A Question of Sheer Logistics

(As opposed to opaque logistics.)

I’m deeper into Eliade’s Shamanism, currently reading about some of the Siberian shamanic ceremonies, including the detailed description of the shaman’s experiences during a horse sacrifice. What has struck me with this is the elaborate structures of the ceremonies, and how they’re very much community-oriented events. Even a “simple” healing may involve the participation of at least the family of the patient, if not the community at large. The horse sacrifice and other journeying ceremonies may take days to prepare for, and last several days for the ritual itself. And this goes not just for Siberian tribes, but shamanic systems from around the world–while there are exceptions, in almost every culture there are at least some elaborate rituals for the more “important” shamanic activities. The “solitary shaman” seems to be a minority; while the shaman may not always be completely trusted in hir community, more often than not s/he is at least a part of it, at least in cultures where the people are in a cohesive unit rather than scattered all around.

I compare this to most of what I see in neoshamanism. Neoshamanism is, by the very nature of the cultures it’s prevalent in, more of a solitary practice. In America, at least, few people (comparatively speaking) need a shaman to shamanize for them. And among the subcultures where neoshamans are found, such as the neopagan and New Age community, there’s a definite lack of emphasis on the need for a clergy-type person to intercede with the gods and spirits. Why hire someone else to do it when you can learn to do it yourself? And people outside of these communities may see no real purpose for shamans that they assume are superstitious, crazy, or even evil.

One thing that I have noticed for myself (and this may vary from practitioner to practitioner) is that it’s a lot easier for me to hit a trance in a group setting. Some of it is energy; however, there’s also the atmosphere of sanctity, of celebration, and of mystery that helps to trigger an altered state of consciousness. The power of belief in one person can be strong, but multiply it by many–and that’s part of why group religions and spiritual practices are so popular. We feed on each other’s enthusiasm and belief.

Additionally, the more time that I take in setting up a ritual and making it just right, the more deeply I get into it. The act of preparing a place, going through specific ritualized preparations, and making it very clear to myself that I am about to step into a different headspace, all help with the transition of consciousness from one level to the next.

However, being one lonely person, there’s really only so much I can do. It’s kind of hard to set up a ritual psychodrama all by yourself, even without an audience. So part of what I’m going to have to ruminate on over the coming months is how to make up for the lack of group participation. Right now my rituals and journeys tend to be rather on the short side (a half an hour is average for a full ritual) and I will admit that I simply don’t usually get as much intensity as I have the few times I’ve done work in a group setting, though not necessarily as a part of a group. For example, wolf dancing is a lot more intense when I have my full pelt and I’m at a drum circle, than when I’m simply dancing to a drumming CD in the ritual room in our home.

Shamanism isn’t one of those things that really works effectively in a group where everyone’s a shaman, at least not unless A) you take turns shamanizing, or B) you stick to relatively mild things such as the guided meditation that lasts through twenty minutes of drumming. But I want to get into the more intense altered states of consciousness, and given how my mind works, I know that more elaborate ceremony is one of the keys of doing so.

There’s also the option of asking people to aid with drumming, ritual setup, etc. However, while I think I could justify that for something like my eventual initiation into shamanhood (whenever I and the spirits agree I’m ready) I can’t be calling up folks once a week or more and saying “Hey, I need you to come over all day Saturday and drum and play this part in my awesome ritual where I’m the center of attention, etc.”. My friends love me, but not quite that much.

I can certainly set up elaborate rituals myself. Granted, I’d have to work on my short attention span, but that’s part of the point of this whole formalization process. However, again, unless I perfect at least quad-location (that bilocation is for wimps!), I’ll be limited as to how much I can reasonably do before worrying about the details distracts me too much from actual shamanizing. This seems to be my most realistic option at this point.

I know for a fact that bells and whistles, so to speak, make rituals more effective for me (plus the totems and other spirits seem to like the effort). And I know from experience that the more time I put into a ritual, the better results I’m likely to get. I’m just going to have to work around the fact that I don’t have a bunch of helpers or apprentices, and that my neighbors are more likely to complain about the noise than come help me drum in my back yard.

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3 thoughts on “A Question of Sheer Logistics

  1. From what I understand from the admittedly small bits I’ve read about traditional shamanic belief and practice – it is a very tribal thing, a community thing. The shaman is set apart in many ways from the rest of the community, but is still nonetheless an integral part of that community, and is deeply tied to it.

    A lot of ancient beliefs and practices were like that, actually. I’ve heard some Celtic reconstructionists talk about how all the CR stuff by the individual is well and good, but there’s so much that just loses all context when you bring it into an individualistic setting, when you take it out of the context of tribe and family and community. When I talked to Ravenari about totems, she mentioned something about the family totem being much more prominent than the individual totem; and it’s my understanding that in some cultures, there *is* no individual totem, only a clan/tribe/family totem.

