In a recent article here — “Rewriting the history of religion, civilization, and the human mind” — I talked about the article/essay in the June issue of National Geographic that details the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, a temple complex in southern Turkey that promises to overturn commonly accepted notions about the role of religion and human consciousness in the origins of civilization. I also philosophized a bit about the synchronicitous resonance between this discovery and the new age of neuroscientific investigation into the origins of consciousness that kicked off in the 1990s, right around the time Göbekli Tepe was discovered.
Now the conversation continues: Electric Politics has just published an interview with Charles C. Mann, the author of the NG article. It’s available as a 39-minute podcast that’s both downloadable and streamable. Here’s the teaser/description:
At what point does an original idea engender action? And to what extent does that action set a lasting course? We can examine the social history of an idea, written, as it were, in stone, at Göbekli Tepe, an archeological site approximately 11,500 years old (or perhaps even older) in southern Turkey. Before the invention of agriculture, before pottery, hunter-gatherers in a collective effort raised enormous, spectacularly carved megaliths for mysterious ceremonial purposes. What an incredible story! To tell it I turned to Charles C. Mann, whose essay in this month’s National Geographic is a must read.
Like you and everybody else in today’s intellectual culture, I was taught that religion arose in human history as an effect, not a cause. This message was transmitted loud and clear even though my high school and college educations weren’t overtly aimed at undermining a belief in religion’s primacy, and even though I grew up in the conservative evangelical culture of a small Missouri Ozarks town where the narrative of America as a Christian nation and history as a divinely directed affair was central. The secular view of life, the universe, and everything, which holds that concrete material and practical forces are the real drivers of everything, was transmitted right alongside those other assumptions by the corporate-consumer worldview that dominated America in the 1970s and 80s and still dominates America today. And it, as opposed to they, became my unconscious default assumption. Much of my philosophical, spiritual, and psychological life as an adult has been devoted to unearthing, understanding, and quite often rejecting or correcting certain idiocies in this belief system.
And now comes a rather riveting report from this month’s National Geographic titled “The Birth of Religion” that lands right in the middle of the whole affair and promises to overturn our now-ingrained assumptions, not only about the specific facts of history and cultural development, but about the relationship of human psychological and spiritual motivations to the very origin and unfolding of civilization itself. “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion,” says the article’s slug line. “Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.”
The story concerns a site known as Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey. It appears to have been built about 11,600 years ago — seven thousand years before the Great Pyramid of Giza — and it contains the world’s oldest known temple, constructed as rings of carved limestone pillars decorated with “bas-reliefs of animals — a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars.” Göbekli Tepe represents “the oldest known example of monumental architecture — the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut.”
The temple structure was discovered and unearthed (in part; most of it is still buried and awaiting exploration) by archaeologist Klaus Schmidt in the 1990s. Snippets from the National Geographic article convey a sense of the revolutionary significance of the whole event, which threatens to upend what we’ve all come to accept as the standard story of the Neolithic Revolution, when the practical forces of ecological necessity led humans to transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to a city-based agricultural one:
[T]he site is the most significant in a volley of unexpected findings that have overturned earlier ideas about our species’ deep past. . . . The new research suggests that the [Neolithic] “revolution” was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely. . . . What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred — and the human love of a good spectacle — may have given rise to civilization itself. . . . [Schmidt says] “Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structure, we thought, because they must move around to follow the resources.” . . . Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. . . . Schmidt predicts, “Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason.”
[. . .] Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. . . . Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. . . . “Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces,” Schmidt says. “I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.”
— “The Birth of Religion,” National Geographic, June 2011
Did you catch that last line, which is in fact the final line of the NG story? “I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.” The awesome can-of-worm-opening power of that statement is not to be missed. The cultural narrative that has reigned since the 1920s, when V. Gordon Childe determined the shape of future textbooks (including the ones you and I studied in school) by inventing the idea of the Neolithic Revolution, was an unacknowledged cousin to the Marxist view that all human intellectual and spiritual ideas are actually governed by, and are ideological facades for, material forces. (Childe, the article reminds us, was “a passionate Marxist.”) But if Schmidt and his colleagues are right about the implications of Göbekli Tepe, then this is all being overturned and undermined, and we’re seeing the history of civilization becoming the history of the human mind and the human religious impulse as opposed to vice versa. And in learning “that civilization is a product of the human mind,” we’re crashing into the fact that we really have no ultimate idea what that means, since we don’t really know what the human mind is. And this very topic is a philosophical and scientific cause célèbre at this very cultural moment.
