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Rather than being a degenerate hybrid of indigenous cultures or an arbitrary bricolage of subjective spiritualities, modern western shamanism belongs to a movement against the mechanization of nature, cosmos, and the human self.” Kocku von Stukrad (2002:791)
The roots of shamanism are very old and very deep. They extend into the earth in lands as diverse as the American woodlands, the Gobi desert, the mountains of China, the outback of Australia, the Serengeti plains of Africa, and the icy windswept islands of the Inuit. And there is no adequate formula or congruent definition that assimilates these differences and diversities into a unified concept. The terms “shaman” and “shamanism” are highly contested, as is the term “neoshamans,” recently used to describe contemporary practitioners resonant with this wide variety of indigenous traditions. The axis of the disagreement on defining shamanism turns around the complex relationship between indigenous types of religious activity identified as “shamanic” and the study of those activities by people and scholars of other cultures and religious worldviews (beginning with 18th century European missionary accounts, passing into anthropological discourses, and culminating in the multi-perspectivism of various humanistic disciplines). This contestation is something more complex than the tension between “insider” and “outsider” views of a spiritual practice; it is immersed in the history of western imagination and the encounter with cultures and peoples regarded as often strange and unfathomable while yet, also regarded as attractive and alluring. These attitudes of critical distancing and of exotic allure have combined in a complex, multivoiced amalgamation of responses that characterize shamanism as religion, art, literature, magic, theater, medicine, social drama, and ethnic cultural expression to name only a few of the most obvious tropes. The complexity of contestation over this signification is also immersed in a general empirical “disenchanment” with nature rooted in the rise of western scientific epistemology and objectification that has tended to dismiss shamanic thinking or practice as “fantasy” or “trickery and illusion” unworthy of scientific study or investigation. This tendency has generally alienated its observers from a participant mode of investigation of the phenomena in the name of objectivity or rational analysis. More recently, and somewhat ironically, this contestation has resulted in certain proprietary attitudes toward “shamanism” stemming from specific disciplines (and from indigenous individuals!) who wish to appropriate the phenomena as comprehensible only through the lens of their own theories or practices. And yet, shamanism, however opaque and metamorphic, thrives in
Gloria Flaherty (1988:525).” Background to this image of the marginal performer was a more general bias against indigenous peoples as “natives” who. passim). shaman as sidewalk entertainer or possible pick-pocket. In tracking this history. or wizard during a period when all such individuals were suffering deadly persecution and radical marginalization. all influenced in some degree by the many discourses that claim to represent its authentic analysis. I want to focus on its European roots and on certain perfomative aspects. magicians. however. Through German accounts of travels to Siberia and other Russian and “Far East” landscapes the term “shaman” (der Schaman) and “shamanizing” (schamán’en) were first introduced into European exotic vocabulary where it was quickly appropriated by other national languages. to quote one 18th century writer. was necessarily denounced out of fear of heresy charges as one who conversed or controlled demons or was perhaps himself (or herself) a demon or minor of Satan. as 1 2 1 2 Gloria Flaherty (1992. letters.” Such is the original context for the entry of shamanism into European discourse in the 18th century through journals. dancers. including English. sorcerer. . travel accounts. then under the influence of German Hanover kings. on the role of language and imagery as expressive art intrinsic to a wide spectrum of shamanic practices. because he was not Christian. there is no definition that can adequately express both the complexity of the phenomena and the debate over its authentic articulation. and other marginalia that constitute the initial records of early ethnography. were “stupid brutes who believed in evil spirits and worshiped idols. It is also in this period that the male-dominated scientific profession began to flourish. shaman as witch. specifically. Darker yet.contemporary societies around the world. First. In the early science discourses. Subsequently. the shaman. Both Russian Orthodox clergy and the Catholic Jesuits described shamans as “priests of the devil. a history and a series of stages in the debate that illustrates the development of the concept of “shamanism” into a contemporary idea that can no longer be constrained to a strictly indigenous or traditional model. was associated with a darker imagining. This history has been analyzed most successfully by Gloria Flaherty who points out that the only analogies for shamanism in the 18th century European context was theater. There is. This trope of shaman as masked actor or costumed performer expert in slight-of-hand and ventriloquism. that is. we can consider a brief history of the “western imagination” of shamanism in the 17th and 18th century encounter with other cultures by members of Western European civilization. and other folkloric and liminal characters marginal to mainstream European intellectual life. jugglers.
