Thursday, November 15, 2012

#129. Joseph Campbell's "The Way of the Animal Powers"

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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 #129 is a sharing of the notes I wrote out for a small shamanism discussion group I was part of 20 year ago. It's about what is probably Joseph Campbell's most significant book.


THE WAY OF THE ANIMAL POWERS, Joseph Campbell (San Francisco, 1983)

This is one of several (at least three) projected volumes dealing with the religions and mythologies of Paleolithic hunter-gathers, Neolithic planters, and the "higher" [civilization] cultures.

It is envisioned as an atlas and features some very useful maps. It's official title is The Way of the Animal Powers (The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Vol. 1).

How lucky we are that Campbell was able to finish this first volume! It deals nearly exclusively with shamanism and its hunting culture matrix.

This is not a book. It is an experience. Any and every part if worth careful attention, reading and discussion.

Just about every topic that has come up in our shamanism 'seminar' is mentioned. Much is clarified, and expectations are raised to higher levels!


The first fifty pages are devoted to the cosmic evolution process in its geological, biological and physical anthropology phases. [2012 note: An early version of what's now being called "Big History" and the "New Cosmology."]

It is followed by three sections dealing with the religion and mythologies, respectively, of the primitive hunting culture. And of its 'blossoming' in what Campbell calls "The Great Hunt" and of the Great Hunt's 'twilight' in North America.

The scope is overwhelming. Campbell points out, for example, that the 'flowering' period of hunting spirituality lasted at least twice as long as from the end of the last ice age until now.

The distinction between the time of the primitive hunters and that of what Campbell calls the Great Hunt is important.

The primitive period (Early Paleolithic) is that of Neanderthal people (now being thought of, apparently, as an early form of Homo sapiens rather than as a totally different species).

This formative phase lasted approximately from 70,000 to 40,000 BP. Its primary characteristics are burials and bear cults. The Master of Animals dates from this period! (And he is the bear! See below.)

The second phase (Late Paleolithic) dates from 30,000 to 10,000 BP and ends with the retreat of the glaciers ushering in humanity's agricultural period.

The people here are Cro-magnon ("modern" humans, Homo sapiens sapiens) and the main characteristic of the period is shamanic cave art.

With regard to Cave Art, an especially significant indication of shamanism is the X-ray style; it can be used to track the spread of shamanism. (Shamanism probably did, it seems, get to Polynesia via Southeast Asia, as we surmised.)


During the 20,000 year period of the Great Hunt, two distinct art styles and traditions developed, says Campbell. One is cave art (with an essentially male/hunter/sun spirituality); the other is the art of the rock shelters (with a female/fertility/moon focus).

Campbell uses the famous Venus of Lassel to represent the lunar-feminine tradition, and the dancing shaman in the Trois Frere cave to represent the solar-male tradition.

He thinks that the Trois Frere sorcerer is a lion (and that the antlers added later). It/he is the Owner of Animals, still known today as King of the Beasts and still identified with the sun.

Hunters are understood to have solar mentality: the sun shoots its rays at and 'kills' the night's stars, just as the hunter shoots arrows at and kills animals.

What may ultimately characterize the time of the Great Hunt, Campbell hints-- maybe more than hints but I didn't get it in my reading-- is the complementarity of sun, male, and game (i.e., "death") with moon, female, and fertility (i.e., "life").


The rest of what follows are first impressions and odds and ends.

The Master of Animals is the bear. (My personal inner experience has insisted on this. It was delightful to see it in print.)

Humanity's oldest religious evidence is the cave sanctuaries in the Alps-- which feature bear skulls and bones in tabernacles or shrines.

The bear is called Old Man, Great Man, Owner of the Earth (of the Woods, Forest, Mountains). Among the Plains Cree of Saskatchewan he is known as "son of the Chief." (An interesting coincidence there; those words are also the meaning of the Scotch name "Mackintosh.")

Hunting spirituality is essentially that of a covenant: the game willingly gives itself at the direction of the Lord of the Animals; in its life-giving death it must be honored: attended, thanked, appreciated, not wasted, never treated other than with care.

It seems especially clear how shamanism evolves from this spirituality of the animal powers.

Prior even to this hunting covenant, however, at least logically, is the experience of death as change of form of existence rather than extinction.


Campbell's section, "American/Siberian Shaman Lore," presents an excellent summary of shamanism as we worked it out in our discussions.

He maintains that shamanism is evident nearly pan-globally and the "shamanic crisis" (the early adolescent breakdown, as it experienced in some cultures) surely must be archetypal activity, found universally to the human psyche.

