Harriet Tubman: Voice-Hearing Visionary

Origin of Harriet Tubman in the Persistence of the Bicameral Mind

The movie ‘Harriet’ came out this year, amidst pandemic and protest. The portrayal of Harriet Tubman’s life and her strange abilities reminds one of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, as written about in what is now a classic work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Some background will help and so let’s look at the biographical details of what is known. This famous Underground Railroad conductor was born Araminta Harriet Ross in the early 1820s and, when younger, she was known as ‘Minty’. Her parents were religious, as she would later become. She might also have been exposed to the various church affiliations of her master’s extended family.

These influences were diverse, writes James A. McGowan and William C. Kashatus in their book Harriet Tubman: A Biography (pp. 11-12): “As a child, Minty had been told Bible stories by her mother, and she was occasionally forced to attend the services held by Dr. Anthony Thompson, Jr., who was a licensed Methodist minister. But Minty and her parents might also have been influenced by Episcopal, Baptist, and Catholic teachings since the Pattisons, Thompsons, and Brodesses initially belonged to Anglican and Episcopal churches in Dorchester County before they became Methodists. In addition, some of the white Tubmans and Rosses were originally Catholic. Accordingly, Minty’s religious beliefs might have been a composite of several different Christian traditions that were adapted to the evangelical emphasis on spiritual freedom.”

Tubman’s mixed religious background was also noted by Kate C. Larson: “The “creolization” of this family more accurately reflects the blending of cultures from West Africa, Northern Europe, and local Indian peoples in the Chesapeake. As historian Mechal Sobel put it, this was a “world they made together.” By the time Tubman was born, first generation Africans were visible presences in Dorchester County […] Tubman and her family integrated a number of religious practices and beliefs into their daily lives, including Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, and even Quaker teachings, all religious denominations supported by local white masters and their neighbors who were intimately involved with Tubman’s family. Many slaves were required to attend the churches of their owners and temporary masters. Tubman’s religiosity, however, was a deeply personal spiritual experience, rooted in evangelical Christian teachings and familial traditions” (Harriet Ross Tubman).

Other scholars likewise agree, such as Robert Gudmestad: “Like many enslaved people, her belief system fused Christian and African beliefs” (Faith made Harriet Tubman fearless as she rescued slaves). This syncretism was made simpler for the commonalities traditional African religion had with Christianity or particular sects of Christianity: worship of one God who was supreme, relating to God as a helpful friend who could be heard and talked with (a commonality with Quakerism), belief in an eternal soul and an afterlife, rites and initiations involving immersion in water, etc. Early generations of slaves were often kept out of the churches and so this allowed folk religion to take on a life of its own with a slow merging of traditions, such as how African rhythms of mourning were incorporated into Gospel music.

Furthermore, religious fervor was at a peak in the early 1800s and it was part of the world Tubman’s parents lived in and that Tubman was born into. “Both races attended the massive camp meetings so Rit and Ben experienced these sporadic evangelical upsurges”, wrote Margaret Washington (Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman). “She grew up during the Second Great Awakening,” Gudmestad explained, “which was a Protestant religious revival in the United States. Preachers took the gospel of evangelical Christianity from place to place, and church membership flourished. Christians at this time believed that they needed to reform America in order to usher in Christ’s second coming. Some during that restless period believed it was the End Times, as it was easier to imagine the world coming to an end than to imagine it to become something else.

This would have been personally felt by Tubman. “A number of black female preachers,” Gudmestad goes on to say, “preached the message of revival and sanctification on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Jarena Lee was the first authorized female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is not clear if Tubman attended any of Lee’s camp meetings, but she was inspired by the evangelist. She came to understand that women could hold religious authority.” The religious fervor was part of a growing political fervor, as the country moved toward Civil War. For blacks, Moses leading his people to freedom inspired more than faith and hope toward the afterlife.

Around the time of Tubman’s birth, there was the failed 1822 revolt planned by Denmark Vesey in South Carolina. Later in 1831, Nat Turner led his rebellion in nearby Virginia and that would’ve been an exciting event for enslaved blacks, especially a lonely young slave girl who at the time was being kept separate from her family and mercilessly whipped. Then throughout her teens and into her early twenties, there were numerous other uprisings: 1835–1838 Black Seminole Slave Rebellion, 1839 Amistad seizure, 1841 Creole case, 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation. The Creole case was the most successful slave revolt in United States history. Such tremendous events, one might imagine, could shape a young impressionable mind.

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Harriet Tubman’s Ethno-Cultural Ancestry and Family Inheritance

Someone like Tubman didn’t come out of nowhere. “I am quite willing to acknowledge that she was almost an anomaly among her people,” wrote her early biographer Sarah Bradford, “and so far I can judge they all seem to be particularly intelligent, upright and religious people, and to have a strong feeling of family affection” (Harriet: The Moses of Her People). She earned her strong spirit honestly, from the black culture around here and as modeled by her parents. The spiritual inclinations, as with with knowledge of nature, came from her father: “As a clairvoyant, Minty believed that she inherited this second sense from her father, Ben. […] Listening to Ben’s stories, predictions and sharing his faith convinced Minty that an omniscient force protected her” (Margaret Washington, Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman). But it was her mother, in particular, who showed what it meant to be a fiercely protective woman when it came to family. When Tubman returned to free her family, including her elderly parents, she was acting on the values she was raised with:

“Rit struggled to keep her family together as slavery threatened to tear it apart. Edward Brodess sold three of her daughters (Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph), separating them from the family forever.[10] When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit’s youngest son, Moses, she hid him for a month, aided by other enslaved people and freedmen in the community.[11] At one point she confronted her owner about the sale.[12] Finally, Brodess and “the Georgia man” came toward the slave quarters to seize the child, where Rit told them, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.”[12] Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale.[13] Tubman’s biographers agree that stories told about this event within the family influenced her belief in the possibilities of resistance.[13][14] (Harriet Tubman, Wikipedia)

Whatever the cause, a strong moral sense developed in Tubman. Around the age of twelve or fifteen, there was an incident where she refused to help an overseer catch and tie up a runaway slave. Instead, she stood in front of the door and blocked his way. He threw an iron weight after the escapee, but it came up short when it hit her in the head, knocking her unconscious. She later said that it “broke my skull” and, though her master wanted to send her back to work, it took her a long time to recover. “The teenager remained in a coma for weeks,” writes M.W. Taylor, “lying on a bed of rags in the corner of her family’s windowless wooden cabin. Not until the following spring was she able to get up and walk unaided” (Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist, p. 16). Kate C. Larson says that, “It took months for her mother to nurse her back to health” (Harriet Ross Tubman).

Ever after, she had seizures and trance-like states (“spells”, “sleeping fits”, or “a sort of stupor or lethargy at times”), premonitions and prophetic visions (“vivid dreams”), and out-of-body and other shamanic-like experiences — possibly caused by temporal lobe epilepsy, narcolepsy, cataplexy, or hypersomnia. She claimed to have heard the voice of God that guided and protected her, that He “spoke directly to my soul”. She “prayed all the time” and “was always talking to the Lord”“When I went to the horse trough to wash my face, and took up the water n my hands, I said, ‘Oh Lord, wash me, make me clean.’ When I took up the towel to wipe my face and hands, I cried, ‘Oh Lord, for Jesus’ sake, wipe away all my sins!’ ” (Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet, p. 11).

“During these hallucinatory states,” writes Gordon S. Johnson Jr., “she would also hear voices, screams, music, and rushing water, and feel as though her skin was on fire, while still aware of what was going on around her. The attacks could occur suddenly, without warning, even in the middle of a conversation. She would wake up and pick up the conversation where it left off a half hour later. In addition, Tubman would have terrible headaches, and would become more religious after the injury” (Harriet Tubman Suffered a TBI Early In Life).

While recuperating, she prayed for her master’s soul, that he might be saved and become a Christian. Her master’s behavior didn’t improve. In her stupor, no amount of whipping would arouse her. So he tried to sell her, but no one wanted to buy an injured and incapacitated slave, even though prior to the accident she had been hardworking and was able to do the work of a full-grown man. She didn’t want to be sold and separated from her family. One day she prayed that, if her master couldn’t be saved, the Lord should kill him and take him away. Shortly later, he did die and, with overwhelming guilt, she felt her prayer had been the cause.

Tubman’s experiences may have been shaped by African traditions, as there were many first generation slaves around. She would have been close to her immediate and extended family living in the area, as described by Professor Larson: “Harriet Tubman’s grandmother, Modesty, lived on Pattison’s property for an undetermined number of years after Rit left with Mary and moved to the Thompson plantation. Though the Thompson plantation sat about 6 miles to the west of the Pattison plantation and their neighbors along the Little Blackwater River near the bridge, their interactions were likely frequent and essential to maintaining social, political, and economic wellbeing” (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument: Historic Resource Study).

An important familial link, as discussed above, was their shared religious inheritance. “Methodism was one source of strength, blending smoothly with cultural and religious traditions that survived the middle passage from Africa,” wrote Professor Larson. “First generation Africans, like her grandmother Modesty, embodied a living African connection and memory for the Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Tubman’s religious fervor and trust in God to protect and guide her evolved from a fusion of these traditions.” Tubman remained close to family living on nearby plantations, such as being hired out to do logging work with her father and quite likely hearing the same sermons, maybe sometimes clandestinely meeting in the “hidden church” of informal religious gatherings.

Her first biographer, Fanklin Sanborn, said that she was “one degree removed from the wolds of Africa, her grandfather being an imported African of a chieftan family” and that, as “the grand-daughter of a slave imported from Africa,” she “has not a drop of white blood in her veins” (“The Late Araminta Davis: Better Known as ‘Moses’ or ‘Harriet Tubman’.” Franklin B. Sanborn Papers. Box 1, Folder 5. Box 1, Folder 5, American Antiquarian Society). The latter claim of her being pure African ancestry has been disputed and was contradicted by other accounts, but at least part of her family was of recent African ancestry as was common in that era, making her a second generation American in at least one line. With a living memory of the Old World, Tubman’s maternal grandmother Modesty Green would have been treated as what is called a griot, an elder who is a teacher, healer, and counselor; a keeper of knowledge, wisdom, and customs. She would have remembered the old world and had learned much about how to live in the new one, helping to shape the creole culture into which Tubman was born.

Modesty might have come from the Ashanti tribe of West Africa, specifically Ghana. She was sold as a slave sometime before 1785, the year Tubman’s mother Rittia (Rit, Ritty) Green was born. The Ashanti ethnicity was common in the region, writes Ann Malaspina: “During the eighteenth century, more than one million slaves were bought by British, Danish, and Dutch slave traders and shipped to the Americas from the Ashanti Empire on West Africa’s Gold Coast, a rich trading region. Many Ashanti slaves were sold to buyers in Maryland” (Harriet Tubman, p. 10). The Ashanti had a proud reputation and the ethnic culture made its presence known, such as the “Asante proverbs that Harriet picked up as a young girl (“Don’t test the depth of a river with both feet”)” (Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman). Along with the Ashante, blacks of Igbo descent were numerous in the Tidewater region of Maryland and Virginia (Igbo Americans, Wikipedia). These cultures, along with the Kongo people, were known to be proud and loyal. Also, West Africa had a tradition of respect for women — as property owners and leaders, and sometimes as warriors.

It’s the reason the Tidewater plantation owners preferred them as slaves. The preference in the Deep South was different because down there plantations were large commercial operations with typically absentee owners, an aristocracy that spent most of its time in Charleston, England, or elsewhere. Tidewater slaveholders had smaller plantations and were less prosperous. This meant they and their families lived close to slaves and, in some cases, would have worked with them. These Tidewater aristocrats were more likely to use the paternalistic rhetoric that identified slaves as part of the extended family, as often was literally the case from generations of close relations with many of the plantation owner’s mulatto children, grandchildren, cousins, etc running around. Cultures like the Ashanti and Igbo, in being strongly devoted to their families and communities, could be manipulated to keep slaves from running away. The downside to this communal solidarity is that these ethnic groups were known to be disobedient and cause a lot of trouble, including some of the greatest slave rebellions

Tubman is an exemplar of this Tidewater black culture. According to her own statements recorded by Frank C. Drake: “the old mammies to whom she told [her] dreams were wont to nod knowingly and say, ‘I reckon youse one o’ dem ‘Shantees’, chile.’ For they knew the tradition of the unconquerable Ashantee blood, which in a slave made him a thorn in the side of the planter or cane grower whose property he became, so that few of that race were in bondage” (“The Moses of Her People. Amazing Life work of Harriet Tubman,” New York Herald, New York, Sept. 22, 1907). The claim about her grandmother was confirmed by a piece from the year before Tubman’s death, written by Ann Fitzhugh Miller (granddaughter of Tubman’s friend Gerrit Smith), in reporting that Tubman believed her maternal grandmother had been “brought in a slave ship from Africa” (“Harriet Tubman,” American Review, August 1912, p. 420).

Professor Kate C. Larson concludes that, “It has been generally assumed at least one if not more of Tubman’s grandparents came directly from Africa” (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument: Historic Resource Study). This is the reason for speculating about a more direct African influence or, at the very least, it shows how important an African identity was to Tubman’s sense of faith and spirituality. “Like many enslaved people, her belief system fused Christian and African beliefs,” Robert Gudmestad suggests. “Her belief that there was no separation between the physical and spiritual worlds was a direct result of African religious practices. Tubman literally believed that she moved between a physical existence and a spiritual experience where she sometimes flew over the land.”

