An Adventure In Contemporary Shamanic Soul Retrieval…
It is October 2014 and I have lost my way.
I’m on walking holiday in southern Spain, going from white-washed village to white-washed village. The purpose of the holiday is to ‘get away from it all’, ‘to reconnect’, ‘to digitally de-tox’ after a gruelling period of work.
I have no electronic devices with me.
The weather is unseasonably warm.
The mountains are high and spectacular, the paths revealing themselves to us carefully and coyly as we move through the uplands. I settle my mind into a rhythm of walking. My distracted brain stills and my thoughts sediment down as the days pass.
Vultures fly high overhead on thermals above huge limestone cliffs. In the rocks up there are caves where – an interpretation panel tells me – there is evidence of human habitation going back for over 50,000 years.
Everywhere I walk there’s a feeling of treading paths already trodden.
It’s around the middle of the second week when the source of my dis-ease becomes clear to me. I’m crossing a dry riverbed when the thought thuds into me.
Not lost in Spain. I have a GPS device. It’s very accurate and I can recommend it if you want the details afterwards… But lost… as me… as a writer… as a soul…
For some months now I have been conspicuously not writing. I have been scribbling bits and bobs. I have been sketching outlines of plays then scrunching up the paper and throwing them in the bin. I have been sighing vacantly and staring out of café windows.
Not blocked exactly… just
More exhausted… emptied,
Like a mined out mine.
I realise with horror that I can’t write because
I have nothing to say.
For a number of years now I’ve been interested in shamanic ritual healing. In particular in the ritual process of shamanic soul retrieval as it manifests itself in traditional societies such as the San people of the Kalahari, or the Chuckchee People of Siberia. I am also interested in the way in which such rituals may have manifested themselves in the long years of human history when we lived as hunter-gathered bands. The reason for my interest rests partly on an instinctive curiosity about that which appears other and alien, but I think it also comes from a deeper well. I feel as though somewhere in the darkness of these rituals and the shamanic process of creating them is the source of my own work as a playwright.
I am driven by the thought that my impulse to drama, my impulse to write, is somehow connected to a deep human primal impulse to retrieve lost souls.
Orpheus. You might say.
For something in the region of 40,000 years we know that human beings like us lived in small groups, hunting and gathering, wandering small areas of territory in forest or savannah.
For 40,000 years there were no cities, no nations, no books, no roads, no farms, no wheels, no progress. Just people… people who lived, loved, played, sat round fires, told stories, and communed with a multitude of forest, water, and other spirits…
These people, our ancestors, were biologically the same as us. They were every bit as sophisticated as us. Their brains are ours. Their language skills ours. Their emotion ours. They are us and we are them.
And their culture was shamanic.
Religion has lasted about 5,000 years.
Theatre has lasted about 5,000 years.
Writing has lasted about 5,000 years.
Shamanism has lasted for 40,000 years.
What were we doing all that time?
What did we do in the evenings?
And is there anything we – is there anything I – can learn from those people which can illuminate my dis-ease – which can unblock the writer’s block?
Are there Shamans in Fife?
Is there a spirit portal?
If I could find it, is there any way I could contact the other world and get back my soul?
This is a shaman.
This is the khoomei throat singing master Nikolay Oorzhak, a hereditary Tuva’n shaman from the Black Heaven clan in Siberia, and chief organizer of a conference of the world’s top shamans.
A shaman can be a man or a woman – the terms witch or witch doctor could be used, or medicine man – but anthropologists now generally prefer the neutral shaman. In fact it’s more proper to talk about shamanic power, which can belong to individuals or be shared. Shamanic power is, in essence, the ability to negotiate between different worlds.
The shamanic worldview has three layers: the world above, the world below and the world as it is. All three worlds co-exist at the same moment and can occupy the same spaces. Inhabitants of the other worlds can include ancestors, gods, and the animated spirits of animals and plants. These other worlds and their inhabitants co-exist with us, and their desires and actions can impact on us; similarly, our desires and actions can impact on them.
Access to these other worlds is generally understood to come via a spiritual portal. These portals may be in particular places – caves, forest clearings – or they may be created by shamanic action – the dance, or the shamanic trance itself.
