Reconstructing Prehistoric Religion

A Book Review on D. Bruce Dickson’s The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe 

“There is good reason to suppose that what has come down to us is the merest shadow of their actual achievement, for we find dozens of palettes for grinding ocher colors in places where there are no wall paintings…we may in our mind’s eye summon up admirably painted skins of horses or bison, marvelous wood sculptures, and dancing and singing people, their bodies painted with intricate designs in black, red, and white – all the panoply and vivacity of the great Magdalenian rituals, the major part of which must remain forever unknown…The science of prehistory is extremely well equipped when it comes to providing certain details, such as in what direction the ocher was rubbed over the palette, but it can tell us nothing about what happened when the hand was raised to apply it…If we are to be perfectly truthful, we must confine ourselves to the surviving evidence and let it tell us what it can in fragments which are often incoherent. Prehistoric art is thus no more than a remembered impression barely supported by a few hundred finds, the tiny remnant of a vanished whole, which happens to have come down to us because these objects were less perishable than the rest.”

-Andre Leroi-Gourhan 

“We must look for explanations based on authentic material discoveries, but we must do so not simply on the basis of facts in the positivist sense but rather must take into account the world of the spirit, the supernatural, the supersensory, the realm of faith.”

-Marie Konig

As part of my exploration into prehistoric religion, I reviewed D. Bruce Dickson’s The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe, a study which reconstructs the ancient lifeways of the era’s peoples and religious practices. In doing so, it is my hope to better understand the ecological context of such spirituality, and the spiritualization of the ecosystems themselves, in order to understand early human narratives that may have bound people, biodiversity, and place together. Whether such early religious cosmologies, expressed through its art, rituals, and myths have potential for orienting, grounding, nurturing, and generally revitalizing our own society’s religious practices and historically complex views of nature is, while not an explicit focus of the author, certainly implicit in the work, or at least the subject of an ecological culture searching for a social and spiritual order that could sustain them in their ecological context. As such, what holds “value” for such early people, what they find themselves dependent on, namely the natural forces that contextualize them, the community of life they are embedded within, their own technological apparatus and social relations, the phenomenon of transcendence and aesthetic experience—all of these make up the dynamic prima materia from which a formalized “religion,” with its symbolic narrative and ethical implications must draw from. Dickson, for all of his work, does terrific work in his archaeological inquiry to reconstruct all of these layers necessary to focus on the core elements at the heart of Paleolithic spirituality.

Finding a Method

In the first chapter, “Humanity, the God’s and Archaeology,” Dickson gives an overview of culture, what he terms a proper unit of analysis that gets historically more complex as interrelated social institutions make up systemic wholes. Culture he says, is praxis, transmitted symbolically as evolutionary adaptive techniques. As such, one can take two lines of thinking on the subject, a cultural materialist approach in the vein of Marvin Harris that looks at the ideational superstructure as permeated by corporeal reality, or an ideational approach that sees symbols as cultural patterns that act as blueprints for institutions that shape behavior, trigger events, and revitalize the social order. In this regard, patterns are organized around notions of the sacred, with religion functioning as a struggle with the reality of the human condition by performing specific tasks, of which Dickson points out four mental (m), and five behavioral (b):

  1. Coherent worldview (m)
  2. Moral Ethos (m)
  3. Congruent glue holding the social order to the worldview and ethos (m)
  4. Explaining the meaning of historical experience in intelligible ways (m)
  5. Establishing mechanisms of social control (b)
  6. Reducing tension through therapeutic psychological support (b)
  7. Integrating various institutions (individual, family, government, etc) into whole (b)
  8. Justifying systemic operations (b)
  9. Revitalizing and transforming the sociocultural order to adapt to new circumstances (b)

With these functional tasks in mind as the operating principles and functional tasks of religion, Dickson sees religion as falling into four different types, individualistic, shamanistic, communal, and ecclesiastic, based on the size and complexity of the society that encompasses it. These tasks and categories of religion then become for Dickson, while still incredibly difficult to reconstruct in the Paleolithic, at least a plausible with regards to formulating a method for his inquiry. As the author states,

“This work illustrates through an analysis of Upper Paleolithic archaeological data some of the ways we can use this sympathy […] to interpret the material remains recovered by the archaeologist and to reconstruct what appears to be farthest afield from the material [that is to say, religion].” 15

Here Dickson’s relates his basic premises of his inquiry, that humans share similar psychological regularities and patterns throughout cultures in space and time; and that human culture is likewise patterned and reflected in the material aspects of life, i.e. art, architecture, settlements, debris, mortuary practices, etc. With this in mind, Dickson will use as methods 1) the archaeological analysis of material remains to infer nonmaterial behavior; 2) formal analysis of the external arrangement of imagery and symbols to discover clues to the cosmology in question; and 3) anthropological data from living societies to analogize the remains of such disappeared societies. Before applying these methods to Southwestern France during the Upper Paleolithic era though, Dickson briefly sketches how such a process might give insight into religion, using Christianity as a quick example.

For instance, with regards to the archeological evidence, one might classify church buildings as a type of ceremonial architecture, arrange subtypes in a presumed chronological order, and plot the distribution and regional subdivisions within space and time, before developing a set of inferences about the functions of the various types of architecture based on similarities and differences as they change over time. In terms of the formal analysis of Christian religious theory, insight into the worldview and ethos could be developed through better understanding of the material remains of its social history, as through its art and iconography. And finally, an ethnographic analogy might posit Christianity as a series of rites of passage, mechanisms of social control, psychological support, and social integration. With these in mind, and going into more depth for each, the author speculates that an archaeologist might suspect Christianity’s growth into a political and economic institution to become institutionally central in social life, employing mechanisms of social control and psychological tension-reduction. Two great regional stylistic traditions (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), each with unique art and architectural traditions, over time, developed an increasing structural remoteness that paralleled archeological evidence of growing social complexity and class stratification in late medieval European society. Moreover, as mortuary remains concerned with death figured heavily into art, as did images of resurrection of the dead, the archaeologist would find powerful clues to economic stratification, political hierarchy, and the religious organization of European society reflected in the Christian burials, giving insight into differences in social identities, ranks, and classes. Added to this would be the formal understanding, through images of important men and subservient women, angels, devils, halos, thrones, and a resurrected god-man, that Christianity was a male-centered polytheistic cult, highly structured and hierarchical in nature, with a complex set of symbolic and ideological associations, that saw the world as violent and dangerous with a well-developed belief in a spiritual afterlife and fear of divine judgement and punishment maintaining adherence to the Christian ethos.

In this regard, Christianity might well be conceived of by the archaeologist as a conservative state-sponsored cult whose political and economic interconnections preserved the status quo, which in turn would likely neglect the interpretation of the religion as a potentially revolutionary and radical revitalization movement with a millenarian message. For this reason, if we are to apply such methods to the prehistoric period, we are bound to miss much. Still, as Dickson ends this first introductory chapter,

“patterns are evident in the material remains of these late Pleistocene epoch cultures, their art and symbols likewise are susceptible to formal analysis, and the ethnographies of modern hunter-gatherers provide a likely source of analogic interpretation. Perhaps this fanciful example will embolden the reader to accompany us in our attempt at reconstructing religious life in the Upper Paleolithic period.” 27

Building a Timeline

The second chapter gives an overview of the Pleistocene and Paleolithic eras, its geological formations characterized by seven major processes or phenomena:

1) increased volcanic activity,

2) great cycles of glacial expansion and inter-glaciation,

3) changes in worldwide sea levels,

4) rapid climatic and environmental changes,

5) extensive changes in the distribution of plants and animals,

6) accelerated pace of worldwide mammalian evolution and extinction, and

7) the evolution of the hominid line.

