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Thread: What's in a Word: Still More Shamanic Linguistics

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
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    220

    What's in a Word: Still More Shamanic Linguistics


    Lately I've seen a lot of conversations about the various meanings of the word "shamanism." (My earlier post didn't spark this so much as capture a zeitgeist). I've tried to distill down some of the salient points which have arisen in these discussions, in no particular order of importance. I am sure I will be returning to the topic in future posts: it definitely is worth of further research.

    I do not want to get into a discussion of who does or does not have the right to use the word "shaman." I don't have that kind of power over the language, nor do I hold a trademark on "shamanism." (What's more, I'd be very concerned about anyone who was able to get control over its usage! If you don't like Harner shamans, how would you feel about MPAA-authorized shamans?) There is little I - or anyone else - can do to stop anyone who wishes to claim a shamanic identity. What I would like to do instead is to study some of the ways in which this word is used.


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    For many practitioners, "shamanic" evokes the primitive. It offers a Dionysian way out of the rigid confines of our society and our material existence. By stripping away cultural conditioning, these devotees hope to escape the mundane and experience ecstasy. But traditional shamanism served as an adjunct to rather than an escape from society, and historical shamans lived in a rigidly structured world delineated by numerous taboos. At worst, this identification can also lead to exotification, objectification and the kind of misbehavior which has been mocked as "plastic shamanism."

    I've also noticed several different axes upon which we could divide the different flavors of contemporary shamanism. One is between voluntary and involuntary. Some believe shamanism is an acquired skill, while others believe it can only be practiced by those who are marked by the spirits. They believe there is a qualitative difference between one who is chosen and one who has learned a few of the consciousness-altering techniques.

    The former approach has often led us to issues of cultural appropriation: do we have the right to co-opt elements of someone else's coming-of-age rituals or funeral ceremonies to our own ends? On a practical note, some of these techniques may not work as expected when taken out of their original context. We may ape the motions, chemicals and rhythms used but miss the cultural safeguards and protections. (James Arthur Ray's reinvention of the sweat lodge as an endurance test is probably the most notorious example of this).

    While the latter view seems to be most common historically, it also comes with some troubling baggage. Being chosen as a prophet can be a great ego-crutch. Your sufferings can be transformed into martyrdoms while your triumphs become proof of your Mission. Being the Voice of the Divine can provide an assumption of infallibility the Pope might envy. And then we get to the age old question of who gets to decide who is Chosen by the Gods?

    This post may appear long on questions and short on answers. That is because I think the most important thing here is that we ask those questions. As a spiritual movement, contemporary shamanism is of very recent vintage. The Way of the Shaman first appeared in 1980, while The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge only arrived in 1968. There are many sincere people working under this rubric, people who believe it adds something of value to their lives and the lives of others. They should receive the same respect as any other believer. But they should also be subject to the same sincere but tough questioning - and even tougher self-questioning - that goes with holding any faith.
    kenazfilan @ gmail.com | 917-267-7469
    the new orleans voodoo handbook (forthcoming)

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Sep 2010
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    Maryland, USA
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    Thumbs down Kenan: Your in good company

    I read the following link relating to Native American replies to people referring to their medicine men/ holy healers as Shaman: http://www.angelfire.com/electronic/...t_shamans.html

    Kenan- My guess is you might have already come across this information. In any case, with regard to the well-intentioned use/bastardized use of "Shaman", I say you are in good company with many others who observe the Native American tradition and have their issues with the use of the term.
    The information I read says that using the word Shaman to depict a medicine healer in native american tribes is an insult- for interesting reasons included in the reading.
    But, what to do in the Age of Technology and the access to so many points of view on the Internet? Who is genuine, who's not? What skills/beliefs/experiences draw the line to separate Shaman status with not?
    I think one possible method
    (While acknowledging a multitude of other possible methods out there as well, potentially more or less superior to my own explanation-there's my disclaimer!)
    to answering the questions can be described using two ideas: One, as humans most of us have a sense of "seeing through the bullshit". A skilled bullshit artist, claiming shaman may be able to proclaim all day long their shaman credentials and only be verbally skilled at bullshit to consistently staying one step ahead of the argument. But most people can sense that, "even if I can't seem to pin this person down verbally, I just know their bullshitting me". "I can hear it in the inflections in their voice, see it in the "tell" on their face, hell, I can almost taste and smell the stench of charlatan in this person!"
    One of the catches with this idea is that not all of us can equally tell a disingenuous shaman, or salesperson, or clergyman, etc. One person will tell right off, others will realize this after having paid for the less-than-satisfying $1000.00 "Sweat Lodge Ceremony" Weekend. But I think on a general level most of us can tell if someone is "for real" or not. Some people will challenge and attack the "fake", most just avoid them, set them aside, say to themselves, "You seem nice, but I simply don't believe you".
    The second method involves a technique I learned in the business world. To describe I will use myself as an example: I manage workgroups that fulfill customer orders and ship/distribute them to customers. Pretty straightforward. Our work can be pretty mundane. How interesting can shipping possibly be? On two occasions I was leader of two test workgroups that was able to successfully change two standard, mundane processes in the receiving and shipping of goods that haven't significantly changed in 40 years. I came up with the idea, I printed the steps, but my most important achievement was that I gained the complete trust from the team I led. Without their trust in me that I "really had something worthwhile and different", the group would work around me, tell me "we like you, but but we don't believe this crap".
    Similarly, I needed to trust my group that they would do the work correctly. Giving them a procedure to follow and having their trust in my competence that it would work was critical. A "shaman" who is skilled but not trusted by the group they serve, I suspect, would not be successful.
    I think any type of healer, counselor ,which I am assuming a shaman, in their most basic function, would seek to do
    (I'm sure replies will abound with issues exceptions/additions taken to this general statement- too bad, I said it anyway)
    with the skills they are innately gifted with or skills developed through hard work.
    To underscore the ideas of trust and "being for real", when I signed up for MW, I use the word Titan to describe myself. I didn't place that name on a public forum arbitrarily. I picked it up from the research on my birthday when I had first become interested in Magic and Non-Christian spirituality. My birthday, 12/16, falls under the central image of Titan or otherwise known as The Week of the Sagittarius III Titan. More specifically, people with my exact birthdate are capable of feats requiring titanic energies. Once directed toward a goal, little can be done to stop them from achieving far-reaching successes.
    This also explains the many setbacks and flaws associated with Sagittarius III- so a heavy personal price is paid for the "titanic energies". But, well before my interest in magic, I have been a person who is often called upon in the work I do when something significantly more than going the extra mile was required- and on many occasions I was able to deliver that service.
    So, when I signed up for MW, I thought about what would describe me best. Titan described the idea of the best I had achieved. But I also chose an avatar picture showing the flaws, vulnerability, which I believe also defines SAGIII as well.
    (BTW, Atlas was a close second choice-he was chosen by Cronus to lead the mythological Titan attack, only to be given that well-known special punishment by Zeus later- but the idea is the same).
    But its been made clear to me through my reading these symbols accurately reflect the course many of my life's events, because to me it looks, sounds, smells, tastes like my life experience.

