There is an honest question to be asked whether shamanism, as it is presented to us in the West as ideology or world view, actually exists today. What does exist are a number of shamanic practices that differ from place to culture, from culture to culture. In Europe at least, shamanic practice was destroyed as an identifiable set of techniques by the rise of monotheism amongst the elite and then, through witch-hunting, amongst the folk. Wherever the Catholic Church placed its heavy foot, shamanism was marginalised with its general categorisation of shamans as ‘devil-worshippers’ - whether in early medieval Poland or seventeenth century Peru. Puritans and missionary Buddhists were no better in their fanaticism.
We have a more tolerant view now but it is easy to go too far in the other direction and try to believe what is not any longer truly believable – that there are actual spirits (things that have life beyond the quiverings of quantum mechanics) in stones, plants and animals, things inside these things that would give them equal status to us. Perhaps we might be generous towards animals and even plants as evolutionarily capable of our level of sentience and self awareness but no one can seriously compare a cabbage or a dog with even the most intellectually weak of our own kind. The cultural depredations of modern memetic engineers have created a dislocation between the past and the tribal shamanisms of today. Can any claimed shaman who is not a member of a tribe insulated from Western technologies and anthropological tourism possibly belong to an authentic tradition? Any contact with the Other changes the person making the contact and this cuts all ways - we are all contactees. Neo-shamanism and shamanic re-constructionisms that ape traditional forms are, however, the most deeply suspect. The record shows us no unified global shamanic culture and we can make no presumption that this is some sort of ur or noble savage state to which we can return. Lived experience of shamanic thinking and behaviour is probably no more recoverable than the dinosaurs for Western observers. Many neo-shamanic practitioners may be sincere in their beliefs but they represent nothing but an aspiration to be something they can never be – authentically embedded in a living tradition. The desert origin soul-murderers of indigenous tribes who arrived in the backwoods of every continent on the back of empire have, probably and finally, won in that respect. There is unlikely to be a revenger from the ranks that matter - that of the indigenous peoples themselves who struggle to preserve what can be preserved but know in their hearts that even their most hallowed traditions must be made politically correct and acceptable to liberal modernity and have had to be adapted to being a mode of resistance rather than an expression of local hegemony. This is not to deny that shamanism exists in the world. Chased out of Europe, shamanism still exists authentically, if under threat, in Russian Siberia and, with more difficulty and complexity, amongst the Inuit peoples. There are survivals in Taiwanese and Kazakh practice. The Chinese seem less sympathetic today to their own origins. There is shamanism in Korea, in the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa), in corners of Japan itself and in a more debased form in India. Tantric Buddhism is a historic compromise between Buddhism and shamanistic Bo and Shinto represents an attempt at the institutionalisation of shamanism. There have been attempts, not always successful, to associate shamanic practice and African religions though there are certainly parallels amongst the San. There are also analogues amongst the peoples of Papua New Guinea and the indigenous peoples of Australia. To call all Amerindians shamanistic without qualification all too often insults them. The differences are as significant as the similarities. There are shamanistic elements in the religions of the Chipewyan, the Cree and the Navaho and amongst those who use Ayahuasca. The Maya peoples and many of the peoples of the Amazon Basin and further South can also surely be called shamanistic. There are, in short, many remaining, if small in relative numbers, reservoirs of shamanic experience and behaviour. Unfortunately, these are now as much under threat from well-meaning New Age dim-wits as from Christian missionaries, scientific materialism and late capitalism. Looking at this range of experiences, the idea of a fixed shamanic culture looks less and less tenable, a product of a Western obsession with categorisation and, in its current forms, no more ancient than Wicca. The appropriation of shamanism by New Age figures to solve their personal problems and dilemmas (much like the appropriation of Tantra as NeoTantra) increasingly appears like a piece of cruel or at least unthinking cultural imperialism. However, if we take away the attempt to mimic the forms of shamanism, there still remains an essence of what shamanic thought is and what it can do for our society once it is shorn of alien traditionalism and the egoistic appropriation of New Age narcissists. Let us look at what this essence may be and what it can do for us once all the mumbo-jumbo is removed and we allow indigenous peoples the dignity of the re-appropriation of their own traditions. There are four pre-conditions for a ‘shamanism’ for our times.
