Welcome to The Dying Earth — “an exotic world hovering on the edge of time” — reads the tantalizing promise that adorns this 1977 edition of Jack Vancian “science fantasy” stories.
The short stories, which each follow different characters, all take place in the same eponymous world, a dying earth based loosely on our own. And while it may indeed seem “exotic” — with its dragonfly-riding “Twk-men” and its Lake of Dreams, its demonic “pelgrane” and its sorcerers growing living beings in vats — it also feels ominously familiar.
It is a planet in its final death throes, its red sun near to explosion, where the great civilizations have collapsed under the weight of their own vapid brutality, and demons and monsters roam.
Nothing is as it seems, and there are no “good” heroes; men are cruel and arrogant, and kill impulsively, cursing their victims for staining their shoes with blood; sorcerers capture and torment their peers in the hopes of learning powerful secrets; beautiful witches sacrifice lovestruck men to tyrants in exchange for marginal personal gain; and devils summon an ancient goddess of mercy only to torture her.
A long-dead poet’s testimony, found on a crackled scroll, tells us more or less what happened to this world:
“I have known the Ampridatvir of old; I have seen the towers glowing with marvellous light, thrusting beams through the night to challenge the sun itself. Then Ampridatvir was beautiful — ah my heart pains when I think of the olden city. Semir vines cascaded from a thousand hanging gardens, water ran blue as vaulstone in the three canals. Metal cars rolled the streets, metal hulls swarmed the air as thick as bees around a hive — for marvel of marvels, we had devised wefts of spitting fire to spurn the weighty power of Earth. . .But even in my life I saw the leaching of spirit. A surfeit of honey cloys the tongue; a surfeit of wine addles the brain; so a surfeit of ease guts a man of strength. Light, warmth, food, water, were free to all men, and gained by a minimum of effort. So the people of Ampridatvir, released from toil, gave increasing attention to faddishness, perversity, and the occult.”
There are obvious parallels to the world we currently inhabit — a world that seems increasingly hostile to life, whose cruel and narcissistic inhabitants indulge destructive, capricious delusions.
When, precisely, did we wake up in this nightmare? For some of us, it was around March of 2020; for others, maybe it was 2016, 2008, or 2001; for still others, it is what we’ve always known.
All over the globe, and across the ideological spectrum, people can sense the stability of their lives unraveling. We may disagree on the exact nature of both the crisis and its ideal solutions, but most of us recognize that something is very, very wrong with the world. It seems — whether literally or metaphorically — increasingly threatening to our survival, and out of alignment with our values (whatever those may be).
An uneasy tension permeates the air. People are worried — about their livelihoods, about the stability of their social institutions, about war, viruses, conspiracies, inflation, government overreach, the collapse of enlightened civilization, violent crime, hate crime, the power of their enemies, the prevalence of delusion, the poisoning of their ecosystems, and the literal destruction of the planet. The list of fears is infinite. Like the blind men searching for consensus on the nature of the elephant, we each perceive a different shape to our anxiety. But we all inhabit the Dying Earth together.
Of course, The Dying Earth is an old story, one that has taken many forms throughout history. Practically since the beginning of civilization, its proponents have felt its fragility and fretted over its end.
The Aztecs maintained that the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, waged an eternal war against darkness; if he lost the battle, so they claimed, the sun would fail to rise. In order to nourish his strength and ensure the continued endurance of the cosmos, the rulers told their people, they must offer up to him a continual string of human sacrifices. On the other side of the world, the Zoroastrians painted a cosmic struggle between good and evil, taking place over a series of three-thousand-year eras; at the end of the final epoch, they foretold, disasters and tribulations would herald the coming of a world savior.
Medieval Europeans performed “The Song of the Sibyl,” a canticle from at least the 10th century that prophesies the fiery tribulations of Judgment Day. Close to a thousand years later, in an almost uninterrupted tradition, its haunting imagery lives on at Christmastime in the churches of Mallorca and Alghero. A version from Lluc intones:
“On the last Judgment Day
A great fire will pour down from heaven,
Seas, springs and rivers will all burn,
The fish will all cry aloud,
Losing their natural instincts.”
The passing of a millennium has done little to quell this premonition. These lines from W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 amidst the ruins of a post-war Europe, continue almost where the “Sibil·la” left off:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
It’s not just the poets, priests, and romantics who are prone to sybilline visions of Judgment Day. For our men of science, too, have prophesied the planet’s fiery end. The “Doomsday Clock”, created for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947, tells the same millennia-old story of the Dying Earth, repackaged in the language of rational materialism for a modern audience.
