Shamanism is one of the oldest and most universal ways of accessing spiritual knowledge, extending from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to complex sedentary and agricultural societies, maintaining its presence in most present-day indigenous communities, and persisting even in contemporary Western society, where it has given way to a phenomenon currently known as “neo-shamanism.”
One of the core themes of shamanic knowledge is the capacity to heal both physical illnesses and spiritual disorders. In this sense, shamanism is an ancestral healing practice based on an integral and multidimensional view of reality, human beings, and holistic health. Nowadays, this therapeutic quality motivates a widespread attraction toward shamanism, its potential healing and spiritual power. This phenomenon goes beyond academic circles and stirs the interest of a much larger public, since shamanism opens a rich space for intercultural dialogue and proves very helpful as a tool to reflect and act upon contemporary problems.
In the last few decades, shamanism has also become a subject of increasing anthropological interest, and I would like to contribute to its better understanding. With this purpose in mind, I will present a general outlook of the main trans-cultural features of the shamanic cosmo-vision and practices all over the world, ranging from its ancient forms to its present expressions. I will focus especially on the shamanic cure or healing process, revisiting Lévi-Strauss’ classical concept of “symbolic efficacy” in the light of energetic conceptions about health and healing involved in the new paradigm of holistic science. At the same time I would like to place this subject in a larger scope, that of the global contemporary crisis and Western “wounds.”
Ana Llamazares, Argentine anthropologist and epistemologist, teaches about and researches shamanism and spirituality, the symbolism of pre-Columbian art and its relation to shamanism, holistic epistemology, and its correlations with indigenous cosmo-visions, especially South American. She is a researcher at the National Council of Scientific Research (CONICET), professor at the Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero (UNTREF) and Fundación Columbia, Buenos Aires. She has authored several books and specialized articles, including Del reloj a la flor de loto: Crisis contemporánea y cambio de paradigmas (Del Nuevo Extremo Editores, 2011) [From the Clock to the Lotus Blossom: The Contemporary Crisis and Paradigm Shift]. Contact: email@example.com www.delrelojalaflordeloto.blogspot.com
Due to the global process of westernization undergone by the whole planet during the last centuries, the sufferings and afflictions have reached us all, Westerners and non-Westerners alike. In different ways and degrees, we are all affected by this process. And just as it should be a global commitment to seek ways out of the environmental, socioeconomic and ethical crisis, it is also necessary for each and every one of us to find ways to heal ourselves: to heal our planet and its biodiversity; to heal our societies and their economies; to heal our increasingly aching and ailing bodies; to heal our inexorably wounded souls.
Increasingly people today recognize that something about ancient shamanic wisdom can still be of great help to relieve the physical and psychological suffering that we endure as members of Western societies. I agree with this view, and it is my intention to explore and develop it throughout this article, providing epistemological elements to reflect upon the nature and origins of our wounds, as well as the possibilities of their relief and healing in the light of shamanic knowledge and its present projection. In line with this, I will also evoke two mythological characters that belong to our own Western tradition: Dionysus and Chiron.
Dionysus was the god of wine, drunkenness, irrationality, and joyful—if often violent—outburst, but above all, he was the great performer of ecstasy. The history and symbolism of this ancient pre-Olympian god show us the role that non-ordinary states of consciousness have played in the West and why it is that all that is Dionysian, in its broadest sense, has been almost eradicated from our lives. Chiron, for his part, is the wise centaur of Greek mythology, the perfect archetype of the wounded healer, of self-healing and of the wisdom potential involved in overcoming pain as well as in the integration of opposites.
Both Dionysus and Chiron embody the initiation principle par excellence of shamanic fate, and thus remind us that this worldview is also rooted in our own Western tradition. The time has come for us to re-discover and reclaim it. Indigenous peoples have cultivated this worldview for millennia, they have been in charge of enriching and preserving it ritually; and today, many of them are generously sharing this knowledge. The time has surely come to share, not only the pain that the process of modern westernization has provoked, but also the great healing power preserved as a treasure in shamanic knowledge, which to a certain extent belongs to humankind as whole.
The Wounds of the West
In speaking of wounds, I refer to a wide range of pain that extends from the planetary to the personal and intimate realms. As in a vertical arch, it spans from Gaia’s suffocation –brought about by the constant cornering and destruction of animal and vegetal species, as well as the systematic manipulation of these species for massive consumption, scientific experimentation or collective entertainment; to wounds inflicted by death and violence of all kinds that scourge entire peoples through wars, guerrillas, organized crime, terrorism and the upkeep of the arms industry; to those wounds provoked by inequity and poverty, affecting growing sectors of the world’s population; to the burden of educational, family, and personal wounds that each of us carry as a result of authoritarianism, discrimination, lack of affection, repression, punishment and so many other things that we may have had to endure, according to the diversity of our personal histories and stories.
In terms of the worldview of our indigenous peoples of the Andes, we could say that we are in the midst of a new Pachacuti, a cataclysm that involves great changes, both external—of the physical, energetic and climate environment—and internal—of the body, mind and spirit. In the Quechua language, Pacha means ‘the Earth’ —the Pachamama—as well as ‘being here and now,’ and Cutec refers to the idea of revolution, of a full turn and return to the origins.
Pachacuti is then synonymous with great transformation, a moment of profound change, in which everything becomes disarranged, turned upside down. Apart from an ecological transformation, with climate and telluric upheavals, it also implies a shift in collective consciousness, which will eventually express itself in significant social transformations. To some extent, it also means a return to the Earth, to the sources, as well as a recovery of original values and energy. The current crisis may be interpreted then as a new Pachacuti of enormous magnitude, for, as we all know, the crisis is global.
Without sounding reductionistic, I do believe that it is possible to find a common element underlying all of our contemporary afflictions. If we look deeper inside, we can find it is all about one and the same pain, the same basic ablation suffered by the modern Western consciousness, almost as a price paid for its own existence, expressed in diverse ways.
A Comprehensive Look at the Contemporary Crisis
To enlarge this idea, I will resume the approach developed in my book Del reloj a la flor de loto (2011a), which proposes an interpretation of the Western crisis from a threefold perspective: epistemological, spiritual and evolutionary. These are three intertwined dimensions of the crisis.
This interpretation holds that, at the base of the multiple expressions of the Western crisis, we can find as a common root, a system of values that is implicit in the modern Western scientistic paradigm, developed in the West since the fourteenth century through the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial and Technological Revolution. In sum, it evolved through the socio-historical process known as Modernity, reaching Post-modernity as its present epigone. Such worldview or paradigm is based on the principles of exclusive opposition, competition and exploitation of human and natural resources for the benefit of the ideal of unlimited growth and progress. This value system determines a particular way of conceiving the world, of perceiving, feeling and acting in it.
It is from this point of view that we can state that the contemporary crisis has an epistemological basis, since what is actually undergoing a crisis is a way of thinking and conceiving reality, specifically the modern Western paradigm, the materialistic, mechanistic and rationalistic worldview derived from Cartesian-Newtonian science.
We can also look at the evolutionary dimension of this crisis. In these terms we may understand it as an instance of the unfolding of consciousness, whose goal has been the constitution of the identity of the human being as a subject, the self-assertion of a collective ego or self as an autonomous entity; although inevitably painful, this has been a highly transcendental stage within the macro-history of the human species. Modern consciousness has reached such extension because it has crossed cultural and ethnic boundaries, pervading the minds of millions around the world. Even though it was born in the West, the modern Western paradigm has become a common cognitive pattern at a global scale, which currently characterizes an evolutionary instance of Homo sapiens.
