In the Fall of 1976, I was fortunate enough to attend the University of Chicago for my Master’s degree. I studied in the Divinity School there with the famed Rumanian born historian of religions, Mircea Eliade. I took two courses with professor Eliade. One was entitled Mythologies of Death; the other, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques in Ecstasy. You see, Eliade had written what is still considered the definitive text on this unique Siberian phenomenon. So my understanding of shamanism was strongly influenced by my association with the old professor.
Some of you may be thinking: yea, but have you ever met a real shaman? Well, actually, I’ve spent time with one Altai shamanka – at a small village in the Karakol Valley of the Ongudai region of Altai Republic. I may have been with other shaman’s in my past few years visiting Altai, but of that I cannot be certain. It seems that real shamans don’t seem to advertise.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, ethnologists and anthropologists have used the terms shaman, medicine man, sorcerer, witch-doctor, and magician, interchangeably to denote individuals who possess special magical, or healing, and perhaps sacred, powers found in nearly all so-called “primitive” societies. Furthermore, the same term has been uncritically applied in describing similar phenomena among “civilized” peoples as well; there have been discussions, for example, of Indian, Iranian, German, Chinese, even Babylonian shamanism. In the USA today, in fact, shamanism has become the new age, avant-garde spiritual pursuit, replacing Buddhism as the hot religious phenomenon of the 21st Century West.
Shamanism is, then, a rather tricky term to pin down because it has been used in so very many different contexts. Such conceptual complexity can only confuse our understanding of authentic shamanic phenomenon. But, at the very least, we can safely say that shamanism refers to what we might initially call a magico-religious or proto-religious phenomenon found originally in late Paleolithic or early Neolithic societies.
Of course, a shaman is ‘like’ a magician and he is ‘like’ a medicine man in certain respects; he or she is believed to be able to cure illness, like all doctors, and to perform miracles like a magician. But he is much more than either. A special title applied to the shaman by historians of religion is “psycho-pomp.” That is to say, a guide for the souls of the dead, much like the mythical Grifon bird, archaic symbol of the Altai Republic and before that, of the Scythians. All this is to confirm that the shaman’s traditional, if not primary, role was that of mediator of the unseen, who could communicate with powers that animate the world, and use that ability to serve his fellow tribesmen.
The shaman was a specialist in ecstatic trance. In altered states of consciousness, he could fly away and visit with the powers that animate this world. It is believed that the shaman’s soul was able to leave the body and travel to other parts of the cosmos, particularly to an upper world in the sky and a lower world underground. This specialty provided him a unique status as technician of the sacred. In this respect he served as an intermediary figure between the seen and the unseen, healing sick members in his community, leading their souls at death to the other world, or discovering the source of larger social ills. And while the shaman had different tools to assist in achieving trance – herbs, drumming, chanting, and dancing – the techniques of ecstasy came to reside solely with him or her. In the final analysis, the shaman’s role was to restore balance in a world that was apparently going off track.
Archeological evidence of shamanism first appears between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago in parts of Siberia, especially Buryatiya (near Lake Baikal) and Altai. Much of the earliest evidence of shamanic tradition is to be found right here in the Altai Mountains. So shamanism, in the strict sense, is really a Siberian, if not an Altaian, phenomenon. The word «shaman» actually comes to us from the language of the Evenk, a small Tungus-speaking group of hunters and reindeer herders in Baikal region of Buryatiya. Linguists believe it is derived from the Pali samana, with possible Sanskrit roots, eg., sramana. Among Altai speakers we find the word kam or gam. Similarly in the Turko-Tartar and Mongolian tongues, kami. Eliade’s work referenced above focuses precisely on these Siberian roots, among the Tungus, Buryat, and Altai indigenous tribes.
In my view, the figure of the shaman represents a critical turning point in human cultural history, and in the history of religions specifically, emerging as it does around the time of another great shift. As the Pleistocene epoch gave way to the Holocene approximately 15,000 years ago, we see sudden substantive changes in human social and economic organization. There was a dramatic and definitive move for some of our forebears from rather egalitarian, nomadic hunter-gatherer arrangements to a more sedentary, agricultural lifestyle — including the establishment of fixed villages, the emergence of cities, the domestication of plants and animals, and the growth of political hierarchy. There has been a great deal of scholarly speculation that during the earlier Pleistocene epoch, (roughly 2 million to 11,000 years ago), our forebears experienced a qualitatively different relation to their surrounding environment than we do today; there was a more vital connection to nature, where the world felt alive with power – in rock, water, earth and sky. Animism had its roots in such experience, as did totemism. In fact, we can still find such sentiment philosophically present in the Altaian worldview today.
Yet, with the Neolithic revolution, things began to change substantially. There was a new relationship to nature developing. With agriculture and urbanization, the power of the wild, non-human landscape no longer spoke directly and openly to the tribe or to the villager. Nature became increasingly mute and muted by changes in technology, economy, and social organization. It is here that the shaman appeared as a lone voice where the community could still connect with those now receding powers, a magical interventionist in rebalancing the world. There seemed to be a secret language that the shaman alone possessed – the language of nature and those forces animating nature and binding his community to the territory. This transformed him into a crucial figure in a changing reality, a messenger of the mysteries, par excellence, of an emergent concept of the sacred. He alone could tap into the underlying power of a vibrant, living cosmos. His was surely one of the first special statuses in the pre-emergence of stratified societies and religio-political hierarchy.
