White Purity and ‘Woke’ Nationalism

Social justice obsession with a fundamentalist view of cultural appropriation is a white-knuckled grasp on the dying construct of Whiteness, insisting that symbols and people and cultures are closed, divinely-created systems, and that races and cultures should never be allowed mix.

From Rhyd Wildermuth

Three Tales of Red Laces

1.

The old woman hit my leg with her cane. Hard.

I was strolling through the Turkish market along the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg, Berlin a decade ago. My partner and I were holding hands, getting drunk on the smells and sounds of the market. It was summer, everything felt luscious, the mundane world I’d known so far from that moment that the rap on my leg felt almost unreal.

“Ich hoffe das ist nicht nur Quatsch.

I stopped, looked at her. She was old but energetic, flexible enough to bend down and grab my ankle with a strong grip. My German was almost good enough to understand what she’d said, but that didn’t make what she was doing seem any more sensible.

I turned to my boyfriend, panicked and helpless. “What’s going on and why is she grabbing me?”

He looked at me, looked at her, and then shrugged. “She wants to make sure your boot laces aren’t just nonsense.”

I looked at her again, sheepishly. “Nein…” I sputtered. Ich bin…Links.”

The old woman hit my leg with her cane again, releasing my ankle. “Gut,” she barked, smiled, and then told me to tie my boots better.

2.

A few years later, I was back in Berlin again, this time with a different partner. It was Friday night, and we were getting ready to go to a club called Laboratory. For the uninitiated, Laboratory (formerly “Laboratory Faustus”) is a massive club located in the basement of a former coal power plant. The rest of the building houses Berlin’s most famous techno club, Berghain, but…we weren’t going to dance.

Watching me get ready, with a wry smile our host asked me if I needed a different pair of boot laces.

Naive me, so new and innocent in the world (I was 30), shrugged. “Why? Red’s not okay?”

He and my boyfriend both laughed at me. “I did not know you like fisting, but okay.”

“Wait–” I sputtered. “Red laces mean you’re a leftist.”

“Ja, on the street. But not in a sex club,” my German friend answered. “But all I have are yellow, so tonight you will be a piss pig.”

3.

Last week in the bourgeois hipster enclave of Portland, Oregon, in the United States, “activists” recently became outraged at a Dr. Martens advertisement bearing hidden “racist” meanings. The advert in question features a pair of black boots with red&yellow plaid laces.  According to “local anti-hate group activists,” the image of the boots are racist because, as the Southern Poverty Law Center informs us, red laces signify that the person is a fascist who has ‘shed blood’ for whiteness.

It is probably quite fair to say that those activists (or the very small minority of fascists who might wear red laces) don’t have any gay male friends, and have never met a European leftist.

Symbol & Sign

The fact that a basic symbol such as red boot laces can mean multiple things seems rather obvious. In fact, the very nature of a symbol allows it to contain multiple meanings, and those meanings can sometimes operate differently to people simultaneously experiencing the same symbol. A swastika on the foot of the Buddha or in Hopi art likely won’t mean the same thing to a holocaust survivor, for instance.

This isn’t just true of symbols, but also of words. In fact, playing with the tendency of humans to forget that a word can have multiple meanings is the core mechanism of most humor, especially in puns and other forms of word play. So, too, in literature, especially in poetry. In poetry, the various shades of meaning (connotations) of a word are what allows the poet to say much in very little, while the ‘double entendre’ in literature and drama plays specifically off the varying meanings of words, as seen in this line from T. H White’s The Once And Future King:

Gawaine and Gareth took turns with the fat ass, one of them whacking it while the other rode bareback

Most of us tend to grip towards one meaning of a symbol to the exclusion of all others, especially if we have little or no experience with other contexts for it. So unless you’re gay or familiar with gay sex jargon, you might not know that ‘bareback’ means sex without a condom. If you have not read much older literature you might have forgotten that ‘ass’ was a common word for donkey.

