The Spirit of Shamanism – Roger N. Walsh – October BBBR

The Spirit of Shamanism (reprinted as World of Shamanism, 2007)
Roger N. Walsh, M.D., Ph.D.
Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990
286 pages

I can’t say enough good stuff about this book. It’s this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review, and it’s quite possibly the best one I’ve picked up.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled against shamanism for years has been that shamans are schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill and generally dysfunctional. This goes against more recent observations that the shaman is actually one of the most psychologically healthy people in hir society. This excellent book is an in-depth look at the psychology of shamanism, from a very positive, constructive and yet objective viewpoint. Euro-centric bias is tossed out the window, and shamanism (or, rather, the various forms thereof) is explored from within the contexts of the cultures it stems from.

Walsh draws upon a number of ideas and inspirations. Campbell’s explanation of the Hero’s journey is applied to the shaman’s development, from ordinary citizen to community leader. Of particular interest is the motif of the initiatory crisis, the time in which the shaman undergoes extreme changes internally and may exhibit incredibly odd behavior to the consternation of other members of hir society. This, and the seeming “delusion” of the shamanic journey are studied in great detail throughout the book, and the importance of these two experiences in particular cannot be ignored.

To me, the most valuable gift this book offers is the detailed explanation throughout of how shamanism, rather than paralleling the unhealthy and disorganized experience of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, in fact has much in common with modern psychological practices ranging from psychoanalysis to Jung’s work, and in particular to the modern practice of transpersonal psychology. The placebo effect is explored, and its effectiveness in both shamanism AND in Western medicine is discussed; in fact, there are a couple of chapters that focus specifically on shamanic healing and how/why it works. Finally, the altered states of consciousness inherent to shamanic practice are shown to be, not a matter of escapism and trickery, but of a path towards enlightenment-like states of being, though different from the states achieved through yoga and other forms of meditation.

It’s an incredibly well-researched book as well. Unlike too many of the texts on shamanism today, this one takes an academic approach rather than a New Age one, yet as mentioned doesn’t fall prey to the usual academic pitfalls. There are numerous in-text citations and a nice, meaty bibliography.

In all, we’re left with a picture of shamanism that has less to do with dysfunctionality, quackery and superstition, and more to do with modern healthy practices that, in some cases, Western psychologicy has only recently “discovered”. While the author does not go so far as to tell people to dump their therapists and become shamans (which anyone with good sense knows is irresponsible), he undoes decades of Western bias as well as the later romanticism that has all too often been applies to shamanism. In this text we’re allowed to see that shamanism is both terrifying and ecstatic, and is an evolution rather than de-evolution of human consciousness.

Five enthusiastic pawprints out of five.

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The Way of the Shaman – Michael Harner

The Way of the Shaman
Michael Harner
HarperSanFrancisco, 1990
172 pages

This is the fourth time in the past decade I’ve read this book cover to cover (as opposed to looking up specific factoid and techniques) and I’m finding that this time through, I’m not so fond of it. It’s not that it’s horrible; it’s just not as impressive to me these days, now that I know more than I used to.

Harner’s book is pretty much a classic on NEOshamanism; it forms the foundation of core shamanism, a shamanic practice that is (mostly) devoid of specific cultural trappings. His background in anthropology, as well as experience training as a shaman in the Jivaro and Conibo tribes, make this a well-researched and well-informed book. There are plenty of endnotes, and a good bibliography, so it’s easy to trace where he got his information from.

The problem is the presentation of the practical material. First off, my main complaint is that his selection of techniques seems incredibly arbitrary. He draws on the tobacco ties of certain Native American traditions, Jivaro-flavered sucking shamanism, and the spiritual canoe from a particular Northwest Native tribe. And he seems to ignore a number of shamanic practices that may not be necessarily appealing to the New Age crowd, such as spiritual dismemberment and reassembly.

