Guttershaman – The Authentic Shaman

20 January, 2009

‘Of course the Chinese mix everything up – look at what they have to work with! Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.’ Egg Shen in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

(Disclaimer: I am, to quote Jim Jarmush’s great film Dead Man, a Stupid Fucking White Man. I have no formal training in the deep mysteries of any native ‘shamanic’ or tribal tradition – of any single tradition at all, for that matter. I am just a product of my time and place, trying to find my way. That perspective is the basis for all that follows.)

The title this time around is a misnomer. There are no authentic shamen. Not any more.

The term ‘shaman‘ is a specific one. It refers to Tungus-speaking tribal practitioners of folk magic and spirituality. They were wiped out so completely by Soviet and Chinese Communism that Western ‘neo-shamen’ from Michael Harner’s school came over and instituted their own versions of ‘shamanic’ practice to replace the native tradition. So that makes anyone claiming to be a shaman – neo or Gutter or otherwise – inauthentic.

The idea of shamanism we have today, which draws ideas from many different tribal and native traditions (via anthropology, which co-opted the term), is likely a very different thing than the original Siberian form. The word ‘shaman’ has become a placeholder, a symbol for something else – usually describing various interpretations of traditional and tribal spiritual praxes involving a rather borderline position to the rest of the tribe, consciousness-alteration and ‘travelling’ to spirit realms for healing and wisdom. Of course, in considering the use of tribal spiritual motifs from other cultures, we soon hit a problem… which is usually called cultural ‘theft’ or appropriation.

There’s no doubt that an awful lot of problems have arisen due to the heavy-handed appropriation of older cultural concepts. The Native American Nations have often complained about (mostly) white New Age practitioners taking elements of their practices and touting them, out of context, as a spiritual path. Interestingly, common terms used by Native Americans to describe these Newagers are ‘plastic shamen‘ and ‘shake-and-bake shamen’…

I think the key factors here are around concepts of respect and authenticity. (A third factor is, of course, commerce. That’s a big enough can of worms that I’ll have to open it in a later post.)

The respect part I get, absolutely. Barging into a native tradition and announcing you’re not only a fully-fledged practitioner of that traditions mysticism but that you’re improving it and that the natives are Doing It Wrong, is insulting and crass. “Taking the piss”, as we Brits call it.

If you’re going to work fully in a magical or spiritual tradition, I would say showing due respect to the culture it came from is just good bloody manners, as well as good sense. But at the same time, worrying about how the symbols and memes of such cultures are used (or even misused) outside of their native context often seems more a matter of colonial guilt and shame than disrespect. It’s a complex set of issues.

(Plus, some of those tribal traditions have attitudes and practices – homophobia, misogyny, isolationism, child abuse, human sacrifice – which are frankly best left to the past. Of course the actions of colonial invaders in the past were often just as vile… and I can’t offhand think of a culture that has not been invaded and colonised at some time in their past, or been the invader, or both. Like I said, complex.)

Is it cultural appropriation for a white man to enjoy (or perform) Afro-Carribean-based music? Or for an Indian movie maker to be inspired by Hollywood (or vice versa)? Or an Amazonian native to wear a Manchester United t-shirt? For a magician to use laymans versions of quantum or meme theory as magical tools?

To me, that’s kind like asking whether Crossroads Blues was performed better by Robert Johnson or Cream. Or more directly, which is better – traditional Yoruba magic, Haitian Voudon, New Orleans Voodoo or Cuban Santeria?

Cultures are always a mix of the native and the foreign, the traditional and the new. Have been ever since humans started to trade. The quote at the start states the mix of currents in Chinese spirituality quite nicely, for example. The degree of mixing changes over time and place – sometimes just a touch, sometimes a dollop. Sometimes the mixings can provide something genuinely good – like the massive upgrade to British cuisine provided by Asian immigrants in the 1970’s. Sometimes it doesn’t work so well – such as Japanese whiskey. But cultures and traditions evolve through mixing and exchange of ideas.

This is especially true of Britain, a Mongrel Nation if ever there was one (as explained in scrupulous and often hilarious detail by Eddie Izzard in his TV show of that name). The original native British (and Western European) ‘shamanic’ traditions are all but gone too, banished by the Christians… but enough hints and pieces remain in myth and legend – in our culture – to inspire a new ‘tradition’ of mystical praxis to arise. It’s not terribly authentic, in all likelihood – there’s no way to really know (though many talented pagans and historians are doing their best to find out all they can about it.). Large chunks of it have been drawn from other native traditions. But it is powerful and quite beautiful at times. At other times, it can be a farrago of confused, misquoted and misapplied traditional currents, mixed in ignorance, stirred in arrogance. The result isn’t authentic at all – no matter how hard some Newage types try to claim it as such.

