Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits
Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits
Limited to 56 copies, black rayskin spine, leather tips, marbled boards and endpapers, all edges gilt, finished with a silk ribbon and presented in a solander box
– Sold out
Standard hardback edition
Limited to 1000 copies; bound in a sand cloth, stamped in black on front and spine, embossed deep blue endpapers, and hammered gold dustjacket
Bibliothèque Rouge edition
Unlimited paperback; isbn 978-0-9931200-9-1
8vo (240 × 170 mm)
photographs, maps, diagrams, tables etc.
A defining text of the new magical renaissance, Star.Ships addresses the question of who we are now by tracing where we come from, and by drawing out the stories and the spirits that have journeyed and evolved with us. The goal is, as Gordon writes, the restoration of context.
To this end, White applies his globally-recognised data and demographics skills to realise a groundbreaking work of truly interdisciplinary research. Utilising mythological, linguistic and astronomical data to reconstruct palaeolithic magical beliefs, he maps them to the human journey out of Africa; explores which aspects of these beliefs and practices have survived into the Western tradition; and what the implications (and applications) of those survivals may be for us.
Written for a magically literate and operative audience, Star.Ships displays the flair, wit and engagement with evidence that adherents of his runesoup blog have come to expect from Gordon. He deftly handles vast time scales and cosmologies to build his case; avoids the pitfalls of alternative historians with a refreshing absence of dogma or wishful thinking; and, in a masterful deployment of the latest research, simultaneously questions outworn dominant narratives and is not afraid to champion the work of independent researchers and entertain forbidden discourses. It is exactly what chaos magic should be.
Göbekli Tepe, the Pyramids and Sphinx, Nabta Playa, Gunung Padang, Easter Island and Sundaland are some of the points spangled across a work of truly cosmic scope. Star.Ships beckons those who are willing to engage in the adventure to follow the great river of history that flows into and out of an ocean of stars. Minds will be blown.
Preface: The mission at the end of the world
One funeral at a time
The cathedral predates the city
Et in laurasia ego
Island of dragons
How a world ends
Expulsion from Eden
The mirror of heaven
The tree of many branches
Children of the mother of heaven
Conclusion: Canopy of stars
The mission at the end of the world
The Sepik is the greatest river no one has ever heard of. Winding like a cosmic serpent down from the New Guinea highlands, it has the fifth largest annual flow on the planet. Lacking a delta for her mouth, she stains the ocean brown for miles. Such is her volume, it is said that the local boatmen can draw fresh water straight from the sea. People have been living and dying on her banks for more than 40,000 years. She has welcomed and bid depart to whole cultures. She is untroubled by Ice Ages. My aunt was born on the banks of the Sepik and my grandfather once ran the province so named for it.
It is a place of curious survivals, of forgotten things. Up in the highlands, claims of seeing living examples of Homo floresiensis – the famous ‘Indonesian hobbit’ believed to have died out ten millennia ago – persist into modern times. The day my aunt was born, four Japanese soldiers, who had been hiding among the natives of Dutch New Guinea for the ten years since the war, arrived in the province capital of Wewak. They boarded a ship, the Taisei Maru, which had come to collect the remains of the war dead and return them to Japan. My grandmother covered the story for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and then went into labour that night.
Stories are perhaps the most curious of survivals. They can fall in and out of remembrance. Who is telling them often matters more than how they are stored. For probably tens of millennia it was the shamans and sorcerers who kept the stories of the tribes, who held the mirror of identity and meaning up to their people. Like so much in the West, this function has been outsourced from us with predictably disastrous local consequences. In the mid-twentieth century, academia became aware that our understanding of knowledge is always situational and always contingent on cultural institutions that create that knowledge. But by then it was too late. Our stories had passed from us. This was too much power to hand over. It was a bad deal.
Any given field makes ‘truth statements’ that form a network of relationships with themselves, governed by a worldview that establishes what is or is not knowledge within that field. Stories that fall outside this network first become untrue, and then they fade completely from reality. In the early years of the twenty first century, the empowered, informed shaman is presented with the opportunity to rescue these fading stories from the spirit world and restore them to the tribe. As with all journeys to the spirit world, dangers abound for the unprepared. Discretion, parsimony and evidence-based reasoning, now that they exist in the wider culture, belong here as much as they do in the hard sciences. These are the fetishes we must carry to extract truthful stories from the spirits.
