Monday, September 27, 2010

For Andrew: Still More Intellectualizing About Shamanism

My earlier post on the linguistic uses of Shamanism inspired some questioning on Visionary Shamanism from Andrew, an enlightened being from Great Britain. I thought I'd share my response to his words of wisdom here. 

This is all an attempt to intellectualize!

If we are going to use words, perhaps we should first have some idea of what we mean by those words, n'est-ce pas? This is especially true when dealing with words that have multiple meanings.  And why would intellectualism be a bad thing? Anything worth doing should be worth examining.


a) It is not really a faith!

For some people, shamanic practices are an integral part of their spiritual life. Others see them as something which can be separated from religion and culture. But I'd argue even those non-theistic/atheistic shamans engaged in personal exploration are practicing it as a spiritual discipline. (Belief in God need not be an integral part of religion, as any Buddhist might tell you).  If you're seeking and finding mystical experiences, then you're a mystic. And any mystical experience worthy of the name involves jumping out past the comfortable realms of logic and coming face to face with That Which Transcends.  When reason is no longer of use, one can only rely on faith.  (A Danish guy named Søren Kierkegaard wrote about this at some length: you may find his work enlightening). 

b) Who says practioners should be subjected to tough questioning?

Hopefully the practitioners. If you have no beliefs worth defending, then you have no beliefs. If you never subject your beliefs to any challenges, then what distinguishes you from the wild-eyed fundamentalists who Know with unquestioning certainty and are ready to die and kill for their Knowing?

c) Where do 'prophets' and 'ego crutches' come into it?

If you believe shamans are born, not made, then you have a Priestly Caste, a Chosen People.  That can be an enormous ego-crutch. Saying "I'm an Ascended Master who has come to dispense wisdom to the masses" is much more soothing than admitting "I'm an ill-educated chav who lives in my mum's council flat."  This is an issue which advocates of the "born shamans" theory must address: how do you distinguish the born shamans from those who are seeking a badge of Enlightenment.

d) WE do not choose who is chosen by the gods-there are no gods, only man-made assumptions!

Says you and a few other people. This is not a belief which has a long history, nor is it a majority belief today.  I'm trying to find a definition of "shamanism" which encompasses both "the Gods are real" and "there are no Gods."

c) Escape from reality? Which particular one of the many are you referring to?

I don't want to see "shamanic reality" become an escape from the reality where said "shaman" is just a dysfunctional dumbshit with delusions of grandeur. I prefer an approach which seeks to better one's lot in life to one which says "you don't need to worry about your problems, just tune them out and accept a Higher Truth."  That way of strikes me as more akin to addiction than self-improvement or spiritual development.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What's in a Word? Still More Shamanic Linguistics

Lately I've seen a lot of conversations about the various meanings of the word "shamanism." (My earlier post didn't spark this so much as capture a zeitgeist). I've tried to distill down some of the salient points which have arisen in these discussions, in no particular order of importance. I am sure I will be returning to the topic in future posts: it definitely is worth of further research.

I do not want to get into a discussion of who does or does not have the right to use the word "shaman."  I don't have that kind of power over the language, nor do I hold a trademark on "shamanism." (What's more, I'd be very concerned about anyone who was able to get control over its usage! If you don't like Harner shamans, how would you feel about MPAA-authorized shamans?) There is little I - or anyone else - can do to stop anyone who wishes to claim a shamanic identity. What I would like to do instead is to study some of the ways in which this word is used.

Foul Bachelor Frog courtesy of Meme Generator

For many practitioners, "shamanic" evokes the primitive. It offers a Dionysian way out of the rigid confines of our society and our material existence. By stripping away cultural conditioning, these devotees hope to escape the mundane and experience ecstasy.  But traditional shamanism served as an adjunct to rather than an escape from society, and historical shamans lived in a rigidly structured world delineated by numerous taboos. At worst, this identification can also lead to exotification, objectification and the kind of misbehavior which has been mocked as "plastic shamanism."

I've also noticed several different axes upon which we could divide the different flavors of contemporary shamanism. One is between voluntary and involuntary. Some believe shamanism is an acquired skill, while others believe it can only be practiced by those who are marked by the spirits.  They believe there is a qualitative difference between one who is chosen and one who has learned a few of the consciousness-altering techniques.   

