Friday, October 10, 2014

"It is above all during trance that he becomes truly himself"

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Among the Eskimo peoples of North America -- including the Yupik, the Inuit and the Inupiat and the other peoples whose traditional lands stretched through the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland -- the shaman is referred to as the angakok or angakut

Much can be learned from examining some of the recorded descriptions of the forms and practices of shamanism as practiced among these peoples of the far north.

First, the name itself, angakok or angakut, is striking in its obvious representation of the sacred N-K and N-G pattern which Alvin Boyd Kuhn argues shows up worldwide in connection with the ancient Egyptian Ankh and its evocation of the concept of raising the spiritual aspect buried and hidden within the material world -- within each man and woman and within all nature around us. Other manifestations around the world may include Angkor Wat, King and Queen, Kundalini, Kukulkan, Kon-Tiki, and the River Ganges or Ganga. See for example previous posts "The Name of the Ankh," "The Name of the Ankh, continued: Kundalini around the world" and "Scarab, Ankh and Djed." 

There are many singular aspects of shamanic practice among the Arctic peoples of North America recorded in Mircea Eliade's encyclopedic collection of first-hand observations of shamanic culture, Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy (1951). Many of these are described in Chapter Nine: Shamanism in North and South America, which begins with an extended discussion entitled "Shamanism among the Eskimo." Eliade writes:
The Eskimo shaman's principal prerogatives are healing, the undersea journey to the Mother of the Sea Beasts to ensure a plentiful supply of game, fair weather (through his contacts with Sila), and the help that he provides for sterile women. Illness is presumably caused by violation of taboos, that is, disorder in the sacred, or by the theft of the patient's soul by one of the dead. In the former case the shaman attempts to cleanse the impurity by collective confessions; in the latter he undertakes an ecstatic journey to the sky or the depths of the sea to find the patient's soul and bring it back to his body. It is always by ecstatic journeys that the angakok approaches Takanakapsaluk (Mother of the Sea Beasts) in the depths of the ocean or Sila in the sky. He is, besides, a specialist in magical flight. Some shamans have visited the moon, others have flown around the earth. According to the traditions, shamans fly like birds, spreading their arms as a bird does its wings. The angakut also know the future, make prophecies, predict atmospheric changes, and excel in magical feats. 289 - 290.
Note that throughout the book, Eliade's translator uses the older convention of simply using the masculine impersonal pronoun when speaking generally: there are so many examples in the book of discussions of women shamans that it is clear that Eliade is not restricting his observations to men when this pronoun is used.

An interesting feature of their journeys is the fact that they always fasten ropes to their body, so that they can be sure to return from the spirit realm: 
[. . .] their ecstatic capacities enable them to undertake any journey "in spirit" to any region of the cosmos. They always take the precaution of having themselves bound with ropes, so that they will journey only "in spirit"; otherwise they would be carried into the sky and would vanish for good. 292.
Another distinctive feature is the frequency of journeys to the depths of the ocean -- which seems to be an understandable aspect of shamanic journeying for those whose life depended so much upon the sea. Eliade cites an earlier observer who notes that among the Arctic peoples, "The term most commonly used in referring to a shaman is 'one who drops down to the bottom of the sea'"(293).

But perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Eliade's discussion of the Eskimo shaman is found in passages discussing personal journeys that the shaman undertakes alone, in addition to those performed publicly and for the benefit of the community. These give us an important insight into the seeking of the spirit world for no other reason than "for joy alone." Eliade explains:
But in addition to these seances demanded by collective problems (storms, scarcity of game, weather information, etc.) or by sickness (which, in one way or another, likewise threatens the society's equilibrium), the shaman undertakes ecstatic journeys to the sky, to the land of the dead, "for joy alone." He has himself tied, as is usual when he prepares for an ascent, and flies into the air; there he has long conversations with the dead and, on his return to earth, describes their life in the sky. This fact shows the Eskimo shaman's need of the ecstatic experience for its own sake and also explains his liking for solitude and meditation, his long dialogues with his helping spirits, and his need for quiet. 291.
Later, elaborating on this same theme, Eliade says:
Such exploits, undertaken for no apparent motive, to some extent repeat the initiatory journey with its many dangers and especially the passage through a "straight gate" that remains open only for an instant. The Eskimo shaman feels the need for these ecstatic journeys because it is above all during trance that he becomes truly himself; the mystical experience is necessary to him as a constituent of his true personality. 293.
Later still, Eliade cites evidence that, in shamanic cultures, the shaman never "monopolizes" the ability to make contact with the other realm (297). Although the shaman is distinguished from others in the community by the levels of his or her ability and the intensity of his or her experiences, "every individual seeks to obtain" certain abilities associated with the spirit realm, as well as "certain tutelary or helping 'spirits'" (297). 

This insight is most valuable, because -- as I have argued in previous posts and as The Undying Stars presents further evidence for concluding -- there is good reason to believe that the shamanic worldview and shamanic journeying is at the core of the world's ancient sacred traditions, which nearly all share a common system of celestial metaphor which can be shown to convey a cosmology that can be characterized as shamanic.

As Gerald Massey (1828 - 1907) has asserted (see this previous post): "The ancient wisdom (unlike the modern) included a knowledge of trance-conditions."

The accounts which indicate that the Eskimo shaman pursues ecstatic journeys "for joy alone," and that "above all" it is "during trance that he becomes truly himself" refute anthropological theories that shamanic journeys are simply "performances," while at the same time confirming Massey's assertion that the knowledge of the crucial importance of making contact with and traveling to the other realm is central to the ancient wisdom that was the shared inheritance of humanity, but from which modernity has been somehow severed.

If so, then perhaps what is being asserted individually and specifically regarding the angakok -- that it is above all during trance that he truly "becomes himself" -- applies in some sense to humanity as a whole.