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HORUS VOL I. Issue 3

Historical Paradise and Collective Psychology
Richard Heinberg

Virtually all ancient peoples believed that they were descendents of superior beings who inhabited an earthly paradise. The ancients held that the first human beings were perfect and godlike and that mankind, rather than having evolved, has instead degenerated. For the Hebrews, man originated in the Garden of Eden, filled with $$every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food. " For the Greeks the first age was the Age of Gold, when men could speak with the animals and when there was no disease or need for labor. For the Hindus the Krita Yuga - again, the first age - was one of saintliness: there were no gods or demons, and there was no need for religious ceremonies; human beings could ascend to heaven and return to earth at will. Likewise, according to the Hopis and Mayas the original human beings were all-knowing, wise and godlike, and the first world the happiest and most perfect.

It has been the fashion among scholars for the past century or more to collect these ancient paradise myths carefully but to deny them historical validity. Instead, they interpret them as symbols of unconscious psychological processes either unique to early man, or common to all human beings of all generations. Typical of this approach is Theodore Reik's suggestion that Golden Age mythology is a metaphor for the womb and infancy, and Freud's description of the fall from paradise as a distorted memory of parricide among our stone-age ancestors. While this nonhistorical approach to paradise myths may have yielded some fruitful insights into the human psyche, it seems to me that the myths have a much greater significance which can be glimpsed only by granting them a more literal meaning.

It is unpopular these days to suggest that humankind originated in a pristine, paradisal state unless, of course, one is arguing from a biblical fundamentalist/creationist position, which I am not. To believe in historical paradise is to question the underpinnings of anthropology: the ideas of progress and of human cultural evolution are so thoroughly accepted - not only by scientists, but by most laymen - that one must have solid grounds for questioning them. Therefore, while I hope to approach the subject of the relationship between the memory of paradise and mass psychology, I must begin by setting forth my reasons for proposing that the Golden Age was a real historical era which preceded the beginning of civilization as we know it. In addition I must say why I find usual objections to this idea. unconvincing.

First, the ubiquity of the myths is itself a powerful argument for granting them some sort of historical basis. As folklorists have known for some time, not only the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, but the Hindus, Chinese, Amerindians, native Australians and Africans all believed in an original paradise. Paradise mythology is so pervasive, and is so central to the religious mythology of the vast preponderance of ancient peoples, that historian of religion Mircea Eliade considers nostalgia for paradise to be at the very core of humankind's spiritual impulse: for the shaman as for the Christian; for the Taoist as for the Aborigine, it is the longing for a lost paradise that motivates ritual, ceremony and belief.

In the face of the unanimity of the ancients' belief in an original Golden Age, proponents of the non-historical approach to myth interpretation are more or less forced not so much to explain paradise myths as to explain them away. As more and more myths are being found to have a basis in fact (see, for instance, the work of Immanuel Velikovsky), the "collective fantasy" approach to myth in general is starting to lose ground. Even Theodore Reik says,

[Myths] appeared to us [psychoanalysts] at first as collective daydreams, as wish fulfillments of the masses. Such a characterization is still psychologically valid, but we apply today the interpretation of myths in the hope of discovering at their depths precipitations or sediments of real historical events or situations.

According to Reik and others, the more widespread a myth, the more likely it is to have an historical basis.

My second reason for advocating an historical source for paradise myths is somewhat philosophical in nature; its source is the simple observation that any state of disease must be defined in contrast to a natural state of health. The character of modern civilization seems to many observers - myself among them - to be compellingly pathological; if this is so, then we must assume that a healthy state once existed which was fundamentally different from the present one. Evolutionist assumptions require us to believe that current world conditions of environmental degradation, rampant mental/emotional illness and imminent species-wide thermonuclear suicide are somehow an inevitable part of the evolutionary process. The alternative is to admit that something has gone terrible wrong. While the point is arguable, a good case can be made that of all life-forms on earth, human beings alone attempt to control the natural order, and are therefore in conflict with life itself. This being so, it would be only logical to suppose that there must have been a time prior to the onset of mankind's ontological disease, and that if such a time were impressed on human memory it would be remembered as a happy, golden, paradisal age.

The reason generally given for disputing the historicity of the paradise myths seems to be that no adequate physical evidence has been found to prove the reality of a Golden Age to the satisfaction of archaeologists and anthropologists. But what relics should we expect to find? According to the myths, early human beings were concerned to coordinate terrestrial cycles of germination and growth with cosmic or celestial rhythms. Therefore we should expect to find evidence that the earliest peoples were deeply interested in astronomy, as well as in the plants and animals which surrounded them. And this is precisely what we find: the most ancient surviving monuments are astronomical in orientation and function and the examples which could be named are extremely numerous: Stonehenge; American Indian medicine-wheels; Egyptian, Chinese and American pyramids and temples; and neolithic earthworks in Europe, America and Asia. And when the ancients' concern was not with the heavens, it was with the flora and fauna of the natural world - witness the cave paintings of Altamira, or those of the Bushmen of Africa, in which the form and spirit of various animals are rendered in a way few artists of our time have matched.

