I have written before about what I call bloodhound books: books that collect together large numbers of clues pertaining to the Mysteries. I call them bloodhound books because, like a bloodhound, they have a very well-developed nose for magic, but they do not necessarily view their content from a magical point of view. A bloodhound can track down, and finally collar, a fugitive who is miles away; but the reasons behind the chase probably evade him. So it is with bloodhound books. Even if you find the authors’ worldview somewhat limiting, what they’re sniffing at’s legit.
In the previous post on bloodhound books I looked at how to pump for information a text that tried to crowbar Egyptian mythology into a Theosophical model, with a brief diversion on salvation versus fate. In this post I want to recommend a particular author—Lloyd deMause—whose theories on the psychology of our ancestors have managed to annoy a large number of academics, some of whom may be guilty of trying to overcivilize our forebears. And as outrage is on occasion the refuge of the underevidenced and overprivileged, deMause is well worth a read, even if you ultimately decide he is just an old crank.
Personally, I think that deMause is onto something, and I think his models of our ancestors’ psychology, and the reasons for them, probably are uncomfortably near the mark. Add to his theories what you know of vision, and the conditions that can predispose one to visionary experience, and you can get quite far in your quest of getting inside our ancestors’ heads. You can dial your psyche-model forwards and backwards in time to contrast a caveman’s religious experience with that of a Renaissance magician; and you can similarly adjust for cultural geographical differences today.
I don’t want to explain his model at length; if it interests you, read some of his work. Basically, he thinks that a historical society’s culture, and particularly its childrearing practices, produced populations large numbers of whom we today would regard as mentally ill: schizophrenics, sadomasochists, catatonics, psychopaths, paranoids, depressives, psychotics, obsessive-compulsives…
Different societies, he says, produced different sorts of mentally-ill populations. Elizabethan England, for instance, he claims was typified by depressive personalities, guilt disorders and manic defenses in the neurotics of the population, and manic-depressive psychosis in the population’s psychotics. (If you doubt this, have a read of Francis Drake’s letters and diaries. Then ask yourself how many of Shakespeare’s characters today we might regard as mentally ill…)
The main cause of these disorders, he says, was the parenting typical of England under Elizabeth, which he characterizes as ‘ambivalent’—that is, the parent both loves and hates the child in quick succession, frequently feels great guilt and depression, is insatiable in his/her need for love, status, and sex, has enormous superego demands, and is extremely conscious of the reality of time. (Othello, anyone? Juliet’s father? Juliet’s nurse? Lady M? Hamlet? Just off the top of my head…)
As deMause points out various times in his works, it’s not just historians who are keen to whitewash the less savoury habits of the people they study; modern anthropologists do it, too. For instance:
To begin with, many Australian tribes until recently ate their children, not from food hunger but from object hunger, so poorly differentiated were they from others. Some ate the fetus itself, procuring abortions for this purpose by pressing the pregnant mother’s abdomen and pulling the fetus out by the head. (113) Others ate every second child, out of what they called “baby hunger,” forcing their other children to share in the feast. (114) That the anthropologist who described these habits concluded that parental cannibalism of children “doesn’t seem to have affected the personality development” and that these are really “good mothers [who] eat their own children” (115) is more a commentary on the quality of anthropological research than on aboriginal reality.
—Foundations of Psychohistory, 1982, Lloyd deMause. p.274.
For anyone wanting to check deMause’s claims for themselves on Aboriginal cannibalism, the references cited are:
- (113) Geza Roheim, “The Western Tribes of Central Australia: Childhood” The Psychoanalytic Study of Society 2 (1962): 200.
- (114) Geza Roheim, Psychoanalysis and Anthropology: Culture, Personality and the Unconscious. New York: International Universities Press, 1950, p.62.
- (115) Ibid, pp. 63 and 60.
deMause later describes a male coming-of-age ritual practised, in various versions, by Australian tribes…which is where I perked up, and which is why you just had to read that description of infant cannibalism.
The coming-of-age ritual, described on p.275 of Foundations of Psychohistory, is significant for its “extremely concrete fetal symbols.” At the centre of the ritual is a tjurunga, a “magic bull-roarer,” a wooden disk marked with placental circles and loops. It is held by a “dangerous but sexually exciting, copiously-menstruating woman” called an alknarintja. The bull-roarer is the central object given to the reborn initiate at the end of the ritual, the more grisly aspects of which I won’t describe here, and which I do not advise you to read on a full stomach.
The interesting thing about this ritual, for our purposes as an Egyptian Magic blog, is the language used to describe the bull-roarer. It is called the double or shade of the boy being reborn, and it seems to symbolize the placenta.
