The Role of Fear in Traditional and Contemporary Shamanism
Copyright: Michael York. Bath Spa University College
volver a la página principal (pulse aquí)
Strictly speaking, shamanism is a religious technique which is practiced by the Evenki or Tungusic tribes in the north-eastern regions of Siberia. Therefore, to apply the term `shamanism’ to medicine-people and witch-doctor practices belonging to ethnic identities further afield, such as among African tribalists or indigenious Indians in both North and South America, is an Euro-centric misnomer which carries an artificiality akin to the British colonial labelling of the diverse dharma practices of India under the single rubric of `Hinduism’. Nevertheless, the term `shamanism’ provides religious studies scholars a convenient generic designation for an animistic worldview in which special medium technicians link the visible world with the otherworld of gods and spirits for the benefit of the local community. Consequently, it is with reference to a broadly detectable similarity of religious belief and practice pertaining to an active mediumship involving spirits conceived as autonomous entities and for the purposes of healing, divination, control over natural events, and the like that I employ the terms `shaman’ and `shamanism’ in this paper.
The shaman is a combination healer, priest and magician whose speciality is controlling or gaining aid of supernatural agencies. Among the devices the shaman employs, we find hypnotism, ventriloquism, sleight of hand, and, above all, trance-like states. These last are achieved through dance, music, fasting, meditation, drug-taking and/or self-hypnosis. In other words, the shaman is one who has mastered what Mircea Eliade designates `techniques of ecstasy’. It is in the ecstatic state that the shaman’s soul is believed to leave the body and travel great distances – including the heavens and the underworlds. The dangers of the otherworld are always present, but through the shaman’s initiatory preparation, and fortified with the aid of acquired guardian spirits, the shaman alone is able to brave the challenge.
For traditional societies, out-of-body shamanic projection has specific purposes. The primary goal is to cure illness including `loss of soul’. He or she also functions as a psychopomp who escorts the souls of the dead to the otherworld. In the shaman’s capacity to direct communal ceremonies along with the propensity to commune with extra-terrestrial regions, he/she functions as a kind of `psychic safety-valve’ for the host community. The shaman may also practice divination and clairvoyance and thereby serve to locate lost objects, animals or people for the benefit of other members of his/her society or for the social collective as a whole.
The most crucial factor for the indigenous shaman, therefore, is his/her social role. The shaman is the specialist who explores the outer reaches of the mind, the realms of fearsome archetypes, the dimensions of schizophrenia. It is the vitally important social duties of the shaman which serve as the psychic-explorer’s anchor. In other word’s, it is the shaman’s society and his or her obligations to it which constitute the source of security and support in the specialist’s explorations of madness and the ability to return from what might otherwise amount to a permanent state of insanity.
It is through the shaman’s ability to divine the future that the shaman becomes most similar to the prophet. However, the traditional prophet operates in times of prosperity. The apocalyptist, on the other hand, is one who predicts in times of distress. Millennialism is the belief that personal and socio-political life will change for the better at the end of a specific period of time. The awaited `millennium’ is often expected to follow a transitional phase of radical and cataclysmic upheaval in which `enemies’ and oppressors are eliminated. The apocalyptic `birthing-time’ of the coming new world order in which good triumphs over evil is nevertheless an interval of terror for all involved.
In general, shamanism is not associated with millenarianism, and any detectable element of fear has more to do with the individual shaman’s challenges in the otherworld than with collective devastations pertaining to this one. However, in America, the early nineteenth century Handsome Lake revival and Ghost Dance movements of the 1870s and 1890s which celebrated the imminent disappearance of the European descendants, the restoration of traditional lands and ways of life, and the return of revivified ancestors were predicted and launched by mediumistic shamans. Consequently, while indigenous shamanism is primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo of society, in times of colonial oppression or extreme stress, the shaman may inspire a millenarian movement which provokes fear and the necessity to follow strict codes of conduct as a means to prepare for – and remain safe in - the anticipated change.
