Reflections on ancient texts and sacrifice


Science considers us to have been recognisably human for 200,000 years.

Spoken language is estimated to be as old, but writing was invented only 5500 years ago.

So for roughly 194,500 years, the learned lore of earth and season, plants and animals — like the recipe for bronze — was carried only in the brain and passed on by word of mouth.

We invented systems to recall our vast and growing knowledge; story, song and ritual, symbols and prompts in the shapes of land, stars, pictures, kowhaiwhai.

Much of our knowledge was abstract.

Long before we farmed and built, our hunting ancestors experienced the patterns of behaviour which determined whether individuals and societies thrived or perished, and codified those hard lessons into legend.

Then came civilisation, commerce, law and records, and finally some of the ancient knowledge shared in our large brains was subcontracted to hard copy.

In terms of influence, longevity and circulation, those ancient abstractions remain the most successful of all writing, existing now in collections with names like Bhagavad Gita, Buddhavacana, Tao Te Ching and the Bible.

There’s a widespread attitude, in the West at least, that there is reason to disregard and decry texts like the Bible.

Unlike Aesop’s Fables (600BCE), much of the Bible was probably considered cryptic and obscure by its first scribes, but they wrote it anyway.

For all their vagary, those ancient texts represent what survives of knowledge thousands, or tens of thousands of years old, before writing was invented.

Gleaning the wisdom from the vagary is uncertain and subjective, but where there is study there is thoughtfulness and reflection.

It’s difficult to spot wisdom in dismissive disregard for mankind’s oldest stories, or the assertion that new, faddish, unproven ideas and ideologies ought to replace enduring traditions simply because they are modern, or ‘‘postmodern’’.

Easter — the crucifixion — is central to the Bible: a single individual accepts responsibility, not only for misdemeanours in the eyes of others, but for the whole world.

He delivers advice on co› existing in harmony, dies for those beliefs, and lives forever as an ideal.

This sacrifice can be taken simply — as a gift — and it can be taken seriously, as an example.

If ordinary individuals take on all the responsibility they can manage to improve themselves, and make sacrifices towards something other than themselves, how might the whole world improve, and they live on in the thoughts of others?

If this way was easy, it wouldn’t be responsibility or sacrifice — all revered literature agrees on that.

As pandemic restrictions retreat, countries like ours reflect on our sacrifice of freedoms to save lives, and watch in real›time as other nations sacrifice lives for freedom — or power.

On Anzac Day we’ll contemplate the sacrifice that was chosen by some and inflicted on others and perhaps seek in thoughts and prayers for what — in lives of relative safety, comfort and convenience — we ourselves are willing to sacrifice, and for what.