Poorly organized thoughts on absorption

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s biography of Colin Wilson, Beyond the Robot (highly recommended). I don’t know why but I’ve always had an aversion to biographies; but something told me I needed to read this one and I’m very glad I paid attention. His philosophical contributions aside–and those are exciting and thought-provoking–Wilson’s determination, sense of purpose, and industriousness are inspiring. I will never be that disciplined; I have finally realized after years of trying to force myself to be more organized in planning, executing the plans, and then recording the results that the harder I push and poke at myself, the more obnoxiously watery I become. I am prone to topic-specific brain fog, and it might sound like something you just overcome with sufficient effort, but ha ha ha ha, no. The only way to keep the phlegmatic formlessness in any kind of check is to allow it to do its thing most of the time. Damming it up leads to very bad outcomes. Huh. It’s almost like somebody in the wayback observed the behavior of actual water when drawing an analogy to certain personality types… Too bad some of us just have to learn everything the hard way.

I swear I do listen to music other than Johnny Flynn.

Speaking of water…stick with me here…I was talking to the herbalist and constitutional types maven Rebecca Altman two or three years ago, and she made a rather offhand comment about how phlegmatics have a tendency toward…well, let’s call it historical revisionism. That is, the way they feel about something now is, they say, how they have always felt about it. They might feel differently tomorrow, and then that will be how they always felt. (At least that’s how I remember what she said.) Similarly, they may be terribly indecisive about everything but once a decision has been reached, they always knew that was what they were going to do. Now to me that retrospection makes perfect sense, though I do see how it makes us phlegmatics super annoying to pragmatic melancholics and driven cholerics. Humans make meaning, it’s what we do–and meaning is subjective and thus subject to constant revision and negotiation, as I wrote when I discussed the narrative paradigm theory of human behavior. Well, one of my big lessons of late 2016-early 2017 has been that rather than revising un-self-reflectively and without purpose, it makes much more sense to just craft yourself a better narrative. The keyword there is craft: feelings and opinions are going to change and there is a lot of magic to be harnessed in taking charge of that process.

It’s harder than I expected to put into words. I’m not talking about positive affirmations or lying to yourself. It’s more a matter of trying on different perspectives deliberately, rather than as a passive reaction to events. It’s also about embracing the wibbly-wobbliness of time: changing a feeling about something that happened in the past, for example, and creatively rewriting the narrative you have been telling yourself about it changes how you feel in the present, and thus the future. In the same way it reverberates along the mycelia-like network of non-local consciousness to effect other aspects of your reality.

In Beyond the Robot Lachman discusses Wilson’s discovery that interest is dependent on attention. This means that a thing is not inherently interesting to you or not, you make it so through your relation to it. I would say the same for beauty. This kind of dovetails with something I read in a Thich Nhat Han book (don’t remember which), where he said that your boredom, impatience, or annoyance with a task is proportionate to the amount of your attention that is somewhere else. In other words, when you’re thinking about something you were previously doing, or would rather be doing, or are planning to do, chores seem to take forever. On the other hand, when you are absorbed in the chore at hand you lose your sense of the passage of time and when you’re done, it seems to have gone by quickly-but-not-too-quickly. They say that time flies when you’re having fun, and usually that’s true, but I’ve found that I can make my enjoyment seem to last much longer by focusing intently on the present moment.

Not only that but, as Wilson wrote, that level of concentration and focus opens up a perception of your immediate reality as intensely fascinating, beautiful, and meaningful–he called this perception Faculty X. You suddenly notice something you never noticed before, and all of a sudden you’re totally amazed by it. Faculty X is how you interface with non-local consciousness and then, to put it in terms of an image that came to me last night, it’s like you just reach out and scoop up handfuls of passing magic. Point is, when you start putting such attention into your narrative and your feelings, not only do your inner workings become a lot more interesting in their own right, but you gain some really powerful new tools. It can be fun to play around with too.

Because of music’s ability to stir the emotions, I find I’m able to use it to induce a state of deep absorption in a feeling, especially feelings associated with memories; and from that “place” I can kind of tinker with the feeling-memory link. That’s the best I can describe it; you’ll have to try it yourself. The risk is that you can become confused about events in the past, but then again, that is also the point of the exercise. You have to be willing to sacrifice “what really happened”–that was only ever a story anyway–for what might have been. Choose your targets accordingly and stay very conscious of what you’re doing (as that also is the point of the exercise).

Jupiter: friend or foe?

StEdwardsCrown

I guess you’re probably aware of the debate about Jupiter between Jason Miller and Gordon White. (If not, read Miller’s Financial Sorcery and White’s Chaos Protocols, then this, then this, then this.)

Basically, Gordon argues that, unless you are a king or super-elite, Jupiter is not your god, he’s the god of people who actively oppress you. You’re better off working with one of the many civilizing trickster figures who, in spite of their rather bizarre senses of humor, seem to generally like helping a brother or sister out (albeit for inscrutable reasons of their own).

Miller, on the other hand, says that the bad acts of human elites are not a reflection on the nature of the deity, or at most just one side of that deity. With deities we are working in the realm of myths and archetypes. Jupiter is the god of abstract principles of wealth, sovereignty, and lawful gain (though these can manifest materially), not of specific people, instances, or acts, and thus is the friend of anyone who wants to have these things in their life.

Now, I have not really worked with Jupiter magically so I have no experience on which to base an opinion, and the two sides of this argument both seem reasonable to me. (Never really been drawn to Jupiter that much. I just don’t like that much beard.) But pondering where I might tentatively stand on the issue is an interesting thought exercise.

I do know enough to understand that the Roman deities were/are not the same as the planets named for them, but the personae and planets are deeply intertwined astrologically and, I think, shed light on one another. Jupiter is both my chart ruler (ruler of my Ascendant) and solar dispositor (ruler of the sign my Sun is in), as well as the ruler of the house my Sun is in. Jupiter is also exalted in the sign of Cancer in my chart, disposes some other planets besides my Sun, rules another angle besides AC and conjoins a third, and is involved in a lot of other aspect patterns. So the point is the planet has a lot of juice in my horoscope and wins a lot of essential dignity points.

In contrast, Mercury conjoins my MC and opposes Jupiter. Now Mercury is in detriment in the two signs where Jupiter is in domain (Pisces and Sagittarius), which in mythic terms makes sense as Mercury’s antinomian trickster nature (though it is much less emphasized than that of the Greek Hermes) is at odds with Jupiter’s rulership of rulership. In Jupiter’s house, Mercury can’t Mercury. Or at least not as well. My natal Mercury is essentially weak, but gets a fair bit of accidental dignity by association with other planets, angles, and so on. He too rules two angles, for example. Jupiter and Mercury are even co-rulers of the decan my Sun resides in. The polarity between these two planets, particularly as they conjoin opposing angles and rule opposing angles, is an axis that seems to organize my whole chart, and my life activities and personal proclivities have followed suit. So Jason and Gordon’s debate almost seems to re-enact the dynamics that go on in my head all the time.

I am also reminded of when I was in grade school and my stepbrothers were big into Dungeons & Dragons. They were two-and-a-half years older than me which at that age is rather massive, and they’re identical twins. When they needed a third person to play D&D, I was drafted, mostly against my will. My characters were always killed off in short order so I finally refused to participate anymore. Anyway, I don’t remember a whole lot beyond that except that you would choose your character’s orientation toward law and order and good-vs.-evil, so you would be “lawful good”, for example, “or “neutral neutral” and so on. (Ever the goody-two-shoes, I liked to be lawful good.)

