Homer, Tolkien, and the ontology of visionary states in a materialist age


In his new book The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, English professor, writer, and classical guitarist Robert Tindall, writing with psychology professor and transpersonal psychotherapist Susana Bustos, “Weav[es] together the narrative traditions of the ancient Greeks and Celts, the mythopoetic work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and the voices of plant medicine healers in North and South America [in order to] explore the use of healing songs, psychoactive plants, and vision quests at the heart of the Odyssey, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Tolkien’s final novella, Smith of Wootton Major.”

The words “heady” and “fascinating” seem insufficient to describe such a book. They’re also insufficient to describe the interview with Tindall that was published in February at Reality Sandwich. In addition to telling interviewer J. P. Harpignies about the motivations and origins behind the book, Tindall ably articulates the fatal problem with our contemporary Western worldview that combines a quasi-Cartesian rationalism with a reductive scientific materialism. He also addresses the ontological question of the reality or unreality of the beings encountered in visionary states.

For these and other reasons, my wholehearted recommendation is: click. Read. Slowly. Attentively. The following extended excerpts are just a small part of the whole.

TINDALL: When I first sat down to write on the striking parallels between the mythology of the ancient Greeks and the cosmovision of contemporary Amazonian peoples I thought I was writing a short article. Sixty pages later I knew I had a hydra on my hands, and I wasn’t able to lop off heads fast enough.

In order to explain how it was possible for the Sirens in Homer’s epic and the sirenas of the Amazonian waterways to be so uncannily similar, I realized I needed to explore the consciousness underlying these experiences among traditional peoples. It turned out that there is a primal experience of “permeability,” of a transparency to the elements, animals, spirits, stars, which has allowed human beings over the millennia to experience the sentience of the cosmos and derive valuable information from that communion. I eventually realized that this “primal mind,” sometimes derided as “animism,” underlies not only Homer’s work, but is also markedly present in the works of other authors central to the Western European literary canon, such as Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien has been a great inspiration to me ever since I was a boy. The cosmovision of The Lord of the Rings made more sense to me than anything else in the barren Reagan-era culture I grew up in the 1980s, and during my studies of medieval literature in the university I found myself following in Tolkien’s footsteps academically as well. Tolkien’s express purpose was to re-inject the vitality of the pre-Christian oral tradition back into the enervated Western imagination. He termed his endeavor “mythopoeic,” and some of his earliest writings are clear evocations of the primal mind of our ancestors. Given that my purpose was to revitalize the cosmovision of the Odyssey, I found myself enlisting the old master’s support.

. . . I think Tolkien has been cast in the mold of a brilliant academic with a marvelous, far-ranging imagination, yet a man of essentially modern rationality. I disagree. I think there’s more to Tolkien’s creative experience than is recognized.

. . . We’ve ended up in a narrow corridor of perception, one that privileges Cartesian consciousness as “normal,” the standard by which the worldviews of other cultures are measured. Yet, in fact, viewed ethnographically, the modern style of perception is rather peculiar. Who in their right mind would believe in a dead, mechanical universe, and of themselves as the sole arbiters of the meaning of their existence?

. . . HARPIGNIES: You seem to accept fairly literally some of the “magical” experiences described by some shamans and other practitioners you interview — episodes of “animal becoming,” of astral travel, of seemingly miraculous healings, of abduction by spiritual entities such as water spirits in the Amazon, etc. Are you convinced that these are objective phenomena, i.e. that these spiritual entities or forces are fully autonomous of [sic] humans and “real” in some way, or do you consider these phenomena too mysterious to fully understand and categorize?

TINDALL: “Real” is an elusive concept, especially in the world of shamanism. I know I went through a painful shift of paradigm during my first year of apprenticeship in the shamanic traditions of the rainforest. As an educated Westerner, I had been open to Jung’s ideas of archetypes and had experienced meditative states during my training as a Zen Buddhist, but my default setting was essentially Cartesian: I think, therefore I am. I was the center of the show, the only real consciousness in charge, and the idea of “spirits” or “entities” was a bit distasteful, if not downright spooky.

It was therefore with a mixed sense of wonder — Oh, brave new world! — and profound existential disorientation that I began to discover my little consciousness was only one wavelength in a vast transmission of sentience that permeated everything. Ugh. I wanted to crawl under a rock.

Somehow, with the support of those around me, I weathered it. I think it’s the process of adaptation, of crossing frontiers into other states of consciousness, which is far more interesting than the question of the ontology of spirits.

Really, phenomenologically speaking, we have raw experience, and that’s it. What I found in my own apprenticeship is encountering “spirits” that inhabit a vital cosmovision is the same as running your hand over the bark of a tree, diving into a river, or talking with your child. Things that go bump in the shamanic night all fit the criteria for “objectively out there real stuff” — and have real consequences in the daylight world.

In this sense, asking whether one “believes” in the reality of spirits is rather like asking if one “believes” in the reality of the ocean. The answer could be yes, but it seems rather awkward to say so.

— J. P. Harpignies, “Embarking Upon the Shamanic Odyssey: A Talk with Robert Tindall,” Reality Sandwich, February 18, 2o13

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 10, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Psychology & Consciousness, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I want to pull out my hair whenever writers equate shamanism with South America and “primitive” or “traditional” peoples. What about S.Korea? What about Vietnam? Are those cultures not shamanic enough to draw attention to? S. Korea lies within the very cradle of nascent shamanism. All other forms of shamanism originated there.

  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4X2jZbX9mw

    This was awarded drama of the year by http://www.dramafever.com users . You can watch it for free streaming. It’s shamanism of the Joseon dynasty. If you’re going to be comparing Lord of the Rings and Homer to shamanism well you necessarily want to research Korea as far as modern civilized archetypal shamanism that would seem the most western.

  3. Christian infilling of the holy spirit and shamanic self-loss of ch’i, and practices like qi gong and the laying of hands, reiki, this idea runs right through the works by Coleridge and Shakespeare. 🙂 spiritualism is not an altered state of consciousness but if we want to look at visionary states as imagination with writing I see no correlation to ayahuasca and drug use. what I do see is the shamanic cultures and spirit veneration in Asia that has existed right into modern times, if we think of ancient Greek daimon then as a shamanic priest class Korea lies right there on the silk road, and all of those religious connect. Korean shamanism is not dissimilar to the spirit cults of antiquity. the author examined the wrong sphere of the world I think… to look towards silk road and djinn worship would be more accurate certainly. geniism .

  4. Wonderful excerpt, and wonderful recommendation. I inhale these sorts of books. Makes me think of the greats like Colin Wilson, Terrence McKenna, and of course Joseph Campbell. Bridging the gap between visionary experience/communication and the products of some of our greatest (fiction) writers is a deep, barely charted territory to my mind. In the rampart of our culture’s ‘reductive scientific materialism,’ there have always been tremendous, unsettling cracks.

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