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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
contemporary societies around the world, all influenced in some degree by the many discourses that claim to represent its authentic analysis. Subsequently, there is no definition that can adequately express both the complexity of the phenomena and the debate over its authentic articulation. There is, however, 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. In tracking this history, I want to focus on its European roots and on certain perfomative aspects, specifically, on the role of language and imagery as expressive art intrinsic to a wide spectrum of shamanic practices. First, 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. 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, jugglers, dancers, magicians, and other folkloric and liminal characters marginal to mainstream European intellectual life. This trope of shaman as masked actor or costumed performer expert in slight-of-hand and ventriloquism, that is, shaman as sidewalk entertainer or possible pick-pocket, was associated with a darker imagining, shaman as witch, sorcerer, or wizard during a period when all such individuals were suffering deadly persecution and radical marginalization. Darker yet, the shaman, because he was not Christian, 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. Both Russian Orthodox clergy and the Catholic Jesuits described shamans as “priests of the devil.” Background to this image of the marginal performer was a more general bias against indigenous peoples as “natives” who, to quote one 18th century writer, were “stupid brutes who believed in evil spirits and worshiped idols.” Such is the original context for the entry of shamanism into European discourse in the 18th century through journals, letters, travel accounts, and other marginalia that constitute the initial records of early ethnography. 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, including English, then under the influence of German Hanover kings. It is also in this period that the male-dominated scientific profession began to flourish. In the early science discourses, as
Gloria Flaherty (1992, passim). Gloria Flaherty (1988:525).
Foucault has pointed out and which Flaherty emphasizes, the rationally inexplicable, such as witchcraft and shamanism, was quickly condemned as superstition and primitive or as a form of “irrational” thinking. 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, speaking of Nature and all her children, “make her your slave!”. Nature was thus measured, calculated, diagramed, dissected, and conquered and the artifacts of all “foreign” societies were collected, labelled, and stored in museums, including the many drawings, artifacts, robes, drums, and performative implements of Asian or Eastern shamanism. The rationalist paradigm, characterized by popular writers such as Johan Grelin (1740s) or Hans Grassl (1760s) denounced the shaman as a fraud, hoax, cheat, as “crazy and hysteric” while shamanism was “mere theater.” The imagined metaphor of shaman as a certain pathological type was described by Pallas (1773) as a “highly irritable, hypersensitive type” or as a “melancholy and hysteric individual”. European literature abounds with descriptions of the shaman as possessed convulsionaries, mad enthusiasts, or a bit more positively, as an inspired poet-genius who did not appeal to his audience by reason or logic, but like Plato’s Ion or his flute master Maryas, communicated his creative trance to the audience to transport them out of their rational perceptions and into other regions of mythic and poetic awareness. There is a deep ambiguity here -- a contestation of descriptions which reflect the inherent tensions of European (and later AngloAmerican) cultures. The rationalizing discourse of an emergent scientific epistemology does not mesh easily with the aesthetic, performative discourses of poetry, opera, and theater, and more generally the arts. Nor do those discourses mesh easily with the tensions within normative Christianity, then undergoing the strain of the Protestant revolution. Simultaneously, there is also the emergence of an underground discourse in European esotericism in the form of the Rosicrucians, Masons, 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. From the beginning, 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, coupled with colonial invasions and rational deconstructions of all “uncivilized” peoples. The dominant discourse has been to either dismiss shamanism by marginalizing it as a minor religious or cultural phenomena, or to reinterpret shamanism in terms of the analytic categories of western humanistic discourse, often over-riding the
Gloria Flaherty (1988: 528).
