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The First Mystics?
Some Recent Accounts of Neolithic Shamanism–Part 1
by Barry Cooper
Professor Cooper has edited three volumes of the Collected Works. He has authored numerous essays and books relating to Voegelin, most recently, Beginning the Quest: Law and Politics in the Early Work of Eric Voegelin . This essay was delivered by Professor Cooper at the 2010 meeting of the Eric Voegelin Society and will be included in a forthcoming volume on the subject. This is the first of six parts and appears with permission.
Introduction: Voegelin, Mysticism and the Stone Age
Before discussing the evidence for shamanism in the late or Upper Paleolithic period (50,000 to 10,000 years B.C.) and its significance for political science, I would like to make two preliminary points.
The first concerns the meaning of Voegelin’s use of the term “mysticism” and why it can, with caution, be applied to shamanism. The second concerns the issue of why political scientists might be interested in prehistoric–or as we now say, "early historic"–periods, which include both the late Paleolithic (the focus of this paper) and the Neolithic (10,000 to 5,000 years B.C.).
Voegelin became interested in prehistory during the late 1960s, though arguably his concern with human symbolism and consciousness, which would include prehistoric consciousness, began forty years earlier.
In any event, we conclude this first section with a discussion of a few of his relevant remarks prior to his encounter with Marie König in the fall of 1968. The next section deals with her arguments and why Voegelin found them attractive.
In the final section we examine some of the recent discussions of Shamanism, chiefly by David Lewis-Williams and his colleagues (and criticism of their views) in the context of the late Paleolithic.
An Open-ended Approach
I might add that this paper is intended to be even more exploratory and suggestive than is usual even for the EVS. Given the existing controversies among specialists and the enormous amount of material still to be digested, in no way is it intended to be conclusive.
The short but superficial answer to the implicit question of my title, “were shamans the first mystics?” is: "no."
Quite apart from specialized arguments among anthropologists regarding the meaning of the term “shamanism,” to which we advert below, the commonsensical reason for answering this way is obvious enough: “mysticism” is a term apparently coined by Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagitica (fl. ca. 500 A.D.) to symbolize an experience of reality that transcended the noetic and pneumatic experiences and symbolizations of divine presence.
As Voegelin remarked in a letter to his friend Gregor Sebba, the term “mysticism” refers to “the awareness that the symbols concerning the gods, and the relations of gods and men, whether myth or Revelation, are secondary or derivative to the primary experience of divine presence as that of a reality beyond any world-contents and beyond adequate symbolization by an analogical language that must take its meaning from the world-content.” In this sense, he went on, Plato and Thomas were mystics: “It may horrify you: But when somebody says that I am a mystic, I am afraid that I cannot deny it” (CW, 30:751).
Whether Sebba was horrified or not, the first thing to note about the term “mysticism” and about the experience to which it refers is that they are comparatively recent, at least relative to the enormous 50,000-year span that concerns us at present. To speak of “Stone Age mysticism” is clearly anachronistic, even if we assume that shamanism existed at that time.
Moreover, mysticism is (to use a Voegelinian term), a highly differentiated symbol, referring, as he said, to the inadequacy of world-immanent analogies to convey the experience of world-transcendent divine presence. Shamanic symbols, as we shall see, are by comparison highly compact.