Nov 27, 2006

Myth of Progress 2

I've been reading "The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries" by Evan-Wentz. Dr. Evan-Wentz is perhaps better known to Buddhists as the editor of "The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation" and other texts of Tibetan Buddhism. (There have been newer and better translations of most of these texts, but that's another story.)

Dr. Evan-Wentz' first interest was Celtic folk-lore, the field in which he earned his Phd. In this book, he recounts stories collected in his travels through the lands of Europe's Celtic fringe (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man and Brittany) during the first years of the twentieth century. In later chapters, he deals with literary sources detailing similar matter from earlier periods. There is also a brief treatment of some cross-cultural references.

The interesting thing, for our purposes here, is that according to his informants, mostly elderly so reporting memories from the middle of the ninteenth century, it was very much a common thing for people at one time to see various beings of what we would call supernatural orders. These came in various sorts, ranging from powerful, beautiful and mysterious entities known to the Irish as "the gentry" to small mischevious beings known by various names as leprachauns, pixies and elves. It was becoming uncommon to see these things already at the time Evan-Wentz wrote, and it is almost unknown today.

The question arises, what changed? The modern rationalist mind-set cavalierly dismisses any mention of fairies or elves etc. as delusionary. But could whole cultures be so delusionary? Could thousands of witnesses have imagined the same sort of things? Perhaps, the skeptic answers, their delusions were fed by the culture. But the cross-cultural references to this type of material is astounding. Many of the details of the Celtic "fair folk" correspond closely to the Asian idea of devas and nagas. And perhaps even more so to the stories of the Ojibway. I spoke to a friend about this, someone who knows Ojibway legends well, and he tells me many of the particulars regarding the "Mimiquay" (sp?) or little people of that nation are almost identical to the stories of the Celts.

The modernist might believe that we are better informed than our superstitious ancestors and no longer believe in such things. But there is another possibility. Perhaps we have lost some innate spiritual faculty that allowed us to perceive other levels or dimensions of reality; perceptual fields now closed to us.

Some years ago I read an article, by a Christian author, about angels. He had the interesting hypothesis that the invention of perspective in Renaissance painting was not an invention at all in the ordinary sense. Rather, it marked a change of perception. People at that time became more tuned in to the ordinary three-dimensional world, but at the same time lost the vision of other realms available to medieval man; who painted in two-dimensions but who saw angels.

Who's to say?


EBE said...

Interesting post. It might be worth mentioning that many people that had an "after death" experience agree about the details of the bright light, the tunnel etc. This might support the hypothesis that we all feel other realms, hidden in these days at the sub-conscious mind.

Ben 8) said...

My first thought was 'You of all people know how hard it is to keep stray thoughts from others out.'
But then I guess a horse hisper'er
may not count.
If one were to go stay in the out
back with No TV or inter-net for
a year or so maybe some of these
things would reappear. If one is
Never raised from birth Without
the mind numbing surround sound
of today's world one could not
talk to the wind.
How would they learn to think for
their self?

gregory said...

In order to master perspective, Italian Renaissance artists began a somewhat departure from religious subjects and soon an increasing interest in the natural world for paintings. Eventually, and as the Renaissance spread north, you had artists like the Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel who would paint landscapes and nature only for itself, as it was, rather than just surroundings for dieties and imaginary friends.

Why couldn't whole cultures be delusionary? Go to the most civilized Muslim country and ask a stranger: Did the Holocaust happen?

Anonymous said...

Icelanders, who are probably the most literate people on the planet and most certainly "modern" in the Western sense, still share their small island with the huldufolk, or the hidden people, who live among the boulders and rocks and underground. Whole roads have been re-routed to avoid disturbing places where these beings are believed to dwell.

I'd be curious to know if any immigrated to Manitoba.

roberto said...

I've thought about this myself.I have a fascination with celitc cultre and the "fairie folk." It seems that for any spritual aspect of life/any mythology, archetypes are respresented in a different manner. Odin is the equivalent of zeus, and so forth. For me, the likelehood of a genuine supernatural event, the likeliness of this, can party be measuered by ones personal experience. If one wants to see something badly, they can delude themselves to that, but what of somone who has no particular psychological pressures/desires in their life? If they see something, I think there is at least a chance that the event is authentic. I believe that some events do get ingrained in us though. If you keep hearing of a white light at the end of a tunnel, I'd think that would tilt your mind to that direction when coming across that experience...but again to one who is not so susceptible to that, if they expereince that, there is a better chance of it being a genuine experience

gregory said...

The fascination is beyond me. If any eggheads should happen to intensely assay the reality of fairies, I hope they will avail to investigate other spirits that are more purposeful and prevalent in mythology. For example, Allah (Arabic: lit. 'The God'), our all-merciful and all-beneficent heavenly creator God who's supposedly planning our excruciation in an everlasting oven of love.

Doug said...

Another Brit with a hypenated name, the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, wrote a monograph once called "Magic and Witchcraft Among the Azande" about the African Azande tribe. The Azande believe in witches that fly on flaming bunches of sticks at night. Evans-Pritchard was skeptical to start with. But after living with the Azande for a couple of years, one night he went out of his hut in the dead of night, looked skyward and what did he see but ... It's a famous passage in social anthropological literature, and it's written in an ambiguous way. Yet it leaves the distinct impression that E-P saw what the Azande see. Yet, what was that, exactly? A flying witch aboard a bundle of flaming faggots? Or something else that everyone agreed would be called "a flying witch ... etc." I think we know enough today to know that people from earliest time have profoundly "real" experiences (as real as any other aggregate, which isn't very) that language doesn't adequately describe. Those experiences inevitably get clothed in the language and customs of the day: flying witches in native Africa, jaguars in native Central America, faeries in Celtic Ireland, UFOs in today's U.S., the resurrected Elvis, etc.