Review of Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries, edited by Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin (Mystic Productions Press. Scheduled publication date April 2nd).
From Anthony Rella
Note: This is a review of an advance copy provided to this writer by editor Lee Harrington. This writer has a social acquaintanceship with some of the included contributor and co-editor Tai Fenix Kulystin, as both once sat beside each other in a graduate school class and one day Kulystin observed this writer doodling and said, “Nice Unicursal Hexigram.” This writer is also a member of the same spiritual community as contributor Adrian Moran. It is difficult to be a queer writer interested in magick without some overlap, apparently.)
While the term “queer” has veered closer to being a mainstream catch-all for members of the LGBTQIA+ communities, it continues to retain all the layers of trauma, danger, and transgressive excitement layered into its historical uses. What is queer is that which could not fit into the norms prescribed to us, and thus needed to find its own space to grow: on the edges, in the cracks and corners wherein it could grow unfettered. Queerness exists for itself, and it is medicine that heals and brings wholeness to culture.
Thus queerness is elusive, evolving, pluralistic. So too is the collection of pieces gathered together by editors Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin in Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries. They have accomplished an impressive feat, publishing the voices and images produced by a wildly diverse and fascinating array of individuals along the axes of class, gender, race, ability, spiritual tradition, and more.
One significant theme threaded throughout the works is the queer magical power of embodiment. In the essay “Living with Attunement with Sensation Rather than Identity,” Z Griss offers a queer praxis in which the sensory body leads in anchoring and producing the self in all its emerging complexity. Rather than encasing our experiences in labels and identity scripts, Griss shows a productive arc in which the body teaches and reveals mysteries of the self. Yin Q’s “Blood, Body, Birth, and Emptiness: Queer Magic in my Life and Work” articulates power and possibility within stigmatized experiences around cutting and BDSM, transforming her experiences of cutting into “rituals that affirmed life, whereas in prior years, [she] had focused on the thrill of annihilation.” In “The Endlessly Unfolding Mirror: An Introduction to the Queer Sex Magic of Traditional Witchcraft,” Troll Huldren offers body acceptance and eroticizing the Abject as a path to magical power.
Another queer theme emerges as the multiplicity of identity and porousness of self. M.C. MoHagani Magnetek’s “thaMind-Sol Lady’s Revenge” tells of an experience of duality between the speaker and an alter-ego, in which both strive to seek effective strategies to maintain dignity in the face of transphobia. The Reverend Teri D. Ciacchi articulates an experience of self as multiplicity, using the pronoun “we” “to express my internal experience of being a collective
of beings, a multiverse of personas, an individual embedded in an ecological web of relatedness.” Ade Kola and Aaron Oberon in their respective essays explore the fluidity and multiplicity of identity through experiences of ritual possession, articulating ways in which deity contact becomes an unexpected site of queer transformations.
In an anthology of so many gifts, one of the highlights are the interviews of wolfie, who brings in the perspectives of First Nations queer elders Clyde Hall and Blackberri. wolfie’s “chapter 23: the plague years” speaks to their own history and experience of living through the height of the AIDS epidemic. Kulystin and Harrington dedicate this anthology “to our queer ancestors and magical forebears,” and reverence for those who came before permeates the work, particularly in pieces such as Pavini Moray’s “The Glitterheart Path of Connecting with Transcestors.”
Tradition and authority are particularly charged topics in any tradition, and for queer folks who have been marginalized by ancestral traditions, we have needed multiple strategies to mine a healing and empowering spiritual practice for ourselves.
These writers show several paths forward—even if one does not adopt their practices and beliefs, one can see practices of queering existing traditions, of redefining and reinterpreting the past in a liberating way, such as Yvonne Aburrow’s “Inclusive Wicca Manifesto,” Ivo Dominguez Jr.’s “Redefining and Repurposing Polarity,” Steve Dee’s “The Queer Gods of Alchemy,” Sam ‘Eyrie’ Ward’s “The Maypole and the Labyrinth: Reimagining the Great Rite,” and Steve Kenson’s “The Queer Journey of the Wheel.”
