Tag Archives: Shamanism

When I tell about my engaged research into shamanism and shamanistic cultures, I have often encountered the same idea: that I am into a romantic idea called ‘back to nature’, that I idealize non-modern cultures, in short – that I am, somehow, loosening the high standards of philosophical reason that modern Western culture has reached.

This idea encountered me when I had written my first book on nature ‘Terugkeer van de natuur’ (The Return of Nature’). The title, as it happens, was more the idea of the publisher. My own title was considered too difficult, but of course, philosophically, it was much more clear, and would have prevented some of the romantic misunderstandings. It was ‘Nature as metaphor’. I wanted to show that through the concept of nature we express our deepest existential experiences, experiences which already presuppose ourselves as agents. Nature can never be observed as something ‘outside’.

And this – making it into something ‘outside’ is what is happening in our times – where indigenous peoples are persistantly being ‘finished off’ by large scale agriculture and extraction of crude resources by companies entering and overtaking their lands. All means seem allowed, from inventing new laws that make their traditional way of life illegal, to expulsion, to ‘helping’ them to settle down, to letting murders of shamans and protectors unpunished. The indigenous peoples who have up till now resisted modern ways of life have often done so by retracting into less inhabitable, less penetrable areas.

This morning I happened upon this well-done, non-romantic documentary (in German) on shamanism in present-day Mongolia. What is important if one doesn’t want to remain stuck in the standard ideas on shamanistic cultures, is to postpone one’s judgments and to listen to what the shamans themselves have to say. They are not voiceless, they are not ignorant about what they reject. They are clear about their views and goals. Still they are seldomly listened to.

One of these shamans, Ganbat Sandag, to be seen near the end of the film, says it clearly: ‘without us, without our way of life (that of the reindeer herds and hunters) this nature would not be that wild anymore as it is up till now’ (my paraphrase). In these words the key to the shamanistic understanding of our (human) relation to the world is given:

‘Wild’ does not mean ‘untouched by humans’ (that would be romantic), wild is what has been kept in a certain state by humans – in cooperation of course with the other creatures in that ‘world’. Nothing is untouched, is uncreated, is un-kept, un-domesticated.

The question is how we touch, how we domesticate, what kind of home we make and keep, and for whom. Modern capital in its more ugly forms (visible in the docu in the extraction of valuables from the mountains in the area, an activity that releases toxic substances, that in turn cause illnesses in the human and non-human population) destroys ‘wild’ homes, to create cheap, large scale, short-lived homeliness for the poor masses it first created and then transformed into customers.

Capital needs ‘wild’ nature outside of civilization – to create an image of conservation and space for its poor consumers – but in that wild nature the conservators, the hunters, are not allowed to live their lives anymore. All over the world traditional hunters are ‘hunted’ down by new laws and conservationist organisations (google some of the issues in which WWF is involved in Central Africa, for example).

What is at stake is a deeply philosophical issue: how we understand the human relations to nature – nature in us, us in nature or nature outside, and us outside of nature (then where will we be…?).

Ganbat Sandag says it clearly: ‘if we cannot hunt anymore, this way of life will disappear, and the reindeer will disappear as well.’

The difference of insight, and the bone of contention is thus: what is wild nature? The shamanistic peoples say – it is the nature that we have been preserving like this for ages. The modern peoples say – you get out of there, become sedentary like us, and leave ‘nature’ to itself. That, I agree with this shaman, is a romantic mistake.

I have been silent for too long. The reason was not, surely not, being tired of blogging. As usual once a week an idea for a post sprang into my mind. But over the past months, I could never sit with some rest to write it. There were more papers to write, or finish for publication than I was used to, as a result of the many conferences I was lucky to go to over the past one and a half year. A common book project which I initiated about two years ago was suddenly asking for the work to be done, as a publisher came on board. There was a sudden increase in invitations to speak at book presentations and events for a wider public. And teaching just had to go on as usual. It seemed longtime investments in what matters to me in philosophy were now coming together – with movements in the world around me. Such a time is called momentum – a window for action after long preparations which one didn’t know if they would lead anywhere, and where, if so.

