Does geography determine culture? The indigenous Mojave people, living in the hottest and one of the bleakest corners of what is now the United States, were obsessed with death. Funerals and mourning anniversaries were their main ceremonials. They were one of the few cultures in which sorcerers – that is to say, shamans who use their powers for self-aggrandizement and murder – practiced openly. “I am going to kill you,” a Mojave sorcerer frankly told the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber in 1910. (1)
One of their sacred stories offers an interesting contrast to the postmodern notion of deus abscondus – a god whose purported abandonment is used to explain manifold suffering and injustice. The first sorcerer kills one of the two creator gods. The other one, his younger brother, has just rescued the people from a world flood which he himself produced. Their Ararat is Avikwame, today known as Newberry Mountain, north of Needles, CA. John Bierhorst describes the conclusion of their Creation cycle in his authoritative Mythology of North America (Oxford UP, 2002, p.102 ):
“On the mountain he gives future shamans their dream power while they stand before him either as unborn children or as little boys. Afterward, he teaches the Mojave to farm, to cook, to speak, and to count, then changes into a fish eagle and flies off ‘without power of recollection, ignorant and infested with vermin.'” (2)
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It is a commonplace among cultures where magic is regarded as an authentic way of knowing, that knowledge is inherently limited and available only for a price. There is a strong appeal to the idea that many forms of understanding must be hard-won. For example, I’m told you can read the full details of most “secret” tantric teachings – they have been published and translated. But they are nonetheless still hidden, in the sense that their true content can only be grasped by someone who has been gone through proper training and is prepared to receive them.
To take another example, most of us probably have the experience of meeting “uneducated” individuals of a certain age whose every utterance radiates wisdom. (If you haven’t, you need to get out more!) The reason why these kinds of folks seem like sages, and the average PhD does not, presumably stems from the way in which they have acquired their knowledge about the world.
On the other hand: you can decry our society’s own “disenchantment” and the supposed Death of God all you want. But I’ll bet you take for granted things like free public libraries (thank you Andrew Carnegie, you murderously oppressive, self-aggrandizing son-of-a-bitch!). This is the absolute bedrock of civil liberties in the United States: the freedom not only to say what you want and think what you want, but to access knowledge that, in almost every other society the world has ever seen, would have been off-limits to all but an elite few. Sure, we still have “experts” whose typically mendacious interpretations dominate the airwaves. And most professions and disciplines employ occult terminology with a strong gatekeeper function. But we also have – possibly for not much longer – the Freedom of Information Act. Many individual states have Right-to-Know laws. And of course, we have the Internet – though more and more of it is off-limits to non-subscribers.
If, as some say, we are living in the twilight of the Free Information Age, we should be concerned about what this could mean for democracy. The Bush/Cheney regime has displayed an unprecedented obsession with secrecy and utter contempt for laws and customs mandating accountability. The more that the powerful can withhold access to knowledge, the more difficult it becomes to fight them. Thus their monopoly accelerates. What prevents them from becoming like gods – lords of death, arbiters of the planet’s fate? Is there something intrinsic to the power of understanding, that it might ultimately desert those who seek its ultimate control?
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An afterthought on the Mojave myth: this god, whose name is Mastamho, cannot be equated with deus abscondus. In the first place, however altered and diminished, he is still with the people as long as there are eagles. Moreover, by the ingenius conception of presence-as-future-possibility for the unborn, all religious specialists can claim to have communed with him directly! Which was, of course, the point. As masters of the dream, shamans always have access to the illo tempore of sacred story, the dreamtime where death and forgetfulness can be reversed, humans and animals are all just people and outward forms are, if not quite unreal as Plato thought, infinitely supple. The mind that can master these transformations is indeed a dangerous thing.
(1) I think the date is right. I read this a while back, and don’t have the reference at hand.
(2) Bierhorst should have updated the translation. By “fish eagle” he means, of course, the bald eagle.