Beyond the epistemological commotion that the paradigm shift entails, the crisis that we are living has a deeper dimension, one of a spiritual kind. Throughout Modernity and almost as a condition for the existence of the scientistic paradigm, the West has suffered several fragmentations that led it to lose its connection with Nature, with all that is vital, with human subjectivity and, in general, with all the subtle, sensitive and intangible dimensions of existence. The conception of reality that became established only accepts what is rational, material and measurable, and views scientific judgment as the ultimate court of certainty; it has made humans believe that their power is immeasurable and unlimited, that they are superior to everything else, that their needs are the first priority and that, in order to meet such needs, any outrage can be justified.
Above all, this conception has discarded as unnecessary the presence of the sacred and the supernatural and, together with this, of all that lies outside the narrow fringe of ordinary material reality. Thus, the everyday life of any regular person adapted to Western society usually passes by almost without any space for the deep experience of the spiritual, in a succession of profane linearity, after which the basic life experience that is left is the nonsense of the immediate, loneliness, lack of communication, emptiness, the most absolute state of abandonment, and consequently anguish and dissociation. So, we arrive at the deepest threshold of the contemporary crisis: its mental, spiritual and existential consequences.
At this point dwell the reasons that prompt the modern human being to search—many times in a desperate and compulsive way—for spiritual paths and psychotherapeutic resources and, we might also add, a certain eagerness to get to know the sacred plants and their effects. It is there, in the depths of the human heart and psyche where we find again, beyond the epistemological scale, the spiritual dimension of the crisis of paradigms.
Materialism and Fragmentation: Illusions of the Modern Mind
In order to understand this a little more thoroughly, let us consider with more detail how the breakdown of spirituality occurred in the West. To this end, it is necessary to acknowledge the profound ties that bind together the epistemological and the existential dimensions. This way we will be able to appreciate better the direct link that joins certain conceptions and epistemic resources—like fragmentation, materialistic reductionism and virtuality—and some of the most erosive contemporary experiences, such as helplessness, anguish, anxiety, competitive compulsion and thirst for power.
If we briefly examine the constituents of the modern Western paradigm, we can notice that pain lies in its very foundations. Each of the steps toward the autonomy of consciousness, from the inevitable loss of the state of mystical participation with Mother Nature and Cosmos to the constitution of a self-aware subject, brought about successive breaks and fragmentations that naturally have left overlapping wounds in collective memory, expressed and actualized in each of us at a particular level.
The main philosophical instrument of fragmentation was the Cartesian division between res extensa (matter) and res cogitans (mind), which led to the division between object and subject, between the world and the human being. From then on, the observer and the observed would be two independent entities: qualitatively different, opposed and autonomous.
Assuming as true the gap between subject and object, between man and the world, was the original sin of Western rationality. This breaking-off was the epistemological key of objectivity, philosophical materialism and the pragmatic neutrality of scientific ethics. It was also a very powerful instrument which paved the way for great discoveries and the unfolding of the modern world as we enjoy and suffer it today. Nevertheless, it was based on fictitious grounds. Separateness is just a constructive illusion of our mind. Therefore, this assumption was also the root of much of our contemporary suffering.
The consequences of fragmentation affected both the object and the subject, leading to a double fracture or to what might be considered a double and simultaneous disenchantment. First, Nature has been exploited to the verge of ecological disaster. At the same time, life and the human mind itself have been reified (i.e. reduced to the condition of things) by being subjected to mechanistic principles. Alienation is a natural consequence of the epistemological discontinuity between the observer and the observed, which opened a breach that generated a spiritual and emotional detachment from all living things. By losing the connection with our environment and a feeling of belonging to a Whole that embraces us, we have fallen into the illusion of believing that we are alone in this world and, as a natural consequence, life has lost its value, and we seem to have forgotten what the meaning of our existence is.
Materialistic reductionism—i.e. the conviction that the world is only the narrow slice of material reality—has worsened our existential situation even more. As cognitive possibilities remain limited to sensory observation and mental lucubration, the illusion of separateness is nurtured, clouding our ability to notice that it is only in the material dimension that we perceive ourselves as isolated, individual and essentially separate beings. The consciousness of interconnectivity, of our natural participation in the web of life and in the cosmic order, is only possible if we transcend the immediate dimension of the material and access other subtler levels of reality and perception.
This epistemology of “objectivity,” tied to the principle of neutrality, granted modern man an unprecedented operational freedom. The division between object and subject evolved into something more than a methodological resource—it became a fictitious antagonistic opposition. This in turn implied a hierarchization of scientific rationality over other forms of knowledge, of the Subject over the Object and consequently, of the Human Being over Nature, which resulted in an exploitable reservoir of raw materials.
In the process of construction and social adoption of this new form of rationality, science played a fundamental role: it was responsible for showing that it did work. With its pragmatic consciousness, it demonstrated immediate benefits and thus guaranteed legitimation. Eventually, science would become well established—and lasting, even in our contemporary collective imagining—as the only reliable and true knowledge, holding a position of seemingly natural and therefore undisputed power.
At the same time that the terms “rational” and “objective” were transformed into synonyms of “true knowledge,” all other ways of being and knowing were banished and excluded, considered “irrational” and “non-objective” and, therefore, less reliable. This applied to whatever was subjective, philosophical, artistic, sensitive, intuitive, bodily, emotional, paradoxical, mystical, subtle, and of course, spiritual.
But the hegemony conquered by scientific rationality rests on its own epistemological blindness. In order to achieve the absolutist effect of objectivity, this rationality had to free itself from self-critical reflection and to preclude the possibility of regarding itself as one among other possible forms of knowledge. Finally, it fell under the spell of its own power, and it is not difficult to imagine the political and cultural implementation of this fundamentalist sense of superiority. Along a gradient of increasing violence, this meant the discrediting, repression and in some cases persecution or even annihilation of all that is different and strange, which one way or another was to occupy the disturbing place of the “other.” In this way, a great ground of uncertainty has been forming gradually behind its back—a huge and ominous “shadow” that naturally, in time, began to seek paths to see the light of day again.
The Baconian aspiration expressed in “knowledge is power” achieved an effective instrumentation by means of mechanistic science, even if in the long run the price proved too high. Perhaps one root of the excesses lies in another nucleus of the modern paradigm: an aspiration to certainty and a search for the absolute boosted by the discovery of virtuality.
One of the factors that generated the epistemic conditions for the development of virtuality was the historical coincidence, at the dawn of Modernity, of the arithmetical use of zero, the invention of virtual money for commercial operations and the pictorial method of perspective based on a single vanishing point (Rotman, 1987). The modern subject discovered a mechanism far more powerful than the single pulley, one which would make it possible to create illusions and reality effects by means of artificial resources. It shifted from iconicity to abstraction.
This epistemological fracture had been brought forward by Renaissance artists as early as the fifteenth century. The realistic mode of representation based on the geometric technique of linear perspective had implied an unprecedented cognitive transformation. This changing look opens a new space—absolute, uniform and mathematizable—and involves a distance between observer and object. The point of view of the observer—a single, fixed point outside the representation—generated a non-participatory way of knowing and relating to the world, based on confrontation and dissociation.
The modern subject is inevitably elided and also confused. Both realistic representation and the discourse of scientific objectivity entail a covertly contradictory message. On one hand, on a semantic level—the realistic mode of representation—we are explicitly told that there is a real, objective, solid world that can be manipulated and is independent from us. At the same time, on a syntactic level, the image-building technique reminds us implicitly that it is the subject who organizes the realistic world by means of a particular way of looking, which entails forgetting that one is looking and therefore erasing one’s participation.
Thus, the perspective method marked the passage from a medieval semiotics of iconicity—in which it was possible to find a concrete referent for each sign—to a modern semiotics of abstraction, in which certain signs can be empty spaces and, by virtue of their essential ambiguity, be potentially occupied by infinite referents.
