Fiction and Fantasy in Shamanism

After a recent thread in a shamanic group on Facebook on Carlos Castenada I want to highlight something I see as potentially damaging in modern, western shamanism: This is the amount of books written on the subject that have been clearly made up. Carlos began this brand of fiction but many, popular authors with big publishers have followed it under the so called shamanic umbrella and it still goes on today. I have known personally authors that have done this, and have many others verified for me. They are usually easy to spot and here’s a few pointers for sniffing out potential inauthentic stories:

1. They usually follow the same narrative arc that CC populated- a somewhat bumbling westerner, the hero of the story, meets in serendipitous circumstances an indigenous medicine person who proclaims that he/she has been waiting for the hero to turn up and fulfil their destiny for a long time- to become a mouthpiece for the teachings for the rest of the world.

The problem with this narrative is it buys into the western egoic need to feel ‘special’ and because of a lack of tradition in our culture, it feeds our need to be validated or ‘authentic.’ In reality working or apprenticing with indigenous shamans in my experience is much more prosaic, you usually have to just turn up to meet them and spend quite a few years gaining their trust. Doing stuff for them, working behind the scenes.

The indigenous people I meet also aren’t usually forthcoming in their sharing of teachings, they wait to be asked as they see it an individual’s responsibility to come forth. Even if they saw potential in you, it would be very much your responsibility to request guidance. And if you got it you’d have to work hard to keep it.
2. Shamans in real life don’t tend to speak like they do in these books, like mystic seers, imparting wisdom or philosophy like some kind of fairy story wizened elder. If you read between the lines you can usually hear the author’s voice and their personal philosophy in the ‘teachings’ of the so called shaman. Essentially it is the author speaking to themselves, which may be useful for them but have limited usefulness for others.

The indigenous shaman I’ve met tend to be quite light and very down to earth. They spend most of the time joking around, especially if you earnestly try and put them on a peddle stool and look up to them too much. Ways that they might impart teachings is through story telling- either traditional or their own personal experiences and like I say using humour. But most of the time they expect you to work it out for yourself and are much more likely to say something like ‘ask the fire’, or ‘I’m just an old guy singing a few songs, I can’t tell you anything.’
3. There’s an exclusivity about the teachings being offered, i.e. a little known ancient tradition being spoken about for the first time. This can also include a mismatch of other traditions mixed in- especially eastern ones like chakras etc, which are usually signs that the author has collated a lot of what they have read or learned and then presented it under the banner of ‘this ancient tradition.’

There’s nothing wrong with learning from fiction, but when it is presented as fact I think that can be very corrosive and can mean the whole of the shamanic movement could be seen to be built on a House of cards. And it often leads to fantasy and delusion which can be dangerous in this work. Also, when you discover you have been lied to, it can be very disillusioning- if you can’t trust someone to be truthful in their words in print, how can you trust their teachings?

But worst of all I think, it is deeply disrespectful to indigenous people as it is literally putting words in their mouths. It also separates us from them as we tend to get this one sided, fantastical image of what a indigenous shaman is, robbing them and us of dignity and shared humanity.

No one needs to do this and I can’t see any justification for doing so. It may take a bit of time and hard work, but it is possible to meet and work with indigenous shamans. Also, we can learn to listen to our own ancestors and the land where we are from or reside in order to receive the teaching, healing and wisdom we need- which is what most indigenous shamans will tell you to do anyway. The natural elements are all around and they are the real teachers.

Personally I think the whole fantastical/ fiction thing needs to be called out and has no place in modern shamanism but I’d interested to know what others thought.

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2 thoughts on “Fiction and Fantasy in Shamanism

  1. I think fiction from an author on a shamanic path could be an interesting read, if it’s grounded in experience but not claiming to be ‘real’. Any book in which the author is playing out their thinly veiled hero fantasies is likely to be crap 🙂

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