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The African Shaman: Some Qualifications

The African Shaman: Some Qualifications

A response to Episode 334 ‘Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa’ with Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel by James Cox

In this interview, Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel outlines the place of indigenous healers and spiritual mediators in Bantu societies by focusing on the South African traditional practitioner, called a sangoma. Other terms are used to designate this same functionary in different countries across central and southern Africa. For example, in Zimbabwe, where I worked for a number of years, the Shona word for what is commonly called a traditional healer, is n’anga. Kleinhempel defines a sangoma as a ‘Bantu shaman’. For Kleinhempel, this serves as an umbrella term to classify a variety of practitioners who are specialists in esoteric methods through which they diagnose the causes of misfortune, provide treatments to alleviate problems and offer prognoses aimed at ensuring long-term well-being. Some sangomas primarily are herbalists, who frequently use mystical means to determine the causes of illness, such as being led in a dream to the appropriate herb to prescribe the remedy for a particular affliction. Others act as diviners, who, in southern Africa, use specially engraved bones or sticks (hakata in Shona) to diagnose the cause of individual or group afflictions and prescribe remedies. After throwing or casting the bones, the diviner ‘reads’ or interprets them according to their configuration. Perhaps the most revered traditional practitioner is one who becomes possessed by a spirit, often an ancestor spirit, who has adopted a descendant as his or her host. The adopted host becomes the ancestor’s voice and, in rituals of possession, the ancestor communicates directly with kinsfolk about causes and solutions to communal misfortune. In many cases that I have recorded in Zimbabwe, the ancestor, during the possession ceremony, claims to have been neglected ritually and, as a result, has permitted a series of misfortunes to occur, such as the failure of crops, a cluster of illnesses and deaths in the community or even social conflict. Only after the ancestor has been remembered and honoured in rituals of respect is the ancestral protection restored bringing a halt to the misfortunes. After the possession ritual is concluded, the spirit’s medium does not remember what occurred. [i]

Kleinhempel’s choice of the term ‘shaman’ to describe the traditional African healing specialist is problematic for two reasons. First, shamanism, as a collective and universal category, requires careful examination. It needs to be situated culturally as being derived from Arctic peoples, where it refers to a type of practitioner characterised by entering into trance experiences, during which the shaman ‘travels’ out of the body to lower, middle and upper worlds, or in the case of the Yup’ik shaman of Alaska, is transported to the edge of the world, goes under the ice into the sea or flies to the moon.[1]  In this context, the term ‘Bantu shaman’ can be misleading because it implies that it forms part of a worldwide, unified phenomenon. That this is Kleinhempel’s meaning is confirmed by his endorsement of Jungian psychotherapy in which the typological classification ‘shaman’ is interpreted as fitting into the collective unconscious. In most indigenous societies, specialists exist who apply spiritual remedies in response to individual and group misfortune, but they do not constitute a coordinated, universal movement. It is far better to consider the specialists called ‘shamans’ as sharing characteristics in common, while acknowledging that any similarities must be qualified by the cultural and social contexts in which they occur. [2]

A second, related, problem with using the term ‘Bantu shaman’ without clarification results from the distinction between shamanic trance and spirit possession. For example, traditional shamans, who operated until the early part of the twentieth century in Alaska,[3] or Greenlandic shamans of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as recorded in the historical study by Merete Jakobsen,[4] harnessed a host of helping spirits that they employed when they went on their shamanic journeys. These spirits had been mastered over a long period of struggle that caused the shaman deep suffering. After the spirits were fully in the shaman’s control, they assisted the shaman in overcoming powerful and dangerous spirits that threatened the welfare of the community. The shaman thus was the ‘master of spirits’, who fully remembered what happened during trance states. By contrast, in southern Africa, where spirit possession is the principal form of communication between the spirit world and the living community, the medium does not control, but is controlled by, the spirit. The calling to become a medium is initiated by the spirit and the success of the ritual during which the possession occurs depends on the spirit choosing to become manifest through the medium. That the medium does not remember what occurred during the possession experience further confirms that, unlike the Arctic shaman, a spirit medium is not in control of the possessing spirit, but is subject to the authority of the ancestor. The African medium can only be said to be in control of the spirit if this is understood in community terms. If the community follows the proper ritual protocols and prepares all the elements necessary for the ritual to succeed (such as brewing beer and informing the ancestors of their intentions), the spirit will appear through the chosen medium and converse with the community. The term shaman can only be applied in the strict sense if it is understood as ‘community shamanism’, where the control of events is dictated by community behaviour.[5]  This distinction is important if we are to avoid using unqualified generalisations to categorise localised cultural practices.

Another issue raised by Kleinhempel in his interview that I wish to address is methodological.  He quite rightly draws attention to the way African traditional worldviews were denigrated and at times demonised under the influences of colonialism, Christian missions, and Western education. He sees this tendency persisting today in the form of scientific reductionism, which rejects any spiritual or mystical explanation for causes of misfortune. In Africa, such explanations are found everywhere, although these are not generally understood by African communities as contradicting Western scientific rationality. Rather, they complement Western worldviews, adding depth to them by granting access to alternate forms of healing and sources of well-being. This point is well made by Kleinhempel, but I think he goes one step too far. His aim is not only to foster respect for African cultural practices, but he extends beyond this worthwhile goal by claiming that the African spirit world is ‘real’. What he means by ‘real’ is left somewhat unclear, but he appears to be claiming that the ubiquity of spirits that populate African cultural perspectives actually exist.[6] He cites phenomenological principles in support of this assertion and claims affinity with Victor and Edith Turner on this viewpoint. It is well known that after Victor Turner died, Edith, who was then working in Alaska, claimed that she had encountered spirits and as a result confirmed their ‘reality’. [7]

Although phenomenology has a well-developed philosophical tradition fostering intense empathy and intersubjectivity, as it has been applied in the study of religions, it refuses to make judgments on the reality or unreality of the beliefs of religious communities. This approach was voiced clearly by Ninian Smart in what he called ‘methodological agnosticism’.[8] I have argued that stage one in the phenomenological method employs the idea of epoché,  the suspension or bracketing out of prior assessments, such as ideas of ranking religions according to their proximity to rational thinking or previously formed opinions based on theological assumptions. This technique allows researchers to enter into communities they are studying by bringing to their consciousness their most obvious and distorting presuppositions. By reflexively becoming aware of their predispositions and placing them in brackets (the epoché), researchers can then employ the second stage in the method, empathetic interpolation, whereby they cultivate a feeling for the subjects of their research and relate what otherwise might appear to them as strange or bizarre in terms that are culturally comprehensible. The stage of empathetic interpolation aims at achieving understanding in depth (Verstehen) without either endorsing or rejecting the truth claims of believing communities. The third phase I have outlined is most relevant at this point: maintaining epoché, that is, continuing to suspend judgments about claims to truth or falsehood, either from believers’ perspectives or from the point of view of scientific rationality. The question of ‘real’ or ‘unreal’ does not arise; it remains bracketed.[9]

If this interpretation of phenomenology is applied in the case of the belief in African spirits and mystical causality, Kleinhempel’s objections to Western rationalism, scientific reductionism, and cognitive science, although understandable, are no more relevant to the academic study of religions than are his assertions about the ‘reality’ of the African spirit world. By combining the techniques of epoché and empathetic interpolation, the researcher conveys respect for the beliefs, practices, and alternate therapies forming the African worldview without either sanctioning or refuting them. Subsequent academic interpretations of African traditional practitioners and ritual specialists in this way are formed against the backdrop gained by the researcher entering into African perceptions of  a spirit world without falling prey to errors created by models derived from confessional theology.

[1]  James L. Cox 2007. From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions. Aldershot: Ashgate, 110-15.

[2] James L. Cox 2020. ‘Shamanism’ in A. Possamai and A.J. Blasi (eds). The Sage Encyclopedia of the Sociology of Religion, vol. 2. Los Angeles and London: Sage Reference, 747-8.

 [3] Ann Fienup Riordan 1994. Boundaries and Passages. Rule and Ritual in Yup’ik Eskimo Oral Tradition. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 288-310.

[4] Merete Demant Jakobsen 1999. Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing. New York and Oxford: Berghan Books, 39-146.

[5] James L. Cox 2008. ‘Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism’. DISKUS. The Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions 9 (Autumn). http://jbasr.com/basr/diskus/diskus9/index.html

[6] Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel 2017. ‘Covert Syncretism: The Reception of South Africa’s Sangoma Practise and Spirituality by “Double Faith” in the Contexts of Christianity and of Esotericism’. Open Theology 3(1), 642-661. https://www.degruyter.com/view/journals/opth/3/1/article-p642.xml

[7] Edith Turner 1997. ‘The Reality of Spirits’. Shamanism 10(1). https://www.shamanism.org/articles/article02page4.html.

[8] Ninian Smart 1973. The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 54.

[9] James L. Cox 2010.  An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion. London and New York: Continuum, 49-57.

[i]  James L. Cox 1998. Rational Ancestors. Scientific Rationality and African Indigenous Religions. Cardiff: Cardiff Academic Press, 199-219.

Protected: Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

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Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

In this episode, Dr. Maxinne Connolly-Panagopolus asks Dr. Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel how we might better understand and engage with South African Shamanism and Mysticism. Beginning with Sangomas or spiritual mediators, Dr. Kleinhempel introduces some of the types of Shaman which exist in the South African context such as the herbalist, who learns mystical powers from plants; the diviner, who uses oracles such as bones as objects for mediumship; and the seer, who relies on inspiration from dreams, telepathy and intuition. Turning to the complex configuration of race, heritage, and culture present in South Africa, the conversation moves to a discussion of  white Sangomas, and how these individuals are perceived by their community. Finally, within the region’s diverse religious landscape, Kleinhempel shares how Sangomas sometimes navigate multiple religious identities. Listen in for a discussion that encourages scholars to reflect on how they will negotiate the demands of critical inquiry alongside their own personal experiences or competing worldviews.

For more on Sangoma, Umbanda, and other specific elements of this conversation, please consider the following resources:

• Hall, J. (2009). Sangoma: my odyssey into the spirit world of Africa. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Covert Syncretism: The Reception of South Africa’s Sangoma Practise and Spirituality by “Double Faith” in the Contexts of Christianity and of Esotericism. Open Theology, 3(1), 642-661.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Spreading an Arcane Religion on the World Wide Web: Paradoxies of Transmission of the Contemporary Mysteries ‘Cult of Umbanda. Mistiko-ezotericheskie dvizhenie v teorii i praktike-mistitsizm i ezoterizm v mire teknologii, VIII mezhdunarodnaia nauchnaia konferentsia. St. Petersburg, 60-71.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2018). White Sangomas: the manifestation of Bantu forms of shamanic calling among whites in South Africa. REVER-Revista de Estudos da Religião, 18(1), 143-173.
• Contemporary Mysteries’ Cult of Umbanda – video lecture, 8th ASEM conference https://www.academia.edu/26147179/Contemporary_Mysteries_Cult_of_Umbanda_-_video_lecture_8th_ASEM_conference
• Mbiti, J. S. (1990). African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.
• Mlisa, N. L. R., & Nel, P. (2010). Ukuthwasa the training of Xhosa women as traditional healers: Ukuthwasa initiation of amagqirha and identity construction. Lap Lambert Academic.


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Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

Podcast with Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (2 June 2020).

Interviewed by Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulos.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/exploring-african-shamanism-and-white-sangomas-in-south-africa/

Maxinne Connolly-Panogopoulos (MC-P): Hello, Ullrich! And a very warm welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Today, we’re recording between Glasgow and the edge of the forest in West Nuremburg. And even though we could do many podcasts on your body of work, from orthodox spirituality and theology, esotericism and syncretism, today I’d really like to focus on your 2018 article on white Sangomas and the Shamanic calling in South Africa. So, for the Listeners who are unfamiliar with this topic, might you start by explaining a little bit about what a Sangoma is?

Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (URK): Sangoma is basically a Bantu shaman. The word is used quite generically. It’s a Zulu word. Bantu – that’s the name for all the black African people who live in the land from West Africa – the end of Africa, where Cameroon is – in a straight line to East Africa – the Horn of Africa – to Kenya. And, south of that, the people are all related linguistically. The Bantu people emigrated to this realm from Nigeria. About four thousand years ago they began to migrate there. There were farmers and herdsmen and blacksmiths. And before they came there were hunter-gatherers, the Khoi-San, there – also known colloquially as Bushmen. They lived with other archaic peoples like pygmies and others who have vanished. The Khoi-San have a very well developed practice of mediumism and trance. The Khoi-San, the Bushmen, they engage in out-of-body travels of soul, calling of rain, calling of animals, relating to nature spirits, to ancestors souls, and the like. Quite a loose people, but with a well-developed culture in that way. They visit spirits at special sites like rock pools or water falls. They also do trance dance and spiritual healing. Now the Bantu people who came into that area learnt a lot from them. They intermarried and took up their spirits, respected them for what they are, and that distinguishes the Bantu people from other African people as West African. Now my sources are especially from the South African . . . the people of the amaXhosa: the people of Nelson Mandela. There are about as many people as there are Swedish people. And they have observed most from the Khoi-san – even the clicks in the language. You can (clicks) . . . six clicks. Now what is Bantu shamanism? There are basically three types of Bantu shamanism. The distinction and the combination varies from one people to the next. The first is the herbalist. They learn the medical powers of herbs from the tradition and by mediumism. They’re called iZinyanya iXhwele. You may be a bit surprised to find the herbalists enlisted here, but just imagine how many hundreds of medical plants are known to the shamanic people in South America, and in Africa. And these plants have never been found by experimental trials. Most of the patients would have died that way, because many plants are poisonous. And amongst these tens of thousands of plants there are in the wild, the plants that have curative powers have been revealed to the diviners in dreams. They dream of a patient who has a certain illness, like malaria. And then, all of a sudden, they’re shown in the dream where to go, and which plant to take, and how to treat it to make a medicine out of it. And that store of knowledge is vast. And medical companies, even to this day, send their scouts to those indigenous people to learn from their medical knowledge. And the second role is the diviner. The diviner who uses oracles like bones or similar objects in Bantu cultures. They are called the iSangoma. There are oracles in other cultures too, like West African Ifá – the oracle of the Yoruba people – or the European (audio unclear). And these oracles are quite sophisticated. It takes intuition; you must seek endowment; also some psychological knowledge and training to read them properly. Then there are the seers. Those are people who really, completely on their own, inspire dreams, premonitions, telepathy, visions, intuition. They’re called iSitunywa. And the African indigenous churches who integrate the African heritage, they regard them as prophets and have adopted that role completely. To talk meaningfully about these things you really have to set aside the positivistic and materialistic approach, maintain an acute scientific mind-set, be very clear on phenomenology, and basic research, and documentation, and listening to people, and be prepared to change your own concepts of reality. If you’re not prepared to do that but stick to a reductionist view, which says, “Oh, this is all cultural imaginations and constructions,” and so on, it’s like telling people “The moon is just a cultural construction – you can see that from mythology.” (5:00) and, “The moon is just some kind-of delusion to adapt in the course of evolution.” It’s wasting your time, and it’s wasting the time of readers and you won’t end up anywhere. So, just a fruitless exercise in ideology. If you engage in these things, be prepared that the people who have developed this kind of shamanism have been acute, intelligent people like you and me, over the centuries, over hundreds of years. And they have very fine powers of discernment. And maybe we are just, in a way, daft at these things, and just say, “Oh, well these things don’t exist!” Just to give a really brief comparison, just imagine you were a person who can’t hear. You go to study music, and read all these notes, and say, “Oh this is a wonderful cultural construction. But something like sound, you know, that doesn’t exist. Do you hear anything, I don’t.?” Ok. Now we have to accept that these things are real, because otherwise we are just getting nowhere. Now if you are interested in this topic, of course, at some point you will ask yourself, “Well, how can one become a Sangoma?” Well to say, “Ok, I’ll train to become a Sangoma”, that’s about to say, “Ok, I’ll be an opera singer one day.” Now, without perfect hearing, a good voice, a fine sense of music and harmony, you’re not going to get anywhere. You may study, study, study but you’re not going to end up being an opera singer. Now someone may say, “OK, I’ll be a musician and I’ll learn three chords on my guitar and say I’m a musician”, you know? These things, unfortunately, happen with Sangoma too. Because Sangoma is not a protected title at the moment, and the controls for who can call himself a Sangoma –mostly herself, as Sangoma is very much a female profession – that is at present not in the best condition. In traditional societies these things have been very regulated. There are boards of control, of education, of training, of examination – most arduous exams, comparable to an opera singer – before you would be qualified and accepted as a Sangoma. Now unfortunately, at present, this has been weakening. So a lot of quacks with a sense of money put up a shop sign, “I’m a Sangoma” and charge you a lot of money and “You will believe me, and I will do something for you.” And that’s ruining the profession, and it’s harming it very much. Now the first requirement to become a real Sangoma is a real mediumistic endowment. That usually shows up in childhood already. The child will dream of things in advance that will happen later, or may know, intuitively, that things like . . . or see spirits of familiar people who have just passed away. That child knowing, and saying “Mama, I saw our neighbour walking up the stairs!” And mama says “You can’t have, you must be dreaming. That person died two weeks ago.” That’s the kind of mediumistic endowment that turns up in childhood already. Now you need that mediumistic endowment, and then you need a calling. And that calling can turn up even pretty late in life. Strange dreams, recurring dreams with a sense of urgency. Strange accidents and incidents happen. All these kinds of things. And the person may feel they’re going mad, you know, getting insane, fearing for their sanity. This is quite a crisis. And if you decide . . . you may have to make a decision. They will either say, “Well, I have the means, and the time, and the willingness, and I’m prepared to follow that call, regardless of what it’s going to demand of me and cost me – that’s usually severe, this direction in life. Or you say, “No I can’t follow it. I’ll just have to reject it.” And you say then, “The calling will go away.” But usually it goes away at a price. So it leaves some traces in your soul. Some hurt. Now, if you heed the call, then you can experience that the spiritual field takes over, or as the Bantu people say, “The Spirits begin to take over.” They send you things, things are happening, meeting things, rare things and occasions which are just, you know, out of the normal. Then, if you’re in training, that’s a complex structured process. It’s been described quite a lot by two authors who have got long traditional training. The one is an academic psychologist, in South Africa, Dr Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa. And she wrote her dissertation, entitled, Ukuthwasa Initiation of Amagcirha: Identity construction in the training of Xhosa women as Traditional Healers. And the other is the American accomplished writer, many books. He wrote a book about his own calling which sent him to Swaziland for over three years. And his book has the title Sangoma: My Odyssey into the Spirit World of Africa. Just to remember the first author is Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa and the second is James Hall. You can find them both on the internet. The state of being in this process of training is called Inthwasa. This is feared, as Dr Mlisa explains and she writes: “It is inkathaz – madness – indeed, since it involves syndromic illness and a conglomerate of factors that culminate in various afflictions (10:00). . . . Sometimes ukuthwasa involves signs that resemble madness, such as hallucinations and illusions. . . . Entering into the ukuthwasa initiation heals the person.” And she states that the process of training is often feared as time consuming, expensive, disruptive to family life and employment, also involving obligations to heed the inspiration of ancestral spirits perpetually. Yet the afflictions suffered by someone who experiences signs of spiritual calling are so severe that people sometimes feel they can’t avoid that call. They just have to follow it, may it cost what it does. It could be possible but to reject it a high price. Now Mlisa defines seven stages of the training process. The first is the prediction stage, igqirha. The igqirha, this is the manifestations of mediumism at an early stage. Then the second stage is the calling comes, which is called ubizo. At this stage dreams affect them, troubles intensify, and serious action has to be undertaken. Then comes this stage of intense afflictions, when things get really into a crisis. And when this happens, usually the master Sangomas will say, “Ok this is a sign things are getting serious. We can take that person for training. We will accept that person. These things are genuine and are powerful.” And then comes the stage which actually lasts the whole time: confusion, resistance or acceptance. You have regrets, you say, “Oh, I’m maybe not suitable, I don’t have the abilities to do it, maybe it’s all just an illusion, maybe I have psychic problems”, and so on, and so on. And that may go right up to end of exams, or the day before examinations. And all of us who have passed examinations, I think, know these kind of feelings

MC-P: Absolutely.

QRK: Then comes the real stage that is Ukuvuma Ukufa – that’s where intensified training begins. And this training involves a series of rituals like the formal beading and donning of the attire of a trainee. Now you’re visibly a trainee. Then rites of cleansing, acceptance of death – because transformation is also a kind-of death of your previous ego and the person you were – illness, suffering, and you have to be baptised, at that stage, as a trainee. Then comes cleansing rituals of the body, the homestead environment. Also sacrificial rituals. This is a side where not everybody will be happy with, but sacrifices are done because the blood is perceived as a substance bearing the power of life and spiritual quality, too. Then comes the rights of acceptance, with sacrifice and prayers for the initiate. And the initiate has to learn quite a lot. That comprises, for instance – I will quote Mlisa again: “The trainer is entirely convinced that umkhwetha has a calling and she has committed to it. She has to demonstrate skills and abilities in the divining system – assessments, diagnosis and preparing treatments – then exclusion from family life and social life intensifies and new restrictions are introduced. Her food restrictions differ markedly from the previous stage.… She must also help in mentoring her juniors. Most of the time, umkhwetha is expected to work independently, but under the strict guidance of the trainer. She becomes an assistant to her trainer. She can also lead certain procedures and rituals under the guidance. Moreover, she must demonstrate more expertise and knowledge in understanding how various herbs are collected, stored and used.” End of quote. Then comes Ukuphuma – that’s the last stage of intensive training. Again, certain rituals adjoin to it. But that includes: long times of isolating and seclusion; ritual pilgrimages and rites; special sites in nature, sometimes shown in dreams where to go; spiritual retreats; sacrificial rituals; public proofs of mediumistic prowess – like, for instance, the trainee is called into a room. And in the room, somewhere, a coin is hidden – under a bookshelf, or wherever. That person who enters has to find that coin and find it quick. And things like that. These are really demanding tests. And if you pass them sufficiently, then you do a name change to show your new identity. And there comes the rites of public investiture, and public acceptance as a new role as they progressed to Igqirha or Sangoma. Then comes the stage of being accepted into the communities of Igqirhas or Sangomas as a full member. That is a really dignified ordination. And then you’re still expected to go for lifelong learning. As long as you are, there maybe somebody who knows more, maybe in a certain field and you go train with him or you go for seclusion and pilgrimage. All these things. This is a life-long process. And at present, professional boards of Sangomas and traditional Igqirhas are organising, and have organised already, and are getting legally recognised and integrated into the healthcare system, to safeguard the proficient standards and protect from imposters and quacks (15:00).

MC-P: Brilliant!

URK: So this is a way to give you an overview of this.

MC-P: Yes. Thank you for that, thank you. That was a really, really great overview, as you say, about the whole process. And it’s wonderful to hear those clicks again and your pronunciation is fantastic! I’m really quite interested, as well, especially in your paper regarding the white Sangomas, you speak about them having to, of course, have the same process. And I wonder, how are these individuals received in their communities? And maybe what are some of the cultural or religious tensions surrounding white Sangomas?

URK: Well, this is a complex issue that has to be taken quite seriously. Because it touches on the issues of collective and cultural identities, and respect for culture, and all of these things. Now, we have this concept of “cultural appropriation”, which means, basically, you cannot take something from somebody else’s culture. Although by those standards, if you apply them strictly, we as Europeans or Africans would not be allowed to read and write because the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, and then that’s their cultural property. Of course, we read and write! So this has limits. But from a philosophical point of view of African culture and the worldview, there is a quite clear answer to that. And this provides a basis of how to do things legitimately. Also, for people coming from outside like whites. Because in the acceptance and the manifestation of a Sangoma’s divination, you connect with spirits. Now these spirits are, firstly, those who actually guard the whole process and are the masters of the process. Now in this process you connect to you own family’s ancestors, spirits that turn up in dreams – like, you may dream of your great-grandfather who you never saw, but you know it’s him. And you know this person has a message for you. Or maybe he will guide you, and accompany you. So your own family’s ancestral spirits, first of all. And then, secondly, essentially the ancestral spirits of the master Sangoma with whom you do your training. Some of – usually her, it’s mostly a female profession but there are some males – her, or his, own mentor spirits will also become part of your own spiritual realm. And they will begin to exert authority over you. So this is the point where inevitably, African, black African spirits, Bantu spirits will enter into the realm, consciousness and sub-consciousness and the spiritual realm of a white trainee. Then there are the spirits of the land where you do your training, especially where you were born. You are perceived to be connected, spiritually, to the place you were born. That makes a black person born in Europe a European spiritually, in a certain way, and a white person born in Africa an African, in a certain way. Because you’re connected to the spirits of the land. And you may visit that place, and connect there spiritually, and feel you are connected, and things like that. Then also, the spirts of your place, land of origin, where your people come from. And then, also, spirits of other people, objects, or places – like, you stood in front of a painting and the person who was depicted, all of a sudden that person would turn up in your dreams. So close, emotionally close, significant connections can also connect you to spirits maybe of a long, long time ago. And those spirits in these classes that have taken abode in you, and guide you, and are revealed to you by dreams, intuitions, special occurrences, most of all in trance. Also positon trance – and even there’s a type of position trance dance where the spirit enters your body and expresses itself by certain movements before you begin to recognise that spirit. So these spirits come to you, and some of them become important for you. They will stay with you and connect with them. And you get their powers and advice. Also healing powers, divinatory powers. And then you have an assortment of individual spirits: obviously, if you are a white person, your European ancestral spirits, your family spirits, and the African spirits of the land, and the trainer. If you gather these spirits you also take in their fate. They may have experienced much suffering in their life and you may experience bouts of anguish or sorrow that you can’t explain from your own life. But you feel a desperate fear, sorrow, anxiety which is that of a mentor spirit. So you live part of their life again. It sensitises you to certain things, so that means you also have certain price, you live with those spirits intrinsically (20:00). They also guard you. And James Hall observed, him being a Catholic, that these spirits are similar in a way to the saints of Catholic piety. A saint also was a person that lived, and the saint is, in a way, a spirit in the other world who will still guard you. So things can also happen like, if a black Bantu African mentor Sangoma has some white person up in the ancestor line, that Bantu may also have a white spirit in his own family spirits. Because in South Africa, there was intermarriage all through the centuries. Now the acceptance in communities, the institution of Sangomas or Igqirhas is a very respected profession. It’s like the social status of a psycho-analyst. These people are respected. Sangomas are really revered persons. And this institution has made the transition from rural society into modern South Africa. It’s also made the transition from the pagan culture into Christian culture. And today, if you look up on the internet, you will find professionals in many fields such as psychologists, teachers, academics, medical doctors and so on, who also trained and graduated as Sangomas. The majority of South Africans, statistically, have consulted with a Sangoma at some point in life, like myself, and sometimes in addition to a medical doctor or psychotherapist, and that’s a very special experience. The institution of Sangomas has successfully made the transition into Christian realm, first through the African indigenous churches, to integrate the African spiritual heritage and its forms. They created the offices of the prophet, praying for healing, praying for any of these things. The mainline churches are gradually beginning to accept that. There are some Evangelical churches who will say . . . or fundamentalist Catholics who will say, “Oh, this is all of the Devil.” But still they have some form of recognition of it. Whites, especially in rural areas, at all times consult with Sangomas if they knew no other counsel, or had special powers, but that was usually done in secrecy.

MC-P: I just wanted to pick up on that. So you mentioned the movement from pagan to Christian, and then you also, in your outline of what exactly it takes to become a Sangoma, you mentioned some sacrificial aspects. And so if we think about Sangomas more broadly, thinking about this identification as a Christian as well as the darker side of some African Shamanic practice – for example, the use of human body parts in rituals – how is this navigated by the Sangomas, who practice spiritual healings but they also see themselves a Christians?

URK: That’s an important question for both the Christian Sangomas and the African traditional pagan Sangomas, because Sangoma powers are magic powers, apart from the divination. And magic is a neutral thing, it’s like fire: you can heat the fireplace with fire, you can light the candle, but you can also burn the house, or burn the countryside. Powers can be used in both ways. And if you can use them . . . it’s like telepathy: you can send a good wish to a friend or a family member, “Hope you will pass your exams”, or whatever. But you can also send harm. And this is the inherent ambivalence in the magic powers. Now as to the bodily aspects – and we have things like wedding rings, or we have photos of special objects of our parents, and gifts which we won’t drop on the floor, we’ll treat them with reverence, we have the idea in Christian European culture of blessed objects that you treat reverently accordingly. And this is a strong point of African traditional culture and philosophy, that the different realms of mind, and matter, and the intermediate realm, these are interconnected and the one works in the other. So you work with objects. But these objects are blessed or have some inherent power. They also have a spiritual and cultural aspect to it. And if you apply that to a body, we talked about the blood as being a substance of life. The body parts are perceived as having the powers of a person, like a person’s brains, a person’s heart, and kidneys and so on. And unfortunately, those who practice dark magic, who do magic for harm, they will kill people just to obtain the powerful parts of the bodies (25:00). And there is a special department in South African police, specialists. And this is a pest, it’s an African pest. People all over Africa get killed for magical purposes. It’s a real, real violent, evil thing. And it’s been treated with contempt and horror in African traditional culture already. But unfortunately, those people who do this kind of thing, often for a lot of money, they will promise you can get rich, you can kill your foes and things like that. So this is the darker side of it. As to sacrifice and ritual objects, this is something we share in European culture too.

MC-P: It’s interesting, that. So, if we just move away from thinking about just the general practices of the Sangoma, and thinking more about how academics might engage with this: could you, maybe, outline some of the ways in which this has been engaged with from an academic perspective? And you mentioned earlier about sort-of that balance between keeping an open mind, along with your scientific mind-set. So, thinking about academic approaches, do you think there are some who have aided in the understanding of Sangomas?

