A Character Reference for Cannabis

A number of years ago someone gave me three speckledy marijuana seeds. I remember rolling them out of their packet into the hollow of my hand where they nestled like a clutch of miniature grouse eggs. Seeing them there like that gave me a little frisson of nervous excitement because they reminded of Jack of beanstalk fame and his beans. It was like Fate was beckoning me too.

They were seeds and their purpose was to germinate, so I set about germinating them. I soaked them and waited, then swaddled them in damp tissue and placed them in the dark warm airing cupboard and waited. And, in a few days, they split and little taproots felt their way out. Then I placed them in dark soil and waited again until another few days had passed, by which time three green-tipped shoots had pushed out into the light and unfolded their leaves in salutation to the April sun.
I was very pleased with these little seedlings but worried by them too. For a start, they couldn’t stay on my kitchen window in full public view. In the time that I pondered what to do, the two cotyledon leaves gave way to paired singlet leaves, to three serrations, to five… And too soon they were so obviously marijuana plants in looks and odour that I knew I couldn’t hesitate any longer. The trouble was I felt the responsibility of a new mother. I’d coaxed these little plants into life so it felt like an act of prolicide to compost them. I might, even then, have put them out of harm’s way up in the attic with a light system and hydroponics but that didn’t seem any kind of solution to me either. Consideration of it brought Bertha Mason – Mr Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre – to mind. I figured that hidden things in dark attics are bound by the circumstances in which they live to become insane and mind-blowing on contact. Ideally, I thought, one takes Culpeper’s advice and plants herbs “where they delight to grow”.(1)
Not so far from my home was a wooded clearing which, at the time, I was in the habit of visiting very early each morning. You approached it either along a river bank or through an ash and cherry copse beyond which it opened into a place of wild loveliness. There were the ash and cherry trees I mentioned, but also elder, birch and young oak. It was May by now and young nettles were beginning to reach out of undergrowth shadows into the sunlight while bittersweet vines were inching over and around them ready to tangle and knot amongst the brambles. Anyway, I was sitting there one morning on a wormy old log, watching as a buzzard lifted from the top of a birch into an updraft when it came to me that this was just the place for my seedlings. I could see that they would fit in with all the other medicinal species hanging-out there already and that, in contrast to hydroponics in the attic, the clearing would offer them a socialising experience which would ensure their sanity and maturing mellowness.
So the next day I returned with the rising sun. I brushed aside bittersweet tendrils and dug down into the soft loamy soil and planted my cannabis.
Guerrilla gardening cannabis taught me things I could never have understood if I’d been tending those seedlings in a place where I had land rights. More than that, cannabis is a prohibited plant which makes it taboo and, by definition, both holy and cursed. As a guerrilla crop, it is doubly holy and cursed. Thus my experience as a guerrilla cannabis gardener was profoundly and religiously meaningful. I had no interest in making money from them and nor was I particular worried about harvesting them for my own use. I was just interested in how they turned out, growing there amongst the wild things.
And from that viewpoint of loving interest I learned to appreciate that their medicinal value is a consequence of their efforts to survive and integrate. There was undeniable intelligence in their complex fluid adaptions. One plant was lost almost immediately to slugs. At this time, all three were still bright green and tender and that first baby was eaten right to the ground so that not even its stalk remained. The others, planted right alongside, survived nibblings while toughening into musky, lemony, resiny hunter’s green. It was clearly not arbitrary misfortune that the eaten plant was picked off but something more, something about being individually weakened, something about communication much more complex than a mere fight for individual survival. And it wasn’t just the surviving plants that changed in response to the slugs’ interest. The slugs’ behaviour changed subsequently too because as the plants responded by producing higher levels of terpenes so the slugs gained respect for these exotic spring greens and thereafter took them sparingly like tincture.
Obviously, being a modern human, I’m used to conversation being about words, spoken and heard. But the chatter between the plants and their surroundings was so much more complex than that and took place via signals, or signs. The to and fro wasn’t just between the plant and the slugs, but, between those and microorganisms too, and fungi, insects, other animals and the wider environment taking in the lengthening and then shortening days which brought the plants eventually to flower. Every minute, my cannabis was in a conversation of infinite complexity with itself and all the elements of its surroundings. All this chatter went on between the tangling roots of the three cannabis plants and those of the nettles and bittersweet. It went on inside cells and between cells. It went on psychically, chemically, behaviourally and was underground and in the open and drifting off on air currents. Thus, in those darkening cannabis leaves and intensifying odours were lessons in relationship so subtle as to include themes of happenstance, altruism, mutualism, opportunism, deceit, parasitism and invasion of boundaries.
Anyone who has ever tried more than one kind of psychoactive substance will know that each drug has both a collective character and a unique personality. For instance, the character of salvia divinorum seems to be to provoke experiences of disembodied lonely intelligence while, generically, cannabis inspires confusion about hierarchy because size and scale become interchangeably microcosmic and macrocosmic. And these modes of psychoactive expression seem to say something about what it is to be a salvia divinorum or cannabis plant. For example, salvia grows on shaded river banks with its roots trailing in running water while cannabis is sociably out in the open. But domesticated hydroponically-raised cannabis is denied social interaction because, for one thing, it is confined and hidden away in circumstances not dissimilar to those suffered by Anne Frank and her family. Additionally, measured nutrients are delivered to it without any need for symbiotic mycorrhizal interactions. Mini beasts become pests and parasites to these plants which haven’t learned to defend themselves so they are prevented at all costs, and light and dark cycles are strictly controlled. Yields and tetrahydracannabinol (or THC) levels are maximised because, in this kind of scenario, consumers are involved and highs must be guaranteed. Predictably, when they come, these highs are dislocatingly heady.
Thus, when wild-grown cannabis is ingested, it gives an idea of life as network while crop-cannabis confirms our culture’s hierarchical and dualist assumptions about mind and matter. And they can do this because all living organisms share a core set of signal molecules which build parallel communication processes and analogous outcomes. In this way, the communication of a plant with a human need not be viewed in metaphysical, inexplicable, otherworldly terms. And yet this communication does remain deeply religious and mystical because, for one thing, all that flows between one individual organism and another is truly awesome and profound. For another, cannabis is counted with other psychodelic drugs as an entheogen because psychoactive substances facilitate much religious experience as we ingest and interpret chemical interactions according to our own individual and collective homeostatic needs. Religion, as Durkheim said, is “eminently social” (2) and cannabis, however it’s grown, has much to say about our society and how we might improve it.
But I never harvested the two remaining of my trinity of cannabis plants. I had no need to. So they lived out their lives in that little clearing and died there in a joint crumpled heap hardly distinguishable from the withering nettles and blackening vines. They’d grown to bear flowers beaded with resin. And they’d produced seeds while attracting clouds of hoverflies and legions of spiders and beetles and being festooned with webs and gossamer. And their leaves had curled as August wore into September. And they’d stooped in front of that wormy old log finally to drip their divine medicinal wisdom into the leaf litter with the October rain.

