The fox I am chasing is the design of experiences (called liturgies) that will allow people to confirm or challenge deeply held premises about the world. This is a matter of consciousness and so we come to the stinking holes where the shamans live. It is not the shamans themselves who stink -- it is the debris decaying around the mouth of their caves, much of it brought to the shaman in homage as well as bribery for their own purposes.
I’m going to devote this post to a book review: “The Elements of Shamanism,” 1989, by Nevill Drury, an Australian writer and self-publisher. It’s a true “pocket” book, 5” by 7.5”, 102 pages of text, with everything in the “resources” section at American addresses. It’s a quick inventory of the experts, the assumptions, and the names of identified shamans. It’s meant to produce profit. Exploiting shamanism is an old game.
Drury’s first assumption is that there ARE gods and that shamans believe they are relating to them, perhaps with the help of animal spirits. Then, making a quick tour of early cultures that have defined shamans, he collects typical tropes and methods: the tree, the mountain, the blood, the bones, flight, curing of the sick, bringing back the dead, crystals. and drumming. He is much influenced by Michael Harner, who uses drums and gourd rattles. http://www.shamanism.org/index.php If you’re into the paraphernalia, he’s your man.
Of course, once shamanism got mixed into New Age ideas, mind-altering substances became essential, so there is a discussion mostly based on identifying on some of the substances. He doesn’t spend time on the possible medical action of these enzymes in the brain, etc., because he is concentrating on primary ethnic contexts. He mentions the use of disciplines (starvation, thirst, cold, extreme exertion, pain) but doesn’t elaborate.
In the late Nineties, when I was first on the internet (to let you know how long ago that was, my computer was a LISA), I participated in a Native American “bulletin board” which was often preoccupied with discrediting “plastic shamans.” Some of the most notorious are listed in this little book. Black Elk is generally not attacked, though scholars will note that he seems to have absorbed quite a lot of Christianity. (They say the same thing about Percy Bull Child, who is not mentioned, and probably it is true.) Brooke Medicine Eagle, Sun Bear, and Lynn Andrews were regularly berated as fakes. Carlos Castenada and Luisa Tiesh are in this book but didn’t much enter the online discussion.
Echoing the notorious wars over writers who were or were not Native American, people got locked into jealous rages over the fakery, representing themselves -- the speakers -- as Ones Who Really Know and therefore the more legitimate objects of the adulation and prosperity. The most angry were often the ones of least blood quantum. (Which is a “red herring” anyway, since tribal affiliation is based on parentage, not the genome which was not known when tribes were defined.) Since it never really went anywhere, most of them have left the issue by now. This book is outdated.
The study of shamanism continues and I consider it both worthy and valuable. The ways of people who are still hunter/gatherers have a lot to teach us. In my experience, those who are considered shamans by their own people are rarely contacted by outsiders. Why would the People want a lot of tourists wading around in their sacred waters? Many scurrying little wannabes and outright charlatans end up killing people in plastic-tarped sweat lodges. There are people on this reservation, though death keeps weeding them out, who charge enormous amounts of money for outsiders to participate in half-invented ceremonies for people seeking magic rather than real inner change. That’s simply not what interests me.
What I want to think about is the management of consciousness. Shamans come into it as “technicians of the sacred” who in themselves experience something that belongs to a category called “dissociation” by psychologists. It is a brain state that includes out-of-body experiences, hypnotism, visions and hallucinations, schizophrenia, seizures, moments of high emotion or danger. Some people can control dissociation and others cannot.
A theory is that children who are extremely abused, both in terms of beatings and sexual invasion, can enter this state as a form of self-protection. Though “Sybil,” the girl with multiple personalities, has just now been discredited as making up her experiences, I suspect that there was a kernel of truth. There ARE instances of multiple personalities. Also of interest are people whose brains have been separated down the middle or who have had one half removed, usually in an attempt to stop disabling seizures.
It’s clear that something real happens in the brain that “presents” as a form of dissociation. The people who experience this may report they are in a different place -- truly and actually -- which they may or may not interpret in a religious way. Maybe because it was the first descriptions of shamanism that I knew (Campbell's and Eliade’s) I find the idea of bodily death, replacement of the bones with quartz stones, and a long flight on a horse over an abyss, the most gripping interpretations of the experience.
Much depends on what the shaman does with the experience. He may just hide it. He may try to take others to the same place. He may understand it as being chosen or as being damned. He may use art to explore and express it. Some try to make an institution and a dogma out of it, because they interpret the experience as religious and that’s what they understand religion to be. There might be money in it.
What interests me comes from the Sixties, when Bob Scriver and I sat with the Bundle Keeper circle of the Blackfeet in the Sixties. There was nothing “churchy” about it. It was more like a family reunion where traditions have been established. This is not to say it was trivial. What struck me most was the relationship to the ecology, the land and its inhabitants. This “Bundle Opening” was a ritual that tried to put everything into “right relationship” just as the season of the great thunderstorms began, for the sake of protection from lightning and floods. The materials were animal and bird skins, the songs were about the creatures, and the dances were imitations of them. Each man who danced, took the creature into his hands and rose to the circle with that sensory memory prompting him. In other words, if this were not your family and if you didn’t live out on the grass among the other creatures, you couldn’t really “get” the ritual. How could you feel it? It was an evoked heightened consciousness of each other and the great ecology in which they lived, based on experience. No amount of reading about it in books would really help you understand in the sense of shifting consciousness.