Spirit Power and the Cave

Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality - Michael Harner 2013

Spirit Power and the Cave


In February 1957, a small band of Shuar (Jívaro) men and I became lost after trekking for weeks through mountainous Upper Amazon rainforest. Tired, disoriented, and hungry, we finally ran into a friendly group of Shuar hunters who told us that we had been going in exactly the wrong direction. They shared a bit of their provisions and pointed the way toward the Shuar neighborhood we sought.

Leaving the hunters, we soon came to a small but raging river, fed by recent rainstorms in the Andes to the west. This was an obstacle to our further progress, so we waited for several days for the waters to go down, without luck. My companions waited quietly and seemed unperturbed by the situation while I became increasingly impatient, for I knew it was possible to construct rafts of balsa logs and to get across using makeshift guadua bamboo paddles. Several times I proposed to my companions that we should wait no longer for the water to recede but instead make rafts and paddle over to the other side. Repeatedly they declined to do so.

Growing increasingly impatient, I finally challenged my companions, pointing out that they called themselves great warriors but were unwilling to cross the river. Without comment, they shortly constructed three balsa log rafts, and we prepared to make the crossing. The river was about 150 feet across, and the first raft, paddled by two of the Indians and carrying some of our baggage, made it to the other side. Then I went on the second raft with two paddlers. We made it about three-quarters of the way across and then were swept down into the rapids where the raft overturned, dumping us into the raging torrent. With extreme effort we were able to swim the remaining distance and survive. The third raft made it across.

As we collected ourselves and rested before hiking farther, I remarked to them, “That was a pretty close call. I guess we are lucky to be alive.”

I was expecting some agreement, at least tacitly, but my companions silently remained standing there like stereotypes of stoical Indian warriors. They gave the impression that this had been nothing, acting completely unfazed.

Their lack of reaction perplexed me, because these were the same men who were reluctant to cross the river despite my urging. So I undiplomatically pointed out that they had not wanted to make the river crossing, and now they were acting as if it were nothing, even though they had been afraid to cross.

They exchanged glances with each other but said nothing. Then one of them, whom I knew particularly well, finally replied. He said, “Well, you see, we were not really afraid to cross the river because we cannot die. But we did not know about you!”

At that moment, the perilous Amazon river crossing opened a door to important spiritual knowledge. After that I gradually learned from the Shuar that they were protected by spirit power against all forms of death except epidemic disease. I also learned that such power can leave one. Thus unprotected, people do indeed die. Therefore, before leaving on precarious missions, people watched for signs as to whether they still possessed the protective powers provided by their guardian spirits. If the signs were negative, they did not depart on such a mission, especially if it involved an attack on an enemy.

Like the Shuar, indigenous shamans worldwide know that spirit power is basic to one’s health, survival, and ability to heal others. Without this power, one is not resistant to illness or misfortune. In traditional shamanic cultures this awareness permeates the daily life of virtually everyone.

Jaime de Angulo, who spent time with the Atsugewe people of Northern California in the early twentieth century, said it well: “Without power you cannot do anything out of the ordinary. With power you can do anything.”1

The power is like a force field that permeates the shaman and permits him or her to use the power to help and heal others. The shaman’s idea of power is similar to our concept of energy, yet it includes more: energy as well as intelligence and self-confidence. Spiritual power is not political power or power over others. It is power essential to one’s health and ability to survive.


At this point let me explain what I mean by a “spirit.” As I have said elsewhere, a spirit can be defined as “an animate essence that has intelligence and different degrees of power, that is seen most easily in complete darkness and much less frequently in bright light, and in an altered state of consciousness better than an ordinary state. In fact, there is some question whether you can see it in an ordinary state of consciousness at all.”2

In other words, not all spirits have significant power. Those spirits that do are often referred to by shamanic peoples simply as “powers.” Particularly important in indigenous cultures are the guardian spirits that provide protective power to the people they love.3 When properly invoked by a shaman, such a power also provides active healing assistance for curing illness and pain in the shaman’s patients. Through experience, the shaman has learned which spirits are powerful.

