3.1. The Quest for Authorization

WE ARE NOW at last in a position where we can look back and see the history of mankind on this planet in its proper values for the first time and understand some of the chief features of the last three millennia as vestiges of a previous mentality. Our view of human history here must be that of a furthest grandeur. We must try to see man against his entire evolutionary background, where his civilizations, including our own, are but as mountain peaks in a particular range against the sky, and from which we must force ourselves into an intellectual distance so that we see its contours aright. And from this prospect, a millennium is an exceedingly short period of time for so fundamental a change as from bicamerality to consciousness.

We, at the end of the second millennium A.D., are still in a sense deep in this transition to a new mentality. And all about us lie the remnants of our recent bicameral past. We have our houses of gods which record our births, define us, marry us, and bury us, receive our confessions and intercede with the gods to forgive us our trespasses. Our laws are based upon values which without their divine pendancy would be empty and unenforceable. Our national mottoes and hymns of state are usually divine invocations. Our kings, presidents, judges, and officers begin their tenures with oaths to the now silent deities taken upon the writings of those who have last heard them. 

The most obvious and important carry-over from the previous mentality is thus our religious heritage in all its labyrinthine beauty and variety of forms. The overwhelming importance of religion both in general world history and in the history of the average world individual is of course very clear from any objective standpoint, even though a scientific view of man often seems embarrassed at acknowledging this most obvious fact. For in spite of all that rationalist materialist science has implied since the Scientific Revolution, mankind as a whole has not, does not, and perhaps cannot relinquish his fascination with some human type of relationship to a greater and wholly other, some mysterium tremendum with powers and intelligences beyond all left hemispheric categories, something necessarily indefinite and unclear, to be approached and felt in awe and wonder and almost speechless worship, rather than in clear conception, something that for modern religious people communicates in truths of feeling, rather than in what can be verbalized by the left hemisphere, and so what in our time can be more truly felt when least named, a patterning of self and numinous other from which, in times of our darkest distress, none of us can escape ? even as the infinitely milder distress of decision-making brought out that relationship three millennia ago.

There are many things that could be said at this point ? many. A full discussion here would specify how the attempted reformation of Judaism by Jesus can be construed as a necessarily new religion for conscious men rather than bicameral men. Behavior now must be changed from within the new consciousness rather than from Mosaic laws carving behavior from without. Sin and penance are now within conscious desire and conscious contrition, rather than in the external behaviors of the decalogue and the penances of temple sacrifice and community punishment. The divine kingdom to be regained is psychological not physical. It is metaphorical not literal. It is ‘within’ not in extenso.

But even the history of Christianity does not and cannot remain true to its originator. The development of the Christian Church returns again and again to this same longing for bicam318 Vestiges of the Bicameral Mind in the Modern World eral absolutes, away from the difficult inner kingdoms of agape to an external hierarchy reaching through a cloud of miracle and infallibility to an archaic authorization in an extended heaven. In previous chapters I have often paused to point out various parallels between ancient bicameral practices and modern religious ones, and I shall not labor such comparisons here.

Also beyond the purview of the present book is a full exploration of the way that the more secular developments of the last three millennia are related to their emergence from a different mentality. I am thinking here of the history of logic and conscious reasoning from the Greek development of Logos to modern computers, and of the spectacular historical pageant of philosophy, with its efforts to find a metaphor of all existence in which we may find some conscious familiarity and so feel at home in the universe. I am thinking too of our struggles toward systems of ethics, of attempting with rational consciousness to find substitutes for our previous divine volition which could carry with them that obligation which at least could simulate our earlier obedience to hallucinated voices. And too of the cyclic history of politics, the gyres of our wavering attempts to make governments out of men instead of gods, secular systems of laws to perform that formerly divine function of binding us together into an order, a stability, and a commonweal.

These larger questions are the important ones. But here, in this chapter, I wish to introduce the issues of Book III by considering a handful of more ancient topics of lesser importance that are precise and clear carry-overs from the earlier mentality. My reason for doing so here is that these historical phenomena shed a needed and clarifying light back into some of the darker problems of Books I and II.

One distinguishing characteristic of such vestiges is that they are more obvious against the complexity of history the closer we are to the breakdown of the bicameral mind. The reason for this is quite clear. While the universal characteristics of the new consciousness, such as self-reference, mind-space, and narratization, can develop swiftly on the heels of new language construction, the larger contours of civilization, the huge landscape of culture against which this happens, can only change with geological slowness. The matter and technic of earlier ages of civilizations survive into the new eras uneroded, dragging with them the older outworn forms in which the new mentality must live.

