shamanism

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Wellclose Square
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Dec 5 2009 20:32
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Baboon wrote:
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.

Trust me to flog the book it was in, but it's my hunch that there was a Neanderthal cave burial in the Middle East, which was covered in flowers.

Also:

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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.

Is that Charles H Laughlin, who elaborated the concept of 'the quantum sea' to describe a kind of 'field of consciousness' in which 'everything' is involved?

baboon
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Dec 6 2009 20:20

Marx said something like ‘whoever understands religion, understands the world’. So the very origins of religion, of our ancestors generally, must be of interest to communists. In fact I’m like a dog with two dicks with this discussion – like a mental dog with two dicks.

Shanidar is the cave you’re referring to Wellclose – very interesting. What’s interesting is that the cave was inhabited by at least nine individuals of the species Homo neanderthalensis about 60,000 years ago. It provides almost unmistakable evidence of morality and care for the weak. Was the “curer(s)” ‘shamanistic’? It’s a possibility given that shamanism is not monolithic. David Lewis-Williams more or less denies the possibility for Neanderthal to have religious thought. I’m not up on the latest DNA and neurological research in the species of our nearest cousins, but generally, despite the great prejudice against them, evidence seems to mount of Neanderthal capabilities. The evidence for burials is certainly sparse and there is no evidence of man-made imagery. But if they knew about healing plants, they’d have known about the psychotropic. Three hundred thousand years ago, at Terra Amata near Nice, where the first certain hearth was found, Homo erectus fashioned a piece of red ochre over a fire in order to produce a rounded “paint-stick”.
But back to Shanidar and its Neanderthal inhabitants: do the varieties of the eight different pollen grains found with a male burial, seven of them medicinal, point to an understanding of the properties of flora and ritual behaviour or not? There are some archaeologists that say the grains were blown in by the wind or that they were brought in by burrowing animals. It’s hardly credible and those involved in the dig and others argue that it was deliberate intervention. It would have taken a hurricane to blow in bouquets of different flowers more than fifteen metres into the cave and the evidence is that they all came in around the same time.
Evidence of injury is present in almost all of the almost completed skeletons in the cave, ranging from young infants to the very old. There’s a whole range of injuries and degenerative diseases. One man has head injuries and the right side of his body crushed. He had infection and partial paralysis, blind in his left eye and would have been severely disabled. Yet he lived for several years with these injuries and was obviously cared for. I think that it’s quite possible that there was a ritual aspect to this cave and a certain underestimation of capabilities of the species. The Shanidar cave in northern Iraq and La Ferrassie in southern France had multiple Neanderthal burials over a long period of time.

If we think that a study of pre-history is important to us today then one of the questions to ask is what do we mean by religion during that period? We have Marx’s definition (and much else) on the “opium of the people” and the “sigh of the oppressed”, which is largely its development. What is religion’s relationship to symbolism for example – the first nailed-on expression of symbolism is the six hundred thousand year old Acheulean axe. Religion has been defined by symbolism for a long time and you can say that the period above would have seen productive capacities refined and adapted and the movement in consciousness that that implied. Slow, yes, but sure. For about million years, up to a few hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors survived in what must have been the most surreal circumstances; sabre-tooth tigers about 40% bigger than tigers today. Storms and natural calamities would have been awesome. They must have had fire – they wouldn’t have made it otherwise. Some archaeologists almost mock the fact that their stone tools went almost unchanged over a million years. I think on the contrary it’s a tribute to their tenacity and consciousness that they survived in such circumstances. And anyway the Acheulean axe was less of an axe and more like a Swiss army penknife. Would these people have had a religion? I think that it’s quite possible given the world they lived in; given that they must have had some form of language and communication – sitting around the fire, trying to make sense of the world and their condition. There won’t be any clear evidence of it but I think that a form of religion existed a long way back in the Middle Palaeolithic and it would have been a cohesive and strengthening force.

On Laughlin Wellclose, it’s Charles Laughlin so I’m assuming it’s the same guy.

baboon
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Dec 6 2009 20:32

Sorry, the above source for the Shanidar cave stuff was James L. Pearson "Shamanism and the Ancient Mind".

jaycee
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Dec 7 2009 15:57

a few (slightly random) thoughts

i think it is an interesting question to ask what the reason for the 'specialisation' of shamans was. Why was it that even in primitive communist society it was only a select few who could dedicate there lives to attaining higher states of consciousness? in the mythology of such societies they seem to recognise the fact that this is was unsatisfactory to some extent because in the myths of paradise, in the begining all humans were able to communicate with the gods, animals etc.

do you (people here generally) think that in a future communist society this could be overcome or do you think it will simply always be the case that some people are more able and willing than others to attain these states in a prolonged and dedicated way.

