Friday, April 25, 2008

Modern Versions of Shamanism

N. Lois Turtledove posted an interesting three part series on Modern Versions of Shamanism. She's a student at the University of Colorado, Denver. I'm posting just the beginning of each entry so that you can get a sense of what she's about.

I've been studying shamanism on and off for many years, so this was a nice treat -- and a reminder that some humans have always found ways to transcend individual awareness and concerns. One of the books she references -- Jeannette Gagan, PhD., Journeying: Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet -- is on my reading list.

Modern Versions of Shamanism, Part I.



“Shamanism” is a term that is shrouded in mystery or dismissed as non-relevant to many who are unfamiliar with the concept. However, the concept is surprisingly modern as it is ancient, and its benefits valuable, although largely hidden from view in our society. Metaphysics has been largely pushed aside by our culture ever since the scientific revolution, and removed from the realm of “reality,” as in that which is empirically, objectively provable. Despite this development, metaphysics is still the basis of traditional religions, and one may even argue that religion with the mythological mind-frame is on a bit of an upswing with the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States (which has considerable political clout). Although undermined by the scientific method and rejected by religions outside of shamanic cultures, shamanism has not disappeared from society, but has surfaced in a variety of potent ways in the United States.

This ancient phenomenon has appeared in the vast array of cultures across the globe with certain well-documented similarities- most extensively written about by Mircea Eliade (Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1951. Princeton University Press: 2004) and it exhibits some of these in the forms it takes here today. The modern forms of shamanism, as do the traditional, vary amongst each other, and they demonstrate contrasts with the traditional versions. However, the core remains the same, which I will explore within the pages of this study. This work explores texts on shamanism, as well as four case studies of shamans located in the Denver, Colorado area. I have found that shamanism has developed as it situates itself in modern times. Among the facets of today’s shamanism are life-coaching, alternative healing arts, and an uncommon type of psychotherapy that does not shy away from involving matters of the soul in its practice. Sometimes it deals with consciousness and its manifestations in the unconscious, and vice versa: manifestations of the unconscious in the conscious mind. It deals directly with energy and appearances coming from the noumenal world, considered by generations of scientists as either nonexistent, or simply beyond the bounds of human knowledge. Its methods, by which the shaman was healed and then teaches others, (Eliade, 31) serve to unlock a latent power for the subject, and provide healing beyond what traditional psychotherapies often been able to achieve (as documented by Jeannette Gagan, PhD. in Journeying: Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet, Rio Chama Publications: 1998.) Its effects are of valid application to sciences of mind, epistemology, and those concerned with the well-being of humankind.

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Modern Versions of Shamanism, Part II.


A shaman is a “technician of the sacred” states Mircea Eliade in his classic text, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Eliade, 33.) Shamanism is not one fixed belief system, but instead is a number of disparate beliefs having many facets and continually increasing as new situations arise, although retaining many of the old beliefs and overlapping traditions, says Margaret Stutley in her book, Shamanism, an Introduction (Stutley, 3.) He or she is one who believes in the world of spirits which he controls or cooperates with for the benefit of the community (Stutley, 2.) Stephen Larsen, in his stirring work A Shamans Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth asserts that shamans have the special ability to dream, trance and imagine, and are experts at reaching into the causal level for the needs and wants of the people in the community (Larsen, 9.) A shaman is a healer, reports psychologist Jeannette Gagan, PhD. in a fascinating book, Journeying: Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet (Gagan, 27.) In light of these varied statements, to fully understand what a shaman is, one must describe shamanism in its many facets and techniques, consider its positioning in epistemological debate, and discover what its modern-day practitioners have to say about it.

Aspects of shamanism are found the world over in one form or another. Eliade traces shamanism back to at least the Paleolithic era (Elaide, 11) in Siberia and Central Asia where it traditionally dominated the magico-religious aspect of society (Eliade,4) and describes phenomena with common characteristics in North and South America, Oceana and Indonesia, where it exists alongside other magico-religious practices (Eliade, 5.) The shaman is a mediator between humankind and the gods, says Eliade (Eliade, 8.) They operate within the mythological structure in which they are ethnographically situated, that is, a shaman would address divine entities by the terms used by that particular culture of people. Larsen calls shamans “mediators between myths and reality,” (Larsen, 9) those whose “vocation is the relationship between the mythic imagination and ordinary consciousness,” (Larsen, 59) and who immerse themselves into myths, which are the “local versions of (Jungian) universal archetypes.” (Larsen, 65) Stutley claims that shamans have protected mankind’s mythical knowledge (Stutley, 6.)

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Modern Versions of Shamanism, Part III

…A shaman is able to see the soul, as one is a specialist in the matters which pertain to it. (Eliade, 8 ) According to Eliade, a shaman experiences the numinous and the sacred more intensely than the other members of the community. (Elaide, 32) He says that the quest for the sacred is universal and normal to human behavior, but that shamans differ in this by their ability to have an “ecstatic experience,” and that this is their vocation. (Eliade, 107) Shamanism is analagous to using the technique of ecstasy. (Eliade, 4)


Gagan writes that the altered states of consciousness of ecstasy are achieved by narrowing the focus of attention. (Gagan, 43-44) Ecstasy, asserts Gagan, is the “voluntary use of an altered state combined with the intent to serve the community,” (Gagan, 32.) Ecstasy includes dreams, visions, and dialogue with spirits. (Eliade, 115) It is through ecstasy that a shaman is able to access other realms and do shamanic healing. Toby emphasizes that being able to do these things is a very natural process able to be done by anyone. Toby and Antonio have said that everyone that has come to them wanting to learn their techniques are able to do so. Toby and Renna say that children often have experiences of the spirit world and energy. Toby claims that often parents explain these away as simply imagination. (Personal interviews, fall 2007)

Stutley claims that “genuine ecstasy is a psychogenic reaction according to the dictates of the visionary’s mind, so expressing the conscious and unconscious desires of the ecstatic shaman,” (Stutley, 28.) In my research on the ecstatic experiences of the shamans in my study, I have found that ecstasy does not originate in mental nor emotional conflicts in the shaman’s mind. They are obtained through techniques similar to ones described by Eliade and which fit with some of Carl Jung’s theories. Examples of these include dreaming, meditation, and drumming. The practice of shamanism brings forth “a cure, a control, an equilibrium,” says Eliade. (Eliade, 29) He has found shamans to be intelligent, healthy, normal individuals with exceptional character, not psychotics. (Eliade, xviii)

This is a well-researched introduction to the basic principles of shamanism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi there, Lois Turtledove here. Thank you for your kind attention to my work! I wanted to let you know that there are three more parts to my essay. I have just posted part 4, Journeying on my site, My goal is to get part 5, which is on shamanism, sickenss and healing and the analysis up in the next two weeks.

All the best,