Bureaucratic Mummies

1491-coverI’m currently reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. If you haven’t read it, it’s absolutely breathtaking. It not only shatters the hoary belief in a sparsely populated pre-Columbian America, but also demonstrates that the “New World” stumbled upon by Columbus and subsequent Europeans was anything but “new.” State-of-the art research suggests, as Mann puts it, that “people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.” Indeed, the Peruvian ruins of Aspero, currently under excavation, may turn out to be the site of “the world’s oldest city—the place where human civilization began.” Think about that for a minute!

One passage from Mann’s book that especially fascinates me has to do with Inka mummies:

When the Inka [ruler] died his panaqa [royal lineage] mummified his body. Because the Inka was believed to be an immortal deity, his mummy was treated, logically enough, as if it were still living. Soon after arriving in Qosqo, Pizarro’s companion Miguel Estete saw a parade of defunct emperors. They were brought out on litters, “seated on their thrones and surrounded by pages and women with flywhisks in their hands, who ministered to them with as much respect as if they had been alive.”

“Logically enough,” indeed. And it seems that these mummified emperors were hardly “defunct”:

… [A]s Pedro Pizarro [cousin of conquistador Francisco Pizarro] realized, “the greater part of the people, treasure, expenses, and vices … were under the control of the dead.” The mummies spoke through female mediums who represented the panaqa’s surviving courtiers or their descendants. With almost a dozen immortal emperors jostling for position.… Inka society had a serious mummy problem.

In today’s parlance, it was government gridlock at its most exasperating. Worst of all, the mummies actually quarreled with one another, promoting different claimants to the Inka throne and provoking actual civil wars. What on earth was going on in such a culture? The possibilities seem stark:

  • The Inka’s bureaucracy of mummies represented nothing more than superstitious ancestor-worship gotten way out of hand.
  • “Talking mummies” were simply an elaborate con devised by an arrogant ruling class to lord it over a gullible populace.

Perhaps I’m just not cynical enough to accept these scenarios, which strike me as unworthy of what was then one of the most advanced cultures on the planet. And it doesn’t seem to me that Mann is settling for them either. A third possibility strikes me as more plausible:

  • The minds of the Inka were different from our own.

What I mean to suggest—“logically enough”—is that the mummies were heard to speak, and that they actually did wield civic authority; superstition, obfuscation, and gullibility had nothing to do with the issue.

I’m sure that the late psychologist Julian Jaynes, author of the extraordinary 1979 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, would have much of interest to say about Inka mummies. I suspect that he would have found in their authority vestiges of the bicameral mind—a mentality that, according to Jaynes, preceded modern consciousness. Because people of ancient civilizations lacked a centralized, self-reflective sense of identity, they relied on auditory hallucinations to direct their decisions. These hallucinations were the original “gods.”

This idea has always been controversial, to say the least—as have Jaynes’s other stunning hypotheses about language, hypnosis, schizophrenia, literature, human history, and cognition in general. But ongoing discoveries in archeology, anthropology, and neuroscience seem to support Jaynesian thinking more and more, as editor Marcel Kuijsten reveals in his invaluable 2006 anthology Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited.

When Pat and I discovered Jaynes’s Origin of Consciousness back in the 1980s, it thoroughly blew our minds. I suspect that every single novel we’ve written together has reflected Jaynes’s ideas in some way. This is especially true of our latest book, Mayan Interface, which is at least partly a rumination on the “collapse” of the Classic Maya, the end of an age of magnificent monuments to gods and father-mothers. Why did it happen? One astute Amazon.com reviewer stated one of our story’s overarching questions quite nicely: “When God or gods fail, is it the fault of the deity or the worshipers?”

The question pertains to the bureaucratic mummies of the Inka, the Mayan collapse, and the precarious state of our own civilization—and it is much more than a question of belief. Mayan Interface opens with a quote from Morris Berman’s book Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West:

Certain cognitive shifts can occur in a civilization that are so profound that there seems to be almost no mental continuity between one epoch and the next.… It is not merely a question of conflicting theories that is at issue here; rather, what is actually seen, felt, and experienced in the world is radically different.

What Pat and I seek to explore in Mayan Interface is the ever-evolving, ever-changing quality of being human. We put no stock in the current school of thought that holds human nature to be fixed and unchanging. Oscar Wilde expressed our viewpoint perfectly in his great 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

Oscar_Wilde_by_Napoleon_Sarony_(1821-1896)_Number_18_b.jpegThe only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development.

3 comments on “Bureaucratic Mummies

  1. I really enjoyed this thoughtful exploration of ideas, and realise of course that you’ve only been able to touch on these themes… looks like more reading ahead for this reader!
    Fascinating blog, thank you

  2. […] fairly obsessed with the ideas of the late psychologist Julian Jaynes. If you’ve been following these posts, I’m sure you’ve noticed. Just about everything that Pat and I write has been influenced by his […]

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