Gonna Take a Shamanistic Journey

ost Westerners became aware of shamans and their beliefs and practices when Mircea Eliade published his classic Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ec stasy in 1951 (first in French, then in English in 1964). As he described it, "shamanism" was a complex but clear cluster of phenomena.

Shamans were and are:

(1) tribal officials in

(2) hunter-gatherer cultures who

(3) were usually reluctant recruits who

(4) underwent a harrowing death and rebirth experience that

(5) enabled them leave their bodies at will while

(6) deities or other spirits possessed them and/or

(7) they traveled to other worlds to

(8) represent their tribe to the deities or

(9) find and return the errant souls of sick members of their tribe.

Eliade asserted further that most shamans were from central or eastern Asia (or among their distant relations, the Native Americans), that they shared a particular form of "x-ray art," often used some sleight of hand in their healing magic, and sometimes used mind-altering substances as aids to leaving their bodies.

In 1968, Carlos Castaneda began publishing a striking series of fantasy novels that he successfully passed off as anthropological research for many years, about a Native American shaman named Don Juan who supposedly taught him all about the magical and spiritual uses of peyote, datura, and funny mushrooms.

In 1973, Michael Harner said in a book he edited, Hallucinogens & Shamanism, that the "flying ointments" referred to in many medieval documents as having been used by witches seem to have regularly contained various hallucinogenic herbs such as belladonna, henbane, datura, etc., which can in combination produce illusions of flying as well as visions of wild orgies and dancing.

Throughout the 1970s, books about the spirituality of hallucinogens met an eager market. Castaneda kept cranking out more novels, later Lynne Andrews and other New Age authors began telling similar tales, and Harner published books about shamans in the Amazon jungle. Together, these authors redefined shamanism as any system of magic or religion that used mind-altering substances — which is, of course, most of them at one time or another. Eliade's once-clear definition became lost in a psychedelic cloud of vague generalities.

Morning Glory Zell pointed out in the late 1970s that users of belladonna around the world frequently report seeing the same "White Lady," Whom they associate with various moon and sea goddesses, just as users of peyote from different cultures often meet the same green vegetation deity (most commonly known as San Mescalito). She felt it possible that independent cults of similar belladonna users could have sprung up in multiple parts of Paleopagan Europe, and that they might have survived here and there into the Middle Ages. She called this idea, Shamanic Witchcraft.

Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, others were to call their new versions of Wicca (or Neopagan Witchcraft — see Chapter 8) by the same term, even though these others did not advocate or use psychedelics in their worship. They did, however, wave feathers and crystals around and pound on drums, so they figured that was close enough to shamanism...

It seems clear to me that Classic Witches fulfilled almost none of the characteristics Eliade outlined as essential to shamanism. They weren't tribal officials; they were outcasts. They lived in or on the outskirts of settled agricultural societies, rather than hunter-gatherer ones. There is very little evidence that trance-mediumship was a major part of their activities. Europe certainly wasn't part of Central Asia!

So it is unlikely that either they or any of the other witches in this book were the remnants of pre-Christian shamans (unless there were witch-hunts in Lapland or Finland, about which I've heard nothing). Ironically, the Benandanti of medieval Italy (see Chapter 6), which started out as a cult dedicated to fighting witches in a spirit world, may be the closest to matching Morning Glory Zell's original concept.

Chapter 4:

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