The Tyranny of the Past

I’ve just endured the now-traditional screech of the Fundamentalist Christians over the Evils of Halloween, and dread the now-traditional bickering over whether Christ is present in or absent from Christmas. It’s all quite tiresome.

One of the things that keeps spewing from the Fundamentalists about Halloween is something along the lines of “…this is a wicked, Satanic practice because the X used to do Y back in the mists of history.” Perhaps it’s the Druids and bone-fires. Or some superstition about Jack O’ Lanterns and evil spirits. Or it’s the distasteful practice of dining in a graveyard with your ancestors.

This all seems strange to me, because nearly any traditional practice is rooted in bizarre ancient practices. Look at the Cross of the Christians — a symbol of torment, torture, and mass execution. Or the Eucharist, a symbolic act of cannibalism.

Are modern Christians committing an act of cannibalism during their Communion rite? With Wonder Bread and grape juice?

Oh, puh-leeze.

What modern people do is what modern people do, regardless of what it might (or might not) have meant to their grandparents, or their remote ancestors.

Did the ancient Druids build Wicker Men and roast criminals alive inside them? I don’t know, but more pointedly, I don’t care. I’m a modern Druid, and I certainly don’t build Wicker Men. Nor do any of the other Druids I know about.

Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, had garden parties at the Vatican in which prostitutes crawled about on hands and knees and picked up coins spread on the floor, while the male guests mounted them — and the Pope awarded prizes to the men who ejaculated (publicly) the greatest number of times during the evening. He reputedly took his own daughter, Lucrezia, as a lover, and shared her affections with his son, Cesare. What does this say about modern Catholics?

Nothing at all.

The past can be both a guide and a prison. Increasingly, I see it as a prison.

One way of looking at the entire sweep of history is as a vast, sustained effort in solving the problems of increasing population.

Stable tribal societies benefit from the past, because the past contains strategies that are relevant to the present. It tells you what plants to eat, when to migrate, how to hunt without destroying your food source. It tells you the auspicious times to have children, and the times to hold back.

Increasing the population dilutes the value of tribal knowledge. If you follow the old ways, people starve. The auspicious times to bear young are no longer auspicious.

So new ways are created. Agriculture. Cities. Religions. Nations. Divine Right. Rule of Law. Every one of these is a method of solving the problem of more people living in closer quarters.

Not a single one of these strategies works for very long, because the population keeps growing. Last time I checked, the world population adds a city the size of Los Angeles every month. Every increase in population forces us to solve problems in new ways.

Medieval Christianity is long gone, replaced by modern Christianity, which is fading quickly into post-modern Christianity. Socialism had its day. Capitalism is rapidly coming to its predictably catastrophic close. The Republic may have a short future ahead, or it may also be dying. Will popular Democracy replace it? Or Fascism? Or Theocracy? Or something completely different?

Paganism has successfully re-invented itself — what passes for Pagan today would be unrecognizable to any ancient Roman or Celt, as would our lifestyles, our stresses, and our systems of coping with those stresses. As a modern outlook, Paganism might have a future, but only if it remains flexible and part of the problem-solving process.

I wonder what it was like in the generations just before people started clearing fields and forcing the earth to produce food. The old verities of hunting and gathering would have begun to fail. There were too many people, too many “others.” Thinning herds. Vanishing birds. Polluted rivers. Always the stink of burning in the air.

Patterns of life that had guided tribes for hundreds of years, perhaps hundreds of generations, simply didn’t work any more. Could the average tribal person have envisioned living in one of the first true cities? Surrounded by strangers, neighbors rather than clan? Purchasing strange food from strangers? The noise, the stink, the being stuck in one place with one abode, doing only one thing every day like baking or tanning or forging?

We face a similar period of radical change. Our web of commerce has circled the world, and we cannot fight a war without damaging our own economy. There are no places left to discover, conquer, or exploit. All is owned — if it isn’t, it soon will be. We can feed the world easily, yet we do not, because our past is a prison that says we must do hard, productive work to eat, yet there is not enough productive work.

And the population continues to grow.

I try to imagine what living will be like in a century, and I fall short. I’ve read science fiction all my life, but it is clear that everything I’ve read was a product of its own time, not of the future. It’s like visiting Future World at Disneyland — it feels dated, nostalgic. Even the works of science fiction with enormous scope, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Frank Herbert’s Dune, read like period pieces only fifty years later.

I feel like one of those pre-agricultural nomads, who cannot grasp the idea of a “city.” To the extent that I can imagine the future, the prospect is horrible, just as the idea of being pinned in one place among strangers must have been horrible to those first nomadic city-dwellers. Yet our children will adapt, and they will look back on our Democracy and our Capitalism and pity us.

Is Halloween based on ancient Pagan practices? Is Christ in Christmas?

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.