Well the big news has been the Ashburton carnival. Our little home town has seen float after float parade by our very front door. This year, however, we were ready. Chicken laced in herbs, burgers purloined from Dartmoor cattle, two steaks from the very same beast, ice cold beer, a very good french red and a bottle of Ardbeg. And that's just for the kids.
So we had a big feast as they waddled wonderfully by (or maybe that was us). We were all decked out in Elizabethan costume that Cara suddenly produced on the second glass of red. Later we gathered by the fire for banjo and Cahon (spanish drum) as the children set up a sound system playing Burning Spear and Wagner. Well, all but the very last bit of that happened.
So wednesday is the much discussed 'Ecology, Myth, and the Notion of Hope' day with myself and Alastair McIntosh behind Schumacher College on the Dartington Estate. So, with that in mind i include a review from some years back of McIntosh laying out some interesting thinking whilst pretending to review a book. See what sticks. You may have heard him reading 'prayer for the day' this month on radio 4. I will be bringing Hebredian folklore and poetry. This weekend is also the very last gathering of the year course up on Dartmoor -under canvas, round the fire. Saturday is 'walking the story' - a literal walking into the wllderness and catching the mirrors of your own living myth, with some strong ritual and gritty tribal stories to see us on our way on the Sunday. I can't believe the year has flown so fast.
Elijah or Elisha? A Shamanism for Today
Published in The Christian Parapsychologist, Churches' Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies, 13:4, pp. 119-122, 1998.
This piece comprises a review article of Shamanic Experience: a Practical Guide to Shamanism for the New Millennium and Where Eagles Fly: A Shamanic Way to Personal Fulfilment, both by Kenneth Meadows, Element Books, Shaftesbury, 1998 editions, both £9.99, respectively ISBN 1 85230 226 7 (196pp) & 1 86204 284 5 (249pp).
I have a problem with reviewing these two books for this journal. Meadows claims to have produced a “distillation of ancient wisdom” that he calls shamanics - shamanism freed from “regurgitations of ritualistic practices and superstitious beliefs.” His listing of what such shamanism offers the practitioner is distinctly self-centred. Yes, human love and cosmic ecological harmony is mentioned in a rather abstract other-worldly sense, but the more tangible benefits that he advocates seem to focus on such levels as being able to “develop practical skills in personality profiling,” “discover personal gateways to greater power and mastery over your life,” and of course, how to “improve your personal relationships.”
From a Judeo-Christian point of view, then, I would say that Meadows has “freed” his topic from too much, and thrown out the proverbial baby. That “baby,” I would venture, is the cultural psychotherapeutic function of shamanism as a dimension of applied prophetic theology. Meadows himself does not attempt to place shamanism in a Biblical context. That’s fair enough because his audience, clearly, is New Age. The less-politically aware segments of that broad kirk, stimulating and irritating in near-equal measure, will doubtless feel well served by these books. But for the purposes of this particular journal and for some of the more grounded New Age itself, I should like to make a diversion. Allow me, then, to use my space not to recount how, supposedly, to “see the aura,” find your power animal or make a prayer arrow - but to take the opportunity to suggest in which directions a Biblical shamanism might be explored. A book or a PhD is waiting to be done out there, and this might be an outline for it.
Shamanism is important to the “Christian parapsychologist” because the experiences of most of the Hebrew prophets can be more deeply understood with the help of its perspective. Ezekiel, for example, had to be fortified, first with a remarkable vision of totemic creatures and crystal; then with the courage not to be afraid “of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions” (Ezekiel 1 & 2:6). His vision, of course, finds echoes in Revelation (especially 4:6-8 on the Apostolic power animals), and his tree of life echoes Genesis and the Garden of Eden where it comes back in right at the close of the New Testament as being that which engenders the “healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).
Another shaman, who appeared to understand the psychodynamics of sound, was Joshua who also set up a standing stone in a grove to mark the new-found monotheism of his people (Joshua 24:26-27). Jacob did likewise with the stone used as the pillow during his archetypally classic dream of the axis mundi ladder linking Earth with Heaven (Genesis 29:11-22). And of course, we Scots know from our legends, which must be true, that this very stone is our Stone of Destiny, originally fallen as a meteorite on the Holy Land and coming to us via Spain and the ancient Scots from Tara’s Hill in Ireland.
Readers of this journal should remember, though, that Old Testament was not always so supportive of megaliths. In Exodus 34:10-15 the standing stones are smashed because of their association with “sacred poles” which, according to a Jerusalem Bible footnote, were emblems of Asherah (Astarte, Ashteroth), the Goddess of love and fecundity. Clearly, the jealous patriarchal God had not yet woken up to his anima in Sophia or Hokmâ of Proverbs 8 etc., still less with Christ’s own identification with this feminine personification of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 11:19. In his Answer to Job Jung would have it that this was because humankind had not yet completed its work of humanising the tribal Yahweh into growing up into the full consciousness of what it means to be God outside of the eternal pleroma.
