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Spiritually On-Call

This essay was written by a close friend of mine, in response to some rather unhealthy trends that have been popping up in neoshamanic discussions, primarily on LiveJournal, though I’m willing to bet this trend extends much further, and just so happens to manifest itself in this one particular format.

Essay reposted with permission, original link for commenting and credit can be found here: http://jarandhel.livejournal.com/259928.html

Spiritually On-Call, by Jarandhel Dreamsinger

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the subject of Shamanism recently. Particularly the question of how a Shaman relates to the gods/spirits they work with. I have to say, I completely agree with [info]mitsukami‘s statement that completely giving oneself over to the dictates of the spirit world to point where it eclipses your work, your relationships, and even your responsibilities to your children sounds extremely unhealthy. Some people have suggested that this attitude is what distinguishes the Shaman, in service to the spirits/gods, from the Shamanist. So far, I’m not really convinced by that line of reasoning.

Shamans in the modern world do not generally get paid by the tribes they serve for their service. Certainly they are rarely, if ever, paid a sufficient amount to support themselves wholly on their income as Shamans. They are also rarely independently wealthy. This means in order to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves properly they need to work for a living at a mundane job. If their Shamanism interferes with that mundane work, it directly interferes with their ability to meet their most basic human needs. A Shaman who is left constantly struggling to meet the most basic elements of survival is not going to have much energy left to serve others, let alone be in the proper state of mind to journey to the otherworld and deal with the beings and dangers there.

Human needs are an important point. Shamans, whatever gifts they may have which set them apart, are not immune to basic human needs. And one of the most basic is love and companionship. And while relationships with nonphysical entities are certainly possible, they are not generally as fulfilling as those in which you can touch your partner, hear their voice, hold them or be held by them at night. A Shaman who is denied the fulfillment of a relationship outside of their Shamanic work may have all of their physical needs met, but they are being starved emotionally. Would you want someone who is mentally and emotionally off-balance, for whatever reason, mediating between you and the spirit world?

The same point holds true when it comes to one’s children. There are very few emotional bonds stronger than those between parent and child. Interfering with that bond necessarily creates distress and interferes with the emotional stability of both parent and child. And interfering with the parent’s ability to meet their responsibilities to their child creates an even more obvious threat to the child’s well-being. I can’t help but wonder if any god or spirit which essentially demands one’s child be sacrificed (either by forcing the parent to give them up, or by denying the child proper care to their physical and mental detriment) is actually worthy of service.

Service. That is another important point: to what extent are Shamans in service to the gods and spirits they work with? There is a word in the English language for someone who is in service to another being so completely that the being they serve controls their work, their ability to meet their basic needs, their relationships, and even their custody of their children. That word is slave. So the question must be: Are Shamans the slaves of the gods and spirits they work with? I don’t think so, and for a very simple reason: it is not possible to truly serve two masters. The nature of a Shaman’s work is to be in service to the tribe. They mediate with the spirit world on behalf of the tribe. They go before the gods on behalf of the tribe, to plead the tribe’s case and ask for aid for the tribe. They are the advocates of their tribe in the spirit world, not the advocates of the gods in the physical world.

Advocates… that may actually be a good model with which to look at it. It is possible there are people who engage in shamanistic practices who are in service to the gods in this manner, who act as their hands in the physical world. But can they really be in service to the tribe if their loyalties are to the spirit world? I tend to think confusing the two is rather like confusing a prosecutor and a defense attorney. They may both be lawyers, but their roles as advocates are very different. Similarly, both the person who advocates for his people before the gods and the person who advocates for the gods to his people may serve as mediators between the two realms, but their focus is very different.

I believe it is the Shaman’s job to advocate on behalf of his tribe when he journeys to the spirit realm. To bargain with the gods, spirits, ancestors, etc on behalf of his people. Even to fight with them on his people’s behalf, if he must. To be Prometheus, stealing fire. To be Raven, stealing the sun and the moon and the stars. To be Loki, descending into the realm of the dwarves and bargaining with them for the greatest treasures of his adopted tribe. The Shaman, acting in this role, only obeys the gods and spirits to the extent which it is in his tribe’s best interest to do so. They work with them, they may build alliances with them for the benefit of the tribe, but their primary concern is the tribe’s benefit rather than the gods.

Taking the opposite role of advocating for the gods to man, especially to the point where one is giving control of one’s life over to them to the point where one could be considered their slave, requires a fundamentally different understanding of the relationship between man and the spirit world. It requires the shaman to see the gods as fundamentally superior beings to man, beings which have a divine right to command the lives of men, beings which are infallible in their instructions, and beings which are always good. It requires a belief that the gods have a right to be lawgivers and judges, juries and executioners, over man. In short, it requires the tribe to submit to the gods in much the same manner as the spiritual advocate who considers himself the slave of the gods.

This is a position which is fundamentally incompatible with much of pagan theology. Historically, pagan myths are full of tales of gods with just as many flaws as human beings themselves. They are full of jealous gods, lustful gods, angry gods, petulant gods, kind gods, gentle gods, and above all fallible gods. They are full of tales of the gods warring with one another, tricking one another, interfering in the lives of man to their benefit and their detriment, of being tricked and challenged and aided by man. From Orpheus to Maui, from Coyote to Ama-no-Uzume, the myths of the world are full of such tales. And if you accept that as an accurate depiction of the gods… if the gods are not perfect, not infallible, not all-knowing, not eternally benevolent… then the only way it really makes sense for the Shaman to work with them is as consultants, co-workers, friends, or adversaries as the situation warrants. Just like they would any living being.

For my part, I join my brothers in their defiance of any god or spirit which would make such demands. I will take care of my physical, emotional, and mental well-being. I will work a mundane job, maintain my relationships, and live my life. I will do anything I can to help those I consider Family, both mundanely and through my work with the otherworld, but in order to do that I need to be in a position to help. And I will not be in that position if I am incapable of caring for my own needs. The best way I can get to a position where I can take care of my Family, my chosen “tribe,” is to take care of myself first. And my life-partners and children, should I ever have any, are part of that tribe rather than separate from it, and I will fight to keep them with no less devotion than I will fight on behalf of the rest of my Family. To do any less would be a betrayal of both my Family and myself.

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  1. October 11, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    This is an awesome essay. I sometimes wonder if some shamanists (not all) have to go through a phase where they think they are slaves to their gods in order to justify or validate what they are doing. I.e. if a god is telling them or demanding that they do all this stuff, then it’s somehow worthwhile. But the price is too high, and often the cost is not conducive to actually being a long-term healer.

    An especially good point is made about the nature of many of the gods that shamanists worship in the first place; they can be fickle, lying, untrue; they can be hurtful, destructive and plain cruel. And while it might be a ‘higher power’ doing these things, doesn’t mean it’s following a ‘higher purpose’ to have those things done to you.

    It has been one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn; and I’ve only learnt it recently. But being a slave to any god is not being any kind of healer. You may be able to do some healing in that situation, but it will be limited, and I don’t know if it comes from a healthy place.

    Thank you for sharing this.

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