The Great Historical Transitions of Climate Cultures

3.1. Historical human cultures, between fiction and knowledge of natural risks

The trophic model formalizes environmental changes: the total biomass, or natural product, underwent recessive phases, called cold or dry weathering. Geologists have defined the Quaternary (the last 1.7 million years) on the basis of this double abrasive action, either by cold and glaciers or by aridity and desertification. However, the trophic model or other utilitarian approaches remain powerless to explain the emergence of human cultures and the arts: they fully emerged during the 17th glaciation, and therefore after a large number of climate changes producing cold and dry weathering.

Changes in the environment encouraged knowledge as part of cultural adaptation. Faced with the inadequacy of utilitarian models, it was necessary to define a spiritual model of production and access to knowledge, according to Georges Bataille’s book on Lascaux [BAT 55]. However, this model requires a revision, which Michel Foucault began working on. A new spiritual model can be defined based on Michel Foucault’s book on The Hermeneutics of the Subject [FOU 01b]. The spiritualized process of knowledge is found in two main forms, Eros and Askêsis, mystical and ascetic. Aristotle was the only philosopher to detach himself from a spiritualized process of accessing the truth. He did this by using logical methods of comparison. In the list of major cultural transformations in Jaspers-Lambert’s work, this decrease in the requirements for access to knowledge was achieved with the generalization of print. The introduction of print was carried out in conjunction with knowledge acquisition processes similar to those that are still in force today, logical and mathematical methodologies, school and university courses punctuated by written tests. The first xylographic reproductions along the Silk Road were more or less contemporary with the distinction introduced by the Tang emperors between diviners and doctors, and the organization of competitions for access to administrative functions in the form of a composition written by student candidates. Foucault insisted on the singular status of Aristotle, marking rather a beginning than a great cultural break, the other philosophical currents remaining faithful to a spiritualized process of access to knowledge [01b].

Table 3.1. Climate change and the “costs” of access and knowledge production

  Middle Paleolithic Upper Paleolithic Mesolithic Neolithic Birth of writing Zoroastrian reform Print
Demand for adaptive knowledge High Very high Very high Low Very low Very low Very low
Trend in knowledge “costs” Increase
Knowledge offer Spiritualized art Rise of asceticism Affirmation of sacrifice Ritualization Polytheism Limitation of sacrifices Academic knowledge and education

Bataille presented the transition from art formation to the Upper Paleolithic in the form of the arrival of a new leisure class. The Neanderthals, in accordance with Abbé Breuil’s utilitarian approach, remained a humanity locked in work: Askêsis first, then Eros would have come. The Ferrassie site of isotopic stage 4 (a cold period) is composed of eight graves of H. neanderthalensis. It was excavated from 1909 onwards. The burials bear witness to singular features, for example, in tomb 6, a funerary slab decorated with cups. Other artistic interventions were made, different for each tomb. Tomb 1 is that of an elderly man, whose teeth are marked by the work of leather. Today, it is considered that, as Jean Clottes [CLO 11] concludes, anatomically modern and Neanderthal humans were spiritual. They implemented “expensive” knowledge procedures, as they were demanding in terms of selftransformation to produce knowledge and art. The differences noted between anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals in isotopic stage 4 are those of characteristics of their artistic production: the anatomically modern humans of the Diepkoof shelter reproduced in large numbers the same figurative incized pattern on ostrich eggs used as gourds. Unique installations were created by Homo neanderthalensis, a translation of emotion and attachment through symbols, as is the case for the tomb of a 3-year-old child, tomb 6 of La Ferrassie. The most “industrial” of the two were undoubtedly the anatomically modern humans, since they produced, at the same time, in series, a utilitarian object with a figurative decorative motif.


Figure 3.1. The forms of dragon representation according to cultures

The Jaspers-Lambert’s list indicates conditions for the realization of a human life. Among the elements in this list, the changes are those of a reduction in the “costs” of access and production of knowledge. As great mutilations were necessary to access knowledge in a society based on collective rituals and transfers of mutilations to the sacrificed, it is understandable that there was a reduction in the “cost” of access to knowledge after the transition from Paleolithic societies to Neolithic societies. The transition from the Zoroastrian reform was that of a simplification of rituals into a declared program for the exit of sacrificial hecatombs. Finally, the transition to print further reduced production and access to knowledge costs.

In summary, the increase in climate volatility was accompanied by an increase in the “costs” of access to and production of knowledge, its decrease, and a downward trend in these same “costs” (see Table 3.1).

3.2. Water, a historical problem, from Mesoamerica to Africa

Water is a major link between human cultures and climate. For climatology, modeling issues focus on understanding the interactions between temperature variations and rainfall variations [KAN 19]. Abundant monsoons in Africa that bring the two Sahelian boundaries closer together can bring a green Sahara, as was the case in the Holocene climatic optimum. Unfortunately, the paleoclimatology of monsoons indicates that their duration when exceptional in intensity tends to decrease. For the historical period, the irregularities of the monsoon regimes could easily be linked to peasant revolts [ZHA 08]. The natural product decreased, so the farmer was dissatisfied. These were strong links, valid for both temperate and tropical areas, as shown by the similar periodization highlighted by climate history work for Europe, Mesoamerica and Asia [LER 09]. A sequence of empire endings in different parts of the globe can be dated back to certain Chinese Empire dynasty endings: the end of the Tang (disappeared in 907), Yuan (1367) and Ming empires (1644), the latter with the most pronounced rainfall decrease [ZHA 08]. In Mesoamerica, the first climatic event corresponded to that of the end of the Mayan classical period, the second to the famine that led to the Aztec Flower War. In Europe, the Tang event corresponds to the end of the Carolingian Empire, the Yuan event, the Middle Ages crisis, and the Ming event, the Little European Ice Age (see Figure 6.1).

The discussion of whether priority in the family tree of water myths should be given either to the dragon or to the flood comes from the theories put forward by Michaël Witzel [WIT 08; WIT 12]. The dragon is said to be of Paleolithic origin, as is the flood. The discussion from Witzel focuses on the details of the sequence of emergence of these two mythological complexes, which intersect around the theme of water. A new measurement campaign on the Maros cave (in present-day Indonesia) has pushed back the age of the paintings in this cave, now considered older than those in the Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave. The Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave’s therimeteor is composed of a large mega deer and a volcanic Strombolian phase, while the Maros’ is composed of a babirusa from Sulawesi and a flood. Witzel’s initial approach is based on the phylogeny of myths and tales, based on a hypothesis of diffusion and a model of transformation of myths of the punctuated equilibrium type (myths remain stable for a very long time, but undergo sudden changes). Witzel does not base his work on archaeological data, considering them tainted by a “pessimistic” dating bias: for example, the myths of dragons, beasts and gluttonous characters have widespread dated regional frameworks of representations in wall art, between the Upper Paleolithic and the Neolithic. The African version of the myth of a gluttonous character, that of a giant squash that swallows everything and is stopped by a rain master in the form of a ram, can be precisely dated back to the Neolithic disappearance of the green Sahara, which was accompanied by swirls of dust dissipated by rain, a date confirmed by Saharan rock paintings representing a ram with horns in the shape of swirls [LEQ 17]. The myth of the gluttonous character is certainly well dated by archaeological evidence, but it is probably late, because the disappearance of the green Sahara can be interpreted in some other major myths. There is, for example, a Sahelian version of the dragon slayer with a dragon-dust vortex. The archaeological dating is therefore that of a cautious accounting, with a possible gap of dates rejuvenating a very old myth, as probably is the myth of the swallower-regurgitator. Spatial dating in Australia–New Guinea using a phylogenetic approach indicates that the water-skin dragon, which then takes the widespread form of the rainbow snake, probably arrived later than the dragon-swallower-regurgitator. In the oldest forms of dragons, genealogy would thus have succeeded a therimeteor, the rainbow snake, which has a composition characteristic of the Upper Paleolithic, to an older myth of the dragon swallower-regurgitator.