Also, he fails to mention that even within a specific culture there are several types of shamanism. He should have, IMO, either billed this as a form of healing shamanism, or stuck to one of the cultures he trained in, rather than adding in elements of numerous cultures. He doesn’t quite draw shamanism far enough away from its cultural roots to make it fit together well; rather than doing as Peter J. Carroll did with Chaos magic, and making a system that is not at all culturally specific (and so can be plugged into any culture), Harner attempts to make (certain) cultural artifacts relevant for people outside that culture, while also trying to make it relevant to modern mainstream American (and other postindustrial) culture. Unfortunately, the end result still retains enough of the original cultural material (such as biases against certain animals like snakes and insects) without explaining the contextual relevance of such elements.

Finally, he waters down certain pieces of information. “The SSC [Shamanic State of Consciousness], it can be said, is safer than dreaming,” he says (xxii). Yet shamanism, even in modern practice, is NOT safe. He doesn’t talk about spiritual defense, other than talking about how one’s power animal and other guardians are supposed to protect you. He barely brings up any dangers, other than seeing animals with bared fangs. Nor does he talk about how close to the edge shamanism can bring a practitioner (or the skills needed to maintain a proper balance).

In short, this is shamanism for the living room. The techniques itself are solid, despite the contextual issues, and can be easily used by most people who pick up this book. If presented as a book on shamanic techniques, I give it a four. However, as a book on *shamanism*, I give it a two. This balances out to….

Three pawprints out of five.

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The Shaman – Piers Vitebsky

The Shaman
Piers Vitebsky
Little, Brown and Company, 1995
184 pages

This is one of my favorite books on basic shamanism from an anthropological perspective. I’ve read it before, but this is the first time I’ve read it since I started this review blog. I think it’s well worth talking about, though, so here’s my official review 🙂

The author, an anthropologist, has spent several decades studying shamanism within the context of a number of cultures. He presents a nice collection of facts and anecdotes about the shamanic experiences of people in these cultures. From the altered states of consciousness to the spirits encountered along the way, from healing to showmanship, from the political status of shamans to neoshamanism today, Vitebsky offers one of the best introductions to the concept of shamanism and what it is the shaman does. This concise book is quite thorough, and while the material is densely packed it’s written in a manner that even a rank beginner can understand. You won’t find a bunch of how-to instructions, but what you will get is solid research to get a good understanding of the context of shamanism.

Unlike earlier anthropologists, Vitebsky’s viewpoint is quite enlightened. He points out the shortcomings of his predecessors, who characterized shamans as everything from archaic leftovers to mentally disturbed outcasts. He also cautions against trying to boil shamanism down to a particular facet, such as trance, while tossing out other important aspects, like community and culture. He is not overly critical of neoshamanism, though he only devotes a very small portion of the book to it and explains how it differs from traditional shamanism. He clearly shows his research, and is not afraid to critique other scholars; for example, he challenges Mircea Eliade’s assertion that shamanism has “an apparently timeless quality…[and] appears to stand outside political history” (p. 116). To back up this criticism Vitebsky goes into great detail how shamanism has interacted, both positively and negatively, with both political and religious bodies in various cultures, and how it has sometimes come into great conflict with various powers thereof. (I should also add that I have no opinion myself on Eliade yet, though his work is on my reading pile.)

This contributes to a very down to Earth look at shamanism worldwide, though it does NOT purport to be the do-all and end-all resource; nor does it try to claim that all shamanisms are one shamanism. Rather, as I said, it’s an excellent introductory book, mixing text and illustrations to create a good resource for anyone interested in traditional shamanism from a theoretical point of view (as opposed to a hands-on workbook).

Five pawprints out of five.

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Borrowed Power – Ziff and Rao (editors)

Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation
Ziff, Bruce and P.V. Rao (editors)
Rutgers University Press, 1997
338 pages

Every so often I get into the mood to sink my teeth into a nice, meaty chunk of….

…academic writing.

(What did you think I was going to say?)

So when the craving hit this time, it just so happened to be on the same day as the arrival of my copy of Borrowed Power. It took me almost a week to work my way through it (amid editing manuscripts and other such things) but I finished it, and I can definitely say it was a great read.

