Tuesday, November 13, 2012

#126. Humanity's Oldest Religion

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Blog entries beginning with #101 are not essays but minimally-edited notes and reviews from the files I've collected over the last few decades. I no longer have the time and energy needed to sort out and put together into decent essay-form the many varied ideas in these files, but I would like to share them with all who are interested.

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Post #126 offers thoughts about what we can know of primordial religion by way of Navajo stories connected with the sweat lodge.


The Navajo Hunter Tradition, by Karl W. Luckert. U of AZ Press, 1975. [Reviewed, November 1992.]

I've seen this book mentioned numerous times, but I was prejudiced against “agricultural” Native American cultures, so never pursued it previously.

It turns out to be a very exciting book. Extraordinarily confirming of a number of insights I’ve arrived at over the last few years. And it was written 20 years ago. [And here in 2012 it's been 20 years since I wrote those words.]

Navajos were hunters until quite recently. They are related to other northern Native Americans (such as the Tlinglit of British Columbia) who migrated from Asia only about three thousand years ago.

The Navajo somehow ended up in the Southwest US and took up the farming practices of pueblo peoples only since around 1500 AD. So a strong strain of their earlier hunting culture mythology still survives, if tenuously.

The author is passionate about preserving the hunting culture values he has been able to uncover. His is a History of Religions perspective, with a great respect for mythology. He studied with M. Eliade in Chicago.


Some main ideas. Hunter religion is the historical “mother” of all religions. It is the oldest religion of mankind, it has been developing for perhaps three million years.

One of the author’s informants [individuals who supply anthropologists with data] has passed on all he knew specifically to preserve it “for the young people from all over the world.” The two informants were living, of course, when the author did his research; but two extensive texts, recorded in the early 1990s by the Franciscan friar, Berard Haile (one of the foremost authorities on Navajo anthropology) were also used.

The earliest layers of the mythology reveals what the author calls the primal stage of “pre-human flux.” Out of this stage developed the hunter gods, some of whom later still were “defamed” (labeled “evil” in agricultural times). Of special interest may be the development which the author calls “geographization” of the hunter mythology.

The collection of texts is hard to read. But their interpretation is fascinating. (And more than just that!)

The “pre-human flux” is a kind of uroboric unity (although the author doesn’t use that term), when all things were considered related and their external forms inter-changeable.

The creation of the world came after this stage, and more or less fixed the external forms of the various “peoples” as we know them today.

Human awareness of the prehuman flux is “the oldest still discernible coherent view of the world,” the “most basic in the history of man’s religious consciousness.” [In contemporary terms, it is the very oldest, the "proto-cosmology."]

And this archaic-hunter view of the world has been preserved in vivid formations among Native American groups. Examples from non-Navajo groups-- Plains Arikara, the Tlinglit and Eskimos-- are offered.

In that primordial era prior to humanity, the game animals were pets of certain divine owners who hoarded them. There were also divine predatory hunters. A divine hunter, by trickery (he changed himself into a puppy!) was able to free the “pets” to make them available for hunting.

In the process, the game which had been tame pets became wild game animals-- with especially good hearing and sense of smell, by which they can escape the hunters.

It’s important to remember that all this happened “in illo temporare,” before humans, and has the value for human hunters of being “man’s Wholly Other.” The creative event resulted in an abyss between human hunters and that utterly other world of the pre-human flux. It can be overcome only by “powerful and sacred people.”

Not surprisingly, sex is at the heart of it all. A female-- sister, sometimes wife, of the divine hunters, who are axiomatically male-- goes off with the divine game animals, to mate and produce more of them, as well as to attract male game to her male hunter brothers/husband.

She tries to avoid having them kill her fawns, but one of the hunters does, of course; usually the youngest, causing her eventually to go off permanently with the animals.

It is well worth reading the stories provided by the author’s informants about all this. This story is apparently is nothing less than the origin-myth of the Great Mother!


Now comes the really fun stuff! Guess what the means of access to the pre-human flux is, for contemporary human hunters? The sweat lodge!

The author says it is known to nearly all North American native peoples, and distributed over a vast triangle from Alaska and Labrador to Guatemala. But it “has not yet been thoroughly studied.”

The best information the author can find comes from W. W. Hill (1938), that Navajo hunters sweated both before and after hunting. It caused a “complete reversal of the psychology of the participants.” They became wolves, ”human wolves,” skilled predators, they became like the game animals they hunted. Only after the hunt, in the post-hunt sweat loge, could the Blessingway songs be sung again.

Blessingway is the foundational way of hozo, life-giving balance, beauty, etc. Huntingway, with its killing and death, is to be kept quite distinct from it.

