Shamans, Sacred Places, and the Healing Earth

by Stanley Krippner, Ph.D.

Wilderness lake (Gary Newman)

For tribal shamans, nature was sacred; Earth was alive and special spots were engulfed with “power,” filled with “energy;’ or inhabited by “spirits.” Although soil, water, and air all partook of the divine, some spots were especially numinous and these sacred places were visited by shamans for renewal, communication with the “other world,” or entry into altered states of consciousness.1 Shamans, both past and present, were socially designated practitioners who voluntarily altered their consciousness to enter the “other world,” bringing back knowledge that they used to serve the needs of their community. Shamans were exceptionally sensitive to what biologist Rene DuBos referred to as “the spirit of place.”2

Many shamans regarded the Earth as their mother. There were hills that looked like breasts, crags that looked like faces, rivers that could have been life-giving milk. But the concept of Mother Earth was not universal; each indigenous culture worked out its pantheon of deities in its own way, albeit with frequent interactions with other cultures.3 Mother Earth was given visibility in North America by the Wanapum prophet Smohalla and the Shawnee cultural leader Tecumseh, although it had much earlier roots in the Pocahontas myth. However, many Native American tribes do not have a maternal Earth deity even though they have long traditions of respect for nature and care for the land.

In Ancient Egypt, Geb was the Earth Father. All the world’s vegetation sprouted from Geb’s back as he was lying on his stomach, prone. The Algonquin Indians worshipped Nokomis, the Earth Mother, and believed that all living things fed from her bosom. Balkan peasants considered Earth each person’s parent and spouse, dressing the corpse for a wedding before burying it. Indeed, the first people who developed skills in the healing arts held a special reverence for Earth deities, whether they were male, female, or both.

Animism was a perspective that saw nature as alive and sacred; it was associated with hunting and gathering tribes, especially those in the Old and Middle Stone Ages (i.e., Paleolithic and Mesolithic Ages). Totemism, an evolved strand of animism, conceptualized various animal species as related to particular clans. For the mythologist Joseph Campbell, the bear skull sanctuaries of Paleolithic times provide the earliest evidence of the veneration of a divine being.4 Shamanism was associated with both animism and totemism and has been called “applied animism.”5 Many contemporary writers refer to the living planet Earth as “Gaia,” pointing out that active feedback processes operate to keep Earth temperature, oxidation state, and acidity constant while solar energy sustains comfortable conditions for life.6 The Gaia concept is the most recent in a long tradition of perspectives that views Earth as a living organism whose capabilities include the ability to bear, sustain, and heal human beings.

This is a far different world view than that held by the Europeans who conquered the Americas. Despite the evidence of long-established, city-based civilizations like those of the Inca, the Aztec, and the Maya, European settlers regarded Native Americans as people with no real homes. This provided justification for “civilizing” the Indians “for their own good” into ordered communities.”7 No other approach could save as many souls; and no other approach could further the territorial and economic interests of the conquerors. The invaders overlooked the architectural accomplishments of Native Americans, such as building their homes in concert with nature rather than in opposition to nature, placing doorways towards the east where the sun rose, and devising floor plans so that when people awoke they would feel as though they had been reborn.

The Healing Earth and Treatment Practices

Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Saybrook University in Oakland, CA. He holds faculty appointments at the Universidade Holistica Internacional (Brasilia) and the Instituto de Medicina y Tecnologia Avanzada de la Conducta (Ciudad Juarez, Mexico). In 2002 he received the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Professional Hypnosis from Division 30, and APA’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to the International Advancement of Psychology. He is a Fellow in the Association for Psychological Science, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.

Pablo Amaringo is a contemporary shaman who has made a considerable effort to preserve the Amazonian ecosystem. Over the years, Amaringo has utilized a powerful mind-altering brew, ayahuasca, in his work, and painted several of his ayahuasca visions. A book containing forty-nine of these paintings presents hundreds of animals, plants, spirits, and mythological beings.8 Journeys to various underwater, subterranean, and outer-space worlds are graphically detailed in these paintings. After retiring as a healer, Amaringo organized an art school in Pucallpa, Peru, dedicated to documenting the ways of Amazonian life. The school’s philosophy is the education of local youths in the care and preservation of the Amazonian ecosystem.

