“Men sailing on their ego trips/Blast off on their space ships,” sang Bob Marley in So Much Trouble. If he had stopped there, the words would have been titillating. But he went on, “Million miles from reality/no care for you no care for me,” and so began approaching the profound.
The USA blasting a spy satellite out of the sky simultaneously with a lunar eclipse, brings the song’s metaphors to the fore and recalls debates on religion, god and human interrelationships. In the Persian Gulf United Arab Emirates, the Burj Dubai stretches towards the heavens evoking memories of the tower of Babel legend.
Meantime, in Guyana, Haiti and Jamaica, where voodoo, the Akan sky god Ananse and Ras Tafari contend with Christianity for emotional dominance as the economies shrink, unintelligible bloodletting is the prevailing social concern.
Since ancient times different groups have created the myths they use to define their existence. September 11, 2001 (9/11) and the ensuing war in Afghanistan presents a contest between the realities spawned by two of the world’s great mythological systems.
While on the surface it is physical aggression for political and economic space, the substantive war is for the minds of the people.
Yes, the United States’ position is that it is spreading democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, interpreted by some as part of an open economic aggression agenda. But the reality is that the attitude to wealth and its acquisition are part of a system of beliefs and not just propelled by a materialistic yen for more set in motion by abstract economic forces.
Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth (Random House/Knopf Canada) provides convincing arguments that our myths of creation and our relationship to our surroundings are basic factors in how we view ourselves and others: our sacred and profane, morality and immorality, and our respect or lack thereof for life.
With the widening divide between the secular and the divine in the contemporary Western dominated world, Armstrong argues that the artist (musician, poet, novelist etc) has having taken over the roles of the shamans and priests of previous epochs and civilizations.
“If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage, from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another,” she writes. “A novel like a myth teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”
While the West and its modernity have been built on logic (that purified much of the religious myth with Reason), the growth of urbanization, science, industrialization and the reinvestment of capital, the new civilization has presented some of history’s most barbaric acts in the past century: Two world wars, Franco, Hitler, and the atomic bombing of Japan, 9/11, Iraq.
With god far away in the sky, life is no longer a daily religious ritual and despite human morality, life has lost its sacredness. This is the scenario in Western developed societies. What of the sea of humanity in the developing world?
Armstrong: “As early as the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place. We are seeing a similar anomie today in developing countries that are still in the earlier stages of modernisation.”
The predominantly west African population of the Caribbean arrived in the area as enslaved people, wrung from their land and equally subjected to the purging of their psyche of all their mythic and religious conceptions. But the psychic purging was not complete, with retentions such as Anancy the cunning spider remaining in folk lore to emerge as weapons in the fight against the slave establishment. And for much of their early history in the Caribbean no attempt was made to Christianise the Africans or creoles to fill the religious void.
When the church finally attempted to reach the enslaved in the eighteenth century it was to ensure their success in a future kingdom, not to cater to their needs in this life.
French Catholicism, Anglicanism and the traditional protestant denominations have not been creolised sufficiently even today when the former slaves are now the rulers of the Caribbean societies. Only recently in Jamaica did Anglican priest the Rev. Ernle Gordon, introduce Rasta-based music into church liturgy.
Ras Tafari emerged as an indigenous expression, applying the biblical Revelation myth to the contemporary world to create a new type of Christianity, not averse to personal rights and freedoms and acquiring wealth in the here and now.
Ras Tafari like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in Armstrong’s words, “believe that their god is active in history and can be experienced in actual events in this world.”
It is contended that Anancy still lives across the Caribbean and especially so in Jamaica.
“the spider-figure provides images of memory and survival, compromise and obstinacy, past and present, that are directly related to a wider process of creolization which is crucial to the formation and understanding of the West Indian cultural heritage,” wrote Dr. Rebecca Tortello, in a historical article for the Gleaner newspaper.
She also acknowledges that “in popular theatre, in song and dance and in popular dialect … the word ‘anancy’ can be used instead of ‘ginnal’ to mean someone who is slightly devious or uses wit to outsmart others.”
Anancyism may provide some folkloric value in the collective memory but its value in instilling reverence or the sacred is questionable in the Caribbean context.
Logos is the dominant aspect of Western culture – which shoots satellites from the sky, allegedly to send messages to their perceived enemies about their military capability; which builds warships from the steel rubble of the World Trade Center, that the workers treated with “reverence usually accorded to religious relics”.
This logos, Armstrong writes, “constantly looks ahead to achieve greater control over our environment or to discover something fresh.”
With their populations highly religious in the traditional sense, Guyana, Haiti and Jamaica remain conundrums where sacred myth prevails alongside the greatest profanity of murder in conjunction with social and economic underdevelopment. It would seem folly therefore to impose a logic atop this scenario where it has failed to create humaneness in the West.
Nevertheless, although gods often die with the demise of myth, with the result that life looses its sanctity, maybe some Caribbean sacred cows need to be loaded into spaceships targeted for lunar orbit as religiosity is yet to deliver much good.