image: Wikimedia commons (link).
When considering the subject of shamanism and shamanic experience, many "Westerners" (that is to say, those who have grown up in the parts of the world that were actually ruled by the Roman Empire, specifically the western empire, as well as those parts of the world that the later European states descended from the western empire influenced heavily, and in particular those areas which were deeply committed to literalist forms of Christianity for many centuries in a row) may find the subject to be uncomfortable or even threatening.
This discomfort may be due to a variety of factors.
Some of it may be due to the complete unfamiliarity of the entire landscape of the shamanic, and a feeling that the concept is so alien as to be almost completely inaccessible to those coming from any of the cultures encompassed by "Western culture" as broadly described above.
Some of it may be due to the heavy stigma which the literalist forms of religion that have dominated Western culture for at least seventeen centuries have placed on forms of human experience involving contact with spirits or the spirit-world -- a stigma which retains some of its force even among descendants of Western culture who no longer accept the literalist interpretation of ancient scriptures or one of the various forms of literalist Christianity which opposed such experience based on specific and overt doctrines or teachings.
And some of it may be due to the idea that there is a deep and nearly impassible divide between different cultures, and especially between "Western" cultures and those retaining some aspect of the shamanic worldview, to the point that it is seen (perhaps by descendants of cultures on both sides of the divide) as "inauthentic" or "invasive" or in some other way "wrong" for anyone from a primarily Western background to wish to explore and especially to practice aspects of shamanic experience.
These barriers to the investigation of shamanic teaching and experience are unfortunate -- especially if it turns out that the outlines of the shamanic world-view are in fact accurate in their description of our universe! That is to say, such rejection of the relevance of the shamanic to everyone in the world (including those from a primarily "Western" background) would be unfortunate indeed if it turns out that there is in fact a realm corresponding to that realm described in various shamanic cultures as the Other World, the Spirit World, the Invisible World, the Dreamtime, or the Realm of the Gods, and if that other realm actually connects to and "interpenetrates" the more familiar or ordinary or material realm in which we spend most of our waking hours, such that changes in one realm can have real and lasting impact on what takes place in the other.
As I explore in The Undying Stars, there is indeed evidence that this situation is in fact the case: that is to say, that the universe we normally experience and think of as "reality" is in fact interpenetrated by an invisible world, or that the "explicate" world we inhabit somehow "unfolds from" an invisible "implicate" realm of pure potentiality. Modern theoretical physicists have been forced by the outcomes of various experiments conducted since the end of the nineteenth and especially during the twentieth century to radically reshape their models of the universe, and frameworks have been proposed including the "holographic universe" model which closely resemble the shamanic worldview in nearly every detail, other than the labels given to the two different realms of existence (or the two different modes of the "expression of information" or data).
The fact that shamanism anticipated this modern "discovery" by many thousands of years, and that, in addition to understanding it, shamanism has a rich tradition of techniques for actually moving between these different realms of existence in order to gain knowledge and make changes which cannot be effected in any other way, should alone be enough to recommend a careful reconsideration of the profound value and pertinence of shamanic thought and practice for all humanity.
But even more important, perhaps, to breaking down the unfortunate potential sources of "Western discomfort" with the shamanic that I listed above would be the understanding that in fact the shamanic worldview appears to have been deeply ingrained in ancient sacred tradition in all the places we think of today as "the West" and that this knowledge was deliberately stamped out only as recently as the fifth century AD within the Roman Empire -- and even later in other parts of Europe and the West.
In other words, what today we label as "the shamanic" is part of the heritage of all peoples -- but there has for centuries been a deliberate and very effective campaign to steal this heritage from humanity!
The very fact that we label the worldview broadly described as shamanic with an adjective derived from the Tungusian word shaman reinforces the extent to which this worldview was hunted to near extinction within the regions conquered or heavily influenced by the western Roman Empire and its successor western European states, and only survived in areas outside of that influence (such as eastern Europe, very far northern Europe, most of Africa and Asia -- including the region of modern-day Siberia where the Tungus peoples live -- as well as the continents of North and South America and the islands of the Pacific Ocean including the island-continent of Australia).
