Shaman: My Uncomfortable Relationship With a Problematic Word

[This one gets a little rambly.]

These last weeks have seen a bit of traffic on a subject near and dear to my heart:the relationship between modern neo-Pagan animism and magic, cultural appropriation, and the word and figure of the “shaman”.  It “began”—so to speak; I don’t know that any of the authors read one another—with Alison Leigh Lilly and an interesting vision of where a combination of steampunk aesthetic and neo-Pagan praxis might lead (and the follow-up).  Next were Lupa Greenwolf’s posts (one and two) on her own discomfort with, first the word, and then the militant and un-self-critical reaction to her use of it.  Finally, VVF weighs in heavily but thoughtfully on the other side of the issue.

This is an issue that I, too, struggle with.  I since first being introduced to shamanic visionary techniques by a friend in St. Louis—fortunately, after I became at least tangentially aware of issues of cultural appropriation—I have always avoided the title “shaman”.  I don’t come from a culture that awards that title.  Actually, strictly speaking, no culture does: “shaman” is a bastardized Anglicization of the Siberian word “saman”.  It was adopted in the late 19th Century as a catch-all term for indigenous religious healers and, over the course of the 20th Century, came to be associated with particular types of trance-induction and spiritual mediation.  It was in that latter sense that I was first introduced to and familiarized with the word, and—because that was what my sources told me the word for the kinds of magic that came most naturally to me was—came to describe my visionary practice as “shamanic”, or “shamanic witchcraft”.

But there are anthropologists who don’t even think it’s a real thing (damn, why don’t I have my full library with me so I can fucking cite that?  please forgive me and use your favorite search engine): that “shamanism” is a social construction created by Western scientists as a way of understanding and conflating certain kinds of indigenous religious and magical practice which have no Western analogue (well, unless VVF is right about fairies, or unless you count theurgy).  This argument carries more weight the more research I do.  Yes, it’s helpful to create categories of like things so that we can better understand similarities, but … At the very least, one must simultaneously acknowledge that the categorization is alien to the system being observed.  Better practice would require a more proactive attempt to first understand the “shamanic” practices as the people to whom they are native understand them.

A number of my religious/spiritual/magical practices are rooted in what is known in some circles as “core shamanism”—that is, the use of drums, dance, rhythm, and/or drugs as techniques of achieving certain states of altered consciousness, stripped of their original cultural context and any elements or trappings that are most obviously cultural appropriation.  This is the work advocated by, for example, Michael Harner and Roger Walsh.

I’m not called to work with remains and spirits of animals, as Lupa is; nor am I as well known either she or Allison.  These two facts shelter me from an awful lot of the bullshit, allowing me to work my way through these issues in relative peace.  But my magical talents seem much better suited to exploring the Otherworld than anything else, and when spirits appear to me as animals and refuse to give me names, calling them “totems” and referring to them as Wolf or Leopard are pretty much the best I’ve got in terms of precise language.  And, though there are problems with it, as someone who identifies as a writer first and foremost, precise language is kind of a big deal to me.  Hell, the pursuit of precise, accurate, and affirming language is a huge part of my feminism/anti-racism/social justice effort.  When my need for precise language pushes me into dangerous territory, all I can say is “I’m sorry.  I’m working on it.”

I’ve spoken before on how uncomfortable I am with the the parts of neo-Pagan practice that dance around and over the borders of cultural appropriation, and of my personal relationship with those elements of practice. Increasingly, I find myself referring to my magical practice as “visionary” rather than “shamanic”. “Visionary” has it’s own problems—there’s these pesky associations with leadership and hierarchy, for example—but at least it doesn’t reek of colonialism. At the same time, though, I—like Lupa—struggle with the idea of bowing down to people within my own community who seem more interested in being the morality police than in actually serving social justice.

The more research I do, the more I come to understand that, while many of the techniques have been lost, “shamanic” practices are not absent from the Western tradition.  Witches with flying potions, fairy familiars like those VVF talked about, Hellenistic theurgy, astral projection and pathworking.   I’m not a theurge.  I may worship the gods of ancient Hellas, but I don’t buy the ideas of a fallen/impure world from which one MUST ascend to reach the gods.  Some gods are Up There, sure; and some are Down.  But there are plenty of them Right Here With Us, too.  I don’t to much pathworking because it’s too structured: I don’t like having my conclusions fed to me the way much of the pathwork I’ve seen seems to do.  And I’m just not very good at astral projection (yet).  But the fact is, I have the raw materials from which to build a cultural context for my visionary work.  Until some spirit teaches me better ones, though, I’m pretty much stuck with the “shamanic” techniques I learned from Harner.

And, as long as I’m stuck with Harner—and Wood, and Walsh, and all the others—I’m pretty much stuck with the word “shaman”, no matter how much I dance around it.  No matter how uncomfortable it makes me.  And I don’t really know how I feel about that … let alone how I should feel about it.