WHAT IS A SHAMAN?

By Anna Franklin

 

The word ‘shaman’ is generally thought to derive from the Tunguso-Manchurian [Siberian] word saman from the verb sa which means ‘to know’, so a shaman is ‘one who knows’. Strictly speaking, the term is properly applied only to the traditional religious systems of the native peoples of Central Asia, Siberia and the circumpolar region of the Northern Hemisphere, though it is more broadly used in anthropology to categorise similar religious practices and ideas found in other areas of the world:

·         The shamanic crisis, during which the shaman undergoes death and rebirth

·         A belief in a tiered cosmos, consisting of the middle realm, upperworld[s] and underworld[s]

·         A Cosmic Axis or World Tree that connects the realms

·         Trance journeys to those realms

·         The use of various methods to achieve trance

·         Conversing with, and being helped by, spirits, including those of animals and plants

·         Shapeshifting and travelling in animal form

·         Animism- a belief that everything has spirit, whether human, animal, plant or inanimate object

·         Working with spirit helpers to heal, divine and perform various forms of magic

·         A common, though not universal, belief in the Great Shaman, the Lord of the Animals

Anthropologists classify shamanism as a magical/religious practice during which the shaman enters a trance state in order to enter a realm of non-ordinary reality beyond everyday consciousness in order to encounter spirits. Sometimes non-shamans get glimpses of this sphere and its possibilities through visions, miracles, clairvoyant experiences and so on, but through the shaman’s intimate knowledge of the Otherworld, its geography and denizens, he can step into it at will by exercising certain techniques.

The encounter is an entirely personal one and not shared by others as a group of people might share a religious ceremony or ritual. Indeed, everything important the shaman learns comes through personal experience and not through received teaching, though elder shamans may oversee the process of his initiation.

                The shaman’s ability is won through personal hardships. In all parts of the world the dawning of the shaman’s enlightenment begins with a ‘shamanic crisis’, often in adolescence, but sometimes much later.[1] This is a severe illness or breakdown which actually threatens his life, and he lingers for a time between on the threshold of life and death. The shaman is reduced, by the trauma of this incident, to a primal way of thinking and being, and only then can he enter the archetypal primordial state where humans can converse with gods, animals and plants. He experiences the sensation of dissolution and the separation of body from spirit, something that only usually occurs in physical death, and which cannot be compared to astral travel or out of body experiences, or even an initiation in other magical traditions.

                Returning from his crisis, the shaman knows, from his own encounters, that the world is alive, that everything has spirit and that we are surrounded by spirits, a viewpoint called animism by anthropologists. When he interacts with the world of spirit, he is practicing shamanism, and only then. He may work with a variety of supernatural beings and from these learn how to cure specific illnesses, divination, the mastery of fire, weather magic, hunting magic, the retrieval of lost souls or the accompanying of the souls of dead to the Otherworld, and the removal of curses. He can travel great expanses in spirit flight, hear what is going on at a remote place, send messages over a distance and even ‘shapeshift’. Furthermore, he may take on the role of the priest of a community, becoming the bridge between the world of spirits and humankind. Shamanism is not a doctrinal religion, but it is a religious practice.

                Shamanism was probably the first religious approach of humankind. Our earliest evidence of shamanic practice dates from 30,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Our ancestors explored deep limestone caves - probably believing the down-sloping vanes led to the underworld – and there seeking spirit animals in visions.  People did not live in these particular caves; they were reserved solely for religious use. Human bodies were not buried in the caves either- they were the realm of spirit animals- human dead were buried at the entrances to the caves or in large rock shelters, i.e. on the threshold of the underworld.

Cave paintings of animals, human figures in animal costume and statuettes of female figures began to appear, and this form of artistic expression continued for a further 20,000 years amongst the hunter-gatherer tribes. We know that these ancient artists did not portray all of the animals they saw and hunted, while certain animals appeared more frequently than others, especially horses, bison, deer, oxen, mammoths, ibexes, bears and lions. By their arrangement, the pictures seem to have been thought effective only in certain caves, and only in specific places within the caves. Usually only one representative of any species was depicted within a single cave, and the animals pictured were not necessarily the ones that people most relied on for food or were in greatest danger from. Too often for coincidence, certain animals appear in proximity to others: oxen by horses, bison next to mammoths and so on, making systematic and significant pairings shown in symbolic relationships.

