VITALISM AND THE ORIGINS OF MAGICAL, MYSTICAL ENERGIES

Part 1

Laurie Eddie


(Investigator 174, 2017 May)


Attempts, by the ancients, to make sense of the natural world often resulted in the development of many erroneous concepts, such as superstition, magic and religion. One particularly fallacious belief of ancient times was the concept of Vitalism, “The metaphysical doctrine that living organisms possess a non-physical inner force or energy that gives them the property of life." (Carroll, 2003, p.402) The concept survives even today in such common terms as when someone is said to have “low vitality” or when we refer to a person’s “vital signs”. The basis of Vitalism was the belief in the existence of a very special “substance” – a form of spiritual life-energy, “… an active force that differs from anything possessed by non-living matter…” (Haller, 1986, p. 81) According to vitalistic beliefs, this “force” had originally created, animated and continued to sustain all forms of life throughout the entire cosmos.

Essentially Vitalism was a primitive attempt to explain the concept of life by attributing it to some form of supernatural or “divine” animating energy, what Hume (1783) described as, “… a spiritual substance … dispersed throughout the universe…”  

The concept of this “force” as a “spirit” pervades Eastern and Western philosophy, and, throughout the ages, it has been known under various names; these include, pneuma and entelechia, (Aristotle); anima mundi, (the world soul); spiritus vitae, (the spirit of life); spiritus naturae, (“natural spirit” or the spirit of nature);  vis essentialis, (essential force or energy); animal spirits; anima sensitiva, (sensitive animal nature or soul); subtle fluid; the breath of life; Qi or Chi, (“vital essence”); Prana, (breath or “vital energy”); vis medicatrix naturae: (the healing power of Nature); Archeus, (Paracelsus and van Helmont); Animal Magnetism; universalus plasticus, (“universal plastic” – Francis Glisson, 1597-1677); spiritus vitalis, (the vital spirit of the universe – Maxwell circa 1679);  materia vitae diffusa, (“diffused life material” – William Hunter 1718-1783); the “monad” (Leibnitz, 1646-1676); the Odic force, (Baron Carl von Reichenbach, 1788-1869); Ethereal Substance, (Rudolf Steiner, 1861 - 1925); the Etheric Body, (Leadbeater and Besant);  Orgone, or “life-energy”  (Wilhelm Reich, 1897-1957); Innate Intelligence, (D.D. Palmer, 1845-1913); Vital Force, (J.F.A. Howard); or the morphogenetic force, (Rupert Sheldrake).

The concept of a universal life-energy is widespread; it can be found in many diverse beliefs ancient and modern. It has even been revived by Blundell (1985) who claims that many of the European stone circles, (including Stonehenge), are, “…linked together by a strong but indefinable ‘life force” (p. 137) transmitted along “lines of force” called ley lines. In the past, the ultimate objective of all magical arts was to possess this life-energy so that one could use it to animate either the dead or lifeless substances, so as to gain personal knowledge and power, and we can see the same underlying theme in many tales of science-fiction; it is, for instance, the substance that ET uses to restore life to a dying plant, and, most famously, it is the “Force” in the Star Wars series.

This energy was believed to exist in many forms, and, for many it was inherent within the secret names of power of the various deities. Arabs believe that God had 99 names, all with great magical powers, (the Asmau as-Sifat, - “The Names of the Attributes of God). It was believed that if God was adjured by any of these names he would fulfill the wish or prayer of the person making the request; it was also said that “… he who recites them shall enter Paradise.” These, Names of Power were the basis of numerous tales, and although actual metal or clay idols existed that were able to speak and prophesize, and were said to have been animated by magical or divine means, they were nothing more than bogus contraptions used to deceive gullible believers. They either had a hollow body large enough for a man or boy to fit into, or else they contained a tube through which a hidden priest could speak.

The belief that inanimate substances could be given life is to be found in most cultures. We find one such myth in Genesis 2:7 and it was from such sources that the concept of the Golem arose in Hebrew folklore. The name, from the Hebrew word gōlem, meaning a thing without life or form, (see - Psalms 139:16, “thy eyes beheld my unformed substance”), was perceived as a creature, created from clay, or the dust of the ground, which,  just as God had breathed “the breath of life” into the nostrils of Adam, also had to be animated by magical means.

