image: Wikimedia commons (link).
When Black Elk, a holy man of the Lakota people, expressed the difference between the life before the arrival of the European invasion and after, he said:
Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us. But the Wasichus came, and they have made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichus, and it is dirty with lies and greed. Black Elk Speaks, 8.
There is a lot to notice in these two sentences. Black Elk chooses to characterize the difference between the two cultures by saying that his culture saw humanity as part of nature: they lived together with the earth's other creatures like relatives. In contrast, the bringers of the new culture clearly saw themselves as divided from nature, and created what Black Elk describes as "little islands" to physically separate people from the earth's other creatures.
This short passage also implies that directly related to these two opposite views of humanity's place in nature are two opposite views of nature itself: in the first, a vision of abundance, that "there is plenty for them and for us," and in the second, a vision of scarcity and a "gnawing flood [. . .] dirty with lies and greed."
I would argue that in these two sentences, Black Elk has pinpointed the most important negative consequence of the literalist twist that was imposed upon ancient scriptures in Europe (in the time of the Roman Empire) that actually changed their teaching from a message that is closer to the first position Black Elk articulates (we could call this "vision A" for ease of discussion) to the horrific vision of the "gnawing flood" and the ever-shrinking "little islands" described in the second half (we could call this "vision B").
In other words, the ancient scriptures actually articulate "vision A," but at a certain point in history they were twisted into "vision B."
For example, this previous post discusses the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, as well as the Genesis account of Noah's three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, and argues that if they are understood allegorically, or esoterically, they clearly convey a message that applies to all men and women equally, and a message that our physical form is only a "coat of skin" and that our common spiritual origin unites us all. Understood this way, they also convey a message that unites humanity with all of nature, including the infinite starry heavens -- often expressed in the teaching "as above, so below."
However, the same stories when interpreted as describing literal and historic men and women named Adam and Eve, or Noah and his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, have historically led to all kinds of racist ideologies, and have been used to divide men and women, to elevate one group and devalue another, and even to divide humanity from the other creatures (based on literalistic misinterpretations of the enmity with the serpent, the teachings that man has "dominion" over all the earth and its animals, and the teachings given to Noah about domesticating animals, for example).
In other words, the scriptures that became central to western European culture, and which should be seen as teaching "vision A," were given a literalistic twist at a specific point in history, which led to a culture that was largely guided by "vision B."
In fact, the Biblical scriptures when understood esoterically can be seen as teaching a vision of the natural world, and humanity's place in it, which can be accurately characterized as shamanic. This is because they actually can be shown to be clearly built upon the same foundation as the sacred stories and traditions found around the world, all of which contain clear shamanic elements and teachings.
The literalist takeover of these scriptures, and the campaign to deliberately eliminate texts and teachers who taught an approach which challenged this literalistic "vision B" view of the scriptures, can be demonstrated to have taken place during the years that western historians call the first four centuries AD.
It is very important to understand that, whatever good things western European civilization and culture produced in the centuries that followed (and it cannot be denied that it did produce many good things), this fundamental "vision B" understanding guided much of its development, and that it in fact continues to inform "western civilization" in very powerful and sometimes very destructive ways.
Because, as Black Elk so incisively explains in just two sentences, the vision that shaped "western" thought contains a powerful tendency towards self-imposed division of humanity from nature, as well as antagonistic division between humanity itself. Connected to this division, in Black Elk's view, is a vision of scarcity rather than plenty.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the ongoing influence of this "vision B" attitude better than the rush to create and release genetically-engineered plants and animals into nature. Previous posts have cited ancient philosophers, who wrote prior to the triumph of the literalist takeover, admonishing those whose vision of scarcity led them to horrible treatment of animals and mistrust of nature's bounty -- see for example the arguments of Plutarch and Ovid, both of whom articulate a vision of humanity as related to the animals and to the rest of nature.
Since those posts were written, a new and even more horrific example of what we might call a "runaway vision B" has emerged, with the deliberate creation of genetically-engineered mosquitos, which have already been released en masse in at least two parts of the globe, and which are slated for release in Florida in either January or February of this year (no word yet on whether that has actually taken place already, or if it is set to occur within the next couple weeks).
If there is a better symbol of the terribly misguided decisions that the self-imposed division from nature that "vision B" produces than the decision to genetically alter an insect that regularly feeds on human blood, I don't know what it is -- unless it is the decision to start releasing clouds of them into the wild in an act that can never be un-done.
But just wait a few months and there will probably be a new example even more ominous and un-natural than this one.
It should be starting to become clear to even the most unthinking adherent of the "vision B mindset" that something has gone terribly wrong. Black Elk saw the problem with crystal clarity more than a hundred years ago.
But, the good news is that "vision A" is actually the vision that is at the heart of the shared ancient heritage of all of humanity. It was treacherously supplanted by and replaced with "vision B" in a certain part of the world, in a single culture, many centuries ago -- and the results have been catastrophic for many other cultures around the world in the intervening centuries since that takeover. But if "vision B" could replace "vision A," then that means that there is hope that the process could be reversed -- perhaps even more rapidly than the original switch.
People can and do change their entire outlook on the world, without violence and sometimes quite rapidly. I know this personally, as I have changed my own vision quite radically within the course of my own life.
The division from nature and from one another described above and in the quotation from Black Elk is clearly a self-imposed separation -- which means that it can also be "self-un-imposed."
We can still listen to the vision that Black Elk shared with the world -- before the gnawing dirty flood of lies and greed covers over the shrinking little islands altogether.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).