Building a Culture, pt 2

We last left our budding culture at the Animist stage. In nearly every hunting and gathering society in history, the men hunt and the women gather. There’s some cross over. But in general, this is about as far as the division of labor goes. Women generally learn to make baskets to aid in gathering and, although this is highly skilled labor, it’s something that all women in that culture will learn to do just as all men will learn to make better hunting tools.

But as a society grows, so does its needs. Eventually, the material goods produced by a growing society become varied enough, that our tribe of generalists will need to start specializing. There’s pottery to craft, clothing to stitch, meat to smoke, beads to trade for, and crops to sow. That brings us to the rise of agriculture. This seems to be the stage where labor first becomes highly stratified and a growing culture turns from animism to polytheism. Of course there are always some stubborn cultures in history that buck this trend--many Native American tribes from the central plains for example which made the jump to polytheism without agriculture. But for the most part, once a society stratifies, so must its culture.

But as a side note, let’s discuss agriculture as there’s a misconception to clear up. We tend to think growing our food instead of hunting and gathering it is somehow better or more civilized. This is not the case. In fact farming is the less valuable alternative in nearly every way. Farming is a lot more work. It’s high yield, and high risk. That means when crops fail, there’s mass starvation. You’re also stuck, imprisoned if you will, to stay near your field to tend and protect it for long periods of time. And once you harvest your food and store much of it over the winter, you have to constantly keep it protected from bandits. This leads to cities and walls and armies and all kinds of hassle. Under no circumstance would any sane group of people chose farming over hunting and gathering, except for one. Hunting and gathering can’t sustain more than a small group in an area. Do not make the mistake of having your small fictional tribe see agriculture for the first time and think it’s a good idea if they can get by just fine hunting and gathering.

So as our society turns into specialists, they develop Gods and Demigods that equally specialize in different parts of the cosmos that need to be tended to. You might expect at this point, a society will develop Gods that do the same things they do. For example, a God of Basket Weaving, a God of Carrying Water for the Village, etc. But we all know this is not the case. Gods are, instead, created to personify things that the average individual cannot easily control: natural phenomenon, human behavior, acquisition of wealth and luxury goods, luck or misfortune, etc. Consider the most famous Gods and Goddesses cross culturally: Zeus is the God of Thunder and Lightning, Isis the Goddess of Fertility, Quetzalcoatl is the God of the Sun, Loki is the God of Mischief and Misfortune, Mars is the God of War, Lakshmi is the Goddess of Fortune and Beauty, and on it goes. Once these Gods are created, individuals can do things to gain favor with them in an effort to have some control over what they represent. Roman soldiers may pray to Mars. Egyptian farmers may pray to Isis. Hindu shop owners may pray to Lakshmi while Norse ones try to avoid attracting the attention of Loki.

Speaking of praying, notice that a shaman reaching trance state to commune with spirits is not terribly different from meditating to find inner peace or wisdom which is not terribly different from praying to a God. Do not make the mistake of assuming one is better or more civilized than another. They are simply different methods to achievement the same results of having more control over what is otherwise unpredictable. But notice how natural a transition it is.

So consider this when creating Gods in your agriculture, pre-industrialized based society. What aspects of their world will individuals want more control over? Up next: monotheism and the industrial revolution.

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