Archive for December, 2012

In the previous entry, I described how the first true shamans might have become conscious of their own unique view of the world and begun to find ways to communicate it to others.

That’s only half the story, though. The other half is about the larger community coming to recognize the lack of magic in its life, missing it, and longing for its return.

There is a pattern to the birth and development of each new vision which has held true throughout recorded history and almost certainly goes back to the very start. The similarities are particularly strong among visions of a common type, so I feel confident in asserting that the first inner experience-based vision came out of the same needs and desires as every one since.

Two factors appear to be crucial in leading up to the birth of an inner experience vision. One is that every such vision arises out of a period of intense skepticism, when belief in spirits and magic has come to seem primitive and childish, rationality is the highest goal, and even religion is devoted to philosophical speculation or maintaining social norms, rather than direct mystical experience.

The other is that this hyper-rationality stirs up an equally intense nostalgia for the old stories of supernatural beings and powers. That nostalgic revival opens the way for a flowering of new magical tales which attempt to restore plausibility to the old materials, thereby producing a set of fresh rationales for the old shamanistic beliefs. And that, in turn, makes possible a revival of genuine shamanistic practices.

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The story I have told so far about the emergence of the earliest visions has been as simple and straightforward as I know how to make it.

It relies on just a few basic assumptions: That the first true humans possessed a mental map-making ability that enabled them to construct structured visualizations of the world around them. That as the human population expanded, this same ability was applied to devising elaborate kinship systems that could regulate the interactions among individuals and groups. And that the resulting focus on abstract relationships brought with it a mastery of formal categories and rules that came to be applied to the physical world as well.

The first two visions to come out of this process were the prototypes of all the scientifically-based and socially-based visions that have followed over the long centuries since. But there are also visions of a third type — those based on inner experience — which operate very differently and cannot be explained as simply another form of map-making.

Inner experience is not susceptible of being pinned down like our experience of the physical world. It shifts and fluctuates and may differ radically from one individual to another. It cannot be reduced to categories and laws like the stuff of our social relationships, because it is wild and willful and defies expectations. Yet at the same time, it displays certain consistent themes, and shamans and wizards have always been able to swap stories, find common ground, and provide guidelines for their disciples.

There were proto-shamans among us from the start, and they must have played a crucial role in the development of the first two visions. Without their access to higher knowledge and the sense of the unity of all things that it brought with it, those initial visions would not have been possible. But their wisdom was embedded in the visions they helped formulate, and they did not yet have a vision of their own.

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