Becoming a Shaman: Initiation and Legitimation
The process of becoming a shaman often involves a "sudden and radical reorganization of values, attitudes and beliefs which 'make sense' of a hitherto confusing and anxiety provoking world." (Schwedwer, 1972, 441, note 4, quoting Wallace, 1961., 192) This reorganization involves a reorientation of the potential shaman's sense of reality and personality. In "cultures where the shamanic institution exists an individual may choose to restructure his life and become a shaman as a means of resolving a life-crisis." (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 23) Though this may involve profound changes in mind and self-expression, shamanism "is not an institution designed to capitalize on psychological aberrations." (Ibid., 13)
The nature of the shamanic calling, initiation, training and the development of psychological abilities involves a breakdown of old patterns of behavior and senses of reality. The shaman's development has consequently been compared with psychopathic and schizophrenic forms of mental illness. (Ibid., 24) It is important to realize that the potential shaman is not a victim of the life crisis and altered perceptions of his profession as is the schizophrenic. According to Eliade, the "problem has been wrongly stated... The acquisition of shamanic gifts indeed presupposes the resolution of the crisis brought on by the first steps of this vocation. The initiation is manifested by-- among other things-- a new psychic integration." (Eliade, 1964, 77)
In societies where the shamanic institution has degraded, the person experiencing early phases of the calling may indeed suffer from social ostracism and may develop schizoid, anti-social behavior. Those societies might then classify the potential shaman as "crazy" and therefore of little use to social evolution. This is especially common among modern, industrialized societies who have lost a sense of place in nature. Hence, the "altered perception of reality into which this newly opened cognition plunges the schizophrenic [or developing shaman] has, in modern societies, no cultural validity." (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 24) There is no support network to assist developing shamans (or slipping schizophrenics) in the process of integrating their altering perceptions. Instead, the shaman must work out his adjustments "without the benefit of culturally sanctioned attitudes for [the] expanded reality which he now inhabits." (Ibid.)
The isolation of the potential shaman from his or her society does not assist integration, but rather stimulates a breakdown between social and personal realities. Sleeping and waking cycles may also charge allowing the potential shaman to slip into a "twilight world of hypnogogic fantasy and half-waking reverie." (Ibid., 23) This state may be compared with the auto-hypnotic trance achieved through "self-initiated sensory deprivation" in which "visual and auditory hallucinations and perceptual distortions" are common phenomena. (Ibid.) The development of these abilities is an asset to the shaman in a culture which validates his or her experiences, but a tragedy to the schizophrenic or persons with shamanic inclinations that live in societies in which the vocation of the shaman is not an option. (Peters, 1981, 91)
Becoming a shaman is a complex and often confusing process. There are generally two ways that potential shamans are generated: l) through "hereditary transmission," or 2) "spontaneous election." (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 9) Initiation also proceeds along two general lines, both of which are important to the developing shaman. The first involves the experience of ecstasy, trance and dream visions and mastery of the psychological processes underlying ASC's. The second part of initiation involves apprenticeship to an older, experienced shaman or appropriate elder who trains the initiate in ecstatic techniques, costume making and symbolism, "spirit languages," helping spirit names and types, curing techniques, medicinal plants and herbs, the use of drums and other musical instruments, and sacred songs, stories and chants. (Ibid.)
Whether the shaman-to-be inherits or spontaneously becomes a shamanic candidate, s/he must show "a certain receptivity to states of trance or ecstasy." (Ibid.) Young shamans are frequently of an introverted and slightly nervous, highly sensitive constitution. (Ibid., 23) There is often a tendency to moodiness, sickness, solitude, dis-ease, psychosomatic illness and the fear of death and personal dissolution. (Ibid., 9) These tendencies manifest themselves in the classic "initiatory illness."
