Tag Archives: shaman

Shamanic Inquiry as Recovery of Indigenous Mind (PDF)












Toward an egalitarian

exchange of knowledge


Published in:

Schenk & Ch. Rätsch (Eds.), 1999, What is a shaman?,

Journal for Ethnomedicine, special volume 13, 125 – 140.

Berlin: VWB – Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung

[Page numbers inserted below as P125 etc.]



Jürgen W. Kremer

3383 Princeton Drive

Santa Rosa, CA 95405




[P125] Abstract




 [P126] Dreaming

A few years ago I had a dream which pertains to the issues at hand:

The location of the dream is Hamburg, the town where I grew up in Northern Germany. Sitting on the threshold in the doorway of a pre-war brick house beside my partner I overlook the river Elbe from on high. We are atop the ancient ice age rim of the river, the border of its once miles wide flow, thousands of years ago when reindeer roamed these latitudes. The reindeer now live much farther north, and the river moves in a much more narrow bed; yet it still spreads to considerable widths three hundred or so feet below us, where ferries criss-cross its course and ocean liners enter and leave the harbor. We are not just sitting atop an ancient river bed, but also very close to the old building where I went for Kindergarten shortly after the Second World War. At that time it was a place with a comforting huge tile stove and a garden with plants and trees inviting the imagination of children at play. I realize that there are achaeological excavations in process behind the old Kindergarten. Signs are put up all around it: No trespassing! Stay out! Not to be deterred, I leave my body at the moment of seeing these signs and enter the forbidden grounds. I hover over the ancient ruins which are uncovered thanks to the work of the archaeological team. A round, towerlike structure emerging from the depths of the ground is clearly visible. It appears to extend a good ways into the earth. I understand that this is an ancestral ceremonial structure, as are other similar ones right next to it. The name of the place where this dig into ancient cultural history occurs is Altona[P127] meaning “all-too-near.” Legend has it that an orphan was blindfolded when the burghers of Hamburg wanted to expand their overpopulated city. The idea was to place the new town where the orphan would stumble and fall. But what happened was unexpected. The boy had barely left the city gates, when he stumbled and fell. The attendant burghers exclaimed in surprise that this was all too near, in the local vernacular:  “All to nah!”  – thence the name for this part of the city – Altona. The place where I gain access to the layers below the contemporary city and old ancestral cultural memories is all too close in this dream, right there with my childhood, and fenced in by signs forbidding entry.


I wake up bringing with me not only the memory of the dream images, but its self-interpretation at the end. This dream contained an answer to the curiosity and spiritual hunger which I had tried to satisfy since adolescence through the study of native peoples and shamanism in particular.


This dream and the image of the abstract at the beginning define my approach to shamanic inquiry. They also point to the cultural struggle of “the west.” The key to shamanic inquiry in the eurocentered context is the remembrance in itself of what it seeks in other peoples – recovering indigenous mind. Cultural history and the prevailing definitions of scientific inquiry make such a project difficult, to say the least. Native American intellectual John Mohawk has put it thus: “I do not want people to adopt Indian rituals because I want people to own their own rituals. I want them to come to ownership out of experiences that are real to them. Then I’ll come and celebrate it with them.”


Let me circumlocute this dream by responding to the editors’ request to present my personal interpretation of shamanism. The following statements are purposefully succinct and provocative; they are presented in no particular order or hierarchy. A theorem is the result of something seen (Greek qewrew), whether as mental speculation or at a spectacle or performance. I offer what I have speculated and seen of proceedings shamanic as “conversation pieces” arranged around the dream and the image initially given. This is what I have learned from my work with Native Elders, shamans, medicine people, and noaidis. As such they are my personal contribution to an ancient immanent conversation. This particular conversation disallows artificial splits between the concrete and abstract, between the personal-biographical and the impersonal-general, between transcendent and immanent, etc. It is integral in the profoundest sense of the word. I have presented arguments for my approach elsewhere, references to these publications are inserted behind technical terms or statements warranting explication. Here I am describing my perspective in a personal way. I am doing this with awareness of my maleness, and my mixed Germanic ancestry. I am also quite conscious of my current location in the U.S., and the impact Native American intellectuals and spiritual leaders have had on me. I write for Europeans and people of European descent; others engaged in a eurocentered consciousness process need to see what useful things they may or may not glean from this. I paint black and white, what truly isn’t black and white at all – but all this may be a good starting point for a conversation.




Conversation Piece #1

Shamanism is a construct which mirrors eurocentric thinking.

The Ism of shamanism is the part “made up” or constructed by the early ethnographers and anthropologists serving the abstracting and universalizing pursuit of truth as defined in the western sciences. This definition of science is inherently imperialistic, as it relinquishes its participation in the phenomena in order to grasp and control what is left to be seen after the act of dissociation (1992b). Thus, as shamanism attempts to grasp the desired knowledge it may reflect more of itself in the mirror, than of the native peoples it is interacting with. In this sense the Ism of shamanism is all made up by eurocentric thinking. At this historical juncture I feel an obligation for specific cultural healing to the Tungus ªaman whose exposure to Russian visitors in the 17th century presumably led to the terminology of shamanism (see Voigt, 1984, for a discussions of the etymology and history of the word shaman); had ethnographers written in a similar vein about the yomtas of the Pomo-Miwok people, or the noaidis of the Sámi people, or the volvas of the Norse people, or the hataalis of the Diné people, we now might have the Ism of Yomtism, Noaidism, Volvism, or Hataalism. My interest is in the specificity of the immanent conversation, not just in order to pay hommage to cultural diversity, but to continue and affirm the specific indigenous knowledge (whether ecological, medical, astronomical, or otherwise) which can help us in our times of crisis. The most important questions to ask for any inquirer into matters shamanic is: What is the construction, what is the conversation I am participating in, if I am to inquire into what I am interested in? The Ism is the part where the labors of eurocentric social constructions are most visible, and where the loss of specific understanding of people, places, times, stories, and ceremonies needs to be recovered; the ªaman (or noaidi or yomta) is where the power of individual, cultural, and ecological healing rests through the specificity of the conversation.


Conversation Piece #2

Reflection upon and awareness of one’s own cultural viewpoint is a mandatory prerequisite for participation in the conversation.

I view shamanism as a particular aspect of an ancient, immanent conversation which indigenous people all over are continuing to this day (1996b, g, 1997e). This conversation is summarized in the graphic of the abstract. It is defined by its conscious participation in the phenomena (rather than a distancing view of the phenomena; 1992b). People of European descent or people who have entered the eurocentered process of consciousness have split themselves off from this ongoing interaction with place, ancestry, animals, plants, spirit(s), community, story, ceremony, cycles of life, and cycles of the seasons and ages. This dissociation has created a conceptualization of social evolution, in which a major shift has occurred from prehistory to history, from oral traditions to writing civilizations, from the immanent presence of spirit(s) to the transcendence of god(s). In my [P129] analysis, we engage in acts of imperialism – however subtle they may be – as long as we don’t understand our own shamanic and indigenous roots. I find it only legitimate to write about shamanism if what I write is true to my own shamanic tradition (even when and especially when writing about others). We can only be proper participants in shamanic exchange and dialogue if we know who we are as indigenous people. Otherwise we should take our hands off of other cultures. (1996a, 1994a, e).


Conversation Piece #3

The inquirer as partner in dialogue.

So, why do inquiry – even shamanic inquiry as recovery of indigenous mind? I can only think of one good reason: To resume an ancient conversation, which has balance as a goal (rather than control and progress), in order to be able to redress the ill effects wrought by an obsession with technological progress, an increase in population, etc. For me to become a partner in dialogue I need to recover my own indigenous roots, not to recreate a past long gone, but to move into the future in a complete, holistic conversation. If this is the context for dialogical inquiry, then there is no privileged access to knowledge nor a privileged preservation of knowledge; “Truth” has become truths or “temporary resolutions” to the issues at hand. As part of such conversation and dialogue it may become apparent that there are certain things to be said, and certain things which we need to be silent about (in our own tradition or in traditions we are exchanging with). (1997e, 1996a, f, 1994d)


Conversation Piece #4

If I don’t know who I am as an indigenous person, I should not write about other indigenous people.

Fundamentally, in my book there is no legitimate inquiry about shamanism unless I know who I am as an indigenous person. Of course, as a consequence of knowing that (or parts of that)  the need for inquiry and the nature of inquiry change entirely. If I know who I am as an indigenous or cultural person (however fragmented that understanding may be), then I may be able to relate to other native peoples (peoples still practicing shamanism) as an equal partner in dialogue, rather than arrive as an outsider intent on finding “Truth” (the implicit assumption of the eurocentered paradigm is that this “Truth” then ultimately should also become the tribe’s “Truth” as evolution continues, and the tribe investigated advances on the evolutionary ladder, thus presumably incorporating the “Truth” of self-defined more advanced civilizations). Of course, my guiding interests in shamanic inquiry are bound to change as I understand and remember myself as a person with indigenous roots. As long as we think writing about shamanism is about “them,” we remain unconscious of shamanism in us. (1996a, 1994h)



Conversation Piece #5

Shamanism is just one aspect of the immanent conversation of native peoples.

For me it is important to keep in mind that what is commonly understood as shamanism is just one aspect of a complex set of cultural practices. (It should be noted that the terms “shaman” and “shamanism” are problematic for many indigenous peoples, Native Americans in particular.) To split the indigenous conversation in such a way that healing endeavors become highlighted serves eurocentered research approaches and their knowledge construction, but distorts what is known by virtue of decontextualization. What appears as unusual, inexplicable or even bizarre through this lense may have entirely different connotations if seen as part of the holistic indigenous conversation. Thus we exaggerate the unusualness of phenomena, ultimately only trivializing it because it is denuded of what it is a natural part of. It splits individual healing from communal or cultural healing, it neglects that individual illness is situated in the context of a process of cultural balancing – history, place, story, ceremony, etc. For me this means that my shamanic inquiry requires that I participate in the entire conversation, and understand healing from that perspectve. “To heal” is etymologically connected with the German heilen, and the indo-european root *kailo-, referring to a state and process of wholeness (“whole” also being related to this root). But “to heal” is also connectect to “holy” (as is heilen to heilig), which gives an ancient root to the reemergent wholistic and transpersonal perspectives on healing. Lincoln (1986, 118) concludes his analysis of “healing” in the indo-european context by stating “that it is not just a damaged body that one restores to wholeness and health, but the very universe itself. … The full extent of such knowledge is now revealed in all its grandeur: the healer must understand and be prepared to manipulate nothing less than the full structure of the cosmos.” For what is stated here regarding the older layers of indo-european thinking we can find analogies in contemporary indigenous traditions, such as the Navajo chantways. (1997h, 1996a, b, g).


Conversation Piece #6

Recovery of indigenous mind is the appropriate contemporary definition of shamanism for people of eurocentered consciousness.

Shamanism is commonly defined as the practice of some form of “technology” (including intentional alterations of consciousness) for the benefit of individuals or a community, conducted by practitioners who have been endorsed by this community. It is my contention that the appropriate contemporary practice of shamanism for people ensconced in the eurocentered paradigm is the recovery of their indigenous roots (and this way their own “shamanic” traditions, “shamanic” being a word probably more appropriate for people of Eurasian descent than anybody else). This is the starting point from which all manners of shamanic healing may arise. This then is a healing process on behalf of the individual, family history, history, community; in short, it is the healing of the [P131] dissociative split and the recovery of participation in the phenomena. Physical and psychological healing are a particular aspects of this. Shamanic inquiry becomes recovery of indigenous mind, which becomes the resumption of the ancient, immanent conversation. Ecologist Wolfgang Sachs talks about the necessity to develop the social imagination for sustainability; it is my contention that we can develop such imagination through the restitution of the indigenous consciousness process, where we can inquire about and understand the needs of all participants in a particular place and time. Balance may thus be regained. To presume that any such project of recovery work can arrive within one lifetime at the level of immanent conversation still practiced by contemporary native peoples (even in the face of colonization) would by hubris – recovering the indigenous consciousness process after a prolonged history of dissociation is a multigenerational project.


Conversation Piece #7

We need to travel in a way which does not touch “the other” with the virus of progress.

How then are we to travel to other places and do inquiry about shamanic traditions? Maybe we are not to travel there. The minute we cease and desist the “othering” of shamanic cultures we have to question deeply why we are traveling and where we are going. If we aspire to be partners in dialogue, then any conversation requires mutual consent. Additionally, it requires the consent of all participants in the conversation. This means, for example, that I cannot travel without my ancestors. It also means that I need a welcome from the ancestors of where I want to go. Thus it takes an invitation from the partners in dialogue, but it also takes permission from ones own indigenous culture. Dreams are important here. Offerings and conversation with spirit(s) are mandatory. And more. I know that as long as I don’t travel within the framework of this immanent conversation I am bound to infect wherever I go with the virus of dissociation and progress. I can only travel once the other has ceased to be other for me. (See McGrane, 1989 for relevant discussions; Kremer, 1994a).



Conversation Piece #8

The hunger for shamanism is the denial of the indigenous roots from which eurocentered thinking originated.

The current interest in shamanism reflects more than just a “legitimate research field” (in the scientific view), which is finally receiving some acknowledgement (of course, the legitimacy of this interest is tautologically defined and justified by the scientific paradigm itself). With it comes a cultural hunger created by the loss of indigenous conversations in eurocentered societies. The fascination with exotic other cultures, the nostalgic yearning [P132] for something ideal in the past, or the romantic images of Native Americans riding the plains or retreating into kivas on remote mesas – all this originates from cultural starvation. Of course, there is an incredible amount we can learn from indigenous peoples in general, and shamanism specifically, which may benefit our modernist pathologies, provided this learning occurs in an appropriate context. And, of course, indigenous peoples have never lived in a perfect world, the ideal of balance is always and at best a fleeting achievement. Traditional Hopi stories describing situations where things are out of balance (koyaanisqatsi) are very educational in this regard; see the Hopi Ruin Legends (Lomatuway’ma et al., 1993). Our idealizations are the flip side of evolutionary thinking, and an expression of its shadow. The projection of our hunger onto other cultural traditions is not going to satisfy the emptiness in ourselves. In a sense it is junk food. Being nurtured by our own indigenous traditions and nurturing them in return is what will satisfy and stop idealizations, romanticism, and nostalgia. The research of other cultures and the incorporation of their practices without consent is only legitimate, as long as we act within a dissociative paradigm. Once we regain our own immanent conversation, inquiry and exchange of ceremonial practices need to await guidance from the conversation of all parties involved – ancestors, communities, plants, animals, stars, and all. Or, in the words of Jung: “Shall we be able to put on, like a new suit of clothes, ready-made symbols grown on foreign soil, saturated with foreign blood, spoken in a foreign tongue, nourished by a foreign culture, interwoven with foreign history, and so resemble a beggar who wraps himself in kingly raiment, a king who disguises himself as beggar? No doubt this is possible. Or is there something in ourselves that commands us to go in for no mummeries, but perhaps to sew our garment ourselves?” (1970, 49)



Converation Piece #9

The cross-cultural differences between indigenous and eurocentered peoples is qualitative, rather than quantitative.

Another way of saying this is: Cross-cultural differences between eurocentered peoples are of the same order, and cross-cultural differences between indigenous peoples are of the same order, but the differences between these two groups are of a different order or quality. I have defined the evolutionary trajectory of the so-called civilizing process as dissociative schismogenesis (1992b, c). This is a run-away pathological process, where the split from one’s origin increases in an addictive dynamic governed by progress ideologies, and where the loss of awareness of one’s root has tremendous power. Phenomena are seen as entirely external, and one’s participation in the phenomena is unconscious. – On the other hand, the immanent conversation of native peoples is aware of its active participation in the creation of the phenomena. The (explicit or implicit) goal of the conversation is not some transcendent state or some evolutionary goal set in the future; the goal is balance within each individual, between individuals, and among all participants of the conversation, balance within the cycles of the different world ages, balance as hunters, [P133] horticulturalists, gatherers or pastoralists, balance as sedentary people or nomads. – This qualitative difference between these two groups of cultures leads to tremendous interactive problems, which remain largely veiled for eurocentric folk. They are the proverbial apples and oranges. The dissociative inquirer can only approach the participative conversation qua dissociative means – resulting in an imperialistic acquisition of knowledge. The participative conversation, because of its values, usually welcomes dissociative inquirers, even when their pathology is apparent (the traditional worldview usually makes such open door policy practically mandatory, and frequently disregards the significant qualitative difference in paradigm, a difference which is also politically highly relevant). The truth generated by this approach (whether in one of the sciences or as new age spiritual practice) is, in final analysis, a validation for the conversation of the dominant paradigm. The indigenous conversation has no need for research other than the ceremonial and spiritual inquiry into what is needed for balancing in a particular place at a specific time in history. To my mind that is more research than most of us can handle. Exchanges with other indigenous cultures are guided by the contents of this conversation. – Wislawa Szymborska’s poem Conversation with a stone describes the distinction I am talking about aptly: ” “You shall not enter,” says the stone. // “You lack the sense of taking part. // No other sense can make up for your missing sense of taking part. // Even sight heightened to become all-seeing // will do you no good without a sense of taking part. // You shall not enter, you have only a sense of what that sense should be, // only its seed, imagination.” ” – These differences in paradigm can easily be illustrated in the area of physical healing, say with herbs: Within the eurocentered paradigm we pick an herb for its curative properties known to relieve a certain ailment. Herb collection is an entirely different event within an indigenous context. Here, it is a ceremonial event which involves spirit, and, especially, the spirits of the plant to be collected. It is a participatory event with the plant relations which presupposes detailed knowledge, including knowledge of their “language.” It requires knowledge of cycles and preparations necessary for gathering. It means understanding plants like any other intelligent people. This is no longer the collection of an herb, but an engagement and appointment with spirit to help heal. What heals is more than the beneficial chemical ingredient in the herb.


Conversation Piece #10

Dialog partners have the historic task of healing the history of projective identification in relation to indigenous peoples.

In relation to indigenous peoples colonialism is always an essential ingredient in the context of exchange, dialogue or research. The euro-centered, well-bounded ego frequently cannot see this deep structure of such encounters, which is present whether talked about or left unspoken or unconscious. It is this ego, which is likely to project from its personality make-up whatever it has dissociated from into its own past or onto indigenous peoples. In fact, projective identification may be the most apt clinical term to point to the [P134] psycho-emotional process eurocentered cultures are engaged in with contemporary indigenous peoples (this term also acknowledges that history is carried and handed down specifically in the process of socialization within each individual). Projective identification means that other people are made to feel the highly conflicted and split off material dominant cultures unconsciously injected into them – so that they feel and experience it as if it is their own. Natives feel the eurocentered dissociation from prehistory, ancestry, nature, etc. as self-hatred (“primitives”) which is destructive to their cultures. Of course, self-hatred as an effect of internalized colonization warrants a much longer statement than I can offer here. Notably, in individual psychotherapy projective identification is known to be a pathological process oftentimes quite resistant to change because of its strongly self-reinforcing nature; this would seem to imply that we can assume strong resistance to the healing of the history of colonialism in the relationship between indigenous and eurocentered cultures. I would think that the retraction of these projections is the first order of business; for this we need a different metaphor than “regression in the service of the ego”, which is appropriate for individual psychotherapy. I suggest that the integration of history and prehistory qua connection with indigenous roots (recovering indigenous mind) is an appropriate terminology. The reintegration of cultural shadow material presupposes the possibility of an ego – the indigenous ego in communal conversation, if you wish – which would be differently constructed than our contemporary ego can easily imagine. The revival of shamanic practices can be an aspect of the resolution of historically determined shadow material – or it may perpetrate the denial further.


Conversation Piece #11

Psychologizing spirit(s) misses the mark.

For Europeans and Euroamericans the easiest way – other than by anthropological means – to approach native peoples and their shamanism is probably via psychology, particularly transpersonal pyschology. This seems to be the current moving force within eurocentered societies, where the influence of psychological thinking has increased steadily over the years. Joseph Campbell’s approach to mythology and Jung’s archetypal psychology offer attractive avenues in this regard. While these and others can be extremely helpful for people of euro-centered consciousness, they easily become problematic projections when applied to native peoples. Jung himself had actually quite a good understanding of this when he looked toward alchemy as an earlier tradition in his own background or when he stated: “A spiritual need has produced in our time the “discovery” of psychology.” While various forms of psychology may open the door to the remembrance of an indigenous mind process for people of European descent, even transpersonal psychology is hardly identical with it. It is important to be aware that an archetype is not a spirit. Psychologizing spirit is a way of preserving and affirming eurocentered thinking. Faris (1990, 12) has summarized this succinctly in his discussion of the Jungian interpretations of Navajo traditions: ” Such motions … are still popular and [P135] continue to be attractive to both romantics and humanists who seem interested in fitting Navajo belief into some variety of universal schema – reducing its own rich logic to but variation and fodder for a truth derived from Western arrogances – even if their motivations are to elevate it.” To my mind the prerequisite for writing about shamanism is that spirits are or have been present to the author. Otherwise it seems more appropriate to be silent about a universe only partly seen.


Conversation Piece #12

Remembering indigenous roots is medicine.

