societies tend to be free from dominating deities.[3]  Some spirits were more important than others, but not in a political or domineering sense.  This was probably the same in earlier cultures.  In the absence of kings, a kingly metaphor for a deity makes little sense.

Hierarchy requires perceiving differences that matter.  When societies are technologically simple few differences matter deeply, and those that do are usually personal qualities.  There was no place for aristocracies in a traditional hunting and gathering society although rules of clan relations, marriage and the like could be extraordinarily complex. Shamans were probably the first specialists, and in historical cases among hunter gatherers many shamans became so against their will.[4]  There is little reason to think it was much different then.

 

Agriculture’s Two-Sided Nature

Scholars long considered the rise of agriculture an unambiguous step forward for humanity.  Today they know the truth is more complex. Agriculture’s advent ended what in many ways was an attractive way of life, a way of life that characterized 99% of human history, and that had shaped our evolution. With the advent of agriculture, as a species we entered on to a new path, a path which changed us and our world in ways not always welcome.

Skeletal evidence from prehistoric hunting and gathering peoples indicates they were usually physically larger and better nourished than were the agricultural peoples that followed.  Once the perils of childhood had been over come, the average hunter-gatherer could expect to live a longer and healthier life than would a typical representative of the farming peoples who followed.  Nor was the daily grind apparently that much of a grind.  Even in the relatively challenging environments left to modern hunter gatherers after agriculturalists pushed them from more productive lands, they enjoyed so much leisure that anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called them the “original affluent society.”[5]

When the horse reappeared in North America’s Great Plains after the coming of the Spaniards, and the agricultural peoples inhabiting river bottoms learned to ride, many gave up tilling the field for the freedom and excitement of the hunt. Given a choice, these people preferred the horse to the field.[6]  They were probably unique only in having had a choice.

Why then did people make the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture?  Most likely from necessity.  Growing populations may have stressed the environment’s ability to provide food, so that agriculture became important, initially as a horticultural supplement and increasingly as a necessity.  Desertification and rising sea levels could change the natural productivity of the land no matter how light the human impact.  In Africa a region of the Sahara once filled with lakes and rivers dried up, pushing its people towards increasingly dense populations in the Nile Valley.   In Europe rising seas from melting glaciers drowned the country between Britain and the mainland.  Those lands had been inhabited.  People had to move into already inhabited areas leading to wars of extermination or to larger pressures on the environment, or both.

Agriculture requires permanent settlements to protect the fields while the increased productivity of the fields in turn makes those denser settlements possible. Because it stores easily the domestication of grain enabled people to accumulate large surpluses. In good years, and often in normal ones, people could produce more than they consumed, making the rise of cities possible, and with them the specialization in work that made civilization possible. However this newer way of life came with additional costs beyond hard work and a poorer diet, costs by no means visible when that path was entered upon.

Large stable settlements made societies more vulnerable to natural weather cycles. When a drought hits or floods pour through, hunters can pack and leave. A failed harvest could not be countered by moving to better hunting grounds elsewhere in the tribe’s territory, and starvation threatened.  In normal years agriculture provided more if not better food, enabling the population to increase in density, but this growth made it impossible to return to hunting and gathering when times got tough.  A fateful logic began to unfold.  The ability to adapt or work with nature was increasingly replaced by the necessity of controlling it.

When a group’s own food supplies fell short the skills once involved in hunting adapted easily to warfare, while other peoples’ food stores made raiding them a tempting possibility.  With animal domestication pastoral societies developed around the same time as did agricultural ones. Pastoralists’ ability to move quickly with their herds compared to more sedentary farming communities would have given them an initial military advantage in raiding their farming neighbors.  They apparently acted accordingly, at least some of the time. Agriculture and pastoralism brought us vastly increased war.[7]

We know that organized war was virtually unknown in many hunting and gathering societies whereas societies engaging in agriculture and pastoralism had the highest incidents of war. The raiding that appeared with the horse in North America was made possible by the technological superiority of mounted warriors.[8]  On the rare occasions when agricultural societies returned to hunting and gathering, and did not have the horse, their belligerence declined.[9]

However, evidence of increasing violence and breakdown in pueblo societies in the American Southwest long before the arrival of horses suggests neither horses nor pastoralism were needed for violent conflicts to grow, once agriculture and settled communities took firm hold in a region and the climate deteriorated.  Tribalism’s collective egoism doubtless made rationalizing preying on other people easy, a grim harbinger of future conflicts.

