Shamanism and Conjuring

Early anthropologist Martin Gusinde reports the following performance by a shaman in Tierra del Fuego: “He put a few pebbles in the palm of his hand, concentrated on them, and suddenly the pebbles vanished.” Can anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of sleight-of-hand believe this wasn’t a conjuring trick?

One Siberian shaman showed eighteenth-century researcher Johann Gmelin how he pushed arrows through his ceremonial coat, piercing a bladder filled with blood to give the impression that the arrow had run through his body. Other feats have puzzled anthropologists unschooled in conjuring. Russian anthropologist Waldemar Bogoras watched a Central Alaskan shaman, in broad daylight, wring out a fist-sized stone so that a stream of small pebbles fell from it and piled up on a drum placed below, while the original rock remained intact. Bogoras was convinced it was a conjuring trick, but he could not figure out how it was done, especially as the shaman was stripped to the waist. Such performances demonstrate why shamanism is, in such large measure, a skill to be learned.

Neville Drury opens his book on shamanism by talking about Iban shaman Manang Bungai, who used monkey blood to fake a shamanic battle with an incubus. Drury claims that this is not “true shamanism,” which is “characterized by access to other realms of consciousness.” But, apart from the unseemliness of an outsider anthropologist adjudicating the authenticity of someone else’s tradition, it is worth pointing out that Manang was not a fake on his own terms or in the eyes of the culture in which he practiced. The use of monkey blood in his shamanic performance requires a more subtle analysis than a simple European dichotomy into the authentic and the fake.

One theory we may call the trophy view. Anthropologist Marvin Harris, for example, writes that such conjuring has a persuasive healing purpose, producing the evidence needed for achieving a therapeutic effect, “although from the shaman’s point of view the real business of curing involved the removal of intangible spirit-world realities.” Michael Harner similarly distinguishes between the spiritual essence of an illness, which may appear, in the “shamanic state of consciousness,” to be, say, a spider, and its manifestation, in the physical plane, as, say, a “plant power object” — some twigs, say, which the shaman may hide in the mouth and then display to the patient and audience, who are in the “ordinary state of consciousness,” as evidence that the sickness has been extracted. Lawrence Sullivan says that shamans “must make available to the naked eye what they see in their clairvoyant penetration of the spirit domain. By means of miraculous performances and shamanic miracle plays, the audience is able to see reality reflexively, the way shamans see it.” Dramatic healing performances “provide for the public what ecstasy offers the shaman: a visible encounter with the forces at work on other planes of existence.”

But I am not persuaded by the trophy view. It is based on what we can call a two-realm assumption — that there is a spirit world separate from this world, that there is a shamanic state of consciousness opposed to an ordinary state of consciousness. Like the dichotomy between curing and healing, the trophy theory assumes that the sucking shaman removes nothing really … well, real, an assumption based in a naïve metaphysical dualism. Both don Antonio, an Otomi Indian from Mexico, and don Augustin Rivas, a mestizo shaman from Pucallpa, talk about physical stuff — rotten meat, a metallic object — that appears in their mouths when they suck the sickness from a patient.

Many shamans simply deny this dichotomy. Anthropologist Marie Perruchon, who is married to a Shuar husband and is herself an initiated ushiwín, shaman, puts it this way: ayahuasca “is a plant which has the effect that when you drink it, it allows you to see what otherwise is invisible, and it attracts the spirits. It is not that the ayahuasca takes one to another world, otherwise unreachable; it just opens one’s eyes to what is normally hidden. There is only one world, which is shared by all beings, humans, spirits, and animals.”

The “shaking tent” is a ritual widespread among North American Indians, during which a shaman is tightly bound inside a darkened lodge, the structure shakes violently, the shaman — and sometimes the audience as well — converses with spirits who speak and sing, and the shaman, when light is restored, is revealed to be unbound and sitting comfortably, apparently untied by the spirits.

As professional magician Eugene Burger has pointed out, Native American shamans performing the shaking tent ritual had long been aware of the skepticism of traders and missionaries, and of their assumption that the shaman was responsible for both the shaking of the lodge and the voices of the spirits. Anthropologist Weston La Barre offers such an explanation. “How does the shaman make the séance tent shake?” he asks. “By the same naturalistic means the séance medium makes the table tip.” Now, there are many ways that a professional conjurer could approach such ceremonies, including discussion of the numerous ways in which the effect could be achieved. Burger is more subtle, however, and makes two important points.

First, he notes the numerous tales of the shaking of heavy and stable structures — a lodge with a double row of forty poles set close together, a lodge of sixty poles — with the inference being that such structures would be too solid to be shaken by human effort. There are also tales of frail old men in a lodge which shook for hours, shamans operating in full view, tents shaking while the shaman remained entirely outside, three lodges shaking at once. The point, he says, is that the audience is quite aware of the potential for trickery; otherwise, they would not have told such stories.

Second, there were criteria for distinguishing between fake and genuine performers. An old man confided: “Once when I was a boy I made a lodge and shook it myself. I was trying to do what I had seen done. My father stopped me immediately. He said something bad would happen to me if I played with things like that.” The tent-shaking ceremony could be done only if authorized by the appropriate dreams on how to build the lodge and how to call the spirits; failure to have the dreams, or failure to follow the dream instructions, meant failure in the long run and even illness or death. Burger remarks, tellingly,

But members of the community tried to duplicate the phenomena anyway. Some showed off, and some never had the dreams in the first place. Who were the imposters and charlatans? Those who had not had, and had not followed, the dream. Concern for sincerity was acute. But it was not a concern about the method of shaking the lodge, or about prowess with the method, but concern about vision and discipline.

The problem, of course, is the importation of our own cultural attitudes toward conjuring into our appreciation of the conjuring other. That cultural attitude is not simply that conjuring is bad because it is somehow false. The attitude is that conjuring is about what Burger calls “the adventures of the props in the performer’s hands”— strange adventures that happen to objects.

We tend to see shamanic conjuring as about vanishing pebbles, bloody fluff, the drama of retching and gagging, while that is not what it is about at all. “In the earliest conjuring performances,” Burger writes, “magicians would probably have thought they had failed if people had complimented them on their skill and technique. These early conjurers seem to have believed that skill and technique were to be invisible, so that the mystery was the center of focus.” In modern magical performances, on the other hand, the effects “do not point beyond themselves to an audience member’s actual life in the world; nor do they point to a larger magical universe beyond the boundaries of the performance.”

It is, I think, this mystery that is the core of the shamanic performance. Healing ceremonies do not restore order or resolve contradictions; they do not explain. Indeed, healing performances manipulate spiritual and social power in part by withholding denotative meaning from some of the participants. An Amazonian healing ceremony is rife with uncertainty, ambiguity, obscurity, filled with apparently meaningless elements, with communicative indeterminacy, with mystery. The icaros may be in secret incomprehensible languages, or whistled and whispered; the interactions with the spirits are hidden; the power of the shaman is dangerous and ambiguous.

To the sufferer, participation in the ceremony is not mere experience, forgettable and dull; rather it is an experience, an extraordinary event, fixed in memory as a singular time. It is an acting out of the shaman's world — full of depth and suprise, permeated with meaning. In the shaman's healing, with its active touching and sucking, its sounds and whispers, its penetrating smells and intestinal heavings, its drama, the body becomes the place in which the meaning of the sickness is revealed.

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