Transition from Magic to Mythical Consciousness

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See: Magic Consciousness for background.

Jennifer Gidley:

"This section deals with the transition from the hunting to the farming peoples. In the following section, when mythical consciousness fully awakens, we are dealing with the mining peoples—the beginning of the bronze and iron ages. Interestingly, Teilhard de Chardin also refers to a similar three phases: a “thin scattering of hunting groups” of the Ancient World; a more dense scattering of “agricultural groups installed in fertile valleys;” and, the “first civilizations” (Teilhard de Chardin, 1959/2004, p. 169-170). Although Neolithic literally means ’new stone age,’ the term is generally used to refer to the cultural movements of agriculture and pastoralism and the social organization features, such as larger settlements, to accomplish them (Barnard & Spencer, 1998, p. 615). The term, Mesolithic, refers to the middle ‘stone age’ period between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic. It is generally associated with European development at the end of the glacial period, and is characterized by “microlithic industries” (Barnard & Spencer, 1998, p. 613).


Whereas the distinguishing characteristic of the magic structure was the emergent awareness of nature, the essential characteristic of the mythical  structure  is the emergent awareness of soul. (Gebser, 1949/1985, p. 61)

- Jean Gebser [1]

The original, primal tribes had to find a way to transcend their isolated  tribal kinship lineages . . . and mythology, not magic, provided the key for  this  new transcendence. (Wilber, 2000d, p. 175-176)

- Ken Wilber [2]


Jennifer Gidley on the Magic-Mythical Transition :

"Firstly came the hunting peoples, then the farming peoples and thirdly the development of mining, which brought to light what is under the Earth. (Steiner, 1982a, Lecture XXX)These animal breeders as well as the hunting and nomadic cultures, are predominantly rooted in the magic culture. Strictly agricultural cultures on the other hand already take part in the mythical structure. (Gebser, 1949/1985, p. 305) Farming was the most obvious effect , or perhaps vehicle, of a deeper transformation in structures of consciousness: it was the earliest expression, that is, of a shift from magical-typhonic to what we will call mythic-membership consciousness (level 3). (Wilber, 1996c, p. 93)There appears to be something of a cultural hiatus or aporia in the period between the end of the Younger Dryas — approximately 9,500 BCE and the beginning of the Neolithic period (c.8,000 BCE). This roughly demarcates the period referred to as the Mesolithic (c. 10,000-8,000BCE) an archeological period that appears to have a dramatically reduced status compared to the Paleolithic and the Neolithic. This is perhaps not surprising considering the dramatic environmental change occurring, during which “most of the final (warming) transition may have occurred in just a few years” (Colman, 2007, Abstract). Between the height of the cultural activity of the Upper Paleolithic glacial period and the establishment of agricultural settlements in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia—China’s Yellow River and the Indus and Nile valleys— the sea level rose approximately 120 meters, with much of this occurring between 12,000 BCE and 8,000 BCE.

Geoscientists have demonstrated the significance of the end of the last glacial age by introducing a new geological epoch—the Holocene Epoch which continues into the present time. This also conventionally marks the beginning of the Neolithic period. As the geo-climatic conditions began to stabilize, the climatic changes associated with the end of glaciation actually facilitated the development of farming of cereals and the domestication of sheep, goats, pigs and cattle through the warmer climate and flooding of river basins.

As mentioned previously, there are discrepancies between Gebser’s and Wilber’s temporal situating of magic and mythical consciousness. My interpretation is that the period c. 9,500-3,000 BCE is a significant period of transition between magic and mythical consciousness throughout the world. This period encompasses the latter part of Gebser’s magic as well as Wilber’s low mythic-membership period (9,500-4,500 BCE) and the beginnings of his high mythic-membership period (4,500-1,500 BCE) (Wilber, 1996c, p. 110). There are also contradictions within Gebser’s own dating of this transition.

