I just got around to Gordon’s interview with Joshua Cutchin on a Rune Soup podcast from last month. It’s pretty interesting (I mean, food, right?) but it got me thinking again about an issue that has always perplexed me: What’s the deal with salt and spirits?
From around minute 33 to 34 Gordon and Cutchin discuss salt in the context of faery food–or rather, the absence of salt.
From what I know (and I’m not an expert, just spitballing here) it seems to be a widespread belief in European cultures–at the very least in northwestern Europe–that faeries/spirits are repelled by salt. So don’t give them salt as an offering unless you want them to bugger off. I have heard the same argument made about ancestor spirits, but by contrast, I’ve never heard that deities are bothered by salt; and in fact, some traditions use salt to purify before approaching a deity (I’m thinking of khernips here).
But I’ve always been a bit dubious about that because in Shinto salt is one of the essential offerings (along with sake, uncooked rice, and water) for both kami and ancestors. These four offerings are considered the essential foodstuffs in Shinto–the four elements of food, as it were–so while other things can also be offered, you cannot omit these four.
Salt, rice, rice wine, and water are also ritually pure, as emphasized by their white/transparent color. Purity vs. pollution is a huge deal in Shinto, and spirits are pure, so the offerings must also be pure, and the offerer must purify themself ritually before offering. Salt is considered purificatory and apotropaic in Japanese culture just as much as it is in Europe; in fact if this isn’t a human universal it is about as close to it as we get.
Now of course it’s easy to say, well, kami aren’t the same as faeries, and that’s true as far as it goes; but there is massive overlap between the two domains, and cultural differences notwithstanding, human ancestors are human ancestors. I want to know why kami and faeries, Japanese ancestors and European ancestors ostensibly have opposite attitudes toward salt.
Are there cultural differences on the other side?
Is this purely a human scheme imposed on the spirits, which is actually irrelevant to them?
Or does this reflect different modes of human interaction with spirits?
So both the Japanese and Europeans are agreed that salt is apotropaic. Kami and Japanese ancestors not only aren’t dispelled by salt, they seem to have some analogical kinship with it as pure beings/things. Yet faeries and European ancestors are dispelled by salt. This would seem to suggest faeries/Euro ancestors belong to a class of potentially dangerous or impure beings subject to the apotropaism of salt. They lack that analogical kinship with salt. Of course the folklore agrees that faeries are indeed potentially dangerous, but then so are kami. Does this reflect a difference in human attitudes to safe spirit contact?
Kami is kind of a catch-all term for spiritual beings that are not human, from giant powers of the land like volcanoes and the ocean, to pan-Japanese deities (at least, as close to the Western concept of deity as you’ll find in Japan) like Inari or Tenjin, to local spirits that behave pretty much exactly like faeries do in Europe. One difference between kami and faeries (as I provisionally understand it) is that whereas all faeries are tricky and temperamental, though some are basically good (i.e., well-disposed to humans) and others are bad (ill-disposed to humans), every kami or human ancestor has both a “rough” (aramitama) and a “gentle” (nigimitama) soul. One village’s protective kami can be the next village’s monster or plague demon. So whether a kami is dangerous or not depends to a large extent on the perspective of the humans involved with it and the relationship that has been cultivated.
Some accounts say that a kami first appears in its aramitama guise and must be pacified to reveal its nigimitama nature. (This reminds me of what the fox says in The Little Prince, viz. that he won’t play with the prince until the prince takes the time to establish a bond of friendship.) Does salt perhaps banish the aramitama while having no effect on the nigimitama?
Salt is a biological necessity for humans and many other animals, which is reflected in its primacy as one of the four basic Shinto foodstuffs. In other words, Shinto offerings provide the spirits (including spirits of the dead) with the same sustenance as living humans take. If the idea behind offerings is to give something of great importance to humans/the living, salt makes sense. Does the avoidance of salt for faeries and ancestors in Europe reflect a different attitude toward proper nourishment of the dead/non-embodied? It is certainly not the case that the living and dead/non-embodied require completely different foods, since many faeries seem to like things like milk, alcohol, honey, etc. Everyone seems to appreciate water and booze.
I don’t have answers to these questions but would be curious to hear of your experiences. In my own dealings with spirits, none of them has had any aversion to salt as an offering. But as I write that, I realize that none of the spirits to whom I have offered salt is a European faery-type being* or a human ancestor (though I have given food cooked with salt to my ancestors, and didn’t notice any adverse effects).
