Tag Archives: shaman

Shaman and mummers

Let me be clear up front – this is not a scholarly blog post, the evidence is curious but uncertain, and does not constitute any kind of reference, or proof in and of itself.

Mumming plays are a kind of traditional theatre. Some people consider them to be ancient Pagan survivals, others reckon them to be a more recent invention and until now, I feel wholeheartedly into the second category.

There is a scene that crops up in many plays I’ve seen, where a dodgy doctor and his assistant cure a dead man. It is normal in mumming plays for someone to be killed and brought back, this is often the basis of arguments for Pagan survival. The doctor affecting the cure seems to be a quack. He usually talks utter bollocks and his cures are unlikely. He may have a magic potion, he may require a virgin to kiss the afflicted person. I was once summoned from an audience to be the virgin, and my cries of ‘but I’m actually pregnant right now’ made no odds. Often, when the healing is working, the doctor pulls a bloody great tooth out of the patient and claims this was their problem. We all know he had the tooth all along, and we all saw the victim struck down by their opponent. Clearly the doctor is not to be trusted even if his cure does always work.

I’ve run into the idea that some shamans use sleight of hand to show clients a physical object that has been taken from their body during the spiritual healing process. It could be said that this is chicanery in the style of our mumming doctor. It can also be said that people find it easier to invest in the healing process when they can see something happening, and our minds are key healing tools. The placebo effect gets things done! We are more likely to heal if we believe in the healing.

So, could the doctor in the mumming play hold some memory of this process? Could there be a touch of ancient British shamanism in the mix after all? Or a satirising of a remembered practice that had lost favour? Which is still when you get down to it, a folk memory of something Pagan.

An unsubstantiated theory, but one I thought it worth sharing all the same.

Paganism: Specific or generic?

Quite a lot of Paganism is generic. Our much loved wheel of the year is not a replica of something from a time and place, but cobbled together from many times and places, with added equinoxes. We know the Celts went in for ‘local Gods for local people’ but on the whole, we don’t do that so much. There are forms of shamanism that draw on the shamanistic practices to be found around the world – because there are startling similarities. But at the same time, there’s a tension for me between the themes and the details.

What really brought this home for me was reading Nikolai Shodoev’s ‘Spiritual Wisdom from the Altai Mountains’. The place in question is in Siberia – whereas previously I’d had the impression Siberian shamanism was ‘a thing’ but clearly, it isn’t. Altai is a bit of Siberia, not the whole place. Within it, there are many tribes with their own sacred mountains, valleys and trees. This is a tradition rooted in folk wisdom that has evolved and survived for a long time, going through various forms, and an early 20th century revival. The form it takes varies over time, depending on what’s needed and what makes sense. It absorbs science and progress, and social changes.

Although the book never says it explicitly, it makes clear how futile it is treating religion as something you can skim off from a culture for your own use. What you get that way are the surfaces, symbols and rituals, but you don’t get the coherence to hold it together. Part of that coherence comes from having a relationship with the land the spirituality belongs to. Part of it is about tribe and family heritage.

Does that mean we can only follow the gods of our blood ancestors and the religions established in our landscape? Actually, no. After all, every tradition starts somewhere. What’s critically important is working with what we have. Starting from a relationship with the land, perhaps drawing inspiration from other sources, but being fundamentally rooted in the ground beneath our feet means that we can’t mistake nicking the shiny bits from other people’s faith for something useful. This confirms for me a lot of feelings I’d had reading about Shinto – which is inherently Japanese and belongs in Japan, and without either the land or the bloodlines, probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. The same is probably true of Judaism. It’s worth noting that religions of place and tribe do not seek converts, because it makes no sense to do so. But at the same time, Russian people moving into the Altai region and adopting its ways have become a recognised tribe there, over time.

What Shodoev inspires me to do is not to start emulating his people in any way, but to think about my own high places where I go to be with the sky on my own terms, and my own sacred trees, and the way in which story, history, and ancestry connect me to the soil.