It seems so much easier to see the “medicine” in a plant, a feather or a stone people lodge (sweat) – and it is so much harder to see the medicine offered by the confrontation with history. The land I live on now is not my ancestral land – it is the ancestral land of the Ramaytush-speaking people of the San Francisco peninsula, the first people of this particular land with a name we still remember, the original keepers of this land. The beauty of the land I live on has suffered from the devastating consequences of technological progress. I live in a society where the destruction of its aboriginal cultures is scarcely acknowledged and is not mourned by the majority of people; living in this society I am in a certain way complicit in the ongoing perpetration of racism and cultural genocide. Yet, I also live in a city which seems to be among the most comfortably and richly multicultural places in the U.S., with less pollution than in many other metropolitan areas. My Germanic ancestry puts me in the gateway of the Shoah. I recall Hitler’s perversions of mythology in the service of genocide; I will never forget the image of the Germanic goddess Nerthus cattle-drawn past Hitler, which I saw in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I recall the aberrations of the Vikings, their vicious slaughters and conquering – another guardian at the threshold. Passing these and more guardians, witnessing what they hold, is to heal old collective wounds as they have been passed down to me as an individual, passed down consciously and unconsciously. These guardians don’t stand at the threshold simply to propagate guilt. The guardians are medicine for the collective shadow of the Western world. They are the medicine of remembrance with all that it entails, be it fear, pain, guilt, anger. Ancestry and stories of origins and homeland have been abused for various ideological purposes, usually right-wing and fascistic. The story of our cultural self-understanding is open-ended, necessarily. The exposure to the medicine of the guardians is mandatory in order to counter chauvinistic or nationalistic abuses. The healing power – for individual as well as collective healing – of the witnessing of history with all its perversions, twists, and contradictions, is a) a prerequisite for anybody of European descent as part of shamanic work, and b) in a profound sense more powerful than any animal bone or feather that one might want to pick up.


Boring Things

I am bored with the shifting fashions of shamanic inquiry and New Age appropriations – yesterday the Australian aborigines, now the Siberian tribes. I am bored with the fashions of charismatic figures and the disempowerment of seekers.


Exciting Things

I am excited about the possibility of the disappearance of the white man (‘white man’ in the sense of the masculinization of the phenomena through eurocentric consciousness). I am excited about the possibility of resuming ancient forms of knowledge exchange, where we all might mirror each other through the original instructions we all received (while taking care of the teaching circles or instructions from the tree of life). I am excited about developing evolutionary thinking which gets us off the linear trajectory through the remembrance of all of our traditional stories (the cycles of history as evolution). I am excited about the possibility to see the history of our planet spoken in multivocality, which respects not only different traditions, but takes care of each place and time to the best of our ancient understandings for today. I am excited about the possibility of universal connection through specificity of knowledge trade rather than dissociation and abstraction. I am excited about the possibility that the oppositions between cultural relativism and scientism may resolve itself into the universalism of the knowledge exchange among immanent conversations.


Shamanic Career

The outline of my “shamanic career” can be given briefly: During adolescence I developed a benign form of cancer, a bone tumor. The surgery and subsequent healing process prevented me from undertaking a journey which I had dreamed of since childhood: I had won a scholarship at my school to visit the northernmost part of Scandinavia – Sápmi – and to go to a place which lived most vividly in my imagination: Girkonjárga (which I knew then only as the Kirkenes of the Norwegian language). Many years later I had an unexpected experience which jolted me out of the life course I was on (the practice of clinical psychology), and – finally – led me to that very place in Sápmi: During an experience – commonly labelled “out of body experience” – I appeared as an agent in what seemed a healing for another person. This embarked me on an exploration of various alternate forms of healing, primarily those called ‘shamanic.’ I spent time with shamans and medicine people from various cultures, including Navajo, Cherokee, Pomo-Miwok, Japanese, Cambodian; I travelled incessantly to the tribes and archaeological sites of the Southwestern U.S. In addition to studying these various traditions I fasted, danced, and sweated. I also explored what various proponents of New Age shamanism had to offer – [P137] some of these people were native, some of them not so native or fake native, all of them were decontextualized in one form or another. As I listened to them and researched their claims the meaning of their decontextualization became increasingly apparent to me. After years of study with and of traditional, non-traditional, and anti-traditional people I realized that I could not be a participant in indigenous endeavors unless I knew who I was as an indigenous person. The work with my Oneida colleague, Dr. Pamela Colorado, was instrumental for this process; her conceptualization of “indigenous science” has impacted much of my work. The realization regarding my own indigenous roots led me to review my relationships with people who had taught me and who I had researched, and resulted in a deep exploration of my Germanic ancestry. I worked through some of the shame and embarassment which had prevented me in the past from looking at the older layers of Nordic history. I finally began taking trips not just back to Germany, but to the last remaining people in Europe living in an indigenous frame of mind, the Saami people of the far north of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula, the land they call Sápmi or Saami Eatnan. The meetings with the members of PRATEC from Lima, Peru – facilitated by Frederique Apffel-Marglin – were influential in my own conceptualizations of immanent conversation (particularly thanks to conversations with the late Eduardo Grillo). Out of the many Saami people who met with me during my travels the ongoing work with Biret-Máret Kallio is of particular significance for my recovery work and its conceptualizations. […] (See 1997a, c, 1996e for extensive autobiographical material.)



It seems customary to think about influences in terms of books and teachers. For me other storehouses, “libraries”, or “universities” for ancient knowledge have been at least equally significant, namely rock art and archaeological and sacred sites. On the continent where I live the rock knowledge of the Southwestern U.S. (Horse Shoe Canyon, and innumerable other sites), and sacred places like Chaco Canyon, White House Ruin, Spider Rock, Uxmal, Chichen Itza, and others have been of tremendous importance for me. In Europe the rock knowledge of sacred sites in Bohuslän, Nämforsen, and Jiebmaluokta in particular, and places like Čeavceageađge have been of particular significance. Early on the work of Stanley Krippner and the contacts he provided were influential. Other than Colorado, Wilkinson, Kallio, and PRATEC the works by Pentekäinen, Valkeapää, Mohawk, Deloria, Churchill, McGrane, Faris deserve particular mention. The many native teachers who have generously shared their knowledge and ceremonies are gratefully acknowledged.




Churchill, W. (1992). Fantasies of the master race. Monroe, ME: Common Courage.

Churchill, W. (1995). Since predator came. Littleton, CO: Aigis.

Colorado, P. (1988). Bridging native and western science. Convergence, XXI, 2/3, 49-67.

Colorado, P. (1989). “Indian science” from fire and ice. In J. Bruchac (ed.), New voices from the longhouse. New York: Greenfield Review Press.

Colorado, P. (1991). A meeting between brothers. Beshara, 13, Summer 1991, 20-27.

Colorado, P. (1994). Indigenous science and western science – a healing convergence. Presentation at the World Sciences Dialog I. New York City, April 25-27.

Colorado, P. (1996). Indigenous science. ReVision, Vol. 18 (3), 6-10.

Deloria, V. (1993). If you think about it you will see that it is true. Noetic Sciences Review, 27, 62-71.

Deloria, V. (1995). Red earth, white lies. NY: Scribner

Deloria, V. (1996). If you think about it, you will see that it is true. ReVision, 18(3), 37-44.

Dion-Buffalo, Y. & J. Mohawk. (1994). Throughts from an autochtonous center. Cultural Survival, Winter, 33-35.

Faris, J.C. (1990). The nightway. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Jung, C.G. (1970). Psychological reflections. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Quote from collected works 10, 26f.)

Kallio, B.-M. (1996). Noaidi – jemand, der sieht. Ethnopsychologische Mitteilungen, 6(1), 59-77.

Krippner, S. & A. Villoldo. (1976). The realms of healing. Millbrae, CA: Celestial Arts.

Krippner, S. & P. Welch (1992). Spiritual dimensions of healing New York: Irvington.

Krippner, S. (1986). Dreams and the development of a personal mythology. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 7(2-3), 449 – 461.

Krippner, S. (1995). The use of altered conscious states in North and South American Indian shamanic healing rituals. In R. van Quekelberghe & D. Eigner (Eds.), Jahrbuch für transkulturelle Medizin und Psychotherapie. Trance, Besessenheit, Heilrituale und Psychotherapie. Berlin:VWB.

Lincoln, B. (1986). Myth, cosmos, and society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lomatuway’ma, M., L. Lomatuway’ma, S. Namingha & E. Malotki (1993). Kiqötutuwutsi – Hopi ruin legends. Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University.

McGrane, B. (1989). Beyond anthropology. NY: Columbia.

Pentkäinen, J. (1984). The Sámi shaman. In M. Hoppál (ed.), Shamanism in Eurasia. Göttingen, Germany: edition herodot.

Szymborska, W. (1995). view with a grain of sand. NY: Harcourt Brace.

Valkeapää, N.-A. (1985). Trekways of the wind. Guovdageaidnu, Norway: DAT.

Valkeapää, N.-A. (1991). Beaivi, Áh_á_an. Guovdageaidnu, Norway: DAT.

Valkeapää, N.-A. (1996). Poems from Trekways of the wind. ReVision, 18(3), 45-48.

Voigt, V. (1984). Shaman – Person or word? In M. Hoppál (ed.), Shamanism in Eurasia (part 1) (13-20). Göttingen, Germany: edition herodot.

Wilkinson, T. (1996). Persephone returns. Berkeley, CA: Pagemill.


Publications pertaining to my summary of shamanic inquiry

(1997a) Recovering indigenous mind. ReVision, 19(4).

(1997b). Transforming learning transforming. ReVision, 20(1); see also (1994k).

(1997c). BeFORe Gimbutas. ReVision, 20(1)

(1997d). Introduction to special issue on transformative learning. ReVision, 20(1)

(1997e). Editor of a ReVision issue (vol. 20, #1) on Transformative Learning

(1997f). Editor (with Joseph Prabhu) of a ReVision issue (vol. 19, #4) on Alternative Perspectives on Development

(1997g). Editor of a ReVision issue (vol. 19, #3) on Indigenous Science – Further Contributions.

(1997h) Die Schattenseiten evolutionären Denkens – Ken Wilber als Beispiel (Teil II). Ethnopsychologische Mitteilungen, 6(2).

(1997i). Übersetzung des Artikels Noaidi von Biret-Máret Kallio. Ethnopsychologische Mitteilungen, 6(1), 59-77.

(1996a) The Possibility Of Recovering Indigenous European Perspectives On Native Healing Practices. Ethnopsychologische Mitteilungen , 5(2),149-164.

(1996b) The shadow of evolutionary thinking. ReVision, 19(1), 41-48.

(1996c) Lingering shadows. ReVision, 19(2), 43-44.

(1996d) The shadow of evolutionary thinking (enlarged article). In submission for reader edited by Rothberg and Kelly on Ken Wilber and the future of transpersonal inquiry – A spectrum of views.

(1996e) Mind on fire. ReVision, 19(3); at press

(1996f) Introduction to special issue on indigenous science. ReVision, 19(3); at press

(1996g) Die Schattenseiten evolutionären Denkens – Ken Wilber als Beispiel (Teil I). Ethnopsychologische Mitteilungen, 6(1), 41-58.

(1996h). Editor of a ReVision issue (Vol. 18, #3) on Indigenous Science.

(1995a) Evolving into what and for whose purpose?. ReVision, Winter 1996, 18(3),27-36.

(1995b) Introduction: Indigenous science. ReVision, Winter 1996, 18(3), 2-5.

(1994a). Seidr or trance? ReVision, Spring 1994, 16(4), 183-191

(1994b). Trance postures (with Stanley Krippner). ReVision, Spring 1994, 16(4), 173-182.

(1994c). Foreword (with Jean Achterberg). ReVision, Spring 1994, 16(4), 147

(1994d). Shamanic tales of power. In: van Quekelberghe (ed.), Trance, Possession, Healing Rituals, and Psychotherapy / Yearbook of Cross-Cultural Medicine and Psychotherapy 1994(pp. 153-180). Mainz, Germany: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung.

(1994e). Perspectives on indigenous healing. Noetic Sciences Review, Spring 1995, 13-18.

(1994f). Indigenous science for euro-americans, In R. I. Heinze (Ed.),  Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on the Study of Shamanism And Alternate Modes of Healing. Berkeley, CA: Independent Scholars of Asia.

(1994g).Traditional Knowledge Leads to a Ph.D. [Interview with Pamela Colorado and Jürgen Kremer, by Richard Simonelli] Winds of Change 9(4), 43-48.

(1994h). Euro-americans, retribalize! Printed in 1994k

(1994i). On understanding indigenous healing practices. Ethnopsychologische Mitteilungen, 4(1), 3-36. (1995)

(1994j). Practices for the postmodern shaman? In R. I. Heinze (Ed.),  Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on the Study of Shamanism And Alternate Modes of Healing. Berkeley, CA: Independent Scholars of Asia.

(1994k). Looking for Dame Yggdrasil. Red Bluff, CA: Falkenflug Press.

(1993a) The past and future process of mythology, In R. I. Heinze (Ed.),  Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on the Study of Shamanism And Alternate Modes of Healing. Berkeley, CA: Independent Scholars of Asia. [In press]

(1993b). Co-guest editor (with Jean Achterberg) of a ReVision issue (Vol. 16, #4) on Trance and Healing – Psychology Biology and Culture.

(1992a) Culture and ways of knowing. ReVision, Spring 1992, 14(4), 167. [Foreword]

(1992b). The dark night of the scholar. ReVision, Spring 1992, 14(4), 169-178.

(1992c). Culture and ways of knowing – Part II. ReVision, Summer 1992, 15(1),3. [Foreword]

(1992d). Whither dark night of the scholar? ReVisions, Summer 1992, 15(1), 4-12.

(1992e). Prolegomena shamanica. Red Bluff, CA: Falkenflug Press.

(1992g). Guest editor of two ReVision issues (Vol. 14, #4 and Vol. 15, #1) on Culture and Ways of Knowing

(1992h). Memory Lightning Memory. ReVision, 1992, 15(1), backcover. [Story.]

(1991a). Contemporary shamanism and the evolution of consciousness – Reflections on Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances. Open Eye, 8(3), 4-5,9.

(1990a) Vincent Van Gogh: “Great artist and failure in initiation?”. In R. I. Heinze (Ed.),  Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on the Study of Shamanism And Alternate Modes of Healing (pp. 151-161). Berkeley, CA: Independent Scholars of Asia.

(1990b) Sacred crafts (with Debra White). In R. I. Heinze (Ed.),  Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on the Study of Shamanism And Alternate Modes of Healing (pp. 176-185). Berkeley, CA: Independent Scholars of Asia.

(1989a) The shaman’s body. In R. I. Heinze (Ed.), Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on the Study of Shamanism And Alternate Models of Healing (pp. 375-384). Berkeley, CA: Independent Scholars of Asia.

(1989b) Authentic traditions and their confrontations with Western knowledge. Journal of Navajo Education, Winter 1989, VI, 3-12.

(1988a). Tales of Power. In R. I. Heinze (Ed.), Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on the Study of Shamanism And Alternate Models of Healing (pp. 31-49). Berkeley, CA: Independent Scholars of Asia.

(1988b). Shamanic tales as ways of personal empowerment. In G. Doore (Ed.), Shaman’s Path: Healing, Personal Growth, and Empowerment (pp. 189-199). Boston, MA: Shambala.

(1988c) Metanoia – Tales of power and epistemological learning. Journal of Learning, 1(1), 28-43.

(1987). The shaman and the epistemologer. In R. I. Heinze (Ed.), Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on the Study of Shamanism And Alternate Models of Healing (pp. 7 – 21). Berkeley, CA: Independent Scholars of Asia.

(1986). The human science approach as discourse. Saybrook Review, 6,65-105.



Shamanic Initiations and Their Loss–Decolonization as Initiation and Healing (PDF)


Shamanic Initiations and Their Loss —

Decolonization as Initiation and Healing


Jürgen W. Kremer


3383 Princeton

Santa Rosa

CA 95405, USA



© 2000 by Jürgen W. Kremer


Published in:

Ethnopsychologische Mitteilungen, Band 9, Heft 1/2, 109 – 148

[Page numbers inserted below as P109 etc.]




to the students who

have shared this path with me –

in gratitude for the gifts

of learning they offered



[P109] I am a white man. White is short for “socialized into a Eurocentered frame of mind.” White is the name of forgetting. Forgetting so much of how we came to be where we are. I am a white man. Boxed into a box that likes to forget its name. I do not walk alone. Like other white men something walks with me. With me walks a shadow. Before me I project the shadow of forgetting where I came from. Behind me trails the shadow of the tears of native peoples. Below me I march on the shadow of the lands my peoples have raped. Above me looms the shadow of the spirits which I am blind to. All around me walks the shadow of domination, witchhunts, genocides, holocausts, sexism, racism. I do not walk alone.


When I walk into healing – how can I heal when these shadows walk with me? How can I heal when they obscure what lies beyond them? I hope to heal by remembering and seeing the shadows that walk with me so that I can become complete. So that I am not made of illusions. I hope to heal by purifying the shadow. So that I am not boxed in a box without names. So that I walk with the multitude, richness, and plurality that is me. Til árs ok til friðar – so that there may be fertility and peace. So that there may be friðr and heill before me – peace, wholeness, and health… may there be friðr and heill behind me… may there be friðr and heill below me… may there be friðr and heill above me… may there be friðr and heill all around me. So that, maybe, I can go on in beauty, friðr and heill. And so that, maybe, even we all can go on in beauty, friðr and heill. So that, maybe, I can walk with all my relations. So that, maybe, I get healed.



Who is the self that is getting healed?

So often people of the Eurocentered frame of mind are puzzled why indigenous people are upset when they see their healing approaches used in a context different from or alien to their traditional ways. Aboriginal people may then speak not only of abuse, misunderstanding, or appropriation, but also of the grave spiritual dangers ensuing as a consequence of healing done outside of what is defined as the proper practice according to indigenous beingknowing. This contribution attempts to address and clarify the significant [P110] differences in understanding the process of healing in the context of native (or indigenous) thinking vs. Eurocentered thinking.


Interest in Native American and other indigenous healing practices (and ceremonies in general) has increased quite dramatically in recent years. This surge in curiosity is fueled by the experience that the conventional western healing; paradigm frequently reaches its own limit and that the spiritual connections within one’s self, with community and with nature, have desiccated. While this yearning for holistic healing by way of indigenous healing practices stems from a valid desire and need, it raises not only ethical and political issues, but also epistemological questions: Is the Eurocentered way of knowing indigenous healing compatible with the native understanding and use of these practices?


Cosmologies are inevitably implicated in any healing activity, but our attempts to be aware of such cosmologies, and, even more so, our attempts to participate in them in an indigenous sense are a matter of choice, commitment, and presence. Two significant things follow from this: 1) If people engage with an indigenous paradigm in a non-indigenous fashion then they continue to act out the imperialistic nature of Eurocentered knowledge acquisition. 2) Healing endeavors offer a choice of the quality of conversation one wants to create for the future (indigenous vs. Eurocentered). This is true regardless whether one’s indigenous roots are present, recent, or have to be sought in the distant past amidst a crisscrossing entanglements of cultural, genetic, and other heritages.


A significant part of the unease and discomfort indigenous people have around the decontextualized use of native healing practices is the shadow material looming not just in the background of such endeavors, but becoming part of them. Using native healing approaches outside of an indigenous way of being means carrying the disease of the colonizing paradigm, in fact, perpetrating colonization. Removing the presence of these shadows means decolonizing for all of us ensconced in the Eurocentered paradigm (whatever the cultural roots). It means healing the diss-association from communal roots. It means recognizing the losses of our own cultures. It means recognizing the history of colonization, racism, and sexism. Only then arises the possibility of a knowledge exchange about indigenous healing practices that can be called equitable, instead of acquisitive, reifying, or appropriative. It may lead to the renewal of a more complete, holistic, and associative nurturing conversation.


My general framework is a discursive conversational stance of communal con-course, which resists the reification and ossification of what is usually described as “the other” (e.g., the Indian, the Sámi, the Aboriginal). It is an attempt to recover the traditional plurality of tribal or indigenous stories not only in the perception of other cultures, but particularly and foremost in the perception of one’s own roots. This means overcoming the denial of and separation from “the other” within one’s own self constructed in the [P111] Eurocentered fashion; it means discontinuing and healing the projective identification with indigenous peoples (the romantic colonization and containment of native life and history through Eurocentered sciences). The construction of indigenous peoples as “the other” is only possible as long as Eurocentered folk choose to forget their own indigenous roots, since out of this denial arises the legitimation of Eurocentered scientific dominance, progress thinking, and colonization. This approach is based on the recognition that the discontinuance of colonizing action is not just to cease outward acts of hostility, violence, and dominance, but just as much the internal abolition of the colonizer or the colonizing mind (the latter being a concept synonymous with the construction of the Eurocentered mind or consciousness).


I would like to be as clear as possible about the vantage point from which I am writing: The framework is a) decolonization and b) the healing of the masculinization of the phenomena of perceived reality. Any consideration regarding indigenous roots for people who are removed from them by more than a couple of generations needs to include such dimensions as politics, economics, law, cultural practices, ceremony, initiation, science, psychology. Healing the Eurocentered thought process from its dissociation or split from an embedded, nurturing, or holistic participation in the phenomena cannot be merely an individualistic process – it has to be a cultural, communal, and social process. I am writing as a man of Nordic-Germanic ancestry struggling with the depths of the scars of modern pathologies as they show themselves in individuals physically as such illnesses as cancer, addictions, chronic fatigue syndrome, and in social anomies (in Durckheim’s sense), ecological crises, continuing physical and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples, the crises of knowing, the persistence of sexism, institutionalized violence and racism, etc.


