Tag Archives: Michael Harner

Shaman: My Uncomfortable Relationship With a Problematic Word

[This one gets a little rambly.]

These last weeks have seen a bit of traffic on a subject near and dear to my heart:the relationship between modern neo-Pagan animism and magic, cultural appropriation, and the word and figure of the “shaman”.  It “began”—so to speak; I don’t know that any of the authors read one another—with Alison Leigh Lilly and an interesting vision of where a combination of steampunk aesthetic and neo-Pagan praxis might lead (and the follow-up).  Next were Lupa Greenwolf’s posts (one and two) on her own discomfort with, first the word, and then the militant and un-self-critical reaction to her use of it.  Finally, VVF weighs in heavily but thoughtfully on the other side of the issue.

This is an issue that I, too, struggle with.  I since first being introduced to shamanic visionary techniques by a friend in St. Louis—fortunately, after I became at least tangentially aware of issues of cultural appropriation—I have always avoided the title “shaman”.  I don’t come from a culture that awards that title.  Actually, strictly speaking, no culture does: “shaman” is a bastardized Anglicization of the Siberian word “saman”.  It was adopted in the late 19th Century as a catch-all term for indigenous religious healers and, over the course of the 20th Century, came to be associated with particular types of trance-induction and spiritual mediation.  It was in that latter sense that I was first introduced to and familiarized with the word, and—because that was what my sources told me the word for the kinds of magic that came most naturally to me was—came to describe my visionary practice as “shamanic”, or “shamanic witchcraft”.

But there are anthropologists who don’t even think it’s a real thing (damn, why don’t I have my full library with me so I can fucking cite that?  please forgive me and use your favorite search engine): that “shamanism” is a social construction created by Western scientists as a way of understanding and conflating certain kinds of indigenous religious and magical practice which have no Western analogue (well, unless VVF is right about fairies, or unless you count theurgy).  This argument carries more weight the more research I do.  Yes, it’s helpful to create categories of like things so that we can better understand similarities, but … At the very least, one must simultaneously acknowledge that the categorization is alien to the system being observed.  Better practice would require a more proactive attempt to first understand the “shamanic” practices as the people to whom they are native understand them.

A number of my religious/spiritual/magical practices are rooted in what is known in some circles as “core shamanism”—that is, the use of drums, dance, rhythm, and/or drugs as techniques of achieving certain states of altered consciousness, stripped of their original cultural context and any elements or trappings that are most obviously cultural appropriation.  This is the work advocated by, for example, Michael Harner and Roger Walsh.

I’m not called to work with remains and spirits of animals, as Lupa is; nor am I as well known either she or Allison.  These two facts shelter me from an awful lot of the bullshit, allowing me to work my way through these issues in relative peace.  But my magical talents seem much better suited to exploring the Otherworld than anything else, and when spirits appear to me as animals and refuse to give me names, calling them “totems” and referring to them as Wolf or Leopard are pretty much the best I’ve got in terms of precise language.  And, though there are problems with it, as someone who identifies as a writer first and foremost, precise language is kind of a big deal to me.  Hell, the pursuit of precise, accurate, and affirming language is a huge part of my feminism/anti-racism/social justice effort.  When my need for precise language pushes me into dangerous territory, all I can say is “I’m sorry.  I’m working on it.”

I’ve spoken before on how uncomfortable I am with the the parts of neo-Pagan practice that dance around and over the borders of cultural appropriation, and of my personal relationship with those elements of practice. Increasingly, I find myself referring to my magical practice as “visionary” rather than “shamanic”. “Visionary” has it’s own problems—there’s these pesky associations with leadership and hierarchy, for example—but at least it doesn’t reek of colonialism. At the same time, though, I—like Lupa—struggle with the idea of bowing down to people within my own community who seem more interested in being the morality police than in actually serving social justice.

The more research I do, the more I come to understand that, while many of the techniques have been lost, “shamanic” practices are not absent from the Western tradition.  Witches with flying potions, fairy familiars like those VVF talked about, Hellenistic theurgy, astral projection and pathworking.   I’m not a theurge.  I may worship the gods of ancient Hellas, but I don’t buy the ideas of a fallen/impure world from which one MUST ascend to reach the gods.  Some gods are Up There, sure; and some are Down.  But there are plenty of them Right Here With Us, too.  I don’t to much pathworking because it’s too structured: I don’t like having my conclusions fed to me the way much of the pathwork I’ve seen seems to do.  And I’m just not very good at astral projection (yet).  But the fact is, I have the raw materials from which to build a cultural context for my visionary work.  Until some spirit teaches me better ones, though, I’m pretty much stuck with the “shamanic” techniques I learned from Harner.

