Evolution of Belief: Shamanism
Before we move on to consider why humans devised a separate spirit world we need to fully understand how and why humans could ever have believed that spirits were part of the natural world.
As has been stated many times before, humans are not naturally at the top of the food chain. To many predators, humans were tasty morsels. There were brave humans who stood and fought the beasts who would eat them and there were humans who immediately turned and ran. Human lives were brutish and short but the lives of brave humans were even shorter. Their lives were often so short that the brave humans did not have time to procreate. The humans that did procreate, therefore, were the ones who ran away.
It would be wrong to think that we are descended not from cowards. Our ancestors were those who saw things that may be a predator or maybe not, and they did not take a chance by hanging around. They were not cowards but intelligent. Once far enough away, they could ask themselves if they had indeed seen a predator. If not, what was it? Don’t forget that these humans were fast developing their intelligence. They needed reasons why they ran away when others stood their ground and were eaten. Was it one of their ancestors warning them not to hang around,? Warning them that a predator was in the vicinity?
They did not see their ancestors themselves but fleeting images out of the corner of their eyes. Obviously spirits were part of their own world, ancestors they could see but who hid themselves, ancestors who looked after them and cared for them. But how could they communicate with the spirits if they did not want to be seen?
If a member of their tribe or family group said they could communicate with these hidden spirits, who would want to disagree with them? Especially if those who could talk to the spirits dressed unlike everyone else and shook rattles or went into a trance to summon the spirits from their hiding places. Humans needed to communicate with the spirits to fully understand what the spirits wanted to tell them, so if those who could talk to the spirits were able to pass on their messages then they must be believed.
Those who could talk to the spirits acquired a name: shaman.
Of course, the whole concept of the shaman was ripe for trickery and deceit but once the concept of shaman and their power was established shamans were not going to be relieved of that power so easily. Even so, like today, there were always going to be those who questioned the legitimacy of the shaman. Spirits who hid themselves? Ridiculous, there were no hidden spirits! These spirits were generated by human imagination! And of those who had most to lose by sharing power? Listen to me, I am your leader and I say you must fight the beasts without fear! The spirits don’t need an intermediary. The spirits need to know that you are strong, able to care for your own families!
Given what we know of our own societies, can you imagine the political battles that would have ensued? What could the shaman do to counter the material power of tribal leaders? Remember we are not talking about the Hollywood version of primitive cavemen. Our ancestors were as intelligent as you or I; their brains were fully-formed human brains. Maybe they hadn’t invented the science and technology we have today but they were just as intelligent and just as politically astute. And we need only look at the political and religious battles of today to get an idea of the machinations that would have been employed. Shaman needed to strengthen their position, and there was one way in which they could. If spirits belonged not to our physical world but to another, separate, invisible world: a spirit world that leaders were unable to enter.
How the concept of the spirit world emerged we can only conjecture but we can immediately put forward three possible scenarios.
- As a result of visions induced by epilepsy or other types of brain damage or mental illness. This is not so far removed from the realms of possibility. It is said that Mohammed suffered from epilepsy and some of the greatest political leaders also suffered from the condition. Other politicians and religious leaders are known to have suffered from bipolar disorder.
- As a result of drug-taking. We definitely know from interviews with shaman – and yes, they still exist today – that they have used herb and fungi concoctions to put themselves into a trance, which they say helps them communicate with the spirit world.
- A calculated decision by meetings of shamans to fully devise and introduce the concept. This, also, is within the bounds of credibility. Some of the great religions were either founded or formed by committee: Christianity at the conference of Nicea; Islam under the auspices of a committee formed by Uthman.
Of course, it could have been a combination of all three. We shall never know for sure but for whatever reason there was a leap from belief in spirits as part of our material world to the belief that spirits inhabited their own spirit world.
We can ask again, how do we know humans believed that spirits inhabited our physical world? It just seems silly; we know from our religions that a separate, supernatural world exists! Well, we know because tribes of hunter-gatherers have been found in remote locations whose members believe just that. Beliefs do not disappear overnight when another belief system evolves. Unlike genetics, in isolation old beliefs remain unchanged.
With the emergence of shamanism, family groups and tribes that were not totally isolated would never be the same again. In that one leap of political ingenuity, the shaman had produced a world tribal leaders could not and dare not enter. Word of mouth through meetings passed on the information and spread the meme amongst tribes and shaman themselves.
This did not happen immediately: shamans from different parts of the world developed slightly different versions of shamanism, and in some areas of the world shamanism would never emerge. It’s hard for us to realise but religions have been around for a few thousand years at most and we are talking in terms of tens of thousands of years. It took a long time to develop the memes but the big leap had been made: spirits inhabited their own world!
The next great leap would came when humans began to search for further meaning in their lives and for answers to the great questions. Why were there catastrophes? Why did volcanoes erupt? Why were there earthquakes? The spirits of their ancestors could not and would not cause such devastation, the spirits of ancestors were benign, helpful and caring. But something did …