Notes: The origins of prophecy

Photo courtesy British Museum (Creative Commons license)

In the British Museum, there is a stunning example of a duho, a type of chair used by the chieftains of the Taino people in the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus himself was offered the honor of sitting in one of these, on the island he later named Hispaniola (now called Haiti, then called Quiqueya). Columbus took his seat at the beginning of a century that saw the Taino people enslaved, oppressed, and almost completely extinguished by European colonization and disease.

But the duho represents much more than just a seat of political power or the representation of a ritual spirit (in this case, a dog-like figure with golden eyes, named Opigielguouiran). The duho was a doorway to the future.

The Taino, like many peoples throughout pre-history, used hallucinogenic drugs and ritual to enter another state of reality where they could commune with the gods and seek information about the future that was vital to them.

Seated on a duho, high on snuff made from cohoba bark, the Taino leaders — who were both male and female — could see what was coming and decide what to do: plant crops, prepare for a hurricane, go to war. Unfortunately, these seer-chieftains had not been able to foretell the arrival of the Spanish, and therefore could not prevent the collapse of their own civilization.

The duho is a powerful reminder not just of this one people, and this one decisive moment in world history. It stands, symbolically, for an enormous variety of pre-modern traditions in the practice of prophecy. For prophecy is a seat of power.

Human civilization was divided into several great tracks of development many thousands of years ago — African, Eurasian,  Australasian and American. Some of these peoples remained quite isolated from each other over many millennia, separated by vast seas and continental distances. And yet nearly all of them, based on the archaeological and anthropological evidence, had developed methods of prophecy: techniques, often supported by technologies, for peering into the future.

Ancient prophets were not always high on hallucinogenic chemicals: they could also achieve a state of ecstatic clairvoyance through fasting, asceticism, prayer, ritual, meditation, and arduous quests into the natural world. Some were simply gifted from birth with “second sight”, the power of seeing something that is otherwise invisible. People with second sight might see (or sense) non-human spirits, the ghosts of human ancestors, or events happening at a great distance. When second sight gives them knowledge of future events, we call it “precognition” — a word that literally means, “to know in advance.”

The capacity for prophecy was one of the most prized skills in the ancient world, equivalent in importance to the skills of war, conquest, and political leadership. We know this because many esteemed prophets of old are just as famous today as the kings and conquerors they served (or sometimes chastised and berated). Several of the world’s great religions rest on a foundation laid by ancient prophets, who not only foretold the future, but also adjudicated right and wrong behavior as well as belief.

Indeed, it was not uncommon for these two roles — prophet and ruler — to be merged, in one function. Anyone who can predict the future more accurately than others, whether through supernatural means or by exercising superior observation and deduction skills, can accumulate great power. That statement remains true today: for example, a skilled financial observer can make a fortune by observing and acting on economic signs and portents that other investors miss. (George Soros, to pick just one modern illustration, became one of the richest and most powerful people in the world by accurately predicting changes in currency exchange rates, among other insights.)

That ancient prophets and prophecies are so deeply embedded in today’s religious practice is evidence of the massive power of future-thinking. For many people, the way ancient prophets thought about the future still provides the basis for their entire contemporary way of life.

A modern, secular worldview would dismiss supernatural prophecy — foreknowledge of the future, gained by means other than scientific observation and prediction — out of hand. The universe simply does not work that way: direct observation of the future is impossible for human observers (except in science-fiction). So why has prophecy been so essential, and so overwhelmingly powerful, throughout so many millennia of human experience, right up to the present day?

Fear is a very powerful emotion. As anyone who watches a horror movie knows, the frightened anticipation of meeting a monster is more uncomfortable than the actual moment of that monster’s appearance. However we choose to do future-thinking — whether it is by ascribing supernatural meaning to natural events, seeking out drug-induced hallucinations, praying intensively to the divine, or studying phenomena for patterns that repeat and can therefore be predicted — we do it to reduce uncertainty and anxiety, danger and risk.

Ancient prophets (and modern ones as well) usually return from their journeys into the future with instructions. If we do things in this certain way, if we align our beliefs and ethical principles according to these guidelines, we will be safe and we will prosper.

If we do not, all is lost.

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