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The Figure of the Shaman; from The Invisible Landscape by Terence McKenna and Dennis McKenna

Of all the diverse religious institutions that humans have elaborated since before the beginning of recorded history, that of shamanism is one of the most singular and is probably one of the most archaic as well.  The shaman is something of a maverick among religious practitioners.  While shamanism occurs in almost every culture on the planet, manifesting itself in religious traditions both ancient and modern, both primitive and sophisticated, the shaman remains eminently individualistic, idiosyncratic, and enigmatic, standing ever apart from organised ecclesiastical institutions while still performing important functions for the psychic and religious life of the culture.  Comparable, but not identical, with such similar idiosyncratic practitioners as medicine men and sorcerers, the shaman is the possessor of techniques of proven efficacy and of powers bordering on the paranormal, the complete understanding of which still eludes modern psychology.  It is this complex and fascinating figure of the shaman that we want to analyse from a standpoint at once sympathetic, interpretative, and psychological, with a view to answering the following questions: (1) What are the traditional aspects of shamanism as it is encountered in primitive cultures?  (2) What is the nature of the shamanic personality and abilities, and what is the psychological role of the shaman in the society at large?  And (3) Are there institutions analogous to shamanism in modern society?

The vocation of shaman is found in nearly all archaic cultures, from the Australian aborigines to the Jivaro Indians of central Ecuador and Peru to the Yakut tribes of Siberia.  It is believed to have originated among these Siberian peoples, though its diffusion into other cultures must have taken place very early in prehistory for, along with sorcerers, magicians, and priests, shamanism can be counted among the oldest professions.

The word shaman is derived from the Tungusic term saman, derived in its turn from the Pali samana, indicating a possibly southern (Buddhist) influence among these northern peoples.  Eliade distinguishes the shaman from other types of religious and magical practitioners primarily on the basis of his religious function and techniques:...he is believed to cure, like all doctors, and to perform miracles of the fakir, like all magicians, whether primitive or modern.  But beyond this, he is a psychopomp, and he may also be a priest, mystic, and poet.  He further defines the shaman as a manipulator of the sacred, whose main function is to induce ecstasy in a society where ecstasy is the prime religious experience.  Thus, the shaman is a master of ecstasy, and the art of shamanising is a technique of ecstasy.

In archaic societies, a person (either man or woman) may become a shaman in primarily one of two ways: hereditary transmission or spontaneous election.  In either case, the novice shaman must undergo an initiatory ordeal before he can attain the status of a full shaman.  The initiation generally has two aspects: an ecstatic aspect, which takes place in dreams or trance, and a traditional aspect, in which the shaman is given instruction in certain techniques, such as the use and significance of the shamanic costume and drum, the secret spirit language, the names of the helping spirits, techniques of curing, the uses of medicinal plants, and so on, by an elder master shaman.  These traditional techniques of shamanism are not invariably transmitted by an elder shaman but may be imparted to the neophyte directly through the spirits that come to him during his initiatory ecstasy.  Lack of a public ritual in no way implies that such traditional instruction is neglected.

The ecstatic part of the shaman's initiation is harder to analyse, for it depends on a certain receptivity to states of trance and ecstasy on the part of the novice: He may be moody, somewhat frail and sickly, predisposed to solitude, and may perhaps have fits of epilepsy or catatonia, or some other psychological aberrance (though not always, as some writers on the subject have asserted).  In any case, his psychological predisposition to ecstasy forms only the starting point of his initiation: The novice, after a history of psychosomatic illness or psychological aberration that may be more or less intense, will at last begin to undergo initiatory sickness and trance; he will lie as though dead or in deep sleep for days on end.  During this time, he is approached in dreams by his helping spirits and may receive instructions from them.  Invariably during this prolonged trance the novice will undergo an episode of mystical death and resurrection: He may see himself reduced to a skeleton and then clothed with new flesh; or he may see himself boiled in a cauldron, devoured by the spirits, and then made whole again; or he may imagine himself being operated on by the spirits, his organs removed and replaced with magical stones, and then sewn up again.

