10. The Old World Empires

10.1 Primitive societies

10.1.1 Shamans and kings

Deprived of tools for logical analysis, primitive man responded to challenges, be these environmental or created by society, with assertive creeds. These creeds are blind and delusory certitudes used to cover and protect vital regions of our threatened organism -individual or societal. This way of thinking, through which we all went during childhood, is still used every time we abandon the efforts of invention and reflection that reality demands. These assertive creeds are legion, used by individuals and nations to characterize things that are not fully grasped, understood or approved of. How many silly assertions does one not hear about weather, hurricanes, epidemics, drought, but also and much more frequently about labor unions, capitalists, hippies, the poor, women, profit, priests, communism, intellectuals, Jews, Negroes, Anglo-Saxons, the US, the CIA, Latinos, Serbs, Democracy, Iran, the axis of evil, Milosevic and Saddam Hussein?

The ignorance of the emerging sapiens species, his strong feelings of equality, his fear of death and disability, his fear of the external world, his peculiar ability to communicate through talk led rapidly to the emergence of the shaman (fig. 10.1), who channels these blind assertive creeds into adaptive responses regardless of their adequacy.


Figure 10.1. The first Shamans may have looked like this: engraved and painted Shaman from the Paleolithic “Trois Frères” site, in France. The painting has been redrawn by Breuil.

Beyond the pristine civilized cultural stage attained by the egalitarian, pacific and sharing Bushmen and Hottentots, -although Bantus consider pigmies no more evolved than chimpanzees-, coercion and regulation became the rule of human societies. Exaction of respect and material advantages through dispensation of medical advice and knowledge about the future is the first profession known in history: not prostitutes but priests and medicine men were the first exploiters of human distress. Tyranny is the stage reached by Man in the craving for power and domination that supersedes man’s basic trust in fellow men. Shamans and tyrants usually work hand in hand and very often are the same person.

Gods are the incarnation of energies dominating the world. They are demons, blind forces that may not be disturbed. Contempt for human life is the characteristic of primitive civilizations in which man, as an individual, is nothing but a piece of grit in the world’s wheels. He can only upset the giant mechanism if he does not respect its laws. The minds populating such civilizations are incapable of the operation of deduction that breaks thought down into analyses and reconstitute them into syntheses. The primitive mind apprehends the world as a complex of appearances that are both successive and simultaneous.

The Aztecs evolved an art where the grotesque, the ever-renewed monster, the repeated discontinuity, a jerky and peremptory style are the major lines of artistic expression 2 (fig. 10.2). This art embodies the primitive way of thinking, to which reality is revealed as a complex of simultaneous phenomena present in a discordant multiplicity (fig. 10.3).

Afbeeldingen76 Afbeeldingen77 Afbeeldingen78

Figure 10.2. Skull overlaid with turquoise and obsidian, Aztec culture, 14th-15th century A.D.

Figure 10.3. This mask suggests that Aztec cosmology was bifurcated simultaneously upon crops and conquests, regene­ration and extirpation, ongoing life and unending destruction of life. The same representation of plurality and mystery can be observed in the art of Oceania and the Worlds of the Masks (Fig 10.4).

Figure 10.4. This gaping mask was used by medicine men from tribes (Kwakiutl) of British Columbia to ward off evil spirits.

The same representation of the monstrous, the fearful, the unknown, the gaudy, the horrible, the undifferentiated pantheistic world is also observed in the adornments of Roman cathedrals and some Gothic cathedrals, (fig. 10.5) the works of Hieronymus Bosch (fig. 10.6) and in the artistic achievements of the early Chinese.

Afbeeldingen79 Afbeeldingen80

Figure 10.5. Gothic cathedral: gargoyles atop Notre Dame of Paris.

Figure 10.6. Workshop of J. Bosch, 1486. The last judgment, Fragment. Bruges, Groeningen museum.

In Europe, the Ottomans, fratricidal wars, famines, epidemics and the uncertainties induced by the loss of credibility in a Church unwilling to face a Reformation, plunged the civilization into regression during the 16th century (fig. 10.7).


Figure 10.7. Breughel: lewdness. Pen drawing, fragment, 1557. Royal library, Brussels. Signed and dated in right corner. The pope sits on the back of an animal in the middle-right of the drawing.

In these primitive civilizations bound beneath the yoke of terror, the only measure of excellence is force of which the clearest manifestation is cruelty and torture, abundantly practiced in Europe during the 16th century.

