A favorite topic of mine, as anyone knows who regularly reads my blog, is that of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. It’s part of my general interest in social history, social science, social consciousness, social behavior, social change, and social constructs. A major frame to my thought is the social nature of humanity. Even our modern notions of individuality are a product of specific social conditions and cultural factors.
I just purchased and started perusing a new book: Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind edited by Marcel Kuijsten. It’s a collection of essays about the bicameral mind. All of those I’ve looked at so far are fascinating. In jumping around in the book, I came across a reference to an anthropological case study. There is a small section discussing a specific tribe, the Ugandan Ik, that up into recent times may have been a bicameral society or still carried strong elements of it. Examples like this are rare because most traditional societies are altered or destroyed before anyone gets a chance to study them, but in cases like this we are able to glimpse what a society once was before contact with modernity.
A central feature of bicameral societies were command voices, necessary as a way of organizing larger numbers of people that resulted from gardening and farming. These command voices were a repertoire of divine commandments, idioms, folk wisdom, and accumulated knowledge—primarily passed on in metric form for easy memorization.
Bicameral people didn’t think in the way they do. Instead, they acted according to habit, until a situation arose where habit didn’t apply and an external voice would be heard telling them what to do. They had no interior sense of self, but it didn’t stop them from being able to apply complex thought and calculations—from precise astrological measurements to building large pyramids. Their mental repertoire was vast since the mnemonic devices, maybe along with synaesthesia, allowed these mostly or entirely preliterate people to carry an immense library of knowledge in their minds (see Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies by Lynne Kelly). We don’t appreciate the achievements of these societies for, without being written down, their complex cultures mostly disappear when the society itself collapses and the knowledge systems disappear from living memory.
There are a few things to note. The Ik had an agricultural society. This is significant, as Jaynes’ theorized that bicameralism developed when societies began to permanently settle down, after having given up the nomadic lifestyle of hunting-gathering. Bicameralism was one of the first steps toward making possible what we refer to as ‘civilization’.
They had an extremely stable societies that was highly dependent on their environmental niche, so well adapted were they to a particular place and way of life. Their stability was also their weakness, as it would turn any major threat into an existential crisis. They couldn’t simply leave and start over elsewhere for, like the Australian Aboriginal songlines, their entire societies were place-based. To remove these people would be to destroy them and that is what happened to the Ik.
I shouldn’t overemphasize this weakness, though. Another example is given of enslaved Africans who revolted. They developed a society that appears to still be bicameral, which one might presume was a rebuilding of the society they came from in Africa. Maybe enough priests had survived to allow the living tradition of command voices to continue uninterrupted. Also, maybe the new environment was similar enough to their old environment to allow much of their traditional knowledge to be applied.
Social orders are dependent on social conditions. This makes them precarious in a way we moderns don’t think too much about, as we live in societies that have come to dominate the world around us, not to mention as we live in an unusually stable period of earth’s existence (environmental changes may be what destroyed the early bicameral societies). So, given minimal levels of stability, it can be surprising how persistent cultures can be, results from centuries-old events still shaping social experience and behavior into the present.
Barring environmental catastrophe, maybe those bicameral societies weren’t entirely incapable of dealing with change. They may not have had individuality to fall back on when social disorder ensued, but they had other resources to rely upon. Protecting their elders and priests must have been of prime importance.
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“Evolution and Inspiration” by Judith Weissman
From Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind ed. Marcel Kuijsten
Such voices are not the property of either the ancient world or the Western world. In The Mountain People, anthropologist Colin Turnbull describes the Ik, a Ugandan tribe who had lived peaceably when they could both hunt and garden, until they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and relocated to an area where they could no longer hunt. Along with their ancient home, they lost their economy, their religion, and their social bonds; they became the cruelest of individuals, neglecting to grow the crops they once raised, eating whatever they could find each day, snatching food from old people and babies. They had once been guided by the voices of their ancestral spirits, the abang, who came to priests in their sleep and told them what they wanted to know. The last priests died shortly after the Ik were forcibly moved, and only one person was left who could still hear commanding voices, Nagoli, the daughter of a priest. Because she was not allowed to become a priest herself, she was called mad. Isolated with the voices of the abang, “she was always off on her own, tending gardens that required care and hard work while everywhere else food grew wild.” The voices told her how to live by the old agricultural rules, even when no one else obeyed them.
A contemporary group of people who still hear commanding voices enforcing inherited codes are the Saramaka of South America, interviewed by Richard Price, who recorded their oral histories in Alabi’s World. Their ancestors were brought from Africa to Central America as slaves but soon rebelled against white domination and created a unique culture preserved n a heroic oral tradition. In one episode, the gods appeared to the Saramakas after the war against the whites and gave instructions on how to clear and burn three garden sites to renew agriculture. And even the present-day Saramakas, who are supposed to be Christians, call on the speaking apukas who helped their ancestors win the war of liberation. People “still have such gods in their heads, ‘calling’ them for purposes of divination and curing inside people’s houses.” Although I have not made any systematic search of the anthropological literature for speaking gods, I have found by accident enough to convince me that the voices Jaynes has found among several ancient cultures have existed in many more, both ancient and still living.