In 2008 Brick Johnstone, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, found that patients with damage to their right parietal lobe (the bit on the side of your head above your ear) tend to report being more spiritual than patients with damage in other areas. In a new study, he’s looked at another series of 20 patients with traumatic brain injury in different parts of their brain.Johnstone and colleagues found that, as before, patients with damage to their right parietal lobe (as measured by their ability to judge the orientation of lines and ability to identify the fingers on their left hand) were more spiritual. In particular, they tended to score higher on measures of forgiveness (so they were less ‘self-oriented’) as well on measures of spiritual transcendence (tending to agree with statements like “I feel the presence of a higher power”).
In contrast, patients with damage to their frontal lobe (measured using a kind of ‘connect the letters and numbers’ puzzle) tended to be less likely to engage in private religious practices and go to church. There was also some evidence that they tended to be less spiritual.
Johnstone et al suspect that the link between the right parietal lobe and spirituality comes about because damage to this part of the brain makes it harder to locate yourself in 3D space. So there is a tendency to feel that you are somehow merged or blurred in with your environment – hence the sensations of spiritual transcendence….
[M]ost forms of Yoga—from Hatha Yoga to Asthanga Yoga—have their physical and spiritual roots in the ancient soil of Tantra, not in the Vedas, as most yoga scholars in the West wants us to believe. In fact, it was Tantra that first influenced the Vedas, then–during the time of the Upanishads and the Brahmanas (700 BCE and onwards)—the Tantric esprit influenced all the traditions of Indian philosophy, including Vedanta and Samkhya. All of the practices known to be Yogic in nature—asanas (physical yoga exercises), pranayama (breathing exercises), mantra meditation, kundalini awakening, samadhi (spiritual ecstasy), are Tantric, not Vedic….
Vedic Aryan tribes did indeed migrate to India, but it occurred thousands of years earlier than most scholars claim—at the time of Shiva, around 5000 BCE, when this so-called King of Yogis systematized the spiritual tradition of Tantra, invented the octave and also the beginning of India’s ancient medical system, Ayurveda. Moreover, the Indus Valley culture, which according to some archaeologists is at least 6,000 years old, was not a Vedic civilization but primarily a Tantra-based civilization….
According to multiple sources—including ancient scriptures such as the Puranas and the writings of Danileou and Sarkar—it was Shiva who taught the early Indians yogic spirituality, the arts and sciences. Moreover, Shiva’s teachings remained the dominant culture and spiritual teachings in India, even though its adherents were often violently attacked by the early Vedic Aryans. The Tantric teachings of Shiva continued to be the religion of the people, Danielou asserts, and what we today have come to appreciate as Indian culture and religion was more influenced by Tantra than the Vedas. This assertion, however, is contrary to what most modern practitioners of yoga are taught about the history of their practice….
[T]he Rig Vedic Aryans seem to have arrived not only after, but also before and during Shiva’s time, a timeline that has been confirmed by … genetic findings. Their so-called invasion was more likely a series of migrations over a long period of time. The early portions of the Rig Veda may be as old as 10,000 BCE, and was composed outside India, while the three other Vedas—the Yajur, Sama and Atharva, originated both outside and inside India….
If Shiva’s teachings are 7,000 years old, why were Tantric wisdom and rites only written down starting as late as 500 AD, thus making most scholars and lay people believe this is when the history of Tantra began? In actuality, Tantric teachings were assimilated into Vedic and Brahmanic teachings and writings at an early age; thus one will find Tantric influences in the earliest writings in India, starting around 3000 BCE with the compilation of the Atharva Veda. All of the yogic references to breathing exercises and yoga in general in the Atharva Veda can, according to Sarkar, be traced back to the Tantra of Shiva, 2,000 years earlier. In other words, by the time of the so-called Tantric renaissance in the middle ages, when Tantric yogis further developed Hatha Yoga, Tantra had already blended with and influenced Hinduism and Buddhism to a great extent. In summary, yoga is thus not an invention of the Vedic people but rather a result of the spiritual aspirations of yogis who lived in India both prior to and after the time of Shiva, the great systematizer of Tantra, and thus, as he is called in India, the King of Yoga….
[T]he genetic discoveries by Dr. Wells confirm the oral history well known among Indian Tantrics as well as many of the stories written in the Puranas. Actually, his extensive research shows that India experienced four large migratory settlements over a period of nearly 55,000 years. By sampling DNA of people in a village close to Madurai in Tamil Nadu, he spotted a genetic mutation that had been passed on to aboriginal people in Australia—thus offering the first biological proof that African ancestors of the Australian natives passed through India on the way to their new home. His research also proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the people who later moved into India in the north were of Aryan stock….
[A] team led by Michael Bamshad of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City … compared the DNA of 265 Indian men of different castes with DNA from nearly 750 African, European, Asian and other Indian men. First, they analyzed mitochondrial DNA, which people inherit only from their mothers. When the researchers looked at specific sets of genes that tend to be inherited as a unit, they found that about 20 to 30 percent of the Indian sets resembled those in Europeans. The percentage was highest in upper-caste males, which is natural since the early Aryan settlers were by and large upper-caste Brahmins and Ksyattrias.
The genes that entered India when Aryan settlers emigrated from Central Asia and the Middle East are still there. And, according to these scientists from the University of Utah and from Andhra Pradesh University in India, they still remain entrenched at the top of the caste system. The invaders apparently subdued the local men, married many of their women and created the rigid caste system that exists even today. Their descendants are still the elite within Hindu society.
According to geneticist Lynn Jorde of the University of Utah that “a group of males” was largely responsible for the Aryan invasion. If women had accompanied the invaders, the evidence should be seen in the mitochondrial genes, but it is not evident. The research team found clear evidence that women could be upwardly mobile, in terms of caste, if they married higher-caste men. In contrast, men generally did not move higher, because women rarely married men from lower castes. Since the caste system is still in vogue today, the same practice prevails….
Authors like Bhattacharyya and Danielou have, for example, remarked on the lack of references to agriculture in the Rig-Veda. They think the main reason for this was that the early Aryans were pastoralists. In contrast, the Tantric Dravidians were rice-growing farmers. Moreover, you will not find any descriptions of the Indus Valley civilization in the Rig-Veda or even in the later Vedas. Nor will you find any references to the sophisticated grid pattern of streets. Nor will you find any mention of the careful engineering of the drainage systems, nor to granaries, warehouses and areas of intensive craft production, nor to the various seals found there.