The concept of the healing Earth has entered into treatment procedures used by indigenous shamans and other magico-religious practitioners since prehistoric times. For example, the central element in the Navajo healing ceremony is sand painting. This painting represents, simultaneously, the spiritual and physical landscape in which the patients and their transgressions exist as well as the etiology of the disease and the mythic meaning of the procedure that has been chosen for its cure. Stones, plants, and sacred objects often are placed inside the painting. Mythological relationships among the elements are represented in colored sand. The sand figures may be clouds or snakes or whatever is needed to portray the path of the disease as it proceeds through time and space.

Dangers and diseases have their place in the matrix as well; if they have been the cause of illness or misfortune, they alone can correct it. Chanting, drumming, and a vigil bring the elements together. Patients become aware of the pattern of their sickness and their life, and how both are joined in the cosmos. Usually patients are surrounded by their friends, neighbors, and relatives who sing and pray to that purpose.9, 10

A variation of the sand painting is the ground painting constructed by the Southern California Diegueno Indians during the puberty ritual of young tribesmen. They convey the design of their world by representing the horizon as a circle. Also included are the world’s edge, various heavenly bodies, power animals (especially the crow, coyote, snake, and wolf), and the mortar and pestle used to grind up the mind-altering plants used in these ceremonies.11

Mountain flowers (Gary Newman)

Some psychohistorians believe that the placenta is represented in these Indian medicine wheels-both in the temporary sand and ground paintings and in the longer-lasting constructions, of which about fifty still exist in the western parts of the United States and Canada. These structures are composed of stones placed on the ground to form a small central circle, with lines of stones radiating outward; sometimes there is an outer circle around the circumference.12 Used for ceremonies involving renewal and rebirth, some of the medicine wheels are said to “look more like placenta than any other religious symbols derived from intra-uterine life, including the tree of life, the pagan cross, and the sacred pole.”13 Medicine lodges are built each summer by the Plains Indians for sacred ceremonies; these lodges feature a central tree or pole-often with as many rafters as the medicine wheels have lines of stones. Although these designs could also emulate the sun, anthropologist R. B. McFarland says that he favors

… the placenta as the origin of the sacred circle, everyone starts life dependent on their placenta for nourishment and life’s blood, long before we see the sun, and the sun doesn’t have a central pole. The circle and the tree of life are both symbols of the placenta, the umbilical cord, and the network of blood vessels resembling the roots and branches of a tree.14

I found a similar concern in the songs of Maria Sabina, the Mazatec Indian shaman I interviewed in 1980 and whose sacred mushroom veladas were recorded and transcribed before her death. Many of her verses reveal her close association with nature:

Living Mother …
Mother of sap, Mother of the dew …
Mother who gave birth to us …
Green Mother, budding Mother …
These are my children …
These are my babies …
These are my offshoots …
My buds …
I am only asking, examining …
About his business as well …
I begin in the depth of the water …
I begin where the primordial sounds forth …
When the sacred sounds forth …
I am a little woman who goes through the water …
I am a little woman who goes through the stream …
I bring my light …
Ah, Jesus Christ …
Medicinal herbs and sacred herbs of Christ …
I’m going to thunder …
I’m going to play music …
I’m going to shout …
I’m going to whistle …
It is a matter of tenderness, a matter of clarity …
There is no resentment …
There is no rancor …
There is no argument …
There is no anger …
It is life and well-being …
It is a matter of sap …
It is a matter of dew …15

These excerpts from several of Maria Sabina’s songs reveal a woman who reveres the Mother who gives birth to us, a woman who has entered the primordial waters of oceanic consciousness but who does not stay there. The true nature of her consciousness is oriented toward service, toward healing, toward her community, and toward the children and babies to whom she strives to bring life and well-being. For her, the human being is a part of the natural world and must join its quest for life and well-being.

In general, North American Indians felt that nature-in-movement had magical power, hence the importance given the Deer Dance by the Huichols, the Buffalo Dance by the Hopis, and the Sun Dance by the Plains Indians. The Naniamo shamanic apprentices of Vancouver Island believed that their tutelaries were mythical monsters rather than the animal spirits who assisted other members of their tribe. When I visited the Cuna Indians of Panama in 1985, I observed a dance in which each tribal member moved to the spirit of his or her power animals, bringing the energy and knowledge from the “other world” into communal activity.

