Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Axemaker's Gift: Technology's Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture

Book Review: The Axemaker’s Gift: Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds
and Culture by James Burke and Robert Ornstein (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam 1995, 1997)

This is an awesome history of human technology and how it has shaped us through time. In many ways we as a species have traded control to innovators who in turn have benefited us in various ways but, as a side effect, have also enslaved us in many ways. One might see technology as a series of Faustian bargains as many have. Throughout this book the authors demonstrate what they call the “cut-and-control it” capability of the mind being developed in order to change society and alter nature. Agriculture, breeding, animal domestication, irrigation, architecture, mining, writing, printing, and all the technologies of the Industrial Revolution are all inventions that we depend on every day. Technologies change us. Our tools shape us. The inventors and early users of tech are here called “axemakers” and the authors point out that these technologies changed relationships between the axemakers and non-axemakers. Early technologies such as writing were hoarded among specialists and were not widespread. Technologies such as agriculture, industrialization, and medical discoveries led to larger populations. Early on the double edge of the axe became apparent as local environments were devastated by increasing local populations. Now that problem is global as ecosystem and climate damage threatens us more and more.

Humans became the two-legged walkers that we are around 3 million years ago and possibly earlier. We evolved from forest dwellers into savannah dwellers. At around 2.5 million years ago we evolved into Homo habilis and became the first tool makers. We made stone axes. These allowed us to build shelters and hunt in groups. Shelters, as protected nests, may have allowed us to develop eusocially – especially after we could protect them with fire, as biologist E.O. Wilson thinks. Hunting in groups – possibly also throwing rocks to ward off rival predators – as others cut the flesh (with sharp stone tools) of recently dead megafauna like mammoths – allowed us to eat more protein. This may have led us to develop concepts of past, present, and future as we cooperated to locate, relocate, and claim food, as suggested by linguist Derek Bickerson. These new developments (diet and conceptualizing) likely led to our increasing brain size. By 700,000 years ago we were mass producing axes via templates. Teaching the axe making methods likely involved grunting as well as watching and that grunting may have developed into crude speech. About 600,000 years ago we, as Homo erectus, began working fire which softened our food which changed our mouth and face – molars got smaller, jaw strength reduced, skulls softened a bit, larynx, tongue, and diaphragm also changed. All these changes also may have aided the development of speech. Stone tools also softened our food through pounding and grinding. These changes made by tools and fire changed us. They changed our bodies, brains, and minds. Our environment and how we interact with it also shapes us via our perceptions. An example given is nearsightedness which is genetically inherited but also linked to reading. Hunter-gatherers do not have it but when they learn to read and are schooled it develops over a few generations.

Making tools like stone axes and weaving basketry and means to carry things involved the development of sequential thinking. We could now compete a bit with nature’s cycles in changing the world. But as the authors point out – developing new talents often degrades previously developed ones. Tool making changed natural selection into something that we could manipulate – albeit unconsciously. People who made tools had better chances of survival and so did those who mastered sequential thought. People 90,000 years ago carried tool-making kits with a wide variety of tools. This is evidence of well-developed sequential thought processes. Anthropologists have suggested “sounds of apprenticeship” as precursor to speech in order to pass on methods of making these sophisticated tools. The development of grammar involves sequential positioning of words so there is a positive feedback perhaps between sequential thinking and language development. Thus the two may have developed in tandem. Language would prove to be a most excellent “axe-gift” as it led to many opportunities for cut-and-control in the social sphere. Tools allowed us to survive in more hostile environments and diverge into different continental variants with different genetic features. Even early hunters of the Paleolithic transformed ecosystems and hunted beasts to extinction. Thus, in some ways even the hunter-gatherers manipulated nature for their benefit, destroying parts of it in the process.

The authors consider early Paleolithic art and conjecture that the shamanic theriomorphic “gods” may have been new authority figures concocted by their emissaries, the shamans, to unify heterogeneous tribes going through difficult times. The so-called Venuses that came about around 20,000 years ago are conjectured to be some sort of inter-tribal communicative symbol. The marked batons are clearly indicative of recording periodicity, likely of moons, seasons, plant appearances, spawning times, animal migrations, and possibly astronomical cycles. Such are evidence of our ability to be abstract and to symbolize. Knowledge was gradually becoming a commodity. By 12,000 years ago we were well separated into physically and culturally diverse tribes. Tools enabled us to find food faster and closer to where we were.

Evidence of sickles and grinding stones as early as 15,000 years ago suggest that cereal grains were being processed. Availability of these large-seeded cereal grasses in areas of the Fertile Crescent enabled more sedentary lifestyles. Agriculture was developed and soon thereafter came agricultural surplus. This enabled trade on a larger scale (tools and resources had been traded on a smaller scale long before). Sedentary lifestyles joined our identities with an identity of place. Some of us now lived in villages with some task specialization. We were now ready for the next major axe-maker technology that at first would help to record and keep track of these trades --- writing.

