Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Golden Age

The Golden Age by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

According to Hesiod, the Golden Age was a time when:

[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.
 Throughout European history there has been a feeling of nostalgia for this Age and it has manifested itself in many different ways.  Abrahamic religion has of course its own version - the Garden of Eden and other cultures throughout the world have similar references to a simpler, more natural way of being.   Ovid wrote of this time, echoing Hesiod that:
The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new, No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew: And, with a native bent, did good pursue. Unforc'd by punishment, un-aw'd by fear.
His words were simple, and his soul sincere; Needless was written law, where none opprest: The law of Man was written in his breast.
 When Columbus first encountered native people in the Americas he wrote back to his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella:
So tractable, so peaceable, are these people that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.

It would seem, from this description, that Columbus had discovered a place which still lived in the Golden Age.  But the gold he and his successors sought was far from metaphorical.  I do not intend here to describe what happened to these "decorous and praiseworthy" people - but it is enough to say that in North America today, power has a white European face.

The discovery of the Americas sparked the imagination of Europe.  While some saw it as an opportunity for wealth others saw  a land of souls awaiting salvation through knowledge of Jesus.  There was a third current which idealised the inhabitants, following such accounts as Columbus'.  Perhaps, they said, the natives of the new World were living as humanity lived before the Fall - perhaps America was the new Eden.  This strand of thought can be seen in Shakespeare's The Tempest where Gonzalo proclaims that were he king on the island.
I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;--
...All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.

In 1622, some 11 years after the first performance of the Tempest, however, John Donne preached to the Virginia company on their bounden duty to spread Christianity and European values:

 ...bless it so in this calm that when the tempest comes it may ride it
out.  Safely bless it so with friends now that it may stand against
enemies hereafter. Prepare thy self a glorious harvest there and
give us leave to be thy labourers that, so the number of thy saints
being fulfilled, we may with better assurance join in that prayer
"come lord Jesus come quickly" and so meet all in that kingdom
which the son of GOD hath purchased for us with the inestimable
price of his incorruptible blood    

(spelling and punctuation modernised)

Donne himself, however, also saw in the Americas a source of wealth other than souls:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,   
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!          
(From Elegy XIX, To His Mistress Going to Bed)

The Americas, therefore, had  a triple appeal to the imaginations of the Early Modern Europeans.  They were, simultaneously, a source of great wealth, a land to be claimed for God and, lastly, an Edenic paradise.  Donne seemed to have had no difficulty in reconciling the first two and in so doing seems to have gone some way towards the establishment of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

The third, however, retains an appeal to this day.  Everyday on Facebook it seems to me that someone posts a picture of a Native American above a quote extolling the value of closeness to the earth.  Laurens Van Der Posts writings of the Kalahari had a great impact on many, not least the heir to the British crown.  The Golden Age cherished by royalty and the aristocracy however has been that of a pastoral Arcadia. The Tudor and Stuart courts  encouraged pastoral drama and poetry, including As You Like It, works by poets like Marvell and Herrick, and some delightfully scabrous satires by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, such as Fair Chloris in a Pigsty Lay. (Warning maybe NSFW!)

A century or so later,  Marie Antoinette dressed as a shepherdess and milked thoroughly washed cows into fine porcelain churns in the gardens of Versailles 

And our present monarchy delights in appearing to be close to nature, reserving vast tracts of countryside in order to do so.  Although I must say that Elizabeth's costume is more appropriate than Marie Antoinette's:

and Charles does not pretend to be doing any real work:

The Golden Age that seems to appeal to many, including Royalty, is an age of rustic charm.  A Merrie England where Herrick's maidens dance around the Maypole or where old ladies cycle back from Evensong.  It is the land of squires and swains living in charming villages with duckponds and roses. It is the land that Danny Boyle seems to wish to evoke in his design for the Olympic ceremony.  It is a land where, as MacNeice put it, "all the milk is cream and all the girls are willing".   It is also, in another context, the land evoked by Nazi propaganda:

It is, in reality, Tess Darbyfield dancing with her friends before she aspires to become a D'Urberville.  For this is, and here is the serpent in this particular garden,  above all a land where hierarchy is honoured and unchallenged.  Even Gonzalo, in his evocation of an ideal state puts himself - as his companions point out - in the position of king.  It is in the acceptance of the hierarchical paradigm that the pastoral version of the Golden Age differs from that described by Hesiod and Ovid.