Astrological Jupiter is lawful good. One of the quintessential aspects of Astrojupiter that often seems to be missed is that his domain deals with society and social institutions. That’s why you get the otherwise rather motley assortment of things he rules: law, higher education, religion, general embiggening. If you look at these things from the perspective of ancient Roman culture, they’re all aspects of Romanitas. Religion (religio) for example was not about personal faith but about participation in public ritual. And in this case we’re not talking about law in the Saturnian sense, as a set of constraints, but as the sociopolitical organization of the state. They are things that defined “civilization”.

So it occurs to me that whether you view Jupiter as a friend or foe might have a lot to do with how much social legitimacy forms a part of your personal model of success and achievement. Jupiter is all about legitimacy because he basically decides what that is in the first place. Whereas to embrace a trickster-centric lifestyle, or magical practice, means you pretty much have to be the kind of person who likes to rebel, stick it to The Man, and take risks. Not everyone is up for that. I think left-hand-path/right-hand-path is an oversimplification, but perhaps this is a more complex and nuanced version of that dynamic. It’s not to say that you can’t achieve conventionally-recognized models of success working with a trickster, but you can’t do it while wearing the white hat. You have to be alright with a grey one. Of course if you’re doing magic, you’re already halfway there. (And I should probably note, I’m not trying to psychoanalyze Miller and his approach. Just speculating on general Jupiterness.)

Time for TMI (Tell More Information!). Growing up a disabled female, frequently isolated from society at large (due to being hospitalized so much), my mother clung to two convictions–an extremely romantic, Sir Walter Scott-esque notion of chivalry, heroism and gentility to which she aspired, and a firm conviction that to show any vulnerability is certain doom. Although she was an introvert my mom achieved great success in whatever social circle she found herself in–and they were many and varied over the course of her life, from coal miners to Spanish grandees–because she would go along to get along. She never inconvenienced anyone. She never took up space. She never showed fear or sadness or weakness or ugliness that might make other people feel uncomfortable. “Never make other people uncomfortable” and “never make work for other people” were a litany I heard countless times growing up.

That’s not a criticism, by the way. My mother did what she had to to survive in a world that is very hostile to people like her. She achieved her principal goal of having an interesting life, and was a kind, generous, and warm person. She was also undoubtedly the bravest person I have ever known, because she was one of the most fearful, and she still kept getting up every morning. Not only that, in spite of her disability and constant pain and being a single mother working, in one memorable period, two full-time jobs, she achieved things that plenty of less vulnerable people find too difficult. When the going got tough, my mom sucked it up and came out the other side without a hair out of place. (Remind me to tell you about the time she was offered a modeling career while saving the life of the call-girl her husband* had just abandoned her for.) I think she had an innate knack for glamour magic and would probably have really enjoyed and appreciated Deb Castellano’s work. What I’m saying is, no trickster-lovin’ feminist witch or magician could ask for a better role model; and yet the teachings that were impressed on me were to always color inside the lines and be scared. I was wrapped in a veritable cocoon of “ladies don’t…” My mom wanted to keep me safe and protect me from the kind of terrors she faced every day just going about her life, and to ensure that I wouldn’t have to work quite as hard as she did for a little social mobility.

My point with all this, is that you can probably understand how I am conflicted about where I stand on all this Jupiter business. I roll my own eyes at what a moralizing, people-pleasing goody-goody I can be. Yet I’ve always been too much of a weirdo and an idealist to ever get social approval and I am trying to embrace and grow into my inner Persephonic-Luciferian punk witch.

There is also a very real question here: In The Chaos Protocols and many times on his blog, Gordon has speculated that the planet’s super-elites not only have a different value system than we do, but probably even a different cosmology. If that is true, it stands to reason they would have different gods. Gods of things that are important to people with a vested interest in promoting inequality and hierarchy. That sounds more archonic than godly, I suppose, but we humans don’t really grok gods so why couldn’t such unpleasant ones exist? Why would we automatically trust the word of history about the nature of specific deities, knowing that history is always just one biased point of view?

I’m planning on exploring these questions a little more in my next post, from a different angle.

*not my dad

The Star.Ships conversation

Milky Way.jpg

Hey everybody. Long time, no post, huh? I am working at a temp job which is mind-numbingly tedious and at the end of the day I am fried and have no writing in me. This could, possibly, turn into a permanent position and I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s a question of whether the fear of continued unemployment is greater than the fear of this particular employment.

Anyway. I think we’ll all be musing on the implications of Gordon White’s Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits for a long time, and hopefully this will generate an ongoing and edifying conversation. I have the feeling that this root will produce many and varied branches. And so with that in mind, here are my preliminary thoughts.

Recontextualizing magic and human history

When I was a teenager and living in Spain, one of the princesses got married in Sevilla, where I lived. Prior to the wedding the city went to great pains to get spiffed up, which included laying new pavement in the Plaza de los Reyes, between the Cathedral and the Alcázar (the royal family’s residence when they are in town). As soon as they took up the old cobbles, they started turning up archaeological remains, including the place where people would do their ablutions before entering the mosque (now the Cathedral). They got down to the Visigothic period and then basically said, “Eh, fuck it.” They could have kept digging indefinitely: under the Visigothic would be the Roman layers, under that the Greek and Pheonician and Celtic, under that the Bronze Age, then the Neolithic, and on and on back to who knows when. They couldn’t possibly go all the way down to bedrock before the royal wedding, and the archaeologists probably didn’t have the funding anyway. So they just stopped at an expedient point, backfilled, and called it good.

That memory kept coming back to me as I read Star.Ships. It’s a good analogy for what our historical understanding of magic has been until the recent attempts to recontextualize it. On one level, we surmised that some form of magic went way back into our “primitive” past, but after you pass the PGM and Alexandria, you start to lose the threads. Plus there’s the whole materialist orthodoxy to struggle against, so we collectively said, “Eh, fuck it.” We picked an expedient place to be the beginning of the WMT and called it good.

In Star.Ships, Gordon is arguing that, by taking a synthetic (as in “pertaining to synthesis,” not as in “fake”), cross-cultural, and comparative approach and using multiple lines of evidence, you can in fact trace magical threads into the deep past. And in doing so, you discover some interesting things about human history generally–because it turns out that magic is intricately intertwined with the story of Homo sapiens.

Now I have to say this was extra exciting for me because the research I did for my dissertation was synthetic, cross-cultural, comparative, and relied on multiple lines of evidence. It also had everything to do with magic, although I wasn’t allowed to say that out loud. My research was profoundly out of step with the current intellectual mode in archaeology. Cultural anthropologists generally thought it was very interesting, and my advisor (who got his Ph.D. in 1980, a very different time intellectually) thought it was, to use his favorite word, “delightful.” He was perpetually baffled by my utter failure to secure any grant money. At first I was too, but after a few years I got savvy to what was happening. But I finished it anyway, because fuck that. I am of the opinion that anthropology is by definition cross-cultural and comparative, and yes, that has led to racist excesses; but to disavow that methodology is to scuttle the entire project of anthropology and archaeology. Star.Ships is what I imagine a Ph.D. thesis would be like if archaeology weren’t forced to maintain its methodological materialism and scientism (or would be if Gordon added 100 pages of boring literature review) and I feel totally vindicated by it. Gordon has repeatedly emphasized (in the book and subsequent interviews) that comparison per se is not bad, indeed quite the contrary, but it’s important to be discerning about your comparanda. In Star.Ships he has presented well-researched, intellectually rigorous, and parsimonious arguments that meet that standard.

