Presented at the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference, Whittier, CA; Mar. 2011
Since its origins during the past quarter century, environmental ethics has morphed into a multidisciplinary field, largely due to an increase in awareness of our planetary ecocrisis combined with what many perceive as the failure of unitary disciplines such as theology, philosophy, and the sciences to engage and adequately address these concerns. Clearly, a new discourse is needed: one that is informed not only by multidisciplinary approaches, but that unifies the collective as well as points toward a more responsible treatment of nature and each other. Thomas Berry is among those who believe “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. […] The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective,” he claims in The Dream of the Earth (123). The “old story” of which Berry speaks is that of the Bible, which served its followers well until the so-called “enlightenment” that caused many to question the validity of religious claims about the cosmos. On the other hand, many indigenous myths are “old” stories that continue to thrive and retain their cultural influence. Berry suggests that this is because they, unlike those of nonindigenous groups, articulate an innate connection to nature. In Earth’s Insights J. Baird Callicott acknowledges the contribution that many indigenous traditions, by embodying an implicit environmental ethic, can make to understanding how ethics becomes located within a “cognitive context” (xiv). Although he lauds pagan Greek mythology as representing an ecoethical belief in the sanctity of nature, he criticizes it for its anthropocentrism (26). To the contrary, I wish to argue that ancient Greek myths about the indigenous nature goddess Artemis reflect rather a pervasive anthropomorphism, through which a prototypical environmental ethic is projected and may be recognized in the 2009 Academy Award-winning film, Avatar.
One of the earliest records of Artemis in classical Greek myth is found in Hesiod’s Theogony from the eighth century BCE, in which she is identified as the “archeress Artemis,” a daughter of Zeus and Leto and Apollo’s twin. Hesiod’s scant mention of Artemis suggests that she was originally an outsider among the Olympians, according to Robert Pogue Harrison in Forests (21). Her marginal status within the Olympic pantheon supports the theory that Artemis represented a prehistoric nature religion for the ancestral Greeks—or what author Bron Taylor might call dark green religion in his book entitled the same.
According to J. Donald Hughes, Artemis of ancient Greece “resulted from the transformation of a general type that had existed for millennia”: the goddess of the hunt, who was thought to protect wild animals and to exact retribution from hunters for disrespect, improper injury, or needless killing (191). Such a characterization seems logical given hunting’s primacy as a means of sustenance for Paleolithic peoples, who developed oral traditions, myths, and rituals that survived in folk culture, influenced art and literature, and actively inhibited exploitation of wildlife, says Hughes, who deduces an unwritten Artemisian “hunters’ code” that demanded respect for animals and plants and allowed the slaying of game only for human nourishment (194).
As an indigenous hunters’ religion, Artemis’s cult thus preserved beliefs and practices of the Greeks’ early forebears—traditions that were ultimately syncretized with those of other ancient cults. In addition to her prowess as a hunter, the two Homeric Hymns invoking Artemis identify her as a “virgin archer” and “the sacred virgin” (Boer 4, 5). Apparently, it was Artemis’s function to encourage the Greeks to value their “un-erotic,” or virginal, sides, as well as their hunting ability (xi). Possibly because of the archaic associations between Artemis and virginity, her domain came to be defined as chaste as well. Indeed, Hugh Parry asserts that the description of nature in Euripides’ Hippolytus works as a metaphor for Hippolytus’s own virtuous life of dedication to Artemis, making this Greek tragedy the first narrative to equate virginal nature with chastity (281). The environmental relevance of Artemis’s virginity is that everything within her domain—animals, forests, mountains, rivers, and the sea—was sacred to her. As virgin of the woodlands, Artemis inhabited a numinous realm: sacred places where human beings were forbidden access except to worship her, and where her presence could be invoked. In this way, sacred groves with at first undefined borders became dedicated to her, and experience of the divine, metaphorized as rituals, sanctified the settings where these experiences took place.