                Animals are often shown with darts and javelins piercing them, and are depicted one on top of another, suggesting that the effect was not for art, but magic.  The paintings do not seem to represent animals in their natural state, but they are rather spirit animals, floating within the natural features of the rock, reflecting not a realist depiction of the mundane plane, but the inner reality that the artist saw. Blood and fat were mixed with the painting pigments as a ritual act of restitution, the paintings thus uniting the spiritual and material planes. Furthermore, they were not painted and left, but continually renewed. With the painting and the blood, the animal spirit was returned to the earth [cave] womb, with the animals sometimes shown entering or leaving the rock itself through natural fissures, suggesting that the rock itself is the membrane between the human world and the world of spirits. People passed pieces of animals back into the rock and therefore back into the spirit realm, making ritual restoration for the lives they had taken in the hunt.

                The paintings demonstrate a sophisticated and highly evolved religious framework - these were not simple, ignorant people. As with other religious symbolism, one needs to understand the concepts to understand the imagery; the culture we are brought up in defines and shapes our perceptions. In the modern world, we are accustomed to accepting what we see with our eyes and define with our logic as being 'reality'. We know that other cultures have a much less definite perception of what reality actually is.

                The paintings were situated deep within the caves, often only reached through dark labyrinthine corridors and after risking potholes and drops en route. It is likely that these journeys were designed to be spiritual experiences, walking through the darkness was probably ritually identified with travel through the spirit realms, with the revelation of the mystery at the end. Imagine approaching the deep cave through a passage of shadowy tunnels lit only by flickering torch light, sometimes walking, sometimes crawling through the silence, constantly aware that you are approaching the magical womb of the earth. This itself would work on the imagination and raise the level of consciousness. It may have been an initiatory journey designed to bring about insight, to illuminate experience and ensure a permanent transformation of perceptions. The candidate was thus forever separated from his previously accepted ordinary-consciousness of the world, to become a ‘man of knowledge’.

                The revelation of the inner cave showed animals in new relationships, demonstrating that life is both interconnected and interdependent. In the heart of the cavern male animals and symbols were painted, while at the back of the cave, in a tunnel perhaps, were the same images but this time along with horned men. In the cave of Lascaux are animals, leaping bulls, stags, ponies, bison and what is sometimes taken to be a shaman, a prostrate man wearing a bird mask, with an erect phallus, while beside him is a staff with the image of a bird upon it.

At Trois Frčres, the caves contain hundreds of images and were used for at least 20,000 years. Its most famous painting is the so-called ‘Sorcerer of Trois Frčres,’ a dancing humanoid figure, two and a half feet tall, with antlers, stag ears and owl eyes, a bushy tail and a phallus. The figure may be a god, the Lord of the Animals, or a shaman who has donned the costume of the god who controls the game that surrounds him. Certainly, the cave depicts some form of hunting magic; the people of the Old Stone Age did not grow food, but hunted it.

The Lord of the Animals would stare down at the initiate, showing the mutual dependence of man and animal. Such symbiosis is part of the lore of all hunting tribes to this day. The candidate was being prepared to hunt and kill animals in a sacred manner, and shown that the interior world of the spirit is more important than the external world of matter. Real animals were a mere reflection of their spirits. Hunting and killing was a mystical as well as a practical experience and the hunter identified with his prey. Life, of necessity, preys on life, and this is a mystery in itself and was celebrated in a sacred manner; life would be reverenced as it was taken. The cave paintings depict all the essential elements of the shaman - the ritual dance, the animal costumes, trance, the possession of animal familiars and identification with an animal or bird.