    It’s a strange breed, neopagans are… they revive all these old cultural practices and try to fit collectivistic and community-based religions into an individualistic world and mindset. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of times you have to build an integral community to make it work, and not a lot of people have managed to do that in a workable way.

    …I’m rambling and have lost my point. Let me find it again.

    Ah yes. “Even a ‘simple’ healing may involve the participation of at least the family of the patient, if not the community at large.” You state this, and then you seem to focus on the idea of complex ritual, and the idea of the shaman being the only one qualified and so everyone comes to the shaman and the shaman provides a service to everyone else – but I think it could be just as strong going the other way. The shaman requires the community as much as the community requires the shaman… and I think the community does just as much healing as the shaman does.

    Social psychology studies have shown that a wide, strong support network makes for healthier people in all ways. The more social supports you have, the more stable you are, and you bounce back from trauma more quickly and fully, and you’re physically healthier as well as mentally/emotionally, and so on.

    A healing ritual involves the family and the community, you wrote. It’s not just the family helping to make it easier for the shaman to do xir work… it’s the presence of that support network helping to stabilize and heal the patient as well. It’s not about ritual assistants, I don’t think, so much as it’s about social support and the reaffirming of community and one’s place within it.

    (Which is not to say that the presence of other active assistants/participants *doesn’t* help the shaman… just that I think it’s at least equally effective, if not more so, that the community/family/social support is present and active.)

    Just my thoughts. :> I could be off base; shamanism isn’t exactly a specialty of mine (far from it!), but this is what makes sense to me.

  2. When I was growing up, a lot of the ceremonies I watched were elaborate, musical, long, and community oriented. It seemed that when relatives came over from Russia or Holland, one of the big ‘celebrations’ was when we would all sit around and some of them would drum / tell stories, and of course do what I guess would now be likened to ‘confession’ (i.e. a shamanic practice of getting people to confess to real or imagined sins in order to placate the gods / spirits).

    I miss it now, being a soloist, and I do agree that there is a certain magic to group works (and also charlatan trickery) that is missing from solo practices. But there is a raw reality to solo work too. A lot of traditional shamans employ trickery to make their magic seem real to the everyday watcher / member of the culture. They might hide a worm in their mouth and spit it out to show that they have removed a demon from a person, for example. With solo practices, this sort of trickery is not necessary, practices are pared down to their bones for those who are dedicated. There is no point hiding a worm in your mouth – no one to impress! No point employing tricks to impress those who need them, because generally speaking, the solo-practicioner believes enough on his/her own.

    I have just started teaching in a more dedicated, one on one manner recently. I have been blessed in this sense. And immediately the sense of connection is profound, a different flavour to teaching a class (which I have done), or just teaching distantly on forums or LJ by writing articles (also done).

    Eventually I would like to create or thrive in a community of shamanists, even if we don’t share similar beliefs. I don’t need everyone to be a shaman, just for everyone to be willing to believe in a mythology, even if its their own personal mythology. 🙂

    I also think that shamanism actually works great in a group with fellow shamanists, having experienced it when growing up. It’s not so much that everyone needs to take a turn, because it’s important to recognise that different shamanists have different functions. Some work best on their own, some work best as spiritual artists or silversmiths, some work best as leaders creating trance state for others, others work best drumming, or alternatively standing by a shaman while they journey, to be ready to bring them back. While we may all be ‘equal’ in that ethically, politically correct way, we don’t all have equal skills, and not all shamanists need or even want ‘equal time,’ in a gathering of like-minded folk.

  3. Makhsihed–I see the sense in what you’re saying, and I agree. I think sometimes the placebo effect gets passed off as utter bunk, but there are enough anecdotes floating around about people who essentially got well or worse because of their attitudes in conjunction with their treatments. Granted, people could also bring up the cases of seemingly positive people who died anyway, but there are always exceptions.

    Ravenari–The showmanship of shamanism is one of those things that seems to have gotten left behind in newer versions thereof–probably because the skeptics already have enough of a field day “disproving” the entire thing because of it.

    What? You mean you don’t stick worms in your mouth for fun? 😉

    The thing I’ve noticed about neoshamanism in the U.S., at least, is that the main sort of groupwork that happens is in a class or workshop setting–you have the person leading the lesson, and then teaching the rest of the people some form of journey. I know there are a few groups, at least, that work together over long periods of time, but most of what I’ve observed seems to be the “I lead, you follow” sort.

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