semantics of the indigenous peoples whose practices are thus labeled “shamanic”. The progressive “disenchantment” of nature through an epistemology of objectification (via the subject-object split), the materialization of the external world through detached observation, rational explanation, and the secular control of nature was juxtaposed to a nature-centered performative aesthetics and a variety of esoteric, occult, and sacramental paradigms which resisted material fragmentation by emphasizing a more magical worldview, often congruent with shamanic thinking. The shaman’s séance, 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. The shaman, on one hand, would “rave as if in a fever, either merry or melancholy mad” at the ecstatic peak of the performance, or, on the other hand, while trembling, shaking, and sweating profusely, “like oracles of old,” he or she would speak with astonishing poetic gifts in a language “flowery, effusive, and highly sophisticated.” The tensions between these interpretative perspectives imbued all forms of “shamanism” with ambiguity, uncertainty, and an unreconciled imagery of imagination that continues to haunt shamanic discourses even in the present. Some European writers, such as Johann Gottfried Herder (c. 1770s), resisted the general trend toward the rational dismissal of shamanism by emphasizing the shaman as artist, poet, singer, prophet, and seer. Herder also initiated the comparative study of shamanism by referencing numerous examples of der Schaman from different cultures, but looked to the classic Greek singer Orpheus as the great exemplar of the type. Herder claimed that all Greek poets were intimately linked to nature through their poetry, and that their prototype was the shaman, a theme developed later by the English scholar E. R. Dodds who claimed that the roots of Greek religion and soul theory was primarily shamanic as illustrated through Greek accounts of “prophecy, bilocation, and magical healing.” 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. 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.
4 5 6
4 5 6
Wouter Hanegraaff (1998: 406-410). Gloria Flaherty (1988:533). Gloria Flaherty (1988:535); E. R. Doods (1957: 144, 135-156).
In a reversal of interpretive reflection, 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. 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. 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. This work, primarily a dramatic conversation on aesthetic issues, 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. He paces back in forth on the café floor, humming and then singing louder and louder, as he is possessed by the inspiration of the work; a crowd gathers and is mesmerized, he sings with precision and clarity and power, seized by sadness and tears, uniting his spectators into a tribal gathering filled with awe and respect. 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, fraud, and delusion. We can see this tension philosophically as well. 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. Thus nature can be known best, not through detachment and observation of its mechanisms, but through empathy, receptivity, and connecteness to its generative capacities as intrinsically creative and nurturing. This attitude, 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. This theme was developed more in 19th century Hermetic interpretations of nature, as in the works of Goethe or Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, c. 1790s) and later in the works of Victor Hugo, Pierre-Simon Ballache, and in the writings of American transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. The sacralization of nature and the human capacity for empathy and identification with the spirits of nature in these writers becomes a poetic, shamanic theme. 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. He writes that only the poets, like shamans, can describe the “fluids of
Gloria Flaherty (1988: 535-39).
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. Thus the primary axis of contention on shamanism may be drawn as a polarization between attitudes of rational disenchanment and poetic reenchantment of nature, its energies and powers, intersected by aesthetic debates, dismissive maginalizations, romantic imaginations, and the power politics of the gradual conquest of the exotic and disturbing other into the dominant paradigms of scientific research. The middle ground of this contestation is found in the emergence of a significant corpus of ethnographic descriptions, fieldwork reports, participant observations, and anecdotal accounts all subject to the theoretical perspectives of humanistic social analysis. 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. 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, usually through dance, song, ritual and often, through a visionary recital that includes information and directions from the spirits of nature. Common activities of the shamanic perfomance are drumming, shaking the rattle, chanting, climbing the world tree, communing with a variety of spirits, including those of the dead and the ancient ancestors, rescuing souls, 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. This highly generic and abstract definition serves more as a marker of consensus among non-shamanic, mid-20th century academic scholars than as a reliable account of actual shamanic rites and beliefs. Perhaps this is the most we can expect, a generic description whose universal application is highly suspect and completely incompatible with specific, indigenous religious practices or traditions. Cultural anthropologists, who have supplied the greater number of ethnographic accounts, 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
Kocku von Stuckrad (2002: 784-791).
9 This is my own general definition, but see Atkinson (1992); Balzer (1996); and McDonald (2002) for a more in-depth survey.
