Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Strong Eye of Shamanism: A Journey Into the Caves of Consciousness

Book Review: The Strong Eye of Shamanism: A Journey Into the Caves of Consciousness by Robert E. Ryan Ph.D. (Inner Traditions 1999)

This was a remarkable book comparing the art and archaeology of the Upper Paleolithic Cave People to several ancient and modern shamanic traditions. The comparisons are striking in many ways across time and place. This book was at times engaging and at other times a bit slow and definitely overly repetitive. Even so, several intriguing observations were made and ideas developed.

This book is full of drawings from the Upper Paleolithic – mostly animals and humanoid-animal composites. Of course, some of the art is exquisitely done. Some is found very deep in difficult to access cave passages suggesting an initiatory tradition of sorts. There are crude humanoid figures termed ‘ghosts’ – often with eyes but no mouth or eyes in vertical positions instead of horizontal. These are thought to represent spirit beings and are similar to the ancestral dreamtime heroes/guides of the Australian aborigines. The animal drawings according to the author are not primarily hunting pasts and future hopes but are representative of the essence of the animal species, the Universal Form of the animals related to the origin of the universe, or what the author calls ‘creationtime.’ He mentions strong evidence from the European cave excavations of a Paleolithic bear cult where bears were baited, ritually sacrificed, and honored as totems.

The author goes through several traditional shamanic cultures from distant and isolated places and times and points out many startling similarities among these cultures and similarities to the Upper Paleolithic cultures. The caves depict images of hands – often with digits missing – suggesting dismemberment whether symbolic or real. I have seen Native American petroglyphs of the Black Hand (common in Ohio). The author suggests that touching the cave art may have been a connecting rite.

The traditions covered are some Siberian traditions, several Native American traditions,especially the Navaho, but also Apache and Winnebago, several tribes of Australian aborigines, the San culture of South Africa, the Tukano tribes of the South American Amazon, the Huichol (Peyote cult) of northern Mexico, the !Kung Bushmen of Central Africa, and the Maya as well as their predecessors the Olmec. These cultures are spread far apart across the globe yet they show some remarkable similarities of worldview and ritual symbolism.

He goes through the traditional initiations of shamans in these cultures and shows that first certain people are chosen to be shamans based on affinity with the spiritual universe. Then the intiation which is often visionary or dreamlike involves some sort of initiatory death and specifically a dismemberment – often where the shaman’s bones are separated. Bone is thought to be representative of a return to the source. Often the shaman is said to be swallowed by an animal – usually a snake in the Australian aborigine and Mayan motifs – a jaguar in South America, or a bear in bear skin covered the sweat lodge of the Winnebago tribe.

Interestingly, the serpent in both the Australian and Mayan versions is crowned with feathers indicating a path from earth to sky. Indeed one of the observations is the change from descent (into the cave or earth aperture or body of the animal or the womb) to ascent. The initiate often rides the feathered serpent into the heavens – or the serpent becomes the Spirit Guide.

Another interesting motif is the replacing of the bones with quartz crystals among both the Australians and the Mayans and I think the San too. The idea is that the shaman is made anew – recreated as a new type of being.

Throughout this book the author quotes the works of Carl Jung –particularly his idea of collective unconscious and ideas of the archetypal and also the preconscious – often mentioning the rhizomal level of consciousness. Also the works of Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Nietzche’s – The Birth of Tragedy (about the Dionysian Mysteries) are often quoted.

There are comparisons of various creation myths and how the myths relate to the various rites – sometimes involving hallucinogenic substances such as peyote among the Huichol and Yage (Ayuahuasca Vine) among the Tukano. Trance induction by various methods is noted including the exploration of caves via torchlight. Drum, dance, use of the rattle, and sand painting (based on cultural mythic patterns) are used to induce trance among the Navaho. There is a phrase among the Navaho – that has been translated as: according-to-the-ideal may-restoration-be-achieved. This phrase seems to indicate the whole meaning of the shamanic journey in a manner of speaking. A return to the archetype, the ideal, the essence form, the universal form – where individual consciousness dissolves into a collective consciousness. A certain Swami describes such an experience as the entry from conditioned (dualistic) existence into the realm of the unconditioned.

