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KRONOS Vol X, No. 2
ASTER AND DISASTER: THE GOLDEN AGE-II
ROGER W. WESCOTT
THE AUREAL ENVIRONMENT
Paradisial traditions, though relatively explicit about the world axis and the world-mountain, are for the most part vaguer about those features of the pre-catastrophic environment which were of smaller scale. Earth is generally described as benign and its products as abundant, with few further details supplied. The fact that the Earth as a whole is referred to as a mother and that its great starward mound is feminine in gender(42) suggests that its conformation was characterized by gentle slopes and mild curvature.
Beyond this, the evidence from myth and legend is negative. That is, no environmental extremes are portrayed. The landscape appears to be devoid of cliffs, canyons, oceans, and deserts and the climate free of storms, droughts, darkness, and extremes of temperature.
While nearly all accounts either state or imply that the land in the Golden Age was well watered, few make it clear what the source of moisture was. It may well be that neither rain nor rivers were involved, since traditional narratives rarely mention clouds and describe "streams" whose configuration is such as to suggest aspects of the Asterian rather than the terrestrial landscape.(43) Instead, it seems likely that water sources were predominantly subterranean. The Old Testament, for example, speaks of a primal time when "mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground".(44) And most paradisial imagery includes fountains, some, at least, having remarkable powers of healing or rejuvenation.(45)
By implication, moreover, all bodies of water were relatively small in aureal times. Great oceans play no part in paradisial tales. But traditional narratives do contain attempted explanations of the taste, odor, and color of sea-water today - attributing these to God's perspiration, urine from the sky, or the rotting of huge snakes.(46) What these accounts strongly suggest is that salt water was regarded as something strange and recent, requiring explanation. Equally absent from stories about the Golden Age are powerful breakers crashing on shorelines and the rise and fall of tides. What these lacunae further imply is not only a lack of spanking sea-winds but, more strikingly, the absence of any such massive Earth-satellite as the Moon.(47)
An almost invariable aspect of paradisiality in every tradition is fragrance - a pleasant odor emanating primarily from the fruits and flowers of the abundant plant life.(48) Although minute descriptions of aureal flora do not occur, it seems reasonable to assume that it must have been more like that of the modern tropics or subtropics than like that of the modern temperate or arctic regions. While temperature may have been somewhat cooler than that of our tropics, botanical diversity was probably greater. The Golden Age seems indeed to have been a perpetual springtime.
In most aureal traditions, detail about fauna is as rare as it is about flora. The only generalization usually encountered is that those animals which are now predators (such as wolves and leopards) were then scavengers.
If, as seems reasonable, we may equate the pre-lapsarian world of mythology with the pre-Holocene world of paleontology, it can be assumed that the faunal diversity of aureal times was considerably greater than that of our epoch. At any rate, much of the Pleistocene megafauna is now missing, including such imposing creatures as the Asian mammoth, the North American mastodon, the South American giant sloth, and the African "elephant bird".
Nearly all aureal traditions portray a "condominium of beings", in which men and beasts lived together amicably, on a footing of intimacy and equality. Communication across species boundaries is depicted as having been easy, common, and effective.
Both between and within species, in fact, communication seems to have been so intimate as to amount to communion. The behavioral chasm which we now observe between human beings and other animals simply did not exist. Not only is it likely that our species then possessed some of the characteristic "animal spirits" which we now observe in aquatic mammals, such as otters, seals, and dolphins, but it is also probable that other species then exhibited some behavior patterns which we now perceive only in our own. In the sphere of sexual activity, for example, most non-human mammals seem today to be somewhat mechanical in their behavior, enacting the mating impulse only at highly periodic intervals and experiencing no orgasm (as distinct from ejaculation). Man, on the other hand, copulates non-seasonally and, at least intermittently, experiences emotional as well inseminative climax in the act of union. In the aureal age, non-human sexuality was almost certainly non-seasonal and may well have been multiply climactic.