The Nature of Sacred Places

Some locations in what shamans call Middle Earth are held to be more sacred than others. Shamans frequently locate “power spots” and use them in their healing ceremonies. These are the areas that are said to contain more “energy” and “vital force” than surrounding geographic locations. Taking the position that “ancient peoples are still offering us their wisdom through their sacred sites and landscapes,” mythologist Paul Devereux has found that they differentiated between the physical landscape as constituted by consensual agreements, i.e., the ordinary reality of the world, and the visionary landscape of the human mind.

Fall leaves (Gary Newman)

For example, the Balinese language contains a well-developed sensibility of dual worlds (niskala and sekala). But English can only call the alternative visionary world “symbolic,” at best. By whatever name it is called, Devereux suggests that a rediscovery of the human capacity to “see” as the ancients could “see,” would assist residents of industrialized societies to understand that the existence of these other landscapes rests essentially on one’s willingness to believe in them. Devereux does not simply dismiss the phenomenon of the symbolic reality as existing only in the imagination; he also documents the presence of naturally magnetic stones at a variety of recognized sacred spots, and presents reasonable explanations for the verified presence of strange bright lights at some “power spots.” The nearby magnetic stones could have been employed both for healing work and for altering people’s consciousness.

The well-preserved Neolithic landscape of Avebury in southern England is undeniably recognized as having been a ceremonial landscape for its ancient inhabitants. It follows from Devereux’s argument that it was also a landscape of the mind. This is only one example of the legacy that Devereux believes native people left the world in their sacred sites and landscapes.

A contemporary example of such a site is given by Alfonso Ortiz, who as a child in his Pueblo village had a vision that was directed to the mountaintop, the place where the paths of the living and the dead were said to converge. Ortiz recalled:

A wise elder among my people, the Tewa, frequently … smiled and said, “Whatever life’s challenges you may face, remember always to look to the mountaintop; in doing so you look to greatness. Remember this, and let no problem, however great it may seem, discourage you … “Although he knew I was too young to understand, he also knew there was not much time left to impart this message to me and, perhaps, to others like me. In accordance with our beliefs, the ancestors were waiting for him at the edge of the village the day he died, waiting to take him on a final four-day journey to the four sacred mountains of the Tewa world. A Tewa must either be a medicine man in a state of purity or he must be dead before he can safely ascend the sacred mountain.16

Ortiz’s statement implies that the shaman can utilize sacred geographical spots such as the mountaintop. These spots are also the places where tribal “ancestors” can be found by the shaman and consulted in time of need. James Swan has reviewed more than one hundred case histories of people having unusual experiences at power spots, and he observes that the most common experiences reported were feelings of ecstasy, unification with nature, interspecies communication, waking visions, profound dreams, the ability to seemingly influence the weather, feeling unusual “energies,” and hearing words, voices, music, and songs.17

One explanation of the nature of sacred places can be found in the creation myth of the Hopi Indian tribe. In the beginning, it is told, Tiowa, the Creator, saw a need to assign a guardian for Earth and he gave the position to a wise old woman named Spider Grandmother. Descending to Earth, Spider Grandmother saw that she would need help with her task as a steward. She reached down, picked up two handfuls of soil and spit into each of them. From each hand sprang a handsome young man. The three sat quietly in meditation for a time, attuning their minds to that of Tiowa. Then Spider Grandmother sent one young man clothed in shimmering silver, Poqanghoya, to the North Pole to work his magic of giving structure and form to Earth, holding the planet together. The other, Palongwhoya, wearing an equally spectacular costume of fiery red, carried a drum with him as he was sent to the South Pole. When Palongwhoya reached the South Pole, he sat in meditation for a time, reaching his heart-mind out into the universe. When he heard the heart beat of Tiowa, he began to imitate that rhythm on his drum, creating a harmony. Whenever two or more things come into harmony, energy is exchanged, and so Palongwhoya’s drum directed energy from the heart of the Creator into the Earth through the drum beat. This stream of life-force energy coursed downward to the very center of the Earth. Striking the center, they radiated outward again, like the seeds of a dandelion. As they emerged from the Earth’s crust, they were more concentrated at some places than at others. These places are the strongest sacred places, known to the Hopis as the “spots on the fawn; places of light as on the back of a young deer.18

The Exploitation of the Living Earth

Some contemporary humans claim that their needs permit them to ravish nature. As former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Manuel Lujan, Jr., stated, “I think that God gave us dominion over these creatures.” Lujan also remained unconvinced that every species needs to be preserved, saying “Nobody’s told me the difference between a red squirrel, a black one, or a brown one.”19