With this in mind, Dickson traces the evolution of the hominids through the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, tracing major developments from skeletal remains, traces of fire, animal bones, stone tool kits, and biological and cultural adaptations leading to new hunting strategies along with mental and behavioral differences. As the author states, “The appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens is correlated with a series of fundamental technical changes in the hominid cultural repertoire and with evidence of increasingly complex aesthetic and religious impulses.” 37

As Dickson goes into the archaeological systematics, he suggests that early humans began to become concerned with realities transcending mere biological needs, citing the intentional collection of ochre as having “no apparent practical or technological use,” suggesting the development of a “nascent aesthetic sense.” 43 The purposes we can only speculate at (ritual body decoration, ornamentation, ability to mark rank, status, age, sex, delimiting symbolic spaces like ritual areas, healing grounds, graves, or alters, etc.), but the ability to symbolically categorize suggests concerns beyond simple survival, and an appreciation of form and color for their own sake. Moreover, the increased specialization of tools (as seen with the technological transformation through the Levallois technique to the Mousterian tradition) offer adaptive advantages correlated with cognitive or intellectual complexity, for instance examples of art or engravings, the increased use of ochre, and intentional burials with mortuary offerings. Finally, the Upper Paleolithic displays dramatic evidence of increasing complexity as technical and intellectual achievement accelerates, and modern Homo sapiens sapiens replace Neanderthals.

Here then begins the period Dickson will spend his next chapters explaining, the biogeographic and cultural sequences of the area in question, Franco-Cantabria in Southwestern Europe, tracing the transition from middle to upper Paleolithic eras through the various industrial tool phases from Mousterian to the Azilian (chapter three); an analysis of the burials and art of these epochs as hierophanies reflecting social structure and metaphysics in the mobiliary art, decorated weapons, tools, and ornaments, and religiously significant objects, for instance the Venus figurines, decorated slabs, parietal art, and cave painting subjects and techniques, (chapter four); a survey of “classical” interpretations of the art and religion of the period as incorporating rites of passage, hunting magic, cave art, and shamanism, followed by contemporary interpretations by Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Alexander Marshack, Anne Sieveking, and Clive Gamble (among others) as to the patterns, meanings, and external causation factors of these developments (chapter five); and then to a reconstruction of society, culture, and religion through the ethnographic analogy of hunter-gatherers, an analysis of its limitations, and a set of useful hypotheses about Upper Paleolithic sociocultural systems (chapter six).

In this regard, Dickson is able to make a number of findings which I will list below.

Key Findings

With regards to the cultural transition in Upper Paleolithic sites, we notice:

  • An increased size of sites
  • Changes in settlement pattern and subsistence
  • A general predominance of blades over flakes in stone tool inventories
  • The rapid appearance of new, highly standardized tool forms
  • Appearance of composite or multi-component tools
  • An increase in the number of artifacts made of shaped bone, ivory, and antler
  • The first appearance of amber, flint, shells, ochre, and other materials from non-local sources
  • Changes in the numbers of burials and in the nature and composition of burial populations
  • The first appearance of cave and portable art and the possible development of complex notational and calendric systems
  • A dramatic heightening in the pace of cultural and technical change

Dickson’s ethnographic analogy breaks down to the following characteristics of cultures living in similar environments:

  1. Simple technologies
  2. Subsistence system capable of producing only relatively low levels of food energy
  3. Plant-based diets
  4. Little emphasis on accumulation
  5. A low density of population per area
  6. Dependence upon wild food resources, spatially dispersed and seasonally fluctuating in the availability
  7. Population size determined by the amount of wild foodstuffs collectable during the season of minimum availability
  8. Band organization
  9. A reliance upon kinship as the most important principle of social organization
  10. Economic distribution and exchange based on reciprocity
  11. Individual and collective ownership
  12. An absence of full time specializations
  13. An absence of ascribed statuses and roles
  14. Feuding, but no true warfare

These ethnographic findings however are limited by several major points:

  • Upper Paleolithic (UP) period hunting and gathering peoples inhabited many environments that have no equivalent in the historic or modern world
  • UP peoples in Europe hunted numerous animal species now altogether extinct, regionally extinct, or far less abundantly available to historic and modern hunting peoples
  • UP hunting and gathering peoples inhabited richer and more varied environments than do modern hunter-gatherers
  • UP peoples must have subsisted entirely upon the hunting and gathering of wild foodstuffs; very few ethnographically known hunter-gatherers do so
  • The assumption that modern hunting and gathering peoples retain the institutions and behavior patterns of the Paleolithic period is unwarranted

This leads Dickson to several hypotheses:

  • The dietary contribution of hunting was probably more significant during the UP period than among most ethnographically known hunters and gatherers
  • Human population densities were relateively high during the UP period
  • At least by the end of the UP period, subsistence systems were based on seasonally timed combinations of specialized big-game hunting, salmon fishing, and broad-spectrum hunting and gathering that allowed people to live in comparatively large, nucleated communities during some period of the year
  • UP society developed more complex forms of political and social organization than the band

Reconstructing religious practices then, the ethnographic model can predict certain behaviors:

  1. Ethnographically known food collecting societies lack religious specialists just as they lack specialists in other aspects of their social life and political economy.
  2. An ability to enter altered states of consciousness is highly prized and is common in food-collecting populations
  3. Among hunter-gatherers, the rules governing hunting procedures, the treatment of game animals, and the distribution of meat tend to be buttressed by religious sanction
  4. Communal rituals among hunter-gatherers tend to mirror or express the social relations that organize and energize their subsistence systems
  5. Communal rites of passage of hunter-gatherers tend to emphasize the initiation of adolescents into adulthood
  6. The scale and elaboration of the mortuary practices among food collectors is determined by the degree of their sedentism, the nature of their seasonal schedule, and whether or not they practice a delayed-return formed of subsistence

With all these sets in place, Dickson is thereby ready to give his interpretation of religious life in the Upper Paleolithic era in his final chapter. He suggests six attributes:

  • The material patterning which appears to reflect religious activity most directly is found in the UP mortuary remains, parietal art, and certain mobiliary art objects
  • Compared to the preceding Middle Paleolithic period, these mortuary remains exhibit an overall increase in the number, far greater likelihood women and children will be buried, a dramatic increase in the variability, frequency, and quality of grave goods interred with burials, and inter/intra-regional variability in the manner of the interments
  • Uniformity in the styles of parietal and mobiliary art
  • A spatial dichotomy between locations of human habitation and the location of parietal art
  • Parietal art cave sites vary with regards to the quantity of art they contain and the scale and elaborateness of their decoration
  • The natural interiors of parietal art caves exhibit evidence of being decorated and utilized in systematically different ways, with different kinds of “architectural orders”

These six generalizations lead to tentative conclusions about the nature of religious practice. For instance the burial and cult types imply “an ingenious, even elaborate cultural tradition. The continuity and apparent sophistication of this tradition argue persuasively for the presence in the Upper Paleolithic period of social and religious institutions of greater complexity than…[a] shamanistic cult.” 199 Moreover, the seasonal schedules and ceremonial centers suggest a locus of seasonally timed aggregation and religious and ceremonial activity embody and encode a “sacred canon” or religious model of social order that weds the economic realities of the people to a metaphorical expression of social and ideological realities. Finally, the uniformity of the parietal and mobiliary art styles suggest the works were deeply embedded in the ritual life of the period, acting as “an attempt to control nature and society by supernatural means.” Apart from the aesthetics of such art, the shared religious meaning likely “fostered cooperative interactions or information sharing among widely separated UP peoples,” providing peoples with a “common ideology and a universal symbolic grammar for expressing it. This in turn would have likely “fostered general intercommunication and selective advantage [which] accrued to hunting groups with information about game movements over a wide area.

Formal Analysis

Dickson further uses formal analysis to penetrate the systems of meaning to understand the religious life of the period. Binary thought was evident in the spatial separation of “living space” and “ceremonial space,” as with the four other binary oppositions found in the artwork: red and black, left and right, positive and negative, whole or mutilated. This in turn might lead to notions of morality or an afterlife, such as good and evil, life and death, male and female, sacred and profane, beginning to be set in ritual participation and binary code. As with binary thinking, the sexual dualism may have similarly been associated with a regenerative and cyclical worldview, as evidenced in a notational system for recording the lunar cycle and its association with the human female’s menstrual cycle, and by implication the cycle of human birth, growth, and death.