References:

1 Culpeper, Nicholas. 2007. Complete Herbal. London: Wordsworth Editions. p. 307

2 Durkheim, E. 1915. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin, p.10.

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Spirituality should be a Feminist Issue – Part Two

Last week I wrote a little about the differences between ‘feminine magic’ and ‘masculine spirituality’ and came to the conclusion that these are both cultural-constructs overlaying an intrinsic gender-neutral vital force or healing magic. I also talked about the way feminine magic has been demonised over the history of our culture so that it has been seen as a source of evil. But what I might be accused of ignoring is the possibility that feminine magic really is evil or, at least, has evil tendencies. I mean, it’s there, in all spiritual traditions – along with feminine magic comes hexing and ill-wishing, possession by malicious spirits, sorcery, superstition…So it might be the case that feminine magic is just plain horrible and that, misogyny notwithstanding, spirituality succeeds because it transcends magic’s race to the bottom. Therefore, this week, I’ll address the issue of how evil relates to magic directly, first, by returning to the Ju/’Hoansi of the Kalahari where I’ll touch on their menarche ceremonies and pause with their n/um k”ausi or medicine owners. Then I’ll settle with the Norse volvur for a short while.

Gender Magic
I’m not going far into the menarche ceremonies because they connect to sex and gender magic which is a topic all its own. But I’ll note how the time of a young woman’s first menstrual period is seen as critical in terms of the good health of the community.(1) It is a time where she has available to her excess n’um but isn’t yet clear on what to do with it. This makes her a potential threat and an attraction for the trickster god. So, through rituals involving gender manipulation, the Ju contain and harness her n’um in order to maintain the stability of the community and environment.

Power Magic

In terms of healing, n/um k”ausi activate their healing power during dances as they shake their bodies and move through altered stated of consciousness into a different realm of experience.(2) This world is a place of shifting reality which is simultaneously super-focussed and vague. One moment the shaman fully and profoundly comprehends what they see only for the frame to shift and show something entirely other. It is a place of synaesthetic melding where sight is felt and vice versa. It is also a place of great power but ambivalent becoming with two possibilities twisting vine-like and it is for the shaman to recognise the trickster god in these twining potentials. The n/um k”ausi must tease these apart and choose between communal good and individual power.

Surge Protectors
The lure of personal power is seductive but Ju society is egalitarian and their lack of hierarchy means that the power of one individual is limited by various social mechanisms.(3) This means that, whilst sorcery is not unknown amongst the n/um k”ausi, the use of magic for individual purpose is powerfully disincentivized by the threat of loss of health and social ostracisation.
The majority of n/um k”ausi are male but, either way, they are supported in healing dances by the singing and music of the opposite sex. And although this is not necessarily an entirely dominant pattern for the Ju, still this idea of private feminine magical support for public masculine cultural endeavours carries into the post-agricultural world. Examples include the Pythia of Delphi and the Sibyls too, whose frenzied divinely inspired utterings were widely used, as Cicero noted, to sanctify political actions. But I’m going to rewind or fast-forward depending on which way you look at it to another culture using feminine magic as part of their ordering, meaning-making matrix. These are the Norse volvur whose involvement in Norse society and politics reaches back to Julius Caesar and beyond.

Feminine Magic and Political Power
The name volva translates as something along the lines of “wand carrier” and these were female practitioners of Seiðr. Seiðr is translated as “sorcery” which is fine and I’m happyish to use the term here because the volvur were a long way from harmless. But, even so, I don’t want it thought that I’ve injected moral overtones into their work. I haven’t. The fact is, their divinatory work was sacred and had a vital religious function within Norse society.
Their work on earth mirrored the work of the greatest volva of all – Freyja, goddess of love, sexuality, beauty and fertility. She, like her emissaries in Midgard, was no milk-and-water goddess but presided with her husband, Odin, over the battlefield and was connected to the Valkyries. These chose from the slain who should come to Sessrúmnir and feast with her. She was also the temperamental goddess of the clouds with clothes of brilliant blue-white or sullen grey depending on her mood. And she sat, as queen, on the throne Hlidskialf, beside her husband, and surveyed the entire world and, with her vantage point, possessed all knowledge of past, present and future – but would tell none of it.
Over her clothes she wore a cloak of heron feathers, signifying her strategic forgetfulness. And from her golden belt hung a bunch of keys, thus signing her dominion over the domestic sphere. In Asgard, she used her jewelled distaff to spin thread to weave the clouds. The Norse saw evidence of all this in the stars, Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak, which formed her sparkling distaff. In other parts of the world these stars are different things. As the Ju find them under Kalaharian skies, they are three zebras which remain in the heavens because a certain husband failed to shoot them to bring home to his wives.(4) They are Orion’s belt more generally to us but, as Freyja’s spinning wheel, they showed her spinning and weaving the destiny of Asgard while her volva on earth did the same for the lives of the Norse.(5)
More specifically, while men fought with swords and axes on the battlefield, the volvur span, wove and cut war, peace, life and death with distaffs and wheels. And, despite their connection with domesticity, they tended to travel from place-to-place offering their services and were well-paid and well-respected. As women, the volvur had power and authority and through Seiðr they helped create order in Midgard just as Freyja helped shaped Asgard. But, of course, they did not do it alone. The role of men was the other half of the story.

