Dialogue on Shamanism, II

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Fri, 17 May 1996 20:37:15 +0900

Excerpts from Dialogue on Shamanism, Part II

CD: To us, scientific reality has the same function as
shamanistic reality does for shamans: it denotes a space more real
than the reality we know conventionally; and yet the scientific
space we seek to inhabit is nevertheless a cultural one.

JP: I'm hoping you are speaking for yourself on that one.

CD: No, I was speaking in the generic we voice. And my point is
that science *functions* like a shamanistic ideology. Obviously they
are different in structure, and intent.

JP: More on that later. The problem with applying 'science', or at
least the current perception of 'science', to perceiving
'non-ordinary' reality is the presumption that only one reality can
exist at the same time as in there having to be 'degrees' of "space
more real". This is not the case. Both "ordinary reality" and
"non-ordinary reality" exist so much to be all-pervasive, while
separate, but complimentary, entities. It's a matter of detection and
perception. Whether "reality" and "non-ordinary" are either separate
entities or two components of a single condition, science limits
itself to its ability, and even its instruments, to detect and
perceive things in reality only when meeting the criteria that the
selective perceptions of the scientists and the selective design,
and dependency, on its instruments of detection allows.
"Non-ordinary reality" exists whether a telescope has been devised,
or is needed, to perceive it --or not.

CD: I am in complete agreement with you here. So I find it strange
that you misinterpreted my intention. What I was saying was that
*even* the scientific world view is shamanistic in that it cannot
help but avoid positing a realm more real than the real of ordinary

JP: I think the confusion there is how people new to each other's
writing must be experience each other's communiques somewhat to be
understood, especially when a terminology common to us both is
evolving. If we stop with "shamanistic reality" as opposed to
"conventional", and, instead, use the terms "ordinary reality" and
"non-ordinary" reality, perhaps, such confusion will minimize itself
out of existence.

(JP) Both ordinary and non-ordinary realities are real. Only their
ordinariness differs. If science is seeking a "more real" world
within ordinary reality, that's ok. They may be able to apply the
same methods to non-ordinary reality, once it's perceived by them.


CD: The difference of course between science and shamanism is that
science is based on the idea of the control/manipulation/understanding
of matter while shamanism is based on the control/manipulation/
understanding of spirit (with subtle differences between the two in
how they conceive of control/manipulation/understanding). Thus the
end result of their knowledge has entirely different consequences
(ethically and otherwise, although neither science nor shamanism is
by itself an ethical system).

JP: You (CD) had said before: "As Jay Bernstein says, the question
of belief is a thorny one. It also brings up memories of the recent
myth/ideology/belief thread which didn't come to any resolution."

(JP) Shaman of course 'believe' in the existence of "non-ordinary
reality" otherwise there would be no shamanism. The word "belief",
as in having the faith to accept the existence of a reality
scientists regard as intangible, is not however applicable.
"Non-ordinary reality" is just as 'tangible' for those who can, and
do, detect it. Faith is not only not required, it would be an
impediment for any novice who believed such was required when
learning how to detect it. Moreover, once the "non-ordinary reality"
is detected, it may be then examined successfully by the scientific
method. It remains for many a perceptional problem, or the lack of an
acceptable instrument for its detection.

CD: My apologies, but you sound like a cognitivist psychologist

JD: No apologies required. I'm not sure what you mean by
"cognitivist", but "psychology" yes. In this case "good" psychology.
I will explain to the list how they can get from the outside in, I
just thought I would let them think that the scientific method might
apply there. If it has to be refuted later, that's ok. Better refute
later, than never having arrived to where it can be refuted, no? By
then though, those who might go, won't care anymore. I do write for
the audience.


CD: Jay Bernstein's point that there were shamans and then shaman/
healers is an interesting one. Perhaps this means that not all shamans
had the specialized botanical knowledge to use plants in treating

JP: I think you've got that turned around. Shaman recognize the spirits
and power of things both animate, and inanimate including plants. That's
what makes them shaman. One does not have to be a shaman, however, to know
the medicinal applications of plants.

