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From Shamanism to Religion

William Irwin Thompson

When I was living in Toronto in the late sixties and early seventies, I had the good fortune to go to the University of Toronto’s Coach House where Marshall McLuhan performed for one evening a week. I say “performed” Henri Rousseaubecause McLuhan was a brilliant aphorist and artistic master of what he called “probes”—a kind of blast-off into outer space that most academics could not manage, and one that gave us a new look back at life on Earth. The Global Village, Retribalization, The medium is the message, Art is whatever you can get away with, and “The sloughed-off environment becomes a work of art in the new invisible environment”—these are the thoughts that have now become the furnishings of the contemporary mind, even if the young generation now does not realize who was one of those responsible for the interior decoration of its consciousness.

McLuhan was also a performer in the sense that he could not really talk with anyone; dialogue was impossible, and so he could only talk at you, or present his ideas in a monologue like a new kind of Stand-Up Intellectual. In this top>down way of speaking, he was very much like Bucky Fuller and Joseph Campbell. Bucky Fuller, however—like Castro—tended to give speeches or lectures that went on for hours, but McLuhan’s gift of aphorism served him well in the age of the TV sound bite, so he became the guru of Madison Avenue and the prophet of the cultural shift from print, or what he called the Gutenberg Galaxy, to electronics.

The first time I heard McLuhan was around 1967, when I was a professor of Humanities at MIT—which was sort of like being an atheist living in Vatican City. During the Viet Nam War I felt intellectually isolated in the Institute’s polarized hostility between the Defense Department Hawks and the radical Marxist Leftists Doves led by Noam Chomsky. And then one day in walked Marshall McLuhan to give a recital in a faculty seminar. In a one-liner throwaway, he said, “The bomb is information,” and the engineers in the room went ballistic. After all, some of them had built the damned thing, and so did not want it to be dismissed as mere information. But McLuhan was right, of course, since the atomic bomb was an entire noosphere of information that surrounded all our lives in the Cold War with our fear of Mutual Assured Destruction.

Another throwaway line that afternoon was the comment that when satellites went up in space, earth art and ecology were born down below. The works of Andrew Long, Andy Goldsworthy, and James Turrell could now be seen in a new perspective.

Still another throwaway was McLuhan’s comment that when plastic and television took over the age, Rust Belt welders no longer were constructors of locomotives, but sculptors. Alexander Calder, Richard Serra, and Mark de Suvero, I am sure, sat up and paid attention to that insight when they read it in Understanding Media.

The reason I am sharing these reminiscences of McLuhan and the sixties with those of you who weren’t there, is that McLuhan’s axiom that “The sloughed-off environment becomes a work of art in the new invisible environment” provides us with a good way to look at shamanism, and not just nineteenth century cobblers’ benches that became coffee tables in twentieth-century tract houses.

As homo sapiens sapiens was emerging and branching off from archaic homo sapiens in South Africa, the animal was the sloughed-off environment in the new invisible environment of humanity. Art emerged and became the difference that made a difference between nature and culture, Neanderthals and modern humans. And the first expressions of this art were parietal art and sculpture.

The Lionman of Englehard, circa 30,000 BCE, is the earliest work of sculpture we have. It shows a being half animal and half man. This figure became the archetypal image of the shaman and its traditional use continued for millennia, as we can see in the later cave art of Trois Frères in France.

This image survives all through prehistory and is found at the threshold of history in Olmec culture, circa 800 BCE in Mesoamerica. In a transformation appropriate to the jungles of Mexico, the lion morphs into the jaguar, and the shaman becomes the jaguarman.

The image of a man still half-embedded in animality presents us with a good description of a level of consciousness in which the emerging personal ego is not yet stabilized and the labile mind can function in both the dreaming and waking consciousness at the same time.1 The individual sees the world, but the dreaming mind riffs on the percept and transforms it into two objects at once.

This is the hypnagogic state of consciousness we still can experience in lucid dreams, the practice of yoga nidra, fevered delirium, and altered states brought on by sleep deprivation, dehydration, or the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms and plants.

