Among the Spirits

on December 16, 2010

In the last two entries of this series, I’ve offered some speculations on the development of the spirit and cosmic order visions during the last ice age. But there is an additional element that needs to be taken into account, and that is the influence of the mysterious entities I have previously described as “shadow visions.”

Like the ordinary visions, the shadow visions appear to come in three forms — scientific, social, and inner experience — and each one is regularly associated with ordinary visions of the same type. But they are clearly distinct from the ordinary visions, with their own premises and their own timetable of development.

In addition, where the ordinary visions are relatively simple and rational — with just a touch of mysticism — the shadow visions are far deeper and more primal. They lack the clear-cut intellectual, philosophical, and moral structures of the ordinary visions but are given instead to propagating a riotous profusion of imaginary beings and realms.

The shadow visions are clearly associated with the dark side of our nature. They can be wild and irrational and may display such negative traits as obsession — particularly sexual obsession — and paranoia. But they also provoke the highest flights of the imagination and are frequently the source of liberating new forms of thought and action.

I suggested a while back that the shadow visions might be a relic of the stages we passed through before we became fully human, but even if that is true it cannot be the whole story. The shadow visions may at times be crude and unintellectual — but they are also the source of our most radical aspirations to soar beyond all existing personal, social, and material constraints.

In addition, the shadow visions exert a crucial formative influence on the ordinary visions, which is most apparent during each romantic break. When a dominant partnership falters and loses its grip on the cultural imagination, the shadow visions not only gain in power and visibility but also become deeply involved in the development of the emerging visions.

That is what I believe occurred during the last ice age, when disillusionment with the transformative-and-kinship partnership enabled the spirit vision and the cosmic order vision to break loose. At that time, each of these newer visions appears to have been thoroughly interwoven with an equivalent shadow vision.

As I’ve suggested previously, the core concept of the spirit vision is that an intangible spiritual energy is the source of shamanistic powers such as healing and rain-making. But the spirit vision is also associated with a belief in spirit beings — those strange, hallucinatory presences that some individuals can perceive spontaneously and others as the result of fasting, sensory deprivation, or the use of psychedelic drugs. In one archaic culture after another, shamans are said to gain their abilities through contact with the spirits.

In much the same way, the cosmic order vision is essentially scientific and theoretical in nature, combining direct observations of the movements of the sun, moon, and stars across the sky from east to west with a hypothetical underworld through which they return from west to east. But at some point, this scientific framework of the heavens and the underworld became identified with the purely imaginative notion of a spirit realm, conceived as a kind of dreamworld that could be visited by shamans in trance or by heroes in story.

A belief in both celestial and subterranean fantasy realms is apparent in the myths and fairy tales of the Neolithic and Bronze Age. But there is also evidence that it was present by the late Paleolithic.

A few years ago, three small ivory figures were found in a cave in Germany and dated to 33,000 years ago. The paleontologist in charge of their interpretation believed that at least two of them reflected shamanistic practices, in particular the figure of a diving bird similar to a cormorant.

As explained in a National Geographic article on the discovery, “waterfowl are commonly depicted as helper spirits to shamans, transporting them between worlds.” But what the article does not mention is that water birds are traditionally regarded in this way because they are masters of three realms — walking on land, flying in the air, and diving beneath the water.

The figure thus appears to suggest that even at that early date, the heavens and underworld were already identified with the shamanistic spirit realm. And if that is so, then the art of the deep caves, which began slightly later, can be seen as an attempt to create a virtual spirit realm — an underground wonderland overflowing with powerful animal spirits.

The very exuberance of the cave art suggest that the association between the spirit realm and the cosmic order vision was brand new at that time. But the connection of spirit beings to the spirit vision much be far older — presumably nearly as old as the spirit vision itself, which would take it back almost to the dawn of modern humanity. And that raises any number of questions.

I’ve suggested in previous entries that the transformative-and-kinship partnership, which was formed perhaps 125,000 years ago, was the first dominant partnership — and that disillusionment with it during the ice age created the first romantic break. I see no reason to alter that opinion.

But this would mean that the association between the spirit vision and spirit beings must predate even the earliest dominant partnership — and must have come about without the need for any romantic break. And that has strange and fascinating implications for the question of human origins and of what it means to be human.

Let us suppose that when the first modern humans appeared around 200,000 years ago there were already three emerging visions — the scientifically-based transformative vision, the socially-based kinship vision, and the inner experienced-based spirit vision. To some degree, they were all equal — but the spirit vision was not like the others. It was tied to the weird, hallucinatory aspect of human nature and to the wild, dangerous people who cultivated that shadow side.

There is a decidedly spooky quality to both spirit beings and the spirit realm. They are eerie and uncanny, arousing the kind of prickly feeling you get at the back of your neck from reading ghost stories late at night. They also have a strongly marked trickster-nature. Spirit beings may change their form before your eyes or appear and disappear in an instant. The door to the spirit realm may be wide open at one time but vanish if you return uninvited.

That being so, association with the spirits has always been threatening to more sober folk, upsetting their sense of propriety and even challenging the very idea of a stable reality. And that makes me wonder whether the first dominant partnership might have been formed precisely to keep the spirit vision at bay — or at the very least to put a damper on its wilder flights of fancy. In that case, the loss of faith in the partnership during the ice age would have lifted those restraints and enabled a return to unfettered contact not only with the spirits but with a newly-conceived spirit realm..

I’m reminded of something I discussed at this blog over a year ago. I had been toying with the idea that modern humans might have undergone a final evolutionary leap in brain organization around 80,000 years ago, when the first art appeared. And I quoted a few paragraphs from an article in New Scientist:

Have you ever experienced that eerie feeling of a thought popping into your head as if from nowhere, with no clue as to why you had that particular idea at that particular time? You may think that such fleeting thoughts, however random they seem, must be the product of predictable and rational processes. After all, the brain cannot be random, can it? Surely it processes information using ordered, logical operations, like a powerful computer?

Actually, no. In reality, your brain operates on the edge of chaos. Though much of the time it runs in an orderly and stable way, every now and again it suddenly and unpredictably lurches into a blizzard of noise.

In technical terms, systems on the edge of chaos are said to be in a state of “self-organised criticality”. These systems are right on the boundary between stable, orderly behaviour – such as a swinging pendulum – and the unpredictable world of chaos, as exemplified by turbulence. …

In light of what I’ve worked out since, 80,000 years ago seems impossibly late for a major change of that sort . But it appears increasingly likely that this kind of radical shift in brain function could be what triggered the appearance of the first fully modern humans some 200,000 years ago.

And in that case, the notion that our brains operate on the edge of chaos, causing unexpected thought to pop into consciousness out of nowhere, would go a long way towards explaining the “spooky” characteristics of the shadow visions.

What it doesn’t do, however, is clarify the relationship between the shadow visions and the ordinary visions. Which is older, the “primitive” but highly creative shadow visions or the more intellectual but also more culturally conservative ordinary visions? Did one set of visions mark us as fully human, with the other appearing either somewhat sooner or somewhat later — or have both been essential to our humanity from the start?

I have no immediate answers. But I am starting to suspect that the tension between these two powerful forces has been the driving force behind the dance of the visions — the ordinary visions seeking social stability and control, while the shadow visions repeatedly dash these illusions to pieces and inspire new visions to take the place of those which have lost their transcendence.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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