Reflecting on the change in myself that accompanies this momentum, I often had to think of a story, told by a friend I met in my first year of philosophy, in 1980. This friend was deeply involved in yoga, meditation and what we now call spirituality. Back then it was called mysticism. Like a Jehova’s witness, she was always pulling me into conversations on spiritual matters, and said she was convinced that althangela-81-4-2ough I was burying myself in the classical curriculum of my philosophy studies, she knew that I was really oriented toward the mystical. I protested the word, as ‘becoming one with the One’ did not attract me – a fan of negative dialectics and critical thinking. In the end, of course, we had more in common than we both would admit, and we entered into a fundamental conversation that lasted for 16 years. Then my friend (who had changed to religious studies in 1981, out of protest against what we now call the white canon in philosophy) at the moment she was about to start her PhD project on sufi mysticism in the middle ages, and already was making headway with learning Arabic and Persian, died.

The story she told me, in an attempt to convince me to turn to the spiritual, was from Carlos Castaneda’s famous books on his journey into native American shamanism. She tried to convince me to read Castaneda by recounting he had embarked on his surprising journey, full of personal challenges and spiritual visions, from the moment he had decided to simply say ‘yes’ to anything that came upon his path. So he said yes when he was asked to become the pupil of a native American shaman.

To me saying yes like that was almost like blasphemy. Negative dialectics, you see. Keeping distance, making detours, looking at what divides and taking its painful realizations in, were what I lived by. Distance over against nearness. And this was not just a matter of psychology, I knew it was necessary to get where I needed to be to understand something in this life. Long before I started this blog I wrote what I called my ‘log’ – a personal handwritten diary of events and experiences in my philosophical life. In that log, I once wrote that my life was about continuous detours. Moving somewhere, but returning every time to find that I could not enter, not say ‘yes’.

Now I find myself saying yes all the time – to the many unexpected invitations that come towards me, like the exciting one that came just this week – to come over to the university of Essex to share my experience with introducing intercultural and African philosophy in teaching. Entering, saying yes, is a great change to me, and the interesting thing is that I didn’t give up my critical approach in (and to) philosophy to get there. The world around me has changed. The world has taken many detours too, with devastating consequences, and more are happening even now. In present times, however, new platforms that urge for change are springing up – outside, but now gradually also inside academia. Now that I am learning to say yes, I find companions who have been getting to this same place on their own lonely journeys. A window in time has opened and one never knows for how long it will remain so. Criticism is wanted, and now directly transforms into affirmation for those working for positive changes. This is called momentum.

In this blog I have commemorated my friend Reva van Haaster, who died in 1997 – I have hardly known a more dedicated, thorough, and unprejudiced researcher than her, and she was also that friend who brought flowers when you had passed a difficult exam… Over the years we pursued a dialogue between our often diverging viewpoints, inspired by true friendship and love for knowledge.

This post is also a greeting to all my philosophical friends, new and old, you know who you are. Let’s enjoy the momentum and make a difference!

The photo shows me, 1981, a fan of negative dialectics and critical theory – still pursuing philosophy after my friend had left the studies.

Philosophy is as such a secular profession, taking the attitude of wonder and reflection towards any phenomena it takes in consideration. Sometimes this is seen to create a tension with the search for wisdom that has been present in philosophical tradition over the ages – a tension which can bring thinkers to take religious, agnostic as well as atheist approaches. Whatever one’s specific approach or subject matter, however, the critical instruments provided by philosophical reflection, allows us to gain fresh insights. Also in matters of bible studies, religious studies and theology.

Two weeks, ago, on the 16th of November, I was one of four speakers who were invited to comment on two newly published books on religion in the Netherlands. Religion in the white, Christian section of society, that is – which sociologically gives a distorted image, of course – because while the traditional white protestant and catholic churches are in constant decline, black migrant churches, as well as mosques and islamic communities are thriving.

The traditional churches, however, see so much decline, the authors of both books think, because European christianity has emptied itself from most spiritual practices and experiences – having adapted itself to the stifling influence of the Enlightenment and its consequences. For theology these were either a focus on ‘belief’ as confessing something to be true, or on unearthing the historical basis of the bible from a secular perspective. In my contribution to the book presentation, I suggested, in line with an article I published in 2015 (see below for reference), to circumvent the Enlightenment, and baby-jesus-2reread the gospels as shamanist literature.

