American Babylon

I often feel like the indigenous American contributions to global occultism get short schrift. In the early phase, they were concealed by the pseudo-ethnographic attitude taken by Europeans, the sort of exciting and titillating tales that fueled occult fantasies (much like the latter New Age fantasises, which are often built atop older layers of European fantasy) but not in a way that could be easily identified. This was compounded by the devestation wrought on the cultures by disease and imperial disruption.

I am drawn to Mesoamerica, in part because it was such a literate culture and even with with widespread destruction of its texts, much has made its way to us for consideration. It also seems like the Mesoamerican cosmologies have sympathies with the cosmologies of many North Americans with whom they were contemporary, suggesting that they might have participated in a common longue duree we still don’t fully appreciate. If that is the case, then the Mesoamerican material provides something of a door into that broader world.

We may never be able to fully determine the degree to which that was or was not the case, in large part die to the rapid industrial and urban expansion through the Americas that European immigrants drove and the near genocidal assault on Americans to open that space for themselves. Much was lost or irreparably disordered, from people to texts to communities.

That said, indigenous culture has been durable and resilient. Folks will occasionally talk about the vanishing or vanished peoples and cultures of the Maya or the Nahua (or the Cherokee, or the Navajo, etc.), while members of those peoples and cultures are plugging along doing their thing, adapting and innovating with the times. There are still daykeepers, for goodness sake.

And those folks were and are taking hold of the European world. In the early days of European contact, the Europeans were dependent on the Americans, such that some of what defines contemporary American cultures (North to South) has its roots in the culture of the Americans themselves. Like the African influence on American cultures, though, that influence tends to be occluded, even though it structures a chunk of the world upon which academic literacy depends and to which the academically literate will turn their attention.

(That doesn’t make the European-centric cultures of the Americas either American or African, but it makes them something quite different from European culture proper. Take the diversity of the Americans, the diversity of the Africans, the diversity of the Europeans, leaven with the later diversity of Asian cultures, especially China, and you begin to grasp the distinctiveness of the American scene.)

The literacy favored by the European academic center is basically the attitude of the imperial center, organizing the products it receives from its margins for consumption and re-appropriation.  A goodly part of that is elitism mingling with a subtler racism, the presupposition that the cultural contributions of African peoples, American peoples, and Asian peoples cannot possibly be equal to the cultural contributions of the Europeans.

The favoring of European modes of academic literacy in the Americas has much to do with this subtle racism, obscuring alternate forms of literacy (written and oral) that pervade all cultures, European and otherwise. There is something, too, of the Hegelian master-bondsman dynamic, in which the master class unconsciously degrades the value of the bondsperson classes in order to justify their privilege over them.

Regardless of the model, especially at the imperial margins that the Americas were for many centuries, this differentiation of cultures was generally less profound (or differently profound) than often portrayed in our history books (not all of them, obviously, since this revised history owes a lot to scholarly books, too). There were real and distinct lived cultural worlds, but they weren’t so easily described by the broadly Eurocentric categories brought to them.

The sixteenth century saw early forms of hallucinogenic Indian-Christian shamanism in places like Brazil. The seventeenth century would see an American woman, Tituba, at the center of a Eurocentric witch scare (that Tituba is often erroneously identified as an African woman is one indication of how poorly our histories have been at capturing the complexity of the post-contact Americas, where rival institutions of slavery intersected with each other, placing people of disparate origin in close proximity).

We also see things like this:

“According to two of the most important colonial-era Guatemalan K’iche Maya texts to have survived…K’iche ancestors traveled to Tulan Zuyua from a place called Seven Caves, Seven Canyons, to receive their patron gods….After the introduction of Christianity, Catholic equivalents of Tulan were sometimes incorporated into the story….Kaqchikel elites from Tecpan Guatemala claimed descent from Tulan Zuyua, Canaan, and Babylon, simultaneously….the nine houses of the K’iche [were said to have come] from the east, ‘from the other side of the lake, the other side of the sea, when they left from there, from that place called Babylon.’”—Laura Matthew, Memories of Conquest (28-29)

Matthew is part of a growing re-evaluation of the ‘Toltec’ that approaches them as a cultural ideal more than an actual people, a concept more like ‘saint’ (or Gordon’s spiritual objects breaking up on re-entry) than ‘Roman.’ The Toltecs and their sacred Tulan don’t exist anywhere in the world, except where they are realized by different individuals and their communities. How interesting, then, that they are extending this ideal to encompass the world of the Europeans, laying claim to ideals from it and co-opting them for their own.

From an occult perspective, I am especially interested in how well-suited some of the Toltec ideals are for that syncretism. The ‘seven caves, seven canyons’ language puts me in mind of the seven planetary gates. That has more than a little to do with how the Ritual of the BacabsThe Books of Chilam Bilam (edited 1/15), an eighteenth century Mexican text which fuses European and Mesoamerican astrological models, served as an important springboard for developing connections to the source of the four winds, that I tend to call the Bacab-Adams.

It also has to do with the ways my work is informed by a trajectory that tends to splice the quite disparate worlds of Mesoamerica and Sumeria. Part of me wonders if the sort of conflation Matthew describes the Maya making (Canaan-Tulan-Babylon) has some deeper roots at the level of the eternal, or if my own cross-cutting relates directly to this earlier historical case of it, bound up with the blood and mud of this place.

I wonder, too, how much of that fed back into the European occult texts, but which remain concealed by favoring accounts that emphasize their connection to texts from the Old World.

I am talking about this past because I am thinking about what the future might look like, especially from an occultist’s perspective. One real possibility is that we are on the verge of a new era of relocalization, where the various organizing centers that currently define much of our world will lose more and more of their grip on their margins. If you aren’t holding close to those centers (which are not entirely geographic in the information age), then I want you to think, too, about how to have a rich local life that remains open to the breadth of the world even as access to the breadth declines.

Part of that seems to be finding ways of conceiving ourselves in ways that transcend the local without erasing it.


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