Astral Science before History
An earthy proverb of the Fipa people of southwest Tanzania, among whom I [Roy Willis] was privileged to do my first stint of fieldwork as an anthropologist in the early 1960s, observes that ‘Who sleeps under the bed can’t piss on the one on top’. The most obvious thing about the sky and its luminous inhabitants is that it’s always up in relation to Earth-dwellers. ‘Up’, being above or on top, means superiority and ‘power over’ in every human culture known to anthropology, including our own Western one. So figuring out what’s going on up there has, understandably, been a millennial human concern. And until very recently, until the Enlightenmentinduced death of God and disenchantment of the world, humans attributed life and super-human consciousness to the awesome celestial domain.
When I began studying anthropology at Oxford under the legendary Edward EvansPritchard, one of the first works I was introduced to was the two-volume Primitive Culture, published in 1871 by E.B. Tylor, the ‘father’ of British anthropology. Tylor’s best-known contribution to anthropological theory is his concept of ‘animism’, from the Latin anima, meaning ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. According to Tylor, ‘primitive’ peoples around the world imagined that every significant object in their environment, both animate and inanimate (as Science thinks of it) embodied a normally invisible spirit or intelligence capable of influencing, and being influenced by, human beings. For Tylor, a free-thinking rationalist of the late Victorian age, the problem of why apparently intelligent people just about everywhere, except the privileged inhabitants of what is now called the ‘Western’ world, entertained such patently absurd ideas called for a logical explanation. Tylor found it in the universal experience of dreaming. The dreamer seems to enter another world, not unlike the ‘real’ world of the waking state. There he encounters other beings, some of whom he recognizes as folk who had died. Hence, Tylor argued, there arose all around the world the notion of an ‘ethereal’ essence which could be called a ‘soul’, which survived the death of the mortal person. By extension, such insubstantial essences were then attributed to other objects in the environment, both animate and inanimate, and a multitude of spirit beings of varying degrees of importance came to people