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.

4 thoughts on “Shamanism

  1. I will put my hand up as one who has carelessly, and lazily used the ‘S’ words. In fact I just rewrote part of my ‘About’ page to take out the reference and to say what I do and how without it. It took more words, but that is no bad thing.

    I have come to learn that whilst I use some of the techniques, which as you note are common to many religions, I am not a shaman and do not live in a shamanic culture. I have over struggled the past year with how to frame what I do that does not use the word. The ‘O’ words, Ovate/Ovatic are certainly more appropriate for those of us whose religion and spirituality, in my case Druidry, is rooted in these islands. It does not mean that our ancestors did not do what shamans always have done in their tribal and cultural context, but they would not have understood, let alone use that word.

    I now use the terminology of ‘engaged journeying’ to describe the way access the Otherworlds, as well as this one. I do not journey in precisely the same way in and through these different lands and landscapes. The journey of the body requires different techniques from the journey of the soul, but both demand engagement and attention, intention and ‘a map’ of some sort. How one builds their maps is a matter of practise and preference, visual, aural or a combination of both. What one travels on and with, be it sound, animal spirit guide/guardian, or one’s god or ancestor, is a matter of preference, guidance or accumulated experience.

    I may not be as militant in my reactions to the misappropriation of the term shaman, but I agree that it has become like so many other words, distorted and cheapened by becoming a shorthand term for particular basic methods for doing certain kinds of activities. In this case by being taken up too readily as a way to self-improvement and personal development, rather than what shamanism really is, which is a way of service to the tribe or peoples in whose cultures this is or has been a very unique and sacred role.

    The same was true a number of years ago with the word mystic and also Celtic as applied to Christianity. It went all fluffy bunny.

    I’ve read the mystics of Middle Ages. These women and men lead hard lives, often misunderstood and staying only just the safe side of heresy. And they lived mostly in convents and monasteries for good reason. It’s something one can learn to live with or be taught in a weekend course. I think there are more genuine mystics, but many have shut that part of themselves down or out because it is not easy to live with that sort of awareness in the mundane modern world.

    As for Celtic Christianity, it became some idealised time when and particularly where the church was not so rigid and nature was more valued. It was embraced without really looking at how some of the Celtic saints thought about women and how harsh they were with themselves and on their bodies — the white martyrdom springs to mind. These are not things people necessarily think now nor things they can do. Granted that was common amongst the saints of Roman Christianity, but in trying to return to some golden age of Christianity things were overlooked, intentionally or accidentally on purpose.

    Being vigilant in our use of words and concepts and practises as they relate to our spiritual and religious paths is important to maintain our integrity and credibility. Thank you for writing this. And,
    sorry this response was so long . . .

  2. Brilliant and much needed post. It occurs to me that ‘shamanism’ is used in ways that really don’t give enough information anyway and that more specific choices of language and description would be more useful. Perhaps naming the specific source of the practice if you are using something tribal, and something about it’s method or intent. Bit more longwinded, but worth it.

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