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The Shamanic Witch
Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Earth and Other Realms
By Gail Wood
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2008 Gail Wood
All rights reserved.
The Dance of Ecstasy: First Steps on the Path of Shamanic Wicca
We are the flow and we are the ebb,
We are the needle and we are the thread.
We are the spider and we are the web,
We are the witches, back from the dead!
As witches we move in magic, spiraling in and out of the energies of this world and other worlds. We shift shape and move through time, space, and thought. Our connections to the world of Spirit assist us in moving into the magic. The opening chant tells us that we are part of everything, and nothing holds us back. Another chant tells us of our place and role in this universal flow of energy:
Spiraling into the center, the center of the wheel
We are the weavers, we are the woven ones
We are the dreamers, we are the dream.
The thread of divine within us weaves with the thread of the divine throughout all the worlds, creating patterns of beauty, joy, and transformation. We are both active and passive in the flow of universal energy; we are both the product and the producer. We are everything as we embrace all the energies of the worlds, weaving a tapestry of mystery and power.
In embracing Shamanism as part of the path of Wicca, we are doing something incredibly ancient and something thoroughly modern. The roots of modern Shamanism are found in every culture, living and dead. The abilities of the shaman are the abilities of the modern witch, reaching back thousands of years into the fire-lit caves of the first humans. As we walk and dance our paths, we circle inward to learn what came before, and then we spiral outward to create new ways of magic for ourselves, those we love, and the Universe as a whole.
This book takes the basic instructions in the modern practice of core Shamanism and melds them with the magical practices of Wicca and Witchcraft. While the magical practices are wiccan in focus, they have broad application for anyone seeking alternatives to mainstream religions. It is also a guide for someone who follows a pagan practice and also does shamanic journey-work. It has been my observation that most pagans and wiccans practicing shamanic journeywork keep those practices separate. This book provides a guide for melding those two practices into a dynamic dance of ecstasy and joy.
I took my first introduction to shamanic drumming class around the same time I began my exploration of Wicca and Tarot. Throughout more than twenty years of exploration, I have melded these three practices together, along with other skills and knowledge that I picked up along the way. Our lives and how we live them are interconnected, all together weaving a beautiful picture. It takes a long time, sometimes, to see how all the individual threads intertwine, interweave, and interconnect. The beauty of it is that all of us are doing this same kind of weaving, and then, as we move together, we overlap and intertwine our own patterns within this greater whole. If we are lucky, we glimpse the beautiful whole. Throughout it all, our inner divine nature dances with the Divine Universe that we call Goddess and God. Their steps and ours interweave in beauty and love.
Shamanic practice seeks healing and wisdom from realms that overlap ours. The practitioner journeys into those realms to find answers, healing, power, and mastery for the individual practitioner and for community. Wicca casts a circle and calls in the wise ones from realms that overlap ours. In that circle between the worlds, the witch journeys and communes with the creatures and teachers of those realms for the same reasons—to find power, answers, healing, and mastery. Both the shamanic practitioner and the witch bring that wisdom back to help and heal themselves and others. In an alchemical melding, the shamanic practitioner and the witch become one in service to self, to others and to the Goddess and God.
In the past several years, I have deliberately and consciously melded my solitary wiccan practice with my shamanic skills. My experiences have taught me about the profound nature of these two practices and how to create connections between them. In many ways, the connections are natural because both practices have much in common. It is a dance, a walk between the worlds and back again. This book is a guide to combining the two worlds of Shamanism and Witchcraft.
The Journey of Shamanism into Popular Culture and Spiritual Life
Most of the scholarly work on Shamanism was done by historians and anthropologists, and the study of Shamanism in popular culture has a definite anthropological and scholarly twist. There are extensive scholarly studies of shamans, shamanic healing, and the use of trance in native cultures. This has been problematic for the indigenous cultures being studied because early anthropologists often interpreted their observations through the lens of their own cultural assumptions, calling indigenous shamans madmen and charlatans. The observations made by early anthropologists were often judgmental and in error. Even with these problems, the study of Shamanism by anthropologists and social scientists has brought a large body of knowledge to the public. Historian and religious scholar Mircea Eliade's studies such as Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy remain the foundational work on understanding the role of the shaman in society and religion. It was Eliade who first described shamans as "technicians of ecstasy."