Now. Two parts of the Egyptian self were the ka, which means double, and the shadow. Two concepts identical to the description of the Aborigines’ bull-roarer. The Egyptians’ ka seems to have provided power for an individual, much like the placenta provides power for the fetus; and the shadow was seen as an inextricably linked other that could sometimes symbolize the individual themselves, just as the placenta can, according to psychohistorians like Lloyd deMause.
So in these Egyptian concepts could there be a touch of placenta? deMause certainly thinks so:
The replaying of the fetal drama could in fact defeat real death itself, as when the scattered parts of Osiris’ body were reassembled they were made whole by being wrapped in a cow’s skin, called a “meshkent” or “placenta.” In fact, the usual Egyptian tomb ritual involves the rebirth of the dead man or woman by wrapping him or her in a “meshkent” skin and waving a wand in the shape of a placenta over him, while addressing his ka amulet as “my heart, my mother, my heart whereby I came into being.” At the great Egyptian Sed festival, the pharaoh himself cleanses the group’s pollution by curling up “like a fetus,” wrapped in an animal skin, and coming forth to cry “the pharaoh has renewed his births!” During this festival, the pharaoh leads a huge procession, proceeded by his actual placenta stuck on the top of a long pole, complete with dangling umbilical cord—the concrete prototype of all flags and standards to follow. Just as with the Baganda and other primitives previously described, the pharaoh’s placenta was thought to be his “double,” his ka, his “helper,” his “twin” who would help him in battle. Separate pyramids were built for the pharaoh’s placenta. In fact, the placental ka or double of every Egyptian was believed to accompany him everywhere…This placenta-twin, whether as the Egyptian ka, the Babylonian “indwelling god,” the Iranian fravashi or the Roman genius, is the original “soul” of all mankind, the original “guardian spirit,” and wooden models of actual placentas or else statues of kas are found in most Egyptian tombs.
Is deMause right? I’m not convinced he is…but I think, like a cat, he has got hold of a piece of wool and is pulling on it without knowing how big the ball of wool is on the other end.
I think he’s wrong to equate, later in this book, the heart and the ka. They are not the same thing. He has a more interesting case with the placenta being the origin of flags. My immediate response was that if you were searching for the ancestor of a flag, then the symbol for nTr, “god,” being a pole wrapped in cloth with the top end blowing in the breeze, is a more appropriate ancestor. But, of course, deMause would argue, as above, that wrappings are themselves a placental symbol, and he might be quite right to do so.
Here’s Henri Frankfort on placentas, who is an Egyptologist generally considered to really know his shit…
Worship of the royal placenta…was known in ancient Egypt. Early evidence of a cult of the royal placenta consists of a standard closely connected with the king and an important Old Kingdom title. A medically trained anthropologist has argued that the standard represents the placenta; and its name, written in different ways, means “placenta of the king.” We find curious corroborative evidence in the reliefs from the Fifth Dynasty in the sun temple of Neuserre, where the standard is carried by a priest of Isis, the mother of Horus the king. Inscriptional evidence is not lacking either; for the term which we translate “Royal Kinsmen” is best explained as “guardians of,” or “those belonging to” the “placenta of the king.” It can be seen…nearest to Narmer, and it precedes Neuserre…Normally it shares the honor of being carried in the closest proximity to the king with the wolf standard of Upwaut. This god is identified with the king in the Memphite Theology and replaces the god Horus in the Great Procession of the Osiris festival at Abydos. It seems that Upwaut, the “Opener of the Ways,” stood for Horus—whether god or Pharaoh—in his aspect of firstborn son, i.e., “opener-of-the-body.” The Upwaut standard and that thought to represent the royal placenta, the king’s stillborn twin, can therefore be expected to appear together, since both would be connected to the king’s birth. …
…It is not known whether the belief that the placenta was a stillborn twin was anciently held in connection with commoners. Even in that case there would be no reason why such beliefs should affect the ordinary Egyptian’s conception of his own Ka. The placenta, after all, is an individualized and definite object, the Ka an impersonal force. But in the case of the king matters lay differently. The influence of the king’s Ka was naturally connected in the minds of all with the royal person through whom it became manifest in the life of state and people. If the notion prevailed that the king was born a twin, the potency of the king, which affected every subject, was likely to become personalized, too, and regarded as a twin, double, or genius. If the people experienced their own Ka’s passively and—as “power in direct relation to man”—impersonally, they experienced the Ka of the king as personified power…after Tuthmosis I this name [the Horus name] regularly contains the epithet “Strong Bull,” which is clearly appropriate for a personification of vital force.
