The last post ended with the idea that early human art was an attempt to communicate with the spirits of the land. Being a bit of an atheist, I tend to view ‘spirits’ and ‘gods’ as similar entities. But the spiritual is important, even to an old scientist like me. When chatting with our local theologian (Part 9), I questioned why God would give humans the right to dominate all other species. “No, God granted dominion, which is different.” OK, I always thought dominion and domination meant more or less the same thing, so let’s see where this goes.
Dominion means “control over a country or people”. The synonym given is “power to control”, which fits with the concept of humans looking for ways to prevent or lessen the impacts of nature’s vagaries. Humans are seeking the power to control nature—we stop trusting ‘the gods’ and acquire the arrogance to think we can do nature better ourselves. Domination, on the other hand, means “power or control over other people or things”, which sounds pretty similar to me! And guess what the synonym was? “Power to control”. So the difference must be pretty subtle, at least as far as the Cambridge online dictionary is concerned.
A blog I found put it like this: “Humans were given dominion over creation—that is, God asked them to take care of it.” Care? Let’s cast our minds back to Part 8 and Genesis 9:2, which says, “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.” How does one get from that to caring?
In Part 1, I referred to a series on BBC Radio 4 called Living With The Gods, in which historian Neil MacGregor considers the expression of shared beliefs in communities past and present. One episode seemed worth a re-listen for this post: Dependence or Dominion?
Recounting the story of Noah’s ark, Neil MacGregor refers to the biblical idea of dominion and its influence on how Western civilisation uses and abuses the natural world. What interested me most was that “…in this regard, the Judeo-Christian tradition is unusual. Most belief systems suggest a more subtle, reciprocal relationship between us and the living world; a relationship where dominion is tempered by dependence.” Ah ha, so there is something about the Judeo-Christian tradition which puts it at odds with other cultures, but let’s not get side-tracked.
Neil MacGregor tells of two traditions, one from Alaska and one from ancient Egypt—both reflecting a complex relationship between humans and their food. The Yup’ik depend on harvesting seals for food, clothing, and fuel for cooking and lighting. There is also a spiritual and social aspect to the seal harvest as the Yup’ik believe that a seal’s soul lies in its bladder. Each winter, a celebration of the lives of the animals harvested that year is held and thanks are given. The celebrations include releasing the bladders into the sea, so their kin will know that they were treated well and other seals will allow themselves to be harvested in future. It is a respectful relationship; all parts of the animal are used: skin, flesh, guts, bone, even whiskers. This is an obligation in respect of the animal; a frugal economy which honours the gift of a life.
Across space and time, in ancient Egypt, the annual flooding of the river Nile is celebrated as it is known to be essential for agriculture. Everything hinged on the proper balance of nature—too much flooding could destroy farms and settlements while too little could mean drought and famine. The balance was maintained by a god who lived and died—Osiris. Made some 2,500 years ago, the ‘corn mummy’ is a small statue of beeswax and earth made in the image of Osiris. The story goes that Osiris was a king of Egypt long ago, teaching agriculture to the Egyptians, giving them laws and civilising them. But his jealous brother killed him, cut his body up and scattered the bits throughout Egypt. Osiris’ wife, Isis, gathered all the pieces together and he was brought back to life, becoming the ruler of the underworld—the kingdom of the dead. The fundamental core of the Osiris myth is of a god who dies and returns to life, giving all mortals the hope of life after death.
The corn mummy has another secret to reveal. Break it open and it’s full of corn seeds; “it contains the fact of death and the sprouting of new life”, says MacGregor. These figures were a key part of the celebrations held around the annual Nile floods. As the waters receded and exposed the fertile silt, priests would gather seeds from the banks of the Nile, and mould the figure of Osiris. After a number of rituals, the figure is kept until the following year, when it is buried respectfully, and a new figure made. Seasonal renewal—the whole cycle continues. Osiris, the king and the god, lives, dies and lives again so the Egyptians might eat, and thereby live.
These stories come from “thought-worlds very different from our own, thought-worlds which may seem, to many, as little more than charming fictions. Yet both stories speak to truths and challenges of great importance to us today”. Unlike the total dominion assumed by Noah and his descendants, both indigenous Alaskans and ancient Egyptians, “living in radically different climates, devised practices that acknowledge their dependence on the natural world and engage everybody with the responsibility of cooperating with it. Our modern world has yet to come up with an equally coherent response to the natural forces beyond our control.”
Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and will revisit the concept of thought-worlds.