Challenges to orthodoxy

Scarlet Imprint promised that “minds will be blown” in reading Star.Ships. And my mind was no exception.

In fact, I noted with some interest that the things that blew my mind were generally different than those that blew Gordon’s podcast interviewers’ minds. For example, I already knew about Göbekli Tepe and that Homo sapiens lived alongside other hominins for longer than we have been solo. But I was surprised at how persuasive I found Gordon’s evidence regarding a Southeast Asian/Sundaland home for sophisticated palaeolithic culture, and the construction and purpose of the pyramids.

In the case of Sundaland, I was simply unaware of the genetic evidence for dispersal from this region, or the very early dates for cultivation of certain crops such as rice and taro. This is something I plan to look into further on my own as it is totally fascinating.

The pyramids were another matter. Although I have grown a lot intellectually since leaving academia (ironically?) and no longer accept a priori the judgments of knowledge-production factory hacks, I still have been skeptical of some alt.history claims about, e.g., the age of the pyramids. In part that’s because I was mainly exposed to the more wackadoodle end of the alt.history spectrum (AAT et al), but the bigger issue was that I am not an Egyptologist. We can’t be experts in everything, and it falls to each of us to decide whom to trust in the areas where we lack expertise. Too often, we award that trust based on membership in our in-group (however we define it) over actual knowledge. For me, academic archaeologists have been my in-group for virtually my whole adult life. Yes, I know some of them are cranks, a disturbing number are misogynistic pigs, and then there is Zahi Hawass, who is in an asshat league all his own; yet, being familiar with and mostly secure in the methods of archaeological knowledge production, I accepted the general Egyptological wisdom that the pyramids were tombs of the pharaohs. I mean, that “truth” is so widely accepted within academia and conventional history that I am ashamed to say it honestly never occurred to me to challenge it. I could imagine challenges to the dates, say, or the construction methods, but I accepted the purpose as a given.

It is generally held by archaeologists that, given enough time and Turks*, even humans armed only with stone tools can build a monument. But the data that Gordon presents now make it clear to me that the reign of Khufu was simply not long enough, nor the entire population of Egypt big enough, to build the Great Pyramid with copper tools during his lifetime. Similarly, I knew that no mummies had been found in the pyrammids, but accepted that this was due to grave robbing. I had never even heard of the heb sed ritual and how it related to the architectural complexes surrounding the pyramids. Anyway, long story short, my mind is now thoroughly blown by the fact that there aren’t more challenges to the tomb hypothesis even from within the hoary halls of academe.

I can’t help but get a little chuckle over the irony: Materialist-scientistic academics are utterly resistant to the idea that myths encode real history (unless, of course, that history can be boiled down to something entirely material and un-mythic in nature), yet are completely hogtied by their own mythology. But ’twas ever thus with zealots–they can’t see that their beliefs are beliefs.

*The Turks thing is kind of an inside joke, referencing the large numbers of (Ottoman) Turkish laborers employed by early Egyptologists and antiquarians.

Japan

My dissertation research focused heavily on prehistoric Japan, a subject not well known in the West. Partly this is because Japanese archaeologists only started publishing in English relatively recently, and few Westerners have been willing or able to do the work necessary to learn Japanese language and culture sufficiently well to work with Japanese archaeologists. (And probably not by accident, none of them–so far as I know–are women.) The Japanese are as insular as the British, both geographically and culturally, but their language is more inconvenient for Westerners.

Although Gordon doesn’t really go into it, I think that Japanese archaeology offers some really tantalizing hints that Sundaland may indeed have been a center of Palaeolithic human occupation and subsequent dispersal. For example:

  • Gordon mentions the findings of a 2013 genetic study showing trans-Pacific contact in Ainu blood samples, going back possibly as far as 10,000 years ago: “If you are looking for the smoking gun for global sea travel right at the end of the Ice Age, then this may turn out to be it” (p. 70). This was exciting for me because I have long hypothesized that the Ainu (and before them, perhaps the Jomon, who most anthropologists believe were ancestral to the Ainu) were sailing to Alaska, if not further down the North American coast. We have archaeological and ethnographic evidence that the Ainu and Jomon were/are deep sea fishers, hunting big sea mammals on the open ocean. From the islands of present-day Japan it is but a short hop up to Sakhalin, then to the Kamchatka peninsula, then along the Aleutians to Alaska. Japanese fishing floats wash up in Alaska all the time (I own three that were collected in the 1960s, and a friend of mine found one just a couple weeks ago), which suggests that the currents facilitate, or at least don’t impede, travel in that direction. Next, though I can’t quantify it, I have always felt impressionistically that Ainu art (e.g., as reflected by their textiles) is stylistically reminiscent of the art of the Pacific Northwest. And since the 1970s, the Ainu have taken to carving totem poles which they describe as a nod to their cultural affinity with Pacific Northwest Coast peoples. That can be–and has been–put down to environmental influences: the Ainu and Pacific Northwest Coast peoples are all “affluent foragers” living in food-rich environments around the north Pacific. But, between you and me, I don’t think that’s enough to explain it. Now we have genetic evidence that suggests I was right.
  • The Japanese language is something of a mystery. It’s classed as an Altaic language along with Korean and Turkish (among others), and is recognizably similar to Korean, although not as close as you might expect for countries that geographically close. It has been suggested (I don’t remember by whom) that Japanese is descended from a dialect of ancient Korean which is now extinct. I think that’s a likely possibility, but many linguists have noticed that Japanese has some vocabulary which is probably Austronesian in origin, and Okinawans even more so. Quoth Wikipedia, Austronesian “is a language family that is widely dispersed throughout Maritime Southeast Asia, Madagascar and the islands of the Pacific Ocean…” (Sundaland and its diaspora, in other words.) Archaeologically, we know that people from the Korean peninsula began to settle in Japan around 500 BC. It is an unusually clear case of foreign settlement, with people who looked drastically different from the native Jomon population and used different technology. That may be when the Korean elements of what would become Japanese language arrived, becoming superimposed on an earlier, perhaps proto-Austronesian, language.
  • William Solheim considers prehistoric Japan to have been part of his Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network, whereof he says, “I now define Nusantao as natives of Southeast Asia, and their descendants, with a maritime-oriented culture from their beginnings, these beginnings probably in southeastern Island Southeast Asia around 5000 BC or possibly earlier.” (I realize this is inside baseball if you haven’t read the book yet.) And seriously, I require an explanation as to why maritime traders in Southeast Asia/Sundaland would not have gone slightly north to visit Japan.
  • Japan currently boasts the oldest pottery in the world at about 14,000 years old. That means that not only is that pottery completely unassociated with the other elements of the “Neolithic revolution” as defined by V. Gordon Childe (e.g., settled villages, agriculture), but it dates to the end of the Palaeolithic. Pottery of similar age has been found in maritime Russia and Jeulmun pottery of Korea dates back to 10,000 years ago–again, without any other elements of the “revolution.” This earliest pottery was very simple and crudely made, decorated with simple fingernail impressions, but around 5,000 years ago, Jomon pottery became very elaborate. I can only describe it as 3D psychedelia. This was pottery made by hunter-gatherers, people who usually don’t bother with pottery because let’s face it, who wants to drag a set of china all over the landscape? However, around the northern Pacific, food was so plentiful up until recent times, that hunter-gatherers could live in permanent villages (though these post-date the first pottery by a few thousand years). Note that like Sundaland, Japan was not glaciated during the last ice age.
  • Based on Gordon’s summary of Witzel’s Origins of the World’s Mythologies, Japanese mythology definitely retains some Gondwanan features. For the most part, Japanese/Shinto myth is a collection of barely-related tales about the creation of specific things or places, or vignettes about the deities. This isn’t unique to Japan, but, given the Sundaland-adjacent geography and the apparently Austronesian stratum in the language, it could arguably be a holdover from pre-flood Sundaland.
  • When the Kennewick Man skeleton (dated to about 9,000 years ago) was first analyzed by biological anthropologists, they compared his facial morphology to anthropological databases with measurements from thousands of individuals grouped by culture and geography. These measurements are the same ones used by forensic anthropologists to identify missing people’s skulls. KM was found to be most similar to the Ainu (the Wikipedia page says Polynesian/Southeast Asian, but James Chatters personally told me Ainu). And the Ainu have been recognized to be the most similar of all modern groups to the ancient Jomon. Chatters speculated to me that KM’s features were of a putative type ancestral to both Ainu and modern Native Americans. The most recent genetic analysis, from 2015, indicates that KM is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other extant group. However, as mentioned above, it is very possible that KM falls within the period of trans-Pacific contact after the flood. KM’s maternal (mitochondrial) DNA haplogroup is X2a, of which Wikipedia says, “Sub-group X2 appears to have undergone extensive population expansion and dispersal around or soon after the last glacial maximum, about 21,000 years ago.” Haplogroup X is pretty rare generally, even in North America, but unlike the haplogroups more common in Native Americans, X is also not common in East Asia. It is found in low levels in Southern Europe, Caucasia, and the Near East. This suggests that the conventional model of the settlement of the Americas (East Asians crossing the Bering land bridge) is insufficient to explain the observed genetic variation, and that KM belonged to a population with a different ultimate source. Although by itself the distribution of Haplogroup X cannot confirm Gordon’s hypothesis of post-glacial maritime diaspora, it is consistent with such a model.