Power is acquired in different ways. In Siberia and parts of South America it was common to gain personal power after suffering from a severe illness that put someone at death’s door. If that person suddenly had a miraculous recovery, the local community concluded that a spirit had compassion for the person and interceded to relieve him or her of the illness. In such an event, people in the community typically would go to the revived and cured patient to see if the healing power could be used to help another individual suffering from a malady, usually a similar one. In other words, the suffering of the ill person could evoke pity by a spirit. In this way, a shaman sometimes was created.


Ideally, one should not wait to become ill to aspire to gain this power. Members of traditional shamanic cultures understood this well and encouraged young people in good health to suffer voluntarily in order that ancestral spirits might intervene to help them by sharing their power. Much more than a healing energy, this power was seen as a force that would support people in daily life, helping them to avoid misfortune and hardship, and to achieve good outcomes.

Most famously, this acquisition of power occurred in the power quest, more commonly called the “vision quest.” It should be mentioned, however, that not all successful power quests involved achieving visions. For example, among the Southern Okanagan of Washington State, the seeker might not see the spirit but instead receive its power through an auditory experience, such as a song and words.4

Most power quests were not something to be done by a sick person, but by one who was healthy and often relatively young. In a sense, it was a kind of spiritual life insurance to further an individual’s success and survival.

Spirit power could usually be sought by almost anyone in a variety of isolated places where ancestral and other guardians were known to reside. Such sites include mountaintops, the depths of a cave, a remote waterfall, the Arctic wilderness, particular canyons, local burial sites or ruins, a remote trail, and other locations. But one thing remained constant for success: the spirits had to be convinced that a power-seeking visitor to their haunts deserved help. When arriving at such a place, the visitor would usually sing or silently speak to the spirits there, asking for their assistance.


The quest took various forms. Regardless of culture, it commonly required seekers to prove themselves by suffering voluntarily, such as from fear, hunger, thirst, extreme cold or heat, and exhaustion. In shamanism, suffering is not a method of atoning for one’s “sins,” but a way of attracting the help of powerful spirits.

Among some Inuit of the Arctic, one way to have a successful quest for power was to spend four or five days in a special isolated igloo in the depths of winter without food or water. When the specified time elapsed, an elder, usually a shaman, opened the igloo and brought the person home. The igloo did not have even an oil lamp to heat it, so the suffering from extreme cold was combined with suffering from lack of water and food. It is reported that in some cases the person seeking power might be naked during this time of questing. A less life-challenging example is my own power quest among the Shuar that involved an exhausting climb up the forested eastern slopes of the Andes, a near-freezing bath at a waterfall, and no solid food allowed prior to obtaining a vision helped by the overwhelming power of datura (Brugmansia sp.) juice.5

Voluntary suffering for such power sometimes still occurs among Native American peoples of the Great Plains of North America, where the person seeking a vision and power typically first becomes dehydrated in the purification or “sweat” lodge. There the individual will intentionally suffer from the extreme heat and may even start becoming aware of spirit appearances and manifestations. Afterward, the seeker goes to an isolated mountaintop accompanied by a shaman-priest (medicine man) and/or other elders. The individual is left all alone for a prearranged number of days, and then the elders return to retrieve the person from the mountaintop.

In the more extreme form of the Plains vision or power quest, the seeker would be wrapped in a blanket or quilt and placed in the ground in an L-shaped hole that had already been constructed and used previously. The vision seeker’s sacred pipe was included. The hole would then be covered to reduce light so that the person would be better able to have visionary experiences both day and night, and to increase suffering through isolation, sensory deprivation, and cold. The suffering was heightened by not being allowed to drink water at any time after the sweat lodge or during the quest.

The suffering is normally accompanied by praying to the ancestors, “Have pity on me,” usually addressing them as “grandfathers” since among indigenous peoples in the Upper Amazon and the North American Plains, “grandfathers” tends to be a gloss for all ancestors, because in many shamanic cultures there is no special word for ancestors. Once again, the suffering is intended to evoke compassion by the ancestral spirits so they may provide visionary experiences that bestow spiritual power on the supplicant. In revealing themselves, they may appear in either animal or human form.

Why should those ancestor spirits provide help? The answer is really simple: when leaving ordinary reality at the time of death, they have chosen to remain here in the Middle World in order to help their genealogical descendants or allies of their descendants. When properly evoked, and convinced that a visitor deserves help, these spirits will reveal themselves in the forms the beings choose, communicate, and lend power to help the pilgrim overcome the difficulties and dangers of life. I often call them quasi-compassionate ethnocentric spirits, or simply ethnocentric spirits. Their protective compassion is conditional in two main ways: (1) they tend to help their descendants as long as they themselves are remembered and honored; and (2) they can be highly vengeful against those who threaten their descendants or allies of their descendants.


