Magic, our Father

the Origin of both
Politics & Religion
1998 06 06

Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough presents that great anthropologist’s history of magic. That history includes the history of religion. By a small extrapolation, it is also a history of politics and government. Study the history of magic and you will understand that church and state are siblings. They may be brothers as Cain and Abel were brothers, but they have the same genes, the same starting assumptions.

In brief: once upon a time, man wanted something. It was something he had had, then lacked, and wanted again: rain, warm days, ample game … He noticed patterns in nature. By the most elemental human “logic,” like begets like. Surely if he imitated those patterns, he could affect the present, undesirable circumstance. When it rains, droplets of water fall from the sky. Like begets like. So he pees in a circle, shaking his member to form droplets. Day after day, he pees. Eventually, it rains. Magic. He causes the rain. Cause and effect: the most elemental human logic. He throws embers from the fire at the sky. The sun warms and spring finally comes. More magic.

The need of man to make the mysterious forces
of nature favourable to him

Larousse Gastronomique

As the days shorten again, he starts throwing embers at the sky a lot sooner. Winter comes. What happened to his magic? Doubting his own magic, he trusts his neighbor’s. His neighbor has put his coals into a skin and tied them high in a tree. Spring finally comes. The neighbor is made shaman.

Society picks up one of its oldest specialties. We went from every man his own magician to everyman dependent on the shaman.

Everyman Shaman

Tens of thousands of years pass. When spring comes the shaman is lavished with praise and gifts. As glaciers move south, the shaman is implored, then beaten. Finally, he’s crucified, and a new shaman is drafted.

Shaman, king … At that point there was no difference.

Fearing the next beating, the shaman notices lightning striking the oak. High up in the oak, the mistletoe stays green through the coldest winter. Men are dying like flies: the mistletoe is green. The shaman manages to knock down some mistletoe. They pray to it. Spring finally comes.

So you see, the magic wasn’t in you. It wasn’t in the shaman. It was in the mistletoe. Or in the lightning. Or in the big invisible animal in the sky who made the lightning and loves the mistletoe. Religion is halfway to having been invented.

Real skills, appropriately specialized,
can serve community;

False skills,falsely specialized,
destroy community

Thousands more years pass. Some women of what will become the Shatt-al-Arab notice that more of the grasses whose seeds they can eat have grown where they ate the seeds. This year they’ll deliberately leave some: not just here, but over there too. Wheat agriculture is born. A bit later Asian women do the same with rice, Central American women with corn, West African women with beans. The men still bring game, the shaman still talks to the lightning, spring still comes. Only now it brings new growths of the grass called wheat, especially if you’ve learned to bury and water some of the seeds.

Last year, like the years before, your group has born a dozen children: two of them lived. This year, eight survive. In no time, you have a village of hundreds, some living past age twenty-five. Soon people of mating age have their parents still alive, as likely as not. Boy, there’s nothing like that lightning magic. And it’s so easy.

Progress may be nothing more than
the substituting of a few large errors
for a thousand small errors.

Five hundred years pass. There’s agriculture on four continents, not that you know about each other. You don’t even know about the next group over-growing the same wheat until their expansion of their fields bumps into yours. Now there’s at least one city in the world, guarding the grain from the neighbors.

Enemies, neighbors … Same difference.

Now the people who’ve been following the herds longer than their earliest stories, follow their herd where it’s always gone: across the field you’ve just cleared and planted. War is invented.

Actually, that was just a slaughter: there’s twenty-five of them and two hundred and fifty of you. The real war is what you have with the other group trying to clear the same field you are. One of you wins. Maybe you incorporate the women and children from the beaten group among your own numbers. Hell, you have two sets of fields now. Whoever is best at organizing the labor, or storing the surplus, or beating off the neighbors is an important man. He works closely with the shaman. Now there is a difference between shaman and king. Church and state are born.

Things seem fine for the farmers until more fields being cleared run into more fields being cleared by someone else. But now you need that field. The
grain that nourished twenty-five of you, and continued to nourish two hundred and fifty of you, is now starving a couple of thousand of you. That would be bad enough, but since you learned irrigation, salinization is turning your good land into desert. And the herds don’t come anymore: you killed them for harming the grass; you interfered with their migrations, their movements; you diminished their habitat …

Murder, overpopulation, war, desertification … all because we stumbled onto a temporarily easy way to eat. Now the labor is backbreaking and done under armed guard. Losing the Garden of
Eden was a really bad thing.

The shaman is now your priest. And you’ll knock him silly if he doesn’t get the big animal in the sky to do something for you. Now you’re living till forty-five, sometimes longer. It used to be disease killed one or two of the dozen of you; now it kills hundreds of the thousands of you. You’ve also discovered famine. Your ancestors in the Garden or Eden, or before the Garden of Eden, never had famine; they just starved sometimes.