The arithmetical application of zero makes it possible to generate numbers ad infinitum, thus multiplying the possibilities of calculation. Similarly, by applying the rules of the perspective method, it is possible to create infinite images that copy reality and create an illusion of depth. Establishing a nominal exchange rate allows the possibility of performing infinite financial and economic transactions. These signs lack a specific concrete meaning because they represent nothing, and at the same time, as any vacuum, they can be filled with every possible meaning.
These empty signs or meta-signs are the key instruments on which virtuality operates with its infinite potentialities. Here lies one of the secrets of power in the modern world and also one of its greatest dangers. Given its purely mental and abstract condition, the semiotics of virtuality is dizzying and can easily lead to a loss of the notions of limit and balance.
And, in time, such a secret allowed modern man to reach the moon, develop cybernetic globalization, stuff wallets with plastic cards and so many other things that seem natural to us now and, yet, are really artificial. By casting off the shackles of the tangible, we discover the power of emptiness and absence: signs and meta-signs that can generate more and more signs ad infinitum, creating the deceptive illusion that the power of virtuality is unlimited.
Despite the fact that the twentieth century witnessed a host of dramatic experiences that have proved the opposite, the idea that our power has no limits is still one of the most firmly established convictions of Modernity. Let us think about the so frequent appeal of advertising resources. We are promised that together with the promoted product we will also acquire the possibility to defy any limit—of speed, of sports competitiveness, of seduction, of comfort, etc. Power based on virtuality is not concerned about limits, it does not take into account the environment; it follows the motto “the farther, the better,” whatever the cost. And this is precisely where the ambivalent and paradoxical condition of this power opens up. Unless it is oriented by a firm ethical consciousness of balance, this kind of power can be carried away beyond reason, leading to a general destabilization of the whole system.
Perhaps this is the delicate point at which we, the human species, are standing. The risk of virtuality resides in the fact that such a great power is based only on our mental capacity for abstraction and lacks anchorage in the concrete. In this sense, recovering the direct experience of the real—basically through a re-connection with our bodies, our emotions, and Nature—may help us find our way along our search.
The West and the Search for Ecstasy
So we reach the present time, when the most corrosive effects of that divorce of the human being from Nature, both at external and internal levels, can no longer be sustained. All those aspects that have been neglected, subdued, repressed, or eliminated from our consciousness—just like those sectors of society that embody and represent such aspects—making up an enormous “shadow” over the back of modern Western consciousness, tend to emerge, to resurface. They need to return, and at times even with considerable fury, they make their claim for recognition and reintegration.
As a final result from the process of psychic fracture to which fragmentation leads inevitably, one of the most widespread Western life experiences appears: anguish. A pleiades of other related states follow in chain: anxiety, depression, fear, abandonment, and a long list of psychophysical manifestations, from the now common stress to the increasingly frequent degenerative diseases and cardio-vascular conditions.
All this becomes crystal clear when considered from the point of view of frustrated spirituality. There is a profound interrelation among all these psychological experiences, certain physical illnesses, addictive compulsion in its multiple variants—alcohol, tobacco, drugs, tranquilizers, work, speed, sex, etc.—and the search for spiritual and mystical ecstatic experiences.
Haunts of solitude
According to psychologist Robert Johnson (1987):
The great tragedy of contemporary Western society is having virtually lost its capacity to experience the transforming power of ecstasy and joy.… More than ever our spirits need to be nourished. But, having excluded from our lives the inner experience of the divine ecstasy, we can only look for its physical equivalents… This craving has led to the most characteristic symptom of our time: addictive behavior. (p.6)
It is important to be aware of this link between anguish and the need for ecstasy—so deep and so little known—because this may alert us and help us recognize a certain subtly compulsive tendency, often disguised as spiritual search, especially through an insatiable and varied reiteration of experiences with which one wants to unlock the contents of the unconscious or reach other dimensions of consciousness.
This link also appears in the conception of spirituality as an exclusively vertical and ascending movement whereas, in fact, spiritual opening is not achieved through an upward “evasion,” but rather through a careful plunge into one’s body and the earthly, in a balanced and paradoxical movement of simultaneous ascent and descent.
At an even deeper level we can notice a connection between insatiable spiritual hunger and an aspiration to unlimited power, discussed above. In modern consciousness both are also pulsing underneath the search for certainty and absolutes—the last of the faces that the patriarchal idea of “God the Father” has taken on in the West. Perhaps one of the most important experiences of Modernity has been the definitive and systematic frustration of that frankly adolescent longing to verify the existence of that ever external, superior, transcendent, masculine seat of power. As long as we continue identifying power with the symbolic place of “the father,” we will largely keep fearing or disputing it, as if an exclusive dynamics were the only way to deal with power: either subduing or being subdued. Our consciousness will only be able to overcome that old fallacy through a profound internalization of this frustration—which requires that we stop projecting authority outwards and upwards, and come to terms with our own personal power, conceiving it as a creative and positive inner force. This is the path to the fathomless dimension that can be unveiled by means of an authentic view of the holistic. To embrace uncertainty with confidence is indeed a remarkable achievement.
None of the above considerations inhibit the capital importance of genuinely seeking and integrating spirituality; they just make the search more complex and, at the same time, compel us to refine our instruments of navigation so as to be able to discern the illegitimate from the authentic. Precisely because of all that has been said, we must highlight the meaning of spirituality within the emergence of new forms of consciousness. As long as it is pursued as a tool of lucid freedom and a means to get in tune with the universe, spirituality has an enormous therapeutic power and great evolutionary potential.
Our postmodern society has corrupted spirituality by placing it in a big market of quick and easy sales. The same happens with the increasing attraction toward indigenous and shamanic resources. Such is the need to reestablish contact with original roots and the natural, that many people tend to adhere unconditionally to any proposal that sounds telluric: this ranges from harmless habits—such as adopting ethnic clothing—to truly dangerous ones—like taking part in ceremonies, exposing oneself to alleged healings or trials, using sacred plants out of mere psychedelic curiosity and then feeling “initiated” on the path of indigenous wisdom. The most reckless go as far as to believe that they can acquire in a weekend workshop certain age-old pieces of wisdom that will enable them to perform afterwards as shamans or body and soul healers. And this occurs even among contemporary indigenous or ‘mestizo’ (mixed-blood) people who do not adhere clearly to the traditional values and worldview.
In any case, and precisely within this framework, we cannot but notice and emphasize the importance for the contemporary world of the healing potential of shamanism and, in particular, of the use of sacred plants, one of its main fields of knowledge.
Without lapsing into the simplicity of suggesting that we should wait in line in front of modern “shamanic consulting rooms,” what I find most inspiring when it comes to seeking ways to relieve the generalized sufferings of our time, along with sharing the cultural, concrete and physical phenomenon of shamanism, is the possibility of taking a fresh look at the shamanic cosmo-vision—this other way of viewing the world and acting on it, which is gradually converging with our own worldview. It is precisely this symbolic, multifaceted and “magical” quality of life that pervades the entire shamanic world, something that we Westerners have forgotten, immersed as we are in a culture of materiality and immediateness.
It is also necessary to frame all these issues within the worldwide process of philosophical and ethnic revival of indigenous peoples, who are recovering their sense of identity and unveiling their wisdom to contribute to collective awakening. This is happening particularly in the Americas, where the enormous wealth of native populations will surely lead our continents to play a key role in the coming years.
A central part of our mission as researchers, as anthropologists, but fundamentally as human beings fully committed to the new Pachacuti and the change of consciousness, is to pave the way for reflection and to provide respectful knowledge of this ancient wisdom for the good of everyone.
Shamanism: A Transcultural Phenomenon
Let us now focus again on shamanism so as to be able to fully appreciate what we propose as the spiritual and therapeutic potential of this ancestral wisdom in the context of the contemporary crisis.