The first writing involved counting, keeping track of quantities. Small ceramic tokens were the first abstract form of writing in the Near East where about 15 token shapes came to represent over 200 items. The clay tokens were stored in clay envelopes and this eventually became inconvenient so an idea came to press the token shapes into wet clay and make impressions. We now had clay tablets. Signs were developed to represent quantity so now both type and quantity of item could be conveyed via clay stamping. Actually at first pictograms were etched in stone and quantities were clay stamped. More axemaker gifts were coming more quickly:

“The ox-drawn plough boosted grain production, the wheel and sail transported it, the potter’s wheel made jars to store it, and the waterwheel ground it into meal for people now living in houses made of kiln-fired bricks in communities protected by metal weapons.”

Through irrigation we could seriously change nature, we could make the desert bloom. With surplus agriculture, trade, ownership, and protection and acquisition of territory by arms, the role of women changed – was reduced to a lesser status, suggest the authors. Mesopotamian myths depicted the conquest of chaos and the ordering of nature. Larger communities and militarism demanded a new kind of leader, one who could command the army and distribute the goods. He needed help and especially the help of pictograph readers. Social stratification was a feature of larger settlements and more so in the new and bigger cities like Uruk, circa 3000 BCE. Kings may have developed from the shaman-chiefs or medicine being types of the hunter-gatherer peoples, so that the king was thought to be in direct contact with mythic forces. Social control and conformity was a necessary feature of the new cities. Writing on clay tablets was now via stylus, wedge-shaped in cross-section to write the cuneiform of over 2000 individual pictograms. Only the elite knew writing but a pattern would develop, note the authors, where as social collapse loomed, more and more people were taught and included in the elite. After about 500 years the amount of individual pictograms was reduced to about 300 and could now be more generally used. The bottom line is that both division of labor and mass conformity owe their earliest existence and thriving to the technology of writing. The next Mesopotamian invention, law, would streamline conformity through developing rights and duties of ownership. This was perhaps the birth of secularism where responsibilities were less to priests and gods but more to the society, though actually more to the king who was backed by the gods. By the 1700’s BCE, new law codes like the Code of Hammurabi became instruments of greater social control, introducing deterrents like the death penalty where previously kin retributions and payments would have sufficed. The Mesopotamian models would influence the whole of later Western society.

Egyptian writing via papyrus became very highly developed. Egyptian society developed differently than Mesopotamian society due to less enemy threats, predictability of the Nile flooding, and development of a bureaucracy that enabled detailed social stratification. As in Mesopotamia, society was tied together with tradition and ritual. Some elites of both societies, as well as others, began to abbreviate pictographs into syllabaries. In Egpyt, this was more necessary since there were more pictograms. It is thought here that Canaanites and/or their Semitic laborers (in mining operations) developed the first alphabets. Others think it was Phoenician (also Canaanites) traders who developed or further developed alphabets as their trading compelled them to know many different languages and they needed better tracking. Once this alphabetic writing reached ancient Greece it would work its axemaker magic.

Writing came just in time to regulate the increased commerce from the increased population that derived from increased agricultural surpluses. The Greeks refined alphabetic writing after they received it from Phoenician traders and ended up constraining it into “alphabetic thinking” where we see letters as words and words as concepts strung together. They first saw it as a memory aid and some poetry and oral traditions were written like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The authors note that in some ways the alphabet, made of abstract representations rather than pictographs, removed us more from our environment, and gave us a new view of the past. We now had an external storage system and we no longer needed to access the past through the present – through story and myth and mnemonic description. We could now more easily consider complexities and abstract ideals without getting lost in memory processes and techniques like rehearsal every step of the way – and more of us than a small elite could now do this. The alphabet streamlined education and enabled both democracy and philosophy. The switch to left to right (cause-and-effect) sequencing and children learning writing alongside grammar enabled brain changes. Religious awe and animistic thinking was reduced and cause-and-effect logic, rationalization, and perhaps a new appreciation of history ensued. An analogy may have developed that compared the letters that composed words to the proposed atoms that composed matter – a parts to whole relationship. Aristotle refined the qualities of matter to shape, order, and position, in his Metaphysics and used letters to explain it. The Sophists realized that words were merely names and labels and so could argue any position convincingly through clever manipulation of words. The cognitive revolution in ancient Greece culminated in the ideas of Plato regarding law, politics, nature, and the arts.

It was Aristotle who developed the inductive logic approach that still informs much of science. Sequential rationalization was the method. It was another cut-and-control method. Aristotle’s logic was used to describe and categorize every aspect of nature.

The authors see the development of Greek tragedy as a way to publicize and contemplate social issues, including the social effects of axemakers’ gifts. The later tragedies favored post-religious, post-alphabetic and pro-rational explanations.

The Romans utilized Alexandrine Greek knowledge to run a vast, centralized, networked, and ordered empire. The arts were utilized. Coins depicting the emperors helped to deify them. The Romans excelled in propaganda. A vast network of well-built roads aided consolidation. But mismanagement eventually led to the fall of the empire through tribal invasions. The great ordered society fell to chaos and there was no longer a centralized authority. People came to live in small villages and there was very little travel compared to before.

