dreamers down from the mountains - part iv - חולמים יורדים מההרים
Listen to the ancient whispers of the gods, as they try and warn all of us against what happens when humanity forgets where we came from and we attempt to break away from the stories that forged us.
Cool scents of juniper and lapsed rainfall slipped past as he sat within the dank mountain cave and contemplated life. He wondered about the father he’d never gotten to know, about how his life might have been different.
He was tired.
Life in the desert dictated this, it also dictated that he would witness the extraordinary: In the daily mosaic of wind-brushed dunes, in the leisurely explosion of constellations twirling across the neverending desert horizon each night - twisting and swirling in a gyre that seems to encompass all of our fates.
These casual cyclical miracles would provide the stage for witnessing events of far less permanence, but much greater human consequence. And yet none of this beauty he’d been ensconced in since his wailing ordinary birth was noticed in these moments, as he sat within the karsted cave he’d found high up above the dunes and contemplated what he’d made of his life so far.
Waiting for the stones to whisper to him.
The father he’d never met had died shortly before he was born, and after his mother passed a few years later he was sent to be raised by nearby relatives - as so often happened among his people, the desert’s tribes. But he adjusted to the experience well, and prospered after being sent to work for a wealthy connected widow fifteen years his senior, who’d eventually become his business partner as well as his first wife.
Work as shepard and a merchant suited the gregarious and sociable young man well, and his travels brought him in touch with peoples of many other faiths: Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews. And many others, some who would consider God a matter of Them instead of Him. Each would offer ideas that later worked to mold his conception of God and Faith, and one group would offer sanctuary to him during the time of the most pressing and legendary threat to his life.
But history would soon forget this, as followers claiming to champion his name would continue perhaps the world’s most aged and determined bigotry, joining in on the persecution of these fellow People of the Book, a persecution that would at one point or another become a chorus within many of the world’s civilizations. Though, up here in the mountains among the stars, all of this was yet to come.
For now, high up among the grottos and cliffs, he contemplated.
Like another man he revered as a great Prophet, he was troubled by what he saw becoming entangled with the places, rites, and traditions of worship. He didn’t and never claimed to build the Ka’bah at Mecca. But he saw the countless animist deities enshrined there not as vehicles for personal realization or redemption, but rather only lugging the corruption and immorality that had become gods of their own by becoming the focus of donations meant as down-payments on an estate in heaven.
He saw that these gods were propped up by Mecca’s religious leaders, who were either too cowardly to condemn the forces undermining the souls of the people, or who were simply in cahoots with the merchants and traders who profited off the illicit trade of coin for conscience. If the status quo was allowed to continue, if nothing was done - souls would degrade, and the societies which they comprised would drift farther and farther away from salvation.
Due to Mecca’s central geopolitical location it had become a hub for commerce and religion alike, leading to the moneychangers being put very directly in charge of the temples - how to rend these two apart, and end the commercialization of human souls?
And then suddenly, his deep contemplation was violently ended as an inexorable presence slammed invisibly into his body. He struggled for his life, wrestling with the invisible foe as his forefather Jacob had been forced to do - but soon this immutable will pulled the last breath effortlessly from his chest. And just in that final moment, when all seemed lost and death an inevitable darkness drowning out the spark of his life, a terrifying command slammed into his very soul: READ!
Terrifying, since as anyone who struggles with literacy knows, your personal ignorance is always just one trial like this away from exposing you to everyone as a fool. And so he responded with all the desperation of someone whose secret ignorance is about to cost him his life: But I cannot! However, as miracles are wont to do, this entirely illiterate desert merchant suddenly found the awareness of his own soul awash with the words that would make him Allah’s final prophet, and the man who was once just a bit of clinging substance was taught all the secrets of salvation by the pen, as promised.
The eternal words were etched onto his heart as streams of absolute truth embraced it, all while the breath was choked out of his lungs… and then as unexpectedly as it had come, the presence was gone. He slumped onto the cold stone of the cave and desperately drew breath back into his body. Mountain slate cold against his body, he knew then what he would do next.
He did what any of us would have done.
He scrambled down from the mountain as fast as he could, blew through the front door of his house, and curled up sobbing like a small child into the arms of his wife - figuring he’d just gone mad, and that it might be about time to kill himself.