Perhaps the best generalization of this process comes from Eliade's description of the disease aspects of the shamanic calling and initiation. especially vivid are his descriptions of the candidate's visions of personality disintegration which often take the form of a perceived dismemberment and skeletonization of the body, with body parts being broken down and reconstituted. (Eliade, 1964, 53, 62)
Psychosomatic distress also manifests as "pains" which are "looked upon both as the source of the shaman's powers and the cause of disease. The 'pains' are thought to be animate and self-moving, sometimes with personality." (Park, 1938, 80)
Peters describes the initiatory sickness as a somaticization of the "Axis Mundi." (Peters, 1981, 92) He draws a parallel between the development of shamanic skills among the Tamang and the rise of "Kundalini" described by adepts of Tantric Yoga. The principle of Tantra involves the awakening of the "Chakras," neuro-energy centers that are charged with vital-force,"Chi" or "Ki." These centers are associated with neuro-endocrine processes, and the rise of "Kundalini" along the spinal pathways can be a frightening and bewildering experience to the subject. (Ibid., 93) It can also be very beautiful, and the images revealed during these times may bring out insights into the deepest levels of the initiate's sub-conscious. These images and complexes may become valuable tools for the future shaman in his or her role as an interpreter of the dream visions of others. (Ibid.)
Whether pleasant or disturbing, the initiatory sickness presents the candidate with an "existential crisis" that parallels the death/rebirth experiences of mystics and yogis. (Ibid.) The "creative illness" is itself a "rite of passage" and a transformative process. It is characterized by "anti-structural, paradoxical situations" which challenge the novice and provide insights into the afflictions of others. Feelings of desolation, angst and alienation are also common, and are to be seen among such non-shamanic practitioners as artists, poets, and scientists whose sense of dis-ease fosters the inspiration toward heightened creativity and novel forms of expression. (Ibid.)
Shamanic election may also be revealed through various physical anomalies such as the "shaman-tooth” an extra finger or toe, "superfluous bones," birthmarks and other stigmata. (Fazekas, 1967, 107) More commonly, the first signs involve dream-visions or extraordinary experiences of nature. (Holtved, 1967, 23) These include meeting a magical animal, finding a magical stone or object, or surviving an ordeal in the wilderness. (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 13) These experiences are often resisted at first, but are eventually yielded to and sought after in training with a master shaman. Among the Paviotso, "when a boy starts going into trances, his father knows that someday his son will be a doctor. A woman can inherit power the same way." Park, 1938, 30) Though not an inherited profession for the Nepalese "Bonpo," a young candidate may succeed his parent if he shows the proper ecstatic qualifications. (Schmid, 1967, 85) Initiatory dreams and trances are like Jung’s "Big Dreams," and carry much numinous content. (Peters, 1981, 52) They are key elements in the development of the shaman's personality, whether the position is inherited or of spontaneous election.
Irrespective of the nature of the first signs of the calling, the shamanic candidate must soon find a suitable teacher. (Karsten, 1955, 65) Generally an older shaman or village elder will train the novice in the proper use of the "tools of the trade," ceremonial and ritual procedures, fasting, and the techniques of ecstasy and healing. The relationship of the apprentice to the "guru" is both "didactic," in terms of being taught the myths and ritual procedures and healing methods, and "ecstatic" through the mastery of trance and spirit flight. This process bears remarkable similarity to the practice of undergoing psychoanalysis while studying to become a psycho-therapist. (Peters, 1981, 17, 84)
The "guru" guides the novice through the inner world of ecstasy and trance, and assists in such experiences as ritual dismemberment, death and rebirth, celestial journeys, "sacred-tree climbing" and the use of psychedelics, narcotics and other hallucinogens. (Eliade, 1964, 110) The teacher prepares the aspirant for initiation by instructing him or her in the proper means of dealing with challenging situations, and helps to provide a cosmological structure within which the shaman-to-be must operate. Occasionally, the teacher will pass on to the student certain of his or her own spirit allies, but it is usually left up to the student to develop his or her own connections with the supernatural world and its inhabitants.
