Ernst Bloch: The Spirit of Utopia: Fetishes, Part 2. (02/19/2001)

What has been established so far, then, is that spirits exist naturally in every piece of wood as they travel upward through the middle world in the flesh of the World Tree. Careful examination of the roots, trunk, and branches, of any living tree will reveal their presence in the wood. As long as the section of the branch in which the spirit rests remains attached to the tree and continues to grow, the spirit's journey toward the place of its reincarnation moves forward toward completion. Native people never remove living wood from any tree without first performing the necessary rituals associated with the act of suspending or interrupting a spirit's journey to rebirth. Because such an act has grave consequences, it happens only rarely, in fact, and to do so at all would require the most compelling reason. I cannot give an example of what such a reason might be because I cannot think of one in a general context. The point is that fetishes are sculpted from pieces of wood that have been removed from a living tree by the force or power of another natural spirit, wind or lightening, for instance, and not by the whim or desire of any particular human individual. Wood no longer attached to the World Tree embodies spirits that have not died, but only one's whose progress toward reincarnation have been interrupted.

A shaman, the only person in the tribe who has need of fetishes, and the only person who ever sculpts one, first searches among pieces of detached wood, where different kinds can be used for different purposes, until he/she finds one that contains the kind of spirit (clan-animal or otherwise, for instance) that best serves the purpose to which the fetish is intended. The stem of a pipe, for instance, might be crafted from a branch of aromatic cedar in which the spirits of the shaman's totem ancestors dwell. Field Mouse, Wolverine, and Blue Jay, for instance, might co-mingle in a single piece of wood, traveling together as it were from under world to upper world along the branch the shaman uses for his pipe, where each of these spirits represents a distinct aspect of that person's clan affiliations. In the act of smoking, then, during rituals that require such activity, the spirits of the shaman's ancestral heritage guide the smoke from bowl to mouth and infuse the breath he/she sends outward with the necessary elements of the spirit-power needed to accomplish whatever task the ritual is meant to perform. The point of such activity is to define, from the undifferentiated world of spirit-power that exists always and everywhere in the universe, precisely those particular elements or aspects of it (Field Mouse, Wolverine, Blue Jay) that the shaman deems necessary to effect in the best way possible the cure he/she is seeking to re-establish the broken balance in nature that prompted the ritual in the first place.

What the shaman does when he/she sculpts a fetish, as noted earlier, is bring the body of the spirit out of the wood in which it dwells, not so that it can be seen better, but in order to find its natural shape in the wood so that it can reach out through time and space, without encumbrance from extraneous matter, which can be said to mute its presence in the wood, and draw to itself all the power it can gather from every other existing manifestation of its kind in the lower, middle, and upper, worlds of the universe. This is precisely why fetishes are considered to be dangerous, why they can only be handled, used by people who are accustomed to dealing with the spirit-world. On the one hand, the shaman is chosen by the spirits to do this sort of work because he/she is perceived by them to be able to endure the stress associated with living in the middle world while dealing with those who do not, with those who dwell in the lower and upper worlds. On the other hand, the shaman is trained and tested by his/her association with spirits in a long process of illumination that teaches him/her how to perform the rituals that bring spirits out into the middle world where people live. Spirits are not vicious, cruel, savage monsters, as most Europeans think of them; but rather, they are simply embodiments of power. Power is dangerous simply because it is more than nothing, simply because it is more than its absence.

The only thing left at issue here, as far as I can tell, is the need to draw careful distinctions between European perceptions of the world and the ones that native Americans, and most other tribal people, have formulated. It is simply said but difficult to comprehend. The universe in native perceptions is a closed world in precisely the sense that the lower and upper worlds, while very different than the middle realm, are nevertheless not located on a different plane, as the terms may suggest, in any hierarchical sense. It would be just as valid to say that the three worlds of spirit reality are located on a horizontal axis, left, middle, right, for instance, as it is to distinguish them vertically. The point is that spirits are not thought of as supernatural, or as sub-natural, entities or beings in any sense of such terminology whatsoever. Spirits, for the simple reason that anyone who looks can see them in the body of any piece of material wood, must of necessity exist in the middle realm of the natural world just like any other living thing does. Having the ability to move from one level or aspect of reality to another at will, or rather out of a practical necessity, does not change the fact that spirits are wholly natural forces or powers. They are not transcendent; they are not immortal or eternal but last only as long as the world itself endures.

Another way to look at the same issue, and the way the Maya conceived it, is to recognize the fact that the three levels of reality are more temporal concepts than they are spatial ones. The lower world, where the roots of the World Tree are located, is the past. The upper world is the future; that which has not yet come into existence but resides only as potential. The middle world is the present. What the shaman does, then, in his spirit journey, is travel from present to past, from present to future (though this is relatively rare), as he/she searches for the proper remedy for whatever ails the world in its present moment. This may sound like a simplistic concept, a thing or methodology easy to accomplish; however, the Maya spent several thousand years developing a calendrical system, a system for counting time, that exactly matched the natural harmony of celestial motion. The solution to the essential problem of how to travel in time, through the world of the spirits, as the Maya conceived it, and whether rightly or wrongly it is difficult to say, was resolved by them in the interval known as the Calendar Round, a sequence of days composed of 18,980 discretely named and differentiated days. The interval is composed of two repetitious groups of day-names; one 260 days in length (13 x 20) and the other 365 days long (18 x 20 + 5 nameless ones) which were combined in endless sequences from a zero base-day in the Classic period set at 4 Ahau 8 Cumku. The two names here, 4 Ahau and 8 Cumku, were each composed of two spirits; the day in the 260-day sequence, 4 Ahau, was fashioned by the spirit represented by 4 and the spirit represented by Ahau. The day in the 365-day sequence was signified by the spirit for 8 and the spirit for Cumku. This combination of distinct spirit-power only occurred one time in every 18,980 days. When the count reached 3 Cauac 7 Cumku, 18,979 days later, the first round of spirit powers passed through its final day. A new round of days and spirit-powers began the next day at 4 Ahau 8 Cumku and the sequence was repeated again with exactly the same order of day-names. Each of these groups of 18,980 days came together to represent the intervals of time into which the Maya divided the past. When a shaman set out on his journey through the spirit world he was able to pinpoint his exact destination in the past, or in the future, by virtue of the day-name he wanted to reach and by virtue of choosing precisely which Calendar Round that particular destination resided in. Since the interval itself was based on periods that exactly counted various components of celestial motion, intervals of motion that rehearsed the "lives" of the spirits who lived in the upper branches of the World Tree, always in exactly the same way from year to year, the shaman was able to move precisely from here to there and back again inside the physical context of the spirit world established by the "lives" of those spirit-powers.

The only idea necessary to understanding how and why this system of travel works is recognition of the fact that the past still exists, that it is now exactly as it was then, that everything and everyone who resided in a particular past still does so, that getting from here to there requires nothing more, and nothing less, than doing so. Hearing what the past has to tell us, a task much easier than actually going there, requires only that one learn how to listen to the voices of the dead. Like a cell-phone, without a battery, as it were, the fetish draws the voices of the spirits from the same air that nourishes both past and present, both present and future, for as long as the earth exists, for as long as a single tree remains standing. In our world, of course, one dominated by Eurocentric hatred for everything natural, there is no reason to assume a guarantee that anything at all will, or even can, last forever.