Sacrifice is a motif also, specifically the physical sacrifice of the animal being concurrent with the shaman’s sacrifice of his/her normal consciousness to a universal consciousness. Among the Maya and presumably the Olmec as well – blood is possibly seen as the return to source substance. Bloodletting was a common rite among these peoples – particularly bloodletting from the penis of men – mostly prominent men or kings and of the tongue of women. Tongue-piercing among the Aborigines was also common to the shamanic initiation. Piercing can perhaps be thought of as penetrating a hidden realm – cutting through to the archetypical reality beyond the norm.

The shaman’s scepter, often with a phallic motif ( very common also in the Paleolithic) is seen as his connection to the spirit world. There is sexual symbolism as well – some creation myths have the first humans mating with bison or other animals. Many humanoids with erect phallus appear in rock art all over the world. The entry into the cave is often seen as entry into the womb. The ritualists can be seen as entering the womb in order to fertilize (as in the Tukano creation myth).

The motif of the union of opposites is also expressed. Sex, the mention in visions of black and white forms, of rivers flowing in opposite directions, etc show the coming together of opposites. The cave is acknowledged everywhere as an entrance to the Otherworld. There is also a noted similarity of visions in these distinct cultures where there is a dangerous gate to pass through where one can be cut up if he misses the timing or the proper method.

The symbolism of the World Tree, or Axis Mundi is covered extensively and proves to be quite universal among earth cultures. It is often topped with feathers – or a bird or a bird’s nest. The verticality is thought to represent prevention of a reversion to chaos – perhaps a unidirectional rise into greater understanding. The World Tree is ever the center of the universe. The bird is ever symbolic of the journeys or flights of the shaman as are the water-diving birds too such as ducks, geese, swans, and kingfishers. The World Tree is an axis that connects all the shamanic worlds. Therefore by that principle one can go down under the earth and connect to the sky. The shaman’s bird-topped scepter is the World Tree. Mother Earth and Father Sky Unite there at the Center of the Universe at the time of its very creation.

The archetypal shaman is depicted in art as half-animal and half-man. There is an image of this sort deep in some of the Paleolithic cave art in southern France where the so-called ‘sorcerer of Les Troise Frere’s cave’ is depicted. The author considers this to somehow be the central mystery of the cave. So perhaps the shaman-initiate connects to the original Shaman- the Universal Form of the Shaman.

There is a very interesting comparison of Upper Paleolithic signs found in caves and the signs of the Tukano shamans of South America. The Tukano take the psychoactive substance called Yage which in its early stages is said to cause phosphene images where certain images appear before the retina with closed eyes. The Tukano signs are thought to be representative of these phosphenes. Those depicted in Paleolithic cave art may have been initiated as phosphenes by the lighting environment of the caves. In any case, the signs are thought to be decidedly female and male in nature, the diamond shapes being female and the series of dots being male. The single dot in the diamond is thought to mean fertilization (as in the Tukano creation myth). The similarities among the signs really are quite striking.

Overall – this was a very thought provoking book. I only wonder – Why? I don’t think it is plausible that all these cultures developed from a single remembered source – being so isolated in place and time. So why did human consciousness emerge in this particular symbolic way? I don’t quite comprehend it all or perhaps my intellectual analyzing habits keep the intuitive nature of things from my view. They say that the language of image and symbol reaches deeper into the mind than the language of words. I suppose that is why Art and Poetry are more akin to magic than scientific analysis. What do shamanists ancient and modern attain from these methods? It seems to me that a well-defined belief and upbringing in the specific cultural mythology is the key to deriving benefit from such methods. But then again – Art is subjective, Poetry is subjective, Magick is subjective – There are no rules. The mind is unlimited. Mysteries lurk at the edge of every moment.

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