Ancestral soil – I don’t mean “the fatherland”, the nation-state, the racial or linguistic group to which a person belongs. I mean the dirt and soil upon which you walk, composed of the blood and pulverized bones of your ancestors.
Our forebears (those who supported themselves by agriculture) had an intimate and spiritual relationship with the land about them. Living in mainly settled communities, they rarely strayed far from their villages. Houses and farmsteads were passed down from father to son; generations of the same family came to be buried in the same earth, eventually dissolving and becoming a part of it. Agriculture was a sacred activity (a sacrament). When you tilled the soil, you were literally stirring the bones of your ancestors. Even in death, the grandparents and great-grandparents performed their duties for the welfare of the community.
Is it any wonder therefore, that ancestor worship came to be so widespread in the ancient world. The dead were responsible for the quality and fertility of the soil upon which an entire community relied; the annual crops grew from their remains. Very few of us today can pick up a handful of soil, run it between our fingers and know for certain we touching the blood, bones and ashes of our grandparents and their grandparents.
In earlier times, it was inconceivable that land could be bought or sold. The land belonged to no one. The only claim anyone could have to it was by virtue of the fact that one’s ancestors were buried there (i.e., they were a part of the soil).
We know from records of the colonization of places such as Iceland and Scotland that the idea of "ownership" of land was often seen in exactly this way: through the process of burial. St Columba, for example, could not take possession of the sacred isle of Iona until his disciple Odran had “volunteered” to be buried in its soil (which is why St Odran is such an important figure on the island). If you travel the roads to other sacred places in the UK (like Stonehenge and Avebury), barrows announce for all to see that those living on these sites claimed the surrounding lands through generations of buried ancestors, emphasized by the large number of burial mounds.
A strong mystical connection exists between the soul and soil that fashioned it. The pull is strong. Soil and soul are ultimately of the same substance. Most of us would prefer to be buried alongside our families and loved ones than among strangers. Some exiles are known to keep a handful of their nation’s soil hidden somewhere among their belongings.
If you are ever fortunate enough to be able to return to your ancestral soil, you break out into a sweat. You know you are in physical contact with the grandmothers and great grandmothers who struggled to bring you into existence. It is as if the earthen womb recognizes the worth of each of her children and demands an account. What have you done with your life? What did you do with the body I loaned you, the emotions I breathed into you, the abilities I impressed on you? Did you squander them, or use them wisely?
We move around so much these days that our emotional bonds to a particular soil are all but severed. Our last links to it are played out in our relationships with our gardens, which are images of paradise. Those of us who are fortunate to possess a garden are able to experience a little of that lost relationship with the earth which our forefathers once possessed. Through it, we become involved once more in the rhythms of the year, the turn of the seasons (once celebrated by the great religious festivals) and the cycles of growth and decay. It teaches us how to nurture and protect the young and the delicate.
In view of this, perhaps we can better understand the feelings of settled communities towards their ancestral lands. I am thinking in particular of the peoples of Eastern Europe (as well as those in Chechnya and Afghanistan) those who, when taking up arms against an invader, sought to defend not so much a political nation-state or piece of prime “Real Estate” but the blood and bones of their ancestors stretching into the past beyond all hope of memory.
Ryszard Antolak is a writer and teacher based in the UK specializing in Persian History and Philosophy.
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