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So You Wannabe A Shaman, Huh?

by Joseph B Wilson. Edited by Aisling WindSinger.

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Part One -- Shamanism in Today's Society

Since the dawn of man's existence on the planet, there have been cultures all over the world which have the worldview that all life is sacred, that the earth and sky and water and components of nature are worthy of honor and respect and are guides to Spirit. Such cultures have also been referred to as "primitive" or "native" by urban dwellers. Today, many people in so-called civilized cultures are being drawn themselves to such "primitive" worldviews, ones that are more in tune than the modern world usually is with nature and the cycles of nature, ones that reaffirm the sacredness of the Land and the Planet. Such worldviews often honor the Earth Mother and the Sky Father, recognize the life and energy and spirit of all things, and may even become religious paths for city-dwellers whose culture has not heretofore recognized their connection to the land. Much of this trend began along with the beginnings of the Pagan/Wiccan movement, of which I was one of the first resources, in the early 1960's. Since then the popularity of what are often referred to as "earth-based" religions and philosophies among city folks has exploded onto a force that has actually changed the face of the world of religion on the planet.

Over the last 30 or more years of my experience in teaching and observing a nature-oriented spirituality for urban dwellers, I have noticed a linguistic phenomenon that universally seems to accompany this quest for spiritual meaning. I have watched people try, then discard, then change, and subsequently again discard, title after name after appellation to describe their new-found walk of spirit. In the early days many such folk proudly wore the sobriquet "Witch" like a banner, reclaiming with force, and sometimes aggressiveness, a word that had been demeaned for centuries by most other "civilized" people.

Over the last ten or fifteen years, however, the words "Witch" and "Pagan" have been discarded by many sincere followers of earth-based religions, for several reasons. Many mainstream people still have negative knee-jerk reactions to those words, failing to see past them to the real beliefs or practices so described, so some practitioners have decided that the game is more important than the name. Oftentimes, however, the alternate term adopted when such folks discard the label of "Witch" or "Pagan" is even more misleading and causes them even more difficulty.

As a substitute, particularly during the 1980's, the word "Wiccan" was adopted by a wide cross-section of earth-based practitioners. Unfortunately, at this point there were further negative reactions that arose, not only from puzzled 'muggles' (thanks to JK Rowling for a great term!) but from practitioners of most traditional varieties of Wicca. "Wiccan" is not, according to its founders and followers, a generic term for earth-based spiritual practices. Indeed, it is a Mystery Tradition, and those who belong thereto are as angered by its misappropriation by the uninitiated as are Native Elders when white people purport to teach authentic tribal religions. The end result of ten or so years of uninformed and untrained people calling themselves "Wiccan," as a perceived-to-be-safer alternative to "Witch" or "Pagan," is that the world outside the Craft has a much less accurate and much weaker perception of what earth-based spirituality is, and no concept at all of what Wicca actually is. So, another discard, another change. To what?

In the 1990's there was a great resurgence of interest in the so-called "holistic" practices of mind-body-spirit interaction in the areas of healing and spirituality, as well as interest in exploration of the inner realms of the psyche by means of meditation, "trance journeying" and other such practices.  Due to the widespread misunderstanding (and lack of actual application) of the works of Michael Harner and other writers on techniques and experiences of "core shamanism", this word became, in the mid-1990's, the next new "catch-all" generic term for earth-based spirit practices. Some few of those misapplying this term have actually read, but have misunderstood, the works of Harner, Sun Bear, Eliade and others. The vast majority of such people have never read the works at all, or have merely read critiques or synopses thereof, but are latching on to this next "new-agey" term as the latest in the basket of "things I can call myself that will not absolutely horrify my parents. " A good proportion of those people, especially the younger ones, who are currently calling any earth-based religion "shamanism" and every earth-based practitioner a "shaman" are also activated by the childish "Gee, this sounds cool!" attitude. Since very few residents of Caucasian urban cultures have even a vague idea of what a shaman actually is, this term is far less threatening than "Witch" or "Pagan," and has therefore grown exponentially, in both popularity and misapplication, in the last ten years.

The very concept of a "religion" that is only practiced in special buildings at certain infrequent intervals, especially the idea of a "religion" that has little or nothing to do with the necessary activities of everyday life, is absolutely alien to the kinds of cultures in which one finds authentic shamans. Most cultures in which shamanism is practiced by a specialist do not even have a "name" for their religion. These cultures live in ways which do not artificially separate them from dependence upon the Earth. They do not see the afterlife as a "better place" than the place they live here, but as an extension of it. People living in these cultures see the shaman as a technical specialist in the kinds of activities they must perform in order to interact with Deity for the purpose of securing and keeping for themselves the basic necessities of existence. They do not "go to church" or perform unnecessary and formalistic activities created by a "church." They simply follow the customs of their village, the customs taught to them by their parents, customs followed for decades or even centuries by their aunts and uncles, their grandmothers and grandfathers. There are activities in such cultures which everyday people without special training are simply incapable of doing for themselves, and for these they consult the shaman, the authorized "technician of the sacred." Yet these activities often have little or nothing to do with anything Westerners would recognize or identify as "religion."

Despite the fact that there now seems to be a trend to label the common religion of the people in indigenous cultures "shamanism," this is a fallacy that could only be created and believed by people outside such a culture. It ignores the fact that every person in that culture is not a "technician of the sacred" and therefore relegates the role and definition of the shaman to one similar to that of a nondenominational urban lay minister. A similar fallacy is the tendency of Westerners today to project some kind of "aura" around a shaman, assuming that he or she is some embodiment of peace and serenity, living totally in harmony with Spirit, doing good for everyone, (of course, for free), and naturally being a wonderful magical healer. . Nothing could be further from the truth. The promulgation of such beliefs amongst Western cultures, as well as the cultural anthropologists' tendency to assert them as facts, is making many Westerners the laughing stock of real shamanic practitioners throughout the world. In the preface to Shaman : An Illustrated Guide by anthropologist Piers Vitebsky is a quote that I find highly amusing, as well as highly reflective of authentic shamanistic reality.

"A shaman from Nepal met a Westerner who remarked how good it must be to live in harmony with the cosmos. The shaman replied, 'The main part of my job is killing witches and sorcerers.'"

It is clear from this description, given by an actual shamanic practitioner, that shamanism has little or nothing to do with the aery-faery, "do no harm" New-Ageism of many of the people who are now claiming that title for themselves or bestowing it upon others. So, what exactly is shamanism, and how is it defined and practiced by its actual adherents?

Perhaps it would be a good beginning to elucidate what shamanism is NOT. To begin with, one common misconception must be eradicated. There is NO religion called "shamanism", any more than there is a religion called Lawyerism, or Physicianism, or Farmerism. No other vocation is in itself a religion, (with the possible, albeit humorously intended, exceptions of Science -ism and ComputerGeek -ism.) And shamanism is indeed a vocation. The title "shaman" is applied to a "technician of the sacred, " a specialist in shamanic practices who does that job in their own culture for the benefit of those who live within it. Although many of the practices of the shaman intersect with the ideas commonly associated with religion in the Western mind, including such topics as communion with the dead, salvation from various "supernatural" types of "evil" and healings that might be termed "miraculous", shamanism is a Profession, not a Religion.

If you feel you are called to a shaman's work, the path will be exceedingly difficult if you are a member of an urban Western culture. Modern Westernized urban society is not set up in such a way that we still have cultures or subcultures in which shamanism is recognized and practiced. To begin with, the shaman works in a homogeneous culture. Western urban culture has become diversified to an extent that most people do not even understand the concept of cultural icons, let alone honor these in their everyday lives. If you are an aspiring shaman, you may find it difficult to discover a culture or subculture in which your skills may flourish or even be recognized. The shaman's work arises organically from his or her culture, and American modern culture is, of all things, innately inorganic. Therefore, we must clarify one point at the outset. What we in Toteg Tribe are doing is NOT training shamans. It appears that what we, along with Michael Harner, Sandra Ingerman, and several others (including portions of the general Neo-Pagan movement, I suppose), ARE doing, is preparing society so that in future generations it really can accept certain individuals in the role of a true "shaman." back to top

Part Two -- What Is A Shaman?

I was beginning this section by discussing the "call" to become a shaman. But I realized as I was doing so that it is vital to identify the MEANING of the word shaman first. It is the misapplication and misidentification of the word "shaman" that has led to much of the current state of confusion. This section of these writings hopes to alleviate some of that confusion.

I do want to clarify one thing before we go on. Toteg Tribe uses the words "shaman" and "shamanism" in a classical sense. This is not the "Toteg definition," as it would be if we arbitrarily chose it to be. It is instead, and significantly, the definition accepted by historical and anthropological scientists and academics to identify a particular type of spiritual practitioner found in different cultures all over the world. It has a precise meaning, not one couched in the current collection of vague generalities. There are certain specific characteristics that identify a shaman that other spiritual practitioners do not have. I'll get into those later. This doesn't make a shaman any better or any worse than any of the other spiritual practitioners that exist. It merely classifies him or her.

In any indigenous culture, even in modern American culture, there are many different kinds of spiritual vocations. All of them have their own validity and their own honor. Not one of these vocations can be fully understood by persons who neither practice it themselves nor avail themselves of the services of those who do. Even though there are frauds in each one of them, each of the vocations itself is deserving of respect. Each of the practitioners of any of these various areas of spiritual work is just as important in his or her field as is any other practitioner, including the shaman. The various classifications of spiritual workers are many and varied. They include people called to practice such vocations as those of the priest, minister, psychic healer, midwife or doctor, medicine man, diviner, spiritual teacher, visionary, dream interpreter, "psychic", sorcerer, magician, and many another magic worker. You may practice any, or many, of these vocations yourself, and the list above is certainly intended to be neither complete nor exclusionary. But no matter what your particular vocation of spirit may be, and no matter what term you may choose to use to identify yourself, please bear with me and don't use the word "shaman" just yet.

Since the mid to late 90s when the word "shaman" became the new catch-all term for spiritual worker, most frequently in the current fad of all things "newage" (rhymes with "sewage") it seems to have no particular definition of its own, or to share indiscriminately in all of them. I've seen it applied in all seriousness, at random if not completely haphazardly, to each one of the practices mentioned in the above paragraph, as well as to countless others not so mentioned. That's really sad, because the result is that the uninformed public has taken a perfectly good word with a precise meaning and broadened its definition so much that in common usage it has become about as useful a term as "nice" or "stuff."' Of course, there is now a raft of publishers of the same kinds of "newage" books, who have recently found in the word "shaman" as "kewl" a buzzword as once was "astral travel" or "past-life regression." In the expected fashion of people in the business of sales, they have discovered that by attaching that word to an otherwise slow-selling book, one finds that its sales suddenly explode, especially if one can also find an unscrupulous author-lecturer who is willing to do the lecture circuit in a thousand dollars worth of beads and animal parts, sharing "awe-thentic shamanic visions". That most certainly has added to the confusion, but that is not the worst of it. It has caused the actual persons who are indeed shamans and have that spiritual skill to offer, to be regarded in nearly all Western cultures with a mix of contempt and condescension, as inaccurate as it is disrespectful.

