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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.
It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who found dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.
And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!
The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tabley features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.
The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V he heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.
The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.
It’s Earth Day, the arbitrary day in April which we have chosen represent the splendor of the biosphere. More accurately the day is a PR soapbox, which environmentalists use to harangue everyone about the truly disastrous job humankind is doing in our self-appointed role as stewards of life on the planet. I agree with the environmentalists—I guess I am an environmentalist! Humankind is using up too much of the biosphere for ignominiously stupid things. We have Problems (with a capital “P”) yet we spend most of our time worrying about Justin Bieberlake and whether the consumer goods we purchase properly reflect our status. For Earth Day, instead of writing about fracking, drought, or overfishing, I am going to write about chickens and status. Status is what social animals crave more than anything. It is the crux of our life. Yet the mad quest for status causes us to make awful decisions for ourselves and for the world.
Let’s start with chickens. Chickens are social creatures. They have a very intense “pecking order” of who gets to do what–which is literally based on pecking. When I was growing up we had a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens. The rooster was on top of the pecking order and he would eat first and peck any subordinate chicken he liked. The top hens had bright red feathers and shiny eyes. They pecked subordinate hens, who in turn were cruel to their social inferiors…and so forth. At the bottom of the heap were some sad-looking hens who got pecked by everyone else. They were the dull red color of old bricks and their feathers were falling out. The very bottom hen was a festering mess of sores. She was almost always eaten by a hawk or a raccoon (if we humans didn’t put her in the pot first).
It is an exceedingly accurate model of humankind. In each society, the glistening cocks at the apex of society have unlimited access to resources and freely mistreat anyone beneath them. People at the bottom of society are in real physical danger from their low estate and could easily die from disease, exposure, or crime. However the way we attain this hierarchy is determined by social dynamics much more complicated than those on display in the poultry yard. After middle school we can’t actually hit each other without involving constables and lawsuits, so we base our status grabbing on a more complicated set of networks and social markers.
To continue with the theme of chicken, my roommate always aggressively points out that she purchases organic free-range food–unlike certain benighted philistines who just buy the cheapest factory-farm chicken (I guess this is due to my insatiable desire to harm the planet, torture living creatures, and poison myself and everyone else with “toxins”?). I have seen a “free-range” chicken farm—and it looked like a factory farm with a dinky wired-in aviary appended. Maybe it would be better to be a chicken living there, but probably not by much—certainly not to me anyway.
My roommate is an exceedingly lovely and gentle person who earnestly doesn’t want chickens to be tortured (but still wants to eat chicken, because, let’s face it, that’s what humans like to eat). Why am I picking on her? For status of course! To push my political agendas and ideologies!
Our pursuit of most things is really a pursuit of status: resources, mates, health, political power, unfettered access to knowledge…all good things come from high-status.
In my book, the people who have the highest status are people who have lavish flower gardens and lots of medieval Chinese porcelain (perhaps this mindset explains why I am a jobless lout writing an eccentric blog). Most Americans would probably dwell on other status criteria—the most injurious automobile, the lowest trousers, or praying loudest in church. Status-markers comes in so many flavors that it is sometimes difficult to recognize how central it is to who we are.
I am worried that Earth Day has become a part of our ceaseless attempts to one-up each other. It is like my roommate’s “free-range” chicken legs: a foolish status object rather than a way we can legitimately determine how to best preserve the vast fragile web of interlocking ecosystems.
Mother Nature chose to apportion chickens’ share of resources based on how they peck each other. Evidently she chose to apportion human agendas by how we choose and display our cars, our meals, our houses, and our gardens. Our ideas are related to our social position and how we portray ourselves. Hence our endless jejune jockeying over whose stuff is better, or tastier, or more moral, or greener, or more expensive. Political consensus is attained by a synthesis of endless small-scale aesthetic and moral choices which add up to large-scale policy choices.