Moreover, we must assess artifacts according to our modem prejudices. If, in an archaeological deposit, we find elaborate tools or evidence of commerce, we naturally assume that the culture which left these things behind was "advanced"; but are we equally equipped to recognize and evaluate relics left by a culture which had a technology of spirit rather than one of physical convenience? I am reminded of one Chinese paradise myth, according to which:

"In the age of perfect virtue .... they were upright and correct without knowing that to be so was righteousness; they loved one another, without knowing that to do so was benevolence; they were honest and leal-hearted without knowing that it was loyalty; they fulfilled their engagements, without knowing that to do so was good faith; in their simple movements they employed the services of one another, without thinking that they were conferring or receiving any gift. Therefore their actions left no trace, and there was no record of their affairs."

If, as the myth says, the first people "left no trace," then we must admit that it will forever be impossible to prove or disprove the historicity of the Golden Age solely on the basis of physical evidence. Therefore we must approach the question of human origins not on archaeological grounds alone, but as well on the basis of an evaluation of the implications which follow from our choice of assumptions, and with an ear for what rings true. And what are the implications which follow from assuming that paradise myths are memories of a factual, historical state?

The first and most obvious implication is that our present understanding of civilization is thoroughly upside down. We implicitly believe that advancement in technology is good and worthwhile in and of itself, and that our Western culture is the best and most highly developed culture in history precisely because of its technological capability. Paradise myths, on the other hand, say unequivocally that human beings were better off before the introduction of technology.

It seems heretical to question our culturally reinforced belief in the value of scientific and technological progress, yet when we examine this belief at arm's length we find that it is a rather arbitrary one. We tend to have a Chauvinistic attitude toward our European-based culture of high technology and rampant materialism, and we assume so-called primitive cultures (such as those of the Amerindians, the Australian Aborigines and the African Bushmen) to be inferior. Yet the evidence could be interpreted just the other way around: Western civilization has resulted in poor eating habits (as a result of the use of processed and refined foods), psychological degeneration (showing up in widespread mental/emotional disorder and suicide), destruction of the natural environment, and finally, the increasing threat of human extinction through nuclear warfare. While &$primitive" peoples obviously had their problems as well, members of non-literate cultures seem on the whole to have been adjusted better to each other and their environment, happier, and healthier that ourselves. South African writer Laurens van der Post says of the Kalahari Bushmen,

... obviously, they had their faults too, and they were very human faults. But they were faults, in so far as I could observe them, that had no unnecessary complications to them. They were faults that were in proportion and that were incorporated and kept in position by the great necessities of nature, by the totality of their way of life. They committed themselves to nature as a fish to the sea, and nature was kinder to them by far than any civilization ever was.

The Bushmen are-or were (their numbers have been ravaged and their way of life thoroughly disrupted by the encroachment of civilization) -among the most "primitive" peoples in existence: they have no agriculture, no permanent dwellings, they keep no animals. Yet van der Post, who spent over three years among the Bushmen, eulogizes them: "The staggering loss of identity and meaning that we in the modem world experience was unknown to them... [they were] a people to whom life was full of meaning. " Our Western pioneer explorer forefathers described native peoples as "savages, " yet from the standpoint of moral and spiritual qualities, as well as psychological health, perhaps it is we who are the real savages. We have assumed our evolutionary "cave-man" forebears to have been base, superstitious, cruel and crude, but could this simply be a projection of our own state of consciousness onto them? Perhaps paradise myths memorialize the existence and loss of a way of life so satisfying and rich that its passing left a deep wound in the subconscious of all subsequent generations; and perhaps our modern culture, far from being the highest and best that has ever been known, is instead merely the result of a peculiar form of collective neurosis.

But what was the nature of that wound, how and why was paradise lost, and what is the source of our common neurosis? Perhaps one way of describing our modem character-disease is as the belief that the natural world is present to serve human wants and desires. We implicitly assume that by harnessing and manipulating our environment we are making a better world, and hence better human beings. Ancient people seem to have believed, instead, that human beings exist to care for nature. The position espoused by "primitive" peoples, and by many spiritual teachers of all traditions, is that the quality of human character - not the cleverness of the human mind - is primary; that a "better world" results only from the moral refinement of individual human beings.

Thus, paradise was paradise by virtue of the character of the people who inhabited it. Ancient Taoist texts, for instance, describe the attitudes and actions of the first people in terms which a psychoanalyst might call the ideal state of mental health:

The True Man of ancient times did not rebel against want, did not grow proud in plenty, and did not plan his affairs. Being like this, he could commit an error and not regret it, could meet with success and not make a show. Being like this, he could climb the high places and not be frightened, could enter the water and not get wet, could enter the fire and not get burned...
The True Man of ancient times slept without dreaming and woke without care; he ate without savoring and his breath came from deep inside...
The True Man of ancient times knew nothing of loving life, knew nothing of hating death. He emerged without delight; he went back in without making a fuss. He came briskly, he went briskly, that was all. He didn't forget where he began; he didn't try to figure out where he would end. He received something and took pleasure in it; he forgot about it and handed it back.