The former approach has often led us to issues of cultural appropriation:  do we have the right to co-opt elements of someone else's coming-of-age rituals or funeral ceremonies to our own ends? On a practical note, some of these techniques may not work as expected when taken out of their original context.  We may ape the motions, chemicals and rhythms used but miss the cultural safeguards and protections.  (James Arthur Ray's reinvention of the sweat lodge as an endurance test is probably the most notorious example of this). 

While the latter view seems to be most common historically, it also comes with some troubling baggage.  Being chosen as a prophet can be a great ego-crutch. Your sufferings can be transformed into martyrdoms while your triumphs become proof of your Mission.   Being the Voice of the Divine can provide an assumption of infallibility the Pope might envy.  And then we get to the age old question of who gets to decide who is Chosen by the Gods?

This post may appear long on questions and short on answers. That is because I think the most important thing here is that we ask those questions.  As a spiritual movement, contemporary shamanism is of very recent vintage. The Way of the Shaman first appeared in 1980, while The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge only arrived in 1968.  There are many sincere people working under this rubric, people who believe it adds something of value to their lives and the lives of others.  They should receive the same respect as any other believer. But they should also be subject to the same sincere but tough questioning - and even tougher self-questioning - that goes with holding any faith.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

From *Power of the Poppy* - Neolithic Papaver somniferum

Here is an excerpt from my upcoming Power of the Poppy - a look at some of the earliest evidence of opiate usage among our distant ancestors. Hope you enjoy! - k


Approximately 7,500 years ago agricultural communities began to develop along the basin of the Danube River. Within less than two hundred years they had spread to what would become Belgium and northern France in the west and Ukraine in the east. Where their ancestors had foraged and hunted for a living, these people (called linearbandkeramik, or LBK, for their distinctive pottery) worked the land for their food. They took cues—and seeds—from the Near East, where farming had been taking place for millennia. Among the charred remains of their fires, archaeologists have found traces of emmer and einkorn wheat, linseed (flax), lentils, and peas, crops that originated in modern-day Turkey, Syria, Israel, and Iran.1 But amid all those eastern seeds was one other nonnative plant that came not from the east but from the southwest—Papaver somniferum, otherwise known as the opium poppy.

Today most botanists believe P. somniferum descends from Papaver setigerum, a wild poppy growing in the western Mediterranean. P. setigerum is found in Italy, northern Africa, eastern Spain, the Mediterranean coast of France, and the Canary Islands. P. setigerum is slightly smaller than P. somniferum; its leaves are thinner, with long, jagged teeth tipped with a bristle that is not found on P. somniferum leaves. They also lack P. somniferum’s waxy coating. Like its domesticated cousin, P. setigerum contains morphine alkaloids; indeed, the two poppies are so similar that some botanists believe them to be the same species.2

It has been suggested that poppies were introduced to LBK agriculture through trade with the La Hoguette culture, a group known primarily by its distinctive bone-tempered pottery. The La Hoguette culture is believed to have originated in southern and southwestern France. They descended from an earlier impressed ware culture that resided on the shores of the Mediterranean. La Hoguette and LBK pottery has been found together at many sites east and west of the Rhine, suggesting that contact and trade took place between the two cultures.

From there, poppies continued on their journey northward. A dig at Raunds, a site in rural Northamptonshire, England, uncovered eight opium poppy seeds dated from the early Neolithic period (5,800–5,600 years ago). While opium poppies can grow as weeds, the lack of other weeds in the ditch and the absence of cereal remains suggest this plant may have been a crop in its own right.3 While Neolithic civilization has traditionally been envisioned as scattered collections of hunter-gatherers who supplemented their foraging with primitive agriculture, the Raunds poppy seeds reveal trade routes between Britain and the Continent. They also suggest that the people of Raunds held poppies in high regard—high enough, at least, to carry seeds across the English Channel, then haul them into the East Midlands and plant them.

