Across the widely divergent and complex histories of settlement civilizations, few symbols could be said to carry as consistent a charge as the figure of light. From the origin myths of Mesopotamian city-states to those constructed on behalf of medieval Christianity, characters representing the light act as culture heroes in a cosmogonic victory of world order over a ‘dragon of chaos’.
This paper critically analyses the archetypal divine heroism introduced by such grand narratives, holding that they are constructed on behalf of the centralized power structures inherent in settlement civilization. It takes an ecocritical perspective on the way the consistent (and continually increasing) flow of people into cities over the last 10,000 years draws so heavily upon non-renewable resources and thus impacts directly upon today’s ecological crisis. It does not, however, idealise a utopian return to a fabled pre-lapsarian state in which humans might commune with nature unmolested by its inherent limits and threats, and neither does it imagine a paradisiacal future in which such antagonisms might be dissolved. Rather it treats such utopian responses as indicative of the distance felt between humans in settlement societies and both the immanence (or feelings of being ‘at one’ in this world) and the transcendence (or sense of liberation from or overcoming of it) they yearn for.
The paradox residing at the heart of my argument is that the anthropocentrism placing humanity at the centre of the universe – in religious or secular terms – is the very same factor predisposing us towards the collective trauma of environmental crisis today. In this case the most appropriate response to the absolute aegis of adaptation confronting us in this guise is to accept an ecocentric premise at the groundwork of our conceptions of self and world. The symbol of light must thus be seen to shine through the shackles within which it has been imprisoned by the ontological and epistemological framework underpinning settlement civilization, such that it may be aligned with contemporary scientific and anthropological insights towards a new mythic conceptualization of the world and its people as interdependent entities in a web of complex relations.
The cultural power perpetuating settlement styles of mythic order markets, for the consumption of their constituents, is a co-option and corruption of the symbol of light on behalf of political and economical domination. This idea of a ‘marketing of the light’ stands whether the ordering forces utilise a religious or secular and capitalist ideological framework; by speaking for God, the Church attained enormous power, and by selling consumers the brightly attractive idea of material happiness, today’s corporate elite continue to profit from our compulsive veneration for an order of light (as will be shown). The thread that binds contemporary culture with developments in the Fertile Crescent millennia ago would have to be faith in the human ability to manipulate and control environmental conditions and yield. Along the course of settlement history, the symbol of light becomes intimately associated with such technological capacities, and the social order it is constructed to support cannot be separated from a culture of technological invention and implementation.
Thus what in human terms seems a long and drawn out opposition between religious and scientific thinking over many centuries of European history is revealed as a brief interlude, according to this methodological stance, wherein the light authorised to reign as cultural authority has its priestly caste transferred between competing schools of thought. Whether one chose alignment with medieval Christian or Copernican thinking, that is to say, the choice was already made to accept a worldview predicated upon a symbolic victory of light over darkness; and this mythic infrastructure confers a certain range of ‘order’ over an imagined ‘chaos’. This is not to deny the vast epistemological gains inherent in empirical thinking, the scientific demand for verifiability, or the material value gained with technological developments. It is to say that our interpretation of the symbol of light is in need, according to the growing threat of environmental crisis, of transformation according to an analysis of its hidden loyalties towards otherworldliness. In order to carry out this analysis I investigate the genealogy of the symbol of light for certain ongoing cultural influences. The main target of this analysis is the extent to which our ideas of ‘the light’ maintain the potential for transcendence in an ‘otherworldly’ realm that can be construed to exist in a promised afterlife or in an endless string of ephemeral consumption and at the cost of our continued capacity to attend to this one.