By the end of the Roman Empire the Christian Church had been thoroughly adopted and beyond its fall the Christian monks in the monasteries took up axemaker duties. They had already modeled their administration on that of the Romans so in one sense the great empire became the Church. Travel was reignited by pilgrims and monks visiting holy sites and doing Church business. The Church developed a communication network and most monks and officials were literate. Among the lay people literacy declined drastically as there was no public education system as in the Roman days. Knowledge and control was now in the hands of these few religious-minded leaders. Even in Roman times the Church had had times of great authority from condemning heresies to influencing emperors. But by the Middle Ages, even though there were kings of countries, the Pope was more or less the supreme authority, although power fluctuated through the centuries. The authors note that the required yearly confession of all citizens did much to consolidate the power of the Church.

Alexandrine Greek knowledge also transferred to Islam after lands were conquered. This knowledge transfer climaxed in the 8th and 9th centuries among the caliphate of Baghdad. Islamic axemakers were born. However, soon thereafter, the Greek knowledge, after vetting, was separated out as secular and applied knowledge, not to be confused with religion and law. As in China, in the Middle Ages, innovation was possible, but also state-controlled and intellectual knowledge was restrictive. Chinese and Islamic empires shared more technology with one another than with Europe. The Alexandrine Greek knowledge would return in trickles from contacts with the Saracens in Spain and Sicily and later in Jerusalem and on the crusader trails. Arab translations of Aristotle proved agreeable to the Christian mindset of dominion over nature. The Aristotelian hierarchy as the Great Chain of Being was adopted by Benedictine monks. Monasteries were like factories with technologies like craft workshops, waterwheels, well-kept gardens, beekeeping, and beer brewing. In the 13th and 14th centuries, mechanical clocks were developed that kept accurate time and so gradually came to cut-and-control us especially when the Industrial Revolution began a few centuries later. There were also Greek and Latin translations of Alexandrine Greek knowledge preserved in Byzantine areas of the old eastern Roman Empire that could complement and be compared to Arabic texts. By the 1200’s Aristotelian logic had been rediscovered, at least among the elite. The more metaphysical and philosophical Greek knowledge tended to conflict with Church doctrine. The beginnings of a split between secular and religious ideas came about that would later be made permanent mostly after the Renaissance in light of new scientific discoveries. In the meantime it would take Thomas Aquinas to seal the split for the time being by sanctioning secular knowledge as a subcategory to religious knowledge, one that serves and complements it. Of course, anyone who denied the religious authority over rational knowledge could still be excommunicated and executed. At the end of the 13th century the experimentalist Roger Bacon would urge a looser grip by the Church so that his scientific method of ‘resolution and composition’ could be accepted. This laid the foundation for the mechanistic view of science that would develop a few centuries later and rule for quite a while, even in many ways to the present.  

The next axemaker gift was Gutenberg’s printing press which would spread fast:  

“In 1455, there were no printed texts in Europe, but by 1500 there were twenty million books in 35,000 editions, one book for every five members of the population.”

Much of the early printed texts were in service of the Catholic Church with over 200 editions of the Bible and devotional texts of history according to the Church such as the Imitation of Christ. Many of these texts were aimed at non-Latin speakers so religious texts became available in many languages. This turned out to be a mistake for the Church because it would weaken their centralized hold through Latin and give power to other languages and especially to their national identities. The languages that had vernacular bibles survived and those that did not faded into those that did. Languages were homogenized by the printing press. This tended to define national boundaries by the language spoken and written/read. It helped to enhance nationalism. Printing also refined and standardized grammar and vocabulary. Printing was a major instigator of conformity. The printing press also became an unparalleled propaganda machine. It was a key tool of the Reformation. Martin Luther would use it extensively in anti-papal writings. A new literate middle class developed. But it was a double-edged sword as it could be used for dissent against authority as well as propaganda by authority. Contracts, law, and civil procedures became standardized. Early printers were arguably the first capitalists, raising money, sharing profits, developing production schedules, linking sales to marketing, organizing labor, and dealing with strikes. In the 1600’s almanacs were big sellers and were tailored to different specialists: farmers, weavers, sailors, etc. With printing, knowledge migrated from the general to the specific. Professions were standardized and refined and new specialized knowledge abounded as did new technical jargon for each new profession.

The discovery of the New World would shake up the foundations of European religious and science dogma. One question was how the new data would be incorporated.

“The discovery of unknown species proved the superiority of direct observation of nature and pulled the rug out from under the previous, uncritical use of classical definitions.”

Categorization was thrown on its head. Botanical gardens were set up to examine new species. New crops and animals were named: pineapples, potatoes, cactus, and turkeys. At the same time the limits of nature were being stretched a new model of the universe with the sun at the center was revealed by Copernicus. Thus the Aristotelian view was being challenged on two fronts. More accurate measurements via instrumentation revealed that descriptions through unaided human observation were mere estimations. Galileo and Francis Bacon added more fuel to the fire that replaced Aristotelian knowledge. Bacon argued that new ways of dealing with the flood of data would be needed and the split from the Church sanctioned knowledge grew. He advocated for a certain style of data management and began to see further possibilities of controlling nature to our benefit. Along with Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Galileo’s style of experimentation, a new mechanical view of the universe would come about. Objectivity and reductionism would become the way of the new empiricism. There was some backlash from the Church such as when Giordano Bruno was burned in 1600 for suggesting alternative cosmological views. By the late 1600’s there were groups of semi-secret hierarchies set up regarding how to deal with new knowledge. The key one, still around today, was the Royal Society, whose aim was the “controlling of matter” for the use of the community.

