Into the Woods. . .
In preparing to discuss the earliest roots of man’s spirituality, I decided to look at what may be the two oldest spiritual movements on the planet; those of Paganism and Shamanism. Each share many commonalities. Both have an inseparable tie with the whole of creation, through which an imminent divinity is directly and personally experienced. Both recognize the existence of a spirit world, populated by a variety of archetypal beings with whom man may interact. And sadly, both have also suffered greatly at the hands of organized religion.
From the plains of North America, to the mountains of Tibet, to Jungles of South America, cultures practicing shamanistic traditions have found their spiritual ways demonized by those seeking to bring the light of the “One True God” into the darkness of a people deemed heathen and primitive. Similarly, many practitioners of witchcraft and other pagan traditions were put to the flame during the horror of the Inquisition.
And while these two paths do indeed share many commonalities, they differ centrally in that while shamanism is, as Michael Harner points out, “a methodology” (Harner, 1990); Paganism is “an ancient European…nature religion that worships a goddess who is related to the ancient Mother Goddess in her three aspects as Maiden, Mother and Crone.” (Adler, 1986)
What is it about these two movements that causes them to continue to fall beneath the heel of Western Religion? Perhaps it has something to do with their closeness to Nature, the very thing which Judeo Christian religion places beneath man, and over which its God bestows upon him imminent dominion.
Harner tells us that shamanism “is not simple nature worship, but a two-way spiritual communication that resurrects the lost connections our human ancestors had with the awesome spiritual power and beauty of our Garden Earth.” (Harner, 1990)
This sentiment is echoed by Margot Adler in her influential work “Drawing Down the Moon” when she describes pagans as sharing “the goal of living in harmony with nature and…tend(ing) to view humanity’s “advancement” and separation from nature as the prime source of alienation.” (Adler, 1986)
Both Paganism and Shamanism, then, in a sense, return Man to his rightful place in the Garden of Eden. Once there, his position is not that of ruler over the plants and animals with whom he shares his world, but that of loving care taker and family member. As Adler tells us, “Christianity is in absolute contrast to ancient paganism…(it)not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that every man exploit nature for his proper ends. . .In antiquity every tree, every sprig, every stream, every hill had its own. . .guardian spirit. . .By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feeling of natural objects.” (Adler, 1986)
Another aspect of these two movements that flies in the face of Western religion is the intimate contact their followers share with spirits. Take for example the Eskimo shaman who, in addition to speaking with the spirits of the dead, may also work with “an infinite number of nature spirits that render (him) service, each in its fashion.” (Eliade, 2004) Compare this to the following description applied to one who practices the pagan religion of Wicca, or The Craft: “She stirs up storms that invade whole communities of people. She conducts vast collective energies to our very doorstep…These undirected unhumanized spirit forces are symbolized for us as ghosts, dead ancestors, gods and goddesses come up from the world below.” (Adler, 1986).
And while communicating with spirits and returning onesself to the leafy bosom of Nature might be reason enough for Shamanism and Paganism to stand at odds with the forces of organized religion, there is at the very heart of the conflict, one central concept shared by both towards which no organized religion, with its ossified and dogma heavy power structure can turn a blind eye; and that is the simple fact that Shamanism and Paganism not only thrive outside the realm of central authority, they rail against it, and more importantly, they liberate those who practice them from its clutches.
Whether Great Spirit or Goddess, the creator is something which can be experienced personally. The Shaman steps directly into the presence of that which gave him life and pleads for the good of his people. For the Pagan, “(t)he statue and the sacred grove were transparent windows to experience…means by which the witness was escorted through to sacred ground beyond and participated in the divine.” (Adler, 1986)
And this, perhaps, beyond all other reasons is why both Paganism and Shamanism are currently experiencing a resurgance. When all around him is measured solely by its material value, and the need to consume has dehumanized the tradesman, poisoned the rivers, and laid the rain forests bare, many a man will seek comfort in the arms of the divine. And rather than burden himself beneath the weight of secular authority disguised as the Word of God, would strip himself naked, stand upon the cool green grass, and howl at his Creator.
Our current experience, rife with political scandal, police brutality, insane wars in which greedy and frightened old men attempt to convince the rest of us that carpet bombing civilians is doing the work of God, and stories of child molestations in rectories and chuches, has taught many of us that the word of authority is not to be believed, much less trusted.
And so we’re left to find our own way home, picking and choosing that which rings true, and turning our backs on the rest. While modern shamanic practitioners often follow the path of Core Shamanism, which seeing the symbols, spirits, trappings, and ceremonies as universal, lifts these things from their cultural contexts and makes them available to all, modern Pagans often cobble together a religious experience based on everthing “from ancient symbols and ancient myths, to the old polytheistic religions of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Celts, and the Sumarians. They are reclaiming these sources, transforming them into something new, and adding to them the visions of Rogert Graves, even of J.R.R. Tolkien and other writers of science fiction and fantasy, as well as some of the teachings of the remaing aboriginal peoples.” (Adler, 1986)
It is as if Western Monotheism, with its shackles of blind obedience has left us cold, and so we weave a patchwork quilt of spirituality and faith to keep us warm.
Adler, M. (1986). Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and other Pagans in America Today. New York: The Penguin Group.
Eliade, M. (2004). Shamanism Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Harner, M. (1990). The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper & Row.