Artemisian spirituality therefore may be seen as a cultural and religious stance with regard to the environment similar to the one propounded by the indigenous Na’vi in Avatar. Just as there seem to have been specific rules and rituals, or what might be termed “commandments of Artemis,” enjoined upon hunters by tradition and custom, so do the Na’vi demonstrate a reverence for life and a desire to heal the breach provoked by its taking. For example, when Marine-cum-avatar Jake Sully thanks Neytiri, an Omaticaya clan princess of the Na’vi, for saving his life by killing the ferocious creature that has attacked him, she scoffs, “Do not thank me!” for she is not pleased to have taken the beast’s life for a reason other than food procurement. It thus becomes apparent that, as with Artemis’s cults, needless killing and injury are forbidden on Pandora, the mythical planetary setting for Avatar.
Indeed, as with the Greeks, whose ancient ritual associated with hunting, fishing, and gathering embodied an “implicit ethic of respect for other forms of life,” says Hughes, the Na’vi likewise perform a ritual following animal and plant life-taking in which they “bless” the dead and pray: “Your spirit goes with Eywa” (194-95). In this way, the Na’vi affirm their reverence for Eywa, their “Great Mother,” an archetypal figure of whom Artemis was an aspect. Accordingly, “All animals belong to the Great Mother,” says C. G. Jung, “and the killing of any wild animal is a transgression against the mother” (CW 5: 503). As a result, Jung says, “What seems a paradox to the modern mind […] is not one in primal hunting societies that see animals not as game, nor as enemies to be slain, but as powerful beings whose spiritual protectors must be propitiated” (CW 9.1: 427). Such respect for “mother” wisdom directly contrasts with the apparently androcentric, patriarchal nonindigenous society of Sully’s before he is “reborn” as a member of the Na’vi.
In their essay, “Opening Pandora’s Film,” Bron Taylor and Adrian Ivakhiv note this implicit ethic of respect for others that the Na’vi reveal throughout Avatar, calling this sensibility a “holistic ecological spirituality” (386). This ecological ethos may be seen, they maintain, in the Na’vi obligatory respect toward prey, as well as in the close relationship they believe is possible with other species (386). That such an ecoethic is critical for earth and human survival is the message that Avatar director James Cameron seems to be implying, according to Taylor and Ivakhiv, who further conclude that Cameron purposely calls for all humans to “understand their dependence on, and embeddedness in, a biosphere considered sacred” (387). For when the environment is sanctified, people feel more compelled to defend it, just as the Na’vi act to save Pandora (387). Indeed, belief in nature as sacred space is requisite for an ecoethical attitude, as several studies have shown (Jon P. Bloch; Nalini Tarakeshwar et al.).
Their sanctification of nature indicates another parallel between Na’vi beliefs and practices and those of other indigenous cults, including Artemis’s. For the former, their “most sacred place” is the Tree of Souls, where outsiders are forbidden but where clan members believe they may make contact with and hear the voices of their ancestors. The Tree of Souls appears as one of many in an Artemisian-like sacred grove and depicted in the film as bearing luminous, undulating tentacle-like branches.
Like other indigenous mythologies, the Na’vi belief system may be seen also as a repository of “traditional ecological knowledge,” or TEK, which is defined by anthropologist Fikret Berkes as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (8). As such, TEK inspires “an ethic of nondominant, respectful human-nature relationship, a sacred ecology” (163). Berkes claims that such a perspective shapes environmental perception, gives meaning to observations of the environment, and provides a fundamental lesson that worldviews do matter (14, 182). In Avatar, TEK may be recognized in the scenes depicting Neytiri teaching Sully the Na’vi language and way of life along with showing him how to hunt and to make a “queue”—the bonding that occurs between hunters and their ikrans, the flying pterodactyl-like beasts they tame and ride by linking their hair braids to tails extending from the creatures’ ears. Neytiri also explains to Sully how to use his queue to bond with the branch-ends of the Tree of Souls, enabling communication with Eywa and thus to Pandora’s “network of energy,” as the film’s anthropologist, Grace Augustine, calls it.
Like Jung, David Abram, Paul Shepard and others, Berkes derives contemporary environmental problems from human “alienation from nature,” but he believes that indigenous, relational epistemologies can teach a way back (3). By learning from indigenous peoples who are not alienated in this way, Berkes argues that it becomes possible to develop “an alternative view of ecosystems [as] pulsating with life and spirit, incorporating people who belong to that land and who have a relationship of peaceful coexistence with other beings” (182). In fact, such a transformation in attitude seems to be precisely what happens to Sully’s avatar during his initiation into the Omaticaya clan. Sully’s “rebirth,” as he calls it, ultimately leads him to visit the Tree of Souls and invoke Eywa’s aid in the Na’vi defense of Home Tree, the gigantic, multi-branching tree where they live, against the Jake’s own Sky People, who closely resemble and sound like Americans, and who are attacking Home Tree in order to gain access to “unobtainium,” the mineral they want that exists nowhere else.
