It is seminally important that the shaman should demonstrate his skills tangibly, physically. He has to have a special ability that sets him apart from the rest of the community. This is the function of trance.
Describing a trance state is not easy without wandering off into the realms of the so-called (and nonexistent) paranormal. And so let me propose a practical definition: the emotional state of a person can be considered to be a trance if it is clearly different—it is other—compared to the normal behavior of the individuals in a group, and the group is duly interested or frightened by such behavior. This altered state is induced by appropriate actions or substances, which are also different in the above sense. These actions include self-sacrifice (that is, deliberately injuring oneself, as happened with the Mayas and the Aztecs), drug-taking, hallucinogen-smoking, obsessive repetition of drum sounds or alienating gestures (like the whirling of the Dervishes) or a combination of these (Devereux 1973). The use of hallucinogenic substances is well documented in ethnological studies in many parts of the world, in particular in Mesoamerica, among the Mayas and the Incas, and, as we have seen, evidence—indirect, but convincing nonetheless—is to be found in images in megalithic art (Chapter 14).
Interestingly, the use of hallucinogenic substances has been long suspected also for the most famous oracle of the classical world, that at the sanctuary to Apollo at Delphi. Devotees to the sanctuary had first to purify themselves in the spring that spouted from a crack in the rocks between two crags, known as the Fedriades, which tower over the entrance to sacred zone. Then they ascended a "sacred way" and were finally admitted to the hollow cave of the actual oracle, a woman called Pythia, who spoke to the faithful in a state of trance. Up to a few years ago, it was unclear whether Pythia used hallucinogens, but it was discovered recently that the sanctuary had been deliberately built at a place where friction between two faults produced hydrocarbon vapors. Methane was released, combined with ethylene, which has a sickly sweet smell and may cause a state of euphoria, or even lead to unconsciousness. Indeed the historian Plutarch writes that the location of the sanctuary had been discovered by pure chance and that a sort of perfume could often be detected in the Pizia's lair.
By means of his trance, the shaman purports to be a veritable voyager through the skies, the portals to which are known only to him. On his celestial trips he often uses the Milky Way, which is universally identified with the flowing of a liquid—in some communities sperm, believed to be divine as well as having fecundity, and which the shaman has power over. Since the voyage is "in the sky,'' it is only natural that birds and men-birds feature prominently in the iconography; this indeed forms the basis of Rappenglueck's interpretation of the scene in the grotto in Lascaux.
Just as there exist designated places in the sky where doors open, so there are also designated places on earth, ''sanctuaries'' where the shaman carries out his duties, and often the sanctuary contains a representation of the sky, a replica of the heavens to which the shaman is a conduit.
In his cosmic journeys the shaman uses, or purports to use, cosmological maps, which encompass the whole universe; there are many examples of these maps, from all over the world, usually sketched on skin or carved on rocks. Once the appropriate procedures have been performed, the trance state is proclaimed to have been attained. It should be stressed that the good faith of the shaman does not concern us here, nor are we interested in establishing whether the trance allows the shaman to genuinely carry out otherworldly operations, such as seeing into the future or talking to spirits and eliciting their help or benevolence (of course, as a physicist, I do not believe it at all). But what matters here is that the shaman is credited for having these skills, and this confers enormous power on him. The shaman thus becomes also the medicine man, treating the sick, assisting in childbirth, and officiating at death rites. The term healer, rather than medicine man, is sometimes used, but it is pointless and possibly risky to dwell too much on the choice of words. Let me give an example.
One of my friends happened to be in a godforsaken spot on the Mexican-Guatemalan border, a 24-hour drive from the closest hospital. After a fall he suffered an extremely painful and worrying multiple fracture in his shoulder. He was then taken to the local healer, who proceeded to subject him to a half-hour of chanting and propitiatory fumigation. At that point the patient was quite astonished, but still very concerned about his shoulder. The healer finished his rituals and used pieces of strong canvas and an amalgam of chewed herbs and cinnamon sticks to immobilize the fracture, in such an appropriate way that when the patient was later able to reach a hospital, the doctor praised the healer's treatment.
Apart from the powers that we might define as death-related, the shaman also invests himself with life-related powers. This function might be defined as divinatory or, if we like, astrological. The astronomer was consulted as a repository of celestial knowledge, and on the basis of such knowledge, he made predictions, auspicious or inauspicious as the case might be. The importance of these predictions, and the prestige deriving from them, should not be underestimated. For example, as we have seen, among the Babylonians, astrologers were even able to trigger the mechanism of the royal substitute (Chapter 5)—replacing the king with a hapless wretch destined to be sacrificed if the king was thought to be in danger. Among the
Mayas, any official action took on cosmological significance, for instance, war, which had to be synchronized with heavenly events, especially the cycle of Venus, as is shown in the frescoes of Bonanpak, a Mayan site about 100 kilometers from Palenque, which boasts the only example of a Mayan pictorial cycle that has come down to us intact. In the Bonanpak cycle, the celebration of a victory in battle (a celebration that involved the extraction of the fingernails of nine prisoners, possibly the scribes from the vanquished city) is dated 2-8-792. On that date, the sun was passing at the zenith, while Venus was in the lower conjunction, that is, in the brief period when it disappears from the sky before reappearing as the Morning Star.
I am often asked by students if the astronomy of the past was real astronomy or was it something more akin to astrology. Well, if we consider the sheer mass of facts that I have described in the first part of the book, and bear in mind that the vast majority of them are unquestionably true, we can only conclude that the ancient peoples' study of the sky was much closer to astronomy than to astrology. In fact, I have no way of knowing whether a Babylonian or a Mayan astronomer genuinely believed in his predictions, though I have my doubts, just as I have no way of knowing whether a modern astrologer genuinely believes in his predictions, and I have more than a few doubts on that score. The "astrology" of the past contained, however, something that we do not find in "modern astrology'': data, models, and predictions ofphysical events—in short, all the things that go to make up "science."
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