The New Age Millennium
Essentially, for the New Age Movement, the anticipated `New Age’ paradigm is a metaphor for salvational change. The movement itself is a complex and loosely organised confederation of contrasting beliefs, techniques and practices that blend Eastern mystical philosophies, occult-psychic phenomena and pagan religious practices together in an often haphazard and uncoordinated manner. There is no centralisation within New Age which could either speak for the movement as a whole, supply membership lists, or even ascertain who and who is not a member. The New Age Movement is largely a perpetually shifting and ad hoc alliance of exegetical individuals and groups, audience gatherings, client services, and various new religious movements that range between the cultic, sectarian and denominational. Even when viewed externally, such as in sociological observation, there is little agreement concerning what constitutes New Age and who is and who is not to be included.
However, the establishment of a new supernatural world order is the defining or essential thrust of New Age expectation. Within its broad confederacy of belief and identity, we find three ideal-type New Age orientations: the occult, the spiritual and the social (York, 1995 pp. 36f). It is the occult dimension of New Age which exhibits the greatest parallels with the contemporary Pentecostal/charismatic revival. Both are primarily concerned with spiritual and physical healing largely outside the confines of standard medical science; both seek guidance from spirits along with direct experience of the sacred – through glossalia for the one and channelling for the other; and both find the world on the verge of radical spiritual transformation. For occult New Agers, the New Age is often understood to come about through the operation of an external supernatural agent.
Consequently, despite the more pervasive understanding of the `New Age millennium’ as a metaphor of change, any careful survey of holders of the New Age paradigm reveals a sizeable number of `adherents’ who understand the New Age as a literal event. Many of these even expect the advent of the New Age to be apocalyptic and characterised by terrestrial and social upheaval. This more `Christian wing’ of New Age thought – exemplified in the writings of Edgar Cayce and Ruth Montgomery – adopts a premillennial form of Christian millenarianism. Jesus’ physical return follows a period of earth catastrophes but inaugurates the New Age millennium. It contrasts with the more `postmillennial’ position of most New Agers which, if not necessarily expecting a second coming to occur at the end of a `thousand years’ of New Age righteousness, at least argues for worldly activism and reform as the incumbent process necessary `to make the millennium’. A leading spokesperson for this vision as a product of human effort rather than supernatural intervention has been Marilyn Ferguson, author of the 1987 best-seller, The Aquarian Conspiracy. A third position between the more canonical Christian on the one hand and the essentially `New Age’ Christian and non-Christian on the other is represented by the Eastern mysticism and Christian mix that we find expressed by the Montana-based Church Universal and Triumphant’s Elizabeth Claire Prophet. Mrs. Prophet, claiming not to be a channeler but one who follows in the old tradition of the prophets, argues for spiritual and physical preparation according to the guidance she has received from higher beings.
New Age identity
What tends to distinguish New Age thought from that of the major world religions is its theodicy. New Age, by and large, and with such exceptions as Montgomery and Prophet, tends to deny the reality of evil. As a corollary to this, New Age also denies the validity of fear. With its doctrine of reincarnation, whatever negativity that one perceives to encounter is simply an opportunity to learn and progress in self-development. The New Age affirms the potential powers of the individual, and it believes that a person can re-create the cosmos according to his or her wishes.
A typical New Age technical practice is that of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). NLP advances itself as a new science of the mind in which one trains (programs) one’s neural impulses toward positive expectation. The technique is believed to develop power to influence others, shape one’s own destiny, heal past wounds, create one’s dream future, overcome obstacles and cure phobias. In essence, NLP is a modern recasting of the earlier principle of `positive thinking’. In its consideration of a fundamental dynamics between mind and affirmative language, it develops an epistemological theory concerning how their interplay creatively affects our bodies and behaviours. Consequently, NLP will not countenance the possibility of the negative or a failed outcome. More broadly, its essential affirmation of unlimited human potential is a sine qua non of New Age theory and practice.