No question that the Plastic Shamen and their techniques are all-too-often a hodge-podge of different traditions and practices thrown together more-or-less at random. And, I have to admit, that could be said of what I do too.

That’s part of the reason I coined the term Guttershaman to describe my path/spirituality/whatever. Most people know what shaman – and gutter – implies.

Yes, I picked up my information from libraries, other practitioners, movies and TV shows – and I made a whole bunch of stuff up, based on my experiences and discoveries. At the same time, there was always something about the shamanic concept as I understand it that called to me. The elements of being an outsider to the tribe as a whole, but still in some sense having a responsibility to it. The use of ecstatic and terrifying occurrences as a tool for spiritual development. The process of bringing something back from ‘the other side’. And, ultimately, the sense of being called to the path by something beyond the normal world. If there’s any ‘authenticity’ in what I do, it’s to that.

My wife is also a ‘shaman’. Her path, to put it mildly, differs from mine. She found that her way is Curanderismo – the Hispanic American folk practice. She has spent a long time in Peru, learning it first hand from a master whose family has worked in this path for generations. She’s also a neuroscientist by training, and has picked up more than a little of the multi-model approach to magic both from myself and her own studies. Thus when she thinks about that path, there is a degree of both distance and immersion, depending on circumstance and context.

Also… her master has taken the sacred songs (icaros) from many different tribes in Peru and elsewhere to bring into his praxis. And… that tradition is itself mixed with Catholic elements brought over by the Conquistadors. In fact, the majority of the lyrics to the icaros are in Spanish and use Christian imagery. The pure native tradition just isn’t there any more.

Is the system she follows ‘authentic’? Is it more or less so for her (an American woman of East European Jewish ancestry and a trained scientist) to practice it than for her Columbian-born, mixed-race, Catholic-indoctrinated Maestro? And is she more or less of a ‘shaman’ than I?

Put it this way – she and I both get results. And we work together great.

It’s the concept of ‘authenticity’ that gets in the way, I think. It’s like ‘purity’ in some ways – an impossible, and sometimes dangerous, ideal. Except, perhaps, when talking about being authentic to an ideal…

To feel your true identity is not based in your immediate family, your tribe, your country and its religious and social habits – but is something you sense and strive towards – is not easy. Sometimes an idea from another culture is exactly the thing you need to, forgive the term, become yourself. Sometimes who you’re born and raised as isn’t who you are. It isn’t theft to find a different culture to your own enriching – as long as you are authentic in your respect, that you strive not just to take but also to give.

As long as you don’t take the piss.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

‘Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today.

We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

…See if any of these comments are familiar:

“You should be happy with who you are.”

“Be yourself”

“That stuff’s just fake.”

“Don’t get ideas above your station.”

“Take that shit off.”

“Why can’t you be like everyone else?”

Yeah?

We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic to our society.

…But you know what? Back in the days before the internet, a kid called Robert Zimmerman said, “fuck that, I’m going to be the man I dream of being. I’m going to become someone completely new and write about the end of the world because it’s the only thing worth talking about”. And that was one guy in Minnesota, in the decade the telecommunications satellite was invented. Imagine what all of us, living here in the future, can achieve.

Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention.

Be mad scientists.

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.’

Warren Ellis, in Doktor Sleepless Issue 5, ‘Your Imaginary Friend.’

POSTSCRIPT – In researching this piece, I came across a lot of very interesting writing on the subjects discussed. Two I found – one long, the other very short – are especially worth a look.

(Next on Guttershaman – Culture, money and morality. Tricksters and thieves. Probably.)


Psychic Warfare from 1981-2008

11 January, 2009

An interesting post on Brainsturbator, on US Military Psi research and brain change.

The year I was born, in 1981, the US Government decided magick was real.  Well, the “US Government” is of course an abstraction—specifically, Congressional Research Service was commissioned to do a report on psychic phenomena and offered the following conclusion:

“Recent experiments in remote viewing and other studies in parapsychology suggest that there exists an ‘interconnectiveness’ of the human mind with other minds and with matter. This interconnectiveness would appear to be functional in nature and amplified by intent and emotion.”

