Aspects of Shamanism

This was written during a period in 1998 where I came into contact with the academic end of what I was then obsessed with, the study of rock art and shamanism. A bunch of MA students from Southampton came up to Ilkley to investigate the area, and, with admirable openness, got in touch with the slightly-less-than-respected authorities on the region, myself and the wonderful Mr Paul Bennett.

The professor, Thomas Dowson, said some very complimentary things, and a year or two later complimented me even more deeply by plagiarising a metaphor or two of mine. All in all it was a fruitful exchange.

When archaeological curmudgeon Paul Bahn made a thinly-veiled but scathing attack on Dowson’s MA course (and students), I leaped to their defence with this piece that tried to remain as calm and academia-friendly as possible while still laying into the things I hate about it…

Shamanism is the subject of intense debate in many arenas at the moment, and here I wish to add my own idiosyncratic views.

First off, we have to remind ourselves of the origins of the word ‘shaman’. It derives from saman, used by the Tungus people of Siberia, which means ‘one who is excited, moved, raised.’ Some think it derives in turn from an archaic Indian word meaning ‘to heat oneself’ or ‘practice austerities’; others think it comes from a Tungus verb meaning ‘to know’ (Walsh 1990: 8). It was adopted—and made into an ‘ism’—by anthropologists and ethnologists to refer to healers in various cultures who seemed to practice their art in similar ways. Mircea Éliade famously defined shamanism as ‘techniques of ecstasy’, highlighting its practical emphasis on entering altered states as a basic modus operandi. For a rule-of-thumb definition of shamanism, I prefer Walsh’s slightly broader attempt:

Shamanism can be defined 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 the community.

ibid.: 11

This is a good baseline, but as anyone who has studied the matter knows, there are many other elements to some of the traditions in this “family” that, while their occurrence may not be 100% ubiquitous and uniform, are widespread enough to warrant interest. I would say that the main such elements are the three-levelled cosmology, centred on an axis mundi; a focus on nature spirits (plant or animal) as guides or helpers; ritual incorporation of zoomorphic aspects into the shaman’s identity (‘shapeshifting’, whether via costume or transformation of ‘soul-image’ during soul flight); initiation(s) via a breakdown / restructuring process; and so on.

There are too many cross-cultural parallels to document and categorize here, and this is precisely the heart of the debate around shamanism in many disciplines today: Similarity (comparison) vs. Difference (definition).

The Difference viewpoint often stems from a healthy awareness and celebration of human cultural diversity; respect for the idiosyncrasies of individual cultures is seen to be eroded by washing them away in a tide of Similarity. To me, the Difference/Similarity debate (which I’ve polarized hideously here for the purposes of argument) is comparable to the old “The glass is half empty” / “The glass is half full” illustration of the difference between pessimism and optimism. The reality of the glass’ situation is that both views are ‘true’, and they complement each other. So do Difference and Similarity, when seen as two perspectives on the same situation.

The !Kung and Kundalini

For instance, I am very struck by the similarities between descriptions given by the African !Kung San people of their entry into trance states, and the experience sought by Indian tantrikas practising Kundalini yoga. Tantrikas say that the Kundalini Sakti, a feminine ‘serpentine’ life-force lying coiled and dormant at the base of the spine, rises up the spine when aroused, eventually uniting with Siva at the crown chakra (Mookerjee &amp Khanna 1977: 21). The experience is usually one of an “explosion of psychic heat” (ibid.: 193). The !Kung San hold that n/um (usually translated as ‘spiritual energy’ or ‘potency’) is stored in the pit of the stomach or base of the spine. The process of prolonged rhythmic dancing and singing, during their healing rituals, ‘boils’ the n/um, causing it to ascend up the body. The peak of the trance—full visionary consciousness, associated with soul-travel—is attained when the boiling n/um reaches the skull, inducing a state known as !kia (Gyrus 1998).