—Kingship and the Gods, 1948, Henri Frankfort, pp.71–72.
We now come to why Foundations of Psychohistory is another bloodhound book. DeMause sees a magical worldview as the result of mental illness. For him, the only reason for magical rituals is to cope with childhood and intrauterine traumas. Back to the Aborigines. Underlining is my emphasis:
The most trustworthy field study of aboriginal childrearing, that of Arthur Hippler, concludes that mothers are “neglectful” of the child, with “routinely brutal” abuse of very young infants varying with “overt neglect” and the use of the breast as a control device. (116) Empathy is so absent that he states “I never observed a single adult Yolngu caretaker of any age or sex walking a toddler around, showing him the world, explaining things to him and empathizing with his needs. While categorical statements are most risky, I am most certain of this.” He further says that every movement towards independence by the growing child is experienced by the mother as abandonment of her by the child, and since the world is regularly portrayed as “dangerous and hostile, full of demons,” little individuation can take place. The growing child is then routinely sexually stimulated by both parents, beaten up and sexually abused by older children, and terrified by others in the group, so that it is not surprising that the result is an adult who employs magical thinking, psychologically as well as technologically very primitive.
Because of this infanticidal childrearing, the original terrifying fetal experience is little modified, only reinforced by equally terrifying parenting. Because the parent is virtually as infantile and needy as the newborn, the adult superego of every individual is as punitive and persecutory as that of psychotics in modern society. Like all hunters, the mind of the aborigine is characterized by massive splitting and projection rather than repression, by the use of archaic defense mechanisms of grandiosity and omnipotence, by uncertain self-object boundaries, by a confusion of sexual zones and a predominance of rape fantasies, and by an adult life full of paranoid fantasies which require continuous undoing rituals to ward off omnipresent persecutory activity.
The group life of hunting tribes like the aborigines is a world filled with womb-furniture, and takes place in a dimension the aborigines call “the Dreaming,” where every real tree, hole and rock has a “sacred” mythical meaning, that is, a fetal role. Most of life is a literal nightmare—indeed, one careful study (117) shows that during rituals they literally are in a waking dream state. Every possible occasion for pleasure provokes the sadistic infanticidal superego and requires a propitiation. Birth, puberty, marriage, hunting, in fact, all potentially happy occasions stir up retribution by the unmodified Poisonous Placenta and require a concrete playing out of the full fetal drama of death and rebirth.
—Foundations of Psychohistory, pp.274–275.
(For source-checkers (with nerves of steel):
- (116) Arthur E. Hippler, “A Culture and Personality Perspective of Northeastern Arnhem Land: Part I—Early Socialization.” Journal of Psychological Anthropology 1 (1978):221–44.
- (117) For references to studies embodying all these definitions of “primitive,” see Robert N. Bellah, “Religious evolution” in William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, Reader in Comparative Religion. New York: Harper and Row, 1965, pp.76–8; also see Geza Roheim, The Gates of the Dream. New York: International Universities Press, 1952.)
In the long quotation above we see an interesting inversion of the tendency, oft-decried by deMause, of anthropologists to overcivilize the people they study; a tendency I have previously noted as also being present on occasion in Egyptology. Whereas certain Egyptologists desire to construct “sane,” political reasons for a king’s apparently “insane” commands and visionary experiences, here deMause defines every part of the Yolngu tribe’s magical world as the product of (apparently very real) psychiatric problems.
The same rebuttal applies to this as it did to those Egyptologists: we can say that a psychiatric condition—in the previous post’s case, congenital epilepsy—can enable visions. We cannot say that those visions are nothing but manifestations of that psychiatric condition.
If you as a young child are living in constant danger, you must open all your senses as wide as you can if you want to maximize your safety. Notice that, in fairy tales, it is often the most mistreated child who is most in touch with, and/or most especially favoured by, the inhabitants of the other world…?
“Magical thinking”—or rather, magical techniques applied psychologically—can certainly be employed to salve—and treat, and eliminate—some psychological issues; see (eventually, when you get to that point in the course) Adept Module 6, which I’ve just finished copyediting. It would not be surprising for a tribe’s shaman to use similar techniques to keep their tribe members as psychologically healthy as possible, given the apparently dire psychological circumstances in which they find themselves. deMause’s “continuous undoing rituals” may be making the best of a nightmarish situation and gradually calming it down.
