Death and Half-Death

At first glance, it would seem that Americans ignore death.  We’re often uncomfortable talking about it or even thinking about it.  Some people won’t attend wakes or funerals even if a friend dies because they hate being around death.  We grow up with strange customs like holding our breath when we pass a cemetery.  Is this because the dead are dangerous?  Could they hurt us if we inhaled cemetery air?

We want everyone reassuringly young and good-looking.  Those are the people who fill our media.  They smile and we smile.  We like it that way.

And yet, curiously, the dead are fairly common in our entertainment.  Characters die on television programs every night.  Some shows depend on a murder for a plot.  Horror movies use corpses to frighten us.  Zombies and vampires, both very popular at the moment, share peculiar states between life and death.  Even mainstream entertainment often features the dead.  Consider movies like “Ghost,” wherein Sam (Patrick Swayze) is dead but needs to warn Molly (Demi Moore) of the danger she’s facing.  Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg) is the intermediary who gives Sam a voice in the world of the living, much to her surprise.  Or there’s “The Sixth Sense,” which features a boy who sees dead people.

Even classics like “A Christmas Carol” feature the dead.  Poor Marley’s Ghost is the one who is compelled to change Scrooge’s behavior.  In Disney’s “Mulan,” Mulan’s ancestors decide to protect her by sending out a guardian spirit.  In The Lord of the Rings films, Gandalf the Grey is defeated by the Balrog and dragged down into the Underworld, but he returns as Gandalf the White, a superior being for having visited death.  Later, Aragorn calls on an entire army of the dead to fight for him against Sauron’s legions, and indeed, they make the difference between victory and defeat.

In “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke (the apprentice shaman) learns from Yoda (the senior shaman) how to face the forces of evil (Darth Vader and The Empire in general).  The struggle is complicated by the realization that evil lies very close at hand: Darth Vader is Luke’s father.  At the end of “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” Darth Vader, Yoda, and Obi Wan, all of whom are dead, appear surrounded by glowing light to reassure the hero of the righteousness of his victory.

All this is to say that even a culture that claims to ignore death actually recognizes its importance.

Now, imagine you belonged to a world long ago.  You saw death frequently, and you needed to understand how death was part of life.  You knew there were certain people who had amazing powers.  They weren’t called doctors and didn’t keep strange office hours, but in a way, they held a similar position of respect.  They were people able to cross the barrier between life and death and to influence the course of events.  They were shamans.

Shamans were highly trained individuals who were able to leave life, and in a kind of half-death, they were able to travel to the spirit world, but it wasn’t easy.  In many cases, what ensued after the transformation was a battle between the forces of death and the forces of life.  In some cases, the shaman was trying to heal a sick person, so he had to battle the force that created sickness, a terrifying fight.

Sometimes, the shaman won, and the spirit of the sickness was driven away.  Sometimes, he lost.  Sometimes, even though he had done everything correctly, God wanted the person to sicken and die, so intervention was impossible.  This creates a hierarchy of power.  The lower levels are subject to change, so a spirit of sickness might be overcome in battle by a skilled shaman, but the highest power was beyond any of them.

What was given to the shaman, in return for his or her brave exploration of the world beyond this one, was power: knowledge of  powerful plants and rituals, ability to converse with the dead, understanding gained through ecstasy, freedom from individual personality achieved through trance, recognition of specific animal and spirit guides, ability to transform into another being, to fly into the heavens, to swim in the ocean depths, and most importantly, to understand the meaning of these journeys.

It was because these people were beyond this world that they were recognized as special.  San trance dancers could bring rain by dream-hunting the rain animal, a scene often portrayed in San rock art in South Africa.  In the rock art panel in the photo, trance dancers surround the rain beast.  As hunters, they would use their skill to kill the dream beast, whose blood would become rain.

In the next diagram, the San shaman-hunter stands behind the dying eland, which is bleeding from the nose.  The shaman in trance also bleeds from the nose.  His legs are crossed, just like the dying eland’s.  In order for the rain to come, the eland must die, and the shaman, whose feet are now like the eland’s feet, must die also.  That’s the only way he can enter the realm of the spirits and plead his case for his people.  He has entered a trance brought on by hallucinogenic plants and long practice, allowing him to reach, after great pain, shuddering, even convulsions, the state between life and death.  There, with his old life left behind, he can seek to rebalance what was in peril: a sick person, a land without rain, a fight between clans or tribes.

He can, in some cases, see the course of events to follow.  In the second book of the series, Misfits and Heroes: East from Oceania, the shaman sees the path of the future very clearly, but it is a vision so dire that he chooses not to share it with the people even though they asked him for it.