It would take truly awesome powers of difference-based thought to ignore these parallels! Yet the very similarities between these experiences, mediated via the traditions of entirely different cultures, can be used to highlight the idiosyncrasies of each. For example, the !Kung !kia experience is brought about in a way that is communal and physically frenetic, and !kia itself is directly associated with active travel into visionary realms. Kundalini yoga is often a solo effort, practised by few in society. It does not normally involve much physical movement (except perhaps in sexual yogas), and the peak of the experience is seen to be one of blinding light or perceptual union with the environment. Traditional yoga frowns on the active participation in visionary realms. It is mysticism, not magic. These differences are of interest to the ‘human sciences’, looking at varied cultural responses to similar phenomena in human experience. An analysis of the differences between Kundalini yoga and !Kung trance practices will shed revealing light on the respective cultures they occur in (e.g. yogic non-attachment to, or avoidance of active visionary journeys may be related to the values of India’s socio-religious structures, in contrast to those of the !Kung).

Difference and Similarity are related and complementary; each draws meaning from the other.

First-hand research

The similarities seem to be of more interest to those in the West practically engaged with the ranges of human consciousness—magicians, occultists, psychonauts, whatever you like to call such folk. The manifest parallels between different cultures’ spiritual traditions are of interest to people who are attempting to recover a working relationship with these processes, within a culture which has lost all traditions dealing with such matters. Parallels may be used to try to uncover starting points, some ‘baseline maps’ of possibilities for human interaction with the more esoteric aspects of the body and environment. They may be also used to shed light on spontaneously occurring, often very unsettling experiences that cannot be usefully framed in Western paradigms.

The latter use of cross-cultural comparisons is precisely what has helped me, and many others in our culture, gain perspective on shattering personal experiences. Mine was a very disturbing experience with psychoactive chemicals, where I felt an ‘essential force’ rise up my body and threaten to burst out the top of my skull into a swirling vortex I saw in the sky. I felt like a was dying. Subsequently I learned—much to my relief!—that there are other ‘types’ of dying that are not comprehended by our literal-minded, ecstasy-free culture.

Participatory interest in shamanism is, of course, responsible for much of the term’s abuse. It also holds the key to a more sophisticated and—in the deepest sense of the word—scientific understanding of shamanism.

The abuses of the term in this area a largely to do with our own culture’s lack of ecstatic religious traditions, and with our domination by consumerism. The first leads to a fragile or non-existent ‘ecstatic cultural identity’, hence a tendency to vampirize and distort other cultures. As the magician Phil Hine said in a recent interview, “I think we have to be very careful when we appropriate chunks of living magical traditions, otherwise it’s Western imperialism all over again. The West has take their land, their culture, their dignity, and now we’re coming back for their spiritual beliefs.” (Gyrus 1998) The second factor here—consumerism—leads to distortions in popular perceptions of shamanism. The less marketable aspects of shamanism (e.g. torturous initiation rituals, genuine sorcery, a deep concern with death and dissolution) are naturally edged out of popular accounts and workshops sold to middle-class self-discoverers.

What were you on when you wrote that?

As far as the academic community is concerned, there is of course the strong suspicion of ‘less than sober’ modes of experience impinging on research. There has been a perpetual crisis on the fringes of academia since the 1960s around this issue, and it will simply have to come to terms with the full implications of altered states of consciousness (and thus consciousness itself) if it is to have any hope of remaining relevant to genuine human knowledge.

Recently, in British Archaeology, archaeologist Paul Bahn made an oblique attack on the MA course in rock art at the University of Southampton, which is at the forefront of ‘shamanic’ research in this area. He sees such research—and specifically the idea that some rock art motifs may result from visions in altered states—as a “bandwagon . . . largely born of the drug age and the New Age phenomenon…” (Bahn 1998).

Bahn seems to think that those who take on board the shamanic hypothesis are excluding all other interpretative possibilities. In my view, they are merely redressing the balance. Not every study of rock art has to deal with every possibility; people are, by and large, astute enough to blend singular perspectives into the wider picture. And when one hugely important area of interpretation is lacking in the field, there is space for some specific focus on it, to fully drag it into the interpretative spectrum.