Such an approach tunes in with what post-Enlightenment Christians search for, often in non-European religious traditions, to wit: a reevaluation of intuitive knowing, of ritual practice, and religious trust or faith. My own path, which I now call shamanistic, has been inspired by experiences in my childhood that have led me to search to express  these three elements in words, in philosophy. One of the most important philosophers who provides a basis for stretching philosophical discourse to that intent is William James (1842-1910), most well known as the founder of the psychology of religion, with his work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He describes there how we live in a tangible, empirical world on the one hand, but experience (sometimes) that this is surrounded and influenced by a wider, spiritual reality.

Building philosophically on the work of James, and having studied anthropologists’ works on shamanism and on the shamanistic Jesus, I came to reread the gospels in a kind of direct manner, detouring the critical reflections that sprang from the heritage of Enlightenment rationalism. Although the term ‘shamanistic’ stems from Siberian language and originally refers to mediators between the everyday and the spiritual world in that region, the term has been globalized in our day, and is used as well for new spiritual movements that open up traditional knowledge for individuals in modern societies, as for spiritual practices of peoples that are still in touch with traditional ways of living accross the globe.

With respect to the gospels, several researchers have attempted to reread them in a shamanist framework. For instance the South African anthropologist of religion Pieter Craffert, who shows in his book The Life of A Galilean Shaman (2008) that shamanistic practices were alive and well in the society in which Jesus lived. Or theologian Marcus J. Borg, who in his Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time (1994), using a Jamesian language, describes Jesus as ‘a spirit person’ – someone for whom the ‘screens of consciousness’ that keep the everyday and the spiritual domain apart, are unusually permeable. And there is the theologian who practices trance journeys himself John J. Pilch, who in his book Flights of the Soul (2011), on spiritual experiences in the bible, describes the testing of Jesus by Satan, as fitting the traditional route of a shaman to be: ‘Jesus demonstrates that he has acquired the necessary ritual skills to deal with and control the spirit world.’ (Pilch 2011, p. 116)

In my article “The ‘Shamanic’ Travels Of Jesus and Muhammad: Cross-cultural and Transcultural Understandings of Religious Experience”, published in 2015 in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, I discuss this and other literature and go into some of the shamanistic events in the gospels. To just give some examples, we can read in Luke 4:1-14 that Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit. After passing the test, that proves which of the two spirits, the holy one or the evil one, is strongest, he returns into society with the force of the Spirit. When he subsequently starts to tour the country, and console and heal people in spiritual and physical need, he shows shamanistic qualities all the time. He passes through an angry mob that cannot touch him (protected by the power of the Spirit) in Luke 4: 29-30, and has power over demons according to Luke 4: 33-36. Also in Matthew and Mark do we find a wealth of shamanistic stories, such as Jesus’ expulsion of demons from some possessed persons in Matthew 8:28-34, his healing of a possessed man in Matthew 9:32-34, a possessed girl in Mark 7:24-30, and a deaf and mute man in Mark 7:31-37). This last story, moreover, presents a description of specifically shamanist practices by Jesus, who puts his fingers in the ears of the man, and touches his tongue with his own spittle. Even today we can find practicing shamans to breathe or spit over a patient – as an exhalation or a secretion of saliva are understood to serve as a vehicle for the healing spirit that is called to assistance by the shaman.

In the seventeenth century theologians in Europe turned against the belief in spirits as well as spiritual practices, like the Dutch pastor Balthasar Bekker, who proposed to read the bible in a rational manner in his work De betoverde weereld. Although his motive, to get people to take more responsibility for their own moral agency, instead of blaming their evil actions on possession, was in line with the teachings of Jesus too, who stress that those cured should turn their lives around toward the good and away from evil – the effect of centuries of rationalist theological works has been that European christianity has lost its appeal for many people, as they don’t find much spiritual appeal or healing there. So in my talk at the book presentation I proposed that, next to the inspiration the ex, or post-christians get from non-European religions, they might as well try to read ‘around’ the Enlightenment, and try to let the gospel stories about the shamanistic Jesus inspire them. This Jesus makes trance journeys, associates with spirits, heals people from his shamanistic inspiration, and shows them ways to more free, loving and just ways to live.

