The Hidden Matrix: Myth and the Human Mind

By Neil Philip

One of our foremost interpreters of myth argues that it is essential to all culture: the factory reset of human consciousness

Friday, 12 June 2020

Adventure in the Land of Day

I've just written a chapter on underworld journeys and the like, of which this is an excerpt. I see that the longer quotes, though separated by line spaces, are no longer indented, but I hope it's still clear what's a quote and what's not. I also hope you are all coping with this strange in-between time of lockdown.


         Knud Rasmussen’s Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos examines closely the 1920s beliefs about death of this Inuit people of Nunavut. The Iglulingmiut did not fear death, but they did fear the newly dead, for the soul of a good man “can turn upon the living as an evil and ruthless spirit.”[i] This fear explained the many taboos surrounding the treatment of corpses.

         One of Ramussen’s most eloquent sources, the shaman Aua, explained:


We know that men perish through age, illness, or accident, or because another has taken their life. All this we understand. Something is broken. What we do not understand is the change which takes place in a body when death lays hold of it. It is the same body that went about among us and was living and warm and spoke as we do ourselves, but it has suddenly been robbed of a power, for lack of which it becomes cold and stiff and putrefies. Therefore we say that a man is ill when he has lost a part of his soul, or one of his souls; for there are some who believe that man has several souls. If then that part of a man’s vital force be not restored to the body, he must die. Therefore we say that a man dies when the soul leaves him.[ii]


Despite this, Aua said, “We believe that men live on after death here on earth, for we often see the dead in our dreams fully alive.”[iii]

         There were two places to which an Iglulik might go after death: the Land of Day, which is in the sky, and the Narrow Land, which is under the sea. Life was pleasant in both these places, the main difference being that those in the Land of Day mostly hunted land animals, and those in the Narrow Land mostly hunted the beasts of the sea; which one you went to mostly depended on how you died. Given a choice, most Iglulik preferred to go to the Land of Day, where the dead constantly play ball, laugh, and sing. Iglulik shamans often made the journey to the Land of Day, both for pleasure and to obtain luck and blessings, or aid in curing a sick patient.

         A shaman wishing to make this journey was bound, and watched over by others who sat in silence in total darkness:


But after a time, strange sounds are heard by the listening guests; they hear a whistling that seems to come far, far up in the air, humming and whistling sounds, and then suddenly the shaman calling out at the top of his voice:

       “Halala—halalale, halala—halalale!”

       And at the same moment all visitors in the house must cry: “Ale—ale—ale!”; then there is a sort of rushing noise in the snow hut, and all know that an opening has been formed for the soul of the shaman, an opening like the blowhole of a seal, and through it the soul flies up to heaven, aided by all those stars which were once human beings. And all the souls now pass up and down the souls’ road, in order to keep it open for the shaman; some rush down, others fly up, and the air is filled with a rushing, whistling sound:


       That is the stars whistling for the soul of the shaman, and the guests in the house must then try to guess the human names of the stars, the names they bore while living down on earth; and when they succeed, one hears two short whistles: “Pfft—pfft!” and afterwards a faint, shrill sound that fades away into space. That is the stars’ answer, and their thanks for being still remembered.[iv]


         The shaman is then free to visit the Land of Day, and commune with the happy dead, before returning to his body and telling the assembled guests all he has seen and heard there.

         On January 1, 1889, a Numu (Northern Paiute) medicine man named Wovoka fell into a trance during a solar eclipse. He was said to have died, to have talked with God, to have saved the world by preventing the moon from devouring the sun, and then to have come back to life. God gave him “the power to destroy this world and all the people in it and have it made over again.”[v]

         If the Indians danced as Wovoka instructed them, soon a new world would roll in on a whirlwind, covering the old, exhausted earth and sweeping the whites and their world into the east. All the Indians who had died would be reborn, and a new age of peace and plenty would begin.

         People from many Indian nations came to hear Wovoka’s message of hope. When he waved an eagle feather over his upturned sombrero, many of those who looked in saw the whole spirit world and all their ancestors; some saw just an empty hat.

         Wovoka’s new spiritual movement became known as the Ghost Dance, and found great popularity not just among the Paiute and other Great Basin tribes but on the Plains, where it was taken up with particular enthusiasm by the Arapaho and the Lakota. A date was set for the new world to arrive, in the spring of 1891, when the grass was an inch high.

         It was while the Ghost Dance followers were in this state of feverish anticipation that the Seventh Cavalry of the U.S. Army massacred a peaceful band of more than 300 Miniconjou Lakota, at what became known as the Battle of Wounded Knee, though the Lakota were mostly unarmed, and many were women and children, some wearing the special Ghost Dance shirts that were supposed to make them invulnerable to bullets. In the words of Black Elk, “A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”[vi]       

         Wovoka’s Ghost Dance religion was a new expression of the oldest themes in Numu myth. The God who gave Wovoka the power to light his pipe from the sun and form icicles in his hand was the Numu creator, Wolf, the sun, addressed by the Numus as Our Father. Wovoka was identified with the Rainmaker, a mysterious messiah figure from the Numu creation myth, and Numus addressed him, too, as Tamme Naa’a, Our Father.