Unregulated Gender Magic and Power Subversion

But Norse gender roles were complimentary rather than interchangeable and Seiðr was women’s work. Men who practiced magic attracted a dangerous slur to their character which was that they were argr which is to say, content with a receptive sexual role in homosexual intercourse. Importantly, just as there is no such prohibition amongst the traditional Ju, this was not a stigma against homosexual sex.(6) The issue arose out of their unsanctioned, unmanly, womanly behaviour and to be called argr was enough of a slur to get a man killed or banished. The god Loki set the example. His shape-shifting showed him to be untrustworthy and, also, sexually ambiguous since he was mother to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse. And he practiced Seiðr which made him argr.
So, in pre-Christian Scandinavia, the divinatory magic of female Seiðr practitioners played ordering and meaning-making roles similar to those of Christianity, secularism and spirituality in ours. Meanwhile, as unsanctioned gender-non-conformists, men who practiced magic were apt to draw the kind of punishment meted out to Loki, their heavenly example in Asgard. What male sorcerers exemplified was the danger to society of unregulated gender magic and that’s probably at the root of why they attracted a sanction.

Christianization and the fall of the Volvur
But the ordering role of feminine magic in Norse society ended with the Christianization of Scandinavia which started in the 8th century CE. The two could not coexist since, speaking in terms of gender roles, they are antithetical despite that both have divine women in domestic roles. Christianity’s spirituality polarises femininity along poles from pure to profane and any involvement in sex has the potential to cause a stain. Obviously, Freyja, being a fertility goddess, is as sexual as her magic. Thus, the volvur were persecuted until they went underground. Meanwhile, the domestic sphere, in ceasing to be a powerful ordering factor in public, religious and political life, was much reduced in status. Consequently, women became increasingly marginalised and ‘good women’ had to be content with playing the meek feminine gender role that Christianity sanctioned. But, enough, the effect of Christianity and monotheism on magic and divination is for another time too.
I started out with an aim to seek out inherent evil in feminine magic and I decided to do this by taking two societies whose use of feminine magic was a major meaning-making, ordering factor in their culture. First I returned to the Ju/’Hoansi of the Kalahari and then I looked at the pre-Christian Norse world where the volvur held sway. And what I found wasn’t two societies mired in wickedness but two societies with keen and nuanced culturally-informed appreciations of evil and how it arises (which is no different to how it is for us). The n/um k”ausi understand that evil (or, in other words, instability and change) comes out of the unthinking use and/or selfish appropriation of n/um to oneself to the detriment of the community.

Meanwhile, the Norse use of Seiðr was gendered and the possibility of evil came through the subversion of gender roles which were the consequence of men using it. The example of menarche ceremonies shows that the Ju understand that the blurring of gender roles is ritually powerful and that its unthinking use is individually and socially threatening. The last thing to come out of this sortie was the point that the women in these societies had religious and political clout even within their feminine role.

Good, Evil and the Trickster
So, to conclude, I want to place all this in terms of modern western society. Of course, we are no longer superstitious in the way of the Ju and the old Norse and don’t believe in sex and gender magic or forces for good or ill bubbling in our guts…or do we? Well let’s return to last week and Sheryl Sandberg, her masculinist, neoliberal, power-feminist brand, and her instruction to women to lean-in. What she suggests is that it is an inescapable fact that, if women truly seek to transform their lives for the better, they must suppress what is traditionally feminine and raise themselves up by seeking personal power. This, if I’m not mistaken, is nothing other than gender magic. It is nothing other than the selfish hoarding of n/um. Both the Ju and the old Norse had mechanisms which curbed the kind of excess Sandberg is advocating because both would recognise an invocation of their trickster god when they saw it. And both would have understood the consequent threat to all they held dear. But western societies tend to fan the seeking of personal power because we see it as a spiritual imperative – it’s in the Christian Bible after all: “To those that have much, more will be given.” (Matthew 13: 12)
Therefore, my observation from a magical, divinatory point of view is that Sandberg’s advice does the very opposite of addressing the perception of female and feminine inferiority. It feeds it. Additionally, it can’t hope to address inequality but must increase it. And it must threaten all community left. But I’ll finish up by offering another definition of magic which is that it is an unauthorised attempt at supernatural manipulation.(7) Modern spirituality is unregulated, individual, supernatural manipulation fully authorised by government and religious authorities so long as any individual’s power-grab increases their capital value: herein we find the trickster.

References:

1 Power, Camila; Ian Watts. 1999. “First Gender, wrong sex” in Those who Play with Fire, eds. Henrietta L. Moore, Todd Sanders and Bwire Kaare. The Athlone Press, London.

2 Keeney, Bradford. “Batesonian epistemology, Bushman n/om-kxaosi, and rock art”. Kybernetes, Vol. 36, 2007 pp. 884-904

3 Lee, Richard B. 2013 (1984). The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, 4th Ed.. Belmont: Wadsworth, pp. 56-58

4 Power, Camila; Ian Watts. 1999. “First Gender, wrong sex” in Those who Play with Fire, eds. Henrietta L. Moore, Todd Sanders and Bwire Kaare. The Athlone Press, London. p. 116

5 Nasstrom, Britt-Mari. 1996. “Freyja, a Goddess with Many Names” in The Concept of the Goddess, eds. Sandra Billington and Miranda Green. Routledge, London. p. 68

6 Lee, Richard B. 2013 (1984). The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, 4th Ed.. Belmont: Wadsworth, p. 98

7 Thomas, Keith. 1971. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Peregrine Books. p. 97

Spirituality should be a feminist issue – part one

My purpose in this and next week’s posts is to discuss how spirituality, as it has developed, is a masculinist enterprise which has been used, over the years, to suppress what we have come to think of as the feminine. In talking about ‘the feminine’ I don’t just mean women but, also, all that we are associated with, including nature and a particular view of magic.

 
I’ll begin by defining the concept what I mean by ‘spirituality’ otherwise it won’t be clear what I’m talking about. This isn’t easy because it’s a nebulous idea. However, I think it fair enough to define it as a subjective experience denoting almost any kind of meaningful experience or process of transformation. Some people will be satisfied with this, others won’t because not only is it nebulous but it’s also constantly shifting with the currents and tides of culture.