The Amerindians used to scalp their enemies, to cut their fingers off and to grill their guts hanging between their legs while still alive. The Celts of Vercingetorix sent Roman prisoners back with their bellies cut open, carrying their own guts in their hands. Caesar in turn cut off both hands of captured enemies. He cauterized the wounds so that they would not bleed to death. The savagery of those days has resurged in contemporary times, after the horror of the two world wars. During the Algerian war, French intelligence officers used to shove electrodes into the vagina of women. American soldiers passed a wire through the jaws of Vietcong’s and by this means had them attached to their moving tanks. The lieutenants of Somoza had their fellow Nicaraguans assembled in village churches and burned with gasoline. Brazilians exterminate Amazonian Indians by machine-gunning them from helicopters or else giving them smallpox. In 1999, the NATO dropped 11,000 radioactive (“depleted uranium”) fragmentation bombs from a height of 5 kilometers onto hapless civilian populations, killing “enemies” while losing one single man in the operation. In 2006, the Israeli dropped 100,000 fragmentation bombs over Lebanon.

This human exercise of callous cruelty is the norm. Twice in History managed a culture to escape this curse. The first was Ancient Greece, the second was Christendom.

The leadership of a Neolithic band of warriors is almost impossible to maintain without a strong consensus of the led. The warrior able to psychologically sustain isolation can provide food for himself and his family without the help of his peers; the leader of the band is devoid of the means of coercion that could keep his flock in line. There are no fines the leader could impose, no prisons he could fill, and there were no means of retrieval after voluntary escape or banishment. The threat of physical harm could be contemplated only if the leader had personally a physical strength and expertise in combat surpassing that of his opponent. Homer describes this helplessness in the Iliad: Troy was besieged by a coalition of Neolithic tribes led by Agamemnon, king of Argos. Yet, the whole operation was hampered by the abstention of only one of his warlords, Achilles. For vigorous hunters and warriors, the dominance of a tyrant will be accepted only with great reticence and his authority perpetually challenged. In those societies, the art of governing rested thus on various aptitudes such as credibility, honesty, obedience to traditions, force of persuasion. Leadership was helped by personal bonds of allegiance created with subject warriors as well as through the intense sense of belonging that pervaded all the activities of the group.

This attitude of rulers held in line by tradition on one side and of the ruled bound through personalized fidelity, was in vigor in some nations of Europe until the end of the Middle Ages. However, the chances of tyranny augment in civilizations thriving on agriculture relying on large numbers of peasants not always well nourished. The tyrants usually originate from warrior tribes for whom the subjugation of weak agrarian populations held together by irrational terror was easy.

These instincts of violence concretizing in egotistic cruelty were counterbalanced by the influence of various philosophies and religions that emerged in the Old World. Confucius, Lao-tse, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Zarathustra (whom the Greeks called Zoroaster) all endeavored to give a sense to the senseless condition of human life. Their teaching was usually opposed by the priests but enjoyed sometimes the support of temporal leaders who knew the need for consensus and trust in the government of warrior tribes.

These philosophies and religions did not help the appearance of individual intelligence and reason because the merging of sapiens into big collective entities after the agricultural evolution was realized at the cost of relinquishment of autonomy of thought into the care of the ruler. The gospels are a remarkable exception from the current reality : we have the Torah, the Koran, the Bible of Luther and Calvin, the green book of Kadhafi, the red book of Mao, mein Kampf of Hitler, which all commanded blind obedience. The emergence of reason and logical thought could be achieved only by a Neolithic civilization not held down by the heavy hand of the lord and the anathema’s of the shamans. Also, the society taking the step must have a cultural predisposition to a segmental and sequential expression of reality. Few civilizations as China, Ancient Greece and Islam attempted to develop tools of rational analysis. Only Latin Christendom eventually succeeded.

10.1.2 Development of a script

The Australians communicated with “stick-messages” that bear conventional marks. The Peruvians used “quippos”. These were strings of wool of different colors where variously spaced knots of different thickness formed a kind of Morse code. Primitive Chinese used a similar system. The Iroquois used “wampum’s”. These were strings made with various combinations of shells that formed whole phrases. The Irish Celts devised a script that was based on numbers: the number of stripes drawn across a vertical line represented letters. Abstract thinking and use of other means than Paleolithic imagery and pictograms to establish communication are thus found at all cultural levels, including the primitive “Australian” one.

