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From Murderous Domination to Fairness to the Gift

posted Jun 1, 2014, 9:16 AM by Jesse Dow
 So I was having this conversation with my dad right before the turn of the new year, and he was sharing with me an insight from the book Ishmael, about a gorilla sage. The conversation initiated a cascade of insight in me for which I'm just profoundly grateful. I'll offer a spoiler: I have come to love money! Anybody who knows me will find that a statement bit odd. If you want to know why, you'll have to read on... and on... and on, considering that I intend to write this little story in three separate parts.

So here goes. Part I: Murderous Domination

(Or, as some folks like to call it: The Odyssey)

The foundation of human civilization is generally agreed upon as the discovery and expansion of agriculture in the the fertile crescent. This expansion, my dad recently told me, was a process, first, of taking sticks and rocks, and killing everything in the earth within a particular area, and then planting in it the food you want. This 'kill and take' strategy turned out to be so successful, that folks doing it decided to expand. They posted a banner over their wattle-and-daub huts: AGRICULTURE: NOW EXPANDING! COME VISIT US AT OUR THREE NEW LOCATIONS! Not only did they kill plants and take their land, they started to kill people and take their land. Enter Civilization, stage right.

It was the birth of the myth of Odysseus. If you've read The Odyssey, you'll recognize the fundamental archetype of early civilization.

'Kill who you want, take what you want.'

If you were too weak to do it, then you were fair game for the strong. The ideal of perfection-- the goal toward which everybody aspired was Strength and Power. Morality didn't factor in, because if you sucked at killing people, then you were a failure and deserved to die. A significant offshoot, by the way, was that simply being born a woman made you a primary target-- not necessarily for death, but certainly for absolute domination (a noble concession on the part of the horny warlords).

The truth of the matter is that there was really no room in this story for women at all, except as a bit part.

For those who haven't read The Odyssey, a little background: Odysseus has fought long and hard in the Trojan War (chronicled in The Iliad), and is now on his way home. The journey turns out to be just absurdly arduous. He's kidnapped for years by a beautiful nymph (I know, right?), attacked and captured by a terrible cyclops, once again attacked by a whole cadre of gargantuan sea monsters. He meets a bunch of people from across the sea and beats them all up. All of this takes so damn long that everybody just ends up figuring he's dead.

The primary offshoot: a virtual army of suitors descend on Penelope (Odysseus' wife), and start killing each other to prove their worth. When Odysseus finally returns home, the story climaxes in an absolutely horrifying, graphic bloodbath. Homer seemed to take genuine, gruesome pleasure in writing this part.

Here's essentially what happens (if I remember correctly): Odysseus leaps through a window and slices and dices his way through every man in the great hall of his home, leaving literally not a single one left alive. He then, of course, sweeps Penelope into his arms, and shows her what it's like to be with a real man.

The story obviously chronicles the typical heroes journey of myth. One could even say that he's the primary model by which the journey is defined. He must face and beat unbeatable odds, a process that causes within him a total transformation. Through doing this, he demonstrates that he is worthy of the transformation. And the measure of his worth? Strength and Power. The transformation? Absolute, omnipotent Strength and Power. He's like the US Armed Forces.

There was something else in there about sheep, but I can't remember what it was.

So my dad gave me this insight into the beginning of civilization. The part about agriculture I knew. But the part about killing people and taking their land right off the bat was new to me. Oh, and, yeah, I have to admit with some embarrassment that I haven't yet read Ishmael. I just bought it, and read the first few pages, and I've been telling everybody I know, man, you've got to read this book! Turns out everybody already has. Oops.

But it got me thinking about those old myths. It got me thinking about Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, and, you know, those guys. The ones who killed whoever they wanted, and took whatever they wanted.

Life for your average Joe would have sucked back in those days. And for the average Jane, forget about it! We think that we have problems with sexism now! Or, I don't know, avoiding having your head chopped off by any guy who happens to decide that he wants to be great-- considering that that was the measure of greatness back in the day. That would be a bummer. To live there. And stuff.

So, in conclusion (ehem, ehem) I've had a little myth of my own for a while now. Here's the story of my myth (give a shout if you find it familiar): Human beings have been stuck for a long time. We've been riding the same old treadmill for so long that we're now well into the process of killing the planet. Our existing story, our myth, our archetype, if left unchecked, is invariably going to kill us all, and it might not take all that long to do it. We might actually be very near the end of this insane, deadly trajectory. And now the time has come! Our stagnation must end! It is time for us to gather together, to seek out our deepest internal resources, from our heart of hearts, and transform the very nature of human being! If the planet herself, and all of the beautiful living beings here are to survive, then nothing short of absolute and total transformation will do.

Why is this a myth? Well, I'll certainly stand behind the 'Transform or die!' part. Not much debate there. It's the 'We've been stagnant for a long time' part that has been all turned up on it's head for me. As far as I can tell, we've only just tipped the global balance from the previous story of 'Kill! Take! Kill!' to a new modern story back in World War II. That wasn't very long ago.

Why does this distinction matter? Well, I'd much rather be attempting to take on the impossible with my fellow humans if it's actually true that we've done it before.

And here I end. Tune in for next week's exciting installment, in which the following questions will be answered: What is our modern story that has replaced the 'Holly sh*t, that guy has a really big sword!' story? What's up with that Frodo Baggins guy anyway? And, why the hell did Jesse say that he loves money?!