*Unless Emma Wilby is right about cunning persons’ familiars being faeries (I find her argument persuasive), because that would suggest that rather than referring to a specific type of being, faery in English, or sidh(e) in Gaelic, or Tylwyth Teg in Welsh, are potentially as much catch-all terms for spirits as kami is in Japanese. Wilby thinks that the faery faith in Britain retained shamanic elements from earlier times, in practice if not in doctrine; and that the familiars witches consulted were, individually, either spirits of the dead or faeries (often spirits of the dead living among the faeries, according to testimony). In other words they are the same general type of beings that shamans deal with, i.e., “spirits” sensu lato. And if that is how you define faery, then I have offered salt to faeries and they didn’t mind at all.
This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a while as I wasn’t sure quite where to take it. But Ivy at Circle Thrice just posted about narratives and it got me thinking about this again, so I decided this might be worth publishing after all.
Ivy refers to Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm theory, which basically says that people don’t make decisions or experience the world in terms of a rationalist evaluation of facts, but rather “The ways in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument” (my emphasis; source). And of course “credibility” is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s subjective and subject to constant negotiation not only among individuals but within the individual as their idea of the credible inevitably changes.
The story is what we care about, not the facts. The story is the framework that gives, and relays, meaning and value. But in our creative Homo sapiens hands, it’s shifty, slippery, tricksy; as beautiful as it is dangerous.
If you read my post about my tentative ontology, you might be seeing where this is headed. But let me unpack it a bit.
I’m assuming you have seen the movie Rashomon, and while I won’t spoil the plot points, I will be talking about its philosophical take-away, so if you haven’t watched it, go do that now.
In the so-called “Rashomon effect,” different witnesses to or participants in a given event remember it differently. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the truth of that; memory is notoriously malleable and fallible after all. I have often heard this effect described as the entire point of the film (or rather, the short story on which most of it is based, In a Grove by Akutagawa Ryunosuke)–that is, that the moral of the story is that memory is fallible and people have different perspectives. But that is the most superficial meaning that can be derived from the story. I mean–witch, please–this is Kurosawa we’re talking about.
The more fundamental point of the story is that individuals can become so committed to their personal storylines that they would sooner kill, die, even endure hell than imagine themselves not to be the heroes of those stories. At the end of the film, the truth of the events upon which the plot hangs not only isn’t revealed, it is revealed to be unknowable. No two characters give the same account of events because no two characters are living out the same storyline. Rashomon isn’t a whodunnit, it’s not just stating the obvious fact that people remember and interpret things differently–it’s a meditation on maya and suffering.
To make that even clearer, Kurosawa brilliantly set the story of In a Grove within another Akutagawa story (the one actually titled Rashomon). This frames the more dramatic, acute suffering of the events in the grove within a setting of more ordinary, chronic suffering–the stifling heat and humidity of a summer monsoon, poverty, and a haunted gatehouse ruined by war and natural disaster. Here a witness to the events in the grove, a Buddhist monk, and an ethically-dubious passerby consider the plight of an abandoned baby and debate human nature and the human tendency to lie, even to ourselves as is repeatedly noted. “I don’t even understand my own heart/mind/soul*,” says the witness. The redemption offered at the end of the movie is not the discovery of the truth about the events in the grove (as it would be if the movie had been made in America), but rather the observation that when we finally admit our own lack of understanding and let go of our death-grip on our personal narratives, we become more compassionate and suffer a little bit less.
You can approach the story at various levels. First, staying entirely within the world of In a Grove, you have the the basic level of human experience. At this level, the protagonists cannot face the possibility that they are venal, weak, and morally-challenged, so each rewrites the story to portray him- or herself in a better light. Lies are told (maybe, probably), memories flawed and finagled. It’s almost an organic process rather than a series of conscious decisions. Subjective truth is all, and objective truth doesn’t even enter into it.
Pulling back to a slightly wider scale, the scale of Rashomon-the-story-within-Rashomon-the-film, the characters are aware of the fallibility of memory, of the human tendency to deceive ourselves and others and to be deceived, and must acknowledge that objective truth is inaccessible.
At the next level, we can look at the authorial choices of Kurosawa as the director. By framing In a Grove within Rashomon, for example, he created space for reflection within the film. He also used the environment masterfully: The blazing sun in the In a Grove core contrasts with the torrential downpour in the Rashomon frame, while both are united by the characters’ ever-present sweat. (One time when I was in Korea during the monsoon season it was like 85 degrees and foggy. It’s like being in a sauna but with bugs and you have to wear clothes.) The scenes shot in the forest are disorienting, filled with broken patterns of leaves and light and blurred motion. There are only three sets–the gatehouse where the witness, monk, and passerby wait out the rain, the forest, and a courtyard where witnesses testify before an unseen magistrate. On the Criterion Collection DVD there is an introduction by Robert Altman who points out that the testimony scenes are shot with the characters speaking to the camera, so the audience is placed in the position of the magistrate or investigator. It’s as if Kurosawa is daring us to arbitrate or “solve” the mystery–which cannot be solved, so… It all combines to build a subtle but palpable sense of oppression, claustrophobia, and confusion.