At times, this ability to create one’s own universe veers toward the solipsistic – as witnessed with Shirley MacLaine’s new year’s eve New Age ceremony in which she realises her total responsibility and power for all world events (MacLaine, 1987:173-75; vide York, 1995:78). That humans feel terror is seen by Ms. MacLaine as simply the fact that she herself feels terror. It is on the earth-plane level that we each experience fear, pain and difficulties as realities, whereas the `loving’ spiritual level of infinite wisdom guarantees that it alone is the sole reality and all else an illusion. Nevertheless, regarding both the physical and spiritual realities, "We create them both" (MacLaine, 1987:333). Consequently, this underlying New Age conviction that we are ourselves the authors of spiritual reality and that the material world is a valueless illusion betrays the New Age’s Gnostic inheritance. In its ultimate rejection of the physical, New Age is simply a modern updating of a longstanding transcendental-gnostic-theosophical tradition.
The New Age/Neo-pagan dichotomy
But this `nature is an illusion’ stance of New Age reveals the movement’s own internal and unresolved dichotomy. New Age is frequently assessed by sociologists and other scholars of religion as well as by itself to include elements of pagan spirituality. Contemporary Western paganism, often referred to as `Neo-paganism’, has instead increasingly come to distance itself from the New Age. Instead, the basic theological perspective of paganism pictures the godhead as immanent and not something `wholly other’ from the tangible. Nature is understood as real and sacred rather than a delusional mâyâ or veil that requires penetration and piercing to reach the spiritual truth it obscures.
This spiritual dichotomy remains, in part, an unresolved tension and dialogue within New Age, though increasingly as each diverging worldview finds its own articulating voice, a polarisation emerges in which the New Age assumes the `nature as illusion’ position, while Neo-paganism centres on `nature as real’ and something to be centrally cherished. But if gnosticism and paganism are to be seen as polar opposites, they are also, vis-à-vis the mainstream Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy, natural allies. Both movement’s place the burden of spiritual decision on the individual alone. Both eschew the imposition of any ecclesiastical authority or body in determining what one should or should not believe. In this respect, both New Age and Neo-pagan `seekers’ become the typical spiritual consumers in what sociology often labels the contemporary religious supermarket. In our modern/postmodern era, beliefs and practices have tended to become commodities sampled, accepted or rejected by the religious consumer. The exegetical and hermeneutical decision belongs to the individual alone in predominant New Age and Neo-pagan conviction. Whereas paganism tends, however, to delve into and keep more within the parameters of a specific tradition (e.g., Wicca, Druidry, Santería, Egyptian Mysteries, etc.), the New Age by-line more typically and unencumberedly is: `If it works for you, then it is right’.
New Age/Neo-pagan similarities and distinctions
The biggest contrast between New Age and Neo-paganism, apart from the reality of nature and `location’ of the godhead question, concerns millennialism. As this last is, in the West, essentially a Christian or at least Christian-derived concept, it has little place in contemporary Western paganism. For New Age, by contrast, it constitutes a centrally defining feature – whether literal and/or apocalyptic, or whether metaphorical and an insistent goad for social activism. Whether the New Age is to be a quantum shift in collective consciousness, whether a golden age of peace and love, whether imminent or a defining objective, the Age of Aquarius is its catalyst and identifying point of reference.
In the current re-emergence of paganism in the West, there is little co-ordinated use of the millennium symbol. While Bryan Wilson (1973) finds that thaumaturgy and millenarianism often go hand-in-hand among undeveloped peoples in the third world, this linking of magic and adventism is absent for present-day pagans in the Western world. This absence, however, does not preclude concern with the environment, ecology, anti-pollution efforts or, even occasionally, pro-Luddite sentiment. In fact, in contrast to the frequent narcissistic and laissez-faire criticisms of New Age, Neo-paganism is by-and-large fully committed to activist campaigns against litter, road and highway construction, and desecration of ancient and sacred sites.
