Throughout the course of history, humanity has been striving to uncover the meaning and reason for existence. It is for this reason, amongst several others, that humans and religion are so closely intertwined. The struggle to identify human purpose has greatly influenced how different cultures view the world around them. The relationships between humans and the world is clearly seen in ancient texts, such as The Bible of the Hebrews, the Popol Vuh of the Quiché, and in Aboriginal Legends‒Animal Tales, and it continues to be prevalent into more modern works, such as Turner’s speech, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” These primary documents and the stories within them give the readers insight into each culture’s relationship with the nonhuman world.
One way in which historical documents show the different relationships between humans and nonhumans is through creation stories, and human’s roles in them. In The Bible, all that there is was made at the commandment of a God. Upon creating the first man, Adam, God said that mankind would have “Dominion over…all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Gen. 1.26). This illustrates a clear hierarchical relationship between humans and nonhuman resources. Men are given free reign over all of earth’s living and nonliving bounties, including animals both wild and domesticated. This hierarchy is justification for the use of resources and subduction of wilderness, as they are for the purpose of people and their god given quest to “live fruitful and multiply” (2). Yet, the Hebrews do believe in at least some form of stewardship, demonstrated through the protection of all animals on Noah’s Arc, not just those directly useful to humans.
The Hebrew people are not alone in dominion over nature. As illustrated in the Quiché’s Popol Vuh, humans are superior to animals. Here, however, it is not merely because they are made in the image of god, but because they are able to worship. After the Quiché gods created animals, they demanded that the creatures “speak, pray to [them], and keep [their] days,” but the animals could not speak the language of the gods, condemning them to inferiority and servitude to the praise giver that was to soon be created (Popol Vuh 68). Another creation story that is indicative of this hierarchy over nature is the creation of the American identity, as indicated in Frederick Jackson Turner’s address, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” While the frontiersman’s dominion over nature might have stemmed from biblical origins, it was a strong motif in the American expansion West. It was seen as the natural progression, . Pioneers and those who followed battled back wilderness, each wave of the frontier slashing resources to create domesticated environments. Tied to the wilderness were the Indigenous Americans, a “common danger” who were also seen as a force of nature to be conquered and domesticated (Turner 15). This fight served as a unifier of the frontiersmen, creating a culture of Americans separate from the more European East Coast.
Not all origin stories follow this narrative, though. Take, for example, the story Moon and Morning Star from Aboriginal Legends‒Animal Tales, in which, for a brief period of time, animals were superior to the two creator gods: “Their creations were greater than their creators, for in their union was the gift of endless, ever-continuing life” (Reed, 114). In essence, the animals ability to procreate, to grow and sustain their populations, set them above the two male gods unable of doing so themselves. After Moon changed his brother into a woman to procreate with, it is presumed that the gods‒whose descendants were mankind‒met the level of animals, and likely surpassed them due to their former status as the creators of the world. While the animals here were created for use by Moon and Morning Star, they are not stated to be naturally inferior to humans.
Another relationship between humans and nonhumans illustrated by these historic texts is connection to agriculture and pastoralism. In the Popol Vuh, the bond between the Quiché and agriculture is evidenced by the creation of humans. People were ultimately modeled from ground corn, the staple crop of much of the Quiché, creating the narrative that corn is the giver of human life. The Bible shows the Hebrews’ affiliation with those practices through the story of the brothers Jacob and Esau. It juxtaposes the large, hairy, and more primitive Esau, who prefers hunting as a mode of susinence with his younger brother Jacob, who is a quiet, cunning pastoralist favored by God and their mother. Prior to their birth, God said to their mother that “the elder [brother] shall serve the younger,” a prophecy that eventually came to fruition (Gen. 26.25). Jacob tricks his duller older brother out of his birthright title, eventually taking over the land that would have belonged to Esau, with god’s blessing. The contrast between the two characters and subsequent change in power illustrates the shift away from hunting and towards pastoralism. This shift was made possible by the abundance of domesticable animals in mesopotamia. As there were not many domesticable animals near settlements of the Quiché or Polynesians, they did not develop herding practices.
Human’s relationship with fire is also prevalent in many creation stories. In the Bible, fire is often discussed for its use in sacrifices. Fire was the Hebrew way of sending an offering to the heavens along with the smoke, believing it to be a “pleasing odor to the Lord” (Lev. 1.9). In Aboriginal Legends, fire is used while hunting to corner animals. Outside of its function, however, are the several different interpretations of how humans learned to make fire and its use in storytelling. In the Aboriginal tales, those who were selfish and kept fire to themselves were punished, like in The Meat Ants and the Fire, where a tribe, who was intent on keeping fire to itself, met its demise chasing after a young man who had stolen a flame from the village pyre. Similarly, in the story Water-rat and Fire, a Water-rat accidentally discovers how to make sparks. After spending a great deal of time working to cultivate a flame, he eventually succeeds, but rather than sharing it with the other animals who desire it, he keeps the secret of the flame to himself. Again, selfishness is punished, and the secret makes its way to the masses. It is ultimately forgotten by the animals it was the Water-rat who initially discovered the fire, but as “selfishness is not quickly forgotten,…Water-rat has never been popular” (Reed 64). These stories of fire can be interpreted as moralistic children’s stories, which aim to teach the youth to share or else it could come back to bite you. This is quite different from the spread of fire in the Popol Vuh, where sharing fire is condemnable. When other tribes come to the Quiché asking for fire, they go to their god, Tohil, asking if they should share it. In response, Tohil said that those who wanted fire would have to be “suckled on their sides,” or, in other words, defeated (Popol Vuh 152). Most of the people who came seeking the fire were suckled, but a few houses managed to steal a branch of flame and escape safely. Here, fire is representative of a tribes power. Those without it were defeated by the Quiché tribe, and those who had stolen it were powerful enough to avoid being conquered by them. Using fire as a symbol in storytelling helps to emphasize the importance of the moral learned. Whether it is advocating against selfishness or expressing a tribal war history, the essential role that fire plays in these societies cements the value of the morals.
Storytelling has always been deeply ingrained in human history. By interpreting the narratives created throughout history, we are provided with insight into their lives and their beliefs. By analyzing texts like The Bible, the Popol Vuh, Turner’s Address, and Aboriginal Legends, readers can gain a better understanding of a culture’s relationship with the nonhuman world, such as use of animals, mode of food production, or significance of fire. Not only do these lores give us a better understanding of the past, but they also provide insight to our present. Although the world today is quite different than it was even 100 years ago, the moral motifs of our histories still persist in societies today.