Monday, July 11, 2011

The shaman's journey, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and modern military initiation rituals

A previous post from June 23, 2011 entitled "DMT, Egypt, evolution and other subjects" contained links to a series of five video segments from Magical Egypt.

In the fourth of the five video segments, an interview begins at about the 3:50 mark [edit: a new version of the same video has been inserted above, and the portion referred to begins around the 44:00 mark in this one] which is continued in the fifth video, embedded above. In that interview, Lon Milo DuQuette, author of fifteen books on Western mystical traditions, describes what the narrator of the film calls "the constant work performed by the initiate of the temple to harden and perfect his gem of perfection, will, and mental clarity." This work, which emphasized "the ceremonial opening of doors" was clearly related by the ancient Egyptians with the continuation of the consciousness after death: just before Mr. DuQuette begins his remarks, the narrator asks, "Are all these exercises training the subconscious to be continuous and proactive in the afterlife?"

In the interview, Mr. DuQuette suggests that the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead "would indicate there's a goal that you can reach whereby you retain your individuality, or at least your pure individuality, and retain the consciousness of the continuity of your own existence." He describes the process whereby the well-equipped soul moved through a series of challenges in which it was stopped at various doors and had to know the right answers for the various powerful beings it met at each stage. He notes that this sort of initiatory process involving terrifying challenges at doors and prodigious memorization continues today in mystical societies such as Masonry.

In the previous post entitled "Shamans and cosmology, continued," we saw that scholars Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend in their 1969 book-length essay Hamlet's Mill drew a connection between this Egyptian afterlife initiation process and the celestial travels of the shaman found in many cultures around the world, saying:
The shaman travels through the skies in the very same manner as the Pharaoh did, well equipped as he was with his Pyramid Text or his Coffin Text, which represented his indispensable timetable and contained the ordained addresses of every celestial individual whom he was expected to meet. The Pharaoh relied upon his particular text as the less distinguished dead relied upon his copy of chapters from the book of the Dead, and he was prepared (as was the shaman) to change shape into the Sata serpent, a centipede, or the semblance of whatever celestial "station" must be passed, and to recite the fitting formulae to overcome hostile beings. 132.
This is the exact process described by Mr. DuQuette in the video above.

Amazingly, this initiation process is still deeply embedded within elite military units, such as the 82nd Airborne Division, in which a series of harrowing trials at a door -- in this case, a mock-up of the aircraft door which paratroopers exit while in flight -- forms the climax of the hallowed "Prop Blast" ceremony which all officers in the Airborne regiments had to go through in previous decades.

In the Prop Blast, initiates are subjected to a strenuous day comprised of military obstacle courses (with lots of crawling through and wallowing in the mud as well as scaling huge log ladders to perilous heights), eating from cans of dogfood and drinking jars of vinegar, and a visit to the 82nd Airborne Museum to see the historical relics of the heroes of the Second World War, such as the enormous silver trophy-mugs which each airborne regiment uses in their Prop Blast ceremonies, such as the Miley Mug of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, or the Tucker Tumbler of the 504th.

All the blastees receive mock nicknames which are displayed on their kevlar helmets, which are stripped down to resemble the helmets worn by students at Airborne School (from which all of them have already graduated, some of them many years before), and there is a protracted visit to the "34-foot towers" used in airborne training, in which the blastees jump from the towers the way Airborne School students do, but this time with eggs in their pockets (which they are ordered not to allow to break) and dead fish clenched between their teeth (they are each given a dead fish and told that it is their "jump buddy"). (These are details I remember from my own 1993 Prop Blast -- different units doubtless vary slightly during the day, although the culminating activities at the end of the day are very similar).

The 34-foot towers feature a mock aircraft body elevated to 34-feet above the ground, which can be seen in the video embedded below (these are more modern trainees, as their boots are no longer black leather, but the 34-foot tower procedures are very much the same as they have been since the 1940s or 1950s).