“shamanic” but which, nevertheless, share similarities according to those ethnographic accounts. Some authors have suggested that there is a plurality of “shamanisms” that cannot be easily reconciled. 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. Anthropologists, like Alice Kehoe, 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, another anthropologist of central Asia, has argued that a shaman is defined strictly by rituals that are primarily concerned with “hunting, fertility, healing, and death.” However, can shamans be called prophets, mediums, healers, and priests? There are certainly overlaps between the typologies and some ritual ecstatics, like Mayan hierarchic priests, may not necessarily be best classified as shamans in contrast to other types of Maya practitioners. In reviewing the general theories of shamanism, we learn that various classic shamanisms have been analyzed from the functional, heuristic perspective that emphasizes the significance of the shaman’s social role as one who maintains cultural values, community wellbeing, a sense of tradition, and an integrative embodiment of the symbolic worlds of a local cosmology. 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, not simply between worlds, but between inherent emotional and mental antagonisms native to a given culture. This tendency toward the structuralist interpretation of shamanism has also been linked to psychoanalytic theories, particularly those of Freud and Jung. The general trend has been to move shamanism from a psychopathological model toward a more nuanced presentation of shamanic states of consciousness, though the connection between shamanism and abnormal psychology still has its proponents, particularly in post-Soviet Russia. The Jungian paradigm has certainly contributed to an archetypal reading of the shamanic experience, even though Jung himself has been marginalized in the academic setting. The shaman as one who confronts the collective psyche and draws upon the contents of the mythopoetic imagination, through forms of shadow and light, becomes an archetype of the empowered healer
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10 11 12 13
Atkinson (1992:308). Kehoe (2000); Atkinson (2002: 91-92). Marjorie Balzer (1996: 311). Jane Atkinson (1992:310); Marjorie Balzer (1990).
who successfully crosses and recrosses the boundaries of conscious and unconscious life. Jung saw shamanic symbolism as a projection of the individuation process that was later harnessed for healing. The shaman as therapist has become increasingly more visible in contemporary reconstructions of shamanism. In the comparative study of religion, which comes late to the debate on shamanism, 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. Eliade’s trope of shaman as psychopomp, 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), 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, either individually or communally. The shaman receives a “call” through dreams, visions, voices, 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. Eliade also emphasized the role of shaman as actor and of acting as a kind of shamanism. However, not all shamans have a crisis, many are trained from childhood, they are often seen as the most stable individuals of the community, and they often do not engage in ecstatic flights to carry out their healing rituals. From all this we can add to our “classic” description a few adjunctive shamanic characteristics: a possible initiatic crisis, techniques of ecstasy, the use of various substances to induce visions, the guiding of souls, expertise in the use of mythopoetic imagery, a social-functional role based on mediation, the use of trance for healing and intuitive insights into suffering, and a negotiation of communal tensions through the skillful use of symbols in body movements, rituals, dance, and narrative expression. In the more contemporary writings on shamanism, the focus has shifted away from the strictly social-religious role of the shaman toward an Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) model. Behavioral scientists, while repudiating the ontological and cosmological claims of shamans, have tended to embrace an epistemology based on the human capacity to intentionally alter awareness. Dropping the terms
Jane Atkinson (1992:313); Karen Symers (2002); Mary McDonald (2002: 98).
15 Mircea Eliade (1964, 1987); Hultkrantz (1957); J. Z. Smith (1987) has critiqued Eliade’s analysis as imbued with his own European Catholic religious worldview; Mary McDonald 2002: 90-91.
