Thursday, November 10, 2011

Monk as Shaman?

It is always nice when multiple classes start overlapping.  My Religions of the World and my Sexuality and Christianity classes hit upon martyrdom and monasticism at the same time, although we spent much more time on these topics in my Sexuality and Christianity class.

I had a student in one class make a suggestion through a momentary flash of inspiration that the monks--at least many of the earliest eremetical hagiographies--acted much like a shaman.  I would like to sit, think, and see if we can develop this idea a bit and see where it leads us.

Firstly, while Shamanism proper belongs only to Siberia and the northern Caucuses, it is a phenomenon that shows some interesting cross-cultural comparisons with other phenomena of holy men and women, medicine men and women, etc., so long as historical context is properly taken into account.

Some of the qualities often associated with these figures are:
1.  Death imagery is prevalent--the shaman is surrounded by death imagery, often associated with the shaman's initiation.  The initiate undergoes a symbolic death, becoming a spirit in order to mediate the spirit realm.

2.  This mediation between the human community and the spirit realm occurs for multiple reasons, but the primary function is for healing.  Usually this healing occurs through either finding what malevolent spirit is affecting the human, or by finding the human's spirit (or soul, or some other aspect of self) that has become lost in the spirit realm and bring it back.

3.  This is often done through having visions in ecstatic states.

When looking at something like the Life of Antony by Athanasius, there are some interesting similarities.  Antony, when he is out in the desert, he is constantly interacting with the spirit realm--he is usually battling malevolent spirits (demons) as a spiritual warrior.  There is death imagery all over the place.  This is due to the fact that the monk is taking on many of the characteristics and imagery of the martyr, including athlete, warrior, and, with it, the death imagery.  Athanasius has Antony say, "I die daily."  He undergoes, through discipline, a symbolic death.  It is an enduring, repeating, ongoing death.  It is a disciplined death that gives him spiritual power to defeat demons and live an angelic life.  When people come out to see Antony, they want to hear teaching and discourses, but they also seek to be healed by him.  It is less clear that he is going into ecstatic states, but being out in a cave alone in the desert for a long time, he's probably seeing something!  

Was Antony a shaman?  No.  I largely reserve that term for its own historical setting.  Antony, while fighting and engaging with spiritual forces, does not seem to be going on spirit journeys to search for lost souls, etc., like a shaman does, though there are some hagiographies of monks he seem to have the ability to what we might call "astral project" or "appear" to others.  His death imagery belongs to a particular historical moment of the ending of official persecution of Christians in which martyrdom becomes less of a possibility and the Christian faithful are searching for new heroes--the desert monk.  Nonetheless, we can see that the shaman and monk as types of holy people have similar social functions that make them compelling to compare.  They are interstitial figures, who live on the fringes of society, but also at the intersections between the human and the spirit realms.  They are fringe mediators of the holy, and, typically, not central mediators such as priests (though both the shaman and the monk can be a priest, they do not need to be).

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