I propose that Steiner’s narrative makes a unique contribution to the understanding of this lengthy transition period. Firstly, he acknowledged an ecological condition of great geo-climatic instability from the end of the ice age. Secondly, he drew attention to the potential influence on culture and consciousness of the precession of the equinoxes every 2,160 years approximately. Steiner identified two specific cultural periods prior to 3,000 BCE—the Asiatic, or ancient Indian (c. 7,200-5,000 BCE); and the ancient Persian (c. 5,000-3,000 BCE). Incidentally, Gebser(1949/1985) also identified two major cultural epochs—the domesticating-agricultural, and the tool-making and craft cultures. He particularly noted the significance of the shift from domesticating to agricultural cultures in relation to the transition from magic to mythical consciousness (see introductory quote). He regards the former as tribal and the latter as matriarchal societies attuned to the cycles of “maternal realm of the earth” (p. 305). Wilber(1996c) concurs that the great planting cultures that led up to the development of the city-states, were both mythic and matriarchal (p. 124). Wilber also discussed the significance of farming in facilitating the major cultural developments that occurred during the next few millennia. Of particular interest in Steiner’s narrative about this transition period is the ancient pre-history of Asia —particularly India — and Mesopotamia — Persia - Sumeria. Although he did extensive research on these cultural periods, giving hundreds of lectures that have been published in dozens of volumes, I can introduce only a few fragments within the space of this section.

He focused on these particular regions during that period based on his claims that:

(a) they provided continuous, genealogical links to a cultural tradition of ancient spiritual wisdom;

b) their philosophical and scientific traditions were foundational to later European philosophical, scientific and cultural developments; and

(c) the cultural activities that took place there were significant in enabling the refining and consolidating of important subtle aspects of human biological and psycho-spiritual development.

Jungian depth psychologists and transpersonal psychologists—including Wilber — have contributed significantly during the 20th century to increased understanding of subtle aspects of human psycho-spiritual development (Bache, 2000; Boadella, 1998; Ferrer, 2002; Grof, 2000,1988; Jung, 1990; Orme-Johnson, 2000; Walsh & Vaughan, 1993; Wehr, 2002; Wilber, 1996b,2000b; 2005b, Part I). Steiner also undertook significant phenomenological research into the subtle dimensions of human psychology but this has been largely overlooked even in transpersonal psychology.

Steiner proposed that in addition to the physical body, in order for humans to function in the complex ways that we do today, other more subtle bodies also needed to be developed in our species as a whole. He identified a life body through which our energy and vitality flows and an emotional body through which we experience feelings and passions(Steiner, 1909/1965). Both Gebser (1949/1985, p. 67, 261) and Wilber conflate the vital and emotional dimensions to some extent, perhaps contributing to the complexity of the transition from magic to mythical consciousness. Wilber (2005a, Part 4, p.1) conflates them by using the hyphenated term vital-emotional that he attributes incorrectly—according to my research—to Sri Aurobindo.

While this is a vast area of research beyond the scope of this paper, what is relevant is that Steiner claimed that these subtle bodies were being developed and refined during this period of evolution — the life, or vital, body in the first cultural period, that he called the ancient Asiatic/Indian, and the emotional body during the second cultural period, that he called the ancient Persian (Steiner, 1910/1939, 1986a, 1990a). Several contemporary researchers have begun to research and extend Steiner’s approach to spiritual psychology (Kuhlewind, 1988;Sardello, 1990, 1995). A beginning has also been made in researching the relationship between Jung’s depth psychology and Steiner’s spiritual psychology (Wehr, 2002).This section may contribute potential new insights into subtle aspects of the evolution of human biopsychology."


The Post-Glacial Ancient Indian Culture

Jennifer Gidley:

"The First Post-Glacial Cultural Period—Earth as Maya, Spirit as Home

The profound Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita, that sublime song of human perfection, are onlythe echoes of that ancient divine wisdom. (Steiner, 1986a, p. 99)The first significant post-glacial cultural period that Steiner proposed was the Asiatic — earlier called Ancient Indian — cultural period (c. 7,200-5,000 BCE) (Steiner, 1971a, p. 51-53). He commented elsewhere that the evolutionary developments that occurred during this period affected all people inhabiting the planet. At this time—early Neolithic—most people were still nomadic, although some farming had commenced in the area known as the “fertile crescent, ”which we will visit in the next section. Steiner claimed that some of the ancient south Asian— particularly Indian—people of this early Neolithic period embodied a sublime spiritual wisdom.

