The Magic and the Mystery

An anthropological examination of shamanism
by Chris Hibbard

The Magic and the Mystery

While this class has been an interesting experience for me, in certain ways it has brought me back full circle to the same place I was at when I enrolled in it. I have learned in the last three months what shamans are not.

They are not witch doctors. They are not priests. They are not medicine men, nor are they mystics or charlatans. They are all of these, and they are none. They are shamans, and as such, can only be defined by what they do, by who they do it to, and by who is observing it in action. Since I have never ventured far from Canada, and certainly not into the deepest jungles of Peru, the tundra of Siberia, or the darkest points of Africa, I fear I will never be ‘in touch’ with my inner shaman.

With this being said, I have learned a great deal about humanity – about the potential of the human mind, our inclination towards rite and ritual, and more extreme edges of our actions. It is through the lens of action that I will now write.

Throughout history, shamans have been seen as healers, leaders, and men and women in touch with spiritual forces that most of us are oblivious to. According to Winkelman, “one or more magico-religious healer statuses were found 45 of 47 societies in major regions of the world. (Winkelman, Shamans and Other “Magico-Religious” Healers, p. 310).

While with enough thought and application, one could likely argue that this same aforementioned description could be applied to rabbis, priests, cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh, and even many modern-day psychiatrists, I will not attempt such a weighty task. I will instead merely expose what you Edward probably already know – the links and commonalities that make shamans seem to be what they are.

Unlike many of the figures mentioned above, the shaman need not have elevated social status. He/she may, and often does, take part in the monotony and tedium of everyday life just as any other community member would. They are not necessarily isolated in their ‘otherness’, and are commonly found to be family men or women, farmers, hunters, artisans and even small business owners.

However, they are not necessarily bound to their geographic location, or even to their cultural one, for the majority of shaman often leave their community, be it on foot, taking refuge in the wild, or in metaphysical ways – psychotropic-induced trance states and periodic vision quests.
This element of shamanism seems quite common indeed.

Winkelman writes that, “In all societies we find the use of trance activities as a basis for “magico-religious” training and healing…these roles are embodied in the statuses of the magico-religious healers” (p.311). Trance and notions of ‘out-of-body’ experiences are part and parcel when it comes to Kainama initiation practices. “Isolation in the forest itself is intended to aid the process of concentration on shamanic development of key skills, like bodily transformation (weytupok) and the detaching of the soul (iwemyakamatok)…” (Neil Whitehead, Dark Shamans, p.107).

The shamans in Laurel Kendall’s Shamans, Housewives, and other Restless Spirits ritually practice exorcism or kut through the use of drums and trance. “With the sound of the drum, gods inside the empty house open wide their eyes. This is a dangerous moment. Like the genie in the bottle, awakened household gods seize upon whatever greets their gaze” (Kendall, p.4).

Drums are an important element to Siberian shamanism as well, according to Chapter One of Alice Kehoe’s book Shamans and Religion. “Suddenly he commenced to beat the drum softly and to sing in a plaintive voice…and the voices of other animals, his guardian spirits, appeared to come…” (p.7)

Another common thread: Shamanism is often linked closely to the ‘natural’ world – to the seasons, the sun, the moon, the fauna – be this jaguar, caribou, or other ‘being’. Shamans ‘use’ nature to heal, to diagnose, to melt away and disappear. They use spirit guides and animal companions as tools and as companions. They can use the weapons of animals to harm, as seen in Whitehead’s encounters with the Kainama and the features of animals to cure disease or possession, as shown in the Korean mansin’s use of chickens (Kendall, p.90), or the guinea pigs used by Edmond the Healer in Peru (as seen in the video in class.)

Shamans also tend to use plants, weeds, herbs and flowers in nearly all that they do. The Kainama may use powerful and deadly poisons in their ‘dark’ shamanism, while Siberian shamans prefer to use roots and tubers to clear their minds and enhance their ‘spirit journeys.’ It is quite obvious in this small comparison alone that the knowledge of botany and herbology should not be seen by itself as being magical, for as I mentioned before; the essence of the shaman is a question of technique.

The definition of a shaman is not found only in what they do, but by who they do it to, and by who is observing it in action. This is why I mentioned psychiatry earlier on. It too involves ritual, it involves training and skill, and an interpersonal relationship, one which is ‘magical’ in its mysteriousness – with an apparent ability to ‘read minds’.

Both shamans and psychiatrists listen to their clients, for words have power and meaning beyond themselves. This is discussed briefly in Chernela and Leed’s Shamanistic Journeys and Anthropological Travels, which asks “How is it that words have power even when they are not understood? In particular, why is it that certain words and performances seem to have power because they are beyond everyday comprehension, “foreign,” or even “meaningless” to audience and actors performing them?” (p.131).