The empirical knowing of the natural phenomena, the passage of time, and the nature of human—especially female—sexuality are characterized and predictable, and so may have become a kind of “grand analogy,” useful in explaining, rationalizing, and investing the universe with intelligible meaning. An ethos emphasizing careful observation of natural cycles would further allow the prediction of the behavior and movements of animals, further confirming the material benefits of such an understanding. This in turn could suggest the meaning of the Venus figurines, whose conjoining of sexual and regenerative principles through the symbolism of women who, far from being just images of “divinity,” represented such distorted proportions (massive breasts and obesity), they may in fact represent a woman with symptoms that suggest a disease (hyperadrenocorticism) associated with states of high excitability and euphoria, which would have perhaps been associated with shamanic powers, and imply the figurines represent a personality cult based on real individuals. This is bolstered by the fact that a majority of the figurines themselves come from a period of two thousand years, becoming more scarce as time passes, as well as the Upper Paleolithic period being the first time when females were commonly buried, perhaps achieving social status on par with men, reflecting a parallel increase in significance. This is all to say the “sacred canon” of the Upper Paleolithic spiritual realm “symbolically reproduces the social processes of production and asserts that the duality and complementarity of the sexes were essential to the social and economic persistence of society.” 214

This has been a long book review for a simple reason, in order to understand the main thesis of the author’s work, decades of archaeological work looking at millions, if not billions of years of context are necessary to understand the major trends of a worldview itself spanning millennia. The rich regional environment that enabled complex subsistence systems to support human populations in densities that would have forced scheduled moves in response to annual cycles may have led to initiation rites as part of ceremonies held at times of maximum social aggregation. The ceremonial centers may have served as the focus of the rites that occurred during these times, suggesting the complexity of their socio-political-economies surpassed that of simple nomadic bands. The religious life in turn may have depended upon part-time shamanic practitioners seeking to engage the spirit in ecstatic encounters whose altered states of consciousness would have contributed to a religious ideology that sanctioned the rules surrounding interpersonal relations, gender roles, hunting procedures, the ethical treatment of game animals, and distribution of food, all of which would have been reflected in the religious and symbolic rituals which modeled the social order. This complex order was experiential, deriving perhaps from the perceived cyclicality in time and its association with sexuality, which would have been generalized into the universal principles and correspondences that formed the basis of Paleolithic consciousness as it reflected upon nature, humankind, the cosmos, and reality, embodied and reflected in the art caves of the region.

Here then the author ends his project, demonstrating through a culmination of material and formal analysis, along with ethnographic analogy, a detailed middle-theory capable of inferring behavior from the scant records left behind in the earthy layers of our planet, with the intention of answering the question as to the nature of humanity’s original religious experience.

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Ecology, Magic, and Cultural Materialism

A Review of Marvin Harris’ Cows Pigs, Wars, and Witches


  “We don’t expect dreamers to explain their dreams; no more should we expect lifestyle participants to explain their lifestyles”

-Marvin Harris

“There are very important and practical issues raised by following this alternative route which says, let’s look to material conditions, to the systems of production, to the needs that human beings have, and to competing alternative solutions to the satisfaction of those needs.”

–Marvin Harris

Intro: A Reason for Being

As part of some preparation for advanced work in ecology, spirituality, and religion, I’ve been moving a bit out of philosophy and into the world of anthropology. Recently I picked up Marvin Harris’ Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (1974) to better understand the cultural materialist perspective, a paradigm and research strategy I readily admit to actively avoiding for some time.

I have never been all that interested in science (hence part of the movement towards anthropology for me), and so treating ideology scientifically does not seem to make much sense, so that cultural and behavioral events can be seen from an etic perspective as the change agents, rather than assuming, from an emic perspective, the ideas, values, or other mental events are. Such a strategy seems almost like a processual archaeology of sorts, and positivist, seeking the underlying forces of history, downplaying individuality’s role in social change for an environmental determinism, while attributing the engine of transformation to a society’s infrastructure (relations to government, modes of production and reproduction), structure (social relations), and superstructure (ideational aspects and relations, e.g. arts, rituals, goals, etc.)

This goes to what appears to be Marvin’s thesis, that the “social dreamwork” of a culture, or rather, “the lifestyle consciousness of the participants,” obscures the reality of our lives and, in America, has “become a full-fledged industry, culturally manufactured to spread an ideology of market sensibilities and a fiction that capital creates wealth, erasing realities from consciousness like class and labor’s role in creating such wealth.” In fact, this social dreamwork or lifestyle consciousness in really not much more than the manifestation of a society’s cultural adaption to ecological constraints. As Harris writes,

“Ignorance, fear, and conflict are the basic elements of everyday consciousness. From these elements, art and politics fashion that collective dreamwork whose function it is to prevent people from understanding what their social life is all about. Everyday consciousness, therefore, cannot explain itself. It owes its very existence to a developed capacity to deny the facts that explain its existence.” (6)

In his view, the relevant material factors in human events are disguised as lifestyles, wrapping themselves in myths and legends drawing attention to supernatural conditions, giving people a social identity and purpose that conceals the truths of social life. Such deceptions about the mundane causes of culture “weigh upon ordinary consciousness like layered sheets of lead. It is never an easy task to circumvent, penetrate, or lift this oppressive burden.” (5)

Now, I find myself a little offended that the stories I might live my life by, indeed my entire consciousness might be an “oppressive burden” determined by my ecological context (wherefore art thou free will!), and that a degree of over-subjectivity might have deluded my understanding of my own lifestyle and reified that delusion. Nevertheless, I am open to a dose of scientific objectivity concerning the causes of lifestyle phenomena, for the simple reason that scientific materialism might balance out a tendency on my part to privilege the more cultural ideation that the so-called “counterculture” might be employing in part of their criticism of the dominant paradigm (the hope that the Pentagon could be levitated if only enough people had sufficient faith strikes me as one glaring example).

Witchcraft of the Counterculture

And here is really where Marvin’s book seems to start, for the entirety of the book seems to be in service of understanding the failure of Vietnam. Indeed, he believes “our consciousness was mystified by symbols of patriotism, dreams of glory, unyielding pride, and visions of empire…we enthralled ourselves with visions of our own ineffable majesty. In short, we were stoned.” (266) His goal, therefore, and one I can certainly appreciate, is to articulate the sound basis for “assuming that by struggling to demystify our ordinary consciousness we shall improve the prospects for peace and economic and political justice.” Otherwise, we will continue to fail to expand this consciousness beyond the instrumental and banal tasks to the practical significance of national goals and policies, as he, rightly, I think, points out.

In this way, it is rather a shortage of scientific objectivity, not a surplus, about the causes of lifestyle differences that has brought on two competing tendencies: a grandiose vision of military-messianic consciousness on the one hand, as well as the counter-cultural enthusiasts who, while intending to subvert the scientific worldview, are actually quite harmless, if not complicit, because they simply are too complacent and disconnected to redeem or fulfill their mission on a cosmic scale. That is, the level of popular befuddlement in the counterculture ignores the important and constructive questions of how to serve humane ends and reduce inequities and exploitation, but rather deepens the confusion, psychic involution, and epitomizes amorality, disdaining reason, evidence, and objectivity for a ‘superconsciousness’ that “strips an entire generation of the intellectual means of resisting the next call for a ‘final and decisive struggle’ to achieve redemption and salvation on a cosmic scale.” (263)

This, Marvin states, is no more than a return of the witch craze, where the lifestyle consciousness arises from a set of practical and mundane conditions similar to those responsible for the rise of religious saviors, whose boundless, millennial promises made with boundless, prophet-like conviction ultimately bring history to a preordained consummation, invoking Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, Lenin’s Communist Jerusalem, Trotsky’s True Paradise, and other devils’ and witches’ utopian fancies. This book then, is designed to uncover the ultimate reasons for these present social phenomena that we must deal with objectively to understand their own influence on our own lives today.