This interplay, between madness and divinity, has been with humanity since our very first conception of any form of mystical forces at all, and was first addressed using neurobiology back in the late 1970s when Julian Jaynes’s book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind argued that:
Ancient people in the bicameral state of mind would have experienced the world in a manner that has some similarities to that of a person with schizophrenia. Rather than making conscious evaluations in novel or unexpected situations, the person would hallucinate a voice or ‘god’ giving admonitory advice or commands and obey without question: One would not be at all conscious of one's own thought processes per se. Jaynes's hypothesis is offered as a possible explanation of “command hallucinations" that often direct the behavior of those afflicted by first rank symptoms of schizophrenia, as well as other voice-hearers.
Long before the discovery of mirror neurons, Jaynes instead used the syntax and diction of our most ancient stories to infer that “these ‘voices’ came from the right brain counterparts of the left brain language centres; specifically, the counterparts to Wernicke's area and Broca's area… Jaynes noted that some studies show that auditory hallucinations correspond to increased activity in these areas of the brain,” which are responsible for the auditory comprehension of speech, and reading the written word, respectively.
Jaynes uses the way ancient stories are narrated in the oral traditions that were passed along even before writing was invented, which make it seem as if the people - or even just the bodyparts embodying them - involved are mindlessly following out heavenly edicts, to make the case that “schizophrenia is a vestige of humanity's earlier bicameral state.” One that began to transition about 3,000ya - back around 1200BC - when the Late Bronze Age Collapse caused enough social-evolutionary pressure for the shift to our modern neurobiology to begin - a shift needed to handle the oncoming snowballing challenges posed by wholesale societal implosion.
And there is evidence that another one of our shared history’s massive waves of neurological change that occurs alongside the mastery of a new media swept across the region during this era, as around 3,000ya the slow decrease in human brain-size accelerated to about 50 times the previous rate, possibly due to “the externalization of knowledge and advantages of group-level decision-making due in part to the advent of social systems of distributed cognition and the storage and sharing of information.”
Or in simpler terms, the advent of writing and the complex social systems and ideologies which drove its creation and widespread adoption allowed our brains to outsource some of their work, so they shrunk.
And so although humanity was forever altered by that watershed cataclysm as the Bronze Age ended and gave way to the Iron Age, our more hallucinatory past may still live on vestigially but vividly inside schizophrenics who hear auditory hallucinations, as well as arguably within all of our organized religions. Since scientifically speaking, all of humanity’s great religions are fundamentally rooted in what can only be described as hearing voices - a colloquial term for auditory hallucinations.
Sometimes they take a dramatic form like the possibly epileptic encounter with the Angel Gabriel above which occurred roughly two-thousand years after the Late Bronze Age Collapse, or Joan of Arc’s archangellic visions from Michael - but many other times the auditory instructions come over a period of 40 days and nights, or are otherwise conveyed more subtly than instantaneous dogmatic revelation.
And religion is hardwired into our societies as well as our brains, as there’s never been any signs of steady and organized human habitation that didn’t also have imagery and objects that appeared to hold ceremonial significance, and often physical evidence of cooperative rituals are left behind as well, flotsam from the machinations of our mirror neurons. And of course many of the most enduring and grandest archeological sites are overtly religious and would’ve required intergenerational cooperative efforts to build, like the pyramids still standing everywhere from Egypt to the Americas - all of which once held ancient ceremonies where the entire society was gathered together by their underlying neurobiology, for events jubilant and macabre alike.
The trust that builds from this tribal and ceremonial sort of religious cooperation comes from sharing both resources and responsibilities - providing a sense of belonging, a sense of togetherness and connectedness that often gets lost along the way as societies have modernized and industrialized. And this disconnectedness - from that old more tribal and symbolistic sense of belonging that only occurs when you actually know and trust your neighbors - contributes to any number of social ills: increasing corporate fraud and theft, a growing number of mass shootings and general gun violence, as well as an explosion of mental health issues ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder in our veterans to the never-ending cascade of suicides within every desperate and hopeless community.
So without a firm sense of belonging humans seem to lose something primal and fundamental in their lives, something that sets us off-kilter if it’s missing. And it turns out to be something that can actually be measured biochemically, as least to some extent, as the burgeoning field of evolutionary anthropology and neurobiology have begun to quantify:
Not only are bad actions punished, but good actions are rewarded. When a person does something for another person – a prosocial act, as it’s called- they are rewarded not only by group approval but also by an increase of dopamine and other pleasurable hormones in their blood.
Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, for example, which promotes everything from breast-feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding in men. Both reactions impart a powerful sensation of well-being. Oxytocin creates a feedback of good feeling and group loyalty that ultimately leads members to “self-sacrifice to promote group welfare.”
