Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Reviews: Paleolithic Lit

You never know where a curious mind will take you.  Because I knit, I joined Ravelry.  There I interacted with people who assume you're mentally deficient if you don't embrace evolution.  So I read up on the Intelligent Design debate, which is Ground Zero for atheism vs. any logical system of thought.  Because I'm a Latin teacher with a background in literature, I'm curious about the origins of the ancient myths.  If I had a time machine, I'd be going back into the pre-Abrahamic era to find out as much as possible about the stories they told, who travelled where, and how they did things.  I'm pretty sure that's where most of our myths started out.  The challenging thing, of course, is that we can never know for sure.  For all our talk about carbon dating and Young Earth vs. Old Earth, we can't observe that time period directly.  So, why are modern scholars so quick to deconstruct one of the few written documents that claims to describe that era?  Hmm.  Here are three books I've looked at recently that play with prehistory in one way or another.

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, by James G. Frazer. 
Genre: Anthropology? Comparative religion? Mythology? Philosophy? New Age/Wicca?  Gnosticism? Could be any and all of them.
I skimmed this one.  It's really long, even in abridged form.  And it's all built around one idea: sympathetic magic (human and animal sacrifice, fertility rituals, etc.) is the basis of all religion.   By implication, Christianity is just one more example among thousands of the myth of the dying and rising god.  This is considered a seminal work in the field of anthropology, and it had an incalculable influence on the intellectuals who wrote the literature of the 20th century.  Also, if you're ever inducted into the language honor society Alpha Mu Gamma, loyalty to the Golden Bough forms a part of the quaint/silly secret initiation ceremony.  I presume it's this golden bough and not the original one that Virgil wrote about.  Frazer adopts the superior attitude of modern anthropologists, even referring to primitive societies as "savages."  He skips around a lot: the peoples he describes are united by similarity of customs, not historical era or geographical area.  I'd like to return to this at some point when I have more patience for it.  Even if you disagree with his premise, he successfully created the mythology of the modern era: i.e., that the old stories are all equally true, which means, of course, that they are all equally false.  His work definitely forms a part of the Great Conversation.

Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How it Changed the Course of Civilization, by Ian Wilson. 
Genre: Archaeology, history, literature, marine science.  This was a fascinating book.  The author is not a creationist attempting to prove the book of Genesis; the Black Sea flood at the end of the Ice Age, Noah's flood, and accounts from the Gilgamesh epic and other ancient accounts are presumed to be identical, and therefore the flood would not have been worldwide in scope.  The author takes an interdisciplinary approach, describing the Black Sea flood as documented by Ryan and Pitman and explored by Robert Ballard, postulating Turkey rather than the Fertile Crescent as the cradle of civilization, and pursuing tantalizing clues in ancient texts like Gilgamesh and the Argonautica.  Much of it is by necessity speculative; much (but not all) of the speculation is compelling.  I loved reading about the archaeological excavation of Catal Huyuk in Turkey.  I was less thrilled with the case built around the worship of bulls and the Great Mother goddess: Wilson spends a lot of time describing these widespread practices as being the ancient norm, including a matriarchal society and promiscuous sex.  He bemoans the overturn of this culture and the rise of patriarchy -- OK, we get it, this is the obligatory modernist distancing of self from the Biblical tradition.  Despite this, the book is enjoyable, readable proof that not all modern secular scholars dismiss Genesis altogether.

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel
Genre: Historical Fantasy.  Why I read it: I was curious, of course -- what other reason is there?  So in the '80's when everyone else was reading this I was underage, and THIS IS DEFINITELY NOT A BOOK FOR CHILDREN.  But there's something charming about the premise of this long-lasting 6-book series: a young Cro-Magnon girl, suddenly orphaned and homeless after a cataclysmic earthquake, adopted and brought up by a clan of kindly Neanderthals.  Part of the fun of historical fiction is learning what life was like in the old days... this is one author's speculation about life in the really old days.  You learn about knapping flint for knives other tools, how to hunt wooly mammoths and butcher them and dry their meat, and what plants Neanderthals used for medicinal purposes.  All very intriguing; but unfortunately, the impression I was left with was that it seems very dated now.  Not enough of "Little Cave on the Steppe" and too much proto-feminist manifesto, with a little bit of potboiler to swing it in the other direction entirely.  Ayla is a likable enough protagonist, and Creb the wise man and Iza the medicine woman are even lovable.  But the Neanderthals are a dead end of evolution, and Ayla's departure is inevitable.  I suspect that Ayla singlehandedly will advance early humans from Paleolithic to bronze age over the next several books -- but I'm not likely to read the later books based on the reviews on Amazon. 

The intriguing questions for me relate to the modern assumptions that prehistoric humans were less intelligent -- yet this story has even the non-verbal Neanderthals capable of living in an orderly social group, with laws and traditions consistent over generations and every member of the Clan performing necessary work.  The only things they can't figure out are how to count beyond 20 and where babies come from.  Then I look at modern young people, who diligently check the social media for the next scheduled riot but who couldn't cook dinner if they had to harvest the ingredients from their backyard rather than the local bistro, and have not even the faintest idea of basic economics, and I wonder if the technological age has really advanced us all that much?

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