"TAKE BACK THE PLANET"
A Review of James Cameron's Avatar (2009)
by John Lamb Lash
"What is here is there, what is not here is nowhere," goes a Tantric saying. Avatar portrays an alien world, Pandora, but this alien world clearly suggests the earth in the original splendor of Edenic beauty. The plot tells a story of indigenous people who triumph over violence and greed that threaten to turn their native paradise into a wasteland. Sound familiar?
Avatar is planetary folk lore molded on the model of the Hero's Adventure made famous by mythologist Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Jean Houston (The Goddess and the Hero). In my own contribution to the genre, The Hero - Manhod and Power, I show that wakes a man a hero is mastery of superfluity, excess power. He needs this excess because he battles against overwhelming forces. In the heroic struggle, the odds are never even. A hero like David always stands against a monstrous superpower like Goliath. What makes man, the male, a hero is the use of his excess power to defeat even more excessive forces. Every single film and book based on the hero theme exhibits this motif.
Cameron's film employs this theme, but with a significant variant: the addition of a heroine, Neytiri, who makes it possible for the hero, Jake Sully, to complete his mission. Cameron, who also wrote the screenplay, adds three factors to the standard plot of the Hero's Adventure. Traditionally, the hero is a loner and must overcome all by himself the overwhelming powers ranged against him . In Avatar, Sully receives support and assistance from three sources: the heroine Neytiri, the Ha'vi, the indigenous tribe to which she belongs, and the Mother Spirit of Pandora, Ey'wa. Jake Sully is not the sole hero of the planet he defends against the military-corporate predators, so the plot of Avatar transcends the traditional limits of this mytheme.
Neytiri educates Sully in the ways of Pandora and an interspecies romance develops. The Ha'vi eventually accept him, not as their messiah and savior, but as the reincarnation of a warrior hero, one of only five tribesmen who ever rode a ferocious flying dragon, a Toruk. So recognized, Jake rallies all the tribes on Pandora to fight against the overwhelming might of the military-corporate predators. Finally, at the decisive moment then the natives battle with bows and arrows against state-of-the-art military hardware and incendiary bombs, the Eywa intervenes: she ends the unleashed fury of the forest animals against those who would desecrate her planetary body for power and profit.
Avatar depicts an indigenous race of shaman hunter-gatherers, the blue-skinned Ha'vi. The native people live in deep immersion with the ecology of their habitat on a planet called Pandora—the name of a Greek goddess, "she who is all giving." Cameron presents in Pandora a cinematic metaphor for Mother Nature, as earthlings quaintly used to call her. Animism, the oldest collective mind-set on earth, asserts that this planet which gives all that is required for life is not a dumb unconscious material globe. It is an intelligent. self-regulating creature interactive (animistically bonded, if you will) with the creatures in its atmosphere, both human and non-human. Likewiser, modern Gaia theory affirms that the biosphere of the earth regulates itself in a constant feedback loop with the biota, the totality of sentient life.
Even though it uses computer generated imagery (CGI) to depict Pandora, the astonishing beauty of animation in this film suggests how the world can look in the Edenic gaze of imagination. Technology cannot produce this gaze, or substitute for it, but handled with consummate artistic skill, as Cameron has done, it may just usher the mind to the threshold of its own visionary potential.
The Ha'vi practice linking with plants, birds, and animals to stay in harmony with Eywa, the Gaia-like goddess whose presence pervades Pandora via a network of arboreal tendrils. They can bond to any plant or animal by what might be called shamanic empathy. Participation in the life-story of Gaia-Sophia also requires an act of linkage or bonding. To know and love the story of the Fallen Goddess is one thing, and absolutely essential, of course. But to enact the story via a conscious bond with the living presence of the planetary spirit, is something else again. The computer-generated imagery of Avatar displays a world of immense beauty and wonderment, as this world of ours would look in the thrill of that enactment.
This film will touch the inarticulate desire in many human hearts to be alive in Gaia's Dreaming with her, and so discover our true role in the symbiosis of the planetary weave.
