Lecture Notes connecting Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth” Scheme with the Shaman’s Path
“The word ‘shaman’ comes from the language of the Evenk, a small Tungus-speaking group of hunters and reindeer herders in Siberia. It was first used only to designate a religious specialist from this region. By the beginning of the 20th century it was already being applied in North America to a wide range of medicine-men and medicine-women…”
“Shamans are at once doctors, priests, social workers and mystics. They have been called madmen or madwomen. … The Siberian shaman’s soul is said to be able to leave the body and travel to other parts of the cosmos, particularly to an upper world in the sky and a lower world underground. This ability is traditionally found in some parts of the world and not in others and allows us to speak of clearly shamanistic societies and cultures. … The shaman’s profession is considered psychically very dangerous and there is a constant risk of insanity or death.” (from Piers Vitebsky, The Shaman, 10-11).
“Shamanism predates all known religions and might be the basis of which all religion was built upon, although shamanism itself is not a religion. Shamanism is a set of beliefs and behaviors. These beliefs and behaviors is what allows the shaman to shift consciousness to obtain information, heal, retrieve souls, or seek for guidance from the ancestors. Traditional shamanism has remained relatively unchanged over time.” (Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 2-6)
• For Campbell, all hero myths can be distilled into a single plotline: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Hero With a Thousand Faces, 30).
• Campbell understood this common theme in myth as expressing certain psychological truths, a literary dramatization of the universal human need to transcend the individual’s tendency toward ego-centrism. Our repressed desires and inner conflicts present us with a “Call to Adventure” and, if we follow this call, we experience the exaltation and terror of the spiritual journey. If we face bravely all obstacles and avoid all distractions, we eventually achieve a state beyond selfishness, family, creed, and country. We become one with the universe.
• My thesis is that Campbell’s monomyth describes the process whereby one becomes a shaman. Indeed, if all religions descend from shamanic practices, one may reasonably argue that all myths arise from shamanic vision.
• What follows is a demonstration of the connections between Campbell’s Scheme and what have been described as “common themes” in shamanic training and experience.
• According to Campbell, the Call to Adventure may take many forms, even as the Adventure can result in many outcomes. The Call can be “[a] blunderapparently the merest chance[that] reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood….The herald’s summons may be to live…or…to die. It may sound the call to some high historical undertaking. Or it may mark the dawn of religious illumination. . . . But whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfigurationa rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth” (51).
• The essential nature of the shaman’s call is a psychological crisis. Campbell distinguishes between priests and shamans in this way: “The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own.” (1969, p. 231)
• From Phil Hines: In shamanic cultures, the summons to journey is often heralded by a so-called “initiatory sickness,” which can either come upon an individual suddenly, or creep slowly upon them as a progressive behavioral change. Western observers have labeled this state as a form of “divine madness,” or evidence of psychopathology. In the past, anthropologists & psychologists have labeled shamans as schizophrenic, psychotic, or epileptic.
More recently, western enthusiasts of shamanism (and anti-psychiatry) have reversed this process of labeling and asserted that people labeled as schizophrenic, psychotic or epileptic are proto-shamans. Current trends in the study of shamanism now recognize the former position to be ethnocentricthe researchers have been judging shamanic behavior by western standards. The onset of initiatory sickness in tribal culture is recognized as a difficult, but potentially useful developmental process. Part of the problem here is that western philosophy has developed the idea of “ordinary consciousness,” of which anything beyond this range is pathological, be it shamanic, mystical or drug-induced. Fortunately for us, this narrow view is being rapidly undermined.
Individuals undergoing the initiatory sickness do sometimes appear to suffer from fits and ‘strange’ behavior, but there is an increasing recognition that it is a mistake to sweepingly attach western psychiatric labels onto them (so that they can be explained away). Shamans may go through a period of readjustment, but research shows that they tend to become the most healthy people in their tribes, functioning very well as leaders and healers.
