"Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers. "
-Rainer Maria Rilke

Monday, March 2, 2009

Shamanism and Neo-Shamanism: The Practical Divide

by Raven Kaldera

This weekend I went to a Pagan conference in a different part of the country. I noticed that there were a lot of workshops with the “shamanic” word in them besides mine, and I wasn’t particularly sanguine about attending any of them. That term has been slapped onto all sorts of things, to the point where it’s laughably meaningless in some contexts. The last thing I wanted to do was to suffer through some fake Native American-ish ritual with a lot of rattle shaking and you-create-your-own-reality New Age guided meditation salted with self-help language. (I’m not saying that those meditations aren’t useful for people, cultural appropriation aside, but they aren’t shamanic and they aren’t useful for me.) So I resigned myself to avoiding the workshops in general, because there wasn’t much else that I wanted to see.

However, something - or Someone - kept poking me to go to a workshop taught by two shamanic practitioners. You need to learn about these sorts of people, the voice said - it wasn’t so much a spirit-voice as a spirit-memo, a slip coming down from the Head Office telling you that it would be good if you took a class in Italian because there’s going to be a branch opening in Rome soon. So I went, reluctantly.

The couple who ran the workshop called themselves shamanic practitioners, a courtesy which I appreciated. They spoke about their many students, and how sometimes those students ran into the “dark side” of shamanism, which included being freaked out by spirits who might want to have sex with you, or running into parts of yourself that weren’t very nice, or running into spirits who might not be made of sweetness and light. OK, so all these things were true; while I might not be fazed by spirits wanting to fuck (including when it’s those not-sweetness-and-light ones who want to fuck!) But it seemed small in comparison to the fears that I had when I was in the worst early part of my path, and the fears that I hear from people on similar paths, and I couldn’t help mentally comparing it in my mind.

Mind you, these folks seemed actually to be in connection with real spirits of various sorts. Their magical items - their lovely skulls and handmade rattles - were actually charged. They actually journeyed themselves. They did take clients and they did help people. We had that in common, and I am not trying to say that they advertised themselves falsely. They were, indeed, real and competent shamanic practitioners. They were good at what they did. It just wasn’t exactly what I was doing.

The difference between us was both cultural and practical. Once, during our conversation, I tried to describe bloodwalking. (That’s a journey that the practitioner takes through the genetic bloodline of a client in order to give them information about it.) One of the couple asked, “So, is it always just you doing the journeying and telling them what you see? Don’t you ever teach them how to do it themselves?”

I remembered a journey where I slogged up a frozen mountain in north Jotunheim to see a snowy goddess about being more capable at bloodwalking, and how she stuck something inside me to do the job, something for which I will be paying emotionally for years to come. Teach them to do it themselves? The idea seemed as far away as asking a surgeon, “Why don’t you teach your patients with brain tumors to do operations on themselves or each other?” …or, more chillingly appropriate, “Instead of performing competition-quality piano music for an audience at Carnegie Hall, why aren’t you teaching other people to play that well themselves, so they can do it in their own living rooms?”

All I could think to say was, “In this tradition, the shaman does the work for the client.” They seemed to accept that as a cultural difference, but it sharply underscored the divide between us. Maybe I’m just a hard case, and not nearly as initially talented as I like to think, and all the deity-modification is to make my otherwise hopeless astral form into something that other people can achieve with a few months of wandering around various unnamed spirit worlds. I don’t know … but I doubt it.

See, I’m not sure that I like the idea of dragging other people into the sort of thing that I do. In the tradition I work in, in the various areas of circumpolar Eurasia which surround it, there’s an acceptance that the shaman’s call is not necessarily consensual, and that the initial period of illness is possibly fatal. I’d give shaman sickness, the way that it manifests in my tradition, a 10-30% chance of being fatal. I don’t know how many “students” would sign up for “shamanic knowledge” if that kind of fatality rate was advertised up front.

Granted, were I to do this, most of the people I dragged through the Otherworlds would not be grabbed up by Gods and spirits … but some of them would, when their wyrds might otherwise have been their own. That’s one reason why indigenous cultures avoid spirit-places - they don’t want to get chosen. I’ve fought off two fatal illnesses so far, one culminating in a near-death experience. I’ve had major surgery and recovered without painkillers, in a four-day Sun Dance of agony, on the orders of my Patrons. I’ve given up everything I had, and I live a life prescribed by narrow rules that I did not choose. This path may yet be the death of me, quite literally. Is this something that I want the karmic responsibility of handing clueless people over to?

That, to me, is the real “dark side of shamanism”. Being sacrificed for the good of others. Risking death and pain and madness, again and again, for their sake, bound to help them even while you are the outsider. Because going through experiences like mine prevent you from living any kind of “normal” life, and you will be an outsider. You will. Trust me on this.

I will, of course, teach those who have already been grabbed up, who are staring down the barrel of that divine cannon and who may not know how much at risk they are for getting their heads blown off. I’d do that in a heartbeat, were any sent to me. I’ll happily teach all manner of “arts” as well, the hundreds of tools in my working toolbox, to any that are interested and can give me a bit of payment. But spirit-work? My experience of it was so different from theirs that their basic assumption - that part of the job is to teach any interested seekers to do what you do - left me in a kind of dizzy revulsion.