And, as long as I’m stuck with Harner—and Wood, and Walsh, and all the others—I’m pretty much stuck with the word “shaman”, no matter how much I dance around it.  No matter how uncomfortable it makes me.  And I don’t really know how I feel about that … let alone how I should feel about it.

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Of Tradition, Synthesis, and Danger

You may have noticed by now, dear readers, that I cannot keep my mouth shut when I see people talking about things I have an opinion on.  And y’all know that I have opinions on nearly every fucking thing on this mad, spinning Earth.  But that’s what blogging is, right?  An opportunity to express our opinions?  Well, that’s one thing, anyway.  Unlike some of last soapbox moments, though, this is not a direct response to anything.  People write things, I read them, and it makes me think.(*)

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a traditionalist.  I have never been invited to join a Lodge or Coven.  I had long disdained the grimoire traditions, and while I have come around on that issue in theory, the fact is (for reasons too numerous, and ultimately too obvious) that they will never be a major component of my practice.  It would be an oversimplification, but my practice could be fairly described as eclectic Wicca.

Nor am I a cutting-edge radical, disdainful of everything that has come before.  Hell, I didn’t even get into studying Chaos Magick until I started my ceremonial project.  Embarrassing as it is now, I didn’t really understand where the one ended and the other began; I just thought of Chaos as post-modern choose-your-own-adventure ceremonialism.  I know perfectly well that it’s a fucking bad idea to summon Goetic demons without the full pomp and circumstance: they’ll take that shit personally.  I know better than to mix and match traditions with no regard for the histories involved or the subtleties of difference in technique and emphasis.

My practice lies somewhere in between these two extremes.  I have pushed the Wiccan framework as far as it can go and serve my needs, and in doing so I have read about as far and wide as one can on the subject without ever being initiated.  I have moved beyond Wicca using shamanic techniques gleaned from Michael Harner, Gale Wood, Christopher Penczak, a few friends, a hand-full of workshops, and an ever-growing body of UPG—ever conscious of the deeply problematic elements of neo-shamanic practice, ranging from bad scholarship to appropriation of indigenous practices to outright “playing Indian”.  I have incorporated energy work with no parallel in any tradition I can find in print—Maya Heath’s Energies is the closest I’ve ever seen—but which a significant minority of the practitioners I’ve encountered in the world recognize as close enough to something they, too, did when they were young.  I’ve incorporated some of the Chaos techniques from my as-yet-incomplete survey—sigils in particular—and I’m working on comprehending certain portions of ceremonial arts as well—the evocation of spirits.

But, as you have already surmised, I am not content to merely reproduce the work that has been done before: I’m pushing forward in the directions that are most interesting to me, and where my native talent calls to be explored.  I’m experimenting with mask-making, and the particular sort of invocation and embodiment unique to mask-work.  Through my shamanic work, I’m engaging in congress with spirits the likes of which I have never seen addressed in anything I’ve yet read.  I’m experimenting with the use of sex, drugs, and music in my magic: this is fucking ecstatic work, folks, and sometimes I need higher octane fuel than I can (yet) get my brain to produce on its own.

RO (and all the others) is right to point out that yes, there are dangers.  When you mix traditions and tech—and I do both, for all my concerns about cultural appropriation and pissing of the various Powers That Be—things can go horribly awry.  But I’m with RO on the next step, too: do it anyway!  Magic has been a process of experimentation and syncretism for as long as people have been doing it.  Sometimes you’re going to botch.  Sometimes you’re going to piss off some people … or some spirits … or maybe even some gods.  People can be managed.  Spirits and gods can be propitiated.  Magical backlash can be healed.

Hell, some day you might even fuck up so bad that you have to step out of the game for a year.  Or three.  But you come back to it.  Trust me: you’ll fucking come back to it.

We’re hip deep in the forces of creation, y’all.  No matter what you’re told, there are no flawless systems.  Even when it looks like you’ve found one, you’re still going to have to adapt it to your own particular brain and body.  And even if you don’t, some spirit you get involved with is going to issue a geas or taboo that’ll fuck up your perfect tradition, rock your boat, and maybe even upset your whole damn world.  (Trust me on this one: if it’s happened to me once, it’s happened to me twice.)


(*) But rather than link to any of the inspirations for this musing in the text body above, I’m going to collect them here to make sure that none of this very interesting reading material gets missed.

RO has posted twice (at least) on similar subjects, and introduced me to some very interesting and important work being done in the Celtic traditions.  Jason Miller has also talked about his syncretism, personally, and recently more generally (though his snark about the issue of appropriation is grossly inappropriate).  Peter Alexander Vaughn has a couple posts that touch on the issues.

I’m sure there’s still something important that I’m missing.