Since its release in December 2009, Avatar has received some favorable, even glowing reviews, and a great deal of negative comment. The Vatican gang and old-time Christians are particularly bent out of shape by the Pandoran vision. An outcry against Paganism, Gaia religion, Wicca, and nature worship can be heard across the globe. The main objection of the Christophiles is that we cannot find salvation in the natural world, but only through the supernatural messiah. I would reply, if we really live in harmony with the natural world, we don't need salvation in the first place. This response informs the argument in my book, Not in His Image (Chelsea Green, 2007) where I trace the roots of global terrorism to the "salvationist virus" of Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith in a divine redeemer.
The view that living sanely and intelligently in a close interactive bond with nature, as the Na'vi do, eliminates the need for salvation from an off-planet father god is not mine, not a personal eccentricity: it is the timeless generic Pagan view of life. It is also the view of intellectual heretics, those who choose to think differently from blind believers. Heresy comes from a Greek root meaning simply "to choose, to have a choice."
Christianity is rarely a choice of those who embrace it. It rose to power historically by the brutal decimation of the indigenous peoples of Europe, aka Pagans. In Not in His Image, I compare this massacre to the wholesale genocide and "conversion" of the Native Americans by European colonists. Avatar makes no attempt to depict converson of the natives to a religious ideology of divine paternalism, perhaps just to bribe them with t-shirts and six-packs. The invaders of Pandora declare no triumphant religious ideology: they are pure military-corporate predators in search of a rare mineral. But an honest study of modern history shows that corporations and military orders from the US Army to the Knights of Malta rely on divine paternalism, putting God on their side.
Christianity is complicit with the rape and despoliation of the earth and the slaughter of native peoples as much today as it ever was. Even though the religion of the perpetrators does not figure in the plot of Avatar, and apparently did not concern it's writer-director Cameron, it is obviously a huge issue to many of the viewers. Old-time Christians are particularly upset by the perceived idealization or native peoples, savages with bows and arrows who practice shamanic rites and bond with animals, even when they slay them. Negative reviews and outright attacks on Avatar give true believers in God and Christ an opportunity to vent their spleen and reveal, once again, how hateful they truly are, how intolerant of co-existence, and incapable of reverence toward the earth or respect for anyone who loves and adores it like a mother.
The outcry against the dangers of nature worship is wildly revealing of those who proclaim it. What are they so afraid of? What are they actually protesting? In large measure, this response is purely ignorant: I defy anyone who would categorically condemn nature worship to define Pagan, or animism, or shamanism. Such ignorance is dangerous, especially when it goes unchallenged and misleads astray people who would otherwise give a fair listen to the alternative view of nature worship, or goddess religion, as it may also be called, contrasted to worship of an off-planet father god who saves the humanity by inflicting doomsday upon it. At brst, the controversy over Avatar may inspire some people to investigate the correct meaning of Paganism, nature worship, Wicca, witchcraft, and shamanism, as such terms are understood by those who embrace the views and practices comprised.
A Pagan is simply someone who lives in nature, in the country, close to natural resources: Latin paganus. Not an urban person who lived caged in a city cell among strangers and relies on human-made and artificial means and resources to live. All indigenous peoples are Pagan. Considered as a religion or worldview, Paganism is the non-institutional, non-hierarchal tribal or community orientation of human culture to the non-humam world, with the intent to preserve a pact or bond with the greater forces of the environment so that human society can survive in a sane and harmonious manner. As such, Paganism is just the collective cultural expression of the oldest worldview on earth, animism.
An animist is a life scientist empathically involved in the open-ended, open source experiment of human activity on earth. To an animist, the source of life is also the source of morality, healing, and deliverance from the limits of the human condition, i.e, the soure of of transcendence. If the source of transcendence is present here and now in the realm of the senses, one does not look elsewhere for it. Jesuit advisors at the Vatican surely know this, having done their homework in anthropology. This is why they are so terrified of the attraction of the Pandoran world: blissful immersion in the beauteous intelligent design of nature is the blessing of animism, as well as the assurance of reaching the transcendent through the sense world. This assurance is usually dressed up in a philosophical term, divine immanence. The presence of the Divine in the here and now is the considered view, not blind belief, of Wiccans, Pagans, and indigenous peoples of all cultures in all times. As long as a community or an entire civilization (such as the pre-Christian civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean basin) has such an assurance, you can't sell the members a ticket to salvation. One way or another, Avatar touches and awakens that assurance. The sheer beauty of the film cues the viewer to divine immanence.