One perpetual characteristic of the entire aureal environment appears to have been pleasurable audibility. This quality was seemingly evident in everything from the celestial "music of the spheres"(49) through the delightful tonality of woods and streams to the exquisite songs of birds.(50) The heavenly harmony reported by the Pythagoreans may perhaps be explained as having been produced by Aster or its satellites and transmitted through the world-axis. And the sylvan music of trees may have been no more than the rustling of leaves in light breezes. Musical brooks doubtless gurgled and gushed, and some may have made more melodic sounds. Bird-song was probably less restricted then than now, not only as regards species but also as regards sex and age. Where singing is now primarily a territorial device used by adult males to attract breeding females and repel rival males, it may then, under less competitive conditions, have been in actuality what it now seems only to wishful human listeners to be - an expression of sheer joy.
In describing the overall environment of the Golden Age, it may be insufficient to speak in terms of predominant negatives, noting that it knew no winter and no night. For the period almost certainly had strongly positive characteristics, such as a steady influx of health giving energy to Earth from Aster. A likely result of this influx would have been rapid healing of physical injuries (which were presumably rarer then than now). Such healing might have been analogous to the accelerated tissue-repair known to occur today in response to low level electrical current. And, because the energy-source of that era was so much greater and so much more readily available, it may well be that limb-regeneration of the kind no longer observed in vertebrates more advanced than newts then occurred among mammals as well, including the human kind. Certainly the folk-memory of aureal times as "an age of miracles" suggests this possibility.
A further possibility is suggested by the shadowy existence of lines of force on the Earth's surface known in England as "leys" and in China as "dragon paths".(51) The fact that such lines are credited by psychics and dowsers but dismissed by most other observers may indicate that they are residual in nature, surviving only as faint bioenergetic echoes of what were once palpably pulsating meridians. If so, it may be that, in aureal times, any creature in need of invigoration would spontaneously gravitate toward these meridians. But, because leys were so powerfully charged with energy, it may also be that creatures in need of relaxation would just as naturally have moved away from them and remained away until they once again felt the need for "recharging".
The topic of organic sensitivity to excesses or deficits of energy raises the question of sensory acuity in the biosphere at large and in various species individually. Today it is apparent that many animal groups are sensitive to stimuli to which other groups are partially or wholly insensitive. Examples of such restricted responsiveness are the pressure sense of fish, the electric sense of rays, and the magnetic sense of mud-snails, which we and other warm-blooded animals lack.(52) According to the late Scottish-American biologist Ivan Sanderson, the "classic" five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch constitute a mere fraction of the receptive capacities found in the animal kingdom.(53)
It remains uncertain why sensory acuity is so spottily distributed. I think it quite conceivable, however, that during relatively undisturbed epochs - such as the Golden Age - most species enjoyed substantial exercise of the 25 or more senses now detectable in the biosphere. I further opine that, during the gross planetary disturbances that terminated this epoch of felicity, wide-spread sensory trauma led to wide-spread sensory disability, which, in turn, became genetically heritable. Most species, on this assumption, would then have retained full acuity only in those senses which they required for individual and collective survival. During the period of disturbance, sudden restoration of the full sensory panoply of each species would probably have constituted "sensory overload" and resulted in further traumatization, if not total disorientation; and it might do so even today.
THE NOBLE SAVAGE
One of the few subjects on which archaeologists and mythologists agree is that of the pre-Holocene economy. Both concede that, prior to the last Ice Age, our ancestors were ignorant of farming and lived by foraging. This life-style is one which 19th century anthropologists and their 17th and 18th century intellectual precursors referred to as savagery, meaning, literally, "woodland existence".
What these thinkers could not and still cannot decide, however, is the question of the quality of life among foragers. Most tended to accept Thomas Hobbes' judgment that foragers were wretched in every way; but a few accepted Jean Jacques Rousseau's view that they were generally more fortunate than the citizens of "civilized" nation-states. Till recently, most 20th century anthropologists were inclined to accept the progressivist notion that, because farmers have a richer material culture than foragers have, farmers are more advanced. In the past decade, however, Marvin Harris and others have begun emphasizing leisure rather than wealth as a measure of wellbeing.(54) Finding that foragers usually have more leisure than farmers do, they have consequently re-adopted Rousseau's evaluation of the quality of the foraging way of life.