As mentioned, this book begins from a position of anti-warfare as a moral imperative. And yet, the counterculture’s anti-war movement, even with its hope that it can transform society through “revolution by consciousness,” is perhaps more engaged in obscurantism than anything else. Harris writes that while the counterculture touts a radical rejection of science and technological values, it does not reject technological values, remaining explicitly a middle-class movement, steeped in the myth of its social dreamwork and radical doctrines “that prevent people from understanding the causes of their social existence.” (255) This consciousness is, it is claimed, “so far out of touch with practical and mundane constraints is, in fact, witchcraft rather than politics.” The conditions however, “cannot be imagined into or out of existence the way a shaman makes hundred-foot gnats appear and disappear.” Rather, they can only be modified by practical activities aimed at “changing consciousness by changing the material conditions of consciousness.” (253) Theirs then, cannot be called politics, but rather witchcraft, or magic, which seeks to subvert objective knowledge while at the same time subverting the basis of moral judgement. In this regard, in the anthropology of counterculture, primitive, non-technological consciousness is epitomized by the movement’s ideal figure, the shaman, who cultivates hidden powers of the universe and possesses a super-consciousness that both controls history and is prior to structure: Change consciousness, the counterculture’s thought-process goes, and the entire corporate state, and all its evils, will simply be dissolved, along with other “unreal” social illusions—time schedules, rational connections, competition, anger, excellence, authority, private property, law, status, the primacy of the state…

The counterculture, therefore, sees its millennial consciousness as the truth serum that repeals false consciousness (dominant culture), for the sake of propping itself up whereby the non-intellective capacities may reign supreme. In this regard, psychotropic drugs, shamanic states of mind, and social dreaming are thought to unlock the potential of the mind to create a separate reality which can be imagined as a supreme reality.

I will admit that I may be guilty of such thinking (indeed, the entire ecomagicians project may be as well!), and yet at the same time this critique is one I have seen elsewhere, for instance in the thought of Eric Voegelin and his science of politics and political religions. Indeed, just as Voegelin traces the origin of such ideas through history into the structure of consciousness itself, Marvin Harris will answer the question of the origin of this phenomena by looking into the past, at identifiable and intelligible sources as cultures and societies (and I might add, that structure of consciousness in general) struggle to adapt to their environmental circumstances. As such, his layering of new adaptations onto others means a journey to peel those layers back…

Hammering the Witches

For instance, the magical thinking Harris accuses the counterculture of is, he suggests, rooted in the Great Witch Craze culminating in the years after the Protestant Reformation, which Harris explains as “largely created and sustained by the governing classes as a means of suppressing a wave of Christian messianism that sought to protest social and economic inequity. As feudalism gave way to strong national monarchies and the development of trade, markets, banking, land owning and capital enterprises seeking to maximize profits, serfs were displaced and dispossessed, drifting to towns to find new lifeways ruled by commercial profits rather than tradition. Messianic theoreticians like Joachim of Fiore in turn devised prophetic systems that would purge the Church of wealth and luxury while destroying the clergy altogether. As these messianic movements became more militant, preaching the massacre of moneylenders, price-fixing merchants and unscrupulous lawyers until all property would become held in common, these subversive and anti-clerical movements were declared “heretical” and forced underground, or, alternatively the troublemakers and alienated poor were enlisted in the Crusades to fight against approved enemies elsewhere.

The threat of radical lower-class revolution drove Europe towards the Protestant Reformation and beyond, so that it is easy to see why the witch craze and development of European messianism took off—these were rejections of an institutional structure found wanting. And yet, Harris goes beyond this: Witches and heretics, like the counterculture, were no real threat to the established order, for explicit doctrines of social criticism and threatening courses of actions were absent from such groups. Rather, the witch hunters went out of their way to increase the supply of witches simply to make witchcraft, as a threat, more believable. By examining the earthly results of the witch-hunt as opposed to its heavenly aims, Harris recognizes that,

“the poor came to believe that they were being victimized by witches and devils instead of princes and popes…against the people’s phantom enemies, Church and state mounted a bold campaign. The authorities were unstinting in their efforts to ward of this evil, and rich and poor alike could be thankful for the energy and bravery displayed in the battle.” (237)

This is to say, what people thought happened was as interesting as what objectively did happen, in the sense that the reality is distinct from the lifestyle consciousness of the participants. In this way, the Devil was to blame, rather than the corrupt clergy and rapacious nobility, and not only were witches used as scapegoats for any evil seen in leaky roofs, aborted cows, withered oats, soured wine, headaches, infant mortality, broken fences, etc, but now, the church and state were indispensable, great protectors of humanity from an omnipresent enemy. As Harris points out, “Here at last was a reason to pay tithes and obey the tax collector. Vital services pertaining to the life rather than the next were being carried out with sound and fury, flame and smoke. You could actually hear the witches scream as they went down to hell.” (238)

For this reason, out of only three instances of accusations of witchcraft against members of the nobility, not one accused was executed. 82% on the other hand were defenseless older women and lower class midwives, the remaining being those they accused under duress of torture. And so, whereas military messianism brought together the poor and dispossessed over vast regions to focus their energies into battles against those at the top of the social pyramid, the witch craze was a defense of the institutional structure that

“dispersed and fragmented all the latent energies of protest. It demobilized the poor and the dispossessed, increased their social distance, filled them with mutual suspicions, pitted neighbor against neighbor, isolated everyone…in so doing, it drew the poor further away from confronting the ecclesiastical and secular establishment with demands for the redistribution of wealth and the leveling of rank…the magic bullet of society’s privileged and powerful classes.” (240)

And whereas witchcraft, brooms, and Sabbats have their own unique history (Harris traces it to a hallucinogenic herbal medicine containing nightshade that users take to fall into a deep sleep, seemingly creating sensations of flying and dreams of frenzied dancing and orgies), so too does the tradition of messianism…

Adapting to Imperial Violence

Living under the Roman empire, the Jewish people sought a savior, or messiah (Christ in Greek), born out of years of tradition that held Yahweh’s covenant with David and Moses had been broken. Once the relationship had been mended through repentance and atonement, a military prince would end the age of suffering and lead a great Jewish empire into glory. And yet, this was not to be a peaceful messiah, but a vengeful military messiah. For this reason, Palestine was the context for a guerrilla war with centers of insurgent activity aimed at liberating the Jews from Roman rule, with many “zealots,” “bandits,” “magicians,” and “guerrillas” all claiming the mantle of messiah and engaging in a revolutionary praxis involving harassment, provocation, robbery, assassination, terrorism, and martyrdom. As Jewish military-messianism rose and fell, “continuously re-created by the practical exigencies of colonialism and poverty, the revolutionary impulse burst forth,” an insurrectionary fervor culminating in the Jewish Revolt of 66-71 CE followed by Bar Kochva’s miraculous victory in establishing an independent Jewish state in 132CE, albeit for only three years.

When this movement failed, Jews were nearly wiped out, resulting in the complete loss of the territorial integrity of the Jewish state. It was, according to Harris, an “adaptive failure” to the inequities of Roman colonialism. He puts it thus:

“In culture, as in nature, systems that are the product of selective forces frequently fail to survive, not because they are defective or irrational, but because they encounter other systems that are better adapted and more powerful. I think I have shown that the cult of the vengeful messiah, like cargo, was adapted to the practical exigencies of a colonial struggle. It was extremely successful as a means of mobilizing mass resistance in the absence of a formal apparatus for raising and training an army.” (173)

Such revolutions occurred, according to Harris, because the environmental conditions for the Jews were so abhorrent they revolted against the most powerful empire the world had known, so that the Jewish military-messianic consciousness expanded greatly at the time of Christ, stories of whom were only written about after the destruction of the Jewish temple, so that Harris will conclude that the Jesus cult would rework the militant messianic character into a “prince of peace” figure, whose adherents (Paul, in particular) would proselytize successfully to both Jews (wanting to escape persecution) and non-Jews (without demanding circumcision). For this reason, Christianity was able to grow after the fall of Jerusalem as the gospels spread, absolving Romans of guilt and allowing Jews to escape persecution. Christianity then was able to become a state within a state, which “concentrated in the urban centers, had infiltrated the Roman upper class, maintained effective social welfare programs, and were building a fiscally independent international corporation led by skilled administrators [so that] the Christian churches had once again become a political threat to Roman law and order,” eventually undergoing imperial persecution again by Christians before Constantine would adopt it as the state religion after uniting his armies under the banner. Turning the militant messiah into a purely peaceful, non-hostile leader had become a “practical necessity” in the years after the Jewish destruction when a defeated people sought to distance themselves from a movement seeking to topple Rome, growing until it could be the lynchpin of that same empire’s imperial violence, the language of the Jesus cult’s stories changing accordingly.

