The Shaman II
In the previous post (Shaman I) we explored the word ‘Shaman’ and some of the very specific connotations of the word. We also made the point, possibly in a round-a-bout way that shamanic practices exist within a cultural framework and in particular the stories, themes and archetypes.
Whilst Michael Harner can be applauded in his attempt to document shamanic practices, the idea that some kind of ‘core shamanism’ can be defined has be a major source of contention.
So what can we summarize from our previous discussion?
The Shaman is the traveler between the worlds.
Shamanic practice involves accessing altered states, different ‘levels’ of consciousness, in order to gather information, gain spiritual support from ‘power animals’, ‘totems’ and ‘ancestors’… and even that is such an oversimplification.
The role of the traditional healer and spiritual worker is not only about bringing wisdom to to their people; but also one of offering sound consul, material and spiritual advice.
- Bard – the teller of tales; the keeper of the oral tradition
- Ovate – the healer and oracle
- Druid – the priest and law keeper
(and yes again I am possibly being over simplistic and even romantic here)
For the modern seeker of Shamanic wisdom there is the initial need to connect with their own roots; ancestry and culture. The tendency to look to others and steal their cultural traditions, what I have called elsewhere Spiritual Imperialism, is not the route. It is a question of looking within and around the spaces and places where you feel a connection – where you can hear the stories echo through the landscape.
The path is about recognising the interconnections and nodes on the web. Not in some overly simplified or complex conspiratorial way, but in a way that recognizes and acknowledges your own complicity in the chain of cause and effect.
It’s not about having seen Dances with Wolves several times; having read Bury My Heart and Wounded Knee, Royal Hunt of the Sun or one of the many (often Westernized) tales of native or traditional peoples. It is about finding within that thing which connects you emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally to your place/space.
In a shamanic sense it is a personal connection to ‘the land’ which gives the practitioner ‘power’; the magic within the landscape that brings the wisdom.
Lessons come from the stories, the myths and the ancestral archetypes and how these influence and lead to a deeper understanding of the journeys and vision quests undertaken by the shamanic practitioner.
In essence shamanic practice is based upon personal experiences of other worlds; worlds which are not transcendent but are immanent – to travel to them it is merely a question of accepting they are there and altering perception (hence trance work).
In traditional cultures the Shaman is ‘called’ to the role sometimes through dreams or signs which require specific interpretation.
However, shamanic powers may be “inherited”.
There have been reports of what is defined as a shamanistic initiatory crisis, a rite of passage for shamans-to-be, commonly involving physical illness and/or psychological crisis. Many traditions speak of a ‘shamanic death’ in which the individual makes a transition between who they once were and who they have now become.
The wounded healer is an archetype for a shamanic trial and journey. This process is important to the young shaman. S/he undergoes a type of sickness that pushes her or him to the brink of death. This happens for two reasons:
- The shaman crosses over to the underworld. This happens so the shaman can venture to its depths to bring back vital information for the sick, and the tribe.
- The shaman must become sick to understand sickness. When the shaman overcomes his or her own sickness, s/he will hold the cure to heal all that suffer. This is the uncanny mark of the wounded healer.
So the Shaman enter into the ‘training’ through some personal crisis, perhaps even a near death experience.
They may, from birth, have been ‘special’ and their words, insights and ‘visions’ respected from a young age.
Boundaries between the shaman and laity are not always clearly defined.
Among the Barasana of Brazil, there is no absolute difference between those recognized as shamans and those who are not.
At some level, most adults have abilities as shamans and will carry out the same functions as those who have a widespread reputation for their powers and knowledge. The Barasana shaman knows more myths and understands their meaning better, nonetheless the majority of adults also know many myths.
Among Inuit peoples the laity have experiences which are commonly attributed to the shamans of those Inuit groups. Daydream, reverie, and trance are not restricted to shamans but control over / alliance with helping spirits is the primary characteristic attributed to shamans.
The laity usually employ amulets, spells, formulas, songs. Among the Greenland Inuit, the laity have greater capacity to relate with spiritual beings. These people are often apprentice shamans who failed to complete their initiations.
The point here perhaps, is that few Shaman would call themselves Shaman.
They engage in ‘shamanic’ and ‘magical’ practices and their abilities are recognised by the people with whom they live, They recognize and celebrate their role, but do not brag or boast about the honours given by others.