An Age of Magic

on November 29, 2015

Here There be Dragons.

That’s an acceptable slogan if all you need is something to decorate the empty corners of your map, but it doesn’t answer the question of what lies beyond. And I’ve got a few dragons in my account of the cycle of visions that I’ve never managed to either work past or confront head on.

One of those involves what happens in the second half of every “romantic break,” when what started off as an opening to fresh possibilities collapses into paranoid hysteria and draconian repression. I’ve always skirted around the weirder aspects of that transition or treated it as a momentary aberration. But in fact it’s a crucial episode in every cycle — and there’s no way to get from the experiences of the first proto-shamans to the birth of the spirit vision without passing through it.

What makes it so hard to describe is that the shamans weren’t just visionaries and storytellers. They were also magicians with the power to alter the reality of those around them. They told stories that combined the stuff of everyday life with the wild, hallucinatory experiences of the mythic realm. They invented new words to describe beings and concepts that had never before been named. And they began to work magic.

Like all magicians since, they often relied on trickery to convince their fellows that they had supernatural powers. That was essential to arts such as healing that were based on suggestion. But sometimes they started to believe in their own tricks. And there were other occasions when their efforts were rewarded with genuinely anomalous events that they themselves could not foresee or control.

I’ve written in past entries about the “underground stream” that surfaces at certain points of the cycle. I’ve usually described it as a spooky perception of things lurking just beyond the corner of our eye, and I’ve attributed it to a half-conscious awareness of unaccountable processes going on in the dark corners of our own minds.

But it’s a lot more than that. When the underground stream is at its peak, inexplicable things occur. Mysterious affinities rule our lives. Synchronicities replace the normal sequence of cause and effect. Our own actions may duplicate the past or predict the future. And the course of human destiny is bent in a new direction.

I have no rational explanation for any of this, which is why I’ve treated it as a dragon lurking beyond the borders of my map. But no account of the history of our species can be complete unless we acknowledge that the first shamans weren’t just dealing with weird stuff inside their own heads. They were literally using magic to transform our relationship to the world around us.

Biographies of psychics and mediums often suggest that authentically paranormal events are common early in their careers but fade out as they start consciously trying to make them happen. That makes me suspect that the same was true of our species as a whole — and that there was once an age of magic, lasting some tens of thousands of years, during which anomalies of every kind were the stuff of ordinary experience.

If that was so, then two significant things would have happened in the course of that passage. One was that our almost-but-not-quite-human ancestors were transformed into people who were essentially us, give or take a few minor details. The other was that the cycle of visions as we now know it was put into place.

But it would have been an era of terror as well as wonder — the best of times and the worst of times, as a recent equivalent was once described — and eventually the terror became dominant.

We humans appear to have three different ways of reacting to any upwelling of the underground stream. Some of us are visionaries and romantics who delight in the skewed perspectives it brings. Some are barely aware of it but placidly carry on the business of everyday life — for which we all owe them all a debt of gratitude. And some are paranoids who perceive the intimations of things unknown as a sinister threat to everything they hold dear.

During the first half of every romantic break, the visionaries are widely accepted as a breath of fresh air in a world that has grown overly predictable. That’s what I believe things were like when the first shamans were discovering their powers. An ice age had ended about 340,000 years ago and humans found themselves masters of their environment, thanks to both their advanced stone age technology and their unprecedented ability to organize their knowledge. They could afford to relax, kick back, and indulge in the freaky stuff.

But as they did, something odd began to happen. Thanks to those crazy shamans and their wild stories, the underground stream was surfacing. The world was growing stranger, and it was all too easy to imagine unseen presences lurking just beyond the light of the campfire. The Vision of Everything was changing too, from a tidy catalog of familiar plants and animals to a vast panorama that included monsters and talking beasts and vast realms beyond the world we know.

A rift was starting to emerge between the romantics who loved this weird stuff even when it scared the crap out of them and the rationalists who wanted things to hold still and make sense. But it wasn’t the kind of rift that could divide society — until things took a more political turn.

In recent turns of the cycle, the second phase of the romantic break has always been triggered by a disenchantment with the existing social order. Society as a whole is flourishing and growing more prosperous, but the rewards aren’t being distributed equally. They are falling disproportionately into the hands of those with power, and that gives rise to resentment and suspicions of favoritism and corruption.

There’s no reason the same dynamic couldn’t have been present 300,000 years ago, even if it involved nothing more complex than who got the choicest cuts of meat. And as discontent increased, the loose coalition of outsiders — the geeks and rebels and oddballs — were inspired to see themselves not as misfits but as principled dissidents, pointing out a higher path.

That was partly self-flattery, of course — but it also held an element of truth. And the prospect of the spooky powers of the magicians being combined with grumblings by those at the bottom of the pecking order posed a very real concern to the leaders of society.

An indication of what happened next can be found in what occurs at the equivalent point in every turn of the cycle. It’s what happened in 1989-90, when the George H.W. Bush administration proclaimed the triumph of free market capitalism and immediately cracked down on the environmental activists and computer hackers who seemed to threaten that order. It happened in a more virulent form in 1947, when the utopian dreams that briefly flowered at the end of World War II were crushed by what would come to be known as McCarthyism.

It also happened in 1886, with the attacks on anarchists that followed the so-called Haymarket Riot. As described by Wikipedia, “The entire labor and immigrant community, particularly Germans and Bohemians, came under suspicion. Police raids were carried out on homes and offices of suspected anarchists. Scores of suspects, many only remotely related to the Haymarket affair, were arrested. … Among property owners, the press, and other elements of society, a consensus developed that suppression of anarchist agitation was necessary. While for their part, union organizations such as The Knights of Labor and craft unions were quick to disassociate themselves from the anarchist movement.”

And it happened in reaction to the French Revolution, when even in the United States the Illuminati Scare of 1798 was used to justify the Alien and Sedition Acts and Thomas Jefferson was accused of being an illuminist traitor.

All these panics follow a common pattern. A period of idealistic hopes is marred by an element of overreach. Heads fall, bombs are thrown, secrets are stolen, property is vandalized. That in turn sets off a wave of extreme paranoia and conspiracy-mongering on the part of those with power. The victims of the resulting witch-hunts become as paranoid as their oppressors, and the moderates desperately attempt to distance themselves from the extremists. The vested interests reassert control and ultimately the panic burns itself out — but not without leaving permanent scars.

So if there was a similar wave of paranoia and repression 300,000 years ago, what form might it have taken?

One important clue is that these panics always play out on the level of the underground stream. There is nothing either rational or realistic about them. Those who organize the repression are lashing out at imaginary monsters and bogeymen rather than their actual enemies. But to the extent that their fears have any legitimate reference points, they are directed at the older of the two emerging visions and at whatever group of outsiders is most closely tied to the vision that has yet to be born.

This suggests that the very first such panic would have involved a fear of evil spirits and a suspicion that malevolent sorcerers were working in the shadows to call down misfortune upon the objects of their envy. Those fears have been commonplace throughout human history, and they can seem to have been with us forever. But they must have started somewhere and this is their most likely point of origin.

It further suggests that when the spirit vision was born some while later, it represented the culmination of efforts by the first shamans to reassert their own legitimacy and that of the supernatural beings from whom they claimed to draw their powers. But that’s a story in itself.

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