New scientific instruments allowed precision. Things could be measured as never before. These allowed science to invade virtually every trade and craft. Scientific and engineering discoveries took off. Mechanistic laws were found to best explain many of these discoveries at the time. Mechanistic ideas were even applied to the social sphere as in John Locke’s social philosophy and in the division of labor and economic studies of Adam Smith in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. So print and the discovery of America set off a kind of chain reaction that continued with the Scientific Revolution and set the stage for the upcoming Industrial Revolution.

New agricultural techniques like crop rotation, and land fencing transformed land ownership and increased both yields and profit. Farm sizes grew as more tenant farmers ran them for wealthy landowners from cities. New breeding expertise brought bigger livestock animals, vegetables, and fruit to market. These changes were most evident in England in the 17th and early 18th centuries. A downside is that tensions rose between wealthy urban landlords and poor rural folk who were squeezed out more and more. Puritans and Protestants alike developed a strong work ethic, seeing work as developing character and promoting other virtues like temperance, diligence, thrift, and moderation. These were a good match for capitalism and many became wealthy.

William Petty and Dudley North developed economic principles in the late 1600’s. Price was now tied to supply and demand. The first Exchange Bank was set up in Amsterdam to fund the Dutch East India Company to bring back commodities from the Far East. Amsterdam became the financial capital of Europe. Everything was given a value in more detail. Interest was earned by deposits. Risk was evaluated. Collateral was presented. New things like insurance came about to counter the risk of overseas ventures to both weather and pirates. Insurance also helped in the development of stocks and shares that could be bought. The center of this new stock market activity was in London in the mid-late 1700’s. The new mechanistic laws of investment informed these activities. Time became cash in new wage economies. Organization and efficiency were cornerstones in the new factories where mindless production became the norm. Adam Smith’s division of labor ignited production as many countries adopted the techniques. The breakthroughs in precision of the Scientific Revolution aided the development of the coal-fired steam engine, developed by James Watt in the late 18th century, and that would fuel the Industrial Revolution. Other precision inventions allowed mass production to come about and some of these reduced the labor force while increasing production and profits. All these changes led to a larger population.

The Industrial Revolution required factory workers to be trained to be factory workers and this required teaching and enforcing conformity on a big scale – due much to rioting by laborers who were mistreated. New forms of education were the means to gain conformity. Class struggle reared its head and was proclaimed in works like Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Authoritarian propaganda battled working-class rights as stratification became pronounced in urban England as a growing amount of paupers were discriminated against as “residuum.” In the 1880’s notions of Social Darwinism saw such divisions as natural and fair. More class-inclusive movements countered such notions. There were new ideas of communization to heal the class-struggles:

“So in the second half of the nineteenth century, axemaker industrialization had generated two parallel “truths” – socialism and capitalism – and these ideological gifts would cut and control the entire world, dividing it between them for nearly a hundred years.”

Colonialism was another feature of the 19th century when Western Christian Industrial powers would seek to export its model all over the world and reap the benefits of acquiring new resources for the industrial machine as well. People were exploited. Apartheid was practiced. Slavery was practiced. Such practices were not new but were done in a different way, supposedly for the betterment of all. The wonders of technology were touted as deriving from worship of the Christian god. Native traditions were suppressed and people were Westernized, slightly industrialized, and Christianized by missionaries. Perhaps some impoverished peoples were benefited here and there but also exploited. Later though, their descendants would become more amenable to then current education and most would eventually gain independence.

By the 19th century cut-and-control techniques were applied successfully to the treatment of disease. Laplace’s invention of the statistically meaningful sample would prove helpful. Probability math could improve predictability. Clinical medicine became comparative. Case histories were made of the thousands of patients and wounded in the French Revolution. Diagnosis and classification of disease was the new way. Advances in chemistry and new instruments – especially the microscope – aided in diagnosis.

Outbreaks of cholera killed tens of thousands of people in urban areas in the 1800's England and France. Poor sanitation in crowded poor urban areas was found to be key to spreading it. Other diseases like TB and foot and mouth disease were spread this way too. Statistics were used to determine that those who lived closer to a river were more likely to get cholera. Health and hygiene propaganda, filtered water, and better public sanitation helped. The propaganda compared filth to ungodliness and now “cleanliness was next to godliness.” Statistics and probability mathematics proved valuable in leading to solutions of social and medical problems. Gathering data on geography, climate, economics, agriculture, labor, illness, and natural history took off. Advances in cellular pathology involved first defining the cell as the fundamental biological unit. In 1876 Robert Koch isolated the anthrax bacteria, cultured it, and showed it could be used to infect. He also isolated the bacteria that produce tuberculosis. Soon bacteriology had understanding of  and/or treatment options for these diseases and syphilis, typhoid fever, tetanus, diphtheria, malaria, leprosy, dysentery, and other diseases. These discoveries led to public health knowledge, education, and control measures.

