|Korean Shaman. Source: people.cohums.ohio-state.edu|
A month or so ago I got talking to a fellow I know who had just come back from South Korea – he was a little drunk, which was fortunate as it opened up a bridge of uninhibited communication between us via which we landed on the fascinating topic of Shamanism. He told me he had been to Shamanic ceremonies in Korea and proceeded to describe them. I can’t recall his exact words but what really hooked me in was the fact that he was describing Shamanism as a living tradition. I had recently been reading about the Shamanistic religions of the former nomads of northern Europe, but it was all in the past tense. What he described was a continuing, unbroken tradition practiced by people of our own times who are not wildly different from ourselves – I can’t say I think of Koreans as exotic (there are a lot of Koreans in Sydney). Following our fascinating conversation, I got my hands on the most reputable book on Shamanism I could find. It is by Piers Vitebsky, who is described as “an anthropologist and head of Social Sciences at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge”. Most of the information, and all page citations with no other referencing, in this post are sourced from this book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2001.
"Shamanism offers a worldview in which humans must use their environment not by dominating it but through a precarious and hard-won compromise, and at the price of constant attention and respect [at 128]."
Just as the world is inhabited by countless spirits, so too does each of us have a spirit, or perhaps even multiple spirits; "Shamanic logic starts from the idea that the soul can leave the body" (at 14). Shamans are considered to be particularly skilled at doing this while in an awake state (some say our spirits roam while dreaming) and without dying – unfortunately this does not mean that Shamans are necessarily unharmed during their "soul flights":
"Since human affairs include much suffering, disease and death this is a dangerous and often dark occupation. Shamanic power is not something to be taken on lightly and often exacts a high price. In Siberia, Mongolia and many other areas, people dread being called by the spirits to become shamans [at 22]."
This harm may come in the form of poor health, illness (including mental illness) and early death of the Shaman or even of the Shaman’s immediate family:
"In many regions the future Shaman may be approached in dreams and visions by spirits who suggest that he or she should take on this role. Commonly, the person falls seriously ill and comes to understand the spirit’s intentions during the course of the illness … the disease leads to an acceptance of their new role which allows them to be healed and so to heal others …
Throughout Siberia and in many other regions, people may suffer from a quite distinctive “Shamanic Illness”, in which they appear to go out of their minds, babbling gibberish, rushing naked across the landscape with no regard for their own safety, or spending weeks up a tree or lying motionless on the ground. During this period, the people refuse to undertake the onerous life of a Shaman and are pursued and tormented by spirits who are determined to make them capitulate. Almost always the initiate gives in, but the struggle can be bitter and can last for years. The spirits threaten that if the candidate continues to refuse, he or she will continue to be tortured by them and will eventually be killed. Thus, the Shamanic “gift” and the so-called “mastery” of spirits are double-edged: they are not actively sought but are rather imposed against the Shaman’s will, and as well as granting power also cause lifelong anguish. A similar view prevails in many Shamanic cultures [at 56-57]."
This last description sounds similar to what we call in secular society a psychotic episode, but this is not to say that Shamans are necessarily mentally ill, for the whole point of Shamanism is that the Shaman is in control, in some way, during the rituals in which he or she performs, which are grounded in community and shared with others for their benefit. It may be that Shamanistic societies are able to harness that which has been pathologised by contemporary Western medicine; this is because Shamanism is about living in harmony with the universe in its entirety – this is in contrast to Christianity, which demonises the spirits of the natural world, and contemporary scientific thought, which denies their existence altogether.
The Role of the Shaman
|Siberian Shaman. Source: rediff.com|
"The Shamanic view of cosmic equilibrium is founded largely on the idea of paying for the souls of animals one needs to eat … and in many societies the Shaman flies to the owner of the animals in order to negotiate the price [at 11]."
This isn’t as exotic as it sounds – consider Diana, Goddess of wild animals and also Goddess of the hunt. She is both the protector of wild animals and, not paradoxically but therefore, also the deity who grants success in the hunting of these animals. When Roman hunters revered Diana they effectively engaged in a ritual by which they made an offering in exchange for success in hunting the animals under her protection.
Likewise, just as ancient Greco-Roman polytheism concerned itself with life-death-rebirth deities such as Bacchus, Ceres/Proserpina and Attis (Magna Mater’s consort) – who are all vegetation, and thus food, deities – so too do Shamanic societies seek the continuation of their primary food sources via religious means:
"For most hunting peoples, the fertility of humans and animals, society and species, are considered to be intimately linked … in parts of Siberia … the reproduction of game animals was encouraged through dances and mimes representing their rutting and mating. At the instigation of the Shaman, a ritual called “renewal of life” was performed. This involved games such as dancing and wrestling. All the dances, performed by both sexes or by men alone, had an explicitly sexual meaning as they sought to imitate the rutting behaviour of male elks and reindeer. The Shaman would beat a drum throughout the performance, which was considered not simply fun but also a duty, and use his drumstick to slap the legs of anyone caught slacking. The emphasis was on the virility of both the human community and the animals on which it depended. By their actions the Shaman and the hunters had to gladden the spirits animating these species and induce them to play the same kinds of games themselves [at 106-107]."