Excavations at Egolzwil, an archaeological site located in Switzerland’s Lucerne canton, have revealed signs of poppy cultivation dating back over six thousand years, including poppy seed cakes and poppy heads. These may have been used to feed their cattle in emergencies (cattle generally dislike foraging on bitter-tasting poppies and will eat them only if no better food is available), but these farmers would certainly have known that poppies can produce intoxication and even death in cattle if too many are given. Yet evidence suggests that poppies were the most common crop at Egolzwil, more common than club wheat, barley, or flax.4

Even earlier evidence of opium poppy use comes from recent underwater archaeological work at La Marmotta, a site in Lake Bracciano, Italy (northwest of Rome). La Marmotta was occupied by a Neolithic farming community for about five hundred years before it was abandoned, then submerged by water some 7,700 years ago. Based on the sophisticated artifacts found at the La Marmotta site—and the paucity of evidence for any other contemporaneous cities or villages in the area—archaeologists believe this was a colony from another civilization in Greece or the Near East. And given the model boats (along with a well-preserved longboat found buried in the mud), it seems likely that there was considerable water traffic between the La Marmotta colony and traders from other civilizations.

“This was not an ordinary village,” says Maria Antonietta Fugazzola Delpino, director of the La Marmotta expedition. “The people were in touch with other communities in the Mediterranean. We picture it as a kind of highway—there were many ships coming and going.”5 Organic remains preserved beneath three meters of limestone included poppy seeds, presumably cultivated for food, oil, medicine, and possibly for religious use. It may be here that poppies and their seeds were first brought eastward from Europe. Two thousand years later, they would be seen again in the kingdom of Sumeria.


1Leendert P. Louwe Kooijmans, “The Mesolithic/Neolithic Transformation in the Lower Rhine Basin,” in Case Studies in European Prehistory, ed. Peter I. Bogucki (Boca Raton, La.: CRC Press, 1993), 130.

2C. C. Bakels, “Abstract: Papaver somniferum Culture in Prehistory and Early History” (Symposium: Plants in Health and Culture, Leiden, February 16–17, 2004), (accessed January 13, 2009).

3Gill Campbell and Mark Robinson (with Polydora Baker, Simon Davis, and Sebastian Payne), “Environment and Land Use in the Valley Bottom,” English Heritage, (accessed January 14, 2009).

4Graeme Baker, Prehistoric Farming in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 123.

5 Robert Kunzig, “La Marmotta,” Discover, November 1, 2002, (accessed January 13, 2009).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kenaz Filan Guest Post on Ochani Lele's Blog

I recently contributed a guest post to Ocha'ni Lele's blog on Divination and the Yoruba Presence in Haiti and Cuba.  I was proud to be a part of Ocha'ni's blog: he is one of our most interesting writers on topics of Lukumi and Divination.  I was also happy to get a chance to talk about the Yoruba influence on Haitian Vodou and some of the reasons the Yoruba traditions had less impact (or a different impact) on Haitian folk religion than on Cuban practices.  I enjoyed writing this and hope you enjoy reading it too!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering 9/11: The Day the Mountains Stumbled

This piece appeared in the October 2001 issue of Hybrid Magazine.  It was written on and about September 11, 2001. 


Both our phones are dead. They should be working: the payphone at Nostrand Avenue had a dial tone, even if I couldn’t get through to Manhattan. I press Redial despite the silence. Ron Kuby announces an unconfirmed report of a car bomb outside the Capitol Building. Five minutes ago Curtis Sliwa confirmed what I heard in the subway; the towers have collapsed. My girlfriend Kathy works three blocks from the World Trade Center. I last spoke to her at 7:45 a.m., right before she left for work. “I love you,” she said. “I’ll see you tonight.” I have not spoken to her since.

On the fifth try I get a dialtone, then ringing. Voicemail picks up. Kathy is not at her desk. Of course she’s not, I realize. They’ve probably evacuated her building by now. I leave a message anyway. 

“Kathy, it’s Kevin. I heard about the World Trade Center on my way home. I wanted to come back and get you but they’ve shut down all the subways into Manhattan. If you get this message call home. I love you.”

If you are finished recording press 1 or hang up now, the cheery robot lady says, otherwise press pound for more options.

I hang up.

Once we were proud of owning no television. That was before I tried viewing CNN footage via MediaPlayer at 56k. Someday these screams and herky-jerky fireballs will be cliches, something to put beside your Princess Diana Memorial Porcelain Figurine and your black velvet Elvis. Today they’re still real. I remember a line from Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu: “A mountain walked or stumbled.”
Today the stars were right, I think to myself, today the mountains stumbled.

