Those who are engaged in deep healing work find themselves going on a journey back through their lives, undoing psychological damage and healing emotional wounds right back to childhood. This creates an assumption that we’re done once the healing process reaches our birth. In reality this isn’t true. Instead we must deal with what I term ‘ancestral trauma’.
Ancestral trauma is trauma that occurred thousands of years ago yet remain embedded as genetic memories in the collective unconscious.
Ancestral trauma can be experienced concurrently with personal issues rising to the surface for healing, or independently of them. These traumas—yes, there’s more than one—have a curious quality of relating to our own lives while simultaneously being unmistakably ancient in origin.
How far back does ancestral trauma go?
As far as I can tell, to the Biblical Fall: the expulsion from the Garden of Eden into the desert. The story in Genesis with the ultimate all-star cast—Adam, Eve, a snake, an apple and an irate god—appears to be a folk memory of a psychological trauma affecting humanity whose occurrence is totally supported by anthropological evidence.
The story in Genesis with the ultimate all-star cast—Adam, Eve, a snake, an apple and an irate god—appears to be a folk memory of a psychological trauma affecting humanity whose occurrence is supported by anthropological evidence.
In Saharasia, geographer James DeMeo documents how desertification in the Sahara, Arabia and Central Asia from around 4000 BC transformed peaceful hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies into warring dynasties bent on conquest in the competition for increasingly scarce food sources.
In The Fall, university lecturer Steve Taylor documents the accompanying “ego explosion.” This profound psychological shift paved the way for modern, individuated humanity—yet it came at significant cost. It created what I call the Patriarchal Operating System, the acquisitive, consumptive and destructive psychological model that’s crippling humanity and the planet.
The Fall seems to have inflicted four key psychological traumas:
- A fundamental separation from both nature and the mother figure. I link these because they’re macro- and micro-level versions of the same thing—the mother wound. Nature ceased to be a bountiful provider. So did mothers. Children were separated at birth to encourage violence. This conferred an evolutionary advantage by improving the odds of survival.
- A core sexual trauma stemming from separation from the mother and denial of sexually pleasurable breast-feeding. This led to circumcision of men, and the sexual subjugation and sexual enslavement of women.
- The embedding of core victim (feminine) or victimiser (masculine) energies in the human psyche, stemming from traumas 1 and 2. This dynamic, in highly watered-down form, still resides in the collective unconscious.
- The embedding of a slave mentality (including sexual slavery) whereby we unconsciously give away power to socio-political institutions and rules, e.g. the concept of nationality.
These traumas happened pretty much in the sequence listed above, no doubt with some overlap over a long timespan. Each ancestral trauma damaged us in specific ways which, when understood, can be plainly seem in contemporary human behaviour at both the macro (global) and micro (personal) levels.
In combination, these traumas not only impelled Steve Taylor’s “ego explosion” but also laid the bedrock for the patriarchal civilizations that ensued. These civilizations have all been inherently anti-female, anti-child and anti-sex. We’ve been dealing with the emotional and sexual damage ever since.
I’ll look at each ancestral trauma in turn, exploring both its origins and its contemporary manifestations.
1. Separation from nature/nurture
We’re very familiar with the geography of our world, our little globe with its blue oceans and its landmasses of green, brown and yellow. We know where rain falls and food grows, and where it doesn’t. That would be the yellow bits.
The hunter-gatherer tribes of 6,000 years ago roamed across a landscape that had no yellow bits. The Sahara, Arabia and what are now the deserts of Central Asia were savannahs criss-crossed by rivers that teemed with life. In Saharasia, geographer James DeMeo documents the drought that turned these regions into deserts—and turned their inhabitants into tribes fighting for shrinking food sources.
An image from the space shuttle Columbia of Safsaf Oasis in south-central Egypt, taken with Synthetic Aperture Radar that can penetrate 2 metres of sand, clearly shows a buried river system that once fed the oasis.
It is impossible for us to register the sense of betrayal these tribes must have felt as the rivers dried up, the trees died and the desert spread. From a world where nature unquestioningly met their every need they descended into a baking hot hell where invisible forces threatened their existence—the forces of the angry gods they had somehow offended.