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Harriet Tubman’s Special Relationship with God and Archaic Authorization

Whatever was the original source and true nature of Harriet Tubman’s abilities, they did serve her well in freeing slaves and saved her from her pursuers. She always trusted her voices and visions, and would change her course of action in an instant, such as the time God told her to not continue down a road and so, without hesitation, she led her fellow fugitives across the rushing waters of an icy stream, but the “several stout men” in her care “refused to follow til they saw her safe on the other side”. Sarah Bradford goes on to say that, “The strange part of the story we found to be, that the masters of these men had put up the previous day, at the railroad station near where she left, an advertisement for them, offering a large reward for their apprehension; but they made a safe exit” (p. 45). Commenting on this incident, McGowan and Kashatus notes, “Similar instances occurred on her rescue missions whenever Harriet was forced to make an important decision” (Harriet Tubman: A Biography, p. 62).

This divine guidance probably made her behavior erratic and unpredictable, always one step ahead (or one step to the side) of the slave-catchers — maybe not unlike the Trickster stories she likely heard growing up, as part of the folklore tradition in African-American communities or possibly picked up from Native Americans who still lived in the area. Maybe there is a reason both Trickster stories and voice-hearing are often found in oral cultures. The Trickster, as an archetype similar to salvific figures, exists between the divine and human — Jesus often played the role of Trickster. Looking more closely at this mentality might also tell us something about the bicameral mind.

Her visions and voice-hearing was also a comfort and assurance to her; and, as some suggested, this gave her “command over others’ minds” (Edna Cheney, “Moses”, The Freedmen’s Record, p. 35) — that is to say, when around her, people paid attention and did what they were told. She had the power of charisma and persuasion, and failing that she had a gun that she was not afraid to use too good effect. She heard God’s voice in conviction and so she spoke with conviction. One was wise to not doubt her and, when leading slaves to freedom, she did not tolerate anyone challenging her authority. But it was in moments of solitude that she most strongly felt the divine. Based on interviews with Tubman in 1865, Edna Cheney conveyed it in the following way:

“When going on these journeys she often lay alone in the forests all night. Her whole soul was filled with awe of the mysterious Unseen Presence, which thrilled her with such depths of emotion, that all other care and fear vanished. Then she seemed to speak with her Maker “as a man talketh with his friend;” her child-like petitions had direct answers, and beautiful visions lifted her up above all doubt and anxiety into serene trust and faith. No man can be a hero without this faith in some form; the sense that he walks not in his own strength, but leaning on an almighty arm. Call it fate, destiny, what you will, Moses of old, Moses of to-day, believed it to be Almight God” (p. 36).

Friends and co-conspirators described Tubman as having lacked the gnawing anxiety and doubt that, according to Julian Jaynes, has marked egoic consciousness since the collapse of Bronze Age civilization. “Great fears were entertained for her safety,” according to William Still, an African American abolitionist who personally knew her, “but she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave-hunters or slave-holders, seemed never to enter her mind.” That kind of absolute courage and conviction, based on trust of voices and visions, is not common in the modern mind. Her example inspired and impressed many.

Thomas Garrett, a close confidante, said that, “I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul. She has frequently told me that she talked with God, and he talked with her every day of her life, and she has declared to me that she felt no more fear of being arrested by her former master, or any other person, when in his immediate neighborhood, than she did in the State of New York, or Canada, for she said she never ventured only where God sent her, and her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great” (letter, 1868). As an aside, there is an interesting detail about her relationship with God — it was told by Samuel Hopkins Adams, grandson of Tubman’s friend and benefactor Samuel Miles Hopkins (brother of Tubman’s biographer Sarah Bradford): “Her relations with the Deity were personal, even intimate, though respectful on her part. He always addressed her as Araminta, which was her christened name” (“Slave in the Family”, Grandfather Stories, pp. 277-278; quoted by Jean M. Humez on p. 355 of Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories).

In summarizing her faith, Milton C. Sernett concluded that, “Tubman did not distinguish between seer and saint. She seems to have believed that her trust in the Lord enabled her to meet all of life’s exigencies with a confident foreknowledge of how things would turn out, a habit others found impressive, or uncanny, as the case may be” (Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, p. 145). That is it. This supreme confidence did not come from herself. At one moment of uncertainty, she was faced with making a decision. “The Lord told me to do this. I said, ‘Oh Lord, I can’t—don’t ask me—take somebody else.” God then spoke to her: “It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman” (Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom).

Anyone familiar with Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind would perk up at this discussion of voice-hearing, specifically of commanding voices with the undeniable and infallible power of archaic authorization. Besides this, he spoke of three other necessary components to the general bicameral paradigm, as much relevant today as it was during the Bronze Age (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 324):

  • “The collective cognitive imperative, or belief system, a culturally agreed-on expectancy or prescription which defines the particular form of a phenomenon and the roles to be acted out within that form”
  • “an induction or formally ritualized procedure whose function is the narrowing of consciousness by focusing attention on a small range of preoccupations”
  • “the trance itself, a response to both the preceding, characterized by a lessening of consciousness or its loss, the diminishing of the analog or its loss, resulting in a role that is accepted, tolerated, or encouraged by the group”

Collective cognitive imperative is central what we are exploring here. Tubman grew up in a culture where such spiritual, paranormal, and shamanic experiences were still part of a living tradition, including traces of traditional African religion. She lacked doubt about this greater reality because almost everyone around her shared this sense of faith. As social creatures, such shared culture has a powerful effect upon the human mind. But at that point in early modernity when Tubman grew up, most of American society had lost the practices of induction and hence the ability to enter trances.

The Evangelical church, however, has long promoted trance experiences and trained people how to talk to God and listen for his voice (still does, in some cases: Tanya Luhrmann, When God Talks Back). Because of her brain condition, Tubman didn’t necessarily require induction, although her ritual of constant prayer probably helped. She went into trance apparently without having to try, one might say against her will. There is also another important contributing factor. Voice-hearing has historically been most common among non-literate, especially preliterate, societies — that is because the written word alters the human mind, as argued by many besides Jaynes: Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, etc. Such illiteracy would describe the American slave population since it was against the law for them to read and write.

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Harriet Tubman’s Illiteracy and Storytelling Talent

This state of illiteracy included Tubman. During the Civil War, she spoke of a desire to become literate so as to “write her own life” (Cheney, p. 38), but there is no evidence she ever learned to write. “The blow to the head of Tubman received at about thirteen may have been the root cause of her illiteracy. According to Cheney’s sketch, “The trouble in her head prevents her from applying closely to a book” “ (Milton C. Sernett, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, p. 105). She remained her whole life fully immersed in an oral mindset. This was demonstrated by her heavy use of figurative language with concrete imagery, as when describing a Civil War battle — recorded by visiting historian Albert Bushnell Hart:

“And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped” (Slavery and Abolition, p. 209). Also, consider how she spoke of her personal experiences: “She loves to describe her visions, which are very real to her; but she must tell them word for word as they lie in her untutored mind, with endless repetitions and details, she cannot condensed them, whatever be your haste. She has great dramatic power; the scene rises before you as she saw it, and her voice and language change with her different actors” (Cheney, pp. 36-37).

Elaborating on her storytelling talent, Jean M. Humez writes: “One of Earl Conrad’s informants who as a child had known Tubman in her old age reported: “there never was any variation in the stories she told, whether to me or to any other” (Tatlock, 1939a). It is characteristic of the folklore performer trained in an oral culture to tell a story in precisely the right way each time. This is because the story itself is often regarded as a form of knowledge that will educate the young and be passed down through the generations. The storyteller must not weaken the story’s integrity with a poor performance” (Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 135).

This was also heard in how Tubman drew upon the down-to-earth style of old school religion: “Instead of the classical Greek “tricks of oratory” to which the college-educated Higginson refers, Tubman drew upon homelier sources of eloquence, such as scriptures she would have heard preached in the South. She frequently employed a teaching technique made familiar in the New Testament Gospels—the “parable’ or narrative metaphor—to make her lessons persuasive and memorable” (Jean M. Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 135). She knew of Jesus’ message through oral tellings by preachers and that was fitting since Jesus too effectively taught in the spoken word.

She was masterful. Even before a crowd of respectable whites, such as at abolitionist meetings, she could captivate an audience and move them to great emotion. Having witnessed a performance of Tubman’s oft-repeated story of former slave Joe’s arrival in Canada along with a rendition of the song he sang in joyous praise, Charlotte Forten recorded the impact it had on those present: “How exciting it was to hear her tell the story. And to hear the very scraps of jubilant hymns that he sang. She said the ladies crowded around them, and some laughed and some cried. My own eyes were full I listened to her” (Charlotte Forten, journal entry, Saturday, January 31, 1862).

All of these ways of speaking are typical of those born in oral societies. As such, her illiteracy might have been key. “She is a rare instance,” as told in The Freedmen’s Record, “in the midst of high civilization and intellectual culture, of a being of great native powers, working powerfully, and to beneficient ends, entirely unaided by school or books” (Cheney, p. 34). Maybe the two factors are closely linked. Even in the ancient world, some of the most famous and respected oracles were given by the uneducated and illiterate, often women. Tubman did have the oracular about her, as she occasionally prophesied outcomes and coming events.

We mainly know of Tubman through the stories she told and retold of herself and her achievements, surely having been important in gaining support and raising funds in those early years when she needed provisions to make her trips to the South. She came from a storytelling tradition and, obviously, she knew how to entertain and persuade, to make real the plight of the still enslaved and the dangers it took to gain their freedom. She drew in her audience, as if they were there with bloodhounds tracking them, with their lives hanging in the balance of a single wrong decision or unfortunate turn of events.

One of her greatest talents was weaving song into her stories, but that was also part of oral culture. The slave’s life was filled with song, from morning to night. They sung in church and while at work, at births and burials. These songs were often stories, many of them taken from or inspired by the religion that was so much a part of their daily experience. Song itself was a form of language: “Tubman used spirituals to signal her arrival or as a secret code to tell of her plans. She also used spirituals to reassure those she was leading of their safety and to lift their spirits during the long journey to freedom” (M.W. Taylor, Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist, p. 18). She also used the song of birds and owls to communicate, something she may have learned from the African or Native American tradition.

Song defined Tubman, as much as did her spirituality. “Religious songs,” Jean M. Humez explains, “embellished Tubman’s oral storytelling performances and were frequently central plot elements in her most popular Underground Railroad stories. There was the story of teasing the thick-witted “master” the night before her escape by using a familiar Methodist song, “I’m Bound for the Promised Land,” to communicate to her family her intention to run away. Singing was also integral to her much-told story about coded communication with fugitives she had hidden in the woods. “Go Down, Moses” meant “stay hidden,” while a “Methodist air,” “Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits,” meant “all clear” (Bradford, 1869)” (Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 136).

Humez goes on to say that, “Though she was able to capture and reproduce the lyrics for her readers, Bradford was evidently bewildered by Tubman’s musical performances in much the same way Cheney was by her spiritual testimony: “The air sung to these words was so wild, so full of plaintive minor strains, and unexpected quavers, that I would defy any white person to learn it, and often as I heard it, it was to me a constant surprise” (Bradford, 1886, 35-36).” Her performances used a full range expression, including through her movement. She would wave her arms and clap her hands, sway and stamp her feet, dance and gesture — according to the details of what she spoke and rhythm of what she sang (Humez, p. 137). Orality is an embodied way of communicating.

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Harriet Tubman’s Voice-Hearing and the Power of Oral Culture

Tubman may have been more talented and charismatic than most, but one suspects that such a commanding presence of speech and rhetorical persuasion would have been far more common among the enslaved who were raised in an oral culture where language was one of the few sources of power in defense against those who wielded physical violence and political force — such as the necessary ability for survival to use language that was coded and veiled, symbolic and metaphorical, whether in conversation or song, in order to communicate without stating something directly for fear of being overheard.

Her display of orality would have impressed many whites simply because literacy and the literary mind by that point had become the norm among the well-off white abolitionists who came to hear her. Generations had passed since orality had been prevalent in mainstream American society, especially among the emerging liberal class. The traditional culture of the ancien regime had been eroding since the colonial era. There is a power in oral cultures that the modern mind has forgotten, but there were those like Tubman who carried the last traces of oral culture into the 20th century before she finally died in her early 90s in 1913.

The bewilderment of whites, slave-catchers and abolitionists alike, by Tubman’s prowess makes one think of another example of the power of oral culture. The Mongol hordes, as they were perceived, acted in a way that was incomprehensible to the literate ruling elite of European feudalism. Genghis Khan established a mnemonic system used among his illiterate cavalry that allowed messages to be spread quickly and accurately. As all Mongols rode horses and carried all food with them, they were able to act collectively like a swarm and so could easily shift strategy in the middle of a battle. Oral culture had less rigid hierarchy. It was also highly religious and based in a shamanic tradition not unlike that of Africa. Genghis Khan regularly prayed to God, fasting for days until getting a clear message before he would leave on a military campaign. In similar fashion, Thomas Garrett said of Tubman: “She is a firm believer in spiritual manifestations […] she never goes on her missions of mercy without his (God’s) consent” (letter to Eliza Wigham, Dec. 27, 1856).

One imagines that, as with that Mongol leader, Tubman was so successful for the reason she wielded archaic authorization. That was the underlying force of personality and persuasion that made her way of speaking and acting so compelling, for the voice of God spoke through her. It was a much greater way of being in the world, a porous self that extended much further and that could reach into the heart and minds of others, apparently not limited to humans. Her “contemporaries noted that Tubman had a strange power over all animals—another indication of psychic ability—and insisted that she never feared the bloodhounds who dogged her trail when she became and Underground Railroad agent” (James A. McGowan & William C. Kashatus, Harriet Tubman: A Biography, pp. 10-11). Psychic ability or simply a rare example of a well-functioning bicameral mind in the modern era.