And dopamine and oxytocin are only two of the myriad neurotransmitters which work alongside mirror neurons to collectively regulate complex human behavior as they ebb and flow between our neurons. Serotonin, noradrenalin, GABA, acetylcholine, cannabinoids, endorphins and others all weave a phenomenally complex tapestry of brain waves and action potentials within our skulls – dopamine alone has at least a dozen different receptors throughout our brains, and plays a role in everything from fine motor control to pleasure seeking to the crystallization of religious beliefs.
But it’s not like these neurotransmitters function on a simple full-to-empty gauge, each one has a three-part Goldilocks zone dependent on their rate of production, the rate enzymes break them down, and the number of receptors for each to fit into.
Presently only one of those three factors is commonly controlled at any one time by modern medicine – drugs like Prozac slow the rate at which serotonin is broken-down by enzymes, which can be a good thing if the extra serotonin helps improve your mood, but a terrible thing if too much serotonin eventually accumulates since that can make you suicidal or impulsively violent.
But since the other two factors – serotonin’s natural rate of production and the number of its receptors – aren’t modulated by Prozac, there’s no way for someone taking it to know if the drug is going to keep them in the Goldilocks zone or eventual push them out of it. So whether your buzz of choice is from caffeine blocking the enzymatic process that makes you feel tired, alcohol causing your brain to surge with GABA, or cocaine revving your dopamine levels through the roof – any substance that alters the delicate balance of neurotransmitters in your brain is in fact a mind-altering drug.
If that seems complex, consider that many of these neurotransmitters are actually synthesized in our guts by the billions and billions of symbiotic mutualistic critters happily colonizing us, and precisely how they get up into our brains is largely a mystery. This relationship, between brain and intestinal tract, is so profound that baby mice whose guts are cleared of these critters have brains that fail to develop properly – they don’t form the protective insulation, known as myelin, which allows neurons to effectively function and heal. Clearly having a gut feeling about something is far more than just a metaphor.
Along with dopamine and oxytocin and our mirror neurons, other neurotransmitters play different, oftentimes overlapping, roles regulating human social interaction, whether it’s building feelings of affection and belonging or staying our hand when our impulse is to smack the shit out of someone. And since oxytocin works to build feelings of social trust and bond us together, and all it takes for its levels to rise is a little bit of sustained eye-contact, it’s been called both the Love Hormone and the Trust Hormone for good reason.
But its effects are as nuanced as its underlying tripartite biological mechanism, and like all neurotransmitters more of it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Oxytocin isn’t alone in functioning differently in each gender, but it can have a particularly insidious effect on females: early childhood abuse, either emotional or physical, predisposes young girls to need higher levels of oxytocin to cope with anxiety than girls who grow up in stable environments.
So the stereotype of a stripper with daddy issues may well have a biological origin, and since oxytocin surges in females during sexual contact - the next time you fool around with a girl known for constantly seeking out sexual encounters you may in fact be directly perpetuating the harm caused by a screaming father who pounded dents in her bedroom door, or a family friend whose lap she always did her best to avoid.
Untangling these neurological interactions, and learning how they lead to the divine neurologically-linked insanity that seems to have been woven into so much of human civilization is far more than just our brain’s ability to produce hallucinations to account for unexpected neurological input, or as a result of neurotransmitters being thrown off-balance. Sometimes we call these illusions schizophrenia, other times divine intervention, but often we just blame some extra-stanky weed.
And tellingly, Jaynes ties his theory of the Bicameral Mind directly to the Late Bronze Age, when the first preserved written language had helped empower the disparate civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea to build a vast interconnected network of trade and warfare that saw cities and culture coalesce into organized entities the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again for many thousands of years after their apocalyptic collapse.
These civilizations in the Ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean leading up to the Late Bronze Age collapse were “the first to practice intensive year-round agriculture, developing the first writing system, inventing the potter’s wheel and mill wheel, pioneering centralized governments, law codes and empires. The Ancient Near East also introduced organized warfare, slavery and the stratification of societies, as well as laying down the foundations of the fields of astronomy and mathematics.”
However, once the collapse began: “Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again.” Although eerily enough, in a mystery that’s lasted through the ages, many entire cities were abandoned entirely without being damaged at all.
But lucky for modern historians, writing and proto-alphabets had begun to proliferate around the region back around 5,000BCE on cuneiformed clay well before the collapse was in motion, often creating the fires that kilned these clay tablets for the ages. So although the written word wasn’t first invented with the intention of leaving stories behind for history, that’s exactly what’s happened - and so we have been left with a fair number of puzzle pieces from this epoch.
