It is a widespread spiritual belief that all humans were able to fly in primordial times, in illo tempore, before the fall from original grace, when the first people shared much in common with supernatural beings. In later times, only the spiritually gifted, such as wizards, yogis, witches, saints, and shamans, were believed to fly or levitate. Two ideas related to flight appear in religious thought around the world: first, that the human soul has the form of a bird, and second, that birds function as psychopomps, leading the souls of the dead into the next life. Associated with bird and soul imagery is a widespread notion that at death the human soul becomes discarnate, leaves the body, and flies like a bird. Flight, therefore, is a strong symbol of the soul’s autonomy, transcendence, and ultimate destiny after death. People capable of either physical flight or soul flight during their lifetimes are considered to have transcended the human condition and re-entered the original time; they enjoy supernatural privileges, denied most people until death. The shaman is revered, and sometimes feared, precisely on these terms: He or she has the power to leave our ordinary condition and pass the boundaries into the spirit world; to be able to fly and visit the land of the dead; and to enjoy the friendship of discarnate beings, the helping spirits.
The Maya believed that there really is continued existence beyond the grave. They also knew what the earliest Christians once knew as well—that “many are called, but few are chosen.” The only important question for the ancient Maya, as for the most insightful in all religions, was, “What do I need to do to be ‘chosen’?” As we’ve seen, for the Maya shamans, the answer to this question was: Embrace death from a condition of intensified Being.
— The Shaman’s Secret, pp. 194-95
Shamanism—the powerful psychological and spiritual process for re-creating the cosmos and turning death into life in all the dimensions of Reality—was the driving force behind every aspect of ancient Maya life. It always required that the shaman-creator sacrifice himself or herself, allow himself or herself to be struck by the terrible lightning of the gods, descend into the Abyss, and die in the Black Hole at its center. Death in its many forms—emotional, spiritual, and physical—was the price all creative individuals paid to become “Lords of Life.”
— The Shaman’s Secret, p. 117
From the shaman’s point of view, water contains universal knowledge because its journey takes it to every corner of the physical universe; rain from the sky soaks deep into underground wells and springs, eventually feeding rivers and lakes, finally leaving the earth as mist and fog and rising to the sky, completing the circle. The fountain expresses this wholeness and completeness for its water is continually recycled. The circular dynamic of fountains (and all springs or rivers) symbolizes the reconciliation of opposites; since water flows through all arcs of the circle, it unites all polarities.
As ‘masters of fire’, shamans and sorcerers swallow burning coal, handle red-hot iron and walk on fire. On the other hand, they have great resistance to cold; shamans in the Arctic regions as well as the ascetics in the Himalayas, thanks to their magic heat, show an incredible resistance. The true significance of this magic heat and of the ‘mastery over fire’ is not difficult to divine. These powers indicate access to a certain ecstatic state or, on another cultural plane (in India, for example), to an unconditioned state of perfect spiritual freedom. The mastery over fire and insensibility both to extreme cold and to the temperature of burning coals, translated into ordinary terms, signify that the shaman or yogi have gone beyond the human condition and have achieved the level of spirits.
The alchemist, like the smith, and like the potter before him, is a ‘master of fire’. It is with fire that he controls the passage of matter from one state to another. The first potter who, with the aid of live embers, was successful in hardening those shapes which he had given to his clay, must have felt the intoxication of the demiurge: he had discovered a transmuting agent. That which natural heat—from the sun or the bowels of the earth—took so long to ripen, was transformed by fire at a speed hitherto undreamed of. This demiurgic enthusiasm springs from that obscure presentiment that the great secret lay in discovering how to ‘perform’ faster than Nature, in other words (since it is always necessary to talk in terms of the spiritual experience of primitive man) how, without peril, to interfere in the processes of the cosmic forces. Fire turned out to be the means by which man could ‘execute’ faster, but it could also do something other than what already existed in Nature. It was therefore the manifestation of a magico-religious power which could modify the world and which, consequently, did not belong to this world. This is why the most primitive cultures look upon the specialist in the sacred—the shaman, the medicine-man, the magician—as a ‘master of fire’….