On the subject of kabalah i think the important connection between it and marxism is in the general historical view of man as a being who is destined to become an increasingly perfect reflection of god, and in doing so makes nature a more perfect reflection of heaven (the fact that Marx didn't beleive in God or heaven doesn't really change his general agreement with this world view).

also i've been trying to find a quote from Meister eckart which i remember from a book i've since lent to a friend where he gives a very good description of alienation almost identicle to marx's. something along the lines of 'any act which does not derive from mans innermost being distances him from his soul and god'

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Dec 7 2009 16:26

Don't Shaman's still exist today?

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mikail firtinaci
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Dec 7 2009 18:06

a quick note about this;

Quote:
On the subject of kabalah i think the important connection between it and marxism is in the general historical view of man as a being who is destined to become an increasingly perfect reflection of god, and in doing so makes nature a more perfect reflection of heaven (the fact that Marx didn't beleive in God or heaven doesn't really change his general agreement with this world view).

What differed heteredox religions and Marx was for Marx there was absolutely no ideal perfection that is attainable for humans. On the contrary for marx human nature was always in transformation and the "ultimate point" for humanity to be reached for him was the ultimate creativity and control over one's own nature-environment. In that sense yes, some heteredox religious sects also searched for this kind of a creativity. Like some sects in british revolution who wanted to expand the science of alchemy -ie; science itself- in order to foster the creativity of everyone etc. However the understanding is one between materialism and idealism obviously...

jaycee
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Dec 7 2009 18:21

its true that marx would not have viewed the question as one of an ultimate end but he did view history as a movement towards human fulfilment, when God as the projection of mankinds 'higher' or 'potential' self' would be incorporated back into man as him self. In the words of a member of a mystical heretical sect in medieval europe 'the adepts of the free spirit: "at the highest point of being God himself is abolished in himself and by himself."

Wellclose Square
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Dec 7 2009 19:45

Baboon, thanks for the info on Shanidar, etc. Like you, I'm 'loving' this discussion...

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jaycee wrote:
i think it is an interesting question to ask what the reason for the 'specialisation' of shamans was. Why was it that even in primitive communist society it was only a select few who could dedicate there lives to attaining higher states of consciousness? in the mythology of such societies they seem to recognise the fact that this is was unsatisfactory to some extent because in the myths of paradise, in the begining all humans were able to communicate with the gods, animals etc.

do you (people here generally) think that in a future communist society this could be overcome or do you think it will simply always be the case that some people are more able and willing than others to attain these states in a prolonged and dedicated way.

That's not a question I can really get to grips with at the moment... wish I had more time. The question of ritual specialisation, though, was brought into play in the conflict between an expansive Tibetan Buddhism (otherwise known as Lamaism) and Buryat/Mongolian shamanism from the 16th century onwards. For instance, in shamanism only the shaman was able to ask the magical forces for a delegation of their powers (Heissig 1953: 530); some Buddhist missionary activity, aimed 'primarily at a superficial attraction of the broader masses', involved the teaching of 'the most secret doctrine' to laypeople (ibid.: 527, 528). It was not unusual for attending laypeople at tantric services to know the particular spell for conjuring up the tantric god (ibid.: 528). (Heissig, W. 1953. 'A Mongolian source to the Lamaist suppression of shamanism in the 17th century. Anthropos 48 (1-29): 493-536).

On the difference between Marx's attitude to religion and that of Enlightenment atheism a la Voltaire, Loren Goldner's written a very interesting piece - The Renaissance and Rationality: The Status of the Enlightenment Today. He identifies the romantic idealist currents which flowed into Marxism, tracing them back to the 'Renaissance-Reformation cosmobiology' associated with Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, Paracelsus and John Dee, among others, and argues for the reappropriation of these perspectives as opposed to abstract rationalism on the one hand, and anti-Enlightenment postmodernism on the other. http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/renaissance.html My only complaint is the print's a bit small.

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Dec 7 2009 21:11
Wellclose Square wrote:
Just looked up the above reference... well, whaddya know... it no longer exists... Will have to refer to said notebooks... sorry.

http://web.archive.org/web/20050317033536re_/www.ex.ac.uk/Projects/meia/Archive/1842-RZ/1842-Wood/

The web archive site is very useful for dead links

baboon
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Dec 7 2009 22:59

Hiya Jaycee.

