Shaman as a Spiritual Specialist in Indigenous Cultures
The Shaman as a Spiritual Specialist
Exploring the world of the shaman and shamanic perceptions of reality means that we have to question many of the assumptions and views that we have of life and reality. In order to understand the reality that the shaman inhabits we have to ‘bracket’ our modern views of the way that human beings relate to the world and to nature. By this I mean that many of the common modern scientific views of the world and of what reality is are put into doubt when we explore the shamanic world view, and we finds that our views are very different to the way that the shaman sees the world, nature and other human beings.
One of the most important aspects to note about many indigenous cultures, and especially ancient indigenous culture, is their view of reality in terms of nature. For these cultures, a very significant difference to the way that the modern Westerner views reality is that the entire world and every object are to some extent animated and alive. The Western objective view of life only refers to some aspects of the world as alive and animated. We would not, for example, consider a rock to be alive; whereas in many shamanic cultures a rock can be a living presence and can even have a ‘soul’. As Berlo and Phillips (1985) state in Native North American Art, the traditional Indian shaman considers some rocks to be imbued with “thunderbird powers”; which refers to spiritual entities that are alive in the spiritual world which we cannot ordinarily see, but which the shaman can contact and invoke for healing and other purposes. ( Berlo and Phillips 25)
Therefore, the shaman in many indigenous cultures sees the world as animated and alive and filled with spirits and entities that are not subject to normal perception. This view has a number of important implications, one of which is that in shamanic cultures such as the San Bushmen of southern Africa, the people tend to have a greater veneration and a caring attitude towards nature and for all sentient and living things. This is related to the circular nature of life and to their belief that all aspects of nature and life are interconnected and interdependent. The earth is a sacred entity that is to be treated with respect and awe. It is not just seen as being merely rock and sand but is alive and sacred. The shaman is often reported as referring to the earth as a sacred and living entity.
Many studies on shamanism refer to the shaman as the “technician of the sacred.” (Finney) In this regard, central to the understanding of shamanism is the meaning of altered states of consciousness and visionary experiences. The shaman is not only sensitive to and aware of the entire animate world of nature in a way that most modern people cannot understand, but he is or she is aware of other dimensions and spiritual realities that cannot be perceived or encountered in an ordinary state of consciousness.
In order to perceive these spiritual dimensions the shaman therefore has to enter into a radically changed or altered state of consciousness so that he can perceive these extended realities. The visionary experience is therefore one that is intimately linked to the concept of the shamanic way of life. Berlo and Philips emphasize the shaman’s “â€¦exceptional visionary experiences” and that through these experiences the shaman is able to “â€¦ gain access to especially powerful spirit protectors .” (Berlo and Philips 26) In this sense we can talk of the shaman as the practitioner of ecstatic trance states in an altered state of consciousness. In the book Imagery and Healing: Shamanism an Modern Medicine, Jeanne Achterberg states that the Shaman is a person who”â€¦distinguishes himself through particular practices of ecstasy or altered states of curiousness.” (Achtenberg 12)
It is during these states of consciousness that are so very different to ordinary mundane consciousness that the shaman is said to ascend to the sky as well as descend to the underworld. In other words, in these states the shaman is capable of exploring or entering areas of reality that are beyond our world. From our perspective these are very strange experiences. For example, the following is a description of the shamanic journey to the underworld in the Samoyed culture.
The Underworld has been variously described by shaman-voyagers as a dangerous and terrifying place. The Realm of the Dead in many Arctic traditions resembles the world of the living, except that all that exists there is upside down or inside out. Death is a reversal of life. According to Samoyed tradition, for example, the trees grow downward, the sun sets in the east and rises in the west, and the rivers flow in opposite directions from the directions in reality. The world, life’s phases, and daily human activity are all inverted, like reflections on the surface of a pond
The reason for these journeys into other worlds is in the first place to obtain spiritual knowledge and power. ( Achterberg 13) This leads to one of the central functions of the shaman in indigenous cultures – which is the function of healing. Through the process of experiencing the sacred or spiritual world the shaman is changed and learns to heal.
However, one must first understand something of the way that older indigenous cultures perceive healing. For many indigenous people illness has a spiritual cause and is often ascribed to the actions of spirits and demons. Through his knowledge of the spiritual realms the shaman is able to intervene and fight against these evil spirits. In cases of serious illness the shaman heals by going into a trance and retrieving the stolen soul of the ill person, thereby restoring him or her to health. In many cultures the shaman is seen as the guardian of certain spirits that teach and aid him in his quest to heal others.