This bothers me because I find many high-status “green” ideas to be bad ideas. If we rely on “organic” produce which requires vastly more land, water, and energy to produce, we will use up all the world’s land without being able to feed everyone. Likewise many “sustainable” energy sources like ethanol, solar panels, and dams use more energy than they create…or cause waste or environmental degradation. People who oppose nuclear power plants (in favor of fracking I guess?), and embrace resource-devouring, erosion-causing organic farming frustrate me. But their motives are often noble and praiseworthy.
“Earth Day” seems like a button or a bumper sticker (and a sanctimonious and unfun one at that). Our true problems…and opportunities…are much greater and more difficult to grasp and popularize. But a button, a bumper sticker, a sanctimonious “holiday” are a start. So is a confused and self-contradictory essay about the politics of environmentalism. Happy Earth Day! We’ll keep working on this. There are solutions to our very-real environmental problems, but they are going to require scientific research, hard work, and sacrifice of some cherished sacred cows (or chickens) by everyone.
According to archaeologists, the first agricultural animals were goats, which humankind domesticated 11,000 years ago. Curiously, the Greek myth concerning the childhood of Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon, reflects this ancient connection. Having tricked Cronus (the rapacious father of Zeus) into swallowing a stone instead of her infant son, Rhea, Zeus’ mother, was naturally unable to raise her child. She sent the baby into hiding on Crete where he was raised by nymphs and suckled on the milk of the divine goat, Amalthea.
The Greeks themselves seem puzzled by Amalthea. While most ancient authors wrote about her as a supernatural goat tended by nymphs, a few seem to think she was herself a nymph/goddess. Classical mythology contains a few other ambiguous divinities who were simultaneously animals and their magical tenders (the Crommyonian Sow for example is another such figure) and it is not unreasonable to think they might be borrowed deities which came from more ancient religions now lost to us. Being a goat-based maternal goddess figure from Crete, Amalthea certainly makes sense in this context. Minoan culture predated classical Greek civilization by thousands of years: its religion revolved around fertility goddesses, horned altars, and livestock.
Whatever the case, Zeus was tenderly raised by the magical goat on her supernatural milk and he swiftly grew to mighty adulthood. Then, when he was ready to begin his war on the titans, he killed Amalthea, skinned her, and fashioned her hide into his impregnable aegis–a symbol of his omnipotent authority second only to the lightning bolt. He broke off Amalthea’s magic horn and made it into the cornucopia (which forever provides an endless bounty of food) and gave it to the nymphs. He then hung his foster mother among the stars as the constellation Capra and set off to make war on the titans.
The story sits jarringly with modern conscience but I suspect it resonated with herdspeople, who must sometimes take an unsentimental view of their livestock. With our endless supply of meat and milk from factory agriculture and all of our leather luxury goods we might be a bit presumptuous to judge Zeus (whose carnal appetite, jealous persona, and rages have always struck me as an oversized portrait of human temperament anyway).
Indeed, I am telling this story just before Earthday, that most uncomfortable of holidays, for a reason. It strikes me that humankind is well represented by Zeus in the brutal tale above. We sprang quickly to whatever uneasy mastery we enjoy thanks to keen and methodical exploitation of the natural world (not least the domesticated animals and plants we rely on). We ourselves are animals (chordates, mammals, primates, hominids, humans) an undeniable part of nature, but we seem bent on consuming or altering every living system in our mad quest for godhood. The real question we should ask for Earthday is whether this is a worthwhile quest? If so can we pursue it more responsibly? Could we even stop if we chose to? The answers are not necessarily happy or easy ones.
In the epic stories of Hinduism, Lord Vishnu, the sovereign protector of the universe, was always fighting power hungry demons and monsters (for example one such myth explains the formation of Lake Lonar). Some of Vishnu’s opponents, however, were much more terrible than others. Among the very worst was a filthy albeit incredibly puissant asura named Hiranyaksha (asuras were malevolent and greedy demon-gods). Hiranyaksha was the son of Diti, an earth-goddess who sought–through means of her monstrous children–to overthrow Indra (the king of the gods). Hiranyaksha had golden eyes and a written pledge from Brahma that no god or man or beast could kill him. Through some oversight, the boar alone was missing from the list.
Not satisfied with the many atrocities he had committed and the many beautiful things he had stolen, Hiranyaksha grew truly ambitious. He stole the entire earth and carried it to the bottom of a polluted ocean.
