In yesterday’s post, we looked at the history of shamanism. We learned that shamanism goes back at least as far as 25,000 years ago in South Africa. We also looked at the varying definitions of shaman. In today’s post, we’ll look at how one becomes a shaman. Enjoy!
How One Becomes a Shaman
Given the seemingly differing opinions on the history of shamanism and the definition of a shaman, there seems to be substantially more agreement on the process by which one must undergo to become a shaman. According to Merchant (2006):
The ‘call of the spirits’ to the shamanic vocation is experienced as a serious and disturbing psychological phenomenon early in life (often at adolescence) and this initiatory illness is interpreted as a (mostly unsolicited) calling, which is not only experienced as a destiny/fate but is articulated in these cultures as an election by the spirits. A strenuous and difficult initiation follows, involving altered states of consciousness, dismemberment imagery and death/rebirth phenomena. (p. 133-4)
The candidate is not fully recognized by their cultural group as a shaman until they are able to demonstrate their abilities of mastery over the spirits and communicate with them to acquire information for the purposes of healing (Merchant, 2006). Metzner (1998), like Merchant (2006), referred to a process where the shaman-to-be has visions in which they see themselves being dismembered. According to Metzner (1998), “In some Australian aboriginal tribes, the would-be medicine man [or shaman] is “cut open” with stones; the abdominal organs are “removed” and replaced by crystals, which give him curing and clairvoyant power after he is put back together” (p. 101). Smoley and King (2006) also refer to the dismemberment of the shaman-to-be and reassembly: “The candidate ‘dies’ to his old identity and is reborn to a new one” (p. 160). Given the idea that the shaman has to die under his old identity before the shaman can become the new identity, the rite of passage where the shaman must undergo a process of dismemberment and reassembly is fitting. Merchant (2006) referred to ‘serious and disturbing psychological phenomena during adolescence’ and in the western world (the USA) can easily be mistaken for schizophrenia.
Given all that I have read about schizophrenia and shamanism, it is possible that people who are classified as schizophrenic in the western world are actually ‘hearing the call of the spirits,’ but because they were born into a society that does not appreciate this as a gift, but rather an illness, are treated distinctly different. I have not found any evidence to support this point of view, but it is worth mentioning. Rock, Abbot, Childargushi, and Kiehne (2008) conducted a study where they were attempting to determine the effect of a shamanic-like stimulus (a procedure that was very similar to shamanic journeying) on those who could be classified on the schizotypy continuum. The study included the appropriate control group(s) and had the following conclusion: “One’s score on the CP [cognitive-perceptual] factor of schizotypy appeared to influence one’s ability to experience alterations in phenomenology. Consequently, high CP factor individuals may be strong candidates for shamanic training” (p. 94). The results of this study are seemingly in congruence with the description that those in adolescence undergo psychological hardship offered by Merchant (2006).
There is an activity that I remember participating in during my ‘psychopathology and diagnosis’ class in the winter semester of this year at ITP. During this activity, the class was divided into 4 or 5 groups. The professor gave us a case study of a tribe of people in Africa who had been relocated from their original land and who had some people that were seemingly ‘ill.’ We were to pretend that we were a prospective business vying for the right to ‘cure’ these people. Many of the ‘symptoms’ that were present in the people would have made them categorically schizophrenic, if we were to use the DSM-IV [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]. During the presentation portion of this class, we worked our way around the room as all the groups identified their possible ‘plan of action’ to cure the people. It was at this point that each of the groups made mention of the fact that the people who were ‘ill’ might not have been ‘ill’ by the standards of the tribe. However, the ‘illness’ was something that was observed by the people who were examining the tribe from the outside. After each of the groups shared, the professor praised all of us for recognizing this and made note that other classes he has taught at non-transpersonal schools would probably not have recognized this factor. While this example might just show the openness of the students who enroll at a transpersonal psychology school, my hope was that it might have shed light on the possibility that non-transpersonal schools rarely (if at all) take into account the norms of the tribe they might be diagnosing. My reason for sharing this story is that it seems to tie in with the shamanistic ‘rites of passage’ discussion. If the people who were shamans in tribes in other countries, instead, grew up in America, it is quite possible that they would be categorized as schizophrenic and placed in a hospital. This makes me wonder if the people that are categorized as schizophrenic in our society today are not necessarily people who need to be feared, but instead, people who need to be revered and taught to embrace their shamanic qualities.
In this section, we have examined the process one undergoes to become a shaman. We have learned that there is a great deal involved in becoming a shaman including the following: ‘schizophrenic’-like symptoms in adolescence, altered states of consciousness, dismemberment/reassembly of one’s body, and an ability to display one’s skills in communicating with the spirits to obtain information to heal people within their community. We have also explored the possibility that people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia in America are actually candidates for shamans. In the next section, we will take a closer look at some of the roles that shamans can play for their community.
Check back tomorrow for the next section: Roles of a Shaman.