Of course as soon as I posted Grimes’ suggestion of the characteristics of a “parashaman”, a term he invented to avoid saying “plastic shaman” (That’s an entry in Wikipedia.) or “pseudo shaman”, I was challenged and, in fact, I challenge myself. But the issues are not simple. Let me make a list.
1. A shaman was originally an isolated person -- outside the social circle -- in a place where the culture was directly dependent on hunting/gathering. Because he/she had survived an episode of “death” (not suffering) that person was thought to be able to visit whereever a dead person goes and bring them back. A shaman was not a “good” person, a saint, but might be in large part a magician, a sorcerer. Even an evil man.
2. The word, “shaman,” was adapted from a local indigenous word by an anthropologist looking for a term. It referred to what the anthro thought a shaman was. More later on this from an anthro, Alice Kehoe.
3. Popularly, “shamans” have become “healers,” particularly when the affliction is seen to be “spiritual.” This means that the person is suffering psychically (which will often be tightly bound to physical suffering) and the shaman is believed able to cure that. Because many rich people ARE suffering psychically (and never think of just getting rid of the money that drains them), the clever modern shaman will help them out by reducing their wealth significantly via fees for service. This stigmatizes shamanic practices as something for rich, idle, educated, gullible people who feel entitled to be spared suffering.
4. Because shamans were identified among the primal peoples first, anyone who is genetically identified as part of a “tribe” (no matter how modern) can easily set up business as a shaman. Since much suffering is psychosomatic/somatopsychic -- meaning that the mind and the body are deeply interwoven so that one affects the other in quite real ways -- and since placebos (substances that don’t work as medicine UNLESS they are capsulized in belief about their efficacy), the diligent shaman can often build a reputation and make a little money. Since even among modern tribes there is always a need for money, shamanism is a pretty helpful line of work. Some I know also add a layer of Christian repentance for evil-doing earlier in their lives.
5. Buddhism is always a curative option. There IS a thing I’m sure Grimes would be happy to call “para-Buddhism” and, in fact, his chapter in “Rite of Place” which is called “Ritual in the Classroom” is a sad but entertaining account of the change in the students in his Zen class over the years, where a desire for enlightenment shifted (along with the culture shifting) to a desire for grades (which means economic advantage).
6. It is not just the provider of shamanic services but also the consumer who gains cachet -- not just prestige at cocktail parties, but also a kind of self-confidence that they are certified. That’s healing in itself.
7. It is said that everyone has spiritual problems and therefore everyone should be entitled to shamanic intervention. There’s no such thing as government programs to provide “shaman stamps” the way we provide food stamps because physical starvation is pretty compelling. Starving people do not ask for a shaman instead.
8. A certain “kind” of art work is considered by society to be “shamanic.” It’s a little hard to say why they call it that. Maybe partly because they think it is “primal,” I guess, in a National Geographic cave-paintings kind of way, and partly because it seems to come in a stream from the sub-conscious, and partly because it’s close to the environment or uses Native American tropes. I’m not knocking it -- I often prefer it.
9. The need for pejorative prefixes arises when there are charlatans who advertise as shamans but are not (watch the pop-up ads that will stick to this post) and, in fact, are so out there that they endanger lives the way the recent sweat lodge tragedy did. The old-time tribal people had protocols that had developed over centuries through experience. For instance, some tribes do NOT allow mixed genders in sweat lodges at all and some don’t even allow separate sweat lodges restricted to women. But modern feminists (esp. rich ladies) INSIST and what sensible shaman will fight that when a check is involved? In some cultures people have sweated all their lives for generations and their bodies know what to do. But for some keyboard clicker who is fifty pounds overweight to come into a sweat lodge is asking for trouble. (I stay OUT. Walking on a bed of coals, likewise.)
10. Shamans are a hot issue that can get entangled in the politics surrounding post-colonial claims that whites come stealing even the indigenous spirits and whites on the other side scoffing at the powers of every cranky old man who says he’s a shaman. Low quantum urban teenage women claim privilege and judge all the rest in incredibly haughty internet posts. Sheesh.
11. The farther one goes towards the equator, the more the shaman becomes mixed with the curandero, the herbalist, because the farther you go south, the more plants there are. The circumpolars stick to bones. They know a lot about blood and skin. The equatorials know the entheogens, the vision-producing drugs. Entheogens can bring a person into the territory of law-enforcement, who are not inclined to be healing.
12. No strict shaman belongs to an institution, though there are many who start groups and publish in magazines and, as Grimes notes, travel the circuit of workshops, demonstrations, staged experiences, and healing retreats. In fact, some say the mark of a real shaman is someone who doesn’t want to be a shaman but is forced into it. Grimes is at risk.
13. Every human is likely to have a spiritual need or crisis, but they may be so desperate to simply survive that every moment is busy with that. But here’s a corollary: every person has the capacity to heal others if they care to develop it. Why don’t they just do that? It might cure their own spiritual hollowness.
14. Some people are beyond “spiritual” help except through what might be called “prayer.” When my father was in a coma, dying, a little church group -- one of whom had been a friend (my father was an atheist) -- came every day to the foot of his bed and prayed for him. Every day my mother’s minister came to visit and left her a note at the bedside. These acts had no impact on my father’s deep-brain stroke. But they were of major social help, not just to my mother but also in terms of the hospital staff and others merely passing by. They felt their own work was honored and they felt they should do their best for my father, since he had such friends.
I’m not sure that a shaman draped in skins and bones who came to stand with a rattle and chant would have had the same effect. But here in the Indian Health Service hospital, it might improve the prestige of the patient enough to make people work a little harder and a little more carefully. If they knew about shamans.