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Shamans as Mythmakers and Psychopomps | Center for Babaylan Studies

by Stanley Krippner

Abstract: Shamanic practices provide a channel for basic human abilities to understand the world, describe this with language, and manage our knowledge of the limits of our lives. One expression of this is the shaman’s function as mythmaker, a role in which he or she helps create the narratives that his society lives and dies by. Through this function, the shaman helps to provide stability and security to his or her fellows.

Keywords: myths, social stability, afterlife concepts, Mythen, Soziale Stabilität, Jenseitsvorstellungen.

Shamanism can be described as a body of techniques and processes by which practitioners access information that is not ordinarily available to members of the social group that gave them shamanic status, then use this information to meet the needs of that group and its members. Shamans’ access to non-ordinary information sources depends on shifting their modes of perceiving, thinking, and feeling, in other words, altering their state of consciousness. The techniques and processes for making these shifts include drumming, dancing, drug ingestion, lucid dreaming, diet, among others.

Humanity’s varied experiences with the external environment demonstrate the wide range of specific sensorimotor images and sensations available to constitute its ongoing understanding of “reality” (Newton 1996). Perception, cognition, and affect make use of the same physiological structures involved in sensorimotor activity, structures that take the form of analog models of “reality.” These structures can be described as “neurognostic,” i.e., neural networks that provide the biological contribution to humankind’s ways of knowing (Laughlin, McManus, & d’Aquili 1990). Neurognostic structures provide the basis for human beings to initiate, control, and mediate everyday behavior.

The resulting images ground humankind’s concepts, constructs, and intentions; they are probably reflected in what Jungians refer to as “archetypes” (Stevens 1982). When shamanic performance is described as “archetypal,” the designated activities reflect biologically based states of consciousness — the replacement of ordinary waking states through discharge patterns that produce interhemispheric synchronization and coherence, limbic-cortex integration, and integral discharges that synthesize perception, cognition, and affect (Winkelman 1992). In order to access these “archetypal” images, shamans might be “fantasy-prone” (Wilson & Barber 1983), endowed with capacities, probably genetic to some degree, that facilitate their use of imaginative processes.


The organizing systems of primordial human beings began with sensorimotor experience and proceeded to practical implementation. Hence, mythmaking, a basic propensity of humankind, emerged from bodily functions as well as with environmental encounters (Mithen 1996). Language was highly adaptive, eventually providing early humans with the ability to reflect on their own and other people’s mental states (Newton 1996; Mithen 1996). Language interacted with other human capacities, and the resulting cognitive fluidity enabled the production of symbolic artifacts and images. For the shaman, the totality of inner and outer reality is fundamentally an immense signal system. Shamanic states of consciousness yields information from a database consisting of dreams, visions, intuitions, feelings, as well as keen observations of the natural and social world.

As language moved from a social function to include a general purpose function, human consciousness shifted from a means to predict others’ behavior to a mode of managing mental data bases of information relating to all domains of activity. The ability to use symbols and metaphors in story telling and mythmaking was adaptive because this ability helped to make sense of one’s body, one’s peers, and one’s natural environment.
Shamans represent a specialization that involves social adaptations to utilize unique psychobiological potentials (Winkelman 1997). As a result, shamanism is a worldwide phenomenon in which altered states of consciousness play a fundamental role in mythmaking, healing, divination, and the like (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993). A natural result of the evolution of the human brain was the development of specialized subsystems that allowed environmental factors to shape neurognostic functions. Shamanic procedures may represent the first culturally institutionalized practices for the integration of these modules, both through altered conscious states and community bonding rituals (Winkelman 1997). These practices probably became codifed as the myths that insured a society’s identity and worldview (Wiercinski 1989). Shamans were the primordial mythmakers, helping their community navigate through the contingencies of daily encounters and challenges.
Myths can be described as implicit narratives that serve as cultural or personal paradigms; they explain natural phenomena, guide individuals through life, assign them their place in society, and connect them with the spiritual forces of the universe (Campbell 1986). Myths are products of human imagination whose meaning lies not so much in their literal descriptions and explanations but in their metaphoric and metaphysical connotations (Ibid.).


