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Reply To: Rocking New Year’s Eve,” with Professor Mark C.E. Peterson”

#74567

Mark,

I’m experiencing major synchronicity in yours and James’ observations related to the link between the seasons and the mythic imagination –  and not just in the regularity of the seasonal cycle, but also, as you note, the disruption that often occurs during periods of transition.

Currently I’m about a quarter of the way (125 pages – not counting the dozen or so pages of detailed, comprehensive contextual endnotes accompanying the text, so far) into The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber (the late professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics) and David Wengrow (professor of comparative anthropology at the Institute of Anthropology, University College of London).

Book cover The Dawn of Everything   Excerpt

Published this past November, this is the impressive, exhaustively researched work lauded by scholars that is upending traditional historical perspectives. (In many ways, it’s a pointed response to 2018’s bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Harari – a book that presents a compelling grand narrative that appeals to me, but, like all before it, one aligned with a Euro-centric worldview).

I expected some sort of Marxian critique, which I generally find a little tiresome (Graeber, who died at age 59 in September, 2020 just three weeks after the book was completed, was a key intellectual figure in the Occupy Wall Street Movement), so I held that tension in the back of my brain the first several pages. The reality is far from there; instead, the authors draw on the latest groundbreaking (pun initially unintended) archaeological and anthropological finds, along with cultural and sociological research, to oppose an “indigenous critique,” outside the European canon, to the prevailing historical narrative – and darn if they don’t bring the receipts!

In the section I’ve just read, Graeber and Wengrow (I think of them as “the Davids”) challenge the traditional view of the social evolution of our species following distinct stages: nomadic hunter-gatherers, then agriculturalists settled in villages, and then, early civilizations – a trajectory accompanied by the development of hierarchy and an exponential growth in inequality – always in one direction, eventually arriving where are today. (This is an aside, but I don’t completely subscribe to the idea that contemporary culture has no prevailing myth to which all members are party; a myth is not necessarily recognized as such by those who are living it, but simply as ‘what is” – and ours is the myth of progress).

“The Davids” begin by asking questions about the monumental structures of Göbekli Tepe, which indicates “strictly coordinated activity on a really large scale.” The nomadic pre-agriculturalists who built it did not live there, but appear to have regularly gathered at this site for feasting and related ritual activities.

Then they turn to Claude Lévi-Strauss, who in 1944 highlighted the Namboikwara – “part-time farmers, part-time foragers” – in northwest Brazil. Theirs was a hybrid society: during the rainy season, they gathered and lived in in sizable communities and practiced agriculture, but the rest of the year broke up into little bands of foragers – with two different sets of laws, traditions, and practices. The chiefs of these small nomadic groups exercised near autocratic powers during the dry season – but when the entire population was gathered together in the rainy farming season, that authoritarianism melted into a gestalt much more chill and relaxed, with the chief’s leadership grounded in influence, example, and consensus, rather than force.

Thanks to an abundance of recent archaeological discoveries, along with cultural studies, this “double morphology,” a pattern of seasonal variation – large gatherings in one place part of the year dissolving into small bands on the move the other part of the year – appears all over, from Durrington Walls at Stonehenge on one end of the time continuum, to Aboriginal Australians, the Cheyenne and Lakota on the Plains of North America, the Kwakiutl in the Pacific Northwest, Innuit in Alaska, the Nuer in the Sudan.

These hybrid societies are difficult to place on the traditional continuum: nomad part of the year but settled the other part, loosely anarchistic but at other times strictly hierarchical with the rigid structures of a nation-state, in some settings patriarchal and authoritarian, in others more matrifocal and diffuse. In many instances (whether those gathering at Durrington Walls and Stonehenge, or the Plains tribes), they had actually abandoned cereal agriculture, turning back to foraging as their staple source of food. And there is often a contrast between the values and forms that dominate these two wings of the year.

And, or course, in tandem with that are seasonal festivals – which on the one hand align us with the rhythms of nature, but also present the opportunity for “people to imagine that other arrangements are feasible, even for a society as a whole, since it was always possible to fantasize about carnival bursting its seams and becoming the new reality,” which in turn really can upend society (the authors note several revolutionary movements and peasants’ revolts associated with seasonal festivals, like riotous May Day festivals). And, indeed, they do note that “seasonality is still with us,” such as in the midwinter holiday season of the Christian world.

I’m not sure where the authors are going from here, but they do have my attention. I’m reserving reconciling this new perspective and the information that supports it with Campbell’s worldview for after I complete the book and have time to chew and digest what’s been presented. In many ways they are challenging major planks of Campbell’s perspective, particularly the stages he presents in the Historical Atlas of World Mythology (where history follows major stages, from hunter-gatherers, to early planting peoples with the advent of agriculture, then hieratic city-states, and so on – and the mythologies and culture of these various peoples in harmony with the particular stage of their period).

And on the other hand, so much is in harmony with Campbell’s thought, which has much in common with the “indigenous critique” (not to mention my own decades-long experience with seasonal counter-culture gatherings, such as the Rainbow Family).

Though at best we seem to pay lip service to the idea of Father Time and the Newborn Year, the absence of powerful serious ceremonies does not mean the energies associated with seasonal changes don’t still surge through the blood in our veins every bit as much as the sap in the trees. The mythic image of the seasonal cycle isn’t just in our heads – it’s a story we’re still living, whether we are conscious of it, or not.

Just throwing the spaghetti (or Göbekli?) against the wall, seeing what sticks.

Food for thought.