We can pull back further (so meta!) and examine ourselves as the audience, considering Kurosawa’s direction and storytelling and how the medium of film makes it possible to tell these stories within a story within a story. We can try to take up the challenge to determine the objective truth of what happened in the grove (though that would be an exercise in futility) or we could settle for the easy way out and say the story is about people’s different perspectives. Or we can do the hard work and recognize we are looking at stories within a story within a story within our story (and so on and on and on, fractally) and think about how our own stories nest into wider and wider ones. And also, what it means to recognize and own them as stories.
Rashomon‘s are very Buddhist values, of course, but we are talking about a Japanese story/film. In writing about the power of narrative, Ivy points out some of the ways it can be weaponized against us (it is part of her Mind War series). Hijacking a narrative is the easiest and fastest way to manipulate people’s actions and beliefs, because you are effectively hijacking their entire reality. So it stands to reason that if you can (1) recognize your narrative as just one among a nearly infinite number; (2) recognize that you are a character in other people’s narratives, but your roles are not something you can experience, let alone control; and (3) reduce your investment in your narrative’s truthiness, you will have made yourself much harder to deceive or manipulate. And perhaps more importantly, it will be harder to deceive yourself.
When you put Rashomon‘s internally-focused narratology together with Ivy’s externally-focused one, it becomes clear how you can re-frame your narrative–and thus your reality–in astoundingly creative ways; i.e., magic. No, I don’t mean that magic is all psychological. I mean that when you recognize the narrative and take the reins, you can rewrite the entire meaning of your life. It’s one way to hack the code of your virtual reality, or to use my preferred metaphor, start dreaming lucidly.
But you have to be prepared for everything to fall apart, as it will. The Western world is extremely invested not only in the belief that objective truth exists, but that it is knowable and discoverable given the right techniques. One place you see this reflected is science, of course, another is the Bible, but it’s reified everywhere in our epistemologies. Reason and philosophical rationalism are highly esteemed here not only as intellectual projects but as personality characteristics. When you recognize your story as more creative writing than truth, shit goes upside down and you have the fun of sifting through and reevaluating (or sort of de-evaluating) everything you’ve taken for granted in your past and present. Undertaking this will put you (even more) profoundly out of step with most of the people around you and will definitely make you question your sanity on a daily basis.
On a personal note, my helping spirits have recently doubled down on the assignments they’ve been giving me. I have to keep a journal just to remember all of them. And guys. It’s all in aid of something I want and something I asked for, but the work is so hard sometimes. Recently I got slammed with a whole series of synchronicities that, while fun at the time, led me down a very dark rabbit hole. I have been encouraged to not only ignore but explicitly reject the evidence of my senses and the public written record (faith doesn’t come easy to me), while also dealing with some decades-old emotional junk. I wouldn’t have been given this task if I weren’t up to it, and the spirits are taking me through it step by step, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fail (as I have before), and it’s definitely pushing my limits.
When I put it in words it doesn’t look like that big a deal, especially since I’ve been rejecting consensus narratives since I was little (like you, I expect), but this time I’m working not just on rejecting external narratives but internal, heavily-invested ones as well. Working on this is taking most of my mind/heart resources which is why I haven’t posted as much lately.
*Kokoro, which doesn’t really translate in English but corresponds to our notions of “heart” and “mind,” and to some extent “soul” (though there is another Japanese word, tama, which better fits “soul”).
The thoughts that follow are provisional and tentative: I think of them as operating assumptions and working models undergoing beta testing. They’re based on my personal engagement with and experience of the world, my UPG, and are not meant to be anyone else’s model. I have a great interest in the work of philosophy (I take the Ph in my degree seriously) but I don’t claim to be trained in the academic discipline. If I sound like I’m parroting some specific philosopher but don’t attribute it, it’s probably because I didn’t know that person said it first. At the same time, I’m not claiming to be the first to think these things. None came from a vacuum. Some of this, such as the metaphor of Indra’s Net, I already outlined in my post on karma. I’m assured that my worldview, by conventional standards, is “weird,” “crazy,” and “stupid,” and some have found it quite alarming, so I guess that means it’s pretty challenging to the ontological status quo. It feels only obvious to me, which makes it difficult to express; but I’ll do my best. I reserve the right to change my mind…indeed, I think that’s the whole point.
