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North of the Wall: What Barbarians Teach Us

Updated: Apr 6

In a relatively short time, Junger cites in his book, Tribe, we “humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

Throughout the ancient and medieval world, walls, forts, and towers built along rivers and across hill tops marked the edge of the civilized world. Black forests, wondering tribes, and unrepentant gods stirred north from these final lines of civilization. Behind the protective walls stood us; beyond the walls – north of the walls -- stood them.

As Roman sentries stood the night's watch atop these walls and forts, they gazed north into the mist towards a feral world beyond their walls. In 9 AD, three Roman legions (15,000 men) stepped beyond those walls, crossed the Rhine River, and entered the black Teutoburg Forest. They were never seen again. They had entered "Germania,” which according to the ancient historian, Tacitus, was a realm of animal-skinned warriors with “the faces and expressions of men [and] the bodies and limbs of wild beasts.”

More than a thousand years later, far to the east of Germania, across the dragon back mountains of China’s Great Wall, stood civilization’s Asiatic guard. Perched high atop their stone marvel, Chinese soldiers whispered about the nomadic Mongol hordes to their north – devils on horseback who swarmed across the steppes like hungry locusts devouring empires. According to legend, these northern demons began riding steeds at age 2, and by adulthood, could pull their bows at a full gallop and impale a bird right out of the sky.

When comparing their civilized life to the nomadic hordes, Chinese writers called their own world of architecture, art, and science, “cooked.” Civilization was clean, refined, and packaged. The steppe tribes to their north, however, were raw and decidedly “uncooked.” The Chinese called these untamed groups, barbarians.

Barbarian. The word comes to us from the ancient Greeks when describing those who lived to their north and did not speak Greek. To the Greeks, the “un-Greek” spoke unintelligible languages that sounded like “ba-ba-ba,” prompting the Greek word, “bárbaros,” meaning a “babbler.”

The Greek historian, Herodotus, who lived in the 5th Century B.C. wrote often about the barbarous lands to his north. When describing Thrace – the future homeland of slave, gladiator, and Roman insurrectionist, Spartacus -- Herodotus wrote about a rough race of men who considered farming “dishonorable” and pillaging as “glorious.”

The further north one ventured, it seemed, the more uncivilized the people became. North of Thrace and across the Black Sea, roamed the feared Scythians. According to Herodotus, Scythian men drank the blood of their dead enemies, forged their skulls into drinking cups, and flayed their skin into flesh napkins, flapping ominously from their warhorses.

Barbarians did not write their histories, of course; “cooked” men did. Despite their horror stories, what the ancient sources fail to mention, insists Yale Professor James Scott, is that many “cooked” men wished to live “uncooked.”

Facing disease, state control, and backbreaking labor, “becoming a barbarian was often a bid to improve one’s lot,” argues Scott in his book, Against the Grain. Consequently, more than a few men turned their backs on civilization and ventured north. Through the trees, across the rivers, and off the maps they went – over to the barbarians.

This desire to go “north of the wall,” however, did not end with the ancient and medieval world. In his book, Tribe, Sebastian Junger writes of the phenomenon known as “White Indians.” These were North American settlers who, from the early 1600s through the 1890s, lived with Native American tribes and adopted their customs. They married Indians, wore buckskins, carried tomahawks, spoke native tongues, worshipped animistic gods, and fought beside their indigenous brothers and sisters against rival tribes and nation-states.

Whether these White Indians entered their tribes as captives or volunteers, one thing was clear: when the tribe adopted them, few whites wished to return to white society. When a White Indian was eventually captured (or “liberated”) and repatriated back to white civilization, they often escaped and returned to their adopted tribes. In considering this phenomenon, Ben Franklin wrote, “In a short time they [Indians and repatriated white settlers] became disgusted with our manner of life… and [would] take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”

The opposite of Franklin’s description, however, rarely occurred. According to Junger, “Indians almost never ran away to join white society.” This emigration was a one-way street from civilized to tribal, and hardly ever the reverse. In 1782, a French émigré lamented, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.”

Okay. Now you might be thinking, this occurred more than two centuries ago! Sure, in the nineteenth century, joining the Sioux, wearing furs, and eating bison was better than shivering inside a prairie sod house or roasting inside a Pennsylvania steel mill. But c’mon, life today is safer, longer, and more comfortable than any time in human history, right? So why in the world would we want to leave our cozy climate-controlled homes and return to the hardships of nature? I hear you. I don’t want to leave the coziness of modern life either. But you know what? I think sometimes we do.

Although we live safer, longer, and more comfortable than anytime in world history, modern man is struggling. Obesity, depression, and suicide rates continue to skyrocket, while each year, we surrender more of our wild hearts and communal spirt to flat-screen distractions and digital domination. In the plainest terms, we are not living in a way that is anything close to what nature intended.

Our million-year human biology, which requires at least 25,000 years to genetically adapt, has yet to adapt to a civilization that’s barely 10,000 years old – much less to industrialization (300 years old) and digitization (40 years old).

In a relatively short time, Junger writes in his book, Tribe, we “humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.” Our once sharpened blade of existence has dulled to a nub. More men than ever, as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, are “living a life of quiet desperation.” And far too many of us are asking ourselves this dark and desperate question about our lives: “Is this it?”

“Is this it?” Asking that question implies that “this” somehow feels empty – that something inside of us is missing. What’s missing is the Barbarian in You.

To better understand the barbarian in you, think of yourself as a tiny Florida Key. Now think of human history (your 200,000-year ancestry) as the entire North American continent. There is a bridge connecting that giant continent to little old you. For eons, our genetic code was handed down from one generation to the next. Now, ten thousand generations later, that code finally comes across the bridge for you, delivered to you by your ancestors’ envoy -- the barbarian in you. He carries your ancient genetic code; within that code are resonations and directives – forged by 99% of human history -- on how to survive and thrive on planet earth.

Since the dawn of man, nature has made this continuous bargain with our species: Give consistent effort to survive and thrive, and you will receive feelings of vigor, wonder, and fellowship. Whether it’s your morning workout (vigor), reading by the fire (wonder), or a night out with friends (fellowship) – it feels damn good to be human.

This is all ancient stuff: to feel good, we must “get action!” as Teddy Roosevelt once said. When our ancestors’ “got action,” nature rewarded their efforts. It still does for us.


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