Ecstatic Origins of the Western Soul

by Peter Kingsley
The Golden Sufi Center, 2010

In this book Peter Kingsley tells a story. An earth-shattering, history-breaking story. One that raises whole new possibilities of humans understanding other humans whom we imagine to be so different from ourselves. Of East meeting West many centuries ago. Of indigenous peoples of Mongolia being the ambassadors to Greece and to Pythagoras in particular as well as to the Americas, that is to the Iroquois and thus to the Founding Fathers of America and into the Great Seal of the United States and into the thrust of the message of the Constitution of the United States. Of ancient Mongolian shamans informing Buddhist wisdom. And yes, of Dalai Lamas ordering the destruction of all traces of shamanistic religion. Kingsley tells the story of Skywalker, an ancient Mongolian shaman, who went to Greece and handed his golden arrow, symbol of all that was powerful and sacred, to Pythagoras who understood the specialness of the gift he was given.

Kingsley’s Previous, Momentous Contributions

Peter Kingsley has a habit of shaking up our cultural origin stories — consider his book In the Dark Places of Wisdom — about which Jacob Needleman said: “To absorb what this book says is to encounter a completely new vision of the ancient world that lies at the root of our own civilization. Right there, at our own feet, lies a forgotten tradition that has the power to transform all our views about our culture and our life.” What Needleman says about In the Dark Places of Wisdom can also be said of A Story Waiting to Pierce You. There are lessons here that can reinvent our civilization by connecting us to our deepest, shamanic, roots. This is Kingsley’s goal — not to score points with academicians (most of whom he holds in considerable disrespect), but to assist a rebirth of soul and culture.

In his earlier work Kingsley reminds us that Apollo was a “god of ecstasy, trance, cataleptic states — of states that take you somewhere.” Unlike Dionysus’ ecstasy, Apollo’s was not wild or disturbing but “intensely private, for the individual and the individual alone.” It happened in “total stillness” wherein “total freedom at another level” was attained. The priests of Apollo were given the name “skywalker” — a term used also in Tibet and Mongolia. They were very close to the shamanic traditions of Central Asia and Siberia. To me, this description also rings of Buddhism and of Meister Eckhart (“nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness.”)

David Appelbaum, former editor of Parabola magazine, credits Kingsley with “recovering the origins of our humanity and uncovering the source from which each of us springs.” Huston Smith, commenting on Kingsley’s book, Reality, says his work “is momentous in its implications” because it restores for us “the understanding that the original purpose of Greek philosophy was to launch the Western mind on a profoundly spiritual course.” He proves that the founders of Western philosophy “were spiritual giants whose understandings have not been surpassed.” Philosophy was once truly a love affair with wisdom (from which we derive its name) — and not a cerebral game of one-upmanship practiced by “barbaric academicians” (Thomas Berry’s phrase) who flee from all things mystical.

Unexpected Ancestors of Western Thought

With his latest book Kingsley does not disappoint. Nor does he let up on his vocation to awaken the Western soul by digging more deeply into its origins, origins that are far more diverse and more profound than most of us have ever known. In reading A Story Waiting to Pierce You I was struck by the story told of Walt Whitman. At the age of ten he attended a sermon by Quaker Elias Hicks who was half Native American and half black. He had a mystical experience in that encounter and it can be said that Whitman’s revolution in poetry derived from that moment. That is when he learned the ecstasy of words and rhythm that allowed him to break with classical poetry derived from Europe that was encrusted in a “crystal” as he put it. His respect for “vocalism” came from that encounter with two ancient traditions and with it came his poetic vocation and his poetic revolution.

Similarly, in studying Kingsley’s deep research into the origins of Greek thought born of shamanic visitors from Mongolia, we stand at a threshold of a great breakthrough, a new realization of our connection to one another and to ancient, often derided, civilizations whose spirituality was far deeper than most religion today.

Kingsley tells the story of our forgetfulness. Of the disease of arrogance or superiority which seeks to forget and to wipe out the past in order to flatter the powers of the present. Kingsley, as he so often does, rewrites history. Of Genghis Kahn he writes: “We understand almost nothing. He happened to be the most powerful man in the world; a constant innovator, superb commander; conqueror of more land and people and nations than anyone either before him or since. But he never made a major decision which had not already been made for him, and conveyed to him down to the smallest details, in a state of ecstasy” (p. 78). Kingsley rewrites history from the underside, in this book, from the story of the Mongolian shamans who have rarely been accredited with their powerful impact on civilization as we know it.

