Reflections on Spirit
Note 16: Prediction Versus Prophecy in Native American Culture. 6/21/99
Native Americans venerate their ancestors; they do not, and never have, anticipated the arrival of a messiah. What this means essentially is that animistic people are more oriented toward the past than they are focused on the future. This simple observation was prompted by a recent e-mail request that I link this web-site to another one that deals with so-called "prophecies" written or spoken by native Americans and other tribal and indigenous people in various other parts of the world. The author of the web-site, whose name I won't reveal here because he/she represents a growing trend in spiritualist ideology, many of whom are guilty of the same mistake, has attempted to characterize certain aspects of shamanistic behavior in terms that mean to link it to Eurocentric perceptions of prophetic "vision." This particular writer has started out by classifying various populations according to a "skin-color" chart which places Mayan, Aztec, and Inca people (if I recall the scheme correctly) in a "brown" category, while all other native Americans are perceived as belonging to a "red" one. While classifications of this kind might be perfectly innocent in their overall connection to issues of race and racism, I personally find such thinking offensive, what really troubles me about this particular modality is the suggestion inherent in it that Mayan, Aztec, and Inca people are not really indigenous to the Western hemisphere in the same way that other tribes of native Americans are because they require a class distinct from the one that everyone else belongs to. Why would these three tribes of native Americans be perceived as being "brown" as opposed to being "red"?
One assumption I can draw from this curious bit of fuzzy thinking, while I certainly don't know whether or not it is valid to do so, is that many people, even most people, who deal with Mayan, Aztec, and Incan civilization in one fashion of sophistication or another, have a "natural" tendency to believe that there must be some significant difference between them and the rest of native American culture because these particular tribes were able to create a visible manifestation of themselves that seems to exceed in large measure what other tribes living at the same time were able to accomplish for themselves. The Lakota were nomadic and lived in movable structures constructed of sticks and animal skins. How could people like that belong to the same race that constructed huge, complex clusters of stone pyramids and temples that rival the achievement of the Egyptians? Even some contemporary native Americans are probably guilty of the same (mis)perception; namely, that Mayan, Aztec, and Inca people are not really part of who we are because their achievement seems to exceed ours by such an elaborate extent. They must be from somewhere else because I cannot recognize myself in what they accomplished.
Putting it in these terms, I hope, highlights the fallacy in the ideology of this kind of thinking. It is Eurocentric at its heart because permanent dwellings made of stone, even if the Mayas did not actually live in the ceremonial architecture they created but instead lived in mud and wattle huts situated inside the ceremonial complex and only in the midst of the ceremonial structures themselves, are perceived as being superior to any other kind of structure from a Eurocentric point of view. This is true, of course, simply because that is how the upper-crust individuals of European civilization have always already chosen to distinguish themselves from the lower classes of people among them who have always already been forced to live in mud and wattle huts not unlike the ones most native Americans lived in themselves. In Eurocentric thinking the kind of house you occupy necessarily identifies the status you have attained, where the primary difference between one culture and the other is the same as differentiating between ego-centric and communal living. In native America, where people had their own private house, and did not live in a communal dwelling, everyone had the same kind of house with no sense of status attached to its relative size or sophistication. In Eurocentric thinking, hierarchy is everything; in native American consciousness that concept has no place at all.
While I am not particularly inclined to quote Christian logocentric discourse in this section of the document, since it is totally out of place in the context of a discussion of native American conceptualizations of spirit, it is nevertheless helpful to characterize the nature of Eurocentric concepts of prophecy from the horse's mouth, as it were, in order to draw the strictest possible differentiation between it and what native American, and shamanistic people in general, do and say when they engage in activities that Christians have always confused with their own practice of the "same" thing. Clement of Alexandria (153-217 A.D.), at the end of Chapter IX of his Exhortation to the Heathen, in which he outlines an extensive argument explaining why heathens should give up the beliefs of their fathers and grandfathers for the faith of the Christian, excoriates them for their unbelief and provides a compelling example of what precisely is meant by the Eurocentric and Christian conceptualization of prophecy. He makes his quotation up from a combination of Biblical ideas expressed in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel:
"But you do not know God, and worship the heaven, and how shall you escape the guilt of impiety? Hear again the prophet speaking: 'The sun shall suffer eclipse, and the heaven be darkened; but the Almighty shall shine for ever: while the powers of the heavens shall be shaken, and the heavens stretched out and drawn together, [and] rolled as a parchment-skin (for these are the prophetic expressions); the earth shall flee away from being before the face of the Lord'."
Clement's primary focus here is against the Greek and Roman belief that sun, moon, planets, and stars were gods and deserving of human awe and worship. His counterattack against these fundamental heathen perceptions of reality is drawn from the notion that God, as the Supreme Creator and Master of the Universe, has both the power and the will to destroy what he has created if humankind, heathens especially, do not give up their impious belief in false religions and turn to the true path of Christian ideology. The early church Fathers, from the beginning of their time as such, unceasingly quote the Prophets of the Old Testament to prove that Jesus Christ was, in fact, the announced advent of the Messiah who was expected both to save the undeserving world from its pervasive, unrelenting sinfulness and depravity, on the one hand, and to judge those people in it who refused to accept his saving Word with eternal death and damnation, on the other. In this particular passage, Clement tends to emphasize the notion that the world is on the verge of that utter and absolute destruction. This view of the impending annihilation of created reality was a common theme in early church writing and constitutes the major focus of the Judeo-Christian tradition of prophecy.
