Friday, October 24, 2008

Peace in Nature and the Golden Age

Many cultures throughout much of the world believe that in a past golden age, animals and humans all lived together in harmony, often in perfect peace. In some cases, such a state of peace is expected to return in the future renewal of the ages.

Such myths of a time of peace in nature are widespread among Bantu peoples in Africa and in the ancient Near East, and extend through India, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific all the way to the Americas.

Hesiod wrote of the Golden Age in which all creatures lived in peace, a theme repeated by latter Greek and Roman writers. In Japan, such a revered earlier age is known as natuskashii, and among the Pitjantjara Aborigines of Australia the tjukurpa refers to the perfect dream-time of yore.

In the Pampangan province of the Philippines, Apung Sinukuan, the deity of Mt. Arayat, was said to have reigned at a period before the creation of humans in perfect harmony with animals and plants. Later after the creation of humans, wild animals remained gentle in his mountain domain and were cared for and even bedecked with golden jewelry. Sinukuan had the power to understand and speak with animals, a theme also found in other similar mythologies.

In Rabbinic and Muslim tales of King Solomon, the monarch is said to have the ability to understand animals and particularly birds. Solomon served as a model of the ideal monarch associated with a time of great prosperity that was again a model of the golden messianic age. The ability to communicate with animals is often referred to as the mystical "language of birds" that can only be understood by gifted individuals.

Many commentators have seen the reference to birds as symbolizing angels, enlightened individuals, spirits flying around the divine presence, etc., but we must also consider the natural explanation. Indeed, birds act as messengers themselves in various mythologies.

Among the Cheyenne, the primordial age was one in which humans and animals all lived in peace with each able to communicate with the other. Then, when humans began to hunt animals, great floods and destruction occurred until the "Great Medicine" took pity and saved the world. However, after the floods, humans could no longer talk with the animals except for a chosen few magicians gifted with "supernatural wisdom." In the presence of these savants, the fiercest animals became gentle and approachable.

Among the Malawi, Chewa and Mang'anja of Africa, God originally dwelt with humans and animals in early times when there was peace in nature. It was after humans discovered fire that animals retreated into the woods and humans began hunting them. Seeing the violence and destruction of wildfires, God retreated from the world into heaven and took away humanity's previous immortality.

'The wolf shall dwell with the lamb'

Ancient Near Eastern mythology often associated peace in nature with the far-off land of Paradise. In Mesopotamia, this was the land of Dilmun, the place were humanity could still obtain immortality.

In Dilmun the raven utters no cries, the ittidu-bird utters not the cry of the ittidu-bird. The lion does not kill, the wolf snatches no lamb, unknown is the kid-devouring wild dog.

Vegetarians and animal advocates argue that the Hebrew Bible portrays the Garden of Eden in much the same way with early humans and animals both subsiding on plants and herbs but not shedding blood.

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

-- Genesis 1:29-30

To strength this argument, they point to the verses related to Noah and his progeny after the Great Flood in which God permits humans to eat other animals in contradiction to the earlier practice.

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. [emphasis added]

-- Genesis 9:1-4

So after the Flood, humans are given the meat of all things just as before the Flood they were given every "green herb" to consume. The provision that they should not however consume the blood of animals is added, since the life of living beings was found in the blood.

Vegetarian advocates argue that the Great Flood itself was caused largely due to the violation of taboos against shedding blood. They cite for example the Ebionite texts that claim that the fall of humanity came after the intercourse between the Nephilim, a class of angelic being, and human women when humans began lusting after blood and killing animals for meat. In the 2nd century BCE pseudepigraphal Book of Jubilees, a period is described when all creatures began to devour each other in the lead-up to the Great Flood. The episode is obviously drawn from Genesis in the Old Testament.

And it came to pass when the children of men began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born unto them, that the angels of God saw them on a certain year of this jubilee, that they were beautiful to look upon; and they took themselves wives of all whom they chose, and they bare unto them sons and they were giants. And lawlessness increased on the earth and all flesh corrupted its way, alike men and cattle and beasts and birds and everything that walks on the earth -all of them corrupted their ways and their orders, and they began to devour each other...

