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From Shaman to Priest by Brian Inglis

Posted on 28 June 2012, 16:36

Reviewing the historical source material from tribal communities, a hypothesis presents itself which, though speculative, may help to explain both how shamanism (the blanket term which anthropologists adopted) came about, and why it disintegrated. At some stage in his evolutionary progress man discovered that he could exploit mana.

But the process by which he became conscious of his power happened to be precisely the process by which he was depriving himself of the ability to utilise it: consciousness, reason, memory were taking over from instinct. To tap the psychic forces, therefore, individuals had to be found who still had access to mana, either naturally, or through their ability to go into a trance, in order to practise divination or work magic. In time, such individuals became harder to find; and for those who were found, it became harder to dissociate. They had to use aids; drugs, rhythm, divining instruments, rituals, codes. And eventually systematised divination and magic took over, the process becoming mechanical rather than inspirational; as in the case of the Zunis of Mexico. According to Ruth Benedict their emphasis became exclusively on ritual, conducted with absolute precision. ‘If the procedure is correct, the costume of the masked god traditional to the last detail, the offerings unimpeachable, the words of the hours’ long prayers letter-perfect, the effect will follow according to man’s desires.’ But if it were found that a feather, part of the traditional costume, had been taken from an eagle’s shoulder, rather than from the breast, that alone would nullify the effect of the entire ceremony.

Granted a progressive decline in the ability to tap psychic powers, this would explain how they came to be at first reinforced and eventually replaced by ritual and routine. Allowance has to be made, though, for the possibility that some communities may have discovered ways to reverse the trend. Archaeologists have revealed the existence of monuments the secrets of whose construction nobody has been able to fathom. How were the huge blocks of stone excavated, transported over great distances, carved with astonishing precision, and sited with apparently cosmic accuracy? Were divinatory and telekinetic forces harnessed for the purpose? The available evidence is insufficient to provide an answer; but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

And there is another problem. Watching African diviners throwing bones or pieces of carved wood on to the ground, and answering questions according to the pattern which they made when they fell, the French explorer Henry Junod decided that the answers were provided by their vivid imaginations, playing on the pattern; not from ‘the mathematic evidence’. Similarly many practising clairvoyants today, using cards or even tea-leaves as aids, claim that the aim is chiefly to spark off imagination’s flow. The fact that the great bulk of the evidence from early civilisations points to reliance upon mechanical divination may consequently be misleading. The Chaldeans and Egyptians, for example, retained many tribal beliefs and practices.

They accepted that there was a spirit world with gods - superior beings who could be asked for advice (which their statues sometimes provided by nodding); spirits of the dead, who might be encountered by the living; and evil spirits (including poltergeists: a surviving papyrus describes one who was heard to ‘wail, groan and laugh dreadfully’, causing terror and nightmares; made rappings and knockings; and ‘Practised stealthy theft’). It was also taken for granted that dreams and omens could be used for divination. But the assumption was that they needed to be interpreted, and the manuals of interpretation suggest that the method was largely mechanical.

So, apparently, were the techniques of divination. Again, caution is needed in reviewing the evidence because by this time it was in written form, and although this adds a welcome new dimension to the historical record, the writing was done for the priestly authorities and may bear as little relation to everyday life as, say, the prayer book does today.

Still, it comes as no surprise to find that divination was systematised.

Evidently the same process had been at work, though more gradually, as that which a century ago divested medicine men and witch doctors of their authority when they came under colonial rule. Where tribes were merging into, or being submerged by, states, they had to accept the authority of the rulers under whose domination they came. A recommendation from the shaman’s voices or visions could no longer be unquestioningly obeyed; it had first to be ascertained whether the authorities would object. In such circumstances the authority of the shamans was eroded. Trance divination, too, became suspect, because it could offer impracticable and even dangerous advice. So into the shaman’s place stepped the priest: still a diviner, still a magician (or claiming to be), but working for the authorities, and relying on a great range of rote interpretations instead of inspired divination. If a bird were seen to fly in one direction it meant one thing; if in a different direction, something else. It was all laid down in the instruction manuals. The entrails of sacrificial animals provided simple answers: by their condition - if diseased, that spoke for itself; or by association - ‘if the cystic duct be long, the days of the rulers will be long’ (though there were presumably also qualifications; it could have been unwise to intimate to a ruler that the entrails predicted his days would be short).