In pre-Classic Greece, the poet Hesiod had referred to the earliest people of whom there was traditional knowledge as khruseon genos anthropon - a golden race.(55) These people, he said, neither toiled nor made war but lived in peace with one another and with their surroundings.
To the extent that we may equate this Hesiodic memory with the fragmentary evidence of prehistory, we may probably add, with geographer Carl Sauer, that these golden folk were sedentary rather than migratory and gatherers rather than hunters.(56) He sees them as having spent most of their time scavenging by the water's edge. It may not be excessive, moreover, further to equate these noble savages with those of our pre-glacial ancesters who, according to Elaine Morgan, became phenotypically distinct from their nearest relatives, the great apes, chiefly as a result of the increasingly large amount of time they spent in the water.(57) If Sauer and Morgan are right, our anomalous furlessness may be due primarily to the fact that, in a warmer, wetter, and more favored age, our forebears were "water babies".
Of the mythically transmitted reports on the golden race, one of the most striking and most persistent but most difficult to square with the findings of archaeology and prehistory is that these nobly savage ancestors of ours were themselves luminous and could fly - without the aid of birds or human artifacts! (58) If, as seems probable, this tradition is to be taken literally, it is most plausibly interpreted, I think, as a reflection of two facts: first, that the aureal environment was so highly charged with energy that everything in it glowed; and second, that the glowing world-axis connecting Earth to Aster had, at least at some locations, a levitating effect, permitting people and animals to perform the same kind of manoeuvers in the air that they can now perform under water. (It remains uncertain whether the levitating effect was sufficient to enable floaters to propel themselves so far along the axis as to reach a point of no return. Widespread traditions of the ascension or translation of spiritually elevated individuals from Earth to a celestial realm above suggest that it was not an unknown occurrence. To make it credible, however, we would have to accept the view, advanced by de Grazia and Milton,(59) that there was pre-Holocene atmospheric continuity between Earth and the larger body at the other end of the axis.)
Another puzzle of reconstructive interpretation has to do with the duration of human life in aureal times. On this question, there is an apparent contradiction between two traditions, one of which speaks of antediluvian longevity and the other, of genuine immortality. The former, which we may call the Methuselah tradition, attributes to aurealites life-spans measurable in centuries (but not in millennia).(60) The latter, which we may call the eternalist tradition, denies that aurealites died at all (prior to the disaster which put an end to the entire Asterian order).(61)
This seeming contradiction can probably be exegetically resolved by differential interpretation. The Methuselahs of old may be regarded as individuals, who did indeed die but aged more slowly than we, perhaps because they suffered far less than we from the stresses of gravity.(62) Immortality, on the other hand, may be regarded as having characterized our species as a whole rather than the individuals who composed it. It may be objected that our species is, by definition, as deathless today as it was in the Golden Age. In a technical sense, this objection is of course valid. But in an intuitive sense, it is irrelevant. For human consciousness today is focused primarily in the individual mind, whereas aureal consciousness is more likely to have been focused in the collective mind.(63)
Except for psychoanalysts of Jungian persuasion, most contemporary scholars are inclined to dismiss collective consciousness out of hand and brand it as fantasy. If pressed to justify this dismissal, they are likely to reply that, since such consciousness contradicts our immediate personal experience of being what Alan Watts called "skin-encapsulated egos", the burden of proof rests rather on those who affirm, than on those who deny, its possibility. To this argument, the best response, I believe, is that experience is anything but immutable. It depends very largely on habit and circumstance. In the relatively fragmented world in which we live, a fragmentary type of consciousness may be expected to predominate.
In any case, the problem of the locus of consciousness has never been satisfactorily solved. The current consensus that the consciousness of each individual is located in his brain - or in some restricted portion of it, such as the neo-cortex - is little more than the conceptual fashion of our age. Such phenomena as bilocation, or the "out-of-the-body" experience, in which people feel their minds to be hovering over their unconscious bodies, suggest that the brain is at most a tuning device for consciousness, and a dispensable one at that.(64) Other phenomena, such as multiple personality, are equally suggestive. What they imply is that, if a physically single body can exhibit psychologically plural consciousness, the converse may also obtain: physically plural bodies can exhibit psychologically single consciousness.
