I thought before entering into a discussion about “Shamanism”, where I am bound to regale you with my personal understanding and opinion, as I am apt to do that I would turn to good old Funk & Wagnalls:

“Shamanism: [<Russian<Tungusic "saman"<Sanskrit (abbreviation Skt.) "samana">ascetic] A primitive religion of NE Asia and Europe holding that gods, demons, ancestral spirits, etc. work for good or ill of mankind through the sole medium of priests, the shamans. Certain Indians of the American Northwest have similar beliefs and practices … magician, tribal medicine man, wizard,”

Funk & Wagnalls could have done a vastly better job for obvious reasons but the definition is, I guess, adequate. There is little doubt in my mind that “shamanism” per se has been practiced for at least 100,000 years globally and probably much, much longer. And yet I take some exception to the widespread use of the word as a junk-bag term for everything under the sun. It is a Tungusic word for English-attempted equivalents such as medicine person, holy person, spirit handler, priest/ess, and even witch. Native Americans speak hundreds of linguistically unrelated languages, each of which contains its own word for these English equivalents. In other words, you won’t find the Tungusic word “shaman” in the Dakota, Ute, Kyowa, Tewa, Navajo, and etc. languages.

It is my understanding from both many years of study and many years of association with traditional medicine people, that “shamanism”, referred to hereafter as spirit handling or medicine, has and never will be about transcendence for transcendence sake. These practices have very real, practical and significant purposes in tribal cultures. Practitioners “transcend” (or make prayers) in order to find serious solutions to issues that threaten individual lives and /or the wellbeing of the tribe as a living, breathing organism unto itself (the true essence of community). It is also held that an “assault” by a spirit on an individual or group is also, but not exclusively, a consequence of not living in a good way. For example, we or I have thought or behaved in such a way as to create an environment in which the offending spirit takes up residence and thrives. Hence the term spirit handling and the need for transcendence to appease and determine from the spirit world how to reset the harmony.

There are a great many contemporary generalizations or interpretations of esoteric things that I really question. Consider the idea put forth that only certain groups are uniquely endowed with the gift of medicine. In my heart I suspect that this is just another way of fueling the insidiousness of more and more prejudice. I have known superb practitioners from every imaginable walk of life. The utter beauty of these practices was that, after decades of apprenticeship, each individual was allowed to put their own spin on that medicine. Perhaps therein lies the rub. Even those recognized at birth as being uniquely endowed were required to endure decades of apprenticeship in lieu of having any other life. Few people have the intestinal fortitude to give up their dreams and ambitions to a life-consuming sacrifice such as that in this day and age.

Another error I suspect in contemporary generalization is that the pursuit of spiritual practices somehow sits in opposition to academic pursuit. I can find nothing that supports this notion in either history or among that the deeply spiritual practitioners I have known. Many of these elders managed college education against some pretty horrendous odds. Those who chose to go into apprenticeships as teenagers rather than pursue formal education were not dismissed as having not applied themselves academically during their arduous apprenticeships. Nor were the academics dismissed as having no power or spirit. All of the elders I was privileged to know worked together in a harmonious unit of equals.

It seems that we have managed to roll the terms “shamanism” and “paganism” into the same breath. Having re-thought my way through the word “shamanism” when I turn back to Funk & Wagnalls for the definition of pagan/ism I am compelled to re-think that word as well. The original Latin “pagus” meant simply “the country” and “rural village”. Later Latin (abbr. LL) “peganus” meant “heathen”. From there it took on a Christian reference to an irreligious person, heathen, idol-worshipper. That gives one reason for pause. I have been called both a heathen and a heretic because I am not a believer in the Biblical god. I can’t figure out the evolution of the word “heathen” from the Old English (abbr. OE) “haethen” meaning simply “health”. I am indeed a heretic, thank you very much, because I do not hold to the tenets and doctrines of the Christian church. But the evolution of the word “heretic” is elusive too. Derived from both LL “harerticus” and the Greek “hairetikes” means simply “able to choose”. That’s certainly me. Lastly to pretend Goddess worshippers “worshipped” marble statues (idols) is just wrong. Statues represent great worlds of concept and it is the concept that comes into play here. And one could wonder how anyone could draw a distinction between statues of Goddesses being something bad and statues of saints being holy. I think simply that we as humans have a need to see something that reflects that which wells up inside the human spirit. Cave paintings were no different in that regard, nor are tattoos for some of us.

I can only conclude after all of this reflection that perhaps the term “tree hugger” is not so bad after all.

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  1. “Tree hugger is not so bad”