Also examined are some of the damaging effects of axemaker gifts. When the Maori’s arrived in New Zealand a thousand years ago they hunted moa birds to extinction. Such extinctions are thought to have occurred in Australia and North America as well. Humans have long destroyed their immediate environments simply through ignorance – burning in New Zealand transformed lush organic environments into desert, Greeks and Romans ravaged the forests till there was little firewood and building wood. Early agricultural societies in some areas of the Near East ruined soil fertility with irrigation projects. Of course, in many of these cases the short-term benefits outweighed the long-term harm, which was then unknown.

The Green Revolution of the 1960’s brought new crop hybrids and growing techniques that decreased hunger and starving in vulnerable areas of the world. The success was real yet illusory as initially better yields decreased as soil fertility waned and pests adapted. Massive replacement of traditional farming and ignoring local knowledge proved to be a mistake and problems are still being sorted out today. Now we know well that short-term fixes need to be balanced with their longer-term effects. Monoculturing reduced diversity and led to other problems. Fertilizer prices are tied to oil prices. Big engineering projects like dams for hydroelectricity have downsides too such as inundation of ecosystems and indigenous territories. Logging, mining, dredging, drilling, and other resources extraction has altered and damaged environments. Most modern technologies are double-edged swords. Resource depletion, climate change, species extinction, pollution, and habitat destruction are all undesirable side-effects of our extractivist economies. Population growth is another side effect of successful technology and it is a positive feedback that increases the other undesirable side defects by keeping the demand for the extraction products.

The first stone tool provided new knowledge that changed us. Today information is a commodity that can lead us to new knowledge of how to solve all the issues with our previous acquisitions of new knowledge.

“… external memory storage devices and communication devices like tokens, letters and numbers, papyrus, print, telegraph, and radio all triggered surges of innovation that strengthened the position of those in power.”

The scientific elite utilized axemaker gifts to aid those in power. Innovations led to other innovations in quite unpredictable ways, many which also influenced the negative side effects of technology. One might see technology as the cursed gift of Prometheus, the mythical axemaker who brought us fire.

Only in this century have we become truly globalized and now ironically we threaten the whole planet in various ways rather than just parts of it as in the past. Our communication and transportation networks are global and fast. Now advanced computing abilities allow us to model and predict potential futures in various ways. Climate models predict potentially catastrophic climate change if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Resource assessments predict dwindling supplies and higher prices. We now rely heavily on specialists.

“Specialist knowledge becomes continually more difficult to keep up with because it steadily proliferates and become increasingly inaccessible as each new group of specialists develops its own arcane vocabulary in the interest of greater precision.”

Each new change requires adaptation. Our brain flexibility, or plasticity, allows us to adapt quickly to new social situations. We change the world and the world changes us and our changing of the world changes us. Changing our brains to a more cooperative mode may allow us to come to agreements with those we disagree with about how to solve the problems we face. There are other strange factors like fuzzy logic, chaos science/complexity theory, and quantum physics that may play into our future as a species. The authors here seem to think the use of electronic agents will enhance the webs of knowledge we share but that has not come to pass in the 15 or 20 years since this book was published. It seems the knowledge of specialists need to be integrated with the knowledge of generalists. Resource availability and pollution/climate issues suggest we need to curb our growth, decrease our waste, keep population growth in check, and cooperate much more – yet there is much polarization in politics, much infantile dogmatism, and much corruption. These obstacles prevent a massive amount of cooperative problem-solving innovation so we need to solve these problems first perhaps. It has been shown that with education and bettering the rights of women that population growth can be curbed. Renewable energy systems and energy efficiency measures offer some hope of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. New mitigation technologies can improve the flaws in previous technologies. For the last few centuries we have been educated primarily through word and number. Now there is perhaps a new navigational component as we travel the “information superhighway” – each of us has much greater access to knowledge – knowledge that was once secret. The axemakers gifts have conditioned us and now we must deal with that and begin to decondition and recondition ourselves in better ways to deal with threats to our species and biosphere. We must draw on our diversity, both individual and cultural, say the authors, in order to chance on the best solutions. This has been one of my favorite books.























Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Cosmic Shekinah: A Historical Study of the Goddess of the Old Testament and Kabbalah

Book Review: The Cosmic Shekinah: A Historical Study of the Goddess of the Old Testament and Kabbalah by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine (Avalonia 2010 Kindle)

These authors do great research and this book was very insightful and readable. They trace the varied but recognizable development of wisdom goddess traditions from Sumerian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Canaanite, Hellenistic, Gnostic, and medieval Kabbalistic movements, tying together certain features. They show that the Gnostic Sophia and Hekate as World Soul from the Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster are clearly closely related to the Hebrew Shekinah.

