Shamanism Divorced from Culture

Once upon a time, back when I lived in Korea, my husband-to-be and I took a trip to a very special mountain in Seoul. Korea still has some remnants of Korean indigenous religion, and there are still some holy places knocking around. This mountain was special because it was one of those holy places. It was kind of a cool day when we went up, but after spending the summer going on adventures in the punishing heat and humidity of the dreaded Korean summer, the cool was a welcome change. There was a decorative arch to let you know you’d arrived, and then, as you ascended, some buildings that we could only assume were temples or shrines. As we carried on walking up the mountain and past those buildings, we saw a sack on the deck with the head of a very dead pig sticking out of it, and realized that there was probably going to be some kind of ritual, but as it was none of our business, we’d just keep walking up the mountain. Occasionally, we’d pass people, usually older men and women with their sun visors, hiking gear, and bags of offerings. Below us, the clanging of drums began as the ritual started.

We carried on climbing up, intent on making it to the top to see what was there, the drums fading into the background of our conversations until suddenly, when we were about half way up, we realized that the drumming had stopped.

We also stopped, and then we noticed that even the birds had fallen silent. What was previously a vibrant forest full of all of those little wildlife noises that forests have, was now silent. Well, all except for the sound of rushing wind.

Now, this wasn’t the kind of wind that you experience on a windy day in which it’s all ingwansanaround you. No, this wind seemed to be contained, it seemed to have form, and that form seemed to be making its way down the path that we were on. We moved off the path to stand in the trees and watched as the wind went by as tangible as a train. A few moments after it passed, the drumming began again, this time a different beat, and we continued to walk to the top. The top of the mountain was beautiful, we had a small conversation with an older man who had been worshipping up there at the shrine with our limited Korean, and were treated to a lovely view of the city below. When we came to descend, we made our way back down the same path, but this time when the drumming stopped, we knew what to expect. Moving to the trees at the side of the path we waited for the wall of wind to come by on its way back up the mountain again.

I kind of hate the term ‘Shamanism’, for many reasons, some of which I’ll get into here, but the practice that brought down that wind from the mountain that my now-husband and I experienced so tangibly is often referred to as ‘Shamanism’. Although we didn’t see the ritual itself, research informs me that Korean ‘shamans’, or Mudangs do possessory rituals for various reasons and that that is a likely explanation of what was going on that day on the mountain.

Now, that was my only experience of a type of ‘shamanism’ within its own cultural context – albeit from a distance – but it really gave me far higher expectations when it comes to anything bearing the label of ‘Shamanism’. When it comes to a good number of white, western ‘Shamans’, I am unimpressed and if I’m unimpressed after having just that tiny peek into that real, imagine how people from cultures that still have Shamans and Medicine Men feel!

I mean, in 2014 there was an important gathering of Shamans in Siberia from various parts of the world. Per the organizers, they had invited the ‘strongest shamans’ in the world, and yet not one of the invitees was someone rocking up with a dose of Core Shamanism. Now why was that?  To put it simply, they only invited people they considered to be peers.

The other day, I came across a documentary called ‘White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men’, which I watched with great interest. There have been a few things about much of what passes for ‘Shamanism’ in the Pagan/Heathen/New Age communities that have bugged me for a while now, and I feel this documentary did a really good job of demonstrating the various issues of appropriation, entitlement, selfishness, and economic privilege.

