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Thinking Out Loud

Twilights and Dawns of Gods

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 01, 2016

TwilightsOnce upon a time long long ago, something happened that nobody expected. The world stopped working properly. It was the summer of 1159 BC. Well, it would have been summer, except summer never really came. The priests went through all the usual rituals. The great stones all stood waiting, lined up with the stars like always, ready for the sun to grace the people with its warmth. The invocations were spoken by the shamans. But the summer sun refused to brighten the skies or ripen the grains and other crops. And, stunted, they withered. Summer never came. And the same thing happened for eighteen years, virtually a full human generation.

This story was not handed down in ancient texts, but lay encoded in tree rings long preserved in an Irish peat bog until unlocked by dendrochronologists like Professor Michael Baillie of Queen's University, Belfast. Reflecting on an environmental catastrophe of biblical proportions, he says: "Imagine what eighteen years of failed harvests would do to any civilization. It would pretty much wipe out any agricultural group." Carmel McCaffrey (a lecturer on Irish history and language at Johns Hopkins University) and Leo Eaton (a film producer) observe that this environmental crisis precipitated upheaval in every known society.

"The date suggested for the fall of Homeric Troy, the collapse of Mycenae, and the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages is close to 1159 BC. In the same period the Hittite Empire of Anatolia ended in rebellion and economic chaos while the Babylonian poems, inscribed on clay tablets, speak of abandonment by the gods. Egypt was almost overrun by an invasion of sea peoples, nations were on the move, and in distant China terrible events heralded the fall of the mighty Shang dynasty. All these events took place in the mid-twelfth century." [McCaffrey and Eaton, In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic a Times to the Coming of the English (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), 38-41.]

A variety of explanations have been advanced to explain what happened (volcanic eruptions, for example, which flooded the atmosphere with ashy clouds shutting out the sun), but I would like to reflect on one small slice of the social effects. During this period of stress, according to the scholars who looked primarily at Irish history, the society became much more militaristic and much more religious. Indeed, a warrior aristocracy arose in Ireland in this period, and religious practices to appease "the gods of the underworld" seem to have intensified. In an interview McCaffrey and Eaton conducted with Richard Warner, curator of antiquities at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Warner explained that, as in other times of social stress when people become more warlike and religious, the Irish in the twelfth century BC began to build huge fortifications defending their scarce resources, and they attempted to satisfy those gods who lived in bodies of water and who were believed to be the source of the catastrophic weather. (McCaffrey and Eaton, Ancient Ireland, 42-43.)

Place your mental page marker here for just a moment, if you will.

If you have ever traversed ancient landscapes in Europe, Africa or Asia, surely one of the most remarkable experiences is viewing the religious remains of vastly different ages cheek-by-jowl. There's one particular valley  (of which I've written in another context) in Britain where Stone Age religious sites dating from sometime after the last Ice Age stand near structures built hundreds, even thousands, of years later. There have been people living and worshiping in that landscape for thousands of years, perhaps even longer. The monuments they left have been used and lost, adapted for new uses and adapted in the name of a variety of gods, by a people who have lived there over the millennia. Indeed, in the case of the valley I'm thinking of, the best vantage point to see the sweep of the valley is in the burial ground beside the modern church (dating from just after the Reformation) which stands on the site of prior Christian churches dating back to a preaching cross erected long before St. Augustine "brought" Christianity to Britain. People have lived and worshiped in that particular place for nearly 10,000 years through several different religions.

"What is your point?" you may well be asking.

Perspective, historical perspective, is hard to come by among a people whose vision is limited by their lifetime much less by those who are unconcerned about anything that happened last year. Yet, historical perspective is one of the most valuable assets for anyone hoping to combat the enervating, crippling anxiety of our age. God is up to grand things on a grand scale, "mighty acts," as the great A.B. Rhodes said. And God does not get smaller the more we know. Indeed, the opposite is true. The more we know, the bigger God and God's world and God's universe become. Feeling small can be a big gift, especially when it comes to gaining a true sense of proportion regarding our worries about the church these days.

There’s something else we may learn from what happened in 1159 BC. Fear makes a poor tutor. What we tend to learn from fear is often counter-productive, at best, and may be profoundly destructive. It is worth remembering that when a society disintegrates (whatever the cause), when trust in others is lost and confidence in institutional structures erodes, the results are seldom good. At such times in history, almost inevitably, violence increases as social ties unravel. People may get more religious in such times; that doesn’t mean they get better or more peaceful.

Maybe it makes a lot more sense to invest ourselves in the rebuilding of trust and of institutional structures in stressful times, rather than to participate in distrust and cynicism.

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