Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese
By Brad Kessler
The sentence you are reading right now contains at least nineteen hidden references to pastoralsim. It does so through the letters A, C, H, L, and I--all of which retain in their shape their pictographic origin that resembles either a hoofed animal or a tool used to herd it.
The Roman letter A comes from the Hebrew aleph, derived from the word for "ox." The animal’s head appears when the letter is turned upside down --∀-- its two horns sticking up to heaven. The Roman C comes from the Hebrew gimel, for "camel." Tip the C on its side and the camel’s hump rears into view: ∩. H, from the Hebrew heth, is an enclosure or fence. Our H retains the two posts and crossbar of a fence; enlarged and strung together the letters could keep animals penned in: HHHHHH. L is the Hebrew lamed, a shepherd’s staff or cattle prod. I is another type of staff, from the Hebrew waw, for "cane." Both letters writ large—I or L--would make stout herding sticks.
The point of this pedantry is to show how in our daily life we encounter bits of our cultural past as herders. Every time we scan the alphabet we touch a piece of pastoralism. We’re reminded, however unconsciously, that we once lived among, and depended upon, hoofed animals. They were not only our food, but also our vehicles, clothing, tractors, tents, dynamos, vessels, and musical instruments. They helped build our cities and grind our grain and carry our water. Their bodies formed the basis of so much of our early culture.
Homo sapiens evolved as a species thinking and hunting and watching and eating ungulates: bison and horses, ibex and aurochs and deer. Our big brains, our wolf-pack sociability, our gamesmanship evolved in concert with hunting large hoofed animals. Our earliest representational art—paintings from the Paleolithic era found in caves from Spain to Africa, Australia to India--shows a singular obsession with herbivores. Animals were humans’ first intellectual and aesthetic preoccupation. They figured among our first gods and goddesses. We drew them and dreamed them, sang them and ate them; and our passion for hoofed beings only deepened once we herded instead of hunted them.
Some of the oldest found writing in the world comes from Uruk in southern Mesopotamia and dates to the fourth millennium B.C. The writings were etched with reeds on wet clay tablets and the tablets left to bake in the sun. The very first written records from Uruk are tallies of grazing animals entrusted to specific herdsmen by their owners. It’s intriguing that the earliest known writing concerned itself with herding; and equally intriguing are poems found in nearby Sumer a thousand years later—hymns to Sumerian gods and goddesses filled with pastoral imagery. One fragment from 2000 B.C. describes Geshtinanna (the sister of the Sumerian shepherd god, Dammuzi). The poem blends so clearly the later oft-linked worlds of pastoralism and poetry.
His sister of the sweet-voiced lyre,
Maid Geshtinanna, sits in the fold,
She milks the ewe and gives to the lamb,
She milks the goat and gives to the kid,
In her right hand she carries the churn,
In her left the young woman has a lyre and a harp.
Pastoralism is a way of life based on breeding domestic ungulates. It’s a culture of herding cows, horses, goats, sheep, llamas, vicunas, reindeer, camels and yaks. Pastoralism first appeared in the Near East and Central Asia in the Neolithic Era—about ten thousand years ago. What started as a new food economy became in time an institution with its own values, rituals, and social powers. Once humans relied on hoofed animals for their livelihood, their view of the world began to change. The first pastoralists developed a different cosmology from that of the hunters and gatherers who preceded them. To hunting cultures animals were equals, independent, numinous. They appeared and disappeared at will. Domesticated animals, on the other hand, had no such autonomy or power or independence. They were not a gift of a god—or a god itself—but were instead beasts bred by and for humans. As such, they could be used, misused, traded or killed at will. They were, in short, commodities. Goats, sheep, horses, cows, and bulls became wealth.
Friedrich Engels argued that the domestication of cattle was a pivotal point for human society. Once the wild bull was broken and used to plow fields he could also be used for trade. Some humans inevitably accumulated more cattle wealth than others. The spread of a pastoralist economy, Engels implied, led to a growing inequality between those who had and those who hadn’t—between rich and poor, and men and women. The end result was a new class system. The contemporary archaeologist, David W. Anthony, lends fuel to Engels’s theory. Anthony observed that when people started keeping domestic sheep and cattle on the Eurasian steppes, around 5000 B.C., a society of chieftains appeared where none had existed before. The chieftains distinguished themselves from the "common people" through ostentatious funerals and elaborate jewelry and animal sacrifice—practices unknown to those who still foraged and didn’t accept the new animal currency. The cultural rift between foragers and pastoralists grew. The chieftains on the Eurasian steppes accumulated more and more animals—and more power and land. The foragers did not. The chieftains and their herding culture survived and spread. The foraging cultures diminished and died out.
In time herding cultures took over, not just on the Eurasian steppes, but in most parts of the globe. Migrants came with their hoofed animals to new lands, or rode them there. Pastoralist empires conquered the world. The Persian, Roman, Mongol, Mughal, British and Spanish (to name a few) sent their armies across the earth. With them came their domestic cattle, sheep, horses and goats--and a different way of thinking from the natives. They spread their herders’ diet, heavy with butter and milk, meat and cheese, and their economy, based on animal wealth. Hunters, gatherers and foragers had to make way for the new culture and economy, as they’ve been making way in the tundras and rainforests of the world until this very day.
The first money pastoralist cultures struck was conceived in terms of the market value of hoofed animals. In the Near East, sixty shekels equaled one manu, the amount carried by a donkey. Twenty shekels equaled an ox; a goat was worth five. The coins themselves often featured figures of their beloved bulls or rams. The word pecuniary (relating to money) came from the word for "cattle" –pecus-- in ancient Rome. The original stock market involved itself with live stock, the wealth of herded animals. The fetishism of capital came from a living place. Before money talked, it walked.
The longer I lived with hoofed animals the more I began to understand the herder’s obsession with his animals, his delight in watching them, the way they formed not only his wealth and diet but his frame of reference and metaphoric reach. The twentieth-century social anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard lamented his subject’s monomania with their cattle. "They are always talking about their beasts," he complained of the southern Sudanese Nuer. "I used to sometimes despair that I never discussed anything with the young men but livestock and girls, and even the subject of girls led inevitably to that of cattle. Start on whatever subject I would…we would soon be speaking of cows and oxen, heifers and steers, rams and sheep…their social idiom is a bovine idiom."
How much is our own idiom in the West, particularly in North America, a "bovine idiom" if not a pastoralist one? How much is our fast food, our market, our poems our lush green lawns—our cowboy culture-- a consequence of a pastoralist past? My American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines "culture" primarily as "the cultivation of the soil" and secondarily as "the breeding of animals" and thirdly as the "growing of micro-organisms in a medium." Only by the fourth and fifth definitions come the meaning we most commonly ascribe to the word culture today: "social and intellectual formation…behavior patterns, arts, beliefs."
The progressive meaning of the word is telling, for the mother of all our culture is agriculture; all our other arts sprang from it. The Ox to pull the plow. The staff to herd him. The fence to hold him in. The cane to keep him there. Aleph, lamed, heth. waw. Even our letters spell it out.
Brad Kessler’s novel Birds in Fall won the 2007 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His other work of fiction includes Lick Creek and The Woodcutter’s Christmas as well as several children’s books. He has written for the New Yorker, the Nation, The Kenyon Review, and Bomb, among other places. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and, along with his wife, photographer Dona Ann McAdams, he won the Lange Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. His first non-fiction book: Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding and the Art of Making Cheese will be released by Scribner in June.