Why I’ll never call myself a shaman (part 2)

(Back to part 1)
A quick scour of the internet will tell you shamanism is the oldest known spiritual path, that it pre-dates religion by some time and that there are traces of shamanism all over the globe. Trouble is, if we want to be really technical, some will tell you that the term is only properly applied to the traditional religious systems of the native peoples of Central Asia, Siberia and the circumpolar region of the Northern hemisphere.

What muddies the waters further is that the term ‘shamanism’ has become broadly used in anthropology to categorise similar spiritual/religious practices in other parts of the world, including ancient Britain. So, who’s right?

Honestly, I don’t know and, more importantly, does it really matter? Aren’t we just moving into semantics here?

Surely, what’s important is that we get back to our real connections with the land, with spirit, with the energies around us and realise that we really are all connected. What SHOULDN’T be important is leaping onto the bandwagon of the next passing spiritual ‘fad’ in an attempt to find SOME connection with SOMETHING. How you find your connection, so long as you’re doing no harm, shouldn’t matter, but I would urge you to try to find a path that feels authentic FOR YOU.

Personally, I’ve learned from people who’d studied Celtic shamanism, Native American shamanism, European Shamanism, etc, etc, etc, as well (of course) as humbly accepting all the teachings my guides and helpers have to offer. In all those situations learning from humans, I’ve checked in to see what feels real FOR ME, I’ve listened to my own guides, followed their lead and opened my heart and mind to try to find the threads of my own blood past, however feint they may be. And, of course, being a modern-day Brit, it ain’t easy… my pedigree’s as muddled as the next person’s, with smatterings of Irish, Scottish, Spanish etc. It’s not clear cut, but that doesn’t give me carte blanche to just grab a one-size-fits-all spiritul persona.

Messy argument
Fairly recently, I was watching some footage of first nation people in the US trying to stop a white woman emulating their religion. Watching the footage, I felt a little torn, and a lot uncomfortable. One of the native people wore a T-shirt with the words ‘now they want to steal our religion’… well, gotta say, they have a point. For me, it’s one thing following the shamanic (to use the anthropological term) path, but it’s quite another to actually emulate another culture’s path in lieu of discovering your own. So, why did I feel uncomfortable? Well, I don’t believe any one culture can ‘own’ a spiritual path, and although a big part of me was cheering them for defending their culture, I’ve also heard many cases of native peoples referring to white people following a similar path as ‘plastic shamans’and I find it hard to believe that such a spiritual people would dismiss another’s connection to spirit based on the colour of their skin. And here we are, back again at that messy argument about the origins of shamanism.

What I do know is that back in the day – whether we’re talking about early America, Australia, Spain, Finland or Ancient Britain – the path of the ‘shaman’ would have been a difficult one, perhaps even life or death. I know that these early tribal shamans would have lived and died in the eye of the god/Great Spirit/whichever term you’re comfortable using, and I know that today, even the most learned of westerners are probably nowhere close to being in the same league. I know that when I hear of a westerner calling him/herself a shaman, I take a deep breath and wonder why their ego demands they take such a title. Furthermore, if their ego has that much control, they probably have some pretty tough lessons ahead.

So, do I call myself a shaman? No. Will I EVER call myself a shaman? No. For want of a better term, and as the anthropologists seem to have carved out the modern-day recognisable term for the path I follow, I do use the term shamanism and, if I have to use a label, I’m a shamanic practitioner… someone who practices shamanism. Do I refer to other cultures with more visible shamanic threads in my teachings? Yes. Have I learned lots from the teachings shared by those who’ve worked with other shamanic cultures? Yes. Does that mean I should forget my own cultures’ (apostrophe placement intended) worn away history and pick up another more visible one? Absolutely not.

If, one day, another more appropriate term comes to light, I’ll happily adopt it but, either way, I’ll never call myself a shaman.

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About Taz Thornton (www.firechild-shamanism.co.uk)

Speaker | writer | firewalker | empowerment coach | shamanic artist | mentor | encourager. Debut tome underway for Moon Books. Follow me on Twitter - @TazThornton and find FirechildShamanism and TazThorntonOfficial on Facebook.
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16 Responses to Why I’ll never call myself a shaman (part 2)

  1. Slightly at a tangent, but the reason I have turned away from ‘religions’ is that I feel uncomfortable with someone else telling me what to believe. My parents were strong Christians, and so are my brother and sister, and I don’t think that the values that any of us use to guide us through life differ appreciably. It’s just that I feel a need to make up my own mind, and not be constrained by someone else’s beliefs. Or experience. Or anything … Ten years ago I started to study crystal healing; since then I’ve experienced and used flower (and vibrational) essences; this year I’ll start studying shamanism. It’s all one journey – mine!