Incidentally, the independent researchers I know with extensive experience of psychedelic chemicals have been the first to point out holes in and exceptions to the theory of ‘entoptic’ geometric imagery influencing abstract glyphs in rock art. Actual experience of altered states, far from inducing a blinkered approach to theories about them, often leads to the most sophisticated approach (it’s called knowing what you’re talking about!).

The fact is that Bahn is perceiving more ‘shamanism obsessed’ research around him than there actually is (though he’d have a field-day with this article!). His accusations of projection and obsession merely reveal his own obsession with denouncing a new area of research. It is plain from his comment quoted above where the roots of his obsession lay: in the same soil that nourishes tabloid anti-drug hysteria, and the Thatcherite-Reaganite view that “it all went wrong in the sixties”.

The Invisible College

He is right to be cynical about the ‘New Age’, but for the wrong reasons. In the eyes of someone like Bahn, the most intelligent, erudite and responsible modern student of psychedelic shamanism, totally unconcerned with the ‘New Age’, would fall into the same category as the flakiest, vaguest, fad-driven hippy. Naturally, people with little experience of Western subcultures end up not seeing past the images of drug culture, paganism and occultism that break through into the mainstream media. The Bahns of this world pose no threat at all to the ‘unseen’ (i.e. unmediated) explorers in this area—they will carry on regardless of popular perceptions. Indeed, their cultural ‘invisibility’ is in a way the core of their strength, as their research remains uncontaminated by mass-mediation, consumerism, and the vested interests of professional research. But the more conservative elements of academia do stand in the way of fruitful cross-fertilization between the cutting edge of academic research into shamanism / altered states and participatory research into these areas. In other words, they block the development of an integrated approach to the exploration of first-hand spirituality, past and present.

Of course, it is only academia that can lose. As I said before, those of us who are personally (and not necessarily professionally) committed to rediscovering ‘hands-on’ religion will carry on regardless. And the barriers that stop academics from reaping the benefits of ‘knowing what you’re talking about’ are not there to stop occultists, pagans and users of psychedelics from drawing on academic research for a more balanced, integrated approach.

The Vortex

The Strid gorge, West Yorkshire
The Strid gorge, West Yorkshire

Near Bolton Abbey in West Yorkshire is a section of the River Wharfe called the Strid, where the current narrows down between rocks to form a foaming torrent. Folklore collected in late nineteenth century tells of a certain shadowy beast, known as a ‘water kelpie’, which may appear here (Bogg 1904a: 189).

This water fiend generally presented itself to the belated traveller in the shape of an old shaggy-haired pony near to some well-known crossing place on the bank of a river. But woe to the traveller who, to escape the discomfort of getting a wetting, unsuspiciously mounted the supposed steed! It instantly sprang with a wild shriek of laughter into the deepest whirlpool, without giving its human victim any chance of dismounting.

Bogg 1904b: 348

Cup-and-ring carvings on the Panorama Stone, Ilkley Moor
Cup-and-ring carvings on the Panorama Stone, Ilkley Moor

When I first read this passage, its ‘shamanic’ resonances immediately leaped out at me. I was well aware of the reasons why. Firstly, my experience of nearly being sucked into a vortex in the sky—which I had subsequently gained perspective on through researching shamanic experiences—had led to a deep awareness of the association of vortex-like images with entry into otherworlds. The whirlpool is a good example of a naturally occurring vortex, and my research into shamanism had made me aware that shamans often use bodies of water as ‘entrances’ (see Halifax 1979: 61 for a !Kung example).

(Incidentally, I had come to see the possibility that cup-and-ring motifs may be associated with this phenomenon about nine months before I learnt that respectable academics were also considering this—see Bradley 1997: 54.)