I am using the terms indigenous roots, indigenous consciousness, and the like not out of any presumption that this is something I have achieved for myself, or that I have reached closure to my personal process of decolonization (I do not believe that individual closure is possible without the healing of the communal, cultural contexts). These terms have been suggested directly and indirectly by Native American thinkers, Apela Colorado in particular (1994, 47):

The goal of the recovery of indigenous mind [is] to reunite people with their tribal minds. Each of the races of humankind was given a sacred circle or original instruction to live by. If our species is to survive, Euro-Americans must be supported in their effort to regain the Earth-based knowledge of their ancestors. Native Americans will help.

Churchill (1996, 386/7) spoke similarly when addressing an audience of Germans:

You must set yourselves to reclaiming your own indigenous past. You must come to know it in its own terms – the terms of its internal values and understandings, and the way these [P112]  were appplied to living in this world – not the terms imposed upon it by the order which set out to destroy it. You must learn to put your knowledge of this heritage to use as a lense through which you can clarify your present circumstance … You must begin with the decolonization of your own minds, with a restoration of your understanding of who you are, where you come from, what it is that has been done to you to take you to the place in which you now find yourselves.

Within the framework of his own indigenist approach he urges the expression of “German indigenism” (389). Mohawk (n.d., 17) speaks to the same issue when stating “I do not want people to adopt Indian rituals, because I want them to own their own rituals. I want them to come to ownership of experiences that are real for them. Then I’ll come and celebrate with them.”


According to all the native and indigenous people (shamans, medicine people and intellectuals) I have spoken to, the crucial point here is that indigenous roots are always recoverable. Indeed, indigenous leaders see such task as a historic necessity in our times. This is where their hope for the resolution of the current crises, particularly the ecological crisis, rests. For example, Bob Hazous, Chiricahua Apache, has stated: “Don’t come to Indian people and look for feathers and sweats and medicine men and stuff like that. Go back to your own history and find out who you are so that you can look at yourselves and see how beautiful you are” (1994). Implicit here is an assumption about “original instruction – words about purpose, words rooted in our creation, words that allow the human being an identity beyond the illusion of civilization,” as Native American writer Gabriel Horn puts it (1996, 49). Reconstructing indigenous consciousness is about the remembrance of these original instructions and the indigenous conversation with all beings they guide in a particular place at a particular time. While consciousness is a psychological term that has arisen from the individualism facilitated by the Eurocentered paradigm, it assumes quite a different meaning in an indigenous context: instead of being merely psychological it refers to a fluid and embedded awareness of and connection with all our relations – humans, ancestors, animals, plants, earth, stars, sun, and all others. And all this in the storied, imaginative, communal reflections of lived participation.


Even though the words “recovery of indigenous mind” have been suggested by Native American thinkers I have to admit to a certain degree of anxiety whenever I use words like these. So many concepts and terms have become superficial labels as they have entered mainstream or popular thinking that I am afraid a similar thing might happen with a romantic, nostalgic, or opportunistic appropriation of and identification with the word indigenous. This would be terrible and an outrageous misunderstanding of the process I am calling for. The remaining indigenous peoples continue to struggle for survival and recognition. Indigenous is a term with important political meaning. Any person of Eurocentered mind needs to assume (take it on!) this political meaning (together with all [P113] the other meanings the word indigenous connotes). Assuming it means a personal and social struggle for decolonization, it means fighting genocide, racism, sexism, and ecocide. Outside of that context the use of the word indigenous is abuse and devaluation of the struggle of aboriginal peoples and supports those who keep destroying indigenous cultures in conscious and unconscious ways.


The differences in healing paradigm between indigenous traditions and Eurocentered traditions can be understood as the result of different constructions of self (importantly, any self construction arises within a complex web of mutual causality; consequently, the perspective offered here should not be misread in a monocausal vein). There are multiple ways of identifying such differences; for the purposes of this contribution on healing I am using shamanic initiations as a marker to identify differences in self construction. This leads, in a sense, to the most fundamental questions:


Who are we healing? Which self are we healing when we attempt to relieve human suffering?


Are we attempting to heal the modern, Eurocentered, colonizing, or dissociated self? Or are we attempting to heal the indigenous self, the self embedded in community, land, and ancestry?


Are we attempting to heal the Eurocentered self, and make it more functional within the modern world of progress and dissociation? Or are we attempting to bring balance to the indigenous self by healing it from the source of creation as it is understood in the plurality of stories of traditions within which we are working?


The most succcinct way to describe my stance would be as follows: The exposure to Native American and other indigenous healing practices needs to be an occasion for people of Eurocentered mind to develop and remember their own indigenous healing practices. This process would include the integration of the western medical and psychological achievements from European indigenous perspectives – from the indigenous roots Eurocentered folk have recovered for a concursive construction of indigeneity for today and the future (not a folkloristic or retroromantic reènactment of things past).


In my attempt to clarify the issues I have just introduced I:

— describe and discuss what is usually seen as the classical shamanic initiation in Eurasia, the prequisite for the highest levels of healing in her indigenous traditions;

— discuss my understanding of indigenous healing;

— describe the historical loss of rites of passage and initiations leading to the construction of what can probably most accurately be called the Eurocentered self;

[P114] — contrast the modern paradigm of healing that arises from this self construction with indigenous understandings of healing;

— describe the process of decolonization as a rite of passage and initiation.

— I conclude with I poem and overview table “summarizing” the issues discussed in this article.


Shamanic Initiation

Most indigenous cultures seem to have a variety of specialists engaged in healing endeavors. Their native labels express their work succinctly, distinguishing between e.g., herbalists, bone setters, shamans, seers, diagnosticians. Given my background, my focus is on the Eurasian cultural areas which, amidst their rich diversity, have certain connecting strands. Here the jajan, saman, noaidi, völva, or seiðkarl embody the highest or deepest forms of seeing and healing; they are holders of the deep knowledge of their cultures and keep it alive through their ceremonial practices; they have been initiated by spirits into the lived knowledge of their cultures.


My Nordic-Germanic roots connect me with the vast Eurasian cultural complex that has certain common strands (Pentikäinen 1989). Within this rich area I begin my discussion with descriptions from cultures that are less impacted by Christian influences, and move subsequently to the Old Norse material that is much more fragmentary and influenced by Christian thought.


A feature on Tuvan shamanism filmed by Belgian Public Television (Dumon 1993) contains a brief moment where the interviewer asks the shaman whether he had to go through the shamanic illness in order to become a shaman. “Were you also sick?” The question leads us to expect a long explanation of such a significant event, however, the old man only answers matter of factly: “Of course, I was sick.” The brevity of the answer indicates how obvious, necessary, and inevitable the so-called shamanic illness or albystar (in Tuvinian). It is what makes and defines a shaman, whether woman or man or hermaphrodite. All other shamans shown in this movie have undergone similar trials as they were called to shamanize.[1][1]


The common language for the call to shamanize and the initiation is ‘initiatory illness’ or ‘shamanic illness.’ The following are excerpts from descriptions among the Evenki (Tungus) of Central Asia:

…He became tormented and timorous, especially at night when his head was filled with dream visions. On the day when he had to act as shaman, the visions stopped, he fell into a [P115] trance and stared for hours at an object. The pale and worried man, with his piercing look, made a peculiar impression. After his dream, the chosen man became uneasy and timid, began to meditate, did not answer when he was addressed and frquently heard ‘words whispered into his ears’ which he had to sing, žarižačan (literally: ‘to repeat’). That was the moment when, in shamanistic terminology, ‘the spirits entered his ears and brain’, telling him the words of the song. … [The Evenki] believed that the choice itself and the transfer of the assistant spirits to the novice were directed by the master spirit of the upper world. The first words heard by the chosen person were instructions, such as: … ‘do not commit evil things, only cure the sick. … I shall be above you, and take care of you, and give you strength.’ In his dream, the young shaman could see the shaman ancestors who also gave him instructions. Then other spirits came ‘whispering into his ears’. (Vasilevič 1968, 345)

The last sentence of this quote speaks most clearly to the difference between a psychologizing Eurocentered perspective and indigenous perspectives: the ancestors and other spirits speak to the initiand, self construction is fluid and open enough to have intercourse with such realities; this is different from an internalizing self construction comprehending and apprehending ancestors as various aspects of the monadic self (whatever psychological theory we might use). The process leads from the initial visitation by spirits to the acquisition of the necessary shamanic accoutrements, as described in the following statement from the Tuva (Soyot) of Central Asia:

A shaman is recognized by typical attacks of a special ‘disease’ called albystar. The person in question ‘goes off his head’, utters inarticulate sounds, breaks dishes, leaves the house and roams about the taiga, twitches in hysterical convulsions, is seized with nausea and rends his garments, etc. The ‘invalid’ repeats that the soul of a shaman ištig irgäk has moved into his body, that the spirit urges him to take a horse (by which the drum düŋür is meant) and clothes (ala xujaq) and to become a shaman. (Vajnštejn, 1968, 331)


Even in the Old Norse traditions, where shamanism fell prey to Christianity more than one thousand years ago, we find remnants in the records describing an indigenous self construction of the practitioners. For example, at the beginning of the Eddic poem reaching most deeply into the older layer of the culture we read how the seeress was raised by ancestral spirits:

Ek man iötna / ár um borna, / þá er forðum mik / fædda höfðu. / Níu man ek heima / – níu íviðiur, / miötvið mæran – / fyr mold neðan. (Völuspá, stanza 2)

I remember the Jötnar who were born at the beginning of time and reared me in former times. I remember nine worlds beneath the earth, nine giantesses, and also the glorious tree of fate. (Pálsson 1996, 47 & 58)

The völva is raised by giants, reared with primal spirits of old, one of them called Burr, the bear ancestor. Personal and collective or communal time are indistinguishable in this [P116] incantoatory account of earliest Norse history. The giants are primal spirits, presences from before human beings (If we accept Pálsson´s interpretation of iötna as Sámi we still end up with the same understanding: the seeress was raised in the presence of spirits or with spirits.)


The connection with one’s dream or vision or medicine power or personal gift is part of native life, manifesting in all the multitude of cultural ways. Reinforcing that connection is the function of rites of passage. Shamanic initiation, in the indigenous sense, is deepening or reinforcing one’s presence to the spiritual realities within a communal framework. While spirit(s) are part of all indigenous conversations, the awareness of and presence to spirit(s) becomes intensified and heightened for shamans. Thus the völva in Völuspá is raised with spirit(s) in such intensity and to such depths that she sees through time, that she remembers the beginnings of things, the center of her traditions (the tree of fate). As the descriptions above indicate, such shamanic initiations are not mere psychological processes. They are a process always also resulting in actions capable of manifesting healing. Paula Gunn Allen (1998, 47) aptly describes the difference between the psychologizing of spirit – a temptation to which many alternate Eurocentered approaches succumb in our current culture of psychology – and the indigenous conversation:

In tribal cultures, ecstatic, mystical states don’t so much convert into emotive personal experience as into physical experience or experience with direct effect in the physical (that is, as a consequence of entering an ecstatic state, a practitioner can do something actual). Visionary experiences, in themselves, are either a direct requirement for some ritual activity in which the individual is engaging or are a prelude to a life as a holy person.

The shamanic self is not so much constructed as affirmed and confirmed during initiations; it is the rigorous confirmation of something which has already been in the process of construction from early on. It is worthy of note that the ‘shamanic illness’ is not something an individual chooses as an endeavor during a sequence of workshops, but that the spirit(s) come to them. The shamanic self is initiated from the ‘outside’, to speak in Eurocentered terminology. We might say more accurately that other aspects of the weave that the fluid, participatory indigenous self is connected into impinge their awareness onto the individual mind. Or, more plainly:

The Indian has achieved a particularly effective alignment of [the physical and imaginative] planes of vision. … The appropriation of both images into one reality is what the Indian is concerned to do: to see what is really there, but also to see what is really there. (Momaday, from Blaeser 1998, 26)

So, this is a self which has easy concourse with spirits and spiritual dimensions, or rather: instead of being unconscious or in denial about such presences and concourse, it is present to it. This is the work of the völva, noaidi, and the various other shamanic practitioners.


[P117] Eliade, in his classic book Shamanism – Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951/1964, 42), complains that not enough “care had been taken to collect the confessions (sic!) of … Siberian shamans” so that they are “reduced to the meager common formula: the candidate remained unconscious for a certain number of days, dreamed that he was cut to pieces by spirits and carried into the sky, and so on.” He sees the following detailed description as a relief from such reductions. This example may be the one most frequently quoted in the literature (see Popov in Dioszegi 1968, 137-146;  Elidade 1951/1964, 38-42; Halifax 1979, 37-49; Vitebky 1995, 60-61), and it can also be found on the internet (see below). Repeating this report one more time may thus contribute to a reification and ossification of what shamanic initiation is. The ones who escaped the care of the anthropological collectors may be the lucky ones, since they have escaped the grasp of anthropology, “the natural enemy of natives” (88), or more elaborately: “Natives are forever studied, invented as abstruse cultures, and then embodied in motion pictues as the simulated burdens of civilization. … These adversities became more grievous and caused a turn in the notions, courses, and literary canons at universities, but the treacheries and dominance of anthropologism, the obsessive, unmerciful studies of natives by social scientists, have not been overturned…” (Vizenor 1997, 86). With the opening of the East Bloc, anthropological attention has turned more intensely on her aboriginal traditions previously more difficult to access. Here is an abbreviated version of the account:

At first he was descending somewhere, then he grasped that there was a sea beneath him. While walking by the sea, he listened to the voice of upper disease who told that he would acquire the shaman’s gift from the Mistress of water and his shaman name would be Hotarie. After that he reached the shore. A naked woman, who was lying there, suckled him. She was the Mistress of water. Her husband Frosty God gave an ermine and a mouse to guide him.  They led him to the hill in the lower world where he saw seven tents. Dyukhade entered the second tent. The Smallpox people were living there. They cut out Dyukhade’s heart and put it in the cauldron to boil. Afterwards Dyukhade visited other tents and got familiar with the spirits of diseases who lived there. Still preceeded by his guides, Dyukhade came to that place of the Shaman’s Land where his throat and his voice were strengthened.  Then he was carried to the shores of the nine lakes. In the middle of one lake was an island and on the island there was a tree, quite similar to the larch, only its top rose to the sky. It was the tree of the Mistress of the earth. Beside it grew seven herbs, the ancestors of all the plants on the earth. In each of the lakes swam a species of bird with its young. There were several kinds of ducks, a swan and a sparrow-hawk. While singing songs and telling incantations, Dyukhade walked round all of the lakes. Some of them were very hot, some were terribly salty. Thereafter Dyukhade raised his head and saw men of various nations in the top of the high tree. There were Nganasans, Russians, Dolgans, Nenetses and Tunguses. He heard voices: “It has been decided that you shall have a drum from the branches of this tree.”  Then he grasped that he was flying with the birds of the lakes. As he left the shore, the Lord of the Tree called to him: “My branch has just fallen. [P118] Take it and make a drum of it that will serve you all your life!” The branch had three forks and the Lord of the Tree bade him make three drums from it. “I let you have three wives, who will watch over your drums,” he said. “The first drum you have got to use for shamanising women in childbirth, the second for curing the sick and the third for finding men lost in the snowstorm.”  Dyukhade took the branch and flew away with the birds. On his way he met a demiman-demitree creature who told: ” If you will be asked to shamanise in the case of serious illness and your heart will not be strong enough, then you will take this,” and he gave him seven herbs. “Each of them has its lords. If you will meet an orphan girl or a widow, you will help them.”   Then Dyukhade reached the large sea. He saw seven cliffs on the shore. When he got close, one of them opened. There were teeth like from the bear inside the cliff. The cliff said: “I am the Heavy Stone. By the use of my weight I hold the fertile soil in its place. The wind would carry it away without me.” The second cliff opened and said: “Let all men melt iron from me.” So Dyukhade studied seven days near the cliffs.  Afterwards the ermine and the mouse led him to the marshland. They reached the hill with swampy slopes. There was an open doorway on the closest slope, and they went in. The interior, except for the ice around it, looked like the one of the conical tent’s. There was a hearth in the middle of the room. On the left side two naked women were sitting. Their bodies were furry and they both had antlers (one of them had green ones). Both of them bore him two reindeer calves destined for sacrifice and nourishment. They gave him some reindeer fur for the shaman costume and for good luck with reindeer.  Then Dyukhade came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it and entered an opening. There was a naked man working a bellows inside the mountain. On the fire was a cauldron as big as half the earth. The naked man saw Dyukhade and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. Dyukhade had only time to think: “I am dead!” The man cut off his head, chopped up his body and put them in the cauldron. There he boiled them for three years. There were three anvils on the tundra side of this mountain. The naked man forged Dyukhade’s head on the third anvil, which was the one on which the best shamans were forged. Then he chilled his head in the cauldron, in which the water was the coldest (there were three cauldrons with water). He said: “When you will be called to cure someone, you will remember – if the soul of your patient will be warmer then water in the first cauldron, it will be useless to shamanize, for the man is already lost. If the soul will be as warm as water in the second cauldron, your patient is not very seriously ill and you will shamanize to cure him. Water in the third cauldron has the temperature of the healthy body.” Then the blacksmith poured Dyukhade’s bones and muscles out of the cauldron and separated flesh from bones. He said: “As you have three of them too many, you will have three shaman costumes too.” Afterwards he said: “Your spinal cord is a river now, look at your bones floating away!” He fished Dyukhade’s bones out of the river and put them together. The bones were covered with flesh again. Only the skull was still separated. Then the blacksmith told Dyukhade to read the letters inside the skull. And Dyukhade read. Then the blacksmith covered the skull with flesh and put it to its original place again. He changed his eyes and pierced his ears, making him able to understand the language of [P119] plants. Then Dyukhade found himself on the summit of a mountain. He entered a tent and awakened – in his own tent.   Afterwards he behaved like an insane person: daily he sung incantations and frequently swooned away, nightly suffered torments caused by spirits. During the seventh year of his illness he went far into the tundra and met there a man who gave him back his heart, cut out at the very beginning of his shaman’s sickness. (A. Popov “Tavgitsy” – Trudy Instituta antropologii i etnografii, t. 1. vyp. 5. Moskva-Leningrad 1936, pp 85 – 93. Abbreviated translation by A. Lintrop at http://haldjas.folklore.ee/~aado/vis.htm)


As all these descriptions should make obvious: the call to become a shaman is not a light matter; the initiation is a journey where the person’s life is on the line, where not getting something right can easily mean death (see Eliade 1951/1964, 38-42 in particular). The patterns of call, initiation and instruction vary from culture to culture in accordance with the form the nurturing conversation takes in a particular place (local knowledge), time, ancestry, and ceremonial tradition (See Vitebsky 1995 for a brief, comprehensive overview). However, common to all is pressure from spirits resulting in a heightened presence to them, and the imparting of healing knowledge in a way that makes it available to the personal repertoire of the initiand – the person is getting initiated into the deep knowledge of his or her culture. This is the crucial point: while this process certainly has a psychological dimension it functions, when comprehended as a whole, entirely outside of not just a psychological paradigm, but outside of the boundaries of the Eurocentered paradigmata in general. Psychologizing spirit amounts to the appropriation and containment of Eurasian ancestries. Especially since Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) Eurocentered individuals are prone to interpret initiation in psychological terms, particularly in Jungian archetypal terms (initiation into Self). While such process has psychological validity (there is, of course, such a process as the psychological initiation into the Self archetype), it is a partial interpretation of the Eurasian indigenous process of shamanic initiation (the call from and invasion of spirits) as is, hopefully, apparent from the above statements.


An illustration of such contact with spirits can be seen in the story of Óðinn being initiated by fasting and hanging on the tree of life for nine days. While fragmentary, it clearly contains some of the elements described above for Siberian shamanism. We reasonably have to assume that Óðinn started out as the village master shaman, who later became hypostasized and patricarchalized in the course of the emergence of Eurocentered social constructions. In the following quotation Óðinn undergoes shamanic initiation, what is really there and what is really there, come together, the physical and imaginative, spiritual planes get aligned. He is wounded and sacrifices himself for nine long nights on the tree of life, at the center whence the female spirits Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld renew life continuously from the sources of creation. The giant spirit of Bölthorn’s son (ancestral spirit of his uncle) teaches him the shamanic song for spirit calling, he drinks the mead, the [P120] herbal drink of ecstasy and in-spiration, thus becoming full of spirit and being present to spirits he learns from various spirits, ginnregin, the mighty gods,[2][2] the tools of his shamanic trade (runes, not merely letters or symbols, but images to make spirit present for shamanic work, invocations; carving runes means creating spiritual presences).

  1. Veit ek, at ek hekk 137. I know that I hung in the windtorn tree

vindga meiði á

nætr allar níu                                 Nine whole nights, spear-pierced,

geiri undaðr Óðni,

sjálfr sjálfum mér,                        Consecrated to Odin, myself to my Self above me in the tree,

á þeim meiði

er manngi veit                               Whose roots no one knows whence it sprang.

hvers hann af rótum renn.


