Friday, October 30, 2009

The Emergence of Slavery

The emergence of agriculture and slavery occurred in tandem. A hunter-gatherer society has little use for slaves; those captured from rival tribes cannot be armed to assist in engaging in a hunt, for obvious reasons, nor can they be left with the women and children, for equally obvious reasons. Alive, they are a hindrance and a threat, so they may as well be sacrificed. In times of plenty, captured children, if young enough to be bred into loyalty, may have been adopted on occasion, so a precedent of a kind did exist. However, only the establishment of agriculture, the first labor-intensive means of food production, made slavery both feasible and necessary.

The invention of agriculture as a means of procuring food must have been a result of observation of wild plants, their seeds and seedlings, by women gatherers in consultation with their shamans. To them, that a tiny seed could, when sown on fertile soil and given sustenance, sprout roots and grow into a much larger plant, and later give forth more seeds to perpetuate the process, must have seemed miraculous. A logical implication of such a potent model of growth was to base a social vision of progress upon it, to contemplate a prospect of ever-increasing bounty, with villages and cities as the branches of a tree of life founded upon a divine order to “be fruitful and multiply.” Sustaining such a tree, there are god-kings and priests at the top, representing the sun, admininistrators, aristocrats and merchants, representing water, which mediates between earth and land, and a vast base of slaves, representing the soil, upon which the tree is founded.

How, then, did slavery originate? To begin with, it would seem logical to envision a village society in transition, still in its hunter-gatherer stage but with the beginnings of primitive agriculture. Some prisoners, captured from a rival village during a successful raid, and now bound and guarded, await sacrifice. Given the increased demand for labor, especially during harvest time, it would seem reasonable to put some of them to work, postponing killing them until they’re no longer needed. A slave “hierarchy” is gradually established: initially, the best workers are simply allowed to live longer than the others. Later, as the demand for labor increases with the expansion of agriculture, a more elaborate structure of domination is instituted. The best slaves are made into overseers or house-slaves, and may even, in time, earn their freedom. The most rebellious receive physical punishment and death. It is likely that, as a slave system eclipsed the institution of human sacrifice, conflicts erupted between an established priest caste with a vested interest in preserving the old institution, and a new group representing the agriculturalists, and willing to accept animal sacrifice, which must have seemed a spiritually weakened, less profound substitute. In hard times, it is likely that the “old-way” practitioners sometimes demanded, and were allowed, a temporary revival of human blood sacrifice, to appease the angry gods. Harvest festivals, such as Halloween, and Spring (planting) festivals, such as May Day, reflect some of the spiritual ambivalence that early societies must have felt regarding the changeover. On the one hand, they are days of great freedom, in which a pagan jubilation is felt, reflecting the happiness of those spared from the prospect of sacrifice in order that they may be slaves – on the other, there is a foreboding, especially in the case of Halloween, in which a dread persists that the forces of darkness may now have their day, presumably because sufficient sacrifices have not been made in thankfulness for the harvest. No longer does human blood irrigate the fields, and those outsiders once sacrificed are now accepted as productive members of society, though of inferior status. However, the relaxation of strictures governing blood-appeasement of tribal gods poses risks: the expanded vision of society comes with the cost of greater social complexity, and the benefits of diversity are accompanied by the threat of barbarian contamination. The plant model of the slave empire develops as a strict hierarchy in which all members are, in fact, slaves to the system, though some are more blatantly subordinate than others – from the flowers and leaves down through the branches and trunk, and finally, the vast complex of roots. The familial simplicity of the clan as totemically symbolized predator, hunting, killing, and eating those outside of the group, is replaced by a hegemonic plant model, which seeks to assimilate and enslave all outsiders, thereby eliminating the insider-outsider distinction.

(c) 2009 by A. Rogolsky

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