And yet … I’d been sent there to make connections, that was clear. It wasn’t the first time that my Bosses have pointed me towards the neo-shamanic community. There’s no sense of “go and learn”, it’s very definitely a “go and network”. Why? More to the point, how? I’ve resisted that before, because I do not know how to translate my experience into their world view. Our rituals, our protocol, it’s different. Some of our underlying assumptions are different as well. On my end of it, it does look something like an uncrossable divide.

On the other hand, we have some assumptions in common - the underlying animistic spirit(s) in all things, the existence of spirits and Otherworlds (for the real practitioners, anyway), the sanctity of the Earth. (I was certainly able to connect with these folks as fellow homesteaders.) In many ways, we are both further from the world views of mainstream society than we are from each other. There’s got to be a smaller divide there than between me and a rich atheist investment banker in a condominium on the Sunset Strip. Surely there’s a line we can use to bring this together. I suppose, if my Bosses had to aim me at a community and attempt to use me to fire some diplomacy, I could have been given worse ones.

It seems that the neo-shamanic community and the small group of spirit-workers that I know personally have been developing entirely separately, with no cross-pollination at all. I can feel the time coming, though, what that has to change. If nothing else, some people in that demographic may get too close to the Gods/spirits in away that makes them Lawful Prey, and they may well have nowhere to go with it.

I think it’s more than that, though. As the Earth slowly sinks further into polluted disarray, more alliances have to happen, perhaps across difficult lines. We need to think about who our allies are, and how many of them we can collect. After all, that’s a very shamanic way of thinking: can I make an ally of that plant? That animal spirit? That piece of woods? That stone? That ancestor? That deity? Unlike the stark simplicity of monotheism, tribal shamans were judged by their having a lot of spirits, not just one or a handful. We can think in the same way for human allies.

What would it take to ally to other communities, even if there are some things we don’t see eye to eye on? Neo-shamanic practitioners? Neo-Pagans? Wiccans? Reconstructionists? Mystical Christians and Jews? New Age folk? Reiki people? Ecologists? Body modification spiritualists? One could spread the net even wider.

I think that the first thing, though, is that we have to accept that we are likely going to be the weirder ones in any partnering, and that it’s best if we can try to communicate from their world view whenever possible (or at least stick to things we have in common) and wait patiently for them to take their time coming around to understanding our world view. Because, let’s face it, our world view is hard to understand. We’re used to it, because we’re immersed in it, but it’s not an easy thing.

So the first exercise I’m going to set for myself in this endeavor is to imagine what life is like for them, and figure out how to speak from that perspective. I’m going to work on communicating commonalities before I shove the bitter reality of the difference between our paths at them. Alliances aren’t made by punching someone in the face; they’re made with slow, patient steps and some sacrifice.

May you all have patience and persistence in the search for embodied allies as well as numinous ones … because we’re all going to need it. The work that you do today lays the groundwork for the generations to come.


  1. This was fascinating and enlightening on several levels.

    As someone who feels very strongly and has something of a mission around hepling groups find common language as a bridge building tool, I was especially gratified by your conclusion. We don't need to adopt each other's practices to grow in understanding and common alliance to face weighty challenges -- but we do need to be able to talk to each other in a meaningful way. We usually have to find the common ground before we can grow in appreciation of our differences.

  2. The forging of alliances is very much what I do, on a daily basis, even while being sentenced to a year of staying here on the farm.

    Being a bridge---second nature, and I do like the Work.

  3. '“So, is it always just you doing the journeying and telling them what you see? Don’t you ever teach them how to do it themselves?”
    ... The idea seemed as far away as asking a surgeon, “Why don’t you teach your patients with brain tumors to do operations on themselves or each other?” …or, more chillingly appropriate, “Instead of performing competition-quality piano music for an audience at Carnegie Hall, why aren’t you teaching other people to play that well themselves, so they can do it in their own living rooms?”'

    I think this is pretty key, isn't it. According to the vast, _vast_ majority of pagans, neopagans, magicians, occultists etc. in our culture, magical and spiritual practice--alone of any skillset--has NO learning curve, has NO development between someone who got involved yesterday and someone who's been at for three or four decades. Anything outwith the paperback-friendly plug'n'play model is regarded as being suspect, old-aeon elitistm.

    My predatory side would be quite amused and happy to be surrounded by semi-competent gitwizards; but is this, from a broader and more compassionate perspective, what you'd call a good sign?

  4. There was something to that old-aeon elitism. *sigh* Teaching our clients what we do would be, in many cases, tantamount to handing a five year old a live hand grenade and saying go play. Of course, few clients are willing to pay the price for the knowledge...there is, thankfully that.

  5. Thank you.

    I posted my thoughts here:


    -Lee Harrington

  6. Dear Raven I right finished translating the whole text into my language (Slovak:) I gonna hand it in for the class of Shamanism and Neo-shamanism in about an hour, of course fully authenticated by your name and everything (even though I bet you don´t require it:)You actually saved me from not having important assignment ready. Thank you :) You´d be welcome at my school here as a real practitioner...where are you from? and if you feel like changing spot for a while come over. It´s nice here :)) here´s my mail in any case kakavienko@gmail.com ... you´re inspiring... take care bless