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A Shaman's Journey
When I was 5 years old, I asked my Sunday School teacher, a woman, "What if Jesus had been a girl?"
"But he wasn't," she replied.
Unsatisfied, I asked again, only to receive the exasperated, recursive answer. My mother gave the same empty response later, in private.
It's no huge surprise that when I was about 14, my many dissatisfaction with the Church overwhelmed my fondness for it, and I began to explore other spiritual paths. Coinciding with this transition was also the realization that intuitive gifts I'd manifested since childhood demanded open expression, and that the energetic truth of my femininity deserved acknowledgement on my spiritual path. By the time I was 17 I had separated from the Church and begun crafting my own relationship to shamanism.
That may not seem like a terribly logical leap on the surface, but for me it was sound. Emerging from a sexually-abusive childhood into young adulthood with full-blown PTSD, I needed help. As someone who was deeply intuitive and aware of the signals and messages from the unformed, I knew that aid could come from many levels of being. I also recognized that through my wounding, I was experiencing what is considered a classic "shamanic death." I could feel the insight of my experience leading me, though I couldn't emotionally accept it or understand in what direction we were headed. Also, in myself and the world around me I recognized a thriving Feminine Divine and a loving Divine Masculine who fully embraced Her. I wanted to learn how to incorporate these vital components into my spiritual experience. I needed to find a way to move through my life that enabled me to feel more whole. The trouble was, I had come through a tradition in which every belief had been told to me. I had no framework for delving into the wisdom and divinity of my own experience to find meaning, guidance. In short, I had no teacher.
So I became my own. I read everything I could find on shamanism, including Michael Harner's The Way of the Shaman and Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Both tomes seemed informative enough on the philosophies driving shamanism, elucidating on the techniques shamans use to heal themselves and others, enlightening how one becomes a shaman. I felt novel kinship with their ideas, though something was still off. Among what these hallowed resources didn't share was the presence of the feminine in the shaping of the shamanic legacy. In fact, at least according to the deigned grandfather of the modern shamanic movement, Eliade, there wasn't one. I'd come all that way, struggling through soul healing and psyche reformation, breaking free from the limitations of my birth religion, only to be told that shamans weren't women, either.
Of course, that didn't stop my studies or pursuits to find teachers, which I eventually did. It didn't stop me from creating a thriving shamanic practice, Soul Intent Arts, or from being ordained as an interfaith minister in a Goddess-centric organization, or from pursuing a Masters of Divinity focused on shamanic study. In all, I took the off-road adventure, self-creating my own shamanic path without the guideposts and maps we are used to finding on spiritual quests, a feat common to many modern seekers on broken paths in this cultural melting pot.
Along that jaunt to manifesting myself in the spiritual truth best suited for me, I learned the many shrouded histories of female shamans. According to another revered academic, Ioan M. Lewis, shamanism was merely a construct for individuals -- particularly women and gay men -- to express otherwise socially unacceptable behavior, a description still embraced by many of our highest institutions of learning. But from women of various traditions I learned that females dominated shamanic roles in the ancient histories of eastern Asia, Africa, Siberia, and many indigenous North and South American tribes. In truth, women were scattered all through historic shamanic cultures, only the western curators of that knowledge omitted them, devalued their contributions. Through reconstructionist studies, I learned that women, and the feminine aspect, were vital figures in the spiritual movement that is now considered the Church.
Generally speaking, we still don't incorporate the diverse path of shamanism into the modern study of it. We assume that by virtue of being Western-born and having the privilege to study whatever we choose, to elect the faith that sings most resonantly within us, that our presence as women on sacred paths, now, is enough. Yes, it is our destiny to look forward and blaze that trail into whatever fulfills our hearts most deeply. It is a gift and a responsibility to look back and know, to bless where we came from.
Now, when the history of anything seems too groomed to be true, too biased to be thorough, too tidy to be real, I remember the omission of women from the path of the modern shaman. I remember to look for those places from which she has always thrived and merely been hidden.
Originally published on Feminism and Religion.
About the author:
Kelley is author of "Gift of the Dreamtime," and her shamanic practice is Soul Intent Arts, in North Carolina.