In the urbanized world, the crowd psychology whereby "mass hysteria" makes a group of individuals appear to behave like a single "many-headed monster" is a manifestation of merged consciousness.(65) Another is the "mystical participation" seemingly experienced by preliterates as they join in the ritual ceremonies referred to by members of the French School of Sociology as "collective representations".(66) Urban mob behavior may be a destructive remnant, and preliterate ritual behavior a compulsive remnant, of that "mist of unity" which seems to typify most traditional accounts of the Golden Age.
As I reconstruct it, then, the mind of aureal humanity was highly synnoetic - that is, unindividualized and devoid of the mixture of defensive and aggressive tendencies which we know as ego. If miraculously transported back into the aureal world, we would probably find individuals of all ages strangely childlike, lacking in any sense of dignity or need for privacy. We might mistakenly suspect them of being intoxicated by drugs of at least two kinds - euphorics, producing extreme elevation of mood, and psychedelics, giving them a continual propensity to visionary experience. Their frequent laughter might baffle us, as it would not be based on the incongruity between reality and ideality which is at the heart of our humor. We would probably describe them as telepathic, since they would seem fully responsive to one another's thoughts and feelings in the absence of any observable vocal or gestural signals. And we might characterize them as vegetarian nudists and egalitarian pacifists - which they would be in practice, though without any inclination to preach what they practiced.
In a sense, even the expression "childlike" may understate the contrast in attitude between aureal adults and modern adults. For the aurealites lived in a situation in which most of their needs were satisfied before those needs could become desires. This is to say that their requirements rarely reached the point of constituting discomfort or arousing apprehension about the threat of non-fulfillment. From this standpoint, the mentality of aureal times was probably more prenatal than juvenile, at least to the extent that birth implies (as it must in our lapsarian world) suffering - experienced, remembered, and anticipated.
If, as I have proposed, the mind of the Noble Savage was not imprisoned within hominid skulls to anything like the extent to which our minds are, it follows that its range of communion was probably far greater than ours. And if, as I have also suggested, there is no inherently fixed physical locus for consciousness of any kind (though there may be preferred physical outlets for it), then we can scarcely guess what direct intercommunicative reach the aureal human mind had. Since, even today, many people feel that they have, at least on occasion, immediate spiritual communion with many kinds of plants and animals, it is unlikely that the more labile minds of our paradisial ancestors had less. Indeed, they may have communed with consciousnesses whose very existences we find it difficult to believe in, much less to experience. Such consciousnesses could have been associated with - if not attached to - inorganic phenomena of all sorts, from minerals to stars. Moreover, most mythic traditions concur in asserting that, in the Golden Age, human beings associated easily and often with beings that were discarnate or only intermittently incarnate, ranging from awesome cosmic deities to playful local spirits.(67)
The reproductive physiology of aureal humanity was almost certainly different from that of contemporary humanity. The one aspect of such physiology which is mentioned in most of the mythic traditions is menstruation, of which it is said that it first occurred as part of the "curse" that terminated the Golden Age and initiated a Time of Troubles.(68) Another reproductive difference that may be inferred from traditional narratives is a greater aureal frequency of multiple births. This seems, at least, to be a reasonable interpretation to place on the consistently sacred status of twins, ranging from the Dioscuri, or "divine youths", of ancient Greece to the Ibeji of West Africa, in the world's myths and legends.(69) The fact that such twins often have animal characteristics further implies that, as regards numbers of offspring at a single parturition, there was formerly less difference between our species and most other mammals than there now is.(70) Although traditional narratives say little or nothing about the length of gestation in aureal times, it seems plausible to assume that, in the warm, wet, and generally womb-like environment here postulated for the period, the prolonged gestation now typical of our species would have been unnecessary. Instead, infants would have been born in a state which we now call premature but which, under aureal conditions, would have been ecologically quite appropriate.
