By Vexen Crabtree 2015
|Links: Pages on Shamanism, Other Religions|
|Adherent||follower of Shamanism|
|Area of Origin||Prehistoric/universal|
|Numbers in the UK (Census results)|
Shamanism is a timeless and ancient style of religion1, involving beliefs and practices that predate history, although the word itself comes from the Tungus people of Siberia, Russia2. Shamans still operate today in North America in some native Indian communities and amongst some Australian aborigines.3 The oldest evidence of Shamanism comes from European cave paintings, the oldest of which are over 30,000 years old4. It is based on animism - the belief that spirits are everywhere, indwelling not only all animals, but objects too5. Shamans are tribal spiritual leaders who are believed to be skilled in harnessing animal spirits as allies in order to look after the local community6,7 and to be able to act as "mediator between the human world and the world of the spirits"8. They attempt to ascertain the causes of calamities and to improve the luck and enterprise of the tribe. In trances and altered states of consciousness, often brought about through the use of psychoactive drugs, deprivation and mental illness (or episodes are sometimes simply faked), shamans attest to a world full of animal and ancestor spirits.9
In the modern, developed world, new forms of shamanism have arisen as part of the general growth of neo-Paganism. Enthusiasts reconstruct, re-read and re-interpret shamanism, turning it into a general spiritual enterprise divorced from its original context and meaning. It "has spawned numerous related books, workshops and training sessions, some of which incorporate practices and paraphernalia from a variety of native traditions"10, although many are critical of this modern reconstruction and the connection between modern and ancient shamanism can often be described as "tenuous" at best11. Arthur Versluis writes with scorn of "some modern authors who give workshops" but says that "to be a shaman is not merely a weekend of entertainment"12. The pagan scholar Nevil Drury starts his book Shamanism by saying that "it is a fantasy to endeavour to transpose the world of the shaman to our own contemporary setting"13 and despite hundreds of years of shamanic experience, spiritualists nowadays report a completely different spirit world. So someone's making a lot of stuff up. Either way, our knowledge of physiology, delirium, neurology and science is simply too great, and the history of charlatans, cold-readers and other chauvinistic spiritualists is too long, for shamanism to ever seem authentic again.
“Shamanism is a visionary approach to nature and the cosmos. Underlying all forms of shamanism is the belief that the universe is alive with gods and spirits. The oldest paintings in the world are Palaeolithic cave paintings made in about 30,000 BC. In 1940, caves were discovered at Lascaux in France containing many fine pictures of animals. [...] [Shamanism can be found] in many different regions of the world [including] Siberia, [...] North and South America, among the Australian Aborigines, in Indonesia, South-East Asia, China, Tibet and Japan.”
“There can be little doubt that Shamanism is very ancient; the oldest persuasive evidence is cave paintings in Europe and elsewhere that depict real and mythological animals, probably used for initiation ceremonies. These may have been re-enactments of a widespread belief in an underworld inhabited by animals and spirits, to which the shaman's disembodied spirit travelled to obtain healing or information. Some of these cave paintings have been dated to 30,000 BCE. This antiquity is part of the attraction of Shamanism to a growing number of adherents in countries that have not had a native tradition for many centuries.”
Prof. Elizabeth Puttick (2004)4
“The extraordinary underground caverns at Altamira and Lascaux give us a tantalising glimpse of Palaeolithic spirituality. The numinous paintings of deer, bison and woolly ponies, of shamans disguised as animals, and hunters with their spears, were painted with exquisite care and skill in deep subterranean caverns, which are extremely difficult of access. These grottoes were probably the very first temples and cathedrals. There has been lengthy academic discussion of the meaning of these caves; the paintings probably depict local legends that we shall never know. But certainly they set the scene for a profound meeting between men and the godlike, archetypal animals that adorn the cavern walls and ceilings. Pilgrims had to crawl through dank and dangerous underground tunnels before they reached the grottoes, burrowing ever more deeply into the heart of darkness until they finally came face to face with the painted beasts. We find here the same complex of images and ideas that inform the quest of the shaman. As in the shamanic sessions, there was probably music, dancing and singing in the caves; there was a journey to another world that began with a descent into the depths of the earth; and there was communion with animals in a magical dimension, set apart from the mundane, fallen world.”
