The myth of progress

Flying on a magic carpet.
Flying on a magic carpet.

By Sharon St Joan

It’s not that there’s no such thing as progress. Indeed there is.

If I want to travel around the world, I’ll take a plane. I won’t set out walking, or take a sailing ship, or sit by the roadside waiting for a magic carpet to appear out of the clouds.

If I fall down the stairs and break a leg, I will go to the hospital because waiting for it to get better by itself is not going to work well.

If I want to go into town I will use a car, not a horse and buggy.

All this being said, there is a very large aspect of the way we think about progress in the modern world that is illusory. It is not true.

Really, there are two ways of viewing history — the cyclical view and the linear view.

In the cyclical view, there are several ages, following each other, until eventually, the whole complete world cycle ends and begins anew.

If we’ve grown up in the west or if we’ve been heavily influenced by western culture, then we are going to lean towards the linear view of world history. It’s imprinted inside our heads, and, without our being conscious of it, it colors most of our perceptions and expectations.

According to the western worldview, history is linear. First there is prehistory and then there is an ascending line on an upwards trajectory, which is called “progress.” It is a basic part of our thinking. If we look far enough back into the past, we see hunter/gatherers, the introduction of farming, the invention of the wheel, the beginnings of civilization. Pretty soon along come the Greeks and the Romans. Then there are the middle ages, the renaissance, the industrial revolution, then along come lots of inventions, like central heating, TV, computers, and sending a man to the moon. (As you can see, this is all very Eurocentric.) It all goes upward and ever upward, as we humans progress to higher levels of technology and “better” lives.

But this is not the only way to view the past and the present. For many cultures throughout the world, there has traditionally been another model of history. In India, and also among many other peoples, including Native Americans in both North and South America, history has been seen as cyclical. Even the Greeks and the Romans believed in a succession of ages, and there is a reference to this view also in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel.

The Greek poet, Homer.
The Greek poet, Homer.

One of the key differences between these two views is that, from the cyclical worldview, “progress” isn’t necessarily progress, and our “inevitable” evolution upwards to grander and grander heights is very much in doubt.

In other word, things may not inevitably be getting better and better, and our common sense tends to agree with this observation. It may be that, all this time, the human race has been de-volving instead of e-volving.

Let’s look at it this way for a moment. There is a good chance, since you are reading this, that you live a fairly comfortable existence. This is not necessarily true, and there can be exceptions, but most likely, you are not living in a hut made of old tires and rusty hubcaps, on the banks of what used to be a river, but is now a creek filled with garbage. Instead, you have a nice home. In your home there is most likely central heating, air conditioning, a TV, computers – it is a place with modern conveniences.

We enjoy our central heating because it keeps us warm, and we wouldn’t have been happy in the European middle ages, where even aristocrats lived in cold castles – and peasants lived in squalid huts. We may say to ourselves that whatever view of history may be true (and whatever personal problems we might currently have), things are far better now in the modern world than they used to be hundreds of years ago. If we say this, then what we are expressing is a western/modern perspective; and whatever country we may live in, this is a middle or upper class view.

Suppose for a moment that instead of being you or me, living in our comfortable surroundings, we are a poor child in a developing country who lives on a giant mound of garbage which she picks through from morning to night to make a few cents a day. Suppose we are one of the billions of people who have no clean water to drink. Or one of the billions who live in horrible slums. Suppose we live in a war-torn region of central Africa, where there is hardly even a memory of any security or safety?

You and I are exceptions, and though we all do have our own problems and difficulties, (which may from time to time seem insurmountable), generally speaking, we are blessed to live in fairly decent or even very comfortable circumstances.

This means that, unless we stop to think and look around us, we may not notice that most people in the world live in conditions far worse than they would have lived in hundreds or thousands of years ago. Is it really true that the average person in the world is better off now? No, it really isn’t.

The great bath at Mohenjo Daro.
The great bath at Mohenjo Daro.

If we had lived around the year 2300 BCE in the city of Mohenjo Daro, part of the ancient Indian Indus Valley civilization, now in modern Pakistan, we might well have lived in a two story house, with a plumbing system, a furnace, and an inner courtyard lined with trees. We would have lived in clean, comfortable surroundings in a well-designed, beautiful city.