The Doomsday Clock, according to its website, appropriates “the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet” (chiefly, nuclear warfare and since 2007, climate change, and biosecurity). In January of this year, the board reset the clock to “90 seconds to midnight,” and NPR declared flagellantly: “The world is closer to catastrophe than ever.”
Many doomsday scenarios, like Vance’s Dying Earth, posit a world on the brink of literal destruction. An asteroid could kill us all; the world will burn or freeze; good and evil face off in a cataclysmic battle. Will any of these prophecies come true? It’s certainly possible, of course.
But focusing on their literal elements, while evocative, misses their true significance. At the heart of the story of the “Dying Earth” lies less of an objective, physical truth and more of a social one. For the Dying Earth, more than anything, gives voice to our anxieties, fears and uncertainties about sharing a crisis-stricken world with potentially hostile strangers.
It is this, after all, that makes Jack Vance’s universe so viciously sinister. For the most part, everyone is out for their own gain, and they will murder gleefully for small reward, or in revenge for a minor perceived slight. Life is cheap, and principles nearly nonexistent. There is no law but petty selfishness and malicious cunning. It is the very definition of evil that I laid out here.
The physical cataclysms described in these feverish pronouncements might coincide with very real upheavals in their day; but on a symbolic level, they frame a fundamentally social question: When crisis hits, who and what do we blame, and who and what do we sacrifice in our quest to secure our priorities?
Most “end time” narratives frame the dying earth in viscerally social terms. Anders Hultgård, writing on the ancient Persian body of myths in The Continuum History of Apocalypticism, observes:
“The motifs that make up the textual body of the signs of the end may be grouped in different categories. There are signs pertaining (a) to family, society, country, religion, and culture, (b) to subsistence and property, (c) to cosmos and nature, and (d) to biological aspects of human life. A prominent mark of the evil time to come is the inversion of values and social order. Paradoxical statements and the use of rhetorical figures are characteristic features of the style. The catalogues of apocalyptic tribulations may also be interpreted as a mirror of the traditional values and ideas that shape the worldview of a given society and religion.”
Physical changes in the cosmos theatrically accompany a general sense of social hostility and rampant perversion. The Persian Bahman Yašt foretells the shrinking of the sun and the darkening of the sky by clouds; fruits will be blown off trees by hot and cold winds; noxious creatures will rain down from the sky, and crops will not yield seed.
Meanwhile, according to Hultgård, “Families will split in hatred, the son will strike the father, and brother will fight against brother. Traditional ideals and values will be abandoned and foreign customs adopted. The social order will be dissolved and also reversed.”
Likewise, the Jāmāsp Nāmag predicts: “By night one with another they will eat bread and drink wine, and walk in friendship, and next day they will plot one against the life of the other and plan evil.”
The Tiburtine Sibyl, in the Greek Oracle of Baalbek, recounts the degeneration of society over nine generations each represented by suns. Bernard McGinn reprints it in his book, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages:
“And the Sibyl answered and said: ‘The nine suns are nine generations. The first sun is the first generation, men who are innocent, long-lived, free, truthful, gentle, mild, and they love the truth. The second sun is the second generation; they too are truthful men, gentle, hospitable, innocent, and they love the generation of the Free. The third sun is the third generation. Kingdom will rise against kingdom, nation against nation, there will be wars, but men will be hospitable and merciful in the city of the Romans. The fourth sun is the fourth generation. The son of the godhead will appear in the south; for there will arise from the Hebraic land a woman named Mary and she will give birth to a son, and they will call him Jesus by name. And he will destroy the law of the Hebrews and establish his own law, and his law will be king . . .”
Then, several generations of kings, she foretold, will arise and persecute the Christians; at the same time, relationships begin to unravel on a more intimate level:
“Men will be rapacious, greedy, rebellious, barbarian, they will hate their mothers, and in lieu of virtue and of mildness they will assume the appearance of barbarians [. . .] And there will be much shedding of blood, so that the blood will reach the chest of horses as it is commingled with the sea.”
The sun will turn to darkness, and the moon to blood; the springs and rivers will dry up; and the River Nile will also become blood. “And the survivors will dig cisterns and will search for the water of life and will not find it.”
Often, in these narratives, there is a scarcity of resources, and people scrounge or fight for what remains. They readily throw each other — even family members — to the wolves in order to hold on to their own interests. There is a sharp delineation between “self” and “other,” between “friend” and “enemy;” “countryman” and “foreigner;” “good” and “evil;” “righteous” and “sinner.” The innocent are persecuted by their enemies. But frequently, the righteous are spared, saved or protected from the tribulations, while sinners or ideological adversaries are ultimately punished or destroyed.
Clashes between specific groups of people are often represented on a cosmic scale. John J. Collins writes in The Continuum History of Apocalypticism:
“An oracle preserved in the book of Isaiah predicts the fall of Babylon in cosmic terms: ‘the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light . . . Therefore I will make the heavens tremble and the earth will be shaken out of its place at the wrath of the Lord of hosts, in the day of his fierce anger’ (Isa. 13:9-13). Here the prophet is still concerned with the destruction of a specific city, Babylon, but his language evokes a catastrophe of cosmic proportions.”
In the Christian tradition, the figure of the Antichrist has long been used to point the finger at political enemies. According to Bernard McGinn:
“The political use of the Antichrist myth, as directed against the Emperors Nero and Domitian, had been strong in early Christian apocalypticism. Later emperors and rulers, such as Commodus, possibly Decius, Odenathus of Palmyra, Constantius, and Gaiseric the Vandal, had also been identified with the dread last enemy [. . .] The use of traditional apocalyptic themes, however, was more frequently invoked in defense of the imperial office and the Byzantine state than in its condemnation.”
As the world seems to fall apart around us, preexisting tensions can become explosive, while formerly close alliances break down. Differences in values come to the fore as each of us moves to preserve the little bubbles of comfort and safety we work hard to build for ourselves. Real victims of oppression may feel very justified in taking back what they perceive — perhaps correctly — to have been stolen from them; others may attempt to act preemptively to neutralize potential present, or hypothetical future threats.
Dying Earth narratives can thus be utilized to great effect by any political faction, since they tend to place their focus on a sinful scapegoat or “other” who threatens a group’s way of life. They lend themselves naturally to framing and interpreting historical conflicts and disasters. The Dying Earth becomes a stage, on which ancient cosmic narratives are given new life for a new historical era; on which, in turn, current events are woven into the tapestry of the cosmic drama itself.
Within this drama the interests of the victims or the righteous ones are justified, and those who refuse to serve the collective goals of the righteous people, or who outright pose a threat to them, bear the blame for the world’s downfall or, at the very least, must be eradicated so that the righteous can secure peace.
Existing myths about a cosmic end-time crisis provide a ready-made framework for reading meaning into the upheavals of our lives. In thirteenth-century Europe, for example, some messianic Jews identified invading Mongols with a mythical people from existing prophecy, whom they expected to arrive at the time of judgment to obliterate their Christian oppressors. As Moshe Idel explains in The Continuum History of Apocalypticism,
“This point, highly significant in the documents to be discussed below, is combined with the assumption that the clerical establishment, the church and the existing orders, will be the object of punishment [. . .] A Hebrew document written in Spain and Christian depictions of the Jews testify to a deep belief that finally the account with the oppressors will be settled.”
Meanwhile Saïd Amir Arjomand, in the book’s next chapter, describes how the Islamic civil wars of the 600s influenced the development of Muslim eschatological prophecies:
“The conspicuous place of the near-synonymous terms fitna (‘civil disorder’) and malḥama (‘tribulation/war’) point to the unusual importance of history as the matrix of the Islamic apocalyptic traditions. The three civil wars (fitan) of classical Islam (656-61, 680-92, and 744-50 C.E.), the last of which ended with the ‘Abbasid revolution, are the easily recognizable context of a large number of apocalyptic traditions that usually take the form of ex eventu prophecies. As the events of these civil wars underwent apocalyptic transformation and elaboration, however, the term fitna itself acquired the sense of premessianic tribulation and was included among the signs of the Hour.”
We might classify the narratives of Dying Earth into two prominent mythic branches: an “active” branch, and a “passive” branch.
In the active, or the “evangelical” branch, the destruction of the world can be avoided, usually either by eliminating some people or by converting them to the “correct” belief system. Often, our impending doom is brought about by human sinfulness, and we are called upon to save the world through collective action. Those who join the cause can be forgiven, but refuseniks will or must be annihilated; the fate of the earth itself hangs in the balance.
In the passive branch, the approaching cataclysm is inevitable, and even perhaps welcome; for this is the event of judgment that will destroy our enemies for us. Usually, in this version, the world’s collapse is followed by renewal, and the righteous ones or lucky survivors can look forward to some kind of paradise.
The “other” may or may not bear direct blame for the coming tribulations, and they may or may not be eligible for redemption. But one thing is certain: when resources are scarce; when crisis and disaster threaten to destroy our way of life; when the course of world events becomes unsure, when negotiations break down, and when pressure mounts upon us; it is all too easy to conclude that it is others who should sacrifice to save us; that, in fact, it is others who are getting in the way of our survival, of our group’s (righteous) collective goals; that it is others who must subordinate themselves to our will — by force, if necessary.
Though its group-oriented nature may give this approach to crisis a transcendent, selfless sheen, it is, in fact, the instinct for self-preservation generalized. It is collective selfishness.
And just like the individualized self-preservation instinct, it brings out some of the most bestial aspects of our nature, robbing us of that unique and beautiful, elevated spark that makes us human. For in the end, it reduces us to fighting tooth and nail, like animals, to reach our instrumental goals, at the expense of anyone who has the misfortune or the gall to hinder our way.
Now, as we move through the crisis-stricken landscape of our own, post-2020 Dying Earth, we find ourselves lost in a hostile world increasingly devoid of honor and compassion.
In this world, at the height of Covidian doomsday prophecy, security guards choked a woman to death in a Toronto hospital for not wearing a mask correctly.
Meanwhile, current and former government officials openly suggest they want to kill groups of their citizens. In 2021, as Lithuania introduced their chillingly-named “Opportunity Pass,” a former member of the Lithuanian Parliament wrote in a mainstream newspaper: [translation from Gluboco Lietuva]
“There is an all-out war with an enemy that has swept over us. The enemy is invisible, but that only makes it more dangerous. And under conditions like these, there are people who deliberately take sides with the enemy and must be treated accordingly.
In times of war, such people were shot.
But there will be no need to shoot the anti-vaxxers, I hope, they will die out on their own.”
And just a couple of weeks ago, a sitting British Liberal Democrat councilor tweeted that he would love to gas the people protesting the UK’s Ultra Low Emissions Zones (ULEZ).
Eco-activists, worked up into a rabid frenzy over fear of climate change, are destroying property and disrupting public events to spread a message of fear, anger, and desperation. Recently, protestors affiliated with Just Stop Oil permanently vandalized a £300,000 garden, shouting as they threw orange dye on everything around them:
“‘What use is a garden if you can’t eat? What is the point in tradition if society is collapsing around you?’”
According to the Daily Mail, one of the protestors, Stephanie Golder, explained her rationale as follows:
“‘I disrupted the Chelsea Flower Show to ask the visitors, exhibitors and the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) to pick a side; to stand for good over evil, life over death, right over wrong; to stand with the young and the billions of people in the global south whose lives are being cut short by climate collapse.
‘If you love gardens and growing food, you must join in civil resistance against new oil and gas.’”
She feels justified in crushing happiness for other people, and in mutilating beautiful living things (plants), because she feels her goals — and the collective goals of those she sympathizes with — are threatened. Though her words are cloaked in the rhetoric of selfless humanitarianism, her attitude, at heart, is selfish: No one gets what they want until I secure what’s mine. And if you won’t help me do that, I’ll make your life miserable.
Similarly, Greta Thunberg, a sort of modern sibyl who is sometimes held up as a brave and youthful leader of the climate action movement, used her prestigious platform at the United Nations — not to demonstrate her courage and self-sacrifice — but to wallow in self-pity, crying: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.”
Her speech does not inspire, or appeal to higher values or transcendent visions, as you might expect from a truly honorable leader. Instead it seethes with self-interest: You ruined everything for me, it seems to say. Now you need to fix it [emphasis mine]:
“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.
Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.”
Underlying all of these approaches to potential (or, perhaps, real) crisis is a vicious current of self-preservation. People are ready to take from others, sacrifice others, even to kill others and to sabotage their goals, their livelihoods, their dreams — sometimes in the face of only hypothetical or mathematically-modeled future scenarios — in their desperate battle for survival, and to preserve what they see as rightfully theirs.
It is not my aim here to comment on whether, or to what extent, any of the crisis narratives we see today are real, or worth doing something about. Let’s assume for a moment, for the sake of argument, that all of them are.
Would that make this kind of behavior worth it? Is this what we want to glorify as a society and hold up as the pinnacle of virtue? Is this who we want to become?
We all want to minimize the crises in our lives, to maintain the stability we’ve worked so hard to build, and to live out our days, for as long as possible, in happiness and peace. But to some extent, hardship is an inescapable part of life, and all of us must bear some of the burden of that risk. If we aren’t capable of facing the prospect of a dying earth with grace, we risk losing our humanity. And when that happens — when we become like animals, concerned only with instrumentalism and survival — at that point, do we really have anything left to live for?
After all is said and done, no matter how smart, unified and efficient we can be, we may still fail to reach the ends we strive for. And this is a fundamental truth we must accept, since life is, by its very nature, unpredictable. In light of that, we should ask ourselves: is it worth exchanging our humanity in return for the mere possibility of success? Is the loss of such a treasure nothing more than the unfortunate price of forcing others to comply with our demands?
Humanity distinguishes itself from the lowest beasts of the earth by our ability to elevate ourselves above the survival instinct. And history’s most immortal and inspiring heroes, both in reality and in fiction, are those who can sacrifice even their lives in search of higher values such as love, curiosity, creativity, and beauty.
Jesus died on the cross for love of the world; Romeo and Juliet committed suicide for romance; Socrates went to his death by poison for his philosophical heresy; and Sophie Scholl was lynched for speaking out against the Nazis. It is in such figures that we see, mirrored, the elevated essence of the human spirit: that is, the conviction that a life without beauty; a life without curiosity; without truth; without honor; without freedom; without love; without artfulness; without respect for each other, even in the most dire of circumstances; is a life scarcely worth pursuing at all.
Not all human beings give credence to this principle, of course; and yet, the fact remains: at the heart of almost everything we treasure and respect about our species and about the corpus of human creative achievement around the globe, lie the ghosts of people who sacrificed their lives, who dared to take risks, who forsook the purely instrumental and material for some higher destiny, calling, or purpose. So after all that these great heroes of history have done to pave the way for us to bask in their glory today, shall we then desecrate their memory by sinking to the status of dogs?
Compare Greta Thunberg’s 2019 speech before the United Nations with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. King, and the black Americans present with him in protest on that day, did not gather in fear of a hypothetical future doomsday. They had endured very real and present suffering as second-class citizens in a segregated America stained with racist disrespect and violence.
Yet King — though he might have been very justified in doing so — does not heap blame on the white “other;” he does not make his own self-pity the center of his exposition; he does not use the rhetoric of fear, self-preservation, and desperation to further a political agenda. He does not foam at the mouth with the desire to destroy or repress his “dangerous” and subversive enemies; instead, he invites everyone to rise to their most elevated, creative human potential; to orient their attention not toward the purely instrumental pursuit of their own factional self-interest, but toward higher, transcendental, human soul-based values:
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.
And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
There is a reason why these words continue to resound with us today: it is because they are not bound to King’s particular struggle, political faction, or time. These words apply at all times, in all places, in every moment, to every human soul. They are universal. They extend a hand to anyone and everyone, inviting all of us to join in to uphold humanity’s most elevated spirit. And this is a timeless, borderless and eternal endeavor.
There are always forces in this world that pull us down into the muck and mire. In our day-to-day pursuit of happiness, desire, entertainment, and survival, it is easy to forget what we have the potential to become. It is easy to get lost in technicalities, in ego trips and in reactionary indignation. If we are the victims of atrocities, it is all the easier to seek our justice in retaliation, viciousness, and brutal revenge. But in a world where everybody sees themselves as the primary and true victim, where does that ultimately leave us?
King’s speech invites us all to come together to select a different path: a path that — without relinquishing its material goals — seeks, first and foremost, to uphold and embody humanity’s best essence. It invites us to transcend our instrumental ends, placing our focus on a higher, more essential target: the principles that guide them. And it reminds us that, ultimately, we must look inward — not outward — in order to do that.
In the Jack Vance story I quoted at the beginning of this essay, entitled “Ulan Dhor,” a great civilization has fallen to ruins, though its descendants live on in squalor and ignorance. Thousands of years prior, a wise, benevolent ruler had bestowed upon each of the priests of its two warring religious factions one half of a tablet, on which could be read archaic secrets that would grant untold power on whoever had the fortune to possess them. But the tablet’s halves were unintelligible alone; unless they were united together, their wisdom would remain forever in obscurity. Predictably, however, the priests each sequester their own tablet in a guarded temple, and the factions fall to war with one another, each trying to steal the other tablet for their own, while their highly complex culture disintegrates into primitive chaos around them.
