[NB] Shaman: a snapshot in the life of a word

“Anonymous writers were the norm, frequently German, Swedish, or Danish captives; among them, by the second half of the seventeenth century, ‘shaman,’ ‘saaman,’ and ‘shaitan’ were established as indigenous terms, applied to all groups living past the Ural Mountains. Later ethnographers would suggest that the term ‘shaman’ was specifically of ‘Tungus origin,’ but in the mid-seventeenth century the Tungus were…not a distinct ethnic tribe…. Judging from the historical evidence, the word itself is a generic label of Slavic origin via German transcription with negative connotations.”—Silvia Tomášková, The Wayward Shaman: The Prehistory of an Idea (77–78)

So, yeah, this word that has now become a tense spot in the dialogue around appropriating indigenous discourse, may very likely have had its origins in the imperial effort to catalog the margins of Russia. I’m not saying the dialogue around appropriation doesn’t matter, but it does suggest something funny that we have gotten tangled up in a word rather in the history or present circumstances of a people and a practice. Or, that we twist ourselves in knots to avoid appropriating a word while living the ins and outs of our days on the appropriation of their land and labor.

Does the concern over a word really help us or other people? Or does it slow us down, isolate us, divide us up so that we can’t communicate so easily with each other? While we need to have good definitions on the ground, I suspect that language policing benefits empire first and foremost.

Pansophism Booklist: The Next Ten Books

Ever since I finished the book challenge, I have found my thoughts wandering toward what someone should read after those ten books. It is all well and good to have secreted them away in a lakeside hideaway for a month, but what should they do for their continuing education? What should they dip into over the course of the next year?

I’m not sure exactly what I’m after with this thought exercise, but since it has been persistent I figured it’s worth a post.

Continue reading “Pansophism Booklist: The Next Ten Books”

Of Shamans, Toads, Frogs, and Witches

Yesterday’s post took a good bit of work to finalize, both in practical and spiritual terms. I have no idea how it will look from the outside, but the process of bringing it to completion has left me feeling a little tender, pleasantly rough. With the new moon having yielded the sky to the stars, it felt like a good occasion to get outside at night and walk with the stars a little bit.

Continue reading “Of Shamans, Toads, Frogs, and Witches”


Something has been gnawing at me since I read Gordon’s recent post over on Runesoup: he loosely identifies a chunk of what he describes in his praxis org chart as shamanic. When we talk about shamanism, are we really talking about things like energy work and meditation? That sort of identification doesn’t seem out of place in Western magical circles, we are, but I don’t see it capturing what goes on in ‘traditional shamanic practices’ (would that I could put flashing lights on those scare quotes–the whole set of notions are so fraught).

Continue reading “Prayer?”

Gnosticism and the Dead

This is one of those experiments in link curation. I aim to point out to a few interesting things and give them just a little horizon to unite them.

First up, a quote from an oldie but goodie, W. B. Yeats:

The dead, as the passionate necessity wears out, come into a measure of freedom and may turn the impulse of events, started while living, in some new direction, but they cannot originate except through the living. Then gradually they perceive, although they are still but living in their memories, harmonies, symbols, and patterns, as though all were being refashioned by an artist, and they are moved by emotions, sweet for no imagined good but in themselves, like those of children dancing in a ring… (fuller quote here)

Which I would suggest reading alongside this article on Wikipedia about Mongolian shamans in the afterlife.

Then, when you are good and ready, go pick up a copy of Frisvold’s Quimbanda set on Pomba Giras and Exus because he is talking about a similar phenomenon–sorcerors and witches instead of shamans, but still.

Which is to say: there is a way to live that prepares the soul to launch into the afterlife with a mission, with the means and tools to change the way the otherwise whimsical dead flow through the world and organize them to the benefit of the living. It isn’t just boddhisattvas out there, though, and you should keep that in mind.

Looking at these ‘lesser saints’ helps shift gears from the high-falutin’ gnosticism that sees success as basically running so hard at the world that you punch a hole right through it into heaven to a gnosticism that sees success almost metabolically, as the continuation of the spiritual fusion of the giant and the messiah, just at a different frequency.