If I Had a Hammer…

First off, thanks for the various comments to my last post. They made me smile, and were a constructive boost to the confidence. I do figure that if I end up doing something truly asinine that folks won’t just applaud and say “Hey, good going Lupa, you can do it, I love watching what you do!” 😉 But seriously, I do appreciate the feedback, even if it’s just “I know how you feel!”

I was on a pagan forum yesterday, specifically a thread talking about shamanism (surprise, surprise!). It started out with someone asking for books and other resources on shamanism, then the obligatory argument in the replies over what shamanism is and the assertion that “You can’t learn shamanism from books!” as well as book suggestions of varying quality. Then one thread of the discussion veered over into modern shamanism, with the idea that people who trip on various substances are examples of shamans in postindustrial cultures. This was my reply:

I get irritated when people talk about how they’ve tripped on various substances, or survived the rave scene, or gotten pierced and inked, and that somehow makes them shamans. These are all *techniques* that can be a part of shamanism, but they are not shamanism in and of themselves. I doubt most of the people dropping acid or wearing candy and light sticks or getting yet another crappy nautical star on their skin have ever journeyed to the Otherworld and brought back something to benefit the community. Self-indulgence does not equal shamanism.

Note that I did not say that entheogens, raves, ink and steel can’t be part of shamanism. However, my point is that they do not, in and of themselves, make a person a shaman. Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not the uber-authority on shamanism. While I’ve had plenty of experience with animal magic–which, again, may be utilized in shamanism–and I’ve run across information on shamanism again and again over the years, I am nowhere near being a full-fledged shaman myself. But tripping no more makes you a shaman than having a hammer makes you a carpenter, that much I’m sure of. Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t just sing about having a hammer–they sang about what they could do with it once they had it. In the same way, it’s not enough to be able to say “Ayahuasca” ten times fast; what do you do with the drink once you have it in you is more important.

I currently have three tattoos and a navel piercing. The first tattoo and the piercing were spontaneous rites of passage for me in which I got them partly to prove I could handle it (I’m absolutely terrified of needles!). In fact, while the tattoo had some other symbolic meanings attached to it, the barbell in my belly was purely for showing myself I could conquer my fear of needles at least that much. All three tattoos and the piercing were peak experiences; I hit deep altered states of consciousness, and they helped to push me from one stage of my life to another. But, ideally, everyone in a society goes through rites of passage. These rites in and of themselves, and peak experiences in general, do not make one a shaman by themselves. Again, they are tools that the shaman can use.

One thing that I have learned in the past few months is that there’s a very good reason I never really felt like I earned the title of “shaman”, even though I had neopagans over the years telling me it fit because of my animal magic. Back then a lot of it was because I didn’t want people assuming I was Native American–or, rather, that I was claiming to be what I was not. I’ve already had to deal with that to an extent with my artwork which has been occasionally mistaken for Native work (usually by non-Natives) because it incorporates things like animal parts and beads and such. While shamanism, of course, is found worldwide, most people automatically associate it with Native Americans, thanks in part to the New Age as well as pop culture. So I didn’t want to give people yet another reason to make assumptions about what I am not, and further confuse what actually is Native American.

However, issues of cultural appropriation and misidentification aside, the more I’ve studied shamanism and talked to people who practice it (as well as dipped my toes into the waters I’m learning about), the more it becomes even clearer to me just how deep, complex, and potentially terrifying the practice of shamanism really is. I was aware of it before, but the realities have been coming into sharper focus as of late. This is good, because I want to know what the hell it is I’m getting myself into before I get there, as much as possible anyway.

For instance, I know that my next tattoo will most likely be the one I get when the spirits and I agree that I’m ready to call myself a full-fledged therioshaman, when my training (but not learning) is done, and I can start shamanizing “for real”. That’s not going to be for a good long while, though, measured in years, not months. I already have a few ideas of how I can incorporate the actual act of getting the tattoo into the initiation ritual. The tattoo, however, will simply be a part of that ritual–the act of getting inked will not in and of itself be the ritual in total (there’ll be a lot more going on, both within and without). However the ritual occurs, though, it won’t be the tattoo that makes me the shaman. Rather, it will be a symbol of all the things I’ve learned, and all the things I’ll have committed to do from then on out, that do make me the shaman.