Concerning the sexual psychology of the Golden Age, there is what appears at first blush to be a glaring contradiction within mythic tradition. Some narratives describe our aureal forebears as chaste and celibate, a few even going so far as to deny that they had sexual organs at all.(71) Other narratives, however, picture them as orgiastically promiscuous, engaged in an almost endless round of erotic activity.(72) To me, the best resolution of this paradox is to assume that, behaviorally, the "primal promiscuity" postulated by Victorian cultural evolutionists did indeed obtain in aureal times but that the furtive and guilt-ridden attitude toward sexual interaction which is so characteristic of historic times was then absent. Our prelapsarian ancestors, in this view, coupled tenderly but without lust - at least insofar as lust implies burning sexual passion or agonized erotic craving. Putting the matter another way, we may say that they loved freely but without feeling any need to be "advocates of free love".
THE MATRIARCHAL TRADITION
The word matriarch, a Latin-Greek hybrid, was coined (on the analogy of the Classic Greek word patriarkhes, "head of a patrilineal kin-group") in 17th century England.(73) It meant "the female head of a matrilineal kin-group". The 19th century word matriarchy, derived from it, meant "maternal control of a family" or, more broadly, "female rule of a community". In this sense, it is effectively synonymous with the Greek-derived word gynecocracy, "rule by a woman or women".
Neither history nor ethnography, as it happens, can provide us with any indisputable examples of matriarchy. The nearest equivalent to it that can be established with certainty is matriliny, a kinship system in accordance with which descent is traced through the female line and one can inherit his status, property, or family name only from his female relatives. Even in matrilineal societies, however, women do not exercise political or military authority. Men exercise this authority, although they obtain it from high-ranking kinswomen.(74)
Nevertheless, myths and legends on every continent do assert that there was a time in the remote past when women ruled. Perhaps the best known such traditional account concerns the prehistoric Kikuyu of Kenya, as related in the autobiography of the late President Jomo Kenyatta.(75)
On the other hand, nearly everything else we are told about the Golden Age militates against the likelihood that, in this period, anyone at all exercised any constituted authority or coercive control over anyone else. How, then, can we explain the range and persistence of the matriarchal tradition? My guess is that the narratives asserting primal gynecocracy are actually a conflation of two quite divergent pictures of the relation between the sexes. The first, and predictably the clearer, of these two pictures is of the patriarchy, or male supremacism, which characterizes the institutional structure of all the human societies known to historians and ethnographers.
The second, and inevitably the blurrier, of the two pictures is one of matricentricity, or female-centeredness. The term matricentricity (or matrifocality) is sometimes used by social scientists to describe a situation in which a modern nuclear family is deprived of its adult male member, turning it into a dyadic, or mother-and-child, family. When used to describe a hypothesized prehistoric family pattern, however, matricentricity designates a family consisting of a mother with her children in which no adult male has ever been a member. The presumptive reason for the lack of social paternity in this type of family is that physiological paternity is either unknown or disregarded. (Among unacculturated Melanesians and Australian aborigines today, physiological paternity is considered illusory on the grounds that pregnancy is caused by philoprogenitive ancestral spirits. But the social paternity of a husband with regard to his wife's children is considered real and institutionally binding.(76) ) Although none of the family structures known to history or ethnography is matricentric in this hypothesized sense, such matricentricity is the rule among most other mammalian species, including our nearest relatives, the great apes. (Popular magazine articles and television programs dealing with pongid behavior often describe a dominant gorilla male as "the head of the family" when, in ethological fact, he is the head of a community. Even if the community in question is a troop of no more than a dozen individuals, that community still contains subunits consisting of mothers with immature offspring - these subunits being matricentric families. There is, moreover, no evidence that any adult male gorilla knows which juveniles are his own genetic offspring. Toward all juveniles he typically displays protective behavior which is "paternal" without being possessive.)