Shamans used singing, dancing, and drumming to achieve their ecstatic states, but it was the use of plant medicines to enhance their awareness that brought Shamanism to the attention of popular culture. Situated in their own culture, the use of perception-altering drugs by these native shamans was appropriate and purposeful. Unfortunately, what evolved was an understanding by outsiders that drugs were needed to achieve these states of wisdom, or that the shamanic trance work was pursued in order to experience drug-induced states of euphoria. Awareness of shamanic trance work, along with its relationship to hallucinogenic drugs, made its way into the popular consciousness with the publication of a 1957 article in Life magazine, entitled "Seeking the Magic Mushroom" by R. Gordon Wasson, triggered an interest in shamanic trance techniques by the general public. That interest was further piqued by the publication of a series of books, beginning in 1968, by an academic anthropologist named Carlos Casteneda who chronicled his studies with a Yaqui Indian sorcerer named Don Juan. Even though anthropologists and others questioned the veracity of Casteneda's works, the books captured the popular imagination and interest.
In 1980, anthropologist Michael Harner further popularized Shamanism with the publication of The Way of the Shaman, which describes his work with the Jivaro and Coniba Indians and described methods that readers could use to achieve the altered states he described without drugs. Harner went on to establish The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, which teaches these techniques worldwide. He and his teachers use the term "core Shamanism" to describe the set of skills and techniques that anyone in any culture can use to explore trance states.
At about the same time, psychologists became interested in the shamanic trance states, seeing these altered states of consciousness as a way to study human behavior. Psychologists began using trance states along with hypnosis to assist people in overcoming a myriad of emotional problems, history, and challenges. This dovetailed with the New Age movement's interest in self-improvement and self-actualization, and the movement used hypnosis and altered states for self-improvement and spiritual awakenings.
Shamanism and shamanic techniques have made their mark on the pagan community as well, particularly in the United States. In the 1995 study of American paganism, Never Again the Burning Times: Paganism Revived, author and pagan practitioner Loretta Orion states that American Wicca has evolved from its British Witchcraft roots through the influence of four factors: (1) ritual style developed from large outdoor gatherings; (2) the presence of workshops on shamanic techniques; (3) the concept of the earth as a living, conscious, Divine being; and, (4) the presence of a psychotherapy model and its application to political activism. In addition, the integration of these ritual and shamanic techniques into personal and group practice has had a large influence on American Wicca.
This idea is echoed by Karen E. Goeller in scholar Chas Clifton's 1994 collection of essays in Witchcraft Today, Book Three: Witchcraft & Shamanism. Goeller writes of the differences between the Craft and Shamanism, saying:
Another essential difference between the Craft and Shamanism, at least in modern times, deals with the nature of the spiritual experience. Craft rituals are true celebratory rites, ripe with laughter, joy, positive feelings, and positive energy. Most work done by witches in recent years, ritually speaking, has been on the positive side in an attempt to balance the perceived negatives pouring in from the rest of society. Shamanism takes a somewhat narrower and darker view. Much of Shamanism deals with death and the experience thus takes on a heavier, darker tone. The work being attempted is serious and often frightening ..."
In another essay, editor Chas Clifton writes that a witch commented to him that "[i]t seems that shamans do much more of their work on the other planes, while the Craft works more on this plane. We tend to call our Guardians, Watchers, and Deities to our circle, rather than to wander out to meet them." Clifton agrees with this statement by saying that witches do often celebrate and create magick without the use of the ecstatic trance state, instead using a state of heightened awareness.
In the decade or so since the collection of essays was published, both Wicca and Shamanism have merged closer together in balance and focus. For many practitioners of the Craft, Wicca is not a happy-go-lucky spiritual path that celebrates only things associated with the lighter side of spirituality. Throughout the pagan world, Wicca has gained an underserved reputation for being shallow, or what pagan communities often term "fluffy-bunny," when, in actuality, the spiritual path of Wicca has stepped boldly forward to face death, mental illness, and disease, as well as the joyful celebration of life. Wiccans recognize that life is not "Tra-la-la, we all love the Goddess," and is a religion that travels through the realms of magic in service of the Gods and one another. This is precisely what Shamanism does as well. When a witch calls the guardians and spirits into the circle, a partnership develops where the spirits work with the witch to create sacred space, an act very similar to a shaman working with spirit allies to heal or find information. In the last decade, the practices of Witchcraft and the practices of Shamanism have moved closer together, with each augmenting and enhancing the other. Witchcraft brings, in part, the belief and the religion, while Shamanism brings the skill and the practice.
