16 October 2018

Shamanism and the tragœdy of the divine

An Evenk shaman

In the northeastern part of Inner Mongolia (not the central part that I lived in and blogged from for two years) there lives a semi-nomadic pastoralist people called the Evenkil Эвэнкил, or Ewenke 鄂溫克 in Chinese, who traditionally made their living by herding reindeer. Today, they are either Buddhist or (nominally) Orthodox Christian, having been baptised by Russian Cossacks during the eastward expansion. They form a significant portion of the population of Siberia further north, but they are not well-known in the West outside of anthropological circles. Indeed, better known are their close linguistic kin, the Manchus who founded the Qing Dynasty in China. However, they made an important conceptual and linguistic contribution to the English language, in the term shaman (шаман).

Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am drawing for my commentary upon a very limited number of sources, only a couple of which are anthropological in the proper sense, and only a couple of which are ‘primary’. If I make any misrepresentations here of the shamanic tradition as it is traditionally understood, please understand that these are errors of ignorance and not of malice. It is not my intention to belittle or to misrepresent the shamanic traditions, which – in my view – grab hold of some very important truths that we moderns have lost sight of completely.

That said: there are various definitions of shamanism that make the rounds in anthropological circles, of varying levels of generality including some that border on vapidity (basically referring to any religious practice of pre-modern peoples). However, more cogent definitions restrict discussions of shamanism to East and North Asian contexts, and cite a narrower set of religious practices. David Hawkes, the translator of the anthology of southern Chinese poetry Chuci 楚辭, uses the following definition of shamanism:
  1. A shaman is an expert in spirit-matters who knows the world of spirits at first hand and can use this knowledge to give professional advice and assistance to his (or her) fellow men.
  2. Shamans often receive their vocation during, or as a result of, an illness – what is sometimes called the maladie initiatique.
  3. Shamans are able, while in a state of trance or ecstasy, to project their souls on journeys into the world of spirits.
  4. Shamans often receive guidance from a long-dead Shaman Ancestor who in some cases is thought to have been the First Ancestor who in some cases is thought to have been the First Shaman or the inventor of shaman techniques: ecstasy, healing, etc.
  5. Drumming and dancing are the almost invariable accompaniment of the shaman’s self-induced ecstasy.

A Manchu shamaness

These practices were common to the indigenous religions of East Asia – including not only the kissing-cousins of the Evenkil, the Manchus, as well as Mongols, Koreans and Japanese (whose miko is a representative of the old shamanic ways), but also the Chinese people themselves. As Arthur Waley (another Chuci translator) puts it: ‘the functions of the Chinese wu were so like those of Siberian and [Evenki] shamans that it is convenient (as has indeed been done by Far Eastern and European writers) to use shaman as a translation of wu.

One notable trait of the shamans – both in the Siberian Evenk-Manchu and in the ancient Chinese tradition – is that, as the description states, they are responsible for healing illness and illness is often responsible for making a shaman. Illness was thought to have a spiritual cause, and in the case of the shaman-initiate, illness brought one closer to the realm of the spirits (that is, in a literal sense closer to death). This should not be taken to mean a primitive superstition. Shamanism is truly a reasonable and logical approach to the problem of evil – particularly as it pertains to the relation between the human being and the natural world. Modernity has by and large attempted to shelter us from this, given us a certain distance from surd evils such that we can consider ourselves self-sufficient. But faced with scarcity, disease and senseless suffering, shamanism was an eminently reasonable response to The Problem – that is, the problem of a world subject to death. Someone who had understood and experienced such gratuitous suffering, who could explain it through contact with a world beyond human sight – such a person was to be revered and consulted.

Not only that. Reading the Chuci again – songs which are related intimately to the practice of shamanism among the pre-Qin Chinese people – I am struck by another facet of the shamanic attitude toward the spirit world. They combine a true awe and reverence for nature in its sublime beauty and terrible power with a love for nature that is literally erotic; however, this erotic love is tinged with a sense of tragœdy. ‘In the Nine Songs,’ says David Hawkes in his commentary, ‘the shamans and shamanesses appear to be actually wooing the deities they invoke, but the wooing seems invariably to end in sadness and frustration.’ The shaman, at least in this Chinese tradition of wu 巫 shamanism, during his or her departures from the body into the spirit world, is engaged in a ‘combination of erotic pursuit and lachrymose despair’. The offices of shaman in other East and North Asian, and even some European heathen traditions originating from Asia, also include a sexual dimension: the seiðkona (spæ-wife) of the ancient Germanic religion, for example; or the volkhvy of the Slavic rodnoverie who were involved in fertility rites. But what is notable about the shamanic tradition proper as it appears in the Chu poetry is that it always ends in heartbreak, and leaves the shaman in a shattered state returning from his ecstatic trance back into the mundane reality, a kind of ‘post coitum tristitia’ as Hawkes again puts it. The shaman’s attempts to bridge the world of spirits and the world inhabited by the people, even when successful, end on this lachrymose note.

The shamanism that appears in the Chu poetry of Qu Yuan again strikes me, not as backwards superstition and not as flights of fancy, but as a very genuine reaction to and attempt to grasp The Problem at its most basic level. The same natural phenomena and supernatural, the same spirits and gods, must be propitiated – must be sought out, must be wooed. All spiritual life, all religious life – is erotic at its core. This is something the Evenkil understood, and something the ancient Chinese understood. We human beings find ourselves broken, incomplete, subject to suffering and death, and we have this basic need to go out of ourselves in search of that completion. The shaman, the wu, embodies this erotic need, makes himself vulnerable and pours himself out to cruel and fickle spirits who take him, possess him and leave him – broken. And he does this, takes this illness and this ill-fated ecstasy (which he knows will end in desertion) upon himself – for his people, for their health and mental well-being. The shaman is respected and revered and consulted, but in a way it is so he can serve as a kind of collective sacrifice.

Christian orthodoxy, at its deepest level, does not actually deny any of this. And I am certain that the great saints of the Orthodox Church (and many among the Catholic missionary saints too, to be fair) who preached and taught among peoples of this shamanic sensibility – Holy Father Herman the Wonderworker; Holy Father Sophronius of Irkutsk; Venerable Tryphon of Pechengaunderstood this deep erotic longing for completion, and even sympathised with this lachrymose tendency, this sense of tragœdy that undergirds paganism at its deepest level. At its very best, the heathen sense of tragœdy can produce an awe-inspiring nobility. Though the Germanic religion preaches a world that ends bitterly, a literal Reign-Wreck ending in the violent deaths of all the human beings and the gods, it calls people to a sublime, Stoic disregard of self. Though death is a certainty, there is a way in which one can go to meet it which is beautiful and virtuous. There is something equally noble in Qu Yuan’s unwillingness to debase and compromise himself, his total rejection of flattery and artifice, as he writes his verse and ‘goes to Peng Xian’ (his shamanic forefathers).

Qu Yuan

The shaman must go out of himself, must sacrifice himself (repeatedly), to chase after the sublime, terrible (but treacherous) spirits and gods, which are both the cause and the remedy of the evils of the world. The shaman is both journeying hero and scapegoat, the sole link between the people and the realm of spirits. Christianity radicalises this shamanistic worldview, by turning the understanding of The Problem inward. It is not the spirits and gods that are the cause of illness, suffering and death. We are. This is something the Jewish prophets from Moses on all intuited and spoke to their people at every turn. If we wish to find the reason for our suffering, we need to look inside ourselves. And moreover, the Abrahamic God takes no delight in propitiation: ‘thou delightest not in burnt offerings’, says David. Instead, what Christ shows us is a shamanic worldview, not invalidated wholesale but instead turned upside-down. It is not we who chase and woo the spirits and gods, but rather God that chases after us, that seeks to woo us – not to force us to His will, but to win our hearts.

Moreover: Christ is the shaman. A human shaman projects his soul outside the body into the spirit world. In the human person of Christ, the Logos, the spiritual principle undergirding all of creation, all natural things seen and all things unseen, projects Himself into history and into a this-worldly body through the womb of the Mother of God. A human shaman subjects himself to the fickle will of the spirits. Christ, the shaman, subjects Himself to our fickle wills. A human shaman is heartbroken and spiritually-shattered when his trance ends. Christ, the shaman, is crucified upon a Cross, His body broken and condemned to death – and He even gives voice to a shamanistic lament, when He cries: ‘Alahy, Alahy, lama na šabaqtany?’ A human shaman seeks to cure illness and grant wisdom to his people. So does Christ, the shaman. He cures even the very source of illness and ignorance; to wit, death.

The point here is not to make yet another hackneyed Christian apologetic: the point is to demonstrate the radicalism of Christian doctrine as someone from a shamanistic or heathen viewpoint might have seen it. Classical Christianity does not wish away the tragœdy that the heathen all too well understands. Classical Christianity is not a shrinking-away from suffering, nor is it a bland smoothing-over. We moderns have done our best to sanitise suffering and death, to distance ourselves both from the grandeur of nature and from its terrors, and even to distance ourselves from our own emotions. But we have done so at the expense of Christian orthodoxy, which seems to require a certain ‘heathen’ outlook on life that has been lost. In order to recapture and understand the radicalism of Christian orthodoxy, I wonder if we don’t have to in some sense become good pagans again.


  1. Very interesting. Are you familiar with the work of Michael Janda?

  2. https://www.amazon.de/Die-Musik-nach-dem-Chaos/dp/B006RF9UB2

  3. Hello, Peter! Welcome to the blog!

    I am not familiar with Janda's work, however it does look fascinating - I will have to check it out. Thank you!