Agriculture, Industry, and the Spiritual Realm: How Religion, Technology, and the Environment Interweave

Katie Sauvain

Whether or not you consider yourself a spiritual person, there is no denying the immense power and sway of religion throughout human history, from the time something compelled the Neanderthals to give their dead a burial.  Writer Paul Ehrlich hypothesizes that constraints on our consciousness – geographical unknowns, boundaries on knowledge, the mystery of what happens after we die – led to “a sense of transcendence – the feeling that there are things that exist beyond ordinary experience” (213).  Religion, along with myth and folklore, adapts over time as human culture undergoes significant changes.  If we examine the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions as major turning points in the lifetime of our race, we can see that religion, as well as technology, experienced overhauls around these two points.  The spiritual world both reacted to and provided support for changes in the primary mode of production.  The advent of the “dying god,” who is reborn each year; emphasis on the Christian idea of the dominion of man over the earth; prevalence of woodcutters and spindles in fairytales: all can all be linked to changes in human technology.

In examining religion in periods of agriculture and industry, it is valuable to begin before either of them – with the spirituality of hunting and gathering peoples.  In the primal religions, there is little division between the sacred and the secular.  The sacred exists on earth; it occupies animals, plants, and even inanimate stones, and humans venerate all these for their early creation and thus proximity to the divine source of the universe.  The Dreaming, for the Australian aborigines, was a sort of realm of ideals, but it didn’t exist separate from or above the everyday world – instead, it was merely a second way of experiencing this world.  By perfecting actions like hunting or lovemaking, ordinary humans could be identified with the First Hunter or First Couple of the Dreaming and attain some of their holiness.  In this culture, “there are no priests, no congregations, no mediating officiants, no spectators.  There is only the Dreaming and conformance to it” (Smith 367-368).  This perception of the spiritual is well supported by the way of life of the nomadic hunter-gatherers.  They traveled in small groups with little or no hierarchy.  Everyone worked to secure sufficient food.  There was no stratification beyond that of age and sex; likewise, there was no hierarchy of gods or strict distinction between the human and the divine.  In these groups, everyone had equal potential to interpret and experience the spiritual world.  This equality was reinforced by another lack – that of the technology of writing.  Exclusive reliance on orality allows for the perception of the divine through channels that aren’t written, such as nature and art.  Finally, although the environmental damage done by hunter-gatherers isn’t as negligible as many believe, the religion of the time views the earth as a sort of “living womb” (Smith 377), not as a wilderness to be conquered.  Hence, Smith writes, “[the people] have no disposition to challenge it, defy it, refashion it, or escape from it” (377), and hunter-gatherers did relatively little large-scale damage to the environment.

With the Agricultural Revolution and the food surplus that grew out of it came increased stratification in human groups.  Many people were needed to grow the food, but they could produce it in enough quantity that non-farmers could also be fed.  This produced diversified societies that contained ruling elites, often made up of religious leaders, who were in charge of distributing the surplus.  Around the same time, the relationship between ordinary people and gods shifted to one of worship rather than identification, and intermediaries sprung up between human and divine – priests, for example, who had special connections with the divine and were qualified to interpret its messages for the common man.  Stratification in the worldly realm and stratification in the realm of gods likely reinforced each other.  The nature of gods, too, changed as life became increasingly linked to the cycle of sowing, harvesting, and waiting until it was possible to sow again.  Osiris, one of the principal deities in Egyptian myth, is a prime example of the “dying god” who plays a major role in many ancient agricultural religions.  In Egypt, agriculture is dependent on the flooding and receding of the Nile River, which deposits rich sediments in the fields each year and then draws back to allow planting to occur.  Osiris is so much associated with the Nile that when the river receded, Egyptians would give gifts to the shore and mourn the god’s death.  When it flooded again, they celebrated in honor of his resurrection.  In the Osiris myth, the god is killed by his brother Seth (tellingly, the god of desert and storms) and resurrected by his sister and wife, Isis.  Tammuz, the river god of the Tigris and Euphrates, undergoes a similar cycle in Babylonian myth.  Even Jesus, it could be argued, is a member of this group.

