The “S” Word

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Most likely a response to the New Age Movement many call out the identifier of “Shaman” as cultural appropriation. I understand the contention, especially being aware of the origins of the word, it’s history and overuse in spiritual circles, academia and popular culture. However as it stands it is an apt word to describe certain spiritual practices found around the world that share a “common core” in their ecstatic actions and traditions, some of which are open to the West. This is my current definition of it:

“There is no definitive definition of shamanism used by anthropologists, rather, it used as a catch-all term for local ethnic beliefs and practices around the world that has a common core of members communicating with spirits and deities through ecstatic rituals. How one reaches these states vary greatly, but in general shamans utilise dance, drumming, mask donning, identity transference / acting, substance use, etc. A secondary aspect of shamans is initiatory rituals which simulate or physically enact a near-death experience. This experience gives the shaman insight into the afterlife.”

Many traditions perform these shamanic acts, often with their own cultural titles to describe the spirit workers. Without intentionally inciting insensitivity it is it’s overuse that allows the general populace to understand what a writer is discussing, without providing additional context.

An example of this is the common misunderstanding of The Dionysian Artists. Many, including friends and family assume that I identify with the guild because I am an artist. However, it is conceivable for a member *not* to identify as an artist in the sense we know now. The Western view of a shaman may be applicable in describing the acts and mysteries of The Dionysian Artists.

This is a subject I explore in an essay written for the next issue of Walking the Worlds (submissions close in Nov. ‘16.) In brief I explore the various themes found in the cults of Dionysos, especially the theatre. For the sake of ease I use shamanism as an adjective in describing the expression found in the theatre. Likewise I have a strong belief that ALL Western art originates from shamanic-like practices performed in pre-history.

I am fortunate because I have a lot of theory and research for the Dionysian Artists, I am privileged in using Shamanism as an adjective, others, however, may follow a different path and use it as a noun because there is no other descriptor for their practices.

In these instances I think it’s fine, “Neoshamanism” as it’s called, may draw upon closed ethnic traditions, but from what I have observed of it, it is totally different. They may utilise similar themes and actions that may be found in ethnic Shamanism, but adapt it to the point that these themes are general and common in open belief systems. They are themes, acts which can be traced in many world religions, including the Abrahamic and related fringe sects.

Last point, the critics I have seen mostly argue in favour of Native American tribes rights to the word… Given that the word originates from the East / Eurasia this is a wrong argument and is as insensitive as a Western person using the word to describe their practices.

So to critics of the used of the word I point my middle finger. This is an aspect of our overall culture. Being hung up on a word diminishes the spiritual acts and devotion one performs to their gods.

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