Tuesday, January 01, 2013

I am a Shaman

I am a shaman.

I have often told my wife that in another time or place, I would have been a shaman. But the fact is, I do not have to be in another time or place. I am a shaman, here and now.

In his book Epic, Frederick Turner observes that
the basic elements of shamanic practice are found everywhere---the vocation of shaman, the shaman's call, the suffering or illness of the initiate, the use of drugs from alcohol to psychedelics, the shamanic musical instrument, rhythmic chanting or drumming, rites of passage including ritual death, the trance, the spirit guide (animal, human, or divine), the shamanic journey (usually both through the air and under the ground), the conversation with the dead ancestors, the shaman's power over and acquaintance with natural spirits, the use of a talisman, the shaman's social role as diviner, seer, moral judge, storyteller, and myth archive, and the shaman's subjective experience of flight, ecstasy, and sparagmos, or fragmentation. (181)
As Wittgenstein observes, if there is a family resemblance, then you you have the same thing. Do I have to have all of these to be a shaman? No. But there does have to be enough to tip one over into the category.

I will let the reader decide if I have the vocation. But I have definitely felt the call, I have suffered (both psychologically and physically), the drug use has been minimal (but not nonexistent), I am a poet who writes in rhythmic verse (rhythmic chanting), I have experienced a ritual death and came out a different person (a poet, a shaman), I have experienced trances, I have a spirit guide (and a very strict one at that!), I have experienced the shamanic journey (to the underworld, in the ritualistic death and rebirth), I am in constant conversation with dead ancestors (Nietzsche won't leave me alone -- and neither will Goethe! -- but I talk too to Shakespeare, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Plato, Aristotle, Hayek, etc.), I am certainly acquainted with natural spirits, I perform the social roles of moral judge, storyteller, and myth archive at the very least, and I have most definitely experienced ecstasy and sparagmos.

No musical instrument. And no talisman (perhaps my clipboard, on which I have written all my poems, plays, etc.?). Their lack is hardly enough to keep me out of the club, I would think.

Now, I know that in rationalistic times like these, my claim of being a shaman is puzzling, shocking, easily dismissed. But, as Hamlet observed, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And there will be those who do not realize that their priest or pastor is in fact a shaman -- who will dismiss my claim for entirely different reasons. But the fact is that the world remains full of shamans. We have just failed to recognize them. Was Jim Morrison, as the movie The Doors, claims, a shaman? I think so. And so was Nietzsche, I think. I am sure, given the above definition of Turner's, we could identify many more shamans. Not all are as prominent and dominant as Morrison and Nietzsche were, in their own ways. But prominence does not a shaman make. Many are perhaps not even entirely aware they are shamans.

Historically, shamans have had teachers in established shamans. Sadly, the contemporary world does not provide many opportunities to receive worldly guidance outside of theology schools. But shamans are not made in theology schools, even though they may find themselves drawn there. Shamans are born of pain and suffering, created in a voyage to the underworld, and given a gift and a mission and a guide. Your priest may be a shaman; but so, too, may your poet, your playwright, your film maker.

The shaman brings the world a gift -- a gift to the living from the world of the dead. I try to bring it in my poetry, and even here in this blog in my musings on morality and complexity.

I am a shaman.
It was pointed out to me that I left out the healing aspect of shamanism. That was my omission, not Turner's, as Turner does say that they "heal the body and restore the soul to the body" (181). This is too big a role to leave out, to be sure. Insofar as a given artist's work of art heals, that artist could be a shaman.

HT: Gus diZerega

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