The Haunting of Voices

“If I met a skin-changer who demanded my shoes, I’d give him my shoes.” This is what a Navajo guy once told me. I didn’t inquire about why a skin-changer would want his shoes, but it was a nice detail of mundane realism. This conversation happened when I was living in Arizona and working at the Grand Canyon. Some might see this anecdote as the over-worked imagination of the superstitious. That probably is how I took it at the time. But I wouldn’t now be so dismissive.

While there, my job was to do housekeeping in the El Tovar. It’s an old hotel located directly on the South Rim of the canyon. It has the feeling of a building that has been around a while. It’s age was hard for me to ignore in its lacking an elevator, something I became familiar with in carrying stacks of sheets up the stairs of multiple floors. I worked there a few times late at night and there was an eerie atmosphere to the place. You could viscerally sense the history, all the people who had stayed there and passed through.

There were stories of suicides and homicides, of lonely lost souls still looking for their lovers or simply going through their habitual routine in the afterlife. The place was famous for it having been one of the locations where the Harvey Girls worked, young women looking for wealthy husbands. There was a tunnel that was once used by the Harvey girls to go between the hotel and the women’s dorm. This hidden and now enclosed tunnel added to the spookiness.

Many Navajo worked at the Grand Canyon, including at the El Tovar. And sometimes we would chat. I asked about the ghosts that supposedly haunted the place. But they were reluctant to talk about it. I later learned that they thought it disrespectful or unwise to speak of the dead. I also learned that some had done traditional ceremonies in the hotel in order to put the dead to rest and help them pass over to the other side. Speaking of the dead would be like calling them back to the world of the living.

I doubt this worldview is merely metaphorical in the superficial sense. Though it might be metaphorical in the Jaynesian sense. Julian Jaynes hypothesized that ancient people continued to hear the voices of the dead, that the memory would live on as auditory experience. He called this the bicameral mind. And in bicameral societies, voice-hearing supposedly was key to social order. This changed because of various reasons and then voice-hearing became a threat to the next social order that replaced the old one.

The Navajo’s fearful respect of ghosts could be thought of as a bicameral carryover. Maybe they better understand the power voice-hearing can have. Ask any schizophrenic about this and they’d agree. Most of us, however, have developed thick boundaries of the egoic mind. We so effectively repress the many voices under the authority of the egoic sole rulership that we no longer are bothered by their sway, at least not consciously.

Still, we may be more influenced than we realize. We still go through the effort of costly rituals of burying the dead where they are kept separate from the living, not to mention appeasing them with flowers and flags. Research shows that the number of people who have heard disembodied voices in their lifetime is surprisingly high. The difference for us is that we don’t openly talk about it and try our best to quickly forget it again. Even as we don’t have ceremonies in the way seen in Navajo tradition, we have other methods for dispelling the spirits that otherwise would haunt us.

6 thoughts on “The Haunting of Voices

  1. Very interesting.

    Some places do have a feel to them – the weight of time.

    Re: voices: Mentioned previously that recontextualized by Jaynes I now read the Sirens episode as a metaphor for a ritual/liturgy in which Attic culture expressed the hearing of voices – both from the “underworld” and from the “gods” etc.

    To hear them without a shaman or some other guide was to be driven “insane” (though it’s questionable if they had a word for “insanity” – per Foucault who says they did not).

    As to “ghosts” I’ll have to share a story at some point involving either an elaborate hoax or the authentic experience of objects moving, and all the “usual” things one associates with such experiences.

    • Even in bicameral societies, there would have been highly controlled and constrained ways of hearing voices and under which circumstances. This would have limited the voices heard and what they would say.

      It wouldn’t have been a society of schizophrenics for voice-hearing would have been built into carefully guarded rituals and traditions as part of a well-defined worldview. Most of the voice-hearing, Jaynes argues, would have been shared memory of the dead. Someone hearing idiosyncratic voices that weren’t officially approved of either would’ve been a shaman-like authority figure or else a dangerous raving lunatic, however they might have described such a person. Probably more often the latter.

      I’ve always been open to unexplained phenomena, unexplainable by present science that is. I was raised in a New Agey church, after all. My tolerance of ‘woo’ is quite high. I generally take people’s experiences at face value, in that I generally believe that people are telling me the truth as they experienced it, whatever that correspondence that personal truth might or might not have with shared reality. I’ve had my own ghostly visitation when I was younger and it sure felt real, such that I literally felt the spectral being sit on my bed.

