This May Be Blasphemous To Some…

…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.

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16 thoughts on “This May Be Blasphemous To Some…

  1. You know, I agree with you on a lot of aspects. I don’t gel well with CS either because it seems so incomplete.

    Then again, the practitioner I know nearby adopted CS as a framework to create her own cultural rituals around, and that sounds good to me. I don’t remember quite how she phrased it, but she said something along the lines of how it was created for its practitioners to build their own cultural bases around.

    I don’t necessarily know if that’s true, or if Harner actually meant for it to be completely culturally devoid. If that’s the case, I, like you, am disappointed; but I think the alternate route of building one’s own culture around it and into it is a good substitution/idea.

    Just my two cents. :)

    –Elodeer

  2. A lot of what you said is why I have never looked into any sort of CS training. The closest I have come is that the woman from whom I took shamanism classes in 2004 was originally trained in CS. She later considered herself outside of that paradigm because she used chant and song in her practice–which I think is something CS neglects to its big detriment.

    CS has also been a good launching board, though. I don’t think modern seidh practitioners would have come so far had it not been for the practices. But again, supposed core practice ignores traditional cultures worldwide and DOES have the South American influence of the Shuar in what is considered to be “shamanic.” Seidh and Finnish shamanic practices relied a lot on song. One of the seidhkona I know who is doing extensive research into Norse soul parts and concepts, mentioned in a workshop that with some of the material she has encountered, it sounds more like the song calls the spirits to the seer rather than “merely” setting the seidhkona into trance. (Though I will note, I have warded seidh rituals before, and the songs used by that group are EXTREMELY potent for triggering that altered state needed.)

    I could say a lot more, I am sure, but I will try to cut down save for one last thought. Shamanic trance techniques have been something I have applied to a lot of different cultures and contexts–I’ve talked to various Names of Netjer via trance and also learned material on Qabala and Hermeticism by trancing and journeying.

  3. Very much agree.

    One of the criticisms of core shamanism that I’ve heard most frequently from Native activists is that it takes practices that are in their very essence about community and identity, and then abstracts them completely from the community and cultural identity they evolved within, making them basically meaningless.

    I understand and respect the desire to avoid cultural appropriation, but I think there’s a limit to how “generic” you can make spiritual practices and still have them contain any depth and meaning.

  4. This is why I have such huge problems with the books out there on “Celtic shamanism.” They approach it from a CS perspective rather than going into the culture and the language and finding what was really there. They begin with the assumption that “The Celts” were shamans and sort through the materials to find evidence that agrees with them, pounding the square peg into the round hole with all their might.

    There’s a lot in the various Celtic cultures that just doesn’t fit into the CS paradigm, and it gets ignored or glossed over or misinterpreted. I think you’re beginning to see where I’m coming from as a reconstructionist, though I know you’re walking there from a different direction. CS is just another “one size fits all” religious approach that derives from a strange twisting of Western philosophical monotheism, IMO.

  5. elodeer–I’m pretty sure CS was intended to be as culturally neutral as possible, and I can understand why. They want to avoid cultural appropriation, which is fine. However, the problem is that you can’t be culturally neutral. I can accept people using the CS framework and adding their own cultural trappings, but they also need to take into account the fragments of other cultures that are still attached to CS in a subtle way.

    Soli–CS neglects a lot of things. I wouldn’t mind so much if it were expanded; I know that the context under which it was created was that of a culture that still misunderstood shamanism to a great extent, and that would have issues with things like rival shamans attacking each other. Still, The Way of the Shaman came out in, I believe, 1980–almost three decades ago. And I still see the emphasis primarily on healing and drumming. Not that these are bad, but it makes it rather incomplete.

    Incidentally, I do have a couple of books on seidh on my reading list. I doubt I’ll adopt anything substantial from them, but I am very curious about that particular tradition.

    Miss Lynx–I agree totally. Many of the practices, such as the spirit canoe, lose a lot of their meaning when taken out of their original context. I’ve never been in a canoe. Why couldn’t I have a spirit bicycle? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate to my situation?

    Erynn–Yep. That’s pretty much what I thought with Matthews’ “The Celtic Shaman”. Of course, Celtic cultures are still suffering from trendiness (how about Celtic knotwork Kleenex?). So I think while CR has done a great job of dispelling some of the silliness, there’ll still be “slap some Gaelic on it and call it Celtic” to go around for some time.

    And actually you make a good point; I’m definitely going to have to keep this essay in mind when I read more recon material, especially in regards to some of the pagan fluffiness that goes around. I hadn’t made that connection, but that makes perfect sense.

  6. That’s okay – Peruvian shamanism seems to have popped onto the radar screen and I’m pretty sure – based on what my ear to the ground is hearing – that this will be the next “trend” in shamanism.

