Expanding Mind Interview — Shamanic Odyssey

Robert recently had a conversation with Erik Davis and Maja D’Aoust on the Progressive Radio Network’s program Expanding Mind, exploring indigenous versus modern consciousness, addiction, and the profound relevance of Homer’s Odyssey to unraveling the roots of our current ecological crisis.

Erik and Maja, of course, are deeply informed and intelligent interviewers, who bring a critical, along with appreciative, perspective to their program. We hope you’ll enjoy this podcast. It can be accessed here.

Prospero — Shakespeare’s Shaman

“Animism” is a concept first introduced into anthropological circles by one of its founders, Edward Tylor, as the belief in supernatural beings permeating the natural world. In his Primitive Culture (1871), he wrote that animism is a perception held by “tribes very low in the scale of humanity,” yet serving as the “groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men.”

Yet Shakespeare offered a far more sophisticated theory of animism in his final play, The Tempest. This is not surprising. Shakespeare’s works easily bear more than one interpretation, and like the termas in the Tibetan tradition, their hidden teachings seem to emerge as the centuries pass.

The Tempest is the tale of a Duke of Milan and his daughter, who, marooned upon a remote island, survive with the aid of a magic staff, a book of potent spells, and two servants: an airy spirit and a half monster/half man named Caliban.

When their enemies one day come sailing into Prospero’s prescient view, he uses his magic to regain his throne. It sounds almost silly, doesn’t it? It’s not. Shakespeare, like a quantum physicist, is exploring the fabric of reality and how “magic” can shape it, and all the play’s activity is grounded in animistic experience.

Tylor’s theory of spiritual evolution is dramatically realized in the characters of Caliban and Prospero, who both perceive the cosmos as vital and sentient, yet from different ends of the spectrum.

In Caliban’s naïve animistic consciousness, trees, streams, stars, all are alive, filled with music and strange wonder, and his most haunting evocation of that sentience comes in the lines:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

If Caliban is mother nature’s son, Prospero is her shaman. As a Renaissance magician, Prospero has a similar mode of perception as the savage Caliban — he releases spirits imprisoned in oaks, calls forth mutinous winds, and, above all, creates visionary worlds that enrapture their beholders — yet his apprehension is aesthetic, not raw or sensual. In Prospero, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse into one of the directions that science, as we now know it, was developing in his time (and would have kept developing if not for the interventions of the Inquisition, Galileo, and Descartes).

Prospero’s magic perfects God’s creation. Rather than splitting the atom, Prospero catches rides on the movements of the stars. His most memorable reflection on the nature of reality comes when he states, in the same vein as Caliban, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Like a Buddhist magician who understands that “all things are essentially empty,” Prospero can shape “the baseless fabric of this vision” we call reality.

Yet far from rejecting Caliban, who is murderous, lecherous, drunken, and won’t fall in line with his colonialist regime, Prospero in the end embraces him. Why?

Could it be that Caliban, with his indigenous visions and uncanny local knowledge, represents that mythic line, that symbiosis of human and animal that Euro-Americans simultaneously abhor and secretly yearn for? Is not the island itself, stranded half way in a dream, the shamanic realm where powerful magic and discourse with spirits and supernatural beings is possible?

If the island is a metaphor for the realm of the transpersonal unconscious (where Shakespeare, who wrote three of his greatest plays simultaneously, no doubt resided for much of his creative career), Caliban, we suspect, is the genius of the Earth — “You earth, thou” — the impulses arising from the depths, the wild vitality, the Dionysian trickster, that still sparkle in the Bard’s work.

Prospero is a hero beyond our society’s adolescent fixation with the journey of meeting mentors, crossing thresholds, experiencing ordeals, encountering the goddess, etc. Prospero is a grown man, who can orchestrate, like an incredibly skilled therapist, the catharsis of his enemies, and then forgive them once they are repentant. In the union of his daughter Miranda and the King of Naple’s son, Ferdinand, we see the hieros gamos, the royal marriage of opposites in the soul, which allows Prospero to renounce all his powers and surrender himself to mere prayer, holding that “every third thought shall be my grave.”

In our society, so desperately short on portraits of mature men, we have much to thank Shakespeare for. Interestingly, the best film version of The Tempest is Julie Taymor’s, in which Prospero is transformed into Prospera, nobly realized by Helen Mirren.

Psychedelic Press UK Review: The Shamanic Odyssey

“I very much enjoyed reading the shamanic analysis of two of my own favourite books. The use of plants in the Odyssey, and the idea of an “intensified trajectory of consciousness” in Tolkien, and the phenomenological idea of presence in song and story, were all fascinating and thought-provoking, and while their analysis did not err too heavily on the theoretical, there is enough to give the reader a grounding for both historical ends of the texts as being part of a single analysis,” writes Rob Dickens in his review of The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience in the webzine Psychedelic Press UK.

To read the entire review, click here.

Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ Flos Campi

The impulse to transcend, to rise to a higher plane, was deeply engraved upon Western spirituality by Plato and later Neo-Platonic Christians such as Saint Augustine. Yet Humanity’s primordial mystical desire, artistically rendered in the art of the Paleolithic caves, has never been entirely lost: to touch the mind of the jaguar, to sip of the Earth’s sweet nectar, to take wing with the eagle, to commune in deep time with the ancestors.

This is why I treasure the compositions of the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams.

It may sound like a stretch to associate a 20th century composer with indigenous consciousness, yet Vaughan Williams, inspired by a poem of Meredith, could capture in a violin melody the rising of a jubilant lark and in his orchestration our experience of symbiosis with all of Nature:

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Like the voice of nature, in Vaughan-Williams’ work, as one critic observed, “One is never sure if one is listening to something very old or very new.”

Yet Vaughan-Williams did not write airy New Age music. It is a brooding prayer, full of ecstasy and grief, very in keeping with the tenor of the English imagination: “Ostensibly familiar and common place, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless.”

Of all his pieces, I’ve most hearkened to his eccentric composition Flos Campi, Latin for “flower of the field,” based in the Biblical Song of Solomon. Opening with a weaving bitonal duet between a viola and oboe, the suite unfolds into an interplay between a wordless chorus and an orchestra of flute (doubling on piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, percussion, and a modest body of strings. The voices, rising and falling in mystical/erotic ecstasy to rest in satiated tranquility, are seduced, spurred on to higher planes of exaltation, titillated, and led through intricate, whirling dance steps by their ardent lover, the orchestra. At the piece’s conclusion, all join in a single statement of soaring, subtle ecstasy and affirmation.

To listen to this piece is to be taken through a landscape, one whose contents are unique for each listener, yet which speaks universally to our deepest desire for communion with the transcendent through this created/evolved world. The listener never soars beyond into the empyrean, but is continually brought back to the dank, sublime mystery of our biological home – before being set to flight in spirit once again. It is the breadth and depth of the visionary journey which makes Flos Campi unique.

Like many of his works, Flos Campi is a song of the Earth and our symbiosis with it. Vaughan-Williams called himself an agnostic, but his spiritual roots ran deep.

Shamanic Roots of Western Culture: Odyssey & Tolkien


“I love these kind of interviews – makes you feel like you’ve been sitting around the campfire with one of the ‘elders’ – out there in the jungle with the ancestors. You can almost hear their voices echoing in the wind. This is the new shamanic tradition with a cyberspace twist,” Timaeus commented after listening to this interview.

To listen to the second hour of the interview, click here:

Red Ice Radio Hour 2

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness

Although Middle Earth could easily be characterized as a product of the intensified trajectory, J. R. R. Tolkien, staunch Catholic, Oxford don, one of the most brilliant philologists of his age, gives scant evidence of a shaman adventurer. “I am in fact a hobbit,”1 he once wrote, describing his conservative and simple tastes.

(Since the webzine Reality Sandwich just ran this excerpt from our The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, we’d like to share this contemplation on the shamanic character of Tolkien’s mythopoeic vision here as well.)

Like Bilbo, he preferred to hear the singing of his kettle as he puttered around in his garden, leading his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, to ask:

Should we not wonder at the fact that a mind of such brilliance and imagination should be happy to be contained in the petty routine of academic and domestic life; that a man whose soul longed for the sound of waves breaking against the Cornish coast should be content to talk to old ladies in the lounge of a middle-class watering-place; that a poet in whom joy leapt up at the sight and smell of logs crackling in the grate of a country inn should be willing to sit in front of his own hearth warmed by an electric fire with simulated glowing coal?2

Yet it is precisely because Tolkien was a visionary that he was content to lead a life that to some, like poet W. H. Auden, appeared so appallingly staid. For Tolkien, Numenor was as real as, if not more real than, Oxford town. Although he himself may have disguised and felt ambivalent about that, psychologically Middle Earth existed as a literal place that he journeyed to. Whenever Tolkien found an unresolved mystery in the etymology of his Elvish languages or the history of the various races that populated his mythos, he would state, “I must find out” the answer, as would any intrepid empiricist seeking objective data in this world.

