Thursday, 10 February 2011

The 'S Word'

So, do you think your a shaman?  If so - why?

Shaman is a funny old word - if we do shamanic things, do we call ourselves one or not?

I guess I had better define terms hadn't I, although that might open up a whole other can of worms in it's own right, because what I think a shaman is may not be what you think a shaman is.

The word 'shaman' has become very trendy in Western culture over the last few years - terms like 'shamanic reiki' (what on earth is that?) are advertised in the new-age scene, and shamanic 'this that and the other' are bandied about here, there and everywhere on radio and TV and in magazines and books. It is a term I have heard used to describe artists, writers, lots of new-age bunkum and just about anything else where the word can get easily slipped into. 'Shamanic cornflakes' - the next great breakfast trend.

I'm pretty sure most people reading this know where the word comes from - but just in case!

The word shaman comes from Siberia - it's a word in the Tungus language meaning to get excited and agitated and heated up. It came to the West via Russia in the 19th century and is used to describe the ecstatic healers and visionaries of the people, who act as communicators between the world of humans and - in the broadest sense - the world of the spirits.

A Tungus shaman - photo taken in early C20th

I guess, for me, the key bit that defines a shaman is that they are ecstatic - which means that they are outside of themselves - they go outside of themselves, and their spirits fly off to the spirit worlds...  if it does not involve visiting the spirit world, then in the true sense of the world it's not really shamanism.

When I first started working with anything you could term close to shamanism - back in the dark ages before blogs, or even the internet, I became involved in Medicine Wheel.

Medicine wheel is a set of teachings based on those of the Native Americans. Some of the stuff that is taught is traditional and some of it is not. Unless you take on a formal apprenticeship with a Native teacher, it generally tends to be a mish-mash of different tribal traditions, teachings and ceremonies, often with a bit of general animistic philosophy from other traditions thrown in for good measure.

I'm not knocking this, a little of it maybe new age nonsense, but most of it is good useful teachings that are going to help you come to terms with yourself, your relatives (and I don't just mean the two-legged ones) and your existence on the planet.

Not a shaman (Wallace Black Elk - Lakota medicine person)

But if you want to be really strict about it, medicine wheel is not shamanism, and if I wanted to be really contentious I'd say that shamans don't exist in traditional Native American culture - a viewpoint which I know is shared by many Native Americans who feel Western 'wannabe' culture has tried to steal their spirituality.

As an aside here, I think medicine wheel teachings are a wonderful add-on to the core shamanism taught in the West - people who study with the Horwitz or Harner schools of shamanism would gain a great deal by doing some medicine wheel and learning some ceremonies and the deep structure of working with spirit in the everyday world... but that's another blog.

Not a shaman

So you've done some workshops, and you even journey!

You put on your drumming CD and headphones, or your friends drum for you, or maybe you even drum for yourself, and you go down the rabbit hole, or up through the smoke hole, or through the mirror - how ever you get to the other worlds - and you go off to meet up with your spirits and you do what you do on your shamanic journey.

Does that make you a shaman?

Personally, I have always said no it does not.

Being a shaman is a biggy, it's a commitment to helping your people and doing what your spirits tell you to do - even if you don't want to do it. It is not a a walk in the park, which is why a lot of traditional shamans don't want to be shamans (when spirit knocks a wise man runs).

But there maybe a downside to not labeling ourselves as shamans - we may be not taking our power, and that is as unhealthy as being full of 'hey everyone I'm a shaman - look at me!'

Two shamans (Nepalese)

I watched two documentary films last night.

The first was a film about the earliest people in Britain, thousands of years ago, and it included some of the evidence archaeologists have which show signs of there spirituality. Chances are they were shamanic - I would say the chances are one of your ancestors was a shaman - or at least performed practices that were pretty damn shamanic.

The other was a German film of shamans performing ceremonies in Mongolia (Vom Blaurn Himmel). The shamans were honoured for who they were and accepted in the community as shamans. And they thought of themselves as shamans too - and in so doing they took their power and 'were' shamans.

A still from the film Vom Blaurn Himmel

My rule of thumb has always been 'I don't call myself a shaman' (and I generally feel wary of anyone I meet who says they are!)

I do say that I shamanise - which is of course true - because when I pop down the rabbit hole to do a healing or something what else am I doing if not acting as a shaman - ie shamanising.

If people call me a shaman (which some people do sometimes) I accept and generally don't argue with them, because that is what they think I am, but I don't claim the term myself. And yet (between you, me and the lamp post) I know I have the role of shaman sometimes, and when I am doing shamanic work I am being - at least for that time - a shaman (but that is strictly between you and me - cos I didn't say it - OK!)