In The Cave of The Mind, a book exploring Upper Palaeolithic Cave art, the earliest art about which we know, David Lewis Williams speculates that the cave painting is a manifestation of shamanic ritual and that the cave wall itself was a membrane between these worlds.
That the action of placing and marking a hand on the wall was – in a manner of speaking – a means of opening the door.
Once inside the other world, the Shaman would generally be guided by a friendly ‘spirit animal’, a creature who could offer advice and protection. Shamans – and indeed individuals – would have a special relationship with their spirit familiar.
Williams identifies an important difference between art as representation and art as conjuring. These paintings are not paintings of bison, they are the remnants of the act of conjuring bison.
Shamanic Soul Retrieval is an extremely common – almost universal – element of Shamanic worldview. It rests on the simple idea that dis-ease within a patient is caused by the loss of part of the patient’s soul. The soul may have be stolen, or left somewhere… or simply disappeared.
When I wrote my play The Events about the aftermath of a mass shooting I spoke at length to a survivor of the Utoya Island atrocity, Bjorn Ihler. Bjorn, a teenager then, told me of his prolonged ordeal trying to survive on the island as Breivik roamed it with his gun picking off child after child. Bjorn hid himself and protected a younger boy who was with him. It was a truly terrifying story which he told with simplicity. He had hidden the boy, lain on top of him, played dead with him, and eventually carried the boy into the sea with him.
Finally he found himself in the sea, waist deep, with Brevik on the shore. Breivik called to him. Bjorn turned and saw the killer’s face. Brevik raised his gun.
Bjorn told me that at that moment he had felt a sensation of ripping or tearing inside him. He said he knew immediately what this sensation was but that if he told me I would probably laugh.
I said I wouldn’t laugh.
Bjorn said the sensation was his soul leaving his body.
I had spent that morning in the British Museum looking at ivory bone carvings of flying geese. It was though these might be protective amulets carved on the shores of Lake Baikal some 10,000 years ago. It occurred to me that if Bjorn were teleported through time and space, the shaman or woman of that tribe would understand Bjorn’s story more clearly than the psychologists, journalists, politicians, and playwright to whom he had told it thus far.
And they would have a means of treating it.
In order to retrieve the patient’s soul the shaman calls the community together in space – perhaps a hut or a house – perhaps a circle drawn on the ground. The shaman then uses music and dance and audience participation to induce trance and to summon up spirits.
When a spirit familiar arrives the shaman will use a spirit portal to travel down into the other world and embark on a quest to locate the lost soul. This will involve detective work, fights or battles to overcome enemies. Finally, usually on an island, the shaman will locate the lost soul, carry it back to our world, and blow the soul back into the body of the patient.
There are, of course, huge variations to this basic process but this is the version which I will use here.
So. It’s Autumn of 2014 and I am in a state of dis-ease. I can’t write. Is it possible that I could retrieve my lost soul? For that to work, I would need to travel to the other world.
But what is the other world now?
Where are its spirits?
However much I love all this stuff, I don’t live on the savannah. I live in Fife. My life is not dependent on knowing where to gather berries and mushrooms. My life is dependent on knowing how to get to Tesco. What is my prey animal? A chicken breast? A chicken? I don’t observe chickens. I don’t live amongst chickens. I don’t live amongst any sort of animals… where are the spirits who can help me?
How can my familiar be the same as that of a Palaeolithic cave painter? I have no traffic with bison. The cave bear is not present in my life…
I look out of my front window at the frosted lawn.
Could my spirit familiar be a robin?
Its black eyes, its movements quick and darting, singing trills.
I watch the robin in the sunshine and… nothing.
What about the woods behind my house? The acre and a half of trees beside the community centre where a small family of deer live? Perhaps this my spiritual glade.
I walk through it.
Denuded beech trees, crisp packets, the remnants of fires the local kids have set, some damp pornography…
I remember a man hanged himself in her a few years ago.
I sit on a fallen trunk and look out through the branched filigree at the low sun over the Forth River.
A plane slowly comes in to land at Edinburgh airport.
This doesn’t seem to be the place.
Where is the other world?
Where is my portal?