If we had lived around 1500 BCE in the Minoan city Knossos on the island of Crete, we would have lived in a city that delivered clean water through pipes into the homes of around 100,000 people and had an advanced plumbing and sewage system. We would have been surrounded by a vibrant culture that produced beautiful art, which can still be seen in murals on the walls of Knossos.

The Throne Room at Knossos.
The Throne Room at Knossos.

I can hear a voice saying, but wait – these two examples are not typical! Okay, that may be true; if these two advanced societies might be considered exceptions on the world stage, then what about life in a tribal society?

To be continued in part two…

To read part two, click here.



Top photo: Author (artist): Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926) / Wikimedia Commons /”This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. Such reproductions are in the public domain in the United States.”

Second photo: “This work has been released into the public domain by its author, JW1805 at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.” / Wikimedia Commons / A bust of Homer in the British Museum, London.

Third photo: Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 1.0 License.” / Original uploader was M.Imran at en.wikipedia / The great bath at Mohenjo Daro.

Fourth photo: “This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.”


 © Sharon St Joan, 2013

To find Sharon’s ebook, Glimpses of Kanchi, on Amazon, click here.




George Monbiot talks about rewilding


Below is the link to a seventeen minute, entertaining and captivating talk by ecologist George Monbiot on the concept of rewilding  — using examples from Yellowstone, the oceans, and Europe and painting a vision of what might be possible for the planet.

George Monbiot is a visionary and can perhaps be forgiven for being a little foggy on the details. Some of his suggestions – like putting elephants where they don’t belong – are profoundly mistaken, but the overall concept and the brilliance and optimism with which he presents it are an intriguing vision.

The good part about what he says is that it works best when human beings stop – that is simply stop what they are doing to nature.  One example he gives is the retreat of farming from parts of Europe, allowing nature to resurrect itself when it is left alone.  The parts where humans are doing something, like moving animals around, sound a lot less like a good idea.

Overall, it is a fascinating view of a future that is perhaps possible.  In the war between the earth and human “progress,” might the earth win in the end?

Thanks to Pamela Gale Malhotra of SAI Sanctuary for letting us know about this. Website:

Photo: Mike Cline/Wikimedia Commons / “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.” / “Lamar Valley Wolf, Yellowstone National Park, August 14, 2011.”

The music of Dhevdhas Nair, in his own words, part four


ancient trees, river walk, Chagford,resized

By Elizabeth Doyle


Dhevdhas Nair is a musician you really have to hear to believe. (You can sample or buy an album here: 


This is Part Four of a four-part interview.


To start at the beginning with Part One, click here


Me: I know that there’s an interesting inspiration behind your album, “Inbetween and passing” related to a small community in South America. I read the album cover, so I’ve cheated. But for everyone else, can you tell us about that and how the tracks on the album relate to it?


He: The track “Gaviotas” on my album was written as a celebration of and in dedication to the people of the town of the same name in Colombia who have shown the world that it is possible to take a region and a people who have been ravaged by the violence and barbarism of the modern world, and turn them round to face the possibility of a humane, sustainable future, meeting the needs that all people everywhere have always had; bread, freedom, dignity, and social justice. They have planted millions of trees, farm organically and use wind and solar power. Every family enjoys free housing, community meals and schooling. There are no weapons, no police, no jail. There is no mayor. The United Nations named the village a model of sustainable development. All this in an area that had all but been destroyed by logging and mining, and where many of the inhabitants had come from drug and violent gang-related conflict situations. I learnt about the place through a friend of mine, the writer Terri Windling, who lives in my village on Dartmoor. She had a visitor from the U.S. one day, Alan Weisman, who had written a book about Gaviotas, and as he described what they had done, I knew that it was important to celebrate their achievements and pass the word on that another world is possible.


temple proc trivandrum boys,resized


Me: Now, these questions are a little more dull in some ways, but I think that everyone likes to know a little basic biographical information about artists they appreciate. So can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started playing music?


