I’m not a shaman. Sure, as a witch I’ve used some shamanic-type techniques, but I’m certainly no expert. Nevertheless, after a reader on my blog left a few comments on the subject after my interview with shamanic practitioner and author Ross Heaven, the question of what actually is an authentic shaman has been on my mind.
Last week, two days in a row when I did my regular daily reading from a divination deck, I drew the Hummingbird card (I was using my newly acquired Animal Wisdom Tarot). Now, the Hummingbird card can indicate a spiritual insight and inspiration, but it also reminded me of Ross Heaven – as he was the author of a book I very much enjoyed called The Hummingbird’s Journey to God. I took it as a sign that perhaps I should ask Ross about my question.
He sent me a long and detailed reply. Here it is:
Ross Heaven: On one level I don’t even understand this debate and find it rather pointless.
When people become plumbers, for example, do they call themselves “plumbing practitioners” (‘authentic’ or otherwise) or say they offer “real (as opposed to ‘fake’ or ‘plastic’) tap and washer healings”? When you need your house rewiring do you phone an “electrical energy manipulator” or an electrician?
What, then, is this Western reticence about calling oneself a shaman if that’s how you work; why do we have to be “shamanic practitioners”? We don’t seem to have the same problem with other therapies after all. If you offer massage with oils you’re an aromatherapist. If you treat people with herbs and plants you’re a herbalist. If you manipulate feet you’re a reflexologist. But if you work with spirits, energies, plants, drums, rattles you’re a… “shamanic practitioner”? Right.
The argument is nonsense. If you work shamanically you’re a shaman. You may not be a good one yet because, like everything else, a trade takes a lifetime to perfect, but you’re on the path, so let’s just call a spade a spade and a shaman a shaman, shall we?
Once you look at it from this point-of-view, the addition of the word “authentic” becomes silly as well. What is an authentic toilet cleaner, carpenter, gardener, reflexologist – or shaman - compared to an inauthentic one? Don’t we just mean ‘can they do the job – unblock a sink or save a soul – or not?’ And isn’t that actually what really matters?
The idea that we in the West can only be shamanic practitioners and not authentic shamans comes from deluded thinking, mostly on the part of “core shamans” – another meaningless term – and seems to stem from a series of completely fallacious beliefs:
- I’ve heard it said by the cores, for example, that the title “shaman” is a term of honour conferred on a person by his community which recognises his power, and must never be applied to oneself. In my experience, at least, that just isn’t true. Real shamans (by which I mean those I’ve worked with in the jungles and mountains of Peru and in other countries rather than those you might meet in core shamanic weekend warrior workshops) call themselves what they are, whether they are selected by spirit, heredity or a personal decision to pursue a shamanic apprenticeship. Not one of the real shamans I know or have ever worked with has been “chosen” by the community to be a shaman because of their innate powers. It just doesn’t happen in the real world. The desire to be “chosen” or “The One” seems rather a Western pre-occupation actually, which has more to do with ego than genuine power or ability. Being a shaman is a job, like plumbing, painting or prostitution, and I don’t know any plumbers either who were chosen by their community because of an innate ability to plumb.
- Even the idea that “shaman” is a real title that actually exists and means something is erroneous. In fact it doesn’t exist at all. The word comes from samaan – a Tungus term which has a very specific meaning: something like ‘priest of the Altai region’ – and has no use, except by anthropologists, in other cultures. In the Andes, for example, the “shaman” is the altamisayoq, curandero or huachumera; in the Amazon he is the ayahuasqero, vegetilisto or perfumero; in Haiti he is the medsen fey or houngan. But even then, these terms are meaningless because in real shamanic communities, which are not usually as ego-led and status-obsessed as the West, it is not the title which matters but the ability to do the job. I refuse to use the expression “shamanic practitioner” with my students - they are shamans-in-training - but at the same time it matters little to me (and it should matter little to them or their clients either) if they choose to call themselves Bobo the Flatulent Clown instead of shaman as long as they can heal the person who comes to them for help.
