Home Safe. Or, the Transmigration of the Scythian Boss

Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity. Author image.

Safe and sound. I received all the volumes and individual books as described, in very good condition, as close to fine as can be expected, really, given that only imperfection is the fading and mild discoloration of the bindings. Otherwise, this entire publishing enterprise by Carpenter, published privately via his wife’s Rock Foundation (she inherited her portion of the Schlumberger oil equipment fortune) seems almost an impossibly monstrous thing: literally too physically large and heavy to accommodate ease of use. I knew this before I bought it, of course, having borrowed it via interlibrary loan (and recalling that there are only 600 copies originally in existence) but, really, I would have advised publishing this in the style of, say, an old fashioned, print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica or something similar. Which is to say using a smaller typeface and smaller images, all more densely formatted on the page so as to, well, make this thing smaller. Sure, I understand the unlimited funds type of attitude that inspires folio sized books and slipcases and all that but, frankly, it just gets in the way when you’re trying to work with it. And, yes, the Campbell/Zimmer Art of Indian Asia has similar issues if only in two volumes. And of note, beside Materials, if you look closely, I’ve placed Campbell’s Historical Atlas, also folio sized. So be it.

Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity. How to reasonably reference this absurdly unwieldly title in my discussion? An acronym, otherwise routinely sufficient, would hardly suffice for the title. My only recourse is to truncate the thing as Materials.[1] For citations, I’ll employ the following nomenclature, namely, Vol:Book, page. So be it.

The irony, inevitably a savage one, is that both Carpenter and Schuster, having been infected with their PhDs early in life, and in spite of the glimpses each provides of having surpassed the symptoms, inevitably suffered from what I hereafter refer to as PhD Disease (PHDD), the diagnosis of which would require a dull monograph of its own to fully explicate. But in short, its major symptom is a pathological obsession with the illusion of one’s own objectivity and, oftentimes, a poisonous compulsion to dismiss out of hand any published interpretation outside that of the original field researcher. The result? I offer a review of the anthropologist Dorothy Lee’s Freedom and Culture (1959) by David French:

The title of this selection of essays by Dorothy Lee reflects the two major facets of her writing: a concern with human problems and a utilization of a broad concept of culture to describe and highlight human variability. In view of the scattered and obscure sources from which they were reprinted, very few anthropologists will ever have seen her essays that employ anthropological data to explore questions of individual autonomy, the joy of participation, equality of opportunity, freedom, responsibility, and other matters likely to concern us more as citizens than as scholars and scientists. In fact, the book is an appropriate one for a thoughtful person of any occupation who has these concerns.

Except for her Wintu fieldwork and her early experience in Greece, Dr. Lee relies on the writings of others. These days one often hears of “Method” actors, who live their parts; she is a “Method” anthropologist….

Having insights is laudable; one is usually convinced by a given essay and delighted with it as well. Furthermore, there is no doubt about Dr. Lee’s diligence in attempting to surmount presuppositions derived from her own culture. As with certain writings of Ruth Benedict, however, the reader may have no way of knowing whether a particular passage really contains a valid insight or not. She does not document her writings extensively; she does not present all of her reasoning.

David French, review of Freedom and Culture by Dorothy Lee as it appeared within American Anthropologist, Issue 62, 1960, 1067-68.

Matters likely to concern us more as citizens than as scholars and scientists. Dr. Lee relies on the writings of others. She is a “Method” anthropologist. Disparagements all, of course. And I’m compelled to ask: (1) How it is that we can ever be a scientist without also being a citizen? – the implication, a little frightening I must say, is that a scientist isn’t fully human. (2) Of what use is writing if a serious scholar isn’t allowed to reference it? – we all can’t spend our time in the field, after all, it’s a different job to fetch the data versus interpret and articulate it. (3) As humans and citizens aren’t we necessarily imprisoned, to some extent, within our cultural perspective – isn’t it ultimately insurmountable – and what would be wrong with that if it allows us to project ourselves into that of another? That last one was three questions, sorry.

Inevitably, encountering a victim of PHDD invokes a sense of being between a rock and a hard place; between the devil and the deep blue sea; of being trapped within a catch-22. All the cliché analogies apply. And the sense of having the life sucked out things, to disinvest everything of its intuitive immediacy, if it possesses it, its vibe, its mystery and its zeal. The cart is being put before the horse, the world is a topsy turvy mess of impossible anxiety-inducing nonsense and nothing suffices. Imagine being a person like this. How to proceed? Teach. Teach what? It simply doesn’t matter because nobody will be listening.

