Modern Shamanism


It is sometimes suggested that shamanism is a term that should be reserved for the specific traditional and cultural practices of the Tungusic peoples of Siberia as this is where the word most likely originated, and to use it outside this context is a form of “cultural appropriation.”

A criticism often levelled at modern “Western” shamanic practitioners is that they do not and cannot represent an “authentic” shamanic tradition. By and large, these criticisms often promote a basically racist premise that suggests the ancient psycho-spiritual technology of shamanism is appropriate for all traditions other than the European. After all, I am yet to encounter any serious reservations levelled at Native American, South American, African, Asian or Australian Aboriginal practitioners who use the term with far greater regularity than do Europeans. And yet, there is a wealth of information that demonstrates “authentic” shamanic practice extended west into Europe, particularly via the Sami peoples of Finnish Lapland. It is also reasonable to suggest that if we are to be consistent in ensuring terms are not appropriated in such a manner, we would also have to also ensure that other indigenous religico-magical expressions are not similarly shared. Terms such as “wicca,” “witch/witchcraft,” and “wizard”, for example, should be strictly reserved for Anglo-Saxon practitioners of the Germanic folkways, if we are to insist upon an overly pedantic and unduly protective stance regarding proprietorial rights to cultural terms.

I suggest we need not be overly concerned as these terms have, over recent decades, clearly moved into a general modern lexicon that provides a generally useful means of communicating essential principles.

Nonetheless, we should also endeavour not to use terms or concepts disrespectfully, or without some due recognition of their source. Many Native Americans are unhappy with people casually, and with little understanding, misapplying the term “vision quest”. Many Theodish/Anglo-Saxon heathens (pagans) are equally dismayed at the term “wicca” being used to denote a religion which has little, if anything, to do with the indigenous English culture from which that term derives.

How Does The Arcana View Modern Shamanism?

In relation to shamanism, I believe it is enough to recognise that the term itself is etymologically a northern Euro-Asian one which related originally to a specific cultural folkway, and now has come to assume broader applications. We also need to be aware that there really is no uniformly agreed-upon definition of the term.

According to Professor Ronald Hutton, there are basically four schools of thought regarding what “shamanism” can/should mean:

1. The journeying to, and contact with, a “non-ordinary”, or “spiritual,” realm and beings.

2. The second is similar to this, but suggests one is only acting “shamanically” if this contact is done at the request of others.

3. Involves the use of specific techniques which separate them from broader definitions such as magicians, witch-doctors, medicine-men, et al., and

4. Indigenous Siberian practitioners.

The Arcana is comfortable in asserting that the system of Tarot Shamanry falls within the first and third of Professor Hutton’s definitions.

Shamanism In The Western Magical Traditions?

The Arcana also recognises that the lines of transmission in genuine European folkways that once represented an “authentic shamanic” tradition are tenuous, despite various New Age movements and organisations claiming lines of succession to the “Old Ways”. However, there is more than enough information, especially in the Germanic, Slavic and Celtic traditions, that demonstrate such native folkways did indeed exist. And further, given that the principles of shamanism that have been kept (relatively) intact in various tribal societies over the centuries indicate shared generic and core aspects, it is entirely reasonable to identify these aspects and apply them – in conjunction with the historical, archaeological and anthropological record we do have – to a native European context. And further, that genuine shamanic principles and practices have been carried through into modern times in the “occult” and magical traditions of both medieval and modern Europe.

This is, of course, the tradition within which Tarot has developed and there has long been a venerable magical tradition of “pathworking” with the Spirit of the Tarot’s Major Arcana which bears striking similarity to the “journeying” practices universal amongst shamanic cultures.

The Arcana draws upon the principles of Dr Michael Harner’s work with “Core Shamanism” and Finn McMillan has been trained in that tradition and is a member of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.

Artwork: Dance Of Creation by Katia Honour


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