 
The word spirituality derives from the Latin, spiritus, meaning soul, courage, vigour, or breath. So there’s an idea that behind it is some kind of energising factor. Over the long years of its history, it’s a concept most closely associated with religious experience. Only recently has it partially decoupled from this stem and become equally associated with personal growth.

 
It won’t be possible to make my argument unless I return, in some way, to our prehistoric past and our pre-agricultural hunter/gatherer ancestors. I need to do this because this is where I’ll find those antecedent human properties which prefigured both organised religion and post-agricultural gender relations. I will do this by looking at these areas in the lives of the traditionally hunter/gathering Ju/’Hoansi of the Kalahari.

 
Until the 1960s, these fully foraged for all their needs but, by the 1980s, they were leaving this way of life behind and transitioning into the surrounding cash-economy.(1) Even so,I will talk about their hunter/gatherer lifestyle in the present tense because, as I said, they are in a transitional phase with some of their traditional ways behind them and others still present. But if I swap back and forward between past and present tenses we’ll all get confused. Again, I stress, these people are not stone-age survivals. It is just that, in many ways, their hunter-gathering lifestyles explain and mirror archaeological findings regarding our Mesolithic ancestors.

 
Similar to western ideas of spirit is the Ju concept of n/um.(2) However, it is not an equivalent term mostly because n/um is used for entirely practical purposes. It is called up and used for healing along with herbs and spells and is a kind of medicinal energy residing in the guts of all humans and given to us by the gods. According to the Ju, it is activated during healing dances. As the energy of the dance increases, it boils up through the healer’s spinal cord and bursts into their brain as they enter trance state. Once fully active, the fiery n/um gives healers special abilities and healing skills. For instance, they can pull out poisoning substances from the sick person; they can converse with spirits and drive them away if they are malevolent; they can become aware of dietary issues and advise what food the sick person should eat or avoid.

 
The Ju believe that, since all humans have n/um lying in the pits of our stomachs, we are all potential healers and most young Ju men aspire to healer status. About half achieve this and about a third of women too. And, even while healers are usually men, nevertheless, crucial to their success is the supportive singing and music of their opposite sex during dances. This reflects their generally communal and egalitarian approach towards caregiving. Kinship networks mean that, even without blood ties, a Ju individual has responsibilities to certain sick and infirm within their group. Thus, just as n/um does not belong to one or other sex, so healing, caring and magic are neither feminised nor necessarily the province of an exclusive few.

 
Healing is a community activity and freely given – although with an expectation of return when necessary. This can be understood in terms of the Ju concept of hxaro. This is basically gift-exchange and is an important means of maintaining and growing amicable wider social relations. It works as Lee says, “I give you something today, and you give me something in return six months or a year from now.”(3) But it is fundamentally not about exchanging goods of equivalent value so, whilst in some sense it might prefigure barter and taxation, nevertheless, it is not the same. It is about relationship and therefore gifts are given, like healing, according to circumstances.

 
Ju society is so organised as to have men and women cooperating in joint enterprise, albeit with different roles to play. Across the board, although there is inevitably some gender conflict, still, there aren’t the double standards of our societies. However, there is an important area where a hierarchy establishes a higher status for men. This is in respect of food.

 
The Ju rate certain foods more highly than others and meat is the most highly valued food of all amongst both men and women. Women forage the majority of the food, men forage less but do all the hunting and therefore supply almost all the meat. The effect of this is that men’s comparatively smaller contributions are more appreciated.

 
OK, so at the top of the piece, I noted that spirituality has suppressed the feminine and its magic. I explained what I meant by spirituality but I didn’t define feminine magic. So now I will say that this is practical, non-esoteric magic associated with the use of healing herbs and food, shamanism, spells, and nature worship. It is actually exactly the kind of gender-neutral magic that Ju men and women both use from day-to-day. So the question must be, what happened, post-agriculturally, to feminise this kind of activity? Why did it lose against spirituality? And why did it become reviled and associated with evil? Again, if one wants answers, one must look beyond the thing itself to the culture that surrounds it.

 
I’ll start with the idea already presented which is that food itself introduces hierarchy. This is true of the way the Ju greet meat but also, as explained in my last post, due to the effect of those chemical elements emphasised in the diets of post-agricultural people. If you remember, increases in the levels of tryptophan and cholesterol due to eating more grain made people more sociable and, also, more inclined to recognise and maintain status. Thus, the inchoate superiority of Ju male hunters would likely be exaggerated and maintained with such a diet. Moreover, the kind of feminine support given in healing dances could be reinterpreted as lowly assistance rather than partnership. Consequently, a degree of male-superiority would be established early in their post-agricultural society.
Besides this is the fact that the agricultural revolution brought the rise of the symbol. As explained here, symbolic interaction is a fact of foraging life, across species. But environmental pressures – such as the need to store food and the introduction of an economic dimension as a consequence of an emerging class of people (non-food-producing specialists) – encouraged its spectacular overdevelopment. Staying with the transformative effect of the economic dimension for a moment, the Ju experienced this in the 1980s and discovered how it altered things. Amongst many other unwelcome changes, they found it removed healing from the community sphere.(4) Plus it violated the idea of hxaro and placed a strain on community relations. It placed a price-tag on intangibles thereby moving them from the practical to the abstract realm. And it brought in such difficulties as reputation, reliability and fairness to the magical healing sphere where, before, there was just relationship.

 
However, back to the dawn of culture, as consequences of food surpluses and economic gain, writing developed and number followed and, with them, abstract religious ideas – like spirituality. As I’ve said, women have the same capacity for symbolic thought as men but our traditional roles – imposed by our physiology – have tended to encourage concreteness instead. For this reason, even our female forebears who considered themselves spiritual or religious couldn’t achieve transcendence as themselves. If they wanted to enter the masculine religious world they had to deny their femininity.

 
Just to explain this by stating the obvious, as a sex, we menstruate, bear children and lactate. To take the Ju as an example, children are not completely weaned until either the next child comes along or until they reach about 5 years old, whichever comes first. During this time, women continue to forage but with their children around them. This is all practical stuff requiring mutability and concern with the here and now. Thus feminine short-termism and practicality is a consequence of our physiologically-imposed childbearing and rearing role which resists what Sherry Ortner terms transcendence.

