Shamanic Moon

 Return to American Shamanism Main Page

Contemporary Shamanism
By Gwendolyn Toynton

Traditional Shamanism is often thought of as a magico-religious tradition of the past, existing today only in indigenous populations. Whilst to many the practice of Shamanism is still limited to such areas, Shamanism itself has survived and perhaps even flourished under the blessing of a new incarnation. At the moment, the revival and new found interest in Shamanism is particularly predominant in the Western world. Finding themselves limited to Western doctrine of Christianity, a number of people have rejected such traditional concepts and have either created for themselves new traditions, or, as in the case of Shamanism, revived a religion which predated Christianity. Collectively, these newly emerged traditions are sometimes referred to as belonging to the ‘New Age' phenomenon. However, this term is incorrect and often regarded as highly offensive to modern day practitioners of magic, who instead prefer to be called Pagan or Heathen, for to them the term ‘New Age' conjures up images of ‘pop' culture and mass commercialism. The ‘New Age' phenomenon is the commercialised face of the occult, for serious practitioners of magic books of this genre are classed as both uninformative and without substance. They have no roots, no foundations on which to lay there beliefs, although many lay claim to fictitious antiquity. As they have no scholastic merit to followers of the Shamanic Path, ‘New Age' works shall not be examined here. Instead, what follows will be a comparison of traditional practice of Shamanism in Siberia, and modern day Shamanism as practiced by two international organisations, the Bond of the Grae Wolf and Ásatrú, both of which aspire to following a path soundly based in Norse heritage.
The word Shaman itself originates from the Tungus of Siberia, and is often equated with the titles of ‘witch doctor' or ‘medicine man'. Whilst this serves to describe some aspects of the versatile character of the Shaman, it does not clarify all the points of the Shamans complexity. In small scale communities, the Shaman was often the only religious specialist within the community, and as such was involved in a wide range of tasks, such as blessings, curative remedies, divination, communication with the spirit world (in all its various forms), and life cycle rituals. In all of these tasks, performance plays an important role in traditional Shamanism. In public ceremonies, the performance of the Shaman, and the techniques which he/she employs are necessary to place the audience in a receptive mode of thought, which is of a similar nature to the trance that Shaman enters, though it is not thought to be as deep. These techniques include the use of percussion, chanting, ventriloquism and sleight of hand. Though some have looked upon the use of trickery (such as sleight of hand) as being evident of the fraudulent nature of the traditional Shamanism, this is not the case. The Shaman needs the belief of the audience in order for the success of the ritual/performance, and sleight of hand serves to convince the audience of the Shamans powers. This is reminiscent of the ‘placebo effect' employed today by our own modern day healers and doctors; if a person if given what they believe to be a cure by a health professional they can show considerable signs of improvement in their condition. It is easy for a person to believe something if they are but given a sign of its effect.

These techniques of traditional Shamanism are all found in the Shamanism of the Chukchee of Siberia. Prior to the Chukchee Shamans performances, a mixture of tobacco and wood is smoked, a tradition which can be traced back to the Tungus Shamans. Use of stimulants/relaxants prior to performance is feature of Shamanism and is related to the concept of Shamanic ecstasy. To Chukchee, this idea is expressed by the word ‘an-na'arkin' (He Sinks), and is related to the Shamans ability to employ ecstasy as a tool by which to enter other worlds and communicate with spirits. It is this characteristic moment of ecstasy and the sinking into trance which follows it that marks the beginning of the Shamanic journey. Today, among the Chukchee, trances as deep as this are rarely witnessed, a fact which the Chukchee attribute to the Shamans of the past having greater skill than those in modern times.

One of the most important features in traditional Shamanism is the use of percussion, which Needham has stated as being vital to provide the transition of states in Shamanic performances. The rhythmic noise produced by the drumming and repetitive chanting of the Chukchee Shaman is necessary for the production of trance in both the audience and the Shaman, and is an essential feature of communication with the Other world.

In looking at contemporary Shamanism of the pagan/heathen movements, two groups have been chosen, the Bond of the Grae Wolf, which is an international organisation with a practicing group within New Zealand, and Ásatrú, which is similar to the Bond of the Grae Wolf in some ways, and in others very different. Both the Bond of the Grae Wolf and Ásatrú follow the tradition of the Norse in pre-Christian Europe.