      It brings up many questions when people have such unusual experiences, whether auditory or visual. And Jaynes explained why this remains significant. The great specter that haunts us all is the voice of god still heard in authoritarianism. There is a good reason to be respectful of voice-hearing, especially those voices that hide themselves in new forms.

    • Jaynes goes into evidence indicating a complicated view within ancient voice-hearing traditions. The earliest societies had cults of the dead. This involved various practices in dealing with bodies that showed reverence and worship. For some who were respected in life, they apparently were idolized in death.

      But there is something strange going on. Oftentimes, the head would be cut off while the legs were broken or bound. It seems they were afraid that the voice they still heard and presence they still felt might cause the body to get back up and go for a walk. Even for a voice-hearing society, the dead are supposed to remain dead.

      Those voices, potentially beneficial, were also potentially dangerous. So they needed to be restricted to a socially safe role.

  2. Hahaha. I like native Americans. They’re very relatable for me.

    I know a woman who kept on condemning her big brother, saying he was being too much of a bother (he was a drunkard) in their family and wished that he’d just die and put them all out of their misery. And this was a brother who carried her and fed her when she was young. He did die. And she was literally haunted by him for a while. She told her more “spiritual” twin sister and she told her to pray over it and ask for forgiveness. It worked: never had the apparition again.

    I theorize it was her own guilt that pressed on her visual and empathetic faculties to the point that she had the apparition. She felt guilty and instead of just perceiving a quick abstraction of how it would have felt to him, she had to go through the entire experience, which her visual faculties dramatized for her. The apologizing was her reconciling with her social faculties and the whole thing. She’s quite an antisocial person who hardly considers how others feel so is regularly very obnoxious.

    I get the Navajo people. They don’t want to build or keep up the psychoneural connection to the experience – that’s the psychoneurological view. In their view, they want to pare down their link to the realm of the dead (which they can do nothing about), so it doesn’t interfere with this urgent one of the living. It’s distracting and resources draining, but I’m not sure they’d put it like that – they’d just “know” or put it in language like Jesus’ “let the dead bury their dead”.

    But that may be until they get someone who has been spiritually selected to be a spirit communicator. That person would feel he had the power to navigate the world of the dead skilfully and so it wouldn’t disrupt his everyday living. But he’d very much know the difference between living and dead – this would be no insanity.

    Africans are similar. We don’t know what ‘God’ is. We know the Supreme Being, like the native American would also say. ‘God’ is a Germanic term.

    So the African or native American wouldn’t make an ontic statement that this or that does not exist. They’d just turn their attention away from it. They do that because as a human being you should not pretend to be the all-knowing one, the Supreme Being, and claim this or that does not exist. (And without this humility or innocence or purity or wholeness or integrity, you lose contact with the Supreme Being, which all Reality is bound up with.) So, in a Heraclitean way, you will not perceive the unexpected when it arrives. Or else, you’ll be “punished” (negative or troubling or distressing – not necessarily evil – consequences) for your devilish pretension at omniscience like the woman I described: rejected her social aspects so it takes its revenge on her.

    So, better to just turn your attention away from it until such time that understanding arrives – like realizing the difference between the living and the dead for the ancient, or the purely imagined and the real for the modern.

    Just some thoughts.

    • The experience of the woman you mention sounds typical. Scientific surveys have found that kind of thing is common during bereavement. We underestimate how much of others we internalize, such that memory of a person can feel like a presence even after death. The data shows that a significant part of the population has heard voices in their lifetime (10% hearing voices, as compared to only 1% of the population being clinically schizophrenic). But few people talk about weird experiences for fear of being judged or ridiculed, ostracized or institutionalized, etc… and in some places, killed as a witch.

      John G. Geiger writes about the third man factor. I’ve read some of his book on the topic. There are many examples of people, when under stress, hearing voices and sometimes seeing apparitions (although with children, imaginary playmates are common and no stress is required). This sense of another often acts as a guiding or helpful presence, an aspect of our humanity that appears when our rational mind hits a breaking point. But for other societies that promote thinner boundaries, they might be able to have such experiences without requiring these extreme states of being overwhelmed. I’ve shared with you before the work of Tanya Luhrmann. She did scientific studies of voice-hearing, including comparisons between countries. One study compared the US and Ghana. She found that culture has a profound influence on the content and mood of voice-hearing and on how the individual and those around them responded.

