George Monbiot

The dominant beliefs of the past 2,000 years are the result of an ancient migration from soil to soil. Easter is one of those occasions on which human beings entertain a number of contradictory ideas. Christians celebrate a pagan fertility cult, while non-believers make their biannual journey to church. A society governed by science engages in the ritual sacrifice and homeopathic magic required to induce the earth to bear fruit. Why? The work of a soil geologist at the University of Oregon offers such a fascinating possible explanation of some of these contradictions. Professor Greg Retallack has spent much of the past few years taking soil samples from the sites of the temples of ancient Greece. There is a strong link between the identity of the god worshipped at a particular temple and the temple’s location. Where Artemis or Apollo were celebrated, the soil was of a kind called a lithic xerept, where montane scrub suitable only for nomadic herders grows. Nomads living on soils called xeralfs, by contrast, worshipped Hera and Hermes.

The gods of ancient Greece, Professor Retallack suggests, “came not from an imaginary poetic city on Mt Olympus, but personify ancient local lifestyles”. The ancients were worshipping their own means of subsistence. The Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity

and Islam — were constructed by recently settled nomads. These are people who were likely to have been making use of soils such as lithic xerepts and xeralfs. Nomads, being without permanent homes, have no local deities: most of them worship a single God of the heavens.

In the Bible, the nomads are God’s children, the city people his outcasts. The first city the Bible mentions was built by Cain, a tiller of the ground, who was cursed by God after murdering his nomad brother. The defining ecological image of the Pentateuch is that of the nomad Abraham, gazing down upon the plains, where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are burning. Thereafter, God’s relationship to the city becomes more equivocal. In Kings I we discover that the ark of the covenant is housed in “the city of David — Zion”. By Nehemiah’s time, Jerusalem become “the holy city”. But to Ezekiel it is a place of “lewdness” and “whoredoms”. This tension survives into the New Testament.

What happened between the time of Abraham and the time of Christ was that the nomads, having seized the fertile soils where the farmers dwelt, settled down. While they still looked back with longing upon the lives of their ancestors, their theology shifted to match their circumstances. With this shift came a belief in progress. The followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam see life not as an endless cycle of hubris and nemesis, but as a journey towards a moment of transformation. If you are constantly subject to the whims of the environment, as hunters and gatherers, nomads and primitive farmers are, an awareness of the cyclical nature of history is forced upon you. Your fortunes change with the seasons, the patterns of rainfall, the happenstances of ecology. Nomas, the Greek word from which nomad comes, means “the search for pasture”. The name recognises the fragility of the people’s existence. A belief in progress, by contrast, is possible only after you have developed secure means of storing crops for long periods, and diversified economy. The myth of the Fall is the story of hunters and gatherers exceeding their ecological limits. They ere forced out of Eden and into cultivation (Cain) and nomadism (Abel). But having conquered the fertile lands and developed an advanced agricultural economy, the former nomads who worshipped a single God were able, as technology improved, gradually to release themselves from some of the constraints of nature.

It is surely this release which permitted them to believe that the cycle of history need no longer apply: that the human story could instead be cumulative and progressive. From there it is a short step to the belief that history is moving towards a fixed point, when humans enjoy total victory over the material world, as the dead rise and live forever. If the myth of the Fall is the story of our subjection to biological realities, the myth of eternal life is the story of our escape from them. The first myth invokes the second. Is it difficult to see why this doctrine should be attractive to people still subject to the gruelling realities of nature? The Christian God would cure disease and even death, summon food out of thin air. With a handful of literate evangelists, the fantasy of material abandonment was able to conquer the world.

My untested hypothesis is as follows. The peculiarities of the Abrahamic religions — their astonishing success in colonising the world and their dangerous notion of progress — result from a marriage between the universal God of the nomads and the conditions which permitted cities to develop. The dominant beliefs of the past 2,000 years are the result of an ancient migration from soils such as xerepts and xeralfs to soils such as fluvents and rendolls.

At Easter, the Christian belief in a permanent resurrection is mixed up with the pagan belief in a perpetual cycle of temporary resurrection and death. In church we worship the Christian notion of progress, which has filtered into every aspect of our lives. But, amid the cracking of Easter eggs and the murmur of prayer, there can still be heard the small, faint voice which reminds us that our ecological hubris must eventually be greeted by nemesis. —The Guardian