Is Western Pantheistic Mythology At All Useful Anymore?

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Venkat’s got up a great post that ties in directly with the recent permaculture discussion. I was going to write about this, but on giving it some thought, I ran into an irreconcilable wall.

Venkat borrows Nassim Taleb’s metaphor of the hydra from his forthcoming book Antifragility. The point of the metaphor is to demonstrate how an antifragile system works: when hit with an shock, an antifragile system will respond by becoming more robust, just like cutting off one of the hydra’s heads will result in two new ones springing forth.

In this brief interview, Taleb explicitly cites both nature and evolution as examples of antifragility, of the hydra in action so to speak. But here’s the thing: the hydra mythology is itself a metaphor for the complete and final defeat of nature.

And in fact, all of Greco-Roman mythology is rooted in the defeat of nature and the rise of civilization as The Divinely Ordained Way Of Things.

Is this remotely useful? Isn’t this the mythology that got us where we are right now? I understand that Taleb uses it simply as a metaphor, but to see someone even of Taleb’s stature left without a better metaphor seems really telling. Our smartest and most influential thinkers don’t even have access to any competing archetypal universes.

The contents of our irrational, collective unconscious drive us with far more power than does our supposedly almighty rationality and logic. The metanarratives into which we fit our experiences determine the outcomes of our efforts. If we don’t get some better stories, we’ll just repeat the same mistakes again and again.

I don’t like Western pantheism, nor any of the pantheisms that trace their genealogies back to Sumeria. Pantheisms in general are fundamentally agricultural — agriculture being the cornerstone development upon which we’ve built our crowns of shit, making up stories about nonexistent deities along the way to legitimize the destruction we dole out so nonchalantly.

The only Mesopotamian mythology that calls bullshit on all the rest is the ancient Hebrew mythos as recorded in Genesis. And in fact this is the only Western-Mesopotamian mythology I am aware of that posits nature, and those who adapt successfully, as ultimately victorious. I realize that is a supremely distasteful thing to say but it’s true. Don’t we need a story, a mythos, in which we learn from our mistakes and create something better? Is shooting ourselves in the foot really the best mythology we can come up with?

27 Responses

  1. Venkat says:

    Well in this case the Greeks got it wrong, so we just rewrite the ending so the hydra wins :)

    • Paula says:

      Rewriting the 12 Labors, that could be a fun undertaking! :) Good to see you btw you’re really going to town these days!

  2. R Smith says:

    “Is Western Pantheistic Mythology At All Useful Anymore?”


  3. Ted says:


    How do you get around the curse? Your mythology seems to posit a fall from Eden but no curse on creation.

    • Paula says:

      In Genesis, the curse is explicitly farming, and all that is built on it.

      • Ted says:

        farming causes thorns?

        • Ted says:

          Actually that might make sense. Broken ground and so forth. I still think the Fall is birth of individual ego consciousness. Left Hand Path people think its the greatest thing since sliced bread, other religious traditions think its problematic.

          Not comment on the bigfoot theory?

          If you study accounts of encounters, a common theme is that people often become frozen with terror.


          It strikes me as being similar to accounts in the Hebrew scriptures encountering Angles or Theophanies. Maybe “unfallen” humans would have some type of Shekina glory or something that fallen people react to with terror.

          To me though, Homo Sapiens is fallen. We aren’t innocent wild animals. Even the people Sorenson studdied. Its just a matter of degree, in my opinion. I think possibly indiginous people living comunally might be less egocentric than most Westerners, possibly far less in some cases, But they still prctice agriculture and warfare and subjagation of women. That’s probably the case for the remaining uncontacted tribes in New Guinea and the Amazon, with the possible exception on the Sentinelelses Islanders.

        • Paula says:

          I think you missed my point. Farming causes empire, and that is the curse.

          But as far as thorns go — farming does not cause thorns, but if you strip a field completely barren often the first things that’ll come back growing wild there are thorny & thistly weeds.

  4. Ted says:

    OK, I know this is coming out of left field, but anyway, there is a researcher with a peer reviewed study coming out soon, named Melba Ketchum, who supposedly has sequenced bigfoot DNA and claims that Bigfoots are human, similar to neanderthals or Denisovans, with whom modern humans share recent DNA through cross breeding.