There were various ways in which this could be done; the creature could be given life either by speaking the Shem Hameforash, the ineffable and secret name of God over the creature, or by placing this mystical name upon the creature. Another version said it was sufficient merely to inscribe upon the creature’s forehead the Hebrew word emeth, (truth). While this mystical name remained in place, the creature would continue to have life; however, If the name was removed, the creature would immediately return to its former lifeless condition. There were many allegorical tales in Talmudic literature concerning certain Jewish sages who created such living creatures; one rabbi was reputed to have created a “man” while two other rabbis were said on the eve of every Sabbath to create a calf for themselves which they would eat.

By the Middle Ages such tales were common, it generally being claimed these creatures had been created by using certain spells from the Sefer Yetsirah, (The Book of Creation). Such tales increasingly told how these human like creatures were created as servants, unfortunately, because they lacked a brain, they were prone to misunderstanding their master’s commands, and so, tended to be more destructive than helpful. Goethe’s tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one example of this type of allegory.

The creation of life was also extremely popular with the Alchemists. In one text, the Cabala Mineralis, a formula is even provided for the creation of life,

Let two, or at the most three parts of our Mercury liquefy, one part of silver or gold of the vulgar, subtiliated*, and they will become one body, spongious and inseparable, which is called our silver or gold, and not of the vulgar…  (*subtle)

Although the creation of life was never achieved, it was widely believed that certain individuals had access to some of the universal life-energy and were able to use it, either for benevolent purposes, such as healing, or, in a negative manner, to injure, to destroy, or to “bind up” that is, by tying magical knots, or driving pegs into the ground, to magically remove the sexual energy from a male of female, rendering them sterile.

Healing was usually performed by a “healer” touching the sick, (e.g. Acts 3:7) a technique known as the laying on of hands, and later, as the King’s Touch. Alternatively, the healer could apply some bodily fluid, e.g. where Jesus is said to have used his spittle to cure blindness, (John 9:6). It was also claimed that the sick could be healed simply by coming into contact with, or touching, the “holy” person, e.g., “If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole.” Mark 5:28.

An extremely pervasive concept, Vitalism spawned a variety of superstitious beliefs including that of survival after death and Reincarnation. Most religious beliefs are based upon variations of the theme of immortality, the concept that some part of the being, (the vital animating principle), could survive death, and enter a new phase of eternal existence. Such beliefs were especially exemplified by the extravagances of some cultures, in particular the ancient Egyptians, who, spent much of their life, and wealth, preparing for life-after-death. Other examples are found amongst certain Chinese emperors and even the much later Christian preoccupation with the memento mori and a concept of mortality that emphasized over and above all matters of earthly existence, the ultimate importance of the soul and final salvation.

The importance of a natural creative life-force probably had its greatest impact upon early farmers, who, seeing the planted seed “magically” transformed into abundant crops, must have viewed it as a wondrous process, involving forces totally beyond their comprehension. Even more amazing must have been the role of this life-force in human procreation.

It seems likely that, long before humans adopted an agrarian life-style, they had already realized that they too had an important role in the cycle of nature, and as they settled into stable communities the act of intercourse, considered to be the sole human contribution to the creation of life, took on an increasingly more sacred role, becoming, in many cultures, the keystone of many religious beliefs. This led to a continuum of sexual behaviour ranging from sacred prostitution through to celibacy. In ancient Babylon for instance, women were required once in their life to attend the temple of Mylitta, the goddess of fertility and childbirth, and surrender themselves to any man willing to pay for her services, the sexual act being “devoted” to the deity. (De Selincourt, 1955, p. 94) At the other end of the continuum was to be found the practices of limiting sexual intercourse either to procreative purposes only, through to total celibacy.