      You might be right that the Navajo “want to pare down their link to the realm of the dead (which they can do nothing about), so it doesn’t interfere with this urgent one of the living. It’s distracting and resources draining…” Westerners, specifically Americans, are obsessed with the past, from national history to genealogy. In the case of the US, that might relate to our being so attached to the past for the very reason we lack much collective past in that the country is still so young and most of the population immigrated here within the past few generations. Without our past, we Americans would feel unmoored. For traditional societies that have been around for millennia, the opposite problem of being inundated by a vast sense of the past might be more of a threat to psychological health and the social order.

      For pre-literate societies, it is an entirely different dynamic. Without written texts, there is little in the way of recorded history and so no permanent sense of the past. Once something disappears from living memory in such a society, it is gone forever. This allows a different kind of relationship with death, memory, and voices. The Piraha didn’t seem to be bothered by death at all. It’s not that they had any taboos about the dead nor any fear and anxiety involved. They simply rarely mentioned the dead, unless it came up in practical conversation (e.g., how someone solved a problem in the past) and they didn’t have any beliefs about an afterlife. When someone died, that person simply were not there and it was of no concern to them what became of them — gone is gone. But they had this same attitude about when they received a new name from a spirit, the old identity was no longer there and the individual in question would no longer respond to the old name. So, they were comfortable with a sort of death even in life, no clinging to egoic personality with the only boundaries of identity that mattered were that of being Piraha, the strong sense of communal identity gave them all the sense of stability and continuity that was needed.

      I realize that I’m very much Western in my mentality. Even if I wanted to be different and it has occurred to me that it might be nice to not be trapped within an egoic border wall, I wouldn’t know how to not be a modern Western individual. That is harder for an American. There is some sense of the premodern mind that survives in European society, whereas the US is a fully modernized culture and was becoming so right from the start, as immigrants were uprooted from all tradition. What little premodern elements that existed were mostly filtered out during the colonial era, at least in terms of mainstream culture. It was from that perspective that a white American such as myself felt a culture clash with a traditional sub-population like the Navajo. We present Americans can’t face death and the unknown in the way done by Navajo, Piraha, or premodern Europeans. That is all the more reason why history haunts us. The ghosts of our past sins won’t let us rest. As I’ve argued before, Western society in general and American society in particular is severely and collectively traumatized and has been that way for a long time. Even in Europe, traditional tribal culture was largely wiped out through genocide over the past two millennia with barely any remnants of it surviving. And most European immigrants to the US came as those traumatized victims escaping persecution, oppression, war, starvation (Palatine Germans centuries ago, Irish during the so-called Potato Famine, Jews of World War II, etc).

      We can’t let the dead rest because the dead won’t let us rest. For that reason, we have to all the more strictly defend our ego structures. Without traditional rituals and attitudes, without traditional social order and norms, a rigid walled-in identity is the only thing between us and all that threatens us.

      The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible
      by John Geiger
      pp. 161-162

      “For modern humans generally, however, the stress threshold for triggering a bicameral hallucination is much higher, according to Jaynes: “Most of us need to be over our heads in trouble before we would hear voices.” 10 Yet, he said, “contrary to what many an ardent biological psychiatrist wishes to think, they occur in normal individuals also.” 11 Recent studies have supported him, with some finding that a large minority of the general population, between 30 and 40 percent, report having experienced auditory hallucinations. These often involve hearing one’s own name, but also phrases spoken from the rear of a car, and the voices of absent friends or dead relatives. 12 Jaynes added that it is “absolutely certain that such voices do exist and that experiencing them is just like hearing actual sound.” Even today, though they are loath to admit it, completely normal people hear voices, he said, “often in times of stress.”

      “Jaynes pointed to an example in which normally conscious individuals have experienced vestiges of bicameral mentality, notably, “shipwrecked sailors during the war who conversed with an audible God for hours in the water until they were saved.” 13 In other words, it emerges in normal people confronting high stress and stimulus reduction in extreme environments. A U.S. study of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder found a majority (65 percent) reported hearing voices, sometimes “command hallucinations to which individuals responded with a feeling of automatic obedience.” “

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