shamanism

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baboon
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Nov 28 2009 19:26
shamanism

Some elements on Shamanism

On another thread, there are some indications that an interest in Shamanism is another code-word, like “conspiracy theory”, to make out that the ICC is crackers, etc.

Like Wellclose, I am keen to see the public expression on any discussion on pre-history and so on from the ICC, though I realise, given the enormous and international work carried out by this group it does not make this a priority. I also welcome the work that they have done on the questions of morality and ethics, not least from the work of Darwinism. So here are a few disparate elements from myself on the question of religion and shamanism.

There was a global, independent development of religion during at least tens of thousands of years ago throughout pre-history right up to civilisation (and beyond). There are also some indications that it could have been a development within Homo neanderthalensis even before, but it certainly comes with sapiens. Many similarities (and differences) on religion across the globe are expressed in ethnological, archaeological and neurological evidence; ethnological from a lot of very well documented evidence from Africa, the Americas, Australia, Siberia and so on. Archaeological from well preserved finds of both portable and parietiel (cave and rock art) art and neurological from research into the “unconscious” mind and altered states of consciousness (of which the leading researcher in this field is the Pentagon).

One of the interesting aspects of parietal art is the “signs” that appear around, interspaced and sometimes incorporated into the images displayed. This is certainly the case in the western European Upper Palaeolithic circa ten to over thirty thousand years ago. There’s no such thing as a “monolithic” shamanism but rather a variety of shamanisms, different varieties sometimes diverging over very short distances – as the evidence from southern France shows. But there are similarities, fundamental concepts, expressed in the paintings and portable art and the “signs” that surround them. With the latter as interesting as the beautiful works themselves and largely underestimated by dint of the common notion that we will never be able to understand them. Shamanist, often anthropomorphic figures are sometimes very clearly expressed in the restricted and deepest parts of the cave as is the case in Chauvet (33kya), Trois-freres (14kya) and Lascaux. This (and the whole cave experience) was the entry into the spirit world in the western European expression and obviously different expressions were made where caves didn’t exist. The caves of western Europe though is the oldest and clearest expressed and shows almost a “language” – the closest we have to a language at this time and the direct expression of a religion: the axis-mundi and the spirit world.

I think that at these depths, the shamans and their “guests” (I was going to say adepts, but thought better of it) would be out of their heads. Sensory deprivation, pitch darkness and no sound – or just the “other-worldly” sound of the cave, would have kicked-in very quickly. Carbon monoxide, possibly traces of methane and other gases would have affected the brain. So too would the ingestion of vapour from the painting material, manganese oxide for example. That’s apart from the physcotropic substances that they may have deliberately ingested – and there’s plenty of ethnographic evidence for that. But I don’t think that these incredibly detailed and beautiful works could have been created by someone out of their heads. The evidence is that they returned to these very restricted places again and again. I’ve seen the effects of a flickering flame on these walls and it is stunning – photographs of the paintings do not do them justice. Even an electric torch flicked along them makes these painting come to life.

The remnants of shamanism of the northern hunter-gatherers point to a very strong Palaeolithic tradition across the whole of Eurasia right down to the Ainu of northern Japan – there’s archaeological evidence of it. This art also finds an expression in the ancient Shang dynasty of China, with some shamanistic art represented in its structures and decorations. All the circumpolar regions have common expressions of shamanism: soul-flight, the guardian spirit, drums, conversation with animals using a special language, healing powers, powers to harm and fire making.

One interest is the relationship of the shaman to the community – what did this religion mean to the whole tribes of hunter-gatherers? While one necessity and characteristic of shamanism was isolation and flight to the world of spirits, another was the common areas of the cave, sometimes called “halls”, surround by large paintings and “signs”. The spirits would have been part of the ancestors and thus a very important part of religion itself. The minds of the shamans wouldn’t have been at odds with the community because everybody has the same mind and everybody would have dreamed. Percussion in the caves (stalagmites have been found that show repeated strikes, most likely by bone) would have resonated throughout and could have well been part of the ritual for the whole community. The percussion would have played games with the smoke from the fires. Princeton University conducted a very interesting experiment into this which showed that the sound waves bouncing off the cave wall and hitting the sound waves approaching, would have created ghostly and also fairly well defined shimmering shapes, as well as the concentric circles that were to become such a feature of later Neolithic constructions and art.

But inside the cave, with percussion, smoke, probably chanting, some form of singing, maybe dancing in the areas which were big enough, would have made this a religious experience for the whole tribe. The religious aspect would have reinforced the communal aspects of the tribe and the means of production would have been put into its service: ladders, platforms, the painstaking process of extracting the paint from the earth or rock, lamps (many, many were used) and possibly ritual feasts. There are many links from the expression of religion in the Upper Palaeolithic to the religions of the Epipaleolithic and into the Neolithic itself. The latter, in the edifices of western Europe (which could be argued to be the recreation of the cave at a higher level), seeing the development of a priesthood that, from all the evidence, looks like it remained a part of the collective and, in some way underwrote the collective with the associated labour that such great structures involved.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis but a few element for a discussion on the importance of pre-historic religion.

Wellclose Square
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Nov 28 2009 21:02

Baboon, thanks for opening this up... I'll have more to contribute later. Suffice to say, it's a shame that so much of this sort of stuff is regarded as the realm of 'nutters' by those whose attitude to the scope of human cognition is as restrictive as that required for the 'repetition of the same' in commodity production/consumption. One other point is that while 'shamanism' has rightly been singled out as an aspect of human interaction with each other and the 'natural' and 'supernatural' world, in parts of academia around anthropology/religious studies the concept of animism or 'the animic' appears to be displacing shamanism as a means of comprehending human engagement with the world, albeit generally devoid of an explicit communist consciousness.
Edit: The concept of shamanism would imply the necessity of ritual specialists, whereas, I suppose, animism would allow for a more flexible, open, approach to 'the mysterious in the everyday'.

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Nov 28 2009 22:32
baboon wrote:
On another thread, there are some indications that an interest in Shamanism is another code-word, like “conspiracy theory”, to make out that the ICC is crackers, etc.