I think that your question of a "select few" is loaded. It seems to be that the attainment of different levels of consciousness is an attribute of all humanity and shamanism itself seemed to make a very useful contribution to society. It doesn't make the shamans an elite or gifted individuals but the organised expression of a religion that was very important. They were also healers and their burials show that they were an important part of the community.
There were contradictions in hunter-gatherer society that eventually undermined it - it couldn't carry on as before. What levels the mind could rise to in a communist society is an interesting question but it would have to be much greater than today and possibly endless. But it would be in the framework of the collective because that's how we would have got there.

Just a point above on how far religion goes back. I had a quick shufti today and there's bundles of evidence of ritual expression going back into the Middle Palaeolithic and hundreds of thousands of years ago. I'll return to this.

The Outlaw - how ya doing partner? Yes, I think that there are still elements of shaman and expressions of shamanism today in different, more remote parts of the world. But these small expressions are being encroached on, removed or wiped out.

Wellclose Square
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Dec 7 2009 23:01
Quote:
888 wrote:
http://web.archive.org/web/20050317033536re_/www.ex.ac.uk/Projects/meia/Archive/1842-RZ/1842-Wood/

The web archive site is very useful for dead links

Nice one! You're a diamond!

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Dec 7 2009 23:51

It's true that shamanism is the expression of a collective practice and experience; I hesitate to describe this as a religion because for me the term has connotations of a creed tied to a state, whereas we are talking about a primitive communist society. At the same time the forms of shamanism that Wellclose describes in his last post (in Mongolia, Siberia etc) is already a society where private property has begun to develop within the shell of the old communal relations, largely through ownership of herds, and it is noticeable that in these social formations shamanism seems to become more of a specific 'profession'.

It has to be said that among anthropologists who accept the term primitive communism - probably a small minority today - there are different views about which form is more archaic (and thus likely to be closer to the forms that existed in palaeolithic times). For Alain Testart, who wrote a major work 'le communisme primitif', this term can really only be applied to the Australian aborigines, largely because of the way the social product is distributed among them. And yet at the same time he sees aboriginal society as being a form of gerontocracy in which the sacred rituals are to some extent at least controlled by the (old) men. For Chris Knight on the other hand, the 'model' of primitive communism is more the Bushmen of the Kalahari, where there is a more collective access to the ecstatic dance; in his view, Australian society had already been through a kind of male 'counter-revolution' which greatly reduced the status of women, and thus of their rituals.

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Dec 8 2009 00:14

I'm fucking great comrade, so basically everything came from Shamanism/Mysticism?

RedHughs
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Dec 8 2009 05:55

Ah,

I finally noticed this thread.

It's a huge topic.

My general impression is that "primitive" and shamanic societies had a wide of range of structures. I think part of this is that pre-agricultural humans adopted to their environment in huge variety of ways. It was agriculture and the domestication of animal that allowed a uniformity to appear through the human being's ability to re-shape their environment according to their means of production rather than using a pre-existing means of survival.

Another thing that's quite interesting is that while Western "Abrahamic" religions tended arise specifically against earlier shamanic orders, other religions such as Hinduism involved much more integration of shamanic structures into an overall "civilized" and developed religion.

In his fascinating pamphlet on shamanism, ALF makes considerable reference to psychoanalysis. This deserves a thread of it's own.

I'll read more of the thread and comment further...

jaycee
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Dec 9 2009 12:17

hi baboon: i didn't mean to suggest that shamnism was seperate to the community or stood above the community like a preistly class, but to make the point that shamans were still selected to become shamans i.e not everyone could be one. In the myths as i said before the gifts of the shamans were once open to all people without the necessity of becoming a shaman and undergoing training etc. the questionis then why this was, why could all people in the tribe not be trained in the arts of shamanism? how much was this down to any social limitations of primitive communism and how much is it just a simple fact of certain individuals being uniquely suited to the 'calling' and certain individuals being unsuited.

My point basically boils down to, What in the future communism could be different which would offer more of a chance for the full development of all individuals (in this case in terms of development of consciousness)?

as a side note i found the quote from meister eckart which i think is very interesting it is : "work that does not come from your inmost self is dead...if a mans work is to live it must come from the depths of him-not from alien sources outside himself-but from within".

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Dec 9 2009 19:47

I wrote:

Quote:
As for the unconscious - developed by Freud at an individual level, and universalised by Jung

Alf Wrote:

Quote:
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).

Had I re-read my copy of The Decadence of the Shamans I would have seen that gone into on page 32 - 35.

