Community and Recognition

March 3rd, 2014

Goldes shaman priest in regaliaI read a good post from Donald Engstrom-Reese about Elders that brought up something I was thinking about lately. Donald talks about how a true elder does not declare themselves as such; it is a title conferred upon them by others in their community. The same is true for many other special roles, such as shaman, noidi, sangoma, etc. But in our modern culture, there is virtually no sense of community. As Donald suggested, people need to be in a close, intimate setting to really get to know each other to be able to recognize each others’ talents and roles without the use of self-recognition and promotion. But our Pagan community is more similar to a diaspora than a community, except for the fact that we didn’t originate from a cohesive community before the diaspora. Most don’t see each other any more regularly than once or twice/month, even when they are of the same religious group. And many people in our community don’t spend time together more than a few times per year. We live in an age where we communicate electronically and impersonally rather than directly like a traditional community.

So what do those called by ancestral spirits do? Many think it’s inappropriate to declare and recognize oneself as a shaman, but instead that is a role that must be recognized by the community. But which community? My wife was recognized by a Tsataan shaman to be a shaman in the Mongolian tradition, which she has studied for many years. But the Tsataan shaman is not part of the community in which we live. On the other hand, does the American Pagan community have any authority to recognize her as a shaman? If so, under what authority? She doesn’t really know anyone in the US personally who follows the Mongolian path. So which community needs to recognize her, for such recognition to be considered authentic?

Another aspect of this problem is with Native Americans. It is a common belief of theirs that only someone of sufficient native blood quantum can be recognized as medicine people, and only if recognized as such by a person of their tribe. But what if their tribe has dwindled so much that nobody is left to officially recognize any new medicine people? Or what if someone’s tribe no longer follows the old religion, as many have been forcibly converted to Christianity or converted to alcohol.

I understand the importance of having someone else recognize another with a special spiritual role, but my concern with that being the only criterion is that it places more emphasis on the authority of people than the authority of the spirits and Gods who are worshiped and honored. If we lived in an age and place where there was a vibrant community who can recognize new healers, the old tradition of community recognition would have no problem. I was part of the Tsataan ritual where my wife was recognized and the manner in which it was conducted showed that the recognition was truly coming from the spirits, not from the shaman himself. But those people are rare and most Americans who may be called by the spirits cannot travel across the world and be blessed to meet someone who is able and willing to help them. What do those people do? What do the spirits do who are truly calling them?

If we say that you must be recognized by another incarnated human as a healer or other special role in a tradition for it to be authentic, there will be many people excluded simply because they live in western society, which is Humanist. The spirits may be calling them, but there is nobody around who has the capacity or authority to recognize them. It is like the spirits trying to grow a plant in the spiritual desolation akin to the salts of Death Valley. But if the spirits have their own will and their own independent existence, who are we to say that they cannot be calling these people?

On the other hand, if anyone who thinks they might be called by the spirits of a tradition, or maybe just wishes it were so, could claim such a role on simply the merits of their belief, that can lead to problems such as delusion and at the extreme, dangerous cult behavior. Who is real and who is not? Who is to say when we all live in a culture dominated by the religion of Secular Humanism, the religious vacuum devoid of spiritual acceptance for that which is not understood?

Considering the dire situation our spiritual culture is in (even His Holiness Dalai Lama suggested that he may break with tradition and reincarnate outside of Tibet), I have a tendency to lean on the side of the spirits being able to break with their old traditions and call to those outside of their traditional blood-lines, tribes, and regions. Like everything, they wish to live and adapt to the situation the world is in. I do believe that spirits can call on anyone they wish, such as Mongolian spirits calling my wife, and more recently, the Saami spirits have been calling to me as well. However, not everyone can be a shaman and it is very dangerous for someone who is not a shaman to be doing the rituals of one, but anyone can worship, honor, and respect the spirits without being a shaman.

So then the question goes back to whether one must travel to meet with a recognized shaman, or similar role, in order to be tested and recognized themselves for that role, or does one need to be recognized independently within one’s own community? What if it is not feasible to travel, due to medical, financial, political, or similar issues? What if one’s immediate community does not have anyone who can give recognition? What if there are no recognized leaders who can give such a recognition left, such as the case with many disappearing traditions?

What recognition, if any, can be conferred upon or claimed by someone if there is no human community able to do the conferring? I believe some titles, such as “elder,” are purely a human title, and can only be conferred by other humans. Spirits and Gods don’t recognize “elders” because they see such things as time, age, and wisdom in a very different manner than we humans do. But special spiritual roles like shaman, noidi, sangoma, medicine person, etc. must be granted by the spirits. I believe a human or human community cannot grant such a recognition without the spirits, since it is the spirits who ultimately choose who they wish to work through. As a result, I have come to believe that the spirits can confer such a role without the use of a human community if necessary, though it is not ideal for either party. It is important that if one is recognized by the spirits and initiated into such a role, one must be willing to offer their services and aid to other humans who are in need of help. That is where the community comes into the picture. If the spirits initiated you as a shaman or other, similar role, and a stranger knocks on your door asking for spiritual aid, you have an obligation to assist them in whatever way you are able.

So let’s say you are not a spiritual healer. How do you know if someone who claims to be initiated by the spirits as a spiritual healer is authentic? I think this is where everyone needs to use their own gifts, which the Gods gave to all people. Does your intuition say this person is a good person who can help you? Or does your intuition raise red flags about the other person? Are your personal spirit guides suggesting you work with them? Do you have a good feeling when around the person? Do they help you see your problems and questions in a new light, to guide you on how to find the answers? Does your gut tell you they are offering to help for the right reasons? If so, regardless of what they call themselves, I suggest working with them and learning from them for what they can offer that you are in need of. If you don’t get a strong, positive feeling, then don’t work with them, regardless of how many people confirm the person to be a famous, recognized healer. They may be a good healer for others, but not right for you, and that is ok. Work with those who are right for you and don’t worry about human titles and degrees.

One Response to “Community and Recognition”

  1. ThunderWalker Says:

    It is good to see the website back online.

    This was an interesting article. As I read it I repeatedly thought back to those who were first Called thousands of years ago and the fact that they had no like-minded community to recognize it.

    Your point about minimal contacts also hits home. We are designed to interact so that we can grow, or else there would be no individuals and the One would be formless.

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