Let’s face it, all traditional (that word again) polytheisms involved sacrifice, usually of animals. You give to the gods, they give to you, right? There was even carryover into the Middle Eastern monotheisms — Kapparot for some Jews,sacrifices of sheep or cattle at Eid al-Adha, and of course Jesus as the “lamb of God” who is the supreme sacrifice. Some people sacrifice their sanity—less blood that way.
For the first time ever, the shamans of the Russian Federation have come together and elected “the supreme shaman of Russia” – Kara-ool Dopchun-ool, head of the Kyzyl Local Religious Organization of Shamans – done so by an almost unanimous vote (115 out of 166 votes) and called for official recognition as a traditional religion of the country.
And there is a “United Council of the Shamans of Russia.” How do you think that that will turn out? Is herding shamans like herding cats? Still, it is an interesting bid for greater legitimacy.
• Can occult studies make you crazy? Or just a little unbalanced?
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 ), 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 Siberiaencounters 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”?
(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.
• Photographer Rik Garrett (formerly of the Occult Chicago blog, now relocating back to the Pacific Northwest), is interviewed at beautiful.bizarre.
Rik harnesses old, analog photography techniques and a deep sensibility that is both educated and magical. I dare to believe he is opening doors to the past, recreating a cross-section of witchcraft and the earliest technologies in photography, and to the spirit realm—illuminating phenomenon and sparking the imagination beyond the typical scope of artistry.
This cartoon was not part of the New York Times story, in case you wondered.
A campaign to legalize LSD, MDMA, and other psychedelics in Norway reaches for ancient precedents. Didn’t the Sami (Lapp) shamans maybe use entheogens? What about those Viking who allegedly chewed on Amanita muscaria?
If you saw the 2009 documentaryThe Horse Boy, about Rowan, the autistic boy who is helped somewhat by horseback riding and by Mongolian shamans, there is more to the story. (There is also a book, The Horse Boy: A Memoir of Healing, published in 2010.)
Before it was released as a DVD, the local university sponsored a showing of The Horse Boy. I called my friend Hal, whose autistic son is now about nine, and asked him if he was interested in seeing it. This boy too enjoys riding horses and donkeys, which he is able to do at home and on trail rides into the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Hal writes eloquently about life with an autistic son, but my suggestion hit a wall. I brought it up again — same reaction. So I shut up. I am not the one with the autistic son, he is. Maybe he does not like the idea of magic. Maybe a trip to Mongolia just seems impossible.
Meanwhile, Rowan’s father, Rupert Isaacson, a widely traveled man whose parents came from southern Africa, was himself born in London and now lives with his family in Texas, has kept on taking his son to shamanic healers in Africa and on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.
So many people thought we were mad, deluded. One friend said: ‘All those shamans. It’s like you’re going to some spiritual supermarket!’
The publication of The Horse Boywas met with a torrent of hate mail accusing us of giving false hope, of abandoning established methods. (In fact, we had continued to follow the orthodox treatments).
But there was one group that did support us: parents. Much of the motivation for telling the story had been my own despair at Rowan’s diagnosis.
If, back then, there had been some story of hope, of autism as an adventure rather than a catastrophe, I would have taken heart sooner, despaired less, and most likely found solutions more quickly.
And the only things that had worked for Rowan in any positive way were the horse riding and the shamans.
The Isaacsons have set up their own therapeutic system, the Horse Boy Method: “We let the children use the horses like a couch, to allow all the physical and emotional discomfort to fall away, and the intellect come to the fore.” I think my friend Hal has developed something similar on his own, although his son goes to special-education classes too.
A news release from the MIT News Office carries the subhead, “MIT anthropologist finds that after Soviet domination, a rebirth of shamanism helped Mongolia rewrite its own history.”
The release continues,
In 1990, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Mongolia, long a satellite of the U.S.S.R., regained its independence. Socialism was out and free markets returned. Religion — in the form of Buddhism, shamanism, and other folk religions — became officially accepted again in Mongolian society. That, in turn, produced another unexpected change: The return of shamans, religious figures who claim to have a supernatural ability to connect with the souls of the dead.
Indeed, as MIT anthropologist Manduhai Buyandelger chronicles in a new book, the revival of shamanism has shaped Mongolia in surprising ways in the last two decades. From storefronts in Ulan Bator, the nation’s capital, to homes in rural Mongolia, shamanism has become a growth industry.