January 27th, 2005

Dionysus

Blessed gods and feral humans

A couple of times now I've mentioned "feral" human beings. Here's what I mean by that. All kinds of people have wondered what human beings are like when you take them out of civilization, how do they live? Evolutionary biologists wonder about this, and geneticists, and anthropologists, and psychologists, and sociologists, and poets, and theologians, and philosophers, and political scientists, and just about every dead-tired group of caffeine-wired college students talking BS at 3:00 in the morning. Too bad none of them ever think to ask historians who specialize in either or both dark ages, because they don't wonder about this: they know. On at least two separate occasions, western civilization has disintegrated and the tiny remnant who lived through the fall were thrown out into a depopulated wilderness to survive any way they could. Both times, and in almost every place, human society followed the same path back up towards civilization.

Early in the process, human beings naturally form up in bands of 4 to 10 families, following one person who has demonstrated an ability to keep his family, and another 3 to 9 families, alive in a hostile environment. This primitive band of hunters, gatherers, and scavengers, this tiny "kingdom" of no more than 20 adults and perhaps as many kids, is what I call a band of feral human beings. It can take generations to accumulate or luck into what it will take to advance beyond hunter/gatherer/scavenger/raider life. They'll need to store up enough food that they can survive a whole year without migrating. They'll need enough seeds to plant. They'll need mated pairs of at least a couple of food animals and another mated pair of at least one kind of draft animal. They'll need minimal farming and building tools and a tool-making kit. Then, even more importantly, they have to find an unused site with all of the advantages necessary to build a permanent settlement: access to fresh water, enough flat fertile soil to grow crops on for ten or more families, and the right amount of rainfall. Then they can build a great house, and 3 to 9 smaller farm houses around it. Then it's the job of the leading family to protect what they have from other feral bands of raiders and scavengers, and when they run low or out of anything, or need slaves, to lead the men of the new settlement on raids of their own.

I'm sure that you noticed a long time ago that in fairy tales and myths, every fourth person or so that we meet is some kind of a king, queen, prince, or princess. Most people assume that this is because of the celebrity effect: those are the only people whose stories get preserved. No, I don't think so. I think it's because most of these stories date to times when feral human beings are trying to rebuild civilization, and in such an environment every fourth person is a king, queen, prince, or princess, or at least one out of every twenty.

Now in most places and most times, what comes next is practically programmed, and progresses as if on rails. The more successful settlements raid the less successful settlements, and finally annex them for their farmland. They enslave the locals, make the local leading family a barony or whatever, and we've begun the process of restoring feudal monarchy. Feudal monarchies expand until they come into conflict with each other, and war until there are only a handful of equally powerful, huge, multi-level feudal monarchies holding each other at bay. Then a time of relative peace arrives, and people inside those monarchies insist on improvements in their lives (whether they get them or not), and hey, that's the history of human civilization.

Now, go back to Greece and western Turkey around 1000, maybe 900 BCE. It's five or six generations after the fall of the bronze age, and other than the fact that there once was a golden age where life wasn't so brutal, hardly anybody remembers anything about it. Tiny little kingdoms dot the map, but in Greece in particular the fertile farmland is so scarce that none of them are really thriving, let alone expanding. And it is into these places at this time, according to the sources we have, that the gods of ancient Greece appeared. They performed miracles, intermittently rewarded virtue, intermittently punished vice, and occasionally stayed long enough to teach lost or new technologies. The men among them fathered a couple of dozen children by human women. They didn't say much about themselves. They said, or left the impression, that they were the 3rd and latest generation of gods since the origin of life on earth. They made it clear that the one of their number they called Zeus was the ruler of all of them, was the one that they trusted (or were required to trust) to render judgment, the court of final appeal. But other than that, they said very little about themselves; most of what is written in the songs and hymns and poems and sagas and epics and founding legends is speculation.

As the cities that they encouraged to grow became less tenuous, their survival more assured, and civilization more secure, the blessed gods themselves were seen in person less and less. It was a gradual process. They stayed involved in the lives of their descendants the longest. But long after they'd stopped being seen in person, those who remembered the miracles the gods had performed recognized them when events that defied all logic or luck occurred. Sometimes all the lucky breaks go your way. Sometimes a person is witnessed to be in two places at once, but one of him seems to be speaking unusually intelligently, or performing far above his or her normal level in some way. Sometimes a person opens their mouth and says something they don't know why they said, but the "winged words" pierce the hearts of the listeners and they know why that person said it: a god spoke through them. They attribute all these things to the gods not because they're superstitious or ignorant, but because it's a recorded part of their history that when the gods walked openly among men, that was their modus operandi.

Maybe they were right, maybe they were wrong. But the gods told them that on occasion, as time permits, at such times as the gods find it interesting or worthwhile to do so, they act (or at least acted) to reward virtue, or to punish vice. Even if they no longer act to reward virtue or punish vice, virtue and vice do in the long run act as their own reward and punishment. What's more, whether or not the gods still act to get their ways, there is such a thing as luck, if only lucky timing. (For example, I could go back through personal computer history and show you two dozen different designs from as many different companies for personal computers and personal computer operating systems. Microsoft's success owes nothing to its superiority over those companies either in design or execution, and everything to luck and lucky timing.) If those who knew the gods best believed that more good luck accrues to those who show virtue before the gods or their spies, and less bad luck accrues to those who eschew vice in the sight of the gods or their spies, isn't it prudent to keep that suggestion in mind?

Next: What was unique and special about the Greeks and their relationship with their gods? And probably either next or next after that, the conclusion: What's that got to do with us living here in America and in the rest of the world?