In response to raids, groups possessing agricultural surpluses were forced to invest more resources in supporting warriors, expanding the potential scope and scale of war.  A fateful feedback ensued as the rise of organized militaries strengthened existing tendencies towards stronger hierarchies, which in turn further strengthened the status of the military.[10]  President Eisenhower’s warning about the dangers of a military-industrial complex is explicit recognition, confirmed by more recent events, that this ancient feedback loop is still with us.

With war came captives, and with captives came slavery. As a result, slaves became increasingly important economic resources for victorious societies.  In time acquiring slaves became reason enough for war.  We know this was the case with the Roman Republic, and the Empire that followed.  Domination and mastery became deeply entrenched in the core of social life.  There were many local variations, but I think this pattern holds broadly for all agricultural societies able to accumulate significant surpluses.

The natural and social miseries of agricultural societies were substantial. While cities were often places of last resort from an over-crowded country side, and havens of escape from the worst abuses of feudalism and rural exploitation, they extracted a substantial penalty in health and longevity.  In ancient cities the death rate apparently exceeded the birth rate, a statistic that continued to hold true as late as the Nineteenth Century even in Europe. Centers of opportunity for the well connected, the small middle class, and lucky, they were centers of death for those who were none of the above.[11]

Agriculture was not the villain, although it increased the possibilities for villainy.  Sometimes settled societies that were not agricultural also followed this path towards domination and militarization. For many coastal tribes of the American North Pacific the natural abundance of salmon, and ability to smoke it into a relatively durable good permitted kinds of development agriculture made possible elsewhere.  Their people lived in permanent towns, were warlike, possessed many slaves, and acquiring status was a central preoccupation among their “big men.”[12]

The real culprit appears to have been the substantial inequality of resources settled life and durable storage made possible.  In the absence of easily stored grains, agriculture itself did not seem to generate such complex societies.[13]  If the Hopi and later the Hutterites are an example, given enough isolation this fateful complex does not seem inevitable.  But agriculture had other unpleasant impacts where responsibility cannot so easily be shifted.

 

Agriculture and Women

Initially, neither women nor feminine values appear to have been downgraded by agriculture.  The first plant domestication appears to have been horticultural.  Seeds were sown, maybe with minimal cultivation, and later the people would return to harvest what had grown and survived.  Because they were more often the gatherers than the hunters, anthropologists argue these discoveries were probably first made and perfected by women.

If Marija Gimbutas’s speculations are well founded, agriculture’s initial impact might even have worked to women’s advantage, enhancing their status.[14] Peggy Reeves Sanday’s comparative studies of over 150 tribal societies suggests that in societies that developed agriculture on their own, initially at least the dominant mythology emphasized the feminine. [15] However, with the coming of settled agriculture and the wider scale of inter-community conflict it facilitated, a fundamental change in gender relations often developed.

In agricultural societies if a family was to remain prosperous, control of good land was essential. Perpetuating a family’s dominant status required ensuring its landed wealth.   Certainty of descent probably became important so that land to be passed down within that family.  As a result, controlling women’s sexuality became important without necessitating a similar interest in controlling that of men.  I suspect this was when the sexual differentiation common in hunting and gathering societies began to become a double standard rather than simply a recognition of gender differences, as masculine values of control over landed and female boundaries took greater precedence over feminine values.

Both unequal resources and significant gender inequality promoted authoritarian cultures. These agricultural surpluses also empowered whoever controlled them, while the stability of settlement removed the chief practical impediment to acquiring many possessions.  The cumulative impact of greed, unequal power, and bad luck led to slavery, peonage, and serfdom in otherwise very different cultures worldwide.  This rise of ways of life rooted in domination necessarily changed how people perceived authority.

The growing rejection of America’s founding principles I described as occurring  in the antebellum South was a natural response for over-coming our tendencies towards empathy with others, an empathy rooted in modern ways of thinking.  Such empathy would undermine these relations. The South is fascinating as an example of a regressive retreat from modernity as the domination required for its elites to strengthen slavery transformed its culture and religion.

