Khadak — the term is a Mongolian loan word from Tibetan meaning ceremonial scarf — is a film directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth. Brosens had already made three documentaries about Mongolia when he and Woodworth filmed Khadak, which began as a documentary about commercial aviation, and then transformed itself into a piece of magical realism about Mongolian shamanism. "Motivating the film are not only the complex economic and political manifestations of change," the directors say, "but also the more evasive and intangible spiritual ones."

Mongolian journalist Nomin Lkhagvasuren, who assisted in the research and writing of the film script, puts the intention this way: "The very preciseness of the way the film captures Mongolian cultural expressions, beliefs and myths, the crude and beautiful reality of living, fused with essential and universal humanity ... make this film a potentially unique piece of art. I envision a silence falling down upon an audience after watching the film. Silence where beauty, harmony, courage and thought translate the film into our inner universes, allowing us to open up a space and time for an inner conversation."

And the directors add: "Yes, it is a provocative film. We offer no apologies for that. But the provocation should be perceived in a larger sense. We humans are causing so much destruction everywhere. It just so happens that this tale takes place in Mongolia and within the framework of Mongolian cosmology."

Khadak is shot on frozen steppes, in rural villages, and in the remains of the depressingly monotonous urban architecture left over from Mongolia's Soviet era. The film tells the epic story of Bagi, a young nomad confronted with his destiny to become a shaman; his gift is the ability to hear animals over great distances. A shamaness announces that his destiny is to become a shaman, but Bagi rejects this calling, despite his grandfather warning him that denying the call brings misfortune. Soon after, a military convoy roars over the horizon. An unidentifiable plague has struck, they say — a lie fabricated in a campaign to eradicate the nomadic way of life. The animals are quarantined and slaughtered; the nomads are resettled in bleak mining towns.

In the mining town, Bagi delivers mail on a motorcycle. His grandfather, now confined to a cramped apartment, has fallen silent with sorrow; but his mother enjoys her new job operating a colossal excavator machine in the open-pit mine. When an elderly herdswoman commits suicide, Bagi and his rebellious friend, the beautiful coal thief Zolzaya, head for the big city, where they are arrested and sentenced to hard labor on a road crew of young misfits.

The shamaness, who has been watching Bagi from afar, sends him into a shamanic trance, and he is committed to a hospital for people suffering from the trauma of the relocations. A psychiatrist tells him that he suffers from epilepsy and can be treated. But soon Bagi starts hearing the sounds of animals whispering through the water pipes; no one believes him, and he is put into solitary confinement, where he has his first true shamanic vision, confronted by the shamaness in a devastated futuristic city. He struggles to return to Zolzaya, leaving her mysterious signs, until there is a visionary rebellion against the oppressive forces of the industrial state.

The film is meditatively paced, with a subtle and evocative soundtrack — the sounds of water pipes, for example, slowly morphing into the barely heard cries of distant sheep. It is probably worth labeling it shamanic realism, an approach to film that made many reviewers uncomfortable. The New York Times called the film "eerie, muddled and gorgeous." The Seattle Times speaks of the "eerie, magical quality to the political and symbolist fable," and then finds its magical realism incomprehensible and confounding. The Oregonian finds it baffling. Every critic agrees the film is visually stunning.

Batzul Khayankhyarvaa and Tsetsegee Byamba, who play Bagi and Zolzaya, won Best Actor and Best Actress in Singapore at the First Asian Films Festival. Reviews are at Rotten Tomatoes and at IMDb. IndieWire has an interview with codirector Jessica Woodworth. And here is the trailer:

If you're going to be in Colorado, you can catch the film at the Boulder International Film Series on February 22 and 23.


The Leaf-Bundle Rattle

Don Roberto Acho Jurama with his shacapa during a ceremony

Two rhythmic instruments are used in shamanic performance in the Upper Amazon — the shacapa, the leaf-bundle rattle; and the maraca, the seed-filled gourd rattle. Whether shacapa or maraca, rattles are the most important shamanic tool in the Amazon — the equivalent of the shaman’s drum elsewhere. Anthropologist Lawrence Sullivan, in his work on the history of religion in South America, calls them the paradigm of sacred sound, the epitome of the link between sacred sound and shamanic power; ethnographer Alfred Métraux descibes them as the most sacred object among the tropical tribes of South America; anthropologist Jacques Chaumeil says that, among the Yagua, the rattle is held to be the voice of the spirits. As my teacher doña María Tuesta put it, in her typical way, “My shacapa is my pistola.”

Fransisco Montes Shuña, The Wind of the Shacapa

Mestizo shamans use the shacapa exclusively. Other Amazonian peoples use leaf-bundle rattles as well — for example, the Aguaruna, who use a rattle of sampi leaves; the Shuar, who shake a bunch of shinku leaves; the Yagua, who use a rattle of chacapa leaves; the Napo Runa, who use a huairachina bundle; and the Akawaio, who in fact abandoned the seed-filled gourd maraca in the mid-1950s in favor of “shaman’s leaves.” Anthropologist Stephen Hugh-Jones has reproduced an illustration from a health booklet published in Tukanoan by the Colombian government, which shows Tukanos, holding crosses, lined up for the healing of tuberculosis before a shaman shaking two leaf bundles.

The shacapa used by mestizo shamans is a bundle of leaves from the shacapa bush (Pariana spp.) tied together at the stem with fibers from the chambira, fiber palm (Astrocaryum chambira). Mestizo shamans reportedly also make leaf-bundle rattles from the leaves of carricillo (Arthrostylidium spp.), albaca, wild basil (Ocimum spp.), and achiote, annatto (Bixa orellana). In any case, my teacher, don Roberto Acho, was very specific about the plant he wanted for a shacapa when I would go with him to find the leaves.

Don Julio Gerena Pinedo with his shacapa, at the age of 89

The word has become an Amazonian Spanish verb — shacapar, heal by rattling. When don Roberto initiated my other teacher, doña María Tuesta, already a plant healer, into ayahuasca shamanism, two of the key things she learned were shacapar, healing and protecting with the leaf-bundle rattle, and soplar, healing and protecting by blowing mapacho, tobacco. Indeed, blowing, rattling, and singing are synergistic modes of sound; elsewhere in the Amazon, too, tobacco, rattle, and song are mythologically interconnected. Among the Makiritare of the Orinoco Valley in Venezuela, Nadeiumadi, a messenger or emanation of Wanadi, the heavenly creator, dreamed his mother into existence: “He gave birth to her dreaming, with tobacco smoke, with the song of his maraca, singing and nothing else.”

Don Ruperto Peña Shuña with his shacapa

Among the Desana, the sound produced by the gourd rattle shaken by the shaman is said to echo the sound made by the thorns and splinters that the shaman carries hidden in his forearm. The rattle is thus a prolongation of the shaman’s arm; when he shakes the rattle, these thorns and splinters are shaken toward the victim. The sound of the Desana rattle is homologous with the phlegm of the mestizo shaman: both are the vehicles for the thorns and darts with which the victim may be harmed, the medium within which the projective power of the shaman is stored. It is the same with the mestizo shaman: the refined whispering, whistling, blowing, and rattling of the most powerful music is the same as the air-like presence of mariri, the most refined form of phlegm. Among the mestizo shamans, the wordless rhythmic rustle of the shacapa — like the breathy whistle of the song, or the almost silent whispered blowing of tobacco smoke — approaches pure sound.