In order to make contact with the spirit world Shamans employ a variety of means. Typically they will move into a state of trance with the assistance of a rhythmic drum beat and/or rattles, other musical aids, chanting, special clothing and paraphernalia as well as helper spirits, which may come in many guises.
Employing helper spirits Shamans are often consider themselves to be assisted by various helpful spirits. Often these are sacred animal spirits – each animal is associated with particular powers. For example, amongst the Evenks of NE Asia the eagle protects the soul from harmful spirits, the raven guards it during trance and the swan carries it to its destination (at 73). Spirits of the dead may also assist the Shaman, especially ancestral spirits and/or spirits of deceased Shamans. The spirits of nature, including plants (some of which may have psychoactive properties), can also be employed in Shamanic soul journeys, as can the spirits of apparently inanimate objects, such as tools and weapons.
|Mongolian Shaman prepares to enter a trance |
"The experience of the spirit realm in Shamanism is closely tied to music. In particular there is a powerful connection between trance and the rhythmic regularity of percussion instruments … [at 78]."
In many cases, dancing can magnify the overall experience. Such dancing may be jerking, or imitate the movements of animals, or other spirit helpers. Sometimes it is not the Shaman who dances, but other participants in Shamanic rituals, whom the Shaman watches (at 80).
Costumes and equipment Certain clothing, especially masks, and other potentially magical items, such as particular rocks and crystals, or effigies carved from wood or bone, are worn or carried by Shamans as a means to amplify their powers. Some equipment functions to help bring spectators into the Shamanic experience and there can be a degree of theatricality involved. It is important to remember that Shamanic activity generally takes place in a collective environment, which means that it is not enough for the Shaman to have a powerful private experience – others too must experience something of the power of the rituals in which the Shaman engages (at 121).
Thus is my best attempt to summarise what I have learned about Shamanism, mostly from Vitebsky’s book on the subject. I can’t help but notice that Shamanism has something in common with the ethos of traditional European polytheism. The shared cosmic vision of the World Tree found in both Siberian Shamanism and Germanic Heathenry is certainly a significant commonality, but that is not too surprising when one considers that Indo-Europeans (represented by the R1 Y-DNA Haplogroups) almost certainly originally came from NW Asia. More still, a significant minority of Europeans have Asian ancestors belonging to the same Y-DNA Haplogroups as many contemporary north Asians, including Siberians (N1C1 and Q Y-DNA Haplogroups).
"There are … traces of Shamanic themes in the European past. The Germanic God Odin underwent an ordeal of initiation by hanging in the World Tree, Yggdrasil. He could also change into various animals and travel to distant places. Related themes occur in Celtic and Norse mythology …
Ancient Greek culture contains striking Shamanic elements … Orpheus, like Hercules, went to the underworld to retrieve the soul of someone who had died young … This type of journey involved typical Shamanic themes of overcoming guardians and obstacles, and negotiating with the king of the underworld [at 50-51]."
It is tempting to suppose that perhaps the religions of our ancestors before they settled down on farms and in cities was essentially Shamanic, but it is also clear that Shamanism can co-exist in so called developed societies. If we accept this position, we may look to Shamanism as a means of filling in the gaps in our contemporary polytheistic journeys. Sometimes we lament that we have no temples to worship in, but neither does the Shaman. The Shaman knows that the deities exist in the natural environment, and that is where we may find them too.
|Mongolian Shaman initiate. Source: ngm.nationalgeographic.com|
Postscript (2017): it strikes me that there is an obvious relationship between Shamanism certain and some Buddhist traditions. In Nichiren Buddhism (from Japan) one of the core teachings is the oneness of life and the environment, that our lives are inseparable from the great cosmic rhythm of the universe. This is similar to ideas about the Shamanic cosmos, which is not only “out there” but inside every one of us (at 158). Through Buddhist techniques we too can enter trance-like states, or “altered states of consciousness”, and perhaps have a taste of Shamanic vision. Buddhist chanting, particular kinds of meditation, use of musical instruments during rituals (eg, rubbing prayer beads together to sound like a rattle and ringing bells) and seeking help from spirit helpers, in the form of Bodhisattvas, seem to offer something of this and it is well known that some north Asian Buddhisms (I use the plural form intentionally) absorbed elements of Shamanic religions. So if we are looking for a taste of Shamanism it may be that certain schools of Buddhism offer us an accessible means of doing so.