The Authentic Shaman

‘Of course the Chinese mix everything up – look at what they have to work with! Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.’ – Egg Shen in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

(Disclaimer: I am, to quote Jim Jarmush’s great film Dead Man, a Stupid Fucking White Man. I have no formal training in the deep mysteries of any native ‘shamanic’ or tribal tradition – of any single tradition at all, for that matter. I am just a product of my time and place, trying to find my way. That perspective is the basis for all that follows.)

The title this time around is a misnomer. There are no authentic shamen. Not any more.

The term ‘shaman‘ is a specific one. It refers to Tungus-speaking tribal practitioners of folk magic and spirituality. They were wiped out so completely by Soviet and Chinese Communism that Western ‘neo-shamen’ from Michael Harner’s school came over and instituted their own versions of ‘shamanic’ practice to replace the native tradition. So that makes anyone claiming to be a shaman – neo or Gutter or otherwise – inauthentic.

The idea of shamanism we have today, which draws ideas from many different tribal and native traditions (via anthropology, which co-opted the term), is likely a very different thing than the original Siberian form. The word ‘shaman’ has become a placeholder, a symbol for something else – usually describing various interpretations of traditional and tribal spiritual praxes involving a rather borderline position to the rest of the tribe, consciousness-alteration and ‘travelling’ to spirit realms for healing and wisdom. Of course, in considering the use of tribal spiritual motifs from other cultures, we soon hit a problem… which is usually called cultural ‘theft’ or appropriation.

There’s no doubt that an awful lot of problems have arisen due to the heavy-handed appropriation of older cultural concepts. The Native American Nations have often complained about (mostly) white New Age practitioners taking elements of their practices and touting them, out of context, as a spiritual path. Interestingly, common terms used by Native Americans to describe these Newagers are ‘plastic shamen‘ and ‘shake-and-bake shamen’…

I think the key factors here are around concepts of respect and authenticity. (A third factor is, of course, commerce. That’s a big enough can of worms that I’ll have to open it in a later post.)

The respect part I get, absolutely. Barging into a native tradition and announcing you’re not only a fully-fledged practitioner of that traditions mysticism but that you’re improving it and that the natives are Doing It Wrong, is insulting and crass. “Taking the piss”, as we Brits call it.

If you’re going to work fully in a magical or spiritual tradition, I would say showing due respect to the culture it came from is just good bloody manners, as well as good sense. But at the same time, worrying about how the symbols and memes of such cultures are used (or even misused) outside of their native context often seems more a matter of colonial guilt and shame than disrespect. It’s a complex set of issues.

(Plus, some of those tribal traditions have attitudes and practices – homophobia, misogyny, isolationism, child abuse, human sacrifice – which are frankly best left to the past. Of course the actions of colonial invaders in the past were often just as vile… and I can’t offhand think of a culture that has not been invaded and colonised at some time in their past, or been the invader, or both. Like I said, complex.)

Is it cultural appropriation for a white man to enjoy (or perform) Afro-Carribean-based music? Or for an Indian movie maker to be inspired by Hollywood (or vice versa)? Or an Amazonian native to wear a Manchester United t-shirt? For a magician to use laymans versions of quantum or meme theory as magical tools?

To me, that’s kind like asking whether Crossroads Blues was performed better by Robert Johnson or Cream. Or more directly, which is better – traditional Yoruba magic, Haitian Voudon, New Orleans Voodoo or Cuban Santeria?

Cultures are always a mix of the native and the foreign, the traditional and the new. Have been ever since humans started to trade. The quote at the start states the mix of currents in Chinese spirituality quite nicely, for example. The degree of mixing changes over time and place – sometimes just a touch, sometimes a dollop. Sometimes the mixings can provide something genuinely good – like the massive upgrade to British cuisine provided by Asian immigrants in the 1970′s. Sometimes it doesn’t work so well – such as Japanese whiskey. But cultures and traditions evolve through mixing and exchange of ideas.

This is especially true of Britain, a Mongrel Nation if ever there was one (as explained in scrupulous and often hilarious detail by Eddie Izzard in his TV show of that name). The original native British (and Western European) ‘shamanic’ traditions are all but gone too, banished by the Christians… but enough hints and pieces remain in myth and legend – in our culture – to inspire a new ‘tradition’ of mystical praxis to arise. It’s not terribly authentic, in all likelihood – there’s no way to really know (though many talented pagans and historians are doing their best to find out all they can about it.). Large chunks of it have been drawn from other native traditions. But it is powerful and quite beautiful at times. At other times, it can be a farrago of confused, misquoted and misapplied traditional currents, mixed in ignorance, stirred in arrogance. The result isn’t authentic at all – no matter how hard some Newage types try to claim it as such.

No question that the Plastic Shamen and their techniques are all-too-often a hodge-podge of different traditions and practices thrown together more-or-less at random. And, I have to admit, that could be said of what I do too.

That’s part of the reason I coined the term Guttershaman to describe my path/spirituality/whatever. Most people know what shaman – and gutter – implies.

