“At the center of shamanistic religion stands the personality
of the shaman and the ecstatic experience that is
uniquely his, in his crucial role as diviner, seer, magician,
poet, singer, artist, prophet of game and weather, keeper
of the traditions, and healer of bodily and spiritual ills.”
—Peter Furst, Hallucinogens & Culture
“Shamanism in the strict sense is pre-eminently a religious phenomenon…”
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism
I read a single sentence that has plagued me since the day I read it, ‘Shamanism is not a religion’. While the body of writing in which this sentence was found was well written and full of truthful words, this single sentence beckoned a response.
Shamanism is a religion. Shamanism is the oldest of Religions. There is a great power that comes with religion. The religious impulse has existed since human infancy. To say that a Religion is not a religion is to verbally decapitate it.
Once upon a time, the division of mind, body, spirit, and the idea of an arbitrary categorization of philosophy, religion, art, food, work, ecology, family, community, love and justice were considered the disease. A disease much like small pox, a cultivated schizophrenia attempted to invade, wipe out and co-opt every native, indigenous, aboriginal religion within it’s reach. The teeth of this beast, Divide et impera, the upper and lower jaws used to macerate the minds of peoples who are not reliant on the conquerors economy, not their food, nor their ideas. Divide and conquer is plainly visible in the empty faces of the millions or billions of lonely as they sit behind their cubicle, or in their suburban homes. The people are in need of their cure, the unification of the broken, the straightening of the bent and the return of sight to the blind. Shamanism aims to reunite these meanings under a common vision of the holistic nature of Spirit.
“Religion permeates all aspects of life, and most Huichol make no real distinction between the sacred and everyday worlds. For the Huichol, religion is life itself. Following these beliefs and rituals, they petition the deities for sun and rain for the crops, successful deer hunts, fertility, good health, and protection from the dangers of the natural and supernatural worlds.”1
In playing the game of words it’s important to get down to the brass tacks. Semantics are a slippery type of thing so when entering a discussion, it’s important to come to some understanding of what a word symbolizes. We must look at the word religion;
To relig(are) to tie, fasten,
1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a super human agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion. 2
Almost all of the indigenous shamanic religions have faced oppression, persecution and sometimes torture and execution at the hands of atheist, religious and economic invaders alike. The atheist deemed the religious forces of shamanism to be a threat to an envisioned society as in Stalin’s ‘purge’ of the Soviet Union. Suslov states that “…when finding excuses for repression, their executors confirmed that shamanism, like other religions, strengthens and consecrates slavery and exploitation” 3. Whereas, as an example, the Christian conquistadors and later the missionaries considered such ‘savagery’ an abomination, mere sorcery hardly worthy of the designation religion. In 1670 Father Allouez reported about the Potawatomi of the upper Mississippi river;
“There is here a false and abominable religion resembling in many respects the faith of some of the ancient pagans. Savages of these regions recognize no sovereign master of heaven and earth, but believe there are many genii, some of which are beneficent, as the Sun, the Moon, the Lakes, Rivers, and Woods; others malevolent, as the Adder, the Dragon, Cold and Storms, and, in general, whatever seems to them either helpful or hurtful they call a Manitou, and pay it the worship and veneration which we render only to the true God. Those divinities they invoke whenever they go out hunting, fishing, to war, or on a journey—offering them sacrifices, with ceremonies appropriate only for sacrificial priests.” 4.
If you’re not familiar with the burnings, the feeding of people to dogs, the drawing and quartering of ‘non-believers’ please investigate, as this is a subject that could fill volumes upon volumes of encyclopedic books. However, such an investigation may leave one knowing more about savagery than one would care to know. Here we are as I write this, days away from the anniversary of the horrid massacre on ‘, February 25, 1860. Right here on Humboldt Bay, not to long ago, the Wiyot Medicine Men were preparing for the coming year, the Ritual of World Renewal was interrupted by the invading culture’s economic ambition, in such a violent way that the Religious Rite on this sacred island would go dormant in shock. After 132 years, candle lights came to memorialize this tragedy. As a testament to the harmony promoting way of their spirit, the Wiyot say ‘community is welcome!’ to the vigil. ’
Yes, shamans speak many different languages, but they sing the same songs. What is it that Shamans do? They make request of the Spirits and Deities on behalf of the people. Many undertake strict diets and lifestyles in order to guide their requests. They cure, they serve the community, unite and fasten that which has floated away like a helium balloon, far away from the earth below their feet. They help community members become in sync, so that they may directly connect with the divine that fills all of our souls.
It’s important to remember that religion is a powerful human endowment, no matter it’s ideological foundations, any religion can be a mixed blessing. While shamanism is ancient, it’s reemergence into the dominant culture is a new thing, and one should welcome cautions not to be blinded by the light. Like all religions, and human endeavors in general, there are dangers as in; Dark Shamanism, black magic, brujaria or what the Shipibo refer to as a Yobe. There is as much potential to create and heal as there is to destroy and kill.
Shamans heal and serve the people as a sacramental rite in their religion. For the Huicholes, it’s clearly a religious undertaking;
In order to communicate with the Deities the Huichol Marha’akame [Shamans] must first enter the trance state. After a long night of ceremony he is able to talk to the Gods and perceives things distant and hidden. He receives the offerings from the community and blesses them on behalf of the Gods. (Collings, Peter 2000)
The core of Huichol existence lies in the hands of the shamans, known as mara’ akames. 5
For the local Yurok Tribe, it’s religious;
For millennia our religion and sovereignty have been pervasive throughout all of our traditional villages. Our intricate way of life requires the use of the sweathouse, extensive spiritual training, and sacrifice. 6
Bobby Lake-Thom (Medicine Grizzly Bear), a traditional native healer and teacher of Karuk, Seneca, Cherokee and Caucasian decent says;
“The medicine man or woman, as we understand that role, has more of a religious function; this includes such roles as ceremonial leader, ritual performer, mystic, or formulist.”