Here I will aim to contribute some elements that will bring us closer to the difficult task of defining what shamanism is, certainly a complex but in any case necessary undertaking. To this end, I have gathered a series of features and concepts that characterize this phenomenon in its universality, beyond its particular cultural differences.
What is Shamanism?
In 1705, Nicolaas Witsen, a Dutch diplomat visiting the court of the Tsar Peter I of Russia, made a drawing that would become famous (see image below). During a journey across Siberian lands he had observed persons dressed in furs that made them look like bears, wearing big antlers on their heads, who danced and played their drums rhythmically until they fell in a profound trance. During that state, these men spoke, predicted the future, talked with spirits and with animals, and succeeded in healing ill people. They looked like lost “lunatics” that convulsed; yet they enjoyed great prestige in their communities. It was said that one of them, named Kököchi, had even encouraged with his prophecies the founder of the Mongolian Empire, Genghis Khan himself. Witsen had drawn a Siberian shaman of the Manchu Tungus group.
In the language of that group, this kind of individual was denominated xaman, or saman in Russian. This term comes from the root scha-, which means “knowledge,” whence xaman is “the one who knows,” “the wise”. It also alludes to the idea of bodily movement or agitation (Narby, 1997, p.151), a very interesting etymology that we will meet again below. In time this term gained popularity and was then translated into English as “shaman,” to refer to those persons who, in almost every known traditional culture, are in charge of communicating with different dimensions of reality. Thanks to the cultivation of their abilities to unfold their consciousness, they act as bridges between their communities and the supernatural, playing a wide range of roles—fortune-teller, healer, sage, ceremony celebrant or even chief, in charge of political decisions. What distinguishes and endows them with such special identity is their ability to “get out” of ordinary reality, to go to the extraordinary and know how to come back, bringing to this dimension something emanating from their connection with those other supernatural or sacred dimensions.
Shamans deal especially with maintaining communication with spiritual and natural forces. They talk to the spirits of animals, whom they ask permission before they go hunting or try to appease if they kill an animal by accident. They also seek advice from the spirits of plants, from whom they learn the art of healing illnesses of the body and the soul. Likewise, they talk to the spirits of the dead, whose souls sometimes refuse to leave. Shamans can operate on the elements of Nature in order to bring rain, conjure away a drought or subdue a fire, but above all they maintain the relationship with the deities, whom it is necessary to honor and heed permanently.
As formulated by Mircea Eliade and Ioan Couliano, shamanism cannot be considered a religion in the strict sense of the word, but more precisely:
A collection of ecstatic methods organized in order to come into contact with the parallel, though invisible, universe of the spirits and to obtain their support for the management of human matters, very often in a wide sense of what today we would call therapeutic (Eliade and Couliano, 1992, quoted in Fericgla, 2000, p.82).
Nevertheless, we can also acknowledge that the role of the shaman transcends even the therapeutic.
The function of the shaman is of vital importance for the community. The shaman’s role is not limited to seeing the human soul, getting to know its drama, healing, purifying houses and people, neutralizing or directing negative influences, foretelling and communicating with spirits, amongst other actions. The shaman, in the broadest sense of the word, is the true guardian of the traditions and the psycho-physical balance of the community. By renewing its myths and permanently reenacting its cosmo-vision, the shaman generates meaning to the group and thus becomes a foundation of the culture (Llamazares, 2004, p.107-108).
The Main Shamanic Themes: The Journey, the Trance, the Transformation and the Power
Shamanism is a very ancient knowledge that was born alongside the basic needs of the way of life of hunter and gatherer societies. In Europe and Africa, Paleolithic paintings at least 35,000 years old already show human personages with animal features that can be interpreted as representations of shamans or sorcerers. However, we could trace the origins of shamanism further back, to a more remote period, perhaps to the times of our Neanderthal ancestors—some 60,000 and even 200,000 years ago—who left evidence of their familiarity with two central themes of the shamanic cosmo-vision: the mastery of fire and the symbolic transcendence of death (Eliade, 1964; Poveda Ed., 1997; Vitevsky, 1995).
Nevertheless, it is not only an age-old wisdom but also a universal phenomenon. With diverse names and traits but bearing an unmistakably distinct stamp, it has been present in hundreds of cultures throughout the five continents. We find shamanic traditions in Europe from the Paleolithic to pre-Christian times, and also in numerous indigenous groups of Africa, Oceania, Australia, Asia and the Americas.
This cultural diversity is still astonishing and favors the comparative study of the major shamanic features, those recurring principles which, beyond specific cultural or local differences, are the common axes that maintain the universality of this lore. In a previous work (Llamazares, 2004) for which I carried out a transcultural study of the relation between cosmo-vision, ritual practices and shamanic art, I put forward a synthesis organized around four major themes:
- The journey and the communication between alternative worlds or dimensions of reality;
- The ecstatic trance as a way to access other realities;
- The transformation as a result and goal of the shamanic work; and
- The power as a force and an ethical challenge in the practice of the shaman.
The central activity of the shaman is the journey between different worlds or dimensions of reality. At a cosmological level, the idea of the journey stems from a stratified and multiple conception of the universe, with the predominating idea of the tripartition into Upper world or Heaven (Supra-world), Earth (Intermediate or Middle World) and Underworld (Infra-world), communicated with one another through the vertical axis or axis mundi—axis of the world—often represented directly as stairs, dangling ropes, trees or trunks with steps, through which the passages occur.
Through the journey, shamans accomplish their prime mission: to connect the three cosmic dimensions, and thus maintain the balance between them. Only shamans are able to access such places, establish a communication with the spiritual forces that dwell there and bring their messages, the information and the knowledge that are needed here on Earth.
The journey theme is closely related to the presence and acquisition of the guiding animals or spirits. The usual way of traveling is flight, in the case of ascents, although there can also be descents achieved by means of different ways of falling; and generally, in order to perform the journey, shamans need to acquire the faculties of their protecting animals.
Together with the art of flight, shamans must develop their vision. Like the penetrating gaze of birds, this enhanced ability to scrutinize allows them to see through matter and know what is happening in other worlds. In a broader sense, the shamanic vision or the “strong eye” refers to the capacity to widen ordinary perception and have visions, or adjust one’s sensitivity to receive and “see” subtle forces and energies (Ryen, 1999).
In order to travel across different realms of reality, shamans must develop their main attribute: their ability to unfold their consciousness and enter ecstatic states. The trance is “the vehicle” of the journey and, so as to reach this trance, a variety of means are used, namely: music vibration, percussion, repetitive dancing and chanting, constant physical movement and especially the assimilation of psychoactive substances or plants, considered sacred because they are used exclusively for ritual and healing purposes.
In general, a number of power objects are also used to reach the trance, including staffs, scepters, knives or sharp elements, feathers, hooves or other animal parts and certain mineral substances such as different kinds of earth or semiprecious stones. An element that is sometimes disregarded in the technology of the trance is the use and production of icons and images such as statuettes, sculptures, decorated vessels or other items, and paintings, whether on the body or on other natural surfaces like bark, rock, or the ground itself. Finally, the command of certain psychic and physical techniques enables shamans to reach an absolute concentration and, therefore, extend their perception and direct their power at will.
Siberian shaman, Hivsu, summoning spirits
As a result of the journey, the transformation occurs. It usually implies the symbolic death and resurrection of the shamans, as well as their becoming other beings, generally animals. This is possible thanks to their profound consubstantiation and connection with the animal and natural forces.
