Thought: Tribal Shamans
Before humanity settled down into civilizations, we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in tribes of dozens to hundreds of individuals. While beliefs vary between tribes, our ancestors shared similar beliefs about spirits as the invisible forces behind the visible in nature and ourselves, a system of thought known as animism. While many today believe that we modern and civilized people are beyond superstitious beliefs in invisible spirits, we could also consider the view that our species never got beyond animism, but rather the invisible spirits became more complicated along with our living arrangements. For the last thousand years, Christians and Muslims also claimed to be beyond the superstitions of nomadic tribes they encountered. From an evolutionary perspective, organized religion and institutionalized science are ancestors of animism. The French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno LaTour claims that it is we, the Tribe of the Moderns, who are the most superstitious and mythological people yet on the planet.
Shaman is a Siberian word that means ‘one who knows’, the earliest authorities. Life is full of problems, and across cultures we consult experts to explain the forces behind things and then use the invisible forces of good against the forces of evil, such as using reason and wisdom to fight ignorance and stupidity in a philosophy class. Consider that a “scientist” is one who “sees” and “divides” in the Latin, and that philosophy and theology used to be the highest of the sciencias. The Shaman is the one who not only holds the traditions of knowledge but who seeks new answers to problems. The shaman is both the preserver of the old and the seeker of the new, the one who keeps the traditions but also searches for new answers when the old traditions do not work.
In tribal culture, traditional knowledge and wisdom is often kept and passed on in the form of stories or narratives. These stories explain the world and help people with their problems. The wise elder can even tell a story they know to be fiction as if it were true to help others and be passed on to future generations as an answer to a common problem. There are, however, times when the stories do not help and a new answer must be sought for a problem. Guided by the traditions but seeking beyond it, experts and leaders must broaden their horizons and then often become celebrated by new legends.
To do this, the shaman goes on quests, both physical and mental, for the solution and new knowledge needed to solve the problem. Often the shaman is selected by another shaman or shamans as a youth who has gone through a near death experience (sickness, struck by lightning, attacked but survives). The shaman is thought to have an affinity for seeking into the unknown because they are already experienced in the unknown. Near death experiences give new perspective.
To quest for knowledge, the shaman employs techniques of ecstasy known to produce an ecstatic experience. “Ecstasy” comes from ancient Greek and means “standing outside” (ex-stasis) or “outstanding”. It is both a going beyond and going within, beyond common reality by getting deeper into reality. When one is in an ecstatic trance or having an ecstatic vision, one is standing outside normal reality and seeing it from a different place and context. Consider that shamans often go down into a cave or up on a mountain to go to the lower or upper other world. Some shamans have been known to climb trees. Consider the common image in cartoons of the sage meditating on a mountaintop, with the climber seek wisdom at the sage’s feet by asking deep questions. In a cave, one is removed from reality and in a way returns to the womb. On a mountain or in a tree, one can look down on the world and see the larger patterns of what is going on. One gains perspective and is capable of abstraction when one removes oneself to contemplate reality.
Methods of ecstasy include not only thought itself, but drugs, pain, rhythms (chanting, drumming, rattles) fasting, sleep deprivation, removing oneself from society and meditation (including contemplation and prayer). However, the most basic method of ecstasy is in fact thought. Contemplation is itself a form of standing outside reality, so it makes sense that the shaman is regarded as the original thinker, expert and seeker, as well as the doctor, therapist, biologist, physicist, etc. This is why we are considering shamans as the first philosophers. They not only seek and keep knowledge, but pass on wisdom about the limits of human perception, knowledge and thought to future generations of their tribes.