“trance” and “ecstasy” as imprecise labels, new consciousness studies have linked altered states to behavioral patterns and various modes of perception (types of waking and sleeping dreams, imaginative states, meditative states, states induced by dancing, drumming, chanting and so on, including states induced by psychotropic substances). Some researchers, like Michael Harner, 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, dreams, and near-death experience. Psychiatrist Roger Walsh (1986), building on Charles Tart’s (1983) work on mapping states of consciousness, has constructed a phenomenology of various “shamanic states” as distinct from various states of mental illness and/or other yogic or meditational states. 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, but only shamanism’s defining state of consciousness.” 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. The social-religious world of the shaman, poorly understood and reduced to the occasional monograph, has been overshadowed by the dominant theoretical interests of material science, particularly in the form of neurophysiology and brain chemistry. In several well known studies, shamanism is reduced to the opiate compounds or endorphins of the shaman’s brain, linked to a variety of emotive states supposedly induced by ritual activities, and thereby identified as the causal agents that induce shamanic states of consciousness. Of course, this interpretation has been contested as a “neuromythological” claim reducing complex social and cultural aspects of shamanism to a biochemical paradigm of human cognition. The neurophysiology of altered states is yet another trope, shaman as consciousness explorer or master of states, adding to the contested nature of shamanism. Such a trope does not throw light onto the complex relationships between shamanism and ritual activity, social life, aesthetic expression, and traditional knowledge. Altered states can be constructed as by no means universal, but in the service of specific cultural systems of knowledge, with specific goals or templates for
16 Roger Walsh (1991); Jane Atkinson (1992: 310-11); Charles Tart (1992); Mary Mcdonald (2002: 97). 17
Jane Atkinson (1992:311); Mary McDonald (2002: 97).
behavior and action quite different in different cultural circumstances. However, it is characteristic of shamanism to enact, in a bodily dynamic fashion, through arousal and intensity, latent human potentials which no doubt link to human physiology and body chemistry. Some contemporary models of shamanism have attempted to integrate the physio-psychological research on ASC with cultural and social-symbolic analysis. For example, Anna-Leena Siikala (1987) defines the shaman as one who undergoes an initiatic transformation, learns the structure of the shaman’s cosmos, and through fasting, meditation, 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. By taking the role of the spirits, through possession or communion with them, and enacting their messages in the context of communal participation, the shaman directs and controls a communal, social-process transformation. This role taking strategy has also elided with more distinctive political concerns with regard to the shaman in the context of colonization. The role-taking of the shaman is anything but static and unchanging; nor is that role strictly confined to mediation between the human and spirit world. 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. In this context, 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. At the same time, there is a fascination and frequently a hope that shamans can cure, heal, or in some way relieve the illnesses of the oppressors. In this trope, shamans are not ethereal visionaries as much as down-to-earth political agents who seek practical solutions for terrible problems and social conditions, grounded not in a “shamanic culture” but in regional and local struggles to survive. The context of shamanic negotiation is not only political, since the earliest times, shamans have had to deal with mainstream missionization and its undermining influence on shamanic activities. The opposition of Christianity, be it Protestant, Catholic, or Eastern or Russian Orthodox, has been intense and long term. This has certainly
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18 19 20
Michael Winkelman (2002). Anna-Leena Siikala (1987); Jane Atkinson (1992: 312). Michael Taussig (1987); Jane Atkinson (1992:315).
impacted the nature of shamanism in every community. The language of missionization has crept into the shaman’s vocabulary, actions, and worldview; missionary fears and aggressions, have stilted the dialogues of shamans within the context of their native communities. Missionary fantasy has also enhanced the social power and value of shamans while also attempting to undermine it. The shaman is seen as both a threat to dominant paradigms of missionary religion and yet, also as a possible resource for personal guidance and spiritual direction. 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. This is an emerging dialogical context, in which the shaman has come to symbolize traditional independence, resistance, and defiance as well as a source of wisdom and profound knowledge. From the oppression of the American Indians through a systematic denial of their religious freedom, to the post-Soviet efforts to eradicate the “delusions of the shamans,” to the Chinese suppression of “feudal superstition” and the Australian governments refusal to recognize the validity of Aboriginal religions rights, shamans have fought to re-create shamanisms in a context of diminishing resources, faulty social support, a dissolving land base, and a general indifference, if not a strange mix of hostility and fascination, from nonindigenous populations. Contrarywise, some intellectuals like those in Korea, have undertaken to promote Korean shamanism as an antigovernment strategy aimed as a protest against mainstream political values. The trope here is shaman as political activist or shaman as prophetic leader, a source of apocalyptic warnings of possible doom or destruction for the dominant cultures, or shaman as cultural revivalist and ethnic historian. The tropes of shamanism are many, 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, evermore complex world of social, religious, and political interactions. The shaman has become an international figure, no longer identified with his or her local community but increasingly appears as a leader, teacher, wise elder, and facilitator of shamanic events, workshops, training sessions, and artistic performances. And those who are called shamans are no longer practicing members of any specific tradition, even when they are by birth, ethnically members of traditional native communities. 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, particularly those with strong
Jane Atkinson(1992: 315-16); Marjorie Balzer (1996: 313-14).
