This is two essays in one. My partner and clansbrother Wintersong and I decided to take on this heady topic together, as we have similar and differing views on the subject. We have both been ridiculed, attacked, and disparaged because we use this title for ourselves, and it was one such letter Winter received that inspired this post. The first half is my thoughts, followed by Winter’s. Understand that any questions or comments you make to this version will be answered by me; if you wish to hear more from Winter on the subject, you’ll have to go to his version at Notes from a Barking Shaman to get his answers.
Del, from Sex, Gods, and Rock Stars, says:
“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
–James D. Nicoll
The word “shaman” is a hotly contested word in the Pagan and New Age communities. Honestly, when I first started getting the inkling that it was a word I was going to use someday, I avoided it heavily. Even now, it’s not usually the first word I use to describe the way my service to community manifests – I try to use the less controversial “spirit worker”, or “pastoral care counselor”, or “ritual facilitator” and sometimes “ordeal master”, although the last one isn’t without its own controversy. But use it I do, and I frequently get pushback from those who find it to be some form of cultural appropriation.
Raven Kaldera tends to sum up his use of the word by simply stating that the Gods told him to use it, so use it he does. I won’t take that tack – although in some sense it is true – because my thoughts on the matter are more nuanced and complicated than that. Like I said, I resisted the title for a long time, but then I came to a place of compromise on it.
First of all, I am aware that the word describes a very specific spiritual and cultural role in Northern Asia. Sources tend to attribute it as a Siberian word, but other cultures in the area had similar sounding words that described generally the same thing. There is some argument made that there is also a Sanskrit word, saman, which means “chant”, which could be part of its heritage.
Some people like to make the argument that “shaman” is a Native American word, but in a literal sense this is incorrect – there are no documented Tribal languages that use a word that sounds anything like “shaman” to describe medicine men or other spiritual leaders. The way the word became connected to Tribal spirituality is from English and American anthropologists, who lumped any person living in tribal culture whose primary role to their community was to work with spirits or as a spiritual healer. But it is not, at its core, a Tribal word at all.
And like the quote above states, lots of English words are taken from other languages and used in similar contexts as the original language used them. Words like kindergarden, pastrami, phoenix, and even batman come from other languages, but when people use them in everyday conversation we don’t accuse them of stealing from German, French, or Russian. The word shaman has a similar history – anthropologists learned of shamans and shamanic practice from the Northern Asian area, including the word for said, and began applying it to similar persons and techniques from other places.
But I know that doesn’t sate the detractors of the word. Just because a word has been subsumed by our motley tongue doesn’t mean that someone claiming it, no matter the context, is not a form of subtle cultural appropriation. I do feel there is an intrinsic difference in some English-speaking people who use the word, and this may be where the accusation of cultural appropriation comes from.
Where I agree with those who take umbrage with the use of the word are people who use it to describe practices that either mimic or directly descend from other cultures. There are a lot of (mostly white) people who offer “Native American Sweat Lodge experiences” or “Native healing ceremonies” who use the title “Shaman” to describe their role in these rituals. It can be practically impossible at this point to discern which ones have actually studied and learned not only the original rites, but the culture from which they come from; and those who’ve attended a few classes or rituals and decided there was money to made in creating similar experiences for (mostly white) people who don’t know any better.
I also agree that there are some people who claim the title “shaman” specifically to make money from hapless seekers who have a general sense of the English meaning of the word. As an active person in Pagan community, who sometimes rubs elbows with New Agers, I’ve met these sorts of folks. They live pretty average, middle class lives; but when it’s showtime, they put on Tribal looking clothing and bring out the drums. I’ve attended some of their “rituals.”
It’s usually the unintended association with those sorts of grifters that makes me reticent to use the word for myself. But a few things happened in my life that made me come to terms with the word as it relates to my personal practices and the services I offer my community.
First and foremost, I was not the first person to use the word in reference to myself. It’s hard for me to remember the specific timeline, but there was a time where people started either asking me if I was a shaman, or telling other people I was. Around the same time, I had clients who referred to me as “their shaman”. I will be honest – at first, I cringed. I associated the word with the ne’er do wells who put on their spiritual selves to make money, rather than those who lived and breathed a life focused on spiritual service, both to the Spirits/Gods and to the people. But sometimes a ball starts rolling down a hill, and you can either start the arduous journey of pushing it back up, or go for the ride.
Around the same time, I had become pretty active in the clique of East Coast spirit workers of which Raven Kaldera is a member; as he uses the word for himself, others started to assume that I did, too.
