Toxic Apples & the Sacred Permaculture Myth of 2012? Article & interview with mythologist Philippe Dauphin, Netherlands. Edited by Willi Paul. Co-Sponsored by CommunityAlchemy.com & openmythsource.com
To really support a new sense of the sacred, a new collective mentality is needed. People really need to change the way they think and do, and this by no means an easy task. I think a better education is a good start, because the most important thing that the world needs right now is awareness, because from there you can start building towards action. Once you have a steady ground to work from, the myths will come eventually, because in the end it is the story-making that has been one of the defining features of our species and capacity towards constructing civilization. Whether we can now also guide that capacity towards a sustainable future remains to be seen. – PD
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Interview with Philippe by Willi
Mythology is a powerful medium. Some permaculturists see humanity as having lost its connection with Nature and the natural world and regard permaculture as a means of reconnection. Do you think this is true?
I think the question of humanity having lost its connection to nature is difficult to answer, because even though myths were powerful social tools and important mediums for constructing common identities and strengthening important values, they did not all necessarily breed respect for nature. There were a lot of ancient societies that were just as ecologically abusive as we are today, it’s just that there were far less people back then, so the damage being done was not quite on as a grand scale as currently and so seemingly irreversible. The Aztec and Maya for example were pillaging the rainforest long before we were.
All that being said, I do think that a lot of myths taught people how to live more in sync with the surrounding world and treat it as an end in itself. The main problem is what happens in between the mythical world that experiences everything as sacred and attributes symbolic value to even the most trivial things and the profane world that is geared towards practicality and survival. When the instinct to survive rears its ugly head, people are capable of regarding nature as nothing more than a resource for food and shelter and a convenient grab bag for supplies and provisions. Of course, in today’s society there is a much more serious problem going on in the form of wasting precious natural resources just because some hip clothing-stores want to keep their voguish lights on all night and central heating needs to burn in every room in the house because wearing an extra sweater inside is out of the question.
The relationship with nature is about giving and taking, not only taking. Permaculture seems to be a movement that promotes this kind of thinking and teaches human beings how to come to a different understanding of the natural world that does not entertain the notion that nature exists simply for us. In this way, it can slowly convince us that the right path for us today is a path that encourages sustainable values and productive systems that are beneficial to mankind as well as its surroundings.
What comes to mind when I say eco alchemy?
What doesn’t? In a sense, alchemy was about perfecting nature and redeeming its fallen quality. The alchemist was concerned with finding the divine essence in all the materials that he (or she!) worked with, and distilling it into the ultimate tool, the lapis philosophorum, the philosopher’s stone. However, this was just as much, or maybe even more, of a spiritual tool as it was a practical one. The aim was also to rekindle the divine spark within the human soul and attain spiritual salvation through knowledge and understanding of the self and the cosmos.
In the time of the Scientific Revolution (I actually dislike this term, although it is in common usage and it does have it advantages) alchemy was still an integral part of the empirical research into nature and was taught widely at universities. Religious concerns pervaded the thoughts of all those trailblazers that came eventually to be held responsible for the “disenchantment” of the world. The earliest “scientists” were concerned with discovering the workings of God in nature. To know nature was to know God, as they figured. On top of that a lot of philosophers wanted to discover the boundaries of knowledge. How close can we come to apprehending God with our “fallen senses?” Before the Fall, Adam had possessed a perfect knowledge and sight and in some sense he had participated closely in the divine nature. As children of Adam and inheritors of his sin, what can we do to re-attain this unblemished state and semi-divine status? All these were questions that scientists, and also alchemists, in those times asked themselves. Without these kind of intellectual impulses, the investigation of nature probably would not have occurred.
So, to come roundabout to the question, alchemy is intricately linked with nature and ecology. The alchemist sees nature as the means to discover God and the world spirit that permeates every atom in the universe. Nature is not a reservoir to be used for the betterment of mankind, but a sacred resource to be used respectfully and sensibly.
Are there new myths rising from the practice of permaculture?
