Guest Post: Ronald Hutton on Shamanic Journeying

Ronald Hutton has graciously provided this concise perspective on the emergence of “core shamanism” and “shamanic journeying” as a core element in modern paganism. One of the goals of this project is to balance creative reception with historical awareness, so we are grateful to have this handy introduction. Ronald writes:

“The shamanic journey is one of the main expressions, and tools, of modern Pagan and New Age spirituality, being in essence a set of techniques designed to induce an altered state of consciousness in which the practitioner has the experience of entering parallel spirit-worlds and interacting with their inhabitants. This can be accomplished for personal reasons, or to obtain knowledge or spiritual helpers which can benefit others, most commonly by diagnosing the source of a physical or emotional malady and so identifying a cure. It takes its name from Siberia, where shaman was one name given to specialists among native peoples who operated these techniques with particularly dramatic public performances, usually including chanting, drumming and the wearing of imposing costumes. The importation of them into the modern West has, however, been the work of three particular individuals, none of whom conducted any field work in Siberia, and all of whom have been inhabitants of modern America.

The first was Mircea Eliade, a former member of the Romanian Iron Guard who fled to the West when the Communists took over his country, and eventually became the leading American expert in comparative religion: by the 1970s half of the full professors of that discipline in the United States had been his pupils. His book on shamanism, published in English in 1964, made that subject a major one in Western histories of religion and spirituality and depended on three arguments. The first was that shamanic techniques had once been universal to humanity, and dated from the earliest, Palaeolithic, period of our species: they had atrophied over time to survive among traditional peoples in scattered places, most notably Siberia. The second was that the shaman had been a spiritual warrior, fighting hostile entities for the good of his or her people. The third was that the definitive shamanic technique was soul-flight, the projection of the shaman’s own spirit or consciousness into other worlds to accomplish this noble mission. All three may be challenged, and the last is demonstrably wrong, but together they made a considerable appeal to many Westerners in the late twentieth century.

The second individual was Carlos Castaneda, a Mexican immigrant to California, who published a series of books from 1968 onward which purported to embody the teachings of a Mexican shaman whom he had studied. Although Castaneda represented this man as being much-travelled and atypical of his people, the Yaqui, he nonetheless insisted that these teachings were descended from the prehistoric Central American past. They included techniques for the attainment of altered states of consciousness induced by ceremonies and ascetic practices, but also the consumption of psychoactive substances: a potent combination to many members of the Western counter-culture of the time. Castaneda accordingly achieved huge sales, though most experts in Yaqui culture agree that his work is essentially fiction rather than genuine anthropology.

Many of those whose interest in shamanism was stimulated by Eliade and/or Castaneda found it finally to be fulfilled by the writings of the third individual, Michael Harner, which appeared from 1980. Unlike Castaneda, his claims to have based them on fieldwork among American indigenous people, in his case in the Amazon basin, are undoubted. However, he did not seek to transmit their specific shamanic traditions but to combine Eliade’s model of a universal archaic shamanism and Castaneda’s example of writing for a general public seeking spiritual fulfilment. The result was a set of teachings designed to combine the ‘core’ elements of traditional shamanic practices worldwide, into techniques designed to enable readers to alter consciousness in order to gain access to parallel spirit-worlds. Like those of indigenous shamans, these could be used for practical beneficial purposes such as healing. Drugs played no part in them, and they relied on meditative processes to induce trance, such as focused visualisation and repetitive drumming.

With Harner’s ‘core shamanism’, shamanic journeying became established as a prominent component of ‘alternative spirituality’ in the West. Practitioners were able to root it in their own cultures, and claim an indigenous tradition for it, by finding apparent references to similar techniques (with varying degrees of plausibility) in ancient and medieval European texts. In this manner local variants, representing specifically Celtic, Norse, Germanic or Slavonic shamanism proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s, to produce, by the beginning of the new century, a rich and diverse patchwork of modern traditions, all operating within the model established by the work of Eliade, Castaneda and Harner.”

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