Monday, November 19, 2007

BA Thesis Chapter 6

Chapter Six
Elements and Sources of the Shamanic
Complex Among Primal Peoples

Archeological evidence suggests that the shamanistic complex is among the oldest forms of hominid religious expression. The caves of Lasceaux and other European cave sites place the shaman-figure back tens of thousands of years from the present. (Furst, 1977, 20-21) Somewhat later and thousands of miles away, the I Ching was written as an aid to divination practices whose origins reflect Taoist magical traditions of the Asiatic mountain regions. (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 109)
These ancient records reveal only a tiny fraction of the far reaching impact of the shamanic complex upon human religious expression. The common essence of all shamanistic societies is the belief that there is a "means of contact with the supernatural world by the ecstatic experience of a professional and inspired intermediary: the shaman." (Hultkrantz, 1978, 30) This "inspired intermediary" is the focal point of a complex which "contains a set of beliefs, tales and ritual practices which form a well-organized net of interrelationships." (Ibid., 29) A cultural ecosystem, the shamanic complex has four main constituents:
l) the existence of a contactable spirit world;
2) the shaman, mediator between spirit-world and society;
3) the existence of tutelary-helping spirits who guide and assist the shaman, equivalent to Castaneda's "Allies;" and
4) shamanic ecstasy, spirit-flight, healing, possession, prophecy, and other aspects of the mastery of alternate states of consciousness. (Ibid., 30)

According to Hultkrantz' understanding of Vajda (1964), "'without the belief in helping spirits shamanism cannot be spoken of.' The ecstatic who attains the other world without the help of spirits is certainly no shaman." (Ibid.) This belief is so common to the shamanic complex that investigators have wondered at the possible origins of such ceremonies as the "spirit-lodge" or "shaking-tent" divination practices. (Hultkrantz, 1967, 54)
Hultkrantz has noted the similarity of forms in the "spirit-lodge" ceremonies in both North American and Northern Asiatic-Arctic cultures. These include the binding of the shaman, a noisy and dramatic entrance of the spirits, curing and prophesying while they are present, the existence of a leading guardian spirit who is often a deceased shaman. (Ibid.) As an ecstatic ceremony, the "spirit-lodge" involves the percussive influences of drumming and rattle shaking, singing and automatic speech indicating possession, and occasionally light visions, such as blue sparks hovering about the lodge while the spirits are present. (Ibid., 57-58) In both Asia and America, the "spirit-lodge" was a divination ceremony used more for information retrieval than for healing. (Ibid., 67)
Is it possible that the similarity of forms in such ceremonies as the "spirit-lodge" implies a common origin of the ritual? (Ibid., 55) Though the exact location of the shamanic womb are unknown, it is worth speculating that the sources of the ancient shamanistic motifs lie on the vast regions of the Siberian Steppes. In tracing the origins of such artifacts as Korean language, we find ties with Finnish, Hungarian and Turkish cultures which are part of the "Altai" linguistic group whose roots lie deep in the Altai Mountains of Northern Mongolia. (Covell, 1983, 90) The survival of these ancient ties to Korea's pre-history are impressive considering the persecution and suppression of shamanic beliefs and practices by Confucian authorities and a general merging of belief systems with Taoist magic. (Ibid.)
The Hungarian's pre-Christian religions have a strong similarity to those of other warrior and steppe peoples. The Huns, Persians, Avars, Chayars, Turks and Scythians all exhibited the existence of a belief in a sacred kingship by a heavenly warrior-priest, a supreme creator, and specific gods and goddesses of natural places, creatures, elements and events. (Fazekas, 1967, 103)
The shamanic complex is notable not only for its ubiquity, age and commonality of forms, but also for its ability to co-exist and adapt to other prevailing perspectives. (Furst, 1977, 6) This adaptation function may reflect an ecological approach to spirituality and the practical, survival oriented values seen in many shamanic practitioners. A sense of an environmental interconnectedness as experienced by the super-sensitive and focused shaman is revealed in this poem by a California Yokut:

My words are tied in one With supernatural
With the great mountains Power,
With the great rocks, And you, Day,
With the great trees, And you, Night!
In one with my body, All of you see me
And my heart. One with this world.
Do you all help me (Ibid., 9)
The shamanic "Weltanschauung" (Shamanschauung?) holds a strong interactive relationship with the natural world and its myriad elements. "The powers of the nonhuman are, to the primitive, truly overriding-- one dry season can wipe out the tribe-- and if the non-human is addressable, it is also to be revered." (Comfort, 1979, 73)
The effects of physical ecosystems upon the psychological development of human culture vary from place to place, and among societies, but the influence cannot be denied or underestimated. "The natural environment is of great importance for the formation of a primitive people. Geographical circumstances, the natural surroundings and the climate in which it lives necessarily influence not only its material culture but also its whole mental character. Such external conditions evidently are of greater importance for the development of religious beliefs than innate ethnic and racial differences." (Karsten, 1955, 7)
The effects of desolation and wilderness have very powerful influences upon human consciousness, and "this may particularly be said of peoples living in Arctic regions such as the Eskimo, the Lapps and North-Siberian peoples respecting whom we may speak of a special Arctic culture common to all. In such a geographical environment, among other things, a form of religion like shamanism finds natural conditions for its development." (Ibid.)
If no other thing may be said about the shamanic complex, it is that it is predicated upon a highly developed and deeply felt sense of belonging to and being an integral part of the natural environment. The numinosity of particular geographical features becomes readily apparent to anyone who even temporarily sheds their socially ingrained attitudes ofalienation from the land. This is especially possible in places of intense geological activity such as deserts, rugged coastlines and in particular high altitude and mountainous regions.
In his ethnographic studies, Karsten noticed that "peoples living in mountain regions also seem to be strongly influenced by the natural surroundings... namely, the Quicha-speaking Indians in the mountain regions of Peru and Bolivia... Both in Lappland and the Andes of South America, the conditions of life have for both of these peoples been in some respects more or less equal... [inspiring] the religious veneration which an imposing mountainous landscape always seems to evoke in a people of [primal] culture and the religious cult to which it gives rise." (Ibid.)
In their book on American Indian interactions with their environments, Vecsey and Venables delineate three main types of integration between environment and religious complexes:

l) "primary," in which the core of the religion is molded by environmental factors such as may be seen in fertility rites for bountiful crops and in which subsistence activities take on a sacred dimension;
2) "secondary," in which the structure of the religion reflects a social structure shaped partly by environmental relations, such as agricultural societies' de-emphasis of the individual and co-responding ritualized, priestly religious forms, or gather-hunter societies where individual power relations with the environment are more highly valued, as in the Vision-Questing cultures within the shamanic matrix; and
3) "morphologic," in which the symbolic system mirrors environmental factors, as in sacramental behaviors which indicate certain aspects of the environment as sources of life and others of danger and death. (Vecsey and Venables, 1980, 10-11)
Within the shamanic complex, as in many native American cultures and among primal peoples globally, there is a general sense that the universe is both alive and conscious. (Ibid., 12-13) This sentiment is expressed in a general tension emerging from the realization that in order to survive, one must deprive other beings of life, and, in order to build a society, it is necessary to some extent to change one's environment. When life depends upon the continuance of some resource in ar environment of scarcity, one becomes an efficient and conscientious exploiter of that resource. In their desert environment, the Navahos "spoke with corn spirits and influenced growth with prayers as well as hoes." (Ibid., 16-17) They, and other primal societies, developed ethical systems that limit behaviors and ascribe structure to morally proper action in a relational way. In this sense, it may be said that primal and shamanic cultural ethics see: 1) natural entities as having qualitatively equal value as humans; 2) non-humans expressing intentions, dislikes, needs, preferences and rights ; 3) non-humans entering into covenants with humans for mutual benefit; and 4) extensive reciprocity in all these relations. (Ibid., 20)
These values are expressed in such views of nature as the "parental" interaction with the land. There is an active awareness that: "Land supports man and at the same time requires human care." (Ibid., 22) Though we may at times feel a sense of alienation from the natural world, at base we are all intimately interconnected with our environments. An awareness of this reality can be experienced by the living, and passed on generationally and cross-culturally through myths, stories, songs, artistic works and other folkloric expressions. (Ibid., 24-25)
For the individual shaman, awareness of the inter-connectedness of all things is enhanced by a "more or less constant [state of] alert as regards his relations towards the ‘powers'; he has attained a 'symbolic attitude' towards his surroundings" characterized by a "'deep anxiety connected with the strong and totally unrefined impulsive sensuous reaction'" of shamanic ecstasy. (Nordland, 1967, 180) The shaman's "symbolic attitude" is not always characterized by anxiety , as Halifax observes, but also by a sense of reciprocity. (Halifax, 1982, 10-11) In her view, "the world of the human and the world of nature and spirit are essentially reflections of each other," and the shaman "is not afraid of the universe but feasts on its forces while allowing its forces to feast on him." (Ibid., 19)
Fernando, an aged Chumash informant of Thomas Blackburn, remembered that "an old man told him that we are all brothers, and our mother is one: this mother earth. He has always believed what the old people told him when he was a boy-- that the world is God." (Blackburn, 1975, 103) A belief that the divine order is expressed in the natural world indicates that the shaman lives in a mythic system of concepts which continually re-aligns him to validation of that system. This self-perpetuating system of belief provides a "constant frame of reference" for the shaman. (Nordland, 1967, 183) "The shaman does more than just recite the myths or express the religious symbolism in making artifacts; the shaman lives the myth." (McKenna and McKenna, 1975, 11)
Shamanic "transformation" into power animals and other culturally important sentient forms clearly illustrates an imaginative, involved and non-vicarious approach to "living the myth." "Transformation is the hallmark of shamanistic cosmology, especially of American Indians, accounting not only for the present appearance of the different life forms but also of the gods, The gods, in turn, are usually ancient shamans who ascended to the sky." (Furst, 1977, 16)
Among the Chumash, such transformation was a common activity of their several shamanic figures. Transformation was "part of a complex series of philosophical assumptions and postulates concerning the relationship between supernatural power and human nature on the one hand, and man's interactions with his environment on the other." (Blackburn, 1975, 40-41) Transformation is "a kind of natural phenomenon, an inherent part of the structure of reality potentially available to all. The present animals, birds and plants are transformations of the First People, just as human patterns of behavior today are simply extensions of those followed long ago. Thus no real dichotomy separates man from his environment, or distinguishes man from beast, for transformation renders each potentially equivalent to the other." (Ibid.)
The shamanic universe is alive and sentient, and its animistic, "personally conceived" nature is represented in the worldviews of many shamanistic cultures. (Karsten, 1955, 78) "The world in which the Paviotso live is full of animate beings unseen in a workaday which all can talk to man and assist him in his struggle to gain a living, to preserve health, and to cure sickness." (Park, 1938, 14) In Malay cultures, there is a tendency to perceive supernatural beings in physical shapes, as in the conception of the creative process involving the intercourse of "father-sky" and "mother-earth." (Winstedt, 1951, 21) The sense of the male/female interplay recreating biology, fertility and culture is a core belief of the shamanic complex which emphasizes a balance of energies, cooperation and cyclic re-generation. (Furst, 1977, 18 and Sun Bear, 1983, 250)
The worship of "seidis" among the Lapps exemplifies the animistic tendencies of shamanisitc societies. "Seidis" were personalized places of power where the souls of dead shamans were believed to dwell. These often took the form of hominid shaped trees or stones which demarked a bioregion of spirit infused environmental consciousness. (Karsten, 1955, 11, 21) According to Lapplander John Turi, "'The animals, the trees, the stones and other inanimate things have lost the power of speech, but they still retain hearing and intellect. Therefore it is necessary to treat the animals well and to regard all things as if they were living beings who hear and understand." (Ibid., 22)
"Seidi" worship represents the tendency of primal peoples to articulate human-like intelligence to sacred spots and places of unusual beauty or special appearance. The "Lapp was ready to regard every peculiarly formed stone or tree-stump, which seemed to him singular and mysterious, as the seat of a spirit inhabiting that stone or tree-stump." (Ibid., 19) The Peruvian worship of "huacas" as "seats of the Earth-Mother, 'Pachamama,' herself, who was believed to have taken her special abode in some peculiarly [often hominid] shaped stone upon a solitary mountain ridge or in the earth beneath it," is analogous to the Lapps' attitude towards "Seidis." (Ibid., 12)
It is interesting to speculate on the etymological similarity of such Lapp word-concepts as "seidi/seite," referring to a sacred stone or wooden idol, and "seidr', denoting a magical spirit-being, (Ibid., 17) and the English word-concepts "sight", for vision and/or endowment with spiritual power (ie., "second sight"), and "site," denoting a place. Could then a "seidi" be a place where one "sees," acquires vision, and discovers an ability to communicate with spirits?
Further speculation might indicate that the influence of such botanical agents as are to be found in hallucinogenic plants may have had a profound effect upon the evolution of the state of mind-body that lies behind the animistic worldview central to shamanism. (Furst, 1977, 21) Not only animism, but also such themes as spirit-flight, the descent to the underworld, contact with helping spirits and allies, and even the experience of ecstasy itself, each bears a strong resemblance to the effects of hallucinogens upon human consciousness. "The fast play of kaleidoscopic colors and forms, the realistic, fantastic aspects that appear, the change in sense perception and the heightening of introspection all lend themselves to symbolic elaboration within the nexus of existing cultural beliefs." (Dobkin de Rios, 1984, 13)
The Jivaro, for instance, feel that the "undrugged" state is the grand illusion, and that the state of consciousness attained through careful and judicious use of Yage is closer to the true nature of reality. (Rogers, 1982, 114-115) The central tenets of the Chumash worldview (Blackburn, 1975, 31-33) reveal a nature-ethic that may be derived from the visionary experiences of shamans and others who saw beyond "socially imposed barriers upon reality" while "high" on Datura. (Ibid., 41)
Blackburn suggests that the source of Chumash oral narrative mythology "can be profitably interpreted, at one level of abstraction, as allegorical expressions of shamanic concepts and experiences, many of them having a virtually universal distribution." (Ibid., 86) The "hypothesis that many apparently fantastic elements in the narratives are best interpretable as allegorical or symbolic expressions of actual shamanic beliefs and experiences seems well supported by the evidence." (Ibid., 88) Whether achieved through drugs, drumming, dancing, or whatever means, alternate states of reality as perceived by shamans and other ecstatic practitioners have had a profound influence upon the evolution of human cultures.