In “The shamanic shadow in the old testament“, I did a lightweight survey of shamanic myths and practices throughout the Pentateuch, poetry and prophets, moving in a more or less linear way through time.
I now want to continue to examine the rest of the canonical bible. This time however, I’d like to start at the “end” and move towards the “centre”, ending up at the crux of the matter – Jesus Christ.
John of the Revelation
The Revelation was written by John (not necessarily the same John as author of the Gospel or disciple of Jesus) while in a state of exile on the isle of Patmos. It is possibly the most controversial book of the 66 and its inclusion in the canon was not unanimous.
Revelation has been open to misinterpretations by readers (with an underdeveloped sense of the metaphorical) confused by the relationship between the literal and metaphor. This includes looking for inappropriate meanings in its rich set of symbols and reading chronological events into its structure.
Aside from fitting Revelations into one or another agenda, one of the reasons for this wildly varied speculation is no doubt as a result of ignorance of its literary genre, known as Apocalyptic. (Daniel is another example of this). One feature of Apocalyptic literature is an abundance of highly symbolic imagery.
In 1:10, John situates himself “in the spirit”. He writes from this state throughout, where the non-ordinary and the symbolic takes centre stage. However, he still references an historical audience – the seven churches, for example.
I will not go into detail here, suffice to say that Revelations hold a huge variety of highly imaginal, often bizarre, and frankly psychedelic references – angels, scrolls, lampstands, seals, trumpets, censors, precious stones, that this alone places it in the realm of the shamanic.
Particular references to the “Abyss” are significantly similar to the underworld. The dragon, the beast and Babylon, the mother of abomination deal with archetypes of evil. And the New Jerusalem is explored – a City where all things are mad new, a sort of destination for souls, in unveiled in vivid detail.
Rev 22:13 states, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” This famous line is one of the most cosmically charged in all scripture. The image of the beginning and the end sees Christ as being involved across time, place and culture. Such universal concepts are a hallmark of the shamanic.
Paul the apostle
The second most significant personality in the new testament is Paul. Often misunderstood, Paul was the first writer to attempt to theologise the gospel accounts and relate the life of Christ to what came before. Of course Paul was an apostle, not a theologian, and as such his life was about more about adventures in faith than simple discourse over words. But being a “Jew of the Jews” he had a very deep grasp of the overarching narrative of YHWH.
It is vital to understand that Paul’s context was a) Hellenic and b) urban, which means that the primal elements associated with the shamanic were already being sidelined by Greek cerebral abstractions on the one hand and a burgeoning emphasis on cities and its attendant remove from nature.
For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. (Acts 9:9)
However, his epiphany, subsequent “initiationary” blindness and many instances visions, and trance states as well as numerous miraculous workings can be read as features of shamanism, where a divine inbreaking radically alters the course of life. In this enigmatic text Paul sees a vision of a “third heaven”:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. (2 Cor 12:2-4)
As is very typical of the wounded healer, Paul received a mysterious and much debated debilitation:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. (2 Cor 12:7)
Altered states and the ecstatic are generally viewed by the rationalist, controlling, civilised world and its theology as dangerous and contrary to scripture. However even in Paul there are 2 instances in Acts where he falls into a trance:
When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance… (Acts 22:17)
He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. (Acts 10:10)
There is not much more information as to whether these trances were induced or not, or what other factors might have been involved. What we can see is that the inbreaking of the paranormal was not uncommon, even in Paul, on whom we model much of christian ministerial practice.
Peter, with whom we generally associate closeness with Jesus and subsequent pragmatic letters detailing the ethics of the Kingdom of G-d, also experienced a revelation of the cosmic scope of YHWH’s narrative, in which he is symbolically shown that G-ds dealings are no longer with the Jews alone via the fact that all food could now be eaten:
I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. (Acts 11:5)
John the Baptist
The wild and mysterious John the Baptist carries on the tradition of the prophets, “…preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ … John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mat 3:1)
John baptises Jesus in a very public, sentient ritual of initiatory cleansing. A confirming sign of his connection to divinity, in the form a dove, ensues. It is here that his servant mission becomes established; where he first hints that he is key in the healing and salvation of not only his own people the Jews but the world.
The teachings and person of Jesus have been through so many twists and turns that is only with a lot of work one can begin to see him for who he is, rather than through the eyes of religion, and 2 millennia of cultural, political and theological agendas and bias. I would like to view aspects of the Life of Christ, in the light of features of the shamanic.
As I have shown, the shaman does not come to his or her power without an initial rite of passage, delineating his move into the non-ordinary world, or rather into the ability to navigate between the seen and the unseen. It marks the novice as being entrusted with the souls of a community.
At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mk 1:12)
He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. (Luke 4:2)
Jesus had a very clear initiation where he emptied himself through fasting and prayer. Immediately thereafter he came face to face with his own limitations, his fears, and evil itself. He undergoes three very specific tests, obedience as more important than physical survival, the abuse of the miraculous outside of context of faith, and the temptation of power.
