PART VI: ANCIENT SECRETS
by Anthony Forwood (2011)
42: Dawn of the Shaman
The earliest indication that members of the human species held any sort of spiritual belief came with the discovery of a small clay figure of a bear with pronounced female characteristics, looking more human than animal, found among the remains of a Neanderthal man who had lived as long ago as 50,000 BC. Thus the beginning of man’s belief in any sort of supernatural forces was apparently developing long before we had evolved into the fully developed and supposedly civilized and rational creatures that we are today.
Cro-Magnon man used caves for tribal ceremonies, and his cave paintings were often created as a means to focus the tribe’s spiritual energies during their rituals, such as before a hunt. Depictions of bison, antelope, and other wild game may have been used to make a psychic connection with the spirits of the animals they were hunting, to draw these animals forth and offer themselves as sacrifices to the tribe.
In a sense, it seems natural for early humans to have believed in a greater power governing their environment. Fifty thousand years ago, we were quite incapable of so much compared to today, and, like a young child who is only just beginning to learn about the greater world around him, Neanderthal man or Cro-Magnon man would have been bound to wonder, in his primitive way, about that world and his place within it. It’s not all that hard to imagine how mystified he would have been at this early stage of his developing intelligence, realizing his separateness from the external world and yet knowing all too well that he depended completely on that world for his survival. This would surely have led to the first concretized ideas in his newly forming rational mind that something greater than himself was affecting whether his fortune was to be good or bad, controlling events from some mysterious place and in some incomprehensible way.
As the human brain developed over the last two million years or so, so did the human mind. Over this time, man began to develop his intellectual abilities as he learned to recognize the regular patterns in nature, and began to wonder, and began to form conclusions. Over a great deal of time spent musing, certain insights began to form in his developing mind as concepts that reflected to him a rational meaning to the cause and effect situations that he regularly saw unfold in the world around him. These concepts were at first without a language to express them, and so a language of symbols and vocal sounds slowly developed, and through them these early mental concepts were able to be expressed and shared between an entire community or population.
Because existence was invariably harsh, much of early man’s primitive thinking abilities would out of necessity have been put towards his daily survival, and certain ideas would have formed surrounding the seemingly random nature of fate and circumstance, in an attempt to make sense of certain events and situations that seemed to occur with no perceptible pattern. Man strived to understand and take control of his world, and so explanations were sought, and conceptual understandings and rationalizations began to form into a logical cohesion that he could understand and work with. The concept of gods or spirits who controlled the elements and who could be appeased was thus perhaps only natural to develop, given early man’s strong feelings of dependency on some mysterious external force or forces that caused events to happen as they did.
Or perhaps, in the not too distant past of these early humans, there really were gods that could control, at least to some extent, the natural forces of nature. These may have been the living gods of later myths and legends, remembered from a long tradition of passing down oral histories from one descendent to the next over many generations. They may have even become imprinted on early man’s subconscious, the memory of their physical reality slowly transformed into conceptual archetypes that seemed to still be close at hand but otherwise invisible.
Whatever the case may have been, with the concept of gods or spirits that controlled the forces of nature followed the possibility of gaining their favor or of appeasing them, and the idea of offering gifts or sacrifices took root. Many different sorts of offering may have been tried, and over time certain ones seemed to work better than others, but at other times even these didn’t seem to work at all. This developed into the perception of the various personalities and powers of these invisible gods, who were at times seen as capricious and requiring individual and separate attention to their perceived needs and desires. There developed from this such conceptual entities as the hunter-god, the weather-god, the fertility-god, the healing-god, etc. Whole pantheons of gods were imagined, and each god had a certain place in the life of early man, with certain requirements for receiving that god’s favor.
The types of offerings that might be made to a god depended on that particular god, and man saw or imagined certain associations between a god and its area of influence, so that the hunter-god was seen to expect certain offerings that were far different than what the weather-god might be seen to expect. For instance, man may have recognized that an offering of a freshly killed rabbit laid out in an open clearing would bring about much bigger game that would feed a whole community where the small rabbit wouldn’t, and such an act may have become commonplace as a ritualistic appeasement to a hunter-god. On the other hand, the weather-god may have been seen to require something much different, and perhaps it came to man’s attention that such a god only responded after long hours of drumming, chanting, or other sounds that reflected the sounds that the weather-god made, such as thunder or rainfall. These sounds, if they were loud enough and of the right timbre, could actually induce rain to fall and thunder to roll through the skies when the clouds were thick overhead.