NOTE: Evidence has surfaced that indicates the ladder designs attached to the cup-and-rings on the Panorama Stone may be Victorian additions. In the wider context here, examining possibly universal cognitive templates in the human mind, this detracts little from our argument – Victorian doodles are as valid as prehistoric ritual art as evidence. But obviously any more specific argument about the Panorama Stone markings should now be read with caution. Gyrus, 20/7/04

Secondly, many years ago I had a dream in which I saw a brown horse pierced by a spear and fall to the ground. Then I was astride a winged white horse, flying up across the sea into the sky. Six months later I read Mircea Éliade’s Shamanism for the first time, and was amazed to learn of a Siberian shamanic rites in which a horse is slain so that the shaman may enter the otherworld and use the horse’s departed soul as a steed in that realm.

More recently, I had been sent an article by Angelo Fossati dealing with Iron Age petroglyphs in Valcamonica, Italy (Fossati 1994). He discusses a depiction of a ‘labyrinth’, incorporating three human figures and a bird (below), relates examples in early European mythology of birds acting as guides for those entering the otherworld, and then details how the horse superseded the bird as the main guide of this type in European myth.


These elements—the vortex-entrance, the horse as a ride/guide to the realms beyond it—resonated strongly for me with this little folktale of West Yorkshire. We may also note the liminal location of the water kelpie’s appearance.

Does this mean I see it as a ‘genuine’ linear descendent of classical shamanic practices in the area? About as much as I take my various dreams and experiences as evidence for me being a shaman! I am interested here in what is usually known as the ‘psychology’ of myth. Psychologically speaking, I see the nature of this Yorkshire water kelpie as emanating from the same regions of human consciousness that are the focus of shamanic exploration. If nothing resembling the classical definition of ‘shamanism’ ever existed in Wharfedale (which I find hard to assert as an absolute statement), the origin of the water kelpie would be ascribed to local ‘imagination’. Imagination was, in this case, probably put in the service of cautioning people, especially children, about the very physical dangers of this part of the Wharfe. But it is precisely this region—the human imagination—that is consciously entered, and explored in a spatially manifest form (‘the otherworld’) by the shaman. And the imagination / otherworld is ultimately non-local in nature.

Who’s in control?

We can see a failure to understand the common underlying source of mythical and cultural artefacts in the rock art and shamanism controversy. Much of the debate centres around whether or not this or that motif was directly inspired by geometric hallucinations. But even if a certain motif was just ‘imagined’, and associated with things more mundane than altered states, it would still, by definition, owe its creation to the human imagination. Problems arise when we try to pinpoint the exact way in which a motif emerged from this pregnant realm—was it hauled out, or did it fall out?

Here we reach the key distinction between ‘shamanic’ and ‘non-shamanic’ motifs, in both art and myth: the former are voluntarily encountered and actively related to. The latter ‘bubble up’ into consciousness of their own accord, but frequently still resemble shamanic motifs in form, if not in the way humans relate to them. The water kelpie is an entity that is, according to the tale, ‘misinterpreted’ as a real animal, and seems to possess a slightly demonic, malevolent nature. To me, this demonstrates a manifestation of a common shamanic phenomenon that

  1. is initially taken to be ‘real’ because it is not encountered voluntarily, with awareness, and
  2. seems to be beyond control and malevolent because, again, it is not approached with conscious intention.

Again, it matters little to the ‘psychological’ view whether anyone ever “actually” encountered a water kelpie, voluntarily or otherwise, or whether the beast is a simple ‘nursery bogie’ used to warn children of the river’s physical dangers. The form of the tale, even if it never ventured outside the human brain (which seems unlikely), still reveals the way in which shamanism can reflect the mind’s methods of organizing imaginative / mythical reality.

The voluntary nature of shamanic activity is stressed to distinguish it from mere mental breakdown. And indeed, modern magic also stresses that ‘intention is the key’. But, as any shrewd anthropologist or practising magician knows, human brushes with the otherworld are a little more complex. It appears to me, from my research into traditional shamanism, that intention and control are often factors that only come to the fore during and after shamanic training, or formalized rituals. A shaman’s initiation is frequently terrifyingly out of control. The otherworld initially bursts into the human world, not vice versa. The experience is only directed away from the anchorless processes of schizophrenia by cultural convention and recognition of shamanic potentiality, ripe for training.