The forest, like nature herself, was changeable. Sometimes it was a safe retreat from society, a place for visions and communion with the gods and goddesses; at other times it was a frightening place, dangerous and life-threatening. But however ambivalent, the Celt always found the forest inherently spiritual and, for that reason, exciting. For as the shaman knows only too well, initiation into the mysteries of the spirit can be both comforting and frightful. Like the Green Man of the Forest, the Lord of the Animals, or the Witch of the Woods, nature takes life as well as gives it, for nature is the source of life and death. Like the goddess of the wells, nature is the lovely maiden ready to bestow kingdoms and palaces, but she is also the miserable hag with foul breath.
Wherever it may lead, the perilous journey is always, of course, perilous. The hero, traditionally a young man, must defend himself against beast and foe. In Celtic folktales and faery tales he often risks physical danger, bodily harm, even death, as he quests for a marvelous object that he believes will bring luck, health, or a richer life: a magical sword, a cauldron of wisdom, a cup of knowledge, or a faery lover. On the shaman’s initiation journey the danger is psychic—the disintegration and reintegration of personality. The object of the quest is a “new soul,” a shamanic soul with its disorienting and upsetting vision of reality. On subsequent journeys, the shaman’s quest may still be for nothing less than the human soul of a patient who is sick, of someone severely depressed, or of a person recently deceased. As psychologists and symbologists note, the archetypal journey is always one of initiation and self-discovery. The physical objects sought on the quest are symbols of psychic wholeness, health, and the integrated soul, or in Jungian terms, the Self.
[The] plunge into the twilight of the psyche obliterates the normal categories of perception, replacing them with a vision that is unique and personal. The shamanic candidate, led by elders, encounters spirits that are part animal and part human, men dressed as women and vice versa, and monstrous shapes and forms that represent the ambiguous forces of the universe that are frightening to the human ego. From that moment on, the universe will be wider and grander, more mysterious, and yet (and this is the point of being a shaman) more manageable. The old social boundaries and mental constructs that the new shaman formerly accepted as immovable and inviolable are revealed to be socially conditioned, arbitrary structures. Like a mask, the everyday world of family and clan conceals amorphous realms of spirit, nature, beauty, and terror that defy categorization. And during the perils of initiation, the new shaman learns how to remove this mask.
The shaman develops a fluid, malleable worldview that is not as brittle as most people’s. Shamans know that the real and the unreal are merely opposite ends of a continuum on which reality can be stretched to include what is normally considered unreal. Even better, the continuum, like a flexible rod, can be bent, curved, and shaped into a circle where the end points of reality and unreality meet and become the same point. To the shaman, the universe is truly the Uroborous, the serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, uniting what appears to be the beginning and end. Depending on your point of view, the serpent is either devouring or disgorging the universe of its own body. To the shaman, it may appear to be doing both at once; and the shaman is not confused by this.
The shamanic initiation is a journey into chaos, a plunge into the primal realm where things are not what they seem, where rules and guidelines governing conduct and belief fail and are no longer appropriate. The shaman-to-be is initially terrified of what appear to be hostile spirits, even while being conducted safely through the ordeal by friendly spirits who may appear as ancestors or animal powers. In the process, shamans acquire a new self. Their mental universe is unraveled and rewoven, their physical bodies are dismembered and reintegrated or replaced with spiritual bodies. Finally the shaman re-enters ordinary reality as a “wise woman” or a “man of knowledge,” an interpreter of the spirit world, one who has seen reality demolished and reconstructed. The shaman begins to understand the ambiguous nature of the universe and the unending law of change by which it operates.
The Trickster or Foolish God teaches us that we often deceive ourselves. Beneath the ego and its mask of order and reason lies an untamed, wilder, lawless self as genuine as the masks of respectability we present to society. By embarrassing us, the Trickster teaches us deeper truths about ourselves. Not only does the Trickster confront us with the multiple nature of the universe, he shows us the multiple nature of ourselves, a truth the shaman learns through the tricks and deceptions of his initiating spirits. Indeed, trickery is part of the shaman’s craft, for he or she understands that often the mind has to be tricked for the body to heal. Some shamans relied so heavily on trickery and sleight-of-hand that Western observers misunderstood their motives and dismissed them as mere charlatans. They failed to appreciate the purpose of trickery and illusion as a means of “performing” in ordinary reality the transformations that were occurring on the psychic or spiritual plane.