Indology scholar, Asko Parpola (2005) presents a contemporary academic perspective on this view. The Indus Civilization came into being as the result of a long cultural evolution in theIndo-Iranian borderlands. From the first stage of development, about 7000–4300 BCE, some twenty relatively small Neolithic villages are known, practically all in highland valleys. (p. 29)

Key Features of the First Post-Glacial Cultural Period

Steiner pointed to several key features that characterize the development of the culture and consciousness of this period, particularly in India. Although Gebser and Wilber mention some of these features in passing—in relation to cultural practices in the early Indus civilization—neither of them have identified a specific Indian or Asian cultural period during the magic-mythic transition.

• Earth as Maya, Spirit as Home;

• Internalization of rhythms of nature through poetic speech;

• Development of spiritual practice or Yoga;

• Sanskrit as complex language development.

Earth as Maya, Spirit as Home

According to Steiner, the ancient Indians perceived the physical world around them to some extent as an illusion ( Maya), regarding the spiritual cosmos as their true home and resulting in a mood of “longing” in their souls (Steiner, 1910/1939, p.200). He claimed they regarded the earth as the lowest part of this spiritual cosmos, and that it was permeated through and through with Spirit (Steiner, 1950, p. 24). Steiner also claimed that as a result of the rising sea levels, they had migrated over time through Europe—led by their leader Manu —to settle in the Indian subcontinent. He also referred to cultural and spiritual leaders in this period as the Holy Rishis, the name used in ancient Indian sacred texts, such as The Ramayana and Mahabharata (Steiner,1986a, p. 99). Steiner pointed to the sacred texts, the Vedas and the Upanishads —at first handed down orally and later formalized in writing—as the echoing vestiges of this great wisdom. While Gebser (1949/1985) refers only briefly to some revelations of the Upanishads (p. 210), Wilber(1996c) draws quite strongly on some of the ancient Indian sacred texts, claiming—likeSteiner—that they were originated by the leading-edge of culture at the time (p. 255-257). Of the three, Gebser draws more strongly on the ancient wisdom of China. (For more information oncultural-aesthetic developments in China during this period, see Appendix C.)

Internalization of Rhythms of Nature Through Poetic Speech

Steiner pointed to a significant feature of the ancient Indian culture in relation to the development of rhythm. He claimed that they experienced a special relationship with the seasonal rhythms and cycles of nature through which they developed a sense of rhythm in their thoracic organs (heart and lungs) (Steiner, 1971a, p. 52). Steiner (1950) proposed that this was enhanced by the rhythmical repetition of chanting—the later echo of this being found in long epic poems, such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Vedas, which resounded from the rhythms of their hearts (p. 18). He claimed that this rhythmic repetition strengthened the vital body as discussed above and also facilitated a new internalized form of human memory (p. 18). (See the section on Rhythmic Memory in Appendix A). It is interesting to note that the lineage of much of Wilber’s spiritual nomenclature goes back to Vedanta Hinduism (Wilber, 1996c).

Complex Language Development

Steiner proposed an important relationship between the rhythmical processes that facilitated the internalization of memory, and language development (Steiner, 1984c). Linguistic research indicates that during the Neolithic period—around 5,000-7,000 BCE—language developments included, functional diversification of speech, more autonomous speech forms within communities, more precise and explicit forms, analogical correlations and the beginnings of grammar (Foster, 1999, p. 772; Kay, 1977). Clearly in order for language to develop such systemic components, significant memory capability needed to be in place. The language development of the ancient Indians—later classified as Sanskrit —is one of the major common roots of the Indo-European language (Foster,1999; Lock & Peters, 1999This is the most widespread group of languages—spoken by around half the world’s population. Sanskrit terminology is also used by several integral theorists and in other contemporary spiritual literature to characterize potential transpersonal human development.

It is possible that it contains nuanced meanings in relation to subtle body relationships and spiritual development that have not yet been adequately expressed in modern languages such as English.