Sometimes we have trouble accepting the multiple meanings of a word or symbol. And sometimes, some of us insist that the word or symbol only has one meaning. This insistence, that a symbol only has one “true” meaning, is one of the core mechanisms of Christian Fundamentalism in the United States. It started with the command that the words of the Bible must be taken literally, rather than opened to dangerous ‘liberal’ interpretation. So when the authors of Genesis (God Himself, supposedly) stated that the world was created in six days, that’s literally what happened.

So it’s then quite amusing that ‘literally’ does not just mean ‘literal,’ but it also now means ‘figurative.’ I had the opportunity to witness an angry exchange by actual (literal!) fascists about a dictionary’s inclusion of that opposite definition (those are called ‘contranyms,’ by the way). “Cultural Marxists are ruining English,” one said. “They want to make women and men into their opposites and do the same for words.”

I interjected with a handful of older contranyms they’d probably forgotten:

I hope we can all literally weather the attempts of cultural marxists to literally weather away the meaning of our words. They’re literally cleaving the meaning from the words, when we know they should literally cleave together. They’re using these tactics as a literal screen for their attempts to literally screen out any of us who know that words only have one meaning.

Unfortunately, this sort of fundamentalist thinking about words and symbols is not limited to Christians or the far right. In fact, it has become one of the core doctrines in a lot of liberal ‘social justice’ thought, and not just when it comes to red boot laces.

Cultural Property

To see this, let’s look at the term “cultural appropriation.” In its most common social justice usage, it’s come to mean theft (usually by white people) of indigenous, Black, or foreign spiritual or cultural forms. Having dreadlocks, native headdresses (like war bonnets), or calling yourself a shaman while also being white are all examples of its popular meaning, and in some cases eating ‘non-white’ food or becoming part of a ‘non-white’ religious tradition are also considered cultural appropriation.

The term cultural appropriation didn’t originally mean this, however, and only began to mean what it does now because of the explosion of internet social justice culture.

To uncover the original meaning, we need only to look at the word ‘appropriation.’ To appropriate something is literally to turn it into property somehow, and also to prevent others from using it. So, for example, when a government or a corporation takes common land or resources away from the public and makes it their own, they’ve appropriated it. Or when a museum takes indigenous cultural artifacts away from the people (including skeletons) and puts them in a museum, they’ve appropriated those cultural items.

Interestingly, when the term cultural appropriation was first used, it referred to something completely different: the way that poor and oppressed peoples took from the dominant culture in order to create vibrant subcultures. As Shuja Haidar explains:

It may come as some surprise on both sides of the battlefield, but the Left has not always understood “cultural appropriation” as a form of oppression. This connotation of the term has become ubiquitous in today’s social media-driven political climate. But when it first came into use, “cultural appropriation” denoted very nearly the opposite of its contemporary meaning.

The idea preceded the term, as a product of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. For thinkers like Stuart Hall, cultural appropriation described the way subcultures were created… But the precedents ran deeper. Indian food in England, Negro spirituals in America, bathhouses in 19th-century France — these were all contexts in which members of what we might now call “marginalized groups” used elements of a dominant culture in altered forms, generating their own communities that could hide in plain sight.

Without understanding or even acknowledging the other meanings of cultural appropriation (and specifically the word appropriation), all the arguments about what is ‘appropriative’ become fundamentalist. Basically, a white person doing, saying, wearing, eating, or believing anything that could be said to have belonged to peoples and cultures who are not white is cultural appropriation.

This might be the dominant way of understanding cultural appropriation, but it isn’t the only way. The term itself contains the key to a larger concept, that of turning things into property. When a corporation sells native headdresses, dream catchers, or African-indigenous art, they have turned cultural and spiritual forms into products for profit. This is the very same thing the capitalists do to land and natural resources like water or trees. When a person tries to sell people spiritual teachings or services that aren’t actually sold by the cultures that came up with them, they’ve turned something available for free into something you must pay for.

Similarly, most people who use the term ‘cultural appropriation’ are likewise unfamiliar with the meaning of the word ‘appropriation’ outside of American social justice jargon. It’s a great shame, because just like the social justice activists who saw the Dr. Marten advertisement and screamed ‘racist,’ without knowing that appropriation has a much larger meaning they fall into fundamentalist thinking. They miss out on a crucial understanding of what the entire term meant when it was first employed, as well as lacking the knowledge to understand precisely what is happening in cultural appropriation.