He: I started piano lessons at the age of 8 by accident! My mum was struggling to survive in London on her own with two children and took advantage of a government funded place for me and my brother at two different boarding schools. After my first term, I came home and said to her, “thanks for the piano lessons!” And she said “what piano lessons?” Apparently I had been given a terms lessons that were meant for someone else! Anyway I carried on. And when I got a Beatles songbook, I found that I could read the music and play just like on the records I knew so well. That was really exciting. By the age of 14 I was playing with bands in North London, rehearsing in a room above Susan’s Music Shop in Chapel Market, at the Angel, Islington. I knew even at that stage that I wanted to play music and I wasn’t really interested in being at school, since it was only slowing my career down. At 18, I left England with a Sudanese bass player friend of mine and lived in Khartoum for a year where my real apprenticeship took place, playing every night in the Blue Nile Club with a fantastic band, “The Heavy Ducks” (!!) We also played for many weddings and functions in the desert around Khartoum, in Omdurman, and Port Sudan on the Red Sea Coast.


Dartmoor mist,resized


I’ve been a full time player ever since. My career as a performer has divided roughly into three phases, African music, Indian music, and Jazz. These days I’m on the road a little less, doing more writing and recording and a bit of teaching piano. I taught on the jazz degree course at Exeter University for four years, and am currently visiting jazz piano teacher at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset, and at Hampton School in Twickenham. I toured with African bands all over Europe and in East and Southern Africa. For two years I lived and worked in Paris, where there was, and still is a thriving African music scene. After studying Indian music I toured with Indian musicians and dance and theatre companies in India and Europe. When I settled in the West Country, I began playing jazz and this took me all over the UK and Europe again, with several radio and TV appearances and participation on an album “Limbic System” with the amazing saxophone player Harry Fulcher, which reached the top ten jazz albums in the UK in 2004.


I have had the good fortune to have grown up with one foot in England, where my father was from, and where I was born, and the other hovering over India and South East Asia, where my mother comes from. I’ve been many times to India and love being there. I’m hoping to spend a lot more time there in the future. It means that I have always had a wider perspective on the world, a chance to see things from many angles, and not get stuck in a Western-centred viewpoint.



To order the album “Inbetween and Passing” by Dhevdhas Nair, if you live outside the UK, go to


In the UK, click here.


UPDATE (March 11, 2018): To listen to Dhevdhas Nair’s beautiful music, go to


Photos: © Dhevdhas Nair

Top photo: Ancient trees, river walk, at Chagford, a little town on the edge of Dartmoor

Second photo: Boys in a temple procession, Trivandrum, Kerala, India

Third photo: View of Dartmoor, early morning




An older world than we thought…

Gobekli Tepe
Gobekli Tepe



Just a few years ago, an amazing complex of structures was discovered in eastern Turkey.  Known as Gobekli Tepe, these are about twenty stone circles – not formed of rough-hewn stone, like Stonehenge, but formed of straight, precisely cut and polished stone columns, with lintels across the top, decorated with animal sculptures.  These have been dated to around 12,000 years ago – thousands of years earlier than any previously known complex of carved structures.


They were apparently covered up by earth a couple of thousand years after they were created.  One can only suppose they were sacred sites and when the people were compelled to leave them, for whatever reason, they covered them up in order to preserve them to avoid having them deteriorate and fall apart over time.


The time that they were created, around 10,000 BC, coincides with the ending of the last Ice Age.


Gobekli Tepe is written about extensively in the book, Forgotten Civilization, by Robert Schoch, a geologist who gained international renown (and some measure of ridicule) for his work with John Anthony West, related to the Sphinx in Egypt, and the hypothesis that the Sphinx is much, much older, by thousands of years, than previously thought.


Dwarkadheesh Temple
Dwarkadheesh Temple


Graham Hancock, another well-known exponent of the concept that there was a high civilization, unknown to us, in the extremely remote past, examines this in his book Underworld, which looks at a number of sites, now underwater, which are evidence of very ancient, unknown civilizations.  His theory is that, because it is an accepted scientific fact that sea levels rose dramatically when the ice melted at the end of the last Ice Age, that the remains of ancient civilizations, which would have been located on what was then the coast, would now be entirely under the sea, often many meters below the surface.  Many of these sites have been found and Graham Hancock has dived some of them – at the island of Malta, Yonaguni which is off the southern coasts of Japan, Dwarka and other sunken cities off the coasts of India. At these and other underwater sites, there are very extensive remains of ancient megalithic structures.