New Age too, however, may frequently share with paganism the notion of `stewardship of the earth’ – a concern which tends to draw both movements behind the `Green Movement’ as a primary political expression. Other similarities "between New Age and Neo-paganism include eco-humanism or some variant, the belief in the intrinsic divinity of the individual, epistemological individualism, and exploratory use of theonymic metaphors not traditionally associated with the Judeo-Christian mainstream" (York, 1995:145). The foremost emerging symbol for the godhead is that of `the Goddess’, and after Wicca/witchcraft, this single construct is perhaps more frequently encountered in New Age than it is among the remaining contemporary Western pagan practices. As a whole, however, both movements clearly recognise what they consider a need for a spiritual idiom in feminine terms.
Apart from contrasts between a hierarchical understanding of the godhead vis-à-vis a more `democratic’ structuring of the supernatural, the primacy of the invisible spiritual world versus the precedence of the material, ad hoc and simplistic ceremony in contrast to intricate and elaborate ritual, the New Age and Neo-pagan unite in their mutual acceptance of belief in reincarnation. Though the raison d’être may often be different, i.e., `spiritual development’ through progressive shedding of karma with the goal of final re-emergence with the godhead as ultimate source vis-à-vis simply pure participation in the great cosmic round of nature encompassing the eternal cycle of birth-death-rebirth, the notion of rebirth is something which is entertained largely, if not exclusively, throughout both movements. The occupation by the soul of a new body after the death of the former body is a New Age and Neo-pagan belief which sets both movements apart from the prevailing Judaeo-Christian understanding of the West.
But if reincarnation, Gaia consciousness, the sharing of the same sacred sites and ecological restoration link the two movements, another major overlap between New Age and Neo-paganism is to be found in the incorporation of what are hailed as `shamanic techniques’. The appropriation of these along with Native American spirituality is among the more contested issues which arise from the dynamics of the religious Western consumer market. As the market is itself a feature of the modern/postmodern transition, so too is the employment of shamanic tools – one which pits Western interpretative shamanism vis-à-vis traditional, indigenous forms of shamanism. Nevertheless, when guided imagery is used to replace shamanic journeying, the emphasis is then placed on the `imaginal' (as opposed both to the imaginary and to Jung's archetypal). What this amounts to is that the power and process of imagining becomes a workable way not to appropriate from other cultures.
All forms of shamanism as a religious belief rely on an animistic assumption concerning the world. In animism, natural objects are perceived as imbued (animated) with inherent vitality. Everything in the cosmos - humans, animals, plants, stones, emotions, dreams, ideas – possesses an independent, individual and conscious life principle. The indwelling spirit could be benign and benevolent, indifferent and neutral, or dangerous and a cause of fear. But the very idea that spiritual beings exist which can separate from their resident bodies allows the notion of shamanism that one’s soul can encounter these entities and that this encounter might be beneficial or harmful – depending on the nature of the spirit and the precaution and strengths of the `soul-traveller’.
Animism is connected with fetishism, totemism, idolatry, notions of taboo, ancestor worship, the use of charms, amulets and talismans, and, of course, shamanism. The conscious personalities inherent in objects and which may be encountered in the otherworld as independent spirits require propitiation or manipulation. It is chiefly the function of the shaman to outwit whatever negative forces that are confronted and are serving as obstacles to collective and individual well-being.
The basic idea of shamanism appears to be the institutionalisation of a socially recognised intermediary who liaisons between the world of pragmatic realities and the more subtle realm of spirit. While the construct `shamanism' is of course a Western, largely academic fiction, thanks principally to the influence of Carlos Castaneda, Michael Harner and, retroactively, Mircea Eliade (see Daniel Noel, 1997), there is currently also a burgeoning of interest in what is typically called neo-shamanism, sometimes New Age shamanism. In fact, in a 1980 work entitled The Way of the Shaman, Michael Harner has led the way to an acceptance of what is now known as `core shamanism' as representing the essential features of shamanic transformation and experience of ecstasy. It is important to recognise, however, that `core shamanism' is also a Western and, in many respects, an artificial creation which has little if anything to do with traditional shamanic practices in indigenous or Asian cultures.
