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    Spirituality - A History of Human Awakening

    Excerpted from
    God and the Evolving Universe: The Next Step in Personal Evolution
    By James Redfield, Michael Murphy

    Evolution entered a new domain with the appearance of humankind. Intelligence, communication skills, and other attributes of animal life advanced dramatically as our species formed newly creative social groups, harnessed fire, developed new tools, learned to speak, and tried to make greater sense of the world around them. As their capacities developed, our ancestors awoke to the Transcendent and began to advance toward the truth of their higher nature. This evolution began in the Stone Age and accelerated during the civilized era, often meandering, sometimes regressing, but preparing us nevertheless for still another evolutionary leap.

    In this chapter, we will briefly review some of the great turning points that constitute this general advance. In this we will not try to be all-inclusive, for such an attempt would take us beyond our competence and the scope of this book. We are not trying to be definitive here in our judgments about the relative importance of history's great cultural flowerings. Our intent is simply to suggest the continuity of humankind's growth in consciousness, its irrepressible drive to exceed its apparent limitations, and its ever-astonishing capacity for further development. We have had extraordinary predecessors. Countless pathfinders have opened frontier after frontier for us to explore. By reviewing the advances they have made, we can better appreciate our possibilities for growth, our insistent urge toward a greater life, and the evolutionary adventures that await us.


    There was a time in history of our Stone Age ancestors when their language, symbolic thought, tool-making, and art began to develop markedly beyond the equivalent activities of their forebears. Shamans, it seems, were centrally involved in this acceleration of human development, whether as medicine men, visionaries, masters of ritual, artists, or guides to realms beyond the senses.

    Early evidence of the shaman's existence can be found in painted eaves such as those at Lascaux, Pech-Merle, and Les Trois Freres, where he is depicted as a figure masked to suggest a bird in flight, a wizard-beast, or other numinous forms that expressed his extraordinary powers and consciousness. Such images, some of which were painted more than twenty thousand years ago, combined with many studies of shamanism among still-existent peoples, show that shamans have long been the primary mediators in their communities for contact with the spirit world.

    Shamans have long derived their central place in Stone-Age cultures from knowledge of healing medicines and rituals, from abilities to assist their tribe in the hunt, and from their use of spells for love and battle. But their chief importance for our purposes here is their capacity to enter ecstatic trance as well as altered states of waking consciousness, from which they gain powers to heal their fellows, interpret dreams, and bring their community into closer rapport with worlds beyond the reach of the ordinary senses.

    Studies in Siberia, Central Asia, Australia, Africa, and the Americas have shown that there are remarkable similarities between shamanic practices in different parts of the world. The members of most Stone-Age cultures believed, for example, that while in trance shamans can journey to various heavens and underworlds, communicate with supernatural beings, liberate spirits of the dead, and retrieve lost souls. From such journeys, it is said, shamans learn how to heal both physical and spiritual ailments, locate animals clairvoyantly for the hunt, help relocate his tribe if that is necessary, and assist his tribe in other ways. With the supernormal powers they receive from beyond, they can better preside over rites of passage associated with birth, adolescence, marriage, and death. Such powers exhibit a pattern that becomes more distinct, as we shall see, in later sacred traditions, but with Stone-Age shamans, they appear in organized fashion for the first time on Earth. In shamanism, we see the first institutionalization of visions and practices that open humankind to other worlds, extraordinary powers, and contact with the Transcendent.

    Shamans find their vocation in various ways. In some cultures, they inherit the role from a parent. Some are "wounded healers," having come through madness, seizures, deformity, or life-threatening illness with healing insights and powers. But in most cases they experience initiatory practices and ordeals that produce altered states of consciousness, a sense of transcendent identity, and other extraordinary attributes. Imbued with special authority, they help to heal the sick, preside over sacred rituals, and provide guidance to the spirit world.

    In many Stone-Age cultures, shamans have become living, ever-present symbols of the Transcendent. In this they are the forerunners of the prophets, saints, and seers who gave rise to the world's great religions and the other visionaries who have led humankind's awakening to the extraordinary capacities described in this book.

    The Ancient Mystery Schools

    Many thousands of years after the birth of shamanism, the human awakening to the Transcendent that began in the Stone Age was kept alive in centers of religious ritual that emerged in Greece, Syria, Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia. These "mystery schools" involved adoration of various deities, rites of spiritual transformation, and elaborate religious dramas based on sacred marriages of the gods and their deaths and rebirths.

    According to the eminent scholar Karl Kerenyi, "participation in the mysteries offered a guarantee of life without fear of death." During annual and seasonal mystery festivals, such rituals revealed a vision of eternity and the source of life. At Eleusis, a place famous for such events, the participants experienced a dramatized reenactment of the abduction of Persephone and her reunion with her mother, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Though the initiates were under injunction to never speak of what they saw, poets such as Pindar and Sophocles echoed these rapturous words of the Homeric hymns when they described what the Mysteries revealed: "Blessed is he among men on earth who has beheld this."

    Another important Greek festival, which was held in honor of Dionysus, the god of the vine, reflected humankind's fascination with death and resurrection. During passion plays in ancient Egypt, participants observed a sacred drama enacting the rebirth of the god Osiris in the underworld with the help of the goddess Isis and the birth of their son. In the mysteries of ancient Persia held in honor of Mithra, a sacred bull was slain to guarantee the fertility of the earth and initiates consumed bread and water that represented the body and blood of the divine and signified the mystery of eternal life. Rites such as these were also celebrated among Germanic tribes that worshiped Woden, and by the Celtic Druids. Their prevalence in early Christian times is reflected in Saint Paul's famous statement regarding the gospel of Christ, "Lo, I bring you a mystery."

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