Maa Phaleshu Kadaachana.

Gita 2,47
You have but the right to perform action;
you have no hold on the results thereof.

Some priests of one group, ever fearful of what happens to priests in a crisis, have a new idea. As men, they don’t have the magic; as priests, they don’t have the magic; it isn’t even the lightning that has the magic; neither is it the mistletoe. And it isn’t the big animal in the sky. Because the big animal in the sky is actually a man: one of us, Jewish in fact, but very old, older than old, and very wise. In fact he made everything, created it the way man creates: the world before the famine, the world with the famine. He did the latter because we’re no damn good. Like so many magical entities, he has a secret name. But we priests know it. And a first principle of magic is: what you can name, you can control.

The magician who can prove that God loves us will always fare better
than the rationalist who would demonstrate the flaws in the proof.

He’s the ultimate work-boss and we’ve been shirking. But he likes us anyway and wants us to have the very best farm land, west of here, over toward the Mediterranean (though we’ll have to go through Egypt first, working there like Puerto Ricans in New York). Now, when we get there, Canaan it’s called, we’ll find it full of nasty farmers.

All we have to do is kill them and take what’s ours.

But by this time we’re into history that you know.

The past isn’t dead.
It isn’t even past.


2009 10 22

Primitive peoples appear to have believed that their shaman make the sun rise and the rain rain: much the way my contemporaries associate cops with safety, government with order, universities with intelligence … and money with wealth.

Related modules coming (that is, to be remounted after getting censored and side-swiped) on:
Magic: God, Country
God & Country: Order vs. Magic
Degeneration of Trust
Media Magic

A Bit Later:
My original phrasing was “Around the same time” and was based on Nigel Calder’s data in his eye-opening Timescale. I now trust Jared Diamond’s review of the dating. See his The Third Chimpanzee [1992] and Guns, Germs, and Steel [1998].
Once upon a time we all believed that agriculture began in the Fertile Crescent way before anywhere else. Calder reported independent inventions of agriculture in Asia, West Africa, and Central America together with evidence that dated them all around the same time: roughly 9,500 years ago. A decade more science sobers some of that dating. Apparently the Fertile Crescent was first after all: about 10,500 years ago by current reckoning. Diamond cites nine candidate areas for the human development of plant and/or animal domestication. See page 99 of Guns.

So easy:
(The Garden of Eden: dual referent note)
Somewhere in there is when Jehovah created the world that we know. That’s the paradise we look back to with longing: nature — with man’s first gardens.
Bishop Usher reckoned Creation to have occurred in 4004 BC. That’s not too bad, as Isaac Asimov pointed out, for a calculation based on Bronze Age data. [God, etc.: all
I mentioned Cain and Abel above as a humorous metaphor for the enmity between the church and its sibling rival, the state. Asimov has a better meaning for the Genesis story and it is implicit only a few paragraphs further on in my history: Abel was a herdsman, “a keeper of sheep.” Cain was “a tiller of the ground.”
No doubt some nomads got lethally miffed as they saw more and more of their herds’ migration routes swallowed up by agriculture. No doubt some nomads killed some farmers. But in the end, it was farming that wiped out the nomadic way of life: not only for the nomads, but for the herds themselves.
So: Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
As the US put down railroads, travelers shot what remained of the great herds of bison. We say they did it for sport. We say it was “senseless.” Not at all: we’re still Cain, still slaughtering Abel. Or at least we were a hundred and a few years ago. By the Civil War, we were Abel turned Robotman, rising up and slaying Cain, our brother.
(I suspect that Robotman escaped inclusion in your Bible. He is in mine.)
(This note predated my reading of Diamond. I find I need to revise none of this part.)

Two Hundred Fifty:
My ratio as originally written was 25/500. Of course I was making it up: based on my sense of Calder’s reporting of the paleo-sciences. Diamond has the farmers out-breeding the nomads at a ratio of ten to one.
I write this note immediately upon finishing Agriculture’s Mixed Blessings, Part III, Chapter 10, of The Third Chimpanzee. Find it. Check it out.
Reading Calder, Sagan, Asimov, Gould … I don’t remain as naive as most mis-educated people, but there’s one area Diamond exposes where I’d remained in full, normal wrongness: swallowing orthodoxy as to the nutritional value of farming as compared to gathering, hunting, or herd-following. The new science of paleo-pathology has discovered that the pre-farmers averaged 5′ 10″ for men and 5′ 6″ for women. Even their teeth were good. The farmers got cheap starch but gave up good nutrition, shrunk, sacrificed their teeth, and fostered the diseases that follow over-population and animal husbandry. Still, two-hundred and fifty diseased runts with military organization can whoop twenty-five strapping natural men. See especially pp. 189-190.

Cain & Abel:
Once upon a time I had a link there to another mention of the ecology of Cain and Abel: so many by now I no longer remember which one.