                Though in the early Palaeolithic Age the entrance to the spirit realms was through the caves, by the Neolithic it was through structures built above ground to reflect the make-up of the Cosmos, mirroring its structure in the ordinary realm, with heaven above and the underworld below. It may have been thought that in this way people could gain greater control of the Cosmos [an idea reflected in the sacred architecture of much later periods]. Selected dead were buried under the floors of living areas, and were sometimes exhumed, the bones dealt with in certain ways before being re-buried with the object of gaining greater control over the dead - who were obviously part of the spirit realm - and keeping them active longer so the shaman could commune with them.

Joseph Campbell [Primitive Mythology] suggested that the shamans of a hunting society and the shamans of an agricultural society had different practices and approaches, and this is true even in modern tribal societies. Stephen and Christine Hugh-Jones in their Study of South American Peoples codified this as Horizontal Shamanism and Vertical Shamanism. Horizontal Shamanism refers to individual shamans, associated with the forest, who contact spirits using hallucinogens, and in trance make contact with the jaguar. The shaman works to provide game and animal fertility. Vertical Shamanism, on the other hand, is concerned with esoteric knowledge passed within a small elite group. These shamans are more associated with the house rather than the wild forest, and with crops and vegetable fertility, rather than animals. They use the hallucinogenic vine yajé and perform regular ceremonies for the community.

There is a growing body of evidence for shamanic practices among both the Celtic. Anglo-Saxon and later peoples of Britain. Both the ancient Celts and Saxons had gifted individuals who were able to journey at will into the world of the spirits.  Furthermore, shamanism in Britain did not die out with the suppression of the Pagan religions by the Christian Church. The Witch Trial records of Britain and the rest of Europe show clear evidence of shamanic practice and the attempts of the Church and State to repress it.

Stories with shamanic themes certainly occur in pan-Celtic myths. The famous Gundestrup Cauldron gives us an image of the Lord of the Animals, or perhaps a shaman similar to those of the Palaeolithic cave paintings. He is depicted in the classic pose of the shaman, upright, cross-legged, “staring forth at a world only he can see”. [2] He wears antlers and is surrounded by beasts who are possibly the spirit animals under his control, and in his left hand he holds the head of a serpent. A similar character appears in Celtic several stories. One of the most notable concerns a man called Cynon who entered the Otherworld, following a path through the woods to clearing in which there was a mound supporting the Lord of the Animals, who had one eye and one foot, surrounded by various animals. He instructed Cynon to go to a certain large tree where he would find a fountain and a silver vessel containing water which he should throw onto a slab. This would cause a great storm that would almost destroy him. The tree would be stripped of its leaves, but would soon be covered by sweet-singing birds. This story seems to describe a shamanic initiation, with the common elements of meeting the Master of the Animals, the World Tree and undergoing a shamanic crisis [the storm] before encountering the inspirational spirits of the birds.

John Matthews has explored at length the shamanic themes contained in the poetry of the bard Taliesin. The poet described being three times in the Castle of Arianrhod, and had been ‘born’ [initiated] three times. He knew all the secrets of the world and could predict the future, he had been “in the galaxy at the throne of the Distributor” and refined in the Court of Ceridwen, where he drank from her cauldron to obtain the muse and the three inspirations of the goddess. He experienced shapechanging into various animals:

“…Since then I have fled in the shape of a crow,

Since then I have fled as a speedy frog

Since then I have fled with rage in my chains,

- a roebuck in a dense thicket.

I have fled in the shape of a red deer,

In the shape of iron in a fierce fire,

In the shape of a sword sowing death and disaster,

In the shape of a bull, relentlessly struggling…” [3]

A Scottish tale that describes an Otherworld initiation is that of Thomas the Rhymer. He had been playing his lute beneath a hawthorn in the woods when a beautiful fairy, riding a white horse, emerged from the trees to listen. Eventually she dismounted and he couldn’t resist trying to kiss her. She warned him that such an act would bind him to her for seven years, but he did not hesitate. They journeyed together through the night to a bright meadow in which there were two paths, one to perdition and one to righteousness, but the Fairy Queen explained that for lovers and poets there was another path, a twisting third way that led to Fairyland. While in the fairy world Thomas was shown a mysterious tree which bore magical apples. The Queen of Elphame warned him that it bore all the plagues of hell, but it also conveyed the gift of prophecy.