I came across an essay by Ken Frieden - 'Talmudic Dream Interpretation, Freudian Ambivalence, Deconstruction' - which suggests Freud's dream interpretation had much in common with ancient rabbinic-talmudic dream interpreters, particularly his use of wordplay and the method of free association. Frieden posits an 'anxiety of influence', in which Freud sought to disguise. It's an interesting essay, even if it is oriented to Derridean deconstruction. It's in The Dream and the Text(1993), edited by C S Rupprecht (State University of New York Press), pp 103-111.

jaycee wrote:

Quote:
My point basically boils down to, What in the future communism could be different which would offer more of a chance for the full development of all individuals (in this case in terms of development of consciousness)?

I wonder how far a study of movements like mesmerism ('animal magnetism') and spiritualism might offer some pointers. I've a book - still not got round to properly reading it (maybe the ideas from unread books will seep in through some unconscious process of osmosis) - called Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebeians 1850-1910 by Logie Barrow (RKP 1986), in the History Workshop Series. As the blurb says on the back, 'The most important element for the plebeian spiritualists was the emphasis on education and the belief that knowledge should be accessible to everyone'. All these issues have taken on a peculiar resonance for me today (cue a comment on libcommunity?), involving an 'apparition' perceived by a fellow worker, and a seriously freaky coincidence I encountered an hour later, which is associated with an ongoing crisis with a loved one.

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Dec 9 2009 22:32
Wellclose Sq. wrote:
...an 'apparition' perceived by a fellow worker...

http://libcom.org/news/bangladesh-militarized-factory-visions-devouring-demons-capital-15092008

baboon
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Dec 10 2009 00:03

I haven’t read Alain Testart but I think that the evidence of the social product being distributed among prehistoric peoples is far wider than the Australian aborigines. I think that ethnographic evidence further backs this up.

I do believe that it is useful to use, or rather try to define the term “religion” as far back as we can go in prehistory and I think that the cognitive approach is useful for that. Yes, religion has become the creed of states since the beginning of civilisation, but only because it was such a potent weapon for the oppressor classes to turn back and use against the masses as a form of social control. That doesn’t mean that we should we should not try to understand the very bases of religion which for me cannot be separated from the development of consciousness and the development of morality. The expression of religion, in which I would include shamanism or shamanistic rituals, prior to the appearance of the state (circa two thousand years ago) is a worthwhile area to try to understand.

Jaycee poses the question of who become shamans with the clarification that it’s not a priestly caste. This should be part of our research. I list some examples above but to these could be added mentally or physically afflicted individuals. In fact David Whitley, a respected American archaeologist, who has specialised in US rock art and shamanism seems to suggest in his book “Cave paintings and the Human Spirit”, that the root of all shamanism is some form of mental affliction. Being a bit of a mentalist myself, I would not agree with his analysis. But evidence from Upper Palaeolithic shaman like burials suggest that anyone could become a shaman. There are a couple of children for example buried with shaman like accruements. An example I have to hand, is the skeleton of a small and elegantly built woman in central Europe (Dolni Vestonice) about forty years old, which is very old for her time (twenty-three thousand years ago). Her face was deformed down the left side and, intriguingly, three, small carved mammoth ivory heads of a similarly deformed faced woman was found nearby. The burial was elaborate and even the placing of the body was ritual (to the rising sun and crouched). Her head and body was covered in red ochre with two mammoth shoulder blades over her. Next to her were stone tools, the tail and paws of an arctic fox in one hand and its teeth in the other. This seems to be similar to what are described as shaman burials by S. Piggot.

I think that the question of the social limitation of primitive communism raised by Jaycee is an important one, not least for preventing any “idealisation” of these societies. Because of these limitations at this time, while all and everyone could become a shaman – everyone shared the psychobiological potential for experiencing the spectrum of consciousness – only some were chosen and this could very represent part of these limitations, ie, they were the chosen, trained and venerated representatives of this consciousness and while they were supported by the community, this represented a certain division of labour due to the material circumstances and limitations of the time. I couldn’t begin to speculate about communism in this respect, but I would say that there will probably be gifted individuals, indeed, the ‘full flowering of the individual’, but on a far wider and deeper basis than allowed by the restrictions of primitive communism.

On Wellclose’ s point about spiritualism: I’m looking into the work of Alfred Russel Wallace at the moment – his work with Darwin, his analysis of evolution and the descent of man and so on. One of the aspects of his life that I find interesting is that a few months after coming up with the most radical scientific analysis of the time outside of the Communist Manifesto, he got into spiritualism, even falling for some of séances run by charlatans. How was that?

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Dec 10 2009 00:05

Could you say that the "oracles" in Ancient Greece are also "Shaman"?

baboon
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Dec 11 2009 11:06

I remain bewildered by the idea that primitive communism could only exist in Australia.