There is thus a continuum of sound from the concrete, verbal, and intelligible at one end to the abstract, sonic, and unintelligible at the other. The continuum begins with intelligible lyrics in castellano, Spanish, and progresses through non-Spanish but human language such as Quechua; purported languages of indigenous people and unknown archaic tongues; the languages of animals and birds and computers; pure vocables; whispered sounds; whistling; breathy whistling; the silent pshoo of the blowing of tobacco smoke; and the susurration of the shacapa. The rarefaction of sound parallels the rarefaction of the shaman’s phlegm, from gross physical flema in the chest to abstract protective air-like mariri in the throat. The more rarefied the sound, the farther it departs from the materiality of intelligible words, the closer it comes to the state of mariri, the most rarefied phlegm in the sound-producing throat of the shaman. Both converge in a state of puro sonido, pure sound, which is the language of the plants.


Three Ceremonies

The ayahuasca ceremony can be a powerful auditory experience — the sounds of the jungle in the night; the hushed breathy whistling, the singing of the icaros, the magical songs of the ayahuasquero; the rhythmic shaking of the shacapa, the leaf-bundle rattle; the auditory hallucinations, the synesthesias induced by the ayahuasca drink itself. Musicians who have participated in these ceremonies have sometimes tried to capture this distinctive soundscape in their music, often with the idea of conveying, too, something of the psychospiritual effects of their experience. I thought I would share three examples.

Jarguna is an Italian martial arts teacher, herbalist, and sound therapist who was inspired by an ayahuasca experience to create Introspective Course, the only album he has produced. "I've been inspired by a journey I have made along the Amazon River," he writes, where a curandero led him to a ceremony with ayahuasca — the sacred plant that "is capable of joining the two worlds." The result is a highly conceptual album, intended to reflect the journey of an everyman from despair to strength, with a trajectory passing through a single ayahuasca ceremony. The cut presented here, called Ceremony of the Ayahuasca, is the core of this narrative, and Jarguna describes it as follows:

The ceremony begins when the night falls. The shaman's verse slowly overwhelms bodies and souls; the perception of himself and what is around him becomes confused. Oblivion and ecstasy merge into euphoria, fears become something real while reality becomes a bizarre image. Persecution complexes, Devils and Angels appear to the traveller who, thanks to the guide, the curandero, is not allowed to cross the limit of madness, where his mind would be permanently separated from reality. For I believe that madness can be reached via two different ways: by pain or by revelation.

Iris Disse is an actress, director, theater and radio writer, creator of experimental radio programs, and a composer of what she calls acoustic artworks. From 1982 to 1993, she worked on theatrical productions in Berlin; then, from 1994 to 2000, she lived in Ecuador, where her feature reports on the indigenous peoples of the region won international prizes. Her album Ayahuasca Noche de Ritual, with the subtitle A Trance Journey in the Amazon Jungle, includes icaros sung by her ayahuasquero, whom she calls don Yachak de Duran. The album is a mixture of song cycle, radio play, and an ambient electroacoustic mix, with field recordings of jungle sounds — crickets, the cries of birds, the sound of the rain — overlain with the singing of icaros and acoustic instruments and percussion. Conceptually, the journey of the subtitle takes place during a single ceremony, which she describes in part like this:

Night. I’m walking down a narrow path in the jungle. A broad river, the Agua Rico, shimmers nearby in the moonlight. Shadows play around us. Huge trees tower above us. Twigs snap. I cling to Miguel. The path is no longer visible: nothing but moonlight, like flecks of silver on gigantic leaves. How long have we been walking? Time no longer exists.

The piece that follows, South Kiva—Mother Ayahuasca, is from the conceptual album Kiva, which is the product of a collaboration among three musicians — Steve Roach, Michael Stearns, and Ron Sunsinger. The album is a journey through what the musicians call four kivas or sacred underground spaces — a traditional peyote ceremony; an ayahuasca ritual; the Central Plains sundance; and a series of intense group musical improvisations in a man-made cave. Brief Passages sections and a final return to The Center link the major ceremonies into a single sound world. The three artists took field recordings of traditional shamanic practices and incorporated them into their synthesized landscapes with the intent of giving the entire album the aura of an extended visionary experience.

Steve Roach is a pioneering and prodigiously prolific ambient musician, composer, and performer. He learned to play the didgeridoo during extended trips to Australia, and was an early proponent of its use of in ambient music; he worked with Mexican ambient musician Jorge Reyes in a collaboration that introduced folk-influenced whistles, wood flutes, and wooden percussion to his work — fusions which helped establish Roach as one of the founders of the contemporary tribal-ambient sound. His approach to ambient music has typically been beatless and atmospheric, but he has also produced rhythmic and trance-based groove and tribal-ambient releases. Some recordings are strictly synthesizer based; others include ambient guitar experiments and other ethnic crossovers.

Michael Stearns is a synthesizer player, film composer, sound designer, and soundtrack producer for theatrical films, documentaries, and commercials. His ambient music is interwoven with instruments and sounds from other cultures, newly developed instruments, the human voice, and the sounds of nature. He writes:

What I hope is transferred to the listener of my music is a certain depth. I think the depth that I am really speaking of is that we as human beings are the artistic process here on the planet, as individuals, groups, countries and as a global experience. What we create and think of as our artistic outpouring, be it music, the painted art, a sculpture or just a beautiful dinner that we might create for somebody, are really metaphors or hieroglyphics for the depth of our own participation in the moments that we create them. I hope that this depth creates a context for other people to experience deeper things inside of themselves.

Ron Sunsinger — who is affiliated with the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Hopi peoples — has collaborated with Roach and Stearns on three albums, all using Native American themes as a basis for imaginative soundscapes — Singing Stones, Sorcerer, and Kiva. He worked with Robbie Robertson to produce the soundtrack of the television documentary The Native American: Beyond Myth and Legend, and he is a skilled pipemaker, who has designed and created numerous ritual objects for the Native American Church. In 1990, he made a pipe that has been used by the United Nations as a human rights award.


Indigenists and Universalists

I seem to have been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation lately — issues such as theft of voice and spiritual eclecticism. One way of thinking about these issues is to point to two very different ways of looking at spirituality: for want of existing terms, I have called them indigenist and universalist. Indigenists are communitarian, traditional, hierarchical, and concerned with correct ritual action; universalists are individualist, eclectic, egalitarian, and concerned with psychological states. The following table may be helpful in capturing the underlying beliefs of these two approaches:

Spiritual values derive from a small, homogeneous community with well-defined leadership roles and what is perceived as an essentially unchanging oral tradition.Spiritual values derive from a large diverse world community providing both oral and written resources which may be selected, adapted, or combined by the individual.
Spiritual values are a product, embodied in a special kind of knowledge, which requires both membership in the group and usually some kind of apprenticeship to receive.Spiritual values are a process, embodied in a special kind of search, which requires primarily — or perhaps only — sincerity to pursue.
Spiritual values are embedded primarily in the community.Spiritual values are embedded primarily in the individual.
Focus is on the appropriate ritual activity.Focus is on the individual’s psychological state.
The individual is subordinate to the community’s spiritual leadership.The individual can accept or reject spiritual leadership.
Membership in a spiritual community is by the genealogy of the member.Membership in a spiritual community is by the member’s own choice.
Power is feared and respected, often avoided.Power is sought, in order to be controlled.
Spiritual matters are discussed privately.Spiritual matters are discussed publicly.
Universalists are perceived as rootless, superficial, and predatory.Indigenists are perceived as authoritarian, insular, selfish, and racist.

Of course, these groups are abstractions, but perhaps they are useful ones. It is probably worth mentioning, too, that the distinction between indigenists and universalists does not easily map onto the already deeply troubled distinction between Indians and whites. There are certainly white indigenists, such as anthropologists Alice Kehoe and Lisa Aldred; conversely, as anthropologist Raymond Bucko points out, “The Lakotas do not provide a unified front in this regard, for some Lakotas actively promote such integrations as necessary and beneficial.”

Here is an example. Universalists often express their quest for personal growth in terms of power, and books written by universalist writers claiming indigenous credentials often emphasize in their titles that indigenous teachings can provide such power. For example, Lynn Andrews speaks of Love and Power, Rolling Thunder reveals Secret Healing Powers, Sun Bear offers The Path of Power, Mary Summer Rain promises Sacred Power.

