Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Alex Stevenson - Shamanic Practice & Neo-Paganism

Shamanic Practice and Conceptions In Modern Pagan Spiritual Reconstructions

Ever since the emergence of pagan spiritual reconstruction movements in the West, practitioners, worshippers and spiritual leaders alike have struggled to develop meaningful ways of enacting rituals which are both socially and metaphysically fulfilling. The unconventionality of their faith means they have had to adopt methods perhaps not common to larger mainstream Western faiths like Christianity and Judaism, and have instead turned to forms of shamanic and trance based practices. These forms of ceremony are not only highly effective in generating social and spiritual capital within pagan organizations, but also in offering yet another element of worship to differentiate them from mainline faiths from whom they may wish to draw new membership. As such, it is the purpose of this essay to outline and examine the various elements of shamanic practice and trance that are apparent within Western pagan spiritual reconstructions and discuss how they interact with and inform the means of worship within these faith communities. This will provide a meaningful example of how shamanism and trance can be discussed in Western, modern spiritual contexts.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which pagan spiritual reconstructions and shamanism and trance interact is through a shared belief in alternate worlds and various methods of attaining access to and insight from these ‘otherworlds’ (Heaney in Clifton & Harvey, 1994). Heaney uses the example of Irish pagans who view what are likely burial mounds from beyond recorded history, as the dwellings of the Tuatha De Danaan or sidhe, faerie-peoples who can be communed with via poetry and song, a belief which may well be derived from shamanic initiation and trace practices (1994). Similarly, Clifton draws links between ancient Greek religious archetypes and legends and modern day shamanism, attributing this to the multifaceted and numerous centres of Greek spirituality. He argues, “modern Pagans can feel an affinity with it [ancient Greek religion] that we cannot feel with the exclusive, judgmental, and dogmatic scriptural traditions” (2004), and that by seeing traditional Greek myths such as Orpheus’s journey into the underworld as descriptions of shamanic and trace practices, modern pagans can easily integrate these rituals into their own worship, lending them greater authenticity and a classical appeal (1994). This is highly important for many modern pagan reconstruction groups, as they sometimes struggle to maintain concrete evidential links with the ancient cultures they claim to draw their basic beliefs from. Shamanic practice provides an obvious means to circumvent this, by allowing members participating in rituals to connect directly to the alternate worlds and spirits which they worship without necessarily having full prior knowledge of what they are in fact trying to achieve.

This is especially interested when viewed in light of the discussion in Blain and Wallis’s Sacred Sites – Contested Rites/Rights regarding the importance of ancestral locations and genealogy in the rekindling of Western European shamanic practices within modern pagan movements. They cite the experiences MacEowen, an American of Scots-Irish descent who claimed to be reclaiming, reviving and reinventing the ancient shamanic traditions and rituals of his European ancestors (Blain & Wallis, 2007). He came to this realization after his participation in various Lakota-based Native American ceremonies led him to commune not with traditional Native American teacher spirits but with entities much more closely resembling those worshipped by his Irish and Scottish ancestors (Blain & Wallis, 2007). This led him to further explore his conceptions of indigenous shamanism, and through it, enhance the ways in which he was able to engage with paganism in a modern context. Although the rituals he engaged in had little inherently to do with the spirits with which he communed, MacEowen’s experience provides a tremendously useful base for examining the ways in which trance is influenced by the essential nature and spirit of the practitioner.

This shamanic concept of spiritual connection through ancestral means is prevalent in many other modern pagan spiritual reconstructions, and is perhaps one of the most important links between paganism and shamanic ritual and spirituality. The Norse pagan reconstruction of Asatru for example, a spirituality in which ancient Norse Gods and various other spirits are worshipped, has surprisingly found immense success outside of its traditional home in Northern Europe, especially in the United States of America (Strmiska 2005). This is because American practitioners of Asatru, through citing the Vinland theory of potential Viking settlements in North America, find an inherently more primal and spiritual connection to the possible religion of their forebears that is not as easily accessed in more mainline American religious groups. Asatru, like other similar pagan reconstructions affords its worshippers the ability to feel as if they are part of a continuing line of worshippers beginning with their oldest ancestors who communed with the same spirits generations ago that they still worship today. Here again, a pagan movement’s popularity and accessibility is reliant on shamanic concepts of ancestral memory and worship, and it is through rituals that allow conversance with spirits and beings beyond the ‘everyday’ that pagan reconstructions such as Asatru gain a means of cementing their authenticity, as well as the social and spiritual capital which they generate (Strmiska 2005).

This then seems to be the essence of shamanic and trance based practices in modern pagan contexts. They provide a valuable means of connecting both individual practitioners and greater spiritual communities under a single ritually induced consciousness, as well as providing a means of bridging ‘spirit worlds’ and the ‘everyday’ (Letcher in Blain, Ezzy, Harvey, 2004). Shamanic practice allows pagan spiritual reconstructions to travel beyond the bounds of their own immediate experience and draw on belief and inspiration in a method that transcends historicity in favor of a much greater primal immediacy fed by instinctual feelings of belonging to a greater inter-generational spirituality, unbound by harsh doctrine and narrowly refined ritual (McNierney in Clifton & Harvey, 2004) . Through shamanic practice and ritual, a pagan who is in many senses entirely genealogically and geographically divorced from the focus of their worship may avoid this spiritual inconsistency and interact on another level with the source of their beliefs. Thus, though an American Asatru, or Scots-Irish Pagan like MacEowen may never have visited the home of their ancestors, or even have particularly strong European familial roots, the world which their various deities and spirits inhabit is only as far away as their next ritual engagement with it.

Works Consulted

Blain, Jenny & Ezzy, Douglas & Harvey, Graham (eds). Researching Paganisms. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press (2004)

Blain, Jenny & Wallis, Robert. Sacred Sites: Contested Rites/Rights. Brighton; Portland: Sussex Academic Press (2007)

Clifton, Chas S. & Harvey, Graham (eds). The Paganism Reader. London; New York: Routledge (2004)

Strmiska, Michael F. (ed) Modern Paganism In World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO (2005)

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