Star.Ships A Prehistory of the Spirits

Gordon White

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

The urge to ground magical practice in the depths of time is surely venerable. During the Renaissance, the concept of a prisca theologia — a pure common origin for all religions — fired the imagination of Hermeticists such as Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno. Not only did their belief in the great antiquity of the Corpus Hermeticum promise unifying hope in the face of the religious conflicts of their time, it also tapped into the great potency that the aura of antiquity bestows. All the evidence from ethnography and archaeology indicates that this aura probably held power all the way to the Upper Palaeolithic, where cave painting traditions bound us back to the intensities of the animal world we were slowly drifting away from.1

Unfortunately for the Renaissance Hermeticists, their belief was challenged — apparently decisively — by advances in philological analysis, which dated the Hermetica to a few centuries after Christ, thousands of years later than expected. Many magically-inclined people simply refused the evidence and carried on regardless. But a pattern was initiated, a facet of the modern polarisation between rationalism and religion, in which scientific skeptics constantly faced off against believers in the ancient roots of their spirituality. Even though modernity continued to supply the skeptics with battles they did quite well in (such as the Wicca movement), it’s never been a cut-and-dried case of the gradual victory of right over wrong. Clearly there’s ideological weight on both sides — a fiery kind of belief keeping magicians’ powers fuelled by the antiquity aura, and an icy kind of belief driving the scientific cynicism about claims of a tradition’s great age.

Magician Gordon White’s sharp and engaging Star.Ships weighs into this ongoing war with the hard-to-dispute claim that in many ways the field of combat has changed fundamentally. A ‘peace process’ may even have begun. Just two decades ago, those who were debunking claims of antiquity and keeping dates conservative seemed to have the upper hand. These days, headlines pushing back the date of Palaeolithic art or our emergence from Africa and settlement of Australia seem to be as common as those revising climate predictions in favour of the Four Horsemen. And beyond strictly archaeological dating, the study of culture has found that more sophisticated comparative methods, and a closer engagement with developments in the hard sciences, is pushing back the dating of things like fairy tales. To match the slight cooling of magic’s ardour for the archaic (most serious practitioners these days make concessions to recent debunking), science seems to be letting its icy resistance to the archaic melt a bit, and is following the evidence further and further into the past.

A genuine advance in this regard is the work that White’s argument leans on heavily: Sanskrit scholar Michael Witzel’s The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. (I’ve not read this imposing tome yet; there’s a useful review here.) Witzel’s approach marries the wide range of the comparativist to the historical framework provided by the latest research in genetics and geology. What emerges is a truly vast survey of myths around the world, with a branching timeline that traces a core mythical story — our ‘first novel’ — to origins around 40,000 years ago. This system of myth, dubbed ‘Laurasian’ by Witzel, is concerned with the creation and destruction of the world, and the separation of Heaven and Earth. Its linear narrative stands in contrast to ‘Gondwanan’ mythology, a less formal ‘forest of stories’ typified in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea, and Australia. Both are supposed to have emerged from a primal ‘Pan-Gaean’ complex of myths.

White’s main contention is that a significant number of aspects of the Western esoteric tradition can be traced — not through direct transmission, but through varying cultural continuities — all the way back to the Laurasian wellspring. It’s not an especially bold claim in itself — at least not in the world of magic.2 What marks White’s work as being worthy of attention is his detailed grasp of recent scholarship. That, and the fact that this scholarship can be so easily rallied to support magic’s greatest claims about its primal heritage. Recent scholarship has affirmed that while the texts of the Hermetica were assembled between the first and third centuries CE, they contain much greater continuities with ancient Egypt than previously realised. White wields Witzel’s thesis to push straight through Egypt and right into the prehistoric depths. The magicians, it seems, were right after all.

This fascinating genealogy of esotericism is served up with a choice selection of other familiar topics — Atlantis and aliens being the most prominent — that will be taken as either juicy or sloppy, depending on your tastes. The Atlantis connection relates to the idea that behind this hoary myth — and all its dead-end interpretations — lie very real cultural memories of the rise of the sea level as the last Ice Age’s glaciers began to melt. It’s recently become accepted that Aboriginal myths encode memories of this event from up to 13,000 years ago. White locates the Laurasian cultural wellspring around the Sunda and Sahul lands, the two major landmasses of Southeast Asia and Australasia before the end of the Ice Age. Between them he finds an archaic ‘sailing nursery’, the many islands nurturing an increasing sophisticated maritime culture that would eventually give rise to the greatest mariners of all, the Polynesians. ‘And where you have a sailing nursery,’ he adds, ‘you have what we can cheekily call a stellar nursery.’3 The necessities of navigation are seen to be a prime factor in the development of more precise and systematic stellar lore, in turn a prime factor in the Laurasian move away from the tangled forest of stories to the more formal first novel. As the glaciers retreated and the sea levels rose dramatically, these people dispersed and — White maintains — some passed through India to the Near East, leaving many traces in legend of wise, civilisation-bearing ‘men from the east’. This is as credible and well-referenced a vindication and explanation of the Atlantis myth as you’ll find.

