Monday, October 25, 2010

Shamanism, Apollonian and Dionysian

Much modern Shamanism celebrates the primitive. By taking on the titles and ceremonial rites of hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers, we hope to rid ourselves of civilization's blinders and break through our conditioning. We free ourselves of logic through entheogens and free ourselves of inhibition through revelry. Our approach toward the shamanic experience evokes Friedrich Nietzsche's description of the Dionysian influence:
[H]e has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures. Just as the animals now speak and the earth gives milk and honey, so something supernatural also echoes out of him: he feels himself a god; he himself now moves in as lofty and ecstatic a way as he saw the gods move in his dream. The man is no longer an artist; he has become a work of art: the artistic power of all of nature, to the highest rhapsodic satisfaction of the primordial unity, reveals itself here in the transports of intoxication. 
Putting aside issues of exoticism and cultural appropriation, this is also a misleading view of the role traditional shamans play in their community. One undertakes the spirit journey not for intoxication but for clarity. The shaman's world is not a free and unbounded one. On the contrary,  it is one which is constrained on all sides by restrictions and taboos. His practices are not a "return to nature." Rather, they attempt to make sense of nature, to intercede with the shadowy and often hostile forces which threaten him and his community.  Far from escaping order and rule, they help to establish it: they escape their society only so they can work for it as intercessors and arbitrators between the various realms.

Eliade was on to something when he called shamans "technicians" of the sacred.  Today our world is described by the priests of Science.  Shamans fill a similar role in their societies: they provide a framework by which their fellows can understand the various phenomena which shape their lives.  Their stories preserve ancestral knowledge and help ensure the survival of the next generation: they serve as boundary-markers between the village and the wild places, between the tribe and the outlanders, between the living and the dead.  While they may seem charming and primitive to us more civilized types, we might do well to consider another observation by ol' Friedrich:
Wherever we encounter the “naive” in art, we have to recognize the highest effect of Apollonian culture, which always first has to overthrow the kingdom of the Titans and to kill monsters and, through powerfully deluding images and joyful illusions, has to emerge victorious over the horrific depth of what we observe in the world and the most sensitive capacity for suffering.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New Czech Review of Haitian Vodou Handbook

I just discovered a Czech review of The Haitian Vodou Handbook, or as they say in Prague, Haitské Voodoo: Magie duchů a kouzel. Alas, I am utterly lacking in knowledge of Czech, and so I must rely on the rather rough Google translation. But if  is to be believed, Mika found that:
Je velmi čtivě napsaná a věřím ,že mi jakožto nezasvěcenému čtenáři poskytla poměrně slušnou základní představu o tom ,co to vlastně woodoo je a představila mi některé nejznámější Lwa.
(In Googlespeak "It is written very readable and I believe that I, as the uninitiated reader gave a rather good basic idea of what it actually is a voodoo and introduced me to some of the most famous Lwa.")
I was especially fascinated to discover the similarities between the Kongo and pre-Christian Slavic view of the crossroads and graveyards as holy places: the description of possession among Slavic magicians in 1071 were very interesting as well.  Hearty thanks are in order to Mika, and to Knihkupectví Fontána for giving me voice in another tongue. 

Monday, October 18, 2010


A recent review of Ocha'ni Lele's excellent Teachings of the Santeria Gods got me thinking about the usage of story, parable and metaphor in dealing with the Divine.  Ocha'ni has done a fantastic job of bringing the patakis to a wider audience.  He's also done a great service to diviners by providing an inside look at the cowries.  I'm wondering if he (and others) might want to comment on my theories on their linguistical and cultural value within Lukumi culture. (The usual caveats included:  while I have a nodding acquaintance with Lukumi and decades of experience as a diviner, I'm not an initiate in any Orisha tradition).

To me, the patakis are stories which hint at the meanings behind each of the odus. They provide structure to the divinatory system by providing direct examples of the odu's influence in any given situation. Yet at the same time they are flexible enough to apply to a variety of situations and possible outcomes. Querents can play multiple roles within these stories: their part can be tied to the hero, the villain or the intercessors. Other elements within the client's life - potential lovers, business partners, allies and obstacles - can be called into service within this drama.