  1. Við hleifi mik sældu 138. None brought me bread, none served me drink;

né við hornigi,

nýsta ek niðr                                 I searched the depths, spied runes of wisdom;

nam ek upp rúnar

Ïpandi nam,                                   Raised them with song, and fell once more thence.

fell ek aptr þaðan.


  1. Fimbulljóð níu 139. Nine powerful chants I learned

nam ek af inum frægja syni

Bölþórs, Bestlu föður,                   From the wise son of Bölthorn, Bestla’s father;

ok ek drykk of gat                        A draught I drank of precious mead

ins dýra mjaðar

ausinn Óðreri.                               Ladled from Odraerir.


  1. Þá nam ek frævask 140. I began to thrive, to grow wise,

ok fróðr vera

ok vaxa ok vel hafask;                                   To grow greater, and enjoy;

orð mér af orði                             For me words led from words to new words;

orðs leitaði,

verk mér af verki                         For me deeds led from deeds to new deeds.

verks leitði.


  1. Rúnar munt þú finna 141. Runes shall you know and right read staves,

ok ráðna stafi,

mjök stóra stafi,                            Very great staves, powerful staves,

mjök stinna stafi,

er fáði fimbulþulr                         Drawn by the mighty one who speaks,

ok gørðu ginnregin                       Made by wise Vaner,

ok reist Hroptr rjögna.                  carved by the hightest rulers.

(Evans 1986, 68-69)                     (Titchenell 1985, 126-127)

This is one of Óðinn’s shamanic journeys recorded in the Old Norse literature, where he learns what he needs for his craft. While this description seems to contain but remnants of a complete cultural practice, these ciphers direct our attention to a quality of indigenous conversation present beneath the layer of Christianized descriptions and patriarchal conceptualizations. In this nurturing shamanic conversations Óðinn consorts with spirits and feminine sources of creation, renewal, and healing. Hanging from the tree of life he has accessed the deep knowledge of his culture.



Indigenous Healing

Healing is intimately connected with seeing: the perception of spirits and spirits is an integral part of any healing endeavor. Without seeing spirit there is no healing. Understanding spiritually what is out of balance and how healing needs to happen requires seeing. We find this form of seeing described in Eiríks Saga Rauða:

Slógu þá konur hring um hjalling, en Þorbjörg sat á uppi. Kvað Guðriður flá kvæðið svá fagrt ok vel… Spákonan þakkar henni kvæðit, ok kvað margar þær náttúrur nú til hafa sótt ok þykkja fagrt at heyra, er kvæðit var svá vel flutt.

The women then cast a circle round the ritual platform on which Thorbjörg seated herself. Then Gudrid sang the songs so well and beautifully… The völva gives thanks for the song to her and said many spirits have come to us and are charmed by what they hear as the song was sung so beautifully. (Jones 1961, 136)

The calling of the spirits is done by means of varðlokkur, the spirit song, which has a similar function to the drumming and inspired singing or chanting in other Eurasian shamanic traditions (varðlokkur is oftentimes translated as magic song, Zaubergesang; warlock is a related word; vörðr is soul, fylgja, the familiar spirit who follows, the spirit of the home and hearth, guardian spirit; lúka is what encloses the spirits, binds them). It is the power and beauty of the song that brings the spirits. The völva cannot do her seeing and prophecying without the spirits being present.


[P122] The various techniques of spirit calling have led many to interpret indigenous spirituality in terms of the dichotomous pair immanence – transcendence used in religious discussions of “major religions,” for example. However, this represents, I believe, a fundamental misunderstanding of native beingknowing, where even the term “spirituality” creates a division reflecting more the impact of Eurocentered thinking and splitting than the practice of native realities: spirit is everywhere, spirituality is everywhere, everything is spiritual. Everything is immanent, spirit is immanent, not separate or transcendant (immanence and transcendence are more like poles on a scale with many thick and thin places of connection inbetween). While there are all kinds of aspects and levels to this, and while our awareness of these various presences and aspects may be clear or clouded, all these aspects and beings are nonetheless present to indigenous beingknowing. By contrast, the dissociated mind needs to transcend in order to conceptualize or even reach any of these aspects that are immanently present to the indigenous or primal or natural mind, when in balance.


Such immanent worldview can be found even at the roots of the Eurocentered traditions. (Historically, they first turned against their own indigenous roots, and subsequently projected this shadow material out; this led to all the colonial and genocidal violence against indigenous people.) We can trace it clearly in someof the central concepts: Within the oldest layers of the Indo-European traditions we find healing, holy, and wholeness all as aspects of such an immanent world view.

IE*kai-lo-, which occurs in Goth hailjan, OE hælan, OHG heilen, and OBulg celjo, all of which mean “to heal.” What is expressed most directly through these terms, however, is not just the establishment of a vague state of “health” or “well-being” but more precisely a state of “wholeness, totality, completion,” as shown in the nominal and adjectival formations from this root, such as Goth hails, ON heill, OHG heil, and OBulg cel, all of which mean both “healthy” and “whole”… So desirable was this state of wholeness thought to be that two common IE formulaic greetings and toasts express the wish that the one addressed may be “whole.” Such a state of well-being and wholeness might be lost through injury or disease, whereupon the healer’s task was to restore it. (Lincoln 1986, 100)

The centrality of this concept of healing is apparent. Hitler turned this very understanding of heil through his evil genius on to the dark side; from an indigenous perspective one could venture to say that the constant everyday use of a formula in older times spoken for the sake of healing, blessing, and greeting, but now spoken millions of times every day for the sake of destruction and genocide, gave the fascism of the Third Reich a particular power and created the mass of bystanders and willing executioners so much in the public debates since Goldhagen’s book. Ever since the word denoting the process of healing carries the shadows of history, and is thus collectively in need of purification and healing. Lincoln’s analysis of the old Indo-European understanding of healing and wholeness identifies magic not as idle superstition, but rather as a

[P123] system of non-Aristotelian, homologic causality, whereby items connected to one another in a relation of underlying constubstantiality are considered capable of acting on one another. And what is more, the precise terms of these homologies are drawn from cosmogonic and anthropogonic myth. (1986, 110)

Within this worldview healing by acts of magical speech is the highest form of healing (ibid. 101). Magical speech, sacred poetry, singing, chanting are part of this evocative context, in which physical accoutrements and interventions form adjuncts which would be less effective if not accompanied by the spiritual presences created through sacred sound. Many words in the Old Norse and other Eurasian indigenous traditions use terms for ceremonial endeavors that are etymologically connected to chanting (Old Norse blót, seiðr, Evenki jajan, etc.), and many words for chanting are connected with seeing (even the English ‘singing’ is). (Another important complex consists of the words for knowing, the-one-who-knows, and seeing.)


Lincoln concludes his discussion of “magical healing” by saying

In considering the IE (Indo-European, JWK) vocabulary for the act of healing I noted that one term commonly used in this context, *kai-lo-, signified “wholeness, integrity.” It now becomes apparent just how awesome a task the production or restoration of such integrity must be, for it is not just a damaged body that one restores to wholeness and health, but the very universe itself. I also noted that the verb used to denote “healing,” *med-, stressed the knowledge and authority that enabled a healer to create proper order in an ailing patient. The full extent of such knowledge is now revealed in all its grandeur: the healer must understand and be prepared to manipulate nothing less than the full structure of the cosmos. (Lincoln 1986, 117/8)

Kailo and heill are terms that need to be understood in a communal frame of mind which includes humans, ancestors, animals, plants, and others. To conceive of them or of friðr (peace or Great Peace) as individualistic pursuits (analogous to the “pursuit of happiness”) means not seeing the obligations which weave the individual’s contribution into the communal fabric. Such weaving has its origins in the place from which the possibility of healing and balance emanate: creation and creation story. Óðinnfasting on the tree of life puts him at the center of anthropogenesis where he receives crucial instructions for his way as a shaman or seiðmenn. The following story from Snorri’s Prose Edda (Sturluson 1987) speaks to the centrality of healing and in-spiration emanating from the oldest layers of the story of the people. The literature commonly talks about the mead of inspiration or the mead of poetry, however, as we have seen previously, to be in-spired by poetic song is making the spirits present, is becoming present to them. Such poetic inspiration is not just seeing, but also the foundation of healing, of manipulating the structure of the universe through the power of the magic words chanted. Of course, the power of such tremendous [P124] manipulation is not the shaman’s, but that of the spirits; the power of the shaman is the capacity of varðlokkur, spirit calling, and then the skill of his spirits traveling to where they must go for seeing and healing (the intensification of indigenous presence); the rest is the grace of spirit(s).


The story of Óðinn’s recovery of the mead that is given below, illustrates a variety of things important in shamanic work: we read about shapeshifting, wrestling with spirits, the recovery of medicine, and a spirit which has been held by illegitimate owners, spirit journey. Remembering that magical speech is the highest form of healing the significance of the rescue of the source of such magic from thieves and murderers becomes evident. It is important to notice how the nature of the medicine of the mead changes as the story unfolds from creation: from the power of truce between two groups of spirits (the Vanir and the Æsir) to poetic in-spiration from one group of spirits only (the Æsir; Indo-Europeanization is thus strengthened).


The mead Óðinn recovers by means of his shamanic work is spiritually of eminent importance: Its origins lie with the truce between the Æsir and Vanir groups of gods/goddesses or spirits. They had spat into a vat to seal the agreement, and then decided to create the wisest of humans, Kvasir,[3][3] out of it. Kvasir travelled through the world teaching his wisdom. He was killed by dwarves who preserved his blood, mixed with honey in three containers. The mead was passed on as recompense for the drowning of a giant. His son kept the mead putting his daughter in charge of it. This medicine, which was ceremonially created by the Æsir and Vanir spirits, and which became manifest in the wandering wise person Kvasir, then gets rescued by Óðinn during a shamanic recovery process, but changes its character significantly in the process – instead of being medicine mediating and balancing between the Æsir and Vanir spirits it now ends up in the possession of the Æsir as the mead of poetry (poetry is also known as Kvasir’s blood), from the seal of truce making between two aspects of spirits it turns into the in-spiration from [P125] and for one group of gods and goddesses; the magic of healing words and inspired song is now in the hand of the Æsir, spirits of Indo-European cultural context:

Óðinn told him his name was Bölverkr (“worker of trickery or evil”); he offered to take over the work of nine men for Baugi (“the bent one”), and stipulated as his payment one drink of Suttungr’s mead (Suttungr is probably “heavy with drink”). Baugi said he had no say in the disposal of the mead, said that Suttungr wanted to have it all to himself, but he said that he would go with Bölverkr and try whether they could get the mead. Bölverkr did the work of nine men for Baugi during the summer, and when winter came he asked Baugi for his hire. Then they both set off. Baugi told his brother Suttungr of his agreement with Bölverkr, but Suttung flatly refused a single drop of the mead. Then Bölverkr told Baugi that they would have to try some stratagems to see if they could get hold of the mead, and Baugi said that was a good idea. Then Bölverkr got out an augur called Rati (“drill, augur”) and instructed Baugi to bore a hole in the mountain, if the augur would cut. He did so. Then Baugi said that the montain was bored through, but Bölverkr blew into the auger-hole and the bits flew back up at him. Then he realized that Baugi was trying to cheat him, and told him to bore through the mountain. Baugi bored again. And when Bölverkr blew a second time, the bits flew inwards. Then Bolverk turned himself into the form of a snake and crawled into the auger-hole, and Baugi stabbed after him  with the auger and missed him. Bölverkr went to where Gunnlöð (“invitation to fight”, giant spirit) was and lay with her for three nights and then she let him drink three drafts of the mead. In the first draught he drank everything out of Óðrærir (“the one stimulating ecstasy”; originally the mead itself, but also the vessel containing it), and in the second out of Boðn (“vessel”), in the third out of Són (probably “blood, reconciliation, atonement”), and then he had all the mead. The he turned himself into the form of an eagle and flew as hard as he could. And when Suttungr saw the eagle’s flight he got his own eagle shape and flew after him. And when the Æsir saw Óðinnflying they put their containers out in the courtyard, and when Óðinncame in over Ásgarðr (the home of the Æsir) he spat out the mead into the containers, but it was such a close thing for him that Suttungr might have caught him that he sent some of the mead out backwards, and this was disregarded. Anyone took it that wanted it, and it is what we call the rhymester’s share. But Óðinngave Suttungr’s mead to the Æsir and to those people who are skilled at composing poetry. Thus we call poetry Óðinn’s booty and find, and his drink and his gift and the Æsir’s drink. (Sturluson 1987, Skaldskaparmal, 63-64)

This seems to be a very old shamanic story that finds clear resonances within the Eurasian complex, for example, in the Rig Veda of 1200-900 BCE: Here Indra, in the form of an eagle or with the eagle as helper spirit, steals the elixir of immortality, soma (which Wasson [1968] identifies with the fly agaric mushroom), the plant spirit of in-spiration and seeing. Verse 4.27.5 offers an interesting conjunction between “overflowing cow’s milk, the finest honey, the clear juice” (all presumably words connoting soma; see Wasson for [P126] extensive discussions), which, by bold Indo-European generalization, brings Óðr, the drink of in-spiration, to the milk the primal cow Auðumla offers as nourishment. Modern Icelandic óður (adj.) means not just “furious,” but also crazy and mad, which originally presumably would have been the “madness” of spirit possession or religious trance of in-spiration. Doniger O´Flaherty (1981, 128) comments that “Soma is the ‘fiery juice’, simultaneously fire and water”, and Auðumla feeds the primal giant spirit Ymir who was born at the place from which the world arises, Ginnungagap, the conjunction of fire and ice (cf. Gylfaginning, Sturluson 1987). Óðrærir is commonly translated as mead (German Met), considered the oldest spiritual drink; it is the drink of fermented honey (but also berries[4][4]), and a word which points to an old connection between Indo-European and Finno-Ugric cultures: Saami miehta (originating from Proto-Finno-Ugric of ca. 4000BCE; Sammallahti, 1998, 119), Finnish mete, etc. are related to the Pre-Aryan Indo-European language layer. In the words soma, mead, and óðrærir we find a constellation of the primal forces of creation, spiritual seeing, renewal, mantic poetry, nourishment from the center of creation and spirit(s), as well as atonement and peacekeeping.


The discussions of varðlokkur, kailo, and the mead of in-spiration serve to show that what so many of Euro-centered mind are looking for in Native American and other indigenous traditions can truly be found in their own roots, e.g. the Germanic-Nordic traditions. Healing is not a mere technology, but a spiritual activity which, while using certain pragmatic interventions such as herbs, is embedded in the deep structure of cultural beingknowing and the prerequisite initiations and lifeways. In my case healing can and needs to arise from the place where the Old Norse ancestors were created into their precise cultural identity. Just as it does for Native American tribes and other indigenous peoples. LaPena (1999, 18) comments beautifully: The elders “learn the earth’s secrets by quietly observing. It is a secret language called knowledge that releases the spirit from stone and heals by tone of voice and by changing sickness into elements that flow instead of blocking life.” This is what it means to follow our original instructions in a particular place and time. “Sacred names, dreams, and visions are images that connect the bearer to the earth; shamans and other tribal healers and visionaries speak the various languages of plants and animals and feel the special dream power to travel backward from familiar times and places” (Vizenor 1981, XVII). This is what the völvas, the seeresses, and the seers of the Nordic Germanic traditions did and do. The importance of the connection between language and place is described by Pinkson (1995, 127) based on his initiations into the Huichol tradition:

The original language of the people indigenous to a specific area on Mother Earth’s body grows directly out of the land itself. The vibratory essence of the natural forces in a given area grow upward from the bowels of the land and surrounding elements to form the plant life and vegetation of that area. The indigenous people live, eat, and breathe these natural elements. They die back into them and new generations birth back out again in the passage [P127] of generations. The land literally teaches them how to live in harmony with it through this ingestion process. They take it into their bodies. It “speaks” to them. Then it comes out of their mouths as language. They speak the vibrations of that land. Their language and creation myths are embodied vehicles for for the wisdom of that place. I could now understand why maintaining the original language of indigenous people is important not just to their survival but to all of humanity. Original languages contain within their vibratory sturcture the operating rules for how to live in their home territory in a harmonious manner. The indigenous language is a nierica [gateway, JWK] by which to access the intelligence of place. Lose the language and you lose its vital instructions about right relationship.

This visionary insight finds its reflections in the Nordic Germanic indigenous traditions where the power of the word arising from the lands is used in spells and runes, where the language of the Poetic Edda speaks an ancient wisdom from creation. But this statement does something else also: It clearly identifies the initiatory challenges for those who no longer live in the place of their ancestors, who have forgotten their language, and who may now live in places where the indigenous language has disappeared eating food that predominantly is not indigenous to their area of residence.



The Loss of Initiations

A dramatic and succinct description from Leslie Marmon Silko’s book Ceremony (1977, 132ff.) captures the rise of the Eurocentric story out of its Indo-European origins. Her use of the words “witch” and “witchery” is clear: it refers to the working of evil and imbalance. In its origins (Indo-European root weik-) it had religious connotations, the working of magic. These and similar words originally seem to have been rather neutral, although always holding the potential not just of good, but also of abuse of magical powers; however, the predominant identification of such words with evil and the devil clearly seems to be a consequence of the rise of Christianity. Before awareness of the medieval European witchhunts had a chance to infuse Native American use of the English language, workers of excess and evil were frequently called “witches” in Indian vernacular, thus assuming the Christian, pejorative use of the term. The word evil is connected to the Indo-European root upo and upelo-, meaning: exceeding the proper limit. And it is this that Silko talks about: It is the story of imbalance, the story of certain aspects of being exceeding their proper limit. It is in this sense that the sustained, thus pathological, dissociation of the Euro-centered endeavors from their balancing aspects can be understood as evil. (During the more than 20 years since the publication of Ceremony the word “witch” has re-established in pagan discourse as a positive and affirmative term.)



Long time ago

in the beginning

there were no white people in this world

[P128] there was nothing European.

And this world might have gone on like that

except for one thing:


This world was already complete

even without white people.

There was everything

including witchery.


Then it happened.

These witch people got together. (…)

They all got together for a contest

the way people have baseball tournaments nowadays

except this was a contest

in dark things. (…)


Finally there was only one

who hadn’t shown off charms or powers.

The witch stood in the shadows beyond the fire

and no one ever knew where this witch came from

which tribe

or if it was a woman or a man.

But the important thing was

this witch didn’t show off any dark thunder charcoals

or red ant-hill beads.

This one just told them to listen:

“What I have is a story.”


At first they all laughed

but this witch said


go ahead

laugh if you want to

but as I tell the story

it will begin to happen.


Set in motion now

set in motion by our witchery

to work for us.


Caves across the ocean

in caves of dark hills

white skin people

like the belly of a fish

covered with hair.


Then they grow away from the earth

then they grow away from the sun

then they grow away from the plants and animals.

They see no life

When they look

they see only objects.

The world is a dead thing for them

the trees and rivers are not alive

the mountains and stones are not alive.

The deer and bear are objects

They see no life.


They fear

They fear the world.

They destroy what they fear.

They fear themselves.


The wind will blow them across the ocean

thousands of them in giant boats

swarming like larva

out of a crushed ant hill. (…)


Set in motion now

set in motion

To destroy

To kill

objects to work for us

Performing the witchery

for suffering

for torment

[P129] for the still-born

the deformed

the sterile

the dead.





set in motion now

set in motion.


So the other witches said

“Okay you win; you take the prize,

but what you said just now –

it isn’t so funny

It doesn’t sound so good.

We are doing okay without it

we can get along without that kind of thing.

Take it back.

Call that story back.”


But the witch just shook its head

at the others in their stinking animal skins, fur and feathers.

It’s already turned loose.

It’s already coming.

It can’t be called back.



It is important to underscore that this process of the creation of imbalance is effected not with the help of shamanic paraphernalia, but by means of words, the power of words, the abuse of words, the imbalance or evil of the story – a story that inexorably grinds along, leaving many dead in its wake. The socialization of millions of people in conformity with this story of imbalance and its daily performance and reènactment as individual and cultural injunction constitute its power. As a story which pervades cultures, tribes, civilizations, and societies it cannot just be called back or counteracted with some medicine item as antidote. This requires words of balance, stories respecting proper limits, narratives healing the excessive dissociation from a self construction that acknowledges ourselves as whole and indigenous – the recovery of indigenous consciousness.


This story of the development of Eurocentrism from its Indo-European origins can be told in an alternate form using the information from scholarship which continues to be marginalized because it refuses to be part of the creation of imbalance (Silko’s “witchery”). The story is, of course, a complex one with many twists and turns, multiple currents and many voices to be heard. What I present in the following paragraphs is a mere outline of some of the major shifts that are relevant for the discussion of healing and cosmology.


— I postulate that the various Indo-European peoples had, at one point in their histories, an understanding or ideal of balanced living, a detailed understanding of their place in the cosmos and its cycles based on detailed ecological understanding, and reflected in their stories and communal ceremonies. The remnants of such understanding are reflected in etymological and other analyses, such as the ones provided from Lincoln above. We can possibly see them most clearly in the images of the tree of life, the anthropogenesis beginning with the nurturing cow Auðumla, and the presence of the feminine in the oldest [P130] stories preserved.[5][5] How and why these peoples changed from a cultural practice of balancing themselves with each other and their environment to a cultural practice of invasion and patriarchy (ultimately linear progress) remains mysterious, as Gimbutas achnowledges when she states that “this is a very serious question archaeologists cannot answer yet, but we can see that the patriarchy was already there around 5,000 B.C.” (n.d., 17). It is reasonable to assume that these oldest Indo-European layers had cultural practices similar in ideology and practice to those who have retained their indigenous ways to this day, although the specifics of their socio-cultural practices were, of course, unique in accordance with their location, specific histories, and local indigenous science inquiries.


