Author Topic: Eliade on Initiation, Shamanism, and Initiation Illness  (Read 10725 times)

Matt Koeske

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Eliade on Initiation, Shamanism, and Initiation Illness
« on: November 05, 2010, 04:18:04 PM »
The passage below is a four page summary of shamanic initiation (i.e., "archetypal" shamanic initiation) from Mircea Eliade's book Rites and Symbols of Initiation: the Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth (1958/1994).  Eliade's massive book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951) is a much more detailed and extensive study, but this passage from "Initiation" is very concise.  I have only started reading Eliade recently, and I can say with conviction that his writing should be required for anyone interested in Jungianism and individuation (as well as shamanism and initiation).  Compared to Jung, Eliade is very scholarly.  Less poetic and digressive, but still a "universalist" or archetypalist.  The shamanism book is very dense with ethnographic studies.  It's thorough, but not always fun.  The initiation book is more manageable.  Both are excellent.  If you have intense or scholarly interests in these areas (or in Jungian psychology) you should read the whole books.  If you are just concerned with individuation, initiation, and shamanism, at least read the passage below.

I want to record this passage, because I have periodically referred (and will continue to refer) to archetypal shamanism as a force or trend behind individuation, the Work, initiation, and various forms of modern "initiation illness" that has gravitated toward Jungian thinking.  Also, I want to deposit this here, because Jungian individuation theory doesn't always correspond with initiation (shamanic or otherwise).  When I write about the Work or about the hero archetype, my thinking is in complete accord with Eliade's description of shamanism.  Alchemy, for instance, could be said to be more shamanic than Jungian.  That is, it corresponds to the shamanic archetype of initiation and ecstasy more than it does to Jung's individuation theory.

Where my thinking diverges from Jung's and other Jungians' on the topics of individuation or alchemy, it follows the shamanic archetype (as described by Eliade below).

Shamanic Initiations

. . .

There are three ways of becoming a shaman: first, by spontaneous vocation (the "call" or "election"); second, by hereditary transmission of the shamanic profession; and, third, by personal "quest," or, more rarely, by the will of the clan. By whatever method he may have been designated, a shaman is recognized as such only after having received two kinds of instruction. The first is ecstatic (e.g., dreams, visions, trances); the second is traditional (e.g., shamanic techniques, names and functions of the spirits, mythology and genealogy of the clan, secret language). This twofold teaching, imparted by the spirits and the old master shamans, constitutes initiation. Sometimes initiation is public and includes a rich and varied ritual; this is the case, for example, among some Siberian peoples. But the lack of a ritual of this sort in no way implies the lack of an initiation; it is perfectly possible for the initiation to be performed in the candidate's dreams or ecstatic experiences.

It is primarily with the syndrome of the shaman's mystical vocation that we are concerned. In Siberia, the youth who is called to be a shaman attracts attention by his strange behavior; for example, he seeks solitude, becomes absentminded, loves to roam in the woods or unfrequented places, has visions, and sings in his sleep."? In some instances, this period of incubation is marked by quite serious symptoms; among the Yakut, the young man sometimes has fits of fury and easily loses consciousness, hides in the forest, feeds on the bark of trees, throws himself into water and fire, cuts himself with knives. The future shamans among the Tungus, as they approach maturity, go through a hysterical or hysteroid crisis, but sometimes their vocation manifests itself at an earlier age: the boy runs away into the mountains and remains there for a week or more, feeding on animals, which he tears to pieces with his teeth. He returns to the village, filthy, bloodstained, his clothes torn and his hair disordered, and it is only after ten or more days have passed that he begins to babble incoherent words.

Even in the case of hereditary shamanism, the future shaman's election is preceded by a change in behavior. The souls of the shaman ancestors of a family choose a young man among their descendants; he becomes absentminded and moody, delights in solitude, has prophetic visions, and sometimes undergoes attacks that make him unconscious. During these times, the Buriat believe, the young man's soul is carried away by spirits; received in the palace of the gods, it is instructed by his shaman ancestors in the secrets of the profession, the forms and names of the gods, the worship and names of the spirits. It is only after this first initiation that the youth's soul returns and resumes control of his body.

A man may also become a shaman following an accident or a highly unusual event- for example, among the Buriat, the Soyot, the Eskimos, after being struck by lightning, or falling from a high tree, or successfully undergoing an ordeal that can be homologized with an initiatory ordeal, as in the case of an Eskimo who spent five days in icy water without his clothes becoming wet.

The strange behavior of future shamans has not failed to attract the attention of scholars, and since the middle of the past century several attempts have been made to explain the phenomenon of shamanism as a mental disorder. But the problem was wrongly put. On the one hand, it is not true that shamans always are or always have to be neuropathies; on the other, those among them who had been ill became shamans precisely because they had succeeded in becoming cured. Very often in Siberia, when the shamanic vocation manifests itself as some form of illness or as an epileptic seizure, the initiation is equivalent to a cure. To obtain the gift of shamanizing presupposes precisely the solution of the psychic crisis brought on by the first symptoms of election or call.

But if shamanism cannot simply be identified with a psychopathological phenomenon, it is nevertheless true that the shamanic vocation often implies a crisis so deep that it sometimes borders on madness. And since the youth cannot become a shaman until he has resolved this crisis, it is clear that it plays the role of a mystical initiation. The disorder provoked in the future shaman by the agonizing news that he has been chosen by the gods or the spirits is by that very fact valuated as an initiatory sickness. The precariousness of life, the solitude and suffering revealed by any sickness, is, in this particular case, aggravated by the symbolism of initiatory death; for accepting the supernatural election finds expression in the feeling that one has delivered oneself over to the divine or demonic powers, hence that one is destined to imminent death. We may give all these psychopathological crises of the elected the generic name of initiatory sicknesses because their syndrome very closely follows the classic ritual of initiation. The sufferings of the elected man are exactly like the tortures of initiation; just as, in puberty rites or rites for entrance into a secret society, the novice is "killed" by semi-divine or demonic beings, so the future shaman sees in dreams his own body dismembered by demons; he watches them, for example, cutting off his head and tearing out his tongue. The initiatory rituals peculiar to Siberian and central Asian shamanism include a symbolic ascent to heaven up a tree or pole; in dream or a series of waking dreams, the sick man chosen by the gods or spirits undertakes his celestial journey to the World Tree. I shall later give some examples of these initiatory ordeals undergone in dream or during the future shaman's period of apparent unconsciousness and madness.

But I should like even now to stress the fact that the psychopathology of the shamanic vocation is not profane; it does not belong to ordinary symptomatology. It has an initiatory structure and signification; in short, it reproduces a traditional mystical pattern. The total crisis of the future shaman, sometimes leading to complete disintegration of the personality and to madness, can be valuated not only as an initiatory death, but also as a symbolic return to the precosmogonic chaos, to the amorphous and indescribable state that precedes any cosmogony. Now, as we know, for archaic and traditional cultures a symbolic return to chaos is equivalent to preparing a new creation. It follows that we may interpret the psychic chaos of the future shaman as a sign that the profane man is being "dissolved" and a new personality being prepared for birth.
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