Living in the Liminal
First of all, it is not easy to get a handle on what it means to live in the liminal realm if one tends towards scepticism or is rooted firmly in the mundane world. Although the concept of liminality in an academic sense is fairly modern, there is no doubt that liminal experiences have always been a feature of human existence. It was the folklorist Arnold Von Gennep, back in the early 20th century, who first developed the academic concept of liminality. He derived the term ‘liminal’ from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning a threshold. The state of being on a threshold was a feature Von Gennep had observed when studying small social groups. According to Von Gennep rites of passage had a three-fold structure. The first phase involved separation, which Von Gennep called ‘Preliminal’. The second phase identified the crossing of a boundary between phase one and three. This he identified as the liminal state. Phase three involved a breaking with the past, which entailed leaving a part of oneself behind, and this Von Gennep called the Postliminal.
In societies where initiation is a standard practise, achieving a state of liminality is essential. This would apply to Secret Societies, magical groups, and tribal cultures. In the case of Secret Societies or magical groups, initiation involves a form of ritual ‘death’ when one’s old life is left behind and one emerges from the ritual ‘born again’, so to speak. In tribal cultures, on the other hand, initiation ceremonies tend to focus on life changes, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood. For example, the Australian Aborigines had a rite of passage called Walkabout, in which young men were made to live alone in the wilderness for six months or so. These individuals were regarded as ‘betwixt and between’. During that time, they weren’t considered a part of their society, neither had they yet been incorporated into that society. Interestingly, in our modern Western culture this ‘betwixt and between’ state is sometimes artificially prolonged by what we call adolescence. Adolescence, in fact, is really a state of liminality when one is neither a child nor an adult.
A prolonged state of liminality can produce all sorts of emotional and psychological problems for a teenager. Even beyond the teenage years an individual can still feel less of an adult and retain a sense of alienation from society, which is probably the reason there are so many youth sub-cultures today. People have an innate need to belong – a sense of family, if you like. Some individuals, however, never seem to make the transition to maturity and appear to remain in a seemingly permanent state of limbo or liminality: The Peter Pan syndrome, as it is sometimes known. This is why tribal cultures regard rites of passage as very important. Our modern secular society, based largely on individualism, does little or nothing to recognise how important it is for people to feel a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves.
In tribal cultures and also secret or magical societies the aim is to dismantle the part of an individual that is outworn or outgrown, and replace it with that which serves one better and also the society to which they are meant to belong. The vital point in the ritual is the liminal state, which is meant to effect the necessary change and bring about transformation. This means that the ritual experience tends to be rather dramatic – one that won’t easily be forgotten.
A few decades after Von Gennup developed his concept of liminality, another individual by the name of Victor Turner also recognised the importance of liminality. Victor Turner was an anthropologist who had spent some time studying the Ndembu tribe in Zambia, Africa. Turner decided that liminal experiences in tribal cultures could also apply to the wider world. For example, Turner coined the term ‘liminoid’ to refer to experiences that are optional but don’t actually involve catharsis or personal crisis. A concert or theatre performance might be described as ‘liminoid’ because it merely represents a break from the mundane. After the event is over, one simply returns to normal daily living. On the other hand, a birthday celebration might be considered liminal because it marks a stage in a person’s life.
Another example of the liminal state was recognised by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers. Jaspers coined the phrase ‘Axial Age’, a pivotal time in early human history when the old order could no longer be taken for granted. As various tribes and communities came into contact with other cultures, established patterns of thinking and beliefs gave way to new ideas. Karl Jaspers took the view that this process took place somewhere between 900 to 200 BCE. It has also been noted by some observers that Western culture is currently going through a liminal stage. In the UK, Brexit and dissatisfaction with the Political Establishment has been cited as an example of this. In the USA there are reports that depression and anxiety increase during Presidential elections.
On the other hand, during the 1960s there was a lot of interest in the idea that the world is entering the Age of Aquarius when the old order would fall away and a New Age would usher in a time of peace. Whether this will be the case or not depends on one’s personal belief on the issue; in other words, whether one is an optimist or a pessimist. Assuming, however, for the sake of the argument that we are leaving the Age of Pisces behind and entering the Age of Aquarius when things can only get better, there are those who take the view that the transitional period, or liminal state, from one Age to another will only be achieved through tremendous upheaval, politically, socially and also culturally. This liminal stage will probably last at least a century or more. Clearly, since Arnold Von Gennep first conducted his studies into liminality, at the turn of the 20th century, the concept of liminality has expanded its original meaning to mean something much broader; nowadays it’s applied to a whole range of life situations.
