Non-Fiction Reviews: Shamans, Healers & Medicine Men, and Short History Encyclopaedias

Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men [1987/1992] by Holger Kalweit★★★★★

“Shamanism…is not a somehow obscure or incomprehensible or mysterious magical path, but a simple heightening of the emotional experience of the world; “the goal of the shamanic path of initiation is to broaden and deepen the normal emotionality that we all know” [Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 219].

It is time for me to continue with my “Non-Fiction November” reading challenge. This book, translated from the German, is by Holger Kalweit, a German ethnologist and psychologist who studied shamanism in different corners of the world, including in Hawaii, the American Southwest, Mexico and Tibet. With concrete examples drawn from the Ainu, Siberian, Yahgan and other shamanic traditions, Kalweit delves into the very heart of shamanism and explains detailly the nature of being a shaman, “a possessor of profound knowledge that cannot be grasped in words”. From shamanic training, testing and rituals inducing trance to shamanic healing powers, and duels and competitions, Kalweit touches on many topics and hardly stops there, elucidating further on such concepts as consciousness, reality, dreaming and on a variety of parapsychological phenomena, including “magic”, visions and near-death experience. The result is a comprehensive, endlessly perceptive and inspiring book.

Holger Kalweit starts his book with these words: “there are three things our culture has forgotten: basic health, healing, and holiness …”these concepts have the same goal: sanity, integrity, completeness, salvation, happiness, liberation, magic” [Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 1]. The path of shamans is to simply bring themselves into harmony with nature’s laws, to engage in “spiritual re-shaping”. The author says that “there are as many forms of shamanic training as there are cultures with shamans”, but broadly “[s]hamans participate in two worlds…their physical mother is responsible for their first birth; for their second, the godfather may be a cosmic life-giver, a god, or a spirit [Kalweit, 1987/92: 18].One chapter in this book section is titled “Lightning Shamans” where the talk is about shamanic initiation by a lightning bolt. For example, in the Siberian Buryats’ tradition, “the lightning shaman is imbued with the power of the lightning bolt” and in the tradition of the indigenous people of the Andes, the appearance of a lightning signals the initiation experience of a shaman [Kalweit, 1987/92: 46].

Kalweit is an author who is acutely aware of colonialism, intellectual and scientific imperialism, ethnocentricity and all kinds of prejudice that can plague anthropological study and research, and draws differences between the Western, traditional, reason/logic-oriented views on various phenomena and the tribal, more emotion/intuition/spirituality-oriented views on the same concepts. Kalweit’s point is that it is wrong to put one above the other since both, in equal measure, form part of the normal human experience of the world. For example, the West is quick to designate shamanic behaviour as abnormal or pathological, which is an incorrect way of thinking. However, the relation between the two does exist, writes Kalweit:  “the psychotic is…no shaman, but shamans pass through psychotic episodes, venturing as they do to the edges of being’s abyss – and psychotics pass sporadically through shamanic episodes, have genuine shamanic insights and glimpses into the higher world” Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 213]. He also states that though the West sees the path of shamanic initiation as “degenerate”, in tribal societies, the path is accepted and encouraged [1987/92: 54], and “the high cultures of Asia see the transformation of human consciousness…[as] something holy and worth striving for” [1987/92: 53].

“…magic is neither a cultural fantasy of primitive people nor a complex of symbols and metaphors; rather, it is the natural means of exploration of a much more complex structure of consciousness than that currently used by the modern sciences in their exploration of reality. Magic is not below our present level of knowledge but beyond it. Magic is a state of cognition that psychology has yet to attain [Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 189].

There were a number of chapters in the book that recalled to me The Way of Zen [1957] by Alan Watts, especially chapters that talked about trance, a state of deep-hypnosis which may be brought about by drumming, a rhythm, a chant. The vital component of entering a trance-like state is “courage to let oneself go completely”: the West “have always struggled between letting go of the self and keeping a tight rein of waking consciousness to establish security through reason.” [1987/92: 78] Referencing William James and Aldous Huxley, Kalweit talks here about the many benefits of reaching this mystic state, including help with learning new languages, realising one’s creativity and “gaining access to a field of consciousness beyond a three-dimensional space” [1987/92: 80]. Apparently, sportsmen during important sporting competitions and people coming very close to dying (or experiencing other very stressful or emotional events) sometimes spontaneously experience these states too, which open to them a whole different world.

As I am particularly interested in the nature of consciousness, it was fascinating for me to read paragraphs devoted to it, too: our consciousness is neutral; it knows neither good nor evil; it is beyond human value criteria. The powers with which shamans work are neither black nor white, neither positive nor negative. They are applicable to all human objectives”[Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 191]; “consciousness is…independent of the brain….[it] is the origin and the future of all that is living, an expression of a higher order of space and time, of a limitless essence” [1987/92: 33]; The author puts a strong case forward against the mythologizing and discrediting altered states of consciousness. He says that they should not be designated to the ego level [1987/92: 82, 213] and some people do experience different levels of consciousness without being aware of it: “children remain unconsciously caught up in their experience; psychotics are persecuted and tortured by it. Shamans elegantly master both worlds, the normal and the altered, and are intermediaries between the two” [Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 220].

Ecstasy, trance, and enlightenment are an abolition of time. Time is our greatest enemy, the most damaging of all illusions” [Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 241].