3.2.1. Human cultures facing floods

Dragons and floods have an attraction for large rivers. When there is dense forest cover, the possible circulation is done in a privileged way by following rivers and lakes. Let us recall that we use Witzel 1 or W1 to refer to the culture of anatomically modern humans prior to 100 ka before leaving Africa and the Middle East; W2 for the culture exiting Africa which follows the path along the Indian Ocean and stretches to present-day Australia; and W3 for the circumpolar period, anatomically modern humans following the large ice sheets of the Northern Hemisphere, and developing a more specialized culture around cold peaks. W1 and W2 cultures spread through circulation in open spaces, along coasts or along large rivers through dense forests. The circulation of W3 cultured humans occurred according to the same modes, but in colder environments, particularly on steppes with low snow cover where herds of large herbivores moved. In these cold environments, most of the species of megafauna animals that supported dragon representations did not exist, such as large snakes or crocodiles. The large snakes that sometimes regurgitate large prey that they cannot digest are endemic to tropical areas such as parts of Africa, Amazonia, and jungles of South Asia and Australia. The W3 culture, as well as many other cultures that did not have an endemic snake species at their disposal, borrowed dragon elements from small animals, such as the giant snail of the Shipibos of Upper Amazonia, or the Ubi beaver of the Hurons, or even from microfauna: butterfly, mane worms and other insects. It is difficult to share between W1 and W2 cultures, while the separation between W3 and W1 + W2 is easier, if only because of these simple differences between the different animal kingdoms. In addition, archaeological sites with figurative representations are exceptional for the W1 and W2 cultures (Blombos and the Diepkoof shelter in present-day South Africa); they become abundant, moreover with a very rich iconography, for the W3 culture.

Diluvian myths are less scattered throughout the world: 2/3 in a paving of the world in 50 cultural zones, against 3/4 for a single version of the myth of the dragon skinned by a hunter, the dragon slayer. In a simplified paving in six parts based on the distributions in Figures 2.22.4, the area with the highest density of myths of the “old” dragons (the water skin and the swallower) is Africa, that of the high density of the dragon slayer is Central Europe. Two areas with large regular monsoons coincided with the high densities of a myth of the end of the world flood, Southeast Asia and the forest areas of Central America and the Amazon. The floodwaters of creation were in the north as well as throughout Asia, as indicated by the Maros site [AUB 14].

The presence of a collective eschatology, that of a universal flood, i.e. that the waters cover the whole Earth, is suspected as early as W2. The main argument is only indirect. The absence of collective eschatology in African myths makes it very unlikely that there was a myth of a universal flood in W1. This collective eschatology was the result of the meeting of anatomically modern humans with regular and abundant monsoons on the journey of the W2 culture from Africa to Oceania, via India. The volatility of monsoon intensities is higher in Africa, and this more irregular rainfall pattern would have thwarted the formation of a culture that included an end of the world in a massive flood.

The comparison between the two therimeteors of the Chauvet Pont d'Arc and Maros caves can be part of the broad lines of the relative distributions of dragons and floods. A line of force in the spatial distribution of floods follows the periphery of the Pacific Ocean, while dragons have flourished in an area associating Africa and Europe. The two therimeteors, deer and volcano for the Chauvet Pont d'Arc cave, suidae and a large volume of water for the Maros cave, are based on the same mythological structure: they are animals linked to the water by their swampy and muddy biotope, which played a creative role in bringing the Earth into being. Art becomes part of the environment through the representation associating an element of the megafauna and a natural phenomenon. The Irish elk, also known as the great bog deer, fed on aquatic plants, exploiting the same ecological niche as the elk of the contemporary Far North. Its deciduous branch was three times wider, about 3.5 meters, than that of the red deer, those of today’s temperate forests. Among the suidae, the babirusa from Sulawesi is the one with the most spectacular defenses. Males have two pairs of tusks, the largest of which is curved backward, about 0.30 m in length. The babirusa is a good swimmer and frequents humid places. In both cases, the animal indulging in the mud caused the Earth to emerge.

The Sanskrivist Winternitz introduced a series of 10 criteria (existence of an ark, embarking on the seed of life, scouting birds, sacrificial thanks, new covenant, ethical motive, rescue of a hero, announcement of a cataclysm, the hero the father of three sons) to note the distance between a flood myth and the biblical text ([LEQ 17], p. 277). According to these criteria, the representation of the Maros cave, which does not fill any of them, is at the same time at the maximum distance from a biblical flood, while being very close to that of the representation of Vishnu who saves the Earth by diving in the form of a boar. From wild boar to babirusa, the distance is minimal: they are suidae with prominent defenses, the babirusa is an endemic and rare species. The babirusa diver is a cosmogonic myth that is nevertheless part of the genealogy of flood myths. The boar that rises to the surface from Vishnu’s Earth-wife who fell into the water directly preserves this myth, while the replacement of an element of the megafauna by more common animals is the intermediary that brings this version of the cosmogonic dive closer to an episode of the biblical flood, that of the exploration of the water surface by scouting birds. Contrary to the structuralist hypothesis of an evolution of figurines from symbolism to naturalism, the babirusa is precisely described in representations dating back 39,900 years. The symbolism is late.

The Maros cave reinforces a hypothesis formulated by Alan Dundes of flood myths developing from the myth of the cosmogonic diver ([LEQ 17], p.278). It indicates a common root between flood and dragon myths, that of a mythological narrative around a horned animal of the wetlands acting from below to bring about the Earth. Compared to Witzel’s proposals, this may support the idea of a genealogy from a common root, but does not confirm the one that has been envisaged, namely that of a “flood of retribution” [WIT 12].

3.2.2. “Dragon” myths

The genealogical thread can be traced backwards to the archaeological sites of South Africa, first the culture of Howiensons Poort (about 66–59 ka), then Stillbay (about 108–72 ka). Among the very first artistic performances, the Diepkloof site (now South Africa, Atlantic coast) gathers fragments of ostrich eggs decorated by an engraving process. These eggs were used as gourds, consistent with a small heatwave in the climate around 60 ka. Most of the fragments have a “railway track” figure with two lines orthogonally superimposed on each other with similar regular lines.


Figure 3.2. Eggs from the Diepkloof shelter. Source: [TEX 12]

A study by Anderson [AND 12] concludes, for the first known drawings, that an element of the environment is represented. What might be appropriate for these incized eggs, because of the presence of shells, which presupposes that these anatomically modern humans frequented the foreshore, were polychaetes (maneled worms), and among them mud worms that can be associated with the disappearance and return of water due to the tide. The diversity of the figures corresponds to characteristics of this part of the intertidal microfauna. These worms may appear very long, or on the contrary coiled. The bristles can be very long or quite short. Bristle worms have the property of autotomy, i.e. they can survive after a loss of part of their rings. Representations of microfauna exist in cave art. Microfauna is common, presenting many species all over the world, which is not the case for ophidians, and more particularly large constrictor snakes, requiring sufficient external heat, therefore absent from most areas of the Northern Hemisphere.

The plans of living organisms were fixed during the Cambrian explosion, the appearance in the visible domain of fauna. The artist of 60,000 years ago took care to make small pieces that extend beyond the two parallel lines. Engraving an egg with a stone tool was not an easy task: the artist needed to be very concentrated to make such a precise drawing, respecting regular intervals on an ovoid surface. Marine bristle worms (polychaetes annelids) were present following the Cambrian explosion, and there were 13,000 species recorded, in two aspects: either tubular, for example spirographs, or errant, for example nereids. The “railway track” organization of their structure is well observed, as is the precision with which the bear and cave lion are depicted in their Aurignacian representations. Sometimes the silks of the sea worm are not very visible, sometimes they are very visible, and this nuance exists in the incisions of the eggs.

These associations of intermittent phenomena (such as the tide, or the aurora borealis) and animals (the polychaete or the snake) seemed to persist for a long time. Near Lake Baikal, there is a plaque engraved with three “snakes”, dating from a period of extreme cold. The only possible explanation is that it was actually the aurora borealis, which was represented as a snake. We could therefore speak of the therimeteor for a first period when the relationship to the extreme was that of ecstasy, of wonder at a curious phenomenon. In the Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave, the large mega deer is associated with a lava fountain. The association between the dragon and the temporary storage of water has survived even in folklore: the Tarasque must first be swollen with water, then deflated.

The period of the birth of dragons was the period when climatic instability was considered major in the long term. The general orientation of the belief system was that of a natural balance guaranteed by water or energy stocks of which dragons were the guardians. Great powers were considered to reside in nature, their appearance in conformity with what was seen, and the detail was very precise in the description of these animals whose appearance was common, but whose powers and soul were those of dragons. Powers were only thought of as creators and thus there could be extreme events represented as a red phase of volcanic eruption, spectacular and relatively safe. The practices consisted of capturing energy from a vital flow. A conception of a specialized destructive power did not seem to exist, even though most human species disappeared as a large part of the megafauna and the population of anatomically modern humans reached a minimum. This does not make it possible to decide between two genealogical schemes, that of Dundes or that which suggests the appearance of a collective eschatology during the first exit from Africa. In the first scheme, the myth of creation is the oldest, and the myth of destruction comes next, the alternative being the opposite: destruction, then creation. A myth of universal destruction seemed only to spread regionally, while a myth of a dragon or ogre swallower-regurgitator is impossible to precisely date with regard to its emergence.