Stages of Entopic Imagery

According to the theories of Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, the entoptic forms seen with closed eyes, such as the beautiful scotoma of visual migraine, so fascinated Ice Age humanity that they mythologized them into being symbols of the approach of the animals spirits. Through the use of psychedelic mushrooms and plants, the Imaginal realm was intensified in its epiphanies. On the walls of the Franco-Cantabrian caves, one can observe these signs as well as images of the animals that float in a visionary landscape rather than stand on a perspectivally defined ground. In his excellent book, The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams has explained some of these mysterious signs as the fly sweepers that for the San Bushmen also are symbols of an instrument for chasing demons and bad spirits away.2 Williams shows these fly sweepers on San rock engravings in South Africa as well as at the hoof of the bull at Lascaux.

We all can enter a shamanic experience if we attend to the hypnagogic state through lucid dreaming or the practice of yoga nidra. Since these practices can be quite difficult, and since we have been trained as members of a passive consumer society to pop a pill to get rid of a headache or change a mood, taking psychedelic drugs to experience altered states of consciousness has had greater appeal to Here Comes Everybody.

In a traditional and preliterate society, however, the shaman is decidedly not Everyman. The priest is produced by human institutions and goes to seminaries established to maintain and expand the political power of a particular religion. The priest is chosen by elders, but the shaman is chosen by the spirits. He is singled out by spirits in animal or disembodied forms and survives a critical wound or illness that demands isolation from his fellows for a period of healing—a period that is in reality a process of changing his attunement from society to the new spiritual world. The shaman is called apart, and in this retreat, he is granted his power vision that determines his life’s work.

One of the skills of the shaman that contemporary Everyman does not possess is the ability to separate the vital or etheric body from the physical body and to project it to take possession of an animal—a lion or a jaguar—as was dramatized in Val Lewton’s classic 1942 horror movie, Cat People. Contemporary Everyman often has experience of astral projection, or out-of-the-body travel, but this skill of animal possession is much rarer. Modern man as a geek alienated from nature is much more likely to project his etheric body into a computer or an avatar in a computer game.

Another of the skills the shaman is given in his adoption by a spiritual guide is the ability to leave his body in sleep and to travel in parallel spiritual worlds. This practice is more commonly known as astral projection or out of body experiences—OBEs. Recent work by neuroscientists claims that these OBE experiences are simply brain-based dreams and can be produced by activating the temporal parietal junction. The sensation of leaving one’s body is generated by the shutting down of the normal proprioception of the body and a subsequent interpretation of this sensation in a dream. This mode of perception of two realms is very much like the hypnopompic morning dream of looking for the restroom in an airport and then waking to become aware of a full bladder.

For the neuroscientist, all spiritual experiences, whether shamanic or religious, are brain-based phenomena. The beautiful scotoma can be seen as a sign of the onset of visual migraine from eating cheddar cheese, or it can be seen as a sign of the appearance of the spirit of the rainbow serpent. For the cognitive scientist, when we mythologize neurological phenomena and endow them with imaginative significance this does not represent a divine intervention but a human cultural activity.

From my own limited experiences of yoga nidra, I have noticed that as one transits into the hypnagogic state there appears first patterns, then images, then images animated in the little drama of dreams. I notice that the appearance of images triggers the muscle inhibitors to kick in, so that we don’t act out our dream by moving around in sleepwalking, and that the feeling of floating out of the body and going through the wall of the room corresponds to the proprioceptive mechanism of the body shutting off. I do believe this experience of floating and going through the wall is definitely not astral projection, but is a dream as the neuroscientists insist, for when I tested it by going through the wall of my apartment in Cambridge and looking down from floating four stories in the air above my street, I noticed that I was transforming sounds into images that I heard and was, therefore, dreaming.