Civilization and myth
Light has always been seen as a superior force to darkness in the mythological frameworks of settlement, or agriculturally based, societies according to Sean Kane, who points out that for the agriculturalist, ‘one set of values is privileged, one debased’ (Kane 1994:167). For large-scale societies built on the profits of evolving farming techniques, forces of light are seen to be friendly to the agriculturalist, and forces of darkness inimical; light and dark are thus symbolically construed to be adversaries and our ‘oppositional drama of “either/or” choices and dilemmas’ follows (ibid). While dualistic thinking forms a component part of all epistemological systems – the initiatory act of individuation creates the fundamental states of subject and object from which all further knowledge proceeds – there is no necessary reason for subsequent families of entities to be related in adversarial terms. Such interpretations follow factors of material import such as a collective’s way of life. For instance, Kane further points out that traditional conceptions of light and darkness (those held by hunting/ gathering/ foraging societies and semi-nomadic peoples) escape such a polarising model in favour of one that treats light as ‘an aspect of the prior and enduring state which is darkness’, a state that in turn gives birth to light (ibid). The idea that light is born from the darkness can also be found in the mythological records of early civilizations that heavily influenced western developments. In Sumer, the moon-god Nanna is venerated as prior to, and in fact father of, his son Utu, the sun-god. Likewise Hebrew literature on the subject regards the moon as a ‘more eloquent symbol of beginning even than the sun’ (Frye 2004:137). Yet both of these cultures give way to, or feed into, an urban cosmology according to which light achieves preferential treatment and superior veneration to the darkness they come to supplant, not only in terms of primacy but also as emblematic of an entire raft of positive qualities. While the simplistic duality of such a scheme’s most polarised versions – wherein light is equated with goodness, truth, justice, life, consciousness, ascent and order, over darkness’s evil, falsity, oppression, unknown, descent, chaos and death – seems almost a caricature of itself, resonances of such a cosmology remain in the mythic framework of contemporary settled societies such as our western, urbanised world. Although Gnostic Manichaeism is dismissed by early Church fathers as heresy, polarising tendencies with similar structure are found throughout the Biblical scriptures, a dualistic kernel that cannot be completely removed.
So how did this teasing apart and polarising between the symbolic states of light and dark occur during early eras of settlement, for what reasons, and with what continuing influences? In order to explore this question, I will briefly outline the methodological stance according to which my investigation proceeds. The definition of myth assumed is functionalist in nature: myth provides explanations for the underpinning of a social group’s worldview (with origin myth), provides an outline for the kinds of relations individuals are expected to fulfil (with kinship systems) and seeks to procure for its constituents abundance and regeneration (with myths of fertility and fecundity). While these sets of social contracts are rarely unanimously revered – and certainly, at the very least, myths are famous for being open to widely varying readings, transcending any specificity no matter how convincing they may seem – they have promoted the survival and cultural vitality of human social groups since the beginning of human time. Such mythic frameworks can be cited not only to justify forms of social organization but styles of consciousness, and in this way the political, economic and psychological aspects of our ‘way of life’ are intimately connected. Traditions of cultural story telling and ritual provide some of the fundamental vehicles for the experience of this connection and thus provide channels along which the principal function of mythology, according to Joseph Campbell, may be enjoyed by the individual: that is, ‘getting into harmony and tune with the universe and staying there’ (Campbell 1990:1-2).
As Campbell goes on to point out, this participation mystique is much easier to enter into in traditional social settings, and city living is specifically pinpointed as a difficult barrier to cross in such an attempt (ibid). There are manifold reasons for this magnified difficulty in settlement societies, whereby ‘the laws of nature’ are manipulated such that environmental yields are increased by dint of human techné. The new way of life becomes intertwined with a feeling of distance from being at one, or identified with, the environment and its organic cycles of life, as agriculture develops increased human control over the crops beyond housing walls, and animal husbandry develops increased human control over other domesticable species. This act of distancing and controlling is surely an inherent ingredient in the dualising tendencies of western religious and philosophical histories that venerate a remote realm of transcendence (in ‘culture’) over an immediate experience of immanence (in ‘nature’). Settlement societies valorise thetechné that affords them their way of life, which proceeds from agricultural development to the challenges of storage for surplus crops, increasing populations of humans in permanent close quarters to each other and their domesticated animals, centralized authority, more complex and strictly delineated division of labour, the rise of priestly and scribal castes, and many other developments with a double-edge of beneficent and detrimental results (as was helpfully charted, for instance, by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel).