In their structural relations [shamans] exercise a dual influence. Within their own group they tend to be a consolidating force inasmuch as they may use their good offices to settle disputes, guide opinion, persuade or coerce the spirits to promote the well-being of individuals and the body politic, and to establish and maintain harmony between the human and the divine orders. On the other hand, they may be malevolent in their intentions towards hostile neighbours, and therefore be regarded by them as a potent source of the evils that befall them. Consequently, there is a disruptive element in shamanism fostering ill-will and not infrequently causing prolonged enmity between opposed groups. But in either capacity, whether consolidating or disintegrating in his influence, the shaman is a central figure in structural relations and in social affairs, both reflecting and producing the existing organization and determining the attitudes of the spirits under his control for good or ill towards friends and foes alike.
In 1964 [C.E.], Mac Linscott Ricketts finished a doctoral thesis that is a remarkably wide-ranging survey of North American trickster tales. There and in later essays Ricketts has argued that the tales locate the trickster in opposition to the practice and beliefs of shamanism. To Ricketts’s way of thinking, humankind has had two responses when faced with all that engenders awe and dread in this world: the way of the shaman (and the priests), which assumes a spiritual world, bows before it, and seeks to make alliances; and the way of the trickster (and the humanists), which recognizes no power beyond its own intelligence, and seeks to seize and subdue the unknown with wit and cunning. “The trickster…embodies [an] experience of Reality…in which humans feel themselves to be self-sufficient beings for whom the supernatural spirits are powers not to be worshiped, but ignored, to be overcome, or in the last analysis mocked.” The shaman enters the spirit world and works with it, but “the trickster is an outsider…. He has no friends in that other world…. All that humans have gained from the unseen powers beyond—fire, fish, game, fresh water, and so forth—have been obtained, by necessity, through trickery or theft….” In obtaining these goods, the trickster, unlike the shaman, “did not also obtain superhuman powers or spiritual friendship…. He seems to need no friends: he gets along very well by himself….”
To explore this idea, Ricketts shows how a number of trickster stories can be read as parodies of shamanism. In shamanic initiation, for example, the spirits kill and resurrect the initiate, often placing something inside the resurrected body—a quartz crystal, for example—which the shaman can later call forth from his body during healing rituals. If someone in your group claims such powers, you might find wry humor in stories which have Coyote, when he needs advice, calling forth (with much grunting) his own excrement. Likewise, dreams of flying are said to be premonitions of shamanic initiation, and the shaman in a trance can supposedly fly into the sky, into the underworld, into the deepest forest. With this in mind, it’s hard not to hear the parodic tone in the almost universal stories of trickster trying to fly with the birds, only to fall ignominiously to earth. Trickster’s failure implies that shamanic pretensions are daydreams at best, fakery at worst. “Humans were not made to fly…. Trickster, like the human being, is an earth-bound creature, and his wish to fly (and to escape the human condition) is…a frivolous fancy.”
The shaman is the knower of hidden truths. He gains his knowledge by excursions into sacred space and time. He is an adventurer in the realm of the spirit. He undertakes his journeys outside of ordinary reality initially in an effort to heal and integrate himself. He may not be conscious of this as a motivation. In fact, he may refuse this interpretation. But anthropologists have often noted that the budding shaman is called into the spirit’s realm by physical and/or psychological distress. The sacred spaces shamans describe are clearly the healing structures of the psyche.
Once within the imaginal realm the shaman learns its sacred geography. He comes to know the strange inhabitants intimately, and can see and speak to them, where “normal” people can only, at best, intuit them. Once the shaman has become familiar with these inner spaces, he can enter, traverse, and exit these imaginal worlds at will. Through ecstatic flights of the spirit, he ascends his “central mountain,” or his “world tree,” and can travel either upward to the heavens or downward, into the underworld, along the axis mundi.
He learns to draw power from the undifferentiated realm for his own psychic system. He is one of death’s intimates, and can stare into the abyss of darkness without escape into denial. He learns to balance inner forces, and thus becomes adept at accepting and transcending the opposites of the profane world—death and life, darkness and light, activity and receptiveness. He can find the axis mundi in his psyche, and so can serve as the manifest center for others. His animal, instinctual nature and his spiritual strivings are brought into a delicate harmony, with neither voice subordinate to the other.
