The path of shamanism in the West is a curious thing. Dogmatic world religions are crumbling institutions that no longer meet the needs of the modern spiritual seeker. A stalled extension of that same unholy conglomerate is the New Age movement, in the form of spiritual gurus, podcast evangelists and appropriators of culture poised to share their secrets with the highest bidder. Situated quietly amongst these is the emergence of neoshamanism in the Western mind.
Much of what has been written about indigenous or ancient shamanism came into vogue in the early 1950s-60s, along with all of the biases that generation could offer. Consider a bunch of Abrahamic white, male anthropologists with no training in cultural sensitivity working through translators to present timeless ecstatic traditions to the academic elite. What we gained are texts touted as thequintessential resources on what is now generally referred to as “traditional shamanism,” calling these tribal spiritual leaders mentally ill, illiterate and uncivilized, among other things.
Specifically, Eliade’s book “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy,” heralded as the western conduit for shamanism, declares what shamanism is and who is allowed to become a shaman. His studies omit cultures of female shamans and deliver observations of tribal shamans through a Christianized viewpoint. It is hardly unbiased or the lauded thorough examination it’s touted to be. Later, in I. M. Lewis’ book Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession, we’re given such messages as women and homosexual men are more likely to become possessed because they are weaker; thus, no credible report of shamanhood. Lewis’ work provides a narrowed “study” of selected shamanic cultures filtered through the privileged Western psyche.
To this era we can also attribute the beginning exodus of westerners seeking wisdom from other spiritual traditions. A reaction to the idea of shamanism put forward by academics was the racist notion of the “noble savage,” or that only true spiritual enlightenment comes in traveling to far away, hidden jungles, and out of the mouths of exotic, dark people. Such soul journeys created a model that valued the wisdom but not the people, their land, or their economic challenges. Such was evident in the work of Carlos Castenada. Any experiential value his writings presented was lost among criticism for its lack of cultural authenticity and fictional leanings. In the end Castenada’s work, as much as that of his academic forefathers, put forward the idea that enlightenment is permitted only to a chosen few. This image of shamanism is carried forward still, not just in the general populace but even among well-educated neopagans.
In the 1980s, Michael Harner reintroduced the concept of shamanism in his work “The Way of the Shaman.” Following, he branded an approach called “core shamanism,” cultureless techniques heavily drawing off the concepts in Eliade’s work, and firmly established the movement we now know as neoshamanism. Many internationally noted neoshamanic practitioners emerged — Lynn Andrews, Brooke Medicine Eagle, Sandra Ingerman, Tom Cowan, Christina Pratt. Some such practitioners work respectably within reclaimed traditions, some from original spiritual truths, some sprung from Harner’s “cultureless” teachings, and others horribly breached the confidence of native teachers, leaving yet another chasm in the path.
The current state of neoshamanism is particularly interesting. Despite its harried past, now it’s fairly easy to find a soul healer in the West. The path has diverged into many traditions, studies and opportunities. Why, then, do we still uphold the judgments early scholars placed on shamans, and why is there such a potent trend among modern seekers to look to other cultures for shamanic healing and instruction?
There is a palpable tension between what we believe was the path and how we experience it now. Those aware of our estranged history and of the cultural sensitivities around it recognize the richness of an unbroken shamanic lineage — a line of shamans raised in a family or tribal setting that maintained a heritage of ecstatic mentoring, support and perspective. Such informed students also know that these unbroken groups aren’t better, more solid, or more capable in what they do than those of Western broken lineage.
Further telling is the insight from accounts of unbroken lineages expressing that even they perceive themselves as less than their shamanic predecessors. They express sentiments that those who came before did it better, bigger, more profoundly. They indicate feeling close to something they are unable to touch fully or in the same way that their ancestors did. As Western neoshamans, we think we’re alone because we’ve resurrected a path whose roots we can’t truly know and don’t understand, yet we somehow know that we’re on the path. In reality, every path branches to some obscure trail.
For half a century the neoshamanic movement has trekked to other cultures to find the unbroken lineages, and we’re still doing it. At the beginning of the journey we had no one else to go to. Our European imported religions didn’t support the personal spiritual path, so seekers learned from other cultures how to connect with a route that brought them back to life. As well, westerners already having an ecstatic awakening turned to other cultures to get the spiritual support that ours couldn’t provide. We needed the academic ego displays that came before us to bring back to our consciousness an ecstatic awareness that wasn’t foremost prior.
In my shamanic work, I find that people now coming to shamanism aren’t asking the questions that I did early on my path 23 years ago. They’re sensitive to cultural appropriation. They know about the broken path. They understand why the broken path. Still, they’re just as lost because they’re afraid to be their own heritage. They’re afraid to own their culture and find anything good in it. They don’t realize there is no one shamanic way. They don’t understand that we are not the ancients who came before or the indigenous here now, and we don’t have to be. They are insecure in the knowledge that we cannot be them because we have our own culture and an obligation to it and ourselves to look within it and find its spiritual source. They must see our culture as spiritually capable. They must see themselves and their elders as wise. They must promote their own Nature connection precisely where they live, through what they see and experience every day. They must learn to create their own traditions and rituals based in the culture of their current atmosphere.
Who are the pioneers of authentic paths of neoshamanism in the West? Who are the modern shamans venturing into uncharted territory? Meet some of them now:
- Jules Farrar, World Tree, Lancashire, England
- Lupa, Greenwolf and Therioshamanism, Portland, OR
- Rabbi Gershon Winkler, Walking Stick Foundation, Thousand Oaks, CA
- Kelley Harrell, Soul Intent Arts, Fuquay Varina, NC
- Raven Kaldera, Northern-Tradition Shamanism, Hubbardston, MA
- Donna Henes, Urban Shaman, Exotic Brooklyn, NY
- James Endredy, Earth Spirit Foundation, Between AZ and CA
- Malidoma Somé, Phd, Aviela, Inc, Orlando, FL