No there aren't any such "indications" - that's in your imagination. But if you keep inventing such things, it does look a bit crackers... Below are the mentions on the other thread of Alf's writing on shamanism;

Ret wrote:
Alf has also shown considerable interest in "esoteric things" while in the ICC, such as articles on shamanism and telepathy
Devrim wrote:
Ha, ha, yes, there was a certain pamphlet with a pink cover.
nasty ned wrote:
Come on Alf, tell us about the decadence of the shamans!
baboon wrote:
Shamanism is an interesting discussion in itself in relation to religion in pre-historic society and indicative of elements of the spectrum of consciousness in the same, in my opinion. If anyone wants to start a separate thread on this elsewhere I will be happy to make a contribution. But this discussion doesn't belong here.
Alf wrote:
With regard to my own interest in questions like shamanism, primitive communism, or psychoanalysis, I have never hidden these from the organisation, and I have always tried to approach them from what I considered to be a marxist standpoint. In the past I have not always found the best means to present these questions to the organisation, but in the last few years the discussions within the ICC on ethics, human nature, the book on communism, and the relationship between marxism and science have made it possible to deal with them in a much more collective framework, even if these are inevitably questions which give rise to many strong disagreements. We have not yet found the best way to publicly present some of these very rich internal debates, but it is a problem which we are discussing.
Wellclose Sq. wrote:
I very much enjoyed reading TDOTS when it came out and look forward to a public presentation of these debates.
[...]
Like I said, I look forward to a public presentation on discussions around shamanism, the spectrum of consciousness, etc., but it doesn't belong on this thread.

confused

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Nov 28 2009 22:59
baboon wrote:
I think that at these depths, the shamans and their “guests” (I was going to say adepts, but thought better of it)

This article discusses the credibility of any claimed links between Freemasonry and early religious rituals;

Quote:
The following taken from "Primitive Secret Societies"--Webster, is illuminating: "The process which converts puberty institutions into secret societies of peoples more advanced in culture, seems, in general, to be that of the gradual shrinkage of the earliest and democratic organizations, consisting of all the members of the tribe. The outcome of this process, on the one hand, is a limitation of the membership of the organization to those who are able to satisfy the necessary entrance requirements, and, on the other hand, the establishment of a fraternity so formed of various degrees through which the candidate may pass in succession. With the fuller development of secret society characteristics, these degrees became more numerous, and passage through them more costly. The members of the higher degrees forming an inner circle of picked initiates. These control the organization in their own interests. The best examples of this practice are to be sought in the Australian and African Tribes." It will not require a wide stretch of the imagination to find some analogy of thought between primitive minds and some modern thinkers and their methods.
http://www.masonicdictionary.com/operativev.html

..

Wellclose Sq. wrote:
The concept of shamanism would imply the necessity of ritual specialists

Sounds like an emerging political process - any thoughts on the relation between shamanism, religious ritual and the development of hierarchical political power?

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Nov 29 2009 00:36

baboon's excellent introduction poses a lot of important questions, and I will try to come back on some of them. The first ones that struck me are connected to the social position of the shaman. Both Wellclose and Ret have also raised this issue: to what extent is the ecstatic experience which Baboon sees being generated in the collective paleolithic ritual something 'shared equally' by the whole tribe, and to what extent is it the work of specialists (a term that Mircea Eliade often uses -'specialists of the sacred') or of secret and perhaps privileged groups?
This problem is logically linked to the problem of the origins of inequalities within the framework of primitive communist society, which is a whole discussion in itself.

Just on one aspect for now: Wellclose mentions the fact that animism is a term often favoured above shamanism in recent academic anthropological writings, I can't say I am able to keep up with much of the recent stuff, and often find much of it very obscure. But my older son, who is further advanced than I ever was on the road to being a proper anthropologist, recently sent me an essay by Alf Hornborg (who says some interesting things about Marx and fetishism), which would tend to support what Wellclose says. Hornborg seems to be saying that animism, rather than being a 'theory' about the world as in the rationalist definition provided by the 19th century anthropologist Edward Tylor, is better understood as an experience of nature and its products as part of one's own life; a relation to other living things, and even to mineral nature, as subjects rather than objects. Tim Ingold, another anthropologist my son recommends very highly, seems to be heading in the same direction when he focuses on the hunter-gatherer relationship to animals in particular as being a social one - the are experienced as cousins, as aprt of your society, rather than mechanical objects outside it (Descarte's view, for example).
,
I have also long felt this to be the real meaning of 'animism'. But two questions remain
- even though the relationship between man and nature in primitive society is in many evident ways less alienated than that of 'modern' (bourgeois) man, do not the ubiquitous myths in which man and animals once spoke the same language, but have since become estranged, still indicate a first phase in the alienation of man from nature?
- even in the most egalitarian primitive communist societies, such as the 'Bushmen' of Africa who practised a highly collective form of ecstatic dance, were there not some individuals who were seen as being specially in touch with the world of the spirits, of the animal ancestors, of the dreaming? If I recall, David Lewis Williams in The Mind in the Cave, on the relationship between shamanistic practises and the paleolithic cave paintings, seems to take this for granted, although I also recall having reservations about what I saw as his rather reductionist view that the ability to attain 'higher' levels of ecstasy was primarily to do with seeking status and privilege.

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Nov 29 2009 02:04

That is very interesting Alf. I have a question; don't you think that this extasic feeling can also be a kind of escape to a state of non-consciousness rather that a collective consciousness?

As far as I can remember what descartes argues in his cartesian scheme was a universal logic -of course still coming from a transandental origin. In that sense he was challenging whatever left extasic from religion (church) and arguing for the primacy of universal categories of mind. This understanding obviously had its own problems such as body-mind duality etc., it gave predominance to reason over irrational. In that sense extasic feelings position in that dualism, as it is in all religious rituals, seems to be that an escape route for a legitimate irrationality and fake communality. Still, I might be wrong, but I feel that even in class societies this irrational extasic communality continues in religious rituals. And in these it is more clear that this has something to do with torturing to body in order reach a higher unity. Obviously the duality ends here since descartian body-mind dichotomy's only difference remains its giving predominance rational over irrational...

posi
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Nov 29 2009 09:33

a bit off topic, but baboon - why aren't you in the ICC, you seem to be more in agreement with some of their positions that some of their members?

