…but the more I read about shamanism in general and the more I develop my own practices, the more I realize that I really don’t care for core shamanism.
There. I said it. Let the rotten-tomato-pelting commence!
Okay, in seriousness…first off, I don’t want to become one of those people. You know, the armchair scholars who are envious of the success of a particular author/academic/etc.’s successful theories, and who take any opportunity to tear them down. It’s one thing to disagree with someone; it’s another to discredit them altogether when you lack the sufficient background to do so. Now, I have a B.A. in English. Not particularly impressive. I love reading, and that includes academic texts; however, the context I’m coming from when it comes to academia is primarily a layperson’s at this point, especially when you get into psychology, anthropology, and the like. So if you were to put me head to head with, say, Michael Harner in an academic match of wits, I’d lose, trust me.
Also, I don’t discount core shamanism entirely. For some people, it’s the perfect thing. If you thought The Way of the Shaman was the best book ever written, more power to you. Therioshamanism, after all, is what I’m creating for myself. And Harner most obviously knows his stuff as both an academic and as a classically trained shaman. I may not always agree with the presentation of his material, but again–I don’t own anyone’s opinions but my own. (And you know what they say about opinions…)
But with that out of the way, let me elaborate a little more as to why I find core shamanism to be insufficient for my own needs.
One thing that particularly bothers me is the attempt in core shamanism (referred to as CS from here on) to remove all cultural context from shamanism. The exact definition taken from Shamanism.org is “Core Shamanism, the near universal methods of shamanism without a specific cultural perspective”. I understand what the point in CS is. CS admits that it is not traditional shamanism, and it tries to strip away the cultural trappings that such practices as sucking shamanism and the spirit canoe were originally derived from.
The problem I see with this is that shamanism, by its very nature, relies on culture for its cosmology. You can see certain practices and motifs that are common in many (though not all) shamanic systems. However, I’ve seen some CS practitioners who literally treat all shamanic systems as alike, except for names and a few other details. This bothers me. If you compare, say, Evenk shamans with Korean shamans, even though they’re on the same continent, you get a wide variety of practices. While Evenk shamans are the classic “soul flight” practitioners (and are largely male), Korean shamans are generally mediumistic in practice (and are overwhelmingly female). Of course, some purists would question whether the latter are shamans at all; however, you could say that for anyone who isn’t Evenk, the culture that the term “shaman” came from.
My point, though, is that while you can find some similarities, I think it’s a bad idea to ignore the differences among various shamanic systems. I’m in the process of reading Mircea Eliade’s classic Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, and between that and other anthropological works it’s apparent that “shamanism” covers a wide range of ideas, practices, observations and beliefs.
In studying the shamanisms of multiple cultures, I have come to believe that culture-specific material, rather than being unimportant enough to simply be brushed to the side, is actually crucial to the practice of shamanism. As I mentioned, culture provides the cosmology that shamanism is practiced within. Cosmology is the study of the Universe, and the understanding of how the Universe is set up and operates. CS basically takes a certain motif found in some, not all, shamanic systems, such as that of the upper world and the lower world (as something other than Heaven and Hell in the Christian paradigm), and tries to plug these ideas into modern post-industrial cultural contexts. It also raises the power animal to superior status among spirit helpers and all but ignores ancestral spirits, as well as spirits of dead shamans, both of whom may be exceptionally important in some shamanic systems.
I’m not saying that you absolutely must work with ancestors and dead shamans as well as power animals to be “correct”. However, this demonstrates the seemingly arbitrary selection of practices integrated into CS. One of my complaints about The Way of the Shaman (you can see my full review here) was that it seemed to present what Harner thought “Westerners” want as far as shamanism goes. Granted, as has been pointed out to me, Harner was writing this at a time when shamans were still considered to be crazy, and shamanism wasn’t a respectable practice for non-Native Americans–and it was the first book of its kind. Still, the motifs that he presented are still central to CS a few decades later. It presents a rather limited view of what shamanism is, or can be.
For example, healing is a big part of CS. Extraction of illnesses and soul retrieval are particularly popular. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; I believe that the spiritual level of our health is sorely neglected in modern medicine, though the interconnection among multiple levels of being are becoming more recognized in Western medicine. However, healing is just one function of shamans, and given that Western medicine can be useful (particularly preventative medicine as opposed to “Let’s throw a pill at it!”) in my opinion it behooves the modern shaman to branch out somewhat.
Most people don’t hunt for their food. So the need to find game, to appease a certain deity or spirit enough to receive game the entity guards, is mostly obsolete. However, those deities and spirits still exist. My work with the food totems is an example of that. There are still spirits who are angry about the treatment of food animals, whether domestic or wild. I seek their aid in improving the situation, as well as attempting to placate them so they’ll hopefully be more willing to give me that aid.
