The Hidden Promise of Christmas

In this edition of the Eponaquest News, author Linda Kohanov offers some ancient, yet still unconventional, insights into the “Hidden Promise of Christmas.” Regardless of your religious, or non-religious, background, this holiday essay offers hope for the future through a deeper understanding of the past, putting longstanding conflicts into a perspective that allows us to dream new dreams for earthly and spiritual renewal.

In December, regardless of your religious orientation, the simplest impromptu shopping trip becomes a multi-media Christmas experience. Glistening decorations are accompanied by tinkling silver bells, nostalgic songs from the 1950s, and rock and roll arrangements of traditional carols wafting through the air at every turn. Many people, filled with warm family memories, push their carts along in a mild state of revelry. Other shoppers wear a cynical smirk, decrying the commercialism of the holiday or the hypocritical nature of believers who celebrate the birth of Christ one day and engage in opportunistic, mean-spirited pursuits the next.

For me, Christmas unleashes whirlwinds of thought and feeling about who we are, where we came from, and where we’re headed. Growing up, I attended a United Methodist Church that was much more open-minded and open-hearted than some of the fundamentalist sects in the news today. Working in therapeutic contexts over the years, I was demoralized, embarrassed and outraged to meet people who experienced tremendous abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual) in Christian congregations. I also encountered survivors of similar trauma in other religious and secular contexts, of course. But somehow, my faith in humanity suffered a much more serious blow every time I ran into Christians who modeled callous, prejudiced, highly competitive, intensely domineering, sometimes overtly violent, sometimes more subtly hurtful passive-aggressive behavior. After all, according to the compassionate, nonviolent principles introduced by religion’s founder, people who go to church on Sunday should know better, and, one would hope, strive harder to act in accordance with the beliefs they espouse. This incongruence felt so dire to me in the 1990s that I wondered if the entire universe might be better off if humans did, in fact, blow themselves into oblivion.

Then I did something that changed my perspective on the whole dilemma. I bought a horse.

My initial motivation was to get away from the confusing, sometimes aggressive world of humans on a regular basis. I wanted to ride into the desert and feel free. I wanted to spend time with a strong and graceful being who was not a predator. In the process of forming a partnership with my horse, however, I was transformed in ways that are, to this day, hard to capture in words. I felt the reawakening of a mindful, compassionate power that changed my life, leading me on a journey I never expected to undertake, one that I have attempted to decipher and chronicle in five books.

Twenty-five years later, I feel a deeper kinship with my Judeo-Christian roots, not as they are currently presented in the popular media, but as an ancient wisdom tradition revealing a still-unconventional view of animals, spirit and culture. This mind- and heart-expanding perspective lies hidden in a religion that I believe has been long-misunderstood, maligned, and misused.

As I celebrate Christmas in 2017, I’d like to share a few key insights that have renewed my faith in humanity and my hope for the future. It’s not a short and easy read, mind you. It involves going back, way back, before recorded history, and looking at a side of human nature that has been all but lost in our sedentary, technologically-obsessed, city-based culture. Along the way, we’ll explore how the story of Cain and Abel foreshadowed the hidden promise of Christmas. We’ll look at scientific evidence showing that humans and animals are biologically primed for caring social behavior, that Nature does in fact “have a heart.”. And we will explore how reconnecting with animals, taking some serious time off, and yes, even “going feral” now and then, may be essential elements of human salvation.

Edited from chapter seven of my book The Power of the Herd: A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership and Innovation, this “holiday essay” is a gift that my horses gave me years ago, one that I have been unpacking ever since. Whether or not you are celebrating December 25th as a pleasant family holiday, a sacred renewal, or simply a day off work, it is my wish that it will inspire you to see life a bit differently, and perhaps more optimistically.


Abel’s Genius


The human-animal bond is shrouded in mystery. We will never know who coaxed the first wolf to take a morsel of food by hand, who cuddled the first ancestral feline, or who rode the first horse. Not only did we form mutually-beneficial partnerships with other species thousands of years before the invention of writing, historians and scientists didn’t spend much time speculating how domestication occurred until the twentieth century. And the world’s creation stories don’t fare much better. It’s as if, from the moment we first became conscious, the animals were already there, so intimately interwoven with human life that their presence was universally taken for granted, like rain, like the seasons, like breathing.