CD: Yes, and no. Who was it on earth that could talk to the plants and
know what they had to give to us? Who if not shamans? Thus there is
an intimate connection between herbology and shamanism I believe.

JP: I am referring to herbalists within the same societies as their
shamans. Though the original knowledge may have been learned from
shamans, even in a distant past, an herbalist still doesn't need to
be a shaman to practice, and even advance, his or her knowledge.

CD: While I agree with your basic point, that a herbalist doesn't need
to be a shaman, the other side of things, though, is that it is certainly
helpful to be a shaman, no? Certainly, any herbalist needs a measure
of sensitivity to the many dimensions of both disease and health in
order to be more than just a quack prescribing drugs out of habit. Well,
to get back to the point about the separation of shaman and shaman
healer, I wonder if this division signifies that not all shamans were
interested in the well-being of others in their communities (shamanism
does not seem to emphasize an ethical system at least in the same
sense that the later organized religions did).

JP: Except for the results of either dangerous or not dangerous,
beneficial or not beneficial, ethics, no matter how contrived
systematically, is artificial when delving in "non-ordinary reality" --
much like whether using a telescope to detect the moon is ethical, or
the moon itself is. The 'ethical' systems of "organized religions",
incomparable with animism, were designed to remove people from
their natural affinity to "non-ordinary reality", much like health laws
prohibiting the raising of chickens in city neighborhoods to force
people to go to the A & P."

CD: I don't think so. If non-ordinary reality has any value
(conventional value, ordinary human value) it is precisely because
it suggests an ethic to us that ordinarily we have no cognizance of.

JP: That remains to be seen.


CD: In this context, John Pastore's comments that shamans among the
Maya are distinguishable in their being indistinguishable, that is in
their being ordinary members of the community, may be of relevance.
If shamans are "specialists" it may not be in the ordinary sense in
which we think of people as being specialists. And their "power" may
not be the same as what we ordinarily understand as "power" (wealth
and the ability to influence or control others).

JP: I better clarify my past statements about that. I definitely
witnessed healers, whether they were also shaman I cannot tell
although their being the ones to conduct rain-making ceremonies
would make them seem that they were. They certainly don't tell you,
and that's relevant to your above statement. A shaman's power, or
better stated, ability, is learnable by anyone. That is why shaman are
careful not to disclose what has been taught them. It is knowledge
usually reserved for the son (and I presume in other cultures daughter)
of a shaman, and so on. Among the Maya, these healers, and, perhaps,
shaman do not lord their abilities over anyone else.

CD: As an anarchist (of sorts), I have difficulty with the whole notion
of secrets. If the Mayan shamans are anarchists why are they so
concerned with keeping their message secret?

JP: Sorry, you lost me. What does anarchy have to do with shamanism?
And why do you say Maya shamans are anarchists? Also I am not
saying they are keeping a message, which you have yet to define,
secret, but, instead, their knowledge, which would be the knowledge
of how to participate in non-ordinary reality rather than merely
believing in it or, even, merely being able to observe it. Again this
"message" from beyond, so to speak, still requires definition from you.

CD: Things like non-egalitarianism, the power of some individuals or
groups over other groups, authoritarian government, etc. all seem
opposed to the "spirit" of shamanism. In this sense shamanism is
anarchistic. Yet, if they must keep their knowledge secret in order
to pass it down to their children in a kind of institutional
arrangement, this seems against the spirit of anarchism in which
there should be a more open exchange of information, etc. The
"message" of shamanism, to me, is that shamans seek to have a
positive impact on the culture they find themselves in by bringing
their knowledge of non-ordinary reality to bear on ordinary, cultural


CD: Perhaps our point of view in thinking of shamans as a unique type
of individual is mistaken. In shamanistic cultures, all individuals are
shamans in some sense since they share the shamanistic cosmology.

JP: I think that statement is closer to the truth.


CD: In a posting a few months back on song and dance, I wanted to
show that song and dance have an important role in shamanism.
Perhaps a definition of shamanism should include them.

