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When We Might Have Had It Right

Author: Verda Smedley
Posted: February 6th. 2011
Times Viewed: 2,701

Was there a time in our history when we 'might have had it right'? That was the question I asked myself more than forty years ago. My life-long quest rolled through tens of thousands of years of history and like all trails the path did get cold eventually. But there was enough to conclude, heart and soul, that once we did have it right the memory of which still courses through our DNA. We know in our bones how to make it right again.

Some say our species (Homo sapiens) is about 150, 000 years old; others conclude about 125, 000 years old. It is believed we didn’t make Europe until about 80, 000 years ago. Whatever it turns out to be those discrepancies are insignificant when we consider that our Neanderthal relatives (Homo neanderthalensis) enjoyed a reign hundreds of thousands of years longer and made no detrimental mark on this planet whatsoever. It is sobering and sad to consider the disastrous impact we have had on our Earth in so frighteningly little time. Nevertheless I pushed back the historic clock in a sometimes-desperate hope of finding something redeeming about our species and I believe I did.

It is difficult to piece together our Paleolithic culture with only our ancestors’ tools, their bones, and the bones of their prey. But they did leave us breathtaking cave paintings that show us delicious possibilities of a deeply pagan, shamanic world. And they left us Venus figurines.

What I love most about Venus figurines, especially in light of my own attrition into old age, is that they did not depict gloriously beautiful young girls (I was gloriously beautiful and young once, I think) . Venus figurines depict older women, breasts and bellies sagging, their bodies spent from bringing new life into the world. This image and it alone, has been immortalized as sacred for all time. Certainly no proof can be offered but there remains little doubt in my mind that the perception of the Primordial Goddess as Earth Mother, abundant, fertile, all-providing, mysterious, reaches back to the very birth of our species.

Even so the Paleolithic world and the little we know about it did not flesh out my need to know if we ever had it right. So I brought my quest forward to the Mesolithic and sure enough, I found us there, standing at what I believe is the absolute spiritual apex of our stewardship.

We emerged into the Mesolithic world with the certainty that our abiding faith in the Earth Mother had carried the day. She had kept us alive after endless waves of advancing and retreating ice sheets for thousands of years and against seemingly impossible odds. Our debt to Her was without measure. Every breath and thought held Her at the center. We knew every ecosystem, its creatures, its elements, more intimately than we knew our own souls. And even with our encyclopedic knowledge of the world around us we revered the Earth Mother as the epitome of mystery and magic, ultimately, divinely unknowable. From intense, protracted ritual through sexual expression and even the simplicity of placing one foot on the ground after another, every moment was held as an utterly sacred ceremony. We lived our lives consumed by devotion to Her ineffable sanctity. When we made mistakes, as surely as we had to have had, we took extraordinary measures to reconcile them, including the mistakes we made with each other.

At that time we were hunter-gatherers. Had pottery even been considered the very idea of it would have been discarded as completely impractical. Pottery was way too heavy and fragile for people that enjoyed moving around their environment. The sophisticated looms that would come much later would have been met with the same disdain.

The domestication of animals would have been found abhorrent. Animals were regarded as the sacred teachers of our Mother’s mysteries and the very reason we even survived as a species. We emulated their every move and behavior knowing that their world was older, more complete than ours and overflowed with incomprehensible wisdom.

The plant kingdom was hugely important and equally revered. It provided at least 85% of our food, all of our medicine and most of our ritual tools. There existed an implicit trust that this abundance was the finest of blessings. When famine came, as it inevitably did from time to time, foremost in our minds was to remain in harmony with it. Famine reminded us of the spiritual essential of frugality, always taking from our Earth sparingly and with devout respect. The real possibility of death by starvation helped us to reach the realization just how precious famine foods were, the simple lichens and grasses that sustained us during tough times. To this day, descendants of hunter-gatherers revere famine foods as the most sacred of all plants, a belief that flies in the face of the current notion that only psychotropic species are sacred. Famine foods are a panacea of the spirit that can cure any affliction, disease or disaster and run off any malevolent spirit.

Now that is reverence.

Plants were also believed to be the liaisons between the spirit world and us. Our extraordinary knowledge of plants and its link to the world of spirits led to the most shamanic, pagan practices ever conceived by us, a vast portion of which has been forgotten or dismissed. I call these practices “spirit handling” because everything that existed, tangible and elusive, whether ritual, happiness, good harvest, famine, illness and even bad behavior were regarded as a matter of spirit. Wisdom concerning those spirits was believed safeguarded by plants. With such an all-consuming devotion to the natural world it is not difficult to grasp how hunter-gatherer people would have met the idea of agriculture with horror.

