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wizards and shamans

September 2, 2011

Some time ago, I had a dream where the word “shamanology” appeared. That led me to see what I could find out about shamanism, and if there might be a way it could apply to me. I was aware of the issue of cultural appropriation, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t guilty of it.

I found all sorts of white people writing about something they called shamanism, but it was oddly devoid of any cultural markers. Something really bugged me about a lot of the stuff I read, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I decided that shamanism as a concept offered something of value that I didn’t have another word for, but that I would only use it in quotes [“shamanism”] because I clearly don’t have a right to use the term unadorned, and I would keep looking for a different word to use myself. For me, “shamanism” can only be a placeholder term, because I’m not Siberian, and I was not raised within that cultural framework.

I resolved to keep looking for works written by actual practitioners of either Siberian shamanism, or the equivalent [medicine men, healers, wizards, etc.] in pre-Christian cultures.

So I was delighted to run across a book called Wonder Tales from Baltic Wizards by Frances Jenkins Olcott, originally published in London in 1928, which purports to tell “tales of enchantments, wizards, witches, magic spells, … from the Baltic lands [of] Lapland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.” Nothing I’d previously run across had suggested that “wizards” or “witches” existed in pre-Christian Lithuania, although I was acquainted with Romuva, their ethnic Pagan religion. So I ordered the book, which arrived last week.


This afternoon I was talking to someone I know from The Slacktiverse, and zie mentioned having participated in a thread about “colonialism, orientalism and cultural appropriation” in atheism, which got really uncomfortable. I hadn’t read that thread, but I related how I’ve recently been struggling with the realization that I’m not just “not a traditionalist” but actually “anti-traditionalist”. How a core part of my identity is being a pollinator / cross-fertilizer of ideas that I pick up from various places. And how, when I do that, I have historically gotten only social disapproval, with a heaping dose of ‘there’s something wrong with you that needs to be fixed’. With the result of, on the one hand, it’s a personal victory when I can pollinate ideas and feel good about myself doing so. But on the other hand, maybe I’m accidentally doing it in an imperialistic way, and if I were, I would have to stop. Which means that people who hate what I’m doing for completely different reasons (traditionalists) would ‘win’, and feel vindicated at making me hate myself, which doesn’t seem like a good outcome (for me) either.

I further told zie that “my eyes had been opened” 20 years ago when I read Native Americans talking about how angry they were at ignorant Anglos using maimed Kokopelli figures as decorations in Southwestern décor. Before that time, I hadn’t known much about Kokopelli. Afterward, it seemed obscene to use sacred icons of someone else’s religion to sell merchandise. The whole thing was just gross.

So I decided I needed to read that Slacktiverse thread and comments for myself.  Which I did, earlier this evening. I noted Literata’s comments about how “colonialism, orientalism and cultural appropriation” can also be problematic within Paganism.

I found myself picking up Wonder Tales, and beginning to read it, hoping to find respectful treatment of unfamiliar folklore that would teach me something.

Instead I found this in the Foreword:

“It is surprising that such an entertaining type of wonder tale as ‘Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp’, which delights our children’s fancy, should have its roots in one of the most repellent of soul slaveries—shamanism.

The shaman, wizard, witch doctor, heathen priest, medicine man– by whatever name he is called– was and still is among some heathen tribes a force controlling with iron grip tribal life, both of chiefs and people. By of his art, the shaman, usually a professional trickster, works on the fear, credulity, and natural religious instinct of his ignorant dupes.

By howlings and whistlings, hideous maskings, capers and leapings, beating of gongs and drums, incantations to bad or good spirits, and by hocus-pocus healing and some real curative knowledge, the shaman manages to keep the helpless folk in trembling terror of his power over their lives. He is an enemy to progress and civilization.” (p. ix)

Ms. Olcott also mentions that her book only includes so-called “delightful” tales, and that “repulsive tales have been omitted” (p. x).

I read one or two. In the first one, a chthonic goddess was the villain. She reminded me of Hecate, Ereshkigal, Baba Yaga, Hel. Here is how she was described:

“Now down in the dark, dank Underworld, sat the hideous Wicked Moon Daughter. Her hair, coarse and stringy, fell over her caved-in-forehead. Her long yellow teeth gleamed in her crooked mouth. She gnashed her teeth with rage, because the little brown men were happy.” (p. 36)

If I knew more about the pre-Christian cultures of the Baltic Sea, I might be able to read between the lines for scraps of the original stories, and then perhaps place them in a narrative that was respectful, that could somehow illuminate (aspects of) their lives for me. But sadly, I was hoping this book would fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

I guess I have to keep looking.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2011 11:21

    Imperialism: wherever you go, it got there first, sadly.

    The whole “shamanism” thing really makes me twitch. Good on you for examining it critically, and good luck with finding some less problematic material.

    • September 3, 2011 11:54

      Yeah, reading the comments (at Slacktiverse) this morning, it’s clear that I’m guilty of cultural appropriation myself. I need to re-think a whole bunch of things.

      Otoh, I had recently realized that healthy pluralism requires tension and conflict so that everyone can be heard. So although this has been a painful episode, I’ve learned a lot, and hopefully I will be a better ally going forward. At the very least, I will stop making some egregious errors.

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