There is growing interest in this concept of lost civilizations – really of a lost history of the world – and an increasing number of writers who investigate this topic.  It is also covered in the TV series, Ancient Aliens. Ancient Aliens leaves itself open to a certain level of ridicule by proposing that really just about everything in the distant past must have been built by ancient aliens who sailed to the planet earth in UFO’s.  This can strain the credibility even of those who have no problem at all believing in either UFO’s or very ancient civilizations.


However, the series does an excellent job of covering a great many really fascinating archeological sites of extreme antiquity, and is very much worth watching solely for the footage of these sites – if one isn’t too much put off be the assumption that ET himself must have built every single pyramid and every ancient ruin.



The throne room of Knossus
The throne room of Knossus



A new series on the H2 Channel is America Unearthed, in which the forensic geologist, Scott Wolter, travels across the U.S. looking into ancient sites on the American continent which indicate that America was discovered, not just by Columbus, and not just by the Vikings around 1,000 AD, as nearly everyone now accepts, but by many peoples from all corners of the world over many thousands of years.  For example, on Great Isle, on Lake Superior, there have been dug around 5,000 pits, used for extracting copper – one of these was dated to 3,700 BC.  The dating was done of cut and shaped timbers that were in place in one of the pits, supporting a large piece of copper.  A stone containing carved letters was found, and these turned out to be the letters of the Minoan script – the Minoans lived on the island of Crete, where, around 3,000 BC and earlier, they had a great need to mine copper to provide metal for the Bronze Age.  Perhaps they sailed all the way to the Great Lakes, and mined the copper that they found there to fuel the Bronze Age.


It seems increasingly clear that history, as we have been taught it, is simply not true.  It is woefully incomplete, and there are vast chapters of the ancient past that are only just beginning to come to light.  Great civilizations, unknown to us, may have extended for millennia back into the mists of time, perhaps other great worldwide civilizations from tens of thousands of years ago – or hundreds of thousands – or who knows?  Perhaps galactic civilizations lasting over billions of years?  If that’s too far-fetched, don’t worry – it was just a fleeting thought.  Even the sites now found from only a few thousand years farther back into the past will be sufficient to radically alter our view of history.


The well-settled world which we thought we knew fifty or sixty years ago – with its carefully defined boundaries and its nicely stable limitations – is not true.  The walls are falling down – all the preconceived notions – of history, of assumptions about the nature of the physical universe, about “reality” – all these are being upended.


This, if you like, is “the end of the world.”  It is the end of our tidy, finite, limited conceptualization of the world.  Concerning physics, it is the end of the Newtonian world.  Concerning history and archaeology, it is the end of history as we have known it.  It is, simply, the end of our human-imposed boundaries.


With string theories and multiple universes, ancient unsuspected high civilizations, with aliens of all sorts, ancient and modern – with everything that we could not previously have imagined, the world we had grown accustomed to has come to a close, the walls have come tumbling down, and a vast multi-verse of unfathomable, mystic realms — of myth and magic — awaits us.


Top photo: Author: Teomancimit / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / One of the carved columns at Gobekli Tepe.


Second photo: Author: Scalebelow / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / The Dwarakadheesh temple (Dwarakadhish temple/Dwarkadhish temple) at Dwarka, Gujarat, India.  The temple is thought to have been constructed on top of Lord Krishna’s original residential palace, by his grandson, Vajranabha.


Third photo: Author: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons /”This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / The throne room at the Minoan palace of Knossus on Crete.


To watch a video showing the ruins of Dwarka, off the west coast of India, click here.  (This is from the H2 program Ancient Aliens, but don’t let the ancient aliens distract you one way or the other; the relevant point here is to show you the ancient ruins.)



To watch the full episode of America Unearthed, “Great Lakes Copper Heist”, click here.






Christmas wishes – A letter from Fra Giovanni






Niamh Fodla writes, Fra. Giovanni Giocondo was a monk in the 1400s and early 1500s, who wrote this letter to a lady friend who was having a hard time — it was dated Christmas Eve, 1513.


Letter from Fra Giovanni

I am your friend
and my love for you goes deep.
There is nothing I can give you
which you have not got,
but there is much, very much
that while I cannot give it,
you can take.

No heaven can come to us
unless our hearts find rest in today.
Take heaven!
No peace lies in the future
which is not hidden
in this present little instant.
Take peace!