— According to Gimbutas, beginning at about 4300 BCE the earliest inhabitants of Europe, the “civilizations of Old Europe” become Indo-Europeanized as three waves of Kurgan invasions effect a blending between the indigenous and indo-europen populations. The matristic, matrifocal or matriarchal cultural practices become obliterated in the process as the indigenous peoples are destroyed or assimilated. (In the Nordic-Germanic stories this is reflected in the conflict between the Vanir and Æsir resulting in partial cultural assimilation, the increasing importance of Óðinn and the lessening importance of Freyja and other Vanir goddesses and gods.) We observe the rise of patriarchy, hierarchy, abstraction, dissociation, as well as increasingly larger scale violence and invasions. Healing now becomes an endeavor increasingly shifts into masculine, priestly contexts, with rigidly ritualized forms eclipsing shamanic seeing and inspiration; some of the original healing interventions become marginalized as woman’s work as patriarchal forms of dominance gain strength. The Eurocentered medical sciences find their origin in Greece during the 5th century BCE with Hippokrates.


— The rise of monotheistic Christianity through its appropriation of the shamanic Jesus figure and the alliance between Christianity and the Roman Empire in 390-391 by Constantine constitute a major turning point toward increased patriarchal power and the rise of Eurocentrism. The descriptions in Tacitus’ Germania (ca. 98; 1967) reflect the relationship between the “barbarous,” indigenous Germanic (and other) tribes north and east of the Roman Empire from the viewpoint of “civilized” Rome. “They even think that there is a prophetic quality in women, and so they neither reject their advice nor scorn their forecasts” (67). With the end of the East Germanic and Slavic migrations, and the formation [P131] of various royal empires (Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Francs, etc.) anything resembling communal tribal or indigenous practices disappears rapidly in most of Europe as Eurocentrism progresses in the form of Christian missionization and colonization. The reign of Charlemagne (crowned as emporer in 800) represents a major shift, most apparently with the felling of the world tree Irminsul and the massacre of 30,000 Saxons refusing conversion to Christianity in 772 CE (Gimbutas 1999, 190).


— The oldest Nordic-Germanic knowledge about indigenous balanced living is recorded in sacred places, rock carvings, monuments, and artefacts accessible to the practice of indigenous science (cf. Kremer 1996). Most of what we know verbally is written down by Christians after Iceland’s voluntary conversion to Christianity in the year 1000 (with Snorri Sturlusson, 1178/9-1241, as central recorder and interpreter). Other written sources can be found in poetry, inscriptions, place names, folk customs, fairy and folk tales, as well as language etymology (the work of the Grimm brothers is seminal in this regard). Just as indigenous peoples have been identified as the Other, their practices getting reified in the process, so have the pre-Christian traditions been reified and safely othered under the gaze of the various Eurocentered human sciences (creating a textual and artefactual museum of Nordic-Germanic self-otherness equals to the dissociation from its origins, thus obscuring the potential of balanced cultural practices within an indigenous Nordic-Germanic worldview). In the oldest writings, healing practices are usually merely alluded to, either because the recorder was no longer initiated or because initiation prohibited the dissemination of such information to the uninitiated. We find much focus on spells and the power of runic knowledge, again with an increasing tendency toward rigid ritualization under the sway of men, increasingly eclipsing women.


Beginning with the Renaissance this story becomes the story of the rise of eurocentric sciences. Anthropology can serve as a particularly good illustration for the increase in Eurocentered dissociations and splits from indigenous origins. McGrane (1989) has done an admirably lucid job of tracing the history of the relationship between euro-centered cultures and the Other, the alien, the different – an “archaeology of anthropology”, so to speak. His analysis is helpful for understanding the loss of participation and presence to spirit(s) in greater detail. One of his fundamental premises is that “a culture that discovers what is alien to itself simultaneously manifests what it is in itself” (McGrane 1989, 1). He sees anthropology as an endeavor which is “fundamentally involved in the reproduction of Western society… It manifests and highlights that egocentric tendency of our Western mind to identify itself as separate from what it perceives as external to itself” (1989, 5). Using McGrane’s conceptualization we can break down the process of loss of participation or loss of initiation as follows:


— In the Renaissance (14th to 16th century) Christianity came between the European and the non-European; demonology determined that the Other, the fallen, was in need of naming, christening. Trances (and the concomitant healing practices) were seen as a practice which [P132] maintained the contact with demons and christianization meant the termination of such evil proceedings; killing or arrests of tribal members during ceremonies, the destruction or confiscation of artifacts (even during recent history, such as potlatch masks in Canada) are a result of this paradigm. The remaining old knowledge and practice are severely reduced during the three centuries of witchhunts, beginning around 1500. Much of the old knowledge is restricted to midwifery and herbalists. Indigenous cultural practices remain vital along “the margins” of Eurocentrism, particularly in the north and northeast (with the Baltic peoples and the Sámi people of the Arctic North the last be christianized).


— During the Enlightenment ignorance was the fundamental coordinate around which the understanding of the Other was constituted: indigenous peoples were living with the errors of superstitution. Trances and alternate modes of healing were seen as superstitious practices which could not provide any true help or serve a healthful function. The 17th and 18th century saw the beginning of colonization.


— The evolutionary thinking of the nineteenth century used the coordinate of time to understand natives as “primitives”, or as “fossilized developmental stage” from the prehistory of European civilizations. Thus trances were conceptualized as contemporary remnants of an outmoded, primitive human potential; their usefulness was seen as superceded by medical and other sciences. The 19th century saw the height of colonialism and imperialism. Dion-Buffalo and Mohawk (1994, 33) comment that “the psychological and social foundation of this period of conquest and colonization is found in the ability to coerce the peoples of the world to accept the rules by which European politics and ideologies claimed the power to determine what is legitimate about the human experience.” It is no coincidence that this was also the time in which evolutionary theories were first proposed. Epistemological and evolutionary thinking emerged out of the increasing split from the participation in the phenomena in order to understand and legitimize this dissociative logic of progress: Peoples participating in the phenomena become uncivilized with no possibility to discern truth because of insufficient dissociation. For example, Habermas (1997) makes this point clearly when he discusses the benefits and limitations of Cassirers The Theory of Symbolic Forms: It is the logic of progress and the process of civilization – Aufklärung, enlightenment – which destroys and needs to destroy the impact of participation in the phenomena, the presence to spirits, and the desire for a balanced, meaningful existence. Indigenous healing practices have been relegated to the realm of anecdotes, folklore, fairy tale, to be marginally investigated by Euro-Centered sciences outside of the major trajectory of Eurocentrism (see Kremer 1998 for details).


The process of Eurocentered progess and domination seems to impact indigenous peoples at this historical moment most significantly through a process which takes its analogy from the individual psychological process of projective identification (somebody is made to feel the shadow material of somebody else as if it were his or her own). The intra-Eurocentric denial of their own indigenous roots, the persecution of the Other in themselves (witchhunts, etc.), [P133] transforms the bloody and murderous colonizing forces into equally effective, albeit less physically lethal weapons: instead of killing people indigenous cultures get eradicated as natives begin to feel the bad feelings individuals constructed in Eurocentered fashion have about themselves; the devaluation of who they are pressures them to re-create themselves in the likeness of Eurocentered ideals. The ill feelings they have about themselves – expressed in the negligence of traditional ceremonies, pervasive alcoholism and violence, etc. – originated not from within themselves, but have their roots in the denial and projection of what Eurocentered minds have constructed as their “primitive,” “ignorant,” and “filthy” roots from which they have dissociated through the construction of so-called civilization, in contrast to the presumed savagery of their origins. Indigenous peoples carry the burden of the dissociative relationship of Eurocentered peoples to their own ancestries. They take on the such shadow material, as the following quote indicates:

Our stories help us to deal with shadow material individually and collectively; they connect the dark and the light sides of life. The predominant Eurocentered idea of goodness implies suppression and control of what is regarded as not good; this seems to be a behavioral pattern that can lead to genocide when taken to the extreme (when an extreme valuation of certain “good” traits is used as a way to scapegoat and then kill people who are seen as not sharing these traits). People of European descent are frequently surprised when their niceness is not experienced as such by Indians.  I feel this particular collective delusion of what a good human being is in the European sense has become part of our collective Native American delusions leading us to participate in our own genocide. It is an individualistic and profit-centered view of humans. By taking on this image that focuses so strongly on the light side we are led to the denial of genocide, since the Native American genocide is relegated to the shadow side of the good Western person. Consequently, we do not allow sufficient knowledge that genocide is still occurring, and that perhaps we are participating in it ourselves. This reminds me of our tribal children who have been attending Western schools since contact. There they are taught inferiority, linearity, and the objectification of the universe. They internalize this today, just as I did as a child. Growing up, the racism and the notion of humanity from the perspective of Western imperialism became a part of me. I took on the identity of a victim and lost my power. This is how I have taken on the collective shadow by identifying with the self-construction of the dominant culture. How can anyone really grieve when there is the delusion that genocide is not really occurring today? (Bastien 1999)

This process of internalized colonization continues to perpetrate cultural and even physical genocide. Another aspect of this process is captured in the following words by Silko (1977, 132):

They want us to believe all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction. But white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates.

[P134] It attempts to contain ossified, categorically identified remains of indigenous cultures in museums, universities, books, conferences – all endeavors that Vizenor identifies with the end of imagination or what has been called the nurturing conversation with all relations:

Traditional people imagine their social patterns and places on the earth, whereas anthropologists and historians invent tribal cultures and end mythic time. The differences between tribal imagination and social scientific invention are determined in world views: imagination is a state of being, a measure of personal courage; the invention of cultures is a material achievement through objective methodologies. To imagine the world is to be in the world; to invent the world with academic predicaments is to separate human experiences from the world, a secular transcendence and denial of chance and mortalities. (Vizenor 1984, 27)

Internalized colonization manifests also in ways other than alcoholism or violence:

They think the ceremonies must be performed exactly as they have always been done… That much is true… That much can be true also. But long ago when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle’s claw, if only in the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants. You see, in many ways, the  ceremonies have always been changing. … At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white  people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create  new ceremonies. … Things which don’t shift and grow are dead things. They are things the witchery people want. … That’s what the witchery is counting on: that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were, and then their power will triumph, and the  people will be no more. (Silko 1977, 126)

It is only under the pressures of continuing genocide that ceremonial renewal finally may disappear, and that the definitions of what is traditional or indigenous may be remade in the images developed by anthropologists or the desperate rigid repetition of what are considered the final live aspects of a culture. However, whatever the temporary victories of genocide may be, renewal remains always possible as the land, even if abused, and the ancestors, even if neglected, continue to be present.



Contrasts in Healing Paradigms

The contrasts between indigenous healing paradigms and Eurocentered approaches can be made visible by looking at how each attempts to explain how healing happens. Within indigenous worldviews healing occurs within the narrative weave of the lived culture as it unfolds imaginatively from creation. Within the Eurocentered worldview healing is researched and understood within a paradigm of Truth, of cause and effect, singularity of [P135] story, and the objective records of experimental observations. This leads to two forms of inquiry which are qualitatively distinct.


The skeptical Eurocentered researcher would be primarily interested in the efficacy of Native American healing and would try to isolated the elements considered efficaceous or a necessary condition in healing ceremonies. Maybe the rattle or the drum or a particular herb or the temperature in the sweat lodge. The sympathetic researcher would also, in addition to this analytical approach, pay attention to the “set and setting” as it were, and would attempt to validate native approaches or find similarities, for example via psychotherapeutic approaches such as NLP (neurolinguistic programming) or Rogerian counseling, or via biochemical research of curative agents in herbs. The Eurocentered scientific approach commonly entails a stripping away of what is considered extraneous and the isolation of what is considered effective. Through this process it makes Other what is essential for native understandings.


Inquiry into native healing practices by way of what has been termed indigenous science, on the other hand, would begin with the culturally specific, ecologically and historically grounded indigenous understanding of friður or the “the good mind” (Colorado 1988), the balanced way of living in community on a particular land. Healing is needed when the “good mind” is out of balance, when the proper limits are exceeded; the cultural stories and myths then provide explanations. Indigenous healing practices then are based in a synthetic, integral approach to what is out of balance. Native science guides the healer to the point in the fabric where it is rent and where wholeness needs to be reèstablished. The ceremonies done are the precise knowledge and practice designed to create balance on all levels and from all levels (within the person on the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual levels, and by doing so on the level of spirits, community and nature which hold the individual); they are indigenous science. Their efficacy is established through the integrity and the wholeness of the healing ceremony.


The different motivations for understanding healing in the case of Eurocentered and indigenous sciences are of note: The researches of the native healer are done to increase the integrity and wholeness of the communal fabric and to benefit the individuals that are part of it. Eurocentered researches of native healing practices rarely seem to benefit the peoples researched directly, but they are a way to address the limitations of the western healing paradigm and to come to terms with events which Eurocentered scientists commonly consider anomalous, inexplicable or nonexistent; they are attempts to better an individualistic paradigm without fundamentally leaving or changing it.


Whether an image in a rock carving is perceived as symbol or as spirit marks the difference between indigenous knowing and Eurocentered knowing. The rock carvings in Bohuslän, South Sweden, for example contain extraordinary images from the Bronze Age northern European times. The Eurocentered mind understands them as an assemblage of symbols [P136] which represent certain beings which are significant in the world of the Old Norse and their ancestors; they are commonly seen as ‘symbols of healing’, or ‘symbols of initiation,’ where each piece of the rock carving stands for something else. This interpretation reflects the split in the dissociative Eurocentered mind: the different parts of the rock carving point to something which is elsewhere, outside of the representation. The participatory tribal mind relates entirely differently to the rock carving: The spirits are in the rock carvings, they are the rock carving. The making of the rock carving is the creation of the presence of these beings. The beings are not at all separate from what the carving looks like. Once the rock carving is there, they are there. And then they can be ceremonially honored and renewed by tracing the carving with red ochre or other pigments, by making offerings of amber, axes, etc. Blót, the Old Norse ceremonies of offering, bring rock carving spirits and the people present to each other. This simple distinction marks worlds of differences: Whether a rock carving is a symbol for something or whether it is a certain being indicates the consciousness process we are engaged in. In one case we have symbolic healing, in the other spirit heals. There is no simple technique which can bridge this difference. Each understanding reflects a different way of being in the world. There is no such thing as a simple switch from one to the other. Whether we use trances for symbolic work or to seek healing with and from spirit(s) is an indication of the consciousness and reality in which we are participating.


Jungian interpretations of rock carvings (or sandpaintings and other images), myths or healings do not reflect tribal mind. They reflect the process of the Eurocentered mind. Jungian psychology and related transpersonal approaches are certainly the closest to indigenous ways of being in that they validate the seminal importance of participation mystique and spiritual experiences. However, they are only accurate as long as they deal with the Eurocentered mind. There they can be very helpful. If such a psychology gets projected onto indigenous peoples, then grave misunderstandings result. What may be a good starting point for the Eurocentered mind means engaging the indigenous mind in a process of splitting and dissociation.


Within the western paradigm we pick an herb for its curative properties known to relieve a certain ailment. Herb collection is an entirely different event within an indigenous context. Here it is a ceremonial event which involves spirit and, especially the spirits of the plant to be collected. It is a participatory event with the plant relations which presupposes detailed knowledge, including knowledge of their language; it requires knowledge of cycles and the preparations necessary for gathering. It means understanding plants like any other intelligent people.

Prayer accompanies all plant use on the Navajo Reservation. … Plants are not picked randomly or wastefully. Rather, they are picked as needed, and then, no more than are necessary. An herbalist finds two of a particular species that she wishes to pick. To the largest and healthiest plant, she says a prayer and explains why she must pick its neighbor. [P137] An offering of shell, pollen, or other sacred material is deposited with the first plant. Then she picks what she needs. Afterward, the plant remains are buried with a final prayer. (Mayes & Lacy 1989, 2-3)

This is no longer the collection of an herb, but an engagement and appointment with spirit to help heal. What heals is more than the beneficial chemical ingredient in the herb.


Knowing the medical benefits of a sweat lodge purification or the effective chemical agents in an healing herb is certainly useful. But if this knowledge is not integrated into an indigenous science framework, then we fail to understand indigenous approaches to healing. If what we are doing is healing our Euro-centrically minded selves within the existing paradigm, then iatrogenic diseases which are an expression of the continuing dissociation; are the result (which is one of the reasons why natives are disturbed about the decontextualized use of their healing approaches). The correct technique used in a dissociated way is dangerous because it allows the appearance of a deeper healing that did not occur (individual benefits notwithstanding). Combining indigenous approaches with modern techniques on the basis of the story of excess and imbalance is not the same as integrating the knowledge from psychology and other sciences on the basis of indigenous beingknowing. If we are healing our indigenous selves through the remembrance of indigenous healing ways, then individual healing is also the healing of community and paradigm.



Decolonization as Initiation

Silko’s poetic evocation of the colonial process of Euro-centered thinking contains a crucial point: the most powerful creatrix of imbalance is not using shamanic accroutrements to wield her power, she uses words, a story. Her imbalancing is the story made of words that splits people more and more from participation, words developing a dissociative world view, where the fluid, participatory process of verbal descriptions turns into the categorical grasp of nouns attempting to wield control via reality definitions they create. This story has many names: we can call it the loss of participation; or the loss of the nurturing conversation with all our relations; or the shift from oral to written traditions; or the loss of sacred writing (rock carvings, runes, hieroglyphs, ideographic, etc.) to the linearity of alphabetical writing; or the change from sacred (cyclical, linear-cyclical, spiral) to linear secular time; or the rise of colonialism and imperialism; or the split of story into its aspects of history, personal story, scientific stories, and others; or the rise of patriarchy from its Indo-European roots to Euro-centrism; or the rise of Christianity; or the rise of the masculinized version of the evolutionary story. These and other vantage points provide ways of coming to terms with the story Silko tells so powerfully: creating imbalance by exceeding the proper limits, by focusing on certain elements at the expense of others (i.e., pathological dissociation).


[P138] When the competing workers of imbalance ask her to call the story back she shakes her head and answers: “It’s already turned loose. It’s already coming. It can’t be called back.” The story continues to be told the world over, and impacts every aspect of our lives, from the increasing dominance of the noun-oriented English language (most lately via the internet) to economic globalization. It is clear that the story has not been called back, and continues to dominate the majority of educational systems: more and more young citizens are unconsciously made willing participants and co-narrators in this story. If the story can’t be called back – what to do?


As we have seen in the brief discussions above, the story of imbalance and excess of proper limits was not told all of a sudden, but became more powerful over time as its addictive nature exerted a centrifugal force. The increasing literature on early human history and story attests to the various layers through which the telling has shapeshifted. Healing the story would mean peeling back through these layers, not merely for the advancement of the sciences, but to recover a quality of storytelling that is communal and participatory. Euro-centered thinking frequently misconstrues such endeavor as search of some sort of Eden or other paradisical original state of being (it is worthy of note that paradise has its roots in Greek paradeisos, a walled in garden or park, and related terms). Instead of linearly conceptualizing recovery as the reconstitution of a particular state or point of origin, I suggest that it is the reconstitution of a particular process or quality: the recovery of the indigenous quality of storytelling. Healing the imbalancing story of Euro-centrism means beginning to tell the story differently. The evocative power of the word is clearly understood by contemporary indigenous peoples, and it was just as clearly understood by the early Indo-European traditions (most obviously, perhaps, in the use of the Sanskrit mantras). Óðinn’s quest for the mead of mantic poetry, the search for the words of seeing, and his initiation into the sacred, healing use of runic letter carving share this understanding. The word story finds its root in Indo-European weid-, to see; here we find story connected with the wisdom of the prophet(ess) and seer(ess) (an element that, of course, continues to be present in the creativity of contemporary novels and their best authors).[6][6] The story cannot be called back, but it can be changed and told differently if we make ourselves whole again.


Telling a story in a participatory frame of mind instead of dissociated consciousness may sound simple enough. But just as the Indo-European healers of old needed to be able to be with spirit(s) in such a way that the entire cosmos was impacted, so does a different telling of the story change the cosmos we are living in. Changing the story is impacting the cosmos (as the cosmos impacts it). Instead of evoking and maintaining dissociation and splitting from an indigenous nurturing conversation, such telling would evoke participatory being. This is no small matter: it is the healing ceremony of the Euro-centered self, the [P139] reconstruction of who we are. Such an endeavor finds its parallel not in “a bandaid on a cut, but in heart surgery.” It is not a mere change in identity, but a foundational, qualitative shift in the process of how we construct our identities. This means we need to deconstruct ourselves as the beings we are so that there can be renewal from the creative source of our origins. While such healing clearly means the return, to use the language of the Old Norse, to the well of memory, Urðr, such remembrance is not for the indulgence of nostalgic or retro-romantic splits (dissociative endeavors indeed), but for the righting of the story for the future. Indeed, just like Óðinn, and other women and men before him, we need to be capable of transforming our selves so that we can drink oðrærir, the mead of in-spiration.The dissociated self commonly gets but very diluted sips from such powerful substance. Aspiring to drinking a higher percentage of mead means having our language fall apart so that the words of seeing can re-emerge, so that words can become in-spirited and healed, so that word, chant, and seeing are part of our lifeworld. And our language inevitably comes apart when we of Euro-centered mind confront the shadows that walk with us.