Problems and solutions will be found within different patakis. The story which tells the querent's weakness may be met by a story which gives him a role of power, or at least a potential escape.  Proscriptions and warnings may be given literally or metaphorically, as the situation demands.  One may find relief or may learn that a doom has been foreordained, one which cannot be avoided but can only be endured.  In any case, the querent's life is tied to eternal patterns and to unending stories: they simultaneously interpret and become the myth.

Patakis allow for considerable leeway in individual interpretation: a pataki's details may vary between practitioners and houses. But the stories as they are heard are preserved with great care: one learns them from elders and protects them from outsiders.  Their details are preserved along with the numerous intricate rituals that determine whether an odu falls for good or ill and what offerings one should make to propitiate the corresponding spirit.  These constraints may force the diviner and querent to face hard truths. There is less room to whitewash a bad omen, less space to avoid discussing the failings which led up to the current situation.   Its rigidity leaves less room for weasel words and equivocation.

(I'm reminded of the similarly-complex horary astrology which played such an important role in Renaissance magic. They had equally rigid rules and gave very detailed, if frequently harsh, predictions. Today this sort of reading has fallen out of favor: it's considered best to accentuate the positive aspects of a reading and downplay that which is fated to happen.  While I can appreciate the value of encouraging querents to keep a positive attitude, I also wonder if we haven't sacrificed something in the way of accuracy and honesty).

The cowries show the future for good and for ill. Querents may learn that they must undergo expensive and arduous initiation ceremonies: they may be hit with taboos and restrictions, chided on their bad behavior and told that misfortune and even death lie ahead for them.   The patakis offer ways in which victory and defeat may be met with grace and dignity.  The meaning may or may not provide querents with some way of escaping suffering: it will certainly provide some sense of meaning to their pain.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yep, You Guessed It... More Shamanic Linguistics

On Mystic Wicks, a couple of people responded to my earlier post about the linguistic uses of "Shamanism."  (You can follow that discussion here).  Since they both raised great points for discussion, I thought I'd share my response on my blog.


There's definitely a tendency to lump indigenous religious practices together under the Shamanism banner. "Shamanism" can become a justification for all sorts of cultural mixing and matching. Holy symbols become consumer artifacts or aesthetic trappings, to be blended based on color schemes rather than religious significance. It's like our culture's version of the pwen achete, the "bought points" or purchased spirits of Haitian Vodou.

By declaring a culture "shamanic," we provide ourselves with a set of expectations. We focus on the things we consider shamanic - use of plants (especially if they are entheogenic or hallucinogenic), drumming, trance journeying or possession, spirit work, etc. - and ignore the finer points of their culture. For an example of what I'm talking about, look at the way indigenous American cultures from Algonquin to Zuma have become "Indian spirituality."

You both mention "bullshit detectors." I agree that a healthy sense of skepticism is invaluable when studying an unfamiliar spiritual path. But I think we also have to be careful not to overestimate their accuracy. Keep in mind that skilled con artists will look nothing like the stereotypical greasy used car salesman. They're going to be sweet and reassuring: they will meet all your suspicions with perfectly reasonable answers and play up to all your expectations. They will be the wise spiritual leader or the humble peasant as best suits their needs.

By contrast, genuinely spiritual people may appear awkward, alternating between overbearing forcefulness and meek confusion. They may have the common human flaws of arrogance and thin-skinned defensiveness. They may make statements that shock your sense of political correctness or display behaviors that make you uncomfortable. And your common sense might, with justifiable reason, tell you to go with the person who met your culturally and linguistically-determined preconceptions.

Now let's add to the mix the people who are simultaneously lauded as great spiritual leaders and scorned as dangerous cult-leading frauds. And keep in mind that spirituality can be a business like anything else. When working with indigenous cultures you are dealing with a tremendous disparity in economic power between students and prospective teachers. More often than not, you're also dealing with a culture wherein paying for services and religious instruction is an accepted practice.

And as Satori43 said, it's important that the shaman be trusted "within the group." Figuring out who is and is not trusted can be challenging for people coming to a culture as complete outsiders. Taking your time and getting to know your prospective teachers, and their students, is always useful. So is learning something about their peers and the community in which they operate as spiritual leaders. It requires more effort than buying an airplane ticket and writing a check, but the time spent will more than pay for itself in the short and long term.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Language of Orthodoxy

Many feel that organized religion is a barrier to spiritual attainment, not a way to heaven. The old slurs against "Popish tyranny" are now thrown at all creeds: grasping superstitious bureaucracies that impede freedom, innovation and one's personal relationship with the Higher Power.  Hating on orthodoxies has become a favorite new orthodoxy: heresy for heresy's sake is preferred to rigid and exclusive proclamations.

