What Would Octavia Butler Have Thought of the Real Earthseed?

Earthseed is a real religion which is based on a fictional religion, also called “Earthseed”, which is described in two of Octavia Butler’s science fiction novels, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.

Earthseed is not the first religion to be based on a work of fiction. The Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds, which was founded in 1967 by Zim Zell and Lance Christie, was based largely on Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which describes a new religion also called the “Church of All Wolds”. Zell even corresponded with Heinlein for a while. But Heinlein’s politics were very different from the politics of the emerging Pagan community, and not surprisingly, Heinlein never showed any interest in being a part of the real-life version of his fictional religion.

Another example from Paganism is Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. Though not a work of fiction, per se, The White Goddess is not exactly non-fiction either. It purports to be a study of myth and folklore, but it is more a work of the author’s imagination than anything else. The book played a significant role in both the Pagan revival and the feminist spirituality movement in the United States. Elizabeth Gould-Davis, the author of The First Sex, corresponded with Graves for several years, and in 1973, she told him:

“I suppose you know that you are the God of the new Movement here, the newest of the new women’s movements, and you are the only male creature who is admitted to godhead in the movement. It has all sorts of names because it is not yet co-ordinated. Small groups from California to New York have formed to defy Christianity and all organized religion, to worship the female principle, and to bring back the Great Goddess.”

That the feminist spirituality movement would find inspiration in Graves’ book is ironic, because Graves’ vision of the Goddess is androcentric, and arguably misogynistic.

Graves himself expressed ambivalence about the interest in The White Goddess.  In 1969, in an interview with The Paris Review, Graves observed that a “curious result” of the publication of The White Goddess was that “various White Goddess religions started in New York State and California. I’m today’s hero of the love-and-flowers cult out in the Screwy State, so they tell me”. It’s unlikely Graves ever would have felt at home among West Coast Neo-Pagans.

cf05c3dbf3d17eb6227dbf47e26badafIt seems to me that often a work of fiction can take on a life of it own, beyond the intention of its author. Post-structuralists, like Barthes, would certainly agree. I’ve often wondered what Octavia Butler would have thought of the real Earthseed which were are fostering here. Syrus Marcus Ware recently answered that question in an article in CanadaArt. There, Ware describes an interview with Butler in 2005:

“I asked Butler what she thought of people taking up Earthseed as a living spiritual practice. There were few, if any, fully formed Earthseed communities at that time, but the seeds were being planted (excuse the metaphor). I wanted to know what she thought of us taking up her texts for guidance, of following them in literal ways. She was surprised and perhaps even dismissive, saying she couldn’t imagine Earthseed as a comforting ‘religion.’ She felt strongly that the idea of a faceless god that was simply ‘change itself’ would not be useful for followers during times of stress. She explained that most successful religions offered comfort during moments of personal and global chaos. She questioned how we would find comfort in the idea of change as the only constant—in an understanding that struggle was a core part of being alive.”

Though not mentioning the real-life Earthseed specifically, Ware acknowledges:

“Since Butler’s passing, however, more and more have turned to Earthseed as a way to find a sense of purpose and safety. These people are building intentional communities modelled after Acorn, the first such community in Parable of the Sower. These real-life communities are rooted in concepts of shared work, respect and love of children, social-justice frameworks, disability and healing justice, and a way of living in harmony with nature. They root their work in kindness, drawing again on Earthseed: The Books of the Living, in which Butler states, ‘Kindness eases Change.’ They meet regularly with each other, sharing ideas, creativity and love …”

I find it fascinating that Butler would be skeptical of the “usefulness” of a religion which did not provide comfort to people in the traditional ways. In her books, the protagonist and founder of Earthseed, Lauren Olamina, acknowledges that Earthseed very comforting religion. And yet, Earthseed’s book of scripture, The Books of the Living, advises us to “take comfort” in the Destiny:

Take comfort.
Each move toward the Destiny,
Each achievement of the Destiny,
Must mean new beginnings,
New worlds,
A rebirth of Earthseed.
Alone,
Each of us is mortal.
Yet through Earthseed,
Through the Destiny,
We join.
We are purposeful
Immortal
Life!