…The shaman derives his occult power and insight from the ghosts or spirits with whom he is en rapport, and it is upon them that he depends for his special endowments. Sometimes he may be also a professional magician, but when he shamanizes he is under the influence of supernatural forces external to himself. Notwithstanding the fact that the functions of the worker of magic may be combined in one and the same person, the distinction between the medicine-man and the shaman, the magician and the priest, is fundamental because the one relies solely upon the exercise of his own psychic power; the other seeks the aid of the spiritual beings with whom he is in constant intercourse. But while the shaman is in this way differentiated from the magician or medicine man, he is also distinguished from the priest by the very considerable measure of control that he is able to bring to bear upon the transcendental agencies he subordinates to his will. While on occasions he may engage in sacerdotal functions his real work is in connexion with healing and divination, and inasmuch as he has direct access to the spirit world and derives his powers from particular tutelary spirits who are more or less at his command, his marvellous feats are performed by virtue of supernatural gifts and exploits deriving from his power over or influence with spirits.
Therefore, [the shaman] occupies an intermediate position between the magician who acts exclusively on his own authority and initiative, and the priest who supplicates and conciliates forces superior to himself, guards the sacred tradition in his care, and acts as the master of its sacrificial technique strictly within the limits of his office. The one officiates in his own name and by his occult methods; the other serves at the altar and in the temple or shrine as the representative of the community in its relations with the gods and the unseen world. Both have to undergo a specialized training and receive formal initiation, but the shaman virtually must have the right disposition and temperament, whether hereditary or chosen, whereas neither the magician nor the priest has to exhibit psychopathic tendencies because they are masters of a technique, or holders of an office, conferred upon them by consecration. The medicine-man must be efficient in his craft, while the priest must have an expert knowledge of sacred learning and of all that pertains to the sacerdotal office, its ritual, mythology, law, doctrine and organization. The shaman and the magician may both be individualists, but since the priest is responsible for maintaining a right relationship between the community and its gods, he exercises his functions in a corporate capacity. As sacrifice is the vital bond of union in this relationship, the altar is his cult centre as against the shamanistic séance, visionary experience and ecstatic utterance, or the rite and spell of the magician put into operation either publicly or in secret for licit or illicit ends. In the shaman all three disciplines—inspiration, magic and religion—are loosely combined, but prophecy and divination, and the exercise of occult power, are the determining characteristics of the office.
Individuals richly endowed with these psychic gifts acquire considerable prestige, but shamans seldom, if ever, have an assured position in society comparable to that of an organized hierarchy, or of an outstanding magician, like for instance a renowned rain-maker. They are held in varying degrees of respect and fear according to their powers, but they do not constitute a distinct order, and unless they are also medicine-men or cult leaders, they do not exercise administrative functions, even though they may be honoured after death and become the centre of a cultus. They may, however, combine the functions of a healer and an expert in the occult technique. Being in possession of a considerable psychological knowledge acquired by long training and experience in the exercise of their gifts, they occupy a key position in society. Their failures do not seriously diminish their prestige because it is recognized that like our own medical practitioners they have their limitations. The system is too firmly established to break down when their efforts do not succeed, the inability to effect a cure, as in the case of the medicine-men previously considered, being explained by the intervention of a more powerful shaman.
Under the influence of Buddhism, the chaotic forces of nature, variously feared and honored by the shamanic tradition, were made to fit harmoniously into the Indian cosmological model. Old shamanic rites were adopted by the Buddhist clergy and heavily overlaid with Buddhist liturgy and symbolism. Monks adorned their temples with such archaic paraphernalia as the shaman’s divination arrow, his magic mirror, and his precious pieces of fine rock crystal. They appropriated the shaman’s bow and arrow and drum, and the broad, fur-trimmed hat and gown of the “black-hat sorcerer” festooned with shamanic symbols of the cosmic tree (or world mountain), sun and moon, snake-like ribbons and the divination mirror, with trimmings of bone, fur, and feathers.