A special chapter in their training is the one that empowers them to enter the spirit of other beings—especially animals or plants—and via metamorphosis, to learn from such beings through the vivid experience of becoming and being them. Shamanic art, particularly from the pre-Columbian period, is rich in this kind of representation, in which animal and human traits are fused together and integrated, with a marked emphasis on the symbiosis between the jaguar and the shaman, or the snake and the shaman. These images speak about the shamanic capacity for unfolding, transformation and access to other dimensions of reality.
The shamanic task is always to transform something: illness into health, drought into rain, signal into announcement. We could say that the shamanic art par excellence is the art of transmutation—the ability to unite and connect, in order to transform. For this, the shamans must necessarily go through the experience of their own personal transformation, which generally implies healing oneself in the first place.
The shamanic vocation or fate usually becomes apparent with some extraordinary event that acts as a “call,” a clear signal that the person must take the path that leads to becoming a shaman. In general, the turning point is a serious illness, an accident, an attack of animals, insects or unknown spirits. The dilemma is extremely hard, for those who are called but fail to follow this path will surely worsen, die or cause serious damage to their families. On the other hand, by embracing their fate, they face a life fraught with ordeals and hardships. This long learning path implies becoming acquainted with pain, discipline, death and solitude, which become their true masters.
The most dramatic moment in the life of shaman is the initiation, and sometimes more than one is necessary. Initiation involves the shaman’s withdrawing from his or her family and community, and undergoing severe psychic and physical trials. Some classical initiation themes include being dismembered, visiting the underworld, disincarnating and moving along one’s own skeleton, and later assembling its parts again, to be reborn into a new life.
Thus, through successive initiations, shamans acquire their protecting animals and objects, which endow them with their distinct faculties, like the penetrating gaze, the ability to communicate with the spirits of the living and the dead, and the ability to control certain forces of nature.
It is through these limit-experiences that shamans learn the art of healing, which primarily consists in knowing how to transmute illnesses, defeat death, and regenerate life. These faculties enable them to leave their human condition and return to it. Their work pivots on the life-death-rebirth dialectics, based on a cosmo-vision that regards death not as a definitive end but as a passage to a different state of consciousness or reality.
Through this long process of learning, shamans gradually acquire their powers. The power of the shamans usually comes from spiritual or supernatural dimensions, and involves their mastery of the forces or hidden energies, both positive and negative. This confers on them a unique social status, which in certain circumstances becomes a way of legitimating their earthly power as religious-political leaders of their communities. In essence, their true power always emerges and is supported by their capacity to bring supernatural forces to Earth. The supernatural is ultimately what legitimates their earthly power. In shamanic societies, the sense of the sacred is a vital and fundamental trait.
Earthly power depends not only on the strength and the ability to prevail over other people, but rather on the wisdom to redress the relation between Heaven and Earth, and maintain that balance to the interests of the community.
Shamanic Healing: A Holistic View of Health and Illness
One of the main shamanic powers has to do with healing, both physical illnesses and spiritual disorders. In many cultures—e.g. among native peoples of the North American prairie—the term used as a synonym for “shaman” is “medicine-man” or “medicine-woman”, which alludes to the condition of being a person of power as well as to the healing skills. In Peru, shamans are also called curanderos (folk healers) or vegetalistas, due to their profound knowledge of the use and properties of plants, both medicinal and psychoactive. In the same cultural context, psychoactive plants, also considered master plants or plants of power, are generically designated as “the medicine.”
This therapeutic faculty, which the shaman exercises through multiple resources, is the result of a long and harsh process of learning and self-healing. As mentioned, the shamanic vocation is usually linked to the onset of illnesses or near-death experiences that the person must overcome as proof of their courage and in order to take their first steps in the path of knowledge. Thus, self-healing becomes not only a trance of survival, but also the very condition that qualifies the shaman to help others by healing them.
Working upon themselves is a discipline that shamans must maintain throughout their life, as they will not be able to perform their functions as healer of others if they themselves are not in an adequate state of balance and in control of their powers. This is, perhaps, the most delicate of shamanic tasks, especially in the contemporary world, fraught with distractions and temptations that today’s shamans usually come across, sometimes with fatal results.
Shamanic power, like all powers, has potential as well as danger, bright and beneficial sides as well as dark and potentially evil sides. This usually puts shamans in the position to choose toward which side they will direct their forces, so an enormous responsibility falls on them. Let us remember that the principle of complementary opposites is central in indigenous cosmo-visions (Llamazares, 2011b). It is well known that among shamans there are those who do good deeds and those who act in evil ways. Amongst the Guarani, for instance, the ipayé is the one who summons the rains and the mbaecuá, the one who stops them; usually both of them live in the same community, although not always at peace.
Don Juan, the legendary Yaqui man of wisdom portrayed in Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan (1977), originally published in English in 1974, said that power was the third and strongest of all enemies of the man of knowledge:
And a moment will come when he will understand that his clarity was only a point before his eyes. And thus he will have overcome his second enemy… He will know at this point that the power he has been pursuing for so long is finally his. He can do with it whatever he pleases…. But he has also come across his third enemy: Power! Power is the strongest of all enemies. And naturally the easiest thing to do is to give in… and suddenly, without knowing, he will certainly have lost the battle. His enemy will have turned him into a cruel, capricious man… (p.110-111).
Attaining power compels the shaman to remain under a permanent tension between good and evil. But it is right there, on that edge of impeccability, where his or her therapeutic potential lies.
Let us now consider in greater detail how shamans heal and, if such thing is possible, what the phenomenon of shamanic healing consists of.
The Sacred Use of Psychoactive Plants
Shaman holding a snake
The ritual use of psychoactive plants is a fundamental element of the process of shamanic healing, totally complementary to the administering of strictly medicinal substances and plants.
In the indigenous conception, psychoactive plants are considered sacred and are distinguished from exclusively medicinal plants because apart from healing properties, sacred plants bring about the possibility of provoking in the person who takes them a state of extended consciousness comparable to an ecstatic seizure or trance. During this state, perception is globally modified and whether through bodily, auditory or visual means, it is possible to come into contact with supernatural dimensions or entities.
The state of consciousness produced by the sacred plants enhances sensitivity to such an extent that the person is capable of capturing energies and vibrations that ordinary consciousness cannot perceive. This has been compared with the emergence of a “sixth sense,” a state of “hyperesthesia” (Castillo, 2001) in which sensitivity is overdeveloped. This is fundamental to the process of healing, for much of shamanic healing is of an energetic nature and is invisible to the regular eye. In most cases the shaman must take the plants so as to be able to perceive the bio-energetic state of the persons and also operate on them using such forces.
Individuals who seek healing do not always have to take the plants, although in many cases they do take them. At any rate, the person enters an energetic situation which is launched and intensified as a result of a meeting between the force of the plant and the consciousness of the person. The passages or shifts of consciousness that occur as one enters the trance (whether with plants or by other means) are healing per se, beyond the specific maneuvers that in turn the shaman may perform.
There is an inseparable link between sacred plants and shamanism, for these form part of the basic set of instruments of the shamans, of the resources that assist them in fulfilling their core activity: to reach the state of trance and thus access other dimensions of reality through their extended consciousness.
Most shamanic traditions throughout the world have used animal or plant substances to reach ecstatic trances. However our American continent, and particularly South America, due to its biodiversity, is especially rich in variety, age, and ongoing presence of traditional plant lore (Llamazares, Martínez Sarasola & Funes, 2008).
How Illnesses Are Produced
Shamans use various ways of healing according to the origin of the condition they have to treat. The most common causes of illness are:
I. Intrusion of evil spirits, subtle adherences or objects in the energetic or physical body of the afflicted person. In these cases one of the most traditional shamanic proceedings is administered, that of healing through suction.
