How much stems from historical Knowledge? And does it make you hate the wrong people?
Trigger warning: A few descriptions of historical tortures.
The dreams of medieval tortures began when I was around seven or eight.
I can’t remember the brutal details, but generally — men coming after me, wanting to torture me for some damn thing. They petered out, then flared up many years later, as an adult. I remember those a little better. Burning stakes, cages and sharp blades. One memorable device I wasn’t even familiar with. The huge heavy weight looked sort of like a child’s top, with a broad base and a point. My persecutors wanted to center its point over my belly and crush me. When I awoke I thought, “What the hell? I’ve never even heard of anything like that.”
Past-life memories? Intergenerational trauma memories? Psychically tuning in to another time?
Maybe. Although the earliest dreams started around the time I read my first book on the European witch craze. Written for children, its descriptions of interrogations, confession tortures and executions were nevertheless graphic. I recall it was too upsetting to finish. The later re-visitations coincided with my exploration of Wicca. My reading material contained far more graphic descriptions of human suffering and now I had a very rough idea of what a medieval torture chamber looked like thanks to old Vincent Price movies and a Gilligan’s Island episode in which the castaways are held prisoners, but not harmed, in a mad scientist’s torture chamber.
Mad Vincent Price’s faithless wife is about to learn Iron Maiden doesn’t rock the house. Public domain still from the 1961 movie The Pit and the Pendulum.
Now I wonder about the belly-crusher: Was it a past life memory, or had I learned about it years prior and forgotten it? One’s unconscious doesn’t forget as easily as the conscious mind shocked into welcome forgetfulness. I can’t swear I hadn’t learned about it when I was younger.
Memory is odd; we forget things. When reminded we may not even recall a sense of familiarity of once having known it. I read a story years ago about a woman who ‘remembered’ a past life involving a minor historical incident in which she recounted details confirmed by books. Turns out earlier records had gotten some details wrong. They’d been corrected in modern versions. She’d ‘remembered’ not the incident that happened, but the faulty narrative in a childhood book.
Now as we debate the trauma associated with America’s slavery era, I wonder a few things: How much of the trauma is actually caused by historical knowledge, and does mishandling that knowledge cause us to excoriate the wrong people?
You can’t see the first comment I received from my recent article 6 Racist Things Black People Gotta Stop Doing. The author deleted her well-expressed disagreement with my take on the slavery focus; I’m not sure why. She brought up an interesting point regarding my view that there’s a modern over-emphasis on American slavery banned a century and a half ago. I believe it keeps black spirits perpetually outraged about a past no one can change. On a subconscious level, I’d guess it’s less scary than contemplating how to change a present and future when there may be serious repercussions for challenging the white status quo.
My frustration with endless repetitions of this hoary-if-horrific chapter in American history stems from my impatience with Pagans and witches preoccupied with inquisitions of yore.
I’ve witnessed how toxic it is for women to, as I described similarly in Six Things, keep the wound raw and bathe it in lemon juice. The mixed-race commenter spoke of the damage she feels she’s been caused by the American slave legacy and I don’t doubt her, nor do I fault the ‘deep resentment’ she says American blacks feel for an ugly chapter in history. They’re living several generations closer to historical trauma than European-descended modern witches are.
She also spoke of what she believes are ‘ancestral dreams’ embodying many of the very worst abuses of an American slave’s life. Also known as ‘genetic memory’, or epigenetics, it’s a controversial idea. Can trauma become encoded into our genes and passed along to our descendants? The science leans that way with experiments on rodents and nematode worms (you have more in common, genetically, with both than you’d like to know). Genetic memories go back as far as 14 generations for our wormy cousins, and if it ultimately proves similar for humans, that’s 350–500 years back depending on how you count the length of generations. So yes, my commenter and I could hypothetically have genetic memories of trauma.
Lab mice taught to fear and avoid a scent similar to cherry blossoms passed on that fear to the next generation. Creative Commons 2.0 photo from Wikimedia Commons
But I wonder: If she had no knowledge of the slave trade, would she have these dreams? Because I’m not at all sure I’d have dreamed about torture chambers if I’d never learned of them.
American blacks speak of the damage caused them by the American slave system, but never of the ones they descended from in pre-colonial Africa. Nor does any black woman, to my knowledge, claim ‘ancestral’ damage stemming from a 2,000-year-old legacy of one of the worst human rights abuses ever, believed to have originated in Africa: Female genital mutilation.
Epigenetic scientists have focused on Holocaust survivors and Native North Americans. I’ve wondered about the epigenetic legacy of American slavery, and also FGM. American slavery ended in the 1860s; FGM never ended in some places. Anthropologists aren’t certain how old the practice is because its first mention was in the writings of Strabo in Egypt, where its prevalence is still estimated at 87.2%. Should be easy enough to investigate.
How many women descended from FGM-practicing cultures, I wonder, suffer unacknowledged epigenetic trauma even if their own genitals have never been mutilated?
As for horrible slave ‘memories’, I wonder whether more than just American blacks are also impacted by slave trauma since we are all likely descended from slaves.
It’s a universal institution, spanning thousands of years and just about every single human community. It was more prevalent in some places than others and the American slavery system introduced a deeper level of dehumanization than previous systems, which generally granted slaves at least a few rights of their own.
But we can count slaves and probably more than a few slave owners and traders in our family trees as well. Black descendants can be guaranteed they weren’t all white, because pre-colonial black Africans happily traded in slaves before their new customers arrived from Europe and America.