The oldest archaeological sites have simple lattice work. They are therefore different from the “railway sleepers” of subsequent cultivation. These figurative elements were associated with body painting practices. In ethnographic censuses of body painting drawings, the theme of lattice work was that of a sought-after protection against harmful influence and participation in a totemic group [GRO 97]. The indications obtained therefore provide the following sequence: “lattice work” that provides strength and protection (W1), an animal that explains a fluctuation of the world around an equilibrium (W2) and a creative animal (W3).

Paleolithic cultures remained, it seems, in a system of the flood of the dragon: the swallowing dragon binged, or the dragon suddenly emptied itself, and this introduced a destructive dimension. The two types of dragons, the water-skin and the swallower, are probably the oldest. The Upper Paleolithic introduced a creative animal. The myth of the dragon slayer type respected the uniqueness of the dragon, but added a hero, which made the paleolithics emerge from culture to a single diluvian dragon. The great later flood myths were two or more dragon families that interacted with each other and, generally, a hero. For example, a primordial pair of dragons regulated alliances in the myths of Neolithic China. More rarely, a heroless fight between two dragons contributed to the formation of a flood, for example in Polynesian myths.

3.3. Human diversity and taiga shamanism

The study of shamanisms makes it possible to define the outline of the configurations associated with an abundant artisanal production. Cave and rock art has a universal distribution, while a reference form of shamanism is closely linked to a biome, the taiga.

“The taiga was apparently endowed with a real force for the standardization of cultures that blurred their real, or potential, diversity” [BOB 99]. This strength was not only due to the weakness of the natural product: cold or hot deserts, with even lower natural product, did not share the same property of a culture in long-term equilibrium in its biome. In the northern part of the taiga, there were significant cultural breaks between the different paleo-arctic populations of the tundra, despite their low numbers. Further south, however, the diversity of spiritualities supported a universalization of the arts. The taiga sector was experiencing a movement due to climate change: 2,500 ka, the Arctic was ice free, and the taiga was moving inland as close as possible to the North Pole. In the opposite direction, during glacial maxima, it descended to the latitude of present day Spain. In the Upper European Paleolithic period, the sites of the decorated caves often remained in use for very long periods of time, even though the environment may have undergone radical transformations. Paleolithic societies often focused on the movements of large herbivores, using open spaces with low snow cover on the southern edge of the boreal forest. Even in periods of extreme cold, humans moved and maintained contact with the townships outside the boreal forest. This is indicated by the multiple types of biotopes represented in the Solutrean art of the caves of the Lascaux period.


Figure 3.3. Taiga dynamics and ubiquity of art. Source: [ANA 03]. For a color version of this figure, see www.iste.co.uk/alaktif/climate.zip

3.3.1. Contemporary shamanism, a look at Eros and Askêsis

Foucault indicated that spirituality is a form of learning that can take two different forms: Eros or Askêsis. The respective “quantities” of Eros and Askêsis give a sort of first coordinate of Paleolithic cultures. Ascetic exploits are well known in the shamanism of the Native American plains, or through the different forms of fakirism, and probably also in the court shamanism of the first Chinese kingdoms. A second interpretation axis, the vertical, is that of objectifications and verticalizations as evidenced by the different manifestations of Paleolithic art. The horizontal axis is that of the modalities of knowledge production, and the vertical axis is that of the powers and objectification that can be associated with this knowledge.

Contemporary global warming makes archaeological sites accessible that correspond to the first visits to Arctic areas by anatomically modern humans. For example, for a paleo-Yukaghir site, only the representation of a sun marks the difference between the decorative themes of the artifacts of the archaeological site and those collected at the beginning of the 20th Century. However, the Ghiliaks of Sakhalin Island still have a tale of competition between shamans, where the tale of the animal below, a great black-spotted seal, triumphs over the man from Heaven, the solar shaman ([BOY 74], p.728). The former Chukchi were seal hunters who distinguished themselves by their particularly complex ontology and a choral mode for their ceremonies, where everyone could assert themselves if “the spirits answered the call, inspired and won” ([BOY 74], p.732). Paleolithic societies decentralized operations, with a strongly horizontal and underground imagination. Because of this very undeveloped vertical dimension, the map of Paleolithic cultures associated with high climate volatility is mainly summarized in the axis of spiritualities, in the various combinations of Eros and Askêsis.

Shamanism studies are based on the participation and observation of shamans in the contemporary world. The internal diversity of shamanism is based on the various combinations of erotic and spiritual asceticism. An additional difficulty results from the fact that the same asceticism exercise can take place in an exploitative asceticism or in an engagement asceticism. For example, the Ojibwa distinguish three types of shamans: the most considered is the one who interprets dreams, then comes the healer and finally the one who has visions and foretells the future. The same asceticism exercise will indicate to the dream interpreter that his power is not altered by these circumstances, while to the healer it simply means that he is engaged in a caring procedure for a suffering person.

Shamanic religiosity is “paschalizing” according to the criteria of religious sociology, i.e. the year includes a large event with dances and ceremonies over several days at the time of vegetation renewal. This is also the time when the different parts of the tribe, for example those of the coast and those of the forest, are brought together to form exogamic alliances. The spring gathering celebrates the renewal of the present life or not, of the ascetic elements, but remains under the sign of Eros, modifying the status of the subject by matrimonial alliances. Even in versions of the spring festival with very spectacular ascetic exercises, such as the O-kee-pa of the Mandan tribe on the Missouri shore, the master of ceremonies (on the side of ascetic exercises) is supported by a Mother of the Animals (on the side of Eros), the one who overcame a menacing voracious Spirit in a previous phase of the ceremonies.

This same ambiguity is found in the shamanic vocation, with an opposition between a process of active searching and the passive expectation of a sign of election. The quest includes various ascetic exercises, fasting, self-sacrifice and challenges with harsh climates: staying under the icy water of a mountain stream for a long time, climbing a high mountain, living isolated in a cave. The ascetic exercises of contemporary shamanisms can be related to hot or cold, but those related to the rigors of cold seem to come from older times. “Spontaneous election is frequent in societies where shamanism is not linked to power, where it is not a strong social issue”, a situation of contemporary shamanism that corresponds well to the times before the development of a court shamanism ([PER 17], p. 26-27). In the election, the role of the seducer belongs to the other worlds, often embodied in an animal (see Table 3.2).

Table 3.2. Eros and Askêsis in contemporary shamanism

  Spirituality The shamanic vocation The use of psychotropic drugs Relationship with the animal
Eros “A movement that tears the subject away from his status” ([FOU 01b], p.17) An election by other worldliness The shaman is a dreamer at will Imitation, seduction
Askêsis “A progressive transformation of oneself for which one is responsible” ([FOU 01b], p.17) A quest, for example, a retreat organized by an experienced shaman Toxic consumption at the limit of survival Or a lack of consumption Mastery

In contemporary shamanism, what are the characteristics associated with significant creative artisanal production? An asceticism of achievement translates into logos and signs that correspond to a social code, so its contribution in relation to creative artistic work does not seem to be major. The transition from a choral situation to a situation where there is an effective role for a recognized shaman is one where social recognition is given to a creative activity, with shamanism including an element of improvization. An average situation, between simple choral arts, music and dance, and ascetic feats, which anticipate the development of the performing arts, seems the most favorable to the development of creative and decorative arts on movable and immovable objects.

For example, the shipibos (in present-day Peru) reside in the upper valley of the Amazon River, a gutter below the Andes, fed by tributaries loaded with silt, snow and ice from the Andes, and tropical rains. The flood season can last 10 months of the year. The economy is based on fishing. Their artisanal production is very famous. They have a Ronin dragon, the great anaconda, that traces the winding course of the river. They have a diluvian swallower monster, Moçon Tita (Mother-Snail) who makes a characteristic cry during super-flooding of the river. The shaman is “the one who knows” in the local language, he differs from the ordinary wizard by a practice of asceticism limited to a few regimes. It is a dream shamanism that makes use of hallucinogenic psychotropic drugs. “Shamanism incorporates difference and is constituted through otherness”, in general, and these large producers of creative craftsmanship have very common characteristics both in their mythology and in their shamanic practices with the use of hallucinogenic psychotropic drugs [COL 09]. The contemporary shipibo shaman speaks of the myth of the giant snail as a deluge. Here, there are two types of dragons: the diluvian swallower and the guardian (Ronin). These two types are probably very old, and there is a creative animal (the great anaconda), which is a contribution to the W3 culture. The mythology of these craftsmen still includes features that date back to the first cultures of anatomically modern humans. Shamanic knowledge responds to Foucault’s proposal based on the provocative ways of life of cynical philosophers: “There can be no establishment of truth without an essential position of otherness. The truth is never the same. There can only be truth in the form of the other world and the other life” [FOU 09].