The ideological results of such developments can be charted across the trajectory of western mythopoeic history, such that Seventeenth century Baconian myth, for instance, can be seen to cement a long held tendency amongst settlement societies to see the world around us in mechanical terms, as if crop, soil, and beast could be operated like clockwork by a hand held as if at a distance. Twentieth century physics and ecology dismisses such a worldview as the result of both intellectual fantasy and utilitarian success – the environment can indeed be so ordered while the results are deemed to be profitable, but the house of cards comes crashing down once it is revealed that we do not merely observe a pliable world but are an interdependent (and potentially dangerous) participant within it. The human order, as it turns out, is deeply embedded within the laws of ‘nature’ (a term as notoriously difficult to pin down as ‘culture’), and we remain beholden to them as a race. In such terms we can recognise that the interpretation of states such as light and dark, culture and nature, as adversaries does not follow a universal assumption, but rather reflects the way of life of the social group that employs it, just as their inherited psychological disposition is intimately related to the way their social group is ordered. Whether the Christian God of heavenly light battles the Prince of Darkness, or the ego draws law down from its father-figure the superego in its ongoing struggle against the threateningly unconscious id residing in the depths of ignorance below, the primacy of light over the darkness forms the foundation of our mythological framework.
Just as Freud transformed the Judaeo-Christian cosmology into his science of psychology, western scientific ideas of origin myth transformed God’s Big Bang of creation to a purely material explosion. All the while what is considered to be ‘the good’ has been maintained, and has evolved, alongside the urban capacity to create technologically inspired versions of abundance. Thus the material powers involved in the ‘progress’ of civilization slowly dissolved myth’s other areas of accomplishment as they usurped its ‘fertility’ facet. The ascendance of light that continues in contemporary western cosmology cannot be divorced from the cultural order of technology and its political and economical implications. In our version of light’s victory over the forces of chaos (or ‘culture’ over ‘nature’), an overcoming is achieved with far less lofty drives and outcomes than have often been claimed for it. Settlement cosmology and its associated psychological predisposition (culturally inherited and far from universal or essential) work as a double-edged sword, and the military metaphor is employed here to highlight a balancing weight to the abundance we have created.
Mesopotamian light from moon-gods to sun-kings
The Mesopotamian city-state of Ur had as its tutelary deity a masculine moon-god, Nanna. The Sumerian people who venerated Nanna believed he represented all that is good in light – truth, justice, fairness, order and abundance. He shone into the streets and buildings of this early metropolis, bringing evil-doers to light and keeping his bulls over his cows in heaven and on earth. In the blindingly hot deserts of the region, his cool luminescence must have been a sweet relief compared to the sun’s dazzling glare – the choice of a moon-god as prior to and in a position of authority over his son the sun makes environmental sense. But in the era leading towards the end of Sumerian power in Ur around 2000 BCE, a new generation of dominant sun-kings were arising in accord with developments amongst the highly competitive Mesopotamian city-states. It has been shown by Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer that it is with the advent of perpetual conflict between discreet collectives such as the early city-states that the notion of the sun-king takes hold. Early political power was remarkably democratic, but ‘as the struggle between the city-states grew more violent and bitter, and as the pressures from the barbaric peoples to the east and west of Sumer increased, military leadership became a pressing need, and the king, or as he is known in Sumerian, the “big man,” came to hold a superior place.’ From election this position ‘became a hereditary institution and was considered the very hallmark of civilization.’ The army grew, and victories were gained by ‘superiority in military weapons, tactics, organization, and leadership’ (Kramer 1970:74).
