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When Nature Bites You on the...
by Wren Walker
Well, at least this time, the bite was on her ankle. It was still pretty nasty and Wren was entirely 'unamused' as she fumed her way back up the stairs. Flopping down on the chair, she rubbed the spot vigorously. "Fire ants," she muttered to no deity in particular, "Who amongst You thought that fire ants were a good idea again?" By tomorrow her ankle would swell to three times its normal size. Wren was not a happy nature-loving Witch right now at all. And in fact she would be quite willing to smack anyone who proposed an alternative philosophy with a very big clue-by-four. (One preferably covered with fire ants.) Sure, she knows that Nature can be kind or cruel, but that look in her eye lets everyone within glaring distance know that this is definitely not the time to bring that up. (Leave her alone for a while, folks. Wren never could hold a grudge for very long and she'll get over it soon enough.)
Okay, she's over it. Several applications of ammonia and tea tree oil later, Wren is back on her naturally philosophical track. Really not that big of a deal. Not like a shark attack or anything. There has been a big media buzz about those lately though, haven't there? What's up with that?
Man's perceptions of Nature have undergone radical metamorphosis over the centuries. While many of early man/womankind's ideas about the natural world were purely situational (Finding cave to live in: good. Finding cave to live in already inhabited by snarling gigantic bear: bad.), as societies and cultures developed so did the attending societal and cultural notions about the wild places which marked the boundaries beyond which man/woman had not yet passed. In the times of old when there were more wild places than inhabited ones, everyone more or less lived on the fringe of such places. There was also an abundance of large animals still in existence and living in the forests and so it was not unusual that as the dark night without streetlights approached, strange rustlings and heavy footfalls could be heard coming from the mysterious wood. Disembodied eyes sometimes would be seen glowing from the branches and eerie calls would be heard echoing across the sky. Sometimes livestock would simply disappear into the darkness never to be seen again. It was not difficult for these early peoples to imagine that ghosts and bean-sidhe and all sorts of hobgoblins made their homes in such forbidding places. Humans were not welcome here. For if mythology serves us well as a partial 'historical' recounting of such beliefs, then the world's books tell of these early notions of the wild places in great abundance. " Be careful out there," they say. " or the (insert the bogeyman/woman of your particular area) will git ya!" The animals that men hunted could be dangerous and the hunting itself was often a perilous exercise. Successful hunters therefore were held in high esteem.
Fast Forward to Ancient Greece. Three deities which figure prominently in the nature and hunting motifs in Ancient Greece were Apollo, his sister, Artemis, and Dionysis. Apollo's association with nature and hunting was lost early on in the stories with Artemis taking on some of Apollo's attributes. Artemis was known for her virginity, for her killing arrows and as the protectress of the wild beasts and forests. The ambiguity of the Artemis archetype is not accidental. Before she was 'gentled' by the Romans as Diana, Artemis both persecuted the animals with her 'arrows of anguish' and protected them from other hunters. In the myths of Orion the Giant, when Orion declared that he would slaughter every living beast in the forest, he is quickly dispatched by one of Artemis' arrows. Actaeon, who comes upon and spies the goddess at her bath, is turned into a stag and rent apart by his own hunting hounds. While no gentle being as far as the earliest Greek myths are concerned, Artemis still embodies a view of the natural world at that time: Artemis is the pure and virginal force, uncorrupted by man or god, who keeps nature in check, provides a balance of natural forces and alternately culls and coddles nature and its animal inhabitants.
Dionysis, on the other hand, is anything but chaste or restrained- at least before his bloodsucking ways were prettied up a bit and he reemerged as the Cernunnos and Herne the Hunter of later times. He and his Bacchae women did not use the weapons of man or of Artemis, but rather their own strength and teeth ravaged and brought down their prey. While Artemis and her band of virginal women archers tended to avoid most human contact, Dionysis and his sharp-teeth madwomen, pursued forest traveling man and beast alike.
The opposite personalities and functions of Artemis and Dionysis still serve as the symbols of the two extreme views of nature held by peoples throughout the resulting ages. "Artemis is chaste; Dionysis is dissolute. She stands for restraint; he stands for excess. She is a masculinized male (real Greek women didn't hunt); he is an effeminate male. Artemis directs a troop of maiden archers in an orderly program of wildlife management; Dionysis dances at the head of a column of drunken crazies who tear beasts and men apart with their bare hands. The followers of Artemis discipline the wilderness, the followers of Dionysis participate in it."-(Matt Cartmill; A View to A Death in the Morning).