It is important to note his connection with angels, animals and the wilderness.
The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. (Mark 1:22)
The Jews were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?” (John 7:15)
One of the things that make the shaman stand apart from other forms of religious or spiritual practitioners is their personal, direct relationship with the realm of the spirit. This confidence in the face of numinous and potentially dangerous forces mean that the shaman must have a personal authority, rather than that bestowed upon him by an organisation, or even tradition. It is true, however that the shaman needs to be recognised by a community, and much of their power rests in this recognition.
Command over and relationship to nature
Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. (John 9:6)
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. (Mark 4:39)
About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. (Mark 6:48)
I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. (Luke 10:19)
Although at harmony with nature, Jesus could also manipulate it. He defies physical laws, healing blind, stopping the storm, not sinking on water and remaining unharmed by venomous creatures.
Transcending limits of matter
One of the most spectacular aspects of the narrative is the transfiguration of Jesus. Here, he changed from his ordinary state, becoming awash with light. However this was significant not only as a demonstration of the transcendence of the natural laws of physics, but also as a ritual in which was enacted the “fulfilment of the law and the prophets”, represented by Moses and Elijah respectively. And equally significantly, a voice identifies his ancestry as being Divine:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2)
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. (Luke 9:34)
And after his resurrection, he demonstrates his corporeal nature to his followers, before being taken away from the material world:
“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” … While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. (Luke 24:38, 51)
Significant relationship to death and the dead
In addition to numerous healings of the sick, Jesus was not daunted by the final enemy. Not only did he overcome his own fear of death (“Man shall not live by bread alone…”), he raised the dead and dealt undaunted in the shadowy realms of Sheol. Furthermore he passed on his power to his disciples. And not physical death alone, but he gave life in its broadest expression.
It is not insignificant then, that when he himself died on the cross, an apocalyptic event occurred:
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Mt 27:51)
Power over evil spirits
Jesus begins both to teach and to demonstrate the power of G-d, through deliverance from malevolent spirits and the healing of physical illnesses.
When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” (Mat 8:16)
Seer and Guide
Jesus boldly spoke of the future, not as a purveyor of spectacular predictions or visions, but as an oracle who recognised reality for what it was.
You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. (Mt 24:4-8)
But further than simply declaring fate, he was a comforter, drawing people to the Divine and to a life beyond this one. His words are those of a guide, giving courage to all who must of necessity make the journey from this life to the next.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me … I am going [there] to prepare a place for you … I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:1)
One of the greatest shamanic hallmarks, that of the “wounded healer”, is very similar to a central myth of Jesus. Unlike the modern doctor, who plays a godlike role of power and knowledge, Jesus was acquainted with weakness and suffering, and ministered healing from that place.
Henri Nowen, in his classic book on healing, said, “… the wound, which causes us to suffer now, will be revealed to us later as the place where God intimated his new creation.” (The wounded healer, p 96) He points out the power of empathy, wherein the healer demonstrates “a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition which all men share.” (p 88)
In Gethsemane, as he contemplates his task of sacrifice, Jesus says “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34), And in his teachings, he is at pains to point out that anyone who wants to know Divine life must accept that they will have to loose their human ego-life to do so: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:24)
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1)
The narrative does not stop with Jesus. He leaves, as we have seen, a living legacy of power for his followers. The arrival of Pentecost heralded a time when this power was made available to all. The book of acts is filled with references to miraculous activity, much of which has already been shown to have shamanic elements.
The new testament is the story of G-d incarnating into the hyper-literate Judaic tradition, whose centrepiece was the meticulously maintained written law. The struggles of Jesus are to affirm truth, the truth of Spirit, through a predominantly spoken, active approach. His greatest opposition comes from those who hold the literal – the written, unambiguous, view – Scribes, and other experts in the scriptures.
However, his own message was poetic, using metaphor, parable and other devices which appeal to imagination rather than intellect or will. About the only reference to his writing anything down is when he draws unintelligibly in the sand with his finger.
Jesus operated, it would seem, in a typically oral as opposed to literate way, despite his mastery of the law and the writings of the prophets. His frame of reference is more Sophia, the eternal spirit of wisdom, than the torah. It is this oral tradition in which the shamanic is essentially evident.
My view then, is the Jesus, as well as Paul and others, were firmly continuing in an oral, shamanic tradition. But because the context for this included the law, a developed priestly system, and a highly charged political milieu with Rome as occupying power, that we easily loose sight of this fact.
Through the lens of 2000 years of religious evolution, we persist in interpreting this story in literate terms. In the modern west we constantly emphasise the written over the oral, the legal over the poetic, the literal over the imaginative, the material over the mystical and the urban over creation. No wonder the shamanic has all but disappeared from what is commonly thought of as the “gospel”.