What is a Shaman?


by Craig Chalquist

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As above, so below.
— Alchemical dictum

In every clime and culture, souls turn up who live on reality's magic edge. Initiates into a consecrated way of being, their business is the non-ordinary, the interior, the dreamlit, the shadowy. Not really priests or medicine people, though sometimes functioning as such, they have been taken for sorcerers, magicians, psychics, yogis, mediums, mystics, seers, witches, warlocks, wizards. They have been drummers and dancers, artists and athletes, trainers and tricksters, wise ones and warriors. But whatever the role, they walk the way of mediation between the landscape of day and realm of archetypes, a foot on each steed as they shift in and out of altered states of consciousness.

"Shaman" is the English rendering of saman ("shah-man"), an Evenk noun and verb from the Tungus people of Siberia. Wherever found, the shaman, female or male, is the community specialist in direct dealings with the Beyond —underworld, upperworld, or inner world; a wielder of numinous power; a master of ecstasy (Mircea Eliade) who whether healing, warring, predicting, weather-making, cooking herbs, arranging hunts, making masks, accompanying dead souls, or locating lost ones, performs as master of the operations of the unconscious.

Shamanic consciousness is not mere hypnosis, fantasy, possession, twitching, depression, dread, or intoxication, though it can borrow from all of them. Beating the drum or eating peyote, lucidly dreaming or falling into trance, the shaman remains focused and conscious, well aware that interior journeyings mean nothing unless their fruits are brought back into this world and made real through ritual, dance, language, art, music, or healing (the shaman's most frequent specialty), the power gathered "over there" poured into helpful activities "over here."

Some of the arts created by shamans for such realization include: drumming, music, acrobatics, theater, architecture, sculpture, carving, painting, sand-painting, body-painting, tattooing, mudra, talisman, juggling, illusionism, puppetry, ventriloquism, rope-walking, fire-eating, animal training, writing, plant cultivation, astronomy, metallurgy, and sea crafts.

Such feats require rigorous training and many years of patient practice. Traditional shamanic instruction is therefore overseen outwardly by other shamans and inwardly by spiritual beings or guardians who befriend and empower the apprentice. The spiritual beings are particularly important: no shaman becomes one without a transpersonal nod from them. Although some New Age salesmanship implies that becoming a shaman amounts to lighting incense and doing some guided imagery (which is why most of what advertises itself as shamanism nowadays is bunk), the authentic shaman's sense of calling is no whim or fancy, but the herald of a dangerous vocation. It overpowers, changing the course of a life, temporarily squashing the ego, and often hurting to the point of panic. As Sioux shaman Black Elk puts it:

When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west,
it comes with terror like a thunder storm;
but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier;
for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like rain.
The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.

The call often comes in the form of a mental or bodily crisis incurable by normal methods. To take up his vocation, or even, in some cases, to survive, the initiate must cure himself. During this process, the cure symbolizes a kind of death, particularly the death of a part of himself the initiate tended to identify with; there may be dreams of burial, dismemberment, replacement of eyes or ears, transformation of organs or bones. An old self expires, and the new shoulders the responsibility for learning the rapidly opening geography of the non-ordinary, an apprenticeship that includes naming otherworldly objects, powers, places, and beings and transferring their powers into daily life.

Because such powers abound in the world perceived by shamanic consciousness, the shaman views nature as a spiritual-energetic system and carefully observes its balances and interdependencies. Early anthropologists attributed the shamanic view to a primitive animism; today we can see in the shaman's sincerity toward the spirits or essences of things animate and inanimate a respect our ecologically damaged world can no longer do without.

Although shamans are found everywhere, the degree of their acceptance varies. The Inquisition, for instance, exterminated them, whereas many native societies have honored the shaman and prized his knowledge (e.g., the Navajo hataali or singers who were given gifts to produce from highly trained memories week-long chants for key ceremonies). Modern Westerners who take what they hear of power animals and soul journeys literally either display a childlike idealization of the shaman's skills or look down on them as the remnants of a bygone age. Neither view comprehends the symbolic vitality in shamanic practices or the unfathomable depths of the shaman's domain: the largely unexplored archetypal psyche. To say it in Jungian: like alchemy, shamanism expresses a particularly pure projected form of the psychology of the collective unconscious.

Although shamanism is humanity's oldest relationship to spirit, shamanism is a patiently accumulated set of skills and practices, not a religion. There is no clergy, church, creed, mission, or body of ecclesiastically correct beliefs. The technicality of its experiential approach to spirit differentiates it from both the legalist and liberal wings of religion while freeing it to work supportively alongside them.

Nor is the mystic necessarily a shaman, though many shamans understand mysticism. Unlike what contemplatives refer to as "God-consciousness," the shaman's ecstasy (from ekstasis: "to be placed outside," "to stand out": compare Nietzsche's use of the term frenzy) aims, not at self-exploration or union with God, but at the diversion of arcane forces into concrete here-and-now tasks like healing, counseling, art, and restoration of community harmony. The shaman is no a saint, but a conduit, an ambassador, a go-between familiar with the interior polarities, bright and dark, that generate power.

Themes that recur in the lives of the genuine shaman:

  • Lifelong sense of oneself as different; inability to fit in completely; an intuitive or spiritual take on life that feels more intrinsic than learned.
  • Chosen by the shamanic call rather than choosing it, the call manifesting as a life-altering event of intense personal meaning and numinosity; accompanying feelings of guilt, ecstasy, unworthiness; fear that one is crazy (worse in cultures that do not recognize/legitimize the budding adept); synchronistic affirmations of the calling; illness if it isn't followed.
  • Long spell of physical or psychological illness incurable by traditional methods: if the potential shaman can heal himself by reaching far enough into himself, he has passed the real initiation, whatever minor ones he undergoes later.
  • Either a family history of shamanic initiations (e.g., a grandmother who was a shaman) or inner references to ancestors (e.g., a dream figure remarking, "Your mother didn't like us, so now it's your turn").
  • Receipt of a "true" or spiritual name from a figure (spirit, guide, archetype, power animal) in a dream or vision.
  • Training in consciousness-altering techniques under the guidance of both inner and outer guides.
  • Spontaneous healing manifestations within the community, whether or not in the shaman's immediate physical proximity; an obvious increase in incidents of good fortune that disappears when the shaman leaves the area.
  • Ready recognition of synchronistic events (usually thought of as signs or omens).
  • Tattooing, piercing, scarification, or other kinds of marking may signify a key life lesson, healing or initiation.
© 1997, Craig Chalquist

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