There is a different way to acquire spirit power that does not involve suffering or pleas for compassion. I call this “spirit attraction.” In the process of calling and working with spirits, shamans often ingest foods or drinks liked by their peoples or by certain animals. The shamanic purpose is to attract and even merge with a helping spirit and its power. Thus, Siberian and Mongolian shamans pray and drink vodka to entice vodka-loving ancestral spirits (often of deceased shaman relatives) to merge with them. Northwest Coast shamans may pray and eat salmon to attract the spirits of bear, bald eagle, and “the Indian.” We will return to this subject.


An American anthropology student working his way on a tramp steamer in the late 1920s jumped into the sea near the North African coast. His name was Walter Cline. He swam to shore hoping to live with the Berbers, which he did. He became fluent in Arabic, living in Morocco, Syria, Ethiopia, and Arabia, and he helped in archaeological excavations at Thebes in Egypt. In 1936 he received a PhD in anthropology from Harvard. During those Depression years he held a temporary job with the federal Works Progress Administration in north-central Washington State, interviewing Okanagan Indian elders about their traditional knowledge and disappearing culture, including their former cave power quests.

In the early 1950s he taught at the University of California in Berkeley as a part-time lecturer on “primitive religion.” Cline was an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher. I felt privileged to be his student during the last two years of his life while he was dying of cancer, an illness that had already cost him one of his arms.

He and his remarkable wife, Marjorie, scraped out a living by selling used anthropological books and monographs from their apartment. Despite their meager income, the two of them frequently visited western North American Indian peoples and returned with incredible stories, often involving shamans, that he told his classes. Unlike most of his other colleagues at that time, Cline did not attempt to explain away shamanism from a psychological point of view. The students loved, even revered him, for he brought to their lives an unparalleled kindness, openness, and enthusiasm for anthropology made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was at death’s door. He awakened my first interest in shamanism.

Walter Cline was a modest man, so it was not until two decades after his death, when I had long since been teaching anthropology myself, that I accidentally discovered that he had contributed to a little-known publication on the Sinkaietk or Southern Okanagan Indian people of the Columbia River Plateau.6 With some difficulty, I finally obtained a copy. In it was limited but important power quest information that he had gathered from tribal elders.

Cline focused on power quests undertaken by small children, reportedly boys, who sought generalized power to help them with their future lives.7 He learned of an instance where a father lowered his son into a cave for an overnight stay to gain power.8


In addition to the clues in Walter Cline’s reports about the Okanagan, I found the writings of ethnologist Willard Park especially valuable, for he had learned that the cave power quest was important to shamans among the Paviotso (Northern Paiute) people in Nevada, whom he interviewed in the early and mid-1930s.9

Park relates that Paviotso elders were emphatic about the necessity of strictly following certain traditional procedures for achieving success in such a quest.10 He said that Paviotso shamans took food with them on cave quests to acquire some specific additional powers, such as to improve the success of their healing work.11 This is consistent with the just-mentioned use of food in spirit attraction to acquire power.12 Here I wish to quote Park:

There are no preparations for the power-quest. The man who seeks a vision does not fast either before he undertakes the quest or during his stay in the cave. Nor is the quest for power accompanied by self-torture or extended physical exertion.

Late in the afternoon, the man who seeks power goes to a cave where he has heard it is possible to acquire power. Food for a midnight and a morning meal may be taken along.13

Park did not mention any spiritual reason for taking food into the cave, but my knowledge of spirit attraction caused me to take the Paviotso methods very seriously. When a cave was located for my own quest, I planned to take a sandwich containing several types of food favored by different types of animals.

Sometimes the ancestral spirits seem willing to help a person who is a nondescendant, or even from another culture or race, if they feel that the person has helped or will help their descendants. This was something I learned among both the Shuar and the Conibo peoples of South America. Over many years I had tried to assist Native Americans in North America in various ways, such as at Wounded Knee in 1973.14 I hoped that this and some related efforts might count for me in a cave.