Although particular motifs may vary between cultures and even individuals, the general symbolism is clear: The novice shaman undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection, which is understood as a radical transformation into a superhuman condition.  Henceforth, the shaman enjoys access to the supernatural plane; he is a master of ecstasy, can travel in the spirit-realm at will, can cure and divine, can touch red-hot iron with impunity, and so on.  In short, the shaman is transformed from a profane into a sacred state of being.  Not only has he effected his own cure through this mystical transmutation, he is now invested with the power of the sacred, and hence can cure others as well.  It is of the first order of importance to remember this, that the shaman is not merely a sick man, or a madman; he is a sick man who has healed himself, who is cured, and who must shamanise to remain cured.  Lommel gives the following description of a shamanic initiation in Siberia:
The Tungus say of their shamans: Before a man becomes a shaman he is sick for a long time.  His understanding becomes confused.  The shamanistic ancestors of his clan come, hack him to bits, tear him apart, cut his flesh in pieces, drink his blood.  They cut off his head and throw it in the oven, in which various iron appurtenances of his costume are made red-hot and then forged.  This cutting up is carried out somewhere in the upper world by shaman ancestors.  He alone receives the gift of shamanhood who has shaman ancestors in his clan, who pass it on from generation to generation; and only when these have cut up his body and examined his bones can he begin to shamanise.

We have noted that the function of shamanic initiation in the primitive society is to effect the transformation of the shaman from a profane, human condition to a superhuman, sacred one.  But while the shaman may carry out activities such as divining and prophesying, and occasionally sorcery, these are not his major functions, and often fall within the province of other types of practitioners.  The shaman's primary functions are those of healer and psychopomp.  This is related to the specific nature of the shamanic ecstasy; not all forms of mystical ecstasy are shamanic, for this, like initiation, has its own peculiar nature.  The shamanic ecstasy is one in which the shaman is supposed to leave his physical body and journey to the Centre of the World, which connects the earthly realm with the celestial world above and the infernal regions below.  This axis mundi may be symbolised as a tree, mountain, tent pole, ladder, liana, or something similar; the shaman is able to make the journey and return safely because he is a master of ecstasy and possesses the guidance of helping spirits along the way.  His main functions thus become either guiding the soul of a deceased person to its home in the infernal or celestial realms or journeying to those realms for the purpose of retrieving the soul of a sick person (which has wandered off by itself or been stolen by the spirits while the patient was asleep), returning with it, and restoring it to the patient's body.  The shaman thus fulfills his functions by being able to travel in the supernatural realm, and he is enabled to do this because he is a master of ecstasy.

From the description of the shaman's duties in the community, we can draw some obvious conclusions and make some further hermeneutical speculations as to the shamanic function within the cultural context.  The curing function of shamanism, as well as such secondary functions as divination and prophesy, show clearly that the shaman, like all magical practitioners, helps a primitive culture to come to terms with environmental forces that are both nurturing and threatening.  Thus, through the shamanic propitiation of the spirits, good crops or fruitful hunting can be assured; drought, epidemic, or other natural disasters can be averted.  On the deeper level of collective psychology, we can perceive several functions of the shaman that would not be articulated by the members of a given society, but that, nevertheless, are intrinsic to the shamanic function.  Lommel says of the social role of the shaman:
...primitive man is quite exceptionally susceptible to various forms of mental disorder.  Psychoses, neuroses, hallucinations, mass hysteria and the like are of very frequent occurrence.  The shaman can cure these states - but only when he has overcome them in himself... the shaman is the centre, the brain and the soul of a (primitive) community.  He is, so to speak, the regulator of the soul of a group or tribe, and his function is to adjust, avert, and heal defects, vacillations, disturbances of this soul.  Looked at biologically, the whole life of primitive people is more strongly influenced by the subconscious than seems to be the case among ourselves.  It is clear that in this situation the position of the shaman is one of paramount importance.

The shaman is able to act as an intermediary between the society and the supernatural, or to put it in Jungian terms, he is an intermediary to the collective unconscious.  Through the office of the shaman, the society at large is brought into close and frequent encounter with the numinous archetypal symbols of the collective unconscious.  These symbols retain their numinosity, immediacy, and reality for the society through their constant reaffirmation in shamanic ritual and through the shaman's epic narration of mythical scenarios and his artistic production. The shaman does more, however, than just recite the myths or express the religious symbolism in making ritual artifacts; the shaman lives the myth.  By virtue of his superhuman, transformed state, he enacts the role of the mythical hero: He can fly through the air, talk to the gods, see everywhere, understand the animals, and perform other feats characteristic of a semidivine entity.  Thus, the shaman is the exemplar in the present epoch, which is regarded by primitives as a profane, historical time, of the condition supposed to have been accessible to all humans before the fall.  In his ecstasy the shaman reenters that mythical, paradisaical condition that existed before the fall and thus reasserts, for the entire culture, the reality of that mythical time.  Thus, the validity of the archetypal motifs, which presumably describe the human condition in the paradisaical era, is reaffirmed.