As I mentioned above, I dislike the term ‘Shamanism’. Not because of what it means, after all, it’s just an Evenk word that means ‘excited’, ‘elevated’, ‘ecstatically knowledgeable’, but because of how over-applied the word is to anything that even has a whiff of indigenous shamanpractice or what we imagine indigenous practice to be. For the Evenki, the word ‘Shaman’ comes with certain associations that are all rooted in the Evenk worldview (all of which was mostly not understood when Westerners started to take and apply the word ‘Shaman’ to everything else that’s ‘indigenous’). I can’t help but think that when we take a word like ‘Shaman’ and apply it to any indigenous magico-religious practice we come across, we’re not only disrespecting the original culture, but we’re erasing or minimizing the diversity of all the other cultures that still have ritual specialists working within their respective indigenous cultures. Moreover, the word ‘Shaman’ has its own ‘myth’, I mean, we all think we know what a Shaman is/does/looks like, right? But you see, if you approach a culture looking for a ‘Shaman’ and you have in mind all of these associations with the world – this myth of the ‘Shaman’, then how much are you actually looking at that culture vs just looking for the bits that fit your (really quite broad) schema? The minimizing and erasure of diversity that this allows then makes it easy for someone to come along and decide that they all have certain similarities (whether they do or not) that must ergo be indicative of a common human heritage of ‘Shamanism’.

It is here that we begin to enter the murky waters of false entitlement.

You see, when an outsider to a culture, starts picking bits that look the same as things seen in other cultures (but that may be the products of very different worldviews), and then start declaring them to be ‘universal, near-universal, and common features of Shamanism’, it makes it possible to pull those practices from their cultural contexts. Because if you believe yourself to be the goddamn inheritor of this *human* heritage, isn’t it already ‘yours’ to take?

And what of the *years* of training the ritual specialists in those cultures typically undergo, or the fact that these ritual specialists only make up a small percentage of the population in an indigenous culture? Don’t worry, westerners, that doesn’t matter when it comes to you; per Core Shamanism originator Michael Harner in ‘The Way of the Shaman’ (p. xviii):

“In my training workshops in shamanic power and healing in North America and Europe, students have demonstrated again and again that most westerners can easily become initiated into the fundamentals of shamanic practice.”

Even better, you don’t even need to enter into a traditional apprenticeship:

“In Western culture, most people will never know a shaman, let alone train with one. Yet since ours is a literate culture, you do not have to be in an apprenticeship situation to learn; a written guide can provide the essential methodological information.”

Because that’s how shit-hot we Westerners are, we can learn and be just as good as ritual specialists from indigenous cultures without the years of training, apprenticeships, or even choosing process that are a feature of those cultures. That right there is some fucking arrogance.

In the documentary, two white women and a white man sit outside a sweat lodge and are later shown drumming, rattling, and chanting something that sounded either indigenous or created to sound so. Despite this obvious appropriation, they still talked about how they wished people could understand that what they did wasn’t ripping anything off and was somehow different. Some of them also talked about how they just wanted to help humanity and how necessary ‘Shamanism’ was for the world and its people. But to me, there are some huge issues with this line of thinking too. For starters, you have this ‘one true way’ mentality, and when has that ever been good for the world? I mean, how many of you reading this blog right now have issues in your daily lives because you have to deal with folks who subscribe to a ‘one true way’ worldview? How many of you hide who you are to avoid those issues?

Secondly, there’s a huge aspect of economic privilege here. This ‘universal’ shamanism can only be universal for the people who are making enough to have a high enough level of disposable income to afford these workshops – and I don’t think that’s a small thing nowadays.

Now the cynic in me looks at all of this – the creation of a universal shamanism divorced from culture, something that *anyone* has a right to and can do – and I can’t help but think that not only is it a perfect product, but it will never be anything other than a repackaged product among the majority of Westerners unless it somehow becomes rooted in culture. But again, which culture would be acceptable here?

When I first posted that I was going to write this blog on my Facebook, a friend involved in Core Shamanism techniques replied saying that they don’t feel that what they’re doing is appropriation because they are trying to seat these techniques in a historical culture that no longer exists in that form in the modern world. While it is true that there are no living oppressed groups that are being harmed in this, I do still question the application of a so-called ‘universal shamanism’ to a culture we only meet through archaeological finds and on the page. If these ‘universal’ things aren’t really that universal among living groups (as plenty of indigenous groups have pointed out over the years), then how can we believe them to be applicable with any degree of accuracy to a historical culture? Although I may never agree with my friends on this though, I do recognize that they are coming from both a place of service and find their practices whole-making. I really don’t envy them the complexity of negotiating their chosen paths in an ethical manner, especially as people who are aware of the myriad issues.