The enormous increase in physical wealth, rise of urban civilization, development of writing, and expanded technology that agriculture made possible is easy to see and admire.  And it is admirable.  What we cannot so easily see are the changes in how the world and everything in it was perceived. As inheritors of thousands of years of agricultural cultural development, it is difficult for us to appreciate how fundamental this transformation was.  We get a hint of the depth of the change when Hugh Brody writes “It is difficult to convey the meanings of the English words vermin, fence, advocacy, hierarchy, or bequeath in Inuktitut or, I gather, in Athabascan, Algonquin, or Sami.”[16] These are languages spoken by contemporary or very recent hunting and gathering peoples.

Very importantly for my argument, interpretations of the Divine world were apparently colored by changes in how people experienced their world.

 

Agriculture and Religion

In contrast to spirituality, which refers to an individual’s relation to more-than-human contexts , religion institutionalizes spiritual experience for a community at a particular place and time.  From then on religion and community reciprocally influence one another.  A religion can be based upon valid spiritual insight and simultaneously be molded and shaped by the society in which it exists, which over time strengthens, weakens, or distorts the original vision.  I have discussed this with regard to the changes in American Baptist Christianity as it was transformed by Southern slave society in one of the appendices.

Within agricultural orders dominated by large socially and politically hierarchical cities religions differ in form and flavor from those characterizing small hunting and gathering societies, even if initially their roots were there. Hunting and gathering societies did not conceive of the sacred as a hierarchy of beings or forces ruled at the top by a kingly deity, for they had no kings.  Urban agricultural societies frequently had divine hierarchies, and as frequently had kings.  Once this metaphor was widely employed earthly kings could use it to increase their power while people’s conception of deity increasingly focused on power as well.[17]  Kings were perceived as powerful, but more rarely as good.  In time this “king” metaphor led many Christians, for example, to focus more on God’s power than on His goodness, as in terms such as “God Almighty,” “Divine Omnipotence,” “King of kings,” “Reigning in Heaven,” and “Supreme Being.”

Studies of even technologically simple agricultural societies showed a marked increase in the role of violence and domination in their religious practices compared to hunting and gathering societies. The growing role of sacrifice is instructive. Hunting and gathering peoples did not much practice animal sacrifice, if they practiced it at all.  Hunting was regarded as an ethically serious endeavor.  The spirit of the prey was often honored, that it might return to give again of itself, as with the first salmon ceremonies among coastal Indians. Ritually sharing food with both the spirit of the animal that had been killed, and with others was widespread.  In the strongest apparent counter-example of which I know, the Ainu bear ‘sacrifice,’ a bear cub was captured, nursed and raised for several years, and when ritually killed, returned to its abode.  The bear was not an offering to the Gods, but understood rather as a God’s offering to the people.[18]

Agriculture apparently brings animal sacrifice, the animal less an honored party than a quid pro quo or entreaty in dealing with the spirit world. With agriculture, a spirit of calculation and manipulation necessarily enters in, a spirit quite different from that in the first salmon ceremonies practiced by Northwest hunting and gathering peoples.  Paul Shephard  writes[19]

The sacrificial approach to religion recognizes food as a medium of exchange: a product of work.  It conceives of the character of the spiritual powers as fundamentally like that of humans in the sense that people are all entrepreneurs in a world of scarcity – where consumption follows exchange.  Even the gods are greedy.  They reign in the spiritual world much as a nobility reigns in a world of taxes and centralized authority.  In this sense the victim of a sacrifice is given as an investment.

 

Elsewhere Shepard points out that just such a transition in religious  meaning was observed when the hunting and gathering !Kung people of Africa were forced to become agriculturalists.[20]

It is also within agricultural civilizations that we find evidence of human sacrifice, occasionally on a large scale.  The shedding of human blood, causing death that life might return, fits the agricultural harvest cycle and its mythos far better than it fit hunting and gathering experience. Such sacrifice might appear a fitting response from the perspective of an enchanted worldview if the fields were declining in fertility or the climate was deteriorating.  The mentality of gift giving changes into the mentality of payment for services rendered or as an entreaty to increasingly arbitrary powers.