But “magical thinking” can equally be the result of actual experience and careful experimentation. Consider the work early on in the Quareia course on organ spirits, or, for a very quick taste of organ work, just have a quick bash now with the organ/hands exercise I posted some time ago. If some organs seem to have indwelling spirits, then perhaps the placenta has, too. Perhaps the placenta does function as the physical location of the ka, double, or what you will, while you are in the womb. Perhaps hanging onto it, as a king, was genuinely a good idea—much like those stories where it benefits a sorceror to keep his heart hidden away in a box somewhere, and especially in a society that knows you can do nasty things to people with sympathetic magic…
If Gaskell is keen to see Theosophy in Egyptian myths, deMause is certainly keen to see insanity, placentas, and childhood traumas in the beliefs and behaviour of cultures both modern and historical. Embarrassingly often, I actually think deMause is nearer the truth than people want to believe—but as a mystic or magician, you have to separate for yourself, when you read him, what is the damaged psyche of the society he is talking about and what may be genuinely magical nuggets.
It is also a bloodhound book because it exposes the dark underbelly of human civilization—and a lot of magic lurks there. The studies he references are the studies you need if you want to look at how magic interacts, and has interacted, with human frailty in its worst forms. To move forward, we need to know where we’ve come from, and deMause is not afraid to tell us the truly very unpleasant bits of human social history that most social historians would rather we forgot about.
And just as a parting shot, here’s some cannibalism from the Pyramid Texts. It does not refer to actual cannibalism; but ask yourself, where did the metaphor originally come from?
Unis is the sky’s bull, with terrorizing in his heart, who lives on the evolution of every god, who eats their bowels when they have come from the Isle of Flame with their belly filled with magic. Unis is an equipped one who has gathered his effectiveness, for Unis has appeared as the great one who has assistants, sitting with his back to Geb. Unis is the one whose case against him whose identity is hidden was decided on the day of butchering the senior ones. Unis is lord of offering, who ties on the leash (of the sacred animal), who makes his own presentation of offerings. Unis is one who eats people and lives on gods, one who has fetchers and sends dispatches…Unis is the one who eats their magic and swallows their akhs, for their adults are for his morning meal, their middle-sized ones for his evening meal, their little ones for his nighttime snack, their old men and women (fuel) for his ovens; for the sky’s great northerners are the ones who set fire for him to the cauldrons containing them with the bones of their senior ones; for those in the sky serve him, while the hearthstones are poked for him with the legs of their women…
—The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 2005, James P. Allen, p 51, W.180a–b.
Foundations of Psychohistory by Lloyd deMause
This book offers a challenging and disturbing re-interpretation of the historical process. Central to the book is an exposition of the ‘psychogenic paradigm’ which seeks to show how historical events are largely determined by the prevalent child-rearing modes of a given epoch. Material covered includes an outline of psychogenics, a discussion of the ‘fetal origins of history’ based on pre- and perinatal psychology and essays on the foudation of America and the American personality. Each chapter is a self-contained essay in itself with ample references, but the fundamental theses draw all these chapters together in a clear and concise vision. However one might react to the more controversial aspects of the main theses of the book, it remains an absolutely indispensible handbook for those wishing to know more about the basics of psychohistory as a discipline.
Kingship and the Gods by Henri Frankfort
This classic study clearly establishes a fundamental difference in viewpoint between the peoples of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. By examining the forms of kingship which evolved in the two countries, Frankfort discovered that beneath resemblances fostered by similar cultural growth and geographical location lay differences based partly upon the natural conditions under which each society developed. The river flood which annually renewed life in the Nile Valley gave Egyptians a cheerful confidence in the permanence of established things and faith in life after death. Their Mesopotamian contemporaries, however, viewed anxiously the harsh, hostile workings of nature. Frank’s superb work, first published in 1948 and now supplemented with a preface by Samuel Noah Kramer, demonstrates how the Egyptian and Mesopotamian attitudes toward nature related to their concept of kingship. In both countries the people regarded the king as their mediator with the gods, but in Mesopotamia the king was only the foremost citizen, while in Egypt the ruler was a divine descendant of the gods and the earthly representative of the God Horus.
The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts by James P. Allen
James P. Allen provides a translation of the oldest corpus of ancient Egyptian religious texts from the six royal pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (ca. 2350-2150 BCE). Based on all available sources, including texts discovered in the last decade, this revised edition incorporates the traditional numbering system of the texts with the new numbers from the latest 2013 concordance. Allen’s revisions take into account recent advances in the understanding of Egyptian grammar and reflect the primarily atemporal verbal system of Old Egyptian that expresses the timeless quality the ancient authors understood the texts to have.