The typical shaman came into his role because he manifested specific idiosyncratic traits – epilepsy, sexual ambiguity, poetic sensitivity, dramatic dreams, or extraordinary visions that called him to take on the mission. The role may also bestow itself as a function of heredity (passing on the family business). But there were also rites of passage for entrance into the mission, usually psychological crises, and physical tests in the wild. Psychologically, shamans had to be strong, and depend on an ability to function in two separate but intertwined realities, the ordinary world of everyday routinized life, and an extraordinary reality only encountered through ecstatic journeys, in magical flight and trance. Indeed, they were shape-shifters, changing into the animal form of their helper-spirits whenever necessary to fulfill theirs tasks as spiritual rebalancers and healers for the community. In shape-shifting lay his real magical practice. Today, most psychologists would render a diagnosis of schizophrenia if they met a shaman.
We must recognize that the shaman’s unique status also forced him to live as an outsider, as the Other among the group he served. Physically located on the periphery or outskirts of the community, he was the true embodiment of alterity, of Otherness. He lived this social estrangement within the confines of what we might be tempted to label a sociopathic personality. There was always a mystery and even some fear surrounding his person, and his supernatural abilities. He was never called on casually, but always in more extreme need or dire circumstances requiring special intervention. It must have seemed to those whom he served that he lived in the gap, somewhere between what was becoming the more domesticated life of the villager, and his special vocational ability to enter what they may have now sensed as a separate, supersensible, and wild reality.
Everything about the Shaman’s wardrobe spoke of his difference. The diverse amulets, tassels, pieces of bone, hoof, beak, fur, feather, shell, and sometimes, mirrors that adorn his costume, acted as conduits for attracting the good helping spirits and confusing or repelling the evil ones.
The Shaman’s Drum (бубен or tambourine) lies at the heart of the shamanic mission, his worldview, and his ecstatic trance. This is no less true of Altai shamans. It’s been said that the drum is like the shaman’s bow, launching his soul into the other world. The skin of the бубен presents a picture of the shamanic cosmology in outline, with the ‘World Tree’ standing dead center, connecting upper and lower realms. And if we realize that the drum is made of the same wood as the World Tree, then we understand the symbolism, the specific value, and the efficacy of its sound. We can understand why, when he beats on the drum, the shaman feels himself transported in ecstasy on a mystical flight to the Center, again linking the realms, enabling him to communicate with the powers of nature. It is in such a drum-induced trance that the shaman is able to fulfill his role as a spiritual guide to the living and the dead. Yet, is the drum, the dancing, and chanting ALL there is to ecstatic trance and magical flight? Perhaps not all.
It’s no secret that Siberians love to go mushroom hunting. We might say that their love of mushrooms proves their truly visceral attachment to the earth, to Mother Russia. Siberian shamans, it must be noted, have this same proclivity, even more so. And they exercise this love by using the sacred mushroom in teasing open that doorway to ecstasy. ‘Amanita muscaria’ (Fly Agaric), or in Russian, Мухамор – the magic mushroom – has a long history of use as an entheogen (a visionary or religious hallucinogenic) in Siberia and elsewhere.
‘Muscimol’ – the psychoactive agent in this mushroom – has sedative, hypnotic, and dissociative effects, transforming one’s normal sense of self encased in a bag of skin, and thereby creating a real sense of being-beside-oneself or outside-oneself, providing the hallucinogenic experience of traversing other cosmic realms. To Siberian shamans, the Amanita mushroom may represent at least one key trigger for achieving spiritual flight, the soul’s experience of ecstasy, a trance-like state enabling him to reach other worlds, and obtain fantastic visions. Scholars have suggested that it was often through mushroom-induced visions that the gateway to the nature’s power was revealed. But perhaps, that is not all.
What do we really know about Santa Claus, I mean, St. Nick, you know! that bearded old guy dressed in red and white living in the North Pole who travels on the heels of his flying reindeer, delivering gifts and good tidings to all? Siberian Reindeer or Maral are considered sacred animals for many indigenous tribes in Siberia. The deer, moreover, has been commonly seen as a helping spirit by Siberian shamans, so much so that the shaman would mimic this protective animal’s look in his costume, essentially making himself into (becoming one-with) his spirit-helper.
Again, he was a shape-shifter, in costume or reality. And, shamans (not unlike other folk here) have been known to use the blood or parity waters of the reindeer to achieve special spiritual and health benefits. As well, it is no secret that Siberian reindeer are also fond of the amanita mushroom, seeking it out even under an early snowfall.
The shaman’s own sensation of flight could well account for the legends of flying reindeer in our modern Santa fable, just as the myths of shamanic journeys often have descriptions of winged reindeer transporting them up to the highest branches of the World Tree.
In fact, the flying reindeer, the sleigh, and the entire foundation of our Western European Santa Claus fable may have originated in the psychedelic-mushroom-induced shamanic trances of Siberia where St Nicholas is still regarded as the patron Saint of travel (shamanic flight included). It may be that this Christian symbol and his iconography has simply supplanted the magical flight of the once ecstatic, indigenous Siberian Shaman, his dancing reindeer, and their magic mushrooms.