According to conventional wisdom, Shamanism is something only primitive people believe in, and that New Age seekers try to recreate in weekend retreats and drum workshops, but an old Rosicrucian text described its practices perfectly and it has never been more vital for our species’ wellbeing than it is right now.
If you try to engage a stranger on the topic of religion they’ll often avert their gaze or shift uncomfortably in their seat before quickly changing the subject. But if you try to talk to them about Shamanism then nine times out of ten you’ll get such a blank look that it’s like you didn’t even say anything at all. In our modern high-tech, post-religion world, Shamanism has become something of a non-subject, confined to academic discussion amongst anthropologists.
Shamanism isn’t a religion as we would normally think of one. It’s a living, breathing tradition that has been with us since the dawn of the human race and is still here. Since its teachings come directly from nature it’s possible to tap into it anywhere we have access to the natural world, which is pretty much all the time; our bodies, after all, are part of nature. Over the thousands of years of human history, Shamanism has been discovered and rediscovered time and time again. It was our guiding force in our hunter-gatherer days, and during our transition to settled civilizations, it still managed to maintain its appeal because it was useful, even if it was forced underground by the ruling classes. Throughout history, Shamanism has reappeared in our times of greatest need and considering the current state of the planet, its gentle teachings, which encourage people to turn their faces back towards nature, are needed now more than ever.
To understand how Shamanism is different from the major world religions, you need to consider the fact that you can’t pinpoint its origin on a map. If you were to identify where Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism came from, you could select a country and then track its spread geographically over time. Shamanism, in contrast, appears spontaneously all over the globe and doesn’t really travel anywhere. From the forests of the Amazon to the desolate plains of Siberia to the wide-open grasslands of Mongolia and North America, Shamanism appears wherever there are people. Most religions need a book to function and spread. All a shaman needs as a teacher is the book of the world itself. If you undertook a bizarre experiment where you marooned a group of children on an island with plentiful supplies of food and water and came back in a few generations to see how their society had evolved, there is no way a priest could have appeared amongst them, but you can bet your bottom dollar one of the tribe would have become a shaman.
There are no beliefs in Shamanism. It’s a set of techniques that give you increasing levels of insight into nature. The idea that you can gain direct knowledge of the universe using nature as your teacher dispenses with the need for a holy book, a church, and a priest. You can see how this idea wouldn’t have gone down well in Europe in the middle ages. In a world where people were often tortured and burnt at the stake for not believing in God in quite the same way as the people with the torches, a lot of these shamanic traditions went underground, or more accurately became hidden in plain sight by adopting an esoteric framework. This was the birth of Western Esotericism.
Esotericism is essentially shamanism finding a way to exist in settled societies. Esotericists would often meet in secret to practice techniques or rituals, which were often written down but kept secret using symbols and allegory. Many found ways to keep their esoteric traditions alive hidden within conventional religions. All the secret societies of the spiritual traditions throughout the ages, including the Hermetic, alchemical and Kabbalah traditions, were attempts to preserve Shamanic knowledge without coming into direct conflict with the authority of the state or church. The Knights Templar are perhaps the most famous group of esotericists who tried to practice these traditions in secret while appearing to be fiercely loyal to the Catholic Church and Pope. The tide turned against them on the original Friday 13th October 1307 when the order was brought down on the orders of King Philip IV of France, and the members were rounded up and cruelly tortured then burned at the stake for heresy in the weeks and months that followed.
The order of the Rosey Cross
One group of esotericists who were also active at the height of the Church’s powers were the Rosicrucians. The mysterious order, symbolized by a rose on a cross, did just enough hat-tipping to Christianity to avoid suspicions that they might be up to something a little more pagan and produced three great esoteric works, all written in German, the Fama Fraternitatis (published in 1614), the Confessio Fraternitatis (published 1615) and finally, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (published 1616). It’s this last work, The Chymical Wedding, which is by far the most important and impressive from a literary point of view. It’s one of the least well-known classics of Western civilization. The Chymical Wedding is the story of Christian Rosenkreutz and his dream-like awakenings to the power of nature over the course of seven days. In fact, the book perfectly describes the process of becoming a shaman but it’s written as an allegory, which has meant it is often dismissed as a description of a drug-induced dream, or the nonsensical satirical work. (Reader reviews of the book on Good Reads are particularly hilarious). But reading any allegorical book on face value misses the point; if you yourself have ever experienced an awareness of the power of nature then you will find things within its pages that resonate with you.
The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is split into seven days. Each day refers to a different stage in the process of becoming a shaman. These seven stages are found in all cultures and all times. For example, the Mysteries of Mithras, the one-time competitor to Christianity which flourished in Europe and briefly in the British Isles during the Roman occupation (43–84AD) was a spiritual tradition with seven levels of achievement to be initiated into. The god Mithras was of Persian origin. He was the heavenly bull slayer whose life story shared more than a few passing similarities with the recorded life of Jesus. Mithraic temples uncovered in the British Isles and Europe all have seven pillars in their main isles, or seven mosaic designs upon the floor, representing the seven levels and their symbols.
Mithraism is just one example of a secret esoteric tradition in Western culture, but these seven levels can be found preserved in many other cultures. For instance, Yogic traditions talk of seven chakras, and in ancient Western cosmology, the human soul was thought to pass through the seven planetary spheres as it descended to earth. Remember my point about allegory?
As for whether Christian Rosenkreutz himself actually existed, the jury is still out. There is evidence that he was a real person though. The Fama Fraternitatis is a description of his travels to the East in search of shamanic knowledge and contains real places that still exist today and can be found on a map, but it’s the contents of his masterwork, The Chymical Wedding that matters the most, not who wrote it. If you want to discover the practical steps to becoming a shaman then they’re all here. Of course, while The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is freely available to read, you need a guide to help you understand it, or you risk going seriously off track. Luckily the Heretics podcast has been discussing both the Rosicrucian Order and The Chymical Wedding, going through day 1 section by section to reveal its hidden meanings. If you start at episode 40 and go forward you’ll get the background of the Rosicrucian order as well. Or alternatively, if you’d like to find out what these seven stages of Shamanism are all about without the middleman of medieval esoteric texts then I’d recommend its sister podcast, Woven Energy, which just gets stuck straight into them without having to deal with hidden meanings. Start at episode 1 and move forward.
Whether you’ve got an interest in anthropology or not, the shamanic tradition is a fascinating subject to many people, which alone makes it worthy of study. Deciphering ancient esoteric texts adds another level of intellectual curiosity to the pastime, but shamanism is not meant to be a subject that’s only studied with the intellect. It’s meant to be practiced. It’s a living, breathing tradition, and that is the message you find time and time again in The Chymical Wedding:
“This day, today
Is the Royal Wedding day.
For this thou wast born
And chosen of God for joy
Thou mayest go to the mountain
Whereon three temples stand,
And see there this affair.
And shouldst thou not bathe thoroughly
The Wedding may work thy bane.
Bane comes to him who faileth here
Let him beware who is too light.”
Perhaps in time, The Chymical Wedding will come to take its deserved place as a classic of the Western literary canon, rather than simply being ignored and dismissed, as it so often is today. If we as a species carry on our present course then Mother Nature will be coming to our attention very soon anyway and it might be a good idea to get acquainted with her workings sooner, rather than later.