Yes, I picked up my information from libraries, other practitioners, movies and TV shows – and I made a whole bunch of stuff up, based on my experiences and discoveries. At the same time, there was always something about the shamanic concept as I understand it that called to me. The elements of being an outsider to the tribe as a whole, but still in some sense having a responsibility to it. The use of ecstatic and terrifying occurrences as a tool for spiritual development. The process of bringing something back from ‘the other side’. And, ultimately, the sense of being called to the path by something beyond the normal world. If there’s any ‘authenticity’ in what I do, it’s to that.

My ex-wife is also a ‘shaman’. Her path, to put it mildly, differs from mine. She found that her way is Curanderismo – the Hispanic American folk practice. She has spent a long time in Peru, learning it first hand from a master whose family has worked in this path for generations. She’s also a neuroscientist by training, and has picked up more than a little of the multi-model approach to magic both from myself and her own studies. Thus when she thinks about that path, there is a degree of both distance and immersion, depending on circumstance and context.

Also… her master has taken the sacred songs (icaros) from many different tribes in Peru and elsewhere to bring into his praxis. And… that tradition is itself mixed with Catholic elements brought over by the Conquistadors. In fact, the majority of the lyrics to the icaros are in Spanish and use Christian imagery. The pure native tradition just isn’t there any more.

Is the system she follows ‘authentic’? Is it more or less so for her (an American woman of East European Jewish ancestry and a trained scientist) to practice it than for her Columbian-born, mixed-race, Catholic-indoctrinated Maestro? And is she more or less of a ‘shaman’ than I?

Put it this way – she and I both get results. And we worked together great at the time.

It’s the concept of ‘authenticity’ that gets in the way, I think. It’s like ‘purity’ in some ways – an impossible, and sometimes dangerous, ideal. Except, perhaps, when talking about being authentic to an ideal…

To feel your true identity is not based in your immediate family, your tribe, your country and its religious and social habits – but is something you sense and strive towards – is not easy. Sometimes an idea from another culture is exactly the thing you need to, forgive the term, become yourself. Sometimes who you’re born and raised as isn’t who you are. It isn’t theft to find a different culture to your own enriching – as long as you are authentic in your respect, that you strive not just to take but also to give.

As long as you don’t take the piss.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

‘Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today.

We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

…See if any of these comments are familiar:

“You should be happy with who you are.”

“Be yourself”

“That stuff’s just fake.”

“Don’t get ideas above your station.”

“Take that shit off.”

“Why can’t you be like everyone else?”

Yeah?

We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic to our society.

…But you know what? Back in the days before the internet, a kid called Robert Zimmerman said, “fuck that, I’m going to be the man I dream of being. I’m going to become someone completely new and write about the end of the world because it’s the only thing worth talking about”. And that was one guy in Minnesota, in the decade the telecommunications satellite was invented. Imagine what all of us, living here in the future, can achieve.

Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention.

Be mad scientists.

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.’

Warren Ellis, in Doktor Sleepless Issue 5, ‘Your Imaginary Friend.’

POSTSCRIPT – In researching this piece, I came across a lot of very interesting writing on the subjects discussed. Two I found – one long, the other very short – are especially worth a look.

(Next on Guttershaman – Culture, money and morality. Tricksters and thieves. Probably.)

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 5:58 pm

 

4 Responses to The Authentic Shaman

  1. Interesting post.

    It’s not accurate to say shamanism in Siberia was obliterated by Soviet oppressions – it killed a lot of the shoots but the roots under the surface in many places were not killed and re-emerged after the Soviet era and also when the ingrained fear of persecution, the Soviet era created, faded.
    Now much traditional and semi traditional shamanism exists in this regions, although a lot is becoming tainted with Russian and Western new-age thought into a sort of ‘rainbow shamanism’ but despite that there are strong roots of good ancient practice.

    Pick and mix shamanism has it’s points and it’s drawbacks. I think there is an obvious nature to it as all shamans have done it from the year dot. However i think there are great dangers in just picking up surface structures without a deep appreciation of the deeper structures.

    I have been taught Native American traditions by Native American medicine people – it would be a whole other can of worms if I’d just read them in a book and thought “hey I can do that” because a) this would be crass cultural theft, and b) the subtle depths of the teachings would not have been passed on.

    I see this now, with Westeners people teaching other Westerners teaching other Westerns – something intangible – but essential – has been lost. It is like the letter of the law has been passed on, but not the spirit of the law.

    I have also been taught to use Mongolian and Buryat ritual objects by traditional wisdom keepers, and also Tibetan Buddhist practices (from the more shamanic end of Tibetan Buddhism). Again, I could not have got these from books, in part because these teachings are not in books and only passed on in a clandestine manner, and impart because a book does not deliver the medicine in the same way as a ceremony or empowerment or a teaching from living people who hold an ancient tradition does.

    But I also acknowledge the fact that ‘shamanistas’ are thieves and it’s Ok to steal wisdom to add to your own…but I think having a good grounding in something traditional to start with is important, because as a culture we lack the deeper understanding of the bones of shamanism and get far too attracted to the flesh and the pretty clothes and – like beauty – that can be only skin deep

    Nick

    [Reply]

  2. Cat says:

    Hi Nick – thanks for the considered and smart reply.

    I can’t speak to the deeper aspect of Russian shamanism – you’d have to talk to Professor Hutton about that!

    It’s a fair point to talk about cultural appropriation in Western practices – indeed, it’s one of the main conversations I see around the occult net these days. My own view continues to be that simply digging into a tradition with no respect or deep knowledge and then claiming to be a practitioner of it is disrespectful, stupid and will usually lead to bad praxis. But… once a symbol-set enters general culture, even in a misunderstood form, it’s there to stay… and sometimes the serendipity of that change can lead to new forms with their own value.

    There’s also the element of privilege in having access to a native tradition: it was an impossibility for me as a working poor Englishman to be trained in a native American or other tribal tradition due to cost and sheer geography. Sometimes – and I am not saying this specifically about your good self! – there is a tendency for those with access to those traditions to assume an element of predestination to it… “since I can afford to do this, I am Chosen”, with the implication that those for whom even reaching the home of that tradition is a financial or other impossibility is a form of spiritual deselection.

    That’s why I called what I do Guttershamanism – showing a working praxis can be built using whatever you can find at the bottom of the heap, so that you can at least get on your way with what you have. Though unquestionably a long-standing tradition has weight and those deep bones, the new ones have to start somewhere… perhaps the better metaphor for me isn’t skin and bone, but coral – using what’s found as the basis for structure and growing around that, forming new and often lovely shapes.

    I talk about this a lot more in my upcoming pieces on Spiral Nature (on the cultural theft of Thelemic imagery by the TV show Supernatural) and my longform look at the concept of Hyper-real religion coming up in the next Darklore journal.

    [Reply]

  3. I agree about traditions having to start somewhere, and we are without one. We are also without a population that knows the taste of real ceremony, for the main part (and that saddens me). How can you cook a meal if you’ve never tasted it? It’s not easy.

    I also agree about paying (or should that be playing) lip service to an ‘exotic’ tradition and going for only skin dept instead of bone depth.

    For me there is a pragmatism around traditional ways because they had to work – or people died (and of course many did).

    If your average dude in an urban flat does not get it right and the ceremony goes belly up they can watch a DVD and send out for a pizza instead ;)

    I do agree about privilege and having access to teachings because you can pay – I have thrown up my hands in horror, time after time, because people phone me to ask where they can go and do – say, a vision quest for instance – when there are perfectly good people doing things here in the UK, and ultimately it is this land they live on.

    I have also had many people tell me that while they out in some exotic place a spirit has come and said “what the hell are you doing here – go home to your own land and work with the spirits there”

    I also am deeply aware (and grateful) of serendipity – which you can call pre-dispersition if you like – but it has nothing to do with the cash and the card to pay for things.

    I have never been to the US to work – mostly because I could never afford to go – I was too busy doing it (shamanism) here, and most of that was as a give away

    I also partially had no wish to go to such a dreadful political state (the USA), and so boycotted it and would have refused to have gone even if I’d been able to.

    Fortuitously for me, I always seemed to be in the right place at the right time here in the UK and met many Native teachers over here – to the point that they would sometimes turn up unexpectedly at my front door and stay for a few days teaching me stuff. I’ve hardly ever had to pay for a workshop or what-not in my life – lucky really as I could never afford to.

    We are in a shamanic melting pot – not just in the UK but everywhere – I hear the same from shaman friends in Mongolia. I’ve been doing my best for 30 years to stir the pot here, and beyond, and add what good meat to it I am able to – and I see you are doing the same – keep it up :)

    Many Blessings

    N

    [Reply]

    Cat Reply:

    You’ve certainly had good luck in finding your teachers!

    I have to object to your (humorously mean, still belittling) comment, “If your average dude in an urban flat does not get it right and the ceremony goes belly up they can watch a DVD and send out for a pizza instead”. I basically was that guy, working whatever magicks I could to try and understand a calling that had pulled me since I was seven years old. The consequences of failure were not something to be dismissed so lightly – in fact, my earliest working dropped me straight into Chapel Perilous and it took me the better part of a decade to learn enough to get out.

    Thing is… in retrospect, I don’t regret that at all. My firmest belief about shamanism as a path, whatever local varitions of tradition and circumstance change the details, is that it is born from a life-changing shock (and usually, terror). The majority of shamanic initiations are techniques for replicating that kind of neurophysical shock to the student in relatively safe and controlled conditions. Some of us didn’t have the luxury of that and had to deal with the raw, ‘accidental’ version. That’s why my path draws from disparate symbols: they were all I had to work with, and there was no experienced teacher for me until I was a long way last that initiatory point.

    That aside; my respects to you. Every light in the darkness helps, and I hope we both continue to learn and share our ways.

    [Reply]

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