Rather than offering of false comfort of the promise of heaven or the inscrutable will of an all-knowing, all-powerful super-Being, Earthseed counsels us to take comfort in what we know to be real: Though our lives are finite, we are a part of the magnificent drama of Life which have been unfolding for eons and (hopefully) will continue to unfold for eons more.

I agree with Butler that Earthseed is unlikely to ever be as “successful” religion, in the sense of attracting huge numbers of people. I expect most people will go on being seduced by fantasies of benevolent father figures and celestial Sangri-las. These are “drowning people”, in the words of the Books of the Living. But for those of us for whom such fairy tales do not suffice, there is indeed comfort to be found in Earthseed’s Destiny.

I’m not surprised that Butler did not intend to create a real life religion. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, were Butler still living today, she would have similar ambivalent feelings about the real Earthseed, such as Robert Heinlein had about the Church of All Worlds and Robert Graves had about Neo-Paganism and feminist Goddess worship. Earthseed is not, after all, a cult of Octavia Butler — though I do honor her for her bold vision.

I found it interesting that the second book in the Parable series is told partly from the perspective of Lauren Olamina’s daughter, whose opinion of her mother is less than charitable. There was certainly room in Butler’s imagination for multiple perspectives. Had Butler ever finished writing the third volume of the Parable Series, Parable of the Trickster, I would not have been surprised if it had described an Earthseed that had diverged significantly from the intent of its founder Lauren Olamina. After all, Earthseed’s first principle is that God is Change. A religion is true to that principle could never stay true to any the the intent of any founder or any author.

In order to rise
From its own ashes
A phoenix
First
Must
Burn.

∞ = Δ

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2 thoughts on “What Would Octavia Butler Have Thought of the Real Earthseed?

  1. I take great comfort in the idea that we are all part of a larger being; the sum of all living things. If you think of a cell as a spherical shell filled with cytoplasm in three dimensions, you can also think of it as a hypertube filled with cytoplasm in the four dimensions of space-time. Thinking of cell divisions in that 4d paradigm leads to the view that cell division is not one object becoming two but instead simply a branching of that hypertube. In this sense, the human body is just one cell, a branching hypertube with billions of branch points.

    But gametogenesis is just more cell division. So its just another branching point in the hypertube. So that single branching hypertube which is you is also the same cell as your mother and father and siblings and, if you keep expanding the view, all your relatives, all of humanity, all primates, all mammals, all vertebrates, all animals, all plants, all fungus, all protists, all Life.

    It seems there is just one cell on Earth and you and I are it and it is us. And if we achieve the Destiny then it and you and I will be immortal.

    And if we don’t, then in this possibly infinite, possibly trillions of light year around universe, some other LifeSeed will achieve the Destiny and immortality. Even though that will be a different being, a different Worldmother, it will be an allied being and in that too I take comfort.

  2. I would very much like to see a maturation of our species into adulthood by way of expansion of science and education. I’m not sure whether I feel very much motivated by immortality. I feel some conflict over this. I do want to see the human race do better, but at the same time I also know that our existence matters very little to the universe. I am all for doing good for the sake of the community and those around me, but it also feels as though humanity is very little deserving of this immortality. Conversely, is it we who decide that our species is good enough to deserve to continue on and reach other parts of the universe? Or is it mere intelligence that qualifies us to do this?
    You pointed out that it is likely that in Parable of the Trickster we may have seen Olamina’s religion veer away from her actual aims. I think that love of money and power would eventually have infiltrated her creation after her death — profit gets in the way of almost every good thing in this world. I think that Olamina’s goals could perhaps be reached with a maturation of our society, but it seems that profit and capitalism may continuously block progress in this.

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