T’other day at the Unitarian-Universalist, the talk was about Cain and Abel. As you may recall, Abel was a herder; Cain was a tiller of the soil. Abel’s sacrifice – dead animal – was approved by God, but Cain’s sacrifice – vegetables, I guess – was rejected. Cain got pissed and killed Abel and then God got pissed and cursed Cain, but put a mark on him so he would not be killed. (I encourage you to get out your King James and read the first half of Genesis 4.) We know that the Old Testament was written for, by and about the Semites, a herding people who rode up from the Arabian Peninsula and slaughtered the peoples of the Fertile Crescent, who were tillers.
See how that works? We are the Chosen Ones. We are herders. God likes herders and hates tillers. Therefore, we slaughter tillers and God likes us. A few thousand years later, white, European Christians figured out they could justify enslaving black, non-Christian Africans by declaring that their skin color was the “mark of Cain”. By then, the Christians were the tillers, while the heathen were largely hunter/gathers, but no matter. We have the Bible, so we make the rules.
Islam does the same thing. “There is no god but Allah” automatically means that anyone who does not worship Allah worships a devil and can be killed with impunity. Yes, “jihad” translates as “action” and can be taken to refer to the internal struggle between good and evil, but it can – and is, daily – be used to justify shootings, bombings and various other types of killing.
I’m wandering around to a point here, which is this: monotheism tends to exclusivity tends to violence. Or maybe violent people with exclusionary tendencies become monotheists. Whatever – they go together. The Semites didn’t invent any of it, by the by. I’m not blaming anything on the Jews. Significant portions of Genesis were taken from Zoroastrianism, which was possibly the original monotheism. And I have to say that exclusive monotheism has served the Jews very well. The reason that there are Jews today, despite the efforts of medieval Catholics, Hitler, Stalin and other assorted assholes, is the terrific strength of the Jewish community, held together by exclusive monotheism.
Hinduism, being neither monotheistic nor exclusive does not have the same history of violence that the big three monotheistic religions have. Certainly, many Hindus have gone to war. There was a warrior caste, for shit’s sake, but those were wars of conquest fought by Hindus, not Hindu wars. The battle in the Gita is one between two groups of Hindus, two branches of the same royal family, fighting over control of real estate. That’s a very different type of conflict.
Buddhism, as I said before, has no warrior tradition. Japan’s warrior caste, the Samurai, did embrace Zen, but they were motivated by Zen’s results: impersonal action, lack of fear, the ability to withstand hardship. Many Samurai, when they got too old to serve their overlords, put away their swords and withdrew from the world to practice Zen meditation. They knew the way of the sword was not the goal of Buddhism.
Hunter/gatherer societies tend to be more alike than different because they are hunter/gatherers. A society’s economy – how they get their food – determines how the society operates. Wherever in the world you look, hunter/gatherers have very similar social structures, divisions of labor according to gender and myth. A lot of that is simply practical. Women have to nurse the babies so it just makes sense for the women to do all the domestic stuff. Inbreeding causes birth defects so it’s a good idea to have a system that prevents people from marrying `close relatives. Other aspects of hunter/gathererism are not practical, but do tend to follow from the lifestyle.
I hike in the woods frequently. I try to explore new areas, but I do hike the same places again and again, in different seasons, different weather and different states of mind. I see the same rocks and streams and trees over and over and it is very easy for me to think of those natural features as individuals. There’s that strange tree. I remember that rock from the last time I was here. I’m sure other people have the same experience. Take that a step or so further and you arrive at animism. “Anima” means “spirit”. Animism is the belief that all things have their own spirit: every rock, stream, bug, buffalo. Everything is animated.
Hunter/gatherers tend to be animists. They also tend to be in a constant state of war. The Lakota were always at war with the Crow, unless I’m getting my tribes confused. The Sambia were always at war with anyone not Sambia. All hunter/gatherer males over the age of twelve or so must be warriors. In many societies, a man would not be recognized as fully a man unless he had been to war. The Zulus forbade marriage to any male who had not distinguished himself in battle and there was no sex outside marriage, which may be why the Zulu warriors were so eager to get some British blood on their spears. Poor bastards.
Still, constant war does not mean frequent bloodshed. Hunter/gatherers do enjoy their rituals and the longer, the better. The Indians would have done a lot better against the United States Army if they hadn’t been impeded by their ritualistic approach to war which meant a lot of purification and chanting and dancing and going off to cry to spirits and so on while all the soldiers had to do was reload. The ritualistic approach works better when both sides are playing by the same rules. Two groups of hunter/gatherers, each, with their own elaborate rituals to attend to, can be in a state of constant war and have one or two battles a year, each battle yielding one or two killed and a few more wounded.
Think of that. Two tribes go to war. Representatives meet and agree to have a battle at a certain place, a few months later. Both groups begin the process of purification and getting ready, fasting, arming, painting shields, calling on spirit helpers, publicly boasting about how much better their group is &c. Finally, the day arrives. Everybody packs a lunch and heads to the battlefield. It’s almost like a carnival. All the young bucks swagger around in their most impressive regalia while the old vets look stern and hard. Formal insults are shouted between the two sides for a while and then a lot of clattering swords against shields before the warriors engage. The goal is to get some blood on your blade so you can show everybody and if you can pick up a minor would that will leave a scar, that’s good too. When it gets dark, everybody goes home to drink beer and talk about how much better their side was.
That isn’t a complete picture of hunter/gatherer warfare by any means. Certainly, tribes engage in some unseemly practices: night raids, child stealing, ambush, rape. But the scene I just painted has happened – I’ve seen footage. I would say that is how wars should be fought. That is the highest, most spiritual way to engage in war, the only way to engage in warfare honorably and with respect for the humanity of the other side.
Backing up a little, two warrior bands meet, fight and the victors scalp and hack up the enemy dead. I’m okay with that too. Native Americans scalped the enemy dead to prevent them from returning to get revenge – and for trophies. Makes sense.
Flying halfway around the world to kill total strangers who never did anything to me so that big oil companies can give even bigger bonuses to their CEO’s and gouge me at the gas pump? That don’t make a lick of sense.
War in myth. I’m all for it. In the context of monotheism, I find it somewhat troubling because it tends toward large-scale slaughter. In the context of polytheism or animism, I think it serves very good purposes. In any case, I support the metaphoric interpretation: the battle that must be fought is the internal one. What is my cause? How do I define my right? To what lengths am I willing to go? Will I fight to the end or give up when the battle seems lost?
I know how I want to answer those questions. I also know how hard it is to live up to the standards I set for myself.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.