“It seems to me that the resurgence of interest in native mythologies, and the mysticism of the East, all reflect a widespread yearning for a religious framework based on deep inner experience. Shamanism can certainly help us here.”
There are a few general causes of the continual growth of unusual, novel, small, untraditional, often magical, seemingly counter-cultural and Earth-centered religious movements. The New Age, the Celtic revival (Druids, et. al.), neo-Paganism and Wicca all seem to share some features and often share actual practices, beliefs and members17, and all are growing in sync. Likewise, there are often similar motivations for people to get involved with these types of movements. Robert Schroëder states that people "in today's societies, finding themselves spiritually and morally lost, seek alternative routes to faith and the meaning of existence"18. But we can do better than that, and identify some of the precise areas of attraction for alternative religious movements:
Some adopt new religious movements and alternative spiritualities as reactions against the complexities of science and of reductionism19 and many members of the New Age in particular maintain attacks upon science, calling it closed-minded and limited in scope20,21. But the same rhetoric against the modern world can be found in conservative Christian and Muslim groups, so this does not entirely explain the growth of NRMs in particular.
Anti-consumerism and anti-materialism supply common motives alongside general disillusionment with Western capitalism and globalisation22. Two scholars who have comprehensively examined modern Paganism state that the rise of interest in Paganism is "a response to an increased dissatisfaction with the way the world is going ecologically, spiritually and materially; people are disillusioned by mainstream religion and the realisation that materialism leaves an internal emptiness" (Harvey & Hardman 199523). But these feelings are also shared by many other traditional and world religions and by secular critics. For example, zany Pentecostal Christianity, also a growth sector in religion, shares these traits. Harvey Cox in his analysis specifically states that Pentecostalism is a response against contemporary materialism, giving expression to "the language of the heart" and supporting "chaotic emotions without suppressing them", and providing people with an "alternative" life, all within a Christian context24. All very similar proclamations to those supporting the New Age and many NRMs.
Activism. Areas of popular concern are often taken up quickly by small and new religious movements. Activist causes have found accord with neo-pagan groups and bolstered their numbers and popularity, in particular from the 1970s. As liberal Christians have embraced many of these same concerns25 we can see that they are not the reserve of NRMs but of modern religious liberalism and moral conscientiousness.
Environmentalism is commonly proclaimed by all kinds of pagan, Celt, pseudo-Native and New-Agers, and attracts many people on the basis of their concerns and passions for the world that we live in. A "desperate" reaction to the sad loss of the countryside and rapid urbanisation from 1890 onwards made people turn towards paganism26,27 as a theoretical solution - and soon enough, neo-pagan religions arose to take on the challenge. Predictably, such people are nature-deprived city folk "as is usually true of those who love nature (the farmers are too busy fighting it)"28. Many alternative spiritualities now sell themselves as representing "green religion"29. Conservationism and sustainability are ubiquitous and this is the case both amongst the emoting of individuals and the doctrine and stance of organised groups.30 In "Shamanism" (1996) Nevil Drury writes that "at a time when we are all becoming increasingly aware of our environment and the fragility of ecological balance, the essential call of shamanism is clear: we should respect the sanctity of Nature"31 and neo-shamanism is a strong trend amongst "individualized Eco-Pagan spiritualities"32.
See: "Religion Versus Womankind" by Vexen Crabtree (2007)
Feminism: Neopaganism and Wicca formed strong associations with early feminists. Feminists joining Dianic witchcraft in the 1980s (influenced by authors such as Zsuzsanna Budapest and Starhawk) outnumbered all other kinds of convert in that decade33, and Paganism in general attracts those who are interested in feminist spirituality and goddess worship34.
