Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade

“The future shaman exhibits exceptional traits from adolescence; he very early becomes nervous and is sometimes even subject to epileptic seizures, which are interpreted as meetings with the gods.” (p15)

One destined to shamanship begins by becoming frenzied, then suddenly loses consciousness, withdraws to the forests, feeds on tree bark, flings himself in water and fire, wounds himself with knives. The family then appeals to an old shaman, who undertakes to teach the distraught young man the various kinds of spirits and how to summon and control them.” (p16)

“Among the Goldi the shaman cannot undertake the ecstatic journey to the underworld without the help of a bird-spirit (koori) which ensures his return to the surface.” (p204)

The Shaman as Psychopomp

“The peoples of North Asia conceive the otherworld as an inverted image of this world. Everything takes place as it does here, but in reverse…In the underworld rivers flow backward to their sources. And everything that is inverted on earth is in it’s normal position among the dead; this is why objects offered on the grave for the use of the dead are turned upside down, unless, that is, they are broken, for what is broken here below is whole in the otherworld and vice versa.” (p205)

“The recently dead are feared, the long dead are revered and expected to act as protectors. The fear of the dead is due to the fact that, at first, no dead person accepts his new mode of being; he cannot renounce “living” and he returns to his family…Some Altaic shamans even escort the soul to the underworld, and, in order not to be recognised by the inhabitants of the nether regions, they daub their faces with soot…he summons two powerful tutelary spirits to help him: butchu, a kind of one-legged monster with a human face and feathers, and koori, a long-necked bird. Without the help of these two spirits, the shaman could not come back from the underworld.” (pp207-211)

“As to the search for the soul that has strayed away or been abducted by spirits, it sometimes assumes a dramatic aspect…Since the Nootka attribute the “theft of the soul” to marine spirits, the shaman, in ecstasy, dives to the bottom of the ocean and returns wet, “sometimes streaming blood at nose and temples, carrying the stolen soul in a little bunch of eagle down in his hands.””(p309)

“The shamanic origin of magical flight is clearly documented in China too. “Flying up to heaven” is expressed in Chinese as follows: “by means of feathers he was transformed  and ascended as an immortal”; and the terms “feather scholar” or “feather guest” designate the Taoist priest.” (p450)

“Siberian, Eskimo, and North American shamans fly. All over the world the same magical power is credited to sorcerers and medicine men…The Dyak shaman, who escorts the souls of the deceased to the other world, also takes the form of a bird…According to many traditions, the power of flight extended to all men in the mythical age; all could reach heaven, whether on the wings of a fabulous bird or on the clouds…We should make it clear, however, that here such powers often take on a purely spiritual character: “flight” expresses only intelligence, understanding of secret things or metaphysical truths. “Among all things that fly the mind [manas] is swiftest,” says the Rr-Veda. And the Pancavimsa Brahmana adds: “Those who know have wings.” (pp477-479)

The symbolism of magical flight

“Two important mythical motifs have contributed to give it its present structure: the mythical image of the soul in the form of a bird and the idea of birds as psychopomps…shamans are able, here on earth and as often as they wish, to accomplish “coming out of the body,” that is, the death that alone has the power to transform the rest of mankind into “birds”; shamans and sorcerers can enjoy the condition of “souls,” of “disincarnate beings,” which is accessible to the profane only when they die.” (p479)


2 Responses to “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade”

  1. I am very interested in the flight of the Taoist priests and shaman. Please
    Give us more about your statement “Siberian, Eskimo and N. America
    Shaman fly”. There is a book about rock art in the West Texas area that
    Contains images of shaman flying. I would like to get more information on
    This aspect of Taoism and it’s expression in North America.

    • In the book I have referenced by Mircea Eliade (entitled Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy), magical flight of the shaman is often referred to in symbolic terms, representing the mind taking flight and leaving the body during a shamanic trance. However, there are more literal references to bird-spirits as guides in the underworld, and of the shaman entering a trance and returning holding feathers which represent part of a sick person’s soul which had been lost, and should heal the sick person upon their recovery.
      The author writes from the perspective that the shaman can be identified within various cultures and religions, including Eastern and North American, with the shaman playing an important role within the community. I think you will find the book interesting if you want to explore shamanism and its relation to Eastern philosophies and Taoism, and how this relates to other societies and cultures too.

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