The fact is that people, even PhDs, are people. As such, we are the stuff of mythos and to that we exclusively respond. Patterns of Culture? (Ruth Benedict). Patterns that Connect? Yes, but it misses the most interesting point. Nobody creates an image with the intention of connecting. The connection is not the driving force. It is not the muse. Any sense of connection comes after the fact of the aesthetic arrest. We are gripped or we are not. We create an image that affects us. Or, if we’re incapable of that, we seek out affecting images rendered by others. It’s just that simple.

Carl Schuster apparently was keen to discern between so-called folk art and what he termed palace art (1:1, 17). The former he preferred as somehow more authentic; more directly connected to its original intention, even if that intention had long since been lost. The other he regarded as diluted, contrived or false – pornographic in Joycean terms in the sense that it is intended to make us do something. I’m interpreting this within the context, of course, of my own interests and biases. Hence, I won’t go any further to here to argue the merits or demerits of any of the zillions of anthropologists past and present who would argue all this further, which is to say interminably. If, as Carpenter suggests, Schuster did not abide by and could not be labeled according to the “[p]ast foolishness by popularizers” who provided “labels of derision: Diffusion, Pyschic Unity, Universals, Archetypes, etc.” then I’m not at all sure what in hell the man was on about.

Carl Schuster’s primary interests were patterns of organization underlying traditional arts. To discover such patterns, he turned from historical analysis to pattern recognition. This meant foreswearing context in favor of an unflinching look at the designs themselves.

Carl Schuster; Edmund Carpenter, Patterns that Connect: Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996), 9.

Insert exasperated sigh. The use of the term “art” or “arts” within the context of cultural imagery that was created prior to our modern understanding of the term as implying art-for-art’s-sake drives me to distraction and coming from anthropologists it’s especially frustrating. They ought to know better that all imagery is not art. That is to say, art as we understand it today implies a composition intended to render an artist’s vision and an audience to view it for its own sake as such. Mythological imagery, on the other hand, implies symbology and the utility that comes with it. Mythological imagery has a function entangled with its contemplation. Hence, Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter, when they reference meaning and intelligence and anything to do with patterns that connect are experiencing both the window to transcendence – the aesthetic arrest that J. Campbell identifies – and the utility that mandates a practical function – clothing, food dish, weapon, container for remains, house, boat, status symbol, doll, object of my affection/attachment, what have you. Which reveals that nothing (apparently in contrast to modern life which is full of irreverently rendered imagery) when it had to do with the prehistoric or paleolithic or Aurignacian “modern” human was ever crafted for pure utility. Antiquity might be defined as life entangled comprehensively with symbology, hence mythology, for better or worse. As soon as we began discerning the difference between a thing’s pedestrian utility and its cosmic utility, say, I think we became modern.

Meanwhile, the above was in fact Carpenter’s second try at describing Schuster’s primary interest, which Cammann described as the study of folk symbols. “He believed,” suggests Cammann, “in keeping his findings on a ‘high scientific plane,’ avoiding discussions of the meanings which interested him so deeply, feeling that it was almost impossible to explain these except to others whose thoughts ran in the same channels” (Materials…, 16).

Meanings which interested him so deeply. Of course they did. If he suffered from PHDD at least it never managed to kill him. Carpenter, in his first try at describing Schuster’s interest:

Like the riddles he liked to decipher, Carl Schuster’s writings are not as they first appear. They first suggest a dilettante interest in the diffusion of art motifs. Actually, his interest lay in the intelligence behind man’s earliest iconography. To decode this ancient system, he traced a memory link from the present back to paleolithic times. He was not the first to attempt this, but he was the first to succeed.

He saw language as a great echo-chamber, preserving the past in deeply-buried metaphors. He was particularly interested in silent assumptions underlying art and in rules obeyed without understanding. From these elusive sources he decoded two ancient iconographies. [I assume Carpenter is here referring to (1) The so-called Sunbird which possess at its center a circle or hole that symbolizes the Sky Door leading to Heaven (1:1, 42), and (2) “the significance of the ‘hocker’ or squatting figure with ‘joint-marks’’ which depicts an ancestral figure excerpted from genealogical pattern (Ibid)].

