This is an abridged version of a longer article -- If anyone wants a copy of the Shaman Paper, just write to Mortoise@mail.com - subject "SHAMAN REQUEST", and include the email for a Pdf or if you prefer, I am more than happy to post out a copy via snail-mail.
Heathclyff St James-Deville
PO BOX 7064
By Heathclyff St James-Deville
Somewhere, in an unknown land and an unknown time, surrounded by the stern mysteries of wild nature, a man begins his training. He is sheltered by giant pines and cedars, which for centuries have kept the sun from penetrating the green gloom under them. At times, uninterrupted rest reigns supreme here; the drowsy ocean murmurs softly, beating against the rocky shore; the green giants are also asleep, gently whispering with their prickly branches.
But when the blustering wind begins to walk over the trees’ old heads, they can creak, and crack and thunder in a way, which together with the sea waves booming against the rocks, drives any living being crazy with awe and fear. Birds and beasts alike tremble and shudder in their shelters, helpless and restless with anguish. The future shaman alone has no fear in his heart. In the howling storm and the noises of ocean and forest, he hears the voices from the mysterious world he is trying to become conscious of.
To him, this is the talk of the elements; the spirits he wants to master and to use. And he firmly sets out to approach the mysterious lives through fasting and abstinence, drumming and chanting, until he enters into such mysterious worlds. - THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM Vol.8 No.7 Nov. 1902
Just what does Shamanism mean and what role did the Shaman hold within the community?
In Chambers Encyclopedia of 1927, the following definition is given:
Shamanism [is] a name applied loosely to the religion of the Turanian races of Siberia and north-eastern Asia, based essentially on magic and sorcery. Their Heaven God Ukko is but the chief among a host of nature spirits capable of being influenced and even forced into obedience by the spells of shamans or sorcerers. The Siberian shaman works his cures by magic and averts sickness and death by incantations.
Lewis Spence in his Encyclopedia of the Occult (published in 1920) adds that these Shamans are of the Medicine Man class. He also refers to the Inuits and their religion as again being Shamanistic. In the North American tribes, the Shaman was also known as the medicine man, for healing was one of his tasks.
In cave paintings, animal figures appear in over 600 rock art sites that are known to exist along the Northwest Coast from southwestern Alaska to British Columbia to the lower Columbia River and extending to California. As well as these, animals make their appearance in carved objects such as seen in the figure of a wolf carved on a comb (ca, 800 AD). A Raven appears from ca. 1000 BC. Many unidentified large eyed creatures have also been found. Many researches surmise that they are the work of Shamans. These sites are dated from 4500 BC to about 1800 AD.[i]
The term, Shaman, comes from a Mongolian word. Shamans, as bounded by these definitions, can be found among the Inuit, Maoris, Mongolians, Polynesians and also among the native North American people. A Shaman can be either male or female.[ii] Shamanism is believed to have been practiced for some 20,000 to 30,000 years. One author, Prof. A. Hultkrantz[iii] informs us that:
"It is evident that shamanism is deeply anchored in the old hunting cultures...shamanism is less well adapted to the cultures of the agriculturist and cultures of a higher level of technological and social complexity. There is therefore good reason to expect that shamanism once was represented among Palaeolithic hunters."[iv]
Some authors see Shamanism as a form of animism. For instance, Lewis Spence, in his Introduction to Mythology (publ. 1921) informs us that the belief of animism is one whereby primitive man:
"...imagines that all other physical entities in nature are, like himself, gifted with the powers of speech, volition [the act of wishing or choosing] and thought. This is called ‘animism’— the bestowal of a soul (Lat. anima) upon all objects. The winds and the waters speak and obviously travel; the trees are articulate; the lower animals (primitive man) regards as his equal."
Who really truly knows if whether or not things such as trees, winds and waters do not communicate between themselves? I personally do not see any reason to deny this. Just because we generally lack the ability to penetrate this barrier does not mean that it does not occur. It is interesting to note that in some Pagan Paths the term—Voice of the Wind—is used traditionally of one being taught through Spirit Voices. It is an external element outside of us. To our Shaman ancestors, this Voice emanated from the trees, rocks, mountains, the sky, lakes and oceans. The Whispers were from the Nature spirits and other such beings of the Otherworld. For the Shaman, be they ancient or modern, such a view has allowed him or her to cross between the bridges and to penetrate into these otherwise guarded terrains.