earth-related or nature related rituals and ceremonies like wicca, neopaganism, as well as with a variety of esoteric spiritual teachings. This phenomena, sometimes labelled “neoshamanism” or more recently “modern western shamanism” has made shamanism into a viable, 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. Kocku von Stuckrad (2002) has articulated the most obvious features of the post-1980s neoshamanic movements: a fusions of academic, scholarly studies with indigenous spiritual practices, both by scholars and by native shamans; a strong interest in nature and nature related spirituality; an interest in cultivating altered states of consciousness; and a recasting of shamanic ritual into personal, therapeutic processes aimed at producing health, a sense of wellbeing, and personal empowerment. The boundaries between “traditional” and “contemporary” have blurred in both directions, 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. The therapeutic element is linked to a recosmologizing of nature that is directed toward the enhancement of human perception through altered states of consciousness. There is a practical thrust to these interests based on the question of how shamanic practices, rites, or beliefs can supplement human development. Because shamanism is seen as highly fluid and multivocal, 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. It also appeals to those who have no particular religious orientation because of the therapeutic and healing aspects as well as its mythic, poetic, and visionary contents. People who seek both knowledge and healing in a participant sense, rather than through simple abstract notions, find shamanism (or neoshamanism) appealing as a basis for ritual and ceremonial renewal. The shaman’s trance, ritual journeys, and mythic narratives offer a diversity of perspectives on framing or reframing issues of personal meaning and connection with others, both human and spiritual. The fundamental procedure of these emergent groups is learning to induce a shamanic journey, usually through drumming, that results in a psychic encounter with various spirits, entities, nature devas, or human or animal guides. Usually there are select songs and chants received, believed to empower the individual in later contacting these same entities. The technique is highly resonant with the practices of
22 I have recast von Stuckrad (2002:774-775) by amplifying slightly his original points.
many esoteric traditions, such as the various schools of theosophy or spiritualism or the many contemporary magical orders, like the Golden Dawn and its many offshoots in America and Europe. The psychic element is basic to both, 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, receive messages from the dead, in both human and animal form, and generally becoming adept in the use of paranormal perception. A key term here is alliance, 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. Overall, the therapeutic or healing aspect is the strongest common element. 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. Physical, mental, or spiritual illness are removed or healed, advice is given, and new strategies for future health are instituted under the direction of the neoshaman’s guiding spirits. Another common aspect is contact with the dead or assistance with those who are dying, the shaman as medium and the shaman as priest resonate with a variety of theories of life-after-death, out-of-body or near-death experiences, astral projections or various forms of bilocation. 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. 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. 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.” 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. Artistic expression has long been a part of most shamanic traditions and this continues into the present. Since the mid-1980s, many non-traditional artists have been identified as neoshamans, international opera stars at the New York Metropolitan opera have been called shamans of music and song. At Stanford University, Janis
Marjorie Balzer (1996:312); Kocku von Stuckrad (2002:776-82).
Mattox performed her computerized opera called Shaman as a mix of multitrack tapes and live performers. 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. Certain modern or post-modern visual artists have been called imageshamans, like Joseph Beuys, Abdul Klarwein, Alex Grey, or Niki Broyles to mention just a few. The fusion of contemporary performative artistic expression with highly evocative imagery has created a multimedia context for modern shamanic expression. To this is added an increasing contemporary interest in shamanic songs and chants. 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. The ritual and pageantry of shamanism is being recontextualized in performative events linked to mythopoetic drama, poetic song, and newly created modern western shamanic texts. Traditional shamanic texts have always been performative texts embedded in the rituals and artistry of the ceremony, linked to both verbal and gestural movements. They are not only spoken but sung or chanted, narrated as mythic visions, and enacted as dramatic tellings. 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. The shamanic text is a co-participant text, a text open to constant negotiation in the performative setting. Live recordings have now captured this shamanic interactive mood, accompanied by shamanic music and drumming, which has led to the creation of whole new genres of multicultural musical expression and theater linked to poetic texts in many different languages. Performing artists have drawn inspiration from these texts, through translation and creative writing, as resources for the crafting of their own contemporary poetic works. 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. The heart of the neoshamanic performance is a communication through aesthetic forms of core values which express the interconnectedness of human, natural, and social relationships in a context of drama with vivid imagery, movement, and song. Gloria Orenstein, a professor in comparative literature at the University of Southern California, has been writing on surrealism and using shamanism as a metaphor for visionary and surreal arts, undertaken both on stage and in the privacy of the artist’s workspace.
