Ah conquistador is it only gold you’re looking for
Or may you still yet see the treasure long concealed within thee?
Ah conquistador campaigns you waged to win the war
To gain the world and lose your soul
What were you fighting for? – The Shamen, “Conquistador”

The shaman as visionary, prophet, healer, ceremonialist, psychotherapist & often herbal doctor is the ‘doctor of the soul’ for both the community and individuals.
– Leo Rutherford “Contemporary Shamanism”

Unknown artist's replication of ancient pictograph found in the Tien Shan Mountains of Central AsiaI have been broadly exploring new approaches to spirituality in posts such as
Ecclesia as Sacred Tribe and A Pagan conversation. Once one opens the imagination to ideas outside of the western modern norm, (such as “Tribe”), we inevitably meet, in premodern and ancient cultures, the shaman .

The shaman is a shadowy figure, dimly understood, and widely viewed by moderns as a purveyor of superstition, a dangerous magician or a charlatan praying on the fears of simple people. But in fact, in most accounts I have read, shamans are tough  mystics who has overcome their fear of death and so earned a reputation as powerful guides, seers and healers.

The traditional christian response to the shaman (if forthcoming at all), would generally be typical of the western, urban chauvinism it has displayed for centuries. At its shallowest it would lump shamanism into the category “primitive” which is dismissively equated with the unsaved, the irrelavant and the heathen. More sophisticated responses might see it as interfacing with unseen and perhaps demonic realms, or part of the dangerous syncretism which dilutes the “purity” of christian theology and practice.

These responses are wholly inadequate. More recent accounts such as Joan Halifax Shamanic voices from less-biased members of modern literal western (as opposed to premodern, oral, non-western) cultures have begun to illuminate mysterious spiritual endeavours common to many, if not most, ancient cultures. 

These narratives are imbued with a sense of the numinous far more akin to Moses’ desperado activities in the wilderness of  Sinai, with the actual presence of YHWH in tow, than what we have come to know as organised religion. Even the charismatic  revolution, wherein the Holy Spirit has supposedly been “liberated” to demonstrate G-ds power to heal, reveal and break into ordinary life, has been domesticated, and theologised.

Of course the shaman does delve into those realms where powerful and potenitally destructive forces operate, and the investigation is not one to be taken  lightly. Personally speaking, I find it somewhat terrifying to consider a journey to the underworld or overworld, where one’s body and spirit  is parted. But rather than rejecting the investigation, this terror goads me into finding out more.

Perhaps the key figure helping us cross the divide between the primal and the post/modern is Carl Jung. His courageous genius and openness to the wild, unseen world of the unconscious and the realm of symbols, makes him a key figure in reconciling our scepticism, rationalism and materialism with the wild and dark forces which constitute the “collective unconscious”.

There are several reasons why I deem this investigation important.

  • Shamanism is near universal:
    Ancient Shamanic practices are common to cultures across every continent. The word itself  originates from Siberia, but cultures featuring very similar practices are to be found throughout Asia, North, Central and South America, Africa, Australasia and Oceania, as well as in Old  Europe. This commonality is very intriguing, and points towards a deep, primal, common root.
  • General Western bias: I see our Western materialism as biasing our view of the spiritual very heavily. I have always been open to the miraculous and the numinous, but have experienced it very little.
  • Specific Christian Bias: I have been taught in the church to be very wary of the primal, by a model of christianity heavily influenced by unacknowledged dualism and fear. We need to transcend the reverse superstition that the church and its teachings have cast upon  things primal.
  • Prophetic Integration: Primal cultures display a far more integrated approach to life than western technological cultures, and I see this “old wine” as superior in several ways to the “new wine” of industrialised society, as far as values of community and authentic spiritually are concerned. A new approach to shamanic practices, is one way to move towards a more salvific myth for our times.

The more I investigate, the more I realise that the shamanic reveals a very deep set of practices and myths. Hopefully, I will not undermine this enquiry by detailing, in point form, some features of shamanism.

  • Calling: The shaman feels a calling, and may wait many years for that calling to mature.
  • Initiation: The shaman is initiated, very often by terrifying means whereby their fear of death is faced. The community presides over this initiation, although the actual experience is often very solitary.
  • Communal role: The shaman serves the community’s psychological, social and medical needs.
  • Authentic authority: Unlike the priest, the shaman derives their authority not from an institution but from a direct experience with the divine. Furthermore, they can loose their power or gift, and do not have a guaranteed status.
  • Connection with the cosmos: The shaman relates very deeply to community, animals and the world.
  • Peripheral yet central: The shaman often exists somewhat detached at the edges of a community, and is called upon in times of crisis.
  • Playful yet mournful: Many shamanic practicioners have displayed a keen sense of humour, not taking themselves too seriously, and  can fulfil a subversive “jester” role. At the same time they are “wounded healers” and experience empathy with the suffering of  all people and things.
  • Non-ordinary: The shaman specialises in luminal states, skirting ordinary life. Techniques such as psychotropic plants, sleep deprivation, fasting and rhythm are employed to gain access to these states.
  • Mythmakers: Shamans are masters of myth and symbol. They are rooted in both their particular traditions as well as a collective un/consciousness.

Further instalments will look more deeply at Shamanism, the Bible and Christ, interspersed with interviews with a few friends and acquaintances that have an opinion on the subject.