Consciousness and the Voices of the Gods: An Essay Review

David R. Crownfield, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1979, 46, 193-202.

Abstract: Julian Jaynes’s speculations on the origins of consciousness and his postulation of the “bicameral mind” pose profound epistemological problems. At the same time, his work opens extraordinary new possibilities for interpretation of a wide range of materials, many of direct concern for scholars of religion.

Interior, reflective, deliberative, verbal consciousness, Jaynes proposes, arose only around 1200-500 B.C. Before then, deliberation was unconscious, and its results hallucinated as the voice of a god. The Iliad shows gods performing deliberative functions; later Greek thought exemplifies progressive interiorization. Mesopotamian civilizations were based on hallucination as social control; ziggurats and god-statues were hallucinogenic, as originally was writing. Civilization became too diverse for bicamerality, so reflective consciousness developed to take its place.

Earliest Israel was bicameral. In transition, prophets, hallucinogenic pillars and high places, and other means seek to maintain contact with the elohim. Bicameral Samuel is followed by disastrously reflective Saul, then consistently conscious David. Prophets mediate the voice; after the exile it falls silent, and Torah, its written record, supersedes it.

The history of religion is the history of nostalgia for lost divine voices. Oracles, prophecies, glossolalia, scriptures, rites, seek transcendent authorization in resolving the ambiguities of life.

The paper discusses Jaynes’s case and his evidence. It notes limits and problems, and identifies areas of study in religion that would fruitfully be reexamined from this point of view. The ultimate impact of Jaynes is judged to be Nietzschean, and some implications of this outcome are suggested.