So basically, everything about Jomon Japan has been regarded as a weird, isolated mystery. But what if it was instead the northern hinterland of Sundaland? Could it show us a glimpse of the cultural complexity that once existed, or be an analogue for the embryonic civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, and Harappa?

I don’t have an answer to that. I’m just spitballing here. I’m no more expert in the archaeology of Southeast Asia (or the Palaeolithic-Mesolithic transition at the end of the ice age) than I am in Egyptology–but now I have learned my lesson about accepting any just-so stories.

Concluding thoughts

In no particular order, here are some other thoughts engendered by my reading of Star.Ships:

  • Boats and seafaring were way more important, way earlier, than has been recognized.
  • Europe was a really crappy little backwater for most of history.
  • Our relationship with certain deities–such as the Civilizing Trickster and Underworld Goddess–is much older than previously recognized. This is not necessarily saying that all Civilizing Tricksters are the same Civilizing Trickster, but it does raise some interesting questions. (I don’t have answers.)
  • Fears of cultural appropriation in magic pale in comparison to the ancient roots that all magic appears to share.
  • It occurred to me that the modern space programs are, like magic (and as Chris Knowles has argued, they are often the same thing), recontextualized as a much longer-term human project to connect with the stars. But what does it mean that this project is now framed in materialist terms? (I have a horrible vision here of some monstrous Neil deGrasse Tyson x Zahi Hawass hybrid.) What happens to Nuit when she is reduced to balls of flaming gas in empty space? Do we have to relocate the Otherworld? Or is materialist space science/travel merely building an addition onto our virtual reality prison?

This last point gets us closer to the heart of the book: Ultimately, Star.Ships asks us magical folk to take back our reality and our rightful role within it. I remember once in college when a pre-med friend of mine was opining that only M.D.s should have the right to be called “doctor,” and I was like, “Excuse me, Sawbones–philosophers were the original ‘doctors’ back when you were just a bunch of filthy barbers.” Like the non-medical doctors, we magicians have dropped the ball. We were the original philosophers of reality, ours the original “science”; it is our job to interface between our tribes and the world of the spirits, to be the memory-keepers and cunning-folk, but we have ceded our power and authority to the materialists. Now they deny we even exist. And we let them dictate reality to us? The very notion is absurd. So, are we just going to sit back and take it? Are we going to let our people struggle on alone? Can we stop worrying about gatekeeping “authenticity” and start working together to resist the hijacking of reality? Do you accept this “mission at the end of the world”?

It’s go time, wizards.

An interesting mythic parallel

So at the risk of sounding like a mad fangirl, I realize that writing a review of Star.Ships isn’t enough because I can envision myself having a continuing conversation with ideas in the book (and in other books cited by Gordon). There is that much to think about. I’m sure I won’t be the only one. Anyway, one of the main streams in the book riffs off Witzel’s Origins of the World’s Mythologies which proposes a “family tree” of myths explaining the non-random distribution of common themes. While I’ve been reading Star.Ships, I’ve had this thought in the back of my mind.

Perhaps synchronicitously, on Tuesday I chanced upon an interesting parallel in two disparate mythologies–Greek and Japanese–that I had never come across despite my love of mythology and my interest in both those mythologies specifically.

Roman statue of Baubo

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the myth of how Demeter’s grief while searching for her lost daughter, Kore/Persephone, led to the blighting of the land. A part of the myth I did not know, but which was celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, is an episode where Iambe (daughter of Pan), or in some versions Baubo, made Demeter laugh by telling bawdy jokes and revealing her genitals. Iambe gave her name to the poetic mode of iambic pentameter, which back in the day was considered very lowbrow. In the end, Kore spends part of the year with Demeter, and that season is fertile, while the part she spends in the underworld is winter.

Ame no Uzume

Meanwhile in Japanese myth, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was infuriated by the rude behavior of her trickster brother, Susanoo. In high dudgeon she retreated to a cave and sealed herself inside, so the world was without sunlight and consequently everything started dying. In order to lure her out, Ame no Uzume (“Heavenly Alarming Female”, a.k.a., “the Fearless One”, “the Great Persuader”–a kami after my own heart and particular favorite of mine) performed a bawdy dance among the assembled gods, revealing her genitals. They had devised a plan, hanging a mirror on a branch near the cave entrance. When Amaterasu heard the gods laughing, she rolled back the rock that sealed the cave entrance to see what was going on. In so doing she saw her own reflection in the mirror, and was so captivated that the other gods had time to permanently seal up the cave. Uzume’s dance is considered the origin of the sacred dance form kagura and she also appears as a bawdy stock character in kyogen comic theater. Uzume is revered in Shinto as a kami of “art and entertainment, marriage, joy, harmony and meditation”.

Ame no Uzume dancing

Now I’m not arguing that the original Laurasian mythology included a “female comic bawd cheers up depressed fertility goddess” mytheme. I mean, maybe it did, I have no idea. But you have to admit these two stories are remarkably similar. I’m not the only one to have made this connection, but if you do an internet search as I did, you’ll find that apparently not many people have made it, and there is a very regrettable tendency to all-one-goddess the various characters.

A history of archaeological theory in 7 acts

sphinx

Pssst. This is actually Part I of my review of Gordon White’s Star.Ships. (Don’t worry, no spoilers.) It was starting to look like my review would be very long, so I decided to break this part out. Anyway, it’s not technically a review per se. What follows is:

  • One archaeologist’s quickie review/opinions of archaeological theory and practice. It’s longish, but not technical.
  • A former insider’s view, but not an exhaustive one. I speak here in terms of general trends within Anglo-American archaeology. (For historical and economic reasons, English is the hegemonic language-of-record for archaeology, but there are regional differences that I’m not fully versed in.)
  • Possibly of interest as background/context for those reading Star.Ships. I am still reading it, but I find that it frequently motivates me to reflect on changes in archaeological theory, and how we got to where we are now, in terms of what we think we know, what information is canonical, and what is “anomalous”. I find myself thinking of what a non-materialist archaeology might look like, for example. The point of the book is to correct misapprehensions about the past which are there in part due to the fossilization of academic thought; my point with this summary is to give a former insider’s view of how the current (mis)apprehensions developed.