 
In contrast, male physiology encourages men to embrace transcendence. They can rise above the physicality of a mother’s existence to become goal-oriented and they more easily act away from the domestic sphere in the wider world. In a symbolic culture, where cultural institutions symbolise the wider world, male physiological facts place them on the public stage as political, religious and commercial actors. Moreover, taking into account the elevating effect of a post-agricultural diet on those already perceived as having status, the masculine public sphere and institutions achieve high-status be association. All this means that Ortner sees men as symbolising culture whilst women symbolise nature. And as culture has progressed, its drive towards suppressing and further taming nature has been constant. Women are symbolised as nature and, for this reason, we have been suppressed and tamed at the same time.

 
The thing is, transcendence in culture takes the symbol much further than nature would ever go with it. Social hunting animals plan and cooperate much as human hunters do. But they don’t plan beyond the kill because they reside in the natural world and must live according to its contingencies. In contrast, culture abstracts ideas from the material world and places them into the virtual realm where plans have time and extra dimensional space to form around static perfect forms. In this virtual realm truth and perfect gods exist, and absolute evil too. So, since cultural transcendence is about rising above and dominating the material world, any natural contingency is evil. Thus nature, the natural world, natural magic and women can be, and have been, symbolised as evil in the most literal sense. It’s ironic how the transcendent virtual realm tends to literalism in a way the material world simply doesn’t.

 
In the end, at root, men are no more culture than women are nature, as the Ju demonstrate. But culture has evolved with us to become something like the male peacock’s tail: a massively exaggerated – albeit virtual – masculine extended phenotypic trait used to dominate and demand admiration and subservience. Spirituality is one of the long, bright tail feathers. And any human partaking in society recognises this and all other variants of masculine dominance and understands that to ignore the tail is to risk fitness: hence the otherwise inexplicable popularity of Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women to lean-in. The fact is we all – man, woman and child – carry feminine inferiority inside us as cultural, nutritional, physiological, psychological and spiritual facts and this is proved by the creeping acceptance of Sandberg’s advice. But leaning-in is to further unbalance the scale in favour of cultural, spiritual masculine dominance. Instead, the possibility for progress lies in risking social fitness by separating the cultural concept of femininity from relationship, sharing, caring, healing, magic and nature so that we can remember how these are part of us all.

 

References:

1 Lee, Richard B. 2013 (1984). Preface to The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, 4th Ed.. Belmont: Wadsworth

2 Lee, Richard B. 2013 (1984). The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, 4th Ed.. Belmont: Wadsworth. p. 143

3 Lee, Richard B. 2013 (1984). The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, 4th Ed.. Belmont: Wadsworth. p. 131

4 Lee, Richard B. 2013 (1984). The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, 4th Ed.. Belmont: Wadsworth. p. 152

The gods are what we eat (and what we don’t eat)

 Just to warn you, in this post I discuss the use of unlawful substances. Please be aware that I am not condoning their use where they are illegal. I am not, in fact, encouraging their use at all even despite current pressures to legalise cannabis. I’m not for prohibition either but no-one has to look far to see that the issues surrounding recreational drug use are complicated. It doesn’t help that, whilst these substances can be enormously beneficial, they require absolute respect and reverence, and they require the strict observation of boundaries. Nature teaches these things, in part, through seasonality: when it’s not growing, we can’t have it; when it is, we appreciate it. Our culture doesn’t respect such boundaries but circumvents them with hydroponics, for one thing. So, until we re-establish the boundaries that nature sets, as a society, we will continue to abuse drugs whether they’re legal or not. Nevertheless…

We are what we eat

In strictest sense we are what we eat. But it is not only that we are individual composites of the food our mothers ate and what we have gone on to eat over the course of our lifetimes. It is also that our cultural matrix – our hierarchical society, our commerce and markets, our understanding and relationship with authority and the divine – were all built, like our flesh and bones, out of our food and our relationship with it.

During the millions of years we spent pre-civilisation hunter-gathering, we established ourselves as incorrigible omnivores. As we spread across the globe, we adjusted to the most uncompromising of diets so that now there are communities adapted to almost complete carnivory in the most northern climes, diets consisting entirely of milk, blood and raw meat amongst the Maasai and, at the other end of the scale, veganism amongst Jain populations. It was this adaptability as a species which set the scene for our enormous success and scope and, perhaps, our myth of almost-invincibility.

But this ranging adaptability of ours isn’t what sets us apart from the animal kingdom because there are other world-dominating species beside us – jellyfish for instance. No, the thing that sets us apart is that we see ourselves as a special case and this perspective is quite possibly due to the nature of our agricultural revolution. Again, our manipulation of the natural world through agriculture isn’t unique – ants farm fungi and aphids – so that in itself doesn’t raise us above the natural order. The reason we set ourselves apart is down, in part, or so I argue, to the species we chose to domesticate. But we didn’t make this choice all on our own either. It was more a case of a number of species pitching and us accepting their bids.
It is thought that the agricultural revolution began in a small way. The record shows that our ancestors had agricultural skills for thousands of years before adopting agriculture wholesale and, even as some groups capitulated, others resisted. But, in the end, resistance was futile. The agricultural revolution would not be halted. It came as an inexorable slow burn spanning several thousand years during which people transitioned from living as small bands of foragers eating what was available to becoming almost entirely farmers, pastoralists and urbanites whose staples were grain and domesticated animals such as cattle.

