Much as the Christian Overculture has made it its business to erase, co-opt or appropriate pre-existing religions in the West–as well as to eradicate and supplant other cultures and traditions throughout the world–archeology presents us with treasures now and again that remind me of a different world that existed prior to the imposition of the angry sky gods of the Levant.
One prominent such example was discovered buried 13 feet deep in a peat bog in Russia in 1890. It is now known as the Shigir Idol. Made of larch wood, it is 17 feet tall, towering more than three times the height of the people who built it.
Now, we will never know what this figure represented to the people who carved it. A protective sentinel? A god? Or something more primordial than a god, like an ancestor?
The idol was erected in or at the boundary of a wetland area: a bog. The peat in the bog preserved it–the oldest surviving wooden sculpture in the world–for 12,000 years. Given its age, therefore, it’s not unreasonable for me or anyone else of European extraction to think of it as an ancestor: a guide into an imaginary world prior to the imposition of Christianity.
Bogs were evidently considered sacred or magical places by pre-Christian people throughout Europe. At least, we think so because we have found hundreds of bodies, many of which appear to be ritual sacrifices, preserved in peat bogs in the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Scotland, and Ireland.
I find the image of the Shigir Idol very compelling. It’s not friendly, nor is it fierce. It seems to be singing, or dreaming, or awestruck somehow: entranced. As if its mind is journeying off within itself, to another world.
I’m fascinated with these small remnants of the mysterious world that existed prior to writing, prior to agriculture, prior to the punitive sky gods and their empires. An atlatl here, a figurine there, some cave paintings…so little survives that we only have tiny, tantalizing pieces to consider.
What did these symbols mean to he people who made them? What kind of world did they see around them? What were their dreams, their stories, their jokes? They were modern humans, as smart as we are, and clearly, many of them were very fine and capable figurative artists. It is engrossing to imagine them as they worked: did they sing, or chant, or tell the story of the images they inscribed or engraved or painted?
I like to think so. I like to imagine their times and cultures as rich with rituals and meaning, like those of the places their descendants would eventually invade and oppress. I see these rich works of art and I imagine a time when my ancestors were not the buttoned-down, bloodless Anglos I see standing stiffly in the plates of my family genealogy.
Of course, this is all supposition: a figment, a phantom. And I’m not spinning fantasies about Good Old Days: odds are, in most cases they were days of hard living and short lives.
Still, there is something deeply…hopeful, somehow, about the engraving of game animals in the tools of hunting, the panels of such animals in the caves. Harder to read the so-called “Venus” figurines that persisted for thousands of years: some consider them goddesses or sacred figures, some erotic images, some sympathetic magic hoping to bring rich hunting and fertility.
We’ll never know.
But these accumulated fragments weave an atmosphere, an energy that feels so remotely different from our lives today and so sacralized, so filled with the enchantment of the world. It’s intoxicating to me.
I like to imagine ancestors who felt that way, who practiced their rituals and magic and looked out to the wild natural world with gratitude and humility.
I like to imagine that down in the bones of my genes, that fire is still burning.
Within history, I am not particularly proud of my human ancestors, generally speaking. Although none I can identify was much of a leader, they certainly went along for the ride of colonization, supplanting, oppression and genocide of people who were not like them.
And I agree with John Beckett (sure, it happens!) that our toxic ancestors do not deserve our reverence. The butchers and bigots and rapists and racists can all go into forgotten obscurity, as far as I’m concerned, except insofar as they are object lessons of the kinds of humans NOT to be.
As a consequence, when I think about ancestry at all–and that isn’t often, to be honest–I prefer to think about the magic of Life itself, unfolding and combining: sharks and trees and tetrapods and dinosaurs and flighted birds and rats and monkeys and our long-extinct pre-human progenitors.
But I can get behind my admittedly romanticized idea of the humans of 12,000 years ago.
I like to think they may have been onto something.