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Sacred Places: Prehistory and popular imagination
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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw / bobtrubs@indigogroup.co.uk
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Landscapes and mindscapes

Bob Trubshaw

And how can one imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Louis MacNeice Autumn journal

When we look at the world, what do we see? If this seems like a daft way to start an article, then try a slightly different question. When Australian aborigines look at the world, what do they see? More to the point, do they see what we see? And if there's some doubt - as I hope you are already beginning to anticiapte - about whether this last point can be answered positively, then another suspicion comes to mind: When a bronze age person looked at their world of stone circles and burial mounds, what did they see?

In a very real sense, we never see the world as something purely physical. Even an idyllic sunlit stretch of English countryside is valued as much by what it is not - it is not spoilt by suburbia; there is no multi-lane motorway passing through it; it is not hidden from view by trees or even misty clouds - rather than by what it is. And we Westerners never see the landscape seperate from our deeply-held beliefs of ownership of the land and the more-recent notions of 'heritage'. That standing stone is small and on private land; this stone circle is a listed Ancient Monument and on a Public Right of Way; over there is a chambered tomb described in all the local guidebooks; somewhere's an overgrown holy well which no one ever goes to; that barrow is in a small wood which 'feels nice'; this church is Saxon but surrounded by a nasty housing estate; that hillfort is easy to see from miles around; over in those fields is a ploughed-out cursus but only the archeaologists know where.

What we see, we see as 'tourists'. 'Spectacle' and easily-comprehended concepts avoid the detailed assessment or overall surveys of the more thorough archaeological fieldworkers. We do not, for instance, see these places as 'pilgrims', as would have been the norm for our pre-reformation forebears. Indeed, it is the protestants who fully take the blame for (literally) 'desecrating' the tradition of sacredness of place, creating the anomaly of mankind's first secular landscapes [1].

Add to this the prevalent 'National Trust' cosy world view of the past, where we have to believe all our predecesors were wealthy and tasteful (so that today's affluent fill their homes with nostalgic bricabrac sucked in by a vacuum created by their lack of discerning taste or aesthetic sensibilties). But don't be too cynical of others - Earth mysteries is far from exempt from this search for idyllic idealism. Although there is superficial lip-service to the harsh realities of earlier epochs, too much EM writing reveals an outlook which harks back to a lost 'Golden Age' - if not in material terms, then as regards a now-forgotten wisdom and life style. The latest twist of this fashion is to consider our prehistoric ancestors to be a model of 'Green' existence, in harmony with the land. Whereas, as even scant archaeological environmental evidence soon reveals, from the neolithic onwards mankind was making major and irreversible changes to the flora and fauna of his habitat, changing various thin-soiled uplands from successful farm land into the arid moorlands of, say, Dartmoor or Bodmin Moor.

Almost by definition, readers of Mercian Mysteries regard certain aspects of the past - be it megalithic monuments, holy springs, medieval churches, or such like - in a different way to 'modern' features, just as in the same way a railway architecture buff or a Victoriana adept will look on the backstreets of any European city in a different way to the normal person.

And what would a person not brought up with Westernised consciousness make of any of this? Well, for a start there are no people alive who have had no contact with European cultural bigotry and domination. To some extent certain African tribes have kept their traditional ways, some Australian aborigines have hung grimly onto their own values despite the aggression of their white neighbours, and (as Alan Ereira's stunning Heart of the world TV programme revealed) the Kogi indians in Columbia have had minimal contact with the West, at least since the sixteenth century.

The writings of James Cowan and others with first-hand experience of Aboriginal ways have enabled us to have some insight into their outlook [2]. What emerges is at once both tantalising and almost incomprehensible. Their attitude to property, for instance, is quite unlike our own. Although 'personal' possessions are necessary, they are generally to be kept to a minimum. After quite a brief period of time belongings are best passed on as gifts; indeed, to be considered to be 'hanging on' to an artifact is very bad form. So aboriginal possessions make up a constant flux of gifts and reciprocal offerings.