Placing ourselves (those of Eurocentered or Nordic-Germanic mind) at the creative source Ginnungagap is not possible as a direct, unmediated act, since we have divested ourselves from the self capable of getting there with immediacy. Recovering the self that can enter Ginnungagap, the maw of Miðgarðsormr, the world snake, means purifying ourselves from the self construction that is incapable of entering such a place, because dissociation disallows it to be present to the continuing reality of Urðr, Ginnungagap, Miðgarðsormr, oðrærir, and the other spiritual powers of the Norse universe of old. How this universe is to appear today will only become apparent to the self which has initiated itself into participating in its continuing creative, regenerative, and imaginative story. Putting ourselves into the presence of such powers of creation is only possible through the cathartic mediation of the grieving shudder over the story of imbalancing (“witchery”), the confrontation and ownership of the shadow material. As a consequence, what our story evokes may become different. Instead of the story of exceeding the proper limits, we create the possibility the contemporary celebration of indigenous healing stories even among peoples who like to contain their indigenous roots at a safe distance by putting them in museums, and various other reifying and distancing places.



Recovery of Indigenous Mind and Healing

The following poetic statement is modeled on Eddic poetry, particularly the rhetoric of the völva in Völuspá. It is an attempt to capture the change of the ages about that so many indigenous peoples talk about in a language appropriate to my own cultural background and ancestry. It also serves as an appropriate summary and evocation to what I have said about healing and cosmology. It is the voice of the seeress, the völva, speaking as she looks through the ages, from the past into the future.


[P140] I.

Heilir æsir!

Heilir ásynjur!

Heil sjá in fjölnyta fold!

Hail to the gods,

hail to the goddesses,

hail to the allgiving earth!

Mál ok mannvit

gefið okkr mærum tveim

ok læknishendr, meðan lifum!

Wisdom and lore,

as long as we live,

grant us, and healing hands! (from Sigrdrífumál)


I remember the giants who were born

at the beginning of time and

who reared me in former times.

I remember the Sámis who were born

at the beginning of time and

who reared me in former times.

I remember nine worlds beneath the earth,

nine giantesses,

and also the glorious tree of fate.


I remember towards the beginning of time

at the place where the giant Ymir lived,

there was neither sand nor sea, and no cool waves.

The earth did not exist at all,

nor heaven above:

only a yawning gap

and grass nowhere.


I remember when the sons of

grandfather and grandmother Bear

raised the lands,

they who made the great Middle World. (Free after Völuspá)


I remember the world of spirits,

I remember the world of giants,


the world of dwarves,


I remember the time when humankind was created.


I remember the three spirits

who found ash and elm

fragile and fateless.


I know an ash tree call Yggdrasill;

it is a tall tree

sprayed with white clay.

From there comes the dew

that dabbles the dales.

The evergreen tree towers above Urðr´s Well.


From the same place

come three knowledgeable maidens,

who emerge from the lake

that lies at the foot of the tree.

People call one Urðr,

the second Verðandi,

and the third Skuld;

they carved sacred markings

on pieces of wood.

They laid down the laws,

the fates of the people,

and chose life

for the children of humankind. (Free after Völuspá)



And I remember

the beginning of a new world age,

when the stars changed places,

and I remember

when the tree of life

[P141] was fastened to the new pole star.


Yes, I remember

the world of spirits of the previous world age,

but I also remember the new age

when spirits turned into symbols,

and humankind thus became more lonesome.

And I remember

that even spirits and ancestors

felt more lonesome.

I remember the age

when language was sacred,

when words brought spirits,

when language was filled with spiritual energy.

And then I saw

how language,

how words

lost their powers,

and how the husks remaining

helped humankind to forget

how they are woven

into the world.

And then I saw

how language and writing

helped humankind to forget

how they are


participants in everything

that surrounds them.

And then I saw them

looking at reality

from the outside.

And I saw how

language became poorer

and poorer,

and reality moved farther

and farther away.

And I saw humankind

greedily grabbing

what remained as reality,

and how they forgot to

evoke the world, and

to chant it into being.


And I remember how

human beings slowly forgot

what their medicine gifts were,

how they forgot their totems,

how they forgot their clans,

and how they forgot that

they all were related

as red, black, white, yellow and people of mixed color.

And I remember how they

struggled to reconstruct their

relationship and similarities

through abstract models,

because they had forgotten

the specificity of their relationships.

And I remember how they sought their

universal connections through more and more

abstract thoughts

in order to find each other again.


And I remember the age when Óðinn

was a shaman still, seiðkarl,

when he was called Óðr,

when he used the drum on Sámseyja and elsewhere, and

honored women.

Two ravens sat on his shoulders

helping his seeing.

And I remember the new age when Óðinn

took knowledge away from women

and began to reign as patriarch.


And I remember the new age

when human beings were reared

[P142] separated from their ancestors,

separated from their stories and histories,

separated from their places of power and spirit,

separated from the healing arts.

And I have seen how they forgot

that happiness depends

on initiations into the higher self

and the world of spirit.


I remember seeing lonely humans

in search of completion and wholeness,

even though their ancestors

stood right by them.

I remember seeing lonely humans

blinded by symbols

so that the spirits remained hidden.


And I remember human souls

roaming the collective unconscious without bearings,

unable to see their own guardian spirits.


And I remember human beings

delving deeply into psychology,

getting trapped on the personal side

of the gateway to spirit,

and when they would chance to encounter

a spirit

they would feel nothing but fear.



And I remember the times when the bridges

to spirit went up in flames and collapsed,

and the ancestor boats ceased

to shuttle across the milky way.


And I see now

how this world age

is coming to an end,

and that yet another

new age is about to begin.


And I see now

souls making the journey home

seeking the roots of their creation.

And I see how these souls

sit in ancestor boats

crossing the spirit bridges

purifying the abuses of the word “heil!”,

seeking healing for the innermost

of their cultures.

And I see humans

once again courageous enough

to sit at the center of their creation

for the sake of healing.


root meanings



healing holy



to the root


source of wholing

clay of healing


root memories

reaching into riches



returning home

returning from home




[P143] the good omen

from creation



from the fingers

of the woman of memory

white clay


over the body

wholesome clay



the human tree


at the root of healing

is the remembrance

of the center

is the celebration

of the center of our world


at the root of healing

is placing ourselves

at the center of our world

the place of balance


at the root of healing

is the celebration

of the original instructions

are the prayers

for our courage

to step into the maw of the snake


the abyss of creation

is the open mouth of the world snake


the snake holding our world

the snake creating our world

through the fire and ice of ginnungagap

created from her mouth


healing is the courage

to step into the simplicity

of creation

the simplicity

of the original instructions

instructions for balance


purifying the abuses of the word “heil!”,

seeking healing for the innermost

of their cultures.


And I see how the past

becomes hotter and hotter,

and how humans find the courage

to warm themselves

at the fires of their ancestors.

And I see how humankind

remembers the conversation

with all relations.


And I see how woman and man

are willing to be taken apart

and ask the fire to consume

their addictions to civilisation

and progress.

And I see how woman and man

deconstruct their modern identities

to become aware that they are still

interwoven with their fellow humans,

the plants, the animals, and the rocks.


And I see spirits

once again

stepping out

of symbols.


And I see humans


that not only they need nourishment,

but that their relations

need nourishment also.


[P144] And I see how humans

find their balance

in the great cycle

of nurturing

and being nurtured.


Heilir æsir!

Heilir ásynjur!

Heil sjá in fjölnyta fold!

Hail to the gods,

hail to the goddesses,

hail to the allgiving earth!

Mál ok mannvit

gefið okkr mærum tveim

ok læknishendr, meðan lifum!

Wisdom and lore,

as long as we live,

grant us, and healing hands! (from Sigrdrífumál)




Summarizing Table

The following table gives a visual display of the major distinctions I have talked about throughout this article. The terminology used below is defined in its narrative context above. It may help to recall the broad outlines that underlie the detailed discussions.




OPPOSING PAIR                                        THIRD PROCESS

good subject


bad subject


developing non-subject non-subject
unconscious participation breakdown of un-conscious participation regaining conscious participation conscious participation
singular Truth



multiple truths



re-contextualizing truths and Truth locally & historically locally & narratively contextualized truths and Truth
[P145] his-story






Story revealed as his-stories



recovering female aspects of stories; remembering multiformous gender identities multiply engendered stories: Freyja-Freyr, Nerthus-Njörðr, twins, metamorphoses, spirit marriages
objective reality



narrative realities



recovering ancestral narrative realities & anchoring them in present ecology & historical moment communally & locally anchored narrative realities
rationality recovery of reasonableness reasonableness reasonableness
imperial self non-imperial self re-connecting self connected self




intentional communities natural communities
progress progress (albeit  questioned in appearance) linearity struggling for balance balance
linearity variegated linearity cyclical linearity cyclical linearity
dissociation suffering from dissociation recovering participation participation




decolonization beside, outside & inside of colonization

[Chart by Jűrgen W. Kremer, inspired by Mohawk & Dion-Buffalo. From Kremer 1999, Bearing Obligations.]



[P146-148] References

Bastien, Betty. “The genocide of Native Americans: Denial, Shadow, and Recovery” (with Kremer, Norton, Rivers-Norton, and Vickers). In ReVisionI, Vol. 22, #1, 13-20 1999

Campbell, Joseph The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Bollingen. 1949.

Churchill, Ward. From a native son. Boston: South End. 1996.

Colorado, Apela. “Traditional knowledge leads to Ph.D. “ (Interview with Pamela Colorado and Jürgen Kremer, by Richard Simonelli). Winds of Change, 9, #4, 43-48. 1994.

Colorado, P. “Indigenous science.” In ReVision, 18(3): 6-10, 1996.

Colorado, P. “Bridging native and western science.” In Convergence, XXI, 2/3: 49-67, 1988.

De Vries, Jan. Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Leiden: Brill. 1977.

Dion-Buffalo, Y. & J. Mohawk. ‘Throughts from an autochtonous center.’ Cultural Survival, Winter, 33-35. 1994.

Dumon, Dirk. 1993. Shamans of Tuva. Feature of BRT, Belgian Public Television. 1993.

Eiríks Saga Rauða In Íslendinga Sögur (CD-ROM). Reykjavík: Mál og menning. (Transl. by Gwyn Jones as Eirik the Red. Oxford: Oxford. 1961)

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism. Princeton: Bollingen. 1951/1964

Evans, David (Ed.). Hávamál. London: Viking Society. 1986

Gimbutas, Marija. The living goddesses. Berkeley: University of California. 1999

Gimbutas, Marija. “An interview with Marija Gimbutas.” (With David Jay Brown & Rebecca McClen Novick). In Magical Blend, 13-20. No year given.

Gunn, Allen, Paula. Off the reservation. Boston: Beacon. 1998.

Habermas, Jürgen (1997),  Vom sinnlichen Eindruck zum symbolischen Ausdruck, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/M, Germany

Haozous, B. (1994). Interviewed in The Native Americans, pt. 4, TBS.

Horn, Gabriel. Contemplations of a Primal Mind. Novato, CA: New World. 1996.

Kremer, Jürgen Werner. “Introduction.” In ReVision, Vol 18, #3, 2-5.

Kremer, Jürgen Werner. ‘The shadow of evolutionary thinking.’ In Ken Wilber in Dialogue, edited by

Donald Rothberg and Sean Kelly, 237-258. Wheaton, IL: Quest. 1998.

Lapena, Frank. ‘In Vision We Can Balance the World.’ In News from Native California, vol. 12, #2, 18-19. 1998.

Lincoln, Bruce. Myth, Cosmos, and Society. Boston, MA: Harvard. 1986.

Mayes, Vernon & Barbara Lacy. Nanise’. Tsaile: Navajo Community College. 1989.

McGrane, Bernard. Beyond anthropology. NY: Columbia. 1989.

Mohawk, John. ‘Indigenous Creation-Centered Spirituality’ (interview with Charlene Spretnak). In Creation, 16-18. September/October. No year given.

Pálsson, Hermann. Völuspá. Edinburgh: Lockharton. 1996.

Pentikäinen, Juha Y. Kalevala mythology (trans. R. Poom). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1989.

Pinkson, Tom Soloway. Flowers of Wiricuta. Mill Valley: Wakan. 1995.

Rig Veda (Transl. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty). NY: Penguin. 1981.

Sammallahti, Pekka. The Saami Languages. Karašjohka, Sápmi: Davvi Girji. 1998.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. NY: Penguin. 1977.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda (trans. Faulkes). London: Everyman. 1987.

Tacitus. Germania (Transl. Herbert Benario). London:University of Oklahoma. 1967.

Terry, P. 1990. Poem of the Elder Edda. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Titchenell, Elsa-Brita. The masks of Odin. Pasadena, California: The Theosophical UP. 1985

Vajnštejn, S. I. “The Tuvan (Soyot) shaman’s drum and the ceremony of its ‘enlivening’.” InPopular beliefs and folklore tradition in Siberia (Ed. Dioszegi). Bloomington: Indiana University. 1968.

Vasilevič, G. M. “The acquisition of shamanistic ability among the Evenki (Tungus).” InPopular beliefs and folklore tradition in Siberia (Ed. Dioszegi). Bloomington: Indiana University. 1968.

Vitebsky, Piers. The shaman. NY: Little, Brown, and Co. 1995.

Vizenor, Gerald. Earthdivers: tribal narratives on mixed descent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. 1981.

Vizenor, Gerald. The people named the Chippewa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. 1984.

Wasson, R. Gordon. Soma. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1968.


[1][1] The available sources on Siberian shamanism are not without serious problems, and need to be discussed in the context of the history of Soviet ethnography, etc.

[2][2] Titchenell translates ginnregin as Vaner, the older layer of Norse gods or spirits, relating Óðinn’s wisdom thus to the deepest and more clearly woman-centered base of Norse mythology (with Freyja as the great goddess and primal shamanic spirit).

[3][3] ‘Kvasir’ is an interesting word: It is connected to Norwegian kvase and Russian kvas, denoting the fermented berry drink created through the communal chewing of the berries which were then spat into a vat. The mead of the skalds, the Old Norse poets, is also known as kvasis dreyra, Kvasir’s blood (De Vries 1977). English ‘quash’ and German (dialectical) quatschen are related. The latter word leads me to surmise an interesting etymology for this word, which can also mean ‘to talk nonsense, to babble’: talk in-spirited by the mead, by kvase, was increasingly considered nonsense, as it became unintelligible as people lost their ongoing and ceremonial presence to the world of spirit(s) – what people claimed to come from that world was increasingly considered Quatsch or nonsense, while before it had been the wisdom of Kvasir. (Just as the seeresses of the Delphic oracle increasingly appeared to babble nonsense, thus “necessitating” the interpretation by men, and resulting in the patriarchal control of intercourse with spirits.)


[4][4] It is beyond the scope of this article to display the rich web of connections in its entirety. However, it is worth mentioning that the berry, especially in its form as elderberry (Hollunder) is also the sacred blood from the female spirit or goddess (Frau Holle), and that we find lines leading us back into the Nordic culture at the times of Old Europe (cf. Gimbutas 1999).

[5][5] Within the Euro-centered frame of mind exists a strong tendency to read words like “traditional” or “indigenous” in a reifying fashion, postulating some stable, Edenic original state. While such projections of unfullfilled needs and desires may be momentarily satisfying, they reinforce the dissociative movements of progress thinking and the projective identification with indigenous peoples (making them feel our own shadow material as if it was theirs). We have to understand that whatever we are capable of identifying as beginning, original, traditional, indigenous, etc. immediately is always already imbued with history, and, whatever we manage to recover of it, we have to understand as the imaginative stories of communal truths, and not categorical statements of absolute truths.

[6][6] The Indo-European root weid- is connected to story and wisdom, while the root skei- (to cut, split) is connected to the word conscious; knowledge is connected to the root gno-, which has narration and normal in its wake.

Weaving the Way of Wyrd (PDF)

Weaving the Way of Wyrd: An Interview with Brian Bates

by Janet Allen-Coombe

Brian Bates, author of The Way of Wyrd and The Way of the Actor, is the leading exponent of a movement that seeks to revitalize Europe’s ancient shamanic traditions. Working from a scholarly and experiential approach, he has developed a contemporary shamanic practice based on the original Anglo-Saxon and Celtic traditions as documented in historical texts, art, and literature.

Born and raised in England, Bates lived in the United States during the 1960s. After earning his doctorate in psychology from the University of Oregon, he returned to England to serve as Research Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge. He currently teaches courses in shamanic consciousness and transpersonal psychology at the University of Sussex, where he also directs the Shaman Research Project. In addition to his academic career, Bates directs plays in London, teaches shamanic workshops for actors, and leads experiential courses in European shamanism.

Bates is perhaps best known for his historical novel, The Way of Wyrd, which documents in fictional form his research on ancient European shamanic practices. Recently released in paperback by Harper San Francisco, the book provides a fascinating narrative about Anglo-Saxon shamanism—and serves as a focal point for the following interview.

Janet Allen-Coombe: Wyrd is described in many ways in your book, The Way of Wyrd. Would you explain what word is?

Brian Bates: The term word is the original form of today’s weird, which means strange or unexplainable. Wyrd had essentially the same meaning more than a thousand years ago in shamanic Europe, but in sacred rather than mundane realms. Wyrd was the unexplainable force—the great mystery underlying all of existence—that was the cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon shamanic practices.

The essence of wyrd is that the universe exists within polarities of forces, rather like the Eastern concepts of yin and yang. according to Anglo-Saxon beliefs, the universe originally consisted of two mighty, unimaginably vast force regions—one of fire, the other of ice. When the fire and ice met, they exploded, creating a great mist charged with magic force and vitality.

This “mist of knowledge” exists beyond time, concealing wisdom about the nature of life that may be revealed to people traveling on the shamanic path. This creation cosmology was perhaps best preserved in Germanic and Norse myths and stories. It was also documented by early Roman functionaries who traveled through Western Europe.

The meaning of word can also be understood through the image of a vast web of fibres, an image that appears frequently in early European literature and artwork. The European shamans visioned a web of fibres that flow through the entire universe, linking absolutely everything—each person, object, event, thought, feeling. This web is so sensitive that any movement, thought, or happening—no matter how small—reverberates throughout the entire web. In some of the incantations preserved in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the British Museum, the journey of the shaman’s soul into the otherworld is facilitated by a spider spirit. When an Anglo-Saxon shaman wanted to understand the complexity of forces affecting an individual, such as during initiations and healing, the shaman visioned the pattern of fibres entering the person.

I will never forget the first time I consciously experienced these fibres. One day in early summer, I was walking alone in a forest in England, enjoying the flowering wild bluebells that blanketed the ground between the oaks and beeches. Suddenly I sensed a pulsing in my body, around my navel, and I felt sick. At first I thought I would vomit, so I stopped and leaned against a tree. Then I saw hundreds of lines of light coming silently and beautifully from all directions and passing through my body. They were like shafts of golden sunlight filtering through the trees, only they were coming from every angle. The image was so clear and strong that I started to follow some of the lines of light, walking right into them and along them. They seemed like warm fibres supporting me, and I felt as if I were walking on air. The longer the experience lasted, the more wonderful I felt. After a time, I lay down on the ground and went to sleep among the bluebells. When I awoke, the sensation had passed. I now know that this experience was only an introduction to fibres, and that working with them involves not only sensory experiences but also ways of balancing life with their help.

Allen-Coombe: Anglo-Saxon shamanism flourished over a thousand years ago. What made you decide to explore that once-forgotten shamanic path?

Bates: During the 1970s, my spiritual quest led me to become deeply involved with Zen and Taoism. However, despite the fact that I admired these traditions very much, I felt handicapped by my unfamiliarity with the cultural backgrounds—the mythology, imagery, and physical landscapes—which gave birth to these visionary paths. I decided that I needed to find a Western or European approach. When I met Alan Watts, whose writings had inspired my journey into the Eastern traditions, he encouraged me in my search to discover a Western parallel to these great Eastern paths.

Of course, such life decisions are rarely intellectual ones. In retrospect, I can see that my path into Anglo-Saxon shamanism actually started during my childhood. From four up to about nine years of age, I had many recurring dreams involving wolves and eagles. As a child, I had an especially vivid imagination and I occasionally experienced visions, some during illnesses. These experiences haunted my life and propelled me inwards to the imagery of the unconscious. In the small, traditional village where I grew up, the adults were fairly accepting of my inner world. Later, when I moved to a city, I found that most people were locked into the material world and had little time for the inner life, so I learned to be much more careful about sharing my dreams and visions. Without my knowing it, however, these early experiences had sensitized me to the way of the Anglo-Saxon shaman.

It has often struck me that most paths to wisdom—the ways that enable us to move forward in life—usually involve going “back” to the realm of inner experience. Most of us had vivid inner lives as children, but we soon learned to deny those realities, in favor of the consensually validated “real world.” Following the shamanic path involves reentering the image world we knew as children and returning to that source of wisdom which, as adults, we have forgotten.