In fact, as I labor to demonstrate in The Undying Stars (and many of the posts here on this blog), it can be shown that nearly all the world's sacred myths, teachings and scriptures share a common underlying celestial foundation which actually unites them rather than divides them, and that the purpose of the esoteric celestial allegory employed in all these cases was to convey a vision of the universe and of human experience that is essentially what we today would call shamanic. For more on that possibility, see for example this previous post containing an index of links to posts detailing the celestial aspects of over fifty different myths from different world cultures (including myths in the Old and New Testaments), and also some of the previous posts which have discussed the possible shamanic purpose of these "star myths" such as "Shamanic-Holographic," "The shamanic foundation of the world's ancient wisdom," and "The ancient torch that was lighted for our guidance," among others.
Although this shamanic worldview took on different forms in cultures such as ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, or the cultures of the Druids, Celts, Norse, and others, it was nevertheless characterized in all of these different cultures by features that are essentially and specifically shamanic:
the awareness of "the other realm" or "world of the gods" in addition to the world of ordinary reality, and the practice of techniques for actually traveling between the realm of ordinary reality and the realm of the gods in order to obtain knowledge or effect change not possible to obtain or effect through any other method.
Previous posts have described, for example, the important work of Dr. Jeremy Naydler in demonstrating that what we would call shamanic travel or shamanic journeying was an integral part of ancient Egyptian civilization, and that the pharaoh appears to have regularly and deliberately undertaken out-of-body travel to the realm of the gods or neters in order to provide benefits for the entire society by doing so: see for instance this post, this post and this post. During the 1960s, the authors of Hamlet's Mill also outlined a strong case for a shamanic connection in the myth and practice of ancient Egypt: see for example this post and this post.
Other posts have demonstrated evidence for similarly shamanic worldviews in operation in ancient Greece, including at the oracle at Delphi, and in the long-standing Mysteries of Eleusis, both of which appear to have reinforced the necessity of acknowledging the invisible world and of crossing to the other side even during this life in order to obtain knowledge or make change which could not be accomplished any other way.
The shamanic aspects of the Norse myths are clear and compelling, and are especially evident in the central sacrifice of Odin, in which knowledge is shown being obtained through a ritual that is essentially shamanic -- knowledge that can be obtained by no other method. And, while Odin's ascent on the World-Tree is perhaps the most obviously shamanic episode in Norse mythology, there are many other Norse myths which can be convincingly shown to contain clear shamanic elements, including the myth of Odin and Gunnlod and the mead of poetry (as well as the many stories of Freya and her ability to transform into a falcon, and of the Valkyries who are also able to ascend to the heavens and who wear garments of feathers in some cases, a characteristic of the shaman's costume the world over).
It can be demonstrated that this shamanic worldview, and the practice of crossing over to the other realm in order to obtain knowledge or effect change, continued in what would become the "Western world" right up through the fifth century AD within the Roman Empire, during the period in which the hierarchy of literalist Christianity was actively suppressing esoteric -- we might even say shamanic -- interpretations of the texts that became the Biblical canon.
In fact, this previous post entitled "The centrality of ecstasy, according to ancient wisdom," cites the analysis of Gerald Massey (1828 - 1907) who concluded that the distinguishing hallmark of all ancient wisdom was "knowledge of trance conditions." This knowledge was found in all the ancient scriptures and cultures in "the West" prior to the advent of literalist Christianity, and this knowledge survived into the modern period in those cultures that were outside the areas that literalist Christianity stamped it out during the ancient period and up through the middle ages.
Elsewhere in his work, Massey puts forward the important theory (which he backs up with compelling evidence), that the author of the earliest Pauline letters in the New Testament was clearly teaching a worldview we would today call shamanic, including an emphasis on individual experience and direct revelation, and even out-of-the-body travel. Massey believes that this original intent was subverted by later literalist teachers and by the creation of letters (such as the "Pastoral letters") not written by the original author, and which taught an opposite worldview.
