Sunday, February 22, 2015

Shang oracle bones: more evidence of humanity's shared shamanic heritage

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Numerous previous posts, including


have advanced the position that what may be broadly termed the shamanic worldview belongs as a precious inheritance to all the world's people, and can be conclusively demonstrated to be the foundation of the nearly every ancient sacred tradition on our planet.

This thesis would include those cultures whose scriptures and sacred traditions are built upon the common system of celestial allegory seen operating in the myths and sacred stories used from very ancient times right up to the present day -- including those which form the basis for the sacred texts of the Old and New Testament of what today is called the Bible. For an index of previous posts discussing several dozen of these myths and sacred stories from around the world, see the list in this "Star Myth Index."

Although the definition of the term "shamanic" can be profitably discussed, and some may argue that its broad use is inappropriate for a term which has very specific and even "technical" applications, and which employs an actual Tungusic word originally used only in one particular part of what is today Siberia and Manchuria, I believe the word in its broad application does have value, in that there are in fact clearly-identifiable characteristics of what can be called the shamanic worldview which can be found in shamanic cultures around the world, and which can also be identified operating in the myths of (for instance) ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, the Norse myths, and many others.

In some of the posts linked above, the defining characteristics of this worldview have been summarized as:
the awareness of "the other realm" or "world of the gods" in addition to the world of ordinary reality, and the practice of techniques for actually traveling between the realm of ordinary reality and the realm of the gods in order to obtain knowledge or effect change not possible to obtain or effect through any other method.
Why would it be possible (and even necessary) to make contact with or journey to that invisible realm in order to gain information or effect change for this material realm? I believe the answer almost certainly relates to the view, expressed in many shamanic cultures which survived into recent centuries, as well as in shamanic scriptures and texts from ancient times, that this material world at all points is connected to and interpenetrated by the spirit world, and that in fact in some very real sense the material world is generated or projected from the invisible world.

In The Undying Stars, I also explore at some length the likelihood (suggested by other researchers as well) that the invisible or spirit world is closely related to the state of "potentiality" described by many modern theoretical physicists in response to the extraordinary results of certain experiments which led to the revolution in thought that is quantum physics. If so, then this would also help to explain why contact with that invisible realm could enable us to obtain information or effect change which impacts this ordinary or material realm, information and change not possible to obtain or effect through actions in this material realm alone. 

I believe that the evidence that the sacred traditions of the world's cultures were founded upon just such a shamanic worldview is overwhelming. So much of this evidence was already available by the end of the eighteen-hundreds for Gerald Massey (1828 - 1907) to declare (in a text linked and quoted in this one of the above-linked previous posts) that all of the ancient wisdom of humanity included a deep knowledge of entering "trance-conditions" in order to make contact with or even travel to the spirit realm, but that somehow this knowledge was interrupted and lost prior to the modern period in many parts of the world. 

In 1899, evidence not previously recognized (and which Massey probably never heard of) was added to the existing pile of evidence supporting such a claim: the recognition of the oracle bones of the Shang period of ancient China, which was the second-oldest ancient dynasty of China, following the Xia Dynasty of the near-mythical past (the benevolent "Yellow Emperor," Huangdi, whose story has many elements in common with "Saturnian" myths around the world was part of the Xia Dynasty). 

The Shang (traditionally dated 1766 BC to 1122 BC) were once thought by some scholars to have been mythical themselves, but in 1899 a scholar and chancellor of the Imperial Academy and collector of antiquities named Wang Yirong of Beijing recognized the script on bones which were being ground up and ingested as medicines as ancient script similar to that seen on Bronze Age antiquities, a discovery which led over time to the recognition of the oracle bones of the Shang, which now number in the many tens or even hundreds of thousands, but which had remained unrecognized and largely unknown for over three thousand years.   

The  techniques for crossing to the "other realm" or the "invisible world" and bringing back information are widely varied across different cultures, climates, and time periods -- almost as widely varied as human culture itself. A previous discussion of some of the many different "techniques of ecstasy" -- many of which are found in Mircea Eliade's landmark 1951 discussion of the subject of shamanism and ecstasy --  entitled "How many ways are there to contact the hidden realm?" suggests that the fact that humans seem to be able to find ways of contact with and even travel to the spirit world using whatever their local environment provides to them may indicate:
a) that we are designed or "hard-wired" to be able to access non-ordinary reality,
b) that this ability resides with us as human beings and is not dependent on access to specific external elements or implements, and
c) that this ability to access the hidden realm is absolutely essential to human existence itself. 
In his encyclopedic examination of the myriad techniques of communicating with the spirit world, Eliade does not appear to directly discuss the oracle bones of the ancient Shang, although he does discuss the use of oracular bones among shamanic cultures which survived to the present day, such as the Koryak of the Bering Sea / Kamchatka region, the Oirat / Kalmyk of western Mongolia and the lands to the east of the Caspian Sea, and others.