Some Vedic scholars and writers on yoga argue that the Indus Civilization was purely a Vedic civilization. Popular writers on yoga, including David Frawley, Georg Feuerstein, and Deepak Chopra promote this view. This so-called cradle of human civilization, they affirm, had few or no traces of Tantra. But is this a correct assertion? Marshall, Bhattacharya, Danielou and other scholars point out that the various artifacts found in these ancient ruins are, in fact, yogic or Tantric in nature. These include proto-Tantric fertility symbols such a lingams and yonis, or Mother Goddess figurines. The yogi Shiva, in the form of the Pashupati seal, is one of the most common figures found in these ruins. Here archaeologists have also discovered a marble statue of a yogi with eyes fixed on the tip of his nose. This marble statue displays a type of yogic gaze that I am quite familiar with. This trance-inducing gaze is actually an essential element in one of the Tantric meditation lessons I received many years ago.
These archaeological finds, according to many scholars, all point in one direction—that Tantra was widely practiced in the Indus Valley civilization….
So, what about all the symbolic references in the Vedas? Do all of them contain subtle messages of transcendental meaning? And do they therefore prove that the Vedas are the source of all Indian spirituality, including Tantra? When the Rig-Vedic people spoke of the Sun God Azura, for example, they did not describe a deep state of meditation as some contemporary Vedic writers today want us to believe? Did they describe the “spiritual Sun within”? It is more likely that the early Vedic people, who were pagans and lived during a time Wilber would characterize as archaic and mythic, thought the Sun had magical powers. Hence, they worshiped this bright, life-giving entity in the sky directly. They literally believed the sun was a God. In other words, to the Aryans, the sun was not a symbol of a trans-rational state of meditation. Their devotion to the sun God Azura simply represented a pre-rational belief in the magical powers of that extraterrestrial and life-giving planet.
Indeed, most people at that time (10-6000 BCE) believed in a variety of nature’s magical powers and spoke quite literally about those beliefs. Similarly, when the early Aryans called the dark-skinned people devils, they also meant it rather literally. They were not speaking of some symbolic struggle between good and evil. Their verses were often fearfully direct, and many symbolic references to higher, transcendental truths are often incorrect or were added in the much later written versions. Sarkar has pointed out that many of the Gods and Goddesses described in various Indian religious scriptures were, in fact, representations of actual historical leaders. The Godman Krishna of Hindu mythology is a prime example, for he was, according to Sarkar, both a Tantric yogi and a historical king who united India around 1500 BCE in a mighty war described in the classic epic, Mahabharata.
Likewise, many of the mythological Gods of the Vedas, such as Indra, Agni and Varuna, were actual warrior leaders. Indeed, it was warrior leaders such as these who after a few thousand years of gradual migrations and conquest finally conquered most of northern India. “It was not difficult for the healthy, martial, almost invincible Aryans to conquer northern India,” writes Sarkar….
Shiva’s and Tantra’s immeasurable contribution to humanity urges us to correct the common misconception that Tantra and yoga are relatively recent expressions of Indian spirituality. Indeed, it appears the Classical Yoga period did not actually start with the famed Yoga Sutras of the sage Patanjali in 200 BCE, but rather with Shiva, almost 5,000 years earlier. Most fundamental aspects of yoga—including many of the yoga exercises, breathing and meditation techniques used today—originated with the teachings of this great sage. What we today know as Hatha Yoga was consequently developed by Tantric sages over thousands of years and finally written down in the Hatha Yoga Pardipika by the Natha yogis around 1000 CE.
So glad to see Frawley, Feuerstein, and Chopra proved to be (predictably) wrong. (I had actually read Feuerstein & Frawley’s book against the “myth of the Aryan Invasion” half a decade ago, and knew him and his spiritually credulous ilk well enough to not believe it, but I had no idea where to start in debunking it.)
Anson Shupe, In the Name of All That’s Holy:
Historian Ernest Gellner, in Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure Human History (1988), argues that during the transition from hunting/gathering to agrarian modes of production the earliest settled communities of human beings witnessed the emergence of two specialized professions: the warrior caste and the priesthood. Since those combination healers/“spirit dreamers” who were the spiritual specialists of hunting bands and tribes and whom anthropologists call shamans preceded both professions, we can surmise that prostitution, contrary to its reputation, is probably not the world’s oldest profession. Rather, the clergy is.
As studies of contemporary shamans indicate … that craft is not without a certain amount of manipulation, if not outright duping, in its performance. Sleight of hand, in large or modest doses, is indispensable to the shaman. This suggests, if only by extrapolation, that clergy malfeasance, or something we moderns could recognize as such, is probably as old as practiced religion itself.
Michael Coogan, The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction:
In the Bible, the primeval sea has several names, some of which are the same as those used in nonbiblical texts, including Deep, Sea, River, Leviathan, and the dragon or the serpent. Others, such as Rahab, occur only in the Bible. Likewise, Yahweh the god of Israel is frequently described as a storm god. Like his Canaanite counterpart and sometimes rival Baal, he is the “rider on the clouds” (Ps. 68:4), whose voice is thunder (Ps. 29:3), and who reveals himself in a storm cloud (Nah. 1:3; Job 38:1)….
The myth of a deluge caused by the gods is found in several different versions in Mesopotamian literature. These share with the biblical account of Noah and the Flood the rescue of a hero and his family in a boat built according to divinely given specifications, and the hero offering a sacrifice to the gods after the flood had subsided….
[One] version of the Decalogue [i.e., the Ten Commandments] … is that found in Exodus 20. But there are two other versions of the Decalogue in the Bible. A second is in Deuteronomy 5, in the context of a lengthy speech given by Moses just before his death, as the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land. In that speech Moses reviews the events of the preceding forty years of wandering, from the Exodus onward, and reminds the Israelites of the laws that they had been given by God. Those laws, however, are not always identical to the ones found earlier in Exodus, and there are about twenty, mostly minor, differences between the version of the Decalogue in Exodus and that in Deuteronomy. The most significant concerns the motivation for keeping the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy it is humanitarian—“so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 5:14–15), whereas in Exodus it is in imitation of the divine rest after creation—“for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day” (Exod. 20:11).
A third version of the Decalogue is found in Exodus 34:11–26. According to the narrative, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai to find the Israelites cavorting around the golden calf, he was so angry that he smashed the two tablets on which God had written the Decalogue. So, after punishing some of the perpetrators, Moses had to go back up the mountain for a replacement set. But this version is a very different set of “ten words” (Exod. 34:28), entirely concerned with proper and improper worship, which is why scholars refer to it as the Ritual Decalogue.
There were thus several versions of the Ten Commandments used in ancient Israel at various times and in various places, and, wishing to preserve them despite their inconsistencies, the editors of the Bible took advantage of the plot to include the Ritual Decalogue. These different versions are another illustration of how various sources are incorporated into the final version of the Bible. Even the version found in Exodus 20 has its own literary history: it starts off with Yahweh speaking in the first person, but then shifts to the third person after the first two commandments, probably because of later expansions.