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Nov 29 2009 09:54
baboon wrote:
On another thread, there are some indications that an interest in Shamanism is another code-word, like “conspiracy theory”, to make out that the ICC is crackers, etc.

I think Ret is right on this. I don't think it was used to suggest the ICC are crackers at all.

Devrim

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Nov 29 2009 13:54

Mikail: that's a big question. There are certainly altered states which represent a regression to pre-rational levels; and in a sense all such states contain an element of a return to childhood. Freud for example located them in a reactivation of our lost infantile unity with the world prior to the emergence of the ego. However, I think there is another key dimension to this: the practice of 'training' of consciousness, of learning to remain awake in the course of such states, which goes right back to the training of shamans and was taken onto new levels in yoga and similar practices. The goal of such practices would in a sense be 'a return become conscious', to use Marx's phrase.

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Nov 29 2009 14:04
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The goal of such practices would in a sense be 'a return become conscious', to use Marx's phrase.

I would love to read where Marx to talk about that. Is it 844 manuscripts?

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Nov 29 2009 14:33

Two key quotes from Marx - obviously he is talking about history as a whole but I think the concept of a return become conscious, reproducing the truth of childhood at a higher level, contains a profound psychoanalytical as well as poetical truth and can also be applied to the realisation of the individual as much as of humanity as a whole.

"Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; [b]communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development[/b]. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution". (1844 MS, chapter on private property and communism)

"A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. [It] is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return".

(Grundrisse, Introduction)

Finally, Trotsky in his vision of communism in Literature and revolution:

"Man at last will begin to harmonise himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo Sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho physical training".

The techniques of "psycho-physical training" aimed at making the unconscious conscious have a long history and will not have to be invented from scratch in a future society. It is hard to believe that a communist humanity will not try to extract all that is 'rational' from the techniques and teachings that mankind has been experimenting with for millenia - all the way back to the paleolithic shamans in fact.
[/i]

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Nov 29 2009 17:35

Concerning the 'new animism', this article typifies the approach (can't load up the pdf, I'm afraid) - 'Re-enchanting Rock Art Landscapes: Animic Ontologies, Nonhuman Agency and Rhizomic Personhood' by Robert J. Wallis, in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture Vol. 2 - Issue 1 March 2009, pp 47-70.

The attribution (or recognition - depending how far you want to go with this) of animacy to seemingly 'inanimate objects' such as rocks would, in classical anthropological terms, be seen as fetishistic, the very discourse which Marx drew on in his description of 'the fetishism of commodities'. There's a paradox here because capitalist fetishism - the alienation of things from the context of their production described by Marx - is the inversion of the pre-capitalist fetishism which arises 'from the sense of organic unity between persons and their products' (M T Taussig 1980 The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America University of North Carolina Press, p77). Within commodity fetishism it is through the process of exchange that the products of labour 'acquire uniformity of values distinct from their... physical properties (Marx, Capital, emphasis added).

However, the new animism posits a 'pre-given', intrinsic quality - a subjectivity - to things which, from a Marxist perspective can only achieve such a status through human involvement. In other words, the new animism is not anthropocentric. Marx partakes of a tradition, traceable to Boehme via Hegel, and further back to the alchemists and hermetic philosophy, that conceives of 'nature' as being fallen, with the task of 'mankind' being to raise this fallen matter to its original paradisal state, a task recognisable in the kabbalistic concept of tikkun. This process is also dialectical in that 'the conduct of an individual life, a situationist action is not based on the abstract idea of rationalist progress (which, according to Descartes, "makes us masters and possessors of nature"), but on the practice of arranging the environment that conditions us. Whoever constructs situations, to apply a statement by Marx, "by bringing his movements to bear on external nature and transforming it... transforms his own nature at the same time"' ('The Sense of Decay in Art', unattributed article in Internationale Situationniste No.3, December 1959. Compare this to the statement of the alchemist Zosimo of Panopolis in the 3rd century CE: 'All things are brought together and all things are dissolved again for nature, turned towards itself, transforms itself' (from Alexander Roob 1997, Alchemy and Mysticism Taschen, p678).

I haven't worked out the full implications of this apparent disjuncture between the idea of a pre-given 'nature' and the idea of a fallen 'nature'.

One more paradox. Alienatio is the Latin term - 'estrangement' - sometimes used to translate the Greek ekstasis - ecstasy - the term commonly used to describe shamanic trance.

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Nov 29 2009 17:41
Quote:
One more paradox. Alienatio is the Latin term - 'estrangement' - sometimes used to translate the Greek ekstasis - ecstasy - the term commonly used to describe shamanic trance.

Etimology reveals an other mystery smile Very interesting...

baboon
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Nov 30 2009 22:33

Just three points of ramblings after coming out of the weekend’s trance – and incidentally, trance comes from the Latin transitus meaning “passage”.

First on the initiation of adepts into shamanism:
Again, there is no monolithic shamanism and its expression differs over even short distances, see below. But there are common, underlying trends in the path towards shamanism across the globe, whether the initiate was forced into it, was the result of hereditary position, or actively sought it out. They may have a slight physical deformity, subject to fainting fits, possess some mental of physical attribute, had a lucky escape from danger or illness, or just a curious child. The similarities in the initiation process become with the individual subjected to physical and mental stress usually through isolation, the resulting disposition starting them off on their journey to the spirit world. A ritual death and rebirth, possibly involving quartz, spears and arrows being “shot” into the body – there are representations of strange, human-like figures in the French Palaeolithic caves called “wounded men” that, without taking it too far, show a resemblance to St. Sebastian. In this trance state, the initiate would “die” so that he or she could move to another world. According to Eliade, this is the consecration of the shaman. If they emerge OK from this they will be reborn and the new shaman will come across “power animals” or spirit helpers and these will remain life-long assistants (Ripinsky-Naxon, 1993, 86). The full range of shamanistic powers will take many years to obtain and can only be the result of many tests and trials (James L. Pearson, 2005). There are still techniques to learn, and the oral traditions and myths of the people to understand, curing, plants, preparations, etc. These aspects of the initiation are constantly repeated during the trance, the altered state of consciousness because the shaman must learn to be in control of and the increase the intensity of their experience. The common route to the spirit worlds where the shaman transports their selves, is the trance – passage.