How can I find my spirit familiar?
From Soul & Spirit magazine: (Your Spiritual Life Coach) Letters Page:
Help! I’m lost. I don’t which direction I should take. I would like to know which career path to choose and I’m hoping you will be able to advise me.
seek silence, seek stillness… under a tree is perfect…in this state of peace all the answers to life’s mysteries will become clear. When you are still the ego loses its power and you gain access to what I call…’The Universal Database’ Your true purpose lies within that.
The Universal Database?
Is this the other world? It makes sense that the manifestation of the shamanic spirit realm in the modern age would be a database. But this thought begs other questions. Is the universal database compatible with Excel? Is it searchable? And most importantly of all, which spirit creature is best equipped to help me explore the shamanic digital realm?
I google ‘What is my spirit guide?’
Even as I do it, it occurs to be that my spirit guide to the other world might actually be google itself.
Spirit google? And maybe Facebook is the realm where my ancestors gather?
I find a website which offers to help me identify my spirit guide.
It’s a questionnaire.
At a party do you like to be
a) in the kitchen seeing if there’s anything I can do.
c) talking to the hotties
d) I don’t go to parties.
There’s about forty questions.
‘Click to Find YOUR Spirit Familiar’
It comes up.
I’ll be honest…
But I had hoped…
I’ve always had a thing for geese. The pink-footed geese that flock in west coast highland fields in spring and autumn. I like the way they fly. I like their necks, I like the way they seem to know exactly where they’re going.
In the exhibition of Palaeolithic art at the British Museum my eye had been caught by stone amulets from Lake Baikal in Siberia carved into the shape of flying geese.
They had been carved 10,000 years ago.
The blurb with them said they were probably worn around the neck.
I could imagine wearing one of those ancient amulets. I felt a connection across more than a hundred centuries with the man or woman who carved that amulet. I thought – you have a thing about geese my friend, and so do I…
I would have followed a goose.
But a butterfly?
Summoning up spirits seems a peculiar concept. It conjures ideas about demonic possession, and it conjures obscure theologies about tree trolls or water sprites… but perhaps it’s not as alien to us as it, at first, seems.
Children summon spirits all the time. They speak to Mr Knife and Mrs Fork as they eat. If you leave a child alone with any group of objects in all likelihood the child will begin to make those objects speak to each other.
By animating the toy car the child loses herself, she throws her personality across the floor and then picks up and plays with the pieces – angry car fights scared truck, silly fire engine is held in check by careful bus and so on…
The animated spirits of the toys re-enact dialogic patterns she experiences every day – ‘don’t DO that!’ ‘MINE!’ ‘do you want to play with me.’
The moment of animation – the breath of life being blown into the inanimate object – the moment of animation is at one and the same time the moment of utterance…
It is the moment of dialogue.
The spirit speaks…
The shaman’s ability to animate or embody spirits via dialogue to bring the dead back to life occurs in this account of a Sora Shaman in India. Sora Shamans are almost always women. In this instance the entranced Shaman is embodying the spirit of a dead daughter in dialogue with the dead girl’s mother:
Dead Girl: Mother you were horrid to me, you scolded me, […] you said, “you’re a big girl now why should I feed you when you sit around doing nothing?”
Aunt [speaking for the mother]: She didn’t mean it, she couldn’t help saying it: after all, you were growing up and there were such a lot of chores to do.
Dead Girl: My mother gave it to me in her womb, it’s in her family. […]
Aunt: Then don’t you pass it on, don’t you give it to your mother and little sisters!
The anthropologist writes of this dialogue:
The effect on the girl’s mother is at first devastating, because the little girl’s reproaches exactly mirror what we might call the mother’s own self-reproach. It is in the evolution of the dialogue over the course of the next few years that the healing power of Sora shamanism lies. The little girl will gradually come round to saying that her mother was a good mother and that no grudges remain. Because these early, cruel conversations so closely match the feelings of the mourners, the latter modification will be equally convincing. It will also be comforting, as the girl becomes disinclined to pass her illness on to her living relatives and turns instead into a supporting and protective spirit.1
Another element of Shamanism is the use of theatricality to create other worlds and the spirits who inhabit them. This can mean using costume. It can mean using lighting – fire within a dark space, torches… It can mean sound – bells etc.