That is significantly unfortunate, as the work of the shaman is a task requiring such dedication and skill that in those cultures where shamanism is an accepted spiritual vocation, the shaman is regarded with an awe and respect bordering on fear. It is not surprising, when one realizes exactly what authentic shamanistic work embraces and requires. A shaman's job is to perform magical acts such as spiritual healing, divination, dream interpretation, and other arcana. The shaman may be skilled at finding lost people or objects, locating animals for the hunt, guiding souls of the dead to their appropriate place in the other worlds, driving away or pacifying evil spirits, increasing the fertility and/or sexual vigor in the herds, community, and individuals, and so forth. At first glance, even these kinds of activities may not convey to Western minds the delicacy and precision with which the shaman’s path must be performed, or the deep respect with which the shamanic practitioner is regarded, After all, many of these are the same things that various other kinds of spiritual people do in the different societies and cultures. There is, however, a big difference in the skills of the shaman, one that makes a shaman different from every other kind of spiritual practitioner.

A true "shaman" does at least part of the work required of him or her by entering into a profound trance, known as an "ecstasy", in which the shaman actually ventures to "walk between the worlds", there gaining the knowledge or information that is required to perform the given task. The word "ecstasy" as used in this context is a precise and scientific term, not the synonym for the word used in romance novels, the one that means "joy or happiness" in any sense at all. The word "ecstasy" as applied to shamanic practices is identically defined as was the original Greek word "ekstasis" literally meaning "to stand outside the self." It denotes that state of almost cataleptic entrancement in which the shaman is oblivious to the outside world, leaving his or her body as a spirit, and having direct contact with the spirits that are causing the troubles, or that can aid in solving the problem. This state of ecstasy (not getting stoned on various "power plants") is the one characteristic unique and universal to authentic shamanism. Attaining this state is not done by those who are performing "pseudoism" rather than "shamanism", and without it, there is no shamanism happening at all. It is the single prominent identifying factor of the classical shaman. Now, if that is the experience you have in doing your spiritual work, you may have some justification to go ahead and use the word shaman (after finishing this essay.) If this is not a state with which you are personally familiar, I suggest you 1) read on, and 2) call yourself something else. back to top

Part Three -- The Call To Become A Shaman

The "call" to become a Shaman is very unlike the "call" that many practitioners of Pagan religions have felt, the call to leave their old religion and go searching elsewhere. Almost universally, that particular call makes the seeker feel as if, when they finally encounter the chosen "right" path for them, they have "come home" on some deep level. The "call" to be a Shaman feels a lot more like getting kicked off a tall building than it does like arriving safely home. I actually refer to the call to become a shaman as a "curse", because, unlike the very strong call many of us have to come "home" to our particular religion or philosophy, or the very strong call that many of us have to become initiated "priestesses and priests", the initial stages of the call to become a shaman are truly life threatening, and refusal to accept that call can result in very real death.

The initial stages of the call to shamanic work can seem as if the Gods have truly abandoned one. It is the real-life equivalent of the "ordeal" that is a feature in Initiations to many traditional paths of Witchcraft or other forms of the Old Religion. It is usually accompanied by a traumatic, life-threatening, life-changing experience, one that at first makes the recipient despair of survival, if they are even conscious during the ordeal. If conscious, it is usually a feature of the experience that the potential shaman survives largely through his or her own efforts, against all odds and to the astonishment of those standing around the bedside or other crisis venue. If the shaman appears to lose consciousness or even appears to die, what usually is said to happen is that survival is achieved by the direct intervention of the spirits. This experience may consist of one or more of the following possibilities.

  • being struck by lightning and surviving
  • surviving a "fatal" traffic accident
  • suffering a severe physical illness and recovering.
  • suffering severe emotional or mental illness and recovering
  • recovering from an "irreversible" coma
  • suffering from severe drug addiction or alcoholism and recovering
  • surviving serious suicide attempts without outside intervention
  • having a near death experience such as those on an operating table
  • surviving an attempt at being murdered
  • and so forth.

There are probably many more than these. Whatever happens, it is always an extremely close and unmistakable brush with death. Whatever the unique circumstances, the survivor of such an experience is changed forever by the first "walk between the worlds." He or she is thenceforth subject to interaction with other realms of existence whether that interaction is actively sought after, or actively avoided. The door is opened, and can subsequently never be closed.

Having such a near-death experience is not an indicator by itself. Either preceding or following this event (but often preceding it even from childhood) there are further signs that are usually unmistakable indicators of the call to shamanism. These signs often include such things as

  • being subject to falling into trances, either light and day-dreamy, or deep and profound, and in those trances communicating with their own ancestor spirits, and other spirits, who may torment them until they follow the call
  • having dreams or visions in which their own ancestors or other spirits tell them they are chosen to be a shaman
  • having lucid dreams or visions in which spirits kill them, remove their flesh, internal organs, and so forth, sometimes devour them, and then replace those things with divine or magical flesh, innards, and so forth and bring them back to life
  • having dreams or visions in which they are visited by a "spirit husband or wife" who has intimate relations with them, teaches them, gives them helping spirits of certain kinds, and so forth. Often this "spirit husband or wife" will threaten to kill the potential shaman unless he or her accepts both them and the call to shamanize.
  • "waking dreams" in which the person loses consciousness for moments, as in petit mal epilepsy, and when returning to consciousness speaks in other languages unknown to the person. In these instances, the shaman-to-be may appear to be babbling gibberish, but is not talking nonsense but actually saying things that make sense if the language is translated.

However the call manifests itself, the experiences seem to escalate over time until the person may appear to him or her self, as well as to others, to be actually losing their mind if the call is ignored. Only if a direct acceptance of the "kick" to become a shaman is conveyed to the spirits will the manifestations be likely to cease or come under the shaman's control. If, on the other hand, the person so afflicted continues to resist the push, the worst can and does ensue in time. A person usually cannot refuse the call to the shaman's vocation without becoming seriously physically or mentally ill, or even dying.

So, what happens if a person is "called" and chooses to respond affirmatively? How, then, does the process of actually BECOMING a shaman take place? Let's talk about the spiritual initiation of the shaman, and how it differs from other such initiatory experiences. back to top

Part Four -- Elements of Initiation

As I mentioned in an earlier section of this essay, there are many different kinds of "spiritual workers" and many diverse sorts of people who experience these callings. They are all equally important and equally valuable, and each of them may include some sort of experience that can be described as "initiatory". In this series I'm focusing on the classical understanding of traditional shamanism throughout the world so that we have a basis to begin understanding what's happening in our modern societies. Therefore we will begin to explore the kind of initiation that creates a shaman.

In an earlier part of this series I wrote about some of the signs of the call to classical or traditional shamanism. I should have mentioned that these signs do not necessarily apply only to the call to be a shaman, nor do they universally apply to any other particular "calling." In either case, the manifestations need to be accompanied by other indicators…it is entirely possible that a shaman can be "called" without any physical or mental injury or shock at all, and it is also true that some people who claim they have been visited by the "divine touch" are really just that, touched. Signs and symbols are not enough of an indicator by themselves, nor are signs and symbols able to be neatly classified by application to a particular "calling." But it is true that many people who undergo traumatic and astonishing experiences such as those mentioned above are "called" to be shamans, many are "called" to be something other than shamans, and some are simply wacko. So…how do you tell? Specifically, how do you identify a shamanic initiation? Let´s take a look.

I need to make a significant point here, though, before beginning to discuss shamanic initiation. As with so many other cultural practices of non-urban cultures, there are real and valid reasons for the people within such cultures to keep their practices to themselves, persecution from the outside being one of the most prevalent.  Therefore, I can't really speak about the physical process of a shaman's initiation(s) in cultures where shamanism is traditionally practiced. The reason for that is simply because most of their ceremonies are quite secret. We have a few scattered fragments of descriptions in some anthropological studies, and of course in Eliade's excellent "religious history" works. And we also, unfortunately, recently have acquired a huge list of "newage" books purportedly on the "secrets of shamanism" which are unmitigated crap. So I approach this subject with deep respect, recognizing that as a sub-urban dweller in a western civilization, I have neither access, nor right of access, to much that is Mystery. But I would like to share a few things that I know to be accurate.

Usually a potential shaman experiences the basic elements of initiation in dreams and visions, prior to going through the physical act of initiation by the elder shamans. The particular elements they experience will, of course, be related to the worldview of their particular culture. For example an African Bushman's dreams will be about things his people do, dreams different from, but in essence related to, the dreams about experiences that an Australian Aborigine or a Mongolian would go through. I do need to point out that the dreams or visions the called person experiences are involuntary, and are intense, feeling as though they are real. It may be that the physical initiation is necessary in order to ground the forces that are there in order to "satisfy the dream" so that the one called can survive. And it may also be true that the process of "true-dreaming", i.e. dreaming that is vivid, intense, in color, with physical manifestations often still apparent after the dreamer awakens, is itself a mark of the shaman.

There are cases where the dream/vision type initiation is the only one the shaman experiences. This usually happens only in villages where there is no practicing shaman to initiate and teach, and, therefore, no one who is trained and empowered in shamanism to actually vouch for the authenticity of the experience. Since this actually means that the prospective shaman is the only one who can describe that the initiation has actually taken place, or verify that the Spirits have spoken, it often results in the new shaman´s being considered a "lesser shaman," one not in possession of the full power which is the legacy of one who has gone through the traditional methods and received the secret practices of their guild from their elders.

The elements of the initiatory dream may vary from culture to culture, but it does have some basic "parameters" so to speak, which seem always to be present. For one element, the word "dream" is not fully descriptive of the nature of this experience. It might just as easily be called an "initiatory nightmare" and is always inclusive of pain, both mental, emotional and physical, pain not experienced solely in the dream world but also in the physical realm. The ordeal seems to have a basic form, encompassing such things as:

  • being abducted and taken to a secret desolate spot.
  • being purified in some manner, often through the use of fire.
  • being tested or tried by being put through an ordeal, often including torture of such severity that it takes the candidate to the point of desperation, then fatalistic surrender, resulting in death.
  • watching one’s body being dismembered, head cut off, arms and legs cut off and separated joint by joint.
  • sometimes watching a new body being created, bones replaced with new ones of iron, internal organs being replaced by new ones of different materials, including gem stones of different kinds, sometimes other things.
  • being reborn in the new body, and taught as though an infant.
  • being taught the shaman's secret language.
  • being introduced to the spirits of various diseases, and sometimes being taught by them the cure for those diseases.