When a cultural or spiritual form is appropriated, it is literally turned into property. A company that sells native head-dresses has turned a cultural tradition into a product that can be bought and sold. The war bonnet in its original cultural context was not something that was bought and sold–it was made for specific purposes, gifted by the community to someone. Appropriating it, then, is turning something that was never a product into a product to be sold for a capitalists’s benefit.

So when the term cultural appropriation is used to refer to people who are not of African descent who have dreadlocks, or people who are not of Indian descent who revere Hindu deities, the original meaning of cultural appropriation is completely lost. There is no property involved in those examples: no one actually owns gods or hairstyles, at least until the capitalists find a way to steal them and sell them back to us.

White Purity & Woke Nationalism

So why do social justice activists insist that white people shouldn’t adopt the cultural and spiritual forms of people who are not white?

In some cases, there is a more complicated injustice as play. Take the example of dreadlocks. In the United States, Blacks were (and often still are) severely oppressed for wearing them. So whites to wear them in a culture that calls Blacks who wear them ‘dirty’ is absolutely obnoxious, and can seem cruel (even if whites who wear them have never discriminated against Blacks with dreads).

This same obnoxious turn occurs elsewhere. For instance, in many cities and towns within the United States, laws were passed in the last century forbidding gardens and urban farming. These laws specifically targeted immigrants who raised their own food in their yards, and made it very difficult for them to survive. In many of those exact same places, it has been white middle-class people (particularly women) who have gotten those laws overturned so that they can have urban chicken coops and gardens of their own.

Some have called that second example cultural appropriation. Similar to this, some social justice activists have stated that white people shouldn’t eat collard greens because they are traditional African-American food (though they were actually introduced to them by the British, who got them from the Greeks). And here’s where we can start to understand what is really wrong with the social justice view of culture appropriation: it’s white separatism.

In a podcast with Alkistic Dimech and Peter Grey, Gordon White used the term “Woke Nationalism” to describe this particular kind of purity politics. “It’s the ‘nothing on the plate can touch’ idea” he said, adding that it was not much different from white nationalism.

He’s right. White Nationalists build their fascist ideology around notions of purity and separation. Whites and Blacks should never mix, never love each other (and definitely never have children together). Whites must be kept separated from other bloodlines and other cultures, must keep their culture distinct and pure. Whites must not do non-white things, adopt non-white customs or modes of dress or beliefs.

This is unfortunately the same logic of the social justice fundamentalist view of cultural appropriation. But while a White Nationalist claims that doing non-white things is tainting the race, the social justice activist claims that doing non-white things is theft. The end result is the same: a pure, untainted, culturally-distinct white race. White Nationalism and Woke Nationalism want the same thing, just for different reasons.

When they look to cultural forms and ethnic groups with a fundamentalist perspective, social justice activists repeat the same racism of white nationalists. Whites must only do ‘white’ things, whether that is the fascist desire to purify the white race or the liberal command to avoid ‘cultural appropriation.’ Social justice obsession with white purity becomes indeed a sort of ‘woke’ nationalism, a white-knuckled grasp on the dying construct of Whiteness, insisting that symbols and people and cultures are closed, divinely-created systems, and that races and cultures should never be allowed mix.

Both make the same two mistakes: there is no such thing as a white race, and cultures have never been pure.

Ending the White Race

Whiteness isn’t actually a tribal or cultural form (no one was “white” 500 years ago) and thus there is no such thing as ‘white ancestry.’ Caucasian isn’t a tribal or cultural term either–it was invented by a race theorist at the end of the 18th century.

Whiteness is a very recent idea, and comes from the complete erasure of ancestral and cultural histories. To be ‘white’ is to no longer have a cultural history; in order to become fully white, European immigrants (especially from places still not fully considered white in Europe, like Ireland, Poland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) needed to forsake their specific cultural and ethnic backgrounds. By doing so, they gained access to white skin-privilege in the United States and Canada and became assimilated into ‘whiteness.’ All their history, their beliefs, traditions, modes of dress and food and their languages were bleached out of them, but in return they gained a new settler-colonial identity which granted them a little more access to wealth and security.