“Kathy? It’s Kevin again. You’re probably somewhere safe by now, but I’m not sure you can get out of the city. If you’re checking your voicemail, call home when you can. I love you.”

The infrastructure survived remarkably well, I think as I return to our computer and check my work emails. I shouldn’t be surprised: the Internet was designed to survive a nuclear war, never mind a few fanatics armed with jetliners. The network routes around damage, slowing things up a bit but keeping the lines of communication open. I start writing an email to my friends.

I made it out of Manhattan: I’m fine. I type. I haven’t spoken to Kathy yet. I sit there for a few minutes, unable to complete the paragraph.

“Kathy? It’s Kevin. Please call home when you get this message. I love you.”

“We need to wake up, we need to realize that Islam causes this kind of behavior, and we’ve got to stop letting these Moslem terrorists into our country to take our money and our jobs, then turn around and spit in our faces like this.”

I change the station, cringing. Already the nuts are calling in, I think to myself. The phone rings. I flinch, then run to the next room to get it.

“Baby, thank God you’re there!”

“Where are you?” I ask, not worried about anything else right now.

“I’m in Brooklyn. I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge when the second tower fell. Everybody screamed…” Kathy’s voice begins to break. “The woman next to me fainted. I felt the bridge rumbling and I thought another plane was coming for us…”

“It’s all right, honey. Where are you? I’ll come and get you.”

“No, stay where you are!” She’s insistent, almost hysterical. “ think they’ve declared martial law. I don’t know what streets are closed and what streets are open. I don’t want to lose you in the crowd.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Her voice is ready to break again. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“I’ll be right here.”

“There are a lot of people waiting to use the phone, I love you, I’ll see you soon” and she hangs up before I can reply.

I made it out of Manhattan. I’m fine. I just spoke with Kathy and she’s OK and on her way home arrives in my mailbox a moment after I send it to a few mailing lists. The Internet is running like nothing ever happened: even the company’s BlackBerry gateway is up as I scan my work mail and see pager responses. Airplane just flew into World Trade Center. Pentagon hit. Second tower down. Thousands dead.

“They hijacked planes out of Boston,” the stony-faced construction worker told me this morning as we pulled into Borough Hall and the trembling, weeping people got off at the first stop in Brooklyn. 

“Planes full of passengers. The radio said there’s sixteen flights unaccounted for.”

As I finally get to load, I see they’ve downgraded that to four now, and saying there was no car bombing in Washington after all. On NYCGoth-L somebody is saying Whitney Houston just died of a drug overdose. I check CNN and Yahoo, but there’s nothing on there but “America Under Attack.” I spin through the radio stations until finally I come to Z100.

“I’m telling you,” the caller says, “My mother’s friend works for the Department of Records, and she told her they just filled out a death certificate for Whitney Houston.”

“We’ve had a couple of calls about this. We were finally able to get through to Whitney Houston’s publicist in Los Angeles, and she informed us that Whitney Houston is not dead.” The front door creaks open. I jump at the noise, then run to the hallway. “It’s an urban legend,” the DJ says. I grab Kathy and hold her tight and we’re both crying as the caller replies you don’t understand, this was my mother’s friend, man, my mother’s friend.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Call for Submissions: New Orleans Photos

I just received word that Inner Traditions has accepted my latest manuscript, The New Orleans Voodoo HandbookGiven the subject matter, I'd like to include as many illustrations as possible: the Big Easy is one of America's most photogenic cities and New Orleans Voodoo is one of our most photogenic traditions.

Anyone who would like to donate photos of New Orleans or of their N.O. Voodoo altars is invited to send photos to  If your images are included in the final manuscript you will receive a free copy of the final book and appropriate credit. (Even if they are not you will receive my undying gratitude!)

