Shamanism

I posted this over at the Druid Network’s social site recently. I realised that it was as long as a blog post (sorry, TDN people!) – and I thought it was worth sharing here. This is the reason why I’ll never use the term shamanism. While I don’t expect others to agree with me, I do think it’s important that Druids and other Pagans *think* about the language and techniques they use, and decide in an informed way what they are going to do about issues of social justice relating to their spiritual work. After all, as the Druid’s Prayer says: “Grant, O gods… the knowledge of justice, and in the knowledge of it, the love of it.”

I am extremely opposed to using the word ‘shamanic’ to describe anything that isn’t happening in a tribal context (and really not even there). As a sociologist, I’m aware that the word is being used less and less in academia, where academics have realised that it is a very poor description of spirit journeying and spirit work. Its use suggests that all tribal spirituality is the same, when it is NOT – different tribes have different kinds of spirit-workers who do different things. The word was initially an imperialistic, Western-context-imposing concept that academics used to present tribal people as Other, exotic and all the same. Eliade, who is no longer popular in academia, did a lot of damage there.

Furthermore, many tribal people have been offended by the Western use of the term. Harner’s ‘Core Shamanism’ has been criticised by indigenous people for stealing their sacred techniques, churning them up and spitting them out in a form that they don’t recognise. Some Native Americans and others have talked about ‘plastic shamans’, arguing that real tribal spirit-workers cannot be separated from their tribal context. They serve communities, and a Westerner journeying on their own rather than for a tribe cannot relate fully to what they do.

Many academics are coming round to this point of view. Alice Kehoe, in her book Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinkingtalks about how our ideas of ‘shamanism’ can reinforce the imperialistic concept of the ‘noble savage’. She describes how courses like Harner’s have misrepresented and mangled stolen techniques from peoples without much social power, who could therefore do little about it. She demonstrates how the techniques we now consider ‘shamanic’ actually show up in almost every religious context, including branches of Christianity. She also shows how these technqiues are used very differently across different tribes and peoples – there is not one ‘shamanism’, but many cultural forms of spirit-work that are tied to the cultures and tribes that they emerge from.

I do a lot of spirit work and journeying, but I call it different things. There are Pagan terms, like ‘technician of the sacred’, ‘spirit-worker’, ‘journeying’, ‘Ovate work’, ‘oracle work’ etc, which I prefer. We are using techniques which are common to every religion, like journeying based on visualisation, that we don’t need to name as ‘shamanism’.

Yeah, I have strong feelings about this! As a Druid, I believe in Justice in all things. Social justice for indigeous people is very important to me. Too many indigenous groups have been mistreated for too many years. I personally won’t have anything to do with practices that indigenous groups have said are misappropriating and misrepresenting their sacred concepts and techniques.

Myths and Words that Shaped My (Pagan) World

Mostly books, a few TV series. So little, in words. So much, in meaning.

In no particular order:

‘American Gods’, Neil Gaiman
“Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

‘Triumph of the Moon’, Ronald Hutton

‘Celtic Myths and Legends’, Eoin Neeson
My first detailed encounter with Irish myths, which I read when I was about 18.

‘Cailleach: The Hag of Beara’, Leanne O’Sullivan
“the darkness that would be cast / between the moment when I could destroy / and the moment when I would devour.”

‘Druidry and the Ancestors’, Nimue Brown

‘Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation’, Eli Clare
“Laugh and cry and tell stories. Sad stories about bodies stolen, bodies no longer here. Enraging stories about the false images, devastating lies, untold violence. Bold, brash stories about reclaiming our bodies and changing the world.”

‘Rivers of London’ – Ben Aaronovitch
“I once asked my dad how he knew what to play. And he said that when you get the right line, you just know because it’s perfect. You’ve found the line, and you just follow it.”

‘The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries’ – W.Y. Evans-Wentz

‘Loneliness and Revelation’, Brendan Myers
“I am empowered with the knowledge that as I say this prayer, thousands or even millions of people say it with me, and I am not alone.”

‘Carmina Gadelica’ (especially the translation/re-imagining by Morgan Daimler)
“The Three who would protect me / Keep me this night and always”

Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America’ – Margot Adler
“I acted out the old myths and created new ones, in fantasy and private play. It was a great and deep secret that found its way into brief diary entries and unskilled drawings. But like many inner things, it was not unique to me.”

Doctor Who
“We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”

‘The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci’, Barry Patterson

The Bible
“For where your treasure is, there is your heart.”

The Nag Hammadi Library
“I am the utterance of my name.”

Battlestar Galactica (2004)
What is the most basic article of faith? That this is not all that we are.”

‘The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer’ – Gearoid O’Crulaoich
“Nature is renewed eternally in the recounting of the tales of how Cailleach Bhearra impressed herself onto and expresses herself within a landscape made both vital and sacred by association with her divine and sovereign presence.”

‘She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse’ – Elizabeth Johnson

The Life of Pi
“Since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story…?”
“…The story with the animals is the better story.”

“And so it goes with God.”

‘Kindling Our Stars: Nurturing Bright and Dark Flames’ – Genevieve Wood

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem.”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity.”
“Everything is true,” he said. “Everything anybody has ever thought.”  

‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ – C.S, Lewis
He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

‘Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans’ – Ceisiwr Serith

‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, Audrey Niffenegger
“Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting.”

Pride Against Prejudice: A Personal Politics of Disability’, Jenny Morris
The first disability theory book I read. Changed my world.

‘The Essential Rumi’
“Why do you stay in prison / when the door is so wide open?”

‘Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom’ – Erynn Rowan Laurie
“With poetry the world is made.”

Pistis Sophia
“Thou has set the light of thy stream in me; I have become a pure light-power…”

The Culture novels
“There are no gods, we are told, so I must make my own salvation.” - ‘Use of Weapons’

The Water Horse – Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
Poetry bringing Irish myths and folklore into the modern world. Written in Gaelic, but with translations.

Babylon 5
“We are the universe trying to understand itself…”

‘Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic: A Materia Magica of African-American Conjure’ – Catherine Yronwode

‘The Mysteries of Druidry: Celtic Mysticism, Theory &a Practice’ – Brendan Myers

Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel
“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do…”

‘The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability’, Nancy Eiesland

tir na nog