We Used to Look After Each Other: The Ancient Relationship between Nature and Mankind

The Australian bushfire season in 2019–2020 includes a series of bushfires burning across Australia, mainly in the southeast. It has burned an estimated 10.7 million hectares, destroyed over 5,900 buildings and killed 28 people as of January 8, 2020, significantly more intense compared to previous seasons. After record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought exacerbated bushfires, the New South Wales finally government declared a state of emergency in December 2019. Nearly half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds were estimated to have been affected by the ongoing fires in New South Wales. Other estimates, including animals such as bats, amphibians and invertebrates, put the number of deaths at more than one billion.

To help battle the fires and relieve tired local personnel to New South Wales, reinforcements from all over Australia were called in. Firefighters from New Zealand, Canada and the USA also helped fight the fires.

This tragedy again reminds us that our bond with the world of nature is broken. This is a dangerous thing as nature not only gives us benefits, but for our survival we are obviously dependent on it. And it provides services to the global economy worth an estimated $125 trillion per year by providing clean air, water, food and other resources. We are still depleting and degrading the natural capital of the planet at rhythm. We are losing biodiversity, meaning we are losing nature and wildlife. We have lost two thirds of the world’s wildlife population in our lifetime, and carbon emissions have risen by 90%.

It is strange to watch this unfolding as we as human beings seem to lose our connection to the natural world. We actively harm nature instead of working in harmony with it. And, when nature screams in agony we ignore it and pretend nothing happens. However, it was not always like this.

Nature and a Man’s Heart: The Tale of Two Brothers

Numerous worldwide myths represent a deep-rooted belief in an intimate relationship between a human being and nature. The theme of how a person’s life is so connected to a tree that the person would suffer if the tree washed away or injured, or even the idea of a tree as an external soul of the body of a person is found in the ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers around 1185 BC.

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Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D’Orbiney. From Egypt.End of the 19th Dynasty
circa 1185 BC

Two brothers center the story: Anpu and Bata. The brothers are working together to farm land and to raise cattle. One day, the wife of Anpu is trying to seduce Bata. When Bata strongly rejects her advances, the wife tells her husband that when she refused, his brother tried to seduce her and beat her. Hearing this, Anpu then tried to kill Bata, who flees and prays to Ra-Harakhti to save him. The god creates a lake infested with crocodile between the two brothers, through which Bata will eventually talk to his brother and share his side of the events. Bata severs his genitalia to prove his honesty and throws them into the water where they are eaten by a catfish.

Bata says he’s going to the Cedar Valley, where he’s going to put his heart on top of a cedar tree’s blossom, so if the tree is cut down Anpu can find it and let Bata live again. Bata informs Anpu that he should know to search out his brother if he ever gets a jar of beer that froths. Anpu returns home. Meanwhile, Bata is setting up a life in the Cedar Valley, building for himself a new home. Bata comes upon the Ennead, or the nine deities of Egypt, who have compassion on him. Khnum, the god often depicted as having fashioned humans on a potter’s wheel in Egyptian mythology, creates a wife for Bata. Because of her divine creation, the pharaoh is looking for the wife of Bata. When the pharaoh manages to bring her to stay with him, she asks him to cut down the tree in which Bata’s heart has been put. He does that, and Bata is dead.

Anpu then gets a sparkling bottle of beer and leaves for the Cedar Valley. For more than three years he has been searching for the heart of his brother, finding it at the beginning of the fourth year. He follows the instructions given by Bata and places the heart in a cold water bowl. Bata is resurrected.

Mother Nature Sacrificed: Standing on the Body of Nature

The Indonesian goddess Dewi Sri (literally means “Great Goddess”) is the Mother Goddess as well as the goddess of rice and fertility of the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese pre-Hinduand pre-Islam era. Once, Batara Guru, the supreme god, commanded all gods and goddesses to contribute their power to build a new palace. One of the gods, Antaboga, a Naga god, was very anxious when he heard the command of Batara Guru. He had no arms or legs, and he wasn’t sure how he might be able to do the job. Anta was shaped like a snake and was unable to work. He was seeking advice from Batara Narada, Batara Guru’s younger brother. But sadly, Anta’s bad luck also confused Narada. Anta was very upset and he started crying.

Three of his teardrops fell down on the ground. Miraculously, these teardrops became three beautiful shiny eggs that looked like jewels after touching the ground. Batara Narada advised him to offer the Batara Guru these “jewels” in the hope that the gift would appease him. Anta went to the palace of Batara Guru with the three eggs in his mouth. He was approached on the way there by an eagle who asked him a question. Anta can’t answer the question because he holds the eggs in his mouth. The bird  became furious, so it started attacking Anta. One egg fell to the earth and was shattered as a result. Anta hid in the bushes quickly, but the bird was waiting for him. The second attack left Anta to offer the Batara Guru with only one egg. The two split eggs fell to the ground and became Kalabuat and Budug Basu twin boar.

