Category Archives: Shamanism

Spirit Trees

The bond between a shaman and his or her spirit tree has been a long-established principle of shamanism and many cultures of antiquity adhere to the principle that the abilities of the shaman are very much dependent on the shaman’s spirit tree, to the extent that the metaphoric tree has taken on a life of its own and has become a central feature or facet of shamanism.

The shaman tree can be divided into two types. The first type or category of shaman trees are trees where spirits or spiritual entities reside. These trees have their origins in the realm of folklore and are often divided into different tiers. The strength of the spirit is dependent on the tier that the spirit occupies. Spirits that reside on higher tiers are stronger than those that occupy lower tiers. It is therefore possible, in this manner, to distinguish between inferior spirits and spirits of a higher capacity.

The second type of shamanic trees are trees that have a spirit i.e. these trees have a soul and it is the soul or the spirit of these trees that help and assist shamans during shamanic rites and rituals. The tree that is most commonly associated to having a spirit of its own is the birch tree and the use of birch trees, milk, white colors and white ribbons are prevalent in Altai shamanism. The color white symbolizes purity and this aspect of Altai Shamanism is also known as the milk faith.

In addition to that there is also a tree that is called the world tree which without doubt has its origins in popular myth and it is more commonly referred to as the eternal poplar. According to Altai shamanic principles, the roads to the lower and higher levels of the world run along the trunk(s) of this tree and the tree unites the various levels of the world.

In ancient Turkic-Mongolian circles, these trees along with the sun, moon and the stars were venerated as deities and the bond between the shaman and the spirit tree is strengthened by repeatedly performing shamanic rituals in honor of these tress.

The worship of trees was also rampant among animistic cultures. It is a common precept among followers of the animistic faith that all things for example trees, mountains, rivers etc. have spirits. Tatar oral narratives handed down for generations give us an example of the spirit of the Alps. He is, according to legend, strong, swift, tall and proud.

It is usual among animistic cultures to characterize and attached tangible attributes to natural objects. In his book Religion in Primitive Cultures, Edward Taylor defines animism as the doctrine of Spiritual Beings.

In addition to birch trees, other trees like oak, cedar and ash were also worshipped in ancient Europe and it was widespread in pre-Christian Europe. This type of worship also extended to plants especially plants with healing properties and it’s not unheard off or uncommon to assign plants especially those with medicinal value some sort of divine status.

Animism, as a religion, gives all things, animate and inanimate, character, and that includes attributing salient or prominent features like gender, strength and height to name a few, to the object(s) of worship and the characteristics that are attributed to the object(s) are a general perception of what the object(s) represent and this representation becomes the soul or the spirit of the object.

The spirit of a tree for example may be described as strong and uncompromising if the tree remains and has remained stolid for years. The spirit of the tree may be described as tainted if the bark is covered with blight and it is beset with insect infestation. Similarly, a withering tree that has lost its leaf cover may be described as a dying tree and the spirit of the tree can be described as being on the verge of being set free to either become an acorn that will grow into a new tree or achieve salvation or liberation.

Likewise, a monolith that has stood the test of time may be ascribed with attributes of being strong and enduring and may even be worshipped in some circles as bestowing providence and good luck.

It is very similar to the ancient Persian belief that all things have at their core a soul. It is practically impossible of course to determine if a tree actually does have a soul or otherwise but according to most sources, the worship of trees can bring about a turn of good fortunate unless of course the spirit of the tree is tainted or polluted.

Copyright © 2018 by Dyarne Ward

Vision Quest

Vision quest or the seeking of visions is undertaken to seek random visions. In most instances the seeker is searching for an event that will unravel or manifest itself in the future and the event at the time it appears to the seeker may or may not make sense to him and the seeker may require the help of an elder or a medicine man or a shaman to help him interpret his vision. He may or may not be part of the vision.

Let’s compare these visions to visions of clairvoyance or precognition and let us try and identify the common factors and determine the factors that differentiate vision quest visions from visions of clairvoyance or pre-cognition.

Clairvoyance and pre-cognition are abilities to see into the future and from that aspect they are sometimes comparable to visions that appear during meditation but the subject does not have the ability to control the visions that appear in the form of a dream. The visions often appear in sudden flashes or bursts of images and disappear as quickly as they’d come leaving behind a lingering memory and days, months or years later when the event does unfold the subject is left with a sense of déjà vu.

This in simplistic terms is what clairvoyance or pre-cognition really is. It happens to most of us at some time or other and we are often left searching for answers and we often put it down to the unexplainable or divine intervention.