3.3.2. Paleolithic cultures according to climate change

The Gravettian European culture was that of a period of increased cold before the last glacial maximum. A regional culture was valued, and probably practiced: the self-mutilation of the phalanxes. This indicates that ascetic practices existed in the Upper Paleolithic period and that the consideration of a combination between mysticism and asceticism, in line with Foucault’s proposal on the definition of spirituality, was particularly relevant in relation to a succession of forms of climate change, as well as the attendance of the different levels of high mountain regions. Ascetic shamans would come from the peregrination in the mountains, with ascetic practices directly related to the confrontation with the cold, concluded Blacker for Japan [BLA 99].

Table 3.3. Various combinations of Eros and Askêsis spiritualities

Eros/Askêsis combination Definition of the Eros/Askêsis combination Conjectures about the first human cultures
0 Choral spirituality: dance, music, incantations Probable situation of the Middle Paleolithic
1 Formation of expertise in the relationship with otherworldiness: shamanism, presence of an asceticism of commitment Would correspond to the break in the arts: artists appeared (W3)
2 Marked difference between Eros and Askêsis, asceticism of commitment and the beginning of an asceticism of achievement Uncertain dating
More than 2 Specialization, several uses of ascetic exercises, achievement, feat and commitment ascetics Development of divinatory arts since the Mesolithic period

The oldest cultures, those of the Upper and Middle Paleolithic, including the first two cultures of anatomically modern humans (W1 and W2), were dry weathering cultures. Probably, a simple swallower ogre would be the oldest. W3 brought the myths of creation: it was a reason for the possible complexity of flood dramas, which became destruction creations, rebirths. The context testified to the progress of ascetic practices, clearly associated with cold weathering.

Paleoanthropologists highlight dry weathering in the process of hominization, carried by open environments such as savannahs. The discussion on cold weathering concerns more particularly the third of the great cultural groups of the first anatomically modern humans envisaged by Witzel, as well as the specific culture of the last glacial maximum, the Solutrean.

A reductive reading of Table 3.3 consists of seeing only one original culture, that of the Eros/Askêsis combination noted “0”, as being the one that brings art, seeing in shamanism only a regional culture firmly attached to a biome, the taiga. This approach, defended by Alain Testart [TES 16], is in line with that of Durkheim. The processes at work would be entirely social, unrelated to the environment. The religion is said to have originated from an initial frenzy exported during the first trip out of Africa and which resulted in bureaucracy [DUR 12]. The dichotomy between an art with universal diffusion and a taiga shamanism is then explained in a simple way. Confronted with recent data, such as those from the culture of Howiesons Poort (66–59 ka, W2), the Durkheimian approach, which describes the beginnings of religion through an emergence ritual based on a vital spirit animating the various elements of the world, and on the social aggregation of small human groups, remains relevant. The interpretation of the data of isotopic stages 3 and 2 has often led to a devaluation of the human cultures of the previous isotopic stages, for example, through a caricatured image of Neanderthals. The beginnings of the arts and spirituality took place over a long period of time, including at least the Middle Paleolithic. A research program on these elementary forms, as conceived by Durkheim, remains very relevant. However, the durations of thought structures in early human cultures are probably very long, and it may not be methodologically appropriate to completely dissociate elementary forms from later forms. For example, in the Bruniquel cave (176 ka, isotopic stage 6), there is an arrangement that raises the question of the age of humanity’s link with the underground world. The strategies of Middle Paleolithic humans against cold weathering were generally those of a retreat, a migration towards the south, as evidenced by the locations of archaeological sites. But perhaps other strategies were used in the face of a sudden cooling. This type of questioning goes beyond the Durkheimian framework, based solely on social interactions and not taking into account relationships with the environment.


Figure 3.4. Suspended armless man (Pech-Merle cave)

During the last glacial maximum, enigmatic representations of bird people were made, which led, as early as the 1960s, to discussions on the role of shamans, known to be used as mediums with another world using celestial flight (see Figure 3.4).

The first human cultures were confirmed and developed in periods of high climatic instability. For example, the representation of a reindeer in the Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave, hammered into the wall, which dates back about 36,000 years, bears witness to this. The underlying climatic sequence is that of a very severe cooling (Heinrich’s event number 4) coupled with a volcanic winter resulting from the explosion of the super volcano of the Phlegrean Fields (about –39,000 years) followed by a return of hot weather when the Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave paintings were made. Paleolithic art remains figurative and indicates the recognition of natural powers embodied in animals. The climate is changing here in the sense of warming; reindeer, which are the only herbivores to adapt to long snow cover, are sometimes deprived of this status of great natural power.

In climate change, a distinction can be made between dry and cold weather conditions. In both cases, there is a loss of diversity of human cultures through the emergence of a single culture adapted to severe climatic constraints, bringing together a large arid or very cold region. The map of Australian language families shows this phenomenon of linguistic unification for a very large part of this continent, except for the northern territories, which are in a humid and hot climate and have 47 distinct language families. Climate constraints play a major role in reducing cultural diversity, yet it began to increase as early as the Upper Paleolithic.

Religious phenomenology has exclusively favored the Eros approach, retaining shamanism, the shamanism of mediation with the powers of the environment. The diversity of practices is declined by isolating an ideal type, most often taiga shamanism, and “innumerable borderline cases of shamanism” ([PER 17], p.21). This ideal type is unique, corresponding to the situation where there is only one type of shaman in society, while the archaeologist and anthropologist are confronted with the existence of several shamans. For example, for the Native Americans of the great lakes of North America, the difference is made between a superchampion who interprets dreams and whose powers are confirmed by an asceticism of achievement, a healer whose effectiveness depends on an asceticism of commitment, the middle diviner and the spell caster. In a Paleolithic context, the same exit from Africa, which is recognizable by a sophisticated technique of flint work, saw a change in its spiritual practices, for example between European Solutreans and the American Clovis culture. Differences existed in the spiritualities between the great exits of Africa, until the last one (23 ka–16 ka) starting with a yellow Sahara, a dry weathering, which led to the development of a culture on the crossing axis that is the Nile (23 ka–20 ka), radiating in the Mediterranean space, then in Eurasia and the Americas. Large sites, such as Chauvet Pont d'Arc (in the flow of the W3 exit from Africa) or Lascaux (in the following one), are sufficiently explicit about the spiritual practices of which there are still archaeological elements.

The genealogy of taiga shamanism is accessible due to contemporary climate change through the archaeological sites of paleo-Arctic populations. The sites have been kept in the frozen ground for a period corresponding to the European Aurignacian. Measurable cultural drift, such as the gap between Paleo-Yukhaghir artifacts and contemporary Yukhaghirs, is small. The Paleo-Yukhaghirs hunted mammoths and wore headbands bearing the effigy of the bowhead whale. Contemporary Yukhaghirs chase the moose, which has replaced the large mega deer in its biotope. Although they have added a sun to the list of the great environmental power, the dragon of their dragon slayer myth remains the bowhead whale [PIT 12].

The European Aurignacian sites of the Swabian Jura and the Ardèche Valley probably pre-date the arrival of anatomically modern humans in the biome of the boreal forest. Population densities were very low at the time, and the boreal forest was unattractive, undisturbed by game and imposing survival rules. The vastness of the taiga and the weakness of its sparse human population may have made it a cultural trap for first arrivals. If new people entered this space, they did so slowly, which led to an acculturation favorable to the uses of the first arrivals.

The genealogy of a shamanism of mediation with another world stems from the W3 exit wave from Africa and the Middle East. This culture overcame the most extreme climatic conditions, which presupposed self-control and an increase in resilience; as Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out, in situations of distress “the frequency of psychoses and neuroses tended to rise in groups without shamanism, while in others it is shamanism itself that developed, but without an increase in mental disorders” (quoted by [PER 17], p.59). However, the Eros component was the most developed in this first version of Paleolithic shamanism, as shown, for example, by worship, indicating an attachment to the bear, as well as the mating scene between a buffalo man and the Chauvet Venus in the Chauvet Pont d'Arc cave. The site of this part of the Ardèche valley is ideal for a large festival centered on the pursuit of a deer, with a nearby cave containing a pile of deer bones. The culture of the Paleo-Arctic is that of an ontology that distinguishes animals and double shamans, souls under the appearance of beings. Culture declined seduction, between hunter and prey, between the double animal and the shaman. The Yukhaghirs use a system of signs that indicate the state of romantic alliances within clans. Few direct elements refer to ascetic exercises, except that the state of a shaman results from a transformation of the self.

