Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

The Urban Shaman

Penned upon the 13th of December, 2006

The notion of an urban shaman is not a new one, but like the concept of the shaman itself, it has been used in different ways at different times and places, and no single definition predominates. Studies anthropological, spiritual and historical have variously emphasised the shaman as one who explores altered states of consciousness through ritual or through the taking of substances, as one who heals the body or the psyche, one who perceives and communicates with spirits or receives prophetic visions, and as one who is mystically attuned to nature in a way that others are not.

While the word itself is of Central Asian origin, these interpretations have drawn on spiritual traditions from nigh everywhere: Native American, Polynesian, West African, Celtic, to merely name a few popular sources. If a common thread can indeed be found spanning the whole of the world, it is not tied to a specific method. Rather, the role of shaman must be, like the roles of ‘leader’ or ‘doctor’ or ‘leopard-oil seller’, an open framework of duties which appears in every society in which the need for it arises, filled in with specific details and nuances relevant to the time and place.

The shaman, I believe, is an individual who seeks an understanding of their society; of its culture, its symbolism, its beliefs, its relationship with the world; and to use that understanding to help those around them; to heal, to counsel, to lead, to nurture. The doctor or the priest might perform this duty using a formal set of rituals and practices; the shaman, while not dissimilar (hence the related term ‘witch-doctor’,) is instead more guided by insight and intuition. Most anyone who is ill can benefit from a doctor’s attention, but a shaman must understand something of the psychology and the values of those they help.

An urban shaman, then, is one who fills this role in an urban environment – that is to say, an environment in which most of one’s affairs involve dealing with other humans, and in which instititions are likewise for the benefit of human affairs; commercial, industrial, governmental. The term thus differentiates the urban shaman from one in a society with a different focus for its worldview; the land for an agricultural society, or to a deity for a deeply religious one, for example. The term also refers to the unique sense of place and time in a city, where things can change suddenly and drastically, or seem as if fixed in time for a century or more. To one who wishes to understand the maladies and opportunities possible for urban-dwellers, the powerful symbolic effect of the very nature of a city on the human mind is impossible to ignore.

The urban shaman, then, may draw on any school and any tradition in finding a personal insight into the society around them and a way of putting it into practice for the benefit of others. While they cannot overlook the importance of tradition, they may choose to detach themselves from following it, or conversely choose to embody it. They may perform rituals mystic, secular or not at all. They might speak with spirits of other worlds, or of this world, or perhaps the spirit of a virtue or an era. They may even, of course, find their preferred method in spirits fermented, distilled and of interesting colours and smells.

As I say, this is a role that is taken up when a need for it appears: when there is a void of informal community guidance; when spiritual leadership has become too centralised and distant; when urban society has become too strained by the apparent contradictions in its own nature, as a landscape both organic and engineered, a culture both naturally developed and disparate from nature, as a densely-populated environment without a great deal of interpersonal connectivity. It is beyond the scope of this little piece to argue where such a need might exist, but I hope you can see the possibilities of the urban shaman in your own city, or recall those who fit the role themselves, however they may describe their calling.


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