Like the Covenant Code, the Decalogue originated in an agricultural and essentially patriarchal society. Addressed to individual adult males, who preside over a household comprising wife, sons and daughters, slaves, livestock, and resident aliens, the Decalogue only hints at a slightly higher status for women with the mention of “father and mother” (Exod. 20:12). The frequent modern appeal to the Ten Commandments as a timeless moral code blithely ignores its original context and some of the questionable values it incorporates.
The Decalogue divides naturally into two parts, which specify the Israelites’ obligations to God and to each other. The first part begins by requiring the worship of Yahweh alone. This prohibition of worshipping other gods is not strictly monotheistic—in fact, the commandment presumes that other gods exist but prohibits the Israelites from worshipping them….
[T]he Bible refers to rituals concerning birth, puberty and marriage, and death. In connection with birth there are naming ceremonies and, in later periods at least, circumcision, although that was likely originally a puberty ritual….
The three principal religious festivals in ancient Israel were originally regional celebrations, held at a local shrine to which the participants would travel. The Hebrew word used for these festivals literally means “pilgrimage” (hag, a word related to Arabic hajj, used for the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). They were also linked to the agricultural cycle. In the early spring there was the festival of unleavened bread, which occurred at the time of the harvest of barley that had been planted in the late fall. Another early spring festival, known as the Passover, involved the sacrifice of a newly born lamb. These two festivals came from separate socioeconomic contexts, those of farmers and herders, but were joined at a relatively early stage.
A second festival was the festival of weeks (Hebrew Shavuot), coinciding with the harvest of winter wheat, occurring seven weeks (fifty days) after Passover. This holy day was also called “festival of harvest” (Exod. 23:16) or “first fruits” (Num. 28:26), and is later known as Pentecost, from the Greek word for “fifty.”
Completing the cycle of agricultural festivals was the “festival of ingathering” (Exod. 23:16), which took place at the time of the harvest of grapes, olives, and other fruits in the early fall, in the seventh month. It is also known as the festival of booths (or tabernacles; Hebrew Sukkot), probably because the harvesters, whether members of the household or hired laborers, spent the night in the fields in temporary structures. The Bible also mentions in passing a “day of atonement” (Lev. 23:27–28; 25:9), also observed in the seventh month, apparently a ritual of cleansing to prepare the sanctuary, the priests, and the community as a whole for the fall harvest festival; as Yom Kippur this holy day becomes much more important in subsequent Jewish tradition….
The important festival of the Passover, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, provides an example of the complicated history of ancient Israelite rituals. In postbiblical Jewish tradition the Passover is celebrated in the home, and that is how it is described in Exodus 12:3–8. But other texts indicate that in some periods the Passover, like the festivals of weeks (Shavuot) and booths (Sukkot), was celebrated at a central location, either a regional shrine or the national temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where pilgrims from all over Israel reportedly came to celebrate the Passover during the reigns of Hezekiah in the late eighth century BCE and Josiah in the late seventh, as well as in the first century CE according to the Gospels of the New Testament and other sources.
Passover is celebrated for a week in the spring, beginning on the fourteenth day of the first month (Exod. 12:18; Lev. 23:5). A fall new year, in which the first month occurs in the fall, is also attested, which eventually became the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashanah (literally, “the beginning of the year”). The new year thus seems to have been celebrated in the spring in some periods and in the fall in others.
The terminology for the spring holy day is revealing. In two very early ritual calendars it is called the “festival of unleavened bread” (Exod. 23:15; 34:18), and in both of these it is listed along with the two other pilgrimage festivals. Like them, the festival of unleavened bread is connected with the agricultural cycle, in this case with the early spring barley harvest. This festival was therefore a farmers’ ritual, who would bring to their local shrine a portion of their crop as an offering. In slightly later texts, it is combined with the holy day called the Passover (Hebrew pesah), as in Leviticus 23:5–6: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” The originally separate holy day of Passover featured the slaughter of a young lamb and presumably was a sheep-herders’ ritual.
The core meaning of the word pesah is probably “protection.” The slaughter of the lamb in the spring was a sacrifice to secure divine protection for flocks and their owners. There is another possible meaning, however, conveniently rendered in English as Passover: because the Israelites smeared the blood of lambs on their door frames, Yahweh passed over their houses when he crossed (that is, passed over) the land of Egypt.
The second meaning points to how the combined festivals of unleavened bread and Passover became associated with the narrative of the Exodus. Different biblical sources do not, however, connect the festivals with the Exodus in the same ways. While the earliest ritual calendars refer only to the date—“You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt” (Exod. 34:18), another text links more than just the chronology—it is unleavened bread that is eaten because the Israelites left Egypt so quickly that they had no time to let their bread rise (Exod. 12:39). The bread, originally unleavened to keep it pure rather than contaminated with old yeast in the form of starter dough, is called “the bread of affliction—because you came out of the land of Egypt in great haste” (Deut. 16:3). Likewise, the sacrifice of the lamb as a substitution for the firstborn, as in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22) and in the Ritual Decalogue (Exod. 34:18–19), is connected with the killing of the firstborn of the Egyptians.
Thus the festivals of unleavened bread and Passover were originally independent rituals that were joined at a fairly early stage, and both were linked with the narrative of the Exodus. This process of linkage continued in Jewish tradition as the Passover service developed over the ages. For example, the typical modern Passover Seder or meal includes haroset, a blend of fruits, nuts, and spices that represents the mortar the Israelite slaves used when laying bricks, and karpas, green herbs dipped in salt water that recalls their bitter service.
The same linking of originally seasonal festivals with the Exodus occurs with the other two pilgrimage festivals, those of weeks (Shavuot) and booths (Sukkot). In early biblical texts they are simply agricultural: “You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year” (Exod. 34:22). In postbiblical Jewish tradition the festival of weeks becomes a commemoration of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai; and even before the end of the biblical period the fall harvest festival of ingathering, also called booths, recalls the temporary structures that the Israelites lived in during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus (Lev. 23:42).
The ritual calendar included other observances, each of which has its own history. There were daily offerings, weekly offerings on the Sabbath, and offerings at the appearance of the new moon. As Jewish tradition continued, other holy days were added, such as Hanukkah, at the time of the winter solstice, associated with the rededication of the Temple in the second century BCE after the successful revolt of the Maccabees against Greek rule, and Purim, celebrated in the late winter, probably originally a Babylonian ritual assimilated into Judaism and legitimated in the biblical book of Esther….
In both biblical and nonbiblical sources there are examples of prophets entering ecstatic states prior to delivering their message. When the newly anointed King Saul “prophesied,” he became “another man” (1 Sam. 10:6). Sometimes that ecstatic state was reached by means of music (1 Sam. 10:5; 2 Kings 3:15), and it could involve nakedness (1 Sam. 19:24) or self-mutilation (1 Kings 18:28; Zech. 13:6). Other abnormal behavior is reported, for example, of the prophet Ezekiel, including speechlessness and lying on one side for a long time….