I am looking forward to seeing this book in print: it was great fun to research and I hope it will be equally enjoyable to read.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Response to a Response to a Review of Vodou Money Magic

In response to my August 31 blog entry, AdeLokun wrote to Tristatevodou:
I haven't posted on this forum in many years, but this thread hits on an issue that I have been struggling with these past few months. I find this thread very troubling. I am not a vodou practioner but an Santero, but as a sister tradition we also make ebo sacrifice in the hopes of having health, strength and stability in our lives. And I have seen Orisha, and vodu and nkisi, create miracles again and again. However, if we are honest with ourselves and others we know that prayers are not always answered. For some illnesses there is no remedy except death. People have different destinies and the spirits bring tremendous wealth to some, while I have known many great initiates who have lived simple lives within very simple means.  
It is definitely important to note that Vodou is not a cure-all and that, as AdeLokun wisely points out, prayers are not always answered. Any practitioner who claims a 100% success rate in money magic (or any other kind!) is lying to you. We also should remember that the spirits generally give a hand up rather than a handout. Any magical stuff we do or purchased should be accompanied by material efforts to resolve our situation.

AdeLokun's comment about great initiates leading simple lives points to yet another great truth:  success is about comfort, not about some arbitrary set of numbers.  You are not a success if you are making $1 million a year, but spending $1.5 million in a vain attempt to fill some void in your life.  You are not a failure if you are paying your bills and living comfortably on a modest income earned doing something you love.  The lwa will help you to meet your obligations and possibly even help you with a few luxuries. But sevis lwa does not guarantee one a McMansion and a Mercedes.

The first step in doing money magic is determining how much money one truly requires. Lwa like Ezili Danto and Ogou can help you in making a realistic assessment of what you need, and in prioritizing what you want. They can help you to overcome counterproductive behavior. In this process, you may well develop a sincere, rewarding relationship with that spirit. I've known many people who came to the lwa in search of love spells or money spells. Their work proved very rewarding and spiritually fruitful whether their desired outcome failed to materialize.
I have a godson now who is struggling financially and we have made numerous offerinsg baths etc to help but at some level this may just be a trial he has to go through at this time. And my own life as an initiate has not been a bed of roses. I am deeply grateful but I face an army of challenges of all kinds every day. I mean to say that if working the spirit--vodu, orisha or nkisi meant that you could magically get anything you want none of our anscestrors in these traditions would have been dragged to the Americas in the first place. So there must be something deeper to our faith and tradition than simly reciprical relationships where everyone gets what they want. I always thought that African traditions have a deep sense of life's inherent tragedy. Which I find missing from this account. I mean this as discussion and not as an admonishment.
There certainly can be something much deeper than a simple "you give me X and I give you Y in return." But I also think there is and has always been a place in the tradition for those who simply want to call on the spirits for magical aid. This may lead to a closer relationship with the lwa or the orishas, or it may not.  This is not a path for everyone: someone who receives aid from our spirits may well provide a thank-you offering and then go elsewhere to fulfill their deeper spiritual needs.

I should also add that there is a degree of risk with this approach. Raven uses the term "lawful prey" to describe those who, by birth or through their actions, can be claimed by a spirit.  If you keep going to the lwa or orishas with your problems, they may decide you need to become one of their clergy. And they are not likely to be too concerned with getting your consent to this expensive and arduous process! I've heard plenty of stories from African Diaspora traditions about people whose lives were turned upside down until they did what the spirits demanded of them.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Possession and Invocation

While cleaning out my mailbox, I found a 2006 e-mail to Lupa on the distinction between possession and invocation.  (This was written during the period when Raven Kaldera and I were soliciting information for Drawing Down the Spirits). I thought it might prove useful for those interested in the topic: you may also want to read Raven's essay on possession, "The Path of the Horse."


In an invocation, the magician calls upon and then draws into hirself the energy of a particular spirit being. This energy can have some pretty powerful psychoactive and spiritual effects. It can result in short-term and even long-term changes in behavior, have positive and negative consequences for your health, be used to effect real-world real-time changes, etc. But the deity doesn't take control of the situation. The user's psyche may be altered by the rush of spirit-energy but it's not kicked to the curb. S/he remains in control of hir body and mind.

Invocation is a necessary precursor to any possession ritual. (I might say it's an integral part of any successful magical operation). Any invocation worthy of the name draws the attention of the spirit world. Many of the techniques used to raise the energy -- meditation, drumming, dancing and prayer -- can also be used to encourage a possession. But in most instances invocation does not culminate in possession but in a general feeling of post-orgasmic bliss and good will. Please note that I'm not minimizing invocation's importance. Most conventional religions work almost exclusively with invocation. By and large invocation is safe, and if done well can have powerful beneficial effects. Invocation can heal disease, improve luck and weave powerful magic. But in and of itself invocation is not trance possession.