The constant presence of earthly death, suffering, and decay contrasted powerfully with the unchanging procession of seemingly eternal stars, which appeared free from corruption and decay.  Perhaps for this reason, apparently initially in Mesopotamia and spreading outwards from there, the widespread belief arose that the heavens were unchanging and perfect compared to the all too mutable and unsatisfactory character of earthly life. Change was evidence of imperfection, and the changeless eternal skies and the certainty existing in mathematics were evidence of a perfection not existing on this earth.  I think this radical separation of the heavens from the earth and mind from matter, contributed to a gradual but profound dissociation of Spirit from the world.[21]  David Abram argues, I think convincingly, that increasing literacy continued this trend of conceiving Spirit as separate and from and transcendental to the world.[22]

Many agricultural civilizations apparently came to the conclusion life was a vale of tears, an exile, a fallen state to be escaped. This is in sharp contrast to how hunting and gathering peoples, see their homes even in very inhospitable regions of the arctic or desert. Hugh Brody observes, “Everything about the hunter-gatherer system is founded on the conviction that home is already Eden, and exile must be avoided.”[23]

 

The Fate of Fate

The changing meaning Europeans found in “Fate” sheds light on this shift in spiritual emphasis from seeking harmony to winning salvation or exiting from the cycle of rebirth.  Fate can refer to a natural order inherent in all things, an order with which it is wise to live in harmony.  There is no gulf between this view of Fate and that of early hunter-gatherers, at least insofar as they resembled the hunting and gathering peoples we know about today.

But Fate can also be considered capricious and disruptive, a force requiring manipulation, propitiation, or protection against.  As this second more negative view of fate gained precedence over the first, the idea of spiritual harmony in the world was replaced by belief in a more fundamental dissociation of humanity from the natural order.  If fate cannot be escaped in this life, then the promise of a better future life or ultimately freeing oneself entirely from life and its travails becomes a much sought for alternative.

Having to grow crops that must be defended from natural processes by human action guarantees conflicts between human beings and the rest of nature.  Farmers want stability and predictability: they value secure boundaries and firm control.  Outside rocks, nature has few if any firm boundaries.  In earlier societies people had learned to live in harmony with natural rhythms and cycles, often moving with the seasons.  Now these same cycles and rhythms became challenges to be overcome.

I discovered this shift in attitude for myself.  For years I grew many vegetables that were better, cheaper, or just more fun to raise than those I could buy from a store.  When my first harvest began I found I did not have quite the same feeling of gratitude towards the earth as I had felt coming across edible plants or mushrooms while hiking.  In the wild these plants and mushrooms appeared as gifts from a bountiful nature.  In my garden I had worked hard so that same nature would not make off with my harvest through a combination of slugs, snails, squash bugs, asparagus beetles, gophers, and other ubiquitous northern California residents. I was still grateful for my harvest, but my gratitude carried a different flavor, coming more easily to an abstract Nature than to the plants and animals that within a hunting and gathering context gave of themselves.

We know that having greater power than others creates feelings of disconnectedness with them.  Studies have shown that on balance the wealthy often demonstrate less empathy than the poor. If this is true between human beings, it would be even more true between ourselves and plants and animals.

Unlike my back yard garden with its handy hose and a grocery store to fall back upon, most farmers are at the mercy of the clouds.  Too much rain or too little or at the wrong time can ruin months of hard work. The plants and animals a hunter or gatherer welcomes as nature’s gifts can be disliked by farmers striving to keep their fields weed and herbivore free.  Purslane is delicious, but I long pulled it from my vegetable garden while it was too small to eat.  (Now I pull and eat it, and leave a few for munching anytime.)  For the hunter, nature’s bounty can appear as a gift, and an act of spiritual cooperation between hunter and hunted.  A farmer toiling long in the fields, battling insects and animals and weather, is less likely to take such a benign stance, even though for many their closeness to the land still breeds a strong sense of connection and belonging.

In late Classical times, and much earlier in Mesopotamia, the land was losing its fertility.  Hundreds of years of abuse from erosion, deforestation, warfare, over-farming and in drier regions the gradual build up of salts in the soil from over-irrigation, often led to declining harvests and increasingly sterile fields.[24]  Nature appeared less friendly, although the causes of her apparent animosity generally lay in human practices that ruined the soil, created pestilential marshes, and crowded people together under conditions of poor hygiene, frequent warfare, and the rapid spread of disease.

