Julian Jaynes's magnum opus The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of those books that are probably wrong in their central thesis, yet so full of provocative and fascinating ideas that reading them becomes its own reward. Recently I was thumbing through my well-worn copy when I came across Jayne's fascinating account of what he calls "the sons of the nabiim" (a term that is apparently his own, since it does not return many hits in a Google search).
The nabiim were prophets of ancient Israel, though as Jaynes points out, prophecy as understood in those days was concerned with much more than foretelling the future. The prophets were thought to be mouthpieces for the Almighty, delivering moral instruction, political and military advice, and social commentary. The famous prophets - men like Amos and Isaiah - are still revered in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Edith Hamilton's Spokesmen for God is an excellent presentation of their groundbreaking moral teachings.
Though it might be taken as blasphemy by some believers today, the fact is that the nabiim were essentially mediums or channelers, who entered a trancelike state and allowed another personality to speak through them. This other personality was often wiser and more morally and spiritually advanced than the nabi himself. Amos, for instance, was a common fruit-picker until the spirit of the Lord came over him, after which he earned the special protection of King Jereboam.
But there were other nabiim who did not fare so well. If we can judge by scattered references in the Hebrew Bible, groups of nabiim wandered the hills, playing ecstatic music and dancing in a frenzy. Their excitement was contagious; it is said that messengers to their camp would fall into a frenzy themselves (I Samuel 19). The nabiim were considered a valuable resource by some people, a link to the authentic voice of the Deity; when the wicked Jezebel ordered them to be massacred, God-fearing Obadiah gathered up a hundred of them and hid them in caves until the danger had passed (I Kings 18). On the other hand, nabiim who followed other religions were fair game; the prophet Elijah, a nabi himself, blithely massacred the nabiim who worshipped a rival deity, Baal (I Kings 18:40).
Eventually, it seems, the Hebrew nabiim had outlived their usefulness to the authorities, and they received no more protection from men like Obadiah or Jereboam. Quite the opposite: the prophet Zechariah, who was probably a priest and thus part of the official order, foresaw a time when the parents of such abominations would kill them. It is quite possible that his prophecy was the basis for a law mandating just that. He declared:
… and I will also remove the prophets and the unclean spirit from the land. And if anyone still prophesies, then his mother and father who gave birth to him will say to him, 'You shall not live, for you have spoken falsely in the name of the Lord'; and his father and mother who gave birth to him will pierce him through when he prophesies. Also it will come about in that day that the prophets will each be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies … [Zechariah 13:2-4; New American Standard version]
The "unclean spirit" mentioned in the first line (in Hebrew tumah ruwach) was quite probably the same thing often referred to as the ob. As Jaynes tells us, the term "ob" appears throughout these early texts and defies easy translation. Sometimes it is translated "familiar spirit," in the sense of a witch's familiar. Other times it is translated "bottle" or "bottle-skin," perhaps connoting something bottled up inside the prophet that strains to escape. Jaynes himself calls it an "inner voice." In keeping with his theory, he believes it refers to the voice of the right cerebral hemisphere that characterized bicameral man. He sees the nabiim as throwbacks to the bicamerality of an earlier epoch, and sees the massacres as a reaction against this older state of consciousness by people with a modern, subjective sense of self. He also argues that proscriptions like Zechariah's helped to wipe out the genetic basis for bicamerality by largely eliminating it from the gene pool.
I am skeptical of Jaynes's bicameral-mind thesis for reasons I've discussed elsewhere. There may be some truth to it, but I find his presentation of evidence tendentious, and his understanding of conscious thought largely restricted to self-awareness - a stance that allows him to speculate that the men who built the pyramids were "unconscious." I'm willing to believe that such people did not have quite the modern consciousness we know today, with its layers of introspection, self-knowledge, and self-doubt, but I would not call them unconscious, and I don't believe they were automatons permanently hypnotized by an inner voice.
(Incidentally, the Temple of Apollo's famous inscription "Know thyself" is perhaps best understood as encouraging the development of this new, self-aware consciousness. A quote attributed to Socrates,"The unexamined life is not worth living," may also refer to the desirability of nurturing a more self-aware, self-examining consciousness. But none of this requires a bicameral mind, only a gradually evolving complexity of thought.)
If the nabiim were not bicameral - and were not simply schizophrenic, a condition Jaynes closely associates with bicamerality - then what was going on with them? It is at least arguable that they were indeed partial throwbacks to an earlier way of life, but not quite in Jaynes's sense. If we believe that there really is a spirit world, and that some people are capable of receiving communications from it, then we could see the nabiim as mediums - which is, in fact, how the word nabiim is translated in some versions of the Bible. (Other translations include "wizards," "necromancers," "witches," and "spiritists.")
In this regard it's worth noting that Zechariah's proscription against any child "who prophesies" can also be rendered "who engages in conversion with spirits." This is Jaynes's own suggestion. It brings up a picture of a small child talking earnestly with what we today would call an imaginary friend, but which we might also think of as a spirit guide.
Let's suppose that the conduit for such communications is the right cerebral hemisphere. In young children the left hemisphere has not yet attained dominance, leaving them more open to these visions and messages. Illiterate persons are also less likely to have full-blown left-brain dominance (since the left brain is involved in reading and writing), so an uneducated fruit-picker like Amos would be a more likely candidate for "prophesy" than a more cultured man. If left-brain dominance has been gradually increasing over the millennia, then there must have been a time when people routinely heard these spirit voices and enjoyed other psychic talents, like telepathy. (Some anthropological reports indicate that these abilities persist even today in primitive societies; see Rupert Sheldrake's book The Sense of Being Stared At.)
In other words, the nabiim may have been the inheritors of a legitimate mediumistic tradition dating back thousands of years. They only had the misfortune to be born too late, in a society where a new mode of consciousness had rendered their mindset obsolete and even dangerous. They also may have suffered from a kind of dual mentality, incorporating elements of both the old and new modes of thinking in a way that was inherently unstable.
The violent efforts of the new social order to wipe out this destabilizing older influence may explain why psi is typically latent (suppressed) today, and why there is still something of a taboo against spirit communications, enforced by both materialist debunkers and traditionally religious believers.
Of course, the massacre of the nabiim is not an isolated act. Leonard Shlain details many similar atrocities in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. The most famous example is the witch hysteria of the 16th and 17th centuries.
With all the opposition that psychic and mediumistic talents have endured, from ostracism and massacre to the brute progress of evolution itself, it's amazing that such abilities persist at all. Perhaps we should not ask why psi is so rare and elusive in the modern world, but rather how it has managed to survive. It must be an important part of the human condition to have withstood millennia of repeated onslaughts.
Even some of the "respectable" Hebrew prophets seemed to agree. Joel, making a statement that is considerably bolder than most people realize, imagined a day when the nabiim would no longer be outcasts and victims - a day when everyone in the whole world would be a nabi.
It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions; and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out My Spirit. [Joel 2:28-29; New American Standard version]