    I am drawn to the simplicity of the Q’echua, but with the rise in Ayahuasca tourism, I’m predicting the next wave will be through the Andes.

  7. I feel that at the core of practice (regardless of its context) lies the ultimate and sole crucial tenant: believe. To develop your own practice that fits for you has to strengthen the forces around you; this is especially true for those adjustments that you note contributing a significant improvement in results and/or energies.

    I salute you for taking the road less traveled (perhaps it is the case that you are the only traveler now and forever) and feeling good about it.

    Walk in the light.

  8. Awarewolf–Thank you for your kind words. I know that for plenty of people core shamanism is a perfect fit, and that’s fine. Part of the reason I’m a career solitary, though, is because I’m very firm on wanting to do things my way, and as I figure out what works for me, I end up poking and prodding at different concepts.

  9. Given that one of my earliest (around 1st grade) interests book-wise was Native Americans and Shamanism, and the most available subject at the time were legends and myths of shamans, I find it quite hard to separate a cultural perspective from the practice.
    When I later became a Pagan and began my exploration, I first began exploring in what I felt and still feel was a shamanistic way, albeit through the lens of Neo-Paganism and Wicca. My elders quickly slapped me down when I wanted to become a Shaman, saying quite sternly that “the only way to be a shaman is to be trained by one” and “the title is earned by a person from their tribe” and similar pieces of dialog. I was warned that I could not use the title whatsoever and that unless a shaman trained me, I never would. That kind of impact on someone just embracing their spiritual path is monumental, and I would say, can be damaging.

    I have since embraced an incredibly eclectic path, working with Deities and spirits from a wide variety of cultural, religious and spiritual backgrounds. I research as heavily as I can before initiating a working arrangement with the Deities/spirits/etc. that I can, but I still retain some of my early ‘shamanic’ understandings. I think the less we embrace the wild, the ecstatic, the more dull and immobile our practices will become.
    In short, I feel Pagans need to embrace, if not the word, then the shamanic mindset to further advance our practice. As we have seen by those who practice CR and even CS, a lot of things are becoming codified. This is not to say tradition is wrong or irrelevant; tradition and similar practices give us a ground floor to work with, and move off of. This said, I would not want to sacrifice the progress of my or others’ spirituality to the trappings or workings of a tradition, especially when the tradition cannot serve the people engaged in it.

    Just my thoughts, a kind of ramble at four in the morning. My apologies.

  10. Hi- I’m an anthropology student who’s looking into some stuff on shamanic theory at the moment. Caveat: I haven’t yet managed to read more than a couple of articles by Harner, I’m not a shamanic practitioner myself, and I haven’t collected any primary data on shamanic communities (either Western or non-Western). So, I’m really pretty ignorant on the topic.

    That said, I agree with pretty much every point you make with regards to CS- these are the same problems I have with a lot of academic theories on shamanism (although I’m also not a huge fan of the opposite end of the spectrum, where researchers use the word ‘shamanism’ as a shorthand for “whatever oral traditions of ritual this cultural group happen to have”, and aren’t really interested in clarifying their use of the word or entering into debate about how the rituals they’ve studied compare to the ‘shamanism’ practiced by other peoples).

    Given how prolific your own reading obviously is, I don’t know if this will be much use to you- but I’m in the process of blogging some of my thoughts on a book called ‘The Concept of Shamanism: uses and abuses’ by Henri-Paul Francfort and Roberte N. Hamayon. It’s basically an academic anthology of critiques on the theories on shamanism developed by Lewis-Williams et al. (who propose a similar thing to CS, but in relation to archaeological evidence rather than ethnographic data or their own personal experience).

    They make a lot of good points, but so far I’m getting the impression that Hamayon (at least) may be jumping to conclusions about Western people who develop their own shamanic practices (basically, Hamayon worries that some academics may be tailoring their descriptions of non-Western shamanism so as to exclude anything which Westerners are likely to be uncomfortable with- which is a very valid concern, but I get the feeling that maybe she’s blaming the Western New Age and Pagan movements without necessarily having done all that much research on them. Which is kind of why I’m here reading this article, really.)

    She also argues that the idea of a upper, lower and middle world is not held by all Siberian shamans (I assume she’s referring specifically to the Evenk here)- she gets the impression that it might be a partially-successful attempt to reconcile traditional Evenk beliefs with Russian Christianity and Chinese Buddhism, with their depictions of Heaven and Hell. I can’t read her original research on this, unfortunately (since it’s in French), but it’s an interesting idea.

    Whew, long response, sorry. My review of Hamayon’s article is here:

    http://anthropometamorphosis.blogspot.com/2009/01/review-of-concept-of-shamanism-uses-and.html

  11. “”…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.””

    Yes, indeed lady…

  12. Pingback: Criticisms of Core Shamanism « The Fenland Druid

  13. Pingback: shamanism is not my way « Fiadhiglas Wordsmithery

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