The culmination of the Prop Blast takes place in the evening, after a full day of exhausting activities. At that time, the blastees are lined up outside a building in which another aircraft mock-up has been constructed, complete with another mock-door. This time, the aircraft interior is darkened and lit by dim red bulbs, just like an aircraft in flight for a night tactical airborne operation. The blasted members, who have already been initiated into the officer corps of the regiment, slap their hands vigorously on the outside of the "aircraft" walls to simulate the noise of the engines, and the blastees must make their way to the mock-door in fully-rigged parachutes and perform the C-130 exit, which formerly included the "Stand In the Door!" position in which both the jumper's hands were positioned on the curved outer skin of the airplane (you can see the general shape of the aircraft door in the 34-foot tower video above: the procedure for exiting a C-130 was changed in the early to mid-1990s such that the jumper no longer put his hands on the outside of the aircraft).

The sides of this particular mock-door used in the concluding event, however, are electrified by means of a small hand-cranked field telephone generator, and when the blastee places his hands against it, two initiated members of the regiment are standing by outside wearing rubber gloves to hold his hands against it while the electricity runs up the initiate's hands and forearms (most unpleasant). After a few awful seconds of this, the blastee then "jumps" into the room beyond, which is darkened and features spotlights pointed at his face. After the prescribed exit procedures and landing techniques (sometimes augmented by leafy branches swung in his face for a "tree landing" or buckets of water poured on him for a "water landing") he must struggle to his feet and report to the Prop Blast Board, consisting of three august senior officers of the regiment, who grill him on the history of the regiment (the spotlights still shining in his eyes, making it difficult to see who they are). He must recite his memorized answers, but no matter how well he does, he will usually be ordered "Back into the aircraft" for another round of electrifying door procedures.

Finally, after several rounds of this, the blastee is accepted by the board and welcomed to the regiment, at which time he is instructed to drain the contents of the huge silver chalice of the regiment, which has been signed-out of the museum for this ceremony and filled with a concoction of alcohols representing various lands in which the regiment fought in previous wars. To indicate that he has indeed drained it to the bottom, the blastee then holds the empty mug upside-down over his head (with both handles -- these mugs are about as large as the PGA golf tournament's Wanamaker Trophy), and he can then sign his name in the historic Prop Blast Book of the regiment, which has names going all the way back to World War II.

Note the strong similarities to the initiations described by Mr. DuQuette in the video above, and to the trials of the ancient Egyptian afterlife and the celestial journeys of the shaman. These similarities probably did not arise independently on their own, but were no doubt introduced into the US military by officers in previous generations who were members of secret societies themselves. In Hamlet's Mill, the authors note that the Confederate General Lewis Addison "Lo" Armistead (1817 - 1863), who fell mortally wounded during Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, kept repeating "I am a Son of the Widow" to those who tried to give him aid before he died, which de Santillana and von Dechend note is a phrase from the ancient Babylonian story of Etana and the Eagle and the more recent Finnish folktale which echoes that ancient Babylonian story, and which they speculate was "obviously the password of a secret military brotherhood that his captors did not understand, nor the historian either" (114, footnote).

It should also be noted that the US Military Academy at West Point is also noted for a long tradition of memorizing "knowledge," precise answers to questions which must be recited by rote upon request by upperclassmen (General Armistead, like many officers on both sides of the Civil War, attended West Point, although he apparently left early after breaking a plate over the head of fellow-cadet Jubal Early).

Some of the hoary definitions still memorized by cadets at West Point include the answers to the questions "How is the cow?" (answer: "Sir, she walks, she talks, she's full of chalk; the lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is highly prolific to the nth degree") and "What is the definition of leather?" (answer: "If the fresh skin of an animal, cleaned and divested of all hair, fat and other extraneous matter, be immersed in a dilute solution of tannic acid, a chemical combination ensues; the gelatinous tissue of the skin is converted into a non-putrescible substance, impervious to and insoluble in water: this, sir, is leather").

That these challenges and responses, and the Prop Blast "door ceremony" are related to the activities described in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and the celestial travels of the shaman, in which the traveler must be prepared to "recite the fitting formulae to overcome hostile beings" should be quite obvious. The fact that these modern military relics are remnants of a tradition that is many thousands of years old is not as well known.

above is the author's own Prop Blast Card, issued to officers of the regiment who have been blasted; loss of this card requires the officer to be blasted again.