Some people did perceive her as being psychic or otherwise having an uncanny perception, an ability to know things it seems she shouldn’t be able to know. It depends on one’s psychological interpretation and theological persuasion. Her compatriot Thomas Garrett was also strongly religious in his commitment to abolitionism. “In fact,” states McGowan and Kashatus, “Garrett compared Harriet’s psychic ability to hear “the voice of God as spoken direct to her soul” to the Quakers’ concept of an Inner Light, or a divine presence in each human being that allows them to do God’s will on earth. Because of their common emphasis on a mystical experience and a shared religious perspective, Tubman and the Quakers developed a mutual trust” (Harriet Tubman: A Biography, p. 62). A particular incident helps explain Garret’s appraisal, from the same book (pp. 59-60):

“One late afternoon in mid-October 1856, Harriet arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, in need of funding for a rescue mission to the Eastern Shore. She went immediately to the office of Thomas Garrett, a white Quaker station master who also operated a hardware business in the town. “God sent me to you, Thomas,” said Harriet, dismissing the formality of a simple greeting. “He tells me you have money for me.” Amused by the request, Garrett jokingly asked: “Has God ever deceived thee?” “No,” she snapped. “I have always been liberal with thee, Harriet, and wish to be of assistance,” said the Quaker station master, stringing her along. “But I am not rich and cannot afford to give thee much.” Undeterred by the response, Harriet shot back: “God told me you’ve got money for me, and God never fools me!” Realizing that she was getting upset, Garrett cut to the chase: “Well, then, how much does thee need?” After reflecting a moment, Tubman said, “About 23 dollars.”

“The elderly Quaker shook his head in disbelief. Harriet’s request was almost exactly the amount he had received from an antislavery society in Scotland for her specific use. He went to his cash box, retrieved the donation, and handed it to his visitor. Smiling at her benefactor, Tubman took the cash, turned abruptly and marched out of the office. Astonished by the incident, Garrett later confided to another abolitionist that “there was something remarkable” about Harriet. “Whether it [was] clairvoyance or the divine impression on her mind, I cannot tell,” he admitted. “But I am certain she has a guide within herself other than the written word, for she never had any education.”1 By most accounts, Tubman’s behavior can be described as selfrighteous, if not extremely presumptuous. But she viewed herself as being chosen by God for the special duty of a liberator. In fact, she admitted that she “felt like Moses,” the Old Testament prophet, because “the Lord told me to go down South and bring up my brothers and sisters.” When she expressed doubt about her abilities and suggested that the Lord “take somebody else,” He replied: “It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman.”2 With such a divine commission, Tubman was confident that her visions and actions—no matter how rude by 19th–century society’s standards—were condoned by the Almighty. Thomas Garrett understood that.”

There is no doubt she had an instinctive understanding that was built on an impressive awareness, a keen presence of mind — call it psychic or bicameral. With our rigid egoic boundaries and schizoid mentality, we inhabitants of this modern hyper-individualistic world have much to learn about the deeper realms of the bundled mind, of the multiplicity of self. We have made ourselves alien to our own human and animal nature, and we are the lesser for it. The post-bicameral loss of not only God’s voice but of a more expansive way of being is still felt in a nostalgic longing that continues to rule over us, ever leading to backlashes of the reactionary mind. Even with possible brain damage, Tubman was no where near as mentally crippled as we are with our prized ego-consciousness that shuts out all other voices and presences.

In the Western world, it would be hard to find such a fine specimen of visionary voice-hearing. Harriet Tubman had a genius about her, both genius in the modern sense of brilliance and genius in the ancient sense of a guiding spirit. If she were around today, she would likely be medicated and institutionalized or maybe imprisoned, as a threat to sane and civil society (Bruce Levine, “Sublime Madness”: Anarchists, Psychiatric Survivors, Emma Goldman & Harriet Tubman). Yet there are still other societies, including developed countries, in the world where this is not the case.

Tanya Luhrmann, as inspired by Julian Jaynes, went into anthropology where she researches voice-hearing (her work on evangelicalism is briefly noted above). One study she did compared the experience of voice-hearers in the Ghana and the United States (Differences in voice-hearing experiences of people with psychosis in the U.S.A., India and Ghana: interview-based study). Unlike here in this country, those voice-hearer’s in certain non-Western culture are not treated as mentally ill and, unsurprisingly, neither do they experience cruel and persecutory voices — quite the opposite in being kind, affirming, and helpful as was the case with Tubman.

“In the case of voice hearing, culture may also play a role in helping people cope.  One study conducted by Luhrmann, the anthropologist, found that compared to their American counterparts, voice-hearing people diagnosed with schizophrenia in more collectivist cultures were more likely to perceive their voices as helpful and friendly, sometimes even resembling members of their friends and family. She adds that people who meet criteria for schizophrenia in India have better outcomes than their U.S. counterparts. She suspects this is because of “the negative salience” a diagnosis of schizophrenia holds in the U.S., as well as the greater rates of homelessness among people with schizophrenia in America” (Joseph Frankel, Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be On to Something).

One suspects that the Ashanti and related African cultures that helped shape black traditions in Tubman’s Maryland are basically the same as the culture still existing in Ghana to this day. After all, the Ashanti Empire that began in the early colonial era, 1701, continued its rule well into the twentieth century, 1957. If it’s true that her grandmother Modesty was Ashanti, that would go a long way in explaining the cultural background to Tubman’s voice-hearing. It’s been speculated her father was the child of two Africans and it was directly from him that she claimed to have inherited her peculiar talents. It’s possible that elements of the bicameral mind survived later in those West African societies and from there was carried across the Middle Passage.

* * *

The Friendship and Freedom of the Living God

It’s important to think about the bicameral mind by looking at real world examples of voice-hearing. It might teach us something about what it means to be in relationship with a living God — a living world, a living experience of the greater mind, the bundled self (no matter one’s beliefs). Many Christians talk about such things, but few take it seriously, much less experience it or seek it out. That was what drew the Quakers to Tubman and others like her influenced by the African tradition of a living God. It wasn’t only a commonality of politics, in fighting for abolitionism and such. Rather, the politics was an expression of that particular kind of spiritual and epistemological experience.

To personally know God — or, if you prefer, to directly know concrete, lived reality — without the intervention of either priest or text or the equivalent can create immense power through authorization. It is an ability to act with confidence, rather than bowing down to external authority of hierarchical institutions, be it church clergy or plantation aristocracy. But it also avoids the other extreme, that of getting lost in the abstractions of the egoic consciousness that drain psychic reserves and make human will impotent. As Harriet Tubman proved, this other way of being can be a source of empowerment and liberation.

What made this possible is not only that she was illiterate but unchurched as well. In their own way, Quakers traditionally maintained a practice of being unchurched, in avoiding certain formal church institutions such as eschewing the ministerial profession. Slaves, on the other hand, were often forced to be unchurched in not being allowed to participate in formal religion. This would have helped maintain traditional African spiritual practice and experience. Interestingly, as J.E. Kennedy reports, one set of data found that “belief in the paranormal was positively related to religious faith but negatively related to religious participation” (The Polarization of Psi Beliefs; as discussed in NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity). It’s ironic that formal religion (organized, institutionalized) and literacy, specifically in a text-based religion, have the powerful effect of disconnecting people from experience of God. Yet experience of God can break the spell of that mind virus.

The other thing is that, like African religion, the Quaker emphasis was on the communal. This might not seem obvious, in how Quakers believed in the individual’s relationship to God. That is where Tubman’s example is helpful. She too had an individual relationship to God, but her identity was also tied closely to kinship, community, and ancestry. We need to think more carefully about what is meant when we speak of individuality. One can gain one’s own private liberty by freeing oneself from shackled enslavement, that is to say changing one’s status from owned by another to owned by oneself (i.e., owned by the ego-self, in some ways an even more harsh taskmaster). Freedom, however, is something else entirely. The etymology of ‘freedom’ is the same as ‘friend’. To be free is to be among friends, to be a member of a free society — one is reminded that, to Quakers and West Africans alike, there was an inclination to relate to God as a friend. Considering this simple but profound understanding, it wasn’t enough for Tubman to escape her oppressive bondage, if she left behind everyone she loved.

Often she repeated her moral claim for either liberty or death, as if they were of equivalent value; whereas freedom is about life and the essence of life is shared, as freedom is always about connection and relationship, about solidarity and belonging. She couldn’t be free alone and, under the will of something greater than her, she returned South to free her kith and kin. The year Harriet Tubman first sought freedom, 1849, was the same year of the birth of Emma Lazarus, a poet who would write some of the most well known words on slavery and oppression, including the simple statement that, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” About a century later, this was rephrased by Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement when he said, “No one is free until we are all free.” One could trace this insight back to the ancient world, as when Jesus spoke that, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” That is freedom.

A living God lives among a living generation of people, a living community. “For where two or three gather in my name,” as Jesus also taught, “there am I with them.” Quakers had a tradition of living constitutionalism, something now associated with liberalism but originally having its origins in a profound sense of the divine (Where Liberty and Freedom Converge). To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant between God a specific people; related to why Quakers denied natural law that would usurp the authorization of this divine presence. A constitution is not a piece of paper nor the words upon it. Nor can a constitution be imposed upon other people outside of that community of souls. So, neither slaves nor following generations are beholden to a constitution enacted by someone else. This was why Thomas Jefferson assumed later Americans would forever seek out new constitutions to express their democratic voice as a people. But those who understood this the best were Quakers; or those, like Thomas Paine, who were early on influenced by the Quaker faith.

Consider John Dickinson who was raised as a Quaker and, after inheriting slaves, freed them. He is the author of the first draft of America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, which was inspired by Quaker constitutionalism. The Articles of Confederation was a living document, in that it’s only power was the authority of every state agreeing to it with total consensus and no change being allowed to be made to it without further consensus. The second constitution, simply known as the United States Constitution and unconstitutionally established according to the first constitution (The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution), was designed to be a dead letter and it has become famous for enshrining the institution of slavery. Rather than expressing a message of freedom, it was a new system of centralized power and authority. The deity invoked under this oppression is a dead god, a god of death. No one hears the voice of this false god, this demiurge.

Such a false idol can make no moral claim over a free people. As such, a free people assert their freedom by the simplest act of walking away, as did Harriet Tubman by following the water gourd pointing to the North Star, and as she repeated many times in guiding her people to what to them was the Promised Land. What guided her was the living voice of the living God. They had their own divine covenant that took precedence over any paper scribbled upon by a human hand.

* * *

Harriet Tubman, an Unsung Naturalist, Used Owl Calls as a Signal on the Underground Railroad
by Allison Keys, Audubon Magazine

“It was in those timber fields where she learned the skills necessary to be a successful conductor on the Underground Railroad,” Crenshaw explains, “including how to read the landscape, how to be comfortable in the woods, how to navigate and use the sounds that were natural in Dorchester County at the time.”

Underground Railroad Secret Codes
from Harriet Tubman Historical Society

Supporters of the Underground Railroad used words railroad conductors employed everyday to create their own code as secret language in order to help slaves escape. Railroad language was chosen because the railroad was an emerging form of transportation and its communication language was not widespread. Code words would be used in letters to “agents” so that if they were intercepted they could not be caught. Underground Railroad code was also used in songs sung by slaves to communicate among each other without their masters being aware.

Myths & Facts About Harriet Tubman
from National Park Service

Tubman sang two songs while operating her rescue missions. Both are listed in Sarah Bradford’s biography Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman: “Go Down Moses,” and, “Bound For the Promised Land.” Tubman said she changed the tempo of the songs to indicate whether it was safe to come out or not.

Songs of the Underground Railroad
from Harriet Tubman Historical Society

Songs were used in everyday life by African slaves. Singing was tradition brought from Africa by the first slaves; sometimes their songs are called spirituals. Singing served many purposes such as providing repetitive rhythm for repetitive manual work, inspiration and motivation. Singing was also use to express their values and solidarity with each other and during celebrations. Songs were used as tools to remember and communicate since the majority of slaves could not read.

Harriet Tubman and other slaves used songs as a strategy to communicate with slaves in their struggle for freedom. Coded songs contained words giving directions on how to escape also known as signal songs or where to meet known as map songs.

Songs used Biblical references and analogies of Biblical people, places and stories, comparing them to their own history of slavery. For example, “being bound for the land of Canaan” for a white person could mean ready to die and go to heaven; but to a slave it meant ready to go to Canada.

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman
by Sarah Hopkins Bradford
pp. 25-27

After nightfall, the sound of a hymn sung at a distance comes upon the ears of the concealed and famished fugitives in the woods, and they know that their deliverer is at hand. They listen eagerly for the words she sings, for by them they are to be warned of danger, or informed of safety. Nearer and nearer comes the unseen singer, and the words are wafted to their ears:

Hail, oh hail ye happy spirits,
Death no more shall make you fear,
No grief nor sorrow, pain nor anger (anguish)
Shall no more distress you there.

Around him are ten thousan’ angels,
Always ready to ‘bey comman’.
Dey are always hobring round you,
Till you reach the hebbenly lan’.

Jesus, Jesus will go wid you;
He will lead you to his throne;
He who died has gone before you,
Trod de wine-press all alone.

He whose thunders shake creation;
He who bids the planets roll;
He who rides upon the temple, (tempest)
An’ his scepter sways de whole.

Dark and thorny is de desert,
Through de pilgrim makes his ways,
Yet beyon’ dis vale of sorrow,
Lies de fiel’s of endless days.

I give these words exactly as Harriet sang them to me to a sweet and simple Methodist air. “De first time I go by singing dis hymn, dey don’t come out to me,” she said, “till I listen if de coast is clar; den when I go back and sing it again, dey come out. But if I sing:

Moses go down in Egypt,
Till ole Pharo’ let me go;
Hadn’t been for Adam’s fall,
Shouldn’t hab to died at all,

den dey don’t come out, for dere’s danger in de way.”

Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman
by Margaret Washington

I. Building Communities
C. It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.

Enslaved African Americans came from a heritage that embraced concepts of solidarity in a descending order from the larger ethnic group, to the communal village, to the extended family to the nuclear family. Individualism (as opposed to individuality) was considered selfish and antithetical to the broader interests of a unit. Whether societies were matrilineal or patrilineal, nearly all were patriarchal (power rested with men). Nonetheless, the glue that bound the communal circle was the woman, considered the life giving force, the bearer of culture, essence of aesthetic beauty and key to a community’s longevity. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters etc. had oversight of children until puberty, when male and female rites of passage prepared them separately for their gendered communal roles. West African women were spiritually strong, morally respected, valued for their economic propensity, important in governance and in some cultures (Ashanti, Kongo, Ibo) powerful warriors. However devalued and exploited in America, Modesty, Rit and Minty exemplified how enslaved women resisted a sense of futility or fatalism and refashioned African attributes of beauty, dignity, self-worth and ethics. Enslaved women combed the waterways, forests and woods to obtain roots, herbs, leaves, sap, barks and other medicinal products for healing, amulets and even conjuration. Rit certainly used such remedies to nurse Minty back to health after extreme exhaustion, illnesses, beatings and her near fatal blow on the head. Rit learned these remedies and poultices from her mother Modesty and Harriet Tubman used them on the Underground Railroad. Their example reveals the significance of women to the community and that despite the assaults on the black family; it remained an institution, which even separation could not sever. […]

II ANCHORING THE SPIRIT
A. The Hidden Church: An African-Christian Synthesis.

If community was the base of African and African American life and culture, spirituality was the superstructure. Certainly enslaved people ultimately embraced Christianity. But for generations Southern whites feared exposing blacks to Christianity. The Bible’s Old Testament militant nationalism and New Testament’s spiritual  egalitarianism were not lost on African Americans, a few of whom were literate and the majority of whom felt that baptism was one kind of freedom.

Like most enslaved children, young Minty grew up outside of a church. However, since Ben Ross’s owner Anthony Thompson Sr., was a practicing Methodist, Minty’s family heard Christian sermons. But Edward Brodess was not devout and when he separated the Ross family, little Minty was hired out and did not receive white religious benevolence. But a tradition of black religion and spirituality existed independent of whites. In African culture, sacred worship embedded every aspect of life (rites of passage, marriage, funerals, child birth, etc.). Divine reverence was not confined to a building, a single ceremony or a specific day of the week. Spirituality was pervasive, expressive, emotional and evocative. Although the religious culture developed in America had African roots, the ravages of bondage created more social-spiritual convergences. In Minty’s world, spirituality was wrapped in temporal concerns affecting the individual, the family and the community. Worship was praising, praying, lamenting, hoping and drawing strength from each other. Long before Minty’s birth, Africans in America had created a “hidden church” where enslaved people gathered clandestinely (the woods, in cabins, in boats, in white people’s kitchens and even in the fields). In the hidden church they recounted religious and secular experiences; gave testimonies and created a space were women such as Rit could express the pain of having children sold or of trying to bring Minty back to life after her head was bashed in. In the hidden church, enslaved people created subversive songs, prayed for spiritual salvation, heavenly retribution and freedom.

Africans traveling the Maafa brought an ethos that merged the sacred and secular worlds. Enslaved African Americans embraced Christianity but also selectively adapted it to previous traditions and to their historical circumstances. Above all, they rejected incongruous white teachings meant to relegate blacks to perpetual slavery. Rather than being converted to Christianity as taught by whites, enslaved people converted Christianity to their own needs. Moreover, some significant African and Christian traditions had noteworthy commonalities.

Africans, like Christians believed in one God (Nzambi among the Bantu, Onyame among the Akan-Ashanti for example) who was the apex of all existence just as humanity was the center of earthly life. While gendered concepts of the African Supreme Being varied, like Jehovah, Africans’ God was revered, all-powerful and approachable. However, unlike Jehovah, the African Supreme Being was not feared, jealous nor wrathful. Other spirits exist in the African pantheon, like saints in Catholicism. But there was only one God. Hence, when whites spoke of a Supreme God, Africans understood. Harriet Tubman’s God was an all-powerful friend. According to Thomas Garrett, her close friend and a beloved Quaker Underground Railroad Conductor, Harriet spoke to God every day of her life. “I never knew anyone so confident of her faith,” said Garrett. (Letter in Bradford)

Africans, like Christians, believed in a soul, sometimes called the “heart” or “voice.” The soul was responsible for human behavior in life and was one’s spiritual existence after death. Some ethnicities had complicated concepts of the soul; others simply recognized the soul as the “little me in the big me” which lived on. Africans believed in honoring this life after death, especially as part of the kinship spiritual connection (ancestor reverence), which brought protection to the living. The curse of the dead was much dreaded in Africa and in America. Hence the importance of burial and funeral rites throughout the Diaspora, even today. A woman such as Harriet Tubman who embraced Christianity, also blended a spiritual syncretism that constructed a concept of the soul around moral ethics and faith imparted through the word of God, “as spoken to her soul” according to her friend Garrett. “She is a firm believer in spiritual manifestations . . . she never goes on her missions of mercy without his (God’s) consent.” (Garrett to Eliza Wigham, in McGowan, 135)

Water was a life giving force in African culture and the spirit world was under water. Throughout the African Diaspora, water represented divine transformations—birth, death, baptism and rebirth. For many enslaved people, accepting Christianity carried implications reminiscent of older traditions that surpassed what whites intended. In African cultures, an initiate received a “sacred bath” following a special protracted rite of passage symbolizing acceptance and integration into the community. Similarly, with Christianity enslaved people sought salvation through isolation, prayer, meditation, and communication with God through visions and signs from the natural environment. Baptism by total immersion represented final acceptance into the “ark of safety.” Although Methodists baptized by sprinkling, enslaved people insisted on going “down under” the water. They also equated spiritual transformation with secular change. Such thinking was Christian because the New Testament upheld spiritual egalitarianism. It was also African: One traveled briefly into the watery world of the ancestors as an uncivil “little spirit of the bush” full of individualistic anti-communal tendencies. One emerged from the water as a citizen of the community able to partake of all rights and privileges. The change was both divine and temporal; it was fervent, overwhelming and thoroughgoing. Canals, marshes, swamps and rivers surrounded African descended people on the Eastern Shore. Here they labored as slaves. Here they were baptized and hence constantly reminded of water’s spiritual and liberating significance.

Minty’s Christian conversion experience probably happened while working for the Stewarts in Caroline County. Whether because of that experience or her blow on the head, Minty insisted she spoke to God, had trances and saw visions that foretold future events. As a clairvoyant, Minty believed that she inherited this second sense from her father, Ben. Africans and African Americans believed that a clairvoyant person was born with a “caul” or “veil,” a portion of the birth membrane that remained on the head. They were seers and visionaries who communicated with the supernatural world and were under a special spiritual dispensation. Visions sometimes came while Minty worked, were accompanied by music and articulated in a different language. Minty also claimed exceptional power. When Edward Brodess sent slave traders to Ben’s cabin to inspect Minty, she prayed for God to cleanse Brodess’s heart and make him a good man or kill him. Brodess’ death convinced Minty that she had “prayed him to death.”1 Since his death put her in eminent danger of sale, Minty knew it was a sign from God to flee.

Northerners called Ben “a full-blooded Negro.” His parents were probably African born and told him the old Maafa adage that he passed on to Minty: some Africans could fly. Indeed, captured Ibo people committed suicide believing that their spirits flew back to Africa.2 Similarly, as Minty envisioned her escape, “She used to dream of flying over fiefs and towns, and rivers and mountings, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.'” When it appeared as if her strength would give out and she could not cross the river, “there would be ladies all dressed in white over there, and they would put our their arms and pull me across.” Listening to Ben’s stories, predictions and sharing his faith convinced Minty that an omniscient force protected her. In visions, she became a disembodied spirit observing earthly and heavenly scenes. Harriet Tubman told friends that God “called” her to activism against her wishes. She begged God to “get someone else” but to no avail. Since God called her, she depended on God to guide her away from danger.

“…we are held fast in the grip of the dead.”

Monotheism as we know it arose out of the wreckage of the Bronze Age collapse, out of the shattered bicameral mind. It first took form in the following Axial Age, but came to fruition in the post-Axial era with Manichaeanism, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, etc. Then many centuries later appeared Islam that quickly took over the Middle East.

Islam has been one of the most extreme manifestations of not only monotheism but of Jaynesian consciousness more generally. It’s not only that the bicameral voices went silent but became entirely forbidden, absolutely denied according to doctrine (Islam as Worship of a Missing God; Islamic Voice-Hearing; & Psychology in Religion or as a Religion). Accordingly, voice-hearing is not to be trusted.

Yet there has remained the mystical traditions in all of the monotheistic religions, Islam included. These mystics, as with the prophets, repeatedly ventured back into the territory of heresy. They had the audacity to claim to hear God or the angels or the prophets of old, to know the divine directly. To make such claims typically meant a death sentence. The bicameral voices didn’t die of natural causes but were genocidally wiped out.

The Old Testament describes the official decrees to kill off the last of the voice-hearers,  having gone so far as to have commanded parents to murder their own children. But the bicameral mind exists in all of us and so the voices keep erupting back to the surface, continue to defy church hierarchy. They can’t be denied for they speak with the authority of God or gods, of the divine and otherworldly, an authorization of command that trumps all mere human claims to authority.

These bicameral voices are the voices of the dead, the ancients; of the past, the eternal.

* * *

Catafalque
by Peter Kingsley

It was to show that our ideas of truth, or reality, are just an upside-down illusion. We, among the so-called living, are not in charge of our lives as we think. The real fingers around our necks or on our pulses are not our own. As a matter of fact we are hardly alive at all, here, because the real truth is that we are held fast in the grip of the dead.

This is why [Shihab al-Din Yahya] Suhrawardi’s tradition is, itself, so dangerously alive. It’s able to reach out through and across the centuries, secretly, silently, whenever someone is ready—whoever, wherever, you are. And that aliveness explains the name he gave his Ishraqi tradition: the “eternal leaven”.

Just like leaven or yeast it contains its own living germ, its transformative enzyme, inside. But that also makes it a perpetual source of ferment; of disorder and disturbance, agitation, unpredictable change. And this in turn is exactly why Suhrawardi was killed at the age of thirty-six, put to death by the rigid powers of dogmatism for opening the door to too much life.

Instead of admitting as expected to the Islamic clergy that prophecy was dead, that it had come to an end with Muhammad, when interrogated he gently indicated it was still alive inside him.

But even more threateningly, and offensively, he allowed prophecy to spread unchecked not just forward into the present or future. He also followed it far into the past—openly announcing that his own tradition of the dawn reached back way beyond Muahammad to the earliest Greeks and Persians. That was one of the main reasons for his execution: that he made the mistake of treading in the footsteps of the Ancients.

In fact aside from describing this troublesome leaven or restless ferment as eternal, he had another name for it too. At times he also called it “the leaven of the Pythagoreans”.

And he traced this livingness back not just to the sacred figure of Hermes but very specifically, very explicitly, to somebody else in particular—the philosopher and prophet Empedocles.

Just like some cosmic cycle, the prophetic impulse to find life in death is always going to be met by the deceptive need to turn life into death. Even though his final role as a martyr, not to mention many of the details in his teachings, Suhrawardi was following the traces of one very particular prophetic tradition: the lineage stemming from the great Gnostic known as Seal of the Prophets, Mani. And as is bound to be the case with such sacred traditions, that heretically challenge every cherished collective belief, the most potent threat to the threats it poses is never going to come only from outside.

On the contrary, it’s going to come from the innermost circle—in exactly the same way that it also comes from inside us.

The Commons of World, Experience, and Identity

The commons, sadly, have become less common. Mark Vernon writes that, “in the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody” (Spiritual Commons). The Charter of the Forest formally established the commons within English law and it lasted from 1217 to 1971. That isn’t some ancient tradition but survived far into modernity, well within still living memory. The beginning of the end was the enclosure movement that was first seen not long after the Charter was signed into law, but the mass evictions of peasants from their land wouldn’t happen until many centuries later with sheep herding, coal mining, and industrialization.

It’s hard for us to imagine what was the commons. It wasn’t merely about land and resources, about the customs and laws about rights and responsibilities, about who had access to what and in what ways. The commons was a total social order, a way of being. The physical commons was secondary to the spiritual commons as community, home and sense of place (“First came the temple, then the city.”) — “Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory” (Alan Moore, “Coal Country”, from Spirits of Place); “…haunted places are the only ones people can live in” (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life). The commons also was a living force, at a time when Christianity permeated every aspect of life and when the felt experience of Paganism continued in local traditions and stories, often incorporated into Church rituals and holy days. Within the commons, there was a shared world where everyone was accountable to everyone else. Even a chicken or a wagon could be brought to court, according to the English common law of doedands (Self, Other, & World).

The parish was an expression of the commons, embodying local community and identity that was reinforced by the annual beating of the bounds, a practice that goes back to ancient Rome, a faint memory of what once was likely akin to the Aboriginal songlines in invoking a spiritual reality. It was within the parish that life revolved and the community was maintained, such as determining disputes and taking care of the sick, crippled, elderly, widowed, and orphaned. We can’t genuinely care about what we feel disconnected from. Community is fellowship, kinship and neighborliness, is intimate relationship and familiarity. This relates to why Germanic ‘freedom’ meant to be part of a free people and etymologically was related to ‘friendship’, as opposed to Latin ‘liberty’ that merely indicated one wasn’t enslaved while surrounded by those who were (Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness).