Glorai Flaherty (1988:520-523). Jane Atkinson (1992: 319-320).
Orenstein has linked modern shamanism with ecofeminism, contemporary ritual performances, and art exhibitions under the title of “shaman as artist” creating common ground between disciplines in art, theater, religious studies, anthropology, and comparative literature. Somewhat ironically, 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, poetic texts, and surreal performance. There is something surreal about shamanism in the contemporary world, it unites language and the arts through a medium of drama that also participates deeply in religious, the spiritual, and the transformative. In forging new metaphors of shamanism, we are also forging new forms of consciousness. 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, one layer at a time to reveal what is hidden within the wrappings. The shaman’s story or song or poem is also agele siapi, a wrapped up speaking that must be unpeeled and unwrapped in a careful and respectful manner. The meaning is not obvious, nor can it lie in a didactic, hard surface reading. The poetic metaphors of shamanic speech are wrapped up in the context and performative circumstances of the reading, they are held in the pandanu leaves of the circumstances by which each variety of shamanisms are given voice. Joan Halifax has written on how evocative language used in ceremony can “move teller, singer, listener out of the habitual patterns of perception” into new awareness and perceptual healing, into a re-seeing of the world, a cleansing of visionary capacity. Gary Synder, called America’s greatest shamanic poet, has written that “poetry and song are among the few modes of speech...that provide access to the shamanistic view (in which all is one and all is many and the many are precious).” This valuing of ritualized forms of the shamanic arts helps to frame the relationship between poetic forms and shamanic activity. Like shamans, poets are also concerned with the inspiring presences of nature and the disabuse of nature through an objectifying, desacralizing technology. 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. Like shamans, poets can offer a performative context, 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. Poets like shamans can
Joan Halifax (1994: 82, 92); Gary Snyder (1977: 13-14).
enact, in ritualized space, the drama of the human application of the “extrasensory” perception that remakes the world in mythopoetic forms. Poets like shamans are singers, calling us to hear the hidden meanings wrapped in their songs and images. Poets like shamans are real human beings seeking to make clear primary aesthetic values that imbue life with depth, shadow, and unseen possibilities. The words “shaman” and “shamanism” are also agele siapi, all wrapped up in the history and debates of multiple cultures, times, and places with leaves that are layered up in a long and difficult history. As we peel back those leaves, revealing each layer, it is important to take a stance of reverence toward what each layer reveals. From the inception, shamanism has been a nebulous and imprecise category whose actual references are far more complex and multilayered than any single account, however detailed, can ever express. 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, nor can we, it seems, represent even our self to the other, as there is an illusive complexity to human existence for which words have no adequate analogies. The term “shamanism” is not a precise label nor an easily defined phenomena, wrapped up as it is in the fine mesh and silken fabric of human creative expression, long term communal relationships, rich with symbolic action and codes of culture that elude final definition. Shamanism is a process and an on-going dynamic of interactive relationships that includes a deep respect for nature, for human artistic expression, and for communal life directed towards healing, balance, and a reverent attitude toward other life forms. It is an art of communication, a poetic stance, a ritual activity, whose mastery requires a life time of training and effort to reach the center, or heart of creation, where respect for life, its beauty and power, is made real and communicated outward to the hearts and minds of others. 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, from the most traditional to the most modern. Lee Irwin College of Charleston, S.C.
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