One of the things that I like about Dina Katz’s work on the Sumerian netherworld is that she chips away at the notion that the Sumerians had a rich notion of multiple souls. Reading the material we have on their afterlife closely, we seem to see quite a bit of variance about what exactly the afterlife consisted in and, even, if there was an afterlife to speak of. That kind of minimalist reading is so useful when you’re trying to have a dialogue, however broken and one-sided, with people of another era.
That said, the Mesoamericans most definitely did (and many still do) have a notion of the human being that sees it as consituted out of a network of spiritual interactions. I like that a lot, and it’s having that in the back of my head that made it easier for me to see something similar going on in the Yeatsian material.
(Jesse Hathaway Diaz talked about the role of the Mesoamerican worldview in contemporary curanderismo at the Virdis Genii conference, but you can find a sketchier and more Muerte focused discussion here.)
Part of that liking is that it helps us to make sense of what goes on in gnosis. When we talk about having different souls present inside of our own body, we start to realize that each of the souls should then have their own sphere of influence and communication, their own invisible communitas. When we do spiritual work, we can ask after the sort of work we are doing, the sort of communitas with which we are engaging.
How much of this reflects an ontological reality and how much of it is a useful metaphor for working with reality? I won’t say I have a clear answer to that. I try to keep an open mind and adjust as I go. I have had things I understood as ontologically primary dissolve into a deeper, seemingly more real, understanding, so I try not to get too big-headed about what’s really real, at least when I’m writing and talking.
Is there something to my sense of identity which lies beyond the simple interaction of these spirits? That’s a similarly tricky question. There does seem to be something fundamental to my individuality, but I have had plenty of ideas about what that was dissolve into that fundamental individuality that I tend to treat most of my efforts to give an account of it as a sort of extended exercise in metaphor.
My go-to metaphor is usually one of seasoning, that what we undertake in life is the seasoning of our ‘true’ being by submitting it to life, to cooperation with these other souls that come to inhabit and circulate within the body we all share. We can undertake that work more consciously by cultivating specific alignments with those souls, but we don’t have to. We can do our thing, they can do their thing, and we can all come out the other side regardless, mutually transformed.
But, regardless, one of the things the multiple soul model suggests is that we are regularly going to be subject to alien thoughts, alien memories, alien emotions, in this case the thoughts, memories, and emotions that our fellow traveling souls need to use the body to experience, too. While we may be seasoning ourselves, they may be seasoning themselves, too. While we have to be cautious because these things can also be a sign of spiritual intrusions, we shouldn’t immediately see them as a sign of spiritual ill-health so long as they can be regulated and managed.
What’s more, these alien inside experiences may be precisely the vehicle through which the seasoning happens, through which our own being is transformed by sharing the vehicle (our body) with these beings.
While I don’t have a good reason as to why, it does seem like my individuality forms the axis for these souls’ interaction. They interact less with each other and more through ‘me.’ That could be a trick of perspective, but so far it doesn’t seem like it. It seems like whatever it is we are, we provide the anchorage for these spiritual opportunities.
When we do work with these spirits, we need to pay attention as we proceed, identifying how that interaction changes the seasoning, and whether it is for the better or the worse. One of the ways that we discover how we work is by discovering how certain sorts of work seem to cause us problems.