And when we come to aboriginal concepts of land, we enter a world view almost beyond our comprehension. Not only does no individual 'own' land, even a tribal group only has rights over particular areas through a complex matrilineal system of descent, where the 'land rights' take the form of knowing the mythology of a certain tract of land. By chanting the relevant 'myth' an aboriginal can not only demonstrate that he belongs to a certain tribal area but, in a sense which is very real to that individual, they can 'sing' the land into existence. Cowan reports driving along traditional 'songlines' accompanied by locals, who only recognise where they are if they can 'sing up the country'. Bearing in mind that these songs were concieved for travel at walking pace, some virtuousity is needed to recite fast enough to keep up with a fast-moving 4x4.

But fundamental aspects of Aboriginal culture are more deeply integrated. Just as the land is indistinguishable from the myths which describe it, so their language is deeply integrated into their mythology. In a a very real sense their land is their myth is their language.

The key landmarks in Australian landscape myths are waterholes, natural boulders, distinctive trees, hallowed ritual places, and the like. Take away the myths which link them into the 'song lines' and we are left with the same ingredients which make up the staple fare of an Mercian Mysteries field trip - except that if there was ever a story linking them all up, we have lost it (yep, that old hoary chestnut of 'lost wisdom' creeps in again).

If the Australian aborigines certainly see the world in a different way to ourselves, then the Columbian Kogi Mamas are even further removed from Westernised thought patterns. The Kogi are the only South American tribe to have retained their way of life more-or-less free from European influence. The Mamas are the traditional leaders of their people and (despite the English associations of the word) are mostly male. They are selected at birth and spend the first nine years of their life in a darkened cave and never see the outside world or sunlight. All this time they are taught orally. This training has much in common with what is known about the Druids; indeed, their role and standing in the community have much in common. We cannot even guess how a young Mama reacts when he sees for the first time what we consider to be the 'real' world.

But this strange upbringing is the least of the differences. The Mamas constantly chew coca (activated with lime) and are able to spend many days and nights continuously in a meditative state of mind. Every aspect of Kogi life is controlled by the Mamas; the Mamas themselves rely on divination for most, if not all, decisions. They see their role as working alongside the people - while the majority of the population work the fields or the looms on the 'physical plane' the Mamas are working with them on the 'spiritual plane' or, in their language, in aluna.

Tantalisingly, the Kogi lands are criss-crossed by man-made tracks and staircases up and down the mountain ridges. The Kogi walk these paths all the time, transporting the produce of one region to other areas. But the paths are also sacred. We know that when the Kogi clean and repair these paths then, while most of the workforce are engaged in physical tasks, at least one person is ritual sweeping the path clean 'spiritually'. In passing, it may be noted that similar 'ritual sweeping' is known for the enigmatic Nazca lines and, nearer home, seems to have been a part of plough plays who commonly contain among the participants a broom-weilding, cross-dressing 'Besom Betty' [3]

The Kogis are known to have a prominent stone which appears to show a map of the trackways. Yet, the lines do not match up with the 200-or-so miles of Kogi tracks known by anthrolpologists and archaeologists. Instead, the stone seems to be showing a different system of 'networks' and relationships - perhaps a 'map' of the spirit world.

Whose mindscape is craziest?

Should the Australian Aborigines, who now form less than 2% of the population, be given back their land rights? As reported in Christopher Chippindale's editorial in Antiquity No.256 (Sept 1993), 'Conspicuous in the debate has been the voice of the mining lobby, which fears new prospects will be closed off. The picture they offer is of a fair and objective economic logic, which will be frustrated by the irrational and unreasonable powers of greedy native communities, and their superstitious dreams about old places and old stones. Leading the mining field at present is gold, now nudging $400 an ounce . . . if one thinks of what happens to the gold bars, of why we care for the stuff at all, and the history of greed and craziness that is the story of gold in Australian history, one may have other ideas as to which side is more driven by emotional and primitive superstitions.'


'When we look at a monument like Stonehenge or Avebury, we see the rocks, stones, mounds - the visible features. Because it is those visible features that archaeology is involved with. But we must remember . . . that the people who built or put up those things were seeing something else. That monument existed not merely in a physical landscape but in a symbolic landscape full of all sorts of meanings. And, indeed, in a landscape that may have been perceived in other levels of consciousness. So, we are looking at something that is a bit like a dream. It is a bit like trying to remember one of our dreams we had last night or the night before. It is a fragment that rears its head out of larger subliminal sea.