This is a difficult one as well, especially since the word “myth” has come to take on an almost universally pejorative meaning in today’s language. There always seems to be a lot of talk about “the myth of progress” that we live with nowadays, but in this sense the word myth is used as nothing more than a fancy synonym for “belief.” A myth is so much more than that. In the first place it is a story. A story with an authoritative character and sacred nature. Myths are stories that are told in a communal setting and that imbue the listeners with a sense of a shared heritage and responsibility and a feeling of awe and wonderment of the working of the universe. Do we still possess these kind of stories today? I don’t know. At first sight, it doesn’t seem that way, especially in our western society.
When I look at permaculture it seems to be more of a lifestyle. However, I don’t see why a lifestyle could not give rise to new myths as well. The question is only how you are going to circulate them, and even more importantly how you are going to convince people of their inherent worth. It is clear that the old myths do not reflect the anxieties, conflicts, issues and joys of the current society, so the time is ripe for something new. Studies still show that narrative is one of the best ways to impart information and knowledge, but something more than only knowledge is needed today. A myth has to strike a chord in the heart of the listener and make him/her aware of the transcendental values imbedded in it.
Are there myths about sustainability values?
Sure there are. Aren’t all myths about sustainability values after a fashion? In the end, one of the reasons of their existence is to keep the society from which they came running in a smooth and orderly manner. However, one good example springs to mind. For some reason. I have had the Indonesian myth of Hainuwele on my mind the last couple of days. Hainuwele was born from the drops blood of a villager called Ameta, which dropped on a blossom underneath a coconut tree that miraculously sprouted after only a few days that Ameta planted it following a dream. Hainuwele was quite the catch as a child: whenever she had to take a crap, she excreted valuable items, and so Ameta became rich. But after a while, other villagers grew weary of this dark talent and decided to kill Hainuwele. She was thrown into a pit during a dance and buried alive. When Ameta found her, he took the corpse, cut it into pieces and reburied it around the village. At those places, various plants essential for the survival of the Indonesians grew.
Now this myth says a lot of things. It talks about the nature of man to appropriate things by killing them. But most importantly, I think it’s about giving to and taking from nature. The villagers cannot handle the excess of wealth that Hainuwele excretes and become afraid of it and so they decide to kill her. However, even after her death she continues to provide food and nourishment for the people. It teaches that nature is not something to be appropriated in a form that only provides abundance and leads to extravagance, but something to be cultivated respectfully and harvested only for that which is necessary for the survival of the species.
Can you describe any sonic symbols in popular song?
Despite my age, I’m out of the loop on songs that are currently flooding the airways. Nevertheless, music is full of sonic symbols. The first tones of a song or its distinct “feel” are enough to give rise to a host of memories and flights of imagination. Forms of music can be signifiers of social realities and subcultures. You only have to hear a heavily distorted guitar to automatically conjure up images of wild, leather-clad men tearing at the vestiges of society, or a pumping beat to imagine a hedonistic world in which everything goes, all the moments are now and the future be damned.
For me, one of the most important functions of music is to evoke feelings and emotion and to bring together kindred souls through a medium that can speak without words. In this sense, it is so much like myth and at the same time so much unlike it. Music can draw it listeners into a higher reality and make them aware of a timeless essence that goes beyond the individual. LSD is not mandatory for this by the way! I think that music will always remain a powerful symbolic store for all kinds of values and expectations, although I’m not sure what someone like Lady Gaga contributes to this to be honest!
How could modern myths create / support the sacred?
Well, myths create the sacred by the simple fact of their existence and they support it by their constant telling and retelling. Today it is not only a question of which myths we need, and in what form, but also how the sacred can still play a major role in our lives. Faith is becoming more and more of an individual issue, while in the past it was its collective character that made it work.
Myths can certainly create and support the sacred, but first they need to answer to the needs of society. How modern myths can do this, I do not know. The society of nowadays is fragmented, polarized and individualized. Maybe what people need nowadays is another good eschatological myth with images of terrible destruction and grim desolateness to come to a sudden realization of the disastrous course that we are leading the planet on. However, on the other hand we have some apocalyptic angst in the form of the 2012-craze, but this does not seem to be doing all that much.
To really support a new sense of the sacred, a new collective mentality is needed. People really need to change the way they think and do, and this by no means an easy task. I think a better education is a good start, because the most important thing that the world needs right now is awareness, because from there you can start building towards action. Once you have a steady ground to work from, the myths will come eventually, because in the end it is the story-making that has been one of the defining features of our species and capacity towards constructing civilization. Whether we can now also guide that capacity towards a sustainable future remains to be seen.
