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Back to Paradise

By Richard Heinberg

Ten years ago I was hard at work on what would be my first book, Memories and Visions of Paradise Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age. It was published in 1989, and since then I have periodically looked back on it to see how my thinking has changed and how much I’ve learned. I was able to incorporate some new information and ideas on the subject in the revised edition (Quest Books, 1995), especially in the Update chapter at the end.

In the book, I explored how the paradise myth may refer to a state of consciousness (related, perhaps, to deep meditative states or the near-death-experience), a recollection of infancy, a forgotten civilisation, a time prior to devastating world cataclysms, a lost homeland, or the era before the emergence of civilisation itself. Each of these interpretations, it still seems to me, has some validity.

Even since 1995 there is news to report concerning the paradise myth and these divergent ways of looking at it.

Paradise: A Lost Global Civilisation

Standard views of human history leave little room for a lost paradise. But it seems that each year brings fresh evidence suggesting that our knowledge of the ancient human past is sketchy at best. For example, the recent discovery of a carved bone flute in a Slovenian cave, dated (by current estimates) at between 43,000 and 82,000 years old, suggests that humans have had music – and probably language and art as well – for a very long time indeed. What were people thinking and doing for all those millennia?

Answers to that question are difficult to come by, because most ancient centres of human habitation have likely been submerged or otherwise destroyed. People have always tended to congregate along rivers and sea coasts, and so the dramatic rise of the sea level roughly 12,000 years ago must have erased most of whatever signs of settlement then existed. Moreover, much of the material culture of the people who lived, say, 15,000 or 50,000 years ago probably consisted of highly perishable plant and animal materials that have long since disintegrated.

Nevertheless, tantalising clues continue to crop up. Newly discovered large, artificial stone structures submerged in the region of Okinawa and Taiwan suggest that the catastrophic rise in the oceans at the end of the Pleistocene may have obliterated an “impossibly” early civilisation in the western Pacific. And if the huge pyramids in Shensi Province, China, turn out to be older than the currently estimated 4,500 years (in 1912, two Australian traders reportedly met an old Buddhist monk who told them that the pyramids were described in the 5,000-year-old records of his monastery as being “very ancient”), then perhaps they are associated with the same, or a related, lost civilisation..

There are reasons to think that, even in the millennia after the late-Pleistocene (ca. 10,000 B.C.) catastrophes, whole chapters of human history may be missing from our current reconstructions. In his remarkable book Sailing to Paradise: The Discovery of the Americas by 7000 B.C. (Simon & Schuster, 1994), Jim Bailey marshals an extraordinary array of evidence suggesting that America was a world power many millennia ago, before being engulfed by wars, and that sea-bordering nations in nearly every part of the globe engaged in extensive trade long before the dawn of recorded history. These early traders, it seems, were motivated by the desire for rare metals such as copper and tin. Bailey points out, for example, that the sources for the copper and tin that fuelled the Near Eastern and European “copper Age and “Bronze Age” are unclear; meanwhile, around Lake Superior in North America there are huge, nearly-exhausted prehistoric copper mines, but no sign (in the Americas) of where all that copper went. Bailey also notes the presence in the New World of inscriptions in ancient Old World languages, and discusses evidence that early seafarers from the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean were well aware of the existence of the Americas. “Without reference to the transatlantic trade in copper and alluvial tin” , writes Bailey, “one cannot begin to understand the cultures and events of the Fertile Crescent between 6000 and 1000 B.C.; nor can one make sense of American prehistory.... Although the evidence available to us today is fragmentary and dispersed, it is conclusive in demonstrating that there was a long and influential relationship between the Old and the New Worlds. There are simply too many facts for which no other explanation is coherent.”

Bailey’s theory finds support in recent discoveries of cocaine and tobacco residues in Egyptian mummies – discoveries implying that the international drug trade is nothing new. The mummy of Ramses II, for example, was found to have extraordinarily high nicotine levels. Tests by a Dr. Balabanov (reported in a Discovery Channel broadcast) on bodies from China, Germany, and Austria, spanning the years 3,700 B.C. to 1100 A.D., also showed incredibly high percentages of nicotine. The coca and tobacco plants are, of course, believed to have grown nowhere other than the Americas prior to the European invasion of the 16th century.

Then there is the book, Origin of the Olmec Civilization, by H. M. Xu, in which the author asserts that Central American civilisation originated in China. When the Shang Dynasty collapsed around 1122 B.C., 250,000 soldiers and civilians suddenly disappeared. Xu attempts to prove that some of these people landed in Central America and founded the Olmec civilisation. He points to written records on this side of the Pacific that include what appear to be Chinese symbols, and also to similarities in the art, architecture, religion, and astronomical knowledge of the Olmecs and Chinese.