I love to notice thematic parallels and isomorphisms not just in art and literature but, increasingly, in life at large. In short, I love synchronicities. And I just can’t help scenting a major and large-scale one afoot in the fact that this NG story, not just the archaeological and philosophical developments it reports but the very fact of its publication, comes right at a time when the question of the human mind’s true nature and workings has taken center stage thanks to explosive advances in neuroimaging technology over the past two decades (a topic that has long interested me, and that I’m presently binge-reading about for my next Demon Muse article.)
The book world and news-o-sphere are positively bristling with stories about the accelerating search for the basis of the mind in the brain, and about the philosophical ramifications of the whole thing. See, for example, “Mind vs. Machine” in The Atlantic, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio, and The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran. But various thoughtful and informed observers are pointing out that the materialistic assumptions behind all of this research may be fatally misplaced. See, for example, Dr. Raymond Tallis’s “What Neuroscience Cannot Tell Us about Ourselves” and “A mind of one’s own: the metaphysical limitations of neuroscience.” The thematic parallel between the mind-brain question and the mind-civilization problem is impossible to ignore. Right when a full verification or disproof of the now-patent assumption that the brain creates the mind and self is said to be imminent, we’re hit with the news from another branch of science that old assumptions about the relationship between mind (and spirit/religion) and the material basis of civilization itself may have had it backward all along.
Another synchronicitous-seeming aspect of timing glares at us in the fact that the technological advances in neuroimaging driving today’s revolution in consciousness studies kicked off in the early 1990s, while Schmidt discovered the buried temple at Göbekli Tepe in 1994.
The news from southern Turkey may or may not be enough to bring about a total revolution in our understanding of human history along the lines of, say, a Graham Hancockian occult rereading of things. But it certainly sends a seismic tremor through our collective mainstream understanding of the course of human history, and it forces a direct engagement with the question, usually skirted (or rather begged) in the empirical sciences, of how and whether such things as mind and spirit really do exist and really do impact material life and human civilization.
- Smithsonian map of Göbekli Tepe: By Heliogabulus at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
- Göbekli Tepe: By Creator:Rolfcosar (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This week I thought I’d share another excerpt from my essay “The Angel and the Demon,” which was published recently in the two-volume reference work Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Fears (Greenwood Press, 2006), edited by S.T. Joshi. Regular readers of The Teeming Brain will recall that I’ve already shared a couple of excerpts from this essay in previous blog entries (which you can locate by entering the word “icons” in the search bar in the right-hand menu on this page). My current provocation to offer another excerpt is that the same essay will be included later this year in my second full-length book, a horror collection to be titled Dark Awakenings, and I thought I may as well offer yet another preview or teaser.
Dark Awakenings will be unique, I think, in that it will consist of both fiction and nonfiction. I’m not sure of the exact proportions yet, but roughly half of the book will consist of nearly all of my uncollected fiction that has been published since 2002, while the other half will consist of several essays and papers that I’ve written over the years dealing with horror–both the existential experience and the entertainment genre–and religion. The version of “The Angel and the Demon” that will appear there will be about 30,000 words long, roughly twice the length of the one published in the Icons project. A snippet of the publisher’s description for the Icons project will give an idea of what the essay features: “Horror and the supernatural have fascinated people for centuries, with many of the most central figures appearing over and over again across time and cultures. These figures have starred in the world’s most widely read literary works, most popular films, and most captivating television series. Because of their popularity and influence, they have attained iconic status and a special place in the popular imagination. This book overviews 24 of the most significant icons of horror and the supernatural . . . . Each entry discusses the central qualities of the icon and its lasting influence.”
So my “Angel and Demon” essay surveys the history, formation, development, influence, and various literary and cinematic manifestations of the two title figures. Below is an excerpt from the subsection titled “The Greeks and their daimones” in the main section titled “The prehistory of the demon.” The Greek idea of daimons, personal guiding spirits that attach to individual humans and symbolize and/or provide their fundamental nature and character, has grown into something of acute personal interest for me during the past several years, because it expresses for me some of the deep issues involved in the questions of personal identity, artistic creativity, spirituality, and similar matters that have always captivated me. When I was invited into the Icons project and received the “Angel and Demon” assignment–which I had specifically requested–I was very pleased, since this gave me an excuse to pursue some serious research about the issue. Of course, I was obliged to write about it from an objective viewpoint and in an impartial academic tone owing to the nature of the book. But I enjoy doing that type of work, so it was a pleasure overall.
I hope you find these issues as absorbing as I do. In any event, here’s the excerpt.