What is certain is that Tolkien’s quest, often couched in the language of his discipline of philology, was to retrace the route of the development of modern consciousness back to that primal mind, “alive with mythological beings,” which he termed Faery. Given the obviously visionary component of Tolkien’s work, it is odd that more attention hasn’t been given to this aspect of its nature.

Part of the problem may be Tolkien’s presentation itself — he was not a man inclined toward the language and concepts of psychology, which he no doubt found superficial and “modern,” and therefore degenerate. Consciousness, in the way it is being discussed here, was not a concept Tolkien would have been inclined to embrace, yet we can see a remarkable correspondence between Lewis-Williams’s intensified trajectory and Tolkien’s own descriptions of inner journeying, especially in his last creative work, “Smith of Wootton Major.” In this deceptively simple tale, Tolkien left a veiled autobiographical account that might as well be, in the words of Tolkien scholar Paul Kocher, of “any practitioner of the White Art who travels far ‘from Daybreak to Evening’ and in his old age comes home, tired, to hand his passport on to his successors.”3

Considering that the old master laid aside work on his treasured Silmarillion to compose this guide to the realm of Faery, it is worthy of far closer attention than it is usually given.

Fortunately, along with the tale itself, Tolkien left an unpublished essay to accompany it — one very revealing of his intimate experience of the visionary realms his work records. In it, he attempts to describe the subjective experience of Faery.

Faery represents at its weakest a breaking out (at least in mind) from the iron ring of the familiar — a constant awareness of the world beyond these rings. More strongly it represents love: a love and respect for all things, “inanimate” and “animate,” and an unpossessive love of them as “other.” This “love” will produce both ruth and delight. Things seen in its light will be respected, and they will also appear delightful, beautiful, wonderful, even glorious. Faery might be said to represent Imagination (without definition because taking in all the definitions of this word): esthetic, exploratory and receptive; and artistic; inventive, dynamic, (sub)creative. This compound — of awareness of a limitless world outside our domestic parish; a love (in ruth and admiration) for the things in it; and the desire for wonder, marvels, both perceived and conceived — this “Faery” is as necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human as is sunlight for physical life.4

As Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger comments, “No great leap of imagination is needed in order to see that Tolkien was speaking from experience and that Faery was as necessary for his own spiritual health and complete functioning as sunlight for his physical life.”5

In “Smith of Wootton Major,” it emerges that Tolkien was deeply concerned with the issue of intensified consciousness. Indeed, he was struggling to define its workings, especially the experience of time alteration: “Entry into the ‘geographical’ bounds of Faery also involves entry into Faery Time. How does a mortal ‘enter’ the geographical realm of Faery? Evidently not in dream or illusion . . .”6 Clearly, Tolkien is groping toward a model of consciousness, unaware that while existing as a geographical locale in the heart of the forest, Faery also can be interpreted by some as a function hardwired into the brain.*

Indeed, intensified consciousness appears to be the missing key to Tolkien’s long-standing struggle to reconcile human and Faery time.

There must be some way or ways of access from and to Faery . . . but it is also necessary that Faery and the world [of Men], though in contact, should occupy a different time and space, or occupy them in different modes. Thus, though it appears that Smith can enter Faery more or less at will, it is evident that it is a land or, world of unknown limits, containing seas and mountains; also it is plain that even during a brief visit (such as one on an evening walk) he can spend a great deal longer in Faery than his absence counts in the World; on his long journeys an absence from home of, say, a week is sufficient for exploration and experiences in Faery equivalent to months or even years.7

That Tolkien chose to mark the entrance to that enchanted forest of the tale with “a stone with a worn and faded carving of three trees and the inscription, Welcō to þe Wode”8 is no accident. The Middle English wode, denoting both “wood” and “madness,” as in the wodewoses, or wildmen of the medieval imagination, clearly points to something outside the realm of ordinary human experience.

“My symbol is not the underground,” the usual entrance to the fairy world, Tolkien explains, “but the Forest: the regions still immune from human activities, not yet dominated by them. If Faery Time is at points contiguous with ours, the contiguity will occur in related points in space. . . . At certain points at or just within the Forest borders a human person may come across these contiguous points and there enter F. time and space-if fitted to do so.”9

Given Tolkien’s earlier evocations of the nonhuman sentience residing in the heart of forests (Tom Bombadil, the realm of Lothlórien), including those entirely vegetal (Old Man Willow, the ents and huorns of Fangorn), we may take the liberty of beginning to fill in the gap left in Tolkien’s fecund mythopoeic imagination by that abstract phrase “points contiguous with ours” with ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes’s “resident plant divinity.”

While Tolkien might be surprised to find his fantasy works compared with the enthnography of Amazonian Indians drinking psychoactive brews, his depictions of Aragorn’s doctoring skills in the bush are distinctly shamanic and use a resident plant divinity for healing purposes. After Frodo is stabbed by the Morgul-blade on Weathertop, Aragorn sat with the weapon and “sang over it a slow song in a strange tongue. Then setting it aside, he turned to Frodo and in a soft tone spoke words the others could not catch. From the pouch at his belt he drew out the long leaves of a plant.” This plant, athelas, he explains, “is a healing plant that the Men of the West brought to Middle Earth.” He throws the leaves into boiling water, and the hobbits find “the fragrance of the steam refreshing, and those that were unhurt felt their minds calmed and cleared. . . . Frodo felt the pain and also the sense of frozen cold lessen in his side.”10 The divine provenance of athelas, which responds especially to the hands of a rightful king, is made clearer when Aragorn performs a type of soul retrieval on Faramir, who has been gravely sickened by the Black Breath of the Nazgul. “Taking two leaves, he laid them on his hands and breathed on them,** and then he crushed them, and straightaway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy.”11 The divine realm within the plant manifests, “like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”12 Faramir awakens, summoned, and speaking softly, says, “My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?”13

To each his own with such medicine. In Aragorn’s treatment of Lady Éowyn, who is not of Numenorian blood, she awakens not to breezes wafting from Valinor, the Undying Lands, but instead to a wind bearing the pure elements of Middle Earth: a “keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.”14 Merry awakens, fittingly, to “the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees”!15

Aragorn’s style of doctoring is in keeping with anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff’s description of shamanic consciousness as the locale where fairy and human time meet. This “power of penetration” is

The capacity to enter a trance and to undertake the magical flight that permits the payé to leave the biosphere and penetrate to another existential plane. A payé is at bottom a specialist in developing this rupture of levels in a spatial, ecstatic sense as well as in the sense of passing from one conceptual unit of time to another: ecstasy is equivalent to death and is, therefore, a process of acceleration of time.16

“Smith of Wootton Major” may, therefore, be justifiably read as it was intended: as a guide to those wishing to explore the realm of Faery.

The tale is set in motion by a traveler between realms, the Master Cook of a medieval town who, much like Bilbo, suddenly declares he is in need of a holiday and sets forth.

Upon returning some months later, he has changed from a serious to a lighthearted man, and brings a quiet, but quick-witted, young apprentice back with him. He also bears a mysterious thing — a small silver star, a fay-star, for it turns out the adventurous Cook has been sojourning in Faery.

After a short time, the Cook departs, this time on a permanent holiday, leaving his apprentice Alf to eventually step into his role. The fay-star ends up being baked into a cake with a quaint little figure of a fairy queen on top, a cake that is traditionally offered to the select good children of the village at a feast held only once a generation. There, a boy named Smithson unknowingly ingests the fay star.

The entheogenic properties of the star take a while to manifest, but when they do, all the hallmarks of the gift of shamanic song and seeing are there. It comes at dawn months after the feast, on the boy’s tenth birthday, when he hears the voice of wild nature, “the dawn-song of the birds beginning, growing as it came toward him, until it rushed over him, filling all the land around the house, and passed on like a wave of music into the West.”17

Upon encountering, as if for the first time, nature’s great song, the boy hears himself say, “It reminds me of Faery, but in Faery the people sing too.” At that moment, just as may occur in the receiving of an icaro or other sacred song, “he began to sing, high and clear, in strange words that he seemed to know by heart.” The star falls from his mouth into his hand, glistening and quivering. It begins to rise as if to fly away, but the boy intuitively claps his hand to his forehead, where the star remains for many years.