In earlier eras of Mesopotamian history a tutelary deity such as Nanna the moon-god could be trusted to rule over a major city-state such as Ur; the cyclic nature of lunar phases matching the cyclic style of early Sumerian political power and his soothing light bringing justice to the people in the cool of the dark night. But once the permanent villages of Sumer developed into cities, their military leaders, once voted in for sporadic seasons of battle according to circumstance, were slowly optioned in as permanent culture heroes in the ongoing sense of competition that would one day contribute to their very undoing (ibid). For once war is declared – and there has hardly been a moment since settlement civilization began that we have not been at it in some form or another – it is difficult to accept a rule that waxes and wanes. The lunar deity in later times is found wanting, as far as a king seeking divine association goes, when it comes to perpetual conflict, and for this new era only a solar deity can provide the necessary consistency and might. Conveniently, it can also be associated with ideas of universality – the sun crosses all the lands as if they were one – suiting the imperialistic new sun-kings and their context of the invariable fist. From this point forwards technological development can be seen historically to run astride with evolving weaponry, a parallel we continue to witness running rampant today. The moon will rarely find any position of power in dominant western cosmologies again, while the solar-associated social order sees itself ruling ‘the four quarters’ of the world, just as did Sargon, one of the greatest leaders of third millennium Sumer (Campion 1994:88-90). Light and war, in this story, are early combined.
The Mesopotamian sun-kings offer their constituents peace, but only after they are all united under one rule, a process that could not be guaranteed without a powerful military presence. When Hammurabi, famous for his Law Code, ascended the Babylonian throne in 1750 BCE, he claimed he was instructed by the gods ‘to rise like the sun-god… to give light to the land’, destroying evil and bringing justice, unifying the land but ultimately altering the way of life in Mesopotamia very little (Kramer 1961:52-53). When Roman Caesars later took to declaring themselves sons of the sun-god on behalf of a pax Romana they were following a similar trend of associating human order with divine law; but again, peace could generally only be guaranteed following a war on behalf of the ruling elite and the forms of social organisation they cemented, ostensibly on behalf of their sky-gods. The mythic battle upon which such victories are patterned is that according to which light dispenses with the chaotic darkness (which, it is claimed, previously reigned in terror) by dint of a comprehensive (but rarely eternally effective) dragon-slaying.
The chaos that predates the ordering force of light is often imagined as a terrible monster or fearful deep, as Frye points out, and the heroic figure that brings an end to this reign of terror is thanked with divine authority (Frye 2004:33-34). In Sumerian mythology, the dragon is named Kur, a large serpent which lived in the bottom of the “great below”, a monstrous creature of the netherworld also related to the earth (Kramer 1972:76-78). The later Babylonian (and Semitic) slaying of Tiamat by Marduk shows a clear Sumerian influence (ibid), once again denying the monstrous even while carving the world and the human race, along with its arts, out of the condemned corpse. This pattern can also be seen adapted under quite different cultural, environmental and historical conditions, in the Hebrew ascendancy of God’s light over the tehom, or ‘face of the deep’ (Frye 2004:32-33). While Genesis §1 perpetuates certain Near Eastern traditions, it is also a poetic rendition ‘that betrays no fear of the dark, no demonisation of the deep, of the sea, its she and its dragons. No trace of the divine warrior or cultural misogyny appears on the face of the text of the first chapter’ (Keller 2003:30). So while the pattern of light over the darkness is maintained across the grand narratives utilised by settlement civilization (the pastoralist Hebrew prophets will later be adopted on behalf of urban Greeks and Romans), it is turned to particular purposes under particular historical circumstances. The idea that the dark waters of the deep are sinister, a ‘metaphor for social threat’ (Keller 2003:26), is a version re-construed on behalf of medieval Christianity.
The Fall: our distance from immanence and longing for lost transcendence
In the medieval era, Biblical deities of light and dark were forced apart into an absolute polarity that afforded little communication between the two, and the conflict between them, as mythologised in the Garden of Eden and in Christ’s temptations in the desert, reveal a horrible inadequacy in the way they are related. The serpent, coloured like the Satyr into a symbol of darkness, appears to the protohumans Adam and Eve soon after they are given a code of law by the Lord of Light; this story is recorded in the Greek Apocalypse Life of Adam and Eve and Latin Vita, both circa early centuries CE but both also rooted in earlier traditions (Charles 1913:123-154). When the Prince of Darkness tempts the crown of creation to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, by pointing out that if the fruit is forbidden, it must be good and powerful, a raft of instincts and predispositions natural to the human animal are dismissed into a repository of repressions. The Dark Angel is making companions for himself out of this deal, for he likewise found his new home after being banished from an impossible Heaven, and so, in conjoined circumstances, we share that new home of earth. Those seeking to engender a healing of the planet’s wounds with a renewed sense of environmental responsibility will shudder anew with horror at each reading of this myth, whereby forces aligned with the natural world are demonised with the malevolence of darkness, while the hopes and mores of humanity are destined to ever-fail their distant sky-god.