Secondly, I think one of the first things to underline in this discussion is the whole nature of the epoch of shamanism which definitely goes back over 30,000 years and maybe longer. Certainly, there’s archaeological evidence of some sort of “healer” in the Neanderthal caves of Shanidar some sixty thousand years ago (and equally, archaeological evidence of morality). But if we confine it to Homo sapiens we can reasonably say, that the last fifty thousand years have seen enormous advances in mankind. Any scientist dealing with this period worth their salt would see this period as very fruitful and some overegg it with adjectives like “explosion” or “revolution” largely underestimating what went on before. Whatever the exaggerations this was undoubtedly a very profound period for humanity. One development that most agree upon is the further advances that would have occurred in language. This would have arisen through the developments of the means of organisation and the means of production. It also posits the development of the mind and the development of a search for consciousness – a greater language means that there are many more questions to ask. Within this, I don’t think that shamanism would have been hierarchical in the sense we understand it today, but rather an independent development across the globe, not of a caste apart, but the expression of a significant development of the forward march of humanity (differentiations and tensions, yes, but a hierarchical priesthood, there’s not a scrap of evidence). Shamanism was not a static, monolithic religion but one that, from a certain fundamental basis, was part of society’s motor force over tens of thousands of years.

Thirdly, on Wellclose’ point about rock art and the cave painting’s relationship to the animals expressed in the “artistic” representations. The first striking point about the animals, therianthropes and humans depicted, is that there are no “natural” circumstances. There’s no grass, no trees, no cloud, etc., and I’ve only even seen one ground line and that’s extremely ambiguous. The animals depicted often seem to be “falling” or “floating”, or in unusual angles. Often their feet or hooves seem to melt away into nothingness or they are not depicted at all. There are some “compositions” of animals and though some are clearly male or female this doesn’t apply to the majority. Even when there’s a certain “natural” feature, as in the felines on the prowl in Chauvet, there’s other, smaller mammals incongruously included in the pride, and a very strange composition of other animals around them (incidentally, the evidence of Chauvet – one of the great expressions of cave art – is that these depictions were added to over time).
There’s a good case to be made for these paintings – and also engravings and portable art – being a means to enter the spirit world. A sort of membrane, according to D. Lewis-Williams, in which to meet the spirit helper and descend to the depths or soar to the heights. The significance of the cave wall is further underlined by the offerings put into the cracks and fissures: quartz (heavy with religious symbolism right up to the later Neolithic and its great stone monuments and representative of the sun); bone, ivory, flint and stone tools that have been coloured with pigment. The paint itself would have been a spiritual expression. These paintings have been constructed (from the evidence, including touch) to incorporate and use cracks, small holes, indentations, fissures and mounds, even if that means that the representations are made at unusual angles. The number of positive and negative hand prints on the wall point to the connection of the (different sized) individuals making them with the wall itself as the portal to the beyond. Many black and red dots seem to go in then appear out of the wall again around the depictions – as do geometric shapes and “signs”. These “signs” have been identified today in severe mental illnesses and altered states of consciousness induced by drugs or hypnotic states. Some animals depicted appear to be dramatically stepping out of the wall. Again, shamanism is not a monolithic religion: for example, Lascaux and Gabillou are not so far from each other and were in contemporary use – but there is no uniform structures, instead we see different expressions, different compositions that seem to be attributable to the topography of the cave, to the walls themselves.
Neither were the animals depicted the main part of the diet. The shaman could see the vision of the animals and “fixed” them onto the wall. The thing to remember about the development of language at this time is that all the animals that surrounded, fed and clothed the tribe, would have been talked about in some detail by the whole of the tribe, discussed, categorised somewhat and almost certainly dreamt about by everyone. The expressions of the shamans would be to explore this further and fix the animals onto the wall, or on to a rock face as a sort of two-way mirror in a relationship between man and animal that Alf mentions above. There’s ethnographic evidence that the animals painted and engraved, spoke to the shamans.

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Dec 1 2009 00:00
Quote:
Baboon wrote:
on Wellclose’ point about rock art and the cave painting’s relationship to the animals expressed in the “artistic” representations.

Actually, I was referring to the phenomenon of perceiving (or recognising) formations of rock (or any other form of matter regarded as an inert resource to be exploited) as 'being alive', independent of or prior to any human representation or intervention, which would appear 'fetishistic':

Quote:
The attribution (or recognition - depending how far you want to go with this) of animacy to seemingly 'inanimate objects' such as rocks would, in classical anthropological terms, be seen as fetishistic, the very discourse which Marx drew on in his description of 'the fetishism of commodities'. There's a paradox here because capitalist fetishism - the alienation of things from the context of their production described by Marx - is the inversion of the pre-capitalist fetishism which arises 'from the sense of organic unity between persons and their products' (M T Taussig 1980 The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America University of North Carolina Press, p77). Within commodity fetishism it is through the process of exchange that the products of labour 'acquire uniformity of values distinct from their... physical properties (Marx, Capital, emphasis added).

However, what Baboon says about the depiction of animals, therianthropes and their relationship to the permeable matrix of the rock (and, implicitly, the kinds of society in which all this emerges) is very interesting and demands further exploration. The study of the depiction of animals and humans in North American and Southern African rock art led to the formulation of the altered states of consciousness (ASC) hypothesis to interpret the context for the making of these images, a hypothesis extended to the interpretation of Palaeolithic cave art, most famously in the seminal text of 1988, by David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson, 'The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Art' (Current Anthropology 29: 201-245.