The cultures of the last glacial maximum probably included a more extensive assessment of the use of ascetic exercises. From the time of Gravettian culture, which corresponded to the establishment of a very cold climate, local mutilation of the phalanxes was attested to. For example, in the Cosquer cave, there are first representations of armless people, then trapezoidal signs specific to the Solutrean. Representations of birdmen held by ties or pierced by projectiles, either at a trapezoidal structure known as the sign of the Placard cave, or between mammoths, dating from Solutrean culture, raise suspicions of ascetic exercises. In the mutilation of the phalanxes practiced by the inhabitants of the North American plains, prior torture using an easel led to loss of consciousness and less bleeding during amputation, as the painter Georges Catlin [CAT 14] [CAT 89] indicates. The analysis of folded phalanxes in representations in the decorated Quercy caves concludes either a system of ligatures on a finger or a simulation of this finger in a forced position. It was a matter of signifying a commitment ([LOR 18], pp. 412-421). A cave decorated with a long period of occupation, such as Cougnac, has different rituals per period, with a period when there were many signs of the type of Placard cave, which is represented in Lascaux. There was therefore a beginning of cultural diversity, and these indications of different ascetic practices testify to this.

The numbering of the Eros and Askêsis combinations introduced in Table 3.3 is justified on a theoretical basis that economists refer to as the theory of justice. The founding result, thanks to Kenneth Arrow, is the impossibility of the existence of a universal criterion of justice that meets simple conditions: not to be dictatorial, not to depend on context and not to degrade the condition of people. Hence, ersatz systems in this area must violate at least one of these constraints, i.e. either introduce a monopoly of decision, depend on a context or degrade the condition of at least one person. For example, based on ethnographic data, that the same ascetic exercise can be part of two different justice systems, as is the case, for example, for Native Americans in the Great Lakes, indicates that the number of these “partial” justice systems is at least two. An ascetic of commitment introduces a coding 0 or 1 of personal situations: this healer who fasting differs from the common spell thrower, this couple is committed to one another, this young man is now an adult. An asceticism of achievement introduces a meaning and a numerical evaluation in terms of size for the person: this person wears scars or an adornment that indicate that he has performed a rewarding ascetic exercise four times. When there are both commitment and use ascetics, the number of “partial” justice systems is two: the analysis of the panel of the two horses in the decorated Pech-Merle cave indicates that the phalanxes of broken appearance are female and participated in a commitment asceticism [LOR 18]. We are at level 1, the one that seems to be associated with the great development of artistic practices. The representation of a suspended bird-man is not necessarily a leap towards a more complex justice system. It can be a particular transcription of commitment, without falling into a scale of magnitude based on an asceticism of achievement. The “old dragons” provide a zero level without the required ascetic exercise, where there is another world that participates in the animation of the living (the dragon besides which capitalizes a vital spirit) and a transaction in predation (the environment takes humans, humans take game from the environment: there is a dragon swallower, which sometimes exaggerates and which can regurgitate its catch).

3.4. Spiritual corporalities of body paintings

In the thousand great myths of the flood, three prototypes can be put forward: that of the Native Americans, especially the Mandans, near the Missouri River, the Chinese myth of Yu the Great and the Mesopotamian flood. These prototypes reflect recent periods, but this disadvantage is almost inevitable for any discussion of body painting that presents itself to the archaeologist in the form of both certainty of existence, due to deposits of colored pigments, and complete uncertainty about the conditions of use of these materials. The Mandan, also known as the Pheasant tribe, was a very colorful diluvian version, involving several hundred painted dancers. The first contact between the Mandans and European explorers dates back to 1738; the collection of the O-kee-pa ceremony was made in 1832 by the painter Georges Catlin and just before their decimation by a smallpox epidemic in 1837. The last Mandan died in 1971.

The O-kee-pa was the annual grand ceremony of the Mandans; its theme was a flood like a river flood. Its precise title indicates that this was a situation at the end of the flood, as the Great Missouri River returned to its bed. It was therefore a festival of the renewal of life, in the tradition of the cosmogonic dive myth, the one that coincides with a final episode of a biblical or Mesopotamian deluge. This ceremony includes many elements known through the archaeological elements of the Upper Paleolithic. A four-day asceticism phase of the main participants in the ceremony was called “the waters return to their beds”. The drums were then solid beasts representing turtles. The character of the Owl was that of a swallower. The trials undergone by the main participants included a mutilation of the phalanxes.

It can be compared to the O-kee-pa or the festival of renewal of life practiced by the Evenks or Toungouses of the Sym River in Siberia, the ikénipké. In the case of O-kee-pa, Catlin attended to the realization of the body paintings, with painters who strived to render the transformation of dancers in the representations of different animals and the main roles of the ritual. Climatic conditions play a role, and in Siberia, animals are only represented in effigies. A central element of ikénipké is a coat made of freshly killed reindeer skin. During the Evenk festival of life renewal, the shaman gradually takes possession of his new skin. The O-kee-pa hardships were reserved for about 50 participants, with body paintings in five different colors. The mythological framework of ikénipké is a hunt mimicked by an imaginary reindeer that is eventually joined and killed in the upper world, upstream of the river. The O-kee-pa combined a buffalo dance “with the rigorous observance of which they attributed the passage of animals that were to serve as food for the rest of the year” and a commemoration of a creative flood coupled with the hardships inflicted on some 50 young people ([CAT 14], p. 32). They are described as an eight-day festival in the case of ikénipké and a four-day one in the case of O-kee-pa.

The two festivals have common elements: a receptacle for accessories with magical powers, an equipped place, a figurative representation of the diversity of the megafauna, a sequence where the shaman with the help of the audience pushes away an evil spirit. The game of body transformations is simple and concentrated in a single tandem of man and animal in the case of ikénipké, the shaman’s new coat transferring the power of an animal to him during a ritual hunt. The choreography and body transformations are more elaborate in the case of O-kee-pa, which is the result of the interweaving of several intrigues. In a scale of combinations between spiritual erotic and spiritual ascetic, the two festivals constitute extreme limits: a maximum extension of a movement of flight in the ikénipké with purification rituals reduced to the congruent portion, and conversely, a maximum extension of the spiritual exercises in O-kee-pa.

Table 3.4. Ikénipké and O-kee-pa

Ikénipké O-kee-pa
First day: purification of the audience, accessories, costume and drum of the shaman. Round trip inside the tent up to the source of the river.
Second day: the pursuit of the imaginary reindeer inside the tent begins. A first enclosure is built. Reindeer figurines are made.
Third day: continuation of the hunt.
Attacking of evil spirits that the shaman routes with the help of the assistants. New enclosure.
From the fourth to the sixth day: continuation of the hunt. First use of the drum. Accessories are attached to the shaman’s costume.
Day seven: the imaginary reindeer is hurt.
The pieces of the reindeer figurines are distributed. They must bring a good year of hunting.
Eighth day: the imaginary reindeer is completed in the higher world. The shaman recounts his conversation in the world higher than the audience. End of ikénipké. Source:[BOY 74], pp.708-709.
First day: four buffalo dances. Arrival of the First Man: “I come from the dwelling in these high mountains... I come to collect a sharpened tool to offer it to the waters”.
Second day: the First Man calls the young people, leaves after giving a talisman pipe to the master of ceremonies. Eight buffalo dances.
Third day: 12 buffalo dances.
Fourth day: arrival of the Owl, evil spirit held at a distance by the talisman. A woman breaks the owl’s leg and becomes the mother of the buffalo, who “demands the most beautiful dress” to lead the final feast.
The young people undergo a series of hardships: suspended by wooden ties and weighed down by buffalo skulls, they are placed in rotation. Then, a phalanx is amputated. Finally, in the last stage, the buffalo skulls must tear off the flesh that holds the fasteners. The mother of the buffalo selects the guests for the final feast, “an indescribable orgy” according to the painter Catlin [CAT 14].

Catlin was already mentioning the situation of the maximum cost of access to knowledge represented by the accumulation of the Mandans’ ascetic exercises. The Sioux practice the sun dance, which represents only one equivalent of the test of the last race of the Mandans, with the tearing off of the ties that leave scars in the flesh. The difference between O-kee-pa and ascetic exercises still practiced by devout people in Kerala and Sri Lanka is that, in the case of Mandans, only two ties, leaving the choice between the back or chest, are used for suspension [CAT 14] [CAS 05]. In O-kee-pa, the number of fasteners (12) would be sufficient to distribute the weight of the body well and obtain a lower tension of the fasteners in a horizontal or vertical suspension position, but two are not used, being reserved for the shield and a talisman and the rest to add the additional weights of the buffalo skulls. The loss of consciousness obtained by rotating suspended people is a particular characteristic of O-keep-a; it is not voluntarily sought in ascetic exercises of the same type known elsewhere.