1 – Dreamworlds with no access to objectivity
We’re not able to get out of our own “heads” to observe whatever objective, independent reality might exist. By that I mean, everything we know comes to us through some sense or own mind and there’s simply no way for us to gauge whether those senses are in any way accurate. We are, as it were, trapped in a totally subjective dreamworld which I suspect is co-created by all conscious beings. I think all sentient/conscious beings have a spirit or soul (perhaps more than one, some perhaps shared), which is not the same as the ego/self. The ego/self is conditional and ever-changing according to stimuli filtered through the physical senses and the mind and memory. Thus each individual self lives within a particular iteration of the co-created dreamworld, and while hypothetically we might captain our own dream-ship, in reality most of us are not lucid dreamers. We are absorbed by and largely passive within the dream, and our ego/selves are at least as much a product of the dreamworld as it is of us. I would agree with the Buddhists that our ego/selves are, in that sense, illusory. The spirit or soul(s) is something which I imagine to be essential and permanent, but what it is exactly and how it relates to the ego/self I am not sure.
For some reason, our dreamworlds seem to be filled with suffering. If you buy the metaphor of Indra’s Net for the sake of argument, once suffering first got started it inevitably spread through the whole web. But why it is there in the first place I don’t know. In the New Thought/New Age, it’s believed to simply be a mistake, a delusion, limited to our dreamworlds but not a part of ultimate reality. But that doesn’t explain how and why it exists in the first place.
The fact that our dreamworlds are subjective and illusory does not justify people’s horrid behavior. You can’t simply say, no matter, it’s not really real, because it is real as long as you are dreaming. (As real as anything else, anyway.)
Our relationships with other sentient/conscious beings are nexus points where our private worlds link up to and reflect each other, Indra’s-Net-style, and we get a glimpse of others’ worlds. Based on these glimpses we modify (and are further modified by) our own dreamworlds. Our subjectivity is thus an intersubjectivity. Maybe our spirit-selves transcend this dreamworld, or maybe they move into a different dreamworld (like the bardo?) when our physical bodies die. Maybe we are in the bardo now, that has certainly been suggested. The dreamworlds seem to be able to take virtually infinite forms, just like the ordinary dreams of sleep (dreams within dreams), as evidenced by some of the Bosch– or Carrington-like surreality one can experience during shamanic-type journeys. The forms are clearly not bound by earthly physics or biological evolution. As far as I can tell, the laws of physics and biology only obtain within certain dreamworlds. I guess this could be considered a form of idealism, but a better fit are the concepts of maya as used in Advaita Vedanta and sunyata as used in certain schools of Buddhism. I see this as a form of Skepticism (in the Classical sense) as well.
EDIT: I guess this could also be considered a soft form of subjective idealism, in that I’m not stating that the non-mental doesn’t exist, only that we have no means of knowing whether it exists. And you could say, well in that case, it might as well not exist as that is a purely academic distinction. But I think the distinction is meaningful.
If they aren’t completely solipsistic, our dreamworlds do overlap. We just can’t be sure how much or in exactly what ways. We are interacting with other sentient beings at all times, but (1) we may or not be aware of that, (2) we may or may not be able to perceive them within our dream, and (3) we just don’t have an objective rubric by which to determine how much they are filtered through our dream. It’s sort of like when you’re sleeping and the telephone rings, so you dream that you answer the phone. In this metaphor, an external phone exists, but the one you answer is only in your mind.
3 – Gnosis
Gnosis is something like waking up from our private dream, possibly into a bigger more widely shared dream, possibly into some kind of objective, independent, transcendent reality (if such exists). While we are embodied, at least, it seems to be exceedingly rare for a person to be able to stay in this state of enlightenment all the time, but with dedication we can learn ways to visit it and to stay there longer. Cultural opinions vary on the best means and ends (there are more than one of each).
ANOTHER EDIT: I often hear idealism bashed as mere navel gazing and a pointless waste of time because ultimately you get to a point of having to say “who knows?” and apparently, not generating a conclusive answer is a failure. I would counter that nothing (that I can think of) that we ever experience has a conclusive answer. Everything that enters our consciousness is so inextricably bound into our intersubjective dreamworld that any “thing” is inevitably many “things” and no “thing.” I would also point out that adopting a “who knows?” attitude can be a great boon to mental health, the foundation of establishing truly compassionate and non-judgmental relations with other beings, and–this is important in terms of praxis–a radical opening to gnosis.