In ancient times it was commonly believed that all acts of intercourse “released” some of the creative life-energy, and since Virgins were believed to be filled with an abundance of this life-energy, (enough to fertilize entire fields), intercourse with a virgin was considered particularly hazardous since the energy released in deflowering her was considered such, that it could totally overwhelm any male not, “… sufficiently exalted to withstand the charge of power” (Walker, 1970, p. 25). Thus, it was a common practice for young females, especially from aristocratic families, to be deflowered by a priapic substitute, usually an ithyphallic statue; this action ensured that her vital energy was “safely” returned to the deity. Much later, Avicenna provided a pseudo “scientific” rationale for the debilitating effects of intercourse. He calculated that since it required forty ounces, (1.13 litres), of male blood to create one ounce, (28 milliliters) of semen, the act of intercourse, for a male was equal to losing forty ounces of blood from a wound. (De’ath, pp. 64-65)

One aspect of vitalism was the belief that, since human sperm was divinely created, it must contain some part of the divine life-force, and so, it would be a serious transgression to waste this sacred material. This concept, satirized by the words of the Monty Python song go, “Every sperm is sacred, Every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate” - explains the refusal, by some religious groups to use contraception and such irrational concepts as the “sin” of Onanism, where, by spilling his seed onto the ground, Onan, (Genesis 38:9-10)  committed an act so heinous, that God executed him.

Particularly relevant to this study is the relationship between Vitalism and the multitude of so-called alternative and complementary therapies, for most are based upon some form of Vitalism.

Established as they are, upon rather nebulous, non-empirical principles, alternative therapies in general tend to be somewhat perplexing to those not accustomed to their particular form of bizarre “logic”; this is one of the areas that will be examined in this essay. Thus, for example, we find that the Homeopathic “Law” of Potentization, in what is clearly a contradiction of accepted scientific principles, claims that, by diluting a substance, its potency is increased, rather than decreased. Such apparent contradictions of scientific principles present no real difficulty to believers in “alternative sciences” for there are no contradictions; explanations for all such things can readily be found in the mystical field of Vitalistic theories.

According to Vitalism, even though a physical substance may be diluted endlessly, the inherent essential vitality - the life-force within that substance, is not diluted; indeed, it can never be diluted, the original amount of energy is maintained, spread throughout the greatly increased volume, with no loss of its potency! Such are the wondrous claims of therapies such as Homeopathy whose creator declared that while the process of dilution would reduce the potentially harmful effects of substances, especially poisons, nevertheless, the inherent vitality, the spiritual essence of the substance, remained undiluted, and so, was able to transmit its healing potential as a form of innate healing “memory”.

Hahnemann was not the originator of such bizarre concepts; they had long been part of mystical, religious and philosophical tradition which taught that, since these life-energies were divine in origin, they possessed a transcendental quality, one that enabled them to spread their power undiminished throughout the entire cosmos. No matter how widely this life-energy might expand and spread, each new portion would always contain the same amount of life-energy as the original.

To better understand the origins of such perplexing concepts one must completely abandon modern scientific concepts and adopt a non-empirical mind-set, where one can readily accept the most incredible assertions without the need of the slightest piece of actual evidence, a realm where, as Hall (1928), observed, one could possess,  “… rays from the Star of Bethlehem, …  the snout of a seraph, a finger nail of a cherub, the horns of Moses, and a casket containing the breath of Christ!"  (p. 125).

To the ancients the entire cosmos was the creation of a single “divine” entity. Rather like the Masonic concept of a “great master architect” this being was said to have created the present cosmos out of the primeval chaos, then fashioned the primal deities who, because they were the first beings to be created were imbued with the creative life-energy of this Supreme Creator Being. Then they as part of the chain of creation fashioned all life upon Earth. The end result was that, even though the cosmos was composed of many, separate components, each part was inexorably linked to the other by familial bonds. As a result, everything that occurred in the cosmos was, in some way or another, influenced, and affected by every other part.

The idea that all human life, and destiny, was inexorably linked to the rest of the cosmos by a multitude of invisible connections provided an ideal environment for magical and superstitious beliefs to flourish. Within this frame of reference it made sense to assume that whatever might occur in each individual’s daily life, no matter how small, was not random; rather every incident was considered to be the result of other events taking place somewhere else in the cosmos! Concepts such as fortune or misfortune, which one might perceive as entirely arbitrary and capricious, were viewed as rewards or punishments for previous actions of the individual that had either gratified, or displeased, the elemental cosmic forces.

