Past Futures, Future's Past

Past Futures, Future's Past

Rob Swigart

The second in a series of two essays developing the parallels between Iraq and the Peloponnesian Wars, between classical Empire and postmodern Imperialism.

The second in a pair, following Satisfying Ambiguity.

One day in 415 BC a messenger arrived from the oracle at Delphi to tell the Athenians that ravens were destroying the statue of Athena. It was the sixth year of the Peace of Nikias, the `cold war’ in the middle of a protracted conflict between Athens and Sparta now called the Peloponnesian War, and the news couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The Athenians were discussing an invasion of Sicily. Some saw a request for help from a minor city on the island as an opportunity. Other cities on the island, they said, would rise up and welcome the Athenians as liberators. Sicily may be far away, but it was a rich land, fat with grain, and once it had joined the Athenian empire Sparta would no longer be a threat. Athens would be invincible. Even mighty Carthage would be vulnerable then.

But there were those ravens pecking at the Palladium. This small statue of Pallas Athena, patron deity of Athens, sat atop a bronze palm tree. Athens had donated it to Delphi to commemorate Athenian participation in the defeat of the Persians at the beginning of the century. For decades it had served as a reminder of Athenian democracy, ingenuity, and bravery. Its destruction would be a very bad sign indeed.

Debate in the Assembly over the expedition to Sicily was heated. The war party hinted darkly that Syracuse must have bribed the oracle to concoct a story that would discourage the invasion. They dismissed the prophesy as pure propaganda.

Others argued that this was not the time to invest so much in such a risky operation when the Spartans were still nearby and powerful. Those ravens meant something, and it wasn’t good.

There were other omens, too: the invasion would take place during the Festival of Adonis, celebrated by a re-enactment of the god’s funeral, a bad time to plan a military campaign. Then a priestess arrived from Clazomenae and it turned out her name meant Peace. Finally, one night in early June, someone desecrated most of the sacred statues of Hermes in the city, causing widespread consternation.

But the war party dismissed all evil omens and the invasion went ahead as planned. Two years later the Athenian navy was lost, forty thousand had been slaughtered in the final massacre at the Assinaros River, and the remaining few thousand perished from cold, hunger, and disease while imprisoned in the quarries outside Syracuse. Nine years later an exhausted Athens surrendered to Sparta and the great empire effectively ceased to exist.

Omens and oracles are technologies designed to reveal, at least in part, what has not yet happened. Like the war party in Athens, we may dismiss omens as superstition, but ever since human beings invented the future they have sought, one way or another, to control it. We have tried propitiation, begging through prayer or sacrifice for divine or supernatural intercession, to make the crops grow, to repel invaders, to prevent disaster, or to help us defeat our enemies. We tried prediction through prophecy, oracles, and today, intelligence organizations. We invest in planning and strategy, ways to reduce or eliminate risk. Yet our efforts persist in being futile more often than effective.

This may be because we do not yet understand what we mean by `future.’ Even a superficial glance at discussions of the subject shows that there have been, and are now, many futures, many views of it, many ways to sense it.

The future is a relatively recent development. For the first two or three million years of our existence as tool-making hominids the future did not exist. Time was grounded in cycles: the days, the months, the seasons. Our ancestors wandered the world in small bands, making and discarding stone implements, hunting when they could, gathering when possible, eating as they moved. They were mobile, navigating a landscape by means of focal points, landmarks like unusual rock shelters, ponds, caves, open spaces, associated in memory with timeless or often-repeated events like gatherings with other bands or rich resources. Habitation was temporary, transparent, opportunistic; a cave, a few branches tossed over a frame, a rock shelter. Theirs was an immediate-return society.

For millennia, people slowly gathered innovations - language, new ways of shaping stone, graphic depictions of elements from the world around them. A cognitive shift happened in the Paleolithic; symbolic thinking emerged with a sense that the world held powers beyond sight, forces that operated independently of people.

Humans evolved alongside their resources, and knew `instinctively’ as it were, where and when they could find game and edible plants. They disposed of their dead casually because death was part of the cycle, embedded in life. They made tools and used them on the spot. With language came origin myths of the beginnings of the people, but those stories were disconnected from the daily and seasonal cycles and relegated to a different, unknowable time.

