Posts filed under ‘Approaching Paganism’
Next in Approaching Paganism- Vocational Paths: Warrior
Also a response in part to Allec’s Thoughts on the Warrior’s Path, what does that mean, how does one define it?
As with elder, I think this needs be a role defined by specific cultural traditions and organizations. If you feel a calling to a warrior path, in what context will you walk that path? Which community, tradition, deity etc. will you do warrior work for, and what does that entail? I am not a warrior myself, but even if I were, I still couldn’t answer those questions for you. Here are some factors to consider, as well as some ways different people and traditions define warriorship both in Greater Neo-Pagandom and broader U.S. society (I’m always interested in hearing about non-U.S. perspectives, just basing things on what I’m familiar with)
- Mundane/Paid Profession/Job/Career- a person who serves, has served, or plans to serve in the military, police, fire departments, emergency personnel (EMT, paramedic) park/forest ranger etc. Such a person may go into these fields as part of a spiritual calling, or discover/explore the spiritual dimensions after going into it.
- Practitioner, Teacher or Master of a particular martial arts form- it could be a hobby, a form of exercise and self-defense, various Asian martial arts traditions typically have some culturally-specific philosophical concepts involved, at least if they have haven’t been watered down into American Mixed Martial Arts…(Puke!)
- Devotee of a war-associated deity, hero(es), warrior/military dead- I know various people that have taken up martial arts and other forms of physical fitness as ways to connect with and serve a deity or spirit. Some, but not all of such folks identify as warriors, or as priests of the deity.
- Roles at rituals and festivals such as warding/guarding the edge of a ritual space, working security at a festival or other Pagan event, being an advocate of abuse victims/survivors in Pagan and broader communities.
Ethics & Norms to Consider-
- Are Peaceful/Spiritual Warriors a thing? Do nonviolent political activists count as warriors? This is debatable- I’d say be aware of what context you are in- Reclaiming Witches perhaps, Heathens/Asatruar, not so much.
- Gender- some people think warrior automatically means male, a rite of passage to manhood involves “becoming a warrior” and so forth. I also see the “strong woman equals warrior” meme among certain feminists, both religious & secular- or conversely “women should be/are inherently peaceful” among certain feminists and anti-feminists alike! Nope. People of any (or no) gender can be warriors, and people of particular genders *don’t have to be* warriors if that’s not their inclination.
- People in, or formerly in the careers discussed above may or may not identify as warriors in a spiritual sense. Calling someone by a label they don’t want is not “honoring” them. Being individual humans, they will have varying emotions and opinions about their experiences, please respect give space to them accordingly.
- Be careful about attaching cultural associations to “warrior” that are not yours or bringing them into the wrong cultural context. (E.g. would you wear your karate gear as ritual garb?)
- Historical re-enactment, role-playing games and the like are fun hobbies, but they are not necessarily part of your religion.
- Observe rules/laws at rituals, festivals and people’s homes about what (if at all) weapons are allowed, how they should be secured, children and pets as factors, etc.
- Being a warrior is not an excuse for being a bully, bad behavior etc. In fact, many warriors have codes of ethics that they strictly adhere to!
Part II will be links and commentary from people in various warrior traditions.
I encounter with relative frequency, individuals calling themselves shamans or having an interest in shamanism in both online and offline settings. I suspect most of them are not Evenki or Tungus Siberian folks, though there is the occasional exception. I would humbly propose to other well-meaning defenders of indigenous cultures that screaming cultural appropriation! at these New Age “shamans” is probably not the best approach, especially if they are not actually the ones leading the weekend sweat lodge retreats and publishing books on Shamanic Wiccan Druidry. Instead, let’s have conversations.
Is there a better word to use than shaman?
What are you trying to describe with the word shaman or the adjective shamanic?
A role serving a particular community as a spiritual specialist who does lots of intense spirit work, healing and otherworld journeying? What tradition do you work within? Are there more culturally specific terms?
