Peter Kingsley is a scholar of early Greek philosophy, and A Story Waiting to Pierce You (1) links Pythagoras (ca 590-470 BCE) with central Asian shamanism. Pythagoras got most of his own education outside of the Greek cultural sphere, and Kingsley focuses here on his relationship with Abaris the Hyperborean*, using ancient texts to guide him.
Abaris is not a personal name. It places its bearer as an Avar. The Avars are one of the peoples ancestral to modern Mongols. They still and still live under their older name in Dagestan, a Russian republic in the northern Caucasus. Kingsley’s Abaris walked, or in some sense flew, from his homeland to meet Pythagoras. He carried a golden arrow in his hand, though in a way it carried him. For Abaris was a wind walker, and on a mission.
Kingsley explains, using evidence from pre-Buddhist Tibet (where the practice has survived within Buddhism) as well as Mongolia: “Wind walkers could go anywhere; cover enormous distances with apparently effortless ease; find their way over every conceivable obstacle and straight past the most impassable landscapes … in one unbroken trance, holding their god inside them. That single-pointed focus, just like the intense attention required of an arrow maker or demanded of someone shooting arrows at their mark, had to be totally undisturbed”.
Abaris had been shown by the god within him that in Pythagoras he would find a living incarnation of the same god. Greek texts name the god as Apollo – understood here primarily as a god of healing, trance and prophecy. Abaris gave his arrow, as planned, to Pythagoras, in recognition of his true nature. Through Pythagoras, he hoped, the Greek world would be healed and purified.
Pythagoras had considerable success. He attracted an enthusiastic following, and coined the term philosopher (lover of wisdom) to describe his work. He taught kindness to humans and animals and championed an honest and simple life. He believed in metempsychosis (transmission of the soul after death into a new body, human or animal), and in the explanatory power of number. But he was one teacher among others, and even his enthusiastic followers played down the influence of Abaris and his culture. It did not suit the self-image of the Greeks to recognise nomadic barbarians as possible teachers. They were not alone in this. A similar view prevailed in China.
Why does this matter to us? Because we have kept on making the same mistakes. The early stigmatisation of Hyperborean culture in the ancient world has been repeated in the stigmatisation of the cognate cultures of First Nations people in North America. The Chinese version survives in their current governance of Tibet and Xinjiang. In the spiritual domain, we still maintain a disparaging distinction between shamanism and ‘higher’ traditions. By contrast, Kingsley describes shamanism as “constantly engaged with practising respect and consideration towards all forms of life in an overall framework of concern for both visible and invisible worlds” He adds, “the fact that a transcendent realm beyond the senses happens, in the hands of most true elders and shamans, to be seamlessly interwoven with this world to the point where the two become one is a sign not of inferiority but of a far greater capacity for integration.”
A Story Waiting to Pierce You is not Peter Kingsley’s most recent book, but for me it is the most accessible, in both price and presentation. The first half is written in a simple, spacious, almost mythic style that goes straight to the heart. The second half, comprising notes, offers more than a set of references, looking at scholarly arguments and matters of interpretation. I find this arrangement a satisfying way of handling the material overall. I strongly recommend this book for people interested in the cultural history of spirituality and the issues it raises.
(1) Peter Kingsley A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet, and the Destiny of the Western World Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2010
*Hyperborean = from Hyperborea, beyond the north wind.