True, in the Paleolithic time a line began to emerge; its people may have had even a foreshortened sense of the future. A spear, for instance, launched into the air, leaves the hand and follows a trajectory in time as well as space. Time unrolled a bit further with the bow and arrow; making the bow, stringing it, shaping the arrow, drawing back, sighting along its future path, letting go, all required foresight, planning, a sense of cause and effect. Traps too demand a sense of the future, of a delayed return. This future was still limited, though, and its curve quickly disappeared around the bend of the cycle.

Such technologies only hint at what will come around 10,000-12,000 years ago, in many different places (though most visibly in southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe). People discovered the wall, and everything about the world began to change.

A wall is a technology. Connect four and cover them, and you have a house, a permanent, fully enclosed cave, exactly where you want it, shaped by human hands, built, not found. Heat stays in, strangers stay out. Risk appears reduced, comfort increased.

But walls require an investment in labor and time, and in turn create new problems. They retain too much heat in summer. Those inside can’t see what’s happening around the house. They can’t get out, and those outside can’t get in. So walls force remedial technologies, like door and window openings. But these in turn create new problems: the wind blows in, strangers can see. Hence curtains, doors, locks. Building a house demands careful planning to include greater complexity.

Walls may also change perception. If hunter-gatherers saw the world in terms of specific places dispersed around a landscape without apparent end, even if bounded on one side by an ocean, domesticated man began to create limits. The wall of the house is a man-made boundary, a line between the inside and the outside. In turn, the house detached itself from the `wild.’ Wilderness, filled with hidden dangers, arbitrary violence, treasures, and traps, lost resolution and focus and slowly faded into an unknown and frightening place. What was close and familiar became separated from what was farther away and unknown.

Initially we may imagine houses were scattered in this wilderness which men exploited as best they could. There is increasing evidence that settlements came before agriculture, and that for reasons perhaps having to do with increasing symbolic thought, people gathered in increasingly populated centers and stayed there. Gradually, because they stayed in one place, they noticed that plants dropped seeds and grew again in the same place, and at the same time in the next annual cycle. Permanence and boundary walls promoted new modes of observation. Planting seeds and harvesting the crops brought the wilderness into the familiar, making it dependable. The zone of the familiar extended outward from the house, overlapping with others, who had settled nearby.

The line of the house wall put boundaries on the world, creating dualities: inside-outside; public-private; us-them. Settlements put up palisades, and the wall now contained a village.

Yet these were still hunter-gatherers, accustomed to flexible, small bands. If one grew discontented, she could leave and join another band. Rooted populations could no longer afford to do that. They had invested too much in building, had delayed gratification for too long. They were forced to encounter neighbors all their lives. Such familiarity was a breeding-ground for conflict and demanded more complex forms of social control and symbolic manipulation.

Thus the so-called Sedentary Divide changed everything. By driving thought toward the line and away from the cycles of movement and landmark, the focus of attention changed. As villages grew and drew an increasingly broad area into the familiar and known, time had to change as well.

Çatal Höyük was a continuously inhabited Neolithic village on the Konya Plain in Southern Anatolia. It flourished for over a thousand years, from roughly 7400 to 6200 BC, and over that time built up a mound over fifteen meters high and covered twelve hectares, and represents the largest and most densely populated (up to ten thousand inhabitants at its peak) settlement known. It is an agglomeration of dwellings built side by side in the midst of swampy land. The area was fertile and relatively benign, teeming with game and rich in plant life, though winters were fairly harsh.

Çatal has much to tell us about the invention of the future, because its future is known, and there are tantalizing hints of how people may have seen and thought about what had not yet happened.

At the beginning it seems to have been based primarily on hunting and gathering; there is little evidence of agriculture. Yet the people chose to live in small unlit rooms, pressed against their neighbors, apparently in family groupings of five or six such houses. Entry was through the roof. The village, which grew nodally as newcomers added on to the existing structure, presented only blank walls to the outside.