There are many more elements that could go in that list, none of them superficial. In fact, in many of the initiations of the sort that are conducted in the real world by a trained shaman, the initiatory ordeals are so severe that the candidate may die. No one undergoing such an ordeal finds this to be in any way strange, since the intent of the rite is to create a new being housed in the body of the person, a new being who has powers and abilities that transcend the mundane. Indeed, it is possible that, even in our own culture, some of the powers we attribute in myth and lore to the discarnate bodies of those who have died may be vestiges of the things our group mind taught our own ancestors who lived in cultures where world-walking was an accepted fact of life. In any case, though, the initiate comes back a new person, the old life gone and the new life as a shaman newly born there in its place. From that point, there is no turning back. back to top

Part Five -- Is Your Calling Real?

The last two installments had to do with the "call" to shamanize and the often traumatic initiatory dreams found in classical cultures which maintain and support the function of the shaman in their civilizations. I did draw a distinction between the definition and function of the shaman in these indigenous cultures, and the role a person who might consider him or her self to be a shaman might serve in an urbanized culture such as modern America. Therefore, I'm afraid some people may have been thinking that I have been implying that the calling that they feel is not real or something. This is absolutely not the case! Following are some of the marks of what I consider to be authentic shamanistic callings as they manifest themselves in modern Western cultures.

To begin with, the concept of rites of passage differs radically in western civilizations from the way these are viewed in indigenous cultures where shamanism is prevalent. Even those who are not called to shamanize are subjected to some sort of an ordeal in their own clan or tribe as they achieve the steps from childhood to youth and then to adulthood. Some of these have a tendency to be rigorous and even brutal by modern Western standards, such as the vision quest of a young man or the parturition rituals of young women, many of which involve bloodletting. Therefore we must view the shamanistic initiations practiced in these cultures within their own cultural context, not ours. I think that most of us today, myself included, could not survive the real life, as opposed to dream life, initiation of a Tungus or Mongolian shaman. Most likely we could not even survive the initiation into adulthood that many so called "primitive" cultures require. So then, how will a member of one of our own cultures recognize an authentic call to become a shaman? Here are some possible examples from my own personal experience.

My first awareness of my own calling came in 1953, after my miraculous
survival of three separate suicide attempts within a week's period. The last attempt was almost foolproof ... I held the barrel of a pistol to my temple and pulled the trigger. After the gun incomprehensibly misfired (it fired immediately afterwards, when I pointed it into the ground to test it) I had a sudden overwhelming flash that there was something I had to do in this lifetime, and that I would not be permitted to die until that "something" was fulfilled. As a 12-year-old boy (about the age of the occurrence of a tribal culture´s "initiation into adulthood" as mentioned above) I had never been exposed to the concept of having a life´s purpose, a concept common in tribal cultures but increasingly lacking in our own. Therefore, I had a vague perception of the fact that I "had a mission", but had no earthly idea what it was, nor how I was to discover it. But I had a vague yearning, and I was curious.

Afterwards, I underwent a noticeable personality change from my prior interests and attitudes. I felt compelled to read mythology of many different peoples and cultures, was subject to heavy daydreams and nightmares, and stumbled around in a vague fog, trying to find out what was going on. It wasn't until 8 years later that I finally "bumped into someone" who was able to give me some direction, resulting in a real-world initiation. This was not a classical "shamanic" initiation, by the way, and certainly wasn't a Wiccan initiation since Wicca (by that name) did not arrive in the United States until brought here by Ray and Rosemary Buckland in 1964 or so.

Since that time I have become aware that my experience, while singularly unique to me, is certainly not unusual. People in our culture in the last forty years have become increasingly aware of the world beyond the mundane, and there are a great many of them who are actually being impacted personally by the spirit world in ways mainstream religions do not recognize or approve of. There is in our present culture the phenomenon of a great many people having a strong and uniquely compelling "calling" of one kind or another; and most of them are left feeling extremely uncomfortable unless they follow it. Those who are within the Neo-Pagan/Wiccan movement in particular are usually struck by the strong sense of "coming home" that one feels when one finally connects. Many of the others, especially those with no guidance outside mainstream religious practices, are thrown for the proverbial loop when they have the initiatory smackdown with no interpretation thereof. They may often end up drunkards, drug addicts, clinically insane, or dead.

During the past 30 years or so, since the publication of the works of Eliade, Harner and others, more and more people in modern Western cultures have been identifying their personal calling with the call to shamanize. It is not to be wondered at that this label of "shamanism", once an arcane practice but now one being eagerly explored by authors and scholars from various unrelated disciplines, has become strongly popular as a label for indecipherable spiritual experiences. I rather suspect that people who have such an experience are likely to be extremely confused about it, probably frightened by parts of it, unable to identify it, until they finally can find something to call it, and stick the label on, with a huge sigh of relief. People have a need to know what is happening to them. In our pseudoscientific and mechanized culture, the odd experience is likely to be slapped with a label of "mental aberration" unless one can find something else to call it. Our minds simply can't grasp abstractions very easily without putting SOME kind of a label on them, and it is true that we have developed a "culture of conformity" that looks with suspicion upon the unusual, unless it is occurring in a movie. So it is probable that rather than think of ourselves as wackos, who have dreams where we seem to be exploring strange lands and wake up tired and dirty, we grab whatever it is that our deep selves feel is the most similar to what is happening to us, and slap the label on. It seems not to matter that the  "symbol" we grab may not really be accurate. It is far better than thinking of ourselves as insane, and it satisfies the need to name the thing for the time being. So it is hard to feel blame for those who seem to have pre-empted, or at least co-opted, the name of "shaman" for their personal "call to spirit." But there must be some way of knowing whether the call is truly to shamanism. How does one identify the call to authentic classical shamanism? Or is it possible that the very definition of the word "shaman" is also mutating and expanding, in order to embrace associated experiences that have a relationship to the classical shamanism that has never been an integral element of modern western urban culture?

I am intrigued by the possibility that we are, indeed, being called by Spirit to "think outside the box" in our definitions of modern western spiritual work. So many of the calls felt by practitioners of nature spirituality in western urban societies today have strong shamanic elements to them. Not all such people are experiencing the call to do the work of a shaman, but they are encountering different and elementally transformational ways of participating in their own walk of spirit. Something is happening, something is growing, something is developing, something that is different from the classical shamanism of Siberia, or Africa, or South America, or Australia. It is a new thing, it is its own thing, and it is worthy of respect and exploration. But …it is not shamanism.

There are verifiable differences between classical shamanism and whatever we ultimately decide to call this new kind of spiritual awakening. Whatever it is, it needs to be defined on its own terms, and not used as a crutch to water down the actual definition and experience of authentic shamanism. What are the characteristics of this new variety of spiritual calling? It's powerful, it has elements found in some shamanically-oriented societies, but it has profound and significant differences as well. It lacks the intensity, and sometimes the focus, the feeling of being reborn, that is an integral element of classical shamanistic induction. It usually also is missing many of the physically dangerous elements that are characteristic aspects of shamanism as it manifests in those societies. Most profoundly, it is practically devoid of the ONE thing found in ALL classical shamanism -- the ecstatic trance, the being outside of the self, that closely resembles a petit mal epileptic seizure. Regardless of the methods used, the particular spiritual orientation of the individual or group, the tools and implements used, or the particular task being done, it's that ecstatic trance that separates the shaman from other types of spiritual healers or technicians of the sacred. And without it, one does not have the essential element of shamanistic practice, that loss of Self that is replaced with Spirit.

I think that Spirit is creating something new in our modern society, a new kind of spiritual practitioner, not a shaman, but something different. I believe this spiritual classification embraces elements from the old shamanic practices, but that it is something different, something more fitting for today's "civilized" world. I also maintain that this something will not, does not, cannot, have the physical rigors of the old ways, but that it still is deep, and powerful, and effective. It's something reincarnated from the old ways, like iron heated white hot in a forge and tortured, hammered ruthlessly, and heated again and again until it emerges as a fine new steel blade ready for the new task that is set before it.

I don't know what to call it. It's not classical shamanism. It is something new, and very special. I don't know what to call its practitioners, or even how to accurately identify them. As a matter of fact, I am not even sure at this point, with all the changes I have experienced in my own walk of spirit, exactly what one might call me, other than "that Crazy old Coot on the Hill". But I am convinced that whatever this new thing is, it will emerge, and grow, and develop, and become more accessible and more comprehensible as time goes on. And it will be a very good thing. back to top

Part Six -- Types of Trance

As I said before, it's the ecstatic trance that separates the shaman from other types of spiritual healers or technicians of the sacred. The difference between making petition or sacrifice, or giving praise or thanks, to Deity from this realm of existence, and actually traveling "between the worlds" to interact with Spirit, is profound and meaningful. But the ecstatic trance, like so many other elements of shamanism, has a much more precise definition than the Western mind would assume. Since trance work is an integral part of many spiritual systems, it is likely that there may be misunderstandings about whether or not one is actually undergoing "shamanic trance" or some other type. So here is an illustration of several different types of trance, and how they differ from the shamanic or ecstatic trance.

The authentic or "pure" shamanic trance at first glance has little or nothing in common with other kinds of trance. The shamanic ecstasy seizes the shaman in a grip which leaves him or her unconscious to the ordinary world. Usually this is accompanied by a rigidity of the body not unlike rigor mortis in appearance. It may be additionally accompanied by the signs usually associated with medical problems such as seizures, including tremors, frothing at the mouth, and apparent cessation of breathing. The shaman's tongue may retract so that he or she nearly swallows it, or alternately it is seen protruding from the side of the mouth, in danger of being bitten. Sometimes the shaman's journey, with its accompanying ecstatic trance, will last for hours. During that trance the shaman's spirit will travel to whatever different places he or she needs to go to find the solution to the problem at hand. Upon return to the body, the shaman is usually exhausted from the very real struggles he or she went through, and may even be ill for several days.

This trance is extremely rare, even in cultures where shamanistic practice is a real and revered essential of the spiritual practice of the people. Therefore there is a certain status and importance associated with the shaman´s position, resulting in there being a value associated with the ability to achieve the ecstatic trance. In those cultures a person who cannot do that is considered a "lesser shaman," nowhere near as powerful as the "shamans of old" or "true shamans " In some cultures "lesser shamans" will produce an artificial trance which may appear similar to the "pure shamanic trance," perhaps with the aid of drugs such as those derived from the amanita muscaria mushroom (Fly Agaric), ayahuasca, jimson weed and other varieties of datura. Often the creation of both kinds of trance listed above is aided by such things as drumming in certain different rhythms, rattling rattles, using other percussion instruments, dancing to exhaustion, singing songs or chants similar to singing or reciting a mantra, and other means. Either a traditional shaman or a lesser shaman may use various techniques associated with changing consciousness to produce trance. The results, however, are very different.