Smithson becomes Smith, in time, taking up his father’s trade, and learns to sing the otherworldly virtue of the star he bears in his body, much like an Amazonian shaman will icarar the marirí of the plants into manifestation in the world. “His voice, which had begun to grow beautiful as soon as the star came to him, became ever more beautiful as he grew up. People liked to hear him speak, even if it was no more than a ‘good morning.'” As well, his workmanship as a smith excelled, and along with kitchen tools, horseshoes, and pothooks, he made things for sheer delight: “he could work iron into wonderful forms that looked as light and delicate as a spray of leaves and blossom, but kept the strength of iron, or seemed even stronger.” Of course, “he sang when he was making things of this sort; and when Smith began to sing those nearby stopped their own work and came to the smithy to listen.”

The star has also given him the power to journey into the land of Faery, where we can see illustrated the work of harnessing the visionary capacity of the human mind.

Tolkien describes how, upon first entering Faery, Smith’s “briefer visits he spent looking only at one tree or one flower” as he sought to bring into focus the new landscape. Smith also, as is often reported upon entering stage three of the intensified trajectory, experiences the sheer speed and wealth of the visionary landscape as bewildering, yet deeply transformative: “On longer journeys he had seen things of both beauty and terror that he could not clearly remember nor report to his friends, though he knew that they dwelt deep in his heart.”

Eventually, Smith, as do all navigators into the primal mind, begins to take hold of the intensified trajectory, to master the art of transcosmological travel and preternatural sight. He perceives “things he did not forget, and they remained in his mind as wonders and mysteries that he often recalled.” As well, he begins applying his otherworldly knowledge to this realm: “in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom,” but Smith does not fall into the trap of seeking power to dominate others. Instead, “it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrowhead.”

Smith begins to go native. He is called Starbrow by the inhabitants of Faery, and, as his explorations deepen, he becomes more intimate with the realm. Starbrow sees the elven mariners, “tall and terrible” with a “piercing light in their eyes,” returning from battle in the realm of Unlight and falls on his face in fear as they march past him. He is rescued by a “blessed birch” tree, which sacrifices itself and weeps from all its shorn branches, to protect him from the Wind that is hunting the trespassing Starbrow. He beholds the King’s Tree, the axis mundi, “springing up, tower upon tower, into the sky, and its light was like the sun at noon.” Yet these visions come as gifts, not as a right, for, search as he will, he never encounters the King’s Tree again.

Eventually, Starbrow penetrates to the heart of the realm, Evermorn, “where the green surpasses the green of the meads of Outer Faery as they surpass ours in the springtime,” and brings a gift back to the human world. In this place, where wild nature is at its most concentrated and radiant, he dances with an elf maiden who puts a flower in his hair, a flower that never withers in our world and is treasured as an heirloom within Smith’s family for many generations. Starbrow has begun to serve as a bridge.

So it is that Smith goes from passively experiencing marvelous visions to discovering his innate capacities in both worlds.

Starbrow finally sees the great pattern within which his life is woven, when he is summoned on a long journey to the Queen of Faery, who is a vision of nearly unbearable majesty. That is, until Starbrow recognizes her as the elf maiden he had danced with. “She smiled, seeing his memory, and drew toward him; and they spoke long together, for the most part without words, and he learned many things in her thought, some of which gave him joy, and others filled him with grief.”

As often happens at the conclusion of a powerful visionary experience, Starbrow undergoes life review in light of the new knowledge he has received, and he recognizes the Queen’s image in the little dancing figure on the cake that had contained the fay-star.

Rather than reducing the Queen’s vast cosmic purport to a material cause, Smith recognizes the terrible folly of such reductionistic anthropomorphism, which distorts the great powers of the cosmos to the size of human miniatures, intellectual concepts, or hallucinations. Smith lowers his eyes in shame. Laughing, the Queen says, “Do not be grieved for me, Starbrow, nor too much ashamed of your own folk. Better a little doll, maybe, than no memory of Faery at all.”

The Queen then gives Starbrow a message to deliver to the King, whose locale is unknown, and then strips away the last foreignness from his sight, giving him a native view: laying “her hand upon his head, a great stillness came upon him; and he seemed to be both in the World and in Faery, and also outside them and surveying them, so that he was at once in bereavement, and in ownership, and in peace.” When Starbrow finally comes to, the field is empty, the Queen is gone, and he hears a distant echo of a trumpet in the mountains.

Bereaved, Starbrow finds his way back to the outskirts of Faery, where he encounters a hooded figure to whom he is inspired to entrust his message to the King. It is Alf the apprentice, the King in disguise. The King receives the fay-star back from Starbrow, who literally removes it from his forehead to pass on to the next generation, and Starbrow, now Smith, is given the option to serve as a bridge between the worlds one final time and choose his successor. By story’s end, as a child of the next generation is illuminated by the fay-star, the cycle of interaction between Faery and the human world fully emerges, illustrating the vital, fertilizing, and hidden role of spiritual activity in the staid, and entropic, realm of human affairs.

As we can see, for Tolkien, ordinary consciousness is illuminated by the larger meanings bestowed on it by a divinely infused, sentient cosmos as experienced in the intensified trajectory, rather than reducible to hallucinatory epiphenomena of mere neurological activity. We are justified, therefore, in reading his final story as Tolkien’s own passing on of the fay-star: as a guide to the realm of Faery.

*”Trip reports” of Tolkien’s contemporaries on the vast alterations in time and space lived within the orbit of extreme opium and cannabis intoxication, while not in tune with Tolkien’s thinking, remind us that altered states of consciousness were as great an interest to his age as our own. Opium eater Thomas De Quincy reported visionary excursions in which he seemed to have lived a hundred years in a night. Lord Dunsany described such a fantastical, perilous hashish journey that it bears quoting at some length: “It takes one literally out of oneself. It is like wings. You swoop over distant countries and into other worlds. . . . I have seen incredible things in fearful worlds. As it is your imagination that takes you there, so it is only by your imagination that you can get back. Once out in the aether I met a battered, prowling spirit, that had belonged to a man whom drugs had killed a hundred years ago; and he led me to regions that I had never imagined; and we parted in anger beyond the Pleiades, and I could not imagine my way back. And I met a huge grey shape that was the Spirit of some great people, perhaps of a whole star, and I besought It to show me my way home. It pointed, and, speaking quite softly, asked me if I discerned a certain tiny light, and I saw a far star faintly, and then It said to me, “That is the Solar System,” and strode tremendously on. Somehow I imagined my way back, and only just in time, for my body was already stiffening in a chair in my room; at last I could move one arm, and reached a bell, and at last a man appeared, and they got a doctor; and he said it was hashish poisoning, but it would have been all right if I hadn’t met that battered, prowling spirit” (Dunsany, “The Hashish Man,” 121-22).

**Breath is used in shamanic practices to activate and direct the powers of the plant, as well as to imbue the medicine with the shaman’s particular virtue. See the example of Casimero Mamallactas’s breathing of the jaguar spirit into a patient as described later in this chapter.

Notes

1. Carpenter, J. R. R. Tolkien, 179.
2. Ibid., 118.
3. Flieger, Question of Time, 233.
4. Ibid., 246–47.
5. Ibid., 247.
6. Ibid., 249.
7. Ibid., 248–49.
8. Ibid., 250.
9. Ibid., 249.
10. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 198–99.
11. Ibid., 866.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid., 868.
15. Ibid., 869.
16. Reichel-Dolmatoff, Amazonian Cosmos, 126.
17. All quotations in the following section are from Tolkien, “Smith of Wootton Major,” 12–23.

Embarking upon The Shamanic Odyssey: J.P. Harpignies in conversation with Robert Tindall

J.P. Harpignies, New York-based Associate Producer of the Bioneers Conference, and editor of Visionary Plant Consciousness recently corresponded with Robert Tindall, now located in the cacophonous mestizo wilds of the Peruvian Amazon, about his new book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.

J.P.: Robert, can you explain the genesis of this book?

The Shamanic Odyssey can be mainly traced back to a conversation Susana and I had with our teacher of the vegetalista shamanism of the Amazon, the Ashanincan curandero Juan Flores. It happened when we were engaged in a very traditional diet deep in the rainforest, where Susana and I were living in isolation drinking shamanic plants and subsisting primarily on roast green bananas! Flores had tramped back to visit us, and sitting together by the stream there, the conversation turned to the mythic – and quite real according to him – beings that inhabit the Amazonian waterways. As Flores described the behavior of these sirenas, I was suddenly struck by the deep parallels between their seductive behavior and that of the Sirens described by Homer. Flores had never heard of the Odyssey, yet when I described the story of Odysseus’ ordeal in the orbit of their rapturous song, Flores nodded his head and said grimly, “That’s them, alright.”