Act I

In the beginning there were antiquarians. They read a lot of (Classical) history and collected artifacts–and usually lots of pretty rocks, fossils, bird eggs, two-headed fetal pigs, and other curiosities of natural history.

There were some pretty remarkable ruins still visible on the landscape. Some of them, like Hadrian’s Wall, were known from historical records. Others, like Stonehenge, were mysteries and warranted further investigation.

Generally speaking, explanations came from either Roman texts or the Bible. If a ruin was big, and it wasn’t Roman, then almost by necessity it had to have been built by lost tribes of Israel or one of Noah’s sons.

At the same time, European countries were vigorously imperial, which was bringing Europeans into contact with very different cultures and people who looked very different. Racism was born, and so were the first stirrings that would one day become anthropology.

Act II

Antiquarians started to notice that artifacts and ruins didn’t necessarily match the received wisdom or historical texts about the past. There were civilizations where there shouldn’t be (i.e., where brown people lived), for example. Some started being more methodical when digging holes looking for artifacts.

Romanticism was all the rage. Wealthy young men went to the Mediterranean for a “Grand Tour” to sigh over the crumbling splendors of civilizations past, and stole the nicer bits for souvenirs.

A number of well-known antiquarians were Freemasons, then Druid revivalists, and instead of lost tribes of Israel, they credited the Druids with anomalous ancient ruins. There was an element of nationalism here–now, finally, Britain and France could lay claim to an indigenous civilization that, while obviously not as grand as Rome, was still pretty cool, and perhaps in possession of Lost Wisdom.

Act III

The scientific method was all the rage. If you were independently wealthy you could round up some young peasants and go destroy some poor farmer’s field looking for booty artifacts. The better digs actually employed painters to make illustrations of remains in situ.

Archaeology, geology, historical linguistics, and palaeontology diverged as separate fields of inquiry. (In the Anglophone world, especially in the US, archaeology aligned with anthropology, the study of all things human.) Now instead of just keeping your finds in cabinets in your house, though, you donated them to museums for the public betterment. Scholars were busy classifying everything into typologies: eras, cultures, language groups, and so on. They particularly liked tripartite schemes, such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, or Lower, Middle, and Upper Palaeolithic.

It was clear from all the artifacts and ruins that had been found that there had been great changes over time, only a small portion of which was recorded by history. This correlated with the evidence for gradual change found by the geologists and palaeontologists, and even–galling though it was for some–with the theory of natural selection as posited by Charles Darwin. The Bible began to look not so credible as an explanatory framework.

Observed cultural changes were usually put down to migrations. After all, historical accounts were full of invading Gauls, Huns, Goths, Vandals, Mongols, Angles and Saxons, you name it. Also, as imperialism and global trade put Europeans almost everywhere on earth, I imagine the idea of migration and invasion as catalysts for change seemed rather natural.

In a reaction against the racism and ethnocentrism of previous eras, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) proposed the “stage” theory of human cultural development: all societies, left to their own devices, passed through stages of Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization. This was a corrective insofar as it reminded the imperial powers they once were savages too, and tried to make them feel a little guilty for derailing the civilizational processes of the assorted brown-skinned societies whose heads they were busily measuring with calipers in between all the murdering and enslaving.

Act IV

Things continued apace until the era of the World Wars (WWII in particular). By midcentury, the Bible was right out and Science-with-a-capital-S was in. Science had just given the world chemical fertilizers, nerve gas, and the A-bomb so obviously was the pinnacle of human achievement. Archaeologists could rely on radiocarbon for precision dating, even.

In true scientistic fashion, archaeology became about finding out “what really happened”. It was still entirely historical in the sense that it was about establishing chronological sequences, but it was anthropological insofar as it looked for evidence of how humans interacted with each other and with their environment. There was also increasing interest in what ordinary people did (e.g., as revealed through trash piles) rather than grand narratives about the great and the good.

V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957) was a Marxist and materialist who was very instrumental in formalizing archaeology’s nascent material bent. He mostly rejected the three-part stage theory developed by Morgan, but, being a Marxist, he did very much believe in the notion of cultural evolution. His big contributions were (1) to systematize, in explicitly material terms, the characteristics of categories such as “civilization” or “Neolithic”–in other words, he defined what these terms would mean as archaeological categories. And to a great extent, his criteria are still being used, because they are now efficient and convenient. (2) He attributed cultural change to purely material causes. And (3) while not rejecting migrations entirely, he argued for change due to other factors. I can’t help but think this was in part a reaction to the fact that a number of countries in Europe and Asia had literally just been invaded, and were feeling the sting. Also, the Nazis had revealed the dark underbelly of archaeology and anthropology.

Chief among these “other factors” was diffusion, which is basically just a fancy word meaning that objects and ideas can move without migrations, e.g., through trade. If you live in the West and own a Korean smart phone, that’s an example of diffusion. However, while it’s not technically part of the definition of diffusion, an underlying assumption was often that objects and ideas go from “more advanced” to “less advanced” cultures.

“Historical particularism” was very popular as a theoretical framework, basically rejecting the idea of human universals and attributing cultures’ specific features to their specific environments, prior histories, and internal dynamics. “Cultural-historical” archaeology has probably had more longevity, worldwide, than any other mode. It is constantly mobilized in the creation of both national identities and nationalistic propaganda. I would say it is the most popular form of archaeology for the general public, too, who mostly what to know “what really happened” for a given time and place. Chronology and treasure are the bedrock of archaeology.

Act V

In the US (which is what I’m familiar with), the 1960s saw the rise of hard-core scientism with the “New Archaeology” a.k.a., “processual” archaeology. (Processual because it focused on processes, you see.) Archaeologists were desperate to make it clear to all and sundry that archaeology was a (social) science, dammit, not humanities! When I say science I mean physics. It’s pretty absurd–nothing humans do is similar to what, say, atoms do; but it was the Atomic Age, after all. It was also the Cold War. No one knew what the hell was going on archaeologically in Russia or China, except that it was undoubtedly bad, and Marxism was very out of fashion as a theoretical framework. (It continues to flourish in Japan, and of course in China.) New Archaeologists desperately wanted universal rules that would explain human behavior, and if a proposed mechanism wasn’t general it was regarded as irrelevant.

On the positive side, American archaeologists developed extremely methodical and precise excavation technique which is, in my opinion, unequaled in other countries. They also developed the concept of “interaction spheres”, where it was observed that, in contrast to the assumption that ideas and objects diffused from “center” to “periphery”, interaction forms complex webs and things move in all directions. On the negative, the theoretical became incredibly mechanistic, materialistic, and and deterministic. Consensus opinion swung even harder away from migration as an explanation for change, and the attempts to put everything down to independent invention got silly.

Act VI

Beginning in the late ’80s we had “post-processual” archaeology, which was a straight-up reaction to the excesses of the now-not-so-new New Archaeology. Things got very postmodern, but also very philosophical, and therein lay the big contribution of this period. French philosophers like Foucault, Latour, Merleau-Ponty, and Bourdieu were wildly popular. Archaeologists (and anthropologists) really began to question the epistemology of anthropology and of academia in general. Instead of just asking, “How do we know these people did X?” they started asking “How do we know anything at all?” Unfortunately, they did so with the worst kind of jargon you have ever seen. Anthropological texts became completely opaque, difficult even for insiders to understand. The attitude seemed to be that if it was clear, it was not worth publication (let alone a tenured professorship).

Popular topics of inquiry were “habitus” (borrowed from Bourdieu) and “agency”. Some archaeologists even considered whether artifacts have their own agency, although not, sadly, in the animistic sense. Instead of looking at cultures as collections of mechanistic “processes”, archaeologists became increasingly focused on the individual. Which is interesting, and a bit futile, since individuals’ concerns and acts are rarely visible in the archaeological record. Interpretation was focused on the hyper-local, in contrast to the universalism of the previous period; and interpretations were explicitly identified/confessed as such.

Archaeology remained “methodologically atheist” and materialist, but more attention was paid to people’s experiences, perceptions, and feelings. The processual archaeologists and the cultural historians laughed and laughed.

Act VII

You will have noticed that during the 20th century, theoretical fashions started changing much more quickly in archaeology. Well, of course that parallels the rapidly changing fashions everywhere else. We seem to have settled into a series of reactionary swings of a roughly 20-year pendulum. Each new generation rejects the models of the previous one, but because the shifts are so rapid, the supporters of the previous theoretical framework are still around to heckle the young upstarts.

We are currently (since the ’00s) in a very scientistic mood, where more archaeology is done in labs than in the field. About the only kind of research that can get funding is research that involves some kind of physics or chemistry–isotopic analysis, X-ray fluorescence, genetics, microprobe assays, 3D scanning and printing, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these techniques, and they have revealed new kinds of information we couldn’t get at before. For one thing, isotopic and genetic analyses have put migration back on the table in a big way. Cultural changes (such as the Bell Beaker phenomenon) that were first put down to migrations, then to competitive elite status displays across interaction spheres, are now turning out to have actually been related to migrations. Mathematical shape analyses of bones have revealed evolutionary differences that we previously had to pretend didn’t exist because they couldn’t be quantified.

Unfortunately, the theoretical, anthropological questions that used to motivate such analyses are getting to be scarcer than hen’s teeth. I feel that the current moment in archaeology has borrowed the worst traits of the two previous eras: the super-scientistic, materialistic bent of processual archaeology that naturalizes and legitimizes certain interpretations of the data; and the hyper-locality of the post-processual era that is so laser focused as to be virtually irrelevant to anyone who is not a specialist in the time, place, and individuals under investigation.

In our current anti-intellectual climate, ain’t nobody gonna get no funding for a project that ultimately seeks to investigate what it means to be a human, and what the human experience has been through time. Funding agencies want sexy results that will make the New York Times and National Geographic and in turn bring in even more money. This usually means either discovery of treasure (rich tombs with lots of gold, King Tut-style); something that claims to turn everything you ever knew about X upside-down (ancient Caucasian-looking mummies found in China); or discovery of a new civilization or fossil human ancestor (the latter isn’t even archaeology). You would think that would at least make for some exciting, Indiana Jones-style research, but that’s not the stuff that makes for tenured professorships: When I was briefly on the academic job market (before my mom getting sick saved me), it seemed like all the job listings were for people who would do some kind of lab-based sciency analysis of pottery and work in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yawn. (Even so there are too many applicants for those positions.) Meanwhile the journals were full of strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of this or that cemetery which noted that X% of the people interred were migrants from Wherever, but never bothered to tell us why we would give a shit and why it was worth grinding up some irreplaceable ancient teeth and spending tens of thousands of dollars to find that out. In the worst cases it’s just fill-in-the-blanks culture-history.

In conclusion

If you’ve read this far, it’s probably pretty obvious (if it wasn’t already) how and why archaeologists end up painting themselves into interpretive corners. To use Gordon’s analogy, it’s like a game of Jenga where, if you pull just one little log out, the entire edifice comes crashing down. And ultimately, it wouldn’t just be the edifice of archaeology, or even anthropology. All of academia could come down with it.

Spirits of place and becoming indigenous

Can members of a diasporic community become indigenous to their adopted land? What if they are the descendants/inheritors of brutal colonization? Is indigeneity something to aspire to (is it even a word?), and if so, how does one get there?

 

American_Medicinal_Plants-Pawpaw
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), a native plant I don’t know yet.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just weird (I mean, weirder than the average weirdo who is into the kinds of metaphysical and magical stuff I’m into). Maybe it’s just something about my personal neurology. Maybe it’s because I’m still a magical newbie. But for whatever reason, all my experiences of big powers–I hesitate, more and more, to use the term “god/dess”–have been very localized. I’ve tried to take them with me when I moved, but it just doesn’t seem to work. Either I have limited experience with non-place-specific beings, or I am only able to really connect in certain places.

A while back I drew on Shinto as a model for a polytheism full of spirits-of-place. And just recently I became aware that there is a growing internet presence of Westerners who consider themselves Shinto or Shinto-Pagan hybrid believers/practitioners, for example here and here. It makes me happy to see that I’m not alone. I shouldn’t feel like I have to make a disclaimer here, but with the constant kerfuffle about cultural appropriation I feel like I do: Japanophilia among Westerners is not a new thing, and I don’t know what influence that might be having in the adoption of Shinto outside Japan. When I was doing archaeological research on/in Japan, other Americans would often accuse me of being a Japanophile (and yes, it was definitely an accusation). Sometimes that would then be followed by bafflingly irrelevant comments on how “weird” the Japanese are or bad things they did during the early- to mid-20th century colonization of Korea, “Rape of Nanking,” etc., not to mention assumptions that I am into manga, anime, and cosplay (which as it happens could not be further from the truth, though I have been known to enjoy certain Japanese variety shows). In other words, in the West you can find equal parts Japanophilia and Japanophobia.

I think about this a lot because Shinto is not like the “world” religions we tend to be most familiar with in the West–it’s not about what you believe, there’s no conversion necessary, and because it’s so intimately bound up with Japanese geography and ethnicity there has never been much effort to export it. Here in the US we do have Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Washington (State), a branch of a parent shrine in Japan, and St. Paul, Minnesota has Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora, which curiously enshrines (alongside conventional Shinto kami) Baba Yaga. The priests? proprietors? maintainers? of Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora identify it as an expression of Minzoku NEO-Shinto, which is defined thus:

“What is minzoku NEO-shintô? The technical answer is, ‘A universalist approach to existential Japanese folk religion practices.’ But what does that mean? To break it down, universalist means it’s open to anyone who’s sincerely interested, it’s not just for people of Japanese ancestory. Existential means it’s based on personal experience, not on scripture or dogma. Folk religion means it’s religion as practiced by the commons – the everyday people – and on a local basis; it’s not religion as taught in the seminaries, universities, or on a national or international basis.”

I am so down with that.

Shinto is a religion in the old sense of the word, but not as commonly understood in the West today–it’s not a “faith.” It is, more than anything else, a practice and a worldview. In Shinto terms, the “congregation” of a shrine is made up of ujiko–people born and living in the surrounding precinct, and usually descended through generations there; and sûkeisha–non-local people who for their own reasons feel committed to that shrine. A non-Japanese can become a sûkeisha, but never ujiko. I think for most Westerners, it’s more likely they would feel dedicated to a kami (spirit/god) than to a particular shrine, as most of us have had close to 2000 years enculturation within monotheistic, universalizing religions. Anyway, you don’t have too many road-to-Damascus-style conversions to Shinto, or rather if you do, it doesn’t matter much because in Shinto your personal beliefs are pretty much irrelevant as long as they’re not getting in the way of practice. Like all of Japanese culture, Shinto practice is a complex web of mutual obligations, consideration, and gift-giving. It’s amenable to evolution and to hybridization, as evidenced through its history. I sort of fell into Shinto while I was in Japan because I was already an animist philosophically, and my friends took me to shrines and showed me how to participate.

But I didn’t try to bring it back to America with me, though I thought about it and heartily wished we had something similar here. (By “we” I mean diasporic Americans and “mainstream” American culture.*) I have weird feelings about trying to translate Shinto to another continent, because while it’s eminently doable, is it right? Most of the Shinto kami are not universal–they are landform-specific. An American Shinto could honor the few universal kami, with certain modifications**, but it would also need to make room for many new kami, those that are specific to locales on this continent. Then you have to ask, do you need Shinto, or do you really need something entirely new? At some point you may end up where I am at, which is a completely individual animism with forms inspired by Shinto practice.

In the comments on John Michael Greer’s most recent post on his occult/magical blog, someone said something along the lines that they wished more American herbalists and magical types would learn to use their local North American plants rather than European ones. I agree on more than one level: First, every ecosystem has plants with purifying, cleansing, uplifting properties–usually more than one. Not only does using a non-local plant place a burden on that plant and its original community, it also arguably doesn’t work as well as a plant that belongs to the local ecosystem. There are probably exceptions to this but I think it’s a reasonable rule of thumb. Second, think of the hidden costs that are incurred in the transportation of the non-local plant to you. Not exactly eco-friendly. Third, I think everyone should be forming relationships with their local plants anyway (and not merely for their own benefit, ahem).

Consider: Have you ever thought about why white sage (Salvia apiana) is the favored herb for smudging nowadays? Because it grows around Hollywood. Seriously, that’s it: It has a very small natural distribution in the coastal sage scrub zone of Southern California. At some point white folk found out that Native Americans used it for purification, then Hollywood, the publicity capital of the world, got hold of the idea and bam, an industry was born. Now you have people in Europe thinking they need white sage to cleanse their haunted castles. Do you really want Hollywood to be the source of your sacred spiritual texts and traditions?

There were people on this continent before our diasporic ancestors arrived, who had already built up such relationships. Leaving aside the question of appropriation (which is becoming a major red herring anyway), it comes down to this: You can’t just use Native American ethnobotany as a cheat sheet to get around having to form those relationships your own damn self. They won’t tell you everything anyway, probably. Be respectful of existing traditions, of course, but ultimately, there’s no shortcut in this Work.

The same thing goes for the spirits and bigger powers here. The thing is, this is hard Work. We can’t just rely on tradition to tell us who, what, where, when, why, and how, because those traditions were built in and for other ecosystems. That means we also can’t rely on tradition for authority, justification, or legitimization. We’re on our own here. Had history gone a different way, had our ancestors made different choices, been subject to different forces, had there been no genocide, forced assimilation, and ecological destruction, we might have been able to harmoniously integrate our ways with the indigenous ones. We might have had partners in this Work. And I should note that some diasporic Americans did choose a more harmonious route, notably African Americans. But the European American ancestors opted to follow other traditions instead, so this is where we find ourselves. No matter what your race or ethnicity or cultural identity, you’re caught in this situation because it was/is the European Americans who hold the hegemony.

I started thinking about this while reading Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s (highly recommended) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. She suggests that diasporic Americans won’t really have a sense of commitment and caretaking toward this land, its flora and fauna, until they/we become indigenous. Perhaps we haven’t earned that right yet. But if/when we do, how will we become indigenous? What would it take for us to rewrite our creation narratives?

In his response to my comment on his post taking up this issue, Greer wrote:

“I suspect that in the long run, the thing that’s going to make Americans of European ancestry turn to the native resources of this continent is when they have no other choice — when that’s the only source of medicine and magic they’ve got. Certainly African-American conjure magic embraced quite a bit of North American herbal lore through exactly that process — and I’ve long suspected that the white population of this continent will only become, in a deep sense, native here, once they have gone through experiences of the kind they inflicted on the First Nations and the enslaved nations of Africa.

(My emphasis.) That’s a sobering thought.

As regards Shinto as a model for functional polytheistic animism(s) outside Japan, I would suggest that rather than try to import it wholecloth, we might be inspired by it to foster the organic growth of something indigenous, working with the local spirits and powers–or kami if you will–heaven knows we could use a better vocabulary for these experiences–of our bioregions. I suspect that, like so many paths that seem simple, it will make up for its lack of superficial complexity with sheer cussedness. It’s also a lonely path. I’m a solitary person by nature, so I rarely get lonely, but the one thing that is guaranteed to have my crying in my beer is the feeling that I am alone in this and maybe I’m doing it wrong. (Oh Gods, am I doing it all wrong?) It makes me feel like even more of a magical impostor newbie than I am. I sometimes have fantasies about immigrating to one of the countries my ancestors came from and finally just getting to relax into some pre-fab pantheon. But then I’m reminded:

“At the heart, to be a witch doesn’t mean that you manipulate reality to your liking. It means that you can see and call forth manifold possibilities. It means that your perception of reality goes beyond what has been handed to you. And that you can perceive the presence of freedom, and healing, in all things.”

(My emphasis.) When I was a kid my family used to laugh at me for being a stubborn little idiot, proudly insisting on doing something the wrong way just because I would be damned if I’d let anyone tell me how to do it. I remember my aunt saying, “You always have to do everything the hard way. You always have to reinvent the wheel.” So chances are, no matter where I found myself, I’d be banging the drum for us all to start from scratch. I guess I belong where I am–when I am, how I am–doing it the hard way.

*I would hate to think this little ol’ blog’s readership was limited to white Americans. I’m speaking from my own experience, and I happen to be a white American. I assume some of my readers are too. If at any point it seems like I am privileging that viewpoint, please say so. That is to say, I welcome perspectives coming from other perspectives.

**For example, Inari, the god of rice plants, becomes a god of the more abstract principles “food” and “abundance,” because Americans aren’t culturally co-evolved with rice the way the Japanese are.

Nuit and the Duat

Thunder and the Milky Way by Christopher Eaton
Thunder and the Milky Way by Christopher Eaton

Nuit and the Duat is not the name of my occult rock band…yet.

I was struck by a comment during Gordon’s Rune Soup Podcast interview of Austin Coppock last week (right around the 58 minute mark), viz., that the Egyptian goddess Nuit is an underworld goddess. (“She sleeps underground,” quoth Gordon. Do listen to the podcast for the full context; the part referencing Nuit is just a couple of minutes if that.) I found this idea very intriguing; I never thought of Nuit in quite those terms. Nuit is most familiar as a sky goddess, yet as Gordon said (paraphrased), if you dig for the underworld you eventually dig your way to the stars. That brought me back to something that really fascinates me, the Egyptian concept of the Duat. So I pondered a bit on the relationship of Nuit and the Duat…

 

star glyphs

First I should clarify that the words “underworld” and “Otherworld” are how we render in English the Egyptian word/concept Duat. As I described in my post on Egyptian dreamworking, the word Duat is written with a hieroglyph of a five-pointed star within a circle. Star glyphs show up in words related to literal stars, as well as time (morning, hour, month), priesthood, worship, teaching, and a verb that literally means “to awake in the morning” but seems to be used to describe what we call in English a “dream”. Gordon may have much more to say about this when his book Star.Ships comes out (any day now!), but while I’m no expert on ancient Egypt, it seems clear to me that the word “underworld” doesn’t even come close to approximating what Egyptians meant by Duat. We have to work with what we’ve got, though, knowing much is lost in translation.

