The Fabulous World of Gods and Magicians
Essay (Part 5) | The Lost Language of the Imagination in Shamanism
The dawn of the human imagination can be traced back to the cave paintings of pre-history some 60,000 years ago. As I wrote in my essay When Caves Were Temples, the predominant scholarship of our time now holds that the painters of these pictographs were shamans, and suggests that shamanism was the oldest form of spiritual practice, or the world’s oldest religion. South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams has contributed some really up-to-date research that proposes the shaman-painters sought to record their religious experience on the cave walls.
In this light, their images offer us a type of map into the cosmology of those earliest ancestors. They imply a worldview of deep interconnectedness between humankind and the natural world in which religious practice involved a form of deep listening and participation with the other-than-human-world. I refer to this way of relating with the world in this essay series as a “lost language”.
This language is often communicated by means of images that are, as psychologist James Hillman (1926) describes them, a ‘third possibility between mind and world.’1 They represent a mode of being, and may stand for the figures in our dreams or imaginings, or the cave paintings.
This is one of the primary concepts that the theosopher Henry Corbin (1903) introduced to western philosophical thought from the Islamic cosmology. Known in Arabic as ta’wil, it refers to the allegorical, esoteric interpretation of holy scripture, as opposed to a literal reading. It quests for the inner, hidden meaning behind the words or images.
Corbin believed this to be the central task of any spiritual discipline. It can be understood as a type of spiritual hermeneutics, which he describes as the ‘unveiling of the inner meaning of the Word’.2 This approach requires a particular type of perception - one no doubt employed by the shamans - whose aim, according to philosopher Tom Cheetham, is to recover the lost language. He writes, ‘It seems to me that this spiritual vision provides one way to understand the meaning and the function of all artistic acts.’3 And he continues to describe the invoking of the imagination and the practice of ta’wil as follows:
The intense and imaginative reading of a text, of the world, or of the soul will be a writing as much as a reading, and the perception of the images that arise and the places where they have their being is as much creation as discovery. Ta’wil is the exercise of the Creative Imagination.4
To “read” the world in this way no doubt frees it - and us - from the one-sided literalism that dominates western thought.