North spins a strange, complex tale based on a simple division of human history into three eras. A manageable sketch of dominant cosmological models, intended to serve as a useful starting point for navigating deeper ramifications.
The three eras unfold like this:
- The first 95% or so of our species’ history is characterized by hunting, gathering, and nomadic wandering within deeply familiar landscapes. A generally egalitarian social life is reflected in a cosmology of decentered connections with the living world.
- The onset of the Agriculture Revolution around 12,000 years ago begins to radically transform both society and cosmology. Both become more stratified, and the rise of singular leaders latches onto cosmic symbolism to paint itself as a ‘natural’ arrangement. An important bit of this symbolism is that of the pole star, around which everything revolves, a focus for a concentric, verticalised ‘polar cosmos’.
- In Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Copernican Revolution acts as a reflection of and catalyst for many changes which signify an ambiguous end for this stratified polar cosmos. Inequalities and vertical power structures find new, subtler hiding places, as well as being challenged by a resurgence of egalitarianism.
This non-fiction narrative spirals through chronology, each chapter tracing key themes across the divide between our vast hunter-gatherer era and the rise of the polar cosmos, and the divide between the polar era and modernity. Early chapters lay down some dense groundwork, which later chapters simultaneously build upon and deconstruct.
- Chapter 1: FIRE takes fire’s role in our evolution as a cosmological starting point, sketching motifs that will pop up throughout this story. The centrality of the campfire and fire’s apparent urge to ascend prefigure the polar cosmos, pivoted on an axis and divided vertically between the lowly darkness of Earth and the radiant empyrean above. The origins of fire with trickster gods initiates their role as mediators between above and below.
- Chapter 2: SKY tackles a critical theme in cosmology – the separation of Heaven and Earth – finding this apparently primal event to be a coded veil for the social and psychic separations escalated by the agricultural era. The transition from egalitarian hunter-gatherers to settled farmers is seen to be encoded in the transition from a ‘horizontal’ cosmos of entanglement with nature to a ‘vertical’ cosmos aspiring to eternal celestial perfection.
- Chapter 3: NORTH explores the mystique of this direction. Myths around the constellations of Ursa Major and Cygnus reveal the very earliest signs of reverence for the celestial pole. The pole’s role in navigation, surveying and architecture complement this reverence with pragmatic concern for orientation and stability, and motifs of centrality in Judaic and Islamic lore reveal the importance of the North in the foundations of monotheism.
- Chapter 4: HEAD examines the ways in which the human body became implicated as an image of cosmic hierarchy, with the head emerging as a symbol of spiritual power, of social power, and ultimately as a site for the brittle modern power of the lone ego. The socio-cosmic Indo-European body described by Georges Dumézil, with the sovereign head ruling over the lower orders, is countered with Bataille’s ideal of headlessness and Deleuze & Guattari’s Body without Organs.
- Chapter 5: REVOLUTION finds the narrative spiral zeroing in on the Copernican Revolution as a fundamental watershed for modern Europeans, and thus, through the impact of European colonialism and the recent dominance of the West, for many others. We find structures of power that were imaged externally in the polar cosmos being internalized, Heaven’s rule over Earth supplanted by ego’s rule over the body, moulding the isolated modern individual. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is found to capture the impact of this transformation, and the shadows of the new powers of science.
- Chapter 6: ICE maps the ambiguous fallout of the Copernican felling of the World Tree, finding traces of it buried around the icy terrestrial poles. We explore the symbolism of crystals, legends of polar whirlpools and openings into Earth’s interior, fantasy literature’s passion for the Arctic and Antarctic, and especially the science fiction micro-genre dealing with buried polar aliens (At the Mountains of Madness, The Thing). Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter bridges the narrow gaps between these buried aliens, the excavation of fossil fuels, and the animist horrors evoked by climate change.
- Chapter 7: SPACE explores the sense of dislocation, spatial unease, and estrangement from our animist heritage emerging in the wake of the Copernican untethering of Earth from its cosmic centre. The renewed aspirations to the heavens that are made literal in space exploration leave us contemplating the cultural anxieties that are reflected in the black mirror of deep space.
The tale is framed by a prologue, in which the author discusses the experiences and early research which led to the ideas in North, and an epilogue in which personal memories and traumas which seem to have fuelled and guided the book’s research are excavated, examined, then released…
For a more general summary of, see The Hidden History of Cosmos & Community.