Preparing for Parousia 2
The Birth of the Gods
The period in the human story we call the Paleolithic lasted for possibly as long as 300,000 years. Our place in the cosmos was stable and integrated with life. We were part of nature and not over and against it. We lived within nature. We experienced ourselves, our inner worlds, and the world around us as one reality. Altered states of consciousness were entered into readily, worked out between the over-arching transcendence of the night sky and the total darkness of the great caves. Consciousness was spirituality. Everything was in some sense alive.
This state of homeostasis began to slowly change in the period we call the Upper Paleolithic, from about 45,000 years ago. There is evidence of a period of creativity that eventually led to the great cave art that marks this period. Toward the end of this time, the small hunter/gatherer groups began to settle in growing communities. They remained hunter/gatherers but settled in one place.
It has long been believed that agriculture eventually grew out of this settling in larger groups, and this in turn allowed religion centred in local gods to become established. But an extraordinary archeological find in the 1990’s has completely reversed this. It is now believed agriculture, the planting of crops and the domestication of animals, happened as an outcome of people gathering for religious and spiritual ritual. This great find is known as Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill). It was built some 6000 years before the start of Stonehenge which began in 3000 BC. It marks an extraordinary shift in human consciousness. We human beings are beginning to separate ourselves from the cosmos and look at it differently. We are now seeing ourselves as above and over animals and nature, very aware of ancestors and death, the male and the female.
But why did this happen? What brought about this shift in consciousness and spirituality that led to agriculture? The answer is, we don’t really know. But one famous archeologist has linked the beginning of agriculture with the birth of the gods, and one famous cultural critic has linked the birth of the gods with murder, scapegoating murder. Earlier than this, Sigmund Freud had suggested that murder was the foundation of civilisation. But much earlier than that the writer of the 4th chapter of the Book of Genesis had made the same claim. Was murderous violence the reason for the agricultural revolution, out of which many, many local gods were born that helped to order and sustain larger groups of Neolithic people?
The serious possibility is that religion and spiritual life in the Neolithic was centred in ritual sacrifice and the structures necessary to support ritual activities. We know human sacrifice was widely practised. It had the powerful effect of holding communities together. The ritual associated with it had both a transcendent function and a containing, controlling function. It was not until animal sacrifice largely replaced human sacrifice that its effect and potency began to wane. But we do know it lasted a long time, and was practised in some cultures virtually into the beginning of the modern period. Archaic religion after the Paleolithic is centred in ritual sacrifice, ancestors, death, and the tension between the male and the female. And there were many, many gods. Life and security depended on them.
The Garden of the Paleolithic had been well and truly left behind for at least some human beings. They went on to build civilizations. Separating from the cosmos had truly begun.
Preparing for Parousia: Spirituality and Consciousness in the 21st Century
Blog Post 1 - March 2021
The Palaeolithic - Bedrock of Human Spirituality
Welcome to this series of monthly discussion and spiritual practice groups over the coming year in which we gently explore our spirituality and consciousness in the light of the human story. Both concepts are now very important. Consciousness is a leading edge and frontier in science. And spirituality has emerged as the idea that is supplanting institutional religion for many people.
