Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Shaman

     The shaman is different from the priest. Or are these two 'roles' in  humanity really that different one from the other? In some areas of the world (Sweden, Finland, Russia, Hungary, Central Asia, Mongolia) shamans have indeed been referred to as priests.
A Shaman

     The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a shaman as a person who has access and influence in the world of spirits (good and evil). Typically, a shaman is able to contact spirits, helpers that can guide him/her on voyages of ecstasy into other worlds. This may be done as a regular event in the career of the shaman or the shaman may perform these 'miracles' on behalf of a person(s) who has sought out his help.

     But how is this contact with spirits by the shaman any different from exorcism of spirits by a Catholic priest, Jewish Rabbi, Hindu holy man or a Muslim cleric? Is it much different than the priest who prays to a particular saint on your behalf?
     Is that priest performing shamanic work? Or is the shaman performing duties now mostly taken over by the 'modern' priest?
Yukaghir Shaman

     The shaman can access this 'spirit' world through chanting, trance or ritual, and is able to practice healing and divination. The Roman Catholic Church is renowned for its own ritual. Many Judeo-Christian, Islamic and Buddhist practices involve chanting and, in effect, bring the chanter into an 'altered state of consciousness' (see post: Altered States of Consciousness). Some followers are even able to enter trance-like states, experiencing 'ecstatic religious experiences' hypnotized by the ritual of the liturgy. Are these Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams all really shamans?
     St. Teresa of Avila saw visions. Many writers of the Bible told prophecy (Daniel, Ezekiel). Were these saints and prophets shamans?
     The Mayan priesthood is thought to have evolved from pre-existing shamanic practices. Have our own 'modern' beliefs' also evolved from what we today call 'shamanism'?
St. Teresa of Avila

     Perhaps one aspect that discerns a shaman from a priest is that in many cultures, the shaman will use drugs to induce hallucinations, to travel to the spirit world and return with answers. The Urarina of the Amazon use ayahuasca to contact the spirits. In the Native American Church (yes, church), the psychedelic, peyote is used by the congregation to induce trances. Rastafarians and other groups use cannabis as a sacred drug in their services (see post: Drugs Used in Religion-The New World).
     The shaman is said to be the oldest profession in the world (Yes, contrary to popular myth, even older than prostitution). The shaman is religious practitioner, keeper of medical knowledge (drug use), leader in the community, magician. The earliest depiction of a shaman (priest?) has been found on the wall of a cave in the south of France and dates from the stone-age (The Dancing Sorcerer). Shamans and priests do indeed go back a very long way.

Yupik Shaman
     Perhaps there really is a difference between shamanism and 'modern' religion. Generally, today's religions are not dependent on drug use as part of their 'experience' and the leaders of these 'modern' religions do not depend on drugs to 'touch the divine'. But, what about the priest, the modern day religious leader who does use some sort of 'enhancing compound', some kind of drug? What about this individual some would call the 'High' priest?
     *The evolution of religion: subject of research for the novel  The Tao of the   Thirteenth God - Amazon Kindle.

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