Shaman notes

I am not a shaman. I am very much a spirit-worker, and it’s similar, but not the same. I wouldn’t even call myself a shamanist. I say this because: (a) I don’t work for a human community; (b) I do not specialize in healing of any sort; and (c) while I do a lot of trancework and altered states of consciousness, I do not use these states primarily to fare forth (i.e., astral travel, or journey), out of my body, to the other worlds. I’ll admit, I am perhaps overly sensitive about this, in that I don’t want to be yet another plastic shaman mis-appropriating terminology and concepts to suit my own ego (although of course, there are certainly authentic, hard-working shamans even in modern America, they just aren’t the majority of those using the label). But neither should I err too far in the other direction, just in my own self-image and internal thinking, because there are some important elements of shamanism that I do share, or that at least could be useful to me in my work – and I’m guessing the same is true for other spirit-workers of all sorts. In any case, that is all just some background… I’ve got shamanism on the brain lately, and it keeps coming up, so I’m paying attention, and now sharing a few things.

I recently watched an amazing documentary called The Horse Boy. It’s about a family who traveled to Mongolia in order to seek healing for their severely autistic son, after exhausting more common therapies. They hoped the combination of horse-riding there (as he has a profound connection with horses) and traditional healing (i.e., shamanism) might help where other things failed. They had two shamanic healing sessions for the boy, and the first one involved nine shamans from the region, all working at once! It is rare to see fully traditional Mongolian shamans in action these days, so I highly recommend watching this even if you just skip to that one scene.

Although I wanted to know more about what was going on, I also appreciated the lack of overbearing narration in that regard – we just watch the ritual without explanation, see it on its own terms. For what appeared to be hours, the shamans divined, purified, blessed and exorcised the boy and his parents, and it was intense. The parents, to their credit, went along with everything that was asked of them, even when it meant sitting perfectly silently and being whipped.

What struck me most, though, was a deep sense of familiarity – I may not be a shaman, and am certainly not on par with those particular shamans, who have decades of experience over me, a long, rich tradition backing them, etc. But there is a thread of commonality there, a spark of recognition from within me that these people are, in some way, colleagues, fellow travelers on the same sort of path. I saw their costumes and noticed how they were brilliantly engineered to trigger ecstatic states. I watched them work and could see what they were doing, non-physically. It was fascinating. (By the way, the shamanizing did indeed work, and the autistic boy showed a huge improvement by the end of the journey.)

A few weeks ago, I was reading an interesting book called Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: The Prehistory of Religion. I stumbled upon a photograph of the contents of an indigenous shaman’s “kit” and there were two ermine pelts in it. I looked up…. and over to where my own ermine pelt sits, and smiled. Of course, I have no idea if we use them similarly, or if there is anything deeper than a surface level coincidence here, but it still made me feel like I was part of something bigger. I didn’t get that pelt to look like a shaman or fit some idea of what they’re supposed to do. It just called to me, and we developed a little relationship of sorts. That’s how it works, when the spirits are always talking, and you listen.

In the same book, I found an old engraving that grabbed me for some reason (click to enlarge):

Look at the shaman. He is face down on the ground, like he’s going to sink into the earth. Most of the time, when you read about journeying, it is suggested to lie down on one’s back (dangerous if you don’t want to just fall asleep, in my experience), or perhaps to sit, and you also hear of traditional shamans who journey while dancing and drumming, on their feet. But I had never seen this particular position. And I knew I had to try it.

Shortly thereafter, just following an oracular session, while I was still in the adyton, I lay down on the animal-fur rug in there, face directly pressing into the floor. I tried it with my arms in the position above, as well as by my sides but still palms-down, and also outstretched, palms-down, like I was flying. All three were interesting. The whole experience was…. interesting. Not going to elaborate publicly, of course, but definitely worth exploring further. And there was something special to it, knowing that I learned this technique from an elder, in a way, even if hundreds of years and miles separate us.

I first studied shamanism in my early years at college, over a decade ago. It’s what inspired me to start mask-making actually (even though masks also have a strong Dionysian connection). And I’ve crossed paths with it many times since, through entheogen research and experimentation, through the writings of Raven Kaldera, through history and art studies, and through some actual shamanists I am privileged to know, such as Ravenari. So while it is not quite my path, I have to remind myself not to dismiss the possibility that I can learn from it regardless, without overstating that connection or stumbling into cultural appropriation territory. For a person who is largely spirit-taught (a sometimes difficult way to go about things, but it wasn’t my choice), any guidance of this sort is much needed and appreciated.

~ by Dver on June 22, 2010.

9 Responses to “Shaman notes”

  1. Thanks for writing this deeply thoughtful, cogent, and personal post. It is truly exceptional.

    By the way, it is not unusual for shamans to journey lying down. Often traditional shamans, especially from Siberia and China, dance until the go into trance and fall to the ground. (Hopefully someone catches them and eases them to the ground.) The shaman may lie there for hours, or even days, until they return from their journey.

