any cultures have myths about a past era in which humankind lived in harmony with nature instead of despoiling it. Hesiod, in Works and Days, evokes a Golden Age, followed by a steady decline from bronze to silver to the Iron Age of injustice and violence. No doubt the metallic association was extrapolated from the real experience of passing from the relatively peaceful Bronze Age to the bellicose and unstable Iron Age.
In the Golden Age, there was neither war nor private property; humans found sustenance freely available in nature in the form of fruits and seeds, but did not kill animals; indeed even animals did not kill each other, and in later paintings of the subject, the wolf and the lamb and other animals that are normally mutually hostile lie down together.
Interestingly, even the first page of Genesis seems to imply an admittedly improbable vegetarian diet for all creatures, since God is said to make fruits for men to eat and grass for animals. Later, however, the Creator despises the sacrifice of Cain, who grows grains, and accepts that of Abel, consisting of a lamb or kid, driving the enraged agrarian to murder the pastoralist.
The end of the Golden Age is symbolised in mythology by the story of Cadmus, son of the Phoenician king Agenor and brother of Europa, who is carried off by Zeus in the form of a bull and taken to Crete where she becomes the mother of King Minos. Cadmus is sent to find her; he fails in his quest but founds the city of Thebes in Greece, bringing the Phoenician invention of the alphabet to Greece in the process.
At the site of what will be Thebes, Cadmus encounters a dragon guarding a spring. He kills it, ploughs the earth and sows its teeth. Armed men spring from the field; Cadmus, as instructed by Athena, casts a stone into the crowd and they begin to fight each other until only five are left. He marries his daughters to these men and they become the first generation of Thebans.
This mysterious ancient story tells of the first ploughing of the earth, the primal transgression by which man takes charge of nature instead of accepting his original role as part of the natural order. The ploughing of the earth is a kind of rape of the mother, and the slaying of the serpent, her male consort, represents man’s assumption of the masculine role in relation to nature.
It is not surprising that transgressions so pro- found should immediately lead to the violence of war, previously unknown: it is as though as soon as we break free from our primitive place as a part of nature and attempt to take charge of its processes, the inherent violence of this act leads to more violence among ourselves. And this myth kept evolving in the retelling, and in the stories of subsequent generations: for the descendant of Cadmus is Oedipus, who inadvertently kills his father and marries his mother.
But the first ploughing of the earth was not the only primal transgression. A second one, also told in one of the most ancient of myths, was the first crossing of the sea in a ship. In the Golden Age, no one sailed; the sea was an inviolate domain. But when Jason set off on his voyage — also the paradigmatic quest story — to recover the Golden Fleece, he had to build a ship, the Argo, a magical vessel that incorporated speaking timbers from the oracular oaks of Zeus at Dodona.
Once again, his quest was accomplished with the help of the gods — in fact Jason also sows some of the Theban dragon’s teeth reserved by Athena, which shows the affinity of the two stories — for this rupture too was a necessary one. Man was not destined to live in the primitive state of the Golden Age, but to embark on a more ambitious, if dangerous, course.
The tragic duality of human destiny is brilliantly evoked in the second choral ode of Sophocles’ Antigone, the tragedy of Oedipus’s daughter (lines 332 ff.), exploiting the unique ambiguity of the Greek word deinos, which means both clever and terrible. There are many deinos things, but none more than man, who has invented language and created laws and found the secrets of medicine. But the primary rupture with the order of nature that makes these achievements possible entails the potential for evil as well as for good.
The chorus recalls the originary transgressions of ploughing and sailing, but interestingly — especially in a story with its roots specifically in the act of ploughing — the ode begins with sailing: man “passes across the grey sea in stormy winds, making his way through the swell and troughs of the waters”. Sailing was a re-
A scene frm Alan Sekula and Noel Burch’s The Forgotten Space ( 2010), above, and a still from Peter Hutton’s At Sea (2007)