Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Dark Shamanic Origins of Debt and the State 2

The Nightmare Begins

A major theme of these posts is that the historical flight and expansion of capital and debt, and the exclusion of the multitude from the realm of Spirit are intrinsically linked and exist together as part of one vast movement of history.

The question remains as to where debt began in the first place? If we assume, as explained in the previous post, that the original banks were the temples of the ancient world and the original debtors were the first kings and sovereigns, another question arises. Where did the priests obtain the power to issue credit? How did they convince anyone that their money was good? If the origins of the first states, the first banks, and the priesthoods are all connected then how did this situation arise in the first place?


Certainly the question of the origin of the State is huge and there is no consensus as to what really took place. Most mainstream historians have taken a materialistic approach and have assumed that the State emerged from millennia of more or less egalitarian tribal societies as the result of pressure caused by resource depletion and/or population growth.

An alternative to extrasocietal conflict as a reason for the rise of the state has been proposed in the present century. That the classical origins of the pristine states in Mesopotamia, the Indus River region, the Yellow River in China, the New World Valley of Mexico, and coastal Peru all seem to have involved irrigation systems has suggested that the factors of great bureaucratic power, high population density, intensive and high agricultural production, sedentary urbanism, or various combinations of these are responsible for the rise of the state, or at least the ‘Oriental’ version of it.

Origins of the State and Civilization, Elman R. Service, p. 41-42.

These materialistic explanations, however, do not take into account the spiritual/religious outlook of studied tribal societies. The entire philosophy of these societies is centred around a deep understanding of dynamic balance. This philosophy is well expressed by ethnologist Paul Radin.

We have nothing even remotely comparable to primitive man’s sense of an objective social world, a world which is just as real as the external world and which is conceived of as being just as independent of the individual as the external world is. The social reality he predicates has existed from all time and is, in his eyes, as old as the external world of the senses. Like the external world it is never static but always dynamic, taking on varying forms and appearing under different aspects. Yet in spite of this dynamic character it is always the same, a unique and unalterable social world. An individual may sin against varying parts of it without incurring dangerous consequences but if he sins against any fundamental aspect he must be prepared either to dissociate himself entirely from this world or die.

Primitive Man as Philosopher, Paul Radin, p. 43.

Material scarcity, in the rare times when it arises, is shared collectively throughout the tribe. Accumulation by the chief or by any other exclusive group is resisted ferociously by the rest of the tribe. The entire structure and function of the tribe is designed to act against this type of accumulation, so necessary for the formation of the State. Even inter-tribal warfare has the effect of preventing the concentration of power. Peter Lamborn Wilson, applying the ideas of anthropologist Pierre Clastres, explains how warfare was used in this way.

Primitive warfare, and here I'm quoting the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, is completely different from classical warfare in that in primitive societies warfare disestablishes or deconstructs power, it's what he called the "centrifugal effect," a fleeing out from the center. Whereas modern warfare, in complete contrast, is a "centripetal effect," it's a concentration of power. If you look at primitive and hunter gather societies you'll see that there is no class structure, no permanent leadership, the pyramid is not there. Every act of war in that situation is to prevent that pyramid from appearing, the war chief, as soon as he's finished, is out of a job, he does not become the paramount chief and in fact in hunter gather societies the war chief is always a suspicious character. So the primitive warrior has glory, he has adventure, but he has no power. On the contrary, the classical warrior is very interested in power, he wants a centralization of power.

Likewise, population is also strictly kept is balance with the supply of resources immediately available to the tribe through food gathering or limited food production. Certainly, knowledge of herbal birth control and other techniques were widely available. It does not seem, then, that either material scarcity or population expansion alone would be enough to account for the emergence of the State. So what happened?

