Every now and again, controversy swirls around the use of the word “shaman.” To be honest, the word comes from saman, the name for a certain type of practitioner in Siberia, but over the years its meaning has been expanded to cover practitioners all over the world who use similar techniques. These techniques encompass traveling in the spirit to other worlds through trance, the use of spirit helpers, healing the sick and bringing back those near death (or helping them to the other side), communicating with the dead and the ancestors, leading rituals, divination, and retelling the community’s songs and stories.
There are clues and remnants of many of these practices in the Witchcraft and Cunning Folk Arts of Europe and England that indicate that “shamans” functioned there, as well, and were called by many names. A few of these names include hexen, bruja, volva, benendanti, taltos, calusari, plus others still probably waiting to be discovered and reclaimed. The powers of the shaman were so essential to the proper and prosperous functioning of the community that they existed pretty much everywhere. You simply couldn’t do without them.
Despite this, shamans in much of the Western World went underground over the years and much of their practices and wisdom were lost. But, perhaps, not forever. Today, dedicated practitioners are going back and looking for that knowledge, whether through reconstruction techniques or mystical communication with the old Gods and spirits or both. Reconstructionists pour over old books–in the original texts and language if possible–seeking out tidbits of information that can be put back together to make a functional whole. While, mystics prefer direct communication with the old Gods and the use of spirit travel to find what’s been lost. Both of these approaches have their strengths and their weaknesses.
Perhaps, a more useful and unified approach would be the approach of the shaman–having one foot here in this world, looking at the tales that historical records and archeology tell (bearing in mind that both history and archeology do not always have all the facts and, also, must rely on interpretation) and having one foot in the Otherworld via questioning and learning from Gods and spirits. In the second case, also keeping in mind the sometimes tricksy nature of spirits, in particular, of the Fey, and that They may well have their own agendas and subjective viewpoint. The other issue is that knowledge coming from Divine contact may be hidden within poetry and myth and must be looked at in the same way. In neither case, should the information be treated as cold, hard fact.
Yet, perhaps, somewhere in the middle lies the truth of those who once lived and worked magick for the good of the community. We have inherited a few of their objects and pieces of their written records and speculation can be built off of that. Yet, that only tells one side of the story, the physical record. The spiritual record resides in our shared archetypal memory, in the sleeping knowledge of the bloodlines, and in contact with those Gods and spirits who worked closely with the shamans of old Europe and England.
If we can find that middle ground, put as many of the pieces back together as we can manage, and then bring it to life in the now…then we can say that shamanism has returned to modern Western society. And, probably, not a moment too late, because shamans are needed as much–if not more–than they were in the distant past. They are needed to find and keep the balance between this world and the Otherworld, between the living and the dead, between the land and the people and the people and the forces of the Divine. They are needed to fix what’s broken and heal what’s been harmed. They are needed to tell our stories again.
copyright © 2010, Veronica Cummer, all rights reserved