The Shamanic Crisis

The Bluffer’s Guide to the Occult [i] defines a shaman as a ‘hippy with a drum’ and this encapsulates for me the difference between a real shaman and a wannabe. ‘Shamanism’ has been a buzz word in the Pagan community since the early 1970s, and many people claim to be shamans without having much idea of what it actually means, attaching to it instead a wide variety of bowdlerized New Age practices such as waving smudge sticks and feathers and bashing the hell out of drums, or simply wearing fancy-dress costumes and amulets, exploiting genuine native cultures to procure skins, eagle feathers, crystals and so on. Some simply think that the recreational use of psychotropic substances whilst raving the night away gives them the right to be called shamans.

Others suppose that they can adopt odds and sods of shamanic techniques, isolated from the cultures they were practiced in, as a way to spiritual illumination without having to undergo the very real hardships traditionally associated with gaining shamanic knowledge.  This in no way reflects the experience of the tribal shaman whose central experience is the shamanic crisis, triggered by mental trial or severe physical illness. You can drum and wave feathers to your heart’s content, but what makes a real shaman is undergoing – and surviving – the shamanic crisis, remembering, and afterwards acting as a shaman.

A person cannot just decide to become a shaman: only the spirits can choose and make a shaman. Though anyone can offer themselves to the spirits, there is no guarantee that the spirits will accept. The candidate is always subjected to trial and testing before his initiation in the Otherworld can take place, encapsulating a very real dissolution, death and rebirth in the core of his being, a process entirely out of the shaman’s control, and often sudden and violent in its onset.

“… the initiation consists in an ecstatic experience, during which the candidate undergoes certain operations performed by mythical Beings, and undertakes ascents to Heaven or descents to the subterranean World. [ii]

In folk tradition, a person sometimes marked from birth as a future shaman by being born under certain stars or marked with particular omens. In Slovenia, for example, the kresnik is known by a white caul at birth and can shapeshift into various animal forms. The kresnik may be the seventh child or one who has won the love of a fairy (vila). [iii] Though the position of shaman is hereditary in some cultures, steps will be taken to ensure that the spirits accept the legacy, and the crisis will be provoked by inflicting brutal pain, cold, starvation, sleep deprivation, or induced by drugs. The genuine shaman’s work is accomplished with the aid of local spirits. These spirits have to be honoured and revered, and a lasting relationship has to be built up with them in order to gain their acceptance.

The curious thing about the shamanic crisis is that it is experienced in a similar way all over the world, which suggests it is potentially a fundamental and universal part of the human experience, whether or not it ever manifests within an individual. 

Though dealings with spirits may be an everyday occurrence in a tribal shaman’s society, and their stories and attributes part of his people’s lore, his experiences are nonetheless personal and very frightening. Even though his society may systemise and oversee an initiation, for the individual who undergoes it, it is still a horrific experience, and the shaman is inevitably forced to confront his own fears, his death and mortality, and the power of the Otherworld.

The shamanic crisis brings the potential shaman to the brink of annihilation, forcing him to walk the boundaries between life and death. During the process, he is stripped of everything that makes him an individual and must totally relinquish his ego; all that restrains him in this is experienced as monsters that devour him – manifestations of fears, doctrinal beliefs, hang-ups and so on. Usually this is only possible when the candidate becomes ill to the point of death, or suffers what feels like endless pain and suffering, sometimes with visions of torture and spirit battles.

In Celtic myths, madness (the shamanic crisis) is often associated with poetic inspiration. In one tale Suibhne was a warrior-king who insulted a cleric. The cleric cursed Suibhne with insanity so that he leapt into the air, like a bird. He lived alone in the wilderness and became a poet.  There are many accounts of people going to live in the woods as wild men and women, and this seems to be another metaphor for shamanic initiation. Merlin spent time as Merlin Wyllt– the Wild Merlin. He fled into the forest after losing a battle, insane with grief, to live like a beast. It was there that he learned the deep truths of the shaman, living between madness and ecstasy. In this account we have the universal experience of the shaman paralleled: the crisis event that leads to a period of illness, madness or withdrawal from the world, communing with the spirits of nature, including animal guides, before integrating the experience and returning to the world with enhanced magical powers.

