Gods from the Bicameral Mind
Theories of demons predating divinities aside, most modern thinking on the origin of God tends to stick to the evidence of cave paintings and early burial rituals. These had generated a pantheon of vague hypotheses of creation myths and divine forms, but no one was really sure which had come first, gods, souls, or the afterlife. The basic belief was that religion had assumed a complex form including all these elements by the fifth or sixth millennium [B.C.E.].
[Julian] Jaynes disagreed with all of that, and, really, [The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind] set out to explain more than just the birth of God. His main proposition came as a shock. Early man, he argued, exhibited a kind of split-mindedness, the hemispheres of the brain unevolved and operating independently. In short, everyone before roughly 3000 [B.C.E.] was operationally schizophrenic, effectively unconscious, ruled over by hallucinatory inner voices. This was the bicameral mind….
It’s an exaggeration to say that Jaynes likened his bicameral mind strictly to schizophrenia. Rather, he described an earlier physiology of the brain that was more susceptible to the kind of auditory hallucinations known to occur in healthy people exposed to stresses…. And hallucinations were where Jaynes’s god came into the picture. Split into distinct sections, the bicameral mind, in moments of stress or need, essentially consulted itself, perceiving hallucinations that took the form of self-commands. Men understood this as gods. The mind was split between an executive-god portion and a lower, more common portion that was just the man…. [B]rain cartography had discovered physiological linkages between that part of the brain responsible for language and that part tied to hallucinations. “Here then,” Jaynes wrote, “is the tiny bridge across which came the directions which built our civilizations and founded the world’s religions.”
Jaynes turned literary critic to show that the bicameral mind had been possible five thousand years ago. The theory made easy work of the characters of the Iliad and the Gilgamesh legend. The old epics’ action-packed plots were just what one would expect from a bicameral people. The texts lacked words for conscious thought, and characters openly consulted gods. Gods, then, were man’s volition. Deaths triggered hallucinations; the dead were often called gods. Jaynes’s first god was a dead king whose voice echoed in those who remembered him. This explained the primitive practice of burying the dead with food and provisions—dead kings particularly so.
The breakdown of the bicameral mind—the emergence of consciousness—took a thousand years and had multiple causes…. A 1230 [B.C.E.] Assyrian carving depicting a living king kneeling before an empty throne was the first evidence of the departure of the gods. “The mighty themes of the religions of the world are here sounded for the first time,” Jaynes wrote. The gods receded into the sky, and prayer and worship emerged as men tried to communicate with a force that seemed to have forsaken them. Consciousness evolved to contend with growth that felt like abandonment. The character and plot of the Odyssey—strikingly different from the Iliad—revealed the subterfuges available to minds bursting into conscious awareness. “The whole long song is an odyssey toward subjective identity,” Jaynes wrote….