Such beliefs probably developed over a vast period of time; however, it was probably not until around the arrival of Homo sapiens, that a hominid appeared that possessed the intelligence to deal with the complex abstract concepts that would later evolve into religion and philosophy. Most importantly they alone possessed the skills of language that would eventually enable them to articulate such abstract concepts.

Unfortunately, one major disadvantage of the reasoning ability is that it also has a “dark-side” which can and does produce unreason, doubt and negative emotions. As early humans began to formulate abstract concepts to explain and understand their environment, they inadvertently created an imaginary world filled with the most bizarre and frightening creatures. Even worse, their wonderful ability brought into existence those most corrosive personal issues, anxiety, guilt and self-recrimination. Inescapable and unremitting, they were likely a source of endless torment; yet all was not lost! Ever resourceful and creative as humans are they found an antidote. As Petronius observed, it was fear that first brought the gods into the world. From the depths of their creative minds, Homo sapiens formulated a metaphysical solution; to placate their innermost fears, they created personal gods that would not only protect them against the implacable negative powers of nature, both real and imaginary, but in time, these deities were even able to forgive their sins, grant them relief from their guilt, and, even more importantly, a place of leisure and respite after death.

An integral part of hominid survival had long been their ability to interpret those obscure, random patterns that might possibly be predators merging into the background. It appears very likely that the earliest creations of these personal deities were likely influenced by those abstract chiaroscuro patterns. Significantly, simulacra that often have a striking similarity to faces, animals and even humans, appear naturally in the landscape, on rocks, hill-sides, snowdrifts, in tree bark, even in the clouds, “Have you not sometimes seen clouds in the sky like a centaur, a leopard, a wolf or a bull?” (Aristophanes, The Clouds). It is likely that Homo sapiens were the first hominids to interpret these images as evidence of some type of a “natural being”, one that must exist within the trees and the rocks themselves. To primitive humans these beings must have seemed to be part of a mysterious realm, existing at a level of existence beyond the understanding of the human observers, one in which these beings must have appeared to be a part of that natural world that moved around early humans but over which they had no control. At first these creations were probably perceived merely as capricious nature spirits, who could be approached by the individuals, but, in time, they would evolve into powerful deities who demanded elaborate rites of worship, and could only be contacted through the priests.

Our earliest ancestors appear to have been both preoccupied and perplexed by the concepts of life and death. They had no idea of how life began, or the processes involved; they would only have seen that female humans and animals inexplicably grew large and then produced new life but why, and how, remained a complete mystery. Equally puzzling was the mystery of death, how was it that one day an individual could be a vital, living member of their group, then the next, they were lost to death! As humans slowly began to form concepts of the world around them they began to look for explanations for these mysteries, and it was at this time that their earlier concept of the nature spirits was to feature largely in providing answers.

The origins of the vitalism probably began from the observation that vegetation went through annual cycles of life and death; this appears to have led to the belief that the nature spirits that dwelt within the various plants must contain a life-force that enabled them to be reborn each year. In time this rather vague belief evolved into Animism, (anima, Latin for spirit or vital breath), the idea that all living things were animated by, “…an energy independent of or at least distinct from the body." (D’Alviella, 1908, p. 535)  Although primitive at first, the concept continued to evolve so that by the time of Plato and Pythagoras, it had evolved into the vitalistic concept of a supreme non-physical form of pure energy, the ageless, eternal first-principle of all things, that not only supplied all the material from which the cosmos was created, but also provided and sustained life throughout the universe.

Once humans began to accept the existence of such a powerful life-force it would only have been only a small step to accept that human life was also a product of this energy, and later still, that if the vegetation could die, and then regenerate, perhaps humans too could somehow survive death.

No doubt reinforcing such a belief would have been dreams in which the living saw and spoke to the dead, especially departed relatives. With no understanding of the actual origins of dreams such visitations were thought to be real events and so, one can understand the origins of the much later practices of the burial of the departed in the family homes, and that of ancestor worship, the belief that the dead could either help or hinder the living. To ensure the dead would grant positive benefits from beyond the grave required thoughtful treatment of their remains and special burial needs, ideas that in China led to such concepts as Feng Shui.