Definitions of Modern Shamanism
Throughout the world and throughout time, societies have had members of their social structures who are healers, medicine men, and spiritual leaders. These healers, who are either men or women, enter a trance state, where, assisted by spirit guides, they travel other realities in search of answers to questions, for healing, for power, and for understanding. Michael Harner wrote in The Way of the Shaman, that the "shaman is a man or a woman who enters an altered state of consciousness at will to contact and utilize an ordinary hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons. The shaman has at least one and usually more spirit assistants and guides at his personal service." Shamans were different from other spiritual and healing practitioners because they had otherworldly assistance, moved out of themselves to travel to other worlds, and because they performed these tasks in the service of others, family, friends, and community.
The term "shaman" is derived from the language of the Tungus people of Siberia; their "saman" means one who is excited, moved, and raised. Roger Walsh writes in The Spirit of Shamanism that the term "shaman" has been "widely adopted to refer to specific groups of healers in diverse cultures who have sometimes been called medicine men, witch doctors, sorcerers, wizards, magicians or seers."
Walsh goes on to define Shamanism as "a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s), traveling to other realms at will, and interacting with other entities in order to serve their communities." Another expression used to describe a shaman is "the one who walks between the worlds," signifying the shaman's ability to travel out of body into other dimensions.
The definitions of Shamanism focus on the method, not the beliefs. Shamanism is not seen as a religion, but as a social, religious, and spiritual tradition. Although the techniques are not considered a religion, shamans integrate these skills with their own religious beliefs. What distinguishes shamans from other religious and spiritual mediators is the shaman's interaction with spirits, especially their ability to control their own states of consciousness. Most frequently these altered states are referred to as "ecstatic states," in that the shaman employs techniques of ecstasy. To those of us living in the modern world, the state of ecstasy is most often aligned with sexual intercourse and sexual feeling. Indeed, sexual pleasure is one example of ecstasy and ecstatic state. A good working definition of ecstasy for the modern practitioner is the concept of moving out of one's normal state of consciousness and entering into a state of heightened feeling. These states of ecstasy can include experiences of soul flight, where the state is experienced as the soul leaving the body. They can also include traveling into a hidden aspect of reality.
Michael Harner explains that "in Shamanism, the maintenance of one's personal power is fundamental to well-being." It awakens what is already present in the person and the work of the shaman is to maintain a high level of powerful functioning. What distinguishes this aspect of Shamanism from sorcery is that the shaman works on personal power as service to others, while a sorcerer works to gain power solely for self and for gain. The shamanic life is one of training and discipline, where training comes both from the inner and outer worlds. The authentic shamanic experience is the authentic personal experience. There are no standard experiences, maps, or guides. As the shaman journeys and learns, the shaman grows in power and understanding.
As witches, we have an advantage when learning Shamanism. The training in meditation and the movement of energy in ritual and spell work give the witch knowledge of how the energy of the Universe works. The witch already sees herself as the tool through which energy flows and is directed. In addition, the witch usually has an understanding of one or more divination techniques and is accustomed to the idea that wisdom comes from a variety of places both within and outside of the self. The witch knows that insight comes from within, from the symbolism present in the natural world, and from other worlds.
The Realms of the Shamanic Practitioner: Understanding the World of the Shaman
To the drumbeat, we enter the realm of the shamanic practitioner. Firelight dances and casts shadows on the walls of our hearts as we reach deep within ourselves to move outward into the realms of spirit and mystery. At first the worlds are unfamiliar, but with practice we are able to move into the flow of power and energy and the worlds of the shaman become familiar territory. As we grow in strength and wisdom, we seek to go further and deeper into the mystery.
The Shamanic Cosmos
The witch's idea that all time and place is fluid fits with the concept of the shaman walking across the worlds, accessing inner landscapes and other worlds to find wisdom. Both the shaman and the witch understand that all life is connected and what one creature does affect all others. Moreover, the worlds that meld together are the worlds of the physical and the spiritual. In Shamanism, there is an understanding that there is an ordinary reality and a nonordinary reality, to use terms coined by Carlos Castaneda. Then nonordinary reality is the world that is hidden and cannot be viewed or sensed by our physical senses. This reality is known by different names by different cultures; the Void, the parallel universe, the Otherworld, and the Dreamtime are all names for the cosmos that intersects with our earth world, or ordinary reality. None of these realities is better than the other; these are terms to distinguish how the realities are perceived, sensed, and understood.
Excerpted from The Shamanic Witch by Gail Wood. Copyright © 2008 Gail Wood. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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