Friday, February 3, 2012

PBP 04: Core Shamanism, Callings, and Community

My C post is going to be about Core Shamanism, as compared to Shamanism, and why that distinction needs to be made and what Core Shamanism really means for the Shamanic community at large (both Native and non). Notice I don't claim to be an expert on the issues at hand here as I am not an Academic or Ethnographer of any sort, but I like to read what I can.

I realize this may be a pretty special interests topic for those following a Shamanic path, but I think it's important to keep talking about this issues so those in the Pagan community at large can think through them, and so those called to this path are better informed on what that means.

Okay, firstly, what do I mean by Core Shamanism? (And how is it different from "Just Shamanism?")

Core Shamanism is the term coined by Michael Harner, who wrote The Way of the Shaman. You've probably seen it. Looks like the pic above. I myself have read it a few times. In fact, if you've read a book on Shamanism supported or authored by The Center For Shamanic Studies, you're probably dealing with Core Shamanism. (Harner founded the Foundation as well)

Core Shamanism basically proposes that, at some deep unexplained level, all Shamanic systems are the same. The proposition means a Shaman in Siberia and a Shaman in the Eastern US are essentially doing the same things, and so we can remove Shamanism as a practice from its origins and apply it universally as a system for self transformation.

Now let me tell you why the thinking behind that statement is completely wrong.

Shamanism is NOT just a practice you can divorce from the peoples that practiced it. Each Shaman, in his or her community, was acting and reacting in response to their Cosmology. What I mean by that is an Inuit Shaman would be trained and taught to expect to journey through a specific pathway, through the ocean floor and to bypass Sedna the Ocean Queen to get into the land of the dead without harm. The Shaman would not be able to practice his craft without knowing the lore of Sedna, how to appease her by brushing her knots out and all the proper ways to practice. (This is generally why young Shamans were tutored very closely and put through multiple initiations before they could be considered trustworthy to practice correctly.)

(If you want proof of the vast distinctions inherent to ANY spirituality, and not just Shamanic practicioners, look to any comparative religion text, or Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy by Mircea Eliade.)

If we, in America, copied an Inuit Shaman who was singing and chanting for Sedna, we would frankly be getting jack shit out of the experience. Why? For most of us, Sedna is not part of our Cosmology. We would have NO IDEA why the Shaman was doing what he was doing, only that it worked, apparently, so we should just copy it because why not.

Basically, this is what Harner did. He observed (mostly) Native medicine men/women, took their practices without understanding that Practice has everything to do with Cosmology, wrote them up in a book with NO context and published it. (He seems to justify this by claiming he "studied with" Amazonian and Peruvian shamans. I must say I am skeptical of the difference between "studied with" and "studied.") He also made the grand mistake of NOT distinguishing between Native tribes. This is a mistake many authors make, especially around this era (as if Native tribes are some ancient race and no longer alive), and one that frankly irks me because of its blatant ignorance. Native American communities are not, and never were, some monolithic being of people that practiced the same things the same way.

One tribe's medicine man/woman would NOT do the same exact thing as another's. A Shaman in Siberia has access to completely different materials, animals, plants, practices, and Cosmology than a South American Shaman. You can NOT claim, except out of complete ignorance, that both of those Shamans are doing the same thing, because each of those Shamans has a VASTLY different Cosmology and therefore very different ways to interact with their Gods/Spirits.

Are you beginning to see the problem with Core Shamanism? It's essentially blatantly racist, ignorant, and culturally appropriating to claim Shamanism is some monolithic universal system that every culture practiced, because you can't separate Shamanism from its place. To give a more digestible example, most people in the community know the difference between Witchcraft and Wicca, right? Witchcraft does not require a Cosmology (or really, for one to be a Theist at all), most would argue, but Wicca is basically a Cosmology, assuming belief in certain tenets of that faith. Attempting to practice Shamanism without a Cosmology is like practicing Wicca without agreeing to the basic tenets of Wicca, or even knowing or caring about the Wicca-centric deities. Do you see the problem here?