URK: Sure. Well actually, South Africans have been pioneers in this endeavour. And they remind me of something which Dr Lily Rose Nomfundo Mlisa told me. After her dissertation was published on the internet, a Jungian psychoanalyst associated with the CG Jung Institute in Zurich – that’s the headquarters – visited her. And the Association of Jungian Psychoanalysts of South Africa have invited her regularly, and continue to do so, for lectures. Last year, the international association of Jungian psychoanalysts held their world council in Vienna. And she was invited as a keynote speaker and there were over a thousand participants, 1400 participants and, at the end of her lecture, she received standing ovations from many of the participants who had tears on their faces. And that may illustrate the impact of her work. Now, those not too familiar with psychotherapy, Jungian psychoanalysis is the most expensive and prestigious form of psychoanalysis. It takes a long training. About 150-200, 000 Euros, just for the training. You need a broad basis in culture and knowledge of myth and so on. And that makes it an arduous and demanding and very rich form of psychoanalysis. And she was invited into that world congress there. Some decades ago, that relationship was the other way round when Cape Town Jungian psychoanalyst, Vera Bührmann, had long talks with the Sangoma from the Eastern Cape, and she recognised some similarities that fascinated her. However she tried to reduce the spiritual worldview of the Sangomas to the “collective unconscious“ in Jungian terms. Even a bit more reductive, in Freudian terms. And that, however, by doing so, eclipsed many features and phenomena. She misinterpreted them. However, she was a door-opener. And her booklet about these encounters is still worthwhile reading. Now this form of reductionism, fortunately, is on the wane. And when I studied Psychology in South Africa, there was a part called African Traditional Psychology. So there is a certain acceptance in academia that certain symptoms and experiences are culturally bound, and they have to be taken and accepted for real – whatever that is. Sort-of put into brackets. But the medical profession is also a practical and pragmatic profession. Because to do what heals is acceptable, even if you don’t know why that heals. But if it heals, it is good. And this is a door-opener. And then somebody else that we have to mention is JBF Laubscher. Laubscher was a trained psychoanalyst and psychiatrist in the early- mid twentieth century. And he worked at psychiatry hospital in the Eastern Cape, and befriended the local Sangoma there, and wrote about that friendship and about all the things he learned, and how it resonated with European spiritualistic worldviews at the time. And his book The Pagan Soul is available online. It’s quite good to read. Laubscher is the person’s name. That doctor’s name. The field of studies of esotericism, that field is not defined by a method, but by its subject. And at present, many scholars in the field regard Sangoma practice and its concepts as religious, which it is certainly not (30:00). Sangoma art and its cosmology and anthropology are not religious but divinatory. And that’s important. But cognitivism is the order of the day. And if you try to frame things in a cognitive way, like those constructions and imaginations, and so on, you can be sure that many people will applaud you before you even have said a sentence or two. But this is just reducing. Now there is another tradition of phenomenology. And the phenomenologists they are quite acute about exploring this field, and say, “Ok. What irregularities, what are patterns that recur? What is the logic of the whole thing? What of the phenomenon, the experiences? What is the transformation of that person? And some scholars in anthropology, like Victor and Edith Turner, have gone that way and have revived their initial approaches in epistemics to find epistemics that are suitable to cover the phenomena that they encounter. They’ve written about that. And the Turners are quite influential in anthropology. So there are traditions which one can connect to. Well more could be said but that’s in brief.

MC-P: Thank you. I think that’s really fascinating. And I really agree that when we’re as researchers, when we’re looking onto things such as this, it’s so important to avoid that reductionism, and absolutely, as you said, to keep an open mind as well as our scientific minds sort-of parallel. Well, that’s my approach anyways! But just in closing, I wanted to ask you . . . you sort-of covered it a little bit, but how would you encourage future researchers who were interested in something such as Sangomas or African Shamanism to explore this topic? And in what directions do you think this field might be moving into?

URK: Well, I believe it’s a promising field. It’s a promising field for various reasons. One thing is, in North American and Western European culture, there is a certain stage of post-secularism that we have arrived at. And sociologists of religion are quite unanimous in this diagnosis of a post-secular age that we have entered. Which means that we have the materialistic tradition still very strong and powerful in academia. But we also have a certain awareness that the world is more complex and that we are entering into post-secular stage. This goes along with a certain decline in Christianity, and some people have passed from Christianity into being “nothing at all”, materialists. And then they’ve found that this is not satisfying, they’re looking for something spiritual, and they might be especially fascinated by these various forms of divination and things like that. There are also traditions like that in European culture, and American culture from the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism and psychic research – that’s a great field! You will find much resonance between Sangoma culture and those submerged and sometimes lost European traditions that are re-emerging, too. Then it is interesting to research, how does the institution of Sangoma make the transition into urban South Africa? There are professionals who announce that on their websites that they may be a psychotherapist and also trained Sangoma. Those could be people who would be willing to share these things. You could do research on that: how had the training been conducted into the conditions of a modern industrial society? Which transformations are happening? This is a promising field of research: how does it interrelate, and what are the effects with the medical professions, psychotherapy and so on, and so on? How does the one maybe influence the other? Then, if you are a student of medicine, how does psychiatry, and the diagnosis of psychotic conditions, or schizophrenia in African traditional cultures, how does that fit with our present Western knowledge, or European/American knowledge of psychological disorders? And how does the impact of the spiritual aspects, how does that interrelate with that psychological sphere? This is a promising field, too. And there is quite a bit of research going on in South Africa, too. Then you might do research on regional forms of Sangoma practice: which people emphasise this or that aspect? How is the role defined in this culture, that culture, that culture? And if you have knowledge of Romance languages, if you know Portuguese, if you know French, there are vast fields of studies in that way. And, by the way, that said, some of the Sangoma heritage has flourished in Brazil, too. Over the past five centuries that’s very much alive, in a reduced form compared to the African complexity (35:00). But it is quite alive and it has been connected to an Afro-Brazilian religion, in whose fold this is practiced. This is Umbanda and it has certain aspects of Sangoma practice and divination, too. Then, to enter that field, read, read, read! There are works of Placide Tempels on African philosophy and worldviews; John Mbiti – he was a theologian and philosopher, who wrote about African traditional religion, philosophy and worldviews. Then, Axel-Ivar Berglund, Gabril Setiloane and quite a few others could be mentioned, too. I’ve mentioned some about the experience of training as a Sangoma. That gives you a good idea of the cultural frame, and the philosophy and epistemics that go along, in which these Sangoma practices are embedded. Then visit and consult with trained and properly graduated Sangomas that may be willing to share. And also be prepared to accept that many rites are guarded by secrecy. Nomfundo Mlisa more than once told me: “You’re a white man. You’re not supposed to know anything about these things. How do you know them? And I said “Well, the thing just comes to me.” “OK, so I’ll tell you come more.” But this is an ancient tradition, archaic secrecy. You just have to respect that sometimes doors are closed, and sometimes they open at another point. And somebody will be prepared to share with you.

MC-P: Absolutely

URK: But this is just respect for the things. Some rituals are simply not divulged unless you enter yourself. And then train your own mediumistic perceptions – all of us can to some degree, you become sensitive to that, and you can relate to that field in a different way. If you observe that somethings happen to you that shouldn’t happen, or you have premonitions and that, that sensitises you and you can relate this really intuitively to that field, which is quite important, too. And then let yourself accept that the phenomena can teach you a few things. And this sort-of turns the tables. And be prepared, if you enter that field, that field is going to work on you, sometimes quite suddenly, sometimes over long periods of time, but it does perceptibly work on you. And you are transformed in that way, too. And this is something quite beautiful to experience, if it happens. You cannot control it, but you can rejoice if it does happen to you. And so this is personally fruitful, apart from the vast and quite intellectually challenging field, and quite interesting field from various perspectives: philosophy, psychology, medicine, psychiatry, anthropology ethnology, cultural studies, and so on, and so on. Even music, embodiment studies, ritual studies. So there are quite a few perspectives to engage in this field.

MC-P: Absolutely and the list is quite endless! And you’ve certainly given us a few golden nuggets to take away there. And I’m sure, if there’s any students listening, that you might see a couple of dissertations. And I absolutely have to agree with you. I think any research that we’re doing into religion, or psychology of religion, or anthropology of religion, it has to change us. But I will definitely be sure to link your work – especially you mention Umbanda. I’ll definitely be linking that in the description on our Religious Studies Podcast webpage. But I really just wanted to thank you so, so much for sharing your knowledge, and sharing some of these experiences, and helping me to bring a subject that maybe isn’t known too broadly, to bring that to light as well. So I just end that by saying: thank you so much for your time.

URK: It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you, too.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Studying the “off-the-beaten-track”

In the fourth of our editors’ picks, Ray Radford takes “the soppy route on this choice, as David Robertson’s interview with David Wilson on ‘Spiritualism and Shamanism’ was the very first interview/podcast I heard from the RSP way back in my days as an undergrad. This podcast (along with some amazing lecturers and tutors) helped cement that religious studies was the right choice. This podcast helped me realise that my burgeoning interest was in religions that were off the beaten track (so to speak) and that there was so much out there that I can (and will and indeed at the moment, do) study.”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our social media manager, Ray Radford.

I’m taking the soppy route on this choice, as David Robertson‘s interview with David Wilson on ‘Spiritualism and Shamanism‘ was the very first interview/podcast I heard from the RSP way back in my days as an undergrad. This podcast (along with some amazing lecturers and tutors) helped cement that religious studies was the right choice. This podcast helped me realise that my burgeoning interest was in religions that were off the beaten track (so to speak) and that there was so much out there that I can (and will and indeed at the moment, do) study.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, such as David’s Redefining Shamanisms.

Sámi Shamanism – Up Close and Personal

In his RSP interview, David Gordon Wilson tells us why he started studying spiritualism and shamanism, his relation to shamanism now, and general problems one may face while studying these subjects.

Like Dr. Wilson, I believe there are multiple ways of defining shamanism, a task that many have pursued and one that I am not willing to take up here. The term “shaman” will be mentioned; however, due to the space limits of this essay, I will not spend time on definition, nor will I explain why I have chosen one definition opposed to another. Instead I will focus on describing my personal experience with Sámi shamanism at an indigenous festival in the north of Norway with hopes that it will be of interest to the RSP audience.

The Sámi

The Sámi are an indigenous group in Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia. The history between the Sámi and the Norwegian government has left a stain on the Sámi for generations:

 The Norwegianization policy undertaken by the Norwegian government from the 1850s up until the Second World War resulted in the apparent loss of Sami language and assimilation of the coastal Sami as an ethnically-distinct people into the northern Norwegian population. Together with the rise of an ethno-political movement since the 1970s, however, Sami culture has seen a revitalization of language, cultural activities, and ethnic identity (Brattland 2010:31).

Personal Insight

I grew up in the north of Norway and was taught from a very young age to be cautious of certain objects in nature: specific stones, trees, and areas. For example, certain rituals had to be performed when we travelled past a big rock called “Stallo.” Some would bow their heads three times as they passed “Stallo,” while others laid down coins at his feet. I was told to greet the rock out loud as we passed by his side. My mother always reminded my brother and me of this, and told us why it was important for good luck and a safe journey. She spoke of the rock as if he was alive and had power to do both good and bad. If we didn’t greet him, he could get cross and we could get hurt. Or so she told us.

At the time, I had no idea that this was an old Sámi custom. It was not until I started studying religion at the university that I realised I have Sámi roots. I confronted my mother and she informed me that my grandparents had rejected the Sámi language and culture. The reason for this, she said, was that they were ashamed of their origins and, sadly, they were not the only ones.

Little Storm on the Coast

My story is far from unique in Norway. In fact there is even a festival in the north of Norway that was founded by people with similar stories. The festival is called “Riddu Riđđu” which means “little storm on the coast.” Riddu Riđđu was created by a group of youths who sought answers to why the elders in the community spoke a different language, a language they were not allowed to learn. In other words, the festival started as a rebellion against those who had refused the Sámi society. The festival program has a wide variety of music, cultural performances, and workshops held by indigenous people from Norway and other parts of the world.

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

My Thesis, My Journey

I had barely heard of the festival when I started my master’s degree in religion and society at the University of Oslo in 2009. I had heard that, from its beginning, Riddu Riddu has been important for the Sámi population as a meeting place as well as for people who have lost their connection to the Sámi and wish to learn. I had also heard that there were shamans at the festival, Sámi shamans and others from around the world. Naturally, having just learnt of my Sámi background, I was intrigued, and chose, therefore, Riddu Riddu as my main topic for my master’s thesis, focusing on Sámi religion and identity.

According to one of the founders of Riddu Riđđu, Lene Hansen, the festival is almost like a religious gathering – people meet both spiritually and socially, and experience ethnic bonding and communality[1]. I had my focus on shamanism and found that, like David Gordon Wilson, speaking to individuals was the best approach.

Sámi Shamanism

Dr. Graham Harvey tells us in Shamanism: A Reader (2003) that the word ”shaman” is being used within several languages today. However, he warns us that the use of the terms ”shaman” and ”shamanism” can generalise a number of people as there are numerous local words for shamans (Harvey 2003:1). For example a Sámi shaman can be known as a noaide.

I spoke to a man, let´s call him “Tor”, at Riddu Riddu who is Sámi and a shaman, but refused to be called a noaide. Tor explained that while the word ”shaman” means ”the one who knows,” the word noaide means ”the one who sees” (directly translated from Norwegian) and refers to the ritual expert in the old Sámi society. According to Tor, the noaide was the most feared and at the same time the most respected person in the old Sámi community. If one happened to be on the bad side of a noaide, he or she could put a curse(gaine) on you. On the other side, Tor told me that the noaide was the person one sought out in crisis, as he or she was the only one who had direct contact with the spirit world and therefore had healing powers.

Enjoy The Drumming

Tor invited me and a few others to participate in a drum journey inside a gamme (see picture below). At the time, we had just learned that a bomb had gone off in Oslo and there were several casualties. Tor suggested that it was a good time to do a drum journey and we all agreed.

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

Inside the lavvu, he built a fire and we were asked to lie down on the reindeer pelt. He started drumming in a slow rhythm and after a while he started joiking (traditional Sámi form of song). The experience was calming, in my opinion, and quite enjoyable. Mostly because I was able to focus on enjoying the moment right there and then. This, I was told later, was the shamans’ main purpose for that particular drum journey: to be truly present for a moment. After the drum journey I spoke briefly to Tor about shamanism. He emphasized that shamanism consists of getting in touch with one’s feelings, internal life, and soul. For me, this remark seems to be quite universal when it comes to speaking of shamanism, however I am not trying to compare what Tor told me to what other shamans believe. It is just an observation.

It has taken several years for the Sámi to turn their shame of being Sámi into proudness. I believe Riddu Riđđu has played a role in that turning point by offering a positive place for Sámi and other indigenous people from around the world to meet, compare and differentiate between them.

Like Dr. Wilson, I started with an outsiders’ perspective, but, as the years went by, I ended up as an insider. I find Riddu Riđđu to be a place to learn about shamanism, the Sámi and even about my self.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

References

Brattland, Camilla 2010: Mapping Rights in Coastal Sami Seascapes, In: Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol. 1, 1/2010 p. 28–53.

