On Michael Harner (1929–2018)

Michael Harner (FSS).

The news of Michael Harner’s passing has been going around, and of course some magical practitioners have to react by disrespecting him.

You might well have heard the usual string of insults: he is an academic poser, he’s a fake . . . a cultural imperialist . . . from the “wrong” background . . . caters to the  “wrong” people . . . a wannabe.  Et cetera.

This is what you call “virtue-signaling,” in which the speaker tries to demonstrate that his or her virtues, practices, cultural connections, and so on are superior to those of the person being denigrated.

And perhaps if all the people doing it were themselves shamans of lengthy lineages, it might have worked. But usually they were not. They were merely jealous that an academic anthropologist could reinvent himself as a shaman, form the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, train other teachers, and try to re-inject shamanism into Western culture.1)In a way, shamanism still existed in the Spiritualist churches, complete with pious fakery, but that is another story.

Not just Western culture either — this is something that his facile detractors do not know about or chose to ignore.

Although shamanism is a cross-cultural practice, the word itself comes from peoples living in Siberia and Central Asia. And after the end of the Soviet Union, Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS) had a presence in some of those former Soviet republics starting in the 1990s — teaching shamanism!

Irgit Kalzan-ham’s arrest photo.

Why was that necessary? Because the enlightened Marxists of the USSR approached shamanism this way:

The photograph had been taken by the NKVD [Soviet secret police] when they arrested [the Tuvan shaman] in 1938. Two years later he died in prison.2)Anna Reid, The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia (London: Phoenix Books, 2003 [2002]), 108.

All shamans were criminals for ideological purposes!

Setting out on her research, Anna Reid, author of The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia encounters two elderly Soviet-era anthropologists who disparage the new post-Soviet native shamans as being just “performers.” And she hears Michael Harner speak at a conference in Moscow but mentions only the fact that the FSS charges for workshops in the USA and sells drums.

But you have to start with where you are. With so many shamans executed in the 1930s — although some underground practice survived, the two anthropologists said)— who is left to remember “the right way”?

I give the FSS credit for supporting some of the surviving shamans with recognition and with money as detailed on this FSS website page. 

(You can also see some revived Mongolian shamanism in the 2009 documentary The Horse Boy.)

What about those hotel workshops? I went to two of them. One, indeed, was in a hotel, in Colorado Springs in the mid-1990s, the introductory workshop, taught by Sandra Ingerman, and another on “Shamanism and the Spirits of Nature,” taught at some lodge on the Utah side of Bear Lake by an FSS teacher from Salt Lake City.

I will admit that the first workshop seemed a little awkward — a group of strangers with all the teaching pitched for absolute beginners — and how else could it be?

The “Spirits of Nature” workshop, however, lingers with me still. It was almost non-stop journeying, indoors and out, in a group and alone, and by the end of it, my consciousness was definitely altered. When it was time to go, I drove all afternoon on quiet two-lane roads in Wyoming and Utah, avoiding the interstate highway, the way people feel after immersion in a festival — wanting to postpone the return to mundane world.

But back to Harner. While I dispute some of his ideas on European shamanism (and that will come out in the current writing project), he took a big important step. You can whimper that ours is not a shamanic culture, or you can claim that you learned shamanism from your grandmother, but for a lot of people, step one to learning about shamanism — whether you call yourself a shaman or not — was Michael Harner. And that’s a Good Thing.

UPDATE: A thoughtful and appreciative essay on Harner’s contributions — and the controversies — from Kocku von Stuckrad, University of Groningen (Netherlands).

Notes   [ + ]

1. In a way, shamanism still existed in the Spiritualist churches, complete with pious fakery, but that is another story.
2. Anna Reid, The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia (London: Phoenix Books, 2003 [2002]), 108.

Why Pagans Aren’t at Home in “Interfaith” Groups

In 2009, the CESNUR organization for the study of new religions held its annual international conference in Salt Lake City.

The panels, papers, and speaker events ended with a dinner at the historic Alta Club, which is drippingly gorgeous in a sort of late Victorian/Arts & Crafts style. I would have skipped the roast beef for an architectural tour of the place.

But no, I was in my dining chair when one of the Mormon “Seventies” — a member of an upper level in the hierarchy — delivered a benediction. (While the fundamentalist, breakaway LDS groups had been a major focus of the conference, this was about the only official-ish interaction with the mainsteam LDS church.)

First he said a few words in regard to the group’s purpose, acknowledging its diversity (founder Massimo Introvigne, for example, is an Italian lawyer by training and very Catholic), adding, “but we all worship the same [G]od.”

I groaned inwardly. It reminded me why I don’t do interfaith stuff — I spoke once at a luncheon in Denver, that’s all. I know some Pagans do it — more power to them — but I become a little . . . withdrawn . . . when the “we all worship the same god in the end” discourse begins.

All this came back when I read Galina Krasskova’s recent blog post, “Interfaith Doublespeak.” She writes in her usual take-no-prisoners style:

It becomes all about making the person feel good, about making them look “enlightened” and “spiritual” so they can get a pat on the head without ever having to challenge any oppressive status quo, especially any religious status quo. Their model is monotheistic. The model for their rites and rituals is, whether they acknowledge this or not: monotheistic and actual engagement with the Powers of any tradition is generally lacking. Most interfaith rituals I have observed are not just doggedly human centric but, despite whatever trappings the organizer might appropriate, devoid of Gods. I mean, you sort of need to name the Gods to call Them into a space and that might be exclusive. Everyone has to feel comfortable after all so let’s just go with the lowest fucking common denominator and call it a day. Hence you end up with what I call impious and unclean space. (Read the rest.)

Yes, right there, that is why I do not attend interfaith luncheons. But I would attend another meeting of the Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni if it’s within driving distance.

Someone is Stealing the Saints’ Parts of Europe

Of Ireland, at least, where a rash of thefts of saintly body parts has the police baffled.

The only thing creepier is imaging who might be buying them from the thieves, if the dean’s hypothesis is correct:

The latest in a series of such thefts involved the removal of the preserved heart of St. Laurence O’Toole, Dublin’s 12th-century patron saint, from the city’s historic Christ Church Cathedral. As there was no sign of forced entry to the cathedral itself, the dean of Christ Church, Dermot Dunne, initially believed the thief had probably hidden in the building when it closed on Friday evening, taken the artifact overnight and simply walked out the next morning.

“Maybe someone stole it to order; it certainly seems plausible,” Dean Dunne said Monday in an interview at Christ Church. “Or maybe a religious fanatic wants the relic and paid somebody to steal it.”

I know that (alleged) bits of Gautama Buddha are preserved in South Asia, but no one goes into keeping body parts like Catholic and Orthodox Christians. It’s all quite magickal.

The custom was well-advanced by the mid-fourth century, as Julian, the last Pagan emperor, was quite grossed out by it and often referred to Christian churches as charnel houses.

Aside from the Egyptians, most Pagan cultures of his day considered corpses to be polluting, full of miasma, and something to be gotten rid of — burned, buried, or sealed away in a sarcophagus (a word that literally means “flesh-eater,” since they were usually carved from limestone). And even the Egyptians did not stack mummies in their temples.

The last time I thought about saints’ relics was a couple of years ago when a priest was giving me and some colleagues a tour of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.

We had walked around into the apse, and while a certain Italian Catholic lawyer (scholars of new religions will know who I mean) dropped to his knees in adoration of the Sacrament, I was studying two reliquaries holding (alleged) bone fragments of Mary Magdalene.

Each one had a tiny bone fragment smaller than the nail of my little finger, encased in a glass capsule that was in turn decorated and encircled with gold. These inner cases, smaller than a lipstick tube, were then held in a larger, glass-walled box affixed to a wall. At least I remember there being two small capsules, although this website page speaks of one (larger?) reliquary.

There are more relics in the altar.

Irreverently, all that I could think of was some monk long ago sitting at a chopping block with a big knife or cleaver.

Behind him is the abbot, telling someone, “Brother Anthony’s knife skills are superb. You should watch him dice an onion or cut up a chicken. We will have plenty of relics to distribute to the faithful this way, and they will show their gratitude with generous gifts.”

Meanwhile, what are they doing with the heart of St. Laurence O’Toole?