In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the exile to Babylon associated with it, prophecy also took a new twist. There was more and more focus on a future restoration of the glorious days of the past, days of independence and prosperity, especially the time of kings David and Solomon in the tenth century. We find detailed pronouncements of such a future in the prophecies related to the events of the sixth century, especially Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah 40—66, chapters, which although part of the book of Isaiah were written not in his time, the late eighth century, but two centuries later. And, as the prophetic books continued to be revised, expressions of future hope were added to others as well.
But these divinely promised hopes were not immediately fulfilled, and so they were projected into a distant future, an “end time” in which Yahweh and his heavenly armies would definitively defeat the forces of evil, both primeval and historical. This led to the development of what is known as apocalyptic literature, occurring in the Bible in an early stage in Ezekiel 40–48 and Zechariah 9–14 and more fully in Daniel 7–12, and, in the New Testament, in the book of Revelation….
The practice of consulting the dead, necromancy, confirms that there was some notion of survival beyond the grave. Although prohibited, it was widely practiced, and in at least one case was successful, when at King Saul’s request a woman who was a medium summoned the dead prophet Samuel from the underworld. But unlike the ancient Egyptians, who were obsessed with life after death, as their elaborate tombs demonstrate, the ancient Israelites give us scant information about it. All the dead lived in a place called Sheol, a dark and dank place, more like the Greek Hades than the blessed west of the Egyptians. There was no contact with God in Sheol, and ordinary life apparently had ended. Ecclesiastes describes it this way: “The dead know nothing … There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol” (Eccles. 9:5, 10). Only relatively late in the biblical period, partly in an effort to resolve the problem of inconsistent divine justice in this life, did Jews begin to develop a more elaborate set of beliefs about the afterlife as a place of reward for the just and punishment for the wicked. This would eventually become the familiar heaven and hell, which Christians and Muslims adopted….
[W]e are introduced to Job as a perfect man, who “feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1). His piety had been rewarded by great wealth and a large family—seven sons and three daughters. One day, at a meeting of the divine council, Yahweh engaged in a debate with a mysterious figure called the satan over whether Job’s piety was authentic….
With divine approval, the satan apparently causes a series of disasters, in which Job’s many herds of animals were captured or killed, and finally, most horribly, his ten children were killed as well….
The satan is apparently one of the “sons of God,” a member of the divine council. His title means “accuser”—perhaps even, in the forensic language that permeates the book, something like a prosecutor. This figure will later become Satan, the devil of Jewish and Christian tradition, but he is not that yet. He is only a kind of foil, who disappears from the book after chapter 2—both Job’s friends and Job himself attribute his suffering directly to God.
Philip Ball, The Elements:
Thales of Miletus (c.620–c.555 BC), one of the first known enquirers into the constitution of the physical world, posited only one fundamental substance: water. There is ample justification for this view in myth; the Hebrew god was not the only deity to bring forth the world from a primal ocean. But the Milesian school of philosophers that Thales founded produced little consensus about the prote hyle or “first matter” that constituted everything. Anaximander (c.611–547 BC), Thales’ successor, avoided the issue with his contention that things are ultimately made ofapeiron, the “indefinite” and unknowable first substance. Anaximenes (d.c.500 BC) decided that air, not water, was primary. For Heraclitus (d. 460 BC), fire was the stuff of creation.
Why should anyone believe in a prote hyle at all—or, for that matter, in any scheme of elements that underlies the many substances we find in the world? Why not simply conclude that rock is rock, wood is wood? Metal, flesh, bone, grass … there were plenty of distinct substances in the ancient world. Why not accept them at face value, rather than as manifestations of something else?
Some science historians argue that these ancient savants were searching for unity: to reduce the multifarious world to a simpler and less puzzling scheme. A predilection for “first principles” is certainly evident in Greek philosophy, but there is also a practical reason to invoke fundamental elements: things change. Water freezes or boils away. Wood burns, transforming a heavy log to insubstantial ashes. Metals melt; food is ingested and most of it is somehow spirited away inside the stomach.
If one substance can be transformed to another substance, might that be because they are, at root, merely different forms of the same substance? The idea of elements surely arose not because philosophers were engaged on some ancient version of the physicists’ quest for a unified theory but because they wanted to understand the transformations that they observed daily in the world.
To this end, Anaximander believed that change came about through the agency of contending opposite qualities: hot and cold, and dry and moist. When Empedocles (c.490–c.430 BC) postulated the four elements that gained ascendancy in Western natural philosophy, he too argued that their transformations involved conflict….
Aristotle shared Anaximander’s view that the qualities heat, cold, wetness, and dryness are the keys to transformation, and also to our experience of the elements. It is because water is wet and cold that we can experience it. Each of the elements, in Aristotle’s ontology, is awarded two of these qualities, so that one of them can be converted to another by inverting one of the qualities. Wet, cold water becomes dry, cold earth by turning wetness to dryness….
What distinguished the atomists from their opponents was not the belief in tiny particles that make up matter, but the question of what separated them. Democritus supposed that atoms move about in a void. Other philosophers ridiculed this idea of “nothingness,” maintaining that the elements must fill all of space. Anaxagoras (c.500–428 BC), who taught both Pericles and Euripides in Athens, claimed that there was no limit to the smallness of particles, so that matter was infinitely divisible. This meant that tiny grains would fill up all the nooks between larger grains, like sand between stones. Aristotle asserted—and who can blame him?—that air would fill any void between atoms. (This becomes a problem only if you consider that air is itself made of atoms.)
Plato had it all figured out neatly. He was not an atomist in the mould of Democritus, but he did conceive of atom-like fundamental particles of the four Empedoclean elements. His geometrical inclinations led him to propose that these particles had regular, mathematical shapes: the polyhedra called regular Platonic solids. Earth was a cube, air an octahedron, fire a tetrahedron and water an icosahedron. The flat faces of each of these shapes can be made from two kinds of triangle. These triangles are, according to Plato, the true “fundamental particles” of nature, and they pervade all space. The elements are converted by rearranging the triangles into new geometric forms.
There is a fifth Platonic regular solid too: the dodecahedron, which has pentagonal (five-sided) faces. This polyhedron cannot be made from the triangles of the other four, which is why Plato assigned it to the heavens. There is thus a fifth classical element, which Aristotle called the aether. But it is inaccessible to earthly beings, and so plays no part in the constitution of mundane matter….
The Greek philosophers coupled a four-element theory to the idea of four “primary” colours: to Empedocles these were white, black, red, and the vaguely defined ochron, consistent with the preference of the classical Greek painters for a four-colour palette of white, black, red, and yellow. The Athenian astrologer Antiochos in the second century AD assigned these colours, respectively, to water, earth, air, and fire.
