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Half a century ago, as archaeologists worked in the wooded Pavlov Hills of the Czech Republic, they made a remarkable discovery. During the excavation of the Upper Paleolithic site known as Dolní V?estonice, they found a pair of shoulder blades from a mammoth. The bones had been placed so as to form the two sides of a pitched roof, one of them leaning against the other. Beneath them was a human skeleton, and in the earth that covered it and on the bones themselves were traces of red ocher. The body had been painted red before it was laid to rest.
If nothing more had been found in this grave, it would have added little to what was already known about Ice Age peoples and their customs. During the Upper Paleolithic, corresponding to the final years of the Ice Age, about sixty thousand years ago, people already had the same anatomy as modern human beings. In Eurasia, most of them lived not in caves but in the dark coniferous forests and wide-open steppes that lay beyond the reach of the glaciers.
This particular burial was of no ordinary person, though. A flint spearhead had been placed near the head of the deceased, and the body of a fox had been placed in one hand. For the archaeological team, led by Bohuslav Klíma, the fox was a clear indication that the person in the grave had been a shaman; the fox had a long history as a shamanic spirit guide, in Europe and all the way across Asia and into the Americas. It came as something of a shock, however, when skeletal analysis revealed that the shaman in question was a woman.
Why is this find so important? Before the discovery of this woman—and, though it’s hard to believe, for a long time afterward—Ice Age shamans were imagined as members of an all-male religious community of mammoth hunters, a sort of Flintstones private club in which manhood was celebrated and the transcendental achieved by worshiping, then negating, the feminine. This excavation—which remains the oldest known of its kind—and further work at Dolní V?estonice prove that wasn’t so.
A few years later, near the shaman’s grave, Klíma discovered an earthen lodge containing a number of bone flutes and a large oven filled with nearly three thousand small pieces of baked clay. Some pieces had been molded in the shape of human feet, hands, and heads, while others were fragments of animal figurines. According to the archaeologist, “this bake-oven is the predecessor of the potter’s kiln, serving for the hardening and firing of the oldest known ceramic productions.”1
In other words, not only do the oldest known skeletal remains of a shaman belong to a woman, but she is also the earliest known artisan who worked in clay and then hardened it with fire. She wasn’t making early household utensils; no, she seems to have been making talismans or figurines of some sort, perhaps for use in her rituals and spiritual healing.
How has it happened that we’ve lost sight of this ancient woman shaman and what she represents? For despite the proof of language and artifacts, despite pictorial representations, ethnographic narratives, and eyewitness accounts, the importance—no, the primacy—of women in shamanic traditions has been obscured and denied. That women’s bodies and minds are particularly suited to tap into the power of the transcendental has been ignored. The roles that women have played in healing and prophecy throughout human history have been denigrated. All too often women who enter medicine or the ministry still believe they’re stepping into a strictly men’s field; in fact, these are historically women’s fields that men have since entered. Women have been characterized as mere artisans or craftspeople—weavers and potters—instead of recognized for the creative, life- giving, cosmos-shaping powers these arts represent. Why? The reasons undoubtedly range from misreading of research to sexism pure and simple. But it’s time to take another look at the evidence of millennia and of cultures around the globe. It’s time to reclaim the woman in the shaman’s body.
My interest in women as healers and mystics goes back to my childhood. I well remember the late fall mornings I spent at my grandmother’s place on the prairie of Saskatchewan. She was an Ojibwe, and her two-room home was built from hewn jack pine logs chinked with mud. The roof consisted of round poles covered with moss and mud. Outside there were tall grasses and wild berries everywhere, and I would accompany her into the woods to gather the special fruits, flowers, twigs, and roots she needed to make her strange and mysterious healing concoctions.
As we followed the narrow trails that only my grandmother knew, she pointed out each edible plant: chokecherries, cranberries, gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries, violets, mints, chickweed, and all kinds of mushrooms. As we sat on boulders by the side of a stream, she told me stories handed down by her people—tales about Old Lady Nokomis, the owner of herbs, and her grandson Nanabush the shape-shifter, who changed at will from a tree trunk to an entire willow tree, then into a beaver, a deer, or a fluffy white cloud; stories about witches called “bear-walkers” who traveled about at night inside glowing balls of light.