Healing sessions are always accompanied by complex rituals that generally require the use of some kind of sacred plant, both by the shaman and, occasionally, by the patient. They usually include dancing, chanting, burning tobacco or other herbs, waving bunches of leaves or feathers (“venteo”), or small percussion instruments. Other objects are also used, for instance, the traditional statuettes modeled in wood or clay by the shaman and which play the role of the shaman’s helping spirits or the patient’s doubles. Part of the shamanic work involves “seeing” through the body of the person in order to find where the evil is lodged. Finally, the session culminates with a very strong inhalation or suction through which the shaman pulls out and removes the pathogenic substance.
II. Loss of the soul. This may affect the whole soul, parts of the soul or some of the souls, for amongst indigenous people it is conceivable that a person may be endowed with several souls. A series of hints tell the shaman that a loss of the soul has occurred. His or her task is to go to its rescue—if it so happens that it has been stolen by natural forces or other spirits that hold it captive—or convince it to return to the body of the person—if the soul fled voluntarily. Through the trance, the shaman has to begin a journey toward other dimensions in order to find it and then make it return, which sometimes implies having to fight with other spirits.
III. Breaking of a taboo or a rule of the group. In this case the task of the shaman is to restore the order that was broken or altered by the transgression. This is achieved through various means but in such cases the greatest force lies in the performance of rituals destined to appease the affected spirits, for example, through the narration of exemplary myths, and also through the creation of images, and the performance of chants or dancing forms that reestablish—in the fashion of cosmological icons—the structure and balance that are proper to cosmic order. It is in this aspect that the shaman becomes an artist whose art is the gift of being able to reestablish balance through his profound knowledge of the laws of the universe.
IV. Spells or witchcraft. These are considered actions of another shaman, witch or sorcerer devoted to do evil, sometimes for themselves, and other times, on behalf of someone else who wants to harm the affected person. These negative actions can cause illnesses by intrusion, damages, “eyeing” or evil eye, soul loss, or simply the energetic imbalance of the person; the used therapeutic techniques vary in each case. Amongst the Amazonian groups of Peru, one of the most serious dangers occurs through darts or “virotes” thrown by malicious sorcerers. Even today, this is a very common practice by which shamans attack one another; it is also very old on the Coast, judging by some representations of the darts which appear in pre-Columbian art, in some paintings of the Nazca culture (200-600 AD).
“Symbolic Efficacy” Revisited
Illness is usually conceived as something concrete that has occurred to the person, and shamans have to intervene concretely but their intervention always operates on multiple dimensions simultaneously—not only on the physical body, but primarily on the mental, spiritual dimension or, as we would say nowadays, the energetic dimension.
The conceptual framework within which illness and health are conceived in the shamanic cosmo-vision is openly multidimensional and basically spiritual. Although there may be an external agent, an attack, a trauma or any other violent event, the deepest root of a condition always lies in an imbalance or maladjustment of forces. The true cause of illness is a loss of balance. For this reason, the therapeutics of the shaman is clearly an energetic work, a constant effort to restore balance. The essence of the shamanic work is to ensure communication, the dynamic flow of energies—physical, mental and spiritual—through the dialogue and correspondence among the forces or the spirits that act in the diverse dimensions or realities.
There is a classical concept from the field of anthropology which has been used in attempts to explain how the therapeutic effect of shamanic healing takes place. It is the concept “symbolic efficacy,” introduced in the 1950s by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the father of Structural Anthropology. He developed this notion in his book Structural Anthropology, in which he examines a case of shamanic healing amongst the Cuna Indians of Panama, based on chanting a mythological story, by which the shaman helped a parturient woman who could not give birth to her baby. In modern terms we would say that it was a case in which, although labor had begun, the woman did not reach enough dilation to have a natural delivery. It is an extremely interesting example, for the shaman at no time intervenes physically on the patient. His treatment is only “by word of mouth.”
According to the description made by Lévi-Strauss, the first phase of the shamanic work consisted of making the nuchu, small figurines carved out of certain specific materials, to represent the protecting spirits that would assist the shaman on his journey to the abode of Muu, the power that had stolen the purba, or soul, of the future mother. The second phase of the work is the complete recitation of the chant that tells, in form of a myth, of the search and the recovery of the soul.
Lévi-Strauss (1968) points out that the exceptional interest of the story does not reside in its formal aspects, but rather in the-
discovery that to the native mind, Mu-Igala or `Muu’s way´ and the abode of Muu are not simply a mythical itinerary and dwelling place. They represent literally the vagina and uterus of the pregnant woman, which are explored by the shaman and nuchu and in whose depths they wage their victorious combat (p. 170).
At first, when the labor is still difficult, the nuchu are lined up one behind the other; then, as the story progresses and we suppose that so does the dilation of the cervix, they advance side by side, moving in a much wider line.
Fire ritual at Khurum day, Siberia.
We are clearly faced with the action of language and myth as symbolic operators or instruments. According to Lévi-Strauss, the narrated scene constitutes a purely psychological form of treatment that gives the patient a way to understand and express what is happening to her, so her body reacts as a consequence. And in this sense he holds that “the shamanic cure is half way between our organic medicine and psychological therapeutics such as psychoanalysis” (p. 179).
The concept of “symbolic efficacy” is traditionally conceived as an instance of recovery of contents from the unconscious, which symbolism permits to surface in consciousness by provoking a vivid experience. Early in the twentieth century, the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer had advanced this interpretation in his classic The Golden Bough (1992) published originally between 1890-1922. In his work, he argues that the true healing power lies in the personal and collective unconscious, and that shamans are able to activate the healing by releasing people’s psychic energy through mythical speech and ritual.
Perhaps the greatest difference between shamanic healing and psychoanalysis or Western exclusively verbal therapeutics, is that the shaman operates with all kinds of symbols based on an analogical methodology. And if we look at the efficacy of the symbol in the light of the new energetic conceptions, not only that of psychology, but also of physics and vibrational medicine, we will be able to recognize that the symbolic way of operating on reality goes far beyond the effects of a mere psychological or psychic “persuasion.”
The symbol is “effective” when it successfully translates and expresses, into its own dimension of existence, metaphysical principles from a different dimension of existence. According to the old Hermetic maxim or law of correspondences (“as above so below”), the world or reality, is conceived as a whole full of meaning, which unfolds in a multidimensional continuum of successive, inclusive and interrelated, dimensions between which it is possible to find isomorphisms, analogies and linkages. The symbol operates as a mirror which, through perceptible forms in more immediate dimensions, brings us reflections from other more distant, less tangible and less visible dimensions.
Nevertheless, today this explanatory principle can be understood as a scientific statement rather than as a metaphysical one. From the vision inaugurated for us by relativity and quantum theory in the twentieth century, reality is conceived as a continuum of energy in different levels of density (Heisenberg, 1993; Briggs & Peat, 1990). Therefore, taking into account that the physical, psychic and spiritual dimensions differ only in intensity and in configuration of forces, it is completely feasible to operate—by way of a structural correspondence—on the physical realm from the psychic realm and vice versa. In fact, the interrelation and correspondence between the multiple dimensions happen all the time in all directions. It is just our ordinary—modern Western—way of fragmenting reality into separate levels that makes us think that the body must only be treated with physical resources—whether mechanical or chemical—and in turn that the mind only responds to verbal or psychic resources.
Lévi-Strauss (1968) himself already anticipated this explanatory expansion of the concept of “symbolic efficacy” when, by the end of the chapter, he refers once more to the parallel between psychoanalysis and shamanic healing:
It is a matter of stimulating an organic transformation which would consist essentially in a structural reorganization by inducing a patient to live intensively out a myth whose structure would be, at the unconscious level, analogous to the structure whose genesis is sought on the organic level. The effectiveness of symbols would consist precisely in this ‘inductive property,’ by which formally homologous structures, built out of different materials and different levels of life—organic processes, unconscious mind, rational thought—are related to one another (p. 182).
Shamanic paraphernalia includes multiple instruments that are used to put into practice the same inductive procedure: not only poetic metaphors or myths, but also images, icons, visions, and all the vibrational resources—like music, percussion, movement, “venteos” and “sopladas” (i.e. the practice of smoking virgin tobacco and blowing the smoke forcefully over the head and the energetic centers of the patient), and most importantly, sacred plants, whose effects are also vibratory in a much subtler dimension.
Energy is vibration. And shamans seem to be great specialists in vibrational medicine, for they know how to achieve a harmonic reorganization of the energetic structure of the various —bodily, psychic and emotional—dimensions of living beings by means of vibrations —auditory, kinetic, chromatic, chemical, formal, geometrical, etc.
They are conscious of our being energy—says Colombian thinker Carlos Pinzón (2004). They already knew it before bioenergetic medicine existed. They know that thought is a form of energy; that what makes the circuits of the heart and circulation move are forms of energy, that verbal expression is a form of energetic existence. They knew that far before we did. (p. 244)
He further asserts “shamans are specialists in one of the body’s most important systems of energy management: its immune system, which determines what must enter the body and what must not (p. 244).”
The healing and therapeutic potential of shamanism in the contemporary world intersects with one of the boundaries of scientific medicine, namely the treatment of addictions and the increasingly widespread and mutating illnesses caused by immune deficiencies.
Dionysus and Chiron: Western Shamanic Archetypes
Focusing back on the Western tradition, I also want to resort to analogical and symbolic thought in order to evoke two archetypal images that belong to our own mythology and can therefore help us understand the roots of our suffering as well give us guidance on how to “heal” the wounds of the West. These mythical figures are Dionysus and Centaur Chiron, both in profound harmony with shamanism. After learning about their stories, we will surely be able to appreciate them as two great Western “shamans.”
Dionysus, Master of Ecstasy
When dealing with shamanism and the sacred plants in the context of the Western crisis, it is almost inevitable to refer to the archetypal figure of Dionysus, for the story and symbolism of this god—one of the oldest in Greek mythology—give us a very clear idea of the role that non-ordinary states of consciousness play in the West.
Dionysus—named Bacchus by the Ancient Romans and finally demonized in the Middle Ages—is in fact the god of wine, drunkenness, illusion, irrationality, and often violent outburst. He is indeed the great demiurge of ecstasy. Under the influence of Dionysus, people transform themselves, just as this god was an artificer of transformation.
Amongst all Greek gods, Dionysus was the one who had the most varied manifestations or epiphanies. To begin with, his nature was double: half human, half divine. He was conceived by the unfaithful union between Zeus and Semele, daughter of King Cadmus, and had a very turbulent life, with many deaths, rebirths, and persecutions that led him to master the art of transfiguration. He had a changing image: he could appear as a man or a woman, as a god or in the shape of different animals, usually a lion, deer, ram, panther or bull.
These features portray a god of pre-Olympian origins, rooted in ancestral mystery cults, whose precedents date back to Mycenaean Crete and even to ancestral Siberian shamanism (Fericgla, 1999). His nature refers us to the pre-patriarchal feminine, the changing, the dynamic, and the power of death and resurrection. It also relates to the most basic forces of nature: the animal, the instinctive and the irrational, which act in the sphere of the human.
Because of their archetypal connotations, it is worthwhile to give an account of some episodes in the life of this god. First, there is his igneous origin, as he was the offspring of the amorous passion aroused between Zeus, the god of thunder, and Semele. Then, his triple birth is almost equivalent to a shamanic initiation process. He was initially gestated in the womb of his mother, who was consumed by the fire of lightning when she prayed to her beloved Zeus to let her behold him undisguised. Zeus rescued the fetus and sewed him up in his thigh, and thus, Dionysus was born as the young god of fire, only to be torn to pieces by the envy of his brothers, the Titans. It is said that only Dionysus’ heart was left, and that from a drop of his blood a pomegranate tree—a symbol of fertility—was born, from which his grandmother Rhea—mother of Zeus—restored and cured him.
In order to prevent a new revenge from Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, Rhea turned Dionysus into a ram. He spent his childhood in the form of this animal, fed by the nymphs of the forest, in absolute freedom, enjoying the pleasures of nature. He was brought up and instructed by Satyrs, Sileni and Centaurs. The first two, half men, half rams, introduced him to the secrets of dance and exuberant sexuality. The latter, half horses and half men, imbued him with virtue and wisdom. In his adulthood, Dionysus recovered his human shape and showed himself as a god. He discovered the power of the vine and invented the art of winemaking. When Hera recognized him, she threw him into a state of madness. This gave way to a new phase of journeys across the world, in the company of his retinue of Satyrs, Sileni, Centaurs and spirits of the forest that danced and leaped, disseminating the cult and the pleasure of wine and drunkenness. He was also followed by the Maenades (possessed women), also known as Bacchants (women of Bacchus), a group of wild women of the mountain that worshipped him and performed bloody rituals in his honor, preceded by chants and dances that led them to exhaustion. This is the phase that earned Dionysus the “ill fame” that has followed him to this day.
Finally, his grandmother Rhea saved him again, redeeming him from madness and introducing him to the most secretive feminine mysteries of old women. His power became almost incomparable, and he gained more and more followers. Those who followed him experienced the divine ecstasy, those who opposed him, went mad. His last heroic deed was rescuing his mother from Hades, the world of the dead, and bringing her back to life under the name of Thyone, which is the Greek word for no less than “ecstasy.”
Some of Dionysus’ alternative names or surnames illustrate very aptly the archetypal characteristics that identify him with shamanism.
- Bromios, ‘thundering’ or ‘he who roars.’ This refers to the intervention of vibration as an essential element of ecstasy.
- Dimorphus (mo). He could appear as beautiful or awful, according to circumstances.
- Dithyramb, ‘he of the double door.’ This evokes his capacity for transformation and passage between different states and natures.
- Eleutherius (), ‘the deliverer or liberator,’ also applied to Eros.
- Lysios ( Lysios), ‘he who unleashes or loosens,’ as a god of relaxation and liberation from worries.
- “Phallenus” or Phales (), ‘he of the phallus,’ guarantor of fecundity.
- Omadius () he who loves raw flesh, the flesh-eater, with reference to his instinctive character.
According to Josep Fericgla (1999), “this Greek god embodied what is now understood as the human unconscious mind in its different forms of expression” (p. 28).
Chiron, the “Wounded Healer”
Chiron, or Cheiron, is the wise centaur of Greek mythology, the archetype of the “wounded healer,” of self-healing and the potential wisdom involved in overcoming pain and in the integration of opposites.
His sufferings began when he was forsaken by his parents, who could not bear the sight of his hybrid nature, half human and half equine. In fact, Chiron was not the offspring of a loving union but begotten as a result of the brutal, instinctive persecution of the nymph Philyra by Cronus. So as to escape from his harassment, Philyra had taken the shape of a mare but Cronus deceived her by turning into a horse himself. Compensation for the centaur’s early abandonment came when Apollo adopted him and taught him many of his skills, thus enabling him to become the healer, tutor and guide of many heroes, among them the renowned Jason, Achilles, Hercules, and Asclepius. The latter was famous for his skill in the art of medicine, which he had certainly learned from Chiron.
Later began his everlasting agony, as he was accidentally wounded on a leg by Hercules, one of his disciples. The cut failed to heal because the arrow had been poisoned with the Hydra, causing him torturing pains that would accompany him for the rest of his life. This gave rise to his indefatigable quest to heal his wound, a journey that earned him not only great wisdom but also the development of his skills as a healer, enabling him to offer his help to others.
