Project Conversion

Project Conversion

Shamanism: Playing with Fire and Getting Burned

posted by abowen

It was late July, 2003 and I had just moved out of the dorms and into my first apartment in college. My other roommates wouldn’t be there for another two weeks, so I had the whole four-bedroom apartment to myself. I had a part-time job washing dishes at a local restaurant, but I spent most of my time either drinking, watching DVD’s, or hanging out at the local Barnes and Noble.

One evening after work as I browsed the book shelves, I came unwittingly close to the “New Age” section.

At this point, I’d never looked at anything related to Pagan belief, but one book in particular caught my eye. All these years later, its glossy cover design still lingers in my memory.

I spent the next two hours sitting on the floor flipping through the pages of this and several other titles on the shelf. There was no escape. I was hooked and just had to learn more. Finally, I chose the title above and made my way to the check-out.

“Finally decided on this one,” the girl at the counter said with a grin as she scanned the bar code.

I nervously glanced over my shoulder, looking if anyone saw what I had bought. She handed me the bag and said “Have fun.” Maybe she knew something, maybe she was being sarcastic, because the next 12 hours were nowhere near fun.

Before I go any deeper, let’s establish some context here. First of all, Shamanism is its own unique world and doesn’t usually fit nicely within the great tree of Paganism. Shamans were individuals within a society which had special insight into both the spiritual and physical worlds. To be a Shaman was not part of a religion one could join, per se, but a calling to an individual to serve their community.

Within the Pagan traditions (most of them anyway) humans aren’t viewed as the only creatures with free will. There are a variety of spiritual species who know of us, but only a few of us know of them. Many of the Pagan traditions (such as the Fey) believe in these creatures and acknowledge daily interactions with them. Like us, the Fey choose between positive and negative actions which may affect us. If we aren’t careful of how we interact with them–even an innocent mistake–the consequences could be harsh.

So I get home, make a rum and Coke, and dig into my new book. I can’t remember everything about the book, but there was great discourse on ritual processes, power items, “journeying” (we will cover that later), and energy manipulation. It talked about dreams as spiritual devices and windows into another realm…All of this utterly fascinating stuff and I just couldn’t stop. There were warnings throughout not to go too fast, and to even seek a real teacher, but I was hooked.

I can’t remember what I did, but whatever it was, I had pissed off someone…or something.

Just before I fell asleep, there in the dark, I felt something watching. You know the feeling. You’re just standing there, maybe in the line of a store, and the hairs on your neck stand. Someone is staring at you. That’s what I felt. I thought I was alone in the apartment, but not that night.

The feeling became more and more intense, as if more and more eyes fixed on me as I lay in bed with the sheets over me. Then, there was sound. At first it was like a breeze, a gentle whistle in the air, only I was inside. Sweat dripped down my face as I trembled. Out of nowhere, everything went quiet. By this point, I was holding my breath. I sighed and sank back toward sleep.

Then, the nightmare began.

I’ve lived in eastern North Carolina most of my life and sat out many hurricanes, so when I say that the next eight hours was like standing outside in a hurricane, I mean every implication of the word. A deafening wind howled around me. I rolled into a ball and held the sheets over my body as if at any moment the fury of the event could lift me away. The experience was unlike anything I’ve ever been through before or since. Eight hours of absolute terror. Finally, when the sun rose the next morning, I found myself with my hands clamped on the sheets, my head pounding, and the sheets soaked with sweat. The wind and rage was gone, and from that point on, I cannot sleep comfortably alone because I always know something is there. In fact, the only time I really sense it is if my wife is not in bed with me–as if she blocks the energy somehow. I’ve never been able to explain what happened.

That was my first experience with the wider world of Paganism, so forgive me if I’m a little nervous. They say a shaman becomes one after a near-death experience, and I felt closer to death that night than any other in memory.