Emotionalising, escapism and primitivism ('golden age' romanticism): Many NRMs are sourced from the vagaries of human experience, human credulity and introspective emotions: spiritualities where whim and fancy trump historical and scientific skepticism. It is related to what sociologists call "cultural primitivism": a romantic view of a past 'Golden Age' in a pre-industrial world, where a less sophisticated life is deemed more desirable, less spiritually constrained, and the idea helped along by a sense of mystery aided by a lack of concrete evidence on distant cultures35. Those who adopt "native" mores are particularly likely to have a cultural primitivist outlook36. Escapism and romanticism easily merge with mysticism, attracting many of those who now find Christianity too dogmatic, organised and proscribed.
Native Peoples Fandoms. The modern world has seen a surge in interest in 'native beliefs'. This includes Native-American "aspirational Indians" and British-orientated "Cardiac Celts"37, both interlinked with the New Age in a haphazard manner, whose audience are often disaffected souls who espouse rhetoric against capitalism and modern technology.38
A lack of magic and fantasy in text-based religions has been highlighted by multiple sociologists as causing a gap in the provision of public religion. Monica Furlong (2000)39 describes how institutional religion in Britain from the Reformation became increasingly dogmatic and text-based; reformers made "a world in which text was everything, sign nothing". David Martin talks of "religious frustration with an over-intellectualized" Christianity40. The zealous suppression of supernaturalism made Christianity more abstract and removed. This has produced two opposites; a gradual increase in secularism (as it is supernatural thinking that grants religious legitimacy) and a gap into which non-textual alternative spiritualities has grown. Another scholar of religion, Momen, says that the roots of religion can be removed but "all that happens is that modern myths and rituals replace the traditional ones, for myths and archetypes are an inherent part of the human psyche"41, and Christopher Partridge tells us that "many are drawn [to Wicca] by the desire to practise magic"42. These NRMs are rising to cover the supernatural ground that organized Christianity has increasingly shunned over the last few centuries.
The rise of individualism and the modern pick-and-mix approach to religion has seen people abandon the concept of adopting a religious tradition that is formulated, structured and archaic in favour of personalized collections of beliefs, some from one tradition, some from another. This approach does not suit centralized or dogmatic religions where doctrine has been worked out as part of an entire theology of existence. Instead, unstructured, new and novel pseudo-religions are embraced where freethought (but not skepticism) are likely to be accepted. Adler (1986) found that of the 6 main reasons American gave for being involved in Paganism, most of them were individual-based including the freedom of practice, the exercise of the imagination, intellectual satisfaction and personal growth34.
“Much has been made of the idea that shamanism is born of crisis and disease, and it has also been compared with schizophrenia. Julian Silverman, who is a leading advocate of this view, feels that the main difference between schizophrenics and shamans is that shamans are 'institutionally supported' in their state of mental derangement. [... But] a clear distinction obviously needs to be made at this point. While shamans and schizophrenics share the ability to move in and out of different mental states, the shaman has gradually learned how to integrate the different realms of consciousness.”
The historian Mircea Eliade come to a similar conclusion, stating that "the primitive magician, the medicine man, or the shaman is not only a sick man; he is, above all, a sick man who has been cured [through his career and often] the shaman's or medicine man's vocation is revealed through an illness or epileptoid attack"44. Such a call to shamanism through spontaneous internally sourced psychedelic neurological incidents marked out the "greater shaman" who had more respect as a spiritualist than other forms of hereditary or initiatory shaman45.
In What Causes Religion and Superstitions? I lay out the fact that people seek out new religions and faiths during "desperate times", during which people are more likely to try out wild and unlikely faiths and practices. "Waldemar Bogoras, who studied the Chuckcee at first hand" says the same thing: "The shamanistic call may come during some great misfortune, dangerous and protracted illness, sudden loss of family or property. Then the person, having no other services, turns to the spirits and claims their assistance"45.
Finally, in recognition of the research and writing Drury has done on shamanism, here's a further quote from him that highlights some of the causes of shamanism that scream "I need a neurologist" to any modern doctor: "An unnamed Goldi shaman ... had lengthy discussions with Russian anthropologist Lev Shternberg in the early 1900s. He explained to Shternberg that he had initially been drawn to shamanism after suffering bad headaches. Other shamans were unable to cure him, and so ye yearned to be a shaman himself. One night while he was asleep on his bed, he was visited by a female spirit [who] told him she was an ayami (one of his ancestor spirits)" and she taught him how to be a shaman. "The shaman related to Shternberg how his spirit wife could change form at will, sometimes appearing as an old woman, sometimes as a wolf or winged tiger.46.