Because without written language, the ancient Sumerians never would’ve been able to track all of the grain collected each harvest, in quantities far exceeding what anyone could possibly remember in their heads from one harvest to the next. However it’s important to point out that crediting this civilizations with the first written language isn’t exactly accurate, since the only reason we know about these clay tablets is that their baking during the incineration of the cities they served, instantaneously fossilized them.
And so although the first written language we’re aware of was preserved around 5,000BC, if the clay tablets involved had never been hardened by incineration, odds are this entire language would’ve been lost to history. And to be fair, we already know about another written language - of sorts.
All across the caves of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, ochre pictographs and petroglyphs demonstrate that the earliest humanity was capable of symbolic representation - slapping their existence indelibly into the eons. And although these pictographs aren’t seen as part of a cohesive language, and so are generally considered separately from cuneiform and other primitive formalized writing systems - this is very much a false dichotomy. Associating any written symbol with a physical object would’ve inevitably involved sound as well, the start of a linguistic trinity that ties in quite directly to our shared divinity.
Although other animals certainly are able to have some grasp of human language, no matter how many years of language-training an animal has had, it’ll never pass a simple test human infants instinctively nail every single time. Many creatures – monkeys, dogs, corvids, and dolphins among them – can learn to associate a picture of a frog with the printed word Frog, and that same picture with the sound of ribbiting. But this learned associative arrow points in only one direction: from picture to printed word, or from picture to ribbiting.
It’s only humans, with an ability that emerges instinctively in our infancy, who can reverse this associational arrow, be shown the word Frog or listen to ribbiting, and then subsequently work backwards and pick a frog’s picture out of a line-up of other creatures. No other animal can reverse the associative arrow and draw the triangle that links both the sound of ribbiting as well as the the word “frog” back to a picture of a frog – we’re it. Although humans share mirror neurons and what’s likely a resultant inborn sense of altruism with our primate cousins, this neurological associational machinery appears in our brains, and our brains alone.
And by age two, children will spontaneously respond with their own ribbiting when asked, “what does a frog say?” and vice-versa, even though this third relationship, the final leg of the triangle – between the word representing the animal and the sound it makes – hasn’t been taught to them at all.
Our brains spontaneously make the association, and complete these linguistic trinities even when only two of the pieces are directly taught to us. And yet this is only the beginning of an associative story that’s at the very core of our shared humanity. It’s a story you’ve almost certainly heard before, it’s just this time you’ll be listening to what it would’ve sounded like to our ancestors.
After descending from a mountain of his own, Moses soon found himself facing off against Egypt’s Pharaoh - the man responsible for the oppression of his people. And in one of the Bible’s more esoteric twists, Moses’ brother in arms and stutter stand-in Aaron, the Pharaoh, and a bunch of his Jaffar-esque advisers all threw their staffs on the ground, at which point they all transform into serpents.
Or at least, that’s how the story is supposed to go.
Since although “serpent” or “snake” is the universal translation given, to our ancestors this story would’ve been much more than an ancient serpentine Hunger Games set alongside the Nile, waiting to collect its blood. In written Hebrew, the Semitic alphabet is far more bare-bones than the alphabets found in Indo-European languages.
Ancient Hebrew is an example of an Abjad alphabet, quite possibly the first in history. These writing systems don’t even pretend to capture every single sound that’s spoken phonetically, instead every word is composed of just three written consonants, and all voweling or additional inflections are left for the reader to infer based on the surrounding context.
When we were back in the caves, the context of any symbolism was obvious: All of those pictographic depictions related to the flora and fauna of the surrounding environment, and sometimes features of the night sky as well. And so there’s never need for much abstraction, all of the symbols used in ancient cave-paintings are immediately grounded in the present moment of the present environment.
Although to be fair, there’s now speculation that even those first primitive handprints may have been more than just random acts of artistic expression. Since of course the image of a hand with one particular finger extended is still a very universal signal all over the world. And in recent months, analysis of caves all across Western Europe found that when these hands predictably appeared to be missing just a finger or two, this might have been depicting a primitive form of sign language, a mutilated semaphore of missing fingers indicating signals for the hunt dating back over 30,000 years.
However these signals didn’t represent letters, instead they would’ve been direct representations of entire singulars ideas, as many signs are today in modern sign-languages outside of their alphabets, and so are still pictographs since one symbol is meant to represent just one entire idea clearly and directly, without any additional abstraction or confusion.
