From Converging Paths, 1987 Fall Equinox SHAMANISM: Agony Before the Ecstasy by SCARECROW
From Converging Paths, 1987 Fall Equinox
SHAMANISM: Agony Before the Ecstasy
There is an old Central Asian story of the time that Nasruddin Hoca, the
Sufi teacher of Anatolia, was given a duck by a friend of his who was
passing through the village. Ducks were rare in that part of the world,
and the delighted Nasruddin made an excellent roasted duck dinner, saving
what was left for soup. In a day or so, many people stopped by Nasruddin's
house, each claiming to be a friend of the man who brought him the duck.
Nasruddin was obliged by custom to feed each of them. As one might imagine,
the duck soup got thinner and thinner. About a month later, a man came to
Nasruddin saying that he was a friend ofa a friend of a friend who had
given the duck to Nasruddin. Nasruddin stepped into the kitchen for a
moment, and returned with a bowl of soup. The man drank it, saying "But
Nasruddin, it tastes like water! Where is the duck?" Nasruddin answered
"My brother, that is the soup of the duck. That is all that is left."
With that in mind, let us discuss shamanism.
As is true fo any religion, the Craft (Wicca) has myths of origin and
function. The early origin myth that portrayed the Craft as a European,
Paleolithic faith that was practiced and preserved across the millennia,
only to go "underground" during the "Burning Times", before being
resurrected by Gerald Gardner (and others) in the 1940's has now been
largely replaced by the newer myth that modern Wicca is functioning as
a (mainly) white, middle class Euro-American Pagan shamanic system. A
popular corollary to this second myth is the notion that shamanism can
be purchased, learned and absorbed in a weekend or week long workshop.
Margot Adler, Isaac Bonewits and others have discussed the nature of
this first myth at length. Culturally, there is no more continuity
between the religions of the Cro-Magnon culture of Europe and British
Wicca than there is between Christianity and the Paleolithic religions
of Egypt or Arabia. I might add that the entire cultural and religious
lifestyle of a Paleolithic gathering and hunting faith is inapppropriate
to most of us, as dinner is more often provided by McDonald's than by
This more recent myth (modern Wicca as shamanism) is not useful to the
Craft, as it fosters the inaccurate and offensive notion that the
participants attending these weekend seminars have had the training,
and developed talents on a par with those of the native peoples with
shamanic medicine systems, such as the Jivaro of the Amazon, the Sioux
of North Dakota, or Tibetan Bon lamas.
It should be remembered that Pagan cultures have religious initiatory
societies that are not shamanic, and that the majority of religious
specialists are not shamans. Healing, drumming, dancing, Vision Quests,
working with power animals/spirits, and going into trance for extended
periods of time are not the exclusive province of shamanism.
There are many different paths to enlightenment, and not all paths are
possible for all students. Just as not all health professionals can or
should become neurosurgeons, it is not beneficial to think that all of
the Wicca and Neo-Pagans can benefit from shamanic training. Truth be
told, none of the material currently offered to Crafters/Neo-Pagans at
large even remotely approaches the requirements for shamanism.
The term "shaman" ultimately derives from the Sanskrit word "sramanas",
meaning an ascetic, or one who practices a form of denial. This term was
borrowed by the Tungus peoples of Asia, who called their elite religious
practitioners of magic, healing, psychology and spiritualism "shamans".
The notion of denial and the practice of asceticism figures pre-eminently
in shamanic systems of training and initiation.
As a religious system, shamanism can be traced to the Upper Paleolithic
(c. 25000 BCE) with some assurance, and evidence exists to indicate that
something very much like shamanism existed as far back as 250,000 BCE.
Some of the distinguishing features of shamanism would include x-ray art
(seeing through the body to the skeleton, and perceiving the energy flows
within an organism) and a unique ability to journty to the Otherworld.
Shamanism is, above all, an ultimate expression of the practical talent
of being able to integrate the physical and spiritual realms, and fully
master both worlds. Not surprisingly, the path to shamanism begins with
a catastrophic lack of harmony, i.e. illness. Most tribal, village and
band structured societies lack the notion of a split between physical
and mental ills. The entire person was sick, and needed healing. So
strong is this connection between the physical and spiritual components
of the person, that damage to one portion of the whole, whether physical
or psychic, manifests in the "other" realm.