The shamanist initiation period was preserved; but it was to enable the candidate to learn the necessary formulae and rituals, not to liberate his psychic faculties. As there was a risk that the priesthood would lose its mystique if the formulae and rituals were too widely known, they were shrouded as far as possible in secrecy, and the emphasis was placed on meticulously correct observances which only a priest would know. There was consequently no further need for dissociation. Whether spontaneous or induced, the trance state was actually unwelcome, as it might interrupt the orderly flow of the prescribed rites. Instead of being chosen, as shamans were, because of signs that they had psychic powers, priests came to be recruited by co-option, becoming a caste.

Old Testament
Shamanism, however, did not go down without a struggle, dramatically portrayed in the Old Testament. It will never be possible to sift fact from folklore, legend and myth, in these chronicles; but even so sceptical a commentator as Professor Edmund Leach has conceded in his Genesis as Myth that there must be a measure of valid historical material, increasing in the later stages. This is of no help, unfortunately, in deciding which episodes are historical and which are not. Still, the descriptions of psychic phenomena can be regarded, if not as evidence of what actually happened, at least as a record of what the chroniclers believed had happened - and assumed was still happening, in their own day. And as such, it is remarkably consistent with what has become known about shamanism in primitive communities.

Because the events recorded were to lay the foundations of two religions, Jewish and Christian, dominated by priesthoods, the tendency has been to ignore or gloss over the fact that the unifying thread running through the Old Testament is shamanism’s fierce and protracted struggle against priesthoods. The prophets were shamans: Moses, indeed, is the archetype of shamanism. His vocation is made clear to him by signs and wonders - the bush that burns but is not consumed by the flames; by clairaudience - the voice of the Lord sounding as if it came from the midst of the bush; and by the discovery he can work magic - his rod is changed into a serpent, and back into a rod again.


Overruling his protest that he is ‘of a slow tongue’, the Lord says ‘I will be thy mouth’ - in other words, he will be possessed, and Aaron his brother will interpret, if required. Gradually Moses gathers confidence, defying Pharaoh and worsting Pharaoh’s magicians; they can turn rods into serpents too, but only by sleight-of-hand, and their serpents are worsted and eaten by his and Aaron’s. And in the flight from Egypt various shamanic phenomena make their appearance: pyrotechnics - the pillar of fire to guide them; divination - the water found at Horeb; materialisation - the manna in the wilderness; and many more.

Moses, then, and the other prophets were in the shamanist tradition.

But they enjoyed one advantage over the tribal witch doctor; they had the confidence born of the assumption that they were the Lord’s spokesmen and executors. The Lord was not yet regarded as the only god; there were rivals, and pretenders. But the Israelites were brought up to believe that he was the only true god; and his prophets were his instruments, in the service neither of the tribe nor of the ruling authorities, but of the Lord.

Divination remained their chief function; but not so much to ascertain what was happening or what was about to happen, as to transmit the Lord’s will about what ought to happen. Sometimes it was given in general terms, commanding obedience: sometimes it took the form of particular instructions, as when the Lord told Noah to build an ark of gopher wood, and gave precise details how it was to be proportioned. The prophets might be possessed, the Lord speaking through them; or they could receive his instructions by clairvoyance or clairaudience; or his spirits might pass messages to them. Some spirits were unidentified, like the one whose passing made the hair of Job’s comforter Eliphaz the Temanite stand on end; but the general impression was that they were the Lord’s servants. This did not mean that they could be trusted; the Lord had no compunction about employing spirits to lie, in order to sow confusion, as he did by getting one of them to speak through the mouth of a prophet to lure Ahab to his death.

Satan, too, when he put in his first appearance as Job’s tempter was acting on the Lord’s behalf, or at least with the Lord’s sanction, to see how far Job could be trusted; it was not until later that he came to be regarded as an adversary. The spirits most often encountered, though, were angels, appearing either in dreams, or as materialised beings. Abraham would hardly have offered food to the angels who came to visit him in his tent on the plains of Namre if he had not assumed them to be men of flesh and blood; still less would Lot have felt compelled, in order to save the angels who visited him in Sodom, to offer his virgin daughters instead to the Sodomite mob to appease its lust. At other times angels appeared in visions, or in dreams.

