Consciousness Structures and The Clash of Civilisations

There have been a few comments lately referring to the magical and mythical consciousness structures and how we are to interpret them, which is important because they continue in us as part of our greater psychic configuration (or what I’ve called “the human form”).

The issues and questions raised brought to mind an indigenous story I came across, some time ago, from a time when I was pouring over hundreds of stories from North American indigenous cultures. This one story, especially, stood out for me, although I don’t now remember it in detail and haven’t been successful in finding it again in my collection. It illustrates something, though, about the clash of consciousness structures as it appears through the eyes of the emergent mythical. It may provide some feel for Gebser’s observations on consciousness structures.

A word of caution is in order: translations are notoriously inexact, and I have no knowledge of Ojibway, which is, if I call, the language group from which this story is taken. (I have some very limited knowledge of Nakota and Cree, and certainly not enough even then to carry on any kind of conversation). The stories often have meanings that depend entirely on the syntactic and semantic elements of the language, which don’t carry over well in translations. I’ve seen that in translations from the German, for example, and also from Latin, (both languages in which I have some facility and can compare the originals with the translations).

The story I have in mind is about a Medicine Man or Sorcerer named (appropriately) “Spiderman” and a young brave (whose name escapes me so we’ll have to call him the “Prince”) of whom Spiderman was particularly jealous and envious because of his “power” (charism or mana). The young brave was a favourite of the Sun (the significance of which I’ll comment on later). Spiderman continuously laid snares to try and kill the Prince, and a large part of the story is the variety of webs and snares that Spiderman set out to kill the Prince and take his power. Anyway, miraculously, the Prince would survive them, and even when he was successfully killed by Spiderman, the Prince would resurrect.

As a last straw, the wicked Spiderman convinced the Prince to submit to a test of his (the Prince’s) powers of healing and resurrection. But it was a trick. The Prince allowed himself to be slain, but then Spiderman dismembered him completely and threw the body parts into a pot of boiling water, believing he had thereby slain his rival for good. But after 3 days of boiling away, a sun beam descended upon the pot, the Prince miraculously reintegrated and rose along the sunbeam to permanently join his father the Sun. And so Spiderman was finally defeated.

Why this story struck me so was the apparent disdain in which the tribe’s Shaman or Medicine Man was held, although one could say it was because Spiderman was motivated by envy and jealously that he was so wicked. But the odd thing was the resurrection of the young Prince, and it immediately aroused the suspicion in my mind that it may not have been a “traditional” story at all, but one influenced by contact with Christianity, although the “Sun” mythogeme, as father, wouldn’t be considered Christian but pagan belief. But the coincidence of the Prince’s laying dismembered three days in a pot, like Jesus in his tomb, and then miraculously arising on the third and ascending to heaven was certainly suggestive.

But even so, even assuming there was a Christian influence in the narrative, it doesn’t change the general meaning of a clash of consciousness structures. The Prince represents the emergent mythical, Spiderman the deteriorated magical. Spiderman’s power lay in his will, but the power or charism he envied in the Prince wasn’t will, it was faith — his faith that, as a child of the Sun, he would be resurrected from death like the Sun, and he defeated Spiderman by showing that his faith was always stronger than Spiderman’s will.

Right there, I think, you have the clash of consciousness structures preserved in a traditional folktale. And I have also come across indigenous stories in which the clash is actually between the mental consciousness and the magical consciousness, too, in which the protagonist in the story is completely skeptical of magic and shamanism itself — a theme that is quite different from the relationship between Spiderman and the Prince.

Stories like this may illustrate one or two (or both) things relevant to Gebser studies: first, that, as Gebser insists, consciousness structures represent latent potentialities of the human psyche and can emerge in certain individuals at any time. Secondly, the story can illustrate a major civilisational or cultural transition from one consciousness structure to another, in which the previous dominant structure returns to latency. So, these kinds of transitional themes are worth looking for in the cultural stories of our own time — in novels, movies, songs, or contemporary folklore.

Another reason why this story of the shaman and the Prince became fixed in my memory is because of a peculiar series of letters, assembled into a book entitled The Orders of the Dreamed, that were sent by a very young Hudson’s Bay Company trader named George Nelson to his father in Montreal, around 1823. Nelson was stationed at a trading outpost near La Ronge, Saskatchewan, an outpost of Ile a la Crosse (which is where I was raised in Northern Saskatchewan). Nelson’s letters to his father, fortunately preserved, describe the shamanistic activities of the natives in Northern Saskatchewan, which baffled him. But one letter in particular stood out. Nelson described a vision he had, which is quite odd given the story of Spiderman and the princeling

“In my dream I thought we were travelling a road from which some of our Party had the utmost to dread from the ambush of an indian who could transport himself to what place he pleased. As we were walking I happened to look above and was much struck with the appearance of a man walking in the Heavens. His dress was that of a neat Southern [Cree] Indian, composed mostly of red and yellow, but also of a few other colours: the Garters of his leggings were also Neat and handsome and had a tuft of swansdown that had been Powdered with vermillion, attached to the [k]not , on the back part of the leg. To his shoes were attached 2 long Swan quills inclosing the foot…with a tuft of down at each end and in the middle of both sides, all Powdered with vermillion — with these quills and down, and the down on his Garters buoyed him up in the air. I addressed [him] in broken Cree — he answered me in the same broken accent; upon my second address, I though[t] he did not understand more of that language than I did myself.: The Sauteaux seemed to me his proper tongue, so I the third time addressed him in it, asked him from whence he came, whither he was going, &c, &c. He was very hi[gh] insomuch that the others thought it preposterous in my addressing him — that he could not hear from that distance. Upon this, he came down and talked with us — saying he was an ambassador &c. Such is the habillement, and manner in which the Sun shows himself.”

Nelson comments on his vision

“I related it the next day to some of my half-breeds, when one of them replied: “What a pity! Had you now forborne for a few days mentioning this, he would have appeared again to you; and then you would have had a fine opportunity of learning (from the fountain-head, as we may say) how it is the indians come to perform those things the white man never credit’: and he continued that it was precisely the form he [the Sun] assumed when he appears to the indians.” (p. 37)

To the mental consciousness, of course, all this is quite mind-boggling, if not completely ununderstandable. Nelson was able, though, to enter into the lifeworld of the natives of the North, and was able still to retain his “European” orientation and describe it with complete sobriety and presence of mind. He could only have entered that world of magic and myth because they are part of his constitution.

The solar myth of the first story is reflected in the experienced reality of the second narrative. That leads me to believe that the Spiderman story was not influenced by Christianity but is indigenous, but with very similar motifs. The magical structure of consciousness, represented by the conjurer Spiderman, is associated with the cave (the “pot” of the story) and the Prince’s rising from the pot (or cave — the protective cave now become a deathly tomb) towards the sun is a story of man’s leaving the enclosure of the magical world of the cave for the mythological realm of the sun — Helios and Apollo.

I though you might find this illustrative.


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