What or Who is the Shekinah? In the authors’ words:

“The Shekinah is the primordial light of creation, the heavenly glory of divine wisdom and the inspiration for prophecy. She is also the world soul, manifest through the divine sparks of her light which comprise human souls and thus unites us all. With roots in the wisdom goddesses of the ancient world, the Shekinah is the manifestation of feminine divinity from the unnamed Wisdom Goddess of the Old Testament found in the Jewish mystical systems known as the Kabbalah and Merkavah mysticism.”

The name Shekinah first appeared in writing in the first-second century C.E. The Merkavah texts of the third to ninth centuries C.E. contain the most detailed descriptions of the Shekinah. Merkavah, or chariot mysticism, involved a scenario of the soul of the initiate as a chariot rider ascending the seven places. It is derived from the prophet Ezekiel who lived in exile in Babylon and is possibly influenced by Babylonian mysticism. The authors provide a nice detailed timeline of wisdom goddess traditions of the Near East from Sumerian times to modern times.

The Shekinah as well as Eve, Canaanite goddess Asherah, Egyptian goddess Qudshu (Qadesh), Sophia (as Edem), and Hekate are all associated with serpent symbolism. Edem, a form of Sophia, depicted with body of a serpent and the head of a woman, is likely derived from the mythical Greek Echidna and the Egyptian goddess Isis-Hermouthis. The dove is also very often associated with the Shekinah as in the previous love goddesses, Canaanite Asherah and Phoenician Astarte. Sophia and the Holy Spirit of the Christians is also likened to a dove and these three – Shekinah, Sophia, and Holy Spirit, are related and share many attributes in their lores. As the source of prophecy and mystical experience, the Shekinah is said to be the appearance and voice of the burning bush that appeared to Moses. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life as a whole is associated with the Shekinah as Asherah was associated with trees and poles (asherim). The Shekinah is invoked with incense smoke, again like Asherah. Other correspondences of the Shekinah include the precious jewel and the lily. The Shekinah is also “she who sits on the throne of glory” which refers to Merkavah mysticism but is thought to have been influenced by the Egyptian Isis, whose name and symbol are “throne.” The Shekinah is also said to dwell in both the Arc of the Covenant and in the Temple of Solomon – both considered dwelling places for wisdom. The Shekinah is associated with divine light and divine glory. She is also the bride and/or daughter of the father – the bride of Yahweh (Asherah), and in other wisdom goddess traditions: Ra and Isis-Maat, Enki and Inanna, God and Sophia, and Zeus and Hekate (Chaldean Oracles). In each of these modes the wisdom goddess is associated with salvation.

The earliest known wisdom goddesses were the Sumerian Inanna and the Egyptian Maat. Inanna was associated with the development of culture and Maat is the principal of cosmic harmony, balance, justice, and truth. These two goddesses, Inanna and Isis-Maat, influenced the Canaanites and their Asherah. The Shekinah manifests in two forms: the divine fire that embraces God in the creation – the Greater or Heavenly Shekinah, and the world soul as the Lesser or Earthly Shekinah. Plato describes the concept of the feminine world soul in his Timaeus. This Platonic influence as well as the Babylonian as in the myth of the world being made by the female sea monster Tiamat, are conjectured to be influences. This Lesser Shekinah is then the world itself, identical to Malkuth of the Kabbalah.

The authors discuss the origin of the Kabbalah and cite influences from Babylonia, Greece, and Egypt, including Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism. Although the word Kabbalah and much of the philosophy did not come about till medieval times there were early texts such as the 2nd century CE Sepher Yetzira that are clear forerunners.

“The Kabbalah is essentially a philosophy and cosmology which explains human life and the universe through the ordering of chaos expressed as manifestations of the creative divine impulse at different levels.”

In Jewish tales the Shekinah descends to earth and ascends to heaven at different times. The Greater Shekinah is associated with the Sephira Binah (understanding) while the Lesser Shekinah is associated with the Sephira Malkuth (earth). German Kabbalists of the tenth century CE described the Shekinah as a flame that circled God and their union created the universe. Heavenly Shekinah was mother, Yahweh was father, Earthly Shekinah was daughter and the Sun (Tiphareth) was the son – completing the Tetragrammaton – Yod-He-Vav-He, fourfold name of god as the holy family.

Elephantine Jews of Egypt missed the early monotheism movements of Deuteronomy as evidenced by the 419 BCE text Passover Papyrus where the goddess Anat was worshipped with Yahweh as Anatyahu. The Book of Deuteronomy from the 7th and 6th centuries BCE removed Asherah from being venerable of worship and Yahweh alone was worshipped, although the attributes of Canaanite El or Elohim (plural) became merged with Yahweh. Prophet Isiah and King Hesekiah furthered the monotheistic movement in the Book of Kings. Asherah was a high Canaanite goddess who came to influence the Shekinah. She was likely developed from the Babylonian goddess Asratum since they were equated directly in an Ugaritic text around 1400 BCE. Asratum is also referenced in cuneiform texts as early as 1900 BCE. She was called the “bride of the king of heaven,” similar to Inanna and later the Shekinah. Asherah was also known as ‘lady of the serpent’ and may have been related to the Minoan serpent goddess by Phoenicians who traveled and likely lived there – in fact a few researchers think the early Phoenicians actually built the Minoan palaces, joining with the local peoples. The 12th century Kabbalistic text the Zohar, directly connects Asherah to the Shekinah as He.