Who had it nasty, brutish and short?
There is an idea that the lives of our foraging ancestors were miserable and hardly ever a full step from cruel starvation. But neither the archaeological record nor the testimony of present hunter/gatherer societies confirms this. Take as an example the indigenous, traditionally hunter-gathering Ju/’Hoansi people of southern Africa. Right up until the 1980s, these were fully foragers. They aren’t anymore but, back in the day, the joint efforts of the prime-age adults of each group procured enough within the equivalent of a twenty-hour working week to provide well for the whole community.(1) Their hunting success tended to be a bit hit and miss but they ate meat of all types from large game to invertebrates regularly enough. Plus they had available to them over 100 edible wild plants. One of their number described their ideal diet as (in order of desirability) meat and mongongo nuts for strength, honey for sweetness and wild orange fruits for refreshment. Sometimes they came somewhere close to realising this; other times they fell short and resorted to eating just whatever they could but, even so, their diet yielded, on average, 2355 calories and 96.3 grams of protein a day which is just about optimal.
A different story is told by early post agricultural skeletal remains. These show signs of significant physical stress, disease and malnutrition, even despite that this was the dawn of the first food surpluses. These problems arose as consequences of the sheer effort of producing food, of social inequality and of the new reliance on fewer foods. Whereas the Ju/’Hoansi had a varied diet providing plenty of balance and trace nutrients, the post agricultural people relied on staples, thus depriving themselves of both. But, most important to this discussion are the elements that their diet emphasised. These are carbohydrate and fat.

The One God is made of sugar (and spice) and all that’s nice…
These nutrients provide cholesterol and the amino acid, tryptophan, in abundance. The former maintains cell integrity and is necessary for general metabolism while the latter is the precursor to neurotransmitter, serotonin. They are both necessary to animal life but, in large quantities, quite frankly, sound the death knell for natural divination. But it’s like, the king is dead, long live the king, because at the same time they enable social organisation, hierarchy and consequently favour organised monotheistic religion over any kind of pantheistic animism. Let me explain.
Research shows that monkeys which are moved from a low to high-cholesterol diet slide thereafter along a scale from unsociable aggressiveness to comradely nit-picking gregariousness.(2) It’s to do with the effect of the fat on brain lipids. Meanwhile, serotonin, while also contributing to feelings of well-being and happiness, plays its part in passive sociability too. As a precursor to melatonin – which is produced in the pineal gland, the ‘mystical’ third eye – it also promotes dreamless sleep. Moreover, through its relationship to appetite, it upholds social rank through food-sharing behaviour. This is because serotonin levels depend on the social status of sociable animals: they are lower in submissive animals than higher-ranking ones and this allows the latter to steal from the former, thereby maintaining the status quo.
Serotonin affects humans similarly although I’m arguing here that we take the effects much further into the virtual realm, because we live in an overtly symbolic culture. So, for us, serotonin doesn’t simply promote food-related social rank but affects all analogous social structures such as politics and religion too. Additionally, it bolsters the spatial analogy of the dominance of the heavens over the earth and so confirms astrology as the gold-standard divinatory method and sky gods as greater than nature spirits. If this is right then Marx was wrong when he claimed religion as the opium of the people. It is not. It just masks the true villains. These are carbohydrates and fat.
But, despite his mistake, Marx was closer to the literal truth than he knew. This is because, neurologically, simple carbohydrates function similarly to opioids by binding to the same neuroreceptors. This has allowed parallels to be drawn between drugs of abuse and palatable foods in that overuse of either can produce dependency. The things is, we humans seek out the foods that experience tells us will satisfy survival needs – remember how the Ju/’Hoansi would have, if they could, eaten a limited diet of meat, mongongo nuts, honey and juicy fruits? That’s because it’s a combination that easily satisfies their manifest needs for energy and refreshment. However, as foragers, they couldn’t have this because their environment wouldn’t provide it. In another scenario, where the environment will deliver, dependency grows via a feedback loop where satisfying a single metabolic voice becomes a raison d’etre.
To summarise where we are for now, the agricultural revolution did not kill the gods of the wild but shuffled a hierarchy which allowed one distantly-demanding and overbearing god to rise to the top of the pile. It did this, partially, through our new reliance on staple foods whose effect on our brain-chemistry tended to still our own multiple inner voices by creating a dependency on palatable food. This has been, in so very many ways, to our detriment. But, with regard to divination, it cut us off from many of the signs in the environment. In relation to food, it did this by damping our sense of taste and, thereby, filtering out much environmental information.

…The natural pantheon has a more bitter flavour
This damping of taste is most evident in the way our bitter taste receptors have evolved subsequently – i.e. many of us have lost them (or are excessively averse to the taste). Our reliance on carbohydrate and cooked meat means that they aren’t particularly necessary. But to taste bitterness is to learn an awful lot about food. For one thing, it flags up the possibility of its toxicity. For another, it might suggest that a little bit could be medicinal, but to know any of this requires engaging homeostatic feedback loops: one looks for similarities to what is already known, looks at the reactions of other individuals, smells, tastes and awaits a response – which might be very subtle. This subtlety of response means that signs are easily missed especially if a loud voice such as that of carbohydrate-dependency is clamouring.
Now, don’t worry, I haven’t slipped a rogue nutrition lesson into my blog. This remains absolutely about divination because this is, remember, to seek access to the divine and herbs, traditionally, are the flesh of the gods (an idea that carries through symbolically to the transubstantiation of the Christian Eucharist).(3) And my argument here is that our post-agricultural reliance on staples such as grain (primarily or secondarily by consuming grazing animals and their milk) is one factor that allowed the rise of the distant gods of monotheism. But – and here’s rewilded divination’s big moment – there are other herbs that facilitate intimate engagement with the daemonic spirits of the environment.
One example – ayahuasca – is actually a brew of three bitter herbs: Banisteriopsis caapi, Psychotria viridis and Mimosa hostilis. It’s a potion which has recently found some favour in western therapeutic circles where it is glossed as a really edgy spiritual detox. But, in its natural habitat of the Amazonian rainforest, it hasn’t so much to say about the individual’s inner psychic landscape because, there, it is the means for conversation with the gods of the forest.(4) And this conversation is the source of deeply practical information like which plants have which medicinal properties and how to prepare them.
But anyone taking ayahuasca doesn’t just knock it back casually on a whim. One prepares. In the run-up, one abstains from sex whilst also strictly avoiding salt, sugar, meat and fats and eating only a little boiled or roasted cassava. All of this preparation manipulates bio-chemistry so that one is at one’s most receptive to interior and exterior signs. For instance, as we have seen, dropping those listed foods manipulates serotonin levels whilst cassava – especially bitter varieties – is a poor source of tryptophan but a great source of anutrients which inhibit the absorption of nutrients. I will talk more about fasting and divination another time but its value in this regard is enormous. It is the way one stills those clamorous voices demanding what is palatable, easy and desirable in order that others can be heard. And these are the ones that talk to us about our health, inner and outer, as individuals and as communities.