• Examples of “signs of the shaman’s calling”: serious illness (especially in childhood), being struck by lightening, and other near-death experiences; other examples include severe psychological crisis, visions, hearing voices, experiencing prophetic dreams, and persistent internal impulses to become a shaman.
• A first-hand account: [A] Chukchee female shaman, Telpina, according to her own statement, had been violently insane for three years, during which time her household had taken precautions that she should do no harm to the people or to herself. ‘I was told that people about to become shamans have fits of wild paroxysms alternating with a condition of complete exhaustion. They will lie motionless for two or three days without partaking of food or drink. Finally they retire to the wilderness, where they spend their time enduring hunger and cold in order to prepare themselves for their calling. (from M.A. Czaplicka, Shamanism in Siberia)
• According to Campbell, “Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or ‘culture,’ the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved” (Hero with a Thousand Faces, 59).
• Because a shaman’s training can be long and painful, many living in shamanic cultures seek to avoid the calling at any cost.
• According to Czalplicka, among the Chuckchee of Siberia, “Some young people are afraid to take a drum and call on the ‘spirits’, or to pick up stones or other objects which might prove to be amulets, for fear lest the ‘spirit’ should call them to be shamans. Some youths prefer death to obedience to the call of spirits. Parents possessing only one child fear his entering this calling on account of the danger attached to it; but when the family is large, they like to have one of its members a shaman.”
• Account (Maya Bonesetter): Not long after marrying at age 20, Ventura had a strange dream. A bone was hopping about. He woke up worried and went off early as usual to work in his distant cornfield. As he neared his destination he saw a curious object in the distance which turned out on closer inspection to be a very shiny bone. The bright object leapt toward him. He drew back in fright, but it jumped in his direction again, and then again. Fearful, and finding his way blocked, Ventura returned home, disguising the cause of his embarrassing retreat by feigning illness and going to bed.
During the night he had another curious dream. This time the visitor was a dwarf who asked Ventura, ‘‘Why didn’t you pick me up? If you go on refusing you will die.’’ In the morning he arose determined. On the way to work the bone reappeared. Again it jumped. This time Ventura was not afraid. He picked up the object, which measured an inch in diameter, wrapped it in his kerchief, and tucked it into his sash. On the way back he felt it move about. At home he put it in a shoulder bag and hung it in a corner. He did not know the bone’s purpose, but instructional dreams followed. The same little man told Ventura that he was destined to aid humanity by caring for the afflicted, ‘‘because they are our children.’’ The dwarf taught him a secret song, and at night Ventura would sing it.
In a dream one night the dwarf appeared with a skeleton. He handed Ventura a whip and told him to strike it down. Ventura obeyed and the skeleton collapsed into a heap of bones. Then the dwarf ordered him to put the skeleton back together, threatening to whip him if he failed. Ventura protested, ‘‘Señor, I cannot.’’ The dwarf then said, ‘‘Where is the bone I gave you!’’ Ventura fetched the bone he had found on the path. With its help he began to recognize the different parts and to rebuild the skeleton, starting with the little toe bones and proceeding to the bigger bones. When Ventura had reconstructed the entire skeleton under the guidance of his magic bone, the dwarf said, ‘‘With this bone you will cure our children.” Ventura still did not know just what he was to do, but he kept receiving instructions.
Ventura treated his bone with respect, placing it in a box of its own. When he closed the box he got on his knees and could hear the object making sounds as of people talking inside. He took it out, wrapped it in a silken cloth, blew on it repeatedly, and replaced it carefully. He was told never to let anyone touch the bone or else he or his children would die. The bone told him to guard it well because “ I have work to do.” The bone announced that Ventura’s young wife would give birth to ~ boy who would die. A boy was born and lived only a short while. Ventura experienced other misfortunes. He fell to quarreling with his wife, who expressed fear that because of his “fortuna” all their babies were destined to die. He replied that his call came from no human source but from God, that its true purpose was to give life, that they would live better and live longer on earth. but he made no use of the bone for a year. Meanwhile he got sick; his head and his heart began to ache, and he was on the point of death. Only by becoming a healer did he regain his health. (Benjamin D. Paul, “The Mayan Bonesetter as Sacred Specialist,” http://www.artemaya.com/bone.html)
• According to Campbell, “For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass” (69).