Messianic cults are not however relegated to the middle east and Europe however. As Marvin Harris demonstrates, the so-called “Phantom Cargo Cults” engaged in a similar belief system.

 After Europeans colonized New Guinea, indigenous groups were astonished by the amount of cargo that seemed to come from nowhere to their homeland, airlifted into strongholds or coming from ships. Natives, seeing this, soon began anticipating a total upgrading of their own lives, where, in accordance with their own ancestral worship, the “dead and living will be reunited, the white man thrown out or subordinated, drudgery abolished, with no shortages of anything. The arrival of the cargo, in other words, will mark the beginning of heaven on earth.” (134)

Cargo prophets emerged when white missionaries and government soldiers, taking on the mantle of “Big Men”,  began bribing natives with promises of cargo to convert them to Christianity. This would eventually lead to open rebellion once natives realized missionaries and soldiers were exploiting them without giving them rewards of cargo, believing that cargo was not produced by men but rather in a supernatural realm, not accepting or able to learn theories of European capitalism or colonial economic policy. As these concepts, analogous to themes in the aboriginal belief system, became the idiom in which mass resistance to colonial exploitation was first expressed, Harris points out how the wealth enjoyed by colonizers and produced through the work of the indigenous groups and expropriation of their lands created a new symbol, “cargo,” that, like the messianism of the Jews, becomes the vehicle to express the wealth they believe they are entitled to but that their colonizers have failed to reciprocate, which in turn demands a millennial mechanism for redistribution.

Reciprocation, Primitive Warfare, and Carrying Capacity

The idea of reciprocation has its own roots in the “Big Man” system of New Guinea and similarly in the Potlatches of North American native groups as well. In these cases, the drive for prestige will have as its object a ceremony in which to show oneself superior to other rivals. Indeed, the whole aboriginal economic system might be bent to the service of such obsessions. And yet, beyond the social dreamwork of personal aggrandizement is something else. That is, prestige is not their only reward, but rather, competitive feasting by big men and the chiefs involved in “wasting” wealth in the potlatch ceremonies “acts as an automatic equalizer of annual fluctuations in productivity among a series of villages that occupy different microenvironments.” (118) The greatest chiefs, the big men, gain their prestige  by being the best providers, able to transfer food and valuables from centers of high productivity to less fortunate areas. Transfers are thus assured so that unpredictable fluctuations in food sources are addressed, stabilizing regional populations as a whole. That is, “they gather together the results of the productive effort of many individuals and then redistribute the aggregate wealth in different quantities to a different set of people.” (121) Reciprocity then is the technical term for an economic exchange, so that if the exchange is not reciprocated “people begin to suspect that the taker is possessed by malevolent spirits or is practicing witchcraft. In egalitarian societies, individuals who consistently violate the rules of reciprocity are in fact likely to be psychotic and a menace to their community.” (123)

Beyond an individual, or social aspect to competitive feasting, there is the larger ecological context that is addressed as well. Marvin points this out thusly: “Competitive feasting and other forms of redistribution overwhelmed the primordial reliance upon reciprocity when it became possible to increase the duration and intensity of work without inflicting irreversible damage upon the habitat’s carrying capacity.” (127) This is to say, whereas reciprocity continues, as gift-givers become powerful, no longer needing to obey the rules of reciprocity, they begin to force people to pay taxes and work for them, enslaving others who must then engage in intensive extra productive effort which depletes the resources around. To paraphrase, conditions where everyone has equal access to the means of subsistence means competitive feasting prevents the labor force from engaging in levels of productivity that offer no margin of safety during periods of crises. However, once reciprocation is ignored and intensive extra productive effort is engaged in, an adverse effect upon group survival is engaged in that ecosystems simply cannot tolerate. The relationship between individuals, and therefore between society and its ecological context becomes unbalanced, much like European capitalism and taxation did, replacing reciprocity with competition, in turn forcing mankind to work harder to feed more people at even lower levels of material well-being, leading to stratification of classes and further desire to maximize productivity to “keep up with the Jones’” so to speak.

Marvin talks about primitive warfare as another example of addressing carrying capacity. For instance, the Yanomamo engage in warfare and brutal sexual relations due to, as Harris states, “the fact that there are already too many Yanomamo in relation to their ability to exploit their habitat.” (104) For this reason, warfare and violence are extreme, necessitating a primacy of male children for battle, leading to female infanticide. The lower female birthrates, and increased amount of fighting males prevents the further degradation of their habitat’s carrying capacity, or “eating the forest” beyond what it will take to sustain their culture. Similarly, the Maring people engage in warfare “as an ecologically adaptive lifestyle,” that regulates and maintains their systems, so that “population pressure exists as soon as a population begins to move closer to the point of calorie or protein deficiencies, or as soon as it begins to grow and consume at a rate which sooner or later must degrade and deplete the life-sustaining capacities of its environment.” (66)

Similarly, this idea of an ecologically adaptive lifestyle can qualify the relationship between human cultures and animals as well. For instance, Harris describes as the reason for a taboo on pork by desert cultures as stemming from the fact that pigs, unlike sheep or cows, are more of a threat than an asset to the ecological and cultural integrity of their society and ecosystems due to the fact that pigs, unlike cows and sheep, compete for food with humans without providing other items like wool or milk. It is more than simply economically inefficient; it borders on being fatal to the continuity of the society in question. This is similar to the Hindu worshipping of cows and taboo on beef-eating which would strain the entire ecosystem. Cows instead provide for a continual source of traction animal, along with milk and dung (for energy/heat), and if they were killed for meat, their owners would starve as they would have no way to cultivate the fields they will depend on after monsoon rains. The cow’s symbolic and religious status as mother of everything that is alive no doubt stems from its integral role in the maintenance of Indian culture:

“What I am saying is that cow love is an active element in a complex, finely articulated material and cultural order. Cow love mobilizes the latent capacity of human beings to persevere in a low-energy ecosystem in which there is little room for waste or indolence. Cow love contributes to the adaptive resilience of the human population by preserving temporarily dry or barren but still useful animals; by discouraging the growth of an energy-expensive beef industry; by protecting cattle that fatten in the public domain or at landlord’s expense; and by preserving the recovery potential of the cattle population during droughts and famines….Since the effective mobilization of all human action depends upon the acceptance of psychologically compelling creeds and doctrines, we have to expect that economic systems will always oscillate under and over their points of optimum efficiency. But the assumption that the whole system can be made to work better simply by attacking its consciousness is naive and dangerous.” (30)

This is similar to the Maring’s systemization of Pig Love in New Guinea, in which pigs thrive in the temperate and humid forests, freely roaming over the forest floor, until the steady increase of pig population overburdens and endangers the gardens on which the Maring depend on for survival, virgin lands are brought into use, and the efficiency of the entire agricultural system plummets. This in turn is when a pig feast that pleases the ancestors will take place, ridding the Maring of animals that have grown parasitic and helping to keep the pig population from becoming too much of a good thing. In this way, Harris shows, “the entire system results in an efficient distribution of plants, animals, and people in the region, from a human ecological point of view.” (56)

The Past in Service of the Present

Here, we reach the “bottom layer” of Marvin Harris’ cake, and with it his reminder, or article of faith, that complex cultural phenomena is objectively reducible to basic constituent precepts, namely that spiritual motivations have their basis in ecological necessity. His logic, it appears, therefore goes something like this:

The sacred relationship Hindus have to cows is fundamentally geographic and ecological in nature (Ch. 1) , much as Jewish and Islamic bans on pork (Ch. 2) is—namely, it is an ecological adaptation that has been intuited and enshrined in doctrine over the course of generations. In a likewise manner, primitive warfare (Ch. 3) and violent patriarchy (Ch. 4) act in a similar way, attempting to ensure carrying capacity will not be strained to a point that would induce societal collapse or increase societal discontent to unsustainable levels. The Big-Man system and potlatches (Ch. 5) similarly act as mechanisms to maintain balance within societies and act as ways to protect against dangers of fluctuations in ecological productivity of the region. However, once the reciprocation is pushed to the point of imbalance, where certain individuals produce more that the ecosystem can accommodate, exploitation may occur, leading to the enslavement of others, in turn setting the conditions for rebellion against such individuals. This can be seen in the cargo prophets (Ch. 6) or militant-messiahs (Ch. 7) and their “peaceful” adaptation (Ch. 8) whose appeals to spirituality communicates and expands a new conscious realization that has been molded by unsustainable environmental conditions. And while such spiritualities as witchcraft may be as innocuous as tripping out on hallucinogenic plants and crafting herbal remedies (Ch. 9), those engaged in exploiting people may develop and spread narratives painting these individuals as threats to the established order (Ch. 10), to both scapegoat others as the causes of resource deprivation they themselves are responsible for, but also to foster dependence on the state or religious apparatus as a way to maintain the legitimacy of their own existence as they perform the assumed necessary function of eradicating society of these “threats,” paralleling much of the phenomena of the 60s-70s as with the counterculture, anti-war movements of the (Ch. 11) .

Here, the same basic conditions present in the 60s and 70s, when Marvin Harris’ book was published, are perhaps more so today, as ecological conditions seem to have only worsened. Whereas there is a state and religious apparatus that seems bent on exploiting capital and a technological logic to maintain inequity for the benefit of a few, there appears is at the same time a militant messianic-like movement attempting to confront and oppose such an apparatus. However, in opposing the “objective,” “scientific,” and “technological” aspects of the ruling apparatus, this messianic movement risks remaining unthreatening, destined to remain a “failed adaptation” for as long as it assumes consciousness is not defined by the material conditions that contextualize it. Harris repeats, “Head trips and freak-outs cannot alter the material basis of exploitation and alienation.” (263)

As mentioned out the outset, the cultural materialist perspective Harris utilizes, while I appreciate it, is not my own center of gravity. Rather I contend that “outside” (in this case “environment”) and “inside” (or human consciousness) do to an extent, “resonate” with one another, and do so synchronistically.

This is to say that while the ecological context may remain unconscious to an extent, as with the larger meta-institutions that may remain hidden from an individual’s awareness, it is never totally absent from consciousness, if for no other reason than the interrelated structure of the universe. Rather, a culture’s socio-ecological relation is intuited at a fundamental level, symbolized and ritualized in both economy and spirituality or religion subconsciously, until, through anamnetic meditation, the hidden structure of consciousness can be retrieved from oblivion and integrated into one’s working understanding and conscious self-awareness. This is to say, our unconscious (but present nonetheless!) awareness of ecological trends and unsustainable relationships must become evermore conscious if we are to avoid collapse or ever address ecological and social inequity, whether through rituals, taboos, or other new developments in religious (or political or economic for that matter) ideology, and with it, our daily behaviors and their impact on the wider social structures and ecological forces that contextualize them.

As a final reflection, it is my observation that while cultural materialism certainly develops a probabilistic infrastructural determinism in which modes of production are taken as the most significant force behind the evolution of culture, it will only be through the ideational and symbolic “dreamwork” and lifestyle consciousness that we will be mobilized to address that infrastructure in material and lasting ways. In this regard I will end with a quote from the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, “Laudato Si,” on the necessity to care for our common home:

“It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things…any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well…If a mistaken understanding of our own principles has at times led us to justify mistreating nature, to exercise tyranny over creation, to engage in war, injustice and acts of violence, we believers should acknowledge that by so doing we were not faithful to the treasures of wisdom which we have been called to protect and preserve. Cultural limitations in different eras often affected the perception of these ethical and spiritual treasures, yet by constantly returning to their sources, religions will be better equipped to respond to today’s needs…the gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that “realities are greater than ideas.” (From Religions in Dialogue with Science, 199-201)

Whether these words are merely ideas determined by material conditions, or fundamentally able to change those material conditions, or even simply the expression of something greater than either, I will leave up to the reader.

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Incarnational Process Philosophy

(The following was excerpted from the dissertation of Matt Segall at Footnotes to Plato, with a few additions and edits for continuity)

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:22)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galations 2:20)

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. Through these He has given us His precious and magnificent promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, now that you have escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge… (2 Peter 1:3)

Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me—or at least believe because of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:11)


The Christian phenomenon, founded upon the birth, death, and resurrection of God on Earth, depends upon the possibility of transcendence becoming immanent itself. The Christian thinker becomes inhabited by a living thinking, generating an image of a worldly advocate whose persuasive love replaces the coercive power of a transcendent dictator. In this regard, Plato’s intellectual innovation is exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ, culminating in its metaphysical interpretation over the course of the next millennia, in which this divine persuasion ultimately achieves a supreme victory by producing a modicrum of harmony amid the forces of Chaos.


Philosophy without initiatory experience quickly becomes increasingly irrelevant to actual life: a philosopher’s concepts cannot catch fire and acquire the persuasive agency of divine personality. The philosopher’s desire to incarnate divine Ideas is therefore a creative act, allowing for the ingression of common appearance as physically instantiated symbols. That is, after the Christian-Platonic initiation, the philosopher’s world is transfigured into a problematic network of occult icons whose meaning is uncovered intuitively through talismanic thinking.

To think talismanically, to create sensible concepts that vibrate into the world, enacting new erotic bonds and fields of feeling, is to think pragmatically. Ideas are ingressed into appearances, becoming symbols, moments of discontinuity in extensive physical space-time out of which the intensive oddity of self-reference emerges. We become like God, poets of the world—not without terror, as such incarnational thinking is an ecstatic, even violent act, always killing the neurons which support it, “making the brain a set of little deaths that puts constant death within us.”


In so far as we might partake of this creative process do we then partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether individuality survives death to irrelevancy. Dragging the “Godhead” down to what is lower, producing a guiding concretization, through which the godhead is able to act in nature, becomes for us a kind of theurgy, in which we strive to narrate a universal process in which divinity becomes birthed in the human soul, humanity generating cosmic nature as the cosmos generates human nature, moving toward a wiser and more loving experience of creation.

The capacity for conscious devotion to divine ideals like truth, freedom, beauty, love, and wisdom is, then, the ongoing work of the divine to realize these ideals in the world, accomplished through us only if we are willing to participate in the resurrection of loving persuasion, a God we are asked to imagine as unfolding in and through the world in our own flesh hospitable to the indeterminate emergence of finite bodies with creativities all their own.  It could be that the growth of this new God in conscious human hearts is granting us the eyes to see the whole creation, not as dead or dying, but as groaning and suffering the pains of childbirth together with us.


“This integration is properly called philosophy and not just theology, for it is about the world and about being as being. We do not leave our faculties behind, but allow the powers of our body, mind, and soul to be transfigured. This knowing is beyond the reach of the intelligence, but is essentially intelligent; it moves beyond reason, without despising reason. Intellect and love must both be transformed, they must both yield, and in yielding find themselves caught up into a current the end of which is nothing less than divinization. This is, indeed, still philosophy, the sort of Philosophy (with a capital P) that figures like Justin and Clement first learned from Plato and that we , in the West, have continually returned to and may be in the process of recovering again today.

“One might also call it theology, as the later fathers did, if by theology one means the task of speaking about all things in their relation to God. But if it is theology, it is theology of a very difficult kind—the kind that requires both thought and prayer.” (Partakers of the Divine, by Jacob Sherman Pg. 254)

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Eco-Magic: A Definition

From the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature

Eco-magic is the use of magical and spiritual techniques for the benefit or protection of the environment. Because practitioners believe that magic backed by practical action is more effective, eco-magic often supports conventional campaigning or is integrated with direct action.

