A Hamatsa cannibal cult shaman, a member of the Kwakiutl tribe of what is now Alert Bay, British Columbia  
MANKIND QUARTERLY 2015 56:1 30-50

Native Dreams

Karl von den Steinen’s Analysis of the Brazilian Indian’s Mind and Worldview Reconstructed

A Contribution to the Interrelationship of Ethnology and Developmental Psychology

Georg W. Oesterdiekhoff
Karlsruhe Institut für Technologie

The aim of this article is to demonstrate the relevance of the developmental approach to ethnology by using one great ethnographic monograph, a famous description of the worldview of natives. Ethnologists should understand from this single interpretation the high likelihood that their whole discipline might rely on insights the developmental approach can provide. It would be useful to demonstrate the same with some other influential monographs such as the books of Evans-Pritchard (1976) on Azande witchcraft, of Fortune (1963) on the Dobu islanders or of Radcliffe-Brown (1964) on the Andaman islanders.

1. The realistic understanding of dreams

Von den Steinen reports that the Indians of Brazil strongly believe, as do some other indigenous peoples, that dream experiences do not differ from everyday experiences. According to the natives, people who dream of any activities or occurrences such as war, hunting or love affairs really have seen or experienced the things they dreamt. They imagine that their soul or shadow visits the places where the activities happen and is involved in them as a true participant, indistinguished from common daytime activities. Thus, though they distinguish dream experiences and daytime experiences they interpret both as true experiences, as true perceptions of real incidents and activities.

The natives strongly deny fantasy might be the origin of dreams; they simply cannot imagine the illusory and unreal character of dreams. For this reason they finish actions in daytime that started in dreams or obey dreams next day by practical activities. They refuse or hesitate to wake up dreamers because they fear their shadows might not have sufficient time to return from remote places into the sleeper’s mind. They fear an abrupt disturbance of sleep might kill the dreamer. Von den Steinen (1894:340f) strongly emphasizes that the whole tribe commonly is convinced of the truth of any dreams their members tell.

Ethnographic reports have documented the same phenomenon regarding native peoples around the world. Historical research discovered the same in ancient and medieval societies such as ancient China, India, and the Mediterranean world. People kill at daytime other people of whom they have dreamt malevolent actions, they insist on the fulfillment of promises allegedly received in dreams, continue plans made during dreams, etc. Some tribes discuss every morning the meaning of last night’s dreams in order to be able to obey and to follow them (Lévy-Bruhl 1923, 1971; Oesterdiekhoff 2013a:121-128).

Adults in modern societies clearly and automatically identify the illusionary and unreal character of dreams. Even superstitious people who regard dreams as mediators of mystical influences would never believe that dream contents usually document true perceptions of real occurrences. Sane modern humans know about fantasy and imagination as the true origin of dreams and therefore the sharp difference between dreams and realities. However, every modern child by about its seventh year (tenth year at the latest) has the same realistic dream understanding that pre-modern adults have. Developmental psychology has described children’s understanding of dreams for generations (Piaget 1959). Every child of every culture starts with the non-differentiation of dream and perception, dream and reality. Children believe they have visited the places dreamt or observed with their own eyes the incidents dreamt. Every child goes through several stages of dream understanding, always starting from the stage of non-differentiation. Kohlberg (1974) described five stages modern children go through until they discover the illusionary character of dreams. Children leave the realistic dream understanding first when they identify the internal nature of dreams. Then they go through a phase in which they regard them as immaterial in nature. Finally, around the tenth year, they realize that fantasy alone is the single origin of dreams.

It is obvious that children’s realistic dream understanding is the root of the realistic dream understanding of native peoples around the world. Von den Steinen’s report about the dream understanding of the Brazilian Indians matches the descriptions of children that Piaget, Kohlberg and other developmental psychologists have put forward. Moreover, developmental psychology gives explanations while ethnology can only describe the phenomenon. The analysis of dream ideas and practices in tribal societies seems to verify the theory of the “arrested development” of native peoples, formulated by scholars such as Blondel (1926), Murphy (1927), Allier (1929), Werner & Kaplan (1948), and many others. Already Ponzo (1966), in the frame of Piagetian cross-cultural psychology, had shown that Brazilian Indians reveal preoperational stages of reasoning and do not establish the stage of formal operations as adolescents of modern societies do. Ponzo’s empirical results based on test psychology and von den Steinen’s ethnographic description verify each other.

2. The nature of death

During sleep the shadow or the soul leaves the body for several hours. After death the shadow does not return to the body. The shadow or the soul continues its existence, though. The native knows this from his dreams in which he sees the deceased and speaks to them. Encounters with the dead during dreams prove the existence of a life after death. Since he does not distinguish dreams and perceptions, illusions and observations, he has not the slightest reason to doubt the reality of life after death and the power of the deceased. As von den Steinen (1894:349) says, life after death is a reality and a truth to the native and by no means only a random belief.

What then do deceased people do? They live more or less the same life as they did before their death. Von den Steinen asked the natives why people die. He found the astonishing fact that the natives do not recognize the inevitability of physical death. They do not regard death as the inevitable outcome of aging and biological life that every single individual has to suffer. When natives are confronted with statements that every individual has to die due to necessity and physical laws they simply do not understand this. As von den Steinen (1894; 348) found, their reason has not yet discovered the abstract truth and the physical necessity of death. They experience every single death as a unique phenomenon rather than one that reflects the biologically inevitable which happens to everyone sooner or later. Conversely, they would never say that every individual can live forever. This again would be too abstract for their thinking; it would be a statement expressing another kind of regularity. They are incapable of inductive reasoning: the recognition of regularities and the abstraction of general rules based on observation.