While Noel concedes that it was Castaneda who inspired the West's `shabby imitation' of indigenous shamanisms, neo-shamanism is nonetheless a new religious movement which may be spreading rapidly in the West. Among the salient features of neo-shamanism is the orientation toward personal and spiritual empowerment among its practitioners. Certainly as a neo-colonial intrusion, it is seen to be a `fake' practice from the Native American perspective. Dreamwork itself is largely absent in Harner's development or `creation’ of core-shamanism which follows in the wake of Eliade's `construction' of shamanism and Castaneda's incorporation of a great deal of fantasy in his works. Consequently, while Harner originally did some solid anthropological ethnographic work in South America, his subsequent development of the concept of `core shamanism' is essentially a creative and imaginative work. What occurs in a typical Harner workshop, in which he replaces shamanic journeying with guided imagery, will not, in fact, be found in any single indigenous tribe.
Core shamanism defines itself as "the universal and near universal basic methods of the shaman to enter nonordinary reality for problem solving, well-being, and healing" (Common Ground 100, Summer 1999, p. 108). Harner’s workshops, weekend intensives and experiential courses in shamanic training have spawned numerous centres on the North American West Coast, throughout North America in general and in Europe: e.g., The Foundation for Shamanic Studies (Mill Valley, California), Friends Landing International Centers for Conscious Living (http://www.friendshipslanding.net), Sacred Circles Institute (Mukilteo, Washington), Inward Journeys – Laeh Maggie Garfield & Edwin Knight (British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon), Dance of the Deer Foundation Center for Shamanic Studies (Soquel, California), and Leo Rutherford’s White Eagle Lodge (London).
The Foundation for Shamanic Studies places particular emphasis on the `classic shamanic journey’ as an awe-inspiring visionary method for exploring `the hidden universe’ of myth and dream. Friends Landing combines shamanic orientation with hypnotherapy and the ideokinetic study of how imagery affects movement. Sacred Circles Institute, Inward Journeys and Dance of the Deer Foundation hold camping retreats, Mount Shasta pilgrimages, wilderness treks and/or similar experiential encounters with nature in order to attain personal and spiritual transformation. According to Garfield and Knight (Common Ground 100, Summer 1999, p. 47), "Shamanic development is a pathway that brings understanding and meaning to your life through mastery and cooperation with the natural world." It includes stargazing, interconnection of the soul’s different parts, mastery of elements, use of yoga, herbs and power sites, and `Vision Quests’. One is encouraged to become the person one always knew he or she was born to be. One is reputedly "provided with methods for journeying to discover and study with [his or her] own individual spiritual teachers in nonordinary reality" (ibid. p. 108). The purpose of New Age `core’ shamanism, therefore, is to restore spiritual power and health into contemporary daily life for the healing of oneself, others and the planet.
Using the `magic of focused attention’, neo-shamanism endeavours to help its practitioners secure habit and lifestyle changes for both oneself and one’s clients in order to transmute suffering, relieve stress, gain personal understanding and locate a core of wellness that can implement one’s life’s dream. While part of its effort is to train the would-be aspirant to supply fee-providing healing and training services to others, the main concentration of neo-shamanic activity is directed toward the self. In this sense, it is in full accord with the essential thrust of New Age concerns with personal transformation. This use of shamanic techniques as a `quick fix’ and human potential tool, however, is at complete variance with traditional tribal shamanisms in which rarely does an individual choose on his or her own accord to become a shaman. In the indigenous context, the long and arduous training which leads one into being a shaman is something which befalls an individual – usually after the experience of an unwanted and major trauma.
