Shamanism

Primal and Indigenous Spirituality

Shamanism
Monday, August 6, 2018
Hiroshima Day

Some of the earliest evidences of human expression—dating over 40,000 years ago—can be found in the caves of Indonesia, France, and Spain. While the original meanings of these paintings are unknown to us, many anthropologists suggest “shamanism” or what we might call mystical consciousness and connection to the spirit-filled world.

There are no doubt significant differences in belief and practice between ancient traditions (as there are today between Christian denominations, other religions, and Native spiritualities). However, religious historian Karen Armstrong gives us a glimpse into what this spirituality may have looked like:

We know that shamanism developed in Africa and Europe during the Palaeolithic period and that it spread to Siberia and thence to America and Australia, where the shaman is still the chief religious practitioner among the indigenous hunting peoples. . . . [We learn from today’s shamans that] shamans have bird and animal guardians and can converse with the beasts that are revered as messengers of higher powers. The shaman’s vision gives meaning to the hunting and killing of animals on which these societies depend.

The hunters feel profoundly uneasy about slaughtering the beasts, who are their friends and patrons, and to assuage this anxiety, they surround the hunt with taboos and prohibitions. They say that long ago the animals made a covenant with humankind and now a god known as the Animal Master regularly sends flocks from the lower world to be killed on the hunting plains, because the hunters promised to perform the rites that will give them posthumous life. Hunters often . . . feel a deep empathy with their prey. . . .

The [Kalahari] Bushmen [or San] say that their own rock paintings depict “the world behind this one that we see with our eyes,” which the shamans visit during their mystical flights. They smear the walls of the caves with the blood, excrement, and fat of their kill in order to restore it, symbolically, to the earth; animal blood and fat were ingredients of the Palaeolithic paints, and the act of painting itself could have been a ritual of restoration. The images [on the cave walls] may depict the eternal, archetypal animals that take temporary physical form in [our] upper world. All ancient religion was based on what has been called the perennial philosophy, because it was present in some form in so many premodern cultures. It sees every single person, object, or experience as a replica of reality in a sacred world that is more effective and enduring than our own. [1]

Even in such an early, primal religion we can see the idea of this world as “image and likeness” of Ultimate Reality, and how the perennial idea of our connectedness with everything calls us to be respectful and compassionate toward all.

Reference:
[1] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Alfred A. Knopf: 2009), 5-7.

Image Credit: National Powwow Grass Dancers (detail), 2007, Smithsonian Institute creator, photographer Cynthia Frankenburg, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Looking for beauty all around us is a contemplative practice, an exercise in opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to the divine image. In indigenous traditions, such opening practices often take the form of dance, drumming, song, and trance, embodied forms that Western, and particularly Euro-centric, Christianity has neglected. —Richard Rohr

The work of the Center for Action and Contemplation is possible only because of friends and supporters like you!

Learn more about making a donation to the CAC.

FacebookTwitterEmailPrint