I’m just riffing off of the recent reading and household discussion of Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. It’s a great book and part of its strength is its strength lies in its tight focus on the archaeological record. That costs her some breadth (though it is still a broad book)—for example, there is little said about Africa, Asia, or the Americas. This is generally fine given her argument that the regions she is studying serve as the cradle of string and subsequently weaving technology. Given her deep time frame, diffusion into Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is easy enough.
I have been contemplating the Popol Vuh (PV) in relationship to the astronomical dimensions of Mayan myth that I have been absorbing (slowly) through The Star Gods of the Maya. The PV is broken up into several movements, cycling from the cosmic, to the mythic, to the historical. As I consider those layers, as I consider those layers in relationship to the heavens, I am led to two related insights.
The more I look into the Christian syncretisms that developed in Mesoamerica with American thought, the more comfortable I am in asserting that the syncretisms were rooted in the deep and understanding appreciation of the Mesoamericans for the Christian mysteries. This wasn’t naive or protective (hiding ‘real’ Mesoamerican deities behind Catholic facade), but a visceral awareness that the celestial mysteries animating their religious understanding also animated the Christian mysteries.
In short: it wasn’t a Mesoamerican syncretism so much as a Mesoamerican synthesis, one mutilated by the inability of Europeans to appreciate and reciprocate the Mesoamericans’ insights. It seems, too, like this insight is portable, to other instances of ‘syncretism.’ So that what we are seeing is not ‘cultural’ in the sense we use the term, but ‘scientific’ (as a 19th century German might have used the term)—rational, comparative, synthetic.
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.
A few days ago, I had one of those dreams that came with a clear set of instructions around the intellectual side of my practice — “I want you to get out of the Anglosphere for 30 days.” There was more to the dream than just the instructions, but nothing quite so direct as that. So, since then I’ve been trying to do that. Partly because of the rest of the dream, I’ve been skewing that toward Central and South America, with a little of the Caribbean and Africa thrown in.
I am probably going to be talking about the Saadia material for a bit. I am not talking about it from a sense of expertise with the material and its context, but from the way in which it seems to provide a solid model for talking about the spiritual work I have been engaged within. Heck, being able to explore the model without diving into that context is one of the model’s virtues—it has the quality of a theorem which I can examine and apply according to its inner logic.
Okay, so I promised you some critical throat-clearing, right? Maybe I should say threatened rather than promised? Whatever the case, this is the first (and maybe last) exercise to that point. This is going to run a little long.
So far, the new year shift seems to be toward less frequent posting. Partly, that is because I am thinking about some different sorts of things and thinking a little differently all around. That shift hasn’t quite congealed into a pattern that I can sit down and just write about. But I write to think, too, so I want to keep up the habit of posting.
This weekend I’ve been reading Alfredo López Austin’s Tamoanchan, Tlalocan: Places of Mist in a way that I haven’t read anything in a while. He’s an exceptionally good comparative thinker, triangulating from several contemporary Mesoamerican religious practices to better pin down a model of pre-Columbian Nahua thought. It’s funny, every time I find myself working through an account of Mesoamerican or Caribbean or Amazonian philosophy, I can just feel all the little gray cells standing up in recognition of their insight.
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.