[NB] Sumerian Diasporas Continued

Since writing this post on burial and necromancy, I have kept tabs on the material I’m reading for evidence about the intersection of the strands of the goetic / magian diasporas. Rereading the Image of the Netherworld in Sumerian Sources put another strand into that, one attached to female mourning traditions.

A recent jaunt through Sarah Iles Johnston’s discussion of the same in Restless Dead suggests some refinements to that account. Like what the Sumerian material suggested, the Greek material suggests a rivalry between masculine necromancers and female mourners. Johnston’s Greece adds a wrinkle to that dynamic, because while the male necromantic traditions are imported into the region, the female mourning traditions seem to be well-established and functionally indigenous.

Johnston’s discussion of the roots of goetic practices in Greece start off with the now de rigeur bit about the roots of the terms goes and goetia in goos, the funeral lamentations. She underlines, though, that the shift from goos to goes is a gendered shift, that we are seeing a displacement of female lamentation singers by male sorcerers. She suggests that we can see the literary evidence for this displacement in Aeschylus’s Persians, but that the literary portrayal follows about a century of Persian influence on Greek funerary practice.

In other words, the term ‘goes’ is the trace of a rupture and discontinuity with the older Greek term rather than a continuation of an older practice. This displacement results from the growing cosmopolitan habits of (male) Greek citizens. This pattern may be an early expression of the pattern observed by I. M. Lewis in his study Ecstatic Religions in which male experts take over cultic practices initially sustained by largely female ecstatics; I’d have to think about that a little more.

Of interest to me, Johnston distinguishes the goetic practices from those she identifies as magian, which also seem to share Persian roots. There is some blurring of the two sets of practices (similar to what I expected to see in the diasporic criss-crossing of the two ways of doing magic) which Johnston attributes to a mixture of reportage from individuals unfamiliar with the cultic differentiations between the two groups as well as a genuine mixing of two broadly Persian styles of magic by Greek practitioners.

The goes’s displacement of the goos suggests the repetition of the opposition I noted previously in Sumeria, between a female mourner seeking to settle the dead and a (likely male) expert looking to manipulate the dead. However, unlike what I might have expected, these female practitioners are not themselves inheritors of a diaspora of their own. This suggests to me that the female practices (1) derive from an older and broadly distributed cultural stratum than the goetic and magian practices or (2) that the female practices have their roots in a parallel evolution rooted in spiritual affinities between the two sets of female practices.

Johnston’s brief account of the magian practices emphasizes the connection between astrology and animal sacrifice, astrology and haruspicy. This makes a lot of sense when you look to the near eastern sources where both are closely joined to the worship and manipulation of heavenly, divine powers.

While the connection of astrology and haruspices seems counter-intuitive to most of us today, both were the bailiwick of an elite scribal class in Sumer and Babylon. They were both a form of writing through which the gods communicated. The events in heaven were akin to the announcements made in public by the king, while the investigation of viscera was more akin to the correspondence shared by a king and his officials. A lot of the magian magic, then, was a matter of ‘writing back.’ (‘Hi, Shamash, it’s me, Ashurbanipal.’)

This seems to get lost fairly early with the Greeks. By the time we get to the debates around animal sacrifice and the gods in (magian) theurgy between Porphyry and Iamblichus, we don’t see any evidence for this dimension of magian thought. The debate instead rests on notions of feeding and embodiment, which sort of misses the point. It is starting to get a little cargo cultish.

This magian interest in the gods, sacrifice, and astrology, stands in contrast to the goetic interest in the dead and the preference for employing initiatory rites. To get back to the goos/goes rift, what is it that drives the shift from an indigenous female practice to one derived from foreign sources? Johnston’s work indicates that one of the big changes between gootic and goetic notions of the dead involves their restlessness. The goetic conceptions of the dead suggest dead spirits capable of having a greater influence on the lives of the living and who need to be managed through more aggressive forms of magical-sorcerous action.

The new goetic cult seems to be doing one of two things, either (1) it is providing Greeks a way of deal with new problems regarding the dead or (2)  it is identifying longer standing problems with the influence of the dead and providing novel solutions to them. The first case, notably, leaves the door open to the possibility that the goes are themselves the cause of the problems they now ‘solve.’ That’s an old sorcerous bit of hucksterism, after all: curse then promise to lift the curse. There is some evidence that contemporaries weren’t sure exactly what to think.

One very reasonable supposition, though, is that the goes make inroads because the Greek polises are in a state of crisis, and during times of crisis the old strategies for dealing with spirits are often identified as inadequate and new ones explored. That provides a benign dimension to the process, that it is the inrushing of a group of spirits capable of doing some damage control in hard times.

(Still, the displacement of female practitioners is troubling and I don’t want to paint that too rosily.)

That sits up in my head with a couple of factoids. First, that shared by Beyer in Singing to the Plants, describing how the introduction of grimoires into the region he studied along the Amazon River has had a profound and disruptive effect on the practice of ayahuasca mestizo shamanism, with people using grimoires as recipe books rather than undergoing the difficult work of pacting with ayahuasca. Second, the association Frisvold makes between some of the Quimbanda spirits and ayahuasca in his Exu.

These diasporas are something akin to foreign invasives. They insert themselves into the local spiritual biome that are under stress. The syncretism that is characteristic of these practices may be something of an evolutionary strategy, a mimesis that allows them to more rapidly co-opt the system (which can be both positive and negative). The goes weaken Greek traditions of mourning, diminishing the place of women in them, and the magian tradition incorporates the name of the gods into their praxis, undercutting traditional priests. The occult corollary to Nietzshche’s twilight.

Which suggests a revision of Gordon’s positing that “witchcraft is where western grimoire tradition reacts with the local biosphere.”  Rather than put the emphasis on the western grimoire tradition, we can put the emphasis on the local biome and what comes to exist in the place where it reacts with this invasion. Consider the integration of the grimoires in the Caribbean, consider the obeah ofTrinidad and Tobago, which is far more local biome than grimoire.

16 thoughts on “[NB] Sumerian Diasporas Continued

  1. That was definitely what I was going for. The more I think about the definition, the more I like it.

    As regards the hypothesised displacement of women by male goes, it still looks too much like throwing a modern concept back in time to be completely satisfactory, though I free admit ‘absence of evidence’ comes into play here.

    The halfway mark may well be that the profession was new and took its name from an existing and presumably contiguous cultural function. Like midwives becoming a ‘real’ job requiring registration and certificates and such.

    1. Io

      Regarding the throwing modern conceptions backward: in the Sumerian context, it is very speculative on my part, and to the extent that it can be made, there is probably more a case of social differentiation / rivalry. Regarding the Greek context, it seems a bit less so, though there is a good bit of room as to how to interpret that–a less displacement-focused account emphasizing taking its name from contiguous function is entirely plausible.

      Most interpretations of antiquity suffer from the “this isn’t completely satisfactory” and “projects a modern conception backward” problems, though. The ones that tend to be questioned less are just the speculations that play to the modern conceptions we use the most but are least aware of. In that regard, I think there is a lot to be said for forming counter-hypotheses, to see what turns up.

      And, to be entirely clear, I come at this history with the eye toward amplifying gnosis, a little more Walter Benjamin than Edward Gibbon. I am pulling out these elements because they help me amplify that piece of the eternal I carry along with me, because from it I can construct a memory which permits me to bring forward that hunk of eternity more fully down into my life. Spirit seeks its past because it wants its future.

      That isn’t ahistorical, because the gnosis calls out (or seems to call out) to and from the lives of the dead, but its weird historical, no doubt. But, again, I think most history is weird like that, we just don’t see all the players clearly.

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