To indigenous peoples, however, spiritual power is dangerous and unpredictable; it is not to be taken lightly, but rather to be approached with great care and respect. Universalists — both writers and seekers — are thus perceived as disrespectful to the spirits by taking them too lightly, discussing them in public, trying to reduce them to rational explanations, playing with spiritual matters without proper commitment or guidance, and being unwilling to commit to the prohibitions which indigenous people observe when involved in spiritual matters. But the universalist audience has very different ideas about power — not that it is dangerous, but that it is desirable, and can be controlled, largely through good intentions.

The clash between indigenists and universalists can be multilayered and ironic. Indigenists complain that universalists are attempting to steal their culture; universalists reply that spirituality belongs to everyone, and that the indigenists are being insular and selfish. For example, Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, in his book Coyote Medicine, writes, “Native American spirituality is a gift to us from North America herself. It is the natural spiritual path for those who live on this continent. Native American people have been preservers of this spiritual path for centuries, but they do not own it. No one can own a spiritual path.” In turn, this response is perceived as imposing culturally dominant concepts of rights and ownership on subordinate cultures — that is, as an additional instance of cultural domination, an unthinking and reflexive assumption that the values of white America are universal.

Historian Philip Deloria points out that this exchange puts indigenists in a a double bind: “Native people who reject this kind of cultural incorporation find themselves in a curious and contradictory position, shunted outside the boundaries of a universalism that purports to be without boundaries. Reluctant to share their cultural heritage as common property, they are marked as exterior.”



In the Upper Amazon, the restricted diet — self-denial of food and sex — is a necessary precondition for creating a relationship with the plants. What the plants give in return is their willingness to help the shaman; their icaro, their song; and phlegm. Planting and nurturing the magical phlegm is an indispensable goal of the apprenticeship training; the phlegm is the physical embodiment of fuerza, the shaman’s power.

A shaman has extracted a dart from the patient's stomach and is absorbing it into his white mariri (detail from a painting by Pablo Amaringo)

There are a number of terms used for this shamanic phlegm. Most common is the ordinary Spanish word flema, which refers to the phlegm at its most corporeal, stored in the shaman’s chest, and manifesting the shaman’s power in physical form. It is in this phlegm that the shaman, whether healer or sorcerer, stores the virotes, the magic darts, used for both attack and defense; in the phlegm of the sorcerer are also toads, scorpions, snakes, insects — all sorts of stinging, biting, and poisonous creatures. The same substance is also called llausa and yachay. The former is the ordinary Quechua term for phlegm; the latter is the Quechua word for knowledge. The term yachay derives from the verb yacha, know, and refers specifically to ritual knowledge. The Lamista term for shaman is yachak, owner of yachay; similarly, the Napo Runa term for shaman is yachaj, one who knows.

This flema must be distinguished from mariri, which is phlegm rarefied, raised from the chest into the throat, often with the accompaniment of loud burps and belches, becoming like air, my teacher don Roberto Acho says — immaterial, vibratory, and protective. It is this mariri that extracts the magic darts, the sickness, the other evils in the patient’s body and at the same time protects the shaman from the sickness and sorcery he sucks out.

The phlegm is nourished by smoking mapacho. It is received from the maestro ayahuasquero, “like planting a seed in your chest,” don Roberto told me; nurturing one’s phlegm is like raising a plant until it is the proper size, and then maintaining it. “Flema makes you fearless,” don Roberto said. Fearlessness is a constant theme in relation to phlegm. When you have this protection, doña María Tuesta said to me, you need have no fear of anyone; the medicine grants a corazón de acero, a heart of steel. Phlegm can start to grow in the chest within months of beginning shamanic training; when smoking mapacho, the mariri may move, mysteriously, as if by itself, from chest to throat — strange burps and belches, phlegm become like air.

Shaman sucking out sickness with his white mariri (detail from a painting by Pablo Amaringo)

The rarefication of phlegm into mariri relates it to icaros, shamanic songs. Abstraction from conceptual meaning is a key feature of such music. The most powerful icaros, such as the protective arcanas, are vocally refined into silbando, breathy and almost inaudible whistles. Thus, when learning icaros, doña María told me, I should first hum the melody, or whistle it in the breathy whispering whistle of silbando, and only then learn the words, for the words are much less important than the melody. Another shaman has told his apprentices not to be overly concerned with trying to memorize the words; singing the icaros from the heart with the correct resonance and vibration is more important.

Here there is a relationship between sound and phlegm. Both are given by the plant teachers, nurtured by mapacho and ayahuasca; both range from the grossly physical and intelligible to the rarefied, refined, air-like; converge in the act of blowing, which can both cure and kill; and unite in the magical mouth of the shaman, which contains the power and wisdom of the plant spirits.

Just as the shaman’s magical phlegm, stored in the chest, is raised and rarefied into the throat in order to protect against magical attack, becoming intangible, less physical, just like air; in the same way, the more abstract, less conceptual, less overtly intelligible the icaro, the more powerful it is. Indeed, both mariri, purified phlegm, and icaro, purified song, ultimately converge upon the same condition — that of puro sonido, pure sound, which is the the immaterial and wordless language of the plants.


Joseph Rael, who calls himself Beautiful Painted Arrow and claims Ute and Picuris Pueblo ancestry, describes two kachinas landing in a spacecraft. Dhyani Ywahoo says that she is holder of the Ywahoo Lineage and Chief of the Green Mountain Ani Yunwiwa, and claims that her secret Cherokee lineage is charged with the care of the original instructions encoded within a mysterious Crystal Ark and the accompanying “crystal-activating sound formulas and rituals.” Physician Lewis Mehl-Madrona, who claims to be Cherokee-Lakota, says that the seminal Lakota spiritual being White Buffalo Calf Woman revealed to him that she perceives brain waves as “colorful patterns of electromagnetic energy.”

Some indigenists consider such spiritual eclecticism to be so obviously bad as to require no comment. Anthropologist Alice Kehoe makes fun of John Redtail Freesoul for selling his “Northern Plain style of southwestern fetish.” Ward Churchill makes fun of Lynn Andrews for mixing together kachinas and Jaguar Women. And contempt for eclecticism applies to the audience as well as to the message. Ward Churchill describes an encounter with a participant in a men’s ritual, who, Churchill says, intermingled his remarks on his Native American interests with “glowing bits of commentary on his ... abiding interest in a diversity of cultural/spiritual elements from Balinese mask-making to Andean flute music.”

So: is spiritual ecelcticism a sin?

The shamans of the Upper Amazon are remarkably absorptive. Alberto Prohaño, a Yagua shaman in a remote village where a satellite telephone dish was recently installed, now talks with the spirits by telephone, using the pot in which the ayahuasca is cooked as what he calls a microreceiver. He blows tobacco smoke in the pot to clear the line, whistles, puts his ear to the pot, and discusses the diagnosis and treament with the spirits.

In the same way, Amazonian shamans of an earlier generation adopted the language of electricity, magnetism, and radio. Campa shaman César Zevallos Chinchuya has said that the plant spirit places a powerful magnet in his mouth, with which he sucks out the patient's sickness; plants and mermaids bring him magnets with which to heal and harm. Don Emilio Andrade also has described his magical phlegm as a sort of magnet, attracting the pathogenic dart when he sucks at the place it is lodged. Icaros especially have been assimilated to magnetism. Zavallos says that icaros are “magnetic cures,” and that protective icaros are “magnetic shielding.”