The Shaman sees the world as divided into three levels: The lower, middle and upper. In Scandinavian mythology, the Great World Tree is styled Yggdrasil [pronounced, ig’dra-sil; lit. ‘the horse of Ygg, or Odin’]. It is the tree of existence, the tree of life and knowledge, the tree of grief and fate, the tree of time and space; it is the tree of the universe, of both organic and inorganic life. The Yggdrasil was an Ash – a tree oft-times mentioned in Wiccan verses: “by oak, and ash, and thorn.’- a triad of power in Celtic lore whereby, where these three trees meet, one can see and speak with the faery-folk. Kipling’s A Tree Song which sets the scene for the stories & poems of Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) also refers to this sacred Tree. Nothing is known of the origin of this tree though it appears to have existed before the beginning of the world and believed destined to survive Ragnarok, the apocalypse of the world and the gods as found in Norse mythology.
Here are some key-features of what Shamanism entails:
Animation or spiritualization of the whole surrounding world, in which human beings exist. A conception of non-living nature is alien to the world-view of the early cultures. As P. T. Furst said "...in general shamanism expresses a philosophy of life that holds all beings — human, animal, or plant — to be qualitatively equivalent: all phenomena of nature, including human beings, plants, animals, rocks, rain, thunder, lightning, stars and planets, and even tools, as animate, imbued with a life essence or soul or, in the case of human beings, more than one soul."[xi]
Other aspects that make up this definition, overall, include:
- Belief in mutual all-embracing connections to nature. Activity of the gods and spirits who dwell in the cosmos can influence everyday life of the people
- A man doesn't distinguish himself from the surrounding world. Again, P.T. Furst writes that the "Shamanic world view assumes no human superiority over the rest of nature: people, like other life forms, exist with and depend upon nature and the goodwill of the spirits that animate and rule over the environment."
- The Cosmos is close to man. It is accessible to those who practice Shamanism. The cosmos is directly inter-linked with the everyday needs of people.
- A person is close to the worlds of the gods and the spirits of nature. A very special person, a Shaman, is chosen by the spirits to cross between the boundaries.
- Therefore, becoming a Shaman takes place in the world of spirits. This belief allows for a human to mix with the spirits and is, accordingly, an important and specific feature of shamanism.
- Today, we seem to have pushed the gods and the spirits away as we become more mechanistic in our thinking. P. T. Furst states that: "Shamanism...is in a very real sense an ecological belief system."[xii]
The following affirmation by Annie Besant, (1923) describes this concept beautifully:
O Hidden Life, Vibrant In Every Atom, O Hidden Light, Shining In Every Creature, O Hidden Love, Embracing All In Oneness, May Each Who Feels Himself As One With Thee, Know He Is Therefore One With Every Other[xiv]
[i] Kramer, Pat (1998) Totem Poles, Altitude Publishing Canada p.13
[ii] Crow, W.B. (1968) A History of Magic, Witchcraft and Occultism, Chpt. 2
[iii] 1920-2006. Recognized as a major authority on Native American religions and shamanism. professor of religion at the University of Stockholm, Sweden. During the years 1948 and 1958, Professor Hultrkrantz conducted field work at the Wind River reservation, which resulted in his ground-breaking book, Native American Religions of North America: The Power of Visions and Fertility
[iv] Hultkrantz, A (1978) Ecological and Phenomenological Aspects of Shamanism in Diόszegi, V. and Hoppál, M (1978) Shamanism in Siberia.
[v] Sir E.B. Tylor (1832-1917 is the founder of Cultural Anthropology who coined the term in 1866. However, the development of the word might relate to the German Animismus, as coined by the German physicist, G.E. Stahl, 1600-1734. As cited in Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (1988)
[vi] Jonathan has been working with shamanism since 1972, and has a master’s degree in anthropology. In 1986, he founded the Scandinavian Center for Shamanic Studies together with Annette Høst
[vii] Horwitz, Jonathan (1995) Animism — Everyday Magic, Sacred Hoop 9: 6-10 , 1995
[xiv] Mills, Joy (1976) The Theosophist, Volume 97, June 1976.