Ancient Greeks & Shamanism

The Ancient Greeks incorporated into their philosophy, religion, and society many shamanistic principles. These principles could reach as far back as the Paleolithic age, from the predecessors of the Greeks. Although there is some discord about the exact definition of ‘shamanistic’, the definition I utilize pertains to the following: the experience of ecstasy where the soul is believed to leave the body, and ascend up towards the heavens or downwards to the underworld; a special relationship with spirits; and mastery over fire.1 Shamans are also healers, often in the medical and especially in the spiritual sense. In ancient Greece, a shaman was called an iatromantis. From Parmenides to Plato, shamanism influenced Greek thought.

The Orphics, and the myth of Orpheus himself, is abundant with shamanic thought. The Orphics participated in an initiations, or teletai. Guthrie describes teletai as both a religious act and writing, or ways to achieve redemption and purification from sin and to become free from the troubles of this world. Here, in an ecstatic ritual, the participants briefly experience a communion of ecstasy with god. These rituals were composed of singing from hymns, which were transcribed in the 3rd to 2nd century B.C. The hymns were calls from various gods, nature, and other forms the Orphics considered divine. In this shamanic state of consciousness (SSC)2, the Orphics experienced their brief bliss of union with their Creator, where he was accepted into the family of the gods. This is exactly what the shaman undergoes in his trance; transcending this world to learn

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Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, pp.4-8 Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, p.xix-xx

from the ‘other’, that is the gods and sprits. Shamans in the Artic meet their God’s sons and daughters in their ecstatic ascent into heaven.3 The climbing of a symbolic or in fact a very real ladder, as is the case with the Uralo-Altaic shamans, is typical of a shaman’s ecstatic ascent to the heavens.4 The Orphics believed in original sin, and saw a sharp dualism between body and soul. They believed in the ‘endless cycle’ of rebirth; time itself is an endless wheel. This is consistent with the shaman’s view of time as an endless circle. A.B. Cook believes that the Orphic initiates actually climbed a ladder, to allow for themselves to enter the Elysian soul-path.5 In the similar Thracian religion of Dionysos, a similar belief exists in the belief one could ascend or descend to the Heavens and the Underworld. Plato was strongly influenced by the Orphics, and not just by adopting their view of an essentially monotheistic god. In his famous cave allegory, he portrays the world we live in blindly and in suffering, as ‘the underworld’, and that for the soul to escape it and rise towards the Sun and Heavens is true knowledge.6

Another Shamanic influence we can perceive in the Greeks is their view of the Axis of the World and World Pillar.7 This view is reflected in Anaximander, who sees the three spheres (Sun, Moon, and the Stars) revolving around the Earth, which serves as the Axis. Likewise, the Earth’s shape, that is cylindrical, could be symbolized as a column. Plate in his Phaedo remarks that the earth is like a drum of a column.

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Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, pp. 59-61 Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, pp. 101-105 5 W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Mythology, pp. 208 6 Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, pp. 4-7 7 Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, pp. 259-266

Socrates himself was strongly influenced by shamanism, probably through the Orphic influences. He is possessed by a ‘daemon’, an inner voice which constantly guides him. He says, “I seem to hear humming in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic.”8 Socrates also goes into comatose states, where he receives revelations from this daemon. This daemon stays with him until his death. There is a direct correlation between this daemon possessing Socrates and the shamanic belief in a guardian spirit. A shaman may intentionally or involuntarily acquire this spirit. A shaman probably has had this guardian spirit since childhood;9 Socrates had been aware of his guardian spirit ever since he could remember. In Plato’s Phaedrus, he describes Socrates’ daemon telling him to stop before he leaves a conversation with Phaedrus. Socrates describes himself as a ‘seer,’ which is yet another term given to shamans. Plato, who was also strongly influenced by Orphism, believed the ultimate form of reality was nous, or the One. This nous is comparable with the shamanic belief of ecstatic bliss being achieved through union with the divine.

Pythagoras and Empedocles were especially influenced by shamanism. Pythagoras describes religion as being derived from ecstasy, and the Pythagorean religion he founded was derived from Orphism. 10 The ecstasy Pythagoras speaks of refers to intellectual, pure thought, similar to what a shaman experiences in the Shamanic State of Consciousness. Pythagoras was said to be a mystic, a seer, a man who although not quite divine, exceeds every other man. Belief in the circular motion of time, the quest for

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Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, p. 133 Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, p. 43 10 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, pp. 31-37

completeness and harmony in the universe, transmigration of the soul were central in Pythagorean doctrines.

Empedocles also was influenced by shamanism. He views the world as divided between Love and Strife; that we currently live in the age of Strife, and the restoration of the One, a unity with god that existed before the age of Strife, requires Love.11 Again, the shamanic influence of unity with god is evident, as is the circular motion of time. A notable affect shamanic thought is had on Parmenides. In his poem Nature of Things, Parmenides descends to the underworld. In what could not have been anything other than an ecstatic trance, Parmenides learns the divine secrets of the One.

Heraclitus views fire being the prime element, mastery of which is characteristic of the shaman. Universal in shamanism is ‘ascent’ and ‘descent’; in fact, only in an ecstatic trance where you ascend or descend, can be considered true shamanism.12 Heraclitus saw the endless combining of the four principle elements as an endless cycle of the ‘way up and down’,13 and the Epicurean believed the way up and down was infinite. Plato’s view of downward is ‘towards the center.’14Aristotle views the soul like Plato, that there is a finite to the center of the universe. Of the elements, believes Aristotle, are rising and falling, as if moving in opposite directions on the same line; rising and falling are just one in the same. Parallels between rising towards the sky and
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Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, pp. 112-116 Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, p. 21 13 W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, pp. 225-226 14 F.M. Cornford, Principium Sapientiae, p. 166
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descending towards the lower-world are made apparent, although Aristotle and Heraclitus can hardly be described as being shamanistic. Regardless, the shamanistic influence remains.