This information turns conventional understanding on its head, and should go a long way towards overcoming the three main areas of discomfort or objection cited at the beginning of this post.
It suggests that what we think of today as the shamanic is actually the heritage of all humanity -- but that this heritage was deliberately stolen from a large segment of mankind many centuries ago, and that the campaigns against other shamanic cultures that took place in more recent centuries may in fact be part of the same "stamping out" that took place in the West long before.
It also suggests that the hunger for the exploration of the shamanic among people descended from Western cultures may represent a longing for something that was once part of their own heritage, but from which they are now separated by long centuries of isolation from such experience.
It further suggests that shamanic practice can and does take on many different cultural forms, even as it retains some central features which characterize the shamanic worldview. The external trappings of that worldview looked very different in ancient Egypt, for example, than it did in Eleusis in ancient Greece, or in northern Europe among the Norse and Germanic peoples -- and these external differences are real and undeniable. However, the core understanding that there is a spirit world or realm of the gods (or realm of the "implicate order," in terms of modern holographic universe theory) and that deliberate travel to that realm is both possible and at times very necessary and potentially very beneficial, is common to all of the pre-Christian "Western" cultures just mentioned, just as it is common to the many different cultures where the shamanic worldview survived to the present or closer to the present day.
There are real and undeniable differences between more recent shamanic cultures, for instance between those found in the Amazon and those found in Siberia, but there are core similarities as well -- especially the core belief in the possibility of such shamanic travel, its potential benefits, and its necessity in some circumstances.
We might also conclude that, given the number of centuries that have intervened between the time that this worldview was stamped out in "the West" and the present day, anyone coming from a primarily Western culture who wants to investigate traditions where this kind of knowledge has survived is of necessity forced to do so among the knowledge that survived in non-Western cultures. This does not mean that someone who does so is trying to "appropriate" or "steal" from the culture where that knowledge has been preserved, or trying to turn into someone that they are not: it is more a case of someone from a culture where long generations have now elapsed since this ancient light was put out going to someone where that flame was preserved right up to recent memory.
We might say it is also like someone from a boat or a ship that has been blown to pieces, and who is now floating in the ocean, paddling over to boats or vessels that may on the outside look very different from the one that they were originally from, but that were also designed with the same primary purpose in mind. Recreating the old boat is pretty much out of the question at this point: Eleusis went silent so many centuries ago that there are now none living who can say with any certainty what techniques were used in their mysteries.
When these refugees learn the techniques that have been preserved in other cultures and other places and then head out to try to navigate the waters of this life using what they have learned, their "boats" and methods of sailing may and probably will have a different look and feel. That fact should not lead to their being criticized or rejected as somehow being inauthentic or counterfeit. The evidence presented above shows that the broadly "shamanic worldview" is the heritage of all humanity, even though it is and probably indeed must be expressed differently by different cultures living in different parts of the world or different centuries and using different technologies. The fact that it will be expressed differently by practitioners in our modern day who have their own different cultural backgrounds and baggage should not be cause for division or criticism or rejection of the desire to follow this ancient path in the circumstances of today's world.
In fact, given some of the evidence touched on above, it could be argued that we do not have the luxury of declaring the pursuit of shamanic experience to be "off limits" to any group or family of humanity. It is clear from evidence stretching all the way back to the Pyramid Texts (and perhaps much further back even than that) that the knowledge of and the ability to enter into altered states of consciousness and in doing so to travel into non-ordinary reality (the other realm, the implicate order) in order to gain information or to effect change that cannot be accomplished any other way is absolutely essential to individual health and to the health of society at large.
If "Western society" and the world at large is dangerously off-track or imbalanced, then this fact itself would argue that the recovery and active practice of that shamanic worldview which was lost (and, it could be argued, deliberately stolen) must be given the highest priority.