My quest to find a Western path led me first to learn about the Druids. Contemporary British Druids have a well-developed approach to spirituality which reflects a deep reverence for the landscape and the sacred forces of nature. They look to the ancient Druids of two thousand years ago as a source of inspiration, although they do not claim direct descendence from them. Because my goal was to find a path that was well rooted in the ancient Anglo-Saxon and Celtic ways of wisdom, I set out to find historical documentation on the original Druidic beliefs and practices but soon became frustrated by the paucity of available material. Although I have a lot of respect for contemporary British Druids, I realized their path wasn’t for me.

I then spent two years studying alchemy, both theoretically and practically. The alchemical practices include many meditative rituals focused on processes of inner and outer transformation. These practices taught me how to be sensitive to inner change, how to observe the workings of the psyche in response to archetypal imagery, and how to use external objects and interactions as metaphors for internal work. However, as an esoteric magical system, alchemy failed to address my primary concerns—the practices of healing and divination.

Eventually I became involved in the path of Wicca, or Witchcraft. I was fortunate to be able to study with some remarkable women, who taught me many things that would be important for my later understanding of wyrd. In the process of researching the historical roots of Witchcraft, I came across a reference to Lacnunga, an obscure one-thousand-year-old manuscript in the British Museum (ms Harley 585)

Lacnunga is essentially the spell book of an Anglo-Saxon shaman. It contains a collection of magical healing remedies, rituals, and incantations. Historians estimate that the document was written by Christians in the tenth or eleventh century, although the material had probably been passed down orally for several hundred years, from the pre-Christian era. At that time, writing was the almost exclusive province of Christian monks and missionaries, and it was extremely unusual for a collection of indigenous pagan shamanic healing spells to be written in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular. Because of the pagan nature of the material, historians speculate that the manuscript was written by a scribe or novice, and not by a monk.

Through research, I learned that portions of Lacnunga had been translated by Anglo-Saxon scholars, but that there had been very little analysis of the manuscript’s overall content and meaning. I eagerly made arrangements to examine the original document in the British Museum. Lancing is a beautiful book—a small, thick manuscript on vellum leaves, wit little diagrams and drawings carefully scratched into the margins to indicate the end of one spell and the beginning of another. Although most of the entries were magical healing remedies and herbal treatments, I discovered among them some rituals for shamanic initiation and training. I immediately recognized the manuscript as a shaman’s handbook—a touchstone for entering the world of the ancient European shaman.

I became tremendously excited, personally and professionally, at the prospect of breathing life back into the practices described in Lacnunga. The manuscript literally changed my life, as I took on the challenge of rebuilding the practice of wyrd through an experiential, as weak as scholarly, approach.

I soon found that evidence for the way of wyrd is substantial, but that it is widely scattered in books, journals, manuscripts, and museums throughout Europe. One of my tasks over the years has been to pull together all this information and integrate it. The process is rather like weaving a tapestry, only the materials are facts and ideas, image and stories. I have consulted countless journals and books in subjects as diverse as the history of medicine; Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Germanic social history; Icelandic sagas; comparative mythology; folklore studies; archaeology; and philology.

My research has showed that although there were some differences in details of expression between the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts—the two major cultural groupings in early western Europe—there was much overlap between the shamanic practices of these peoples. The shamans served as healers, diviners, spell casters (particularly through the use of the magical languages of runes), leaders of sacred rituals and celebrations, custodians of tribal wisdom, and advisors to warriors and chieftains.

After several years of studying research material in order to understand the system of shamanism represented in Lacnunga, I decided to explore some of the healing rituals presented in the manuscript and to recreate the journey described in its incantations and narratives. My work included practicing meditations, memorizing the stories, and journeying—physically into forest landscapes at night and psychically into visionary landscapes.

From the start of the project, my aim has been to reempower the way of wyrd as a living shamanic path. Throughout this process, I have tried to maintain absolute integrity, so that readers and workshop participants can see exactly how the historical material is being used. For that reason, I have included in the bibliography of The Way of Wyrd well over one hundred references to the most accessible material, so that readers can explore the sources for themselves.

Allen-Coombe: In The Way of Wyrd, you present Anglo-Saxon shamanism through the fictional experiences of Wat Brand, a Christian scribe who apprentices to a pagan sorcerer. Why did you choose this format?

Bates: Originally I had intended to write a nonfiction book that would explain the nature of wyrd, but my first attempts failed to bring the wonderful material to life. I then decided to use the format of a fictional story in the hope that it would speak more directly to the imagination that to the intellect. I felt the readers would be better able to experience something of the nature of the shamanic quest if I told the story through one person’s journey into the way of wyrd.

While conducting my background research, I had studied a historically documented mission from Anglo-Saxon England, and I decided to use this setting for depicting someone’s initiation into the way of wyrd. I had learned that when Christian missionaries traveled into pagan areas of Europe, they often sent a junior member of the mission to journey through the countryside, gathering information about the rituals, beliefs, and practices of the indigenous shamans. Since a scribe called Wat Brand had actually lived at the mission I studied, I gave his name to the fictional scribe in my book. The Way of Wyrd describes Brand’s experiences in gaining the knowledge of wyrd, and his initiation by a shaman called Wulf.

In preparing the book, I wrote a series of essays for myself on fifty or sixty different aspects of the principles and practices of wyrd, based on my experiential studies and the historical evidence available about the European shamanic path. The actual structure of the book and the unfolding of Brand’s quest were dictated by these accounts of my research.

allen-Coombe: In your book, you describe an individual’s life as “ a cloth woven on a loom.” What relevance does this image have to contemporary life?

Bates: Contemporary psychological science teaches us to image our lives and psyches in terms of a machine—in particular, a computer. Although that model bears little relation to the organic, living, breathing reality of the human experience, we continue to make educational, professional, business, medical, and military decisions as though the computer model were a close fit to our reality.

In contrast, Anglo-Saxon shamanic cultures viewed each person’s life experience as an artistic pattern evolving on a loom. The motif of goddesses spinning individual fates appears many times in the spells and stories which have survived and is one of the best-documented aspects of Anglo-Saxon shamanism. Admittedly, images of spinning and weaving were more familiar in those eras, but the use of a creative rather than mechanical metaphor is worth studying—especially when considering how to change our lives. Instead of changing our “life program,” we can change our “life design,” using metaphors of color, shape, texture, pattern, and theme.

Becoming sensitive to the fibres that pulse and reverberate within our lives is an important practice of the way of wyrd. Sometimes, in contemporary word healing workshops, we paint images of the fibres penetrating our lives, starting with those influences of which we are consciously aware—people, evens, hopes, and fears—and then moving on to fibres which can be perceived only through meditation and inner visioning.

Even if you are highly motivated to change your overall life pattern, you can’t just change it immediately, as if inserting a new program into a computer—to do so would be to break your life. You can’t afford to lose the strength inherent in what you’ve already got. You can alter the pattern, expressing previous themes in new and different ways, but developing a new pattern must be accomplished harmoniously, in tune with the energies that created the original design. Therefore, when working with individuals who want to make changes in their lives, we help them to get a clear picture of their existing life patterns, and then we guide them to redesign tose patterns through use of artistic media.

One man I worked with had many psychological blocks to deal with. He had undertaken conventional psycho-therapy but still felt confused and paralyzed by the multiplicity of his problems. So, before delving into the content of his individual issues, we simply mapped them out until he saw an overall pattern to his life. Then he expressed that patter through artwork and dance, creating a map of his psychological states.

We first choreographed a dance sequence that expressed his past psychological states and then choreographed a ritual dance that enabled him to transcend his blocks. The first time that he performed the entire dance was a tremendous cathartic experience for him. Each subsequent time served as a centering process, allowing him to reach a state of presence within himself, and was a ritual act of faith in his liberation. Of course, life issues are complex and need to be addressed in detail, but this process provided him with a bird’s eye view of his situation, allowing him to get his bearings. The improvement in his general well-being was remarkable.

Allen-Coombe: Much of Brand’s work in The Way of Wyrd deals with developing personal power. What is power in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and how can people develop this kind of power?

Bates: In modern society, the concept of power has been debased—it is usually conceived of as power over other people. But in the European shamanic sense, power something that one ha within oneself. It is an enabling power which helps people resist being “overpowered” by others.

Forming relationships with guardian spirits is one practical way to nurture shamanic power. There are many accounts in European literature of shamans transforming into their guardian animals, both spiritually during initiations and ritually during celebrations and healings.

An important aspect of shamanic work is finding externalized forms—such as creatures, animals, or runes—that to only represent but give manifestation to one’s inner resources and strengths. The process has parallels with contemporary creative psycho-therapies in which a personal issue is given form through something external, such as a painting or sculpture. Even though we know the issue is “inside,” we seem to be better able to deal with it once it is transferred onto something “outside.”

One of the central premises of word is that, in certain states of consciousness, the boundaries between inner and outer realities become permeable and can be transcended. By working with guardian animals, we can get in touch with abilities that were formerly outside our awareness. For example, guardian spirits can give us access to many of those abilities that society has labeled “paranormal.” By embodying the fibres of word that reverberate through us, guardian animals can help us develop enhanced sensitivity to the myriad influences which constantly affect us but remain beyond the scope of our physical senses.

One way that I work with individuals is to help them connect with their guardian animals. Many people may be familiar with similar practices—where images of animals are induced and those animals danced—taught in short-term workshops. however, in contemporary word shamanism, we go much further in contacting this deep source of inspirational energy.

We begin by asking people to record animal dreams that they remember from childhood—nearly everyone has had them. Then we guide individuals on imaginal journeys to meet their guardian animals. That’s where the real work in word begins—people research their animals, observe them in the wild if possible, paint them, write stories about them, and work with them experientially and dramatically. This process is very personal and important, not something to be rushed. Some people training in word shamanism find that guardian animal work becomes a quest of high degree—a sustained path of exploration that illuminates many aspects of their lives.

Allen-Coombe: Dwarves and giants play a significant role in The Way of Wyrd. Can you discuss these beings and their relevance to shamanic practices?

Bates: Giants and dwarves featured significantly in the initiatory visions of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic shamans, as may be seen in the accounts of shamans’ journeys to the upper world and underworld. They also play a role in some incantations in Lacnunga, but they are given particular prominence in shamanic vision quest stories in the Norse sagas.

Later, under the influence of Christianity, the indigenous Celtic and Anglo-Saxon spirits were redefined as angels or devils. Eventually, the shamanic imagery was preserved only in stories for children, where it could be dismissed as fantasy.

In pre-Christian European shamanism, giants were embodiments of the elemental forces that had created the universe, and they represented tremendous, unbridled power. Stories related that giants had both knowledge and wisdom, but—as giants were often aggressive—this knowledge could only be gained by the shamans at great personal risk.

Dwarves were the powers that transformed the elements of the universe into material form. In early European cultures, blacksmiths were associated with dwarves and magic because of their ability to transform the basic elements of Earth into tools, weapons, and jewelry. when shamans journeyed into spiritual realms, they often encountered sacred smiths, usually imaged as dwarves, who made unbreakable swords and knives, and beautiful jewelry with magical properties. these dwarf-smiths were also responsible for transmuting the body, mind, and soul of the apprentice into that of the shaman.

In our workshops, we work to activate the dwarf powers of transformation inherent in our lives. First, participants tell and enact stories of the dwarf powers that they know form European mythology. Since over the centuries most of these stories have been altered and turned into children’s moral tales, we examine and reentrant the stories in their original shamanic versions. then we recast the stories in terms of our own lives, putting these “dwarf energy” aspects to work for our personal transformation.

To ritually enact our own transformational tales, particularly within a group, is a remarkable experience. Many people discover that story details they had forgotten become manifest as the experiences are given magical power. It is not psychodrama as we know it in contemporary psychotherapy but rather an infusion of transformational energy into those important life experiences which have not been resolved or celebrated—or, even worse, which have been locked into our psyches by denial or the wrong kind of analysis. This work often involves some suffering and sacrifice, but it ultimately creates beautiful, magical things from the elements of our lives—just as the dwarves made beautiful, magical things from Earth’s elements.

Allen-Coombe: In The Way of Wyrd, Wulf teaches Brand about the shamanic use of runes. Can you tell us about runes and other methods of communication with the spirit world?

Bates: In recent years, many people have become familiar with the use of runes as an oracular system. Runes were much more than an alphabet of angular shapes; they were an important form of sacred communication in the way of wyrd and were used with great respect and reverence. Runes were traditionally carved into wood, rock, or occasionally bone, or into metal jewelry and weaponry. the process of carving runes was a way of centering, meditating, and communicating with Earth. The carving of runic messages to the spirit world was an integral part of most healing and divining rituals.

Contemporary work in the way of word includes the use of runes as an oracle. Of course just as with other divinatory tools, the power inherent in their use depends upon the sensitivity, skill, and journeying capacity of the person who is doing the reading.

There are many ways of getting in touch with the other realms, and all shamanic cultures employ ritualized and sacralized means of communication with spirit forces. Some cultures use dancing, drumming, and chanting; other use painting or creating sacred objects. In the European tradition, advanced shamans often traveled with trained drummers and chanters, who performed sound rituals to aid the shamans in communicating with the spirit world during healings and other sacred ceremonies. There is a manuscript description from about one thousand years ago of a North European shamans who traveled with thirty trained chanters—fifteen men and fifteen women.

Allen-Coombe: Were there very many Anglo-Saxon shamanesses?

Bates: A thousand years ago, when shamanic traditions thrived in Europe, male and female practitioners were equally prominent and were accorded equal status. They performed some functions in common, although other tasks were divided along gender lines. For example, women had authority over rituals dealing with childbearing and were specialists in divination—in reading the future of individuals, communities, and the landscape.

In Anglo-Saxon shamanism, both male and female shamans practiced healing and presided over spiritual rituals of various kinds, although usually separately. Men followed a male path of initiation and women followed a female path, but both paths had equal status. Entering the shamanic world of the other gender was considered an advanced form of shamanism. Those shamans who were able to acquire elements of the wisdom, techniques, and insights of the other gender were the most highly admired.

When Christian missionaries came to western Europe, they presumed that the indigenous spiritual structure was vested in the male shamanic advisors to the tribal leaders. Ignoring the role of female shamans, the missionaries concentrated on persuading the chieftains to outlaw male shamans and replace them with Christian monks and priests Consequently, although the male shamanic path was quickly driven underground, the female shamanic path continued to flourish for several hundred years. However, in order to control the still-thriving shamanic approach to life, the Christian authorities eventually turned their wrath against the female shamans and instigated the infamous witch hunts.

Allen-Coombe: What shamanic tools would Anglo-Saxon shamans typically carry with them?

Bates: Probably the most important tool of a European shaman was his or her staff. These staffs were carved with runic inscriptions and decorated with metalwork and objects of symbolic significance.

Norse sagas from over a thousand years ago describe shamanesses in northern Europe carrying staffs decorated with ornate stonework. Among other uses, these power staffs enabled the shamanesses to journey to spirit realms. The image in popular culture today of witches flying on magical broomsticks may have evolved from stories of these magical staffs.

European fairy tales are replete with wizards carrying magic wands and staffs imbued with healing powers. Today, we dismiss these stories as fantasy, but there is evidence that the shamans’ staffs were used physically during rituals to draw sacred circles on the ground and to heal people.

In the way of wyrd, most healing, divination, and initiation rituals involved creating circles for containing and concentrating the flow of life force—physical, psychological, and psychic energy.The use of circles is well documented in Anglo-Saxon and Celtic literature and artwork. Even Anglo-Saxon jewelry—rune-cut armoring, and torcs worn around the neck—was used to aid in concentrating power.

As in many other cultures, the shamans of Europe usually performed in ritual costumes that were representative of their power animals—their sources of inspiration. There are numerous literary descriptions of European shamans wearing costumes decorated with feathers, stones, and other magical objects.

In researching ancient texts recorded by medical historians, I also came across several references to shamans working with seeing stones. These stones, usually marked with a shape resembling an eye, were used by shamans to see into the spirit world and to vision the spirit state of a person during healings and initiations.

the first time I personally encountered a seeing stone took place during a workshop I was leading in the Alps. Our group was standing under a huge beech tree with gigantic exposed roots, clinging to the thin soil of the Swiss mountainside. Just as I was telling the group about seeing stones, I saw among the roots a brown and pink stone, with an exposed, white area in the shape of an eye. When I picked up the stone, it fit smoothly into my palm. My whole body began to tingle, and I immediately knew it was a seeing stone. I have since used it many times to read a person’s energies. The stone creates a channel of sight which allows me to vision a person’s fibres and energy channels, rather than his or her physical form.

Allen-Coombe: Can you tell us more about shamanic healing in the Anglo-Saxon tradition?

Bates: The historical basis of my understanding of wyrd healing comes primarily from Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the British Museum and from some smaller manuscripts housed in various other European museums. These “medicine work handbooks” provide a picture of the healing practices used in western European shamanic traditions.

Typically, healings started with a spirit reading of the patient. This reading would be carried out either by using seeing stones or by drumming and chanting until the shaman had a vision revealing the path to be followed in the healing. The healing process often involved “singing the patient better”—using an incantation to create a healing word web for the patient. The incantation, sometimes created specifically for that patient, induced imagery within the patient’s mind that catalyzed mind/body healing. Of course, the incantation also enlisted the assistance of the spirits and activated healing forces from the web of wyrd.

Sometimes it was believed that the patient had been possessed by harmful spirits , and the shaman then had to drive these sickness spirits away. This work required great care, because confronting dark spirits could be dangerous even for an experienced shaman.

In some cases of serious illness, it was believed that the patient had lost his or her soul. Lancing contains several incantations for journeying in search of lost souls. It was usually assumed that the soul had been stolen for a particular reason, or a combination of reasons, that had to do with the way the patient had been living his or her life. So, as step in retrieving the soul, the shaman had to find out why the person’s soul had been stolen and who in the spirit realm had stolen it.

In our contemporary wyrd practical healing work, the shaman’s job also includes helping individuals reweave their lives into a form which develops their strengths and protects their souls.

Allen-Coombe: What relevance does the way of wyrd have today?

Bates: I consider wyrd to be as relevant and powerful now as it was for our Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Although our ancestors lived in a technologically simpler world, they were more sophisticated in spiritual matters than we are. We can learn from their wisdom, because they dealt with the same matters of mind, body, and spirit that we are still grappling with today. It’s important to remember that—although our physical and cultural environments have evolved greatly over the last few centuries—our deep inner nature has probably not changed much over the last several thousand years.

I also believe that the shamanic path can play an important role in solving crucial personal, social, and global issues that confront us today. Although the ritual forms of shamanism needed to solve today’s problems won’t necessarily be identical to those that flourished in traditional hunting or agricultural communities, the holistic vision of wyrd and many of its ancient shamanic elements—its concepts of life force, spirit guardians, and interconnecting fibres; its healing techniques; and its approaches to life and death—are still directly applicable to our lives.

the basic message of The Way of Wyrd is that we can recapture and revitalize a shamanic approach to wisdom that is based on Anglo-Saxon and Celtic traditions. In reading about wyrd, many people have a sense of recognition—a sense that it’s al something they already knew, deep down, but had forgotten. The way of wyrd is the archetypal shamanic wisdom of the European peoples. I would like to see this heritage take its place alongside the other great traditions of spiritual liberation, for anyone to learn from.

Allen-Coombe: What are your plans for the future, particularly in regard to your research work?

Bates: Recently, my personal research efforts—both scholarly and experiential—have been concentrated mainly on the processes of initiation and on the roles of male and female paths through the shamanic realm. I am currently compiling this material—as well as my findings in other areas of word shamanism—which I plan to work into a number of new books.

Moreover, since The Way of Wyrd’s publication in Europe, I have met many remarkable people who—without being knowledgeable about their European shamanic heritage—have been exploring shamanic practices in  their own lives. Because I believe that it is very important to encourage the exploration of shamanic practices in nontraditional settings, where there is little cultural support for the role of the shaman, I am writing a book about some of these encounters.

The response to The Way of Wyrd has been very strong in Europe and has enabled me to creat the experiential Shaman Research Project at the University of Sussex. The project is an unusual enterprise for a university, because our aim is not merely to build academic knowledge of a historical form of shamanism but to explore Anglo-Celtic shamanism at an experiential level. We now have six researchers directly involved in the project, and part of our work includes studying aspects of shamanism from other traditions around the world. We are also setting up a worldwide network of people who wish to be connected with the project on a regular basis. Ongoing research includes work on guardian animals, masks, masculine and feminine shamanic paths, sacred landscapes, and shamanic performance.

My overall aims are to recreate and reentrant the wisdom inherent in European shamanism and to apply its practices to personal development, psychotherapy, and healing, as well as to the broader issues of the environment, education, and the arts. I am interested in seeing that the insights of shamanism are introduced into as many appropriate settings as possible. This work is in its early stages, and I hope that I shall be able to report our progress widely as the project unfolds. It is time for the way or wyrd to take its place alongside the other great shamanic paths, so that its traditional wisdom can help us face the future.

Janet Allen-Coombe is a research psychologist at the Shaman Research Project, University of Sussex, and is currently writing a doctoral dissertation based on her research on guardian animals.

Brian Bates may be reached at the Shaman Research Project, Arts Building B, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, Sussex, England BN1 9QN

An Excerpt from The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates

“Do you really believe that you can read future events from a tiny snatch of bird flight? Do all your people believe in such omens?’