Just a couple more elements on Jaycee's point about who becomes a shaman: I think that there would have been many that dropped out of the process for various reasons - it wasn't pre-ordained. It would have been hard work and required a great deal of grief, dedication and patience. I imagine that there would have been many and varied reasons for not being able to go through with such onerous tasks.
Another element where shamans would have come from would have been the family. Some archaelogists present this as a sort of Jones and Son, like a self-employed plumber; while there well may have been a link between father and son and, more likely, mother and daughter, some research in this respect has been undertaken looking at amerindians, whose words for family also means the ancestors. I don't think that the element of the ancestors in shamanism should be underestimated.

I've found some references to the children's burials that I mention above in relation to religious practices - if anyone's interested. Five Upper Palaeolithic burials dated some 33 thousand years ago, in Sungir a hundred miles east of Moscow. Two of the burials of adolescents were placed on their backs with their hand across their pelvis. The boy (the analysis is a boy, White 1993) had stranded beads numbering nearly five thousand; he had a beaded cap with fox teeth attached. His decorated belt had 250 canine teeth of the artic fox. He was wearing a carved animal ivory pendent, an ivory statuette of a mammoth and, beside him lay an ivory mammoth tusk that had, amazingly, been straightened out and fashioned into a lance, which was probably too big and heavy to carry. The burial of the girl was accompanied by 5,274 mostly beads and other objects. David Lewis-Williams sees this as an expression of "leadership" and "social ranking". I see it as more profound than that.

I don't know enough about the Greek oracles to make any comparison with shamanism, but there could be some sort of connection into civilisation. I do remember reading something about the depths the oracles worked in being imbued with consciousness altering gases, including methane.

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Dec 11 2009 11:22

Outlaw: For the survival of shamanic traditions in ancient Greece (which certainly included the Oracle) you could check out The Greeks and the Irrational by E R Dodds.

I don't agree with Testart's way of looking at things, which seems too narrow. For him it comes down to the fact that among the Australians, the person who brings the kill to the camp has to surrender it to the community (via some very complex kinship relations) and has no rights over it; among the Bushmen, for example, the hunter who carried out the kill has more control over how the product is distributed.As I understand it, he sees this as a breach in the communist social relationship as it brings in an element of individual ownership But as Chris Knight and others have pointed out, what he calls the 'own kill' rule is, to a greater or leser extent, very widespread among hunting societies. There may be different forms through which the products of the hunt are distributed, but in essence they remain a communal product.

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Dec 11 2009 14:36
Alf wrote:
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'.

I don't think animism has really disappeared at all ... we've just pushed it into the background, it's a subconscious process that we tend not to notice.

For me, animism is pretty simple - its the anthropomorphizing of our environment, and we do it all the time without really being terribly aware of it. Reification is the most obvious example. But it's not just that. We get different feelings from different spaces, for instance, and tend to 'sense' qualities that are anthropomorphic - welcoming, hostile, sober and practical or intoxicating and weird, etc. And things, physical objects as well, especially those we interact with. If you're working on some task and whatever you're working with isn't co-operating, it can almost feel as if there's a battle of wills going on - even though there is only one will, your own, present.

Ancient animism is simply a formalization of these tendencies. They didn't have any means to actually know that natural processes weren't the result of conscious entities.

Imo, the whole thing relates to one of our species most unusual traits - theory of mind. A few other species have theory of mind, but human beings have it to an incredibly strong degree. Theory of mind, for those who don't know, is the awareness of other consciousnesses, of other minds with their own subjective experiences. It is an extremely powerful trait in human beings, developing very early (around age 3, I think). So powerful, that I think we see consciousness where it doesn't really exist. Probably related to some survival value - the hominid that saw movement in a patch of grass and dismissed it might have been snagged by a sneaky predator, where the other, who imagined conscious intent in everything, would have become suspicious that some conscious thing was behind the movement in the grass.

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Dec 11 2009 16:02

I agree with a lot of this, but when it comes to animals, there clearly is a consciousness at work, unless we take the Descartes view that they are mere automatons. A society which had a much more direct relationship with the animal world, and was in fact directly dependent on having a real empathy with the way animals perceived the world, necessarily produces a different understanding of the consciousness of our animal relatives.

edgewaters
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Dec 11 2009 16:18
Alf wrote:
I agree with a lot of this, but when it comes to animals, there clearly is a consciousness at work

Absolutely. But the thing about theory of mind is that it perceives these other consciousnesses, other minds, as essentially similar to our own ... ie a human-like consciousness. Animals are certainly conscious, but different species have different drives, different motivations, a different psychology. Theory of mind helps us to perceive these other consciousnesses but it doesn't help us to comprehend the distinctly different qualities of these other consciousnesses. We see things in human terms - this can readily be witnessed in how people anthropomorphize the behaviour of their pets.