'Now, when we look for the remnants of the spirit landscape we are looking at the ancient monuments, the old stones. But spirit landscapes usually come in three particular types: necropolis type of landscape; 'ways' or lines (usually straight) through the landscape - what I have been calling 'shamanic landscapes' for the last year or two; and, thirdly, there are effigy mounds or other configurations in the landscape, often symbolising animals, human beings or cosmological imagery. There is a good deal of effigy mounds and earthworks in South America, for instance.

'These are the physical remnants of that spirit mindscape.'

Opening remarks from a talk on 'Spirit landscapes' by Paul Devereux at The Ley Hunter Moot, September 1993


When the gods spoke

Behind many of the ideas in this article lies the assumption that human consciousness is more-or-less identical throughout the world and, at least for a number of millenia, throughout time. But is this an assumption we can make? In his book The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind (Houghton Mifflin 1976) Julian Jaynes, professor of psychology at Princetown University, thought not and drew upon a number of Classical myths to support his idea that self-consciousness only came upon us in the relevatively recent epoch of the Greek era and was, for instance, absent in both the early Greek Homeric myths such as the Odyssey and the opening books of the Old testament. He went further, by suggesting that early mankind operated with a 'bicameral' mind that listened to the activities of its subliminal brain activities - literally, in that Jaynes argues that it was quite normal for our forebears to hear internal voices. Nowadays, of course, 'hearing voices in the head' is conventionally regarded as the onset of madness. But Jaynes notes that research in America in the 1960s revealed that about 30% of the 'normal population' fairly regularly hear voices.

'Spontaneous altered states of consciousness are endemic in any "normal" population and cultural beliefs exert primary influence upon the content.' [4]

If Jaynes is correct, then such audible hallucinations were not only common but also highly organised. A person who addressed a question to a statue or idol would hear the reply, rather as a piece of furniture speaks to a schizophrenic. Extending this just a little further allows conversations with standing stones, cave paintings, even burning bushes. Extended in another direction it also accounts for head cults - where the deceased ancestors continue to speak to their descendents - and fits explicitly with the Celtic tales of Bran's head; indeed, it would give a pre-eminent rationale to the widespread head cults and the veneration of dead kings as living gods [5].

While there may be some rewarding insights into the consciousness and neurophysiology of such internal voices, it has to be said that much of Jaynes original book mistakes the evolution of human artistic, literary and religious expression for the evolution of consciousness and becoms rather a quagmire of generalised scenarios.

Accept, at least for the moment, the idea of gods and goddesses speaking to individuals directly. Add the scenario proposed by Gordon Wasson et al in Persephone's quest (Yale University Press 1986) to the effect that early and Classical religious rituals might also involve the profoundly altered states of consciousness induced by psychoactive plants such as ergot, Psilocybe spp. or Amanita muscaria. These make up a powerful scenario which would lead to religious experiences far removed from Bible-bashing sermons and assine hymn singing. Deities evoked in such settings would indeed be deserving of worship!

References

1: For more elaboration see, for instance, Rupert Sheldrake's The rebirth of nature (Century 1990), Nigel Pennick's Anima loci (Nideck 1992) and my articles 'A new science of Earth mysteries', Mercian Mysteries No.13, 1992 and 'The perceptions by which we view the world', Markstone, No.7, 1992.
2: Bruce Chatwin, The songlines (Cape 1987).
3: 'Ritual sweeping', Bob Dickinson, Markstone No.8, 1993
4: 'The quest for transcendence: an ethnography of UFOs in America', R.E. Bartholomew, The anthropology of consciousness, Vol2, No.'2 1-2 p1-12.
5: Space does not permit a discussion of how well this idea fits in with worldwide myths although Paul Devereux devotes a section of Symbolic landscapes (Gothic Image 1992) to just this theme. I am also greatful to Alby Stone for some perceptive criticisms of Jaynes' work which are incorporated in this summary.

Adapted from the article originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.19 May 1994.


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Created April 1996; updated November 2008