One example I like is this description of a Chuckchee Shamanic performance described by a Soviet anthropologist. This is a detailed account of a séance. The anthropologist calls the Shaman a ‘ventriloquist’. This is because, as a good revolutionary, he is interested in exposing their tricks.
The Chukchee ventriloquists display great skill, and could with credit to themselves carry on a contest with the best artists of the kind of civilized countries. The “separate voices” of their calling come from all sides of the room, changing their place to the complete illusion of their listeners. Some voices are at first faint, as if coming from afar; as they gradually approach, they increase in volume, and at last they rush into the room, pass through it and out, decreasing, and dying away in the remote distance. Other voices come from above, pass through the room and seem to go underground, where they are heard as if from the depths of the earth. Tricks of this kind are played also with the voices of animals and birds, and even with the howling of the tempest, producing a most weird effect.2
Let’s think of the shamanic ritual as it developed.
We can imagine clapping.
We can imagine singing.
We can imagine drumming.
We imagine music.
The oldest undisputed musical instrument in the world is the bone flute found at Holhle Fels cave. It is made from a vulture’s wing bone with five holes bored through it to create pentatonic intervals.
The use of breath to create connects to the idea of inspiration and spirit. The use of animal bone might imply some link between the instrument and the spirit of the animal whose bone it is.
The vulture, always watching, high up on the thermals, guiding you to carcasses, circling above you if you weaken.
It’s easy to imagine a shaman inhabiting the vulture spirit, playing the vulture melody to the group, by the fire at night, summoning up the sensation of flying.
Well, maybe something like that.
Central to the shamanic ritual is the Intoxicant – peyote, tobacco, alcohol…
The link of storytelling to booze or drugs has a long history within western civilisation, starting with Dionysos the god of theatre and wine, but it finds a shamanic form also in the idea of the piss artist…
In the late 1990s my younger brother, Mike, worked as a ranger in a national park in Lesotho. Mike’s job involved protecting wildlife, the people, and the ancient rock art in the remote and beautiful Lesotho highlands. Mike was an important man in the area. He had a beard, he could fix a Land Rover, he wore a uniform, and he could speak Sesotho, the local language.
One December my family and my parents came to stay with Mike and his wife for Christmas. I accompanied Mike as we toured villages talking to the local elders about issues over cattle grazing and listening to their issues with the park authorities.
I noticed, because I’m interested in language though too shy to ever speak it, that in Sesotho a woman was called by her eldest child’s name. I also noticed that my mother was being called ‘Ma-Mike’ when, in fact, she should have been called ‘Ma-David.’
One evening over a whisky on the veranda I confronted Mike and said I could understand his friends making a mistake but I was curious as to why he didn’t correct them.
‘They would never believe me.’
‘Oh…’ I said. ‘Why not?’
‘Look at you’.
I had no beard. I was skinny and wore a Jesus and Mary Chain t-shirt. When we walked to the village I carried my baby daughter in a pouch on my back.
Whatever I was, it was clear I was not an important man. It was obvious to the local people that Mike was the eldest.
‘Right…’ I said, a teeny bit piqued, ‘So when we tour the villages and you introduce me to the elders and so on, what relationship to people think I have to you?’
‘They think you’re my wastrel younger brother who doesn’t have a job and who has come to sponge off me for a while.’
‘Carrying the baby… it’s a bit… it’s… you should be working‘
‘OK but I do have a job. I mean, can’t you… couldn’t you explain that where I come from I am a not-unsuccessful British playwright with actually a couple of shows on in major theatres.’
‘None of those words would mean anything here.’
‘Right… but’ and here I had a flash of inspiration… ‘surely they must have a local BARD! There must be a member of the clan who is the STORYTELLER! Surely you can tell them that that is who I am.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘they do have storytellers, and those are precisely the sort of piss artists and lazy wastrels who would come and sponge of their more important elder brother for a month instead of working…’
In the huts and shebeens of Lesotho, in pubs in Scotland, he sits at the bar when there’s work to be done. If you crash him a fag or buy him a drink he’ll keep you entertained… the storyteller, the piss artist.
