Posts Tagged ‘string figures’

I keep thinking about the difference between pre-human and fully human — between Neanderthal, say, and us — and it’s occurred to me that the most significant distinction may be in terms of conscious control.

This idea grows out of a notion I’ve been toying with for years — that much of evolution has been a process of incremental internalization.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, for example, the hot new trend among primitive life-forms involved the development of bodily organs to take over functions that had previously been left up to the environment. Instead of passively allowing the sea to wash through them, they developed a digestive system that could pull in nutrients and eject the waste and a circulatory system to carry oxygen and nutrients to every cell. As time passed, they added shells or skeletons for stability, limbs for propulsion, and various appendages for grasping.

For higher-order creatures, biological evolution was eventually supplemented by behavioral evolution — but the goal was still to replace chance with control. Instead of depositing their eggs in the sand like a turtle and leaving the hatchlings to fend for themselves, they might feed and protect their babies like a dinosaur or mammal. Or they might create a specialized mini-environment to provide greater safety and comfort: a nest, a burrow, or an ant hill.

Among our own human lineage, however, there has been a further step — where taking control becomes a matter not of more advanced instincts but of conscious thought.

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In my previous post, I suggested that the making of string figures goes back 70,000 years or more and represents both an ancient mode of performance art and a very early exercise in abstract thinking. However, string figures are far more than that. They are also a form of magic.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the mathematician W.W. Rouse Ball delivered a lecture on string figures in which he noted:

Among existing aborigines, it is usually the women who teach the passtime to the children, and in most cases now-a-days the lads and men, though familiar with the methods used, do not of their own accord make designs in the presence of strangers. …

The Eskimo … have a prejudice against boys playing the game for fear it should lead to their getting entangled with harpoon lines, and hold that such figures, if made at all should be constructed in the autumn so as to entangle the sun in the string and delay the advent of the long winter night.

The notion that knotted strings can be used as a form of voodoo to entangle and hold things back is both very old and more widely distributed than string figures themselves. For example, the Scottish ballad “Willie’s Lady” tells of a man whose mother is jealous of her son’s young wife and uses several kinds of binding magic to prevent the girl’s baby from being born. With the aid of a friendly household spirit, Willie manages to learn the secrets of this “vile rank witch” and successfully undoes the binding spells:

O Willie has loosed the nine witch knots
That was amo that ladie’s locks …

And Willie has loosed her left-foot shee,
And letten his ladie be.

And now he’s gotten a bonny young son,
And mickle grace be him upon.

The ballad suggests both the positive and negative sides of what is sometimes known as female magic. In its positive aspect, it has a close association with midwifery and childbirth. But in its negative aspect, it is feared — particularly by men — as “vile” witchcraft that can cause crops to fail to grow and cows to cease giving milk. In both aspects, it is closely bound up with the imagery of knotting and unknotting, binding and releasing.

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Since I started blogging a couple of months ago, I have to some degree just been tossing in whatever catches my eye — but at the same time, my flights of speculation have been far from random. They all orbit around a small number of topics which I find of particular interest, and many of them grow out of a major project that I’ve been working at for many years.

The organizing principle of this project is the notion that human history has been structured by a progression of contending visions of the nature of the universe.

Each of these visions arises out of a unique area of human experience and practical knowledge and gradually acquires greater organization in the form of a theoretical framework that both explains that experience and extrapolates beyond it. Those extrapolations then become a rich source of culture innovation and creativity.

Eventually, though, theory hardens into dogma and vision into ideology. Then new visions arise to challenge and overthrow the old ones and to enjoy their own moment of cultural dominance before they are overthrown in in turn.

Even after being rejected, however, the older visions never vanish entirely. Every one of them leaves residual traces in the form of art and story and other symbolic expressions that are so powerful and archetypal that they continue to be maintained indefinitely.

Thanks to those traces, even the most ancient visions can still be identified and to some extent reconstructed — though with less certainty as you go further back in time. Much of what I’ve written here about prehistory and early civilizations reflects my ongoing attempt to identify the assumptions and theories and mythic elaborations associated with the very earliest visions.

Hardest of all to make out is the starting point, the very first human vision of existence, in part because it seems to predate even the earliest known myths. But there are certain components that can be tentatively assigned to it, working both from archaeology and from those elements in the earliest myths that seem to reflect a state of belief even older than the myths themselves.

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