Foucault has pointed out and which Flaherty emphasizes. and other magical societies who promoted a general Hermetic discourse on nature and human transformation quite distinct from that articulated by Christian theology or scientific rationalism. labelled. performative discourses of poetry. and stored in museums.a contestation of descriptions which reflect the inherent tensions of European (and later AngloAmerican) cultures. communicated his creative trance to the audience to transport them out of their rational perceptions and into other regions of mythic and poetic awareness. European literature abounds with descriptions of the shaman as possessed convulsionaries. and conquered and the artifacts of all “foreign” societies were collected. characterized by popular writers such as Johan Grelin (1740s) or Hans Grassl (1760s) denounced the shaman as a fraud. Simultaneously. and performative implements of Asian or Eastern shamanism. The dominant discourse has been to either dismiss shamanism by marginalizing it as a minor religious or cultural phenomena. then undergoing the strain of the Protestant revolution. shamanism was caught in the intersections of a variety of interpretative cultural tensions and made captive to the political and hedgemonic aspirations of scientific ideology. often over-riding the 3 3 Gloria Flaherty (1988: 528). There is a deep ambiguity here -. cheat. and theater. The attitude toward nature was condensed into new tropes of the imagination whereby feminine nature was to be “subdued” or “mastered” by the new scientist or as Francis Bacon exclaimed. artifacts. including the many drawings. or a bit more positively. Nature was thus measured. hypersensitive type” or as a “melancholy and hysteric individual”. mad enthusiasts. or to reinterpret shamanism in terms of the analytic categories of western humanistic discourse. coupled with colonial invasions and rational deconstructions of all “uncivilized” peoples. Nor do those discourses mesh easily with the tensions within normative Christianity. opera. as an inspired poet-genius who did not appeal to his audience by reason or logic.” The imagined metaphor of shaman as a certain pathological type was described by Pallas (1773) as a “highly irritable. drums. Masons. From the beginning. and more generally the arts. hoax. but like Plato’s Ion or his flute master Maryas. “make her your slave!”. speaking of Nature and all her children. there is also the emergence of an underground discourse in European esotericism in the form of the Rosicrucians. diagramed. calculated. The rationalist paradigm. as “crazy and hysteric” while shamanism was “mere theater. . such as witchcraft and shamanism. dissected. was quickly condemned as superstition and primitive or as a form of “irrational” thinking. The rationalizing discourse of an emergent scientific epistemology does not mesh easily with the aesthetic. the rationally inexplicable. robes.
the materialization of the external world through detached observation. The shaman. Doods (1957: 144. which culminated in an “ecstatic trance” was both devalued as a psychomental abnormality by rationalists at the same time it was overvalued as a poorly understood form of magical activity by those inclined toward a more positive view of nature. and an unreconciled imagery of imagination that continues to haunt shamanic discourses even in the present. Some European writers. but looked to the classic Greek singer Orpheus as the great exemplar of the type. or. 4 5 6 4 5 6 Wouter Hanegraaff (1998: 406-410). effusive. 1770s). prophet. The shaman was constructed by Herder as one who gained positive control of the imagination of his audience through dancing and chanting in order to bring them into contact with the spiritual cosmology of the shaman’s world. E. and sweating profusely.” Herder also set the tone for further ethnographies of shamanism by emphasizing social functions of the shaman as integral to the religious communities they served.semantics of the indigenous peoples whose practices are thus labeled “shamanic”. and that their prototype was the shaman.” he or she would speak with astonishing poetic gifts in a language “flowery. Herder claimed that all Greek poets were intimately linked to nature through their poetry. 135-156). Gloria Flaherty (1988:535). and sacramental paradigms which resisted material fragmentation by emphasizing a more magical worldview.” The tensions between these interpretative perspectives imbued all forms of “shamanism” with ambiguity. while trembling. on the other hand. Dodds who claimed that the roots of Greek religion and soul theory was primarily shamanic as illustrated through Greek accounts of “prophecy. and seer. rational explanation. “like oracles of old. . poet. shaking. uncertainty. R. and magical healing. a theme developed later by the English scholar E. such as Johann Gottfried Herder (c. singer. resisted the general trend toward the rational dismissal of shamanism by emphasizing the shaman as artist. and highly sophisticated. occult. often congruent with shamanic thinking. Gloria Flaherty (1988:533). would “rave as if in a fever. R. on one hand. The progressive “disenchantment” of nature through an epistemology of objectification (via the subject-object split). either merry or melancholy mad” at the ecstatic peak of the performance. bilocation. and the secular control of nature was juxtaposed to a nature-centered performative aesthetics and a variety of esoteric. Herder also initiated the comparative study of shamanism by referencing numerous examples of der Schaman from different cultures. The shaman’s séance.
