We’re all pretty clear that somewhere around 12,000 BCE or 10,000 BCE, maybe because of the weather which was warming (up to that point it had been very cold), humans in various places began to invent agriculture, each with the plants and animals of their place. Jared Diamond suggests that the locations with easily domesticated animals (cows, pigs, donkeys, camels, horses) were propelled by more ability to use animal power both to travel and to work. The places with plants with seeds that could be stored, like grain of various kinds, could produce enough food to keep everyone fed plus a surplus to use for trade. None of this happened all at once, but gradually.
The next step was hierarchies and specializations. Some people toiled in the fields, some people had little shops, some people were artisans, and some were priests. Copper smelting begins in 5500 BCE. Around 3200 BCE, in Mesopotamia writing had been invented, then in Mesoamerica separately around 600 BCE. People were in towns, and trading paths had been established. Northern Africa was drying up, with one of the largest lakes draining to the north. All this increased sophistication and awareness of far places that had previously only been possible in sea ports. Once writing is established, history begins.
Karen Armstrong’s argument appears to be that when the Axial Age arose, defined by the formation of the big religious systems between 700 and 200 BCE, it was prompted by two things. One was compassion for the suffering of all the peasant classes who did the labor in the fields, and the other was a failure of "paganism". I disagree with both of these.
I do see that the Axial Era was a time of systems forming, reflecting on the “long history” of humans through the lithic eras. Infant versions of the great dominating professions formed and grew to be called Western Thought. Law, medicine, and theology formed thick nodes of population and luxury in some places, all joined by travel-ways. Pilgrimages. The Silk Road. (The original one.) But truthfully, in any time period I don’t see anyone with much compassion for peasants, esp. in a time of slavery. I think there was probably more worry about revolution, internal war. Or why would Jesus and hundreds of others have to be crucified to maintain control?
I have a lot of respect for paganism, which I don’t interpret as “worshipping” self-indulgent gods of this and that. I see it in the much older Eliade way, a felt pattern of what is sacred and what is profane. The idea that a lot of people were being oppressed and this made them yearn for transcendence just doesn’t work for me. More likely they yearned for freedom, comfort and progress. Or just went blank.
It seems to me that medieval Europe had plenty of peasants, oppressed, bullied, taxed, and required to attend the local religion which was fused with the local government and justice system. The transcendence part may have migrated to romantic narratives like the King Arthur myths. The church was competing politically and thoroughly. The transcendence seems to apply to the cathedral architecture. But there IS an ability to imagine virtual systems built on abstract thinking.
Commerce was the engine and commerce was the corruption, the source of all profit and many alliances. I don’t see evidence of Heaven as transcendent. It looks like another seaport to me -- escapism.
My interest is not in going back to the Axial Age as an imaginary Golden Time when everyone was unconflicted and kind nor before that to the Stone Age which Jean Auel half-explored and half-exploited. I want to know more about the time before writing, even before agriculture. Call me Esau, the red and hairy hunter. The Axial Era was a later time when all the systems and hierarchies were just forming. Our time now is growing pot-bound and still rewards the few at the expense of the many, which Armstrong feels is what triggered the Axial Era. I think she’s suggesting a new shift is happening. I agree.
We skipped a few steps in our shift to agriculture, perhaps didn’t make a complete transition from hunter/gatherer, because there’s a LOT of difference between stalking game and plowing. Things that had to change were the organization of family, the allotment of gender roles, child-rearing, and education. The new life removed the advantages of one kind of person, replacing it with people who had entirely different characteristics. Lately there has been a lot of fuss about the diet changes, moving from meat to wheat. But maybe the invention of writing in 5,000 BCE (the beginning of history) has been a more subtle and profound change. Literacy still separates whole populations from everyone else.
I’ve never heard anyone discuss the psychological consequences of switching from hunting/gathering to agriculture. Part of it is like the difference between television and the internet: television is passive receiving and the internet is active seeking. (Big institutional and liturgical churches ask the believer to receive. Active seeking is more the function of the university, but they also establish limits and don’t allow pre-verbal thought unless it is in written description.) Hunting/gathering is responding to what is really in the world and trying to figure out what the other creatures are doing. This is like internet exploring. Gathering means studying the responses of the plants to the climate. But agriculture means taking control, whether by weeding, planting or watering. This is more like academia. In fact, seminary means "seed bed."
Another change is a loss of privacy since in fields and settlements everyone can see what everyone else is doing, in contrast to small groups or individuals going off on their own into forest. And maybe a change in the order of the day, since hunting is done on the schedule of the animals, usually diurnal and sometimes nocturnal, unless they are in large herds. To work with plants is to be awake and active through the day. Cooking would also be changed, with plants often needing shucking or chopping and then boiling or baking. Meat needs much less fuel which means less wood gathering. Fermentation and leavening appear: bread and wine.
These changes would be reflected in ceremonies. For instance, burnt offerings of meat -- modeled on sharing meat from hunting with family and band -- converted to vegetable crops, pottage, and finally wheat bread in the Christian communion -- seems to have been hard emotionally, considering that Jacob and Esau’s rivalry was probably a narrative meant to persuade men that the change was right by bringing in the previous generation, the old blind father. (Aside from its function of justifying succession and animosities.)
Hunting is not so far from war. Where does the aggression go when the culture shifts to working fields? Raiding and defending crops is probably not enough action. It’s hard to imagine that the energy goes into the stone buildings and streets that persist today. Maybe it goes into violence against women, children and domestic animals. For hunters, reflexes and complexes from their dark and animal brains are quite fitting and find their uses. No animals do agriculture on any scale. The neolithic psyche is explored today in terms of adaptation or lack thereof in the modern (using metal and writing) world, which is once again a conversion of patterns and energies left from the “Axial Age”. World religions at that time did urge empathy and compassion. Not that it made much difference.
The human ability to adapt to different contexts is, of course, what keeps us from being trapped in one environment which extinguished some animal species, but ability is not willingness. People distribute themselves through classes and places according to their adaptations. Maybe the lighthouse keepers and fire tower watchers are reacting to a primal arboreal life. The walking gene is still strong in many people and still good for our basic physiology. People thrown out of mainstream culture, maybe for lack of literacy, form their own tribal groups.
In every culture, but particularly in ag-based communities, there is a strong will to keep things the same. The overwhelming variable for farmers is the climate, which is totally uncontrollable. Weather comes from overhead and is occasionally as destructive as Noah’s flood. By the time prayers and hymns are written down, the evidence of weather as a deliberate religious act by a god or Gods is certainly there and gets carried into the Axial thinking, possibly through things like studies of seasons and the creation of systems like irrigation to manage fields, to compensate for the arbitrary reward and punishment.
The other big ag variable is the market, which exists if there is enough food left over to sell. In some times and places, greed has taken the people’s food to sell for profits that the elite can grab. We feel this is happening now, and that the major religious systems devised in the Axial Era have been sold out to major commercial corporations, partly because they have become religions themselves and the religious institutions have become corporations.