Animistic perspectives, which hold the cosmos as “a being to whom prayers and offerings are made, who is endowed with understanding, agency and sentience, and responds to the actions of humans” are often dismissed as primitive, even as “incompatible with an impersonal regard of objective reality.” Yet this account of a healing of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (the consequence of severe rattlesnake envenomation), within the shamanic traditions of the Native American Church and the vegetalistas of the Peruvian Amazon, reminds us of how profound healing can be when it arises from indigenous perception of a sentient, living cosmos. It also demonstrates the diagnostic and healing capacities of shamanic traditions utilizing psychoactive plants, capacities sometimes beyond the reach of Western science.
SNAKE MEDICINE: HOW SHAMANISM HEALS
Our Native Mind
A snake which gets wounded heals itself. If now this is done by the snake, do not be astonished for you are the snake’s son. Your father does it, and you inherit his capacity, and therefore you are also a doctor.
“Animism” is a concept first introduced into anthropological circles by one of its founders, Edward Tylor, as the belief in the universal animation of nature, souls, and supernatural beings. 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” (Tyler, 1871: 381).
Such paternalistic Victorian views towards animistic perception continue to hold sway in the popular mind, although a far more sophisticated understanding of indigenous perception has since developed, such as expressed by prehistorian Jean Clottes:
Traditional people, and I think the people of the Paleolithic had two concepts that change our vision of the world: the concept of fluidity and the concept of permeability. Fluidity means the categories that we have, man, woman, horse, tree, etc., can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal and the other way around, given certain circumstances. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of spirits. A shaman, for example, can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or can receive the visit of supernatural spirits. When you put those two concepts together, you realize how different life must have been for those people from the way we live now (Herzog, 2010).
Scholars in recent decades have proposed different schemas to distinguish the nature of the modern and indigenous experience of the cosmos.
Philosopher Louis Dupré depicts modern consciousness as a sudden, radical departure from tens of thousands of years of human culture, where “The divine became relegated to a supernatural sphere separate from nature”, and it “fell upon the human mind to interpret the cosmos, the structure of which had ceased to be given as intelligible” (Dupré, 1993: 3). Cultural historian Richard Tarnas, who likewise sees the modern mind as an arrogation of interpretive power by the individual self, gives this model in figure 1 above to delineate the two forms of human apprehension.
Medieval scholar and fantast J. R. R. Tolkien, (whose mythopoeic works are our great modern guides to the indigenous mind of Europe) clearly had such a distinction in mind when he explained to C. S. Lewis:
You look at trees, he said, and called them ‘trees’, and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a ‘star’, and think nothing more of it. But you must remember that these words, ‘tree’, ‘star’, were (in their original forms) names given to these objects by people with very different views from yours. To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of ‘trees’ and ‘stars’ saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was ‘myth-woven and elf patterned’ (Carpenter, 1979: 43).
For Tolkien, unlike Tyler, such an aboriginal worldview is neither prerational nor delusional. It is a form of human inquiry that satisfies a desire for sophisticated interaction with the cosmos, about which he stated “The magic of Faery1 is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these is the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is to hold communion with other living beings” (Tolkien, 2002: 113). Continue reading “Snake Medicine: How Shamanism Heals”