In my not-so humble opinion, a lot of nonsense gets talked about whether someone in the West can call themselves a shaman because, some insist, “shaman is a Siberian word and we’re not Siberians.” The truth is, we are shamans. By ‘we’, I mean the people who journey into the Otherworlds, who talk with the spirits, who bring back lost souls, who guide the dead and who experience the fire in the head.
For instance, if you were to sell pizzas down the Old Kent Road in London, you’d still be a pizza salesmen, even if you weren’t an Italian.
What’s more, if we don’t give ourselves a name, a label, then how will people know how to find us when they’re looking for someone who can REALLY talk to the spirits? It’s difficult enough for people to understand what we do without us over-complicating it by coming over all apologetic, self-effacing and fuzzy. Because not every mind-body-spirit healer can talk to the spirits and I would go even further to say not MANY mind-body-spirit healers can talk to the spirits. They may have a vague sense or hope or faith that spirit guides are supporting their actions, but they don’t actually see them and talk to them like we shamans do.
My point is, if we real shamans don’t own this word ‘shaman’, then every Tom, Dick and snake oil salesman will take it from us to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of their own mediocre skills.
Even famous clairvoyants and mediums are usually just highly skilled hypnotists. They hypnotise you into feeling that they’re telling you the truth and the hypnotic state lasts just about long enough for you to cross their palm with some suitable plastic and exit through their beaded curtain. They’re mostly successful with clients who are very suggestible. You’d have to be quite suggestible in the first place, to go to one. Also, few of us like to admit to being ripped off and so we just shove the whole tacky experience to the backs of our minds, while clinging on to the straws of the one or two things the clairvoyant managed to get right.
This is nothing to do with shamanism. But if those of us with the fire in our heads don’t start standing up to be counted by calling ourselves shamans, and describing in very clear terms what we do, we’ll be lumped in with all those other end-of-the-pier shysters and hucksters and New Age misty-eyed do-gooders.
We are the real deal. We are the shamans, the people who feel sometimes like we have fire in our heads. or the ‘mystical heat’ as it’s known in many shamanic cultures from yes, Siberia … but also from Africa, Australia, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean countries and Asia. The fire in the head, or the ‘mystical heat’, is one of the key characteristics which separates the shaman from all other types of medicine men.
Eliade is about to go on to support his contention that shamans are halfway to becoming spirits …. that they are, in fact, half-living in the realm of the spirits. And yes, this is my experience too.“Of particular importance, in our view, is the role of “fire” and “heat” in shamanism. Such fire and mystical heat are always connected with access to a certain ecstatic state and the same connection is observed in the most archaic strata of magical and universal religion.
“Mastery over fire, insensibility to heat and hence the “mystical heat” that renders both extreme cold and the temperature of burning coals supportable; is a magico-mystical virtue that accompanied by no less marvellous qualities (ascent, magical flight etc.) translates into sensible terms the fact that the shaman has passed beyond the human condition and already has shares in the condition of “spirits”. “
From Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade.
False teachings of ‘core shamanism’
If I’m sounding a bit like I’m a writing Confessions of a Modern Day Shaman it’s because there has been, in recent years, a move to codify and standardise modern-day shamanism under one umbrella, called “core shamanism”. I was initially trained in “core shamanism” before setting out on my own by following what my spirits were teaching me, and that way, I very quickly found that some of its core teachings were wrong.
False teachings of “core shamanism” include the notion that the spirits aren’t real, but are just neutral bundles of energy dressed up in costumes so that they can interface with us. This is not true. For instance, the Fae who live in the Otherworld were on Earth long before man and will be here long after we’re gone.
Core shamanism, as far as I can see, has, no doubt unwittingly, disempowered shamans by weakening their positions by not allowing them to call themselves shamans (only “shamanic practitioners”) and not supporting some of the seemingly weirder aspects of the practice. They’ve tried to sanitise it and make it respectable ~ to try to make it attractive to an audience that is never going to want it anyway. Ask me, I know. I tried it that way for years in Sevenoaks and didn’t get a single customer.
So I reckon it’s time to come out of the closet.
I talk to the spirits, who are real, and spend so much time with them that I probably am half a spirit myself. I also get the fire in the head, and increasingly so since I started working more closely with Brigit of the Fae, whose lore was brought to these isles by the fire priests of the Brigantes.
The ancient “Celts” also knew about the fire in the head. This is the Song of Amergin as he stepped on these shores from Spain with the conquering Milesians after the last Ice Age.
I am the wind that blows across the sea;
I am a wave of the deep;
I am the roar of the ocean;
I am the stag of seven battles;
I am a hawk on the cliff;
I am a ray of sunlight;
I am the greenest of plants;
I am the wild boar;
I am a salmon in the river;
I am a lake on the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the point of a spear;
I am the lure beyond the ends of the Earth;
I am the god who fashions fire in the head.
This is not a metaphor, like the icon for ‘idea’ ~ the lightbulb, although it is probably where the image came from. This fire actually burns in the head and it is linked to creativity and "shamanic flight".
The great Celtic warrior Cuchulainn was said to show the “hero’s light” or flaming aura around his head when he was excited and frenzied for battle. According to the stories, when the light appeared, he could perform his most famous “salmon’s leap” and cover great distances or heights. This aura eventually was co-opted by the Christians and became the halo.
It is said that some Tibetan monks trained in yogic traditions can raise their body temperatures to melt snow. The !King in Africa call this natural body heat “boiling energy”.
The explorer Knud Rasmussen met with Eskimo shamans who told him: “Every real shaman has to feel an illumination in his body, in the inside of his head or in his brain, something that gleams like fire, that gives him the power to see with closed eyes into the darkness, into the hidden things or into the future or into the secrets of another man.”
The Jivaro of the Amazon describe the shaman as one who gives off light, “particularly in a ‘crown’, an aura from the head” when the shaman is in an altered state of consciousness.
My experience is that the heat starts to build when I’m drumming. I’ve been known to stop drumming and start rapidly casting off items of clothing. Then, during the journey, I feel the fire just to the right of my crown. It feels like a flame burning and the deeper and more intense the journey, the hotter is burns.
Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Tom Cowan’s Fire in the Head, and other books on shamanism are available to buy in the Shamanism section of Ishtar's Gate Library , with reviews.