         The Ghost Dance was not even a new concept to the Numus. A generation earlier, in 1870, a prophet named Wodziwob had proclaimed an earlier Ghost Dance, preaching that dancing would bring back the dead and establish a new paradise of eternal life on earth. When Wodziwob’s paradise failed to materialise, he visited the happy land of the dead one last time, only to find a spoiled world of empty shadows. There were no happy ancestors, no dancing, no laughter—only the Owl, harbinger of death, blinking his blank stare.[vii]

         Wovoka, in contrast, never lost faith in his vision. When the silent-film actor Tim McCoy met him in 1924, he was still firmly convinced that the new earth he had been promised was coming. When they parted, Wovoka dropped a cake of sacred red paint from Mount Grant, the place of the Paiute creation, into McCoy’s pocket, and whispered, “I will never die.”[viii]

         The promise of a happy afterlife has been one of the great driving forces in the spread of many religions, and the particular promise of salvation gave impetus to the spread of both Christianity and Islam. In CE 627, King Edwin of Northumbria held a council to decide whether to convert to Christianity. One of his followers compared the life of man to that of a sparrow through a banqueting hall. Who knew what happened in the darkness before or after? “If this new teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”[ix] Coifi, the high priest of the pagan gods, himself profaned their temple at Goodmanham by casting a spear into it, thus desecrating Woden’s shrine with Woden’s own weapon.

         This hope for renewed life after death is one of the most powerful reasons for the persistence of religious belief. People are frightened to think that, as the Earl of Rochester put it in a translation of Seneca, “After death nothing is, and nothing, death.”:


Dead, we become the lumber of the world,

And to that mass of matter shall be swept

Where things destroyed with things unborn are kept.

       Devouring time swallows us whole;

Impartial death confounds body and soul.

       For Hell and the foul fiend that rules

       God’s everlasting fiery jails

       (Devised by rogues, dreaded by fools),

With his grim, grisly dog that keeps the door,

       Are senseless stories, idle tales,

                Dreams, whimseys, and no more.[x]


         The logical positivist philosopher A. J. Ayer was such a staunch non-believer that he declared in his book Language, Truth, and Logic that even to say “There is no God” was completely meaningless.[xi] Yet when he had a near-death experience in 1988, he confided to his doctor, “I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.”[xii] Ayer remained an atheist to the end, but this incident shows how mythological thinking persists in even the most ruthlessly logical mind.

         When Ayer wrote his own account of “What I Saw When I Was Dead” he omitted mention of this Divine Being, but his account of a painful red light, of meeting the guardians of the universe, of struggling to cross a river, are fairly generic components of near-death experiences (NDEs). These experiences have something profound to tell us about the shaping of mystical thought in the human mind.

         The psychiatrists Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew B. Newburg, writing on “the biology of religious experience”, say that: “The notion that NDEs represent some type of spontaneous mystical experience is based on the similarity of NDEs to high meditative states.”[xiii] They also compare modern accounts of near-death experiences—both the more familiar positive ones of journey through a dark tunnel to a realm of light and the less familiar but apparently common negative ones which involve either being trapped in a great cosmic nothingness, or witnessing scenes of torture—to passages in the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. They note that medieval European accounts of such experiences tend to travel through the negative into the positive:


Typically the experiencer first encountered a series of hellish visions involving fiendish tortures, dismemberments, the tearing and burning of flesh, and others horrors before they had a glimpse of heavenly glory.[xiv]


d’Aquili and Newburg postulate near-death experiences as activating pre-programmed Jungian-style archetypes of “dissolution” and “transcendent integration”.[xv] I do not find this argument very convincing, because it depends on accepting that near-death experiences follow the same pattern across cultures and times, and this is far from proved. A. J. Ayers’ experience was influenced by his classical education and ideas of crossing the river Styx; the medieval accounts with their tortures are verbal equivalents of Dooms painted on church walls; and Wovoka’s life-changing visit to heaven, though tinged with Presbyterianism, Shakerism and Mormonism, was soaked in traditional Numu belief.



[i] Ramussen 1929, 93

[ii] Ramsussen 1929, 93

[iii] Rasmussen 1929, 93

[iv] Rasmussen 1929, 129-30

[v] Hittman 1997, 10

[vi] Neihardt 1979, 270

[vii] See Hittman 1997, 96-7, 173

[viii] Hittman 1997, 168

[ix] Crossley-Holland 1982, 159

[x] Vieth 1968, 150-1

[xi] Ayer 1936, PAGE

[xii] Cash 2001, retrieved 28/05/2020

[xiii] d’Aquili & Newburg 1999, 128

[xiv] d’Aquili & Newburg 1999, 126; they are drawing here on the research in Zaleski 1987

[xv] d’Aquili & Newburg 1999, 134

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