Carl held the old-fashioned belief that a son learns a great deal from his father and a daughter learns even more from her mother. The power of tradition, he felt, was especially strong among nomadic tribesmen, in the way, say, mothers taught daughters to make fur clothing. In fact, the arts of native women proved to be his primary sources, providing him with his strongest evidence of continuity in cultural history (1:1, 33).

All of this rings both true and false. True because both Carpenter and Schuster, despite themselves, in my opinion are pursuing the origins of consciousness, they are researching Time and Mind, they are concerned with penetrating the essence of who we are both personally and culturally by way of affecting images, hence by way of mythological symbol, hence by way of metaphor. With all this I agree.

Falsity? It’s more akin to naivete. On behalf of great scholars? Yes. Specifically, I do not understand the idea, nay, the possibility of an absence context. I’m one who believes we can never successfully picture, within our mind’s eye or elsewhere (on the page or canvass, for example), the absence of a thing. Try as we might, by imagining the lack of a thing we imagine the thing itself. Refuse to choose, and you’ve thereby made a choice, and all that. As such, all images, intentionally symbolic or overtly utilitarian express a context; otherwise, they are rendered unintelligible as images. And no image is unintelligible if it was made by Man. Scholarship at its best, then, is the search for and revealing of proper context.

Schuster, arguably and paradoxically in terms of what Carpenter suggests, was both convinced that context could indeed be lost or permanently, irretrievably forgotten and at the same time indeed sought “the intelligence behind man’s earliest iconography.” So that nothing Man creates can ever really be forgotten. Jung would argue perhaps that the context is within us, always, as archetypes. I would argue that Schuster and Carpenter and Jung are expressing the same idea while perhaps insisting that they aren’t. But then I’m a mythologist (novelist), comparative mythologist, mythographer and I study the psychology of religion. So I believe my context is as comprehensive as it can get. Barring some new revelation of consciousness.

Life is inevitably an interpretation, a heuristic hermeneutic that is fueled by intuition and inevitably reveals the entanglement of our subjective and objective capabilities. The world is both what we make it and what we cannot unmake of it. It is active educated imagination in Northrup Frye’s terminology. It is a true fiction. Our experience of life is both an immaculate reflection and an inevitable distortion. But it is all of a context. Once cured of PHDD, even a scholar can perceive this. Mythology is what it is to be human, nothing more or less. “When in doubt,” suggests Robert Fripp, “reference tradition.” There you have Schuster, I’d say. “When still in doubt,” Fripp continues, “reference experience.” There exists Carpenter and perhaps Jeffrey Kripal. “When still in doubt, reference the body.” Here we’d evoke J. Campbell and C. Jung. And of course lists of others as appropriate.

It amounts to a naivete regarding the supremacy of mythology, of the inescapably fourfold function or phenomenon of being human. Schuster and Carpenter both suffered in their mild way from PHDD but the contradictions they communicate by way of their work (and lives) are merely examples of the same symptoms being overcome by the same self-cure. Live a mythologically oriented life, one attuned to the symbols, to one’s affecting images in personal and cultural terms and the predicament, the Mystery, becomes if not completely intelligible, then at least a wholehearted experience of being properly alive. Wikipedia provides a helpful little sampling of Schuster’s interests:

  • Continuous-line drawings, including such related forms as string figures, mazes, and labyrinths. These art forms were related, in turn, to joint marks.
  • The design of fur garments using a technique of small, interlocking skins. The resulting designs were later transferred to other media where they formed a kind of primitive heraldry, serving to identify group membership and the social standing of the owner.
  • Crossed figures (human or animal) engaged in primordial copulation at the center of the world, representing the foundation of society and the cosmos. The point of intersection of these figures was often indicated by hatching or a checkerboard pattern, used for divination and gaming in later periods. These ideas can be connected to the origin of writing systems and to early mathematical ideas.
  • Y-posts, notched sticks, notched disks, rosaries, and other mnemonic devices, where the notching represented generations. These forms were related to counting systems and heavenly ladders which, in turn, were tied into the cosmological system as a means of returning to heaven by retracing one’s ancestry back to the First One.
  • Finger amputation and cannibalism, which related to ideas of rebirth and kinship.

