Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pastoralism and Herding

Camels helped Arabian nomads cross the harsh deserts of the Middle East and northern Africa: their rich trade caravans spread silk, spices, language and religion throughout much of the world. Horses changed the face of agriculture, transport and especially warfare: mounted cavalry played an important role in campaigns from the earliest days of history to the advent of the petroleum age. Yaks provided transport over rugged Himalayan passes: herders throughout the cold, inaccessible Tibetan plateau rely on their meat and milk for sustenance, their wool and skins for warmth, and their dung for fuel. Many lands which offer only marginal farming opportunities can be home to large herds of grazing animals, and to those who domesticate them.

Pastoral social units tend to be considerably smaller than those found in an agricultural state and are closer in size to a typical hunter-gatherer clan. Settling into permanent villages is difficult when your life revolves around following the herd animals to various grazing grounds. Part of all of the population lives a nomadic or semi-nomadic existence, traveling with the flocks and watching over them as the seasons change. They must protect their livestock from predators, including raiders from other clans. Feuds over grazing areas and rustling are not uncommon: despite the idyllic picture painted in pastoral poetry and art, violence is an ever-present threat in the lives of most herders.

Many pastoralists have used their skill at arms not only to protect their herds but also to garner tribute from their neighbors. While their land may not be suitable for extensive farming, they can always acquire tools, vegetables and other valuable items. This may be taken in raids or it may be given in exchange for protection against other herding clans. For centuries the Xiongnu rode out of the steppes of north Central Asia to raid Chinese settlements: in 370 a branch of the Xiongnu crossed the Volga River and entered Europe, where they would become legendary as the Huns. 800 years later a Mongolian herder named Temujin would unite the feuding tribes and make himself known to the world as Genghis Khan. Coming to Kiev in 1246, six years after the Mongols had sacked it, Papal envoy and Franciscan friar Giovanni de Plano Carpini wrote:
They attacked Russia, where they made great havoc, destroying cities and fortresses and slaughtering men; and they laid siege to Kiev, the capital of Russia; after they had besieged the city for a long time, they took it and put the inhabitants to death. When we were journeying through that land we came across countless skulls and bones of dead men lying about on the ground. Kiev had been a very large and thickly populated town, but now it has been reduced almost to nothing, for there are at the present time scarce two hundred houses there and the inhabitants are kept in complete slavery.
In a pastoral society, the more land you control, the larger the herd you can raise and the greater your wealth. Those who would steal your lambs or take your cattle to their fields must be driven away. Those who would take away your grazing rights must be stopped: those who are not strong enough to defend their own rights will lose them. Your herds are your property and your responsibility and you have absolute control over their lives and their deaths. And at least some of the Gods who have inspired pastoral societies have taken a similar view toward their followers.

Many of the patriarchs of Judaism were shepherds, most notably Abraham, Moses and David. The Jewish G-d demanded that His people worship only Him and forbade them to wander into pastures controlled by other Gods. Later Christians identified Jesus as the "Good Shepherd:" bishops in many denominations still carry a shepherd's crook as a sign of their rulership over their flock. And in the Arabian Desert a herdsman named Muhammad received a vision and a message which he was to carry to the world. Many Deities have demanded tribute: these Gods stand out for their stern insistence that They and They alone be worshipped.

The Gods of these religions care greatly for the sheep they have earmarked: while the God of the Jews is content to look over the affairs of His tribe, the others work aggressively to expand Their holdings and build up wealth in followers and worshippers. This is not to say They are evil, although many would blithely dismiss them as such. While there has been a great deal of evil done in the names of Christ and Allah we should not forget that there have been many good deeds done as well. But if we are to understand Their motivations, we may wish to look to the fields, deserts and mangers where They first reached out to humanity.

These Monotheist religions incorporated many different societies and cultures. Their missionaries spread their message by word and by sword, through compassion and through conquest. The Huns and Mongols, who showed little interest in the religions of their foes and who were more interested in plunder than proselytizing, were able to create large empires but had much less success in keeping them for more than a few generations. The followers of the One God, by contrast, showed a remarkable staying power. The Christianization of Europe and the Islamization of much of Asia and Africa took place over centuries, but once those lands were claimed they stayed under their pastoral yoke: churches and mosques stand like watchtowers in their streets to this day. Not until over 1,000 years after the conversion of Constantine and Muhammad's meeting with Jiv'reel would they find themselves faced with a real threat – a Scientific Revolution which shook the very underpinnings of their faith.