The shamanic Moses, of course, had his Heaven-sent manna and his magical rod, famously calling in Numbers 11:29 upon “all God’s people” to stand with him as prophets. Indeed, that chapter is a classic portrayal of the shaman’s struggle. There we see the visionary who has stepped outside of the ordinary consensus-trance reality of being enslaved to the “treasure houses of Pharaoh,” who has seen God’s way to a “promised land” of social and ecological wellbeing (if you forget about the original inhabitants thereby displaced) “flowing with milk and honey,” and now has to wrestle with ministering to the dependency-culture sickness of his people in an effort to heal the self-internalised wounds of their inferiorisation under slavery.
Turning now to Elijah, his job was so badly paid that he had to be fed by ravens on his travels (1 Kings 17:4). The raven is a power creature symbolising enlightenment - it looks through death into the rebirth of life eternal. Elijah’s power was tied up with that essential shamanistic accessory, his magic mantle (1 Kings 19:3; 2 Kings 2:7-15). This is found in traditions as geographically far-flung as Native America and, as we know from Martin Martin’s 1695 account, in what were probably the consciousness-changing practices of the bardic schools of the Celtic world.
And then there is Jonah. He provides an example of the storms sent by the unconscious and their consequent archetypal reconstellation in the “whale” when prophetic calling is evaded (Jonah 1-2). Jeremiah had similarly tried to evade his initial calling, protesting to God that he was “only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). Isaiah’s initial excuse was his unworthiness being a “man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). And Moses in prophetic reluctance protested disability, complaining: “I have never been eloquent ... I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10).
The lesson from all this is that when that Jungian deep Self, known in the bible as “the Lord” calls, our narrow little egos are not their own. The common task of the prophet, shaman or bard is to constellate an alternate reality - to articulate a renewed poesis or making of reality to salve the soul of his or her people.
In marked contrast to the reluctance of Jonah and others was the attitude of Elijah’s successor, Elisha. He seems to have positively relished and pursued his calling. He asked Elijah if he could inherit a double dose of power. When the old man dies, Elisha finds this request is granted: sure enough, the mantle also proves magical on Elisha’s shoulders. He tries it out and manages to divide the waters of the River Jordan and cross over. With dry feet Elisha then makes off to ascend Mt. Carmel. But as he passes through a village, the children tease him about his baldness. In a passage about which not many sermons are preached, we then see this double dose of shamanic power rush to his head. Elisha’s male ego is affronted. He turns round and curses the children in the name of the Lord. In response, two she-bears come out of the woods. They tear apart two and forty of the little miscreants. And Elisha continues on his way, apparently without remorse (1 Kings 2).
Let me turn now to the point of having made this detour in reviewing Meadows books. I have a problem with this kind of material because it is not grounded, first and foremost, in the calling to address social and ecological justice. As Jesus proclaims in his Luke 4 mission statement (in which the “acceptable year of the Lord” or “Jubilee” pertains to the “land ethic” of Leviticus 25), the prophet who is “not recognised” in his own land must, nevertheless, hammer on about these altruistic ideals. Unlike such New Age gurus as Deepak Chopra, Jesus never said you could have both spirituality and worldly success; quite the contrary. That is where the more will-o’-the-wispish edges of the New Age are at odds with a prophetic theology and so cannot, I believe, in any deep analysis, lay claim to shamanic practice. If it does, it risks being the shamanism not of Elijah, but of Elisha. It risks fuelling ego out of control.
In saying that I do not wish to be damning of Meadows. On the contrary, books like these are often a good starting point to draw the reader into more serious literature and practice. I well recall, after all, having my own appetite for the mystical originally whetted in boyhood on reading that dubious populist “Tibetan” mystic, Tuesday Lobsang Rampa! After all, it was more thrilling than anything that Calvinist Sunday school on the Isle of Lewis was capable of coming up with!
Also, my critique, were it intended to be damning, would overlook the fact that much of the New Age nourishes those who, in a bygone era, would be called the “simple faithful.” Whilst simple faith is in many ways dangerous and delusional, it can also have a widow’s mite-like integrity to it that belies all the smart-Alex scholarship that people like me sometimes give the impression of indulging in with reviews like this. Yes, we can take a “holier-than-thou” attitude to the New Age ... but if we apply the same standards of criticism to most of the depleted flocks in the mainline churches, do we see much better by way of patterns and examples?
The greatest of all the Biblical shamans was, of course, that parabolic God-Man who taught in parables and made the whole of his life into parable indicative of the life, death and rebirth structures of deep reality. By their fruits you shall know them, said this celebrant of the joy of God whose very first miracle, according to John 2, was to contribute the equivalent of 900 bottles of wine to the party. That’s the sort of thing I so admire about a grounded shamanism! It rids the people of their various uptightnesses that stifle life. Jesus emphasised that we do not live from “bread alone” (Matthew 4:4), yet before preaching he always put first his concern to see that the people had bread (Mark 8). It is from such roots as these that prophetic theology nourishes a theology of liberation. It is to such roots that the “Christian parapsychologist” might most richly look to find a shamanism for our times.
Alastair McIntosh is a fellow of the Edinburgh-based independent “green” think-tank, the Centre for Human Ecology. This article consolidates footnotes to his poetic contribution to Nature Religion Today, ed. Pearson, Roberts & Samuel, Edinburgh University Press, 1998.