On a personal note, I find it very interesting that when I have tried discussing these ideas with Americans and I couch it as a discussion of, say, Buddhist philosophy (e.g., Yogacara or Madhyamaka), my interlocutor will often receive it with a certain amount of respect and curiosity, if not agreement. But if I made the same arguments but described them as my own opinions, the reaction is generally a mix of derision and worry about my sanity.
4 – Magic
Magic, in my humble opinion (actually humble for once), is pert night useless if it doesn’t help us at least understand that our private reality is a kind of dreamworld among many dreamworlds (“jailbreak your mind”). I see magic as akin to lucid dreaming in the sense that it lets us change the rules, manipulate the architecture, of our dreamworlds as well as peek into other dreamworlds and achieve or receive gnosis. In this sense I think Dion Fortune’s definition of magic as “a change in consciousness in accordance with will” is quite accurate. The New Age notion of “creation of reality” is thus both true and untrue–yes, we are co-creating it, but so is everyone else. No one has full control over or clear perception of their own dreamworld, let alone anyone else’s. You have to be a boss wizard to even put your hands on the steering wheel. Yet knowing it’s a dream gets you that much closer to waking up. The more cognizant you become that it’s a dream, the more dreamlike your dreamworld starts to behave, with time getting more wibbley-wobbley and timey-wimey and non-linear and synchronicities multiplying and strangely allegorical and symbolic events happening. Stuff gets weird. At the same time, this is why magic actually does work. Magic is simply how dreams work.
One implication of this is that we don’t actually need any ritual trappings or spells, and I suspect that is true, but perhaps you have to get way more lucid to do it reliably without the props.
5 – A singular, panpsychic, fractal-ish universe (monism)
I find the notion of a multiverse entirely unpersuasive. I mean, there’s not even any proof of it (nor can there be, as I understand it) within physics–it’s purely a hypothetical thought experiment designed to try and wiggle out of the otherwise-inexplicable. “Universe” by definition means all things, so if we found another one, we’d have to subsume both of those in a greater universe, and so on ad infinitum. In that sense, I am a monist and non-dualist. This could be considered a form of pantheism, but I guess that depends on how you define a theos. However, I suppose there might be other dreamworlds in which you have other egos/selves. That would be cool. I’ll have to think more about that.
I like the idea that the Monad possesses, or better yet is, some form of consciousness (panpsychism in the broad sense, not the ridiculous version some materialists are trying to palm off on us). I find the concept of lila in Indian philosophies to be a very appealing way of modeling creation and existence (a sort of outflowing of pure divine bliss). My experiences of gnosis so far have been blissful, but ultimately I guess I don’t have any way to know.
It could be argued that, insofar as I’m in a dream, I can’t really know who is actually sentient/conscious and whom I merely dream to be so. I have to concede it. Skepticism (in the Classical sense) ultimately leads on to solipsism, and there’s really no way to argue your way out of that. I believe others to be real because if I am real, it only makes sense that others are too; however, it’s possible that I only ever interact with/relate to my dream-versions of others. Regardless, I think the best operating assumption is that everything else is as much a sentient, agentic, in/spirited entity as I am and that we are all part of a Monad/Universe which I would prefer to believe is conscious. I mean why not? Consciousness exists, it has to come from somewhere. If it exists somewhere, it is at the very least part of the Monad/Universe. Does this mean that we are one and the same as the Monad, or are we derivative yet within it? Damned if I know. How would you even divide a monad, isn’t that an oxymoron? I think it might just be a question of your scale of analysis, fractal-like. It’s turtles all the way down.
In my dreamworld, I have had experience with sentient/conscious non-embodied beings just as I have with embodied ones. So from my experience, at least in my dreamworld, consciousness is not consubstantial with nor confined to physical matter. And I have felt/sensed what seemed to be consciousness or maybe something like mana in ostensibly inanimate “things” such as stones, water, and so on. Of course, though we may identify these as single entities, like us they are full of smaller beings–bacteria, fungi, moss, algae, etc. Their consciousness may be manifold, and so might ours. Again, it is fractal and a matter of scale. As above, so below. In “‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology” (Current Anthropology 40:S1, 1999), Bird-David proposes the concept of the “dividual.” Unlike an individual, the dividual is not atomistic but constituted within and by his/her relationships. This is one reason why ego/selves are contingent and illusory and not bounded or permanent.