The photo is from the nativity scene my dear parents made, before I was born.

This post is a reworked version of my speech at the book presentation in Dutch, which can be found here.


A line of monks walk past a sink where some water trickles and extend their fingers to catch some drops. Some of them don’t. Those who do dry their fingers on a large cloth which hangs close by. A scene in the film Into great silence, which I saw some days ago, a two and a half hour movie which tries to capture fragments of the life in what is called ‘the most austere monastery in Europe’, the French monastery Grande Chartreuse. The Chartusian monks live a large part of their day in individual cells and speak only occasionally, on Sundays, and when they go out for their weekly walk. Well, there is this one monk who speaks when he feeds the monastery-cats, who are kept to catch rodents, and who, obviously, don’t live by the rule of silence.

I was fascinated by the scene with the water and by what happened afterward in the film. An anthropologist would see a cleansing ritual. It is no real wash. A muslim’s cleansing ritual before prayer comes closer to a real wash, although it’s intention is also not hygienic but religious. The drops in Grande Chartreuse look like survivals of a religious past where more water was used. And they know it. On one of their walks out into the open, you hear the monks discuss that moment. They wonder why they do it. ‘To clean yourself’ is the obvious answer of one. ‘I don’t get the chance to get myself dirty before’ is the humorous response of another. When the next one speaks, the viewer wonders whether the monks have been reading postmodern philosophy: ‘It is a metaphor. Our entire life is metaphorical.’ I think he refers to their special, secluded and highly ritualized life, and not to human life in general. That would make one think and soon get lost on some ‘Holzweg’.

But even if he referred to their own life, what would he mean? Of what was it a metaphor? And of what the tiny wash? The wash of cleaning, not of hygienic cleaning of course, that would be stupid, to metaphorize that. Of inner cleaning, what is called in Christian religious language the turning of the heart, away from the ‘dirt’ of egoistic desires, and towards charity, towards the needs of others, and thus – to God. But what would the need be to metaphorize that? To remember, I suppose. To not forget to do this spiritual act, like one leaves an object on the table at night, in order to remember to do something with it the next day. By analogy the entire monasterial life would then be a memorial object for humanity to not forget that it has a spiritual goal by living, and not just a material one. That we are ‘owned’ by God, one could phrase it, again, religiously.

Water is the key element in human existence, we consist largely of it, we can not survive very long without it. We love to play in it, when we have enough of it. We love to drink it, or when we are rich, to experiment by making all kinds of ‘dressed’ beverages out of it: coffee, tea, soda. Or we press it out of grapes or oranges or apples, as they have transformed this element of the earth and added their taste to it. We love to wash. A home with a bath or a shower is nowadays the normal standard of luxury that should be attainable to everyone. Although throwing water over your head as most people in the world know as bathing, is as enjoyable, or perhaps even more so, than sitting passively in a tub or standing under a shower. It is done in religions and spiritual movements all over the world. As a metaphor? Actually I don’t think so. I think the monks themselves forgot what they are doing, although they see their act as a reminder. We touch water to honour and remain in contact with one of our main life forces. To reach for the spirit of the water, which we do not understand, but need. That there is a force behind the water, and behind our being here, a creative force, how we might address it -as the Laws of Nature, as God, as the Great Spirit – does not matter so much, since we all know it is there, but we do not know very much about it. We are earth dwellers that know they need water, and who need to stay in touch with it.

Into Great Silence, a 2005 film by director Gröning, has its own wikipedia page:

My thoughts on water are a playful moment in a long process, which also inspired my academic research into Spinoza, the metaphor of Nature, and Spirits/Ghosts in Modernity (the themes of three of my books). It probably expresses my wish to recapture lost ‘shamanistic’ (for lack of a better word) meanings in the present time: in modern religious life as well as in the secular orientation of the sciences.