Death took on a new meaning in this area of the world. Archaeologists have uncovered many burials of decapitated men, many plastered skulls, many burials in the floors. Columns separated areas of the walls, which were plastered in different ways, decorated with images of wild animals and human figures. The floors too were divided into sections, with raised platforms. Walls had been replastered many times, in some instances several times a year.

So space is now divided by man in ways that are clearly symbolic and ritualized. Actions repeat. One house contained 60 burials, while the surrounding ones, presumably relatives, contained none. One house became the focus for the family grouping.

Burial implies a past, and a memory of it. When the useful life of the house was over the roof was torn off, the upper walls knocked down, and the rest filled in, covering hearth and oven, walls and paintings and burials. The house became a tomb, and on top they built another house, often with the same layout and structure. Thus the mound grew through time.

What do the wall paintings, the plastered cattle skulls (bucrania), and careful burials tell us? Symbolic thought populated the world with spirits. Shamans in contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures are intermediaries with the spirit world; they bring back guidance or health. They are often helped by animals - carried on the back of a turtle or a wild aurochs (a kind of cattle) into the underworld, for instance, or by migratory bird or vulture into the upper realm. The animals through which a shaman connects are wild. When animals came into the domus, the house, and became familiar - domesticated - the shaman was forced to reach outward to a new set of animal helpers, those who have remained wild. As the world grew more familiar, and so more complex, the shaman gave way to priests who could manipulate symbols in repetitive, `rational’ ways.

The shamanic world is divided into three parts, the upper realm of spirits, the middle world where we live our daily lives, and the darker earth realm, the place of burial and memory. In this way sedentary Neolithic space gets distributed in new ways, bounded by walls. This distribution is man-made, as the familiar is man-made, and the zone around the house is increasingly arranged, first through architecture and then through agriculture, in ways both symbolic and practical.

Yet there is little evidence at Çatal for division of labor in these dark, crowded interiors. That will come later. Each household was built by its own inhabitants, using materials at hand. The materials differed from house to house. Tool making, food preparation, ritual, all seem to have occurred in every home. There is no sign (yet?) of public spaces or open ritual centers. Çatal is essentially one large, densely populated apartment house in the middle of nowhere.

Halfway through its occupation, though, came new elements. Pottery, for instance. Not only pots, but unusual clay balls appear. They were apparently used for cooking: heat one in the fire and then drop it into the pot to boil water. In this way one fire might serve to heat water for several households. One person could tend the cooking for many, freeing others for less practical activities like developing social status.

We can imagine these houses as they were, the uneven levels of their roofs like a rough open landscape. Up here in the realm of sky, cloth or leather lean-tos would protect the entrance/smoke hole from the rain. The complex roof might resemble a temporary Paleolithic camp, just a few scattered half-tents open to the wind and the eyes of others. Smoke would spiral up from the entrances, each spiral representing a family hearth. This would be the ancient landscape brought to a standstill, like a memory of the deep past when men moved over the earth without marking it deeply.

The smoke escaping into the upper realm might also appear up there as if it were exhaled from the subterranean world, revealing the presence of hidden spirits. Underneath these roofs, though, are the real dwellings - private, enclosed, gloomy spaces filled with smoke (many Çatal burials show evidence of carbon in the lungs). Space down here was divided into smaller spaces, levels, areas, each one for a different function: cooking, tool making, sleeping. Off them were back chambers, separated from the main room by walls, for storage, among other things. Small rounded openings offered access. They were not doors, but portholes through which one had to crawl. So the house might be the middle world, and these dark back rooms the underworld, caves.

Public space was above. Only there could one encounter one’s neighbors. Only there could one look down and see how far the mound had grown over this endlessly changing building. One could see, from up there, clear evidence of a linear past, with a beginning at the level of the plain, and a story told over and over in each layer as it was put down on the previous one.

Burial is memory, and space, changing visibly through time, is memory too. Turn around, then, and look the other way, and men began to see there was a future separate from the cycles that had determined life until then. The wheel that was time left a line behind it, straight and flat into the past. Time, spatialized, took a new form, and with it demanded, insisted, coerced men into searching for ways to understand it. Because time no longer repeated, the world had grown unpredictable.