Formal writing systems change that, flowing in overlapping loose categories from the pictographs that capture whole ideas literally into the ideographs that first began to to convey abstraction: A stick-figure man leaning against a T-like tree can convey rest, as it does in the Chinese hanzi script - also an example of a logographic alphabet, where ideographs and pictographs alike become formalized into accepted forms, and are propagated as a complete writing system.
This formalization imbues the symbols that make up a language with the cultural context of shared understanding, instead of something vaguely looking like a tree almost certainly referring to a nearby tree, being able to read the word “tree” removes all doubt - so long as you’re reading about the outdoors at least, since in other contexts “tree” can just refer to any pronged shape. And so, because of the limited number of sounds humans can produce and symbols we can remember, even with formalization oftentimes abstraction is necessary, because you will always need context for words and sounds to keep they’re proper meaning.
Since their’s lots of ways to make mistakes if you’re only hearing a pattern of sounds during speech, and it can be difficult for words to keep there proper meaning. And of course in addition to that oral example of three very often confused audio cognates in English, written examples of synonyms exist in every language that’s ever existed in the world.
And in both Sumerian Cuneiform and the Egyptian Hieroglyphics as well as the initial Hebrew Abjad that appears to have emerged soon after, written characters can have both a pictographic meaning as well as a syllabic sound, a practice called acrophony. So a simple rectangular shape with a small gap left open for a door would simultaneously hold two grammatical meanings at first glance: It would both be a pictograph for bayt, or house, as well as the symbol for the B sound.
Deciding which meaning was intended by the writer would depend entirely on context, since that symbol alone would be in a bit of a quantum state of grammatical uncertainty unless it was surrounded by additional text to depolarize its meaning.
And so with the advent of the first writing systems, for the first time the name of the wind was no longer such a simple thing. Because the symbol representing it would simultaneously hold three meanings - the concept of wind itself, the name of the wind, as well as the first sound of its name. Exactly like the associative linguistic trinity explained earlier, the ability - unique to humans - to be able to instantaneously associate an image of an animal, its pictograph, with the sound it makes, as well as with its name - slightly different, but not by much.
This tension, between abstraction and reality that exists as soon as symbols begin to build their associative arrows, was the very first simulation and simulacra our brains experienced. Alphabets often formalized these associative trinities, but any sort of pictograph or ideograph involves building a symbolic reality that’s unknown to our simian brethren, and likely captured by something called the default-mode network.
This is the term used to describe the brain while it’s idling and not focused on any specific task or stimuli, which engages the frontal default-mode network, or when you’re doing some pondering during self-directed thought, which engages it in a region further back. Non-human primates appear to have something akin to a default-mode network, however in humans these two regions were tightly-connected while they weren’t in non-human primates. This would’ve been “necessary for flexible disengagement from various external distracting events,” and would’ve been necessary while focusing on the associative arrows formed by written glyphs and pondering their meaning.
Written language and all symbology guides humanity into a state of continual abstraction that forces our consciousness to constantly evaluate the visual input being received to see whether each discrete symbol signifies a concept or a sound by searching inside of our memory and experiences. Plus often even once that’s established, overlapping meanings and pronunciations can introduce fractal layers of abstraction, within the puns and metaphors of each language.
And although other animals can be taught direct pictographic symbolism, humans alone are capable of forming associative trinities and give birth to the written word, and all the abstract worlds, ideologies, and possibilities this can create.
So perhaps this inevitable abstraction is part of why the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, who was often depicted holding a staff, was warned by another god after he invented writing: “You’re offering students pretend wisdom, not truth.” A sentiment perhaps echoed at the start of the Book of Genesis, as humanity is warned against listening to the whispers of a snake, because the knowledge they reveal would forever change our place in Paradise.
Because after all, all these millennia later, we do not really know the truth of Thoth’s Egyptian hieroglyphics, nor is there any one accepted interpretation to that interaction in the Old Testament. We can assign modern names and concepts to what we find and try and spackle our meanings over their carvings, but without an actual ancient Egyptian - or Yahweh himself - around to explain and interpret what we’re reading: Pretend wisdom really is a far better description for what we know about these ancient civilizations than Truth.
And as humanity first propagated these early and inherently a little bit ambiguous writing systems, this same associative trinity was found in the early Chinese logographic alphabet as well as all the way over in the Americas, where the Mayans used a similar system, but one with an even more esoteric twist. Because in the Mayan syllabary, something of a proto-alphabet where entire syllables were represented instead of discrete phonemes, usually the last vowely phoneme of a given word would be indicated in writing, but speakers would know when it was silent.
