What is shamanism?
Shamanism is, first and foremost, a philosophy, a perspective on life and a way of being, that is in harmony with all things. Its focus is on how the practitioner maintains an ongoing and practical relationship with ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’ for the benefit of community and the world in general. Shamanism begins and ends with the heart, coming from the viewpoint that the Universe is a beneficent place and its building blocks are love and that is all that there is. Shamanism is the oldest spiritual practice known to mankind, dating back at least 50,000 years, if not more.
Examples of ancient Shamanic practice can be seen through symbols and glyphs from ancient structures and temples such as those along the Nile in Egypt, Central and South America, Newgrange in Ireland and through age-old cave paintings, such as those in Lascaux in France and in Sedona in the US. Although not recognized as a religion, it is suggested that Shamanism is the root of all religions. In fact, shamanism embraces the spirituality in all religions and acknowledges the importance of individual and direct routes to spirit. Shamanism has been called the ‘path of direct revelation’, in that, it allows the practitioner to connect directly with God, the Prime Creator or Source energy, without the need for intermediaries or mediating organizations.
The Energetic Nature of the Universe
Essentially, the Shaman, or Shamanic practitioner, regards everything as energy within one central grid and everything is an element of this grid, in other words…. we are all one. This being the case, the Shaman, through the use of the ‘Shamanic journey’, has the ability to interact with this energy. So, everything is energy and therefore holds some level of consciousness, of a similar nature as our own consciousness. In the modern era, Shamanism is very much seen as a ‘catch-all’ term to describe the practices of those individuals who communicate and interact with spiritual entities in specific way. The purpose of this is to bring healing, understanding and spiritual guidance to the community. The word Shaman or ‘Saman’, was originally used by those of the Tungus tribe in Siberia and North Asia and can be translated as ‘one who knows’.
The Historic Role of the Shaman
Today, the use of the word Shaman has grown to be accepted as describing those who work through trance to communicate with the ‘Spiritual realm’. The role of the Shaman, in the clan or tribe, therefore, is to seek out spirit guides, power animals and higher levels of spiritual wisdom and healing. Mircea Eliade, in his work, ‘Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (1964)’ was one of the first to categorize common elements of shamanism throughout the world and identified similarities of shamanic practice in many diverse, indigenous cultures. According to Mircea Eliade, “Magic and magicians are to be found more or less all over the world, whereas shamanism exhibits a particular magical specialty…. By virtue of this fact, though the shaman is, among other things, a magician, not every magician can properly be termed a shaman. . . . . the Shaman specializes in a trance in which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.” (Eliade, Mircea, (1964), Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press.)
Often referred to as the father of modern or neo-Shamanism, Michael Harner, (1980) brought many elements of Shamanic practice to a contemporary, world-wide audience and highlighted the importance and applicability of Shamanic practices to modern day culture. In ‘The Way of the Shaman, Harner referred to these elements as ‘Core Shamanism’ and presented a means by which the ancient practice of contacting the spirit world and our ‘helping spirits’ was accessible to everyone. He also identified the central feature of the ‘Shamanic journey’ to the spirit world as the common ‘vehicle’ used by the shamanic practitioner. Harner describes this process by suggesting that: “A shaman is a man or woman who enters an altered state of consciousness – at will- to contact or utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons. The Shaman has at least one, and usually more, “spirits” in his personal service.” Harner goes on to say, “To this I would add that, in his trance, he commonly works to restore a patient by restoring beneficial or vital power, or by extracting harmful power. The journey to which Eliade refers is usually undertaken to restore power or a lost soul.” (Harner, Michael, (1980) The Way of the Shaman, Harper and Row)
Although there is no universally accepted definition for the roles of a Shaman, it is often seen as including:
• The Shaman’s soul or spirit can leave the body to enter the world of spirit to search for information and healing.
• The Shaman interacts with the energy of the earth’s eco-system regarding this energy as elements of divine energy
• The Shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens, and message-bearers.
• The Shaman employs trance-inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy, usually carried out by drumming, dance, breathing techniques or chanting, but in some cultures, can include the use of natural psychedelic substances. • The Shaman treats sickness caused by negative spirits or energies.
• The Shaman journeys to the spirit world to retrieve elements of an individual’s fragmented soul • The Shaman can tell the future and perform other varied forms of divination
• The Shaman can journey to release spirits who have become ‘stuck’ during the process of their return to the spirit world following death. Fundamentally, Shamanism is a very personal experience and the interpretation of the role of a Shaman is informed by spirit and cannot be characterized by the understandings of this realm.