To call the aureal family matricentric, then, is to suggest that the core of that family was a fertile woman. Mothers were, in this view, quite literally the centers of their families. Children looked to them for milk, for love, and (more rarely, in such a secure environment) for comfort. Men, on the other hand, regarded women as uniquely endowed creators of the most precious possible creation: children. For, while both sexes gave pleasure, only mature females gave birth. Women, then, had no need, much less any desire, to dominate or control juveniles or adult men. In the aureal Heaven-on-Earth, adult women were automatically the "stars" round which other human bodies (figuratively) orbited.
While matricentricity of this kind did not survive into the urban era of recent millennia, there is considerable evidence that it did survive, at least to some degree, into the early Neolithic Period of small-scale horticulture and stock-breeding. In Anatolia, for example, the pre-urban farm-village of Catal Huyuk was composed of houses in which householders themselves were buried in "divans", or earthen platforms. The smallest and rarest of these contained individual men; those of intermediate size, solitary women; and the largest, mothers with their children. Among the most frequent decorative motifs on their walls were paintings, reliefs, and engravings of human breasts and navels - the latter, presumably, symbolizing pregancy. Weapons of war seem to have been absent for centuries.(77)
Both folklore accounts and suggestive archaeological evidence like the above have, since the 18th century, led a distinguished minority of scholars to posit a period of prehistoric or protohistoric "matriarchy" - which we are here calling matricentricity. Among these scholars were Lewis Morgan, Johann Bachofen, and Erich Fromm.(78)
Yet, as is the case with other aspects of aureal life, the mythic picture of prelasparian gender orientation contains an apparent contradiction. For many traditional narratives describe early humanity as androgynous rather than feminine. Perhaps the best known of these androgynistic accounts is the one attributed by Plato to the comic dramatist Aristophanes, in accordance with which human beings were once bisexual quadrupeds, whom the gods, jealous of their self-sufficient contentment, turned into unisexual bipeds in perpetual restless search for their other halves.(79)
The contradiction here, however, is unlikely to have been more than apparent. In terms of family structure and intergenerational behavior, aureal humanity was undoubtedly matricentric, focusing its admiring attention on mothers and the children whom they bore and nurtured. Yet, in terms of feeling and attitude, our Golden Age forebears may well have been androgynous, and this in two senses. First, aureal consciousness having been predominantly collective, there would have been little reason for individuals of either sex to set themselves psychologically apart from others on the basis of gender, age, or any other distinguishing trait. And second, in a situation in which abundance minimized competition and conflict, there would have been still less reason for men and women to perceive their respective interests as incompatible. There would have been no need for either male violence or female coyness.
Specifically sexual activity was probably polymorphous, or multifarious. But it is likely to have been so more in Norman O. Brown's sense of being playfully exploratory than in Freud's sense of being compulsively perverse.(80) Incest, homosexuality, and "bestiality" (that is, interspecific eroticism) were probably common but unmarked by any social imperatives either to engage in them or to refrain from them. Such polymorphism, moreover, may well have been as characteristic of other species as of our own.
Furthermore, under circumstances in which libidinality had not yet split into nurturant and erotic components, lactating mothers of many mammalian species may have found it gratifying to suckle not only offspring other than their own but also offspring of other species. Nutritive cycling of this kind would, in turn, have both manifested and reinforced the kind of interspecific harmony of "lion and lamb" which virtually all narrative traditions depict as epitomizing their lost paradise.
Note: The following abbreviations stand for works repeatedly cited.
42. The Avestic nominal Berezaiti has a feminine ending, vis-a-vis the masculine form
berezant-, "high, mountainous" (Julius Pokorny, Ein Indogermanisches Etymologisches
Woerterbuch, Munich, 1959, vol. 1, p. 140). According to the indigenous Maori of New
Zealand, the Fertilizer God Tane created humanity on Mother Earth's mons veneris (David A.
Leeming, Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero, 2nd ed., New York, 1981, p. 342). In Eurasian
tradition, the bulging site of primal procreation is a breast-shaped hill (TOW, p. 129). And, in
more specifically German lore, this paradisial place is the Venusberg, or mountain of delight, a
perpetual source of temptation to high-minded young knights (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase
and Fable, New York, revised edition, n.d. [after 1954], p. 938).