Which Shaman?

It’s a strange kind of vindication when you see someone argue your ideas independently.  Even if they understand those ideas in a different way.  I suppose it’s necessary to say that in academia those who have university posts are assumed to be more authoritative than those of us who don’t. That’s not sour grapes, it’s simply a fact.  Some years ago, after having first seen Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I wrote a post on this blog suggesting that the Joker functioned as a shaman in that movie.  Being a blog by a non-university academic, the post had a few readers, but it is not peer-reviewed and therefore, officially just a matter of opinion.  I have studied religion professionally for decades now, however, and I would still stand by my assessment.

Recently I came across an article that argued Batman was a shamanic figure in that same movie.  It was affirming that another academic had come to a similar conclusion, however, we differ in our interpretation of who bears shamanistic characteristics.  It doesn’t help, I suspect, that shamanism isn’t well understood, and even the name is a bit of a misnomer.  We don’t really have a word for non-major religious practitioners of indigenous populations who may have little in common, so we call them shamans.  Their religious systems are too specific—“granular” is the favored business word these days—to categorize them easily.  And the reason for this is that we think of religions in the light of the large, organized conglomerations that arose in western Asia a couple millennia ago.  It’s difficult to make room for smaller exemplars.

Something larger religions have done is distorted the idea of religion as a local phenomenon.  Communities used to reflect the religious experience those who lived in them knew.  Catholicism divided the world into parishes and even tolerated some differences between them.  Protestantism gave Europeans (and their New World descendants) a set of choices, and towns in America often sport many steeples not because religion draws a community together but rather because it generally tears it apart.  Hierarchical religions are about as opposite of shamanism as Batman is different from the Joker.  They may have similar ends in mind, but their methods are quite different.  The shaman is a figure that leads to spiritual wholeness for the community.  Their methods seem questionable to larger, highly structured religions.  And the unaffiliated trickster may accomplish more than an establishment figure in a local setting.

Prophetic Shaman

Lewis EcstaticDon’t complain. So I’m told. Work with the system (i.e., the privileged), do your part, and most of all, don’t complain. What would Jeremiah do? Or any of the prophets? It seems to me that prophets had the job of calling out where society had gone wrong and doing so with a healthy dose of complaint. If you don’t call out evil, it only grows. Prophets come to mind because I’ve just finished reading I. M. Lewis’ Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. Spirit possession is chic, at least in the horror movie industry, but if you get beyond the stereotypes, you soon learn that inspired, or ecstatic, religion is largely based on good possession. The gods can temporarily inhabit the shaman, and, as Lewis points out, there is often an element of the underprivileged being those who are visited by the gods. Interestingly enough, indigenous cultures that feature shamans—or shaman-like practitioners—accept the rebuke of the gods, even when it may be a thinly veiled attempt to right an obvious wrong.

Shamanism is a bit of a misnomer. Not really a religion, but a set of spiritual practices originating among the Tungus of Siberia, shamanism is now conveniently applied to native peoples around the world. In our love of easy classification, we like to say this belief is similar to that belief, so they must be a type of religion. In fact, however, “religion” is much more integrated into the daily lives of indigenous peoples and specific beliefs vary widely. Nevertheless, we understand possession and shamanism, and we apply them as categories to try to make sense of it all. Lewis does so with an anthropologist’s eye, finally in the last chapter addressing the psychological questions. It is often claimed, for instance, that shamanism is a form of mental illness. What seems clear to me is that shamans are responsible for preventing injustice from getting too far established.

And that brings me back to prophets. Prophets, particularly among those who study the Bible, are often seen as religious authorities. It seems to me that prophets, as opposed to priests, grew out of the untamed concern for justice typically exhibited by shamans. Priests are establishment religionists. They support the government and the government supports them. Temples are built. Religion is regularized. Prophets, however, can come from anywhere. They are liminal figures, complaining, in God’s name, when injustice appears. They don’t support the status quo just because it makes people comfortable. In other words, complaint is often the only way to make the divine will known. They are the heirs of the shamans. One thing that’s pretty obvious—whether you live in Siberia, Israel, or America—shamans are still sorely needed.

Human, Nature

Wild EarthSomeone recently told me that a city blocks a certain vibration that people draw from contact with the earth. I know that vibration often sets off “new age” alarms, but this person was rational, scientific, and had grown up in New York City. I grew up in a town on the edge of the woods. We didn’t live on concrete. In fact, the floor of our shack was so thin in some places that you could see the actual soil underneath. Even our driveway was gravel. Although it was a dysfunctional family, I felt more connected to my planet back then. Wild Earth, Wild Soul: A Manual for Ecstatic Culture, by Bill Pfeiffer, is just what it says. It’s a manual for how to get back in touch with nature. Basing his ideas on those of indigenous cultures world-wide, with a healthy dose of shamanism, he explores the vibrations of the earth. I had, at times, to force myself to listen. He’s right about so much that I stayed with the narrative to the end.