My grandmother—whose name was also Nokomis—was raised and practiced as an herbalist and a midwife among Anglo-Canadians as well as with Ojibwe and Cree peoples. Her first husband, like herself, was a member of the group of healing shamans known in English as the Great Medicine Lodge, or in Ojibwe as the Midewiwin, meaning “mystic drum doings.” She bore him five children before he died; then to support herself she traveled around the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba visiting schools, churches, and community centers and teaching herbal healing, storytelling, and massage to anyone who was interested.
For “selling” her traditional knowledge, and for healing whites as well as natives, her relatives disapproved of her. My cousins called her a witch and ran whenever they caught sight of her long braid dangling over her basket, which overflowed with peculiar roots and leaves.
Even though she often dressed in black—she wore a long-sleeved blouse, ankle-length skirt, and black shawl with purple fringe—I knew she was neither a witch nor a sorcerer. Her medicine was good, not evil.
But now I’ve come to think perhaps she was a witch—in beaded moccasins. After all, women healers long ago were known as “witches,” a word that came from Old English witan, which meant “to know” or “to be wise.” Like my grandmother, witches were the wise women who had a special knack for revealing life’s mysterious truths. I still remember her explaining that our thoughts and emotions overlap and intermingle, and that this mixing of head and heart connects us to future events hidden in the dark womb of time.
My grandmother was a nonconformist, and as her second husband she chose a Scots-Irish traveling salesman whose life she had saved after a moose-hunting accident. By treating his wound she earned not only his gratitude but also his deep affection, and together they had six children.
My mother was the youngest of them, and she had no interest in learning traditional ways. She left for college and afterward married my Irish-American father. A short time later I was born.
Despite my mother’s attempt to distance herself from her heritage, I loved to spend summers with my grandmother. She greeted my curiosity about the spirit world with respect and encouraged my questions. And she asked me about my dreams.
One day when I was four I told her a dream in which a tiny spotted turtle swam across the pond toward me, slithered out of the water, and plopped down beside me on a log. My dream was lucky, she explained, for Turtle was a spiritual being, a healing manito. He had picked me out and brought me a message: One day I would follow him as a healer.
That winter my parents moved to Washington, DC, where I was stricken with poliomyelitis. When my mother called her, my grandmother already knew that I was seriously ill and was preparing to come to my bedside. As I lay paralyzed inside the iron lung, she sat with me, singing songs and knitting socks and mittens for her other grandchildren.
She brought me a beautiful black and gold turtle amulet she had beaded, and hung it on the corner of the mirror suspended above my head. “Now, when you look into the mirror you will see your face with Turtle. And then you will know who you really are,” she whispered (figure 1).
Eventually she convinced my parents that warm water, herbs, and gentle massage were a better treatment for my nonfunctioning muscles than immobilization in an iron lung. They finally agreed, demanded my release from my iron carapace, and brought me home to a regimen of daily swims, sweat baths, and my grandmother’s herbal compresses and therapeutic massage, which sent bolts of electricity through my paralyzed limbs. In a few months I had recovered enough strength and flexibility to go to school, albeit with metal leg braces.
By the time I was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, my leg muscles had recovered so thoroughly that I had only the tiniest limp. I studied and enjoyed myself like any other college student, and tried not to think about my grandmother’s lessons—until one night she appeared to me in a dream.
I was in a misty wood where long silken tendrils hung from the branches and hid my grandmother’s figure. Suddenly she said, “Step where I step.” And, although I could not see her clearly, I followed her purple-fringed shawl up and up into the chilly night sky. At dawn we arrived at a large, messy nest filled with serpent bones and bits of broken eggshell. She stirred the debris with a cedar stick till she found what she was looking for—an unbroken light blue speckled egg—and handed it to me, saying, “Here, take this egg; it will be your medicine power when I am gone.”
The shimmering egg stunned me. My grandmother’s image slowly faded into a fog lined with flickering green and purple lightning. As the mist lifted and the sun streaked across the morning sky, I awoke knowing that she had died. But she had passed on to me some of her energy, her medicine power.
