Graham Pemberton
9 min readOct 12, 2023

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Are ‘Primitive’, ‘Superstitious’ Beliefs Really So Crazy ?— Some Modern Examples

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This is part of my unpublished book on Astrology, the fourth chapter of part 3. While taking a break from writing new material (see this article), I am using the opportunity to try to complete this project. (For what has preceded please see this list.) Part 3 is not so much about Astrology itself, rather the implications if there is any truth in it. In the previous article I explored the thinking of ancient and indigenous peoples, showing that they had highly sophisticated spiritual and religious worldviews, contrary to what the modern ‘scientific’ worldview would have us believe. In this following chapter I give modern examples of what some of these ancient people believed, what is usually dismissed nowadays as superstition.

chapter 22: SPIRITS

One of the reasons why modern people find it so easy to dismiss Astrology is that it is associated with all kinds of other apparently nonsensical beliefs. The manifesto in the Humanist magazine (discussed in chapter 1) expressed the idea thus: “In ancient times people believed in the predictions and advice of astrologers because astrology was part and parcel of their magical world view. They looked upon celestial objects as abodes or omens of the gods and, thus, intimately connected with events here on earth”¹. Eysenck/Nias, the source of that quote, offer an example of this magical worldview: “The Babylonians could hardly have been more superstitious. They saw portents in every kind of phenomena from simple everyday happenings to the state of the entrails of specially sacrificed animals”, concluding therefore that “there seems to be little doubt that superstition was the ultimate mother of astrology”².

In the first quotation the word ‘magical’ is clearly intended to be pejorative. Rather than discussing the merits of a magical world view, or perhaps offering some evidence to disprove it, the writer thinks that this insult puts an end to the discussion. So let us do the work for him and examine some of the magical beliefs of these ‘primitive’ peoples:

1) they saw portents in the entrails of dead animals. However bizarre you find this practice, the idea that it is possible to obtain meaningful psychological information from an apparently random, chaotic image, is still used in modern times in therapeutic contexts in the well known Rorschach test.

2) they were so gullible that they believed in ‘omens’. Because a certain animal passed by as an unfortunate event happened, they believed that the two things were connected, and therefore became worried the next time the animal passed. What nonsense!

What then are we to make of this story told by Carl Jung in his book Synchronicity: “The wife of one of my patients, a man in his fifties, once told me in conversation that, at the deaths of her mother and her grandmother, a number of birds gathered outside the windows of the death-chamber. I had heard similar stories from other people. When her husband’s treatment was nearing its end, his neurosis having been removed, he developed some apparently quite innocuous symptoms which seemed to me, however, to be those of heart-disease. I sent him along to a specialist, who after examining him told me in writing that he could find no cause for anxiety. On the way back from this consultation (with the medical report in his pocket) my patient collapsed in the street. As he was brought home dying, his wife was already in a great state of anxiety because, soon after her husband had gone to the doctor, a whole flock of birds alighted on their house. She naturally remembered the similar incidents that had happened at the death of her own relatives, and feared the worst”³.

You may consider the woman foolish for believing that the birds were an omen of death. She was proved right, however.

3) ‘Primitive’ people also believed that ‘spirits’ were more or less everywhere, inhabiting trees, rocks, streams. Anyone who thinks that this idea is also nonsense would do well to read some of the anecdotes in Lyall Watson’s book The Nature of Things⁴. For example, he tells the story of a family holidaying in Hawaii. They visited Volcanoes National Park, where each of the four children collected souvenir stones from the lava slopes of Mauna Loa, despite having been warned not to by an old man “for fear of offending the goddess” who lived there, an idea which they had scoffed at. When they returned home, the four children suffered several serious accidents including torn cartilage, broken limbs, a shattered arm, and smashed teeth (twice). Then the parents remembered the warning and mailed back the stones to a friend, to be scattered on the peak. The accidents stopped as far as the three youngest children were concerned, but the eldest went on to dislocate his shoulder, gash his thigh and severely scald his hand. “When questioned, he confessed to having kept three of the stones in his room and, once these last stones had been repatriated, the nightmare ended” (p25).

Watson tells a second story about a “large smooth stone over which men are said to have been whipped”, it being all that remained of an old Slave Market. Fourteen people involved in trying to move it on eight separate occasions all died in the attempt, very soon afterwards, or even before (having signed a contract), through means including a poisoning, a lightning strike, and two car-crashes into the stone. Watson comments wryly, “nobody has tried to move this Stone since” (pp 26–27).

Along the same lines, Laurens van der Post tells the following interesting story. He was on a filming expedition into the Kalahari because he wanted to meet the Bushpeople who live there and understand their true nature. There was one area of special importance that he wanted to visit, and he asked a Bushman whose trust he had gained to guide the party there.

