I have tried to immerse myself in the question “What is shamanism?” for long enough to develop an unbiased view. If I had simply done “a christian critique of shamanism” or something that hadn’t got sufficiently out of the gravitational pull of orthodoxy, I think the quest would have been less fruitful. Doing critiques based on ones already held point of view is natural, but may not afford one enough objectivity to make it a useful investigation that ultimately leads to transformation.
So after summarising (albeit in western-style bullet form) some features of shamanism, I gave the good old testament a scan to see if I could identify the “shadow of the shaman” on the landscape of those 66 books.
The seeds of the narrative
I am fascinated with what happened before monotheism was born, out of which we have been blessed with 3 major headaches: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The originating figure in the unfolding spiritual drama is Abram.
Here is a man from Ur (in modern day Iraq) who became the “father of many nations”. He was found acceptable to YHWH, after all that stuff coming out of the “fall of man” in the garden of creation, because he simply believed and this was “credited to him righteousness”.
So what exactly did Abram experience, imagine or believe? I doubt that it was anything resembling what most people today imagine. It has none of the baggage that constitutes the core – at a semi educated guess – of modern religious sensibility. I’m not going to give you an answer to that question of authentic, original context, because I believe that we should apply our imaginations to what was happening in the great exchange between the “Living God” and a Chaldean called Abram. If we can successfully transcend our 3rd millennium religious mindsets, stripping away countless layers of religion and culture, we may be able to regain something of the primal roots of our spirituality.
Back to the topic at hand. Based on my “list” of shamanic characteristics and a quick reading of the pentateuch, poetry and prophets, I was surprised at how this tale of the world resonated with a primal, shamanic quality. Here are some moments and images where primal spiritual elements emerge from the narrative commonly accepted as representing the foundation of our so-called civilisation.
The ongoing presence
Abram enacts a ritual without any precedent in the text, involving livestock and birds. He then finds himself in the thick darkness of an altered state, and has visions of the divine. “As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” (Gen 15:10)
Abram makes a covenant, wherein his name is changed to Abraham, (the “ah” being inserted as part of the name Jehovah). [Ed – This is probably incorrect, see Gareths comment] The story then starts to unfold down the generations.
Jacob wrestles with a spiritual being (the “man”), through the night, and receives a wounding that was to remind him of this experience for the rest of his life. This wounded healer motif appears in all authentic shamanic accounts. In this rite he is given the new name Israel, meaning “he who struggles with God” (Gen 32:24)
Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
Joseph dreams about sheaves of grain, and stars, and takes this to be instructive and more real that his material surroundings, even when his life was under threat as a result. (Gen 37)
Moses, perhaps the primary shamanic figure of the old testament, sees the terrifying vision of a burning bush as a blazing icon of unseen divinity. YHWH says to him,
“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground … I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6)
At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. When he enquires further, G-d says “I am who I am.” This is an encounter with primal being, sheer divinity, and the ancestral theme is core to the exchange.
He goes on to adventure up Mount Sinai and return with none less than the start of the Law, and a great split between written and oral culture commences, with mixed results. In addition to fire and smoke, all the base elements, roaring wind, rocks and water, form a key part of the Mosaic experience.
Elijah interacts directly with the forces of nature, controlling the weather in the name of the Lord: Elijah … said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” (1 Kings 17:1) And in 2 Kings, “Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.”
In handling over his authority to his protégé Elisha, a typically shamanic initiation and transfiguration takes place:
“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. (2 Kings 2)
David, like Moses, represents another major shamanic archetype, as the poet-musician-healer-celebrant. He proceeds with an exceptional confidence even in the direct face of evil: “Whenever the spirit from God [i.e. an evil spirit] came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” (1 Samuel 16:23)
Moreover this confidence extended to his own sin. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51, after his adultery with Bathsheba). He was able to face the divine not in fear, but with trust.
As a jester, David is without parallel: As he dances naked in front of his servants, he replies without shame to Saul’s daughter Michal’s pietistic shock: “I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honour.” (2 Samuel 6:22)
But most of us will realise that the Old Testament, in addition to thousands of intriguing stories, proceeds also through the tedium of unfolding laws (Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, for example), based on Moses’ Sinai transaction. Upon this is built the institution of monotheistic organised religion – the priests and the temple.
The Israelites are beginning to change from a nomadic people of faith (all that bitching notwithstanding) into a nation with an empire: King, a seat of earthy power, written laws, priesthood, and temple. It appears that YHWH is in two minds about their desire to settle, for YHWH knows that settledness will not necessarily bring either happiness or righteousness. But free will is free will; Oy Vey.
However, despite all this, this most human desire to control, and all its attendant misery – defeat, death, exile, YHWH continues to reach out to his chosen people, largely through what we term “the prophets”. We have domesticated these wild ones in our canonical view of history, but if we get a little closer we will start to become aware of the most primal instincts, the most outrageous visions, and the most terrifying power.