Civilization comes with a price tag. A very high price tag. The rates have been set by a small group of “progressives” who operate with the idea—mistaken—that all nature is a machine. Physics, they claim, and chemistry, show that all of life is mathematical. Nothing in the universe doesn’t add up. But biology, as Pfeiffer repeatedly shows, often doesn’t. The mistake is as fundamental as it is reductionistic. Life isn’t quantifiable. Biology messes up the nice, neat system we’ve invented. Indigenous peoples, while not idealized, lived in much better harmony with the land, not over-exploiting. It was a sustainable existence. What “civilized” people wanted was more. More of everything. A surplus, in fact. Without that surplus there is no business, right? Capitalize on that!

We’ve lost touch with nature. Our “leaders” want to exploit it. Mine it, refine it, and make it “useful.” When’s the last time I looked at a tree just to appreciate it as nature? Civilization can’t envision a tree without an axe. If it grew it can be improved. Even our food has to be genetically modified because obviously nature can’t make a profit on its own. No, Wild Earth, Wild Soul hasn’t made the impact on the world it might have. I’d never have found it if it weren’t for a used book sale. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t right. We need to dismantle. We are not electronic devices, as much as the internet tells you otherwise. I knew that as a child. And as my feet ache from walking over acres of concrete on my way to “work” I know it’s true. There are indeed good vibrations out there, but here they’re too deep under my feet to feel.

Heilige Geist

Poltergeist is one of those movies that evokes mixed emotions. Sure, it was one of the really scary ones when it just came out, and the rumors of a curse after the tragic early death of Heather O’Rourke probably added to the mystique. I actually didn’t see the movie until over a decade had passed since its release. It came out when I was in college, and I didn’t often splurge to see a movie in those days. VCRs were still expensive and your only real option was to rent a movie. In any case, a few years back I bought a cheap DVD and, after having seen many horror movies, it felt a little tame. And the ending was over-the-top. I have a theory that being unemployed makes you vulnerable to suggestion. Over the weekend I was looking for a movie I could watch for free on Amazon Prime, when Poltergeist II showed up. I hadn’t even realized that there had been a sequel, and after watching it, I think I understand why the movie was buried.

Poltergeist-2-the-other-side

Poltergeist II: The Other Side picks up where the original left off. An added character, Taylor, a Native American shaman, brings good spirits to the Freeling family as the original poltergeists start to haunt Diane’s mother’s house, where they are staying. Interestingly, the ghosts are revealed to be those of a traveling, apocalyptic preacher and his followers. The preacher, Henry Kane, led his group to the desert where they awaited the end of the world and then died after it did not come. They were apparently the ghosts haunting the original Freeling house, and not those of the “Indian burial ground” that the first movie touted. Taylor brings the healing, Native American spirits into the conflict and they win out over the Christian sect ghosts. All of this was becoming more unbelievably campy until Carol Anne was rescued by her now deceased grandmother, in the form of an angel. This mythological cocktail left me feeling a bit dizzy.

Some interesting subtexts floated through this film. Native Americans were now good, rather than the haunting spirits of the first movie. Kane’s sect, which had to be a veiled reference to the Latter Day Saints, showed Christian millennialists as the truly dangerous otherworldly residents. Kane is a preacher (and Mezcal worm) that doesn’t really want to pass over into the light. Why he travels all the way to Phoenix to try to pick up a nine-year-old girl isn’t really clearly explained. Horror movies, of course, frequently make use of religion as a vehicle for what truly frightens. Often it is religion misunderstood. Kane was not a believable character, in this case, without the abject cynicism of an unholy ghost who traveled to the desert southwest to set up a new religion. Once Mormonism breaks into the mainstream, perhaps I’ll have the stomach to watch Poltergeist III and see where the evil shifts the next time.

Witching Fiction

WitchesRoadLiterary fiction is a rich trove of religious thinking. Consuming fiction sustains the soul as well as the mind. Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight was an impulse buy. The title, the cover, the intricate implications, the price were all right. It turned out to be a rewarding story that involved, possibly, witches and certainly religion. Not that it is a story about religion—definitely not. Yet, the protagonist is a weatherman who dresses as a vampire to present old monster movies on late night television. His relationships define him and, as his daughter learns, he may be the son of a witch. Deeply textured with the earthy reality of the rural poverty-stricken, at several points in the novel a thoroughly naturalized biblical vocabulary effortlessly flows. At crucial moments the story is poised on the crux of heathenism and religiosity. It is a book difficult to forget.

The fascination with witches has deep explanatory roots. When hopes are not realized as they are carefully planned, people naturally seek a scapegoat, someone to blame. Too often in history the blame has fallen on the powerless, the marginalized. Too often on women. In the somewhat enlightened twenty-first century it has become passably safe to declare oneself a witch. Our scientific worldview allows it as a harmless delusion, but the issue is more than it might seem. For some, witchcraft is the only channel available for a power that should belong to all. For others it retains a taint of evil, primarily because of a biblical point-of-view.