Wellclose Square
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Dec 12 2009 00:00

Baboon wrote: 1

Quote:
Jaycee poses the question of who become shamans with the clarification that it’s not a priestly caste.

and 2

Quote:
I think that the question of the social limitation of primitive communism raised by Jaycee is an important one, not least for preventing any “idealisation” of these societies. Because of these limitations at this time, while all and everyone could become a shaman – everyone shared the psychobiological potential for experiencing the spectrum of consciousness – only some were chosen and this could very represent part of these limitations, ie, they were the chosen, trained and venerated representatives of this consciousness and while they were supported by the community, this represented a certain division of labour due to the material circumstances and limitations of the time.

and3

Quote:
I think that the question of the social limitation of primitive communism raised by Jaycee is an important one, not least for preventing any “idealisation” of these societies. Because of these limitations at this time, while all and everyone could become a shaman – everyone shared the psychobiological potential for experiencing the spectrum of consciousness – only some were chosen and this could very represent part of these limitations, ie, they were the chosen, trained and venerated representatives of this consciousness and while they were supported by the community, this represented a certain division of labour due to the material circumstances and limitations of the time.

There's a whole can of worms here, and there's no way I can do it justice, especially on a Friday night - it's essentially an open-ended collective/communal exploration... but a few musings on some aspects of the above.
1 In her studies of Mongolian shamanism Caroline Humphrey distinguishes between the liturgically-based Buddhist religion, largely aligned with a chiefly ethos, and the less formalised, non text-led practice of shamans - more subversive, more open to the vagaries of individual experience (a crude paraphrasis... I need to read back over this stuff). It's an area full of paradox - Buddhism can be seen as being universalist ('good'), while amenable to an expansive, chiefly dynamic exemplified by the successors of Ghengis Khan - there was even a 'Soviet' Lamaism ; while shamanism was more particular , with localised, 'unique' expressions ('bad'). Generalising these different ethoses to the 'perception of landscape', Humphrey contrasts a homogenised, chiefly geography, characterised by standardised forms of ritual sites, with a shamanic perception, where each place - tree, rock, bend in the river - has its own biography.
2 We all have the psychobiological potential for sharing the spectrum of consciousness. As a communist principle, I concur with that. How is that to be universalised in all its particulars? How is it that certain people appear to have a 'gift' in different societies - ancient and modern - who or what 'chose' them? Is it like certain people have a certain aptitude for music or maths (writing as someone who is semi-numerate and computer semi-literate), or having visions? Or is it something, given the right social circumstances, as per 3 can be developed by all, or should be developed by all?

It's certainly not a simple question of unthinkingly going back or forward, but going back and forward dialectically, based on incomplete knowledge...

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Feb 13 2010 21:09

Red Hughes wrote: "In his fascinating pamphlet on shamanism, Alf makes considerable reference to psychoanalysis. This deserves a thread of it's own".

Sorry to have taken so long to respond to this. Evidently I think that if we are seeking to understand the experience of the shamans, their standpoint on the world, we cannot afford to ignore the tools provided by psychoanalysis.

But I agree this deserves a thread of its own. We could start it by discussing the article on Freud recently published on the ICC website.

http://en.internationalism.org/ir/140/the-legacy-of-freud

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Alf
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Feb 13 2010 21:39

http://libcom.org/forums/theory/psychoanalysis-communist-movement-13022010

psychoanalysis thread started. But still happy to discuss the shamans. Hoping to get to Chris Knight's talk about the Australian aborigines' mythology on Tuesday, part of a series advertised on libcom.

http://libcom.org/forums/announcements/radical-anthropology-group-lectures-chris-knight-others-london-05012010

baboon
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Feb 17 2010 15:41

I’ve been looking at some stuff on the possible antiquity of shamanism, with maybe some indications of who became a shaman written by Matt J. Rossano backing up James McClenon’s analysis. I’ve read bits of McClenon and found him interesting and want to sum up his position with some interjections from myself on the mind’s past and the relation of shamanism(s) and ritual.