Taiga shamanism (ikénipké) and achievement asceticism (O-kee-pa) form two boundaries that are probably external to the combinations of eroticism and spiritual asceticism of Upper Paleolithic societies. The ikénipké is now the work of a unique artist, the shaman, in front of a small audience in an open-air sanctuary with mobile art of small animal figurines. The creation of the caves decorated with Paleolithic decoration mobilized more resources in terms of number, material and diversity of practices. The achievement asceticism is found in agricultural societies, or at the beginning of the practice of agriculture, as in the case of the Mandans. Relations with the other world changed, for example, a massive offering of tools was made to the river at the end of the O-keep-a ceremony, a practice that departed from the previous principles of balance between the two predations, that of the environment on humans and that of humans on game. In O-kee-pa, a notion of retribution appeared: the master of ceremony gave the most beautiful dress to the Bison Mother, in remuneration for her victory over the evil spirit, just as the main dancers, those of the buffalo dance, were invited to the final banquet. A demarcation between ordinary work and performance is operated by achievement asceticism. For a contemporary agricultural society such as that of the Senoufo ethnic group in Côte d'Ivoire, there are champion farmers, the Tegban, who handle the hoe to exhaustion, fearing humiliation and the worst performance, distinct from ordinary work ([CAS 05], p.11). A principle of justice for the work done is in the wake of the asceticism of achievement. The choreography of the buffalo dance was well fixed, the amount of dance to be delivered was predetermined and had to be performed until the arrival of the buffalo. Once the work was done, they were at the center of the final banquet and not those who had successfully undergone all the terrible trials. The dress given to the Buffalo Mother humanized it, an operation opposite to that of the mantle that conferred the power of the creative animal on the shaman. Ordinary work thus made a late entry, contrary to the scheme proposed by Georges Bataille, where it would have been the banal work that would have reigned at the dawn of humanity.

3.5. Myths linked to the problem of water: first texts and first empires

Water myths mobilize two main myth families, the dragon and the flood. The dragon most often has a hydrophilic connotation, the hydrophobic deluge. A monsoon context is often invoked in the circumstances that caused the flood. Two situations can be contrasted depending on the type of irregularity in the monsoon regime. In the case of very abundant monsoons, but of varying importance, these situations are conducive to bringing a collective eschatological dimension to flood myths. In the case of irregular rains that result in a shift in the boundaries of an arid, cold or hot area, this context is more conducive to myths involving a dragon or a dragon slayer.

While Egypt presents the case where the formation of writing and empire corresponded to biomes and a climatic sequence of dry weathering, this conjunction is not generalized: even the development of irrigation and large hydraulic equipment could be completely disconnected from constraints resulting from aridity or a climatic sequence. Links with the environment therefore seemed to be loosened in the transition to writing. The appearance of the first writings took place in a succession of civilizations: Mesopotamia (around 6 ka), Egypt (around 5 ka), Indus (around 4.6 ka), then Crete and China. For Mesoamerica, as for the Bronze Age in China, a widespread representation of the upper jaw and dragon eyes characterized a period (the classical Mayan period between 450 and 850 AD; the Shang period in China between 1766 and 1111 AD). The Mayan Cauac mask is associated with the Earth and the Rain, indicating the exit of an underground path of the sun and the priest king. While the Taotian mask of the Shang period in China is figurative of the same part of the dragon’s body, its interpretation remains uncertain. The appearance of the cauac mask indicates a positive representation of rain in the Maya that was not present in the Olmecs. This promotion of the rain was that of a system of priestly monopoly of small cities. It characterized the Mayan classical period. From Chichén Itzá, a polytheism asserted itself with a specialized goddess, Ix Chel, in a convergence of the ritual practices of Mesoamerica in mass sacrifices by colleges of priests. Studies on the history of monsoons [ZHA 08] allow us to associate a greater irregularity of the monsoon with the emergence of the figure of this goddess of dry wells represented as an elderly woman.

Mesopotamian denominations make it possible to introduce some major types of dragons or fabulous animals. The benevolent god of water, Enki-Ea, the one who plays a major role in the Sumerian myth of the flood, is associated with “gentle” dragons, whom the Greeks called “capricorn”, a half-fish, half-horned animal. In Greek mythology, the gods have the power to transform themselves into a Capricorn to escape a terrifying monster. In Mesopotamian mythology, Tiamat is a monster effectively killed by a dragon slayer and dismembered to create a new world. Mushushu is the once evil and furious dragon that Marduk holds on a leash. In folklore, the Tarasque, dragon of Provence, behaves like Mushushu, with a double representation, one in the form of a dragon regurgitating elements of human anatomy, the other in the form of an effigy held on a leash by a little girl just as the Babylonian god Marduk did. The term “drakon” in Greek specifically refers to great type of dragon different from the three previously mentioned, linked to a demeterian deity in Greek mythology, a great protective dragon. These types of dragons are found in Chinese designations: for example, the dragon-torch probably corresponds to the Greek drakones. This drakones is the victim of a solar dragon-killing god, Apollo. In the ancient representations of the Mesopotamian flood, a snake encloses the country of the two rivers, a kind of protective belt for it. We are in the case of a protective dragon like the Greek drakones.

Two main unifying schemes exist for different types of dragon families.

The monster is a first form of accumulation of dragon types. The dragon-monster is at the same time swallower (like the W1 dragons), snake-shaped and sometimes pot-belly (like the W2 dragons), fire-eater or diver (like the W3 dragons). W3 cultures were those of therianthropes and therimeteors: half-animal and half, either human or natural phenomenon. With the W4 culture of Lascaux, the principle of composition of the monster appeared. The Lascaux unicorn was half-juvenile rhino and half-butterfly, i.e. composed only of animal parts.

The principle of composition of the deluges is that of the animal series. This is the second unifying scheme, where the animal parts no longer aggregate. They are distinct real or imaginary animals that follow one another. A biblical flood has two animal series: the pairs of animals that climb into the ark at the beginning and the succession of animals that are sent for reconnaissance at the end of the flood to discover the mainland, a sequence known as the cosmogonic dive. In the Mesopotamian flood, the dragons of the flood are horned fish, which the ancient Greeks called capricorn. In the Chinese flood, all the dragon families successively intervene in the myth: a great dragon shaking a pillar of the world with its tail, a couple of two snake dragons, and dragons that serve as auxiliaries to Yu the Great, the Chinese Noah. The mythologies of China and Japan clearly show the alternative represented by these two unifying schemes of dragon families: a multiplicity of dragons in China, and a central dragon slayer in Japan, with a monster dragon hidden as it should be.

3.5.1. The Superwise

The two animal series of the diluvian myths, that of the representatives of the entire megafauna and that of the auxiliary animals that allow us to find the mainland, form stable myths in mythologies. What corresponds to the Biblical Noah, i.e. a single human character central to the narrative process, only appears to have stabilized late in the first scriptures and empires. For example, in the Mandan flood, no less than four characters compose the functions devolved to a single Superwise character, such as the Mesopotamian Atrahasis, the Biblical Noah or Yu the Great: two mythical brothers, the disruptive Owl and the First Man, collect tools for a collective offering to the river; and two masters of ceremony, the Buffalo Mother becoming the Owl master, and the great shaman who performs the ritual of succession of small animals thrown into the river. The Superwise character takes over all these functions: they are a disruptor, since they contravene a supernatural planned action; they are a survivor; and they take over the two figures associated with the two animal series, the role of Mother of Animals ensuring the multiplication in diversity and quantity of the megafauna and the role of officiant shaman with their real and imaginary animal auxiliaries.

The Superwise character is incorporated both into a time of myth and into a historical time. It therefore takes on a heroic dimension. He forms the link between religious mythology and the political affairs of the time. He was a hero of effective work, both in Mesopotamia and in China. The Mesopotamian Superwise had a thorough knowledge of local shipbuilding technical processes, but they were applied with a superhuman dimension. The Chinese Superwise followed earlier shamans who failed to control the river, and had been tireless and hardworking for decades, neglecting his own family.

These deluges with a Superwise character feature a male hero, the female characters being negatively connoted. They can be opposed with the diluvian myths constructed on a Philemon and Baucis-type scheme, where eternal remuneration forever unites the couple who provided hospitality to the travelers. Moreover, in the Mandan flood, the Bison Mother is the one who received the most beautiful remuneration and also the one who chose and distributed material pleasures among the group of those who completed ordinary work, to the exclusion of those who performed uses. The young Mandan men followed the First Man, and with any luck, they survived the hardships they suffered. In the exploitation asceticism, there was only for them the possible negative remuneration of the loss of life. The Superwise not only survived but also obtained either the title of emperor (Yu the Great), an eternal life in a domain for heroes apart from men (in some versions of the Mesopotamian flood) or a very long life (in other versions of the Mesopotamian flood and in the biblical flood) [GLA 15] [MAT 92].