If spirits can be without physical bodies, I suppose one could make the argument that there could be physical bodies without spirits and without consciousness (i.e., inanimate things), but as I said I think best practice is to treat “everybody” as “somebody.” Just in case. I can’t see any a priori reason to assume that a rock, say, or a tree, or the entire Earth, or the Sun, etc. etc. don’t have sentience/consciousness. In order to make such a claim, I feel I’d have to fully understand all the possible dimensions and manifestations of consciousness, which I don’t. Not even within my own particular dreamworld. Perhaps all consciousness is just a fractal iteration of the Monad? If that’s true “we” (the Monad) would be effectively looking in a mirror whenever we perceive or interact with “other” consciousnesses.
6 – A few practical implications
As I said, I think best practice is to err on the side of compassion and treat all the “others” in our dreamworlds as objectively real, conscious/sentient, and intertwined with ourselves. Dreamworlds are best viewed as interpenetrating. I honestly believe that’s as good an approximation of reality as my brain is likely to ever get to, but I also think it’s a major part of just not being a jerk. To paraphrase Uncle Al, Love is the Law–or might as well be. Everyone else is suffering already, let’s make an effort to not add to it and even to alleviate some of it.
In my view, given the nature of karma as previously described, every time a being realizes the impermanence, illusion (maya), and emptiness (sunyata) of their dreamworld it benefits every other being. Waking up is a legitimate way to help alleviate the suffering of all.
Speaking of which, this seems like a good point to correct what I think is a misapprehension of Buddhist philosophy, with the inevitable caveat that there are many schools of Buddhism. It’s a big, big tent. But all the schools I know anything about are united in this: Buddhism is not about resigning yourself to your place within the status quo and learning to be happy with it. Like Gnosticism, Buddhism is a set of techniques for lucid dreaming and ultimately awakening. It was, and remains, radical because it doesn’t require gods, gurus, lineages, monasteries or temples, marriage or celibacy, poverty or wealth–but it also doesn’t preclude them. It doesn’t even require that you accept a single article of faith except for the possibility that if you try the techniques, they might reduce your suffering. Reducing pain is just the entry point, though. Now like every religion, or set of techniques that evolved into a religion, Buddhism as we know it has all those lineages and temples and hierarchies and so on that its own teachings emphasize you don’t need. I don’t think that invalidates the teachings. (I would say the same of Christianity.)
Seeing this all spelled out in writing, I ask myself (yet again), why magic? Honestly, I go back and forth with magic. We have an on-again, off-again relationship. Magic is a lot of work, much of it dull as dirt, for very unpredictable, strange results. It’s rarely the shortest or simplest method to get from Point A to Point B. I would argue that the reason magic has the weird results it does is because that is how dreams work. Dreams are a mysterious combination of the inappropriately and inconsistently logical leading to the totally absurd, coupled with liberal symbolism, allegory, and analogy. Magic makes connections bizarrely in the same way our minds make connections bizarrely.
However, if you’re only using magic to manipulate the dream, without realizing that it is a dream, I would respectfully ask why you bother. For example, in my dreamworld, you have to have money to eat, and I like to eat, so I need to acquire and use money. I don’t see any reason not to use magic to hack the dream so that becomes easier, and lord knows it is more interesting than the drudgery that is known as “earning” a living. If magic reduces that drudgery and adds a little color, that’s reason enough. But only because I also am learning to dream lucidly and even awaken entirely, if that is indeed possible. Of the two, I put the greater emphasis on the latter set of methods, because otherwise I would just be magically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Returning to the topic of animism, I think the metaphor of Indra’s Net, taken to its logical conclusion, presupposes animism (sensu lato) because literally nothing exists which is not in the net and no one jewel on the net is ultimately different in nature from the others. Therefore if any one is animate, all are. And in this sense, I can call myself an animist–but I’m no longer sure if that is the most useful descriptor.
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 Spiritsfor 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.
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.
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”?
There are a lot of things that scare me: heights, water (especially when I can’t see to the bottom), having a job, not having a job, bankruptcy, homelessness, rape, relationships, commitment, having my teeth knocked out, losing my hair, rejection, being buried alive, making people unhappy, causing a car accident, choking to death alone…basically I am a chickenshit. I manage to soldier through in spite of myself, but I always worry the next time will be the time I lose it and just can’t go on. Ironically people often perceive me as strong and then lean on me, which causes me to buckle under the strain–or more often, freak out and run away before I can buckle, and, well, that’s probably a big part of why relationships are on that list. I barely have enough backbone for myself, let alone two people. But I digress.