There is, however, a second stage in which one disengages from the body and with clear and distinct mind looks down at one’s body in the bed or in the chair, but it is difficult to maintain a scientific protocol for further research, because a second self, a Dopplegänger, takes over, and it has its own agenda that cares little for the research concerns of our scientifically-inclined ego. Also, what one perceives in this state of out-of-the-body projection is not objective recording, but a much more imaginative “participation” in Owen Barfield’s use of this term. Perception, interpretation, and evaluation are all experienced together. The experience is much more like an artistic one than an experimental one. Imagine that you are making love to Helen of Troy and having a transcendent orgasm; few lovers would be inclined to start taking measurements and performing EEG or fMRI experiments at the time.

Like the quantum physicist’s theories of wave and particle as simultaneously true descriptions of matter and light, I believe there will always be two explanations to spiritual experiences—mechanistic and mystical. So I doubt that we shall ever resolve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction. My son, Evan Thompson, in the book he is now writing on “Waking, Dreaming, Being” for Columbia University Press comes down on the scientific side of this issue to claim that OBEs are, like lucid dreams, brain-based altered states of consciousness. Even though he has had personal experiences of out-of-the-body experiences as a child, he still feels these experiences do not constitute an ontologically separate realm of “the astral world.” In the interests of objectivity and good science, I would very much like to agree with my son the Philosopher,3 but I find that I cannot. I know that my own out-of-the-body experiences from meditation (and dehydration, as well as hypercalcemic delirium from meditating too long!) can never be proven to be anything other than overwhelming dreams.

From these meditational experiences, however, I would say that there are four worlds: the world of objects, or the waking mind; the psychic world of images, or the dreaming mind; the world of sound—the Vedic Cosmic Nadam, the music of the spheres; and the Cosmic Mind of Light.

The neuroscientist will probably claim that these four worlds can be both activated and described through brain science, and that all that the Zen monk is doing with his or her thousands of hours of staring at the wall is learning how to subtract perception, imagination, and thinking from consciousness to achieve the resting state of mind—the Upanishadic state of deep dreamless sleep reappropriated in the waking mind—that he or she experiences as light and then mythologizes as Enlightenment.

This reductionism feels as if someone were to tell me that when I say I am in love, I am simply responding to a particular female’s pheromones, and that if a scientist were to spray these pheromones on another woman, I would fall in love with her.

As Niels Bohr said in his theory of quantum complementarity of wave and particle: “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may well be another profound truth.” So take your pick as to which explanation you prefer, reductionist or Romantic, and continue with your life—mystical or scientific—or some Tango of Quantum Entanglement with both.

One of the reasons the detritus of lost cosmologies can re-surface in the riverbed conglomerates of fairy tale and horror movie is, as Jean Gebser has pointed out, that when a new structure of consciousness becomes efficient, the old structure becomes deficient. When the Mythic structure of consciousness begins to replace the old Magical structure, shamanism decays into sorcery and black magic. One clear sign of this transition is the beginnings of human sacrifice.

The shaman sacrifices himself for the good of his people; he is, as Joan Halifax has described it, the wounded healer.4 There is no evidence of human sacrifice in the Ice Age; it shows up in the Neolithic in the transition from foraging to a more settled life. At Cayanou in Neolithic Turkey, there are many skulls on the site, and many of them are infant skulls that show evidence of decapitation while the infant was still alive.5 Human sacrifice is a male priest’s appropriation of the power of women that was traditionally expressed by the menstrual blood and its symbol, red ochre. The mysteries of birth are replaced by bloody death; the female is replaced by the male who is now the master of life through the agency of killing in sacrifice and war—both of which we see expressed in that warrior epic, Homer’s Iliad.

The practice of securing the foundation of a building or temple by sacrificing an infant continued into the historical times of the worship of Moloch at Carthage. Rudolf Steiner would explain this practice as one in which the strong etheric body of the infant is forced into the structure of the building. This is a form of taking possession of property similar to shamanic animal possession.

Human sacrifice is a sign of the shift from Gebser’s Magical Structure of consciousness to the Mythic structure of religion and priests because it represents the priest’s effort to appropriate the magical powers of the shaman by placing the magical fluids of blood and semen in a new larger environment of religious cosmology and temple architecture.

