Environmental Wisdom Shown in Ancient Symbols

What we hold in common as a human species is the imaginative capacity embedded in our consciousness to use symbols that depict elemental forms of communication. The universality of ancient symbols is fascinating and, I suggest, significant today to help us restore – together as a human family – an environmentally sustainable planet.

Here is where media literacy meets ecological literacy. That is why the media literacy page on my website shows the Venus of Willendorf, a saucy-looking lady from the Upper Paleolithic era in Europe. She epitomizes, provocatively, the importance of awakening the feminine principle, most particularly in Euro-western culture today.

In this blog post, I want to identify her and introduce a brave and independent-thinking archeologist, whose still controversial interpretations of the `Venus figurines’ I will discuss in my next blog post.

Here, however, I want to point out why we need to question the intellectual disciplines of Western culture, not just popular media that addresses the present. In order to learn how to live on the earth more respectively, we also need to revisit how Western culture has characterized the past – namely, pre-history – which, in turn, influenced the destruction of Indigenous cultures from the beginning of colonization to the present.

Meanwhile, what I characterize as `awakening the feminine’ has been evident since the 1960s in the growing number of Euro-western individuals who have sought out spiritual teachings in Eastern and Indigenous cultures because of a human yearning for wholeness not readily accessible within our own Western culture.

Therein, I believe, resides the reason for the phenomenon of the `New Age’ movement that, sadly, tends to get misrepresented and trivialized. The regrettable reasons why include the exploitation of this profound human yearning by spiritual charlatans and related hucksters whose commercial exploitation reduced spiritual symbols into moneymaking commodities that distort and undermine their original higher purpose. (The New Age movement, similarly I suggest, was based upon higher intentions.)

At the same time, beginning in the 1960s, an incredible renaissance of North American Indigenous culture became evident, through the political and the artistic voices of new generations, strengthened by spiritual elders no longer imprisoned for practicing their spiritual beliefs, nor their traditional ceremonies outlawed.

No wonder the Indigenous people authentically living their spiritual traditions got really pissed off about cultural appropriation by the 1990s. I even got vilified for speaking out to support their right to protect the integrity of their spirituality – a story for another time.

For by the 1980s, their cultural renaissance had fully blossomed through contemporary expressions of the Indigenous spiritual ethos in visual, literary, and performing arts, followed by feature drama and documentary films created by Indigenous storytellers internationally.

I was privileged to witness this renaissance, and be a messenger as a non-Native journalist, since 1982, to communicate the significance, as much as the mastery, in the creative art of Canada’s Aboriginal people – First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. Those early years were an exciting time.

Even so, getting their creative talent recognized, in the mainstream institutions and popular media, was fraught with struggle. The irony was, until entrepreneurs figured out self-serving ways to make profits from it, contemporary Native imagery was seen by the mainstream art world as inferior to Euro-western art.

What soon became evident to me were the first clues of the cultural racism that I would be challenging, as a journalist and educational writer, henceforth, in every sector of mainstream North American society.

In the arts sector, the early wave of contemporary Aboriginal art was considered inferior to the Western tradition of `fine arts,’ because the latter were seen as rooted in the classical Greek and Roman civilizations. All Aboriginal visual arts, therefore, were demoted to `crafts,’ given their lesser valued and misunderstood `primitive’ origins outside of what Western culture identified as higher forms of civilization.

Always impressive to me in Indigenous art, however, – as a graduate from a `fine arts’ program in drawing, painting and stained glass – was the symbolism so visually and orally evocative in the paintings, the sculptures (demoted as `carvings’), the dance performances and the narrative theatrical plays of Native people.

Such symbols focused on interrelationships of human life with the worlds of Spirit and Nature, consistently. The intentionality of Aboriginal symbolism, in my mind, took the term `decorative art’ to a whole new, and higher, level.

Consider that pottery, even when produced by Euro-western creators, is referred to as a `decorative art’ or `craft,’ in the Western hierarchical scale of the arts, at least since the historic period of the European Renaissance. During that major historic shift, the role of the arts radically changed in European society.

Summing it up for brevity – writing with broad strokes here – the Renaissance looked back to the Graeco-Roman era and the longstanding influence of Christianity, in creating art targeted for the new and growing leisure classes. But, the original purpose of art images – imbued with symbols to remind us of our connections with Nature and Spirit – was tossed aside to create`art for art’s sake.’ Therein, the seeds were planted for the arts to be considered foremost as marketable commodities.

This observation eventually led me to investigate, and conclude, that what Euro-western people, systemically, inflicted upon Indigenous peoples was based upon a fractured consciousness. For what we (collectively) inflicted on people globally, we already had inflicted upon ourselves, through many centuries prior to colonization, as urbanized, hierarchical societies – namely, a shattered understanding of an integral human existence with the earth.

This integral understanding previously had been reinforced through spiritual belief and practice that expressed awareness and responsibility to respect, be grateful for, and take care of all forms of planetary life. In turn, meaningful symbols infused art forms, not only those used for rituals yet also in everyday objects.

What I propose, therefore, is the following. The hope and the transformation to live, once again, in a more respectful relationship with `all our relations’ includes paying attention to newer interpretations of ancient artefacts and their symbology. Similar to other sciences, anthropology and archeology continue to bring further revelations to public awareness, that deepen and expand human understanding about the existence of life.

The best thinkers and practitioners in all fields of knowledge question existing assumptions. In doing so, it appears to be inevitable for those at the cutting edge, of course, that their newer insights often are controversial and consequently meet a lot of resistance from peers.

Such explorers of human history demonstrate media literate skills. For what they do is interrogate not just who were the historic creators, in what circumstances, the purpose of their production, and for whom.

Yet, as well, these explorers interrogate the previous theories that arose from attempted answers to all of those questions and more. Equipped with critical thinking, they bring an open-mindedness to examining human-created artefacts that take us back to the earliest artistic expressions in the Upper Paleolithic era, for example, in Europe.

I focus on Europe here, because the message in this blog is the fact that Euro-western cultures, within their social structure, from the Upper Paleolithic through the Neolithic eras, show archeological evidence that matrifocal cultures existed. The feminine principle of consciousness, in other words, prevailed as a guiding force in human societies during certain historic periods.

A maverick archeologist, whose theories in identifying this feminine consciousness remained controversial throughout her professional life, was the late Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994). Despite her theories still being debated, she profoundly influenced the contemporary movement of matriarchal, goddess, and feminist studies.

The fracturing of this ancient holistic Euro-western consciousness is a story that has many chapters. What I want to emphasize here is the need to transcend the regrettable divide between Euro-western culture for so many centuries in philosophical conflict with the more holistic Eastern and Indigenous cultures. The latter two cultures kept their spiritual traditions more intact, in regard to an appreciation of the interrelatedness between Nature and Spirit.

Regardless, despite the naysayers, Euro-western culture can recover and piece together its own former holistic worldview, awakening an innate human consciousness grounded in the recognition of what sustains life. This possibility, moreover, resides in the consciousness of the entire human family.

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One Response to Environmental Wisdom Shown in Ancient Symbols

  1. JJ says:

    A very interesting read thank you. Women play a heavy part in out own Indigenous culture here in Australia as well. It was interesting to make the comparison with other ancient cultures and that esp of Indigenous cultures in Europe and Canada. Cheers, JJ

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