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

The last post was already in the works when when Gordon, Jason, Jow, and RO began their discussion of the simplicity, complexity, and relative eclecticism of their practices.  I seriously sympathize.  If you’ve read my previous post, I imagine you can see why: eclectic Wicca, years of unverifiable personal gnosis (both my own and that of those I’ve worked with), Hellenic gods, neo-shamanic spirit-journeys, Chaos- and Hermetic-inspired sigils, masks and hammers and things no one else has ever thought to do with a circle.

As I said before: I’ve spent years searching for a tradition.  I’ve played with Cunningham and Conway, dabbled with Crowley, Carrol and Kraig, mocked Lady Sheba and Silver Ravenwolf alike.  I am a student of Tarot and astrology.  I’ve experimented with candle magic and sorcery and astral projection, with auric healing and magically enhanced massage.  I’ve tuned myself to the elements and grounded into the astral plane – invoked the cosmic forces of the quarters and cast spells with nothing but the power of my own aura.  I have gone on spirit journeys and hung out with gods and spirits.  No one tradition I’ve found covers half these things, let alone all of them.  So, while the search continues, I’ve been working on my own: a systematic breakdown of the things I’ve done (as best as I can with my substandard journals), and maps of the things I want to do in the future.  I doubt anyone will ever want to join, but it will be perfect for me. And who knows, maybe I’ll find the perfect apprentice some day.

And yet … I still wax poetic, sometimes, about Traditions and Orders.  I share that strange jealousy for those who can name their path and have it recognized.  Envy for those who’ve found a teacher or a system that they can adopt in toto – even if they still need to look outside that system for new techniques to fill its inadequacies, addendums and appendices to a finite and discrete system.

I’m white, (apparently) cisgendered, and from a (lower) middle class family.  The list of spiritual traditions that I have any “legitimate” claim to are relatively few.  Unfortunately, none of them are to my taste.  Which leaves me either blazing trails in a dark and moonless wilderness or seeking refuge in other spiritual lands … and trying to avoid the ones where the locals would just as soon I curled up and died.  Or, as always, all of the above.

Does it sound a little like I’d like someone to do the hard work for me?  Yeah, it’s a little bit like that: I envy the people who can just accept a prefab structure.  For whom any of the existing systems have meaning.  Satyrs are not, by nature, hard workers: we like to drink and dance and fuck (nymphs, eachother, mortals, deities … I deal exclusively with enthusiastically consenting humanoids of legal age, myself, but other satyrs aren’t so picky).  So, yeah, I wish I could take a lazy rout.

But I can’t.

So I’m ecclectic.  I look to the past and to the modern Western Hermetic and Witchcraft traditions for inspiration.  I learn techniques from anyone who is wiling to share – god or mortal – and try to make sure all my sources are ethically sound.  Still … inevitably … I’m a transgressor of spiritual boundaries even as I am of social ones.  I’m bisexual.  Although I’m male-bodied and I present (mostly) as masculine, I actually identify as “fuck you and your stupid gender dichotomy”.  I am a hedonist and an intellectual in a society that simultaneously condemns both pursuits and sees them as inherently incompatible.  I am a historian in a religion that is (understandably) skeptical of mainstream historiography (a post of its own for another day), and which in its attempts to acquire popular and legal credibility is increasingly absorbing the overculture’s anti-intellectualism.

I am a queer, hedonist, shamanic witch.  The party’s at my place, and we can talk Plato in the morning … maybe hung over, maybe still smashed.

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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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A Classic Case of Cultural Misappropriation Misrepresented as Scholarship

I am taking a mythology class. First mistake: it’s an English/Literature class, not an Anthropology class. I should have known better.

The textbook, about which you will be hearing a great deal, is Myth and Knowing: An Introduction to World Mythology, by Scott Leonard and Michael McLure. There’s a lot of broad, systematic problems with the book from feminist, pagan, and various other angles (scholastic and otherwise), but here’s a nice and easy one.

The French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar wrote a short story entitled “Kali Beheaded”. It’s not a bad story (not great either … though I can’t say for sure since I can’t read the original French), but it’s just a story. Jyoti Panjawani has written an essay on the three Hindu stories that appear to have inspired “Kali Beheaded”.

Myth and Knowing misrepresents Yourcenar’s fiction as an actual Hindu myth of the divine femininea “modern adaptation of traditional materials (Leonard 157)”, as though all she’d done was adjust the formatting from lyric to prose and tweak the language for modern comprehention. No. That’s not what she did. It’s an utter fabrication, published elsewhere (rightly) not as anthropology but as her own goddamn original fiction.

This is officially the first in what will become a long series of posts about the epic fail that is this textbook.

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