The Shaman and The Law of the Earth
Dwig, a couple of posts back, issued something of a challenge for me to unfold the meaning of the shamanic consciousness, or what Jean Gebser calls “the magical structure of consciousness”. This I will attempt to do today, although my first impulse was to comment on an article that appeared in The Atlantic on the limits to scientific understanding. I can work some of that into today’s post also. It is often the case that the limits to scientific understanding are also the beginnings of the mythical or the magical and shamanic one.
You may recall the Hermetic principle of epistemology — empathetic epistemics: “to know the thing, you must become the thing you want to know”. This, naturally, requires great fluidity and flexibility of consciousness and identity and a readiness to forego the mere “point-of-view” and “line-of-thought” approach associated with what is called “the objective attitude”. This is sometimes represented as “the descent into the Underworld”. This is possible for any one of us, as Gebser, Jung, and Blake also demonstrate. Since these “structures of consciousness” or modes of perception are latent within us still, we can access them. In fact, we frequently do without really being conscious of doing so. The boundaries between the consciousness structures/modes of perception are rather porous and permeable.
What results from this “descent into the Underworld” are very different worlds of perception, a different pattern to space and time. As you may know from reading Gebser, what he calls “consciousness structures” are very different Gestalts or constellations of space and time. If we try to compel these structures to conform to our current mechanistic models of space and time, associated with the mental-rational or perspectival consciousness and objective attitude, we end up doing violence to them, and not as they are in their own terms — as being, in their terms, complete worlds of perception.
You might think of this as an archaeology of the self, or an archaeology of consciousness. Anyone can be an archaeologist in this sense.
Now, as to the shamanic consciousness structure, if you have read Gebser’s interpretations of this (the “magical structure”) in his Ever-Present Origin, you will know that Gebser makes no distinction between what he calls “white magic” and “black magic”. This is a more or less romanticised or moralised interpretation of magic, in terms of good and evil, and it’s quite out of place within the magical structure of consciousness. The shaman traffics with “forces” or powers that may be benevolent or malevolent, friendly or hostile and must negotiate his way with both. The concern of the shaman is thus not with a moral world order but with what Gebser calls “the law of the Earth”. Knowing this “law of the Earth” is the art and science of the shaman.
If you have read Gebser’s work on the magical structure, you will have come upon this phrase “the law of the Earth” a couple of times. It may have seemed quite enigmatic or puzzling. It certainly was for me until it leapt out at me one day while watching one of the “Men in Black” videos. There, an alien tells Agent J that “where there is death, there will always be a death”. We refer to that in popular language as “paying the Devil his due”. The shaman is, then, like an accountant or bookkeeper who balances the assets with the liabilities, or the credits with the debits, and these in terms of the benevolent and the malevolent powers or “the orders of the dreamed”. But the dreamed may be benevolent or malevolent, and the shaman can’t ignore either.
As Castaneda’s don Juan explained, the art of the shaman-warrior was “to balance the wonder of being alive with the terror of being alive”, or, put another way, the awesome with the awful. The shaman, then, does not traffic in moral causes and effects, as in mythical consciousness, or in mechanical causes and effects as in the mental-rational consciousness. The causes and effects the shaman deals with are living entities, powers both benign and malign, and it’s less a matter of navigating them as negotiating with them.
An example of a latter day shaman is actually Carl Jung. (At least, many people think and feel that way about Jung, and not in an admiring way). There is, in fact, an episode recorded in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections that probably exemplifies Gebser’s “law of the Earth” in action. Jung once had a heart-attack and was dying. He recalls his spirit ascending towards a structure that looked like a temple, but before he could reach it, a hand reached up and pulled him back, and he sensed a voice telling him it was not yet his time. Jung was revived by his attending physician, and recognised the hand that had pulled him back as that of his physician. Yet, two weeks later or so his own physician died. “Where there is death, there will always be a death”.
The shaman can, indeed, pull someone back from the brink of death. But then, the Devil must have his due, the accounts must be balanced, the reckoning must occur, and the shaman will have to substitute something or someone acceptable in their place — the sacrifice. I mentioned Jesus’ act of casting out the demons from the demon-possessed man, but then sending them into a herd of swine. Good for the madman. But for the farmer who owned the swine, it was probably necromancy more than miracle.
Shamanic culture has no conception at all of anything like “progress” in the sense that the “evils” or malevolent forces in the world can be exorcised from the Earth, leaving only the good and benevolent spirits, and a final utopia established. You can’t purify the Earth of its malevolent powers. It’s always a matter of balancing the books, so to speak, and that’s why Gebser refuses to recognise the validity of such separate matters as “white magic” and “black magic”. The law of the Earth is neither good nor evil. On the other hand, you could say that it is both.
There are some additional hints about the law of the Earth in some other passages in Gebser. For example,
“All work, the genuine work which we must achieve, is that which is most difficult and painful: the work on ourselves. If we do not freely take upon ourselves this pre-acceptance of the pain and torment, they will be visited upon us in an otherwise necessary individual and universal collapse. Anyone disassociated from his origin and his spiritually sensed task acts against origin. Anyone who acts against it has neither a today nor a tomorrow.”
There is, in that statement, an explication of the meaning of “the law of the Earth”, and what he’s describing is, in indigenous cultures, the performance of the Sun Dance. What Gebser is asking of us here is very akin to the sacrifice the individual makes for the sake of his tribe or community through the Sun Dance. I have a good friend who has done this. The dancer takes upon himself a great deal of pain and torment so that these will not be visited upon his kin and community instead. If the sacrifice is acceptable, it fulfills the law of the Earth and preserves or restores the equilibrium of things — the Sacred Balance. The Sun Dance of the Plains Indian tribes was the equivalent of the Potlach ceremony of the West Coast tribes.
Gebser is suggesting we do no less.
So, the shaman’s special task is to know, interpret or perform the law of the Earth for his or her community, and fulfill its obligations. He or she does this well, or does it badly, or, in Gebser’s terms “effectively” or “deficiently”. Gebser is, himself, playing the shaman in that quote from Ever-Present Origin. And the only question is whether he is misleading us, or telling us true.