Finding a spirit ally and/or tutelary being is one of the main tasks for the initiate. Its discovery is often predicated by meaningful synchronicities or coincidences, as well as senses of ancestral urgings which give clues to the means by which the tutelary beings may be contacted. Sometimes a dream or vision will provide the structure for meetings with spirit entities, as in the common sense of climbing the celestial tree, mounting the sacred "Axis Mundi," shimmying up a rope, or flying like a bird to the "other world." (Ibid., 67, 110)
Sometimes a "Vision Quest" is performed in a deliberate attempt to contact the spirit world. (Ibid., 100, and Winstedt, 1951, 73) In North American shamanistic societies, the "Vision Quest" is a very special rite of passage toward the initiation into adulthood of both shamans and non-shamans.(Eliade, 1964, 109) The forms of Vision Quest differ among those societies that practice it, but it is often done at puberty or adolescence before sexual encounters, or after a long period of abstinence. The seeker must leave the village or tribe and find an isolated place of power in the wilderness. S/he must remain there alone for any number of 2-6 days while fasting, using a sweat-lodge and other forms of self-purification, and praying while staying awake until a "vision" occurs. This process involves learning a personal "song" or chant that is often the gift of a spirit who may take the "form" of an ancestor, animal, plant or element of nature. (Ibid., 100) Finding a spirit ally is considered auspicious and fortuitous, while not finding an ally or achieving vision can seriously affect the young person's self-esteem, tribal status and personal potency. (Ibid., 109)
In some cultures the spirit ally may be the soul of an ancestor or dead shaman. (Ibid., 81-85) This entity assists the shaman to-become a volitional spirit in control of his/her spirit-body during cosmic journeys. The tutelary spirit may also take the form of a spiritual seducer that teaches the initiate secrets. Often, a relationship develops with this celestial "mate," as the lonely aspirant longs for more tangible sensual and sexual relations with members of the opposite sex while engaged in the long periods of social isolation that frequently accompany shamanic initiation.
Whether the spirit allies are ancestral, sexual, botanical, geological, animal or mythical, it is important for the initiate to learn to communicate with them. (Ibid., 86-95) This often requires the development of a special "language" which can be learned either from the teacher or from one’s own efforts with the spirits. (Ibid., 96) The language is often akin to the sounds of animals, like birds (Ibid., 97) and helps the novice to move through several dimensions of experience and remain centered, as well as to make sense of the subjective experiences of soul-flight and dream-visions. (Ibid., 99) It is common knowledge among shamanic practitioners that the relative bizarreness of one's experiences in trance are extremely difficult to communicate to those that have not shared or experienced similar processes themselves. (Sun Bear, 1983, 206) Among those that do share such experiences, there tends to develop a personal language that, like the Yakut shaman's 12,000+ word poetic vocabulary, expresses their ecstatic and otherworldly, visionary experiences. (Rogers, 1982, 8)
As among the Bon shamans of Nepal, shamanic initiation generally involves three stages of l) separation from "normal" society and social intercourse, 2) transition from profane to sacred consciousness, and 3) incorporation of the new skills into a form that benefits the shaman's society. (Peters, 1981, 94) Some societies mark these stages with public and private rituals and ceremonies. The Chumash of California have a complex ceremony to celebrate the acquisition of a spirit helper. "Perhaps the most significant ceremony as far as the individual was concerned was the drinking of Datura, for it was during the subsequent coma and hallucinatory state that the boy or girl established the special relationship with a dream helper (represented by the ?atiswin or talisman) and received prognostications concerning his or her future from the alcuklas or administering official." (Blackburn, 1975, 14)
Among the Paviotso of the Western Nevada however, there was no public initiation of the shaman. He or she simply declared that s/he was ready to begin "doctoring" whenever s/he felt competent. There was no organized training, though apprenticeship did sometimes occur among relatives. (Park, 1938, 45) Paviotso ceremonial procedures tend to differ, therefore, from shaman to shaman, especially in the details, because of the individual communications between the shamans' particular spirit information sources. The general forms of the rituals were shared by most shamans, and were often picked up through participation in healing ceremonies directed by other shamans. (Ibid., 46)
In Buryat society, a shaman "is socially recognized as such, and he is called forth as a shaman by his own social group; he can only function as a shaman if he is recognized as one in potential by his contemporaries." (Krader, 1978, 18) This generally occurs when personal experiences of spirit communication and travels to the "other worlds" can be successfully demonstrated to cultural experts like other shamans. "Only the shaman can see the spirit or spirits from which he derives his power. Even when he invokes his supernatural aids at a doctoring, they are visible to him alone. Their presence is known to the others only through the shaman's account of his conversation with them. Supernatural spirits never appear to, nor are they ever heard by, anyone but those upon whom they bestow their power." (Park, 1938, 19-20)
With the acquisition of spirit allies and the "techniques of ecstasy" and healing, the shamanic candidate becomes "transformed from a profane to a sacred state of being." (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 10) S/he is able to assist the healing processes of other people with skills derived from a transformative process that often involves sickness, confusion, and the symbolic death and rebirth of the novice into the new, wholistic, integrated personality of the shaman. This process involves imbalance, disharmony, breakdown, restructuring and a return to wholeness for the shaman, as well as in his or her relations with society and the natural world.