World Religions 1: Shamanism

Shamanism is found all over the world.  It is the loose set or family of practices and beliefs that we can see in the ancient history of all cultures.  In some areas of the world, shamanism has survived to the present day (for example, modern day Korean Shamans, Native American Shamans).  In other areas of the world, shamanism was replaced by new religious developments.  In most cases, this was a transition from nomadic tribes to cities which gathered many tribes together (notice we are covering nomadic tribes and shamanism this week, and early city states and priests next week).  Shamanic practices and forms can be seen in each of the world’s major religions, as each culture gathered many different and smaller cultures together to create new beliefs and practices.  Thus, shamanism is necessary background before studying the world’s religions.

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Shamans were the first priests of all the world’s peoples.  The word “shaman” comes from a Turkish-Siberian dialect, meaning one who knows.  As we see in the reading for the week, often shamans were individuals who became seriously ill or had other near death experiences which changed them.  The shaman is marked by ecstatic experience, ‘ecstatic’ from ecstasy or ex-stasis, “standing outside”.  The shaman often has early experiences which take them far outside of the common viewpoint, and thus they become trusted in journeying outside the common viewpoint for practical purposes. The community set these individuals aside as seekers and seers, individuals who could see farther into the unknown and the hidden than average.  This makes sense, as we all listen to those who have been through extreme experiences and believe that they have something to teach us about ourselves.  As human groups collected and settled into cities, priests would be housed in temples with large budgets to set them apart from the commoner, but in nomadic tribal society the shaman was simply set aside by dress and social role.

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It is remarkable but true that from Africa to Siberia, from islands in the Pacific to the Celtic European tribes, shamanism followed very similar patterns.  The shaman was the one who went to the other world, the hidden and unrevealed or ‘other’ part of reality to investigate the forces that affected everyday situations.  The Shaman was thus healer, prophet, therapist, and any other expert the situation required.  Today, we have many specialized experts for each are of a problem, but the Shaman had to wear all of the hats (or rather masks) for the tribe being the authority of the unknown or little known.  To aid in this, the Shaman often called on animal powers, spirit beings and other natural forces.  Today, we have physicists, biologists and psychologists to find hidden presences within things through investigation, and we also believe these presences to be natural forces.  While none of these experts can exactly predict what will happen next Tuesday, we support cultures of investigation that set these authorities aside as experts in abstract (other world, mental) visions and quests.  This is just what we see in nomadic tribes from all over the world giving authority to the shaman for investigation into the unknown.  Culture is thus not simply dogma or orthodoxy in the most ancient of times, but also investigation and questioning of things and the powers that be.  This is important to notice, as we have a terrible tendency to believe that ‘Western’ society is the scientific and investigative society compared to all other societies, when in fact all of human culture from the earliest times investigated and questioned reality, seeking visions of the unseen.  Our culture and all cultures spring from these ancient roots and the vision quest of the shaman.

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The Vision Quest into the Other World

Early cultures seem to have settled on two alternative takes on the location of the other world.  Some cultures believed that the other world was the underworld beneath the earth, while other cultures believed that the other world was up in the sky or the heavens.  The job of the shaman in both sorts of cultures was to journey to the place where the great forces are, either down into the earth (caves, pits and burial) or up into the sky (mountain tops, trees).  This was not only a physical traveling, but often mind altering activities were used to enhance the ‘trip’.  The first thing that we think is, of course, drugs, but there were also methods of pain and discomfort (also known as asceticism or immolation), fasting, going without sleep, drumming, rattles, and many other methods of bringing the mind out of its normal state and the person out of common identity.  An excellent example is the Siberian and Native American practice of shamanic tree climbing.  Climbing a tall and old tree, the shaman journeys upward into the sky and everything below comes into view and looks small and insignificant, a change of consciousness for the climber who is now standing above and outside common reality.