Influences from Egypt included Qudshu, Maat, and Hellenic Isis-Maat (Isis took on attributes of Maat in Hellenic times. Qudshu was associated with the cow goddess Hathor but also directly to Asherah. Qudshu and her consort Reshef as well as the phallic fertility god Min were depicted together and it is thought there was a sacred marriage (hieros gamos) fertility cult of them. Qudshu’s posture was very similar to that of the Minoan serpent goddess. Maat was the very ancient Egyptian goddess and principal of wisdom, truth, cosmic order, balance, harmony, and justice. Apparently, there were early manuals of so-called wisdom literature where virtuous behavior was taught – often to children – and morality was referred to as “upholding Maat.” The oldest known one is called Instruction to Merikara from between 2000 and 1700 BCE. Maat and later the Shekinah were associated with judges. The authors think that the conceptual ideas of Maat were incorporated by the Hebrews. In Hellenic times it was Isis that assumed the functions of Maat so that her attributes had a great influence on the Gnostic Sophia and the wisdom traditions of the Jews.

Astarte, Ishtar, and previously Inanna, were all known as the Queen of Heaven and are likely precursors to Asherah. Inanna is associated with wisdom and with Enki, the god of wisdom, early in the literature in the story of the Huluppu Tree where she brings civilizing qualities to the people. Like Inanna, Asherah and the Shekinah were strongly associated with the Tree of Life. Researchers have noted strong similarities of the Book of Proverbs with the Babylonian Enuma Elish.

The figure of Lilith likely comes from the Sumerian demon Lilitu. Her demonic form contains lion and serpent symbolism but she appears as a bird (the Lil birds of Assyria). In Judaism she has also always had a negative connotation although later on as a woman who refused the sexual advances of Adam she became identified somewhat with the liberated woman idea. There was said to be a lesser Lilith and a greater Lilith, thus mirroring the Shekinah. The authors note that:

“The Zohar is explicit about there being a connection between Lilith and the Shekinah, indicating Lilith is the result of the ‘uncovered’ Shekinah, created by the sins of the biblical Jews.”

Specifically, her ‘unchastity’ is implicated in these sins. The Zohar was not published until 1290 CE so it is not known if such ideas were much older or not.

Among the Canaanites the goddess Anat was considered a wisdom goddess and a warrior goddess. She was said to be much like Athena in the lost writings of the Phoenician priest Sakkunyaton which are lost but said to be dated between 11th and 8th century BCE. His writings, thought to be preserved in fragments from later writers, also equate Astarte with Aphrodite. Astarte was also syncretized with Isis-Hathor in Phoenicia as the Lady of Byblos.

The cults and writings mainly from the early centuries CE referred to as Gnosticism share several ideas: dualism of good and evil, a negative view of the material world, a true high God and a false lower god, and a fall and redemption myth of a female divinity, usually called Sophia (Wisdom), but sometimes Edem, Achamaoth, or Barbelo. Sethian and Ophite Gnostics used the name Barbelo for the wisdom goddess. Some have suggested Barbelo may refer to the Tetragrammaton as “in four is God.” In the Valentinian strand of Gnosticism it is Jesus rather than Sophia who redeems. Some have suggested that the descent of Sophia into matter parallels the descent of Inanna into the underworld equating the seven archons of Sophia and the descent of the Shekinah through the seven planetary spheres as equivalent to Inanna’s descent through the seven gates. The fall of Sophia also suggests the fall of Eve. Sophia as Edem recalls the Hellenistic Isis-Hermouthis with her serpent symbolism. Clearly Sophia and the Shekinah are closely paralleled.

“Rather than one coming from the other, it seems more likely that the Shekinah and Sophia are different embodiments of the Wisdom Goddess arising from the same sources acted upon by different influences. In the case of the Shekinah these influences include the Canaanite, Egyptian, and Sumerian/Babylonian cultures, with Sophia being more heavily influenced by Hellenic, Jewish, and Christian cultures.”

Attributes of the Holy Spirit by early Christian writers and later Kabbalists clearly resemble those of the Shekinah. Light, glory, and wisdom are some of those as well as grace in the writings of Hildegard von Bingen in the 11th century CE. Attributes of the Virgin Mary as the main divine feminine form in Christianity are also similar which, is no surprise. She is both the principle of wisdom and the bride of God. The Islamic Sakina was obviously derived from the Shekinah and the word means ‘peace’ or ‘tranquility.’ It was Sakina who guided Abraham to found the city of Mecca. The described and illustrated radiance of Sufi mystics and the halos of Christian saints derive from Sakina/Shekinah.

