So how before someone writes a book on “Ancient North Eurasian” shamanic Paganism? Campfire, drum, bears . . . take it away.
If you saw the 2009 documentary The 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.
This is not without controversy. As he writes in the Daily Mail,
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 Boy was 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.
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.
If you see the 2009 documentary The Horse Boy, about an autistic boy whose parents take him to Mongolia for shamanic treatment, there is a fair amount of restored shamanism there.
• Joseph P. Laycock, ” ‘We Are Spirits of Another Sort’: Ontological Rebellion and Religious Dimensions of the Otherkin Community,” Nova Religio 15, no. 3 (2012): 65–90. DOI: 10.1525/nr.2012.15.3.65
• Venetia Laura Delano Robertson, “The Beast Within: Anthrozoomorphic Identity and Alternative Spirituality in the Online Therianthropy Movement,” Nova Religio 16, no. 3 (2013): 7–30. DOI: 10.1525/nr.2013.16.3.7
“Therianthropic,” coined from the Greek words for “wild beast” and “man,” first showed up in 1886, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote of “Religions, in which animistic ideas still play a prominent part, but which have grown up to a therianthropic polytheism”—such as ancient Egyptian religion with the jackal-headed Set, etc., I suppose. Other therio- combinations go back to the seventeenth century, such as theriomancy.
Although he has to take time to explain the Otherkin “community” to his readers (I use the scare quotes because I have some reservations about the world community in such cases), Laycock is really engaged in religion scholars’ ongoing debate over what “religion” is or whether the word “religion” is useful at all in a scholarly setting. (There are those who claim it is not, that it merely masks political and social competitions.)
He places the Otherkin in the historical spectrum of Western esotericism and spiritualism: the idea of “walk-ins” goes back to the 19th century, for example, while the influential English esotericist Dion Fortune wrote of “possesion by ‘elementals’ or thought-forms . . . . Despite Fortune’s rather pejorative view of such people, Psychic Self-Defense has since been cited as an early reference to the Otherkin phenomenon” (71).
To Laycock, Otherkin are perhaps best described as an ” ‘audience cult,’ a movement that supports novel beliefs and practices but without a discernible organization. Individuals frequently participate in audience cults simply through reading books and watching television programs. . . . As an audience cult facilitated primarily by the Internet, Otherkin are free to practice whatever religion they like, but their identity tends to color that practice” (73).
There is more, but I am just summarizing a few points.
Robertson spends more time explaining the concept of Therianthropes’ self-descriptions of “awakening” to their dual natures, goes into “Internet religion — Therianthropy popped up on alt.horror.werewolves in 1992 — and concurs with Laycock that Therianthropes “reify their anthrozoomorphic identity through the appropriation of spiritual concepts into personal mythologies” (10).
She spends time on the idea of shape-shifting through history and the return of totemism through neo-shamanic teaching as well as contemporary Paganism. But she also notes that there are Christian Therianthropes who see themrmselves as “having a gift bestowed upon them by God to redress the balance between nature and civilization” (23).
Her conclusion is that the Therianthropy movement “exemplifies the innovation of spiritual individuals in the postmodern age . . . popular occulture and re-enchantment in motion” (24). In other words, the key sociology-of-religion concept of re-enchantment is more malleable and multi-faceted than previously discussed.
This man is costumed as the King (or Khan or Bull) of the Winter, as envisioned in the Sakha Republic of northeastern Siberia.
Here is the translation of the page about him in the Turkish Wikipedia, with a link to the photograph.
The Turkic people of Sakha were originally followers of shamanic traditions before being converted to Orthodox Christianity, and some are going back.
There seems to be a suggestion in the Wikipedia text that the bull horns might have been originally mammoth tusks, which would make more sense for that part of the world.
The website English Russia has a selection of photos of winter life there as well. “Yakutia has turned cold into brand!”
Contacting the unseen world while in an altered state of consciousness? Check.
Faking when it they have to because the audience expects it? Check.
Healing people, sometimes? Check.
Frequently having deep problems of illness or bad behavior in their own pasts, problems that went away once they acknowledge or were granted their “spiritual gifts”? Check.
Identifying spiritual causes of mundane misfortune? Check.
Putting on a good show, a spiritual spectacle? Check.
Some in the audience spin off from the circular march and sit alone in their seats, praying intensely, with heads bowed. Others are crying their eyes out, standing along the wall, sobbing with their whole bodies, as others lay their hands on them, exhorting them to give in, to let the self melt away and allow the voice of the spirit to break through in the same unreal language being shouted by the woman on the stage. Everything is now a swirl of loud noise and quick movement and sheer intensity, and it feels like something’s about to give, the room’s about to burst, and everyone’s just waiting to finally exhale or collapse in surrender.
Read the whole thing. Tell me if all the essential elements of the spiritual technology that we call shamanism aren’t there.
Anthropology 666, “The Anthropology of Shamanism and Occult Experience,” with Professor Neil Whitehead at Wisconsin.
I wonder what the exam questions were like and what sort of papers he assigned.
Introductory ten-minute video about Mongolian shamanism, revived in the post-Communist decades. Just enjoy the visuals, unless you understand the language. Jenghiz Khan shows up, of course, as does Buddhism.
This well-made video shows the drumming and trance dancing of both male and female shamans. Some of the drums seem to have miniature bows in them — is that a traditional Mongol style?
At about the 1:02 point, however, I had a realization. New Agey esoteric-themed art is a circumpolar phenomenon.
I love the permutations of the unfolding story of Ötzi “the iceman,” the Neolithic man whose freeze-dried body was found in the Alps on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991.
At first some people speculated that he had frozen to death in a blizzard or while on a shamanic quest—or even that he was a sacrificial victim. Others thought that he was a luckless hunter. But he had arrows and no bow, so how could he have been hunting? He did have a staff that some archaeologists thought he had been shaping with his copper ax into a new bow. (The apparent bowstring was coiled up in his pouch.)
One Austrian archaeologist, having considered factors such as pollen in his clothes and the sources of his clothing, staff/bow, etc., thought that Ötzi was on the run from a settlement down on what is now the Italian side, possibly as the loser in a village feud. Now it is pretty well accepted that he died violently, probably at the spot where he was found.
Ötzi the ice mummy may have met his death in the Alps some 5300 years ago, but his descendants live on – on the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia. The finding comes from an analysis of Ötzi’s DNA, which also reveals he had brown eyes and hair, and was lactose intolerant.
He lived 5,300 years ago, and his life — or at least his corpse — still is being invoked in various ways. I was surprised to learn that he is mentioned in books on diet (do they know about the arterial deposits?) and in a novel that deals with speculated European migration to prehistoric North America. (New archaeological evidence makes a strong circumstantial case for it.)
In fact, Amazon.com shows him appearing in forty different books. That is pretty good for someone from five millennia back who was not a famous ruler or religious figure.
And “Pagan”? I am assuming so, given that whatever religious tradition he followed or was aware of was most likely of a polytheistic-animistic sort. He is already invoked in at least one neo-shamanic book.