Grain: (The Grasses)
In Timescale, Niger Calder’s great 100 page history of the universe, he imagines an intelligence situated on Mars and studying the Earth for the first time. With fabulously sophisticated telescopes and so forth he quickly concludes that life on Earth has a dominant form which rules the planet’s biosphere and has enslaved several other species to do its work. That life form is the grass! Several species of grass — wheat, rice, corn — have totally dominated a bilaterally symmetrical primate. For two million years they developed him to the point where, in just the last ten thousand years, he’s carried the grasses all over the biosphere, watering it, trimming it, killing other species to make way for it. Now the grass has gotten him ready to launch it into space.

The Jews’ God was believed by them and some others to reside in the Ark of the Covenant. This structure was a box, a container. Was that container then a nice comfy home the God was free to leave and return to? Or was it a cage? Built to restrain and control Him?
As Henry Adams great book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres discusses, the medieval French built their great gothic cathedrals for Mary, the Virgin. Was this pure generosity on their part? Was Chartres more akin to a birdbath or to birdlime? a snare?
How can I possibly have waited till I approached sixty-one before asking the following question: the Christians believe that God selected Mary for his peculiar nest parasitism. Were such a conception possible, surely she could have been a virgin during it; but how could she continue to be a virgin after parturition? If no penis ruptured the hymen on its way in, how can the aborning Jesus not have ruptured it on his way out?
To the English Christians of the time of Richardson’s Clarissa, the tearing of the hymen was all that counted. A horseback ride was enough to spoil a girl’s bride price. The family could tear the horse limb from withers in their fury over the damage to the value of their property.
It’s long been a curiosity to many how Mary could have continued to be a virgin as Jesus’ siblings accumulated. My story The Model
was initially written to argue that God could have made a flat earth and then made it round, all creatures still aboard during reconstruction. That round earth could still then have been the center of the universe … and so forth. In the same vein, God could have maintained virginal conceptions with each of Jesus’ siblings in turn. Where then are the New Testaments for Jesus’ second sibling, third, etc? By the same logic, we could all be of miraculous birth.

Inventing Agriculture: Passim:
This module is one of the basic pk modules, written in 1998 when I was first concentrating on posting such pk Teaching things on line. It was then on the leading edge of informed opinion, but a new thesis announed just this week challenges the position that mankind fell into agriculture. Climate scientist Nick Brooks hypothesizes that climate change drove mankind to invent civilization, nomads agreeing to be farmers as a desperate measure!

2003 07 24 Catfarmer email:

In the beginning: Man happens. Unrefined, unadorned, unsocialized, unconscious of sin. Eventually, man discovers that psychic castration enables him to live a softer life within community. From then onward, he erects prolific monuments to his sacrificed psychic member: obelisks, towers, spires, skyscrapers as places (or objects) of worship and symbols of community. He institutes ritual to honor his sacrifice, going so far as to impose it on the community at large; ritually circumsizing children’s procreational proclivities with great pomp (and currently much expense via “education”). He holds the female accountable for the sacrifice he’s made on behalf of community, and the female has spent her aeons trying to recover man’s lost member so he can rise up again, and the benighted human species can finally give birth to the divine.

(Afterthought … it’s funny, I never really grokked the whole Osiris myth until just now – at least I don’t think so – but now it makes a great deal of sense. One more thought – the less time man spends in physical procreation, or “going forth and multiplying,” the more he needs to be prevented from exercising his mental virility, lest he become a danger to the community …)

pk Note on the Catfarmer note:
Catfarmer had been asking which of my essays I wanted her to feature the next time she did at guest-edit for I regard the above Magic module to be one of my most important pieces; I knew she had read it recently; … but, we hadn’t discussed its content; only my rating of it.
Additional context: is replete with my references to Authority’s immunity to being rationally tested for competence: the teacher grades you; you don’t grade the teacher. The publisher rejects your work; no one notices if you reject the publisher …
And, Catfarmer had loved my Human Integrity: Turing Test: indeed, had chosen it first in her linking of pieces at STR. In particular, she loved my open (if somewhat hyperbolic) doubt that there are any other human beings in the world besides myself: she feeling much the same way.
In short, I’m way over due at on a portmanteau piece, listing important occasions where experts, persons with power over me, have fed back to me not one single iota of understanding of what I’d said: professors grade without having to prove that they’ve understood what they’re graded! I challenge any professor at NYU to tell me — accurately — what my doctoral thesis actually said. I challenge anyone to tell me — accurately — what my FLEX was about! …
So, knowing she would know the context, I challenged my beloved Catfarmer to tell me, in a sentence or two, what my Magic piece actually says: confident that for once I actually would get a good, a human, an intelligent, answer.
Does her response actually answer the question? No. Much better than that: She adds to it! Harmonizes with it! Continues it: deeper and deeper! In one paragraph!

Magic Menu

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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