Learning & Borrowing 2: Looking Back

Jun 20, 2006
My catchup on Deo's Shadow continues, and this time I became annoyed with the Christopher Penczak interview on Shamanic Witchcraft. (Contrary, aren't I?) I confess, first of all, that I studied a lot of the anthropology of religion in college, and as I've mentioned before, anthropology isn't the greatest basis for a faith. It is, however, a great way to deconstruct a lot of arguments about authenticity made within the Pagan community.

Two main things bothered me about Penczak's discussion of Shamanic Witchcraft. First, he talks about Shamanism as a return to the "core beliefs" that date back to the Stone Age practices of Shamanism and Witchcraft. I don't think I need to point out the biggest flaw in this argument -- after all, if we can't know for certain what our Celtic European ancestors did... It seems obvious when you think about it, but it's hard to realize if you don't read enough of it -- anything written about the Stone Age was written by anthropologists and archaeologists, filtered through their understanding of the world, and interpreted via things they know about. We take cave paintings and particular colors and selections of herbs to be indicators of Shamanism, yes. But we do that because they are tools of Shamanism in other, modern cultures where we can ask people directly what they mean. It's possible that these things do not indicate ritual use at all, much less ritual in the way we understand it now.

This argument is also related to the assumption that the older, more "primitive" a culture, the simpler it is. This is patently not the case -- the Aboriginal magical system is deeply complex, the political organization of tribes in sub-Saharan Africa puts bureaucracy to shame, and just about any example from the ethnographic literature provides more proof that age is no indicator of complexity. Moreover, why should we assume that all Stone Age peoples practiced the same form of religion which provided the basis for everything that exists now? The world was just as large in the Stone Age as it is now, albeit more sparsely populated.

Second, the whole idea of returning to a set of "core beliefs" returns to the fallacy that the older something is, the more valid it is. Paganism suffers from this a great deal, probably because there's a constant search to find out what pre-Christian people really did before Christianity came along. This is the fallacy that led to the decades of covens claiming to have existed since before the Christian conversion of Europe. Eventually, Paganism as a whole accepted that these traditions could have value even if they weren't hundreds of years old, but if the rest of the Shamanic movement focuses on the age of the Shamanic tradition I'm going to have to be a bit wary of it. Paganism is wonderfully generative, accepting of innovation and individual decision, and an emphasis on age can seriously stifle that impulse.

I don't have a problem at all with the practices he's presenting -- a focus on energy and individual experience, an understanding of different realities and one's place in all of them -- but I think the frame he's using is unnecessary, and somewhat offputting.

I do hate to be dumping all this Science into what I meant to be a Theology blog, but these are the little things that get under my skin anymore, and if I expect to continue building theology out of what I have and what I'm given, I need to work them out.

1 comment:

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