The Quintessential Shamanic Piss Artist is Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
A drunk and fantasist and a storyteller. The play begins with this – quintessential – piss artist exchange after Peer comes home having been away for days during the harvest. His mother thinks he was on a bender. Peer says he was hunting a giant and extremely powerful reindeer buck.
Mother: It’s a lie
Peer: No it isn’t
Mother: Well then swear to it, swear that it’s true
Peer: Why should I?
Mother: You daren’t. It’s all lies and nonsense.
Peer: Every blessed word of it’s true.
As a curious side-bar the phrase ‘Piss Artist’ and the word ‘Pissed’ may have an etymology that comes from the Viking Shamanic practice of becoming intoxicated by drinking the urine of a reindeer which had ingested psychotropic mushrooms. Warriors would retire to the shaman’s hut in the forest, drink each other’s piss, and trip for days on end. ‘Every blessed word of it is true…’
My own intoxicants?
Espresso (Dosage 4 doubles a day)
Red Wine (Dosage 2 Glasses for use when facing a dialogue blockage) Marijuana (Dosage 1 Joint – for usage when identifying structural problems with a play.)
Whisky (only with Poetry)
Amphetamines (only when on a deadline for a screenplay… and when young)
Once intoxicated, a central part of the shamanic experience is The Trance.
The Trance Dance of the Kalahari San people is a ritual where shamans dance as women clap the rhythm and sing special songs. The San believe that these songs are full of a supernatural potency. This potency comes from the other world, but it is also held in the stomachs of shamans.
The dance can take several forms. Women can sit around a fire and clap while shamans dance, or shamans can dance in the centre while the women stand around them.
The rutted circle formed by trance dances becomes a fixed feature of San camps, and archaeological records find them dating back for millennia.
As the trance dance increases in intensity, the women’s clapping and singing combines with the men’s persistent dancing to cause the potency to ‘boil’ and to rise up the shamans’ spines. When it ‘explodes’ in their heads, they enter trance.
In parallels drawn from animal behaviour, shamans tremble like dying antelope, sweat profusely, stagger, bleed from the nose, and eventually fall unconscious.
What entrances us now?
Earlier this month I attended the North Queensferry community centre for a community ritual calling on the spirit of a dead ancestor…
Music was played.
We clapped to complex and different rhythms.
We danced in circles.
We drank intoxicating substances.
Finally, the entire community gathered and formed a line. Men and women were separated and a shamanic organiser called a trance dance:
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, take your partner for a Burns Night rendition of The Orcadian Strip The Willow.’
Round and round we spin – clapping – stamping – there is an air of carnival and sex – inhibition and selfhood merges with the heat of bodies – the smiles of each partner send serotonin floods to my brain – the endorphins of the dance kick in… the barriers of my self go down… I am entranced.
So we see trace elements of all the shamanic experience around us in our everyday lives. The music, the spirits, the theatricality and the intoxicants, and the trance. What about the portal?
For the upper Palaeolithic painter, the ritual of approaching the rock wall was a means of handling a membrane between two worlds of consciousness. How could that have been passed down to us?
My own experience of a membrane between two worlds is the blank page.
The quintessential poet of the blank page, WS Graham, describes this membrane in ‘The Beast In Space’, where the paper of the book itself becomes a membrane separating the reader from… what?
Shut up. Shut up. There’s nobody here.
If you think you hear somebody knocking on the other side of the words
Pay no attention
It will be only the great creature that thumps its tail on silence
On the other side
Is it too much of a leap to think about the artist shamans of the upper Palaeolithic, in the deep darkness of a cave with a flickering flame, presenting themselves before the blank rock face, looking for shadows, listening – is it too much to imagine that they too were listening for ‘the great creature that thumps its tail on silence’
The beast in the cave.
This idea does not please me.
If I’m going to find my soul I don’t want to go fannying about with blank pages. That’s my normal work. I want a real portal.
I google ‘Where is the Spirit Portal in Dunfermline’ and I get this:
and the last is this:
All three in their way seem plausible but none of them call to me.
I decide to consult my spirit familiar.
