Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein

Real science is always hard to summarize. This book by Ioan Couliano is a book like that. I read the whole thing, but to be honest the most fascinating parts were the introduction and the conclusion. The rest helped flesh it out, but it did get a bit boring.

Still, Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein is an amazing book: starting with the study of the fourth dimension, moving on to shamanism (a constant theme), Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Taoist China, Buddhism, Iran, Greece, Jewish Mysticism, India to the interplanetary visions of Plotinus, Marsilio Ficino and Dante.

Aside from the introduction (amply quoted below), the part that fascinated me most was the connection of Plato and other early Greek philosophers with shamanism. But don’t worry – the connection is elsewhere too…

This book is truly a unique look into religious experiences.

From the foreword by Lawrence E. Sulliven

Director, Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University

(p. viii) Couliano brings to light an observation that hides in plain sight: the living, who seldom reside in these other worlds, pay inordinate attention to the details of these places in which they do not precisely belong.

(p. xii) For Couliano, the multiplicity of worlds seems to be an epistemological necessity, a function of the way the mind works in space. The mind functions, after all, within the space created by the mind. The relationship of mind and space is, therefore, inherently paradoxical and open to many ever-unfolding historical solutions. But no solution can be final. However advanced our knowledge of the surrounding world, the space of the inner mind expands beyond it. That is why, in his view, “there is no end to our imagining more space.” We imagine more dimensions than the physical universe furnishes. At stake is the nature of imagination, the character of images, and the function of symbols in shaping reality.

[See p. 9 for Couliano’s version of these rules]

(p. xiii) [C]ultural traditions are the outcome of a limited set of rules, such as “There is another world”; “The other world is located in heaven”; “There is body and soul”; and “The body dies, the soul goes to the other world.” […] Across a countably infinite period of time, Couliano seems to argue, such rules produce similar results in the minds of human beings. By thus turning historicism on its head, does he imply the existence of a universal system of mind that governs perception and interferes with the physical world?

Psychological approaches to otherworldly journeys and visions

Couliano quotes

(p. 3) The common denominator of the many psychological approaches to the problem of otherworldly journeys and visions is that all of them agree on one fact, and probably one fact only: that the explored universes are mental universes. In other words, their reality is in the mind of the explorer. Unfortunately, no psychological approach seems able to provide sufficient insight into what the mind really is, and especially into what and where the space of the mind is. Cognitive science, which is young, is striving to obtain some answers to these basic questions. The location and properties of our “mind space” are probably the most challenging riddles human beings have been confronted with since ancient times; and, after two dark centuries of positivism have tried to explain them away as fictitious, they have come back more powerfully than ever before with the dawn of cybernetics and computers.

(p. 4) Inside our minds there is no place where dreams and ASC could not take us, yet psychologists say that what we experience is intimately connected either with our individual experience, or with what was already present in our mind at the time of our birth. All explanations – be they in terms of repression of personal sexual desires and impulses or in terms of the collective unconscious – are controversial because they are based on untestible hypotheses, and ultimately they are inadequate, for they completely ignore the question of what the mind is. All the vague talk about “unconscious” and “psyche” that psychoanalysis has given us is the modern equivalent of shamanistic performances or the witch’s trip through the air on a broomstick. In all such cases we are dealing with procedures and professional interpretations that are valid only as long s we share the premises of the shaman or the witch. Yet the universal validity of their explanations is highly questionable. We cannot actually understand, for example, what dreams are, if we cannot answer such basic questions as where dreams and visions take place, what dreams are made of, and the like.

Abreviations and terminology used in this book

ASC – Altered State of Concsiousness, like dreams, visions, trances etc.

Intertextuality – A reference to the fact that every book, every text, every human expression uses images, words, themes etc. from previous human ‘texts’. Texts should be taken widely, especially in this book. Couliano posits that the shape visions take are shaped in part by the way pre-historic shamans and witches interpreted their experiences. These people did not have writing.

OBE – Out of Body Experience

Visions as a literary genre

Ioan P. Culianu quote

(p. 7) If on the one hand otherworldly journeys should not be too lightly dismissed as being mere products of imagination, one the other they can undeniably be envisioned as a literary genre. This does not necessarily mean that they belong to the realm of pure fiction. Intertextuality is a widespread phenomenon that can be in part explained by our mental tendency to cast every new experience in old expressive molds.

Shamanism as a universal source for visions

Ioan Couliano quotes

This is where Couliano becomes positively revolutionary:

(p. 8) Yet, with the help of ethnosemiotics, we can establish that human beings had beliefs concerning other worlds long before they could write. Ethnosemiotics analyzes systems of signs without regard to their time setting. It can thus be establish – and as a matter of fact it has – that Paleosiberian cave paintings already show all the traits of a developed shamanistic complex as we still find them displayed by some Siberian shamans.

(p. 9) The Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg (see chapter 2, below), who studied European witchcraft for twenty-five years, came to the conclusion that witchcraft was still practiced in certain zones of eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century as a direct derivative of shamanism. Beliefs recorded in Paleosiberian caves around 1000 B.C.E. were still valid less than a hundred years ago. How can we explain such amazing continuity?

Couliano actually doesn’t go quite as far as I do here. He doesn’t say shamanism is a universal source, though he does show shamanism as not just continuous in time (from 1000 B.C. to the 19th century), but also in far apart places like Australia, South America, Africa and of course Siberia.

As a scientist – they have to be conservative – his conclusion is simpler: mental rules, culturally transmitted, shape the way people interpret their experience. In this case that way of interpreting shows continuity in time and space that is unparalleled in culture studies. He goes so far as to deny that genetic transmission or a collective unconscious have anything to do with it (p. 9).