For example, the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan can still be found written on the Mexican flag if you know where to look: Referring back to the ancient cosmological struggle between light and darkness, the name Tenochtitlan more literally means “the place of the prickly pear cactus,” and can still be found written on the Mexican flag as the bottom of their coat-of-arms - prickly pictographs that became an alphabet preserved as a symbol on a flag.
You might not have noticed the cacti because of the much more dramatic symbol of an eagle consuming a snake that takes center-stage, the cosmic symbol of the struggle between light and darkness that the Aztec people had been waiting to find before settling down - but that’s probably for good reason given how ubiquitous that particular symbol seems to be.
And so just like the convergent emergence of the earlier eras of tool-making technology all across the globe, human civilizations convergently produced different but similar writing systems wherever we’ve found ourselves, and nearly all alphabets initially shared a sense of the mystical - for reasons both practical and neurological alike.
And in the case of Hebrew’s Abjad Alphabet, where words could originally only ever be three letters long, visual cognates abound - forcing the reader to continually hold an additional layer of several different possible meanings in their heads at once. One of the more curious of these examples involves the tripartite roots for the word “snake,” or nâ-châ-sh in Hebrew. Since as far as linguists can tell, the original meanings of those three sounds strung together into a word was a conglomeration linked to a specific sound, not a physical object.
The first primitive meaning ties directly to snakes and is likely why that root became a noun representing them, to hiss. However this wasn’t just your typical adapted onomatopoeia, since the hissing of nâ-châ-sh also shares a tripartite root with the word for whispering spells, or giving a prognostication of the future. And so to the ancient Israelites and others who learned Hebrew and heard or later read this story, Aaron and the Pharaoh were doing much more than having their magical pets fight each other - they were signaling the beginning of a magical duel, pitting their incantations against each other in a battle that would shape the course all humanity would eventually find ourselves on.
In modern academic study we might say that the Hebrew word for snake has a strong connotation of magic and witchcraft, and to be fair that’s also the case in English and many other languages all across the world as well. However in the case of Hebrew and snakes, when the noun for snake is drawn from a verb whose root can also mean whispering magic and would’ve been indistinguishable and written with exactly the same three letters - the association goes far beyond the simple J.K. Rowling connotation.
Although the Hebrew words for “snake” and “whisper a spell” are spelled the same but pronounced with slightly differently voweling, the underlying connection would still be obviously apparent even to listeners. And they would be invoking the kind of borderline forbidden power that many cultures associate with snakes in this context, as “throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible, both nâchash and nachash are heavily condemned and grouped with other evils such as child sacrifice and wizardry.”
And it turns out that the tripartite nâ-châ-sh root has a third meaning as well which adds even more depth to the relationship - but that final definition won’t soothe your curiosity just yet. But you’re listening, aren’t you? You think you’re ready to hear the whispers of the gods, guiding you to a destiny that’s hidden within deep down within the ancient mysteries and symbols of the past.
Tellingly, we’re told that after Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, it apparently doesn’t stay in that form since the Old Testament says it was in fact Aaron’s staff that consumed all the other staffs - the word for “snake” isn’t used when the actual eating occurs in the text, it is written that Aaron’s staff consumes the others. But of course here the word “staff” means much more than just a walking-stick here, and is tied directly into the concept of the Axis Mundi, the intersection of the heavens and the earth and the poles around which celestial bodies spin.
Because the point Yahweh was about to make wasn’t about slithering serpents, sending Moses and Aaron to challenge the Pharaoh’s vast sprawling Egyptian empire was about reminding all humanity that there are ancient warnings which are meant to be eternal - never to be ignored. Because the consequences when they are, when humanity mucks around with the stuff that makes life itself, the door becomes opened for the Angel of Death to come for us all.
However for now it’s enough to understand that Exodus’s penultimate chapter begins with a linguistic incantation of sorts. To the modern reader it just seems like another one of the Old Testament's odd esoteric moments, and yet to the ancient Israelites consuming the story in its original Hebrew script - the meaning is abundantly clear, especially given the snake’s nearly universal association with magical forces.
But the Ten Plagues of Egypt need context of their own, since it’s a story that can’t be fully understood without proper cultural context. This confusion around precise cultural context appears frequently throughout the Old Testament, in moments that seem to be more about witchcraft than the Holy Spirit, as staffs transform into snakes and back, visions of future calamity are augured from another’s dreams, golden bulls are worshipped, and the fates of civilizations appear across the walls of dinner-halls.