The picture that is slowly emerging from such bits of theory and evidence (there is far more of the latter than I could possibly mention here) is one of widespread maritime trade and contact among cultures beginning about 7000 B.C. and lasting, in a few instances at least, until about 1000 A.D. But why were these contacts broken off? Bailey mentions several factors – a collapse in the price of bronze (following the Old World shift to the use of iron), climate change (the end of the climatic optimum that began around 8000 years ago and lasted till roughly 4000 years ago), the consequent deterioration of sea conditions in the North Atlantic, and signs of recurring natural disasters.

Charles Ginenthal, editor of the journal The Velikovskian, has speculated that the climatic optimum – or hipsithermal – was the “Golden Age.” This is a thought that bears further consideration as we gradually come to better understand what was actually happening in human cultures 4000 to 8000 years ago.

Comets, Catastrophes, And Civilisation

Increasingly, it seems that human history simply cannot be understood without reference to natural catastrophes. In Memories and Visions of Paradise, I called attention to worldwide myths of flood, fire, and celestial upheaval. These myths, I suggested, are central to any meaningful reconstruction of humanity’s psychological, spiritual, and social history. The catastrophic events referred to in myth were the key to what traditional cultures regard as “the Fall” – and also to the commencement of civilisation. In A New Covenant with Nature I suggested that the connecting mechanism might have been a kind of collective, intergenerational, post-traumatic stress disorder that caused people in at least a few cultures to defer to strong male leaders, to treat their infants and children harshly, and to regard nature as an enemy to be vanquished.

This way of looking at cosmic catastrophes and their effects on early human societies is looking less heretical all the time – though on this side of the Atlantic there are as yet few social scientists who appear to have grasped the implications.

In England, the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies held its second Cambridge Conference at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University from July 11 to 13, 1997. The subject of the meeting was, “Natural catastrophes during Bronze Age civilisations: archaeological, geological, astronomical and cultural perspectives.” I quote from the brochure:

“Historian Dr. Benny Peiser, of Liverpool John Moores University, who is helping organise the meeting, said the Bronze Age – a crucial time at the dawn of civilisation – appeared to have started more or less simultaneously in different parts of the world.

“He suggested this could have been triggered by a sudden change in global climate caused by a catastrophe such as worldwide impacts of small cometary fragments. ‘We also think violent rituals, such as human sacrifices, started in many cultures during the Bronze Age and then stopped at its end,’ Dr Peisner said. He said it was possible these were used by people to overcome the trauma many would have suffered during such times.

“Prof. Mark Bailey, director of the Armagh Observatory and another of the conference’s organisers, said recent research has suggested the quantity of asteroids and comets hurtling into the Earth’s neighbourhood was much higher than previously thought, boosting the likelihood of such disasters. ‘If a comet broke up and the stream of debris intercepted the Earth’s orbit, the planet could have been periodically bombarded with small objects and everyone would have known an event like the Tunguska impact in Siberia,’ he said.

“Palaeo-ecologist Prof. Mike Baillie, of Queen’s University, Belfast, said his studies of tree rings had uncovered evidence of ecological catastrophes coinciding with the dawn and end of the Bronze Age. ‘The series of events that show up in the tree rings could have been major turning points in human society,’ Prof. Baillie said. ‘There might be more to these events than just volcanoes – we cannot rule out comets.’”

Also from the brochure: “An increasing number of astronomers have suggested that a series of cosmic disasters punctuated the Earth in prehistoric times. Scholars such as Victor Clube, Bill Napier, Mark Bailey, Sir Fred Hoyle, David Asher, and Duncan Steel claim that a more ‘active’ and threatening sky might have caused major cultural changes of Bronze Age civilisations, belief systems and religious rituals....

“In the light of new astronomical and archaeological theories and the emergence of scientific neo-catastrophism, it seems necessary to re-assess the origins and cultural implications of apocalyptic religions and catastrophe traditions in ancient mythologies and rituals. In particular, the significant cultural and religious changes at the beginning of the Bronze Age and those which occurred after its final collapse will be re-evaluated.”

The Site Of Paradise

Some paradise myths seem to describe a specific place, a lost homeland. Many legends speak of a sunken island or a great world mountain as the original paradisal home of humankind.

In Memories and Visions of Paradise, I mentioned the Tibetan legend of lost Shambhala – “a mystical kingdom hidden behind snowy peaks somewhere to the north” where “a line of enlightened kings is guarding the innermost teachings of Buddhism for a time when all truth in the outside world is lost in war and greed. Then, according to the prophecy, the King of Shambhala will emerge with a great army to destroy the forces of evil and bring in a new Golden Age.”

Tibetan and Western scholars have looked everywhere for Shambhala – from the Gobi Desert to the North Pole. Three recent books offer relevant new information and insight.

In Dawn Behind the Dawn: A Search for the Earthly Paradise (Holt, 1992), cultural historian Geoffrey Ashe theorises that the idea of a lost paradise began with a goddess-worshipping cult in the region of the Altai-Baikal region of northern Asia some 25,000 years ago. The book is erudite and impressively researched, touching on subjects ranging from Near Eastern mythology to Indo-European philology to modern feminism. Ashe summarises his reconstruction as follows:

“Tens of thousands of years ago, shamans in Siberia and Mongolia held the seven-star constellation [Ursa Major] in reverence. It was all the more important because the pole, which it ruled, was not marked then by a separate polestar of conspicuous brightness. ...The chief deity was a powerful Earth Mother and Mistress of Animals, with whom female shamans were closely associated. Her cult and symbolism, passing from tribe to tribe, played a part in forming the Paleolithic Goddess substratum across Siberia and Europe. Her chief animal form was a bear....

“The constellation built up a unique numinosity, partly because of its relation to the pole and hence to shamans’ ideas of comic centrality, expressed in the image of a central tree or world-mountain, which they climbed in their trances to meet superior spirits. In the Altai region, actual gold that gave the range a name, and an actual mountain cult, helped to evoke the divine world-mountain as golden....

“Late in the fourth millennium B.C., around the Altai, Indo-European groupings such as the Afanasievo came under shamanic influence and acquired a mythical ‘package’ comprising some of the ancient themes, which in the hands of these new people took on a rekindled life and energy. The package included the golden world-mountain... this eventually evolved into golden Meru, central to the universe, a paradisal abode of gods. It also included the seven stars... and something of the connected [mystique surrounding the number seven]. The mythical package was carried south and southwest in Indo-European expansion.” Ashe cites the Tibetan Shambhala legend as referring to the original Altaic homeland.

Victoria Le Page’s Shambhala: The Fascinating Truth Behind the Myth of Shangri-La (Quest, 1996) is an esotericist’s view of the same materials. Le Page has read Ashe carefully – as well as earlier scholars on the subject, such as René Guénon and Nicholas Roerich. Guénon interprets the paradise mountain – Mount Meru in Buddhist lore – as not a mountain at all, but “a metaphor for a conduit of terrestrial energy constituting the earth’s primary power source whose nature, location, and function is presently unknown to us. [Guénon] suggests that the knowledge of this fact belongs to a most arcane and little-known branch of the tantric science that is concerned with cosmic Shakti and the building of worlds, and which for that reason has been jealously guarded from the public view for many thousands of years.”

Le Page follows occultist Nicholas Roerich in his quest to find the true geographical Shambhala – in the Altai mountains. But she has more than a historical interest in decoding the myth. For her, Shambhala – the realm of jewel lakes, wish-fulfilling trees, and speaking stones – is central to the “new world model,” the ideology of the New Age. “Shambhala has had many locations, many names, many forms; over the ages it has been known as a taboo region of Paleolithic magic, a vast Megalithic sanctuary, a sacred kingdom, and underground Wisdom center, a modern complex of ashrams and training-schools.... Its credibility has probably never been so severely tested as in this age of high technology, dense population and intensive exploration; and yet in another sense we have never been more open to transcendental ideas, to the possibility of dimensions unseen, of higher-order beings and energies and presences celestial, of guidance from above.”

Olga Kharitidi, M.D., provides still more insight into the Shambhala myth in her recent book, Entering the Circle: Ancient Secrets of Siberian Wisdom Discovered by a Russian Psychiatrist (Harper Collins, 1996). This riveting autobiographical narrative is the latest entry in the New Age/shamanic adventure genre pioneered in the books of Carlos Castaneda and Lynn Andrews (and more recently in the Celestine Prophecy and Mutant Message from Down Under). Fortunately, Entering the Circle is not just an attempt to cash in on a publishing trend; in fact, it may be the best-written book of its kind so far.

The author, formerly a psychiatrist in a Siberian mental hospital, is invited by a former patient to meet his new teacher, a female shaman who lives in a remote village in the Altai mountains. The curious but skeptical psychiatrist soon finds herself launched into a chain of events that will forever change her views of healing, science, and consciousness.

