The world as we understand it is based on cause and effect, logical thinking and scientific thought. This is the world that we have inherited from the Greeks and Romans, a world that makes perfect sense to all of us. This is a logical discourse that affects our perception of space and time.
This has not always been the case though. Before the Greeks and the Romans appeared and constructed their wonderful civilisations, there were other cultures who believed in a different discourse from the one we have, a mythic discourse. This discourse was found all over the world: the Ancient Egyptians in North Africa, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia or the Aztecs and the Incas in America believed in myth, not in logic.
These cultures, even though they had no connection with each other, shared a similar view about the cosmos. This cosmology in which they believed affected the way they thought, the way they structured their world, their religion, the concept they had of time and space.
To provide a picture of what I am talking about, I am going to look at a single case, the Ancient Egyptians. This was a civilisation that existed for more than three millennia in an area located in North East Africa, around the Nile River.
First of all, describing the geographical conditions of the area, to say that this civilisation flourished around the river Nile. This is a river which is very good for navigation, with calm waters. There are seven waterfalls, which are all found at the beginning of the river. The Egyptians inhabited an area that ran from the river mouth until the first waterfall.
The Nile provided a good amount of water flow all year round. It is a river with peculiar characteristics. It rises at certain times of the year, always on the same months. When it grows floods the surroundings and converts the land next to it into fertile ground, converting the area on an ideal place for agriculture.
The Nile is surrounded by desert. As we all know, the desert means tough living conditions and lack of water. Hence why Egyptians lived near the river. These conditions offered protection to Egyptians. The citizens did not had to worry much about other human groups as there were no civilisations around them. The desert was a protection for them, like a natural wall blocking other intruders from penetrating their land. There was not much rain, but the river waters provided enough water for them to live.
All these characteristics made the life cycle in Egypt stable. There was certainty that the river flood in certain times of the year and that this flooding converted its land into fertile plains, giving the opportunity for Egyptians to live from agriculture. The river was also home to animal life, which could be hunted and fished.
Certainly these circumstances created in Egyptians a sense of belonging, of attachment to that wonderful land. They became part of the area they inhabited. The city where they lived, the area where they had their crops was essential for their existence. This area where they settled was therefore ordered. It was their little world, their cosmos.This contrasted with the desert, the outside, which was seen as chaos, a place in which life was not possible.
Bearing in mind these conditions where they lived and worked the land, we are able to better understand their mind set. But there is much more to comprehend than what weather or geographical conditions tell us. As I said, they experienced the area where they lived as being ordered. This was the world they knew. How could those living conditions have being constructed? How could such perfection have been achieved? This could have only been achieved by an entity of such power, of such perfection. This had to be a divine creation.
And, when and how this creation could have happened? This universe could only have been created by Gods. They were entities of magical powers. They were the only ones able to achieve such perfection. The time when it was achieved was a primeval time, a time of creation. Before the primeval time, everything was chaos, an immense sea of no life. Then, from a divine act out of this sea of chaos flourished a land of life. A land of order that started at a specific time, brought to life by Gods. This world created was an image of the universe. It was a cosmos reflecting the Universe on earth.
This world, this cosmos, was generated by the Gods. Gods were responsible for its creation and also for its maintenance. This world was based on a life cycle which was repeating itself, regenerating continuously. Years passed and the crops flourished, grown, matured and died. There was always the same life cycle which started and finished, regenerating, repeating itself, again and again. Order was in conflict with chaos, and gods were responsible for maintaining the balance and the order on earth. Hence why man had to work for the happiness of the Gods. Food offerings or sacrifices were continuously given to the Gods.
The Egyptian case was atypical though. They believed their Pharaoh was a God, a God brought up on earth to maintain the order and stability within the Universe. By having a God amongst them Egyptians had confidence for their survival. They were confident of knowing they had a God alongside them. A figure as divine and powerful as those Gods that created life on earth. The same confidence they had of knowing that the Nile would flood every year and would convert the surroundings into fertile lands for agriculture.
All the festivities they were celebrating, all the rituals they were performing, had a direct relation with this cosmology that they believed on, with this eternal return of the life cycle, this return to the primeval time, the time when order was created. The celebrations were aiming at the regeneration of the time. Therefore, time was seen as a repetition of a life cycle, a continuous return to a primeval time.
But not only time was regenerated. Space was also sacred and needed to be regenerated. It was a space of divine construction, a land order created at a primeval time by the Gods. Offerings and sacrifices were given to them in exchange for the land received. Mankind had the opportunity to benefit from the fruits that flourished on this fertile land. Reciprocity was required. Sacrifices were intended for the regeneration of the land.
As I mentioned already, Egyptians created a world that reflected the Universe. They believed that their living space had to reflect the cosmos. All the buildings they made were intended to reflect that Universe: the sun, the moon, the stars…
The land needed to be regenerated, year after year. Just as a seed flourishes when planted in the ground and then dies, growing back again next year. Sacrifices to the land brought regeneration of the land. Sacrifices were necessary to generate life. Death was necessary for life regeneration.
The life cycle repeated continuously. After Nile floods Egyptians were able to plant their crops. Then seeds flourished and after some time crops became ready to be harvested. Next step was death and the ground becoming infertile. This lasted until the next river flooding. A repetition of this eternal cycle happened again and again. Sacrifices had to be made to have this regeneration every year. Offering sacrifices to the Gods were necessary, as without them life was not going to be regenerated. It was necessary for the survival of the land, for the survival of the human species.
The eternal return of the life cycle and the particular view of the space and time was part of Egyptian culture. However, this civilisation is just an example of how a culture which lived from agriculture, organised their world to make sense to the conditions in which they lived. This case was atypical and had its own peculiarities, but had lots in common with other cultures and in all of them had to do with agriculture, with a sense of belonging to the land.
The beginnings of agriculture started around 10,000 years BC and have continued until our days. A lot of different civilisations existed since then and in various geographical areas. China, India, Mesopotamia, North Africa or South America give evidence of agricultural societies flourished.
I can´t stop thinking that the change from nomadism to agriculture resulted in a huge change of mankind mind thinking. That the reason why this myth discourse is found in most societies for millennia and all around the world is due to the move to agriculture.
The concept of time and space changed from that moment onwards. By having groups of humans settling down in an area, who started having a sense of belonging to a specific geographical area made them believe on the perfection of the landscape where they lived. They started interpreting the natural life cycle. Their crops flourishing, growing, maturing. This sense of belonging, this permanent stay in one area changed human world view forever.
Looking at the concept of time and space, one can only imagine how agricultural civilisations tried to understand the right time for harvesting and cultivation. They look at the sky, the movement of the planets, the sun, the moon, and interpreted it as a life cycle. A cycle that returned year after year. The Eternal Return.
Image taken from http://www.myartprints.co.uk .
Based on the book “The Myth of the Eternal Return” by Mircea Eliade.