The Magic of Wonder & Creativity
I hope at least once in your life you’ve seen the Milky Way. The brushstroke of glimmering white light that cuts through the heavens is breathtaking.
And to imagine, before all the light and carbon pollution, our ancestors simply had to look up to see this heavenly mural. Didn’t really matter where they were. Every night, there it was. Beautiful.
Our relationship with the stars is largely what it means to be human. Children across the world and time have looked up to the stars and been swept away by their beauty and deep mystery.
I often wonder about the first brave little cosmologists who, desperate to know more about their home the cosmos, finally speculated an answer.
One early answer comes from the Kiowa people of North America, who tell a wonderfully imaginative story about how a particular star cluster known today by its Greek name the Pleiades came to occupy the sky. It goes something like this.
A group of seven women snuck away one night to dance under the stars. But suddenly, while they worked that pelvic sorcery, the Bear People showed up and started to chase the women. So, the women ran and climbed onto a large rock for safety. But the Bear People too started to climb.
Panicked, the women asked the rock for protection. And, because no one had honored it before, the rock agreed to help. It shot out of the dirt and knocked the Bear People to the ground.
The women were safe for now but quickly realized they were stranded on the rock. Desperate, they sang prayers to the stars for help. Happy to hear their praise, the stars took the seven women into the sky.
In midwinter, you can still see them sitting above the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, smiling down on the rock spirit with gratitude.
The early Kiowa people were animists, meaning they believed pretty much everything has awareness and feelings, including rocks, plants, and animals.
Animism may seem bizarre to us, but earth’s earliest children didn’t know about brains yet. All they knew is that they had awareness and feelings, so why wouldn’t everything else?
In any case, animism prevailed from at least the time of the cognitive revolution, some seventy thousand years ago, until about the time of the agricultural revolution, some thirteen thousand years ago. A few secluded tribes from around the world, though, remain animists to this day.
With the rise of the agricultural revolution, our ancestors’ beliefs started to shift to polytheism — the view that a group of gods made us in their own image and control the world.
One of the leading theories about the switch suggests that our ancestors invented gods (concepts) to explain the invisible forces, like weather, which pervade our world. And, because they needed the gods – or the forces – on their side if their crops were to be successful, they began to offer up sacrifices to the gods – animal and even human sacrifices.
And over time, as agriculture developed and cities expanded, our ancestors grew quite the fetish for inventing gods. They created entire pantheons of gods to explain all kinds of things — gods of war, gods of water, of fertility, wisdom, music, death, love, and so on. Before long, there was a god or goddess for everything.
Our polytheist ancestors began to see the world as their own, through a kind of relationship with the gods. If they made the gods happy, the gods would reward them with plenty of food, water, and good fortune. But if they upset the gods, well, then the capricious gods would punish them with droughts, earthquakes, plagues, and other catastrophes.
Henotheism, Monotheism, & Dualism
As more kingdoms arose, each with its own pantheon of gods, the arena started to get overcrowded. And when you have so many gods in charge of so many things, odds are you’re gonna piss off at least some of ’em.
So, people naturally began to pick their favorite god, even though they believed other gods exist — a belief known as henotheism, which seems to have first appeared in India during the Vedic period (c. 1500 — c. 600 BC).
You can also see traces of henotheism in the Bible. In the book of Jeremiah, for example, Yahweh gets pissed at his peeps for worshipping Ishtar: “Don’t you see what they are doing in the…streets of Jerusalem? The children gather sticks, the fathers build the fire, and the mothers knead dough, to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven [Ishtar], and they pour libations to other gods, to vex Me.” (Jeremiah 7:17–18).
To go even further, Jeremiah and Ezekiel — two prophets from the Abrahamic religion — were among the first to push the idea that all gods except one are false. They even went so far as to argue that the one true god punishes idolatry. If you’re curious to see how Abraham’s god treats idolaters, just check out the golden calf incident in the book of Exodus. (Exodus: 32 et seq.)
Like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, many polytheists became so fond of their patron god that, over the generations, people began to believe that the god of their ancestors was the only one true god. And so the seeds of monotheism were sown.
There were, however, some more direct routes to monotheism. One of the first known monotheistic religions, for example, began in ancient Egypt around 1350 BC when the Pharaoh declared Aten — one of the minor deities of the Egyptian pantheon — as the one and only supreme power of the universe. I don’t know what Pharaoh’s fascination was with this god, but homie made the worship of Aten a state institution and penalized the worship of all false gods.
Finally, alongside the development of monotheism, dualistic religions also emerged, kicking off the fight between good and evil in an adorable attempt to understand human morality. These dualistic religions generally asserted that good and evil exist in a perpetual battle with one another. And that each of us play a part.
Zoroastrianism is one of the earliest and most influential dualistic religions. Zoroastrians believe that the world is a battleground for the fight between the good god and the bad god, and that it’s our job to help defeat the bad god. It eventually became the official religion of the Sassanid Persian Empire around AD 220. It largely inspired the Christian crusades and has fueled many jihads to help defeat evil.
And, in Gnosticism and Manichaeism, we find some of the first explicit distinctions between the material body and the immaterial soul. The good god, Gnostics and Manichaeans believe, created our spirits and the bad god created our bodies and all other material things. And we humans serve as the battleground between the good soul and the evil body.
Let’s face it. Our early ancestors were a bunch of kids, just like us, playin’ in this cosmic sandbox without a clue about much of anything. Their speculations of the world were…well, naïve and childlike.
But what do you expect? The cosmos is infinitely vast. And we had to start somewhere. And, in fact, we owe all our knowledge to the brave little cosmologists who spit out these early stories. It’s their wonderful imaginations that mark our first brave steps into the darkness of our ignorance.
But imagination alone won’t, of course, get us any nearer to truth. We also need a way to reign-in our poetic imaginations. So, what’s the trick? Who better to consult than the Ancient Greek Ionians – those who gave birth to Western philosophy, to science.