One of the questions any religion seeks to answer is “where did we come from?” Religious answers are mythical answers – they give us meaning that is helpful even if its historical accuracy is dubious. But we also know that most myths contain at least a hint of history.
The relationship between history and myth troubles our contemporary society, with fundamentalists insisting their myths are history and materialists insisting that only history has value. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering where our religious traditions really came from and what those origins mean to us here and now.
Gordon White’s new book Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits addresses the question of our spiritual origins. It’s published by Scarlet Imprint, who summarizes it thusly:
White applies his globally-recognised data and demographics skills to realise a groundbreaking work of truly interdisciplinary research. Utilising mythological, linguistic and astronomical data to reconstruct palaeolithic magical beliefs, he maps them to the human journey out of Africa; explores which aspects of these beliefs and practices have survived into the Western tradition; and what the implications (and applications) of those survivals may be for us.
Unlike some works of prehistory, Star.Ships is a book that deals in facts, including some facts that have been suppressed for reasons of politics, religion, and individual ambition. It organizes these facts into theories that, while ultimately unprovable, are grounded in evidence and reason. And it does all this not to confirm our myths or to give us new myths to “believe,” but to provide context for our myths and for our spiritual and religious exploration of them.
I’ve done my own research in this area, though nothing approaching the volume and depth that Gordon White has done. I can find no factual errors in the book. Where I disagree with Gordon, our differences are matters of emphasis and interpretation. He’s an occultist, I’m a polytheist – you wouldn’t expect us to agree on everything.
The bottom line is that this is the best work of prehistory I’ve ever found. Gordon White, best known for his Rune Soup blog and podcast, has written a scholarly work that can stand with anything coming out of mainstream academia.
Where do our myths come from? More specifically, where does the Western tradition of interaction with Gods and spirits come from? The evidence – historical, archaeological, mythological, linguistic, and genetic – points to answers far older and much further east than we usually assume.
We know that about 70,000 years ago, a small group of modern humans (essentially identical to us) left Africa and began to move east. Every person alive today not of sub-Saharan African ancestry is their descendant. Within 20,000 years they had reached Australia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Some of this journey was accomplished overland – sea levels were much lower up until the end of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago – but some covered open oceans, navigating by the stars.
We know that the Biblical flood story is not unique – many cultures have such a myth. But not all cultures – these stories are rare in Africa. Not coincidentally, Africa was by and large unaffected by the rising seas following the end of the last ice age. The area that’s now the Pacific Islands, however, was quite literally inundated. This is also an area that’s largely been ignored by Western academics. Star.Ships shows how it’s highly likely there was an early civilization in that area with considerable sophistication. After their homeland was flooded, they began moving west: into India, into Mesopotamia, and into Egypt.
The discovery of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey in 1994 has forced us to rethink the origins of civilization. While the site is far from fully excavated, we’ve learned enough to know that it was built well over 10,000 years ago – the earliest Egyptian pyramids are closer to us in time than to Göbekli Tepe. We know that it was huge by all but modern standards. We know it was a ritual site, not a place where people lived. And we know that it was built before the development of agriculture and settled living.
We’ve always assumed that after people begin farming, building cities, and generally settling down, religion evolved from tribal religion to what would become the organized religions of Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt, and eventually into their classical and modern offshoots. Göbekli Tepe tells us that’s wrong. Instead, organized religion came first. Then, because people gathered together, they began looking for ways to feed everyone. Necessity was the mother of the invention of agriculture… and of brewing. Göbekli Tepe has our first evidence of large-scale beer production.
The first seven chapters of Star.Ships take us from the last great journey out of Africa through the great floods that followed the end of the last ice age, then from East back to West through a time period where history (or at least, the dating of history) is still more speculative than factual. The rather long eighth chapter looks at Egypt and how the evidence tells us we should be reconsidering its origins and the origins of its earliest monuments, including the Sphinx and the pyramids. The final two chapters and the conclusion describe the effects this long journey has had on Western esotericism.
Lest the title scare you, Gordon examines the “ancient aliens” theories and finds them both unnecessary and unsupported by evidence. He does see several key points in human history where we took a huge leap forward in consciousness and in technology. Are these points of contact, not with material beings from other planets but with spiritual beings, however you care to conceive of them? While the evidence is far from conclusive, for those of us who see the world as more than material it is convincing.
So, what do we do with this new information? I’ll let Gordon White answer that himself:
As with all aspects of western magic, the race to reconstruction is heartily discouraged. In fact, if your takeaway from reading this far is an urgent need to recreate a Paleolithic spirituality based on the implications of the partially excavated site of Göbekli Tepe, I will find you and personally knock this book out of your hands on a crowded train. Instead, recontextualization of existing practices as they have arrived down through the centuries to us is encouraged. I would say even mandatory.
Who should read Star.Ships? Anyone who’s interested in the origins of human civilization and culture. Pagans, polytheists, the spiritual-but-not-religious, and open minded people of all religions will find it informative and helpful. Atheists will love 80% of the book and hate the other 20%. Anyone who reads the Bible literally or who thinks Victorian antiquarians (who did some good work but reached some very wrong conclusions) are still reliable sources will want to burn it.
I don’t review books differently based on how I get them, but for those of you who care about such things, I bought my copy of Star.Ships. I bought the hardback because it was available first – it was the most I’ve spent on a book since I was in graduate school. It was worth it. As always, my obligation in a review is to the readers, not the writer. If I couldn’t honestly give it a good review, I’d say so. This is a good book and I highly recommend it.