2019 Sept Newsletter

DEFINING THE UNEXPLAINABLE-Christine Selda 2009

Shamanism is one of humankind’s most ancient traditions, spanning tens

of thousands of years. The American anthropologist Michael Brown

points out that  “shamanism, not prostitution, is the world’s oldest

profession”  (Brown, as cited in Walsh, 2007). The pursuit of

knowledge lies at the heart of shamanism. This is indicated by

indigenous terms for shamans from cultures all over the globe. The

term shaman itself comes from the Evenki language of Siberia and means

‘the one who knows’ (Scott, 2002, p. 12). Other terms for shaman refer

to key characteristics of their public performances, including Sakha-

oyuun, ‘to jump, leap, or play,’ Yurok- kegey, ‘one who sits or

meditates as a practice,’ Buryat -khatarkha, ‘to dance or trot like a

reindeer,’ and Huichol mara’akame, ‘singer’ (Narby, 1998, p.  45).

Because shamans are able to prophesy, to see and know things that

ordinary people cannot, in Inuit they are called wabinu, ‘seeing

person’, and angakut, ‘seeing with closed eyes’ (Tedlock, 2005, p.

123).

Mircea Eliade was the first to complete a comprehensive

anthropological study of shamanism in 1964. Eliade’s definition of

this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous definition

follows: “ shamanism= archaic techniques of ecstasy” (p. 3). He goes

on to define the shaman as

…a magician and medicine man who is believed to cure, like all

doctors, and to perform miracles of the fakir type, like all

magicians, whether primitive or modern… Beyond this, he is a psycho

pomp, and he may also be an inspired prophet and healer, a charismatic

religious figure with the power to control spirits (p. 4).

Larsen (1976) explains the shaman in terms that labels them also as an

“artist, a priest, a dramatist, or a physician” (p. 36).

My contemporary definition of a shaman derived from my studies with

Peruvian shamanic teacher Jose Luis Herrara and my self-exploration on

the topic claims that a shaman is a person of power and a technician

of the soul. Herrara (personal communication, October 9, 2009)

explains a shaman to his students as “a person who sources from direct

experience, you and the Mystery, there is no theology as a validation

mechanism, as a mechanism of truth.” He goes on to state that this

definition is the basis of all shamanism throughout history. Herrara

furthers his definition declaring that  “the job of the shaman is to

be an open conduit for the healing powers of the land; to actively

co-create with spirit.” Herrera fortifies this belief by quoting his

mentor Don Manuel Quiespe, a shaman of the highest status in the

Andes, when saying that

Shamans are medicine people who are stewards of the processes of the
land, the active curators of guiding mythologies of the land.  The
practices of shamanism are active when an individual inspires the
village, moves the energy of the village, to breathe life again so the
land and community are fertile. Destiny drives the shaman.Park (1938) has a similar belief. In his explanation of North American
shamanism, Park declares that shamanism is defined by the supernatural
power that the shaman acquires as the result of a direct personal
experience. Park extends the term shamanism to “all the practices by
which the supernatural power may be acquired by mortals, the exercise
of that power either for good or evil, and all the concepts and
beliefs associated with these practices” (p. 67). Perhaps the most
holistic definition found for shamanism comes from Roger Walsh (2007)
who explains his statement as a synthetic definition:Shamanism can be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners
focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which
they experience themselves or their spirit(s) interacting with other
entities, often by travelling to other realms, in order to serve their
community (p. 15).Figure 2 mapping the medicine of the mountainsFrom this array of viewpoints we can see that shamanism in its
enormity defies one definition, however it is possible to define the
roles and skills practiced by one particular shaman in the context of
their culture, community, and cosmology. An important aspect to
consider when defining shamanism is that it is only a method, not a
religion with a fixed set of dogmas (Harner, 1990). Also, a shaman can
take on the role and titles of a vast array of things such as artist,
prophet, healer, poet, ceremonialist, sacred politician, singer,
dancer, dramatist, and psycho pomp (an escort for newly deceased souls
to the afterlife), mystic, and medicine person. Regardless of the role
he or she is filling, the shaman is always able to voluntarily induce
a trance state (a technique of ecstasy) through which to contact and
mediate the spirit worlds.  The shaman is said to co-create with the
spirit world and is always subscribing to the powers that animate
nature to disclose sources of dis-ease. He or she will always source
from direct experience and so will arrive at his/her own
experience-derived conclusion about what is going on in the universe,
and about what term is most useful to describe reality (Harner). The
shaman is said to have supernatural powers that are used to serve the
greater collective or community. The shaman engages in the active
pursuit of knowledge to see clearly in both this world and the spirit
realm. This knowing of the spirit realm engages at symbolic, literal,
mythic, and essential levels of understanding. This seeing of what is
undisclosed to the untrained eye embraces the Evenki term ‘shaman’
which translates as ‘the one who knows’ (Scott, 2002).