Hollow Vessels

Amongst other things, jinn have been near the edges of my awareness. Primarily, I mean as a concept, but then so has Malphas and St. Brigid and the Sibyl. While I wait for Scarlet Imprint to release Jinn Sorcery, I was reading Umar S. al-Ashqar’s The World of the Jinn & Devils. One of the things that gets my attention about the jinn is that they’re very similar to the fae, and reading the Quranic and other accounts of jinn al-Ashqar catalogues reminded me in many places of Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth.

Anyway, as I’m reading, I come across a passage that gets my attention:

When Allah fashioned Adam in Paradise, He left him as long as He wished to leave him. Then Iblees roamed around him to see what he actually was and when Iblees found him to be hollow from within, he recognized that the new creature had been created with a disposition such that it would not have control over itself.[1] (emphasis mine)

That hollowness caught my attention. I thought about how spirit contact for me can feel like they’re filling me with their speech and thoughts, and I had pondered how does one go about filling oneself with oneself. The hollowness of Adam in this passage also suggests a kind of extra-dimensionality: Iblees can literally look into Adam and sees there’s not much there.

And we talk about possession as entailing spirits entering into persons and inhabiting them. But we also talk about filling ourselves with all sorts of non-food, non-drink things. From al-Ashqar’s book:

As for the heart that is filled with the presence of Allah and His grandeur, love for Him, protection from Him and so forth, no devil would be able to steal anything from it. (223)

Or even the Bible, which is replete with these kinds of fillings:

And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom (Exodus 28:3)

I sensed there was something ful-some here, but when I first started writing this post, all I started doing was collecting instances of this kind of language. But I went back to looking at Eduardo Kohn again.

The phenomenological anthropologists have been trying to get at a way of engaging with animism that engages animisms not only seriously but also locally. But in doing so, they’ve also been skirting ways of understanding the world that come pretty damn close to magic. Of course, as academics, they can’t say, to borrow again from White, but magic. But it’s totally but magic.

For example, Rane Willerslev in Soul Hunters argues for a mimetic model for Yukaghir animism, or “Animism as Mimesis,” with shamans who use mimesis to become “not an elk, and yet…also not not an elk.” The shaman becomes elk-enough long-enough to get close enough to an elk so the shaman can do something decidedly not-elk-but-human: shoot it with a gun.


“Eric” the Magnificent (by Peter Trimming, CC BY 2.0). Eric is not fooled by your mimesis.

What Willerslev describes isn’t mere camouflage or roleplaying, though. For a time, the shaman becomes something other than only-human, and while in this state, the shaman perceives a female elk as a beautiful human woman. He must then kill her while avoiding going off with her, which would lead to his death when she killed him. In Willerslev’s account, the hunter even hears her speak his language. For the Yukaghir, “the capacity to take on the appearance and viewpoint of another being is one of the key aspects of being a person.” Mimesis-as-animism entails “the ability to see similarities and invent correspondences with the surrounding world” in order to “imitate significant and powerful others not simply to represent them, but also to exercise power over them.” The shaman’s power comes not from the similarity they cultivate during the hunt—the elk shaman is not a “perfect copy” of an elk, for the power he wields comes via his difference—otherwise, similarity collapses “into each other…[and they] become one.” Power-over depends upon seeming similar enough for the subject to recognize the Other in part, but the shaman cannot be able to identify with the Other, or else the power dynamic emerging in their difference collapses into sameness. As Willerslev argues,

People must constantly steer a difficult course between analogy and identity and tread a fine line between transcending difference and maintaining identity…they can and do transform themselves into various others, both human and nonhuman, but must avoid total participation and confusion.[2]

In comparison, Kohn argues that our world is itself semiotic: that is, the world is itself engaged in the creation and interpretation of meaning at every level, from enzymes interpreting particular shapes of molecules as what it can bond with or not, and in that interpretation creating more meaning and new signs. Or a giant anteater’s tongue has developed in such a way that it matches and describes the typical structure of anthills:

Anteater snouts over the generations have come to represent with increasing accuracy something about the geometry of ant colonies because those lineages of “protoanteaters” whose snouts and tongues less accurately captured relevant environmental features (e.g., the shapes of ant tunnels) did not survive as well. Relative to these protoanteaters, then, today’s living anteaters have come to exhibit comparatively increasing “fittedness” (Deacon 2012) to these environmental features. They are more nuanced and exhaustive representations of it. It is in this sense that the logic of evolutionary adaptation is a semiotic one.[3] (Emphasis mine)

Kohn also defines an “enchanted” world as one that “is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans”—the world has meanings beyond what we describe, invent, or discover. And I connected Kohn’s anteater example to a different kind of “mimesis.” To paraphrase and adapt White, much as the anteater’s tongue matches the contours of anthills and colonies in order to find prey, so too did ancestral humans use their psi-capacity to divine (see) in which valley the tribe would find prey to hunt so the tribe can then go there and hunt them. The anteater’s tongue matches the tunnels of the ants; for the tribe, their path matches the path of their prey. Or, as another example, via White,

In Borneo, the Kantu people use an intricate system of ornithomancy –bird divination- to select the site to be cleared for that season’s crops, principally the appearance of the scarlet-rumped trogon. Swidden farming is an unpredictable practice. An area of land that may seem suitable can be disastrous if there is too much or too little rain, or if the river is too low. Any number of factors in a hugely complex ecosystem can determine whether the Kantu eat or not. Thus any kind of systemic procedure for selecting agricultural sites will fail in fairly short order. Yet the Kantu do not starve.

