Shamanic Performances

One thing that’s interested me since I started reading about shamanisms worldwide is the concept of a shamanic performance. It varies from culture to culture, of course, and not all indigenous cultures have this feature, but it’s pretty common. In a nutshell, the community (or a family, or other group) comes together and primarily watches as the shaman does hir thing on their behalf. It may be part storytelling, with the shaman narrating what s/he is experiencing during hir journey, or the shaman may not express what happened until after the fact. And while there may be elements of showmanship and sleight of hand, the process is quite serious when it comes down to it.

With the exception of seithr/seidr, I haven’t seen much information on shamanic performance in non-indigenous shamanisms (while seithr/seidr is Norse in origin, the majority of people practicing it are not native to Norway). Neoshamans who practice on behalf of others very often will do so on a one-on-one basis with individual clients. While this certainly isn’t unprecedented, since shamanic figures in indigenous cultures would generally work with people individually, the one-on-one structure predominates in neoshamanism.

While I don’t see anything wrong, per se, with the one-on-one ritual structure, I do think the more semi-public/public shamanic performance structure deserves more attention. One of the things that really fascinates me is how the element of performance can aid in the audience’s suspension of disbelief in a manner that is different from experiential rituals (wherein everyone participates in an active manner) or an individual client (in which the client is generally acted upon in some manner by the shaman, whose focus is solely on that person). I see shamanic performance as potentially drawing on some of the same elements of theatre–something that enthralls and engages the audience, and moves them in deep ways. With the addition of the esoteric elements of magical practice, the potential for group altered states of consciousness is even greater.

I’ve always been fond of Homo ludens as described by Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (and yes, I do need to hunt down a copy of Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (Man the Player)). In the modern U.S., play in adults is largely forgotten outside of sports and the bedroom–and even then it can still often be stunted in both settings. The beauty of a well-crafted ritual, even as a spectator, is that it fulfills the need for play in our lives. It allows us to really let go of our inhibitions–not in harmful ways like getting smashed and having unprotected sex with someone whose name (and sexual health) you’re unaware of–but in healthy, aware, albeit often catalytic manners. It allows us to exercise our Imagination-with-a-big-I, the one we often stuff down into Being An Adult and which we mistake for shallower, relegated-to-childhood imagination. (Understand, of course, that children and grown-ups alike are quite capable of exercising Imagination as well as imagination.) The Imagination is not just daydreams that are limited to our brains and minds, but are a connection to Something More, whether you want to call it the Collective Unconscious, the Anima Mundi, etc. (For a really good treatise on these concepts, I would highly recommend Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality. Dense, but a delicious read with every bite.)

This is not to say that other ritual formats can’t exercise the Imagination and allow us to play; quite the opposite. However, something about the shamanic performance, in which there are tricks as well as journeys, sleight of hand as well as theurgy, and where the shaman gets to play a part as much as be hirself–this really appeals to me.

I see a couple of issues with actually bringing this into reality as my practice progresses. One is that there’s a definite stigma against deliberate showmanship in spiritual and religious practices in this culture. It’s assumed that any sort of chicanery will automatically be a lie, that it can’t be a vehicle for something greater. If I were to carry beads under my tongue, and suck out the illness from a person and put it in the bead, then display the bead as proof of my work, most people would say “That bead was in her mouth the whole time–what a sham!” Only a few would understand that the bead was a vehicle for the act, that it absorbed the illness and gave people a physical focus for seeing that illness leave the person’s body. In an age where many put faith only in the five physical senses and call that objectivity (regardless of how subjective our senses are!) any ambiguity is cause for suspicion. We’re not taught how to consider more than one form of reality simultaneously and with equal truth–we’re raised with either/or, not both/and.

Another problem is that the shamanic performance originated in relatively small communities of people who spent significant portions of their lives together. While I advocate bringing one’s shamanic practice (and other ways to aid) into the local community, even in the most liberal areas you can’t turn your neighborhood into a village and expect people to come out for rituals. I know there are pagans who are neotribalists, who want to artificially create communities and villages–but you’re not going to get the same infrastructure; this culture is just too different. I applaud efforts to bring people together, but I also believe in having a realistic expectation of the parameters you’re working within.

Somewhat related to that is that a lot of people, especially in the pagan/etc. communities, are more geared towards being practitioners than spectators. Neopagan rituals are very commonly interactive so that no one gets bored “just watching”. There are groups who may rehearse seasonal rituals to the point where they have a good theatrical element to them, but even then there’s still focus on making sure everybody gets to participate at least a little bit (again, more than “just watching”). And I’ll lay odds that the majority of pagans who say they’re interested in shamanism are interested in being practitioners, not spectators. In the pagan community, we generally intercede with the spirit world on our own behalf a good deal of the time (some of us, all the time!). Too many cooks, not enough diners.

I wonder, if my practice develops the way that it would, if there would be an interest in shamanic performances–rituals that people don’t necessarily have an active hand in beyond perhaps drumming, or (as in seithr/seidr, asking questions), but where people come prepared to appreciate the performance as well as the actual reason for it (healing, fertility, divination, etc.). I’m perfectly happy creating more interactive rites where appropriate, as well as one-on-one work, but there’s also a mutual attraction for me and the spirits I work with for the shamanic performance, where we do our thing on behalf of others, and the others are primarily witnesses to what happens.

I also wonder if there are (nonindigenous) groups/individuals who do this sort of shamanizing outside of seithr/seidr in any significant form. And if I have any misunderstandings about this ritual format, I’m always open for more information! This is something that’s still very raw in my conception of it, and a lot of it won’t fall into place until I move beyond the theory and into the practice.

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3 thoughts on “Shamanic Performances

  1. I don’t know how you feel about Kenn Day/Deigh, but reading you today put me in mind of some of the rituals (during ‘workshop time’, yeah, but definitely rituals) he’s been doing at Sirius the last couple years. His late-in-the-week healing ritual in…oh, I think it was 2006 but it might’ve been last year…had a lot of the elements you talk about. Unlike many of his workshops, in this one all the participants did was hold the space while he entered a trance state on behalf of those gathered for the ritual. There wasn’t a lot of ‘theater’, aside from how Ken always seems to have a bit of a flair for the dramatic, but it was fascinating (and most unlike other ‘participatory’ rituals I’ve experienced).

  2. Last winter solstice, I attended an interesting performance locally. It involved what might be described as shamanistic elements. There was dancing, drumming, costumes, music, fire, as well as video, singing and spoken word. However, there was no audience participation—it was definitely a performance. I found it enlightening and refreshing to see these folks bring to life their imaginations, using these spiritual traditions as well as other sources of inspirations.

    I guess it depends on how you structure the setting from the start. There was no expectation of audience participation, so things seemed to work fine. We were also in a traditional church sanctuary, which is set up more for listening and observing rather than participating.

    All in all, I would’ve loved to take part myself!

  3. raven_albion–damn. I left the northeast too soon *grumble* I’d love to have seen that! I’ll keep an eye out for future opportunities, though.

    Riverwolf–*nods* Glad to know it worked out well!

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