I had already been observing a number of intriguing parallels between the ancient mythology of the Greeks and Celts I had studied at the university and the contemporary cosmovision of peoples in the rainforest, but this conversation stuck with me.

Upon our return to the United States after our year-long immersion in the vegetalista tradition, I had a chance to spend some time teaching the Odyssey, and it was then I began to recognize that the text is shot through with indigenous and shamanic cultural elements: shapeshifting, visionary journeys, plants with resident divinities, masters and mistresses of animals, the symbiosis between plant/spirit/shaman, animal becoming, sacred topography—the list went on and on. The case became particularly intriguing when Susana and I began analyzing the descriptions of the therapeutic effects of bardic song in the Odyssey in the light of her research into the healing powers of Amazonian healing songs, i.e. icaros.

The Odyssey led me into an unfolding meditation on the indigenous mind at the root of the Western tradition. The more I followed up on details of the epic poem, the more terrain was revealed. Most notably this occurred around the mythologem of the clash of the Cyclops and Odysseus, which I see as a remnant of a very ancient oral tradition transposed into Homer’s comparatively modern narrative. As a teaching story, like the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, it appears to me to capture modern humanity’s break with indigenous, or primal, consciousness.

Just as I was contemplating the ramifications of such a mythologem existing in the Odyssey at all, I encountered the peyote shaman Bob Boyll, the second major cultural informant for our book, and heard his account of the two roads of humanity he had been taught by the Hopi prophet David Monongue.

Again, like the uncanny parallels between the Amazonian and ancient Greek sirenas, Monongue’s description of the two roads of humanity struck me as too similar to the cultural tensions illustrated in the clash between the proto-modern Odysseus and the indigenous Cyclops to be accidental.

To tell you the truth, I often felt like an amanuensis, those folks who during medieval times assiduously transcribed the oral tradition, during the writing of this book. In that sense, its genesis lies in converging lineages of plant-based shamanism, the research into icaros of my co-author Susana, ancient texts, ethnography, the work of anthropologists like Reichel-Dolmatoff, even the mythopoeic work of J.R.R. Tolkien.

J.P.: On that topic, The Shamanic Odyssey covers three rather distinct areas of inquiry that might initially seem at best tangentially related: a Homeric epic, the work of Tolkien, and Amazonian shamanism. What is your own personal connection to each of these topics and why do you feel they are meaningfully linked?

I was asking myself much the same question during much of the writing of The Shamanic Odyssey. When I first sat down to write on the striking parallels between the mythology of the ancient Greeks and the cosmovision of contemporary Amazonian peoples I thought I was writing a short article. Sixty pages later I knew I had a hydra on my hands, and I wasn’t able to lop off heads fast enough.

In order to explain how it was possible for the Sirens in Homer’s epic and the sirenas of the Amazonian waterways to be so uncannily similar, I realized I needed to explore the consciousness underlying these experiences among traditional peoples. It turned out that there is a primal experience of “permeability,” of a transparency to the elements, animals, spirits, stars, which has allowed human beings over the millennia to experience the sentience of the cosmos and derive valuable information from that communion. I eventually realized that this “primal mind,” sometimes derided as “animism,” underlies not only Homer’s work, but is also markedly present in the works of other authors central to the Western European literary canon, such as Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien has been a great inspiration to me ever since I was a boy. The cosmovision of The Lord of the Rings made more sense to me than anything else in the barren Reagan-era culture I grew up in the 1980s, and during my studies of medieval literature in the university I found myself following in Tolkien’s footsteps academically as well. Tolkien’s express purpose was to re-inject the vitality of the pre-Christian oral tradition back into the enervated Western imagination. He termed his endeavor “mythopoeic,” and some of his earliest writings are clear evocations of the primal mind of our ancestors. Given that my purpose was to revitalize the cosmovision of the Odyssey, I found myself enlisting the old master’s support.

J.P.: What do you feel is original in your analysis of the Odyssey and of Tolkien’s opus?

I was a bit astonished as I researched and wrote The Shamanic Odyssey that I could encounter but a handful of commentaries upon Homer’s poems that referenced ethnographical accounts of shamanic practices among indigenous peoples (the work of Classicist Carl Ruck and German philologist Walter Burkert being notable exceptions). Given the intensity of the shamanic negotiations, work with psychoactive plants, shape-shifting, and visionary journeys within the text, I simply couldn’t believe that no one had bothered to connect those dots. I think this is a reflection of how truly impenetrable the ivory tower of academia can be to multi-disciplinary approaches. In fact, early on I was warned by the classicists I was consulting that my work would not be well received among academics. “Why?” I inquired. “Is there something wrong with my method?” No, I was assured. “We’re just a very conservative lot,” I was informed.

I gave up writing for a solely academic audience at that point. My goal became to invite the Muse to sing the Odyssey anew for this generation and time. I believe that we must re-familiarize ourselves with our indigenous roots, the life-ways of our own European ancestors, to address our current ecological crisis.

I also perceived a similar dearth of appreciation for the shamanic characteristics in Tolkien’s work, and when it came time for me to write a sort of apologia for shamanic states of consciousness as valid ways of truth seeking, I found myself involved in a deep reading of Tolkien’s last literary will and testament: Smith of Wootton Major. This novella is almost entirely neglected, and yet Tolkien set aside work on his treasured Silmarillion to compose it. I believe the story is about the nature of the creative/shamanic consciousness as Tolkien experienced it, and is his attempt to pass on the fay-star to future generations.

I think Tolkien has been cast in the mold of a brilliant academic with a marvelous, far-ranging imagination, yet a man of essentially modern rationality. I disagree. I think there’s more to Tolkien’s creative experience than is recognized.

J.P.: Do you think the resonance between the Homeric epics and shamanism is especially strong and revelatory, or do you think other very early written texts from other cultures (e.g. Gilgamesh or the Vedas or early Taoist or Tibetan Buddhist writings, to cite only a few) are also replete with shamanic themes? In other words, are the shamanic traces in The Odyssey there simply because that epic appeared (as those other texts I mentioned also did) during the period of transition from an archaic, mythic worldview to a more utilitarian “modern” one in human history? Or would you argue there is something special about the Odyssey in that regard?

The only way I think the Odyssey is special is that it contains a mythologem, a tale from the oral tradition already quite old when Homer sat down to compose his poem that illustrates the rupture between primal and modern consciousness and forecasts its consequences. This motif, encapsulated in the clash between the Cyclops and Odysseus, is akin to certain prophecies indigenous to the Americas.

I would expect other literatures of the world to be replete with shamanic themes. How could they not be, given that permeable, shamanic interaction is profoundly characteristic of human beings? We’ve ended up in a narrow corridor of perception, one that privileges Cartesian consciousness as “normal,” the standard by which the worldviews of other cultures are measured. Yet, in fact, viewed ethnographically, the modern style of perception is rather peculiar. Who in their right mind would believe in a dead, mechanical universe, and of themselves as the sole arbiters of the meaning of their existence?

Of course, the Odyssey is worth singling out for another reason. I’ve come to believe it is a sacred text for the West, or rather, it continues to be a sacred text, for the Ancients held it as such. I believe the Odyssey can function as a “well of remembrance” for our own age because the genesis of our modern psyche is so clearly set forth within it.

J.P.: Do you feel a kind of cognitive dissonance in Tolkien’s work between his obvious deep love of pre-Christian ancient European lore and his devout Catholicism, and between his wild imagination and his very tranquil life?

You know, I actually spent some time pondering on this. I don’t believe Tolkien suffered a lot of internal conflict on this matter. Tolkien once declared, “I myself am a hobbit.” That’s about right. As long as he could hear the sound of his teapot whistling on the stove and could putter about the garden, he seemed to have the ballast to sustain the wild visions that came upon him. In fact, his very staid existence may have served that very purpose of grounding him.

It’s important to remember that his concept of Mordor was forged during his experiences in the trenches of WWI. Tolkien had seen enough, in that sense, to justify a tranquil life.

J.P.: You report your own involvement in both Amazonian shamanism and in the Native American Church (NAC). Do you find these two traditions easily complementary or are there any elements in either or both that make them difficult to reconcile with each other? And isn’t it controversial for people who aren’t Native American to participate in NAC rituals?