But let’s go back to the idea of holding your breath as you pass a cemetery.  There is something frightening about the dead because we don’t know how they feel about the living.  For that matter, we don’t know what the dead do.  In the movies, they walk into the shining light or roam the earth until their individual wrong is righted.  Then what?

In some cultures, the dead actively threaten the living, and it’s the shaman’s task to fight them.  In others, the dead are honored as continuing members of the family.  Their bodies are brought out for special occasions, offered favorite foods, and consulted in important decisions.  Then it’s the shaman’s task to interpret the dead’s wishes.

This question is central to the third story of the series, Misfits and Heroes: Southwest from Europe, in which one character has been refused a place of honor with the ancestors and sent back to the world of the living to try to lead a better life, and another character voluntarily chooses to leave with a group of people who died at sea.

3 thoughts on “Death and Half-Death

  1. The dominant theory (Geologically) of the Younger Dryas (impact) event at roughly 12,800 ybp is it was the beginning of a short term cold period. Oceanographers, on the other hand tend to view Ocean Rise (pulses) as a very good indicator of heat index required for glacier melt to increase ocean levels by 115′ over the so called Younger Dryas cold period. It is hard to have it both ways….either it got a whole lot hotter between 12,800 ybp and 11,800 ybp, melting 115′ of ocean rise in the process…or it was a cold period. The latter doesn’t help us much with the ocean rise. The only two stable ‘cold periods’ during the early Holocene was about 1,000 years just prior to the Younger Dryas impact event. The second period was an 800 year period between about 12,000 and 11,200 ybp.

    I am currently finishing a book on the Early Holocene that centers around two great super cataclysms; the Younger Dryas event and the last great cataclysm, 7,000 years ago. The book focuses of those and other events across the early Holocene, as well as their respective cause/drivers. I won’t pre-release the data here, but trust me it was as near to an extinction level event as any impactor event ever has been. I will demonstrate that many mid sized (T-Rex) dinosaurs lived up until that event, and many other smaller so called dinosaurs and several species of large to giant hominids lived up into near modern time. Declining in size since the last great cataclysm of 7k years ago down to modern times.

    • John – Thanks for your comment. Your book sounds fascinating!

      The cataclysmic event I referred to in this post occurred far earlier – probably 70,000 years ago. However, the impact of Younger-Dryas was clearly profound in the Americas, regardless of whether it was caused by a local or global event. Many feel it was the result of a meteorite impact.

      I’d be interested to read your data about the cataclysm 7000 years ago. Do you have a blog?


  2. Yes, thanks. I have a couple of new pieces up on the blog and I overview the evidence for the 7K event. I also outline the driver for the Younger Dryas event at 12.8 ybp. I am going to put more of the ‘Earth Epochs’ book material up, but not so much that folks won’t want to buy the full 550 page online webbook. It HAS to be an online webbook, because it is interactive with many videos and live Google Earth images. Mostly I am presenting totally new information that has not been rehashed a hundred times, but keep some older items in to round out the entire picture. One other comment is that I am neither a supporter, advocate, defender or conversely a debunker, attacker of either side of the Creationist-Religious views or the opposing Gradualism-Evolution-Scientific view. I support neither, as I think both sides get our prehistory about equally as wrong. I specifically do not advocate for any “Aliens” or ‘Extraterrestrials’ as the answer to every anomaly. I am not including the many sightings of unknown vehicles and occupants, saving most of that data for a later book in the series called “The Electrostatic Earth”. In that book I will make the case ‘they’ are in fact, ‘Original Terrestrial’, and I may overview the concept in the current book.

    Anyway, here is my blog: where I have about 260,000 hits and it has only been up this year.

    I upload most of my papers on as well and I am in the top 1% of viewed papers.

    My previous webbook, “Ancient Canal Builders” is here:

    So I have a following of sorts. Nothing like Graham Hancock or Michael Cremo, though I am hoping the book changes that. My biggest issue is that I am not a good retail (for the masses) type writer. Lloyd Pye had agreed to co-author Earth Epochs with me, and only got the Intro written when he got sick last year. He was a good friend and we talked via email almost every day for the last 4 years before his passing. He knew about every new discovery as it happened, and he never once betrayed that trust. He was the only living human that knew the actual physical location of Florida Harbor 1, which is the linchpin proof for an ancient civilization on the East Coast of America. He was a very strong supporter of my story, and the only disagreement we had was my take on ‘Original Terrestrials’. He just couldn’t deal with that with his investment in the Starchild Skull. I miss him and our discussion dearly.

    John M Jensen Jr

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