Monday, June 23, 2014

The Failure of Mysticism

We relate movement with the presence of life.  Trees and most plants do not 'move' in the sense that animals do.  Still, plants seem to have more 'life' than rocks.  When twisted or bent, they tend to revert to their original shape.  If grass is pulled, it seems to lose 'life' - it turns from green to brown, dries and crumbles.  Plants grow, albeit slowly, and often this growth can be seen from day to day.  A flower bud can be seen to open.  It was quite clear, even to humans before they developing tools, that plants were alive.

Some five years ago I wrote a post about mysticism, in which I described it as a religion with its origins being some 40,000 years ago.  In it I made some allusions to 'life' existing in things like a chicken bone or within the fabric of nature, which I called 'wild magic.'  The notion arose because, beyond animals and plants, there were a number of other things that seemed to prove the existence of 'life,' which made the religious explanation seem perfectly logical.

Water, for instance, does what a plant does.  If I put my hand in a pool of water, and scoop the water to one side, the water returns to its original shape just as a plant does.  Waves rise miles out to sea and beat upon the shore.  The movement clearly indicates that water is alive.

So it is with a number of things in nature.  Wind blows the trees around; frost may grow every night on a stump quicker than grass; earthquakes shake the earth and cause rocks to fall from heights; volcanoes hurl stones outward and breathe clouds of smoke; the sun and moon move across the sky and the sun's heat warms more effectively than a human's breath warms his or her hands.  How are these things not self-evident proof of life?

They must have been, thought the mystics, who would - in more sophisticated style - conceive that the wind or the sea moved not because they themselves were alive, but because something underneath, moving about, caused movement.  Because these things must have been huge, they were perceived as being out of the control of humans, who feared them.  As lightning flashed or floods tore down valleys, killing all who did not move quickly enough, it was clear that the 'gods' were indifferent, cruel, dangerous and intractable.  Despite a range of rituals that arose, they would have understood then - as we do now - that rituals very often did not work.

This was problematic.  After all, we had to live with these gods everyday.  We could never know for sure when one of them might strike - and this was particularly true of the worst god of all:  Fire.

40,000 years ago our ancestors were still dwelling predominantly between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.  Human cultures existed on all three continents of the old world, and just barely in Australia, but the most sophisticated cultures were those of the African Savanna and the Mediterranean basin.  It is difficult to imagine what a savanna fire is like. The link demonstrates that in the area where the fire has burned, the trees remain vital and alive - yet the fire itself can move swiftly and is terrifying.  It's living, god-like status is self-evident.  It appears silently, set off by an unseen lightning bolt, and within a day it has devastated the countryside.

And yet, there is something odd about fire.  Once manifest, it could not be controlled by any means available - it would burn until it ran out of fuel or was drowned out by rain.  Still, though it could not be reduced, it could be made to grow - by feeding it.  A part of fire could be grabbed and taken away, then kept in a 'cage' indefinitely, so long as it had enough to eat.  Fire could be contained - more than that, it could be owned.

Is this not a strange condition for a 'god'?  Is it not even stranger when the god could be made to appear on command, as humans learned to make fire.  Here was the most dangerous god of all, and yet here was a god that could be made to appear at will, could be forced to serve humans, could be kept in slavery and - because it was quite small within its cage - could be stamped out.

This is hard to reconcile with the terrifying nature of the other gods.  Wind would not be put to use for millennia; volcanoes and earthquakes would never be put to use.  Water could be ridden upon, contained and moved from place to place, but it could not be 'made.'  It could be wrested out of plants, and if placed near enough to fire it could be made to disappear, but it was clear the water was changing to a strange, hot smoke that would form water on your skin and would burn you if you reached in your hand too closely to 'smoke' directly above the bubbling surface.  Fire clearly made water angry; water wanted to get away, to where it could later douse fire if it got the chance.

Earth is clearly the deadest material of all.  Plants would grow from certain forms of it, but too much earth would kill plants and certainly fire, while earth would soak water up within it.  Once again, however, earth couldn't be 'made.'

Only fire has this strange quality.  This would lead, as we developed culturally, to more and more complex descriptions of the motivation behind fire, as we struggled to explain these inconsistencies. Such inconsistencies are almost always what brings about the end of mysticism, as it is replaced with the more complicated polytheism.  Polytheism has benefits in that the gods are not merely incomprehensible beings, they are personalities, with habits, wants, needs and ideas of their own.  Fire could be neatly described as the 'child' of a fire god, establishing a hierarchy in which your fire in your oven wasn't the god itself, it was a sign of the god's generousity.  The god 'let' you make fire, by allowing the methods you use to create the fire to work in that way.

This is far more flexible a religion.  As we develop culturally, we need more complex religions that are able to keep up with our understanding of the world.  Throughout history we have disposed of religions that could no longer 'cut it,' replacing them with better, smarter, more useful religions.


Eric said...

"Throughout history we have disposed of religions that could no longer 'cut it,' replacing them with better, smarter, more useful religions."

Like decimal arithmetic - so seemingly self-evident once you've learned it that it's hard to regard it as the achievement it is. But back in the day "good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell" had a serious competitive advantage over "Doesn't matter if you're a king or a peasant, the afterlife is lame for everyone."

Alexis Smolensk said...

Just as, "If you do these five things in your life, you'll achieve paradise" has a serious competitive advantage over, "If you humiliate yourself with confession, you might be allowed paradise - so long as you don't fuck up at the end."

Archon said...

Your post reminded me of this song, very similar ideas.