Texts in Context:
The Age of Saturn

By Gabriel Blanchard

Disentangling traditional myth, archæological fact, and anthropological speculation is a tricky business, which—in a lucky break for historians—can be left to prehistorians.

Most of us are familiar with an assortment of creation myths. Hesiod relates in his Theogony how the gods arose out of Chaos in the beginning, and the long succession of wars by which Zeus came to rule creation. The Norse left us the Völuspá,* in which a sorceress recounts how the earth was created from the body of the giant Ymir: his bones became the mountains, his blood the ocean, and the realm of human habitation, Midgard, was made out of the giant’s eyebrows (obviously). Those who have dipped into the Enūma Eliš of ancient Sumer may be struck by parallels between this Norse giant and the sinister goddess Tiamat: she was a primordial sea-monster, defeated and slain by Marduk,** who used her ribs to create the vault of the sky.

Many such myths share a common thread: when human beings first arose, they were without toil or sorrow. The tale of the Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible is probably the most famous. The Roman poet Ovid, drawing on Hesiod’s Works and Days, detailed four successive ages: our own, the Age of Iron, which is warlike, avaricious, and has no reverence for the gods; the Age of Bronze, a thousand years before Ovid’s time, when half-divine heroes like Achilles and Orpheus walked the earth; before that, the Silver Age, when some of the gods still dwelt on earth, and men first learned the arts of agriculture and architecture; and furthest back of all, the Golden Age, when Saturn himself (the father of both gods and men) still dwelt on earth. There was no warfare then, no slavery, no miserable toil. The earth produced abundantly, and humanity simply ate of that produce and lived in contentment and peace.

But what has this got to do with history? These are stories—exceedingly few of them, if any, were ever meant to chronicle fact; there is probably nothing behind them. Humans are nostalgic creatures, if only because we begin life as children, with no concept of how much exertion goes into keeping us well cared for. What could be more natural than for us to project this onto humankind as a whole, in a past antedating all memory? Yet it is hard to keep the thought from one’s head: All the same—maybe …

This “maybe” does have at least one real kind of validity. That is, there was a human time before agriculture began: the Palæolithic, or Old Stone Age. As a matter of fact, this made up about 99.7% of the time the human race has been around, and lasted as late as about 10,000 BC.† It was around this time—give or take a few thousand years, and depending on the part of the world under discussion—that agriculture came into being. Seed grains had been eaten before then, but simply as and where they grew, plucked rather than reaped, without planning: that is, men lived off the earth’s bounty. The context of mythology usefully reminds us that humanity existed, and was civilized, before writing was invented. (Indeed, most of the things we find being talked about in the earliest forms of writing are, to all appearances, already ruinously old.) The Neolithic Revolution was the beginning of civilization as we know it. And the civilization we know is of course one of central planning, class hierarchy, appeasement of the gods through blood sacrifice, warfare, and slavery.

Statements are made so plainly and positively that men have hardly the moral courage to pause upon them ... The other day a scientific summary ... of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words "They wore no clothes." Not one reader in a hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had once been worn by people of whom everything has perished except a few chips of bone and stone. It was doubtless hoped that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet.

Now, many people know that the science of anthropology got off to, shall we say, a somewhat overconfident start—which could be said about a lot of things that got their start in the nineteenth century. However, its progress over the twentieth seems to have steadied the minds of anthropologists a bit. It is therefore possible to say, by inference though not by records, that we know a few things about the Neolithic Revolution. As just mentioned, it happened at slightly different times in different cradles of agriculture,‡ independently: by 9000 BC in the Fertile Crescent; by 7000 BC in China and New Guinea; around 5000 BC in central Mexico, sub-Saharan Africa, and the northern Andes; and some time after 4000 BC in what is now the eastern US. The Fertile Crescent likely inspired agriculture on the banks of the Nile, in the Indus Valley, and in the Mediterranean generally—whether in the form of colonists spreading to these areas, or in the sense of the native inhabitants of those places finding agriculture in the Crescent and carrying a cutting of the idea back with them in their minds.