Wulf rolled on to his back and cupped his hands behind his head, squinting up at the sky.

‘Omens frighten the ordinary person because they believe them to be predictions of events that are bound to happen: warnings from the realms of destiny. But this is to mistake the true nature of omens. A sorcerer can read omens as pattern-pointers, from which the weaving of word can be admired and from which connections between different parts of patterns can be assumed.’

I was puzzled by his use of the term ‘wyrd.’ When used by monks orating poverty, it seemed to denote the destiny or fate of a person. I explained this view to Wulf and he hooted with laughter, sending the sparrows flapping from the shrubbery in alarm.

‘To understand our ways, you must learn the true meaning of wyrd, not the version your masters have concocted to fit their beliefs. Remember that I told you our world began with fire and frost? By themselves, neither fire nor frost accomplish anything. But together they create the world. Yet they must maintain a balance, for too much fire would melt the frost and excessive frost would extinguish the fire. but just as the worlds of gods, Middle-Earth and the Dead are constantly replenished by the marrying of fire and frost, so also they depend upon the balance and eternal cycle of night and day, winter and summer, woman and man, weak and strong, moon and sun, death and life. Thee forces, and countless others, form the end points of a gigantic web of fibres which covers all at the worlds. The web is the creation of the forces and its threads, shimmering with power, pass through everything.’

I was astounded by the image of the web, which seemed to me both stupendous and terrifying. I trembled with excitement, for I knew that Eappa1 would drink in such information like a hunter pinpointing the movements of his prey.

‘What is at the centre of the web, Wulf? Are your gods at the centre?’

Wulf smiled, a little condescendingly I thought.

‘You may start at any point on the web and find that you are at the centre,’ he said cryptically.

Disappointed, I tried another line of questioning. ‘Is word your most important god?’

‘No. Wyrd existed before the gods and will exist after them. Yet word lasts only for an instant, because it is the constant creation of the forces. Word is itself constant change, like that seasons, yet because it is created at every instant it is unchanging, like the still centre of a whirlpool. All we can see are the ripples dancing on top of the water.’

I stared at him in complete confusion. His concept of wyrd,obviously of vital importance to him, repeatedly slipped through my fingers like an eel. I went back to the beginning o f our conversation.

‘But Wulf, you say that the flight of birds shows you the pattern of wyrd, of these fibres; if you can predict events from wyrd, it must operate according to certain laws?’

Wulf looked at me with kind, friendly eyes. He seemed to be enjoying my attempts to understand his mysterious ideas.

‘No, Brand, there are no laws. The pattern of word is like the grain in wood, or the flow of a stream; it is never repeated in exactly the same way. But the threads of word pass through all things and we can open ourselves to its pattern by observing the ripples as it passes by. When you see ripples in a pool, you know that something has dropped into the water. And when I see certain ripples in the flight of birds, I know that a warrior is going to die.’

‘So wyrd makes things happen?’

‘Nothing may happen without wyrd, for it is present in everything, but word does not make things happen. Wyrd is created at every instant, and so word is the happening.’

Suddenly I tired of his cryptic responses. ‘I suppose the threads of wyrd are too fine for anyone to see?’ I said sarcastically.

Wulf chuckled goodnaturedly. ‘Sometimes they are thick as hemp rope. But the threads of wyrd are a dimension of ourselves that we cannot grasp with words. We spin webs of words, yet wyrd slips through like the wind. the secrets of wyrd do not lie in our word-hoards, but are locked in the soul. We can only discern the shadows of reality with our words, whereas our souls are capable of encountering the realities of wyrd directly. This is why wyrd is accessible to the sorcerer. the sorcerer sees with his soul, not with eyes blinkered by the shape of words.’

I knew Wulf’s views to be erroneous, yet I was fascinated by them. He spoke about his beliefs as confidently and fluently as Eappa explaining the teachings of our Savior. I rested my chin on my hands and tried to analyse Wulf’s ideas as Eappa would have wished. ‘Be sure you understand clearly everything you see and hear,’  he had cautioned. ‘You can remember only what you comprehend.’ I tried to identify the main tenets of Wulf’s beliefs and subject them to scrutiny, one by one.

Wulf leaned closer to me and spoke into my ear as if sharing a secret:

‘You are strangling your life-force with words. Do not live your life searching around for answers in your word-hoard. You will find only words to rationalize your experience. Allow yourself to open up to wyrd and it will cleanse, renew, change and develop your casket of reason. Your word-hoard should serve your experience, not the reverse.’

I turned on him in irritation. ‘I was chosen for this Mission because I do not swallow everything I hear like a simpleton. I am at home in the world of words.’

He smiled gently. “Words can be potent magic indeed, but they can also enslave us. We grasp from wyrd tiny puffs of wind and store them in our lungs as words. But we have not thereby captured a piece of reality, to be pored over and examined as if it were a glimpse of wyrd. We may as well mistake our fistfuls of air for wind itself, or a pitcher of water for the stream from which it was dipped. That is the way we are enslaved by our own power to name things.’

‘My thoughts are my personal affair,’ I said sulkily. I was here to listen to his beliefs, but not to submit to criticism of my private contemplation.

‘Thoughts are like raindrops,’ he persisted, introducing yet another of his interminable images. ‘They fall, make a splash and then dry up. But the world of wyrd is like the mighty oceans from which raindrops arise and to which they return in rivers and streams.’

Editor’s Note

Brother Eappa was Wat Brand’s teacher at the Mercian Monastery, where Brand served as a scribe. As part of his efforts to establish a mission at the Saxon court, Eappa sent Brand to “travel though the kingdom, gathering information on the beliefs and superstitions of the heathens.”

From The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates

Copyright 1992 by Brian Bates

Ancient Altered States (PDF)

Ancient Altered States

“Here’s a real nice sheep getting killed,” says archeologist Dave Whitley, pointing at a rock. Whitley is not hallucinating. Step up to the rock and a carving can be seen: a horned sheep and a man with a bow and arrow, a petroglyph made by a Shoshone some 1,500 years ago.
The Shoshone was the one hallucinating. He was a shaman, Whitley says, who came here to this canyon in the Mojave Desert in California on a vision quest. The bighorn sheep was his spirit guide. “Killing the sheep” is a metaphor for entering the supernatural through a hallucinogenic trance.
You can see why Whitley has taken some grief in his day. For 30 years the prevailing theory about petroglyphs like this one has been that they were all about hunting. The assumption was that Native Americans believed that making art of their prey would magically cause the creatures to materialize in abundance. On the surface, the hunting-magic explanation seemed to make sense. Of some 100,000 petroglyphs in the canyons of the Coso Mountain range, 51 percent are bighorn sheep and 13 percent are male humans. For a long time no one bothered to question it.
Trouble is, the Shoshones didn’t eat much sheep. “We looked at 10,000 bones, and precisely 1 was a bighorn,” says Whitley, tossing back a wool serape. If not for the serape, you would be hard-pressed to divine the man’s vocation. Ruddy-cheeked and plaid-clad, he could as easily be out here hunting chukar or mending downed fences. “If they were going to make rock art out of what they were eating,” he adds, “there’d be bunnies all over the rock.” Though Whitley spends most of his time running a cultural resource management consultancy in his hometown of Fillmore, California, his background is in research and academics, at UCLA (where he still teaches) and at the Rock Art Research Unit of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
What sets Whitley and a handful of his colleagues apart is a willingness to stray from the ordinary precepts of archeology into the hinterlands of anthropology and psychology.Whitley turned to ethnographies of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes that inhabited the Coso Range–a string of small mountains lying east of the Sierra Nevada–from as early as A.D. 1200 to the end of the last century. Ethnographies are detailed descriptions of people in traditional cultures, gleaned from interviews and the observations of field anthropologists.
From ethnographic materials, Whitley learned that the places shamans made rock art were held to be portals to the supernatural; cracks and caves in the rock were interpreted literally as openings to the beyond. The art itself–carved with chunks of quartz–is said to depict visions that came to the shamans in their trances. The bighorn sheep is referred to as the spirit guide specific to rainmaking. One ethnographic source cited shamans who traveled from as far away as Utah to these canyons in their quest for rain.
With an average annual rainfall of about four inches, the Mojave Desert seems an unlikely setting for rainmaking activities. This is a landscape of dust and desolation, a sere, scrubby chenille of sage and saltbush. Joshua trees point spiky mascara-wand limbs this way and that, invariably at nothing. Sheep Canyon, where we are hiking, is a dry riverbed.
“It does seem odd,” allows Whitley, “until you realize that Native American shamanic rituals subscribe to the principle of symbolic inversion.” Where the natural world is dry, its supernatural counterpart is the opposite.
Why didn’t archeologists bother to check the ethnographies before? “Partly,” says Whitley, “there’s this perception that prehistory has to be interpreted on its own terms.If we go to the ethnography, then we’re assuming that the past was like the near present, and then what’s the point of doing archeology? There’s deeply embedded presupposition that archeologists maintain, and that is that because things change over time, time causes things to change.” Which isn’t always true. Shamanic rituals have persisted unchanged for centuries.
The other part of the story is that few archeologists had any real interest in pinning down the origins and meaning of rock art. Whitley was the first American archeologist to do a dissertation interpreting rock carvings (the technical term is petroglyphs; rock paintings are pictographs). There has been a tendency among archeologists to regard the study of ritual and belief as less scientific and less relevant than the study of technology and subsistence. “It’s that bumper sticker: “he who dies with the most toys wins,'” Whitley says. “Which is, to me, a very shallow, materialistic view of human culture.”
To illustrate his point, Whitley gives the example of Australian Aborigines. “You can take a line from the center of Australia out to the coast, and you can plot on that line a series of different aboriginal cultures. And if you look at the complexity of their kinship system and the complexity of their technology and tools, what you see is a perfect inverse relationship.” Coastal groups have a complex technology and tend to use a lot of tools. In the middle of Australia, it’s more like it is in the Cosos. “Those guys are running around near to buck naked, surviving only on their wits, yet they have this kinship system that is mind-bogglingly complex. And it structures every aspect of their social life. Now what is more important, this complex cognitive mental construct or the kind of tools these folks made?”
Whitley stops talking and directs his gaze at my hiking boot. “You’re standing on a sheep.”
The art of the Coso Mountains is not all sheep and stick-legged men with feathers and horns. High above Whitley’s head is a circle filled in with grid lines, like a flattened fly’s eye. Across the canyon, a sine wave snakes across a boulder. Beside it is an arc of nested curves, like a fragment of a mammoth fingerprint. Abstract patterns are everywhere among the boulders–grids, hatch marks, zigzags, curves, spirals. They’re trippy, doodley, devoid of any recognizable meaning. For years, archeological theories about these markings amounted to guesswork. Maps? Menstrual calendars? Solstice observatories? Forget about it. Let’s go dig up a hogan.
There is another place you can reliably see these images, and that is inside your head. In the 1960s, neuropsychologists began cataloging the visual imagery of altered states of consciousness. Subjects given LSD or mescaline would lie on mattresses, describing their visions into researchers’ tape recorders. The first stage of the hallucinogenic experience–whether brought on by drugs, sensory deprivation, fasting, or rhythmic movement–is characterized by recurring geometric patterns, known variously as “phosphenes” or “entroptics.” The seven most common categories strike a familiar chord: grids, parallel lines, dots, zigzags, nested curves, meanders, and spirals.
Whitley wasn’t the first to notice parallels between this abstract imagery and that of rock art. In the 1950s, a German neuropsychologist named Max Knoll noted similarities between electrically stimulated (and, later, LSD-induced) patterns that appeared in his subjects’ visual fields and common abstract patterns in southern African rock art. In a 1970 article in Scientific American, psychologist Gerald Oster highlighted “phosphenelike figures” in prehistoric cave drawings.
One of the first archeologists to come on board was David Lewis-Williams, professor of cognitive archeology and director of the Rock Art Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand. Lewis-Williams found examples of the seven common entoptic patterns throughout the ancient rock art of the San bushmen. He also found evidence in the ethnographies that San shamans went into trances, both to heal and to make rain, and that they recorded their trance visions on the rock to preserve them. (Coso Shoshones believed that if they forgot their visions, they would die–powerful incentive to jot them down.) Lewis-Williams’s “neuropsychological model” for interpreting rock art incorporated not only abstract images but also the representational images that occur in the later stages of trance.
The Shoshone and Paiute shamans didn’t, as is often assumed, take peyote or jimsonweed. Their route to trance was a combination of exceptionally strong native tobacco, lack of sleep, sensory deprivation (the canyons here are mute as tombs), and fasting.
Somewhat surprisingly, given his interests, Whitley himself has never tried hallucinogenic drugs. “What I do do is, I interview archeological field crews a lot.” He did experience entoptics once, when someone ran a heavy dolly over his foot. “Pow! Entoptics. Just like the cartoonists draw around someone’s head when the safe lands on his toe. Those guys are keyed in to it.”
Cartoonists aren’t the only artists keyed in to entoptics and altered states. Whitley says Wassily Kandinsky, revered tribal elder of abstract art, wrote a paper in a psychological journal in 1881 about the entoptics that preface a migraine. Whitley also says Kandinsky studied shamanism and the role of the subconscious in art, and that this influenced his transition from figurative to abstract art. “His paintings are full of entoptic forms.”
Entoptic means “within the eye.” It’s believed that these geometric patterns derive from the optic system itself. In some instances, says Whitley, “you’re basically seeing what’s in your eyeball.” Retinal blood vessels and “floaters”–the faint squiggly lines that meander across the vision field–may be the anatomic inspiration for dots and meandering line entoptics. Concentric circles, spirals, and grids are probably generated by neurons firing in the visual cortex and the retina.
In the second stage of altered states imagery, the mind steps in and tries to make sense of the doodlings set before it. This is something minds do: they decode visual input, matching it against the memory banks of stored experience. If a match is made, the image is recognized. How the brain interprets an entoptic depends on the state of the brain’s owner. “The same ambiguous round shape,” wrote psychologist M.J. Horowitz in Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience, and Theory in 1975, “…can be ‘illusioned’ into an orange (if the subject is hungry), a breast (if he is in a state of heightened sexual drive), a cup of water (if he is thirsty), or an anarchist’s bomb (if he is hostile or fearful).” Or a bighorn sheep body if he’s a shaman on a rainmaking vision quest.
By way of demonstration, Whitley leads me to a carving of a bighorn that is more horn than sheep. Three parallel arcs span the length of the sheep, rainbowlike, from its head to its tail. Whitley identifies the entoptic: “Nested or catenary curves.” The size of the horns, and the fact that there are three, not two, suggests the curves appeared first, and the shaman then interpreted them as horns.
A few hundred yards down the canyon, Whitley points out a fantastical creature, like something form one of those split-page children’s books in which the giraffe’s head is on the monkey’s body, with kangaroo legs. The figure sports bird-talon feet, an upright humanoid body, and big, downward-curling horns.
This is an example of Stage 3 of Lewis-Williams’s neuropsychological model: the full-blown vision. The shamans didn’t think of it as a vision. To them it was a parallel reality; they had entered the realm of the supernatural. The literature on altered states of consciousness describes the sensory changes involved. According to Lewis-Williams, “This shift to iconic imagery is also accompanied by an increase in vividness. Subjects stop using similes to describe their experiences and assert that the images are indeed what they appear to be.”
The man with the horns is the shaman himself, in his own vision, entering the supernatural and “shape shifting” into his spirit guide. The original assumption about the horns was that they were a hunting disguise. Which makes sense until you think about it. “It’d be way too heavy,” observes Whitley. “Besides, the Native Americans have systematically denied this.”
The talons in place of the shamans feet could be part of a common metaphor for entering the supernatural: flight. (Many petroglyphs of therianthropes–being part animal and part human–also have wings in place of arms.) This probably ties in with the feeling of floating up and out of one’s body, as often happens during the third stage of a mind-bending altered state.
“Here’s a guy with six fingers on one hand,” says Whitley. “Clearly not a normal individual.” Again, it fits with the literature on altered states of consciousness. Imagined extra digits are a common hallucination.
The humanoid figures that aren’t busy turning into sheep are busy shooting them with bows and arrows. In the mythology of the Native American cultures of the Far west, death is the most prevalent metaphor for entering the supernatural. (At this point, according to Whitley, the shaman has become his spirit guide and the two are considered interchangeable.) Whitley cites the example of Coyote, the shaman character of myth, who begins many of his adventures by dying or being killed, whereupon all manner of supernatural events ensue. On a physiological level, the metaphor makes sense. Consider what can happen to a person who enters a trance: his eyes roll back into his head, he may go limp and lose consciousness, he may bleed from the nose. Whitley has shown me examples here today of bighorn sheep with lines coming from their noses.
Beside the horned shaman is a shaman with what appear to be truncated golf clubs or perhaps musical quarter notes protruding from his head. Whitley insists they’re California quail topknot feathers. They do look a lot like the bobbing doohickey you see on these birds’ heads, but to link this to the flight metaphor strikes me as a bit of a reach.
As it turns out, it might have nothing to do with flight metaphors. Rain shamans, Whitley explains, wore a distinctive headdress festooned with quail head feathers. Know your ethnographies.
Not all petroglyphs fit the neuropsychological model of rock art. The Hopi carved clan symbols on rocks during pilgrimages. Northern Plains tribes decorated the landscape with symbolic renderings of their war exploits. The carving on the standing stone in front of us fits no established categories. Whitley has no idea who made it, or why. It says, “E=mc2.”
Given that this canyon sits within the million acres of supersecret labs and missile ranges known as China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, it was most likely military personnel. Even if the carving were a sheep, Whitley wouldn’t have been fooled into believing it was carved by early Native Americans. He can eyeball a petroglyph and tell, by the degree to which the carved areas have darkened, approximately how old it is. Our little theory of relativity inscription is, relatively speaking, brand-new. The etching still appears white. After about 500 years, a “brown crud,” as Whitley puts it, begins to become visible. The crud, known in academic circles as rock varnish, derives from microbes on the rock surface. Over time, different trace elements leach out from the varnish at different rates. By calculating what’s leached out and how much, chronometricians can get an idea of how long the varnish has been there, and from that, the carving’s age. This can be compared with the results of radiocarbon-dating of organic materials such as lichen and pollen that are trapped on the carving as the varnish accumulates on top of them. Neither method is especially precise, but the combination suffices to pin the date to within a few hundred years.
While the oldest Coso petroglyphs may have been made as long as 16,500 years ago, the overwhelming majority fall in the neighborhood of less than 1,500 years old. Whitley has a theory to explain the sudden flurry of shamanism in the region. An examination of the archeological record around this time shows a dramatic increase in abandonment of villages in the region. The likely reason: The area was being sucked dry by a major drought some 800 years ago. Hence the unprecedented upsurge in rainmaking endeavors.
In a bizarre display of symbolic meteorologic inversion, rain clouds have appeared overhead. Against the gathering gray, a dozen Canada geese fly in perfect V formation, as though under orders from the base commander.
The rock art of the Coso Range is by no means the oldest in the world. The famed Lascaux and Chauvet cave paintings of France date, respectively, from 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. As anthropologists had yet to materialize 30,000 years ago, no ethnographies exist for these peoples. Partly because of this, European rock art archeologists were slow to warm to the shamanistic, neuropsychological model. The skepticism may also have had to do with European separation of archeology and anthropology; they’re not, as they typically are in the States, part of the same academic department.
In 1992, Whitley brought French archeologist Jean Clottes, the world-renowned scholar of Paleolithic cave paintings, out to the Mojave and did his pitch. Clottes wasn’t easily swayed. Though the rock art of France and Spain most certainly includes the classic entoptic patterns, Clottes saw too many other images that didn’t fit.
“Over the next two or three years,” says Whitley, “I brought him back to the Cosos again, and he started reading the ethnographic texts.” Eventually Clottes crossed the divide. Whitley knew he had him when Clottes called him up in 1995 after the discovery of the famed Chauvet cave. “He said to me, ‘There’s a therianthrope here!'”
It’s easy to buy the entoptics portion of the theory; the similarities between the rock art and the hallucination descriptions in the neuropsychology papers are too striking to dismiss. Less clear are the Stage 3 visions. What’s odd is the uniformity of the Coso shamans’ hallucinations. The vast majority of the estimated 100,000 images found in the Coso Range fall into one of six categories: bighorn sheep (51 percent), humans (13 percent), other animals (5 percent), weapons (2.4 percent), medicine bags (1.3 percent), and geometric (entoptic) designs (26 percent). Yet the hallucinations of nonshamanic drug-induced trance are limitlessly diverse. Whitley’s answer to this is that the shamans may have been practicing some form of “lucid dreaming.” With the help of special glasses that flash lights when the eyes begin the characteristic movements of REM sleep, lucid dreamers achieve a borderline level of consciousness that allows them to watch their dreams like movies and, it’s said, even influence the plots and direct their outcomes. The ethnographies say nothing of this practice. However, as Whitley points out,that doesn’t mean it didn’t occur. “This may,” he says, “be an example of rock art supplementing the body of ethnographic knowledge.”
Back at the mouth of the canyon, a vision appears out of the mist: four wild horses running abreast, manes rippling like white water. As abruptly as they appeared, they wheel and vanish again into the fog. A comment about the four horses of the Apocalypse prompts a raised eyebrow from Whitley. “Some horses got left behind when the military evicted the homesteaders here.” Some things are less symbolic than they appear. And some aren’t.