In Genesis, the beasts of the field and the birds of the air were named by Adam, who was created last, but there’s no mention of how, why or when the first man was inspired to form relationships with certain animals. There’s that unfortunate episode with a crafty talking snake and the subsequent expulsion from paradise. The next thing we know, Adam’s sons are reaping harvests, herding livestock and fighting over which approach is better, a sedentary agricultural lifestyle or a nomadic pastoral one. The subsequent murder of one brother by the other depicts man’s violent rebellion against God’s preference, and draws attention to humanity’s forgetfulness of the real issue involved, one that, to this very day, promotes widespread human suffering.

Whether or not you consider yourself religious, and whether or not your orientation is Judeo-Christian, it is well worth analyzing the meaning behind this tempestuous tale. And it really doesn’t matter if you interpret the Bible as literal, metaphorical, or a combination of both in this case. There’s significant historical, psychological and cultural information packed into the Cain and Abel conflict that we would all benefit from re-membering, i.e. bringing to full, integrative consciousness. I originally touched on this subject in my first book The Tao of Equus in 2001, but recent theories on the human-animal bond suggest this ancient story may coincide with some compelling, newly emerging scientific research as well.

The Bible contains the collective wisdom, innovations and historical dilemmas of a highly successful, semi-nomadic culture confronting the increasing influence of land-owning, wealth-amassing, slaveholding civilizations throughout the Middle East. Much of what seems paradoxical in the sayings and writings of Moses and Jesus — and the countless others who contributed to this multi-faceted volume — makes perfect sense in the context of a non-sedentary philosophy. It all started when God accepted Abel’s pastoral offering over Cain’s presentation of the fruits of his agricultural labors. The creator of the universe wasn’t promoting meat over vegetables or satisfying some supernaturally demented thirst for blood. He was endorsing the shepherd’s lifestyle, one which requires caring for and moving with the animals. But why would wandering around the countryside protecting sheep from wolves win out over peacefully tending to grains, grapes, dates, and flowers?

Here’s where the idea of a divine intelligence comes in, the logic of which we are only now, in the twenty-first century, capable of deciphering through modern science and a good five-thousand years of brutal trial and error.


East of Eden


For those who aren’t familiar with this story, let’s go straight to the source, in this case the New International Version of Genesis Chapter Four, which opens with Eve giving birth to Cain, and later, his brother Abel:

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering — fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

It’s important to note that Abel doesn’t engage in blood sacrifice, instead offering what he considers the most desirable parts of animals culled for his own sustenance. Cain’s pride is visibly wounded, but God takes the time to explain His decision, encouraging the planter to follow a different path, foreshadowing some difficulties and temptations arising from this lifestyle over time.

Cain, however, takes the rejection personally. Unwilling to accept the drawbacks of his “career” choice, let alone change his behavior in response, he decides to get rid of the competition, luring Abel out to the field. In a fit of rage, Cain attacks and kills his younger brother, then lies when God asks him where Abel is.

“I don’t know,” Cain replies in this classic passage: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” God reveals, whereupon He punishes the first murderer, not by executing him, but by making it clear that the land “will no longer yield its crops” for Cain, essentially forcing him to leave his sedentary life and “be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Eventually, Cain does settle down again, “in Nod, east of Eden,” where he marries, and builds a city named after his son Enoch. Yet the pastoral approach refuses to die out completely. Eve has another son, Seth. And even in Cain’s line, the nomadic perspective emerges generations later when his great-great-great-great grandson Jabal becomes “the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock,” marking an exciting era for all sort of innovations: Jabal’s brother Jubal becomes “the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes,” and their half-brother Tubal-Cain forges “all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.”


Abel Bodied Vagrants

Back in the 1990s, when I was researching the domestication of the horse and the subsequent development of the ancient Eurasian horse tribes, I came across a number of intriguing books about other pastoral cultures and the benefits of this lifestyle in general. Daniel Quinn’s award-winning novel Ishmael, and Jim Corbett’s brilliant yet lesser-known nonfiction work Goatwalking were particularly creative and insightful. Both cited the Cain and Abel story as marking a significant turning point in humanity’s cultural evolution. In this sense, Cain’s impulse to murder his sheep-herding brother and build the first city represents the lethal animosity nomadic peoples have experienced in the presence of sedentary cultures since the beginning of civilization.