The shaman would take her or his culture’s methods for achieving ecstatic visions and seek out the answers to problems.  This often involved introspection, which leads many to distance shamanic vision quests from ‘scientific’ and modern investigation practices, but in fact the relationship between these two is far more subtle and complex.  The shaman also observed nature and signs in the natural world to understand the causes of things, and it is clear that all leaps of insight require some amount of introspection and rational consideration of the problem regardless of the devices or culture of investigation.  We should remember how we will look to people living hundreds of years from now.


The All Tree

One common discovery by shamans in the other world is the presence of the World Tree, All Tree, or Tree of Life, the single living being that gives birth to all beings and species.  Today, evolution puts all species into a similar tree of being, however this tree is a branching out over time and not exactly the tree of all or roots of all as the shaman saw it.  This vision of the All Tree makes its way into all the world’s major religions (it appears in the Garden of Eden for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it also appears in Hinduism and from there into Buddhism).

This brings us to the problem of the one and the many, an old wrinkle in reality that you find again and again in systems of thought.  Reality is the great One, but the things it is made of are many.  The pieces, the many things, bump into each other and seem somewhat out of order, such that there seems to be a tension between the All One and the many particulars.  The All Tree is a vision of the solution to this problem, a solution the shaman seeks and finds in the other world.  The many things are simply branches of the great One.  This remains the central pole of the world’s mysticism and ethical teachings.  We find this ‘all is one’ as a basic and beautiful truth in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, but indeed it traces back to the world wide culture of shamanism and vision quests.  It is only too perfect that all of the many traditions and cultures share this one hidden truth, and that all cultures elevate teachers who continue to point to the One as the root of all individual things.


Death, Resurrection and the Other World

As the shaman journeyed to the hidden and other, the shaman was believed to go to the place that people go when they die.  Again, this often involved journeying under the earth (consider the Greek myths and Persephone in Hades) or up into the sky (ascent into Heaven a la Mohammed).  The shaman was often thought to die and be reborn in taking the journey or seeing the hidden, a theme found today in American “born again” Christianity.  Shamanic initiation rituals involved the ritual death and rebirth into a new life of the shaman (Freemasons, Skull and Bones and other fraternities practice similar rites of initiation by ceremonial death and rebirth).  The shaman goes to the place from which life comes and to which life goes, the place where All is found and often envisioned as a tree.

Storytelling as Transmission of Knowledge

Before books, classrooms and, of course, Moodle, the transmission of knowledge was accomplished through storytelling.  The shaman and others of the community would tell stories to teach lessons about life and the relationships between the things of the world and the hidden forces.  This is the root of folktales and their similarities around the world.  Often these tales involved animals, ancestors and spirits.  The stories were the ways to share an understanding of these beings and one’s own life.  Again, it is all too easy to look down on this with the arrogance of many genres of books and areas of study, so we should remember that we are still investigating the mysteries of life and the mind in spite of all of our technology and material comforts.

Excellent examples of these tales are the Native American legends of Coyote and Crow.  We will note later in the course when the shaman-tale trickster continues to pop up in the world’s religions, for instance in the role that women play numerous times in the Torah or Old Testament of the Bible (such as Lot’s daughters breaking the law and committing incest in order to keep the lineage and covenant of Abraham alive).  The trickster, like the shaman, is an outsider who influences reality from outside of its common views and ways and thus plays a necessary role in complementing and completing the ways of things (for example, if Lot’s daughters had not committed incest, then the Abrahamic line of Israelites would have been broken and the covenant with Yahweh, the whole point of the Torah or Old Testament, would have been lost).

4 thoughts on “World Religions 1: Shamanism

  1. Hello Professor Gerlach, I like and agree with your thought about the Shaman and how Shamanism relates to our world today. However, your point regarding Lot’s daughter isn’t correct. The Mosaic Law was not in effect at the time that Lot was alive but was established after the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt over 400 years after the death of Abraham, Lot and his daughters. Further the Abrahamic covenant was made with Abraham, not his nephew Lot. The offspring that came from Lot thru his daughters were the tribes of Ammon and Moab, great adversaries of the Isrealites. The offspring that came from Abraham were the Ishmaelites thru his son Ishmael; Israelites thru his son Issac, and Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah with his wife Keturah.

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