Nor are shamans mere practitioners of illusion and trickery. While they may be able to perform elaborate illusions, throw their voices, and even ‘shift-shapes’ at will, there are not necessarily mirrors and trapdoors involved. Granted, many shaman are likely fine actors who utilize elements of performance, sleight of hand and distraction to appear even more fascinating or awe-inspiring, and some may be little more than grifters and con men, but these shaman must not remain successful for long.

The fact is that every shaman is different, even among their own peers and in their own country. No shaman’s abilities are easily explained completely – not even through the necessary experience and certainly not with my words. If one is to think briefly about icebergs, one can equate visible shamanic practices to the tip of the behemoth, for many more practices must occur behind closed doors. If one was to share their entire litany of powers and secrets, then their shamanic essence would be weakened, and their human essence would be seen more clearly.

I do not mean to say here that shaman need be egotistical and full of pride, for in fact it is often the other way around, but it is likely that they recognize their power and their mystique for what it is to others, and would prefer to keep it to themselves. Thinking of it like this makes it more fun (to speak colloquially) to remember that over the millennia, thousands of cultures have recognized shamanism in different forms – with most of those cultures having little to no contact with each other. These historical shamans all served different roles and practices in their communities, but their abilities and practices still tended to be quite similar.

So much so, that again, with enough time and energy, one could likely trace a ritual like the christening of babies in the Roman Catholic Church all the way back to one form of shamanism or another. Just don’t tell a devout Catholic that unless you have the time and energy to argue about it.
But I digress. I would be remiss in this paper if I did not focus a little more on the subject of spirits and spirit guides.

While some shaman seem to command spirits to work for him or her, and can apparently communicate with or for them – spirits as servants if you will – more of them are viewed as operating the other way around. Most shamans work with or for the spirits – often in a reciprocation-symbiosis-type of relationship – asking favours of the spirit and presenting it with an offering of some sort in return. The aforementioned notion of shape-shifting is an example of this symbiotic nature. A shaman may allow the spirit guide to experience his/her state of mind or state of being, and vice-versa.

In comparing the works that were primarily explored in this course, I came to realize the following. Kendall barely scratches the surface when it comes to description of the rituals themselves, and also to the mythologies and hierarchy of gods and spirits involved in Korean shamanism. While she compares Korean shamanism to similar activities in Japan and China, she spends very little time comparing intra-Korean traditions, those difference in shamanistic practices within the boundaries of the very country she is describing.

Instead, she focuses on the facts that Korean shamanism is divided by gender roles – women understand, practice, and experience shamanism differently in Korea than men do. They tend to be ‘in charge’ so to speak, of the oh-so-important, yet somewhat mundane parts of life: managing households, curing illness, achieving success and solving relationship problems. Because of her focus on people, rather than on subject, I would argue that Kendall’s work is more akin to an anthropological study than to a true ethnography.

Whitehead’s ethnography on the other hand, uses a drastically different approach. He looks deeply into the practices and methodology of Kanaima life by using detailed descriptions of the effects of psychotropic substances, and never loses his focus on the fact that the Kanaima society is one based on life and death, power and danger.

Whether he deliberately details the practices of assault sorcery and ritual murder, even cannibalism in an attempt to ‘sensationalize’ his book, playing off of his readers fear and disgust could be debated extensively. It is certainly effective and makes for a fascinating, if mildly disturbing read.
Whitehead’s book is quite blatant about the word Shamanism itself, and uses it as an all-encompassing catch-all to describe the ‘sorcery practices of indigenous peoples worldwide, those practices that bring to mind ‘arts’ like voodoo, zombification and other black magics.

His ethnography is also interesting in that he argues that the practice of Kanaima, no matter how violent, is rooted in socio-political history – one of colonization and upheaval. Because of this, the very usage of Kanaima itself is inherently political. Kanaima seems rather extreme, but as a form of control, keeping checks and balances if you will, between traditional beliefs and changing with the times.

These two ethnographies acted as bookends for a very broad library. If Shamanism is truly subjective to the relationship between practitioner, client, and witness, then the space in between these two bookends is very vast indeed, and it is no wonder that I still feel quite lost and confused, chasing my own tail, as it were.

In conclusion (and with the admittance that I am a Native American Studies major) one final way to look at shamanism is perhaps this: true shaman may very likely just be more attuned to the infinite nature of the universe, the constant flux of energy all around us and the chaos that most of us spend countless hours trying to control and compartmentalize.

If one sees reasons for events that are beyond coincidence, or feels another’s emotions strongly enough to be able to see them as colours or vibrations, one is not necessarily a shaman, nor are they necessarily new-age gurus or psychics. But if one learns to embrace these things, harnessing them and turning them into powerful allies, then anything becomes possible. Once anything is possible, nothing is impossible.


~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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