* * * * *
From “The Angel and the Demon” by Matt Cardin
II. The Prehistory of the Demon
The Greeks and their daimones
Although most reasonably educated moderns are familiar with the Olympian gods and goddesses of classical Greek mythology, decidedly fewer are aware that long before the Greeks developed their beliefs about the humanlike gods of Olympus, they believed in vague and mysterious spirits called daimones that exerted a ubiquitous influence over people and events. Using the alternative form “daemon” to refer to these spirits, E.R. Dodds writes in his classic The Greeks and the Irrational that the “daemonic, as distinct from the divine, has at all periods played a large part in Greek popular belief (and still does)” (40). Indeed, as psychologist Stephen A. Diamond points out, while some classical scholars maintain that Greek writers such as Homer, Hesiod, and Plato did use daimon as a synonym for theos (god), others “point to a definite distinction between these terms. The term ‘daimon’ referred to something indeterminate, invisible, incorporeal, amorphous, and unknown, whereas ‘theos’ was the personification of a god, such as Zeus or Apollo” (Diamond 66).
If we are to believe classical scholar Reginald Barrow, modern ignorance of the daimons must be counted among the many ironies of history; Barrow argues provocatively that belief in them was so powerful, important, and prevalent that it actually formed a kind of underground mainstream in ancient Greek religion:
Because the daemons have left few memorials of themselves in architecture and literature, their importance tends to be overlooked. . . . They are omnipresent and all-powerful, they are embedded deep in the religious memories of the peoples, for they go back to days long before the days of Greek philosophy and religion. The cults of the Greek states, recognised and officially sanctioned, were only one-tenth of the iceberg; the rest, the submerged nine-tenths, were the daemons (quoted in Diamond, 67).
Like so many religious beliefs throughout history, the idea of the daimones took many different and sometimes contradictory forms. In the beginning they were conceived as abstract forces in the neuter gender. Hesiod and others described them as “invisible and wrapped in mist” (Diamond 65). Much farther back, Mycenaean and Minoan daimons, in a period ranging from 1100 to 3000 B.C.E., were regarded as servants or attendants to deities and were pictured in the form of animal-human hybrids, much like their Egyptian and Mesopotamian analogs. Barrow offers a concise summary of the evolution of beliefs about these daimons over half a millennium, and also, again, of their vaguely shadowy and underground nature as they lurked perpetually in the background of orthodox Greek religious thought:
[T]he histories of Greek religion or philosophy do not usually say much, if anything, about daemons. Though the idea occurs as early as Homer, it plays little or no part in recognized cults; for it had no mythology of its own; rather it attached itself to existing beliefs. In philosophy it lurks in the background from Thales, to whom “the universe is alive and full of daemons,” through Heraclitus and Xenophanes, to Plato and his pupil Xenocrates, who elaborated it in detail. . . . In Hesiod the daemons are the souls of heroes or past ages now kindly to men; in Aeschylus the dead become daemons; in Theognis and Menander the daemon is the guardian angel of the individual man and sometimes a family (Diamond 66).
In their most ancient forms, the daimons were neither good nor evil, or rather were potentially both. In Homer’s time (around the eighth century B.C.E.) people commonly believed that daimons caused all human ailments but at the same time also believed they could cure disease and give blessings such as health and happiness. Several centuries later the Hellenistic Greeks developed the more concrete categories of eudaimones (good daimons) and kakodaimones (evil daimons).
Arguably the most famous description or definition of daimons and the daimonic comes from a “canonical” source: Plato’s Symposium, wherein Plato has the old wise woman Diotima describe the daimonic as a kind of bridge or intermediary between the human and divine worlds:
All that is daemonic lies between the mortal and the immortal. Its functions are to interpret to men communications from the gods—commandments and favours from the gods in return for men’s attentions—and to convey prayers and offerings from men to the gods. Being thus between men and gods the daemon fills up the gap and so acts as a link joining up the whole. Through it as intermediary pass all forms of divination and sorcery. God does not mix with man; the daemonic is the agency through which intercourse and converse take place between men and gods, whether in waking visions or in dreams (quoted in Dodds, Pagan and Christian 86-7).
It is also Plato who provides probably the most familiar example of specific daimonic influence when he writes of Socrates’ famous daimonion (the gender-neutral form of daimon, which is either male or female). This has often been translated into English as the “sign” that Socrates claimed had visited him frequently since childhood in the form of an audible voice that warned him when he was about to commit a mistake.