But that’s the thing that really complicates this issue, for all the inherent shittiness of shamanism as practiced outside of indigenous cultural contexts, there are a lot of very caring, genuine, and good people involved. I don’t want to make it sound like I think every single person engaged in these activities is a culturally appropriating dickwad that just wants to make bank while giving the middle finger to indigenous populations – because I don’t.  We live in ‘interesting times’, in communities that can barely be called such, and most of us are without tribes in any kind of a meaningful sense. I don’t think that is good for human beings, and I think it’s an absence that we feel very deeply when we find it in our lives. How many people get involved in things like this ‘universal shamanism’ because they want to feel whole, and want that whole-making? How many people get involved because they want to help others and believe that these practices hold the key to helping them do so? How many others are looking for tools to help them deal with the Other in their lives?

There are a whole lot of stories here, a lot of humans doing what humans do; some seeking, some predating, and some mourning the losses of their cultures. Now, two of those things are wrong, two of those things shouldn’t be happening. For me, the best illustration of ‘how to not be’ comes in the form of another story. A story told by a Mongolian shaman by the name of Sarangerel, who related the tale of what happened when the Golomt Center of Mongolian shamans organized in Ulaanbaatar in 1997 and reached out to Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies to basically say ‘Hi, we’re here now!’. The response from the Foundation? A package with membership application forms and a workshop schedule.

If you haven’t already seen it, give ‘White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men’ a watch, you can find it here.

Love and Magic

As anyone who’s the parent of a young child knows, it’s hard to get some alone time.

Society pressures us to not see it that way or feel like that, our children are supposed to5bfb6ee784bc1ab3e7d1fd5eefdd7671 be the centers of our respective worlds, our little treasures who never tire us or make us angry; friends of mine refer to this as ‘the cult of the child’. However, regardless of how much we love our children, we all *need* time to replenish ourselves, to do things that recharge the batteries we draw so deeply upon when dealing with the fifteenth tantrum of the day, or the horror of heavy-handed black crayon on carpet. Like the analogy of the parent putting their oxygen mask on before that of the child, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of them to the fullest of our abilities.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to have some time to engage in some of that glorious, glorious self-care, and after a particularly rough week, I leaped at it.

And let me tell you, an afternoon stroll by the river with friends followed by a gathering in the evening was just what the apothecary ordered.

And of course, between the stroll and the gathering, there was the near-obligatory trip to the local pagan store. I usually enjoy trips to this store, like most stores of its kind, it’s interesting to just sort of hang out in there and people-watch a little. They also have a decent selection of herbs and the oils I use to scent my house, which is handy. Most trips to the store though, for all the people-watching potential, pass without incident; but sometimes, sometimes you get that one person who wants you to help them with something even though you’re not staff.

On Saturday, it was a young woman who was looking to ‘draw’ a man closer to her.

Now I don’t touch love stuff and so I let the woman know I wasn’t going to get involved and walked off. However, my friend remained and valiantly tried to explain her ethical reasons for not getting involved. Any time I came into this young woman’s line of vision, she glared at me. From my friend’s exchange with the woman, I later found out that this young woman had had previous relations with the man in question, that they’d apparently moved too fast, that he’d gotten cold feet, and she’d decided to get with the witchcraft although she’s a Christian.

Knowing all of that in hindsight, I’m glad I ducked out when I did.

Putting aside the ginormous issue of attempting to mess with love for a second, those don’t seem to be the actions of someone who is particularly stable – at least not at this time. After all, this is a woman who belongs to a religion that condemns witchcraft and yet she went looking for witches in a Pagan shop – complete strangers – to try and get a man back as opposed to cutting her losses and trying to move on. That to me is insane, and if previous experience is anything to go by, getting involved in that is potentially inviting trouble for the future.