Other writers reveal paths of blazing bold new trails, or taking pieces from multiple sources and quilting them into a queer-affirming path, such as in Jay Logan’s “Hunting Lions and Slaying Serpents: An Execration Rite,” Adrian Moran’s “The Magic of the Eight Queer Deities,” and Thista Minai’s “Sharing a Sacred Meal.”
It would be remiss not to mention the inclusion of potent art and sigil work provided by Inés Ixierda, Laura Tempest Zakroff, Adare, Papacon, and Cazemba Abena. These artists show images of magic beyond binary identity, the interstitial spaces of power.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School and a member of the Fellowship of the Phoenix. Anthony has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.
Book Review of Shane Burley’s Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It.
From Christopher Scott Thompson
Those who would rather wring their hands than use them to punch Nazis might not want to admit it, but we are in a state of conflict. The angry men currently marching through the streets carrying Tiki torches and calling for genocide are our enemies. Since we have to fight them, we owe it to ourselves and everyone endangered by fascism to win the fight. Shane Burley’s Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It is a valuable tool for winning this conflict.
Reading Fascism Today, I found myself thinking of a quote by Sun Tzu:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Burley’s book might as well have been written with this passage in mind. In part one, Burley reviews several existing definitions of fascism and addresses the strengths and weaknesses of each one. I was especially glad to see him debunking the idea that fascism is primarily defined by censorship or political violence – a misunderstanding that has been used by both fascists and liberals to demonize Antifa as “the real fascists.” Burley clearly defines what makes a movement fascist, and why such movements are dangerous rather than merely offensive.
He then discusses many of these factions at length, including traditional American white supremacist groups, proto-fascist militia groups, esoteric and neopagan fascism, the “Men’s Rights” misogynists, the Alt-Right, and many others.
These groups may disagree with each other on many points but they share a common commitment to undo what they see as the degenerate egalitarianism of the modern world and return to a society defined by strict hierarchies and inflexible roles, all of which would be enforced by violence and the fear of violence. They cannot hope to achieve this while a majority of people consider the open expression of bigotry to be socially unacceptable – so if they want to win, they have to make bigotry acceptable again.
As Burley argues, the defining strategy of the current fascist resurgence is metapolitics – the manipulation of culture to create a subtle yet significant mental shift toward the acceptance of their ideas. This type of strategy was originally suggested by leftist thinker Antonio Gramsci, but has since been hijacked by the Alt-Right. (In fact, Altright.com features a quote by Gramsci: “Any parliamentary struggle must be preceded, legitimised, and supported by a metapolitical struggle.”)
The fascist street factions can look so bizarre and frankly ludicrous that it’s hard to think of them as a serious threat – until they’re standing right in front of you with clubs and shields in their hands. That surreal mix of frog cartoons, American flags, Swastika imagery, and body armor is not merely an aesthetic catastrophe – it’s a metapolitical strategy to make fascist ideas appear humorously edgy rather than murderously violent.
In part two of “Fascism Today,” Burley lays out a convincing argument for a multifaceted approach to antifascist struggle that incorporates this concept of metapolitics and turns it back against the enemy. If their primary strategic goal is to make society safe for fascism again, our primary strategic goal must be to build a society that is broadly and deeply antifascist.
Obviously this cannot be restricted to a few dozen black-masked streetfighters in every city. Burley presents a number of realistic and achievable ideas for how to win the war of metapolitics, by building an antifascist coalition that goes far beyond the narrow social circles of anarchist and communist purism without making concessions to liberal complacency.
This would still include traditional Antifa tactics like intelligence-gathering and no-platforming, but would also expand to include massive popular manifestations like the recent antifascist victories in Boston and elsewhere, in which the Black Bloc was only one small part of the coalition. If antifascism is something anyone and everyone can participate in, then the fascists will find themselves outnumbered every single time.