Finally, I underwent a spiritual journey to ask the Gods I serve if this was something I should actively try to change or accept. It was an odd experience, because I got several answers from different Gods and Spirits I have worked with or for. The first collective answer I felt strongly was that I had to use a word of the language of my people – English – so using a word like Gothi or Hougan would make little sense. Also, because I serve Gods from various parts of the world, choosing a word from one specific tradition would be confusing for those who sought me out to work outside of that paradigm. Although I sometimes identify as a “Northern Tradition Pagan”, I’ve made it abundantly clear through my writing that I work for many Gods who are not Norse in origin.
Secondly, They were clear that I had to use a word that the people I was here to serve would understand. Using a word I made up for myself, or something that wasn’t as easily comprehended, would end up alienating potential clients. One of my strengths is that I can move between different traditions and be of service to people who have relationships with a wide variety of Holy Ones. Along the same lines, if I chose a word like “priest”, it could be seen as misleading, since “priests” tend to be dedicated to a single cause – either serving a specific Deity, or a specific congregation/community.
The job description for “shaman” has, admittedly, become watered down over time, but the core of it still remains – I am a person who is attuned to the Spirit World, who has learned and cultivated ways to communicate and work with the residents therein, and who uses that ability to help those who seek me out because of those talents. There is also a delineation that has been made between “spirit workers”, who are people who do work for Spirits (on Earth and in the Beyond) – some of which serve clients, but some of which have very solitary practices – and “shamans”, who have undergone some traumatic life event (typically dying, but some recognize going completely mad and other traumas that radically change your life in a way you can’t change back) and have been rebuilt by the Spirits/Gods in some way that make them better suited for the Work.
The other differentiation I have seen between “spirit workers” and “shamans” is that spirit work can be a part-time endeavor – you can have a relatively normal life, a spouse and family, a career that isn’t rooted in spirituality – whereas most shamans I respect have lives that are controlled and dictated by their service. This doesn’t mean that shamans can’t have other sources of income, but the difference that I’ve witnessed is that whereas spirit workers can sometimes delay or ignore a request from Spirit or a client, shamans rarely can, especially if that client was sent by a God I have oathed to.
It would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that part of the reason I think Those I Serve chose that title for me is specifically because it’s controversial. It’s not like in every other aspect I’m an average Joe – almost every aspect of my life is seeped in some form of controversial identity. I’m queer, I’m trans* identified, I’m kinky and live in a 24/7 power dynamic, I have a radical appearance and lots of body modifications, etc. It’s part of my job to provoke, to make people think about their assumptions, to teach by example that people can choose to live their truth, even if they fear that truth might alienate people they care about.
Like I said in my essay about detractors, I’ve actually gained clients from people who have tried to besmirch me for my use of the word shaman; it’s piqued people’s curiosity about what terrible, awful things I do and they end up contacting me for something I do in my work as shaman. So in a way, I’m okay with open discussion about whether or not I’m a cultural appropriator or not. In fact, I enjoy that every so often when I read things that challenge the usage of that word by Americans or other English speakers, it makes me reassess my own usage of the word and make sure that I’m being true to myself, and not just being lazy by using some shorthand or convenient word rather than something that better describes what I do. As a person who also heavily identifies as a trickster, it would be antithetical to my nature to get angry when people question anything I do, even if they aren’t the politest when they do it.
In the end, my use of the word ‘shaman’ is like any other title in the Pagan community (like High Priestess, Elder, Magician, Spirit Worker, Occultist, Pantheist, etc); my usage will only continue if I live up to the qualifications to it over time. No one takes a self-appointed “Priestess” who does nothing for community and does not do actual service to a God/dess; if I ever shirk my Work (which I don’t think is an actual option for me, but that’s another post entirely) then people will stop calling me that, and eventually it will cause me more agita than it’s worth. But in the meantime, it’s the word on my Cosmic Shingle, and I have to do my best to live up to it.
Winter, from Notes From a Barking Shaman, says:
Del has already done a thorough job of breaking down the issue with the cultural appropriation argument against the word “shaman.” While I don’t feel compelled to expand on his analysis, I do want to make it clear that I agree with it. The argument can be made that the use of “shaman” is cultural appropriation from the Siberian peoples it is originally attributed to. But then you would have to take the issue up with the Native Americans and other now-English-speaking cultures who use it as well. I doubt many folk would be eager to explore that particular territory out of a drive for linguistic purity.