It is unfortunate, in shamanic cultures and even in our own, that there is a potential for deceit and abuse of these aids to trance. Because such things as dance, chant or drumming are very obvious to observers, and because such aids are often useful in producing shamanic trances, and because the effects or "symptoms" of being in a shamanic ecstasy are visible and likewise rather obvious, it has become easier to fake the experience. Even in cultures that revere shamans as spiritual leaders, the "lesser shaman" or other poseurs may attempt to appear in an ecstasy by fraud. In our own culture particularly, where drumming and chanting and use of dance is not a normal part of religious experience, the trappings can be very overwhelming and the supposed shamanic information obtained can be compelling and convincing to the unaware. However, this practice is not only unethical and sleazy, but in a true shamanic culture may become highly dangerous as well. Since the information so produced is not as likely to be accurate as that derived from actual communication with Spirit, the "lesser shaman" is subject to exposure as a fraud, and banishment or death may be the result. We have no such strictures on our own culture, which may be a part of the reason for the "shamanic explosion" and associated frauds perpetrated on unwary seekers with Western-sized problems and wallets to match.

The trance of other types, however, is a recognized part of the spiritual experience for a large number of modern alternative religions. As we move away from the classical cultures of *pure* shamanism, we move into different cultures with different religious practices, and different forms of trance and vision. Most of these are available to everyone, and not just the provenance of a *called* shaman. None of these types of trance workings should claim or attempt to indicate that the person using them is a "shaman." That doesn't mean that a shaman wouldn't use them either. It simply means that they are not exclusively shamanic. I think it's these trances that are really most important to us in our modern explorations, and which most people experience. Any altered state in which one achieves insight is not something to which most of the Judeo-Christian world is accustomed, except in the case of saints and mystics. For this reason, the various kinds of non-shamanic trances, their causes, nature, and possible results, make for a necessary part of the study of alternate spirit practices in the Western world. Here is information on the nature of several such types of trance experience.

The first one of these trance states we will discuss is the sort of hypnogogic state in which the person may act in the function of a "trance medium." This trance actually bears a certain resemblance to the ecstatic trance of "pure shamanism", at least in its purpose. A person under such a trance, such as the late Edgar Cayce and other psychic workers, may remain intelligible to the questioner while in state of trance. The trance medium is in a kind of hypnotic fog, and may be observed to be giving advice, readings, and predictions while in that state. The person will usually be able to respond to questions that may be asked, but will be unable to remember the experience after returning to ordinary consciousness. Most people are not able to enter a trance state like this at will without years of training or practice.

Another of the more spectacular types of non-shamanic trances is that which appears to the practitioner to be similar to a vivid dream -- a lucid dream -- in which they are able to travel on journeys from one place to another, visit intense landscapes, interact with spirits, and go and come much as they please. This trance does occur during sleep, but differs significantly from the kind of dreams most people have. In these cases it is typical for a person to say afterwards that they were awake within the dream, awake enough to know that they were "dreaming" and could control the experience, but could not awaken. Reading on lucid dreaming and trance dreaming is available to explore the intricacies of this type of trancing. The means of doing so are beyond the scope of this essay.

A much more common variety of trance, and one which everyone can (and probably does) experience, is that trance which appears to be like a vivid daydream. We all enter into this kind of a trance from time to time. In some ways it's similar to being engrossed in a movie, or in a television show, or in a fascinating book. We are unaware of our surroundings because our attention is directed to the daydream, but are still able to interact with those surroundings, respond to people or events that happen in real life, and so forth. It is also true that this type of trance is the one which most people have the power to enter at will, contrasting with many other kinds of trance that appear to "take" the person. Meditation and mild sensory deprivation are aids to achieving this type of trance, as well as the chanting and drumming described above. This "waking trance" is a tool in the spiritual lives of many kinds of people. It's usually in this state that people on a nature-based or metaphysical type of spiritual path have experiences with spirits, ancestors, divinities, and so forth

That particular trance variety ranges from very mild "staring off into space" to very intense states of near-catatonia. It's the state that the vast majority of psychics are in when they give readings, whether by cards, or psychometry, other means of divination. It is the state in which one may observe the Wiccan High Priestess "draw down" the God or Goddess and speak in that voice and persona. It's also the state that psychic healers use. In other words, anyone with any knowledge of spiritual states at all uses those trances routinely, either intentionally or unintentionally. Some of the practitioners who use these types of trances in their work, especially those who use them for clients who come to them for problem-solving solutions, may choose to call their practice and the kinds of trances into which they enter *shamanism*. As we have been discussing, this is a misuse of this term. What these healers have to offer is very useful, but shamanism it's not. That doesn't make these types of trance states, or the work done by such practitioners, any less valid or valuable, unless they deliberately misuse the word and title of the shaman to mislead the unwary. back to top

Part Seven -- Patterns of Shamanism

As we've seen, shamanic practices vary from culture to culture. The influences on shamanic practice and orientation come from the world views of the individual nation, tribe, clan, family history, and religion of the chosen culture.  Each of these influences serves to shape the way the shaman works, identify the spirits he or she encounters, name the Deities he or she worships, and pinpoint the cultural symbols used, encountered, and interpreted. There is no way around this intricate process, because each nation, each tribe, each clan, each family, each language, each religion, and each specific configuration of the Land on which the peoples live, all have their own unique spirits which are inseparable from their practice. This is why none of us will ever become a Siberian, Mongolian, Arunta, Kakundu, Ojibwa, Dine', Yoruba, or whatever shaman, unless we ARE Siberian, Mongolian, Arunta, Kakundu, Ojibwa, Dine', or Yoruba. The above does not indicate "descended from" (as in having a great grandfather who was one, or some such) but being an actual participant in that culture, living on that land, worshiping those ancestral spirits, living in that culture with its practices and prohibitions, integrally connected in our essential lives to the people, place, philosophy and practice of the culture. And if that were the case for you, you probably wouldn't be reading this.

This does not mean that your and my patterns may not be similar to those of the peoples I just mentioned. The patterns of shamanism are archetypal. They are found all over the world, but with different cultural identifications and orientations. The patterns of the shaman include the world view of the sacred land, the interactions with other worlds for information and healing, the unity of all creation, and the importance of ancestral and cultural associations and integrity. These elements are found in all civilizations to greater or lesser degree. They are the gateways to the core understanding of the immanent spiritual path, the world view that incorporates learning from, and interacting with, influences from other than the mundane and material perspective.

I'd suggest checking out the cultural, spiritual, and shamanic patterns found in other cultures where core shamanism is a part of the societal practice, and comparing those with other patterns found throughout the world. A trip to the local library will be a plus here. I would strongly urge against the newage (rhymes with sewage) section of either the library or the Internet, and especially suggest that the works you consult be in the area of anthropology and social history, not newage or metaphysical studies. Of all things, the cultures where shamanism is an accepted practice are as far from being metaphysical or occult in their approach to living as chalk is from cheese. These cultures embrace life and death as parts of one process, and base their realities on the normal everyday experiences of human beings, seeing these as part of, not separate from, Spirit. Studying about these cultures and comparing them with the patterns you discover by your own practice, work, and journeys will enhance your own practice and enable you to accurately identify which aspects of it are culturally-based in your own culture, which ones are archetypal, transcending a particular culture, and which are unique to you.

This is not an easy task. The temptation to simply adopt something from a given shamanically-based culture, and augment it with bits and pieces from the others, is strong. However, if you do so, you will be cheating yourself in several ways. You will be ignoring what might actually be individual promptings of spirit that have shown you ways of doing things for yourself, simply because these may not match things you read about from other cultures. You are denying the power of your own heritage, whatever it may be, to interact with you on a spiritual level, and in so doing giving insult and dishonor to your own mundane and spiritual ancestors. Most significantly of all, you are dulling your own ability to intuit truth for yourself by reverting to the paradigms of a published source, and, in so doing, are setting your personal pattern to be that of a much lesser practitioner than you are capable of becoming. It is not only more ethical, but ultimately more rewarding, to trust your own experiences and intuitions, using published sources for reference, not as templates.

Before I go much further in discussing the individual Western approach to shamanism, I do want to clarify that I do not actually call myself a shaman for several reasons. In the first instance, I don't fit the criteria of my own specific and strict standards as outlined earlier in this series. Although I've gone through the initiatory experiences, and am subject to going into trances of various intensities, both at will, and at spirit's will, and do journey into the other worlds, I do not go into that intense ecstatic trance that is the essential criterion for calling oneself a shaman. I did that once in my life only, a very long time ago. Secondly, I do not fit another essential qualification for being a shaman, and that is being a member of a culture, community, or society that recognizes me as being a shaman. That outside recognition of one's peers, culture and clientele, is essential all over the world. I do, however, belong to a sub-culture which has its own term for "technicians of the sacred" who do some, if not all, of the jobs the shaman does in his or her own community. That sub-culture is Toteg Tribe, and the term used within the tribe for the practices I perform is "Visar." A Visar is a person who is skilled in the arts of divination and spell casting, and also enters into a trance state in which the s/he travels to Other Worlds in order to diagnose, heal, learn the causes of and solutions to problems, guide souls, deal with spirits of various kinds, etc, when necessary.  Within Toteg Tribe, a Visar is a  recognized "technician-of-the-sacred" who does magical workings, including shamanic journeys, on behalf of Tribal members and others.

I rather prefer being called that "Crazy old Coot on the Hill" or an Owit-towit-tai-at(One Who Intentionally Travels To Other Worlds In Trance And Isn't A Twinkie). We may participate in the archetypal patterns of the shaman, even though we do not merit the actual title. back to top

Part Eight -- Something About Symbols

My own spiritual methods have resulted from my study and adaptation of both traditional and non-traditional practices. In the traditional realm, they include such things as my cultural and religious upbringing, which lasted to adulthood. Then there was my association, initiation, and instruction from my "Craft" lineage, which is separate from my upbringing, but fits the keyhole of my soul. My primary training included specific things from three separate, but strongly spiritually related, "Craft" traditions, each of which seemed to lack something by itself, but became part of a complete system when put together, like a three-legged stool which cannot stand without all of its legs. I had agreement from each of my original teachers that it was okay to fit the philosophies and generalities of these three together for my personal and family use. The resulting philosophy is that which is the roots, the foundation, the framework, for Toteg Tribe, which is the legacy of my work on both Metista and the original incarnation of TOTEG.

My practices are unique to me and to the training and influences I've had throughout my life. In all likelihood there is no one in the world who practices in quite the same way I do. It seems obvious to me that this is probably true of everyone who has a spiritual practice, and the individual nature of one´s personal connection with Spirit is one of the hallmarks of the Toteg Tribe philosophy. It seems odd to me, therefore, that there are attitudes in current Western thought, even amongst practitioners of alternative religions, that one´s practice is somehow less valid if it does not follow some Book of Shadows or set of traditional rules. The legacy of Toteg will be passed down when I leave this realm, but its inheritors, whomever they may turn out to be, will of necessity imprint the Toteg philosophy with their own personal stamp and filters. Unlike those who strive for the concept of "purity" of tradition, it is my belief that those who may come after me, and who will thus incorporate their individual beliefs into Toteg Tribe, in so doing will not only NOT somehow dilute my own teaching, but will in fact deepen and enrich it.