Jacob, sleeping at Bethel, saw them on the ladder stretched between earth and heaven, and heard the Lord telling him that the land on which it rested would be his, and his children’s. And sometimes, to provide reassurance that a dream or a vision was to be trusted, a sign was given. In Gideon’s case, there had to be a succession of signs, so mistrustful was he. First, fire sprang up from an altar to consume a
sacrificial kid. Then, at his request, a fleece left overnight on the ground was covered in dew, yet the ground remained dry. Finally, he craftily asked that the fleece should remain dry while the ground became covered in dew; and this too was granted him. Yet still, to clinch it, the Lord had to persuade him to go down into the midst of the Midianite host. There, Gideon heard a soldier describing to a companion his dream of a cake of barley tumbling down into their camp, and knocking down a tent; to which the companion replied that the cake could only be the sword of Gideon, ‘for into his hand hath God delivered Midian, and all his host. And it was so.’

Sometimes the signs took a new form; written instructions appeared.

The tablets which Moses brought down from Sinai ‘were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God’. At Belshazzar’s feast there ‘came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster, Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin’; and the king ‘saw the part of the hand that wrote’. The dead Elijah’s warning of an impending plague, too, was given in writing. Or the message might be given through the prophet while he was possessed. Describing to Solomon the plans for a new Sanctuary, David explained ‘the Lord made me understand in writing, by his hand on me’.

The great advantage the prophets enjoyed was that their access to information from the Lord - whatever channel it came through - enabled them to humiliate diviners who had to rely on rote, as Joseph did when he heard Pharaoh’s dream about the seven fat kine being eaten by the seven lean kine, and correctly interpreted it as presaging seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine; Pharaoh’s description of Joseph as ‘a man in whom the spirit of God is’ was a recognition of the superior merit of the inspirational diviner. But some rivals used inspirational methods for purposes other than the Lord’s; and they had to be stamped out. There shall not be found among you,’ Moses laid down, ‘any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer; for all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord.’ Divination and magic as such were not abominable; only when they were practised without the Lord’s authority. ‘Guardian angels’ were authorised familiar spirits. What was considered wicked about the materialisation of Samuel by the witch of En Dor was that Saul had asked for it; not the fact that a spirit had given advice-the spirit of the Elijah was to do that, to warn Jehoram of an impending plague. In the same way, the use of a divining instrument, denounced by Hosea - the people had taken to divination ‘as the spirit of whoredom has caused them to err’ - was not objectionable provided it was in the Lord’s service. The term ‘rod’ often appears in this context apparently referring to an implement which might be described as a combination of divining rod and magician’s wand. Rods were employed by Jacob to select the best cattle; Moses smote the rock at Hebron with his rod, at the Lord’s bidding, to obtain water for the people; ‘thy rod and thy staff’, the psalmist sang, praising the Lord as his shepherd, ‘they comfort me’. ‘Urim’ and ‘Thummin’, crystals carried by the prophets, were also for divination.

How highly regarded the inspirational element was can be judged from the fact that though the prophets were expected to remain in the Lord’s service, they were not expected to lead moral lives. If Abraham had simply led an exemplary life, Mrs. St. Clair Stobart surmised in her study of biblical psychic phenomena, ‘we should probably never have heard of him’; but his divinatory ability was so useful that his deceptions and his concubines could be condoned, as was the persistent dishonesty of Jacob. So long as the prophets were shamans - advisers and executors rather than rulers - there was some check on them, as Micaiah found when his clairvoyant advice was so unwelcome that Ahab had him imprisoned and put on the bread and water of affliction. But sometimes prophets were made rulers because, like Joshua, they were found to be ‘in the spirit’ or because, like Jehu, they were picked out by divination as men who would do the Lord’s bidding - which did not necessarily make them good rulers. Having accomplished what his own self-interest and the Lord’s instructions dictated by killing off all Ahab’s descendants, Jehu obtained the Lord’s promise that his heirs down to the fourth generation would rule in Israel; and thereafter behaved as if he no longer needed ‘to walk in the law of the Lord God’. Lusting after Bathsheba, David used his authority to arrange for her husband Uriah the Hittite to be killed; and many of the lesser known prophets had ugly records. Occasionally they received their desserts; but often they were indulged because the Lord needed them-or, put the other way round, because the Israelites needed a diviner-magician with real powers.

There seemed hardly any limit to what a prophet could do when the hand of the Lord was on him. He could perform superhuman feats of strength or endurance of the kind for which Samson became renowned.

