Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Primeval Forestry of Symbols

The thought comes that it takes an extraordinary effort to imagine what the advanced life of the mind might have been like in prehistoric times. Here I mean the ages before reading and writing developed and thus came to support and to maintain highly-developed abstract thought.

This occurred to me because a series of links—mental, not Internet—reminded me that Mircea Eliade, an influential twentieth century historian of religion, had written a definitive study titled Shamanism. I found the book and took a new look. Soon it all came rushing back. Eliade’s is an exhaustive description of the way prehistoric wise men (shamans, medicine men, witch doctors, sorcerers) were initiated and how they practiced their craft. Description—not explanation. Eliade’s book, therefore, rapidly causes the eyes to glaze over. We learn that—

Such men (only a few were women) underwent death and rebirth. Demons, gods, or spirits killed and disemboweled them and then replaced their ordinary organs with new and more perfect ones; the higher beings placed magical bones, stones, or crystals into the initiates’ skulls or bodies. They brought the initiates back to life. Then these people, recovering, discovered that they’d gained what we’d call paranormal powers of healing, precognition, sight-at-distance, mind-reading, and so on and so forth.

To modern ears the descriptions sound so fantastic, weird, and brutal that dismissing them outright as primitive fantasy and superstition, all based on rude ritual, comes naturally. No temptation arises in most casual readers to imagine that these accounts could possibly reference real experiences or events. What did strike Eliade forcefully was the uniformity of these descriptions (with minor variations) from culture to culture and from all across the world, including Australia, which landmass had long been out of contact with the majority even of prehistoric humanity.

The uniformity persuades me that genuine experiences lie behind these stories; the accounts don’t immediately evoke the same experiences we still have today because our modes of thought have radically changed since then—but not the structure of our souls. We read in John 3:5: “Except a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Such a statement we take in stride and think little about—because we’ve heard it since childhood. Most people do not undergo wrenching conversion experiences—least of all after long, arduous practices of solitude, fasting, and sleeplessness as did the candidates for prehistoric priesthood. Our own by now deeply embedded habits of abstraction permit us to view John’s assertion as a kind of “change of mind,” not as some kind of heavy-gauged spiritual upheaval. It does not occur to us, hearing about those quartz crystals embedded by higher powers in the candidate’s skull through a hole in the head drilled with a sharp magical stick—but afterwards leaving neither hole nor scar—as possibly a way of speaking about a force of light and spirit that dawns in a soul transformed by major internal change. In Catholicism we speak of transubstantiation and understand by it something rather vague and abstract—but we read accounts of ordinary guts replaced by magical guts as the sordid superstition of the cavemen.

The language of humanity—its incredibly complex and vast systems of symbols—undergoes change. The more abstract our understanding, the easier it is to apply the same symbol to experiences that have very little relationship one to the other. “Being born again” for us might mean an emotional “stepping forward” at a rousing revival meeting. The genuine experience of it—the kind that sometimes really does transform the person and does produce real changes, not least real powers difficult to explain, get the same labeling although they are, in reality, quite something else.

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