The Shamanic Drum – Michael Drake

The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming
Michael Drake
Talking Drum Publications, 1991
100 pages

If you’re not a fan of core shamanism, you probably won’t like this book. It’s heavily based on material from Harner’s The Way of the Shaman and derivative works. I tried to keep in mind that when it was written back in 1991, there wasn’t nearly as much practical information on neoshamanism as there is now, and most of it was core shamanism. There is a revised edition as of 2002, which has more material; however, as I have not read that edition yet. So be aware that this review is for the original edition.

That being said, I have some things I like about this book, and some things I’m not so crazy about.

    Likes

–Drake definitely knows his drums. His information on drum care is spot-on. This bit of practical information is quite valuable if this is your first book on drumming.
–He also has obviously done practical work; this is a book based on experience, not just a bit of theorizing and making things up to fill the pages. If the things I dislike below don’t particularly bother you, you may find this to be an excellent text to work from, as it covers everything from the cosmonology of the drum, to different drumming rites and practices you can engage in.
–Endnotes! There are Endnotes! Which means you can see where Drake got some of his third-party information. While he doesn’t provide endnotes for every bit of information that didn’t come from his head, what is there gives you a decent idea of his source material.
–There’s a good deal of environmentally-friendly information in this book, so it’s not all about the humans. It’s a healthy reminder of the good things this material can be used for, and I applaud it.

    Dislikes

–The book treats journeying as though it were safe: “Remember that nothing can harm you on your journeys without your permission” (p. 42)
–Chakras are mixed in, without the explanation that they are specifically from Hinduism, not any shamanic culture (this is very common in New Age writings, unfortunately). The same goes for other New Age concepts that are mixed in with the material.
–Native American cultures are given the “noble savage” treatment: “We are drawn to Native American teachings because they are so pure and harmonious…When your heartbeat is one with the Earth’s, you may begin to look, feel and act much like traditional Native Americans, for they too resonate with her” (p. 77) There are also several generalizations about “shamanic cultures” throughout the book that are not particularly universal, and some of which have a very Western approach.

My biases being what they are, I do admit that as a concise guide to core shamanic drumming, this one’s pretty good. I’m split about 50-50 on my likes and dislikes. Again, I haven’t seen the newer edition, so you may want to give that one a try; some of the issues above may or may not have been addressed (for example, the new edition has an appendix on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act). On the other hand, if the new book is just an expansion of the same general material, you may want to keep this review in mind. If I get ahold of the new edition, I’ll give it a separate review.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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I Am of This Land – Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow

I Am of This Land (Wetes pe m’e wes): Wildlife of the Hanford Site (A Nez Perce Nature Guide)
Dan Landeen and Jeremy Crow (compilers)
Nez Perce Tribe Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Department
1997

This is a neat book I found secondhand. It’s a combination of natural history of various animals at the Hanford site in Washington state, and stories about the animals from Nez Perce mythology. The two areas are well blended for a wonderful look at the wild creatures that the Hanford nuclear site features.

The first section of the book is a summary of Nez Perce culture, to give context for the rest of the material. There’s also a good reminder of the history of the tribe in relation to the United States government, including land grabs and other abuses by the latter. Considering the book is produced by the tribe itself, one can most likely trust to its accuracy.

The rest of the book includes brief explanations of the various animals–mammals, birds, and more–found at the Hanford site, as well as a special section on harmful animals such as poisonous spiders. The information for each animal is not particularly long–usually a sentence or two, if that. So don’t take this as your only field guide. However, there’s good (if a bit dated) information on the status of each species (endangered, threatened, etc.) as well as how commonly it’s found on site. Myths are interspersed throughout the text.

Overall, it’s a neat little compilation. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in Nez Perce culture and myth, as well as anyone who like critters of any sort.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Book of the Vision Quest – Steven Foster

The Book of the Vision Quest: Personal Transformation in the Wilderness
Steven Foster with Meredith Little
Bear Tribe Publishing, 1983
170 pages

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. On the one hand there’s some really useful information in it. On the other, it smacks of wannabe Indianism. Let me elaborate on each.

The Good: The book is a good guide to what we’ll call vision questing, for simplicity’s sake. The second chapter of the book in particular is basically a handbook that seems designed for people that the author would guide out into the desert for their experiences. It has good practical information, though it should not be taken as your only source for this material. The bulk of the book involves anecdotes from various peoples’ experiences, used to illustrate different aspects of the quest. It’s well-written, and with a good balance of voices.

