At Sea?

Brian Fagan is a name I’ve long known.  Not exactly the consummate stylist, he is a very prolific archaeologist and anthropologist.  I’ve read a few of his books.  Recently my wife and I read his Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans (you see what I mean about style?).  Divided into different regions of the world, the book explores early boat-craft, sketching how people without our technology navigated oceans, often reaching remote locations.  What interests me is when anthropologists make statements about ancient religions, often before the advent of writing among the peoples studied.  No doubt such peoples realized the dangers of open water—open water is still dangerous with all our tech.  It is reasonable to assume their response was religious.  What exactly it was, we don’t know.

The one that really caught my attention was on the Maya.  Coastal Mayans valued the spondylus, or spiny oyster.  This particular mollusk is seasonally toxic—itself an interesting phenomenon—that becomes a hallucinogen.  Hallucinogens have frequently been associated with religion for indigenous peoples.  If archaeology is to be believed, even temples in ancient Israel burned cannabis, so who’s to judge?  Fagan writes that this practice led to shamanistic trances, and this seems likely.  He goes on to suggest that the spondylus was thus a gateway to the supernatural world.  Of course, in the biblical world shellfish were a forbidden food.

While Fagan likes to reminisce about his own past sailing, and likes to describe boats in detail, and show off his nautical language skills, I think about the religious aspect of the great waters.  We still have only a small understanding of the oceans that cover most of our planet.  We can fly over them these days, and miss the intensity of being where no land is in sight.  It can be a transcendent experience, I’m sure.  I’ve seldom been that far from land.  On a ship bound for the Orkney Islands from John O’Groats we were on the North Sea beyond the sight of shore, if I remember correctly.  Although I can’t recall how long the voyage took, I can imagine the feeling of nerves aching for a sight of coastline.  Even with minke whales off the starboard bow, I knew my feet belonged on terra firma.  It’s more comfortable to read about the gods of the ocean in books like Beyond the Blue Horizon.  And when I’m out to sea, I always pray the mariners know what they’re doing.  

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