‘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.”
“That stuff’s just fake.”
“Don’t get ideas above your station.”
“Take that shit off.”
“Why can’t you be like everyone else?”
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.)