Beings that Wander About Within the World

Primitive societies are extremely conservative. They obtain an optimum of self-sufficiency and balance within their chosen territory and they remain at this level, with little alteration, for as long as possible. Even the technology and techniques used by these societies do not radically change through the generations. This is certainly not because they lack the ability to progress, their intellectual faculties were and are just as developed as our own, but instead because of an extreme reluctance to do so.

The shamans play an especially conservative role in this regard. It is their role to preserve and make vital the customs and rituals of the tribe. It is also their function to employ the techniques of ecstasy, through entheogenic plants or other methods of trance, to maintain the rapport between the tribe and the spiritual world.

The shamanic worldview is fundamentally different than from the materialist outlook. For the shaman, nature is literally teeming with discarnate entities and supernormal forces. There are just as many as these beings as there are biological organisms inhabiting a particular ecosystem. As with every other level and niche of nature these entities both compete and cooperate with themselves and with humans. There is a natural dynamic balance at work here too and it is in the shaman’s interest to perpetuate this balance.

The shaman can both “see” and communicate with these entities. They can grant powers or boons to the shaman and others, or be employed to curse or drain vitality. There are special classes or beings often called the “predators” who thrive off of the vital energies of others. These vital energies are contained in the liquids of the body and also found freely in plants and other natural organisms.

There are also free kinds of /kuru/ substances, such as some tree secretions (ieikuru) or the bitter cassava juice liberated through pressing manioc tubers (ekuru). These free occurrences of /kuru/ substances are defined as the natural food of some metaphysical beings that wander about within the world, and they are considered extremely dangerous for the human being. The free occurrences of /kuru/ substances are also the subject of countless classes of taboos.
Touching, seeing, or even talking about them in certain situations (the proximity of a hunt, for example) can produce the physical state of uopra’. They must avoid touching blood (circulatory as well as menstrual) and any other tacky and viscous substance that recalls male sperm. Everything that seems to have /kuru/ in free form represents danger because it is the favorite nutrient of the harmful living beings that circulate in the world and the chief factor attracting their malefic actions.
“Being Alone amid Others”, Marnio Teixeira-Pinto, In Darkness and Secrecy, eds. Neil L. Whitehead and Robin Wright, p.228.

As recent studies have made clear, shamanism is itself extremely ambiguous. “Dark shamanism” is a ubiquitous phenomenon whereby certain types of shamans use their abilities for selfish and anti-social purposes. In a certain sense, however, dark shamanism also acts as a brake to any concentration of power, similar to how Clastres explains that inter-tribal warfare prevents political centralization. This is because the targets of this type of shamanism are often chiefs, “light” shamans, or other influential members of tribal society who attempt to set themselves too far above the rest of their community.

The dark shaman resides in the nightly crevices between every segmentary center of Amerindian society and, as such, actively functions against any possibility of a concentrated political power at a rigid center. No repetition of segments can coagulate to form a simple rigid center capable of appropriating in the political the shamanic power to kill. The death-dealing arrows of the dark bewitching shaman keep the social segments supple, never allowing them to accumulate at one point as the surplus of a single entity. Death comes to everyone. It comes in the dark horizon of the west propelled by the bewitching shaman.                                                                                             
The redistribution of any surplus power placed into healing by the light curing shaman is, therefore, the energy effect of the dark shaman’s complementariness. The surplus can only be forced into its distributive mode by the hostile act of the dark shaman who causes ‘little deaths’ of sickness as well as death itself to appear in the first place. Without the violence of the dark shaman, there is every reason to believe that the surplus power of the light shaman could transform itself into a rigid segmentarity within the political domain. Without the dark shaman’s ability to initiate death, the shamanic power of life – streaming from the east like a blazing light of the sun – could dominate, as the political, all the supple segmentarities of transcendent presence.

“The Glorious Tyranny of Silence”, George Mentore, In Darkness and Secrecy, p. 139.

It is my thinking, though, that from this nexus -- the relation between light and dark shamans, the spirits, and the rest of society -- the question of the origin of the state can be resolved. To return first, however, to the relations with the spirits it is useful to look at the account of Martin Prechtel who was an initiated shaman within a Tzutujil Mayan society of Guatemala.