If there is one thing the recent “Antifa Civil War” panic demonstrates, it’s that the enemy does not understand us at all. Anyone who has ever been involved with Antifa knows it as a decentralized network with no chain of command. Yet the American Right still sees Antifa as a highly-organized top-down revolutionary organization with sinister nationwide plans (including “Antifa supersoldiers” under UN command!). According to Sun Tzu, an enemy who does not understand us cannot hope to win more than one battle out of every two.
If we know our enemy and know ourselves, Sun Tzu tells us we will prevail in every battle. Shane Burley’s Fascism Today is a big step in that direction.
When I first heard about this book, The Pagan Leadership Anthology: An Exploration of Leadership and Community in Paganism and Polytheism, edited by Shauna Aura Knight and Taylor Ellwood, I immediately dismissed it as “not relevant to my interests” because I do not lead or organize any groups, events, etc., have any other leadership type role, or have a strong desire to be in one of those roles. However, it came up again, and this time, I thought I would give it a chance. I was, admittedly, a bit curious about its contents. I’ve only been pagan myself for about 4 years, and have not been deeply involved in pagan/polytheist communities, so I don’t have much sense at all about what people in the broader community think “leadership” is, or ought to be. I also thought that even though I’m not in a leadership role, it might end up having some interesting and useful things to say about working with people in groups. Well before I finished reading it, I thought it was valuable enough that I wanted to try and talk other people into reading it, too.
The book contains 36 essays organized into 8 sections: Personal Work; General Advice; Leadership Models and Processes; Group Structure, Agreements, and Bylaws; Delegation and Volunteers; Building the Long Term Infrastructure of the Pagan Community; Conflict Resolution and Dealing with Crisis in Groups; and Recognizing and Dealing with Burnout.
My chief disappointment with the book is that a couple of the sections felt a little thin in comparison to others. The section on long term infrastructure had only two essays, and the last section on burnout only 3, while the others had 4 to 6. I would have appreciated more writing specifically on those topics, though some of the essays in other sections also contained advice that is applicable to those topics (burnout, for example, was mentioned in more than just the 3 “Burnout” section essays).
I’ve absorbed advice about leadership in several different circumstances, both formal and through life experience, and as a whole, I thought the book did well at describing effective, healthy ways of working with people. One of my favorites was the essay by Diana Rajchel, “Pagan Volunteers: How to get 100 Pagan Volunteers to Show Up on Time and Leave Happy.” She starts off by addressing the problem of assuming that people cannot be organized, which sets yourself, and the volunteers you need, up for a less than awesome time:
“Here’s the main problem with the herding cats metaphor for Pagans: it’s a blame shifter. By labeling a group ‘impossible,’ it divorces the person that makes such a claim from responsibility for the ensuing chaos. It also ignores the problem that usually underpins the disasters often blamed on Pagans being Pagan. … The truth is that Pagans, as a group, are no more or less difficult than any other group. Pagans in general respond well to clear communication, and most need to commit to causes that make them feel valued.”
She then describes how, by being well-organized, communicating well with volunteers, and taking care of them (food, thank you notes, and more), she had record success in having volunteers show up for a particular event and get stuff done – and had even more success recruiting and retaining volunteers for the same event in subsequent years. The remainder (and majority) of the essay describes a bunch of specific organizational and communication techniques and tools to improve communication and organization and help people feel good about engaging in community-building work.
Another memorable lesson came in Shauna Aura Knight’s essay, “Three Leadership Tools and a Mystery,” in the section in which she describes the importance of being aware of the filters through which we view the world, as these filters contribute to a lot of conflict. This section of her piece describes a tool called “Four Levels of Reality and Conflict Resolution.”
“Physical Reality is what actually happened in the physical world. Mythical Reality is the store our brain instantly writes where we assign motivations to people’s actions. That Mythic Reality instantly generates an Emotional Reality, which is how we feel about that story. Beneath it all is Essential Reality, which is how we perceive the world.”
She elaborates on these levels of reality, how they play out in causing conflict, and how working through the Four Levels in a fraught situation can prevent it from becoming a major problem. It’s a discernment tool, one I believe that many, many people would benefit from learning and employing.