Like Castaneda, Kharitidi is taken into apprenticeship by a magician with baffling powers, illogical habits, and a bizarre sense of humour. But Uma – the author’s spiritual teacher – offers more than the standard lessons in transcending time, space, and rationality; she also unlocks a gateway to what could be the fountainhead of the world’s spiritual truths.

Nearly every culture maintains some vestige of shamanic rituals, practices that date back to Paleolithic times. In his classic study of shamanism, historian of religion Mircea Eliade traced the phenomenon to the natives of Siberia. And as we have just seen, Geoffrey Ashe and Victoria Le Page, in their books, have suggested that the universal ancient myth of a lost paradisal kingdom – the birthplace of civilisation and religion – may refer to a site somewhere in the Altaic mountains bordering Siberia and Mongolia. Thus when Kharitidi’s Altaic spiritual guide begins to tell her about Belovodia (the local name for Shambhala), one gets the sense that a tremendous secret may be on the verge of disclosure.

Back in the city of Novosibirsk, Kharitidi meets a nuclear physicist whose research into the fringes of human consciousness dovetails with her own exploding interest in the mysteries of the soul.

Working together, they retrieve more knowledge about the fabled Belovodia. “There have always been people within each [spiritual tradition] who were directly in touch with Belovodia,” writes the physicist during an exploratory trance session. “From time to time, knowledge from there has been opened up to your own civilisation. This has happened at moments of real threat to humanity. It is becoming open to you again now, because the power and energy you have accumulated are capable of causing many different kinds of catastrophes. Belovodia is becoming accessible to your consciousness to protect you by showing you other ways to live.”

Kharitidi’s story – convincingly told – seems destined to become a classic and deserves at least as wide a readership as the spectacularly successful (but fictional and clumsily written) The Celestine Prophecy.

Human Nature, Chimps, And Bonobos

The paradise myth tells us that we humans are not inherently or innately as destructive as we are in the context of civilisation. If today we are warlike and ecocidal, these are acquired tendencies that can also be un-acquired. In other times and places, people have been far more gentle, and have lived in far greater harmony with one another and with nature. In this regard, the paradisal worldview is starkly at odds with the Hobbesian notion that human beings in their “natural” state are violent and selfish, and that civilisation serves to moderate our deep-seated brutish inclinations.

Discussions about human nature inevitably turn on evidence drawn from studies of apes, who are genetically our closest relatives. Revelations about the territoriality and irascibility of chimpanzees have tended to favour the Hobbesian, as opposed to the paradisalist, view. Thus it was refreshing to see an article in the New York Times of April 22, 1997, by Natalie Angier, titled, “Bonobo Society: Amicable, Amorous.” The article is essentially a preview of a new book – Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, by primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University.

Bonobos – sometimes called pygmy chimpanzees – are more graceful and slender than their cousins, with smaller heads, longer legs, straighter backs, and more human-like posture. But their most glaring departure from chimps is in the area of social behaviour. According to the Times article, “Bonobos are much less aggressive and hot-tempered than are chimpanzees, and are not nearly as prone to physical violence. They are less obsessed with power and status... and more consumed with Eros.... Infanticide has never been seen among Bonobos.”

Among bonobos (quoting the Times again), “the female... is the dominant sex, though the dominance is so mild and unobnoxious that some researchers view bonobo society as a matter of ‘codominance,’ or equality between the sexes.”

Why are the bonobos so peaceful? It may be because, as de Waal writes, “The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power; the bonobo resolves power issues with sex.” The Times writer notes that “Bonobos lubricate the gears of social harmony with sex, in all possible permutations and combinations: males with females, males with males, females with females, and even infants with adults. The sexual acts include intercourse, genital-to-genital rubbing, oral sex, mutual masturbation and even a practice that people once thought they had a patent on: French kissing.”

“Bonobos use sex to appease, to bond, to make up after a fight, to ease tensions, to cement alliances.” According to de Waal, “all this sex is not driven by orgasm or seeking release. Nor is it often reproductively driven. Sex for a bonobo is casual, it’s quick, and once you’re used to watching it, it begins to look like any other social interaction.”

Dr. de Waal questions the prevalent view that, since chimpanzees are genetically our closest animal relatives, and since chimps appear to be driven by “aggression, hierarchical machinations, hunting, warfare and male dominance,” therefore these characteristics may to some degree be “hardwired” into humans as well. He reminds us that bonobos are as genetically close to us as chimpanzees are, sharing 98 percent of humans’ DNA. “There’s more flexibility in our lineage than we thought” , according to de Waal.