Anta finally arrived at the palace and offered to the Batara Guru his teardrop in the form of a shiny egg. The offer was kindly accepted and he was asked by the Batara Guru to nest the egg until it hatched. The egg hatched miraculously into a beautiful baby girl. He gave the Batara Guru and his wife to the baby girl.

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an Indonesian stone figure of the rice goddess Dewi Sri with Vitarka Mudra

Her name was Nyai Pohaci Sanghyang Asri, and she grew up as a beautiful princess. Every god who saw her began to feel attracted to her, even her own foster father. Seeing the desire of Batara Guru for his foster daughter, all the gods were so worried. Fearing that this scandal might destroy the heavenly harmony, finally they conspired to separate Nyi Pohaci and Batara Guru.

All the gods arranged for her death to keep the peace in the heavens and secure Nyi Pohaci’s chastity. She was poisoned to death and her body was buried in a remote and unknown location somewhere on earth. Nevertheless, because of the purity and divinity of Sri Pohaci, her grave gave a miraculous sign; for some useful plants grew up at the time of her death, which would support human species forever. From her head there grew coconut; from her nose, lips, and ears there grew various spices and vegetables; from her hair there grew grass and various flowering plants; from her breasts there grew various plants of fruit; from her arms and hands there grew teak; from her thighs there grew various types of bamboo, Different tuber plants grew from her legs, and finally rice grew from her belly button. All the useful plants, essential to human needs and well-being, are considered to come from the residue of the body of Dewi Sri. From that time, she was venerated and revered by the people of Java Island as the benevolent “Rice Goddess” and fertility. She is regarded as the highest goddess and the most important deity for agricultural society in the ancient Sunda Kingdom.

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Beeld van Dewi Sri de rijstgodin TMnr 60016918.jpg
Figure representing the rice goddess Dewi Sri

Protecting Nature is an Ancient Way of Life

The ancients had a clear understanding on nature’s protection and they found ways to return the favour. Throughout Norse mythology, the three Norns spend most of their time spinning the threads of life at the base of Yggdrasil, an enormous ash tree that is the core of the universe, deciding the fate of all living beings. The Norse Norns are Yggrasil’s caretakers, the tree that houses Norse mythology’s nine realms, only one of which is the human world, Midgard. They take water from the Well of Fates and dump it on Yggdrasil’s branches to prevent it from disappearing. In addition to their loom and tapestry, the Norns carve also runs into Yggdrasil’s trunk. They start every morning by placing a rooster at the top of Yggdrasil. The rooster’s warning acts as a wake-up call to all Asgard’s gods and goddesses.

Date palms have been revered in Mesopotamia as it was an important food source. The ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi even referred to very specific punishments for individuals who did not pollinate their date palms, even designating special guardians to manually pollinate these trees. Special priests who slept on the ground tended the oak of Dodona in Epirus in northwestern Greece, the oldest Hellenic oracle.

All of the clans in ancient Ireland had their own sacred tree in their territories. Under the sacred tree, chieftains could have been inaugurated, binding them with both the forces heavens and underworld. The trees were thus seen as the representative of the king’s and his tribe’s success. The trees were their province’s guardians, sheltering their people. Therefore, capturing and destroying an enemy’s sacred tree is very likely to have been viewed as a very serious act. The Irish Annals record that Máel Sechnaill, the High King of Ireland, torn down and destroyed the sacred tree of Magh Adhair in Tulla, Co Clare, under which the chieftains of O’Brien were inaugurated, in 981 CE. In 1111 CE, they had to pay a huge ransom of 3000 cattle after the Ulidian army cut down the holy tree of the O’Neils.

So, somewhere along the way, we have lost that love of nature that we have inherited from our ancestors. Now what can we do to get it back?

Reflecting on the Ancient Power of the Wolf

The wolf’s nature as a predator makes it both a symbol of the warrior and the devil. The popular trope of the ”Big Bad Wolf” is a development of this while the identification of the warrior with the wolf through totemism gave rise to the notion of lycanthropy, the mythical or ritual identification of man and wolf.

In Proto-Indo-European mythology, the wolf was presumed to be associated with the warrior class, who would “transform into wolves” upon their initiation. In some northern European and Native American cultures, wolves were sometimes associated with witchcraft. In Norse mythology the volva (witch) Hyndla and the giantess Hyrrokin are both portrayed as using wolves as mounts, while in Navajo culture, wolves were feared as witches in wolf’s clothing. The Tsilhqot’in believed that contact with wolves could cause mental illness and death.

