Many of the students in my community college world religions courses (who may be completely new to the academic study of religion) often find some of the seeming similarities and peculiar parallels that exist between indigenous religions on the one hand, and many of the world’s major religions on the other hand, to be rather surprising, and sometimes even quite striking.
For instance, take the figure of the shaman (or “witch doctor” or “medicine man”), who is central in many indigenous religions around the globe.
Shamans (note spelling: the plural is shamans, not “shamen” [or "sha-women"]) are respected and powerful community figures who are believed to have the capacity to enter trance states and journey into the spirit world; there, they can commune directly with gods and spirits, and divine answers to mysteries currently troubling the tribe (for instance, Why are we being currently plagued by a drought or famine? Did we violate a sacred tribal taboo, or did we insult or anger a god or spirit? If so, what must we do to atone for the violated taboo, or how best can we placate the wrathful god or spirit?).
Shamans are said to experience religious visions, communicate with the spirits of the dead, and otherwise serve as human intermediaries or middlemen (or middlewomen) between the sacred and the human realms. They can even serve as spiritual healers, curing a variety of ailments by virtue of the sacred powers they either possess themselves, or else are able to channel or convey directly from the spirit world.
All of that may seem, at first blush, rather far removed from, say, the much more familiar Judeo-Christian religious traditions which are so predominant here in the modern West (including within the U.S.). But it is all really so different?
Consider carefully the roles of such religious figures as prophets, priests, and other religious leaders in Judaism and Christianity, both past and present.
The etymology of “prophecy” equates literally to “speaking for”; within a religious context, prophets are those who “speak for” the divine (however variously the divine, or “the sacred,” might be conceived). In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the biblical prophets “spoke for” the God of the Bible.
Moses, for example, was a prophet par excellence within this particular religious tradition, serving as he did as God’s chosen earthly messenger or middleman in the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the divine revelation of the Ten Commandments (and, for that matter, all 613 commandments of the Torah). Subsequent biblical prophets (such as Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and many others) likewise directly “spoke for God,” each in his own way serving as a kind of conduit for communicating the divine will to the human (in this case, the Israelite) community.
How is this kind of direct “speaking for” the Divine necessarily or fundamentally different from the shamans of indigenous religions similarly “speaking for” the denizens of the spiritual realms, with whom they commune and converse during their trance states? How is divining important information, known only to the gods and spirits of the sacred realm, really essentially any different from divine revelations channeled or conveyed directly from heaven to earth through the biblical prophets?
Shamans, as I stated above, serve as human intermediaries between the human and the sacred (or divine) realms. Prophets, it would seem, do much the same sort of thing, in their own way. But so also do priests.
In ancient biblical-era Judaism, the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem served in yet another way as intermediaries or middlemen between the divine and the human realms (e.g., between God and Israel). Those Jewish priests were divinely authorized to offer regular and frequent sacrifices to the God of Israel, on behalf of the people. They were also uniquely authorized by God to do so; not just anybody was permitted to conduct such sacrificial offerings to the Divine, but only God’s own duly appointed priests. So, in this case, such priestly middlemen were essential, at least for this particular sort of divine/human interface.
Likewise, in some indigenous cultures, shamans serve as similar sorts of middlemen, sometimes offering sacrifices or performing other ceremonial rituals which mediate between the visible and the invisible worlds.
And today, Catholic priests are similarly regarded (by Catholics) as serving in a kind of intermediary role that facilitates the interaction or interrelationship between the human and the sacred or divine realms — and one that is likewise divinely sanctioned and authorized. The holy sacrament of ordination uniquely and effectively empowers and “deputizes” ordained Catholic priests to administer all seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, such that they will “really work.” In contrast to the standard Protestant opinion, which tends to view sacraments as merely symbolic rituals or as merely commemorative ceremonies (and hence optional rather than mandatory for salvation), Catholics believe that their seven sacraments actually are necessary for salvation, precisely because they contain and convey the divine grace that makes for salvation. And Catholic priests are uniquely ordained to effectively administer these salvific sacraments.
This intermediary priestly role seems perhaps not so different in kind from the somewhat parallel role played in many indigenous religions by the shaman, who also is uniquely positioned and empowered (often by the spirits themselves) to be able to convey, channel, or otherwise make sacred power directly manifest (and directly available, or humanly accessible).
Shamans are also widely thought of as spiritual healers. Are the any parallels of this sort within the Judeo-Christian religious tradition? Well, some of the biblical prophets in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) sometimes miraculously healed others. The gospels report many healing miracles attributed to Jesus. Even the apostles who were sent out after the time of Jesus were said to heal, in their leader’s name.
Fast-forward to today: plenty of Christian televangelist “faith healers” of various sorts are quite active and popular within certain circles on the conservative Protestant religious scene; Catholics point to reputed healing miracles still occurring at sacred shines and pilgrimage sites, such as Lourdes; Christian Scientists and members of other contemporary faith-healing sects still today frequently opt for faith and prayer over modern medical attention, sometimes even for their ailing children.
Is all of this really so different from members of indigenous communities seeking their own spiritual healing from a shaman?
We could go on and on with such similarities, but perhaps the point has been sufficiently made.
And that’s just shamans. What about other prominent features of indigenous religions? Do exotic things like rites of passage, tribal taboos, or even blood sacrifices have any relation or connection to such major mainstream faiths of the contemporary Western world as Judaism or Christianity?
Sure, they do!
(To be continued, in Part Three.)