Thursday, August 09, 2007
By Rev. Ovidiu Petrescu
The history of an old form of Divination
Knowledge is the mother of science. Opinion is the mother of ignorance.
- Hippocrates (460-377 BC.)
Shamanism is a prehistoric form of divination used by different tribes around the world. The word saman comes from language of Tungus speaking tribe of Siberia, and it could be translated as the wise one. Initially the word meant the religious leader – a Priest or High Priest - of Siberian region. In our days it is synonym with medicine man/woman, magician, witch doctor, and sorcerer.
“Shamanism is not only a religion or a facet of religion; it is a very active and practical one. Although Shamans are mystics and experience the basic patterns of the world and appreciate them for their own sake, everything a Shaman does is ultimately directed towards regulating some aspect of the world on behalf of the community. The Shaman’s soul travels in order to rescue the souls of others, to fight demons and to obtain food and material resources”. (Vitebsky 156).
A Shaman was the most powerful person amongst the members of the tribe. A layman became a shaman by heritage or he was chosen by Spirits World. His initiation was very demanding. To achieve his task, a Shaman has to reach a trance state, by the help of rituals, drums, chanting, and using different hallucinogens. Shamans have power over spirits, over
illness of his people, and he could demand changes of nature’s pattern. He could leave his body
at his will; he could invoke spirits help to overcome death, and/or master life’s circumstances. He also could be a fearless and a vicious warrior, a knowledgeable healer, a mediator on the tribe’s mundane problems, and in general his words were followed by the letter. We find shamanism from Japan to the Natives of Americas; from Africa to Northern of Europe, to Australia and the smallest Islands. Now days Shamans take different forms, and they still to practice their skills in Brazil, Dakotas, Finland, Mongolia, Siberia, and different other countries around the World. The Shamans emancipated in hunting societies, and they adapted into agricultural societies.
“A figure from the Les Trois Freres Cave in the French Pyrenees, nicknamed – the dancing sorcerer – thought by some to be a shaman. Every part of his anatomy seems to belong to some animal: wolf’s ears, deer’s antlers, horse’s tail, and bear’s paws. Yet the overall effect is compellingly human. A plausible interpretation is that he is a spirit Master of the Animals, who embodies the essence of all these species at once”. (Vitebsky 29).
In Desana tribe of Northern Amazon the word for “hunting” was synonymous with “making love to animals”, so in early times of history the word “hunt” and “love” were analog. Because the survival weighted in the life style of that time, the strongest and most skillful hunter usually possessed youngest, most healthful reproductive females.
“Although some scholars have argued that the word shaman is actually derived from Sanskrit, the term could strictly be used to mean only the religions of Siberia and Mongolia. Through much of the area there is a special association between the Shaman and the blacksmith. There were many different kinds of shamans, even within the same societies. Some were healers; others were finders of games, and still others warded off evil spirits or contacted the dead”. (Vitebsky 34-35).
In the forest of Amazon Shamans use hallucinogenic snuff to induce trance and visions. Among these plants are peyote, datura, psilocybin mushrooms, and others. Also Shamans through songs and chants alone can alter their consciousness. In most Africans cultures Shamans don’t travel to spirit world, but the spirits come to this world and take possession over Shamans.
“The Shaman’s activities depend closely on the ability to sweep the audience along with the power of his or her performance, which must have its effect both on the audience and on the Shaman. Shamans use many props and symbols to represent their psychic experience, and to affect the experience of their clients. Magar Shamans from Nepal use special costumes, feathers of powerful birds, and drums and bells to create hypnotic musical effects, as well as the poetic language of spells and prayers”. (Vitebsky 52).
Hindu Sadhu – holy man – treks to sacred caves of Himalayas. The Sufis Dervishes of Turkey reach a state of ecstasy by ritual recitation and physical exertions, like whirling.
The historian Mircea Eliade said that the path of Shaman is a struggle one. The Shaman goes through illness, dreams, magic, and bodily dismemberment. He sees spirits, hears strange languages, and experiences the road of the dead. These experiences terrify him but in same time empower him.
Like most of Shamans from around the world, “Native American Shamans respond directly to the interplay of elements within their environments, such as the relationship established between sun, sand, sky and trees” (Hunt 7). For Native Americans the human beings, animals, spirits, even the flora, and forces of nature were equal. The Native American Shamans recognize that people are responsible to keep the balance of Creation. So for the manner of respect, the hunter had to bless the animal he killed for food, in other wise the spirit will withdraw the animals and the hunter’s family would starve. The farmer had to bless his field and seedlings, in other wise for failing to do so, the deities withhold the rain and the crop would dry out and farmer’s family will starve.
“Shamanism in North America also has an ancient origin. Some scholars believe that it can be traced back to early migration from Asia to the Americas as much as 50,000years ago; but it is also clear that many distinctive traits have developed since then as a response to widely divergent environmental conditions in different parts of the North American continent. Native American Shamanism is a concept known as medicine. (Hunt 10).
That term came from the first French colonists, whom witnessed shamanic healing rituals by herbal remedies. The arrogance of the French and other Europeans denied the shaman’s knowledge because they considered witchcraft. But in1940’s science of anthropology suggested that shamanism might contribute to understand the world we live in it. In different countries the prejudice against Shamans slowly ends, and let old knowledge starts to pour into our modern world, so together we can work and live in peace.
This course gave me a new view about shamanism. The subject triggered my interest, when in my teens, I read “Tristes Tropiques” by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. He was a professor at University of Sao Paulo, and did numerous explorations into Amazonian Jungle to contact and study Indian tribes. I am glad I was in this program, though it was a concise course.
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