Invocation's cousin evocation works in a similar fashion, only in evocation the energy is directed to a particular area and constrained therein. Indeed, when using evocation, the magician takes pains to make sure that the entity's energy does NOT mix with hir own. If possession has a polar opposite, evocation is it. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from it. Like possession, evocation has a reputation of being extremely powerful and exceptionally dangerous. Many of the safeguards used in Goetic evocation can be applied to any possession ritual to ensure things go as smoothly as possible.

A few traditions use what has come to be known as "aspecting" or "shadowing." They become a vessel for the Divine or the spirit and move with the spirit. The Divine moves through them, but they never completely "step out of the way" and let the Divine take over. There's always an option to stop and regain complete control, whether or not the aspecting/shadowing magician wishes or chooses to use it.

Among most of the Religions of the Book, even attempting this would be a major sin. Stating that you were speaking as Allah, YHVH, Jesus, etc. would be the height of hubris. Consider the revealing of the Q'uran: Muhammed claimed that he was receiving Allah's Word through Jiv'reel or Gabriel and then reciting it, not that Allah was speaking directly through him. (Eliade might describe the Prophet's recitations as so many "spirit journeys," a technique he contrasted favorably with possession). But it appears to have been quite common in many pre-Christian cultures. Many of the public Greek and Egyptian rituals appear to have involved aspecting, for example: while I don't know enough to say with any kind of authority, I suspect the same is also true of many of the Mesoamerican religions as well.

Done right, aspecting may be all you need to speak with Deity and have a completely effective ritual. A good priest/ess who is able to subsume hir ego and who is able to listen to Deity can function as a channel without losing complete control. As Raven & Co. put it, they get to remain in the driver's seat while the Deity gives directions. By treating aspecting as a sacred encounter, not as playacting or rote recitation, a group can incorporate some lighter aspects of possession into their Work with relative safety and with great benefit.

Now we get into one of the great Possession Debates: where does "aspecting" end and "channeling" begin. At what point does it cease to be the Priest/ess speaking for Deity and Deity speaking through Priest/ess? When is it no longer you but the spirit moving the body and speaking the words? This is a hotly-contested issue, and one for which there are no easy answers. I've seen many borderline cases, and I've seen situations which started out as aspecting and became full-on possessions.

(I also would note that full-on possessions generally end pretty definitively, with little or no shading into aspecting or invocation-level energy, at least in my experience. Once the spirit gives up possession S/He usually goes away, with a palpable decrease in energy).

A common rule of thumb among Afro-Caribbean traditions is that a possession is only valid if the horse loses all consciousness. In my personal experience, I've found this misleading but not entirely untrue. When I've been hit by a lwa I've generally felt like I was watching the possession from a distance. I was somewhat aware of what was going on, although there were greater or lesser memory gaps afterward, but I certainly wasn't in control of things. I believe Raven & Co. call this "back seat, watching behind the safety glass" level of possession.

However, a couple of times I have lost consciousness altogether for the duration of the ride. These typically happen with Danto, who's known to be a rather hot and fierce spirit. These full-on "locked in the trunk" possessions are pretty intense but don't typically last more than a few minutes. (Although honestly I wonder if anyone could physically sustain any level of Danto possession for much longer without shorting things out). I will also note that I've found most possessions involve some level of memory loss, typically around messages the lwa gave to someone else. I've also had fugues where I attributed things to other people: thinking "somebody just got Ogou" when I heard myself shrieking, for example.