A determination to link the four elements to colours persisted long after the Greek primaries had been discarded. The Renaissance artist Leon Battista Alberti awarded red to fire, blue to air, green to water, and “ash colour” (cinereum) to earth; Leonardo da Vinci made earth yellow instead. These associations would have surely informed the contemporaneous ideas of painters about how to mix and use colours.
This fourness of fundamental principles reaches further, embracing the four points of the compass (Chinese tradition acknowledges five elements, and five “directions”) and the four “humours” of classical medicine. According to the Greek physician Galen (AD c.130–201), our health depends on the balance of these four essences: red blood, white phlegm, and black and yellow bile….
[T]he classical elements are familiar representatives of the different physical states that matter can adopt. Earth represents not just soil or rock, but all solids. Water is the archetype of all liquids; air, of all gases and vapours. Fire is a strange one, for it is indeed a unique and striking phenomenon. Fire is actually a dancing plasma of molecules and molecular fragments, excited into a glowing state by heat. It is not a substance as such, but a variable combination of substances in a particular and unusual state caused by a chemical reaction. In experiential terms, fire is a perfect symbol of that other, intangible aspect of reality: light.
The ancients saw things this way too: that elements were types, not to be too closely identified with particular substances. When Plato speaks of water the element, he does not mean the same thing as the water that flows in rivers. River water is a manifestation of elementary water, but so is molten lead. Elementary water is “that which flows.” Likewise, elementary earth is not just the stuff in the ground, but flesh, wood, metal.
Plato’s elements can be interconverted because of the geometric commonalities of their “atoms.” For Anaxagoras, all material substances are mixtures of all four elements, so one substance changes to another by virtue of the growth in proportion of one or more elements and the corresponding diminution of the others. This view of matter as intimate blends of elements is central to the antiquated elementary theories….
It may seem strange from today’s perspective that several of the substances recognized today as elements—the metals gold, silver, iron, copper, lead, tin, and mercury—were not classed as such in antiquity, even though they could be prepared in an impressively pure state. Metallurgy is one of the most ancient of technical arts, and yet it impinged relatively little on the theories of the elements until after the Renaissance. Metals, with the exception of fluid mercury, were considered simply forms of Aristotelian “earth”….
Gold and copper are the oldest known metals, since they occur in their pure, elemental forms in nature. There is evidence of the mining and use of gold in the region of Armenia and Anatolia from before 5000 BC; copper use is similarly ancient in Asia. Copper mostly occurs not as the metal, however, but as a mineral ore: a chemical compound of copper and other elements, such as copper carbonate (the minerals malachite and azurite). These copper ores were used as pigments and colouring agents for glazes, and it is likely that copper smelting, which dates from around 4300 BC, arose from a happy accident during the glazing of stone ornaments called faience in the Middle East. The synthesis of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, dates from about the same time.
Lead was smelted from one of its ores (galena) since around 3500 BC, but was not common until 1,000 years later. Tin seems to originate in Persia around 1800–1600 BC, and iron in Anatolia around 1400 BC. This sequence of discovery of the metals reflects the degree of difficulty in separating the pure metal from its ore: iron clings tightly to oxygen in the common mineral ore haematite (ochre), and intense heat and charcoal are needed to prise them apart.
With this profusion of metals, some scheme was needed to classify them. Convention dictated that this be at first a system of correspondences, so that the seven known metals became linked with the seven known celestial bodies and the seven days of the week. Since all metals shared attributes in common (shininess, denseness, malleability), it seemed natural to suppose that they were different only in degree and not in kind. Thus arose the precept that metals “mature” in the earth, beginning with dull, dirty lead and culminating in glorious gold….
According to Jabir, the “fundamental qualities” of metals are the Aristotelian hot, cold, dry, and moist. But the “immediate qualities” are two “principles”: sulphur and mercury. All metals are deemed to be mixtures of sulphur and mercury. In base metals they are impure; in silver and gold they attain a higher state of purity. The purest mixtures of this sulphur and mercury yield not gold but the Holy Grail of alchemy, the Philosopher’s Stone, the smallest quantity of which can transform base metals to gold.
Some scholars have identified Jabir’s sulphur and mercury with the Aristotelian opposites fire and water. One thing is sure: they are not the yellow sulphur and the glistening, fluid mercury of the chemistry laboratory, which were known in more or less pure form even to the alchemists. Instead, these two principles were rather like the four classical elements: “ideal” substances embodied only imperfectly in earthly materials….
The ancient love of gold was more than skin deep. The metal’s resistance to the corruption of age ensured that it continued to look lovely when other metals lost their sheen; but the attraction was not just physical. This incorruptibility was deemed by the alchemists to reflect a spiritual purity, which is why making gold was, for many of them, a religious quest more than a striving for riches. Because gold did not decay, the Chinese alchemists believed it could prolong life. Their search for the vital, youth-giving elixir was thus a kind of mission to secure the spirit of gold itself. Its yellow colour came to represent all that was profound: the dignity of humankind, the centre of the four compass directions. Yellow was the colour reserved for the Chinese emperor, like the purple of Rome….
Agricola retells the account by the Roman Strabo of how gold was extracted in antiquity from alluvial deposits in Colchis, the land between the Caucasus, Armenia, and the Black Sea:
The Colchians placed the skins of animals in the pools of springs; and since many particles of gold had clung to them when they were removed, the poets invented the ‘golden fleece’ of the Colchians.
This was the magical hide sought by Jason and his crew of the Argo. The fleece came from the winged ram Chrysomallus (“golden ram”), and hung in a sacred grove in Colchis protected by a dragon. On the one hand, this is a classic “quest” legend. But it is also an amalgamation of various older stories. The sacred fleece was originally purple or black and was used in a sacrificial rite. It was woven into the tale of the Argonauts because they sailed to the Black Sea in search of gold, which the Colchians collected in the manner described by Strabo. From such practical considerations are legends made….
Because natural gold is never pure, ancient technologists had to develop impressive metallurgical skills to separate it from impurities such as silver. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, where these methods were devised, metalworking was sacred and metallurgists commonly laboured in compounds attached to temples. The Babylonian god Marduk was “Lord of Gold”….
The earliest iron implements, found in Egyptian tombs dating from around 3500 BC, precede the Iron Age by a long margin. These artefacts are thought to have been fashioned from native iron metal found in meteorites. For centuries the Inuit people took their iron from a single large meteorite found in the Arctic snows. Iron was once more revered and more precious than gold, because it was found nowhere on Earth but came instead from the heavens. The Egyptian term for it, baa-en-pet, can be best translated as “iron of heaven.”
Biblio: Ball, Philip (2004 ), The Elements: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press Inc.).