JP: As 'cultural' accoutrements maybe, or as accustomed methods
for the detection of "non-ordinary reality", but not only not necessary,
but also, inhibiting. There are other methods where a shaman can
function within his or her abilities without also having to be
dancing and singing --though such methods may be unknown those

CD: Here, I would like you to be more specific. What other
methods? Also how can song and dance be inhibiting?


CD: . . .this would extend the range of shamanism beyond the
experiential level which can only be individualistic. Instead of saying
with Kotliar that a shaman is "someone who is able to transcend the
natural world through ecstatic mystical/magical experiences," one
might instead be able to say that a shaman is one who is able to
inhabit simultaneously the natural and social worlds through ecstatic
mystical/magical dancing and singing.

JP: This remains unclear to me. While I'm agreeing that song and
dance can be a medium for shaman, but probably more for the
observers, it is not required, at least, by those cultures who have
additional, less 'ecstatic' methods, but, perhaps, more 'sublime'.

Your (CD's) view of shamanism seems closer to the truth, but like I
said, shamanism cannot necessarily be limited to a single cultural
accoutrement, or single set of such accoutrements, of any single

Moreover, shamans play out their roles whether a scientized society
is existing or not --at least within the enclaves of animistic
societies. I don't buy faith healing in organized churches as
shamanism. Shamans, are not operating on faith; and I think they
would buy LSD before they would buy LDS.

CD: Wouldn't they really buy neither? A person I know quite well
saw deer, real ones, when they did peyote, but when they did LSD they
only looked at dreams, and plastic ones at that.

JP: Maybe. You're a real naturalist Clyde.

CD: Here, I have difficulty deciphering the reasons for the
irony/sarcasm. Peyote is considered to be a spirit as well as a plant.
It is also associated with the deer among the Yaqui. Thus when the
individual in question saw deer while doing peyote they thought it
might have been because of the magical connection between deer and
peyote. The individual in question had said that he had never had a
similar kind of experience when he had done LSD. Is this merely
because of the chemical differences in the "drugs" or is there
actually some kind of spirit associated with peyote?


CD: Jay Bernstein's point that drug use is not an essential feature of
shamanism is a good one (albeit he seems to sidestep the problem of
why drug use is associated with *some* forms of shamanism).

JP: Drug use is not essential, but it sure does help --that is the
psychotropics. The problem here is science's definition of what
constitutes reality, as opposed to a hallucination. Didn't most
people think they were hallucinating when the telescope was
relatively new and they were first peering through one?

CD: Jay Bernstein read me as for drugs and now you read me as
against. Something's strange here.

JP: No, I'm reading no one either for or against drugs. Like I said
drugs, the psychotropics, can be used, but are not essential.


CD: ...previously I mentioned the problem of colonization in this
regard which, though, may not be an adequate explanation.

JP: ...what do you mean by "colonization". Is that an
anthropologist's term?

CD: It can be, but anthropologists often don't like to use it because
of its Marxist overtones, particularly when it is used metaphorically
to describe conditions which occur microsocially (even among the
colonizers), such as "colonization of the lifeworld." Here, though I
meant its more literal meaning. Drug use to achieve shamanistic
experiences increased in the context of the colonization process of
the Americas. The peyote cult is a good example. I think Taussig
also said something like this concerning the Amazon. On the other
hand, there seems to be a quite ancient history of using mushrooms
among the Maya. There are some indications that shamans in ancient
China used marijuana. Marijuana is and has been used religiously in
India as well. In India, there is also the reference to "soma" in
the early Vedic epics although no one knows what exactly it was.


CD: Jay Bernsteins mention of rocking in this context as a way of
concentrating the mind is an interesting one. What are other bodily
techniques which are used?

JP: More tomorrow on the one, with a description of the Tibetan
Cave Hermits, and how they train themselves to fly "astroproject"
--without drugs. Its a simple process. I have to get back to work.

Ka Xiik Keech Ya Utzil,

John Pastore
Writer/Guide in 'El Mayab'
("The Mayan Homeland")

Clyde Davenport