Contemporary technology — lasers, spaceships, biomedicine — similarly pervades Upper Amazonian shamanism. The striking visionary paintings of ex-shaman Pablo Amaringo are filled with battleships protected by pyramid-shaped lasers, spaceships from the edge of the universe, spaceships from Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Ganymede, beings from distant galaxies with skin as white as paper, electromagnetic boa constrictors, singing spaceships from the constellation Kima, magnetizing mirrors, poisonous space snakes from Mars, a spaceship of elves from Mars, and, of course, doctors and nurses performing spiritual medical procedures.

My own teachers have been attended by extraterrestrial physicians speaking computer language, plant spirits dressed in surgical scrubs and masks, spirit helpers dressed as Peruvian military officers.

It is curious how often the word mishmash appears in this indigenist discourse. For example, anthropologist Lisa Aldred speaks of teachings which are “a mishmash of Native American religion and other New Age favorites, such as Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, and Ancient Druidism.” Art historian and critical theorist Deborah Root describes her encounter with what she calls a “white Indian” hitchhiker. He was, she says, “dressed in the usual hippie mishmash of Native, Afghani, and South American styles, and he wore a headband on his center-parted blond hair.” Ward Churchill speaks of “a mishmash of American Indian rituals.” An indigenist website named New Age Fraud decries a "thrown together mishmash of bits and pieces of different beliefs." Rachel Attituq Qitsualik, born into the Igloolik Inuit tradition, writing in Indian Country Today, describes what she calls "home-brewed versions of shamanism" as being a "mishmash of Inuit cosmology, American Indian traditions, Judeo-Christian thought and the usual smattering of New Age ideas."

Interestingly, the word mishmash is itself a mishmash. One form of the word apparently dates back to Middle English misse-masche, probably a reduplication of mash, pronounced to rhyme with cash, and meaning a mixture of ingredients — a word which apparently then lay fallow for centuries. But there is also a Yiddish word mishmash, which rhymes with posh, also meaning a mixture, mess, hodgepodge, jumble, mixture. It is clear that the two words became conflated, probably in the early twentieth century, to form the wonderfully useful piece of eclectic cultural syncretism used by purists to condemn ... well, spiritual eclecticism.


Joe Rogan on DMT

Joe Rogan is a stand-up comic and comic actor. He appeared as a character in the sitcom NewsRadio, as a host on the reality show Fear Factor, and — with an apparently extensive martial arts background — as a color commentator for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. His comedic style is iconoclastic and confrontational. He has frequently accused other comedians of plagiarism, and has publicly espoused a number of conspiracy theories regarding the Apollo moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, and the attack on the World Trade Center. He has challenged Wesley Snipes to a mixed martial arts combat. He has been an occasional guest on the Mancow Show and the Howard Stern show; he has a sensory deprivation tank in his basement. He has also — and this is probably no surprise by now — been deeply influenced by the theories of Terence McKenna and Rick Strassman about DMT.

In 2005, Rogan was a guest on a talk show run by Jim Breuer called Breuer Unleashed, which appears regularly on weekdays on the Sirius Satellite Radio channel Raw Dog Comedy. In response to a caller's question, Rogan launched into a ten-minute discourse on DMT, dreams, and the nature of humanity — a mashup of McKenna, Strassman, and his own idiosyncratic interpretations, all laced with the most remarkable profanity. "It's easily the weirdest interview I've ever done," Rogan says, "and definitely the most interesting." The audio of the broadcast is here:

But wait -- there's more. Shpongle — the group has both a discussion forum and a fan site — is a psychedelic downtempo ambient technotrance psybient music project made up of Simon Posford and Raja Ram, along with a number of collaborators and guest musicians. Posford also performs under the name Hallucinogen and owns the label Twisted Records; Raja Ram — born Ronald Rothfield — is a member of 1200 Micrograms. Shpongle builds its sound on samples of eastern ethnic instruments and western contemporary synthesizer-based psychedelic music; Posford does the synth and studio work and Raja Ram the flute arrangements.

On their first album, Are You Shpongled?, released in 1998 on Twisted Records, there is a cut entitled Divine Moments of Truth. The lyrics are not profound: DMT, DMT, doo dee doo DMT, LSD doo DMT, LSD doo DMT ... divine moments of truth, total and utter cosmic stuff ... be here now ... I love everybody. But the high sound quality, the successful mix of samples, instruments, and synths, and the progress of the music through the album made it one of the most influential releases of its time. There have been a number of remixes over the years; here is the original track:

And if you really like Shpongle — and I guess I do — here is a video of a live performance of Divine Moments of Truth at the 2001 Solstice Music Festival in Japan:

There is one more ingredient to this mix. Gnostic Media consists of Jan Irvin and Andrew Rutajit. They are the creators of the DVD The Pharmacratic Inquisition, setting forth what they coonsider to be the Christian persecution of archaic religions, because personal access to ecstatic states through the ingestion of entheogenic plants challenged church domination, culminating in the creation of the pharmacratic state and its current war on drugs. They are also the authors of the book Astrotheology and Shamanism: Unveiling the Law of Duality in Christianity and Other Religions, which also addresses the persecution of entheogens and their users, and discusses the solar and mushroom symbolism that the authors believe to underly all religions, eapecially Christianity — very similar to the ideas put forward by John Marco Allegro in 1970 about the origins of Christianity in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. If you are interested in their theories, you can see the entire video here. But that is not why we are talking about them.

Rather, what follows is a video, entitled Divine Moments of Truth with Joe Rogan, on which we hear the words of Joe Rogan on Breuer Unleashed, remixed by Gnostic Media with added visuals, some by visionary artist Alex Grey, a remix of Shpongle's Divine Moments of Truth, and additional words by Terence McKenna. How could it not be interesting?



Animism is the view that human beings on the earth live — whether they know it or not — in community with persons who are not human beings. These other-than-human persons may include animals, plants, trees, rocks, clouds, thunder, and stars. The phrase other-than-human persons was coined by anthropologist Irving Hallowell to describe the world of the Ojibwe, in which humans, animals, fish, birds, and plants — and some rocks, trees, and storms — are all relational, intentional, conscious, and communicative beings. Ethnographer Thomas Blackburn reached similar conclusions for the Chumash Indians, whose cosmos, he said, is composed of an “interacting community of sentient creatures.”

Other-than-human persons may be helpful, harmful, callous, malicious, indifferent, or tricky, just like human persons. It is often helpful or necessary to enter into personal relationships with them; such relationships with other-than-human persons may be comforting, demanding, or dangerous, just as with human persons. As a result of such relationships, other-than-human persons may provide information, insight, power, vision, healing, protection, songs, and ceremonies. The receipt of such gifts entails reciprocal obligations, just as with human persons.

And we should not read the phrase other-than-human as implying that humans constitute some standard of personhood to which others must aspire. Graham Harvey, a scholar of indigenous religions, points out that the phrase is used specifically for communication among humans; presumably chipmunks think of humans as other-than-chipmunk persons.

Animism is thus what anthropologist Nurit Bird-David has called a "relational epistemology." Persons are recognized in a variety of ways, including whether they can be talked with, whether gifts can be exchanged with them, and whether they can be engaged in a cultural system of respect and reciprocity. Thus, human persons can give gifts to stone persons, who can receive those gifts, and give their own gifts to human persons in return. Anthropologist Enrique Salmón, himself a Tarahumara, calls this a kincentric ecology — "an awareness that life in any environment is viable only when humans view the life surrounding them as kin."

Recognizing such personhood is not indiscriminate. The Ojibwe, says Hallowell, “do not perceive stones, in general, as animate, any more than we do.” Rather, the stones who are persons have been seen to move or to manifest other animate qualities. Similarly, among the Saami, only certain stones, called sieidi, have hunger, emotions, or families; they are recognized to be persons because they have been observed to sing, for example, or move, or laugh, or shout.

As Harvey has pointed out, other-than-human persons do not have to look or speak like human persons to be recognized. Other-than-human persons "have their own ways of communicating," he told an interviewer, "and a large part of animism may be finding the appropriate way to communicate, to spend time with a tree and listen, and you can't just go up to any old tree and expect it to engage with you. So the etiquette of animism is about spending time and listening, not about trying to project being human onto something which very clearly isn't."