It is impossible for us to register the sense of betrayal these tribes must have felt as the rivers dried up, the trees died and the desert spread.
From being something that was revered, nature became distrusted. The same separation that occurred at the macro level between nature and man repeated at the micro level between mothers and infants—to an infant, its mother is nature. In Patriarchy destroys our capacity to trust, I wrote:
At the macrocosmic level, it was a loss of trust in nature through a lack of resources. At the microcosmic level, it was the child’s loss of trust in its mother through early weaning—also a lack of resources.
In The Prehistory of Sex, archaeologist Timothy Taylor writes that, “In many hunter-gatherer societies, children continue to breast-feed to the age of five or six, and they derive great comfort from the unconditional love that breast-feeding represents, embodying the principles of trust, reliance, and sharing.”
Patriarchy has the opposite effect: “Early weaning practices are generally associated with the opposite psychological tendencies. Warrior societies, for example, often withhold colostrum from a newborn infant and give him or her water instead. The infant is understandably angry about the fact, except that it lacks the cognitive abilities to understand anger, so the event becomes an unconscious focus for aggression in later life.”
In The Politics of Experience, R.D. Laing suggests that, “The first intimations of nonbeing [i.e. emotional disintegration] may have been the breast or mother as absent.”
Another factor in this loss of trust between mother and child was that mothers distanced themselves emotionally from their own children. This emotional abandonment was a prelude to having to abandon their children—or even to eat them. Parent-child cannibalism to survive is documented in the Bible (Lamentations 4:10).
This traumatic process happened as recently as the 1960s when the aggressive Bantu people persecuted the Ik, a hunter-gatherer culture in east Africa. DeMeo writes that, “A passive indifference to the needs or pain of others manifested… eventually mothers abandoned their weakened infants and children.”
Breach of trust
We’ve been living with this fundamental double-breach of trust ever since. It’s only comparatively recently that the practice of separating mothers from their babies at birth ceased. It manifests in the male fixation on the breast as purely sexual. As a result, breastfeeding—nurturing life—is still widely regarded as unacceptable in public and unfit for social media.
Our separation from nature and nurture leaves us permanently anxious, cut off from a sense of being an integral part of creation. To counter this we not only abuse nature but also victimize each other in an endless quest for wealth.
No accumulation of wealth can ever heal this core separation from nature. It exists as a schism in the gutter of our collective unconscious. It’s waiting for each one of us to do the painful work of recognising and healing it.
2. Core sexual wound
Desertification in the Middle East around 6000-4000 BC caused a fundamental shift in the human psyche from peaceful to warlike to compete for dwindling food sources. These societies also became violently anti-sexual. There seem to be several reasons for this.
I’ve described the impact of aggression on the Ik people of east Africa. As they struggled for survival, not only did their emotional bonds dissolve but they also lost all sense of sex being pleasurable. It became solely a survival tool. This same shift seems to have happened during the rise of patriarchy. The evidence for this lies in thousands of years of denial, subjugation and repression of sexuality, as well as all sexual excesses.
Infants were subject to early weaning. Deprived of both the nourishing colostrum and the sexually pleasurable sensation of breastfeeding, infants—particularly males—developed a capacity for violence and sexual rage that conferred an evolutionary advantage in the fight for survival.
These new warrior societies repudiated the practices of the peaceful, often goddess-worshipping cultures they supplanted. The entire Old Testament is a long struggle by an emerging patriarchy to stamp out the practices of its predecessors—particularly sexual practices: “You worship other gods by having sex on hilltops or in the shade of large trees.” (Jeremiah 2:20)
The sexual-spiritual split
There was a more practical consideration, too. As I wrote in A brief history of shame, these warrior societies valued the male capacity for violence above all else. The women who bore such children—the women of the elite—had to be controlled to ensure they only had sex with the ruling males to protect the victorious bloodline.
Strict sexual rules developed for both men and women. The early books of the Bible are littered with examples. Punishments were severe. Sexual offences were deeply shameful for the victim, the victimizer, and their families.