    So my theory if this is true, is that there are some people in an unfallen state living in various wilderness areas. I mean, even rain forest tribes in New Guinea and the Amazon, aren’t “unfallen” type people in my opinion. They practice agriculture. They have complex symbolicv culture.

    So I think reversing the fall, wouldn’t just be going back to living like uncontacted tribes, but it would entail being a human animal basically. Giving up all symbolic culture and technology and living like a completely wild animal. Possibly very intelligent but with nothing resembling human culture.

    • Ted says:

      I guess nobody is going to bite on this bigfoot train of thought. But in case anyone is interested here is a really good NAT GEO video digitally analyzing the Patterson Gimlin footage. They concluded that the figure in the footage was 7’6″ and had had skeletal porportions unlike modern humans. Only one in a hundred million people is 7″6″

      I think these are the closest thing to human beings in a coompletely natural “unfallen” state. I think they are probably similair to homo erectus and probably more intelligent than humans in certain ways. They may have mental abilities We have lost and they use these to aviod detection by modern humans. Several diverse indeiginous groups have these beings in their mythologies, along with mythologies involving animals verified by science.

  5. Margaret says:

    Hey, I have a question. You are interested and possibly believe in astrology, I gather. The names of the signs and the characters are from this very same Greek and Roman mythology that you are rejecting in this post, aren’t they?

    So what does that mean?

    • Paula says:

      Well, I don’t know if anyone can say for certain what’s up with astrology and how it works. My own theory is that precivilized peoples “read” the stars in the same way they “read” the rest of the environment around them; and they noticed that when certain of the “wandering stars” (plants) aligned with non-wandering stars, circumstances in life behaved in ways that were similar to animals that they knew. Hence the ram, the bull, the crab, the twins, etc. Libra and, I believe, Aquarius got added later.

      This small piece of animism survived the transition to literacy simply by virtue of the fact that it can be tracked mathematically. Civilized cultures then applied the names of their deities to the wandering stars and other heavenly bodies — this is true everywhere, not just in Greece/Rome. We use the Greco-Roman names for constellations, stars & planets because that’s our cultural heritage. To us they seem to apply; but there are many different systems of astrology that use other mythologies and work better for those cultures.

      I know that’s kinda convoluted but hopefully it makes sense.

  6. Ted says:

    Joseph Campbell’s take on Hebrew mythology is that it was against and apart from nature that the serpent represents nature.

    Nietzsche thought the Pagan Greeks especially the pre-Socratics were pro-nature.

    So I’m unclear on this. But I will say I apreciate aspects of your synthesis, Paula, betweeen Sorenson’s theory of “pre-conquest consciousness” and the Hebrew Creation Myth.

    One thing I find interesting is that “left hand” religions and also some Gnostic sects, interpret the serpent as bringing enlightenment, and they don’t interpret the fall as all bad but more of a loss of innocence.

    • Paula says:

      The serpent is one of the very earliest symbolisms of the goddess, and therefore represents one of the earliest breaks with nature — deities don’t exist in precivilized, animist cultures. They only start cropping up in tandem with movement away from nomadic, tribal life.

      The thing to bear in mind about Genesis is that it is not written from the point of view of those who ate the forbidden fruit. Those who ate the forbidden fruit went on to become farmers, found settlements, grow cities, and eventually empires. Genesis is written from the point of view of those who rejected all of this, saw it as “the fall,” and made every effort to keep themselves separate from it.

      The forbidden-fruit-eaters are our cultural forebears, and we know now that there’s been a big problem with it from the very beginning. The ancient pre-Hebrews were those who tried to keep themselves separate and retain their relationship with Elohim, the ineffable many-powered power, similar to the Tao, that lived in the Garden; and we now know that this would have been the much wiser course of action.

      So on this count, I have to say I think Fred & Joe are wrong.

      • Ted says:

        I like Campbell a lot, but he seemed to have a bug up his butt about Christianity. I saw a clip once where somebody asked him why and he said it was an outdated mythology meant for another time. But I don’t see why the same criticism couldn’t be made for Hindu mythology.

        I have been reading some books by Walter Wink and Jaques Ellul. I think the pickings are pretty slim out there for intellectually rigorous, yet sincerely Christian thinkers.