• Shamans of all traditions commonly speak of receiving help and instruction from spirits. Among Siberian shamans, they distinguish between tutelary sprits and helping spirits. Others speak of guardian spirits. It is the essence of shamanic practice to encounter this unseen presences and to form cooperative relationships with them. These entities are said to help the shaman ward off evil, travel safely in the spirit realm, and reveal cures and other important knowledge to the shaman. In some traditions, helper spirits are thought to give the shaman special powers: for example, to walk on hot coals or to travel underwater without drowning.
• Account: Almost every day among the Sora, a jungle tribe in eastern India, the living conduct dialogues with the dead. A shaman, usually a woman, serves as an intermediary between the two worlds. During a trance, her soul is said to climb down terrifying precipices to the underworld, leaving her body for the dead to use as their vehicle for communication. One by one the spirits speak through her mouth. Mourners crowd around the shaman, arguing vehemently with the dead, laughing at their jokes, or weeping at their accusations.
To prepare her for the important position of intermediary, a future shaman is visited in childhood dreams by helper spirits, who are said to turn her soul into a monkey to enable her to clamber down to the underworld. Later, the Sora believe, she learns to make this journey at will during a trance. She marries a helper spirit, bears spirit children, and makes a second home in the underworld, which she visits every time she dreams or goes into a trance.
• Campbell continues: “With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the ‘threshold guardian’ at the entrance to the zone of magnified power” (Hero with a Thousand Faces, 77).
• The ability to consciously move beyond the physical body is the particular specialty of the traditional shaman. These journeys of Soul may take the shaman into the nether realms, higher levels of existence or to parallel physical worlds or other regions of this world. Shamanic Flight, is in most instances, an experience not of an inner imaginary landscape, but is reported to be the shaman’s flight beyond the limitations of the physical body.
• Many shamans report terrifying early experiencesencounters with monsters, snakes, predatory animals, sorcerers, and demons are common. Especially for shamans who use powerful psychoactives to achieve trance, there are physical discomforts as well. Various naturally occurring psychedelic substances produce an intoxication that can affect vision, coordination, and cause intense nausea. In fact, those who drink ayahuasca, a powerful psychoactive tea brewed from a vine and any of a number of leaves, almost invariably causes the drinker to vomit. Indeed, it is believed that this effect purges the drinker’s body and spirit.
• Thus, encounters with snakes and other frightening animals are similar to Campbell’s notion of the Threshold Guardian, a being that tests the hero’s worthiness to continue the Adventure. The Shaman must show courage and learn to face, charm, or control the frightening images that often stand between him or her and the deeper realms of the Otherworld.
• Account: The fact is, it’s frightening to drink pehí that thick. It smells terrible and tastes worse. It’s so bad that you immediately throw it up. That, you have to do right back in the gourd you drank it from so you can drink it again. If you vomit the pehí on the ground, you don’t get visions, the only thing you can see is an immense land in which you seem to be buried. The pehí is so pasty that you can’t swallow it easily; you have to push it down your throat with your fingers. This makes you disgusted, ashamed, and afraid.
Sometimes they mix tara-yage, wai-yage, and pehí so that the result is very concentrated. When you drink it, the drunkenness hits you before you finish the gourd. You feel burns all over your body, as if you’re being hit with burning logs. Then the body catches on fire and is reduced to ashes. When the flesh is destroyed, only then does the soul emerge and begin to see. At that moment the most fantastic visions begin.
I drank pehí when I was very young, at an age when some people were afraid of drinking even the weakest brew. On that occasion, three graduates accompanied me. They didn’t drink. They gave me a big gourdful. I drank it and was immediately struck blind. They gave me water to get rid of the bitterness in my throat and helped me lie down in the hammock. I felt a terrible drunkenness and continued not to be able to see. They lit a tobacco for me and I took it, but I was unable to smoke it, and I threw it away, still blind. Despite everything, I withstood the fear without crying out. I held still, waiting for the visions.
