Shamans and Ethics in a Global World

Until recently the shaman was the heartbeat of a tightly knit indigenous or traditional community that integrated the social and spiritual, material and mythic realms. The shaman, as keeper of generations of accumulated knowledge and experience, entered ecstatic flight not for personal gain or to foster inner growth, but to maintain a reciprocal relationship between the human and the other-than-human worlds, to talk with the spirits and return with wisdom and healing. Today many who dub themselves shamans no longer belong to a culture of community embedded in such a shamanic perspective, but rather come from the present generation of those primarily searching to find themselves. Thus, many of the new shamans are ill equipped to engage in their practice of working with clients who come to them with a variety of physical, psychic, and spiritual ailments. The traditional indigenous shaman has the accumulated cultural experience and wisdom of generations of healers connected to a cosmology that gives meaning to both the illnesses and the shamanic processes of healing. By contrast, many of the new shamans have but limited knowledge of any cosmology that could inform and surround them with a sense of rootedness and ultimate meaning. Many of them receive limited training, some only from second- or third-hand sources, such as anthropologists who once came in contact with shamanism during their fieldwork, or from persons who have had no direct or primary personal experience of the shamanic craft. Perhaps worst of all, some new shamans believe such information and experience can be gleaned from books, without any human teacher whatsoever. All of this results in isolating the new shamans from a conceptual and contextual community with an integrated worldview and mythos.

A Sami shaman with his magic drum (meavrresgárri). Copper  carving by O.H. von Lode, for a book by Knud Leem, “Beskrivelse over Finnmarkens Lapper, deres Tungemaal, Levenmaade og forrige Afgudsdyrkelse”

A Sami shaman with his magic drum (meavrresgárri). Copper carving by O.H. von Lode, for a book by Knud Leem, “Beskrivelse over Finnmarkens Lapper, deres Tungemaal, Levenmaade og forrige Afgudsdyrkelse”

This isolation from the checks and balances that a supportive, and also critical, community provides places these new shamans in the ethically questionable situation of conducting traditional shamanic practices, such as attempting to heal illnesses of the body, mind, or spirit, outside of the bond that informed and tied the earlier shaman to a cultural community. They are, in fact, outside of any long-standing tradition altogether. This same isolation is the cause of many problems that face the new shamans. Especially this is true in issues of ethics, which depend on a cultural context for their resolution.

Even though no less a scholar than Mircea Eliade applies the term shaman more or less across the board to anyone who undertakes “magical flight,” who “specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld,” Eliade does add this essential qualifier which we would do well to remember: “As for the shamanic techniques of ecstasy, they do not exhaust all the varieties of ecstatic experience documented in the history of religions and religious ethnology. Hence any ecstatic cannot be considered a shaman.”

Does this leave us with a clear picture of who the shaman is or of what the shaman does with regard to trance or magical flight? No, and this is the point. The picture is not one but many, because of the incredible richness and diversity of cultural experiences throughout the world. This makes it both hard and easy to use the term shaman. Hard, because it is not always readily apparent who among the various practitioners in a society are shamans, or healers, dreamers, witches and wizards, priestesses and priests, etc. The lines between these categories and others are not consistent among the many peoples of the world. Easy, because the title shaman can thus be readily slipped on, like a second-hand sweater, even when there may be no justification for it.

Despite the restraint of scholars, the situation today is that the term shaman has been usurped by the popular imagination and the popular marketplace, and is now superimposed on all manner of persons who bear little or no resemblance to a traditional shaman in any culture. Without a community that recognizes the new shamans as an integral part of the culture, what makes these people, in fact, shamans at all except that they so call themselves? Attendant on this is the issue of what techniques and practices the new shaman is competent to carry out, and how to avoid the problems of ego inflation, lust for power, greed, and other psychological issues that can arise to test integrity.

Those who seek to manipulate the day to day ordinary world by reaching their hands into the other world of the spirits to bring back other-worldly powers open themselves to the possibility of encountering spirits that harm as well as spirits that heal. Dare we doubt that this can be so? Frank Speck told us that among the Penobscot, the mede’olinas.kwei was “accredited with the power to kill or injure creatures by pointing a finger at them.” The power to do such malevolent work comes from the dark side of the spirit world, which one can also encounter in trance, and which can be called to oneself if taken over by the motive to seize power for harm. The shaman can be possessed by the greed for power over others, the power that injures, just as much as the shaman can be motivated to work with spirits who provide power on behalf of others, the power that heals.