That morning I stayed home from classes, waiting for the phone to ring. When the call came, announcing her death, I cried uncontrollably for hours. As a remembrance, I folded and cut out a paper loon, her clan totem and one of her most powerful guardian spirits, and placed it next to her picture on my desk. In the lonely months that followed, my grandmother often visited me in nighttime dreams and daytime visions. Sometimes she appeared as herself; at other times she appeared as a loon diving into a lake. Once she was a purple coneflower beckoning me to taste her.
A year later, she came to me in a dream as herself. Her long white hair was unbound. She was wrapped in a plaid Pendleton blanket over the shabby housedress she often had worn at the cabin when she wasn’t expecting visitors. Smiling, she reached out and almost touched my hand. Then she looked at me and said, “You, my child, must always be minobimaa tisiiwin [seeking the good life] and never allow the wisdom of old Indian women to die out. Now, you are free to walk the medicine path.”
Yet it would be many more years before I set foot in that direction again.
MAYAN SHAMANIC APPRENTICESHIP
Ten years after my grandmother’s death I found myself in the Guatemalan highlands, a doctoral student in anthropology, married to another anthropologist. It was there that I once again entered the world of healers and shamans. I arrived with academic intentions. Like the good scientist I was trying hard to become, I spent my days studying the exterior layers of the K’iche’ Maya, photographing and tape-recording as people burned incense at outdoor shrines and danced to the music of flutes and marimbas. In an attempt to understand a group of spirit seekers, I attended a midnight séance, warning the medium in advance that I intended to watch and not participate. That night during the unexpectedly impressive ceremony I smelled a mysterious rancid odor and saw translucent blue-green balls of lightning circle the room. I felt something like electricity enter my stomach and even heard what sounded like the voice of my own dead father. But I was determined to record the event with the distant coolness of a scientific observer.
Not long afterward, however, I came down with the flu. A long way from conventional Western medical help, and giving in to a documentary urge, I hired a local Mayan healer. Don Andrés arrived wearing a wrinkled blue serge suit that hung loosely on his slender frame. His delicate aquiline nose and rose-brown face gave him an air of gentle strength, and I knew he’d recently served as mayor of his town. He set about work at once, dispensing advice about herbs and grasses, and touching my cheeks and neck with his hot hands in order to break my fever. Then he used divining crystals to uncover the source of my illness, taking on another persona as he did so. Giggling strangely and speaking in two voices—one feminine and compassionate and another masculine and stern—he said it was my rude behavior at the shrines that had brought down the wrath of the Holy World. For that transgression I would die and so would my husband, Dennis.
Stunned and scared at this pronouncement, we fled to the capital the next day. After a couple of days of intense coughing I slowly improved, and we decided to return to the village. Perhaps there was something Don Andrés could do to counteract our apparent fate. Indeed, he and his wife, Doña Talín, who was also a shaman, agreed to help us. We would spend the next nine months meeting with them every day, coming to understand the way they saw their world. They started by having us recount a dream; then, heeding their own dreams and intuitions, they went on to suggest that Dennis and I might learn to practice as healers. Don Andrés and Doña Talín had to ask permission of their ancestors, and Dennis and I had to wrestle with our doubts, but in the days and weeks that followed we did indeed cross the invisible line between scholars learning about a culture and apprentices learning how to perform within it. We were no longer ethnographers interviewing subjects; they made us the students. We stopped asking questions and put aside our translating, and they began to pass along little teaching lessons.
Gradually, we learned to enter and control our dreams in a kind of alert sleeping, and to share, interpret, and complete those dreams together. We studied astronomy, hands-on healing, and herbalism. Don Andrés helped us recognize different types of shrines and to pray correctly. He and Doña Talín sent us off to gather flowers and incense and taught us to calculate the Mayan calendar, which was crucial for divination. He showed us how to embrace casual but meaningful coincidences of inner and outer events, thus transcending and improving our emotional and intuitive selves. Finally, Don Andrés taught us about the vital energy that suffuses the mate- rial universe; he trained us in bodily awareness and emotional attunement—how to recognize the lightning in the body and the “speaking of blood,” manifestations of our connection with the cosmos. In this way we would be able to increase our energy and use it to heal others and ourselves. Our teachers took us to other communities and sent us to other shamans for examinations and to see if they agreed that we had the potential to join their ranks.