Anthropologists presumed that the presence of these bird species conveyed something ecological about the quality of the soil in the typically poor-quality land of the Kantu. It turns out this is not the case at all, and it is precisely the random appearance of the birds that prevents any kind of systematic method from developing, thus ensuring site diversification. It is this diversification –this chaos- that gives the Kantu crops an over-the-odds chance of survival for that season. (The keen-eyed Animist would –and should- point out that even if the birds aren’t saying something ecological, they are obviously saying something else.)[4]

That is, the Kantu have learned that the trogon’s presence also describes, more often than not, successful farming, in a way not unlike the anteater’s tongue describing the best path to find ants in their colonies.

As Kohn puts it, “Life, then, is a sign process.”[5]

Now, I find it interesting how the path through the valleys to find herds to hunt describes finding (or filling) those empty valleys with food. The Kantu find a way to fill their plots—and their bellies—with food. The anteater slurps up ants from the hollow earth. That hollowness is there.

And so it is with Adam and his sons and Eve’s daughters. And I note how Iblees thinks about how hollow Adam is and accordingly lacks control. I consider how Islam, Christianity, and Judaism often focus on filling the human person with wisdom, God’s presence, and other things we wouldn’t ordinarily consider concrete “things,” like all that food—even as those supposedly immaterial things are often framed in terms of sustenance.

And I think about what is it that we do today—well, what we do in human society that aligns with this same thread. What does rhetoric—discourse, speech, symbolism, ideology, art, etc.—do to us that works in fundamentally similar ways. Actually, I want to say the same ways. If you want to bridge the animism and practices of the Yukaghir, Runa, Kantu, and other indigenous cultures past and present to the West, then consider what we fill ourselves with and who fills us.

And if you don’t think rhetoric and art and speech can fill you, then Shakespeare begs to differ with you. (Of course, I went to Shakespeare.) Iago calls the theatrics, deception, art, lies, and rhetoric he’s used against Othello as his “medicine,” that Othello has taken into himself, culminating at that point with Othello having an epileptic episode (4.1). In a very similar moment, Lady Macbeth plots to “pour her spirits in [her husband’s] ear; / And chastise with the valour of [her] tongue / All that impedes [Macbeth]” from murdering Duncan (1.5). She soon thereafter engages in a bit of impromptu spell craft:

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief!

In Hamlet, the Ghost tells Hamlet that

so the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forged process of my death

Rankly abused

before describing how Claudius filled his ear with poison:

With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leperous distilment; whose effect

Holds such an enmity with blood of man

That swift as quicksilver it courses through

The natural gates and alleys of the body,

And with a sudden vigour doth posset

And curd, like eager droppings into milk,

The thin and wholesome blood (1.5)

Remember, this is Claudius the Machiavellian, who through his use of rhetoric and deception has become king of Denmark and married his brother’s widow.

We still talk about filling ourselves with these kinds of things. A quick Google autocomplete search shows me how desperately we want to fill ourselves with God, spirituality, warrior spirit, good vibes, and quarters.


But not rum, for some reason.

So, I return to the question I had the other day: how do I fill myself with myself rather than having others fill me? Civic cultus wants to fill us with its ideas and images and ordering principles, and civic cultus is arguably always archonic and oppressive and authoritarian, even when that cultus or ideology is whatever new civic religion trying to fill us or give us meaning and purpose. Consider the calls to fill ourselves with God, civic cultus, patriotism—with spirits, ancestors, food—with sights and sounds.

Or, at least, what have we been filling ourselves with, and how is that—if it actually is—carrying us forward to the kind of fulfillment we actually want?

And this is where I also come back again to old Iblees and a bit of Willerslev. Humanity may be hollow, but we are, like the spirits, capable of symbolism, of lying, of pretending, of self-deception, of tricks of personhood and self-perception. We can become elk-enough-but-human to get near the elk. We can become spirit-enough to get the spirits to come near. We can wear masks and raiment to fill ourselves with the Depths. But we can also choose to fill ourselves with our relationships with other people, for empathy and compassion (com-passio—to suffer with another) entails us using our hollowness to let someone else’s life fill us so that we can become them, at least for a while. And in doing so, we can become someone other than we were, and hopefully someone more human, more than human, better human. Take your pick.

Featured Image: The Danaides by John William Waterhouse

[1] Qtd. In Umar Sulayman Ashqar, The World of the Jinn and Devils, translated by Jamaal al Din M. Zarabozo (Islamic Books, 1998), 69.

[2] Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 1-12.

[3] Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, Kindle Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), locations 1592-8.

[4] Gordon White, Pieces of Eight: Chaos Magic Essays and Enchantments, Kindle edition: locations 1220-8.

[5] Kohn, 1598.

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