in its strictest definition the word shamanism seems to come from the tungusic people of north asia, describing their medicine men. in its broadest definition it describes practitioners of trance states leading to spiritual ecstasy and can range from tribal healers to twirling dervishes, kabbalistic practitioners, yogis and drug blissed new aged ravers.
michael winkleman tries to peg it down to the trance state magico-religious practitioners of nomadic tribes, casting similar trance state users from agricultural tribes as shamanic healers, mediums and priests, but this greatly reduces the scope of study, and may in fact move the study of shamanism from that of a living culture to the historical archeology of dead tribes and civilizations.
the truth is, neither winkleman, mircead eliad, nor any of the many archeologists and writers of shamanic studies and documents are in a position to definitively say what shamanism is or isn’t. the word is a category and model created by the mind to serve the mind, an easy way of linking concepts, we ourselves must choose what those concepts link.
as for me, i am choosing to focus this discussion on the grouping of concepts i have come to call “tribal shamanism.” cultures and societies still functioning from an oral tradition, with a continuous narrative of their myths, creation stories and ritual formulas.
of course this distinction must be housed within the larger parameter of a tradition that uses trance or ecstatic states to commune and navigate through spiritual realms, but systems all over the world and throughout time use trance states for spiritual purposes.
the distinction between oral and written tradition offers a number of differentiations. firstly there is the matter of one’s relationship to knowledge. it cannot simply be read or gathered as if from an external, impersonal source into the individual person as data retainer. in an oral tradition the community, not the library, is the source of information. information is personal, the infusion of community knowledge into a community member rather than impersonal knowledge into an individual.
outside of this social conditioning, written language also changes the neural plasticity of the literate person, changing brain functions in a way we are still trying to understand. some obvious differentiations include the memory capacities of the oral practitioner versus the pure diversity of information kept at the fingertips of the literate individual.
further, the ease of communication which writing allows across space and time have allowed for larger bureaucratic systems and complexity in terms of organized society, but not necessarily higher complexity in relationships, abstract principles, social or cultural complexity. oral traditions seem just as well situated and, i would argue, better adapted at maintaining complexity amongst close relations and systems. the focus of the oral tradition isn’t spread out into every nook and cranny of thought and reflection, but is concentrated in the accumulated knowledge of the community, typically in social relations, the community’s traditions and the local environment.
another important distinguishing factor is the requirement that the culture has not degraded so much that the myths, stories and rituals have suffered discontinuity. while societies all over the world, shamanic ones especially, are losing much of their history, meaning and context of their culture, it is important that our focus remain on cultures that still continue some form of unbroken continuity.
this is what separates tribal shamanism from neo and resurrected religions. while the hopi still remember many of their rituals, myths and stories, norse worshippers are forced to create or spiritually rediscover traditions and finer points of philosophy and religion. there is no continuation of cultural authority to assure anyone that they got it right.
further, the minds that contemplate these new mysteries of neo religions do so in a world completely different than the original traditions, they are in a way, out of context.
there is nothing wrong with this, i am a bit of a pagan myself, but the difference is a fact that needs to be recognised.
most tribal societies arrange their sacred spaces and mythos with their geography. local mountains were the sacred places of the gods, even a local tree, lagoon or well have mythic significance. a large, ancient tree may very well be an ancestor of the tribe, the mountain or lake a place for the spirits to dwell. this is seen in all the ancient religions: from the greek rites to mountain sinai of the hebrew, from the mountain temples of tibet to the great rivers of india. the sacred mythology and stories of the people are intimately attached to the local landscape.
the same goes for everything else. houses and buildings are built with mythic dimensions, from the levels of the hopi kiva to the roof of the kogi men’s house, each piece of the structure has a mythic significance. tribal stories explain everyday artifacts, their discovery, proper use and service to humanity, and the ancestors who mastered or became them.
this allows for a world whose information is discovered and maintained in the community and whose existence stretches back to mythic time, to ancestors and the entirety of the past, embodied here in the everyday.
the shaman then becomes the focal point for this numinous interpenetration of time, the sacred and mundane. he or she is the keeper of the most sacred rites and knowledge, amongst a community that already knows its fair share of mythos and meaning.
when a shamanic community or individual is removed from their local environment, their legends and stories no longer make sense in the context of the geography they are now surrounded by. the animals they encounter are different, the trees are foreign, the stars may even be different. the medicines that their hero ancestors died for are no longer to be found, and the artifacts of the strange land no longer sing with the deep symbolism of the tribe. houses become a set of walls instead of the womb space before creation. strange new foods are presented at dinner with no story of their sacrifice or why they have subjected themselves to be eaten by mankind.
the power of the myths and stories that create the numinous intermixing of the sacred and mundane worlds turn into a foreign unknown. the old stories are no longer relevant to the new generation, they become legend only. the new land, new culture, new sets of values and stories compromises the geocentric beliefs of the ancestors.
there are thousands of sacred mountains in the world, many of them have been the center of the universe for their local tribesmen, few of them are treated as sacred anymore.
tribal shamanism must go beyond the description of the relationship between humanity and the spiritual world, it must live in a society still in touch enough with their mythic environment to create spiritual meaning and vitality.