“It is the non-material aspects of life,” Vernon suggests, “that, more often than not, are crucial for finding meaning and purpose, particularly when life involves suffering.” He states that a crucial element is to re-imagine, and that makes me think of he living imagination or what some call the imaginal as described by William Blake, Henry Cobin, James Hillman, Patrick Harpur, and many others. And to re-imagine would mean to re-experience in new light. He goes onto speak of the ancient Greek view of time. John Demos, in Circles and Lines, explains how cyclical time remained central to American experience late into the colonial era and, as the United States wasn’t fully urbanized until the 20th century, surely persisted in rural eras for much longer. Cyclical time was about a sense of recurrence and return, central to the astrological worldview that gave us the word ‘revolution’, that is to revolve. The American Revolutionaries were hoping for a return and the sense of the commons was still strong among them, even as it was disappearing quickly.

Instead of time as abundance, the modern world feels like time is always running out and closing in on us. We have no sense of openness to the world, as we’ve become insulated within egoic consciousness and hyper-individualism. As with beating the bounds of the parish, cyclical time contains the world into a familiar landscape of the larger world of weather patterns and seasons, of the sun, moon and stars — the North Wind is a force and a being, shaping the world around us; the river that floods the valley is the bringer of life. The world was vitally and viscerally alive in a way few moderns have ever experienced. Our urban yards and our rural farms are ecological deserts. City lights and smog hide the heavens from our view. Let us share a longer excerpt from Vernon’s insightful piece:

“Spiritual commons are often manifest in and through the loveliness of the material world, so that matters as well. It’s another area, alongside education, where spiritual commons has practical implications. That was spotted early by John Ruskin.

“Consider his 1884 lecture, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, in which he noted that “one of the last pure sunsets I ever saw” was in 1876, almost a decade previously. The colours back then were “prismatic”, he said, the sun going into “gold and vermillion”. “The brightest pigments we have would look dim beside the truth,” he continued. He had attempted to reflect that glorious manifestation of the spiritual commons in paint.

“He also knew that his experience of its beauty was lost because the atmosphere was becoming polluted. As a keen observer of nature, he noted how dust and smoke muddied and thinned the sky’s brilliance. In short, it would be crucial to clean up the environment if the vivid, natural displays were to return. Of course. But the subtler point Ruskin draws our attention to is the one about motivation: he wanted the vivid, natural displays because he had an awareness of, and desire for, spiritual commons.”

That is reminiscent of an event from 1994. There was a major earthquake on the West Coast and Los Angeles had a blackout. The emergency services were swamped with calls, not from people needing help for injuries but out of panic for the strange lights they were seeing in the sky. It scared people, as if the lights were more threatening than the earthquake itself — actual signs from the heavens. Eventually, the authorities were able to figure out what was going on. Thousands of urbanites were seeing the full starry sky for the first time in their entire lives. That situation has worsened since then, as mass urbanization is pushed to further extremes and, even though smog has lessened, light pollution has not (Urban Weirdness). We are literally disconnected from the immensity of the world around us, forever enclosed within our own human constructions. Even our own humanity has lost is wildness (see Paul Shepard’s The Others: How Animals Made Us Human).

We can speak of the world as living, but to most of us that is an abstract thought or a scientific statement. Sure, the world is full of other species and ecosystems. That doesn’t capture the living reality itself, though, the sense of vibrant and pulsing energy, the sounds and voices of other beings (Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond) — this is what the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor, in her “Stroke of Insight”, described as the “life-force power of the universe” (See Scott Preston’s Immanence of the Transcendent & The Premises of Our Existence), maybe related to what Carl Jung referred to as the “objective psyche”. One time while tripping on magic mushrooms, I saw-felt the world glistening, the fields shimmered in the wind and moonlight and everything breathed a single breath in unison.

That animistic worldview once was common, as was the use of psychedelics, prior to their being outlawed and increasingly replaced by addictive substances, from nicotine to caffeine (The World that Inhabits Our Mind). And so the addictive mind has built up psychic scar tissue, the thick walls of the mind that safely and comfortably contain us (“Yes, tea banished the fairies.” & Diets and Systems). Instead of beating the bounds of a parish, we beat the bounds of our private egoic territory, our thoughts going round in round like creatures caught in a tidal pool that is drying up in the harsh sunlight — when will the tide come back in?

* * *

Here is some additional historical info. The feudal laws were to some extent carried over into North America. In early America, legally owning land didn’t necessarily mean much. Land was only effectively owned to the degree you used it and that originally was determined by fencing. So, having a paper that says you own thousands of acres didn’t necessarily mean anything, if it wasn’t being maintained for some purpose.

It was every citizen’s right to use any land (for fishing, hunting, gathering, camping, etc) as long as it wasn’t fenced in — that was at a time when fencing was expensive and required constant repair. This law remained in place until after the Civil War. It turned out to be inconvenient to the whites who wanted to remain masters, as blacks could simply go anywhere and live off of the land. That was unacceptable and so blacks need to be put back in their place. That was the end of that law.

But there were other similar laws about land usage. Squatting rights go back far into history. Even to this day, if someone shows no evidence of using and maintaining a building, someone who squats there for a period of time can claim legal ownership of it. Some of my ancestors were squatters. My great grandfather was born in a house his family was squatting in. Another law still in place has to do with general land usage. If someone uses your land to graze their horses or as a walking path, some laws will allow legal claims to be made on continuing that use of land, unless the owner explicitly sent legal paperwork in advance declaring his ownership.

There was a dark side to this. Canada also inherited this legal tradition from feudalism. In one case, a family owned land that they enjoyed but didn’t explicitly use. It was simply beautiful woods. A company was able to dredge up an old law that allowed them to assert their right to use the land that the family wasn’t using. Their claim was based on minerals that were on the property. They won the case and tore up the woods for mining, despite having no ownership of the land. Those old feudal laws worked well in feudalism but not always so well in capitalism.

I’ll end on a positive note. There was a law that was particularly common in Southern states. It basically stated that an individual’s right to land was irrevocable. Once you legally owned land, no one could ever forcefully take it away from you. Even if you went into debt or didn’t pay your taxes, the land would be yours. The logic was that land meant survival. You could be utterly impoverished and yet access to land meant access to food, water, firewood, building materials, etc. The right to basic survival, sustenance, and subsistence could not be taken away from anyone (well, other than Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc; okay, not an entirely positive note to end on).

American Spirituality

The United States is a religious society. But I don’t know to what degree it is a spiritual society. I’m not even quite sure what spirituality can mean here. There is an Anglo-American history of spirituality: Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Theosophy, etc. The Shakers are an interesting example, specifically of community. They originated from the Quakers, as they were the Shaking Quakers. They were really into communal dancing with the noise they made being heard miles away. They were also really into Spiritualism with their members going into trance states, channeling spirits, doing spirit paintings, etc. The Shakers, by the way, advocated abstinence. That might explain some of their behavior. They needed some kind of outlet. Avoiding sex meant they had to adopt children to maintain their society, which they did over a century. That is what happened to my great grandfather. He was one of the last generation of Shaker children. I would have loved to known about his experience, but apparently he never talked about it.

There were a lot of similar things going on during the revival movements of the Great Awakenings. All kinds of odd behaviors were common, from shaking to talking in tongues. The people believed God or the Holy Spirit came down and essentially possessed them. It’s hard to imagine this happening today in this country. There are still some churches that have such practices, including such things snake handling, though it doesn’t seem to be at the same level as seen in these once massive revivals. Interestingly, the Piraha also do snake handling when possessed, not that they think of it as possession. A possessed Piraha becomes entirely identified with the spirit, such that not even other Piraha would recognize him as anything else. The Piraha, by the way, have no shamanic tradition as such and so no shamans. Possession isn’t part of any formal tradition or rituals and just happens. Because of that, the Piraha might be a good framework for understanding some of the spiritual eruptions in American society.

Then there is the whole phenomenon of UFO sightings and abductee experiences, Mothman and Men in Black. That has developed into numerous UFO and alien cults (some good books have been written on that). Carl Jung considered UFOs to be an expression of a religious impulse, something new seeking to emerge within our society (see a letter he wrote to Gilbert A. Harrison and his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies). Like Jung, others have seen a spiritual/mythological component to this. The biggest name being the astrologer and computer scientist Jacques Vallee who noted the similarity between alien abduction accounts, fairy abduction stories, and shamanic initiations. John Keel wrote about similar things. In a scientific age, it is in a scientific guise that spirituality often gets expressed. This is the unexpected form that the next major religion is likely to take. In the way that the Axial Age religions took ahistorical myths and rewrote them as history, our society will take non-scientific myths and retell them as science. On a personal level, that will be how spirituality will be experienced by many — if not necessarily the rise of UFO cults, then something like it.

I wonder what it would look like in the U.S. if we had a fourth (fifth?) Great Awakening with the large revivals or else along these lines, although not necessarily in Christian dressing. Admittedly, it’s harder to imagine it. But secularism doesn’t alter the underlying yearning for spirituality, for something transcendant or other, something ecstatic and transformative. The hunger is there, obviously. It just gets subverted in our capitalist society. The closest we come is presidential elections when people become a bit mentally unbalanced… still, not the same thing, at least not these days. But according to early American records, elections were more like ecstatic Carnival with truly wild behavior going on. Elections with their group-minded partisanship — combined with cult of personality — can make people lose their individual sense of self into something greater (see Winter Season and Holiday Spirit). That maybe the main purpose of elections in our society, not so much for democracy (as U.S. politics fails on that account) but as a state religion. I sometimes wonder if our entire society isn’t possessed in some sense. That might be a better explanation than anything else. That maybe the difficulty the respectable classes have in coming to terms with President Donald Trump, as he is less of a politician than a religious figure. Heck, maybe he is a lizard person too, as part of an advanced guard of an alien invasion.

* * *

Inventing the People:
The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
by Edmund S. Morgan
pp. 202-203

There were other parallels in contemporary English country life, in the fairs, “wakes,” and local festivals that punctuated the seasons, where sexual restraints were loosened and class barriers briefly broken in a “rough and ready social equality.” 82 But these were simply milder versions of what may be the most instructive parallel to an eighteenth-century election, namely the carnival— not the travelling amusement park familiar in America, but the festivities that preceded Lent in Catholic countries. The pre-Lenten carnival still survives in many places and still occupies an important place in community life, but it has assumed quite different functions from the earlier festivals. 83 It is the older carnivals, before the nineteenth century, that will bear comparison with eighteenth-century elections.

The carnival of the medieval or early modern period elicited from a community far more outrageous behavior and detailed ritual than did the elections that concern us. 84 But the carnival’s embellishments emphasize rather than obscure the fact that make-believe was the carnival’s basic characteristic and that carnival make-believe, like election make-believe, involved role reversal by the participants.

pp. 205-207

Where social tensions ran too high the carnival might become the occasion for putting a real scare into the cats and wolves of the community. There was always a cutting edge to the reversal of roles and to the seemingly frivolous competition. And when a society was ripe for revolt, the carnival activated it, as Le Roy Ladurie has shown in his account of the carnival at Romans in 1580. But normally a community went its way with the structure of power reinforced by its survival of the carnival’s make-believe challenge.

To put this idea in another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. Those who enacted the reversal of roles, by terminating the act accepted the validity of the order that they had ritually defied. By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually they endorsed it. […]

The underlying similitude of an eighteenth-century election to a carnival is by now apparent. The two resembled each other not only in obvious outward manifestations— in the reversal of roles, in the make-believe quality of the contests, in the extravagance of the partisanship of artificial causes, in the outrageous behavior and language, in the drunkenness, the mob violence, even in the loosening of sexual restraints— not only in all these external attributes but also in an identity of social function. An election too was a safety valve, an interlude when the humble could feel a power otherwise denied them, a power that was only half illusory. And it was also a legitimizing ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.

Hence the insistence that the candidate himself or someone of the same rank solicit the votes of the humble. The election would not fully serve its purpose unless the truly great became for a time humble. Nor would it serve its purpose if the humble did not for a time put on a show of greatness, not giving their votes automatically to those who would ordinarily command their deference. Hence too the involvement of the whole populace in one way or another, if not in the voting or soliciting of votes, then in the tumults and riots, in the drinking and feasting, in the music and morris dancing.

It would be too much to say that the election was a substitute for a carnival. It will not do to push the analogy too far. The carnival was embedded deeply in folk culture, and its functions were probably more magical and religious than, overtly at least, political. An election, on had no the other hand, was almost exclusively a political affair, magical overtones; it was not connected with any religious calendar. 90 Nor did it always exhibit the wild excesses of a carnival; and when it did, it was surely not because the local oligarchy felt that this would renew their authority. They would generally have preferred to preserve “the peace of the country” by avoiding the contests that engaged them so hotly and cost them so much when they occurred. Moreover, the reversal of roles did not go anywhere near as far as in a carnival. In an election, along with the fraternization and condescension, there could be a great deal of direct pressure brought by the mighty on those who stood below them, with no pretense of reversing roles.

The resemblance to a carnival nevertheless remains striking. Is it wholly coincidence that there were no carnivals in Protestant England and her colonies where these carnival-like elections took place, and that in countries where carnivals did prevail elections were moribund or nonexistent? Is it too much to say that the important part of an eighteenth-century election contest in England and in the southern colonies and states was the contest itself, not the outcome of it? Is it too much to say that the temporary engagement of the population in a ritual, half-serious, half-comic battle was a mode of consent to government that filled a deeper popular need than the selection of one candidate over another by a process that in many ways denied voters the free choice ostensibly offered to them? Is it too much to say that the choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes?

The Transparent Self to Come?

Scott Preston’s newest piece, The Seer, is worth reading. He makes an argument for what is needed next for humanity, what one might think of as getting off the Wheel of Karma. But I can’t help considering about the messy human details, in this moment of societal change and crisis. The great thinkers like Jean Gebser talk of integral consciousness in one way while most people experience the situation in entirely different terms. That is why I’m glad Preston brought in what is far less respectable (and far more popular) like Carlos Castaneda and the Seth Material.