- The idea that ‘authentic shamans’ are something other than us is just as wrong and probably stems from the belief that we have no native shamanic tradition of our own, that only ‘noble savages’ running through jungles in loincloths while off their faces on exotic and mind-bending herbs deserve to be called shamans. At some point in all of histories, however, we were animistic cultures working with the spirits of the land, the weather and the seasons for our very survival. Wicca may be a modern invention (about 60 years old, courtesy of Gerald Gardener) but for thousands of years before this we were more than aware of the powers around us and some of the evidence for our co-operation and collaboration with them can be seen in the artefacts which archaeologists have uncovered, such as the remnants of Irish beehive sweathouses (similar in purpose to Native American lodges), votive offerings made at sacred lakes and springs, and the mummified remains of medicine men and nomads carrying protective amulets and healing and magical plants. If shamanism existed anywhere it existed everywhere and if we are keeping the tradition alive we have just as much right to call ourselves ‘authentic shamans’ as a jungle magician in Borneo.
- The belief that becoming “a shaman” is the end of a process is equally wrong. In the West, for some bizarre reason, the word ‘initiation’ has come to mean an ending whereas, in fact, to initiate means to begin something. You can call yourself a shaman right now, then, if you wish to, even if you feel you know little about it – or whenever you are ready to do so – but to become a good, skilled, competent healer will still take you a life-long process of learning and practice. As one of the huachumeros I interviewed for my book Cactus of Mystery put it: “I cannot tell you that in six months or six years or even in 60 years you will be ready to call yourself a ‘shaman’; that is between you and your spirits. What I do know is that I have been a healer for 50 years and I am still learning something new every day.”
- Even more fundamentally wrong are the notions that “core shamans” even exist in the world and are qualified to make any pronouncements about what makes anyone an authentic or inauthentic shaman, or that we should measure shamanic competence or authenticity by reference to their approach.
In fact, core shamanism is a fabricated commercial product – a brand - invented by Michael Harner (it is also known as the Harner Method – TM – for trademark) which does not actually exist anywhere in the world. It is made up; cobbled together principally from aspects of Siberian shamanism and the Amazonian ayahuasqero traditions and only began in the 1980s. In historical terms, then, it is even younger than Gardner’s Wicca. It is also a psychological more than a spiritual approach, designed for Westerners, which is (according to many anthropologists and academics, and in my view) a dilution of genuine shamanic methods since it expressly avoids the use of teacher plants (a universal shamanic practice known in all parts of the world – except to “core shamans”) and does not even require a belief in spirit allies or a spirit world since visualisation and the use of imagination or mind is its actual core. (Simon Buxton, who teaches core shamanism in the UK for Michael Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies told me about an argument between Harner and Sandra Ingerman, the ‘core shamans’ at the core of core shamanism, so to speak. To resolve it Ingerman suggested that both she and Harner ‘journey’ – whatever that actually means – to consult with their spirits and seek their advice, to which Harner replied: “There are no fucking spirits, Sandra. I made them up!”). I have a fondness for Harner and see him as a bit of a beardy old rascal so I choose to believe that he invented core shamanism with a good heart and with genuinely good intentions to be of service to the West, but I am sure that even he would never claim that his invention is anything like actual and authentic shamanism. Because it isn’t.
Before I answer that, since the subject has been raised here and at many other forums by “Bridget”, “M Graham”, “Anonymous” (or whatever she’s calling herself this week), let me give you an example of what it certainly isn’t.
Simon Buxton and “Bee Shamanism”
Bridget/Graham/Anonymous has been trolling the web for some time now (and I mean years) making the same tedious comments about the authenticity of Simon Buxton’s shamanic bee book and the inauthenticity of my own book on sin eaters (even though sin eating is a known historical tradition with evidence to support it while there is not a shred of evidence for the existence of ‘bee shamanism’). It seems that ‘she’ is very keen to defend her bee guru (or possibly ‘she’ is said bee guru using a number of pseudonyms since she claims to know so much of the background to the books she refers to and the relationship between Buxton and I). On the subject of ‘who ripped what off from who’ and which tradition is more authentic, therefore, perhaps she would like to offer her comments on this small matter…
A 'bee maiden' (i.e. a woman who has spent a considerable amount of time and money on 'path of pollen' "initiation" courses offered by Mr Buxton) writes the following:
"I was drawn to undertake Path of Pollen workshops and trainings having read The Shamanic Way of the Bee and taken it on trust that the book is, as it claims, an authentic account of the author's initiation into the Path of Pollen. What I have recently discovered has shaken that trust considerably and left me wondering if I have been (a) duped and (b) exploited.
"As you will see, it appears that significant passages in The Shamanic Way of the Bee (TSWOTB), including whole paragraphs, have been lifted virtually word-for-word from the much earlier essays of the late P L Travers, who is best known as the author of Mary Poppins but was also a lifelong student of and writer upon myth and fairy tales. Worse still, these key passages are variously presented as the dialogue between Bridge and Twig in TSWOTB and also the first person narrative. There is no indication that use of the passages in question was authorised by P L Travers or her estate [it wasn’t – I checked] and P L Travers' work is not acknowledged either in footnotes or the bibliography at the back of TSWOTB.
"Some people may not care whether or not there is any truth in The Shamanic Way of the Bee or if it is simply one man's fantasy, but to me at least there is something deeply unethical about passing another's words off as one's own and it raises serious questions about the authenticity of the Path of Pollen as a whole. I present some of the evidence below for you to make up your own minds.
"The P L Travers work I quote from is What The Bee Knows - Reflections on Myth Symbol and Story, foreword by David Applebaum, Codhill Press edition 2010
"P L Travers, What The Bee Knows (WTBK) (from the essay entitled What The Bee Knows, first published in Parabola magazine, New York 1981) page 81: For the Bee has at all times and places been the symbol of life - life as immortality. In the Celtic languages, the Cornish 'beu' the Irish 'beo', the Welsh 'byw', can all be translated as 'alive' or 'living'; the Greek 'bios' has been mentioned above and is the French 'abeille' not akin to these? So, the Bee stands for - or is a manifestation of - the fundamental verb 'to be'. 'I am, thou art, he is', it declares, as it goes humming past. ... No wonder then that mythologically the bee is a ritual creature of a host of lordly ones... To anyone capable of suspending for a moment the cavortings of the rational mind, of accepting myth for what it is - not lie but the very veritable truth - it needs no great inward effort to act upon such advice. It's a matter, merely, of listening.
"PP30-31 The Shamanic Way of the Bee (closing paragraphs of Bridge's first knowledge lecture): The Bee Master knows the bee as the most remarkable of creatures, a social alchemist and truly nature's most astonishing being, he reflected before displaying his discreet passion for language and linguistics. It has at all times and places been the symbol of life - life as immortality. In the Celtic language, the Cornish 'beu' the Irish 'beo' and the Welsh 'byw', can all be translated as 'alive' or 'living'. The Greek word bios should also be mentioned. So, the Bee stands for - or is a manifestation of - the fundamental verb 'to be'. 'I am, thou art, he is', it declares, as it goes humming by... if we look to myth the bee is the ritual creature of a host of lordly ones. To anyone capable for a moment of suspending the cavortings of the rational mind, of accepting myth for what it is - not a story or a lie or a corruption of the facts, but the very essence of truth - it should need no great inward effort to access their significance. His eyes bore into me, testing to see if I had yet understood. Then he spoke again, very slowly: It is a matter, merely, of listening.
"PL Travers, (WTBK) p86: “When does the old year end?" asks a child. "On the first stroke of midnight", he is told. "And the new year - when does it begin?" "On the last stroke of midnight." “Well then, what happens in between?" The question, once asked, required an answer from those who know what the Druids knew. Long after I had written down this story, I listened to a radio reporter who was describing the ceremonies of an African tribe at the end of their lunar - or solar? - year. At a given moment, it appeared, the chanting and the drumming ceased as the gods invisibly withdrew. For a few seconds - twelve perhaps - absolute silence reigned. Then the drums broke out again in triumph as the gods invisibly returned with the new year in their arms. 'And' the reporter added 'though I do not ask you to believe it, I can vouch for the fact that my tape recorder, for those few moments of sacred silence, without a touch of my hand, stopped spinning’.
"PP35-36 TSWOB: The end of the year falls exactly at the beginning of the first stroke of midnight on December 31, and the new year begins as the last stroke ends. But what happens in between? In answer to Bridge's question, I told him a story I had heard as a child that had stayed with me over the years. A correspondent for the BBC World Service was describing the ceremonies of an African tribal people at the end of their lunar cycle. At a given moment, the chanting and drumming ceased as the gods and deities invisibly withdrew from the world... For just a few moments, absolute silence reigned in Africa as the gods withdrew. Then the drums broke out again in triumph as the spirits invisibly returned, cradling the new year in their arms. The reason I had recalled the story was that the reporter, a modern western man, had added that though he did not expect his listeners to believe him, he would vouch that during the few moments of sacred silence, his tape recorder had completely stopped working.
"P L Travers WTBK p86: Anyone used to yoga practice experiences the ritual pause between the outgoing and the indrawn breath. Between one breathtime and the next, between one lifetime and the next, something waits for a moment.
"P37 The Shamanic Way of the Bee: ... the Bee Master continued. He reminded me that in meditation working with the breath, there is usually a ritual pause between the outgoing and incoming breath. "Between one breath and the next, between one lifetime and the next, something waits for a moment...."
"P L Travers WTBK p11: The homeland of myth, the country which in the old Russian stories is called East of the sun and West of the moon, and for which there is no known map.
"TSWOTB p98: To my surprise and delight, on this occasion Bridge continued to elaborate: "The Melissae are women who live in a country that is east of the sun and west of the moon for which there is no known map."
"P L Travers WTBK p267 From the essay About The Sleeping Beauty: The Thirteenth Wise Woman stands as a guardian of the threshold, the paradoxical adversary without whose presence no threshold can be passed.
"P102. TSWOTB: Early next morning, I wandered into the garden and found an austere presence dressed in black, awaiting my arrival before the Gate of Transition. She was as the Thirteenth Wise Woman who stands as guardian of the threshold, the paradoxical adversary without whose presence no threshold may be passed.”
Could it ‘bee’ that what I have been saying all along about The Shamanic Way of the Bee is true: that it is a work of fiction masquerading as fact and that the ‘path of pollen’ is a non-existent fabricated tradition, which owes more to Mary Poppins than authentic shamanism? Or perhaps a perfectly reasonable explanation is possible: that the author of Mary Poppins time-travelled to the future so she could rip off The Shamanic Way of the Bee as I have also allegedly done, then time-travelled back to her own era so she could publish her essays 20 years before Buxton’s book appeared? No doubt Bridget/Graham/Anonymous will thoroughly explain this and her guru will emerge once again the innocent and offended party. In the meantime, however, Buxton’s publishers have asked him to rewrite whole sections of ‘his’ book to remove what they believe to be plagiarism and the estate of P L Travers is also looking into the matter.
Sadly, this is not the only email I have received from one of Buxton’s ‘bee goddesses’. A few days before the one above, I got this, which might also serve as a cautionary tale if you've aspirations to become a 'bee maiden' yourself:
"My name is XXX and it is now around six years or so since I was a shamanic practitioner student under the ‘tutelage’ of Simon Buxton. I am myself trained as a psychotherapist, having specialised in working with abuse and am now writing a PhD on the embodiment of the sacred… My own relationship with Simon was difficult, such that at the end of a period of extensive financial and spiritual investment, I found myself having to make a choice between what I experienced as abusive spiritual authority and my own and needing quite simply to walk in the opposite direction to the organisation I had hoped would provide me with a supportive home. I chose my own, amidst considerable confusion and pain..."
