Modern Shamanism

© Spotlight Ministries, Vincent McCann, 2000

Image courtesy of: Jerome Bushyhead

When one thinks of Shamanism, the image of the North American Indian, or medicine man, is usually conjured up in the mind. But in the West, a new form of the more traditional Shamanism is taking shape and gaining increasing popularity in the context of the present pagan revival. This brief article will seek to highlight and identify some of key areas of practice and beliefs involved with this movement.

As with Paganism in general, Shamanism also has a fluidity which make s it difficult to define. There will be various definitions of Shamanism depending upon the individual and their cultural surroundings. Gordon MacLellan states: "As with most modern Paganism, there is no single dogma or central authority to measure things against and we are all free to, and do, disagree with each other about everything!" (Gordon MacLellan, Paganism Today, p. 138). The Pagan Federation describes Shamanism as "...perhaps the most diverse of all the forms of Pagan practice..." (The Pagan Information Pack, 4th ed. The Pagan Federation.).

Contact with Spirits
One of the primary goals within Shaminism is to have contact with the spirit world. MacLellan explains: "shamans work with spirit people, shamans work through trance. Call them guides, or totems or helpers, gods, there are spirits with whom the Shaman has close links." (Gordon MacLellan, Paganism Today, p. 140). God warned the Israelites of the dangers of spiritualism before they entered into the promised land of Canaan, a warning which is equally applicable for us today (Deut. 18:9-12). God has put these warnings in place because He is a good God, not wanting people to fall into harm. Spiritualism takes on many forms, and Shamanism is just one of many being promoted in this present day. The blunt truth is that those who involve themselves with spirits are playing with fire. These spirits are powerful, intelligent beings who are masters of deceit and only desire to enslave men and women into bondage and away from the salvation which is in Jesus Christ. Even MacLellen admits the possibility of a bad encounter with a spirit: "If you encounter problems with spirits, it is probably because you have, perhaps quite literally, stepped on someone's toes. No-one is under any obligation to be nice to you and some of the spirits you meet may feel they have good reason to be angry with you, or thoroughly unpleasant to you." The reasons given for this unpleasantness is that some spirits are angry with the way humanity is treating the earth. (Gordon MacLellan, Shamanism, p. 67).

The Visionquest
Related to the above, is the Shaman practice of "Visionquest". MacLellen explains that "A Visionquest is a planned withdrawal from everyday life: a time of solitude and reflection where the Shaman humbles himself before the Infinite and prays for a Vision, a revelation, that will confirm him on the path he is following." (Gordon MacLellan, Shamanism, p. 75). Among the various things which this visionquest involves is the possibility of what Shamans call "dismemberment". Terasa Moorey explains: "Shamanic journeys were dangerous, involving magical dismemberment and rebirth, and possibly one may not return from the spiritual world." (Teresa Moorey, A Beginners Guide to Paganism, p. 75) MacLellen also describes this process of dismemberment as "being taken apart, or even eaten, by spirits to release your spirit from its need to hold on to a human form." (Gordon MacLellan, Shamanism, p. 81, emphasis added). From a Christian perspective, the idea of being taken apart and eaten by spirits is very disturbing. The Bible says: "your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8, emphasis added). The Bible also exhorts us to "test the spirits to see if they are from God." (1 John 4:1). The reason for such testing is that there exists many spirits that are hostile to humanity and which seek to lead people away from the true freedom to be found in Jesus Christ.

Altered States of Consciousness
Another characteristic of Shamanism is the practice of aiming to reach altered states of consciousness. Various methods are employed to achieve this condition. MacLellen explains: "Shamans work with trance and ecstasy...Generally, these can be grouped into six main categories: music, song, dance, pain, traditional hallucinogenic and stillness...The ecstasy is the passion of life." (Gordon MacLellan, Paganism Today, p. 142). There appears to be some division among Shamans regarding the use of hallucinogenics. One camp of Shamanism tends to frown on any use of drugs whereas the other camp readily promotes taking drugs. This latter group obviously appeal to today's drug culture. In fact many users of such drugs as cannabis, and LSD adopt Shamanic beliefs.

On a positive note, it can be pointed out that Shamans, like those in other modern Pagan groups, are genuinely concerned for the world in which we live and seek their best to protect and preserve it. This is indeed commendable, in and of itself. The ecological position of Shamanism tends to be tied in with the New Age belief of Pantheism (the belief that the earth and all of nature is divine). This view, however, is distinct from the Christian position that God is separate from His creation. It is true that something of God's power is seen from His creation, but we should not confuse the Creator with His creation. It is God's desire that we stand in awe of His creation so that we may seek to come to the Creator Himself (see Rom. 1:20).

Shamanism is not a new phenomenon, but rather a revival of ancient, mostly native American Indian beliefs of contacting spirit guides. The brand of Shamanism that is emerging within the context of the modern Pagan revival, has been shaped to suit the individual's taste and to adapt, as far as possible, to acceptability in modern western society.

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