The Way Things Used to Be

on December 27, 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.

There was just such a tension between rationality and nostalgia in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The previous several centuries had been an era of unquestioning belief in magic and spirits, often accompanied by great fear and fanatical witch-hunts. During the final decades of the 1600s, however, not only did the witch-hunts peter out, but the entire belief-system that had sustained them was rejected as gross superstition.

At the same time as faith waned, however, nostalgia increased — as can be seen in the widespread popularity of literary fairy tales and the first Western translations of the Arabian Nights. By the middle 1700s, it was even possible for a geek eccentric like Horace Walpole to deliberately cultivate a taste for the art and architecture of the Middle Ages.

Walpole never expected that his passion for the “Gothic” would be widely shared, but when he published his pseudo-medieval ghost story The Castle of Otranto in 1764, it caused a sensation. Largely as a result of this one book, European culture was plunged into a feverish pursuit of the romantic, the outrĂ©, and the occult that would last for the next century and a half.

In the preface to his novel, Walpole had explained apologetically that “miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances.” But over the next several decades, all those things would make a triumphant return, first in fiction and then in the experiments of would-be occultists. And in the 1840s, there was an extraordinary outbreak of genuine shamanistic phenomena in the form of the spiritualist movement — whose practitioners not only claimed to receive messages from the dead but manifested a range of inexplicable psychic talents.

Spiritualism appeared plausible to hard-headed Victorians because it presented itself as scientific rather than religious, but it was unable to adapt to the increasingly rigorous materialism of the early 20th century. By the 1920s, it was in decline, as was the more general occult movement that had followed it in the late 1800s. And by the late 1940’s, the supernatural wonders of the 19th century were as discredited as those of the Middle Ages had been in the Age of Reason, and Western society was headed into another phase of extreme rationalism.

Just as before, however, the extreme hyper-rationalism of the 1950s and early 60s provoked an outbreak of romantic fantasy, along with a longing for magic and the supernatural that is still nowhere near its culmination.

The ability of human being to turn their belief in unseen things on and off as easily as flicking a light switch is a considerable mystery to me — but it does seem to happen again and again.

The previous occurrence was in the era of classical Greece and Rome, when belief in the old gods was collapsing and giving way to abstract philosophical systems and purely formal state religions. A limited belief in the old spirit realm persisted for a time, but with the establishment of Christianity and other world-religions, even that was rejected. Although it’s conventional to think of the Dark Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition, quite the opposite was true.

According to Wikipedia, during this period “the Church did not conduct witch trials. The Council of Paderborn in 785 explicitly outlawed the very belief in witches, and Charlemagne later confirmed the law. Among Eastern Christians belief in witchcraft was regarded as deisdemonia – superstition – and by the 9th and 10th centuries in the West, belief in witchcraft had begun to be seen as heresy.”

Yet at exactly the same time — between the 700s and the 1100s — a romantic appreciation for the old supernatural stories was taking hold, first in the Middle East, where the tales of the Arabian Nights were being assembled, and a little later in Europe with the craze for Arthurian romances.

In the late 1100s, just as this literary romanticism was reaching its peak, the ancient supernatural beliefs also began to make a comeback. During the next century, Albertus Magnus not only accepted natural magic, alchemy, and astrology as real but saw them as capable of being put to positive uses. His student, Thomas Aquinas, followed him in part but was more concerned with asserting the reality of demons and condemning sorcery as evil.

These two contrasting approaches would set the tone for the next 400 years, influencing both the occult mages of the Renaissance and the fanatical witch-hunters of the 17th century.

The pattern is harder to discern further back in time, but the same thing appears to have happened in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. It seems clear that in the orderly agricultural societies of that period, shamans had given way to official priesthoods and religion was devoted to observing the movements of the heavens, maintaining social order, and conducting elaborate spectacles to impress the populace.

Yet there are also indications that the Late Neolithic was marked by a flowering of fanciful story-telling that produced the earliest versions of our familiar myths and fairy tales. And around the start of the Bronze Age, there was a sudden eruption of powerful new beliefs in cosmic deities and in the divine kings who were their chosen confidants.

However, there’s more to this pattern than a recurring sequence of ups and downs. The ancient stories themselves are passed along from one such flowering to the next.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which helped spark the current turn of the cycle, has its roots in both Walpole’s passion for pseudo-medieval fantasy and the great Arthurian romances. The literary fairy stories and tales of the Arabian Nights, which delighted early 18th century Europeans, were not only a legacy from the Middle Ages but had their own roots in the fairy tales of the Late Neolithic. And those mythic tales of “once upon a time” were reworkings of the tales of the Dreamtime that were told in Africa long before we humans set out to carry them across the world.

But if this pattern holds true all the way back, then those Dreamtime stories themselves must have been based on even earlier sources. And that raises the question of what could have possibly come before these seemingly most ancient of all human stories.

I believe I may have accidentally stumbled upon the answer to this question a few entries back, when I suggested that the very first supernatural stories originated as tales the half-mad proto-shamans told of their hallucinatory encounters out in the wilderness.

Neither they nor their audiences would have perceived these accounts as distinct from the more mundane adventures of the hunters and gatherers. But as time went on, and such encounters were no longer everyday occurrences, these oft-repeated tales would have turned into stories of once upon a time — evocations of a magical era of tricksters and culture-bringers, talking animals and supernatural presences.

And as even more time passed and human society came to be dominated by the equivalent of 18th century rationalists, Dark Ages monotheists, and Neolithic priesthoods, these ancient tales would have begun to be viewed skeptically, dismissed as stories for children, or perhaps even condemned as outright falsehoods.

But as soon as that happened, the local equivalents of J.R.R. Tolkien or Horace Walpole would have sprung up to defend and preserve them, insisting that they were worth maintaining both for their own sake and because of the longings they aroused for things unknown.

And eventually, out of the tension between the rationalists and the romantics, there would have come a brilliant integrative leap with the ability to satisfy both parties — a sudden realization that the old stories could still be accepted as true given one simple assumption.

That single crucial premise was the idea that long, long ago, at the beginning of all things, the nature of the world had been completely different, even the exact opposite of the way it was now. And, moreover, that it had been the task of the legendary personages of this Dreamtime to bring order out of chaos and establish the norms that had ruled human life ever since.

That leap of understanding for the first time created a map of reality that included not only the present moment but also the remote past. And with that radical alteration of perspective, the third vision fell into place.

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Read the Next Entry: The World Turns Cold

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