Herbs are the Flesh of the gods
So it is that herbs are the flesh of the gods. They take the circulating energy of the sun and close it into the nutritive loops of their plant-bodies and that way create the basis of everything. Through signs they tell us about ourselves and how we might relate to our environment. Through their effects on our bio-chemistry, they help mould our religious ideas and, consequently, our culture and our civilisations. Truly, the gods are what we eat (and what we don’t eat).
Glossary:
Herb – any plant with which we humans have formed a relationship.

References:

1 Lee, Richard B. 2013 (1984). The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, 4th Ed.. Belmont: Wadsworth. p. 42, 62 and 59

2 Pond, Caroline, M. The Fats of Life. Cambridge University Press. p. 227

3 Osbaldeston, Tess Anne. 2000. Introduction to Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. Johannesburg: Ibidis Press. p. xxvi

4 Narby, Jeremy. 1998. Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. London: Victor Gollancz

Will Astrology ever solve its Twin Problem?


Astrology has struggled for credibility for a long time – thousands of years actually. It has had countless detractors but it stands firm in spite of them all. How resilient! How obviously truth! How easy to focus on its mysterious beauty while glossing its blinding faults – that’s how it can be. And, if one loves it, the tendency can be to defend it fiercely by standing against all comers. But rejecting a chance to grapple with its inconsistencies and problems is to turn away from an opportunity to stop this gorgeous baby being thrown out with the bathwater. So, in this spirit, I’m going to spend a little time here thinking about its ‘twin-problem’ which is, in essence, its failure to produce reliable results. And this is a good problem to address because it has dogged the art for thousands of years.

The Twin Problem

The Roman philosopher, politician and official augur, Cicero (3 January 106 BCE – 7 December 43 BCE) opened this particular can of worms, although his question refers to divination in general. In my view he should be nominated for the title Father of the Scientific Method since he was astute enough to question a taken for granted thing – that augurs used different methods to get to the same place or they’d do the same things but arrive at different answers. Brushing aside the pat justification that God moves in mysterious ways, he wondered instead “why was the power granted to some birds to give a favourable omen when on the left side and to others when on the right?” It was a good question so it got asked again a few hundred years later, this time by the pagan-turned-early Christian theologian and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo (13 November 354 CE – 28 August 430 CE). But he put it a bit differently. He was speaking of astrology specifically when he said this with regard to twins:

How is it that they have never been able to answer why in the life of twins – in their deeds, their successes, their profession, fields of knowledge, accomplishments and the other things pertaining to human life and in death itself – there is such diversity that with regard to these things many strangers are more similar to them than twins are to each other, even though when they were born they were separated by the smallest interval of time and, moreover, when they were conceived they were begotten in one moment in a single act of intercourse?

There’s a thing with questions: one can just take them at face-value or one can dig into them a little. I like doing the latter. It’s good to know who someone is to ask a thing, I think. So, to take the first first, what was Cicero’s angle? Well, he was a supreme pragmatist and conservative and no wonder because he was holding on all through that white-knuckle ride called the First Triumvirate only to lose it all during the Second. As an augur, it was in his job-description to seek divine inspiration through divination, but he was sceptical regarding the factual existence of the gods. Not that such a detail mattered because the whole point of divination to him was to manipulate omens as political tools. He honoured the gods because he respected and required the status quo. He used augury because that was the official method. He endorsed political use of the Sibylline Books because their oblique nature allowed them to produce helpfully adaptable answers but he saw the need to restrict access to them to the Senate in case enemies used them for their own ends. Additionally, he saw all divination not practiced by the Roman authorities as seditious and all unofficial methods of divination as superstition.

Meanwhile, where was Augustine coming from? Well by his time, various Christian factions were fighting an internecine war for authority, the Visigoths were marauding, and pagans continued to challenge the authority of the Christian message. Thus, like Cicero, he lived in a time of political and religious turmoil when establishing and maintaining authority was not merely a career-aim but a matter of life or death. Beyond this, though, he’d been very interested in astrology during his reputedly wild youth when he’d been a Manichean pagan. His interest was in forecasting the future by combining science and horoscopes but he cast it aside, along with other great personal loves, with his conversion to Christianity. Thus he became a poacher-turned-gamekeeper because he said of astrologers that

they are inspired, in some mysterious ways, by spirits, but spirits of evil, whose concern is to instil and confirm in men’s minds those false and baneful notions about ‘astral destiny’. These true predictions do not come from any skill in the notation and inspection of horoscopes; that is a spurious art.

So, to summarise, Cicero posed the question of replicability from the viewpoint that there aren’t likely to be gods behind an act of divination, only political expediency, so that one has to be wary about anyone outside one’s camp claiming divine knowledge – ditto Augustine to an extent. But his complicating factor was that he did believe that divination involved divine forces. The thing was, his conversion brought him to understand that the spirits involved in astrological prediction are evil.

Astrology and Demons

Christianity at the time was quite comfortable with asserting the existence of spirits, or demons, just as it recognised angels. As it happens, angels and demons were the same thing really except by the fact of their allegiance to good or evil (or, in other words, ability to choose for or against the winning side). But, that aside, the idea of the demon and its association with divination has a long pedigree. It goes back beyond ancient Greece where the term for a sign or omen is daemonion which means ‘the divine thing’, or ‘the daemonic thing’. It rests in the notion that nature is populated by spirits.

If we return to ancient Mesopotamia, we find these nature spirits as the gods themselves. These were elemental to nature and to be found in all natural things and it was through their dramas that the world came into being. But Mesopotamian ‘animism’ probably traces back beyond the Neolithic and into the Mesolithic, before the agricultural revolution, to when our ancestors were nomadic foragers. These people took their entire living from the natural world and, for them, daemonic signs were the language ‘spoken’ between all natural things, humans included. Children picked it up along with speech with their mother’s milk and understanding it was a matter of survival. I write ‘spoken’ in that way because natural language is not spoken, nor is it written, but arrives in signs.