We need to go a little farther here, though, because there is actually no such thing as ‘ancestrally-French’ or ‘ancestrally-German.’ Neither of those places actually existed three hundred years ago. Instead, one might have been ancestrally-Breton or ancestrally-Bavarian. Go back a little further and those ancestral connections existed on the level of village or countryside, not ethnic people-groups.

Even more fascinating, however, is that there were no pure or pristine cultures back then, either.

People moved, and moved a lot. They traded, they inter-married, their cultural and religious forms becoming mixed in precisely the way that terrifies both social justice activists and white nationalists. Vikings “culturally appropriated” by making clothing with Islamic verse on them. Celts “culturally appropriated” Egyptian and Greek deities in what is now London, 2000 years ago. Sephardic Jews and Moorish Muslims and Iberian pagans mixed their cultures and languages fluidly in Al Andalus. Semitic Phoenicians traded as far up to Cornwall, littering the Atlantic coasts of Europe with their artifacts.

Cultural exchange is not only an ancient thing, but it is unavoidable. When peoples come into contact with each other, they trade, they talk, they borrow, they teach and mimic each other. Likewise, racial purity is impossible–people have an odd tendency to want to sleep with each other, regardless of where they’re from.

That both social justice activists and white nationalists have trouble understanding this comes from the very same mechanism by which social justice activists saw red boot laces on an advertisement and screamed ‘racism.’  Both are certain that ‘whiteness’ means something, and both insist that whites cannot be anything else but what they’ve decided they are.

To get out of this mess isn’t easy, but it’s possible.

First, we must release our fundamentalist death grip on symbols and meaning, and especially our white-knuckled grasp on ‘whiteness.’ To do so, we’ll need to look at our past with a different perspective, rejecting the fundamentalist narratives of both white nationalism and ‘woke’ nationalism.

Because though whites have lost their ancestral connection, European spiritual and cultural forms didn’t just disappear because Americans forgot them. Here where I now live in Bretagne, spiritual and magical traditions still exist–there’s no need for anyone here to hire a plastic shaman or join an online witch course to learn about Ankou, the Korrigan, or any of the other spirits and gods of their land–they can just ask their grandparents. The same is true in many parts of Europe, especially in non-urban areas.

Reconnecting to cultural and ancestral traditions will require giving up something, though. Because whiteness is not just built upon the erasure of ethnic and cultural history, but also upon the lie that whites are enlightened, progressive, and ‘modern’ while all the rest of the world (now and in the past) was primitive, unenlightened, superstitious, and stupid.

Here, again, liberal social justice ideas actually get in the way of dismantling whiteness by painting the current regime of rights and technology as more enlightened than anything that existed before. Whiteness itself is founded upon this idea, the certainty that we know the true meaning of things. That the order of the world that came about with whiteness is the best one, that all other ways of being are wrong. In this way, even people who are not white but who hold on to this lie are making sure whiteness never ends.

And finally, we must talk about cultural appropriation in a way that actually fights those who are turning what belongs to everyone into property. The pharmaceutical companies and petty capitalists that patent ancient medicines, the universities that steal indigenous artifacts for ‘research,’ the media conglomerates who sell us fictive versions of our own history, all the plastic shamans and spiritual teachers who sell us knowledge that was once free, and anyone who would try to police our cultural, spiritual, and social expressions, be they white nationalists or ‘woke’ nationalists–they are the ones stealing meaning from the world.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.


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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 herehere, here, herehere, 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. 

Temporal Disorientation 

GobeklitepeHeykel
Closeup of stone work at Gobekli Tepe

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. 

Non-Human Logic            

Göbekli_Tepe,_Urfa
Gobekli Tepe

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   

Gobekli_Tepe_2
Closeup of stonework at Gobekli Tepe

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”.

Conclusion 

Vulture11
Vulture getting ready to strike by Demitri Markine

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

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 .