My drinking companion had to drink sitting down, and not even that way could he drink more than four swallows. The gourd was still full when he stood up, frightened.
“I can’t take any more, I’m drunk already!” [he shouted.]
“You have to finish it.” [The graduates replied.]
But he started to cry and put the gourd down. Then he lay in his hammock and stayed that way for hours. Later on he got up and walked around the yage house as if he had gone insane. At dawn he went outside, saying, “I’m going visiting.” But his whole body shook with spasms and he stayed that way, as if insane, until late in the afternoon.
Young people should drink pehí to culminate their initiation; it’s the only way to reach the celestial visions. Yage is not sufficient. With yage, it’s like a school. Until you finish studying, you don’t know everything. Only people who drink pehí to the end know the ultimate visions of the world. I was intoxicated for a night and a day, during which time I was able to see all the devils in existence. In the same way I saw all the jaguars.
• The crossing of the threshold is, for Campbell, a symbolic death which the hero undergoes in order to be reborn: “The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (Hero with a Thousand Faces 90).
• From Phil Hines: “Death by dismemberment is a strongly recurrent theme in shamanic cultures, where proto-shamans are stripped of their flesh and torn apart by spirits, only to be remade anew, usually with some additional part, such as an extra bone, organ, or crystal as an indication that they are now something ‘more’ than previously. In some cultures (such as in the Tibetan Tantric Chöd ritual), the dismemberment experience is a voluntary meditation, whereas in others, it is an involuntary (though understood) experience. This kind of transition is not uncommon in Western approaches to magical development, both as a willed technique and as a (seemingly) spontaneous experience that results from working within a particular belief-system.” ()
• From Phil Hines: The “peak” of the initiation experience is that of death/rebirth, and subsequent “illumination.” That such an experience is common to all mystery religions, magical systems and many secular movements indicates that it may well be one of the essential manifestations of the process of change within the human psyche. Illumination is the much-desired goal for which many thousands of people world-wide have employed different psycho-technologies, and developed their own psycho-cosms. Illumination has also been linked with the use of LSD & similar drugs, and perhaps most mysteriously of all, it can occur seemingly spontaneously, to people who have no knowledge or expectation of it.
What characterizes an experience of illumination? Nona Coxhead, a researcher into “Bliss states” lists some of the prevalent factors as:
1. unitya fading of the self-other divide
2. transcendence of space & time as barriers to experience
3. positive sensations
4. a sense of the numinous
5. a sense of certitudethe “realness” of the experience
6. paradoxical insights
7. transiencethe experience does not last
8. resultant change in attitude and behavior
The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage . . . of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith, or at the utmost edge of the earth, at the central point of the cosmos, in the tabernacles of the temple, or witin the dakness of the deepest chamber of the heart. . . . [The Goddess] is the paragon of all paragons of beauty, the reply to all desire, the bliss-bestowing goal of every hero’s earthly and unearthly quest. She is mother, sister, mistress, bride. Whatever in the world has lured, whatever has seemed to promise joy, has been premonitory of her existencein the deep of sleep, if not in the cities and forests of the world.. For she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection; the soul’s assurance that, at the conclusion of its exile in a world of organized inadequacies, the bliss that once was known will be known again: the comforting, the nourishing, the “good” motheryoung and beautifulwho was know to us, and even tasted, in the remotest past. . . . The mythological figure of the Universal Mother imputes to the cosmos the feminine attributes of the first, nourishing and protecting presence. The fantasy is primarily spontaneous; for there exists a close and obvious correspondence between the attitude of the young child towared its mother and that of the adult toward the surrounding material world. (109-113)
This means that the hero’s meeting with the goddess can, in some myths, be the culmination of his adventure, the prize to be won. But, in others, the hero must transcend rather than gain the world. When this is the case, as is the case with shamans, the Universal Mother represents that which must be transcended and she therefore is revealed to be a temptress, a distraction from further progress along the path of transcendence/full spiritual realization.
