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thoughts on neo-shamanism, "core shamanism", "urban shamanism" and other labels


by Annette Høst ©

I am standing with both feet in my own time and soil and society. Trying to learn things that were forgotten and forbidden for a long time. Then some people come and call me names. Or they call what I do names. I think you know the situation.

Depending on if they are anthropologists or Christians, or Americans or new age booksellers they call what we practise for neo shamanism, core shamanism or urban shamanism or something else. But none of those names or labels seems to sit really right. This makes me ask: What is really characteristic of our shamanic practice here and now, of our shamanic tradition? And which name or label would fit? This essay is some personal thoughts on this question. I will try to look under the surface of those labels and see what they indicate or contain.
Core shamanism
When I was more innocent and less experienced in shamanism, in the new age scene, and in the academic disputes, I used to call what I did for Core shamanism, as I had learned from Michael Harner (of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in USA). Then once I went to Holland to teach a course, and they called what I did for Harner Shamanism. That gave me something to think about.

Literally core shamanism means the core, the essence of shamanism, stripped of cultural form or clothing, stripped to that part which is timeless, cross cultural, and plain human. The elements of this cross cultural essence are the change of consciousness, the soul flight/journey, the relationship with spirit helpers and powers of nature, the tasks of healing, divination, and mediating between the spirit world and the community.

This idea - to practise just the essence -  is a beautiful thought, and maybe partly true as well. But we fool ourselves if we are not aware that as soon as we have stripped the shamanic practice of Lakota, or Nepalese or Yakut clothing, we don our own. We clothe it inevitably in our own cultural form, outlooks, habits, and biases. Even if we could learn just the core, as soon as we practise it, it grows roots in and is flavoured by our own culture, time, and spiritual outlook-  as it should. And then it is not core anymore.

However, for most people the term core shamanism is synonymous  with Michael Harner's and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies' way of shamanism, and that Way  is not "core" in the literal sense of the word. It is Michael Harner's "own personal distillation and interpretation of some of the millennia-old shamanic methods." adapted to Western people, as Michael  himself writes in his book The Way of the Shaman. Which is to say, it is chosen and presented in a form, which is Western enough for Western people to accept and handle. Of course! Why not?  We are many who have benefited from this. However, seen now with my Nordic and somewhat shamanically experienced eyes, Harner's way of shamanism seems rather, well, American. That is, it is adapted to the American Christian, spiritual-fast-food culture. In addition, it shares with present-day European shamanism the predicaments of urbanity, superficiality and the tendency to psychologize the spirits.

All in all, the way I see it, "Core" is a beautiful sounding name. But used as a term it is a product of wishful thinking rather than a description of content of the Foundation's particular trend of modern Western shamanism.

Urban shamanism
The term Urban shamanism is an interesting combination of concepts. To me it is a paradox. If shamanic practice is "urban" in the literal sense of removed from the country, the raw earth, nature, then it will be stunted. This is a painful fact for all those who live in the city and try to practise shamanism. It is one of the conditions of modern Western shamanic practice, that we have to look in the eye and deal with, try to remedy or compensate for, but not gloss over.

So much for Urban shamanism in the literal sense. Some authors, for example Serge King have used the term to designate their particular way of shamanism. I think it is noteworthy that in this kind of shamanism the psychologizing of spirit(s) has gone so far that  there is no talk of spirits or spirit helpers other than as predesigned visualisations.  In the classical sense of shamanism, both the powers of nature, and personally known spirit helpers are indispensable.

Neo shamanism
When the students of History of Religion or Anthropology come to study us to write papers, they call what we do  Neo shamanism. They call it Neo shamanism as opposed to "real" shamanism practised in the countless cultures in which the shamans have functions acknowledged by their own, mainstream culture. The label contains a critical attitude to our practice,  and sometimes it is clearly used as a pejorative label, often followed by remarks about how one can go on a workshop and become a shaman, ha, ha. 

In the papers and studies on Neo shamanism there are discussions on modern people's romantic seeking to imitate the noble savage. The academic authors maintain how the education, initiation, suffering and spiritual foundation of a modern practitioner is a mere shadow of the same in "real", traditional shamanism. And sometimes they comment on the illusion of modern practitioners of being able to do shamanism that is not embedded in their own particular culture.

Often I think the academics have a good point. They do call attention to some of our modern, Western challenges, to which I will return below. Their criticism comes partly from their perspective of not having any shamanic experience themselves, but also from a greater knowledge of other cultures' shamanic practice than most modern practitioners have. To me it points to the importance for modern practitioners of seeking perspective, knowledge, humbleness and patience by studying the written testimonies of shamans of other times and cultures, available to us now as never before.

What I do not like about the term Neo shamanism and its application is that it sets what we do apart from the rest of shamanism. "Neo shamanism" is a category all by itself, alien and different. And all the other traditions are joined under the common category "Shamanism". Rather, I see what we do as yet another expression of shamanism, yet another branch on the ancient world tree of shamanism.  Different in many aspects, of course, from the branches of say 18th century Saami, contemporary Tuvan, Viking age Nordic, or modern American shamanism - but sharing the same trunk and nourishment.

Modern Western shamanism?
So what can we call what we do? First and foremost I call what I do shamanism. If I must relate our practise to other traditions, I prefer to call what I, or some of us, do Modern Western shamanism or even Modern European shamanism.

It is modern and it is Western /European shamanism meaning that its form, its practice, is rooted in and shaped by our own (modern) time and our North European culture, with its spiritual, material, political conditions and traits.

What, then, are the characteristics of Modern Western conditions seen from the perspective of millennia of shamanic practise? Some of these conditions are so unconscious or deep in our bones, that I cannot even think of them.  However, I can  think of some traits in our culture and life conditions that are special and important for our pursuit of shamanism, and which set us apart from other traditions, times and  peoples. (This is of course not a complete list, just what I - almost off hand - can think of.)

The strong emphasis on, almost worship of, individuality.

Urbanity. A great separateness from nature, in many cases bordering on earth-phobia. Ignorance about the life of plants, animals, seasons, landscapes etc.

A worldview strongly shaped by Christianity, Western science and psychology.

Impatience, a need for quick results. A lost ability to wait, be still, and take one's time to go deeper

Atrophy  of oral narration/ tradition, a dwindling ability to remember and memorise without written aids.

Freedom to legally practise magic, pagan/heathen spirituality and shamanism.

Access to a vast body of shamanic knowledge from other times and cultures.

Far be it from me to complain or cry about those conditions. They are not to be judged, just acknowledged. They all deeply influence the way we practise shamanism. Some of them are great privileges, to be treated as gift - who knows how long they will last? Others are stunting of abilities or gifts that are taken for granted by other cultures. They are often accompanied by a hunger for the lost, which can lead to romantic projections on other peoples and traditions. Therefore they need both our keen eyes and our compassion for ourselves - and then action.

I think it is important for the integrity of our practice that we try to be really aware of what our unique cultural background means to our approach to shamanism. That we try to have a conscious look at what we bring with us as our baggage, when we start out on the great shamanic adventure.

I believe we can find a centered beauty, and an empowering and sober presence in acknowledging what our weak and strong sides are, what we need to learn and do. We will be able to own both our difference from and our likeness with the other branches on the shamanic world tree. And then we might be able to practise  with deeper authenticity.

First written for the shamanic newsletter "Spirit Talk",
 issue 14, spring 2001, with the title "What's in a name"

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