Language is an important tool for constructing meaning in our lives. As a storyteller, I am keenly aware of the power words have to influence the world in which they are spoken. As an individual interested in the sustainability of our planet, I recently decided to look back at how the meaning of the word “nature” has evolved over time.
Through my research, I was surprised to find the meaning of nature shifted during the 1500-1600s with significant implications for how we interact with and perceive our environment. Interestingly, during this same time two other fundamental words, story and ritual, also shifted. In the following diagram I have highlighted the period in European history when these three words expanded or took on new meaning and you will see that:
- Nature transitioned from being defined as “all things” to “all things outside of human existence”
- The meaning of stories expanded from meaning “truth and wisdom” to “tale telling”
- And rituals went from meaning “natural order or custom” to meaning only that which was related to “religious acts”
Diagram: Etymological Shift Over Time
Why a sudden a shift?
While the shift in meaning of these words stretched out over a two hundred year period, there appears to be very little variation of meaning for thousands of years leading up to the advent of this change. I have become increasingly convinced that this is not a coincidence. Instead, I suspect this shift in meaning was driven by three historical themes which heightened and unfolded over the course of this same two hundred year period: 1) Globalization & Agriculture, 2) Religious Expansion and 3) Scientific Discovery. Let’s explore these themes further and the roles they may have played in creating this shift.
Globalization & Agriculture
The 1600s marked a transition into a more prolific period of trade and blending of cultures. It was a time when local communities expanded and began to interact and trade with neighboring communities as a way to acquire rare or luxurious goods. As a result, this trade led to the spread of ideas such as religion, economic structure and political ideals that, I submit, collectively and individually affected the meaning of nature, ritual and storytelling.
As it relates to nature, globalization began with the exploration and conquering of foreign lands. The urge for exploration was fueled by a desire to take over, to control and have ownership of the land. In 1492-1498 Columbus and da Gama traveled west to the Americas and east to the Indies, beginning an age of European conquest and empires. In the 1500’s, at the early stages of the British Agriculture Revolution, the concept of enclosure (the removal of common rights to establish exclusive ownership of land) was heavily debated. By 1650-1700, the growth of agriculture began a period of rapid development that would proliferate into the 18th century. Progressively, the control and production of food became a source of economic development rather than personal sustenance, distancing segments of the population from direct reliance on nature. This was particularly evident in those segments that had great influence on the culture: the church and commerce.
No doubt this expanding and mixing of cultures also had a profound impact on the proliferation of storytelling. Stories taken out of context (out of their place of origin) can be interpreted as false or tale telling. Stories once passed down and shared in a close-knit community were getting greater exposure. Without the womb of a community and shared experience that birthed them, one could imagine how the meaning of stories could begin to move away from individual truth and begin to be perceived as “tale telling.” In fact, it is natural to be skeptical of things that have not been experienced or are not held as shared or personal truth.
Moreover, much like stories, rituals taken out of context (out of a culture where shared experience breeds trust and a common understanding) can become misunderstood. One could easily see how the significance of a sacred act could be misunderstood and interpreted as foreign or scary when exposed to unfamiliar audiences or communities.
Religious Expansion & Reformation
Well before the reformations of the 1500 and 1600’s, religions were closely tied to nature, celebrating celestial events and shifts in seasons. Over time, monotheist religions gained popularity and in the 1500 and 1600’s, Christianity became the first religion to spread like wildfire around the globe, as seen in this visual map documenting the expansion of major world religions. I believe such forces deeply influenced the way people thought about nature, ritual and storytelling. In many ways, the order of influence in our society shifted along with it, changing from “Nature > Ritual > Storytelling” to “Storytelling > Ritual > Nature”.
With greater emphasis being placed on a heaven after death, focus shifted away from the thought that heaven was accessible here on earth. A heaven existing outside of this world means this life becomes disposable. Instead of cherishing our time here on earth, it is about getting through this life to a better place, a life after death. This thinking has significant implications on the way we perceive and treat our environment.
At this time, the shift in the meaning of rituals changed to only that which is associated with religious acts. Prior to this, most pagan religions centered their rituals on the cycles or changing of the lunar cycle. Over time, the connection to a natural order or nature-based rituals was met with great suspicion and opposition. In fact, rituals conducted outside of mainstream religion were persecuted violently. Interestingly, earthen spiritualties and healing became contested and viewed as dangerous particularly in areas of Europe where the Catholic Church was weakest. From 1400 to 1700, anywhere from 90,000 to 1,000,000 people were labeled “witch” and executed. Practicing pagan rites, using herbs for healing, and forms of spirituality outside of mainstream religion was punishable by death. Brutal intolerance was a very effective way to cast fear, radically shift society’s spiritual practices, and gain religious (and economic) power.
As the shift to a single god, story, or “truth” took place, stories that had been shared and passed down in wisdom traditions were replaced by scripture. With an “all-knowing” god overseeing a population of people likely to sin, individuals had cause to begin to distrust themselves. After all, if our destiny is to sin, how is it that we can trust our own personal wisdom? In this way, cultures began to rely less on personal narratives for passing down wisdom and more on repeating orthodox religious doctrine.
Around the same time as Globalization and Religious Expansion, a diffusion of scientific and technological ideas took place. We began to know our world and our body as a collection of parts, as opposed to one large ecosystem, and gradually assigned greater truth to scientific discovery. Before this, cultures recognized two ways of arriving at truth. For example, Karen Armstrong explains in her book “A Short History of Myth” that the Greeks originated with two words for truth: mythos and logos:
“Both were essential and neither was superior to the other… Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity…”
Over time, the importance of logos superseded mythos. In contemporary times, Albert Einstein reflected on this shift saying, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” The increasing importance placed on scientific discovery as an agent for truth helps add greater context to the shift in the meaning of nature, ritual and storytelling.
Why this Work Matters
Given this historical context, it becomes clearer how such a significant shift in meaning could have occurred. Looking back, I can also observe through history how the implications of this shift have affected our experiences, our relationship with nature, and our lives. The further we get from seeing ourselves directly as a part of nature, the further we have gotten away from honoring nature’s natural rhythm and balance.
I believe that bringing awareness to our language and the meaning we infuse in our words is an important way to affect change. We have the opportunity to collectively work to construct a new definition of nature, influencing new experiences and action. This is the work I intend to pursue further and invite you, dear reader, to join me in.