Quest For The Shaman
Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green
New York, Thames and Hudson, 2005
In 1861, archaeologists in what is now known as the Czech Republic uncovered a burial site known as Brno 2. Among the artifacts associated with the isolated remains were a reindeer antler with a polished end and a hematite necklace. Contemporary anthropologists claim that these items were routinely worn or used by ancient shamans. The grave is 24,000 years old; and, that's just one of the many facts that you'll discover when you read Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green's Quest For The Shaman, a new publication from earlier this year.
According to this esteemed pair of anthropology professors from the University of Wales in Newport, the word "shaman" is an old word itself, originating some 20,000 years ago with the Siberian Tongus peoples who eventually migrated to both Americas beginning about 9000 BC and culminating their colonizations in Iceland, having travelled across the rim of the Arctic Circle and steppe-tundra regions around 2000 years ago. Immediately, two questions arose in this reviewer's mind. We know, for example, that the Vikings took Celtic wives when they colonized Iceland, which began in earnest around 870 AD. Did they adopt shamanistic ideologies from the Aleuts who apparently evolved from the ancient Dorset people or did the Celts already possess shamanistic narratives? If so, how did they get them? The first written encounter between Aleuts and Vikings ended in eight out of the nine former Inuit dead because the colonists wanted to see if the indigenous population were indeed human and bled like "normal people;" so, the chances of an ideal cultural exchange occurring between these two societies was undoubtedly rare. Most Celtic myths, unfortunately, are translations of medieval copies, which we know are contaminated with other religious philosophies.
The second question revolves around cosmetic issues. First, we also know that shamanism was only one of several religions conducted by the Siberian Tongus and the ritualism centered around the life cycle of reindeer. How did this particular religious philosophy eventually dominate many ancient cultures (or did it in fact actually dominate that much?); and what happened to all the reindeer imagery after being established in the New World following the extinction of most of the large land mammals? Well, for one thing, giant elk are known as red deer in some parts, particulaly in the British Isles, so these beasts undoubtedly replaced the original denizens. Around the Arctic Circle, without four-legged furries, they apparently replaced the whole deer theme and sang the world's first version of "I Am the Walrus."
If you can wrap your brain around the migration inconsistencies, Quest For The Shaman makes much more sense. But, be warned. If phrases like "it may be possible to suggest" irritate you to no end, then you might not like this book as much. There's also some confusion in terms associated with some of the artifactual evidence cited by this anthroplogical pair. For example, "cauldron" is used to describe anything from a vat to a large bowl to even a bucket, and the professions associated with these particular items were distinct and specific.
And, there are some facts that the reader must accept about these ancient peoples that might be discomforting. Historical and archaeological evidence reveals that ancient shamanistic participants routinely practiced cannibalism and bestiality, and they were probably hallucinating on particular plants when they did it. Some of the artifactual and forensic evidence furthermore evoked the distinct possibility that some people didn't like that at all. Many burials show signs that someone tortured, murdered, and specifically isolated the bodies of people now considered shamans; so hang up any mystical or fluffly notions of romantic wizards and popular soothsayers. Apparently, most societies feared and hated shamans, yet respected them as the seemingly powerful people that they were. In some parts of Scandanavia, particularly in the bogs of Denmark, the victims didn't even get that respect. Nevertheless, the reader will learn a great deal and the following little tidbits are what I especially enjoyed discovering.
From what anthropololists have gathered, shamanism is the oldest profession (and you thought that you knew the answer to that one), apparently beginning with the hunter-healer living within a semi-nomadic society. This person, most likely a male originally (and that is certainly subject to academic debate at the moment), ventured in search of medicinal plants and "probably" found the good stuff and tripped the light fantastic. Currently, the big debate is whether this guy started drawing funny shapes, known as entopic phosphenes, which "evolved" into spirals and more complex geometric rendentions and eventually took on shape-shifting qualities where the great hunter is depicted becoming the prey himself, a definitive liminal world and distinct attribute of shamans, according to our authors. But most burial sites suggest with the abundance of rare goods that these people were members of a chosen elite (or ostracized sect) which can only occur in stratified societies (chiefdoms, kingdoms, states, and finally, empires). In addition to all that, this really popular guy named David-Lewis says that since Neanderthals had less-evolved brains they couldn't possibly have had either art or religion, but merely copied shapes and buried their dead away from where they camped. There is a big brouhaha about this as well, and our scholarly pair respond effectively.
Red ocher, often thought to depict human blood artistically and symbolically (and possibly magically?), is now known, thanks to these two, to hide the scent of decaying flesh from carnivores, so it's use is undoubtedly quite ancient, perhaps as old as those so-called "primitive" Neanderthal dudes. But, sometimes graves depict the use of red ocher on specific body parts, suggesting a segregation of some kind. The Aldhouse-Greens also inform us that cemeteries were boundary markers which used the dualistic notion of legitimacy with extended family usage and the fear of the dead to scare away possible encroachment within the tribe. In other words, you memorialize your ancestors who used the land that you now use to stake your claim in the world, and if you don't like it, they might come back and torment you. The interesting fact is that what our authors consider shamanistic burials suggest that these spiritual and magical practitioners were segregated even further within cemeteries, sometimes having their bodies facing in an opposing direction from the rest of the occupants, towards the west, the land of the setting sun, the underworld, and the land of the dead, as opposed to facing the east, the land of your ancestors. At other sites, so-called shaman graves were full of interesting items. Forensically, the Aldhouse-Greens also surmised that many shamans suffered from devastating physical ailments and/or birth defects which might ... uhm ... suggest a liminality with the spiritual world, or at least possibly a sympathetic one ... perhaps (see what I mean?).
The authors all-too-briefly mention the myth of the "cosmic tree," the tree, post, column, ladder, or cross that connected the three worlds of existence; but their greatest strength lay in their discussions of the use of cauldrons. These rather ancient artifacts involved the use of fire, water, and air, elements typically associated with change or conversion such as the transformation of raw food material into edible sustenance, mixing plants and chemicals to produce a new medicinal substance, the conversion of plant material into alcohol (it's most popular use, apparently), the blending of particularly alluring metals, and some rather interesting concoctions that sometimes included the use of humans as one of the ingredients. The utility of cauldrons, according to Miranda and Stephen, was notoriously associated with its "significant role in the ritual death, dismemberment, and reconstitution of the shaman." So, was drug and alcohol use ... and cooking humans.
Ancient Irish myths recount how warrior-leaders used the cauldron like a shaman to produce a concoction that either brought wisdom, specifically when the practitioner used pork meat, and to embue immortality to his fellow soldiers. If the army were still alive, they achieved eternal life in battle; if they were already dead, they became an ingredient in the mystical stew and resulted in the production of warrior zombies for the Irish lord. Undoubtedly, notions concerning cannibalism played a key role in these latter mythical interpretations. One of the oldest and more interesting uses of cauldrons was in brewing, alcohol distillation. Several persons, attributed to be ancient shamans possessed several brewing vats and cauldrons within their tombs. Another mystical profession, that of blacksmithing, also made use of cauldrons for the seemingly alchemical production of brass and bronze (probably initially thought to be gold ... hey, it could happen).
Overall, I liked this work; and I think that you will too. And although I found myself disagreeing with some of their conclusions, having reasoned three or more alternative scenarios, I learned a great deal. Enjoyable and instructive ... good combination.