Friday, August 13, 2010

Shamans and Medicine Men

Shamanism goes back to a very early time in human history. The literature on archaic societies shows that shamanism has a well-developed history of its own, and there is clear evidence of “shamanic elements in the religion of the Paleolithic hunters.” (Eliade 1964) Shamanism has been found in some form in Siberia, North America, South America, Indonesia, and Oceania.

It was the shamans who developed and held the myths of humankind during prehistoric ages and on into the modern age. At the turn of the twentieth century, the shaman complex was found among the Inuit in the Arctic and the people of Tierra del Fuego. Within these two groups, living at opposite ends of the vast twin continents of America, there is a strong tradition of shamanism and they share similar expressions of it.

Ancestors of the Fuegians are thought to have come from Siberia during the first wave of migration into North America about 50,000 years CE. Until the early part of the nineteenth century, they had lived an isolated and undisturbed existence. In the 1870s, Thomas Bridges established a mission among the Fuegians. His son Lucas wrote an account of life growing up among the Yahgan and Ona people entitled Uttermost Part of the Earth. In it he includes a number of fantastic and vivid descriptions of shamanic healing and magic sessions he witnessed. From these accounts and others we can get a unique and somewhat representative view into the metaphysical world of the primeval hunters and gatherers of North America. And what does their belief system include?

As was mentioned earlier, they had what some call a High God named Watauinaiwa, and they have a strong shamanic tradition. Their shamans exhibit extraordinary physical capabilities, including insensitivity to fire and other magical abilities. To them, as with many Indian people, illness is an intrusion into the body of an alien object or the loss of the soul and its imprisonment in another world realm. It is the shaman’s responsibility to remove the intruding object or to find and retrieve the lost soul. “The core of shamanism is the experience of going to a spirit world and being shown visions or given songs that are taken back and shared with one’s community in ceremony or used in individual healing rites.” (Mills in Walter 2004)

Shamans are sensitive individuals, philosophically and religiously gifted, the dreamers and visionaries of the group. Through natural ability and intense training under an instructor they become attuned to the subtler forces of the natural and supernatural world. Possessed, some think, with a touch of madness, they can enter a trance at will, during which time they become a conduit between this world, the spirit world, and the land of the dead. It is thought that these visionary trips formed the basis of the people’s ideas about the soul and the afterlife.

Shamanism in its purest sense is a technique of ecstasy, but not every ecstatic should be considered a shaman. Only a shaman can enter a trance at will. (Eliade 1964) Shamans cure the sick and can travel to realms beyond the ordinary senses, even into the land of the dead. Upon returning, they would tell incredible tales of adventure in which they used their clairvoyant vision to locate a soul, battle with spirits, and traverse barriers and obstacles to return to the world of the living with the rescued soul.

The following account from John Swanton describes how a Tlingit shaman cured sickness. The techniques explained here are representative of shamans in general.

How a Tlingit Shaman Cured Sickness
He cured by blowing or sucking, or by passing over the affected parts carved objects supposed to have power. Sickness was usually attributed to witchcraft, and after pretending to draw a spear or some other foreign object from the sick man, the shaman designated who had sent it into him. Shamans themselves had power to bewitch people. They could put spirits into inanimate objects and send them out to do mischief. It appears from various stories that eagle down and red paint were also use in curing, for they are employed in restoring the dead to life. (Swanton 1909)

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2 comments:

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