I was first drawn into the Native American Church, which utilizes peyote rather than ayahuasca as its sacrament, some years after Susana and my apprenticeship in the vegetalista shamanism of the rainforest. Although ayahuasca is being served up every weekend in various ritual contexts all over the West Coast these days, we found the culture of California neo-shamanism to lack a strong container. It just wasn’t grounded enough in indigenous lineage and discipline.

The morning after my first NAC meeting run by roadman John Tyler, I stepped out of the tipi flap deeply relieved that a grounded, traditional plant medicine way was being preserved in the North. The keeping of the sacred fire, the songs, the focus on the prayer, and the devotion of the participants opened my eyes to the beauty of the way of prayer of the Plains Indians of North America.

It was also through that meeting that I met roadman Bob Boyll, who became the second major shaping influence, along with the aforementioned curandero Juan Flores, upon my understanding of the nature of indigenous, shamanic medicine. In fact, the second chapter of The Shamanic Odyssey recounts a healing of a severe degenerative disease, Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, initiated by Boyll in peyote meetings in North America and culminated by Flores in his ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon.

As far as I’m concerned, when the peyote medicine is prepared to inform a participant in a tipi meeting that he needs to go seek out ayahuasca down in the jungle for his healing, a mysterious synergy is being woven.

There are different lineages within the Native American Church. Some are closed to Euro-Americans, others are not. The founders of our particular lineage, which welcomes anyone who wishes to engage in its simple, family-based way of prayer, are held as beloved family relations.

I am deeply grateful to them. There is a vision of unity among peoples and a return to indigenous sensibilities in our prayer together. This “going native” among Euro-Americans, of course, is one of the themes that our book explores.

J.P.: You make the case that indigenous cultures were more egalitarian and lived in far greater harmony with the natural world than we do, but while that may have been true of early, small-scale hunter-gatherer bands, aren’t you romanticizing indigenous cultures somewhat? Didn’t slavery exist among many Native American tribes? Wasn’t warfare, and sometimes incredibly brutal violence, common, not just among the wilder plains tribes such as the terrifying Comanches but even among such politically sophisticated groups as the Iroquois, and certainly to a blood-curdling level among the ancient Celts? And isn’t there a lot of very dark magic associated with most shamanic traditions?

Yes, predatory animism is chilling. Like nuclear weapons and chemical warfare, it should be totally banned.

Yet the Comanches certainly had their virtues. Besides being warriors, they were also masters of horses. As I have heard related in the Native American Church, the Comanche would often migrate with a large herd of horses from what’s now western Texas down south to Mexico City, an epic journey through desert terrain filled with many potential dangers. They achieved this feat by constantly eating peyote and feeding it to their lead horses. In this way, they could commune more directly with the intelligence of their horses, and listen to the advice of the peyote spirit about what lay ahead in the landscape, where water sources were, etc.

It’s this kind of communion with the sentience of nature that our work is trying to validate here. It’s more difficult to engineer the genetic richness out of plants, to poison our waters with cancer-causing chemicals, and to invent nuclear bombs if you instinctually hold nature as sacred, and the elements as a holy expression of divinity.

Of course, there’s always the tendency to romanticize indigenous people, which is the flip side of the coin whose other face degrades them into wild savages and monsters. Let’s be clear: there is some very black magic and blood-curdling warfare practiced among native peoples, and even those practices were founded upon a sense of participation in a sacred cosmos.

This is why the Celts were conquered by the proto-modern Romans. For the Celts, individual combat was a sacred thing, the very point of a warrior’s existence, and to relinquish that opportunity for mere modern efficiency in battle, fighting like an impersonal machine in the way of the Roman legions, was unthinkable!

So let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I once heard the Apache Martín Prechtel comment about the pervasive loneliness and depression in the West: “How can you be lonely when you’re surrounded by plants and animals and other beings who you can always communicate with? You’re never alone!” It’s this communion with a sentient, vital cosmos that is the unacknowledged blessing of indigenous ways.

I think the seeds planted by the ancient Greeks and watered by medieval Christians (such as the Nominalists and Franciscan Empiricists) have borne their fruit in the modern age. Some of it is magnificent. Yet, as Tolkien demonstrated for us, we needn’t be limited to Cartesian duality and modernistic belief systems. As the modern mind wanes, we shall hopefully return to our indigenous senses without any need to reject the significant achievements that the emergence of an individual, modern self has given us.

The Shamanic Odyssey is not a rejection of modernity – rather it is a call for the reintegration of our repressed indigenous selves. It’s a call to awake to the great dream again.

J.P.: You seem to accept fairly literally some of the “magical” experiences described by some shamans and other practitioners you interview—episodes of “animal becoming,” of astral travel, of seemingly miraculous healings, of abduction by spiritual entities such as water spirits in the Amazon, etc. Are you convinced that these are objective phenomena, i.e. that these spiritual entities or forces are fully autonomous of humans and “real” in some way, or do you consider these phenomena too mysterious to fully understand and categorize?

“Real” is an elusive concept, especially in the world of shamanism.

I know I went through a painful shift of paradigm during my first year of apprenticeship in the shamanic traditions of the rainforest. As an educated Westerner, I had been open to Jung’s ideas of archetypes and had experienced meditative states during my training as a Zen Buddhist, but my default setting was essentially Cartesian: I think, therefore I am. I was the center of the show, the only real consciousness in charge, and the idea of “spirits” or “entities” was a bit distasteful, if not downright spooky.

It was therefore with a mixed sense of wonder – Oh, brave new world! – and profound existential disorientation that I began to discover my little consciousness was only one wavelength in a vast transmission of sentience that permeated everything.

Ugh. I wanted to crawl under a rock.

Somehow, with the support of those around me, I weathered it. I think it’s the process of adaptation, of crossing frontiers into other states of consciousness, which is far more interesting than the question of the ontology of spirits.

Really, phenomenologically speaking, we have raw experience, and that’s it. What I found in my own apprenticeship is encountering “spirits” that inhabit a vital cosmovision is the same as running your hand over the bark of a tree, diving into a river, or talking with your child. Things that go bump in the shamanic night all fit the criteria for “objectively out there real stuff” –and have real consequences in the daylight world.

In this sense, asking whether one “believes” in the reality of spirits is rather like asking if one “believes” in the reality of the ocean. The answer could be yes, but it seems rather awkward to say so…

J.P.: Amazonian shamanism has become very trendy in the last few years, as ayahuasca tourism has boomed and ayahuasca use has spread globally. How do you feel about this development? Quite a few of the people in the contemporary subculture that embraces ayahuasca use seem prone to embracing literal beliefs in dramatic prophecies and wild conspiracy theories. Many of them seem to me to be imbued with a kind of grandiose, narcissistic spiritual inflation. Do you think there can be downsides to the use of radical consciousness-altering substances, both personally and in terms of collective ideologies? Or do you think their positive attributes and healing potential outweigh any of these possible problems?

Of course, it’s hard to believe you’re not Neo awoken to save the world from the Matrix when, as an uninitiated Westerner, you first experience the incredible intimacy available within the orbit of plant sentience. Here, at last, is authentic divinity! Here is a profound call to meaning that we’ve been starving for! As Tolkien put it, “If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary world. The experience may be very similar to dreaming . . . but in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp.”

So powerful is the ayahuasca experience, we can forget that we are dreaming and literally believe its contents. Of course, if the contents heal a disease or teach you forgiveness or spell the end of an addictive pattern or take you on a guided tour of the solar system, let us, like Shakespeare’s Caliban, “Cry to dream again!”

It takes time to sort out one’s location in this new world, which really is neither real nor not real. It just is. I do believe it’s of the utmost importance we listen to our indigenous teachers, whether Ashaninkan, Arapaho, or ancient Greek, to tame our naïve spirits. There’s a wonderful scene in the Odyssey between the newly reunited Odysseus and his son Telemachus that illustrates this point.

As they enter the darkened hall of the palace on Ithaca, the goddess Pallas Athena goes striding before them, lifting a golden lamp that casts a dazzling brilliance. “‘Father,’ Telemachus suddenly bursts out, ‘oh what a marvel fills my eyes! Look, look there—all the sides of the hall, the handsome cross¬beams, pinewood rafters, the tall columns towering—all glow in my eyes like flaming fire! Surely a god is here—one of those who rule the vaulting skies!” (Odyssey 19.37–43).

Odysseus, aware of the dangers of fascination with numinosity, has little tolerance for his son’s visionary naïveté. He roundly rebukes Telemachus for his lack of control and sends him off to bed as punishment: “Quiet! Get a grip on yourself. No more questions now. It’s just the way of the gods who rule Olympus. Off you go to bed” (Odyssey 19.44–47).

