Imaginary Companions, Egyptian mythology, Julian Jaynes, and the Narrative Practice Hypothesis


The “ka” is a very complex part of the symbolism in ancient Egyptian mythology and represents several things: the ka is a symbol of the reception of the life powers from each man from the gods, it is the source of these powers, and it is the spiritual double that resides with every man.

The ka as a spiritual double was born with every man and lived on after he died as long as it had a place to live. The ka lived within the body of the individual and therefore needed that body after death. This is why the Egyptians mummified their dead. If the body decomposed, their spiritual double would die and the deceased would lose their chance for eternal life. An Egyptian euphemism for death was “going to one’s ka”. After death the ka became supreme. Kings thus claimed to have multiple kas. Rameses II announced that he had over 20.

The ka was more than that though. When the ka acted, all was well, both spiritually and materially. Sin was called “an abomination of the ka”. The ka could also be seen as the conscience or guide of each individual, urging kindness, quietude, honor and compassion. In images and statues of the ka, they are depicted as their owner in an idealized state of youth, vigor and beauty. The ka is the origin and giver of all the Egyptians saw as desirable, especially eternal life. – source

I find mythology of neolithic cultures to be absolutely fascinating. They offer a glimpse into a radical religious phenomenology of auditory hallucination. I am of the opinion that the most parsimonious way to interpret Egyptian mentality is in terms of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind. The bicameral mind is based on the metaphor of a divided house. On the one “side”, there is a god(s)-complex structured in terms of narrative and a unitary personality, whose function whose to send admonitory auditory hallucinations in times of stress to guide the other “side”, the man-complex. The gods commanded and the men obeyed. Such was the order of things for many thousands of years. Following Jaynes, Judith Weissman argues in her excellent book Of Two Minds: Poets Who Hear Voices that we can see such a mentality displayed prominently in one of the earliest poems known, The Iliad (likely to have first been transmitted orally by the Aoidos through hallucinated “inspiration” by the god-complex), wherein the immortals presence themselves to the mortals to offer guidance and judgement in times of great stress. As is well-known, Socrates himself had a daimon to guide him. Likewise, in ancient Egytpian life, everybody had their own personal demigod to guide them through stressful situations, offering commands and assurance, judgement and praise.

Moreover, because the gods were believed to live on after death, this created the conditions for literal ancestor worship, with father figures, kings, and god-kings living on in such a way as to be narratively implanted into the minds of the living through a mechanism of auditory hallucination, commanding temples to be built, burial rites to be performed, often including commands to provide food and everyday items of sustenance for their decomposing bodies. According to wikipedia,

The people of Çatalhöyük [a Neolithic tribe] buried their dead within the village. Human remains have been found in pits beneath the floors, and especially beneath hearths, the platforms within the main rooms and under the beds. The bodies were tightly flexed before burial, and were often placed in baskets or wrapped in reed mats. Disarticulated bones in some graves suggest that bodies may have been exposed in the open air for a time before the bones were gathered and buried. In some cases, graves were disturbed and the individual’s head removed from the skeleton. These heads may have been used in ritual, as some were found in other areas of the community. Some skulls were plastered and painted with ochre to recreate human-like faces, a custom more characteristic of Neolithic sites in Syria and at Neolithic Jericho than at sites closer by.

Jaynes theory is that the bodies of these revered fathers and god-kings were hallucinatorily experienced as still willing and commanding, issues orders as normal such that everyday items of gear were brought before them. In many cases, the heads were cut off in order that they may still receive hallucinated orders issuing from the mouths, and more importantly,  the eyes. Imagine a really, really scary acid trip and maybe you can comprehend what such an experience would be like. Moreover, Jaynes claimed that enormous religious temples were constructed for the express purpose of housing the idols of the hallucinated gods, often portrayed with huge staring eyes. He says,

Now this needs a little more psychologizing. Eye-to-eye contact in primates is extremely important. Below humans, it is indicative of the hierchical position of the animal, the submissive animal turning away grinning in many primate species. But in humans, perhaps because of the much longer juvenile period, eye-to-eye contact has evolved into a social interaction of great importance. An infant child, when its mother speaks to it, looks at the mother’s eyes, not her lips. This response is automatic and universal. The development of such eye-to-eye contact into authority relationships and love relationships is an exceedingly important trajectory that has yet to be traced. It is sufficient here merely to suggest that you are more likely to feel a superior’s authority when you and he are staring straight into each other’s eyes. There is a kind of stress, an unresolvedness about the experience, and withal something of a dimunution of consciousness, so that, were such a relationship mimicked in a statue, it would enhance the hallucination of divine speech.