Shamanism is not some strange new age system to be used for self transformation, despite what Core Shamanism books would have you believe. You owe as much service to the Spirits as they do to you. You are in a working partnership, dealing with harsh realities of this earth and this life and the issues it has, guiding the departed, negotiating between Spirits of Place who are being thrown from their homes via deforestation, calming the spirits of animals we slaughter without dignity for food by the millions every day, and simultaneously looking backwards and to the future to see if we even have a chance on this planet anymore. It is not a happy, easily applicable system to our safe, business-centric lives. Will it change you? Inevitably, yes. But it's not to be used as an ends all be all way to get your dream job; it's basically a job you need to attend to, every day, just like your "real" job.

Shamanism is NOT a one-way mirror, either. By being called to this path, you are volunteering your time, energy, and very soul over to the service of the Spirits and your Community. Note your Community does not have to be a physical, living one. Historically it was, and I would argue if you're not aiding your community in some way on this path you're still practicing in a vacuum.

Shamanism was never meant to be practiced in a vacuum. Walking this path will likely end up improving your life, if by the sole virtue you regularly face your darkest habits and insides, but that is NOT the goal of Shamanism. Shamanism exists in THIS world, in THIS earth, in this reality (and several others besides). You cannot pretend environmental issues and widespread animal slaughter and needless abuse/exploitation does not happen and walk this path. Maybe you do know but are called to work with issues other than that. That's a different situation entirely. But you can't bury your head in the sand and pretend humans are not destroying the earth and the creatures upon it, and propose to walk this path with any success.

This is also why not everyone is called to be a Shaman. By NO means is this an easy path. This is not me being arrogant or feeling special that I was called. I am telling you like it is. Shamanism is a demanding, terrifying, wonderful path to walk and there is generally a good reason Spirits call you to this path, and why so few walk this path, comparatively. It's not a walk in the park with the goal of self transformation. The goal, if anything, is worldly transformation and communal guidance and aid. Even that's a stretch, assuming Shamanism has some higher goal in the end. When you take on the Mantle of Shaman, you now come second to a variety of beings who are now under your care. It's like becoming a parent except you don't much get a choice in the matter. Oftentimes you also face an Initiation that is put forth by the Spirits/Deities themselves, and that is not a walk in the park. And Gods help you if you try to ignore the calling, because it usually doesn't end so well.

For those of you who may have been practicing Core Shamanism--knowingly or unknowingly (Many people don't know there is anything besides "Just Shamanism"--and that's not anyone's fault; most books published on the subject today are "new agey" and do not give notice to history and appropriation)--I'm not saying you need to stop that right now. If it works for you, by all means, carry on. But please be conscious of the larger Shamanic community at large and that there are thousands of types of Shamanism. There is no specific "one way". And instead of appropriating from other cultures, why not build our own? Another culture's Cosmology isn't going to do you any good if the place in which you were born and raised has nothing to compare it too. Honor the Spirits in YOUR place, first, and if you're called to this path strive to build it from a personal, direct-from-spirit place. You don't need to appropriate other Native practices to build your own, personal style.

Strive to learn about other types of Shamanism, if for no other reason than it's very helpful to have a context to discuss what you do and why. I don't practice Inuit Shamanism the way a Native of that community would, because my climate is drastically different and I am simply not a member of that community and so don't have that training/allowance. We have completely different worldviews, and I am aware of that. I still study the practice because when Sedna tells me to do things, it's nice to find historical confirmation for that action, but I'm not lifting practices right out of it to try and force it to fit my condition. Be respectful of the cultures Core Shamanism is combining and making assumptions about. You can't just take a class and get certified in Shamanism. It doesn't work that way, and furthermore who supposedly has the authority to declare ANYONE a Shaman??? (Besides the spirits, if you ask me.) Especially a random guy from the US.

Shamanism is not a system of weekend classes, not something you can pick up in a few hours and dabble in. If you're Called, you know it, and I can tell you with certainty your entire worldview and life will change, even to a small extent, to accommodate your new responsibilities. But at the same time, the Work is rewarding. It fills some void in those of us who can't sleep at night in this world, or those of us who need to do something intangible to restore some of the balance humanity constantly throws off.