Likewise when Satan returns to tempt Christ in the desert, he displays an intimate knowledge of the human psyche, while Jesus represents an almost impossible moral code that we are destined to break. When the devil opens the betting by tempting Christ to turn stones to bread in Matthew 4:3, he is playing on the most intimate and undeniable of human instincts, our hunger. By his refusal Christ is staking out his turf – spiritual overcoming before the satisfaction of desire, especially when that satisfaction is proffered by darkness personified. But this equates the material realm with evil by associating both of them with biological instinct, in a duality that stands against an ascetic sphere of heavenly light. When the ante is upped in the final temptation, and Jesus is offered world domination as his prize for demonic worship in Matthew 4:8, there is an insinuation that the political arena is a place for devils, and once again that material concerns should be considered as lesser than spiritual ones. While our everyday experiences may sometimes collaborate with the dark foreboding of devils in parliament, such deeply held cynicism does nothing to help us to transform our political landscape so that it can improve its service to the wider community of our environment. Part of the problem may arise with the Hellenic urbanisation of Hebrew wisdom, hard won across a long pastoralist tradition quite distinct from the city-life becoming institutionalised across these eras around the Mediterranean.
As has been shown, the pastoral and semi-nomadic living conditions of the early Hebrews (and their extended tribal relations such as the Canaanites) made them a people of the countryside, ill-disposed toward the settlers in their walled cities (Eisenberg 1998:129-131). When we consider the depth of enmity between settled civilizations and traditional peoples in general (those who spend their time intimately tied to the land, and identify with it in a way that we city folk do not), there is little wonder that any nomadically inclined people would reveal a distrust of settlement law, order and political systems. Australia continues to suffer from a distinct division between most parts of settlement society and a dispossessed indigenous people. Eisenberg draws out the inevitable conflict involved in this binary code in early western history, especially in the discussion around the equation: Canaanite and Hebrew pastoralists = Mountain cult = wilderness, as opposed to Mesopotamian (and later Greek and Roman) agriculturalists = Tower cult = city (Eisenberg 1998:69-70, 82-87, 90-91). Christ reiterates his Judaic loyalty to an ideology that stands opposed to the way the city can be seen to corrupt its constituents when he expels the money lenders from the temple. The problem is that the modern way of life sees us all intimately tied up with the financial system of the cities and with agricultural developments in general, even while our spiritual yearnings may well point away from the site of our wealth. (As I have suggested, this tendency towards distanced realms of transcendence may actually occur because of the way we create wealth, by manipulating the earth.)
The psychological ramifications of our Original and perpetual Christian Sin can therefore be seen to support a political situation in which we accept bread and authority in place of true spiritual freedom, as pointed out by Dostoevsky in his tale of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ in the novel The Brothers Karamazov. Having been tempted over to the dark side, which caused our expulsion from Eden, we remain tainted by the structure of our social organization in the city, receiving bread as we accept order (in the form of law codes, an abstract monetary system, and the regulations that streamline the way we create and exchange goods). This new urban cosmology may on the one hand suffer from association with a seemingly corrupt world order, but it must also be painted in colours that make it amenable to its constituents if it is to survive as ideological currency. The gods that authorise worldview and way of life must be shifted from the countryside to the city on behalf of the new social developments. This weight-shifting process occurred in many ways, and just as the Christian God was urbanised in Greece and Rome, so the Olympian gods had previously been redrawn to suit their new abode in the urban settlements of ancient Greece.