Let us look at this carefully. Power is directed by the shaman’s own inner will for evil or for good. In this sense, power itself is neutral and available to the shaman who shapes power by intention, desire, motive, drive, and will. Especially for the new shaman, isolated from a watchful community, it is more difficult to remain pure in heart with regard to issues of power. The fact that the petitioner receives information or direction from the spirit world to act in a certain way or to do a certain thing does not in and of itself justify that action or guarantee that that action will be benevolent. All manner of spirits are there to lead those who turn to the spirit world. But which spirits come to the petitioner depends totally on the integrity and intention of the one seeking them. When the shaman holds clearly the map of the community’s mythos, then the shaman is able to discern among the spirits and to perceive the meaning or truth of the messages the spirits deliver.

The person who talks with spirits must be able to tell what is good information from what is not good information. Here the purpose, the reason, for seeking spirit aid means everything. The shaman, according to Eliade, is able “to communicate” with spirits in the other world “without thereby becoming their instrument.” We must also add to this, that the shaman is able first to identify who the spirits are who respond to the drumming call, and then, second, not to be seduced by these spirits or possessed by them. Possession by spirits in trance does occur, even among shamans, but the main distinguishing mark of the shaman is the ability to be in two worlds at once, in this world and in the other world simultaneously.

The issue of what kind of spirits choose to speak to the practitioner does not arise when the person is disciplined, aware of the dangers, is being clear with her- or himself about underlying motives, and is paying attention to which spirits are speaking in reply.

The problem is more likely to happen when the practitioner forgets or ignores the discipline, and allows vigilance to wander or waver. Under these circumstances, such a person may well be unaware of how difficult it is to recognize or acknowledge that the spirit who visits may be a projection of his own mind and not a genuine vision visited on his trance mind from the spirit world. Either consciously or unconsciously, each of us can be facile in duping ourselves into thinking or believing whatever serves our ends.

Without a map of the cultural, contextual mythos to which the practitioner belongs, how can such a person possibly evaluate what comes through from the so-called spirit world? How can such a person discriminate between wishful thinking, wish fulfillment and the genuine thing? Only with vigilance and the constant discipline of honestly examining one’s own motives, of brining one’s deepest urges for power and control to light, can one get beyond one’s own shadow self.

Today, where is the community that is consciously wakeful to what the magician, the shaman, is doing and so is able and ready to hold up the mirror of critique or censure?

Perhaps the new shamans should consider whether it is important or appropriate in any way to call themselves shamans in order to practice whatever techniques they have mastered for the benefit of others. For some few, perhaps, who are willing and able to make the lifetime commitment to the discipline that is required, it is appropriate. But for most others, the mantle of the shaman is only a veneer, an outer covering, which they put on and take off as convenient. Better, and more honest, to think of themselves, and call themselves by some other name than by the name that carries with it the weight and responsibility of shaman. However, by whatever title one assumes, the ethical issues remain. As soon as one presumes to be in contact with spirits and powers in the other world, in the world one can contact through trance, then one takes on at the very least the responsibility to act with ethical clarity.

The many roles of the ancient shaman will never totally be acted out again; the world is too much altered and changed. Yet there are aspects of the ancient work that are still valid today because all people share basic human needs for the nourishment and well-being of the body, mind, and spirit. So long as these aspects of life remain ephemeral and uncertain, there will always be a place for the person who can provide relief from the illnesses, pains, and insecurities that humans suffer. The challenge for the new shaman today, if indeed there must be new shamans, is to maintain a strong personal ethical balance, free of self-delusion. This requires wisdom and knowledge and a lifetime commitment to this awesome responsibility. For some few, this may be possible. For most, it is better to use their abilities in more contained but equally effective ways, as doctors, psychotherapists, teachers, artists, writers, priests, and others for whom having a relationship with the spirit world is essential for the fulfillment of what they do. For this kind of life, the title of shaman is both misleading and unnecessary.

In the past, the shaman was the center of a small, tightly knit community that saw itself as The People, and who believed their home place was the center of the world. Today no people can afford such luxury. Every people is inter-connected with every other people around the globe. The shaman today, if there are to be shamans today, must break free of the limited, restricted, ethnocentric view of the past, and must regard the whole world as the home place. They must go beyond all national, cultural, and ethnic barriers; the term shaman may no longer be able to carry the additional meaning of the person whose community is the world, and whose duty it is to engage in helping to heal the world.

By: Eleanor Kokar Ott