A couple of years after writing The Way of the Shaman, I learned of a promising cave in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Hoping I had enough information, I resolved to do a cave power quest there to seek a special shamanic healing power and to see what, if anything, happened without the help of consciousness-changing plants or auditory driving, since their use was not mentioned by Park or Cline.

Finally on an evening in 1982 I approached the entrance of the cave alone, silently calling upon the spirits to have compassion for me and to confer greater power for my work in healing others. I used a flashlight to descend to a remote recess deep inside the cavern, which took about a quarter of an hour. There I extinguished the light. The darkness was thick and silent. Next, according to what I had learned, I was supposed to sleep until the middle of the night, wake up, eat a small amount of food, and not go back to sleep until something happened.

After sitting for some time on the cold bedrock, I pushed the button on my wristwatch to see the faint luminescence of the time. It was about nine o’clock in the evening. Two hours had passed since I entered the cave. According to the information I had, no matter what happened, I should have no light until the night had fully passed. Then I could leave the cave, for one of the ancient rules was that the quester could emerge only after the dawn of the next day. Otherwise, it was better never to have entered the cave at all. There were other things I would also have to do before the night ended.

Surrounded by dense darkness, I felt completely isolated from the land of the living. Two kinds of fear wrestled within me. The lesser fear was that nothing would happen during this solitary night underground. After all, I did not belong to the indigenous North American people west of the Rocky Mountains who had practiced this ancient method of obtaining specific spiritual powers. Perhaps it was too much to expect anything approaching their experiences without their cultural background or without the strong hallucinogens of the Shuar (Jívaro), used during my previous experiences. Besides, I thought, what kind of vision or power quest was this, where one did not fast beforehand and even was supposed to have a midnight snack? In other words, would spirit attraction work?

The darkness, which had become reddish, felt like imminent death, silently and patiently waiting. My deeper fear was that I might die, alone in the interior of this gigantic rock tomb, a victim of my own presumptuousness. I knew from my vision quest by a waterfall in the Amazon years earlier that the spirits might do their utmost to frighten me and test my trust in them. In the Amazon, at least, there were my Shuar companions to protect me from fatal mistakes. For this quest in the cave, however, there were no living tutors. No one could be here with me. This was a completely solitary experiment—a gamble that I possessed enough information to succeed, and that the spirits were there and would help me.

Eventually I crawled into my sleeping bag to try to fall asleep, the next step to be followed in the cave. Lying on the rock floor beside my head was a sandwich that I had brought to eat in the middle of the night. I reminded myself to awaken around midnight, hoping that I would not fail by sleeping through the night.

Gradually fatigue overcame me, for a chronic back problem had made it an arduous and painful hike to the cave. My body wanted to rest. I fell asleep, still concerned that I might not be able to wake up near midnight.

I need not have worried. I was shocked awake by a feathered wing gently brushing across my face. I felt an adrenaline rush of excitement. I pressed the button on my wristwatch. The faint numbers showed the time was two minutes before twelve. My astonishment at being awakened by the winged caress was accompanied by relief at being roused from my sleep in time to follow the midnight instructions. I groped for the sandwich, found it, and ate. I now planned to stay awake until something significant happened.

I sat there, rested and fully conscious, alert to anything that might occur. About a quarter of an hour went by. Then half an hour passed. I was starting to feel disappointed. Perhaps nothing more was going to occur.15

Suddenly, from the direction of the distant entrance of the cavern, came the sound of hooves. The sound became louder; it was clearly a herd of animals. I could not believe what I was hearing.

The noise of their galloping got closer and closer. This seemed impossible. Yet the sound became so great I had to cover my ears. Was I to be trampled to death? I crouched down. Then the thundering hooves swept past on both sides of me, rushing deeper into the cave and beyond. Although I could not see them, I heard them snorting as they galloped by. “We are Horse,” they said, in a communication like telepathy, but stronger.

Then another, smaller herd followed fast upon them, their breathing and hoofbeats not quite as loud. “We are Bison,” they said.

Then they were gone. The cave was silent again. I was ecstatic, truly ecstatic. Tears of joy and thanksgiving were running down my cheeks. It was a miracle. This was no dream, for I was still wide awake.

Then, as I was sitting there, an immense indescribable power rushed toward me from the same direction that the herds had come. But this time, there was no sound, no warning. It swept overwhelmingly through my body like a freight train. A surge of immense energy filled my body. I was astonished. The power had come! Then the animal was gone.