“The Bushman called them the Tsodilo Hills — the Slippery Hills, and they were the home of very old and very great spirits. He had heard that European huts were divided into many rooms, and so, he would have me know, was the interior of the Slippery Hills. In each compartment dwelt the master spirit of each animal, bird, insect, and plant that had ever been created. At night the spirits left their rooms in the hills to do their business among the creatures made after their fashion, and the spoor, the hoof-marks left by their nocturnal traffic, could be seen distinct and deep in the rocks of the Slippery Hills. In a place in the central hill lived the master spirit of all the spirits”. He explains that there the ultimate spirit had created the world. (In the italicized phrases he is making an obvious allusion to the archetypes, the ‘master spirits’, that is to say blueprints of all living forms, and to a divine being who is the source of the archetypes. Although, expressed in this way, it sounds like a myth, this is apparently not the case for the narrator says he witnessed these things.)

The Bushman agrees to take him, on two conditions, the second of which is that there should be no shooting or killing of any kind on the way, even for food, until the spirits have given permission for it. “It is a law of the spirits that none must come into the hills with blood on his hand, or resentment in his heart. Even if a fly or a bee should annoy you, you must not kill it”. Several complications arise, with the result that, by the time the expedition starts, Van der Post has forgotten to tell the others in his party of the conditions.

Behaving therefore as they normally would, they shoot a wart-hog and a steenbok, at which point Van der Post realises his terrible mistake. The party is then attacked by bees. (These are not bees as we know them, but a particularly ferocious species, capable of killing.) The author, now tuned in to the situation, warns his party not to kill any of them. The camera which is going to be used to film the expedition refuses to work six times, although there was no apparent fault with any of the mechanisms. Three of them worked late into the night cleaning the magazines and camera parts, “oiling, greasing, and polishing them by our great fire, until Duncan in the end said with a defiant grin: ‘Well! I’d like to see anything stop me from filming tomorrow’ ”. But he was wrong.

They were again invaded by bees, and had hardly started filming “when the ominous blur in the precise mechanism of the camera announced another stoppage. Duncan tried to repair it. Charles and I left him to it and set up our Ferrograph and microphones to record some of the strange night sounds that wailed around the hills. Then we got an additional shock. The machine, which before had worked so well, now went dead on us. We tried every test prescribed in the makers’ manual. We could find no fault in any of the parts. But the machine was dead”.

The next day the pattern was repeated. Then, “in the afternoon, the forces working against us decided on the final blow. A steel swivel in the camera itself (a part so secure that no spare for it is ever carried) failed, and brought abruptly to an end our filming with that particular camera. It seemed to me when that happened that the grim faces of the hills came near to laughter”. As he was worried about any tricks that might be played on the vehicles, he realized that they had to leave the place as quickly as possible.

The Bushman guide expresses great surprise that they could ever have expected the machines to work, and performs some kind of ceremony to find out why. He talks to the spirits, seeking one in particular. He then tells Van der Post that the spirits of the hills are very angry with him, “so angry that if they had not known your intention in coming here was pure they would long since have killed you.” He should have prayed and made sacrifices.

Van der Post comes up with the idea of writing a letter to the spirits as a way of apologising, which is buried at an appropriate spot near the Hills. The Bushman later reveals that the apology has been accepted, adding, “The spirits of the hills are not what they were, Master. They are losing their power. Ten years ago they would have killed you all for coming to them in that manner”⁵.

It would be either very brave or exceedingly stupid to try to explain these events as ‘mere’ coincidences, dismissing the people involved as suffering from silly superstition. It would of course be even braver to volunteer to move the stone in Lyall Watson’s second example. That does not mean absolutely categorically that ‘spirits’ are the true explanation, but given that events of this nature are even now experienced by modern, ‘civilised’ people, I do not think that we should be overly critical of ‘primitives’ who did attribute them to spirits. In all these examples of divination, omens and ‘spirits’, we see beliefs of ancient peoples which are now dismissed as naive superstition, yet analogous examples can still be found in the modern world. Ancient peoples also believed in Astrology; since they were possibly right about so much else (divination, omens, spirits), perhaps they were also right about this. (Compare astrologer Stephen Arroyo: “Modern man’s feeling of separation from the natural world and lack of identity with the cosmos explains why astrology has to be ‘proven’ before many people will accept it as a valid science or art. Almost every culture that we know of had some form of astrology; and this is not attributable to their lack of modern ‘enlightenment’, but rather to their immediate sense of unity with the cosmic environment”⁶.)

The question we should really be asking is therefore:

How is it that we allow the modern, scientific world-view of materialism to conceal the true nature of reality from us?

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, and politics. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.

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Footnotes:

  1. quoted in Astrology, Science or Superstition by H. J. Eysenck and D. K. B. Nias, Maurice Temple, 1982, p1
  2. ibid. p22
  3. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972, pp31–32
  4. Destiny, 1992
  5. Lost World of the Kalahari, Penguin, 1962, p158 et seq.
  6. Astrology, Psychology, and the Four Elements, CRCS, 1975, p5

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Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com