Development of Spiritual Practice or Yoga

Steiner’s major emphasis with this cultural period is that humans began to experience the loss of spiritual connection, the separation from their Cosmic/spiritual homeland , and the longing to go back to Spirit. He claimed that the ancient Indians were the first to develop practices to assist in the spiritual re-integration of human beings (Steiner, 1986a). This lineage exists to this day in India and many yoga masters have also taken their teachings to other cultures. Steiner also noted that the Chinese culture of this time also contained great spiritual wisdom, which was even more ancient. The Chinese movement form of Tai Chi could also be regarded as having a similar purpose. However, its history was not purely integrative but martial—apparently originating from Indian yoga, but taking a turn towards boxing in the Chinese context.

Summary and Relevance for Today

In summary, before farming was fully established, before writing was developed, and before the building of city-states, these ancient humans had already developed a highly sophisticated schooling in spiritual practices. Yoga was the name of the training [they] had to undergo in order to penetrate through the illusion to the spirit and primal source of being. . . . The Indian turned away from everything external and looked for a higher life only in world-renouncing ascent to the Spirit. (Steiner, 1986a, p. 99-100)

Such perspectives—if researched at all in the Academy today—are generally sequestered away in faculties of religion or subbranches of ancient history. I propose that it is time to integrate such material with the biological and evolutionary psychology discourse. Like Steiner, Gebser and Wilber, Sri Aurobindo’s work is of great significance to a new evolutionary narrative that can assist us to evolve ourselves out of our cultural and planetary hiatus. Writing at the same time as Steiner (1914-1920), he made the following plea for the active development of “integral consciousness. ”An integral consciousness will become the basis of an entire harmonization of life through the total transformation, unification, integration of the being and the nature. (Aurobindo,2000, p. 755)This is the spiritual lineage that Steiner is referring to in this first post-glacial period. It continues on in the integral consciousness movement of our times, potentially providing a nourishing alternative cultural pre-history to the primitivism that still exists in many evolutionary biology narratives. I suggest that the revival of interest in Eastern spiritualities among Westerners in recent decades reflects a searching for some of this ancient spiritual wisdom that has been increasingly suppressed in the last three centuries by the narrowing of rationality and the excesses of materialism. While clearly my research poses more research questions than it answers, it does re-open the territory."


The Second Post-Glacial Cultural Period—The Persian Magi and the Fertile Crescent

Jennifer Gidley:

The peoples of this second period had a different task. . . . In their longings and inclinations they did not turn merely toward the supersensible, for they were eminently fitted for the physical sense world. They grew fond of the earth. (Steiner, 1910/1939, p.203-204)Steiner’s second post-glacial cultural period flourished from c. 5,000-3,000 BCE (Steiner,1971a, p. 53). Archaeologically, this was the height of the Neolithic farming period. The geographical and cultural focus of this period was the region known as Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in the area that later became Babylonia and is now southern Iraq, from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. This region is widely recognized as being the home of the earliest known civilization and is still known today as the “fertile crescent.” It is notable that domestication of animals and farming of cereals had also begun by this time in Africa, with the Nubian culture of the Sudan having already developed some of the features of the later dynastic Egyptian culture, such as ceramics and elaborate burial tombs, culturally mediating between Egypt and the southern and western regions of Africa (Gatto, 2004).Steiner called this second cultural period ancient Persian —because it developed in the region later known as Persia. The type of consciousness emerging in Steiner’s Persian period, resembles Gebser’s mythic consciousness, yet contains magical elements, supporting my notion of this being a transition phase. Gebser explicitly refers to the Mesopotamian region as being significant in the transition between the magic and mythical cultures, though with more emphasis on developments post-third-millennium: “This paralleling and overlapping of the still-magical and just-mythical attitude is particularly evident in the many illustrations of artifacts from the two early Sumerian cultures from the third millennium onward” (Gebser, 1949/1985, p. 109). Wilber clearly places this period clearly within his myth-membership stage. His characterization of what he calls “mythical cognition [is a]. . .mixture of magic and logic. . .which informs and structures language itself” (Wilber, 1996c, p. 98). In this period that he calls “low myth-membership” he particularly focuses on the socio-cultural developments. From a broader geographical perspective, by the time Sumeria was a powerful and prosperous city-state—around 3,000 BCE—other regions of the world were also beginning to develop in a similar way, at least the Nile Valley of Northeast Africa, the Indus Valley of South Asia, the Huang He (formally called Yellow River Valley) of China, and coastal Peru in South America. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the apparently parallel cultural developments in these regions, however further comparative research in the future may be fruitful.

