Why the Term “Shaman”?

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Still filling in some of the background information as I go along. While this topic isn’t *quite* so controversial as yesterday’s discussion on the Animal Father, the word “shaman” is pretty loaded these days.

I’ll go ahead and say that yes, I realize that the word “shaman” is Siberian in origin, from the Tungus language to be specific (though the Wiki article, which seems to be reasonably researched, raises the possibility that the word is even older than that). However, it came into popular use via anthropologists who initially got it from Siberia, and who used it to refer to the people in various societies who all filled some (or all) of a number of particular roles in that society. (Hey, at least it’s pretty much replaced “witch doctor”–Oo ee, oo ah ah, ting tang, walla walla bing bang!)

These days there’s a lot of debate, particularly in the neopagan community (as well as indigenous cultures, particularly Native American tribes) as to what a shaman is. Semantics, of course, are a big part of this–some of the arguments made by Native Americans (who have varying opinions on the topic ranging from “It’s okay” to “this is cultural genocide) include the claim that a tribal “shaman” will never use that particular word to refer to hirself. However, semantics aside, there’s also the question of how legitimate shamanic practices outside of the context of their cultures of origin really are. Is Michael Harner’s core shamanism true shamanism? For that matter, is any form of neoshamanism really shamanism? Is it “okay” to call yourself a neoshaman as a qualifier?

In my opinion, this is something each person has to decide for hirself. I believe, for myself, that honesty is the best policy. There are parts of my research that speak to me spiritually, but have academic flaws (such as Joseph Campbell’s works). And I try to be open about what parts of my path are pure UPG. And I also try to make myself aware of the implications of the word and concept of “shaman”. But that still doesn’t answer the question…

Why the term shaman?

Because it fits?

The system that has appealed to me the most over the years has been shamanism. I’ll admit that many times I refused to use that word because of the connotations, particularly given my European mutt status. However, I’ve finally decided to just quit dancing around the issue, and this is the result.

In order to determine whether or not the term fit, I had to learn what shamanism really *is*. I’m still learning, of course. A decade and change isn’t enough time to learn everything one needs to know about spirituality, particularly since I’ve delved into several wells of inspiration and information. In recent years I’ve become more familiar with the differences between traditional shamanism and neoshamanism, and found that most of what I’ve been working with is the latter. However, while I consider myself to be a neoshaman, I also think it’s invaluable to learn about traditional shamanism as best as I can (which usually means falling back on anthropological texts, since I’m not just going to walk onto a reservation and yell “Well, here I am! Now come teach me!”).

This means that I’m essentially starting from scratch, though the *amount* of scratch I have available to me is greater than when I got started with paganism in general way back when. I already have some concepts that I know work into my personal microcosm and my understanding of the macrocosm. But I’m going through a complete restructuring, putting what I already have and what I’m learning as I go into a particular system.

What I have at this point is vastly incomplete. As I mentioned in the ever-important FAQ section, this is a work-in-progress. However, I don’t have a problem at this point with calling it therioshamanism. Just because I’m not what I’d call a shaman yet (though perhaps neoshaman in training is a better term?) doesn’t mean that I can’t work towards that concept, building a (neo)shamanic tradition for the cultural context I exist in. “Shaman” is something I *aspire* to. I want to have a handle to grasp, a concept to build around.

It’s also why I’ve already given a name to what I’m doing. It’s cliched, but names do have power. Giving something a name makes it more “real” to me, and it also gives me a concept to build around. For instance, when I write a book, I feel much more confident about the project once I’ve come up with at least a working title. In the same way, therioshamanism is (neo)shamanism under construction, hence one of the reasons for this blog.

Along with the name, I’m also exploring what tools, techniques and other focuses (foci?) I’d like to incorporate. This will no doubt change over time as I practice more and figure out what works for me *now*. Yes, I’ve been practicing for over a decade–but as I mentioned in this post, things that worked for me a few years ago aren’t as effective now. Therioshamanism marks a new stage of my life, a refining of what I’ve collected over the years. I intend (and am already experiencing) profound internal change, as well as increased awareness and involvement with the world around me–human community and otherwise. However, it’s also important, every now and then, to reevaluate what techniques work best for attaining the altered states of consciousness (and other important experiences) necessary for what needs to be done. This means that I have been spending more time looking at the trappings of what I’m working with, but not to the point of ignoring what the trappings are supposed to *accomplish*.

Some people scoff at those who are focused on the outer trappings and tools. For my own part, I learn best by starting at the outside and working in. The tools and toys are shiny new training wheels; or, rather, you could think of them as the pommel of a Western saddle–something for the newbie to hang onto while s/he learns to ride, and for the more experienced rider to grab in case of an emergency.

And since I’m starting from scratch, yes, I am playing with my toys again, the various ritual tools and accoutrement. It also means that I’m focusing on things like books. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on inside. It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, only it transcends physical limitations, and when a piece fits together on the outside, something snaps into place internally as well. I’m paying attention to both the microcosm and the macrocosm, even though the latter is much easier for other people to observe. Additionally, I am an animist. The tools themselves aren’t just dead objects; there are spirits in them that I work with. Much of what I incorporate into my practice involves working with the spirits in animal parts–fur, leather, bones, etc. So for me, they’re no more a crutch than any other spirits I work with. They just happen to inhabit physical forms.

(Plus, I fully admit, I *like* working with ritual tools. Magpie syndrome–“Oooooh! Shiny!”)

So don’t assume that just because somebody seems enamored of the external trappings, that they aren’t getting anything internal out of it. Kind of like training wheels, the person may be using them to keep from tipping over, but s/he’s also learning to keep hir balance. it takes people different amounts of time to get used to it. Eventually the training wheels come off–but then later we learn to drive, and that starts a whole new set of checks and balances…

Where does this leave me? In the midst of a lot of reading and meditation on where, exactly, I’m going with therioshamanism.
I do know that (neo)shaman is what best fits what I’m constructing, and so I use that term out of familiarity. And there is a purpose–it’s not just carte blanche, anything goes. But I need to figure out (since this is, after all, my personal path) what external trappings best create the conditions and experiences to work on different levels of reality and involvement with other forms of consciousness. So I try on different techniques on for size, including many that I’d never even considered (or heard of, in a few cases) before. Shamanism is a LOT of things, depending on the culture–the Sora in India, for example, do a lot of work with trance possession and mediumship, which is very different from the more common concept of soul-flight. I have to figure out what composes *my* shamanism before I can really do anything with it.

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