But lately what fills me with existential dread is the idea of trying to get to know this inspirited landscape in which I live from scratch, without the benefit of myths, folklore, names, or pre-fab religion.* Our ancestors did it, sure, but we don’t have the same cognitive faculties they did. Our fundamental neurological wiring is probably the same, but the effects of environment and upbringing are quite different. It’s often been repeated that in brain studies of Tibetan monks or other experienced meditators, their brains work differently from the general population. I remember one study in which the researchers made some loud noise next to (I think it was) Matthieu Ricard while he meditated, and his brain–even the limbic lizard brain–didn’t register any startle reaction. It has also been remarked that different cultures perceive, e.g., distance very differently. The below explanation by John Michael Greer sums that up neatly:
“The example I have in mind is borrowed from Oswald Spengler, and it has the immense advantage of absolute simplicity: the representation of distance. In Western painting from the Renaissance straight through to the present, art that attempts to look like what it portrays—realist art—represents depth by way of linear perspective. The shapes of what’s being portrayed are canted and slanted, angled and foreshortened to fit our way of representing space; lines converge on one, two, or more vanishing points that represent infinite distance. Learning how to draw those lines and fit images to them is an important part of becoming a realist artist in our society, because to us, an image that doesn’t follow the rules of perspective doesn’t look real—that is, it doesn’t represent reality the way we do.
This all seems very straightforward until you notice that no other civilization in all of human history has used linear perspective in its visual art. The traditional painting styles of China, Japan, and other east Asian societies use a different kind of perspective—atmospheric perspective, which works by fading out colors of distant objects—and so get a different sense of depth, one that people from Western societies find exotic. Most other traditions of visual art don’t use any kind of perspective at all, and many of them—the art of ancient Egypt is a good example—avoid the experience of depth entirely…
The Egyptians had the geometrical chops necessary to lay out a scheme of linear perspective, and they certainly had the artistic skill to do it. That’s just as true for the Chinese, the ancient Greeks, and all the other cultures around the world who developed rich, realistic, highly capable traditions of painting but never saw any reason to use our kind of perspective. Art historians by and large flounder when they try to explain why it is that something that’s so obvious to us eluded the eyes and imaginations of so many other people for all those millennia, but the reason’s quite simple, really: people in these other times and cultures didn’t see distance the way we do, because the representations they created in their minds didn’t look like ours.”
Practice also influences the acuity of your senses, as for example when a blind person develops acute hearing and smell because they rely more on those senses in the absence of vision. The point is that your mental/cognitive capacities are shaped by the uses you put them to. If we had all grown up in a culture where animism was the dominant philosophical paradigm (rather than materialism), we would be much better able to perceive the life and the spirits active in the world around us.
For some reason, this concept seems to cause extreme cognitive dissonance for some people. It’s a bit mystifying to me because I think it’s self-evident–there’s more than one way to construct a world, and they all work to varying degrees. The variability in their efficacy seems to have a lot to do with how adaptable they are, because the ecological conditions of which they are a part are constantly changing. If your worldview, say, drives you to destroy your home planet’s atmosphere, we could say that it is less than efficacious. (We might also speculate, then, that such a worldview will either adapt or die; but that’s a topic for another post.) But I guess having holes punched in your worldview is the fastest way to get on the 8th-9th house rollercoaster, and to be fair, it is a scary ride.
I’m aware of changes in my mind that started when I went to college and became concretized over a dozen or so years of postsecondary education. Prior to that time, I was an avid artist: I drew and painted in every free moment. I doodled through all my classes and doodled through my lunch break; doodled when I got home from school until I went to bed. I had a burning need to express myself through visual art, and when I was interrupted or prevented from doing it I got very irritable. (Artistic temperament + teenager = no fun for anybody.) The subject matter of most of these drawings and paintings were characters from myths and folktales, and each one was a portrait of a distinct individual. I never knew in advance what they would look like; their appearance unfolded as I drew. I used to say they drew themselves.
From my very first year in college I suddenly found myself unable to draw. Or rather, if you had given me an assignment to draw something, I could do it rather competently (I drew many stone tools, artifacts, and bones in my archaeology classes, for example), but I had no inspiration, no passion. I have never regained that artistic inspiration. Occasionally I get an idea to draw something, but when I can even talk myself into starting–my skill is not up to the task, and knowing the finished product will never live up to my vision, I usually can’t bear to begin–I end up abandoning the project before I finish, when it becomes obvious that it has failed to live up to my hopes. When I was a teenager, art wasn’t about how well the finished product matched the original vision, it was that I couldn’t not do it. Often there wasn’t much of a vision at all–it was more like hand-eye channeling.