The Bad: It basically reads like “white people trying to be Indians”. Indigenous people are spoken of in the past tense, and in romanticized terms. While I understand that there are plenty of people trying to reconnect with the land, with each other, with themselves, too often people try to copy from other cultures without taking their own cultural contexts into account. There’s no real distinction made between the context of a society for whom vision questing is an integrated part of one’s life cycle, and a society for whom it is an alien experience. While the detachment of mainstream Americans is made clear, the manners in which we may experience our quests differently are not made so clear. Additionally, the use of the term “vision quest” may lead people to believe that the book is indigenous in origin.

I do see what the author was trying to do, and I think it’s a noble effort to try to get people reconnected. I just wish it weren’t in such a romanticized manner.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Drumming at the Edge of Magic – Mickey Hart

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
Marper Collins, 1990
263 pages

I have a bit of a history with this book. I first bought a copy and read it over half a decade ago, then for some inexplicable reason decided to sell it. Now that I’ve been doing more drumming, I got the urge to read it again, so I managed to track down a copy. What absolutely amazes me is how much of the book I remember, even having read it so long ago. It must have struck me deeply back then, and it’s understandable why.

This isn’t just a story about the history of the drum. Nor is it only a story about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead. It’s a combination of those, and more. We learn about where drums came from, and we surmise about what the effects of those early percussionists must have been. We see where this instrument captivated Hart from an early age, and wonder at the amazing creations that resulted. We explore the altered states of consciousness the drum evokes, with Joseph Campbell, Alla Rakha, and the Siberian shamans as our guides. From blues and jazz to African talking drums and the bullroarers found worldwide, we are introduced to percussionists of all stripes, spots and plaids.

Between Hart and Stevens, the writing is phenomenal. Rather than following a strictly linear progression, it snakes like Hart’s Anaconda of index cards through pages upon pages of storytelling and factoids. However, it all meshes well together, rather than coming across as stilted or confused. It’s nonlinear, and it works beautifully. There’s just the right mix of personal testimonial, anecdotes, and hard facts.

Anyone who drums, dances, or otherwise is involved with music; anyone who works with altered states of consciousness, whether in shamanic practice or otherwise; anyone who wants to see what makes a rock and roll drummer tick; and anyone who wants a damned good story that’s all true, needs to read this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Teachings of Don Juan – Carlos Castaneda – January BBBR

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
Carlos Castaneda
University of California Press, 1998
215 pages

While I’ve read de Mille’s Castaneda’s Journey, I’m not going to attempt to prove whether don Juan Matus actually existed, or whether he was a creation of Carlos Castaneda himself. Instead, I’m going to focus on the quality of this, his first book.

First, I really have to question whether this really is a “Yaqui way of knowledge”. There’s no connection between the Yaqui culture and what don Juan talks about. According to, among other places, the official Pascua Yaqui website, there’s no mention of any of the hallucinogenic plants that Castaneda speaks of, though perhaps more importantly Castaneda never brings up things that are culturally important to the Yaqui, such as the deer dancer or flowers, nor their language. While shamanism isn’t always the same as the main religion of a culture, there are still cultural elements in it. This in and of itself makes me suspicious as to the cultural validity of the material, never mind the functional validity.

Functionally this book is a disaster. I’ve been told you have to “read between the lines” to really get what don Juan was saying. However, all I read is a lot of obfuscation of lore and mysticism. We’re given a few tips and tricks for how to deal with the spirits of some hallucinogenic plants, with no reasons as to why these practices are important. Occasionally there’s something basic and functional, such as the lesson of “finding one’s place”, but this should not be used as a practical text. Castaneda’s analysis is so-so; again, lack of connection between don Juan’s teachings and the actual Yaqui culture is a major flaw.

I would have respected this book a lot more if it had been presented from the beginning as either a novel, or a book “based on a true” story without claiming to be an anthropological breakthrough. As for the claim that it’s a huge breakthrough in popular entheogen lore–popular doesn’t always mean accurate or good quality. There were numerous researchers of various hallucinogens prior to Castaneda; for example, in the 1950s R. Gordon Wasson along with Valentina Povlovna, his wife, went through a series of experiments in Mexico with psilocybin mushrooms. Wasson later cowrote this article in Life magazine about his experiences. Real names were used, people who were traceable were cited, and photos of the rituals were taken–much more respectable than Castaneda’s attempts at mystifying the reader.

I’m pretty underwhelmed. The only saving grace was that it was an entertaining read, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Castaneda was describing trips he’s actually been on. Reportedly the later books have less entheogen use and more teachings, so I may check them out at a later date. Still, I recommend this only as a way to familiarize yourself with Castaneda’s work and for entertainment only–in other words, don’t try this at home, kids!