The gloom of the world
is but a shadow.
Behind it,
yet within our reach
is joy.
There is radiance and glory
in the darkness
could we but see –
and to see we have only to look.
I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver,
but we, judging its gifts
by the covering,
cast them away as ugly,
or heavy or hard.
Remove the covering
and you will find beneath it
a living splendor,
woven of love,
by wisdom, with power.

Welcome it, grasp it,
touch the angel’s hand
that brings it to you.
Everything we call a trial,
a sorrow, or a duty, believe me,
that angel’s hand
is there,
the gift is there, and the wonder
of an overshadowing presence.
Our joys, too, be not
content with them as joys.
They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full
of meaning and purpose,
so full of beauty
– beneath its covering –
that you will find earth
but cloaks your heaven.

Courage, then, to claim it,
that is all.
But courage you have,
and the knowledge that
we are all pilgrims together,
wending through
unknown country, home.

And so, at this time,
I greet you.
Not quite as the world
sends greetings,
but with profound esteem
and with the prayer
that for you
now and forever,
the day breaks,
and the shadows flee away.

More to demographics than meets the eye, part two




To read part one first, click here.


The Western world was not always the western world, as we know it.  Once, thousands of years ago, long before the middle ages and the dark ages, Europe was a land of myth and magic, a land of mystery, of ancient legends – a different world, one that can still be sensed among the ten thousand stone circles and ancient megaliths that dot the European countryside – from Malta to the northernmost islands of Scotland.  But something happened – a dark wave took over, casting out the myth and magic of the mists and bringing in the hard glare of a more cruel light —  and there began the rule of the crusaders, of conquistadors, of the Inquisition, of witch-burnings, of conquering and subjecting – of domination – and of the spreading across the earth of tides of oppression and destruction of lands and peoples.


With this onslaught of domination, came not only the oppression of all the peoples of the earth, but also the destruction of the planet itself.  Mining and oil wells, hi-tech wars, pollution, industrial waste, and relentless development have brought death to the rivers and oceans, to the air we breathe, to the land, the forests, and the animals, as the natural world too has been dominated and oppressed – along with women (the “witches”), and the peoples of the earth (disparaged as “primitive”).


To come back to the present moment, and the recent election, it has been remarked that the most extreme aspects of the Republican party are a throwback to the fifties, but really the mindset of domination goes back to a time several centuries earlier, and is a continuation of the dark spirit of the conquistadors and their ilk.  (This doesn’t mean that teaparty Republicans can’t be pleasant, decent people, in fact, quite fine people as human beings go; they generally are.  Conquistadors probably were too when they weren’t busy conquering foreign lands. Many people become, unthinkingly, part of whatever culture seems to choose them.)


Still, the desire to plant oil wells in Alaska and all along the coasts, the perception of the environment as something that must be beaten into submission, the wish to unleash rampant deregulation that will permit the full-scale annihilation of nature – all this combined with the drive to fight more and bigger wars, which are also sort of a way of “punishing” those perceived to be “evil” – all these methods of exercising dominion over everyone and everything are really opposed to all that is life-giving.  (None of this has anything to do with being genuinely and honestly conservative, in the normal sense – it is instead an aberration.)


Perhaps this aberrant trajectory of domination and oppression has come to its final, last stand.  Surely, it will limp along for a while, no doubt still wreaking havoc wherever it can, but it’s doom is sealed. (And when it goes, those who have been possessed by it, will also feel a sense of relief.)

On one level this election is just another election, one of many, yet there is a sense, on another level, that there has been a turning point – the emergence of a will for developing alternative energy to save the planet, for showing compassion rather than derision, inclusion rather than exclusion, for extending a word of encouragement and a helping hand to all. This is a spirit that values the life of people, all people, of nature, animals, plants, and the soul.  And it is a stepping stone toward the future – on a road that no longer barrels downwards to a baser and more corrupt world, but instead turns upwards to a world of light – of peace.


This unkind world that has been so prevalent over the last many centuries of our history, did indeed need to come to an end, and as it has begun to end, and as it still stumbles along on its last steps, another world beckons — a world of sunlight, of trees in the mists, of birds flying in the clouds – a world we had almost forgotten in our cities of clogged traffic and artificial existence.


A human political process cannot create heaven, and the people we have just elected are not angels dancing in the clouds, but fallible human beings. There will be many more struggles and battles to come.


