guilt O.E. gylt “crime, sin, fault, fine,” of unknown origin,
though some suspect a connection to O.E. gieldan
“to pay for, debt,” but O.E.D. editors find this
As is evident from the etymology above, there is confusion about the history of guilt. We will resolve this confusion presently in the form of a narrative. Our story begins with ostriches and ends with a boy buried in the dirt.
No religion or theory of science mentions it, but there was a time when ostriches were the dominant species on earth. They had a complete society with governments, economies, and cultures. Their populations were densest in what was to become Western Europe.
For our purposes, one custom ubiquitous throughout ostrich society must be described in detail: their system of justice. Crimes occurred in the cities of ostriches but, given the goodness of the animals, an ostrich crime was more indicative of forgetfulness or absent-mindedness than maliciousness toward other ostriches. As soon as an ostrich committed a crime, he almost always remembered the rule that had slipped his mind. Once cognizant of his mistake he went to the outskirts of the city, into the forests and fields and meadows, and found an earthy spot to bury his head in the ground until he felt confident that he would remember the rule in the future.
Therefore, ostrich society did not need a justice system per se. Criminals punished themselves.
For our purposes, it should also be noted that ostriches co-existed peacefully with other, lesser animals. Wild herds of Homo erectus, for example, roamed the undeveloped countryside, hunting and sleeping in caves.
In one such cave, near the outskirts of the ostrich capitol, a pair of Homo erectus parents gave birth to a strangely hairless and upright boy with a large head. This individual was the first Homo sapiens, though his parents could not know this. They cared for him and raised him, despite his abnormalities, feeding him nuts and berries and small mammals. Things were relatively normal until the strange boy reached adolescence. Then the problems began.
When he turned sixteen, the boy began to act very oddly. He pointed at things and made strange noises that his parents didn’t understand. He pointed at the ostrich cities, he pointed at the mountains, he pointed at the sun, he pointed at the valleys, and he pointed at their fire and at the walls of their cave. For each of these things he had a different noise, which he would repeat over and over again. When he made these noises, his parents merely shrugged and smiled and continued with their business, patting him on the head.
We suppose here that these noises were the first instances of human language.
One day, a particularly important day for our purposes, while hunting and gathering, the son witnessed the violent murder of a chimpanzee by a rival group of other chimpanzees. The boy attempted to resuscitate the dead chimp, but failed. He returned to his parents’ cave carrying the mauled body. The chimp’s face was mutilated and its arms were twisted and covered in dried blood. The son held the corpse in front of his parents, shaking it back and forth and yelling many noises, noises they’d never heard before. (This, we submit, was the first human complaint against injustice.) His mother became concerned. She reached out to her son, whose eyes were bloodshot and spilling tears, but the son, in a rage, threw the carcass of the mauled primate at his mother. Then he grabbed her arm in anger and she winced, her eyes filled with horror at her child’s behavior.
His father, confused and afraid, threw himself at his son and yelled to protect his wife. The son didn’t stop. He continued hurting his mother. His father grabbed the boy by the neck and dragged him to the entrance of their cave and threw him to the ground. The father blinked and pointed his hairy finger to the fields, away from their cave, toward the ostrich cities.
The son rose to his feet and ran in the direction his father pointed. Both father’s and son’s faces were wet with tears.
After several days of delirious wandering, the boy found the top of a small hill and looked down into the ostrich capitol. With nowhere else to go, he walked towards it.
On his way to the city he saw something he’d never seen before. In a field, spread far apart from one another, three ostriches sat with their heads buried in the ground. He stopped to consider these creatures and muttered several noises to himself. He walked on without disturbing them.
When the boy (who we must remember was the first Homo sapiens) reached the edge of the city, he was exhausted. He sat against the side of a building. Within a few minutes a delegation of ostriches quickly circled around him. The birds, communicating through complex blinks and twists of their necks, decided he was not a threat. They brought him to the hut of an ostrich that had a spare room. They gave the boy water to drink and grain to eat. They showed him a mattress of straw where he could spend the night. The boy felt safe and happy in the company of the ostriches. After eating and making many noises at the ostriches, he lay down on the straw mattress and fell into a deep sleep. The group of ostriches looked at one another, blinking in approval, and left the boy in peace.
That night there came a piercing shriek from the house where the boy slept. It was not mammalian, but avian. The scream echoed through the streets of the city and a herd of ostriches ran towards the house. Inside they found the boy beating his host with his fists, his face tensed in anger. Blood was spilled upon the dirt floor like a carpet beneath the corpse of the host ostrich.
Two of the ostriches ran to the boy and pushed him back with their necks and legs. He struggled, but was overwhelmed by the chaotic flapping and kicking all around him. Through the legs of the ostriches he saw the body of the ostrich that had been so kind to him. The boy felt a surge of confusion and pain. He began to make noises that were pitiful and sad. He cried, choking on these pieces of a language no one could understand.
After the ostriches detained him to their satisfaction, they decided what would be done with the ranting boy.
One of the stronger birds kicked him in the head and the boy passed out. Then the ostrich herd dragged him to the outskirts of their city. They dragged him over rocks and tree roots until, after much searching in the darkness, they found a flat patch of earthy ground. It was there that they buried the boy’s head in the dirt, in accordance with their system of justice.
They left him. After several minutes the boy woke up, unable to breathe. His eyes, ears, nose, and mouth were filled with soil. He experienced total blackness and in this blackness he saw the body of the ostrich he had beaten to death, the face of the mauled primate, and his mother’s face the night he was sent away from his home. He felt a new feeling then. It was a dull heaviness that weighed like a stone on his heart. The son lifted his head out of the ground. Dirt filled his throat and he coughed it up. As he coughed, he looked out into the night and found that he was alone. He began to cry and make a new noise, a noise he had never heard himself make before, a new word in his language that would become ours.
It sounded like “gylt, gylt.”