Shamanic Vision - Elements of Witchcraft

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Shamanic Vision
Elements of Witchcraft

According to many traditional understandings, there is no such thing as one monolithic world; that perception displays limited vision. Instead, the mundane world we live in, the world we experience only through our five senses, is but one among various realms or planes of existence. Although there may also be others, international conventional shamanic wisdom suggests that the following realms exist:


Image Earth: the tangible realm of mortal people and creatures


Image Spirit World: the realm of deities and spiritual beings—angels, fairies, djinn, and so forth


Image Dreamland: experiences in dreams really happen; just on a different plane of existence


Image Realm of the Dead: the after-life


These realms are not linear; instead they are simultaneous, parallel. They interconnect. You can communicate across realms; you can travel between them. Spirits go back and forth effortlessly; ghosts sometimes get stuck in the wrong realm and need a shaman to point them in the right direction, maybe giving them a little shove in the process.

Boundaries exist between these different realms, although precisely how permeable those boundaries are or aren’t varies and is dependent on a number of factors, not least being something as simple as time of year. (Thus the time period known as Halloween/Samhain/El Dia de Los Muertos is acknowledged as the time when those borders are particularly permeable, from all directions.) There are portals of entry between realms, if you can find them, if you can survive them, if you have the skill and knowledge to navigate your return. This is the soul-journey of the expert shaman.

Greek and Roman myths tell of Odysseus’ and Aeneas’ journeys to Hades. Orpheus journeys to Hades attempting to escort his beloved Eurydice back from the realm of the dead. In Norse mythology, emissaries are sent to Hel to see whether beloved, deceased Balder could be released. Because these “journeys” are often understood only literally, as if one ventures to the Realm of the Dead in the exact same way one travels to Disneyland, they are too frequently understood as “mythic” only in the sense of being fictional.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of novels envisions another way of accessing portals between realms via the use of a magical tool, the subtle knife.

Shamanic functions include:


Image Communication with other realms, including those of the spirits and the deceased


Image Soul retrieval and other forms of healing


Image Location of lost or stolen items, in particular buried treasure


Despite jokes otherwise, shamanism may be the real first profession. (As for the alternative, many sacred prostitutes simultaneously served as shamans, not passive figures but dynamic ones, especially those engaged in ritual possession, channeling their goddess.) The shaman is a unique specialist although there are cultures that support large multi-person shamanic societies—with “support” frequently being the key word. Typically a community provides for a shaman’s needs in exchange for shamanic services, in particular in hunting/gathering or farming communities.

Sounds like a good deal? Well, yes and no. Shamanism isn’t easy; the experiences can be frightening, unpleasant, and dangerous, acquiring the skills painful, and simultaneously traumatic and exhilarating: typically the pivotal initiation experience is described as a spiritual “death.” Some part of the spiritual anatomy, although not the physical body, dies—ripped apart or butchered by spirits, frequently cooked up in a cauldron, consumed by the spirits and then finally, hopefully, if one passes all tests, put back together (re-membered) and resurrected. The shaman is able to journey into the after-life because she has “died” and returned. She is a liminal figure who exists in several realms simultaneously.

Because it’s dangerous, because there may be a lengthy apprenticeship (despite modern advertising, one cannot become a shaman over a weekend, although certainly skills can be taught), and because skill comes from experience, the full-fledged shaman is often an older person, and very frequently a woman for a variety of reasons. (In some areas, China or Northern Europe for instance, shamanism was exclusively a female preserve for a very long time.)

Image Hard as it may be to believe today, once upon a time in many places, menopausal women were regarded with a reverence verging on awe; their wise blood retained, its power increased exponentially within


Image If a woman survived child-bearing, she was also more likely to survive into old age, a phenomenon that may still be witnessed if you calculate the percentage of women to men in virtually every retirement community


Image On the other hand, a woman with no children to provide for her old age might have a strong incentive to develop psychic skills in order to remain a valued, cared-for member of society

Although some enlist, many more are drafted. Very frequently the individual has little choice in the matter. The spirits choose you, their call manifesting through dreams, visions (not necessarily your own), illness, bad luck, and/or animal attack. Traditionally, in some places, surviving bear, snake, or jaguar attacks was interpreted as a shamanic call.

Sometimes the shaman’s refusal to heed the call affects a whole community adversely: bad luck spreads around, as in the biblical tale of Jonah. (Read it again. He didn’t just accidentally end up in that whale’s belly; there was a reason Jonah found himself lost in the depths of the sea.) If the cause of misfortune is traced back to her recalcitrance, the community may insist that the shaman assume her role or risk ostracism, banishment, or worse—being sacrificed to appease the spirits.

On the other hand, if shamanic aptitude or a calling is recognized, a community may nurture the individual so that she may acquire her skills, providing her with the best material goods, and sometimes tolerating bad, erratic, unpredictable behavior because a powerful, consistently effective shaman is invaluable. The shaman is responsible for the community’s well-being and survival, its life and death. Why? Because shamanic services were perceived as crucial and integral to a wide variety of dangerous pursuits, including:


Image Childbirth, spiritual initiations, healing, and funerals: dangerous on the spiritual plane because of intense contact with other realms. On the physical plane, risk of physical contamination (infection) frequently exists. (Shamanically-speaking, these planes and dangers are not distinct.)