fraud. uniting his spectators into a tribal gathering filled with awe and respect. has a scene in which a young male character “shamanizes” in a public café based on his being seized by the spirit of his uncle’s recent opera. humming and then singing louder and louder. He paces back in forth on the café floor. receptivity. shamanic theme. c. The sacralization of nature and the human capacity for empathy and identification with the spirits of nature in these writers becomes a poetic. as in the works of Goethe or Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg. but through empathy. and delusion. and connecteness to its generative capacities as intrinsically creative and nurturing. Ludwig Tieck (1770s) analyzed Shakespeare as “the consummate shaman” who initiated spectators through his eccentric characters into a magical worldview consistent with various English esoteric orders.In a reversal of interpretive reflection. This theme was developed more in 19th century Hermetic interpretations of nature. resonant with contemporary deep ecology. also established a paradigm of the shaman as an exemplar of attunement to the natural world and its hidden mysteries. Thus nature can be known best. We can see this tension philosophically as well. he sings with precision and clarity and power. Writers like Wilhelm Schelling (1799) repudiated the current phenomenological view that the cognition of nature was determined entirely by the unifying perception of a subject that turned “dead nature” into a meaningful object of perception and offered the alternate view that nature incorporates the human within its own generative and creative processes. This work. Novalis describes nature as a “sacred organism” whose hidden symbolism and esoteric significations can only be uncovered by poetic empathy and a visionary perceptions of “eternally flowing nature” similar to the perceptions of the shaman. like shamans. The paradox here is the assimilation of the “shaman” into the literary paradigms of Europe at the very time that shamanism as a social phenomena was being decontructed in alternate discourses as primitive superstition. Other writers also supported this general view that the artist or poet might well be a medium for spiritual energies beyond the normative views of science or theology. can describe the “fluids of 7 7 Gloria Flaherty (1988: 535-39). a crowd gathers and is mesmerized. Pierre-Simon Ballache. 1790s) and later in the works of Victor Hugo. and in the writings of American transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. primarily a dramatic conversation on aesthetic issues. A French example of this interpretive frame is Denis Diderot’s popular novel Le Neuve de Rameu (1760s). the original manuscript passing eventually to Goethe who published it in 1805. . He writes that only the poets. seized by sadness and tears. This attitude. as he is possessed by the inspiration of the work. not through detachment and observation of its mechanisms.
living nature” and understand the “sacred language that is the glowing ribbon between the human and the supernatural realms” intrinsic to the human-nature relationship. rescuing souls. Balzer (1996). 9 This is my own general definition. Perhaps this is the most we can expect. Out of this dense collection of reports and analytic descriptions emerges what might be called a “classic definition” of the shaman as a guardian and keeper of tradition who engages in trance and other ecstatic states for the purpose of healing individuals and the community. and the power politics of the gradual conquest of the exotic and disturbing other into the dominant paradigms of scientific research. a generic description whose universal application is highly suspect and completely incompatible with specific. including those of the dead and the ancient ancestors. chanting. and McDonald (2002) for a more in-depth survey. through a visionary recital that includes information and directions from the spirits of nature. its energies and powers. climbing the world tree. The middle ground of this contestation is found in the emergence of a significant corpus of ethnographic descriptions. This highly generic and abstract definition serves more as a marker of consensus among non-shamanic. and journeying into a variety of cosmological dimensions while engaged in a dramatic performance while wearing various symbolic items that reflect the specific powers of the individual and the shaman’s lineage. have tended to distrust general theories of shamanism in favor of explicit detailed accounts of indigenous religious activities through “thick descriptions” which may or may not be 8 9 8 Kocku von Stuckrad (2002: 784-791). communing with a variety of spirits. and anecdotal accounts all subject to the theoretical perspectives of humanistic social analysis. romantic imaginations. mid-20th century academic scholars than as a reliable account of actual shamanic rites and beliefs. song. shaking the rattle. . Common activities of the shamanic perfomance are drumming. intersected by aesthetic debates. usually through dance. indigenous religious practices or traditions. dismissive maginalizations. but see Atkinson (1992). participant observations. ritual and often. The dominant voices in these accounts are largely deconstructive in the sense that the operative categories of data gathering and interpretation are based almost exclusively in a variety of AngloEuropean theoretical frameworks imposed on the tumulous complexity of a multitude of indigenous shamanic beliefs and practices. Cultural anthropologists. fieldwork reports. Thus the primary axis of contention on shamanism may be drawn as a polarization between attitudes of rational disenchanment and poetic reenchantment of nature. who have supplied the greater number of ethnographic accounts.