• Once there was a young woman named Sedna. She lived in the Arctic with her mother and father. She loved her mother and father very much and was very content. Her father was a skilled hunter, so he provided very well for his family. Sedna had plenty of food and warm furs to wear. She liked the comfort of her parent’s home and refused to marry. Many Inuit men desired Sedna for a wife and asked her parents for permission to marry her. But Sedna refused them all. Even when her parents insisted it was time for her to marry she refused to follow tradition and obey them.
This continued for quite some time, until one particular Inuk came to visit Sedna. This man promised Sedna that he would provide her with plenty of food to eat and furs for clothes and blankets. Sedna agreed to marry him. After they were man and wife, he took her away to his island. When they were alone on the island, he revealed to her that he was not a man at all, but a bird dressed up as a man! Sedna was furious, but she was trapped and had to make the best of it. He, of course, was not a good hunter and could not provide her with meat and furs. All the birdman could catch was fish. Sedna got very tired of eating fish every day.
They lived together on the island for a time, until Sedna’s father decided to come and visit. Upon seeing that his daughter was so unhappy and that her husband had lied to her, he killed the birdman. Sedna and her father got into his kayak and set off for home. The birdman’s friends discovered what they had done and wanted to avenge the birdman’s death. They flew above the kayak and flapped their wings very hard. The flapping of their wings resulted in a huge storm. The waves crashed over the small kayak making it almost impossible to keep the boat upright.
Sedna’s father was so frightened that the storm would fill his kayak with water and that he would drown in the icy waters that he threw Sedna overboard. He thought that this would get the birds to stop flapping their wings, but it did not. Sedna did not want to be left in the water, so she held tightly to the edge of her father’s boat and would not let go. Fearing that she would tip him over, the father cut her fingers off, one joint at a time. From each of her finger joints different sea creatures were born. They became fish, seals, walruses, and whales.
Sedna sank to the bottom of the ocean and there became a powerful spirit. Her home is now on the ocean floor. If you have seen her, you know she has the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish.
Sedna now controls all of the animals of the sea. The Inuit who rely on these animals want to maintain a good relationship with Sedna, so that she will continue to allow her animals to make themselves available to the hunters. Inuit have certain taboos that they must follow to keep Sedna happy. One of these says that when a seal is killed it must be given a drink of fresh water, not salt water.
If the hunters do not catch anything for a long time, the Shaman will transform himself into a fish. In this new form, he or she will swim down to the bottom of the ocean to appease Sedna the Sea Goddess. The Shaman will comb the tangles out of Sedna’s hair and put it into braids. This makes her happy and soothes her anger. Perhaps it is because Sedna lost her fingers that she likes to have her hair combed and braided by someone else. When she is happy, she allows her animals to make themselves available to the hunters. Animals do not mind giving themselves up to provide food, clothes, and shelter for the Inuit.
• In this story, Sedna is the Universal Mother, the giver of all that nourishes. The shaman, who may have no personal motive for seeking her, nevertheless understands the necessity of contacting and conciliating the giver of all material riches and bodily satisfaction on behalf of others whose path requires that they feed and raise families. If the shaman becomes bewitched by her charms, he may wish to appropriate her riches for himself. In this case, the Universal Mother becomes the Temptress.
This is the the fork in the road that separates the sorcerer from the shaman. Both have mastered the “techniques of ecstacy,” but the sorcerer becomes ensnared in a desire to have power and the satisfaction of every wish. The shaman, by contrast, seeks only to act as intermediary between the source of material wealth and power over this world. He knows that such selfish desires are the most deadly poison. According to Campbell, we normal mortals whitewash the necessities of our flesh and will not admit the power of these basic motives and cravings even to ourselves, much less to others. Therefore, most of us are thus easily seduced by them. The hero/shaman who would attain the mastery of Life, however, soon discovers that possession of the world is also empty. All things change, rot, and pass away. And so, rather than seeking to possess the world, the hero/shaman renounces “that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell” (121).