To add yet another layer of complexity, I've heard people who work with totem or animal spirits describe a variant form of possession. Instead of letting the animal spirit get inside their heads and bodies, they get their heads and bodies inside the spirit. They wear the spirit like a hat; while they give it some control over their bodies, their intelligence and ego remains more or less intact. Based on some cursory research, I suspect this was the case for many of the pre-Christian warriors and shamans who inspired Europe's "werewolf" legends.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Towards A Neo-Animist Manifesto

Like anything else, words can be worn down with time and overuse. "Shaman" is certainly showing its age. Once used to describe the priest/spirit-workers of an obscure Siberian tribe, "shaman" now describes African witch doctors, Lakota medicine men, Mexican curanderas and Silicon Valley software engineers on a weekend retreat. The word has been stretched far beyond its original capacity: scholars and practitioners alike have noted dangerous structural flaws in its edifice. The shaman's communal role as a priest and intercessor is minimized while the individual spirit-journey is emphasized. The methods by which the shaman alters consciousness - drugs, drumming, ordeals and the like - receive a lion's share of attention: the spiritual and physical perils of that voyage are often ignored altogether.

As Mircea Eliade noted, and many after him have confirmed, shamanic techniques work well for entering altered states. Today many people experiment with various substances and plant allies, with varying degrees of reverence and seriousness. Ordeal workers have incorporated safety and efficiency tips from BDSM in their own versions of Sun Dances and vision quests. Self-help gurus have turned firewalking into an affirmation of self-worth. At worst, "shaman" evokes Edward Said's Orientalism on an equal opportunity plan, with widely variant cultural and religious groups pureed into a spicy exotic mush.

Learning a few rhythms or swallowing a psychoactive tea is not the same thing as becoming a member of a culture. Many - arguably all - so-called "Shamanic" traditions are based on cultural morés and upon an individual's place in that culture. This poses a conundrum for one who sincerely seeks to engage with said traditions. Many have tried to approach these cultures with an attitude of respect and reverence: many others have seen them as an opportunity for spiritual tourism or as unclaimed magical power objects ripe for exploitation. (Like most foreign devotees, I have played both roles in my spiritual search: I've also spent a fair deal of time in grey and uncertain ethical territory. This is a complex issue. If it weren't people wouldn't have written so many damn books on the subject).
Many who experiment with chemical and plant allies have taken to calling themselves "psychonauts." This label might well be applied to most modern-day "shamans." Psychonauts are concerned primarily with their own psyches. They do not take ayahusaca to divine their clan's future or drum to ensure good hunting for their tribe: rather, they hope to gain personal power and wisdom through consciousness expansion. This is not intended as a condemnation or a moral judgment: self-improvement is certainly a worthwhile use of one's time. But let us call it what it is rather than using a term best reserved for a specific tribal office.

But what of those modern "shamans" who believe that the spirit world exists outside their heads and who consider themselves in service to a community? I wonder if we aren't guilty of false advertising when we use the "shaman" label. My practices could easily be placed under the rubric of "shamanism." I have used drums and dancing to induce altered states and even full-on possessions; I have worked with plant and chemical allies; I have helped clients with problems by calling on the intercession of my spiritual companions; I have had the unpleasant meltdown which has come to be called "Shaman sickness." My primary path, Haitian Vodou, incorporates many techniques which are today called shamanic. But how does my role relate to a Tungus shaman -- or, for that matter, a healer/spirit-worker in any other indigenous culture? My interactions within my community, my cultural and financial capital, the prides and prejudices gained in my childhood and sustained throughout my adult life - these are all very different.

Perhaps the label "animist" carries less baggage than "shaman." Animists believe the spirit world is immanent within the material: they believe that trees, animals and even "inanimate" objects can hold the sparks of sentience and even of divinity. (Some of us might go so far as to follow the Neoplatonists - or the Chaotes - and say that concepts and mental constructions can take on lives of their own).  Animism is a blanket term, and one which few Animist cultures would use to describe their own practices. We step on no toes by calling ourselves Animists.  We also avoid many of the misunderstandings associated with "Shamanism." Animism is not about practices but about belief. It is a way of seeing and understanding the world, one which has inspired many ways of engaging with said world. 

I certainly cannot stop people from applying the word "Shamanism" to their practices. I'm not arrogant enough to believe I can stop linguistic drift. But I can say what I mean and mean what I say.  And while I may do things which have become identified with Shamanism, I am at heart and deed an Animist. I am not a Siberian healer, but I am a living and thinking entity in a universe full of living and thinking entities. How I communicate with them is less important, to me, than the fact that we can and do communicate.

Monday, September 6, 2010

R.I.P. Robert Schimmel

After losing Isaac Bonewits, the world mourns the passing of yet another great man. Robert Schimmel, a much-underrated comedic genius, has died of injuries sustained in a recent car accident.