Saxo, in his History of the Danes (written in 1182-1210 CE), said that one had to be a gifted person to see spirits, and went on to explain that such people had probably experienced prophetic dreams in childhood, or had later undergone a sickness that opened the world of spirits to them.[iv]

Similar evidence is found in records of the witch trials. In 1588, Alison Pearson was introduced to the world of fairies, as she lay sick in bed, by her dead cousin William Sympson who appeared to her in fairy form. He came to her as a ‘green man’ and told her he would help her if she would be faithful to him. Then he vanished and reappeared with a group of fairies who persuaded Pearson to take part in their merrymaking. Sympson also taught her how to use herbal remedies. Whenever Pearson spoke about the fairies to others, she was tormented with blows that left insensitive spots on her skin.  She was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.

The shamanic crisis is a terrible and harrowing journey that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy and would never seek willingly. I recently read a book recently that chirpily suggested ‘think back and see if you might have had an illness that could have been a shamanic crisis’. Believe me, if you had had one, it would be imprinted indelibly on your soul forever, and you wouldn’t have to think back – mild hallucinations during a bout of flu don’t count. Every illness is not a call to shamanism, though every illness can be a learning process and an opportunity for spiritual growth. A person who has spent their life fit and well understands nothing of the deeper mysteries of life and death. However, it usually takes another shaman to recognise when the crisis is a real one, part of a process, and not a dangerous symptom of psychosis or self-aggrandising/wish-fulfilling fantasy.

Having been brought low, the potential shaman exists for a time in the Otherworld, losing all that he believes to be ‘self’, undergoing utter destruction and dismemberment before recreation and rebirth, and returning to the everyday world with knowledge far beyond the ordinary. The experience opens a level of consciousness that leaves pathworking and meditation, theory and theology far behind.

This process culminates in the vivid experience of dying, often encountered as a vision of dismemberment. The ultimate disintegration of the shaman may take several forms: dissection of the shaman’s body; dissolving in a cauldron; or the smithing and hardening of his skeleton and muscles. Among the Tungus, future shamans fall ill and are pulled apart and eaten by demons (actually ancestor shamans); their heads are melted with bits of metal, which then become part of the shamanic costume. Elsewhere future shamans are shot with arrows by the souls of dead shamans, dismembered, and told whether or not any of their bones are missing and if any are, they cannot become shamans. The Buryat, Altaians and Kazak Kirgiz are similarly cut up by their ancestors while sick. Eskimo shamans get torn up by an animal and then new flesh grows on their bones.

One of the oldest extant tales of a shamanic dismemberment is the Sumero-Akkadian story of Inanna’s descent into the underworld, first written down in 1750 BCE, but almost certainly much older. According to the story, the goddess Inanna prepared for her descent to the underworld by donning seven articles of clothing, each symbolic of her royal power, which the gatekeepers then forced her to remove as she passed through the seven gates of Hell, where her sister Ereshkigal, goddess of death and the netherworld, waited. Finally, stripped naked, Inanna was killed and hung up on a peg on the wall to rot for three days and nights until she was brought back to life by the food of the kurgarra and the water of galatur (two little sexless creatures formed of the god Enki’s fingernail dirt). This story is often told as The Descent of the Goddess in modern Wiccan first or second degree initiations. These initiations are not shamanic, though if properly nurtured and performed they are far more than purely symbolic death and rebirth experiences.