My dictionary from the eighties doesn’t mention it, but nowadays the primary reference of ‘ecstasy’  is to a little pill, a so-called ‘recreative drug’. It is still common knowledge, though, why the pill bears this name. The reason being that  ‘ecstasy’ secondarily refers to a psychic state, also called rapture: experiencing profound passion. At the root of these modern meanings however are less well-remembered ancient ones.  For the ancient Greeks the literal meaning of ‘ekstasis’, and it’s root ‘stasis’ must have resonated in the non-literal one. While they used ekstasis for either a failing of the mental faculties (being out of one’s mind) or a situation of being deeply moved, it could also mean the removal of one’s body or one’s gaze. ‘Stasis’ meant either standing up (physically as well as politically), or a stable situation.

Between present day and ancient use of the concept, ‘ecstasy’ has mostly signified a state of religious exaltation (for which the Greeks had another word: ‘enthousiasmos’), supposed to be reached by mystics after long periods of fasting and praying. In academic literature the concept of ecstasy consequently is mostly found in religious studies. Like in a ground-breaking work from 1971 by I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion. A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possesion, which had later revised editions and is still considered a classic in it’s field. Its explicit aim is to criticize the opposition between ‘possession religions’ and ‘shamanism’, which was common among anthropologists in those days. ‘Shamanism’ being restricted to describe spirituality among the tribes from Siberia (who used the term ‘shaman’  in the first place). The opposition would be that in one case humans are ‘taken over’ temporarily by spirits or gods, and in the other they (that is, the shamans) reach for the realm of the spiritual by making celestial voyages.

Lewis not only broadens the use of ‘shamanism’ to indicate ‘a general, cross-cultural phenomenon based on the shaman’s mastery of spirits and the practice of this art with the aid of spirits’, but also implicitly defies the distinction between ‘great world religions’ and ‘tribal’ or ‘indigenous’ religions. For that distinction lies behind the one mentioned above, between shamanist and possession religions. The ‘great’ religions, especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have always defined themselves over against ‘pagan’ religion by claiming that their believers do not claim to be able to influence their God. They can pray, or beg, or complain, but they can only await humbly whether God will hear their prayers – would they see it otherwise, it is said, they would believe in ‘magic’: the manipulation of matters in the spiritual realm by men. Thus, they adhere, in spiritual matters, to the ‘top-down’ (the possession or incarnation) model, over against the ‘bottom-up’ (the ‘shamanistic’) model.

Lewis’ definition takes another focus altogether, comparing (from his sociological point of view) all kinds of ‘ecstatic’ phenomena, using data from research amongst ‘indigenous’ peoples all over the world, but also from the Judeo-Christian tradition. To mention just one well-known case from the latter: the revelation Saint Paul received on the road to Damascus. It is not important, says Lewis, to ask whether a person in contact with the spiritual is moving up, or whether a spirit (may it even be God’s Spirit) is moving down, is incarnating – since both manners of expression use spatial metaphors to describe a process which is not happening in normal space or time. As concepts are always metaphorical, transferring meaning from some local experience to a wider realm, their metaphorical character is not the point. Lewis wants to lose these metaphors for the distinction they implicitly make between true and false religion, or high and low spirituality – distinctions which are not fit to build sociological descriptions or explanations of religious phenomena with.

The ancient metaphor of ‘ecstasy’ – and this is my own, philosophical, point, not Lewis’s – could very well be revived in order to understand phenomenologically what takes place in possessed or uplifted states, because of the strange twist in meaning of which it makes use. Where ‘stasis’ conjures up the phenomenon of a person who had been lying down and is now standing up, rising up to take a firm position, ‘ekstasis’ evokes the spiritual situation of a person ‘standing out’ or ‘rising out’ – performing an action impossible in the world perceived by the senses. Still he does/undergoes something which is commonly known to peoples all over the world: going ‘out of one’s mind’ while entering the spiritual realm. Philosophically considered it is an ordinary human experience, albeit extra-ordinary in it’s character of transcending normal action. It happens in all times and places, whether received ‘by Gods grace’, realised through ‘magical practice’, or conjured up by taking a pill. Having said this, however, we have not said anything yet about the reality which is supposed to come over a person while ‘standing out’.

The citation is taken from I.M. Lewis Ecstatic Religion. A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession, third edition, Routledge, 2003 [original edition 1971].