Isaiah is a deeply poetic figure, whose words and visions carry exceptional weight in terms of illuminating the present and divining the future. He serves as a constant reminder to Israel where their healing lies, and moves ceaselessly between visions of hope and threats of judgement. In chapter 53, we read of the wounded healer, in what might be described as “the song of the shaman”
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering … we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
Jeremiah, in a direct encounter with the divine, is told: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” He receives gifts of wisdom and power, but at the price of great turmoil, grief and anguish on the behalf of YHWH.
The life of Ezekiel is given wholly to the non-ordinary. His story emerges from the tragic exile in Babylonia. His account might be described as hallucination of the first order, and opens with these words: “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God”.
Ezekiel employs highly symbolic imagery, windstorms, lightning, molten metal, strange winged creatures with human and animal features, jewels, and scrolls that could be tasted. In particular, he suffers this typical shamanic experience in chapter 3:
“Go, shut yourself inside your house. And you, son of man, they will tie with ropes; you will be bound so that you cannot go out among the people. I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to rebuke them, though they are a rebellious house.”
Daniel is another of G-d’s seer in Babylonia, a master interpreter of dreams, and all in the midst of severe political trials and turmoil. He and his cohorts are morally impeccable, standing up to the blandishments and temptations of power in an saintly display of righteous obedience.
Most significantly, they have overcome their fear of death, and survive unscathed in furnaces and dens of hungry lions. Even Nebuchadnezzar himself has this to say “In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.”
Poor Hosea is G-d’s fool, which is another shamanic role. Hosea is told to marry a prostitute, thus earning outsider status from the religious establishment, for the purposes of developing empathy with G-d’s feelings about unfaithful Israel.
Joel is another seer who is driven by a need to return to authentic faith. He tells those who will listen: “Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly.”. He speaks alike to the land, animals and people, and in one of his great prophesies says this : “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”
Jonah, like Moses, is another archetypically shamanic figure. Similar to more contemporary shamanic accounts, for example the Angmagsalik Eskimos of Greenland who were eaten and regurgitated by bears (see Joan Halifax, Shamanic Voices), Jonah is rescued from drowning by being swallowed by a whale, stays intact for 3 days and is vomited up again. Thereupon he is isolated in the desert, having a vine appear overnight and be destroyed again by a worm.
Another seer, Zechariah sees visions of horses, horns, measuring lines, lampstands and olive trees.
The irrepressable wildness
So it seems evident that the shamanic shadow extends deeply into the narrative which lies at the root of the christian myth. It would however be unjustified to reposition entire old testament as a “shamanic narrative”, as it encompasses a broader set of concerns. Likewise, we can’t typify primal cultures purely as “shamanic”, as the shaman is figure at the peripheries of ordinary life. The paradox is that s/he is central to its underlying mythical, unseen, and non-ordinary existence.
But it would be fair to say that rather than transcending the shamanic, the old testament is a story of a stubborn people intent on settling and civilising away the primal by their attitude to their law, tradition and culture. This urge away from wild, creative, direct, ecstatic spirit is despite the enduring, numinous presence of the divine in their midst via their shamans, in the figures of what we rather tamely now refer to as the “prophets”.
In the light of characteristic shamanic features as identified in The shamanic shadow, let us summarise a few of the old testament narratives:
Calling: Abram was simply called out of the land of his birth, and Moses had the angel appear to him while tending sheep.
Initiation: Most prophets and leaders experience a rite of passage into this calling. Hosea’s unusual nuptials, or Elishas taking on Elijah’s mantle.
Communal role: Almost without exception, despite their marginalisation, the OT stories only make sense in terms of the community YHWH is trying to build. The notion of the individual seeker is entirely absent as far as I can see (contrast this with monastic movements emphasising a solitary view of redemption, be they christian contemplative, buddhist or hindu).
Authentic authority: Daniel vs. the Babylonians, David’s direct ecstatic relationship with the divine.
Connection with the cosmos: Much of the stuff of these prophetic encounters is connected to nature and it processes, cloud, fire, wind, worms, vines, leviathans/whales, excrement; Joel and Isaiah.
Peripheral yet central: Most prophets existed at the edges of their community, and often suffered banishment or death for their message. At other times however they were called upon to save those communities: Jonah, Hosea.
Playful yet mournful: Jeremiahs constant tears are contrasted with his great visions. David knew the lows and highs, the full range of the agonies and the ecstasies of worshipping YWHW directly and unmediated.
Jacob can quite accurately be described as a “wounded healer” whose experience marked him for life, and Moses knew too well his own frailty.
Non-ordinary: Every vision and dream, every angelic visitation, every encounter with YHWH or Yahweh’s Spirit must have been received in the liminal, non-ordinary state.
Mythmakers: All the deeds of YHWH, the breakings into the ordinary world of people across cultures and times, and especially YHWH’s direct dealings with the prophets, are the very stuff on which our myth of Divinity is formed.
The seers and miracle workers, the poets and artists, all played a part in the myth we have inherited today. It was given to many in the OT narrative to be active mythmakers via their encounters and reports, their declarations and their visions, of a transformative creator who can be apprehended directly by any human being, but most profoundly via those in touch with immanent shamanic forces, who dare to look beyond the religeous mores presented to them via the priesthood, state or simply the norms of culture.