In a recent post I talked about chthonic Hermes, which means “Hermes of the Earth”, but by extension Hermes of (what we would call) the Underworld; which shows us that for the Greeks, the world of the dead was in/of the earth, so “of the earth” became a poetic metaphor for “of the (realm of the) dead”. Similarly, the existence of the English word “under-world” tells us that the notion of a world of the dead beneath that of the living (though perhaps not in/of the earth per se) also had currency within the Germanic-speaking world. But we have to get out of that headspace to even attempt to grasp the Egyptian concept of Duat. When Gordon says that Nuit is an “underworld goddess”, this should not be understood as meaning that her realm was in the earth. The Duat as a place is inseparable from the Duat as a state and as a time, and specifically, cyclical time. I believe this cyclicity is represented in the hieroglyph. I’d be lying if I said I could even close to wrap my head around this.

Milky Way over Devil's Tower by David Lane
Milky Way over Devil’s Tower by David Lane

In Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred (highly recommended), Jeremy Naydler explains the mythic becoming-manifest of the universe. I am probably doing violence to the Egyptians’ beautiful and sophisticated ontology in my effort to summarize, but in the Heliopolitan cosmology as my puny brain understands it, Atum, all-that-is, the Monad, sort of self-coalesces out of the formless void that is Nun, symbolized as water. In this act of coalescence Atum is Kheprer, the act/process of becoming; Atum is the all and the eternal act of creating the all. Atum is the emergence of form from the formless and light from the darkness. As light, Atum is Ra. So Atum is Nun coalesced, and Kheprer and Ra, as well as, of course, Atum, because everything is Atum. Atum creates, by spitting or masturbating, Shu (air, space, atmosphere) and Tefnut (moisture), the first dyad or polarity. Through the sexual union of Shu and Tefnut, Nuit (sky) and Geb (earth) are born. However, Nuit and Geb came into existence as an undivided being, symbolized as two lovers in coitus. Shu separates them, air intervening between earth and sky, and the world and the gods become manifest/differentiated. There’s a repeated motif of one becoming two becoming one becoming two, until finally, with the separation of Nuit and Geb, all the myriad things come into being. You can see what I think is an echo of this cosmology in the Tree of Life (with Atum as Keter, and both Shu and Geb as Chokhmah, perhaps, and Tefnut and Nuit as Binah, etc.–you can map the same deities onto the Tree in different places maybe, and vice versa, but I need to think more on this); it is embedded very deeply within the ontology of the Western Magical Tradition.

Although our human brains and the constraints of language require us to describe this cosmology as a sequence, it is in fact eternal. As you can see from Egyptian paintings, all the generations of gods always-already coexist. As Naydler makes clear, earthly cycles–such as that of the sun rising and setting every day–were essentially seen as symbolic of, or analogues for, divine realities not constrained by time or linearity. Our reality is merely a reenactment. So the rising and setting of the sun is effectively a reification of the eternal becoming and totality of existence.

Where does the sun go when not visible above the horizon? It goes to the Duat, returning to (rejoining? re-becoming?) its non-physically-manifest essence. Naydler writes (pp. 24-26):

“…within Nut’s body is a region that is entirely invisible, entirely beyond the range of sense perception. When the sun enters this region it can no longer be seen, for it has entered a world that exists purely internally. Here there is no ‘external space’ in which it becomes manifest….[The Dwat] is less an Underworld than an innerworld; it is a deeply interior world. If we think of Nut, the goddess of the sky, symbolizing the spiritual order of being, then in passing from the stars that cover her flesh to the invisible interior of her body, we enter into this spiritual order that the visible stars merely gesture toward.

“…Though the Dwat may be conceived of as a kind of place, it is in reality less a place than a ‘condition of being’ that things have when they pass out of physical existence, and before they pass back again into physical existence. So it is where the dead go, and equally where the living come from. Just as the sun, when it rises in the east, is in fact born from the womb of the great goddess, so too are all creatures the children of her womb, the Dwat. All things that come into being in the manifest world come from the Dwat. That is where they preexist, before they are born into the light of day, and that is where they return having relinquished their physical forms.”

So if the visible portion of the solar cycle corresponds to the act of creation (Kheprer-Ra), at night it returns to a state of not-yet-become; there is thus an analogical relationship between the Duat and Nun, the unmanifest, though they are not the same thing any more than the sun is the same thing as the totality of existence. This cyclicity is further emphasized by the fact that the ruler of the Duat is Nuit’s son Osiris, who (in Naydler’s words) “governs the cycles of generation and destruction, of coming into being and passing away to which all creatures are subject.”

Andromeda by Beth Moon
Andromeda by Beth Moon

Why was the Duat understood to be/represented as within the body of Nuit, rather than within the body of Geb, or Shu, or Tefnut? Perhaps Gordon will give us his take on that in Star.Ships, but since it hasn’t come out yet, I shall speculate: The earth has its own cycles, of course, but it doesn’t participate in the cycle that unfolds in the sky every day. Each day, the sun runs its course from east to west and then the sky becomes dark and the stars become visible; by contrast, the earth remains relatively static. The solar cycle thus has an obvious symbolic correlation to the life cycles of mortal beings being born, living, dying. Nuit only becomes visible when the sun has “died”, so it makes all kinds of sense that the “place” you go when your physical manifestation dies, and the place from which new life emerges (like the rising sun), is mapped onto Nuit. But it must always be understood that this mapping was analogic. In the New Kingdom Book of Gates, the Duat is shown in the middle of Nun (there’s the resonance with Nun again). The text states, “Osiris encircles the Duat.” Osiris, whose body literally forms a circle, is depicted holding Nuit, who in turn holds up the sun (Ra) (this image can be found on Page 26 of Temple of the Cosmos). In this image, then, Osiris is the “veil”, the border of the Duat and thus the state (and act?) of transformation between physical and non-physical or inner and outer existence. And we see that Nuit is outside of this, in the manifest/visible world, as dependent on the Duat for her manifestation as is everything else in the universe. While the Duat is, in some sense, in her, it is also original to her.

I begin to get a sense of Egyptian ontology as a sort of pulse, an ebb and flow, of emanation/exteriorization/concretization. I can visualize it, but as yet I can’t find the words to describe it. At first I was ready to respectfully disagree with Gordon about Nuit  “sleeping underground,” but in the metaphorical sense of the word–something secret or hidden–it is perfect.

I suspect those of us who speak Indo-European languages have difficulty getting into anything remotely like Egyptian headspace because we are heirs to a very different Eurasian ontology/cosmology, hinted at in our vocabularies, in which the dead are below us and the gods are above us in “heaven” or an “upper world”. This spatial relationship is so fossilized in our languages that trying to talk outside of it is, to borrow Alan Watts’ phrase, rather like trying to bite your own teeth. So on the one hand, you have this Egyptian cosmology at the foundation of and ubiquitous within the WMT, but on the other, it remains damnably hard to grasp intellectually.

And maybe that’s for the best, as it forces us to experience it rather than abstracting it. It is a microcosm of the larger truth that these things can’t be accurately described in any language. Our words are just approximations of the reality, just as for the Egyptians, the world of sensory perceptions was a vague approximation of divine, cosmic realities.