Reflections on Contemporary Shamanism

A Shamanistic Ceremony in Siberia

A Shamanistic Ceremony in Siberia

This first and foremost a blog devoted to Ancient and Classical Astrology. I recently had the pleasure of responding to a young person who wanted to learn Traditional Astrology and Shamanism. Throughout most of its history astrologers have also been concerned with medicine, magic, philosophy and often music. The Shamanic path is one way to discern other states of being, or indeed to discern the nature of spirits. This includes the spirits of nature. This is by way of saying that we can’t just talk about astrology without talking about its concomitant associations. Shamanism is probably the most misunderstood of them all. This article is nothing more than the most basic introduction to the subject of Shamanism, with a few comments and suggestions.

Shamanism is certainly an ancient practise. Some scholars claim it comes down to us from the Paleolithic period. It is and was widely spread and took on differing forms with some element remaining fairly constant. There is a Shamanic tradition in Japan, Siberia, Oceana, Meso-America, Indonesia, the Celtic World and dozens of other locations in as many traditions. Shamanism is not something static. While some things remain, others are replaced. It has to be relevant to the individual and the society or else we would be doing something like playing dress up, merely imitating something we barely understand, if at all. I’m not a fan of structured courses that cost money and result in letter after your name. To me, that is to completely miss the point. Shamanism is not an academic study and neither can it be learned by simply taking courses. In order for the power to be there, it must be authentic. It is an act of art.

Chogyam Trungpa coined the phrase “cutting through spiritual materialism.” The trappings of ancient Shamanism are best discarded until we find out just how our own Shamanism will be imagined and manifest. This works from the inside out. Some will argue against using ancient Shamanic costumes, accouterments, and ritual because it constitutes a cultural appropriation. Even if you disagree with this, the problem remains that we would be mimicking something without a real understanding of what is taking place.  Subtle moves or details of sound may have more meaning thatn we realize.

d4b04582b093e9bcaadf8823296668b5While some things remain, others are replaced. For example, the shamanic hand drum may be made of stretched goat skin, reindeer hide or elk, but is virtually the same in dozens of cultures around the world. Singing, chanting, and dancing in one form or another universal. Beyond these essential elements, there is rich diversity. In no small part, this is due to the time, the larger cultural context and the reaction and relationship to the land. We would expect there to be vastly differents aesthetics from the Tundra to the jungles of Costa Rica.

For good or bad, we are no longer primitives. Our languages have become complex, our feet rarely touch the Earth, we are no longer homogenous societies and the food we eat may come from half way around the world. The drone of our cities is incessant. There are now people who cannot identify a single constellation. Some can’t even see the stars through the smog. We can, however, be authentic and find creative ways to celebrate that. We all have a responsibility to shield and nurture nature in all its forms.

Shaman;s Staff (Mongolian?)

Shaman;s Staff (Mongolian?)

Music can be made by anyone. There was a survey done in school years ago. When children in the first grade were asked whether they could dance and sing, close to 100 % raised their hands. Three years later, only one or two children raised their hands. The fact is that everyone can dance and everyone can sing. You are likely to need practise in both and may find there are some limitations, such as singing range. You have heard the exhortation “dance like nobody is watching” You need to learn how to move energy and your body is the obvious place to start.

Drums, flutes, and bells can be played. There is no wrong way to a play hand drum, but remember it speaks of the heart and should be beaten gently and most of all with reverence.The colours and the scents we choose are all part of creating a sacred space. What you intend to do in that sacred place will determine which senses are invoked and in what way. If you are using incense for a Solar based ritual, frankincense and sandalwood are a good choice. candles and bonfires can be used to great effect.

Many shamans prefer to use local botanicals, such as sage for cleaning and sweetgrass to fill a vacuum. Personally, the planets and phases of the Moon are always a consideration. Remember that rituals can include planting crops with intent. There is no such thing as a sacred drum until the player makes it so. Above all things is the power of intention. Here is where a keen consciousness is of the utmost necessity. These generally require time to cultivate and preferably in good company.

Descendents of the Aztec, the Huichol number about 18,000, most of whom live in the sierra of Jalisco and Nayarit. Having withstood the Spanish Invasion, they are still striving to keep their culture alive and viable, despite the ever increasing physical and cultural encroachment of their Mexican neighbors. Peyote is a focal point for their ceremonies, and their colorful beadwork and yarnwork reflects a reverent and symbiotic relationship with nature.

This is an example of the artwork of the descendants the Aztec, the Huichol. Peyote is a focal point for their ceremonies, and their colorful beadwork reflects a sacred and symbiotic relationship with the natural world. The question as to whether the Shaman requires the use of drugs, particularly hallucinogens, is a much-debated topic. Most contemporary Shamanic practitioners, including myself, do not believe they are a crucial element in ritual.

Shamanism is not something unchangeable, any more than Traditional Astrology is a burned out cinder that has to be mimicked. The tradition lives and breathes in those who venerate her. While some things remain, others are replaced. It has to be relevant to the individual and the society or else we would be doing something like playing dress up, merely imitating something we barely understand, if at all.

There is a disconcerting trend in the contemporary Western world to pretend that Shamanism is hereditary and can be taught in a fairly short period of time for the right price. First of all, anyone can claim to an hereditary Shaman. After all, it was passed down orally. Secondly, the idea that you can learn to be a shaman as one might learn to be a racing car driver or a carpenter is false.

The Shaman learns how to access the Spirit World while knowing it is inseparable from any and all dimensions of existence.  One must be authentic and any difficulties of may be worked through by affirmations, inner and outer, to believe your connection to the spirit world is real.

The path of the Shaman is not for everyone. However for those who feel a strong affinity to this path. I have a few simple suggestions. Find someone you trust and feel comfortable with – someone who is wise.

Learn to quiet your mind. Spend time in nature, studying the movement of the clouds, the sound of the water, the way the trees nurture each other, the way a bird uses its wings and seek the silence and power of the stag. See how even stones are not entirely solid. Everything has more space than matter.

Symbols hold power for millennia. Perhaps the oldest symbol is the circle with a spot in the centre. It illustrates the infinity of Spirit and the dot represents the potential for creation. Even one symbol like this can be used with great efficacy. Solar symbols such as the swastika are ancient, albeit tainted for many people by its association with Nazism. The spiral is also ubiquitous and is seen throughout nature and in galaxies themselves. There are many symbols made up of countless versions of the cross of matter.  The Lunar symbol is also a rich source of meaning.

Make devotional music that is authentically your – music that speaks from the soul. It can begin with a simple ringing of a bell, the tapping of wood against trees, find a drum that resonates with you. Listen to the difference in sound from hand drumming to using a stick bound with leather at the tip. The beat that comes naturally may then be accompanied by movement or dance.

More than anything else, know that everything is interconnected and that thoughts are things.  We tend to think that Shamanism is completely alien to Philosophy, but the great Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus wrote ” Stars are like letters that are inscribed at every moment in the sky. In the whole world, it is full of signs. All events are coordinated. All things depend on all the others. As it has been said: everything breathes together.”

Shamanism is a means to liberation and the dance should be both sacred and pleasurable.

Below is a video from a Polish group known as  Laboratorium Piesni. They’ve taken a traditional form of singing and made it contemporary. The focal points for this group are the land and tradition.  The complete work with colours, drums, and dance has the ability to transport the participants and audience.