So I went to Dobbie’s Butterfly World in Dobbie’s Garden Centre off the Edinburgh Bypass near Dalkeith.
Perhaps I will find a spirit portal here.
I drive to Dobbie’s alone and in silence.
The sun shines over the pentlands.
The car is warm.
The traffic moves smoothly.
It occurs to me that this is fun… I think of an upper Palaeolithic man, trotting a familiar path through the forest to his own spirit portal on a sunny morning… I thinking of him moving easily and smoothly, feeling in control..
It’s a good start.
Dobbie’s Garden Centre is huge. As well as Butterfly World there’s a Lakeland Plastics, a food hall, a garden centre, and a car valet service.
It’s very busy. It’s a Sunday. People always visit garden centres on a Sunday.
I try to look at everything with the eye of a shaman… where might the gaps be? Where are the membranes? Where can we see the presence of the ancestors coming through?
I see a man wheeling a bush in a trolley.
I stare at the car park for a while.
I have always found car parks haunting. Not the cars themselves – but the grid of white lines marking the spaces. The empty spaces are what I find haunting. I often sit in the Dunfermline Tesco café and stare at the car park when I’m writing. Is there anything shamanic about a car park grid?
This is the earliest human art that’s ever been found. A scratched grid from a cave in Gibraltar. David Lewis Williams speculates that these grid patterns, which are found across the world’s Rock Art, are shamanic representations of the optical illusions that come in trance – like those that come when you press your eyes – lines and dots…
Perhaps one of the spaces in the car park is a portal?
I look at the spaces.
I see a temple.
But I dismiss this. It seems to me to be a later accretion… evidence of a more organised religion. More of a henge than a portal.
I go into the food hall –
I stand – like a hunter on a high ridge looking down at the savannah in wonder –
Vast herds of chicken. Vast herds of salmon. Vast herds of pies.
I am aware of people looking at me as I take photographs.
The crowd move around gathering the produce from the shelves. It’s a placid scene. Serene. But to be truthful, it feels more like these people are vast herds of elk on a rich spring tundra, and I’m the wolf – studying them – looking for their patterns…
There is no portal for me here.
I buy some wild berry jam and, pausing briefly to reflect on the definition of ‘wild’, I move into the garden centre itself.
Inside the vast shed or cave, plants are laid out in rows. Chimeneas and garden furniture dot the floor of the cave. A sign says ‘Celebrate Al Fresco Living’. I feel very aware that if we were really celebrating al fresco living, all of these hundreds of people wouldn’t be inside a giant shed, but would be out… where? In the wild? With the jam?
Inside the garden centre it feels as if each piece of my shamanic Palaeolithic soul – the spirit of the forest – the spirit of the babbling burn – the spirit of fire – the deer – the fish and the bird – have all been caught, killed, and packaged on a polystyrene plate.
But not the spirit of the ancestors. They, at least, surely remains free?
I go through to the book shop. I expect to find books about gardening. Instead I find shelves and shelves of books about historic Edinburgh: ‘Edinburgh in the 50s’, ‘Trams in Edinburgh’, ‘A Seventies Childhood’, ‘Recipes from World War Two’…
To paraphrase Sorley Maclean:
‘I will go down to Dobbies, to the sabbath of the dead
Where my people are frequenting, every single generation gone.’
I go to the toilets. In the gents lavatory of Dobbie’s Garden Centre there is piped music. As I stand at the urinal I notice this song is playing:
Quivers down the backbone
I got the shakes down the knee bone
Yeah, the tremors in the thigh bone
Shakin’ all over
I listen to the music
I think of the San trance dance
I feel nothing boiling up inside my spine
I feel no desire to fall to the ground and shiver like a dying eland.
I am dis-spirited.
What if there really is no other world? What if the portal has closed? What if the membrane is impermeable and dead?
I go back out into the car park. I wonder about investigating the children’s play park but the idea of hanging around the swings taking pictures with my phone seems…unwise…
I look for signs.
I look at my feet, and I see this:
and it reminds me of this:
But… no… I’m getting nothing here.
I remember something that has always struck me about ancient rock art
– none of them are shit.