- The Shaman — The first pre-condition lies in the shaman figure himself or herself. Such a person has to be ‘fit’, mentally and physically robust enough to be an ‘exemplar’, of high intelligence (or at least animal cunning) and in the prime of life. They will undoubtedly have internally generated disciplines designed to sustain fitness, including care of the body, a mode of conducting themselves in society and a care for their own nutrition. Such a person is likely to be surprisingly ‘normal’, operating in society perfectly well if only because no ‘shaman’ is likely to be able to earn a full living from his or her skills.
- Difference — By contrast, such a person is also likely to be ‘different’ and psychologically alone. There may be others like him or her but this is not a clubbable state. Shamanic status arises from some inward crisis, possibly from an inherited disposition to sensitivity or crisis. Shamans generally suffer a paradigm shift in themselves involving physical illness or a psychological crisis quite early in life. A shaman may also try to effect ‘difference’ from normal sexual roles as well, perhaps by taking on some of the attributes of the opposite gender, certainly being sexually ‘fluid'.
- Social Need — To afford a ‘shaman’ in society, there is going to have to be some sort of pent-up demand. The community must have no other ready means of solving questions surrounding bodily and mental health. This will also have to be a culture respectful (‘trusting’) of the shaman’s abilities as a representation of a form of ‘knowledge’, a culture of people seeking mediators between their own sorrow or pain and a world they imperfectly understand. A rational individualistic society will not want such mediation but this presupposes that such a society does not suffer from psychosomatic illness, is uninterested in ecstasy or believes that the answers to questions that lie in the subconscious are of no consequence. There is no such society under the sun.
- The Need For A 'Mythos'— The shaman and his culture require a ‘mythos’, one that can hold all these abilities together as a coherent whole expressed in a wide range of semiotics – behaviour, language, imagery and ritual (a ‘grammar of mind’, after Pentikainen). The shaman will have greater knowledge of social and cultural memes than the rest of society and will have an intensity of engagement in altered states of consciousness in a way that is fully accepted by the rest of society. This is knowledge that is not known by scientific means (or is not yet proven to be fully known by scientific means) but which ‘works’. Such knowledge is beyond good and evil and the shaman figure may risk mental illness and even death by going into this unknown territory. It is also a difficult knowledge for a society that wants moral order.
- How to treat some psychosomatic sickness through the placebo effect - perhaps through dream interpretation, sympathetic shamanic travelling or other means as much as through handing over fake tablets (the British cup of tea in the 1950s was probably the most perfect placebo medecine in human history) How to trigger visionary ecstasy through trance (Eliade’s ‘technique of ecstasy’, perhaps initiated through drumming or other sound patterns) or drugs. Why do this? Why, for the simple fun of it, of course - as distraction from having no meaningful function in life in the age of the robot.
- How to use trance, divination and metaphor (even animal or spirit guides) to find answers to questions lying in the sub-conscious. Such a need emerges when basic wants are met but there are no resources to offer satisfaction for all desires and needs - to travel and network, own expensive things and consume exquisite food and drink, have status in society. A person turns inward to construct self-meaning lest they go mad with boredom and despair.
- How to tap into the unconscious through divination techniques to tell the probable future and open up the ‘true will’ to self-scrutiny. No, this does not mean you can actually know what it is going to happen in the future (no one does) but it might clear away the cobwebs of group think and increase the chances of making the right decisions for you rather to please everyone else, allowing unconscious knowledge to manage and control the dead zone of reasoning in a world of flux and poor information.
- How to create an attitude of mind that can use a sustained narrative (a ‘mythos’) to ensure social, economic and environmental sustainability in the conditions in which we actually find ourselves in the West today. Again, this is not to be construed as support for the fashionable Gaian magical thinking of planetary consciousness but quite the opposite - how to find values that work with the total environment in which we find ourselves of which 'nature' is just a part and not necessarily the most important one.
By Tim Pendry/Position Reversed