Although the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah makes an attempt to find meaning in many of these passages, a fairly complete guide already exists. Bad news is, no one left alive today will ever be able to fully appreciate the wisdom contained in the Sefer Yetzirah - the ancient Israelites' Book of Formation, thought to be recorded directly by Abraham’s hand in the earliest days of the Hebrew people.
However Jewish lore claims that its origins can be traced all the way back to Adam, who then passed it along to Noah, who then taught it to the ancient patriarch of all three Peoples of the Book. The Sefer Yetzirah contains many of the same elements that many associate with the Kabbalah, such as the idea that power can be imbued from the text itself - especially in the form of the ten sefirot whose unity reveals the nature of all creation and divinity, as well as the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which are said to be connected directly to Abraham’s tongue, and then on to everything else in the universe.
And within this stygian mystical codex, once again we find one of humanity’s most powerful and ancient forces: The constellation Draco, the oldest and most prolific snake of all, forever circling the Earth’s elliptical orbit. After all, the pages of the Sefer Yetzirah tell us that: “Teli the Dragon is above the Universe like a king upon his throne, the Earth is like a king traveling across his lands, and the Heart of man is like a king at war … Happiness is reserved for the just, and misery for the wicked ones."
But the ancient Hebrew word used for “dragon” here isn’t serpent or snake, this beast is not described as just another nâ-châ-sh. Instead the word is Teli is used, and although its root is related to “to hang,” this term is translated in context roughly as a “curled one” who is described as ruling over all the world. And so it’s widely assumed that this refers to our old friend, the constellation Draco, dangling from the ouroboros of eternity high above the Roof of the World.
However instead of Teli, the word early Hebrew writers chose for this symbol in most of their other texts was the Arabic name al-Jaz’har, likely derived from juz’hur, the Persian word for knot, or node - a point around which rotation occurs.
So it is this rotational astronomical plane that leads to Draco’s association with the celestial Axis Mundi that guides the entire Zodiac in its journey around the eons - not the orbital plane we spin our days away on every 24 hours that’s stably canted at 23.5 degrees from our plane of annual rotation around the sun, but instead the unsteady celestial axis of rotation which causes the procession of the Zodiac to slowly makes it’s trip around this Axis Mundi once every 25,000 years or so, as this celestial axis of rotation slowly wobbles like an off-balance top - creating the pole Draco will forever be coiled around as he watches from the ouroboros of our fates.
And so Aaron’s staff’s metamorphosis was meant to symbolize much more than just a serpent or a simple whispered spell, it was signaling that Yahweh would be making the upcoming points by sundering the very heavens - what was coming would make the entire universe seem like it was thrown off kilter. Because it would be, thrown off the exploitative and predatory axis that allowed the massive empires of the past to exist, where slavery was a simple fact of life and oppression ruled over compassion.
Lucky for us, or at least those of us who make it, turns out that there’s good reason to believe that the story of Exodus captures at least in part actual events of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, the cataclysmic civilizational catabolism that may have helped change the story of Western consciousness forever.
And so given how much processing symbols and our alphabets tell us about how impressionable our brains are to written visual input, and how dependent they are on the context they’re surrounded with just to interpret the simplest forms of symbolism - the letters which make up the sounds that need friends to gather together to become ideas - maybe it won’t come as a surprise to learn that being prompted with a story about cleaning dirty clothes will make it much more likely for you to complete the puzzles W __ __ H and S __ __ P as W A S H and S O A P, as opposed to W I S H or S O U P.
However maybe it’s at least a small surprise to learn that a story about betraying a friend, a “dirty deed,” will have the exact same effect on your word completion as a story about literal filth.
This contextual prompting effect is known as priming, and its implications for human behavior and our own free will go far beyond simple stories and word choice. Priming can escape the page, as students who were asked to unscramble sentences that included words like forgetful, Florida, bald, gray and wrinkle in them and then asked to walk down a hall to another room ended up walking significantly slower than students who weren’t primed with words associated with the elderly, even though the sentences never actually had the word old or any reference to speed in them – only words that would create a subconscious association with oldness.
And, maybe even more surprisingly, the converse held true as well: when instructed to first walk at one-third their natural rate, a speed more suitable for a grandparent, students then recognized words like forgetful, old, and lonely much more readily, even though their walking instructions were explicitly about speed – not age.
So once again, just as was the case with mirror neurons subconsciously priming you to mimic whatever actions are happening around you, “you have been introduced to the stranger in you, which may be in control of much of what you do, although you rarely have a glimpse of it.” Turns out, each and everyone one of us has been hearing voices all along.