Looking back, I think what happened to me perfectly illustrates the world of magick and the spirit realm. There is no “black magick” as we see in popular television shows and movies. For the Pagan world (generally speaking) there is only magick and how you use it. Magick then, is like fire. Fire in an of itself is not good or evil, however one can manipulate it for different uses. This is where the Wiccan Rede comes in. If you surround yourself with negativity and misuse magick or the spiritual realm, don’t be surprised if it comes back and bites you. I cannot stress this enough: Wicca and the overall Pagan arts aren’t something to take lightly. You don’t just “sign up” or give a declaration of faith and POOF, you’re in. There is a great deal of learning that goes into the process before initiation even begins.

This is why it’s important that I have a Mentor this month or any other month. She is a very experienced teacher and has me on a very specific, regimented learning program. She knows how to play with fire, and doesn’t want me to get burned.

Have you ever had an intense experience with the spirit world? How about a strange ritual episode? What mishaps or even positive experiences have you had without intention?

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posted October 7, 2011 at 10:25 am


I always appreciate a deeper perspective. Thank you!

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posted October 6, 2011 at 6:17 pm

I just dropped by after reading about your project at The Wild Hunt (a Pagan news site). I read some of your previous blog posts when you were exploring Hinduism and Baha’i but have not kept up with the project. I’m genuinely glad that you have chosen to explore Wicca (and thus tangentially modern Paganism) as a part of Project Conversion since I know many people who would have had zero interest in learning about it may now have a reason to reassess their preconceived notions.

I cannot expect you (or anyone) to get a very deep and nuanced understanding of Wicca or Paganism in a month’s time, but the effort is appreciated. With that said, I wanted to make a few statements about some things you mention in this post, not just to inform you but also anyone else who might read this post.

1) “Considering how ancient many of the Pagan traditions are, I think ‘New Age’ is an unfair misnomer, but I digress.”
While both contemporary Paganism and the New Age are sometimes lumped together under “New Religious Movements” I would like to point out that they are different categories. New Age isn’t simply a misnomer for Paganism (many modern Pagan paths are just that: modern, and many aspects of New Age practices are at least inspired by ancient practices and ideas), it’s a separate stream altogether. There are some superficial similarities, for example some New Agers and some Pagans have interests in divination, ancient belief systems, etc. and there are individuals who partake of both cultures, but their underlying structures and worldviews are different.

The New Age, in my experience, tends to place major emphasis on a transcendent spiritual reality and retains much of the dualism (e.g. spirit vs. matter, dark vs. light, etc.) from the Abrahamic faiths. It also tends to still be primarily monotheistic and universal in its approach. It is often concerned with some sort of (perceived) imminent change, whether that be the transition into the Age of Aquarius, the significance of 2012 & Mayan calendar, or some sort of universal Enlightenment – hence the term “New Age.” New Agers also tend to place major importance on the idea that reality is self-created and so even the negative things that happen to you are something you chose or allowed to happen. This is usually explained as a result of actions you took during a previous lifetime, decisions made prior to birth as to what experiences you wished to have, or even just as a result of not having a positive enough outlook on life.

Paganism, on the other hand, typically has a more immanent spiritual approach and lacks the duality of the New Age (although we often acknowledge and celebrate *polarity*). The physical realm is seen as just as important and valuable as the spiritual (New Agers don’t usually outright demonize the material realm, but it is often seen as an illusion or delusion and regarded as less preferable than the spiritual dimension). Pagans also tend to be polytheistic and our religions are generally more oriented towards a specific culture, for example Celtic, Kemetic, Norse, Greek, Roman, etc. There is a wide spectrum of “soft” to “hard” polytheism within Paganism, as well as those who many believe in the existence of many Gods but dedicate themselves to just one or two, but for the most part Pagans see their Gods as real beings that we actually honor and worship. In addition, Pagans really aren’t concerned with some sort of impending, radical change. We celebrate our holy days and festivals but we don’t feel we’re building up to some huge, spiritual turning point (as far as I know, even Asatru and other Germanic-based paths that include Ragnarok in their mythos aren’t focused on some sort of apocolypse scenario). While Pagans tend to have a broader view of what constitues reality than most Western secular people and many of us work magic to affect it, we don’t tend to see ourselves as the only or final determiner in our reality.