Kehoe (2000). heuristic perspective that emphasizes the significance of the shaman’s social role as one who maintains cultural values. Jane Atkinson (1992:310). mediums. nevertheless. The shaman as one who confronts the collective psyche and draws upon the contents of the mythopoetic imagination. particularly those of Freud and Jung. Marjorie Balzer (1996: 311). another anthropologist of central Asia. Anthropologists. not simply between worlds. community wellbeing. may not necessarily be best classified as shamans in contrast to other types of Maya practitioners. particularly in post-Soviet Russia.“shamanic” but which. Marjorie Balzer (1990). becomes an archetype of the empowered healer 10 11 12 13 10 11 12 13 Atkinson (1992:308). even though Jung himself has been marginalized in the academic setting. but between inherent emotional and mental antagonisms native to a given culture. Other theorists have emphasized the origin of shamanism as explicitly referring to the northeast Siberian Tungus-Evank peoples where the word sama provides the ur-type for the English term shaman. we learn that various classic shamanisms have been analyzed from the functional. Atkinson (2002: 91-92). Other shamanisms have been analyzed from a psychological-structuralist point of view that have classified shamanic worlds according to inherent cultural tensions and oppositions or deep seated mental polarities with the shaman as mediator. The general trend has been to move shamanism from a psychopathological model toward a more nuanced presentation of shamanic states of consciousness. The Jungian paradigm has certainly contributed to an archetypal reading of the shamanic experience. and death. have argued that the term shaman is misused when it is applied to any practitioner other than from those from the trans-siberian region and Jane Day. a sense of tradition. This tendency toward the structuralist interpretation of shamanism has also been linked to psychoanalytic theories. Some authors have suggested that there is a plurality of “shamanisms” that cannot be easily reconciled. though the connection between shamanism and abnormal psychology still has its proponents. and priests? There are certainly overlaps between the typologies and some ritual ecstatics.” However. . has argued that a shaman is defined strictly by rituals that are primarily concerned with “hunting. and an integrative embodiment of the symbolic worlds of a local cosmology. like Alice Kehoe. In reviewing the general theories of shamanism. through forms of shadow and light. share similarities according to those ethnographic accounts. can shamans be called prophets. like Mayan hierarchic priests. fertility. healers. healing.
visions. Mircea Eliade’s classic work (1951) on shamanism emphasizes the role of ecstasy in shamanic initiations and the trance states necessary for the shaman’s magical flight into upper and lower regions of the shaman’s cosmology. . and “hallucinations” that forces him or her into a state of disequilibrium that can only be resolved through a death and rebirth experience resulting in a new shaman-healer for the community. However. Eliade also emphasized the role of shaman as actor and of acting as a kind of shamanism. Jung saw shamanic symbolism as a projection of the individuation process that was later harnessed for healing. Karen Symers (2002). congruent with the earlier European emphasis in shamanism of Orpheus among the Greeks and similar to the Shamanic-Orphic traditions outlined in Native American shamanism by Scandinavian scholar Ake Hultkrantz (1957). have tended to embrace an epistemology based on the human capacity to intentionally alter awareness. The shaman receives a “call” through dreams. Z. In the more contemporary writings on shamanism. Mary McDonald (2002: 98). rituals. 15 Mircea Eliade (1964. the guiding of souls. not all shamans have a crisis. Smith (1987) has critiqued Eliade’s analysis as imbued with his own European Catholic religious worldview. In the comparative study of religion. expertise in the use of mythopoetic imagery. the focus has shifted away from the strictly social-religious role of the shaman toward an Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) model. 1987). J. and a negotiation of communal tensions through the skillful use of symbols in body movements. is built on the model of the shaman’s resolution of a pathological “shamanic crisis” that allows the shaman as “wounded healer” to act as a guide to the crisis of others. and narrative expression. while repudiating the ontological and cosmological claims of shamans. Hultkrantz (1957). Behavioral scientists. they are often seen as the most stable individuals of the community. The shaman as therapist has become increasingly more visible in contemporary reconstructions of shamanism. Eliade’s trope of shaman as psychopomp. and they often do not engage in ecstatic flights to carry out their healing rituals. either individually or communally. voices. the use of various substances to induce visions. Mary McDonald 2002: 90-91. a social-functional role based on mediation.who successfully crosses and recrosses the boundaries of conscious and unconscious life. the use of trance for healing and intuitive insights into suffering. Dropping the terms 14 15 14 Jane Atkinson (1992:313). which comes late to the debate on shamanism. dance. many are trained from childhood. techniques of ecstasy. From all this we can add to our “classic” description a few adjunctive shamanic characteristics: a possible initiatic crisis.