A potential shaman was oftentimes a person who was seriously ill, usually
near death. During the process of dying, the physical body undergoes
states that are accompanied by corresponding psychic stresses (astral
and ethereal encounters, if you will). At a point of major crisis within
the process of death, the Gods/Spirit Guides/Power Animals are represented
to the person through the symbols and myths of that specific culture.
During this condition of crisis, the person dies, or is cured, by being
given the information that they need to be healed, along with certain
mystical techniques. (This is one major difference between the shaman and
one who merely undergoes a near-death experience -- the latter cannot
long retain or communicate their knowledge to others.) The shaman returns
to life in a miraculous fashion. (They then spend time learning the formal
techniques of shamanism from another shaman, to complete their training.)
Now, the shaman has returned, but not as exactly the same person. Their
physiological processes, mind and world view have been shattered and
re-integrated....[some text may be missing - tn].
This journey is often accomplished by chanting the old legends, or, in
the Huichol Mexican Indian culture, by actually assuming the identity of
a god or ancestor and walking back through six hundred miles of sacred
and real space to the land of their origins, which they call Wirikuta.
A candidate lives the legends, actualizing them anew here on earth. The
Huichol are well prepared for their experiences and visions by a lifetime
that has been spent hearing the old tales, and living with their religious
symbols. Those who repeat the journey to Wirikuta five times can become
a mara akame, or shaman.
A common motif in shamanic initiations is to feel that the flesh is
dissolving off of the bones, or sense that a spirit monster is slowly
eating the body, until the candidate is reduced to a skeleton. The body
is then reconstructed by the God or spirit-helpers, giving the shaman a
body that is of divine origin. In a similar vein, the Australian Abori-
gines undergo a ritual procedure where they feel that crystals are
actually replacing their internal organs, and while experiencing this agony,
feel that their bodies assume the properties of crystals. In many cultures
that have shamans, crystals are seen as either solidified light, or the
souls of long dead shamans.
As the Vision Quest begins, one of several possibilities will occur:
1. the person may die of fear.
2. the person may die of physical injuries, and/or drug overdose.
3. the person lives, no shamanic experience occurs, but becomes insane
from the unresolved stresses the psyche has experienced.
4. the person lives, but no initiatory experience occurs.
5. the person emerges as an insane shaman, with talents, but no
6. at the moment of crisis, the person may either be given, or find the
tools and spiritual helpers they need to heal themselves.
7. They ascend from the underworld to the crystalline blue sky where the
gods dwell, returning to the world with a knowing of the wholeness of
the Universe that is seen, interpreted, and realized through the
attitudes, symbols, and myths of their culture. The initiate has
become the first shaman, the first initiate, who can perceive the
numinous unity of all things.
Following the criteria suggested by Jilek (see bibliography), a shaman can
be distinguished from other religious specialists or ordinary members of a
Pagan society by the following criteria:
1. A shamanic _vision quest_ is of greater commitment, longer duration,
and is more demanding of body and spirit than the vision quest of a layman
that occurs as either a rite of passage or initiation into a medicine
2. A true shaman _has mastered the collective wisdom_ and knowledge of the
society. A shaman possesses a complete knowledge of hunting, gathering of
plants, healing herbs, as well as the psychology of the society, and has a
vocabulary that is far greater than that of others in the society. Many
are artists, in addition to whatever profession they may practice.
3. A shaman will obtain abilities and talents from many different _guardian
spirits_ or deities. Members of a Pagan society that has a shamanic
religious complex normally obtain one or two power animals during their
lifetime, but shamans have an entire mythic realm of animals, plants and
natural forces at beck and call. Hence, they have a complete understanding
of the myths and stories of the society due to their direct, experiential
knowledge of them.
4. A shaman is able to manifest _extraordinary abilities_ as needed. Examples
include night vision, the physical balance and leaping abilities that shamans
can exhibit (cited as a direct proof of their kinship with the messenger birds
of the spirit world) or the ability to juggle knives, heal simple damage to
their bodies, or endure physical hardships that would injure or kill most
5. Shamans have a mastery of the divine fire of creation.
6. The curing techniques available to a shaman are unique, and are not shared
by other healers.