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  2. gwen says:

    I think a big part of native Americans objecting to white people calling themselves a “shaman” and copying their religion is that a lot are distorting the religious practices so they can charge huge amounts of money to “teach” other white people how to be a “shaman” or practice Native American spirituality

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    • gwen says:

      Oops , just re-read that and it didn’t come out how I meant it to /blush .
      I wasn’t meaning that everyone who teaches shamanic practices is doing this , but there are a number of people who do use Native American spirituality as just a way to make money for themselves .
      note to self .. check your posts before you hit enter !

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      • Shana says:

        You’re right, Gwen; that’s exactly what’s been going on and we all really need to stop fooling ourselves (or letting others fool us).

        Today, it’s about money, fad, ‘glamour’, ‘look at me! aren’t I special because I call myself a shaman?’ (massively tacky insecurity), and being better than anyone else while riding the bandwagon of plasticity.

        Personally, it sickens me and I find it difficult to accept excuses and explanations for the fakeness of it all.

        A new term needs to be created and leave the original to those it rightfully belongs to (in other words, not we white pretenders).

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      • Benjamin says:

        @Shana:
        The term “Shaman” is NOT Native American, and nor are the practices it was originally used to describe. By *originally* here I mean, how the West used the word Shaman to describe other culture’s religious practices. How the root word was used and what it truly meant are questions we’ll never answer. This word is (most probably) North Asian (Siberia etc) in origin, and was first used by Westerners to describe Turkic and Mongolian native religions.
        I agree, there is a huge problem with cultural appropriation and racism in neoshamanism, but it isn’t helped by spreading more untruths. Yes, the language we use is flawed and comes with a huge amount of problematic baggage, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t our language to use. We just have to be better at how we use it and how we respect and value where it comes from.
        I hope this doesn’t come across as too ranty, its just I see a lot of white guilt around this subject that totally ignores the fact that Shamans are northern European/Asian in origin. We have a lot to feel guilty about the treatment of the American First Nations by our ancestors without adding false crimes.

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  3. Mychael says:

    Hi Taz.
    Thanks for posting this, I for one, have been struggling for a while now with what are, after all, the semantics of what we are all trying to do in our deeply individual way. I have a court case in June where (amongst other things) I will be defending my experiences of “shamanism” and “magic” but that’s another story. I don’t even like the term “shamanic practitioner” to describe what I do but unfortunately we all attempt to convey what we are in a language that we think describes all things to all people who speak it. To me, language is our worst enemy and if only we could convey our work through feeling it would make much more sense and be far more universally understood. If I could get away with it, I wouldn’t call myself anything.
    I do spend some time dealing with language and the problems it creates in my workshops before I do anything else with students. A word like “spirit” can start an hour long debate in itself.
    Shaman and shamanism are fast becoming words to me that are as empty (here in the West) as any other fly by night or fashionable spiritual/self help method. And you are dead right, Suffering is the real key to any kind of enlightenment, not just the “nice” bits we here in the West like to cherry pick from.
    Anyway, i could rant on for ages but shan’t. Thanks for sharing. Mychael. seekersolace.com

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  4. nancyfberry says:

    I have always been of the mind that everyone owns their own journey; we can walk alongside others going in the same or similar direction but ultimately Spirit takes us all where we are meant to be at any given time, whether we acknowledge that fact or not.

    Whilst walking this lifetime in this skin we each have a responsibility to our own self to survive as gently as we can; be true; learn; teach; love and leave as little damage to other lives as is possible.
    It doesn’t matter to me what label people attach to themselves providing they walk in beauty, balance and harmony as is appropriate to their own conscience. Of course in doing that we have to work hard to control the human animal’s greatest test..that of the ego and it’s addictive lure in to self proclaimed power over other living beings.

    One of the strongest reasons I have chosen to be in Circle with you for this year, Taz is not because you are a mighty Shaman or that you are the trend at the moment, or even the fact you have blue hair. You have shown yourself to be a true Medicine Woman with a ego-less heart particularly helping me and others clear bits of their individual paths from debris and obstructions in order to walk forward.

    I understand that anything these days costs money..venues, utilities, food, fuel etc etc but spirituality doesn’t cost anything and sharing all that we learn to those who choose to listen is a magical and beautiful process whether we Shamanize ourselves or not..whether we run workshops or not.

    I am thoroughly excited about getting away from the world for a weekend and sharing space in time, and realities, with other people choosing a path of Beauty, Truth and humility for how ever long they can/want to. After almost 10 years of my individual journey in to the Medicine of life and love, I would never call myself a Shaman either..maybe when I cross into a different reality, Spirit will stamp my head with that price tag. (-;

    Wise piece..thank you. xx

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    • Firechild says:

      Nancy, thank you. One of my spirit teachers once gave me this advice: “Beware people on tall pedestals – especially self-perpetuating ones.” Having seen people either fall down & injure themselves, or become demonised when they hold onto their high, high throne for too long, these are wise words that I remind myself of often. I have no desire to be placed on any pedestal, & absolutely no intention of staying put shouls anyone else place me there. I’m just me, sharing what I’m given and asked to share. Ego has no place in spirituality, although it’s a field beset by just that. We can only do our utmost to remain in the heart-mind, stay humble and remember that there is ALWAYS someone who knows more than us. Every day’s a school day!

