Europa and the Bull, thoughts on a troublesome heritage
On a wonderful island, a young girl plays at the beach with her friends. Out of the water a bull rises. He is a friendly animal and invites her to mount his back. He carries her away across the sea, only to reveal himself as the God. Is she a bold young woman who knows what she is doing? Or is she deceived and defiled? Whatever happened or did not happen, the children born from the union of this young woman and the bold bull would, by a twist of mythology and history, one day be known as Europeans.
I am a long way from home, in a part of Europe I have not been to before. The rural village where I stay, feels strangely familiar. The village bears an uncanny resemblance to all the other European villages I have visited. They have more in common with each other than any village has with a city in the same country. I find all these rural areas are characterised by the same friendly weariness, despite their very local idiosyncrasies. Life seems to obey to the unspoken laws of the land like anywhere else I have been to. Local customs have been deluded and diluted by corporations, welcomed by the people themselves. Yet the undercurrent of deep history is ever present if you scratch the surface, and most of the people around are direct descendants of those who lived here hundreds or even thousands of years ago. I fawn over the beauty of yet another amazing region. Europe is not made up of countries. They are invariably a construct of nineteenth century nationalism, often uniting large spans of land and different peoples by force. The story of Europe is a story of regions, of an amalgam of tribal conglomerates, consolidated by natural and artificial identities.
My parents hailed from a border region. One set of grandparents were Belgian nationals. I was educated in English. Genealogy shows a significant portion of my ancestors were French. My love grew up in Ireland, our fathers live in France these days. My nationality, Dutch, is too narrow to cover my identity. In spite of my great mistrust in the European political project as it has turned out today, the most accurate and honest thing to say is that I am a European. I consider Europa my mythical mother. I love her like I would love anyone who has sustained me throughout my life. But as I grow older, I find myself looking at her with distance. Like any parent, she has secrets and flaws, and however painful it might be, as her daughter I need to ruthlessly assess what they are, in order to know myself. What makes a European and what made Europe?
To live in Europe today, for the most part still means to live in luxury and freedom, even though the world rattles at the garden gates. Many of us still live the good life while we witness the good times dwindling. The children of Mother Europe have swept her own garden path relatively clean in recent years, but most of her trash is conveniently stored outside the confines of her own territory. All corners of the world bear the brunt of her inheritance to this very day. It is easy to love her, if all you see are the expressions of her cultured mind. Yet the gold and precious stone by which that culture was fabricated, was drawn by force from everywhere else. Increasingly I see Mother Europe as a dowager lady. The Bull has worn himself out, after raging and rampaging throughout the world, forever altering its face. He is like the memory of a fearsome grandfather, disarmed by age and death. The old lady still lives off the interest of his endeavours, but this will not last forever. The children of Europe who are alive today, will have to validate their existence themselves. And the dowager lady sits in her armchair, unable to help her children and lowers the veil over her eyes. She refuses to see her own complicity.
The children of Europa and the Bull once had a hold over the known world. The interesting question is why? Why did the people of one corner of the world wield so much power? Europe’s deepest history is written in our genes, a history that is only now surfacing with the possibility of archaeogenetics. The story of Europe itself is a story of conquest and subjugation. The maternal lineages of indigenous Europeans are generally old. Yet the most common male lineages seemed to have arrived to Europe far later. Marija Gimbutas’ pioneering Kurgan hypothesis tells us of a shift from a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle towards animal husbandry. Although some of her work is controversial, recent discoveries seem to support the essential tennets of her reconstruction: a gradual shift towards a patrilineal and warlike culture during the Bronze Age. Whether this was a marriage or a rape of the woman with the flowers is for now lost in the mist of time, and perhaps it will always remain this way. Yet it does imply that there is more truth to the story of Europa and the Bull than meets the eye. The bull travelled with the horse, the horse carried the axe, and by horse and axe, European culture came to be.
These processes took place throughout many centuries. But it resulted in hybrid cultures and a gradual decline of the feminine divine. Greek, Roman, Celtic or Germanic: one thing these rich cultures had in common was a celebration of martial values and conquest. It is telling that most of Europe speaks an Indo-European language. It speaks of the success a small band of people had in shaping (or raping?) a virgin land. Much later Christianity, while born in the near East, was fostered and came of age in Europe. Once the old Gods had been almost annihilated, the people of Europe found it necessary to export the Cross and its tongue all over the world, more often than not forgetting the wisdom of the very Man on the Cross. The Gods that were with us when we still roamed the dense woods and faced a dangerous, not yet tamed sea, seemed to have left. Lately, though, it seems the Gods have travelled as stowaways into the New World, biding their time. Maybe the far west is an outpost yet again. So are the Isles of Britain and Ireland, where somehow more of the otherworldly magic has managed to survive. The names of the Old Gods and Goddesses are spoken there once more, after a long period of being forsaken and forgotten. I would like to join in, but the atmosphere here on the continent is one of rational and secular doubt, pervading all joy, and religious apathy. Perhaps it is fear, of the dirty mirrors these old names conjure. They embody the virtues of our past, but pose difficult questions at the same time.
As I walk my loyal companion, a skittish dog, through the strange street at night, I find I cannot sense the Gods. I know they still live, hidden in the woods and in the scarce, abandoned crevices of Mother’s body. Their forces have dwindled, for their names are hardly ever spoken here, perhaps only as whispers of a memory. Now that the era of the supreme God has come to an end, at least in my part of the world, all that remains is a God-shaped hole in the hearts of the Europeans and the grass of indifference seems to cover it. Or does it? I pass by a lovely front garden. A corrupted Buddha is here, again, he has become somewhat of a 21st century garden gnome. He is a mandatory accessory and a silent witness to the hollowness of what is left of our spiritual heritage. No one seems to ponder his extraordinary teachings, they just like his smile. He is the tea cozy that barely protects my vapid people from spiritually freezing.
What would happen if the Gods were invited back by us? Would we not continue much in the same way as before? Does it really make a difference which God or Gods we worship? Do we not have much more important stuff to do than burn candles and pray to Gods we have once forsaken? The choice is not between religions or lifestyles. The hard choices, the ones that matter, are of a different nature. They are about generosity and prudence. Acknowledging our wrongs as a people yet taking pride in whatever was good in our past. These choices concern moderation and retrenchment, and yes, this will mean we have to cut into our own fatty flesh. But if the European people are indeed bleeding hearts cushioned by everyday indifference, maybe we deserve to dwindle just as our Gods did. How do we preserve what is good and unique in European culture, without repeating our mistakes? Can martial Gods and Goddesses lead us to peace? Can fertility Goddesses and Gods protect us from the horror some are willing to unleash upon us? Maybe we could just ask them, as they came this way before. We walked a rocky path with them, and strayed many times. Now the Bull is finished with his rage, and Mother herself has grown old, we are an orphaned people who depend on the kindness of new strangers, like the Buddha and long lost strangers like the Gods of Old. I say a prayer for the Lords and Ladies, by whatever name they like to be called. If they bring back the spark of enchantment, I will gladly build a bonfire with it that will light the world.