There are good reasons for these concerns. Any organization is liable to fall prey to groupthink and CYA behaviors. Rote memorization can replace passionate devotion: political jockeying and corporate in-fighting may serve its leaders better than piety. But  I wonder if we aren't missing the role organized religion can play in grounding and effectuating the spiritual experience. Its rigidity and conservatism can provide a powerful structure within which Ecstasy can be transmuted into the Word and from there into the Deed.

Every language must have an underlying grammar, a structure upon which sounds, characters and gestures are combined in certain constrained and predictable ways. Mystics may experience the Divine in a lightning flash which transcends all language - but in its aftermath of their vision they must try to incorporate the vision into their daily life. To describe it to themselves - and later to others - they will use the words and symbols of their culture.  Of course, this incorporates a chance for error. It also offers a way of communicating, however imperfectly, the vision of the ineffable.

Since Freud and Jung we have concentrated on personal interpretations of dreams: we focus on what the symbols mean to the dreamer. A similar focus prevails in many spiritual and theological circles. Faced with the immanence of the Gods, we ask what impact Their presence has on the seer.   Pantheons are recast as images and reflections of some nebulous undifferentiated Divine Force, or as psychodramas playing out inside the shaman's skull. Their role as protectors and progenitors of the clan, the city or the people is subjugated to their new role as therapist:  They become a resource to be tapped for self-improvement, something to be exploited rather than worshipped.

A living tradition provides us a different lens for viewing our experience and a different language for communicating it. It gives us access to the teachings of others who have been touched by the Gods, to their techniques and their coping mechanisms: it provides information which is vetted by centuries of profitable use. It also gives us goals and guideposts against which we may measure our visions.  This can help us to separate the spiritual experience from wish-fulfillment. The line between enlightenment and self-delusion can be a fine one: having history to draw upon can provide useful checks and balances. 

Orthodoxy forces us to deal with uncomfortable issues in its taboos, restrictions and moral requirements. We may approach its strictures as reformers or as reactionaries: we may follow its rules with varying degrees of adherence.  But we must engage with and be shaped by them nonetheless: we must allow its worldview to color our own.  We must address problems we would rather avoid and account for transgressions we might prefer to bury.  In a self-led spiritual quest, we may never find our way outside our comfort zones and may never account for difficult questions.

Eliade referred to shamans as "technicians of the sacred." A similar label might be applied to those who serve in a priestly rather than a mystical capacity. They apply the principles of their religion to their faith-community and serve as earthly representatives of their God/s.  Their technology is their vocabulary, their mythology, their philosophy, their skills in dealing with their congregation - the tools with which they bring together the divine and the sacred. If their approach is less direct and spectacular than the shamanic one, it is no less effectual. By preserving the language of their faith, they help to ensure its continuation.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Kenaz Filan Guest Appearance in Gangleri's Grove

In honor of this month's Goddess, I've contributed a few paragraphs on Hela to Galina Krasskova's blog.  I am not a devotee of the Lady of Decay, but I've recently done readings for a few of Her children.  Dealing with Hela is an eye-opening experience, especially when you are working as a diviner. When you want to talk about happy possibilities and upcoming triumphs, Hela speaks of What Must Be and What Cannot be Avoided.

Modern readers don't like to mention these things: we like to concentrate on free will, on pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, on escaping destiny and creating our own reality.  But historically kings and generals didn't go to the diviners for affirmations. They went to learn the truth, painful though it might be: they accepted that the bones or the entrails might augur failure as well as success.  Divination brings messages from the Gods to our realm: we can hardly expect that all those messages will be good.

Recognizing this can take our divination into a whole new realm.  It brings home the weight of our sacred duty and makes our readings things of consequence, not just exercises in possibility.  When we know that a divination may tell of death or suffering, it becomes something more than a parlor game. And when we understand Hela, we understand something of inevitability and of inescapable fate.  It is one of her most painful yet most enduring lessons: take nothing for granted, for that which is whole shall one day be broken and that which blooms must wither.