In the later Neolithic, agriculture and the domestication of animals hastened the linearization of time; such activities don’t allow for immediate returns. Breeding sheep inherently means thinking forward (our metaphors for time are spatial), imagining the distant future result of today’s action.

Like the wilderness, the future was unfamiliar and unknown. A few things might repeat with some certainty - sunrises and such - but there were consequences to actions taken today people could not foresee. Often those consequences were bad. All the fires in Çatal needed wood, and as population grew, available wood shrank. Rainfall changed because the trees disappeared. Smoke from the fires ended lives earlier than before. Agriculture could feed more people, but with harder work, and with less nourishment; lives and stature grew shorter.

Çatal represents a transitional state in human cultural evolution, a mostly hunter-gatherer society becomes fixed and sedentary, its members forced to cohabit with others throughout their lives, to confront the tensions and fears that privacy and familiarity both create, to solve new kinds of problems.

The future grew more compelling as an object. Unpredictable events, or unpredicted ones, could kill. If the game disappeared, or drifted farther and farther away, people had to find ways to coordinate hunting trips. What cultivated fields there were were ten or fifteen kilometers away. Tending fields at that distance is not a day job, and would have required extended trips or organized rotations of labor. One would have to know the right season to plant and project into the future the appropriate time to harvest, and then organize a harvest party at the right time.

So time has developed a three-part structure to mirror the organization of the house. The past, buried in the soil beneath the foundations, along with the dead, supports the living present. The future, above, vast, empty but for the small motions of birds, and the vaster movement of weather, brings the unknown along with the seasonal cycles. The origin myth becomes history, visible in the height of the mound, the memories of past generations in the earth beneath their very beds.

We find that the future has a past, and that the past has had futures all along. Although time is not entirely linear, and never will be - after all, cycles persist in agriculture as elsewhere - it became largely so in the Neolithic, and linear time is unpredictable and filled with surprise. So we human beings, unlike all other animals, create technologies to help us understand what will happen.

The caution here is that Palladium in Delphi. The Delphic oracle was the center of Greek religion because it was the place that interpreted, through the Pythia’s words, the thoughts of Apollo, who knew the future. The future was the real turf of religion, the only `place’ in daily life where the unknown, the unexpected, the feared and desired, ruled, and mere mortals needed help. Priests filled other functions, of course, but they all related, one way or another, to the future. Funeral rites were for the dead, but they propitiated the dead, assured their future lives, and gave future to the surviving living. Memory creates the future; tradition is a way of mapping the past into that line ahead, of preserving it.

The oracle’s words were often ambiguous and difficult to interpret. In that sense, not much had changed since the Neolithic. The flight of birds, the entrails of sacrificial animals, the dreams of kings, all might offer clues for interpretation. Of course those clues might be manipulated for political purposes, and political purposes are always, by definition, self-interested and short-sighted. It’s possible Syracuse had bribed the oracle to send those omens to Athens. It’s possible the oracle was susceptible to bribery. But there were people in Athens willing to accept this as an evil omen because they wanted to stop the invasion of Sicily.

We know what happened, we know the future of that moment: the invasion was a disaster, a folly, the product of a fevered dream of conquest and world domination. We know the history, that the omens were right, and if the Athenians had heeded them they could have avoided catastrophe.

Yet we say that omens are based in superstition, in a desire to believe they reveal something of the future. The supplicant with his question, the Pythia speaking in tongues, the priests who explained those riddles, had nothing but intuition, their own understanding of the world, to help them, and human understanding is fallible, partial and incomplete. Today we want a technology more in keeping with our time, a science of the future.

Society has become enormously complex. We can no longer leave our band when we are dissatisfied or conflict blocks our way. Our band is global and consists of billions of people, and everyone everywhere is a neighbor; there is nowhere else to go. The house engendered such divisions, and the wall blocked sight. Envy and fear were inevitable once the wall was in place. What are the neighbors doing inside their houses? Their expressions are ominous; they portend harm. If they are planning to attack me (since they wonder too what I am doing in here), perhaps I had better strike first.