-- Book of Jubilees, 5:1-2

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them. That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them...And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

-- Genesis 6:1-7, 13

Punishment by flood in many cultural traditions comes as a result of violence particularly the killing and/or eating of totem animals/plants. Already mentioned is the African tradition of humans losing their immortality and the presence of God because of their disturbance of the ecological peace through wildfires and hunting.

It is worth noting that many Jewish and Jewish Christian ascetic groups like the Essenes, Therapeuts and Ebionites were vegetarians apparently due to the belief that this represented the purest and holiest state of nature.

The return of peace

The Arthavaveda, one of the four holy Vedic books of India, tells of a time when all creatures shall live in peace and harmony.

Supreme Lord, let there be peace in the sky and in the atmosphere, peace in the plant world and in the forests; let the cosmic powers be peaceful; let Brahma be peaceful; let there be undiluted and fulfilling peace everywhere.

In the Arthavaveda we also find the Prithvi Sukta, or Hymn to Earth in which it is stated: "Unslain, unwounded, unsubdued, I have set foot upon the Earth, On earth brown, black, ruddy and every-coloured, on the firm earth that Indra guards from danger. O Prithivī, thy centre and thy navel, all forces that have issued from thy body. Set us amid those forces; breathe upon us. I am the child of Earth, Earth is my Mother."

The unity of all beings, of course, was a dominant theme in the religions of India and helped in the formation of the doctrine of ahimsa or "non-killing" of others.

Jewish and Christian visions of the messianic age also see a return to the peace in nature that prevailed in the Garden of Eden and during the pre-diluvian period. Carnivorous animals will again become vegetarian and live in harmony with humans.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid ; and the calf and the young lion together ; and a little child shall lead them; the cow and the bear shall feed ; and their young ones lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like an ox.

-- Isaiah 11:6-9

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD.

-- Isaiah 62:25

For thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field:

and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with thee.

-- Job 5:23

Taoists believe that the Eight Immortals lived in the Happy Isles in perfect peace with animals and plants. The Immortals were closely associated with birds like the crane, phoenix and raven on whose backs they flew to other lands. Often the Immortals appear confused with birds, and there was the belief that the Immortals themselves grew feathers and wings.

The Taoist ideal was one of harmonious coexistence of all:

Redeem the lives of animals, and abstain from shedding blood. Be careful not to tread upon insects on the road, and set not fire to the forests, lest you should destroy life. Burn a candle in your window to give light to the traveler, and keep a boat to help voyagers across rivers. Do not spread your net on the mountains to catch birds, nor poison the fish and reptiles in the waters. Never destroy paper which is written upon, and enter into no league against your neighbor.

-- Yin Chih Wen ("Book of Secret Blessings")

Taoist prophecy predicts that in a future time when humanity takes to satisfying the appetites of demons with immolated animals, a great cleansing deluge will occur. After the apocalyptic flood, the world shall enter into the blissful state of the Immortals abode, a period known as Taiping "the Great Peace."

Studying myths throughout the globe, we find commonly recurring themes such as the primordial age when humans and animals lived in a state of peace and harmony, often able to communicate with one another. This peace in nature is disturbed, almost always by humanity, through violence and destruction brought about by fire and hunting/slaughtering animals. God, the Great Spirit, nature itself or some similar entity punishes humanity by rendering them mortal, or in the Biblical version shortening the human life span; by withdrawing the divine presence; and by sending a great deluge.

After the punishment, a different antagonistic relationship exists between humans and animals, and between different species of animals. In some cases, certain select individuals from each species have the power to recreate in isolation the earlier peace in nature including the ability of cross-communication. And we find often also that in the future, there will be a new age coming when once again the primordial natural harmony will prevail.

Paul Kekai Manansala


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Jamieson, Dale. A Companion to Environmental Philosophy, Blackwell Publishing, 2007

Linzey, Andrew and Dorothy Yamamoto. Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics, University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Luttikhuizen, Gerard P. Paradise Interpreted: Representations of Biblical Paradise in Judaism and Christianity, BRILL, 1999.

Walters, Kerry S. and Lisa Portmess. Religious Vegetarianism: From Hesiod to the Dalai Lama, SUNY Press, 2001.