shamanism is reduced to the opiate compounds or endorphins of the shaman’s brain. social life. Psychiatrist Roger Walsh (1986).“trance” and “ecstasy” as imprecise labels. 17 Jane Atkinson (1992:311). dreams. but only shamanism’s defining state of consciousness. shaman as consciousness explorer or master of states. The neurophysiology of altered states is yet another trope. building on Charles Tart’s (1983) work on mapping states of consciousness. this interpretation has been contested as a “neuromythological” claim reducing complex social and cultural aspects of shamanism to a biochemical paradigm of human cognition. Robin Ridington (1990) claims that shamanism is best defined as “an institutionalization of the [mental] transformation from ordinary waking states to non-ordinary ones” and Lewis-Williams carries this preoccupation with mental states to an extreme in defining the shaman when he writes that by shaman he “does not mean to imply anything about the social position of the person. drumming. new consciousness studies have linked altered states to behavioral patterns and various modes of perception (types of waking and sleeping dreams. meditative states. Mary McDonald (2002: 97). poorly understood and reduced to the occasional monograph. . linked to a variety of emotive states supposedly induced by ritual activities. but in the service of specific cultural systems of knowledge. Such a trope does not throw light onto the complex relationships between shamanism and ritual activity. The social-religious world of the shaman. and near-death experience. Charles Tart (1992). Mary Mcdonald (2002: 97). states induced by dancing. and thereby identified as the causal agents that induce shamanic states of consciousness. Altered states can be constructed as by no means universal. adding to the contested nature of shamanism. have characterized the shaman as one who enters the “shamanic state of consciousness” as a unique altered state induced primarily by drumming and inner visualizations that allow the shaman to enter into the hidden worlds of myths. has been overshadowed by the dominant theoretical interests of material science. aesthetic expression. Some researchers. chanting and so on. Jane Atkinson (1992: 310-11).” This general detachment of “shamanism” from the social and religious context of communal life is symptomatic of the dislocated and marginal place of indigenous communities in the contemporary world. particularly in the form of neurophysiology and brain chemistry. In several well known studies. like Michael Harner. and traditional knowledge. imaginative states. including states induced by psychotropic substances). Of course. has constructed a phenomenology of various “shamanic states” as distinct from various states of mental illness and/or other yogic or meditational states. with specific goals or templates for 16 17 16 Roger Walsh (1991).
be it Protestant. and through fasting. Anna-Leena Siikala (1987) defines the shaman as one who undergoes an initiatic transformation. or in some way relieve the illnesses of the oppressors. Michael Taussig has pointed out that shamans are the “shock absorbers of history” and he criticizes the romantic nostalgia that would assign only otherworldly roles of mediation to shamans who face radical cultural changes induced by the on-slaught of domination and control by colonial governments with indiscriminant social-economic policies. it is characteristic of shamanism to enact. or Eastern or Russian Orthodox. . For example. The context of shamanic negotiation is not only political. in a bodily dynamic fashion. learns the structure of the shaman’s cosmos. Michael Taussig (1987). latent human potentials which no doubt link to human physiology and body chemistry. Jane Atkinson (1992:315). since the earliest times. Anna-Leena Siikala (1987). shamans mediate between the oppressive hostility of colonial agents and the survival of their people in a context that demeans and seeks to disempower them. shamans are not ethereal visionaries as much as down-to-earth political agents who seek practical solutions for terrible problems and social conditions. and enacting their messages in the context of communal participation. and intensive drumming publicly performs an ecstatic roletaking technique that induces altered states of consciousness (trance) not only in the shaman but in the observing audience as well. In this context. meditation. shamans have had to deal with mainstream missionization and its undermining influence on shamanic activities.behavior and action quite different in different cultural circumstances. through possession or communion with them. In this trope. there is a fascination and frequently a hope that shamans can cure. Catholic. social-process transformation. At the same time. This role taking strategy has also elided with more distinctive political concerns with regard to the shaman in the context of colonization. This has certainly 18 19 20 18 19 20 Michael Winkelman (2002). However. grounded not in a “shamanic culture” but in regional and local struggles to survive. Some contemporary models of shamanism have attempted to integrate the physio-psychological research on ASC with cultural and social-symbolic analysis. has been intense and long term. heal. the shaman directs and controls a communal. By taking the role of the spirits. through arousal and intensity. The opposition of Christianity. The role-taking of the shaman is anything but static and unchanging. Jane Atkinson (1992: 312). nor is that role strictly confined to mediation between the human and spirit world.