Yet, all the same, we can glimpse a clearer light shining from the heavens, now that some of the oppressive clouds have been blown away, and a spirit of kindness and peace is poised to grow again on the earth.

The months and years to come will not be free of suffering. There may be tides of destruction and karmic repercussion from the actions of the past.  The seas may continue to rise, and the storm winds may still blow. But there has been an affirmation of a positive direction – towards life, kindness, and goodness.


What is important is the innocence in the souls of the animals, the beauty in the trees and the clouds, the survival of kindness in the hearts of some of the earth’s people, the presence of peace in the heart of God, and the awakening of creation to a more blessed state, freed from the dominion of evil that has beset us for so long.  The important thing is the victory of kindness, the diminishing of the world of corruption and oppression, and momentum toward the rebirth of an age of innocence and magic, where wildflowers can bloom in the sunlight and fish swim in the sea.



Top image: Author: Matty781  (Matthew Brennan) / “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.” / Wikimedia Commons / Stonehenge


Second image: “This image or recording is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made during the course of an employee’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.” / Wikimedia Commons /  Bald Eagle landing.


Third image: Author: Larry Aumiller / Kodiak brown bear with her cubs in McNeil River Sanctuary / “This image or recording is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made during the course of an employee’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.” / Wikimedia Commons






More to demographics than meets the eye, part one


Apart from Mitt Romney’s very gracious concession speech, his campaign over many months was dismissive of, and not very pleasant towards, just about everyone –  women, Latinos, all other minorities too, poor people, and the rest of the world.


Despite attempts to suppress the vote that haven’t been seen in this country for many decades, voters turned out in record numbers, waiting in long lines for up to eight hours. It seemed that the more the right to vote was threatened, the more determined people were to vote.


As many others have noted, the key factor in this election was not the economy at all, it was demographics – the changing population of America.  Those who voted for President Obama were overwhelmingly the young and a huge percentage of Latinos, African-Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other minority voters – and just 39% of the white vote, which was this year only 72% of the whole, down from around 90% in the 1970’s.


This has been noted by many observers, yet these demographic facts are a significant source of dismay (or, to be more blunt, fear and terror) to some white people. This fear, conscious or unconscious, leads to a compulsion to hold on to the status quo for dear life, even while one perceives it to be slipping away.  And, in a few people, the impulse to dominate, to subjugate, to oppress, bully, invalidate, deride, and dismiss — takes over – and leads to the sorts of endless absurdities that suggest that President Obama is somehow “other” and “not one of us.”


The impulse to dominate is a very fascinating thing. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived on the shores of the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they committed horrific atrocities, slaughtering and enslaving Native Americans.  At the same time, in Europe, the Inquisition was in full swing, and women were being burned as witches in towns all across the European continent.


Later on, when the British arrived in America, a similar sort of vicious behavior toward native people continued, on down through the centuries.  The Age of Discovery was really no such thing, since people were already living in all the lands being “discovered,” so “discovery” wasn’t really needed. Nonetheless, the European powers felt obliged to colonize the rest of the world – Asia, Africa, North and South America, nearly every tiny island in the oceans – all must be given the gift of “civilization” – nevermind that some of these countries; like India, Egypt, and China, had been civilized for at least 5,000 years and possibly many thousands of years longer than that.  Certainly, they were civilized long before Rome attempted to curb the hordes of Vandals and Goths making their way through Europe.


If we are feeling that things have taken a better, more progressive turn since those dark days, that isn’t so. The wars of the twentieth and early twenty-first century were of unparalleled brutality.


After the Colonial Age, as the European powers were forced to withdraw, with regret, from the lands they had occupied, a new form of colonization arose – this time it was cultural and economic. And this is where we are at the moment – the invasion of CocaCola and McDonalds – and the insidious belief that creeps into the mind of people all over the world, that perhaps their own culture and traditions are somehow backwards and not quite modern enough.


The same individuals who are fiercely loyal to their own nations may still fall subject to a kind of unconscious drive leading them to cast off their own traditions and seek instead what seems “modern” and “western.”  I remember with sadness that in Kenya, I met so many people who were very proud of their Christian names and their Christian faith.  When I asked them about their heritage — their stories, myths, and traditions, bits of wisdom their grandparents might have passed on to them, they looked bemused or slightly embarrassed; they had no idea, they knew no traditional stories, and there was the sense that they felt that all these things were to be left behind, as somehow unworthy or best forgotten. What a sad way to lose one’s language and culture.