The Bond of the Grae Wolf practices a system of what they call pagan - warrior Shamanism, which they believe has developed from a spiritual warrior code evolved from Shamanic hunters, ‘who adopted hunting skills and magic to the task of protecting and expanding their territories.' Within the Bond of the Grae Wolf, a belief in the Warrior Code of Honour, Courage and Compassion is paramount to their spiritual success. Shamanic power is believed to be acquired through exercises known as Ordeals, which test not only the individual's belief in the Warrior Code, but also all of the individual's spiritual reserves. Shamanic magic is also an integral part of the Warrior's training. An important aspect of this is Drengskapr (The Warrior's Way), in which integrity and compassion are also emphasised. The idea of Drengskapr is exemplified by the Norse God Tyr, who sacrificed his right hand to the jaws of the Fenris Wolf to spare the other Gods from the Wolf's onslaught. The Shamanic principles of the Bond of the Grae Wolf are based on two factors; the inevitability of change and the transformative process of death. This is known as Wyrd (fate). To practice Shamanism, one must become aware of the power of Wyrd (by means of facing the Ordeals), and resolve to live under the influence of Wyrd and accept its presence with dignity, irrespective of what Ordeals Wyrd throws at one. The Bond of the Grae Wolf has have a strong ethical commitment to community service, believing that there is little point to developing one's self unless it is directed towards the service on others.

Similar to the Bond of the Grae Wolf is the practice of Ásatrú, which also believes in the power of Wyrd, but places less emphasis on Warrior ethics and more on trance work. The Shamanic workings involve spae-workings, which are spiritual journeys, conducted by means of trance, usually for the purpose of divination, to the point where all worlds converge in Norse mythology; at the Great World Tree, Yggdrasil. In this process, the spákona (spaewoman), sends out part of her spirit to seek knowledge from these other worlds. The technique itself is called spá, or sometimes, seiðr. Aside from the purpose of divination, spá may also be performed to protect one from physical or psychological danger. The purpose is also sometimes to meet a guardian spirit or gain an animal totem. As with the Chuckee Shaman, drumming and chanting is used as a means to transport the spákona to the other world. Drumming is held by spákona to be a means of gaining the energy required as part of the Shamanic journey. Unlike the Chukchee Shamans, however, most spákonas are female. Two reasons have been put forward by Jenny Jochens (1996) to explain the majority of female spákonas. In traditional Norse society, Jochens claims that spá work was seen as a practice which effeminised men, possibly because the process included working with what she terms as ‘receptive' female sexual energies. The Shamanic journey to the Other world in order to communicate with spirits and the use of animal imagery, is however, common to both Ásatrú and the Shamanism of the Chukchee people. Communication with the spirits is also sought for similar reasons; protection and divination.

The Bond of the Grae Wolfs method of Shamanism differs from the Shamanism of the Chukchee because of its Warrior Code and aspects of martial training. Despite this difference, there are other ways in which the beliefs of the Bond of the Grae Wolf are similar to aspects found in traditional Shamanism. One of these is the emphasis placed upon the community. In the society of the traditional Shaman, the Shaman played an important role in binding the community together, by working for the good of the society, in ways such as healing the sick, and offering protection to those in danger. The Bond of the Grae Wolf fulfils this role, not by performance, as does the traditional Shaman, but community work. Thus it is only the method which differs, the goal is the same. In stressing the inevitability of death, fate, and the Ordeals which face the Warrior in the Bond of the Grae Wolf, there is also an echo of another important aspect of traditional Shamanism. In many traditional Shamanic societies, a person often gained the powers of the Shaman by facing a near death experience or similar trial. This was supposed to provide the wisdom necessary for one to become a Shaman. In the case of a near death experience it is of particular importance, for in the process of coming close to death, the soon -to-be Shaman would gain experience of the Other World, and have experience of the Spirits.

The differences, then, between traditional and contemporary Shamanism are not that vast; they share a number of common features, such as percussion, chanting, trance work, communication with the Other World, and the playing of a role within the community. The Pagans and Heathens have as much diversity within their beliefs as do their traditional counterparts, with some stressing the role of Shamanic ecstasy (Timothy Leary ), some the role of percussion (the use of modern day Rave-culture as endorsed by Techno-Shamans), and the more traditional groups who practice Shamanism as a means to preserve their own religious and historical heritage, such as Ásatrú and the Bond of the Grae Wolf. Shamanism is also found within Wicca, although Wicca still consists of primarily of the worship of the Three Fold Goddess. Like traditional Shamanism, the contemporary forms of Shamanism and their influence upon other modern pagan/heathen traditions seems to be well established. If we can accept the anthropological significance of traditional Shamanism, then perhaps it is time we learned to be more accepting of the Shamans in our midst.

Works Consulted

Blain, J., On The knife Edge: Seor-working and the Anthropologist,

Bogoras, W., 1979 [1904-1909]. Shamanistic Performance in the Inner Room. In Lessa, W.A., & Vogt, E.Z., eds., Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach (fourth edition), pp.302-307.

Morris, B., 1994 [1987-1994]. Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text, Cambridge University press.

Needham, R., 1979 [1967]. Percussion and Tradition, In Lessa, W.A, & Vogt, E.Z., eds., Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, (fourth edition), pp.311-317.

Rosman, A., & Rubel, P.G.,1995 [1981-1995]. The Tapestry Of Culture: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, (fifth edition), Mc Graw-Hill.

Wolf, T., The Pagan Warrior, in New Pentacle, Vol.V, No#2, Winter 1994, pp. 31-38.