He also notes that some scholars in the past have suggested intriguing parallels between ancient Shang art and designs and those used by Native American tribes of Alaska and the northwest coast of North America, those found on monuments in Borneo, Sumatra, and New Guinea, and that some have also pointed out the fact that "the drawings on the Lapp drum are astonishingly reminiscent of the pictographic style of the Eskimo and the eastern Algonkin," suggesting the possibility of some very interesting correspondences between shamanic cultures from very different parts of the globe and across many millennia of human history (page 334 and also footnote on page 334).

In addition to their importance as evidence of very early contact between the material realm and the invisible world in ancient China, the oracle bones are also tremendously important as extremely early examples of Chinese script, and scholars have determined that many characters still used today are directly descended from those used by the Shang. The Wikipedia entry on the subject states that scholars today believe the Shang writing to be directly ancestral to the Chinese system still in use, and that the oracle bones constitute the earliest significant corpus of ancient texts through which to study the origins and evolution of the Chinese characters.

It is fascinating to consider the origin of the Chinese characters for "eye" and "king" from characters which can be seen on surviving oracle bones, or to note how the traditional character for "tiger" still has a tail which corresponds to the image used for "tiger" on the Shang bones, in which the figures were generally drawn as though "standing" on a surface which runs "up and down," or upon which (in other words) animals which would be facing to the left if the ground were imagined running horizontal or "left to right" are in the ancient inscriptions rotated so that their noses are upwards, their feet are to the left, and their tails are towards the bottom as we look at the bones.

It is also extremely significant to pause and consider that this fact of the oracle bones constituting the earliest examples of Chinese writing appears to indicate a very close relationship between writing and contact with the invisible realm -- just as the story of the origins of the Norse runes through Odin's self-sacrifice by hanging on the World Tree demonstrates in northern European myth and sacred tradition.

The method by which the oracle bones were used is described in many places on the web and in books about ancient Chinese history. Here is the description from A Concise History of China, by J.A.G. Roberts (1999):
Much of the information available on Shang society comes from inscriptions made on the shoulder-blades of oxen (scapulimancy), or less commonly on the shells of turtles (plastromancy). At one time such items were described as 'dragon bones' and ground up for medicine. In the late nineteenth century the bones and their fragments were recognized for what they were. Over 150,000 fragments of Shang oracle bones have now been identified and these provide a major source of evidence about the Shang state. Many of the inscriptions refer to future events and they have been translated as questions addressed to an oracle. Recently it has been argued that the inscriptions are not questions but statements or predictions and that the divination process formed part of a sacrificial rite. Once the bones had been inscribed, a heated bronze tool was applied to them and the cracks which appeared were interpreted as a response to the question or prediction. Some of the inscriptions relate to the actions of the king and his allies and from these information may be gleaned about the organization of the Shang state. Others refer to the weather, to the planting and harvesting of crops and to the siting of buildings. The inscriptions use a vocabulary of more than 3000 different glyphs and they include a dating system based on a 10-day week and a 60-day cycle. 5.
The video below does a fairly good job of presenting the outlines of the importance of the oracle bones and their initial discovery (or recognition) in 1899:

Other videos, some of which focus more on the question of how exactly Wang Yirong first recognized the importance of the inscriptions on the bones in 1899, and how scholarship regarding the bones has proceeded since then, can be found in this video (which appears to be part of a larger series), and in this video which is basically a podcast and contains some interesting discussion of the oracle bones.