This use of the term animism differs sufficiently from its earlier use that sometimes the term neoanimism is used instead. The term animism was coined by nineteenth-century anthropologist Edward Tylor to define the essence of religion as "the belief in spirits" — that is, as a category mistake made by young children and primitives who project life onto inanimate objects, at least until they reach a more advanced stage of development. The more recent view, on the other hand, does not see animism as a set of beliefs so much as a way of engaging with the world. This engagement is based on relationships, within which humans are not separate from the world or distinct from other beings in any meaningful way. Indeed, for some humans — certain clans, for example — the mutual relationship with a particular other-than-human person, sometimes called a totem, from the Ojibwe word dodem, can provide a significant focus for social and ritual life.

This engagement is often reflected in animist mythology, in which other-than-human persons were created before humans, at one time spoke with humans in a mutually intelligible language, and, indeed, appeared in the form of humans. In some cultures, other-than-human persons are believed to see themselves in human form, and thus as self-aware of their own personhood.

Harvey is one of the most eloquent current defenders of the neoanimist world view, both in his book Animism: Respecting the Living World and in his Animist Manifesto. Harvey draws the ecological and ethical conclusions inherent in "ontologies and epistemologies in which life is encountered in a wide community of persons only some of whom are human." The new animism, he says, "contests modernist preconceptions and invites the widening of relational engagements generated and enhanced by gift exchanges and other forms of mutuality. Animism, he says, "encourages humans to see the world as a diverse community of living persons worthy of particular kinds of respect." As he puts it — pointedly — in his Manifesto:

Since all that exists lives — and since all that lives is, in some senses, to some degree, conscious, communicative and relational — and since many of the persons with whom we humans share this planet have a far better idea of what’s going on than we do — we can now stop all the silliness about being the pinnacle of creation, the highest achievement of evolution, the self-consciousness of the world or cosmos… We’re just part of the whole living community and we’ve got a lot to learn. Our job isn’t to save the planet, or speak for the animals, or evolve towards higher states. Many other-than-human people are already happily self-aware, thank you very much, and if we paid attention we might learn a few things ourselves.

One of the most compelling recent works to put forward an animist worldview is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. "We are human," he writes, "only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human." Drawing on the perceptual phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, where he finds the roots of a participatory theory of perception, he argues for a return to an animistic vision of the natural world as a remedy to the radical separation from nature that emerged with Western civilization. He speaks of "the intuition that every form one perceives ... is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.”

Abram thus argues for an inclusive animism — one in which not only animals and plants are sentient and self-aware “but also the meandering river from which those animals drink, and the torrential monsoon rains, and the stone that fits neatly into the palm of the hand. The mountain, too, has its thoughts.” When indigenous cultures speak of spirits, he says, what they are really referring to are "those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form" — that is, precisely, other-than-human persons.

Interestingly, Abram conjectures that modern culture has lost its animism because of the emergence of the text. In the Phaedrus, Plato quotes Socrates as warning that writing “will introduce forgetfulness into the soul,” because people will come to trust in the static, written word, rather than “the words of an oak,” or a stone. When text replaces the world as the communicator of truth, then the text is treated animistically, as having its own voice, its own spirit. "The animating interplay of the senses has been transferred to another medium," says Abram, "another locus of participation. It is the written text that provides this new locus. ... The 'inert' letters on the page now speak to us. This is a form of animism ... as mysterious as a talking stone. And indeed, it is only when a culture shifts its participation to these printed letters that the stones fall silent."

As an alternative to being "hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves," Abram proposes a return to animism. "Only by affirming the animateness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world." He quotes these Lakota words expressing reverence for a rock:

from time without
you rest
there in the midst of the paths
in the midst of the winds
you rest
covered with the droppings of birds
grass growing from your feet
your head decked with the down of birds
you rest
in the midst of the winds
you wait
Aged one.

If you have ever slept in the comforting shelter of an aged and moss-covered rock, you will understand these words.

Now, all of this clearly relates to shamanism. Animism, in fact, is the form of life within which shamanism occurs — as Harvey puts it, which makes shamanism both possible and necessary. Shamans work within animist communities to maintain right relationships with the other-than-human persons on whom the community depends. These relationships must be maintained because humans need the gifts of other-than-human persons — their wisdom, power, and protection, and their bodies for our food. As Harvey puts it, in his typical way, "Respecting someone is no reason for not eating them."

Three animist websites of interest are Animism, the companion website for Graham Harvey's book by the same name; Wild Ethics, the website for David Abrams and his Alliance for Wild Ethics; and Bioregional Animism, which puts animism squarely in the context of place, where it belongs.


The Theft of Voice

In June 1992, the Writers’ Union of Canada adopted a resolution defining the term cultural appropriation as “the taking — from a culture that is not one’s own — of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge.” Others have limited the definition to appropriation by a dominant culture from a subordinate or colonized culture. Either definition is full of uncertainty. What constitutes a taking? What are the boundaries of a culture? By what criteria is it determined that a culture is not mine but someone else’s?

And it is frequently pointed out that every culture borrows from every other culture it touches. Native Americans play Jamaican reggae music and draw comic books in the Japanese manga style. The band Redbone, whose founding members were of Mexican heritage, constructed their group as belonging to the Native American tradition, and are known for their famous songs in support of the American Indian Movement. Eric Clapton is ... well, Eric Clapton.

But here is the problem. Imagine that someone has stolen your identity — that a person you do not know is speaking in your name, even appearing on television as you, saying things about himself — that is, about you — that are untrue and foolish and wrong. And imagine that, when you protest, you are told to be quiet, because that person is you, and you are not.

The true harm of cultural appropriation is thus theft of voice — taking away the right or ability of a group to define itself and represent its own culture. When a dominant culture misrepresents a minority culture, it limits the audience the minority can reach in representing itself. When other cultural groups misrepresent cultures, they steal the religious and cultural meaning of their stories, ceremonies, and beliefs. Even more, when those outsiders claim to speak for indigenous others, they reinforce the stereotype that native people are simple, ignorant, voiceless, unable to speak for themselves without the mediation of the more sophisticated white protector.

Thus, indigenous theologian Vine Deloria, in a talk at the University of Colorado in 1982, said that “the realities of Indian belief and existence have become so misunderstood and distorted at this point that when a real Indian stands up and speaks the truth at any given moment, he or she is not only unlikely to be believed, but will probably be publicly contradicted and ‘corrected’ by the citation of some non-Indian and totally inaccurate ‘expert.’” This appropriation of voice has effects on natives themselves: “More, young Indians in universities are now being trained to view themselves and their cultures in the terms prescribed by such experts rather than in the traditional terms of their tribal elders. The process automatically sets the members of the Indian community at odds with one another.”

Cecil King, director of the Ontario Aboriginal Teacher Education program, puts it this way: “We want to be given the time, money, luxury, and security of academic credibility to define our own constructs from within our own languages and our own worlds and in our own time." Andrea Smith, a Cherokee activist, says that New Age feminists “trivialize Native American practices so that these practices lose their spiritual power. They who have the white privileges and power make themselves heard at the expense of Native Americans. . . . Our voices are silenced, and consequently the younger generation of Indians who are trying to find their way back to the Old Ways become hopelessly lost in this morass of consumerist spirituality.” And again: “Many white feminists have claimed that Indians are not respecting ‘freedom of speech’ by demanding that whites stop promoting and selling books that exploit Indian spirituality. However, promotion of this material is destroying freedom of speech for Native Americans by ensuring that our voices will never be heard.”

Similarly, the Oneida scholar Pam Colorado says, “The process is ultimately intended to supplant Indians, even in the areas of their own culture and spirituality. In the end, non-Indians will have complete power to define what is and what is not Indian, even for Indians.... When this happens, the last vestiges of real Indian society and Indian rights will disappear.” And such concerns are directed not only at plastic shamans claiming Native American credentials. There has been often bitter dispute about whether — or under what constraints — non-Native scholars and anthropologists should be permitted to teach courses on Indian religion at the university level.

Moreover, popular appropriation of a fantasized native spirituality only diverts attention from real Indians and their struggle for social justice. Andrea Smith, a Cherokee activist and scholar, says that such seekers “want to become only partly Indian. They do not want to be part of our struggles for survival against genocide; they do not want to fight for treaty rights or an end to substance abuse or sterilization abuse. They do not want to do anything that would tarnish their romanticized notions of what it means to become an Indian.” And again: “I understand that a fanciful image of Native people, conveniently located in the past, is less demanding than the reality, but what is truly troubling is how the image continues to be affirmed in a way that is removed from contemporary Native struggles around land rights and sovereignty issues.”

Native American novelist Michael Dorris puts it this way: “For five hundred years Indian people have competed against a fantasy over which they have had no control. They are compared with beings who never really were, yet the stereotype is taken for truth.”

There is a poster of Gwyneth Paltrow with a smear of blue paint on her face and the caption, I am African. Let us say you are a black African, and you see her there — safe, white, coddled, rich beyond your imagining. And all you could say was, The hell you are. And all you could say was, You have reduced the rich beauty of my culture to a smear of paint. And what if no one listened to you, because they were listening to her?


How Old is Shamanism?

Here is the answer: No one knows. I am not even sure the question makes much sense.

Popular literature is full of statements on the age of shamanism; texts routinely speak of shamanism as being tens of thousands of years old. Yet, as historian Ronald Hutton has pointed out, historical materials on shamanism date back only as far as the sixteenth century. By the time the first European travelers brought home descriptions of Siberian shamanism, it had already been influenced by centuries of contact with Buddhism, Islam, and Russian Orthodox Christianity. We have no direct evidence of what any sort of indigenous spiritual practice might have been like before that time.

But it is an odd affectation of European colonialism that indigenous people are without history — that, unlike Europeans, they are unchanging in their isolation and innocence. The assumption can then be made that the practices of present-day indigenous peoples must — somehow — reproduce the practices of tens of thousands of years ago.

But the assumption that indigenous practices are unchanging is demonstrably false — indeed, demonstrably false during the five hundred years within which indigenous practices have been recorded. In the Western Amazon, for example, travel and exchange occurred long before the arrival of Europeans. What seems to the unfamiliar eye to be a vast undifferentiated landscape is in fact threaded with riverine highways navigable over long distances in dugout canoes. In addition to efficient canoe transport, indigenous people in the Amazon have always been able to cover long distances on foot, even carrying heavy loads, with remarkable speed. Cultural exchange has been facilitated by trade throughout this area, dating back to pre-Columbian times, in such products as pita fiber, gold, salt, cotton, cinnamon, tropical fruits, and feathers, by rules of exogamy that require taking a bride from a village that speaks a different language, and by herbalists, traveling far distances, collecting medicinal plants from the Pacific coast to the lowland jungle, setting their blankets in the small markets, covered with their roots and stems, bark and leaves.

Sometimes claims regarding the history of shamanism are based on paleolithic art, which, to quote, say, Roger Walsh, “appears to show shamanic practices.” But archeologists such as Paul Bahn offer the caution that “we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever to link any Ice Age art to shamanism except as a simple assumption.” Even anthropologists who have used this model acknowledge that the shamanistic explanation for rock art sites is “controversial and divisive,” and that “shamanism is still an issue of great concern and controversy among rock art researchers.” As anthropologist Alice Kehoe points out, it is an oddly patronizing assumption that indigenous people create art because they are recording visions, rather than because they are artists.

One of the most famous and important pieces of prehistoric art that is purported to be, in some sense, shamanic, is the Old Stone Age figure often called the Sorcerer of Trois Frères. Trois Frères is a cave system in southern France, discovered in 1916, which contains some of the finest and most elaborate known paleolithic paintings and engravings. This figure is well known from the sketch made of it by the famous Abbé Henri Breuil, an early explorer of the cave. The sketch shows a dancing male figure, with a large retroverted penis, huge dark eyes, the tail of a horse, the body of a horse or deer, a long beard, the ears of a deer, animal forepaws, and tall spreading stag's antlers. Indeed, one standard art history textbook discerns a remarkable amount of detail: “This particular painting seems to represent either a ritual or a supernatural event. In contrast to the animals, which are nearly always in profile, this creature turns and stares out of the rock. His pricked-up ears and alert expression suggest that he is aware of an alien presence.”

It is probably worth pointing out that Breuil's initial identification of the figure as a sorcerer — that is, as a shaman engaged in some sort of hunting magic, perhaps even wearing an animal costume — has not been the only theory about the figure. In 1931, Margaret Murray proposed that the figure sketched by Breuil was not a shaman at all, but rather was in fact a deity — the horned god of an ancient pagan religion, who presided over the fertility of the animals of the hunt. Indeed, Breuil himself eventually adopted Murray's view, and abandoned his original identification of the figure as a human shaman.

But beyond these shifting interpretations, the problem is that Breuil's sketch bears very little resemblance to the figure actually on the wall. It was not until many years after Breuil sketched the figure that anything approaching an accurate photograph was available. This should not detract from Breuil's scholarly accomplishments. Apparently the figure is about about thirteen feet off the floor; Breuil described having to stand with one foot on a small projecting rock, then half-turning and sitting up against the cave wall while trying to juggle his light and drawing implements to make the sketch.

I have reproduced here the best photograph I could find of the figure, along with Breuil's sketch. It is clear that the sketch fills in a number of details; some of Breuil's details appear in fact to be imperfections on the rock surface. It is difficult to say what the figure is, much less that it is a paleolithic representation of a shaman.

Even if we knew what a paleolithic shaman looked like.


Amazon Baskets

Rainforest environmentalism is eager to see the rainforest native as sharing the putative purity of the rainforest — closer to nature, less affected by the evils of the world, demonstrating the integrity of the unspoiled. The native of the rainforest is a monolithic figure, the keeper and companion of the plants and animals, an instrument to criticize our own civilization. That purity becomes associated with a wisdom we once had but have lost, and which we need to recover in order to rebuild what our technology has destroyed. Thus, the native is our guide — as anthropologist Bernard McGrane puts it, “our guide to nature, or our guide to the prehistoric past.” The wisdom of the rainforest stands ready to be reappropriated by the dominant culture.

In 1982, the home furnishings department of Macy’s in San Francisco had a show of primitive art from the Amazon. The display was set in a darkened area on the seventh floor, with jungle noises piped in through the sound system. Shoppers could read a brochure predicting how valuable the art would become, and the perils faced by Macy’s buyers in acquiring it. The brochure reiterates a number of themes that characterize popular attitudes toward Amazonian culture.

First of all, as we might expect, the jungle is dangerous — or at least uncomfortable. It has “pesty to poisonous insects and snakes, piranha-infested waters dotted with colonies of crocodiles, unbearable heat and humidity and virtual isolation from the rest of the world. With these things in mind, the crew proceeded — carefully.” Second, this dangerous jungle is filled with friendly, childlike natives. “There are twenty-three known Amazon cultures,“ the brochure says, incorrectly, “each one as diverse as the environment itself. But what was common to all was the warmth and excitement that greeted the crew when they arrived at the river banks…. The local chief would receive the travelers and then they would visit the houses to select the pottery, tools, baskets and other wares.”

Moreover, these natives were innocent of commercial motives. “All of the pieces were made by traditional methods utilizing materials indigenous to the lush jungle environment…. Most importantly, these items were made for personal use, not commercial export, making them uniquely representative of tribal lifestyle and tradition.” These pieces, the brochure repeats — the “pottery, baskets, weapons, tools, ceremonial masks and objects” — were not made for commercial purposes “but created by the Indians for their daily and ritual uses.”

Childlike, noncommercial; one wonders just what these Indians were paid for their crafts. Note the combination of tropes, designed to move merchandise: the savage wilderness braved; innocent natives eager for American consumers to possess their goods. This innocence has been projected on the Amazon Indian since the Spanish and Portuguese conquest; their indifference to commodities such as gold made them appear like children in the eyes of their conquerors. As anthropologist Bernard McGrane puts it, “The Other is inferior to the European because he is not, as the European is, capable of having a responsible relationship with the gold that surrounds him, and hence the European appropriation of it is justified. This formulation we may term the Other-as-Child.” The perception of the colonized culture as fundamentally childlike feeds into the fantasy of the colonial civilizing mission, which is quite self-consciously fashioned as a form of tutelage — “a disinterested project concerned with bringing the colonized to maturity.”

Indeed, presenting these indigenous household goods as items for American interior decoration creates what Margaret Dubin, an expert on Native American art, calls “a pervasive sense of disjuncture,” a sense that these objects are out of place and unable to serve their original functions. Once removed from their cultural context, Chippewa artist David Bradley says, such objects lose “their real value and their reason for existence. They are flat; they have become the possessions of collectors.” The stereotype of innocent natives obscures their modernity, ensures their disappearance as human subjects. “Relegated to the silence of premodernity, living artists are transformed into objects, like mannequins in a museum diorama.”

Like the Edenic rainforest, Edenic childlike natives need our protection. It is not that our culture will corrupt theirs, as an adult might corrupt a child. Rather, they have no culture — they are in a state of nature — because their culture has been reduced to a contextless set of pan-Amazonian household goods. They are the same as their environment; one is an idealized embodiment of the other; instead of a “multiplicity of worlds,” complex groups and individuals with varying needs and desires, they become an endangered species.

Ayahuasca tourism has brought new attention, new money, and new problems to traditional healers and their communities, and has created a market for the misrepresentation of traditional practices and the exploitation of eager and innocent tourists. The marketing of ayahuasca shamanism is in many ways akin to the marketing of Amazonian household goods at Macy’s — the dangerous yet pristine landscape, the spiritual natives eager for American consumers to possess their wisdom; the chance for the tourist, in imitation of the archetypal Manuel Córdova-Ríos, to bring back the redemptive secrets of the Edenic rainforest, as decontextualized as an indigenous basket on a suburban wall.


Metachoric Experiences

In December 1913, psychiatrist Carl Jung first experienced what he was later to call active imagination. However, he did not talk about these experiences until twelve years later, when, in May and June 1925, he spoke for the first time of his inner development at two sessions of a series of weekly seminars he was giving in Zurich. The contents of these lectures were not published until 1989; but a partial account of these experiences was given in 1962 by Aniela Jaffé in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, a purported autobiography of Jung which she largely wrote. This account is the foundation myth, the charter, for active imagination.

In 1913, according to this account, Jung, profoundly distressed at his break with Freud, began to experiment with different ways to enter into his own imaginings. As James Hillman describes it, “When there was nothing else to hold to, Jung turned to the personified images of interior vision. He entered into an interior drama, took himself into an imaginative fiction and then, perhaps, began his healing — even if it has been called his breakdown.”

In this imaginal world, Jung began to confront and question the figures who appeared to him; and, to Jung’s surprise, those imaginal persons spoke back. “Near the steep slope of a rock,” Jung says, “I caught sight of two figures, an old man with a white beard and a beautiful young girl. I summoned up my courage and approached them as though they were real people, and listened attentively to what they told me.” Again: “I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I.”

One of these imaginal people, a wise pagan whom Jung named Philemon, “seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality.” Philemon spoke to Jung as follows: “He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air.” It was this imaginal Philemon who taught Jung the reality of the psyche — “that there is something in me which can say things that I do not know and do not intend.”

There is good reason to believe that active imagination in fact falls in the class of what have been called metachoric experiences — hallucinations, lucid dreams, out-of-body experiences, and — despite Jung’s own dislike for “voluntary imagination,” which he considered to be superficial and trivial — the sort of eidetic visualization that lies at the heart of Tibetan Buddhist ritual meditation. What these experiences have in common is that they

  • occur with the force of a present perception of external reality;
  • have what appear to be the same quantity and quality of sensory detail as ordinary experiences;
  • are experienced as external to the experiencer; and
  • occur in what seems to the experiencer to be an extended and three-dimensional perceptual space — the sort of space which one can explore.

A patient with Charles Bonnet syndrome who sees a convingingly real three-dimensional monkey sitting on his neurologist's lap is having a metachoric experience. So is a lucid dreamer who decides to float down a staircase, or someone who hovers looking down at his own body during a surgery. For example, this is an episode of active imagination that seems clearly to be metachoric:

He saw the meadow and the road and walked up the hill among the cows, and then he came up to the top and looked down, and there was the meadow again, sloping down, and below was a hedge with a stile. So he walked down and over the stile, and there was a little footpath that ran round a ravine, and a rock, and when he came round that rock, there was a small chapel, with its door standing a little ajar. He thought he would like to enter, and so he pushed the door open and went in, and there upon an altar decorated with pretty stood a wooden figure of the Mother of God. He looked up at her face, and in that exact moment something with pointed ears disappeared behind the altar. He thought, “Well, that’s all nonsense,” and instantly the whole fantasy was gone.

These metachoric experiences can be characterized along two dimensions — first, according to the degree to which the experience is entered into intentionally; and, second, by the amount of control the experiencer exercises over the content of the experience. Active imagination, for example, would be high in intentionality and low on control; eidetic visualization would be high on both; and a Charles Bonnet hallucination would typically be low on both.

The same type of experience may occur in different places along these dimensions on different occasions. For example, hallucinations of the deceased are a commonly documented part of the grief reaction. Such experiences are typically low on intention, but may vary on control, to the extent that the bereaved attempts, for example, to engage the deceased in conversation, or perhaps even attempts to call the deceased for purposes of communication. A lucid dreamer may — or may not — be able to control the actions of dream objects and persons, or be able to do so to varying degrees.

Several things follow from this discussion. First, it seems that ayahuasca experiences specifically, and shamanic experiences generally, pretty much fall within the class of metachoric experiences. Shamanism seems, for example, to rank high on intentionality and relatively low on control, like active imagination. While the shaman can control his or her own actions while interacting with the spirits, the shaman has no direct control over the actions of the spirits; the shaman can ask a question, ask for help, even demand compliance, but most commonly cannot compel a particular response.

Tying shamanism to such experiences as lucid dreaming, active imagination, and eidetic visualization raises a number of interesting questions. Apart from their phenomenology, what do they have in common? A naïve ontology might postulate that the mechanism must be neuropsychological. I am not so sure that is true. I am not sure it is even looking in the right place.

Eagle and Condor

It is claimed that many indigenous people share a myth about the eagle and the condor. The story says that once all peoples were one, but split into two groups — the people of the eagle in the north, who are scientific, technological, intellectual, and innovative; and the people of the condor in the south, who are intuitive, spiritual, sensual, and deeply connected with the natural world. For the past 500 years, the myth reportedly says, the eagle, with its technological achievements, has dominated the condor.