    I think your point about not being able to corner the usage of the Northern Asian Shaman term is correct. Words, ideas and people evolve so quickly with their version/combination of so many terms, "Shaman" probably will continue to evolve and be wrapped into many other beliefs and concepts in the future.
    But in terms of a person being a "worthy Shaman", in the tradition of work that a real, true to life North Asian Shaman performed, I say, are they trustworthy amongst the group(s) to handle the work and live up to the job? Can you see, hear, taste and smell the Shaman in that person?
    At the end of the day, these methods may be the among the only real ways to tell.

    Satori43

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Posts
    283
    I do agree with you. But I think good old fashioned bullshit detection is all you really need.

    If a "shaman" is spending too much time crowing about credentials, he's probably not all he's cracked up to be. People who have genuine expertise in any subject tend to spend more time on the content of their ideas rather than how many degrees/black belts/etc. they have.

    Watch out if you get the sense that he's more interested in the money. Not that you can't get someone to legitamately need to charge for services, but if every answer is "come to our [paid] event if you want to know" or "buy my book" -- its likely crap.

    If the guy is claiming a native lineage and can't speak any of the language, that too me anyway is a big red flag. I don't know how you could train a skill for years in i.e brazil and not pick up a few words of portugese if not the native language of your shaman teacher. If you claim to be lakota trained, best be speaking Lakota. Heck using the internet you could probably pick up hello, goodbye and where's the bathroom.

    Of course if the guy sounds too good to be true -- he is.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Posts
    220
    Apologies for the delay in responding. Things have been busy in meatspace and I am just now catching up on my correspondence. Lots of good points raised here!

    There's definitely a tendency to lump indigenous religious practices together under the Shamanism banner. "Shamanism" can become a justification for all sorts of cultural mixing and matching. Holy symbols become consumer artifacts or aesthetic trappings, to be blended based on color schemes rather than religious significance. It's like our culture's version of the pwen achete, the "bought points" or purchased spirits of Haitian Vodou.

    By declaring a culture "shamanic," we provide ourselves with a set of expectations. We focus on the things we consider shamanic - use of plants (especially if they are entheogenic or hallucinogenic), drumming, trance journeying or possession, spirit work, etc. - and ignore the finer points of their culture. For an example of what I'm talking about, look at the way indigenous American cultures from Algonquin to Zuma have become "Indian spirituality."

    You both mention "bullshit detectors." I agree that a healthy sense of skepticism is invaluable when studying an unfamiliar spiritual path. But I think we also have to be careful not to overestimate their accuracy. Keep in mind that skilled con artists will look nothing like the stereotypical greasy used car salesman. They're going to be sweet and reassuring: they will meet all your suspicions with perfectly reasonable answers and play up to all your expectations. They will be the wise spiritual leader or the humble peasant as best suits their needs.

    By contrast, genuinely spiritual people may appear awkward, alternating between overbearing forcefulness and meek confusion. They may have the common human flaws of arrogance and thin-skinned defensiveness. They may make statements that shock your sense of political correctness or display behaviors that make you uncomfortable. And your common sense might, with justifiable reason, tell you to go with the person who met your culturally and linguistically-determined preconceptions.

    Now let's add to the mix the people who are simultaneously lauded as great spiritual leaders and scorned as dangerous cult-leading frauds. And keep in mind that spirituality can be a business like anything else. When working with indigenous cultures you are dealing with a tremendous disparity in economic power between students and prospective teachers. More often than not, you're also dealing with a culture wherein paying for services and religious instruction is an accepted practice.

    And as Satori43 said, it's important that the shaman be trusted "within the group." Figuring out who is and is not trusted can be challenging for people coming to a culture as complete outsiders. Taking your time and getting to know your prospective teachers, and their students, is always useful. So is learning something about their peers and the community in which they operate as spiritual leaders. It requires more effort than buying an airplane ticket and writing a check, but the time spent will more than pay for itself in the short and long term.
    kenazfilan @ gmail.com | 917-267-7469
    the new orleans voodoo handbook (forthcoming)

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