Isis Egyptian Goddess. Statue representing Isis nursing Harpocrates or child god Horus, depicted with his childish plait resting on a side of the head, bronze, Late Period, ca. 664-332 BC. Now at the Egyptian Museum, Turin.
A collection of ancient Egyptian scarabs, all of which date to the 26th dynasty, or 664-525 BCE. Starting at the top left and moving clockwise, the scarabs are lapis lazuli, hardstone,hardstone, and feldspar. Source: Medusa Ancient Art.
Greek Kylix depicting boxers and wrestlers (pankratists), 490 BCE, Athens. The Pankration was a combination of wrestling and boxing in which contestants used grappling and boxing moves. The men in the center are breaking the rules – one is attempting to gouge out another’s eye, while a trainer or referee gets ready to hit the men with a stick to break up the fight.
What's shaman sickness? How do you know if you have it? Is it just a gut feeling you get?
Hi, Nonny. Thanks for writing to me. This is a topic I really ought to have written about sooner! The term “shaman sickness” and related concepts do pop up often in occult circles, and while I hinted at the issue before, I believe I ought to address it at length. I’ll try to do so here, but do realize that this is simply my own take on the issue.
Note: Throughout this, I’ll be using the word “shaman” in the anthropological sense, not referring to New Age “shamans,” nor the holy men of Tunguska tribes that use said title. It’s a general anthropological term and I’m at loss for a better one.
Historically “shaman sickness” referred to an illness or hardship of some sort that befell a person in a tribal (or similar) society and presaged a shamanic occupation. In other words, a person experienced the sickness, and soon after felt a calling to act as a shaman or similar figure.
These illnesses could range from depression to long bouts of fever, and could even include things like recovering from a wild animal attack. This feature isn’t universal, but many societies did “choose” their shamans in this fashion.
Judika Illes writes of this:
Although some enlist, many more are drafted. Very frequently the individual has little choice in the matter. The spirits choose you, their call manifesting through dreams, visions (not necessarily your own), illness, bad luck, and/ or animal attack. Traditionally, in some places, surviving bear, snake, or jaguar attacks was interpreted as a shamanic call.
Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World (Kindle Locations 604-611). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Nowadays, with the New Age movement having merged with a lot of anti-science/luddite folks, many people jump on this. They say that chronic illnesses (and, unfortunately), especially mental illnesses, are signs that a person must become a “shaman” or “healer.”
I don’t think ancient peoples really “cured” people of things like leopard attacks and psychosis through placing them in a shamanic role. Here’s what I think was actually happening.
In ancient tribal societies, there were no doctors, no a truly systemized way for people to get effective treatment for anything, be it a bout of fever or a jaguar attack. Most people were utterly unprepared to deal with such things, and had no idea what methods worked best.
Except for those who’d been there and experienced it.
Basically, I think that, in ancient societies, those who’d suffered illness were considered healers because they, having survived, knew (at least some) methods for treating such things. This could mean knowing which plants and preparations healed a jaguar bite, or it could mean knowing techniques and copying mechanisms for lessening depression.
In short, I think a sickness was only considered “shaman sickness” insofar as the person’s experience of it allowed them to help others. I’m not even sure the concept is useful in this day and age.
It’s true that those who’ve successfully tangled with a nasty sickness might be able to help others through something similar, but the way the term is usually used in occult communities just causes problems.
Often, it reeks of the “You’re suchan inspiration!” nonsense. By that, I mean the half-baked idea that disabled, mentally ill and chronically ill people have an obligation to turn their life into some kind of glurge-tastic tale of triumph, when in reality?
We just want to live our lives, and have no goddamn obligation to “inspire” anyone. It reminds me of those losers who want praise and adulation for going to prom with an autistic person or whatever.
We don’t need condescending attitudes like that, and yes, the New Age “it’s actually a shamanic gift!” thing is condescending as hell.
It’s even worse because half of these “you are an indigo rainbow shaman!” folks will try to dissuade people from doing things like entering therapy or taking medication. Those are things some (including myself) have actually found beneficial. Such things should not be stigmatized, especially by other magical practitioners. Magical folks really ought know better than that!
Is there a place for the concept of “shaman sickness” in the modern world? Perhaps if it is framed in the context of uncomfortable mystical/magical experiences (which can often be disturbing, but notpathological).
Or, perhaps it could be understood first by understanding that the concept of “healer” has changed immensely over time. Those who dofeel a calling to be such as a result of a traumatic illness or experience tend to approach it with this in mind.
I think most of us who do deal with these things regularly understand the issue. Those who’ve never had such an experience (illness or trauma, etc.,) tend to be much more likely to assign supernatural causes to things like this. At least, I seem to have noticed that.
I hope this post wasn’t too controversial or anything. People are going to have differing views on such a volatile topic. I’ll admit I can be a bit touchy about it myself, mostly due to things that have happened to me in the past, but I hope I came across politely and that my perspective makes sense.