This section is taken from: "The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs" by Vexen Crabtree (2008).
Shamanism is built on the experience of altered states of consciousness. These are brought about through trances, dances, the delirium of sickness and heat exhaustion, rituals, epileptic fits, schizophrenic episodes, but, most of all, psychotropic drugs such as mushrooms and consuming psychoactive parts of plants and other hallucinogens.47
The effects of shamanic trances and dances have not gone unstudied. Czech psychiatrist Stanisav Grof developed a technique "called 'holotropic breathwork', which involves lengthy sessions of altered breathing combined with music" which was found to be able to alter oxygen levels and brain functioning to the extent that it produced similar experiences as those experienced through the use of LSD48. Our brains require a constant and steady amount of oxygen and blood sugar in order to function properly. Our frontal cortex, responsible for moods, is especially sensitive. Trance states and special breathing exercises can induce strange experiences, which, devoid of any understanding of how our brains work, are often interpreted as having spiritual, magical or otherworldly meaning.
In Pakistan, shamans (the dehar of the Kalash Kafirs) do it by standing motionless and concentrating on an altar until they develop tunnel vision, then by shaking and jerking49. In Indonesia, it is done during dreams or states of sickness49. "Meanwhile, in the Mentawei Islands near Sumatra, shamans dance until they fall into a state of trance. They are then borne up into the sky in a boat carried by eagles where they meet sky spirits and ask them for remedies to treat disease"49. Traditional Eskimo shamans use drumbeats or "lace their arms and legs tightly to their bodies to hasten the release of the inner light-force"49. A mixture of physical effects and mental effort to produce these states is similar to mystics and spiritualists across the world. But is there any truth in the shamanistic interpretation of these experiences?
The variety of beliefs and practices tell us very little about the nature of spirits. But the variety of experiences do seem to describe very well the various states of the human mind that cause psychedelia in general: hippies do it with acid, Pentecostal Christians do it in Church (just like shamans in Singapore who become a shaman by displaying spontaneous signs of spirit possession during temple ceremonies49), and sufferers of night terrors do it with demons in their beds at night. In each time and place, these similar experiences are interpreted radically differently depending on the local culture. Is it really the case that all those other cultures' supernatural explanations are wrong, and one particular supernatural explanation is correct? It seems that the dark days of human ignorance have come to a close, and psychologists and neurologists offer the only explanations that are universal and true. Shamanism isn't to do with spirits, it is all about navigating the world in a pre-scientific way.
The morning-glory species Rivea corymbosa contains a drug similar to LSD, and is considered sacred by South American shamans - although note that "in 1651 a Spanish physician wrote that Aztec priests ate morning-glory in order to receive messages from the gods"50. But there is a question to be asked here. Why would gods talk to Aztec priests, when in general, other shamans maintain that it is animal spirits that speak to shamans, as a result of the same drug? It seems strange that one group of people think they are talking to gods, and another group of shamans think they are talking to animals. If this was true, wouldn't some animal spirits speak to Aztec priests and tell them that they're ancestors, not gods? Or wouldn't some gods talk to shamans and tell them that they're not ancestors? This division along cultural lines tells us that both groups of people are misinterpreting the psychedelic effects of the drug they are taking. At least, in this, the average hippie was much closer in appreciating the truth: drugs were interesting, but not a source of absolute reality. If reality could be spied through these drugs, then shamans, Aztec priests and hippies would have discovered the same underlying reality, not three radically different ones!
Take Sedna, the Goddess of the Sea and Keeper of the Sea Animals as another example of how one culture can have a solid and sure experience of a certain spiritual reality, but which in actuality turns out to be myth and mistake:
“Like some of their Siberian shamanic counterparts, the Eskimo shaman often has to journey ... down to the bottom of the ocean [...] where lives the Keeper of the Sea Animals [also known as Sedna]. [...] There exist some riveting accounts of the Eskimo shaman leaving the sacred area and going [on such an adventure]. [...] According to the Sea Eskimo, the [Keeper of the Sea Animals] is affiliated with a young Eskimo woman who was thrown into the ocean by her father, and whose fingers were cruelly cut off when she clung to the side of the boat. [...] The shaman must overcome certain barriers on the way down, and when down must perform certain ritual actions [for the benefit of his tribe].”