Hermes, as Kane shows, was ‘humanized and house-broken’ from his earlier incarnation as a god of the country-people, to be accommodated into the new pantheon of city-dwellers. Now ‘the conflict between wild order and cultivated order is referred to a power apparently above the level of dispute, promising a resolution of the conflict. … [As] mediator of a structure of opposition, it keeps itself hidden from questioning, being little more than the idea that a certain kind of order, the order conveyed in the story, will prevail’ (Kane: 244). This order, of course, cannot be separated from the technological developments that drive that particular culture, and along the trajectory of western history such an order has always striven to be associated with the good, with benefits for the people, with a true and just society – in short, with the light. But while the light promises to dissolve our conflicts – internal and material – in an effulgence of abstract perfection divorced from the material conditions that support it, our allegiance to such an order is a disservice to our environmental responsibilities. It draws us away from the body, from the land, from the very physicality that we have transformed and that provides us with all of the benefits we enjoy thanks to our settlement society. Ecocritics have called these philosophies ‘parasitical transcendence’ (Mellor 1997:160, 194) and argued that such anthropocentric tendencies promote ‘various damaging forms of epistemic remoteness, for by walling ourselves off from nature in order to exploit it, we also lose certain abilities to situate ourselves as part of it’ (Plumwood 2002:98).
Paradise re-constructed – shopping our way back to heaven
The process by which our traditional Fall takes place is played in fast-forward in Genesis, occurring in two versions in the first three short chapters. But the development by which the urbanised power of light came to usurp organic processes of fertility and regeneration, and the particular combinations of qualities it venerates and demonises along the way, accompanied a long if not glorious process. This development, while not having progressed at an even pace or in one single direction, has its roots in the trajectory by which technology assumes the mantle of provider, masculine military power accepts the role of protector, and mythology initiates and perpetuates a new world order on behalf of those who have most to profit from it. Some commentators see a direct link between such foundational narratives and contemporary commodity fetishism. In such a vein Carolyn Merchant sees the newly recreated Eden of the shopping mall as our collective attempt to overcome our Fall from Grace in the world (Merchant 2003:167). It has likewise been theorised that consumer culture negates its responsibility to the ground out of which it draws its riches by preferring to worship to death the light we seem most drawn to today, the ‘neon sun’ of multinational corporate capital (Wheeler 1999:166).
The idea driving these analyses is similar – our inability to enjoy the immanence of atonement in the material world without a vast raft of technological and synthetic mediators is compromised to the point that these very vehicles replace the transcendent states we yearn for. The problems of rampant drug addiction afflicting all levels of society today may be seen at least partly in this light. Sociologists have also pointed out that the links drawn between consumption and happiness in settlement civilization reveal a continued fixation on technological novelty redolent of nothing less than the irrational world of magic (Stivers 1999:233-246). We are drawn on, they aver, to pursue an ever-revolving array of consumables by way of filling in the gap once filled by spiritual belief or ritual experience. And in a social order organized around the surpluses provided by agricultural, then industrial and technological, industries, our order remains aligned with an abstract light and over a ‘distanced’ and developed material world that we have led ourselves to believe is comparatively inert, ignorant, and malleable to our will.
From the perspective of this paper, today’s cultural order of light spreads its allure through the magic of commercial marketing, playing Pied Piper to the children seeking to transcend the limits of the earth’s body with the ephemeral thrill of consumption. While such a strategy does operate to supply a hit of corporeal satisfaction, it cannot provide the kind of lasting satisfaction that we crave, offering instead only a consistently fleeting taste of paradise, ephemeral as the morning dew but addictive as heroin. This is the light today being globalised as consumer capitalism, beyond all dated concepts of political affiliation; it is sold on billboards and TVs, and in song and dance, just as folklore has always relied on effective storytelling techniques for its perpetuation and transformation. Now shiny, youthful pop stars and actors gloss it up for motorcar companies, pre-emptive strikes are carried out as part of a promise of freedom for the people (after the threatening foes are conquered), our cities of light burn at night with dwindling energy resources, and we are taught that never-ending consumption can buy us out of the death, disease, poverty, and emptiness that threatens our souls. We are still shaking a magic stick at the demons of darkness, but I fear that the rattle will break before the spell does.
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