The prophet in Biblical terms, especially in the Old Testament, was expected to condemn contemporary society as being excessively disobedient to God's eternally truthful Law, a condition which in turn was expected to bring about an explicit warning about how God was on the verge of visiting a devastation against (wo)man to punish her/his disobedience even to the point of a total annihilation of His entire created reality. In Christianity, this concept, because Jesus Christ was thought to be the embodiment of that threat against humankind, even as He was considered to be its Savior, came to be associated with the final hours, as it were, of human existence on the face of the earth, or as Clement puts it here, (wo)man stood in peril of having God turn His face away from the very earth itself. Were this to happen in reality, of course, then the earth itself would perish because God was thought to sustain it in every way imaginable and, without His creative presence, the earth itself would simply not be able to exist. Prophecy, as it entered into an association with this apocalyptic vision, more and more came to be seen as a way to predict when God would turn his face away from his sinfully depraved human creatures. This act of prediction was to be accomplished by various kinds of signs that were expected to emerge in the depraved circumstances of human reality, signs sent by God to the truly faithful, so to speak, so that they could read the hour of the approaching catastrophe, and could learn to say exactly when the end of the world, and Christ's Second Coming to it, would be most likely to occur.
In the spiritualist tradition now emerging, if only on the Internet, which seeks to accomplish the same thing, forecasting the moment when God will cause the end of all created reality, various web-sites have sprung up which claim to use the prophetic voice of various shamanistic tribes to find the signs that prove God's intent to destroy the world because of (wo)man's sinfulness. Many things are wrong with this perception. Shamanistic people, except in cases where they have been forced to believe it, do not embrace the notion that people are inherently sinful and depraved. That being the case, they see no reason to expect God, or any other supernatural force, to destroy the world to punish human evil. Furthermore, shamanistic people do not generally accept the notion that a supernatural agency is responsible for the existence of the world and hence do not anticipate its end by means of that entity's anger against human disobedience. In short, admonitions like the one articulated by Clement of Alexandria in the second century of the first millennium make literally no sense whatsoever in the context of shamanistic belief.
At the same time, however, certain aspects of animism seem to embrace the same complex of ideas that inform Judeo-Christian traditions of prophecy. The shaman, because he/she periodically makes a journey to the spirit world, usually in order to discover the cause of an affliction being suffered by a member of his/her tribe, and occasionally one affecting the entire community, and while there with the spirits seeks their advice on how best to deal with the crisis, takes on an appearance of doing the same thing that a Christian saint and martyr does when he/she talks to God in order to learn how the community must reform itself or suffer the destructive force of an anger-driven and enraged God of all visible and invisible created reality. When the shaman returns from the spirit world, he/she performs a ritual that is supposed to cure the ailment afflicting his patient or the community at large. When the Christian saint comes back from talking to God, he/she excoriates the lapsed believers who have angered God and tells them how to reform themselves before God strikes them and everyone else dead in their tracks and sends them all wailing and moaning to eternal hell, damnation, and suffering. In this sense alone, then, one can say that the shaman predicts the future, since he/she gains knowledge from the spirits that will bring about a cure in the future if the ritual is performed properly. The idea that a shaman searches for signs that foretell the end of time itself in the apocalyptic destruction of the entire universe is a delusion Christians have about saints and martyrs and not one that animistic people have about curaderos.
In classical tradition, of course, the wanderers in the Odyssey and the Aeneid are both drawn to the underworld where the spirits of their ancestors tell them what will happen in the future. From that association, when it is coupled with the Judeo- Christian tradition of prophecy and apocalypse, it is a relatively simple matter to understand how Eurocentric thinkers were able to mistake the association shamans have with the spirits of their ancestors for the notion that they too must gain knowledge of future events from their communications with the spirit world. That assumption, however, is essentially false, since shamans are concerned with future events only in the context of providing a cure for a patient who is experiencing a medical crisis of the moment or of needing to find a solution for a problem that confronts the tribe in its communal context. Beyond that limited sense, animistic spirits do not know anything more about the future than ordinary living people do, even if they are perceived as a repository of past tribal knowledge and experience that helps remind the living members of the tribe how best to conduct themselves for the sake and purpose of preserving and protecting the environment from the kinds of behavior and activity that can threaten to destroy or damage its stability and integrity.
With respect to Mayan civilization specifically, the existence of their rather elaborate and somewhat mystifying calendrical system, which does have built into its structure an obvious terminal point in time, unlike a European calendar which does not have such a feature and presumably can go on forever and ever, or until God Himself intervenes to terminate time in an apocalyptic fit of anger against humanity, does possess a characteristic that lends itself to the kind of speculation about the end-time one can find fully articulated in Christian theology. Adding to that mystique is the fact that the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation fixes the terminal point of the Mayan 13-Baktun count in the year 2112 A. D., according to some practitioners of this ideology, provides an opportunity for them to expend any amount of available energy on this and that speculation in support of what will happen to the world when Mayan time runs out on the human race as a whole. Since the correlation I have proposed in this document has already reached the terminal point of the Mayan calendrical system, on August 14, 1955, as it turns out, I can report what is probably obvious to anyone who is listening to these words--nothing much happened on that date as far as I can remember. Truth be told?--I don't remember August 14, 1955 at all--nothing much out of the ordinary happened on that day and, even if I am wrong about the terminal date, and it has not happened yet, I don't think much will happen when it does arrive.
Apocalypse? In your dreams. In your delusions. Where the Mayas are concerned, the apocalypse began the day the first Spaniard set foot on native American soil. No one needs any kind of calendar to comprehend that catastrophe. We've already had to live it for 507 years.
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