Happy Lammas, Slaves, Now Get to Work

Lammas season[1]Northern Hemisphere has come, which means bloggers and social media users posting their photos of amber waves of grain. But there is dark side to our love of grain. It lies at the root of many evils: deforestation, environmental damage, slavery around the world, top-down imperial bureaucracies, epidemics, poor nutrition . . . pretty much everything that makes us human, right?

Located in what is now Syria, Ebla was an important city-state of the Bronze Age Middle East. [2]Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.

The photo shows 15 grinding stones — “querns” is an old medieval term. Maybe there were more. A woman knelt in front of every one. Maybe she was a palace slave — or an orphan, a foundling, or a widow with no family —someone of low status, however you look at it.

Back and forth she worked the upper stone, turning wheat into flour to make the bread. Bread for the king, bread for the royal court, bread for the temple priests and priestesses, bread for the royal guardsmen.

Archaeologists today can look at her toe bones, how they were shaped by kneeling for long hours at the grindstone.

Woman at a quern, drawing by J. Sylvia. [3]Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

This is not a blog post about the Paleo diet; in fact, before there were towns, people were harvesting wild grasses along with many other things.

There is a version of human prehistory what “most of us (I include myself here) have unreflexively inherited,” writes Yale political scientist James Scott in his recent book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. In this “narrative of progress, “agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-crops, on the other hand, were the origin and generator of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws.”

Doesn’t this remind you of another “narrative of progress,” in which anarchic animism and shamanism were replaced by polytheism and then by a more pure monotheism — and then by atheism, particularly if you are a Marxist.

In chapters covering domesticaion, epidemics, slavery, war, barbarian-city rellationships, environmental destruction, and the fragility of city-states, Scott draws on examples from Bronze Age Egypt, Mespotamia, China, and other areas to contend that “the standard narrative” is wrong to suggest that people chose sedentary town life voluntarily.  Yet archaeologists and historians pay more attention to the sites with stone ruins and writing than to those without, even though the early city-states represented only a tiny fraction of the Earth’s population.

I can’t help but see a parallel to the way that the study of religion focuses on large, text-oriented religious organizations and on the interplay of specialists within them rather than on the “lived religion” and the personal spiritual experiences of average people.

The “standard narrative,” Scott writes, holds that it is “nconceivable that the ‘civilized’ could ever revert to primitivism “— yet it happpened again and again. People often fled rather than be forcibly incorporated into city-states: “Fixed settlement and plough agriculture were necessary to state-making, but they were just part of a large array of livelihood options not be taken up or abandoned as conditions changed.”

Maybe being “spiritual but not religious” is like slipping past the royal guardsmen to take up a life of hunting, gathering, and easy feral agriculture once again.

Notes

Notes
1 Northern Hemisphere
2 Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.
3 Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

Animism in the Kitchen

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

I was watching the cooking show Simply Ming on Friday, which is hosted by Boston chef Ming Tsai. He always has a guest chef — or occasionally his parents, who started him on his career — and in this episode, his guest was a Chicagoan (via Texas), Sarah Grueneberg.

She is showing him how to make the pasta dough for Tortilli Verdi, “her restaurant Monteverde’s signature dish,” and at one point she says something like, “The pasta knows when you’re afraid.”

Oh no, I thought, not dough too! It’s alive in a yeasty sense, of course but it can sense your fear? Ah, the animist world —so complicated! I reckon that is why we like it.

Being a Solitary Pagan Does Not Mean that You Celebrate Alone

They’re putting on a Mabon festival, so why not go to it? (Photo: Colorado.com)

If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, the fall equinox (Mabon) is nearly upon us — 1:54 a.m. Universal (Greenwich) Time on Sunday the 23rd. For North Americans, that is Saturday evening.

What will you do if you are a solitary Pagan? At Under the Ancient Oaks, John Beckett suggests, for example, slicing open an apple and contemplating the pentagram concealed in its inner structure.

Which sounds very sensitive and contemplative  . . . and lonely and depressing.

John is a smart guy and a good writer, but there is another option. Now, like Samhain and Yule, is one time when the whole society is celebrating — or at enough of them that you can ride the energy that is out there in the polis.[1]A city-state, or a body of citizens. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polis.

Festivals! All around you are harvest festivals. I wrote once about attending the nearest winery festival — it was a good time.

I don’t see Mabon as a time for quiet contemplation. The season’s energy is “outer,” not “inner.” Eat, drink, and celebrate the turning of the Wheel!