In a San Francisco interview with several social scientists on May 8, 1992, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took a different position, when he said:

We must continue to move ahead on this issue in the spirit of innovative thinking. The destruction of the environment is a dramatic problem. We need to work toward a single global vision. For example, the Siberian taiga and the Amazonian rainforest are the twin lungs of the planet. In our new Foundation, we have a Center for Global Problems devoted to these issues. This is a global problem and it must be solved with global approaches.20

This vision of the living Earth is also implicit in the work of Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock. In studying genetic transportation, she focused on corn (a sacred food to many Native American tribes), working with nature to determine how genetic structures respond to the needs of the organism. In commenting on her work, biographer E. F. Keller states that nature is on the side of scientists like McClintock—although her underlying philosophy alarmed her peers (especially the male geneticists) and regulated her to the periphery of genetic research for many decades.21

Mythologist Elizabeth Sahtouris observed how Earth’s relatively constant temperature and chemical balance is favorable to life. For her, Earth meets the biological definition of a loving organism, as a self-producing and self-renewing system.22 Earth is the only planet in its solar system that had the right size, density, composition, fluidity of elements, and “the right distancing and balancing of energy with its sun star and satellite moon to come alive and stay so.”23 Mythologist Charlene Spretnak adds that on the smaller celestial bodies, the electromagnetic interaction overpowered gravity’s pull; on the larger ones, the opposite relationship developed. Only on Earth were the two in balance.24

Western scientists and philosophers who agree with the shamanic conception of Earth as a living being are in a minority. But they, in consort with indigenous people, call for awareness and sensitivity on the part of human beings in regard to the balance that must be maintained. The ancient Greeks believed that in the beginning there was darkness, personified by the god Chaos. Then appeared Gaia, the Earth goddess. Western cultures have used their technology to insulate themselves from any limitations imposed by nature. Spretnak contends that the Western stance has been that if societies let down their guard, they would again be engulfed by chaos. But this is a misreading of nature and a dysfunctional mythology; humankind’s destruction is more likely if the living, healing Earth is ignored.


Photos by Gary Newman

Notes

I. Paul Devereux, Shamanism and the Mystery Lines: Ley Lines, Spirit Paths, Shape-Shifting and Out-of-Body Travel (St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn, 1993).
2. Rene Dubos, “The Spirit of Place.” Parabola (Winter 1993, originally published 1972), 66-68.
3. S. D. Gill, Mother Earth: An American Story (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).
4. Joseph Campbell, The Way of the Animal Powers (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
5. Neville Drury, The Shaman and the Magician: Journeys Between Worlds (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).
6. Elizabeth Sahtouris, Gaia: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos (NewYork: Pocket Books, 1989).
7. J. Bruhac, “The Families Gathered Together,” Parabola (Winter 1992), 36.
8. Luis E. Luna and Pablo Amaringo, Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1991)
9. Richard Grossinger, Planet Medicine: From Stone Age Shamanism to Postindustrial Healing, rev. ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 1982), 105-106.
10. Donald Sandner, Navaho Symbols of Healing (New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979).
11. Joan Halifax, Shaman: The Wounded Healer (New York: Crossroads, 1982).
12. R. B. McFarland, “Indian Medicine Wheels and Placentas: How the Tree of Life and the Circle of Life Are Related,” Journal of Psychohistory 20, 1993, 543-564.
13. McFarland, 1993, p. 456
14. McFarland, 1993, p. 462
15. Alanso Estrada, Maria Sabina: Her Life and Chants (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erickson, 1981), 107, 136, 150-151, 165, 175-176.
16. Halifax, 30.
17. James A. Swan, Sacred Places (Santa Fe, N.M.: Bear and Co., 1990).
18. Swan, 1990.”
19. T. Gup, “The Stealth Secretary,” Time, May 25, 1992, 57-59.
20. Personal communication, May 8, 1992.
21. E. F. Keller, Feeling The Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1983).
22. Elizabeth Sahtouris, “The Dance of Life,” in Gaia’s Hidden Life: The Unseen Intelligence of Nature, eds. Shirley Nicholson and Brenda Rosen (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1992), 18.
23. Sahtouris, 1992, p. 23.”
24. Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).