As anyone should know, we aren’t discussing mere philosophy here for it touches upon human experience and social reality. I sense much of what is potentially involved, even as it is hard to put one’s finger on it. The challenge we are confronted with is far more disconcerting than we typically are able and willing to acknowledge, assuming we can even begin to comprehend what we are facing and what is emerging. How we get to the integral is the difficult part. Preston explains well the issue of making the ego/emissary transparent — as the Seth Material put it, “true transparency is not the ability to see through, but to move through”. That is a good way of putting it.

I appreciate his explanation of Satan (the egoic-demiurge) as the ape of God, what Iain McGilchrist calls usurpation. This reminds me of the mimicry of the Trickster archetype and its relation to the co-optation of the reactionary mind (see Corey Robin). A different kind of example of this is that of the folkloric Men in Black, as described by John Keel. It makes me wonder about what such things represent in human reality. This was on my mind because of another discussion I was having in a different post, Normal, from rauldukeblog’s The Violent Ink. The topic had to do with present mass hysteria and, as I’m wont to do, I threw out my own idiosyncratic context. Climate change came up and so I was trying to explain what makes this moment of crisis different than the past.

There is the scientific quality to it. Modern science created climate change through technological innovation and industrialization. And now science warns us about it. But it usually isn’t like a war, famine, or plague that hits a population in an undeniable way — not for most of us, not yet. That is the complexifying change in the scientific worldview we now inhabit and it is why the anxiety is so amorphous, in away profoundly different than before. To come to terms with climate change, something within human nature itself would have to shift. If we are to survive it while maintaining civilization, we will likely have to be as dramatically transformed as were bicameral humans during the collapse of the Bronze Age Civilizations. We won’t come through this unscathed and unchanged.

In speaking of the scientific or pseudo-scientific, there is the phenomenon of UFOs and contact experience. I pointed out that there has been a shift in official military policy toward reporting of UFO sightings, which gets one wondering about motives and also gets one thinking about why now. UFOs and aliens express that free-floating sense of vague anxiety about the unknown, specifically in a modern framework. It’s almost irrelevant what UFOs really are or aren’t. And no doubt, as in the past, various governments will attempt to use UFO reports to manipulate populations, to obfuscate what they wish to keep hidden, or whatever else. The relevant point here is what UFOs symbolize in the human psyche and why they gain so much attention during periods of wide scale uncertainty and stress. The UFO cults that have appeared over the past few generations are maybe akin to the cults like Jesus worship that arose in the Axial Age. Besides Jung, it might be helpful to bring in Jacques Vallee’s even more fascinating view. A new mythos is forming.

I’m not sure what it all adds up to. And my crystal ball is no less cloudy than anyone else’s. It just feels different in that we aren’t only facing crisis and catastrophe. It feels like a far more pivotal point, a fork in the path. During what is called the General Crisis, there was much change going on and it did help bring to an end what remained of feudalism. But the General Crisis didn’t fundamentally change society and culture, much less cut deeper into the human psyche. I’d argue that it simply brought us further down the same path we’d been on for two millennia since the Axial Age. I keep wondering if now the Axial Age is coming to its final conclusion, that there isn’t much further we can go down this path.

By the way, I think my introduction to Jacques Vallee came through my further reading after having discovered John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, the book that came out long before the movie. That is where the basic notion comes from that I was working with here. During times of crisis and foreboding, often preceding actual mass death, there is a build up of strangeness that spills out from our normal sense of reality. We can, of course, talk about this in more rational or rather respectable terms without any of the muck of UFO research.

Keith Payne, in The Broken Ladder, notes that people come to hold bizarre beliefs and generally act irrationally when under conditions of high inequality, that is to say when inflicted with unrelenting stress. But it goes beyond that. There is more going on than mere beliefs. People’s sense of reality becomes distorted and they begin experiencing what they otherwise would not. This was the basis of Julian Jaynes’ hypothesis of the bicameral mind where voice-hearing was supposedly elicited through stress. And this is supported by modern evidence, such as the cases recorded by John Geiger in the Third Man Factor.

An additional layer could be brought to this with Jacques Valle’s work in showing how anecdotes of alien contact follow the same pattern as the stories of fairy abductions and the anthropological accounts of shamanic initiation. These are religious experiences. At other times, they were more likely interpreted as visitations by spiritual beings or as transportation into higher realms. Similarly, spinning and flying disks in the sky were interpreted as supernatural manifestations in the pre-scientific age. But maybe it’s all the same phenomenon, whether the source is elsewhere or from within the human psyche.

The interesting part is that these experiences, sometimes sightings involving crowds of people (including many incidents with military personnel and pilots), often correspond with intensified societal conflict. UFO sightings and contact experiences appear to increase at specific periods of stress. Unsurprisingly, people turn to the strange in strange times. And there is something about this strangeness, the pervasiveness of it and the power it holds. To say we are living in a reactionary time when nearly everything and everyone has become reactionary, that is to understate it to an extreme degree. The Trickster quality of the reactionary mind, one might argue, is its most defining feature.

One might call it the return of the repressed. Or it could be thought of as the eruption (irruption?) of the bicameral mind. Whatever it is, it challenges and threatens the world we think we know. Talk of Russian meddling and US political failure is tiddlywinks in comparison. But the fact that we take such tiddlywinks so seriously does add to the sense of crisis. Everything is real to the degree we believe it to be real, in that the effects of it become manifest in our experience and behavior, in the collective choices that we make and accumulate over time.

We manifest our beliefs. And even the strangest of beliefs can become normalized and, as such, become self-fulfilling prophecies. Social realities aren’t only constructed. They are imagined into being. Such imagination is human reality for we are incapable of experiencing it as anything other than reality. We laugh at the strange beliefs of others at our own peril. But what is being responded to can remain hidden or outside of the mainstream frame of consciousness. Think of the way that non-human animals act in unusual ways before an earthquake hits. If all we see is what the animals are doing and lack any greater knowledge, we won’t appreciate that it means we should prepare for the earthquake to come.

Humans too act strangely before coming catastrophes. It doesn’t require anyone to consciously know of and rationally understand what is coming. Most of how humans respond is instinctual or intuitive. I’d only suggest to pay less attention to the somewhat arbitrary focus of anxiety and, instead, to take the anxiety itself as a phenomenon to be taken seriously. Something real is going on. And it portends something on its way.

Here is my point. We see things through a glass darkly. Things are a bit on the opaque side. Transparency of self is more of an aspiration at this point, at least for those of us not yet enlightened beings. All the voices remain loud within us and in the world around us. In many thinkers seeking a new humanity, there is the prioritizing of the visual over the auditory. There is a historical background to this. The bicameral mind was ruled by voices. To be seek freedom from this, to get off the grinding and rumbling Wheel of Karma requires a different relationship to our senses. There is a reason the Enlightenment was so powerfully obsessed with tools that altered and extended our perception with a major focus on the visual, from lenses to the printed word. Oral society was finally losing its power over us or that is what some wanted to believe.

The strangeness of it all is that pre-consciousness maintains its pull over modern consciousness simultaneously as we idealize the next stage of humanity, integral trans-consciousness. Instead of escaping the authoritative power of the bicameral voice, we find ourselves in a world of mass media and social media where voices have proliferated. We are now drowning in voices and so we fantasize about the cool silence of the visionary, that other side of our human nature — as Preston described it:

One of the things we find in don Juan’s teachings is “the nagual” and “the tonal” relation and this is significant because it is clearly the same as McGilchrist’s “Master” and “Emissary” relationship of the two modes of attention of the divided brain. In don Juan’s teachings, these correspond to the what is called the “first” and “the second attentions”. If you have read neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight or followed her TED talk about that experience, you will see that she, too, is describing the different modes of attention of the “nagual” and the “tonal” (or the “Master” and the “Emissary”) in her own experience, and that when she, too, shifted into the “nagual” mode, also saw what Castaneda saw — energy as it flows in the universe, and she also called that “the Life Force Power of the Universe”

About getting off the Wheel, rauldukeblog wrote that, “Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning action so the concept is that any act(tion) creates connective tissue which locks one into reaction and counter and so on in an endless loop.” That brings us back to the notion of not only seeing through the egoic self but more importantly to move through the egoic self. If archaic authorization came from voices according to Jaynes, and if self-authorization of the internalized voice of egoic consciousness hasn’t fundamentally changed this equation, then what would offer us an entirely different way of being and acting in the world?

The last time we had a major transformation of the human mind, back during the ending of the Bronze Age, it required the near total collapse of every civilization. Structures of the mind aren’t easily disentangled from entrenched patterns of social identity as long as the structures of civilization remain in place. All these millennia later, we are still struggling to deal with the aftermath of the Axial Age. What are the chances that the next stage of humanity is going to be easier or happen more quickly?

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.

The Right-Wing New Age

Describing a Salon article by Mitch Horowitz, there is a post over at Matt Cardin’s blog. He offers a summary:

“But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd”

It doesn’t surprise me. And I can’t say that I worry about the media having “characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration.” That said, there might be a connection between Bannon’s attraction to both mysticism and fascism, which could cause one to wonder what kind of New Age he might envision. But the general connection between alternative spirituality and the political right isn’t particularly concerning. As Horowitz explains, that is simply a part of the social fabric of American society and far from being limited to right-wingers.

My conservative parents raised my brothers and I in several liberal New Agey churches, from Christian Science to Unity. It was my paternal grandmother, coming out of a Southern Baptist upbringing, who after she moved to California introduced my parents to New Age spirituality. It helped transition my dad from his earlier doubting agnosticism to his present family values Christianity. Interestingly, my parents now attend a liberal mainstream church, even as they remain strongly conservative. Both of my parents are into positive thinking, my dad being a fan of Norman Vincent Peale.

Religion plays a major role on my dad’s side of the family. My paternal grandfather was a minister who was more spiritual than religious, odd as that might sound. Along with reading my grandmother’s copy of A Course In Miracles, I enjoyed looking at some books my dad had inherited from my grandfather. Among those books, I was introduced to world religions and the likes of the two Krishnamurtis (Jiddu and U.G.).

I could point out that there is a common history to Evangelicalism, New Thought Christianity, and Prosperity Gospel. There are a number of books that cover this and other related history. Theosophy took hold in the US during the late 1800s Populist Era. There was a lot of odd mystical and spiritual thinking that arose in the 1800s, such as the popularity of spiritualism.

There have been many diverse expressions of religion across American history. My paternal great grandfather was an orphan in one of the last surviving Shaker villages, having left when he reached adulthood. Also, there was the Quakers, Deists, Unitarians, Universalists, Anabaptists, Pietists, Camisards, Huguenots, Moravians, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, Amanas, etc. Spiritualism and related practices became popular across religions. The Shakers went through a spiritualism phase, during which much interesting artwork was produced.

Multiple strains of dissenter religion influenced American society, in particular some of the radical thinking during the English Civil War when the first American colonies were taking hold. Roger Williams was a rather interesting religious radical in the early American colonies.

Here are some books that might be of interest, including one from the author of the article:

Occult America by Mitch Horowitz, Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America by Allison P. Coudert, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America by Sarah Pike, A Republic of Mind and Spirit by Catherine L. Albanese, The New Metaphysicals by Courtney Bender, Ghosts of Futures Past by McGarry Molly, Plato’s Ghost by Cathy Gutierrez, The Occult in Nineteenth-Century America by Cathy Gutierrez, Each Mind a Kingdom by Beryl Satter, The History of New Thought by John S. Haller & Robert C. Fuller, Religious Revolutionaries by Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious by Robert C. Fuller, Restless Souls by Leigh Eric Schmidt, Spirits of Protestantism by Pamela E. Klassen, Secularism in Antebellum America by John Lardas Modern, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912 by Thomas A. Tweed, America’s Communal Utopias by Donald E. Pitzer, and The Kingdom of Matthias by Paul E. Johnson & Sean Wilentz.

On a slightly different note, I would highly recommend The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. The authors show how, until the 19th century, Americans didn’t have high rates of religiosity such as church attendance. The increasing focus on spirituality was simultaneous with greater concern with mainstream religion.

Another thing that could be added were the Transcendentalists. They had interest in Eastern religious and philosophical thought. Translations of Eastern texts such as the Bhagavad Gita were available in the early 19th century. Henry David Thoreau brought the Bhagavad Gita with him to Walden. See: American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions by Arthur Versluis and The Gita within Walden by Paul Friedrich.

Later in that century, the Theosophical Society translated a large number of Eastern texts. Theosophists came to have much influence during the Populist Era of the 1890s and into the following century. I recall a march on Washington, DC during the 1890s was led by someone influenced by Theosophical thought.

That was a major turning point for American spirituality, fueled by populist revolt and questioning of religious authority. There was a hunger for both new politics and new religion. This was the same historical moment when such things as New Thought Unity Church was organized, specifically 1889. Jackson Lears, in Rebirth of a Nation, describes this era (pp. 237-238):

“Yet the vitalist impulse itself had larger than utilitarian implications. Its significance, like its origin, was religious. It lay at the heart of a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious. The real problem for many vitalists (and certainly for James) was the specter of a life (and death) without meaning. It is possible to see all the talk about “life” as a way of whistling past the graveyard of traditional Christianity. But the vitalist ferment was also a genuine attempt to explore new meanings for human existence amid the wreckage of collapsing dualities: body and soul, matter and spirit, this world and the next.