      Walk in truth & beauty,

      Taz
      Xx

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  5. Benjamin says:

    Hi Taz
    I only just found this post (via your Goddess one), and I want to thank you for writing with much more clarity than I can usually muster, about a subject that occupies me a lot. I too find myself using the term shamanic practitioner because I have to call what I do *something*. “Shamanism” is definitely growing in popularity amongst many seekers these days, and I definitely wouldn’t presume to judge that they aren’t sincere in this. But it worries me (a lot) to see so much “Shamanic this” and “Shamanic that” out here, especially when I see nothing that relates to shamanism or spirit-led practice in what is being promoted.
    But what do we do? Other than express the complexity of the language/history/culture that we are dealing with as well and as often as we can. And your writing definitely helps with this. Thank you.
    Blessings
    Benjamin

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  6. Thunder Wolf says:

    I enjoyed your post. I’ve wrestled a lot with the term shaman, and tend to call myself a Spirit Speaker. What I do is actually a combination of shamanism, life coaching, psychology, and energy healing. I held my gifts back a long time because I was scared of being who I was and what I believed in because I was afraid of being called a ‘plastic shaman’. When people see what I do they automatically connect me with the Native Americans, but I don’t know all of my heritage, and I let them though that shamanic practitioner doesn’t mean necessary Native American. Its hard and awkward, but I want to be truthful. I have learned from Native Americans directly, but its not that I want to steal anything, its that I want to connect to spirit and their words and ways have rang true. I have also learned from people of European ancestry and their words have rang true as well.

    We are all connected, spirit is all connected. I feel like shamanism is something that evolves because it needs to help people in the problems they are facing today. If it doesn’t speak to them, if it doesn’t help them, then there is something wrong there. In the end does it help to call anyone a plastic anything if they are helping others and they are not misrepresenting their knowledge/ancestry? Organized religion and spiritualities have anthropologically been a social construct to help guide and help the people. Come to think of it, the argument of how the word shamanism should be applied is almost like saying should spirituality be copyrighted. I’m not going to say either way. Should people be downed because they find truth in someones practices and that it brings them closer to God if they listen and try to walk with humbleness and open-ears/heart/mind as they learn and practice with respect?

    I once remember a discussion with my anthropology teacher. Why did ladders appear in so many unconnected cultures? And he said because there are only so many ways to solve a problem. Maybe there are just certain ways that look so similar in shamanism because there is something inherent in human make up. Feathers, animals, and drums are a world-wide phenomenon. Shamanism is more then that, but it makes sense why certain things are thus hallmarks of its practitioners. I think theres many who call themselves shaman and do things that look Native Americany but they may never have intended it that way. They were just trying to connect to joy and spirit.

    In any case, I still use the word shamanic style or practice, but I try to walk in truth and respect for all people. I use the word shamanic in there at all because it helps others to understand a generalized sense of practices and views that goes with the practice for those who are looking for help.

    Anyway, this has been a rather long comment. Keep doing wonderful work. Blessings on your path and thanks.

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    • Firechild says:

      Thunder Wolf, thank you. What a beautiful & heartfelt response. I look forward to our paths crossing some day.

      Walk in truth & beauty,

      Taz
      Xx

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  7. Danielle says:

    I too find this a tricky subject.
    I practise shamanism and when people ask me what I do I tell them im a shamanic practitioner.

    Then starts a conversation like this:
    “a shamanic practitioner? Whats that mean?”
    “Im someone who practises elements of shamanism”
    “What do youdo though?”
    “Well sometimes I give healing, or talk to spirits, find peoples totem animals, dream to find an answer to someones concerns. Drumming to journey and talk with my guides. Those kind of things”
    “Ahhhhhhh so your a Shaman then!”
    “welllll i’ll leave that for you to decide. I just say im a shamanic practitioner”
    “Oh. Right! Anyway……”

    Because of conversations like the one above my twitter name is WyrrdShaman so that I can be found and identified easily. However, no matter how many years ive been doing the things I do I never feel qualified enough to say im a shaman. Happy for other people too. Not for me to judge them for using that title but for me…
    I have a saying “One is never the master but always the student” and thats how I feel. I’ll always be a student.

    Thank you for your article. It is thought provoking. I value what I have learnt from it!

    In la k’ech

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    • Firechild says:

      Hi Danielle,

      Thanks for your words. I feel similarly… every day’s a school day. I’m also not sure shaman is the correct word for our celtic isles, but I haven’t discovered an alternative that feels right yet.

      All love,

      Taz
      X

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  8. witchcraftfairy says:

    Reblogged this on Witchcraft Fairy and commented:
    Here is part 2 of the reblogged article by Taz Thornton.

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