Protests against the film on the issue of nature worship are likely to reveal in a most flagrant matter the stupidity and ignorant prejudice of Christians entrapped in a series of mental glitches that runs something like this: Pagan - tree-huggers - dirty hippies - indigenous savagery - nature worship - Satanism - sadism - human sacrifice - orgies - black magic - harming and killing people for the kick of it. Now that is a heady recipe for some wicked fun, perhaps, but hardly equal to the record of the Church of the One True Faith.
The Vatican monopoly on sadism, enforced through the victim-perpetrator bond, is, of course indirectly threatened by such a sequence of ludicrous associations. But it gets worse for Catholics and old-time Christians of all kinds: if Pagans take back the earth, as the Pandorans take back their planet, where are all the devotees of the off-planet father god and his all-suffering son, the messiah, going to find refuge? They might find some angry Pagans coming after them with native magic. They might find some Gaian sorcery and upscaled witchcraft intruding upon their faith-bound fortress. It must be said—indeed, it is uniquely my pleasure and my privilege to say it—that revenge, not forgiveness, is essential to the honor code to Pagan ethics.
One my reservations about Avatar was the definition of that term within the exact context of the film: an avatar is the genetically engineered body that combines human genes and Ha'vi native genes, hence, a hybrid able to live among the Pandoran natives as one of them. Under certain conditions, anyway.
Now this is where Cameron's plot get's mighty interesting to me as a scholar of Gnosticism. Initially, I was concerned that the hybrid concept would be a ploy for artificially modified life, AI, artificial intelligence. Or that it might promote the cyber-chic notion of superhumanism, namely, human genetics and mental capacity modified by computer science or genetic and mechanical enhancement of the human body with artificial components as depicted in films such as RoboCop, the Terminator series (also directed by Cameron), and AI, the sentimental tale of a android programmed to love.... As if anyone could program love.
Those familiar with this site know that I take a strong stand against VR, virtual reality, conceived as superior to, or even as an adequate substitute for, natural, earth-bound, sense-driven reality. This objection comes from my studies of the Gnostic teachings that warn about HAL, simulation, artificial intelligence. AKA the Archon factor so clearly described in Gnostic Coptic texts.
Well, upon viewing Avatar I recognized immediately that Cameron had satisfied my rigorous standards of mythological invention without slipping into worship of artificiality and simulation. This is a fantastic breakthrough. As Cameron scripts it, Jake Sully is a twin whose brother was the original subject of the avatar cross-breeding process. His brother's DNA was combined with Ha'vi DNA to produce the ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned, cat-like humanoid that can live among the Ha'vi and breath the atmosphere of Pandora, as ordinary humans cannot. When his brother died, Jake, who lost the use of his legs in Marine action, gets to replace him. His innocence combined with brute warrior strength and savvy actually make him a better agent to infiltrate the Ha'vi and learn their ways to the advantage of the predators—such is his assignment, at least.
But Sully goes native and betrays his terrestrial masters, using the very hybrid form they give him to battle against them in the cause of Eywa, the mother power.
The hero of Avatar is a twin! How fantastic. My book Twins and the Double explores the enigmatic potency of twin magic recognized in all cultures around the world. Cameron has used the twin-theme with great finesse, allowing him to avoid the deviance into transhumanism or alien artificiality. I'm impressed, but it gets even better. Much better. Somewhere on this site, I noted that bilocation is the biggest thrill in the world. Coded in the mythologiical image of twins is the experience of bilocation: being physically in two places at once and being aware of both places, that is, acting in the one place while fully present and acting in the other. Bilocation is a yogic feat and sometimes said to be a power of accomplished shamans, of which there is some solid testamony. I've bilocated on numerous occasions. You don't have to believe me, but I have experienced it first-hand.
Bilocation has been attributed to some Catholic saints, notably Padre Pio, touted as a spectacular and exceptional gift from God, but it is far more common in shamanic cultures. Astral projection is a mild form, virtual bilocation, the extreme form. The NDE or near death experience attests to a type of bilocation in which people see their bodies prone on a hospital bed, presumably dead, but they do not necessarily see the other body that observes the dying person. In some NDEs, however, people wander off in their double and then return to life. Participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries attested to the experience of wandering in a second body in the Elysian Fields, comparing initiation to death -- but, happily, a death that you can survive.