Let’s now briefly look at another example of liminality from a more mystical perspective; that of shamanism, which is more relevant to modern paganism. A shaman is an intermediary between the world of humans and the world of spirit. By entering the Otherworld the shaman is able to retrieve loss of soul and bring wholeness back to individuals or the tribe in general. A shaman walks between the worlds and spends a great deal of time in a state of liminality. Shamans tend to be selected within tribal cultures because of their oddness or having an air of the Otherworld about them. In view of all this, the importance and power of ritual to humans cannot be stressed enough, which is why a case can be made for the idea that humans are hard-wired to practise rites of passage and to engage in ritual activity. This would explain why a humanist church was recently set up by atheists to provide an ecclesiastical experience for unbelievers.
The writer Patrick Harpur, among others, takes the view that if humans fail to acknowledge the existence of the Otherworld, the Otherworld will eventually attempt to impose its presence upon us. Sensitive individuals who are predisposed to psychic or clairvoyant abilities are the ones most susceptible to the intrusion of the Otherworld. This can happen, for example, by encountering entities allegedly from other dimensions – or more dramatically by having a full-blown alien abduction experience. Research seems to suggest that such individuals are like shamans; they have an innate ability to connect to other realms. Unfortunately, the fact that such individuals have been born and bred in a modern secular society, rather than a tribal society, means that many are usually ill equipped to deal with the experience.
It is hardly surprising that some people who encounter the Otherworld feel they are losing their minds. On the other hand, there are those who feel they have been singled out as special spokespersons, or intermediaries between the aliens they have encountered and the rest of the human race. One of these was George Adamski who, in the 1950s, wrote three books describing his meetings in the Colorada Desert with aliens. Adamski said he met the first alien, called Orthon in 1952. Adamski described Orthon as being of medium height, with long blonde hair and having a tanned skin: very Nordic in appearance. It didn’t take long for George Adamski to be vilified by the media, which wasn’t difficult after photographs he allegedly took of Orthon’s UFO suspiciously resembled the hubcap of a typical 1950s American automobile.
But in all fairness to Adamski, perhaps he was eager to convince the sceptics that his encounters were genuine and felt it necessary to fake the evidence. Patrick Harpur, who I mentioned earlier, also takes the view that behind such deceptions is a trickster god. Trickster gods, it must be said, operate within the realm of the liminal. Unfortunately for Adamski, he has long been written off as either a deluded nutcase, or a charlatan. On the other hand, Adamski might have been neither of those. Like other contactees, he did seem to have had something of the shaman about him.
Another individual who claimed to be in contact with alien entities was George King, founder of the Aetherius Society. It’s unfortunate that George King awarded himself the title of “Doctor”, despite having no PhD. Strange as it seems, his followers tend to overlook that sort of duplicity, which in my view seriously undermines his credibility. But again, George King seemed to take his alleged encounters with aliens very seriously. Perhaps his Otherworld experiences were genuine, unlike his title. Like Adamski, George King may also have succumbed to the lure of a trickster god.
The scientist Jacques Vallee has studied the subject of aliens in great depth. Vallee takes the view that there is probably a form of non-human consciousness that is able to manipulate space and time. This phenomenon, he says, has been operating throughout human history, possibly inspiring the birth of new religions, and seems to masquerade in a variety of forms to suit the expectations of different cultures. Deception, however, seems to be central to its modus operandi. For example, to our non-technological ancestors these shape-shifters appeared in the form of traditional fairies. In modern times, they tend to appear as aliens from outer space: same phenomenon – different clothes. Those individuals who have come into contact with such entities tend to have their long-established beliefs dismantled as a consequence of their contact, which suggests perhaps that contact is a form of initiation – a fundamental change in how the contactees eventually view the world.
This supports the view, mentioned earlier by Patrick Harpur, that if humans don’t acknowledge the existence of the Otherworld, the Otherworld will eventually attempt to impose its presence upon us. Other researchers have come to a similar conclusion. An interesting theory, which makes some sense, is that the foetus-like aliens, or greys as they are known, are possibly metaphors for rebirth. The similarity between the umbilical cord and the navel piercing by demons in medieval times might be significant. There are those who take the view that the so-called demons which are believed to have emerged from the Pit of Hell to torment humans are nothing of the sort. They are really a metaphor for rebirth – jolting humans to a higher state of consciousness. Perhaps such intervention is vital if humans have any hope of a future on the planet. Humans need to be redirected away from our innate destructive instincts towards a different path, otherwise the planet will eventually eliminate us in the way a body or organism seeks to eliminate a destructive virus or bacterium.