In the early days of anthropology, there was a lot of interest in exotic cosmologies. Part of the anthropologist’s job was to get at the model of the universe their informants had. That tendency had its roots in the philological habits of the ‘Enlightened’ European world and it produced a fair amount of scholarship that equated understanding a people with understanding their cosmology. This eventually gave way to a richer notion of culture that emphasized conceptual frameworks and sensibilities within anthropology, but it has had a lingering and stifling impact on occultism and occult-inflected new relgious movements.
In part, that is because those European philological habits developed hand-in-hand with the imperial agendas of Europe. While Europe’s imperial power has shrunk dramatically over the last century, the imperial agenda it birthed has not. Rather, like a nasty virus, it has replicated its way into nationalist discourse the world over. The habits of essentialization—ethnic (im)purity of blood, tradition, and history—that facilitated regulation became the habits of thought shaping innovation.
The dead of our families do have an exceptional influence over us, but the dead aren’t identical with a philologically defined ‘culture’ or ‘language’ they happened to have participated in. Those cultures and languages may appeal to this or that ancestor in much the same way that a bit of their old life (a bit of their body, a photograph, a cherished locket) might appeal to them–as a memento and touchstone that makes it easier for them to remember themselves and do work for their family.
The effort to transform the memorial dimension of that into a demand to live or think with the habits of the past, though, transforms life into a death mask. Since we don’t share with our ancestors the same living world, the same historical challenges, the repetition of their habits and ways of thinking becomes abstract. When we repeat their concepts and actions, we are more like mimes, playing at responding to things that are not there. That is fine to play at, but ridiculous to live.
The living are faced with the challenge of transforming what they inherit to the needs of the present. That transformation isn’t a betrayal of the dead. Quite the opposite, it enlivens and sustains them as forces that can return and support their descendants.
The dead do not need us to become dead, they need us to live so that they may share some of the blessings of that living. The highest blessing of that living is the possibility of moral improvement and transformation. The dead whose descendants truly live are able to improve themselves, prepare themselves to move toward a higher plane of spiritual being.
Empire enslaves the dead as well as the living. In making the living more like the dead, it cuts off the dead from one of the most essential wellsprings of spiritual rejuvenation. To support our ancestors, we need to invite them into our living rather than join them in their death.
That means we need to be willing to surrender the urge to fetishize the cosmologies of the past as well as the urge to cast the cosmologies of the present in amber. Remembering and revitalizing them is one thing, but clinging to them as something especially sacred above and beyond our present understanding is quite another.