Whether or not I’ll eventually rediscover all this within Materials as conclusions that Carpenter has proffered isn’t the point. When I borrowed this set via interlibrary loan some years ago I recall being frustrated both by Carpenter’s interpretations, however tentative, and the hard fact that he was indeed popularizing (or attempting to) when he said he wasn’t. PHDD. I would expect him to come to speculative conclusions because the images are compelling. You can’t look at this stuff and not ask yourself what they could possibly mean and if any of it is related, diffused, comparable. Because it goddamn is. Ultimately, Carpenter endured exactly the criticism he seemed keen to levy at folks like J. Campbell and C. Jung. (If only he’d managed to also acknowledge the irony then I’d be happier to indulge him and sympathize). Perhaps by way of the following he felt the irony went without saying.

A friend of mine, who kindly corrected errors & misspellings in Chapter 17, added: “I really find this type of ‘butterfly collecting’ objectionable. I would be hard pressed to say anything good about it – I find such comparisons farfetched and, indeed, uninteresting. I cannot see how it gets us anywhere. There is no analysis, no evidence, only speculation that shortly turns to fact. Each time a question is posed, my answer is, ‘No.” Although it is stated that the intention is morphological, the outcome smacks of diffusion from (ultimately) a paleolithic source. At the end I only sigh and say, ‘So what.’ I suppose this will upset you, but I suspect most anthropologists will agree with me, unless they just want to be kind (3:3, 450).

And here we find echoes of our other PHDD victim, David French. But enough diagnosis.

Materials, then. What to make of it? What to do with it? It’s in a good place here in my house and within my reach, that’s all I can say. Carl Schuster was all about joint-marks – he wrote a monograph on them, “ Joint-marks: A Possible Index of Cultural Contact Between America, Oceania and the Far East” – and on this at least we agree, the importance of them, that is. I am still driven to examine the transmigration of this component within mythologically potent imagery that culminates in the Northwest Coast versions. Why is it that we are compelled to render anatomical joints (both animal and human) in this manner? Mere stylistic affectation? Why did the practice not only endure but evolve? Why did the imagery indeed migrate from Asia across the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of the New World? Did it indeed have paleolithic origins? What is it about Northwest Coast imagery that explodes with compellingly entangled mythological dynamism?

Belt Plaque with a Monster Attacking a Horse. Gold; hammered and soldered, inlaid, 4th-3rd century BC, Southern Siberia, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, published in Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, St. John Simpson & Svetlana Pankova, eds., BP Exhibition, The British Museum, (Thames & Hudson: London, 2017), frontispiece.


Note: A so-called “boss” here refers to a design element, namely, in this example, the joint-marks.


Meanwhile, begin with your affecting images and move on from there, let them work on you as J. Campbell suggested, sometimes that’s all we can do. It’s a heuristic hermeneutic that I abide by because it provides me the experience of being properly alive. That, and shoving some of this stuff into my sci-fi novels, all in good fun. Serious good fun. Meanwhile, genealogical symbolism in the “hocker?” Patterns that connect in this way? I’m still digesting most of what Schuster managed to collect besides what he managed to imply, at least by way of Carpenter’s wholeheartedly authentic presentation. Inevitable criticism notwithstanding, Carpenter predicted that folks would be studying this stuff and here I am one of them. Thanks Carl. Thanks Ted. And to my readers, thanks for reading, see you next time.

[1] Patterns That Connect, Carpenter’s title for the single volume “greatest hits” version also fails because it both restricts and over-expands the topic. Much better would have been to reference what Carpenter himself interpreted as Schuster’s “favorite field, which might be called the Study of Folk Symbols” (1:1, 14). There you have it. My suggestion? Indigenous Symbols. What does “indigenous” refer to? After all, it can be argued that there is always something or somebody that came before…. Anyway, you have to keep it short and it has to be compelling. Otherwise a project is presented as hopelessly academic from the start. One of the things a book title possesses the opportunity to do is indeed symbolize the contents of the damn book. J. Campbell had a knack for it but only after he’d begun with painfully pedestrian working titles. How to Read a Myth (for The Hero With a Thousands Faces), for example or, in the case of The Masks of God series, The Basic Mythologies of Mankind. Both titles describe and represent but neither symbolizes, let alone affects us in any vital manner. An image is either affecting or it isn’t just as the mythologies they seek to express is or isn’t.