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.


Miss Sugar said...

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.

Oh gods, don't even get me started. I was married to one of those. It's also a big factor as to why I don't id as a shaman at this point.

Anonymous said...

[Long Comment Warning]

Great stuff. If you read more than Eliade, you soon see that the beliefs and praxes of folks who have been labeled shamans incorporate vocations or avocations that vary wildly and in nearly every respect. Far as I can tell from the more contemporary materials I've read, the only constants are they're people who work with spirits or a spirit in a milieu where there are many spirits (whatever their culture's word or words for spirit truly means: another important variable), whose work generally involves others in their communities (this excludes hermits: is that fair?), and who usually make use, at least occasionally, of less usual states of consciousness (I don't say "altered states" because there's no one or ten normative states to get altered from). Even that nebulous definition is a tight fit. I'm not an anthropologist but I have a library card, and I haven't read about any other commonalities: they probably exist, but I've seen so many "shamanic universals" that some shamans, by somebody's definition, have no use for...

E.g., directionality (like "high, middle, low") differs or isn't important). World-tree or Axis Mundi: lots have no analogue. Travel to other realities: some never leave this world, some don't leave even their bodies. Existence of alternate realities: in Australia some Aboriginal cultures believe in no Otherworld or Afterlife, yet have spirit-specialists. Integral part of their culture: nope, read Emma Wilby or Éva Pócs for counterexamples (tho' I think both decline to use the word shaman: I include them because many modern Western witches feel their witchcraft is a valid shamanism). Or consider today's African witches, so-called--if they practice spirit-work or magic at all who knows how accurate a translation "witch" is?--who're often not integral members of society, to say the least. Or recall the way some primitive or archaic shamans must live very literally on the perimeter of their society.

Shamanism has been defined and redefined till, in the West, it embraces so many contradictions it's almost useless for accurate communication, unless 1) I assert right off that I mean such and such by "shaman" or 2) when used in its original context of Siberian and other Northern Eurasian cultures such as the Evenki, who feel rather proprietary about the term. Also many American Indian cultures (what they call themselves in my experience, tho' really it's just "Indians") have adopted the term 'cause it fits pretty well and they have come to feel quite strongly about it as an English translation of their own word or words.

New shamanisms seem to arising in the West and these are probably most of them expressions of quite real spiritualities (or as they used to say, religions). We'll continue to use the word shaman, and that's our right, but we won't stop the in-fighting: also our right, just tiresome. Other words exist that are more inclusive and less contended. Spirit-worker, e.g., not exotic but accurate. Probably others exist or will be coined (sounds like fun).

It's a big world and everybody and every shaman by whatever name seems to be different, or at least has the right to be.

Wes said...

Thanks for this discussion. As you mentioned, I think shamanism can help break us out of the rigid confines of our own culture. In my own experience, I've found few other methods that do the same within a spiritual context.

Yes, shamanism does evoke the "primitive," but I see this in broad terms. For me, shamanism evokes a primitive element common to all humanity. However, there is more to shamanism. The "primitive" element is only a signpost, a marker that should lead the practitioner to ever deeper levels, ones that go past the merely primitive or exotic and eventually transcend any particular culture. Unfortunately, many people who call themselves shamans may get stuck at this signpost stage. But one could argue that every religion or spiritual practice has various levels; some stay superficial while others go deeper. For example, if someone calls themselves a Christian, are they examined in the same way as someone calling themselves a shaman? Hardly. I have many friends who consider themselves Christians but rarely darken a church door or read the Bible. For them, Chrisitianity is a cultural label of respectability rather than a moral, spiritual code and/or practice.

And yet I do agree with your statement about "tough questioning." Regardless of our beliefs--Christianity, vodou, shamanism--we should all work hard to keep our ego in check and test our motives at all times. Any spiritual practice can be corrupted but perhaps more so when one is following something as hard to define as "shamanism."

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