One could write many books outlining the ways that ancient, traditional medicine has more healing power than modern, allopathic medicine, or the ways that traditional agriculture is more sustainable and healthier than western agriculture, or ways in which traditional artisans and artists create art that is much, much more beautiful than anything the modern world can produce, or how even the oldest science, mathematics, astronomy, and knowledge of the universe is really not at all inferior to modern knowledge; how, in short, human “progress” is a myth that only serves to disguise the devolution and progressive ignorance of our present civilization.  This may be a minority view, not generally accepted, but there is something to be said for it.


A great loss of culture and true civilization has happened, one way or another, all over the world, as this western wave has swept over the earth, despite the valiant efforts of many people to preserve their own culture. It is only these courageous efforts, like a mighty flame in the darkness, that have kept alive the beauty, truth, and knowledge of ancient traditions that have been under such fierce attack. Now the tide may be turning.


To be continued in part two.  To read part two, click here.


Top image: Author: Margaret Duncan Coxhead / Source Romance of History, Mexico Date 1909 / The conquistadors entered Tenochtitlan to the sounds of martial music. / Wikimedia Commons / “This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.”


Second image: Author: D.F. Barry / Sitting Bull / This image is in the public domain in the United States. A Sioux holy man and chief who led his people in resistance. / Wikimedia Commons / “This image is in the public domain in the United States.”


Third image: Artist: Nicolaas Pieneman (1809–1860) /The submission of Diepo Negoro to Lieutenant-General Hendrik Merkus Baron de Kock, 28 March 1830, which ended the Java War (1825–30). / Wikimedia Commons /”This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.”

Did India invent “Damascus” steel?

Damascus steel dagger

An October 10, 2012 television program on Nova dealt with Viking swords and their origins.  Some of the metallurgical techniques can be traced back to ancient India.

India possessed an advanced knowledge of metallurgy.  The pillar known as the Iron Pillar of Delhi, built by Chandragupta II Vikramaditya (375–413), stands at the Red Fort, where it has stood for over 1,700 years, and although made of iron, it has never rusted. No one knows how this could be possible.

The Vikings made certain swords from what was called Damascus steel; imported to the Middle East from India. In India it was known as Wootz steel. The Vikings, as we know, were a warlike people, who made a practice of raiding and pillaging, so swords were important to them. Like many ancient peoples, the Vikings worshipped their weapons.  The only way to gain admission to the Viking heaven, Valhalla, was to die in battle, with sword in hand.

The Nova program focused on a modern blacksmith’s endeavors to re-create an ancient sword-making technique last used perhaps one thousand years ago in Europe, the technique that made its way from India to Damascus and then on to Europe.

Ulfbert swords

Some medieval steel for swords had three times the carbon content of regular steel, and these swords were much stronger and more flexible, less apt to snap.

Viking combat made use of shields as well as swords, shields being used more often to catch the opponent’s blows.  If the sword was struck instead of the shield, it had to remain resilient and not break.  Swords were believed to have magical powers, and the most superior swords of the time were those known as “crucible swords.”  Manufactured in a unique way, crucible swords had the name “Ulfbert” engraved on the blade.

The modern-day swordsmith, Richard Ferrer, was filmed by Nova as he attempted to re-create the ancient technique of making a crucible sword. Charcoal was used in making the steel.  First a container was made of clay and brick.  Inside this container, which was to be heated in a furnace to a sustained temperature of nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, was put the carbon and iron that would, when heated, turn into an ingot of steel.  Then the steel was hammered into the shape of the sword.  Similar furnace containers of clay and brick have been found in archeological excavations in Central Asia.

The brick and clay container served as an oven, trapping a lot of heat.  Ferrer and his assistant manned the billows for hours to maintain the high temperature required.  At around 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, slag separates from steel.  The aim was to create a crucible steel ingot having the same properties as Damascus steel.

Statue of the Buddha, Sarnath, India, Fourth Century BC

Trade along the Volga

Steel like this was produced in ancient India and traded along a route on the Volga River.