Prechtel claims that all relations with the entities of the other realm must, as they should be in both human society and the local natural environment, be based on reciprocity. Nothing should be taken without giving something back. This is certainly in keeping with the literature on the primitive gift economy following Mauss, Durkheim, Bataille, etc., whereby in such economies any surplus that cannot be distributed to all would be consumed and/or destroyed in orgiastic festivals.

But the gift is not the only form of potlatch; it is equally possible to defy rivals through the spectacular destruction of wealth.... In northwestern America, destruction goes as far as the burning of villages and the smashing of flotillas of canoes. Emblazoned copper ingots, a kind of money on which the fictive value of an immense fortune is sometimes placed, are broken or thrown into the sea. The delirium of the festival can be associated equally with hecatombs of property and with gifts accumulated with the intention of stunning and humiliating. 
   Visions of Excess, Georges Bataille, p.148

The spirits can grant knowledge and power but they want something in return. According to Prechtel, they are usually placated by songs, rituals, and limited sacrifice. If something is taken from nature without these gifts being offered and without the proper reverent intent behind them, then a debt to the spirits is incurred.

Spiritually Expensive

Even the construction of a simple tool requires certain rituals to be performed in order to extract and transform the material components of the tool from nature. If these precautions are not taken, or are taken in bad faith, the spirits demand compensation. If debts continue to accumulate the spirits become more insistent in their demands for repayment. A kind of interest is added to the principle and blood and living energy is demanded.

As Christians are born with original sin, Mayans are born with original debt. In the Mayan worldview, we are all born owing a spiritual debt to the other world for having created us, for having sung us into existence. It must be fed: otherwise, it’s going to take its payment out of our lives.
Prechtel uses the example of the construction of a knife to show how an enormous debt must be paid to the other world.

So, just to get the iron [for the knife], the shaman has to pay for the ore, the fire, the wind, and so on – not in dollars and cents, but in ritual activity equal to what’s been given. Then that iron must be made into steel, and the steel has to be hammered into the shape of a knife, sharpened, and tempered, and a handle must be put on it. There is a deity to be fed for each part of the procedure. When the knife is finished, it is called the ‘tooth of earth.’ It will cut wood, meat, and plants. But if the necessary sacrifices have been ignored in the name of rationalism, literalism, and human superiority, it will cut humans instead.
It is because of this spiritually “expensive” process of manufacturing technology that the Mayans choose not to progress in this way. Western or modern cultures, convinced that matter is a dead thing, feel no compunction to offer anything back to the Earth and her spirits. The debt is ignored, perhaps deliberately, and with the construction of a fully technological world, accelerating rapidly since the eighteenth century, the immense expanding debt is extracted through violence. Presenting the manufacture of automobiles as an example of this process Prechtel states,

All along the way, very little, if anything, was given back to the hungry, invisible divinity that gave people the ability to invent those cars. Now, in a healthy culture, that’s where the shamans would come in, because with every invention comes a spiritual debt that must be paid, either ritually, or else taken out of us in warfare, grief, or depression.

The Mayan people, and other shamanic cultures, choose not to invent such technologies not because they are unable to or that a “primitive” lifestyle is somehow “romantic,” but because they understand fully the expense of ritual and the destructive nature of debt. Our modern world of “advanced” technology, of shopping malls and space shuttles literally starves the spiritual world and causes it to demand sacrifices for debt.

The universe is in a state of starvation and emotional grief because it has not been given what it needs in the form of ritual food and actual physical gifts. We think we’re getting away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all leads to violence.

When we no longer maintain a relationship with the spirits, the spirits have to eat our psyches. And when the spirits are done eating our psyches, they eat our bodies. And when they’re done with that, they move on to the people close to us. When you have a culture that has for centuries, or longer, ignored these relationships, depression becomes a way of life. We try to fix the depression through technology, but that’s not going to work. Nor will it work to plunder other cultures, nor to kill the planet. All that is just an attempt not to be held accountable to the other world.