Our training ended with a final sharing of dreams that culminated in a gorgeous three-day initiation ceremony, during which Dennis and I joined a large group of other celebrants who had undergone similar training and were either receiving initiation as shamans or else renewing their commitment to the shamanic path. A huge feast followed this.
The true “graduation” test for Dennis and me came a few days later. The son of our teachers had recently married, and his father-in-law mysteriously had become paralyzed and mute. Doctors’ tests and treatments had had no effect. And Don Andrés and Doña Talín were similarly powerless; they were too close to the victim. Would we try to heal him? This would be the culmination of months of training in calendrical divination, visualization, the speaking of the blood, and the laying on of hands.
In a small room Dennis and I sat next to each other, opposite the sick man, with our new shaman’s bundles laid out in front of us. Dennis sensed immediately that the sickness did not come from an animal or from the cosmos but was human work; it was a kind of witchcraft. As he voiced this aloud, the paralyzed man seemed to smile, the first sign of movement anyone had noticed.
Dennis got up and put his hands on the man’s temples. He could feel the asymmetrical energy, how out of balance it was. Then I too stood up and described the energy I sensed. Suddenly the man began to speak, telling how Don Andrés and Doña Talín had deceived him about being Catholic, which they had never been. In a psychodynamic reaction his anger had gone deep into his body, freezing it. When he forgave the people who’d tricked him, his paralysis melted away. And our initiation was complete.
What is the relevance of these stories to a lost feminine tradition in shamanism? How does my personal history help reclaim shamanic ministry and healing as legitimately feminine endeavors? I believe that after years of combining my shamanic training with my academic research I have emerged, in nearly equal measure, as an initiated shaman and a scientific expert. For the rest of this book I will rely on the skills of both those callings—argumentative intellectual reasoning and intuitive emotional reasoning—to make my case.
Over the next few hundred pages, I will present the evidence for the existence, importance, and power of women shamans. I will begin by summarizing what shamans do, then look back to their prehistoric beginnings as well as subsequent historical development. I will explain why women’s particular physiology and biochemistry exquisitely equip them for the shaman’s role. I will describe their transcendent shamanic roles as midwives, warriors, and prophets and the importance of gender shifting, the ability to embrace both masculine and feminine paths in shamanic healing. And I’ll assess the revitalization of feminine shamanism around the globe today.
The pathway through this material is neither straightforward nor simple. But perhaps that is as it should be, for shamanic experience itself is neither straightforward nor simple. It is complex, mystical, and awe-inspiring, as befits the integration of the physical and spiritual worlds—two diverse and powerful realms where the shaman practices her calling.
HEALING AND SEEKERS OF KNOWLEDGE:
WHAT SHAMANS DO
There’s a connection between the midwifery and herbal healing practiced by my grandmother and the divination and healing of Don Andrés and his wife, Doña Talín. Their blend of physical, psychological, and spiritual healing has come to be called “integrative medicine” or “holistic healing.”1 Such healing depends on emotional and bodily contact between healer and patient. It emphasizes psychological and spiritual components in the causes and cures of sickness. Holistic healers recognize the innate healing mechanisms of the body and insist that an individual has a responsibility for restoring and maintaining health through behavioral, attitudinal, and spiritual balance.
Shamanism is the oldest spiritual healing tradition still in general use today. As a graduate student, I was taught that it began in North Asia more than forty thousand years ago and only later spread into the Americas with the migration of big-game hunters who crossed the low-lying land where the Bering Strait is now. A common point of origin, followed by geographic diffusion, is supposed to account for the similarity of Siberian and Alaskan shamanism.2
The problem is, as we’ll see in later chapters, that Paleolithic sites on other continents, including Europe, Africa, and Australia, also show evidence of shamanic practices. The countervailing argument—that shamanism was independently reinvented over and over in many places—is supported by research in neuroscience and medical anthropology. These studies reveal that shamanic consciousness and healing practices are based on an understanding of the human immunological system and psychobiology rather than on a narrow set of culture-historical traits or patterns.3
HOW EFFECTIVE IS SHAMANIC HEALING?