As cognitive complexity enhanced the self-awareness of humans, they became explicitly aware of their own existence. This phenomenon engendered a vast capacity for both awe and terror: awe, because knowing that one is alive, one recognizes the consequent possibilities of one’s relationships to others; and terror, because the knowledge that one is alive necessitates the horrifying recognition of one’s vulnerability and inevitable death (Greenberg, Solomon & Pyszczybski 1997).

This potential for incapacitating terror needed to be resolved if the species was to remain a viable contender for survival on a planet fraught with danger. The species used the same cognitive complexity that gave rise to the potential for terror to bring that terror under control by creating cultural myths. These conceptions of “reality” led to sophisticated ways for effectively assuaging these concerns. Myths provided narratives, concepts, and schema to organize human perceptions and to answer basic existential questions: How did the world begin? What is the purpose of life? What happens to people after they have died? The answers to these questions suggested that the universe is a stable, orderly, and meaningful place (Ibid.). A cultural mythology is a collection of interacting myths; in mythologically oriented societies, even the most insignificant happening can take on cosmic dimensions (Descola 1993/1996:68).

Cultural mythologies made it possible for people to feel significant and to manifest “self-esteem” through the adoption of social roles and the consequent satisfaction of associated standards of value. Meeting the standards of value in a society conferred literal or symbolic immortality, and countered the terror of certain death. Adherence to cultural myths serves to keep potential terror from becoming manifest, and reminders of one’s mortality signal a need for securing that defensive posture (Greenberg, Solomon & Pyszynski 1997). Faith in cultural myths was maintained through spiritual teachings and the associated rituals and ceremonies, which can be conceptualized as mythic performances. The ability to perform well enhanced one’s “self-esteem,” whether one was a shaman, a chief, a midwife, a warrior, or played some other role in the tribe. According to TMT, the same can be said for persons in non-tribal societies.

Myths about death and dying vary from society to society, but their power to manage terror and to control, socialize, and harmonize human behavior is evident when one explores the attendant narratives. Community bonding rituals and ceremonies not only enacted mythic narratives but also provided opportunities for individual performances that reinforced social roles and provided for social support.


Western images of life and death infer that there is a straight line extending through time. The longer the line, the more successful one is thought to become in attaining longevity. If the line is short, there are myths that contain elaborate rationalizations, e.g., the dead youth was “called by God,” “needed in heaven,” or “paid a debt incurred by the parents’ sins.” Most American Indian traditions, on the other hand, did not view life in terms of a straight line but as a circle. One cycle was completed when a young person reached puberty; another cycle was completed when he or she had children. In another cycle, sometimes concurrent, the individual was expected to move outward, serving the community, the earth, and the Great Spirit. When death arrived, one hoped to die in wholeness. As the Ogala Sioux leader Crazy Horse commented, “Today is a good day to die, for all the things of my life are present” (Levine 1982:5).
Rites of passage during puberty often included a solitary journey into the wilderness for several days of fasting and prayer. In several tribes, both young men and young women participated in the journeys. These and other activities were geared to enable young warriors to receive a vision-inspired death chant that they could use throughout their lives to maintain contact with the Great Spirit during times of stress and danger. Upon falling from a horse, on being attacked by an enemy, or while burning with a fever, the death chant was a constant companion. It was available in times of need, creating a familiarity with the unfamiliar. As a result, it prepared a person for death. Hence, many Native Americans died with great clarity, already conversant with a mythology that integrated living and dying (Levine 1982:25-26).