There is always a point where the potential shaman remains for a time on the threshold, experiencing the primal void – a state of un-being – and its greatest mysteries. Only when he has surrendered himself utterly can he be reborn. Classically this rebirth is experienced as a light or crystal being placed inside the skeleton by another shaman, god or ancestor, and the new flesh reformed about it. In Central Australia, such stones are called atnongara, small crystalline structures which every medicine man is supposed to be able to produce at will from his body, and it is the possession of these crystals which gives the shaman his powers. A central Australian shaman said that when he was made into a medicine man, a very old witch doctor came one day and threw some of his atnongara stones at him with a spearthrower. Some hit him on the chest; others went right through his head, from ear to ear, killing him. Then the old man then cut out all his organs and left him lying on the ground all night. In the morning the old man came and looked at him and placed some atnongara stones inside his body and in his arms and legs, and covered his face with leaves. Then he sang over him until his body was all swollen up. Afterwards, the witch doctor provided him with a complete set of new internal organs, placed a lot more atnongara stones in him and patted him on the head, which caused him to jump up alive. The old medicine man made him drink water and eat meat containing atnongara stones. When the new shaman awoke he had no idea as to where he was, and said, “I think I am lost,” but the old man replied “No, you are not lost; I killed you a long time ago.” [v]

During the initiation period, the shaman visits the worlds of above and below. During his initiation, the shaman meets and learns from spirits, gains his own spirit allies and animal familiars. The first spirit the candidate meets is extremely important, and he must be able to recognise this being, as well as the importance and significance of all the places and objects he is shown.  For example, he might meet spirits of certain sicknesses, such as fever or headache, and once he knows them and can name them, he can cure people so affected. It is the spirits who instruct the shaman, not a human teacher, and shamanic experience cannot be purchased at a weekend residential course or over the internet.

Remembering the experience is crucial, and the shaman must be able to describe it in words to others or make a song of it. The shaman’s songs are descriptions of his spirit journeys and helping spirits and are usually gained during the initiation period.

Becoming a shaman is a dangerous procedure, and not all survive it. Once the spirits have called the potential shaman, the progression is inevitable, and it must be seen to its conclusion. If the process is not completed, the candidate may wander forever in the hinterland populated by his internal monsters – the powers he refuses to acknowledge torment him in distorted forms until they drive him insane. Eliade called this “a total disintegration of the personality”. The interruption of the process, or resistance to it, is a particular danger in a culture like ours which is more likely to medicate the candidate than provide a mentor to see him through and teach him the techniques he needs. The lessons go unlearned, and the candidate will face another catastrophe and another until the process can be completed or until the candidate is utterly destroyed. The shamanic gift is not offered to many, and to decline it also leads to dire consequences. Refusing to practice as a shaman after the initiation will lead to crisis after crisis until the gift is finally accepted or the candidate is annihilated. 

© Anna Franklin, The Path of the Shaman, Lear Books, 2006

Illustration Paul Mason from the Sacred Circle Tarot by Anna Franklin and Paul Mason, Lllewellyn, 1995


[i] C. Rae, The Bluffer’s Guide to the Occult, Ravette Publishing, 1988

[ii] M. Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Bollingen Series, New York, 1964

[iii] Nigel Jackson, The Compleat Vampyre,  Capall Bann, Chieveley, 1995

[iv] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth, Pan Books, London, 2003

[v] B. Spencer and J. Gillen, The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, London, 1904

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

2 thoughts on “The Shamanic Crisis”

  1. This sent a shiver down me because you described my life here, sickness from the start, being seen as ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ to family members, even down to several times of sickness where I was near death, the count is at eight now, my final death coming along (cancer and cirrosis of the liver non alcoholic). I was chased by family in the guise of wolves, big ones, thick coated, through birch forest, brought down, eaten alive until my bones were visible. I could feel it, see it, smell it, then I there was a figure there, who took out my bones and replaced them with iron ones, heavy ones, my arms, legs, hips, gave me something I can’t remember clearly but piled me over with snow and left me there. The wolves just sat guard til I felt ‘ready’ to get up. I can remember it clearly, fully, painfully and I have been diagnosed with a genetic illness that has been with me since I was born. There never was a label to give me, but I think you’ve described my experience very very well.

    Like

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