The above is not to indicate, however, that one should not respect the teachings handed down by others, and not adulterate them nor share them in ways that are unacceptable to their owners or originators. Indeed, when I first wrote this essay, I included the following statement: "My palms have been sweating while I've been trying to sort through those things that are specific to my lineage and should not be shared outside of it, and those things that are available to everyone with hard work. Some of this in the rest of this series is going to turn out to be a combination of the two, I'm sure, since I won't be able to explain without an illustration of some sort. It is possible to introduce someone to the concepts of a Tradition without betraying its secrets. It is that task I have taken upon myself in discussing the following topic. I will admit that I have been avoiding beginning. I hate writing about myself, and exposing myself, just as much as everyone else does. But I'm going to just begin, and choose the subjects "symbols, tools, and costumes" since they are all closely related.

The concept of "symbols" includes a scarcely definable variety of different things. The nature of symbols depends on that which is common in one's culture, things that are given by the physical Elders or passed down in a specific lineage, those things that are given by spirits during dreams and visions, and those things that have some meaning that is specifically related to the practitioner's life. All symbols have layers of specific meanings, both obvious and hidden. They also have power connections, depending on what they are and how they are used, somewhat similar to the connections of a storage battery, which works on certain engines but not on others. The power of a symbol is of necessity not conveyable through language, and it is a paradox that the strength of symbolic tokens is far more powerful when they are individually discovered. For this reason I hesitate to be too specific about the ones that have been given to me through my lineages, and even through spiritual revelation. I write this in hope that suggestion and allusion will assist others in following their own thought processes to discovery of symbols for themselves. I do assert here that the symbols I will discuss in this section are only vaguely alluded to, and disguised if necessary, to preserve promises I have made of confidentiality or nondisclosure.

At my first acceptance into "the family" I was given a stoneware tool, about 8 inches long and an inch to an inch and a half in diameter. On one side of this tool was an image composed primarily of spirals done in a particular manner, and obviously representing primordial femininity. On the other side was an etching that represented the other half, a stag mask with a certain number of tines on the antlers, all drawn in a particularly stylistic manner. These symbols, as well as the tool itself, have special meaning that can only be fully discovered by meditation on their meanings, coupled with a combination of "real world" guidance and explanations derived from what is realized during the meditations. This process can not only take years, but actually is never finished. I am still discovering the full meaning and significance of this symbol. I find the concept of congruence also takes effect here. When one is to recognize a particular symbol, the Universe keeps presenting it to one in different ways, For example, other symbols, similar in concept but quite different in actuality to the one I described above, were given to me at one time or another by each of my other two Craft lineages. Interestingly enough, despite differences in their nature, they are to be used the same way.

In addition to that kind of symbol, individual symbols special to your personal experiences or family heritage might be used. For example, if a part of your call to "shamanize" included being hit by lightning, a lightning bolt would be an ideal symbol. For myself, the bullet I have in my right arm acts as a symbol, since that near-death experience happened after 5 years of ignoring my spiritual call. The bullet hit in line with my heart, and only 1/4 inch away from a major artery. If it had hit that artery I would have died of internal bleeding before the paramedics got there. That too is an important symbol to me, and an internal talisman reminding me of Spirit's watchfulness over me. It is important to be completely aware that your personal symbols are just that, personal. That means it is a good idea not to try to impose those symbols and their meanings on others. But it also means that no one else has the right to discount or dismiss your own personal symbols.

Another type of symbol is the archetypal symbol, images that over many centuries have transcended tribal and societal boundaries so that they are used similarly in many diverse cultures. The symbols of the elements of fire, water, and earth, lightning, trees, and caves are examples of natural features that exist everywhere and thus have become archetypal symbols. For example, often a person practicing shamanic techniques will decorate his or her drum and other tools with symbols that represent a tree with branches and roots. This is the World Tree, which reaches into the Upperworld with its branches and into the Lowerworld with its roots. This image is one that is found in the archaeological artifacts of nearly every culture we have explored as humans. Stylized images representing the male and female sex organs are another universal symbol which has become an archetype, one to be used carefully and with knowledge of the intent desired, since there is great power in them. Other such archetypes are images of the sun and moon, sea and sky, rainbow and storm clouds. These symbols  are ways a shaman can link to the spirit of the natural objects so represented. It is important to realize, however, that due to acculturation, though the symbolic image accessed by shamans in diverse cultures may be the same, the internal Spirit met with or the information received in the encounter may differ greatly.

Some of the symbols used by shamanic practitioners are also hieroglyphs of some sort, representing immense meaning in a small space. Such symbols may include runes, ogham markings, spirit writings, magical alphabets, and other shapes and symbols specific to different tribes, traditions or cultures. Most such glyphs are created by the practitioner using them, or, in the case of runes or ogham symbols, are combined in ways that are individually significant. Often an individual's symbols will include something that evokes the image of their personal Tutelary spirit. Sometimes these symbols will be a part of the decoration on a practitioner's costume when one is used, as well as being painted on his or her drum. Whatever symbols are being used by the practitioner, the intent is always the same. The symbol is a "doorway", a threshold making it easier for the user of the symbol to transcend the worlds and experience the necessary insight. back to top

Part Nine -- Something About Tools

Earlier I wrote that I would talk about tools in this installment. On reflection I realize that it is impossible to separate the discussion of tools from other “things’ that serve the shamanic practitioner, such as costumery and sacred symbol. All of these “props’ are part of the same process, that of shifting the consciousness of the shaman to make it possible for him or her to move freely between the planes of existence and between worlds. It is even more significant that one cannot actually separate, not only discussion of symbols, tools and costume in context, but that it is often nearly impossible to separate these actual items from one another in practice. Symbols, tools, and costume are closely related because each actually contains or expresses aspects of the other. A symbol itself is a tool, which may be used in conjunction with other tools and costume. Likewise both tools and costume are symbols themselves. Therefore it is probably wiser to discuss these items in an overlapping fashion, referring to them in the phrase “props’. Most of what is said below can apply to any or all of the three.

The tools I use bear little resemblance to those used by Ceremonial Magicians, Wiccans, and Neo-Pagans. Simply put, they are different because their uses are different. In neo-Paganism, the tools on the altar are usually symbolic representations of the elements, but do not themselves contain any power except that given them by the will and intent of the practitioner. It is also possible for the Witch to do ritual without use of tools, and is actually a requirement of some Craft training that the aspiring Witch prove that he or she is capable of successfully doing that. On the other hand, the “props’ of the shamanic practitioner. many and varied, are used very differently. My own collection of “props’ is diverse and significant to me personally as well as connecting me with other worlds. Examples of the things I use to achieve this include such items as:

  • a shield containing an image of a personal vision that I had.
  • my drums which also contain symbols and images personal to my practice
  • my rattles
  • a knife which has three edges to the blade
  • an earthenware bowl
  • a small brass bowl
  • a cow’s horn with the tip cut off so it makes a kind of funnel
  • a number of different stones
  • a miniature bow and arrow
  • a hammer, tongs, and anvil
  • various feathers, bones, teeth, claws, skulls, and hides
  • a couple hundred different herbs and roots
  • two staves
  • several small bags in which I keep various special items.
  • a cord with a certain number of specially tied knots on it
  • horseshoe nails
  • string and yarn of various colors
  • special chants and songs
  • a specially made tripod altar
  • the stoneware tool I mentioned in an earlier essay
  • a ring
  • paints and makeup
  • miscellaneous items such as candle holders, candles, and herbal incenses, powders, oils, etc
  • my costuming
  • And various other items.

Some of these things were given to me, or I was shown how to make or obtain them by my physical world teachers. Some of them I was shown how to make or get by my spirits while on journeys. All of them have special uses that I've been taught by both physical and non-physical world teachers.

I could teach some people how to use some of these items, in a limited manner. At least, that is to say, I could teach them how I use these items. By doing so, however, I would be limited to teaching by dogma, and that which I taught would, by its very nature, consist of both truth and falsehood, since dogma itself is limited and hides the essence of truth even more than it reveals it. I could not ever convey to anyone else the actual intrinsic meaning of any one of these items to me and to my spirits, nor could I actually transfer to another the way of journeying nor the actual use of a particular object whilst on such a journey. Should I attempt to do this, the best the student could say is that he or she listened to me describe something about my own practice. Should the person then try to duplicate that experience, we would all be cheated, him or her self, the spirits, the client of this person, and the person themselves, and yet there would be another small lie planted in the already endless ocean of dogmatic training that exists in Craft. So I am speaking, in the remainder of this essay, of my own perceptions of my own experiences, and hope that the material herein may be judiciously and scrupulously applied by those who read it.

Let us begin with discussion of some of the tools most universally recognized as “shamanic’ in nature, the drum and the rattle. Unfortunately, the use of the drum and the rattle is one that is all too often limited by the teachings given in books and seminars. These teachings state that those tools are used to provide rhythmic sounds as an aid in getting into a trance state. While this is true as far as it goes, it is not the whole of their use.

Not only are there other applications of sound in shamanic trance workings, and other specific uses for the drum and the rattle in practice, but many of these are impossible to convey except in hands-on training rather than the printed word. Because of the teachings available in books on shamanism, and because, of necessity, most of those books have been written by Westerners, (most shamanic indigenous cultures are non-literate) many people who are experimenting with shamanic techniques today assume that they must  have someone drum for them, or that they have to get a tape recording of drumming to play for the duration of their experiment. The net result of this practice is likely to be that the person completely misses the point of the use of this tool. Yes, the drum, or the tape recording of drumming, can be aids to trance journeying. No, they are not necessary, nor is their use the sum total of the experience. It is actually true, on the contrary, that the drum or rattle can be an anchor rather than a vehicle, when used in inexperienced hands or when too deeply relied upon. Further, it is often vital to the experience of shamanic journey or other working that the practitioner do his or her own drumming, something rarely, if ever, suggested in self-help texts on shamanism. My own experience bears this out. Although I have had people drum and rattle for me, as many of my co-practitioners can confirm, I also, and often, use those tools without outside help. When I do so, I use rhythms and patterns that are unlike the ones taught, are often irregular, and have purposes and results that are far beyond the basic one of aiding in establishing a trance state.

It's important to remember that everything in the physical world has spirit/soul. This is especially important when thinking about and using props in your work. When you use an item in the physical world, you are also using it in the Otherworlds, in a manner  which must be appropriate to its individual spirit. The layers of significance for a single use of a single tool go far beyond that which the practitioner or the client may experience on the earth plane. Therefore it is vital to understand the meaning of your prop in the Otherworlds, and ways in which that may differ from or enhance or extend its use and significance on this plane.

As an illustration of this, here is a congruence that I have experienced myself. I will often carry my physical tools with me, and use them as their spiritual counterparts, during my journeys to the Otherworlds. For example, I'll often take my miniature bow and arrow along in order to shoot nasty spirits in order to kill them or drive them away if that becomes necessary. When journeying in a world where the bow is also used as a “singing tool’ I must recognize that use as well, and apply my use of it in the Otherworld in accordance to the ways the Spirits of that world recognize as appropriate.

