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The Arch of Metahistory:

How one sees the origins of human culture is also a description of how one wishes to see the future of humanity. - William Irwin Thompson, Gaia: A Way of Knowing


Origins is the keystone of the arch of metahistory, not because the rise of civilization is the supreme achievement of humankind, but because stories of our historical origins present the conventional basis of our identity as a species and provide the background for our sense of progress through the ages. We of the modern world are civilized people, distinguished from those earlier versions of ourselves who lived in “savage” conditions before civilization. Due to the inherited model of Origins — that is, the high civilizations of the past — we believe that “civilization masters nature” and so the concept of “living with nature” appears to indicate an inferior form of adaptation.

The unrelenting message today is that the “global market economy” is the hallmark of advanced society. In many respects, the world situation in 2000 CE mirrors the rise of civilization in Sumer around 4000 BCE. Historians identify the leading factors in the rise of civilization as the introduction of new technology (mainly, writing and mathematics) and the spread of commerce. Of the tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets found in the Middle East, the vast majority record business transactions, inventories of grain and livestock, legal contracts, land surveys. The technology of writing with a stylus on clay that supported Sumerian civilization reappears today in the far more complex tool of the computer. The sophistication of the technology is less important than the innovations it introduces.

Civilization is a grand word but in reality it may be reduced to the sound-alike "citification": that is, urbanization, living in cities. The belief that life in cities such as New York and Tokyo is better than life in the countryside (anywhere real countryside happens to survive), is just that: a belief. Urban living is the dominant option of the global community, largely because the commercial reward system needs mass markets to operate profitably, but it's not the only option for humanity. Indigenous peoples do not look to the rise of civilization from their ancestral origins, their sense of identity or purpose. They look to Sacred Nature.

Because the human species consists of different races, there cannot be one origin story for humanity. But there are dominant versions. Until 150 years ago the primary historical origin story was focused in one geographic area, the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. Because the Biblical narrative of Noah, Abraham and the Patriarchs took place in that area, it was assumed that Judeo-Christian “sacred history” was interwoven with events leading to the rise of civilization. Consequently, the Biblical version of human origins was imposed for centuries as the only valid version of our collective experience.

Historians now concur that large-scale civilizations arose simultaneously in several regions of the world: Indo-China, Peru, India, Mesopotamia and Egypt. They also recognize the existence of civilized societies that existed before the large-scale urban settlements — that is, before 4500 BCE. The belief that civilization begins with cities has been challenged through the research of Marija Gimbutas (Suggested Reading, below) whose discoveries in Old Europe indicate that “civilized living precedes living in cities.” The work of Gimbutas and others represents a major paradigm shift in our view of prehistory.

Caral, The Mother City

For most of the 20th Century historians agreed that the origins of civilization could be traced to the organization of society for the purposes of war and conquest, but in 2001 a lone woman archeologist changed this view. At Caral in the Peruvian desert, archeologist Ruth Shady found the remains of a “mother city,” the technical term for a site that exhibits the first stage of city-building, without preceding layers of settlement. In pristine condition, this city is now recognized as the oldest in the Americas, dating to the epoch of the earliest Egyptian dynasties, circa 3200 BCE. To the shock and bafflement of many experts, Caral reveals no battlements, no weapons, no murals or sculptures to glorify conquest, no bones evidential of a violent ending. It appears to have been a peaceful settlement whose inhabitants dedicated their time to commerce, religious ceremony, theatre and hedonistic activities, including the use of mind-altering substances and aphrodisiacs. Caral has changed the paradigm on what brings people together in large urban settlements. Love, not war, my yet prove to be the prime motivating force in the rise of civilization.

Origins is a double entendre in metahistory, as already noted under Sacred Nature. Both the biological and behavioral origins of humanity are located in prehistory, but “the story of civilization” ignores the long formative childhood of our species. What happened in prehistory made us human in the first place, but this development has long been viewed as less significant than what humanity has made of the world in the course of history. Our view of history is laden with beliefs about how the human species came to dominate the world, how it created a unique way of life, culture, society.

Since Darwin, prehistory has become a matter of intense debate. The inquiry into “the ascent of man” assumes the central role in metahistory (corresponding to the keystone of the arch) because it focuses our deepest beliefs about the human experiment, not because civilization is the supreme achievement of humankind. The beliefs we hold about our origins can be explored and deconstructed by the metahistorical method.

While the creation of the world and the origins of humanity are universally depicted by the intercourse of primordial parents, the Origins of civilization are usually ascribed to a male deity, demi-god or culture-hero. The designation of a male mastermind who inaugurates civilization is less a fact of history than a policy of male scribes who write history.