A solitary path that involves intense spirit work and otherworld journeying? Spirit worker, mystic, hedge witch/wizard/warlock
A belief/worldview involving plant, animal and other spirits? Animist
Some Potentially Very Bad Reasons for “Deciding” to be a Shaman include…
Connotations of “Noble Savages” who are more “in touch with nature, what it Truly Means to Be Human etc.” in contrast to This Corrupt Urban Industrialized Disenchanted society that I still don’t want to leave cuz indoor plumbing and electricity are nice… Please unpack your cultural assumption baggage again- some books that might help:
Orientalism by Edward Said
Books, articles and classes on postcolonial theory, postcolonial feminism, anthropology, cultural area studies (American Indian, East Asian, African diaspora et al.)
You have what Western medicine classifies as a mental illness, chronic illness or other disability. Therefore, shaman *must be* your spiritual calling! You have a shaman-sickness! You are specially/chosen or “marked” by the Gods/Spirits/Ancestors! Your suffering, isolation etc. now has meaning and It All Makes Sense Now! OK, let’s slow down. I admit this one is a little close to home, as I myself qualify as neurologically divergent in various ways (autistic, epileptic, ADHD, etc.) I believe this *does* make my spiritual perceptions and experiences unique and different in various ways, but I’m hesitant to jump to the conclusion that This Means I Must Have a Special Cosmic Destiny!!!
For one, I know plenty of other people with the same conditions as well as other disabilities that do not have any such spiritual inclinations and get pretty darn irritated when they get the “You are Special Child of God” or the other extreme “You are possessed by demons!” crap from people or similar Pagan/New Agey versions- “You’re an Indigo Child”, “You did something bad in a past life, and this is your punishment”. There does seem to be a higher than average number of Pagans with various disabilities and medical conditions, how much of that is self-selection or by Higher/Lower Powers That Be is up for debate.
You are transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, pansexual, intersex, asexual, kinky, yada yada…and once again this gives you a magical ticket to shaman-hood. In various cultures- yes shaman-type roles are often associated with gender-bending/blurring/fluidity and sexual “otherness”, though it’s important to remember that late 20th-21st century Western identities like I just mentioned above are different from alternate sexual and gender identities found throughout human history and contemporary cultures around the world. We can certainly find a lot of inspiration and ideas from these various identities, and learning about them can put into context how we view GLBTQ+ identities in our own cultural settings, and how they can have collective and individual spiritual meanings and roles. But likewise, a gender/sexual/romantic minority might see their identity in a completely secular manner, or see their identity as mostly incidental to their spiritual role and development.
Next in Approaching Paganism, let’s talk about spiritual specialists. Not clergy, not priests, though those are overlapping categories, but every tradition has a different concept of what that means, and every person who becomes Pagan brings their own baggage and assumptions about what they mean. As a result, conversations about the roles and duties of “Pagan clergy” in a broad community context are generally a mess. But priests, witches, shamans, seers, magicians- these are all various types of spiritual specialists. The concept of layperson, or a laity necessitates a clergy class, so instead, I’ll contrast the specialist with the general practitioner- yep like a doctor. A better analogy would be a homeowner who knows enough about plumbing, carpentry and electrics to fix most things him/her/theirself. But every once in a while, a major problem occurs and the homeowner has to call in a plumber/electrician/contractor to fix it. Also, sometimes the homeowner knows how to fix a problem, but doesn’t have the time to do it, having a day job and all.
So, here’s a layout of common “ingredients” to being a spiritual specialist- some combinations work better than others…
*Self-study & practice
*Informal study & practice with peers
*Taught by family members/elders of oral tradition (folk customs, healing techniques etc.)
*Has taken various one-shot workshops & classes at festivals & conferences
*Formal training by a group (coven, lodge etc.)
*Training in an Eastern martial art, spiritual discipline like yoga, Zen meditation, etc.
*Academic training at a seminary
*Academic study of religion, history, cultural studies, language in graduate school
Service to Community
*Celebrant or Officiant (weddings, funerals, other rites of passage)
*Pastoral care work- as a volunteer or paid chaplain (visiting & counseling people in hospitals, hospice care, assisted living, prisons, jails, the military, praying, studying or leading ceremonies in those settings)
*Teacher of adults and/or children
Service to a Deity/Spirit/Group of Spirits
*Shrine or temple keeper (set-aside purified space, not just a table in your bedroom)
*Prophet/mystic with an intense connection to the spirit/deity
*Shares information with public about deity/spirit/tradition to encourage worship, maybe leads rituals specific to their cultus but not general community festivals
*May involve monastic lifestyle with possible rejection of mundane/broader community work, rejection of regular human romantic/sexual relationships & having children
*Advanced practitioner of magic, divination or healing
*May do these types of work for others for pay, favors, other services etc.