As cities became their primary focus, many educated people’s lack of immersion in nature created distance where once there had been familiarity.   The elevation of the heavens over the earth devalued the world of change.  As cities and especially their rulers and other elites focused more on worldly power, the natural world became viewed primarily as a storehouse of resources to be manipulated, conquered, and brought under human control. Pastoral idylls penned by city dwellers indicated a practical disconnect from the land, depicting a securely domesticated nature serving farmers and shepherds living virtuous lives of noble simplicity.  Nature ceased being a sacred more-than-human community of which we were a part.

Of course a manipulative dimension towards our world has never been absent among human beings.  We are creatures with unavoidable needs we must meet if we are to flourish, or even merely survive.  But previously this attitude had been moderated by a sense of membership in a common community.  Increasingly now, manipulation took primacy.[25]

This new orientation expressed itself religiously.  In hunting and gathering societies spiritual endeavors emphasized personal experience and encounter, whereas in agricultural societies they tended to be collectivistic. Spiritual practices increasingly became formalized and institutionalized.[26] The rise of a priestly class with specialized knowledge led to a sharp distinction between average members of society and its spiritual leaders, helping legitimate, and probably enhance, growing social, political, and spiritual inequality.  The existence of inviolable boundaries between classes, races, and castes often received a supposedly divine sanction.

In polytheistic societies while Goddesses continued to be honored, as a rule they gradually declined in status compared to male deities.  For example, the Delphic Oracle had long been presided over by the feminine powers Gaia, Phoebe, and Themis, and protected by a python.  In myth, Apollo killed the python and took over control of the oracle, although the actual prophesizing continued to be done by a priestess. Sometimes in myth it was the Goddess Herself who was killed, as in the Sumerian creation epic where Marduk usurped Tiamat’s position, killed, and then dismembered Her. [27]

This shift to male superiority could lead to strange results when older traditions continued to survive.  In the Greek myth of Persephone and her abduction, Zeus the ‘king’ or most exalted of the Gods, promised His and Demeter’s daughter to Hades without consulting either Persephone or her mother, Demeter, about it.  Hades seized Persephone, taking Her to the underworld.  In grief and anger Demeter caused fertility to fail on earth.  The other Gods tried to persuade Demeter to change Her mind because they wanted the sacrifices that humans made to them, but She would not be swayed.  The other Olympian Gods were powerless against Demeter’s wrath.  Even the ultimate outcome, used to explain the seasons mythically, indicates they could not prevail.  While Persephone was queen of the Underworld, winter rules above.

The evidence suggests Demeter preceded Zeus as a deity for the people of this region, possibly extending back into prehistoric times as a bear goddess, only later becoming associated with agriculture.[28] Zeus apparently arrived with people immigrating from elsewhere. Yet where the earth was concerned, even in myth, He could not prevail against Demeter.

 

Rending The Fabric of Association

Within the early city states and empires of this period the greater scale of human settlement and continued influx of new residents to replace those who died almost certainly weakened the largely informal networks of mores and customs useful for keeping the more ambitious and violent members of society in line. As is the case today, the social environment had improved for charming and manipulative sociopaths able to ‘game the system’ to their advantage.  The resulting exploitive and brutal social orders ripped people from their networks of mutual ties with community and environment.  Hierarchies of political, social and priestly domination arose in their place with even the deities conceived in hierarchical ranks characterized by arbitrary power, mirroring and legitimating political and priestly rule.  We were to dominate nature, as we were in turn dominated by the Gods.  This attitude was vividly expressed quite early in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.

Captivated by the genuine achievements of the great agricultural civilizations in the arts, philosophy, writing, and politics, our gaze is usually deflected from the profound human suffering that accompanied them.  Yet the most discerning members of the privileged classes could hardly be impervious to this widespread suffering.  It was everywhere about them. Even the most fortunate were themselves often victims of plagues and other diseases of urban life, not to mention political violence.  Then as now, caring people were troubled by the suffering around them and how to make sense of it.  The stage was set for religious transformation.