While the need for reciprocity is idiomatic in the spiritual world, the entities themselves are obviously not equal in character or alignment. Some are more generous and some are more deceptive and rapacious. It is likely though, that as in human societies, that it would be the more power-hungry members of these denizens who would seek deals in order to bind people with debt.


Path to the Proto-State

Here is a possible, if not plausible, scenario, therefore. Among certain tribes, and perhaps at certain periods and locations where resources were in short supply at least temporarily, like in the Near East, the Nile delta etc., the precarious balance between dark and light shamanism became destabilized.

Particular shamans or sorcerers demanded too much power, either for self enhancement, for revenge, or perhaps for protection of the weak, of predatorial entities and this debt could not be paid back in full. Societal imbalance resulted. A state would not emerge from these societies from a sheer physical or political source. Power can only come from the barrel of a gun temporarily, and from that point on it must be sustained as a mythological reality. Only the shamans would be in the position to assume this type of mythic control.

Egyptian magic dates from the time when the pre-dynastic and prehistoric dwellers in Egypt believed that the earth, and the underworld, and the air, and the sky were peopled with countless beings, visible and invisible, which were held to be friendly or unfriendly to man according as the operations of nature, which they were supposed to direct, were favourable, or unfavourable to him. In nature and attributes these beings were thought by primitive man to closely resemble himself and to possess all human passions, and emotions, and weaknesses, and defects; and the chief object of magic was to give man the pre-eminence over such beings.
The favour of the beings who were placable and friendly to man might be obtained by means of gifts and offerings, but the cessation of hostilities on the part of those that were implacable and unfriendly could only be obtained by wheedling, and cajolery, and flattery, or by making use of an amulet, or secret name, or magical formula, or figure, or picture which had the effect of bringing to the aid of the mortal who possessed it the power of a being who was mightier than the foe who threatened to do evil to him. The magic of most early nations aimed at causing the transference of power from a supernatural being to man, whereby he was to be enabled to obtain superhuman results and to become for a time as mighty as the original possessor of the power; but the object of Egyptian magic was to endow man with the means of compelling both friendly and hostile powers, nay, at a later time even God Himself, to do what he wished, whether they were willing or not.
                                                       Egyptian Magic, E. A. Wallis Budge, p. viii-ix.

It could happen like this: the shaman, normally very sensitive about maintaining a balance between the tribe, its environment and the spirits, becomes tempted to abuse the supernormal powers acquired through mystical practice and granted by the entities. Through use of these powers, and through other trickery, the shaman would be able to establish his authority over others. This, in fact, must have happened countless times throughout prehistory and cut at the bud by opposing members of the tribe. At times this process would have progressed further than others.


In this hypothetical case, however, the shaman was able to get enough prestige and followers that he was able to establish an exclusive society of initiated sorcerers -– perhaps he was aided in this by dire or challenging environmental conditions, although this would not necessarily have been the case.

At this point the brotherhood of shamans form a priesthood. They accumulate a surplus of material goods -- before a taboo -- and they empower the tribal chief as a valuable ally. The chief's cooperation would be essential in this endeavour but alone the chief would never be able to establish a state -- he would lack the necessary sacred and mythological authority to do so. He would not have the blessings of the spirits. In later times, the chief would be transformed by the priests into a king.

The next step for the society of sorcerers would be to eliminate all opposition viewed as possessing spiritual power. Individual shamans and other visionaries or sensitives would be forced to join the brotherhood or face exile or worse. More crucially, the techniques of ecstasy -- the secrets of the spirits, meditation and the supernormal powers -- would be monopolized. This knowledge would provide the base of their power, and it is from this base that the State congeals.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post i have found really interesting things in this post and keep doing great work.

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