“The Eskimo shaman, for example, has to journey in trance to the bottom of the sea to propitiate Sedna, the goddess of the sea. Sedna controls the sea mammals which provide food, fuel and skins for clothing, but also unleashes most of the misfortune that the Eskimo experiences. [...] A distinguishing feature of shamanism, then, is the journey of the soul [and] the shaman can project consciousness to other realms [...]. It is this capacity to venture consciously among the spirits and return with sacred information for the benefit of society, that is all-important.”
For more on this topic, see the menu of The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs:
Shamanism embodies the concept of animism - the belief that spirits are everywhere, indwelling not only all animals, but objects too5. Shamans are tribal spiritual leaders who are believed to be skilled in harnessing animal spirits as allies in order to look after the local community6,7 and to be able to act as "mediator between the human world and the world of the spirits"8. Of particular importance are animal spirits, and ancestor spirits. All spirits inhabit a world where they can freely talk to each other in the same language the local shaman also happens to speak.
A feature of Native American shamanism is the concept of people losing their souls as a result of an antagonistic sorcerer or as a result of illness, "meaning that the psyche, or an element of it, is no longer integrated with the entire being, and the shaman must search for it in the psychic realms and bring it back"53. Many today detect in this the signs of myth-making done in order to explain away the strange effects on the personality that some illnesses and neurological problems can cause. In a pre-scientific world of animistic belief, spiritual warfare was a combination of psychodrama conducted by the shaman simply because it was what was expected of him, and of good old fashion titillating story telling, but, stories which may well have been genuinely believed in by many.
Spiritualists, psychics and mediums today all report a completely different spiritual world - one awash almost exclusively with the spirits of fellow humans. Shamans were thoroughly convincing and entire culture's embraced their outlook, saw the evidence of the work, and understood the truths of their proclamations about the spirits, their description of their many animal guardian angels and so on. So why is there such a difference between how enthusiasts see the spirit world today? This is a difficult question to answer without coming to the conclusion that several cultures must have it completely wrong, and that their heart-felt and cherished beliefs are, generally speaking, mostly wrong.
In Siberia the Shamans know that the dead enjoy lives in the underworld that are very much like the living: they hunt, they fish, and they chatter to relatives. After people's death, Shamans must actually help a spirit get into the underworld, else they become lost spirits, causing problems for the living.54,55. Such a contrast to the deluge of Christian mystics with their heaven and hell - where spirits cannot be guided, and god sends spirits to the right place. At least one of those two groups of people is completely wrong about their culture's entire experience of the spiritworld and of the afterlife.
Siberian Shamans' knowledge of the afterlife also contradicts the experiences of North American Shamen. Versluis documents how many North American tribes believed in a sky realm where people lived happily after death (where the seasons were also reversed), and a world below for "those who are punished in the afterlife"56. And in another complete divergence from the spiritual truths known outside of America, Thunder Cloud was a Shaman from Winnebago who "maintained that he was able to consciously recall two previous incarnations. In the second he actually watched the people burying him after his death"57. Therefore, reincarnation was the destiny of the dead. It is not the case that we could declare that in reality, some spirits get lost, most go the underworld, and some are reincarnated. That's not what Shamanism teaches us. Those who can soul travel and actually talk to spirits are told by the spirits what the score is with afterlife. So why it is that in North America, Shamen find themselves reincarnated, but no Shamen elsewhere have discovered this? And why do the spirits of the underworld not correct the errors of North American Shamans, and tell them that actually spirits need guiding to the underworld, else they get lost? And why do Apache indians think that ghosts return in the form of owls? These contradictions in beliefs teaches us one main thing: these believers are not in touch with any reality except that which their local culture has taught them. A lot of people are simply wrong about the beliefs that they cherish, and beliefs that are backed up with strong personal and cultural testimonies.
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