The Chaldean Oracles (of Zoroaster) and the Greek Magical Papyri describe a new form of the Hesiodic goddess Hekate as the world soul and a wisdom goddess. However, the Gnostics tended to demonize her as a ruler of archons. Her rulership of angels, fiery nature, and voice of fire in the Chaldean Oracles identify her with the Shekinah.

From Hesiod, the Titan wisdom goddess Metis was the first wife of Zeus. Apparently Faraone and Teeter (2004) convincingly show that Metis was derived from Maat as both are associated with wisdom, truth, and kingship. Zeus eventually consumes Metis then gives birth to Athena. Hera, being jealous, mimics Zeus’s genesis and births the great serpent-giant Typhon. Similarly, Sophia is jealous of God’s ability to create and births a son, Ialdabaoth.

Next, the authors go through a history of the Kabbala and its central glyph, the Tree of Life. Manifestation (down the tree) and realization, including understanding and wisdom (up the tree) are described as well as the four worlds, or levels, through which the tree appears. Each of the Sephira (spheres) of the Tree of Life are described. Some lesser known Kabbalistic ideas and creation mythos are given. The Kabbalistic union of the Lesser Shekinah with God is seen as the union of Sun and earth (Tiphareth and Malkuth) as the sun shines on the earth each morning. In Judaism the Shekinah is the Sabbath bride who unites with God every Friday evening in the Shabbat ceremony. Jewish ideas of light almost always relate to the Shekinah from God’s declaration of manifestation “Let there be light” to the Menorah. Sophia is the Mother of Aeons and the Shekinah is called the Mother of Angels. These come from the union of God and the Shekinah. The highest archangel Metatron is particularly associated with the Shekinah.

The Shekinah is much associated with the soul, seen as feminine in many of the cultures influencing her development. In terms of Kabbalistic psychology the soul is divided into three components: Neshamah (higher soul), Ruach (middle soul), and Nephesh (lower soul). One goal is to unite and harmonize the higher and lower aspects of the soul.

“The Heavenly Shekinah is the cosmic soul of all and this is made clear in the Zohar…”

Uniting the soul is referred to as ‘returning the Shekinah from exile.’ The Shekinah is said to abide in holy beings as she abides in the sanctuary. The Neshema, or higher soul, is equivalent to the Shekinah. It is thought that women have better access to it in general and that it also appears at the moment of death. This comes from Jewish folklore but is also recounted in the Adeptus Major initiation of the Order of the Rosy Cross.

The authors compare the Kabbalistic soul model to both the Platonic and Egyptian soul models. Plato’s model was also of three parts: nous/logos (reason/intellect), thymos (breath/soul), and eros/epithumia (passion/appetites). This corresponds favorably to the Kabbalistic version. It is noted that the development of the Kabbalah in the Middle Ages and Renaissance coincided with re-translation of Neo-Platonic texts from philosophers such as Proclus and Plotinus. The eight parts of the Egyptian soul model show some correspondences and likely influenced both the Greek and Hebrew models, possibly the Greek first, then the Hebrew. The authors suggest the Egyptian Ka (life force) corresponding to Nephesh, the Ba (impression/personality) corresponding to the Ruach, and Ab (heart/center of morality) corresponding to Neshamah. The Gilgul, or Qabalistic doctrine of transmigration of souls or reincarnation was possibly developed from the Platonic model. The Nepesh sinks into the earth, the Ruach stays with the body, and the Neshamah ascends to the Throne of God. This idea is similar to many indigenous soul transmigration ideas.

“The Zohar describes how the Neshamah is clothed in a bodily garment to exist in the world, and in a garment of light to exist in heaven, mirroring the Earthly Shekinah and the Heavenly Shekinah.”

The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster, like the Greeks and Platonists describe forms of reincarnation but the Egyptians apparently did not – favoring either ascension to the gods or annihilation, mainly according to one’s moral conduct.

The Shekinah is tied to the power of prophecy. The story of the famed prophetess Deborah is given. This comes from the 8th century BCE Song of Deborah. Researchers have noted the similarity of this text to Ugaritic literature from several centuries earlier and think it is one of the oldest sections of the Old Testament. In particular, Deborah shows parallels to the Canaanite goddess Anat. Prophecy was seen as a reward of a holy life where access to the Holy Spirit was given or attained. Here the Holy Spirit, or rather Spirit of Holiness is called Ruach HaQadosh, or the Shekinah, as bestower of prophecy. The mystical means for developing prophecy is suggested in the Torah as a type of ‘void meditation’ where awareness of the body fades away. It is said in Biblical and Islamic contexts that prophecy stopped with the last of their prophets or in the case of the Jews with the destruction of the temple of Solomon, but this view is apparently not shared among the Kabbalists.

The authors clearly demonstrate that the idea of the power of the Shekinah was revived by the medieval Kabbalists and they also trace the idea into the magical grimoires and medieval alchemical texts.

The book concludes with a nice poetic Hymn to the Shekinah for the Feast of the Sabbath by the famed medieval Kabbalist Isaac Luria from the 1500’s.

This is a very well written and informative book with a rich array of information coming from many ancient texts.