When Christian doctrine was used during the spread of agriculture to justify massive deforestation, human manipulation of religion reached a height.  Before this time forests were often seen as the realms of, if not the sacred, at least the supernatural – sprites, demons, shapechangers, beasts of mythic proportion.  For the most part, the theory was, they should be left alone.  The hesitation of many Germanic tribes preserved their forests longer than others because “the primeval forest was of religious significance, and held in awe as the abode of the gods” (Williams 107).  With the spread of Christianity in Medieval Europe, however, the divine was taken off the earth altogether.  The earth was the domain of man, and as the true goal of life was to achieve a place in heaven, it wasn’t as important to keep everything pristine.  Williams shows us that proponents of Christianity set the stage for manipulation of the environment, writing, “early Christian fathers, such as Tertullian, Philo, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine…attempted to make Christianity more acceptable and less ‘other-worldly’ by emphasizing the message of Genesis – that God had given man dominion over nature” (112).  Groups of monks contributed greatly to deforestation by clearing large plots of land for monasteries and surrounding fields.  As the forests shrank, they became less a wilderness and more a playground of the nobility, set aside for their exclusive hunting.  Meanwhile, a virtuous woodcutter archetype crept into fairytales: remember the woodcutter who saves Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf, and the poor woodcutter persuaded only by his wicked wife to abandon Hansl and Gretl in the forest.

The beginnings of industry, too, made their mark on fairytales.  Flax became extremely important in Europe around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because of its use in linen manufacture.  Linen was so valuable an export that it could be exchanged for gold and silver in other lands, and flax grew in abundance on European soil.  Before it could become linen, though, it had to be spun.  Poor women were targeted by linen promoters in part because of the Christian idea that idleness was sinful – giving poor people work to do was much preferable to charity, which supposedly would only encourage their laziness.  The work was unpleasant, but spinning was a valuable skill that could secure a particularly talented girl a husband.  This ambiguity between toil and opportunity is reflected in the fairytale of Rumpelstiltskin.  In this story, a mother brags that her daughter can spin straw into gold in the hopes that she can marry her off.  In fact, the daughter can do no such thing, so she’s in trouble when she is brought to the castle and told that if she can spin a roomful of straw into gold she can marry the prince.  She is able to accomplish the feat only through the help of the knavish Rumpelstiltskin, who asks for the woman’s firstborn son in exchange for his aid.  From this story, we can pick out the advantages of marrying off daughters (families were poor, and one less mouth to feed would be a blessing), the monetary value of spinning (linen, remember, could be exchanged for gold and silver when exported), and the link between skill at spinning and marriage.

We often think of religion, myth, and folklore as being separate from our everyday existence, but when we examine their evolution we see that spiritual worlds form according to their specific environments, just as technology arises out of particular needs.  They also evolve when influential figures decide they should in order to manipulate or control believers.  Because technology, the environment, and religion don’t change exactly in step, it is sometimes necessary to draw back and look at major shifts and large spans of time in order to see the way they move each other.  But move each other they do, because their common link, mankind, has a hand in them all.

Works Cited

Ehrlich, Paul.  “The Dominance of Culture.”  Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect.  Island Press, 2000.  203-226.

Smith, Huston.  “The Primal Religions.”  The World’s Religions.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.  365-383.

Williams, Michael.  “Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis.”  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.  102-142.

Works Consulted

McDevitt, April.  “Osiris.”  Ancient Egypt: The Mythology.  2006.  10 March 2006.  <>.

Schneider, Jane.  “Rumpelstiltskin’s Bargain: Folklore and the Merchant Capitalist Intensification of Linen Manufacture in Early Modern Europe.”  177-213.

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last updated 1/25/06