Unfortunately, the "good" solid academic texts on Shamanism are often out of print by now, so it's no wonder Core shamanism is everywhere. One really has to know what to look for to find some legitimate scholarship on the issue. I don't claim to be an expert on the topic at all, but I've included some links I find helpful.

Further Reading:

Lupa, one of my favorite Pagan/Shamanist authors, talks EXTENSIVELY about appropriation, racism, and core shamanism. You can find her words at Therioshamanism. She is also about practicing what she preaches in terms of environmentalism and counseling.

Here are some resources on Shamanism (academic):

Sacred Texts Shamanism Archive

The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan

Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon

Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing

Just a book I enjoyed (non Pagan, but interesting in terms of psychology)

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology

Mircea Eliade's book again: (I love this book)

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy


  1. I enjoyed reading your post and think you've touched on some important points. I admit to starting off with Harner but was also blessed with being mentored by a Celtic Shaman also. I think Harner does have some useful things to say though, one point I think he's trying to make is that there are certain 'universal' traits of shamanism albeit filtered through the lenses of different cultures. We've also got to remember that shaman is in fact a Siberian word, or derived from one. Of course other indigenous peoples have their 'shamans' but call them totally different names. On my own path, that of a Shamanic witch I have realised and know without doubt, and fully agree with you here, that 'shamanic' practices are not one size fits all, nor are they new age. I dislike the erroneous idea that 'anyone' can be a shaman. It seems to me that these days it is seen as some kind of popular thing to learn and be, just like become a witch or a druid once was. Kind of like a trend, which it MOST CERTAINLY IS NOT. I've even met people who say they are shamans and yet do not even know what journeying is! They think it's all about just beating a drum or taking some hallucinogenic substance. But people are what they are and I know that there has been, and always will be charlatans and those who really are called to this very difficult and often quite painful path. Blessings to you as you continue your own path.

    1. Yes, I am aware of the controversial use of the word 'Shaman', specifically in the cases of many Native tribes who assert that their Spirit Keepers are Medicine men/women and not Shamans. I would argue every type of Shaman has their own name, but at the same time, we as humans love to generalize and compartmentalize 'species' of things. Our brains are built for it. We can't live without our categories. So at the same time as I try not to use Shaman as a blanket term for everyone, the scholarship that has come out of that word has made Shamanism more approachable to the everyday person. I could refer exclusively to Angekkok scholarship, but most people won't know that word means Inuit shamanism. I kind of let that word be for the sake of Academia and not having to spend 3 hours explaining to somebody what it is I do.

      I also dislike the seemingly new trend of 'how shamanism can help you out in your modern life'. No, it doesn't work that way. You get called, you don't usually have a choice, you are now a servant to the Spirits and the Worlds you serve. It's so much more than beating a drum (which, in fact, I don't do.)

      I also feel that Celtic Shamanism has been less appropriated from than Native American types have, if only for the reason Harner obviously focused his efforts on badly misrepresenting Native Shamanisms. I think perhaps it's not 'exotic' enough for Core shamans to appropriate. I'm sure you still get your fair share of people not knowing what the hell they mess with, however.

      Glad you enjoyed.

    2. I use the term 'Celtic Shamanism' with reservations, actually because I don't know what else to call it. Cetainly Celtic peoples did have their own 'shamanic type' practices but because theirs was an oral tradition there's practically nothing left of it, only by second or third hand sources. And I'm sure they didn't call themselves Shamans LOL I guess Bards might be closer to the truth but for me it's rather academic because like you is a calling and I had no choice. Even ignoring it, which I did for a long time, didn't help. The Spirits will have their way if they want your attention. Looking forward to reading your next post, which I'm going to do right now :)

  2. Fantastic post. I've always hated the term "CORE shamanism," as if what native people practice is somehow PERIPHERAL/SUPERFICIAL shamanism. You've articulated this issue very well.

  3. I really love this guys books on old schamanism in scandinavia or more exactly the saami. Unfortunaly most of them are not avalible in english but thought you might be intrested in the ones that are. (I am assuming that english is your native tounge)

    Fun fact: Saami schamans are called noaidi
    (spelled a bit differently depending on region)