[T]he dragon … in one guise or another, appears in almost every mythology and has been the subject of many books and countless articles. Perhaps the most intriguing of these examinations is “An Instinct for Dragons” by anthropologist David E. Jones. Jones argues that the image of the dragon is composed of the salient body parts of three predator species that hunted and killed our tree-dwelling African primate ancestors for about sixty million years. The three predators are the leopard, the python, and the eagle.
According to Jones (what follows is a condensed summary of a complex argument), ancient primates evolved alarm calls to identify each of the three predators, with each call triggering the defensive response appropriate to the nature of the attack mode of the specific predator. Jones calls this predator-recognition template the “snake/raptor/cat complex.” This complex is the source of what Jones refers to as the “ brain dragon.” The brain dragon emerged when our apelike ancestors left the trees to walk on the ground. rather suddenly, the relatively small brain of Australopithecus had to process a lot of information about many new forms of predators and develop new alarms calls and strategic responses to them. Faced with information overload, the brain of Australopithecus resorted to lumping information into manageable and memorable chunks. As a result, the cat, the snake, and the raptor were merged into a hybrid creature that had the salient predatory features of each: the face of a feline, the body of a snake, and the talons of a raptor. This is the hybrid “monster” that came to be known as the “dragon.”
Because the image combined features from three dominant predators, it could quickly send the neural message very dangerous animal. Indeed, the derivation of the word monster seems to acknowledge this ancient function. Monster comes from the Latin word monstrare, “to show,” and monere, “to warn.” Monsters are warning signs, reminding us of the many threatening creatures lurking in the environment eager to gobble us up.
Jones argues that the image of the dragon—the salient elements of which were already hardwired into the primate brain—became a “pattern” or “template” that could be passed on genetically as well as culturally. He spends a considerable amount of space demonstrating how this process could have worked, but the upshot is that the “ brain-dragon” was stored in the human mind for hundreds of thousands of years, where it lay dormant or lurked in the dreams of ancient humans, to be released during times of great communal anxiety. It was only with the development of language and art, Jones argues, that the image of the dragon could be given full expression and a greater semblance of reality. It could be said, then, that the dragon—like other monsters and mythic figures— is a product of the cognitive fluidity that underlies the mythic imagination. The archetype of the dragon gave form to the fears engendered by humanity’s developing ability to imagine all kinds of new dangers and threats.
Jones’s notion that the dragon is composed of tissue samples taken from real predators could account, as well, for the origin of other mythic monsters. The shape of the snake, for example, could furnish not only the body of the mythic dragon but the neck of the hydra; the beak of the raptor could replace the face of the big cat and also be combined with its paws. For example, the griffin has the body parts of a lion but the face and wings of an eagle. And so on. Whatever the particular form the monster may have taken within a specific geographical area, its essential features would clearly have identified it as a very dangerous creature even to those unfamiliar with local fauna. Monsters were used as a means of imbuing sacred or dangerous geographical areas with taboo and explaining the source and cause of lethal natural disasters, such as typhoons, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and so on. But the basic function of the monster was to give fear a face, to graphically capture the dread that is bred into us by millions of years as a prey species that was stalked and sometimes eaten by huge and terrifying carnivores.
The “monsters” of the mythic imagination also inherited some of their DNA from the very real “monsters” created by Mother Nature herself. In ancient Australia (and perhaps in other areas of the Southeast), there was a flesh- eating lizard measuring up to thirty feet long and weighing two thousand pounds, almost “ten times the weight of its closest relative the ‘ora’ or Komodo dragon.” There were birds too huge to fly, four-legged animals that could walk at times on two legs, and carnivores that possessed both female and male genitals (as does the female hyena). In the nineteenth century, monster-lore scholar Charles Gould suggested that some monsters may reflect cultural memories of “a few cretaceous and early tertiary forms” that were thought to have gone extinct but that “struggled on” in isolated and remote areas of the world. This same claim is made today by some cryptozoologists.
Another fertile source of mythic monsters is the bone yard. It’s long been noted that the fossilized skeletons of long-extinct creatures from the age of dinosaurs contributed to the creation of mythic monsters. It was as far back as 1831 that Gould suggested that belief in monsters arose from the frequent discoveries of the remains of “monstrous amphibians.” Gould also pointed out that when the Chinese came across the skeletons of long-extinct dinosaurs, they referred to them as “dragon bones.” In the Carpathians, the bones of extinct cave bears also have been interpreted as the remains of dragons. The reptilian or serpentine characteristics given to many mythic monsters may reflect the fact that fossilized skeletons, often reduced to an undulating backbone and neck, look like a snake.
Compare the spinal kundalini energy as the “serpent power,” sympathetic-magically linked with the similarly undulating Milky Way—the path to the Pole Star, or stationary “hole in the sky,” through which one could climb out of the universe.
No one has done more to illuminate the relationship between fossils and mythmaking than Adrienne Mayor, who has documented hundreds of instances during the last two thousand five hundred years when fossil bones provided the scaffolding for elaborate mythmaking, as frightened people sought to give meaning to the startling animal remains they happened across. To cite just one example, the Thunder Bird of Native American mythology may have something to do with discoveries of Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons. “Someone who discovered a tyrannosaurid forelimb with its peculiar pair of claws, and perhaps with the elongated, birdlike shoulderblade, might well have identified the fossil as part of the skeleton of some mysterious bird.”
The mythologizing process probably did not start with the Greeks and Romans or even with the appearance of the modern brain. Homo erectus also must have tried to explain the frightful skulls and bones it came across. These remains must have been particularly terrifying since early humans could not have known that the remains belonged to carnivorous “monsters” long extinct. In fact, the hyper predator detection system of early humans would have prompted them to interpret the bones as the remains of creatures still alive and possibly lurking somewhere in the environment. The tens of millions of bones that accumulated ever since the first skeletal creatures swam in the sea provided our forebears with constant provocations to imagine the existence of monstrous predators.
Monsters were also created by dreams and reveries. According to medical anthropologist Alondra Oubre, “proto-humans” of the Early Pleistocene first discovered the emotional and psychological rewards of altering the normal chemistry of the brain. These altered states of consciousness enabled our ancestors to “unlock the doors” to the unconscious and to access its “unlimited reservoir of fantasia, hypnagogic imagery, day-dreaming, and creative ideation.” These counter-factual and counter-intuitive images and symbols were fabricated, necessarily, from the bits and pieces of daily life. The memories of these experiences were not stored as accurate snapshots but as somewhat distorted versions of that experience, reshaped, exaggerated, or diminished according to their emotional content. Oubre suggests that early humans engaged in these practices to escape their “anguishing existence in a prey-versus-predator world.” Admittedly, it would have been suicidal to “escape” from this world for too long or too often—to lose touch with the real threats that provoked the anxieties in the first place. But periodic escape, during rituals, would have been therapeutic, helping assuage fear and increase confidence.