I think we need many elders in our community like Odysseus. We need to get a grip on ourselves, as he puts it, and get to know the traditional understanding of the realms opened by plant-based shamanism. Otherwise, we’re just reinventing the wheel, and probably bungling the job.

J.P.: Another very important theme in your book is the use of music and singing to heal, including the parallels between the bard Demodocus’ cathartic song to Odysseus and the tradition of Amazonian shamanic songs, icaros, which Susana, your co-author and life-partner, is one of the world’s leading experts on. My own experience, which is, I realize, limited in this domain (a few dozen shamanic sessions in which such songs were sung) left me somewhat agnostic about icaros’ ability to heal. Do you and Susana feel that there are still shamans working today who could heal only using icaros or with icaros as their main tool, or do you think this skill is being lost with all the cultural changes sweeping the Amazon?

Well, we don’t just feel it. We know it. We’ve witnessed it, and experienced it for ourselves. Both in my earlier book, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind, and in The Shamanic Odyssey healings are documented, largely because I feel like a litmus test for the efficacy of a culture’s cosmovision is: How effectively can it heal?

Susana points out that icaros have different functions that the new curanderos do manage, such as modulating and structuring the visions of ceremony participants. Yet she feels that the healing power of the voice, which requires years of training to develop and a strong alliance with the spirit world, is waning.

A sweet demonstration of that healing power occurred in Susana’s original research, primarily conducted with Juan Flores at his center for traditional medicine, Mayantuyacu. There she was able to act as a participant-observer and conduct interviews with clients who reported experiencing “intense healing” with an icaro during his ceremonies of ayahuasca. One woman’s account of her healing stuck in my mind for its sheer elegance.

This journalist from Brazil had come to work with Juan because she was mired in anxiety and depression. She felt her brain was fried, and was no longer productive in her life.

Flores, in interviews with us, would describe how, as he worked with his patients, he would develop a diagnosis that encompassed both their physical and spiritual condition, and would orchestrate the healing forces they required. Of course, usually a curandero’s icaros act beyond the threshold of our perception, yet Susana found that over a span of 30 ceremonies a breakthrough, a direct perception of healing experience, happened in 5% of the participants. Sometimes Flores was aware that his work was culminating for a client on a particular evening.

In the ceremony in question, Flores suddenly rose from his seat and, going out of the maloca, collected a bunch of piñon colorado and the strikingly fragrant albaca, or basil, which grows in the Amazon (unlike other curanderos, Flores only uses shacapas of fresh leaves). Returning, he sang an icaro of these plants for the journalist, lightly feathering her with the leaves as his song fell upon her like a soothing rain. She had a vision of her brain, halved, with little white and pink flowers blossoming on its surface. It was a turning point. Her anxiety disappeared, and her sense of creative possibility returned to her in the latter half of the ceremony. Life became colorful again and she regained hope.

Such healings, mediated by icaros, continue to flourish in this culture – but the ability will wane unless folks take supporting and doing apprenticeships in the tradition seriously. The curanderos we presently have the privilege of working with will not last forever.

Authors:

J.P. Harpignies, Associate Producer of the Bioneers Conference since 1990, and former Program Director at the New York Open Center, is a Brooklyn, NY-based consultant, conference producer, copy-editor, writer, and also currently a senior member of the review team for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge. J.P. is the author of: Political Ecosystems, Double Helix Hubris, and Delusions of Normality; co-writer of: The Magic Carpet Ride; editor of the collection, Visionary Plant Consciousness; and associate editor of the first two Bioneers books: Ecological Medicine and Nature’s Operating Instructions. J.P. also taught t’ai chi chuan in Brooklyn, NY, for 25 years.

Robert Tindall, M.A. is a writer, classical guitarist, long-time practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and an inveterate traveler, whose work explores the crossing of frontiers into other cultures and states of consciousness. He is the author of two books on shamanism, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind and The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, along with numerous articles on the practice of pilgrimage and the medieval quest. Robert and his wife Susana lead journeys into the Amazon rainforest to encounter the healing traditions there.

Breath, Psyche, Life: an Interview with KMO

KMO welcomes Robert Tindall to the C-Realm to discuss the experiences that inform his book, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind: An Amazonian Plant Spirit Odyssey, and the themes of his new book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.

Topics discussed in the first interview done in 2008, Jaguar and Pilgrim, include the nature of addiction, the role (helpful or harmful) of so-called “Ayahuasca tourism,” and the relationship between entheogenic exploration and psychedelic recreation.

To hear this podcast, click here.

In KMO’s second interview conducted four years later, Breath, Psyche, Life, Robert makes the case that the animistic mindset of non-Western, indigenous traditions, which understand how to live symbiotically with the rest of life on Earth, lies dormant in the Western psyche. It was there all along and is ready to reconcile with pre-lapsarian shamanic consciousness. In support of this idea he points to the Odyssey of Homer and to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien for illustrations of the sort of shamanic consciousness that the dominator mentality has spent the last few centuries grinding under its heel.

In particular, Robert references Aragorn’s use of the healing herb, Athelas (Kingsfoil), in The Houses of Healing and the whole of Smith of Wootton Major, as examples of animistic and shamanic themes working harmoniously within the mindset of a learned, Christian scholar.

To hear this podcast, click here.

Spirited Away

Luxurious, well-lit spirit boats plying the night waters? Bath houses for the spirits? The danger of total memory loss? Implanted spells in the shape of little black worms? Bitter medicines that provoke vomiting and purge the system of malign influences? Animal transformation? Shamanic flight?

Surely, we’re in the realm of Amazonian shamanism!

Surprisingly, we’re also in the realm of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the renowned anime director’s most successful, and Japan’s top grossing, film. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away both conveys a strong ecological message and depicts a young heroine’s journey without falling into the simplistic good/evil formulas characteristic of Disney. Instead, the protagonist Chihiro surmounts the obstacles in her path by discovering her innate capacity to heal and to perceive the true essence of those around her. In short, she conquers through love.

Miyazaki’s imaginary realm is wild and free, much as the mythos of traditional and ancient peoples.

Of course, Miyazaki’s cultural background is profoundly Shinto, yet the influence of other cultures, such as ancient Greek myth, upon Miyazaki’s work has long been recognized (for example, the protagonist of Spirited Away, Chihiro, has her parents transformed into swine for eating the food of the spirits, and must, Odysseus-like, must find their cure and effect their release). Less recognized is the imprint of the cosmovision of Amazonian shamanism upon Spirited Away.

The early arrival of the Acero Punta, the steamship of the spirits sited throughout the Amazon waterways and depicted by artist Pablo Amaringo, first tips off the viewer of Miyazaki’s new cultural inspiration, but it is an ayahuasca-like medicine that Chihiro, like a good curandera, utilizes to heal the sick that clinches the case.

Chihiro receives the intensely bitter, fist-sized ball of medicine as a reward after performing her first purga upon a polluted river spirit, and is soon required to purge and heal two spirits of intense maladies. The first, her ally the river spirit Haku, dying of internal bleeding while in dragon-form, swallows the potent remedy, is flung into convolutions, and vomits up a stolen golden seal upon which sits a black worm. Chihiro kills the worm, which had been implanted in Haku by the witch Yubaba to enslave him – a hex and extractive procedure quite typical of Amazonian folk medicine.

The second healing, performed upon No Face, a spirit akin to the hungry ghosts of the Buddhist tradition, triggers the most comical sequence of vomiting in cinematic history – as No Face careens after the fleeing Chihiro through the levels of the bathhouse, disgorging the contents of his vast swollen, distempered belly, he literally returns to his senses. After a bout of hurling reminiscent of the most nightmarishly purgative of ayahausca ceremonies, we hear him give a post-limpiada burp and meekly beg pardon! The restoration of No Face’s original self is complete, and he finds his home with Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeneba.

Really, that’s what Spirited Away and the Amazonian shamanic tradition is all about – finding one’s way home. It’s an inspired nostos, a homecoming song, in the best of Ancient and traditional storytelling ways.

Speaking Truth to Power

The president of Uruguay, Pepe Mujica, like a gadfly Socrates, lets the truth all hang out about the reality of economic progress in a recent meeting of world leaders in Rio:

For more info on this most remarkable of world leaders, who donates 90% of his income to the poor and chooses to live on his wife’s ramshackle farm instead of in the luxurious presidential palace in Montevideo, check out this BBC article:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20243493

Odysseus as Western Literature’s First Economic Hitman?

