Alice Kehoe takes as point of departure for her monograph on shamans a description of Mircea Eliade, who is considered by many to be the most prestigious and compelling descriptor of shamanism. So I’ll do the same. My seminary was Meadville/Lombard Theological School, which used to enjoy a pleasant reciprocity with the University of Chicago. On the top floor of M/L was the office of Eliade who actually lived next door in the apartment on the top floor of student housing for M/L. This was to keep him hidden from the waves of acolytes who sought to throw themselves at his feet.
An elegant, aloof Roumanian, Eliade never went anywhere without his aromatic pipe which occasionally set his nest of office papers on fire. The top floor bathroom, built in the days when there was only one woman in the building (the office manager/receptionist), was gorgeously faced with marble and had a view out into the tops of the surrounding elms. We called it the hierophany (a sacred place). On the door dangled a hand-lettered sign with one side marked male and the other female, for the user to flip to show which gender was using it. Eliade never paid any attention but we knew when he was there because of the waves of perfumed smoke. Occasionally we saw his wife, beautiful as Greta Garbo. Eliade was a romantic who loved mystery and that just about explains the whole thing.
Taking on Eliade is a provocative thing to do and Alice knows it. (I know Alice from Browning.) She is business-like, careful about detail, very focussed and feisty -- that explains HER shaman book. Please remember that I’m Bibfeltian, which means welcoming of paradox and contradiction.
Alice’s point really boils down to the nature of definitions. We each like our own for our own purposes. I like to say that definitions are “pot-lifters,” meaning a useful implement with something hot enough to boil on one end and on the other end someone’s gripping hand. The someone generally has a motive of some sort. So Alice is pointing out that the definition of “shaman” promoted for a long time was meant to: show that anthros know a lot of interesting stuff they found in the field; get across the idea that primitive people are like children and have crazy ideas that we don’t have to take seriously; and confirm that civilized folks at great universities are smarter than the rest of us so they KNOW. As Alice points out, this can amount to racism.
Suddenly in the New Age there was a “sea change” and all became inverted. Now it was the innocently free of civilized restraint and taint who were the knowing ones and THEY claimed “shaman” as their own. But soon it was “leaders with charisma” who were being called shaman, as well as other (“Other” !! Mysteriously different !!) religious persons. Pretty soon the word was like “Kleenex” or “Hoover,” a word that once meant something specific and “owned” made into a whole general class of stuff that might or might not be like the original.
Alice figures there are four hypotheses about the nature of shamans that are “out there.” She says Eliade believes in an ancient and persistent religion that existed in neolithic times. (I’m not sure that’s accurate or that her understanding of religion is quite defined enough.) The second is that the shaman idea and practices have been spread around the planet by trade and travel. The third is the similarities come from responding to environmental prompts. (Her example is big birds like swans.) The fourth claims the roots of these practices are in human physiology
My own system moves the markers around in a different way. My basic theory is human consciousness and the practice of pressing it deeply into dissociation to the point of being in “a different world,” a liminal space. I think people have always done this, not in the same ways and not getting the same meanings out of it. Of course, ideas about what works will travel, though they will have to respond to the ecology in terms of materials available and what is clearly important to the people, whether water, food, shelter or reproduction.
The “New Age” kind of shamanism that is focused on personal growth is still hanging on, if only in the movies. I’m surprised that none of the people I’m reading seem to be aware of Henri Nouwen’s book, “The Wounded Healer,” or Thomas Moore’s “Care of the Soul.” Maybe because they are Christian.
Finally Alice brings us slap-up against the reality of the healing needed by so many people who never read ANY book or join ANY drumming circles. They do well to stay alive, particularly since their despairing misery triggers suicide. She calls this response to suffering the “deafening silence.” The kind of shamanic knowledge that “sells” does not require any investment in reality except in one’s own life. Thus it is revealed as just another commodification.
All this recent reading has reminded me of the Ninian Smart series of TV shows called “The Long Search.” Smart was one of those bow-tied professors, a secular religionist who is guilty of assisting the creation of comparative religion, the study of religion from “outside the believing circle.” If it said it was religion, that’s what it was, and the result was trendy and very pleasant services composed of a bricolage of Navajo this, Chinese that, Italian poet the other. What endeared him to me was that at the end of his series, he said that for him the crucial ritual was simply making tea in his own flat, and the rest of the episode was silent except for the teakettle as he went about his small gestures and protocols. The sacred ordinary.
But I want to throw up against this very nice civilized bit of patronizing social class, a reality I have learned a great deal about in the past few years. Young men with HIV, pressed down into the labyrinthine darkness where they make art, tormented in the night by terrible hallucinations caused by the meds that keep them alive, tattooed and adorned with their tribal markings, primal as people can be these days, and yet reaching out to others like them -- because no one else will. They are a shaman tribe, terrified of religious institutions but deeply spiritual.