In their earliest form the nature spirits appear to have been credited with certain innate beneficial powers. It may have been that some early humans saw a simulacrum and then, soon afterwards, had a successful hunt and erroneously connected the successful hunt to the image. The result was that the source of the simulacra, perhaps a tree or rock, would have taken on special significance to that individual, being viewed as a benefactor, a protector against the negative forces of nature. Thereafter, seeking further “good-luck” or guidance that individual may have perceived a need for reciprocation and began to venerate, perhaps even worship the object. Unfortunately, as nomadic hunter-gatherers, they would have faced a dilemma; when the time came to follow the migratory herds they would have to leave their special tree or rock behind. Being ever resourceful and apparently unwilling to lose their spiritual protection, it seems humans found a solution.

They appear to have reasoned that pieces of the original object would also contain some of its spiritual power, and if they carried these, they would still be protected. This, it appears, was the origin of the superstitious practice of carrying, or wearing, protective amulets and even today memories of the primal belief that trees and rocks were filled with a protective spiritual energy persists in such actions as “touching wood” - the remnant of an ancient act of propitiation designed to ward off evil.

To the ancients the environment was filled with the ever present life-energy; greatest of all was the Magna Mater, the Great Mother Earth. Proof of her abundant fertility was to be found in the water that oozed from the walls of caves, particularly when coloured red by iron oxides, evidence to the ancients of her menstrual blood emerging from her cavernous womb. It was from her subterranean womb that all the rocks and minerals were born as living beings; the belief that these natural substances were actually alive long persisted; as Teresi (2002) noted, the Franciscan theologian Scotus. (1266-1308) maintained, “… that stones and metals were alive.” (p. 252).

Today we continue to find remnants of such beliefs in practices where crystals are used for healing purposes.  As the “children” of Mother Earth it was believed that rocks, and especially gem-stones, possessed a familial relationship with their mother, and shared not only her life-energy, but also possessed some of her secret knowledge, especially the location of subterranean mineral lodes and buried treasures.

This was the “logic” underpinning the use of special stones, known as “peepstones” that were claimed to enable those with “special powers” to locate subterranean deposits of ore, buried treasure, or even items that had been lost. One famous peepstone was the one used by Joseph Smith the Mormon; Brodie (1990) refers to the fact that he had, “…a certain stone, which he occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were;” (p. 427). It was this same stone that he later claimed to have used to translate the “metal plates” that became the Book of Mormon.

When humans began to adopt a settled agrarian life-style the nature-deities were gradually transformed into protective spirits of the hearth and home, special stones, either naturally shaped, or carved, were worshipped at small domestic shrines. These were the “strange gods” of Genesis 35:2-4, and the teraphim of Judges 17:5, and although the practice, mentioned in Isaiah 57:3-7, of collecting smooth stones from river beds was clearly a contradiction of Leviticus 26:1, the practice was so widespread amongst the Israelites that stone idols were to be found, “… under every green tree…” (1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10)

Many of these religious practices were associated with ensuring the fertility of the family, as well as their crops and animals; such beliefs continued despite monotheistic and Christian influences. De’ath (2000) mentioned that Catholicism even had “phallic saints” (p. 85), and as late as 1786 it was reported that in parts of Iseria, Italian peasants still celebrated a three-day festival where  they “… worshipped ‘the great toe of St. Cosmo – i.e. his phallus.” (p. 86) Gélis (1991) also mentioned that as late as the mid 19th century girls in Boulogne sought out “lucky stones” from the beach, these,

 “…had to be white and have a `particular shape.’ They believed it would give them children, deliver them from any danger and bring them a good husband at the time appointed.”  (p. 20)

From ancient times stones had been erected to mark territorial boundaries, for, sacred as they were to Hermes, the god of boundaries, (referred to by Herodotus as, “the pebbly Hermus”), few would dare to interfere with them. It was this same sacred quality that made stones suitable for gravestones, and the remnants of such beliefs of the life-power of stones persist in the myths and tales of the many “rock-born” deities, such as Mithra and Jesus, who, like the Sun, were both born in caves, and the claim that Jesus built his church upon the rock, (Peter, or, Petros = the rock).