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The decline of ancient fertility myths and the rise of the modern ecological crisis – Philippe Dauphin
Myths have a hard time in our society. The word “myth” is commonly used to denote a falsehood or an assumption about something or someone that is fundamentally untrue. It is usually taken to be wholly different from religion and incompatible with any form of sacredness or spiritual significance. Myths are sometimes considered to be entertaining stores, but no more than that.
Defining myth can be a tricky and dangerous thing, so perhaps it is better to consider what they do. Myths are not about truth or falsity, but about the standards and expectations of a society that tells them. By their nature, myths do not describe a reality that is “out there”, but one that is living inside the mind of those who construct, perpetuate and receive it. Myths teach us important things about the cosmos and our place therein, and give meaning to our lives. They seem to have grown out of mankind’s desire and yearning for something other than can be perceived by our five basic senses. Mythmaking appears to be a primal and universal tool to help understand and affirm the lives of human beings. As far as we know, no other living creatures on this planet question their existence and contemplate their role in the universe. Man is alone in this kind of philosophizing and meaningful stories are the indispensable instruments in helping us deal with it.
Myths are thus profoundly important elements in the history and cultural development of the human race. As they are so closely related to religion and ritual practices, they play an important role in manufacturing the collective self-image of a society, although this does not prevent them from working on the individual level as well. The practice of myth is connected with notions of narrative, language, communication and culture but also with the interaction between the self and its environment. Myth is as much an imaginative and exploratory tool as it is a practical and functional aid to come to terms with the world. In ancient societies mythology played a multi-faceted role, but whatever else, myths seemed to be responsible for perpetuating the common memory of a community and articulating its expectations. In times where notions of history and objectivity played no part it was necessary to achieve a means of holding a society together with a sort of imaginative glue of rules, values, beliefs and hopes. Myths are therefore not static or dogmatic, but dynamic and capable of adapting to changing worldviews and cultural perspectives.
Ever since mankind gave up the harsh realities of hunting and began tilling the soil a profound societal transformation took place. Gone was the volatile nature of the hunt and in its place came the cyclical rhythms of fertility, decay and regeneration. Needless to say such a radical change affected the view of people as perspectives on man’s relation to nature shifted and small communities were able to grow into complex civilizations. Myths also changed. As agriculture became the dominant means of providing food and sustenance (in the ancient Near East at least, where the grand civilization of Sumer, Southern Iraq, developed arguably the first great cities and form of writing), the content of myth began to mimic the growing importance of agrarian processes and social hierarchy.
Not for nothing is “Inanna’s descent to the netherworld” one of the oldest myths that we still possess today. It deals with death and resurrection and gives a telling analogue of the coming and going of the seasons. The story exist on 13 tablets that were excavated at Nippur (near present day Nufar, and no, I don’t actually know where that is either) and date back to around 1700 BCE (Before Common Era). Inanna was the queen of heaven and the Sumerian goddess of love, war and fertility. One day she set her mind towards the underworld, “the great below”, the domain of her sister Ereškigal, and she donned her finest garments and jewelry and off she went. Luckily before leaving Inanna instructed her loyal servant Ninšubur to call in the aid of the other gods should she not have returned within three days time.
When Inanna arrives at the seven gates of the underworld she is required to take off one item of clothing at each gate, so that she eventually ends up naked before Ereškigal and the seven judges of the underworld. These prove to be not so happy with Inanna’s intrusion in the land of the dead and they condemn her to death and hang her corpse from a stake. Meanwhile, three days pass and Ninšubur grows uneasy. She calls in the help of the water-god Enki, and he fashions two sexless beings out of dirt and provides them with the water of life, which they have to sprinkle on Inanna’s corpse. The two creatures gain access to the netherworld and manage to revive Inanna, who returns to earth but is unable to shake off a ghastly group of demons following hot on her heels and demanding a replacement for her. Firstly they try to drag the poor, loyal Ninšubur with them, but Inanna manages to dissuade them from this. For a while Inanna wanders from town to town accompanied by the demons, who refuse to leave without a substitute. Finally, she arrives at her hometown Uruk, where she finds her husband the shepherd-god Dumuzid sitting on her throne feasting, instead of mourning, as she expected him to be. Blind with rage, she appoints him her successor and so he goes. But love being as it is, Inanna comes to regret her actions and tries to get Dumuzid back. She reaches the agreement with Ereškigal that Dumuzid’s sister Geštihanna can stand in for him every half year, so that the siblings now each pass six months of the year in the dark crevices of the land below. So when Dumuzid is down in the underworld, Inanna grieves and the land is barren. However, when he returns again nature is also resplendent with love and life again, and spring and summer commence.