Shamanism and neo-shamanism compared
Unlike indigenous shamanisms, in core shamanism knowledge becomes exoteric rather than esoteric. As a commodity, it is essentially something which is bought and sold. There is also little attempt to master the spirits. In fact, the aim is give power directly back to the people and thereby eliminate the shamanic specialist altogether. In Jonathan Horwitz's explanation during the 1998 `Shamanism in Contemporary Society' conference sponsored by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, the `new shamanism' is a spiritual discipline which enables one directly to contact and use the spiritual dimension of the universe - one which is based on the animistic understanding that everything that exists in the physical plane contains spirit power. Horwitz prefers to see this process as a shamanic revival rather than as `neo-shamanism', though he recognises that there is much confusion in making the peak experience the goal rather than simply the doorway.
However, a key weakness in neo-shamanism would appear to be its over-emphasis on the self without a community framework. Horwitz argues that the shaman is only a vehicle, not so that the shaman can become more powerful, for this is the endeavour of the sorcerer, but to discover the shaman’s very humanity by surrendering to the spirits in an act of discovery. Though Horwitz recognises that such a surrendering is also to one's own personal responsibility, there is little if any recognition that the shaman must negotiate a dangerous and threatening path and this in addition not on behalf of himself/herself but for the community he/she serves.
In traditional shamanisms, the shaman's entire endeavour is shaped by his or her role vis-à-vis the community. Deliberately sending forth one's free-soul, exploring the spiritual realms of the otherworld, being beyond the boundaries of the norm and of normal behaviour in a Western cultural context is to be mad, insane or schizoid. In the traditional understanding of a soul-duality comprising both a life or body soul and a free or dream soul, if a person's dream-soul does not return to the waking body, the person is understood to be mentally ill and eventually physical illness inevitably follows. For the ordinary person, soul-loss is an accident or misfortune. For the shaman, by contrast, the very propensity for entering an altered state of consciousness is his or her trade. But it is still not the raison d'être. The purpose instead is the community welfare.
In navigating the dangers of the world of spirit, within the condition of an altered state of consciousness, even for the experienced shaman there is the risk of soul-loss through the sheer terror of encountering the mysterium tremendum. It is the very social function of the shaman which provides his or her link back to this world. Community service becomes the grounding link which prevents the shaman from becoming permanently lost in the otherworld. So while the mediumship of the shaman is what allows a community an access to the spiritual without which there is the danger of collective madness, it is the community itself and the shaman's duty to serve it which provides the shamanic safeguard against the specialist becoming imprisoned perpetually in the world of purely analogical and magical effervesence. It is this aspect which is essential in all indigenous forms of shamanism but which currently in contemporary creations of `core-shamanism' - as simply altered states of consciousness without a developed sense of social responsibility - is only incipient.
The full New Age inclination of core or Neo-shamanism, however, remains detectable in its theodicean denial of the negative as real and/or as evil. This is New Age holism as opposed to more traditional dualistic understandings of good and evil. New Age theodicy "tends more simply to devalue or transvalue the reality of suffering than to attempt a formal explanation for its existence" (Wuthnow, 1976 p. 128 on the mystical meaning system). But by denying the reality of the negative – whether fear or evil, New Age shamanism employs a technical tool with perhaps a misunderstanding of the context in which to use it. In traditional shamanism, the shaman’s flight of the soul takes him or her into a psychic realm of infinite terrors, and it is the technician’s acquired ability to cope with fear and the trickster element of the supernatural that allows the shaman to return to the everyday world when the task is completed and not become a lost victim in an unending dimension of enchantment. From the viewpoint of its critics, Neo-shamanism, by contrast, is a foolish playing with fire.
Neo-shamanism belongs to New Age’s concern with anxiety and phobia treatment. Its primary focus is upon personal anxiety disorder which people may perceive as impairing their ability to function. Shortness of breath, dizziness, racing heart, trembling, depersonalisation, paralysing terrors, panic attacks and fear of dying are recognised as various symptoms of anxiety which human potential, New Age techniques and Neo-shamanism claim to eradicate. The alleged superficiality and lack of in-depth study which many see as endemic to the New Age throw into question its often and seemingly willy-nilly appropriation of cultural artefacts without a mature and guarded wariness on how to use them.