*May train/teach others in this type of work
*Researches and designs own rituals
*Teaches own children, peers, members of their group
*May teach occasional workshops, write articles or keep a blog but does not lead a group or do this as a living
*May practice magic, healing, divination for self, close friends and family
*May do peer ministry- visiting other Pagans in hospitals, mentoring and sharing information
Super-Volunteer/Queen of the Church-Ladies/The Committee Meeting Ain’t Over til She Leaves
(Not to be sexist- I do know some menfolk that play this role as well! Every volunteer org has one or more…)
*Chief event organizer, except on the day of the event, in which she is busy vending Pagan bling, doing Tarot readings, leading workshops and/or speaking on panels
*Career is designed strategically so she can get weekends & evenings off. Hopefully a gig that will also allow her to get free food/paper copies/other relevant discounts. Always asks for the week of Pagan Spirit Gathering off about 2 years in advance.
*Things don’t get done because everyone else on the committee/coven members etc. assume she already did them.
*When she has a major family/health/career change, Pagan Pride, Samhain or the local festival Just Doesn’t Happen.
*A minimum of 3 cats or other animals is require for this position, as is an entire spare bedroom or basement for storing of annual event or coven supplies. Said supplies must not be put in waterproof containers..
I typically reserve the word “clergy” for people who have more formal training, serve a community, and in a American context usually have legal status so they can marry people. I know in other countries, you can’t just pay X amount to the Universal Life Church and suddenly you get to marry people- they are more picky about what counts as a religion. Across the board, it means “person who is recognized as clergy by the community they serve”. Just paying the fee, and buying a stole does not clergy make.
A priest/ess on the other hand, may primarily serve a deity or group of spirits/deities, rather than a community as such. The training and experience required will depend on the tradition they follow. And while I don’t have a problem with people creating their own personal religion, declaring yourself a priest of your own religion that consists of no one else seems very silly at best, and disrespectful to priests of other traditions at worst.
The Super-volunteer example is what happens when general practitioners don’t step up/wheel up to the plate and pitch in. Everyone has different talents, skills, levels of experience and personal/familial needs that have to be balanced out. I’ll give some suggestions on how this can work in my next post.
My Related Posts:
Food for Thought:
Ordination? But….We Don’t Need Clergy by Byron Ballard (some Pagans need clergy, some don’t)
In Support of Our Own: Understanding Unitarian Universalist Idealization by David Oliver Kling- argues that getting trained as a U.U. minister does not solve the whole Pagan communities need for clergy
Why My Aunt Judy Isn’t a Pagan (Or, How Far We Still Have to Go) by Raven Kaldera
It’s common in Pagan communities to hear people talk about their patron or matron deities. Within Neo-Paganism this could have a couple of origins- patron saints- who are regarded as in being guardians of a particular profession, family, area of life (ex: a type of illness) place, or specific person. Another origin may be the Holy Guardian Angel, who is called upon in Thelema and some types of ceremonial magic(k) more generally. The concept of a personal guardian spirit that watches over someone all their lives is found in many cultures, but I feel that is a different, though related topic to that of patron deities.
An important thing to remember, however is that the term “patron” is used many different ways and may even have more specific meanings for particular traditions. Therefore, it’s best when in a pan-Pagan community space- be it online or in person, to think of “patron” in the broadest possible sense, and narrow down from there as a person shares more about their practice and theology. Having a patron (or patrons) is not a requirement to be a True Pagan ™ though it may be encouraged, recommended or required in particular traditions.
Common Uses of Patron
A- Deity that a person feels closest to, and is their all-purpose “go to god” (this what I have with Brighid)
B- Deity that a person has formally dedicated themselves to serve, typically by swearing an oath- either temporary as for a year and a day like dedicating to a coven, or for life.