But living also in these forms is a fervent search for what I shall call archaic authorization. After the collapse of the bicameral mind, the world is still in a sense governed by gods, by statements and laws and prescriptions carved on stelae or written on papyrus or remembered by old men, and dating back to bicameral times. But the dissonance is there. Why are the gods no longer heard and seen? The Psalms cry out for answers. And more assurances are needed than the relics of history or the paid insistences of priests. Something palpable, something direct, something immediate! Some sensible assurance that we are not alone, that the gods are just silent, not dead, that behind all this hesitant subjective groping about for signs of certainty, there is a certainty to be had. 

Thus, as the slow withdrawing tide of divine voices and presences strands more and more of each population on the sands of subjective uncertainties, the variety of technique by which man attempts to make contact with his lost ocean of authority becomes extended. Prophets, poets, oracles, diviners, statue cults, mediums, astrologers, inspired saints, demon possession, tarot cards, Ouija boards, popes, and peyote all are the residue of bicamerality that was progressively narrowed down as uncertainties piled upon uncertainties. In this chapter and the next we shall examine some of these more archaic vestiges of the bicameral mind.


The most immediate carry-over of bicamerality is simply its perpetuation in certain persons, particularly itinerant prophets, which I have discussed in 11.6, or those institutionalized as oracles, which I shall describe here. While there is a series of cuneiform tablets describing Assyrian oracles1 dating from the seventh century B.C., and the even earlier oracle of Amon of Thebes in Egypt, it is really in Greece that we know this institution best. Greek oracles were the central method of making important decisions for over a thousand years after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. This fact is usually obscured by the strident rationalism of modern historians. Oracles were subjectivity’s umbilical cord reaching back into the sustaining unsubjective past.

The Oracle at Delphi

Coincidental with my metaphor is the fact that at the most famous oracle, that of Apollo at Delphi, there was a queer conelike stone structure called the omphalos or navel. It stood at the reputed center of the earth. Here presided on certain days, or in some centuries every day throughout the year, a supreme priestess, or sometimes two or three in rotation, selected so far as we know on no particular basis (in Plutarch’s day, in the first century B.C., she was the daughter of a poor farmer).2 She first bathed and drank from a sacred brook, and then established contact with the god through his sacred tree, the laurel, much as conscious Assyrian kings are depicted being smeared by treecones in the hands of genii. She did this either by holding a laurel branch, or by inhaling and fumigating herself with burnt laurel leaves (as Plutarch said), or perhaps by chewing the leaves (as Lucian insisted).

The replies to questions were given at once, without any reflection, and uninterruptedly. The exact manner of her announcements is still debated,3 whether she was seated on a tripod, regarded as Apollo’s ritual seat, or simply stood at an entrance to a cave. But the archaic references to her, from the fifth century on, all agree with the statement of Heraclitus that she spoke “from her frenzied mouth and with various contortions of her body.” She was entheos, plena deo. Speaking through his priestess, but always in the first person, answering king or freeman, ‘Apollo’ commanded sites for new colonies (as he did for presentday Istanbul), decreed which nations were friends, which rulers best, which laws to enact, the causes of plagues or famines, the best trade routes, which of the proliferation of new cults, or music, or art should be recognized as agreeable to Apollo ? all decided by these girls with their frenzied mouths.

Truly, this is astonishing! We have known of the Delphic Oracle so long from school texts that we coat it over with a shrugging usualness when we should not. How is it conceivable that simple rural girls could be trained to put themselves into a psychological state such that they could make decisions at once that ruled the world?

The obdurate rationalist simply scoffs plena deo indeed! Just as the mediums of our own times have always been exposed as frauds, so these so-called oracles were really performances manipulated by others in front of an illiterate peasantry for political or monetary ends. 

But such a realpolitik attitude is doctrinaire at best. Possibly there was some chicanery in the oracle’s last days, perhaps some bribery of the prophetes, those subsidiary priests or priestesses who interpreted what the oracle meant. But earlier, to sustain so massive a fraud for an entire millennium through the most brilliant intellectual civilization the world had yet known is impossible, just impossible. Nor can it gibe with the complete absence of criticism of the oracle until the Roman period. Nor with the politically wise and often cynical Plato reverently calling Delphi “the interpreter of religion to all mankind.”4

Another kind of explanation, really a quasi-explanation, still busied about with in the popular and sometimes professional literature, is biochemical. The trances were real, it says, but caused by vapors of some sort rising from a casium beneath the floor of the cave. But the French excavations of 1903 and more recent ones have shown distinctly that no such casium existed.5 

Or else there might be a drug in the laurel that could have produced such an Apollonian effect. To test this, I have crushed laurel leaves and smoked quantities of them in a pipe and felt somewhat sick but no more inspired than usual. And chewed them as well for over an hour, and very distinctly felt more and more Jaynesian, alas, than Apollonian.6 The glee with which external explanations are sought out for such phenomena simply indicates the resistance in some quarters to admitting that psychological phenomena of this type exist at all. 

Rather, I suggest a quite different explanation. And for that purpose, I shall introduce here the notion of …

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