The most important way you will learn what various props, including tools and elements of costume and other symbols,  are for, and how to consecrate them, use them and learn from their use, is by instruction from the spirit that gave them to you, and by instruction from the spirit of the tool itself. This will take a lot of practice in this world, as well as many journeys on your part. It is a long and complex experience fraught with  a great deal of trial and error to find out which instruction actually comes from the spirits, and which is coming from your own subconscious mind trying to please you. There is no easy way to accomplish this task, and its importance cannot be overemphasized. This discernment, and ways to attain it successfully,  will be the subject of another article. back to top

Part Ten -- Spirits

The previous section of this series dealt in part with “props’, consisting of tools, symbols and costume. I spoke most extensively about tools and had in mind to continue the discussion on other “props’. However, on rethinking, it has occurred to me that it is important to discuss first what it is that gives each of these three things not only its intrinsic character, but its relationship with the other two. The unifying factor, and the one we will discuss in this essay, is the concept of Spirit.

In previous parts of this series I mentioned that all items have spirits, or souls. This is an important thing to remember when doing any kind of spiritual work, especially shamanic practices. It is the soul or spirit of a given object that gives it the power and ability to serve as a “prop’ as a shaman needs to use it. There is no object that is devoid of spirit, and there is no object that cannot be a factor in the success or failure of the shaman´s work, due to the interaction of the spirit of the object with the shaman´s spirit. Therefore, before continuing the discussion of props themselves, let us discuss the nature of a spirit.

Just as there are billions of corporeal entities on this globe, there are also billions of spirits. It is vital to remember at all times that there are far more spirits than there are entities with visible life, since ALL creation has a spirit, whether or not it is perceptible as being “alive’ to normal human observation. Naturally those spirits that have the most influence on us as individuals are those that are closest to us, including, but not limited to, the spirits we live with in the land, the air, and the waters, our personal belongings or tools, and our spiritual, cultural, and genetic ancestors.

The trouble is that we often forget that there is as much diversity in the world of spirit as there is in the corporeal world. It is unfortunately true, especially in Western cultures, that people are so unaccustomed to dealing with spirit in their day-to-day lives that they have developed an inaccurate view of the way spirit interacts with humanity. Many people, without realizing they have done so, have adopted a view that if some being has the power to interact with them on a non-corporeal level, it must therefore be omniscient as well.  Since omnipotence and omniscience is associated in the Western world with “God,’ such beings are often seen as being, almost by definition, benevolent. This is eminently not the case. The diversity of character one encounters in the spirit world is mind-boggling.

As it is in the world of all other entities, some spirits may choose to become our friends, some our enemies, some are completely indifferent to us, and some are simply unwilling to be involved with us at all. Just as in physical reality, some spirits are more powerful than we are, and some are less powerful than we are. Some spirit beings you can make friends with, some you may have to bribe or placate in some way, some you want to attempt to avoid  entirely, and some you may need to confront, fight and perhaps defeat or even kill. But the universal constant in interaction with spirits is that it is wise never to take anything for granted. Even though neither omnipotence nor benevolence is a given when interacting with spirits, it is indeed true that not being confined in a body of flesh adds some elements to the abilities of spirit that are incomprehensible to untrained human beings.

Some spirits, due to their very nature, are killers intent on destroying and devouring the unwary prey that strays into their range. Some kill out of a self preservation instinct, like a cobra striking. It is as dangerous for even a trained shamanic practitioner to go into those uncharted territories as it is for a trained warrior to go into the middle of a war zone. Needless to say, for a beginner in these practices to venture into converse or interaction with such spirits, the dangers are proportionately higher. There are also many many spirits, just like people in the ordinary reality that you are most familiar with, that are pathological liars, con artists out to deceive and take advantage of you and me for their own purposes. As it is with humans who are con artists, some of these spirits are very very good at what they do, and are capable of deceiving even a shaman on the lookout for such things. There are even some spirits that are capable of doing damage to humans on such an arcane level that we never even realize we have been damaged until much later.  Such spirits are responsible for a great deal of what the civilized world terms “madness’ or “insanity.’  

Now, here's the kicker. In order to practice effective shamanic techniques, you have to be able to trust some spirits. You have to listen to their advice and instruction in order to know what to do in a given circumstance, and then do what is necessary to accomplish the task at hand, realizing both the dangers involved, and the price that must be paid, by both the shaman for the knowledge, and the client for the gift of healing or other needed action. The question is, how do you know which spirits are malevolent or tricksy, and which ones you can really trust? My answers to this question, unfortunately, are by necessity equivocal, due to the nature of interaction with spirits. These answers are valid, but they will probably not put you at ease.

Just as in physical life, the safest entities for you to begin interacting with are probably those that have been introduced to you by your family; those that are a part of the religion you were raised in. Surprisingly to some who are on an alternative spiritual path, it can actually be detrimental to your ability to work as a shaman if you are too eager to “change your religion.’  Interaction with your guardian angel, the mythic spirits, such as saints, of Christian religions, and one´s perceptions of such beings as Jesus and the Holy Ghost, are excellent introductions to interaction with spirits on other planes. And learning to pray, and to “hear,’ or become otherwise aware of, communications from your conscience, or answers to prayers, are excellent first steps on developing the ability to fall into communicative trance.

After that, the next in safety and ease of interaction are those spirits you have been introduced to and put in contact with by other people in your life. These are usually such entities as the "secret" spirits introduced and taught to you during your initiation and training by your physical life teachers and Elders. Examples of these might be something similar to the angels and archangels of certain ceremonial magic lodges or other secret societies, or the archetypal spirit forms of the Gods and Goddesses of your tradition. These are spirits who have been introduced to you by "family;" they've been vouched for by people you know and trust, and you have been vouched for to them by those same people. Included in this class, or rather perhaps bridging from the previously mentioned class of your former religion to your current one, are the entities who are recognizable to you as the spirits of your dead relatives and ancestors. Indeed, it is possible, if you have actually received a “shamanic call,’ that the person whom you first meet may recognizably be the spirit or ghost of Granny or Gramps, since this may well be a being with whom on the earth plane you had already developed trust. Such entities may very well continue with you to introduce you to other spirits until you no longer need their intervention.

Just as is true in physical life, the spirits you meet in that way are generally safer to know than spirits you may meet in random situations. And, just as in physical life, just meeting them is not by itself sufficient to establish trust or a working relationship. You have to get to know them over a period of time, and establish a mutual understanding and trust, in order for you to safely and productively be able to work together. That will probably be easier since you've been "introduced," but it is still just as delicate a situation as is meeting strangers in the physical world. Not every “friend of a friend’ is going to also become your friend. And not every spirit who introduces you to another spirit will be entirely devoid of personal motives, again as is true in earth life. I might as well also take this opportunity to point out that interactions with spirits are just as inconstant as are encounters with friends and family on this plane. One does not need to have a body to have “moods.’ Therefore, just as in your own genetic family, where all members don't get along with you all of the time, even those spirits you have been introduced to in this way won't get along with you all of the time. But, on the whole, beginning your interaction in the world of spirits by interacting with spirits to whom you have been introduced in one of the above-mentioned fashions is not only safer, but probably more productive, than just diving headlong into random spirit encounters.

Even though you may not actually have physical Elders who are capable of introducing you to spirits and informing you about them, and vice-versa, there is still hope. In our urban and isolated cultures, it is becoming more and more likely that you will find yourself in the position of knowing you are called to begin shamanic journeying without anyone to turn to in the physical world for instruction on how to begin. Starting these practices alone, with only "spirit guidance" or "spirit initiation" is much like suddenly waking up in a strange city where you know no one. You can survive, and you can thrive, but you are going to have to be very careful. There is much information that will assist you in these endeavors on the web site found at In the meanwhile, here are some guidelines to help you evaluate the spirits you come in contact with.

Spirits that are trustworthy as guides, helpers, and teachers are normally naturally receptive and fond of humans, and will appear to you to be fond of you in particular. Often these spirits are the ones who also  exist in the physical world, usually in something that aids you, such as horses, cows, boars, metals, fire, foods, bows and arrows, and even automobiles. It is actually a useful beginning exercise to attempt to put yourself into a state of mind where you can communicate with the spirit of such a thing while you are actually using it. People may make jokes about such things as talking your car out of breaking down, or using your spirit guide to find you a parking place, but these are actually techniques of spirit communication that are useful beginning points.

Benevolent spirits are also not affected by the usual human perception that they are omniscient or omnipotent. They will not try to impress you by claiming to be all knowing or all powerful -- any spirit that does claim that is lying and is therefore by definition untrustworthy. Being freed of a body does not automatically imply being free of Ego.

A trustworthy spirit will not lie to you, mislead you, or allow you to be misled into a misinterpretation. If a spirit is trustworthy it will not object to being questioned or asked for clarification. Just as in interacting with people in the physical world, any spirit that discourages your complete understanding of its communications to you is probably trying to flim-flam you.

Trustworthy spirits rarely make specific predictions. Since your work as a shaman is to interact with the spirit in order to change the likely outcome of an earth-based circumstance, such as severe illness, it ought to send up a red flag if the spirit with whom you are communicating predicts specifically that the person will die, for example. Specific predictions can be taken, as they can when made by human beings, as a signal that the being making them is trying to appear to you to be more powerful than it actually is. Again, this is deceit, and therefore labels the perpetrator untrustworthy.

In addition to avoiding displays of personal Ego, trustworthy spirits will also avoid appearing to build up your own Ego by indicating or implying  that you are the all-powerful future ruler of the universe, or whatever. If such a spirit communication is actually appealing to you, you are definitely not only putting yourself in immanent danger of a catastrophic fall, but are also reading the wrong set of essays! The Toteg Tribe pattern of shamanic practice sees the shaman as a giver of service, not as an idol. Trustworthy spirits will not cause you to become an egomaniac.

And lastly, a trustworthy spirit will not threaten to leave if you don't do as it says, if you refuse to accept its word without question, or if you err in some practice on the side of caution. We forget that the spirit world is also filled with unique individuals with personal agendas. Not every spirit has as its focus to assist you in performing your work. So it is well to remember that the things that are unethical for you as a practitioner to do are also unethical on the part of spirits. If the spirit with whom you are interacting does not appear to be as interested as you are in making clear communications, you are probably in the wrong place.

I will end this section with a final caution, one that perhaps should have preceded this entire section, but that would have made less sense if it had done so. In a word, even after you are experienced in interacting with “safe spirits’, it is well to remember some ethical ideals and continue in a posture of both caution and courtesy. The specific aspect of these things I am referring to here is Cultural Respect.