Quinn’s fictional narrator discovers this bit of wisdom while engaging in telepathic debates with a gorilla who discusses the “Leavers,” hunter-gatherers who live in harmony with nature, and the “Takers,” city dwellers who arose with the agricultural revolution and aimed to conquer all other life forms, destroying many species in the process. The book doesn’t distinguish between a hunter-gatherer approach and the nomadic pastoral lifestyle, which as I mentioned in Chapter Five, was an innovation that grew out of settled agricultural communities. The Bible, however, does recognize Abel as Cain’s younger brother, adding to the accuracy of this tale as a vehicle for retaining the memory of pre-historic events through eons of oral tradition.

While Quinn’s novel artfully teases the modern mind with the first tendrils of a nomadic perspective, Corbett’s 1991 book offers more specific information on the psycho-spiritual effects of pastoralism. Goatwalking resurrects Abel’s wisdom by describing the profound realizations the author himself gained from wandering through the Arizona desert with herds of milk goats, engaging in the nomadic lifestyle for extended periods of time. Through this effort, he reconnects with the original meaning of the sabbatical, the ancient Jewish tradition of renewing the land — and most importantly, its people — by letting the ground “lie fallow” every seventh year.

The idea of the sabbatical, presented in the book of Leviticus, stems from a series of messages Moses received from God shortly before his people entered the Promised Land. After they were liberated from Egyptian slavery, the Jews, as you may remember, were sentenced to wander aimlessly through the desert for engaging in an embarrassing episode of idolatry. From a non-sedentary perspective, however, this wasn’t so much a punitive move on God’s part as a necessary correctional effort. After living with the ultimate pyramid-building, slaveholding city-dwellers for untold generations, the demoralized, disempowered tribes of Israel would have needed to reawaken their rusty pastoral skills before they were capable of reinstating their unique culture in the Promised Land. Otherwise they might have built their own version of Egypt in Canaan. So they were compelled to meander through the wilderness, vagrants without a home, until they reclaimed Abel’s wisdom and realized that nature was designed to nurture when treated with trust, affection and respect.

To me, what follows marks a particularly fascinating moment in biblical history: On the eve of the Israelites’ entry into Canaan, God decides to collaborate with His creation. Knowing full well that some members of these tribes would prefer, like Cain, to settle in one place, till the soil, and even build cities, He compromises with them, searching for a way to help them maintain balance. His solution, of all things, involves requiring people to keep at least some connection with the nomadic pastoral lifestyle, one that exercises the mutually-respectful interdependence of man and nature, as opposed to the conqueror’s man-over-nature mentality. Those who knew how to thrive in the wilderness would also be less prone to help others amass great wealth at the expense of personal freedom, and more likely to flee if things got out of hand and tyranny began to rule the land.

So, in addition to outlining all sorts of laws governing proper social behavior, the Book of Leviticus introduces the idea of the sabbatical, a divine edict that every seven years, the people are obliged to shirk their work-a-day responsibilities and literally go feral.


A Recipe for Remembering

As a consequence of killing his brother and building the first city, Corbett observes, Cain forgot the meaning of the Sabbath and lost connection to the redemptive powers of nature. Yet some manifestation of divine intelligence kept trying to jump-start humanity’s memory, at times by compelling receptive individuals to leave the city, sneak out of the palace, or put down the plow and just start walking. Moses climbs Mt. Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments and later introducing the sabbatical. Lao-tzu, the Buddha, and Mohammad all spend significant time alone in nature before accessing their profoundly influential visions. Jesus wanders through the desert for forty days and forty nights before he returns to civilization, urging others to drop their fishing nets, abandon their businesses, and simply follow him to…God knows where. It’s important to realize, however, that through this act the carpenter from Judea would have been reinforcing centuries of tradition. Judaism, until very recently, was remarkable in its longstanding commitment to insure the entire population experienced the nomadic pastoralist’s recipe for renewal, connection, and catharsis on a regular basis.

“For millennia,” Corbett emphasizes in Goatwalking, “Semitic peoples have called wilderness ‘God’s land,’ distinguishing it from settled areas possessed and remade to fit human plans….The sabbath day is a time to quit grabbing at the world, to rest, and to rejoice in the Creation’s goodness. During the sabbath year all are to cease making their living agriculturally, supporting themselves instead from the land’s spontaneous, uncultivated growth. Debts are to be canceled and slaves are to be freed. Land ownership also reverts on the jubilee year [every seventh, seven-year cycle]; no one shall permanently subjugate the earth or another person.”