Harvey, Graham 2003: Shamanism: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Henriksen, Marianne V.2011: “Å bli same”. En religionsvitenskapelig studie av Riddu Riddu Festivala i et rituelt perspektiv. MA thesis, the faculty of theology, University of Oslo. Reprosentralen. http://www.duo.uio.no/

Pedersen, Paul and Viken, Arvid 2009: ”Globalized Reinvention of Indigenuity. The Riddu Riddu Festival as a Tool for Ethnic Negotiation of Place,” In: Nyseth, Torill and Viken, Arild 2009: Place Reinvention: Northern Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

 

[1] Founder of Riddu Riddu, Lene Hansen quoted in Perdersen and Viken 2009:193

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritualism and Shamanism

Two firsts for the Religious Studies Project this week. Surprisingly, we’ve never talked about Shamanism, one of the watchwords of discourse on “indigenous religion” for scholars and laymen alike, insiders and outsiders. The term originates with the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who took it from a specific group in the Tunguskee region of Russia, and applied it universally to describe individuals who communicate with spirits for the benefit of their communities. For Eliade, Shamanism was one more example of a heirophany, an interjection of an ineffable sacred into the mundane world. Unsurprisingly, however, when such sui generis notions are disregarded, and the category examined from the data up, the category ceases to be easily defined.

In this interview, David Wilson tells us that while studying shamanism while undertaking training as a medium in the Spiritualist Church, he noticed that both seemed to exhibit similar features; an emphasis on healing, communication with the dead, as well as other “spiritual beings”, but most importantly, a pattern of training  through apprenticeship. After telling us about his own experiences of training, he outlines how this pattern of apprenticeship – an initial ‘calling’, a process of direct training from established mediums, beginning public practise and finally acceptance by the broader community. Wilson’s ‘apprenticeship’ model not only gives us a way to conceptualise shamanism without recourse to sui generis discourse, but draws interesting parallels between indigenous cultures and the somewhat hidden world of heterodox religious practices in the West, particularly in regards to the frequent presence of healthcare.

David’s book, Redefining Shamanisms, is available in all formats now. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

If you enjoyed this episode, the spirits tell me you may also enjoy our interview with Ann Taves on Religious Experience, our recent roundtable featuring David Wilson on Non-Ordinary Realities and our two-part collaboration with Jack Hunter on Religious Studies and the Paranormal (Part one. part two).

Superhero Shamans and Magickal Scribes: Appraising the study of Religion and Comics

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 24 October 2013, in response to A. David Lewis’s Interview on Religion in Comic Books (21 October 2013).

“What does a study of religion and comics look like?” A. David Lewis is asked at the beginning of this podcast. His answers, along with the wealth of essays in his co-edited volume, Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels, suggest that, happily, its boundaries have yet to be defined. In his broad-ranging conversation with Per Smith, Lewis highlights the many connections between religion and comic books; connections which arguably stretch back through woodcuttings and illuminated manuscripts to Egyptian hieroglyphics. This sometimes tempestuous relationship has given rise to some peculiar ironies. For instance, as Lewis points out, Chick Tracts have become the best-selling independent comics of all time, but are barely known outwith of the evangelical communities that utilise them. Another strange connection: Max Gaines founded Educational Comics by publishing Picture Stories from the Bible. When his son William took over the company following Gaine’s death, Educational Comics became Entertaining Comics, soon becoming infamous for its gore-ridden horror comics such as Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, a startling about-face from Picture Stories from the Bible! But the strange relations between comics and religion go beyond just these odd, amusing facts.

For instance, in Alvin Schwartz’s metaphysical memoir An Unlikely Prophet, the former Superman and Batman writer describes his encounters with a seven-foot Buddhist monk who is in fact a tulpa, an individual who was thought into being by a Tibetan mystic. This monk proceeds to teach Schwartz that Superman is also a tulpa. Schwartz’s memoirs point to a fascinating history of what Kripal (2010) and Knowles (2007) have described as the “surprisingly intimate ties” superhero comics have to “the histories of occultism, psychical research, and related paranormal phenomena” (Kripal, 2010:6). Indeed, it is hardly surprising that Lewis is now turning his attention to the depiction of death in superhero comics. Lewis’s description of this sub-genre, and it’s six recurring features – journey to the after-life; encounter with family member; dream/hallucination; opponent; heroic reversal; and liberation – inevitably calls to mind Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, opening the way for a fruitful dialogue between the study of comics and religion to other disciplines such as the study of mythology and folklore.

Certainly we might suggest Lewis’s closing statements, in which he highlights the capacity of the secular medium of comic books to introduce the reader to the transcendent points beyond just organised religions towards shamanism and other pre-modern spiritualties. Wright (2007), for example, has suggested that, “the modern superhero is a contemporary manifestation of the ancient shamanic role” (2007:127). Pedler has argued that, “Morrison’s mission […is] to make our reality as interesting as theirs, as surreal, full of every potential and possibility” (Pedler, 2009:264), making them, in effect, shamanic fictions. In this regard it is interesting that Lewis only briefly mentions Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, as it is another of those strange coincidences that two of the most prominent creators in the field are self-confessed magical practitioners. Certainly their work and philosophies extend far beyond the realm of Paganism mentioned by Lewis to include the Thelemic teachings of Aleister Crowley and the postmodern practices of Chaos Magick.

Lewis correctly points out that superhero comics have used invented religions to interrogate real-world religions. However, the work of Moore and Morrison demonstrate that comic books have been surprisingly welcoming of more ‘fringe’ spiritualities, or at least an intimation of more esoteric religious teachings, as in Klock’s (2004) suggestion that contemporary X-Men comics reflect what he calls a “Gnostic, or pessimistic, Post-humanism”, or the wealth of ascended Tibetan masters that populate superhero universes, such as the Ancient One who taught Marvel’s Dr. Strange to become ‘master of the mystic arts!’ Moreover, superhero comics present to us worlds in which the transcendent and the material are intertwined. Unlike our world, the universes that superheroes inhabit see no mutual exclusivity between science and magic. As Bainbridge says, “the premodern, the sacred, the mythological are replaced with science and technology […] in images like the Cosmic Cube, ego the Living planet, the scientific mythology of Asgard and the towering figure of Galactus” (2009:74).  It is arguably this blurring of categorical distinctions that has led many to note the affinities between superhero comics and modern spiritualities such as the ‘New Age’ Human Potential Movement, which itself combined Eastern spiritualities with the methodology of Western science.

As Lewis points out, Possamai has posited that superheroes comics may constitute a kind of hyper-religion, encouraging the reader to develop a manifest a vision of their ‘super-self’ (Possamai, 2006:60). Meanwhile, Kripal (2002) highlights the synchronicity of the foundation of the Esalen Institute coinciding with the introduction of the “evolutionary mythology” of Marvel’s X-Men in 1963. Indeed, Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute, the think tank-come-retreat set up to investigate human development and informed by a kind of “evolutionary mysticism”, cites Superman and other science-fictional texts as expressing, “intimations of capacities that are available to us” (Murphy, 1992:213), much as Jules Verne anticipated atomic power in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or H.G. Wells’ placement of The First Men on the Moon. Murphy wonders if such images, “might prefigure luminous knowings and powers […] that can be realized by the human race”.

As both Lewis’s book and interview demonstrate, the study of comic books and religion remains a rich and fertile field, from which our understanding of both comics and religion can only benefit. Certainly there is a thirst for such knowledge. The bewilderingly detailed website, comicbookreligion.com – where we discover that the Fantastic Four’s the Thing is Jewish, the Incredible Hulk is a lapsed catholic, while the X-Men’s Wolverine was “raised Protestant; sometimes atheist; has practiced Buddhism; sceptical seeker”- suggests that this interest is true of even non-academic audiences. The impetus for such studies can only be bolstered by the self-confessed interest in religion and transcendent experiences expressed by writers as varied as superhero comic luminaries Steve Engelhart, Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith, as well as the aforementioned Moore and Morrison and independent creators such as Craig Thompson (whose Blankets is an autobiographical account of his Evangelical Christian upbringing) and, surely, the unique and apocalyptic creations of Jack Chick.

This multiplicity of approaches and texts is to be celebrated. While still a young discipline the study of comics is now gaining momentum. As such there has been a tendency to study comics in the light of religion (and, more commonly, mythology), as a way of legitimating their object of study. As if to say, “look at this illegitimate art-form, it’s like something respectable that you are familiar with!” However, as the interview with Lewis, and, one hopes, this reply, demonstrate, if we take comics on their own terms, rather than as a shadow of some original source, they can also allow us to cast the shadow of comics onto those original sources, allowing us to discern or reclaim even the most illegitimate of religious experiences.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Bainbridge, J. (2009) “‘Worlds Within Worlds’: The Role of the Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes” in Angela Ndalianis (Ed.) The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero New York pp. 64-85
  • Klock, G (2004) “X-Men, Emerson and Gnosticism” Reconstruction 4:3 available online: http://reconstruction.eserver.org/043/Klock/Klock.html
  • Kripal, J. (2010) Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred University ofChicago Press
  • Murphy, M. (1992) The Future of the Body: explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature Los Angeles: Tarcher
  • Pedler, M. (2009) “Morrison’s Muscle Mystery Versus Everyday Reality…and Other Parallel Worlds!” in Ndalianis, A. The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero Oxon: Routledge pp.250-269
  • Possamai, A. (2006) “Superheroes and the development of latent abilities: A hyper-real enchantment?” in Hume, L. and Kathleen Mcphillips (eds) (2006) Popular Spiritualities: The Politics of Contemporary Enchantment Ashgate Publishing pp. 53-62
  • Schwartz, A. (1997) An Unlikely Prophet Vermont: Destiny Books

Marx, Spiritualism and Power

By David G. M. Wilson, Edinburgh.

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 20 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Titus Hjelm on “Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion” (18 June 2012).

Titus Hjelm and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion

I begin this response to Titus Hjelm’s discussion of the continuing relevance of Marxist approaches to the study of religion by noting his assertion that Marx is underemployed as a source of ideas, partly because he has generally been regarded as critical of religion. A number of additional reasons are also relevant. One difficulty for Marxist scholars has been the extent to which the predictive power of Marxist models was brought into question as the twentieth century unfolded. Yet many of Marx’s particular criticisms are not only relevant to western society of his day but continue to be relevant because of their ability to highlight the extent to which particular classes (or constituencies) are still able to maintain powerful social positions. The problems and characteristics of western society that were highlighted by Marxist approaches are still with us; if the predictive power of Marxist approaches has seemed problematic, this may simply be an indication that our understanding of the mechanisms involved has been partial.

Any plea for the continuing relevance of Marx is also a plea for the continuing importance of the sociological study of religion, of attending to the many aspects of the relationships that human beings maintain with each other. In the past, this stance has often relied upon insights derived from the core Marxist idea of class struggle, which has generally led scholars to focus upon collective behaviour. As Hjelm indicates, one possible response is to pay closer attention to the socially constructed ways in which human beings individually behave, and he mentions Peter Berger as a scholar using the Marxist concept of alienation to explore through critical discourse analysis the ways in which ideologies (including the teachings of particular religious traditions) maintain themselves (Norman Fairclough). The argument, essentially, is that there is progress to be made in understanding the mechanisms involved by examining particular examples.

This is an approach that may also offer insights relevant to the cognitive study of religion; for example, it may be possible to draw upon the work of scholars such as Barbara Rogoff, who explores human cognition as a socially constructed learning outcome. I am often heard making the argument that adherence to religious (and other) traditions can usefully be comprehended as an apprenticeship outcome, but in order to understand fully what I mean by this, it is important to attend not only to the linguistic dialogues people maintain with each other but also to their other behavioural dialogues. Rogoff’s emphasis upon human cognition as the outcome of an apprenticeship based upon guided participation is extremely valuable here. The human ability to think, to problem-solve, is acquired from those who have power over us during the years when we begin to come to consciousness. Hjelm is wise, therefore, to ask why social class (or other social constituency) tends not to be explored in religion, given that it has long been recognized that class and power are closely-connected.

This nexus of issues is particularly relevant to my own scholarly interests, which focus upon western mediumship as my particular specialism within spirit communication traditions, particularly shamanism. Spiritualism is often described as a ‘working-class religion’, based upon scholarly characterization of those who generally attend demonstrations of mediumship. It tends also to be described as ‘marginal’, even though scholars such as Martin Stringer suggest that resort to mediums and psychics is a widespread form of engagement with the ‘non-empirical’ in contemporary western society, something he regards as central to what religion is ‘about’. The marginality of Spiritualism lies not in a lack of those practising and/or interested but in its marginalization by more dominant discourses. It is not only more powerful religious discourses that are guilty here: the number of western scholars willing to conduct research in this field is small, a situation that is both the product of past marginalization and an effective way of ensuring continuing marginalization.

There is obvious scope for exploring the exclusion of Spiritualism as a class issue, but there is also scope for exploring the relationships within the Spiritualist movement in terms of the different constituencies, as I call them, that subsist within it. My own forthcoming book undertakes a certain amount of work here, exploring the institution of mediumship and how that craft is learned as being central to the maintenance of the Spiritualist movement. I also draw attention to Robin Wooffitt’s work ‘The Language of Mediums and Psychics’ as a valuable example of critical dialogue analysis, exploring the maintenance of mediumistic authority vis-à-vis clients, reminding us that ‘class’ distinctions are maintained within (as well as among) religious traditions, precisely because this is key to the maintenance of authority. Comprehending the internal exercise of power (between different classes or categories of practitioner or adherent) can be crucial in understanding the persistence of particular religious traditions, and may therefore be an important component in understanding the persistence of religion generally in a supposedly secularized western society.

Hjelm notes as classically Marxist the suggestion that more welfare (in the sense of material wellbeing) should lead to less religion, based upon the perception that if peoples’ material needs are met in this world, they become less interested in the next. A difficulty for traditional Marxist approaches is that, although western society has prospered, it has become clear that both religion and class have persisted. In this, Marx may have missed the transformative role religion can play in people’s lives (often only when relieved from pressing material need), because his concern was to highlight the extent to which religion as a coping mechanism can derive from the use of religion as a controlling mechanism.* Yet although Marxist approaches may not have offered an adequate explanation, many of the issues Marx was concerned with remain, challenging us to explore.

Marx’s concept of alienation was closely allied to his perception of capitalist systems of production (like their feudal predecessors) as decreasing the available social space for individual self-expression, a point made by Terry Eagleton. Unlike some Marxists, Marx was not a scholar who comprehended society in terms of monolithic, opposed classes but was, instead, a writer, an artist, who appreciated social variety as crucial to individual flowering and who opposed social forces that might hinder it, including (if not especially) the deliberate exercise of power so as to require conformity. Hjelm’s plea for a focus upon the individual and the induction of general rules from the careful, patient study of what people actually say and do is, I suggest, more truly Marxist than many previous (supposedly Marxist) approaches; at the very least, it implies a measure of respect.

  • The distinction between coping and transformative religion is taken from Stringer.

Bibliography

Eagleton, T.: 2011. Why Marx was Right, Yale University Press.

Fairclough, N.: 2010. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language, Longman, (2nd edn).

Luckmann, T. and Berger, P. L.: 1991. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin.

Rogoff, B.: 1990. Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press.

Stringer, M: 2008. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, Continuum.

Wilson, D. G. M.: forthcoming December 2012. Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes, Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic.