a source of apocalyptic warnings of possible doom or destruction for the dominant cultures. From the oppression of the American Indians through a systematic denial of their religious freedom. Marjorie Balzer (1996: 313-14). workshops. The tropes of shamanism are many. . Missionary fantasy has also enhanced the social power and value of shamans while also attempting to undermine it. no longer identified with his or her local community but increasingly appears as a leader. missionary fears and aggressions. ethnically members of traditional native communities. faulty social support. and facilitator of shamanic events. actions. wise elder. have stilted the dialogues of shamans within the context of their native communities. The shaman has become an international figure. and worldview. particularly those with strong 21 21 Jane Atkinson(1992: 315-16). from nonindigenous populations. The shaman’s role is both as critic of oppositional missionary strategies as well as defender and articulate master of traditional thinking and religious activity. The 250 years of debate over shamanism in Anglo-European intellectual tradition has intertwined with the internationalization of almost all world cultures and resulted in a profusion of shamanisms linked with a wide variety of different traditional indigenous cultures and with many contemporary religious movements. religious. and defiance as well as a source of wisdom and profound knowledge. have undertaken to promote Korean shamanism as an antigovernment strategy aimed as a protest against mainstream political values. in which the shaman has come to symbolize traditional independence. And those who are called shamans are no longer practicing members of any specific tradition. and a general indifference. if not a strange mix of hostility and fascination. resistance. or shaman as cultural revivalist and ethnic historian. some intellectuals like those in Korea. and political interactions. The language of missionization has crept into the shaman’s vocabulary. teacher. This is an emerging dialogical context.” to the Chinese suppression of “feudal superstition” and the Australian governments refusal to recognize the validity of Aboriginal religions rights. evermore complex world of social. The trope here is shaman as political activist or shaman as prophetic leader. The shaman is seen as both a threat to dominant paradigms of missionary religion and yet. even when they are by birth. a dissolving land base. to the post-Soviet efforts to eradicate the “delusions of the shamans. Contrarywise. training sessions. the contestation as a creative process continues to be introjected into shamanic communities where debates over ethnic identity center around the struggle to adapt to a changing. and artistic performances. also as a possible resource for personal guidance and spiritual direction.impacted the nature of shamanism in every community. shamans have fought to re-create shamanisms in a context of diminishing resources.
This phenomena. The fundamental procedure of these emergent groups is learning to induce a shamanic journey. scholarly studies with indigenous spiritual practices. and a recasting of shamanic ritual into personal. Usually there are select songs and chants received. Kocku von Stuckrad (2002) has articulated the most obvious features of the post-1980s neoshamanic movements: a fusions of academic. rather than through simple abstract notions. Because shamanism is seen as highly fluid and multivocal. and visionary contents. ritual journeys. and mythic narratives offer a diversity of perspectives on framing or reframing issues of personal meaning and connection with others. find shamanism (or neoshamanism) appealing as a basis for ritual and ceremonial renewal. even formidable influence in the motivation of many contemporary people to reclaim or reconnect with the spiritual potencies of nature through a visible “shamanic” spiritual practice. both human and spiritual. or human or animal guides. therapeutic processes aimed at producing health. or beliefs can supplement human development. entities. nature devas. The therapeutic element is linked to a recosmologizing of nature that is directed toward the enhancement of human perception through altered states of consciousness. it appeals to both those who seek an alternative to the highly structured and formalized aspects of major religious traditions and to those who wish to simply explore alternatives in addition to their normative religious practices. an interest in cultivating altered states of consciousness. a strong interest in nature and nature related spirituality. a sense of wellbeing. both by scholars and by native shamans.earth-related or nature related rituals and ceremonies like wicca. There is a practical thrust to these interests based on the question of how shamanic practices. It also appeals to those who have no particular religious orientation because of the therapeutic and healing aspects as well as its mythic. usually through drumming. rites. that results in a psychic encounter with various spirits. People who seek both knowledge and healing in a participant sense. The technique is highly resonant with the practices of 22 22 I have recast von Stuckrad (2002:774-775) by amplifying slightly his original points. The boundaries between “traditional” and “contemporary” have blurred in both directions. sometimes labelled “neoshamanism” or more recently “modern western shamanism” has made shamanism into a viable. and personal empowerment. . traditional shamans now borrow from scholarly ethnographies and humanistic theories of shamanism while those with ties to nature religions or healing therapies borrow traditional shamanic techniques and practices. as well as with a variety of esoteric spiritual teachings. poetic. neopaganism. The shaman’s trance. believed to empower the individual in later contacting these same entities.