Borrowed Power is an anthology addressing cultural appropriation, the use/borrowing/theft of elements by one (usually dominant) culture from another (usually not dominant) culture. A common example in the pagan community is white pagans raised in Suburbia drawing on Native American religious practices and taking them out of context while not actually participating in the culture they draw from. While cultural appropriation isn’t always considered a neopagan topic, it’s one that’s crucial to the evolution of our community. (I deemed it important enough that I’m compiling an anthology specifically on cultural appropriation in the pagan community inspired by Borrowed Powerclick here for details.)

The topics are varied; while one essay addresses “white Indians”, hippies and New Agers who try to be more Indian than the Indians, most either don’t mention the phenomenon or only do so in passing. Instead, the essays cover the legalities of property rights and copyright in the face of cultural theft; financial restitution for cultures that have been taken from; returning historical and cultural religious items to the cultures they were taken from; the impact of non-Native artists using traditional Native American patterns; ethnomusicology; and post-colonialism, among others. While some of the essays focus on Native America, other cultures are addressed. There is an excellent essay addressing the appropriation of African-American culture through music, from jazz to rap.

Most of the essays are readable even to those without an academic background. A few do get tough to chew through, particularly those dealing with legalities, and postcolonialism. But for the most part the writing is accessible, and the tougher writing styles aren’t entirely impossible. There’s an excellent variety of viewpoints and topics presented here, and much food for thought. And, as is expected, the research is impeccable, and is joined by a sensitivity to the cultures being explored that’s often missing from academic writing.

Overall, this is a wonderful read for those who want an introduction to the problem of cultural appropriation. While the specifically neopagan content is almost nil, the concepts herein are worth looking into. (I also recommend this as a source for those writing essays for the anthology I’m compiling, just FYI, along with the cultural appropriation chapter in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves by Pike.)

Five pawprints out of five.

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Spirit Stones – Growling Bear

Spirit Stones
Growling Bear
Journey Editions, 1997
128 pages

Note: This book apparently initially came with a set of stones with animals on them, but I just had the book. The stones look easy to make, though.

“Spirit Stones” is one of a number of modern divination systems that are supposedly based on older traditions. It caters to those of the animal totem variety, featuring stereotypically “Native American totem” animals like Wolf, Bear, Snake and Frog, as well as other mostly Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals and other Traditional Native Animals. The book is meant as a guide for using stones with thes eanimals painted (or printed) on them.

I really have mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, the author does cite some tribe-specific examples of relationships between humans and animals. However, he doesn’t cite his sources, giving only a list of recommended reading, most of which seems to be on Native American cultures in general. And he throws around a lot of talk about “Native American spirituality” without making tribal distinction, and falling into the “noble savage” stereotype that all Indians are close to the Earth spiritually and ignoring the very real problems facing them today. He does bring in some historical information about various tribes, to include not glossing over the fact that the U.S. government basically screwed them over.

Functionally, it’s an interesting system, all cultural appropriation issues aside. The author includes a few sample readings that really flesh out the concepts he talks about, and he does include a decent amount of information on his interpretation of each animal. It’s something I’d recommend to a beginner looking for a simple, easy animal-based divination system.

Overall, it’s getting two and a half pawprints. I like the idea and the inclusion of research on Native cultures, but there’s just enough plastic shamanism to make me cringe every couple of pages.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Return of the Bird Tribes – Ken Carey – March BBBR

Return of the Bird Tribes
Ken Carey
HarperSanFrancisco, 1988
252 pages

I bet you thought I forgot about this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review! Nope. I’ve just been pretty busy, but technically it *is* still March, and I do reserve the right to post the BBBR any time in the month. That being said, I will try to be a little earlier about it. But without further ado, here’s this month’s BBBR.