 

The Axial Age, Fate and the Search For Salvation

The first millennium BCE witnessed the beginning of religious transformations that spread across the dominant agricultural civilizations of Eurasia.  In many respects the intellectual and moral foundations of today’s world were laid down during this time.  Philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term “Axial Age,” to describe this extended period of heightened spiritual creativity and insight.[29]

During this “Axial” period, powerful spiritual teachers shifted the primary emphasis of religious practice, offering corrective messages that developed into today’s principle religions, or were their immediate predecessors.  In India Guatama the Buddha and Mahavira, who founded Jainism established their teachings.  The Upanishads were written, laying the foundations for what today is called Hinduism.  In China Confucius and Lao Zi, the founder of Daoism, lived and taught. This period was the time when Israel’s the first major prophets were active.  Zoroastrianism arose in Persia, and while few Zoroastrians practice today, this religion profoundly influenced later Judaism and Christianity. In Greece, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle established the foundations of the Western philosophical tradition with its alternative approach to ethics. These religions, philosophies, and the ways of life they encouraged challenged, transformed, and increasingly supplanted earlier practices with pre-agricultural roots.

I believe this broad era of religious change reflects religions’ adaptation to the radically new way of life brought into being by the agricultural revolution and subsequent break-down of spiritual traditions rooted in pre-agricultural societies.  The earlier nature religions tended to focus on how to gain and maintain harmony in a sacred world wherein the other-than-human world was seen as consisting of mostly provident but powerful forces that needed to be treated with wisdom and respect.  The nonhuman world was experienced as itself numinous and powerful.  Animals and plants were more than resources.[30]  As time passed this broad framework appeared less and less relevant to people’s needs and experiences.  A world of small tribes enjoying substantial equality cannot help but generate different moral and spiritual concerns from one with extremes of hierarchy, slavery, disease, poverty, and the threat of starvation.

The newer religions of the Axial period focused on how to gain and keep salvation or attain some other escape or win recompense from a world far removed from harmony, let alone love, or justice.  All emphasized the central role of personal transformation and usually moral rules as well. All sought to address the despair and lack of meaning so evident in societies that had grown increasingly brutal and exploitive.  We might not be able to do much about the world in which we lived, but we could do something about improving our own character, consciousness, and prospects for the after-life.  Ultimately divine judgment or karma led to suffering for the unjust: an ultimate reckoning for those who so often flourished by injuring others in this life.

Hunting and gathering societies did not need those kinds of strict moral codes within their tribes, although they often had them with respect to the other-than-human-world.  But even in those cases they appeared to focus on maintaining long-term cooperative relationships with powers immanent within their environment.  As Hugh Brody describes it, “the qualities of hunter-gatherers are functional as much as moral: Their ways of living are essential both for the economic success of the system and for harmonious interpersonal life. Egalitarianism, respect for the elderly, loving regard for children, diligent respect for the land, plants, and animals on which people depend” are largely necessitated by this way of life.[31]   But the environmental and social conditions that helped to maintain these values had been undermined by the rise of agriculture and of the societies that grew from it.

The Axial religions that arose in response to the suffering and exploitation characterizing urban agricultural societies carried a new moral focus. These religions emphasized ethics and right moral behavior in both deed and thought.  Making sacrifices, however punctually, wasn’t enough.  The correct inner attitudes had to be developed as well.  Explicit rules become necessary checks to the abuses of power and privilege that arose from the breakdown of the way of life hunting and gathering cultures had so long supported. Other rules appeared simply to promote a sense of identity with the new order and separation from the old. Leviticus’s endless list of behavioral rules certainly did so.

In contrast to what we know of the beliefs of pre and early agricultural societies, Axial religions also laid greater emphasis on the individual confronting the all-encompassing spiritual context within which people lived.  The external world of constant conflict was transmuted into a focus on conflict within oneself.  Mastering others was subordinated to mastering oneself. This “Axial” shift is often described as a step forward in our spiritual development.  Perhaps, but I think it also reflected the need to adapt our spiritual experience and understanding to changed realities.