You see, when I was in college, I had a housemate who was really going through the mill with her boyfriend. Things seemed to be unraveling, she wasn’t sleeping much, and when she did her dreams were less than good. At one point, she asked me if I would do something of a more magical nature to help her, and I agreed to do some work to help bolster her rather than try and manipulate her love life. However, when I went to go into trance to ‘find her’ and do what I was planning, I found myself getting sucked into one of her dreams because as ‘luck’ would have it, I was working on one of the nights when she was actually sleeping.

Her dreams were pretty grim, lots of imagery about churches and brides discarding bouquets, my housemate crying, and a burgeoning distance between her and her boyfriend. I pulled myself out as soon as I could and resolved to be up front with her about it the next day.

When the next day came though, although she’d been the one to come to me for help, my (as it turned out) accurate description of her nightmare was a little too much for her, and by the time afternoon came, she’d fled back to her parents’ house. She wasn’t gone permanently though, but the suspicious glare and Catholic blessed metals were permanent. Months down the line, she and her boyfriend – a man who had become her fiancé shortly after the dream incident – were through.

As with our young woman from the store, there were two issues at play here: The desperate grasping to prevent an ending, each woman even going so far as to engage with something they believed to be sinful, and an appeal to somehow fuck with love so that it would go down more in their favor.

Doing things, even when asked, for someone who holds your craft in contempt is a fool’s work. At best, you can be mocked, and at worst, blamed for anything that happens as a result of any meddling. From what I’ve found, many people that ask these favors don’t really believe that what they’re asking is even possible, and when things happen that suggest that it is real, tend to become very scared and fall back on their religious beliefs. Sometimes things happen as a consequence of the stuff they try because of your advice, and again, you get the blame. Witches and magicians are very aware of the truth of the saying ‘the devil is in the detail’ when it comes to magic, but this is not something a person who is not involved in magic really keeps in mind. We know that words are important, and more so in ritual space. Most people do not. Most people grow up being told that ‘god will know what they really mean in their heart’ and so do not ever really consider the possibility that words badly woven while working magic can mean magic not doing what you want in the way that you want.  Either way though, this blame can lead to some pretty nasty social situations, and any altruistic intentions on the behalf of the practitioner are meaningless in the court of public opinion.

Secondly and most importantly, can we have a moment of time to discuss love and how goddamn powerful love is?

"Bah, the fucker ate all the chocolates already and here's me standing here for this photo like some kind of mug!"

“This heart is nice, but it really doesn’t make up for the giving me herpes thing.”

We live in a society that minimizes love, we say we LOVE certain music, we LOVE a type of cake, or even LOVE a color. Once a year, we have a tacky-ass holiday dedicated to paying lip-service to a shallow love of Hallmark cards and shitty little pink heart decorations.

But none of that is love though. Love is the force in a mother’s heart keeping her going as she pushes out a child, desperate to meet them for the first time. Love is the force that drives parents to put themselves between danger and their offspring. Love is what soothes and nurtures a child as they grow, it’s that look in your child’s eyes that feels like a benediction when they look at you. Love is the force that makes children give up on their hopes and dreams to take care of elderly parents, it’s the force that causes people to uproot their entire lives and move across the world to be with that one person. It’s the force that drives people to take bullets for those they love, to recover from the most incredibly awful injuries to stay with those they love, and to keep on going even though sickness makes life a misery. Love can make a person cling on to life though they barely have anything left, and follow a loved one to the grave.

Love, real love, is far from being easy or cheap. A million Hallmark cards with verses proclaiming to epitomize feelings and love cannot be but the barest drop in the ocean compared with any love felt by a human being.

And that’s why I won’t mess with love, that’s my biggest reason why I won’t help with that kind of magic actually. For love is as terrible as she is beautiful. Love sinks ships, causes armies to march, and can even bring down empires. Love is one of the most powerful forces on this earth, and who am *I* to stand in the face of that?

"We've got ya love right here, bitches!"  - Odysseus

“We’ve got ya love right here, bitches!”
– Odysseus

The Wandering vs the Rooted

A mess, but a mess containing food.

A mess, but a mess containing food.