I was thrilled when I found this book on the bargain rack, since it was one that I’d been wanting to read for quite some time. I’d heard it was partly totemic, partly Otherkin-related, and so my curiosity was piqued.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the result. This is one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the New Age. The author claims to have channelled the entire work through communication with a “higher being” that watches over humanity, and is in fact one of a number of these higher beings. As is common among New Age channelling, the message is uber-positive, “love” and “peace” are thrown around like confetti, and the general message is “This generation is ever so special–time for you to realize your potential!”

Nowe, I have nothing against love, peace, and achieving one’s full potential as an individual and as part of a society. Gods know we need more of that. The problem is that this particular conveyance of that message is wrapped up in a bunch of cultural appropriation and seriously revisionist history. We have a Caucasian, New Age author supposedly channelling information about Native American cultures, everything from White Buffalo Calf Woman to Hiawatha and the Iroquois League (the entity he’s channelling supposedly was one of the main players at the forming of that treaty). It’s pretty much a cliche, and it’s a classic example of cultural appropriation. And, also in the style of the New Age, the channelling includes the idea that, prior to a point 2,500 years ago (conveniently at a time and place where we have no written history) the Native Americans were all peaceful and living in a virtual utopia–I’m surprised he didn’t try to claim they were all vegan. And all of human history has apparently been manipulated by these higher powers–apparently humans themselves can’t understand reality beyond a certain point; we have to have a higher spirit to help us.

Now, I have no issue with Unverified Personal Gnosis. However, it’s important to view any UPG, no matter how inspired, with constructive criticism. The fact that most of the material matches with New Age revisionist history rather than commonly accepted history should be cause, at the very least, for skeptical comparison. The entire work, though, is presented as genuine, without any critique or questioning whatsoever. No, it’s not romantic to analyze one’s meditations and question them. But it’s also not healthy to romanticize Native Americans as the “Noble Savages” while thousands are barely scraping by on reservations across the country.

This book would have been better off if the author had taken the results of his channelling efforts and distilled them into a direct critique of modern society, adding a grain of salt for good measure. He could have discussed the virtues of literal vs. metaphorical understanding of what he received. There are some good points in here, including the idea that a person can evolve beyond the basics of everyday life, and that the way we’re doing things now is a Bad Idea. However, they’re so wrapped up in apocalyptic fantasy, cultural appropriation and the basic assertion that we’re essentially being directed by higher powers (instead of by our own wills) that the lessons in here are all but lost in a sea of drek.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Shamanism Volume III: Animal Medicine Powers – Dolfyn

Shamanism Volume III: Animal Medicine Powers
Earthspirit, 1992
30 pages

This little booklet of 30 pages was published way back in 1992, before the current glut of totem animal dictionaries settled itself into the market. It’s a precursor to Shamanic WIsdom II, which was a full sized book that Dolfyn wrote a couple of years later with Swimming Wolf.

The Good: The author’s interpretations of various totemic qualities are largely based on actual animal behaviors. They’re quite innovative, and it’s rare for me to say that about Yet Another Totem Animal Dictionary. There’s also a wide variety of animals, not just the Big Impressive North American Mammals and Birds. And the author is very ecologically-minded, talking about why it’s important to give back to the Nature we take from and supporting a balance.

The Bad: Lots of typos and spelling errors, which drove me nuts as I was reading. Also, it’s pretty white-light. I was reading the entry on Dolphin: “People who swim with Dolphins in the wild often report great emotional healing from Dolphin’s unconditional love” (p. 13). Funny how no one ever mentions how dolphins are also known to commit rape, both on other dolphins and, according to unsubstantiated rumors, human beings. Not that it necessarily has much bearing on totemism, but dolphins have been particularly romanticized by the New Age.

The Ugly: Very, very wannabe Native. Any animal-magic related book with “Medicine” in the title should raise warning flags. The author constantly refers to how “the tribes” or “Native American Indians” did X or believed Y. And, of course, there’s absolutely no bibliography, let alone in-text citations, showing where the author got the information.

Still, if you can overlook the bad and the ugly, the good is, well, pretty good. I’m hanging onto this to take to my totemism classes (along with a slew of other totem dictionaries) for people to use post-meditation to get some initial research on the animals they talked to.

