My Path in Shamanism
Interview with Michael Harner
From Higher Wisdom by Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob. Albany: State University of New York Press, ©2005.
Would you say that such sound allows one to reach realities similar to those produced by visionary plants or drugs?
Yes, I do feel very strongly that way. But the path is usually more subtle and takes longer. On the other hand, access is constantly available and permits doing shamanic healing.
In an article you wrote on the use of Datura-type plants in European witchcraft, you suggested that their effects are quite different from, for example, ayahuasca and the tryptamines, or peyote and the phenethylamines.
It’s virtually impossible to function under a strong dose of one of these tropane alkaloids. I had used Brugmansia-Datura-type solanaceous plants among the Shuar—and also had actually tried out the “witches” flying ointment back in the early 1960s in the United States. My conclusion, and the hypothesis I presented in that article, was that it was not possible to do shamanism using this very strong drug, which commonly made one unconscious for as long as thirty-six hours.
In my opinion, European shamanism had to give up the drum because of its noise, leading to persecution by the Church. An exception was in the remote north, in the Arctic, where its use was continued among the Sami—the Lapps—until the missionaries finally arrived there. In the more southerly European areas where the drum was given up, they shifted especially to mixtures involving the solanaceous plants, plants of the nightshade family. But these incapacitated you if you used enough, so you couldn’t perform acts of healing and divination, having very little control over your experiences in nonordinary reality.
In that sense, it wouldn’t really be very useful for shamanism.
This is why I think they distinguished the sabbat from the esbat, as I indicated in my book, Hallucinogens and Shamanism. The sabbat was probably the journey where all the nonordinary things happened to the “witches” in an altered state potentially produced by these plants with the spirits, and the esbat the formal meeting of these shamans together in ordinary reality. It’s just a theory, but it would explain why there is this peculiar dichotomy in European witchcraft, which was really a form of shamanism. This dichotomy wasn’t there among the Sami in northernmost Europe in the beginning of the twentieth century, because they were still using the drum.
Are you saying that the Central Europeans used drumming also, and they had to give it up?
I don’t have hard evidence to back up this theory, but I cannot conceive of them not having the drum. The drum was still being used in shamanism into the twentieth century in northernmost Scandinavia, the area where religious persecution occurred the latest in Europe. Teresa de Avilar was able to use the drum in her spiritual work in Spain, but she was a nun “in the service of Christ.”
There’s also Mediterranean art showing the drum.
Yes. I think what happened is that they couldn’t use drums if they wanted to avoid being discovered by the Inquisition, they had to have a silent way. The plant ointments were quiet and less discoverable. I’ve found the same thing in Inuit villages. They’re not about to do shamanic drumming within hearing of other people, because they’ll be singled out and reported to the Christian authorities. So the drum is really a liability in a situation of persecution.
Did you find any evidence of alternative plant use in Europe? Tryptamine-containing plants? Psilocybin-containing mushrooms?
I pursued that, of course. There’s no hard evidence I know of, but presumably berserkers were using the Amanita muscaria mushroom to get into that state. There’s some indirect supportive evidence proposed by R. Gordon Wasson.
Have you tried the Amanita mushrooms?
No, they are not in my experience. Among the Samoyed peoples—one of the most Western of Siberian groups, not that far from the Sami of Scandinavia—shamans and nonshamans both sometimes ate or burned dried Amanita muscaria to help change consciousness for spiritual purposes. It’s not something I’ve published yet, but as far as I know, that’s the most westward evidence of psychotropic mushroom use in a native context in Eurasia. I think it’s probable that this kind of knowledge was known slightly farther to the south and west in Scandinavia in the old days, à la the berserkers. The berserkers were violent Norse warriors who were likely possessed by the power of the mushroom, much as nonshaman Siberians still can be when they wish to have extraordinary physical strength and endurance.
Did you eventually “graduate,” to use a Western term, as a shaman? Did your teachers tell you that you were ready to go out and practice?
You never graduate as a shaman. It just goes on and on. Your teachers almost never tell you you’re ready.
Just like psychoanalysis.
Ordinary teachers never know if you’re ready. There are two types of teachers. One is the ordinary teacher, which is what I think you were referring to—somebody like myself or shaman teachers I worked with among indigenous peoples. Then there are the spirit teachers, who are the real teachers. The spirit teachers may tell you, and do tell you, what you can do, but all the ordinary living human teachers are just expediters. The ultimate authorities are the spirits you work with, and they tell you what to do and what you can’t do. That’s one of the reasons that I feel it’s usually a mistake for anybody to characterize themselves as a shaman, because the power can be taken away at any time. Anyone who claims to be a shaman starts getting focused on his or her ego. He or she, however, is almost nothing, for one is only a shaman when the spirits want that person to be a shaman.
Were you given any visions or insights by these plant spirits about the culture you come from? Its such a world-dominating culture. Are the spirits commenting on this?
Our culture is considered to be deformed and out of contact with these truths. I think that compassionate, healing spirits have a mission to try to communicate their existence to us so that they can get on with their work of trying to reduce suffering and pain in our reality. But they are not all-powerful. They can’t do it without the help of intermediaries, and shamans are especially strong intermediaries. And so, precisely because the spirits need help in this, they will teach you surprising things to encourage you to help them. But they are in one reality and we’re in another reality, and the only way they can penetrate this reality, except in very rare circumstances, is with help from our side. We have our power; they have their power. When we go into alliance with them, that’s when healing miracles and miracles of knowledge can come through.
So the main thrust that I had in the Amazon using plants continues in my present work using sonic driving. The main thrust was that they were attempting to alert me to the reality of the spirits, to get me involved, and to teach and involve others. But they never said explicitly why this was. Implicitly, however, it was to reduce spiritual ignorance and suffering in ordinary reality.
Can you can meet the same spirits, whether you access these worlds via plants or via drumming?
You can meet some of the same spirits, but not all the same spirits, because the spirits of specific plants can possess you to varying degrees. Much depends on what the spirits feel you are ready for and need to access at a particular time. Some of the spirits that I worked with as allies in the Amazon I still often work with, but there are now others in addition. Some are less dominant than they once were, and others are stronger.
In addition to the compassionate spirits, are there malevolent spirits?
Yes. Here in the Middle World the spirits have the whole range of personalities that also occur in ordinary reality. What is “malevolent” is an interesting thing. Other species may view us as malevolent, such as when we kill and enslave them. But we don’t view ourselves as malevolent, and we don’t see our whole species as malevolent. So a lot of the so-called “evil spirits” are often basically just trying to make a living and exist in their own way just as we are. More often than not, they don’t even know they’re dead. They’re just doing the same old thing, but they’re doing it in a Middle World of nonordinary reality. And this can include simple things like insect spirits who intrude into people.
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