Eurasian shamanism's essential features include dance, animal costume, identification with bird (or stag or bull), trance, role as Master of Animals and role as MC.

Probably also to be included, although with less certitude, are the presence of a wand or staff, of the helping-spirits and of animal sacrifice.


After shamanism crossed Beringland, new developments took place in Asia and America.

Fixing the date of the shamanic crossing is difficult: Campbell seems to indicate 15,000 to 12,000 BP.

His main point, in any case, is that despite the later cultural 'branchings,' there is a uniformity in shamanism that is not only circumpolar but also extends from Alaska to the very bottom of South America.


The essence of shamanism is the trance or ecstasy experience; this "primary phenomenon" is "fundamental to the human condition" and "known to the whole of archaic humanity." (The quote is from M. Eliade.)

[2012 note: Today we can much more easily identify this "primary phenomenon" with the use of the Jungian Intuition function of consciousness (also called "Imagery" and "Imaginalis"). It is indeed "fundamental to the human condition"!]

Campbell notes that the character of the experience is little affected by social or cultural conditioning. What does change from age and age and place to place is "how the experience is interpreted and evaluated."

[2012 note: For many centuries Western culture either ignored it or considered it pathological.]

Siberian horse sacrifice came into shamanism from Indo-european Aryans (and is related to Vedic sacrifices). The radical dualism of mutually exclusive good and bad (with "up" indicating good, and "down" indicating bad) comes from Persian Zoroastrianism.


But the immemorial tradition is essentially the shamanic "crisis" and its aftermath-- the call or inaugural spirit encounter (in our discussions, we faulted Grim somewhat about this language) and its ritual anamnesis.

In the Ona and Yamana peoples at the tip of South America-- descendants most likely of the earliest migrants across Beringland-- shamanism is essentially inspired and motivated by "helping spirits acquired via vision quest which is radically transformative."

Here Campbell's point is that we can see from these peoples what shamanism was like at the time when it crossed Beringland. He makes special note of the fact that these people happen to have a high god, but that it/he has nothing to do with shamanism.


One story about what happens when a person is called to shamanism caught my attention: the negative results that often follow from the call. But the feelings of being tired, faint, fatigued, disempowered, ill, helpless, afraid are not the final word.

I thought of the "Mary Tall Mountain" story: when accepted, all this changes. "You will grow strong and well. You will lose fear. You will cure and counsel." It is a "Gift of the Mystery." (Sounds like a shamanic chrismation rite!)


Another aspect of the primitive hunter experience of shamanism which caught my attention is that following the experience of the call and the vision quest presentation of power song by a helping spirit (an experience that can not be ignored) comes "a long season of training and preparation which is effected, says Campbell, via "inward physical transubstantiation."

 but "inward physical transubstantiation" is in fact exactly right in terms of my own present (summer, 90) personal experience!)

I would have never thought to use the term Campbell does, but "inward physical transubstantiation" is in fact exactly right to describe my own personal experience in the summer of 1990.


Four levels of shamanic 'thought':

Mystical level: ultimate ground

Psychological level: helpers and guardians (culturally and autobiographically conditioned)

Sociological-historical level: popular, created by shaman but also influences him-- and which is the proper focus of this book, says Campbell.

Exploitative-manipulative level: gimmicks and tricks used for self-defense by the shaman.

Campbell says of this last level that in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition everything else-- "in its racial, institutional and masculine-sexual accents"-- is structured to support it.


Drums and the world tree apparently are post-migration developments.

Another late development, this one from the Near East, is the male-female polarity (by which I think he means conflicting or mutually exclusive, rather than complementary, polarity).

This mutually exclusive "polarity" is especially indicated by presence of an androgynous source (like Shiva) and castrated and transvestite priests.

Hunters scrupulously distinguish between the sexes, while the androgynous creator is a Neolithic planters concept which originally appeared in Mesopotamia.

The first appearance of these "an-andries" (i.e., "non-men") and transvestites is in the rites of the Universal Goddess.

It is known that this ideas came to Siberia via Scythia around the 5th c. BC, and that it crossed Beringia around 100 AD. There are levels of the sex change: the priests wearing female braids, wearing female dress, and acting in female ways.

Other late shamanic developments in Asia include the horse sacrifice, identification of the drum with the world tree and with animal sacrifices, and a radical dualism-- where "up" becomes the path of the tree, the drum, the sacrifice, and the shaman.

Along with all this, and it seems to fit, is what Campbell calls [....]

[2012 note: My notes end here in mid-sentence. After two decades, I can't even guess what that something else might be.]


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