Once an elder, a descendent of hunter-gatherers, told me that he believed that digging into the Earth was worse than stabbing ones own mother in the heart. All I could think was, wow, what a concept. Clearly, technology was not "where it's at".

Perhaps the grandest feature of the Mesolithic world was its acute sense of community even amidst the visible absence of permanent towns or structures. Nearly unimaginable now, every individual was once believed an irreplaceable treasure and every member was critical to the survival of the tribe. And the word “tribe” was not merely a noun. The community, the tribe was regarded as a living, breathing, conscious entity unto itself, and a microcosm of the Primordial Mother. As much as individuality, predisposition, and inherent giftedness was nurtured and revered from birth, the investment of a people to cultivate these blessings was in the end for the good of the tribe. Clearly, no child was left behind in that world. Harvest was a collective effort and shared equally, as was hunger in lean years. Every individual held an inalienable right to medicine and magic, whether for the body or the spirit. Every loss, no matter how small or large was collective as well and no one mourned alone. When someone suffered the tribe suffered and every member set aside his or her personal life until that suffering was reconciled. And elders, those few that managed to make their way through to old age, were the indisputable keepers of the keys to it all.

I know I am hopeless romantic for the hunter-gatherer. My idealistic waxing seems a bit naďve. I assure you I am equally well versed in all the things that went wrong in that ancient world. It was tough, relentless and often unforgiving but it was honest and present. We were just as temperamental as we are now and every bit as capable of our uniquely human disgraceful behavior, remedied with ritual not criticism or judgment. What drew me to that world over and over and still was the astounding spiritual approach and resolution for everything from pressing problems to hurtful words.

Can you picture a world where greed and avarice, things like self-involvement and bad manners were believed malevolent spirits that required ritual exorcism? Again, wow. I can feel your skepticism and doubt creeping in. Did you know that they are spirits too?

Hands down I get it, we will never be able to return to that world. For one thing our Earth can no longer support us, our population now approaching three times the carrying capacity of our planet. But even with high quality, sustainable, organic agriculture within our reach we continue to turn away daily from the countless millions that starve to death every year. We have become gluttons for protein. Not only do we ravenously eat the cruelty we inflict on the creatures we consume, we don’t even need that much protein. We are omnivores not carnivores.

Our ancestors lived well consuming less than 15% of their caloric intake from flesh and significantly less during several seasons of even the most abundant years. Not only are our children left behind and our elders forgotten, vast portions of the human family are cast off and the resources of our Earth are exploited beyond reclamation.

We have abandoned ritual, spiritual expression, compassion, devotion to community, and for what? It’s a grim corner we have painted ourselves into; each of us knows it intimately and collectively. We try hard not to think about it or make excuses for doing nothing. The hunter-gatherer world with their connection to the Holy Mother is surely lost. Or is it?

Perhaps their physical reality has disappeared from view but the spirit of their world has not. It still resonates within each of us; it’s in our blood, the very blood with which our ancestors endowed us. Spirit is an attitude, a way of perceiving the world around us. The most mundane tasks in our lives become sacred and things of the spirit when we embrace the wisdom in knowing that they are done for the good of our family and our community at large. That attitude is hunter-gatherer at its core, so are endeavors like volunteer work, letter writing campaigns for worthy causes, picking up trash, planting trees, taking meals to the elderly and disabled, fostering animals, mentoring children, whatever comes to mind on any given day.

The pagan, shamanic practices of the ancient world weren’t about personal empowerment, individual enlightenment, or anything that even remotely suggests “what’s in it for me”. Those practices were an outgrowth of the divine mystery and nurturing nature of the Primordial Mother; they were about taking responsibility for the needs of others and our own actions.

Understanding the intricacies of the hunter-gatherer world and finding applications in our everyday lives for their wisdom is paramount. Having astute understanding and reverence for the natural world and the essentiality of healthy, compassionate communities is still achievable.

I believe our ancestors are prompting us to take action. To be pagan means that we believe that our ancestors are as accessible as the Internet. I can assure you they are still standing there; just waiting for us to ask how can we make this right again?

Ancestral Airs

The Compendium for Spirit Handling

A full bibliography and species appendix can be found on my website.

Shorter pieces can be found on my Facebook page.

Copyright: I hold the copyright on all of my work.


Verda Smedley

Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico


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