As a whole, Neo-shamanism may be seen as a polyglot, pluralistic movement that parallels the eclectic and multicultural/multiperspectival developments of contemporary Western spiritual proliferation. It is basically only in its more New Age emphasis that it tends to deny the reality of intrinsically nefarious spirits. During the 1988 Newcastle conference, Horwitz expressed this typically New Age perspective when he proclaimed that the spirits of cancer and Aids might be encountered as revoltingly ugly but are not evil and can be appealed to as respectable entities in the process of extrication. From an opposite viewpoint, Denmant Jakobsen at the same conference pointed out that in their environments of origin, shamanic practices tend to approach a spirit of illness as something to be killed and destroyed or at least boomeranged back for the destruction of its sender.
Contemporary Western shamanistic practices are, of course, not only New Age. In the increasingly complex and varied fabric of Western society, indigenous spiritualities are steadily to be found – often with creative and innovative adaptations for fitting into an urban environment as opposed to the more rural conditions of their original homelands. Foremost in this respect are the Afro-Atlantic faiths of Macumba, Santería, Voodoo and so forth. The Santerían santeros, however, is less a shaman as he or she is a medium. The differentiation between the shaman and the medium is often subtle and fluid. In general, however, the medium is an individual who is occupied by a spirit while in a trance. The medium acts as a channel for the words of a by-standing spirit or the ghost of a deceased person. In this sense, the medium is closer to the oracle. The shaman, by contrast, travels to the afterlife - whether the netherworlds or the celestial. Soul-travel is the shaman's speciality, and in this sense, though frequently classified as shamans, the Yoruban elegun and Japanese miko are closer to mediums since they undergo spirit possession. The Amerindian Algonquin is also similar in this last: he or she conjures a vision-questing spirit into himself/herself rather than send out a soul in ecstatic trance. Moreover, in this vein, the religiosity of the North American Plains peoples has been described as a democratised form of spirituality inasmuch as everyone participates in vision quest - not just the religious specialist.
Native American and Afro-Latin religiosities are both traditionally pagan and in this sense have more affinity with contemporary Western forms of paganism than with New Age spirituality. If shamanism is one of the major bridges between New Age and Neo-paganism, there are also important differences between how the two orientations respectively practice shamanic techniques. If Western paganism too tends to disallow the intrinsic existence of evil, it nevertheless allows more than New Age for the possibility of `operative’ evil. It also more fully recognises the dynamics of fear.
While Wicca/witchcraft is the more dominant form at present within contemporary Western paganism, another residual school surviving as a legacy of the counterculture of the 1960s we may designate as psychonautica. In traditional shamanism, the use of drug-induced trance states is a major avenue through which the shaman achieves `flight of the soul’. Modern Western psychonauts comprise a quasi-scholarly and quasi-experimental alliance of explorers in `entheogenic’ experience. Not all this pursuit is conducted as a religious or spiritual undertaking, but much of it is, and most of what is is pagan. Present-day psychonauts eschew hallucinogenic use in any form of recreational tourism. The purpose, instead, is self-discovery and imaginal exploration. But while the more traditional understanding of community to be served might be absent and the present-day community for Western psychonauts is generally the psychonautic community itself, the psychedelic experience of mental archetypes and the mind’s antipodes allows a cognizance of fear itself as a profound reality – betokening a frightening emotion which, as Rudolf Otto (1928:19) recognised "must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love, and a sort of confidential intimacy."
The ira deorum, the fear or wrath of the gods, is something New Age by-and-large cannot and will not countenance. The sociologist of religion cannot judge this as wrong in itself. The New Age presents a different worldview – one which contrasts sharply with those of most major world religions as well as with traditional paganism and its contemporary Western varieties. In New Age theodicy, evil is largely understood as ignorant behaviour, that which arises from a state of ignorance. The antidote of sin for the New Ager is not atonement but gnosis. Knowledge, wisdom and understanding are the means by which evil can be transformed and transcended.
From a more purely pagan perspective, evil is extrinsic rather than intrinsic and is essentially a disease. As something which invades or disrupts an organism’s natural equilibrium, the negative is to be cured. While both New Age and Neo-paganism speak in terms of healing metaphors, for the former this is a state of mind, an enlightenment, while for the latter, it is a re-gaining of the natural balance, a `disinfection’ and removal of disruption. If Eliade saw shamanism as comprising various techniques of ecstasy, the Russian Shirogokorov in the 1930s tended to associate shamanism with spiritual healing as its most salient feature. We might assess that both were correct. What is interesting in our ambivalent and confusing times, however, is that two forms of contemporary shamanism are taking root in today’s world: the New Age variety which seeks to move beyond fear toward a state of complete spiritual and emotional freedom, and the pagan variety which endeavours to manage or outwit fear in the process of bringing benefit to the individual and community.
It is within the area of pyschonautica that the New Age and Neo-pagan branches of contemporary Western shamanism might come closest together. Psychomimesis, entheoi or catalepsis is variously induced through different hallucinogenic substances. Following from Brazilian and other South American practices, Michael Harner has employed ayahuasca as a medium by which to experience a world of spirit and vision. Carlos Castaneda's preferences included use of jimson weed, peyote and Datura stramonium. We know that first century Thracian shamans resorted to hashish, while the Vedic peoples' medium of choice was soma - possibly the eastern Mediterranean pine Ephedra fragilia or the fly agaric mushroom traditionally associated with the Lapps. Alcohol is always another possibility, while Ecuador's Jivaro Indians employ tobacco and Surinamers, the takini plant. Pythagoras apparently used kykeon which translates as `disorder'.
The ayahuasca which Harner has used as his preferred vehicle into ecstatic experience is known in South America as la purga. While ayahuasca is a central feature in the Brazilian Pentecostal sects of Santo Daime and Unio de la Vegetal, it is more widely known for its medicinal/healing properties than for its hallucinogenic ones. This connects the psychonautic tradition which follows in Harner’s footsteps (e.g., Alan Schumacher, Wilfred Van Dorp, etc.) more with the idea of shamanism as first perceived by Shirogokorov. While still conforming essentially to the ideas of `core shamanism’, this particular entheogenic practice re-opens New Age shamanism to pagan dimensions.
The contrast between New Age shamanism and pagan shamanism in a modern Western context revolves around the role of fear. In traditional shamanism, the shaman’s initiation is an ordeal involving pain, hardship and terror. In its classic version, the shaman experiences death, often dis-membership or skeletalisation, before undergoing reconstitution and rebirth. New Age, by contrast is a religious perspective that denies the ultimately reality of the negative, and this would devalue the role of fear as well. But in seeking to dismiss the fearsome, New Age also has the propensity to eliminate a central feature of religion qua religion, namely, the experience of awe. The encounter with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans engenders a mixed emotion of fear, reverence and wonder. If, however, all becomes `sweetness and light’ through a New Age agenda, there is no dread. But without the experience of fear, there can then be no real experience of the awesome. New Age shamanism would then seem to constitute an incomplete form of shamanism – one which does not include the central feature of shamanic initiation, and one which also does not include a central feature of religion.
Marilyn Ferguson (1987), The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time, Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.
Shirley MacLaine (1987), It’s All in the Playing, New York & London: Bantam.
Daniel C. Noel, The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities (New York: Continuum, 1997).
Rudolf Otto (1928), The Idea of the Holy (tr. John W. Harvey), London: Oxford U.P.
Bryan R. Wilson (1973), Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Religious Movements of Protest Among Tribal and Third-World Peoples, London: Heinemann.
Robert Wuthnow (1976), The Consciousness Reformation, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Michael York (1995), The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.