C- Dedication or devotion to a deity that involves being a priest/ess or monastic-like lifestyle. In this case, the person may still use the term patron, but typically more commonly call themselves a priest or devotee of X. The relationship is often seen like that of a parent and child, or a spouse or lover.
Assumptions and Misconceptions
There is often debate about whether a person can choose a patron or must wait for “signs” that a deity has chosen them. I think either side can be taken to an extreme with people assuming that is someone chooses a deity, then they must have randomly chosen one out of a hat for shallow reasons or at the other end, people worry about not having had enough of a dramatic “Burning Bush” type experience.
Some polytheists (especially some Heathens and Hellenics) argue against the idea of patrons, claiming that they are not historical and are influence of monotheism, particularly American evangelical Christianity a la “my personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. I do think there are some folks who have rather immature relationships with their patrons, especially when they seem to expect them to swoop down and rescue them from any screw-up they make- I call this phenomenon “My Little Loki/Hermes/Bast”, et al or My Little Totem for that matter. But there are historic examples of close personal relationships with deities in many cultural contexts- for both priestly and lay practitioners. Having a patron also does not mean the person stops being a polytheist, they generally will worship a variety of spirits and gods, with particular focus on the patron(s). That said, henotheism- the worship of only one deity (or form of deity) while acknowledging the existence of others- or even occasionally honoring them for festivals is an acceptable norm in certain traditions such as Kemetic (Egyptian) religion and Hinduism.
Culturally Specific Terms
Heathenry & Asatru: Fulltrui– in Icelandic fulltrui means trusted friend or fully trusted one
Hinduism: Ishta devi or ishta devata– in Sanskrit this means cherished or beloved deity- an individual chooses a form of God to focus their devotion. Looking for websites about this, but I’m not sure which ones are the best sources on Hinduism…
Kemetic Orthodoxy- in KO (note that this is a specific organization, not all Kemetics belong to it) there is a rite of Parent Divination which determines which of the Netjer- the Gods that the person will serve.
Note: I consider the topic of patron deities to be more of a 201 level, especially I haven’t gotten much into theology yet, but this is a very common topic beginners ask about on fora, and they often get many mixed messages! So I thought I’d sort things out a bit here. Not all forms of Pagan practice and belief necessarily involve deities, and some info here could also apply to relationships with other types of spirits such as totem or power animals/plants/fungi, ancestors etc.
If you aren’t sure what tradition you will be following (or creating!) this is a nice way to compare things a bit before you dive head-first into something! Remember also, that polytheist and animist practice doesn’t have to be based on a particular cultural tradition- either historic or living. One example of a modern, polytheistic religion is the Otherfaith, involving worship of eight Gods and a multitude of spirits. Though I’m not a follower myself, I find it fascinating to watch the development of the Otherfaith, the reflection of human diversity in their Gods (or rather are we reflections of the Gods?) and my discussions with Other People has added a lot of insight in my own attempts at finding modern inspiration.
Book recommendations from Galina Krasskova- Resources for Beginners & Not-so-Beginners
A list with lots of resources- Pagan 101
Celtic Polytheism– My resource page, which I’m always adding to!
Getting Started with Heathen Practice– Beth Wodandis’ guide to the basics
Natib Qadish- Canaanite polytheism
Kemetic Polytheism (Egyptian)
Hinduism (not necessarily polytheist, but I consider it a “cousin” religion)
Minzoku Neo-Shinto– great introductory e-book about folk Shinto, this is also a great place to look for ideas on adapting polytheism to modern life
One of my questions for thought and discussion in my last post was-
“Is a culturally neutral shamanism- or any spiritual practice possible? Why or why not?”
Most of my questions don’t really have “right or wrong” answers, because they are designed to make you think, question your assumptions and work on developing your spiritual path. I admit this one however, was a bit of a “trick question” intended to test what assumptions you might have of cultural neutrality.
From a social science standpoint it’s impossible to be “culturally neutral” or truly “generic”. I often see American Pagans attempting to do this, especially within a particular region- this is “generically North American Indian” or “generically Asian”. The results are often very watered down, ineffective and often offensive and mis-representative of hundreds of distinct ethnic and regional cultures, all in one ritual or book! The pan-Indian ritual will be Disney’s Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves, and the pan-Asian ritual in the next room ends up looking like a cheap hippie version of this Katy Perry music video.