This rejection and shaming of the entire sexual aspect of humanity caused a split in the human psyche. Michael Picucci, PhD, calls this the ‘sexual-spiritual split’.
This rejection and shaming of the entire sexual aspect of humanity caused a split in the human psyche. Michael Picucci, PhD, calls this the ‘sexual-spiritual split’.
In The Journey Toward Complete Recovery he describes it as “a deep psychic schism within almost everyone in our culture” which teaches that, “God, love and family are good while sex is dirty, bad and perverse.”
This is the core sexual wound at the heart of humanity.
At some point during the rise of patriarchy the sex-negative sentiments behind this core sexual wound manifested as genital mutilation practices. James DeMeo writes in Saharasia that, “Female genital mutilations are generally harsher, more painful, and more life-threatening than those performed upon the male.”
The intent, with both genders, was to inflict sexual trauma. Moses Maimonides, a physician and rabbi in Cairo (c. 1175), wrote: “The true purpose of circumcision was to give the sexual organ that kind of physical pain as… to lessen the power of passion.”
This core sexual trauma became embedded in the collective unconscious, passed from one generation to the next. It exists regardless of whether a male has been circumcised or not—that’s only its external appearance. It continues to manifest in the on-going sexual negativity widely seen in the world today. Even for those with a sex-positive outlook it exists as an obstacle to complete intimacy.
3. Victimizer/victim dynamic
In the first three parts of this series I’ve described the emotional bedrock of the patriarchal societies that emerged in the Middle East after desertification in the period 6000-4000 BC caused competition for food sources.
This emotional bedrock included a core separation both from nature and from nurture—other human beings. This separation paved the way for a new social dynamic. Referencing the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, in “Pleased to meet you, don’t you know my name?” It’s the right to victimize, I wrote:
“The rise of patriarchy created a new dynamic that became embedded in the human psyche: victimizer and victim. Ever since, we have bought into the basic notion that we can victimize those weaker than us while those who are more powerful than us can victimize us in any way they can get away with: physically, emotionally, sexually, financially.
Generally thought of as the dominion of men over women, patriarchy is more accurately the dominion of the (masculine) victimizer over the (feminine) victim.
Both men and women can be victimizers. As well as victimizing women, men victimized other men violently, economically and at times sexually. Ruling class women victimized their servants and slaves, male and female alike, sometimes more cruelly than their men did. It was King Herod’s daughter who requested that John the Baptist’s head be served on a platter.
Every civilization since the rise of patriarchy has victimized to the greatest extent that it could: Assyria, Rome, the Muslim Caliphate, Genghis Khan, the empires of Spain, Russia, Britain and Japan. All our laws and civil institutions have been enacted to contain and control this victimization.”
‘Work sets free’
Nazi Germany is a classic example of this concept of ‘maximum victimization’. Not only did they seek to conquer Eastern and Western Europe, they sought to exterminate the Jews after extracting the utmost economic gain from them. The Nazis even tried to put a positive spin on this: the gate of the concentration camp at Dachau bears the legend arbeit macht frei, ‘work sets free’.
Victimization by Nazi Germany was only made possible by turning the majority of individual Germans into victimizers. More accurately, the Nazis activated their latent capacity to victimize by convincing them they were victims. A significant factor in this was the core sexual trauma I describe above.
In The Mass Psychology of Fascism (written in Berlin in 1932), Wilhelm Reich writes that, “Suppression of the natural sexuality in the child… makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority… At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family; this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system.”
The deepest lesson of World War II is that the capacity to victimize exists inside each of us, just waiting for the right (or, perhaps, wrong) conditions. It’s like the Alien in Ridley Scott’s film waiting to burst out of our chests and cause havoc.
The lower masculine victimizer
I wrote more on this in The Alien inside us – the lower masculine victimizer:
“I use the word ‘lower’ because the masculine qualities of strength, intelligence and anger can all be expressed in a ‘higher’, protective manner. Here they are used to mitigate lack at the expense of others—and to express primal pain.
