Thoughts on Cultural Roots
© 2006 by John Caris

Our knowledge and understanding of human religious and spiritual beliefs should have its roots in the indigenous world view, the cosmic perspective of people still connected directly to the earth and whose cultural ties extended into the distant past. Such knowledge, however, is difficult to gain because our data for pre-historical periods, that is, before our written records, are scanty and based primarily on artifacts found in ancient human settlements. Interpreting these artifacts for cultural data is a fairly recent undertaking, so our skills and techniques are still far from expertise.

The study of the cosmic world view called shamanism is a beginning point and the scholarly work by the twentieth century scholar Mircea Eliade in his ground-breaking studies is a sturdy building-block in the perennial philosophy. It is a thread that travels from the Paleolithic through the Neolithic down to modern times. It provides the conceptual continuity for the Chemical Philosopher and other seekers of spiritual truth.

A shaman is made. From the spirit world comes the call to take the path of mystery, power, and wonder. One is chosen by a spirit being who prepares and assists the initiate along the dangerous yet esteemed journey. When called, the selected person has no choice but to heed the spirit’s voice. What strange adventures Jonah had when he at first refused the call!

The tradition of shape-shifting or shape-changing is carried on by stories in all cultures. Even in our modern times stories about vampires and werewolves are popular plots for films. Native Americans tell about trickster figures, such as Raven and Coyote. Composite figures—such as griffins, centaurs, and the fabled Minotaur—abound in the stories and visual art of ancient and medieval European and Middle Eastern societies. In ceremonies such as the deer, bison, and eagle dances the dancers are imbued with the animal’s spirit. In essence and spirit they become that animal. Spirit is the soul of all things: the sacred seed within the soul that aspires toward the divine

The historical record of shape-shifting extends backward to the beginning of written evidence. All these stories imply a time when humans and other creatures were very close, living in a more intimate environment. Not only was changing bodily forms possible but also communication occurred between humans and others. The underlying ideas are part of the shamanic tradition. The thesis that these were cultural beliefs of the Neolithic and probably Paleolithic periods is buttressed by quite a bit of evidence.

Comparing cultural traits—such as symbols and images, stories, and even daily activities—can provide evidence for the enterprise of extending our knowledge into the past. Here are a few examples that may assist in piecing together a more comprehensive understanding.

I have discovered many insights in Peggy Brock’s Women Rites and Sites about the First People of Australia: In an indigenous society using an oral tradition, song knowledge is the foundation and keystone of the culture. Those who know many songs are the scientists and scholars of their people. Song knowledge appears to equate with the language of the birds that many alchemists mention. Among the Australian First People these sacred songs come from the Dreaming and were given to the people by their spiritual ancestors. The songs preserve and perpetuate origin stories and ceremonies that deal with connections to the land and its use, social laws and approved behavior, and healing. Included in song knowledge are the specific lyrics, melodies, rhythms, body designs, and dances. Short songs must be linked together in a specific sequence so that the performance conveys the appropriate knowledge.
Similar are images and symbols in alchemical texts. The sequence or basic pattern shapes meaning, adding context to individual ideas. For example, in The Golden Tripod Basilius Valentinus sets forth twelve keys that will unlock the hermetic secrets. Each key is composed of a text and an illustration; both must be interpreted together as a unit. The seeker studies each key sequentially, yet a later key will enhance understanding of an earlier one.
Songs may have three versions. One version is open to all: men, women, and children. Another is understood only by women, while a third is only for men. Multi-version songs preserve and convey knowledge that is complex and possesses profound power that is both physical and spiritual. The power and knowledge are centered on the unity of the world rather than on the dualism between body and spirit which underlies modern European philosophy and cosmology.

The color black, traditionally associated with wisdom, refers to the darkness within which the light gestates and will be born anew as a waxing lunar light. Wisdom wears a black robe in the role of Shekhinah, the Precious Stone. A black stone or meteorite is Cybele’s symbol as the Black Stone of the Ka’aba was once linked to a goddess tradition. The Black Virgin in Christianity continues the black veiled goddess tradition. The poet of the Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon) honors the “black but beautiful” bride as William Shakespeare does his dark lady of the sonnets. As the Virgin births the child, the philosopher’s stone conceives and brings forth itself. Shekhinah was known as the manifest aspect of Yahweh, as the bride of Yahweh, and as the Holy Spirit.

The ancients encoded knowledge in many forms. Visual designs contain many layers of meaning and can convey secrets across cultural barriers. The bull and cow were associated with the goddess in archaic culture. The similarity between a bull’s skull and Isis’ crown is profound. In many ancient cultures horns were a sign of power. The solar circle behind the curved horns in Isis’ crown demonstrates her authority.

The labyrinth image—circular shape with central space, in alchemy called Solomon’s Labyrinth—is found in stone on the floors of Gothic cathedrals, yet the maze is a Neolithic image. Hermetically, the labyrinth refers to the two difficulties of the work: the first difficulty concerns identifying the subject and preparing it while dwelling in the center. The second concerns transforming the subject with fire. The process of mutation is shrouded with mystery; the alchemist has no comprehension of the process.

The Gnostic Myth of Sophia and the Hebrew Myth of the Fall describe the tragedy that occurs when human consciousness is separated from its divine source. What a profound idea I have gleaned from Anne Baring and Jules Cashford’s The Myth of the Goddess. Its unfoldment is amazing. When the incarnate soul loses contact with its spiritual-divine source, it wanders in the darkness of the world through the land of suffering, anguish, fear, and dread. Once this spark of trembling light remembers what it is and from whence it came, it can begin reconnecting to its source. Its renewal is assisted by its spiritual guide, who, always present, is waiting to be acknowledged and called upon. As its consciousness increases, the soul becomes more aware of the light-in-the-darkness, the divine illumination that spreads throughout the world. The soul can now see the truth that everything has a divine spark and experience the unity of the spiritual and the physical. The soul realizes that the spirit guide and light have never abandoned her, but she was blind and could not see them. She was asleep and could not hear them. What does it mean to be lost in the darkness, alone with other blind people? Fear separates us because we do not know who those others are or what they will do. Each fearing the other, terrified at the unknown dangers lurking in the darkness—such is the destiny that most of us live. The glitter of the modern world beckons us, but deep within we know that all is a simmering surface, lacking substance and spiritual qualities. We eat of it, but are always hungry. We drink of it, but are always thirsty. And after the day has set, each alone to face again the darkness of the night, a great yawning emptiness engulfs us. What can fill that black hole of our soul? Not our toys and trinkets, not our careers and status-seeking ventures, not our wealth and fame. Prisoners of ignorance and entombed in darkness, we have nothing to lose but our bondage. Dare we challenge the terror within and break out and embrace the light?