If there is “more flexibility in our lineage,” that suggests there may also be more flexibility in ourselves – and that a great deal of what we think of as “human nature” may in fact be culturally conditioned.

The primary way cultures inculcate attitudes and behaviours is through patterns of child-rearing. Clearly, if we wish to produce a culture that is creative, peaceful, and happy, we must begin by treating infants with the care and interest that evolution has led them to require. Otherwise, we shall have still more generations of traumatised, unhappy, often violent adults.

An excellent new book that explores the implications of this subject is Early Child Care: Infants & Nations at Risk, by Dr. Peter Cook (News Weekly Books, Melbourne, 1996). Cook writes, “It remains indisputable that the early experiences of infants and young children in the western industrialised world have changed dramatically over the past several decades. Whereas it was once normative for mothers to remain at home to care for their children through the infant and toddler years, particularly if the family was not poor, it is no longer unusual to find mothers of children of under one year of age in the work force.... Needless to say, this change in maternal work patterns, stimulated by both economic needs and changing views of the role of women in society, has radically altered the world of the young child.”

Cook marshals a wide range of evidence showing that this change has ominous implications for society at large, and passionately argues for alternatives, such as Sweden’s program of work leave and financial support for mothers of young children. He also advocates more cultural support for breastfeeding, and calls carrying the baby in arms “the best ‘behavioural vaccine’ for healthy development.” This is a very important book for anyone who has or cares for young children.

The Garden Beckons Still

At lectures and in discussions I still often encounter the idea that it’s psychologically, politically, or philosophically wrongheaded to look back to an imaginary time in the past when life was somehow better; that if we are to imagine any paradise at all, we should locate it in the future, not the past. However, it occurs to me that this way of thinking is very much conditioned by modernism. The delegitimisation of the paradise myth was essential to the purposes of industrial civilisation, which substituted for the universal, ancient belief in a lost Golden Age the idea of brutish origins and continual progress. Among traditional peoples, the paradise myth appears to implant a feeling of security and stability; it is perhaps the cultural equivalent of the memory of loving parents and a happy childhood. The evolution-from-barbarism myth, on the other hand, imparts a sense of primal insecurity, which well serves the purposes of a civilisation that must continually disrupt existing social bonds in order to rebuild society in a way that serves the interests of a wealthy elite.

Other people object that, even if the paradise myth makes us feel good, it is pure wishful thinking; there is no evidence that such a condition ever actually existed. The assumption at the heart of this view is that paradise must refer to a perfect, unblemished state. Given that definition, I would agree. It is indeed preposterous to suppose that there was a time when there was no suffering of any kind, when whatever one wished for immediately became reality. The historical paradise, if it existed, was almost certainly not perfect in this absolute sense.

There is evidence – not of that imaginary paradise, but of ancient civilisations, cultures, and conditions that simply do not fit the conventional view of humans as slowly and steadily emerging from darkness into light, from barbarism to civility. A sympathetic view of the paradise myth encourages us to open ourselves to this new evidence, and also to admit that what we know of human prehistory is still sketchy at best.

The Great Tradition of which the paradise myth is a part tells us that there has been a succession of world ages. Our era is not the only one in which people have grasped at Promethean powers. Civilisations have come and gone; like the others, ours too will pass away. But the greater story continues. There have been – and will yet be – times when human society will strive more for material simplicity and spiritual depth than for wealth and power.

The worldwide myths of cosmic catastrophe remind us that we are wounded creatures who are dependent upon systems far larger than any we can control. We live by the grace of the gods of nature and cosmos, and we would do well to serve them by protecting and healing, wherever possible, the web of life.

The cynicism that denies the Great Tradition protects us from having to face the spiritual chasm that has grown between our present way of being and both our heritage and our potential. But it is only when we acknowledge that such a gap exists that we can begin to bridge it.

For those of us who hold to that Great Tradition, our job in the present world is clear: to keep the paradisal vision alive through the end of this dark age, and to build the foundation for a Golden Age yet to come.

Reprinted with permission from MuseLetter No. 66, June 1997. Richard Heinberg is the author of Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (Quest Books: 1995), Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms Through Festival and Ceremony (Quest Books: 1994), and A New Covenant With Nature. He also publishes MuseLetter, an excellent monthly newsletter exploring issues in cultural renewal. For further details, visit www.museletter.com.

The above article appeared in
New Dawn No. 48, (May-June 1998)

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