That sounds like a pretty accurate description of magick to me.  Score one for the weirdos, right?

Of course, I don’t expect you to believe that. Ignore any claims that wouldn’t get made outside a college-level physics textbook.  There is no need to believe in non-human or “extra-dimensional” intelligence, no need to believe in telekinesis, no need to believe in any of the claims made by the magick community.  They are merely designing rituals to alter their perception and experiencing self-generated hallucinations.

The illusion of moving images is a puzzle that humans have cracked to great success, and by flashing sequential photographs at 24 frames per second or more, we get to watch movies—windows back in time.  Humans have even learned to “fake” three-dimensional objects with holographic technology.

If it can be engineered, it can be reverse engineered. If these people are “merely” altering their own consciousness and then taking their own imagination at face value, these rituals can be modeled, measured and ultimately replicated.  It is obvious, both to skeptics and to practicing magicians, that most of the words, props and staging involved with ritual is a matter of personal preference and probably not integral to the actual effects.


Guttershaman – intro

31 July, 2008

At the end of the day, it’s all just weird shit.” — Me, quoted in Sandman by Neil Gaiman.

One of the main reasons I put up this blog is for my thoughts about magic. I have considered myself as a magician for pretty much my whole adult life – and the seeds of that go even further back, to when I was about seven years old. For years, I’ve been trying to find ways to describe what it is I do, and how I think about “the occult”, “the Dark Arts”, “mysticism”, “psychic phenomena”, what have you.

This seems a good place to do more of that, and hopefully the end result will be of some use – or at least amusement – to the reader.

Disclaimer.

By the very nature of the subject, anything said here can only be my opinion – working model at best, subjective bias at worst. The only absolute I have found in nearly forty years of study and working is there are no absolutes – and that this paradox may well be the whole point.

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In many ways, I am not a refined or subtle man. I come from lower-working-class English mongrel stock, and despite a childhood where I was reading books and thinking thoughts far outside the experiences of my family, school ‘friends’ and teachers, the habits and speech patterns of that time stayed with me.

(It’s notable, for example, that whenever I become emotional about something my normally fairly neutral Brit speech patterns revert to those of my family – in short I sound like John Constantine getting stroppy! Well, without the Scouse undercurrents. You get the idea.)

(Also, I swear like a fucking bastard.)

My background meant that my first exposure to theories and concepts of magic came from my local library. Finding books on myth, then occult praxis, pretty much saved what for sake of argument I shall call my sanity. I never stopped reading – and after a while I noticed something very odd… that I was picking up a lot of useful ideas and myths from fictional works, perhaps more than so-called non-fiction.

Now, I’m hardly the only person to realise that. At about the same time as I was making this connection in my early teens, the founders of what’s now known as Chaos Magic were investigating the possibilities of fictional archetypal magics. Call it Steam Engine Time, perhaps. Or that we were all reading Robert Anton Wilson. Either way, this realisation let me explore ideas about magic with a freedom I appreciated – amongst other reasons, it let me make stuff up and work with improvised tools in a way that a more formal style would have frowned upon. For a poor boy on a very restricted budget, this was helpful.

At the same time, I kept getting this sense of vocation, that my magical interests were leading to something. The best parallel I could find was in the tribal figure usually called ‘shaman’. The archetypal magic-worker, a figure who would otherwise be an outcast due to their differences from the rest of the tribe. One called to serve. (And, as I found many years later in a talk on Tibetan Bön Shamanism by Christian Ratsch, the first duty of that school of shamanism is to fight demons. Considering how my career ended up, this fits rather too well.)

That word shaman has a lot of heavy connotations – especially when used by a Western white man who’s not remotely using a strict traditional ceremonial form. Issues of cultural theft and inauthenticity pop up. And since ‘urban shaman’ as a term has been co-opted by some of the fluffier (and IMO sometimes less than effective) denizens of the Newage movement, I needed an alternative.

One day, the word ‘Guttershaman’ popped into my head. And it seems to fit. A town-going mage, happy to work magic with whatever he finds on the street and in his pockets. A bit rough-and-ready, but workable.

So that’s where I come from. As I go on in these posts, I hope to dig a little deeper into all this.

Looking at things like the way words and magic combine, and the things that seem beyond words. About being authentic to yourself in an increasingly inauthentic world. Why magic and religion make such unsteady bedfellows.

Why something like a Guttershaman has a purpose in the twenty-first century.