And this stranger “contains the model of the world that instantly evaluates events as normal or surprising,” reflexively producing a web of subconscious associations following every stimulus since it’s “the source of your rapid and often precise intuitive judgments. And it does most of this without our conscious awareness of its activities.” Or as Dr. Daniel Kahneman explains while channeling Dr. Victor Frankenstein:
You did not will it and you could not stop it … ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain. The essential feature of this complex set of mental events is its coherence. Each element is connected, and each supports and strengthens the others.
The word evokes memories, which evoke emotions, which in turn evoke facial expressions and other reactions … and the feelings in turn reinforce compatible ideas. All this happens quickly and all at once, yielding a self-reinforcing pattern of cognitive, emotional, and physical responses that is both diverse and integrated. Cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain … you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.
And not only does this insidious stranger hold sway over practical matters, he also reaches into our dreams to tinker with our very sense of good and bad, of right and wrong. Because maybe most tellingly, our values can change when there are infectious agents around.
Students asked to ponder morally hazy behavior – from relatively innocuous things like fudging a resume or returning a lost wallet, to more unpalatable decisions like unethical journalism or cannibalizing fellow plane crash survivors – were far more harsh with their moral judgments when seated around food stains or chewed-up pens, or when exposed to fart spray, which is exactly what it sounds like.
When you’re exposed to possible sources of contagion you’ll also be harsher when evaluating behavior that isn’t undoubtedly immoral but just doesn’t sit right, and more negatively judge a man who, for instance, fornicates on his grandmother’s bed – not while she’s there, just while housesitting for her. After disgust’s been elicited you’ll become “more likely to endorse Biblical truth than those not subjected to the polluted air.” Placing someone next to a hand-sanitizer dispenser will make their moral, fiscal, and social opinions more conservative.
And this phenomenon applies directly to our criminal-justice system as well, as “a study of people serving as mock jurors found that those highly prone to disgust were most inclined to judge ambiguous evidence as proof of criminal wrongdoing, to impose stiffer sentences, and to see the suspect as wicked.” But maybe most disconcertingly, this same study was also replicated with law students, police cadets, and veteran forensic experts.
But even if these socio-judicial arguments don’t convince you, the prevailing theory is that sex originally evolved on the unicellular level so many billions of years ago as a way to outwit pathogens: It was only by mixing and matching chromosomes to form a sort of variegated genetic camouflage that the very first life on Earth was able to stay one step ahead of the viruses and bacteria set on killing them.
And so we’ve learned that “free will” isn’t an accurate depiction of the neurobiological situation at all, and in fact our brains are wired to imagine us mimicking what we see around us almost all-at-once. Our will is exercised not in a vacuum - but instead when we suppress the instinct to mirror the behavior we see all around us, and decide against all but one of the options the stranger of our subconscious dreams presents us with.
However, not only are our unconscious minds constantly and continuously forcing us to imagine we’re mindless drones mimicking whatever behavior we see occurring all around us, additionally there are immunological forces outside our control influencing us as well. And it turns out, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the effect contagious diseases have had across our societies, from the Spanish Flu and the Black Death drastically altering the world’s demographics, to the reality that it was infectious diseases, not violence, that killed off an estimated 90% of Native Americans after Europeans arrived.
Although the European contamination of the Americas are the best example of this sort of accidental immunological genocide in recent history, the folklore shared by every culture on earth warns of the mysterious and dangerous Other that’s manifested as monsters and other mythical threats often depicted as diseased creatures: pock-marked boogiemen, decaying zombies, slavering werewolves, pale and sickly vampires.
There’s even a theory that culture itself and all the behaviors it encompasses “originated as a behavioral adaptation to an epidemic-filled past.” So from spicing our foods and avoiding outsiders to showing affection to burying the dead – there may not be a single culture touchstone left unmarred by immunology’s influence. And these immune-related behaviors “once developed, stick around because the people who indulge in them are less vulnerable to infectious diseases. The behaviors, passed down through the generations, become entrenched.”
And when they do, usually they become ensconced in our societies as religious ceremony, the first glimmers of which we’ve already witnessed slapped into eternity on ancient caves - depicting the eternal struggles of the Hunt and the Feast, the first organized activities our societies coordinated together as they carved their survival out of the unwelcoming and untamed wilderness all around them.
But from here, our ceremonies became far more complicated and the behaviors much less obviously linked to practical matters of survival, and once they became entrenched within organized religions, their links to our ancient immunological past and the best friends who guided us past the divine madness of the gods have largely been lost on the streets civilization offered us.
Lost, at least, until now.