BCC Intro Philosophy
Lecture on Tribal Shamans to City-State Priests
This lecture covers the passage of human culture from early tribes and shamans to city states and priests. Before we turn to the philosophers of India, Greece and China we must look at the experts and questioning of knowledge in the earliest human societies.
Tribal Shamans and Ecstatic Quests
“Shaman” is a word from an old Turkish-Siberian dialect that means “one who knows”. Consider that a “scientist” is “one who sees” from the Latin root. The Shaman is the expert of the tribe, the one who not only holds the traditions of knowledge but who seeks new answers to problems. The shaman is both the conserver of old knowledge and the seeker and questioner of the new.
It is quite amazing to consider that shamanism is the original human culture, found from Africa to Europe to the Americas to small islands in the pacific. While it is always different in each place, the similarities are quite profound.
In tribal culture, traditional knowledge is often kept and passed on in the form of stories or narratives. These stories explain the world and help people with their problems. There are, however, times when an answer must be sought for a problem. To do this, the shaman goes on a quest (both physical and mental) for the solution and new knowledge needed to solve the problem. Often the shaman is selected as a youth who has gone through a near death experience (sickness, struck by lightning, attacked but survives). The shaman is thought to have an affinity for seeking into the unknown because they are already experienced in the unknown.
To quest for knowledge, the shaman employs techniques of ecstasy known to produce an ecstatic experience. “Ecstasy” comes from the Greek and means “standing outside”. When one is in an ecstatic trance or having an ecstatic vision, one is standing outside normal reality and seeing it from a different place and context. Consider that shamans often go down into a cave or up on a mountain to go to the lower or upper “other world”. Some shamans have been known to climb trees. One gains perspective and is capable of abstraction when one removes oneself to contemplate reality. In fact, thought is itself a form of standing outside reality, so it makes sense that the shaman is regarded as the original thinker, expert and seeker, as well as the doctor, therapist, biologist, physicist, etc.
Methods of ecstasy include not only thought itself, but drugs, pain, rhythms (chanting, drumming, rattles) fasting, sleep deprivation, removing oneself from society and meditation (including contemplation and prayer).
One early philosophical puzzle was the problem of the One and the Many: this reality is one thing, but also many things. Shamans in many different cultures had visions of an All Tree or Tree of Life, the one yet many of all things. All or Being itself is the trunk, and the many things and species of the world are the branches or the fruit. One of the recurrent philosophical insights we will see in India, Greece and China is that it takes wisdom to see that the many things are all one reality and the one reality is seen from many perspectives.
City-State Priests and Specialized Knowledge
As human beings progressed and traded devices and thinking between groups, they gathered into larger groups and settled into cities. Often the city was the state (hence, “city-state”), and the city would be the single center of a region it controlled. Then, many nations with a city each would conquer each other to make the earliest empires (consider Summer was conquered by Babylon, Babylon by Assyria, Assyria by Persia). We can see that as many tribes joined together to create city states the number of experts and types of experts multiplied. The shamans of the tribe became many types of priests and scribes in many temples. This means that experts became specialized. We can see that this pattern continued until the present time. Some priests would specialize in types of math used to chart the stars, others would specialize in healing people and animals. The many hats (or masks, rather) of the shaman became the many types of priests and scribes who recorded knowledge and made new discoveries.
Cities were centers of trade, such that not only was the city a site for many groups to converge and form a new culture but this culture also traded with other convergent cultures. Many are surprised to learn that ancient Sumer and Egypt traded with India hundreds of years before the Greeks and Israel arose. From the earliest times, culture, trade and thought have been international.
Consider the Assyrians. “Assyrian” did not name one ethnicity but rather a citizen of Assyria. Many people of different ethnicities called themselves Assyrians just as many people call themselves Americans. Assyria invented all of the siege weapons that were used in feudal Europe, but the Assyrians conquered others mostly by trade and diplomacy. Princes would be sent to be educated in Assyria, the center of knowledge in its day, and then the Assyrians would make contracts with the prince’s people to put them on the throne to maintain political control. Just like today (read Confessions of an Economic Hitman), the primary method of conquest is economic and military solutions are called for only when the economic methods have failed.
Before considering passages of the Egyptian wisdom texts, I want to address two common misconceptions about the Egyptians.
First, the Egyptians are rarely portrayed as an African people but rather museums and text books portray them as a semi-European/Asian people who are quite light in skin color. When we consider that the Egyptians painted all of their statues and carvings (as did the Greeks), and they always painted men as dark red and women as yellow, as well as having black braided hair (Herodotus the Greek historian describes the “wooly” hair of the Egyptians) it seems that the Egyptians were an African people and we are only slowly growing to recognize this. It is a big debate between Eurocentric and Afrocentric scholars today.
Second, another common misconception of the Egyptians is that they were a slave-driving, brutal people who were all about authority. This is then contrasted with the Greeks, who are considered to be wise and questioning and the birth of civilized politics. In fact, the Egyptians treated foreigners, slaves and women considerably better than the Greeks, and the pyramids were built not by slaves but by conscripted labor. Recently tombs for workers have been discovered, confirming what Egyptologists have thought for several decades. This misconception comes largely from the Bible and movies like the Ten Commandments.
The Egyptians had many types of texts and scribes, including fictional comedies and tragedies, lists of minerals and plants, essays on medicine, ethics and politics, and important to this class, wisdom literature. The Egyptian wisdom proverbs we read come from this last class of Egyptian texts.
As many tribes converged to live in city states, people began to see more of people than they had before. Suddenly, obvious truths became questionable. Rather than be unquestioning of authority, the Egyptians had more variety of authorities and questioning of authority than most cultures before them. We can see in the wisdom proverbs the questioning of authority, nobility, knowledge, teachers, prediction, wealth, luxury, punishment, and other fundamental aspects of civilization. The Egyptians were not just great builders and rulers, but also wisdom seekers and questioners.
One last concept that appears in the texts is the “heart guided individual”. The heart was thought to be the physical and mental center of the human individual. As Egyptian society developed, increasingly being “guided by the king” was replaced with being “guided by the heart”. The heart is the essence of the human and the intention within the action. Repeatedly in the text, individuals are called to listen to their heart rather than build luxury and maintain authority. These are issues that we all struggle with to this day, and so we can learn much about early human experience by reading these proverbs.
Next time, we will study the readings on India and look into its thought and thinkers.