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Walking In Paradise, or Towards It

John Michell

The reason we have long legs is that we are walking creatures. Alternatively, we are walking creatures because we have long legs. As usual with questions of origins, up comes the chicken-and-egg paradox. All we know for certain is that human beings are adapted for walking, and that, presumably, is what we are supposed to do.

Our ancestors were tribal nomads; a few of us still are today. Every tribe had its native territory and walked around it in the course of a year, stopping at the same familiar spots and enjoying whatever nature and the local spirits provided. A balanced diet was achieved, not by calculation but a regular series of feasts. It was a highly ritualized life. Certain songs and customs were peculiar to every site and to the date when it was visited. A traditional creation myth, illustrated by the heavenly bodies in association with hills and features of the landscape, was acted out in the course of the nomadic journey. What really sustained these people was their culture, the knowledge, natural and spiritual, which allowed them to live well and feel at ease in a country which the modern eye would see as a desert.

This, perhaps, was the Garden of Eden, the primordial state of harmony and fulfillment which we once inhabited and have since lost. It features in the myths of all nations. And always, in every version of the story, it is followed by the Fall. Various reasons for this are given. Someone ate the wrong fruit, performed the wrong kind of sex act, broke some basic law or taboo. More understandable is that the fatal error was raping the goddess, that is, cutting the hair and digging into the body of the earth - in other words, agriculture. That led to boundaries and fences, the obstruction of traditional paths and the rooted antipathy between the traveler and the settled citizen that has been a cause of warfare throughout history.

And yet, having identified settlement and farming as the cause of our lapse from paradise, doubts creep in. The same process that has led to wars, tyrants, slavery and systematic injustice has also produced the arts and sciences and the comforts of civilization. We have, it seems, a natural aptitude for working the earth and living in domestic communities. Anarchists and idealists may rage against us, but to abandon civilization and revert to nomadism is not a popular or practical option. In the cycles of history, recorded by ancient chroniclers, civilizations come and go in due order, and there is nothing we can do other than make the best of whatever stage we are born into.

We may be civilized, but we are never entirely settled. Moods change, thoughts wander and dreams, waking or sleeping, take us wherever they will. Constantly recurring is the vision of paradise, glimpsed perhaps in childhood or, in traditional societies, achieved through initiation. Ideally and naturally we are a walking species – as every doctor and trainer acknowledges. But the regular, orderly circuit of nomadism is no more. In its place religious myth offers the allegorical journey, the path towards the realization of the paradise within each soul. That, according to the sages, is the only sure way. 

John Michell was an English philosopher and a prolific writer on geometry and number, archeology, archeoastronomy, sacred sites, the occult, art, and the lives of noted eccentrics. His better known works include The View Over Atlantis, which stimulated renewed interest in ley lines; City of Revelation, which concerns sacred geometry; A Little History of Astro-Archaeology; and Who Wrote Shakespeare?

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1 May 2009

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