Mysticism’s Function

For our ancestors, mysticism functioned mainly to offer “higher” and stronger motives and excuses to do what they had more practical reasons to do.  In war:

Anthropologists universally reported one “spiritual” factor as being among the most prominent causes of warfare among hunter-gatherers, as well as among primitive agriculturalists.  This was fears and accusations of sorcery. … Accusations of sorcery … do not appear randomly.  They generally arise and are directed against people whom the victim of the alleged sorcery feels have reasons to want to harm him. … Chagnon’s account … of sorcery among the Yanomamo:

No two villages that are within comfortable walking distance from each other can maintain such a [neutral] relationship indefinitely: They must become allies, or hostility is likely to develop. … A death in one of the villages will be attributed to the malevolent hekura sent by shamans in the other village, and raids will eventually take place between them. …

Trespassing was often regarded in hunter-gatherer societies as an offense against a group’s sanctified territory.  In other cases, an act of sacrilege against the clan’s totem was regarded as an insult to the clan itself. … The Dugum Dani … who fought for pigs, women, and land … [also felt] they had to placate their ghosts who became angry with them if a killing … was not avenged. … Similarly, the Gebusi of Lowland New Guinea had the highest homicide rates recorded anywhere. The reason given for the killings was retribution for sorcery, but … there remains a striking correlation in Gebusi society between homicidal sorcery attribution and lack of reciprocity in sister exchange marriage …. Gebusi sorcery attribution is about unresolved and even unacknowledged improprieties in the balance of marital exchange.

In “peace”:

During the witch trials in Europe the accused were precisely those persons who had somehow aroused the suspicion that they were envious and hence desirous of harming others.  Gradually, however, the envious man himself became the accuser, the accused being people who were good-liooking, virtuous, proud and rich. … This double role played by envy in witchcraft is again apparent among primitive peoples.  The outsider, the cripple, anyone at all handicapped, is suspected. ….

Of 222 cases of accusation of [Navaho] witchcraft … 184 involved adult males, 131 of these being of great age.  All the females  accused were also very old.  The Navaho are usually so afraid of the sorcery of old people that they do their best to propitiate them with lavish hospitality and the like, even though the person concerned may be extremely unpleasant. … [They are] suspicious of all persons in extreme positions – the very rich, the very poor, the influential singer, the extremely old. …

The Zuni Indians share with the Hopi a distaste for competitive behavior and open aggression, and sacrifice individuality to the collective.  Bu this does not eliminate envy.  Both very poor and particular rich Zuni can be suspected of witchcraft.  The constant accusation of witchcraft serves to maintain social conformity. … A deceived husband or a jilted lover is described in Zuni legend … as a man to whom it is intolerable that he alone should be unhappy. …

If an old [Comanche] man failed to adapt himself with good grace to the role of peaceable old age, he was suspected of envious magic.  He might even be killed by the relatives of someone who suspected him of being a witch.

Can’t bring yourself to slaughter a nearby village, or a long-time associate?  Mysticism can help you believe they already attacked you first, and that the stakes are so much higher than your personal gain.

We similarly self-deceive today to give ourselves higher and stronger excuses to do what baser motives require.  Beware: if you won’t accept and act on your baser motives, your subconscious may well get you to achieve similar ends via self-deceptive delusions.  For a better chance at believing the truth, accept your ignoble desires.

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