The text from J.A.G. Roberts above continues in its discussion of the Shang, noting the presence of "very sophisticated" bronze vessels and implements from the Shang period which are remarkable because there is no evidence "of an earlier and more primitive stage of bronze work" (5), and then goes on to say:
From the evidence of the oracle bones and bronze vessels, and from the burial practices followed, some understanding may be obtained of Shang religion. The Shang people worshipped many deities, most of whom were royal ancestors, some were nature spirits, and others perhaps derived from popular myths or local cults. The veneration of ancestors was practised by much of the population, and it has remained an essential part of Chinese religious practice until modern times. It has long been assumed that Shang religion also had a single supreme deity, referred to as Di, who was part ancestral figure, part natural force, who presided at the apex of a complex Shang pantheon. A recent study has rejected the idea of Di as a high god, and has claimed that in Shang religion di was the term used to refer collectively to 'the gods,' and that it was only under the Zhou that the idea of a supreme god emerged. From the evidence of the tombs it is clear that the Shang believed in an afterlife, and divination may have been addressed to departed ancestors. The Shang court may have been attended by shamans, and the king himself was perhaps a shaman. 6-7.
Further evidence which appears to argue quite strongly that ancient Chinese culture exhibits elements of the shamanic worldview is explored by Stanford Professor of Chinese Culture Mark Edward Lewis in The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (2007), part of a series of books called the History of Imperial China edited by Timothy Brook as general editor. Discussing the overarching understanding that our world consists of a visible and an invisible realm, and the points of contact and communication between them, Professor Lewis writes:
Religion in imperial China dealt with the realm of "spirits" (shen) and shadow (yin). From earliest times, the Chinese offered sacrifices to a spirit world that paralleled the human. The two realms -- the visible and invisible -- were roughly parallel, and the dying moved from one to the other. 178.
He then explores some of the many categories of contact between the visible and invisible realms, which he explains were "sometimes personalized (as in divination, dreams, or trances), sometimes localized (as in sacred places or shrines), and sometimes generally visible as omens but subject to disputed interpretation (as in prodigies such as comets, eclipses, droughts, or the raining of blood)" (178).  He quotes an evocative poem written by one of the consorts of the Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the western Han dynasty, who reined as emperor from 202 BC to 195 BC:
Floating on high in every direction,
Music fills the hall and court.
The incense sticks are a forest of feathers,
The cloudy scene an obscure darkness.
Metal stalks with elegant blossoms,
A host of flags and kingfisher banners.
The "Seven Origins" and "Blossoming Origins" music
Are solemnly intoned as harmonious sounds.
So one can almost hear
The spirits coming to feast and frolic.
The spirits are seen off to the zhu zhu of the music,
Which refines and purifies human feelings.
Suddenly the spirits ride off on the darkness,
And the brilliant event concludes.
Purified thoughts grow hidden and still,
And the warp and weft of the world fall dark. 179.
Professor Lewis says of this scene:
The sacred space blurred ordinary sense perceptions with smoke, incense, music, and the forest of banners. The chief sacrificer prepared for his contact with the spirits by fasting and meditation. This extended deprivation not only cleansed the body but also induced a mental state more susceptible to perceiving uncanny phenomena. In the atmosphere of the ritual scene, the carefully prepared participants could hear the spirits come to feast with their living kin and then see them depart before the world settled into blackness. Such scenes are described in some of the songs of the Zhou Canon of Odes (Shi jing), where spirits grow drunk on sacrificial wine. 179.
Finally, Professor Lewis provides the important insight that "Chinese divination was usually regarded more as a guide to action than as the report of a fixed fate. Divination provided not knowledge of a preordained future but understanding of trends so as to act upon events with the greatest efficacy" (183).

As something of an aside, we should note that this understanding of the spirit world, which Professor Lewis asserts characterized the ancient Chinese understanding of the spirit world, appears to harmonize quite well with the assertion made earlier that the realm of spirit may correspond in some way to what quantum theory describes as "superposition," in which very small particles cannot be described as having an "actual position" independent of its observation: in which they exist in a sort of world of "potentiality" until they are observed, at which time they "manifest" in a particular place (see the discussion, for example, in Quantum Enigma by UC Santa Cruz physics professors Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, beginning on page 84 in the 2nd edition).

All of this evidence from China's ancient period speaks to a worldview which can be broadly included in the definition of the shamanic worldview as articulated above: a worldview which perceives the existence of an invisible world of spirit, and which understands the importance of communication between the two realms and which possesses techniques to effect such communication.

This evidence also argues that the concept of the shamanic is not restricted to pastoral or nomadic or hunter-gatherer societies, even though it is in such societies where shamanic practices appear to have survived most clearly into recent centuries. Previous posts have noted the convincing arguments put forward by Dr. Jeremy Naydler and others, based upon extensive evidence, that the pharaonic civilization of ancient Egypt was built upon central principles and a worldview which also conforms to the broad definition of the shamanic.

The implications of the oracle bones of ancient China are actually quite profound for modern civilization here in the twenty-first century AD, over thirty-eight centuries after the start of the Shang civilization.