And I find it hard to believe that all shamans reach a point of total ‘control’ over their universe. They may stress their personal power as part of their method, or to induce faith in the people they heal, but I like to bear in mind the words of Huichol shaman Don José Matsúwa:

The shaman’s path is unending. I am an old, old man and still a nunutsi [baby] standing before the mystery of the world.

Schultes & Hofmann 1992: 138

Modern magicians are also coming to recognise the limits of control over the world:

Magick is defined as: causing change to occur in conformity with will, expanding your achievable reality, the pursuit of power, and so on. All these definitions presuppose control as the central theme in magick. This is all fine and good, but it illustrates that magick cannot address issues outside of the sphere of control. These are issues that are usually chunked up into mysticism . . . This is a mistake, because half of our quality of experience is dependent on our ability to let go, stop worrying, stop controlling and enjoy. . . . Therefore, magick can be seen as the pursuit of power, via the dynamic tension between ecstasy and control.

Lee 1997: 13-15

I strongly suspect that most shamans would concur with such a view, if we get behind their professional bravado, and the cultural differences in our ways of mediating power, ecstasy and control.

We can see the control/ecstasy polarity in our comparison between !Kung trances and Kundalini yoga. The first is seen as ‘shamanic/magical’, the second as ‘mystical’. This is a useful distinction on one level; but does it mean that !Kung medicine men never experience the free-flow ecstasy of the Indian Tantrika? I feel it merely means that !Kung social structure, incorporating fully communal, actively shamanic ceremonies, allows the experience of ‘uncontrolled’ ecstasy to be subtly blended into the very fabric of their shamanic experiences. It is not compartmentalized and placed on a pedestal, as in much ‘mysticism’. As Lee says, “Control is the basis of magickal structures, defining one’s will in a given situation, but without ecstasy it doesn’t go. Without a tank full of gnosis, the magickal vehicle will not run.” (ibid.: 14)

So, the issue of control in shamanism is not as clear-cut as academic accounts imply. In contemporary society, we know from the testimony of many individuals (and I know from personal experience) that involuntary experiences of the otherworld do not necessarily lead to mental illness, as definitions of shamanism often presume. Whatever ontological validity you ascribe to reports of ‘abduction by aliens’, they are clearly as real to many of the people who experience them as a traditional shaman’s journeys are to him or her. And again, they derive from the same regions of consciousness.

Patrick Harpur (1994) has made convincing comparisons between tribal puberty initiations, spontaneous shamanic initiation in the otherworld, and modern accounts of ‘UFO abductions’. These frequently share a similar structure:

  • isolation from community/’reality’;
  • the infliction of pain and possibly bodily mutilation;
  • the transmission of esoteric knowledge to the initiate, shaman or ‘abductee’;
  • and return to a world that is never quite the same again!

‘Abductees’ often have no knowledge of shamanism, and no history of ‘mental illness’. Yet the parallels are astounding.

I once interviewed a woman (Gyrus 1995) who described her experience of smoking the potent hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (used by many indigenous shamans in various organic forms). She was “grabbed” out of her initial experiences on the trip by an unseen force, and “landed in this dimension, and I wasn’t free, I wasn’t able to control where I went.” Conveyed into the middle of a “grid-like structure”, she was then reassured by an unmanifest “male entity”. Told that she would find the following events frightening, but also that it would all be good for her, she proceeded to have each limb, one by one, ripped off and replaced. While each limb was off, “all this stuff ran out… I felt all my troubles, my aches and pains, my paranoias, come out.” Then she “felt this mad feeling again, going up through my little toe, and it crawled all the way up my leg, and up through my body, and it felt like when it hit my heart, there was a massive explosion . . . I’ve just never felt so amazing in my life. It felt like a complete cleansing process.” Needless to say, she felt healthier, happier, and more psychically potent than ever for months to come! I asked her later if she had read anything about shamanism before this experience, and she hadn’t; it was only afterwards that she encountered anthropological literature on the subject, which helped her understand her trip. Evidently there’s something unprecedented and very interesting going on here, something touching deep levels of human consciousness.