I was talking to a Buryat woman shaman (an udagan) about all this sometime ago - and she was most instant that we should call ourselves shamans (only as I am a man she used her peoples word for a male shaman which is kam)

Buryat kam (male shaman) - Southern Siberia
She said, "if you were at an accident and you knew first-aid or were a doctor you would say "let me through I know first aid," or |let me through I am a doctor"so when people need why not say "I am a kam let me see what I can do?""

I can certainly see her point of view, and talking to her like that made me really think. Maybe it is my natural British reserve that baulks at the thought of claiming my kam-ness, maybe it is also out of respect for all the shamans who put their lives on the line for their people and 'give-away' so much so that they can be healers. I am always reminded of the Lakota holyman Frank Fools Crow who used to say "anyone can do the things I do if they lead the life I live!"

Maybe also it is because I feel it opens the gates to all those people who do two weekend workshops and think they are now 'shamans.' (I hope you heard the trumpet fanfare that went with the 'S' word just then)

But then perhaps it's like this... I own several Apple Macs, and I have enough technical skill to put new ink cartridges in the printer, and am pretty good at sorting out technical bits with the OS too.

If I was really moved I could - I am sure - get to grips with putting an extra RAM chip into it.

Most of us could do that much technical stuff with our computers - just like we all can do at least basic shamanic practice - minimal shamanic maintenance if you like.

But, some people really feel at home with computers, and they tweak here and there left right and centre - I'm pretty much like that with my Macs, but I know my limits - if it fails to wake up one morning I do all I can and then get an expert in (and pay them).

Maybe a shaman - but it refuses to answer directly
Thats just the same with shamanism really, everyone could do the very basics (the equivalent of changing the ink cartridge), and some people know enough to do more than the basics and can help out their neighbours and friends with their difficulties, and other people are the experts you call in when you really need them (and you pay them).

Just cos you can change your ink cartridge or un-install a bit of software that gave your computer tummy ache does not make you a computer technician!

I don't suppose I'll ever really balance out the thing about calling myself a shaman - I do shamanic work for sure, and, as I said, if other people call me a shaman that's up to them.

But I know one thing - I would not take my Mac to anyone who had only attended a couple of weekends on computer repairs - what ever the bit of paper the trainer had given them at the end of the course said they now were.


  1. Interesting. I've struggled with this myself, about whether in the West we are redefining the word and, if we are, whether that's a good thing. Maybe it has always been redefined. And maybe we can never tell what someone else is. If spirit's really knocking, do you even need two workshops? And would a lifetime of devotional practise be enough without a knock at the door from spirit?
    Like you, I tend to let other people decide, but make no claims.
    'Animist' I'm more comfortable and confident with: that's what I believe, practise daily, and doesn't need to involve mystical or healing abilities. I use it to sidestep exactly this confusion.
    Good to have this debate. I hope many others share their take on it.

  2. I agree 100% with everything you've written in this blog. I couldn't have said it better. Two thumbs up!!!

  3. hi! Niickolas!very intresting ways of thinking,keep it like these!thank u for sharing...
    With Love & Laughs,antonis artheart

  4. Aho,

    Yes, I totally agree! Just because you can operate and upkeep your computer doesn't make you a computer technical pro, and the same applies to being a shaman...just because you know how to do shamanic, or ecstatic, work doesn't make you a shaman. I have been studying and learning for a few years, but have over the last year been under the guidance of a shaman elder. Yes, I know how to work with the elements, medicine wheel, and the journey to get information from the spirits, but I am still learning and would not even consider calling myself a shaman until I reach my full power, or the spirits deem me ready. But, I do feel that when that time comes I will have earned the right to be called a shaman. Also, I feel that you are right in letting others determined you a shaman or not. When other start to call you a might be time to declare that you are one.

    Thank you so much for got me to thinking! Many blessings to you!

  5. I like the way you think (or at lest the bits i've seen here, lol)

    I'm a calligrapher.... for years i attended classes & workshops, & even started to teach, got some certificates even, sold work.... i knew i was entitled to say i'm a calligrapher, but i would still say 'i do calligraphy'. I don't know when, but there came a subtle shift & i didn't even recognise it at the time... at some point i realised i said 'i'm a calligrapher'

    It's been the same with healing & reiki...there is a point when the balance shifts & you step into that power...

    Now the 's' word... i feel it in my heart... but no way am i anywhere near saying anymore to anyone yet!

  6. I'm definitely in agreement with you on this one. Please could you tell me the name of the documentary on the earliest people in Britain?