Trees as the embodiment of creation and life feature in a number of mythologies; in Nordic myth there was Yggdrasl, the great ash tree that bound earth, heaven and hell together and in Polynesia the Tree of Speech. Both were gathering places of the gods that grew near magical fountains. In Judaic mythology we have the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. Frazer (1922) noted that tree worship, was widely observed by many cultures, it being a common practice amongst many American Indian tribes to hug trees to communicate with the spirit of the trees and to gain some of their strength and endurance. It is also reported that the great German statesman, Otto Von Bismarck, (1815 - 1898) used to embrace a tree before going into battle.

So powerful was this belief in many primitive cultures that only fallen branches, (considered to have “died”),  were used for firewood or tools; in some cultures, when it was necessary to chop down a tree, or remove a plant from the ground,  the spirit of the  plant  had first to be appeased with prayers and supplications.

As Animism evolved into theism the role of the nature spirits declined, however they never completely disappeared, they survived as dualistic creatures, the good spirits who helped humans, and the evil ones who brought sickness and misfortune. Much later they became the myriad creatures of cultural folklore, the angels, the Sanskrit gandharva, jinni, and the elves, fairies and brownies of European folklore.

Probably because humans had long noticed that certain groups of stars, (later to be known as constellations), foreshadowed certain major events on Earth, such as changes in the weather, the decay and growth of vegetation, and the movement of animal herds, the life-force came to be increasingly identified with the heavens.  Early hunters probably used these heavenly markers as indicators of the movement of wild animals, but later as humans increasingly adopted an agrarian life-style, they provided them with a farming calendar. Thus we find that, in Egypt, the appearance of Sirius on the horizon just before sunrise, heralded the coming inundation of the land, (Nunn, 1996, p. 13) and warned the inhabitants that certain preparations must be made.

To early humans such celestial events were mistakenly interpreted as the principal causal agencies for events on Earth; as Friar Roger Bacon, (1220-1292), proclaimed,   “Just as the soul moves its own body, so the angels move the heavens and the stars, and the stars cause things here below.”

It was increasingly accepted that earthly events were a manifestation of divine influences emanating from the heavens, the place where the deities lived. Just as the Egyptian deities were thought to daily send down their essence in the form of Bas, a subtle form of energy, that energized their statues, in every temple throughout Egypt, making their divine energy available to the ordinary people via the priests of the temples and through worship, so too it must have appeared that the deities created these regular celestial patterns to influence events that were to occur on Earth. Eventually the concept evolved that all things upon the earth, (the Microcosm), were identical reflections of similar larger-scale models in the heavens, (the Macrocosm). This idea was exemplified by the Zodiac, whose macrocosmic creatures that formed the constellations were to be found in the microcosmic reflections of mundane creatures upon the Earth.

As warnings of forthcoming events such “signs” were considered so important they required special interpreters, adepts skilled in the understanding of the many and varied heavenly omens. In time, such ideas led to the ill-conceived art of Astrology, established on the belief that everything on Earth was “controlled” by events in the Macrocosm. But humans went even further; from their observations that the stars traced an endless path through the heavens, they proposed that perhaps humans too were destined to endlessly repeat their cycles of life, destined to travel an endless path, constantly repeating cycles of life upon earth, or were perhaps predestined to follow courses which had been mapped out for them long before their birth. Although at first the heavenly omens were studied primarily to guide the destiny of cities and states, these new ideas gradually influenced the development of a more personalized role for these divine omens, a concern as to how these forces influenced the individual’s destiny, at birth, and throughout their life.

Herodotus claimed that it was the Egyptians who first assigned the influences of particular deities to each day of the week, and each month of the year, and, from this idea, to claim that the actual time of a person’s birth influenced his character, his future prospects, whether they would be good or bad, and even the time of his death. (De Selincourt, Second Book, paragraph 85). Later, according to Pliny, it was the Greek Hipparchus who devised the concept of the personal horoscope, claiming that there existed a relationship between the stars and humans, “... and that our souls are a portion of heaven," (Pliny, Volume 1, Book 2, Chapter 22, p. 59).

Given the general beliefs in a universal animating energy, there remained a number of mysteries; how did this life-force animate the body; where did it reside? Attempting to answer these puzzling questions led to the origin of various theories predominantly centred around two specific areas, blood and air.

Continued in
  Investigator 175

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