Wooffitt, R.: 2006. The Language of Mediums and Psychics: The Social Organization of Everyday Miracles, Ashgate.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

Podcasts

The African Shaman: Some Qualifications

The African Shaman: Some Qualifications

A response to Episode 334 ‘Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa’ with Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel by James Cox

In this interview, Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel outlines the place of indigenous healers and spiritual mediators in Bantu societies by focusing on the South African traditional practitioner, called a sangoma. Other terms are used to designate this same functionary in different countries across central and southern Africa. For example, in Zimbabwe, where I worked for a number of years, the Shona word for what is commonly called a traditional healer, is n’anga. Kleinhempel defines a sangoma as a ‘Bantu shaman’. For Kleinhempel, this serves as an umbrella term to classify a variety of practitioners who are specialists in esoteric methods through which they diagnose the causes of misfortune, provide treatments to alleviate problems and offer prognoses aimed at ensuring long-term well-being. Some sangomas primarily are herbalists, who frequently use mystical means to determine the causes of illness, such as being led in a dream to the appropriate herb to prescribe the remedy for a particular affliction. Others act as diviners, who, in southern Africa, use specially engraved bones or sticks (hakata in Shona) to diagnose the cause of individual or group afflictions and prescribe remedies. After throwing or casting the bones, the diviner ‘reads’ or interprets them according to their configuration. Perhaps the most revered traditional practitioner is one who becomes possessed by a spirit, often an ancestor spirit, who has adopted a descendant as his or her host. The adopted host becomes the ancestor’s voice and, in rituals of possession, the ancestor communicates directly with kinsfolk about causes and solutions to communal misfortune. In many cases that I have recorded in Zimbabwe, the ancestor, during the possession ceremony, claims to have been neglected ritually and, as a result, has permitted a series of misfortunes to occur, such as the failure of crops, a cluster of illnesses and deaths in the community or even social conflict. Only after the ancestor has been remembered and honoured in rituals of respect is the ancestral protection restored bringing a halt to the misfortunes. After the possession ritual is concluded, the spirit’s medium does not remember what occurred. [i]

Kleinhempel’s choice of the term ‘shaman’ to describe the traditional African healing specialist is problematic for two reasons. First, shamanism, as a collective and universal category, requires careful examination. It needs to be situated culturally as being derived from Arctic peoples, where it refers to a type of practitioner characterised by entering into trance experiences, during which the shaman ‘travels’ out of the body to lower, middle and upper worlds, or in the case of the Yup’ik shaman of Alaska, is transported to the edge of the world, goes under the ice into the sea or flies to the moon.[1]  In this context, the term ‘Bantu shaman’ can be misleading because it implies that it forms part of a worldwide, unified phenomenon. That this is Kleinhempel’s meaning is confirmed by his endorsement of Jungian psychotherapy in which the typological classification ‘shaman’ is interpreted as fitting into the collective unconscious. In most indigenous societies, specialists exist who apply spiritual remedies in response to individual and group misfortune, but they do not constitute a coordinated, universal movement. It is far better to consider the specialists called ‘shamans’ as sharing characteristics in common, while acknowledging that any similarities must be qualified by the cultural and social contexts in which they occur. [2]

A second, related, problem with using the term ‘Bantu shaman’ without clarification results from the distinction between shamanic trance and spirit possession. For example, traditional shamans, who operated until the early part of the twentieth century in Alaska,[3] or Greenlandic shamans of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as recorded in the historical study by Merete Jakobsen,[4] harnessed a host of helping spirits that they employed when they went on their shamanic journeys. These spirits had been mastered over a long period of struggle that caused the shaman deep suffering. After the spirits were fully in the shaman’s control, they assisted the shaman in overcoming powerful and dangerous spirits that threatened the welfare of the community. The shaman thus was the ‘master of spirits’, who fully remembered what happened during trance states. By contrast, in southern Africa, where spirit possession is the principal form of communication between the spirit world and the living community, the medium does not control, but is controlled by, the spirit. The calling to become a medium is initiated by the spirit and the success of the ritual during which the possession occurs depends on the spirit choosing to become manifest through the medium. That the medium does not remember what occurred during the possession experience further confirms that, unlike the Arctic shaman, a spirit medium is not in control of the possessing spirit, but is subject to the authority of the ancestor. The African medium can only be said to be in control of the spirit if this is understood in community terms. If the community follows the proper ritual protocols and prepares all the elements necessary for the ritual to succeed (such as brewing beer and informing the ancestors of their intentions), the spirit will appear through the chosen medium and converse with the community. The term shaman can only be applied in the strict sense if it is understood as ‘community shamanism’, where the control of events is dictated by community behaviour.[5]  This distinction is important if we are to avoid using unqualified generalisations to categorise localised cultural practices.

Another issue raised by Kleinhempel in his interview that I wish to address is methodological.  He quite rightly draws attention to the way African traditional worldviews were denigrated and at times demonised under the influences of colonialism, Christian missions, and Western education. He sees this tendency persisting today in the form of scientific reductionism, which rejects any spiritual or mystical explanation for causes of misfortune. In Africa, such explanations are found everywhere, although these are not generally understood by African communities as contradicting Western scientific rationality. Rather, they complement Western worldviews, adding depth to them by granting access to alternate forms of healing and sources of well-being. This point is well made by Kleinhempel, but I think he goes one step too far. His aim is not only to foster respect for African cultural practices, but he extends beyond this worthwhile goal by claiming that the African spirit world is ‘real’. What he means by ‘real’ is left somewhat unclear, but he appears to be claiming that the ubiquity of spirits that populate African cultural perspectives actually exist.[6] He cites phenomenological principles in support of this assertion and claims affinity with Victor and Edith Turner on this viewpoint. It is well known that after Victor Turner died, Edith, who was then working in Alaska, claimed that she had encountered spirits and as a result confirmed their ‘reality’. [7]

Although phenomenology has a well-developed philosophical tradition fostering intense empathy and intersubjectivity, as it has been applied in the study of religions, it refuses to make judgments on the reality or unreality of the beliefs of religious communities. This approach was voiced clearly by Ninian Smart in what he called ‘methodological agnosticism’.[8] I have argued that stage one in the phenomenological method employs the idea of epoché,  the suspension or bracketing out of prior assessments, such as ideas of ranking religions according to their proximity to rational thinking or previously formed opinions based on theological assumptions. This technique allows researchers to enter into communities they are studying by bringing to their consciousness their most obvious and distorting presuppositions. By reflexively becoming aware of their predispositions and placing them in brackets (the epoché), researchers can then employ the second stage in the method, empathetic interpolation, whereby they cultivate a feeling for the subjects of their research and relate what otherwise might appear to them as strange or bizarre in terms that are culturally comprehensible. The stage of empathetic interpolation aims at achieving understanding in depth (Verstehen) without either endorsing or rejecting the truth claims of believing communities. The third phase I have outlined is most relevant at this point: maintaining epoché, that is, continuing to suspend judgments about claims to truth or falsehood, either from believers’ perspectives or from the point of view of scientific rationality. The question of ‘real’ or ‘unreal’ does not arise; it remains bracketed.[9]

If this interpretation of phenomenology is applied in the case of the belief in African spirits and mystical causality, Kleinhempel’s objections to Western rationalism, scientific reductionism, and cognitive science, although understandable, are no more relevant to the academic study of religions than are his assertions about the ‘reality’ of the African spirit world. By combining the techniques of epoché and empathetic interpolation, the researcher conveys respect for the beliefs, practices, and alternate therapies forming the African worldview without either sanctioning or refuting them. Subsequent academic interpretations of African traditional practitioners and ritual specialists in this way are formed against the backdrop gained by the researcher entering into African perceptions of  a spirit world without falling prey to errors created by models derived from confessional theology.

[1]  James L. Cox 2007. From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions. Aldershot: Ashgate, 110-15.

[2] James L. Cox 2020. ‘Shamanism’ in A. Possamai and A.J. Blasi (eds). The Sage Encyclopedia of the Sociology of Religion, vol. 2. Los Angeles and London: Sage Reference, 747-8.

 [3] Ann Fienup Riordan 1994. Boundaries and Passages. Rule and Ritual in Yup’ik Eskimo Oral Tradition. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 288-310.

[4] Merete Demant Jakobsen 1999. Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing. New York and Oxford: Berghan Books, 39-146.

[5] James L. Cox 2008. ‘Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism’. DISKUS. The Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions 9 (Autumn). http://jbasr.com/basr/diskus/diskus9/index.html

[6] Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel 2017. ‘Covert Syncretism: The Reception of South Africa’s Sangoma Practise and Spirituality by “Double Faith” in the Contexts of Christianity and of Esotericism’. Open Theology 3(1), 642-661. https://www.degruyter.com/view/journals/opth/3/1/article-p642.xml

[7] Edith Turner 1997. ‘The Reality of Spirits’. Shamanism 10(1). https://www.shamanism.org/articles/article02page4.html.

[8] Ninian Smart 1973. The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 54.

[9] James L. Cox 2010.  An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion. London and New York: Continuum, 49-57.

[i]  James L. Cox 1998. Rational Ancestors. Scientific Rationality and African Indigenous Religions. Cardiff: Cardiff Academic Press, 199-219.

Protected: Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

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Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

In this episode, Dr. Maxinne Connolly-Panagopolus asks Dr. Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel how we might better understand and engage with South African Shamanism and Mysticism. Beginning with Sangomas or spiritual mediators, Dr. Kleinhempel introduces some of the types of Shaman which exist in the South African context such as the herbalist, who learns mystical powers from plants; the diviner, who uses oracles such as bones as objects for mediumship; and the seer, who relies on inspiration from dreams, telepathy and intuition. Turning to the complex configuration of race, heritage, and culture present in South Africa, the conversation moves to a discussion of  white Sangomas, and how these individuals are perceived by their community. Finally, within the region’s diverse religious landscape, Kleinhempel shares how Sangomas sometimes navigate multiple religious identities. Listen in for a discussion that encourages scholars to reflect on how they will negotiate the demands of critical inquiry alongside their own personal experiences or competing worldviews.

For more on Sangoma, Umbanda, and other specific elements of this conversation, please consider the following resources:

• Hall, J. (2009). Sangoma: my odyssey into the spirit world of Africa. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Covert Syncretism: The Reception of South Africa’s Sangoma Practise and Spirituality by “Double Faith” in the Contexts of Christianity and of Esotericism. Open Theology, 3(1), 642-661.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Spreading an Arcane Religion on the World Wide Web: Paradoxies of Transmission of the Contemporary Mysteries ‘Cult of Umbanda. Mistiko-ezotericheskie dvizhenie v teorii i praktike-mistitsizm i ezoterizm v mire teknologii, VIII mezhdunarodnaia nauchnaia konferentsia. St. Petersburg, 60-71.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2018). White Sangomas: the manifestation of Bantu forms of shamanic calling among whites in South Africa. REVER-Revista de Estudos da Religião, 18(1), 143-173.
• Contemporary Mysteries’ Cult of Umbanda – video lecture, 8th ASEM conference https://www.academia.edu/26147179/Contemporary_Mysteries_Cult_of_Umbanda_-_video_lecture_8th_ASEM_conference
• Mbiti, J. S. (1990). African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.
• Mlisa, N. L. R., & Nel, P. (2010). Ukuthwasa the training of Xhosa women as traditional healers: Ukuthwasa initiation of amagqirha and identity construction. Lap Lambert Academic.


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Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa

Podcast with Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (2 June 2020).

Interviewed by Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulos.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/exploring-african-shamanism-and-white-sangomas-in-south-africa/

Maxinne Connolly-Panogopoulos (MC-P): Hello, Ullrich! And a very warm welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Today, we’re recording between Glasgow and the edge of the forest in West Nuremburg. And even though we could do many podcasts on your body of work, from orthodox spirituality and theology, esotericism and syncretism, today I’d really like to focus on your 2018 article on white Sangomas and the Shamanic calling in South Africa. So, for the Listeners who are unfamiliar with this topic, might you start by explaining a little bit about what a Sangoma is?

Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (URK): Sangoma is basically a Bantu shaman. The word is used quite generically. It’s a Zulu word. Bantu – that’s the name for all the black African people who live in the land from West Africa – the end of Africa, where Cameroon is – in a straight line to East Africa – the Horn of Africa – to Kenya. And, south of that, the people are all related linguistically. The Bantu people emigrated to this realm from Nigeria. About four thousand years ago they began to migrate there. There were farmers and herdsmen and blacksmiths. And before they came there were hunter-gatherers, the Khoi-San, there – also known colloquially as Bushmen. They lived with other archaic peoples like pygmies and others who have vanished. The Khoi-San have a very well developed practice of mediumism and trance. The Khoi-San, the Bushmen, they engage in out-of-body travels of soul, calling of rain, calling of animals, relating to nature spirits, to ancestors souls, and the like. Quite a loose people, but with a well-developed culture in that way. They visit spirits at special sites like rock pools or water falls. They also do trance dance and spiritual healing. Now the Bantu people who came into that area learnt a lot from them. They intermarried and took up their spirits, respected them for what they are, and that distinguishes the Bantu people from other African people as West African. Now my sources are especially from the South African . . . the people of the amaXhosa: the people of Nelson Mandela. There are about as many people as there are Swedish people. And they have observed most from the Khoi-san – even the clicks in the language. You can (clicks) . . . six clicks. Now what is Bantu shamanism? There are basically three types of Bantu shamanism. The distinction and the combination varies from one people to the next. The first is the herbalist. They learn the medical powers of herbs from the tradition and by mediumism. They’re called iZinyanya iXhwele. You may be a bit surprised to find the herbalists enlisted here, but just imagine how many hundreds of medical plants are known to the shamanic people in South America, and in Africa. And these plants have never been found by experimental trials. Most of the patients would have died that way, because many plants are poisonous. And amongst these tens of thousands of plants there are in the wild, the plants that have curative powers have been revealed to the diviners in dreams. They dream of a patient who has a certain illness, like malaria. And then, all of a sudden, they’re shown in the dream where to go, and which plant to take, and how to treat it to make a medicine out of it. And that store of knowledge is vast. And medical companies, even to this day, send their scouts to those indigenous people to learn from their medical knowledge. And the second role is the diviner. The diviner who uses oracles like bones or similar objects in Bantu cultures. They are called the iSangoma. There are oracles in other cultures too, like West African Ifá – the oracle of the Yoruba people – or the European (audio unclear). And these oracles are quite sophisticated. It takes intuition; you must seek endowment; also some psychological knowledge and training to read them properly. Then there are the seers. Those are people who really, completely on their own, inspire dreams, premonitions, telepathy, visions, intuition. They’re called iSitunywa. And the African indigenous churches who integrate the African heritage, they regard them as prophets and have adopted that role completely. To talk meaningfully about these things you really have to set aside the positivistic and materialistic approach, maintain an acute scientific mind-set, be very clear on phenomenology, and basic research, and documentation, and listening to people, and be prepared to change your own concepts of reality. If you’re not prepared to do that but stick to a reductionist view, which says, “Oh, this is all cultural imaginations and constructions,” and so on, it’s like telling people “The moon is just a cultural construction – you can see that from mythology.” (5:00) and, “The moon is just some kind-of delusion to adapt in the course of evolution.” It’s wasting your time, and it’s wasting the time of readers and you won’t end up anywhere. So, just a fruitless exercise in ideology. If you engage in these things, be prepared that the people who have developed this kind of shamanism have been acute, intelligent people like you and me, over the centuries, over hundreds of years. And they have very fine powers of discernment. And maybe we are just, in a way, daft at these things, and just say, “Oh, well these things don’t exist!” Just to give a really brief comparison, just imagine you were a person who can’t hear. You go to study music, and read all these notes, and say, “Oh this is a wonderful cultural construction. But something like sound, you know, that doesn’t exist. Do you hear anything, I don’t.?” Ok. Now we have to accept that these things are real, because otherwise we are just getting nowhere. Now if you are interested in this topic, of course, at some point you will ask yourself, “Well, how can one become a Sangoma?” Well to say, “Ok, I’ll train to become a Sangoma”, that’s about to say, “Ok, I’ll be an opera singer one day.” Now, without perfect hearing, a good voice, a fine sense of music and harmony, you’re not going to get anywhere. You may study, study, study but you’re not going to end up being an opera singer. Now someone may say, “OK, I’ll be a musician and I’ll learn three chords on my guitar and say I’m a musician”, you know? These things, unfortunately, happen with Sangoma too. Because Sangoma is not a protected title at the moment, and the controls for who can call himself a Sangoma –mostly herself, as Sangoma is very much a female profession – that is at present not in the best condition. In traditional societies these things have been very regulated. There are boards of control, of education, of training, of examination – most arduous exams, comparable to an opera singer – before you would be qualified and accepted as a Sangoma. Now unfortunately, at present, this has been weakening. So a lot of quacks with a sense of money put up a shop sign, “I’m a Sangoma” and charge you a lot of money and “You will believe me, and I will do something for you.” And that’s ruining the profession, and it’s harming it very much. Now the first requirement to become a real Sangoma is a real mediumistic endowment. That usually shows up in childhood already. The child will dream of things in advance that will happen later, or may know, intuitively, that things like . . . or see spirits of familiar people who have just passed away. That child knowing, and saying “Mama, I saw our neighbour walking up the stairs!” And mama says “You can’t have, you must be dreaming. That person died two weeks ago.” That’s the kind of mediumistic endowment that turns up in childhood already. Now you need that mediumistic endowment, and then you need a calling. And that calling can turn up even pretty late in life. Strange dreams, recurring dreams with a sense of urgency. Strange accidents and incidents happen. All these kinds of things. And the person may feel they’re going mad, you know, getting insane, fearing for their sanity. This is quite a crisis. And if you decide . . . you may have to make a decision. They will either say, “Well, I have the means, and the time, and the willingness, and I’m prepared to follow that call, regardless of what it’s going to demand of me and cost me – that’s usually severe, this direction in life. Or you say, “No I can’t follow it. I’ll just have to reject it.” And you say then, “The calling will go away.” But usually it goes away at a price. So it leaves some traces in your soul. Some hurt. Now, if you heed the call, then you can experience that the spiritual field takes over, or as the Bantu people say, “The Spirits begin to take over.” They send you things, things are happening, meeting things, rare things and occasions which are just, you know, out of the normal. Then, if you’re in training, that’s a complex structured process. It’s been described quite a lot by two authors who have got long traditional training. The one is an academic psychologist, in South Africa, Dr Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa. And she wrote her dissertation, entitled, Ukuthwasa Initiation of Amagcirha: Identity construction in the training of Xhosa women as Traditional Healers. And the other is the American accomplished writer, many books. He wrote a book about his own calling which sent him to Swaziland for over three years. And his book has the title Sangoma: My Odyssey into the Spirit World of Africa. Just to remember the first author is Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa and the second is James Hall. You can find them both on the internet. The state of being in this process of training is called Inthwasa. This is feared, as Dr Mlisa explains and she writes: “It is inkathaz – madness – indeed, since it involves syndromic illness and a conglomerate of factors that culminate in various afflictions (10:00). . . . Sometimes ukuthwasa involves signs that resemble madness, such as hallucinations and illusions. . . . Entering into the ukuthwasa initiation heals the person.” And she states that the process of training is often feared as time consuming, expensive, disruptive to family life and employment, also involving obligations to heed the inspiration of ancestral spirits perpetually. Yet the afflictions suffered by someone who experiences signs of spiritual calling are so severe that people sometimes feel they can’t avoid that call. They just have to follow it, may it cost what it does. It could be possible but to reject it a high price. Now Mlisa defines seven stages of the training process. The first is the prediction stage, igqirha. The igqirha, this is the manifestations of mediumism at an early stage. Then the second stage is the calling comes, which is called ubizo. At this stage dreams affect them, troubles intensify, and serious action has to be undertaken. Then comes this stage of intense afflictions, when things get really into a crisis. And when this happens, usually the master Sangomas will say, “Ok this is a sign things are getting serious. We can take that person for training. We will accept that person. These things are genuine and are powerful.” And then comes the stage which actually lasts the whole time: confusion, resistance or acceptance. You have regrets, you say, “Oh, I’m maybe not suitable, I don’t have the abilities to do it, maybe it’s all just an illusion, maybe I have psychic problems”, and so on, and so on. And that may go right up to end of exams, or the day before examinations. And all of us who have passed examinations, I think, know these kind of feelings

MC-P: Absolutely.

QRK: Then comes the real stage that is Ukuvuma Ukufa – that’s where intensified training begins. And this training involves a series of rituals like the formal beading and donning of the attire of a trainee. Now you’re visibly a trainee. Then rites of cleansing, acceptance of death – because transformation is also a kind-of death of your previous ego and the person you were – illness, suffering, and you have to be baptised, at that stage, as a trainee. Then comes cleansing rituals of the body, the homestead environment. Also sacrificial rituals. This is a side where not everybody will be happy with, but sacrifices are done because the blood is perceived as a substance bearing the power of life and spiritual quality, too. Then comes the rights of acceptance, with sacrifice and prayers for the initiate. And the initiate has to learn quite a lot. That comprises, for instance – I will quote Mlisa again: “The trainer is entirely convinced that umkhwetha has a calling and she has committed to it. She has to demonstrate skills and abilities in the divining system – assessments, diagnosis and preparing treatments – then exclusion from family life and social life intensifies and new restrictions are introduced. Her food restrictions differ markedly from the previous stage.… She must also help in mentoring her juniors. Most of the time, umkhwetha is expected to work independently, but under the strict guidance of the trainer. She becomes an assistant to her trainer. She can also lead certain procedures and rituals under the guidance. Moreover, she must demonstrate more expertise and knowledge in understanding how various herbs are collected, stored and used.” End of quote. Then comes Ukuphuma – that’s the last stage of intensive training. Again, certain rituals adjoin to it. But that includes: long times of isolating and seclusion; ritual pilgrimages and rites; special sites in nature, sometimes shown in dreams where to go; spiritual retreats; sacrificial rituals; public proofs of mediumistic prowess – like, for instance, the trainee is called into a room. And in the room, somewhere, a coin is hidden – under a bookshelf, or wherever. That person who enters has to find that coin and find it quick. And things like that. These are really demanding tests. And if you pass them sufficiently, then you do a name change to show your new identity. And there comes the rites of public investiture, and public acceptance as a new role as they progressed to Igqirha or Sangoma. Then comes the stage of being accepted into the communities of Igqirhas or Sangomas as a full member. That is a really dignified ordination. And then you’re still expected to go for lifelong learning. As long as you are, there maybe somebody who knows more, maybe in a certain field and you go train with him or you go for seclusion and pilgrimage. All these things. This is a life-long process. And at present, professional boards of Sangomas and traditional Igqirhas are organising, and have organised already, and are getting legally recognised and integrated into the healthcare system, to safeguard the proficient standards and protect from imposters and quacks (15:00).

MC-P: Brilliant!

URK: So this is a way to give you an overview of this.

MC-P: Yes. Thank you for that, thank you. That was a really, really great overview, as you say, about the whole process. And it’s wonderful to hear those clicks again and your pronunciation is fantastic! I’m really quite interested, as well, especially in your paper regarding the white Sangomas, you speak about them having to, of course, have the same process. And I wonder, how are these individuals received in their communities? And maybe what are some of the cultural or religious tensions surrounding white Sangomas?

URK: Well, this is a complex issue that has to be taken quite seriously. Because it touches on the issues of collective and cultural identities, and respect for culture, and all of these things. Now, we have this concept of “cultural appropriation”, which means, basically, you cannot take something from somebody else’s culture. Although by those standards, if you apply them strictly, we as Europeans or Africans would not be allowed to read and write because the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, and then that’s their cultural property. Of course, we read and write! So this has limits. But from a philosophical point of view of African culture and the worldview, there is a quite clear answer to that. And this provides a basis of how to do things legitimately. Also, for people coming from outside like whites. Because in the acceptance and the manifestation of a Sangoma’s divination, you connect with spirits. Now these spirits are, firstly, those who actually guard the whole process and are the masters of the process. Now in this process you connect to you own family’s ancestors, spirits that turn up in dreams – like, you may dream of your great-grandfather who you never saw, but you know it’s him. And you know this person has a message for you. Or maybe he will guide you, and accompany you. So your own family’s ancestral spirits, first of all. And then, secondly, essentially the ancestral spirits of the master Sangoma with whom you do your training. Some of – usually her, it’s mostly a female profession but there are some males – her, or his, own mentor spirits will also become part of your own spiritual realm. And they will begin to exert authority over you. So this is the point where inevitably, African, black African spirits, Bantu spirits will enter into the realm, consciousness and sub-consciousness and the spiritual realm of a white trainee. Then there are the spirits of the land where you do your training, especially where you were born. You are perceived to be connected, spiritually, to the place you were born. That makes a black person born in Europe a European spiritually, in a certain way, and a white person born in Africa an African, in a certain way. Because you’re connected to the spirits of the land. And you may visit that place, and connect there spiritually, and feel you are connected, and things like that. Then also, the spirts of your place, land of origin, where your people come from. And then, also, spirits of other people, objects, or places – like, you stood in front of a painting and the person who was depicted, all of a sudden that person would turn up in your dreams. So close, emotionally close, significant connections can also connect you to spirits maybe of a long, long time ago. And those spirits in these classes that have taken abode in you, and guide you, and are revealed to you by dreams, intuitions, special occurrences, most of all in trance. Also positon trance – and even there’s a type of position trance dance where the spirit enters your body and expresses itself by certain movements before you begin to recognise that spirit. So these spirits come to you, and some of them become important for you. They will stay with you and connect with them. And you get their powers and advice. Also healing powers, divinatory powers. And then you have an assortment of individual spirits: obviously, if you are a white person, your European ancestral spirits, your family spirits, and the African spirits of the land, and the trainer. If you gather these spirits you also take in their fate. They may have experienced much suffering in their life and you may experience bouts of anguish or sorrow that you can’t explain from your own life. But you feel a desperate fear, sorrow, anxiety which is that of a mentor spirit. So you live part of their life again. It sensitises you to certain things, so that means you also have certain price, you live with those spirits intrinsically (20:00). They also guard you. And James Hall observed, him being a Catholic, that these spirits are similar in a way to the saints of Catholic piety. A saint also was a person that lived, and the saint is, in a way, a spirit in the other world who will still guard you. So things can also happen like, if a black Bantu African mentor Sangoma has some white person up in the ancestor line, that Bantu may also have a white spirit in his own family spirits. Because in South Africa, there was intermarriage all through the centuries. Now the acceptance in communities, the institution of Sangomas or Igqirhas is a very respected profession. It’s like the social status of a psycho-analyst. These people are respected. Sangomas are really revered persons. And this institution has made the transition from rural society into modern South Africa. It’s also made the transition from the pagan culture into Christian culture. And today, if you look up on the internet, you will find professionals in many fields such as psychologists, teachers, academics, medical doctors and so on, who also trained and graduated as Sangomas. The majority of South Africans, statistically, have consulted with a Sangoma at some point in life, like myself, and sometimes in addition to a medical doctor or psychotherapist, and that’s a very special experience. The institution of Sangomas has successfully made the transition into Christian realm, first through the African indigenous churches, to integrate the African spiritual heritage and its forms. They created the offices of the prophet, praying for healing, praying for any of these things. The mainline churches are gradually beginning to accept that. There are some Evangelical churches who will say . . . or fundamentalist Catholics who will say, “Oh, this is all of the Devil.” But still they have some form of recognition of it. Whites, especially in rural areas, at all times consult with Sangomas if they knew no other counsel, or had special powers, but that was usually done in secrecy.

MC-P: I just wanted to pick up on that. So you mentioned the movement from pagan to Christian, and then you also, in your outline of what exactly it takes to become a Sangoma, you mentioned some sacrificial aspects. And so if we think about Sangomas more broadly, thinking about this identification as a Christian as well as the darker side of some African Shamanic practice – for example, the use of human body parts in rituals – how is this navigated by the Sangomas, who practice spiritual healings but they also see themselves a Christians?

URK: That’s an important question for both the Christian Sangomas and the African traditional pagan Sangomas, because Sangoma powers are magic powers, apart from the divination. And magic is a neutral thing, it’s like fire: you can heat the fireplace with fire, you can light the candle, but you can also burn the house, or burn the countryside. Powers can be used in both ways. And if you can use them . . . it’s like telepathy: you can send a good wish to a friend or a family member, “Hope you will pass your exams”, or whatever. But you can also send harm. And this is the inherent ambivalence in the magic powers. Now as to the bodily aspects – and we have things like wedding rings, or we have photos of special objects of our parents, and gifts which we won’t drop on the floor, we’ll treat them with reverence, we have the idea in Christian European culture of blessed objects that you treat reverently accordingly. And this is a strong point of African traditional culture and philosophy, that the different realms of mind, and matter, and the intermediate realm, these are interconnected and the one works in the other. So you work with objects. But these objects are blessed or have some inherent power. They also have a spiritual and cultural aspect to it. And if you apply that to a body, we talked about the blood as being a substance of life. The body parts are perceived as having the powers of a person, like a person’s brains, a person’s heart, and kidneys and so on. And unfortunately, those who practice dark magic, who do magic for harm, they will kill people just to obtain the powerful parts of the bodies (25:00). And there is a special department in South African police, specialists. And this is a pest, it’s an African pest. People all over Africa get killed for magical purposes. It’s a real, real violent, evil thing. And it’s been treated with contempt and horror in African traditional culture already. But unfortunately, those people who do this kind of thing, often for a lot of money, they will promise you can get rich, you can kill your foes and things like that. So this is the darker side of it. As to sacrifice and ritual objects, this is something we share in European culture too.

MC-P: It’s interesting, that. So, if we just move away from thinking about just the general practices of the Sangoma, and thinking more about how academics might engage with this: could you, maybe, outline some of the ways in which this has been engaged with from an academic perspective? And you mentioned earlier about sort-of that balance between keeping an open mind, along with your scientific mind-set. So, thinking about academic approaches, do you think there are some who have aided in the understanding of Sangomas?

