How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Oedipus, Gilgamesh, Hubris and the Contemporary Failures of Western Civilization

“Gilgamesh, wherefore do you wander?
The eternal life you are seeking you shall not find.
When the gods created mankind,
They established death for mankind,
And withheld eternal life for themselves.
As for you, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Always be happy, night and day,
Make every day a delight,
Night and day play and dance.
Your clothes should be clean,
Your head should be washed,
You should bathe in water,
Look proudly on the little one holding your hand,
Let your mate be always blissful in your loins,
This, then, is the work of mankind. (1)"

Since man first put pen to paper to craft the story of his own existence, he has sewn tales of the tragedy of pride. Across the centuries and millennia of human literary history, Gilgamesh, Oedipus, King Lear, Willie Lowman and other protagonists share a fate unaltered by the progress of civilization or the passing of time. The blindness of hubris spells one’s doom.

We are all Oedipus. Like the oracles from the very texts of literary heritage, we have prophesized the climactic fall of our own civilization, but like our memorialized heroes, we march blindly to our demise. Humanity has placed itself upon a pedestal above all life and nature itself. We have altered the landscapes upon which our very lives depend without consideration of consequences, proudly believing the very ideologies and technologies that have brought our species to the brink of catastrophe will be the source of our salvation. But as Einstein, the great genius of the modern world noted, to continue the same behavior and expect a different outcome defines insanity. Like our tragic heroes, the only possibility of salvation will come from humility. To do so, we will have to reject everything we accept as cultural gospel, but all is not lost.  We have not always succumbed to the folly of pride. We have an alternative past and future destiny.

For most of the hundreds of thousands of years that chart human history, people lived sustainably and peacefully on the Earth. Some still do. The myriad tribes of First People lived on the North American continent for tens of thousands of years without diminishing the resource base. The same can be said of Australia’s Aborigines and the Bushmen of Africa. In Eurasia, an extensive archaeological record dating to the dawn of agriculture and beyond finds no tools of warfare and details human cultures, living peacefully in small, egalitarian communities. Each of the sustainable, peaceful cultures shares a common thread of belief, worshipping Earth as the living embodiment of divine creation, the Great Mother (2).

Then, beginning approximately six-thousand years ago, a cultural shift swept across the Eurasian continent. Warriors on horseback, armed with military weapons of iron drove into Europe in waves from the Volga Steppe and Caucasus Mountains of modern day Russia. Over time, archaeological evidence records a violent cultural shift. Fortifications appear around settlements where none previously existed. Burial sites, once simple, respectful tributes to the deceased, are replaced with shrines to powerful men. Mass graves of murdered men, women and children convey a period of brutal warfare. Most telling is the replacement of once ubiquitous ceramic figurines depicting a voluptuous female form, tributes to the Great Mother, with ceramic images of male gods of war and domination (3). The peaceful, egalitarian people of Europe and their goddess Mother Earth had no defense against the armed horsemen from the East and their male gods of domination, and this is where the history of Western Civilization’s sustainable relationship with nature ends. Dating from approximately 3,000 B.C.E., a steady and constant deterioration of Earth’s natural infrastructures can be traced into the modern era.

Coincidentally, the earliest known work of literature, dates to roughly the same era as the neolithic cultural shift and puts to verse the saga of the overthrow of the Great Earth Mother’s reign. In the epic Sumerian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s first literary hero, Gilgamesh, boldly dominates nature in both her physical and divine forms, laying to ruin primordial forests and openly defying fertility rites with the Earth goddess Ishtar. In spite of Gilgamesh’s successful dominance over nature, he cannot achieve his primary aim, immortality.

From the earliest sparks of our Western Civilization so eloquently depicted by the Sumerians, humankind has pursued the same epic, but futile quest. To justify our feelings of grandiosity, we have developed religious, political, economic and sexual credenda that reinforce our fatally-flawed hubris. In the ultimate argumentum ad hominem fallacy, we cite Christianity, democracy, capitalism, the suppression of feminine values and all the other dogmatic creations of western culture, as proof of the validity of our creed of male human dominance over all other living things, but for all our control over nature, even the most powerful among us is immune to her final judgment. We are destined rot in the bowels of the Earth and in doing so return back to the source that created us.

High on the power that dominion brings, we continue like our own tragic heroes engaging in and exalting the very behavior that precipitates our ultimate downfall.  How sad.  As the oracle suggests, our time would be far better spent letting our stomachs be full, gazing on the little ones who hold our hands and letting our mates be blissful in our loins.

1-  Foster. Benjamin, R. (editor), 2001. The Epic of Gilgamesh. W. W. Norton and Company, p. 100 (Tablet 10, lines 77-91).The Epic of Gilgamesh (Norton Critical Editions)
2-  See Gimbutas, Marija Alseikaite, 1991. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. Harper San Francisco, p. 222.The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe
3-  Ibid, p. 48.
4-  Ibid, pp. 364-399.
5-  See Foster, B., 229 pages.


  1. It's difficult to contemplate
    the future that may be our fate,
    ...but looking at ruin
    ...that is our own doin',
    to save Mother, will we be too late?

  2. @Rhymer, I suspect, along with many climate scientists, that we may indeed be too late. Thank you for another relevant rhyme.

  3. You should try to make this sound less sexist.

  4. @Anonymous, please educate me. What in particular do you find sexist about the above text?