Although not my own, one more Sepik story is illustrative of the prey we seek and the nature of its habitat. In his classic Eden in the East, Dr Oppenheimer, while on medical patrol in the early 1980s, was treating an American woman who was living, along with her husband, among a tribe that had only been ‘first discovered’ the previous year. These Americans were missionaries of a new kind. Instead of teaching English to the tribe so that they may read the Bible, the Americans were there to learn the local language so that they could return to the Midwest and have an indigenous Bible printed. It occurred to Dr Oppenheimer that once these missionaries had left, the tribe would be filled with foreign stories and legends – of Moses and the flight from Egypt, of Noah, of Jesus – with no archaeological or genetic evidence indicating how these tales arrived in the first place. They would just be there, a memory of an imprint. Israelites standing uncomfortably under a banana tree spirit, warily eyeing the ancestral death masks, like confused foreign guests at a wedding reception. The Sepik keeps these ghosts, and many similar, older ones besides.
Stories, then, can move in a way pottery or malarial adaptations cannot. All archaeological evidence of contact is accompanied by cultural evidence, but not all cultural evidence of contact is accompanied by archaeological evidence. Stories can echo and refract through and beside the scientific story of mankind. They are special artefacts that cry out for a unique method of analysis. They are challenging prey to hunt.
After a childhood of wide-ranging Pacific travel, it was studying documentary filmmaking and cross-cultural studies that first opened up whole new vistas of comparative mythology for me. While still a student, I bought a very expensive camera to take SCUBA diving for sunken cities in Micronesia. This adventure is my own personal BC/AD pivot point. Nothing would be quite the same afterward.
Built from millions of tonnes of prismatic basalt and stretching over eleven square miles of mangrove swamp, the necropolis of Nan Madol is the most enigmatic site in the entire Pacific. One of the great joys of my life was canoeing along its canals, exploring its tombs and platforms, and diving in the murky, shark-infested water beside it, looking for evidence of earlier occupation.
The place is so completely out of context with everything else around it for hundreds of miles that Nan Madol feels like it should be a truly archaic survival, a relic of a long-vanished race. It isn’t. Almost the only thing we know with any confidence about Nan Madol is when construction began on the current site, around the twelfth century. There are older buildings in London!
How Nan Madol was built, why it was built, where the millions of tonnes of basalt came from, the reason for choosing its location ... these are examples of advanced cultural technology that have moved through time without corresponding archaeological evidence. When it was built is almost the least significant part of its story. The irreconcilability of Nan Madol’s mythology and its physical presence has stayed with me since that expedition.
Such an extreme disconnect between the physical and non-physical evidence is familiar territory for magicians. In the performance of it, magic feels supremely ancient. Even its most modern iterations feel like they were old when the world was new. Intellectually we know this is not the case, but we also know somehow that it probably is. Further River SpiritS
This book was not written on the banks of the Sepik, though she does feature in its tale. It was written on the banks of the Thames, the Tiber, the Hudson and the Seine, but the story is always the same because river spirits are always the same: How long have we been here? Who came before? Where did they go? Who or what answered their night prayers, and at what cost? Civilisation is the tobacco of river spirits. They seem to crave it, to will it into being up and down their banks, even though the relationship appears damaging over the long term.
As to why it is a creature as ahistorical as a chaos magician finds himself chasing down geneticists, historians and astronomers, pursuing Very Old Things, the compulsion is, inevitably, best explained with a story about stories:
In a story told about Aristotle in Europe, and about an Indian philosopher in India, the philosopher meets a village carpenter who has a beautiful old knife and asks him, ‘How long have you had this knife?’ The carpenter answers, ‘Oh, the knife has been in our family for generations. We have changed the handle a few times and the blade a few times, but it is the same knife. ’
The secret of the knife may well be the secret to magic’s supremely ancient ‘mouth feel. ’ There is a recursion of motifs, of consciousness experiences, of lived realities that hides western magic’s true antiquity.
To examine stories is always perilous. Similarity is self-evident on the first pass, absent on the second, and both on the final pass. As Patrick Harpur points out, we cannot ‘explain’ or ‘decode’ a myth. To look for the historic or scientific ‘truth’ of a myth is but to retell the myth, albeit in a less satisfying way. We render unto materialism the control of our most precious mythologies if we allow them to be ‘scientifically explained’ to us. A new language is required. New words.
Wendy Doniger, one of America’s most celebrated Indologists and cultural theorists, famously gave a lecture in the 1990s called ‘Microscopes and Telescopes, ’in which she defended the use of comparison in mythology from the scorched earth assault of late postmodernism. Myths can be examined through a metaphoric microscope, which reveal the thousands of glittering, unique manifestations of a particular story in a particular culture, or they can be examined through a telescope, where the personalities, codes of dress and foodstuffs fade from view, to be replaced by a wider vision of unifying themes across humanity.
