Today many people in the “civilised world” are being drawn to world views that are more in tune with nature and natural cycles, that honour the Earth Mother and Sky Father, and recognise the life and energy and spirit of all things. Much of this started with the beginnings of the pagan/Wiccan movement, in the 1960s. Since then it has exploded into a movement to be recognised as world changing.
I have watched people go through many changes trying to settle into that spiritual calling that is in their hearts, trying to describe themselves by using this name, then that name, then still another.
Many people have pulled away from calling themselves Witches and Pagans now, quite likely because subconsciously they were tired of the negative reactions those create in many mainstream people.
In the 80’s many began adopting the word Wiccan, appropriating it from the specific traditions that had claim to it, thus watering the word down so that it had much less meaning than before. In the 90’s the trend has moved so that many people now are calling any natural oriented religion “shamanism” and any member of such a religion a “shaman”. Part of this is probably due to a misunderstanding of Michael Harner’s work in teaching shamanic techniques, combined with a childish “Gee, this sounds cool!” attitude. That, along with discovering that calling oneself a “shaman” or saying one practised “shamanism” as a religion didn’t raise so many hackles and looks of horror on mom and dad’s face like calling oneself a witch did, has most likely made the term New Agey popular.
Most cultures in which shamanism is practised by a specialist do not have a “name” for their religion. They simply follow the customs of their village, their parents, their aunts and uncles, their grandmothers and grandfathers. There now seems to be a trend to label the common religion of the people “shamanism” and ignore the fact that every person in that culture is not a “technician of the sacred”.
There is also a tendency today to project some kind of aura around a shaman and pretend that he or she is some embodiment of peace and serenity, living totally in harmony with Spirit, doing good for everyone, (and for free of course), and naturally being a wonderful magical healer. This tendency is making many Westerners the laughing stock of real shamanic practitioners throughout the world.
In the preface to “Shaman : An Illustrated Guide” by anthropologist Piers Vitebsky is a quote that I find highly amusing, as well as highly reflecting of reality. “A shaman from Nepal met a Westerner who remarked how good it must be to live in harmony with the cosmos. The shaman replied, ‘The main part of my job is killing witches and sorcerers.'”
Shamanism isn’t a religion any more than Lawyerism is a religion, or Physicianism is a religion, or Stockbrokerism is a religion, or Secretaryism is a religion, or Farmerism is a religion, or Preacherism is a religion, or Actorism is a religion, or any other vocation is a religion. The word “shaman” is the title for someone with a particular JOB within a society and “shamanism” is the practices that a person who has that JOB does.
If you have a call to shamanise the path will be very difficult. Modern American society is not set up in such a way that we still have cultures or subcultures in which shamanism is recognised and practised. We really have no foundation in which shamanism is or can be relatively easily understood. What we are doing is NOT training shamans. It appears that what we, along with Michael Harner, Sandra Ingerman, and several others (including the general Neo-Pagan movement I suppose), ARE doing is preparing society so that in another five or six generations it really can accept those in the role of a true “shaman.”
I was going to start off this part talking about the call to become a shaman. Having had time to think it over, I realised I should talk about what identifies a shaman first.
I do want to clarify one thing before we go on. I use the words “shaman” and “shamanism” in a classical sense. This is not my definition because I arbitrarily chose it to be. It is the definition accepted by historical and anthropological scientists and academics to identify a particular type of spiritual practitioner found in different cultures all over the world. It has a precise meaning, not vague generalities. There are certain specific characteristics that identify a shaman that other spiritual practitioners do not have. I’ll get into those later. This doesn’t make a shaman any better or any worse than any of the other spiritual practitioners that exist. It merely classifies him or her.
In any culture there are many different kinds of spiritual vocations. All of them have their own validity and their own honour; and even though there are frauds in each one of them, each of the vocations deserve respect. A practitioner of any of these areas is just as important in their field as is any other practitioner, including a shaman. These include such vocations as priests, ministers, psychic healers, midwives and doctors, medicine men, diviners, spiritual teachers, visionaries, dream interpreters, “psychics”, sorcerers, magicians, and other magic workers (use your own term here, but bear with me and don’t use the word “shaman” yet.).
Since the word “shaman” became emphasised in this current New Age fad I’ve seen it applied in all seriousness, indiscriminately to each one of the practices I mentioned in the above paragraph. That’s really sad because it’s taken a perfectly good word with a precise meaning and broadened it’s definition out so much that in common usage it’s become so vague as to be nearly useless. Of course New Age book publishers have found that it’s a cool buzzword and that by attaching that word to an otherwise slow selling book it increases sales. That most certainly has added to the confusion.
A shaman’s job is to perform magical acts such as spiritual healing, divination, interpret dreams, finding lost people or objects, locate animals for the hunt, guide souls of the dead to their appropriate place in the other worlds, drive away or pacify evil spirits, increase fertility and sexual vigour in the herds, community, and individuals, and so forth. Many of these are the same things that various other kinds of spiritual people do in the different societies and cultures. There is a big difference that makes a shaman different from the other kinds of spiritual practitioner.
A “shaman” does these things by entering into a profound trance, known as ecstasy (which does not mean joy, or happiness in this sense, but rather a state in which the shaman is oblivious to the outside world), leaving his or her body as a spirit, and having direct contact with the spirits that are causing the troubles, or that can aid in solving the problem. This state of ecstasy is the one characteristic that all shamans have. It is the single prominent identifying factor.
I refer to the call to become a shaman a curse because, unlike the very strong call many of us have to come “home” to our particular religion or philosophy, or the very strong call that many of us have to become initiated “priestesses and priests”, the initial stages of the call to become a shaman are truly life threatening, and refusal to accept that call usually results in very real death.