Certain types of artifacts came to be employed in calling on the favor of the gods and spirits as well, things that were meant to reflect man’s honor and respect to that god, or which reflected the desired outcome. These objects were composed of materials found in the environment, such as feathers, shells, stones, bones, locks of hair, certain plants and flowers, animal horns, etc. Each was seen to have a certain influence in attracting a specific god’s attention, and the combinations between them that seemed to work best were often formed into amulets and talismans. The knowledge about the power of these things developed into a sort of science, and as man’s developing mind began to discern greater complexity around him, so too did this ritual-based science of magic.
It came to be that certain people were found to be particularly gifted in this science, and in communicating favorably with the gods and spirits, and were able to achieve much better results than others. These individuals were seen as having a special relationship with the gods, or at least knew how to communicate with them, and came to be necessary figures in the community. Because of their greater abilities, they came to be sought out more and more often by members of the tribe or community for assistance in finding favor with the gods or seeking the help of certain spirits when they sought a particular outcome in matters affecting their personal lives. These people who came to be seen as having close communication with the gods became the first great shamen and witch-doctors, and because their craft became a specialized function that was highly valued and respected within the community, these people became powerful figures whose knowledge and skills were greatly trusted and depended on.
The fact that certain offerings of appeasement often went unanswered or with unfavorable results brought about the idea that the person who sought appeasement were themselves somehow at fault, and were being punished for some transgression that had caused them disfavor with the god they were trying to appease. The shaman might instruct the person to make an offering or carry out certain ritualistic acts, or he would perform certain acts himself, through which appeasement might be gained. Often, in due course, these acts would appear to result in a favorable outcome, but at other times not, and greater effort was called for. This may have perhaps been seen to be due to some grievous action or event in the person’s life that had greatly angered one or more of the gods, and so the person might be required to make a larger sacrifice or perform further ritualistic acts. Sometimes, a whole community may have been seen to have angered the gods, and in this situation even greater sacrifices were required. The forces of nature had to be kept in balance, and so if a man had caused the loss of another man’s property, then he was often required to sacrifice something of his own of equal or greater value. If a man killed another wrongly, that man might have been required to sacrifice a life in return for the one taken, perhaps in the form of fresh game or livestock, or perhaps even the life of one of his own offspring. When a whole community was seen to have angered the gods, even greater sacrifices had to be made. In some tribes or communities this may have sometimes resulted in such extremes as the sacrifice of humans. Certain shamen who had become infected by their power in the community even began to use human sacrifice as a psychological tool to manipulate the entire tribe or community through fear and terror. To whatever extent this may have gone on, we know that in at least some early cultures humans began to be offered as sacrifices to their gods, sometimes being those who were captured from other tribes, but in some cases being their own people. Such acts reveal the level of influence that shamen and shaman-priests came to hold over a tribe or community.
At some point, when and where the gods seemed to be of a more temperate mood, it occurred to man that they might be sought out for answers to things that were wished to be known, such as the best time to undertake a journey, or what the outcome of some future action or event might be. This led to the art of divination and prophecy, and many forms of these came to be devised and used. Many times they included the use of psychotropic substances, which the shaman had learned early on had great power and usefulness.
Part of the shaman’s or witch-doctor’s repertoire of skills was in determining the cures for injuries and ailments, and this involved the use of plants and other substances and a knowledge of their medicinal properties. The use of these and the concoctions that were made from them was initially discovered through the slow process of trial and error, which would have started very early in man’s evolution when he was still quite primitive, at those times when hunger and starvation often forced him to try adding new substances to his diet. Over time, it would be noticed that certain substances had certain effects with certain advantages in specific situations. Over a great deal of time this developed into a pharmacopoeia of medicinal remedies, cures, and applications.
Certain substances that happened to be available in abundance, such as cannabis or peyote, were discovered to induce various types of altered states of consciousness, and early man perceived these experiences as a sort of entrance into a supernatural world where he was able to commune directly with the gods and spirits. The shamen and witch-doctors became very familiar with using these and other psychotropic substances, and incorporated them regularly in their practices. The journeys they took into this spiritual realm opened up their natural psychic senses and allowed them to perceive and explore reality in a totally different manner that ordinary experience didn’t permit. On these journeys, the shamen were imparted knowledge of things that weren’t easily revealed in an ordinary conscious state. They brought this knowledge back from their spiritual journeys and were able to apply it in the ordinary world for whatever purpose they had sought it.