Those who know what these visions really are, these visions more often than not occur when the body is asleep, are deemed to have the gift of clairvoyance and pre-cognition and they use it for their own benefit (which is the way it should be) and some use it to help others.

Vision quest or the seeking of visions however is slightly different in that, it not only reveals future events but it is also reveals past events, i.e. a vision from the past, and this becomes of use when we are trying to come to terms with the present. There is a valid reason for most things and the answer sometimes lies in the past.

The images appear, for those who have experienced them; in full Technicolor i.e. they are identical or synonymous to actual images, sometimes with sound and at other times without. These images are very real and sometimes the dreamer or the seeker experiences an outflow or an outpour of emotions and it may be love, anger, hate, or any of the other normal emotions that we are all subjected to.

This outflow or outpour of emotions can leave a person sagged, sapped or drained until he or she learns to appreciate them for what they are i.e. they are merely intimations for future events or a blast from the past, maybe from a previous existence (regressive hypnosis or past life regression therapy proves that we can remember or recollect instances from our past lives).

Someone may well ask the question, what is the significance or relevance of going over something that has happened in the past? Well the simple answer is if we knew what happened in the past then we can make amends in the future. Past life regression is also used to remedy lingering illnesses like joint pains which according to same sources may not be the result of an injury sustained in this life but a result of an injury sustained in a past life that makes itself evident in the present life.

Vision quest or the seeking of visions takes the innate ability that most of us have to another level in that it tries to stimulate or induce these images or visions i.e. they do not occur naturally during sleep or meditation but are the result of subjecting oneself to a rigorous process.

It can be done in the manner which the Lakota do it though I must admit that going without water does make me slightly apprehensive and therefore it should only be done with the help and guidance of a holy man or someone who is well versed with the process.

The seeker pledges to stay on an isolated hill for one to four days with a blanket and a pipe, but without food and water to experience these visions. During this time he may seek the guidance of spirits to help him with his quest and therefore it is somewhat possible to surmise that guidance from spirits helps us channel our innate abilities. The smoking of the pipe may also stimulate the process.

Copyright © 2018 by Dyarne Ward

The Tamang Shaman

The old weathered shaman sits idly on a block of land that he calls his own, handed down to him no doubt by his predecessors who had either purchased the land or were granted the title to it, for services rendered during colonial times. He stares out in the open, seated on a rickety stool on the verandah of a hut surrounded by the banana trees that he grows for a living. The sun is high and its luminous rays beat relentlessly down on the rugged graveled land below.

The sounds of distant drumming echo over the horizon and he hums a little tune. In the valley below a group of young men are beating on a set of tin pan drums. He sings of a young man, on the verge of death, whose soul leaves his body and drifts towards the clouds and there he meets a young maiden and he is instantly taken in by her. His soul returns to his body and the maiden follows him back.

The clock strikes twelve and it will soon be time for lunch. He gets off the stool and makes his way to the rear of the hut where he has a chicken coop and selects a nice fat black rooster. It would do nicely, he says to himself.

He takes the rooster out of the coop and tucks it under his arm. He then walks into the hut to the wall where his knife hangs silently still, its blade protected by a leather sheath. He grabs it and tucks it under his belt and walks out the front door. He returns to the stool and as he sits down he pats the rooster on the head.

Minutes pass by and he hears someone removing the latch on the front gate. A loud creak ensues as the gate is pushed open, followed by the sounds of footsteps. “The boys are here” he says to the rooster and true enough three young men armed with tin pan drums and wooden sticks which they use to beat the drum with, walk up to him. The utter a customary greeting and he responds in the time honored manner.

He stands up and walks towards a designated spot right in the middle of a clump of banana trees and the youths follow closely behind. The hour is just past twelve and the hot afternoon sun is blaring down on them. He looks at the young men and asks them to begin. The boys respond by beating on the drums.

The man starts dancing with the rooster tucked beneath his arm. Then without warning he removes the knife that is tucked beneath his belt from its sheath and in one smooth fluid stroke severs the head of the rooster from its body. The music stops and he hands the bloodied remains to one of the young men while he buries the head of the rooster at the foot of one of the banana trees that appears slightly taller and sturdier than the rest.

The man and the boys make their way back to the hut where they remove the feathers from the carcass before the meat is cut up and cooked. It looks like chicken curry is on the menu.

That night, the front of his hut is filled with villagers, some of whom have brought gifts of fruits and other homemade items with them. The boys from the afternoon are there again beating on their tin pan drums. Incense sticks are lit and the air is filled with the scent of burning camphor. Benzoins are set alight and as the drum beats get more intense the man inhales the smoke from the benzoins.