In ancient Sumer the return of Dumuzid was celebrated each spring with an annual fertility festival in which the king ritually “married” (had sex with) a priestess of Inanna to guarantee the fertility of the crops for the coming year. All this was an elaborate reenactment of the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) between Inanna and the returning Dumuzid and the sacred forces associated with that union. The myth of Inanna and Dumuzid proved to be very enduring and it would be adopted and appropriated by many societies and cultures in the Mediterranean, each twisting it and elaborating on it while the central theme remained intact: the lover or spouse of a goddess meet his unfortunate end only to be born again sometime later. The Akkadians thus spoke of Ištar’s descent to the netherworld to retrieve her dead husband Tammuz; the Egyptians of Osiris’ slaying and dismemberment by his jealous brother Seth and resurrection by his wife Isis; the Canaanites of Baʿal’s death at the hands of his brother Mot, his sister-wife Anat’s brutal revenge on Mot and Baʿal’s miraculous restoration; the Greeks of the love-triangle between Adonis, Aphroditê and Persephonê and the Phrygians of the warped love-affair between Attis and Kybelê.
Eventually, the cults of Isis and Attis and Kybelê would be adopted by the Romans, and their “mysteries” played a big part in the religious life of the Roman Empire. By that time farming, rural life and the grand rhythms of agriculture had come to take on a bit of a secondary role in the retelling and refashioning of these myths, and the death and resurrection of the slain god became a symbol to help alleviate the anxieties and uncertainties that living in a cosmopolitan and inequitable society like that of the Romans brought with it. The old, communal identities were no longer a safe bet since the conquests of Alexander the Great and the dreams of homogenization this brought with it. Greek, and later also Latin, became the working language all across the Mediterranean in this era and we can see in the expanding reaches of the empire the first signs of a sort of proto-“global village”, where many cultures and walks of life lived under one common banner, namely that of the Romans (of course, what “being a Roman” meant exactly is a manner of some complication). The religious and philosophical discourse became more and more concerned with questions of human destiny or with the complex matter of the salvation of the soul, which could be attained through a knowledge and understanding of the cosmos and its essential energies. This was the background in which Christianity would eventually flourish.
Instead of elaborate, state-sponsored fertility festivals the myths of the dying and rising gods were attached to underground mysteries: initiatory rites where the fundamental unity of life and death was acknowledged through the sacrifice and rebirth of the deity. One such deity was Mithras, the god of the unconquerable sun. Originally the Persian god of truth, light, war and friendship (ultimately he derives from the Vedic Mitra, the patron divinity of honesty, friendship, contracts and meetings), the Roman soldiers became enamored with Mithras on their campaigns and introduced his worship into Roman religious life. What followed was a long spell of popularity, with even some emperors participating in the cult, despite the stern reality that only men were allowed to take part in the solemnities. In fact, it was the sect of Mithras that was the main rival of Christianity in the race for official state religion of the Roman Empire in the first four centuries CE, until Constantine eventually decided otherwise.
One of the main days of worship associated with Mithras was the winter solstice, December 25th according to the Julian calendar. This day was known as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “birthday of the unconquerable sun”, and it was celebrated all across the empire. The underground caves in which the worship of Mithras took place, the so-called Mithraea, have been found as far as Britain and Germany. Like Christianity, Mithraism offered its followers salvation. Mithras was born from a rock and had slain the primeval bull, thereby releasing the cosmic energies responsible for rebirth and regeneration. A caption from one Mithraeum, almost certainly referring to the episode, reads: “you saved us with the outpouring blood”. The depiction of this event, called the tauroctony, was an icon of central importance to the adepts of the cult, in the same way that the Crucifixion is for Christians. The cults of Mithras and Christ thus displayed many analogues and vied with each other for the most prominent place in the religious sentiments of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. It was not until 354 or 355 CE that Pope Liberius decided that Jesus’ birthday should henceforth be celebrated on December 25th (at first this was January 6th, the traditional birthday of Osiris), probably as the result of the stiff competition that the Mithraic mysteries were giving the disciples of the Messiah.