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Elements of Shamanism – Nevill Drury

The Elements of Shamanism
Nevill Drury
Element, 1995
118 pages

If you want the do-all and end-all of shamanic practice, this book won’t do it for you. However, if you want a good, if a little dated, overview, this is your book. Drury first wrote this text in 1989, before most non-academic texts on shamanism were published, and offers a brief but wide-ranging overview of the topic. I have the older edition, which is significantly different than the new edition. In comparing some pages from the two, the new edition has some information rearranged, and appears to have some new additions. However, this one is still a valid text, so I’ll primarily focus on it.

The first four chapters are essentially information that could be found in Eliade and other academic sources, though without the academic language and jargon. A bit of Michael Harner’s core shamanism is thrown in for balance as well. The research is solid, though introductory. Chapter five, which is dedicated to plants used in various shamanic traditions, gets a lot more interesting, as Drury goes over everything from peyote to psilocybe mushrooms. It’s a controversial subject, and Drury covers it in a mature, even-handed manner.

In chapter six, Drury talks about several shamanic figures in more recent times–Black Elk, Luisah Teish, Brooke Medicine Eagle, and Sun Bear. Of these, only Black Elk was an active member of an indigenous community. Teish is better-known in Afro-Caribbean religious contexts, where she is well-respected; her section in this chapter focuses some on being possessed by the Orisha. Brooke Medicine Eagle and Sun Bear, despite being largely disliked among some Native Americans, are shown as practitioners of tribal practices, albiet with some additions.

Chapter seven seems to be missing in the new edition (chapter eight in this edition becomes chapter seven in the new edition). I had to rely primarily on online previews of the new edition, which had only some of the pages, but I couldn’t find anything from the old chapter seven, and no mention of it in the table of contents. I’m guessing that it was too controversial, as it skewered both Carlos Castaneda and Lynn Andrews as hucksters. While Drury does defend them to a point, he does explain in great detail their respective backgrounds and the holes in their stories, such as the fact that neither don Juan Matus nor Andrews’ two guides even remotely resembled the people of the tribes they supposedly came from.

Chapter eight wraps up the book nicely, focusing a lot on Michael Harner’s core shamanism, and the need for shamanic practices in modern postindustrial society. The book ends with some resources (probably outdated, but you could look them up online with any search engine). There’s also a good collection of endnotes to show Drury’s research.

Overall, this is a decent basic book to give to someone who has never encountered shamanism, and wants a really brief overview. It’s most definitely not your only resource, but for what it was intended as, it’s good.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Shamanism – Mircea Eliade

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
Mircea Eliade
Arkana (Penguin), 1989
610 pages

Nope, I didn’t fall off the face of the planet. Instead, I’ve been plowing my way through this massive text. This is considered the grandtome of shamanic resources, and rightly so. For its time, it was the most complete reference on the topic, and while research since the 1950s has illuminated areas of knowledge that Eliade had no exposure to, nearly half a century after its first English translation Shamanism is still required reading for anyone interested in shamans and shamanism.

The first few chapters cover general shamanic subjects, such as being “called”, the initiatory ritual and illness, and how shamans obtain their power and spirit helpers. These are followed by a number of chapters on shamanism in various regions of the world; not surprisingly, Siberia and surrounding areas get the most in-depth coverage. Finally, there’s an excellent chapter on the various common elements found in shamanisms around the world, certain themes and practices that are universal, or very nearly so.

I’ll admit that when I first bit into the foreword, I was a bit intimidated. It’s excessively dry, even for academic writing, and I was wondering if I was going to suffer through hundreds of pages of this. However, once I got into the first chapter, I was pleasantly surprised to find that his heavily formal tone shifted to a much more informative and readable style. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read; it took me about two weeks to finish this off, and I found myself occasionally having to re-read paragraphs as I began to skim rather than comprehend.

I think really the only areas where I have any complaint whatsoever are primarily content based. While Eliade makes an excellent observation on the common elements of many shamanisms, I’d like to know his perspective (if any) on if there’s anything significant about their differences. Unfortunately he died over two decades ago, so short of journeying to the underworld (or sky, depending on cosmology) to talk to him, I’ll just have to weep that I’ll never know for sure, at least not in this life. The other small gripe is his treatment of anything that deviates from a certain “standard” of shamanism as “degraded” or, in his words, “decadent”. Given that the “classic” Siberian shamanism may have been influenced by middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, as well as more southerly Asian ones, some shifting and hybridization is to be expected anyway. A lot of his argument does center around the loss of the actual ecstatic “flight” through dance and other actions, replaced in some cultures by mediumship, feigned trance, and/or drug use. I’m going to have to read more to decide whether I really agree with his assessment of the latter as being lesser (especially the first and third) or not.