My favorite overall section was the one on Group Structure, Agreements, and Bylaws, which covered ways in which a group can create formal agreements for itself, and the values of doing so. This is really valuable information to consider for anyone involved in the creation of a new group, whether you’re in a leadership role or not. I’ve been involved in one largely-volunteer organization that had bylaws, and while there were, shall we say, “challenges” writing them, they were not only legally necessary (the organization was seeking nonprofit status), they were also vital in delineating how an organization with both paid staff and a major volunteer component would balance power between the different groups of people keeping the organization going. Regardless of a group’s legal status, bylaws or other agreed-to rules provide groundwork to come back to if/when conflict arises.
If I could pick only one theme from the book as the central point, it is that treating people respectfully – including yourself – is vital to good leadership, building community, and avoiding burnout. I really appreciated the attitude of the authors’ towards the importance of working WITH people, and making sure the needs of others in the group are being attended to, rather than taking a top-down approach.
I highly recommend this to anyone interested in being involved in community, whether it is pagan or not, and whether you are or want to be in a leadership role. It has good advice for working with other people, understanding group dynamics, and many examples of challenges faced and how they might be solved while doing this kind of work.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I bought my copy from Syren Nagakyrie, who is a friend with an essay in the book and is also on the board of Gods&Radicals.)
Capitalism! The American Dream! Except that what we believe about capitalism, and how it actually works, are two different things. We’ve been told that the essence of preserving the economy involves making things better for the wealthy, so that they will make bigger companies and hire more people for more jobs, and thus the crumbs of their good fortune will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Except that it’s not true; wealthy people won’t part with their wealth unless regulations force them to.
We are told that the American Dream rewards the hard-working and the worthy, and that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. Except that it’s not true; people in poorer countries are more entrepreneurial than people in wealthier countries, and good infrastructure is the key to building the wealth of nations.
We are told that you must pay good CEOs and Directors of large corporations top dollar so that you will get the best. Except that it’s not true; Board Directors often make decisions that are best for them in the short term, and really bad for the company itself in the long term (fancy that!) And by the way, you’re probably wrong about how much they’re getting paid. Most people think it should be about 10 times what the average worker in their companies get paid, and they think it’s actually more like 30 times. But they’re wrong; it’s really more like 300-400 times as much!
We are told that what’s good for the shareholders of a company is good for the company overall. Except that it’s not true; shareholders want to buy low and sell high, and quickly, and that means that often decisions are made in companies to cut corners, cheat, and patch instead of fix, until the whole structure collapses. Like with pretty much every automobile company you’ve ever heard of, and several large airlines.
We are told that the free market economy is the best way to handle things, because market forces will ultimately balance everything out. Except that it’s not true; there is actually no such thing as a “free market economy;” governments and corporations fix the conditions of the market all the time. So could we; and so we have in some ways, which is why “fossey jaw” is a thing of the past.
We are told that education is essential to the future wealth of a nation. Except that this isn’t true either; there’s almost no correlation. What drives the wealth of nations is actually manufacturing.
Don’t believe me? That’s okay; Ha-Joon Chang is a Cambridge trained economist who has won prizes for his work, and he’ll tell you better than I can, with figures to back it up. And he’ll explain it in a way that even an arts major like me can clearly understand.
I can’t say enough good things about this book! If you, like me, see the rot at the core of our economic system but you lack the words to tell people why it’s rotten, this is the book for you. If you don’t understand economics and you want to learn without taking a course, this is the book for you. If you think that capitalism is the best thing since sliced bread, and you think lefties are wingnuts who don’t understand how the world really works, this is still the book for you because you can acid-test your theories against an educated dissenting opinion. I wish that my Prime Minister would read it because I think he would run things a little differently if he did.
Over the next couple of months I’ll be writing an extended series focused around the theories presented in this book on Gods & Radicals if you want to know more.
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 .
Kadmus is one of the many great writers who will be included in the next issue of A Beautiful Resistance. And there’s still time to underwrite, subscribe or pre-order your copy! Click herefor more information.