As for Bridget’s other points in your comments section, I’m happy to answer them here (although I suspect she will never believe them as she seems entirely brainwashed into intellectual zombification by the ‘pollen power’ of her guru):
- Bridget says: In this interview he [I] refers to his alleged experiences with a sin eater in Herefordshire as if they were fact, a claim he doesn't even make in the book in which he describes these ‘experiences’. I call my book a work of semi-fiction, an adventure built around actual events. This is stated in the book itself, quite clearly. I also make clear that the experiences themselves took place – i.e. that I have had these experiences. I fail to see Bridget’s point as I have never claimed otherwise.
- She says: The truth is that his book The Sin Eater's Last Confession is uncannily similar in many respects to Simon Buxton's earlier published work, The Shamanic Way of the Bee, even down to chapter headings and the spiritual name of their respective teachers, ‘Bridge’. A similarity between two books written by the same author (i.e. me) is not surprising is it? However, the sin eater I refer to is not named so I don’t know where Bridget gets her information from that the two books share the same teacher. I wouldn’t even (and don’t) call the sin eater a “teacher” in fact, nor do I claim to have apprenticed with him. I refer to him as a friend. And I’ll tell you for a fact that his name wasn’t Bridge. Nor do I ever say that it was. Simon Buxton, however, does know the name of the sin eater because we discussed it at length while I was ghost-writing his book for him. It’s a pity he didn’t mention this to Bridget before he briefed her to make his defences for him.
- She says: Having initially supported the authenticity of Buxton's book and vouched for the existence of The Path of Pollen and Buxton's ‘Bridge’, Heaven now denounces it all as a complete fabrication which he ghost-wrote. When Simon Buxton asked me (before a witness I might add) to write his book for him it was presented to me as a work of semi-fiction; a teaching story. On that basis I was happy to endorse it. It subsequently, ‘mysteriously’, appeared as a work of fact however, with my name removed from it, and Buxton went on to accept an award for NON-fiction, so of course I denounced it for what it was. Why should I lie to cover Buxton’s arse? He’s not my bee guru! As for any dispute about the book itself and the tradition it pretends to represent being fabricated, as Bridget does not wish to take my word for it she can now take the matter up with P L Travers and Mary Poppins, Mr Buxton’s real teachers and shamanic initiators it would very much appear.
- She says: What he can't answer, however, is why on earth he would have assisted Buxton in ghost-writing a fabricated tale of spiritual apprenticeship when all the time he was sitting on his own ‘genuine’ experiences with the sin eater. Actually, I can and I will answer it. Money, in a word. Mr Buxton promised me £5000 for writing his book for him (which I have never seen). It was also supposed to be a book featuring both our names on the cover, which of course it doesn’t. Then again, it was supposed to be a semi-fictional work but Buxton chose instead to collect an award for NON-fiction for it.
- She says: As well as having a bitter fall out with and losing a court case to Buxton, Heaven also managed to fall out with his vodou teacher, Mambo Racine, the details of which are all over the internet. Heaven and Racine denounce each other as fakes and charlatans, yet Heaven still stands by his book Vodou Shaman which passes on these ‘fraudulent’ teachings of Racine. Actually, I won the court case against Buxton (which incidentally had nothing to do with this bee book but Buxton’s theft of some of my other work). Buxton then won it on appeal (which is fairly common in trademark matters) and law prevented a further appeal, or else this matter would probably be ongoing. I wouldn’t say our falling out was “bitter”; rather, I found his attempts to defend himself amusing (as did the judge in fact if you read the case transcript) – one of his strategies being to get gullible and brainwashed students to do the work for him (as per Bridget’s own defences) while he tried to retain a sense of superiority by never once standing up publicly for himself. How foolish those students – and Bridget - must feel now it is obvious that their ‘authentic spiritual tradition’ is little more than a modern-day cult which laughably originates with the author of Mary Poppins and their guru and ‘bee master’ is in fact a plagiarist and liar.
I have also – for very good reasons – denounced Racine, as Bridget rightly states. Vodou Shaman, however, is not a book of teachings by Racine, it is an explanation for Western readers of the shamanic practices within the Haitian spiritual tradition and it stands (or falls, according to your taste) as what it is.