Kingsley writes a lot about ecstasy. How Skywalker made his pilgrimage to Greece by foot, with his sacred arrow, in a state of ecstasy. He recognizes the political dimensions of ecstasy when he writes: “Cultures are created and destroyed in ecstasy” and that it is “the breath of ecstatics” that “keeps a world alive” (79). This is something academics rarely grasp, “the essential role of ecstasy in shamanic traditions (occasionally denied by scholars who have not the slightest idea what ecstasy is)” (107). Our education, our history, and with it our religion and politics and media, is so often completely out of touch with ecstasy. Who gets or bestows a PhD in ecstasy? He also talks about the “intellectual self-indulgence of modern academics” who are often “too lazy” to question the results of trivialization. What pedagogy has room for ecstasy? Do even seminaries today allow ecstasy in the door? And if it walks in, do they know how to nurture it, deepen it, awaken it, steer it to serve the people? Who accredits the accreditors of our so-called educational powerhouses? Do they know about ecstasy? Do they know how far consciousness can travel? Or is education a brake we put on ecstasy and those who bring it to the table? Is soul expansion the greatest threat of all in the hallowed walls and exam-ridden chambers of what we call academia? Is academia in the hands of accountants and lawyers and bean counters more than those of ecstatics? Is that why so many young people who still have their souls intact leave its halls prematurely?

Many questions arise on reading Kingsley’s amazing story. His story of the Dalai Lamas of old who attacked the Mongol shaman leaders is not anti-Buddhist. In fact, it was a Buddhist nun who asked Kingsley to research these matters since she wondered if the sacrifices Buddhist Tibetans are making in our day at the hands of the Chinese might be part karma from the ancient days when Buddhists treated the indigenous peoples badly. Yet Buddhism received so much from these very shamans. It is good for Westerners to hear the fuller story of Buddhism and how it, like all human movements, has a shadow side also.

Worldwide, Ancient, Indigenous Wisdom

One reads this book in the context of being told that our human ancestors all began in Africa before making their trek through southern and northern Asia and one sees anew the wonder of our tribal story and the wisdom and courage and accomplishments of our many ancestors and how, truly, we are all connected.

On reading Kingsley’s vivid telling of the power of the golden arrow and the meaning of Skywalker bestowing it on Pythagoras, I had a kind of déjà vu. I remembered the day Buck Ghosthorse, a shaman and spiritual leader from the Lakota nation, gave me his sacred pipe with which he had held sacred ceremonies for over twenty-three years. I remember how he dealt with his pipe as Skywalker dealt with his arrow — like it was a person, a power object that serves the people. I recall running into another indigenous leader, Luisah Teish, an African priestess of the Yoruba tradition, who said to me on seeing the pipe: “Honey, that is real power. Much more than being made a bishop.” The question comes to my mind: Is the sacred pipe, given to the Lakota people by White Buffalo Woman, a redoing of the golden arrow waiting to pierce us? These are the kind of unscripted questions that are aroused by this surprising book.

In the telling of his story and stories, which Kingsley does masterfully and which he backs up with endnotes that put substance behind his startling tales, Kingsley sings wisdom to our tired civilization. No one has more appreciated this than Beautiful Painted Arrow of the Picuris Pueblo nation who wrote a forward for the book. He tells us that instead of reading the book, he was drawn to “sing it out loud, because this book is a magnificent song,… an incantation…. This book is pure music. It sings to the reader.” This is unusual praise for a book by a recognized scholar and intellectual savant and practitioner of multiple languages. But Peter Kingsley earns this praise, special that it is. Beautiful Painted Arrow goes on: “This is what the native people of the Americas have been trying to say, but were never permitted to. This song is the song of wisdom that we native people have not been allowed to sing” (xiiif).

One cannot receive much higher praise than that if one is trying to tell the stories of our relationship to the ancient peoples. It shows the respect that native storytellers hold for Kingsley’s research and the conclusions he has drawn from his findings. It is moving to hear that indigenous peoples who are refinding their voice can also recognize it in certain Western scholars.

Beyond Religious and National Limitations

Peter Kingsley’s story is about much more than the past, forgotten as so much of it has been. It is about the future; indeed, about our survival. As he puts it, when we learn to remember rather than forget, we will reconnect with “what will allow us to piece back together all the parts of ourselves scattered between East and West.” Remembering is salvific for it is “simply a matter of recollecting the essence of ourselves — of gathering our own finest pollen into the present for the sake of the future” (61). For a true future to emerge, he proposes, “we have to be able to let go of all our little countries and religions and timespans until even Tibet or the Mediterranean are only specks on a map; until even a spread of three thousand years is just child’s play.” (This sounds to me a lot like Nancy Abrams and Joel Primak as they speak of a “cosmic society.”) The surprises, Kingsley proposes, arrive this time “from the West instead of the East,” that is, not the West as Europe but the “West as America, where west of west turns out to be east of east” (62).

Yes, the story in this book lives up to its title. It is truly a story to pierce us.


2 thoughts on “Ecstatic Origins of the Western Soul

  1. This was a beautiful piece. What I know of Kingsley I really like. Thank you.

    What does this article have to do with “The Golden Sufi Center”? That’s Llewellyn’s place right?

  2. “Young man,
    two are the forces most precious to mankind.
    The first is Demeter, the Goddess.
    She is the Earth — or any name you wish to call her —
    and she sustains humanity with solid food.
    Next came Dionysus, the son of the virgin,
    bringing the counterpart to bread: wine
    and the blessings of life’s flowing juices.
    His blood, the blood of the grape,
    lightens the burden of our mortal misery.
    Though himself a God, it is his blood we pour out to offer thanks to the Gods. And through him, we are blessed.”
    ― Euripides, The Bacchae