Surely some of it should be awful? 30,000 years of art? There must have been some duffers but no:
Compare Picasso’s sequence where he attempted to find the essence of his own spirit animal, the bull
With the hall of the bulls
A common feature of rock art is that sometimes cave paintings overlaid over one and other can have been made some 5000 years apart in time.
These walls are not covered in paint. But here, at the same portal, two paintings five thousand years apart.
One Picasso every five millennia or so?
Is it possible that art was so venerated in the upper Palaeolithic that only geniuses were allowed to practice it?
The thought of this gap makes my heart lurch and slams me hard with thought of my own mediocrity.
I think of all the shamans, good healers, good performers, decent men and women… who went up the cave…and contemplated that great blank membrane… who listened to the great silence… and who decided that in all honesty they heard nothing… and who, after a night of trance… crawled back out of the cave and in the cool of the dawn walked down the steep path back to the camp…
Untouched by spirits.
At last, I girded my loins and I entered ‘Butterfly World’.
Inside it’s warm. There is an artificial forest. Children and families wander around. There is a little river and pool. In the bottom of the pool are pennies thrown in as offerings to the butterfly gods.
I try to photograph the butterflies flying but they’re too fast. I can’t catch them. I need to wait until they alight.
So I do.
And when they alight, they open their wings and sit.
I watch children watching them. I notice the similarity of the word alight and delight. I notice the light of the room. I notice the lightness of the butterfly.
I see a butterfly world ranger… ranger? Sitting with butterflies on his hand talking to children. He looks pale and hungover. I expect he was out last night. But the butterflies illuminate him and seem to give him grace… the children are amazed by his shamanic power to call these creatures to him.
I glimpse something…
A thought – as sudden and as uncatchable as a butterfly –
After the butterfly room there is a room full of snakes and reptiles. This room was also full of families pointing and talking. I studied a sleeping python.
The python is a mighty beast, even asleep, a great eight-foot shank of pure muscle…
A beast of pure flow.
After a while I notices a sign on the python’s tank.
The sign says:
You may think the snake’s tanks are quite small. But don’t worry. They are exactly the right size for the snake. If the tank were any larger the snake might feel insecure.
I wander around the gift shop. I am surprised to notice it is full of shamanic accoutrements.
Back in the car park I watch the people wandering in the shed carrying potted plants.
Don’t worry, I think to myself, you might think these human tanks are quite small but these humans have made tanks that are exactly the right size for themselves. If the tanks were any larger the humans might feel insecure.
We are them and they are us…
Has my own anthropology not been touched with snobbery? Why should my people, in my time, be the only people in the world whose rituals are fallen? Why is my society the only one there’s ever been that’s untouched by magic?
We are them and they are us.
I am reminded of the San people for whom most men and a good proportion of women have shamanic power.
I sit in the café and watch the families queue to pay for their lunches. I watch the tables where groups already sit – a grandfather with his daughter and her infant child. In front of the window a teenage girl lifts up her toddler nephew in a game where she lifts him over her head.
What shamanic power is in the Dobbie’s café in Dalkeith on this Sunday morning?
When I was came back to Scotland in 1989 I was given my first ever school report at my new school. The headmaster wrote ‘David has a butterfly mind.’ I was pleased. I imagined a beautiful butterfly emerging from its chrysalis into the sunlight, spreading its wings on a lead. I took the report home and my mum explained to me it meant I couldn’t concentrate.
The thought which came to me in the Butterfly Room…
Nobody is interested in what you have to say.
They want to know what the character has to say.
It might not seem much to you. But it was restorative to me.
It was a reminder not to capture but to conjure.
It’s a lie
No it isn’t
Well then swear to it, swear that it’s true
Why should I?
You daren’t. It’s all lies and nonsense.
Every blessed word of it’s true.
A version of this work was originally presented at the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow on 18 February 2015. Adapted for the web by Theron Schmidt.
- Piers Vitebsky, Shamanism (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), pp. 144-5. ↩
- Waldemar Bogoras, The Chuckchee, in Jessup North Pacific Expedition, Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, vol 11, parts 2-3 (Leiden, NL: Brill Publishers, 1904-9), pp. 433-441, p. 435. ↩
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