Thursday, May 26, 2011

Spiritual Ecology and the Lesson of Crete

If Gaia is our “Natural Mother” then Ecology is her language—Nina Munteanu

In a time when North American scientists and politicians are debating the pros and cons of a new carbon tax, theologian Sallie McFague contends that climate change currently poses a greater danger to the globe than Nazism prior to the Second World War (See my postscript at the bottom of this post). In a previous post, I described the debilitating psychological condition called solastalgia, a response to the loss felt in climate change-related impacts. McFague goes so far as to embrace a militant approach to the problem, urging citizens to dedicate themselves fully and be willing to sacrifice to save the planet’s eco-system. In her recent book, A New Climate for Theology, McFague espouses a spiritual attitude of gratitude and praise toward the natural world while adopting a radical war footing against global warming.

McFague widely defines “spiritual” to include the secular appreciation of nature. Rather than regarding God as a “being, McFague subscribes to the idea that God is the source of life, love and hope. A spiritual approach would provide the inner strength to tackle the worst effects of changing climate patterns, says Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun, who added, “I have been re-convinced of the necessity of a spiritual response to environmental problems.”

A spiritual connection with nature is nothing new. First Nations peoples have practiced it for millennia.

Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice & the Blade, writes of the ancient Bronze Age culture of Minoan (later Minoan-Mycenean) Crete (1,000 to 1,500 BCE), who still revered the Goddess. Citing Nicolas Platon, an archeologist who had excavated the island for over fifty years, Eisler writes of a society in which “the whole of life was pervaded by an ardent faith in the goddess Nature, the source of all creation and harmony”; this in a time when art extolled the symbols of nature—such as the serpent and butterfly, both symbols of transformation, rebirth and wisdom.

“In Crete,” writes Eisler, “for the last time in recorded history, a spirit of harmony between women and men as joyful and equal participants in life appears to pervade [in] a tradition that is unique in its ‘delight in beauty, grace, and movement’ and in its ‘enjoyment of life and closeness to nature.’ ” Despite the fact that they were surrounded by threats from an increasingly warlike and male-dominated world, Cretans remained an “exceptionally peace-loving people” and their art did not idealize warfare. Cretans maintained “an ardent faith in the goddess Nature,” writes Platon. “This led to a love of peace, a horror of tyranny, and a respect for the law. Even among the ruling classes, personal ambition seems to have been unknown; nowhere do we find the name of an author attached to a work of art or a record of the deeds of a ruler.”

“The differences between the spirit of Crete and that of its neighbors,” writes Eisler, “are of more than academic interest.” The lack of Cretan military fortifications and signs of aggressive war—in sharp contrast to the walled cities and chronic warfare that were elsewhere already the norm—provides a confirmation from the past that peaceful human co-existence is not just a utopian dream.”

Cretan art reflected a society in which power was not equated with dominance, destruction and oppression. I think it is no coincidence that gender equality and harmony is linked to the pantheistic value of nature. The appreciation of beauty, grace and harmony is a “feminine” characteristic, one that ambitious warlike and highly competitive exploitive societies have no time to cultivate.

Eisler notes that a “recognition of our oneness with all of nature” lay at the heart of both the Neolithic and Cretan worship of the Goddess. She adds, “Increasingly, the work of modern ecologists indicate that this earlier quality of mind, in our time often associated with some types of Eastern spirituality, was far advanced beyond today’s environmentally destructive ideology. In fact, it foreshadows new scientific theories that all the living matter of earth, together with the atmosphere, oceans, and soil [and I would add the universe] forms one complex and inter-connected “life” system.” Quite fittingly, scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis called this the Gaia Hypothesis—Gaia being one of the ancient Greek names of the Goddess.

At the same time that Riane Eisler was writing The Chalice & the Blade, Lynn Margulis developed her theory of endosymbiosis and suggested that evolution advanced through cooperation more than the Darwinian paradigm of competition (surely a “masculine” outlook).

Eisler provides examples of sociobiologists who draw on nineteenth-century Darwinism by citing insect societies to support their androcratic (social and political rule by men) theories. If we are to truly rise victorious over the scourge of climate change—a function of our current lifestyle and paradigms—we will need to adopt a cultural evolution that embraces a partnership society heralded by new and renewed symbology, language and “myth”.

For a few years I co-taught an environmental education course for primary and secondary school teachers. The course was intended to help teachers introduce environmental precepts and general awareness in all aspects of the primary and secondary school curriculum, such as creative ways to infuse environmental stewardship in courses from math to art. As much as I liked the integrative approach to this program, it is my belief that the “soft” science of Ecology should be taught as a basic course throughout a student’s entire school career (from Grade 1 to 12), giving it the prominence it deserves as a life-lesson mandate not unlike the three Rs.

Ecology is considered a “soft” science, because it integrates all other sciences and, as such, is more the study of relationships, links and consequence. As the study of ecosystems and the environment, Ecology lets us look at ourselves and how we relate to all other things, living and non-living, on this planet and ultimately the universe: the approach is only limited by our own perceptions. Ecologists study natural systems, which include all the systems in our society such as our economic systems, our social systems, business and financial models, cultural interactions and technological use. It behooves us to look to Nature’s Wisdom, to Gaia (our “mother”) for Her timeless lessons in our evolution.

If Gaia is our “natural mother” then Ecology is her language.


Post script:

Nazi Germany, contends Riane Eisler, demonstrated the most violent reaction to the gylanic (e.g., society in which there is balance and equality between the sexes) thrust, proving to be the modern regression to the earliest and most brutal form of proto-androcracy and a foreshadower of a neo-androcratic future.

Like the Kurgans before them, the Nazis killed, plundered and looted—particularly in their wholesale slaughter of Jews. Likewise, they saw a woman, idealized by the Nazis as the hausfrau, as an “often pleasant domestic animal” (Nietzsche) to be used by men for sexual enjoyment, personal service, entertainment, and procreation. It was, in fact, Hitler’s plan to reward decorated soldiers with the right to have more than one wife as a warrior’s booty. According to the Führer, not only women but “weak” and “effeminate” men like Jews were the natural inferiors to his new race of “supermen”.


Eisler, Riane. 1989. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. Harper & Row. New York. 296pp.

Castell, Alburey. 1946. An Introduction to Modern Philosophy. Macmillan. New York. 357pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

A fascinating study of ecology and spiritual harmony. Crete is definatelt an important part of the world as far as this is concerned.

Nina Munteanu said...

Yes, and a beautiful island too... Thanks, Jean-Luc!

larry clink said...

Thanks for sharing. I found it such a wonderful article.

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Nina Munteanu said...

You're welcome, Larry.