As well as being highly disrespectful and unethical, it is extremely dangerous to take a symbol, or tool, or name of spirit, from some other culture than your own, and put it to use in your own circles. The spirit connected to it is likely to be just as upset with you as you would be with an uninvited stranger in your home or intruder into a private family function. You might be a great chef, known far and wide outside your own neighborhood, but that does not mean you are henceforth to have no privacy. Even if it is presented as a compliment to your skill, you would nevertheless be angry, resentful and suspicious if some stranger stomped into your home and ordered you to produce a meal for him. Just so is it not only rude and uncouth, but may actually be dangerous, to force or coerce a spirit into a milieu not its own and attempt to require it to work for you. Concurrent with your studies of the actual mechanics of shamanism ought also to be diligent research and study of your own culture and interaction with the spirits native to it, so that you never have a need to rape another culture because of a perceived lack in your own. You are an urban dweller in a western culture, and although they may never have been made known to you, your own culture is rich in myth and symbol and tales of spirits who are native to your own milieu. Get to know them, and learn to interact with them. There is no other ethical choice. It is essential for you, as a  would-be shaman, to know your spirits very well, as well as you do your best friend or anyone else you would trust with your life. After all, when you journey to the Otherworlds, you are doing exactly that. back to top

Part Eleven - Spirit/Power Animals

In the last section of this series of essays, we began to explore the nature of spirits. By this time the aspiring shaman may have begun to work with “familiar spirits’ and may have met or made some allies and some significant spirit friends in the Otherworlds. It may be time for him, or for her, to deepen these relationships and to seek after one particular relationship of spirit. This is perhaps the defining spirit connection that marks the shaman, even to people who know nothing else about shamanism. In nearly every culture that knows of or contains the practice of shamanism, one particular type of spirit friend is known and recognized. This is the Power Sprit, often called the "Power Animal" and commonly though sometimes inappropriately called the Totem.

It may surprise many reading this to realize that this is one cross-cultural concept of shamanism that has successfully been conveyed over time even into non-shamanic cultures. The concept of a Totem Animal is universal to all cultures and continues to be utilized even to the present day. Tribal cultures will recognize a Totem for the tribe, one for the clan one belongs to, and one for the family that one is born into. In their own fashion, even urban societies have adopted this practice.

In the United States, and in other countries, the Tribal and Clan Totem still exists, although it is thought of in a slightly different manner from the way this concept exists in indigenous cultuers. The Totem for our tribe (the U.S.A.) is the Bald Eagle. The totem for the clans (each state) is the State Animal. For example the California clan Totem is the California Grizzly Bear and the Michigan clan Totem is the Wolverine. There are also totems for our adopted cultures, those clubs or societies to which we may belong, such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Loyal Order of Moose, and the Lions Club. Even Christianity, the prevalent religion of this country, has maintained two Totem animals, these being the Fish and the Lamb. Specialized Totems are also seen in organized sports, their names being reflected in the team names. Examples are the Chicago Bears and the Miami Dolphins. It is interesting to reflect on the idea that in our society these “mascots,’ as we sometimes call totem animals, are adopted without thinking at all about their significance or spiritual impact, yet it is odd to find a group, society, culture, school team, or area of the country that does not have at least one, if not more. It is almost as if our “species memory’ has told us universally that our connection to beasts of power is important, even if we do not consciously recognize the meaning of the practice.

The next type of Power Spirit or Totem is that which is personal for the individual. These Totems are protective spirits that help us in our everyday life. Everyone has such a Totem, whether or not he or she knows of, or recognizes, the presence of the ally in daily life. Even today, most parents give a special protective Power Animal to their children and tell the child that it will be protected overnight by that Power Animal. They don't realize they have conveyed this message, but that is what they are doing when they give a teddy bear or other stuffed animal friend to their little one. And adults in urban cultures often find themselves having an affinity for certain animal species, manifesting this connection  in ways that do not obviously have anything whatsoever to do with spirit. They find themselves either collecting pets, even odd ones like snakes or mice as well as cats, dogs, birds and fish, or somehow collecting tokens of a particular animal. Examples of this abound, like the avid fisherman who has six million trout souvenirs, the woman whose house is covered with butterflies, or the man whose kids know Daddy will like anything they give him for his birthday as long as it has a moose on it.

We often unconsciously recognize the Power Animal affecting someone, and use terms that give away our unconscious recognition. How many times have we thought or said something like, "That guy is a real bear," "She's quite the lynx!", or "Watch out for him, he's a snake in the grass!" We are even aware of certain people who bear a physical resemblance to a certain animal, one which often may carry over into behavior. We may not be aware of the significance of these comments or visual observations when we make them, but every one of us is able to think of times when they have seen someone else manifesting, or themselves have manifested, the presence, nature or influence of their power animal.

The first item of business for a potential shaman is to learn to travel in the other worlds, then to discover his Totem or Power Spirit. That knowledge is necessary in order to start the long process of learning.  Keep in mind that what follows are generalizations.  There can be many exceptions.  My experience has shown me that a Totem/Power Spirit is usually in the form of a mammal, such as a bear, lion, bison, squirrel, mouse, or any other. It is natural that people, who themselves are mammals, might most often be claimed by Power Spirits who are also mammals. These Power Animals are usually a reflection of your deepest self, and may also represent qualities which you need in this world, but which are often hidden or obscured. It is important to study the manifestations of the character of the animal that has chosen you, so that you may further understand what it is in the nature of that animal that represents your hidden quality or need.

A mistake that people may sometimes make is to be dissatisfied when they find that their Power Animal is some non-ferocious animal like a mouse. We tend to think that a mouse is not very powerful -- that it is meek and afraid. What they forget is that spirits are not limited to physical reality, and that size of the animal in the mundane world is irrelevant to the significance of that animal´s spirit in the Otherworlds. Your Power Animal may be a tiny mouse, but in times of need this mouse can and will change its size and deportment to that which is appropriate to the occasion. There is nothing weak or meek about a 500-foot tall mouse!

Your personal Power Spirit (as differentiated from your family, clan, or tribal spirit) may change several times in your lifetime, depending upon your specific needs. It is sometimes even true that in times of crisis you may find yourself in contact with more than one Power Spirit. If you are dispirited, your animal is far away from you and needs to be brought back, or a replacement found. When you make your first exploratory journey, you are likely to encounter spirits which may represent themselves as being your Totem or Power Animal. If you are already aware of your spirit animal, that spirit may greet you and give you additional power. In any case, it is difficult to make a mistake about which animal is actually your Power Animal if you approach the journey of discovery with an open and eager spirit. You will probably find that the animal that identifies itself as your Power Animal is one to whom, on some level, you have always had an affinity.

You need to be aware that some spirits are negative. They are bringers of physical and mental disease. According to Michael Harner, you can recognize them because they come in the form of insects and arachnids, (including all bugs, lobsters, crabs or bug-like things), and reptiles or fish that are showing their teeth. Reptiles and fish that are not showing their teeth are positive spirits. I don't think Harner is entirely accurate on this, but it wouldn't hurt to exercise the caution he urges until you gain more experience. It is best to attempt, if it appears that Spider or Caterpillar or Rattlesnake has connected to you as your Power Animal, to interact with the spirit for a specific good purpose. If you find yourself assisted and given good information and influence by this spirit in doing that which you wish to have occur, you are pretty sure to be safe in accepting this being as your Power Animal. If you find yourself hindered, crossed or negatively impacted in your task, the animal is an evil spirit and is to be shunned. And your Power Animal will never be one which you, in your mundane life, loathe, or fear, or have a disgust for. Even in the mundane world, the shaman will have a powerful positive impression of the nature of his or her Power Spirit.

Generally all mammals and birds are positive spirits. Any positive spirit may be your Power Animal. Your Power Animal may also be a mythical animal, such as a unicorn, or a character of myth such as the Pegasus, or even one which is completely unknown to anyone else in the world and does not exist in myth or legend, like a weremouse. What is important is recognizing that your Power Animal is supposed to be a guide and ally to you both in this world and in the Otherworld. Study of the qualities and characteristics of the animal that claims you, in physical life, in lore and writings and in meditation and dreams, will assist you in understanding the relationship you have with your Power Animal. Developing that relationship is one of the most important tools you have in your work as a shaman. back to top

Part Twelve -- What and Why of Costume

Our having discussed the Power Spirit creates a natural progression to speaking of costuming. Many shamans wear costumes which are representations, in part, of the Power Spirit, or in some way represent its character and energy. And of all the spirits one may contact in the Otherworlds, it is most often the Power Spirit from whom one gets information about appropriate use of the “prop’ of costuming. Therefore, now that I've concluded my diversionary, but necessary, rant about spirits, and the Power Spirit/Animal in particular, I feel like I can go on and talk about costume a bit. As I indicated in the parts about symbols and tools, the costume is another tool, and as such is related to symbols.

Making a tool, or costume, or any other kind of symbol, is a form of sacrifice. The word "sacrifice" literally means "to make sacred". Just as we gain from our spirits´ efforts on our behalf, our spirits gain from what we do, from our sacrifices to them. Whether we realize it or not, our spirits are going to take something from us in return for their information, or aid, or help. These sacrifices can be many different things, including the wearing or not wearing of certain types of costume, or placing certain designated items on a costume. The sacrifice can also include painting the body or working tools with certain glyphs or symbols, the sweat or exertion from our efforts, the pouring of liquids, donating money or clothing to someone who needs it, or as many other things as your imagination can devise. The element of sacrifice is always present; only the forms differ.

Our discussion in this essay centers around costuming because this particular type of sacrifice has symbolic significance of a particular kind. We have spoken in previous essays about the wounding of the shaman, and his or her ecstatic trance, where the Self is abrogated and the spirit travels between the worlds without identity. Costume is one way in which the shaman indicates that the Ego has been abandoned and that the identity of a Power Animal, or other spirit self, has been assumed. By wearing or not wearing a particular item of clothing or other gear, we are as much as saying to the spirit, “I am willing to leave my own interests, even my own Self, behind, and take on whatever form is required of me in order to receive this gift from you.’  This is one contract of many by which we can successfully interact with the spirits and receive what we are seeking from them.

It is much better for us if we ask what the spirits may require first, and then decide whether or not we are willing to give that sacrifice. If the spirit with whom we are working may ask for something that we are extremely uncomfortable about giving or doing, we can negotiate with the spirit, suggest something else, and ask if it will do instead. If the alternate will not do and we are still unwilling to pay the price, it is wise to thank the spirit, and leave the operation till later after giving it more thought, or perhaps doing something entirely different.

Costume, and special tools, and special symbols, are not about wearing something so much as they are about being able to do what is necessary to accomplish the results you have to accomplish -- of giving the sacrifice your spirit requires. If Spirit says you have to do it in a big bag, or Spirit says you have to do it standing naked under the full moon with lightning bolts painted on your arms and legs, then you do it that way. If you don't have the mental strength to do it the way Spirit says you should, then it is time to re-evaluate what you are doing, and why you are doing it. It is important for you, as a shamanic practitioner, to realize that you are part of the equation any time you are interacting with spirit for a purpose. The kinds of things asked of you, in costume, or tools, or symbols, or rituals, are not only requirements of spirit for the task at hand, but somehow requirements for you and your growth and development. For example, consider the two examples I gave above…doing the working in a big bag, doing the working stark naked, under a full moon, painted with bolts of lightning. Neither of those two examples is something that everyone might be told to do. They are something that someone might be told to do. Neither is in itself "unreasonable," since neither  demands harm be done, or causes harm to yourself or to anyone else. Still, it's up to you personally to either agree to do what is asked of you, or to thank the spirit and back away from that operation. If you too often have reservations about the sacrifices required of you by spirit, especially if these sacrifices do not cause harm or difficulty, but only perhaps seem either redundant, silly or meaningless, then I suggest you might rethink your calling as a shamanic practitioner. Ego is definitely not a useful part of your bag of tools.