Fast forward to the European Middle Ages. Christianized now, the people began to draw images of nature from biblical and some classical Roman sources (such as 'The Aeneid' where the hunting of Aeneas and Queen Dido apparently drew no blood). The ideal of a vegetarian Garden of Eden where all animals existed peacefully with each other and humans is held as the ideal. However, when Man fell, Nature also fell and the journey since then has been one of trying to get back to that place- now however no longer possible on earth but projected into 'heaven'- where 'the lion lies down with the lamb'. During this same time, land was increasingly owned by the aristocracy and access to the lands and the hunting of the animals therein was limited to the privileged classes. From this era, the 'Robin Hood' myths came into being. Poaching was often a necessity for the poorer classes and it became a heroic feat to 'poach the king's deer'. It was also a serious criminal offense but those who 'robbed from the rich and gave to the poor' became the stuff of inspiration and legend amongst the common folk. The forest as a haven for the maverick, the outsider, the anarchist and protester and for the bands of 'merry men' who battled against the oppressive system of the eilte became a very popular ideal in these times. The idea that Witches took refuge in the forests at night undoubtedly came forth (sometimes under the torture of the Inquisitor's questionings) from this period as Witches were certainly viewed as outsiders and all outsiders were considered to be 'lurking about' somewhere out there in the forests.
As towns and cities and roads pushed back the boundaries, these man-made developments opened up the wild spaces even more. The aristocracy lost its predominance through various revolutions (some bloody, some political and some both) and the forests became a sort of 'sacred place' as a sort of tribute to the times when it had protected and harbored those common peoples who were now once again regaining power. Those Christian Saints who gained popularity, such as Francis of Assisi, were those who could either tame or live peacefully with the forest creatures. The Merlins, the hermits, the Ladies of the wild places became the newest heroes and heroines of the mythic tales and sagas. No longer the dangerous places where a man needed to exercise extreme caution upon entering, the new forest was a sylvan wonderland where one could encounter mystical men, faerie women and talking beasts and from them so acquire holy or sacred insights and wisdom. The animals in turn became less the predator and prey and more the companions and guides in various magical quests. The wilderness was suddenly a very romantic place and its images as such were reflected in poetry and song and story and art. The physical refuge from bureaucratic oppression had become a mental and spiritual refuge for the new intellectual elite.
Fast forward once again through the impact of Darwinism (evolution) and the Rise of New Age thought (Universalism) and on through the dawning of a quantum mechanics theorem (the holographic universe where everything is a part of the whole) and we find ourselves pretty much up to our present age. Many more subtle and profound ideas and ideals helped to shape the notions that we hold towards nature and the natural world (and many more than space permits us to explore here) and the place of man and animal within the earth system. But we still carry that very old ambiguity- the tension between Artemis and Dionysis- with us.
On the one side, there are those who believe that Nature is basically good and benign, can be understood and managed, should be preserved (via environmentalism, animal rights, vegetarianism) and has an Artemis- chaste, pure, disciplined- to guard it from outside destructive forces. On the other, Dionysis and his Bacchae run rampant throughout the dark places reveling in the kill, taking what is there for the taking as their right, strong and unfettered by convention and always wild and dangerous. Most people and most Pagans fall somewhere in the middle. Perhaps leaning a bit more to one side or the other, most acknowledge the give and take, the life and death, the order and the chaos that is embodied in the eternal dance between Artemis and Dionysis.
When a fire ant bites, it is simply a rather 'burning' reminder that Nature has her little annoyances to be found still lurking in the grass amidst her great pleasures. When sharks attack people, it is a reminder that while man is still the dominant species- and generally the top predator- he is still not the ONLY predator. It is a shock to the modern human arrogance to hear that sharks can and actually do chomp upon a human limb here and there. Hardly the wild forest of yesteryear, but certainly a very poignant reminder of where we and our relationship with nature began.
For if Jung is correct and all archetypes- including those of both Artemis and Dionysis- exist within every human psyche, it is not hard to see where and when and why our view of Nature has changed over the centuries. We have always been and probably will always be intimately and continually engaged in the tension between discipline and excess, between purity and debauchery, between preservation and destruction, between nurturing and cruelty and between self-gratification and altruism.
Today if those who see nature and society as harsh and as a place where only the strongest can- or should- survive view only with contempt those others who preach the benign nature of either one, then they are missing the impact of a real and urgent situation wherein some aspects of nature actually DO need to preserved, to be protected and to be managed in order to save them for the future generations.
But it is also worth noting that those who embrace the ideal of the earth as a nurturing and benign Mother Goddess shouldn't be a bit surprised if they happen to hear the faint laughter of Dionysis ringing in their ears each time some shark-faced Bacchae takes a very big chunk out of some human's juicy butt.
Walk in Light and Love,
September 10th., 2001
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