The inter-disciplinary parallels I’ve drawn here are obviously just the tip of the iceberg. For those committed to the rigorous slicing-up of life for the purposes of a professional career in gaining and dispensing knowledge, the weight of these parallels are a cumbersome burden; hence they are rarely even picked up. Those interested in all aspects of human experience need to be careful when confronted with such parallels, as they can lead into an interminable maze of intellectual associations. The way out of this maze is to discover the paradoxically idiosyncratic and universal nature of direct spiritual experience. Through this we can see, first-hand (scientifically), just how Difference and Similarity gain there meaning from each other.

We always need to remember what ‘shamanism’ really is. It is a modern Western conceptual construct, developed out of comparative anthropology. In our discussions, we shouldn’t forget that we define it, and are therefore at liberty to redefine it to suit the purposes of whatever form of research we are undertaking. Surviving indigenous ‘shamanic’ traditions will continue interacting with spirits in their own ways, whatever arguments transpire in academia about how a certain Siberian word may apply to them; modern magicians (and unsuspecting non-magicians) will do likewise.

Look again at Walsh’s definition of shamanism. In that form, it could easily apply to newly emerging traditions in Western society (with possible complexities around the definition of ‘serving the community’—we have no unified ‘community’, so this definition will, for us, always be subject to mutation and debate). Also, note that Éliade’s definition of shamanism can lead to the misleading idea that most young people in Britain are involved in this tradition every Friday night!

Very few modern magicians define themselves as ‘shamans’, simply because they are acutely aware of the historical and socio-cultural background to the term. However, they know that there is some inner congruence between their own activities and those of shamans throughout the ages, as there is between shamanic motifs and an amazing variety of human mythical constructs.

As a rough rule of thumb, I see the following distinctions in terminology:

A specific term that can only be validly applied to individuals within indigenous traditions.
A Western construct used to reflect the astounding parallels between such traditions across the globe, and presumably throughout history.
An adjective that may be used to draw attention to elements of myth, folklore, art, and hypothesized or actual spiritual activity that can be associated with motifs found in shamanism.

Emphasis on diversity must not become a new monolithic creed in our awareness of ourselves. I feel it must be balanced against the somewhat unfashionable idea of a unity underlying human consciousness. The ‘bathwater’ in this idea is its rigidity, its lack of feel for multiplicity; the ‘baby’ is our common human axis mundi. Let’s not throw out our own centre.


  • Bahn, P., 1998. ‘Stumbling in the footsteps of St Thomas’, British Archaeology no. 31, p. 18.
  • Bogg, E., 1904a, Higher Wharfedale, Petty & Sons.
  • — 1904b, Lower Wharfedale, James Miles.
  • Bradley, R., 1997, Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe, Routledge.
  • Éliade, M., 1989, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Arkana.
  • Fossati, A., 1994, ‘L’acqua, le armi el gli uccelli nell’arte rupestre camuna dell’età del Ferro’, Notizie Archeologiche Bergomensi no. 2, pp. 203-216
  • Gyrus, 1995, ‘Amy’s DMT Trip’
  • — 1998, ‘The San & the Eland’, Towards 2012: part 4, The Unlimited Dream Company.
  • — 1998, ‘An Interview with Phil Hine’, Towards 2012: part 4, The Unlimited Dream Company.
  • Halifax, J., 1979, Shamanic Voices: the Shaman as Seer, Poet and Healer, Penguin.
  • Harpur, P., 1994, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld, Viking.
  • Lee, D., 1997, Chaotopia! Magick & Ecstasy in the PandaemonAeon, Attractor.
  • Mookerjee, A. & Khanna, M., 1977. The Tantric Way, Thames and Hudson.
  • Schultes, R.E. & Hofmann, A., 1992, Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers, Healing Arts Press.
  • Walsh, R.N., 1990. The Spirit of Shamanism, Mandala.