I’m also aware that there are things that a shaman does that aren’t as much fun as “dancer’s high” from spinning around a fire for hours, or getting ritual body art. Through both LJ and other venues, as well as talking shop with people in person, I’ve been able to hear about how intense relationships with deities and spirits can be. I’ve read accounts by both shamans and spirit workers about how demanding the various gods and spirits they work with can be, and I’ve also read some pretty harrowing accounts of journeys and other experiences that went the way they were supposed to, but were still terrifying and really shook people up. I’m not going to go into details, obviously, because they aren’t my stories to tell. Needless to say, these were the things that get left out of most books on neoshamanism, or get prettied up (as if the traditional “getting dismembered by wild animals during your initiation” experience is ever so much fun!). Granted, these are situations that the people willingly entered into, and while they may tell the terrifying tales of things they’ve been through, they still choose to remain in that role. I don’t believe that being a shaman means you have to give up having a backbone when dealing with the powers that be–if I were a helper spirit I wouldn’t want to be guarding a shaman with the constitution of overcooked spaghetti. But I do accept that shamanism does have its challenges, and that it isn’t always safe.

However, I don’t expect it to be all gloom and doom, either. As I’ve been improving my relationships with the spirits and deities I work with, with the totems and the skin spirits and the divine beings, I’ve felt our mutual love (or at least respect, in some cases) for each other deepen. I won’t devote myself to anyone or anything I feel doesn’t respect me back. Honestly, if I weren’t already deeply appreciative of the things that “my spirits”, so to speak, have done for me over the years, I wouldn’t be nearly as willing to dedicate myself more fully to them. This is a gift I offer willingly. Not because I feel guilted into it. Not because a deity bullied me into it and threatened to ruin my life if I didn’t obey. But because it is something I am willing to give, even if it means sacrifices of time and effort and temporary comfort. Granted, there may be the times when I sit and kvetch about things just to vent, but I don’t foresee getting into the spiritual version of an abusive relationship. (I retain the right to have a backbone at all times.) My perceptions may change in some ways, especially once I get through the preliminary training and into the heavier, more demanding stuff. But I won’t walk willingly into something that I think will make me miserable.

I know that shamanism isn’t all about getting inked, or dancing the night away. But what it is, is something even more valuable than peak experiences alone. I’ll know that when I get that tattoo, whenever it ends up happening, it’ll be a part of something much bigger than the temporary endorphin rush. The ink, the altered states of consciousness–these can all open us up to possibilities, and show us doorways to bigger and better things. But it does no good to only walk up to the threshold, turn around three times and walk back. I’ve seen the doors; I’m ready and willing to walk through them now.

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4 thoughts on “If I Had a Hammer…

  1. Whenever I hear those I would consider to be slightly flighty start talking about wanting to be shamans, my face gets out its “are you stupid?” look. Because from everything I have read, and all the people I have spoken to; that’s one damn scary place you’re wanting to walk down into. I have the utmost respect for those that are walking down there and doing those things. But shamanism seems to have this “cool” image, and I’m not sure where the hell that came from. From my perspective, shamanism is full of awe and power, and terrible ramifications and consequences. It sets my monkey-brain gibbering. (Interestingly for me, Lizard-brain is more OK with it).

  2. Hi Lupa! See I’m finally commenting here. 😛

    I identify as a spirit-worker, although it was only in early 2007 that I actually found a label for what it is I “do”, running across Raven Kaldera’s writings for the first time. I had always thought I was a bit odd due to conversations with the Gods, precogs, and land-spirit encounters, etc, and I would have to say that yes, I have had a rough time of it, but it’s not all bad, really. I love Frey, and my service is willing and borne in love. I feel that He does care, and even though I have been through some nasty life de-construction, my life is being re-built now, and it’s through the love and gratitude I have to Frey and the other Gods, that I am here where I am now.

    Shamanism is some scary stuff. However, those of us who deal intensely with the Gods owe it to ourselves never to let it become such SRS BIZNESS that we can’t laugh anymore. I see spirit-workers fall into two traps: Uppity Pagan Syndrome or Everything Always Sucks Disease. I am prone to both myself and I’ve had to rely on my spiritual disciplines to make sure that I can still smile, still laugh, still enjoy existence. The Gods can’t and won’t use you if you’re completely burnt out.

    Of course the “why” of getting dragged into it, is a more esoteric writing for another time, maybe. 🙂

    This blog is great, I’m always interested to see what other serious spiritual people are doing. Thank you. 🙂

  3. Theokleia–I think a lot of the problem is the McDonaldization of spirituality and esoterica in general. People don’t want the tough stuff; they want the surface veneer, all shiny. Nice clean skin is easier to deal with than messy blood and guts. So people take the nice, shiny exterior of shamanism–the power animals, the healing and love and light, and don’t dive in deep enough to potentially get hurt.

    Siggy–It’s been a good experience reading your thoughts on spirit working and related things. You seem to have a good balance worked out–you aren’t fooled into thinking it never sucks, but you also seem to get some good enjoyment out of it.

    Erynn–It’ll be a good addition to the corpus of knowledge, though, especially for the “Wait a minute–Druids weren’t shamans?” crowd.

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