The native’s thinking is tied to present states and to perceptions, not being able to recognize relationships and correspondences between events and between features of objects that are separated in time or space. The capacity for reasoning by analogy remains undeveloped, leaving the native unable to draw conclusions regarding physical regularities, logical necessities and causal relationships. Ethnology has found the same phenomena in other tribes at this cultural stage around the world (Lévy-Bruhl 1923, 1985; Oesterdiekhoff 2011:127-132, 2013a:182-192), in more recent times for example among the Pirãha of Brazil (Everett 2008). There are tribal societies that already understand the inevitability of death but some remaining on yet lower stages do not, as for example those von den Steinen and Everett researched.

Developmental psychology helps to understand the evolution of death concepts. Young children do not understand the inevitability of death but regard such occurrences as isolated incidents. Especially, they cannot understand their own future death. It is beyond their reasoning abilities to grasp that their own life and consciousness will disappear at some time in the future (Anthony 1940; Bering & Bjorklund 2004). Several cognitive factors account for this phenomenon. First, the weakness of their mental abilities does not permit them to understand nature and reality in terms of physical regularities and necessities, but limits them to the perception of single, isolated individuals and incidents (Piaget 1969; Piaget & Inhelder 1975).

Secondly, the reasoning of children does not cover past, present and future across long time-spans but is bound to very narrow time-spans dominated by present states (Piaget 1946). Piagetian cross-cultural psychology has shown that native people share time concepts typical for children, that is, time concepts where the presence dominates and overrides the recognition of the linearity of time (Hallpike 1979; Oesterdiekhoff 2009a:155-161; Ponzo 1966). Accordingly, Everett (2008) describes that the “principle of immediate experience” rules the world understanding of the Pirãha. Thus, cognitive “egocentrism”, preoperational cognitive capacities, lack of causal-empirical reasoning and restricted awareness of time account for children’s and natives’ misunderstanding of death.

Accordingly, native peoples around the world understand death as resulting from mystical influences, stemming from divine decisions or from magical attacks. Without magical assassinations death would simply not occur (Evans-Pritchard 1976; Fortune 1963; Lévy-Bruhl 1923, 1985; Oesterdiekhoff 2006, 2011:127-132, 2013a:l83-194; Oesterdiekhoff and Rindermann 2007).

3. Magic and metamorphosis

Von den Steinen describes the role of magic among the Indian tribes of Brazil. Malevolent magic, especially made by persons from foreign settlements, is the cause of every single death, whether it results from natural causes such as aging or sickness or from human intentions such as assassination. Damaging magic also accounts for all sorts of sickness. Conversely, magic is the main treatment for sickness. Especially the blowing of tobacco smoke onto the sick person’s body is believed to be able to cure most kinds of disease. Furthermore, the shaman’s blowing drives away storms and rains (Von den Steinen 1894:344-347). Ethnology has described similar practices in tribal societies across the world (Evans-Pritchard 1976; Fortune 1963; Levy-Bruhl 1923, 1985; Radcliffe-Brown 1964).

Developmental psychology has shown that every single child raised in modern societies believes in magic until the seventh year of life (tenth at the latest). It is the children’s psyche that accounts for the rise and existence of magic, irrespective of social milieu and parents’ practices. Furthermore, modern adolescents regularly transcend magical beliefs during early adolescence due to the rise of formal operations. Consequently, developmental psychology explains both why archaic people use magic to control rain, weather, wealth, sickness and happiness and why modern people have transcended these crude ideas and practices (Allier 1929; Blair et al. 1986; Oesterdiekhoff 2006, 2011:112-117, 2009a:203-210, 2012a, b, 2013 a, b, 2014 a, 2015a; Piaget 1959, 1969; Vierkandt 1937; Werner 1948).

Moreover, developmental psychology from its early beginnings up to now has adduced that all children raised in modern society initially believe, implicitly or even explicitly, that animals think and act the way humans do. Up to their seventh year (tenth at the latest) modern children believe or “assume” consciously or unconsciously that animals understand human language and human affairs, think similarly to humans, and do not differ from human psyche and personality (look at the psychology of animal fables). There are strong links between anthropomorphism, personification, animism and the developmental stage of mind and self-reflectivity. Only adolescents on the stage of formal operations understand the intellectual differences between various stages of mind and intelligence, that is, the differences between lower and higher forms of animals and between animals and humans (Oesterdiekhoff 2009b, 2011:96-109; Piaget 1959; Werner 1948).

Premodern humans, however, do not establish the stage of formal operations and do not surmount the tendencies of animism, personification, and anthropomorphism. They do not understand the cognitive differences between animals and humans but persist in childlike views. Ethnography has convincingly documented this phenomenon (Evans-Pritchard 1976; Fortune 1963; Fraser 1994; Levy-Bruhl 1923, 1983, 1971, 1985). This is why both tribal societies and premodern civilizations prosecuted animals that had done damage as if they were criminals. Not only ancient and medieval Europe but also premodern Africa and Asia had trials against animals, brought them to court with judge, jury, lawyers and witnesses involved, and convicted and punished them more or less like human delinquents. Premodern people before the Age of Enlightenment believed animals, even insects and reptiles, may have a free will, moral responsibility, and knowledge of law and human affairs (Evans 1906; Evans-Pritchard 1976; Fischer 2006; Oesterdiekhoff 2009b, 2011:102-110). On the whole, the Indians’ idea that animals and humans do not differ in their nature has existed in one or another form in many nations before the Age of Enlightenment. However, few medieval people would have shared the Indians’ belief that the Trumai sleep on the bed of a river. People from band societies occupied still lower stages of psyche and cognition than medieval people did.

[Small changes have been made to correct faulty English.]

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