Thursday, March 17, 2016

Star*Ships Have Landed: Interview with Gordon White

Gordon White has written a foundational text for the new millennium. Star*Ships is nothing less than a long-overdue door kicking in the halls of academic history and anthropology. But what is this book about and how did it come to be, you may ask?

To answer your questions I badgered the man incessantly until he finally gave in and told us what Star*Ships is all about and why you need to rush on over to Scarlet Imprint's website and pick up a copy... 

Gordon, give us a bit a your background as a media maven, bon vivant and all-around international man of mystery.

Well, I’m born and raised Australian, although with strong family connections to Melanesia and Polynesia on my father’s side, so much of my holidays growing up were spent in and around the Pacific. After graduating with an extremely useful film degree (ha!), I helped set up Sydney’s first Virgin Megastore… back in the days when people actually bought CDs and DVDs. (My interest in ancient history runs deep.)

Then it was off to New Zealand for about six years, then I arrived in London about seven or eight years ago. Across both countries I’ve worked for companies such as MySpace (ancient history!), Discovery Channel, BBC Worldwide, Yelp, Time Out and so on. Completely by accident, this has meant I have seen a lot more of Europe than I had hoped or dreamed to. It’s also freed up my leave to go crawling around in its Neolithic corners, as minibreaks to Hamburg or Paris began to feel a bit too much like work.

Tell us what Star*Ships is and why we need to read it now. I mean tell us now.

Star*Ships traces the origins of the western magical tradition back to where I suspect they first arose. The findings suggest western magic is both far older and far odder than is commonly understood. 

As to why it should be read now, the crisis in materialist readings of history has led to an algal bloom of alternate historical narratives that are built on exceedingly naive interpretations of the data. The materialist reading is clearly wrong and Star*Ships is my attempt to correct or reset alternative readings so that we can begin further explorations. If you haven’t glanced at early human prehistory since high school then you are probably unaware it is a Brand New Day, the implications of which for how we view ourselves are pretty astounding.

Who are the Spirits and what is their history?

The ‘Spirits’ are a catch all term commonly used among grimoiric practitioners as gods, angels, faeries, demons, hobgoblins, elementals, elves, puckel-men, banshees, intelligences, kings and presumably pokemon becomes quite a mouthful when said a few times over. Especially when liquor is involved, which it usually is.

So ‘the Spirits’ is the term I use for whatever the ecosystem of being(s) behind the one-way mirror of observable reality is called. As to their history, an examination of the star lore, artistic expression and archaeology of our palaeolithic ancestors presents some pretty compelling alignments to the practices, beliefs and ‘allies’ that coalesced into a western magic in Alexandria and the eastern Mediterranean during the last days of the Classical Age.

This not only suggests that we have been dealing with a similar constellation of spirit allies for similar purposes for millennia longer than we previously believed, but that this constellation was represented by actual constellations that would be recognisable to modern day astronomers and astrologers.

As to why these spirits would be associated with, or present themselves as, the stars is hugely intriguing given the great, stonking question marks around human origins.

This book has been gestating for quite some time. When did it first arise in your absinthe-fueled brain and what drove you to pursue such an idiosyncratic vision?

No fucking idea is the most honest answer. I’ve always been a history nerd, even as a kid. But I guess I probably realised there is something important here while shooting a documentary on the megalithic city of Nan Madol in Micronesia, while still at university. It’s a prismatic basalt city of enormous size built out on a reef and mangrove swamp off the island of Pohnpei. There aren’t cranes on the island today that can lift some of the largest basalt logs, which all came from the other side of a very mountainous island.

It was then that I knew a materialist view of history is nothing but a wish, stapled to a frisbee, flung over a rainbow. Like, I am embarrassed for them at this point.

You've done a lot of actual research on this book, rather than all-night Red Bull 'n' Google sessions. Tell us about some of the legwork you've put into this book, you post-postmodern gumshoe.

Well, there’s that documentary I just mentioned. There is also the days and weeks I have spent dragging my long-suffering partner through muddy fields, into barrows, around various western European megalithic sites, waving my astronomy-app-enabled phone around like a lunatic.

Then there is the cracking open of actual books. I’m fortunate to have the British Library a mere tube ride away, although it didn’t fill like fortune as I sat in their reading rooms for days and days, pouring my savings into their absurdly expensive photocopiers.