Moving on: I will be completely honest, as a self-descriptor “shaman” is a word that I’m deeply conflicted about.
I believe that for every person who hears the word “shaman” and thinks of one who serves as an intermediary with the spirit world, and perhaps helps guide others in their own search for knowledge and connection beyond the mundane, there’s going to be someone who hears “charlatan,” or “scam artist” or just thinks “but… you’re white.”
Why then would I use it?
Simple, it’s the word my Patron tells me to use, at least to refer to specific parts of my Work.
Which isn’t to say that’s the end of my relationship with the word. I’ve been a “shaman” for many years, and over time there are things I have learned about this word, at least in regards to how I relate to it.
When my Lady first informed me that I would be taking a prolonged break from my magical studies and Work, to undergo an extensive process of transformation in order to become a shaman, I was certainly not thrilled. Up to that point the study and practice of magic had been the primary focus of my work for Her, and one of two primary focuses in my life. Moreover, I knew that the process involved would seriously suck, if I survived it.
My own shamanic death/rebirth cycle was comprised of four major ordeals over the course of two years, each one of which could potentially have resulted in my physical death if it had gone less than perfectly. This was accompanied by a worsening of my physical and mental health over the course of that time. I came out the other side as one who is never fully in the mundane world or the Otherworld(s), not wholly alive, but certainly not a shade either.
Many years on I’m still exploring what it means to be a shaman in service of the Mistress of the Forest Fire, and discovering what my shamanic work fully entails, especially as I finally start the process of incorporating my magic and my shamanism.
Perhaps the first thing I learned about this word is that it’s very loaded, not only in interpersonal interactions, but in the eyes of the Universe and the gods. Declaring oneself a shaman can open doors and bring connections to the spirits that had not been there before. There are areas of spirit work where working under the title of “shaman” gives me different privileges and access than I have as a servant of the gods, or as a magician. This is especially true in my work the Dead.
Of course, simply declaring oneself a shaman doesn’t make you one (and like Del, I was not the first person to use that word to describe myself). Laying claim to a title that isn’t yours can have consequences, and perhaps the most destructive I’ve seen is the declaration that one is a shaman leading to one’s wyrd becoming tied to that path, even if that was not the desired outcome.
Personally, I believe that the connection to traumatic transformation, although not necessarily around death, is a big part of what makes one a shaman. I’ve met shamans of madness as well as of death, and there can be a third, far rarer path of shamanism as well.
The process of going deep into another state of being, so much so that it completely consumes you, and then coming as far back as possible, leaves a person changed. Existing not in this world, but not in another either, is to me a major factor that distinguishes a shaman from other forms of spirit workers. My beliefs differ from Del’s in that I feel strongly that one can be a spirit worker 24/7 without being a shaman. Although not all spirit workers are 24/7 and I’m not convinced all shamans are either.
I should also note, that I believe it’s possible to be a “full time” spirit worker or shaman while also having a “day” job, particularly if said day job dovetails into one’s spirit work. The definition of a “full time” shaman or spirit worker is by its nature rather subjective after all.
I realize it is a digression, but here are some forms of spirit workers I’ve known. It is certainly possible for one person to be more than one, and not everyone who fits these titles are spirit workers per say.
in no particular order
- Shaman (since we’re talking about it)
For me, “shaman” is a job, a sacred role, and one of several central facets of my identity. For all that, in some ways, I don’t consider being a shaman to be all that special. Within the framework I use to define “shaman,” it is rather rare, even among pagans, polytheists, and spirit workers. But in the end it is simply another way to serve the gods and the Universe, no better or worse than others.
I do believe that shamans do a particular form of important Work that few others can do. However, the same can be said of a mystic, bard, gods-spouse, or any other of a variety of spiritual roles and titles. It is also worth noting that many of those other roles and titles are in their unique way as controversial and emotionally loaded as “shaman” is.
As a demographic we are figuring all this stuff out as we go along. Together we are creating not only new ways to express faith and experience the divine, but on a more fundamental level exploring ways to conceptualize the nature of our individual and shared reality.
Words are one of the essential ways we define our existence, so it’s of no surprise that words like “shaman” become bound up in layers of intellectual and emotional meaning, with all the controversy that can entail.
In the end though it’s the word my patron deity says I use, so I use it. All my complex feelings and intellectual considerations around “shaman” will always come up short in the face of Her insistence. That’s the nature of our relationship, and I find myself surprisingly ok with that.