“Educated Protestants, dissatisfied with desiccated theology, cast about for vital conceptions of cosmic meaning. Many explored medieval Catholic mysticism as an alternative to the banalities of the typical Sunday sermon, the sort of platitudes uttered by Henry Ward Beecher and other ministers who reduced the Protestant ethic to a mere prescription for worldly success. Buddhism and other Asian religions—discovered, imagined, and synthesized—also began to play a role in focusing popular longings. Vedanta, popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair and after by Swami Vivekenanda, and theosophy, preached by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, were both synthetic expressions of spiritual ferment. Paul Carus founded the magazine Open Court to carry forward the work of the World’s Parliament of Religions, begun at the Chicago Fair, to create a common ground of ecumenical discussion, which might lead to a new synthesis—a “Religion of the Future” that might appeal to believer and skeptic alike.

“The results were mixed. Contributors to Open Court asked questions like “What is Life?” and then stumbled about in a soupy haze of abstractions. “The truth is, there are, as there must be, original factors in the world…and life (or chemical activity and appetency) is like gravity, one of them,” William Salter announced in 1901. “If we wish to account for them, we have to go back to the maker of all things (if there is a Maker) not to any of the things that are made.” One thing was certain: “The only salvation for society as for the individual, is from within—it is more life.” The reverence for “life” could overcome death itself. “Who knows but that that greater death which sooner or later overtakes us all…starts energies into play deeper than we had known before—that it is the death of the body, and freedom, new birth, to the soul?’

“The desire for regeneration led to death’s door and beyond. Yearnings for empirical proof of an afterlife and for communication with departed loved ones accelerated the appeal of spiritualism. Here was another example of fascination with invisible force, impossible to see but unmistakable (to believers) in its consequences—tables rising from the floor, sepulchral voices, mysterious music. Even William James was intrigued. While he remained skeptical of sweaty séances in darkened rooms, he joined the American Society for Psychical Research, providing legitimacy to the quest for connection with “discarnate spirits.” His interest in spiritualism reflected his openness to all manner of evidence, no matter how bizarre or apparently inexplicable—his radical empiricism, as he called it.”

By the way, Horowitz’s article reminded me of a passage in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. In a brief but insightful observation, Frank explains why right-wingers would find appealing what otherwise seems the New Age babble of hippies (Kindle Locations 1998-2013):

“Today bitter self-made men—and their doppelgängers, the bitter but not quite as well-to-do men—are all over the place. They have their own cable news network and their own TV personalities. They can turn to nearly any station on the AM dial to hear their views confirmed. They have their own e-mail bulletin boards, on which you can find hundreds of thousands of them plen-T-plaining about this outrage and that, from the national to the local. And although they like to fancy themselves rugged individualists (better yet, the last of the rugged individualists), what they really are is a personality type that our society generates so predictably and in such great numbers that they almost constitute a viable market segment all on their own.

“One more thing about the backlash personality type: every single one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking. If you just had a sunny disposish and kept everlastingly at it, they thought, you were bound to succeed. The contradiction between their professed positiveness and their actual negativity about nearly everything never seemed to occur to them. On the contrary; they would oscillate from the one to the other as though the two naturally complemented each other, giving me advice on keeping a positive mental outlook even while raging against the environmentalist bumper stickers on other people’s cars or scoffing at Kansas City’s latest plan for improving its schools. The world’s failure to live up to the impossible promises of the positive-thinking credo did not convince these men of the credo’s impracticality, but rather that the world was in a sad state of decline, that it had forsaken the true and correct path.2 It was as though the fair-play lessons of Jack Armstrong, Frank Merriwell, and the other heroes of their prewar boyhood had congealed quite naturally into the world bitterness of their present-day heroes, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, Gordon Liddy, and the tax rebel Howard Jarvis.”

(Note 2. “In The Positive Thinkers, Donald Meyer comments extensively on positive thinking’s understanding of the business civilization and extreme laissez-faire economics as the way of nature. (See in particular chap. 8.) As for its politics, Meyer points out that Norman Vincent Peale, the movement’s greatest celebrity preacher, dabbled in right-wing Republicanism, and a famous positive-thinking Congregationalist church in California embraced the John Birch Society. It is possible that the universal embrace of positive thinking by the bitter self-made men of my youth was a geographic coincidence, since Kansas City is home to one of the great powers of the positive-thinking world, the Unity Church. But I am inclined to think not. Positive thinking is today a nearly universal aspect of liberal Protestantism, traces of it appearing in the speeches of Ronald Reagan and the self-help entertainment of Oprah Winfrey.” [Kindle Locations 4350-4357])

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Some of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote was a 4 part series. In those earlier writings, I covered all of this in great detail and included much of my personal experience. They came from my old blog, originally posted on the now defunct Gaia website. I apologize for their needing to be cleaned up a bit, as the transferal of posts was done quickly, but they are readable as is.

New Age: Part 1
New Age: Part 2
New Age: Part 3
New Age: Part 4

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Additional thoughts (5/14/17):

My mother’s all-time favorite preacher is Robert Schuller. He is well known for his having built the Crystal Cathedral, the embodiment of the crass materialism of self-indulgence and cult of personality. Although humbly born and raised in Iowa, he became a mega-church preacher in California and thereby amassed immense wealth.

It’s interesting to learn about how California is the origins of the mega-church movement, along with the modern religious right that took over the GOP. California is also the birthplace of Nixon (infamous Orange County), as Southern California is filled with Southerners. Nixon promoted the Southern strategy and Reagan, a California transplant and professional corporate spokesperson, gave it a voice and a face. I should note that the Southern presence was so influential even in early Californian history that the state was almost split in two during the Civil War.

It was in California that my grandmother, raised Southern Baptist, converted to New Age religion. There is not much distance between the New Right and the New Age. Robert Schuller’s prosperity gospel and ‘old time’ family values easily bridges that distance. It’s why my conservative parents could simultaneously listen to the kindly patriarchal Schuller on television, attend a uber-liberal New Thought church (Unity), and vote for Reagan with his culture war religiosity and Hollywood smile — all part and parcel of the same worldview given its fullest form during the Cold War through the expression of Capitalist Christianity.

I recently learned that a regular guest on Schuller’s televized ministry was Laura Schlessinger, one of the major stars of late 20th century right-wing radio. I remember listening to her when I was still living in South Carolina. It was around the mid 1990s, considering her show was nationally syndicated in 1994 (the year I graduated high school). As the female version of Limbaugh, she was a typical egotist who thought her every ignorant opinion was God-inspired truth. She was a no-nonsense Cold War culture warrior, one of these privileged upper middle class white people who can talk tough because they’ve never dealt with a real problem in their entire life.

One time a caller complained about personal problems and Schlessinger’s advice was that the young woman should either take care of her problems or kill herself. I was shocked that any radio host would be that irresponsible, but that was common for right-wing talk radio. There is a heartlessness to this attitude. I can guarantee you that if this person had killed herself, a sociopathic social Darwinian like Schlessinger would have been happy that there was one less ‘loser’ in the world.

Now consider this mean-spirited asshole was a close personal friend of Robert Schuller, having said of her that she is “A positive voice for positive values without equal in our time.” Despite Schuller’s kind and friendly demeanor, there was a dark cancerous rot at the heart of his prosperity gospel. In the end, prosperity gospel was simply yet more rhetoric upholding the plutocracy and defending inequality. It was a worship of Mammon, in place of God.

This kind of prosperity gospel didn’t die with Schuller. It is still going strong. The mega-church movement has become more popular than ever and, with big money, it is a major political player with impressive clout. Some of Trump’s most outspoken and influential supporters were prosperity gospel preachers, such as Paula White and Joel Osteen (along with many others). This is nothing new. Going back decades, some truly hateful and demented religious leaders have openly supported and socialized with Republican politicians and even presidents. Some of these religious right leaders said things far worse than Trump and associates have dared to say and there was no backlash. Republicans have been courting rabidly reactionary radicalism for a long time.

This is not old time religion, in the traditional European sense. But America has always had weird strains of religiosity and spirituality, a hybrid spawn of Protestant Reformation and Counter-Enlightenment. The descendants of this match made in hell were suckled at the teat of American materialism with its dark history of oppression and inequality. Then driven mad through the delusional fear-mongering of generations of propaganda, from Cold War to War on Terror.

If one were feeling particularly cynical, it could be argued that Trump represents the final endpoint and highest expression of American Christianity. But that would be too dismissive toward the religious diversity that has always existed in North America, even if the ugliest expressions of religiosity too often have dominated. It should not be forgotten that the United States also has a history of radical left-wing religiosity as well. The hard-hitting Christian attitude eloquently put forth by the likes of Martin Luther King jr is alive and well, no matter how much corporate media hacks and corporatist politicians ignore it.

There is another point that should be made clear. The religious right mentality isn’t limited to the religious right, for the simple reason that the religious right itself in America is the product of post-Enlightenment liberalism. The American right in general has long been in love with the rhetoric of liberalism with its focus, however superficial, on liberty and freedom in terms of not just of religion but also of states rights, free markets, hyper-individuality, meritocracy, private ownership, gun rights, civil libertarianism, and on and on. So, in direct connection to this, it’s unsurprising to realize the extent to which liberals, specifically of the liberal class, have embraced right-wing ideology as great defenders of capitalist realism that supposedly liberates and empowers even as it harms and scapegoats so many.

Having been raised in the extreme liberalism of New Thought Christianity, this understanding developed in my direct personal experience. What Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her book Bright-sided is what I absorbed form childhood. And it really does fuck with your head. Ehrenreich criticizes a type of cruel optimism popular in America that is superficial and too often used to rationalize egregiously immoral or otherwise dysfunctional behavior. In my experience, positive thinking just made me feel worse, as if my depression was a sign of personal failure.

The expectation of positive thinking can be a heavy burden to carry. This is much worse when dealing with serious issues involving conditions of poverty and inequality, oppression and injustice, pain and suffering, desperation and struggle. According to prosperity gospel, all problems are to be blamed on individuals. It’s the punishment of having a wrong relationship with God, a carryover from the bleak predestination of Calvinism that involves a God who favors an elect of individuals and damns everyone else. But in prosperity gospel, God’s elect are made clear as his favors are seen in this world through material gifts and blessings, i.e., wealth.

I went into some detail about this in a previous post:

The inspiration for her writing about positive thinking was her experience with cancer. She saw the darkside of positive thinking within the cancer community.

This brings to mind my own grandmother who died of cancer. It’s because of her that I was raised in New Thought Christianity where positive thinking is very popular. She was diagnosed with cancer. She embraced the whole alternative medicine field and she had great faith in positive thinking. My dad says she was utterly crushed when doing all the right things didn’t make her cancer go away. She died of cancer. She was a woman who had a great sense of faith, and apparently I inherited my spiritual interests from her. I’ve seen all aspects of positive thinking and so I have a personal sense of what Ehrenreich is talking about.

But what is different is that positive thinking has become mainstream like never before. It’s not just alternative types. Positive thinking has become merged with the early American ideals of meritocracy, and together they create something greater than either alone.

In one video I saw of Ehrenreich, she made an interesting connection. She was talking about the meritocracy ideal, but I don’t think she was using that term. She was just talking about the ideal of positivie thinking in general within American culture. She connected this with Ayn Rand’s libertarians. If I remember correctly, she was making the argument that Rand was a one of the factors in popularizing positive thinking. She mentioned the book The Secret and how it’s representative of our whole culture. She blames the economic troubles we’re having now with the business culture of positive thinking, and it makes a lot of sense to me.

Also see two other videos:

Barbara Ehrenreich: “Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Undermines America”

‘Smile or Die” How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

Piraha and Bicameralism

For the past few months, I’ve been reading about color perception, cognition, and terminology. I finally got around to finishing a post on it. The topic is a lot more complex and confusing than what one might expect. The specific inspiration was the color blue, a word that apparently doesn’t signify a universal human experience. There is no condition of blueness objectively existing in the external world. It’s easy to forget that a distinction always exists between perception and reality or rather between one perception of reality and another.

How do you prove something is real when it feels real in your experience? For example, how would you attempt to prove your consciousness, interior experience, and individuality? What does it mean for your sense of self to be real? You can’t even verify your experience of blue matches that of anyone else, much less show that blueness is a salient hue for all people. All you have is the experience itself. Your experience can motivate, influence, and shape what and how you communicate or try to communicate, but you can’t communicate the experience itself. This inability is a stumbling block of all human interactions. The gap between cultures can be even more vast.

This is why language is so important to us. Language doesn’t only serve the purpose of communication but more importantly the purpose of creating a shared worldview. This is the deeply ingrained human impulse to bond with others, no matter how imperfect this is achieved in practice. When we have a shared language, we can forget about the philosophical dilemmas of experience and to what degree it is shared. We’d rather not have to constantly worry about such perplexing and disturbing issues.

These contemplations were stirred up by one book in particular, Daniel L. Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. In my post on color, I brought up some of his observations about the Piraha (read pp. 136-141 from that book and have your mind blown). Their experience is far beyond what most people experience in the modern West. They rely on immediacy of experience. If they don’t experience or someone they know doesn’t experience something, it has little relevance to their lives and no truth value in their minds. Yet what they consider to be immediate experience can seem bizarre for us outsiders.

Piraha spirituality isn’t otherworldly. Spirits exist, just as humans exist. In fact, there is no certain distinction. When someone is possessed by a spirit, they are that spirit and the Piraha treat them as such. The person who is possessed is simply not there. The spirit is real because they experience the spirit with their physical senses. Sometimes in coming into contact with a spirit, a Piraha individual will lose their old identity and gain a new one, the change being permanent and another name to go along with it. The previous person is no longer there and I suppose never comes back. They aren’t pretending to change personalities. That is their direct experience of reality. Talk about the power of language. A spirit gives someone a new name and they become a different person. The name has power, represents an entire way of being, a personality unto itself. The person becomes what they are named. This is why the Piraha don’t automatically assume someone is the same person the next time they meet them, for they live in a fluid world where change is to be expected.