Neytiri, however, advises Sully that Eywa is unlikely to respond to his prayers, for “our Great Mother does not take sides. She protects only the Balance of Life.” Like Artemis, Eywa thus represents not a personal figure but an archetypal concept of relationship: “a network of energy that flows through all living things,” as Augustine explains to the disbelieving invaders, who mock instead the Na’vi belief system in order to justify their own reprehensible actions: “You throw a stick around here and it’ll land on a sacred fern, for Christ’s sake! What the hell have you people been smoking out there? They’re just goddamn trees.” The use of expletives here indicates that for the alien Sky People, the world is profane, not sacred. Augustine persists, however, pointing out that an “electrochemical communication between the roots like synapses” exists on Pandora, giving the trees “more connections than the human brain”—providing, I suggest, a means of cultural rootedness and identity among the Na’vi that the invaders decidedly lack.
Moreover, by virtue of this cultural rootedness and the exhortations of Sully, who has himself become indigenized, so to speak, through his Omaticaya initiation, the Na’vi are ultimately moved to ecoethical action to defend Home Tree. Avatar thus exemplifies cinematically an essential feature of ethopoietic narratives of place: the celebration of natural environments with spiritual value in and of themselves that motivate activism for their protection. Sully’s indigenization therefore reflects his transformed consciousness and ethos that blends the feminine with the heretofore androcentric worldview of the West into an androgynous, Artemisian perspective.
Avatar thus illustrates that by embodying cultural worldviews, indigenous myths may inspire ethical attitudes toward nature by individuals who intuit what is right as opposed to being lectured about what is right. No one forces or even advises Sully to defend Home Tree; he simply does it, as if in response to an inner directive. As psychologist Lionel Corbett posits, “When the myth in which we live is unconscious, we are like a fish in water; the myth creates the atmosphere in which we live and is taken for granted. Our fundamental attitudes are then derived from it” (84). Corbett articulates here the innate sense of “doing the right thing” when one is guided by a living narrative, however unconsciously.
Mythic narratives are critical because they help us to make sense of life, as philosopher Charles Taylor attests in Sources of the Self. Self-identity requires “an orientation to the good” which has to be woven into an understanding of “life as an unfolding story” (47). Accordingly, Taylor says, a “basic condition of making sense of ourselves [is] that we grasp our lives in a narrative” (47). Making sense of life as a story is absolutely obligatory, because in order to have a sense of self, people must have a notion of how they have become and of where they are going (47). Psychotherapists Robert Coles in The Call of Stories and James Hillman in Healing Fiction concur. For in the telling, hearing, and reading of stories one connects with others not only on an interpersonal level, as one identifies with the teller-protagonist, but on an intrapersonal level, i.e. psychically, which Hillman says is “soul-making.” Such a feeling of “uniting” and “convincing” through myth suggests that the coming together for a common cause like environmentalism can only take place when there exists an embedded ethos within a guiding narrative that is recognized and internalized within a community, as the uprising of the Na’vi to defend Home Tree clearly demonstrates.
Avatar thus epitomizes what Callicott has called an “evolutionary-ecological environmental ethic” that is complemented by indigenous ecoethics, which he says can provide “symbols, images, metaphors, analogies, stories, and myths to advance the process of articulating the new postmodern scientific worldview” (192). He admits, however, that “the articulation and dissemination of something so general, multifaceted, and fundamental as a new picture of nature, human nature, and the relationship between the two cannot be effected by a few able writers in each relevant scientific field” (192). This is because, he says, the “process of worldview poiêsis is gradual, cumulative, and ongoing” (192). In other words, like the ancient myths that once communicated moral behavior and values, the discourse of environmental ethics will be most effective when the symbolic, non-rational language of poetry is returned to philosophy, and mythology is restored to its archaic function of providing individuals with narratives that help them make sense of their lives, that enable indigenization to their environments. As Berry says, “It’s all a question of story.”
Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoë Saldana. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD.
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