An Indian doctor, or what I have termed Native healer, often takes on the combined roles of physician, psychologist, priest and psychic.”
For the Amazonian Shipibo, Conibo and Shetebo;
“They rebelled against military and religious domination. In 1695, while Protesting military conscription imposed on them, the Conibo, massacred the Spanish, and returned to their own culture.“7
In our country, with our constitution and more recently with the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act, our ‘Religious Rights’ are being protected more and more. To keep true to the concept of separation of church and state, the government can not make a true distinction of what is a religion and what is not. With that said, certain religions are sometimes exempt from legal restrictions, if such a restriction is a hindrance to the practice of one’s religion. For example, the Catholic Church serving wine to minors or the U.D.V. and Santo Daime importation of hallucinogenic plants from the Amazon. It became important for the Supreme Court to derive some kind of guiding principles in order to exempt Religions that are being restricted from sacraments or practices. Indeed the Supreme Court specifically dissects the difference between religion and philosophy, it looks for ultimate ideas, metaphysical beliefs, moral or ethical system, comprehensiveness of beliefs, and accoutrements of religion. “The last category includes Judeo-Christian hallmarks such as prophets, sacred texts, gathering places, keepers of knowledge, ceremonies and rituals, organization, holidays, dietary rules and fasts, special clothing, and proselytizing.” 6. Even though they may be Judeo-Christian hallmarks, many of these ‘accoutrements’ are found in community rooted shamanic religion. Shamans are known as prophets, while the writing of sacred texts is fairly antithetical to most experiential based shamanism they do have gathering places, sacred sites, temples, sweat lodges, long houses ect…Shamans are usually nursed by their forbearers creating a trans-generational lineage that could only be composed of ‘keepers of knowledge’, in addition to lineage the animistic spirits that inhabit every natural substance are keepers of wisdom. The accoutrement of ‘Ceremonies and Rituals’ are the pulsing heart of Shamanism. Many would say that shamanism is not organized, got to laugh, no it’s not organized like a Wal-Mart, the Army or a Protestant Church, but it is organized by the very organization that causes rivers to flow from mountains to the seas, trees to grow in communities, and rain to fall. Holidays may vary as the languages do, but in general, seasonal transitions and rhythmic earth changes are observed. Every Shamanic branch of the tree I have ever worked with had many guidelines around the intake of foods. You are what you eat and in the realm of ritual purification and sacrifice, diet and fasting become tantamount to proper Religious practice. Special clothing, Google shamans from around the world and you will see each ‘denomination’, group or tribe has their ceremonial clothing. That leaves us with proselytizing, which is best left to the wind.
With all the spilt blood, the Religious bondage, the survivor’s need to be shamanically covert and openly Christian, it’s time to call it like it is, shamanism is a world wide, ancient Religion. It’s expression etched on the rock walls of deep and dark caves around the world, woven into archaic fabrics, and scribed in the very air we breath. It’s not the property or domain of a blood type, it’s our human birthright. Just as a person does not have to speak Nazarene Aramaic to be a follower of Jesus, it follows that one doesn’t have to speak Panoan or Quechua to be in the ebb and flow of shamanism, to dip from the river or make offerings to the sea. If the murder of Jesus opened the gates to heaven, what did the murder of millions upon millions of indigenous open if not one’s heart. Shamanic religion is alive and well, in fact reemerging, thanks especially to the many Shamans who have held on through the firestorms of prohibitions and religious conversions. As I was fasting and training in the Amazon with his father, a young Shipibo apprentice said passionately ‘we are rescuing what’s been stepped on, our religion’ If there is to be peace amongst the variety of life, it begins with recognizing the other, and moving towards right relationship. A lot of people speak about ‘cultural appropriation’ now a days, it’s a takers dilemma that steals fruit from the tree without feeding the root. The primal religious impulse, born in the chest of early humanity has endured the ages, anchoring all arenas of life in the totality of Creation, a great tree of the world which helps human Religious inspiration take flight. If shamanic work is not based on ‘a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe’ , than what is it other than another splintered fragment of the human mind. Shamanism without religion is a contradiction, a scary, artificial thing, like a deer without a heart. Shamanism has adapted, evolved and persisted to modernity and will carry us on its wings to the future.
“In spite of missionary work in the past, today there is no priest among them, the churches are in ruin, and the Huichol are in the same state of barbarism as when Cortez first put foot on Mexican soil. The introduction of sheep, cattle, and iron implements has modified to some extent their mode of life but not
so much as one would expect…..Still their ancient beliefs, customs, and ceremonies all remain in their pristine vigor.”
Carl Lumholtz, Norwiegn explorer 1898
For an in depth discussion of this topic, please click here.
1. From; http://www.everyculture.com/Middle-America-Caribbean/Huichol-Religion-and Expressive-Culture.html
2. From; http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/religion
3. From; http://www.erm.ee/pdf/pro15/bulgakova.pdf
4. From; http://www.manataka.org/page149.html
5. From; http://www.everyculture.com/Middle-America-Caribbean/Huichol-Religion-and-Expressive-Culture.html
6. RESOLUTION OF THE YUROK TRIBE INTERIM COUNCIL
7. Cardenas Timeteo, Clara 1989, ‘Muraya y Su Mundo’ translated from Spanish by author