A Review of “Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits”
Gordon White’s impressive book Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits has garnered extensive well-deserved attention. There have been numerous excellent reviews (for a brief selection see here, here, and here) and Gordon has not been shy about giving fascinating interviews concerning the book and all related topics (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). Gordon is also well know for his very popular high-quality blog and podcast. This leaves me facing a very odd dilemma. What can I add to this already very rich conversation? It is my belief that the best compliment one can give to a book, especially one offering as much to the reader as Star.Ships, is to engage in the territory it opens up in a serious manner that attempts to extend the conversation. This is what I will seek to offer here after offering a summary of several key points of the book I found particularly fascinating. I do not, however, propose to give an exhaustive overview of Gordon’s rich text.
Star.Ships offers a new cultural history of the earliest periods of human existence with a particular focus on what we can surmise our relationships to spirits and gods looked like through an investigation of myth, religion, and architectural remains. Its scope includes our origins in Africa, the migrations that brought us to every corner of the globe including our confrontation with dramatic climate change at the ending of ice ages, until finally concluding at the cultures which many histories take as their start such as Egypt and Sumeria. In other words, the book stretches from sometime around 150,000 years ago to something like 3,000 years ago (with a nod to the Greek Magical Papyri primarily compiled during the later Hellenistic and Roman periods).
In the course of crafting this history the book proposes something of an original homeland drowned by the sea, a la Atlantis, in the location of Sundaland which once unified Borneo, Java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula as one land mass. This drowning of Sundaland happened at the end of the last major Ice Age and is the book’s proposed origin for much of the world’s myths concerning the great flood. It proposes as well a history of the world’s myths in line with the book The Origins of the World’s Mythologies by E. J. Michael Witzel with phases corresponding to our time in Africa, our time in Sundaland, and then the myths developed during the diaspora following the “great flood” at the end of the Ice Age. I’ll discuss this engagement with myth a bit later.
The book takes its impetus, and indeed its organization, from the many bits and pieces of early history that don’t fit. We have evidence of tool use in Non-African parts of the world, for example, at a time before the primary migration from Africa was supposed to occur. Later we have cultural overlaps, for example in mythological content, in cultures that are not thought to have had any contact (at least for several thousand years). We have the pyramids, supposedly built over a shocking period of time by a massive workforce the evidence of which is entirely lacking. It is this collection of broken pieces of history, the enigmas and discontinuities, that lead to proposals like the “ancient aliens” explanation which Gordon is particularly interested in deflating. He does so by bringing together the best work in disparate academic areas of study in order to put forth several bold proposals that alleviate the enigmas, and thus the need, for explanation by means of Extraterrestrial Technology.
Perhaps the most fascinating of these temporal dislocations and stutters in history is the ruin of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. This ruin shows us that, as Gordon puts it, “before we knew how to farm, before we lived in villages, before we even know how to make pots, we built a star temple on a hill.” The oldest evidence of occupation and construction at Gobekli Tepe as of now, with the real possibility of increased age as investigation continues, puts the ruin’s origin at older than twelve thousand years ago. We have dating of some of the oldest architectural structures in the ruin to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period of around eleven thousand years ago. If you just contemplate that sentence for a moment you can get a sense of what is striking about Gobekli Tepe. Before we were supposedly able to, or interested in, making pots we were making stone temples. During the period when a museum would generally depict humanity as unsophisticated hunter gathers, closer to animals than to modern society, we were crafting a complex temple. The temple, in short, predates the house or the city. It also likely involves, Gordon demonstrates, complex star-lore.
This fairly simple fact, the significance of which is so easy to miss, offers a rather striking blow to many standard theories of the development of religion. The general materialist understanding of the rise of religion is that it is the outgrowth of the surplus time and resources that go along with the development of agriculture and the rise of the city. Before this there may have been some basic sort of religious sentiment, perhaps dealt with via a nomadic group’s spiritual representative of some sort, but it would have been a minimal affair. Gobekli Tepe, on the other hand, required many people to work for extensive periods of time in a place that doesn’t seem to have ever been permanently occupied (in other words, the people who built Gobekli Tepe didn’t live there). How do you get nomadic people to do something like that? What could the motivation be to build a permanent temple complex for a people without permanent homes to begin with? These are serious mysteries and not all of them have been fully answered, whether by Gordon’s book or others, but they lend themselves to one of Gordon’s fundamental proposals – humans have had contact with “spirits” throughout most if not all of our history and this spirit contact has gone hand in hand with key developments and changes to our culture and technology. Indeed, Gordon replaces an “alien” model with a “spirit” one. This is not at all surprising as he suggest that human history has been done a disservice by historians and scientists studying things in which they don’t believe, for example when researchers into the history of religion actively dismiss the possibility out of hand that ancient religions had anything to do with actual contact with spirits and gods. Spirits didn’t build Gobekli Tepe, or the pyramids, but they played a formative role in inspiring these works and motivating the people who did build them. And, just maybe, they also provided a bit of technical know-how along the way.