One optic device does not invalidate the other, both have their place in analysis and both of them carry the same, often-unacknowledged interpretive risk; the eye itself.
We are always in danger of drawing our own eye, for we depict our own vision of the world when we think we are depicting the world; often when we think we are studying an other we are really studying ourselves through the narrative of the other. Our choice of lens level is arbitrary, but not entirely so, for it is circumscribed by certain boundaries that we ignore to our peril. The choice is heuristic: we choose a specific level in order to make possible a specific task. Where we focus depends on the sorts of continuities we are looking for; in all instances, something is lost and something is gained.
In the study of history or mythology, the twin technologies of the microscope and the telescope are available to all but it is only rarely that the eye belongs to anyone outside our materialist monoculture, rarer still that it belongs to the magician. That needs to change. Giordano Bruno, my unofficial patron saint, wrestled with these familiar imbalances between lived personal experience and available physical evidence in this very town. Precisely what Bruno was doing in Oxford in 1583 is a matter of endless academic discussion. But it clear he was preaching and debating his own hermetic infinitism. Having stepped beyond Ficino’s Catholic veneer and returned to a fully pagan hermetic system, he believed his use of Egyptian symbols, talimans and visualisation had uncovered humanity’s ‘source religion’ and our clearest insight into the nature of reality. What he found in the Hermetica was a fervent belief in mankind’s stellar origins and immortal destiny among innumerable worlds. The knife Bruno held in his hand was Graeco-Egyptian, but he knew it was older than that. Published the following year, Bruno’s The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast demonstrates that familiar, ancient aroma the practice of magic gives off: Hermetic magic feels old, and the oldest thing he knew was Ancient Egypt, so it must have originated there.
A similar logical error is the politest way of explaining, four centuries later, Kenneth Grant’s largely-unsuccessful attempts to shoehorn all of Thelema and the Cthulhu Mythos into Sumeria. He was also looking to match the feeling to the data. By the mid-twentieth century, Sumeria was the oldest ‘civilised’ culture we knew of. Today it is not.
Today, not only have the origins of civilisation changed beyond all recognition, but even the very word has begun to dissolve under a less Eurocentric analysis. Developments in geology, genetics, astronomy, archaeology and linguistics strain to breaking the underlying premises and assumptions of scientific materialism.
The western esoteric tradition has the opportunity to (finally) do away with the High Victorian assumptions that constitute our understanding of the origins of magical culture and rebuild atop some much better data. The picture that emerges in doing so is stunning in its implications.
This is not history. This is not archaeology. This is not folklore. This is a new skill. But it is also an old one. It is not the skill of organising data points into a sequential historical narrative. It is the skill of context. Of recontextualising the Western magical tradition as it has arrived in our hands here in the twenty first century, rather than seeking to replace it wholesale with each new development, as if it were last year’s smartphone. The magicians of the Renaissance or the Natural Philosophers of Charles II’s Britain gathered observations and findings from the cutting edge research of their day to build a coherent view of their Art and their world. Just as they were, we must be polyhistors.
Returning once again to the upper reaches of the Sepik and the mission at the end of the world, we come to the key that unlocks this entire book and possibly even the secrets of the stars. Listen closely. When seeking to explain the similarities between different cosmologies spread right across the globe, a materialist – ignoring the inherent hypocrisy in his or her position – will attribute this to similarities in the human mind or brain. Brains are the same everywhere, so beliefs are the same everywhere. We are somehow ‘wired’ to worship the sun or associate Venus with love. It’s part of how ‘primitive’ humans make sense of the world.
If that were true – and it might be true in some cases – then the distribution of these similar beliefs, by definition, must be random, just as variations in eyesight or spatial awareness skills are randomly distributed. You would be surprised just how few beliefs are randomly or universally distributed.
If a belief is non-randomly distributed across cultures then some other mechanism of action is in play. Colonial expeditions, wars, trading partnerships, the collective unconscious. We may not be able to detect these mechanisms, just as you would not be able to detect traces of the American missionaries once they had left, but their presence nevertheless non-randomly distributed a Midwestern Christian narrative. What happens then, when we look at the distribution of some of the core beliefs of the western esoteric tradition? Adopting the consensus that what we broadly know of today as magic coalesced into its recognisable form in the first and second centuries in Alexandria and the Eastern Mediterranean, what happens when we use that as our end point and look at the distribution of its foundational principles backwards in time, calibrating them in the light of recent historical and scientific data? We find a very old story, newly re-emerged. A story that says something very profound about mankind and our companion spirits.