Additionally, most people today would be appalled at the idea of using shamanism to harm others. Yet that’s exactly what happened/happens in indigenous shamanisms worldwide. Rival shamans would attack both each other and their rivals’ communities; magical warfare was/is an everyday occurrence in many of these cultures. While some may attempt to explain away the phenomenon in lieu of nicer, prettier practices, the fact remains that not every culture has the same morals as modern America and other postindustrial cultures where CS is most common.
And this brings me back to the concept of culture. CS is not devoid of culture. Rather, it is primarily mainstream American, with subcultural influences from the New Age community, and the neopagan community to a somewhat smaller extent. While CS acknowledges the existence of cultural appropriation, by implying that indigenous peoples have “culture” while modern Americans do not, not only does it degrade the inherent and vibrant spirituality that can be found in modern America and other postindustrial societies, but it also, very subtly, attaches the “exotic” label to indigenous cultures. It characterizes non-Americans as the “Other”, by implying that they have a certain quality that Americans do not. By denying that Americans have culture, “culture” becomes an exotic trait, something that disillusioned Americans (and others) may try to seek–and have sought, by stereotyping indigenous cultures as being more “spiritual”, closer to the Earth, etc. CS practitioners who separate themselves from American culture still ally themselves with the “Other”, even if they claim they aren’t appropriating any culture-specific trapping. Many people who are attracted to CS probably aren’t attracted to it because it came out of the head of a white guy with a doctorate. They’re more likely going after it because they seek something Other, something exotic, but without the guilt of blatant cultural appropriation. They may not necessarily be taking obvious pieces of cultures other than their own, but they’re still engaged in a form of appropriation by seeking the “wisdom” of other cultures while denying their own. This does, despite the claims of many, result in a lot of cultural appropriation among modern CS practitioners and those influenced by them–not all, of course, but enough to make CS disliked among many traditional cultures who classify it as “plastic shamanism”.
The idea that shamanism can have all cultural trappings erased is a lie. Cosmology is central to shamanism, and it is culture-specific. Without cosmology, the shaman doesn’t have any context for hir experiences or practices. In reading about motifs such as the Upper World/Lower World dichotomy, power animals, and other common things that are treated as “near-universal” by CS, I find it increasingly apparent that in order to truly understand the function and the importance of these motifs, one must be aware of the cultural contexts that birthed them, and why they are important to those peoples. CS, if left to its own devices, offers none of this context. On its own, it is insufficient to give proper context to the practices it has drawn from cultures other than the one that birthed it. In order to make up for this deficiency, CS must be coupled with study of indigenous forms of shamanism–and I don’t just mean the likes of Carlos Castaneda. Otherwise it’s like messing around with Gematria without having any understanding of the context (from several cultures) that Qabalah was developed within. It’s not enough to know that something is important; one must know why it is important and what makes it so.
Additionally, CS practitioners should, in my opinion, have a thorough understanding of the influences that their culture has on their shamanic practices. CS is not in a bubble. You don’t just step out of the everyday world and into a completely autonomous reality. Otherwise, everyone’s reports of the Otherworld would be the same. As my husband, Taylor, pointed out to me, the astral realms are envisioned as being seven-layered because people expect them to be. Yet this is something that is specific to Western spiritism and the systems it has influenced; it is not in any way universal. This goes for the attitudes CS has towards certain traditional shamanic practices, such as attacking rival shamans. CS often has a white-light approach, whereas in some cultures even your own residents shaman may be someone to be wary of.
To conclude, I don’t want this to be taken as an all-out attack on CS. I think it can be highly effective in its practices, and I know that it’s very fulfilling for a number of people. For myself, though, I find it to be deficient, partly because of its cultural assumptions. This is a big reason why I’m creating therioshamanism from scratch rather than building on core shamanism. Not only do I dislike the claims of cultural neutrality, but I think that if I am to have any real effect on modern mainstream America, particularly in the areas of environmental awareness and awareness of interconnection, I have to embrace that culture rather than pushing it away. I can’t truly engage it if I’m constantly rejecting it and distancing myself from it. When I look at the culture I’m in, I don’t just see the strip malls and the crazy politicians and the pollution; I also see a diversity of people, many of whom are seeking the same sorts of goals that I am, and who may benefit from what I bring back from the spirit world. If I am to make a difference in this culture, I can’t detach myself from it. And, as far as I’m concerned, if any culture could use a few (more) good shamans, it’s this one.
Finally, this is my opinion, formed of thoughts that I’ve only now really found the words to convey, form the perspective of someone who is not traditionally trained, or CS-trained for that matter. It may actually end up being the rough draft for my essay for Talking About the Elephant, so commentary either way is appreciated.