These journeys were no less real than if they were to have traveled to a distant land and encountered real beings, with the only difference being that it occurred on the mental or astral plane. This realm that they journeyed to was also known to be where deceased ancestors resided, and they could be communicated with as well. The ability to access the psychic senses was also real, allowing the shaman to perform amazing paranormal feats such as we hear of the ancient fakirs of India or the lamas of Tibet being able to do. Often, the entire tribe or community would take part in such a spiritual journey, and they would share the same collective visions and experiences that took place, testifying to them that these journeys were real. These journeys were not just hallucinations. They were a form of entry to a higher level of awareness, a more fundamental state of reality that today we might more commonly understand as the astral or psychic plane.
Through their strange occult practices, the shamen were able to awaken their natural psychic energies and control them in various ways. They knew the real power of the mind and how to use it to its greater potential. By including the entire community in their rituals, a shaman could multiply this psychic force. The hypnotic trance state that was induced during these shamanic rituals and ceremonies increased the power of suggestibility, and as modern hypnotists know quite well, this allows a person to do things they normally couldn’t possibly do, even breaking the laws of nature. The shamen understood that altered states of mind induced these super-human capabilities, and that the mind could control matter.
Early on, when the shaman had become established as a central component in the normal functioning of the community, man was still at a stage where he saw himself, and by extension his community, as a component of the larger environment around him, directly connected to it and affecting it as much as it affected him. He hadn’t yet developed the overwhelming sense of selfness and separateness from the environment that we experience today, and so he naturally considered his experiences in relation to this perception of a single connected whole. Whether there was discord in the community, or a hunting season had gone unfavorably, or a person had become sick or injured, the problem was often seen as one that involved the entire community, and so did the solution. This developed into ritualistic ceremonies that involved the participation of the entire community, and sometimes even multiple communities, incorporating all the tricks of the shaman’s trade: drumming, chanting, dancing, ritual objects, and mind altering substances.
The dance of the shaman was important because it had real power. Under the influence of a very strong intoxicant, the shaman would allow a particular god, usually associated with that substance, to enter into his body and take it over. In essence he became that god, and as the drumming and chanting of the ceremony filled the air, his body movements soon fell into rhythm with it with impulsive and highly energetic thrusts and jerks, dancing more and more wildly as he was overtaken completely by the power of the gods and quickly fell into a trance state. Many or all of the other participants, also affected by the drumming and chanting, and in some cases having also taken a milder dose of the intoxicant, would easily fall into a mild hypnotic state. The dancing gyrations of the shaman had a further deepening hypnotic effect that drew them into it, and they would begin to involuntarily and impulsively follow the lead of the shaman, dancing along with him in a slowly rising state of intoxicating energy that would overtake the entire group. The shaman’s dance often had a very powerful effect on the other participants even without them taking any of the mind-altering substance. This has been attested to by many people today who have been present at similar ceremonies that still take place in Haiti, Peru, and elsewhere. In this ceremonial manner, whole communities become involved in the purpose and effect of the ritual. In the process the community undergoes a group experience where they are all affected in a manner that brings about the desired effect.
Through the use of powerful mind-altering substances, the shaman was able to gain a much greater perception of reality than in ordinary conscious states, and was able to literally transcend time and space, through the window of his inner eye. Seeing the world through this psychic channel took practice, however, and only through long experience was the shaman able to learn how to seek and receive knowledge and to perform phenomenal feats in this manner.
Because the shaman was so crucial to the functioning of the community, his skills and knowledge had to be passed on to new generations, and so it was normal for a student to be chosen at a certain point in the shaman’s life, who he would take in and begin to initiate into the deeper knowledge of the shaman’s craft and teach him how to walk in the spirit world. Shamanic knowledge was never written down because it could only be understood through direct experience. Therefore there is no language or symbolism that has developed around shamanism as we see with the perverted spiritualism of witchcraft, sorcery, and the later religions.
It is said that the earliest shamen were able to converse with animals, and with the dead, and even to shape-shift, become invisible, and fly through the air. Some of the more powerful of the earliest shamen were considered to be gods themselves. It’s even believed by some of our current cultures that still have strong connections to their ancient roots that the first humans were all shaman-gods, and had descended to Earth from another realm. For instance, the legends of the Cuna, who live on islands off Panama, say that human-like beings flew down from heaven on a golden disk, and imparted heavenly knowledge to the human race. These shaman-gods are sometimes said to have created the human race, such as within the legends of a people in Siberia called the Buryats, which also tell us that these gods held their conferences on the moon and in the Pleiades, and left us with our first shamanic leader. The Yamana tribe of Tierra del Fuego believe that the early shamen were almost completely wiped out in a great flood, and only a few survived to teach the later generations of humanity. This connects with the continent of Atlantis, as well as the biblical legend of the Flood.