The initial stages of the call to shamanise is usually accompanied by a traumatic, life-threatening, life changing experience, which the potential shaman survives usually largely through his or her own efforts, and sometimes through intervention of the Spirits. This experience may consist of one or more of the following possibilities. There are probably many more than these. Whatever happens it is always an extremely close and unmistakable brush with death.
and so forth.
Having such a near death experience is not an indicator by itself. There are further signs that are looked for. For example, one who really has a shamanic “call” will usually be such things as
and so forth.
Often this “spirit husband or wife” will threaten to kill the potential shaman unless he or her accepts both them and the call to shamanise.
A person usually cannot refuse the call to shamanise without becoming seriously physically or mentally ill, and even dying.
There are many different kinds of “spiritual worker” callings. They are all equally important and equally valuable. In this series I’m focusing on the classical understanding of traditional shamanism throughout the world so that we have a basis to begin understanding what’s happening in our modern societies.
In an earlier part of this article I wrote about some of the signs of the call to classical or traditional shamanism. I should have mentioned that these signs do not necessarily apply to just a shaman, and they don’t necessarily just apply to any of the other callings either. I have found that many of these are also found in many of the other spiritual callings as well, often not as physically severe.
Alone they are not an indication of any particular “call,” just a “call” in general.
I said I’d write something about the shaman’s initiation. The trouble is I can’t really speak about the physical process of a shaman’s initiation(s) in cultures where shamanism is traditionally practised. The reason for that is simply because most of their ceremonies are quite secret. We have a few scattered fragments of descriptions in some anthropological studies, and of course in Eliade’s excellent “religious history” works.
Usually a potential shaman experiences the basic elements of initiation in dreams and visions, prior to going through the physical act of initiation by the elder shamans. The particular elements they experience will, of course, be related to the world view of their particular culture. For example an African Bushman’s dreams will be about things his people do, different from, but in essence related to the experiences that an Australian Aborigine or a Mongolian would also go through. I do need to point out that the dreams or visions the called person experiences are involuntary, and are intense, feeling as though they are real. It may be that the physical initiation is necessary in order to ground the forces that are there in order to “satisfy the dream” so that the one called can survive.
There are cases where the dream/vision type initiation is the only one the shaman experiences. This usually happens only in villages where there is no practising shaman to initiate and teach, and at that the new shaman is usually considered a “lesser shaman” without the power of one who has gone through the traditional methods.
The elements of the initiatory dream (which might just as easily be called an initiatory nightmare) include such things as:
There are many more elements that could go in that list. In many physical initiations the initiatory ordeals are so severe that the candidate may die from it. Essentially, though, the initiate comes back a new person, the old life gone and the new life as a shaman there in it’s place. There is no turning back.
I have written about the “call” to shamanise and the often traumatic initiatory dreams found in classical shamanic supporting cultures. I’m afraid some people may have been thinking that I have been implying that the calling that they feel is not real or something. This is not the case!
I think that most of us today, myself included, could not survive the real life as opposed to dream life initiation of a Tungus or Mongolian shaman. Most likely we could not even survive the initiation into adulthood that many so called “primitive” cultures require.
My first awareness of my own calling came 44 years ago after a miraculous survival of three separate suicide attempts within a week’s period. After the last attempt, when I held the barrel of a pistol to my temple and pulled the trigger and the gun misfired (it fired immediately after when I pointed it into the ground to test it) I had a sudden overwhelming flash that there was something I had to do and that I would not be allowed to die until that something was fulfilled.
As a 12 year old boy (about the age of the “initiation into adulthood” mentioned above) I had no idea what it was. Afterwards I felt compelled to read mythology of many different peoples, was subject to heavy daydreams and nightmares, and vaguely stumbled around trying to find out what was going on. It wasn’t until 8 years later that I finally “bumped into someone” who was able to give me some direction, resulting in a real world initiation. This was not a classical “shamanic” initiation, by the way, and certainly wasn’t a “Wiccan” initiation since “Wicca” (by that name) did not arrive in the United States until brought here by Ray and Rosemary Buckland in 1964 or so.
Since that time I have been aware of a great many people having a strong compelling calling of one kind or another; and feeling extremely uncomfortable unless they followed it. Those who are within the Neo-Pagan/Wiccan movement in particular are usually struck by the strong sense of “coming home” that one feels when one finally connects.
During the past 20 years or so more and more people have been identifying their calling with the call to shamanise. I strongly suspect that they are confused about it, probably frightened by parts of it, unable to identify it, until they finally put a label on it. People have a need to know what is happening to them. Our minds simply can’t grasp things very easily without putting SOME kind of a label on it to grab hold of. So it looks like we grab whatever it is that our deep selves feel is the most similar to what is happening to us even though that “symbol” we grab may not really be accurate, it satisfies that need at least a little.
So many of these calls today have shamanic elements to them. That does not make the calls themselves shamanic, but it does mean they have shamanic elements. Something is happening, something is growing, something is developing that is different from the classical shamanism of Siberia, or Africa, or South America, or Australia. It’s powerful, it has elements found in some shamanic oriented societies, but lacks many of the physically dangerous aspects of those societies.
I think that Spirit is creating something new in our modern society, a new kind of spiritual practitioner, not a shaman, but something different, with elements from the old shamanic practices, but something fitting for today’s “civilised” world — something that will not does not have the physical rigors of the old ways, but still is deep, and powerful, and effective. It’s something reincarnated from the old ways, like iron heated white hot in a forge and tortured, hammered ruthlessly, and heated again and again until it emerges as a fine new steel blade ready for the new task that is set before it.