Greenwood’s Anthropological Study of Magic

British anthropologist Susan Greenwood is interviewed at Pagans for Archaeology about her new book, The Anthropology of Magic.

In this new book I have taken that argument further and related it to a classical anthropological debate on mystical mentality; and I have also explored the nature of reality in relation to an inspirited world, developing a new methodology of magic from my own experiences, as well as those of others.

The “Luhrmann effect” mentioned by the interviewer refers to the backlash against anthropologists expressed by some British Witches and ceremonial magicians whose practices were discussed by anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann in her 1988 book, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft.

Drumming to Save Their Lives

Reuters Photo:  A cultural performance is seen in Pimchakh, 40 km (25 miles) from regional capital Petropavlovsk-KamchatskyOn the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East (across from Alaska), indigenous people are engaged in a work of cultural survival.

“Everyone of my generation speaks the Koryak language, knows the customs, dances, dishes like in the ancient times. But some of our children don’t know anything at all,” said folk performer Lidia Chechulina, slightly breathless after dancing to the beat of a deer-skin drum and the music of her own voice.

Her songs, sung in a guttural language reminiscent of Chinese, describe the beauty of the tundra, volcanoes and the sea, she explains. She adds that songs, one for each person, accompany Koryaks all their lives and act as a charm.

Soviet Communism, with all its Marxist talk about the dignity of labor, etc., had about the same effect on the Siberians peoples as Christianity did on the American Indians–especially when the Bureau of Indian Affairs used to hire missionaries as Indian agents. But then both Christianity and Marxism are monotheisms, in a sense.

Dionysus, Jesus, Castaneda

After watching the BBC take on anthropologist – novelist – sorcerer Carlos Castaneda, M. and I rented another documentary about him. Enigma of a Sorcerer was released in 2002. It is available through Netflix, but it is only for the hardcore student of neo-shamanism as phenomenon.

Since it is only a collection of interviews (including the late Dan Noel), someone had the bright idea to put pulsating “psychedelic” backgrounds behind each talking head. “I need Dramamine,” M. said, turning away from the screen.

Amy Wallace, one of Castaneda’s inner circle of lovers-students in the 1990s and author of a memoir about that time, was another of the persons interviewed.

Watching both videos, however, you see how Castaneda was somehow possessed by Dionysus–just like every other death-defying savior with a circle of women: Krishna, Jesus, Joe Smith, Carl Jung (compare his “valkyries” to Castaneda’s “witches.”) Gurdjieff too, probably.

Soteriology–the various doctrines of salvation–all suggest the story of the God of variousness whose salvific function is well known in the Orphic cult. His name is Dionysus.

So writes David L. Miller (not to be confused with this David Miller) in The New Polytheism: Rebirth of the Gods and Goddesses (1974), a book a little ahead of its time.

All promised the overcoming of death. Castaneda, according to the interviews, offered a non-ordinary death–to disappear “bodily into the Second Attention”–to his followers. After he expired from liver cancer in 1998, at least one of his lovers went alone to Death Valley, where her bones were later found. Three of the “witches,” Florinda Donner Grau, Taisha Abelar, and Carol Tiggs, also killed themselves, Wallace claims. But she offers no details as to when and how–she just thinks that they must have done so.

Actually, had the BBC wanted to do real journalism, they could have found out who cashes the royalty checks from all of Castaneda’s books. I assume that they go to Cleargreen, Inc., the organization that he set up to incorporate his teaching methods.

Castaneda even has his own “Saint Paul,” Victor Sanchez, who fills the role of the person who never met the Teacher but who claims to be passing on his methods.

Maybe the woman we call Mary Magdalene was either a composite figure or possibly only one of a group of her Dionysian teacher’s intimates. There could be a book there . . .

The most controversial anthropologist

One episode of a BBC series called Tales from the Jungle on famous anthropologists examines the “shamanthropologist” Carlos Castaneda (d. 1998), appropriately described as the most controversial anthropologist ever.

For those of us who can’t watch the Beeb, it is available in segments from YouTube.

There are also episodes on Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead.

Without Castaneda, there would probably have been no “neo-shamanism.” Without Mead appealing to Western notions of the noble–and sexy–savage, the “sexual liberation” of the 1960s would have lost one of its ideological underpinnings. And Malinowski, of course, largely shaped 20th-century ideas of ethnography.

The videos are a little hoked-up–and I wish that the BBC would consistently identify the talking heads on the screen. They do include Castaneda’s son and ex-wife, who in the video defend much of his research (although not his actions), and Jay Fikes, an anthropologist known for his work with the Peyote Way in Mexico and the USA, who is more critical.

The video focuses on the cultish last years of Castaneda’s life in particular.

For more on Castaneda, read Richard DeMille’s two books on him, as well as Dan Noel’s The Soul of Shamanism. Also the Sustained Action website.

Via Savage Minds.

Episodic Religiosity

Cultural anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse divides modes of religiosity into “episodic” and “doctrinal.” One relies on dramatic ritual experiences, the other on creeds, sermons, texts, exposition, etc.

In his book Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity, he writes that in small, tribal, or breakaway groups, “religious life is focused around very infrequent, traumatic ritual episodes.” “Traumatic” seems rather strong, unless, of course, you’re thinking of adult circumcision, the knocking out of teeth, scarification, tattooing, etc.–and a lot of Whitehouse’s field work was done in Melanesia, where some of these practices are or were common.

But now here is an example of a traumatic initiation ritual. If there were other candidates besides the late Mr. James, we can be sure that they will never forget their initiation.