Monday, December 20, 2004

The Message

In Eden in the East, Oppenheimer uses techniques practiced by geneticists to arrive at a most likely origin location for a large body of ancient myths.

Myths are combinations of motifs. As they diverge from their area of origin, each group branching away tends to contain only a subset of the original motifs. Also, new motifs emerge in each branch. This phenomenon is known as drift. Consequently the original motifs become less diverse the farther one moves from the place of origin. While the original location retains the greatest diversity of motifs.

With so many myths of apparent Southeast Asian/Pacific origin found far from the home region we can see that the eastern sages were really effective "messengers."

And it seems as though the message they had to deliver was usually presented in the form of analogy or allegory. In this sense, it was characteristically Austronesian. In ancient Hawai`i the kaona or "hidden meaning" is more important than the obvious one. The same thing can be found in proverbs and wisdom throughout Austronesia.

The most common way to convey hidden meanings was to give examples in nature. The Austronesian generally brought three animals with them during their migrations -- the dog, the chicken* and the pig. Sometimes, at a later date, they also brought the water buffalo and zebu. These animals were often used in conveying messages.

We posted previously an image of water buffaloes in Sumer and also mentioned the copious use of water buffalo horns adorning the heads of Sumerian gods and kings. Worship of buffaloes and bovines in general is widespread in this region extending eastward to the Harappan civilization. At the ancient site of Ban Chiang in Thailand, we also see the use of miniature zebu and buffalo statues that have been interpreted as religious objects.

In Chinese tradition the Dong Yi king Chiyou is depicted with a bull's head. Such bull-headed humans also appear in Sumerian myth, usually associated with the water buffalo.

The water buffalo thus represents authority, either divine or royal. In my home province of Pampanga, accomplished warriors would wear gold-plated water buffalo horns in their turbans. The water buffalo head is a sign of power throughout Southeast Asia.

In South Asia, the "Lord of the Beasts" motif includes the great divinity sporting buffalo horns. In latter times, during the royal asvamedha horse sacrifice, the primary queen called the Mahisi (literally buffalo-cow) would take part in a fertility ritual with strong sexual overtones. Many see this ritual as rooted in Harappan iconography included those using buffalo imagery.

Buffalo sacrifice & mortuary ritual

Yama the first king in Indian tradition and the model of the Dharmaraja or "King of Righteousness" has a water buffalo as his vehicle.

Thus when we see Enki providing the Abzu waters to water buffalo via his ever-overflowing jar, the buffalo represents something else than simply the animal. It could represent the gods or the king, and thus heaven and/or earth.

Another interesting animal in both Sumerian and Hebrew myth is the sea dragon. It is known as Tiamat in Sumer and Leviathan among the Hebrews. Oppenheimer and others have wondered whether this creature has its origin in the saltwater crocodile of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Certainly there is some resemblance.


Shang Dynasty dragon as crocodile

Both Tiamat and Leviathan are sometimes seen as representing malevolent forces possibly in reference to saltwater intruding on freshwater sources. Oppenheimer notes that the saltwater crocodile becomes a threat to human populations mainly when flooding allows saltwater to encroach into freshwater estuaries.

Another possible meaning here is that Tiamat and Leviathan point to another threat from the sea -- the mercantile trade.

Not that Austronesians saw trade as inherently evil at all. People living in small island networks need trade much like those living in the steppe or in the Arctic tundra. A tiny atoll, for example, has only very limited natural resources.

For thousands of years trade flourished in this region with little sign of any connected social problems. Then during the Nusantao period we see the rather sudden extreme stratification resulting eventually in signs of human slavery and deadly clan warfare. What brought about this change?

While external factors like the expansion of trade routes and the possible development of shell money certainly helped, the Nusantao sage would probably offer a more fundamental cause. That cause lies in the concept of balance.

Previously in this blog we mentioned the dual phratry system based on residence on opposite sides of a river. To some extent this survives today. Arranged marriages, for example, in my paternal grandfather's hometown usually involved finding a spouse from the other side of the river.

Crossing over to the other side to find a spouse was a way of maintaining balance. Even the practice of taking heads found among some indigenous peoples had a concept of equilibrium involved that prevented all-out war. As long as balance was maintained, bloodshed was limited. In the native healing arts, the words for native physician often translates literally as "balancer."

At some point the Nusantao became unbalanced according to this line of thinking. The reason we can surmise from the myths is simple desire and greed. While it is certainly mathematically possible for people in a society to become rich without impovershing others, we see rather the opposite by the end of the Nusantao Middle Neolithic.

In the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden, the serpent manipulates desire to tempt the couple into partaking of the forbidden fruit. Immortality can be seen as a metaphor for a stable society. The loss of immortality comes from giving into excess desire or greed. The couple was unable to be satisfied with the other fruits of Paradise. The lost immortality points to a society of imbalance and thus conflict that must eventually come to a head and cause the death of the society.

Paul Kekai Manansala

*Chickens may be present in the Aegean as early as the Neolithic (A. Sampson, E neolithike periodos sta Dodekanesa (Athens 1987) 135-145). Chicken egg shells and bones suggesting domestication are verified by the Aegean Bronze Age. Wild chickens are present only in the rainforests of tropical Asia.