Socrates’ experience of daimonic communication highlights what is, in fact, the most significant aspect of the matter: The Greeks understood their daimons to have not only objective but also subjective existence. That is, they believed the daimons were objectively real presences that made themselves known through their influence upon and within the human psyche. This tension between the objective and subjective seems to have existed on a kind of continuum. On the one hand were the more typically animistic conceptions of daimons, which associated them with particular places, natural occurrences, circumstances, or souls of the dead. On the other hand were the more subtle, psychologically oriented conceptions that gained preeminence over time and that regarded the daimons as inner influences upon human thoughts and emotions, and even as arbitrators, keepers, conductors, and emblems of individual character and destiny. This second type of understanding can be seen in the fact that the characters in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which were probably composed around the eighth century B.C.E. and represented an inherited oral tradition extending several centuries earlier, attributed many of the events of their lives—not only outer, physical events but also, especially, inner psychological ones such as moods, emotions, sudden insights, bursts of motivation to say or do something or to refrain from speaking or acting —to the influence of daimons. Although Homer’s characters seemed to take this idea relatively lightly—“[W]e get the impression,” writes Dodds, “that they do not always mean it very seriously”—in the three centuries between Homer’s epics and Aeschylus’ Oresteia “the daemons seem to draw closer: they grow more persistent, more insidious, more sinister” (The Greeks and the Irrational, 41).
By “sinister” Dodds may have meant not that the daimons came to be regarded as predominantly evil, but that they became progressively more entangled with human interiority and also progressively more mysterious and autonomous. He calls attention to the fact that many Greek writers after Homer drew a connection between the daimons and “those irrational impulses which arise in a man against his will to tempt him,” and says that “behind [this] lies the old Homeric feeling that these things are not truly part of the self; since they are endowed with a life and energy of their own, and so can force a man, as it were from the outside, into conduct foreign to him” (41).
The twentieth century existential psychologist Rollo May, who resurrected the concept of the daimon and the daimonic for use in modern depth psychotherapy, gave definitive statement to this idea of strange internal influence in Love and Will: “The daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person. Sex and eros, anger and rage, and the craving for power are examples. The daimonic can be either creative or destructive and is normally both” (123). Although May wrote about the daimonic in metaphorical terms, his description is still effective for giving an impression of what it must have felt like to the ancients when they found themselves thinking, feeling, saying, and doing things that were outside of their voluntary control. Modern peoples are of course still quite familiar with this experience. We can thus reasonably imagine that ancient peoples must have been all the more awed and disturbed when popular belief attributed these involuntary behaviors to the influence of the mysterious mediators of divine reality. In more dramatic cases of daimonic influence, the internal power might take control completely. “When this power goes awry,” May wrote, “and one element usurps control over the total personality, we have ‘daimon possession,’ the traditional name through history for psychosis” (123).
It was Plato (again) who gave definitive voice to this newly developing view of the daimonic as primarily an inner force. He closed his most famous work, the Republic, with the “myth of Er,” which teaches that prior to being born, each human being voluntarily chooses its own daimon, understood in this case to be a combination of guardian angel, spiritual double, and life pattern. The daimon accompanies a person throughout his or her life and constantly recalls him or her to the prechosen plan. It guides a person inevitably to evince a certain character, make certain choices, feel certain predilections, and encounter certain experiences, all in the service of fulfilling the fate chosen beforehand. Thus it is that the Greek word eudaimonia, which in later times came to mean “happiness” or “well being,” in its earliest sense literally meant “having a good daimon.” A person with a good daimon was happy and blessed, while a person with a bad daimon was inevitably miserable. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus encapsulated this idea in a cryptic statement that has puzzled and fascinated scholars for the past twenty-five hundred years: Ethos anthropoi daimon. The statement translates literally as “A man’s character is his daimon,” but nobody knows for certain what Heraclitus really meant to convey, although various translations and glosses have been offered, as listed by James Hillman in The Soul’s Code: “Man’s character is his Genius. A man’s character is his guardian divinity. A man’s character is his fate. Character is fate. A man’s character is the immortal and potentially divine portion of him, Character for man is destiny” (256-7).
The bottom line is that it is impossible to overstress the prevalence and significance of beliefs about daimons to the ancient world, and especially to ancient popular understandings of human selfhood and its relation to the divine. For Greek culture, including its underground tradition of daimonism, was destined to become the common coinage, as it were, of the entire ancient world. When first Alexander and then the Romans succeeded in exporting all things Greek to the farthest corners of their respective empires, the resulting Hellenistic cultural matrix was rife with daimons in the Greek mold. According to Dodds, although the Symposium’s “precise definition of the vague terms ‘daemon’ and ‘daemonios’ was something of a novelty in Plato’s day,” by “the second century after Christ it was the expression of a truism. Virtually everyone, pagan, Jewish, Christian or Gnostic, believed in the existence of these beings and in their function as mediators, whether he called them daemons or angels or aions or simply ‘spirits’” (Pagan and Christian 37-8).