What prompted the Neolithic Revolution is a harder question to answer; and just as the timing differed from here to there, it may not have been for the same reason everywhere. The earliest few instances could possibly have been in response to the Younger Dryas. This was a period of intense cold after the end of the Last Glacial Maximum twenty thousand years ago: somewhere roughly around 12,000 BC, having reached a peak only a little shy of today’s climate, temperatures sank again to what they had been during the ice age proper (at least in western Eurasia). Around 9,700 BC, temperatures rose again as the earth entered the Holocene epoch. This caused massive glacial melt and therefore worldwide flooding, an event known as meltwater pulse 1B. It’s very possible that this event stands behind the numberless traditions of a catastrophic deluge, from Alaska to Zanzibar.

The evidence we possess to date only shows that agriculture began not later than several centuries after the end of the Younger Dryas. That said, it would be highly unlikely for us to recover the very first evidence of agriculture, and it may go back much further. It may be that the disaster of the Younger Dryas itself and the invasion of the waters that followed convinced, or tempted, humanity to take its fate into its own hands, no longer taking what nature offered, but imposing order upon nature, according to human needs and human wills. An act, some may have felt, of gargantuan presumption! Certainly some peoples refused it (a fact explored at some length by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber in their 2021 book, The Dawn of Everything). Surely the old ways were better. No one could wrest divine authority or perpetual life from the earth, any more than one could ascend bodily into the heavens and crown oneself with stars.

But all this, as we discussed a couple of installments ago, is prehistory—or (if we allow this on the grounds that myths are, sometimes, a kind of record) proto-history at most. It is time to zero in on those arrogant would-be demigods who set up shop in the northeast of Africa and the extreme west of Asia.

Humans had already been making art for thousands of years, depicting real things in line and color on flat surfaces; indeed, they had been civilized enough to build megalithic structures like Göbekli Tepe and decorate them with animal motifs. A notion now arose in Sumer of using patterned pictures as a guide to say words—a bizarrely abstract idea of course, but it meant that the picture-maker could direct a picture-reader, even (in theory) one years later, to speak as he had thought. It may have seemed, when it was first imagined, like magic.

*Pronounced, roughly, as “-lü-spŏ” (see our handy pronunciation guide for details).
**Modern scholars believe that this was true only in late versions. Marduk was the patron deity of Babylon, and both city and deity were initially of little importance; Marduk took on higher status as the power of Babylon waxed (eventually becoming esteemed as the creator of humanity and the king of the Sumerian pantheon). Before this version of the story, Anu (the god of the heavens, equivalent to Ouranos where Marduk is equivalent to Zeus) is thought to have been the slayer of Tiamat.
†Here and throughout, the dating we offer represents the scholarly interpretation of the archæological evidence, e.g. radiocarbon dating; we are not hereby attempting to enter the debate on “Young Earth” creationism, theistic evolution, etc. (Even on that view, it is perfectly tenable that God created an earth that was, for lack of a better way to put it, “already old,” and that the data gleaned by the sciences about geologic history reflect this.) However, to explain and re-explain this every time it came up would make a tedious read, so we have decided simply to set down the consensus of scholars in the field, and recognize that our readers are perfectly capable of determining how far they accept it.
‡These are not quite the same as the “cradles of civilization,” namely the Chinese, Egyptian, Indic, Mesoamerican, Mesopotamian, and Peruvian. These involved not only the rise of agriculture, but urbanized settlements and some form of large-scale artificial control of water, whether for irrigation or sanitary purposes.

Gabriel I. M. Blanchard has worked for CLT since 2019, and serves as its editor at large, as well as being a proud uncle to seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might take an interest in some of our book and author profiles that go back to classical antiquity and further, such as those on the Epic of Gilgamesh, Hesiod, Confucius, Æschylus, and Hippocrates. Thank you for reading the CLT Journal.

Published on 26th February, 2024. Page image of The Fall of Man by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1530).

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