A certain amount of opprobrium from some quarters was generated by the appearance of this paper, the most vituperative of which was most likely motivated by the perception that it was some 'druggy' throwback to the sixties that didn't belong in a serious academic context, an argument related to the low status of studies of consciousness in a discipline (archaeology) bound by an empiricism (in both positivist and postmodernist forms) which only recognised the validity of tangible, physical evidence - 'How can we get inside the minds of ancient people?' is one rhetorical expression of this scepticism, to paraphrase a postmodernist, anti-humanist archaeologist, which is merely a restatement of arch positivist Lewis Binford's dismissal of any attempt to go beyond the physical evidence as 'palaeopsychology'. Similarly, to talk of 'the signs of all times' would be a red rag to any postmodernist who would deny any commonality between human beings at the same time, let alone for all time. For all its faults - and there are some - the ASC hypothesis (I'll summarise it another time, unless someone else wants to) - is relevant to any communist theory of human consciousness, with its identification of neurologically-generated (even here there's a reductionist problem of assuming 'closed' human bodies) images available to all people at all times, which is, in some ways a restatement of Boehme's 'signatures of all things' or the linguaggio commune sought by the Rosicrucians of the 17th century.

And so to bed...

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Dec 1 2009 02:06

Bataille>Marxism itself

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Dec 1 2009 10:08

Agree with Wellclose on the usefulness of the 'altered states' approach, above all considering how utterly neglected this dimension has been in understanding the past of humanity. I have also come across some of the rather spiteful accusations of 'new ageism' directed at people who have developed this approach.
Question about Marx and nature: "Marx partakes of a tradition, traceable to Boehme via Hegel, and further back to the alchemists and hermetic philosophy, that conceives of 'nature' as being fallen, with the task of 'mankind' being to raise this fallen matter to its original paradisal state, a task recognisable in the kabbalistic concept of tikkun"
I am familiar with the links between Marx and Boehme, and the kabbalistic influences on the latter. I also understand the notion that Marx saw man's future unification with nature as a kind of perfection of nature - "naturalisation of man, humanisation of nature" in the 1844 MS. But are you thinking of any particular references when you argue that Marx saw nature as "fallen"?

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Dec 1 2009 22:07
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Alf wrote:
Question about Marx and nature: "Marx partakes of a tradition, traceable to Boehme via Hegel, and further back to the alchemists and hermetic philosophy, that conceives of 'nature' as being fallen, with the task of 'mankind' being to raise this fallen matter to its original paradisal state, a task recognisable in the kabbalistic concept of tikkun"
I am familiar with the links between Marx and Boehme, and the kabbalistic influences on the latter. I also understand the notion that Marx saw man's future unification with nature as a kind of perfection of nature - "naturalisation of man, humanisation of nature" in the 1844 MS. But are you thinking of any particular references when you argue that Marx saw nature as "fallen"?

The best references I can proffer at the moment are an essay about Boehme in a book called something like Nature Religions Today, in which it is found that B's perception of nature is found to be radically divergent from that of, say, neopagans (ie 'fallen', and not something to be 'conserved', with all the political ramifications that can be inferred from that). Sorry to be vague on that, but the specific reference and some relevant quotes are in one of a number of notebooks lost in the general detritus somewhere - I will try to track it down. It would be too easy to infer that Marx shared a conception of 'fallen matter' because of the legacy of the dialectic from Hegel and Boehme. However, there is this extract from 'Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood' from the Rheinische Zeitung of 1842, where Marx explicitly uses alchemical metaphors (philosopher's stone... pure gold... lowest elemental mass):

We unpractical people, however, demand for the poor, politically and socially propertyless many what the learned and would-be learned servility of so-called historians has discovered to be the true philosopher's stone for turning every sordid claim into the pure gold of right. We demand for the poor a customary right, and indeed one which is not of a local character but is a customary right of the poor in all countries. We go still further and maintain that a customary right by its very nature can only be a right of this lowest, propertyless and elemental mass. (As of 2004 that document could be found at http://www.ex.ac.uk/Projects/meia/Archive/1842-RZ/1842-Wood/

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Dec 1 2009 22:11

Just looked up the above reference... well, whaddya know... it no longer exists... Will have to refer to said notebooks... sorry.

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Dec 2 2009 19:58

I can’t get into Altered States of Consciousness at the moment. I’ll leave to the weekend – it’ll be something to look forward to.

Just to reinforce the question raised above by Wellclose on the idea of many scientists who deal with prehistory; that Altered States... are a dead-end, and we can never possibly know what people were thinking in relation to Upper Palaeolithic cave art.
For a start, our minds today are, in all their fundamentals, exactly the same as those of fifty thousand years ago. The idea that we cannot begin to understand what was being thought or attempted through the archaeological evidence and theoretical discussion is a reactionary one. Regarding shamanism, it’s my opinion that this was an expression of a search for consciousness, using the spectrum of consciousness and this was one of the reasons for the exploration of the realms that they undertook, not just through the trance but also other elements of altered states. One point first; this is not to say that all cave and rock art are direct expressions of shamanism. From my point of view, and from the evidence, others in tribe would have been involved and the shamans, representing this world-view, pushed it to the limits.

The reactionary idea that we can’t possibly get into the minds of past societies and their expressions, this attack on theoretical and cognitive archaeology, is best answered in all its detail, in the French publication “Les chamanes de la prehistoire, textes integrale, polemique et responses”, by Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams (I don’t think that it’s been published in English). The weight of Clottes in this work is significant given his role in the scientific study of the Chauvet cave, a cave whose relatively recent discovery (along with Cosquer) dramatically underlined the complexity of religious and shamanistic expression many thousands years before the previous affirmations of the same. The polemic contained in the book is very much against the likes of Paul Bahn and his unscientific abuse against the development of cognitive archaeology summed up in one of his titles “Membrane or Dumb Brain”.