Three and three quarters pawprints out of five.

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Animal Totem Astrology – Debbie Burns

Animal Totem Astrology
Debbie Burns
Lansdowne, 2001
~78 pages

The concept for this book was really neat; the execution, on the other hand, fell far short of full potential. This was an attempt at a totemic zodiac, a combination of neopagan totemic qualities and traditional Western astrology, mixed in (supposedly) with some indigenous beliefs about the animals associated with certian birth months (though the source material pretty much confirms a basis in plastic shamanism.

The author explains the animals associated with each month (conveniently, they correspond to the twelve Western zodiac signs). She also brings in seasonal and time-of-day correspondences to try to show the qualities of people according to when they were born, all based on totemic qualities mixed with common astrological information.

Unfortunately, what could have been a really neat idea fell flat. I would love to see someone work with totem animals in association with Western astrology to create a new system–but I’d like to see it done in more depth. I highly doubt that what was described here is traditional to any tribe,a dn i think the author would have been much better off starting from scratch, studying both astrology and modern totemism, and then creating her own system based on these two areas of spirituality. Instead, she draws from some of the worst offenders of plastic shamanism, including Sun Bear and Jamie Sams, and perpetuates a whole bunch of drek. Her bibliography is barely over a dozen books, and almost all of them are New Age treatments of indigenous topics. She presents the whole thing as genuine “Native American” spirituality, in the grand tradition of her predecessors, and the whole thing ends up a train wreck.

I’m giving it an extra half of a pawprint, just because I like the concept (as long as it’s presented as a new system). But other than that, meh.

One and a half pawprints.
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Meditations With Animals – Gerald Hausman

Meditations With Animals: A Native American Bestiary
Gerald Hausman
Bear & Company, 1986
144 pages

This is a unique little book; part of it is traditional Native American chants and stories from various tribes, taken from interviews for The Bureau of Ethnology Reports. However, the author also provides his own meditations on these tales. The meditations are mindful of the ecological disasters that are destroying the world, piece by piece, as well as humanity’s increasing detachment from Nature, and the importance of renewing that relationship before it’s too late.

The book is divided up by region–tribes of the plains, of the Pacific coastline, the woodlands, etc. Interspersed among the meditations and stories are piece of information about the tribes themselves. It is a sensitive conveyance of tribal lore without being New-Age-crystally (with the exception of one tiny mention of the Natchez being a possible remnant of the Atlanteans, though the mention of it is rather ambiguous, more of a “By the way” kind of thing).

This is a good book for opening up your mind a bit more to the idea of all things being interconnected, particularly in regards to other animals. While occasionally it romanticizes the lives of various tribes, it lacks the “Hey! Look! We’re really Indians!” feel of writers like Brooke Medicine Eagle. I would also recommend the idea of using some of the chants and meditations in here for personal totemic work and animal magic in general.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Zuni Fetishes – Hal Zina Bennett

Zuni Fetishes: Using Native American Sacred Objects for Meditation, Reflection, and Insight
Hal Zina Bennett
HarperSanFrancisco, 1993
192 pages

This is a unique book. It combines history and lore about fetishes, tiny stone carved animals, with modern spiritual practices to create a modern paradigm.

Bennett is careful to remind us that what he is teaching is NOT necessarily Zuni tradition, but is inspired by it, and he cites some good sources. His interpretation is practical and spiritual all at once, and is quite accessible by modern pagans.

The author goes over the background of fetishes, emphasizes that they are not merely decorative, and explains the ways that he and others of non-Zuni background use the fetish spirits in evderyday life. He then has a dictionary of tradition-inspired lore about eat fetish, though he does suggest throughout the book consulting the individual fetishes themselves.

A lot of the material may be 101 to those of you who have done a lot of animal magic, particularly that dealing with fetishes and other ritual spirit houses. However, it’s a great book to start out with, and also worth a read even if you’ve some experience. Veyr thorough and well-written, and a unique take on animal totemism.

Five pawprints out of five.

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