How can I make such a strong assertion for something about which there is no proof? Well, there remain a very few hunter/gatherer societies who are not to be seen as stone-age survivals but who, through their perspectives, offer us a taste of ancient worldviews. One example of these are the Ashaninca in the Peruvian Amazon with whom Jeremy Narby lived for a year or so. And an example of their use of natural daemonic signs is when he was shown a particular plant which cured snake bites and he asked how they knew. “We know this” his guides said “thanks to these hooks, because that is the sign that nature gives.”(1) Besides the signs coming from the terrestrial realm were others coming from the skies because, for instance, he was given sanango tea at the time of the new moon to cure his chronic back-pain. Thereby note how, for the forager, astrology is not a thing set apart from other methods of divination but necessarily integral.

So, before the agricultural revolution, daemonic signs were the means by which one natural thing communicated with another. However, after, they had become associated with good and evil and political and religious power-struggles, and with defining who was in and who was out. The main changes coincident with this drift in understanding include our schism from the natural world caused by our new reliance on farming, urban living, and the hierarchical reorganisation of human society which resulted from increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth. But also vastly important was the rise in a symbolic culture. Now this really matters to the evolution of divination because, as we see, before agriculture a pragmatic view of daemonic signs prevailed whereas, afterwards, they became abstract and, accordingly, esoteric – i.e. capable of being understood only by a select elite.

The rise of the Symbol

Symbols are psychical or, in other words, relate to mental processes. A symbolic culture is one that transmits cultural material through that virtual realm of analogy and metaphor, as we do. Human use of symbols goes back into the mists of time and, indeed, animals use symbolic interaction too because, according to evolutionary theory, aesthetics play a fundamental role in sexual reproduction and the co-evolution of plants with fauna.(2) But, while symbolic interaction is a mainstay of earthly life, we humans have made it our specialty since the development of writing which began about 10000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

It all began very simply. Once people were producing more food than they could eat, they began to store it in vessels carrying little inventory tags marked with symbols indicating contents – for instance, an ovoid with circular incision for a jar of oil. Thus writing began as an accounting exercise. But gradually two things evolved out of this: first the tags and inventories complexified significantly; second, where initially the tags are part of village archaeological finds, increasingly they become associated with temple finds. To make that point a little clearer, from humble beginnings, complex writing, accounting and wealth all developed into religious business controlled by an elite comprised of priests who worked on behalf of government. Astrology was a much used political tool in Mesopotamia and it developed in the same economic/political/religious setting as writing and number.

The things with writing and number are that they are understood by convention. Thus they must be strictly replicable otherwise they are meaningless. The astrological chart works in the same way. It’s a two-dimensional geometric representation of four-dimensional reality in which are symbolised the heavenly bodies and their areas of jurisdiction in the earthly realm. It brings together of a few concepts but begins with the Pythagorean notion that arranging number harmoniously in space allows for the secrets of the universe to be uncovered.

But, as we saw, Augustine objected to the use of mathematical concepts in this way. He called astrology spurious science and said it only yielded truth as often as it did through the inspiration of demons. The rest of the time, as the case of twins proved, it failed. Was he right? Well, the fact is, he certainly had a point. This is because a chart, in arising from abstract thinking and relying on universal symbols understood through convention, can only produce generalities on its own, and these might fit and they might not.

It’s similar to the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator which is, in fact, a distant ancestor to an astrological chart – through Carl Jung. But this has a mutation not found in its ancestor which occurred due to cultural pressure of the rise of individualism: its problem is that it’s a subjective self-report which makes no reference to the environment. This is a fatal flaw in divinatory terms, as Augustine pointed out in a roundabout way, and makes any ‘answer’ meaningless. The astrological chart is also similar to genetic testing kits – at least as they are at the moment – in that they both note details about individual make-up. However, like the Myers-Briggs indicator, the genetic tests refer only to the individual, not to the exterior environment. They speak in general terms about the possibility of genetic diseases within an individual but they can’t determine if these will develop, how severe they will be if they do, or whether a disorder will progress over time. Anyone wanting to know these vital extras must look at the individual themselves, their environment, and watch their life unfold. Myers–Briggs Type Indicator tests, genetic testing kits and astrological charts are incomplete attempts at divination until the actual individual and their environments are considered. In other words, in order to read an astrological chart or the tests with any degree of refinement, one orientates oneself using the agreed symbols whilst engaging the person directly in situ. In astrology, this engagement involves their past and present and extrapolates from those using lore about coupled universal rhythms and correspondences. One also brings one’s own past experience in and one’s own present, one’s imagination, intuition, some guesswork, some empathy…

So Augustine was right that an astrological chart alone cannot predict the unfolding of the lives of twins and that, even though the same skies greeted each birth, this is not to say that their lives will roll out in the same way. He was also right that one requires demonic signs to bring a chart it life. But he was wrong about the nature of these because they are not evil but the lingua franca of foragers and the environment. The sense of evil comes from the demonization of all material nature which was an arguable consequence of our schism from the natural world which was due to the agricultural revolution. Similarly, Cicero was right in flagging-up that divination is non-replicable. But he was wrong in his conclusion that this undermined the wisdom of the practice. The fact is, each environmental engagement is, by its nature, non-replicable in any exact sense. He couldn’t see this because he was too caught up in the ‘truth’ of the political set-up of his Roman world to see beyond it. But in the end these men simply expected too much of divination and they did that because they didn’t understand its roots.

Is there a Twin Problem in Astrology?

But, never mind all that, we have a question to answer which is, Will Astrology ever solve its Twin Problem? My answer is no, not if we’re talking about the astrology we have come to know which belongs to the virtual realm of supposed perfect knowledge. If it is that, then it is fatally flawed. And, actually, if astrology is not that grandiose thing anyway, but far more humble, then the problem doesn’t even exist. This is because it is then forager’s astrology which takes its place amongst a whole complex of methods by which a forager negotiates the whole landscape. Then it could never make claims to such omniscience because it is simply one means by which the individual converses with the divine face-to-face, in its natural habitat.

References:

1 Narby, Jeremy. 1998. Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. London: Victor Gollancz.

2 Darwin C. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.