Basically, to be “culturally neutral/generic” you need to stop being human. Humans, are by definition social animals and need each other for our physical survival and mental sanity. Culture is by definition, shared and co-created over a long period of time. If you are still thinking “But I don’t have a culture!” I suggest you read this article- Body Ritual among the Nacirema and that might help you to view things differently!
I know some of my co-religionists were wondering about my choice to include shamanism in my Approaching Paganism series. Most of them would simply state “shamanism is practiced in some Central Asian cultures, and if you’re from outside of that context, you just shouldn’t use the word”. I understand and empathize with that position, but the fact is I am explaining modern Neo-Paganism in its many varieties as it is, rather than as I would like it to be. I might have an easier time influencing people who are totally new to Paganism(s) and shamanism in any form, but by simply accusing people of cultural appropriation, I’d be shutting down any potential conversations with Western/non-indigenous people who have been following a neo-shamanic path for years. Being an American who gets politically and socially classed as “white”, I have a lot of opportunities to challenge racism and cultural insensitivity from people with similar backgrounds. But I have to find the best way to use those opportunities to calmly invite people to learn more and challenge their assumptions and sense of entitlement, rather than just shutting down conversations by playing “I’m a Better Ally Than You!” trump cards. And I realize, that I in turn always have more to learn about these issues myself!
It also seems a bit hypocritical to me to judge people too harshly about this, since after all I call myself a Druid. A lot of people in broader Neo-Pagan-dom would consider that “fair game” simply because it’s of European origin, but it’s more complicated than that. There are living Celtic cultures, and while they don’t have a continuous unbroken tradition of druids, they still have opinions about people who call themselves “Druids” particularly when they come from English or Anglo-American cultural backgrounds and think they are entitled to grab anything pretty and shiny with knotwork or tartan patterns and call it “Celtic” without bothering to learn anything more about distinctions between Celtic cultures, languages and their histories of suppression and erasure.
Going back to the Pagan Pride definition of Paganism(s) that I use in my first Approaching Paganism post- one component is-
Practicing religion or spirituality based upon shamanism, shamanic, or magickal practices
We’ve already covered magic, but what’s shamanism? Well, that is a complex and rather controversial question!
Basically, a shaman is a spiritual specialist within the context of a hunter-gatherer culture- especially Central Asian, Mongolian or Siberian, who engages in altered states of consciousness (or trance) to make contact with the spirit world for purposes of healing, discovering information, or facilitating transitions between life and death.
When I first entered the Neo-Pagan scene in the Twin Cities area, it took me several years of exploring and research before I found out that shamanism had nothing to do with North American Indians, in spite of how people often presented it to me. I encounter people who say things like: “Hi, I’m Starry Owl, I follow a Cherokee shamanic path, and like my name, my totem animal is the Owl.” If “Starry Owl” was hanging out with actual traditional Cherokees, she would probably get some strange and possibly offended looks (or maybe just a lot of eye-rolling…) The word shaman comes from the Evenki language in North Asia, and came to be used by missionaries and later anthropologists for spiritual practitioners of other neighboring peoples, and eventually more globally for indigenous peoples around the world. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade’s book- Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, greatly popularized the broader use of shamanism in anthroplogy, even if that was not his intent!
Michael Harner, a New Age author later wrote Way of the Shaman, beginning the Core Shamanism movement in wealthy, industrialized countries. He claimed that shamanism could be boiled down to certain essential core traits, that could be used as a framework to create a culturally neutral shamanism so it could be adapted by Westerners without ripping off any one indigenous culture. He based his “generic shamanism” on a combination of Siberian shamanism as described by Eliade, with spiritual techniques and cosmology from the Jivaro people of the Amazon. Harner kept making money by writing books, and running workshops marketed towards mostly white middle/upper class Americans and Europeans. Many indigenous activists, traditional spiritual practitioners as well as anthropologists and other scholars (indigenous or not) have accused Harner of cultural appropriation, that is taking practices and ideas from indigenous cultures and exploiting them for personal gain and profit. Harner has claimed that he has in fact, helped indigenous people who have lost parts of their shamanic practices with his Foundation For Shamanic Studies.