It’s possible that Vance took inspiration for this story from the Hopi doomsday prophecy, which is also part of their cyclical emergence myth. According to the Hopi, the world is periodically destroyed and recreated. Each cycle begins in a state of harmonic paradise; but as humanity lets its aims become corrupt with greed, cruelty, and immorality, the earth gradually succumbs to chaos and disaster.
At the end of each cycle, the faithful escape by poking a hole in the sky, emerging into the bright new dawn-days of a virgin world. And so the process begins again. At the beginning of the current cycle, the Great Spirit Maasaw gave two tablets to two brothers, one Hopi and one white, before sending them on their respective migrations across the earth. The hope is that one day, these two brothers will unite again and share their wisdom with each other.
As Armin W. Geertz recounts in The Invention of Prophecy: Continuity and Meaning in Hopi Indian Religion:
“‘What exactly was drawn on the stones is not known. But their markings are said to describe the land in its entirety. They delineate the dimensions all the way to the edge of the sea’ [. . .] The narrative relates further that if and when the Hopis stray from their life path, the White Brother will return and bring his stone tablet as proof of his identity. Some traditions say that there is only one tablet, which is broken in two, and that the brothers will match their pieces.”
The Hopi believe that they are tasked with the enormous burden of holding the world in balance as it once more spirals toward inevitable destruction. This highly symbolic mission is accomplished by resisting greed and by following their qatsivötavi or “life path.” And they take it very seriously. Geertz writes:
“Qatsit aw hintsaki, ‘working to achieve life,’ is a holistic, though primarily ritual activity that is intimately bound up with contemplating the holistic image of reality. This image of reality sees humanity as an important and fateful element in the cycles of nature [. . .] Personal and societal harmony and balance are necessary ingredients in maintaining cosmic harmony and balance. Therefore, human activity is purposeful and requires concentration. This concentration is characterized by the term tunatya, ‘intention.’”
Like most cultures, the Hopi place themselves at the center of this act of cosmic regeneration. But they also give themselves the greater part of the responsibility. It doesn’t matter if there is only one person left on earth to follow the Hopi “life path;” this one person is potentially enough to hold the world together for everyone. The Hopi Traditionalist movement, which began to spread a broadly universalist version of this narrative starting around 1949, wrote in an issue of their pamphlet Techqua Ikachi:
“It will often be asked, ‘Who will carry on the power and authority when all religious leaders die?’ It will pass on to any person clinging to the Creator’s great laws; a strong and stable person ignoring the lingering pressure of destruction, and willing to die in honor of the Great Spirit. For this stand is not for himself but for all people, land and life [. . .] We know that when the time comes, the Hopi will be reduced to maybe one person, two persons, three persons. If he can withstand the pressure from the people who are against the tradition, the world might survive from destruction [. . .] I do not disregard anyone. All who are faithful and confident in the Great Spirit’s way are at liberty to follow the same road.”
Of course one person, in most circumstances, cannot literally save the physical world from destruction through their actions, especially if everyone else is acting against them. What is really at stake here, on a symbolic level, is in fact not the fate of the physical world (which is, according to the Hopi, predetermined) but the spirit of life itself, as lived and recreated by the conscious human soul.
By embodying a microcosm of this higher principle, the Hopi are ensuring that the seed of life — the blueprint for the recreation of world harmony — remains preserved, regardless of whatever else transpires beyond the scope of their control. This is what they mean by “holding the world in balance:” the Hopi see themselves not merely as physical guardians of the planet or of their own interests, but — first and foremost — as guardians of the highest version of the human spirit. And ultimately, they hold out hope that their political adversaries and oppressors will resolve to join them in this calling.
And perhaps there is a truth here, hidden in the symbolism. For, as of yet, we cannot say whether or when any of these doomsday prophecies might literally come to pass. Though many civilizations, peoples, and traditions have emerged and disappeared into the sands of time, frequently at the brutal hands of chaos, war, and disaster, the physical earth itself — for now — remains. But there is one thing that — as far as transient Homo sapiens goes, at least — lives on forever and can be nurtured at any time and place and circumstance within each of us: that undefinable, creative, elevated beauty that we call “humanity.”
If at the heart of what we witness as the Dying Earth lies, after all, a question of the perishing of that humanity, then maybe, as the Hopi prophecy, we would do well to seek the answer in its restoration. And even if it turns out that the world is literally falling apart around us, can we resolve to rise above the fray, to put aside self-preservation, and to keep our focus oriented on our most immortal and valuable collective treasure?
Can we, as a society, assume our place as guardians of the human soul?
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