and generally becoming adept in the use of paranormal perception. astral projections or various forms of bilocation. many non-traditional artists have been identified as neoshamans. mental. Since the mid-1980s. the worldview is one of enhanced awareness open to emergent horizons of interaction and spiritual power that result in enhanced abilities to facilitate healing for one’s self or for others. Practitioners journey with the dying. the therapeutic or healing aspect is the strongest common element. the shaman as medium and the shaman as priest resonate with a variety of theories of life-after-death. or spiritual illness are removed or healed. and new strategies for future health are instituted under the direction of the neoshaman’s guiding spirits. receive messages from the dead. At Stanford University. Physical. This aspect is often constructed as a form of “soul recovery” in which unrealized or fragmented aspects of the psyche are brought into a new integration and stability. such as the various schools of theosophy or spiritualism or the many contemporary magical orders. Janis 23 23 Marjorie Balzer (1996:312). Another common aspect is contact with the dead or assistance with those who are dying. The psychic element is basic to both. in both human and animal form. Theories of nature linked to deep ecology and a concern for the preservation of species are also common points of reference between traditional and modern shamans.” Healing in this context is a healing of the earth from the abuses of mega-techologies and desacralized attitudes toward nature as simply a resource of raw materials for consumption and wealth. Kocku von Stuckrad (2002:776-82). out-of-body or near-death experiences. A key term here is alliance.many esoteric traditions. that is opening to a web of relationships that extend beyond the strictly human or physical plane and which reaches into multiple mythopoetic dimensions through altered states of consciousness in harmony with nature and its inherent powers. . Artistic expression has long been a part of most shamanic traditions and this continues into the present. Here we can see the link to earlier Hermetic theories of nature and Naturphilosophie articulated in the late 18th and 19th centuries but now recontextualized in terms of diminishing eco-habitats and “green party” concerns for both the environment and for the preservation of many indigenous ecological practices. Overall. international opera stars at the New York Metropolitan opera have been called shamans of music and song. advice is given. Earlier concepts of animism and pantheism have given way to theories of “muiltisentience” in which living species (visible and invisible) contribute to the holistic dynamics of ecological health mediated and given voice by the empathic perceptions of the shaman and his or her connection to what Joan Halifax calls the “web of mutuality. like the Golden Dawn and its many offshoots in America and Europe.
. The heart of the neoshamanic performance is a communication through aesthetic forms of core values which express the interconnectedness of human. Traditional shamanic texts have always been performative texts embedded in the rituals and artistry of the ceremony. through translation and creative writing. narrated as mythic visions. The audience is taken in and carried by the shaman’s telling. participates in the drama adding their own verbal responses and affirmations and reactions. accompanied by shamanic music and drumming. Richard Schechner has found the shamanic ritual to be a bridge to post-modern theater by placing the emphasis on performance not as a finished product. but as a process of creative self-expression. movement. To this is added an increasing contemporary interest in shamanic songs and chants. Alex Grey. Gloria Orenstein. a professor in comparative literature at the University of Southern California. and song. poetic song. which has led to the creation of whole new genres of multicultural musical expression and theater linked to poetic texts in many different languages. or Niki Broyles to mention just a few. Certain modern or post-modern visual artists have been called imageshamans. like Joseph Beuys. The fusion of contemporary performative artistic expression with highly evocative imagery has created a multimedia context for modern shamanic expression. 24 25 24 25 Glorai Flaherty (1988:520-523). as resources for the crafting of their own contemporary poetic works. The ritual and pageantry of shamanism is being recontextualized in performative events linked to mythopoetic drama. undertaken both on stage and in the privacy of the artist’s workspace. natural. The shamanic text is a co-participant text. Jerome Rotherberg claims that his international collection of “shamanic poems” are text resources from oral tradition which provide modern inspiration for a return to intuition and instinctual artistic perceptions. linked to both verbal and gestural movements. and enacted as dramatic tellings. Jane Atkinson (1992: 319-320). has been writing on surrealism and using shamanism as a metaphor for visionary and surreal arts. a text open to constant negotiation in the performative setting. Live recordings have now captured this shamanic interactive mood. and social relationships in a context of drama with vivid imagery.Mattox performed her computerized opera called Shaman as a mix of multitrack tapes and live performers. They are not only spoken but sung or chanted. Abdul Klarwein. and newly created modern western shamanic texts. Performing artists have drawn inspiration from these texts. There is resonance here with the earlier history of shamanism in the conjunction with opera and singing as illustrated long ago in Denis Diderot’s novel Le Neuve de Rameu.