From my grandmother’s care and the work of Don Andrés and Doña Talín, I’ve seen firsthand the effectiveness of shamanic healing. Part of their success was due to knowledge of herbs and other plants, but something else was also involved. Shamanic healing uses the power of a patient’s faith in the healer and the healing process. Like all healers, shamans employ hope, suggestion, expectation, and rituals that elicit a powerful placebo effect. This effect, which has been called “the doctor who resides within,” arises from a direct connection between positive emotions and the biochemistry of the body. By reestablishing emotional and spiritual equilibrium a shaman strengthens the self-healing abilities of a patient.4
Research has shown that the use of songs, chants, prayers, spells, and music produce emotional states in a patient that affect the way the immune system responds to illness. Within ceremonial performances song and dance intertwine the sensory realms of color, odor, motion, and touch so as to shift participants from illness toward health. Shamans use metaphors—ways of thinking about one thing in terms of another—to describe a mythic world and to help the patient manipulate sensory, emotional, and cognitive information in a way that alters his or her perception of illness. Healers ritually enact their local system of myths and symbols and interpret the patient’s condition within that system.5
As for the psychological dimension of shamans’ work, the repetitive symbolism of their chants, and, in a number of traditions, the use of drums, gongs, bamboo tubes, or rattles helps restore a sense of order that replaces the chaos of illness. In many cultures shamans call up energy from the depths, creating a magical soundscape that awakens and unites. In this environment there’s a release of unconscious feelings, in part through a transfer of negative emotions to the healer. Confession and forgiveness, which are central activities in shamanic healing, also elicit repressed memories that resolve conflicts. When Dennis and I worked at healing the paralyzed man as part of our initiation “test,” we could see these forces at work. In general, shamans reestablish harmonious interpersonal rela- tions, providing an emotional catharsis, or the remembering and re-experiencing of painful memories. It has been scientifically demonstrated that shamans who encourage their clients to publicly perform their dreams in poetry, song, and dance are 80 percent effective in healing. Psychiatrists, who use psychoanalytic techniques that encourage their clients to talk about, draw, paint, or describe their dreams in private, are only 30 percent effective.6
THE PERFORMANCE OF HEALING
Endorphins and other endogenous chemicals generated in the human brain are released into the bloodstream during healing. Pharmacologists and biochemists believe that these natural substances are as effective as Librium or Valium in their tranquilizing effects, controlling pain and anxiety as well as releasing joy and inducing other altered states of consciousness. The reduction of anxiety creates beneficial immunological effects that enhance the body’s capacity for resistance and recovery. Entry into an altered state of consciousness gives a person an intimate contact with the spiritual world and in so doing reinforces a shared worldview, which alleviates mental and psychological suffering.
A shamanic healer would nevertheless refer to what happens in quite different terms. Nearly thirty years ago I met Essie Parrish (figure 2), a Native American healer from the Pomo tribe of northern California. She was a woman of simple dignity with a warm, entrancing voice and a penetrating, insightful stare. She wore her long black hair pulled back loosely, flowing over a forest-green sweater on top of an ankle-length purple dress. I asked her how she had become a healer and how she knew what made people ill. In response, she recounted a dream from her youth.
In her dream, she said, she heard singing. As she slept, the song entered her and began singing itself inside her. When she woke up, the song kept singing itself inside her chest until she sang it out loud and found that it was beautiful.
In a later dream she sang the song as she walked in sunlit hills and valleys that were not of this world. She came to a crossroads and turned east along a narrow path between sparkling multi- colored flowers covered with monarch butterflies. When she reached the end, she saw silken strands woven into a web filled with tiny gemstones. As she looked closer she saw bits of turquoise, abalone, and jet swirling around a central white light. Then she heard a raspy noise, something like a cricket, and realized it was the sound of illness.
“Dangerous beings we call ‘in-dwellers’ are living inside our bodies like insects, like ants,” she whispered. “When I sing I can see where they’re hiding in their nests. I massage that area and scatter them in all directions.”
Essie then went on to describe in detail the way she worked:
My middle finger is the one with the power. When I work with my hands it’s just like when you cast for fish and they tug on your bait. The pain sitting somewhere inside feels like it’s pulling your hand toward itself—you can’t miss it. No way. It even lets you touch it!
I don’t place my hands myself. It feels like someone, the disease perhaps, is pulling me. It’s something like a magnet.
When power touches the pain you gasp. Your throat closes. You simply can’t breathe. When your breath is shut off like that it feels as if your chest were paralyzed. If you should breathe while holding that pain, the disease could hide itself.