These fear-management strategies, however, had ironic consequences. Among the salient experiences our ancient ancestors remembered and stored in their unconscious must have been life-threatening encounters with predators. Which means that during altered states, images of predators would have undergone further shaping, twisting, recombination, or hybridization. The upshot is that proto-humans were able to conjure up hybrid images of animals well before cognitive fluidity and mythmaking emerged during the Middle Paleolithic.
Think of ayahuasca users encountering “dragons” in their altered states: “Claudio Naranjo has noted that naive [i.e., expectation-less, unprimed] Westerners dosed with harmaline tended to have visions of snakes, as well as jungle cats and large birds of prey; imagery that is consistent with the cultural context of traditional ayahuasca use. He has proposed that these animals seen together comprise a ‘dragon’ symbol, which is produced through the ayahuasca alkaloids allowing one to experience kundalini energy (Naranjo 1987).”
The cross-section of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis Caapi), by the way, frequently looks strikingly similar to the pads on a cat’s/jaguar’s foot. (See esp. the photos at the bottom of this page for the vine, and here for the paw.) That alone, even without the fact that jaguars chew on b. caapi leaves, would have been enough for South American aboriginals to start experimenting with it—e.g., consuming it for its “cat power” associations—eventually stumbling into combining it with DMT-containing plants, as an MAO inhibitor.
Although proto-humans could not spin yarns about monsters, they may have been able to imagine them, and thus unintentionally add to their fears through the same processes they were using to escape their fears. Obviously we cannot know what proto-humans envisioned during consciousness-altering rituals, but we do know that during such states, humans with modern brains envision monsters. In several Native American cultures, visions often entail an encounter with powerful animal spirits….
We became efficient killers by watching and imitating efficient killers—which is to say that we “performed the predator” in more ways than one. Our ancestors studied predators, learned how to “read their minds” in order to predict their behavior, imitated their hunting behaviors and tactics in ritual and in the hunt, and eventually used the teeth and bones of predators to make weapons. Those who could most successfully imitate the hunting behaviors of predators had a better chance of surviving and passing on their genetic material than those who couldn’t.
The evidence suggests that John was a Jewish prophet. He was living in exile around the year 90 of the first century. We can’t understand this book until we understand that it was written in war time, or shortly after war. John was a refugee, apparently, from the Jewish war that had destroyed his home country, Judea, started, as you may know, in year 66 when Jews rebelled against the Roman Empire. The slogan of the war was, “In the name of God and our common liberty.” And four years later, in the year 70, 60,000 Roman troops stormed into Jerusalem and killed thousands of people….
John put his own cry of anguish in the mouth of people he said he saw standing under the throne of God. They were dead. They were standing there, the souls were crying out this cry: “Lord, how long? How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the nations of the earth?”….
What John did in the Book of Revelation was draw on the cultural resources of his own people to create, if you like, anti-Roman propaganda. Especially, he drew on the writings of the classical prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel, Isaiah, because those prophets writing hundreds of years before John—he was immersed in their writings—had written many of them about 600 years earlier, about the time that Babylonian armies had destroyed and devastated the nation of Judea and the city of Jerusalem.
What the prophets did is, they took the most ancient version of the creation story—it’s not the one you find in Genesis. The most ancient creation story tells how the God of Israel had to fight a giant dragon. This is a Babylonian story. It goes back to the god Marduk. But they took the story about God fighting a dragon in the beginning of time, and they applied it to the crisis of the war. The prophet Jeremiah talked about how the king of Babylon is a beastly sea monster whom God spears and slaughters. The prophet Isaiah calls on God to wake up and fight against Israel’s foreign enemies. Isaiah pictures Israel’s enemies. It’s the Babylonian empire. He says, “That old serpent, the dragon, Leviathan, the dragon that lives in the sea.” Isaiah also pictured Israel’s foreign enemies as a rich and decadent whore.
When John of Patmos, who was steeped in these writings, asks, “How long is God going to allow evildoers to triumph over Israel?” he says Jesus told him what the earlier prophets had said, that God is about to come and finish the cosmic war he started in the beginning of time, and kill the dragon who embodies the forces of evil once and for all. John of Patmos triumphantly says that today’s Babylon, which is Rome, although it’s raging like Leviathan, is decadent as the whore, is about to fall as Rome triumphs.
Just a note that this Book of Revelation doesn’t contain things that many of its contemporary admirers claim to find. It doesn’t have anything about a rapture. It doesn’t have anything about a requirement that Jews become Christian. Although, for over a thousand five hundred years, John’s book has been in the New Testament, John had no anticipation of a New Testament, because his only scriptures were the Hebrew Bible. John regarded himself as a Jew who had found the Messiah. And would have been shocked to learn that his future readers regarded him as a Christian. As far as he was concerned, Christianity hadn’t yet been invented….
Although John was traveling in Asia some 20 years after Paul died, he met there many second generation followers of Paul who were spreading the apostle’s teaching all over Syria, Greece and Turkey. And teaching, they went further than Paul. They were saying, these gentiles were saying they were actually the true Jews, because Jesus had actually disinherited his chosen people.
That kind of teaching made Paul angry. And so he said, I don’t care if these converted gentiles say they are Jews, he said, they’re not. They’re lying. Instead of belonging to Israel, they belong to Satan’s synagogue. John could not have imagined what he would have regarded as the greatest identity theft of all time, that eventually gentile believers would not only call themselves Israel, but claim to be the sole rightful heirs of Israel’s legacy.
In retrospect, we can see that he stood on the cusp of an enormous change. This movement, which attracted few Jews within two to three generations after the death of Jesus, was attracting floods of gentiles all over the empire, particularly in those other provinces. And these other people would flood the movement and create, in effect, a new religion….
[T]he people who championed this book during the next hundred to 200 years were followers of Jesus who were experiencing or witnessing Roman persecution first hand. They were living under threat of being arrested, tortured, executed, for atheism and treason. During those dangerous times, many of them found in John’s prophecy hope that Rome, which was of course indomitable, was going to just fall and collapse at the end of the world. The Book of Revelation, as you see, talks about the world turned upside down. Suddenly the crucified, tortured, dead Jesus will come back and be king of the world.
What happened, though, is not what John prophesied. What came to an end wasn’t the world. What came to an end was persecution. And it was astonishing. As you know in the year 312, on the night of October 12th, Constantine, who was the illegitimate son of an emperor, was preparing to fight his rivals, for the throne, and he said he saw a great sign in the sky that promised him victory in Christ’s name. Constantine had that sign put on some of the weapons, and on the shields, had it carried before the armies into battle. And the next day he won a magnificent victory. His enemies were all killed. And he marched into Rome in triumph, and was acclaimed as emperor….