What is extremely interesting is the initiation process and the way that an individual in the society becomes a shaman. The initiate is often someone who becomes extremely ill, and it is during their illness that they receive visions from the spiritual word that directs them towards their vocation as a shaman. ( What is Shamanism)
The initiation process is one of the most fascinating aspects of the study of shamanism. The shaman is usually not chosen by human beings but is called to be a shaman by the spirits. When an individual feels that he or she has a calling to be a shaman, then they must undergo a rigorous initiation process under the guidance of an older shaman. However, the real initiation takes place in the unconscious of the initiate and in the spirit world.
What is so intriguing about this initiation process is that in almost all shamanic cultures it is described in terms of the destruction of the individual. To become a shaman the individual has to undergo a complete and total change in his life and a destruction of the old self or ego. This old individual is replaced by a completely new ‘self’ and the individual receives the ability to act as a shaman. This process is described in many cultures in terms of killing and even the boiling of the individual over time so that he is reduced to a skeleton — after which the spirits put back flesh onto the individual’s bones and he is reborn as a shaman. This is a theme that is found in many shamanic cultures and in many stories about initiation.
As referred to, initiation often begins as a form of illness. This can be seen in an example from the Samoyed culture of the initiation process, as discussed in Achtenberg’s work. This study of shamanism refers to an individual who contracted smallpox and remained unconscious for three days. He was near death and at one stage was almost buried. During this period he had vision and dreams which related to travelling to the underworld as well as to the heavens. He also encountered the tree of life. The tree of life is a common shamanic symbol or map of the spiritual world. It also features in many reports and stories of shamanic initiation. It represents the shamanic journey, with the roots of the tree indicating the underworld and the top of the tree the heavens. On the branches are the various spiritual entities that the shaman encounters in his journey.
In this particular example, the candidate shaman makes a drum from one of the branches of the tree. The drum an extremely important part of shamans’ spiritual equipment and it is used in trance ceremonies to summon healing spirits from the spiritual dimension.
In this study the shaman then enters into to a cave where the meets a man who is possibly a spirit guide and who proceeds to cut off the aspirant shaman’s head. ( Achterberg 21) The man then proceeds to chop up the rest of his shaman’s body, which he then boils in a pot for three years. After three years the body is reassembled by the spirits and covered with flesh. This means that in effect the ordinary man is now, through the process of initiation and dismemberment, resurrected as a shaman who has the capability to communicate with the spiritual world and who can acquire the knowledge to help and heal numerous illnesses. As the research by Achterberg notes, he now has the ability to, “â€¦read inside his headâ€¦” (Achterberg 22) In other words, he now has the ability to see in a mystical sense without the use of his ordinary vision. (Achterberg 22) The initiation process also refers to the view that the shaman acts and perceives in a way that is different to ordinary human beings.
The world of the shaman is impressive for a number of reasons. There are many aspects that make a study of this subject intriguing. One could mention the fact that the shaman is reported to be capable of is communicating with the spirits or that he or she can participate in magical flight and ascend and descend to different dimensions of reality. There are many other strange and mysterious qualities relating to shamanism; for example, the fact that he can undergo “â€¦magical transformation into animals” and have “â€¦prophetic dreams and interaction with the souls of the dead.” (What is shamanism)
There are also many modern theories abut the reality of shamanism and the shamanic experience. An expert in this field, Joan Halifax, believes the encounter with illness, suffering, and death “â€¦not only opens the world of the gods to the shaman, it also provides an experiential ground for the work of social, personal, and environmental healing that the shaman will later be doing.” (Halifax 54) She and many other commentators relate the initiation of the shaman and his abilities to types of psychological transformation.
However, from my point to view what is most impressive about shamanism and indigenous culture is the fact t that they believe in a worldview that is much more exciting, extensive and inclusive than ours. I believe that while our modern technological societies have many advantages, we have to a great extent lost the ability to experience nature and the world around us in a full and intensive way. It is this ability that I find in studies of shamanism and shamanic cultures. The world of the shaman is one that considers all the earth to be alive and sacred and also suggests that there are many other levels and dimensions to reality that we are not normally aware of or cannot see. The initiation process of the shaman is also instructive in that it shows that in order to help and care for others in a true and genuine way one first has to experience and endure suffering; so that one can acquire the sensitivity and skill to help others. Therefore, in conclusion, I would suggest that the inhabitants of the industrialized modern word can learn a great deal from the views and experiences of the shaman and indigenous cultures. There are many aspects of shamanism, especially the desire to heal and the relationship between healing, the earth and the spirit world, that can be useful in a modern world where the connections between man and nature have been disrupted.
Achterberg J. Imagery in Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine. London:
Shambala Press. 1985.
Berlo J. And Phillips R. Native North American Art. New York: Oxfors University
Finney D. On Shamans. http://www.greatdreams.com/shamans.htm
Halifax, Joan. “The Shaman’s Initiation.” Re-vision 13.2 (1990): 53-58. Questia. 29
Apr. 2009 .
What is shamanism? April 28, 2009.
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