Soon after his body starts to shake and tremble and his facial contours change. There is a transformation and he starts to speak in another voice, slightly high pitched and more feminine. Suddenly the drum beats stop.

He points to one of the drum beaters and the young man approaches him. “Who’s first?” he asks and the young man beckons to a couple who are standing close by. They approach the man and tell him their troubles. He stops and he ponders on what he’s heard and after a minute or two gives them a solution. The pair thank him and leave.

The next person in line then makes his or her way up to him and it continues well into the night. At the stroke of midnight, the man wraps up proceedings and returns to his normal self and the three drummers head for home. The next morning the man wakes up and goes about his business without giving much thought to the events of the previous day. As far as he is concerned it was just another day in the life of a Tamang shaman.

Copyright © 2017 by Dyarne Ward

The Shaman’s Near Death Experience

When we look at many of the ancient shamanic cultures of yesteryear, be it the Altai Shaman, the Siberian Shaman, the Tungus Shaman, the Tamang Shaman or the Yakut Shaman, there is one prerequisite that the prospective shaman or the shaman to be must satisfy in order to gain his or her shamanic abilities and that is to undergo the near-death experience. The near-death experience from all accounts can occur as the result of a natural illness or as a result of an induced illness that reduces the prospective shaman to the near-death state.

Before we go further it would be appropriate to define or give a definition to the word shaman though they sometimes act as healers or medicine men or women, shamans are not always necessarily healers.

Shamans in short are those among us who have the ability to see and communicate with spirits and it is with the help of these spirits that shamans are able to concoct remedies and foretell the future or remove hexes and maledictions.

Therefore, anyone who is able to see and communicate with spirits though that is not always necessarily the case, may if he or she chooses to, become a shaman.

The shaman or the prospective shaman acquires the ability to see and commune with spirits by undergoing the near death experience, though it is not the only way a person can see or communicate with spirits, some albeit rarely are born with the ability to see spirits while others who are old and have come to terms with death or are ready to move to the next stage also sometimes gain the ability to see spirits but the designation of shaman only belongs to those who use their ability to see and communicate with spirits to help others and that may be to cure an illness or to cause someone an illness i.e. it works both ways and hence the classification of white and black magic.

In Bhutan for example, the shaman plays a prominent role in deciding the outcome of the simplest things and even the outcome of a local football match is dependent, as far as general perceptions go, on the team that has the stronger shaman on its side.

Even today, despite the advent of modern technology and things like smart phones, there are people who still resort to shamans to achieve a specific outcome, and the shaman normally charges according to the help that is required.

To some extent it is an interesting field of study but one that requires some fortitude and it is most suited to those who have come to terms with death. To borrow a phrase from the Tibetan Book of Death or the Bardo Thodol “death is inevitable” i.e. it is something that we all have to accept.

The book itself was scripted by the Indian Prince turned monk Padmasambhava and it is in essence more tantric in content. According to the Tibetan Book of Death or even the Egyptian Book of the Dead for the matter, the spirit remains in the mortal world for a certain number of days before it takes on a new life (rebirth) or crosses over.

Both these ancient texts tell us that even if the body dies the spirit remains and these are the spirits that shamans come in contact with. Shamanism however goes a step further than that and implies that spirits can refuse to take on a new birth after the 49 days as stipulated in the Bardo Thodol or move on to the next life or the afterlife.

From what we can gather from those that have undergone the near-death experience, the prospective shaman comes close to death and at the time he or she is about to die, the spirit leaves the body and that departure from the body is very much like ascending a tree, hence the term “the shaman tree”, and as the prospective shaman’s spirit ascends the shaman tree, he or she comes in contact with other spirits.

According to some sources the spirit that the prospective shaman’s spirit comes in contact with sits on the highest limbs of the tree while other sources are more vague, but all sources agree that is during this journey that the prospective shaman comes in contact with the spirit that later aids him or her once the prospective shaman becomes a fully-fledged shaman.

Once the prospective shaman has gained sight of the other spirit and returns to his or her body and is nursed back to health, if the spirit of the prospective shaman does not return it simply means that the prospective shaman never recovers or has died, the prospective shaman now is on his or her way to becoming a fully-fledged shaman.

The new shaman continues to see the spirit he or she came in contact with during the near-death experience whereas others around the shaman cannot and in time begins to communicate with the spirit which becomes the source of the shaman’s powers or abilities.

Copyright © 2017 by Dyarne Ward