But now there begins a new pachakuti, a new 500-year period, the fifth of the current cycle. The fourth pachakuti, which began in the 1490s, was a time of turmoil, struggle, and conflict; the fifth will be a time of harmony, coming together, and partnership, and will be the time when the condor will rise, and the eagle and the condor will fly together, wing to wing. Here is a statement of the myth:

Now, we've heard this before. The 1960s were supposed to bring the Age of Aquarius, and look what happened with that. And the trope about the wealthy but spiritually impoverished eagle, and the oppressed but spiritually rich condor, is not new either. Throughout the history of the European occupation of America, the Indian has served as the locus for constructions of otherness. Part of the process of appropriating indigenous culture has been to perceive natives as somehow more spiritual, more in tune with nature, closer to the earth, and therefore more childlike and in need of supervision.

Native Americans themselves have been profoundly ambivalent about this construction of their otherness. On the one hand, Native Americans are offended by their construction as spiritual ecological warriors, which, they say, alienates them from the reality of their everyday lives on the reservation, and presents a false picture of their complex cultures. And, as historian Hayden White points out, such characterizations have "no effect whatsoever on the treatment of the natives or on the way natives are viewed by their oppressors.”

Yet, on the other hand, indigenous people have been more than willing to contrast their own spirituality with what they in their turn construct as the deracinated spiritual poverty of the white man — what indigenous activist Vine Deloria calls “white folks crying for some kind of spiritual reality.” As Deloria expresses it, “White people in this country are so alienated from their own lives and so hungry for some sort of real life that they’ll grasp at any straw to save themselves ... It’s all very pathetic, really.” Wendy Rose, an indigenous writer and anthropologist, similarly sees white people as “crying out for help, for alternatives to the spiritual barrenness they experience, for a way out of the painful trap in which their own worldview and way of life have ensnared them.” Russell Means says that, “being spiritually bankrupt themselves, they want our spirituality as well.”

So, clearly, there is plenty of stereotyping going on, and in all directions.

But there is another way that the eagle and the condor appear to be beginning their flight together. An interesting and unforeseen consequence of globalization is that there has been a coming together of indigenous peoples of North and South America. In many ways, these contacts follow established pan-Indian routes. For example, the Sun Dance has become a ritual symbol of Indian unity for many North American Indians. Indeed, this symbolism goes back a long ways; in 1941, for example, Crow elders from Montana sought out Sun Dance leaders of the Wind River Shoshoni in Wyoming for help in reconstructing their own Sun Dance, which they had abandoned in 1875, under pressure from missionaries and the federal government.

Pete Catches at Spring Creek Sun Dance, South Dakota, 1969

Now indigenous people of South America are also seeking access to this powerful symbolism. As Sun Dancer Tomas Ramirez told me, "Nowadays it is great and a huge motivation to see Mapuche people from Chile, Nasa from Colombia and Mexicas dancing next to Lakota, Dine or Ojibwe warriors." Indigenous people in Colombia and Chile are seeking ways to bring Sun Dance traditions south to their own communities.

In addition, there have been a number of contact points between shamanism in the Upper Amazon and the Native American Church. There have been conferences of Native American Church elders and South American indigenous healers, focusing on shared peyote and ayahuasca ceremonies, under such rubrics as Encuentro de Naciones Condor-Aguila. The Iglesia Nativa in Ecuador has done combined sacred pipe and ayahuasca ceremonies with Shuar shamans under the auspices of the Associación Tsunki, an association within the Federación Shuar.

Not all such attempts at syncretism have gone well. Some problems have been cultural. Anthropologist Marie Perruchon, married to a Shuar and herself an initiated Shuar uwishín, shaman, reports that NAC teachers at one such ceremony attempted to force uncongenial practices on the Shuar — imposing lower status on the women participants, excluding menstruating women from touching the sacred pipe, interpreting the status of the condor in Shuar culture as like that of the eagle in indigenous North American cultures. A recent Condor-Eagle Gathering of Nations held near Popayán, Colombia, was intended to bring together respected taitas, shamans, and NAC elders; but it was so costly that indigenous Colombians could not attend, and was instead filled with wealthier European tourists who, as one NAC participant put it, “were there just for the medicine.”

Long journey. Small steps.

Shaman Superheroes

Interestingly, two superhero comic characters have been, more or less, shamans — the Canadian superhero Shaman (Marvel Comics) and the Mexican superhero Chamán (Mambo Comics).

Shaman has a long and complex history in Alpha Flight and other interlocking comics. His real name is Michael Twoyoungmen, a top Canadian surgeon, who has given up his native tradition for a wife and family in the white world. When his wife Kathryn is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he dedicates himself to healing her, promising his daughter Elizabeth that he will not let her mother die. So, when Kathryn dies, his daughter hates him for his failure, and moves out of the house. Michael himself spends years in seclusion, until he finally opens a gift left for him by his grandfather, who had died, remarkably enough, on the same day as Kathryn. The gift is a a medicine bag and a skull, which connects the earthly plane to his grandfather's spirit. The grandfather's spirit then trains Michael to become a powerful mystic and to use the powers of the medicine bag, becoming the superhero Shaman.

The story becomes more complicated after that. Shaman's story interacts with those of the other superheroes comprising the Alpha Flight team and a wide variety of spiritual entities, and he eventually becomes a key character in the Marvel Universe. He finally reunites with his daughter Elizabeth, who develops a newfound respect for her father, and he discovers that she, in turn, is destined to take on the crown of Talisman, making her one of Earth's greatest mystics.

Ironically, it is the medicine bag that undoes this relationship. When the bag is unexpectedly turned inside out, it begins to suck in everything around it, and Shaman has the choice of saving either his daughter — who is now the powerful Talisman — or Snowbird, daughter of the Inuit goddess Nelvanna. He saves Snowbird, knowing that his daughter is powerful enough to survive inside the medicine bag nexus. When his daughter is eventually rescued, she is furious with her father, who had failed to save her, just as he had failed to save her mother.

Rejected by his daughter, Shaman loses his confidence and therefore his powers; and the spirit of his grandfather returns to lead him into the barren lands for a series of tests to help him rediscover his inner power. He gains the respect of the spirits of the land, who are willing to help him, and acquires an eaglet animal spirit. And so the story goes on; a summary can be found here. Alas, Shaman is eventually killed in a great battle with a vastly powerful mutant called The Collective.

Chamán was the star of his own eponymous comic book, which appeared just twice, in December 1995 and March 1996. These issues are rare; I have taken the outline from the Comiqueros blog and La Cucaracha comic book website.

While there were at least some vaguely generic shamanic elements in the Shaman story — a medicine bag, an eaglet animal spirit, the spirits of the land — it is difficult to see much that is shamanic about Chamán. He in fact dresses not in anything remotely indigenous but rather in the costume of a luchador, a professional masked wrestler. It is not, as far as I can tell, ever made clear why.

The first and only Chamán story is entitled Welcome to the Jungle. A taxi driver tells us that the appearance of a mysterious person, a masked justiciero, a superhero, has changed life in the city. Crime has diminished and everything seems more peaceful. This mysterious person is named Chamán.

But now crime and violence are on the rise again, for a villain named Candlestick has created a bunch of robots — they look more like robot clowns than anything else — who are robbing banks, stealing jewels, and resisting all efforts of the police to capture them. Now Candlestick is threatening to poison the city water supply unless he is paid a million-dollar ransom, and Chamán has promised the chief of police that he will capture him within 24 hours.

Thanks to information given him by Bimba, a punk girl, Chamán succeeds in finding Candlestick's hideout, where he is captured by the villain, manages to escape, and destroys the robots, although Candlestick manages to get away.

Later, with the chief of police, he thinks up a plan to attract Candlestick. They set up a lucha libre, a wrestling match, in the hopes of luring Candlestick to take on Chamán in the ring. Candlestick falls for the bait, there is a fight involving a backpack rocket and a manure truck, and Chamán manages to arrest Candlestick and lock him in a mental institution. Chamán decides that he will continue to work as both a superhero and a professional wrestler.

Is it a coincidence that, ten years later, one of the leading luchadores in Mexico was named Mistico?

None of this has much to do with real shamanism, but I thought it was interesting.