All too often it’s the surface details of a religion we get excited about, not the underlying philosophy. To take surface pieces out of context – the chakras, dream catchers, dreadlocks, dance moves, plant use, and so forth without the stories and traditions that weave them into a life, seems a bit mad to me. These surface things have come to being through long periods of cultural development, and to take the surface with no knowledge of the culture smacks of tourism. The surface only makes sense, only works, when you know what’s underneath it. To immerse deeply in the stories, values and philosophy of a people and a religion is a very different thing. It’s not the headdress that defines the religion, but the reasons for the headdress.

I heartily recommend ‘Spiritual Wisdom from the Altai Mountains’ as a fascinating insight into an evolving culture and spirituality, with much to teach us. Not about what we can copy from the Altai people, but what we can discover for ourselves in our own history, story and landscape.

Soul retrieval

I’ve had a few review books about shamanism in the last few years. One of the concepts this has introduced me to, is of soul retrieval. When a person is deeply distressed by an event, a part of their soul can, in this perspective, be broken away and lost to them, which in turn will add to ill health, depression and so forth. One of the jobs of the shaman is to go and retrieve those lost pieces of self.

However, every book I’ve thus far read has suggested that we can heal ourselves and make the spirit journeys to pick up bits we are missing. The odds are your lost soul fragment will be at the place the trauma occurred, so you just spirit journey to there, and call it back, and reassure it, and bring it home. Easy! Umm.
The first thing to say here is that in genuine trauma situations, revisiting the memories is the worst thing you can suggest a person does. In cases of mild upset, revisiting will help resolve what happened, but do we really think mild upset causes loss of soul? Revisiting memories of trauma can readily cause traumatised people enormous suffering for no gain at all. Forgetting is often the best sort of healing for PTSD and encouragement to go back there is encouragement to go into hell and risk brining that hell back into your life. I worry about this advice, and what people are being encouraged to do.

Battered, lost, with my sense of self in tatters and my life in pieces, I did try some of this, in desperation and because I was told it was doable and a good idea. I won’t make any claims at all for my skills in journeying and I am no kind of shaman. I was entirely unable to help myself in any way by this means, and the revisiting of sites of old wounding did me more harm than good. It may be that someone who knows how to do the work could do that for me, but I cannot do it for myself.

However, what the last few years have also taught me, is that there are other ways to bring back my lost sense of self and put myself back together. Places of safety, laughter, love and friendship do far more to heal those wounds and tackle the feeling of loss than classic ‘soul retrieval’ work ever did. In remembering who and how I used to be, and seeking out the places of good memory, I have managed to re-find a lot of missing pieces. People who have been important parts of my life historically, and people who’ve come into my life more recently in good ways give me moments when I can quite honestly feel myself healing, growing over the holes, putting back together. Some of those have been really unexpected.

Whether you rationalise this as psychological process or want to think in terms of magic and soul doesn’t entirely matter. There is a process, and for me it has been a very clear one. Going back to the places of wounding just opens those wounds a bit further, feeding my feelings of loss, distress and anguish. Going to the places that are good for me, that feed my soul and remind me of who I am, and connecting with the people who allow and enable me to be something that feels like an actual me, not a fake, or a product of damage – that works.

We are far too quick to ascribe to ourselves titles that should represent years of deep and dedicated study. We are far too quick to tell each other that, once you’ve read this one small book, you can do all the work of the traditional witch, shaman, wise-woman… it is a dangerous line of thought to adopt, especially in face of any serious issue or wounding. When we are down and vulnerable, being told how to magically fix that is so tempting, and it is so easy not to question the wisdom of it, but it can be a costly mistake to make. It is the person being told they can do the shaman’s work for themselves, with no proper support from anyone, who is most at risk. This troubles me.

I wish that more writers of New Age handbooks took the time to find out about the impact of trauma and poor mental health. I suspect really these books are written for and by people for whom getting a bit upset is the greatest trauma they have known. We all measure pain by our experiences of it, but if life is safe, easy and brings little more than angst, it is not difficult both to treat that as far more serious than it is, so go and play at soul-retrieval, feel better and tell other people to do the same. It is not, I think, what the practice of soul retrieval was originally intended for.