David Abram’s article The Ecology of Magic is a fascinating read. It seems to be more of a journey than an article. We follow David on his adventures through Indonesia, discovering along with him the wonders the world has to offer. The article begins with Abram “falling through space”. (Abram 174) His description of his vision is beautiful and surreal, but also grounded firmly in reality. He describes the universe that he experienced in both the logical manner of rice paddies and fireflies, but also as stars and weightlessness. When caught in a cave during monsoon rains, Abram entered a trance brought on by the thundering of the rain. He witnessed a group of spiders, each weaving their own single webs, but each becoming part of an overall pattern. “I had the distinct impression that I was watching the universe being born, galaxy upon galaxy.” (Abram 194)
Abram also writes about the shamans he studied with in Rural Asia, and the intriguing way they lived. These shamans worked as healers, but would also encourage rumours of their dark practices so they could ensure that “only those who were in real and profound need of their skills would dare approach them for help.” (Abram 177) The shamans would work as “[intermediaries] between the human community and the larger ecological field” (Abram 178), keeping the balance and working with spirits. Abram also speaks of the confusion using the word ‘spirit’ creates. In Western cultures, spirits are supernatural beings: ghosts or demons. But, as Abram discovered in Indonesia, these spirits could be a family of ants leaving a home alone in exchange for offerings of rice.
After returning to America, Abram was able to for a time continue on the sensory overload that he had been experiencing. But after being immersed once again in Western culture, he began to lose his ability to commune with the nature around him. He became more centred on the self rather than the surrounds.
“Magic, then, in its perhaps more primordial sense, is the experience of living in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every natural form one perceives – from the swallows swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass and indeed the blade of grass itself – is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.”(Abram 183)
Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism – Richard Noll
Mental imagery cultivation, by which Noll means “traditions devoted to the deliberate, repeated induction of enhanced mental imagery”, (Noll 444) can be both spontaneous and cultivated. Spontaneous visions brought on by bursts of passion are common throughout history and often given religious significance. Noll believes there is a very strong link between mental imagery and “magico-religious” traditions, but that “the importance of this link is often overlooked”. (Noll 445)
While Noll references visions from medieval Europe, the Vajrayana Buddhists and a medieval Islamic ritual practice, the majority of his article focuses on shamanism, which he refers to as “an ecstatic healing tradition”. (Noll 445) Shamans “[exist] in two worlds”, (Hultkrantz in Noll 446) and not only acknowledge both worlds as being valid, but do not confuse the two. Noll describes a twofold training process in mental imagery where the apprentice shaman focuses on the vividness of his visions, and then moves on to learn to control them. “‘Vividness’ and ‘controlledness’ are, furthermore, the two imagery parameters most commonly examined in the experimental literature of psychology.” (Noll 446)
The most effective method to increase vividness of mental imagery is, according to Noll, through altered states of consciousness. “The ability to experience altered states of consciousness is universal to the species… I contend that the shaman’s goal is enhance mental imagery and the induction of an altered state of consciousness is a means to that end”, (Noll 447) that end being the healing of the community. Noll goes on to say that the important part for shamans is “not that consciousness is altered but that mental imagery is enhanced.” (Noll 447) Controlling mental imagery aids the shaman in many things, some of which being dream recall and the mastering of spirits. These spirits are teachers, guides and give aid to the shamans. “The shaman is the man who knows and remembers.” (Eliade in Noll 450) Another feature of mental imagery is the cultural memory stored. Shamans are the stores of these memories, and are the ones who keep the community in balance and on the correct path.
Noll concludes by saying that mental imagery cultivation is “a construct that unifies an immense and disparate body of ethnographic and historical evidence… Mental imagery ability is part of the ‘generic human personality structure, shared by all human beings’”. (Noll, & Bourguignon in Noll 451) We all have the ability, it’s how we choose to use it that makes all the difference.
The West turns Eastward: Madame Blavatsky and the Transformation of the Occult Tradition – Mark Bevir
During the nineteenth century, occultism became popular in western culture. An obsession with Egypt and India became popular, and a fascination with exotic religious practices and rituals swept through the western world. There were many famous and interesting figures involved in the occult movement, but Bevir focuses in this article on Madame Blavatsky, a mysterious woman who lived a magnificently full and amazing life.
Madame Blavatsky married a General at seventeen, returned to her family three months later before disappearing for seventeen years. When she returned to Russia, she was well-versed in occultism. She began to write articles and teach her particular brand of occultism and magic.
Bevir goes into great detail about the Victorian crisis of faith and its causes. The war between science and religion was at its height, with new theories such as Darwin’s Evolution causing conflict. Madame Blavatsky showed herself to be aware of the implications of this war, and while agreed with the theory of evolution, would not accept other theories about the origins of life, believing in natural magic. “There is a visible, objective nature; an invisible, indwelling nature, the exact model of the other, and its vital principle; and above these two, spirit, source of all forces, alone and indestructible.” (Blavatsky in Bevir 754)
Blavatsky’s teachings focussed on India, particularly Brahmanism. “In India, magic has never died out”. (Blavatsky in Bevir 762) She believed Indians to still hold on to ancient wisdom and a moral code much simpler than that of Christians. “A man [who believes that] he has no scapegoat to carry the burdens of his iniquities for him [is more likely to behave morally than one who believes that] murder, theft and profligacy can be washed as white as snow” simply by confessing and being forgiven by a priest. (Blavatsky in Bevir 756) Blavatsky taught that Hinduism “encouraged people to turn inwards and find the divine within themselves.” (Bevir 764) There was less of a focus on a God, and more of a philosophy of the divine.
Blavatsky was one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, which Bevir does not focus heavily on. He does, however, refer to it as the “grandparent of the New Age movement” (Bevir 765) with many groups stemming from it still today. These groups “try to reconcile religious life with a modern world dominated by a scientific spirit”, and often adopt Blavatsky’s methods of bridging the gaps between religion and science.
Abram D, 1997, ‘Ecology of Magic’, Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More- than-human World, New York, Vintage Books, 1997, ch.1.
Noll R, 1995, ‘Mental Imagery Cultivation’, Current Anthropology, 26, 4, 443-461.
Bevir M, 1994, ‘West turns Eastward’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 62, 3, 747- 767.