During Paleolithic times, the representation of a thought was executed through images such as “that buffalo”. This was, still during Paleolithic times, simplified into generalizations such as “the buffalo”. Pictograms were used in North America (fig. 10.8). One of the most intriguing aspects of North America’s native cultures is their relative youth in terms of the whole of humanity.


Figure 10.8. Pictograms. Painted buffalo skin, Dakota Sioux. Musée de l’Homme, Paris. Horses are depicted, which had been introduced in America by Cortez.

The Chinese, Harrapians and Egyptians continued this tradition and devised hieroglyphs and ideograms. The Aztecs and Mayas reached this level also. Legends mention a white race in Peru, the Chachapoyas. The Inca exterminated them. These people, originating either from Polynesia or from Europe (the Solutreans?) or from both regions, could have brought with them the imagery used thereafter without improvements in North America.

To make an act of invention and simplification whereby a word expressing an idea, object or thought is broken down into its consecutive syllables-with the ensuing development of a syllabic script- required a difficult effort of sequential analysis that the Chinese were not prepared to furnish. The Egyptians moved in that direction but were unable to abandon the primitive imagery used for expression.

Traditionally, the inventor of writing is supposed to be a priest from Uruk, who invented the cuneiform script around 3100 BC by using a reed stylus on wet clay to make markings (fig 10.9).


Figure 10.9. Early Sumerian writing. British museum.

This heroic story is now set aside but scholars, if they agree that writing is less the invention of a single individual than the result of a complex evolutionary process stretching back 9000 years ago, cannot agree on its origin. Did Mesopotamian literacy trigger that of Egypt, as is conventionally supposed, or was it the other way around? Or did both scripts, cuneiform and hieroglyphic, evolve independently? The Indus script evolved around 3300 BC and has deepened the mystery. All three scripts probably developed independently nearly simultaneously around 3500 BC in response to similar circumstances. The cuneiform writing continued at Uruk, Babylon and other Mesopotamian sites until the latter days of the Roman Empire, as did the hieroglyphic script in Egypt. The Harappian civilization of the Indus collapsed around 1700 BC. Its script ceased to be used and the meaning of the signs remains a mystery.

The scripts in use by the Old High Cultures were reserved to the rulers. Only a handful of people, the scribes, could write and read and the scripts were restricted to administrative and religious uses. Once a script was developed, there was neither incentive to simplify it nor desire to see its use extended to non-governmental entities. The same attempt at control is exerted today by various regimes (France, Brazil) over the use of radios and satellite TV and/or Internet, that embody a freedom these regimes cannot tolerate. Poetry, verses and historical reports as the Iliad, Odysseus and Anabasis are initially not known. These works needed a simple alphabetic script together with a spirit of individuality to come to life. The ultimate step in simplification was to represent separately vowels and consonants of words in an alphabetic script. This required the inclination to think in a linear fashion and to have a script adaptable to the new method, such as the cuneiform script of the Sumerians, transformed by the Arameans, Phoenicians and Greeks.

To reach maturation, such an evolution of thought required a whole array of refined means that were provided by cultures developing outside the sphere of control of tyrants. The role of the Old High Cultures was to assimilate these means (script, argilous tablets, papyrus, paper) and divulge them over a large territory, thereby making them available and known to all, and perhaps exploited.

A symbiosis between Free Men and Old High Cultures on the fringes of which the Free Men dwelled was necessary for the appearance of Reason. The Greeks were free men composing several autonomous tribes (Athenians, Beotians, Spartans, Epirians etc.) calling themselves collectively Hellenes, who prospered on the fringes of the Assyrian and Persian empires. Latin Christendom was composed of free men assembled in several autonomous nations (Spaniards, Goths, Burgonds, Flemish, Saxons, Croats, Normen, Etruscans, Lombards, Franks, etc.) called collectively “Roumi”, i.e. Romans, by the empires (Byzantium, Islam, Ottoman) around which they lived. The Arabs who developed Islam were free tribesmen living on the borders of Byzantium and Persia.

The Athenians living on the fringes of the Persian empire succeeded first, followed by Arabs who lived on the fringes of the Roman and Byzantine empires. Both attempts floundered. The third attempt at logical reasoning was made by Latin Christianity, who drew on the whole of the various previous experiences and was successful.

References chapter 10.

2. G. Bazin: The loom of art. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1962

This entry was posted in 10. The Old World Empires. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.