A figure prior to the Mesopotamian Superwise was the goddess Inanna, who selectively destroyed cities [GLA 15]. The biblical exegesis of the diluvian myth explained a composition of the text based on two superposed narrative frame works, one associated with great supernatural power, the other with a hero who is the patron saint of a city. In the first frameworks, the earth is corrupted, the animal series of the ark consists of seven pairs of impure animals and one impure couple and the reconciliation with the supernatural power is based on a sacrificial offering of a pure animal. In the later frameworks, the animal series includes the entire megafauna and the flood ends with a contractual alliance with the city’s patron hero. For Mesopotamia, the initial framework, even before the introduction of Superwise, was that of a great goddess who brought only negative remuneration, namely the destruction of a few cities. In Chinese myths, several variants exist about the wife of Yu the Great, testifying to a misunderstanding of the husband’s work. She did not recognize him as he had taken the appearance of a bear; in other variants, she becomes petrified. The lack of good understanding and communication between the husband and wife is the reason for these variants, in contrast to the diluvian narrative schemes of the Philemon and Baucis type, based on a timeless and cloud-free understanding among the couple.

The Superwise tells truths to several entrants such as the diplomat or the diviner. What he says is true, but this truth is only revealed later. It is a transmitter of supernatural powers and deploys a capacity for social mediation. His ethics, valuing qualified work as a marine carpenter or hydraulician, is also a political art. The Mesopotamian Superwise adapts its discourse to its interlocutors while pursuing its objective of conserving the human species. Yu the Great denudes himself when he negotiates with ethnic groups that live naked. The Superwise embodies good advice and efficiency in public action.

3.5.2. Court shamanism

In China, regulatory measures were taken in the Hans period to outlaw imperial court shamanism. The expression “court shamanism” may therefore seem a little paradoxical, since the label of the Chinese court followed the presence of shamanism in the emperor’s direct entourage. China, and the imperial courts in Korea and Japan, which took their model from the Chinese court, presented an axis of transformation of shamanism that is political, a shamanism that irrigated and perpetuated itself through political art and philosophical currents, Confucianism in opposition to shamanism, Taoism in an heirloom version. While the end of court shamanism has an official date, that of its prohibition in 32 BCE, it was part of a formative historical sequence for China involving a federation of kingdoms. Broadly speaking, the historical sequence begun with the first Qin dynasty, a small kingdom that imposed itself through military hegemony and introduced standards common to all of China. The aristocratic courts of the various previous kingdoms welcomed scholars who were the victims of this unification. The period of the Western Han was that of an aspiration for a renewal of ancient religions, the Huang-Lao religious current, in which Laozi played a central role: “Great importance was attached to Taoist methods of prolonging life. The masters of Tao, shamans and sorcerers held the upper hand” [BAT 19]. Confucianism and its compassionate ethic was in competition with these shamanically inspired currents, its minimum corresponding to the unification of China. The disappearance of court shamanism at the end of the Western Han dynasty was interpreted through the rise of the eunuchs who formed a parallel aristocracy within the imperial court, while the large families positioned themselves “Chinese style” in the complex scheme of the court’s functioning by monopolizing key positions [BAT 19].

Chinese shamanisms are presented as different from the culture of ecstasy specific to taiga shamanism. Yet the Tungus Siberian populations, which serve as a reference for taiga shamanism, have always had a significant presence in China.

These populations of Siberian origin have survived, retreating in the face of the advance of the Neolithics, and have formed ethnic groups that have been preserved in the Chinese world.

A rise of the taiga towards the North opens up ways of penetrating the Chinese space, characterized by the absence of a Chalcolithic period, the one in which hierarchical societies emerged. This principle of social organization of a feudal type arrived suddenly and opened the period of the Shang. The opening of a Siberian road brought people with a hierarchical society who had mastered bronze metallurgy. The shamanism of the royal entourage under the Shang (from 1766 to 1111 BCE) was composed mainly of sacrificial practices and oniromancy; thus, a shamanism is totally different from that of the taiga. There was no known use of psychotropic drugs, but there were artistic practices, particularly dances and shamanic melodies. King Tang of the Shang offered himself as a victim during a drought by cutting his nails and hair. Chinese folklore has preserved the ritual of a burnt dragon king in effigy in case of drought [MAT 87]. The king’s body combined spirituality and politics simultaneously. The Shang period seemed to develop a system close to that of the sacred king, where the king’s body carried its own power. When this power was deemed to have disappeared due to poor harvest, a priestly college replaced the king. Here, King Shang took charge, voluntarily compelling himself to a pious demonstration.

The title “Son of Heaven” appeared under the Zhou (from 1045 BC). The shaman climbed the ladder to reach the sky, while the sovereign descended the ladder. “King Zhou, Son of Heaven, reigned only by virtue of the Heavenly Mandate granted, provided that his public and private conduct was consistent with the sanctity of the office. The empire was conceived as an interlocking of squares in which the virtue of the king spread, gradually losing its effectiveness as one moved further away from the center” ([BAT 19], p. 41). This first Chinese curial culture had been summarized by Henri Maspero as “an external pump and a barbaric luxury”. “Meetings and ceremonies included banquets with music and dance, which ended with drinking sessions. Shamanic dances ended in orgies, while sorcerers and shamans made and broke the fortunes of courtiers” ([BAT 19], p.40–41).

The period of the Warring Kingdoms was the end of the Zhou period (481–221 BCE): rival and powerful kingdoms developed aristocratic courts, with intellectual personnel going from court to court, which was already the case for Confucius. The myth of the Mesopotamian flood is also based on the enhancement of a character skilled in diplomacy. Confucianism viewed shamans and their excesses in a negative light, highlighting the ethics and political art of diplomats who circulated between the different courts in an attempt to consolidate alliances.

The first Qin Empire (221–206 BCE) was intended to break with Confucianism and the previous Zhou period. The first emperor burned all the books and buried alive the Confucians, those representatives of the curial and diplomatic activity of the Zhou period. This was a temporary halt to the development of courts, which resumed their development under the Hans, based on the organizational principles already in force in the Zhou period.

3.5.3. Rome and China

Two centuries later, two accessions to the Empire, the king of Qin who gave his name to China and Augustus in Rome, can be compared. The similarity of the imperial stelae that limited the two empires has been noted, with the same fundamental contradiction: there was only one emperor who reigned over the whole earth giving official propaganda, but in practice, this limited the emperor’s domain, building a gigantic defensive wall, the great wall or Roman limes.

The imperial doctrine of the Qin period, that of the unification of China, presented a kind of anomaly, the only time when the Empire did not rely on a heavenly Mandate. The emperor’s domain was that of all lands, while supernatural powers resided in the sky. The idea of a land mandate was also put forward by the first Roman emperor, who, in the stelae marking the extension of his empire, presented himself as an effective manager, reporting his facts to the Roman Senate. For major natural disasters, there was an alternative between cynical denial and the mandate from heaven. In the two historical sequences of Rome and China, an episode of cynical denial was well associated with the very formation of these empires. Cynical rhetoric was indeed mobilized by the very first Roman emperors. The doctrine of the gap between Heaven and Earth was expressed in the ethics of impassibility advanced by the Stoics.

It is possible to understand the formation of the Roman Empire as including a program to restore an idealized and recreated early Roman religion. “Jupiter is the master of the high dwellings of heaven and the kingdoms of a world with three aspects. The earth is under Augustus’ control. Both are fathers and heads of their empire” ([OVI 66], p. 394). The claim of a gap between the divine powers and an imperial political power was already present in China’s first imperial unification. This time, the episode had been revolutionary, in the sense of demanding a change in a general principle of political practice. The first emperor of China claimed to pass from the dynamics of fire, which he associated with that of the Warring Kingdoms, to that of water. The Chinese system of large courts with political specialists was being replaced in a revolutionary way by a unified federal norm, supported by the hegemony of the armies of the Qin kingdom.

In the overall history of the royal and imperial courts, these first two empires differ. The militarization carried out by the first Chinese emperor put forward a large administration, but voluntarily reduced the curial dimension, even though the aristocratic and royal courts had already established labels and modes of organization. The court of the High Roman Empire was a discreet innovation that was built from the Domus Augusta, with its servants, to whom Augustus added a council and a small bureaucracy. Curial sociability was that of many religious festivals held in Augustus’ house. The court was formed by a phenomenon of attraction, without any real status, Augustus’ Rome being officially neither a kingdom nor an empire [BAT 19]. While Tiberius chose to move between his residences under cover, Nero deployed the palatial complex of Domus aurea in full view after the fire in Rome. This curial pomp was not well accepted, but it testified to the process of establishing an imperial court as early as the High Empire.

