Saturday, July 2, 2011

Gimme Fiction (Feedback).

... Every known human culture has a version of the Afterlife. Some religions teach that it can either be a place of reward or of punishment. Other religions teach that it is simply a place where the dead go, but most seem to agree that it is a place.

The earliest known references to this place date back to the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, where human civilization began. Those early Mesopotamians had already cleft the world in two: their Sky God inhabited the Great Above, while the dead went to the Great Below. That term “Great Below” is, of course, a translation. Most scholars now agree that the ancient Sumerian word should actually have been translated as “the Land of No Return”.

Those Mesopotamians clearly lacked imagination.
Half a world away and centuries later, the Mayans believed that the afterlife existed at the bottom of a spirally labyrinth of caves called Xibalba. Modern explorers, archeologists and rich, yuppie spelunkers have gone down into the caves and frequently found the remains – just skeletons really, curled into cowering, fetal balls – of people who braved those depths. Sometimes these were sacrificial offerings, but down in the lower reaches of the cave system, down where even the Mayan priests had feared to go, were the bodies of those who made the descent with the hope of rescuing a dead loved one from the Underworld. Without exception - starved and dehydrated, with no torch fire left to light the way - they each died alone in the sort of darkness that cannot be imagined.

This sort of evolution in thought which moved the afterlife from the purely abstract to the simply physically remote came with specific and gigantic implications for the human race. Without knowing it, or intending to, or even understanding the very real cosmic processes involved, humanity had given birth to the divine. The Universe, it seemed, was fueled by forces far more mysterious than gravity or dark matter. As civilizations emerged for the first time and societies formed and populations grew exponentially – fed by the refinements of agriculture and irrigation and the birth of pre-modern social organization – the combined, congealing weight of belief tore some rift in the very dimensional reality of existence and for the first time, gods happened.

Without meaning to, people developed religion because after answering the most fundamental questions of, “Where can I sleep?’, ‘How do I stop this hungry feeling?’ and ‘Can I fuck that?’ they asked themselves, ‘Why is this person who was walking around yesterday no longer walking around? Why have they been asleep so long? Why don’t they want to fuck anymore? Why aren’t they moving or breathing? What happened?’

What happened?

What happened, of course, was that the biological processes which maintained the life of that organism had ceased. Whether caused by infection or exhaustion or damage or predation, the end result was always the same and always will be. And so the question of ‘What happened?’ became the question of ‘Why?’

At a time when placing seeds in rows in the dirt and watering them regularly represented the height of human intellectual achievement, concepts like Cancer, germs, and extracellular bacterial toxin would have been far more exotic and incredible than the idea that giant, invisible people lived in the sky and had the power to hurl lightning down at the Earth when they got angry. That, at least, made sense to us. So, long before the time we thought to develop Oncology, we had already developed religion, and the Universe, thrown off its metaphysical balance by the weight of all of that sudden, psychic belief reacted in a very natural way that is as old and venerable as time itself; the Universe adapted by counterbalancing and in doing so, a direct link was formed between all of that belief – all of that psychic energy – and the physical world which created it.

That old Sky God existed. He was birthed out - messy and half-formed - by the Universe. He stood on the crest of the Great Above and looked down into the barren, parched bowl of the Earth below him and wondered how the fuck he had gotten there and what the fuck he was supposed to do now.

That poor, perplexed Sky God didn’t last long however. He was a prototype, an Urtext of what a god should be. Quickly we replaced him with far more interesting gods who had better names and more exciting personalities and plans for us. Gods named El and Chaos and Gaia and Ginnungagap and Yahweh. Gods who cared about us; even gods who cared specifically about our crops or our procreation or whether or not the river flooded that year and, of course, some gods who didn’t like us. We needed them so we could explain the terrible things that we didn’t want to blame on our benevolent deities. These were gods who wanted to make our biological processes cease.

These were gods we feared and so we made them fearsome: we gave them jackal heads or talons, hooves and horns and we made them responsible for death itself. In them we found the answer to that old question of ‘Why?’ and in doing so, we efficiently also made them the administrators of the Afterlife. And because the Universe tilted and whirled and adapted to accommodate, all of this belief in them made them all quite physically real.


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