Or he could become incombustible: Isaiah had a live coal placed on his lips by a seraphim, to take away his iniquity; Shadrach, Mesach and Abed-nego survived unscathed in Nebuchadnezzar’s burning fiery furnace, so hot that the men who put them into it were killed, yet ‘the princes, governors and captains, and the king’s counsellors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on to them’. The prophets, like the Indian medicine men, could also summon up fire: Solomon obtained it as a benediction for his achievement in setting up the Temple, and Elijah to help him in his contest with the priests of Baal.

Elijah and Elisha
This contest, Mrs. Stobart thought, has some claim to be the first controlled psychic experiment in history. Worried by a protracted drought, Ahab had the idea of getting the magicians from the rival factions, the Lord’s and Baal’s, to compete against each other in a display of their powers, the winner then to bring rain. The four hundred and fifty priests of Baal, hoping to become possessed, ‘cried aloud and gashed themselves after their manner with knives’; but they failed to meet Elijah’s challenge, to call down fire from heaven. When it came to Elijah’s turn, he was clearly determined that nobody should subsequently accuse him of trickery. He had a trench dug round the altar, filling it with water, and pouring barrels of water not only on the sacrificial bullock, but on the wood that was to burn it; yet ‘the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench’.

The display over, he went on to the more serious business of ending the drought; and a small cloud duly rose out of the sea, no bigger than a man’s hand. Still in his trance state, Elijah was so elevated that, girding up his loins, he was able to run back to Jezreel faster than Ahab could ride there in his chariot.

Elisha displayed similar powers, having taken the sensible precaution, when Elijah asked what he would like as a parting gift, of replying ‘a double portion of thy spirit’. As soon as Elijah had been carried up to heaven, Elisha began trying it out, smiting the waters of Jordan with Elijah’s mantle to divide them; making brackish water drinkable; putting a curse on some children who had called him ‘Baldy’ (they were eaten by she-bears); arranging that the widow’s cruse should remain full, however much oil she used; and causing an iron axe-head, which had fallen into the river, to float. Elisha could also translocate himself, to any destination; and he could listen to conversations in distant places. When the king of Syria found his secret plans were being disclosed to the Israelites, and wondered who the spy was in his entourage, a servant assured him, ‘None, my Lord, O King; but Elisha the prophet, that is in Israel, telleth the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bedchamber.’

The account of Elisha’s career, though, brings us back to earth.

What was attributed to him had been too often attributed to earlier prophets for comfort; it begins to sound like the repetition of legend.

Yet it illustrates what Professor Mircea Eliade described as ‘the perfect continuity of paranormal experience from the primitive right up to the most highly evolved’; and the general implication of the Bible story, that the prophets kept their grip on Israel because they had psychic powers, remains plausible. Why, then, was that grip eventually lost?

One reason stands out: the misery to which the Lord and his prophets condemned the Lord’s chosen people. It was not simply that so many of the Lord’s acts and the prophets’ interpretations were arbitrary, tyrannical, and cruel; they also continually promoted disputes with neighbouring communities which led to violence, to destruction, and exile. The Israelites did not even have the consolation of believing they would be rewarded by an after-life in heaven. They were sustained only by the fear that, bad as things were, if the Lord became offended with them their lot would become even worse. And they had been left in no doubt about the Lord’s ruthlessness. When the Philistines captured their tribal fetish, the Ark of the Covenant, and set it up in the house of their own fetish idol Dagon, ‘early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the Lord’; and when they set Dagon up again, the next morning not merely had he fallen as before, but his head and his hands had de-materialised.

Some men of Bethshemesh, who peered into the Ark, were killed; so was the unlucky Uzzah, whose only crime was that, seeking to steady it when the cart it was on was shaken by the oxen, he touched it; for to touch it meant death.

The Israelites were only likely to put up with the tribulations which they had to suffer so long as the prophets retained their psychic powers; and sometimes, as in Eli’s time, ‘there was no open vision’ - no channel of clairvoyant or clairaudient communication. When the Lord called out, only the child Samuel heard. And later, under Roman rule, to be an inspirational prophet became as risky as to be a witch doctor under British colonial rule. The prophets became priests, settling into routine; and the feats achieved by men when the hand of the Lord was upon them became only a memory - though an inspiring one.

“From Shaman to Priest” is an extract from Natural and Supernatural: A History of the Paranormal from the Earliest Times to 1914 by Brian Inglis, published by White Crow Books, and is available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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Natural and Supernatural by Brian Inglis


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