The wall brought many benefits. If it had not, or if the species could have collectively foreseen the results far, far into the future, we might have abandoned it as a bad idea. Their vision was not so good, though. The signs were ambiguous. Today’s comfort trumps tomorrow’s tragedy. The forests are gone from the Konya Plain around Çatal. The Classic Maya in Central America, who had the most sophisticated calendar in the world, and with it could predict the cycles of Venus, the phases of the moon, the coming of the equinox and eclipses of the sun, could not see the consequences of their own collective actions, and so their civilization collapsed and disappeared, taking with it their art, their sculpture and temples and elegant writing. They could not predict because they picked the easy fruit, the external stuff of stars and seasons, and ignored the consequences of their daily lives, the myriad small decisions that led to ecological exhaustion, diminishing marginal returns, deforestation, drought, social unrest, disease, and loss of faith in an expanding future.

The future breathes. It fills with promise, with hope, and then exhales it all and gasps for air. How we think about the future changes with the present, because the future flows directly from now, and the stories we tell about it reflect the social reality in which we live.

The people who built Çatal are gone. Until the late 1950s the village was buried and unknown. When James Mellaart began to dig in 1961, he started unraveling a story. The way he told it there were ritual shrines. People worshipped cattle. Female figurines have convinced some in our age that the people of Çatal worshipped a mother earth goddess, and now new-age goddess worshippers make the journey. They go because they want to know the future. We all do.

Excavations continue, and the story changes with each new spadeful of earth: now we know there were no public places, no ritual shrines. So we learn a future for Çatal, one the priests tried so hard to know, and failed. And so we know the future of Athens, a great empire that decided, in a moment of arrogance and prideful enthusiasm, to invade a distant land. We know that the Athenians, who had the most powerful navy in the world, went to Sicily with an enormous fleet and overwhelming force. We know that two years later there was nothing left.

We know there were omens, signs that warned them against it, and that they ignored them.

Self-interest is a powerful force, and a necessary one. Without it we would never act at all, and we are creatures made to act. But we need a different kind of vision as well. The future, that vaguely defined yet-to-come, remains elusive. History does repeat - sort of. Creating the future without some knowledge of the past is, in the words of historian Daniel Boorstin, “like trying to plant cut flowers.” Our difficulty is knowing when time is moving through a cycle, and when it is going in a straight line, and it is doing both at the same… time.

Memory is a track of the past, obscured by dust and bad weather, and so unreliable. We can only see part of it, the part that matters to us, today. It is, nevertheless, all we have. In recent decades we have seen history in a state of constant revision. The story it tells keeps changing, growing richer and more complex. It has become postcolonial, feminist, posthuman, multicultural, etc. Strange parallels between disparate parts of the world widely separated in time as well have come to light. Echoes of the collapse of Mesopotamia five thousand years ago occur in the more recent failure of the Maya in Central America.

And there was the Athenian invasion of Sicily. A great empire, the most enlightened (by our lights) on earth, makes a decision, collectively, to go to war in a time of peace. They thought their reasons were sound. The risk was high but the potential rewards were great. They were a democracy and they could bring democracy to others not so blessed. We may find echoes today, of course. But the important, over-riding issue is the future. We know now that our actions will have consequences. We know that many of them are unintended. We know that in a society as complex as the global one in which we live the returns are delayed ever more. Memory is long, and the future should be as long, but immediate events always get in the way. Today’s crisis demands our attention, and we don’t have `time’ to think about the consequences to our response to it.

But we must consider our future carefully. A long past generates a long future. While we hunted and gathered, the future could be as short as a day. After all, yesterday passed, as did lifetimes, without change.

When people began to build a mound out of walls, though, the future fell into history. It has been growing longer ever since. Although our technologies of the future are still very imperfect and we can predict it little better than the Athenians, we ignore it at our peril.

Why did ravens suddenly start pecking at the Palladium? It might be wise today to remember that the Athenians chose to ignore the omen to their regret. Mass demonstrations opposing the war in Iraq could have been such an omen. In the time since the war began we might come to see the global protests as a collective intuition that such a decision was unnecessary and reckless, equivalent to the destruction of a statue of Athena, who was, after all, the goddess of wisdom.


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