Key Features of the Second Post-Glacial Cultural Period

Several key features were identified by Steiner to characterize the ancient Persian culture and consciousness as a further continuation of the Indo-European lineage of cultural and psycho-spiritual development. Both Gebser and Wilber identify these features of development as well, though neither identified a specific cultural period during this time.

• Sense of Polarity;

• Orientation to the Earth through agriculture;

• Formation of Proto-cities;

• Magic-Mythic Transition to Organized Religions.

Sense of Polarity

Steiner proposed that these ancient Persian/Sumerians developed the beginnings of the awareness of two dimensions—polarity and symmetry—whereas the earlier cultures lived within a sense of unity. Gebser (1949/1985) concurred that the mythical structure is “the expression of two-dimensional polarity. . . . the mythical man may be said to establish an awareness of earth’s counterpole, the sun and sky” (p. 66). Steiner also characterized this new awareness as a recognition of the twin natures of earth and cosmos—expressed as archetypes of Dark and Light—which became central to later Zoroastrian religious symbolism (Steiner, 1971a, p. 53).

Orientation to the Earth through Agriculture

Steiner linked this developing sense of polarity of the ancient Persians to the new orientation to the earth, compared with the ancient Indians. He noted though that they retained the sense that “external reality was an image of the Divine, which must not be turned away from but shaped anew. The Persian wished to transform nature by work” (Steiner, 1986a, p. 100). These indigenous Sumerians must have labored hard. They had to drain the marshes for planting crops


Until recently, this claim of Steiner’s may have appeared highly speculative or even fictitious. However, a recent book revisits claims of ancient Greek and Roman historians, Xanthus, Pliny, Eudoxus and Plutarch, in the light of recent archaeological evidence. It substantially supports Steiner’s claim, that an earlier Zarathustra pre-dated the historical figure by several thousand years (Settegast, 2005). At the very least, these unconventional views of Steiner and Settegast pose new questions about the history and development of this highly significant region. As an indication of the lingering magic consciousness, Steiner referred to the leading people of this culture as the Magi —who he claimed had retained some of the magical powers of the earlier times (Steiner, 1910/1939, p. 204). Settegast also makes reference to the Magi, regarding them as an Order said to have been founded by Zarathustra (Settegast, 2005).The dualism of Light versus Dark became a central teaching in Zoroastrianism, which arguably influenced the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that also developed in this general geographical region. Gebser also suggests that Zarathustra’s dualism underlies Parmenides’ (b. 540 BCE) notion of Being opposed to Non-Being, which intriguingly straddles the next transition from mythical to mental consciousness.

Summary and Relevance for Today

The convergences between our three narratives support my proposal that the developments of culture and consciousness in this second cultural period mark a significant phase in the transition between Gebser’s magic and mythical structures of consciousness. I would also like to briefly draw attention to Friedrich Nietzsche’s use of the Zarathustra archetype in one of his most famous books, Thus Spake Zarathustra (Del Caro & Pippin, 1887/2006). Although it is beyond the space available to discuss this work, Nietzsche’s aim does express an interesting mirror-reversal of the Persian theme of previously spiritually oriented humans becoming oriented to the earth. He begs the question. “In what way . . . can a human being now tied to the “earth” still aspire to be ultimately “over-man, ”Ubermensch?” (Del Caro & Pippin, 1887/2006, p. xviii).As a postscript to this Persian/Sumerian narrative it is disturbing to consider that at the time of writing this paper, this region of the world—modern Iraq—is still a war zone.

Tragically, as a result of the two Gulf wars, much of the ancient archaeological—and thus cultural—history of this cradle of civilization has been—and is still being—destroyed by looting and bombing (Berg& Woodville, 2004). Ironically, the Zarathustrian polarity of light and darkness and its association with good and evil can be observed in a regressive dualistic form, in the subtext of this situation."


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