Death and rebirth has been a common theme in the selection and training of shamans. The famed Polar explorer Knud Rasmussen described a Caribou Eskimo shaman named Kinalik who was “called” as a result of a dream and whose initiation involved death and rebirth. Kinalik had dreamed that a member of her tribe would become seriously ill. This dream was predictive, and was taken as a sign of her shamanic talent. As part of her initiation, Kinalik spent five days in the open air, tied to tent poles so that she would be noticed by Hila, a powerful mystical force. During those five days, it was believed that benevolent spirits protected Kinalik against the bitter cold and icy snowstorms. At the end of the time, her tutor, Igjugarjuk, threw a small pebble at her while other members of the tribe watched. Kinalik collapsed and lied unconscious through the night. It was believed that Igjugarjuk had “shot” her, and she was now “dead.” When Igjugarjuk went to revive her the next morning, he discovered that she had regained consciousness of her own accord. Kinalik mentioned that the polar bear, one of her guiding spirits, had protected her during the night (Kalweit 1988:9). This ordeal raised Kinalik’s self-esteem, guaranteed her shamanic status, and prepared her for shamanic duties — many of which would deal with death and dying.

Igjugarjuk had another pupil named Aggiartoq. In his case, another form of “death” was chosen, namely death by drowning. Aggiartoq was tied tightly to a long tent pole and carried to a lake. A hole was hewn through the ice and Aggiartoq was lowered, fully dressed, into the lake and left for five days. When community members retrieved him, they claimed that he was as dry as if he had never been touched by water (Ibid.). Both of these cases reflect the ways in which shamanic initiation confront and manage the terror of death, in these instances in ways that other members of the tribe could not endure. The primary and most universal factor of human existence is the idea of a life-giving energy that is independent of the physical body and guides each individual. The shaman is the primary investigator of the domain of death; he or she explores the routes of travel to non-ordinary “reality” and often accompanies souls of the dead to an after-life domain. As such, he is considered a “psychopomp” who bridges ordinary and non-ordinary realms of existence.

When the shaman “dies,” he or she has an opportunity to explore the realm of death. This is an extremely dangerous undertaking, and there are tales of apprentices and initiates who do not return. Malidomo Some’ (1994), in describing his own month-long initiation in the wilderness of Burkina Faso, his home country, observes that a few initiates died during the ordeal. However, the concept of an immortal soul (or souls) sustains shamanic societies. The Cuna Indians of Panama describe the purpa, or soul, as an invisible “double” that is the essence of life. Canadian Tlingit Eskimos refer to the soul as Quatuwu, “that which feels”; when that “feeling” disappears, that person is dead (Kalweit 1988:23). Many cultural myths describe reincarnation; the Batak people of Indonesia believe that the Tondi, or soul, determines the good or bad deeds a person will carry out during a lifetime, and that the goddess Mula Djadi informs it of that destiny before it enters the new body. The Siberian Tungus use one word (chanjan) for a living person’s soul and a different word (omi) for the soul after death. After death, the omi spends some time in the Abode of the Omi-Souls until it is escorted to the new incarnation (Ibid.).

In some shamanic societies, the soul (or souls) of the dead try to reenter the world of the living by “possessing” a human being. In the Jivaro tribes of the Amazon, a child sometimes incorporates the wakan, or soul, of the deceased because their capacities for observation are undeveloped, and thus unable to understand the danger involved. If this happens, the deceased gain temporary access to the world of the living, at least until such time as this coexistence brings about the child’s death, whereupon the ghost is once again expelled into the twilight world (Descola 1993/1996:373). However, a shaman may temporarily be “possessed” if it serves a useful purpose. In some cultures, the souls of deceased relatives or tribal elders call the candidate to begin the training for shamanhood. The Yakut shaman Tusput recalls, “One day when I was wandering in the mountains up there in the north, I stopped by a pile of wood to cook my food. I set fire to it. Now a Tungus shaman was buried under the pyre. His spirit took possession of me.” This spirit helped Tusput so intimately that during his work he claimed to speak Tungusic words (Eliade 1951/1974:82).
When the Aztecs sacrificed a prisoner, a rope representing the umbilical cord often was tied around the victim’s abdomen symbolizing that the hour of death marked a rebirth into another world (Huxley 1974). The Tupinamba of Brazil could obtain immortality by dying in the lands of their enemies as cannibalized sacrificial victims (Ibid., p. 108). These are examples of cultural practices that manage the terror of death by making it a triumphant event. One of the links between shamanism and ancient Greek cosmology was the god Hermes, who as herald and messenger of the gods performed a shamanic function by conducting the souls of the dead to their final dwelling place. Hermes (who was renamed Mercury by the Romans) had a reputation for being as mischievous as he was clever. Centuries later, the so-called Hermetic sciences taught adepts occult practices to demonstrate and ensure their own immortality.