We have only five lists that remain from the year 350 to the year 400 of canon books, and you can see that the Bishop of Jerusalem, the Counsel of Bishops in Asia Minor, Gregory of Nazianus, this one’s the Fathers of the Church and other bishops, they all have many books that are now in the New Testament. But every single list leaves out The Book of Revelation very deliberately, except the one list that happened to be the list that was adopted. And that book is included on Athanasius’ list, the Bishop of Alexandria, in Egypt.
I was asking myself, what made Athanasius’ take on Revelation different? Was it that he could actually reinterpret all the prophecies. Instead of taking John’s prophecies as referring to God’s victory over evil powers embodied in Rome, he said, well, you can’t take it literally. We’re going to apply John’s vision of cosmic war to my lifelong battle, which is a lifelong battle to establish a Catholic church which is a Catholic church endorsed by the Roman Empire….
Athanasius says, well, the beast is really not about Rome. The whore is not about Rome. The beast and the whore represent heresy. And when Jesus divides the saved from the damned, it’s really the Orthodox Christians being divided from Pagans, Jews and heretics. And that is the way he pictures it throughout all of his writing. I mention this only because his spin on these prophecies shows us, gives a clue about how this book has survived for a couple thousand years.
One literary scholar says, well, these are very open symbols that John has, and another scholar at Yale says they’re multivalent. It’s very clear that John had very specific targets in mind when he was writing. For example, if you read about a great mountain that suddenly erupts, and is thrown into the sea and pollutes the waters for days, he’s thinking about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that happened in the year 79, about ten years before his writing. And everybody would know that. And if he’s writing about the great beast whose human number is six hundred and sixty-six, you know that he’s either thinking about the imperial name of the emperor Nero, who was the one you’d choose for the worst possible emperor, or Domitian, who was ruling at the time John wrote. He had very specific targets in mind….
Jesus is said to have said when people say, well, okay, the Last Judgment, when God judges the world, how will he judge it? And the answer is the parable of the sheep and the goats. I was naked and you took me in. I was imprisoned and you visited me. I was sick and you took care of me, and so forth. The people who act with compassion are the people who go into the kingdom of heaven. This is traditional Jewish ethics. Right? This compassion for the needy, and the widow and the orphan and so forth.
Savani looked at people’s beliefs about how emotional residue influences other people’s behavior. He had participants read about Margaret who sublets an apartment from a woman named Alice. Unbeknownst to Margaret, Alice spent the last couple of months in the apartment feeling very sad, due to problems she was having with her boyfriend. Margaret moves into the empty apartment and immediately begins feeling very happy. Savani asked his participants, “To what extent do you think Margaret’s behavior is surprising?” Both Americans and Indians said they found Margaret’s behavior surprising. They expected her to feel sad after moving into a space that had witnessed so much recent sadness.
In a final study, Savani looked at whether beliefs in emotional residue influence people’s actual behavior. He ran an experiment where he gave people a choice of two different rooms in which to fill out a survey. The sign on the door of one room indicated that the previous occupants had spent the past two hours recalling happy life events. The sign on the other door indicated that the previous occupants had spent the last couple of hours remembering unhappy life events. He then made note of which room the participants chose to enter. Savani found that the majority of both Americans and Indians chose to fill out their surveys in the room where they thought people had previously spent time recalling happy memories.
To find out whether people chose the room simply because it was associated with more positive feelings, Savani also examined his participants’ beliefs in emotional residue. He discovered that people who were more likely to believe in emotional residue were also more likely to choose the room with the happy sign. Therefore, beliefs in emotional residue, and not general positivity, seemed to be driving his results.
In India, people often burn incense to clear out emotional residue. Americans may engage in similar rituals in their attempts to get rid of “bad energy.” Such rituals could include anything from keeping windows open, to saying prayers, to aromatherapy….
Beliefs in emotional residue have some interesting implications for behavior. For example, might people be willing to pay less for a home or office after being told that the previous occupants experienced a lot of negative emotions there? Might someone choose a less beautiful home over a more beautiful one, if the less beautiful house was thought to have less emotional residue? The answer to these questions may depend on how long people believe that emotional residue tends to hang around.
The question of whether emotional residue actually exists remains to be answered, but intriguing new research suggests that it may have biological underpinnings. A well-publicized study from earlier this year demonstrated that human tears emit a chemical that other people detect and respond to. Specifically, women’s tears were shown to reduce testosterone and sexual arousal in men. Research by Wen Zhou and Denise Chen of Rice University have demonstrated that human sweat glands emit distinct chemicals when people experience different emotions. In addition, they showed evidence that other people can sense those chemicals at a later point in time. Taken together, these new findings suggest that our intuitive beliefs in emotional residue may be more than just superstition.
[Cognitive archaeologist David] Lewis-Williams … contends that shamans were largely responsible for the European cave paintings and that access to the caves (and images) was restricted. He sees in this an emerging social complexity and stratification, whereby shamans are privileged and powerful. Although this is plausible it is also speculative. There is little evidence for emerging complexity or stratification in the Upper Paleolithic archaeological record.
While the functional linkage between shamans-ASC-entoptics and ritual surely holds in some or even many cases, it is looking less likely in others. In 2004, Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder suggested that 13,000 year old “flutings” inside Rouffignac Cave, France were made by children. In 2006, Sharpe and Van Gelder experimentally confirmed these findings and found that children between 2 and 5 years of age made these markings….
This year a Cambridge University doctoral student in archaeology, Jessica Cooney, discovered that children were responsible for even more “art” at Rouffignac than was previously thought. In a recent interview with History (which includes a slide show), Cooney discussed her findings:
What I’ve found in Rouffignac is that they are screaming to be heard—the presence of children is everywhere in the cave, even in the passages furthest from the entrance. There are no areas in Rouffignac with flutings where we find adults without children, and vice versa.
Many theories about cave art point to shamanism or ritual use. While I don’t rule that out, I don’t think that that’s necessarily the case for all caves. With children involved, it could have been one of those reasons but also very likely could have been play or a time for practicing art, or simply an exploration of the landscape.
If we didn’t know that young children made these markings, it would be tempting to attribute them to shamans experiencing ASC. There are some obvious resemblances between entoptic forms (see chart above) and the childrens’ markings at Rouffignac. While one could argue that the children were shaman apprentices being tutored in ASC and entoptics, this amounts to special pleading. I can’t think of any ethnographic or ethnohistoric instances of children this young being trained as shamans or inducing ASC.
These findings also call into question Lewis-Williams’ contention that deepest, darkest recesses of caves were reserved for the most experienced shamans (with privileged access to the spirit world) undergoing the most intense ASC. If children were in these dark zones, it is hard to argue for restricted access or shamanistic exclusivity.
The most likely or parsimonious interpretation of these symbols is the one given by Cooney: play. If children were doodling “entoptics” in the cave with their parents, it suggests that “artistic” interpretations of these symbols deserve reconsideration.