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Tradition, Technique, Appropriation, and Exploration Part 1/2

I am nothing if not eclectic.  My sacred calendar follows the Eight Sabbats of Wicca, even though those dates have nothing to do with the actual seasons in which I live.  My ritual construction is firmly rooted in the pseudo-Gardnerian Outer Court Witchcraft of the sixties and seventies – Uncle Bucky’s Big Blue Book, Ed Fitch’s Book of Shadows – and certain modern plays on those themes.  I have studied the “core” shamanism of Michael Harner and Gail Wood (to name two), and learned tech at festival workshops and from friends whose linages are dubious at best.  I am now studying the Western Hermetic tradition, and though I will not adopt it in whole, I will certainly take what’s useful to me.  I’m increasingly fascinated by Chaos Magic (only ten years late to that trend, right?), but can’t quite swallow the entire open-source, paradigm-hat-trading irreverence to tradition it seems to require.  Dionysos and Rhea were present at my initiation, and I have spoken to Hephaistos and Apollon and to gods who still haven’t given me their names.

For fifteen years, now, I have searched for a tradition – one that will have me, or even one that I want to have me.  Initiatory covens are few and far between here in the Midwest, and I haven’t ever gotten invited to their Outer Court parties (though, looking back, I might have totally missed the subtext of an invitation once or twice).  I’m  a white USian, descended from the English on one side and the Germans (and Swedes) on the other.

But the gods who are mine by right of blood have never expressed any interest in me (being ogled by Freya’s handmaidens after invoking them at a wedding so totally doesn’t count) … nor I them, to be fair.  When I must defend my devotion to Hellenic gods – a rare event, but it happens – I cite the fact that my civilization is descended from theirs, even if my family is not.

In general, I give little credence to those to whom I might need to defend my eclectic neo-Wiccan practice.  I’ve never had access to sealed rites, so I can’t possibly have stolen them, and I think the effectiveness of my rituals says all that needs to be said about their validity.  Are some eclectics idiots?  Yes.  Do I struggle with the dissonance between Wiccan praxis and my queer feminist spirituality?  Frequently: the whole Goddess-God thing fucks with me a lot.  Do I have trouble fitting sacrifice to and propitiation of my patron and matron dieties into the Wiccan frame?  Absolutely.

The biggest problems start when we get into my shamanic work, which is where Gordon’s post on ethical syncretism comes in.  Simply put, there’s a lot of problems with my pasty white ass practicing anything that I could call “shamanism”.  There are the problems with the word itself: cribbed and Anglicized from a group of Siberian nomads.  There’s the whole scholarly debate on whether or not it’s even a thing, on whether or not the category works in the real world or if it’s just a way for anthropologists to lump together things that aren’t actually the same (which is a debate to lengthy and complicated for me to point you to any one or two sources).  And then there’s the part where most of the people who practice things we call shamanism don’t like us (that is, ignorant white people) stealing their rituals.

I strive to keep to what’s called “core shamanism” – the magical and psychosomatic techniques that transcend culture – but even that is iffy.  Even if shamanism is/was the universal root of all religious experience and expression, my culture left it behind so long ago that you can’t see anything but the roughest outline of its memory on the oldest rites we have.  I strive to re-contextualize it all, to provide the cultural and spiritual meaning in which all effective magic is rooted.  I disdain ayahuasca, datura, and peyote as entheogens in favor of flying “potions” such as absinthe and marijuana – drugs that, to the best of my knowledge, no subaltern group has staked out as their own, exclusive, spiritual tool.  I claim no titles, use no names.  The fact is that a certain rhythm of drum-beet can drive the human brain into places it is much, much harder to reach otherwise.

There are those who would argue that it is wrong of me to call upon the gods of Hellas using any rites but their own.  That my refusal to participate in reconstructionism – study it though I may, as a Classicist and an historian – ought bar me from calling upon the Olympians.  In my particular case, there are fewer who would argue that lack of blood-ties forbids me – Hellenistikos are less prone to that than, say, Asatruar – but it is still an issue.  Many of the most legitimate heirs are tied to the Greek Orthodox Church and disdain attempts to resurrect their old gods – you know I’m not going to listen to them.

Still, however carefully distanced I keep myself from the worst forms of cultural appropriation, I don’t know that I can actually divorce myself from the that legacy.  And yet … I cannot help but persist.  It is through this madly syncretic set of rituals and techniques that I have had my most profound spiritual experiences.  It was in a circle cast by Wiccan rite, using Harner’s shamanic techniques, that I entered the spirit realms in preparation for my initiation, and descended until I was greeted by Briareos*, Dionysos and Rhea.

The gods are the final arbiters of whether or not our rites are acceptable.  So why can’t I stop worrying so much about this?


*I don’t actually know that it was Briareos.  Possibly one of his brothers.  Regardless: he did me a favor once, and I needed to pay him before I could descend further.

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