As you quiet your breathing you can feel the pain and your hand can take it out. But if you are afraid and your breathing is not shut off, you can’t lift out the pain.
When I take it out you can’t see it with your bare eyes. But I can see it. The disease inside a person is dirty. I suppose that’s what white doctors call “germs,” but we Indian doctors call it “dirty.”
The palm of my hand also heals. But it doesn’t work just anytime: only when I summon power. If there are people who are sick somewhere, my hands find them. Whenever someone thinks toward me, there on the tip of my middle finger it acts as if shot. If you touch electricity, you’ll know what it’s like.
Well, so that’s my hand power. Now, for my throat power. I used it first for a young woman. I found the pain with my hand and sucked it out. Something like a bubble came up out of my throat. Just as it would if you blew up a big balloon, that’s how it came from my mouth. Everyone there saw it. It had become inflated quite a lot when it floated from my mouth, like foaming soap bubbles.
Ever since then I’ve been sucking out illness. This place right here [pointing to the midpoint of her neck] is where the power enters my throat. The disease acts as fast as a lightning bolt striking a tree. It acts in a flash, shutting off the breath. One doesn’t notice how long one holds one’s breath. It’s like being in what white people call a trance.
While the disease is coming to me, I’m in a trance. It speaks to me firmly saying, “This is the way it is. It is such and such a kind of disease. This is why that person is sick.” But when I come out of the trance I no longer remember what the disease told me. So I ask my patients to bring along a friend to remember what the disease said to me.
Well, so there you have my throat power and my hand power.
Healing, although it is extremely important, is only one part of a shaman’s work. To understand how it fits within shamanic traditions, let’s take a closer look at how shamans think, what they do, and the wide range of roles they play in cultures around the world. These roles are hardly unfamiliar to us, though in modern society they are performed by many different kinds of specialists: natural scientists, who study the environment and its flora and fauna; astronomers, who plot the movements of the stars and planets; historians, who chronicle the deeds of our forebears; and politicians and community leaders, who maintain the social order. And, of course, there are doctors, midwives, and psychologists, who attend to our bodies and minds, and priests, who minister to our spiritual needs.
SHAMANIC ROLES AND PERSPECTIVES
Despite the seemingly universal nature of shamanism, different cultures and individuals have elaborated distinctive forms of shamanic practice. Hunter-gatherers in Asia and North America, for example, call on spirit powers that are generally animals. Shamans in these societies must negotiate with them for good luck in hunting and to maintain the health of the group. Shamans in pastoral herding societies, such as the Mongols of Central Asia, tend to rely on ancestor spirits, both male and female. They call on them for healing and to ensure the fertility of humans and domesticated animals.
Shamanism as a practice, however, has rarely become a formal social institution. Almost everywhere, shamanism was in the past and still is today a set of local activities and perspectives, rather than an ethnic or national institution. Thus, it is best to think in terms of shamanic activities and perspectives rather than about “shamanism” as an ideology or institution. Five fundamental features define shamanic perspectives or worldviews.
Shamanic practitioners share the conviction that all entities— animate or otherwise—are imbued with a holistic life force, vital energy, consciousness, soul, spirit, or some other ethereal or immaterial substance that transcends the laws of classical physics. Each member of this wondrous cosmos is a participant in the life energy that holds the world together. The Polynesian mana, Lakota wakanda, and Chinese Taoist ch’i are conceived of as powerful forces that permeate everything.
Shamans believe in a “web of life” in which all things are interdependent and interconnected; there is a cause-and-effect relationship between different dimensions, forces, and entities of the cosmos. In order to heal, Inuit shamans may imaginatively assume the form of a bird that brings celestial messages.
Shamans organize this complex reality by saying that the world is constructed of a series of levels connected by a central axis in the form of a world tree or mountain. Many Siberian tribes speak of three, seven, or nine sky worlds above the earth upon which humans live, all resting on a disc supported by a giant fish. The Buryats of southern Siberia portray a heaven with ninety-nine provinces, each of which consists of physical landscapes that mirror an earthly landscape, with the roof of each one being the floor of the next one. Shamans travel to these worlds moving up or down through these cosmic levels and sometimes sideways into alternative worlds upon the earth.
From the Hardcover edition.