A modern Westerner sees the Piraha individual. To their mind, it’s the same person. They can see he or she is physically the same person. But another Piraha tribal member doesn’t see the same person. For example, when possessed, the person is apparently not conscious of the experience and won’t remember it later. During possession, they will be in an entirely dissociated state of mind, literally being someone else with different behaviors and a different voice. The Piraha audience watching the possession also won’t remember anything other than a spirit having visited. It isn’t a possession to them. The spirit literally was there. That is their perceived reality, what they know in their direct experience.

What the Piraha consider crazy and absurd is the Western faith in a monotheistic tradition not based on direct experience. If you never met Jesus, they can’t comprehend why you’d believe in him. The very notion of ‘faith’ makes absolutely no sense to them, as it seems like an act of believing what you know not to be real in your own experience. They are sincere Doubting Thomases. Jesus isn’t real, until he physically walks into their village to be seen with their own eyes, touched with their own hands, and heard with their own ears. To them, spirituality is as real as the physical world around them and is proven by the same means, through direct experience or else the direct experience of someone who is personally trusted to speak honestly.

Calling the Piraha experience of spirits a mass hallucination is to miss the point. To the degree that is true, we are all mass hallucinating all the time. It’s just one culture’s mass hallucinations differ from that of another. We modern Westerners, however, so desperately want to believe there can only be one objective reality to rule them all. The problem is we humans aren’t objective beings. Our perceived reality is unavoidably subjective. We can’t see our own cultural biases because they are the only reality we know.

In reading Everett’s description of the Piraha, I couldn’t help thinking about Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. Jaynes wasn’t primarily focused on hunter-gatherers such as the Piraha. Even so, one could see the Piraha culture as having elements of bicameralism, whether or not they ever were fully bicameral. They don’t hallucinate hearing voices from spirits. They literally hear them. How such voices are spoken is apparently not the issue. What matters is that they are spoken and heard. And those spirit voices will sometimes tell the Piraha important information that will influence, if not determine, their behaviors and actions. These spirit visitations are obviously treated seriously and play a central role in the functioning of their society.

What is strangest of all is that the Piraha are not fundamentally different than you or I. They point to one of the near infinite possibilities that exist within our shared human nature. If a baby from Western society was raised by the Piraha, we have no reason to assume that he or she wouldn’t grow up to be like any other Piraha. It was only a few centuries ago when it also was common for Europeans to have regular contact with spirits. The distance between the modern mind and what came before is shorter than it first appears, for what came before still exists within us, as what we will become is a seed already planted.*

I don’t want this point to be missed. What is being discussed here isn’t ultimately about colors or spirits. This is a way of holding up a mirror to ourselves. What we see reflected back isn’t what we expected, isn’t how we appeared in our own imaginings. What if we aren’t what we thought we were? What if we turn out to be a much more amazing kind of creature, one that holds a multitude within?

(*Actually, that isn’t stated quite correctly. It isn’t what came before. The Piraha are still here, as are many other societies far different from the modern West. It’s not just that we carry the past within us. That is as true for the Piraha, considering they too carry a past within them, most of it being a past of human evolution shared with the rest of humanty. Modern individuality has only existed in a blip of time, a few hundred years in the hundreds of thousands of years of hominid existence. The supposed bicameral mind lasted for thousands of years longer than the entire post-bicameral age. What are the chances that our present experience of individuality will last as long? Highly unlikely.)

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Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes:
Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
by Daniel L Everett
pp. 138-139

Pirahãs occasionally talked about me, when I emerged from the river in the evenings after my bath. I heard them ask one another, “Is this the same one who entered the river or is it kapioxiai?”

When I heard them discuss what was the same and what was different about me after I emerged from the river, I was reminded of Heraclitus, who was concerned about the nature of identities through time. Heraclitus posed the question of whether one could step twice into the same river. The water that we stepped into the first time is no longer there. The banks have been altered by the flow so that they are not exactly the same. So apparently we step into a different river. But that is not a satisfying conclusion. Surely it is the same river. So what does it mean to say that something or someone is the same this instant as they were a minute ago? What does it mean to say that I am the same person I was when I was a toddler? None of my cells are the same. Few if any of my thoughts are. To the Pirahãs, people are not the same in each phase of their lives. When you get a new name from a spirit, something anyone can do anytime they see a spirit, you are not exactly the same person as you were before.

Once when I arrived in Posto Novo, I went up to Kóhoibiíihíai and asked him to work with me, as he always did. No answer. So I asked again, “Ko Kóhoi, kapiigakagakaísogoxoihí?” (Hey Kóhoi, do you want to mark paper with me?) Still no answer. So I asked him why he wasn’t talking to me. He responded, “Were you talking to me? My name is Tiáapahai. There is no Kóhoi here. Once I was called Kóhoi, but he is gone now and Tiáapahai is here.”

So, unsurprisingly, they wondered if I had become a different person. But in my case their concern was greater. Because if, in spite of evidence to the contrary, I turned out not to be a xíbiisi, I might really be a different entity altogether and, therefore, a threat to them. I assured them that I was still Dan. I was not kapioxiai.

On many rainless nights, a high falsetto voice can be heard from the jungle near a Pirahã village. This falsetto sounds spiritlike to me. Indeed, it is taken by all the Pirahãs in the village to be a kaoáíbógí, or fast mouth. The voice gives the villagers suggestions and advice, as on how to spend the next day, or on possible night dangers (jaguars, other spirits, attacks by other Indians). This kaoáíbógí also likes sex, and he frequently talks about his desire to copulate with village women, with considerable detail provided.

One night I wanted to see the kaoáíbógí myself. I walked through the brush about a hundred feet to the source of that night’s voice. The man talking in the falsetto was Xagábi, a Pirahã from the village of Pequial and someone known to be very interested in spirits. “Mind if I record you?” I asked, not knowing how he might react, but having a good idea that he would not mind.

“Sure, go ahead,” he answered immediately in his normal voice. I recorded about ten minutes of his kaoáíbógí speech and then returned to my house.

The next day, I went to Xagábi’s place and asked, “Say, Xagábi, why were you talking like a kaoáíbógí last night?”

He acted surprised. “Was there a kaoáíbógí last night? I didn’t hear one. But, then, I wasn’t here.”

pp. 140-141

After some delay, which I could not help but ascribe to the spirits’ sense of theatrical timing, Peter and I simultaneously heard a falsetto voice and saw a man dressed as a woman emerge from the jungle. It was Xisaóoxoi dressed as a recently deceased Pirahã woman. He was using a falsetto to indicate that it was the woman talking. He had a cloth on his head to represent the long hair of a woman, hanging back like a Pirahã woman’s long tresses. “She” was wearing a dress.

Xisaóoxoi’s character talked about how cold and dark it was under the ground where she was buried. She talked about what it felt like to die and about how there were other spirits under the ground. The spirit Xisaóoxoi was “channeling” spoke in a rhythm different from normal Pirahã speech, dividing syllables into groups of two (binary feet) instead of the groups of three (ternary feet) used in everyday talking. I was just thinking how interesting this would be in my eventual analysis of rhythm in Pirahã, when the “woman” rose and left.

Within a few minutes Peter and I heard Xisaóoxoi again, but this time speaking in a low, gruff voice. Those in the “audience” started laughing. A well-known comical spirit was about to appear. Suddenly, out of the jungle, Xisaóoxoi emerged, naked, and pounding the ground with a heavy section of the trunk of a small tree. As he pounded, he talked about how he would hurt people who got in his way, how he was not afraid, and other testosterone-inspired bits of braggadocio.

I had discovered, with Peter, a form of Pirahã theater! But this was of course only my classification of what I was seeing. This was not how the Pirahãs would have described it at all, regardless of the fact that it might have had exactly this function for them. To them they were seeing spirits. They never once addressed Xisaóoxoi by his name, but only by the names of the spirits.

What we had seen was not the same as shamanism, because there was no one man among the Pirahãs who could speak for or to the spirits. Some men did this more frequently than others, but any Pirahã man could, and over the years I was with them most did, speak as a spirit in this way.

The next morning when Peter and I tried to tell Xisaóoxoi how much we enjoyed seeing the spirits, he, like Xagábi, refused to acknowledge knowing anything about it, saying he wasn’t there.

This led me to investigate Pirahã beliefs more aggressively. Did the Pirahãs, including Xisaóoxoi, interpret what we had just seen as fiction or as fact, as real spirits or as theater? Everyone, including Pirahãs who listened to the tape later, Pirahãs from other villages, stated categorically that this was a spirit. And as Peter and I were watching the “spirit show,” I was given a running commentary by a young man sitting next to me, who assured me that this was a spirit, not Xisaóoxoi. Moreover, based on previous episodes in which the Pirahãs doubted that I was the same person and their expressed belief that other white people were spirits, changing forms at will, the only conclusion I could come to was that for the Pirahãs these were encounters with spirits— similar to Western culture’s seances and mediums.

Pirahãs see spirits in their mind, literally. They talk to spirits, literally. Whatever anyone else might think of these claims, all Pirahãs will say that they experience spirits. For this reason, Pirahã spirits exemplify the immediacy of experience principle. And the myths of any other culture must also obey this constraint or there is no appropriate way to talk about them in the Pirahã language.

One might legitimately ask whether something that is not true to Western minds can be experienced. There is reason to believe that it can. When the Pirahãs claim to experience a spirit they have experienced something, and they label this something a spirit. They attribute properties to this experience, as well as the label spirit. Are all the properties, such as existence and lack of blood, correct? I am sure that they are not. But I am equally sure that we attribute properties to many experiences in our daily lives that are incorrect.

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Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

On Being Strange

Self, Other, & World

Humanity in All of its Blindness

The World that Inhabits Our Mind

Spiritualism and Bicameralism

In Spirit of Equality, Steve A. Wiggins discusses the recent Ghostbusters movie. His focus is on spiritualism and gender. He writes that,

“A thoughtful piece in by Colin Dickey in New Republic points out some of the unusual dynamics at play here. Looking at the history of Spiritualism as the basis for the modern interest in ghosts, Dickey suggests that women have been involved in the long-term fascination with the dead from the beginning. Their motive, however, was generally communication. Women wanted to relate with ghosts to make a connection. The original Ghostbusters movie represented a male, rationalistic approach to ghosts. As Dickey points out, instead of communicating, the men hunt and trap rather than trance and rap.”

I’m familiar with the spiritualist tradition. It’s part of the milieu that formed the kind of religion I was raised in, Science of Mind and New Thought Christianity.

The main church I grew up in, Unity Church, was heavily influenced by women from when it began in the late 1800s. Its founding was inspired by Myrtle Fillmore’s spiritual healing, women were leaders early on in the church, and ministers officiated same sex marriage ceremonies at least as far back as when I was a kid. It’s not patriarchal religion and emphasizes the idea of having a direct and personal connection to the divine, such that you can manifest it in your life.

The gender differences mentioned by Wiggins are the type of thing that always interest me. There are clear differences, whatever are the causes. Psychological research has found variations in cognition and behavior, on average between the genders. This is seen in personality research. And brain research shows at least some of these differences are based in biology, i.e., women having on average a larger corpus callosum.

I’m not sure how these kinds of differences relate to something like spiritualism and the fictional portrayal of human interaction with ghosts/spirits. The two Ghostbusters movies do offer a fun way to think about it.

Reading Wiggin’s piece, I thought about an essay I just read this past week. It offers a different perspective on a related topic, that of hearing voice commands and the traditions that go along with it. The essay is “Evolution and Inspiration” by Judith Weissman (from Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind ed. Marcel Kuijsten).

She notes, “that all over the world, throughout history, most of the poets who hear voices have been male, and their poems are usually about the laws of the fathers.” She considers this likely relevant, although she doesn’t offer any certain conclusions about what it might mean.

In the context of what Wiggins brings up, it makes one wonder what separates the tradition of voice-hearing poets and spiritualists. I can think of one thing, from that same essay.

Weissman mentioned that command voices often tell people what to do. A famous example was Daniel Paul Schreber who, when hearing a voice telling him to defend his manhood, punched in the face an attendant working at the psychiatric institute. Interestingly, Schreber was a well educated, rationalistic, and non-religious man before he began hearing voices.

Command voices tell people, often men, what to do. It leads to action, sometimes rather masculine action. Few people hear such voices these days and, when they do, they are considered schizophrenic—crazier than even a spiritualist.

From the New Republic article, The Spiritualist Origins of Ghostbusters, Colin Dickey offers an explanation about spiritualism in a gender-biased society.

“Spiritualism also celebrated precisely those aspects of femininity that the rest of culture was busy pathologizing. Nervousness, erratic behavior, uncontrolled outbursts, flagrant sexuality—doctors and psychiatrists saw these all as symptoms of hysteria, that ever-elusive disease that mostly boiled down to women acting out. But these same unruly behaviors were qualities prized in an excellent medium, and women who exhibited these traits were routinely praised for their psychic sensitivity. Women who might have otherwise been institutionalized found celebrity through Spiritualism instead.”

That makes me wonder. Which is cause and which effect? How does spiritualism and other forms of spirituality get expressed in other kinds of societies?

I’m reminded of two other things. First, there was an interesting passage on hysteria from a book on Galen, The Prince of Medicine by Susan P. Mattern. In bicameral fashion, the woman’s uterus (Greek hystera) literally had a mind of its own and was presumed to move around causing problems. The second thing is another part from the the Weissman essay:

“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.”

Spirituality, when it was part of the social order, was respectable. But when that male-oriented society broke down, the spiritual ability of that woman was then seen as madness. The men (and the other women) couldn’t hear the voices she heard. The voices that once were guidance had become a threat. If that voice-hearing daughter of a priest had lived in 19th century United States, she might have been diagnosed with hysteria or else have become a popular spiritualist. Or if her culture hadn’t fallen into disarray, she would have been no one special at all, perfectly normal.

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Survival and Persistence of Bicameralism

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 we 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 semi-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
pp. 118-119

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.