The Tradition of Irish Shamanism
For many of those who have a limited understanding of Shamanism, its generally felt that this is a ‘Native American’ phenomenon. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In almost all cultures, there is some form of practice where the indigenous native enters a trance-like state to communicate with the ‘Otherworld’, (The Ancient Celtic Spirit World) Taking Michael Harner’s definition of a shamanic practitioner, (a man or woman who “enters an altered state of consciousness . . . to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons”, and who has “at least one, and usually more, “spirits”, in his personal service”) We can see very clearly that there are many, many examples of Shamanism within the Celtic/Irish oral tradition of story-telling and thus within the Celtic/Irish psyche. For most Irish Shamanic practitioners, the Tuatha Dé Danaan are a central reference point in the Irish oral tradition and many Shamanic practitioners feel a direct lineage to this mystical heritage.
The Tuatha De Danaan
In Irish-Celtic mythology, the Tuatha Dé Danaan (“People of the goddess, Danu”) were one of the great ancient tribes of Ireland and were the Irish race of Gods, whose central figure was the goddess, Danu or Anu. These gods, who originally lived on ‘the islands in the west’, (many would suggest that this refers to Atlantis) had perfected the use of magic. They traveled on a huge cloud to the land that later would be called Ireland and settled there. The Tuatha Dé Danaan were a civilized and cultured people, excelling in the magical and martial arts, who brought many skills and crafts to Ireland. They brought with them four great treasures that personified their power and skills. The first was the Lia Fail ‘Stone of Fal’ which would scream when a true King of Ireland stood on it. It was later placed on the Hill of Tara, the seat of the High-Kings of Ireland. The second was the ‘Magic Sword of Nuadha’, which was capable of inflicting only mortal blows when used. The third was the ‘Spear of the Sun God Lugh’, famed for its accuracy when used. The final treasure was the ‘Cauldron of Daghda’ from which an endless supply of food issued. Important members are of the Tuatha Dé are: Dagda, Brigid, Nuada, Lugh, Dian Cecht, Ogma, and Manann Mac Lir.
In the Gaelic oral tradition, Fionn MacCumhail is the very archetype of the Shamanic figure, though by no means the only one demonstrating Shamanic abilities. During Fionn’s early years, he undergoes the training to become a fennid, being raised in exile in the wilderness by two foster mothers, one known as a druid, who train him in the arts of hunting and fighting. Joseph Nagy suggests, “In early Irish literature, the Fennid usually appears as an individual living and functioning outside or on the margins of the tribal territory and community (the tuath).” The Fennidi together form a group called a Fian, or war band. These Fennidi functioned as outlaws, mercenaries and policed the law in ancient Ireland. Fionn was trained in the Fennedi practices and martial arts and eventually becomes a leader of the Fennedi. Fionn, also frequently used his strong connection to the spirit world or, as its termed in the Celtic and pre-Celtic cultures, the ‘Otherworld’ and gained much of his power from this source. This can be seen by the many examples of his ‘journeys’ to the Otherworld realms. There are many examples of Fionn’s adventures in the Otherworld, where he often met with helping spirits and spirits who were sometimes not so helping. There are many similarities between the tales of Fionn and the tales told by many North and South American tribes.
Another example of the Gaelic Otherworld journey, known in the Gaelic tradition as ‘immramma’, is that highlighted in the tales of Maelduin. Immramma usually refers to a voyage by sea, into the ‘Lowerworld’ as seen in the Celtic cosmology. In Immram Curaig Maelduin Inso or The Voyage of Maelduin’s Boat, dating back to the beginning of the common era, but may be much older, being translated from the Gaelic oral tradition, the hero, Maelduin sets out to avenge his father’s murder. He firstly consults with a wise druid for counsel before commencing his travels. As the tale unfolds, he eventually ends up journeying with seventeen men in a curragh, or skin boat, to thirty three distinct Otherworld islands. Maelduin and his shipmates undergo numerous adventures on the magical islands with names like the Island of the Falcon, the Island of Giant Ants and the Island of the Crystal Keep, where they encounter beautiful women, ancestors, and strange spiritual beings. An important aspect of these tales is that the islands visited are described as very real, solid places filled with beautiful valleys and glens, with magical flowing rivers and spirit guides and animals who accompany Maelduin on his exploits.
