Sundays with Uncle God-Momma: Mana

With a hand/eye but relatively brain free task at hand, i decided to watch a film called Mana.  I assumed that there would be a great deal of talking; i assumed incorrectly.  There was very little in the way of aural communication in the film, leaving me to ruminate on the meaning while checking in on the visual aspect here and there.  The film opens with a Maori man sitting on a rock, explaining that the rock has spirit.  His belief was expressed with a gentle smile and an affectionate manner towards something that most of us would describe as inanimate.  The rock, he said, held a very old and great spirit; it was powerful because of its longevity.  Mana, the Maori continued, is everywhere and within all things.  Like magic, it can be harnessed for use by man.  But it is also far larger than, and ultimately not in the control of, man.

The film moved through examples both expected and unexpected, juxtapositioning modern situations with our most ancient religio-spiritual conceptualization.  From South Asians ritually pressing gold leaf onto a stupa topped boulder to polyester pilgrims visiting Graceland.  We may think that our civilization has left the old ways behind but perhaps not.  Perhaps we are they and they are we, too embedded in our psychological makeup to be discarded for shiny technology and rigorous logic.

Mana – not to be confused with the heavenly food of the Israelites – is a word from the Oceanic languages; anthropology adopted it to describe a broad phenomenon seen in a host of mythological belief systems.  It is the force that moves the ancient belief of Animism, a system that stretches back into prehistory further than archeology allows us to peer and sometimes called “proto-religion”.  It is most often associated with the “primitive” cultures.  Yet defining it concretely remains difficult because it manifests itself in culturally distinct manners.  The peoples of Siberia have different concerns than those of the Amazon.  The import and workings of the spirits that enter their lives correspond to their concerns.  Animism is most readily visible in hunter-gatherer societies where the hunted is always imbued with great power that must be appeased before it will allow its own slaughter.  The appeasement generally guarantees that the hunted will regenerate so that it may be hunted again and again.

The currents of Animism become less obvious in planter cultures, though they remain and can be readily seen in the most simple of these societies.  The more developed the planting culture, the further beneath the surface the currents of animism reside, but they are never gone completely.  Shintoism, Taoism, and Hinduism retain significant traces of Animism.  And did not Jesus say, “Split open a piece of wood and you will find me there”?

Animism is often, incorrectly, called Shamanism.  while Shamanism is a facet of animist systems, they do not require shamans.  Shamanism is an highly individualized experience that sets the initiate apart from the society.  The shaman is capable of full entry into the spirit world.  He/she often doctors the ill or works on behalf of the group, but not always.  Medicine men develop skills that enable them to communicate with and manipulate the spirit world to some degree without being shamans. (The two can certainly overlap in an individual.) And in most animist cultures, anyone can discover his spirit helper(s) if he commits to finding them.  In these cultures, every member of the group will have some knowledge of the spirit world.  The most basic acts of life require it because every facet of life contains spirit.

That man should see ‘soul’ in the world around him comes as no surprise.  The recognition of his own spirituality (or even the difference between life and death, sleep and dream) would logically lead to seeing the same force animating the very much alive world around him.  That man has managed to convince himself that only he has soul is the real surprise.  But this state is quite modern and a result of the rise of science rather than a facet of the higher religions.  These, particularly the Semitic traditions, retain the anima of nature to some degree, though as an expression of God rather than assigning godliness to Nature.

The film dealt with a great deal of Nature worship, such as the cherry blossom festivals of Japan and funerary rites in China; these are obvious expressions of mana and but a few of the examples that can be found around the world.  But the most interesting segment took place in Germany.  Museum curators discussed growing up with Rembrandt’s “the Man in a Gold Helmet” as a cultural icon.  They told of tourists who would visit the museum only to see this painting, and they described the painting’s presentation: set apart from the other pieces and backed by luxurious velvet drapes.  In context it looked strikingly like an altar.  Joseph Campbell maintained that art is the modern myth because it distills the human experience and presents it in a symbolic fashion that allows the viewer/reader/listener to access the totality from a single point and integrate it into daily life.  He would not have been surprised to see a painting treated with religious affection.

But the process of cleaning and analyzing cast doubt on the painting’s authorship.  It has never been proven that the painting is not a Rembrandt, and the signage still credits the Dutch master.  It was, however, removed to a regular gallery and presented plainly.  The film crew surreptitiously shot visitors to the gallery.  Many of them looked right past “The Man in a Gold Helmet” and others simply glanced at it before moving on.  The mana was gone.

Does this mean that we infuse objects with mana?  We most certainly do.  Another segment portrayed Elvis fans on pilgrimage at Graceland.  Dust and saris replaced with sequined polyester and brille cream.  Elvis, the American pop culture fetish derives his power from the adoration and transference of his followers.  But it would be wrong to assume that all mana flows from people to objects.

Sanctifying objects of man may well be a symptom of neurosis. (Some thinkers have suggested that the personal religious experience is always neurotic.) More likely is that modern humans are prone to grasp for something that they have lost, even if their knowledge of the loss remains subconscious.  Dr. Jung remarked that he saw far fewer cases of neurosis amongst practicing Catholics than amongst Protestants or Atheists.  He suggested that the ritual and mystery of the Catholic mass was psychologically healthy…regardless of belief or doctrine.  Elvis has no universal depth; worshipping him cannot be more than hollow, so such worship is likely to be symptomatic of neurosis.

Yet the worship of him, low riders, and a host of pop culture icons remains.  In fact, one could argue that such worship is on the rise even as organized religion wanes in popularity.  Others argue that humankind has lost touch with Nature, and that this disconnect is the root cause of environmental degradation that threatens our species (along with many others).  I wonder if the feats of science have been a disservice; it is materialistic science that has reduced the power of mana to mere mechanistic explanations.*  Anima, soul, and spirit have been replaced by reducible cause and effect.  We focus on the sum of parts rather than the whole, yet our behavior suggests that we long for wholeness greater than the sum of its parts.  Witness the rise of neo-paganism and new age belief systems in “developed”, rational cultures.  Some simply scoff at these as silly; more worrying is that most of these systems adopt the metaphor rather than the truth which the metaphor explains.  As such they may be more neurosis than balm.

Still, mana is out there.  It is howling outside my window as i write and surely crashing against the nearby rocks.  It is evident in every tree and blade of grass if we care to look close enough.  Jesus was not suggesting that he himself was within the wood, but that it was filled with divinity.  That is mana.  Divinity everywhere all the time.  Plato called it Anima Mundi, world soul.  A more modern, and fictional, philosopher described it thusly: “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.”  It may be that mana is a creation of human imagination, though we cannot discount the possibility that mana is responsible for human imagination.  More importantly, it may be quite necessary for the proper functioning of the mind/soul.  To find it outside ourselves requires first finding it within ourselves.

*No offense to science in general.  My reference here is to the popular conception of science, which springs mostly from technology rather than the act of science.  Practicing science is plainly a spiritual path, but that’s a different Uncle God-Momma for a different Sunday.


~ by Lex on December 7, 2008.

3 Responses to “Sundays with Uncle God-Momma: Mana”

  1. I dig spending Sundays with Uncle God-Momma. Especially when He tips Her hat to Yoda.

  2. Did Yoda really say that? Was it in the swamp scene after Luke crashes his ship?

  3. Yes and during the training in the swamp.

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