If we can reasonably be convinced, and I think we can, of the existence of shamanism through the expression of Upper Palaeolithic art some thirty thousand years ago (backed up by ethnographic evidence), then it’s very unlikely that this appeared out of nowhere, as a one-off in western Europe, the “creative explosion” posited by some. The roots of this “art” must go back much further than the Upper Palaeolithic.
McClenon underlines the importance of fire in social relations, not just in the chemistry of cooking, protection and so on, but as a focal point for collective gathering. This shouldn’t be underestimated. One of the skills of the shaman was the rekindling of fire from almost nothing; a bringing to life. Among the !Kung of the Kalahari, fortnightly healing dances took place around the fire with all involved but the shaman predominant. The trance state from the rhythmic dance conjured up the healing energy within the shaman and was directed to others. McClenon puts forward a strong argument that those who were receptive to such healing had an advantage in surviving physical and mental illnesses as well injuries and the traumas of childbirth.
To sum up the points he puts forward in support of this:
a. The universality of ritual healing practiced across traditional societies (and the independent development of such practices over the globe);
b. The involvement of hypnotic processes and Altered States of Consciousness;
c. “Hypnotisability” has measurable and heritable components (there’s no mystery why the Pentagon is a leading researcher into all of this);
d. Research indicating that ritual healing is very effective for a whole range of maladies and injuries (including burns, bleeding, skin disorders, gastrointestinal, etc., and childbirth pains);
e. Archaeological and comparative evidence of ritual, ASC and care of the sick in our pre-sapiens ancestry and in primates (there’s clear evidence of care of the sick in not just primates);
f. The earliest known medical texts from Mesopotamia and Egypt connect healing with religious ritual;
g. Healing from ritual associated with supernatural beliefs.

The possibility of the antiquity of shamanistic ritual is strengthened by the fact that it doesn’t need any sophisticated language – it is the nature of the ritual itself that’s important and that doesn’t mean a belief in any religion, God or theology. Nor does it need to be expressed in iconography, the latter probably grew out of it, but minimum verbal expression is required in the first place.
Campfire ritual would have focussed attention; chanting, dancing, just sitting in front of a crackling fire would have involved a unifying and beneficial social contact. The intense shamanistic ritual, flight, supernatural animal encounters and other such subconscious or altered state experiences directed towards healing could have been beneficial to those that “tuned into” it. There’s no doubting the dramatic effects of the placebo effect demonstrated by modern research into medicine. Also the known effects of consciousness-altering meditative ritual has been shown in the long-term effects on the parts of the brain that are critical to working memory and attention. This could have been responsible for the extended expression of Upper Palaeolithic art (it’s also possible that this whole process has a certain element of telepathy at work as is posed in the collective hunt). Improved memory is a good possibility from this and improved memory would have facilitated the long-term recollection of dreams and visions with their reintegration into the spirit world, then reintegration socially – the spirit world of the ancestors. Spiritual enhancement and all-round health benefits would have further enhanced the role of the shamans.

baboon
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Feb 26 2010 16:37

To go over some of the above regarding McClenon’s and Rossano’s positions and a possible evolutionary advantage to participation in shamanistic and maybe pre-shamanistic healing rituals.

The recollection of visions and dreams seems to have played an important part in the development of shamanism – as it would have played a positive role in the development of society as a whole. David Lewis-Williams in the “Mind in the Cave” shows that this recollection, this enhancement of working memory capacity, is demonstrated in the cave art of the Upper Palaeolithic as is the role of shamanism(s). There’s no doubt that these are remembered visions from ASC because under the latter such technical finesse couldn’t have been achieved the paintings, sculptures and etchings. Lewis-Williams highlights this development as a significant factor in the distinction between Sapiens and Neanderthal, the latter being “stuck” in the “remembered present”. The evidence of the flourishing cave art obviously underlines this view but it shouldn’t stop us from searching for the antiquity of shamanism and shamanistic type beliefs and rituals prior to the development of Anatomically Modern Humans. There’s evidence of body decoration and adornments in Neanderthals. Also of ritual burials, a form of language and definite evidence of a Neanderthal “healer” in a community over 60,000 years ago.

The antiquity of shamanism and shamanistic ritual goes back sixty thousand years (and archaeology always throws up surprises) but it could go much further back given its lack of need of ideology or sophisticated language – given that part of the power of it is beyond words and logic. It’s a belief in a healing spiritual power accessible through consciousness-altering ritual. The expression “n/um” among the !Kung, describes a powerful, mysterious healing spiritual energy.

Fire, not least from its social focal point, must have been central to this activity and its development. Often the shaman is depicted, with some justification, as a solitary figure, but here, in the enactment of ritual around the fire, shamanism would have been an important part of a collective experience and expression. A collective expression of bonding almost hypnotically around the jumping flames, chanting, dancing going into soul-flight, supernatural encounters and miraculous healing. Positive instinctual and communal benefits would have ensued and this raises the question of greater psychological and physical health benefits and a greater contribution to the general “fitness” of those that took part (and, very importantly, to their offspring’s in relation to the benefit given to childbirth). This further raises the question that shamanistic ritual (or something like it) goes back a very long time – long enough to affect and strengthen the collective instincts of hominines, their consciousness and their genetic make-up.

