The podcast “See Something Say Something” which is a Muslim guy and his friends sitting around talking about what it’s like to be Muslim had an episode on Jinns. Everything about it was super fascinating. I was especially fascinated to learn that jinns have the same religions we do (or at least, I guess, some of them do) and that the troubles with jinn/human romances often have as much to do with the jinn being, say, Christian as they do with the jinn being, well, a being of smokeless fire. I guess you can overcome one difference or another, but both?

Anyway, I was really struck in listening to it how much the jinn sound like old-school fairies or land-spirits. Not exactly, of course, and fairies and land-spirits aren’t always exactly the same things either, but as a basic concept, there seems to be a wide-spread belief that we share the world with something very similar to us that is not us.

So, Monster Talk had a cross-over episode with some archaeology podcast and they were talking about fairies in general and this wide-spread belief that there are Other People living nearby. They traced it back to just-so stories about ancient graves and artifacts. Like, what we now know are neolithic burial mounds were understood as fairy mounds and stone-age tools were seen as fairy tools and basically, when people were like “Shoot, did you make this? I know I didn’t make this.” rather than seeing that someone who lived there long, long, long before them did, they chalked it up to fairies or some other sort of Other People.

To which I say, okay, fair enough.

That does explain the physical evidence.

But I kept waiting for the explanation of the similarity of eye-witness accounts. Why do accounts of these Other People being shape shifters or looking like seven-foot-tall three-dimensional shadows, or just like us, but very small, or living in villages near us or with us but invisible to us transcend so many different cultures? Even if we have different names for them and different explanations for them, the accounts of what we see are very similar.

And it seems to me that this means we’re all seeing something. I’d like to hear some ideas about what. I’m even very fine with them being mundane, boring ideas. Like we already know humans are primed to see faces in things and hear voices in random noises. So, could there be a really straight-forward biological explanation for the Other People? Like some known physical or psychological response that we’re interpreting as being outside us?

I mean, as much as I like to believe in spooky stuff, the similarity of beliefs about the actions of these Other People does make me think it has to be something in us.

I mean, think of it this way–historically, there have been a million ways to form households. People from one culture come across people from another culture with vastly different household set-ups and they don’t know how to understand what they’re seeing.

But they come across people eating, even if they don’t know the rituals or taboos at play, they can still say, “Those people eat.”

Some of our very basic biological functions are recognizable across all cultures. If you find something shared across most cultures, it’s usually because there’s some enormous biological component to it. Something we all have to deal with. We have rituals for dealing with death because everyone dies. Even if you’ve only ever fucked in the missionary position with your eyes mostly closed, the Kama Sutra might blow your mind, but it’s not going to be unrecognizable to you.

Maybe I’m not getting at this with the exact clarity I want, but it seems obvious to me that if you have similar descriptions of something across very different cultures either they all have to be seeing the same thing outside them or they have to be having some kind of ubiquitous physiological or psychological experience that they’re interpreting as happening outside them.

Since we mostly agree that there aren’t really any such thing as fairies, what is happening here?

Like, for instance, here’s something I wondered. We know that our eyes don’t see everything we think we see–that each eye has a blind spot and that our brain and our other eye compensate for it. But what shape is that blind spot? Is it a narrow, tall oval? Could there be times when our brain just doesn’t bother to make up what’s in the blind spot and instead just interprets the lack of input as a tall, humanoid shadow out in the world instead of a small spot of nothing inside our eye?

3 thoughts on “Others

  1. I’ve wondered about the descriptions of witches familiars. The small black dog/cat/rabbit are what I used to see out of the corner of my eye off and on. Somedays constantly and then not for a while. But sadly, once I remarked that I was actually *seeing things* and not imagining stuff they pretty much stopped showing up. I guess it was some sort of thanking brownies and they go away mistake.

    So I’m leaning towards there is an Other. But the blind spot bit needs thinking on. And reminds me of something odd I’ve learned recently which probably has no bearing on this discussion. People who’s optic nerve is not damaged but have damage to the vision processing part of the brain, can navigate obstacles in their path. It seems a different part of the brain can use optic nerve info for it’s own don’t-fall-down use. Brains do weird stuff.

  2. I read an article about that a while ago! About how they could put pictures of people in front of people with this kind of blindness and then check the micromovements in the blind person’s face, because we tend to unconsciously mirror, at least slightly, the expressions of the people we meet. In other words, if you see a smiling face, your muscles will begin to make a smile without you realizing you’re doing it and they can measure the slight smiled in your muscles even before it shows on your face.

    And they found that people who are blind, but who have intact optic nerves can’t see the faces (obviously, since they’re blind) but their faces absolutely mimic the faces on the screen. So, all along the optic nerve, the brain must be plucking information out of it so that these folks are still taking in and processing visual information and making use of it, even if they can’t see.

    Which, yes, again may be a component of this wonder. Is there a way we process visual information that, when we get tired or freaked out or whatever, might cause us to have a conflict between what the optic nerve is feeding us and what the brain is processing and thus our brain hands us “Giant shadow man!”?

    I will forever be a woo person. It’s just how I’m wired. But I’m at an age where I want the things I find mysterious to genuinely be mysterious and I want plausible explanations explored and exhausted.

  3. I’ve been struck for a long time by similarities between what dominant lowland cultures around the world seem to say about the nearest hill people. The hill people always seem to be mysterious and a bit otherworldly and have some kind of powers over time itself.

    I was first blown away by it when I had a coworker who always seemed to be standing around with a relaxed smile and nothing to do (other than lift heavy things for other people despite being tiny), but when he went on vacation, it took three guys to do his job. And when you added up all the things you knew he did, it was staggering, but it was rare to ever catch actually moving. He always seemed to be just standing around.

    I remarked on that to another coworker who happened to be from Laos, and she said, “Oh, he’s Hmong-Lao. They’re all like that.”


    I asked her to explain, and she said the hill people are all like that — they never seem to move or to be in a hurry, but they still get staggering amounts of work done. It’s just how they are. And they’re all crazy strong like this guy. This got nods of agreement from various coworkers from Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia — “everyone knows” that’s just how they are, but know one knows how they do it.

    It sounded like Celtic stories of various peoples who had retreated into the hills of Wales or other places — the otherworldly imperturbable hill people with superhuman strength and strange powers over time.

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