Contemporary approaches to thanatology, the study of death, take several forms. An example is the contrasting positions of Ernest Becker (1975) and Ken Wilber (1981). For both scholars, evil is the result of human beings’ attempts to deny their own insignificance. Becker thinks such fears are well-founded while Wilber understands them as the confusion of “ego” with essence. Wilber states that humans intuit Spirit as their true and prior nature. By attempting to achieve on earth a perfection that can only be found in the transpersonal “beyond,” humankind has confused the finite and the infinite, producing a plethora of problems. For Becker, religion is based on the wishful longing for a realm beyond death; for Wilber, religion is based on the longing for an intuited realm that is, indeed, encountered after death.

This fundamental disagreement is important to understand when various cultural and personal myths about life after death are surveyed. Some religions do not rely on accounts of a literal afterlife or belief in an immortal soul. Others, however, glowingly describe entrance into the infinite as, variously, emerging from darkness into light, the slaying of dragons or the destruction of demons, the glorious opening of the heavenly gates, or the revelation of divine entities. The theme of Divine Judgment occurs in Judaic, Christian, Moslem, Zoroastrian, and some Mesoamerican traditions. Heaven may consist of celestial cities, paradisical gardens, radiant beings, erotic encounters, angelic music, sensual delights, and/or galactic visitations. Hells may be marked by terrifying monsters, inexorable suffering, instruments of torture, and/or fiery conflagrations.

Reincarnation is a tenet that is central to Hinduism, Jainism, certain Mesoamerican traditions, and many forms of Buddhism. Some cultural mythologies perceive passageways from one world into the next, vehicles to facilitate the journey, purgatories and other indeterminate states, and unitive bliss where self-identity is lost, and even schools of esoteric wisdom where a soul can continue to evolve spiritually under the guidance of a master instructor.


In conclusion, this essay argues that language makes use of the same neurognostic structures involved in sensorimotor activities; these structures take the form of analog models of reality, and the resulting images ground humankind’s concepts, constructs, and intentions, i.e., its mythologies. These images serve as schemas that reflect the brain’s mapping systems, and eventually provide for a freedom beyond what was possible through natural selection. However, humanity paid a price for this freedom; individuals became aware of their own eventual demise. To manage the terror evoked by this awareness, myths were created that described reincarnation, survival of the soul, and transitions to the realms of the dead.

Shamans were key players in the creation of these myths, as well as their implementation. The rituals, ceremonies, and rites of passage that enacted cultural myths bolstered individual “self-esteem” and community solidarity in ways that assured the survival of human beings in a world that would otherwise be fraught with danger, unpredictability, and terror. Finally, it was the shaman as psychopomp who assisted the transition between life and death, assuring the soul of its survival once the physical body had served its purpose.


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Source: http://www.ceoniric.cl/

Stanley Krippner, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, San Francisco, California. He has observed and worked with shamans in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, presenting his findings in dozens of articles and in the book Spiritual Dimensions of Healing: From Tribal Shamanism to Contemporary Health Care.
e-mail: skrippner@saybrook.edu