Part history, part philosophy, part law treatise and ritualistic handbook, the Judeo-Christian Bible also promotes collaborating with nature as a way of strengthening connection to spirit — explicitly in partnership with animals, no less. And this is where the story gets really interesting. Recent scientific studies suggest that living closely with their herds, rather than simply communing with the scenery, offered a developmental advantage to the people who undertook this lifestyle, increasing courage, trust, compassion, sociability, adaptability, and personal empowerment through a variety of hormonal and behavioral changes initiated and reinforced by the human-animal bond itself.

The fact that we’ve lost sight of these benefits in modern times marks yet another cycle of Cain’s forgetfulness. It’s not a moral failing. It’s a pitfall of the sedentary, city-based lifestyle. Enslaved by ambition, we’ve pulled out all the stops this time, becoming a culture of obsessive overachievers, leading to a host of stress-related illnesses and greed-related acts of violence. But there are still pockets of the nomadic pastoral lifestyle scattered across the earth, and they do, in fact, hold the memory of something we can’t afford to lose.

“Settled people,” Corbett observes, “work relentlessly to remake and possess the earth because they can live only in man-made habitats where they are subjugated and used by whoever controls the land. In contrast, nomads take life sabbatically, as a gift from ‘God’s land.’ Rejecting Cain’s way, the prophetic faith recalls its nomadic origins when making its offering of first fruits, beginning with the words, ‘My father was a cimarron Aramean.’ (Dt 26:5). From Tibet to Morocco, Kazakhstan to Baja, nomads identify with the cimarron, the domesticated animal that goes feral, the escaped slave who knows how to be at home in God’s land…opening nomadic consciousness to insights unknown to peoples who worship owner-masters because they can live only within the man-made world’s make-believe boundaries….Learning to live by fitting into an ecological niche rather than by fitting into a dominance-submission hierarchy opens human awareness to another kind of society based on equal rights of creative agency for all.”

Judeo-Christian philosophy has always been, and forever shall be, in conflict with civilization as we know it, creating a pesky incongruous feeling, a kind of nagging sandpaper of the soul, in any sincerely religious person forced to disrespect the earth by custom, circumstance, or the next paycheck. In the same book outlining the practice of the sabbatical, God makes it perfectly clear that “The land must not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners, my tenant farmers.” (Leviticus 25:23) And what landlord, after all, would knowingly lease a fine estate to a group of people planning to strip it, gut it, sell off its assets and fill the large gaping hole with toxic waste and smoking garbage. In this sense, oddly enough, the Old Testament coincides philosophically with traditional Native American beliefs on respect for nature and the absurdity of buying and selling property as no mortal man can truly own God’s green earth, or rocky stretch of desert for that matter.

It’s time for us to compromise and collaborate with the divine for a change, to find ways of consciously integrating the twin innovations of Cain and Abel, accessing the benefits and lessening the weaknesses or inconveniences of both. God, after all, didn’t execute Cain, surely seeing a stroke of genius in the eyes of that profoundly aggressive, deeply troubled soul, namely a gift for technological and artistic advances that would have stirred a hint of hope and perhaps even pride in this vast yet compassionate intelligence.

Made in the image of our creator, we are, after all creatures designed to create, perfectly capable at this point in our development of reinventing ourselves and our society — if, unlike Cain, enough of us are willing to look at the destructive aspects of our lifestyle and change our behavior in response.

Adopting a nomadic pastoral lifestyle is no longer practical. Our ability to form mutually-respectful relationships with other species, on the other hand, is not only possible, increasing research suggests that animal assisted educational and therapeutic practices are both transformational and healing, helping people master the advanced human development skills crucial to leadership and innovation. Translated into a twenty-first-century context, Abel’s wisdom involves recognizing that animals not only nourish and protect us physically they help us develop psychologically and socially through brain-altering biochemical responses and mutual behavior modification. The human-animal bond is one place where science, history, and religion firmly intersect — and inform each other. As myths and spiritual texts from around the world insist, horses, dogs, cats and other domesticated companions are gifts from a creative intelligence that has been rooting for us all along.

We just haven’t fully unwrapped the package yet.


