The Myth of the Noble Savage: The Cultic Milieu

From Freud To Pinker P.2

Daniel Pinchbeck is not the first who might be responsible for a popularization of mind altering substances, in fact and earlier "Noble Savage" popularization of native drugs took place during the second half of the 20th century by Carlos Castaneda.

The first formulation in print of the "Noble Savage" idea did not start with John Dryden’s 1670 as Pinker points out (The Blank Slate, 2002, p. 6) but should really be credited to  Jean de Ury's "Ricit dun voyage en la terre du Brasil," published in 1578.

There can be little doubt that his chronicle contributed to the Romanization of "savages" so evident in Montaigne's essay "On Cannibals." However, de Ury's tolerance abruptly ended when he came to the sixteenth chapter of his book: the poor natives live in spiritual darkness; they venerate no gods, have no places of worship, no scripture or sacred days in their calendar…

The Occult revival at the end of the 19th Century went around this dilemma by inventing a "Brotherhood of perfected men which had watched over the unfolding of human evolution from its inception."

From Atlantis they took with them manuscripts like the fictional, "Stanzas of Dzyan" all the way to Tibet. From there they allegedly "precipitated" letters to Madame Blavatsky near Madras in India hence called "The Mahatma Letters."

In these letters that became so popular in the 20th century cultic milieu "all are one" is not necessarily a recognition that all are "equal." In the political realm, this understanding of leadership could acquire distinctly authoritarian overtones. The ideal states of Atlantis and Lemuria, according to the Mahatma Letters detailed description, were well governed by "King-Initiates" highly evolved souls that were absolute autocrats.

In fact The Mahatma Letters’s idea of evolution functions as a linear advancement, from a first to a current fifth root race, yet also implies earlier "inferior" races have to disappear in order for the superior "white" race to evolve.

A generic Orient, the belief in the noble savage as the veneration of ancient civilizations next were supported by different spokespersons, amalgamated into a common vision the positive Other.

According to The Mahatma Letters and The Secret Doctrine claimed to be a commentary to the above "Stanzas od Dzyan," Chinese, Japanese, Malays, Tibetans, American Indians and Australians, were "degenerated semblances of humanity" that would quickly ("Koot Hoomi" writing in 1882), die out.

This might be a reason why, considering the early date at which Montaigne wrote about the idea of the noble savage, it has taken a remarkably long time for “native Americans” to become incorporated as the positive Other of any esoteric position.

The early Puritans saw Indians in purely negative terms. The Shaker movement was one of the first alternative religious traditions to show a positive interest in Indians. Songs and speeches were said to be received from the spirits of deceased Indians by psychic means."' Shaker religion may be one of the roots of the fascination with Indian "spirit guides" within the American spiritualist movement.

However, native Americans did not enter the New Age through the theosophical (Mahatma Letter) lineage. "Indians" play a role in theosophical historiography only to the extent that traces of the civilization of Atlantis can be found among them.

This was about to change with Carlos Casteneda who as an émigré and art student in Los Angeles initially was himself the victim of racist pre-conceptions. This was during the heady years when the counterculture swept over the industrialized world.

In fact Don Juan most likely never existed, I will explain this in a separate section tomorrow called "The Secret of Carlos Castaneda."

There were isolated episodes of interest in the shamanic traditions of the native Americas, the best known being the Mexican odyssey of banker Gordon Wasson in the 1950s.

The account of Wasson's journey was published in Life magazine in 1957; see Wasson 1957. His travelogue probably achieved greater fame because it dealt with hallucinogens than with Mazatec shamanism: Wasson's story was published only a few years after Huxley's Doors of Perception, which publicized the psychedelic experience.

A more wide-spread interest in native American religions, however, only blossomed in the sixties. For a generation of people hungry for a different way of' life, the message was clear. Native Americans possessed a vast Wisdom, a spirituality lost to us.

In the Upper Amazon region, there were wise old shamans who held the keys to insight and wisdom. William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg published a collection of descriptions of visionary experiences, which became an underground classic. Native American spirituality from then on became the basis for several forms of New Age religiosity.

One visitor to the upper Amazon region was particularly successful in establishing himself as a New Age shaman. After doing field work with the Shuar and the Conibo, Michael Harrier left the academic world and devoted himself to holding workshops in trance techniques. Although Harrier's may be the best known, there is a whole range of westernized versions of indigenous religions. Perhaps the most wide-spread of these is a kind of syncretistic Plains-inspired neo shamanism created by Sun Bear, a Chippewa.

A later neo-shamanic text such as Kenneth Meadows' The Medicine Way, published in 1990, uses "the Indian" as just one representative among others of a perennial wisdom. The text on the back cover explains that the book contains "a distillation of the ancient shamanic truths of the American Indian, blended with wisdom derived from the East and from Europe including Scandinavia." The aims of this perennial wisdom is typically late modern, since the same quote explains that the goal of the information in the book is to find "the way consciously to shape your own destiny and learn how to find fulfillment in life." "Its doctrinal content and its description of the rituals to perform in order to achieve this goal are also typical of the eclecticism of much New Age literature. Systems of correspondences are constructed, in which it is e.g. said that totem animals correspond to each of the four elements." Explanations are also given in terms that are readily acceptable to a New Age audience: for instance, certain rituals are said to cleanse the aura or to affect the energy body.

While earlier generations of esotericists firmly placed the origin of the tarot deck in ancient Egypt, a contemporary text such as Giles' Tarok The Complete Guide reports this as a modern legend." Whereas Swedenborg discoursed with spirits and angels on planets in the solar system which, with the advent of the Voyager missions, have become objects of more mundane forms of exploration, modern channelers refer to more distant locations such as the Pleiades," Arcturus" or starship commands in interstellar space.

Like Theosophy before, Neo shamanisms such as those of Castaneda, Sun Bear or Michael Harner present themselves as the spiritual descendants of millennia old traditions.

Harner, early in his book The Way of the Shaman, describes an ayahuasca session that bears the imprint of lived experience. However, nothing in the remainder of his exposés of neo-shamanic ritual resembles these frightening hallucinatory ordeals. His use of the rhetoric of presence seems to serve no other purpose than that of ethos.

In 1996 a book by a Russian author was published in San Francisco, describing a journey across the Altai in quest of native mysticism and crafted to the tastes of American counter-cultural spirituality. (Olga Kharitidi, Entering the Circle: Ancient Secrets of Wisdom Discovered by a Russian Psychiatrist)

Her account of the time she spent working at a hospital in the Altai region of Russia appears realistic, as do the autobiographic portions of her story. However it appears that the point of these realistic passages is to give rhetorical strength to the highly spectacular (and, one suspects, utterly non-reproducible) shamanic experiences, including contact with a subterranean world called Belovodia. It is perhaps no coincidence that the back cover of Kharitidi's book carries a somewhat problematic endorsement by Harner, who compares her to Carlos Castaneda.

The Seattle Times (2 April 2000, P. M2) reported how the co-owner of a Seattle bookshop devoted to ancient and Eastern religions immediately invited an elder of the Siberian Ulchi, to give a talk in her city. The bookshop-owner concerned had grown up in Hawaii and subsequently become attracted to Taoism, but when she heard the Ulchi speak, she felt that "This was it. I had found my people."

There is also an opposite form of interaction, whereby countercultural ideas from America Olga Kharitidi‘s story penetrated Siberia, and the main vehicle for this to date has been Michael Harner's Foundation for Shamanic Studies. One of the devices adopted by the Foundation to meet complaints of exploitation has been to make grants of money to traditional peoples to assist them in preserving or reviving their own shamanic heritage. For example "The Association of the Tambour at Kyzyl."

Michael Harner's Foundation in the USA next was also sending teachers to Tuva and Burvatia to instruct local people in its own "core shamanism."

Apart from the exceptions in Neo-Shamanism, where actual places and times are invoked, this is done in a fashion that resembles what Richard Hofstadter has referred to as paranoid scholarship. In an effort to bolster a preexisting frame of understanding with a historical background, isolated and often unrelated events and elements are juxtaposed and combined into a new edifice. Scholars seldom bother to contest these claims, while many people within the cultic milieu probably lack both the knowledge and the desire to approach these constructions in a critical spirit.

See also: Letters to the Editor: Carlos Castaneda et Co. (December 3, 2002)


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February 8, 2004




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