In an eighth century Viking grave in Scandinavia was found a statue of the Buddha from northeast India. At that time, it appears that both Slavic people and Vikings from Scandinavia were traveling on the Volga, the longest river in Europe, in what is now Russia.  The Volga connected them with the Arab peoples of the Middle East, who were in contact with the lands further east. Thousands of grave goods have been found in burial sites along the Volga.  Many of these objects had come from Iran, having been brought back to Europe in small ships.  The trading route was closed after the eleventh century.

Crucible steel has some unique properties; the iron atoms inside it form interlocking structures.  After the perfect ingot of steel emerged, Rick Ferrer spent eight hours pounding the ingot to form it into a bar, and eleven hours altogether to form it into a blade.

Ferrer sent a piece of the steel to Arcelor Mittal to be machine-tested for stress. An inferior weak blade would shatter, but a crucible steel blade would have great strength.  The test results showed that Rick’s crucible steel blade was “a very high quality” measured against the steels of today.

Norse swords, designed to pierce chain mail, had sharp points. The Roman style sword which had a round tip, wouldn’t go through armor.

The name Ulfbert is an enigma, and no one is quite sure where the name came from or exactly what it means. Some believe Ulfbert could be the name of an abbott, since the Catholic church was a major arms producer.  The name was in use over a 200 year period and, on the true crucible swords, Ulfbert is spelled with a cross in front of the “t,”  like this:  ULFBER+T.  In copies, which are not true crucible swords, the cross follows the “t” in the name.  Apparently, people who were less familiar with the swords or who did not read well could not tell the difference.

Quenching the sword

After  heating the sword, Ferrer quenched it by plunging it into a bucket of oil.  This was quite dramatic since the oil burst into flame, then the sword covered in oil went up in flames too.  Ferrer explained that it is at this point that the sword, if it has not been made perfectly, might crack and be useless, despite all the time put into it.  Happily, this one turned out fine and did not crack.  The last time one was made was 900 to 1,000 years ago.

He has examined 44 swords, with the name Ulfbert on them.  Eleven were true crucible swords, and all the rest, while they were of fair quality, were copies and not true crucible swords.

Ferrer had inlaid the letters of the name Ulfber+t into the sword he made, and spent a few days polishing it to reveal the letters.

From 300 BC to 1700 AD the type of steel made in India and used in European sword manufacture was called “Damascus” steel.  There is a pattern in the steel that resembles flowing water.

The iron pillar of Delhi

The beginning of metallurgy

According to the Wikipedia article, History of metallurgy in the Indian subcontinent, metallurgy in India began in the second millennium BC., perhaps as early as 1800 BC. Smelting, which could refer either to copper and bronze, or to iron, is mentioned in the Rig Veda, the oldest book in the world, as well as in other ancient Hindu texts.

Iron ore and iron objects have been discovered at eight sites in the Indus Saraswathi Civilization, some dating to earlier than 2,600 BC. They may be made of smelted iron though this is not certain.

When the British arrived in India, they regulated the metallurgical industry, and over time, it declined and ceased to exist.  The British were not fond of Indian metallurgy which they feared might be used to make weapons. By the early nineteenth century, the mines of Rajasthan lay idle and the caste of workers who had mined metal was no more.

The crucible technique in India

By 300 or 200 BC, what Europeans later called the crucible technique was being employed to produce steel in southern India.  Iron, carbon, and glass were melted together and the high-quality steel that resulted was exported to Asia and Europe.

The historian Will Durant wrote that “Damascus” blades were shipped from India to Iran to Arabs in the Middle East and on to Europe.

Chola bronze Nataraja, Shiva, Lord of the Dance

Early Indian kings used sheets of copper plating to record inscriptions.  In the 12 century, the Arab writer, Edrizi, wrote that Indian sabers were the most famous in the world, with the sharpest edge.

The suppression of the industry during colonial times was effective, and the world has largely forgotten the remarkable, very early advances in metallurgy made by India.  Perhaps it is time to remember.

Journey of the wolves


From within


The immortal




Of the lily


Arise the mists in


Which the cathedral


Of bright








All the winters


Of destiny,


Though the tall firs


List against the bone-


White hill,




The call of the moon invite


The wind-footed wolves to


Return across the night


Over the hinterlands


Of circled ice


Across the crevasse


And the mountain


To the peace of the timeless dawn.



Written in 2008


Photo: © Alexfiodorov |