The shamanic function also includes a psychoanalytic capability.  That the shaman can cure illnesses of a psychological or psychosomatic nature is well established.  The shaman is undoubtedly, perhaps essentially, a doctor - but the factual medical knowledge of the primitives is very small; the shaman's medical function seems to be confined to psychological, perhaps psychoanalytical techniques, and his successes fall mainly within the psychological domain.  But with what exact mechanism he is able to do this is not completely understood.  It is as through the shaman, in his capacity of ecstatic psychopomp, practices a participation therapy of the most sophisticated type; by means of his ecstatic capacity, the shaman plunges into the collective unconscious and restores the patient's self-identity (equivalent to finding his soul) by taking onto himself the unconscious contents that have inundated his patient through the principle of transference.  Because this is accomplished in the context of ritual, which is real and numinous to the participants, the shaman's task is doubtless somewhat easier than that of a modern psychoanalyst who is often faced with a demythologised, rationally hardened personality.

The shaman, then, acts as a doctor of the soul, both the individual and the collective soul, and he is also a real and living exemplar of the primordial, mythical human condition, and in being so maintains the reality and immediacy of the sacred.  He is able to carry out these functions because he is master of the techniques of ecstasy, and it is by virtue of this that he maintains his suprahuman state.

It is clear that the practice of shamanism, to a greater extent than other religious offices, depends on the unique personality of the shaman.  This must account in part for the great diversity of preinitiatory traits that constitute a shamanic election as well as the diversity in methods of shamanising, in the means employed to induce ecstasy, and in the motifs of the shaman's journey, not only in different cultures but between individuals as well.  With this in mind, let us lift the shaman out of his cultural context for a moment and focus on the characteristics of his psychological makeup.

An item of the first order in addressing ourselves to this psychological examination of the phenomenon is the question of the psychopathological nature of the shamanic personality.  There are, as we have noted, certain cases where the symptoms leading to shamanic initiation can be traced to a condition of mental illness, epilepsy, or catatonia; however, this is by means true of all such cases, as some have claimed.  Initiation can also be triggered by an encounter with a magical animal, the finding of a magical stone or other object, or an ordeal in the wilderness.

Eliade masterfully points out where such theories have gone astray:
The problem, in our view, has been wrongly stated.  In the first place, it is not correct to say that shamans are, or must always be, neuropaths; on the contrary, a great many of them are perfectly sound in mind.  Moreover, those who had previously been ill have become shamans just because they succeeded in getting well.  Very often, when the vocation reveals itself in the course of an illness or an attack of epilepsy, the initiation is also a cure.  The acquisition of the shamanic gifts indeed presupposes the resolution of the psychic crisis brought on by the first signs of this vocation.  The initiation is manifested by - among other things - a new psychic integration

And, similarly, Nadel states:
And here it is important to stress that neither epilepsy nor insanity, nor yet other minor mental derangements, are in themselves regarded as symptoms of spirit possession.  They are diseases, abnormal disorders, not supernatural qualification.  No shaman is, in everyday life, an abnormal individual, a neurotic or a paranoiac; if he were, he would be classed as a lunatic, not respected as a priest.  Nor finally can shamanism be correlated with incipient or latent abnormality; I recorded no case of a shaman whose professional hysteria deteriorated into serious mental disorders.

From these comments, it is apparent that shamanism is not an institution designed to capitalise on psychological aberrations.

We shall return to the question of the stability of the shamanic personality in the next chapter, where we will consider the similarities between the self-cure of the shaman and the attempt to resolve a life-crisis that characterises essential schizophrenia.

