THE INTENSIFIED TRAJECTORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS
If the archaeological record is to be believed, the oldest game in town, after procreation, is animal transformation. Following the delicious mammoth bone figurines of the Paleolithic Venuses, whose generous, open vulvas and swollen breasts bespeak fecundity and nourishment, the oldest surviving images of prehistoric Europe are representations of animal becoming. The earliest yet found, a portable statuette of a human body and feline head from a cave in Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, dates to 32,000 BCE.
These mysterious traces of human/animal symbiosis resurface in the earliest literature of the West. As we have seen, story in the ancient world, while delighting in the fantastical, was never just that. In oral culture these accounts were faithfully transmitted from generation to generation. Such literature survives as a hoary remnant of our ancient symbiosis with animals, which, alien as it may seem today, was almost certainly among the earliest conscious experiences of our species. In this way works such as The Odyssey, the Norse Saga of the Volsungs, and the Celtic Mabinogion exhibit kinship to this mysterious cave art.
Repositories of far more ancient folklore and spiritual practice than the date of their actual composition, these written accounts contain numerous accounts of animal becoming.
It has long been argued that such transformations were facilitated by the ingestion of psychoactive plants. Far less frequently considered is the possibility that the nature of such shamanic states is not pathological. Indeed, as in the case of Odysseus’s men who emerge from animal becoming “younger than ever, taller by far, more handsome to the eye,” the wild infusion of animal vitality and wisdom can even be key to healing trauma and restoring a healthful, balanced homeostasis to the mind and body.
Cognitive archaeologist and anthropologist David Lewis-Williams claims that such a transmutative, potentiating capacity is hardwired in our nervous system. In his The Mind in the Cave, he offers a neurophysiological model for the process of entering that “mental vortex that leads to the experiences and hallucinations of deep trance,” an entry he claims was psychologically indistinguishable for Upper Paleolithic people from their actual entrance into “the subterranean passages and chambers . . . the ‘entrails’ of the netherworld” of the prehistoric painted caves. In other words, the ritual activity of entering the caves for early people mirrored the psychophysical experience of entering trance, a biological inheritance of the human species.
What, then, would be this hardwiring we all share? According to Lewis-Williams, the ordinary spectrum of consciousness of Homo sapiens ranges from waking, problem-solving orientation to dream and--beyond the edge of the psychic world--unconsciousness. This alteration of consciousness is also familiar in the history of science. The German organic chemist Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, frustrated in his quest for the structure of the benzene molecule, fell asleep before a fire and dreamed of an atomic dance (entoptic and construal), out of which arose a molecular snake with its tail in its mouth (visionary). This sign he correctly interpreted as the closed carbon ring structure of the molecule. He was eventually to recommend to his fellow scientists, “Let us learn to dream, gentlemen.”
Such dreaming again reminds us of the meaning of “seeing” in the shamanic and ancient worlds, which “in Greek as well as Latin--when the verb occurs in an emotionally charged context--always means more than just ‘to observe’ or ‘to witness’ something; it means ‘to experience,’ ‘to be involved in a meaningful event.’”
Such was the experience of my friend Anders, a Swedish pilot and wing-walking stuntman. Anders first saw the land on which his family now runs an animal sanctuary during a casual flyover. At the time he was penniless and not hunting for land, but the certainty that he was seeing his future home was electric.
In a subsequent, unannounced flyover with his wife, Montrese, she also saw it:
As we flew directly over it, I felt a surge of energy in my solar plexus. I looked down and saw a plateau of golden pastoral beauty that fit our dreams perfectly. I put my hand on his shoulder and said into his ear over the loud noise of the airplane’s engine, “That’s it! That’s it!” He nodded and said, “I know.” When we landed we compared notes on how we had each been drawn to this one piece of land out in the middle of nowhere.
Eventually the land was offered to them for sale--again, out of the serendipitous blue.
Later, upon participating in a peyote ceremony on his land, Anders found himself transforming into an eagle and sailing over the landscape he loves so much. “But the exactness of the detail,” he told me, shaking his head in wonder, “the complete specificity. I really was flying and seeing all these places. I would travel into town and visit areas I was curious about, getting a clear sense of the features and topography of the land.”
“I also hate snakes,” he added. “So it came as a real surprise when I found myself hungry for one. I was returning from a long flight and found myself fantasizing about finding a nice snake for dinner!”
That evening, as Anders sailed far from his body’s physical locale in the tepee, a Diné elder was making his way around the circle. Anders was suddenly recalled to his body to find the man gazing into his face, as if searching a distant landscape. “I’ve only been looked at like that a few times in my life,” Anders said.
After the ceremony the elder came up to the couple and gave Anders a gift: an eagle feather.
“It will take care of you,” the Navajo assured him.
“It was like a crack of thunder,” Anders’ wife, Montrese, told me, “because I was the only one that knew all the Eagle medicine that Anders had been undergoing.”