Unfortunately there is no getting around this. Academic publishing makes the Freemasons or the Vatican appear like beacons of openness and rational communication. It is expensive, cliquey and cultish for the most part. Both the good and the bad are to be found there, and it never makes it onto the wider internet because it is all behind paywalls or in $300 books that nobody reads. So if you want to say something new, and I did, then the mountain goes to Mohammed. And comes back very poor.

You based a lot of your theories on a landmark study on mythology that argues that there are Ur-myths that date back tens of thousands of years. Tell us about this and how you incorporated it into your own theorizing.

A few years ago, a Harvard Indologist, Dr Michael Witzel, published a book called The Origins of the World’s Mythologies in which, after a lifetime in the field, he suggests that the similarities found across the planet’s stories and belief systems are best explained by their having common origin(s).

It’s important to realise that the academic use of comparison was not abandoned because it was wrong, but because it came under assault from poststructuralism, postcolonialism and so on. It became unfashionable. But it not only works, it is the most parsimonious explanation for the shared motifs across time and space.

Of course, it’s not only unfashionable now, it’s downright dangerous, because Witzel’s work winds the clock back tens of thousands of years before Sumeria. This accords well with recent archaeological evidence from places such as Gunung Padang in Indonesia and implies that many of our legends to do with a culture from a time before The Flood may have some basis in reality. Again, this has been taken as fact for most of recorded history and was only declared wrong by fiat in the last century or so. It appears that declaration itself was wrong.

Myths tend to morph and/or die over time. How can we know with confidence exactly how old myths are if they aren't written down?

I’m not convinced that they do. Mythology is highly conserved across time and space, at least at a deep structural level. The idea that mythology cannot represent actual history arose at the same time as the fiat declaration that there was no Flood.

But the smoking gun for the notion that indigenous mythologies can accurately record real historic and climatic effects was found recently in Australia, following an examination of the native Tasmanians’ stories of when their island was cut off from the mainland at the end of the Ice Age. When the story was first recorded by British colonialists, there was no conception of an Ice Age or a global sea level flood. The University of New South Wales is currently doing amazing work in matching Australia’s First Nations stories to other ancient astronomical events such as meteor impacts.

Early cultures had a much more nuanced understanding of narrative and identity. Very often these stories were performatively recorded in songs and or dances which are scientifically acknowledged aides-mémoire. We are basically left with casual racism as the only reason not to take indigenous cultures at their word… at least as starting points. All claims require additional supporting data.

You talk about the migration out of Africa by what for the time was a rather large group of people. Why do we think they left Africa, given there's a devil of a lot of Africa to leave?

It’s anybody’s guess. The research in Star*Ships shows -indeed this is the whole point- that our early ancestors had the same inner or mental capacities that we have today. So a simple answer would be the human interest in exploration. A less simple answer would be where that inspiration comes from. I surmise ‘the Spirits’ were involved in this in some way.

Given that many premodern cultures tend to settle for very, very long periods of time, what drove these ancient peoples to wander so afield?

This is location dependent. In the Pacific for instance, the biosphere doesn’t support that many humans as there isn’t much land and it’s not great for growing things. So you end up with family groups -one brother and his wives- heading off for points unknown once the other brother inherits from his father. I will bet actual money that the very common ‘two warring brothers’ motif -as is found in the story of Cain and Abel- is a cultural memory of incidents like these…. Probably a very old one given the Cain and Abel story appears to be about the conflict between hunter gatherers (Cain) and farmers (Abel).

Some Chinese scientists are challenging the out of Africa thesis. How would you respond?

China gonna China. This is a country that demolishes its own pyramids by growing pine trees all over them until the root systems collapse the structure, then pretends they aren’t there. They also refuse to acknowledge the entirely verified reality that Taiwan and Southeast Asia are the homes of the earliest rice cultivation. History is political, especially with regimes as absurd as the PRC.

The Out of Africa hypothesis is fairly well corroborated. Millions of dollars have been spent on tens of thousands of mtDNA samples. That said, it’s just the story of our last 70,000 - 90,000 years. A question mark still hangs over where modern humans first arose. It could just as easily have been somewhere in Eurasia at this point.

Orthodox history has Sumer just kind of pop out of the ether, as is. But you argue there were equally sophisticated cultures before it. Who were they and what evidence do we have of them today?