If this sounds outlandish, consider the phenomenon of imaginary companions in children. Some studies have found that 15-65% of children have mental conversations with imaginary playmates at one point in their life. Moreover, the phenomenological character of such conversations is typical of auditory hallucinatory, with the companion offering advice and guidance. With this in mind, imagine a society where not only were imaginary friends positively encouraged, but that moreover, there was an entire system of mythological narratives that structured the hallucination in terms of, not friends, but gods and demigods. In ancient chinese Shi “corpse/personator” ceremonies, auditory hallucination structured by cultural narratives of ancestor worship were extremely common. It is also well-known that classic schizoid hallucinations are structured in terms of the surrounding cultural context; if you hear voices in a Christian society, it is likely that voice will be structured in terms of the Abrahamic mythology, including Father God and the demonic world .

However, bicamerality is not nearly as present in today’s society. In breakdown situations, it is now phenomenologically average to narratize events through folk psychological background skills rather than obey a commanding voice. How did this happen? Jaynes speculated that

Overrun by some invader, and seeing his wife raped, a man who obeyed his voices would, of course, immediately strike out, and thus probably be killed. But if a man could be one thing on the inside and another thing on the outisde, could harbor his hatred and revenge behind a mask of acceptance of the inevitable, such a man would survive.Or, in the more usual situation of being commanded by invading strangers, perhaps in a strange language, the person who could obey superfically and have “within him” another self with “thoughts” contrary to his disloyal actions, who could loathe the man he smiled at, would be much more successful in perpetuating himself and his family.

This seems plausible to me. Moreover, narratization was increasingly employed in more day-to-day tasks, with narrative practice being useful for structuring reports of the past into easily understood stories, such as became codified in epics or written down and read out as social commands. Such a skill was learned by the man-complex much later than when it was learned by the god-complex. The first poets were the Muses; only later did man learn the skill of narrative for “himself”.

As an aside, I recently started reading Daniel Hutto’s book Folk Psychological Narratives. I have heard various things about Hutto’s Narrative Practive Hypothesis (NPH) over the years, but I had always been skeptical. But the other day I was thinking about the way in which our frontal cortex isn’t fully developed until early adulthood. Accordingly, the practice of “having a responsible self” does not really fully mature until one reaches the stage in social discourse such that narratives of authentic selfhood and agency are frequently prevalent in second-person interaction, self-intepretation, and social expectation. It struct me that in the same way children’s brain are radically sculpted by listening to primitive narratives appropriate for children, the frontal cortex later in life is radically sculpted by more advanced narratives appropriate for responsible adults with mature cognitive skills, including narratization and formal thinking skills. Upon this realization, it occurred to me  that Hutto’s NPH, which explains folk psychological cognitive skills in terms of a socialcultural narrative practice, was entirely plausible if we accept the fundamental plasticity of the cortex.

Thus, under Hutto’s NPH and Julian Jaynes’ own theory, we can say that “consciousness”, in terms of being an operation of narratization for the purpose of making more adequate decisions, is skill learned in development such that the language games of selfhood and responsibility literally “construct” an agent qua agent from the raw material of a plastic embodied brain.


Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

4 responses to “Imaginary Companions, Egyptian mythology, Julian Jaynes, and the Narrative Practice Hypothesis

  1. Thanks for that. Adds another dimension to my understandings of mythology.

  2. Pingback: Egyptian Mythology and Philosophy : Mormon Metaphysics

  3. Pingback: The God That is Our Brain: Bicameralism and Theology | Minds and Brains

  4. It’s nice to see an exploration of Jaynes and Hutto. In reading Hutto’s writing on folk psychology, I did sense the potential connections to Jaynes theory. But I haven’t yet read enough about Hutto’s views.

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