First, as has been hammered-upon throughout this post, the oracle bones provide still more evidence to the growing mound of evidence from around the world that the ancient wisdom of the human race was shamanic in nature, aware of the vital importance of the spirit world and of the need to contact and communicate with what has been called the realm of "non-ordinary reality" -- just as real as our ordinary mode of consciousness, but differing radically from our ordinary experience -- and which may be related to the state of "potentiality" described in the basic principles of modern quantum physics.

Second, the oracle bones yield important avenues for further examination when they are compared to other ancient cultures which themselves could be described as exhibiting a shamanic worldview. It has already been noted that the story of the "Sacrifice of Odin," in which Odin gains the spiritual vision needed to see the runes and thus obtain the gift of writing through the process of hanging upon the great tree Yggdrasil, suggests to us that writing itself -- an inherently symbolic activity -- has strong connections to and even origins within the invisible world.

We can now bring up another parallel from another well-known ancient point of contact with the invisible realm: the famous Oracle at Delphi. There, supplicants (including, according to the ancient texts, many kings and heroes) would present their questions to the priestess of Delphi, who was known as the Pythia, and she would enter into a state of ecstatic trance in order to convey a message from the other world. The parallels to the use of the Shang oracle bones should be quite evident.

What is extremely noteworthy in this regard, I would submit, is the fact that the Oracle at Delphi was associated not only with crossing over the barrier to the invisible realm, there to obtain messages and information not available through ordinary means alone, but also with the admonition "Know Thyself," traditionally held to have been inscribed prominently at the Delphic temple and referenced in that connection by many important ancient texts and authors, including notably by Socrates himself (at least as depicted in the dialogues of Plato) when discussing the origin and role of mythology!

What could it mean that in this most sacred point of this extremely important ancient culture we find juxtaposed a tradition of crossing over to the invisible world and an admonition to "Know Thyself"?

Could it not be that the command to "Know Thyself" entails the command to "understand our dual material/spiritual nature" and the simultaneous "dual material/spiritual nature" of this universe in which we dwell (and which we in fact reflect and embody, in the "macrocosm/microcosm" philosophy which can be seen to have been operating in the sacred teachings of ancient Greece, and in the scriptures of the Bible, and indeed in Chinese culture as well, where traditional Chinese medicine has from ancient times recognized a correspondence between the motions of the sun, moon, stars and planets and the internal organs and flow of energy within the human body -- and see here for more on that subject going back to ancient Egypt).

If so, then the growing evidence of the universality of the worldview and the practice of techniques which we might label "shamanic" has profound implications for our own self-knowledge and even for our own fulfillment and sense of completeness as human beings. There is a powerful quotation from Mircea Eliade, made during a discussion of the ecstatic journeying undertaken by the shamans of the Inuit, Inupiak, and Yupik peoples of far northern regions of North American continent (whose name for a shaman was angakok or angakut) in which he relates the assertion based the accounts of the angakok themselves that:
It is above all during trance that he truly becomes himself; the mystical experience is necessary to him as a constituent of his true personality. Shamanism, 293.
Such an assertion is very much in keeping with the foregoing observations of the near-universality of shamanic practice at the foundation of the world's various cultures and sacred traditions, with the great diversity of methods by which people around the world have found ways to make contact with the other world, and with the fact that it was at the Oracle of Delphi where the ancient Greeks chose to inscribe the grave command, "Know Thyself."

In light of such findings, we must ask ourselves whether there might not be negative consequences of a serious nature for a society which marginalizes and even criminalizes the universal human impulse to contact the realm of non-ordinary reality? For some discussions on that front, see previous posts such as "Outlaw drums," "Graham Hancock identifies war on consciousness," and "Literalists against the shamanic."

And, as we contemplate these subjects, we can be thankful for the recognition attributed to Wang Yirong of the significance of the inscriptions found upon the ancient bones which were being dug up from fields in which they had lain for so many centuries, silently proclaiming the shamanic worldview practiced during one of the earliest periods of Chinese history.

We can only wonder what other evidence of ancient shamanic practice around the world has disappeared into the dust of history without leaving a record which we can today read or examine.

And we can gaze at the ancient writings on the shoulder bones and tortoise plastrons, placed there by those wishing for a message from the other world, and ponder our own need for the same -- which connects us to them across the great gulf of centuries, and speaks to a universal human need which is every bit as real today as it was in the days of the Shang.

below are some other images of oracle bones . . .

above image: Wikimedia commons (link).

above image: Wikimedia commons (link).

above image: Wikimedia commons (link).

above image: Wikimedia commons (link).