Like all basically reactionary and abusive “critiques”, Bahn’s ideas have a certain element of timeless truth about them: the need of humans to create, the need to perfect representations, the need to reflect daily life. Chauvet contradicts most of his views on its own. “Art for art’s sake” did not exist in the Upper Palaeolithic. In the ancient Australian traditions, there doesn’t appear to be any word for “art”. The images produced by divers aboriginal communities were those in the framework of a collective for a very precise aim. There are obviously individual painters of these images, some very skilled, but the concept of an individual “creator” producing “his or her” work is a relatively modern one and would have been an alien concept to these expressions. It’s doubtful if they were ever seen as “good paintings” etc., whatever their technical merit, because this wasn’t the purpose of their production.

Shamanism is not the expressions of great artists or gifted individuals (though it is something of the latter) but part of both a collective and necessarily individual quest. Above, the great “halls” of paintings and engravings were mentioned, signifying a collective experience. It’s quite possible that the archaeological evidence underestimates how much more of these there were in western Europe. Some years ago, I visited Combarelles in southern France, where the works were mainly very fine and moving engravings – another example of the topography of the cave determining the representations. The original, wider opening to the cave had collapsed thousands of years ago, but the rather snooty guide said that he understood there to be the remains of representations under the tonnes of rubble. Many of these caves see their wider entrances collapsing over time taking any evidence with them. The same is true of caves that remain intact but the wide openings having closer contact with the air and the elements would destroy pigment and eat away at any engravings. I know that this doesn’t prove anything because there’s no evidence but of those intact caves suffused with art the entrances, the “halls” are clearly the opening of the vortex. Looking at Lascaux for example, one can feel that one is being drawn into the mind. That’s the collective experience. For the shaman in an altered state of consciousness, a blob of paint on a slab of rock or an engraved “motif” on a piece of ochre could well have had a similar meaning.

The battles not yet won (and won’t be soon) against the reactionary views of the likes of Bahn, but the respected Colin Renfrew (Professor Lord Renfrew of Cainthorn!) can write: “Cognitive archaeology – the study of past ways of thought as inferred from surviving material remains – has to be our main approach to the development of human thought...” (Renfrew, 2007).

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Dec 2 2009 21:30
Wellclose Sq. wrote:
For all its faults - and there are some - the ASC hypothesis (I'll summarise it another time, unless someone else wants to) - is relevant to any communist theory of human consciousness, with its identification of neurologically-generated (even here there's a reductionist problem of assuming 'closed' human bodies) images available to all people at all times, which is, in some ways a restatement of Boehme's 'signatures of all things' or the linguaggio commune sought by the Rosicrucians of the 17th century.

Is this idea of "images available to all people at all times" a restatement of Jung's "collective unconscious"? And are, eg, trippy hallucinations thought to be a manifestation of such images?

Jung wrote:
“My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.” (Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious)

On "cognitive archaeology" - surely this will always be speculative, without being able to definitively "know' things in the way other forms of archaeology do?

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Dec 2 2009 23:15
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Ret Marut wrote:
Is this idea of "images available to all people at all times" a restatement of Jung's "collective unconscious"? And are, eg, trippy hallucinations thought to be a manifestation of such images?

In the context of the 'ASC hypothesis' in rock art studies, the answer to the first question is 'not as such', and to the second, 'yes', in that images perceived as a result of an induced trance (whether through meditation or 'psychoactive' substances) are considered to be part of a neurophysiological process which can be measured empirically. According to the ASC model the initial stage of 'trance' is characterised by the generation of geometric images - zigzags, lattices, spirals - which ultimately give way to 'iconic' images as the subject moves deeper into trance. Iconic images are basically representations of the things encountered in the life of the person having the experience, which vary with social context - visions of wolves, eagles, antelope, etc. may or may not predominate among those who have lived alongside them, while visions of airliners, cars, or bicycles, say, could be analogous images experienced in a modern context.

As for Jung, I'm sure there are those in the 'new age' and 'neopagan' movements who would turn to Jungian psychology for validation, or see such manifestations as a validation of his psychology, which makes much of the unconscious, as opposed to consciousness. As with any reappraisal of the whole heritage of human endeavour, a dialectical approach is necessary, rather than an atavistic 'return' to some supposed pristine state pickled in aspic (to paraphrase a certain person). I'm no expert on Jung, or psychology, for that matter, so I'll just throw in some random quotes from Ernst Bloch, a heterodox Marxist (albeit sometime Stalinist) who advanced the idea of an anticipatory consciousness of a new society, not afraid to look at unfulfilled dreams of the past ('undischarged utopian elements') for what they may offer the future, who certainly had no truck with the 'fascistically frothing psychoanalyst'.

Jung wasn't the only person to draw on the 'alchemystical' language to furnish him with terms like archetype (Hegel used it too), and the psychologist Herbert Silberer had already explored the Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts in the eponymous book of 1917. As for the unconscious - developed by Freud at an individual level, and universalised by Jung - Bloch found it an unsatisfactory medium for the articulation of anticipatory consciousness as it is a category into which something can only be pushed back, it consists of regression. Likewise, for Jung 'exclusively primaeval memories or... fantasies exist in the unconscious, falsely designated "archetypes"', which would rule out a priori the possibility of 'wishful images' reflecting the New rather than merely the accumulated psychological detritus of the past. (All chunks of Bloch here drawn from Hope and Its Hieroglyph: A Critical Decipherment of Ernst Bloch's Principle of Hope, by Richard H. Roberts, Scholars Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 1990).

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Dec 3 2009 02:57

this debate is very interesting.

I thing-assume a historical divergence has emerged in the debate between schamanism and animism.

I believe it can be said that animism is a pre-schamanistic religiousity where there is no speciliziation and probably no social division of labor between man and woman. In that sense "animist" extasic feeling -if that existed at all- did not requir a mediation, probably it was just a perception. On the other hand schamanist religiosity -I say religiousity since it is not a proper religion- seem to emerge with sexual division of labor. I am reading something on the "ancient turkic societies" where the author claims that the early forms of schamanism was not necessarily developed on the basis of a segregated society. However schamanistic cosmology of turkic social formations seem to be based on the differentiation between "gök" (sky you may call it) and "yer" (land) which represent a masculine and feminine differentiation in the origin of creation. Obviously the segregation does not necessarily imply a patriarchal social order. However a lost unity between genders seemed to be the source of cosmology. Further, it may be said that the "trans" or "ASM" developed in rituals tried to acquire this unity through reaching out sky in order to come over a problem;

This problem -usually sickness of an individual- was perceived as the problem of the collectivity.