Ancient Irish Shamanism in Literature
There are many references to the Shamanic practitioner and the Shamanic journey in Irish literature throughout the years. Notably in the tales of the Formorians, the Tuatha De Dannan and the Milesians, descending from the oral tradition, such as the Ulster Cycle of Chuchulain and Queen Meabh, and tales such as the Children of Lir, which highlights the Shamanic tradition of ‘shapeshifting’. The story of ‘Tir Na N’Og’ is another typical example of a Shamanic journey. In more modern literature, the work of W.B. Yeats, is rich with Shamanic imagery and philosophy, as can be seen in his work, ‘The Song of Wandering Aongus’,
“I went down to the hazelwood Because a fire was in my head I cut and peeled a hazel wand And hooked a berry to a thread And when white moths were on the wing And moth-like stars were flickering out I dropped the berry in a stream And hooked a little silver trout When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire aflame When something rustled on the floor And someone called me by my name It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossoms in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded in the brightening air Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands I will find out where she is gone And kiss her lips and hold her hands And walk among long dappled grass And pluck till time and times are done The silver apples of the moon The golden apples of the sun”
The writer, John Moriarty, also references a shamanic state of consciousness and life philosophy in all his work. In ‘Invoking Ireland’, Moriarty continuously refers to Irish myth and Jungian architypes to illustrate an ancient Irish shamanic perspective.
The Shamanism of the Ancient Celts
The Celtic tales of England, Scotland and Wales also have this very same cultural tradition of heroes who ‘journey’ to the ‘Otherworld’ in search of healing, knowledge or power for their community. The tales of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and Merlin are some of the most famous Celtic tales to involve the shamanic journey. King Arthur’s journey to Annwn, the Underworld of the British Celts, to find the Cauldron of Inspiration and Rebirth, is a Celtic Otherworld journey.In the Welsh tradition, Arthur is accompanied on these journeys by a shaman by the name of Taliesin. In more recent scholarly and radical volumes, it has, in fact, been suggested that the pre-Celtic civilizations of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, originated from the island of Atlantis. They went on to inform the rest of the world in relation to the core Shamanic, Spiritual and social practices through the druidic colleges that were established throughout the world. Michael Tsarion (2007) and Jordan Maxwell (2007) offer a compelling and alternative version of accepted history by suggesting that civilization actually spread from west to east, initiated by the druidic cultures. (Jordan Maxwell, Comyns Beaumont (1946) Ignatius Donnelly (1882), & Michael Tsarion (2007)
Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey and the ‘Wounded Healer’
A common element in these mythological tales in many Shamanic traditions, involves the central figure being dismembered or devoured by spirit entities, to be then reformed as more powerful and spiritually gifted individuals. This is a common element in many modern day Shamanic journeys and forms the basis of what is referred to by many as a form of Shamanic initiation. Following this dis-memberment and re-memberment, the Shaman is then reshaped into someone who can easily and readily walk between the worlds of ordinary and non-ordinary realty and has an army of helping spirits at his or her request to benefit the clan or tribe. Joseph Campbell, (1949) refers to this type of narrative as the ‘Hero’s Journey’ and would suggest that this pattern of trial, death and rebirth is common in many traditions throughout the world, with examples such as in the lives of Osirus, Jesus Christ, Moses and the Buddha, all who could be described as archetypal Shaman. Michael Harner suggest that in most Shamanic cultures the Shaman must go though this Shamanic initiation and become the ‘Wounded Healer’, where to gain power and understanding over human illnesses and disease, the shaman must experience emotional, physical or spiritual disease to be in any way effective as a healer of those in her or his community.
So having stated that, the practice of Shamanism is not a religion, having no dogmas or direct set of religious ‘obligations’, where then does Shamanism fit into the modern theological perspectives? Shamanism has been recognized as the basis for all the modern religions, in that, very simply, it was the first method of connecting to a deity or deities. Shamanic practitioners, in general, hold an ‘animistic’ point of view, that everything is energy and these energies are held in a central grid. It can be said that this grid is God or Source or whatever the perspective of the practitioner. Dr. Wayne Dyer (2004) describes this in a very useful way, in that: the Ocean is God, if you take a glass of water from the ocean, it is still an element of God, maybe not as big or powerful, but God nonetheless. We are this disconnected glass of Ocean water and by means of the shamanic journey we are connecting in to the massive ocean of Godliness. From a Shamanic perspective, there is great wisdom in all religions and Spiritual practices and often during the Shamanic journey, deities from all religions
can be called upon for help, healing and insight.
©anam nasca (2014)