Come Saturday, M. and I will be at the El Pueblo Museum farmers market, just below the bottom edge of the photo — and then we will have to visit some booths and listen to music. And buy some fire-roasted Pueblo chile peppers — that is a sacred obligation.

Maybe I can slice one open and contemplate it, before it it is chopped and tossed into the skillet.

Happy Mabon! (Or to the people that you meet, “Happy equinox!”)

Notes

Notes
1 A city-state, or a body of citizens. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polis.

Last Chance for Chiles


Saturday the 14th — the last chance to eat some chile colorado before heading east for New England cooking. (Tres Margaritas, Pueblo.).

But . . . today’s Amtrak breakfast menu featured a quesadilla of sorts, making that the first time that I had been served green chiles on the train.

Pagan Basics: How You Talk to Your Food, How You are Buried, and Other Linkage

Graves in the necropolist of Bouc-Bel-Air (Bernard Sillano, Inrap).

The slow abandonment of Pagan religion might be reflected in burials from early medieval France. “Within some of the tombs, the archaeologists discovered objects that suggest the persistence of pagan rites, even though Christianity was becoming more prevalent.” None of the articles that I have read give dates for these burials, so I am guessing they were from earlier than 1000 CE.

Women like the witch archetype because she is powerful. “On some level, all of the contemporary trappings of witchiness tap into that desire to feel powerful.”

Now you know. I suppose that it had to be said, and that my readers are mature enough to deal with this knowledge.

• Be buried in the Neolithic way so that your descendants may venerate you properly. It’s now possible in Britain.

She was a Celtic warrior-woman, in a sense — but not in Britain, Ireland, or Gaul.

“Animism at the Dinner Table.” From Sarah Lawless’ blog — really, this is the basic basic level of a Pagan life. It is more important than pantheons, Lore, texts, dressing up like the ancestors and all the stuff that people get worked up about.

What if we didn’t strive to be like the ancients, whose true ways are long lost and whose skills are beyond many of us at this time, but instead decided to bring the philosophy of animism to the dinner table? What would it look like? To be honest, it would look foolish to an outsider as it would involve talking to plants and animals, talking to our food sources, as if they were sentient and could understand us. Most of the old prayers collected as folklore weren’t really prayers at all, they were people talking to plants and to wild spirits.

Read the rest.

Science Cannot Explain Me . . .

Sam Wo Restaurant, formerly in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Inside Scoop SF)

. . . or any other left-handed person. Are we “damaged”? Genetically different? Who knows?

When I was a student at Reed College, we often fled south to San Francisco at spring break or other times, “itching to get away from Portland, Oregon.”

And one day five Reedies squeezed into a booth at the late, legendary Sam Wo Restaurant in Chinatown, only to find that we were all left-handed. Make of that what you will.

(However, in the interest of manners, I use a knife and fork left-handed and chopsticks right-handed.)

Hail, Caffeina, Goddess of Health!


A little idol like this one, purchased at the Nashville Parthenon* gift shop, sits on my bookshelf. Truly, Caffeina rewards her followers, as this article in The Atlantic notes:

But that caffeine is only mechanism behind coffee’s health effects is supported by a small study of 554 Japanese adults from October that looked at coffee and green tea drinking habits in relation to the bundle of risk factors for coronary artery disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes known together as metabolic syndrome. Only coffee — not tea — was associated with reduced risk, mostly because of dramatic reductions observed in serum triglyceride levels.

So aside from caffeine, just what are you getting in a cup, or two, or six? Thousands of mostly understudied chemicals that contribute to flavor and aroma, including plant phenols, chlorogenic acids, and quinides, all of which function as antioxidents. Diterpenoids in unfiltered coffee may raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. And, okay, there’s also ash which, to be fair, is no more healthful than you would think — though it certainly isn’t bad for you.

* Is it a functioning Pagan shrine? You bet it is.

Eating Tomatoes Makes You a Christian

Salafist Muslims proclaim that eating tomatoes might lead you down the false path to Christianity.

The group posted a photo on its page of a tomato – which appears to reveal the shape of a cross after being cut in half – along with the message: “Eating tomatoes is forbidden because they are Christian. [The tomato] praises the cross instead of Allah and says that Allah is three (a reference to the Trinity).

[God help us]. I implore you to spread this photo because there is a sister from Palestine who saw the prophet of Allah [Mohammad] in a vision and he was crying, warning his nation against eating them [tomatoes]. If you don’t spread this [message], know that it is the devil who stopped you.”

Silly fundamentalists. Eating tomatoes will lead you to worship Coatlicue.