Still, overall, this is a must-read. Expect it to take some time (unless you really, really like academic writing). Take notes, or underline things. It’s full of information, and while it should be supplemented with newer source material, a lot of it still stands quite firmly as a resource.

Sort of off topic, I’ve always wondered how you pronounce “Mircea Eliade”. Not being Romanian, I had to ask Google. It appears that I was close in some respects, but not in others–here’s a lively discussion about it.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred Paw – Shepard and Sanders

The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature
Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders
Arkana, 1985
244 pages

I love this book. It’s currently out of print, but not too hard to find. As the title suggests, it covers the relationship between humans and bears, and it covers everything from natural history to fairy tales. And, in the same vein as Lopez’ Of Wolves and Men and Ryden’s God’s Dog, it traces our mythological relationship with bears from paleolithic times on.

The text opens with a thorough explanation of the evolution, distribution and habits of the eight species of bear on Earth today. From the enormous brown bear, to the small tropical sun bear, the diversity of bears is given center stage, and it’s remarkable just what amazing creatures they are. The authors do a great job of honoring the bear as s/he really is, in and of hirself. The text is thorough, but approachable.

However, my favorite part of the text is where the authors trace the Bear Mother and Bear Sons mythological motif from its possible advent in paleolithic caves, through hunter-gatherer societies and later agriculture, all the way up to modern day folk and fairy tales. They give a really good argument for the shifting of the emphasis of the myths from the Bear Mother to the adventures of her sons, who eventually become purely human heroes. The Underworld and Rebirth themes of the Bear Mother are slowly stripped form her until she is nothing but a memory. There’s also some really good material on rituals for the hunting of the bear from numerous cultures around the world. We’re shown both the similarities and individualities of the different rituals performed around the world.

Pretty much my only complaint is that the authors occasionally repeat themselves, stating a particular fact twice in the book, each time worded as if it were the first time. However, this is a minuscule complaint in light of the excellent quality otherwise.

This would be a superb companion to David Rockwell’s excellent study of bears in ritual and myth, Giving Voice to Bear. If Bear is your totem, or you otherwise have an interest in ursine mythology, this would be an excellent read for you. The same goes for anyone interested in tracing the roots of mythology to paleolithic times; co-author Paul Shepard has written a number of volumes on human-animal interaction in behavior and myth, and his expertise and solid research, paired with Barry Sanders’ skills, make this a solid reference.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Shamanism – Graham Harvey (ed.)

Shamanism: A Reader
Graham Harvey (editor)
Routledge, 2003
~430 pages

Well, it took me the better part of two weeks, but I finished this academic anthology over the weekend–and found it to be worth the effort. It was good to see a collection of essays that both approached traditional shamanism with an open mind, and also embraced the existence of neoshamanism (while also bringing up issues with it). I do have to agree with Erynn Rowan Laurie on her observation that the quality of the essays varied quite a bit, and the themes and topics didn’t always seem to mesh well. Though I do also agree that there were some real winners there. So here are my personal opinions on some of them:

I Liked:

–Ioan M. Lewis’ “Possession and Public Morality”, which was an intriguing essay on how shamanic rituals can be used to uphold community moral standards through using public peer pressure to extract confessions of broken taboos. This process then allows the community to heal rifts caused by these violations and release the social tension.
–Alan T. Campbell’s “Submitting”, which got me thinking about attitudes towards shamanism and seemingly implausible realities.
–Edith Turner’s “The Reality of Spirits”, an *excellent* argument against the fear of “going native” by anthropologists and other academics. Based on the experiences of the author and her husband, and a really good commentary on the practical application of anthopological research.
–Chungmoo Choi’s “The Artistry and Ritual Aesthetics of Urban Korean Shamans” is a fascinating look at Korean shamanism, which isn’t nearly as well known outside of academic circles (and the Koreans themselves, of course).
–Mihaly Hoppal’s “Ethnographic Films on Shamanism” is another good one, specifically covering films of Asian (primarily Siberian) shamanism, how these films have progressed and what they contribute, as well as the political climates at the times they were made. This essay and the last were particularly unique contributions.
–Both Bernard Saladin d’Anglure’s “Rethinking Inuit Shamanism Through the Concept of ‘Third Gender'” and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s “Sacred Genders in Siberia: Shamans, Bear Festivals and Androgyny” are excellent perspectives on gender issues within shamanism; the latter is also a nice look at the Carnival-esque feel of the bear festivals.
–Piers Vitebsky’s “From Cosmology to Environmentalism: Shamanism as Local Knowledge in a Global Setting” didn’t surprise me when I enjoyed it thoroughly; I’m generally a fan of Vitebsky’s works, including The Shaman. Here he explores the juxtaposition of shamanic knowledge that’s designed for a specific environment into global society, and how removing the inherent cosmology of a shamanic system necessarily changes it. One of the best in the collection.
–Ward Churchill’s “Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of the Plastic Medicine Men” is an essay that I actually really like; it’s a good commentary on cultural appropriation.