There has been an assumption that our modern consciousness, influenced as it is by rational thought and science, is obviously a much more evolved and progressive state than the conscious life of the ancients. The way we see the world is the truth; the way they did was mythical. But others are seeing that there is a huge price to pay in modern consciousness that needs to be addressed urgently. The ancients had a sense of personally participating in a universe alive with life and meaning. We have largely lost this. Moderns inhabit a mechanical world made only of matter which we manipulate with our technology. We have prized our objectivity and failed to honour our subjectivity. As Jo Marchant puts it:
Personal experience has been swept from our understanding of reality, replaced by the abstract, mathematical grid of space-time. Earth has been knocked from the centre of existence to the suburbs; life reframed as a random accident; and God dismissed altogether, now everything can be explained by physical laws. Far from having a meaningful role in the cosmic order, we’re just ‘chemical scum’, as physicist Stephen Hawking put it, on the surface of a medium-sized planet orbiting an unremarkable star. Critics have fought this mechanistic view of humanity for centuries, often rejecting science wholesale in the process. But now even high-profile scientists are voicing concerns that until very recently were taboo. They are suggesting that perhaps physical matter isn’t all that the universe is; all that we are. Perhaps science is only seeing half of the picture. We can explain stars and galaxies, but what about minds? What about consciousness itself? It’s shaping up to be an epic fight that just might transform the entire western worldview. (10)
How do we recover a subjective, participatory sense of the Universe, without rejecting what we have gained objectively. Can we understand science better, and appreciate what the ancients had that we need? If Marchant and others are right this is a matter of the highest importance. It involves us being prepared to re-think ourselves within the human story and our relationship with the world and the cosmos, and to take our subjectivity very seriously. It means understanding how our relationship with the world has changed and just what a critical state we are now in, when our planet and all life on it are so deeply threatened. The ancients could listen to the cosmos, and take wisdom from its Presence, as some indigenous peoples still do. Can we recover this capacity ourselves. Can we relearn how to live with and within the world, not over and against it. Can we Prepare for Parousia?
As I have explained elsewhere, I am using Jo Marchant’s recent book The Human Cosmos as the framework for these groups. She focusses principally on the role of the sky and the heavens in the shaping of human consciousness, and all that goes with that, such as,
the eclipse-obsessed Babylonians; the Egyptian pharaohs who built pyramids to guide their souls to the stars; the Roman emperors who fought under the banner of the sun. Ideas about the cosmos have shaped the modern world, too. These influences are still deeply ingrained in our society – even if we’ve forgotten their origins – in our parliaments, churches, galleries, clocks and maps. Beliefs about the sun, moon and stars played a central role in the birth of Christianity, and in Europe’s exploration and domination of the planet. They guided the rebellious lawmakers who founded the principles of democracy and human rights, the economists who developed the frameworks on which capitalism depends, and even the painters who produced the first abstract art. (9)
Now, lest you think this is all bit much, let me assure you that Marchant’s book is very readable; a ‘good yarn’ one friend said. And our group will dance lightly over it all, with the primary focus on what we can learn from past human experience to build our spirituality and consciousness for the future. Perhaps for some of you, the even better news is that you won’t need to have read the book to participate in the presentation. Reading the blog will be enough.
We begin our journey with our fellow sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic (from around 50,000 to 12,000 years ago), those who bequeathed to us truly wonderful cave paintings and artefacts around the world, but particularly in southern France and northern Spain. They had a way of life that grounds important aspects of human spirituality. This is a bed-rock for us, I am suggesting. Although the upper paleolithics are many thousands of years further on from when humanity first emerged from the womb of unconsciousness, they have not strayed far from that womb. Life under the starry skies and the bright light of the sun is balanced by life in the warm embrace of the dark caves to which they always returned. And there is evidence that the two, the sky and the cave, were strongly linked in their consciousness.
Hunter/gatherer groups in the Palaeolithic were small groups, rarely more than 30 adults and children. It has been argued that they were largely egalitarian, with shared leadership between men and women. The gods had not yet been born. But the world was full of energies and life that were discerned and related to as personal being. Division between their inner worlds and the external world barely existed. Their religion as such was shamanic, with altered states of consciousness easily entered into, a process that the darkness of the caves probably enhanced. Possibly the most striking aspect of their spirituality is that their awareness is focussed principally on animals and geometric designs. With one known exception, humans are not depicted in the multitude of cave paintings we know about. They were absolutely part of all they surveyed and perceived, personally engaged. We (the human race) were not yet over and against the world at that stage. We were only dimily aware we have something different going on in our consciousness.
What can we take for our spirituality and consciousness from the palaeolithics? How can we incorporate the starry heavens and the warm embrace of complete darkness into our spiritual practices, activities and insights. How can we re-awaken the deeper life and wisdom within each one of us, as we face our uncertain future, and so feel more at home personally within the cosmos? Come and join the discussion and spiritual practices.