    Finally, even for those of us trained by traditional shamans, and living in Western countries, usually do not have communities for whom we work. Thus, we are not traditionally speaking, shamans. My teachers have pretty uniformly said that we are still shamans if they say we are. I think, ultimately, the people we try to aid, and the spirits, will decide.

    • Thank you.

      I didn’t mean to imply that shamans don’t journey lying down, merely that they *also* sometimes journey while moving about, which is something you don’t hear much of from Western, modern practitioners.

      I like the term “shamanist” for someone who is doing most of the practices of shamanism but isn’t quite in the same sort of role that a traditional shaman is. But really, terminology always gets tricky and often becomes distracting.

      I think your last sentence is right on the mark. A person said somewhere (I think it was in Nine Worlds of Seid Magic, a great book) that if you call yourself a [shaman, seidhman, etc.] and the spirits don’t laugh, then you are one.🙂

  2. Dancing is such a large part of many shamanic traditions. Its a great way to go into trance (thank techno) and the spirits seem to love it. There are so many ways to achieve trance.

    I find myself getting caught up in terminology as well. Best not to get caught up in being politically correct. That is hardly the spirit of shamanism.


  3. […] via Shaman notes « A Forest Door. […]

  4. One of the very first things one of my teachers gave me was a working definition of shamanism. He said that a shaman is a person who journeys into the spirit world for knowledge of some sort, and returns to implement that knowledge in the physical world for the greatest good of the community. A shaman, he said, is merely a bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds.

    We seem to be hung up on titles here in the West. In a more tribal society, if you ask someone what he does, he might answer something like “It’s my duty to put out fires in the village.” Ask the same question here, and you’d get, “I’m a fireman.”

    While Gaiacentric cultures tend to view everything in terms of processes (verbs), our society thinks more in terms of things (nouns). Adam’s first job, according to the Old Testament Creation myth was to give the animals names. Protagoras tells us that man is the measure of all things.

    While indigenous peoples may be content referring to “their” god as the Great Mystery, as a society, WE are not. We need to know everything about everything. If we can’t name it, it doesn’t exist.

    Yet many of us who walk this path and understand the heart of it turn our backs on “the S word”. Others may use that word in reference to us, but a large portion of us refuse to do so. Perhaps it’s because of a lack of cultural context. Perhaps it’s because we wish to separate ourselves from those who would give themselves that title after reading a book or attending a weekend workshop. Knowing how much value our society places upon titles – I’ve met many Energy Healers, Spiritual Healers, Shamanic Practicioners, Shamanists, etc, etc, etc – perhaps that is a good thing.

    Ultimately, though, whatever we call ourselves, I think we can all agree that what matters most is the degree to which we can shelve our egos and let Spirit do its job. . .

    • Good comments, thanks. I agree that the emphasis should be on verbs rather than nouns. When I think about what I do, I actually do think in action terms rather than nouns – even my primary self-identifier, as a “door for the spirits” to me implies the action of being a gateway between the worlds, and all that implies in practice, rather than a thing or even a particular role. However it manifests, that is my duty.

      • I think back now to the static images lining the walls of the Catholic church of my youth. Icons of pain and suffering. I never could quite get to the “God” behind it all.

        Then I experienced my first journey to a live drum and danced my first feeble steps with Leopard, and suddenly it all clicked…

  5. Great post! Westerner’s seem to be either terrified of the word shaman or immediately associate frauds with it. Where I live in my rainforest, Native shamans were still practicing 50 years ago. Having grown up here and on reservations my association with the word “shaman” is much different than others. I do not call myself a shaman, but there are certain shamanic elements to what I do… and that’s the key word isn’t it? “Do”.

    I’ve also read that man shamanic cultures believe you are supposed to journey while laying on your back, and if you are face down you won’t be able to return to your body – but I have travelled laying face down. I wonder if what position your body is in is related to what form your spirit takes when it leaves the body or? Or even where you are travelling to (i.e. the underworld or upperworld)…

    Ooh, I love Shaman’s Sorcerers and Saints! You may be interested to know that author Brian Hayden is a witch himself.😉

    • I wish my associations with the word “shaman” hadn’t been negatively flavored by so many New Agers, but unfortunately that’s the case. When used in reference to an American, I am immediately skeptical (although open to the possibility that they might be legitimate). And yet, as I said, I too recognize shamanic elements in the work I do. It’s complicated.

      I have heard from somewhere the idea that journeying face down is a quick way to the underworlds, which makes sense.

      I’m not surprised about Brian Hayden. One of the things I liked about that book was how (for a history text) it was so open to the spiritual realities, and even gave exercises for accessing some of those states.

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