Introduction to Mongolian Shamanism

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.

Secrets of an Ancient Pagan

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.

More DNA evidence is being studied.

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, 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.

Also, he was a carrier of Lyme disease.


Siberian Shamans and their Music

A short documentary on contemporary Siberian shamanism from the Russian television channel RT.

The interesting part is a young shaman and his friend composing a sort of “house” music (or so the narrator describes it) to try to bridge contemporary sounds with the shamanic tradition, which was almost destroyed by seventy years of atheistic Communism. A little throat-singing comes in as well.

“Music helps me withdraw from the [trance] state,” says the shaman-musician.

The relationship between the revival of Siberian shamanism and Michael Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies is briefly hinted at.

Old Underground Doings in Tennessee

In cave-riddled Tennessee, archaeologists are discovering more and more ancient art, mostly from the High Mississippian culture (roughly coeval with the European Middle Ages) but some much, much older.

Just to whet your interest, here are a few paragraphs from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “America’s Ancient Cave Art.”

The imagery was classic Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), meaning it belonged to the vast but still dimly understood religious outbreak that swept the Eastern part of North America around 1200 A.D. We know something about the art from that period, having seen all the objects taken from graves by looters and archaeologists over the years: effigy bowls and pipes and spooky­-eyed, kneeling stone idols; carved gorgets worn by the elite. But these underground paintings were something new, an unknown mode of Mississippian cultural activity.


High Mississippian culture fell apart just before the Spanish reached Florida, not just after as you’d expect, given the diseases and the massacres—it’s a riddle of American archaeology.


A good archaeologist, Russ Townsend—he’s now the “tribal historic preservation officer” for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Townsend has worked with Jan on plenty of projects, but he has never gone into the caves. I asked him about it. “The Cherokee interpretation is that caves are not to be entered into lightly,” he said, “that these must have been bad people to go that deep. That’s where they took bad people to leave them. So they can lie on rock and not on the ground. It makes a lot of Cherokee uneasy. The lower world is where everything is mixed up and chaotic and bad. You wouldn’t want to go to that place, where the connection between our world and the otherworld is that tenuous.”


It was easy to see what had so impressed Simek about this place. You could look through any number of coffee-­table books on prehistoric Native American art from the Southeast and see absolutely nothing that looked like these pictures. We saw birds, yes, but this seemed to be a sort of box bird—its square body was feathered. Now there were more of them.

Read the whole thing here.

The Horse Boy: See it for the Shamanism

When a psychology professor and a human-rights activist/journalist have an autistic son, their lives become incredibly difficult. Among other things, little Rowan never learns bowel control, and like many autistic children, he is prone to screaming, inconsolable tantrums.

But his parents live in rural Texas, and they discover when Rupert is 2 years old that horseback riding calms him. Some San Bushman healers also seem to help him.

So they make a trip to a land of horses and resurgent shamanism: Mongolia. That is the premise of The Horse Boy, a documentary film now out on DVD, as well as the book of the same title.

See it for the shamanism, at least, even if you know no autistic children.

(Actually, I have horse and donkey-owning friends whose autistic son also improves when riding, but they have not taken him to Mongolian shamans. Perhaps they wonder if they should.)

Mongolian shamanism was officially suppressed when the country was Communist. Even as Rowan’s parents seek the shamans’ help, I could not help but wonder if their coming halfway around the world was also validating the shamans, from the latter’s point of view.

No camera can capture the essence of shamanism, but it is still good to see how the externals are managed. And the final two-day ride to the reindeer people’s shaman is just gorgeous  footage.

One shaman lays part of the problem on a relative of Rowan’s mother, a relative whom she admits was mentally ill. That is a hard description of reality for the psychology professor to hear, you might suspect. Our society does not normally blame any problems on dead ancestors. (I want to come back to this topic in a future post.)

Yet Rowan’s degree of improvement at the end is undeniable.

Can You Sue Your Shaman?—Part 2

Last October 9 I blogged on the deaths at a sweat-lodge ceremony conducted by James Arthur Ray near Sedona, Ariz.

There has been a lot of discussion in the Pagan blogosphere about the case, particularly at The Wild Hunt.

A lot of people piled on, and there was the usual sloganeering about “cultural appropriation” and how “ceremonies were not for sale. ”

Actually, throughout much of the world (and throughout history), ceremonies are indeed for sale. How else do you pay for maintenance of the temple? Do you think the Shinto priest is going to bless your new Toyota for free?

In Wicca, Gerald Gardner’s insistence on not taking money “for the art” was mostly about avoiding prosecution under anti-fortune-telling laws, not cultural appropriation.

But back to James Arthur Ray.

In the latest issue of Shaman’s Drum magazine (no. 82), founding editor Timothy White makes some thoughtful points in an editorial titled “What Can We Learn from the Tragic Sedona Sweat Lodge Debacle?”

White points out several things that went wrong:

  • The sweat followed a 36-hour period of “visionary” fasting, meaning that participants were more dehydrated than they would normally have been.
  • Ray was a “spiritual jock” (my term, not White’s), pushing people to “push past your self-imposed and conditional borders” and shaming participants into not leaving when they were suffering.
  • The plastic tarp coverings may have trapped heat and retarded air circulation more than fiber blankets would have done, making the lodge even hotter.

But he makes several other points as well. First of all, it appears that the lodge was built by the Angel Valley Retreat Center, not by Ray’s team, and had been used previously by other center visitors. Since participants signed a release, it may be difficult to prove criminal negligence in court.

The Sedona location, with that area’s reputation for New Age activities, made it easier for those who “blamed the deaths on New Age spiritual practices ‘stolen’ from Native American traditions.”

White’s conclusion: “I personally believe that the Sedona sweat lodge deaths were caused by a combination of preventable errors and manipulative mind games, due in large part to Ray’s negligence. . . . However, it may be difficult to prove that Ray’s behavior during the sweat was criminally malicious—since he subjected himself to the same challenging conditions.”

And one more thing: screaming for Ray’s head on a plate could encourage the prosecution of “all sorts of ceremonial leaders—vision quest leaders, entheogenic ceremonialists, and even shamanic practitioners—for other accidental deaths. [There have been some such prosecutions—CSC] Although I believe that careless teachers and leaders should be held responsible for preventable mistakes, I think that civil suits may be the best way to encourage appropriate safety measures.”

I titled my first post “Can You Sue Your Shaman?”  But should you? Shouldn’t people walking dangerous paths accept some responsibility?  After all, we followers of magical religions insist that we are not sheep who need a shepherd (Latin: pastor).

The secular law, after all, has fairly narrow definitions of what constitutes a crime and what constitutes a tort. “Bad spiritual teaching” or “improper ritual” or “malicious magic” do not quality.

After all, there was a day—a mere 400-500 years ago—when “malicious magic” or sorcery was a criminal offense in  Western secular courts, but do we want to go back to those standards of proof?

Third Death in James Ray Sweat Lodge Case

Yet another of the sixty-plus people crammed into James Arthur Ray’s Sedona sweat lodge has died. She evidently was one of his true believers:

The Rev. Meredith Ann Murray of Bellingham, Wash., who has completed all of Ray’s retreats, said [Liz] Neuman was among Ray’s earliest followers and had attended dozens of his events.

According to Ray’s Web site, Neuman was the leader of the Minneapolis-area “Journey Expansion Team.” The teams, developed by Ray’s friends and followers around the country, meet to exchange ideas on his principles. The next Minneapolis-area meeting is scheduled for Oct. 23.

But here is the delicious part. Ray, facing homicide charges, is evidently bobbing and weaving:

In his first public appearance Tuesday in Los Angeles, Ray told a crowd of about 200 that he has hired his own investigative team to determine what went wrong.

Sheesh, Veronica Mars could tell him what went wrong. He was greedy and heedless of the safety of his followers.

Sweat lodges have been around for a long time in many places. I see them as part of the old Stone Age circumpolar religion, along with flat-headed drums and a special relationship with bears.

Whether used for physical health, for contacting the spirits, or both together, they are a small-scale magical technology. It sounds as though Ray tried the “megachurch” approach to sweat lodges–at $9,000-plus per person.

Aside from all the issues that this case raises, it speaks as well to the difficulty of turning small-scale mysteries into congregation-size events.

UPDATE: Tim Giago, a veteran American Indian journalist in South Dakota, asks why, if traditional sweat-lodge ceremonies are so special and good, are they not doing more good for the Lakota:

Arvol [Looking Horse], why are the sacred rites you represent not being used to bring our own people back from the brink? Why aren’t they being used to bring back the good health our people once enjoyed? Why is there an unemployment rate of 80 percent on the lands you call home? Why is there such a high rate of STD’s and teen pregnancies in Lakota country?

What good does it do to speak out and criticize an event that happened in Sedona, Arizona, when it had no lasting impact upon the Sioux people? Aren’t there terrible things happening in our own homelands, right under our noses, to worry about and try to change?

Who Cares about ‘Cultural Appropriation’?

Some of the reaction in the Pagan blogosphere to the “shamanic” casualties in Sedona have trotted out that old horse named Cultural Appropriation.

A couple of months ago, one of the Pagan lists in which I participate had a whole discussion of “cultural appropriation.” Cultural Appropriation was led by the halter and trotted around the ring, and all the usual arguments were made:

  • All our ancestors were tribal once.
  • I can understand Native Americans being upset.
  • All the spiritual leaders I know and who have been teaching their spiritual truths for decades welcome students, and their interest is what is important, not what their culture is, nor what they do with the teachings.
  • Now, I follow Celtic dieties because THEY came to me. I didn’t go seeking after them. They spoke to me in English and have never demanded that I learn a different language to speak with them.
  • And of course someone brought up the new Pagan book on the topic, Talking About the Elephant.

Eventually that discussion thread wore itself out. Not two weeks later, someone posted an announcement for a Sun Dance:

The Sun Dance is a ritual of community and praise for the sun and the great spirit that the natives of this continent felt drew them together. Regardless of our faith, everyone can appreciate the sun’s power and importance to all life on Earth. So this will be an upbeat celebration of the sun, the summer we have just had and community. It is also a ritual praising the sun and saying farewell for another year.

Since there is no one ritual for the Sun Dance, and so many tribes viewed and practiced this event differently, we will have a blending of many traditions in our Sun Dance. Please bring drums, bells, noise makers, whistles, rain sticks, musical instruments, or anything else you’d like to celebrate and make a joyful sound with. This event will be outdoors so please wear appropriate clothing as the weather dictates. Also, as part of the ritual involves body and face painting, if possible please wear something that gives you access to your collarbones.

And ol’ Cultural Appropriation stayed in his stall. No one said a word online.


In the long run, religious creativity will always trump the kind of finger-pointing accusations that you hear about “cultural appropriation” — even before you come to the theological argument that “the gods choose whom they will.”

We have freedom of religion. You cannot stop someone from holding a Sun Dance and calling it such unless you show up and threaten bodily harm. You can threaten other sorts of consequences—that it will offend the spirits or the Grandfathers and someone will suffer—but you cannot guarantee such threats. What if the spirits like the other person better?

As Shawn Spencer, the fake psychic detective, says in the TV series Psych, séances—or in this case, Sun Dances—are like garage sales and plastic surgery: Anyone can have them.

Pagans are well-placed to realize that religion is a creative activity. Writers incorporate the influence of other writers, musicians “steal” from other musicians, actors learn from other actors—why should religious practitioners be any different.

I have complained about some “plastic shamans” in my time too, but to what effect? Just do it. See what happens.