Some Key Differences Between Classical Shamanism & Neo-Shamanism
From here on out, I’m going refer to Evenk, Tungus, and other closely related Siberian spirit-work as classical shamanism, and some Western New Age or Neo-Pagan ecstatic/visionary spiritual practices (including but not limited to Core Shamanism) as neo-shamanism.
Being a Shaman is a Calling- Not Generally a Choice
Sometimes there are particular “signs” that a child- often at puberty, sometimes at a younger age, may have certain abilities or has been chosen by spirits for a particular role. The child (with parents’ approval) will then commonly be singled out for special training by an older shaman. In many cultures, the shaman-in-training will also learn general skills that everyone else in the community learns, as they will for the most part be making their living as a farmer, herder, hunter, craftsperson etc. In some cases, in larger communities, a shaman may be entirely supported by the community and devote themselves mostly to spiritual pursuits. Sometimes this also happens as a result of cultural change, and interest from outsiders in shamanic practices, (spiritual tourism) which can have mixed effects on the culture. A shaman that has a more liminal role, at the edge of society- revered and respected, yet also feared and perhaps only called upon in times of great need. Sometimes this fear is added to due to influence from other religions and cultures.
Shamans Serve a Specific Community
Classical shamans serve their particular ethnic and geographic culture. They do not generally perform ceremonies or other spiritual duties for people outside of that community. As mentioned before, this has changed in some places due to pressure from Western spiritual tourists. Neo-shamans typically follow a solitary path for emotional, spiritual and psychological self-fulfillment (sometimes shamanic practices are regarded as being therapeutic) and they usually don’t serve a broader community, unless it’s to teach neo-shamanism to other people in workshops, write books, etc.
Shamanism is Often Seen as a Difficult Path, Not a Fun Thing to Dabble In
Various cultures have the concept of shaman-sickness, the idea that various physical and mental symptoms have a spiritual cause indicating a shamanic calling, and a trans-formative process that a person must accept exists in multiple cultures. This is a lot like the ordeal of initiation I discussed earlier in my post on mystery traditions, and indeed mystery traditions may have shamanic roots. This of course makes things messy quickly when a culture with these concepts is in contact with Western medicine, and doctors see the “patient” as having physical problems that need treatment, while their family members view it as a spiritual matter.
Gender and Traditional Shamanic Roles
In classical Siberian shamanism, the role is typically performed by men. In other cultures, the shaman may typically be a woman, or can be of either sex. Sometimes a person who is regarded as neither man nor woman- or who is biologically male but *socially and spiritually* considered a woman, has a shamanic role. In neo-shamanism, while perhaps stereotypically seen as slightly more masculine, people of any gender are typically accepted as being able to be shamans.
Being Descriptive, not Prescriptive
I am a social scientist of sorts (political science to be precise) so I tend to try to at least initially describe social phenomena in such a way that is descriptive rather than prescriptive. As in “this is what some people do, what they call themselves, some possible reasons reasons and motivations for why they do it” rather than initially labeling that behavior as good or bad. As you can see here, what was once a culturally specific term has become more widespread and imprecise in meaning, which has the potential to spread misinformation about various cultures and traditional religion, and sometimes distortion and commercialization in cultures that are often struggling for their very survival. To be frank, New Age and Neo-Pagans are probably going to keep calling themselves shamans in both ignorance and knowledge of the origins of the word, especially since they are usually far removed geographically and culturally from people who have a more direct claim on the term. Flatly condemning people for doing that will probably not change their minds. Instead, I suggest we work on changing the culture of “Anyone who reads a book/takes a workshop is Now a Shaman!” (Though we can certainly add Witch, Druid, etc. to that list!) More on that in Part 2.
Questions for Thought/Discussion:
Where did you first hear of the term shamanism? How was it defined and presented to you?
Is a culturally neutral shamanism- or any spiritual practice possible? Why or why not?
Is the spread of interest in shamanism in wealthy, industrialized countries helpful or harmful to people in those countries, as well as indigenous cultures around the world? Can it be both?
What influence do New Age/Neo-Pagan publishing, workshops, classes, festivals and conferences, and spiritual tourism (i.e. to sacred sites, gurus, shamans etc) have on your spiritual development?