a wrapped up speaking that must be unpeeled and unwrapped in a careful and respectful manner. into a re-seeing of the world.that provide access to the shamanistic view (in which all is one and all is many and the many are precious). 92). The meaning is not obvious. Somewhat ironically. and art exhibitions under the title of “shaman as artist” creating common ground between disciplines in art. The poetic metaphors of shamanic speech are wrapped up in the context and performative circumstances of the reading. one layer at a time to reveal what is hidden within the wrappings. poetic texts. Joan Halifax has written on how evocative language used in ceremony can “move teller. In forging new metaphors of shamanism. hard surface reading. and comparative literature. Gary Snyder (1977: 13-14). . contemporary ritual performances. and the transformative. Like shamans. poets are also concerned with the inspiring presences of nature and the disabuse of nature through an objectifying. they are held in the pandanu leaves of the circumstances by which each variety of shamanisms are given voice.. and surreal performance. Gary Synder. anthropology. The Melanesian Kewa peoples have a linguistic convention called agele siapi or “wrapped up speech” which are words or tellings that wrap up the intentions of an individual in the same way that precious objects are wrapped in many layers of soft bark or pandanu leaves and then carefully unwrapped. nor can it lie in a didactic. poets can offer a performative context. we come full circle in the exploration of shamanism in its links once again to theater now not as folkloristic street performers but as an elite core of cutting edge performers rediscovering the inspirational power of shamanic rituals through metaphor. has written that “poetry and song are among the few modes of speech. listener out of the habitual patterns of perception” into new awareness and perceptual healing. Poets like shamans can 26 26 Joan Halifax (1994: 82. a ritualized drama of self presentation that links to the webs of mutuality that sustain the multisentience of our human relationships with the transhuman and unseen spiritual domains.. we are also forging new forms of consciousness. it unites language and the arts through a medium of drama that also participates deeply in religious. called America’s greatest shamanic poet. theater. There is something surreal about shamanism in the contemporary world. religious studies. singer. The shaman’s story or song or poem is also agele siapi. Like shamans. a cleansing of visionary capacity.Orenstein has linked modern shamanism with ecofeminism.” This valuing of ritualized forms of the shamanic arts helps to frame the relationship between poetic forms and shamanic activity. desacralizing technology. the spiritual. Like shamans. poets are ritual singers that can evoke subtle changes of perception in the artistry of their metaphors and in the cadence of their words.
As we peel back those leaves. shadow. It is in this context of respect for the mystery at the heart of shamanism that allows us to discover its many possible modes of expression and the richness of its diverse forms. it seems. From the inception. Poets like shamans are singers. revealing each layer. a poetic stance.C. nor can we. The words “shaman” and “shamanism” are also agele siapi. and a reverent attitude toward other life forms. represent even our self to the other. however detailed. times. all wrapped up in the history and debates of multiple cultures. for human artistic expression. Poets like shamans are real human beings seeking to make clear primary aesthetic values that imbue life with depth. It is perhaps the mystery of human relationships that we can never truly represent the other in all the depth and fullness that the other contains. . a ritual activity. S. can ever express. and unseen possibilities. the drama of the human application of the “extrasensory” perception that remakes the world in mythopoetic forms. from the most traditional to the most modern. It is an art of communication. and for communal life directed towards healing. rich with symbolic action and codes of culture that elude final definition. Lee Irwin College of Charleston. it is important to take a stance of reverence toward what each layer reveals. balance. Shamanism is a process and an on-going dynamic of interactive relationships that includes a deep respect for nature. where respect for life. is made real and communicated outward to the hearts and minds of others. shamanism has been a nebulous and imprecise category whose actual references are far more complex and multilayered than any single account. and places with leaves that are layered up in a long and difficult history. in ritualized space. calling us to hear the hidden meanings wrapped in their songs and images. whose mastery requires a life time of training and effort to reach the center. long term communal relationships. The term “shamanism” is not a precise label nor an easily defined phenomena. its beauty and power. wrapped up as it is in the fine mesh and silken fabric of human creative expression. as there is an illusive complexity to human existence for which words have no adequate analogies. or heart of creation.enact.
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