Bilocation is an expression of twinning. Jake Sully is a twin twice over. He had a twin brother, and he has an avataric twin, his own hybrid. Sully has to enter a kind of isolation tank and go to sleep for his conscioiusness to be teleported to Pandora where his hybrid is awake and active. He must enter a kind of shamanic trance in order to live and act in his avataric identity on Pandora. Whether Cameron knew it or not, this feature of the plot is his invention: worldwide lore of shamanism attests to the capacity of the shaman to fall into a trance, drop to the groud in a stupor, and then in his dreaming body or plasmic double, explore other worlds or even more like a normal person in this world, but physically removed from where his body rests in trance.
Trance-portation by twinning, as it might be called, brings to mind the split-world antics of Matrix Trilogy. But there is a huge difference between Neo teleporting into the Matrix and Jake bilocating on Pandora. The Matrix is a simulated world, an virtual reality zone sustained by computer programs that support huge fields of simulated (read: faked) colors, tasts, sounds, etc. It is not the real sensory world of planet earth but the earth conceived as a "prison planet," to use a term made popular by alarmist Alex Jones of infowars.com. Jones appears to be a Christian who scorns the Gaia planetary religion and condemns Avatar as NWO propaganda that makes us all avatars in the scheme of the Illuminati! He, the alarmist, would perhaps be alarmed to learn that the concept of prison planet originated with Pagan seers of the Mysteries who compared the solar system to a prison run by the Archons, alien cyborgs. That mythological metaphor describes the enslavement of humanity to its own mental projections and concepts, that is, enslavement to an alien mentality operating within our own minds that cannot be blamed on external sources, although it can be spun and affected by external influences.
To return to the main point here: twinning is a mytheme informs the plot of Avatar in an ingenious way. The avataric cross-breeding experiment is a brilliant cinematic metaphor for shamanism. Like shamans through the ages, Sully goes into a trance so that he can act in his double, his twin self. The trick is, the twin self in this case has been constructed artificially -- yet it is authentically the same vehicle a shaman would use to explore the supernatural dimension of this world or venture to other worlds. Those who have done it (including myself) can attest that this experience it totally real, not a fantasy. It is as real as living and moving in this ordinary world.
So Jake-avatar really lives and acts aong the Ha've on Pandora, unlike Neo who enters a phantom world when he is plugged into archaic gear and downloaded into the Matrix. The Matrix trilogy is a pretty good metaphor for the prison planet of Gnostic seers, but it can't stand a candle to the mythological and shamanic twinning Avatar.
In its oldest sense, the word avatar derives from a Sanskrit verb meaning "to descend." In Hindu myth, an avatar is a divine being who descends into human form to intervene in history. Not a Christ-like messiah who dies to save the world or implements divine judgement, but an agent of rescue like a lifeguard on a beach. (The form of the avatar in Hindu religion is phantasmal, or docetic in Gnostic language: an apparition. But then the entire world is an apparition in the Hindu view!) There are ten avatars of Vishnu, the sleeping god of Hindu religion. As Vishnu dreams the world over immense periods of time, the deity periodically enters the situations he is dreaming, taking on a body and a personality, or animal forms such as tortoise or lion. The ninth avatar of Vishnu was said to have been a human guide: Lord Krishna, an Indian regent who died in 3102 BCE. The tenth or coming avatar of Vishnu is called Kalki, pictured as a white horse, sometimes with a archer-warrion on its back. (I believe this avataric expression may be manifesting in the White Lions of Timbavati.)
Jake Sully in his Ha'vi body is a not an avatar who descends from a higher world -- no, his fate is more wonderful than that. He is the embodiment of himself liberated into a present world of magical dimensions. In many ways, and most brilliantly in this plot device, Cameron's film is a testament to the Pagan and Tantric philosophy of embodied immanence.