  5. No diminishing of the resource base by "First Nations"? Then tell me where I can find a wild herd of mastodon.

    Peaceful, egalitarian cultures in Europe before 6000BC? Explain to the men sacrificed to "Mother Earth" whose bodies are preserved in peat bogs how peaceful their culture was.

    There is no "perfect culture" that we need to return to. Every culture throughout history has its atrocities that it is guilty of. Don't sugar-coat the past, but don't vilify it either. If all you have to offer is the same worn-out screed about how evil western civilization is, then I congratulate you on your devotion to recycling. If you want to truly help, try offering up some solutions to the problems that you see.

  6. @Anonymous, Current research re: mastadons in North America indicates that their extinction was likely caused by a climate change event rather than the fabled killing by Native Americans. You can google this and find ample research to suppor this claim.

    Also, recent archaeological evidence suggests that the "men sacrificed to Mother Earth" is also a contemporary cultural myth or at best a profound exaggeration. The sacrifices were most likely ceremonial and not actual, and don't we have a similar man sacrificed on a cross in our contemporary culture that we hold as sacred?

    Even so, you are correct in your analysis that there is no "perfect culture" to return to, and I am generalizing with some foundation. Assessment of the archaeological record and contemporary hunter gatherer societies offers clear evidence that egalitarian, matriarchal, communal cultures were on balance much more environmentally-sustainable than aggressive, heirarchical and patriarchal cultures.

    Today we live in the most ecologically-destructive culture ever devised by humanity, and it is by design heirarchical, aggressive and patriarchal. The solution is not to return to the past but to take the lessons from the past and make a better future. This will not happen unless we abandon the archetypal male-dominance attitude over nature as it manifests in all our cultural paradigms. They are obviously not working.

    You want solutions? Here are some:
    -Dismantle the entire political system as it exists and replace it with direct participation rather than representative government.
    -Make it illegal for non-humans to have any influence in the political process.
    -Divide the wealth of the nation and the world for that matter among all of the people and other organisms instead of allowing a few people to have hegemony.
    -Take all the money we currently spend on the military and use it for healthcare, education, childcare and other social causes across the globe.
    -Incorporate real free trade. Make the corporations pay for all their "externalities."

    These are just a few suggestions, but I could go on forever. There is a lot of work to be done. The screed that western civilization is a negtive scourge upon the planet may be worn out to you, but look's true. What are you going to do about it?

  7. So your solution is to entirely overthrow all western governments, corporations, and socioeconomic structures? I'll give you this: The scale of the "dismantling" you're proposing would indeed reduce the amount of impact humans have on the planet, primarily by reducing the number of humans on the planet. Never has there been radical change such as you are proposing without bloodshed.

    Just out of curiosity, could you name a few of these "egalitarian, matriarchal, communal" cultures? I exchange - let me give you an example of one that actually continues to exist down to the present day: The Sentinelese. As far as we know, they live in exactly the same way today as they did when they arrived there roughly 50,000 years ago. Sadly, we can't verify this, because this egalitarian (as far as we can tell), matriarchal (so far as we know), and communal (to the best of our knowledge) society has the additional characteristic of rabid, violent xenophobia. Read up on them a bit - violence and aggression aren't limited to hierarchical patriarchies.

  8. @Anonymous, in a utopian world, yes, I would restructure all governments, corporations and socioeconomic structures. Our contemporary political, economic, religious and cultural infrastructures are by their very nature predatory and unsustainable. The reduction of humans on the planet is unfortunately already a given eventuality under our current, unsustainable modus operandi. Simple math dictates that people cannot continue to use resources faster than nature can replace them for much longer. The situation is exacerbated by the extreme accumulation of wealth and resources by a few individuals. I would submit that more egalitarian socioeconomic structures that scorn accumulation and greed would be more sustainable and therefore increase or at least maximize the carrying capacity of the planet for people.

    You subscribe to the worn out mantra of the power elite that dictates their way is the only way. Of course, those who benefit most have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, but the rest of us shouldn't be buying it. There are an infinite number of possible socioeconomic structures that have yet to be tried that would certainly be preferable to the status quo. I also realize my ideal world is but a dream that is not likely to happen, since those with all the power also have all the military toys. One can but dream about a better future and then do what one can to effect change.

    There are thousands of examples of egalitarian, matriarchal cultures that were more peaceful and more sustainable than our own. In fact, every culture in the history of the planet would fall into that category, even the aggressive patriarchal cultures. The sugar-coated American Empire history we are taught in history class glosses over our history of serial genocide. Our most recent adventures of 100's of thousands of innocents slaughtered as "collateral damage" in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the millions we slaughtered to steal this land mass in the first place. Then there are all those casualties in the Philippines, Hiroshima, Latin America, and just about everywhere else someone has resources we want to control. We certainly win the prize as the only culture in the history of earth that has achieved global genocide and ecological plunder.

    Of course violence isn't limited to heirarchical patriarchies, but heirarchical patriarchies, including the contemporary United STates, rule by domination and violence, whereas in other cultures violence is the exception rather than the rule. Check out Minoan culture for one without any history of violence for over 1,000 years. A good example of governance comes from the Iroquois Confederacy, while they weren't entirely peaceful, their skirmishes tended to be minor and they preferred to settle differences by negotiation with their neighbors.

    Thank you for your comments. I really enjoy a good challenge and discussion.