Norse mythology has at least three prominently malevolent wolves, in particular the giant Fenrir and his children, Sköll and Hati. Fenrir is bound by the gods, but is ultimately destined to grow too large for his bonds and devour Odin during the course of Ragnarok.  Fenrir’s two offspring devour the sun and moon at Ragnarök. The wolves Geri and Freki, Odin’s faithful pets,  were alluded to in the kenning “Vidrir’s hounds” in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, verse 13, where it is related that they roam the field “greedy for the corpses of those who have fallen in battle”.

The warriors went to the trysting place of swords,

which they had appointed at Logafiöll.

Broken was Frodi’s peace between the foes:

Vidrir’s hounds went about the isle slaughter-greedy.

In Ancient Greece, mount Lykaion is a mountain in Arcadia where an altar of Zeus was located. It was the home of Pelasgus  and his son Lycaon, who founded the ritual of Zeus practiced on its summit. This seems to have involved a human sacrifice, and a feast in which the man who received the portion of a human victim was changed to a wolf, as Lycaon had been after sacrificing a child. The sanctuary of Zeus played host to athletic games held every four years, the Lykaia.

In Rome, the she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus is commemorated in the last of the Cyzicene epigrams, and Ion mentions the wolf-hounds which were traditionally, responsible for the death of Euripides. Strato, on a certain disreputable occasion, compares himself to a wolf that finds a lamb standing at the door and waiting for him. As to its voracity, Diphilus, an early comic poet, calls the inhabitants of Argos wolves; Lucilius accuses one Gamus of having the appetite of five wolves.

A Baltic legend says that the establishment of the Lithuanian capital Vilnus began when the grand duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf howling near the hill. Lithuanian goddess Medeina was described as a single, voluptuous and beautiful huntress who was unwilling to get married. She was depicted as a she-wolf with an escort of wolves.

The existence of a ritual that provides one with the ability to turn into a wolf. Such a transformation may be related either to lycantrhopy itself, a widespread phenomenon, but attested especially in the Balkans-Carpathian region, or a ritual imitation of the behavior and appearance of the wolf. Such a ritual was presumably a military initiation, potentially reserved to a secret brotherhood of warriors. To become formidable warriors they would assimilate behavior of the wolf, wearing wolf skins during the ritual. Traces related to wolves as a cult or as totems were found in this area since the Neolithic period, including the Vinča culture artifacts: wolf statues and fairly rudimentary figurines representing dancers with a wolf mask. The items could indicate warrior initiation rites, or ceremonies in which young people put on their seasonal wolf masks. The element of unity of beliefs about werewolves and lycanthropy exists in the magical-religious experience of mystical solidarity with the wolf by whatever means used to obtain it. But all have one original myth, a primary event.

Wolves were generally revered by Aboriginal Canadians that survived by hunting, but were thought little of by those that survived through agriculture. Some Alaska Natives including the Nunamiut of both northern and northwestern Alaska respected the wolf’s hunting skill and tried to emulate the wolf in order to hunt successfully. First Nations such as Naskapi as well as Squamish and Lil’wat view the wolf as a daytime hunting guide. The Naskapis believed that the caribou afterlife is guarded by giant wolves that kill careless hunters who venture too near. The Netsilik Inuit and Takanaluk-arnaluk believed that the sea-woman Nuliayuk’s home was guarded by wolves.

According to the Pawnee creation myth, the wolf was the first creature to experience death. The Wolf Star, enraged at not having been invited to attend a council on how the earth should be made, sent a wolf to steal the whirlwind bag of The storm that comes out of the west, which contained the first humans. Upon being freed from the bag, the humans killed the wolf, thus bringing death into the world. the “birth” and “death” of the Wolf Star (Sirius) was to them a reflection of the wolf’s coming and going down the path of the Milku Way known as Wolf Road.

Mythical Creatures as a Reflection of Cultural Fears

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Myths and folklore are very interesting parts of every culture. We can see their reflection on so many things: books, paintings, sculptures, music – basically all kinds of art! In some countries they dominate more than in others, but still their presence, even in daily life, cannot be ignored.

One of the strongest human emotions is fear. Our fears are numerous, and they change through the life. However, the fear of nature in many cases doesn’t go away – it transforms, but never completely goes away. This is why nature related myths are so popular even though they are centuries and thousands years old.

From the childhood years we all remember the fear of being lost in the woods, and fear of wild animals. Children talk to the trees and believe that those respond. The good thing of this all is that from the early ages we learn to respect nature and take good care of it, so that those little creatures around the world get some help!

Infographic by AvasFlowers.net

 

Martini