Israel in antiquity was a patriarchal culture. It was a man’s world that kept most women from any seat of power. “Witches” in this world are simply those who continue the trajectory of a kind of animistic faith in the vibrant life of nature. Prior to “revelation” it was self-evident that nature itself was full of vitality—spirits—if you will. When God was added to the equation, the life-force of nature fell on the “less than” side of the comparison. Even today children recognize the shaman under the name “witch-doctor,” euphemistically applied to those closer to nature than to the Bible. Reading Witches on the Road Tonight brought all of this back to me. Although largely set in New York City, it spoke to me as a rural urbanite who left something valuable in the woods of my childhood.

Shaman Shifting

Shapeshifting I confess that I haven’t read Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Being incurably drawn to the weird, however, I picked up a copy of John Perkins’ earlier book, Shape Shifting: Shamanic Techniques for Global and Personal Transformation at the recent Hunterdon County Library Book Sale. I also confess that I fear being classed as one of those irrational sorts who’ll believe anything. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s been to college or university that a Ph.D. is no protection from the strange ideas that waft through human gray matter. Many years of teaching convinced, I hope, at least a few of my students that I approach the study of religion in a reasonable—dare I suggest?—rational, way. Despite appearances to the contrary on this blog, I weigh evidence carefully. Sometimes the evidence suggests we don’t yet have all the data. So it was with an open mind, but also a dose of skepticism, that I read through Perkins’ book. And yes, he does suggest that cellular-level transformation is possible.

Before breaking out your hooey-meters, however, consider that John Perkins is a successful businessman. Money speaks, n’est-ce pas? So I’m reminded every rational working day. The human mind, however, plumbs realms on which empirical method sheds little light, even to this day. Psychologists still debate whether there is a subconscious mind at all. And then there’s that troubling question of what exactly reality is. Historically, people have answered such questions with religion. And religion quite often permits entry where science declares “no gods allowed.” So did John Perkins really transform into a ball of energy and float across both time and space and see such disturbing sights as he describes? Did Richard Bach really astro-project with his partner, as recounted in The Bridge Across Forever? Are we really rooted to this mundane world where politicians and entrepreneurs make all the rules?

Perkins recounts his experiences with shamans of the Amazon, and like Jeremy Narby, his experiences with ayahuasca, a consciousness-altering plant. He even recounts transforming into an “inanimate object” so that his wife could not see him. Is it real? Can science measure such events? Does anything escape the penetrating stare of the electron microscope? We will have our Richard Dawkinses on one hand declaring an unequivocal “No!” The other hand, however, may be generating the sound of clapping for those who have ears to hear. Or at least for those who have eyes to read. At the end of this book, truth comes down to a matter of belief.

Intelligence, Evolved

intelligenceinnatureAnyone who has looked into the eyes of a cat or dog can have little doubt that they think. What exactly they think is, of course, a matter of conjecture. I had been meaning to read Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature for a few years now. We are taught at a young age to eschew anthropomorphism—although our eschewers don’t use that word—as the childish way of perceiving the world. Animals don’t think because that’s reserved for people. We sit in the finest spots in the poshest corners of the animal kingdom and the sign says “No Dogs Allowed.” I never really outgrew this child-like belief because the minimal scientific evidence I’ve been able to infer supports the idea that like us, other animals think. Narby, an anthropologist, agrees. At least to a point. I don’t wish to make claims for Dr. Narby that he wouldn’t support, but he provides fascinating empirical evidence, “down” to the level of amebas and plants, that indicates intentionality. Nature is alive with thought.

As an anthropologist, Narby begins his consideration with the insights of shamans. Although scientists rarely countenance shamans, they are among the earliest of human religious specialists and they have long promoted the idea that humans are fully integrated into nature. We are not separate and above. From our brains to our bones, we are one with the natural world. If we think, should not animals think? Interestingly, this idea brings Narby into some of the same territory as Thomas Nagel; intelligence may be a cumulative process. Our brains’ ability to think may be the result of collecting together the thought processes of our fellow creatures to a point where our thinking becomes abstract. We’re told that dolphins and whales don’t think like us—they don’t build cities, do they? Maybe it’s because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs. Maybe it’s because they’re smarter than we are.

There are, it seems, many thinkers on the outside of the hallowed confines of hard science that are chipping away at the strict materialist edifice. There can be no serious question that the empirical method explains much of what we experience in the universe. It has always amazed me, however, that we assume that humans are able to find the outer limits of existence with our limited senses. We know animals can see, hear, smell, taste, and maybe even feel in ways beyond our capabilities. Who’s to say that there isn’t other input well beyond our limited senses that we use to survive in this environment? After all, we didn’t evolve to know everything—we evolved to be able to thrive in our ecosystems. For that you don’t need all the answers—just enough to get by. If you doubt my reasoning here, I suggest you ask your dog or cat.