The avatar of Avatar is not a messianic figure. Not by a long shot. Here again, Cameron makes impeccable use of mythological and shamanic precedents. Jake Sully is a hero in the service of the planetary earth mother, Eywa—Gaia by another name. He is not a white male messiah figure as some critical reviews have claimed. In Not in His Image I show that the profile of the messiah in salvationist faith is clear and unmistakable, consisting of these elements: superhuman origin, sent on a mission by the divine father, his suffering redeems the world, he presides over the final judgement, his death is a requirement to save humanity, he is miraculously resurrected by god, not by the people we cames to save. Considered on the last point especially, Avatar's hero is no messiah:
By contrast to the typical messiah who is authorized by and acts from superearthly power, Jake-avatar relies on bonding with power animal, the great predatory bird Turuk. Each Pandoran warrior has an akran, a power ally or nahual. This theme is purely shamanic, and timeless in the spiritual and magical legacy of our species. In the scope of animism. human individuals have particular affinities with certain animals. They may call up these animals, encounter them in nature, or shapeshift into them. Over time, animistic cultures often developed into warrior societies, which have to be rigorously distinguished from urban paternal societies. In warrior societies the figure of the Goddess is central and animal powers are revered as her attributes and projections. The culture of the Havi is just such a warrior-hunter society with reverence for the animal powers, as Jake learns when Neytiri teaches him how to kill with reverence and be grateful to the prey. The lesson of the prey-predator bond figures significantly in the final scenes of the film. The invocation of the animal powers also plays a decisive role in the outcome of the story.
Cameron resumes many shamanic and mythological themes with exceptional accuracy. How wonderful is that. And how extremely unusual vy Hollywood standards. I don't know who he consulted for the mythology incorporated into the story and imagery of his masterpiece... Perhaps he has a secret guide and advisor. He claims to have seen the entire film in a dream earlier in life. Like a terma, a wisdom-treasure, it was given to him intact and whole from the first moment. Such an experience is typical of tertons, treasure-finders, as well as of master musicians such as Mozard ans Scriabin, who claimed to have heard their huge compositions in a single second. The French author Balzac, also, claimed to have had a moment of "cosmic consciousness" in which he saw the entire plot and all the characters, about 242, of his serial novel, The Human Comedy.
The world of science provides many similar examples. Kerkule saw the carbon ring structure in a hypnagogic vision on the edge of sleep. Einstein conceived relativity theory in a flash of insight incurred by the visualization of a man surfing on a beam of light. In some cases, when scientists will admit it, we learn that their discoveries emerged from a state of heightened consciousness induced by a psychoactive substance such as LSD. Although he would not allow it to be known in his lifetime, Sir Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA with James Watson, had the vision of the double helix in an altered state induced by LSD. Scientists who accompanied Jeremy Narby to Peru for trance rituals with ayahuasca stated that they were able to see the molecular level of nature directly and understand and advance their scientific thinking due to the boost of the sacred medicine plant.
I do not wish to imply that Cameron was in any way influenced by psychoactive plants in conceiving and making Avatar, but the film itself can induce that sort of effect in the audience. Anyone who has seen the awesome splendor of Gaia, vivid, pulsating, miraculously designed, alive in every detail and lusciously inviting in the total scope of sensations that surge blissfully into the body like the rush of the entire ocean through the pores of a coral reef—anyone who has had that experience at first-hand will, I believe, attest to those who have not had it that the sheer esthetic splendor of this film points to the blessed vision of Elysium, Terrestrial Paradise. Not an alien world vision, but the ultimate this-world vision. Yes, that is really how it looks here in the natural world. Yes, really. Oh yes it does.
The fact that Cameron and company deliver this vision of nature using the most sophisticated tools of artificiality and simulation, CGI, computer generated imagery, is a breakthrough of its kind. I do not mean a technological breakthrough, but a breakthrough of perception. In Castaneda's fables of sorcery, Don Juan defines the the practice of the mystic warrior as breaking through the fixed parameters of perception. Cameron certainly achieves this with the special effects of this film. I would say that only an artist who already has a genuine vision to deliver can use CGI in this spectacular manner. CGI itself cannot deliver such a vision. Even though it uses the device of simulation to depict Pandora, the astonishing beauty of animation in this film shows how the planet we inhabit does truly look in the Edenic gaze of our once and future innocence.
