Shamans and prophets

In his primer Korean Shamanism-Muism, Dr. Kim Tae-kon describes the symptoms of shinbyeong, the illness that afflicts Korean shamans (at least the non-hereditary ones) before they accept the spirit and transition into their spiritual roles. He then goes on to compare these symptoms with those experienced by shamans in other cultures (pp. 49-52).

“The shamans of the Yakut tribe in Siberia experience their limbs and body parts being dismembered … by an iron pick,” he explains, while the ancestor-spirits in the Tungus tribe “pierce the shaman-to-be’s body with arrows until he loses consciousness … Then flesh from his/her body is ripped out and taken away.” Again, “Shamans of the Buryat tribe … are tortured by their ancestor spirits and their body is cut into pieces.”

Moving on from Siberia, he reports that “American shamans also experience being killed by ancestor spirits. They also experience having the eyes and teeth ripped apart, while walking through fire … While the shaman-to-be gets tortured … his physical body lies still and stiff on the ground (as if it is dead) and is covered by a mat.” And so it goes, all dismemberment and torment from the ancestors, in Africa and Indonesia as well. In many accounts, the head is cut off or the skull is opened.

Kim ends this litany by declaring that “the fact that the motif of dismembering limbs and the motif of cutting open a body to put in a ‘power of sorcery’ are not found in ‘civilized’ regions such as Korea and Japan, is because the original, primitive and intense experiences (of shamans in primitive ethnic groups) have been filtered out as more ‘civilized’ concepts are added.” I am not so sure.

What comes to mind, as I read these accounts of shamans-to-be, is the story of the Passion of the Christ. Let’s look at what happens to Jesus, according to John. First Jesus is flogged, and a crown of thorns is placed on his head (John 19:1-2). Then, “carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull … There they crucified him” (19:18-19). In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Considering that God is his Father, this plaint resembles the shaman-to-be’s experience of torment at the hands of the ancestors. Jesus then dies and is entombed, much like the Native American who is covered by a mat. When he reemerges, he is now addressed as “Rabboni,” teacher: his status has changed (20:16). He is now able to dispense the Holy Spirit, much as a shaman, after his/her illness passes, is able to heal with the power of the god.

Another story that comes to mind is that of Muhammad’s first revelation. Muhammad had been troubled for some time, escaping society for contemplation. According to the Hadith of Sahih Bukhari 1:1:3, the angel Jibreel held Muhammad three times in a tight embrace, similar to the “suffocating feeling” that Kim reports as a symptom of shinbyeong (48). I also think of Jonah, pursued by a revelation that he does not want to give, and of Moses, confronted by fire and forced to take on his vocation.

These Semitic stories are not, of course, exactly the same as shamanism. But they are similar enough to suggest that the boundaries between shamanism and God-centered, revealed religion are not quite so firm as scholars sometimes imagine. There seem to be certain themes to revelation or encounters with the spirit realm, and these have a continuity that is broken more by the cultural context and explanatory machinery than by the nature of the experiences themselves.