The Prime Directive

Over the last thirty years, studies involving rats, prairie vols, dogs, and humans have demonstrated that a hormone called oxytocin makes mammals less fearful and more curious, encouraging individuals to not only form pair bonds, nest, and nurture their young, but to leave the nest and explore unfamiliar territory, most especially new relationships.

The hormone is increased on both sides of an interaction when mothers nurse their young, when animals of any age groom, lick or stroke each other, and when they engage in mutually-desired sexual activity (as opposed to aggressive/forced encounters). Swedish scientist Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg used oxytocin injections to isolate its effects in individuals. Subsequent experiments showed ever more startling results, including elevated pain thresholds, faster wound healing and heightened learning capacity. But she could never fully separate oxytocin’s influence on an individual’s physiology from the hormone’s prime directive: to calm and connect with others.

As she marvels in The Oxytocin Factor “surprisingly, to a lesser degree, animals that live in the same cage but have not directly received the oxytocin also show the same changes. The other animals in the cage become calmer and have lower levels of stress hormones.” Subsequent experiments showed that oxytocin’s benefits could be spread not only through nursing and direct touch, but through smell, vocal tone and other senses.

Oxytocin’s relentless efforts to positively affect the herd, not just the individual, prompted the Swedish scientist to emphasize that we “need calm and connection not only to avoid illness, but also to enjoy life, to feel curious, optimistic, creative. These qualities are hard to measure scientifically. What research does show, however, is that concentration and learning are also improved by a peaceful environment and nurturing relationships. Children under stress have a harder time learning than those who are calm and secure.”

Through research into oxytocin’s benefits, it’s clear that evolution does not promote an aggressive, fear-producing survival of the fittest mentality. Rather Nature continually softens this most basic protective instinct behaviorally and biochemically through a preference for sociability and mutual aid.


Powerfully Strong and Powerfully Nice

In Made for Each Other, Meg Daley Olmert explores the history, biology, and myriad benefits of the human-animal bond. Her groundbreaking 2009 book was the first to depict oxytocin as a crucial biochemical factor in domestication. Olmert’s wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary research also makes a strong case for the hormone’s continued influence on pet owners and people helped through animal assisted therapy. Most significant is a 2003 South African study led by Johannes Odendaal and R.A. Meintjes showing that “when eighteen men and women interacted with their dogs (talking to them and gently stroking them) the owners’ blood levels of oxytocin almost doubled — and their dogs were also twice as enriched with oxytocin!” Along with this rise in the hormone came a significant decrease in blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, as well as an increase in beta endorphins and dopamine.

Olmert has been in contact with Uvnas-Moberg over the years, and both of these women have deeply enriched my understanding of equine-facilitated therapeutic and educational practices that work, in part, by releasing oxytocin into the system. But there’s another hormone that adds a bit more spice to the story, particularly in the context of leadership development. In The Oxytocin Factor, Uvnas-Moberg compares the “calm and connect” effect in rats with a similar substance, vasopressin, which differs by only two amino acids. This behavior-altering hormone also encourages pair bonding, especially during sexual activity, but in a wider social context, it promotes a decidedly macho approach.

Vasopressin “instills courage by making the individual feel aggressive and fearless. The rat, male or female, is prepared to attack, mark territory, and vigorously defend itself. Oxytocin instead fosters courage by diminishing the feeling of danger and conveying the sense that there is less to be afraid of. Animal studies appear to show that oxytocin has a special ability to make animals ‘nice.’ Physiologically, therefore, a substance related to strength and readiness (vasopressin) is a close relative to one that produces friendliness and caring (oxytocin). They function in different ways, and we need them both. As the popular Swedish fictional character Pippi Longstocking says, ‘The one who is powerfully strong must also be powerfully nice.’”

Nowhere is this paradoxical combination exercised more dramatically than in traditional pastoral cultures. Here, the predatory side of human nature protects and culls the herd, while the nonpredatory side nurtures the herd. Cattle, sheep, goats, camels, horses, and other animals aren’t treated as slaves or commodities, but as valued members of an interspecies society. Herders exhibit tremendous pride and affection toward their animals, who in turn, trust their two-legged companions to lead them to greener pastures, oversee their mating, assist their birth, and milk them — the ultimate oxytocin-producing activity.


