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.