Wynne and Coolidge (2003, 2004), Coolidge and Wynne (2005) and Klein (1995) reckon that a genetic mutation enhancing working memory best explains the fluorescence of symbolism in the Upper Palaeolithic. The health enhancement of shamanistic ritual could have paved the way and provided the emergence and spread of such a mutation (Rossano, 2007b).

The enhancement of working memory, surely a slow but profound development, took consciousness to another level and deepened the instincts of solidarity among society with the element of the supernatural world of nature and the ancestors deepened also. This was a positive force and not an ideology. The campfire rituals enhanced working memory and so on in a positive feedback loop. Enhanced memory/consciousness reinforced the role of the ritual with the “price” (well worth paying) of opening up to more spiritual worlds and expressions. For me this is a significant mark of human evolution and the “escape” from evolution through the development of consciousness and solidarity. The development of consciousness and the positive results of ritual-induced health and well-being benefits raise the question of shamanism, or something like it, being a very ancient expression. Although neither researched greatly into it, both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, noted the positive evolutionary effects of the “old religions” within the descent of man.

baboon
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Mar 1 2010 21:15

News just in...

A monkey in Africa was seen dancing around a fire...

Charlotte Uhlenbroek, in an article based around an interview with Jane Goodall in last week’s “New Scientist”, writes: “Most recently there was a report of a Fongoli chimp performing a ‘fire dance’ in response to a bush fire, similar to the slow-motion display that Gombe chimps carry out during rainstorms. This kind of cultural variation may well give us an insight into how behaviours are transmitted socially, rather than through individual learning or genetic transmission and has implications for our understanding of early hominid evolution.”

Also in this issue of New Scientist is an article headlined “Stone Age Code – How we missed the origins of writing”. This reports on research into the “signs”, geometric shapes, scribbles and finger-tracings that under or overlay, surround and seemingly “connect” Upper Palaeolithic cave art and was carried out by the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Following David Lewis-Williams in “The Mind in the Cave”, I have long thought that these “signs” have been greatly underestimated in research into cave art. The UoV has done good work in looking at these symbols – 146 sites in France alone have been looked at covering a period of twenty thousand years. Their research also shows something that D. L-W points out: the global nature of this symbolism: the Americas, Europe, Africa, India, China, Malaysia and Australia.

The research posits these signs, etc., and their grouping as a precursor for a written language, long since thought to be a mark of civilisation itself. Abbreviating part of a thing to express the whole is known as synecdoche and is common to known pictorial language and grouping and is a feature of early civilised pictorial languages. These forms of synecdoche and groupings have been established by the team in and around European cave art up to thirty-three thousand years ago.

I have no doubt about the validity of this research but, again following Lewis-Williams, I think that this symbolism has another dimension. Around the UofV research a disagreement has emerged about their common origin or at least excepting prehistoric art in Australia from it. I think that this is a false argument because the common origin lies not only in written language development (which I believe it does), but in the neurologically generated visions at a particular stage of ASC. Many of these painted signs and symbols that are expressed in prehistoric art globally are “seen” in some mental illnesses, under hypnosis, psychotropic drug use and in various consciousness altering experiences. They are what Lewis-Williams calls “entoptic” – within vision – phenomena occurring between the brain and the eye. To argue that “Australia is different”, Australian exceptionalism, seems a nonsense argument to me in that if a brain exists then so does its common neurological expressions. And, like a precursor to written language, these signs and symbolism would not have been a fixed template but culturally adapted and expressed in different manners. This is obviously the case in one area alone of prehistoric France, let alone between the Americas and Australia say.

To relate this to the collective nature of shamanistic experiences and their wider role in society: without going into all the detail, an expression of this entoptic phenomena (and entoptic is only one stage of ASC and just one element of shamanistic experience), one symbol of the African San can be demonstrably linked to a shaman “medicine” trance-dance used in a healing ceremony.
The San used entoptic phenomena, “abstract” expressions of altered-states and integrated them into the material world. This fusion can be seen in “threads of light” in widely dispersed rock art. These are spaced over distances too far to be a singular expression and the paintings are identical: they show uniformity of width and line, as well as spacing. As Lewis-Williams says, these “threads” “constitute a network of extracorporeal travel that united different communities and that was manifest in people’s living places”. This points to a wide community role of shamanism in prehistoric life.

I don’t doubt that in some ways these “representations” form some of the antecedence of written language but their earlier role was incorporated in the spirituality of the cosmos. The cave wall or rock face wasn’t just a tabula rasa to practice on. It was first and foremost a medium between realms that the shaman used in the interests of their “travels” and for the good of the wider community.