From time to time, Vishnu took on mortal incarnations–or more properly, “avatars”–to conduct his battles against the forces which sought to destroy or subvert the world. In his third avatar lifetime, Vishnu appeared in the form of a colossal boar, named Varaha in order to fight Hiranyaksha. Varaha sprang out of Brahma’s nostril as a tiny pig, but he grew and grew until he had reached a size sufficient to lift the entire world. This great boar dived down into the cosmic ocean to find Hiranyaksha and kill him. For an entire millennium, the two opponents battled in the poison depths. Finally Varaha gained an advantage. With his tusks he tore open the demon and with his great mace he smashed Hiranyasha’s head. Varaha/Vishnu then lifted the earth back to its correct position with his snout!
The story nicely follows up on the porcine theme of last month’s post and Hiranyaksha is an interesting addition to the Deities of the Underworld category, but what real relevance can such an abstract story have for us? Surely nobody could be so greedy and insane as to try to steal the entire earth and drown it in poisons. And if such a terrible thing were to happen, what reviled but titanic force could spring from Brahma’s head to assume the role of the big pig and rescue earth from wicked corpora…um demons.
Sigh, well, it is Earth Day again. I love this planet with its nitrogen skies, mighty oceans, super volcanoes, araucaria forests, and self-inflating parrots–to name a smattering of Earth’s numberless glories. However this particular holiday always vexes me. From the egregious murderer who claims to have co-invented it (and acted as MC at the countercultural first Earth Day in 1970), to the oodles of smug, media-friendly pseudo advice, to the “greenwash” which huge companies churn out to appear ecologically sensitive, the whole earth day movement seems a parody of humanity’s excess and hypocrisy rather than a real attempt to curb the same.
Nevertheless (if any readers are still with me) I have an earnest Earth Day post in the form of an apology to the poor dead whale whose garbage-filled carcass drifted up onto a Seattle beach two days ago. The 37 foot long gray whale had 50 gallons of sludge in his stomach including plastic garbage like six-pack rings, sweat pants, and grocery bags. The whale was not killed by the waste in his system, but he was stressed, emaciated, alone, and had gashes on his head from being struck by boat propellers.
I’m a plastics manufacturer, a capitalist, and a consumer (although I am only really successful at consuming) and I feel like this is probably my fault as much as it is anyone’s. I import vinyl China-goods from across the Pacific on container ships and ship them across the continent via petrol truck. Additionally, I purchase all sorts of plastic things and trade goods from overseas. I’m a carnivore who eats from factory farms. It goes without saying that I eat as many anchovies, squid, crab and tasty sea creatures as I can fit in my stomach. Likewise, I gorge myself on out-of-season fruits and vegetables (which must be shipped). I like America’s big crazy military and I’m a technophile to boot. I think that the solutions to our problems can only be found through learning more and building better stuff.
Can I defend these positions? Yes: although I cast them in a stark light in that last paragraph, I think they are defensible and mostly logical—probably the best positions currently available given global realities. Furthermore, reader, even if you say you are eco-friendly, your own actual positions are probably fairly similar: you may not like the military or own a toy company but you pay taxes and buy plastic junk. [I exempt vegetarians—you guys really are different and I rather admire you for it.]
But are my life and my outlook a problem for the earth’s ecosystem? Yes, I think so. We are eating the oceans empty and filling them with rubbish. Frogs are dying off worldwide and crazy blights are everywhere killing bats and trees and bees (and whales). Clearly something is wrong.
I am sorry, whale, for your death. Like all good hearted people, I love cetaceans and it makes me sad that you are gone. I accept my blame. But I like people too: how many of our teaming billions must go unfed or unemployed if we really try to reign in capitalism? How much will it truly help the whales (and the wee shrimpkins on which they feed) to be a locavore or wear a hemp mumu or create layer after layer of eco authority? I don’t know, and I don’t believe the people who claim to know. From now on, I’ll try harder to find out which ideas are workable solutions to our environmental ills and distinguish them from those which are only more subtle forms of greenwash.