Although "progress" is a very recent idea, most people in the modern world believe that the trajectory of civilization assures a continuous ascent, progress without end with advancing achievements in all realms. Ancient myths about the Golden Age challenge this belief, however. The notion that great civilizations appear at an apex and decline from there is typical of various evolutionary schemes of ancient provenance. According to the cyclic conception of time, common to native-mind peoples, the Golden Age in the past will recur in the future in keeping with the eternal renewal of the human experience. (Basic Reading: Memories and Visions of Paradise). Curiously, some historical studies seem to confirm the first part of this proposition: the appearance of culture at an apex. The oldest pyramids of Egypt present obvious evidence of high technology, but there is very little evidence, either textual or archeological, of a long trial-and-error process leading up to their construction.

Both Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations seem in many respects to have sprung up from the ground, full-grown, or at least highly evolved at the first stage of their emergence. Paradoxically, the belief that history progresses upward and that life improves as civilization evolves is not convincingly supported by historical evidence.

The most common Origin script in the West is Genesis in the O.T. version of the story, the Biblical creation-myth. Genesis describes how humanity emerges from a primordial couple, Adam and Eve, how civilization arises and was then eliminated by a flood sent by God, only to arise again through the Chosen People. Native-mind traditions as far-ranging as Central America and Southeast Asia also tell stories about a flood. The universality of the flood stories may indicate recurrent patterns in the “collective unconscious,” a theory proposed by C. G. Jung. They may also be evidence of ancestral memories of massive geological and geophysical events. William Irwin Thompson has suggested that some myths may be half-remembered history. In Memories and Visions of Paradise (Basic Reading), Richard Heinberg cites a number of examples where this does indeed appear to be the case.

Among the Hopi and other native peoples of North America, the First People are said to emerge from the navel of the Earth, as if from a womb. This script links Origins to Sacred Nature. It uses biological imagery for the creation myth. The Child (humanity) emerges from the Mother attached to her placenta by a cord fixed to her belly. Likewise, the First People emerge from Mother Earth attached to her placenta (society, the communal group) by an umbilical cord, the symbiotic bond with Sacred Nature. In this myth, the biological Origins of humanity and the social order formed by human groups belong to a single creative event. This vision of life asserts the belief that “the earth produces humanity,” rather than the belief that “God creates humanity.” It also asserts that “society reflects its natural habitat,” a key belief in many indigenous cultures, contrasted to the belief that “God projects and oversees society,” as if the human social order were a pretext for working out the divine will. Beliefs specific to the emergence of social order and social morality come under the category of Origins. Beliefs about what happens in social order, once it is established, belong to the category of Moral Design.

In Occidental Mythology comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell noted that “one of the chief characteristics of Levantine mythology is that of man created to be God’s slave.” (The Levant is the geo-cultural complex extending from Mesopotamia to Palestine, the matrix of Judeo-Christian-Moslem religions.) The belief that humanity exists to serve and worship God is totally commonplace in most of the world, and rarely challenged. Quite a different belief is asserted in the Asian philosophical concept of Lila, “delight and cosmic play.” The belief that God’s intent to play determines what happens in the cosmos bears witness to what Alan Watts calls “humanity’s eternal preoccupation with ecstasy.“ (Beyond Theology in Basic Reading.) This contrasts radically with the Christian belief that the suffering of Jesus Christ saves the world from its fallen condition. To be redeemed and liberated through ecstasy rather than suffering was the promise of the pagan religion of Dionysos, whose counterpart in Asia was the Hindu God Shiva. The essential need for play in the making of civilization has been treated by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga who coined the term Homo ludens, from the Latin root ludere, “to play.” Historians designate beliefs and practices expressive of the playful and ecstatic view of religion by the delightful term mystico-ludic.

Lila is a cosmological principle expressing the belief that the entire spectrum of human experience is a game of the gods. With the discovery of the mother city of Caral in Peru, historians are now considering how this belief may apply to the actual origins of civilization. Artifacts at Caral show how the inhabitants of the city complex gathered together to play, dance, perform theatrics and indulge in aphrodisiacs and other mind-altering substances. Due to the huge bias of the belief that life in nature is a grim battle for survival, the belief that play might be at the origin of civilization has not been fairly assessed. Nevertheless, the evidence from indigenous peoples and surviving hunter-gathers (whose way of life is presumed to resemble “primitive” humanity in prehistory) is that they devote far more time to play than modern people. Moreover, they have more time to play, for their lives are not entirely consumed in the struggle to survive. By contrast, the lifestyle of modern people is fraught with stress and lack of time to “take it easy.” Play is of a passive, spectator type, not participatory as it is with native peoples. Usually play is not integrated into daily life but represents a departure, a diversion. All in all, modern life seems to fulfill the belief that God intends enslavement for human beings, following the Levantine motif, even if it be enslavement they choose at will and impose upon themselves.

Myths of the origins of racial and national groups often occur in the same scripts. Since most of these look back to Sacred Nature, the stories are identical to those discussed under that category. Racial-national scripts of Origins invariably feature “culture-heroes” who introduce the rudiments of civilization. They teach the arts of survival and often present the people with exemplary acts that are imitated in religious and spiritual rites. Around the world the initiators of culture are often called by names derived from the Indo-European root man-, “think, devise, plan.” Two examples are Manu in Hindu mythology and Manitou in American Indian traditions. The first pharaoh of Egypt was called Menes and the male regent of the matrifocal culture of Crete was called King Minos, etc.