Black Americans’ genealogies, sundered by the slave trade, disappear only a few generations back, to the days when no one kept records on what happened to black slaves, including any children they may have born or sired. So they need never confront their own ugly past on the other side of the auction block: When their ancestors bought, sold and traded other human beings.
I won’t say my commenter isn’t suffering from genuine genetic memories. I won’t deny her pain, nor the oppressive wake of an ugly legacy ended only 150 years in the past. Just as I won’t deny European-descended women the pain or the legacy caused by vicious, misogynist witch hunts and persecutions from hundreds of years ago.
Maybe they, too, and perhaps I, suffer past-life or genetic memories.
I may well have ‘witches’ in my own family line. My genealogy stems primarily from France, a hotbed of witchmania, as well as England and Germany. England was a better place to be accused, Germany was the worst. England eschewed the cruelest tortures and preferred hanging for execution; Germany refined maximizing human suffering to a hellish art form and death by stake-burning took much longer. And they managed to make it even worse while you waited to die. Don’t ask. Just don’t.
Yeah, no wonder I had horrible nightmares back in the day!
My commenter described how brutalizing, dehumanizing and debilitating American slavery has been to the descendants of Africans dragged across the Atlantic into servitude. If I don’t feel her pain personally, not being black, I understand her anger. I, and other white Pagans feel the same when we revisit the Middle Ages’ tortures of the damned.
I believe we must never forget history; we can never know too much, we must drill down forever deeper for new insights into the human condition and behavior; where we’ve come from, where we are, where we’re going. As ugly and traumatic as it is to revisit the trauma of slavery, or witch hunts, the danger lies in allowing ourselves to feel too victimized and even worse, to confuse the descendants with the villains of those dark times.
The new conflation of ‘white supremacy’ with modern systematized oppression of blacks and other non-whites today, I believe is fed by the preoccupation with the slavery era.
American society may be rooted in genuine white supremacy, but our ancestors would be appalled at how much freedom blacks have now. This conflation between history and the present drives misplaced black aggression, confusing white people today with the slave owners of the past. As bad as modern, true white supremacists are, they’re a much tinier representation of white Americans. They’d probably become Massas again if not restrained by what’s left of the democratic state, but maybe it’s a testament to American resilience that we haven’t yet descended into all-out civil war.
There’s plenty of reason for black Americans to be angry and aggressive; but it’s counterproductive to add needless anger at whites for something almost no one supports anymore (I say ‘almost’ because I’m quite sure some Trumpers would happily support black slavery again if allowed; but I also think some black extremists would start popping off white people indiscriminately if not held back by that same state).
I’ve witnessed and felt that same toxic confusion between the nightmarish abuses of centuries past, with the aggressive feelings and sometimes downright loathing for people today — modern men and the Catholic Church (the primary villains of the Witches’ Narrative).
You see it when some female writers recount the tortures of the damned for moderns, in case we weren’t aware of how they ripped flesh from bones with red hot pincers or how the strappado worked. Let’s describe in gruesome detail burning rods driven up vaginas, iron cages over hot coals, the rack tearing female joints apart like a hungry warrior with a leg of mutton.
By the time you were done reading that shit, you were ready to firebomb your local St. Peter’s.
Our angry feelings bled over to modern men, most of whom, as far as we knew, thought the Spanish boot was something worn by hipster metrosexuals.
The Catholic Church’s modern crimes faded into the background as we confused the abuses of patriarchal dead guys with our own otherwise more civilized ones.
We need to know and understand history, but also make the distinction between what was yesterday and what is today and stop misplacing blame.
Human history is brutal. I’ve begun re-reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, and one of the most difficult. It is, believe it or not, also a heartwarming and hopeful book laying out in 700 pages why humanity is getting better, not worse, and how violence is decreasing everywhere (yes, everywhere) around the world, and has been for many centuries. He describes how brutal non-state societies were, like pre-colonial Indigenes and those still in existence, if you consider homicide as a percentage of a population. Fifty deaths in a war on one side doesn’t sound like much when our own battles number many more; but it’s a helluva difference when your army began with a hundred warriors. That’s a 50% casualty rate, compared to way under 1% for American wars, even though far more people die. It wasn’t even war that made/makes pre-state life so nasty, brutish and short; it’s the raiding parties that often wiped out entire villages, that made pre-European contact Indigenous life far dicier.
As for pre-contact Indigenous violence? Don’t ask. Just don’t ask.
As scientists add the treatment of North American Indigenes by whites to the epigenetic debate, I wonder: How much epigenetic trauma have they encoded from pre-colonial days? If it goes back that far for humans?
In addition to slavery practices and female genital mutilation overall, how much epigenetic trauma is there for descendants of tribes and kingdoms conquered by those famous brutally bloody bastards, the Mongol Horde? Genghis Khan was literally one of the most prolific men in human history, raping his genes into millions of descendants currently alive. So there may be a lot of epigenetic memories.
What about pre-contact Native Americans scalping one’s ancestors alive, or, as Steven Pinker describes, being forced to watch while others carved a piece off you and ate you in front of you? Sometimes victims were forced to join in the feast. Cannibalism: The dirty little secret of many pre-contact Indigenes.
We may never know if our memories and dreams are from a particular slice of history, or one that we’re already knowledgeable about. Books or legacy?
I think both.
Maybe nightmares and the trauma of learning what really was done to others is the price we pay for morally evolving.
There’s a positive note, though, in the epigenetic trauma story: It seems positive experiences can reverse the damage, at least with more recent trauma. Something to think about as we descend further into polarization, Othering, and tribalism: Stop the madness and develop positive qualities like equanimity, kindness and compassion!
Do it for your future kids.