Eco-magic is an evolving practice that blurs into a whole ideology of change. Starhawk, a witch and political activist, “offers the principles of magic not as a belief system…but as an alternative descriptive system that can help develop a psychology of liberation.” Because eco-magic is a strategy that a conventional opponent will find hard to counter, it has been perceived as a tool of the oppressed.

Any magical tradition or technique can be adapted to eco-magic and practitioners work with a wide variety of deities. Rituals can be public or private and involve groups or single individuals. Western eco-magic does exhibit certain distinctive qualities, notably the use of elements of performance, especially drumming, dance, and chanting. Certain symbols and mythic elements recur. The goddess Gaia and the Green Man appear frequently, as does the Dragon, symbol of Earth energy. Spirals and runic talismans (e.g., the Dragon Tree Rune) are common. Eco-magic often involves working with the “Genius Loci” of the place, the Devas or Faery Folk, who are understood as teachers and allies in the campaign.

Since the early 1980s, a more theorized eco-magic practice has emerged from Western Paganism. Starhawk, Reclaiming and the Dragon Environmental Network have been influential in defining this practice, which I call “Dragon/Reclaiming  Eco[Activist]-Magic (DRE[A]M). Although generally eco-magic may include cursing or similar “aggressive” magic, DRE[A]M is nonviolent, non-hierarchical, and strives toward holistic solutions. It is a magic that works toward building reciprocal relationships between the natural world and humanity. DRE[A]M excludes Western magical traditions that use nature spirits instrumentally. Practitioners allege that such traditions emerge from a cerebral “dominator” ideology of control that is incompatible with an eco-magic that works in tune with nature.

Mainstream environmentalists are generally dismissive of spiritual perspectives while many spiritual people consider political issues to be irrelevant. Eco-magic, like liberation theology, explicitly connects the political and the spiritual: The personal is political is spiritual.”

by Adrian Harris

Further Reading:

Harris, Adrian. “Dragon Decade- A Personal Perspective on Eco-Magic” Dragon Eco-Magic Journal (June 2001)

Harvey, Graham. “Religious Experience in Contemporary Society” Religious Experience Research Centre, 1997..

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance. New York: HarperCollins, 1989

Starhawk. Truth or Dar. New York: Harper and Row, 1987

Starhawk: Dreaming the Dark. Boston: Beacon Press, 1982

See also: Donga Tribe; Dragon Environmental Network; Magic, Animism, and the Shaman’s Craft; Paganism – Contemporary; Radical Environmentalism; Reclaiming; Starhawk; Wicca

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An Unbridled Power: Divinity, Chrematistics, and the Closing of the Anthropocene

Once upon a time, a sage named Thales lived in Ancient Greece. As the story goes, it was he who first introduced Egyptian geometry and Babylonian astronomy to Miletus, overlaying a mathematical science onto a mythopoetic cultural narrative to illuminate the structure of reality.

Thales’ two major points were these: 1) that water was the first principle of all; and 2) that everything was ensouled, alive. Put otherwise, water is the principle source of a living cosmos.

Questioned as to whether his personal impoverishment negated any relevance philosophy might hold, Thales, according to Aristotle, demonstrated the “practical” value of philosophy by using his wisdom to one year successfully predict weather patterns for an early harvest. He cheaply leased all the olive presses in the area during wintertime, securing large monopoly profits at the harvest.[1] Producing absolutely nothing himself, Thales had managed to become rich.

Thales’ use of philosophy in this way indicated two things: first, the relationship of property to profit; and second, that one could successfully leverage one’s spiritual attunement, integrating knowledge of planetary cycles with the reigning cultural dynamics of the day; all of which derived from a living, cosmic principle. That is to say, in his wisdom, Thales had commodified the principle of life, to make money—capitalizing on a universal energy source.


Having become rich simply by manipulating the price of property in the area for his own self-interest, Thales performed what Aristotle called “chrematistike,” the art of procuring the necessities of life in kind, a process recognizably distinct from the economy. For money, lacking entirely of any inherent value, is accumulated for its own sake, a commercial endeavor eclipsing and destabilizing the regional capacity for self-sufficiency—what Aristotle referred to as the Autarchy. [2] Early Greek thinkers understood this kind of restless moneymaking to be contrary to nature, a rejection of reason in which a dreamer actively refused to perceive reality.[3]

More than two millennia later, Marx would echo the threat, that chrematistics, unrestrained in its aims towards absolute wealth, no longer regards riches as limited. Rather, the unceasing movement toward profit-making becomes a singular purpose, a “boundless drive for enrichment” whose sole force is hindered only in how much money can be made. Thus the capitalist, or what Marx calls “capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will,” does not treat use-value nor even a single profitable transaction as an immediate aim, looking instead to the circulation of goods as a source of riches, introducing as the final goal of economics the preservation and increase of money to infinity. [4]

This has, of course, become a hallmark of modern rationality. For just as rational action chooses means in relation to ends, money values a good’s exchangability in lieu of its inherent value, alienating it from the source of life it is rooted in to disrupt its ecological trajectory. To exchange the good in question—in Thales’ case wisdom, Sophia—in a momentary trans-action, transfigures what was once a good and desired joy unto herself into a medium—a commodity bought and sold without regard for her own well-being. The prostitution of Sophia.

In Weber’s study of the relationship between religion and socio-economic life, the implication of the increased “rationalization” of the west disallowed for any course but a life detached from human and worldly desire. Magic was thus systematically eradicated as the means to salvation from a newly-mechanized world; until ultimately, the providential interpretation of specialized labor ethically justified profit-making as deriving its spiritual authority from God.


This point cannot be overstated: that what Ancient philosophy had demonstrated and diagnosed as an unnatural and existential disorder has since been recognized as the cornerstone of Modern rationality.

Like mana, money amasses social power and spiritual energy, commanding the currency of what we might refer to as a divine economy. Against the external influence of foreign investment, with its power to corrupt traditional values, resistance to capital tends to emerge with the ferocity of a culture facing the existential threat of sorcery and black magic, for instance against dam projects, or water privatization schemes.

Neurobiologically, the effect of money on the psyche is like that of any other technology: It offers the technical means to accumulate a desired good[5]; its story the symbolic tool to measure the emotional currency of a spiritual value. We might understand money, with its power to purchase any good, as a kind of prayer then, a divine supplication to deity: ask and ye shall receive.[6]

Yet research also suggests money inflates one’s sense of self-worth at the expense of others, privileging the accrual of means ($) over a signified ends (Sophia), to promote selfish, destructive, even psychopathic tendencies. The rationale, I would argue, underlying clear-cuts, prostitution, externalizing costs—profits before all else. Before life even.

By constructing for ourselves a myth of value, whose bottom line is inherently exploitative, causally destructive, and forever limiting, we can point to the Anthropocene’s Faustian deal with the devil as a fallacy of misplaced concreteness—the fantasy of absolute knowledge, and with it, the power to control reality; all in exchange for its soul.

The early Church called this magical attempt to accumulate divine power by monetizing the Holy Spirit, “Simony,” the egophanic revolt to idolize and possess the power of God.[7] For in the eyes of the apostles, the vision of the divine could not be contained or limited, reduced or equated totally with mere technical terms to mediate the true value of the self-contained good; it was something sacred, beyond purchase.

Thus the political scientist Eric Voegelin can identify the western crisis as a pneumopathology, a spiritual disease of the mind that omits an essential element of reality from a scientistic system. We are missing something that transcends it.

Christ’s newest vicar, Pope Francis, agrees, that humanity has reduced itself to consumers in the dominant economic paradigm. He explains,

“The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”[8]

In consuming this false and malicious reality, we close ourselves off from the source of divine potential by interrupting its accessibility to us.


What do we do then, when evil is everywhere, seemingly woven into the very fabric of reality, running even into the depths of our souls? What do we do with advanced degrees in wise relations that reconnect spirit and matter? “What are you going to do with that, now that the heat of a future hell grows hotter in its quickening approach?” That last part was subtext, but the Question remains philosophical to be sure, returning us to the source of eternal mystery that makes a quest for truth possible even to begin. Asked differently Is there a happy ending to our story?

