At Least Some Part Of Her


Both Syrbal and the Zen Mouser had some thoughtful things to say on yesterday’s post – the yearly (at least) one on my Shamanic Dismemberment.

And so I’ve been thinking. Oh, no.

Sometimes, you know, I sound unsympathetic to the cries of “cruelty” and “barbarism” which accompany many media descriptions of local African initiatory processesBecause – and this is important- initiation was never meant to be an easy experience.

Sure, these particular schools are for males only, a heinous prejudice all on its own, and are meant to represent an initiation into adulthood, not shamanism, but there has to be at least the threat of mortal danger in a proper initiation. Otherwise, it’s an empty motion.

Now, one can become a Witch through heredity. But not a Shaman.

One can become a practising Pagan, or other religious entity, through study alone – plus, to be fair, usually some experience. But not a Shaman.

One can practise Shamanically without a Shamanic initiation also, but never become an actual Shaman.

This is because the label Shaman, in my opinion and in my experience, is only applicable to one who has undergone the dismemberment – and subsequent reassembling at the hands of the initiators – which marks this spiritual path out separately. 

The threat of death must be real – although this reality may apply to this realm or to another – for the initiation to be genuine. Only when you’ve had your life, your body and your mind taken apart in a most ruthless and traumatic manner, and survived as a new being now in touch with realms and dimensions the denizens of which have helped to put you together again, can you claim the title Shaman.

The practises and personalities of Shamans are as diverse as any sub-group of humans on this earth. But at the bottom of it all is a common trauma and rebirth which in effect forces the new being to accept the label.

Are there any Shamans who have not survived the death agony? Lately I have been considering the notion that I may not have really survived. But for all practical purposes – that is, to allow me to function in relative sanity – I have to conclude that the Shaman must survive her initiation.

Or at least some part of her must.


7 responses to “At Least Some Part Of Her

  1. There are also plenty of examples in literature of shamanic candidates resisting the call….and becoming very ill, even to the point of death. Healing oneself seems the first task! I was sick for several years, while trying to deny the path opened in/to me. Survival of trauma does leave a mark…and apparently a necessary one.


    • Yes, that happens in the call to the iSangoma over here. Quite often, the voice of the Ancestors is ignored, whereupon the person becomes ill, has bad luck, etc. .
      My acceptance of the Callers as real entities took a while, too – it is only years later that I can name Them for who they are.
      But that could also be called rationalising the experience, which we humans do a lot of. It doesn’t matter to me when I see us All as the One Godhead – our individual selves, our Ancestors or spirit helpers …all the same Being in the end.
      T in J


  2. The serious shortcoming of life-threatening initiatory rituals is that they may well have everything to do with the sadism of the initiators and nothing to do with any sort of spiritual calling. There is a profound and fundamental difference between inevitable shamanic illnesses, genuine initiations, and hazing. The ones I have met who have been thrust into the shamanic realms through institutionalized abuse such as special forces training live with a degree of damage that may well not heal in their lifetime. Given the ubiquitous violence in Africa, it appears that these rituals are more likely to anchor initiates into perpetuating pointless conflict than open doors to any kind of life-sustaining visionary activity. I suppose that is a value judgement, but I wonder how many of those initiates would chose another path if it was available to them and what affect that would have on the larger community.


    • This is a good point. I suspect a lot of harm done in the initiation schools over here is a result of greed and carelessness or incompetence. But again, these are supposed to be adulthood rites of passage, not shamanic ones. Could go a ways to explaining the rank materialism present in this lovely country.
      But also, I think that although the Shaman must heal sufficiently to be able to function at some – albeit not well understood by society – level, there is often a woundedness left unhealed in this life.
      It may not be the actual healing of the trauma, but the adaptation to living with it, which makes us effective. Chiron springs to mind.
      T in J


  3. Hi Terry — I am familiar with more rural sangoma traditions, mostly those of the Gcaleka-speaking groups of the isiXhosa. (You will know more urban Nothern Sotho speakers, am I right? You would know cults of affliction as ngoma). The cult of affliction and rituals of discernment, initiation into shamanic work (amagqirha) and the use of affliction is tremendously complex and has been disrupted by urbanisation and the rise of warlords in Eastern Cape communities, supplanting the older kinship hierarchies. What was known as migranmt labour under the ‘homeland’ system created a chaotic diaspora within South Africa and led to virtual annihilation of certain of the ancestral houses.

    The affliction doesn’t stop when the sangoma acepts her calling, it intensifies but alters. Initiation for particular rarer callings is a life-threatening experience and extremely dangerous because the initiate has to defy certain ancestors and physical barriers in order to break through time (though this is not the term used, I can’t get closer than than that — you might call it ‘de-creation’). And the point is that in effecting a gateway or passage into the ancestral Beyond, parts of the shaman do not survive and are left to rot as markers to the doorway.

    Most Westerners or whites would find this nearly impossible to understand and there are many taboos on speaking of it to anyone, even those guiding the process.


    • Oh gosh Mary I;m so sorry – your last 3 comments got caught in the spam filter and I have only just gone and fished them out.
      Your knowledge of indigenous traditions in southern Africa is stunningly superior to my own so I will take your comments as further illumination – thank you.
      T in J


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