I heard a story about a shaman in a particular African tribe who was to do a divination ritual the following morning. He was prepared, everything was set, and he went to bed to sleep until the morning. The spirits told him not to sleep, and would not allow him to sleep, even though he wanted to do so. He stayed awake, never discovering the reason for it, and not questioning it because "my life is not my own, it is Spirit´s." This is a perfect example.

It's the same way with costume. You wear what your Spirits tell you to wear, and put the symbols on the costume that they want you to put on it, for various purposes. Sometimes the symbols are those representing your Power Sprit or another specific spirit with whom you may be working. Spirits wear these symbols as we wear our bodies; it gives them substance. Sometimes what you wear is an aid for you, in order to make it possible for you to pass as a spirit of that region, a disguise that makes it easier for you to travel in certain regions of the Otherworlds. Sometimes you  may have no idea why a particular costume or accessory is asked of you. But you do it, or you do not do the journey.

As for myself, I've quit second guessing Spirit entirely. When I am working, I always have something on my person that is, in effect, a costume. Some of these are special tattoos which are with me always.  Additionally I may carry simply a special symbol that is personal to me and my tradition, drawn on paper and pinned to my street clothes. Sometimes, though, my spirits tell me something else is needed. That simply means I provide what is required. I have learned over time and experience that it is simply ineffective to attempt to do the work asked of me if I am not willing to acquiesce to the requirements placed upon me by Spirit.

I take certain words that were given to me in my training and initiation very seriously. I was taught "Do not do what you desire, do what is necessary." Sometimes that instruction has led me into strange places, but I have never denied nor abandoned it. I realize that I would not be called to work with Spirit at all if I always understood what was necessary on my own. But I will admit, with a certain degree of satisfaction and pride perhaps, that I have been willing, in the course of years of practice whilst following this instruction, to be led into some rather strange places and circumstances.

At one workshop I was conducting in the second half of the 80´s, I was demonstrating an "extraction" technique on a volunteer. She had been having strong pains in her upper abdominal region for some time, and nothing the doctors did seemed to relieve them. I put on my normal working garments, including a leather cord used as a belt on which to hang my small bag of special items. We laid her down on a folded blanket near the fire pit, and the other 20 or so attendees sat in a circle around us and began drumming and rattling for me.

As I began my usual opening ceremony, making prayers, calling my spirits, asking for assistance and the like, I got a very clear message from those spirits. I could not continue and be successful in this working unless all I wore was that leather cord belt and "medicine bag". And so, with only a little hesitation, I complied and removed my shirt, pants, and underwear. I was already barefoot. I then continued the operation in my normal manner, with no further problems nor demands from Spirit. I went into my deep trance, and performed an extraction of the little spirit that was causing the woman her stomach problems. After I was finished, and had thanked the spirits in my usual way, I got dressed again and discussed what had happened with the group.

Was it embarrassing? Well, yes, a bit, when I started, but when my working and trance began, it did not at all seem to matter. By then, I was in shamanic trance, completely connected with Spirit in the manner required by Spirit. Therefore, my nudity was not even something I was aware of any longer. By then, it was as though I were alone, and my physical state was not embarrassing to me at all.

Did my ceremony work? Yes. The woman didn't have that problem for the rest of the time she was there, and two months later told me she was still free of it.  Would it have worked if I hadn't done as requested and stripped off? I don't know. But why take a chance? I trust my spirits, therefore I do what my spirits tell me to do to achieve results. They are the ones that any "magic" comes from, not me.

In the matter of costuming, as well as the use of other tools and symbols, the common factor is always the same. If you trust that you are in communication with Spirit, and feel that this communication can make you more capable of doing shamanic work, then you do it in the manner requested by Spirit, If you are unwilling, or unable, to follow the requests for the particular sacrifices that Spirit requires, or if you feel such things to be unnecessary, then why be a shaman at all? There are other paths that do not require the same kind of sacrifice. But the shaman´s path does, and an understanding of its processes and requirements will go far in improving your ability to function as a shaman. back to top

Part Thirteen -- Getting Started

Classical, or Historical, shamanic cultures are usually those found in societies that rely on hunting-gathering and/or herding for their subsistence. There are, as well,  other civilizations (called "post-shamanic" by anthropological researchers) that have shamanic elements in their organization. These, however, give a much lesser role to the shaman. These cultures include other specialists, not called shamans, who take on the tasks of prophecy, divination, healing, counseling, and religious rituals and ceremonies such as the escorting the souls of the dead to their place in the Otherworlds. Although the shaman may still use the ecstatic trance, lighter trances such as those I described earlier are also used. Post-shamanic cultures may be found among some native peoples of North American, Asia, Africa, and Indo-Europe.

There are societies today in which many of the trappings and symbols of the shaman are used; however, in these societies, the ecstatic trance is not used, and soul travel to the Otherworlds, when it happens, is accidental. These cultures may still have visionary traditions, but the visions come from dreams, or from establishment of a lighter trance much more closely akin to the various levels of hypnotic trance rather than to ecstasy. In addition, the use, and even encouragement, of visions is not limited to a specialist, but is found in the general population as well. This is properly called "Pseudo-shamanism" (false or near shamanism) and may be found in many of the Indian nations of North America. Many people call the visible spiritual specialist, or "Medicine Man," of these nations a shaman, even though he does not use the ecstatic trance. In their own languages these cultures call the person in that role something that usually translates much more closely to "Holy Man" or "Holy Woman."

The misuse of the word "shaman" by outsiders, when applied to that kind of sacred specialist, causes a great deal of confusion. Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut divisions, nor specific markers, that differentiate between, or among, the practices of cultures who are truly shamanic and those who contain elements of pseudo-shamanism. Indeed, some peoples will have different combinations of the two types practicing at the same time. However, it is extremely important to realize that even a "pseudo-shamanistic" culture is a far cry from the artificial and contrived shamanic fakery that has over time been inflicted upon Westerners by the unscrupulous. In indigenous traditions, even "pseudo-shamanism" is an authentic and culturally valid practice, and it bears certain key resemblances to the Historic or Classical Shamanism found in the same indigenous cultures.

One unifying factor in both of those areas is that their traditions are intact as an unbroken line passed on from teacher to apprentice, whether it be from Shaman to apprentice or from "Holy Person" to apprentice. This teaching consists of diverse elements which cannot be acquired by anyone outside of the culture. These may include:

  • a specialized understanding of the knowledge of the community being served;
  • recognizing the presence of guiding, helping, ancestral and teaching spirits;
  • blessings, charms, wards and ceremonies;
  • methods of divination;
  • the means for creating the costume and equipment necessary for the performance of spiritual responsibilities;
  • initiatory rites;
  • and other related areas.

All of those teachings are specific to the culture in which they are found. Although cultures that teach shamanism can be found in Asia, North America, Africa and other countries which contain indigenous peoples, the specific teachings in each individual shamanic or pseudo-shamanic society relate only to their own People and the Land in which they live. The teachings are in context with the cosmology and worldview of the people. If these teachings should be taken out of context, the vast majority of them could not be understood. Attempting to adopt and practice them without being a part of those societies, a part of the Land where they belong, is disrespectful, and would constitute a mockery of the honor they deserve.

So what can we do? Many people today are being led by Spirit into a form of spirituality and practice that has pseudo-shamanic elements. In response to this call, a kind of non-traditional, contemporary shamanism is developing in both the Americas and elsewhere in the "civilized" world. Unfortunately, this non-traditional "shamanism" has no continuity of tradition. Instead, the practitioners adopt a crossbred melange of trance techniques, astral projection, often include derivative elements of eastern spirituality, and classical or religious mysticism, and often combine this with neo-Pagan and Wiccan ritualism. In some cases certain ancient trance techniques have been added to an existing spiritual tradition to fill in some missing elements. The resulting systems and practices are something that can no longer be properly called "shamanism." This does not devalue the developments that we are making and discovering. It does put us into a new category for which there is no appropriately descriptive word or term.

Thanks to the efforts of such anthropologists as Michael Harner and Felicitas D. Goodman, even a person without a continuity of tradition can learn and use various shamanic techniques, obtain good results, and satisfy that demanding spirit within them. These writers and teachers, as well as a few others listed below,  have taken the essence of shamanic practices, stripped them of their culturally specific elements, and presented them as a bare bones foundation on which to build. Needless to say, however, any person who chooses the path of study and practice leading to use of certain non-culturally-specific shamanic techniques must be clear in his or her own mind that what they are learning, and practicing, is NOT Classical shamanism. It is not actually any kind of authentic shamanism. It is a shamanically-related and shamanically-based practice, suitable for use in cultures where shamanism is not a native tradition.

The following books will take you step-by-step through some shamanic techniques and exercises. They won't, however, make you a shaman. If you are already working within a particular spiritual orientation, you'll find that adoption of some of these techniques and applying them to that orientation will help you to understand it more thoroughly. If you are not working in a spirit tradition, these techniques will help you to understand your own place, to develop your own practice and spiritual orientation, in much the same way as we do in Toteg Tribe. It is important to remember NOT to take symbols and practices from any culture but your own unless you are being taught by a legitimate teacher authorized by that culture to do so. But it is entirely valid and possible to integrate elements of shamanic practice into your own mode of spirituality in a spirit of learning and with respect.  In so doing you have an opportunity to intensify and illuminate aspects of your own spiritwalk whilst avoiding insulting the actual followers of the ancient pathways of shamanic spirituality.

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade (ISBN 0691017794)
*The* classical reference that clearly defined what is and is not shamanism. It provides necessary grounding in classical shamanism, and is invaluable as a reference for understanding aspects of your own experiences.

The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner (ISBN 0062503731)
This book is a must read, as it established and defined much of the popular vocabulary and theory of modern neoShamanism.

The Journey to the Sacred Garden: A Guide to Traveling in the Spiritual Realms (ISBN: 1401901115)
by Henry Barnard Wesselman
Includes an experiential CD of shamanic drumming and rattling, providing us with an effective, easily learned technique for expanding awareness and shifting consciousness safely.

Where the Spirits Ride the Wind : Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences (ISBN 1879181223)
by Felicitas D. Goodman
Anthropologist Goodman documents the effects of body posture on trance experience. Interesting and somewhat controversial conclusions.

Soul Retrieval : Mending the Fragmented Self (ISBN 0062504061)
by Sandra Ingerman
An excellent introduction to soul retrieval, following the Harner method.

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