I Didn’t Care For:

–The reprinting of a chapter of Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman; I would have liked to have seen something different from him, though it was one of only two essays on the initiation process of shamanism. In fact, there were a few reprints in here, and it would have been nice to encounter more original material.
–There were a couple of essays I simply could not get into, primarily because I found them rather dry, or otherwise uninteresting. These included Thomas A Dowson’s “Like People in Prehistory”, Marina Roseman’s Remembering to Forget: The Aesthetics of Longing”, Gordan MacLellen’s “Dancing on the Edge: Shamanism in Modern Britain”, and Robert J. Wallis’ “Waking Ancestor Spirits: Neoshamanic Engagements With Archaeology”.
–Sandra Ingermann’s “Tracking Lost Souls” wasn’t horrible, per se, but it was rather jarringly discordant with the rest of the collection. It’s a very New Agey interpretation of core shamanism, and it didn’t fit in with the more scholarly approaches. An examination of neoshamanism, or a critique and comparison of various modern systems, would have worked better than Ingermann giving us a play-by-play of her method of soul retrieval.
–Beverley Butler’s “The Tree, The Tower and the Shaman” was just strangely written and arranged; I had trouble following it, and ended up skipping a good portion of it. I’m also not sure how relevant it is to shamanism, from what I could gather.

Despite my personal dislikes, I still think this is a good anthology to have in your collection if you have any interest in shamanism. The good essays are excellent, and they outnumber the not so great essays by quite a bit. I’m quite pleased with this collection, and I’ve already used it as source material in my writing, as well as gleaned some inspiration for the further development of therioshamanism.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Castaneda’s Journey – Richard de Mille

Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory
Richard de Mille
Capra Press, 1977, et. al.
205 pages

I wanted to get some background on Carlos Castaneda before diving into his books. This may seem a bit like putting the cart before the horse; however, I’ve been exposed to a lot of commentary on him, both positive and negative, so the chances of my having an unbiased look were already shot. I had heard good things about this book as a balanced approach to Castaneda and his works, so I gave it a try.

The author did a fantastic job of rooting out sources, even going to UCLA and talking to the professors who were involved in Castaneda’s doctoral program and defense of his thesis. De Mille also went to the trouble of hunting down one of the few available copies of the thesis itself, which normally isn’t open to the public. However, upon looking at the copy that UCLA had in its library, the author discovered that, other than a few minor changes, it was the entirety of Castaneda’s third book, Journey to Ixtlan. Additionally, he shows where sources that Castaneda almost certainly had access to had material that “mysteriously” showed up later as events in his books.

While de Mille pretty much tears a huge hole in the theory that Castaneda literally went out and met don Juan Matus and learned Yaqui ways (by the way, the amount of actual Yaqui material in his works is just above zilch), he did paint the would-be shaman as a clever trickster and rogue, and not entirely terrible. So while Castaneda’s veracity as an anthropologist is quite damaged, his skill as a literary writer of allegory is quite well-honed. The blame of people believing his works literally is partly placed on his ability to tell a good yarn.

My only complaint with this book is that it’s occasionally hard to follow the author’s train of thought. He bounces back and forth between light academic writing, straight forward, and an odd narrative that leaps around like a coyote on stimulants. I found myself skipping a few chunks of the work because I simply couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say.

Still, I think this is essential reading for anyone with any interest in modern shamanic texts. An entire selection of books that model themselves after Castaneda’s “allegorical spirit teacher” have cropped up, and are often (unfortunately) presented as literally true. This text gives interesting insight into the granddaddy of them all, and a new perspective on how to read Castaneda’s works, as well as derivatives thereof.

Four pawprints out of five.

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