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.