Image Hunting: eating meat involves killing a fellow creature, whose spirit guardians must be appeased to avoid disaster and maintain spiritual balance


Image Agriculture: digging holes or otherwise rooting around in Earth may be understood as rape if Earth hasn’t expressly granted permission, which perhaps only the shaman can hear or interpret. Harvest may be understood as murder, as in “John Barleycorn must die.” Plants are fellow living creatures, possessing their own spirit guardians who must be propitiated and appeased to maintain spiritual balance


There is no need to accuse or ask whether someone is a shaman. Her results speak for themselves. If things consistently aren’t going well, a more successful shaman will be found. It’s a little bit like traditional Chinese medicine, where a physician is desirable and respected only provided her patients remain healthy.

The shaman provides a needed service that, although fraught with spiritual danger, is expected to be reliable and dependable. The shaman must perform functions as needed: like a modern physician, she may be “on call” at all times, 24/7. The popular vision of shamanism as the role primitive societies invented for those with seizure disorders or the mentally unbalanced is incorrect, simplistic, and based on the notion that all other realms and spirits are “made up,” because if they don’t exist then, of course, the shaman’s journey is pure fantasy or fraud.

Shamanism is performed in various ways, through soul-journeying (going to the spirits), or through ritual possession (having them come to you.) The shaman summons spirits and ghosts and sends them packing—exorcism—as individual need arises. Her work may be enhanced by music, especially drums, chants, singing, dance, or silence. The entranced shaman may appear to be asleep or in a coma or even dead. For ancient people lacking scientific context, with no hospital monitoring equipment to measure life, the shaman who appears dead is dead, at least temporarily. She is a figure of tremendous power.

The shaman may develop profound individual ties with animals, plants, spirits, or other allies. The ecstatic component of shamanism cannot be emphasized enough; the very word “ecstasy” derives from a Greek shamanic term “existanai” (“to put out of place” as in a soul out of body). At best, shamanism is an ecstatic, transcendent, rapturous experience, for the individual shaman and also for the community whom she leads in shamanic ritual. This intense, dynamic rapture can be experienced and witnessed through ecstatic music and dance, the best sex, ritual possession, some forms of divination, or glossolalia (speaking in tongues), all of which may be components of shamanism.

Let’s be honest: the shaman can make people nervous, some people anyway, past as well as present. She knows a lot of stuff that you don’t. She knows stuff you don’t even know that you don’t know. Through soul-journeying and clairvoyance, she may know stuff about you that you would prefer not be known.

The shaman is very likely also to be a solitary person, at least some of the time. The soul-journey, the psychic journey is an intensely private, individual experience. The shaman talks with animals; the shaman talks with dead people; the shaman talks with ghosts and spirits who scare other people (and not every spirit or ghost, ancestral or otherwise, is pleasant, attractive, and nice); the shaman may even be able to assume the form of animals. Imagine today, when someone is observed muttering intensely to themselves, should a cell-phone or other similar modern reassurance that all is well not be immediately apparent, most of us will automatically give the mutterer a wide berth. Some shamans mutter all the time. (A Slavic euphemism for witch is “mutterer.”) Are they talking to their spirit allies, your long-dead ex-husband, or some other shaman across town who can magically hear them? Or maybe they’re just nuts. (Among the many telltale stereotypes resulting in an accusation of witchcraft during the Burning Times was being observed muttering to yourself, particularly if you were a ragged, old beggar-woman.)

What if the shaman yields to temptation and puts her powers to personal, selfish use? What if, in a time of conflicting interests, the shaman is bribed to favor one party or another?

New Age people are often dismayed to hear those from traditional cultures speak negatively of witchcraft and witches. Tolerance of witches is expected from these seemingly magic-tolerant societies. Of course, cultures that incorporate magical practices have also been known to burn witches. In these cases, “witch” is often understood to mean a shaman gone bad, a breach of a sacred trust.

The shaman doesn’t have to become corrupt to stop working full-time for the community. Eventually some suffer burn-out, at least temporarily, too tired or psychically drained. Maybe, for one reason or another, the spirits stop talking to you. Some shamans, perhaps following bad experiences (the primordial “bad trip”), failure, emotional exhaustion, psychic torpor, or perhaps just as directed by the spirits, might retreat into privacy—a cave, a hut in the forest, a little home on a mountain top or in a swamp—to recuperate, replenish their energy and live a private, magical life. People would know the shaman was there, this person in the wilds. She might be frightening, they might leave her alone most of the time, warn their children not to bother her—who knows what she could do if provoked?—but in a moment of desperation, when a magical solution seems like the only option, particularly when a private secret magical solution is required, one would know exactly where to go to plead or pay for assistance.

Among those occupations claiming descent from the primal shaman:

Image Witches, wizards, practitioners of magic


Image Conjurers, illusionists, purveyors of tricks, ventriloquists, sleight-of-hand artists


Image Diviners, readers, seers, fortune-tellers


Image Herbalists and healers of all persuasions, including modern physicians


Image Musicians, actors, dancers, puppeteers