The proposal here is fascinating and brilliant. Gordon White is suggesting that we can’t understand history, not consistently or adequately, without understanding the role played by non-human communication. History has discontinuities because of intrusions from, as it were, “outside”. This is not to say that every role played by “ancient aliens” is now played by spirit communication. Gordon does as much work dismissing seeming discontinuities as he does explain them through spiritual communication. The pyramids are misdated, and were built over a longer period of time than presumed. This claim is one major example of an explanation of discontinuity which relates to Gordon’s overall work. There is resistance to this explanation because the pyramids are assumed to be royal tombs and it makes no sense for a tomb for a king to be built over several generations. However, if we are dealing instead with temples oriented to gods and spirits associated with the stars, as Gordon argues Gobekli Tepe is, then many mysterious aspects of the pyramids as well as the timeline of their construction make more sense. Indeed understanding the basic aspects of humanity’s ur-religion and ur-myths along with their connection to lore about the stars serves to clarify many ancient religious sites.
A common theme in the myths of many cultures is the character of a trickster god who helps found human civilization. This character of “trickster” goes well with the overall nature of non-human communication. These communications Gordon describes as “capricious, sporadic spirit contact”. If these communications are to be understood as contact with some sort of teachers they are “crack-addicted relief teachers who only show up to steal the lightbulbs in the teachers lounge.” In other words, the spirits communicate with us according to a “non-human logic” often discernible in contemporary experiences of synchronicity.
Synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, often has the characteristic of appearing meaningful without the message being at all clear. It is equally as likely that such experiences contain the utterly ridiculous, pushing against any attempt to read them in an entirely serious manner. I recently contacted a certain spirit and, following the ritual, was filled with the need to reread Treasure Island. A day after that a friend who lived over a thousand miles away contacted me to inform me she thought I might be interested in the T.V. show “Black Sails” which is a prequel to Treasure Island. She just “felt like I might be in a Treasure Island mood”. Then I found a tattered children’s pirate flag on the streets of New York. The spirit I had contacted, incidentally, has no obvious connection with the sea or pirates, and the reason for contact had nothing to do with either. It is hard to deny the element of the absurd, the ridiculous, here. Non-human logic indeed. At other times we find deep revelations and powerful life-altering events corresponding with spirit contact. I have found that sometimes it doesn’t pay to attempt to fit all the pieces together too eagerly – here be monsters, or madness.
Ur-Myths and Ancient Thought
Michael Witzel proposes three main periods of mythology which Gordon also uses. These are the Pan-Gaean Mythology of between 150,000 and 65,000 years ago, the Gondwana Mythology of 65,000 years ago, and the Laurasian Mythology of 40,000 years ago. Pan-Gaean mythology was developed in Africa before we left to settle other parts of the globe. Gondwana mythology consists of what we took with us from Africa to other parts of the world. In Gordon’s story this means Gondwana mythology dominates the migration to Sundaland and much of our time spent there. Then Laurasian mythology develops and is spread throughout much of the world, partially through the diaspora following the loss of Sundaland to the sea. The Laurasian period overlaps with the development of Gobekli Tepe.
Gordon provides us with an excellent summary of the content of the myths for each of these periods along with a breakdown of what type of star lore and religious “technology” was likely evident in the societies of the time. Ultimately the myths serve to clarify ambiguous archeological findings even as archeological findings are used to help fill out details about the societies that would have held to these myths. This careful reconstructive work is one of the richest and most useful of the entire book in my opinion.
One of Gordon’s continual arguments throughout the book is that the people of this “pre-historical” period were more advanced than we give them credit for, a point supported by Gordon’s well crafted demonstration that they had extensive star lore which was used for everything from guiding hunting to navigation at sea. Indeed here the dramatic flooding due to the ending of the ice age from 12,000 B.C.E. to 6,000 B.C.E. plays a major role. Geological study reveals that some of the flooding would have been very sudden and catastrophic, it also shows that there were periods when the sea receded for generations before flowing back in again. The bottom line is that any coastal civilization, which indeed most civilizations have been for most of history, before 6,000 B.C.E. would be lost to us. Not surprisingly, Gordon points out, after 6,000 B.C.E. we suddenly have the appearance of civilization in the areas we are used to reading about it in history while there seems to be almost nothing before this period except for mysterious spots like Gobekli Tepe.