Anyway if any of things I wrote above has any relevance, I wonder can it be said that the lost unity with nature was something already in awareness of the "primitive" and seen as the source of the individual-social problems? You may say that I am routing back to a rather conventional "alienation" paradigm. However I still find the ideas developed here very interesting and thought provoking.

Moreover the things that has been said on methodology by baboon wellclose such as;

Quote:
The reactionary idea that we can’t possibly get into the minds of past societies and their expressions, this attack on theoretical and cognitive archaeology

I cannot agree more on that. I think it is heideggerian thought basically, on which this reactionary post modernist approach ground itself. This nazi essentialism later on adopted by levinas and derrida imply that one can not reach beyond the other without oppressing its essence. And the enlightenment rationality is itself nihilistic since it tries to expand its self onto the other through this rationalistic universality. I think this is an interesting topic in itself.

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Dec 3 2009 07:18

I just remembered a funny thing;

Some months ago I was reading an etymologhist's book on the origins of christianity. I forgot the name of the author and the book. Funny think is, he was saying that christianity was origined from early Sumerian rituals done with mushrooms and the name of the christ was coming from a mushroom itself. It is funny to imagine the christian-jewish revolts against Romans were origined from a mushroom extasic trans seance smile

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Dec 3 2009 05:59

Wasn't that John Allegro The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, or something close? I In my recollection he overstates his case and, perhaps because of this, got a lot of media publicity.
When I have more time I would like to come back to Wellclose's point about Freud developing the individual unconscious and Jung the collective unconscious. This is certainly how Jung presents it, but Freud always held that the "the content of the unconscious is collective anyhow" (Moses and Monotheism). His ideas of the id and the "archaic heritage" confirm this. The essential difference between the two is not there, I think, but in Jung's abandonment of the notion of repression, which is key to understanding why there is a separation or conflict between the ordinary waking state and the contents of the unconscious, a separation reflected in what are probably very ancient myths about shamanism (ie the idea of a lost access to the other world which can only be regained through training, ritual, etc).

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Dec 3 2009 07:07
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Wasn't that John Allegro The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, or something close? I In my recollection he overstates his case and, perhaps because of this, got a lot of media publicity.

yes it should be that one smile

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Dec 3 2009 19:19
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'How can we get inside the minds of ancient people?' is one rhetorical expression of this scepticism, to paraphrase a postmodernist, anti-humanist archaeologist
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Baboon wrote:
The idea that we cannot begin to understand what was being thought or attempted through the archaeological evidence and theoretical discussion is a reactionary one.
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mikail firtinaci wrote:
I cannot agree more on that. I think it is heideggerian thought basically, on which this reactionary post modernist approach ground itself. This nazi essentialism later on adopted by levinas and derrida imply that one can not reach beyond the other without oppressing its essence.

Mikail is spot on with the heideggerian diagnosis, as the archaeologist I was paraphrasing is an arch-heideggerian (combined with a cocktail of Gadamer, Althusser and 'historical materialism') - the upshot being that 'subjectivity' is an externally imposed condition.

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Alf wrote:
When I have more time I would like to come back to Wellclose's point about Freud developing the individual unconscious and Jung the collective unconscious. This is certainly how Jung presents it, but Freud always held that the "the content of the unconscious is collective anyhow" (Moses and Monotheism).

Just to say that I was presenting someone else's take on it in the context of their interpretation of Bloch's interpretation... I'm no expert...

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Dec 3 2009 21:30

I don't have time to go back and read and make references, but here are some points regarding points above from memory:

The idea that Upper Palaeolithic parietal animal representations can be classified according to masculinity/femininity, breaks down very quickly once the evidence is looked at.

The cultural situation would greatly affect the "visions" seen under ASC. It would depend on the time, the place and the culture. For example, some research has been done, quoted somewhere in D. Lewis Williams "The Mind in the Cave" that shows that modern humans in the west, in deep ASC often "see" a fox. But the similarity with Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, as expressed in their portable and parietal art, is that they really feel that they are the fox (or whatever beast) and this is the melting of the shaman under ASC into the spirit helper. I.e., the beast is not coming along for the ride, but is one and the same as the "visionary".

On the similarities between the Upper Palaeolithic caves and modern day churches, I think that these are interesting: the hall (where the majority are), the vestibules and apses, the stain-glass windows, incense, acoustics, chanting, percussion and I'm sure there are others and this is also so for comparisons with the Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic "temple"structures.

Just a secondary point on the Christian cross, which I think developed from the stone-age axe of some six hundred thousand years ago. The Acheulian hand axe, not an axe at all, was definitely symbolic at that time. This very important symbolism develops throughout time into it's expression in the Neolithic buildings of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, into a sort of "t" and it's my pure speculation that Christianity capured this (as they did many expression of prehistoric religions), used it to their advantage (a sort of Christian physc-ops), and turned it into the cross.

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Dec 4 2009 18:21
Wellclose Sq. wrote:
According to the ASC model the initial stage of 'trance' is characterised by the generation of geometric images - zigzags, lattices, spirals - which ultimately give way to 'iconic' images as the subject moves deeper into trance. Iconic images are basically representations of the things encountered in the life of the person having the experience, which vary with social context - visions of wolves, eagles, antelope, etc. may or may not predominate among those who have lived alongside them, while visions of airliners, cars, or bicycles, say, could be analogous images experienced in a modern context.

It seems like 'geometric images' could become 'iconic images'? If we suppose that there is an attempt to physically reproduce the autogenerated hallucinatory patterns and that labour then brings them into material existence - eg, as Indian mandala patterns or celtic knotwork carvings etc - then they cease being merely internal mental phenomena and become part of the currency of cultural symbolism in circulation. Or are 'iconic images' only of mobile things/beings?

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Dec 4 2009 23:13
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Ret Marut wrote:
It seems like 'geometric images' could become 'iconic images'? If we suppose that there is an attempt to physically reproduce the autogenerated hallucinatory patterns and that labour then brings them into material existence - eg, as Indian mandala patterns or celtic knotwork carvings etc - then they cease being merely internal mental phenomena and become part of the currency of cultural symbolism in circulation.

It would be wrong to say every image ever depicted arose from an altered state of consciousness (but then that begs the question as to what levels of consciousness we tap into when, say, doodling, etc.), but you've got a point. The spiral is a common image in different media around the world throughout history, in many cases, I'm sure, part of a formalised repertoire (which may or may not have had a prototype as 'internal mental phenomena', notably as a depiction of the 'vortex' or 'tunnel' phenomenon, which in the ASC model can mediate between the stage of perceiving abstract geometric imagery and the onset of figurative - iconic - images of people, animals, objects, etc.).

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are 'iconic images' only of mobile things/beings?

When I listed things possibly encountered imagically in altered states in modern contexts, perhaps I should have added lampstands, game pie dishes and TVs to offset the 'mobile bias'.

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Dec 5 2009 18:30

On the question of altered states of consciousness:

There’s not just a “genuine” day to day waking consciousness, considered “normal” and “rational” and an altered state as a thing apart, less relevant to reality, but there appears to be all parts of the spectrum of consciousness from day-dreaming, reverie, fantasy, falling-asleep (hypnagogic) and sleep-dreaming, particularly REM – all states of daily consciousness. Most archaeologists only see an awake “rational” consciousness. There is a spectrum which overlaps, just as the colour spectrum overlaps (the are seven colours of the light spectrum only because Newton, who was colour blind, saw it as a significant number in Renaissance thought). The hypnagogic state can be visual and aural. During the day, we repeatedly shift from outward to inward directed states of consciousness. There’s evidence (Laughlin et al, 1992) that we move from outward to inward directed states in cycles of 90-120 minutes. Such above, is the “normal” spectrum of consciousness.

Sensory deprivation produces another element of consciousness that causes hallucinations within a couple of hours and which tends to force the mind to focus on the smallest detail, possibly by touch if available or as in eastern-type meditations with a repeated mantra. Constant drumming, rhythmic dancing, flashing or flickering lights have a similar effect. Added to these effects on consciousness can be pain, fasting and psychotropic substances. These are all “perverted” altered states of consciousness and, as David Lewis-Williams points out (“The Mind in the Cave – I don’t agree with all he wrote, but this post leans heavily on it), carries a lot of cultural baggage in modern western society – “new-ageism” and stuff.
The spectrum of consciousness is wired into the brain but its expression can be culturally specific; D.L-W points to the differences between the vivid hallucinations of Hildegaard of Bingen and her familiarity with their content, and the Inuit who will see the animals of the region speaking to them.

In the Upper Palaeolithic of western Europe (as in studies today), we see the first stages of ASC, which are not culturally specific but more hard-wired into the brain: zig-zags, dots, grids, meandering lines (painted, fluted and engraved) that surround and overlay the painted or engraved animal expressions on the cave wall. These “signs” can be experienced on their own with the eyes open or closed (as in migraine attacks). In laboratory conditions, these signs have been shown to rapidly merge into one another and are, as Wellclose says, entoptic (within vision) phenomena. These can be induced by simply pressing on the eyeball. Hallucinations, however, come from a range of all, or some, of the five senses. In the second stage of ASC, the nervous system itself becomes another “sense” that produces more images that can include the entoptic but these signs can be fashioned by the brain to particular feelings of the subject, food, sexual objects and so on.
In stage 3, many people experience a tunnel, a vortex, a hole that draws them in and the outside is progressively shut out (the Pentagon was conducting research into this realm at least 10 years ago). Here hallucinations take over from entoptic phenomena; lights, colour, moving “panels” on the side of the tube showing sorts of beings are common experiences. Many shamanistic rituals tell of this stage 3 element, particularly the tunnel, hole and vortex and whatever the cultural surroundings, these are part of a universal human experience. For the shamans, it was the means down through the earth, through the water, through the roots of the tree, the pathway to the spirit world. There are many expressions of this in ethnographic experiences.
Entoptic phenomena persist in stage 3 and some of these iconic images can take on the geometric entoptic signs. The images here can blend into the images of animals and undergo another transformation.
The 3 stages are not necessarily sequential but are accumulative.

While these foregoing elements of ASC described above, along with the reasonably easy potential to hallucinate from stimuli, or lack of it, and while they can be cultural specific, in anatomically modern humans, ASC seems to be a psychobiological capacity of the species. In fact it could be argued that it’s a necessity. Shamanism points to a need – we can see it with the hunter-gatherers of the Upper Palaeolithic – to make some sense of the shifting stages of consciousness. These stages are not only restricted to the trance, and do not necessarily involve all 3 stages, can be “light” or “heavy” and the shaman learns to consciously adapt and control them, consciously increasing the vividness and content of their mental images. Hunter-gatherer shamans at least 33 thousand years ago quite possibly expressed the beginning of religion (if you remove the baggage from the word religion) itself. Peter Furst, (1976, see also 1972) a research associate of the Harvard Botanical Museum, writes: “It is at least possible, though certainly not provable, that the practice of shamanism... may have involved from the first – that is the very beginning of religion itself, the psychedelic potential of the natural environment”. Leaving aside psychotropic plants to alter consciousness, James McClenon (1997) writes: “Shamanism... the result of cultural adaption to biologically based (altered states of consciousness), is the origins of all later religious forms”. Weston La Barre (1980 – see also Winkleman 1992) comes to a similar conclusion: “All the dissociative ‘altered states of consciousness’ – hallucinations, trance, possession, vision, sensory deprivation and especially REM-state dreams – apart from their cultural and symbolic content, are essentially the same psychic states found everywhere among mankind;... shamanism or direct contact with the supernatural in these states... is the de facto source of all revelation, and ultimately of all religions” (all quotes from David Lewis-Williams, 2002).

It’s my hunch, that the beginning of religion goes back some time before it’s evidenced in the cave art of western Europe some thirty millennia ago.