There’s also a fairly common saying among Pagans that the difference between the New Age and Paganism is a decimal point, referring to the fact that a workshop or item might cost $50 dollars at a Pagan event but $500 at the New Age one.

Of course, both the New Age and Paganism are diverse movements so not everything I stated will be true in all cases (hence all of my qualifying adjectives), but in my experience and research the above statements are generally true. Speaking as a Pagan, I’m sure you can tell my own bias :)

Books about Paganism are sometimes shelved in “New Age” sections of bookstores because either the bookstores don’t realize and/or care about the distinction or because they don’t feel they have any other accurate category to place them (the “religion” section is usually reserved for books about Christianity, and possibly Judaism, Buddhism, etc.).

2)”Shamanism and Wicca are but two seperate branches in the great tree of Paganism.”
Shamanism is not a distinct religion unto itself, and it’s not specifically Pagan. Shamanism is an aspect of many traditional, indigenous beliefs systems (for example the religion of the Siberian Tungus people from whom the term is derived) and is now an aspect of some contemporary Paganisms.

It’s worth noting that some groups which have (or had) shamans or medicine wo/men as a part of their cultures, for instance some Native American traditionalists, would not take kindly to being referred to as Pagans!

The shaman is a particular role, an individual would take within the whole society, kind of an intermediary specialist between the human and non-human. Shamanism seems to be a fairly universal phenomenon in the sense that there were/are people performing that role in many cultures across the planet, but each was embedded within the religion of their overall culture. Some scholars are exploring their presence in pre-Christian European cultures. Emma Wilby in particular suggests that some of those people persecuted as witches in the early modern era were preserving some genuine pre-Christian lore and some of them may have functioned in a similar fashion as shamans in other cultures, but she is not the only person to do so.

Due to the fact that many forms of Paganism are animist and pantheistic or panentheistic, the role of the shaman is consistent with that worldview and so has been incoporated into it (or some might say revived).

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posted October 6, 2011 at 9:27 am


Blessed be and thank you for stopping by! Yes, I had a bad experience with Shamanism, but I would never judge an entire system of belief based on one bad experience—especially when it was my own ignorance and mistreatment of the path that brought on said experience. This is one reason why I love many of the Pagan and specifically Wiccan paths is because there is such a focus on having a teacher (or mentor) for such a long period.

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posted October 6, 2011 at 1:09 am

I just found your blog and started reading when referred to it by a fellow-Wiccan so have only read the Wiccan section so far. I must say that the concept of trying out the different religions for a month at a time is an amazing one in my opinion. I wish I’d have thought of it years ago, in fact, and tried it myself. And I’d also like to thank you for including Wicca and for giving a pretty great introduction to our faith and practices, IMHO.

I’d like to add that I’m a little concerned that you are concerned about going into practicing a Pagan faith due to your experience after reading (or more) about Shamanism. As you clearly say (as do Helen/Hawk in their comment), different forms of Paganism are as different as could be in many ways. I believe Helen/Hawk say it well in that your experience is your’s so it has come with you into all of the religions that you’ve visited since. But I certainly wouldn’t worry, if I were you, that you might have a similar experience during your month with Wicca, especially since you have written about knowing better than to bring negativity into forms of Paganism which obviously include Wicca.

Thanks for your wonderful idea, sharing your thoughts and experiences, and for your apparent commitment to learning about and beginning to experience Wicca and sharing about it with others. I look forward to reading more.

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posted October 5, 2011 at 11:54 pm


Thanks for dropping by. Blessed be!

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posted October 5, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Check out this blog

for a glimpse into what you’re visiting

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posted October 5, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Just a note for those non-Pagans following this series – Wicca and Shamanism are two different forms of Paganism (it’s a pretty broad umbrella).

So I’d say that your untrained glimpse of the world of Shamanism (as I understand it) is interesting…..but not directly connected to Wicca. Part of your personal experience absolutely. So you’re bringing it. But it’s as much part of Wicca as it is part of the other religions that you’ve visited in this journey of yours. Because it’s part of your personal history.

Speaking from over 20 yrs of experience as part of Reclaiming tradition.

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