URK: Sure. Well actually, South Africans have been pioneers in this endeavour. And they remind me of something which Dr Lily Rose Nomfundo Mlisa told me. After her dissertation was published on the internet, a Jungian psychoanalyst associated with the CG Jung Institute in Zurich – that’s the headquarters – visited her. And the Association of Jungian Psychoanalysts of South Africa have invited her regularly, and continue to do so, for lectures. Last year, the international association of Jungian psychoanalysts held their world council in Vienna. And she was invited as a keynote speaker and there were over a thousand participants, 1400 participants and, at the end of her lecture, she received standing ovations from many of the participants who had tears on their faces. And that may illustrate the impact of her work. Now, those not too familiar with psychotherapy, Jungian psychoanalysis is the most expensive and prestigious form of psychoanalysis. It takes a long training. About 150-200, 000 Euros, just for the training. You need a broad basis in culture and knowledge of myth and so on. And that makes it an arduous and demanding and very rich form of psychoanalysis. And she was invited into that world congress there. Some decades ago, that relationship was the other way round when Cape Town Jungian psychoanalyst, Vera Bührmann, had long talks with the Sangoma from the Eastern Cape, and she recognised some similarities that fascinated her. However she tried to reduce the spiritual worldview of the Sangomas to the “collective unconscious“ in Jungian terms. Even a bit more reductive, in Freudian terms. And that, however, by doing so, eclipsed many features and phenomena. She misinterpreted them. However, she was a door-opener. And her booklet about these encounters is still worthwhile reading. Now this form of reductionism, fortunately, is on the wane. And when I studied Psychology in South Africa, there was a part called African Traditional Psychology. So there is a certain acceptance in academia that certain symptoms and experiences are culturally bound, and they have to be taken and accepted for real – whatever that is. Sort-of put into brackets. But the medical profession is also a practical and pragmatic profession. Because to do what heals is acceptable, even if you don’t know why that heals. But if it heals, it is good. And this is a door-opener. And then somebody else that we have to mention is JBF Laubscher. Laubscher was a trained psychoanalyst and psychiatrist in the early- mid twentieth century. And he worked at psychiatry hospital in the Eastern Cape, and befriended the local Sangoma there, and wrote about that friendship and about all the things he learned, and how it resonated with European spiritualistic worldviews at the time. And his book The Pagan Soul is available online. It’s quite good to read. Laubscher is the person’s name. That doctor’s name. The field of studies of esotericism, that field is not defined by a method, but by its subject. And at present, many scholars in the field regard Sangoma practice and its concepts as religious, which it is certainly not (30:00). Sangoma art and its cosmology and anthropology are not religious but divinatory. And that’s important. But cognitivism is the order of the day. And if you try to frame things in a cognitive way, like those constructions and imaginations, and so on, you can be sure that many people will applaud you before you even have said a sentence or two. But this is just reducing. Now there is another tradition of phenomenology. And the phenomenologists they are quite acute about exploring this field, and say, “Ok. What irregularities, what are patterns that recur? What is the logic of the whole thing? What of the phenomenon, the experiences? What is the transformation of that person? And some scholars in anthropology, like Victor and Edith Turner, have gone that way and have revived their initial approaches in epistemics to find epistemics that are suitable to cover the phenomena that they encounter. They’ve written about that. And the Turners are quite influential in anthropology. So there are traditions which one can connect to. Well more could be said but that’s in brief.

MC-P: Thank you. I think that’s really fascinating. And I really agree that when we’re as researchers, when we’re looking onto things such as this, it’s so important to avoid that reductionism, and absolutely, as you said, to keep an open mind as well as our scientific minds sort-of parallel. Well, that’s my approach anyways! But just in closing, I wanted to ask you . . . you sort-of covered it a little bit, but how would you encourage future researchers who were interested in something such as Sangomas or African Shamanism to explore this topic? And in what directions do you think this field might be moving into?

URK: Well, I believe it’s a promising field. It’s a promising field for various reasons. One thing is, in North American and Western European culture, there is a certain stage of post-secularism that we have arrived at. And sociologists of religion are quite unanimous in this diagnosis of a post-secular age that we have entered. Which means that we have the materialistic tradition still very strong and powerful in academia. But we also have a certain awareness that the world is more complex and that we are entering into post-secular stage. This goes along with a certain decline in Christianity, and some people have passed from Christianity into being “nothing at all”, materialists. And then they’ve found that this is not satisfying, they’re looking for something spiritual, and they might be especially fascinated by these various forms of divination and things like that. There are also traditions like that in European culture, and American culture from the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism and psychic research – that’s a great field! You will find much resonance between Sangoma culture and those submerged and sometimes lost European traditions that are re-emerging, too. Then it is interesting to research, how does the institution of Sangoma make the transition into urban South Africa? There are professionals who announce that on their websites that they may be a psychotherapist and also trained Sangoma. Those could be people who would be willing to share these things. You could do research on that: how had the training been conducted into the conditions of a modern industrial society? Which transformations are happening? This is a promising field of research: how does it interrelate, and what are the effects with the medical professions, psychotherapy and so on, and so on? How does the one maybe influence the other? Then, if you are a student of medicine, how does psychiatry, and the diagnosis of psychotic conditions, or schizophrenia in African traditional cultures, how does that fit with our present Western knowledge, or European/American knowledge of psychological disorders? And how does the impact of the spiritual aspects, how does that interrelate with that psychological sphere? This is a promising field, too. And there is quite a bit of research going on in South Africa, too. Then you might do research on regional forms of Sangoma practice: which people emphasise this or that aspect? How is the role defined in this culture, that culture, that culture? And if you have knowledge of Romance languages, if you know Portuguese, if you know French, there are vast fields of studies in that way. And, by the way, that said, some of the Sangoma heritage has flourished in Brazil, too. Over the past five centuries that’s very much alive, in a reduced form compared to the African complexity (35:00). But it is quite alive and it has been connected to an Afro-Brazilian religion, in whose fold this is practiced. This is Umbanda and it has certain aspects of Sangoma practice and divination, too. Then, to enter that field, read, read, read! There are works of Placide Tempels on African philosophy and worldviews; John Mbiti – he was a theologian and philosopher, who wrote about African traditional religion, philosophy and worldviews. Then, Axel-Ivar Berglund, Gabril Setiloane and quite a few others could be mentioned, too. I’ve mentioned some about the experience of training as a Sangoma. That gives you a good idea of the cultural frame, and the philosophy and epistemics that go along, in which these Sangoma practices are embedded. Then visit and consult with trained and properly graduated Sangomas that may be willing to share. And also be prepared to accept that many rites are guarded by secrecy. Nomfundo Mlisa more than once told me: “You’re a white man. You’re not supposed to know anything about these things. How do you know them? And I said “Well, the thing just comes to me.” “OK, so I’ll tell you come more.” But this is an ancient tradition, archaic secrecy. You just have to respect that sometimes doors are closed, and sometimes they open at another point. And somebody will be prepared to share with you.

MC-P: Absolutely

URK: But this is just respect for the things. Some rituals are simply not divulged unless you enter yourself. And then train your own mediumistic perceptions – all of us can to some degree, you become sensitive to that, and you can relate to that field in a different way. If you observe that somethings happen to you that shouldn’t happen, or you have premonitions and that, that sensitises you and you can relate this really intuitively to that field, which is quite important, too. And then let yourself accept that the phenomena can teach you a few things. And this sort-of turns the tables. And be prepared, if you enter that field, that field is going to work on you, sometimes quite suddenly, sometimes over long periods of time, but it does perceptibly work on you. And you are transformed in that way, too. And this is something quite beautiful to experience, if it happens. You cannot control it, but you can rejoice if it does happen to you. And so this is personally fruitful, apart from the vast and quite intellectually challenging field, and quite interesting field from various perspectives: philosophy, psychology, medicine, psychiatry, anthropology ethnology, cultural studies, and so on, and so on. Even music, embodiment studies, ritual studies. So there are quite a few perspectives to engage in this field.

MC-P: Absolutely and the list is quite endless! And you’ve certainly given us a few golden nuggets to take away there. And I’m sure, if there’s any students listening, that you might see a couple of dissertations. And I absolutely have to agree with you. I think any research that we’re doing into religion, or psychology of religion, or anthropology of religion, it has to change us. But I will definitely be sure to link your work – especially you mention Umbanda. I’ll definitely be linking that in the description on our Religious Studies Podcast webpage. But I really just wanted to thank you so, so much for sharing your knowledge, and sharing some of these experiences, and helping me to bring a subject that maybe isn’t known too broadly, to bring that to light as well. So I just end that by saying: thank you so much for your time.

URK: It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you, too.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Studying the “off-the-beaten-track”

In the fourth of our editors’ picks, Ray Radford takes “the soppy route on this choice, as David Robertson’s interview with David Wilson on ‘Spiritualism and Shamanism’ was the very first interview/podcast I heard from the RSP way back in my days as an undergrad. This podcast (along with some amazing lecturers and tutors) helped cement that religious studies was the right choice. This podcast helped me realise that my burgeoning interest was in religions that were off the beaten track (so to speak) and that there was so much out there that I can (and will and indeed at the moment, do) study.”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our social media manager, Ray Radford.

I’m taking the soppy route on this choice, as David Robertson‘s interview with David Wilson on ‘Spiritualism and Shamanism‘ was the very first interview/podcast I heard from the RSP way back in my days as an undergrad. This podcast (along with some amazing lecturers and tutors) helped cement that religious studies was the right choice. This podcast helped me realise that my burgeoning interest was in religions that were off the beaten track (so to speak) and that there was so much out there that I can (and will and indeed at the moment, do) study.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, such as David’s Redefining Shamanisms.

Sámi Shamanism – Up Close and Personal

In his RSP interview, David Gordon Wilson tells us why he started studying spiritualism and shamanism, his relation to shamanism now, and general problems one may face while studying these subjects.

Like Dr. Wilson, I believe there are multiple ways of defining shamanism, a task that many have pursued and one that I am not willing to take up here. The term “shaman” will be mentioned; however, due to the space limits of this essay, I will not spend time on definition, nor will I explain why I have chosen one definition opposed to another. Instead I will focus on describing my personal experience with Sámi shamanism at an indigenous festival in the north of Norway with hopes that it will be of interest to the RSP audience.

The Sámi

The Sámi are an indigenous group in Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia. The history between the Sámi and the Norwegian government has left a stain on the Sámi for generations:

 The Norwegianization policy undertaken by the Norwegian government from the 1850s up until the Second World War resulted in the apparent loss of Sami language and assimilation of the coastal Sami as an ethnically-distinct people into the northern Norwegian population. Together with the rise of an ethno-political movement since the 1970s, however, Sami culture has seen a revitalization of language, cultural activities, and ethnic identity (Brattland 2010:31).

Personal Insight

I grew up in the north of Norway and was taught from a very young age to be cautious of certain objects in nature: specific stones, trees, and areas. For example, certain rituals had to be performed when we travelled past a big rock called “Stallo.” Some would bow their heads three times as they passed “Stallo,” while others laid down coins at his feet. I was told to greet the rock out loud as we passed by his side. My mother always reminded my brother and me of this, and told us why it was important for good luck and a safe journey. She spoke of the rock as if he was alive and had power to do both good and bad. If we didn’t greet him, he could get cross and we could get hurt. Or so she told us.

At the time, I had no idea that this was an old Sámi custom. It was not until I started studying religion at the university that I realised I have Sámi roots. I confronted my mother and she informed me that my grandparents had rejected the Sámi language and culture. The reason for this, she said, was that they were ashamed of their origins and, sadly, they were not the only ones.

Little Storm on the Coast

My story is far from unique in Norway. In fact there is even a festival in the north of Norway that was founded by people with similar stories. The festival is called “Riddu Riđđu” which means “little storm on the coast.” Riddu Riđđu was created by a group of youths who sought answers to why the elders in the community spoke a different language, a language they were not allowed to learn. In other words, the festival started as a rebellion against those who had refused the Sámi society. The festival program has a wide variety of music, cultural performances, and workshops held by indigenous people from Norway and other parts of the world.

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

My Thesis, My Journey

I had barely heard of the festival when I started my master’s degree in religion and society at the University of Oslo in 2009. I had heard that, from its beginning, Riddu Riddu has been important for the Sámi population as a meeting place as well as for people who have lost their connection to the Sámi and wish to learn. I had also heard that there were shamans at the festival, Sámi shamans and others from around the world. Naturally, having just learnt of my Sámi background, I was intrigued, and chose, therefore, Riddu Riddu as my main topic for my master’s thesis, focusing on Sámi religion and identity.

According to one of the founders of Riddu Riđđu, Lene Hansen, the festival is almost like a religious gathering – people meet both spiritually and socially, and experience ethnic bonding and communality[1]. I had my focus on shamanism and found that, like David Gordon Wilson, speaking to individuals was the best approach.

Sámi Shamanism

Dr. Graham Harvey tells us in Shamanism: A Reader (2003) that the word ”shaman” is being used within several languages today. However, he warns us that the use of the terms ”shaman” and ”shamanism” can generalise a number of people as there are numerous local words for shamans (Harvey 2003:1). For example a Sámi shaman can be known as a noaide.

I spoke to a man, let´s call him “Tor”, at Riddu Riddu who is Sámi and a shaman, but refused to be called a noaide. Tor explained that while the word ”shaman” means ”the one who knows,” the word noaide means ”the one who sees” (directly translated from Norwegian) and refers to the ritual expert in the old Sámi society. According to Tor, the noaide was the most feared and at the same time the most respected person in the old Sámi community. If one happened to be on the bad side of a noaide, he or she could put a curse(gaine) on you. On the other side, Tor told me that the noaide was the person one sought out in crisis, as he or she was the only one who had direct contact with the spirit world and therefore had healing powers.

Enjoy The Drumming

Tor invited me and a few others to participate in a drum journey inside a gamme (see picture below). At the time, we had just learned that a bomb had gone off in Oslo and there were several casualties. Tor suggested that it was a good time to do a drum journey and we all agreed.

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

Inside the lavvu, he built a fire and we were asked to lie down on the reindeer pelt. He started drumming in a slow rhythm and after a while he started joiking (traditional Sámi form of song). The experience was calming, in my opinion, and quite enjoyable. Mostly because I was able to focus on enjoying the moment right there and then. This, I was told later, was the shamans’ main purpose for that particular drum journey: to be truly present for a moment. After the drum journey I spoke briefly to Tor about shamanism. He emphasized that shamanism consists of getting in touch with one’s feelings, internal life, and soul. For me, this remark seems to be quite universal when it comes to speaking of shamanism, however I am not trying to compare what Tor told me to what other shamans believe. It is just an observation.

It has taken several years for the Sámi to turn their shame of being Sámi into proudness. I believe Riddu Riđđu has played a role in that turning point by offering a positive place for Sámi and other indigenous people from around the world to meet, compare and differentiate between them.

Like Dr. Wilson, I started with an outsiders’ perspective, but, as the years went by, I ended up as an insider. I find Riddu Riđđu to be a place to learn about shamanism, the Sámi and even about my self.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

References

Brattland, Camilla 2010: Mapping Rights in Coastal Sami Seascapes, In: Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol. 1, 1/2010 p. 28–53.