At a critical moment in the film Jake-avatar goes to the sacred tree of Eywa to ask for help in using bows and arrows to defeat a massive armada of high-tech military aircraft. But Neytiri tenderly advises him: "The great mother does not intervene in our affairs, Jake, she only protects the balance of life."
Pagans observe and revere the balance of life. Experimental mysticism consistent with Pagan and shamanic traditions of untold antiquity reveals that supernatural power is present in the natural world, right here, right now. Gaia's beauty itself is a supernatural force. To behold it is to become beholden to it. To enter that beauty, staggering from its awesome impact like a drunken sailor in a typhoon, makes the beholder belong to the beauty and long to be forever in that beauty, or else live a life diminished, selfishly suppressed, stupid and shallow. But Christianity and the other salvationist faiths deny and reject the divine beauty of this world. They insist on a supernatural source beyond the earth and humankind. To enforce their beliefs they expend enormous effort on killing magic wherever it arises on this planet: in the land and trees, the water and the sky, in plants, in animals, in children, and in people of true innocence and high imagination.
History is the record of killing magic, annihilating the supernatural talents endowed by Gaia in her privileged problem species, the human race. At this late date in history, we may well wonder, Where is the countermagic in this epochal tale of self-annihilation?
I don't know where Cameron got his mythology, or if he needed or heeded advice from anyone like the likes of me. In Living Myth I register my view that renowned comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell badly advised Spielberg and Lukas on the plot for Star Wars. He gave them the dead-end drama of Persian dualism, the battle of Light and Darkness. What he ought to have given them, I believe, was a Gaian myth such as the Sophianic vision of the Mysteries. Cameron's film resonates in many ways to that vision, but its principal strength is pure shamanic hunter mythology of prehistory.
The heroine Neytiri brings to mind the nubile Neolithic archer from the Cave of the Shaggy Bear close to where I live in Andalucia, Spain. Here is the perfect image of Artemis, the chaste and elusive huntress of Greek myth. She is best known for having an old man named Actaeon devoured by his hunting dogs when he happened to see her bathing naked in the moonlit, and lusted after her lovely bod. But a more ancient story reveals the true scope and purpose of huntress's vengeful nature: when the hunter Orion exceeded the quota of animal prey set for him by Gaia the Earth Mother, Artemis sent a giant scorpion to string him to death. (That version of "the revenge of Gaia" was not written by James Lovelock.)
Neytiri is the vengeful Artemis of Pandora pictured at La Cueva de La Pileta. She is no figure of the ancient past, however. Portrayed imaginatively in a film, she may now come to walk the world in the flesh. Hollywood is often a predictive oracle of the collective consciousness. Neytiri embodies the killing magic able to take back the earth, the lethal hunting and horse-riding skill of a Gaian warrior. Avatar carries this extremely un-Christian message to earth natives: it is open season on predators. Neytiri brings down the ageing military commander in his humongous carapace of RoboCop armor with two arrows to the chest: one for the kill, and the other for not showing reverence due to Eywa, the Earth Goddess. There, demonstrated, is the dual killing magic of elimination and revenge.
In the rich mythology of the Divine Feminine, Kali is the name for the wrath of the the Goddess, but equally so, for the wrath of human beings who rally to protect all that the Goddess gives them for pleasure and survival alike. Imagine the wrath of a mother lion in protection of her pride. Imagine that feeling awakening in human hearts and spreading into society as an empathic force to unite people despite their differences and divisions. Imagine that not love but divine wrath unites humanity in a transcendent cause. Were this to happen, the human species would be realigned with all sentient life in the common matrix of an insuperable force. In Avatar, at the moment when the battle of the Ha'vi seems to be utterly lost, Eywa releases the animal powers to fight with the natives against the corporate-military predators. She intervenes to protect the balance of life.
With adoration of Mother Nature comes the ferocious will to protect and perserve Her Ways. Not just our life as humans but all that lives. Avatar inspires reverence for the earth by the beauty of its cinematic imagery, and it does more as well, for it is a genuine ecoparable, a timeless story with a moral for today. The Ha'vi "R" us. In the balance of Gaia's reckoning, where human survival is decided, the way into earthly beauty is also the way of the warrior who takes back the planet. Avatar shows that way.
jll: 31 December 2009 Flanders - 3 February 2010, Andalucia
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.