Lost Knowledge

Meat provides a surprisingly modest part of the pastoral diet. Modern tribes mix grains, roots, fruits and vegetables (gathered, traded, or planted and reaped during seasonal migrations) with lots of dairy products, everything from butter and cheese to fermented mood-altering drinks like koumis, which Mongolia’s nomadic horse tribes make from mare’s milk. Some cultures, such as Africa’s cattle-oriented Maasai and Siberia’s reindeer-based Even people, occasionally consume blood from living members of the herd, though milk remains the staple. Moving with the animals keeps these people physically fit — electrocardiogram tests applied to four hundred young adult male Maasai found no evidence of heart disease, abnormalities or malfunction. Despite significant dairy consumption, their cholesterol levels were about fifty percent of that of the average American.

Close interaction with powerful, nonpredatory animals also promotes mental, emotional, relational and spiritual balance — as well as a form of empowerment that deftly combines fierceness and sensitivity. It is, after all, much more dangerous to herd, ride, or milk a large herbivore, even a domesticated one, than it is to hunt it from a distance. Inter-species affinity, attention to nonverbal cues, mutual respect and mutual trust are literally survival skills for herding cultures.

The human element also coordinates, thoughtfully and compassionately, with the realities of the ecosystem. Mongolia’s highly successful pastoralists, who raise horses, sheep, goats, camels, and cattle, cull animals in the fall that aren’t likely to survive the harsh winter ahead, drying the meat to sustain their families until spring. In Living with Herd: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia, Natasha Fijn effectively illustrates how deeply these cultures care for their animals. Oxytocin’s social recognition circuits cross species lines, creating, as Fin discovered, a nature-based philosophy of equality. The Mongolian pastoralists she encountered knew every animal by name. This, however, didn’t affect their ability to make tough decisions. Rather it reinforced “an egalitarian outlook, without favouritism or treating the animal as the equivalent of a pet. Likewise the attitude within Mongolian herding society is to take care of everyone within the herding community, not just singling out individuals for special treatment. Nonetheless, contingencies such as extreme weather conditions, parental survival, and other factors do require that some animals have differential treatment from others,” particularly in the case of orphan foals, calves or lambs who are brought into the tent, bottle fed, then released back into the larger herd when strong.

Yet while Mongolian pastoralists are loving and nurturing, they’re perfectly capable of standing up to an ornery bull, feisty colt, or rearing stallion. And they’re fierce yet reverent in culling the herd. The human role effectively combines parent, leader, and predator through a sacred trust, insuring that all their animals have an opportunity to live a full life, and when the time comes, to die quickly, humanely and meaningfully, as opposed to suffering slowly from weakness and starvation. Even so, “Mongolians do not eat animals that are under one year of age,” she emphasizes. When she told one of the tribe members about the Western practice of consuming lamb and veal, tears welled up in the woman’s eyes as she quietly said, “we love our young animals, so we couldn’t eat them.”

“She must have thought it a strange practice,” Fijn concludes, “as she was being so careful to nurture some weak lambs that were sleeping beside the hearth in front of her. It would be counter-intuitive for a herder to kill them and eat them before they had produced any young of their own, when the animals had not yet lived a full life. If a young lamb dies from weakness or illness, the herder then utilizes the hide but does not eat the meat.” This reluctance to consume what our culture considers a delicacy shows how deeply bonded Mongolian herders become through the oxytocin-boosting activities of nursing and caring for the tribe’s four-legged children.

Adults are also treated with reverence in death, but in a different way. Strict traditions insure that individuals are killed humanely and quietly, away from the herd, the women, and the children. It’s disrespectful to waste any part of an older animal. Only the bones, which Mongolians believe house the souls of all living creatures, are left untouched, so that the spirits of cherished herd members can be released according to their own timing, to be reincarnated. This means that dogs are prevented from chewing on bones. The Buddhist-influenced tribes that Fin studied also believe that people sometimes reincarnate as “one of the five animals” (horses, sheep, goats, camels or cattle), and vice versa, lending an even deeper sense of sacrifice and communion to this symbiotic pact.

The close interspecies relationships herding cultures develop, regardless of differing beliefs about the afterlife, can also be glimpsed throughout the Bible. Yet the kosher code of the Jewish faith, in which a holy man actively blesses each creature before the slaughter, is the only remnant we have of this impulse in modern Western society. Orthodox tradition strictly forbids cruelty to animals, outlining the specific procedures, prayers, and spiritual mindset for mediating such a sacrifice. Interestingly, kosher laws also forbid the ingestion of blood on the grounds that this would “comingle animal with human life streams.” When Christ offered his blood as well as his flesh at the Last Supper, this powerful gesture would have been readily understood as the act of merging his life stream with those of his followers. The Even people of Siberia, who believe they are half human, half reindeer, do in fact ingest the blood of their animals, as do the Mongolian pastoralists, who are perfectly comfortable with the idea of humans and animals reincarnating across species lines.