The gift of a divine response was considered a Chrematismos—an oracle, or revelation from God, an answer bestowed upon one in a dream, for instance. To partake of such divinity, and participate in the sacred economy and life of God is called Grace by Catholics, further characterized by Michael Murphy as the process by which “unitive knowing, self-transcending love, and other extraordinary capacities emerge in us, during which such capacities appear to be freely given rather than earned, spontaneously revealed rather than attained through ego-centered effort.”[9]

We might then see the divinity of Jesus’ revolutionary nature not in his titles of “messiah” or “Christ,” nor even in his performed miracles, for there were similar “magical messiahs” at the time. But Jesus performs his acts of healing freely, rendering the spiritual monopoly of the Temple obsolete, threatening Rome’s political control over its subjugated peoples, and destabilizing the corruption of an imperial disorder. In this respect, Jesus’ chremata, his divine calling and invaluable work, responds to the communal desperation of his time by cultivating an abundance of virtue to be shared without regard for compensation.

This is a Socratic revelation even prior, that virtue does not derive from money but rather from virtue comes money, there being no greater good than service to God. The source of the Good Life, then, the means to improve the soul, is Love, whom Socrates remembers in the Symposium as a great daemon, a brilliant wizard, healer, and philosopher, intermediating between mortality and immortality, between ignorance and wisdom and the desirable middle of two extremes—the right disposition that becomes for Aristotle, a “golden mean.”

This golden mean, threading itself through history into our day today, is, I think, what we can call Philosophy proper. The subject of—our—study here: philosophy, cosmology, consciousness– magic.

Loving wisdom lets us approach a situation while remaining open to the perspectives of others, to understand the consequences of our judgment. And though I would be open to doing the work of God and performing divine acts of grace, the journey we are each on is in the first place an inherent and invaluable good unto itself, guiding our maturity to partake of what is true, beautiful, and good.

I’ve come to realize a life freely given in love is evidence of an unceasing transformative power moving beyond itself, to extend an essential relation. The future of this boundless, untamed love is the gift of communing with a power greater than ourselves, given to move freely into and through us if we but let it, attuning to and reciprocating a cosmic-erotic energeia.

This is why a shrine to the Graces would often be set up in a public place, a reminder to return a kindness for the sake of mutual prosperity; the linchpin of a self-sufficient community. The recognition that everything we do matters, from the food we eat, to the electricity we use, to the things we buy, to the people we see and touch every day.

Mother earth is sick, and those of us pursuing doctorates, or seeking mastery in healing arts (as philosophy is) are certainly embarking upon the worthwhile endeavor to alleviate spiritual sickness while attending to the emotional and intellectual exchange between extremes of excess and deficiency.

For myself, reinhabiting my time, my body, my life, my traditions, and learning to live anew, in loving communion with you all, and what we are to become, seems like a first step towards living a good life, in right relationship.

To receive this life, as the gift of spirit, is to embody a divine response as a pathway to the infinite, re-enchanting a creative energy by giving thanks for a loving, immortalizing power that presents itself through us when we reciprocate its virtue.

In my final attempt now to revitalize an Aristotelian, Earth-centered, Christian cosmology, I’ll end with a quote from The Nicomachean Ethics, meant only to facilitate and potentially habituate the practice of giving away something of value for free.

“Pure Benevolence cannot be adequately repaid; the beneficiary must make the best return that he can.”

The End.

[1] For a more in depth assessment of the implications of Chrematistics, see Herman Daly, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community… pg. 138

[2] See “Aristotle discovers the Economy,” in Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi, ed. George Dalton. Anchor Books: Garden City, NY

[3] See pg. 322 in “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme.” Voegelin, Eric

[4]In Das Kapital Note #50, pg. 261 Volume 1. Marx, Karl

[5] See “How the Brain Responds to the Destruction of Money,” Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics © 2011 American Psychological Association, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1–10

[6] As in Matthew 7:7-8

[7] giving something of a temporal nature for the purchase thereof; or in other terms it is defined to be a commutation of a thing spiritual or annexed unto spirituals by giving something that is temporal.”

[8] See Pope Francis: “Apostolic Exhortation of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World.”

[9] Catholic Catechism and Future of Body.

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On Power

Power is the ability to marshal flows of energy.

Where individuals marshal energy flows, be they politicians, fictional characters with fantastic  powers, electric guitar players, or corporate executives, matter and energy accumulate. Such command of energy flows is related to charisma, and can confer reproductive fitness. Political power may also be quantifiable, if we measure the power density of energy flows commanded by powerful individuals. Decentralized information (the Internet) and decentralized energy production (renewable energy production technologies such as rooftop solar panels) are disruptive of Agrarian and Industrial Age power concentration paradigms. The individuals who control the energy flows in those paradigms do not want to see them supplanted. They entrench against an onrushing future.

That matter and energy accumulate and concentrate in recurrent patterns seems to indicate that such concentration of surplus energy (and, therefore, wealth) is in the fundamental nature of the universe. In human affairs, unless such concentration is purposefully checked by regulating how matter and energy (money and power) accumulate at energy flow nodes, it leads naturally to feudalism and monarchy – and presents an existential threat to democracy.

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The Dark Aspects of Paracosms

Often, magic creates a change or shift in the external world of consensus reality. As a symbol, magic evokes concepts of power and manipulation, the technological trickery through spells and wands to enact certain physical manifestations that would not have been procured otherwise.  But perhaps enchantment is another perspective on the same subject, one that anticipates a relational force that creates a novel vision or world into which one can step, wandering and wondering in something alluring, enchanting, magical.

The emergence of imagination in deep psyche bursts into a plethora of conscious forms: the underworldly power offers an imaginal entryway into a sacred depths, where imagination and will are enjoined as an entryway into the archetypal and mythic depths. This tensional aspect of the magician’s realm, between control and enchantment, remains a constant struggle on the dark road to power. The stability of this long narrative is born as the paracosms of psychic imagination, as Will and Imagination together structuring reality in multivalent composites of historical significance, in harmony or discord, fluctuating between psychic balance or violent extremism.

The history of relationships is to forge common bonds for structures relative to one another in a differentiation of realty (the lives of Nietzsche, Crowley, Jung, Hitler, Tolkien, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Voegelin, for instance). In these cases, natural intelligence evolves together, relating as life (self-similar across scale), in which the rate of time, as a coevolution of species, experiences acceleration.



When trauma affects energy level, the vibrational interaction of energy waves and frequencies of atoms, impacts the vibration of cellular DNA, so that the energy frequency of trauma, i.e. Slavery, is negative energy wave. That is, slavery reiterates the psychological forces that impede love. The resulting lack of community unity inhibits relational ties, so that physical interactions are colored with with emotional ties that dissolve in the face of negative perception. Racial, sexual, intellectual, biological, etc. prejudice in turn perpetuates trauma, institutionalized in the commodified and rearranged energy relations that are redirected towards maintaining exploitative relations. “Skin whitening cream” for those “dark” “others.” “Colorist” ideals impact reality through socio-economic and political-religious relations–welfare camps for impoverished individuals at the “bottom” of the spectrum of beauty, power, truth.

Consciousness, like Race, is similarly a magical spectrum, known visually, mentally, auditorally. It is a state of mind, like beauty; an emotional-intellectual state translated into physical capacity. Therefore our consciousness of history must be in Real Terms, so we can learn the history of trauma and cultural resilience; so we can know about the values, and principles of community that maintain humanity in the face of slavery.

Beauty is an attracting resonance; each cell has a unique function: be who you are, for to acknowledge experience reveals our contributing role in a community of life; children need to be taught from birth that they are loved, and beautiful, so their words and actions derive from a deep emotional bonding, a source from which we can exclaim to the world: I am the keeper of own soul and the spirit of who I am, for if we don’t cherish it, who else will? In this way we can begin to become Self-aware of the responsibility of knowledge as we unload our baggage into world, turning to the divine eternal.

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