After seven years Thomas returned home, but his songs were sweeter and more poignant than ever before. He was also able to foretell the future, as in Fairyland he had eaten an apple whose flesh had the power of truth, a parting gift from the Fairy Queen. On his seventy-eighth birthday, he was holding a party when he was told that two white deer, a male and a female, were heading through the village to his house. He knew this to be a summons to Fairyland and followed them back there, where he still sings and plays.

                The apple is the fruit of Otherworld knowledge. The plagues of hell that accompany it are the suffering and pain the shaman must go through to win the sight. Once this is won, and the apple eaten, he or she will never be the same again and is forever changed. The third way described by the Fairy Queen is the way of the Walker between the Worlds, the shaman.

                    In Norse myth, Óđinn’s experience of hanging on the World Tree to gain insight into the runes is a typical tale of shamanic initiation, and moreover, Odin was described as being able to shapeshift into a wolf, a man, a giant and an eagle amongst other forms, while the god Loki appeared as a horse, a raven, a man, and so on.  Various humans had the ability to shapeshift like Ottar who could become an otter, and Fafnir who became a dragon.

Various forms of magic were practiced among the Norse, including seiđr [‘witchcraft’] which employed a number of shamanic practices including spirit flights, soul recovery, removing elf-shot from sick patients, prophecy and weather magic. Norse literature relates that seiđr was learned from ‘Finnish Wizards’ i.e. Saami shamans who were reported to shapeshift into a variety of animals and take spirit journeys to far places to gain knowledge.

The seiđr-witch would undergo spirit possession and cast spells while in a trance, covered by her cloak or hood. She would begin by allowing her soul [hamingja] to leave her mouth during a great yawn. Skalds [bards] would also practice trance ‘under the cloak’, sometimes on top of a burial mound so that the practitioner could commune with the dead within, a practice known as sitja á haugi [‘sit on a barrow’], though this was dangerous as he or she might be attacked haugbui or ghost and found insane in the morning.

In one legend, the seiđ-witch Gullveig was riddled with spears, burned three times and was called the thrice-born, recalling the story of Taliesin. Her name means ‘gold intoxication’ and her story is thought by some to refer to a chemical process to extract gold, though it has all the hallmarks of a shamanic initiation. She is often identified with the goddess Freyja, mistress of seiđr. Seiđr was women's magic, said to be an art of the Vanir, the elder gods, and taught to Óđinn by Freyja.

A possible derivation of the word seiđr is from a root word meaning ‘seat’ or ‘sitting’, since seiđr magic often took place with the witch seated on the seiđ-hjallr, a high seat or scaffolding which she climbed to practice her art. [4] This bears a striking resemblance to shamanism in other parts of the world, where the shaman will ascend a stepped pole and chant to call upon the spirits. Altaic shamans climb a nine stepped birch pole, and in the Völuspá 2, the prophetess also climbs a tree of nine steps.

In Eiríks Saga, a woman named Ţórbjörg sat upon a high seat, on a cushion stuffed with hen’s feathers to help her attain spirit flight. Like shamans in other parts of the world, her costume comprised of animal skins and ornaments. She wore a blue mantle, a colour sacred to Hel, goddess of death and the underworld. On her head was a black lambskin hood lined with white catskin, while on her hands were catskin gloves. Cats were sacred to Freyja. Around her waist she wore a belt of touch-wood and a large skin pouch where she kept various talismans. She held a brass staff with a knob on it, set with stones, which she used to keep the rhythm for her chants by banging it on the floor. She asked those women present who knew the Varđlokur or Warlock-Song necessary to call the spirits to sing it for her. 

          In Britain, during the Ninth and Tenth centuries, there  were many instances of Churchmen fulminating over Pagan magical practices, such as the brewing of love philtres and the practice of wicce  to gain love, or galdor-craft of any kind. Ćlfric denounced ‘Wiccans’ who taught the worship of trees, stones and wells, who brewed potions and interpreted dreams.