The alien connection flows less well. White repeatedly distances himself from the ‘ancient aliens’ crowd with justified sarcastic asides. But then, when the concept of archaic contact with some kind of ‘other’ intelligence is raised quite late in the book, even though it’s introduced via the sophisticated ideas of Jacques Vallée, it comes as a bit of a surprise. Obviously the idea was to make it clear that he has no truck with literalist extraterrestrial ufology — not to dismiss the concept of contact altogether, but to pave the way for something more nuanced. This is, roughly speaking, the ‘interdimensional’ hypothesis, embracing the weirder bits of modern cosmology and the smarter bits of far-out consciousness expansion. Graham Hancock’s Supernatural spun a similar tale, arguing for an otherworld next door, persistently influencing this reality, and possessing far more reality than the modern West cares to suppose. For my money, Patrick Harpur (with elegant coherence) and Terence McKenna (with elegant incoherence) spun this tale the best, refusing the modern dichotomy of reality and fantasy completely, and (re)discovering other realms in the process. White is definitely ploughing the same field as these guys, but the way the ‘aliens’ land here falls shy of the (admittedly tricky) liminal rhetorical dance they need in order to convince.

I inevitably contrasted and compared this work with North as I went along. Both seem to have surfed into being on the recent wave of returns to ‘grand narratives’. In the cycle of intellectual fashions, the late 20th century saw a great deal of reaction against the totalising historical visions of the 19th and early 20th century. But as the wheel of fashion turned, and as interpretive methodologies caught up with the vast arrays of data being accumulated about the past, many began to attempt big stories again — usually free of many of the dubious colonial trappings of earlier global narratives. And here is where I first felt a positive contrast with North. The great emphasis in Star.Ships on Southeast Asia and Sundaland goes a long way to undermining the habitual Eurocentric bias that North, to some extent, inherits. A truly decentred global history may be impossible, but this shift in the centre of historical gravity is welcome, refreshing, and probably on the money.

Another challenge to North‘s narrative here comes from the very early dating of aspects of what I term the polar cosmos, such as the mythical separation of Heaven and Earth, which are seen here as part of the Laurasian package. Even though I settled early on, and stuck with, the idea of the much later Agricultural Revolution as a key socio-cosmic pivot, my research increasingly hinted at how things I associated with this shift — most importantly, social stratification and orientation according to the sky — had roots which stretched well into the hunter-gatherer Palaeolithic. White’s vision of Sundaland as a nursery for both sailing and star lore rings true in that I see an emphasis on the sky as a trans-geographic reference, and an emphasis on it as a transcendent imaginal field, as developing in tandem. I underplayed the extent to which the gradual spread of hunter-gatherers across Earth may have given rise to such a sky-centrism, and instead concentrated on the role of long-distance trade and migration between early settlements. The story here is obviously much more complex, and I have little doubt that White’s vision of Sundaland as an incubator for early elements of the polar cosmos will deeply inform my ongoing modifications of the vision of North.

Having been so immersed in the social and political aspects of cosmology, I felt a lack here in Star.Ships which is probably more to do with my immersion than this work’s shortcomings. There are occasional nods to the important cosmopolitical aspects of kingship:

I believe the increasing complexity in star lore over the millennia — and in particular that first jump toward precise measurement that is in some way associated with the rise of the Laurasian ‘novel’ — has much to do with the emergence of divinely ordained, absolute rulers. Priests are ever putting ‘their man’ on the throne.4

But — even though this quote makes it clear the issue is central to the Laurasian thesis — there’s less wrangling with the historical relationship between social power and cosmology than you might expect. My North-addled sensibilities were left wanting more. Using Witzel’s terminology, North attempts to open history up to Gondwanan and Pan-Gaean culture, as a way of unravelling the bewitching glamours of power in the Laurasian world. Star.Ships remains generally Laurasian in its scope — probably a sensible, even necessary move, since the resolution of its historical mapping project is much higher than that of North. But while White is no slouch when it comes to unravelling glamours, the embeddedness of images of social power in Laurasian myth can — in my eyes, these days — always do with a bit more interrogation. (That said, I’m curious to see what the famously ‘Rousseauian’ anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has to say in his upcoming London lecture in which he contends that ‘there are kingly beings in heaven even where there are no chiefs on earth’. Evidently, as ever, the story here is much more complex than I thought.)5

In all, Star.Ships is a bold and invigorating landmark in magic’s writing of its own history. It’s a highly accomplished work, though the latter half sometimes feels a bit like a collection of ramifications that aren’t fully resolved into a beguiling narrative. Perhaps in this it’s an honest attempt to break new ground, shirking any deceptive sense of rounded completion, and suggesting new directions rather than sealing the vision up. At the same time, this and the punchy, blog-honed style don’t easily dovetail with the customary talismanic production that Scarlet Imprint have deployed for the book’s limited edition. The writing style is great, and the fine edition, from what I’ve seen, is wonderful. They just don’t go together that well. Luckily there’s a less ostentatious hardback and a handsome paperback if you’re not tempted by the black rayskin cover. And the words in any edition will plug you straight into one of the most interesting debates going on at the intersections of magical consciousness and the study of deep history.