Saturday, August 4, 2007

Shamanic Practice and the Priesthood

Tungus shaman with a hide drum

Alice C. Linsley

A fundamental principle of cultural anthropology states that the study of extant primitive societies helps us to understand archaic societies and vice versa. This is especially the case when we compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. What do I mean?

There is no benefit in comparing practices of peoples who belong to different regions, have different histories, and different languages, yet this is done fairly often in textbooks to prove a point. Female shamans in ancient Greece, for example, are called "priestesses" but they do not function as priests by any definition of that term. It is intellectually dishonest to misapply terms.

The sloppy comparison might be excused on the ground that the people who present this fallacy are ignorant of the distinction between priests and shamans. If this is the case, they should neither claim to be experts nor should they be recognized as experts.

Hupa female shaman
Photo Edward S. Curtis, 1923

To illustrate the comparison of apple and oranges, I’ll refer to a textbook that I’m using to teach World Religions. In the section on shamanism, the author generalizes that shamans are the priests of the ancient world and that since there are Japanese and Korean female shamans, there must have been female priests. This is the politically correct thing to say, but it is based on a false premise and employs an incorrect anthropological method. Here is the author’s reasoning in syllogistic form:

Premise: All shamans are priests.
Females are shamans.
Therefore, female shamans are priests.

The premise is false. While there are ways in which shamans and priests are similar, the distinction between them is clear. The priesthood's origins are among the early Semitic populations and those influenced by them. The cultural context of shamans is rooted in Altaic populations.

The offices of priest and shaman are probably the oldest known religious offices. Both serve as intermediaries between their communities and the supernatural. They share some common symbols such as the Tree of Life, and the Sun as the emblem of the Supreme God. However, they represent different worldviews, different ways of reasoning, and different practices.

Veiled Tungus shaman with drum

Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world. The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work in a given situation and to find ways to appease the spirits and restore balance or harmony. This often involves use of psychoactive substances to induce a trance state. Rarely, does the shaman perform blood sacrifice. The hides used to make their drums come from animals that have been hunted for food.

Underlying the priesthood is belief in a supreme High God to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, one Great Spirit (God) holds the world in balance, and it is human actions that cause disharmony. Priests are to discern the spirits, recognizing that evil spirits are the enemy of God. The ancient laws and received traditions governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, and cleansing rituals clarify the role of the priest as one who offers sacrifice for the people according to sacred law. 

Shamans tend to serve small tribal communities or nomadic clans, whereas priests historically serve at shrines and temples under the authority of high kings and rulers. Another difference is that gender-transgressive (cross-dressing, transvestite) shamans can be found among many populations around the world: Africa, Asia, and the Americas. However, the Bible forbids transvestism among God's people.

Drawing broad conclusions from comparison of apples to oranges violates a fundamental principle of cultural anthropology. It leads to generalizations that gloss over significant differences.

Related reading: Hallucinogenic Substances Found in 3000-year Hair of ShamanMales as Spiritual Leaders: Two PatternsBlood Guilt and the Priesthood of Christ; Why Women Were Never PriestsGod as Male Priest; Female Shamans, Not Women PriestsIdeologies Opposed to Holy Tradition; Binary Distinctions and Kenosis; Traditional Healers of Central Australia


TLF+ said...

Christian priesthood can be twisted into a more general shamanism. The gnostics certainly twisted apostolic words, and one who wants to find shamanism can pick out ideas like Paul's "stewards of the mysteries".

But Christian priesthood is not about general tinkering with the spirit world. It is about anamnesis of Christ crucified.

Feminism, mainly in its wierd Liberal Protestant forms, is enthralled by lesbianism. It devolves easily into idolatry (worship of the self/projection of the self onto the divine). Thus a generalized, shamanist or nature religion appeals - remove the pointed Biblical message, and it is much easier to twist all the words and symbols toward a "divine feminine". One of the more interesting things about The DaVinci Code is the book jacket stuff, revealing that the author's wife is some kind of "Women's Studies" prof. That influence explains a bunch about the book's wierd distortions of history.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Very true! Through Anamnesis of Christ's passion the Christisn stands in sacred time and space. It is not necessary to go into a trance.

Hopie said...

The more liberal theological world's worship of "Sophia" is another politically twisted use, animistic and even idolatrous use, of the value of women. The true value of women is grounded in the binary/biblical roles and status given them by God their Creator and Savior, not in the a lesbanian tainted feminism that is more anti-masculine than spiritual.

Alice C. Linsley said...

I should add that there are two types of blood anxiety: blood shed by killing and blood shed by birthing. To ancient peoples both were regarded as powerful and potentially dangerous, requiring priestly ministry either to deal with blood guilt through animal sacrifice or to deal with blood contamination through purification. The prohibition to not eat of flesh that has blood, because life is in the blood is very telling. Blood represents life and pollution. Blessed Mary presented herself for ritual purification and the "churching of women" is a vestige of this practice. Unfortunately, the churching of women after birth has largely been done away with since western women regard it as humiliating. Instead they should see it as following the example of the most powerful woman in history.

Alice C. Linsley said...

A reader emailed me this comment:

"I was reading your blog about shamans and priests; very good. Are you planning to write a book? It is much needed.

I've a comment in response to Fr. Ron. You wrote: "The Blessed Virgin Mary is neither a priest nor a symbol of the priesthood. She is the Mother of Christ God and as such is unique. While her sacrifice did involve the shedding of blood in birth, that was taken care of by the priest when she presented herself according to the purification laws of Israel."

In the Hymns of the Orthodox Church it is clear that the birth of our Lord was without pain and without corrupting her virginity (like when he passed through stone at the tomb and the doors on the first Sunday after the Resurrection). So there would be no blood. She is the new-Eve that overturns the curse. So no purification was needed. Luke 2:22 (in the Greek) says "their purification" not "her purification". The Church has understood that "their" implies the Jewish people. This is a bit incomplete.

Pray for me.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes, I need to think much more about this, Christopher.

Perhaps the answer is that these matters pertaining to Mary's bringing forth her son, Christ our God, are forever hidden as a matter of divine delicacy. This is consistent with God's love for his female servants. Remember the Creator sought Mary's consent before the Spirit overshadowed her. (Contrast this to Zeus who raped women.) This hiding of the details of Mary's "bringing forth" is consistent also with the worldview of Mary's ancestors who displayed the erect phallis at shrines, but (unlike Hinduism) NEVER displayed the female organ.