We are honored that John Perkins, founder of the Pachamama Alliance and author of the New York Times Bestseller Confessions of an Economic Hitman, has penned a preface for our forthcoming book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.

Here is John’s preface, which reveals his own early intuitions that Homer’s Odyssey is far more indigenous — and contemporary in relevance — than is recognized.

My dad taught Latin. I was raised on the classics. Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey was bedtime reading in our house.

When a Shuar shaman, deep in the Amazon, saved my life not long after I graduated from college, he demanded that I repay him by becoming his apprentice. “It will be a tough journey,” he warned, “but you’ll connect with sacred plants and powerful spirit guides. . . just like Etsaa.” His description of the adventures of this legendary rain forest hero astounded me. Etsaa so resembled Odysseus that I puzzled over how two cultures so far removed in time and space could share such similar myths.

Later, as an economic hit man, I traveled the world, coercing governments to subjugate their people to a new form of empire led by multi-national corporations. During long flights I re-read Homer. I was struck by how little we humans have changed. We had traded sailing ships for airplanes and swords for AK-47s, but we were still hell-bent on exploiting others. I knew that Odysseus would admire the wily tricks-of-trade – the Trojan horses – I and my cohorts employed to conquer other lands.

So, was Odysseus Western literature’s first full portrait of a practicing shaman and shapeshifter? What about Odysseus, that ancient Greek raider of cities, as Western literature’s first economic hit man?

Sound implausible? All I can say is: “Read on!” Prepare to be amazed by the confluence of Ancient and indigenous ways with ruthless modern capitalism, as realized in the character of Odysseus. You may even find yourself agreeing with Tindall and Bustos that the origin of our current global financial meltdown is far older than contemporary predatory capitalism – it can be found in Odysseus’ dolos, his renowned spirit of trickery and cunning deception.

The Shamanic Odyssey is more than just an exploration of ancient texts, native cultures, and shamanic practices. Like the bards of old, Tindall and Bustos sing the Odyssey for our time; this modern version is a warning for a world threatened with ecological collapse and economic injustice. The prophetic voices of our indigenous relatives – the Shuar, Hopi, Kogi, Quechua, Maya, and so many others – have now penetrated the iron bubble of our exploitative society; they expose the causes of its likely collapse. Their voices remind us of our humble, and probably brief, span on this glorious planet. The message we are advised to hear in the Odyssey is one that calls us to reconciliation with and respect for the remaining indigenous cultures. Even as I write these words, Wirakuta, the ancient site of pilgrimage for the Huichol peoples of Northern Mexico, is threatened by corporate raiders, who seek to enter the sacred ground and strip mine it. The message that echoes through the ages urges us to protect those lands and the cultures that have honored them for millennia.

Tindall and Bustos demonstrate that the Odyssey’s oral tradition summons us to heal the break with our own native self, with the indigenous experience of a vital, meaningful cosmos – the ultimate resolution to rapacious capitalism.

We do not need to live in oblivion, cut off from the voices of our ancestors and wild nature. As a nostos, a homecoming song, the Odyssey can call us back again – to a home we recognize and our offspring will want to inhabit.

Unravelling Some Strands: Seeking the Origin of the Eagle and Condor Prophecy

The prophecy of the Eagle and Condor is remarkable in that it marks the first truly international indigenous prophecy widely embraced by both Native and European-descended peoples, yet in approaching it, we need to be wary of the word “prophecy.” Anthropologist Adine Gavazzi reminds us that prophecy in the West involves a diachronic historical process, which among the peoples of the Andes and Amazon does not exist. Rather, there is the experience of cyclical and synchronic time, where different levels of perception of reality occur simultaneously. In other words, people do not witness prophecies unfolding in the linear progression of historical time. They live and experience the reality of myth – and in post-colonial America, such revitalization of the mythic core is a potent means of cultural and political resistance.

According to anthropologist Jeff Jenkins, the prophecy of the Eagle and Condor is within several (Andean Quechua, New Mexican Hopi, Guatemalan, Honduran and Mexican Mayan, Ecuadorian Shuar, and other) traditional indigenous cultures of North, Central, and South America. From these different regions come prophecies with a common theme of arriving to a point in time when “the human family would face the choice of evolutionary transformation into symbiotic presence within the more-than-human world or to continue in the destruction of the planet.”1

The genesis of the prophecy is shrouded. Naturally, throughout South America the indigenous Harpy Eagle and Condor figured prominently in the cosmo-visions of Pre-Contact native communities, yet there is no clear lineage of transmission for the version now in circulation.

Jenkins, inquiring into the prophecy’s origin among certain Shuar, Quechua, and Shipibo elders, reports,

“What I glimpse into their understanding is that, early in their history as a people, the ways of the Condor and the ways of the Eagle were shown to them. Initially, this understanding was irrespective of north/south dichotomies. Through the generations of emergence, powerful personal spiritual and physical encounters clarified who the Condor was and who the Eagle was, as with any major plant, animal, mineral ally. I understand that the Condor archetype was symbiotic with the jungle Harpy Eagle archetype prior to European conquest. They soared together in both jungle and mountain terrain through the lands. The concepts of north and south and their respective archetypal and geographical resonance became clearer through subsequent centuries, when the.symbol of the bald eagle became the dominating force of USA orchestrated mass genocide of the indigenous peoples. The indigenous condor consciousness was seen as inferior. The regenerative efficiencies (harvesting carrion and bringing back the energies of the dead) of the condor’s ways were disregarded. Symbolically and literally, the condor began its journey through torturous endangerment to the brink of extinction. The associations of north and south were, if I understand correctly, emergent and co-arising with the expanded intricacies of the way history panned out in the north and south.”2

One version of the prophecy comes from Lauro Hinostroza, a Peruvian healer who now lives in Mexico City., It states that in the historical cycles of the Incan peoples at the end of the eighth Pachakuti (each Pachakuti corresponds to five hundred years), the Eagle peoples would dominate the Condor peoples for one Pachakuti. This coincided with the arrival of Europeans, with their extractive economy and industries, leading to the exploitation, depopulation, and even genocidal eradication of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The reign of the Eagle peoples was foretold to nearly bring into extinction the Condor peoples.

The prophecy continues with the claim that the tenth Pachakuti, from the end of the twentieth century, would be a time for the peoples of the Condor and the Eagle to fly and mate together in a creative symbiosis to restore and regenerate the Earth community.3

One marker of this opening of the tenth Pachakuti is the emerging unification of indigenous peoples and traditions, North and South, as well as the “indigenizing” of Westerners previously without a native consciousness of connection to the Earth and its larger, non-human community.

There are no historical documents, however, to buttress the claims of an Incan origin of this prophecy, and one hankers for a lineage. In reviewing our earliest record of Incan folklore and mythological cycles, the Huarochirí manuscript, commissioned by the Jesuit priest Francisco de Ávila in the late 1500’s as part of his campaign to eradicate the power of the pre-Conquest priesthood and worship of the huacas among the indigenous Andean peoples, there is no trace of Hinostroza’s pachakuti scheme nor the particular eagle/condor symbolism of the prophecy.

Yet the absence of written documents does not preclude a direct lineage out of the time depths of indigenous America. Since the inter-cultural nature of the myth supports it being a confluence of many different indigenous prophetic streams — especially if a cross-fertilization with the Hopi and other prophetic traditions of the North, which do have a “turning point,” occurred – it is probably futile to seek an original trace among surviving documents. It is through surviving culture that we need to gaze into the backward abyss of time.

One strong candidate for the cultural origin of the prophecy is the Taki Onkoy movement, which flourished in the latter 16th century and was widely mistaken until recent years to have been simply a short-lived political and cultural uprising against Spanish domination, until the work of Peruvian scholar Luis Millones disclosed the spiritual depths of the Taki Onkoy, including its enduring nature.

Spanish chronicles report an ecstatic dance, conducted at the huacas: sites (or loci, since humans, plants, animals and other beings could also be huacas) in the sacred topography of the Andean people where the divine nature of the cosmos was especially manifest and accessible. There the participants underwent a process of purification, sloughing off the imposed foreign traditions cutting them off from their ancestral memory and vital connection to the indigenous cosmos, while reestablishing their communion with the huacas.

The dance of the huacas, (so akin to the tragically short-lived Ghost Dance of the Northern plains), we now know has continued through the centuries, in disguised forms such as among the Danzantes de Tijeras, until the present. For example, in Arguedas 1962 account of the “Rasu Ñiti,” or death dance among the Danzantes, we see the ancestral spirit of the mountain, Wamani, appear in the form of a condor to the agonizing dancer. In this way, dancer can die in peace, because in the trance of the dance the continuity between the past of the ancestors and the future of his surviving family and pupils is guaranteed by the presence of the condor.