The close association between two-legged and four-legged members of these tribes further explains why Jesus easily moved back and forth between metaphors in which he was depicted as a shepherd and a lamb. In fact, once you reconnect with Christianity’s nomadic pastoral roots, the ritual of communion becomes a multi-dimensional symbolic act, designed not only to bring individuals closer to God, but to keep Abel’s perspective alive whenever and wherever city dwellers try to subjugate man and nature in support of a disconnected, materialistic cult of owner-masters. In this sense, Christ’s paradigm-altering efforts to include non-Jewish people in the sacrament he created could also be seen as an attempt to balance the predation running amok in the Greco-Roman world, offering a potent transfusion of non-predatory wisdom in the wake of increasing violence.

Extreme carnage wasn’t just tolerated in Jesus’ era, it was cultivated. The vast Roman Empire was managed by force and intimidation, reinforced by sadistic “games” at the Coliseum: gladiator exhibitions, public executions, and “beast hunts” (in which thousands of animals were slaughtered “with the right degree of cruelty”). The Roman historian Cicero praised this brutal style of entertainment for its ability to desensitize people to horrific acts, preparing them for battle. The fact that we now use our stadiums for football rather than blood sport is a testament to Christianity’s effectiveness as an early form of social activism.

Whether or not you’re moved to join the religion Jesus inspired, his life is historically and culturally significant, especially when you consider the wisdom of the pastoral perspective. Jesus actively reinforced a nomadic nonpredatory philosophy at one of the most brutal times in history: He was born in a stable and laid in a manger. He encouraged people to give up their possessions and wander the earth, letting God through nature take care of their needs. He abhorred violence, even for self-preservation, yet he faced tragedy with a fierceness capable of challenging injustice without sacrificing compassion. Ultimately, his method of influence came not through force, control, or even convincing intellectual arguments, but through communion — an act so intimate it was symbolized by the human consumption of his flesh and blood. These surprisingly effective gestures challenged the basis of Greco-Roman civilization, allowing Christ to turn the tide of increasing violence with a mere thirty-three years of earthly existence. If he and his followers had only accomplished the eradication of Roman blood sport that, in itself, would have been an admirable achievement.

However, as Christianity was adopted by the sedentary, hierarchical culture Jesus felt called to change, the powerful movement he started began to lose something important, succumbing to “Cain’s forgetfulness” as the religion was adopted by Romans, Greeks, and Europeans who had never experienced the pastoral lifestyle. Even so, the early Catholic Church was adamant that the Bible should be preserved as originally written, as the indisputable “Word of God,” ensuring (perhaps inadvertently) that its deeper meaning remained accessible to anyone with “eyes to see and ears to hear.”

Putting the Bible back into its psycho-social-historical context releases all kinds of information hidden from a predatory, conquest-oriented mindset. Actually spending time with nonpredatory animals leads to further insight. With the resurrection of this ancient wisdom comes a host of sophisticated lessons on leadership, co-creation, and authentic community building — pastoral skills that are surprisingly progressive compared to the two-dimensional command-control model we inherited from early city dwellers. In the meantime, those old dominance-submission habits still hold sway over us, thwarting, daily, our attempts to realize anything close to a functional democracy, let alone a truly free society with liberty and justice for all. Cain’s technical feats are brilliant and seductive, to be sure, but they remain disconnected, dangerous, and at times simply meaningless without Abel’s fluidity, compassion, and earthy interpersonal genius. It’s high time we wrestle that long-suppressed knowledge from its current state of arrested development and, well, evolve for God’s sake.


Copyright 2013 by Linda Kohanov, adapted from her book The Power of the Herd.

Linda will be leading an equine-facilitated learning workshop on this perspective in spring 2018: “The Shepherd’s Task: Ancient Wisdom to Rejuvenate and Deepen Our Relationship to Service, Faith, Spirit, Community, Compassion and Calling” takes place March 23 through 25. For a complete workshop description, see

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