Paleolithic Issues

What about the overwhelming grief of Demeter? Surely it affects us with
the full human pathos of a mother's loss of a beloved child. One feels in Demeter
the single mother, bonded with her adolescent daughter, her anguish when that
daughter is kidnapped, raped, murdered. But what does it mean for a universal
figure like Demeter to feel such anguish? Since her universality, as goddess of
nature's abundance straddles two human epochs—one where men and women
hunt and gather the freely given fruits of Demeter's bounty (an epoch that
stretched over  99% of the existence of our species); and the other, where
agriculture organizes sustenance, wealth accumulates in the hands of the few,
and the hierarchical State enforces the toil of the many—is there perhaps some
connection between this double reign and the nature of her anguish?
Marshal Sahlins in Stone Age Economics demonstrates that Paleolithic
hunters did not live in scarcity but abundance and leisure, interpretation of the
data to the contrary betraying the prejudice of a later age; nor were hunting
people shorter-lived than any later humans until the mid 20th century.
Peter Lamborn Wilson, in "The Shamanic Trace" remarks: "[A] great mystery hovers
around the question of agriculture: —what on earth could induce
any sane person to give up hunting and gathering (four hours daily labor or less,
200 or more items in the 'larder'…) for the rigors of agriculture (14 or more hours
a day, 20 items in the larder, the 'work ethic,' etc.)?…A study of myths and folk
tales about the origin of agriculture reveals over and over again that it was an
invention of women—and the establishment of agriculture somehow entailed
violence to women (sacrifice of a goddess, for example)."  p.74

What if the Demeter/Persephone story amounts to this: Demeter delivers
agriculture to men through Triptolemos. Persephone, the gathering maiden,
must be raped, abducted, delivered over to male control. Then Demeter's grief
and rage is not over the loss of her daughter only, but harbors a trace of a far
vaster and more general anguish—that of the entire human race's loss of its
primordial autonomy and happiness to the power of authority and the state.

Wilson does not argue for the innocence of the tribal community, quite the
contrary. He recognizes that the possibility for the concentration of wealth and
power in the hands of a few must have been born with the emergence of the
homo erectus as a tool using species. Rather, tribal institutions were formulated
very early to prevent the actualization of this possibility. The Neolithic
revolution and the appearance of agricultural, hierarchical city-centered
civilization, perhaps around10,000 B.C. in Jericho or Catal Huyuk represents the
failure of these ancient institutions. Every civilization valorizes its conquest of
the autonomous, egalitarian, mentality of the tribe in myths that tell of the
subjugation of the wild. Gilgamesh tames his wild-man friend-to-be, Enkidu; the
Tibetan Buddhists enlighten the savage Bon; Christians convert pagans;
Olympians triumph over Titans; and the business goes on today every time the
WTO or the IMF or Chase Manhattan Bank imagines it is doing an "undeveloped
nation" a favor by forcing its participation in the global economy.
Wilson speaks of "the cruelty of agriculture ('raping the body of our
Mother Earth,' as hunters often call it). In tense anxiety about the calendar, the
seasonal year ... must be adjusted to 'fit' the astral year (the image of divine
perfection), leads to a view of time as 'cruel.'  The smooth time of the nomadic
hunter... is replaced by the grid-work, the cutting of earth into rigid rows, the
year into layers, society into sections….The farmers who work 14 hours a day
instead of four are being cruel to themselves; logically then they will be cruel to
each other."

The planter must grow anxious about the yield of the land, the efficacy of
his technique, the efficiency of his laborers. The first tract on the work ethic is
actually written by Hesiod: his poem called Works and Days is an extended rant at
his n'er-do-well  brother on the consequences of laziness to the farmer. Hard
work is treated as a good in itself. It is not enough that poorly tilled land causes
the land to yield poorly: the gods punish the lazy farmer with the failure of his
crops. The Protestant ethic and its cockamamy metaphysics is spelled out two
thousand years in advance in all the starkness of its silliness and irrationality.
The link between Hades and Ploutos becomes somewhat clear. In tribal
society accumulation of wealth is moderated by rituals and customs of
redistribution. The chief may gather great quantities of yams or pigs , "but is also
obliged to beggar himself by giving feasts…."

Wealth that remains centralized and accumulated in an individual or a
class must wait for a mode of social organization and manipulation of nature
where there can be a surplus in one place—the banks or stock piles of the
wealthy—and therefore scarcity in another—the poverty of the peasants or the
workers or, in our world, the industrial nations' monopolization of resources and
the third world's debt. In the world of hunting and gathering there is neither
surplus nor want, only abundance or dearth, in the existential present. Wilson
traces the development of wealth as parallel to the development of writing and
money, the latter being the capacity to represent wealth that then allows,
"magically" the representation to BE wealth. Another parallel exists in language
and writing's relation to the sacred through holy writ: the power of speech to
symbolize the sacred becomes the sacred itself. The temple priests of civilization
who know the representations of the gods and spirits and thus monopolize and
mediate their being, creating as it were a surplus and scarcity of sacred
substance, contrast with the tribal shamans and medicine men who make the
spirits to appear in themselves.

Here we see the peculiar place of Eleusis, which, once again, finds itself,
like its goddess, Demeter, straddling the agrarian and a more ancient sacrality,
for the Hierophant, as his name implies, was closer to  the shaman than to  the
priest, in spite of the well-established role of the cult over which he officiated, for
it was his job to allow "the holy things" of Demeter to appear, and, in the
existential present of the final moments of the Mysteries, to avail the people in
attendance of the spirits and gods themselves, not mediate their representations
merely.

Though the Mysteries served Athens, the Mystery they vouchsafed
bespoke another reality than the social complex that supported the Athenian
State, for the Secret Itself undoes hierarchy, even as it is harbored in  its midst. It
liberates the individual spirit from the life of anxiety and subjugation (or
mastery) that masters everyone under the civilized regime.

NOTE on The Shamanic Trace
and also on Clastres

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