        But these two guys, I feel are on the money, when it comes to talking about power. And I think power as we know it, speaking poltically, stems from the ego. And I think that is the point of Agriculture. The accumulation of power.

        Empathy consciousness and ego consciouisness are opposites, in my opinion. Empathy is diffuse and all encompasing. The ego is like consciousness arising from a tiny isolated point and seeking to build a pyramid underneath it basically. It organizes its environment hierarchically.

      • Ted says:

        So, who in your opinion are these people that rejected the forbidden fruit? That is a sincere question.

        They can’t be the Indians of North America, because they domesticated corn, wore clothing and probably hunted the megafauna to extinction.

        Like I said on a continuum they were probably less out of touch with nature then Western Civilization. But they don’t seem like they resemble an Edenic society unless they are romanticized quite a bit.

        Maybe you think this is goofy but I think there is something to the bigfgoot thing.

        Powerful(unfallen?) mental abilities:

        Dominion over all the animals:

        OK no more big foot links, unless you want to discuss it. Other than that I don’t see any evidence of any group of Homo Sapiens living in an Unfallen state, described in Genesis.

  7. Gaianne says:

    Off topic, I know, but I was reminded of your astology post of Thursday 22 March 2012 “Keeping an Eye on This” about the Mercury retrograde and Mars/Chiron opposition: When reading on the blog Moon of Alabama about a recent gas-leak/incipient well blow-out in the North Sea. The main article at Common Dreams dated Tuesday 27 March:

    The article suggests the leak is massive, on a scale of the Deepwater Horizon/Maconda/Gulf of Mexico disaster—though it is a leak of sour natural gas rather than oil. (Which does not make it better, just different.) The poster Alexander comments that the gas plume, whose smell is strong and literally sickening, has seemingly reached where he lives on the Norwegian coast 350 miles away from the disaster site. .

    The relevant post at Moon of Alabama is:

    Scroll down to comment #4 and further down to comments #25 #26 #27 #28 #30 and #31. So far there has been very little in the media.


    • Paula says:

      Holy fuck.

      I haven’t heard anything about this until your comment. Thank you so much for calling this to my attention. I can hardly believe it.

  8. Mark says:

    About the Genesis mythos being the one that calls bullshit. I rather think quite the opposite. Judaism is the “religion” you have to be born into, it posits a “chosen people” and a “holy land”. It’s god commands butchery throughout its scriptures as divinely ordained and just. What could be more fallen? If you refer simply to the myth up to the point of the “fall” I suppose you may have a point.

    Regarding other posts referring to Joseph Campbell and his trouble with Judeo/Christian myths. Yes, he did find fault with them for their lack of resonance with modern times. One poster points out that he doesn’t work over Hinduism which has an even more ancient mythology. Very true, although Hindus come from a point of view that time is circular.The western traditions have a concept of linear time. Also the Hindu myths are not taught as history, but are taught as illustrative of divine truths. A huge difference, and the main reason for Campbell’s acceptance of their message as timeless and useful to modern as well as ancient people.

    A look at Vedanta type philosophies may be instructive. Wherein karma plays a central role. We are taught by them to seek the Self within whose nature is Godlike. God is an adjective in this tradition. Our experiences in this life are the effects of causes in an earlier life. One should strive to become aware of the Self (separate from our body/ego) that is the Knower and Seer, not the doer of anything. All beings are innocent by this tradition, only acting out their roles assigned by earlier causes. Is this philosophy right or wrong is for each to determine themselves, but it is not dependent on believing some ancient tales as facts.

    • Paula says:

      I realize it is terribly unfashionable to give Judeo-Christian mythology anything like benefit of doubt, but setting aside preconceived notions and assumptions about what it is and what it means reveals a paradigm completely different than the one we’ve all been told is there.

      I’m not sure why you would think I believe in “ancient tales as facts.” I’ve written repeatedly that the Torah makes way more sense when it is not taken as literally factual, but as literarily accurate — the stories are descriptive and illustrative, not moment-by-moment video transcripts.

      I take Judeo-Christian mythology seriously because it is the mythos we call our own. I don’t believe that a new mythological system can be superimposed on a culture such that the original just simply vanishes. If we are to pull anything worthwhile out of the wreckage we’ve inflicted on the planet and on each other, we need to carefully inspect and deeply understand our mythology. Attempts to shove it down into our collective shadow in favor of more fashionable mythologies can only be disastrous.