As it bounded soundlessly away through the darkness beyond the recesses of the cave, it called back to me: “I am XXX, XXX, XXX!” It said, “I am one and all. You and I are one.” Then there was only silence.

I felt indescribable awe and gratitude.

After a few minutes, and with some effort, I recalled the traditional shamanic knowledge of what was to be done now, and what was not to be done. I was to go to sleep again to receive a dream showing me how to use the newly acquired power. What I was not to do, until I was very, very old, was to reveal directly the identity of the animal power that penetrated me.

I was too excited to feel sleepy, but I crawled back into the sleeping bag again and, after perhaps an hour, dozed off. Eventually I reawakened. Still in my sleeping bag, I slowly looked around. I sensed that I was not alone. The reddish darkness was as thick as ever, but it seemed nonetheless that I could see the largest wall of the cave. High on it, a life-size human image gradually appeared, as though faintly projected onto a movie screen. The image slowly became brighter until I could discern the form of a smiling slender young woman with long dark hair. She seemed vaguely familiar.

I was perplexed. Who could this be? As if in answer, now her name was being faintly transmitted to me. First it seemed to be a name in English; and then, more strongly, it evolved into a somewhat similar-sounding name in an unknown language.

I waited for the name to metamorphose again, since it did not seem like a real one. It was certainly not one I recognized. But it did not change. The name was the real and final name, she communicated.

For a minute or two, she undulated slowly and sensuously in an enticing manner. Somehow I was wary of her unspoken invitation, for there was something menacing about her presence, and I did not respond. The woman smiled once more and disappeared. I was again alone. The experience had been so strong that I carefully memorized the strange name, Elieth, even though it meant nothing to me.

I waited a while longer without anything more happening. I pressed the button on my watch. It was six thirty-five in the morning, after what I thought was probably the time of sunrise.

Yet I remained sitting in my place a while longer to avoid leaving the cave prematurely. I did not want to take the chance of violating the quest rules and thereby losing the animal power that was transmitted to me earlier. While waiting, I noticed that now the darkness was comfortable and unimportant, almost like an illusion.

I found my flashlight and turned it on for the first time since arriving at this spot in the cavern, rolled up the sleeping bag, and walked upward toward the cave’s mouth. My back pain of the previous day was gone.

After a quarter hour of ascending toward the cavern’s opening, I saw daylight and the greenery of trees beyond. I climbed up and out of the cave’s mouth into warm and blinding sunlight. It was good to be home where the sun gives life to all things.

Descending the slope below the cave, I reached out to touch the beautiful leaves of the plants and bushes. It seemed a great gift to be able to return to the planet’s surface with its green life and sunshine. I thanked the spirits for their help and for allowing me to return to this world.

I knew that I was transformed, for the power of the XXX had literally become one with me.

Postscript. Although my cave power quest had been successful, I remained puzzled by the significance of the woman with the name Elieth who had appeared and tried to entice me. Through my reading in the ensuing years, I concluded that she was possibly the ancient Hebrew goddess Lilith, although the name was slightly different.

I was interested to discover that according to various old post-Biblical Jewish sources, Lilith’s home is a cave; she is mistress of all the animals and a killer of infants, and she was known for seducing men sleeping alone.

According to some power-quest traditions, it is expected that an animal power encounter will shortly be followed by a dream. That indeed happened to me in the cave, except that I can assure you it was no sleeping dream. In that dream or event, the seeker’s helping power will usually be an ancestor appearing in human form. However, it is said that on rare occasions this second appearance can be not of a helping being, but of a harmful one attempting to interfere with the seeker’s quest.16

My opinion has long been that Elieth might have been such an interfering power, taking advantage of my openness in the cave. So, many decades ago, I told her to go away and have never asked her for help. To reinforce my disconnection from her, I now reveal her identity in this book. It is generally understood in shamanism that such a public declaration, if coupled with the intent to disconnect, usually sends away a personal power spirit.

Meanwhile, I have long honored and maintained my confidential relationship with XXX. However, I am old, and we shall see how much longer XXX remains.

One last observation: this may have been the first recorded successful cave power quest by a Westerner since those of ancient Europeans many thousands of years ago. But they did publish first—on their rock walls! (See Plate 1.)