The initiators are not exclusively men, however. They can be women or even animals. For instance, White Buffalo Woman is the key culture-initiator among the Plains Indians of America. Salmon, bear and eagle are totemic ancestors who impart survival wisdom and moral guidance to indigenous peoples. All these scenarios can be summarized in the belief that “benefactors guide society.” This is a different view from the belief encoded in high civilizations such as China and Sumer where a male celestial god mandates society. Hence the difference between endowed cultures, originating from instructions given by men, women and animals, and mandated cultures, originating from instructions attributed to a male sky god. Mandated cultures are the less common of the two and occur much later in history. The models for modern civilization are all mandated cultures.

Close examination of the oldest source materials shows that the scripts have been deliberately spun on a male or patriarchal bias. One of the most famous of such sacred texts, recording the Babylonian New Year Ritual, describes how Babylonian civilization was founded by the male sky-god Marduk after his defeat of the Goddess Tiamat. Several drafts of the texts exist, allowing scholars to determine how it was rewritten several times to keep the ritual consistent with changes in the male pantheon. The history of human origins has not only been written by men -- the authors being a male priesthood who controlled the secular leaders (shahs, emperors, pharaohs) -- but it has been continually rewritten with the intent of keeping man in the leading role.

That civilization remains under the control of men because its directing agendas are written by men is an elementary insight of many historians and an important tenet of metahistory. Significantly, endowed cultures such as the huge mosaic of “Stone Age” tribes that spread across the Americas before colonization, do not grow into large-scale civilizations. Mandated cultures do, because they are driven by scripts that confer the divine sanction of the celestial father (Sky God) upon violence and conquest. (Mandated culture and endowed culture are included in the glossary for the site.)

In sexual terms the motif of Origins is typically concerned with the obscure matter of how the sexes originated. In the Genesis version, the male (Adam) was created first, and then Eve was produced from Adam’s rib. This story encodes the belief that “man precedes woman,” a direct contradiction to current scientific understanding that the human body is programmed in DNA from a female-template: we are all conceived female, and the male variant of the prototypal body only emerges when certain chromosomes kick into activity. The superiority of the male sex has its origin in texts written for mandated cultures that first emerged around 2800 BCE. Significantly, the origin of writing coincides with the composition of patriarchal scripts. Feminists argue that by changing the script for human society, we can evolve into a different kind of society. Hence there has been ferocious squabbling over the revision of history and prehistory, especially where the role of woman is concerned.

Scripts about Origins in which the “primal father” assumes the dominant role are reflected in the earliest models of civilization at Sumer and elsewhere, but it has been shown that these scenarios override earlier ones in which the female plays an equal or dominant role. In treating the theme of sacred kingship, some texts describe a male king or divine regent appointed by a male priesthood, hence the belief that “men empower men.” Other, older scripts describe how the sacred king is chosen by the goddess, or a priestess who represents the goddess, hence the belief that “the goddess chooses the king” or “the priestess who represents the goddess determines who is qualified to be king.” (See “Kingship” in Barbara Walker’s book listed below.)

In modern times, civilization (at least in the domain of commerce and politics) is largely run by men, and the role of the initiating priestess has been degraded to a taboo status. Hence the many and various scenarios of politically and financially powerful men involved with sexually powerful women in illicit relationships that often destroy the men. Is this the revenge of the suppressed priestess who initially was the agent of man’s empowerment? The misogynist script states that “women crave power,” and if they cannot play a role in originating and managing social structures, they will claim the power by casting a spell over the men who do. These dubious situations relate to the motif of Origins because it is the phallic “towers” of the social, economic and political order who are vulnerable to the wiles of woman, a recurrent tabloid drama.

This drama seems to restate the old mythological theme in which the sacred king, originally dependent on the goddess for his power, must cede his power when he can no longer please her with his virility. Thus, sexual politics runs deep into the foundations of civilization. All power-sharing issues in advanced society seem to hinge in a precarious way on sexual dynamics, a point emphasized by Feminists time and time again in their revision of history.

Suggested reading: Origins

Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock is a survey of the historical enigmas surrounding the rise of civilization in different parts of the world, presenting evidence pointing back to a global maritime network that existed before the last Ice Age, that is, before 9000 BCE.

The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe by Marija Gimbutas changed our view of the past by showing that civilized, goddess-based societies in which warfare seems to have been lacking existed before large-scale urban civilization as such.

The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara Walker is a massive compendium of information on the pagan origins of civilization, presenting leads to alternative scenarios of history as well as recovering many beliefs that were lost or suppressed with the rise of Christianity.




Sacred Nature
Moral Design



Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.