Banishment of the literate took place during the concentration of powers leading to the first very great empires in China and Rome. The establishment of the Empire in China was done in a representation of time that succeeded the wuxing of fire and water. The purging of feudal lords in China also reached any form of recourse to history in the affairs of the time. The relationship with time during the formation of China was revolutionary in nature: the first Empire developed around a new political ideology, breaking with, for example, the tradition of the priest king receiving a mandate from heaven developed since the first Chinese kingdoms, and taken over by the emperors in the following dynasty, the Hans. In the early days of imperial Rome, Ovid’s banishment was justified by only one of these works, the Ars amatoria, the Art of Love, and the practice of private divination about the affairs of the time. The intersection of these sentences indicates that the dangerous conjugation for the literate was that of a Knowledge in the Present, appropriate to the contingency of human relations.

The exile from Ovid to Constanza or Constanța, in the Danube Delta, is a direct testimony to the early formation of the Roman court of the High Empire. Ovid, who had begun a political career, became a poet and courtier. His disgrace was a risk resulting from a codification of matrimonial relations, an imperial enterprise before which he expressed his disagreement. The Roman imperial religion remained Apollonian until 312, which valued a figure of the clumsy lover, not the skillful lover of the Art of Love, the only text that appears explicitly in Ovid’s act of relegation. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written shortly before his condemnation in 8 AD, highlighted a universal (all lands were submerged) and moralist (Philemon and Baucis, model and hospitable couple) flood, egalitarian for both spouses, in a courtly work towards Augustus, but was not entirely successful. The local populations of the Danube Delta where Ovid resided had popular dragon religions. The Roman armies adopted the badge of the troops of this part of Europe, the dragon as a complement to the imperial eagle. Between the dragon slayer of the official religion and the drakones of the local religions, the mythological dictionary of Metamorphosis did not found its place. The first imperial houses of the Upper Roman Empire were to deploy the empire’s affairs at home. The Roman court model was closer to that of the first Chinese courts before the empire, with the banquet as a center of sociability. The emperor was a father of a family who received people around his table. Women played a subordinate role. The Chinese model of the imperial court was that of the different boxes included one inside the other, which constituted a gradual series between the public and private spaces. The beginnings of the Roman Empire, through different choices of organization of spaces inside the palaces, were those where no clear plan was really imposed for a private life that is in public representation. The court etiquette of the High Roman Empire was affirmed by opposing the objectifying approach of the love relationships of Ovid’s Art of Love.

Art from the first Chinese dynasty gives a realistic representation of the entire army. The art was “hyper-realistic”: with, for example, a double bronze dragon very close to large snakes. The Chinese flood (myth of Yu the Great) was a reference that remains, even under the Qin. The variants were very small compared to a mythological framework very widely shared; however, Emperor Qin decided to burn all books and to have all those who have the memory of the books buried alive. The first Chinese emperor restored oral language, while on the Roman side, Ovid’s condemnation was part of a series of measures aimed at prohibiting private divination, thus silencing the immense babble that surrounded current events.

The will of eternity of the first emperor of China paradoxically founded historical science with Sima Qian, at the time of the next dynasty, that of the Hans, starting from a critical evaluation of the Qin period.

3.6. Discussion: the politicization of corporalities

The main theme of this book on the history of climate change is the interaction between strong climatic variations and human cultures. The period of these first empires of China and Rome was the period of the maximum extension of the Sahara desert towards the beginning of the Christian calendar era. A small cold variation was maximum in the second half of the 17th Century; then the Irish famine of 1846 marked the reversal towards global warming. Climate history studies indicate, for example, a weakening of the Tang dynasty by a greater irregularity in the monsoon regime. Human civilizations of the protohistoric and historical periods were thus dramatically affected by small variations in climate. For example, the Garamantes urban system based on transport by horse-drawn carts disappeared in the Sahara during the Roman Empire, replaced by the trans-Saharan caravan system using camels. Thus, in prehistoric times, strong climatic instability contributed to the stability of human cultures, while in protohistoric and historical times, slight climatic variations contributed to the rapid renewal of human civilizations.

Spiritual corporalities formed an element of adjustment for the Paleolithic. Inspired and voluntary body transformations were at the center of the strategies then implemented by men confronted with strong climate instability. For the analysis of the present, the current analytical framework is based on the two notions of political spirituality* and political religion. The notion of “political religion” was introduced by Gentile, based on an overview of anti-Semitic and fascist movements of the early 20th Century [GEN 05]. The terminology “political religion” arrived, like that of “totalitarian regime”, from fascist writings and the strong involvement of clerics in movements that used an explicit religious reference, as in the case of the Codreanu's “Legion of the Archangel Michael” in Romania. This terminology complements that of Raymond Aron, who spoke of “secular religions” for the analysis of communisms denouncing all forms of religion. Contemporary political scientists have thus introduced a category for totalitarian regimes which is common between “political religions” seeking to base themselves on religious motives and “secular religions” claiming a lack of religion. Either Tradition (Augustus and his aspiration to a Roman religion of the origins) or Revolution (the Emperor of the Qin dynasty and his Water element as a principle of action): this opposition has been present since the first Empires, but it is not a question here of questioning the transformations of the forms of political violence throughout history, but of an investigation limited to the possibilities of the influence of climatic variations on violent conflicts and changes in political cultures.

It is only at the beginning of isotopic stage 1 that archaeological evidence of population massacre by war action can be found, so that Paleolithic spiritual corporalities did not seem to be associated with forms of social violence other than self-mutilation, ritual, famine cannibalism or famine. The knock-on effect of high climate volatility has been limited to a redefinition of the division between mystic and ascetic, with an increase on the part of the latter.

The notion of “political spirituality” was also introduced in the context of 20th Century political events, as something that had been overshadowed by analyses of political and social movements focused on the period of the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th Century. In the analysis of major innovations, the notion of “political spirituality” can be contrasted with that of “technological shock”. In a technological shock, behaviors and regulations must adapt to the radical surprise of a new invention. For example, Georges Akerlof had verified that the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 20th Century corresponds well to this pattern of the initial technological shock that modifies behaviors and regulations [AKE 05]. Jacques Cauvin concluded that the Neolithic revolution, i.e. the beginnings of agriculture, did not correspond to this pattern of technological shock [CAU 00], but that on the contrary, it was spiritual aspirations that were modified first, whereas the tools and technologies remained the same at first. In this case, we are in “political spirituality”.

The abandonment of the cult of Apollo in 312 by Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity, raised a debate on the emperor’s real motivations [VEY 07]. The debate highlighted the elements of continuity in the determination of an imperial religion from Augustus to Constantine, who no longer wanted to find the original Roman religion as the first emperor but carried a new minority religion that he helped to structure [VEY 07]. Constantine added to the laws against libertine love, in accordance with Augustus’ initial orientations and the official justification of Ovid’s exile. The poet demanded two separate domains, that of the religious and that of the political, a separation that was increasingly non-existent in late Roman and Christian antiquity. Constantine relied on a normative theology in which divine Providence was expressed in anger, theorized by Lactantius [LAC 82]. This polemic against the impassive gods of philosophers, primarily differentiated from the Apollonian imperial Roman imperial religion, was that of a normative theodicy that made disaster acts of divine justice towards humans.

Several situations for a myth of flood, of rebirth, have been detailed here. For the Native Americans of the North American plains, it can be said that it was the formation of a political space that was thwarted, according to Clastres [CLA 74]. The settled and agriculturally active Mandan tribe was surrounded by a coalition of other tribes: some tribes experienced in the agricultural age a return to a predation economy, such as the Crow, indicating that interactions remain fixed on a high level of social violence. The Mandan flood was a great festival of spiritual corporalities, perpetuating in a living way practices introduced as early as the Paleolithic. The first empires in Rome and China introduced a new regime of corporalities. Under the Han, shamans no longer had to appear because of the introduction of court etiquette. The interpretation probably also applied to Ovid’s exile. This exclusion was due to an attempt to objectify social and romantic relationships. The art of love was probably perceived as the most contrary to the introduction of court etiquette. The terracotta armies of the first Chinese emperors fixed individualities in a social and individual identity, and this realistic immobility clearly contrast with the great festivals of the renewal of Nature and their multiple moving colored bodies that participated in the first human cultures.

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