After spending a dozen years (about 25 if you count my whole educational career) engaged primarily in non-fiction reading and writing, I’ve gotten pretty good at that, but in retrospect I don’t think the cost of my art-channeling was worth it. In addition I’ve developed some personality traits/habitual thought patterns that are annoying: in particular, I became very defensive. I had bulleted mental lists of anticipated counter-arguments to my ideas, and bulleted mental lists of counter-counter-arguments. One also tends to become an increasingly dogmatic and conservative thinker. Academia is extremely hierarchical and tradition-bound; you have to follow the rules to get ahead (although there’s enough of an element of favoritism, backstabbing, and sudden shifts in intellectual fashion to keep things unpredictable). You know your every idea will be attacked just as a matter of course, and that you must always be prepared to give supporting evidence. Now I believe everyone should be able to articulate the reasons for their opinions–if only because it makes for better conversation–but being that defensive is frankly sick. And it makes you kind of an asshole. (My housemate/best friend, a professor and scientist, does this to me all the time and sometimes it makes me want to gut punch her.) I think I’ve gotten over that, for the most part, but it takes conscious effort and intent.
My longwinded point is that through specific patterns of use, I’ve gained certain mental abilities (e.g., logical analysis, science writing) and lost certain mental abilities (everything else). I am now dedicated to regaining some of those lost capacities, but one of my greatest terrors is that I’ll never be able to. I’m no spring chicken, and my mind’s not as elastic as it once was. Huge tracts of brain appear to now be permanently dedicated to ’80s song lyrics. Even if I live another quarter century I’m scared that it won’t be long enough to unlearn all the bullshit.
As I argued previously, I feel that we North Americans of European descent have to start from scratch in getting to know Turtle Island and its denizens, but we can’t even do that without first retraining our brains. (Africans seem to have adapted much better to life in the Americas, and I imagine it was at least partly due to the fact that they arrived without Age-of-“Enlightenment” mental baggage. They already had spirit-recognition skills, and that plus dire necessity forged some incredibly vital and powerful spiritual and magical traditions. I would be curious to learn more about the experiences of Asian-Americans in this regard.) I am as convinced as I possibly can be that our minds are not the same thing as our brains, yet our minds have to use our brains to operate our meatsuits, so there is some kind of feedback loop there. Even if I’m wrong about that, my own experience says that minds have to be trained just as much as brains do.
I realize this is why a lot of people use entheogens. I’m not arguing against entheogen use, and I’m aware they are used even by societies that don’t suffer from our particular set of cognitive limitations; but I don’t think they are a substitute for liberating your mind from the Black Iron Prison that is Western scientist-nihilist-capitalist-materialism and the inculcation of obedient-little-worker values. They are a useful tool but not sufficient unto themselves.
Damn. I meant for this to be a short post. I guess I had more to confess than I realized.
*I am trying to research the Native lore of this region, but there doesn’t seem to be very much, at least not that is accessible to white folk. It seems the colonists did an extra thorough job of wiping out the people here.
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?
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.
I’m on my way back home after three weeks of Too Much Christmas out west with friends and family. I was homesick the whole time and so spent a lot of time thinking about the house I live in, the landscape, and the many spirits therein.
Along the way a penny dropped and I think I understand why I keep thinking of my home as in the woods when in fact it’s in the middle of fallow fields. I mean yes, there are stands of trees all over, some are even quite old I suspect, but they are discontinuous patches along the side of the road, the riverbanks, the edge of the creek (or “run” in local parlance)–they aren’t the old-growth, undisturbed deciduous woodlands I have in mind when I think of “our” 40 acres.
It’s a ghost forest.
Once it hit me the haunted feeling of that landscape started to take on more dimension, to be less a question mark and more a comma. There are human ghosts there, yes, but there are non-human ghosts as well, and things that never had bodies at all.
Around the same time, I finally succeeded in digging up a little information about the family who built the house I live in. The patriarch and matriarch are buried on what used to be part of their property, which now belongs to a separate parcel of land (luckily our neighbors are cool and let my housemate and me go up and check out the gravesite). I even found a picture of the patriarch, who looked just like I had imagined him. Now I can put a name to him when I talk to him.
I say “ghost” forest but maybe that’s not quite the right word, or rather, it only captures part of the phenomenon. It might be best understood as overlapping worlds, much as the human and faery worlds were conceived in the “Celtic” countries: immanent to each other, interpenetrating, on separate timelines and yet inextricably connected. This ghost forest may also be a foretaste of a forest yet to be. Maybe this forest is in the underworld; maybe the underworld is just closer, where I live.