      • Mark says:

        The “ancient tales as facts” line wasn’t directed at you, but more generally at “believers” at large. I very much agree that there are gems within the Judeo/Christian tradition if they are seen as stories that tell moral/spiritual truth rather than literal. Unfortunately, that is the opinion of a small minority of followers one might call mystics of the faith. The mainstream is all historical fact. I’m a fan of your writing, and think you hit some good points. My criticism was only whether anyone else might notice that the message of Genesis might be that human success on this planet lies outside the subjugation of nature which the J/C tradition promotes. That idea is implied in the myth but is quickly lost in the dust of the new and permanent paradigm “God” forces on his creation. Brilliant of you to recognize it but how to convince the believers that what “God” really wanted was us to live in harmony with nature rather than control it?

        • Paula says:

          I think convincing “true believers” of anything outside their predetermined script is a lost cause. Fuck ’em — that era is over and if they can’t adapt, there’s nothing anyone can do.

          I don’t know who may be interested in working through these issues, but I figure eventually I’ll find them if I keep blogging. Maybe we can contribute something valuable to whatever’s coming next. :)

  9. Mark says:

    That’s a bit harsh but I too have no time for anyone who thinks my soul is condemned because I don’t think “their” way.As far as the J/C mythos being “ours” — I feel no attachment to any mythology if it has no resonance with modern times. That mythos worked in a certain time for a certain group of people. Trying to shoehorn all of humanity into a mythology that doesn’t fit is the disastrous thing. (Not saying this is you, that applies to the evangelists/prosyletizers) To contribute something valuable it seems to me, we have to reject a flawed mythology even if it is familiar and the one we grew up on. Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By is a great book on the subject. As far as “our” mythos is concerned, I prefer to think that whatever stories give meaning to my world are welcome. There are beautiful stories from all over the human family. Any one can be truly ours. If I understand correctly you are trying to work with what the majority of your readers are familiar with, and I commend the effort. Best to you and all seekers on our search for meaning.

  10. Eric in Kansas says:

    Hey Paula, I agree with you – we are stuck with Western myth, for better or worse, and if we can subvert or edit the stories so that they tell the truth for us, I’m all for it.
    I am interested in your idea about elohim, but as Mark says, that is only a tiny fraction of the Torah.
    I think everyone should read R. Crumb’s illustrated ‘Genesis” It makes certain things so much clearer. For instance, the ‘begats’ read like a real estate abstract. As does much of the rest of Genesis. They were fighting over that real estate even 3,000 years ago.

    But the Hydra is not dead. And the story is not over. We have not killed Nature, except in the overheated imaginations of certain mythmakers. We cannot kill nature without also killing ourselves, since everything we need for survival comes from Nature. Instead, we have wounded Nature, and enslaved the few parts of the natural world that we can get a grip on.
    So what we see now is the familiar pathology around masters and slaves, where we either romanticize nature, or pretend that we are superior to it, or don’t need it. Meanwhile Nature is still alive, and much larger than those tame parts that we barely manage to extract tribute from. This is a really long story, far from over, and our part in it has been very brief.

  11. Eric in Kansas says:

    This post has gotten me thinking in a bunch of different directions, thanks!
    I’ve just read the story of Enkidu & the temple prostitute from ‘the Epic of Gilgamesh’. I am struck by how it resonates with the Adam & Eve story. The prostitute was from the temple of Ishtar, who it seems was more than just goddess of love and procreation, but was responsible for keeping the city’s granaries full. The wild man was lured to civilization with sex, and the promise of knowledge; ‘…knowing the thoughts of men…’
    Is it possible that the beginnings of agriculture were done mostly by women, and that they became more powerful than men as a result? And that men have been trying to take and keep and exact revenge for that power ever since?

  12. Ted says:

    Yes, that seem to be the case. Its called “female farming” by anthropologists. Its what is done in New Guinea and parts of the Amazon. The women farm and the men fight and hunt and take psychadelic drugs and mostly do nothing.

    At a later more intensive stage, when plows are used the men join in. In my opinion These men usually become peasants, when they get conquered my warrior tribes of nomadic pastoralists.

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