The Alien is the perfect embodiment of the lower masculine victimizer. It wants what it wants and will commit any brutality to achieve its ends. You can’t kill the fucker, it has acid in its veins, it drools and doesn’t clean up after itself.”
The penis—an image forbidden by society—physically embodies the lower masculine victimizer.
The world we live in today has entirely been shaped by the core traumas that impacted the human psyche during the desertification of the Middle East and the rise of the patriarchal, world-conquering civilizations that ensued.
Although much reduced, those traumas have not been healed. They still exist in watered-down form, an emotional sludge in the gutter of humanity’s collective unconscious. Of these, the victimizer/victim dynamic is the most important one to address. Our unconscious acceptance of this dynamic is the entire basis of the perpetuation of patriarchy.
The victim/victimizer dynamic is one of the 3 laws at the heart of patriarchy. To end patriarchy we must consciously end our acquiescence to being victims—and victimizers.
4. Slave mentality
If you look at the history of patriarchy, it’s a history of conquest—and perhaps more importantly—re-conquest.
In The Middle Sea, a history of the Mediterranean, John Julius Norwich describes a “constantly shifting kaleidoscope of kingdoms, principalities, duchies, republics and city-states”—and that’s just Italy. Each of these shifts involved conflict, loss, and some form of enslavement—whether physical, political, financial or sexual.
A cursory glance at the Old Testament tells us the Hebrews came out of captivity in Egypt, conquered Canaan to create the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and were then conquered and enslaved by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in the 6th century BC.
The same pattern of conquest and reconquest happened the whole world over. It’s extremely likely that someone, somewhere in all our genetic lines was a slave—or one of their ancestors was. The result is we’re all unconsciously carrying the dregs of a slave mentality that’s never been recognised, accepted and healed.
Being enslaved is perhaps the most crushing psychological blow a human being can receive. For men, it meant irremediable dishonour on the battlefield and literally being worked to death.
I wrote about the impact of enslavement on women in Does patriarchy traumatise the feminine?
Edwin Long’s monumental (10’ x 5’8”) painting shows women being sold into slavery. Herodotus describes the process in his Histories: “The auctioneer used to start with the most attractive girl there, and then, once she had fetched a good price and been bought, he would go on to auction the next most attractive one.”
Once all the desirable women had been auctioned, the state would pay men to take women, to ensure they were under male control. As men this may not seem relevant—yet we have inherited the remains of this traumatised programming through our female genetic lines.
Can you see the origins of the feminine obsession with physical looks and makeup? How society has come to regard certain looks and body shapes as desirable, while others are undesirable? This is a modern manifestation of our ancient feminine slavery mentality.
Allegiance to other masters
While physical slavery is no longer legal, because of our unprocessed slave mentality we have transferred our allegiance to other masters, such as our nation (the willingness to not just die ‘For King and Country’ but to obliterate the whole world in the process) and more recently to the global market economy.
“The perfectly adjusted bomber pilot may be a greater threat to species survival than the hospitalized schizophrenic.”
— R.D. Laing
Why does 99% of the world’s population accept rule by the 1% who control the global economy? Why don’t we rebel like Spartacus and overthrow these financial slave-masters? Shouldn’t democracy let us create a more equitable, less stressful system?
In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, written in Berlin in 1932—and for which he had to flee Nazi Germany—psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich observes: “It is ridiculous to contend that the psychopathic general was capable of oppressing seventy million people all by himself.”
It makes no sense—until we realise that we all unconsciously accept our role as slaves in this modern drama with very ancient roots. This mentality fuels a deep anger and sense of disempowerment that contributes to the cocktail of ancestral toxic masculinity.
Psychologist R.D. Laing describes the impact of this mentality as “conformity to a presence that is everywhere elsewhere”. It cannot be seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted—yet it affects every moment of all our lives.
This presence is buried under a patina of unconscious shame that keeps humanity in a paradigm that while superficially promising freedom and satisfaction, ultimately keeps us emotionally and sexually in chains.
Humanity will not know true freedom until it resolves all these ancestral traumas.
For more information please see the Ancestral Toxic Masculinity toolkit.