Among the Ashaninca of the high rainforest, whose ancient culture displays the ability to integrate the knowledge of newcomers (as they did upon receiving many of the Incan refugees into their communities), the practice of Taki Onkoy particularly flourished. Yet it was not a mere Incan import into their culture. It rather appears both as a form of shamanistic revival that erased religious superstructures, Christian and Incan, as well as a millenaristic practice, intended to reestablish the original balance with the natural world, the spiritual ancestors and the sacred landscape thru the awakening of the huacas. The messianic rebellion of the Ashaninca, led by José Santos Athahualpa in the 18th century which attempted to reestablish indigenous rule in Peru, appears to have drawn much of its spiritual inspiration from the Taki Onkoy.

In the end, it is clear that the Taki Onkoy is not just a historical episode. As Lawrence Sullivan writes, “The myths and rites of the Taqui Ongo religious-dance uprising…defy, escape or recreate their own initial historical setting in the sixteenth-century Peruvian Andes. Not only by their periodic reappearance in Andean History but also by their reappearance in ethnographies and in our own imaginations, these images transcend their original situation. Their presence among us in the twentieth century makes them and their meanings part of our own historical situation in a way that must be reckoned with”4

This way of ceremonial re-membering, with its messianic promise of the resurgence of native consciousness, enduring for centuries under the baleful, coercive glare of the European invaders and their predecessors, is not simply a heroic expression of a profound cosmology capable of encompassing a foreign belief system. It reminds us that the prophecy of the Eagle and Condor did not materialize out of thin air – it is a gift to us of hundreds of years of native resistance and tenacious remembering.
It is, in short, a brief lyric from a profound song of homecoming: nostos.

NOTES

1. Jenkins, An Ecozoic NeoNative Wisdom: Interfacing Cosmological Indigenous Ritual And The Story of the Universe, 10-11.

2. Personal communication.

3. Jenkins, An Ecozoic NeoNative Wisdom: Interfacing Cosmological Indigenous Ritual And The Story of the Universe, 10-11.

4. Sullivan, Lawrence, Icanchu’s Drum, 56.

WORKS CITED
Jenkins, Jeff. An Ecozoic NeoNative Wisdom: Interfacing Cosmological Indigenous Ritual And The Story of the Universe. Ph.D. diss. California Institute for Integral Studies, 2012.

Sullivan, Lawrence E. Icanchu’s Drum: An Orientation to Meaning in South. American Religions. New York: Macmillan Co., 1988.

Have Euro-Americans Any Right (Or Hope) to Lay Claim to Indigenosity?

A reader, Elina, wrote this response to my posting Indigenize Yourself!:

“How lucky for you to have become Indigenous without ever having to have experienced colonization, racism, etc. How miraculous for you to have received “the seed of an indigenous, native intelligence within me`,`without having been part of an Indigenous family. “I believe that day I became the first of those in my English and Danish lineage to set foot in the sacred topography of the New World, receiving the seed of an indigenous, native intelligence within me.“ – yes, I`m sure your English and Danish ancestors were more interested in “receiving“ other things – the land itself, resources, etc – laying the ground for their future generations to have the good fortune to eventually be able to miraculously `receive` the knowledge and understanding you are getting in life. I`m not sure if you realize how exploitative and ignorant this post comes off as.”

This is a well-deserved accusation of potential cultural exploitation and arrogance on my part. Yes, I am walking a fine line in claiming that, even for the ancestors of Euro-Americans, our indigenous souls can still be reclaimed. Perhaps it is right to accuse me of hubris.

There is no denying the grievous history of exploitation and genocide, rampant destruction and arrogant blindness that has followed in the wake of the Western European drive to subjugate the natural world and the Earth’s inhabitants. As I watch my daughter blossom as a little girl, everyday I worry about the inheritance she will receive from such short-sighted folly.

At the same time, I would challenge Elina’s assumption that I, and other descendents of European immigrants, have never tasted the consequences of colonization and racism. As a child left in a children’s shelter at age nine, I experienced the penal system first hand, and growing up in juvenile halls, foster homes, and on the streets learned what it meant to be colonized in my soul. I was intended to be on the margin, a criminal, a remnant — and the system was prepared to deal with what it had manufactured in me. A lot of profit stood to be made by my degradation, and folks were lining up to feed on my and other children’s souls. If this isn’t colonization, I don’t know what is.

I want to suggest, therefore, that some Euro-Americans may understand the consequences of systematized oppression, and can renounce the power that such systems bestow.

But this still leaves the issue of whether a descendent of a cultural group that produced the Nazis can reclaim his or her indigenous self.

There are two answers to this question, I think.

The first has to do with our most recent work, to uncover the overlooked indigenous consciousness right at the origin of the literature of Western civilization — in Homer’s Odyssey. Our forthcoming book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, works hard to show how indigenous, shamanic ways of healing and prophecy are not foreign to the West, and how the native way of viewing the world—that is, understanding our cosmos as living, sentient, and interconnected—can be found hidden throughout Western literature.

Indeed, I believe that the Odyssey, emerging precisely at the rupture between modern and primal consciousness, represents a window into the lost native mind of the Western world. In this way, the Odyssey as well as Tolkien’s work can be seen as an awakening and healing song to return us to our native minds and bring our disconnected souls back into harmony with the living cosmos.

As Martín Prechtel has asked,

Are most of the allegorized, dramatized, literalized, sanitized, boring, overly historified rituals and written stories, only jealously guarded fragments of a pushed-aside indigenous intactness which all people, in this increasingly displaced world, have hidden somewhere in their bones as an unremembered legacy in which an intact living story still waits to come into view?

I believe the answer to Prechtel is yes. Stories, true stories, can re-member our lost indigenous intactness. In terms of the over-arching human trajectory, 98% of our existence as homo-sapiens has been indigenous. The European break with that indigenous intactness is a brief spell, that I believe we can recuperate from.

My second answer to Elina has to do with how communities hold their identity. Werner Sollors, in Beyond Ethnicity, articulates two ways of imagining communities: those based on strict genetic descent, and the other based on volition and choice. The first is a closed social group, which one must be born into to be a member of. The second is open, and welcomes those who share its interests, passions, convictions, or faith. And, of course, there are the degrees between. Communities, such as indigenous ones, that involve deeply committed life-ways naturally give a long trial period of initiation and apprenticeship to those who feel called to join. I believe that indigenosity is something learned, is a cultural inheritance, not a genetic one. I would therefore suggest that there is no genetic, biological barrier separating any human being upon this planet from indigenous consciousness.

Perhaps Elina is right. Perhaps my words smack of hubris, of conceit, and I am espousing an arrogant cultural appropriation of life-ways that are not native to my people.

But I hope not. For my child’s future, for all our children’s futures and the lives of all beings on this planet, I pray not.

Icaros: Song and Healing in Ayahuasca Ceremonies

MAPS logo

The healing power of icaros, the magic melodies of Amazonian shamanism, were the focus of Susana’s research in the Peruvian Amazon in 2004, where she participated in numerous ceremonies and conducted extensive interviews with healers and their clients in the vegetalista tradition.

Based on her findings, Susana gave this presentation on the therapeutic use of icaros in ceremonies with ayahuasca at the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) conference “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century” in April, 2011.

Susana Bustos- Icaros: Song and Healing in Ayahuasca Ceremonies from MAPS: Psychedelic Science on Vimeo.

Ayahuasca Matters: Interviews with Robert Tindall

“My take is “salvation” or “obtaining liberation,” in the Western sense, is clearly an import into Amazonian culture. Their concern is in how to walk the way of life and death, how to understand their world in greater depth. Juan Flores instructed us, “ayahuasca teaches you how to die and be reborn.” It’s important to bear in mind that for traditional people, this world and the next world interpenetrate, and as Juan put it, “Death is a door you pass through, nothing else.”

Read Robert’s interview with Ivar Verploegh of the website A General Introduction to Ayahuasca here, for an exploration of the interface between the practices of Amazonian vegetalismo and modern Western society in search of itself.

As well, a second interview with DoseNation’s is available here, which is worth checking out for the balance of grudging respect and skepticism brought by James Kent to the interview!

Finally, listen to a rocking interview, The Jaguar and the Pilgrim, with KMO, whose C-realm podcasts are gems of intelligent, humorous inquiry, here.