The squash leaves are huge; big, hairy, plates of green that cover smaller plants indiscriminately. I go through them, uncovering patches of kale, collards, lambs quarters, and dandelion greens, picking off pests and checking for various eggs as I do. It’s dusk, and once again it’s just me, my garden, and my trusty green watering can.

When I first started my garden, my daughter ripped up almost all of the seedlings I’d so carefully started, and I’d despaired. All that time, all that money, and all that work had been destroyed in less than a minute by a determined toddler with a stick. After a few tears and talking to friends about growing seasons in my local area, I decided to start again and began to grow more seedlings – this time outside. Eventually they grew, as seedlings do, and I had enough to fill my two plots. I also had some surprises, for nature is nothing if not tenacious, and a toddler’s harsh stick work is nothing in the face of that.

My garden is doing well, unfortunately so are these guys.

My garden is doing well, unfortunately so are these guys.

When I first started a garden, I imagined beautiful rows of perfect vegetables that were unmolested by bugs and blight. These rows were tidy too, the kind of thing you might see in a gardening magazine. But fantasy and reality rarely match, and my garden became this wild pile of squash, tomatoes, jalapeños, various edible leaves, and an orchard orb spinner I like to call ‘Edwin’.

I move the leaves and wedge them around a little fence so the smaller plants can get some sun too, I water, and I harvest leaves for salad as I go. When I’m done, I invariably end up at the bottom of the garden near the wild patch I keep for the wights. Then stretching myself up, I take a deep breath and look around me at the plants, wooden fence, and forest behind our garden gate. I see the odd flare of a lightning bug in the trees above, and I can’t help but smile. I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling at those things, not for any big or deep reason, but because we just didn’t have them where I grew up.

13531919_154203564989242_2038819015_nEverything feels so alive, there’s a buzz in the air, a rightness of place, and not for the first time I think to myself that this is what it must be like to put down roots somewhere.

And of course that’s what I’ve done. My travel shrines have become permanent and my idols unpacked for what I hope will be a good long while.

There’s a difference in magic and religion when you’re settled and rooted as opposed to nomadic and wandering where the wind takes you. As a nomadic witch, I would McGyver supplies a lot more, and I would take pains to make my tools and supplies much more innocuous to the casual viewer. Because when you’re an outsider to somewhere, you never know how locals are going to react to things like Witchcraft and Heathenism. I would still practice, of course I would, to be a witch is an active thing – you have to do witchcraft in order to be a witch, but it was different.

I would always begin by walking the local area over and over, taking into account the areas that felt ‘thin’/uneasy/friendly/active/dead and noting what grew where. The lavender that grew across from the supermarket and sphagnum moss I collected from under a tree that helped to heal a hornet’s sting; the wormwood growing out of a stone wall, its roots somehow clinging to the dirt between the rocks; the locations of various tree woods for amulets; the blackberries near the river that I ate one evening with cream – all came from my walks. As I trod the miles, my mind would become a catalogue of what grew where, where I could go to practice my craft, where to offer, and where to avoid.

But it’s different when you’re settled and own the land, both from a Heathen and a Witch perspective. From the moment you walk the boundaries with fire to take your land, you’re granted an agency in that place that you don’t have as a traveler. In your home, you get to create your cosmos, your inner-yard, your most holy of spaces instead of moving between the inner-yards of others and dodging the dangers of the outer-yard. You build reciprocal relationships with the wights in a way that you never did before, like the kind that neighbors make with neighbors who bought as opposed to those who rent. Wandering, liminal gods are joined by gods of ‘peace and good seasons’ in your hearth rites; and the magic you work is less because some scary ‘could kill you’ shit is going down, and more because your family needs a little extra help at times to continue thriving, or even simply just to keep your hand in.

There are times when I miss the outer-yard and being on the road. I think a part of me will always be that itchy-footed kid that wandered the moors as though the miles were food and moved countries at the drop of a hat. But as I stand each evening, stretching up at the bottom of my garden with my trusty green watering can in hand, I can’t help but feel and appreciate the sweetness of it all.

Home is best.