What all of this suggests to me is simply that (a) I am committed to telling the truth and (b) If I have made a mistake about something or someone it is because I am human, but I am also man enough to admit it and to rectify it as quickly as possible so that others are not misled. Let us hope that Bridget is now prepared to admit her own mistake as quickly, though I suspect not.
- She asks: See a pattern emerging? I do, yes. I see a pattern of me correcting errors and revealing the truth. I also see a pattern of Bridget going from forum to forum to defend her guru in the face of this truth. As more evidence emerges from other sources, however - such as abused and disgruntled ‘bee maidens’ and the plagiarised words of children’s authors - her attacks on me and defences of her guru simply provide further opportunities for the facts to stand against him. I would suggest therefore that the best thing she could possibly do now to protect her bee master is simply shut up and buzz off.
So what is ‘authentic shamanism’?
What authentic shamanism is not is easy to answer: it is not an invented practice like “core shamanism” or a falsified tradition based on plagiarism and ‘abusive spiritual authority’ like “bee shamanism”. The former may have something to recommend it if you accept, as I do, that Harner created his approach in good faith and to be of service to the West by opening minds and spreading awareness. The latter, however, like most scams and frauds, seems designed only to fill the pockets and bolster the ego of its inventor as well as the egos of those Westerners who have some apparently deep-seated need to call themselves “bee goddesses”, “priestesses” or “little princesses” and to buy a meaningless quick-fix title to that effect. They, of course, have a vested interest in not asking questions, thinking for themselves or challenging their guru and the system they are – literally – buying into, or in having anyone else ask those questions either.
Authentic shamans do ask questions, however, and (since ultimately there are no final answers to be found) they are also happy to remain in the mystery while they ask them; indeed, they seek proof of the mystery through the questions they ask.
Authentic shamans are also those people who do not need a cult or tradition to follow. They may be born to one or apprentice within a particular tribe or approach to healing but their first and only necessary teachers are the spirits that they work with as allies, not human beings who insist on guru status.
Authentic shamans encourage their students to think for themselves as well and to make connections of their own with the spirit world, not follow systems, rules and procedures. I have dieted many different power plants in the Amazon, for example, and not once did any shaman tell me in advance what these plants would do or how they heal. I told them after I had dieted the plants and made allies of them myself, because that it is the way it is done and always has been in authentic shamanic traditions.
Authentic shamans explore the world – this one and the next – for themselves, and make their own discoveries. They are map-makers not map-readers.
Authentic shamans find their own way and, when they are ready and when their spirits agree, they choose to call themselves shamans, not when they have spent X thousands of pounds on workshops, sat through X hundred hours of “knowledge lectures” from a made-up tradition, swallowed a library of Mary Poppins books, learned the Lambeth Walk and how to feed the birds, tuppence a bag, or paid someone to call them a maiden or a goddess.
Authentic shamans are people of genuine power – power in the moment when that power is needed to conduct an effective healing or to help someone. Apart from that they are normal people, feet on the ground, not head in the clouds, with the same human problems and experiences as everyone else. That’s what makes them effective healers in the first place: the ability to empathise and identify with normal human concerns and to help others through them, because they have been through them too.
They are certainly not gurus or saints and nor should we want them to be. We’ve had enough gurus – from the Maharishi lambasted by the Beatles in their song Sexy Sadie for preaching austerity to acolytes while acquiring a fleet of Rolls Royces and a harem of guru-worshipping blondes, to Sai Baba (claimed by many, with evidence, to be a child molester), to Pope Benedict who recently got out quick amidst rumours and allegations of his own involvement in child abuse, to those who create money-making ‘archaic and authentic’ shamanic traditions and do not even have the sense or decency to change the words they are stealing from others.
Authentic shamans are men and women of thought and action; they are certainly not zombies unthinkingly accepting the dogma of cults and parroting lies in return for fake titles.
The picture at the top shows a wooden statue of a shaman from North America. It was on display at The Body Adorned exhibition at the Horniman Museum.
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