7. A shaman can simultaneously operate on several levels of reality.
8. A shaman can conduct others to the realms of the gods (or the sky) for
healing, and only a shaman can retrieve a soul that is wandering.
9. The shaman possesses his spirit helpers. Unlike Santerian or Voudoun
possession (where the orixa/loa takes over the body and shares consciousness
with the medium), the shaman takes over the body or spirit form of his
familiars or gods.
10. In short the way of the Shaman is fraugh with perils and traps to catch
the unwary. The journey from near death crisis to ecstasy requires time,
patience, and agonies of spirit and body. Mircea Eliade has observed that
shamans suffer more than any other member of a society. They are only rich
in their understanding of the unbroken wholeness of being, and in their
abilities to live within this garden of Eden, experience a kinship with all
of being; deliver its apples to other mere mortals, or transport them there
for a visit.
For reasons that I hope are clear, one cannot call seminars that are
currently available to Neo-Pagans true "shamanic training". The psychic,
physical and emotional scars that a teacher of shamanism would need to
inflict on his students would be illegal, foolhardy, and generally not
useful in our modern society. Putting a feathered headband over a
pastiche of Hindu tantra, American Indian ways of healing, and poorly
understood TraditionalWicca and then terming it "Shamanism" is offensive
to Native Americans (and others) who have invested years of their lives
and endured numerous personal hardships to attain their enlightenment.
As my Mexica, Apache, and Pima acquaintances have reminded me, the
descendants of the people who raped their women, killed their men, and
raised their children to despise the religion of their tribe should not
expect to be handed the secrets of their model of the Universe on a
platter, and have no right to their ceremonies, practices, or wisdom.
That said, I believe that there can one day be shamans among the Wicca
and Neo-Pagans. There are means within a Euro-Asiatic heritage to
actualize the goal of shamanism. The shamanic complexes of Europe and
Asia are probably less well known to us, due to the relative scarcity
of material, and of living practitioners. Close reading of the Finnish
"Kalevala", the Norse "Lay of the High One" or the Saga of Hrolf Kraki,
as well as Irish poetry and legend can suggest a variety of approaches
to a European shamanism.
The oldest musical instruments that we find associated with, say, the
Irish or the Morris Dance are clearly ritualistic. The bodhran, bull-
roarer, and simple whistles are quite useful in attaining altered states
of consciousness. (However, whatever technical means are chosen, they
are only shamanic if the criteria for shamanic initiation have already
been satisfied by the practitioners. Otherwise, the techniques are
"Pagan", "tribal", "European" and "medicinal". This in itself is a
difficult and very respectable practice. I applaud those who understand
this distinction, and who have brought some of the "Medicine" of Europe
The methods of old Europe and Asia seem to have been designed for a
solitary practitioner, or a very small group. At a minimum, the initiate
must discover, actualize, and travel through the world tree/cosmic axis
to a place that is no place, at a time without time, and realize the
unity of all things.
It should be realized that tribal Europeans and Asiatics possessed
spatial, color and time perception that is very different from that of
us moderns. While our rational and scientific culture knows that the
world is round, our ancestors of seven thousand years ago dealt with
the reality of curved space. While our society uses rectilinear spaces
that are then filled with objects possessing straight lines and angles,
many Pagan cultures of Europe and Asia structured their living environ-
ments around the motifs of the spiral, ellipse, or circle. An examination
of the art of the early Minoans, Celts and others reveals a strikingly
fluid artistic style. Symbols and spatial concepts appropriate to a
Pagan culture should be experienced on a daily and frequent basis to
effectively communicate to the subconscious mind their importance. After
all, these symbols and spatial concepts will enable reintegration of the
self during the shamanic vision quest. Anthropologists who have spent
ten or more years living within a tribal culture report that while they
do indeed see things during vision quests, the gods, myths and spirit
helpers are very vague to them, compared to the experiences natives have.
[Note: this file was captured from posts on PODS, the original message
header indicated it had come from an Internet FTP site. If anyone knows
the Internet site, the author would greatly appreciate being informed of
it, as he no longer has a copy of the original article, and this version
seems to be missing a small segment. Thank you.]
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