Let us now consider the shamanic trance itself.  All of the shaman's functions, his ability to cure, divine, converse with the spirits, and travel in the supernatural realm, depend on his ecstasy; were he unable to attain ecstasy at will, he could not be a true shaman.  Thus, the human will employ certain means for achieving ecstasy, which may be frenzied and prolonged drumming, dancing, and chanting, sleep deprivation, fasting, and so on.  These techniques are not dissimilar to the self-flagellation and asceticism practiced by certain Christian mystics.  In addition to these techniques and often in conjunction with them, the shaman will employ certain narcotic plants, such as the drinking of tobacco juice or the inhalation of hashish smoke.  While Eliade asserts that the use of narcotic substances as an aid to ecstasy invariably indicates a decadence or vulgarisation of the shamanic tradition, there is reason to doubt this.  On the contrary, the use of narcotic plants as an adjunct to shamanism is widespread and occurs in every region of the globe where the plants occur.  The important role of the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria in Siberian shamanism has been exhaustively documented by Wasson, and the incredibly complete narcotic technology of New World Indians has been examined by Schultes at length.  From this evidence it appears that the narcotic experience and the shamanic experience are, in very numerous cases, one and the same, though the narcotic experience must be molded and directed by the symbolic motifs of ritual to give it is peculiarly shamanic quality.

It is our contention, to be amplified in later chapters, that the presence of psychoactive substances is a primary requirement for all true shamanism, and that where such substances are not exogenously available as plants, they must be endogenously available, either through metabolic predisposition to their synthesis, as may occur in schizophrenia, or through the various techniques of shamanism: dancing, drumming, singing, and the confrontation of situations of stress and isolation.  Where these alkaloids are not present, shamanism becomes ritual alone, and its effectiveness suffers accordingly.  We hope to show that because of the biophysical roles these compounds play at a molecular level, they are the operational and physical keys allowing access to the powers claimed by the shaman.

One of the most interesting, and least understood, aspects of the shamanic personality centres upon the question of paranormal powers; the shaman is supposed to be a master of fire and psychic heat, is thought to be clairvoyant, clairaudiant, and telepathic.  Further instances are given by Eliade:
From among the best-observed cases, let us recall those of clairvoyance and thought-reading among the shamans of Tonga, recorded by Shirokogorov; some strange cases of prophetic clairvoyance in dreams among the Pygmies, as well as cases of the discovery of thieves with the aid of a magic mirror; some very concrete instances concerning the results of the chase, also aided by a mirror; examples of the understanding, among these same Pygmies, of unknown languages; cases of clairvoyance among the Zulus; and lastly - attested by a number of authors, and by documents that guarantee its authenticity - the collective ceremony of firewalking in Fiji.

There is herein a fruitful and untapped subject for parapsychology.  The actual occurrence of such phenomena, in at least some instances, is beyond question and suggests that the radical reorginisation of the psychic faculties, which shamanic initiation is supposed to produce, does have some validity beyond the merely symbolic; the shaman actually is superhuman in some little-understood manner.  Our latest speculations will centre on a possible biophysical mechanism for this transformation.  What is interesting, and also supports the assertion that these phenomena are real, is their essential similarity to paranormal powers encountered in other religious traditions.  Such motifs as magical flight, psychic heat, and immunity to hot coals, for instance, are found in the yogic techniques of Buddhism and Hinduism.  The ability to perform such magical feats, in both the shamanic and the yogic traditions, simply reconfirms the ontological mode associated with such practitioners; they have transcended the human condition and now participate in the condition of the spirits.

Let us now focus our attention on a more speculative question: whether there are, or could be, institutions in modern society that draw their models from shamanism.  There appears to be occurring in modern life a progressive alienation from the numinous archetypal contents of the collective unconscious, which has engendered a gradually encroaching sense of collective despair and anxiety.  The archetypal motifs of the Western religious tradition seem to have lost their effectiveness for the larger portion of civilised humanity or, at best, have been depotentiated to the level of a merely psychological reality.  Western humans have lost their sense of unity with the cosmos and with the transcendent mystery within themselves.  Modern science has given us a picture of human beings as accidental products of random evolutionary processes in a universe that is itself without purpose or meaning.  This alienation of modern humans from the numinous ground of their being has engendered the existentialist ethic and the contemporary preoccupation with the immediate historical situation.  Humans are regarded as leading a wholly profane existence within a wholly profane time, that is, within history; the reality of the sacred is denied or reduced to the level of psychology.