During the witch trials of the Middle Ages and later, we can see evidence of shamanic practice, such as conversing with spirits, animal and fairy familiars, the magical curing of disease, the removal or infliction of elf-shot, spirit flight and so on. This does not mean that there was a thriving shamanic culture among the underclasses, rather that shamanic consciousness is a potentially pan-human experience which does not rely on a culturally supportive setting, though it does require an underpinning of sympathetic mythology.

As well as trying to extinguish the shamanic practices of their own homelands, when Europeans travelled to the Americas they encountered people who claimed to speak with spirits by using trance-inducing techniques such as fasting, taking sacred plants or the infliction of pain. The disgusted explorers dismissed them as agents of the devil. When the Russians began to colonise Siberia in the seventeen century, they found people who communicated with spirits, claiming to heal people, to influence the weather, game and the crops, as well as being able to divine the future. The Christian Russians dismissed them as dealers with demons.

                It was not until the twentieth century that anthropologists made detailed studies of shamanic practices in places as widely distributed as the Amazon, Australia and the Arctic, and though they had local names, applied the encompassing term ‘shamanism’ since they all had practices akin to those of the Siberian shamans. In 1951, the Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade finished his seminal book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, which documented the striking correspondences in shamanic practices, worldviews and symbolic behaviours in hundreds of societies around the world. Shamanism is "the religious experience par excellence," he wrote, "The shaman, and he alone, is the great master of ecstasy."[5] Eliade's work demonstrated that shamanic practices and conceptions were ancient. He concluded that shamanic features could be found in any ethnic or cultural group, citing, for example, the Scandinavian story of Óđinn’s initiation on the World Tree and the Orphic Mysteries of Greece, concerning as they do Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld to retrieve the lost soul of his wife Eurydice. 

Such works caused a stir of public interest in shamanism, including amongst those westerners who were keen to try it for themselves. In the 1960s, with its emphasis on the drug culture, many were especially drawn to the use of the hallucinogenic plants employed by shamans in their sacred ceremonies, finding they could experience similar visions to those described by shamans. This was fertile ground for the works of Carlos Castaneda, an anthropology student who claimed to have studied with a Yaqui Indian sorcerer in Arizona and Mexico, publishing a firsthand account of his apprenticeship in 1968, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. The book and its sequels became worldwide bestsellers. The veracity of these books has since been questioned, and at least one critic claimed that Casteneda spent his time in the library, not out and about with a shaman. It is certainly true that Casteneda made up parts of his books, but they seem to draw on real experiences and real knowledge of shamanism.

 

 

On the basis of these books, the spark of public interest became an explosion, and thousands of neo-shamans appeared in first America, then round the world. Many were interested only in the experiences of drugs; others barely studied classical shamanism at all. Sadly, the modern neo-shaman has a tendency to loot other nation’s religions, cherry-picking odds and ends of disconnected knowledge from a variety of traditional cultures. The more distant and exotic the places they are stolen from the better, because he seems to think that they must be purer and truer, closer to some imagined primordial shamanism unchanged since the dawn of time.

 

While the experience of the shaman is universal, timeless and constant, its interpretation and practice relies on a complex net of mythology, symbolism, taboo, tradition and a setting in place and time. The shaman is intimately connected with the land around him, and accesses the greater Cosmos through it. The myths and stories of his people contain the knowledge of how to shamanize expressed in local terms. Those of foreign places, on the other hand, are unhelpful, except in the most general sense. The path every real shaman forges is his own. He must undergo his own trials, face his own crisis and make his own contact with local spirit allies. His knowledge must be rooted in an understanding of his place in the land around him, and its place in the Cosmos, or he cannot properly orientate himself and operate in theOtherworld.

 

Extract from Anna Franklin’s new book The Path of the Shaman, Lear Books, 2007.


 

[1] In some places, the role of shaman is hereditary, but only if the spirits have chosen the successor, and he has undergone the crisis.

[2] Taliesin, Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland, John Matthews,

[3] Taliesin’s Song of his Origins, Taliesin, Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland, John Matthews, p 281

[4] http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/seidhr.shtml

[5] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy,