I’m dazzled by so much that Jason Godesky has to say, but this article is, to my mind, one of his best. I hope you find it as intriguing and stimulating as I do.
Imagine, for a moment, what the world might be like if there was only one religion. Not a dogmatic creed you were forced to comply with, but a sort of “open source” interplay of visions and ideas that not only encouraged, but demanded your active participation in creating an organic, evolving vision of the world. Imagine what such a religion might be like, if you were forbidden to simply take another’s word for it, and you were required to experience the divine for yourself—a religion that required no faith in anything but your own experience of it. Imagine a religion based on dreams and visions, a religion that saw a world that was simultaneously sacred and profane but above all, alive. Imagine a world where you were not just an empty elite separated from your domain by the aloofness of power, but irrevocably enmeshed in a network screaming with life, a world where every stone and stick and blade of grass pulsed with a sacred spirit all its own. Imagine what such a religion might be like.
We don’t need to use too much imagination to conjure up such an image, because not only did it once exist, it is humanity’s natural state. That religion is today often called “shamanism,” for the Tungus word for their most religious individuals. It is the root of all our modern religions—all of them are the descendants of the shaman’s vision. It is the genesis of art, music, theater, philosophy, mathematics, science, and all those abstract things that we so often look to as the very best of our species’ achievements.
Defining “the Shaman”
In Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing, Michael Winkelman puts forth a case so dense it is nigh unreadable, but if you can make it through such intense verbage, you will be rewarded with an incredibly unique point of view that is supported by an exhaustive set of evidence, pointing to the idea that shamanism had a role to play in human evolution. The reductionism of the scientific mindset is certainly bolstered by the nature of waking consciousness. The “shamanic state of consciousness” (often abbreviated “SSC”) is less a reductionist state, and more an integrative state. This boosts the mind’s integrative abilities, allowing it to make connections between various ideas on analytical, metaphorical and other levels simultaneously. The value of non-analytical thought to make intuitive leaps that may be impossible through analysis alone has been evidenced at several points in the history of science. One striking example might be Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, who added a new chapter to every high school chemistry textbook with his discovery of the benzene ring—a structure he discovered only thanks to the inspiration of a dream he had, wherein he encountered the ancient symbol of the snake eating is own tail, the ouroboros.
Winkelman shows that in the shamanic state of consciousness, the body’s natural healing processes are activated in a significant manner. This is related to the placebo effect, in that the body is, in general, very good at seeing to its own treatment. For example, both the placebo effect and the shamanic state of consciousness result in the release of opioids. The placebo effect is well-known, but rarely given its due. Too often, we refer to “just” a placebo effect. Approved drugs must do better than placebo, but even our very best drugs—such as aspirin—can only narrowly edge out the placebo effect. Very often, up to 75% of a drug’s effectiveness will be due to the placebo effect. The shamanic state of consciousness does not try to denigrate such a powerful healing function, but instead tries to use it to still greater effect. The SSC exacerbates the same self-healing processes as the placebo effect. When combined with the shaman’s traditional role as resident ethnobotanist, this makes the efficacy of most shamanic ethnomedicine roughly equal to our own biomedicine.
These are the two primary tasks of the shaman: to heal, and to gain information from the spirit world. To do this, the shaman makes friends with the spirits and becomes, essentially, the tribe’s ambassador to the spirit world. But to speak so dicreetly of “the shaman” falls into the same ethnocentric trap that has led so many to the same fallacy that afflicts John Zerzan when he claims that shamans represented a nascent elite, and the beginnings of domestication and hierarchy (see “The Case Against Art“). Shamanic practices exist along a spectrum of openness. In his analysis of North American rock art, David Lewis-Williams’ The Mind in the Cave makes an excellent case that “the shaman’s cache,” and the vision quest found in North American shamanism fits well into Zerzan’s conception of “hidden knowledge” used to concentrate power into a shamanic elite. Even in these cultures, non-shamans must participate in shamanic rituals. Participants dance, sing, beat drums and engage in the same behaviors to elicit the beginnings of a shamanic state of consciousness–even if they do not experience it as deeply as the shaman. However, there is also another end of the scale, represented by /Xam San n/om k”ausi, or shamans (the /Xam were another San culture, close relatives of the better-known Dobe Ju/’Hoansi). Among them, one third of males and one quarter of females described themselves as n/om k”ausi, and everyone participated in shamanic ritual to a significant extent. The essential problem here is the spectrum of specialization itself, from emphasis to exclusivity. It is only with exclusivity that we see the beginnings of hierarchy and domestication. Shamans are still expected to hunt and gather as much as any other member of society. They are expected to participate in shamanic ritual as much as any other member of society. The difference is that they enjoy the philosophical life (see Paul Radin’s Primitive Man as Philosopher), and they are particularly skilled at altering their state of consciousness. They are to the spirit world what an exceptionally good hunter is to the material—not the sole arbiters, but individuals respected for their skill, and for the experience that such enthusiasm eventually accrues.
Keeping in mind that “the shaman” is a kind of Aristotlean ideal that any member of the tribe may approach, let’s take a moment to consider the elements of that ideal. In “Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology,” [PDF] (featured in the Vault) Michael Winkelman uses Mircea Eliade’s classic, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. There are serious flaws in Eliade’s work (see Daniel C. Noel’s The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities), but so long as we remember to use these not as necessary criteria, but as a rubric of the “ideal” shaman, they remain useful.
The significance of shamanism for the study of religion was established through the cross-cultural synthesis provided by Eliade (1951/1964) in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Eliade characterized the core of shamanism as involving (a) “techniques of ecstasy” (altered states of consciousness) and (b) interaction with the spirit world (c) on behalf of the community. Other universals ascribed to shamans include being found in hunting and gathering societies, selection for the position through an illness or calling of the spirits, a vision quest, a death or rebirth experience, the capacity to fly, the ability to transform oneself into an animal, the use of spirits as assistants, and the potential to be a sorcerer with negative powers. Central to shamanic ecstasy is the soul journey or flight, where the shaman’s soul or spirit departs the body and travels to other places. Soul journey was also used for contacting spiritual forces, determining distant conditions or the fate of separated family members, finding lost objects, and escorting souls to the land of the dead. Shaman’s ASCs were also manifested in the vision quest or transformation into animals.
The “shamanic sickness” is a common theme, though many shamans never experience any such “death” and “rebirth.” This is almost certainly the basis for the common beliefs in a dying and rising god, as detailed by James Frazer in his classic, The Golden Bough. The shaman experiences some crushing trauma, whether physical or emotional, which threatens death (even if only by suicide). This usually culminates in a dream featuring the vivid, painful and terrifying dismemberment of the afflicted. Once dismembered, the afflicted is re-assembled by the spirits. The shaman’s task is very often portrayed as a painful ordeal, but this “shamanic sickness” provides a severe impetus to pursue that path. The afflicted is forced to become a shaman. The alternative is to die. As a “wounded healer,” the shaman may then use the skills and spiritual alliances she formed during her own healing to help others. Her own brush with death leaves her somehow “touched” with the spirits, drawing her forever afterwards closer to that world. In this excruciating way, the shaman neither chooses her own path, nor is chosen by the people; rather, the shaman is chosen by the spirits.
Shamanic cultures also consistently teach that the most valuable training a shaman recieves is not from other people–not even other shamans—but from the spirits themselves. The spirits teach shamans “power songs” and other information they will need to be effective shamans.
This certainly suggests the oft-argued connection between shamanism and schizophrenia. Evidence is still lacking for any greater incidence of mental illness among shamans (see van Ommeren, et. al, 2004), but this speaks to the issue of the cultural construction of “illness.” Many states which would be recognized as “ill” in other cultures are normative in our own. At the same time, we pathologize states which are integrated into other cultures. If the association of schizophrenia and shamanism is true, then it suggests that schizophrenia is debilitating primarily in our cultural context–and that we may be unnecessarily marginalizing a population who may have a great deal to contribute.
The Spectra of Consciousness
David Lewis-Williams identifies the origin of these experiences in the neurology of the human brain itself. He argues that we are not dealing with distinct states of consciousness, but differing spectra of consciousness. By comparison, waking and sleeping are two different states of consciousness with which we are all familiar. Yet, these are not simply discrete states; there is an entire spectrum that stretches from complete alertness, through reverie, light sleep, REM sleep and deep sleep. Likewise, Lewis-Williams identifies three stages of the “intensified trajectory.”
As a spectrum, we divide it into “states” arbitrarily, just as we arbitrarily divide the color spectrum into discrete colors. Colors are culturally constructed, and vary widely from culture to culture. Our own seven-color identification clearly underlines how arbitrary these divisions are. The seven colors we teach our children were devised by Newton, and if you’ve ever been suspicious of “indigo,” you have good reason to be. Newton was an alchemist, and somewhat color-blind. He relied on a friend involved in textiles to help him devise his colors. His friend came up with six, but Newton wanted seven—for alchemical significance—so his friend threw in “indigo” as a basic color, because indigo dyes had just made it to Europe from the new colonies and were creating quite the rage, from which he (and the rest of the textiles industry) were profiting handsomely. Lewis-Williams writes:
Furthermore, all societies are obliged to divide up the spectrum of consciousness into (probably) named sections, even as they divide up the colour spectrum in one way or another. Human communities are not viable without some (possibly contested) consensus on which states will be valued and which will be ignored or denigrated. Bluntly put, madness is culturally defined: what counts as insanity in one society may be valned in another. States that occasion embarrassment and are ignored in one society may be cultivated in another. But, despite such cultural specifics, the nervous system cannot be eliminated: all people experience dreaming on the first trajectory, and all have the potential to experience the states characteristic of the autistic trajectory. And they experience them in terms of their own culture and value system; this is what has been called the “domestication of trance.”
The first stage is marked by entoptic phenomena. Close your eye, press against your eyelid, and when you open your eye again, you will see entoptic phenomena. These occur when something allows us to actually see our own optic nerve, or parts of our own eye. Entoptic phenomena even plays a role in contemporary art, but Lewis-Williams finds an especially strong influence in rock art, both ancient and contemporary, whenever it is made by a forager, shamanistic culture. The figure below compares several entoptic phenomena to rock art from the contemporary San, as well as Paleolithic cave art.
In the second stage, the brain tries to integrate the entoptic phenomena and other internal, neurological shifts taking place. Lewis-Williams writes:
In Stage 2 of the intensified trajectory, subjects try to make sense of entoptic phenomena by elaborating them into iconic forms, that is, into objects that are familiar to them from their daily life. In alert problem‑solving consciousness, the brain receives a constant stream of sense impressions. A visual image reaching the brain is decoded (as, of course, are other sense impressions) by being matched against a store of experience. If a ‘fit’ can be effected, the image is ‘recognized’. In altered states of consciousness, the nervous system itself becomes a ‘sixth sense’ that produces a variety of images including entoptic phenomena. The brain attempts to decode these forms as it does impressions supplied by the nervous system in an alert, outwardly‑directed state. This process is linked to the disposition of the subject. For example, an ambiguous round shape may be ‘illusioned’ into an orange if the subject is hungry, a breast if he is in a state of heightened sexual drive, a cup of water if the subject is thirsty, or an anarchist’s bomb if the subject is fearful.
It is from this stage that we have such universal shamanic experiences as the entrance to the spirit world by flight, through water, or through a cave, the feeling of constriction, and other physical sensations that correspond strongly to the experience of an individual along the intensified trajectory.
It is in stage 3 that one becomes fully hallucinatory, entering the “altered state of consciousness (ASC)” that Winkelman discusses, or the SSC one encounters in Michael Harner’s formulation. It is in this stage that the shaman does her work–transforming into animals, guiding the spirits of the dead, reuniting individuals with their lost totems, gaining information from the spirits, etc.
“Open Source” Religion
There has been some movement recently towards an “open source” religion, such as “open source Judaism.” Such movements may seem like a radical application of a simple programming model, but in fact, they hearken back to the natural state of human religion.
Everyone in a tribe was, to one extent or another, a shaman. Everyone dreams, and anyone can achieve the same states of consciousness that the shaman specializes in. This created an emphasis in many shamanic cultures on the formation of a collaborative vision, in reconciling differing visions and dreams into an integrated whole. After all, one of the primary functions of the shamanic state of consciousness is its integrative function. Why should this not work to integrate different visions, as well?
Mythology developed in the same way, through the various told and retold stories of a tribe. Each retelling was slightly different, and elements accrued (and were forgotten) through centuries of retelling. Thus, the mythology was constantly adapted to the new circumstances at the tribe. At the same time, the mythology provided an unbroken line to the very beginning of the tribe. Thus, a single myth’s authorship could be attributed to three distinct sources: a personal expression of the storyteller herself, a communal expression of the contemporary tribe and its current situation, and an echo of the tribe’s ancestors back to the beginning.
The reconciliation of differing visions and dreams by shamans bolsters this “open source” religion still further, by creating a constantly adapting cosmology, created from the dreams and visions of the entire tribe in a similarly evolving story. Thus, the formulation of any given tribe becomes, simultaneously, both an individual, and a communal expression that is constantly evolving and adapting to the tribe’s changing circumstances.
The Upper Paleolithic Revolution
Art, music, philosophy, religion, science and mathematics are often rattled off like a mantra against evil as the virtues of civilization. This is patently absurd. All of them date back to the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, 40,000 years ago. Civilization is only 5,000 years old; agriculture only 10,000. How can civilization be responsible for the dawn of cultural universals—virtues shared by all human cultures, civilized and savage alike—that are eight times older than itself? It would be the same as if I claimed to be the father of George Washington.
It is not to civilization, but shamanism, that we owe these things. While some 10% of all shamanic cultures use psychotropic plants to achieve the shamanic state of consciousness (and even among those, it is almost always used primarily as an aide for inexperienced or weak shamans), the majority of shamanic activity relies on repetitive sound and motion to achieve that state of consciousness. Winkelman writes in the paper cited above, “Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology”:
Music is an innate capacity that is used to induce ASCs, as are rhythmic activities such as drumming and dancing. Music, chanting, singing, and dancing have their origins in modules that provide mimesis rhythm, affective semantics, and melody. This capacity for music and dance coevolved to enhance social bonding through communication of internal states. Music induces the theta and alpha brain wave patterns characteristic of ASCs and promotes group cohesion, by enhancing synchrony, coordination, and cooperation among group members. Music enhances mutual cognitive and emotional expression through mimesis, the unique human ability to entrain the body to external rhythms, including imitation and dancing. Shamanic practices of drumming, dancing, and ritual imitation are based in operations of innate modules.
The earliest art we find is that made inside caves in the Upper Paleolithic. Though David Lewis-Williams’ case in The Mind in the Cave about hierarchy in the Paleolithic and an inter-species conflict between Neandertals and “anatomically modern humans” is deeply flawed, he is nigh irrefutable in his case that such cave art was an attempt by shamans to share their experiences with others.
We find our first evidence of mathematics here, as well. The first evidence for numbers comes from a counting stick, cut with sets of 28 strokes to track the phases of the moon. England’s Neolithic Stonehenge is hardly the only structure of its type. Woodhenge—both the one nearby the English structure, and the one named for it at Cahokia—likely served the same astronomical purpose, and astronomy was likely a practice developed primarily by shamans.
Science can be traced back to shamanism even more conclusively, because shamans were also the resident ethnobotanists of their tribes. Much of our modern pharmaceutical and botanical knowledge has been taken from indigenous shamans. The single most effective drug we have ever devised, aspirin, was taken from willow bark–which Amerindians chewed for medicinal effect for centuries prior to European arrival.
Nor is the scientific value of shamanism limited only to ethnobotany. Shamans have collected their tribe’s knowledge, garned from trial-and-error, methodical experimentation and, yes, the spirits, for centuries. Western anthropologists have often characterized primitive beliefs naught but mere “superstition,” because they fail to understand the fact that shamanism operates on multiple, simultaneous levels. As Paul Radin illustrates in Primitive Man as Philosopher, a single statement often operates on literal, metaphorical, and psychological levels, simultaneously. The anthropologist takes away only the spiritual meaning, not understanding that the same statement also encapsulates some fact about the physical world. In an exceptionally ethnocentric passage on the Azande, E.E. Evans-Pritchard describes a methodical, experimental attitude that exhibits the basic idea of the scientific method clearly (even if the concept of naturalism is rejected on a philosophical level):
Their blindness is not due to stupidity, for they display great ingenuity in explaining away the failures and inequalities of the poison oracle and experimental keenness in testing it. It is due rather to the fact that their intellectual ingenuity and experimental keenness are conditioned by patterns of ritual behavior and mystical belief. Within the limits set by these patterns they show great intelligence, but it cannot operate beyond these limits. Or, to put it another way: they reason excellently in the idiom of their beliefs, but they cannot reason outside, or against their beliefs because they have no other idiom in which to express their thoughts.
This is a common dismissal, but its repitition does not cease to make it anything but ethnocentrism. Kerim Friedman is certainly correct in her argument that we should no more refer to “aboriginal science” than “creation science,” but rather, attempt to correct the lack of epistemological perspective that we have inherited from the Enlightenment:
But the solution to the relative status of traditional knowledge compared to science is not to simply label knowledge as “science.” It is to find ways create space within which it can find legitimate expression in our society and be accorded a status other than “superstition.” It is also to better educate people about scientific knowledge and its limits, so that all citizens can better distinguish between good and bad science. Seeking to give traditional forms of knowledge the same status of science accomplishes neither of these goals. Even worse, it makes it harder for us to understand why we should care about traditional knowledge. After all, if it is simply science with another name, why bother?
While it is certainly true that shamans had no interest in science–certainly not in the sense we mean–they were preservers and developers of the knowledge of their tribe. Unlike us, they cared less for how the knowledge came to them than whether or not the knowledge was true. In so doing, they not only created the original databases from which science would eventually pull such hints as which plants may warrant further pharmaceutical investigation, but also laid down the kind of methodical experimentation that would one day be formalized as the scientific method.
“Old Time Religion”
Shamanic ecstasy is the real “Old Time Religion,” of which modern churches are but pallid evocations. Shamanic, visionary ecstasy, the mysterium tremendum, the unio mystica, the eternally delightful experience of the universe as energy, is a sine qua non of religion, it is what religion is for! There is no need for faith, it is the ecstatic experience itself that gives one faith in the intrinsic unity and integrity of the universe, in ourselves as integral parts of the whole; that reveals to us the sublime majesty of our universe, and the fluctuant, scintillant, alchemical miracle that is quotidian consciousness. Any religion that requires faith and gives none, that defends against religious experiences, that promulgates the bizarre superstition that humankind is in some way separate, divorced from the rest of creation, that heals not the gaping wound between Body and Soul, but would tear them asunder… is no religion at all!
The arguments most oftenly cited against “religion” by atheists do not, in fact, have the least bit to do with religion. To apply to “religion,” they would need to apply to all religions, not just organized, hierarchical religions. This is not some kind of wishy-washy distinction between “religion” and “spirituality,” but rather, a recognition of the cultural basis of religion as an integral, integrated part of a larger cultural system. With the emergence of civilization and the dawn of oppression, disease and misery, shamanic religion was twisted into a mechanism of control. Rather than serve as a powerful, personally-experienced, integrative force binding people to one another and to the world around them, religion became a force for tyranny and oppression that forced fearful worshippers to plead for their survival with vast, unknown forces through a rigidly defined priestly hierarchy. Indeed, the very term “hierarchy” comes from the Greek heiros arkhia, or “sacred rule,” deriving from the organization of the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church.
Yet we can clearly see the shamanic elements in the earliest recorded religions, and how those elements were twisted to serve as components of a coercive control system. In Egypt, the gods were the sun, the river, and the forces of nature—a clear indication of their origin as animistic spirits. They are represented as part-human and part-animal, like the Sorcerer of Les Trois Freres. This freakish chimera of human and animal elements is generally considered to be a representation of a shaman in a rather spectacular example of animal transformation. The mythos of the dying-and-rising god that forms the central thesis of Frazer’s The Golden Bough very clearly goes back to the “shamanic sickness.” Osiris is quite literally dismembered and re-assembled, to become lord of the underworld and judge of the dead upon his resurrection. Prometheus steals fire from the gods, in an obvious reach back to the shaman’s role of gathering knowledge for the tribe from the spirits—but he is punished with the shamanic sickness, whereby his liver is eaten every day by birds, and regenerates each night to be eaten again.
Zerzan’s statement from “Running on Emptiness” is not completely without merit, when he says:
The specter of social complexity was incarnated in this individual who wielded symbolic power. Every head man and chief developed from the primacy of this figure in the lives of others in the group.
No hierarchy could develop that did not first coopt the power of the shaman’s vision. But this was not the natural implication of that vision, as Zerzan suggests. Rather, it was an inversion of that vision. The inversion of that vision has left us with what we today call “religion,” an empty shell of rigid dogma that lays claim to our obedience, but ultimately leaves us feeling utterly unfulfilled.
David Rohl’s “new chronology” (see Pharoahs and Kings) suggests that the “pharoah” of Exodus was not Rameses II, as has been traditionally dated, but Akhenaten. This is especially interesting because of Akhenaten’s radical monotheism, to say nothing of the Amarna letters that were addressed to the “heretic king”–letters which mention the “‘Apiru” (the first historical record of the word “Hebrews”), led by a man named David.
The problem is, these ‘Apiru were not Egyptian slaves—rather, they were a collection of various Semitic brigands preying upon the frontiers of the Egyptian border. Akhenaten’s 18th dynasty had risen to power centuries before when, after consolidating its power in Thebes, they succeeded in driving out the Semitic Hyksos invaders from Egypt. Having been subjected to foreign rule for several centuries, the Egyptians were eager to conquer the world—and so, to ensure that they would never need to fear anyone again. The smug isolationism of the Old and Middle Kingdoms was replaced by the imperial expansionism of the New. But first, the former allies of the Hyksos—Semites still living in Egypt—were enslaved, to ensure they would not betray the new empire. Meanwhile, with the rise of Thebes came the Theban god, Amun. Amun’s cult was based on instilling sheer terror in his worshippers to extract obedience. Soon, Amun was united with the highest of the Egyptian gods, the sun god Ra, to form Amun-Ra. The priesthood of Amun consolidated its power, and soon threatened to turn the pharoah himself into a mere figurehead.
Enter Amunhotep III, who upon his ascension embarked on a radical campaign to destroy the Amun priesthood’s power. He become a monotheist. Worship of the old gods was proscribed, their names banned, their priesthoods disbanded. Instead, Amunhotep elevated a minor artifact of the Heliopolitan cult of Ra—the sun-disk, or Aten–to the status of “one true god.” He changed his name to “Akhenaten,” and began construction of an entirely new city to serve as the new capital of his monotheistic empire (see Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten: King of Egypt).
Akhenaten’s radical vision did not long outlive him, though. Soon, his young nephew, Tutanhkaten, sat on the throne, and the Amun priesthood turned him into just the figurehead pharoah they sought. Instead, it was Akhenaten’s name that was eradicated, and his gods that were stricken. Tutankhaten became Tutankhamun–a short-lived “boy king” whose name would have been utterly lost, has his singularly low profile (and well-hidden tomb) kept his grave protected from tomb robbers through the centuries until a particular band of especially academic (and more importantly, English) tomb raiders happened upon it in the 1920s.
This suggests an interesting origin of Judaism in Egyptian religion. It is worth noting that Psalm 104 is nearly identical to Akhenaten’s “Great Hymn to the Aten.” “Moses” is a popular element in Egyptian names, meaning “son of,” and is often associated with a god’s name, as in “Ra-moses,” or “Thoth-moses.” This suggests that Moses may have been involved in Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution, and stricken the “pagan” element from his name, leaving only “Moses.” When the Amun priesthood returned to power and began its violent crack-down on the Atenists, Moses would have been wise to flee to the barely-controlled Egyptian frontiers. It is also wise for those under attack by society to band together with others under attack by the same society. There may have been a number of Atenists who looked to Moses for leadership for any number of reasons; Semitic slaves may have been their natural allies. It is curious that Exodus places nearly all of Moses’ life in the Sinai peninsula, suggesting that Israel may not have been their originally-intended destination. Sinai, too, would have been on the fringes of the empire. They may have suffered pursuit, there, and then fled north.
There, they would have met David’s ‘Apiru. David may well have dreamed of making the jump from successful bandit lord, to regional chieftain. That would have meant transforming the ‘Apiru into a real society, giving them a sense of unity and purpose. Moses and the exiled Atenists could have provided that. In return for protection and sanctuary, Moses’ Egyptian exiles could have provided the ‘Apiru with a religion to unite them as “G-d’s chosen people.”
Over time, two foundation myth cycles would have developed: one focused on Moses and their religious foundation, another focused on David and their political foundation. By the time these stories were set down during the Babylonian Exile, both would be sufficiently complete and complex that the authors would have reasonable concluded that they were sequential, rather than contemporaneous.
What does this radical historical revisionism have to do with Judaism’s origins in shamanism? Quite clearly, if Judaism’s roots lay in Egyptian religion, then that makes Judaism a “grandchild” of shamanism. As we have seen above, Egyptian religion has very clear origins in shamanism.
When Judaism began to ossify, it was reinvigorated with a new infusion of shamanism, this time in the form of the prophets. The Jewish prophets were ecstatic prophets. They spoke “in the name of the LORD,” by entering a state of ecstasy—an altered state of consciousness—just like a shaman. These latter-day shamans reinvented Judaism, transforming it from a rather typical, monolatrous, Bronze Age “nationalist” cult, into a radical, monotheistic religion that predicated its existence first and foremost on social justice. The program of the prophets was only accepted on a wide scale, however, once the “proper” interpretation had become attached to their radical denunciations of wealth and power, and they could be incorporated into a framework of control, whereby their scathing condemnations of hierarchy and control could be used as a mechanism to support hierarchy and control.
Besides its Jewish origins–and thus, its shared ultimate origins in the shamanic elements of Egyptian religion, and the shamanic practices of the Jewish prophets–Jesus himself exemplifies many shamanic themes. The central story in traditional Christianity is the crucifixion and resurrection, a mythological rehashing of the “dying-and-rising god” motif that echoes the shamanic sickness. The institution of ritualized cannibalism also seems to echo certain shamanic themes.
If we depart from traditional views of Christ and instead look at the historical evidence of what Jesus actually said and did, the shamanic elements become even stronger. Consistently, Jesus undermined the basic “brokered” nature of Roman society (see John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant) and urged his followers to end Roman power by denying the very principle of authority itself. He contested this primarily in the arena of religion, by denying the efficacy of the brokered religious hierarchy, instead teaching his followers to seek direct religious experience. In this way, Jesus was denying the very essence of civilized religion, and promoting the “open source” spirit of shamanism and ecstatic religious experience, even within the cosmological context of Second Temple Judaism. As an ascetic and very likely an Essene (see my 2002 paper, “Subversion Incarnate: Asceticism as Political Resistance in Roman Judea, 6-66 CE,” [PDF], also featured in the Vault), Jesus also may have engaged directly in the same ascetic practices for inducing such ecstatic states as ancient shamans.
This line of Christian thought was largely extinguished by Paul, who reinvented Christianity and the direct threat to civilization that it posed, as a civilized religion that supported the same mechanisms of hierarchy and control that Jesus gave his life trying to bring down. Paul did this by invoking Jesus’ name as a godhead, while simultaneously either radically interpreting, reinventing, or (more often) simply ignoring everything Jesus taught. Jesus’ shamanic influences were kept alive even to the smallest extent only by Christian Gnostics, who pursued the same ecstatic, personal, religious experience that Jesus instructed his disciples to pursue. Because personal religious experience is very difficult to control, this made the Gnostics a particularly hated enemy of the orthodox church, particularly after the final major reinvention of Christianity took place under the Emperor Constantine. Persecution of the Gnostics persisted for centuries until finally institutionalized, hierarchical Christianity carried the day through the violent eradication of all who remained true to Jesus’ original, shamanistic message, and a judicious exercise of terror.
Of the three monotheistic religions, it is the latest—Islam—in which the shamanic elements are weakest. Yet, all the same, shamanistic elements can be seen in the Prophet, who recieves the Qu’ran in visions and dreams. It is also alive and well in the mystic traditions of Sufism.
Like Egyptian religion, the Hindu gods are clearly animistic, in that they represent varying forces of nature. Their representation as part-human, part-animal chimeras also links them to shamanism. The Hindu concept of Brahman unites animism and pantheism in a manner similar to the Heliopolitan cult of Ra. This same kind of pantheism may also be seen in some indigenous, shamanic beliefs. The belief in reincarnation also suggests the same “dying-and-rising” theme that connects back to the shamanic sickness.
The Buddhist emphasis on meditation and altered states of consciousness to attain “enlightenment” certainly echoes back to the shaman as a master of consciousness. Many of the same elements of Hinduism remain relevant to Buddhism.
The influence of shamanism on Shinto barely needs description; Shinto is very nearly a shamanic religion still! It is distinctly animistic, and the role of ancestor worship clearly links it to a central place of the shaman’s role as psychopomp.
In the course of our raging ethnocide, we are now very near to eradicating every last, remaining shaman on earth. The line back to First Shaman is broken, and we are left with a need for someone to replicate his feat–to become Second Shaman, and relearn the original, shamanic vision from the spirits, and the spirits alone.
The lack of shamanism and the denigration of the states of mind it requires has taken a terrible toll on our society. “Shamanic sickness” has not disappeared; only its cure. As Maureen Roberts writes in “Embracing the Fragmented Self“:
The schizophrenic, being intensely introverted is automatically poorly adapted in a society which narrowly defines personal identity in terms of appearance, behaviour and social status. S/he lives in a discontinuous reality which can become a terrifying bombardment of overlapping realities, voices and chaotic perceptions. Everything takes on mythical overtones. The players in the archetypal dramas are often gods who are potentially both benevolent and destructive. Mainstream psychiatry deals with this overload by numbing the mind and trying to force the individual to readjust to cultural norms. At the same time, the “patient” is robbed of a unique mode of learning that many schizophrenics sense to be immensely valuable and worth pursuing. And unfortunately the law is in the psychiatrists’ hands to take away what others treasure as an experience akin to initiation.
Nor is the only toll of this loss exacted upon the schizophrenic. Winkelman, in the paper cited above, “Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology,” suggests that substance abuse is one outcome of this loss, as individuals recklessly attempt to reconnect to that ecstatic state which the human brain neurologically expects to enjoy from time to time. We are cut off from the kind of ancient ways of knowing that Robert Wolff describes in Original Wisdom. In an article published earlier this year, Albert & Crubezy suggest that shamanism may be especially effective in precisely those areas where Western medicine is most deficient (PubMed).
Daniel Quinn believes that only a new vision can save the human race from the inevitable catastrophe that must follow from the Taker vision. I do not think anything can stop the gears from turning at this point, but if he is right, then something extraordinary is needed. We need a vision that integrates our shattered communities. We need a vision that will reconcile us with the world we have estranged ourselves from with delusions of grandeur, godhood, dominion and control. We need an “open source” vision, a participatory vision that rises above mere dogma to become a collaborative mythology. Even more, we need this vision to be something that will catch like wildfire, and spread like no other vision could. It must reach to the roots of the human soul, it must lock into our minds like something long forgotten yet yearned for. It must be something that we ache for without even knowing it.
If there is any such vision, then it must be the shaman’s vision.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Jason’s article. Join the conversation, and leave me a comment!