In non-Western cultures, in primitive cultures particularly, humans are not conscious of living in historical time, but regard themselves as inhabiting a numinous sacral time.  If these humans are conscious of history at all, it is of a mythical, paradigmatic history, a paradisaical epoch that lies beyond the attritional influence of profane time.  From the point of view of religious symbolism, this preoccupation of modern humanity with is historical and existential situation springs from an unconscious sense of its impending end.

It is in this unenviable position, then, that we find the modern temper: anguished by the imminence of death, yet trapped in profane, historical time and thus able to regard death only as nothingness; the saving presence of a sacred, transcendent mode of being is absent from the contemporary worldview.  Thus modern humans stand today at the very edge of the abyss of death and nothingness, and it is precisely here than one can perceive a useful role for a modern shamanism.  Again this is a need for a doctor of the soul, a figure who can bring humankind into close and fruitful confrontation with the collective unconscious, the creative matrix or all that we are and have ever been.

Naturally, the modern shaman will have to search for a means of fulfilling his psychopompic functions, which are different from the relatively ritualistic techniques of his predecessor.  One of the most potentially effective of such means lies in his artistic and poetic capacities; the soul of modern humanity is still open to influence by aesthetic means.  Hence one of the first places we should look for signs of a modern shamanism is in the artistic sphere.  The shamanic role of the artist in modern cultures extends not only to his work, but to his very life.  Through manipulation of his physical medium, the artist seeks to express his personal vision of reality - a vision arising from the roots of the unconscious and not dependent upon public consensus, in fact, often actively opposed to it.  More than that, the artist exemplifies in his life a freedom that is similar to the superhuman freedom of the shaman.

Although it is not too difficult to recognise the role of the artist in the modern world as being in some sense shamanic, it is perhaps more difficult to understand our second nomination for a contemporary counterpart to the shamanic practitioner, the scientific researcher.  Eliade has pointed out that scientists are the creators and keepers of a new mythology of matter.  Indeed, the scientist who charts the unexplored levels of organisation to be found in nature, from the bizarre, paradoxical realms of quantum physics to the staggering vastness of the metagalaxy, has much in common with the shaman who journeys through the magical topography of the spirit-world.

One area of modern life that does not appear to be shamanic, but that might profitably model itself after shamanism, is psychoanalysis.  A modern soul doctor might well achieve better results if he or she could model therapy after a psychopompic journey through the collective unconscious.  The exact techniques would, of course, have to be adapted to modern patients, but where the unconscious is concerned, all people are primitive.  One approach to such a shamanic psychoanalysis could be through the controlled and judicious use of psychotropic drugs; knowledge of both the promises and dangers of such agents has increased tremendously in recent years, as has understanding of the role they play in shamanism.  A combination of knowledge and wisdom in applying their properties could very well give an effective and harmless technique of ecstasy that could be usefully employed in psychoanalysis.

With this we conclude our preliminary discussion of shamanism.  The background that we have laid down, our discussion of the shaman's traditional role in archaic societies, our examination of his singular personality, abilities, and techniques have been skeletal at best.  Our speculation on shamanism and modern society is likewise incomplete and intentionally so; we sought only to make the point that the numinous motifs of shamanism can have a relevance to modern humans, and doubtless there are instances of this that have not been mentioned.  If we are to draw a conclusion as to how we can profit from the study of shamanism, it is this: Perhaps, through understanding the fascinating and alien figure of the shaman, we can draw somewhat nearer to that numinous, archetypal, living mystery that dwells within each of us.

[chapter one of The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching by Dennis J. McKenna and Terence K. McKenna (1975)]

Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History.  New York: Harper Row, 1959.
----------, The Sacred and the Profane.  New York: Harper Row, 1961.
----------, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1964.
----------, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries.  New York: Harper Row, 1967.
Carl G. Yung, The Practice of Psychotherapy.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1954.
Andreas Lommel, Shamanism: The Beginnings of Art.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
S.F. Nadel, A Study of Shamanism in the Nuba Mountains.  /.Anth. Inst. of Great Britain and Ireland, 1946.
Claudio Naranjo, The Healing Journey.  New York: Random House, 1973.
Richard E. Schultes and A. Hofmann, The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens.  Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1973.
R. Gordon Wasson, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality.  Italy: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

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