However, eventually Christianity would win out and Mithraism slowly faded into oblivion, its sanctuaries often being converted into crypts beneath Christian churches. Now, despite the obvious similarities of Jesus with other savior deities (the time of Jesus´ resurrection, 22th to the 25th of March was originally celebrated as the rebirth of Attis and the coming of spring) the early Church Fathers often tried to distance themselves from this fact and vehemently opposed resembling doctrines. Justin Martyr went as far to state that: “the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same things to be done.” What is important to note here is that over time the reading of Jesus’ character as mythical was eventually obfuscated by a literal interpretation that transformed the sacrifice and subsequent redemption of the human race that Jesus enacted into little more than a signpost to which all kinds of outdated ideas about morality and human predestination could be attached.
Now, Christianity has been accused of propagating and disseminating anthropocentrism, a worldview in which humanity is at the absolute center of the cosmos and all other things and causes are subservient to it. There is some truth in this. Through Jesus Christ, God incarnated in human flesh, every person becomes responsible for his or her own salvation and is not dependent on any other force or outside drive. Add to this the interpretation that God had created the earth to accommodate and serve mankind (what was originally meant in Genesis 1:28 was “stewardship” and not “dominion”) and you are left with a potent mix to misapprehend.
The persistence of such anthropocentrism in the present day and age is not difficult to confirm. We need only to think of the blatant exploitation of natural resources that is conducted daily on a global scale, all in the name of the betterment and further expediency of the human species. It is true, like French philosopher Michael Serres noted over 15 years ago, that people (especially in Western societies) do not live according to the climate anymore. The work and pastime of people are no longer subject to the laws of weather and nature, and so we are reduced to living in time. But this time is no longer connected to the great rhythms and cycles of nature, but only with the short-term that is advocated by most scientists, administrators and journalists. Most persons live in created environments that are only concerned with providing comfort and entertainment. We have let science and progress become the ultimate beacons to which the quality of human existence can be measured. There is no discrepancy here. Without the influence of Christianity science would not have come to bloom in the 15th, 16th centuries and beyond. It was the belief that God revealed himself in His Creation and that nature was a book, a scripture, which could be read that gave rise to the investigation of the laws of the world. The notion that everything in the environment stands in service of and is inferior to man has had appalling results. Would the famous philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) have been able to coin the theory that animals are soulless machines without it? When man refuses to see himself as an integral part of nature, its inherent value becomes meaningless to him, safe for the way that it can be used to make life easier or further progress (whatever that is) possible.
So we are left today with the ideological mess that the rises of science and religion without symbolic meaning and have left us with. The question is: what can myth do about it? Alone, nothing. A myth is not a narrative without social or numinous context. It is a story that finds its worth in continuous recitation and revision as the needs of society change. What we need today is engagement and awareness. An awareness that the planet that we are living on is a gift to be treated with respect and shared equally with all those inhabiting it. Nature does not need humankind for its continued survival. It is the opposite that is true.
It is time for myth to reclaim itself: “For the myth is the foundation of life; it is the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces its traits out of the unconscious.” (Thomas Mann, Freud and the Future, 1959)
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Philippe Dauphin Bio –
Philippe is a writer, mythologist and independent scholar living in the tranquil, hilly country-side of Valkenburg, the Netherlands. He recently graduated from his second master’s degree in Myth, Literature & the Unconscious (which is a fancy way for saying that he also studied psychoanalysis and depth psychology) for which he wrote his dissertation on the Swiss doctor and alchemist Paracelsus and the role of Hermeticism in the development of science during the early modern era. He already possesses an MA in Cultural Sciences and a BA in Arts & Culture. Currently, he is looking to secure a PhD-position (researching myth, of course), because he would very much like to put the prefix “Dr.” on his flight tickets which he buys when he goes to visit his lovely girlfriend in the amazing town of Florence or the grey plains of Colchester, England.
Pljdauphin at gmail.com
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