If you don't know who Robert Schimmel is, you don't know what you're missing. His routines were equal parts smarts and scatology: he offered laceratingly funny diatribes on subjects ranging from cancer to his sexual foibles.  Get thee hence to his YouTube channel (but for the sake of all that is holy, don't touch that link if you're at work or if your mother is looking over your shoulder)!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Filan and Sophie Reicher on Michael Harner and Practice Tips for Newbies

I am hoping to include an interview with Sophie Reicher, author of Spiritual Protection, in an upcoming issue of Witches and Pagans. But some of this info was so good I thought I'd drop a few teasers on my blog.  Hope you enjoy!

You identify as a "shaman." Today many who use that title have been trained in Core Shamanism, a lineage developed by Michael Harner. What do you think of Core Shamanism?

I do not identify as a shaman, Kenaz, though several of my friends and colleagues do indeed claim that job and calling. One of my teachers, with whom I studied for many years, is a shaman but that is as close as I come. I am a magician. I will take a stab at answering this question anyway, because I have often dealt with practitioners of Harner’s “core shamanism” techniques – most often by cleaning up the messes they leave in their wake.

I think the kindest thing that I can say about Harner’s approach is that it’s clueless. The problem doesn’t lie with the techniques themselves –they can be quite effective—rather the problem lies with the approach of those applying those techniques and the fact that they have been taken out of cultural and spiritual context. They are utilized in a manner that is both short-sighted and ungrounded.

I think Harner tries to force a certain egalitarianism on the whole thing that simply does not and never has existed within shamanism. Essentially, not everyone can become a shaman. It’s a spiritual calling, a claiming, a vocation. It’s not as easy as taking a series of weekend workshops and *poof* one suddenly becomes a shaman. Shamanism is about service to Gods, spirits, and community. It’s about serving and restoring cosmic balance on a level that Harner’s techniques don’t even begin to grasp.

Furthermore, he teaches no protections. It’s not clear whether or not he even teaches proper cautions and respect for the beings that one might encounter when utilizing these techniques. The Harner trained practitioners that I have encountered didn’t seem to even believe in the objective reality of otherworldly beings. Nor did those that I encountered (and cleaned up after) seem to comprehend that the techniques they utilized might have tremendous impact on their audience. They had no idea how to deal with emotional fall-out and aftercare. Basically, Harner’s techniques provide just enough techniques to get a practitioner into trouble, techniques presented without respect for the otherworlds, and without piety. He gives practitioners just enough to get themselves in trouble, without ever giving them the tools to get out of it again. His approach is fundamentally flawed and frankly, I think it’s the New Age equivalent of spiritual misappropriation at its worst.
You've written a book for beginners (albeit one with plenty of information that more advanced students may find useful). What advice would you offer to those who are just starting out on their magical journey?
I’d tell newcomers that magic isn’t just about casting spells. It’s about a way of living and being in the world at large. Because the practice of magic will hone and change a person, it’s important to start out rightly: get your mundane life in order. The more honorable and balanced your life, the better (and safer) your first steps into magic will be. It has a siren song and that song can drastically unbalance the unprepared. That unbalance can lead to self-delusion and in worst case scenarios, insanity. The key, is balance: as above so below. As you progress magically, let your daily endeavors progress as well. So do whatever you have to in order to get your mundane life in order: health, finances, life path, relationships and even therapy if necessary. Pare them down, clean them up.

Then I would counsel a newcomer to pay attention to the basics. Learn to center, ground, cleanse, cleanse, cleanse, and shield. Do not rush through the exercises and do not stop doing them once skill has been acquired. They are lifetime fundamentals. I also think it is helpful to develop some sort of prayer practice or devotional practice. Having a relationship with some sort of numinous power can be very beneficial and grounding. I would also say to start honoring your dead. Ancestor veneration is fundamental to an organic, balanced, healthy spiritual practice and having such a practice can only make your magic stronger. Magic is not prayer. Magic is not spirituality. Magic is an art and a craft of wielding personal power. That being said, it is one piece in a puzzle that encompasses one’s entire life and spiritual practice should be an important piece of that life, its necessary humility and piety a counter-balance to the stubborn pride so often required of the magician.