For example, consider the Gnostic sect of the Borborites whose ritual of the Eucharist consisted in placing menstrual blood and semen on the communion bread. This exercise in “misplaced concreteness” is a literalist rendering of the practice of Tantric yoga in which the yogi has maithuna, or contemplative intercourse, with the Shakti during menstruation as a means of joining the red and the white of menstrual blood and semen to create an alchemical elixir that stimulates the awakening of kundalini.6 This Indian practice, probably transmitted along the Silk Road through Persia and then through the Manicheans, was picked up by the Borborites in Syria who literalized their misunderstandings in a transformation of Tantric meditation into ecclesiastical ritual. A similar form of fundamentalist and literalist reductionism occurred in ancient Mexico when the symbolic language of the opening of the heart to the light was taken literally by the Aztecs who would rip open a victim’s chest and hold his heart up to the sun.

You can gain a contemporary appreciation of this cultural transformation from shamanism to religion by considering our transition from religion to post-religious spirituality. Terrorism, the bombing of Mosques by Hindu Nationalists in India, suicide bombing, the murder of doctors and the bombing of abortion clinics, are all rays in the sunset-effect of religion. Religions have become violent again because they are now the deficient structure of consciousness as post-religious spirituality has become the efficient structure in cultural evolution.

Because traditional societies are more biologically sexually dimorphic, there is also a sexual dimorphism to their spiritual practices. So let us distinguish between the shaman and la sage femme. We should not confuse these archaic roles with later cultural developments when these roles become transformed into the Wizard and the Witch. These archetypal images are medieval and European Dark Age versions of the much more archaic Ice Age forms of the shaman and la sage femme.7

The wise woman is midwife and healer and has knowledge of plants, both healing and psychedelic. Like the shaman, she has concourse with the world of animals and spirits, but she can also have strong human societal relations and have inherited her skills from her mother. As a midwife, she is an embodiment and epiphany of the Great Goddess, the Great Mother. In the two modes of divine manifestation, one can say that la sage femme represents the imminent mode of Spirit and the shaman the transcendent mode. The shaman ascends a ladder to the higher realms, but Grimm’s Frau Hölle dwells in an inner Earth at the bottom of a well.

Lest feminists immediately accuse me of essentialism, let me say that we are talking of archaic and medieval societies here, and not modernist and postmodernists ones in which these roles have been transformed. I shall have more to say about this in a planned discussion of post-religious spirituality.

William Irwin Thompson’s column, Thinking Otherwise, appears monthly in the online magazine,
Wild River Review, Wild River Review seeks to raise awareness and compassion as well as inspire engagement through the power of stories.

William Irwin Thompson is a poet and cultural philosopher who has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. Early in his career he left academia to found Lindisfarne, an association of creative individuals in the arts, sciences, and contemplative practices devoted to the study and realization of a new planetary consciousness, or noosphere. Thompson lived in Switzerland for 17 years and describes his most recent work, Canticum Turicum, as “a long poem on Western Civilization, that begins with folktales and traces of Charlemagne in Zurich and ends with the completion of Western Civilization as expressed in Finnegans Wake and the traces of James Joyce in Zurich.” With mathematician Ralph Abraham he has designed a new type of cultural history curriculum based on their theories about the evolution of consciousness. Thompson now lives in Portland, Maine.

Read more about William Irwin Thompson


1See my discussion of my own experiences with this altered state in “Natural Drift and the Evolution of Consciousness,” from Self and Society: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness (Imprint Academic: Exeter, UK, 2009), p. 100 f.
2David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (Thames and Hudson: London, 2002).
3See Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Belknap Press, Harvard University: Cambridge, MA, 2007).
4Joan Halifax, Shaman: the Wounded Healer (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988).
5See Jacques Cauvin, Naissance des divinités, naissance de l’agriculture (Flammarion:Paris, 1997), 126-127.
6See Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1994), p. 158.
7For a discussion of la sage femme, see my analysis of the fairy tale “Rapunzel” in my book, Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science (St. Martins Press: New York, 1989), 3-42.

14 June 2011

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mysticism, revelation, religion, dreams, philosophy, consciousness, science, meditation, yoga, embodiment, shamanism, dreamwork, animals, symbolism,
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