I think Sumeria is probably a lot older than the earliest current archaeological dates suggest, as there would have been settlements along the river that is now the Arabian Gulf. So an earlier culture than Sumeria is probably also just more Sumeria.

As for the Indus Valley, once again politics rears its head, particularly around Partition and the current state of Pakistan. There is a whole lot of land in between island Southeast Asia -where we find the earliest examples of ‘high palaeolithic art’ alongside a veritable zoo of near-human relatives, alongside what is probably an early form of pyramid building- and the cultures of the Indus and Sumer. I think there were a number of very complex cultures in Eurasia prior to the rise of the Sumerians, and the climate shock that was the end of the Ice Age bounced them around like billiard balls. The multicultural nature of the skeletons in the earliest Sumerian tombs suggests a polyglot urban culture, which would be expected.

Just as we find in Egypt, the physical evidence for these cultures is probably underneath the physical evidence for later cultures and either we have not dug down far enough or the original structures have been entirely replaced. It’s important to realise just how difficult and expensive it is to date stonework.

Göbekli Tepi is nice and all, but looks to me of a piece with Stonehenge and such. The stonework and art don't strike me as particularly sophisticated. Why is there such excitement about it today?

Göbekli Tepe was built before we learned to farm, before we even lived in permanent housing. It was built by a collection of hunter gatherer tribes who presumably came together at regular intervals for religious celebration, trade and to arrange marriages. 

The site itself has no water nearby as was not lived in. So Göbekli Tepe’s importance lies not in its physical structure -although I would argue it is more beautiful than stonehenge- but in the inner life it represents. It is the physical proof needed to overturn the absurd materialist idea that religion or philosophy were simply farmers’ hobbies; fictions told to each other once the grain harvest had been brought in. It shows that the quest for meaning, for a richer engagement with what it is to be a human, to be on this earth and generally just alive, is the human story. It also suggests that the inner life of our palaeolithic ancestors was widespread… else why would one tribe build a temple for another tribe’s god?

Now, as to why it is specifically a star temple built on a hill, one that vibrates and appears to encode the descent of two ‘heavenly beings’ in amongst the gathered tribes, in the exact part of the world that gave us every single strain of modern wheat we use today… again, that is a more interesting story. This would presumably have something to do with those ‘Spirits’ we discussed. 

If all the stories of creatures flying around in glowing and/or metal craft and yanking poor slobs into space aren't evidence of alien contact, what do you think they are?

Well, some of them still might be. But a physical ETH solution is inadequate to describe the full range of effects, encounters and responses found throughout history.  A wider phenomenological spectrum is required to account for, at one end, the purely nonphysical: dream visitations, inspiration… through observed psi effects and paranormal capacities… right up the physical components such as levitation, radiation effects, missing time, ‘alien’ implants and so on. It’s important not to shy away from the physical components as not only is there a mountain of evidence for them, but these are entirely predicted in an animist description of the universe: indeed, indigenous societies will flat-out say so.

AAT needs a reboot. Its core mythology has not really been updated for forty years and has not incorporated things we now actually know about human history. The ‘mystery’ has been kicked back quite a bit further, but still remains.

But as to what these things ‘are’... well what’s the difference between a 20 million year old, time-travelling, telepathic alien who can assume physical form if it wants to, and an actual god? The universe is old and even our tiny little neighbourhood looks extremely weird. We should have these discussions based on the best available data, with the awareness that these phenomena are often quite deliberately deceptive. 

This book was written for everyone interested in a deeper understanding of history but especially for those involved in magic and the occult. What do you want them to take away from this book?

For the magically operant, there is something about realising both the practices and the forms that underpin the western tradition go back millennia rather than centuries that just makes the universe taste better. Too often, magicians lurch from new thing to new thing, but Star.Ships is a call to deepen one’s engagement with the existing thing. The goal is not to recreate the cosmology of the builders of Göbekli Tepe, but to recognise the continuity between them and the rituals and enchantments of the Greek Magical Papyri, for instance. Context is king.

What do want the average reader to take away from Star*Ships?

I don’t have average readers. They are all amazing and I love them. But I want the amazing reader to take away an understanding that he or she is playing a much bigger, much older game. And that game is still afoot.

Well, what are you waiting for? Order your copy of Star*Ships today!