Kalweit’s book is certainly a more accessible book than previously reviewed by me Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy [1951] by Mircea Eliade. If Eliade’s book explains beliefs, traditions and practises of shamanism across different cultures and regions of the world more or less systematically, Kalweit’s book goes into greater depth on each of the core ideas implicit in, and reasons behind, shamanic beliefs and rituals. Kalweit’s conclusive remarks and predictions are quite bold: “the journey to other spiritual words…is an indispensable part of the psychology of the future, of genuine shamanic therapy [Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 221]; “we…may hope that the anthropology of the future, in investigating the higher potential of humanity through the example of the shaman, will develop a genuine understanding of the “other world” rather than persisting in the antiquated “charlatan theory” [1987/92: 34]. Kalweit is a proponent of transpersonal anthropology that could be contrasted with tradition anthropology. Whereas the latter views shamans “from the outside”, transpersonal anthropology involves “broadening our ideas and our range of experience and calling us to tread in the footsteps of the shamans” [Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 262].

Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men is one eye-opening and persuasive book on shamanism, detailing how the tradition should be viewed, studied and understood.  

A Viking Town [1993/2010] by Fiona Macdonald & Mark Bergin★★★★★

A wise man is never far from his weapons” (Viking saying)

This Inside Story series of illustrated books designed for young reader is a fascinating read. A Viking Town opens up the world of Vikings who lived between 800 and 1100 AD. Colourful illustrations accompany the text that details Vikings’ daily life in a typical town (Hedeby is chosen as an example). From Vikings’ ship-building, elaborate “boat” funerals and overseas trade to their recreational activities, and food and drink, the book touches on many aspects. Despite Vikings’ well-known image as ruthless sea adventurers, many were in fact farmers dedicated to their land, though the book also talks about Vikings’ infamous raids that terrified western and eastern Europe. The book contains much interesting information besides, for example, it explains the origin of the word “slave” (“sclavus” in Medieval Latin) which comes from “Slav” people from the Eastern Europe, such as Russia, that were taken as slaves by Vikings, and talks of Leif Erikson, a Norse explorer, who is said to have made a voyage to North America 500 years before Columbus.

A Medieval Cathedral [1991] by Fiona Macdonald & John James★★★★1/2

A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

This is another illustrated history book geared towards juveniles, but which I nonetheless recommend to everyone. This book talks about medieval cathedrals and how people built those “prayers in stone”. It provides a very detailed illustrated account, from choosing the site and building the foundation to different types of craftsmen engaged in the work and their daily routine in the Middle Ages. It also talks about pilgrim journeys, monasteries and “miracle” plays.

A Medieval Monastery [1996/2010] by Fiona Macdonald & Gerald Wood ★★★★★

This illustrated book introduces medieval monasteries. The great thing about it is that, unlike Macdonald’s A Medieval Cathedral, it is far from being only about monasteries and their construction and explains to the young reader the Christian faith, its calendar, its saints, the path of becoming a monk or a nun, their hierarchy within a monastery and daily routine, medieval hospitals and and even parchment-making. Among the monasteries introduced are Mont-Saint-Michel and St Hugh Church at Cluny.

A Samurai Castle [1995/2010] by Fiona Macdonald, John James & David Antram★★★★★

Warriors have only one judge of honour and character, and this is themselves. Decisions they make and how these decisions are carried out are a reflection of who they truly are(Samurai Code of Conduct, Virtue meiyo (Honour), Nitobe)

This short encyclopaedia focuses on samurai castles in Japan and is a great introductory material. The castles remain an important part of Japanese culture and history, and “many of Japan’s great cities began as castle towns“. I have always thought that learning about history is so much more informative and entertaining through illustrations and this book has plenty of those, bringing to life the precise building of castles, offering insight into the different rankings within the Japanese society at that time (senior-class samurai were daimyo (lords), whereas lower-class were officers in daimyo‘s private armies), and talking about common pastimes of castle owners and rules of etiquette. One of the most interesting chapters is titled A Day in a Life of a Samurai, and new information for me was the mention of Numata Jakō (1544 -1618), a noble woman who took a very active warrior part during the siege of Tanabe.

7 thoughts on “Non-Fiction Reviews: Shamans, Healers & Medicine Men, and Short History Encyclopaedias

  1. “there are three things our culture has forgotten: basic health, healing, and holiness …” <—The true true🐲I like your bits about Way of The Zen☯️the chants, the identity of the warrior. This subject is of keen interest to me. Thanks for this amazing review. Very enlightening🙌🏼

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was drawn to the comment about consciousness being ‘neutral’. It is an interesting speculation. However, if consciousness does not stem from the brain, that suggests it can exist in non-life. Is that really what the author is saying?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is an interesting observation, thanks. The author does not elaborate on this since the book is not really about that, but I think it is safe to say that he regards consciousness as something much more complex and all-encompassing than simply being one of the “functions” of a living brain or its “side effect”. What this complexity or extensiveness means remains a mystery. I think just because the author says that consciousness does not stem from the brain does not necessary mean that he believes it can stem from non-life forms too because it may originate in the concept of “a soul”, “breath”, “living force”, whatever one may call it in all living things (and thus not necessarily in their brains). He may believe it concerns non-life too, but I am not sure he does.

      Actually, I have put Kalweit’s book “Dreamtime and Inner Space” on my TBR, too, and I think this book answers all the questions about the author’s views on consciousness, should be a thought-provoking read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. My reading in the past has taken me to Gaia Theory, which postulates the earth as an ‘organism’. Of course, the theory doesn’t go quite as far as saying the planet is conscious. However, Isaac Asimov in his fiction developed the idea of a planet on which everything is conscious to a degree, even the rocks and plants. I have always loved his story (Foundation’s Edge) and though I don’t believe in conscious rocks, he almost convinced me.


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