In his famous sermon at Blackheath during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the Lollard priest John Ball said:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?  From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

Ball speaks of the rise of hierarchy as having occurred sometime, but not immediately, after the fall from Eden.  He invokes the equality of all human beings as ordained by his god.  Hierarchy, he says, is the work of "naughty men" who have enslaved the free people of god.  What is notable about his image is that it all clearly takes place after the discovery of agriculture.  In Eden food was freely available and, as Adam and Eve were both naked, there was no need of spinning.

Eden and the Classical Golden Age clearly preceded agriculture. The ideas are clearly  memories of the time when our species survived as hunter-gatherers, as we did for most of out history on the planet.  Bands of hunter-gatherers that survive today tend towards social equality with leadership, when necessary, dependent on skill, experience and the respect of peers.  The optimum number that such bands can contain appears to be around 150 - when numbers exceed that, there tends to be a split into two bands.  Such small numbers mean that each member knows each other member very intimately - they are fully aware of the strengths, weaknesses and personal foibles of each.  They are dependent on each other and tend to rely on co-operation rather than coercion.  They eat what is available, and when food sources dry up they move on.

According to Hobbes, their lives were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".  Hobbes was writing in defence of absolute monarchy at the time of the English Civil War and he saw strong centralised rule as the only alternative to the chaos of "the war of all against all".  For all its apparent ills, he maintained, strong government was a prerequisite for any functioning human society. The opinions he articulates still inform much of today's discourse.  They can be seen as one of the strongest motivations behind the missionary endeavours of the Christian churches and can be seen as already present in Donne's sermon.

It was with such views that the earliest Europeans landed in Australia.  What they saw there appalled them.  The native people were clearly starving and impoverished since they ate grubs and rats and were nearly naked.  Furthermore, they were lazy and spent most of their time sitting or lying around.  Clearly, it was the duty of good Christian men to do something about this and bring them up to the standards of civilisation.  It was, after all, for their own material and spiritual good that this should happen.  If any should resist such a mission it was then necessary, regrettably, to punish them.  This mission continued well into the 20th Century.

However, what the early settlers also noticed, but conveniently ignored,  was that many of the "starving" people were fat and healthy.   Far fatter and healthier, in fact, than those who arrived from British cities and villages.  For the world they lived in was, to them, a world of abundant food ready to be plucked or hunted with relatively little real effort.  Modern foraging inhabitants of the Kalahari, which to outsiders seems bleak and desolate, can consume over 2000 calories and over 90 grams of protein daily.  It is, moreover, a varied diet and far more balanced than that of most inhabitants of modern cities.  Hobbes was, in short, wrong.

The Golden Age was, then, the long period of time when human beings lived as hunter-gatherers, moving around as the season dictated.  It was the time before the invention of agriculture, before the Fall when all around was Eden.  It was also, according to archaeology, a time when divinity was seen as female.  We cannot know how she was honoured then nor how people viewed her interactions with humanity.  We cannot replicate such things in a world of cities, rapid transport and the internet.  We cannot become hunter-gatherers roving a sparsely-inhabited, mostly abundant, world.  We may, to use Joni Mitchell's words, be starlight and golden but we cannot return to the Garden.

Not as it was, that is.  There is, however, another Garden that we can strive for.  We can choose which of two different sets of human characteristics we value. For most of our time on the planet, we survived through co-operation and human society reflected this.  Since the advent of agriculture the dominant value has been competition and rivalry.  Both sets characteristics are "natural" - they are maybe part of our evolutionary development. The  "naughty men", however, have had things too  long their own way..  It is time to reinforce the peacemaker.  It is time to bring back the Goddess into public consciousness.  And She is returning. 

It will not, however, be a Golden Age.  It will be, and is now being, actively opposed. For those deluded enough to think that the purpose of life is to accrue wealth and power, co-operation between free individuals presents the ultimate threat.  The world today, with 7bn inhabitants, is vast and complex.  For those who serve Goddess there are many challenges, both from without and from within the patriarchally conditioned minds we inhabit.  It needs far more than healing ceremonies, valuable though they may be,  and wishful thinking.  It needs both vision and work.  It needs reaching out to others of similar vision, however they define themselves.  We are attempting something entirely new, grounded though it may be in our imaginations of the distant past. However accurate those imaginings may be and however supported  by empirical evidence, we can never claim them as undisputed fact - at best they can only be probable.

Just as John Lennon said "There ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky", Goddess will not descend trailing clouds of glory and, while wiping away each tear, create the world anew.  That is down to us, fallible though we be.


A Northern Witch said...

Indeed your right, great post!

Idris said...

Thank you.