This new emphasis on the individual differed from the respect for individual spiritual experience that apparently characterized many hunting and gathering peoples, as it continues to do today.  For hunting and gathering societies spiritual experiences were individual but usually interpreted within a tribal context, facilitating substantial innovation while keeping it immersed within a tradition of understanding.[32]  With the Axial transformation religious focus shifted to the individual as separate from the group, but not on honoring his or her personal experiences. Powerful institutions determined how meaning would be defined, and the individual was expected to conform or suffer.  There were no independent sources of spiritual truth.   In this sense I agree with William Irwin Thompson when he wrote “Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the form spirituality takes in a civilization; it is not so much the opiate of the masses as it is an antidote to the poisons of civilization.”[33]

The remainder of this chapter argues we are in the midst of a similar religious transformation from those of agricultural civilizations to those in harmony with the spiritual needs and realities of modern men and women.



[1] Jordan Paper, Through the Earth Darkly: Female Spirituality in Comparative Perspective, (NY: Continuum, 1999).

[2] Sabine Long, Lesbians, Men-Women, and Two Spirits: Homosexuality and Gender in Native American Cultures,  Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa, Female Desires: Transgender Practices Across Cultures, (NY: Columbia University Press, 1999). 91-118.

[3] Much of my discussion of hunting and gathering societies is indebted to Hugh Brody’s The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World, (NY: Northpoint Books, 2000).  I cannot praise this book enthusiastically enough.  It is a gem.

[4] Robert M. Torrance, The Spiritual Quest: Transcendence in Myth, Religion and Science. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 156.

[5] Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, (Aldine, 1972).

[6] Elliott West, Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998) 17-32.

[7] Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival, (NY: Random House, 2010). 189-196.

[8] Elliott West, Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers and the Rush to Colorado, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000). 14, n27.

[9] Wells, Pandora’s Seed, op. cit., 194.

[10] Andrew Bard Schmookler, Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).

[11] For example, see Jeffrey G. Williamson, Coping With City Growth During the British Industrial Revolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 11-14, Michael R. Haines, The Urban Mortality Transition in the United States, 1800-1940, http://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberhi/0134.html

[12] Torrance, op. cit., 182.

[13] Diamond.  But even simple agricultural societies could be warlike. Roy Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors,

[14] Marija Gimbutas, The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe, Joan Marler, ed., (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991).

[15] Peggy Reeves Sanday, Female Power and Male Dominance: The Origins of Sexual Inequality, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). 69070.

[16] Brody, op. cit., 190.

[17] I am impressed with how few have noticed that Aristotle’s concept of kingship depended on voluntary recognition by those around him, not on compulsion.  When compulsion mattered, Aristotle termed it “tyranny.”  He plainly writes this and his words are just as plainly misread. See diZerega, Persuasion, Power and Polity: A Theory of Democratic Self-Organization (Hampton Press: Cresskill, NJ, 2000), 22-25.

[18] The Bear Ritual of the Ainu, http://www.bears.org/spirit/ainumyth.html

[19] Paul Shepard,  Encounters With Nature: Essays by Paul Shepard, Florence Shepard, ed. (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999), 94-5.

[20] Paul Shepard, Traces of an Omnivore, (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996). 186.

[21] Suggestive hints this was so can be found in Luther H. Martin, Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) p.158-161.

[22] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, (New York: Pantheon, 1996).

[23] Brody, op. cit., 86.

[24] Donald Hughes, Pan’s Travail: Environmental problems of the ancient Greeks and Romans. ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

[25] Boyd, op. cit., 243-4.

[26] For example, Torrance, op. cit., 204-9.

[27] Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 78-89.  Carol P. Christ, Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality, (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997), 62-7.

[28] Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, (NY: Penguin, 1991), 367-9; Paul Shepard, The Only World We’ve Got, (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1996). 103-4.

[29] See Karen Armstrong’s general discussion of this period: The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, (NY: Random House, 2006).  Agriculture began later in the Western Hemisphere, and this may be why no clear Axial equivalent occurred there at this time.

[30] For a more recent illustration of this point for hunters and gatherers, see Richard K. Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

[31] Brody, op. cit., 141.  See also Richard Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

[32] The ‘vision quest’ is perhaps the clearest example. See Torrance, op. cit., 248-52.

[33] William Irwin Thompson,  The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), 103.