Harvey, Graham 2003: Shamanism: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Henriksen, Marianne V.2011: “Å bli same”. En religionsvitenskapelig studie av Riddu Riddu Festivala i et rituelt perspektiv. MA thesis, the faculty of theology, University of Oslo. Reprosentralen. http://www.duo.uio.no/

Pedersen, Paul and Viken, Arvid 2009: ”Globalized Reinvention of Indigenuity. The Riddu Riddu Festival as a Tool for Ethnic Negotiation of Place,” In: Nyseth, Torill and Viken, Arild 2009: Place Reinvention: Northern Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

 

[1] Founder of Riddu Riddu, Lene Hansen quoted in Perdersen and Viken 2009:193

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritualism and Shamanism

Two firsts for the Religious Studies Project this week. Surprisingly, we’ve never talked about Shamanism, one of the watchwords of discourse on “indigenous religion” for scholars and laymen alike, insiders and outsiders. The term originates with the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who took it from a specific group in the Tunguskee region of Russia, and applied it universally to describe individuals who communicate with spirits for the benefit of their communities. For Eliade, Shamanism was one more example of a heirophany, an interjection of an ineffable sacred into the mundane world. Unsurprisingly, however, when such sui generis notions are disregarded, and the category examined from the data up, the category ceases to be easily defined.

In this interview, David Wilson tells us that while studying shamanism while undertaking training as a medium in the Spiritualist Church, he noticed that both seemed to exhibit similar features; an emphasis on healing, communication with the dead, as well as other “spiritual beings”, but most importantly, a pattern of training  through apprenticeship. After telling us about his own experiences of training, he outlines how this pattern of apprenticeship – an initial ‘calling’, a process of direct training from established mediums, beginning public practise and finally acceptance by the broader community. Wilson’s ‘apprenticeship’ model not only gives us a way to conceptualise shamanism without recourse to sui generis discourse, but draws interesting parallels between indigenous cultures and the somewhat hidden world of heterodox religious practices in the West, particularly in regards to the frequent presence of healthcare.

David’s book, Redefining Shamanisms, is available in all formats now. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

If you enjoyed this episode, the spirits tell me you may also enjoy our interview with Ann Taves on Religious Experience, our recent roundtable featuring David Wilson on Non-Ordinary Realities and our two-part collaboration with Jack Hunter on Religious Studies and the Paranormal (Part one. part two).

Superhero Shamans and Magickal Scribes: Appraising the study of Religion and Comics

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 24 October 2013, in response to A. David Lewis’s Interview on Religion in Comic Books (21 October 2013).

“What does a study of religion and comics look like?” A. David Lewis is asked at the beginning of this podcast. His answers, along with the wealth of essays in his co-edited volume, Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels, suggest that, happily, its boundaries have yet to be defined. In his broad-ranging conversation with Per Smith, Lewis highlights the many connections between religion and comic books; connections which arguably stretch back through woodcuttings and illuminated manuscripts to Egyptian hieroglyphics. This sometimes tempestuous relationship has given rise to some peculiar ironies. For instance, as Lewis points out, Chick Tracts have become the best-selling independent comics of all time, but are barely known outwith of the evangelical communities that utilise them. Another strange connection: Max Gaines founded Educational Comics by publishing Picture Stories from the Bible. When his son William took over the company following Gaine’s death, Educational Comics became Entertaining Comics, soon becoming infamous for its gore-ridden horror comics such as Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, a startling about-face from Picture Stories from the Bible! But the strange relations between comics and religion go beyond just these odd, amusing facts.

For instance, in Alvin Schwartz’s metaphysical memoir An Unlikely Prophet, the former Superman and Batman writer describes his encounters with a seven-foot Buddhist monk who is in fact a tulpa, an individual who was thought into being by a Tibetan mystic. This monk proceeds to teach Schwartz that Superman is also a tulpa. Schwartz’s memoirs point to a fascinating history of what Kripal (2010) and Knowles (2007) have described as the “surprisingly intimate ties” superhero comics have to “the histories of occultism, psychical research, and related paranormal phenomena” (Kripal, 2010:6). Indeed, it is hardly surprising that Lewis is now turning his attention to the depiction of death in superhero comics. Lewis’s description of this sub-genre, and it’s six recurring features – journey to the after-life; encounter with family member; dream/hallucination; opponent; heroic reversal; and liberation – inevitably calls to mind Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, opening the way for a fruitful dialogue between the study of comics and religion to other disciplines such as the study of mythology and folklore.

Certainly we might suggest Lewis’s closing statements, in which he highlights the capacity of the secular medium of comic books to introduce the reader to the transcendent points beyond just organised religions towards shamanism and other pre-modern spiritualties. Wright (2007), for example, has suggested that, “the modern superhero is a contemporary manifestation of the ancient shamanic role” (2007:127). Pedler has argued that, “Morrison’s mission […is] to make our reality as interesting as theirs, as surreal, full of every potential and possibility” (Pedler, 2009:264), making them, in effect, shamanic fictions. In this regard it is interesting that Lewis only briefly mentions Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, as it is another of those strange coincidences that two of the most prominent creators in the field are self-confessed magical practitioners. Certainly their work and philosophies extend far beyond the realm of Paganism mentioned by Lewis to include the Thelemic teachings of Aleister Crowley and the postmodern practices of Chaos Magick.

Lewis correctly points out that superhero comics have used invented religions to interrogate real-world religions. However, the work of Moore and Morrison demonstrate that comic books have been surprisingly welcoming of more ‘fringe’ spiritualities, or at least an intimation of more esoteric religious teachings, as in Klock’s (2004) suggestion that contemporary X-Men comics reflect what he calls a “Gnostic, or pessimistic, Post-humanism”, or the wealth of ascended Tibetan masters that populate superhero universes, such as the Ancient One who taught Marvel’s Dr. Strange to become ‘master of the mystic arts!’ Moreover, superhero comics present to us worlds in which the transcendent and the material are intertwined. Unlike our world, the universes that superheroes inhabit see no mutual exclusivity between science and magic. As Bainbridge says, “the premodern, the sacred, the mythological are replaced with science and technology […] in images like the Cosmic Cube, ego the Living planet, the scientific mythology of Asgard and the towering figure of Galactus” (2009:74).  It is arguably this blurring of categorical distinctions that has led many to note the affinities between superhero comics and modern spiritualities such as the ‘New Age’ Human Potential Movement, which itself combined Eastern spiritualities with the methodology of Western science.

As Lewis points out, Possamai has posited that superheroes comics may constitute a kind of hyper-religion, encouraging the reader to develop a manifest a vision of their ‘super-self’ (Possamai, 2006:60). Meanwhile, Kripal (2002) highlights the synchronicity of the foundation of the Esalen Institute coinciding with the introduction of the “evolutionary mythology” of Marvel’s X-Men in 1963. Indeed, Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute, the think tank-come-retreat set up to investigate human development and informed by a kind of “evolutionary mysticism”, cites Superman and other science-fictional texts as expressing, “intimations of capacities that are available to us” (Murphy, 1992:213), much as Jules Verne anticipated atomic power in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or H.G. Wells’ placement of The First Men on the Moon. Murphy wonders if such images, “might prefigure luminous knowings and powers […] that can be realized by the human race”.

As both Lewis’s book and interview demonstrate, the study of comic books and religion remains a rich and fertile field, from which our understanding of both comics and religion can only benefit. Certainly there is a thirst for such knowledge. The bewilderingly detailed website, comicbookreligion.com – where we discover that the Fantastic Four’s the Thing is Jewish, the Incredible Hulk is a lapsed catholic, while the X-Men’s Wolverine was “raised Protestant; sometimes atheist; has practiced Buddhism; sceptical seeker”- suggests that this interest is true of even non-academic audiences. The impetus for such studies can only be bolstered by the self-confessed interest in religion and transcendent experiences expressed by writers as varied as superhero comic luminaries Steve Engelhart, Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith, as well as the aforementioned Moore and Morrison and independent creators such as Craig Thompson (whose Blankets is an autobiographical account of his Evangelical Christian upbringing) and, surely, the unique and apocalyptic creations of Jack Chick.

This multiplicity of approaches and texts is to be celebrated. While still a young discipline the study of comics is now gaining momentum. As such there has been a tendency to study comics in the light of religion (and, more commonly, mythology), as a way of legitimating their object of study. As if to say, “look at this illegitimate art-form, it’s like something respectable that you are familiar with!” However, as the interview with Lewis, and, one hopes, this reply, demonstrate, if we take comics on their own terms, rather than as a shadow of some original source, they can also allow us to cast the shadow of comics onto those original sources, allowing us to discern or reclaim even the most illegitimate of religious experiences.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Bainbridge, J. (2009) “‘Worlds Within Worlds’: The Role of the Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes” in Angela Ndalianis (Ed.) The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero New York pp. 64-85
  • Klock, G (2004) “X-Men, Emerson and Gnosticism” Reconstruction 4:3 available online: http://reconstruction.eserver.org/043/Klock/Klock.html
  • Kripal, J. (2010) Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred University ofChicago Press
  • Murphy, M. (1992) The Future of the Body: explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature Los Angeles: Tarcher
  • Pedler, M. (2009) “Morrison’s Muscle Mystery Versus Everyday Reality…and Other Parallel Worlds!” in Ndalianis, A. The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero Oxon: Routledge pp.250-269
  • Possamai, A. (2006) “Superheroes and the development of latent abilities: A hyper-real enchantment?” in Hume, L. and Kathleen Mcphillips (eds) (2006) Popular Spiritualities: The Politics of Contemporary Enchantment Ashgate Publishing pp. 53-62
  • Schwartz, A. (1997) An Unlikely Prophet Vermont: Destiny Books

Marx, Spiritualism and Power

By David G. M. Wilson, Edinburgh.

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 20 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Titus Hjelm on “Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion” (18 June 2012).

Titus Hjelm and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion

I begin this response to Titus Hjelm’s discussion of the continuing relevance of Marxist approaches to the study of religion by noting his assertion that Marx is underemployed as a source of ideas, partly because he has generally been regarded as critical of religion. A number of additional reasons are also relevant. One difficulty for Marxist scholars has been the extent to which the predictive power of Marxist models was brought into question as the twentieth century unfolded. Yet many of Marx’s particular criticisms are not only relevant to western society of his day but continue to be relevant because of their ability to highlight the extent to which particular classes (or constituencies) are still able to maintain powerful social positions. The problems and characteristics of western society that were highlighted by Marxist approaches are still with us; if the predictive power of Marxist approaches has seemed problematic, this may simply be an indication that our understanding of the mechanisms involved has been partial.

Any plea for the continuing relevance of Marx is also a plea for the continuing importance of the sociological study of religion, of attending to the many aspects of the relationships that human beings maintain with each other. In the past, this stance has often relied upon insights derived from the core Marxist idea of class struggle, which has generally led scholars to focus upon collective behaviour. As Hjelm indicates, one possible response is to pay closer attention to the socially constructed ways in which human beings individually behave, and he mentions Peter Berger as a scholar using the Marxist concept of alienation to explore through critical discourse analysis the ways in which ideologies (including the teachings of particular religious traditions) maintain themselves (Norman Fairclough). The argument, essentially, is that there is progress to be made in understanding the mechanisms involved by examining particular examples.

This is an approach that may also offer insights relevant to the cognitive study of religion; for example, it may be possible to draw upon the work of scholars such as Barbara Rogoff, who explores human cognition as a socially constructed learning outcome. I am often heard making the argument that adherence to religious (and other) traditions can usefully be comprehended as an apprenticeship outcome, but in order to understand fully what I mean by this, it is important to attend not only to the linguistic dialogues people maintain with each other but also to their other behavioural dialogues. Rogoff’s emphasis upon human cognition as the outcome of an apprenticeship based upon guided participation is extremely valuable here. The human ability to think, to problem-solve, is acquired from those who have power over us during the years when we begin to come to consciousness. Hjelm is wise, therefore, to ask why social class (or other social constituency) tends not to be explored in religion, given that it has long been recognized that class and power are closely-connected.

This nexus of issues is particularly relevant to my own scholarly interests, which focus upon western mediumship as my particular specialism within spirit communication traditions, particularly shamanism. Spiritualism is often described as a ‘working-class religion’, based upon scholarly characterization of those who generally attend demonstrations of mediumship. It tends also to be described as ‘marginal’, even though scholars such as Martin Stringer suggest that resort to mediums and psychics is a widespread form of engagement with the ‘non-empirical’ in contemporary western society, something he regards as central to what religion is ‘about’. The marginality of Spiritualism lies not in a lack of those practising and/or interested but in its marginalization by more dominant discourses. It is not only more powerful religious discourses that are guilty here: the number of western scholars willing to conduct research in this field is small, a situation that is both the product of past marginalization and an effective way of ensuring continuing marginalization.

There is obvious scope for exploring the exclusion of Spiritualism as a class issue, but there is also scope for exploring the relationships within the Spiritualist movement in terms of the different constituencies, as I call them, that subsist within it. My own forthcoming book undertakes a certain amount of work here, exploring the institution of mediumship and how that craft is learned as being central to the maintenance of the Spiritualist movement. I also draw attention to Robin Wooffitt’s work ‘The Language of Mediums and Psychics’ as a valuable example of critical dialogue analysis, exploring the maintenance of mediumistic authority vis-à-vis clients, reminding us that ‘class’ distinctions are maintained within (as well as among) religious traditions, precisely because this is key to the maintenance of authority. Comprehending the internal exercise of power (between different classes or categories of practitioner or adherent) can be crucial in understanding the persistence of particular religious traditions, and may therefore be an important component in understanding the persistence of religion generally in a supposedly secularized western society.

Hjelm notes as classically Marxist the suggestion that more welfare (in the sense of material wellbeing) should lead to less religion, based upon the perception that if peoples’ material needs are met in this world, they become less interested in the next. A difficulty for traditional Marxist approaches is that, although western society has prospered, it has become clear that both religion and class have persisted. In this, Marx may have missed the transformative role religion can play in people’s lives (often only when relieved from pressing material need), because his concern was to highlight the extent to which religion as a coping mechanism can derive from the use of religion as a controlling mechanism.* Yet although Marxist approaches may not have offered an adequate explanation, many of the issues Marx was concerned with remain, challenging us to explore.

Marx’s concept of alienation was closely allied to his perception of capitalist systems of production (like their feudal predecessors) as decreasing the available social space for individual self-expression, a point made by Terry Eagleton. Unlike some Marxists, Marx was not a scholar who comprehended society in terms of monolithic, opposed classes but was, instead, a writer, an artist, who appreciated social variety as crucial to individual flowering and who opposed social forces that might hinder it, including (if not especially) the deliberate exercise of power so as to require conformity. Hjelm’s plea for a focus upon the individual and the induction of general rules from the careful, patient study of what people actually say and do is, I suggest, more truly Marxist than many previous (supposedly Marxist) approaches; at the very least, it implies a measure of respect.

  • The distinction between coping and transformative religion is taken from Stringer.

Bibliography

Eagleton, T.: 2011. Why Marx was Right, Yale University Press.

Fairclough, N.: 2010. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language, Longman, (2nd edn).

Luckmann, T. and Berger, P. L.: 1991. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin.

Rogoff, B.: 1990. Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press.

Stringer, M: 2008. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, Continuum.

Wilson, D. G. M.: forthcoming December 2012. Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes, Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic.

Wooffitt, R.: 2006. The Language of Mediums and Psychics: The Social Organization of Everyday Miracles, Ashgate.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.