Chiron’s history is almost a mythical version of the process of shamanic initiation. Its symbolism is very broad and complex. Not only does it teach us about the conditions of healing based on learning to bear one’s own pain, but also informs us about the deepest roots of suffering: the break of loving ties between both natures, the divine and the human. On a different scale, this break brings to mind the prototypical wound of the western psyche: the disruption of the connection between the spiritual and the instinctive and all those overlapping fragmentations that came along-—between subject and object, between mind and matter, between reason and emotion, between thought and body, between masculine and feminine, between the human species and Nature.
It is no coincidence either that in Chiron’s history it was Hercules, one of his best disciples, who inflicted a wound in his lower, instinctive part: his rump. Hercules is the archetypal figure of the hero, a vivid image of the masculine rational inclination to achievement and self-improvement. Let us just think to what extent the history of the West has been dominated by this individualistic and hardworking heroic drive for success, “by conquest and domination as goals in themselves,” as Melanie Reinhart (1991) says, “by a psychology of the ‘right of force,’ by a devaluation of the instinctive and feminine, and an overestimation of heroism at the expense of great human suffering” (p. 40).
Once again, the image of Chiron, with his hybrid body, his human top and animal bottom, provides a symbolic analogy of the integration of opposites, of the reconciliation and reparation of the fundamental schism between spirit and matter, as well as all other successive fragmentations; it is, indeed, a suitable metaphor of the journey to healing.
To bear the simultaneous vision of opposites, that which Philyra was not able to tolerate, seems to be a master key to transcend the pain of fragmentation. And this is, once again, an integral element of shamanic wisdom. Joan Halifax (1988) tells us that “shamans are trained in the art of balance, in moving safely and confidently on the threshold of the opposites, in creating cosmos from chaos. Thus, the Middle Realm remains a dream that the dreamer can shape” (in Reinhart, 1991, p. 33).
Further Reflections About the Healing Potential of Shamanism in the Contemporary World
Both myths, Dionysus and Chiron, show clearly that in the West existed a deep shamanic-like tradition which in time was forgotten and degraded. Associated to all that had to be subdued to the order of reason, this tradition became stigmatized as a synonym of evil, craziness, sexual promiscuity and drunkenness.
In his book Ecstasy, Understanding the Psychology of Joy (1987), Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson analyzes the Dionysian myth in depth and argues that the loss of the Dionysian, particularly expressed in an inability to have a life experience of this natural, instinctive energy within a socially accepted framework, is one of the great tragedies of Western culture. Moreover, he warns that trying to fill a spiritual void with material things or physical sensations only increases the emptiness. And, worse still, it generates the vicious circle of compulsive search for satisfaction; a yearning that grows and grows as it cannot be fulfilled, showing clearly the direct relation between the spiritual void and addictive behavior.
It may be worthwhile to underscore that the spiritual void—one of the greatest wounds of the West, as we have seen—can only be fulfilled with genuine spirituality, and part of this spirituality lies in rediscovering and awakening the ability to re-establish a bond with Nature, with the vital, with one’s own subjective and innermost self. Spirituality can be an authentic healing journey because it reconnects us with the experience of the sacred; it restores our trust in an order that includes us and our feeling of belonging to a more comprehensive web, thus dissipating fear and the ghosts of loneliness and anguish. This way, by integrating the parts of our fragmented consciousness that were repressed and neglected, other wounds could heal progressively too.
Fragmentation affects a very deep and delicate dimension of the human being, which claims to renovate the ties that have been cut, threads and connections that have weakened, becoming almost imperceptible. And this is a spiritual dimension because its approach demands to go beyond the cognitive as well as the exclusively sensory or somatic dimensions. It requires opening one’s heart in order to arouse the loving capacity for acceptance, sine qua non condition of any healing.
Healing is a holistic, multidimensional and complex process that involves the whole of the person—body (physical and emotional), mind and spirit—and implies therefore, to relieve bodily, intellectual and spiritual afflictions. For this reason, true healing can only be achieved by means of the complementation and integration of physical, psycho-therapeutic and spiritual techniques, paths and resources.
True healing demands not only a positive synergy with an external agent (doctor, therapist, shaman, medicines) but also and fundamentally a participative commitment and surrender on the part of the being that is in need of healing. In fact, beyond anything that the external agent may do, there is an instance in which healing depends almost exclusively on the patient. We are, after all, the ones who permit or prevent our own healing by opening or shutting our hearts. And this is a basically spiritual process.
In order to start a healing process, it is essential to know the nature and origin of the wounds that cause pain, and explore with the aid of reason what might be the best ways to ease and surpass the problems. However, healing cannot be accomplished by means of an intellectual pursuit or through sensory and somatic paths alone. An integration of all these with the spiritual path must take place. All healing requires a loving reparation of inflicted wounds. And this takes patience, care, and confidence in the particular pace of natural processes, which is always slower than our mind and our desires.
We can see then that, when we discuss “healing” we are dealing with something that exceeds the scale of physical or psychological illnesses, for which we might apply more strictly the terms “cure” (for physical ailments) or “therapy” (for psychic or psychological disorders). It is not about eliminating symptoms or attacking pathogenic agents, but about something far more difficult. Healing is a complex process which involves re-establishing a balance—that we could call “energetic”—among the different dimensions of the person: somatic, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
For this reason, when we talk about healing we are also alluding to a multidimensional and integral understanding of “health,” a concept that leads us to conceive it as a state of dynamic balance of the different energetic dimensions, which produces a simultaneous alignment of the person both inward—with oneself—and outward—improving one’s relation with the environment.
This is where the contemporary interest in shamanism reappears, for as we have seen, this ancestral wisdom is based precisely on a holistic and energetic conception of health and life. Several central aspects of the teachings and shamanic practice of the indigenous peoples can be most helpful to heal the “wounds of the West”, for example:
- An understanding of the Cosmos as a whole made up of multiple dimensions and realities, inhabited by a multiplicity of beings, forces and energies;
- the life experience of the human being as an integral part of such a cosmic order;
- an active and ongoing commitment to sustain balance;
- a social integration of the experience of ecstasy to maintain fluid contact with other dimensions of reality;
- a permanent bond of the human being with the Earth, which permits grounding these ascents and descents to different realms;
- the respectful interrelation of the human being with the other living species, vegetal and animal, as well as with the other elements of creation;
- in sum, the upkeep of a strong spiritual connection.
In this sense, shamanism—which has been ritually preserved by the indigenous peoples but, as discussed above, is also deeply rooted in our own mythical tradition—holds a great healing potential, as a wisdom that was restricted or reserved for ages and that is now being disclosed and disseminated.
By means of its concrete exercise, shamanism supports nowadays a way of conceiving and acting in the world, radically different from the one we have developed in the West. Thus, we could say that through its continued existence, shamanism has acquired an almost philosophical condition, since beyond its contribution to anthropology or to the history of religions, its presence provides living evidence that it is possible to live in a different way, in a constant familiarity with the “non-ordinary,” with the multi-dimensional and the energetic, in an active search for the complementation of contraries.
Salish spindle whorl
This dimension of shamanism, which some authors call “shamanity” (Vitebsky, 1995), permits us nowadays to imagine a projection of this knowledge beyond the spheres of the indigenous communities and therapeutic practices, and also to think specifically about its connection with and approach to new forms of holistic and ecosophic consciousness that are emerging in the West, through a dialog that has only just begun.
I sincerely believe that the deepest craving of the contemporary human soul—in which I include both indigenous and Western people—is to find that lost spiritual connection, to heal the wounds caused by fragmentation, and overcome the intellectual habit of turning opposites into antagonists. The search for the holistic is a new awakening of that deep longing for understanding, meaning and integrity, which now is also renewed in the West in hand with shamanism.