Our collective assumption that nature exists only to be exploited for human pleasure finds expression in individual attitudes and actions. So many of our troubles in life seem to result from failure to assume responsibility, and from the concomitant tendency to blame and accuse others for our own shortcomings. At the same time, though crowded together in huge cities, we find it difficult to form deep and lasting relationships. Avoidance of responsibility and blame arise from the expectation that the environment (and hence other human beings) are here to please us; and alienation and loneliness are the inevitable result of viewing other people as objects to seek or avoid. When we are caught in our manipulations we are filled with shame, and with fear of the consequences. While psychologists have found ways of alleviating some of the more dramatic symptoms of fear, shame and alienation, our society as a whole places little value on the simple principles of healthy psychological function: nations blame and accuse each other; politicians avoid responsibility; advertising encourages us to evaluate ourselves and each other on the basis of superficial appearance; and fear is regarded as an acceptable motive for action.

Those who exemplify a quality of character significantly more creative or healthy than the norm we call "saints" or "heroes." If mankind is indeed progressing, then - in view of the fact that 34 of the human beings who have lived within recorded history are alive today - we should expect there to be more "saints" in the world now than ever before. While no exact census figures regarding numbers of "saints" are available, it is safe to say that there are no more true heroes among us today than at any other time in history. But must it always be so? Is it not possible that a culture - even in the prehistoric past - which placed its highest value on the individual expression of nobility of character might produce a whole population of "saints"?

Paradise myths describe the first human beings as innocent and guileless, yet wise and powerful. According to a Hopi myth, the first people "understood their own structure and functions - the nature of man himself... Not until evil entered the world did persons get sick in the body or head. " Virtually all the myths describe primeval man as being in the perpetual state of robust physical health. Could there be some connection between paradisal man's quality of character and his state of physical well-being? It is interesting to note that recent medical research emphasizes the role of attitude in the development and treatment of disease (see, for instance, the article "Emotions Found to Influence Nearly Every Human Ailment" in the May 24, 1983 New York Times). Perhaps a society lacking anxiety, hostility, fear, resentment, etc., would also be free from cancer, heart disease, and other "civilized" plagues. Parenthetically, one could also cite the work of pioneer nutritionist, Dr. Weston Price, who found that tooth decay and numerous other forms of physical degeneration are virtually unique to human beings brought up on the "foods of commerce" - particularly white flour and sugar. We pride ourselves on advances in modern medicine. Yet, what is more "advanced": elaborate disease-fighting technologies, or the natural state of health?

An admittedly disturbing implication of the historical approach to paradise myths is that our present technological materialistic world is poised for apocalyptic change. Virtually all ancient peoples prophesied a time when the inventions of "clever ones" would lead mankind to the brink of destruction, and when a "great purification" would clear the way for a return to the original paradisal state. The Hopi Indians, for instance, foretold a time when iron birds would carry people through the air, and when people would speak over great distances by means of special "cobwebs." The Hopis believe that within the next few decades humankind will either destroy itself or enter a new age of spirituality and light. While it may be unpleasant to think that the human world may collapse at any time like a house of cards, this eventuality should come as no surprise: the signs have been with us for decades, and many long-term, ecologically disastrous trends - such as the rate of deforestation and the rate of exhaustion of natural resources - seem irreversible.

The materialistic world-view calls the line of thought we have been following childish and dangerous: the belief in an original paradise is discredited as "primitivism," and belief in ancient prophecies of "the great purification" is considered pessimistic at best, perhaps pathological. While both of these beliefs have in the past served as fodder for fanatical religious sects, does this in itself prove them false?

Perhaps it is time we considered the spiritual worldview from a new stance, leaving aside credulous commitment to particular religions or traditions but freeing ourselves as well from bondage to narrow evolutionist assumptions and unquestioning loyalty to the cult of technological progress.

I would not claim in the brief essay to have "proven" that myths of an original Golden Age are true; in fact it may be impossible to prove or disprove the historicity of the Golden Age by any empirical means. I do hope to have raised a significant question in the mind of the reader - a question which cannot conscionably be ignored in view of the impending results of our culture's reliance on knowledge over wisdom, or know-how over quality of character. It seems clear that our present beliefs about who we are and why we are here are leading us toward an impasse, and that our very survival depends upon the forging of a new vision of identity, meaning and purpose for ourselves individually, and for humankind as a whole. Perhaps that vision has been present all along, but merely temporarily obscured.

Related readings:

1. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (1916).

2. Theodore Reik, Myth and Guilt (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1957).

3. Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (New York: Harper & Row, 1960).

4. Donald A MacKenzie, Myths of China and Japan (London: Gresham n.d.).

5. Laurens van der Post, in Wilderness: the Way Ahead, edited by Vance Martin and Mary Inglis (Findhorn, Scotland: Findhorn Press, 1984).

6. Chuang Tzu, Translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).

7. Frank Waters, Book of the Hopi (New York: Ballantine, 1963).

8. Weston Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1935).

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