It is in the engagement with pre-historic myth and religion that I would like to make my humble potential contribution. Despite our tendency to underestimate these very ancient cultures, a point on which I strongly agree with Gordon, there is something they lacked that has a profound effect on the cognitive activity of a human culture. They lacked a full writing system. Gordon stresses through his book that the brain structure of our earliest ancestors was very similar to our own, if not more developed in certain ways. He also works to show that there are extensive overlaps in the human response to various drug experiences likely connected to early religious experiences as well as more standard mystical experiences connected with spirit communication. Indeed one of Gordon’s main pushes is against what he understands as the postmodern tendency to insist that cultures are radically distinct such that we couldn’t develop an understanding to something like an Ur-Mythology or collective origin. Repeatedly Gordon stresses overlap, connection, and commonality. I would like to focus on orality as another thing that united the cultures Gordon is interested in, but it is a commonality they shared that we do not which I fear can be more meaningful than neurological overlap. I would suggest that while, of course, neurological makeup is rather important the tools we use to think through and with are just as determinative of how and what we think. The most influential such tool-for-thinking has been language and the most important distinction within languages is that between the purely oral and the written.
The classicists G. S. Kirk and Eric Havelock have both done extensive work, following the lead of Milman Parry, in analyzing the influence of a culture’s orality upon its cognitive and philosophical capabilities. One of the best sources for this type of analysis is Havelock’s Preface to Plato which seeks to trace the birth of abstract philosophical thinking in the transition from the oral period of Greek history to the development of a literate society. An oral society, Havelock powerfully argues, is incapable of saying or thinking any verb as a timeless copula. There is no cognitive grasp of “being” or universality, which means as well that there is no idea of timeless natural structures or laws. The discourse of oral societies “consists of a vast plurality of acts and events, not integrated into chained groups of cause and effect, but rather linked associatively in endless series.” Knowledge, for an oral society, “constitutes a ‘many’: it cannot submit to that abstract organization which groups ‘manys’ into ‘one’.” (Preface to Plato p. 183) A key reason for this is the pressure exerted by the need to preserve cultural knowledge via memory through the concrete and formulaic tools of poetic performance. This distinction between the cognitive behavior of oral and written cultures is as fundamental as it is hard for a literate society to grasp. The most basic default orientation of our thinking, namely assumption of the universal and unchanging as the basis for the changing and particular, was entirely foreign to fully oral cultures.
I believe this has rather extensive implications for the characterization and understanding of the three phases of Ur-Myth. Witzel calls the Gondwana myths a “forest of stories” while the Laurasian offer us the “first novel”. The stories found in the Gondwana forest are timeless, and each story stands generally apart from the others with no clear sense of a beginning or end to the universe or its structure. The Laurasian first novel unifies these stories into a whole with a sense of historical structure and both a beginning and end to the series in the creation and destruction of the world or cosmos. The lessons of a study of orality suggests that this contrast is likely overstated. Consider, for example, that despite appearances the much later works attributed to Homer, which were original oral, don’t form anything like a “novel” despite appearances. Ancient Epics start en media res because this is a foundational aspect of oral cognitive process. Reality is grasped as a web of events, a series of series, without ultimate beginning or end. All events, indeed, are seen in this way precisely as the epic sees the Trojan war. So, the stories of beginnings and ends supposedly found in the Laurasian first novel are in need of, at the very least, a more complicated reading along with the very idea of a “first novel” as a unification. A similar point can be made about several aspects of the Pan-Gaean myth, the supposedly original myth cycle, which seems to contain abstract concepts highly unlike to be formulated in an oral culture such as that of an ultimate “creator god”.
Gordon White’s book is a massive achievement and should be of great use to anyone wishing to understand human religion, magic, or culture against a larger background than has been available previously. I regret that I have not had the time to touch upon anywhere nears as many of the book’s fascinating aspects, for example the extensive discussion of the Yezidis and their relation to some of the world’s oldest myths, as I would have liked. I highly encourage you to pick it up for yourself, not only is it excellently researched, supported, and argued it is also written in a manner that makes reading it a continual pleasure.
I should end, I feel, with a brief reflection on the book’s purpose. Gordon insists that the purpose of book is the “restoration of context” as, indeed, is the purpose of what is often understood as the “occult revival” occurring largely in connection with Scarlet Imprint Publishing (though of course not exclusively through them). The goal is to understand better what we are doing and why, to see how our current practices and beliefs fit into the historical story and through this to better understand our own spiritual lives and practices. In pursuit of this goal Scarlet Imprint has offered a strikingly coherent series of titles each pursuing a different fragment of our lost history. Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica brought us from elements of our contemporary occult culture back to the ancient world of the Mediterranean, Peter Grey’s Lucifer Princeps brought us into the prehistory of one of the most important figures in Middle Eastern religious thought and back behind Biblical tradition, and Gordon White daringly starts at the limit of his colleagues’ investigations in order to add a paltry hundred thousand years or so to the record. Gordon’s work is daring, a little bit mad, and very successful.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .