Pre-modern people lived for millennia in a paradigm where fate was omnipotent and tradition inviolate. The only way you could possibly hope to survive was to follow the traditions of people who were currently surviving, because the methods of learning to survive in this or that environment were so precise and the consequences for failure so immediately lethal that figuring it out just by being very clever was absolutely impossible. The process of preparing some foods in a non-toxic way is utterly insane in its complexity, and often extremely far-removed from its ultimate lethal effects, to the point where you could skip the cleansing process, prepare your food much faster, feel very smug about all your extra free time for years, and then start getting sick and dying on a timeframe so detached from when you first started bucking the tradition that it’s practically impossible to connect one to the other.
Inuits who use bones cracking in fires to divine what hunting ground to use today are using a random method of selecting hunting grounds, more random than any human could manage, thus baffling any attempt by caribou to avoid places where Inuits tend to hunt them. A group of clever young Inuits who decide that letting cracked bones decide their hunting grounds for them is dumb and just go where the hunting is best will train the caribou to avoid them and die of starvation. The Inuits had no idea that they were using randomization to prevent themselves from accidentally training the caribou to avoid being hunted, they just had a tradition, and if you didn’t follow that tradition, you died. For reasons that absolutely nobody understood.
The ancient world is one where if you don’t live in accordance with the ways of your ancestors, the gods will kill you.
And this is something I had to explain to you, my modern reader, because the gods are dead.
At some point in the past couple of centuries, human understanding reached a tipping point, where if someone is killed and we don’t know exactly why, that’s a mystery. It’s intriguing and maybe frightening because of how bizarre it is.
I don’t want to oversell the accomplishments of humanity, here. Just like a physicist falling from a plane can calculate the properties of a parachute that would save them but probably can’t make one mid-fall, knowing why people die doesn’t always help us save them. We know what heart disease and cancer are, and it still kills a ton of people, because knowing what they are and knowing how to thwart them are different things.
But I do think it’s worth remembering: The days when the world was so ruled by unexplained and inexplicable processes, when human life was so subject to unknowable forces, that to even try to comprehend them and improve upon them was a fool’s errand, that all you could do is keep to the traditions that had kept your people alive all this time and hope for the best? Those days are over. We figure out new and better ways of doing things on an annual basis. We invent new and superior “traditions” so quickly that we can hardly learn them fast enough to keep up, and are constantly at risk of falling behind the people who can adapt to them more quickly.
For better or for worse, we have plundered the riches of Olympus.
We have slain the gods.