The main point is that “the ceremonial sweating of the Navajo hunters meant participation in the pre-human flux, transformation into the divine predator animal.” One informant says, “Out hunting you have no fear of other hunter animals... you are one of them.”

In the hunting myths recounted in the book, the act of the freeing of the game animals being held captive as pets of divine hoarders itself begins in the sweat lodge. The pre-human divine hunters-- in need, since the game was being hoarded-- got the divine hoarder to come to their sweat lodge and so “found him out.”

In the sweat lodge, the mystery of pre-human flux is reduced to a level of stability, to the lowest common denominator between gods and men, where the gods can be dealt with.” (p 146) (For me personally, this is probably the most significant line in the book. I hope eventually to be able to write something about it.)

Even today, the goal of sweating is the same: to draw the gods close, where they “commune with man as kindred people” and become “obligated to help the earth-surface people.”


Two non-Navajo examples of the sweat lodge as return to relatedness and the equality of humans and divine-animals are given.

in the Midewiwin, the candidates are totally identified with Bear (singing “I am the bear spirit” at the beginning of the sweat lodge initiation ceremony). In the Ghost Dance, the archaic sweat lodge was retained “as a kind of Wailing Wall,” a place of lament, symbolizing “transformation and re-creation of life.” (Amazing stuff!)


One more big idea: The author says, “A simple description of a shaman might be ‘the intellectual leader of a group of archaic hunters.’ Every hunter shamanizes to a degree... and every hunter is a trickster.”

“All shamanic trance journeys are only natural extensions of ordinary hunter trickery into the dimension of pre-human flux, the realm of the spirits.”


Some odds and ends [quotes by the author]: “Information on how to kill deer correctly was given to the hunters by the victims themselves.”

“Pre-human flux as a reality can still be experienced in the sweat lodge. My informants all prefer to talk about their hunting ways in the sweat lodge.”

“Pre-human flux remains a coherent worldview clear into our time, implying all the while a monistc or wholistic theory of man.” [Today we would say "non-dualistic."]

“The ever present possibility of pre-human flux transformation by changing clothes has eliminated the need for a well-developed body/soul dualism.” ["Changing clothes" seems to be a way of saying "changing skins." I.e., becoming the human-divine creatures we can become-- via the sweat lodge rites.]


One final idea. There is an extensive discussion on the development of the hunter gods into what we know on one hand as Owners of the Animals, Lord of the Hunt, etc. and on the other as Horned God, Satan, Evil One, etc. [But] No simple summary is possible. What a book!


There is a highly specialized followup to the author’s Navajo Hunting Tradition about an exorcism ceremony.

The book is A Navajo Bring-Home Ceremony, The Claus Chee Sonny Version of the Deerway Ajilee, by Karl W Luckert. (Museum of Northern AZ Pr. 1978.)

An ajilee ceremony is a kind of exorcism of craziness. The term can include everything from being sex-crazed to “driving around in a pickup truck.”

I was able to follow very little of this book; the author presumes a great deal of familiarity with the various “chantways” or "sand painting ceremonies." This one (the ajilee) lasts five nights. What's preserved today represents only half of the original ceremony, since somehow the other half got associated in people’s minds with witchcraft and was dropped by respectable shamans.

Of interest: the ceremony ends with the one who is being healed stripping and washing first his hair then his whole body in a sacred suds solution.

There is a final private ceremony where he and the shaman go “behind the hill” for a pipe ceremony where again he strips and this time has sacred smoke blown all over his body. (If the ceremony is to exorcise sex craziness, smoke it blown on the patient’s genitals, a rite which has become known in popular language as “roasting it.” )

This book really doesn’t add anything to the wonderful ideas of the previous book, although it is another example of “geographization,” which might be of interest.


There is also a third and much later book by the same author: Egyptian Light and Hebrew Fire, Karl W. Luckert (SUNY Press, 1991).

This book’s subtitle is “Theological and Philosophical Roots of Christendom in Evolutionary Perspective.”

The point is that specifically Christian thought not only has its well known Hebrew father but also a much, much less well known Egyptian mother.

The author-- yes, the same Karl W. Luckert!-- makes his case well. But to even attempt a summary is foolish.

This book is exciting. It is nearly unbelievable that the author of Navajo Hunting Traditions and A Navajo Bring-Home Ceremony also has such an excellent grasp of Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek and Neo-platonic thought. He talks about the homoousian controversy and the Monophysites, for example, with no less confidence than he talks about the early shamans as hunting band leaders.

Nowhere else, ever, have I encountered an author so well informed and interested in the kinds of things I’ve been pursuing in recent years. His field is History of Religions; he was a student of Eliade at U of Chicago.

If only some Jungian would tune in to Karl Luckert. What a wonder the results of that match would be!


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